|Figures of Earth||James Branch Cabell|
Consider, faire Miserie, (quoth Manuel) that it lyes not in mans power to place his loue where he list, being the worke of an high Deity. A Birde was neuer seen in Pontus, nor true loue in a fleeting mynde: neuer shall remoue the affection of my Hearte, which in nature resembleth the stone Abiston.
They of Poictesme narrate how Queen Freydis and Count Manuel lived together amicably upon Upper Morven. They tell also how the iniquitous usurper, Duke Asmund, at this time held Bellegarde close at hand, but that his Northmen kept away from Upper Morven, on account of the supernatural beings you were always apt to encounter thereabouts, so that Manuel and Freydis had, at first, no human company.
"Between now and a while," said Freydis, "you must be capturing Bellegarde and cutting off Duke Asmund's ugly head, because by right and by King Ferdinand's own handwriting all Poictesme belongs to you."
"Well, we will let that wait a bit," says Manuel, "for I do not so heartily wish to be tied down with parchments in a count's gilded seat as I do to travel everywhither and see the ends of this world and judge them. At all events, dear Freydis, I am content enough for the present, in this little home of ours, and public affairs can wait."
"Still, something ought to be done about it," said Freydis. And, since Manuel displayed an obstinate prejudice against any lethal plague, she put the puckerel curse upon Asmund, by which he was afflicted with all small bodily ills that can intervene between corns and dandruff.
On Upper Morven Freydis had reared by enchantment a modest home, that was builded of jasper and porphyry and yellow and violet breccia. Inside, the stone walls were everywhere covered with significant traceries in low relief, and were incrusted at intervals with disks and tesserae of turquoise-colored porcelain. The flooring, of course, was of zinc, as a defence against the unfriendly Alfs, who are at perpetual war with Audela, and, moreover, there was a palisade, enclosing all, of peeled willow wands, not buttered but oiled, and fastened with unknotted ribbons.
Everything was very simple and homelike, and here the servitors of Freydis attended them when there was need. The fallen Queen was not a gray witch—not in appearance certainly, but in her endowments, which were not limited as are the powers of black witches and white witches. She instructed Dom Manuel in the magic of Audela, and she and Manuel had great times together that spring and summer, evoking ancient dis-crowned gods and droll monsters and instructive ghosts to entertain them in the pauses between other pleasures.
They heard no more, for that turn, of the clay figure to which they had given life, save for the news brought, by a bogglebo, that as the limping gay young fellow went down from Morven the reputable citizenry everywhere were horrified because he went as he was created, stark-naked, and this was not considered respectable. So a large tumble-bug came from the west, out of the quagmires of Philistia and followed after the animated figure, yelping and spluttering, "Morals, not art!" And for that while, the figure went out of Manuel's saga, thus malodorously accompanied.
"But we will make a much finer figure," says Freydis, "so it does not matter."
"Yes, by and by," says Manuel, "but we will let that wait a bit."
"You are always saying that nowadays!"
"Ah, but, my dear, it is so very pleasant to rest here doing nothing serious for a little while, now that my geas is discharged. Presently of course we must be travelling everywhither, and when we have seen the ends of this world, and have judged them, I shall have time, and greater knowledge too, to give to this image making—"
"It is not from any remote strange places, dear Manuel, but from his own land that a man must get the earth for this image making—"
"Well, be that as it may, your kisses are to me far more delicious than your magic."
"I love to hear you say that, my dearest, but still—"
"No, not at all, for you are really much nicer when you are cuddling so, than when you are running about the world pretending to be pigs and snakes and fireworks, and murdering people with your extravagant sorceries."
Saying this, he kissed her, and thus stilled her protests, for in these amiable times Queen Freydis also was at bottom less interested in magic than in kisses. Indeed, there was never any sorceress more loving and tender than Freydis, now that she had become a human woman.
If ever she was irritable it was only when Manuel confessed, in reply to jealous questionings, that he did not find her quite so beautiful nor so clever as Niafer had been: but this, as Manuel pointed out, could not be helped. For there had never been anybody like Niafer, and it would be nonsense to say otherwise.
It is possible that Dom Manuel believed this. The rather homely, not intelligent, and in no respect bedazzling servant girl may well have been—in the inexplicable way these things fell out,—the woman whom Manuel's heart had chosen, and who therefore in his eyes for the rest of time must differ from all other persons. Certainly no unastigmatic judge would have decreed this swarthy Niafer fit, as the phrase is, to hold a candle either to Freydis or Alianora: whereas Manuel did not conceal, even from these royal ladies themselves, his personal if unique evaluations.
To the other side, some say that ladies who are used to hourly admiration cannot endure the passing of a man who seems to admire not quite wholeheartedly. He who does not admire at all is obviously a fool, and not worth bothering about. But to him who admits, "You are well enough," and makes as though to pass on, there is a mystery attached: and the one way to solve it is to pursue this irritating fellow. Some (reasoning thus) assert that squinting Manuel was aware of this axiom, and that he respected it in all his dealings with Freydis and Alianora. Either way, these theorists did not ever get any verbal buttressing from Dom Manuel. Niafer dead and lost to him, he, without flaunting any unexampled ardors, fell to loving Alianora: and now that Freydis had put off immortality for his kisses, the tall boy had, again, somewhat the air of consenting to accept this woman's sacrifice, and her loveliness and all her power and wisdom, as being upon the whole the handiest available substitute for Niafer's sparse charms.
Yet others declare, more simply, that Dom Manuel was so constituted as to value more cheaply every desire after he had attained it. And these say he noted that—again in the inexplicable way these things fall out,—now Manuel possessed the unearthly Queen she had become, precisely as Alianora had become, a not extraordinary person, who in all commerce with her lover dealt as such.
"But do you really love me, O man of all men?" Freydis would say, "and, this damned Niafer apart, do you love me a little more than you love any other woman?"
"Why, are there any other women?" says Manuel, in fine surprise. "Oh, to be sure, I suppose there are, but I had forgotten about them. I have not heard or seen or thought of those petticoated creatures since my dear Freydis came."
The sorceress purred at this sort of talk, and she rested her head where there seemed a place especially made for it. "I wish I could believe your words, king of my heart. I have to strive so hard, nowadays, to goad you into saying these idiotic suitable dear things: and even when at last you do say them your voice is light and high, and makes them sound as though you were joking."
He kissed the thick coil of hair which lay fragrant against his lips. "Do you know, in spite of my joking, I do love you a great deal?"
"I would practise saying that over to myself," observed Freydis critically. "You should let your voice break a little after the first three words."
"I speak as I feel. I love you, Freydis, and I tell you so."
"Yes, but you are no longer a perpetual nuisance about it."
"Alas, my dear, you are no longer the unattainable Queen of the country on the other side of the fire, and that makes a difference, certainly. It is equally certain that I love you over and above all living women."
"Ah, but, my dearest, who loves you more than any human tongue can tell?"
"A peculiarly obstinate and lovely imbecile," says Manuel; and he did that which seemed suitable.
Later Freydis sighed luxuriously. "That saves you the trouble of talking, does it not? And you talked so madly and handsomely that first night, when you wanted to get around me on account of the image, but now you do not make me any pretty speeches at all."
"Oh, heavens!" said Manuel, "but I am embracing a monomaniac. Dear Freydis, whatever I might say would be perforce the same old words that have been whispered by millions of men to many more millions of women, and my love for you is a quite unparalleled thing which ought not to be travestied by any such shopworn apparel."
"Now again you must be putting me off with solemn joking in that light high voice, and there is no faithfulness in that voice, and its talking troubles me."
"I speak as I feel. I love you, Freydis, and I tell you so, but I cannot be telling it over and over again every quarter of the hour."
"Oh, but very certainly this big squinting boy is the most unloquacious and the most stubborn brute that ever lived!"
"And would you have me otherwise?"
"No, that is the queer part of it. But it is a grief to me to wonder if you foresaw as much."
