And so he went on, as such priests do, all in a singsong voice, and using words which he clearly knew by heart. And to me it was as if the old man's voice, and the temple, and I myself and my journey, were all things in such a story; for he was telling the very history of our Istra, of Psyche herself - how Talapal (that's the Essurian Ungit) was jealous of her beauty and made her to be offered to a brute on a mountain, and how Talapal's son Ialim, the most beautiful of the gods, loved her and took her away to his secret palace. He even knew that Ialim had there visited her only in darkness and had forbidden her to see his face.
But he had a childish reason for that: "You see, Stranger, he had to be very secret because of his mother Talapal. She would have been very angry with him if she had known he had married the woman she most hated in the world."
I thought to myself, "It's well for me I didn't hear this story fifteen years ago; yes, or even ten. It would have reawakened all my sleeping miseries. Now, it moves, me hardly at all."
Then, suddenly struck afresh with the queerness of the thing, I asked him, "Where did you, learn all this?"
He stared at me as if he didn't well understand such a question. "It's the sacred story," he said. I saw that he was rather silly than cunning and that it would be useless to question him. As soon as I was silent he went on.
But now all the dreamlike feeling in me suddenly vanished. I was wide awake and I felt the blood rush into my face. He was telling it wrong - hideously and stupidly wrong. First of all, he made it that both Psyche's sisters had visited her in the secret palace of the god (to think of Redival going there!). "And so," he said, "when her two sisters had seen the beautiful palace and been feasted and given gifts, they - "
"They saw the palace?"
"Stranger, you are hindering the sacred story. Of course they saw the palace. They weren't blind. And then - "
It was as if the gods themselves had first laughed, and then spat, in my face. So this was the shape the story had taken. You may say, the shape the gods had given it. For it must be they who had put it into the old fool's mind or into the mind of some other dreamer from whom he'd learned it. How could any mortal have known of that palace at all? That much of the truth they had dropped into someone's mind, in a dream, or an oracle, or however they do such things. That much; and wiped clean out the very meaning, the pith, the central knot, of the whole tale. Do I not do well to write a book against them, telling what they have kept hidden? Never, sitting on my judgement seat, had I caught a false witness in a more cunning half-truth. For if the true story had been like their story, no riddle would have been set me; there would have been no guessing and no guessing wrong. More than that, it's a story belonging to a different world, a world in which the gods show themselves clearly and don't torment men with glimpses, nor unveil to one what they hide from another, nor ask you to believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongue and fingers. In such a world (is there such? it's not ours, for certain) I would have walked aright. The gods themselves would have been able to find no fault in me. And now to tell my story as if I had had the very sight they had denied me . . . is it not as if you told a cripple's story and never said he was lame, or told how a man betrayed a secret but never said it was after twenty hours of torture? And I saw all in a moment how the false story would grow and spread and be told all over the earth; and I wondered how many of the other sacred stories are just such twisted falsities as this.
"And so," the priest was saying, "when these two wicked sisters had made their plan to ruin Istra, they brought her the lamp and - "
"But why did she - they - want to separate her from the god, if they had seen the palace?"
"They wanted to destroy her because they had seen her palace."
"Oh, because they were jealous. Her husband and her house were so much finer than theirs."
That moment I resolved to write this book. For years now my old quarrel with the gods had slept. I had come into Bardia's way of thinking; I no longer meddled with them. Often, though I had seen a god myself, I was near to believing that there are no such things. The memory of his voice and face was kept in one of those rooms of my soul that I didn't lightly unlock. Now, instantly, I knew I was facing them - I with no strength and they with all; I visible to them, they invisible to me; I easily wounded (already so wounded that all my life had been but a hiding and staunching of the wound), they invulnerable; I one, they many.
In all these years they had only let me run away from them as far as the cat lets the mouse run. Now, snatch! and the claw on me again. Well, I could speak. I could set down the truth.
What had never perhaps been done in the world before should be done now. The case against them should be written.
Jealousy! I jealous of Psyche? I sickened not only at the vileness of the lie but at its flatness.
It seemed as if the gods had minds just like the lowest of the people. What came easiest to them, what seemed the likeliest and simplest reason to put in a story, was the dull, narrow passion of the beggars' streets, the temple-brothels, the slave, the child, the dog. Could they not lie, if lie they must, better than that?
". . . and wanders over the earth, weeping, weeping, always weeping." How long had the old man been going on? That one word rang in my ears as if he had repeated it a thousand times. I set my teeth and my soul stood on guard. A moment more and I should have begun to hear the sound myself again. She would have been weeping in that little wood outside the temple door.
"That's enough," I shouted. "Do you think I don't know a girl cries when her heart breaks?
Go on, go on."
"Wanders, weeping, weeping, always weeping," he said. "And falls under the power of Talapal, who hates her. And of course Ialim can't protect her because Talapal is his mother and he's afraid of her. So Talapal torments Istra and sets her to all manner of hard labours, things that seem impossible. But when Istra has done them all, then at last Talapal releases her, and she is reunited to Ialim and becomes a goddess. Then we take off her black veil, and I change my black robe for a white one, and we offer - "
"You mean she will some day be reunited to the god; and you will take off her veil then?
When is this to happen?"
"We take off the veil and I change my robe in the spring."
"Do you think I care what you do? Has the thing itself happened yet or not? Is Istra now wandering over the earth or has she already become a goddess?"
"But, Stranger, the sacred story is about the sacred things - the things we do in the temple.
In spring, and all summer, she is a goddess. Then when harvest comes we bring a lamp into the temple in the night and the god flies away. Then we veil her. And all winter she is wandering and suffering; weeping, always weeping. . . ."
He knew nothing. The story and the worship were all one in his mind. He could not understand what I was asking.
"I've heard your story told otherwise, old man," said I. "I think the Sister - or the Sisters - might have more to say for themselves than you know."
"You may be sure that they would have plenty to say for themselves," he replied. "The jealous always have. Why, my own wife now - "
I saluted him and went out of that cold place into the warmth of the wood. I could see through the trees the red light of the fire my people had already kindled. The sun had set.
I hid all the things I was feeling - and indeed I did not know what they were, except that all the peace of that autumnal journey was shattered - so as not to spoil the pleasure of my people. Next day I understood more clearly. I could never be at peace again till I had written
my charge against the gods. It burned me from within. It quickened; I was with book, as a woman is with child.
And so it comes about that I can tell nothing of our journey back to Glome. There were seven or eight days of it, and we passed many notable places in Essur; and in Glome, after we had crossed the border, we saw everywhere such good peace and plenty and such duty and, I think, love towards myself as ought to have gladdened me. But my eyes and ears were shut up. All day, and often all night too, I was recalling every passage of the true story, dragging up terrors, humiliations, struggles, and anguish that I had not thought of for years, letting Orual wake and speak, digging her almost out of a grave, out of the walled well. The more I remembered, the more still I could remember - often weeping beneath my veil as if I had never been Queen, yet never in so much sorrow that my burning indignation did not rise above it. I was in haste too. I must write it all quickly before the gods found some way to silence me. Whenever, towards evening, Ilerdia pointed and said, "There, Queen, would be a good place for the tents," I said (before I had thought what I would say), "No, no. We can make three more miles tonight; or five." Every morning I woke earlier. At first I endured the waiting, fretting myself in the cold mist, listening to the deep-breathed sleep of those young sleepers. But soon my patience would serve me no longer. I took to waking them. I woke them earlier each morning. In the end we were travelling like those who fly from a victorious enemy. I became silent, and this struck the others silent too. I could see they were bewildered and all the comfort of their travels was gone. I suppose they whispered together about the Queen's moods.