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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesShe - Chapter XVII - THE BALANCE TURNS
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She - Chapter XVII - THE BALANCE TURNS Post by :rajkar Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :3109

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She - Chapter XVII - THE BALANCE TURNS

In a few minutes, following the lamps of the mutes, which, held out
from the body as a bearer holds water in a vessel, had the appearance
of floating down the darkness by themselves, we came to a stair which
led us to /She's/ ante-room, the same that Billali had crept up upon
on all fours on the previous day. Here I would have bid the Queen
adieu, but she would not.

"Nay," she said, "enter with me, oh Holly, for of a truth thy
conversation pleaseth me. Think, oh Holly: for two thousand years have
I had none to converse with save slaves and my own thoughts, and
though of all this thinking hath much wisdom come, and many secrets
been made plain, yet am I weary of my thoughts, and have come to
loathe mine own society, for surely the food that memory gives to eat
is bitter to the taste, and it is only with the teeth of hope that we
can bear to bite it. Now, though thy thoughts are green and tender, as
becometh one so young, yet are they those of a thinking brain, and in
truth thou dost bring back to my mind certain of those old
philosophers with whom in days bygone I have disputed at Athens, and
at Becca in Arabia, for thou hast the same crabbed air and dusty look,
as though thou hadst passed thy days in reading ill-writ Greek, and
been stained dark with the grime of manuscripts. So draw the curtain,
and sit here by my side, and we will eat fruit, and talk of pleasant
things. See, I will again unveil to thee. Thou hast brought it on
thyself, oh Holly; fairly have I warned thee--and thou shalt call me
beautiful as even those old philosophers were wont to do. Fie upon
them, forgetting their philosophy!"

And without more ado she stood up and shook the white wrappings from
her, and came forth shining and splendid like some glittering snake
when she has cast her slough; ay, and fixed her wonderful eyes upon me
--more deadly than any Basilisk's--and pierced me through and through
with their beauty, and sent her light laugh ringing through the air
like chimes of silver bells.

A new mood was on her, and the very colour of her mind seemed to
change beneath it. It was no longer torture-torn and hateful, as I had
seen it when she was cursing her dead rival by the leaping flames, no
longer icily terrible as in the judgment-hall, no longer rich, and
sombre, and splendid, like a Tyrian cloth, as in the dwellings of the
dead. No, her mood now was that of Aphrodité triumphing. Life--
radiant, ecstatic, wonderful--seemed to flow from her and around her.
Softly she laughed and sighed, and swift her glances flew. She shook
her heavy tresses, and their perfume filled the place; she struck her
little sandalled foot upon the floor, and hummed a snatch of some old
Greek epithalamium. All the majesty was gone, or did but lurk and
faintly flicker through her laughing eyes, like lightning seen through
sunlight. She had cast off the terror of the leaping flame, the cold
power of judgment that was even now being done, and the wise sadness
of the tombs--cast them off and put them behind her, like the white
shroud she wore, and now stood out the incarnation of lovely tempting
womanhood, made more perfect--and in a way more spiritual--than ever
woman was before.

"So, my Holly, sit there where thou canst see me. It is by thine own
wish, remember--again I say, blame me not if thou dost wear away thy
little span with such a sick pain at the heart that thou wouldst fain
have died before ever thy curious eyes were set upon me. There, sit
so, and tell me, for in truth I am inclined for praises--tell me, am I
not beautiful? Nay, speak not so hastily; consider well the point;
take me feature by feature, forgetting not my form, and my hands and
feet, and my hair, and the whiteness of my skin, and then tell me
truly, hast thou ever known a woman who in aught, ay, in one little
portion of her beauty, in the curve of an eyelash even, or the
modelling of a shell-like ear, is justified to hold a light before my
loveliness? Now, my waist! Perchance thou thinkest it too large, but
of a truth it is not so; it is this golden snake that is too large,
and doth not bind it as it should. It is a wide snake, and knoweth
that it is ill to tie in the waist. But see, give me thy hands--so--
now press them round me, and there, with but a little force, thy
fingers touch, oh Holly."

I could bear it no longer. I am but a man, and she was more than a
woman. Heaven knows what she was--I do not! But then and there I fell
upon my knees before her, and told her in a sad mixture of languages--
for such moments confuse the thoughts--that I worshipped her as never
woman was worshipped, and that I would give my immortal soul to marry
her, which at that time I certainly would have done, and so, indeed,
would any other man, or all the race of men rolled into one. For a
moment she looked surprised, and then she began to laugh, and clap her
hands in glee.