"I!" says Manuel, jovially. "But what would I be doing with any such finespun policies? My dear, until you comprehend I am the most frank and downright creature that ever lived you do not begin to appreciate me."
"I know you are, big boy. But still, I wonder," Freydis said, "and the wondering is a thin little far-off grief."
It was presently noised abroad that Queen Freydis of Audela had become a human woman; and thereafter certain enchanters came to Upper Morven, to seek her counsel and her favor and the aid of Schamir. These were the enchanters, Manuel was told, who made images, to which they now and then contrived—nobody seemed to know quite how, and least of all did the thaumaturgists themselves,—to impart life.
Once Manuel went with Freydis into a dark place where some of these magic-workers were at labor. By the light of a charcoal fire, clay images were ruddily discernible; before these the enchanters moved unhumanly clad, and doing things which, mercifully perhaps, were veiled from Manuel by the peculiarly perfumed obscurity.
As Manuel entered the gallery one of the magic-workers was chaunting shrilly in the darkness below. "It is the unfinished Rune of the Blackbirds," says Freydis, in a whisper.
Below them the troubled wailing continued:
"—Crammed and squeezed, so entombed (on some wager I hazard), in spite of scared squawking and mutter, after the fashion that lean-faced Rajah dealt with trapped heroes, once, in Calcutta. Dared you break the crust and bullyrag 'em—hot, fierce and angry, what wide beaks buzz plain Saxon as ever spoke Witenagemot! Yet, singing, they sing as no white bird does (where none rears phoenix) as near perfection as nature gets, or, if scowls bar platitude, notes for which there is no rejection in banks whose coinage—oh, neat!—is gratitude."
Said, in the darkness, another enchanter:
"But far from their choiring the high King sat, in a gold-faced vest and a gold-laced hat, counting heaped monies, and dreaming of more francs and sequins and Louis d'or. Meanwhile the Queen on that fateful night, though avowing her lack of all appetite, was still at table, where, rumor said, she was smearing her seventh slice of bread (thus each turgescible rumor thrives at court) with gold from the royal hives. Through the slumberous pare, under arching trees, to her labors went singing the maid Dénise—"
A third broke in here, saying:
"And she sang of how subtle and bitter and bright was a beast brought forth, that was clad with the splendor and light of the cold fair ends of the north, like a fleshly blossom more white than augmenting tempests that go, with thunder for weapon, to ravage the strait waste fastness of snow. She sang how that all men on earth said, whether its mistress at morn went forth or waited till night,—whether she strove through the foam and wreckage of shallow and firth, or couched in glad fields of corn, or fled from all human delight,—that thither it likewise would roam."
Now a fourth began:
"Thus sang Dénise, what while the siccant sheets and coverlets that pillowed kingly dreams, with curious undergarbs of royalty, she neatly ranged: and dreamed not of that doom which waited, yet unborn, to strike men dumb with perfect awe. As when the seventh wave poises, and sunlight cleaves it through and through with gold, as though to gild oncoming death for him that sees foredoomed—and, gasping, sees death high and splendid!—while the tall wave bears down, and its shattering makes an end of him: thus poised the sable bird while one might count one, two, and three, and four, and five, and six, but hardly seven—"
So they continued; but Manuel listened to no more. "What is the meaning of all this?" he asked, of Freydis.
"It is an experimental incantation," she replied, "in that it is a bit of unfinished magic for which the proper words have not yet been found: but between now and a while they will be stumbled on, and then this rune will live perpetually, surviving all those rhymes that are infected with thought and intelligent meanings such as are repugnant to human nature."
"Are words, then, so important and enduring?"
"Why, Manuel, I am surprised at you! In what else, pray, does man differ from the other animals except in that he is used by words?"
"Now I would have said that words are used by men."
"There is give and take, of course, but in the main man is more subservient to words than they are to him. Why, do you but think of such terrible words as religion and duty and love, and patriotism and art, and honor and common-sense, and of what these tyrannizing words do to and make of people!"
"No, that is chop-logic: for words are only transitory noises, whereas man is the child of God, and has an immortal spirit."
"Yes, yes, my dearest, I know you believe that, and I think it is delightfully quaint and sweet of you. But, as I was saying, a man has only the body of an animal to get experiences in, and the brain of an animal to think them over with, so that the thoughts and opinions of the poor dear must remain always those of a more or less intelligent animal. But his words are very often magic, as you will comprehend by and by when I have made you the greatest of image-makers."
"Well, well, but we can let that wait a bit," said Manuel.
And thereafter Manuel talked with Freydis, confessing that the appearance of these magic-workers troubled Manuel. He had thought it, he said, an admirable thing to make images that lived, until he saw and considered the appearance of these habitual makers of images. They were an ugly and rickety, short-tempered tribe, said Manuel: they were shiftless, spiteful, untruthful, and in everyday affairs not far from imbecile: they plainly despised all persons who could not make images, and they apparently detested all those who could. With Manuel they were particularly high and mighty, assuring him that he was only a prosperous and affected pseudo-magician, and that the harm done by the self-styled thaumaturgist was apt to be very great indeed. What sort of models, then, were these insane, mud-moulding solitary wasps for a tall lad to follow after? And if Manuel acquired their arts (he asked in conclusion), would he acquire their traits?
"The answer is perhaps no, and not impossibly yes," replied Freydis. "For by the ancient Tuyla mystery they extract that which is best in them to inform their images, and this is apt to leave them empty of virtue. But I would have you consider that their best endures, whereas that which is best in other persons is obliterated on some battle-field or mattress or gallows That is why I have been thinking that this afternoon—"
"No, we will let that wait a bit, for I must turn this over in my mind," said Manuel, "and my mature opinion about this matter must be expressed later."
But while his thoughts were on the affair his fingers made him droll small images of ten of the image-makers, which he set aside unquickened. Freydis smiled at these caricatures, and asked when Manuel would give them life.
"Oh, in due time," he said, "and then their antics may be diverting. But I perceive that this old Tuyla magic is practised at great price and danger, so that I am in no hurry to practise any more of it. I prefer to enjoy that which is dearer and better."
"And what can be dearer and better?"
"Youth," Manuel answered, "and you."
Queen Freydis was now a human woman in all things, so this reply delighted her hearing if not her reason. "Do these two possessions content you, king of my heart?" she asked him very fondly.
"No," Manuel said, gazing out across Morven at the cloud-dappled ridges of the Taunenfels, "nor do I look ever to be contented in this world of men."
"Indeed the run of men are poor thin-minded creatures, Manuel—"
He answered, moodily:
"But I cannot put aside the thought that these men ought to be my fellows and my intimates. Instead, I who am a famed champion go daily in distrust, almost in fear, of these incomprehensible and shatter-pated beings. To every side there is a feeble madness over-busy about long-faced nonsense from which I recoil, who must conceal this shrinking always. There is no hour in my life but I go armored in reserve and in small lies, and in my armor I am lonely. Freydis, you protest deep love for this well-armored Manuel, but what wisdom will reveal to you, or to me either, just what is Manuel? Oh, but I am puzzled by the impermanence and the loneliness and the impotence of this Manuel! Dear Freydis, do not love my body nor my manner of speaking, nor any of the ways that I have in the flesh, for all these transiencies are mortgaged to the worms. And that thought also is a grief—"
"Let us not speak of these things! Let us not think of anything that is horrid, but only of each other!"
"But I cannot put aside the thought that I, who for the while exist in this mortgaged body, cannot ever get out to you. Freydis, there is no way in which two persons may meet in this world of men: we can but exchange, from afar, despairing friendly signals, in the sure knowledge they will be misinterpreted. So do we pass, each coming out of a strange woman's womb, each parodied by the flesh of his parents, each passing futilely, with incommunicative gestures, toward the womb of a strange grave: and in this jostling we find no comradeship. No soul may travel upon a bridge of words. Indeed there is no word for my foiled huge desire to love and to be loved, just as there is no word for the big, the not quite comprehended thought which is moving in me at this moment. But that thought also is a grief—"
Manuel was still looking at the changing green and purple of the mountains and at the tall clouds trailing northward. The things that he viewed yonder were all gigantic and lovely, and they seemed not to be very greatly bothering about humankind.
