The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, , at sacred-texts.com
HOW THE DUKE CORSUS THOUGHT IT PROPER TO COMMIT AN ERRAND OF STATE UNTO HIS DAUGHTER: AND HOW SHE PROSPERED THEREIN.
SRIVA fared swiftly to her father's closet, and finding her lady mother sewing in her chair, nodding toward sleep, two candles at her left and right, she said, "My lady mother, there's a queen's crown waits the plucking. 'Twill drop into the foreign woman's lap if thou and my father bestir you not. Where is he? Still i' the banquet house? Thou or I must fetch him on the instant."
"Fie!" cried Zenambria. "How thou'st startled me! Fall somewhat into a slower speech, my girl. With such wild sudden talk I know not what thou meanest nor what's the matter."
But Sriva answered, "Matter of state. Thou goest not? Good, then I fetch him. Thou shalt hear all anon, mother;" and so turned towards the door. Nor might all her mother's crying out upon the scandal of their so returning to the banquet long past the hour of the women's withdrawal turn her from this. So that the Lady Zenambria,
seeing her so wilful, thought it less evil to go herself; and so went, and in awhile returned with Corsus.
Corsus sat in his great chair over against his lady wife, while his daughter told her tale.
"Twice and thrice," said she, "they passed me by, as near as I stand to thee, O my father, she leaning most familiarly on the arm of her curled philosopher. 'Twas plain they had never a thought that any was by to overhear them. She said so and so;" and therewith Sriva told all that was spoke by the Lady Prezmyra as to an expedition to Demonland, and as to her purposed speaking with the King, and as to her design that Corund should be his general for that sailing, and letters sealed on the morrow for his straight recall from Orpish.
The Duke listened unmoved, breathing heavily, leaning heavily forward, his elbow on his knees, one great fat hand twisting and pushing back the sparse gray growth of his moustachios. His eyes shifted with sullen glance about the chamber, and his blabber cheeks, scarlet from the feast, flushed to a deeper hue.
Zenambria said, "Alas, and did not I tell thee long ago, my lord, that Corund did ill to wed with a young wife? And thence cometh now that shame that was but to be looked for. It is pity indeed of so goodly a man, now past his prime age, she should so play at fast and loose with his honour, and be at the far end of the world. Indeed and indeed, I hope he will revenge it on her at his coming home. For sure I am, Corund is too high-minded to buy advancement at so shameful a price."
"Thy talk, wife," said Corsus, "showeth long hair and a short wit. In brief, thou art a fool."
He was silent for a space, then raised his gaze to Sriva, where she rested, her back to the massive table, half standing, half sitting, a dainty jewel-besparkled hand planted on the table's edge at her either side, her arms like delicate white pillars supporting that fair frame. Somewhat his dull eye brightened, resting on her. "Come hither," he said, "on my knee: so."
When she was seated, "'Tis a brave gown," said he, "thou wearest to-night, my pretty pug. Red, for a sanguine humour." His great arm gave her a back, and his hand, huge as a platter, lay like a buckler beneath her breast. "Thou smell'st passing sweet."
'Tis malabathrum in the leaf," answered she.
"I'm glad it likes thee, my lord," said Zenambria. "My woman still protesteth that such, being boiled with wine, yieldeth a perfume that passeth all other."
Corsus still looked on Sriva. After a while he asked, "What madest thou on the terrace i' the dark, ha?"
She looked down, saying, "It was Laxus prayed me meet him there."
"Hum!" said Corsus. "'Tis strange then he should await thee this hour gone by in the paved alley of the privy court."
"He did mistake me," said Sriva. "And well is he served, for such neglect."
"So. And thou turnest politician to-night, my little puss-cat?" said Corsus. "And thou smellest an expedition to Demonland? 'Tis like enow. But methinks the King will send Corinius."
"Corinius?" said Sriva. "It is not thought so. 'Tis Corund must have it, if thou push not the matter to a decision with the King to-night, O my father, ere my lady fox be private with him to-morrow."
"Bah!" said Corsus. "Thou art but a girl, and knowest nought. She hath not the full blood nor the resolution to carry it thus. No, 'tis not Corund stands i' the light, it is Corinius. It is therefore the King withheld from him Pixyland, which was his due, and tossed the bauble to Laxus."
"Why, 'tis a monstrous thing," said Zenambria, "if Corinius shall have Demonland, which surely much surpasseth this crown of Pixyland. Shall this novice have all the meat, and thou, because thou art old, have nought but the bones and the parings?"