"Oh, so soon, oh Holly!" she said. "I wondered how many minutes it
would need to bring thee to thy knees. I have not seen a man kneel
before me for so many days, and, believe me, to a woman's heart the
sight is sweet, ay, wisdom and length of days take not from that dear
pleasure which is our sex's only right.

"What wouldst thou?--what wouldst thou? Thou dost not know what thou
doest. Have I not told thee that I am not for thee? I love but one,
and thou art not the man. Ah Holly, for all thy wisdom--and in a way
thou art wise--thou art but a fool running after folly. Thou wouldst
look into mine eyes--thou wouldst kiss me! Well, if it pleaseth thee,
/look/," and she bent herself towards me, and fixed her dark and
thrilling orbs upon my own; "ay, and /kiss/ too, if thou wilt, for,
thanks be given to the scheme of things, kisses leave no marks, except
upon the heart. But if thou dost kiss, I tell thee of a surety wilt
thou eat out thy breast with love of me, and die!" and she bent yet
further towards me till her soft hair brushed my brow, and her
fragrant breath played upon my face, and made me faint and weak. Then
of a sudden, even as I stretched out my hands to clasp, she
straightened herself, and a quick change passed over her. Reaching out
her hand, she held it over my head, and it seemed to me that something
flowed from it that chilled me back to common sense, and a knowledge
of propriety and the domestic virtues.

"Enough of this wanton folly," she said with a touch of sternness.
"Listen, Holly. Thou art a good and honest man, and I fain would spare
thee; but, oh! it is so hard for woman to be merciful. I have said I
am not for thee, therefore let thy thoughts pass by me like an idle
wind, and the dust of thy imagination sink again into the depths--
well, of despair, if thou wilt. Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst
thou seen me but ten hours past when my passion seized me, thou hadst
shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like
the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my
Holly; they pass, and are forgotten. Only the water is the water
still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it,
and that which maketh me maketh me, nor can my quality be altered.
Therefore, pay no heed to what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know
what I am. If thou troublest me again I will veil myself, and thou
shalt behold my face no more."

I rose, and sank on the cushioned couch beside her, yet quivering with
emotion, though for a moment my mad passion had left me, as the leaves
of a tree quiver still, although the gust be gone that stirred them. I
did not dare to tell her that I /had/ seen her in that deep and
hellish mood, muttering incantations to the fire in the tomb.

"So," she went on, "now eat some fruit; believe me, it is the only
true food for man. Oh, tell me of the philosophy of that Hebrew
Messiah, who came after me, and who thou sayest doth now rule Rome,
and Greece, and Egypt, and the barbarians beyond. It must have been a
strange philosophy that He taught, for in my day the peoples would
have naught of our philosophies. Revel and lust and drink, blood and
cold steel, and the shock of men gathered in the battle--these were
the canons of their creeds."

I had recovered myself a little by now, and, feeling bitterly ashamed
of the weakness into which I had been betrayed, I did my best to
expound to her the doctrines of Christianity, to which, however, with
the single exception of our conception of Heaven and Hell, I found
that she paid but scant attention, her interest being all directed
towards the Man who taught them. Also I told her that among her own
people, the Arabs, another prophet, one Mohammed, had arisen and
preached a new faith, to which many millions of mankind now adhered.

"Ah!" she said; "I see--two new religions! I have known so many, and
doubtless there have been many more since I knew aught beyond these
caves of Kôr. Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies
behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of
selfishness--this it is that breeds religions. Mark, my Holly, each
religion claims the future for its followers; or, at least, the good
thereof. The evil is for those benighted ones who will have none of
it; seeing the light the true believers worship, as the fishes see the
stars, but dimly. The religions come and the religions pass, and the
civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and
human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and
not from without--that he himself must work out his own salvation! He
is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good
and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand
erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God,
modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil
thing, and a longer arm to do it."

I thought to myself, which shows how old such reasoning is, being,
indeed, one of the recurring qualities of theological discussion, that
her argument sounded very like some that I have heard in the
nineteenth century, and in other places than the caves of Kôr, and
with which, by the way, I totally disagree, but I did not care to try
and discuss the question with her. To begin with, my mind was too
weary with all the emotions through which I had passed, and, in the
second place, I knew that I should get the worst of it. It is weary
work enough to argue with an ordinary materialist, who hurls
statistics and whole strata of geological facts at your head, whilst
you can only buffet him with deductions and instincts and the
snowflakes of faith, that are, alas! so apt to melt in the hot embers
of our troubles. How little chance, then, should I have against one
whose brain was supernaturally sharpened, and who had two thousand
years of experience, besides all manner of knowledge of the secrets of
Nature at her command! Feeling that she would be more likely to
convert me than I should to convert her, I thought it best to leave
the matter alone, and so sat silent. Many a time since then have I
bitterly regretted that I did so, for thereby I lost the only
opportunity I can remember having had of ascertaining what Ayesha
/really/ believed, and what her "philosophy" was.