Then Freydis said: "Let us not think too much, dear, in our youth. It is such a waste of the glad time, and of the youth that will not ever be returning—"
"But I cannot put aside the thought that it will never be the true Manuel whom you will love or even know of, nor can I dismiss the knowledge that these human senses, through which alone we may obtain any knowledge of each other, are lying messengers. What can I ever be to you except flesh and a voice? Nor is this the root of my sorrowing, dear Freydis. For I know that my distrust of all living creatures—oh, even of you, dear Freydis, when I draw you closest,—must always be as a wall between us, a low, lasting, firm-set wall which we can never pull down. And I know that I am not really a famed champion, but only a forlorn and lonely inmate of the doubtful castle of my body; and that I, who know not truly what I am, must die in this same doubt and loneliness, behind the strong defences of posturing and bluntness and jovial laughter which I have raised for my protecting. And that thought also is a grief."
Now Manuel was as Freydis had not ever seen him. She wondered at him, she was perturbed by this fine lad's incomprehensible dreariness, with soft red willing lips so near: and her dark eyes were bent upon him with a beautiful and tender yearning which may not be told.
"I do not understand you, my dearest," said she, who was no longer the high Queen of Audela, but a mortal woman. "It is true that all the world about us is a false seeming, but you and I are real and utterly united, for we have no concealments from each other. I am sure that no two people could be happier than we are, nor better suited. And certainly such morbid notions are not like you, who, as you said yourself, only the other day, are naturally so frank and downright."
Now Manuel's thoughts came back from the clouds and the green and purple of the mountains. He looked at her very gravely for an instant or two. He laughed morosely. He said, "There!"
"But, dearest, you are strange and not yourself—
"Yes, yes!" says Manuel, kissing her, "for the moment I had forgotten to be frank and downright, and all else which you expect of me. Now I am my old candid, jovial, blunt self again, and I shall not worry you with such silly notions any more. No, I am Manuel: I follow after my own thinking and my own desire; and if to do that begets loneliness I must endure it"
"But I cannot understand," said Freydis, on a fine day in September, "how it is that, now the power of Schamir is in your control, and you have the secret of giving life to your images, you do not care to use either the secret or the talisman. For you make no more images, you are always saying, 'No, we will let that wait a bit,' and you do not even quicken the ten caricatures of the image-makers which you have already modeled."
"Life will be given to these in due time," said Manuel, "but that time is not yet come. Meanwhile, I avoid practise of the old Tuyla mystery for the sufficing reason that I have seen the result it has on the practitioner. A geas was upon me to make a figure in the world, and so I modeled and loaned life to such a splendid gay young champion as was to my thinking and my desire. Thus my geas, I take it, is discharged, and a thing done has an end. Heaven may now excel me by creating a larger number of living figures than I, but pre-eminence in this matter is not a question of arithmetic—"
"Ah, yes, my squinting boy has all the virtues, including that of modesty!"
"Well, but I have seen my notion embodied, seen it take breath, seen it depart from Morven in all respects, except for a little limping—which, do you know, I thought rather graceful?—in well-nigh all respects, I repeat, quite indistinguishable from the embodied notions of that master craftsman whom some call Ptha, and others Jahveh, and others Abraxas, and yet others Koshchei the Deathless. In fine, I have made a figure more admirable and significant than is the run of men, and I rest upon my laurels."
"You have created a living being somewhat above the average, that is true: but then every woman who has a fine baby does just as much—"
"The principle is not the same," said Manuel, with dignity.
"And why not, please, big boy?"
"For one thing, my image was an original and unaided production, whereas a baby, I am told, is the result of more or less hasty collaboration. Then, too a baby is largely chance work, in that its nature cannot be exactly foreplanned and pre-determined by its makers, who, in the glow of artistic creation, must, I imagine, very often fail to follow the best aesthetic canons."
"As for that, nobody who makes new and unexampled things can make them exactly to the maker's will. Even your image limped, you remember—"
"Ah, but so gracefully!"
"—No, Manuel, it is only those necromancers who evoke the dead, and bid the dead return to the warm flesh, that can be certain as to the results of their sorcery. For these alone of magic-workers know in advance what they are making."
"Ah, this is news! So you think it is possible to evoke the dead in some more tangible form than that of an instructive ghost? You think it possible for a dead girl—or, as to that matter, for a dead boy, or a defunct archbishop, or a deceased ragpicker,—to be fetched back to live again in the warm flesh?"
"All things are possible, Manuel, at a price."
"What price would be sufficient to re-purchase the rich spoils of Death? and whence might any bribe be fetched? For all the glowing wealth and beauty of this big round world must show as a new-minted farthing beside his treasure chests, as one slight shining unimportant coin which—even this also!—belongs to earth, but has been overlooked by him as yet. Presently this hour, and whatever is strutting through this hour, is added to the heaped crypts wherein lie all that was worthiest in the old time.
"Now there is garnered such might and loveliness and wisdom as human thinking cannot conceive of. An emperor is made much of here when he has conquered some part of the world, but Death makes nothing of a world of emperors: and in Death's crowded store-rooms nobody bothers to estimate within a thousand thousand of how many emperors, and tzars and popes and pharaohs and sultans, that in their day were adored as omnipotent, are there assembled pellmell, along with all that was worthiest in the old time.
"As touches loveliness, not even Helen's beauty is distinguishable among those multitudinous millions of resplendent queens whom one finds yonder. Here are many pretty women, here above all is Freydis, so I do not complain. But yonder is deep-bosomed Semiramis, and fair-tressed Guenevere, and Magdalene that loved Christ, and Europa, the bull's laughing bride, and Lilith, whose hot kiss made Satan ardent, and a many other ladies by whose dear beauty's might were shaped the songs which cause us to remember all that was worthiest in the old time.
"As wisdom goes, here we have prudent men of business able to add two and two together, and justice may be out of hand distinguished from injustice by an impanelment of the nearest twelve fools. Here we have many Helmases a-cackling wisely under a goose-feather. But yonder are Cato and Nestor and Merlin and Socrates, Abelard sits with Aristotle there, and the seven sages confer with the major prophets, and yonder is all that was worthiest in the old time.
"All, all, are put away in Death's heaped store-rooms, so safely put away that opulent Death may well grin scornfully at Life: for everything belongs to Death, and Life is only a mendicant scratching at his sores so long as Death permits it. No, Freydis, there can be no bribing Death! For what bribe anywhere has Life to offer which Death has not already lying disregarded in a thousand dusty coffers along with all that was worthiest in the old time?"
Freydis replied: "One thing alone. Yes, Manuel, there is one thing only which all Death's ravishings have never taken from Life, and which has not ever entered into Death's keeping. It is through weighing this fact, and through doing what else is requisite, that the very bold may bring back the dead to live again in the warm flesh."
"Well, but I have heard the histories of presumptuous men who attempted to perform such miracles, and all these persons sooner or later came to misery."
"Why, to be sure! to whom else would you have them coming?" said Freydis. And she explained the way it was.
Manuel put many questions. All that evening he was thoughtful, and he was unusually tender with Freydis. And that night, when Freydis slept, Dom Manuel kissed her very lightly, then blinked his eyes, and for a moment covered them with his hand. Standing thus, the tall boy queerly moving his mouth, as though it were stiff and he were trying to make it more supple.
Then he armed himself. He took up the black shield upon which was painted a silver stallion. He crept out of their modest magic home and went down into Bellegarde, where he stole him a horse, from the stables of Duke Asmund.
And that night, and all the next day, Dom Manuel rode beyond Aigremont and Naimes, journeying away from Morven, and away from the house of jasper and porphyry and violet and yellow breccia, and away from Freydis, who had put off immortality for his kisses. He travelled northward, toward the high woods of Dun Vlechlan, where the leaves were aglow with the funereal flames of autumn: for the summer wherein Dom Manuel and Freydis had been happy together was now as dead as that estranged queer time which he had shared with Alianora.