"Hold thy tongue, mistress," said Corsus, looking upon
her as one looketh on a sour mixture. "Why hadst not the wit to angle for him for thy daughter?"
"Truly, husband, I'm sorry for it," said Zenambria.
The Lady Sriva laughed, placing her arm about her father's bullock-neck and playing with his whiskers. "Content thee," she said, "my lady mother. I have my choice, and that is very certain, of these and of all other in Carcë. And now I bethink me on the Lord Corinius, why, there's a proper man indeed: weareth a shaven lip too, which, as experienced opinion shall tell thee, far exceedeth your nasty moustachios."
"Well," said Corsus, kissing her, "howe'er it shape, I'll to the King to-night to move my matter with him. Meanwhile, madam," he said to Zenambria, "I'll have thee take thy chamber straight. Bolt well the door, and for more safety I will lock it myself o' the outer side. There's much mirth toward to-night, and I'd not have these staggering drunken swads offend thee, as full well might befall, whiles I am on mine errand of state."
Zenambria bade him good-night, and would have taken her daughter with her, but Corsus said nay to this, saying, "I'll see her safe bestowed."
When they were alone, and the Lady Zenambria locked away in her chamber, Corsus took forth from an oaken cupboard a great silver flagon and two chased goblets. These he brimmed with a sparkling yellow wine from the flagon and made Sriva drink with him not once only but twice, emptying each time her goblet. Then he drew up his chair and sinking heavily into it folded his arms upon the table and buried his head upon them.
Sriva paced back and forth, impatient at her father's strange posture and silence. Surely the wine lighted riot in her veins; surely in that silent room came back to her Corinius's kisses hot upon her mouth, the strength of his arms like bands of bronze holding her embraced. Midnight tolled. Her bones seemed to melt within her as she bethought of her promise, due in an hour.
"Father," said she at last, "midnight hath stricken. Wilt thou not go ere it be too late?"
The Duke raised his face and looked at her. He answered "No." "No," he said again, "where's the profit? I wax old, my daughter, and must wither. The world is to the young. To Corinius; to Laxus; to thee. But most of all to Corund, who if a be old yet hath his mess of sons, and mightiest of all his wife, to be his ladder to climb thrones withal."
"But thou saidst but now--" said Sriva.
"Ay, when thy mammy was by. She cometh to her second childhood before her time, so as to a child I speak to her. Corund did ill to wed with a young wife, ha? Phrut! Is not this the very bulwark and rampire of his fortune? Didst ever see a fellow so spurted up in a moment? My secretary when I managed the old wars against the Ghouls, and now climbed clean over me, that am yet nine year his elder. Called king, forsooth, and like to be ta'en soon (under the King) for Dominus fac totum, throughout all the land if a play this woman as a should. Will not the King, for such payment as she intends, give Demonland upon Impland and all the world beside? Hell's dignity, that would I, and 'twere offered me."
He stood up, reaching unsteadily for the wine jug. Furtively he watched his daughter, shifting his gaze ever as her eye met his.
"Corund," said he, pouring out some wine, "would split his sides for laughter to hear thy mother's prim-mouthed brabble: he that hath enjoined upon his wife, there's ne'er a doubt on't, this very errand, and if he visit it on her at his coming home 'twill but be with hotter love and gratitude for that she wins him in our despite. Trust me, 'tis not every lady of quality shall find favour with a King."
The casement stood open, and while they stood without speech sounds of a lute trembled upward from the court below, and a man's voice; soft and deep, singing this song:
Hornes to the bull,
Hooves to the steede,
To little hayres
Light feete for speed,
And unto lions she giveth tethe
Fishes to swim,
And birds to flye,
And men to judge
And reeson why,
She teacheth. Yet for womankind
None of these thinges hath she.
For women beautie
She hath made
Their onely shielde
Their onely blade.
O'er sword and fire they triumph stille,
Soe they but beautious be.
The Lady Sriva knew it was Laxus singing to her chamber window. Her blood beat wildly, the spirit of enterprise winging her imagination not toward him, nor yet Corinius, but into paths strangely and perilously inviting, undreamed of until now. The Duke her father came towards her, thrusting the chairs from his way, and saying, "Corund and his mess of sons! Corund and his young Queen! If he conjure with the white rose, why not thou and I with the red? It hath as fair a look, the devil damn me else, and savoureth as excellent sweet perfume."
She stared at him big-eyed, with blushing cheeks. He took her hands in his.