"Well, my Holly," she continued, "and so those people of mine have
found a prophet, a false prophet thou sayest, for he is not thine own,
and, indeed, I doubt it not. Yet in my day was it otherwise, for then
we Arabs had many gods. Allât there was, and Saba, the Host of Heaven,
Al Uzza, and Manah the stony one, for whom the blood of victims
flowed, and Wadd and Sawâ, and Yaghûth the Lion of the dwellers in
Yaman, and Yäûk the Horse of Morad, and Nasr the Eagle of Hamyar; ay,
and many more. Oh, the folly of it all, the shame and the pitiful
folly! Yet when I rose in wisdom and spoke thereof, surely they would
have slain me in the name of their outraged gods. Well, so hath it
ever been;--but, my Holly, art thou weary of me already, that thou
dost sit so silent? Or dost thou fear lest I should teach thee my
philosophy?--for know I have a philosophy. What would a teacher be
without her own philosophy? and if thou dost vex me overmuch beware!
for I will have thee learn it, and thou shalt be my disciple, and we
twain will found a faith that shall swallow up all others. Faithless
man! And but half an hour since thou wast upon thy knees--the posture
does not suit thee, Holly--swearing that thou didst love me. What
shall we do?--Nay, I have it. I will come and see this youth, the
Lion, as the old man Billali calls him, who came with thee, and who is
so sick. The fever must have run its course by now, and if he is about
to die I will recover him. Fear not, my Holly, I shall use no magic.
Have I not told thee that there is no such thing as magic, though
there is such a thing as understanding and applying the forces which
are in Nature? Go now, and presently, when I have made the drug ready,
I will follow thee."(*)

(*) Ayesha was a great chemist, indeed chemistry appears to have been
her only amusement and occupation. She had one of the caves fitted
up as a laboratory, and, although her appliances were necessarily
rude, the results that she attained were, as will become clear in
the course of this narrative, sufficiently surprising.--L. H. H.

Accordingly I went, only to find Job and Ustane in a great state of
grief, declaring that Leo was in the throes of death, and that they
had been searching for me everywhere. I rushed to the couch, and
glanced at him: clearly he was dying. He was senseless, and breathing
heavily, but his lips were quivering, and every now and again a little
shudder ran down his frame. I knew enough of doctoring to see that in
another hour he would be beyond the reach of earthly help--perhaps in
another five minutes. How I cursed my selfishness and the folly that
had kept me lingering by Ayesha's side while my dear boy lay dying!
Alas and alas! how easily the best of us are lighted down to evil by
the gleam of a woman's eyes! What a wicked wretch was I! Actually, for
the last half-hour I had scarcely thought of Leo, and this, be it
remembered, of the man who for twenty years had been my dearest
companion, and the chief interest of my existence. And now, perhaps,
it was too late!

I wrung my hands, and glanced round. Ustane was sitting by the couch,
and in her eyes burnt the dull light of despair. Job was blubbering--I
am sorry I cannot name his distress by any more delicate word--audibly
in the corner. Seeing my eye fixed upon him, he went outside to give
way to his grief in the passage. Obviously the only hope lay in
Ayesha. She, and she alone--unless, indeed, she was an imposter, which
I could not believe--could save him. I would go and implore her to
come. As I started to do so, however, Job came flying into the room,
his hair literally standing on end with terror.

"Oh, God help us, sir!" he ejaculated in a frightened whisper, "here's
a corpse a-coming sliding down the passage!"

For a moment I was puzzled, but presently, of course, it struck me
that he must have seen Ayesha, wrapped in her grave-like garment, and
been deceived by the extraordinary undulating smoothness of her walk
into a belief that she was a white ghost gliding towards him. Indeed,
at that very moment the question was settled, for Ayesha herself was
in the apartment, or rather cave. Job turned, and saw her sheeted
form, and then, with a convulsive howl of "Here it comes!" sprang into
a corner, and jammed his face against the wall, and Ustane, guessing
whose the dread presence must be, prostrated herself upon her face.

"Thou comest in a good time, Ayesha," I said, "for my boy lies at the
point of death."

"So," she said softly; "provided he be not dead, it is no matter, for
I can bring him back to life, my Holly. Is that man there thy servant,
and is that the method wherewith thy servants greet strangers in thy
country?"

"He is frightened of thy garb--it hath a death-like air," I answered.

She laughed.