When Manuel had reached the outskirts of the forest he encountered there a knight in vermilion armor, with a woman's sleeve wreathed about his helmet: and, first of all, this knight demanded who was Manuel's lady love.
"I have no living love," said Manuel, "except the woman whom I am leaving without ceremony, because it seems the only way to avoiding argument."
"But that is unchivalrous, and does not look well."
"Very probably you are right, but I am not chivalrous. I am Manuel. I follow after my own thinking, and an obligation is upon me pointing toward prompt employment of the knowledge I have gained from this woman."
"You are a rascally betrayer of women, then, and an unmanly scoundrel."
"Yes, I suppose so, for I betrayed another woman, in that I permitted and indeed assisted her to die in my stead; and so brought yet another bond upon myself, and an obligation which is drawing me from a homelike place and from soft arms wherein I was content enough," says Manuel, sighing.
But the chivalrous adventurer in red armor was disgusted. "Oh, you tall squinting villain knight of the silver stallion, I wonder from whose court you can be coming, where they teach no better behavior than woman-killing, and I wonder what foul new knavery you can be planning here."
"Why, I was last in residence at Raymond Bérenger's court," says Manuel: "and since you are bent on knowing about my private affairs, I come to this forest in search of Béda, or Kruchina, or whatever you call the Misery of earth in these parts."
"Aha, and are you one of Raymond Bérenger's friends?"
"Yes, I suppose so," says Manuel, blinking,—"yes, I suppose so, since I have prevented his being poisoned."
"This is good hearing, for I have always been one of Raymond Bérenger's enemies, and all such of his friends as I have encountered I have slain."
"Doubtless you have your reasons", said Manuel, and would have ridden by.
But the other cried furiously, "Turn, you tall fool! Turn, cowardly betrayer of women!"
He came upon Manuel like a whirlwind, and Manuel had no choice in the matter. So they fought, and presently Manuel brought the vermilion knight to the ground, and, dismounting, killed him. It was noticeable that from the death-wound came no blood, but only a flowing of very fine black sand, out of which scrambled and hastily scampered away a small vermilion-colored mouse.
Then Manuel said, "I think that this must be the peculiarly irrational part of the forest, to which I was directed, and I wonder what may have been this scarlet squabbler's grievance against King Raymond Bérenger?"
Nobody answered, so Manuel remounted, and rode on.
Count Manuel skirted the Wolflake, and came to a hut, painted gray, that stood clear of the ground, upon the bones of four great birds' feet. Upon the four corners of the hunt were carved severally the figures of a lion, a dragon, a cockatrice and an adder, to proclaim the miseries of carnal and intellectual sin, and of pride, and of death.
Here Manuel tethered his horse to a holm-oak. He raised both arms, facing the East.
"Do you now speed me!" cried Manuel, "ye thirty Barami! O all ye powers of accumulated merit, O most high masters of Almsgiving, of Morality, of Relinquishment, of Wisdom, of Fortitude, of Patience, of Truth, of Determination, of Charity, and of Equanimity! do all you aid me in my encounter with the Misery of earth!"
He piously crossed himself, and went into the hut. Inside, the walls were adorned with very old-looking frescoes that were equally innocent of perspective and reticence: the floor was of tessellated bronze. In each corner Manuel found, set upright, a many-storied umbrella of the kind used for sacred purposes in the East: each of these had a silver handle, and was worked in nine colors. But most important of all, so Manuel had been told, was the pumpkin which stood opposite to the doorway.
Manuel kindled a fire, and prepared the proper kind of soup: and at sunset he went to the window of the hut, and cried out three times that supper was ready.
One answered him, "I am coming."
Manuel waited. There was now no sound in the forest: even the few birds not yet gone south, that had been chirping of the day's adventures, were hushed on a sudden, and the breeze died in the tree-tops. Inside the hut Manuel lighted his four candles, and he disposed of one under each umbrella in the prescribed manner. His footsteps on the bronze flooring, and the rustling of his garments as he went about the hut doing what was requisite, were surprisingly sharp and distinct noises in a vast silence and in an illimitable loneliness.
Then said a thin little voice, "Manuel, open the door!"
Manuel obeyed, and you could see nobody anywhere in the forest's dusk. The twilit brown and yellow trees were still as paintings. His horse stood tethered and quite motionless, except that it was shivering.
One spoke at his feet. "Manuel, lift me over the threshold!"
Dom Manuel, recoiling, looked downward, and in the patch of candlelight between the shadows of his legs you could see a human head. He raised the head, and carried it into the hut. He could now perceive that the head was made of white clay, and could deduce that the Misery of earth, whom some call Béda, and others Kruchina, had come to him.
"Now, Manuel," says Misery, "do you give me my supper."
So Manuel set the head upon the table, and put a platter of soup before the head, and fed the soup to Misery with a gold spoon.
When the head had supped, it bade Manuel place it in the little bamboo cradle, and told Manuel to put out the lights. Many persons would not have fancied being alone in the dark with Misery, but Manuel obeyed. He knelt to begin his nightly prayer, but at once that happened which induced him to desist. So without his usual divine invocation, Dom Manuel lay down upon the bronze floor of the hut, beneath one of the tall umbrellas, and he rolled up his russet cloak for a pillow. Presently the head was snoring, and then Manuel too went to sleep. He said, later, that he dreamed of Niafer.
In the morning, after doing the head's extraordinary bidding, Manuel went to feed his horse, and found tethered to the holm-oak the steed's skeleton picked clean. "I grieve at this," said Manuel, "but I consider it wiser to make no complaint." Indeed, there was nobody to complain to, for Misery, after having been again lifted over the threshold, had departed to put in a day's labor with the plague in the north.
Thereafter Manuel abode in this peculiarly irrational part of the forest, serving Misery for, as men in cheerier places were estimating the time, a month and a day. Of these services it is better not to speak. But the head was pleased by Manuel's services, because Misery loves company: and the two used to have long friendly talks together when Manuel's services and Misery's work for that day were over.
"And how came you, sir, to be thus housed in a trunkless head?" asked Manuel, one time.
"Why, when Jahveh created man on the morning of the sixth day, he set about fashioning me that afternoon from the clay which was left over. But he was interrupted by the coming of the Sabbath, for Jahveh was in those days, of course, a very orthodox Jew. So I was left incomplete, and must remain so always."
"I deduce that you, then, sir, are Heaven's last crowning work, and the final finishing touch to creation."
"So the pessimists tell me," the clay head assented, with a yawn. "But I have had a hard day of it, what with the pestilence in Glathion, and wars between the Emperor and the Milanese, and all those October colds, so we will talk no more philosophy."
Thus Manuel served the head of Misery, for a month of days and a day. It was a noticeable peculiarity of this part of the forest—a peculiarity well known to everybody, though not quite unanimously explained by the learned,—that each day which one spent therein passed as a year, so that Dom Manuel in appearance now aged rapidly. This was unfortunate, especially when his teeth began to fail him, because there were no dentists handy, but his interest in the other Plagues which visited this forest left Manuel little time wherein to think about private worries. For Béda was visited by many of his kindred, such as Mitlan and Kali and Thragnar and Pwyll and Apepi and other evil principles, who were perpetually coming to the gray hut for family reunions, and to rehearse all but one of the two hundred and forty thousand spells of the Capuas. And it was at this time that Manuel got his first glimpse of Sclaug, with whom he had such famous troubles later.
So sped the month of days that passed as years. Little is known as to what happened in the gray hut, but that perhaps is a good thing. Dom Manuel never talked about it. This much is known, that all day the clay head would be roving about the world, carrying envious reports, and devouring kingdoms, and stirring up patriotism and reform, and whispering malefic counsel, and bringing hurt and sorrow and despair and evil of every kind to men; and that in the evening, when at sunset Phobetor took over this lamentable work, Béda would return contentedly to Dun Vlechlan, for Manuel's services and a well-earned night's rest. On most evenings there was unspeakable company, but none of these stayed overnight. And after each night passed alone with Misery, the morning would find Manuel older looking.