"Shall this outland woman," he said, "and her sallow-checked gallant still ruffle it over us? Long beards, whether they be white or black, are too huge a blemish in our eye, methinks. The thing seemeth not supportable, that
this precise madam with her foreign fashions--Dost fear to stand i' the field against her?"
Sriva put her forehead on his shoulder and said, scarce to be heard, "And it come to that, I'll show thee."
"It must be now," said Corsus. "Prezmyra, thou hast told me, seeketh audience betimes i' the morning. Women are best at night-time, too."
"If Laxus should hear thee!" she said.
He answered, "Tush, he need never blame thee, even if he knew on't, and we can manage that. Thy silly mother prated but now of honour. 'Tis but a school-name; and if 'twere other, tell me whence springeth the fount of honour if not from the King of Kings? If he receive thee, then art thou honoured, and all they that have to do with thee. I am yet to learn dishonour lieth on that man or woman whom the King doth honour."
She laughed, turning from him toward the window, her hands still held in his. "Foh, thou hast given me a strong potion! and I think that swayeth me more than thy many arguments, O my father, which to say truth I cannot well remember because I did not much believe."
Duke Corsus took her by the shoulders. His face overlooked her by a little, for she was not tall of build. "By the Gods," he said, "'tis a stronger sweet scent of the red rose to make a great man drunk withal than of the white, though that be a bigger flower." And he said, "Why not, for a game, for a madcap jest? A mantle and hood, a mask if thou wilt, and my ring to prove thee mine ambassador. I'll attend thee through the court-yard to the foot o' the stairs."
She said nothing, smiling at him as she turned for him to put the great velvet mantle about her shoulders.
"Ha," said he, "'tis well seen a daughter is worth ten sons."
In the meanwhile Gorice the King sate in his private chamber writing at a parchment spread before him on the table of polished marmolite. A silver lamp burned at his
left elbow. The window stood open to the night. The King had laid aside his crown, that sparkled darkly in the shadow below the lamp. He put down his pen and read again what he bad writ, in manner following:
Fram Me, Gorice the Twelft, Greate Kyng of Wychlande and of Ympelande and of Daemonlande and of al kyngdomes the sonne dothe spread hys bemes over, unto Corsus My servaunte: Thys is to signifye to the that thoue shalt with all convenient spede repaire with a suffycyaunt strengthe of menne and schyppes to Daemonlande, bycause that untowarde and traytorly cattell that doe there inhabyt are to fele by the the sharpnes of My correctioun. I wyll the, as holdynge the place of My generalle ther, that thow enter forcybly ynto the sayd cuntrie and doe with al dilygence spoyl ravysche and depopulate that lande, enslavying oppressyng and puttyng to the dethe as thow shalt thynke moost servychable al them that shal fall ynto thy powre, and in pertyculer pullyng downe and ruinating all thayr stronge houlds or castels, as Galinge, Dreppabie, Crothryng, Owleswyke, and othere. Thys enterpryse in head is one of the gretest that ever was since yt is to trampe downe Daemonlande and once and for al to cutt thayr coames whose crestes may daunger us, and thow art toe onderstande that withowt extraordinair experiens of thy former merrits I wolde not commyt to the so greate a chairge, and especially in such a tyme. And since al gret enterpryses oughte to bee sodeynly and resolutely prosequuted, therefore thys oughte to bee done and executed at furthest in harveste nexte. Therefore yt is My commaundemente that thow Corsus take order for the instant furnesshynge of shippes, seamen, souldiers, horsemen, officiers, and pertyculer personnes, wepons, municions, and al other necessaries whych is thought to be needfull for the armie and boast whych shalbe levied for the sayd entrepryse, for whyche this letter shalbe thy suffycyaunt warrant under My hande. Given under My signeth of Ouroboros in My
pallaice of Carcie thys xxix daie of may, beynge the vij daie of My yeare II.
The King took wax and a taper from the great gold inkstand, and scaled the warrant with the ruby head of the worm Ouroboros, saying, "The ruby, most comfortable to the heart, brain, vigour, and memory of man. So, 'tis confirmed."
In that instant when the wax was yet soft of the King's seal sealing that commission for Corsus, one tapped gently at the chamber door. The King bade enter, and there came the captain of his bodyguard and stood before the King, with word that one waited without, praying instant audience, "And showed me for a token, O my Lord the King, a bull's head with fiery nostrils graven in a black opal in the bezel of a ring, which I knew for the signet of my Lord Corsus that his lordship beareth alway on his left thumb. And 'twas this, O King, that only persuaded me to deliver the message unto your Majesty in this unseasonable hour. Which if it be a fault in me, I do humbly hope your Majesty will pardon."
