"Does he mean to slug abed for the rest of his life?" or, "It's that wife of his."
Then there came a day when that last line of the book (they have no answer) was still wet, and I found myself listening to Arnom and understanding, as if for the first time, what his looks and voice meant. "Do you mean," I cried, "that the Lord Bardia is in danger?"
"He's very weak, Queen," said the priest. "I wish the Fox were with us. We are bunglers, we of Glome. It seems to me that Bardia has no strength or spirit to fight the sickness."
"Good gods," said I, "why did you not make me understand this before? Ho! Slave! My horse. I will go and see him."
Arnom was an old and trusted counsellor now. He laid his hand on my arm. "Queen," he said gently and very gravely, "it would make him the less likely to recover if you now went to him."
"Do I carry such an infection about me?" said I. "Is there death in my aspect, even through a veil?"
"Bardia is your most loyal and most loving subject," said Arnom. "To see you would call up all his powers - perhaps crack them. He'd rouse himself to his duty and courtesy. A hundred affairs of state on which he meant to speak to you would crowd into his mind. He'd rack his brains to remember things he has forgotten for these last nine days. It might kill him. Leave him to drowse and dream. It's his best chance now."
It was as bitter a truth as I'd ever tasted, but I drank it. Would I not have crouched silent in my own dungeons as long as Arnom bade me if it would add one featherweight to Bardia's chance of life? Three days I bore it (I, the old fool, with hanging dugs and shrivelled flanks).
On the fourth I said, "I can bear it no longer." On the fifth Arnom came to me, himself weeping, and I knew his tidings without words. And this is a strange folly, that what seemed to me worst of all was that Bardia had died without ever hearing what it would have shamed him to hear. It seemed to me that all would be bearable if, once only, I could have gone to him and whispered in his ear, "Bardia, I loved you."
When they laid him on the pyre I could only stand by to honour him. Because I was neither his wife nor kin, I might not wail nor beat the breast for him. Ah, if I could have beaten the breast, I would have put on steel gloves or hedgehog skins to do it.
I waited three days, as the custom is, and then went to comfort (so they call it) his widow. It was not only duty and usage that drove me. Because he had loved her she was, in a way, surely enough the enemy; yet who else in the whole world could now talk to me?
They brought me into the upper room in her house where she sat at her spinning - very pale, but very calm. Calmer than I. Once I had been surprised that she was so much less beautiful than report had made her. Now, in her later years, she had won a new kind of beauty; it was a proud, still sort of face.
"Lady - Ansit," I said, taking both her hands (she had not time to get them away from me),
"what shall I say to you? How can I speak of him and not say that your loss is indeed without measure? And that's no comfort. Unless you can think even now that it is better to have had and lost such a husband than to enjoy any man else in the world forever."
"The Queen does me great honour," said Ansit, pulling her hands out of mine so as to stand with them crossed on her breast, her eyes cast down, in the court fashion.
"Oh, dear Lady, un-queen me a little, I beseech you. Is it as if you and I had never met till yesterday? After yours (never think I'd compare them) my loss is greatest. I pray you, your seat again. And your distaff. We shall talk better to that movement. And you will let me sit here beside you?"
She sat down and resumed her spinning; her face at rest and her lips a little pursed, very housewifely. She would give me no help.
"It was very unlooked for," said I. "Did you at first see any danger in this sickness?"
"Did you so? To me Arnom said it ought to have been a light matter."
"He said that to me, Queen. He said it would be a light matter for a man who had all his strength to fight it."
"Strength? But the Lord Bardia was a strong man."
"Yes - as a tree that is eaten away within."
"Eaten away? And with what? I never knew this."
"I suppose not, Queen. He was tired. He had worked himself out - or been worked. Ten years ago he should have given over and lived as old men do. He was not made of iron or brass, but flesh."
"He never looked nor spoke like an old man."
"Perhaps you never saw him, Queen, at the times when a man shows his weariness. You never saw his haggard face in early morning. Nor heard his groan when you (because you had sworn to do it) must shake him and force him to rise. You never saw him come home late from the palace, hungry, yet too tired to eat. How should you, Queen? I was only his wife. He was too well-mannered, you know, to nod and yawn in a Queen's house."
"You mean that his work - ?"
"Five wars, thirty-one battles, nineteen embassies, taking thought for this and thought for that, speaking a word in one ear, and another, and another, soothing this man and scaring that and flattering a third, devising, consulting, remembering, guessing, forecasting . . . and the Pillar Room and the Pillar Room. The mines are not the only place where a man can be worked to death."
This was worse than the worst I had looked for. A flash of anger passed through me, then a horror of misgiving; could it (but that was fantastical) be true? But the misery of that mere suspicion made my own voice almost humble.
"You speak in your sorrow, Lady. But (forgive me) this is mere fantasy. I never spared myself more than him. Do you tell me a strong man'd break under the burden a woman's bearing still?"
"Who that knows men would doubt it? They're harder, but we're tougher. They do not live longer than we. They do not weather a sickness better. Men are brittle. And you, Queen, were the younger."
My heart shrivelled up cold and abject within me. "If this is true," said I, "I've been deceived. If he had dropped but a word of it, I'd have taken every burden from him, sent him home forever, loaded with every honour I could give."
"You know him little, Queen, if you think he'd ever have spoken that word. Oh, you have been a fortunate queen; no prince ever had more loving servants."
"I know I have had loving servants. Do you grudge me that? Even now, in your grief, will your heart serve you to grudge me that? Do you mock me because that is the only sort of love I ever had or could have? No husband; no child. And you - you who have had all - "
"All you left me, Queen."
"Left you, fool? What mad thought is in your mind?"
"Oh, I know well enough that you were not lovers. You left me that. The divine blood will not mix with subjects', they say. You left me my share. When you had used him, you would let him steal home to me; until you needed him again. After weeks and months at the wars - you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers' bread, the very jokes - he could come back to me, each time a little thinner and greyer and with a few more scars, and fall asleep before his supper was down, and cry out in his dream, 'Quick, on the right there. The Queen's in danger.' And next morning - the Queen's a wonderful early riser in Glome - the Pillar Room again. I'll not deny it; I had what you left of him."
Her look and voice now were such as no woman could mistake.
"What?" I cried. "Is it possible you're jealous?"
She said nothing.
I sprang to my feet and pulled aside my veil. "Look, look, you fool!" I cried. "Are you jealous of this?"
She started back from me, gazing, so that for a moment I wondered if my face were a terror to her. But it was not fear that moved her. For the first time that prim mouth of hers twitched. The tears began to gather in her eyes. "Oh," she gasped, "Oh. I never knew you also . . . ?"
"You loved him. You've suffered, too. We both . . .
She was weeping; and I. Next moment we were in each other's arms. It was the strangest thing that our hatred should die out at the very moment she first knew her husband was the man I loved. It would have been far otherwise if he were still alive; but on that desolate island (our blank, un-Bardia'd life) we were the only two castaways. We spoke a language, so to call it, which no one else in the huge heedless world could understand. Yet it was a language only of sobs. We could not even begin to speak of him in words; that would have unsheathed both daggers at once.