"I wonder, sir, at your callousness, and at the cheery way in which you go about your dreadful business," said Manuel, once, after he had just cleansed the dripping jaws.
"Ah, but since I am all head and no heart, therefore I cannot well pity the human beings whom I pursue as a matter of allotted duty."
"That seems plausible," says Manuel, "and I perceive that if appearances are to be trusted you are not personally to blame. Still, I cannot but wonder why the world of men should thus be given over to Misery if Koshchei the Deathless, who made all things as they are, has any care for men."
"As to what goes on overhead, Manuel, you must inquire of others. There are persons in charge, I know, but they have never yet permitted Misery to enter into their high places, for I am not popular with them, and that is the truth."
"I can understand that, but nevertheless I wonder why Misery should have been created to feed upon mankind."
"Probably the cows and sheep and chickens in your barnyards, and the partridges and rabbits in your snares, and even the gasping fish upon your hook, find time to wonder in the same way about you, Dom Manuel."
"Ah, but man is the higher form of life—"
"Granting that remarkable assumption, and is any man above Misery? So you see it is logical I should feed on you."
"Still, I believe that the Misery of earth was devised as a trial and a testing to fit us for some nobler and eternal life hereafter."
"Why in this world should you think that?" the head inquired, with real interest.
"Because I have an immortal spirit, sir, and—"
"Dear me, but all this is very remarkable. Where is it, Manuel?"
"It is inside me somewhere, sir."
"Come, then, let us have it out, for I am curious to see it."
"No, it cannot get out exactly, sir, until I am dead."
"But what use will it be to you then?" said Misery: "and how can you, who have not ever been dead, be certain as to what happens when one is dead?"
"Well, I have always heard so, sir."
The head shook itself dubiously. "Now from whom of the Léshy, I wonder, can you have been hearing such fantastic stories? I am afraid somebody has been making fun of you, Manuel."
"Oh, no, sir, this is a tenet held by the wisest and most admirable of men."
"I see: it was some other man who told you all these drolleries about the eternal importance of mankind," the head observed, with an unaccountable slackening of interest. "I see: and again, you may notice that the cows and the sheep and the chickens, also, resent extinction strenuously."
"But these are creatures of the earth, sir, whereas there is about at any rate some persons a whiff of divinity. Come now, do you not find it so?"
The head looked graver. "Yes, Manuel, most young people have in them a spark which is divine, but it is living that snuffs this out of all of you, by and large, without bothering Grandfather Death to unpeel spirits like bananas. No, the most of you go with very little spirit, if any, into the grave, and assuredly with not enough spirit to last you forever. No, Manuel, no, I never quarrel with religion, because it is almost the strongest ally I have, but these religious notions rather disgust me sometimes, for if men were immortal then Misery would be immortal, and I could never survive that."
"Now you are talking nonsense, sir," said Manuel, stoutly, "and of all sorts of nonsense cynical nonsense is the worst."
"By no means," replied the head, "since, plainly, it is far worse nonsense to assert that omnipotence would insanely elect to pass eternity with you humans. No, Manuel, I am afraid that your queer theory, about your being stuffed inside with permanent material and so on, does not very plausibly account for either your existence or mine, and that we both stay riddles without answers."
"Still, sir," said Manuel, "inasmuch as there is one thing only which all death's ravishings have never taken from life, and that thing is the Misery of earth—"
"Your premiss is indisputable, but what do you deduce from this?"
Manuel smiled slowly and sleepily. "I deduce, sir, that you, also, who have not ever been dead, cannot possibly be certain as to what happens when one is dead. And so I shall stick to my own opinion about the life to come."
"But your opinion is absurd, on the face of it."
"That may very well be, sir, but it is much more comfortable to live with than is your opinion, and living is my occupation just now. Dying I shall attend to in its due turn, and, of the two, my opinion is the more pleasant to die with. Thereafter, if your opinion be right, I shall never even know that my opinion was wrong: so that I have everything to gain, in the way of pleasurable anticipations anyhow, and I have nothing whatever to lose, by clinging to the foolish fond old faith which my fathers had before me," said Manuel, as sturdily as ever.
"Yes, but how in this world—?"
"Ah, sir," says Manuel, still smiling, "in this world men are nourished by their beliefs; and it well may be that, yonder also, their sustenance is the same."
But at this moment came Reeri (a little crimson naked man, having the head of a monkey) with his cock in one hand and his gnarled club in the other. Necessarily the Blood Demon's arrival put an end to their talking, for that turn.
So Count Manuel's youth went out of him as he became more and more intimate with Misery, and an attachment sprang up between them, and the two took counsel as to all Manuel's affairs. They often talked of the royal ladies whom Manuel had loved and loved no longer.
"For at one time," Manuel admitted, "I certainly fancied myself in love with the Princess Alianora, and at another time I was in love with Queen Freydis. And even now I like them well enough, but neither of these royal ladies could make me forget the slave girl Niafer whom I loved on Vraidex. Besides, the Princess and the Queen were fond of having their own way about everything, and they were bent on hampering me with power and wealth and lofty station and such other obstacles to the following of my own thinking and my own desires. I could not endure the eternal arguing this led to, which was always reminding me, by contrast, of the quiet dear ways of Niafer and of the delight I had in the ways of Niafer. So it seemed best for everyone concerned for me to break off with Freydis and Alianora."
"As for these women," the head estimated, "you may be for some reasons well rid of them. Yet this Alianora has fine eyes and certain powers."
"She is a princess of the Apsarasas," Manuel replied, "and therefore she has power over the butterflies and the birds and the bats, and over all creatures of the air. I know, because she has disclosed to me some of the secrets of the Apsarasas. But over her own tongue and temper the Princess Alianora has no power and no control whatever, and if I had married her she would have eventually pestered me into being a king, and giving my life over to politics and the dominion of men."
"This Freydis, too, has beautiful black hair—and certain powers—"
"She was once Queen of Audela, and therefore she retains power over all figures of earth. I know, because she has disclosed to me some of the secrets of Audela. But the worst enemy of Freydis also goes in red, and is housed by the little white teeth of Freydis, for it was this enemy that betrayed her: and if I had married her she would have coaxed me, by and by, into becoming a great maker of images, and giving my life over to such arts."
Misery said: "You have had love from these women, you have gained power and knowledge from these women. Therefore you leave them, to run after some other woman who can give you no power and knowledge, but only a vast deal of trouble. It is not heroic, Manuel, but it is human, and your reasoning is well fitted to your time of life."
"It is true that I am young as yet, sir—"
"No, not so very young, for my society is maturing you, and already you are foreplanning and talking the follies of a man in middle life."
"No matter what my age may come to be, sir, I shall always remember that when I first set up as a champion, and was newly come from living modestly in attendance upon the miller's pigs, I loved the slave girl Niafer. She died. I did not die. Instead, I relinquished Niafer to Grandfather Death, and at that price I preserved my own life and procured a recipe through which I have prospered unbelievably, so that I am today a nobleman with fine clothes and lackeys, and with meadow-lands and castles of my own, if only I could obtain them. So I no longer go ragged at the elbows, and royal ladies look upon me favorably, and I find them well enough. But the joy I took in Niafer is not to be found in any of these things."
"That too is an old human story," the head said, "and yours is a delusion that comes to most men in middle life. However, for a month of years you have served me faithfully, except for twice having failed to put enough venom in my soup, and for having forgotten to fetch in any ice that evening the Old Black One was here. Still, nobody is perfect; your time of service is out; and I must repay you as need is. Will you have happiness, then, and an eternal severance between you and me?"
"I have seen but one happy person," Manuel replied. "He sat in a dry ditch, displaying vacant glittering eyes, and straws were tangled in his hair, but Tom o' Bedlam was quite happy. No, it is not happiness I desire."
The head repeated: "You have served me. I repay, as need is, with the payment you demand. What is it you demand?"