"Knowest thou the man?" said the King.
He answered, "I might not know him, dread Lord, for the mask and great hooded cloak he weareth. It is a little man, and speaketh a husky whisper."
"Admit him," said King Gorice; and when Sriva was come in, masked and hooded and holding forth the ring, he said, "Thou lookest questionable, albeit this token opened a way for thee. Put off these trappings and let me know thee."
But she, speaking still in a husky whisper, prayed that they might be private ere she disclosed herself. So the King bade leave them private.
"Dread Lord," said the soldier, "is it your will that I stand ready without the door?"
"No," said the King. "Void the ante-chamber, set the guard, and let none disturb me." And to Sriva he said, "If thine errand prove not more honester than thy looks,
this is an ill night's journey for thee. At the lifting of my finger I am able to metamorphose thee to a mandrake. If indeed thou beest aught else already."
When they were alone the Lady Sriva doffed her mask and put back her hood, uncovering her head that was crowned with two heavy trammels of her dark brown hair bound up and interwoven above her brow and ears and pinned with silver pins headed with garnets coloured like burning coals. The King beheld her from under the great shadow of his brows, darkly, not by so much as the moving of an eyelid or a lineament of his lean visage betraying aught that passed in his mind at this disclosing.
She trembled and said, "O my Lord the King, I hope you will indulge and pardon in me this trespass. Truly I marvel at mine own boldness how I durst come to you."
With a gesture of his hand the King bade her be seated in a chair on his right beside the table. "Thou needest not be afraid, madam," he said. "That I admit thee, let it make thee assured of welcome. Let me know thine errand."
The fire of her father's wine shuddered down within her like a low-lit flame in a gust of wind as she sat there alone with King Gorice XII. in the circle of the lamplight. She took a deep breath to still her heart's fluttering and said, "O King, I was much afeared to come, and it was to ask you a boon: a little thing for you to give, Lord, and yet to me that am the least of your handmaids a great thing to receive. But now I am come indeed, I durst not ask it."
The glitter of his eyes looking out from their eaves of darkness dismayed her; and little comfort had she of the iron crown at his elbow, bright with gems and fierce with uplifted claws, or of the copper serpents interlaced that made the arms of his chair, or of the bright image of the lamp reflected in the table top where were red streaks like streaks of blood and black streaks like edges of swords streaking the green shining surface of the stone.
Yet she took heart to say, "Were I a great lord had
done your majesty service as my father hath, or these others you did honour to-night, O King, it had been otherwise." He said nothing, and still gathering courage she said, "I too would serve you, O King. And I came to ask you how."
The King smiled. "I am much beholden to thee, madam. Do as thou hast done, and thou shalt please me well. Feast and be merry, and charge not thine head with these midnight questionings, lest too much carefulness make thee grow lean."
"Grow I so, O King? You shall judge." So speaking the Lady Sriva rose up and stood before him in the lamplight. Slowly she opened her arms upwards right and left, putting back her velvet cloak from her shoulders, until the dark cloak hanging in folds from either uplifted hand was like the wings of a bird lifted up for flight. Dazzling fair shone her bare shoulders and bare arms and throat and bosom. One great hyacinth stone, hanging by a gold chain about her neck, rested above the hollow of her breasts. It flashed and slept with her breathing's alternate fall and swell.
"You did threaten me, Lord, but now," she said, "to transmew me to a mandrake. Would you might change me to a man."
She could read nothing in the crag-like darkness of his countenance, the iron lip, the eyes that were like pulsing firelight out of hollow caves.
"I should serve you better so, Lord, than my poor beauty may. Were I a man, I had come to you to-night and said, 'O King, let us not suffer any longer of that hound Juss. Give me a sword, O King, and I will put down Demonland for you and tread them under feet.'"
She sank softly into her chair again, suffering her velvet cloak to fall over its back. The King ran his finger thoughtfully along the upstanding claws of the crown beside him on the table.
"Is this the boon thou askest me?" he said at length. "An expedition to Demonland?"
She answered it was.
"Must they sail to-night?" said the King, still watching her.
She smiled foolishly.
"Only," he said, "I would know what gadfly of urgency stung thee on to come so strangely and suddenly and after midnight."
She paused a minute, then summoning courage: "Lest another should first come to you, O King," she answered. "Believe me, I know of preparations, and one that shall come to you in the morning praying this thing for another. What intelligence soever some hath, I am sure of that to be true that I have."
"Another?" said the King.
