My father stared for a moment at his own dagger; stupidly, it seemed. Then he went very gently up to the Priest.
"What have you to say for Ungit now?" he asked, still in that low voice. "You had better recover what she owes me. When are you going to pay me for my good cattle?" Then, after a pause, "Tell me, prophet, what would happen if I hammered Ungit into powder and tied you between the hammers and the stone?"
But the Priest was not in the least afraid of the King.
"Ungit hears, King, even at this moment," he said.
"And Ungit will remember. You have already said enough to call down doom upon all your descendants."
"Descendants," says the King. "You talk of descendants," still very quiet, but now he was shaking. The ice of his rage would break any moment. The body of the dead boy caught his eye. "Who did that?" he asked. Then he saw the Fox and me. All the blood rushed into his face, and now at last the voice came roaring out of his chest loud enough to lift the roof.
"Girls, girls, girls!" he bellowed. "And now one girl more. Is there no end to it? Is there a plague of girls in heaven that the gods send me this flood of them? You - you - " He caught me by the hair, shook me to and fro, and flung me from him so that I fell in a heap. There are times when even a child knows better than to cry. When the blackness passed and I could see again, he was shaking the Fox by his throat.
"Here's an old babbler who has eaten my bread long enough," he said. "It would have paid me better to buy a dog as things turn out. But I'll feed you in idleness no longer. Some of you take him to the mines tomorrow. There might be a week's work in his old bones even now."
Again there was dead silence in the hall. Suddenly the King flung up his hands, stamped, and cried, "Faces, faces, faces! What are you all gaping at? It'd make a man mad. Be off!
Away! Out of my sight, the whole pack of you!"
We were out of the hall as quick as the doorways would let us.
The Fox and I went out of the little door by the herb-garden on the east. It was nearly daylight now and there was a small rain beginning.
"Grandfather," said I, sobbing, "you must fly at once. This moment, before they come to take you to the mines."
He shook his head. "I'm too old to run far," he said. "And you know what the King does to runaway slaves."
"But the mines, the mines! Look, I'll come with you. If we're caught I'll say I made you come. We shall be almost out of Glome once we're over that." I pointed to the ridge of the Grey Mountain, now dark with a white daybreak behind it, seen through the slanting rain.
"That is foolishness, daughter," said he, petting me like a small child. "They would think I was stealing you to sell. No; I must fly further. And help me you shall. Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It's the roots of it I need."
"Why, yes. (Child, child, don't cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man's own will when there's good reason is one of the things that are according to nature?
We are to look on life as - "
"They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth - down there in the land of the dead."
"Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements.
Shall I accept birth and cavil at - "
"Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling."
"That's my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn't let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end? But we are wasting time."
"Listen!" said I. "What's that?" For I was in a state to be scared by every sound.
"Horses," said the Fox, peering through the quick-hedge with his eyes screwed up to see against the rain. "They are coming to the great door. Messengers from Phars, by the look of them. And that will not sweeten the King's mood either. Will you - ah, Zeus, it is already too late." For there was a call from within-doors, "The Fox, the Fox, the Fox to the King."
"As well go as be dragged," said the Fox. "Farewell, daughter," and he kissed me, Greek fashion, on the eyes and the head. But I went in with him. I had an idea I would face the King; though whether I meant to beseech him or curse him or kill him I hardly knew. But as we came to the Pillar Room we saw many strangers within, and the King shouted through the open door, "Here, Fox, I've work for you." Then he saw me and said, "And you, curd-face, be off to the women's quarters and don't come here to sour the morning drink for the men."
I do not know that I have ever (to speak of things merely mortal) been in such dread as I was for the rest of that day - dread that feels as if there were an empty place between your belly and your chest. I didn't know whether I dared be comforted by the King's last words or not, for they sounded as if his anger had passed, but it might blaze out again. Moreover, I had known him do a cruel thing not in anger but in a kind of murderous joke, or because he remembered he had sworn to do it when he was angry. He had sent old house-slaves to the mines before. And I could not be alone with my terror, for now comes Batta to shear my head and Redival's again as they had been shorn when my mother died, and to make a great tale (clicking her tongue) of how the Queen was dead in childbed, which I had known ever since I heard the mourning, and how she had borne a daughter alive. I sat for the shearing and thought that, if the Fox must die in the mines, it was very fit I should offer my hair.
Lank and dull and little it lay on the floor beside Redival's rings of gold.
In the evening the Fox came and told me that there was no more talk of the mines - for the present. A thing that had often irked me had now been our salvation. More and more, of late, the King had taken the Fox away from us girls to work for him in the Pillar Room; he had begun to find that the Fox could calculate and read and write letters (at first only in Greek but now in the speech of our parts too) and give advice better than any man in Glome. This very day the Fox had taught him to drive a better bargain with the King of Phars than he would ever have thought of for himself. The Fox was a true Greek; where my father could give only a Yes or a No to some neighbouring king or dangerous noble, he could pare the Yes to the very quick and sweeten the No till it went down like wine. He could make your weak enemy believe that you were his best friend and make your strong enemy believe you were twice as strong as you really were. He was far too useful to be sent to the mines.
They burnt the dead Queen on the third day, and my father named the child Istra. "It is a good name," said the Fox, "a very good name. And you know enough now to tell me what it would be in Greek."
"It would be Psyche, Grandfather," said I.
New-born children were no rarity in the palace; the place sprawled with the slaves' babies and my father's bastards. Sometimes my father would say, "Lecherous rascals! Anyone'd think this was Ungit's house, not mine," and threaten to drown a dozen of them like blind puppies. But in his heart he thought the better of a man-slave if he could get half the maids in the place with child, especially if they bore boys. (The girls, unless they took his own fancy, were mostly sold when they were ripe; some were given to the house of Ungit.) Nevertheless, because I had (a little) loved the Queen, I went to see Psyche that very evening as soon as the Fox had set my mind at rest. And so, in one hour, I passed out of the worst anguish I had yet suffered into the beginning of all my joys.
The child was very big, not a wearish little thing as you might have expected from her mother's stature, and very fair of skin. You would have thought she made bright all the corner of the room in which she lay. She slept (tiny was the sound of her breathing). But there never was a child like Psyche for quietness in her cradle days. As I gazed at her the Fox came in on tiptoes and looked over my shoulder. "Now by all the gods," he whispered,
"old fool that I am, I could almost believe that there really is divine blood in your family.
Helen herself, new-hatched, must have looked so."
Batta had put her to nurse with a red-haired woman who was sullen and (like Batta herself) too fond of the wine-jar. I soon had the child out of their hands. I got for her nurse a free woman, a peasant's wife, as honest and wholesome as I could find, and after that both were in my own chamber day and night. Batta was only too pleased to have her work done for her, and the King knew and cared nothing about it. The Fox said to me, "Don't wear yourself out, daughter, with too much toil, even if the child is as beautiful as a goddess." But I laughed in his face. I think I laughed more in those days than in all my life before. Toil? I lost more sleep looking on Psyche for the joy of it than in any other way. And I laughed because she was always laughing. She laughed before the third month. She knew me for certain (though the Fox said not) before the second.