Dom Manuel said, "I demand that Niafer who was a slave girl, and is now a ghost in her pagan paradise."
"Do you think, then, that to recall the dead is possible?"
"You are cunning, sir, but I remember what Freydis told me. Will you swear that Misery cannot bring back the dead?"
"Very willingly I will swear to it, upon all the most authentic relics in Christendom."
"Ah, yes, but will you rest one of your cold hard pointed ears against"—here Manuel whispered what he did not care to name aloud,—"the while that you swear to it."
"Of course not," Misery answered, sullenly: "since every troubled ghost that ever gibbered and clanked chains would rise confronting me if I made such an oath. Yes, Manuel, I am able to bring back the dead, but prudence forces me to lie about my power, because to exercise that power to the full would be well-nigh as ruinous as the breaking of that pumpkin. For there is only one way to bring back the dead in flesh, and if I follow that way I shall lose my head as all the others have done."
"What is that to a lover?" says Manuel.
The head sighed, and bit at its white lips. "An oath is an oath to the Léshy. Therefore do you, who are human, now make profitable use of the knowledge and of the power you get from those other women by breaking oaths! And as you have served me, so will I serve you."
Manuel called black eagles to him, in the manner the Princess Alianora had taught, and he sent them into all parts of the world for every sort of white earth. They obeyed the magic of the Apsarasas, and from Britain they brought Dom Manuel the earth called leucargillon, and they brought glisomarga from Enisgarth, and eglecopala from the Gallic provinces, and argentaria from Lacre Kai, and white earth of every description from all parts of the world.
Manuel made from this earth, as Queen Freydis had taught him how to do, the body of a woman. He fashioned the body peculiarly, in accordance with the old Tuyla mystery, and the body was as perfect as Manuel could make it, in all ways save that it had no head.
Then Manuel sent a gold-crested wren into Provence: it entered through an upper window of the King's marmoreal palace, and went into the Princess Alianora's chamber, and fetched hence a handkerchief figured with yellow mulberries and wet with the tears which Alianora had shed in her grieving for Manuel. And Dom Manuel sent also a falcon, which returned to him with Queen Freydis' handkerchief. That was figured with white fleurs-de-lis, and that too was drenched with tears.
Whereupon, all being in readiness, Misery smiled craftily, and said:
"In the time that is passed I have overthrown high kings and prophets, and sorcerers also, as when Misery half carelessly made sport of Mithridates and of Merlin and of Moses, in ways that ballad-singers still delight to tell of. But with you, Dom Manuel, I shall deal otherwise, and I shall disconcert you by and by in a more quiet fashion. Hoh, I must grapple carefully with your love for Niafer, as with an antagonist who is not scrupulous, nor very sensible, but who is exceedingly strong. For observe: you obstinately desire this perished heathen woman, who in life, it well may be, was nothing remarkable. Therefore you have sought Misery, you have dwelt for a month of years with terror, you have surrendered youth, you are planning to defy death, you are intent to rob the deep grave and to despoil paradise. Truly your love is great."
Manuel said only, "An obligation is upon me, for the life of Niafer was given to preserve my life."
"Now I, whom some call Béda, and others Kruchina, and whom for the present your love has conquered—I it is, alone, who can obtain for you this woman, because in the long run I overcome all things and persons. Life is my province, and the birth cry of every infant is an oath of allegiance to me. Thus I am overlord where all serve willy-nilly except you, who have served of your own will. And as you have served me, so must I serve you."
Manuel said, "That is well"
"It is not so well as you think, for when you have this Niafer I shall return to you in the appearance of a light formless cloud, and I shall rise about you, not suddenly but a little by a little. So shall you see through me the woman for love of whom your living was once made high-hearted and fearless, and for whose sake death was derided, and paradise was ransacked: and you will ask forlornly, 'Was it for this?' Throughout the orderly, busied, unimportant hours that stretch between your dressing for the day and your undressing for the night, you will be asking this question secretly in your heart, while I pass everywhither with you in the appearance of a light formless cloud, and whisper to you secretly."
"And what will you whisper to me?"
"Not anything which you will care to repeat to anybody anywhere. Oh, you will be able to endure it, and you will be content, as human contentment goes, and my triumph will not be public. But, none the less, I shall have overthrown my present conqueror, and I shall have brought low the love which terror and death did not affright, and which the laws of earth could not control; and I, whom some call Béda, and others Kruchina, will very terribly attest that the ghost of outlived and conquered misery is common-sense."
"That is to-morrow's affair," replied Dom Manuel "To-day there is an obligation upon me, and my dealings are with to-day."
Then Manuel bound the clay head of Misery in the two handkerchiefs which were wet with the tears of Alianora and of Freydis. When the cock had crowed three times, Dom Manuel unbound the head, and it was only a shapeless mass of white clay, because of the tears of Freydis and Alianora.
Manuel modeled in this clay, to the best of his ability, the head of Niafer, as he remembered her when they had loved each other upon Vraidex: and after the white head was finished he fitted it to the body which he had made from the other kinds of white earth. Dom Manuel robed this body in brown drugget such as Niafer had been used to wear in and about the kitchen at Arnaye, and he did the other things that were requisite, for this was the day of All Saints when nothing sacred ought to be neglected.
Now the tale tells how Dom Manuel sat at the feet of the image and played upon a flageolet. There was wizardry in the music, Dom Manuel said afterward, for he declared that it evoked in him a vision and a restless dreaming that followed after Misery.
So this dreaming showed that when Misery was dispossessed of the earth he entered (because Misery is unchristian) into the paradise of the pagans, where Niafer, dead now for something over a year, went restlessly in bliss: and Misery came shortly afterward to Niafer, and talked with her in a thin little voice. She listened willingly to this talk of Manuel and of the adventures which Niafer had shared with Manuel: and now that she remembered Manuel, and his clear young face and bright unequal eyes and his strong arms, she could no longer be even moderately content in the paradise of the pagans.
Thereafter Misery went about the heathens' paradise in the appearance of a light formless cloud. And the fields of this paradise seemed less green, the air became less pure and balmy, and the sky less radiant, and the waters of the paradisal river Eridanus grew muddy. The poets became tired of hearing one another recite, the heroes lost delight in their wrestling and chariot racing and in their exercises with the spear and the bow. "How can anybody expect us to waste eternity with recreations which are only fitted to waste time?" they demanded.
And the lovely ladies began to find the handsome lovers with whom they wandered hand in hand through never-fading groves of myrtle, and with whom they were forever reunited, rather tedious companions.
"I love you," said the lovers.
"You have been telling me that for twelve centuries," replied the ladies, yawning, "and too much of anything is enough."
"Upon my body, I think so too," declared the lovers. "I said it only out of politeness and force of habit, and I can assure you I am as tired of this lackadaisical idiocy as you are."
So everything was at sixes and sevens in this paradise: and when the mischief-maker was detected, the blessed held a meeting, for it was now the day of All Souls, on which the dead have privilege.
"We must preserve appearances," said these dead pagans, "and can have only happy-looking persons hereabouts, for otherwise our paradise will get a poor name, and the religion of our fathers will fall into disrepute."
Then they thrust Misery, and Niafer also, out of the pagan paradise, because Misery clung to Niafer in the appearance of a light formless cloud, and there was no separating the two.
These two turned earthward together, and came to the river of sweat called Rigjon. Niafer said to the fiery angel Sandalfon that guards the bridge there, "The Misery of earth is with me."
Sandalfon saw that this was so, and answered, "My fires cannot consume the Misery of earth."
They came to Hadarniel, the noisy angel whose, whispering is the thunder. Niafer said, "The Misery of earth is with me."
Hadarniel replied, "Before the Misery of earth I am silent."
They came to Kemuel and his twelve thousand angels of destruction that guard the outermost gateway. Niafer said, "The Misery of earth is with me."
Kemuel answered, "I ruin and make an end of all things else, but for the Misery of earth I have contrived no ending."