Sriva answered, "Lord, I'll say no names. But there be some, O King, be dangerous sweet suppliants, hanging their hopes belike on other strings than we may tune."
She had bent her head above the polished table, looking curiously down into its depths. Her corsage and gown of scarlet silk brocade were like the chalice of a great flower; her white arms and shoulders like the petals of the flower above it. At length she looked up.
"Thou smilest, my Lady Sriva," said the King.
"I smiled at mine own thought," she said. "You'll laugh to hear it, O my Lord the King, being so different from what we spoke on. But sure, of women's thoughts is no more surety nor rest than is in a vane that turneth at all winds."
"Let me hear it," said the King, bending forward, his lean hairy hand flung idly across the table's edge.
"Why thus it was, Lord," said she. "There came me in mind of a sudden that saying of the Lady Prezmyra when first she was wed to Corund and dwelt here in Carcë. She said all the right part of her body was of Witchland but the left Pixy. Whereupon our people that were by rejoiced much that she had given the right part of her body to Witchland. Whereupon she said, but her heart was on the left side."
"And where wearest thou thine?" asked the King. She durst not look at him, and so saw not the comic light go like summer lightning across his dark countenance as she spoke Prezmyra's name.
His hand had dropped from the table edge; Sriva felt it touch her knee. She trembled like a full sail that suddenly for an instant the wind leaves. Very still she sat, saying in a low voice, "There's a word, my Lord the King, if you'd but speak it, should beam a light to show you mine answer."
But he leaned closer, saying, "Dost think I'll chaffer with thee? I'll know the answer first i' the dark."
"Lord," she whispered, "I would not have come to you in this deep and dead time of the night but that I knew you noble and the great King, and no amorous surfeiter that should deal false with me."
Her body breathed spices: soft warm scents to make the senses reel: perfume of malabathrum bruised in wine, essences of sulphur-coloured lilies planted in Aphrodite's garden. The King drew her to him. She cast her arms about his neck, saying close to his ear, "Lord, I may not sleep till you tell me they must sail, and Corsus must be their captain."
The King held her gathered up like a child in his embrace. He kissed her on the mouth, a long deep kiss. Then he sprang to his feet, set her down like a doll before him upon the table by the lamp, and so sat back in his own chair again and sat regarding her with a strange and disturbing smile.
On a sudden his brow darkened, and thrusting his face towards hers, his thick black square-cut beard jutting beneath the curl of his shaven upper lip, "Girl," he said, "who sent thee o' this errand?"
He rolled his eye upon her with such a gorgon look that her blood ran back with a great leap towards her heart, and she answered, scarce to be heard, "Truly, O King, my father sent me."
"Was he drunk when he sent thee?" asked the King.
"Truly, Lord, I think he was," said she.
"That cup that he was drunken withal," said King Gorice, "let him prize and cherish it all his life natural. For if in his sober senses he should make no more estimation of me than think to bribe my favours with a bona roba; by my soul, in his evil health he had sought to do it, for it should cost him nothing but his life."
Sriva began to weep, saying, "O King, your gentle pardon."
But the King paced the room like a prowling lion. "Did he fear I should supply Corund in his place?" said he. "This was a cocksure way to make me do it, if indeed his practice had might to move me at all. Let him learn to come to me with his own mouth if he hope to get good of me. Other else, out of Carcë let him go and avoid my sight, that all the great masters of Hell may conduct him thither."
The King paused at length beside Sriva, that was perched still upon the table. showing a kind of sweetness in tears, sobbing very pitifully, her face hidden in her two bands. So for a time he beheld her, then lifted her down, and while he sat in his great chair, holding her on his knee with one hand, with the other drew hers gently from before her face. "Come," he said, "I blame it not on thee. Give over all thy weeping. Reach me that writing from the table."
She turned in his arms and stretched a hand out for the parchment.
"Thou knowest my signet?" said the King.
She nodded, ay.
"Read," said he, letting her go. She stood by the lamp, and read.
The King was behind her. He took her beneath the arms, bending to speak hot-breathed in her ear. "Thou seest, I had already chose my general. Therefore I let thee know it, because I mean not to let thee go till morning; and I would not have thee think thy loveliness,
howe'er it please me, moveth such deep-commanding spells as to sway my policy."
She lay back against his breast, limp and strengthless, while he kissed her neck and eyes and throat; then her lips met his in a long voluptuous kiss. Surely the King's hands upon her were like live coals.
Bethinking her of Corinius, fuming at an open door and an empty chamber, the Lady Sriva was yet content.