"And the girl? Ah, I see now. It is she of whom thou didst speak to
me. Well, bid them both to leave us, and we will see to this sick Lion
of thine. I love not that underlings should perceive my wisdom."

Thereon I told Ustane in Arabic and Job in English both to leave the
room; an order which the latter obeyed readily enough, and was glad to
obey, for he could not in any way subdue his fear. But it was
otherwise with Ustane.

"What does /She/ want?" she whispered, divided between her fear of the
terrible Queen and her anxiety to remain near Leo. "It is surely the
right of a wife to be near her husband when he dieth. Nay, I will not
go, my lord the Baboon."

"Why doth not that woman leave us, my Holly?" asked Ayesha from the
other end of the cave, where she was engaged in carelessly examining
some of the sculptures on the wall.

"She is not willing to leave Leo," I answered, not knowing what to
say. Ayesha wheeled round, and, pointing to the girl Ustane, said one
word, and one only, but it was quite enough, for the tone in which it
was said meant volumes.

"Go!"

And then Ustane crept past her on her hands and knees, and went.

"Thou seest, my Holly," said Ayesha, with a little laugh, "it was
needful that I should give these people a lesson in obedience. That
girl went nigh to disobeying me, but then she did not learn this morn
how I treat the disobedient. Well, she has gone; and now let me see
the youth," and she glided towards the couch on which Leo lay, with
his face in the shadow and turned towards the wall.

"He hath a noble shape," she said, as she bent over him to look upon
his face.

Next second her tall and willowy form was staggering back across the
room, as though she had been shot or stabbed, staggering back till at
last she struck the cavern wall, and then there burst from her lips
the most awful and unearthly scream that I ever heard in all my life.

"What is it, Ayesha?" I cried. "Is he dead?"

She turned, and sprang towards me like a tigress.

"Thou dog!" she said, in her terrible whisper, which sounded like the
hiss of a snake, "why didst thou hide this from me?" And she stretched
out her arm, and I thought that she was about to slay me.

"What?" I ejaculated, in the most lively terror; "what?"

"Ah!" she said, "perchance thou didst not know. Learn, my Holly,
learn: there lies--there lies my lost Kallikrates. Kallikrates, who
has come back to me at last, as I knew he would, as I knew he would;"
and she began to sob and to laugh, and generally to conduct herself
like any other lady who is a little upset, murmuring "Kallikrates,
Kallikrates!"

"Nonsense," thought I to myself, but I did not like to say it; and,
indeed, at that moment I was thinking of Leo's life, having forgotten
everything else in that terrible anxiety. What I feared now was that
he should die while she was "carrying on."

"Unless thou art able to help him, Ayesha," I put in, by way of a
reminder, "thy Kallikrates will soon be far beyond thy calling. Surely
he dieth even now."

"True," she said, with a start. "Oh, why did I not come before! I am
unnerved--my hand trembles, even mine--and yet it is very easy. Here,
thou Holly, take this phial," and she produced a tiny jar of pottery
from the folds of her garment, "and pour the liquid in it down his
throat. It will cure him if he be not dead. Swift, now! Swift! The man
dies!"

I glanced towards him; it was true enough, Leo was in his death-
struggle. I saw his poor face turning ashen, and heard the breath
begin to rattle in his throat. The phial was stoppered with a little
piece of wood. I drew it with my teeth, and a drop of the fluid within
flew out upon my tongue. It had a sweet flavour, and for a second made
my head swim, and a mist gather before my eyes, but happily the effect
passed away as swiftly as it had arisen.

When I reached Leo's side he was plainly expiring--his golden head was
slowly turning from side to side, and his mouth was slightly open. I
called to Ayesha to hold his head, and this she managed to do, though
the woman was quivering from head to foot, like an aspen-leaf or a
startled horse. Then, forcing the jaw a little more open, I poured the
contents of the phial into his mouth. Instantly a little vapour arose
from it, as happens when one disturbs nitric acid, and this sight did
not increase my hopes, already faint enough, of the efficacy of the
treatment.

One thing, however, was certain, the death throes ceased--at first I
thought because he had got beyond them, and crossed the awful river.
His face turned to a livid pallor, and his heart-beats, which had been
feeble enough before, seemed to die away altogether--only the eyelid
still twitched a little. In my doubt I looked up at Ayesha, whose
head-wrapping had slipped back in her excitement when she went reeling
across the room. She was still holding Leo's head, and, with a face as
pale as his own, watching his countenance with such an expression of
agonised anxiety as I had never seen before. Clearly she did not know
if he would live or die. Five minutes slowly passed and I saw that she
was abandoning hope; her lovely oval face seemed to fall in and grow
visibly thinner beneath the pressure of a mental agony whose pencil
drew black lines about the hollows of her eyes. The coral faded even
from her lips, till they were as white as Leo's face, and quivered
pitifully. It was shocking to see her: even in my own grief I felt for
hers.