So Misery and Niafer passed all the warders of this paradise: and in a dim country on the world's rim the blended spirit of Misery and the ghost of Niafer rose through a hole in the ground, like an imponderable vapor. They dissevered each from the other in a gray place overgrown with poplars, and Misery cried farewell to Niafer.
"And very heartily do I thank you for your kindness, now that we part, and now that, it may be, I shall not ever see you again," said Niafer, politely.
"Take no fear for not seeing me again, now that you are about once more to become human. Certainly, Niafer, I must leave you for a little while, but certainly I shall return. There will first be for you much kissing and soft laughter, and the quiet happy ordering of your home, and the heart-shaking wonder of the child who is neither you nor Manuel, but both of you, and whose life was not ever seen before on earth: and life will burgeon with white miracles, and every blossom you will take to be eternal. Laughing, you will say of sorrow, 'What is it?' And I, whom some call Béda, and others call Kruchina, shall be monstrously amused by this.
"Then your seeing will have my help, and you will observe that Manuel is very much like other persons. He will be used to having you about, and you him, and that will be the sorry bond between you. The children that have reft their flesh from your flesh ruthlessly, and that have derived their living from your glad anguish, each day will, be appearing a little less intimately yours, until these children find their mates. Thereafter you will be a tolerated intruder into these children's daily living, and nobody anywhere will do more than condone your coming: you will weep secretly: and I, whom some call Béda, and others call Kruchina, shall be monstrously amused by this.
"Then I shall certainly return to you, when your tears are dried, and when you no longer believe what young Niafer once believed; and when, remembering young Niafer's desires and her intentions as to the disposal of her life, you will shrug withered shoulders. To go on living will remain desirable. The dilapidations of life will no longer move you deeply. Shrugging, you will say of sorrow, 'What is it?' for you will know grief also to be impermanent. And your inability to be quite miserable any more will assure you that your goings are attended by the ghost of outlived and conquered misery: and I, whom some call Béda, and others call Kruchina, shall be monstrously amused by this."
Said Niafer, impatiently, "Do you intend to keep me here forever under these dark twinkling trees, with your thin little talking, while Manuel stays unhappy through his want of me?"
And Misery answered nothing as he departed from Niafer, for a season.
Such were the happenings in the vision witnessed by Dom Manuel (as Dom Manuel afterward declared) while he sat playing upon the flageolet.
Now the tale tells that all this while, near the gray hut in Dun Vlechlan, the earthen image of Niafer lay drying out in the November sun; and that gray Dom Manuel—no longer the florid boy who had come into Dun Vlechlan,—sat at the feet of the image, and played upon a flageolet the air which Suskind had taught him, and with which he had been used to call young Suskind from her twilit places when Manuel was a peasant tending swine. Now Manuel was an aging nobleman, and Niafer was now a homeless ghost, but the tune had power over them, none the less, for its burden was young love and the high-hearted time of youth; so that the melody which once had summoned Suskind from her low red-pillared palace in the doubtful twilight, now summoned Niafer resistlessly from paradise, as Manuel thriftily made use of the odds and ends which he had learned from three women to win him a fourth woman.
The spirit of Niafer entered at the mouth of the image. Instantly the head sneezed, and said, "I am unhappy." But Manuel kept on playing. The spirit descended further, bringing life to the lungs and the belly, so that the image then cried, "I am hungry." But Manuel kept on playing. So the soul was drawn further and further, until Manuel saw that the white image had taken on the colors of flesh, and was moving its toes in time to his playing; and so knew that the entire body was informed with life.
He cast down the flageolet, and touched the breast of the image with the ancient formal gestures of the old Tuyla mystery, and he sealed the mouth of the image with a kiss, so that the spirit of Niafer was imprisoned in the image which Manuel had made. Under his lips the lips which had been Misery's cried, "I love." And Niafer rose, a living girl just such as Manuel had remembered for more than a whole year: but with that kiss all memories of paradise and all the traits of angelhood departed from her.
"Well, well, dear snip," said Manuel, the first thing of all, "now it is certainly a comfort to have you back again."
Niafer, even in the rapture of her happiness, found this an unimpassioned greeting from one who had gone to unusual lengths to recover her companionship. Staring, she saw that Manuel had all the marks of a man in middle life, and spoke as became appearances. For it was at the price of his youth that Manuel had recovered the woman whom his youth desired: and Misery had subtly evened matters by awarding an aging man the woman for whose sake a lad had fearlessly served Misery. There was no longer any such lad, for the conquered had destroyed the conqueror.
Then, after a moment's consideration of this tall gray stranger, Niafer also looked graver and older. Niafer asked for a mirror: and Manuel had none.
"Now but certainly I must know at once just how faithfully you have remembered me," says Niafer.
He led the way into the naked and desolate November forest, and they came to the steel-colored Wolflake hard by the gray hut: and Niafer found she was limping, for Manuel had not got her legs quite right, so that for the rest of her second life she was lame. Then Niafer gazed for a minute, or it might be for two minutes, at her reflection in the deep cold waters of the Wolflake.
"Is this as near as you have come to remembering me, my dearest!" she said, dejectedly, as she looked down at Manuel's notion of her face. For the appearance which Niafer now wore she found to be very little like that which Niafer remembered as having been hers, in days wherein she had been tolerably familiar with the Lady Gisèle's mirrors; and it was a grief to Niafer to see how utterly the dearest dead go out of mind in no long while.
"I have forgotten not one line or curve of your features," says Manuel, stoutly, "in all these months, nor in any of these last days that have passed as years. And when my love spurred me to make your image, Niafer, my love loaned me unwonted cunning. Even by ordinary, they tell me, I have some skill at making images: and while not for a moment would I seem to boast of that skill, and not for worlds would I annoy you by repeating any of the complimentary things which have been said about my images,—by persons somewhat more appreciative, my dear, of the toil and care that goes to work of this sort,—I certainly think that in this instance nobody has fair reason to complain."
She looked at his face now: and she noted what the month of living with Béda, with whom a day is as a year, had done to the boy's face which she remembered. Count Manuel's face was of remodeled stuff: youth had gone out of it, and the month of years had etched wrinkles in it, success had hardened and caution had pinched and self-complacency had kissed it. And Niafer sighed again, as they sat reunited under leafless trees by the steel-colored Wolflake.
"There is no circumventing time and death, then, after all," said Niafer, "for neither of us is now the person that ascended Vraidex. No matter: I love you, Manuel, and I am content with what remains of you: and if the body you have given me is to your will it is to my will."
But now three rascally tall ragged fellows, each blind in one eye, and each having a thin peaked beard, came into the opening before the gray hut, trampling the dead leaves there as they shouted for Mimir. "Come out!" they cried: "come out, you miserable Mirmir, and face those three whom you have wronged!"
Dom Manuel rose from the bank of the Wolflake, and went toward the shouters. "There is no Mimir," he told them, "in Dun Vlechlan, or not at least in this peculiarly irrational part of the forest."
"You lie," they said, "for even though you have hitched a body to your head we recognize you." They looked at Niafer, and all three laughed cruelly. "Was it for this hunched, draggled, mud-faced wench that you left us, you squinting old villain? And have you so soon forgotten the vintner's parlor at Neogréant, and what you did with the gold plates?"
"No, I have not forgotten these things, for I never knew anything about them," said Manuel.
Said one of the knaves, twirling fiercely his moustachios: "Hah, shameless Mimir, do you look at me, who have known you and your blind son Oriander, too, to be unblushing knaves for these nine centuries! Now, I suppose, you will be denying the affair of the squirrel also?"
"Oh, be off with your nonsense!" says Manuel, "for I have not yet had twenty-two years of living, and I never saw you before, and I hope never to see you again."
But they all set upon him with cutlasses, so there was nothing remaining save to have out his sword and fight. And when each of these one-eyed persons had vanished curiously under his death-wound, Manuel told Niafer it was a comfort to find that the month of years had left him a fair swordsman for all that his youth was gone; and that he thought they had better be leaving this part of the high woods of Dun Vlechlan, wherein unaccountable things took place, and all persons behaved unreasonably.
