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- The World's Desire - 20/45 -


this bow was lying, and I made prize of it. A good bow!"

"A strange story, truly--a very strange story," quoth Meriamun the Queen. "By chance thou didst buy the armour of Paris, by chance thou didst find the bow of Eurytus, that bow, methinks, with which the god- like Odysseus slew the wooers in his halls. Knowest thou, Eperitus, that when thou stoodest yonder on the board in the Place of Banquets, when the great bow twanged and the long shafts hailed down on the hall and loosened the knees of many, not a little was I put in mind of the song of the slaying of the wooers at the hands of Odysseus. The fame of Odysseus has wandered far--ay, even to Khem." And she looked straight at him.

The Wanderer darkened his face and put the matter by. He had heard something of that tale, he said, but deemed it a minstrel's feigning. One man could not fight a hundred, as the story went.

The Queen half rose from the couch where she lay curled up like a glittering snake. Like a snake she rose and watched him with her melancholy eyes.

"Strange, indeed--most strange that Odysseus, Laertes' son, Odysseus of Ithaca, should not know the tale of the slaying of the wooers by Odysseus' self. Strange, indeed, thou Eperitus, who art Odysseus."

Now the neck of the Wanderer was in the noose, and well he knew it: yet he kept his counsel, and looked upon her vacantly.

"Men say that this Odysseus wandered years ago into the North, and that this time he will not come again. I saw him in the wars, and he was a taller man than I," said the Wanderer.

"I have always heard," said the Queen, "that Odysseus was double- tongued and crafty as a fox. Look me in the eyes, thou Wanderer, look me in the eyes, and I will show thee whether or not thou art Odysseus," and she leaned forward so that her hair well-nigh swept his brow, and gazed deep into his eyes.

Now the Wanderer was ashamed to drop his eyes before a woman's, and he could not rise and go; so he must needs gaze, and as he gazed his head grew strangely light and the blood quivered in his veins, and then seemed to stop.

"Now turn, thou Wanderer," said the voice of the Queen, and to him it sounded far away, as if there was a wall between them, "and tell me what thou seest."

So he turned and looked towards the dark end of the chamber. But presently through the darkness stole a faint light, like the first grey light of the dawn, and now he saw a shape, like the shape of a great horse of wood, and behind the horse were black square towers of huge stones, and gates, and walls, and houses. Now he saw a door open in the side of the horse, and the helmeted head of a man look out wearily. As he looked a great white star slid down the sky so that the light of it rested on the face of the man, and that face was his own! Then he remembered how he had looked forth from the belly of the wooden horse as it stood within the walls of Ilios, and thus the star had seemed to fall upon the doomed city, an omen of the end of Troy.

"Look again," said the voice of Meriamun from far away.

So once more he looked into the darkness, and there he saw the mouth of a cave, and beneath two palms in front of it sat a man and a woman. The yellow moon rose and its light fell upon a sleeping sea, upon tall trees, upon the cave, and the two who sat there. The woman was lovely, with braided hair, and clad in a shining robe, and her eyes were dim with tears that she might never shed: for she was a Goddess, Calypso, the daughter of Atlas. Then in the vision the man looked up, and his face was weary, and worn and sick for home, but it was his own face.

Then he remembered how he had sat thus at the side of Calypso of the braided tresses, on that last night of all his nights in her wave-girt isle, the centre of the seas.

"Look once more," said the voice of Meriamun the Queen.

Again he looked into the darkness. There before him grew the ruins of his own hall in Ithaca, and in the courtyard before the hall was a heap of ashes, and the charred bones of men. Before the heap lay the figure of one lost in sorrow, for his limbs writhed upon the ground. Anon the man lifted his face, and behold! the Wanderer knew that it was his own face.

Then of a sudden the gloom passed away from the chamber, and once more his blood surged through his veins, and there before him sat Meriamun the Queen, smiling darkly.

"Strange sights hast thou seen, is it not so, Wanderer?" she said.

"Yea, Queen, the most strange of sights. Tell me of thy courtesy how thou didst conjure them before my eyes."

"By the magic that I have, Eperitus, I above all wizards who dwell in Khem, the magic whereby I can read all the past of those--I love," and again she looked upon him; "ay, and call it forth from the storehouse of dead time and make it live again. Say, whose face was it that thou didst look upon--was it not the face of Odysseus of Ithaca, Laertes' son, and was not that face thine?"