"Is it too late?" I gasped.

She hid her face in her hands, and made no answer, and I too turned
away. But as I did so I heard a deep-drawn breath, and looking down
perceived a line of colour creeping up Leo's face, then another and
another, and then, wonder of wonders, the man we had thought dead
turned over on his side.

"Thou seest," I said in a whisper.

"I see," she answered hoarsely. "He is saved. I thought we were too
late--another moment--one little moment more--and he had been gone!"
and she burst into an awful flood of tears, sobbing as though her
heart would break, and yet looking lovelier than ever as she did it.
As last she ceased.

"Forgive me, my Holly--forgive me for my weakness," she said. "Thou
seest after all I am a very woman. Think--now think of it! This
morning didst thou speak of the place of torment appointed by this new
religion of thine. Hell or Hades thou didst call it--a place where the
vital essence lives and retains an individual memory, and where all
the errors and faults of judgment, and unsatisfied passions and the
unsubstantial terrors of the mind wherewith it hath at any time had to
do, come to mock and haunt and gibe and wring the heart for ever and
for ever with the vision of its own hopelessness. Thus, even thus,
have I lived for full two thousand years--for some six and sixty
generations, as ye reckon time--in a Hell, as thou callest it--
tormented by the memory of a crime, tortured day and night with an
unfulfilled desire--without companionship, without comfort, without
death, and led on only down my dreary road by the marsh lights of
Hope, which, though they flickered here and there, and now glowed
strong, and now were not, yet, as my skill told me, would one day lead
unto my deliverer.

"And then--think of it still, oh Holly, for never shalt thou hear such
another tale, or see such another scene, nay, not even if I give thee
ten thousand years of life--and thou shalt have it in payment if thou
wilt--think: at last my deliverer came--he for whom I had watched and
waited through the generations--at the appointed time he came to seek
me, as I knew that he must come, for my wisdom could not err, though I
knew not when or how. Yet see how ignorant I was! See how small my
knowledge, and how faint my strength! For hours he lay there sick unto
death, and I felt it not--I who had waited for him for two thousand
years--I knew it not. And then at last I see him, and behold, my
chance is gone but by a hair's breadth even before I have it, for he
is in the very jaws of death, whence no power of mine can draw him.
And if he die, surely must the Hell be lived through once more--once
more must I face the weary centuries, and wait, and wait till the time
in its fulness shall bring my Beloved back to me. And then thou gavest
him the medicine, and that five minutes dragged long before I knew if
he would live or die, and I tell thee that all the sixty generations
that are gone were not so long as that five minutes. But they passed
at length, and still he showed no sign, and I knew that if the drug
works not then, so far as I have had knowledge, it works not at all.
Then thought I that he was once more dead, and all the tortures of all
the years gathered themselves into a single venomed spear, and pierced
me through and through, because again I had lost Kallikrates! And
then, when all was done, behold! he sighed, behold! he lived, and I
knew that he would live, for none die on whom the drug takes hold.
Think of it now, my Holly--think of the wonder of it! He will sleep
for twelve hours and then the fever will have left him!"

She stopped, and laid her hand upon his golden head, and then bent
down and kissed his brow with a chastened abandonment of tenderness
that would have been beautiful to behold had not the sight cut me to
the heart--for I was jealous!

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Then followed a silence of a minute or so, during which /She/appeared, if one might judge from the almost angelic rapture of herface--for she looked angelic sometimes--to be plunged into a happyecstasy. Suddenly, however, a new thought struck her, and herexpression became the very reverse of angelic."Almost had I forgotten," she said, "that woman, Ustane. What is sheto Kallikrates--his servant, or----" and she paused, and her voicetrembled.I shrugged my shoulders. "I understand that she is wed to himaccording to the custom of the Amahagger," I answered; "but I knownot."Her face grew dark as a thunder-cloud. Old as she was, Ayesha had
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After the prisoners had been removed Ayesha waved her hand, and thespectators turned round, and began to crawl off down the cave like ascattered flock of sheep. When they were a fair distance from thedaïs, however, they rose and walked away, leaving the Queen and myselfalone, with the exception of the mutes and the few remaining guards,most of whom had departed with the doomed men. Thinking this a goodopportunity, I asked /She/ to come and see Leo, telling her of hisserious condition; but she would not, saying that he certainly wouldnot die before the night, as people never died of that
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