"Were these wood-spirits unreasonable," asks Niafer, "in saying that the countenance and the body you have given me are ugly?"
"My dear," replied Manuel, "it was their saying that which made me try to avoid the conflict, because it does not look well, not even in dealing with demons, to injure the insane."
"Manuel, and can it be you who are considering appearances?"
Dom Manuel said gravely: "My dealings with Misery and with Misery's kindred have taught me many things which I shall never forget nor very willingly talk about. One of these teachings, though, is that in most affairs there is a middle road on which there is little traffic and comparatively easy going. I must tell you that the company I have been in required a great deal of humoring, for of course it is not safe to trifle with any evil principle. No, no, one need not absolutely and openly defy convention, I perceive, in order to follow after one's own thinking," says Manuel, shrewdly, and waggling a gray beard.
"I am so glad you have learned that at last! At least, I suppose, I am glad," said Niafer, a little wistfully, as she recalled young Manuel of the high head.
"But, as I was saying, I now estimate that these tattered persons who would have prevented my leaving, as well as the red fellow that would have hindered my entering, this peculiarly irrational part of the forest, were spiritual intruders into Misery's domain whom Misery had driven out of their wits. No, Niafer, I voice no criticism, because with us two this Misery of earth, whom some call Béda, and others Kruchina, has dealt very handsomely. It troubles me to suspect that he was also called Mimir; but of this we need not speak, because a thing done has an end, even a killed grandfather. Nevertheless, I think that Dun Vlechlan is unwholesome, and I am of the opinion that you and I will be more comfortable elsewhere."
"But must we go back to looking after pigs, dear Manuel, or are you now too old for that?"
Dom Manuel smiled, and you saw that he retained at least his former lordliness. "No, now that every obligation is lifted, and we are reunited, dear snip, I can at last go traveling everywhither, so that I may see the ends of this world and judge them. And we will do whatever else we choose, for, as I must tell you, I am now a nobleman with lackeys and meadowlands and castles of my own, if only I could obtain possession of them."
"This is excellent hearing," said Niafer, "and much better than pig-stealing, and I am glad that the world has had sense enough to appreciate you, Manuel, and you it. And we will have rubies in my coronet, because I always fancied them. Now do you tell me how it all happened, and what I am to be called countess of. And we will talk about that traveling later, for I have already traveled a great distance today, but we must certainly have rubies."
So Manuel put on his armor, and with Manuel telling as much as he thought wise of the adventures which he had encountered while Niafer was dead, they left this peculiarly irrational part of the forest, and fared out of the ruined November woods; and presently, in those barren fields that descend toward the sand dunes of Quentavic, came face to face with Queen Freydis and the Princess Alianora, where these two royal ladies and many other fine people rode toward the coast.
Alianora went magnificently this morning, on a white horse, and wearing a kirtle of changeable green like the sea's green in sunlight: her golden hair was bound with a gold frontlet wherein were emeralds. Freydis, dark and stately, was in crimson embroidered with small gold stars and ink-horns: a hooded falcon sat on her gloved wrist.
Now Freydis and Alianora stared at the swarthy, flat-faced, limping peasant girl in brown drugget that was with Count Manuel. Then Alianora stared at Freydis.
"Is it for this dingy cripple," says Alianora, with her proud fine face all wonder, "that Dom Manuel has forsaken us and has put off his youth? Why, the girl is out and out ugly!"
"Our case is none the better for that," replied Freydis, the wise Queen, whose gazing rested not upon Niafer but on Manuel.
"Who are those disreputable looking, bold-faced creatures that are making eyes at you?" says Niafer.
And Manuel, marveling to meet these two sorceresses together, replied, as he civilly saluted them from a little distance, "Two royal ladies, who would be well enough were it not for their fondness for having their own way."
"And I suppose you think them handsome!"
"Yes, Niafer, I find them very beautiful. But after looking at them with aesthetic pleasure, my gaze returns adoringly to the face I have created as I willed, and to the quiet love of my youth, and I have no occasion to be thinking of queens and princesses. Instead, I give thanks in my heart that I am faring contentedly toward the nearest priest with the one woman in the world who to my finding is desirable and lovely."
"It is very sweet of you to say that, Manuel, and I am sure I hope you are telling the truth, but my faith would be greater if you had not rattled it off so glibly."
Then Alianora said: "Greetings, and for the while farewell, to you, Count Manuel! For all we ride to Quentavic, and thence I am passing over into England to marry the King of that island."
"Now, but there is a lucky monarch for you!" says Manuel, politely. He looked at Freydis, who had put off immortality for his kisses, and whom he had deserted to follow after his own thinking: these re-encounters are always awkward, and Dom Manuel fidgeted a little. He asked her, "And do you also go into England?"
She told him very quietly, no, that she was only going to the coast, to consult with three or four of the water-demons about enchanting one of the Red Islands, and about making her home there. She had virtually decided, she told him, to put a spell upon Sargyll, as it seemed the most desirable of these islands from what she could hear, but she must first see the place. Queen Freydis looked at him with rather embarrassing intentness all the while, but she spoke quite calmly.
"Yes, yes," Dom Manuel said, cordially, "I dare say you will be very comfortable there, and I am sure I hope so. But I did not know that you two ladies were acquainted."
"Indeed, our affairs are not your affairs," says Freydis, "any longer. And what does it matter, on this November day which has a thin sunlight and no heat at all in it? No, that girl yonder has to-day. But Alianora and I had each her yesterday; and it may be the one or it may be the other of us three who will have to-morrow, and it may be also that the disposal of that to-morrow will be remarkable."
"Very certainly," declared Alianora, with that slow, lovely, tranquil smile of hers, "I shall have my portion of to-morrow. I would have made you a king, and by and by the most powerful of all kings, but you followed after your own thinking, and cared more for messing in wet mud than for a throne. Still, this nonsense of yours has converted you into a rather distinguished looking old gentleman, so when I need you I shall summon you, with the token that we know of, Dom Manuel, and then do you come post-haste!"
Freydis said: "I would have made you the greatest of image-makers; but you followed after your own thinking, and instead of creating new and god-like beings you preferred to resurrect a dead servant girl. Nevertheless, do I bid you beware of the one living image you made, for it still lives and it alone you cannot ever shut out from your barred heart, Dom Manuel: and nevertheless, do I bid you come to me, Dom Manuel, when you need me."
Manuel replied, "I shall always obey both of you." Niafer throughout this while said nothing at all. But she had her private thoughts, to the effect that neither of these high-and-mighty trollops was in reality the person whom henceforward Dom Manuel was going to obey.
So the horns sounded. The gay cavalcade rode on, toward Quentavic. And as they went young Osmund Heleigh (Lord Brudenel's son) asked for the gallant King of Navarre, "But who, sire, was that time-battered gray vagabond, with the tarnished silver stallion upon his shield and the mud-colored cripple at his side, that our Queens should be stopping for any conference with him?"
King Thibaut said it was the famous Dom Manuel of Poictesme, who had put away his youth for the sake of the girl that was with him.
"Then is the old man a fool on every count," declared Messire Heleigh, sighing, "for I have heard of his earlier antics in Provence, and no lovelier lady breathes than Dame Alianora."
"I consider Queen Freydis to be the handsomer of the two," replied Thibaut, "but certainly there is no comparing either of these inestimable ladies with Dom Manuel's swarthy drab."
"She is perhaps some witch whose magic is more terrible than their magic, and has besotted this ruined champion?"
"It is either enchantment or idiocy, unless indeed it be something far higher than either." King Thibaut looked grave, then shrugged. "Oy Dieus! even so, Queen Freydis is the more to my taste."
Thus speaking, the young King spurred his bay horse toward Queen Freydis (from whom he got his ruin a little later), and all Alianora's retinue went westward, very royally, while Manuel and Niafer trudged east. Much color and much laughter went one way, but the other way went contentment, for that while.