Now the Wanderer saw that there was no escape. Therefore he spoke the truth, not because he loved it, but because he must.

"The face of Odysseus of Ithaca it was that I saw before me, Lady, and that face is mine. I avow myself to be Odysseus, Laertes' son, and no other man."

The Queen laughed aloud. "Great must be my strength of magic," she said, "for it can strip the guile from the subtlest of men. Henceforth, Odysseus, thou wilt know that the eyes of Meriamun the Queen see far. Now tell me truly: what camest thou hither to seek?"

The Wanderer took swift counsel with himself. Remembering that dream of Meriamun of which Rei the Priest had told him, and which she knew not that he had learned, the dream that showed her the vision of one whom she must love, and remembering the word of the dead Hataska, he grew afraid. For he saw well by the token of the spear point that he was the man of her dream, and that she knew it. But he could not accept her love, both because of his oath to Pharaoh and because of her whom Aphrodite had shown to him in Ithaca, her whom alone he must seek, the Heart's Desire, the Golden Helen.

The strait was desperate, between a broken oath and a woman scorned. But he feared his oath, and the anger of Zeus, the God of hosts and guests. So he sought safety beneath the wings of truth.

"Lady," he said, "I will tell thee all! I came to Ithaca from the white north, where a curse had driven me; I came and found my halls desolate, and my people dead, and the very ashes of my wife. But in a dream of the night I saw the Goddess whom I have worshipped little, Aphrodite of Idalia, whom in this land ye name Hathor, and she bade me go forth and do her will. And for reward she promised me that I should find one who waited me to be my deathless love."

Meriamun heard him so far, but no further, for of this she made sure, that /she/ was the woman whom Aphrodite had promised to the Wanderer. Ere he might speak another word she glided to him like a snake, and like a snake curled herself about him. Then she spoke so low that he rather knew her thought than heard her words:

"Was it indeed so, Odysseus? Did the Goddess indeed send thee to seek me out? Know, then, that not to thee alone did she speak. I also looked for thee. I also waited the coming of one whom I should love. Oh, heavy have been the days, and empty was my heart, and sorely through the years have I longed for him who should be brought to me. And now at length it is done, now at length I see him whom in my dream I saw," and she lifted her lips to the lips of the Wanderer, and her heart, and her eyes, and her lips said "Love."

But it was not for nothing that he bore a stout and patient heart, and a brain unclouded by danger or by love. He had never been in a strait like this; caught with bonds that no sword could cut, and in toils that no skill could undo. On one side were love and pleasure--on the other a broken oath, and the loss for ever of the Heart's Desire. For to love another woman, as he had been warned, was to lose Helen. But again, if he scorned the Queen--nay, for all his hardihood he dared not tell her that she was not the woman of his vision, the woman he came to seek. Yet even now his cold courage and his cunning did not fail him.

"Lady," he said, "we both have dreamed. But if thou didst dream thou wert my love, thou didst wake to find thyself the wife of Pharaoh. And Pharaoh is my host and hath my oath."

"I woke to find myself the wife of Pharaoh," she echoed, wearily, and her arms uncurled from his neck and she sank back on the couch. "I am Pharaoh's wife in word, but not in deed. Pharaoh is nothing to me, thou Wanderer--nought save a name."

"Yet is my oath much to me, Queen Meriamun--my oath and the hospitable hearth," the Wanderer made answer. "I swore to Meneptah to hold thee from all ill, and there's an end."

"And if Pharaoh comes back no more, what then Odysseus?"

"Then will we talk again. And now, Lady, thy safety calls me to visit thy Guard." And without more words he rose and went.

The Queen looked after him.

"A strange man," she said in her heart, "who builds a barrier with his oath betwixt himself and her he loves and has wandered so far to win! Yet methinks I honour him the more. Pharaoh Meneptah, my husband, eat, drink, and be merry, for this I promise thee--short shall be thy days."

V

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS

"Swift as a bird or a thought," says the old harper of the Northern Sea. The Wanderer's thoughts in the morning were swift as night birds, flying back and brooding over the things he had seen and the words he had heard in the Queen's chamber. Again he stood between this woman and the oath which, of all oaths, was the worst to break. And, indeed, he was little tempted to break it, for though Meriamun was beautiful and wise, he feared her love and he feared her magic art no less than he feared her vengeance if she were scorned. Delay seemed the only course. Let him wait till the King returned, and it would go hard but


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