Posted by ricardo marcenaro | Posted in Short Stories: Elizabeth Louisa Moresby - The hatred of the Queen - Links to more Short Stories | Posted on 9:18
Most wonderful is the Irawadi, the mighty river of Burma. In all the world elsewhere is no such river, bearing the melted snows from its mysterious sources in the high places of the mountains. The dawn rises upon its league. wide flood; the moon walks upon it with silver feet. It is the pulsing heart of the land, living still though so many rules and rulers have risen and fallen beside it, their pomps and glories drifting like flotsam dawn the river to the eternal ocean that is the end of all - and the beginning. Dead civilizations strew its banks, dreaming in the torrid sunshine of glories that were - of blood-stained gold, jewels wept from woeful crowns, nightmare dreams of murder and terror; dreaming also of heavenly beauty, for the Lord Buddha looks down in moonlight peace upon the land that leaped to kiss His footprints, that has laid its heart in the hand of the Blessed One, and shares therefore in His bliss and content. The Land of the Lord Buddha, where the myriad pagodas lift their golden flames of worship everywhere, and no idlest wind can pass but it ruffles the bells below the htees until they send forth their silver ripple of music to swell the hymn of praise!
There is a little bay on the bank of the flooding river - a silent, deserted place of sand- dunes and small bills. When a ship is in sight, some poor folk come and spread out the red lacquer that helps their scanty subsistence, and the people from the passing ship land and barter and in a few minutes are gone on their busy way and silence settles down once more. They neither know nor care that, near by, a mighty city spread its splendour for miles along the river bank, that the king known as Lord of the Golden Palace, The Golden Foot, Lord of the White Elephant, held his state there with balls of magnificence, obsequious women, fawning courtiers and all the riot and colour of an Eastern tyranny. How should they care? Now there are ruins - ruins, and the cobras slip in and out through the deserted holy places. They breed their writhing young in the sleeping-chambers of queens, the tigers mew in the moonlight, and the giant spider, more terrible than the cobra, strikes with its black poison- claw and, paralyzing the life of the victim, sucks its brain with slow, lascivious pleasure.
Are these foul creatures more dreadful than some of the men, the women, who dwelt in these palaces - the more evil because of the human brain that plotted and foresaw? That is known only to the mysterious Law that in silence watches and decrees.
But this is a story of the dead days of Pagan, by the Irawadi, and it will be shown that, as the Lotus of the Lord Buddha grows up a white splendour from the black mud of the depths, so also may the soul of a woman.
In the days of the Lord of the White Elephant, the King Pagan Men, was a boy named Mindon, son of second Queen and the King. So, at least, it was said in the Golden Palace, but those who knew the secrets of such matters whispered that, when the King had taken her by the hand she came to him no maid, and that the boy was the son of an Indian trader. Furthermore it was said that she herself was woman of the Rajputs, knowledgeable in spells, incantations and elemental spirits such as the Beloos that terribly haunt waste places, and all Powers that move in the dark, and that thus she had won the King. Certainly she had been captured by the King's war-boats off the coast from a trading-ship bound for Ceylon, and it was her story that, because of her beauty, she was sent thither to serve as concubine to the King, Tissa of Ceylon. Being captured, she was brought to the Lord of the Golden Palace. The tongue she spoke was strange to all the fighting men, but it was wondrous to see how swiftly she learnt theirs and spoke it with a sweet ripple such as is in the throat of a bird.
She was beautiful exceedingly, with a colour of pale gold upon her and lengths of silk-spun hair, and eyes like those of a jungle-deer, and water might run beneath the arch of her foot without wetting it, and her breasts were like the cloudy pillows where the sun couches at setting. Now, at Pagan, the name they called her was Dwaymenau, but her true name, known only to herself, was Sundari, and she knew not the Law of the Blessed Buddha but was a heathen accursed. In the strong hollow of her hand she held the heart of the King, so that on the birth of her son she had risen from a mere concubine to be the second Queen and a power to whom all bowed. The First Queen, Maya, languished in her palace, her pale beauty wasting daily, deserted and lonely, for she had been the light of the King's eyes until the coming of the Indian woman, and she loved her lord with a great love and was a noble woman brought up in honour and all things becoming a queen. But sigh as she would, the King came never. All night he lay in the arms of Dwaymenau, all day he sat beside her, whether at the great water pageants or at the festival when the dancing-girls swayed and postured before him in her gilded chambers. Even when be went forth to hunt the tiger, she went with him as far as a woman may go, and then stood back only because he would not risk his jewel, her life. So all that was evil in the man she fostered and all that was good she cherished not at all, fearing lest he should return to the Queen. At her will he had consulted the Hlwot Daw, the Council of the Woon-gyees or Ministers, concerning a divorce of the Queen, but this they told him could not be since she had kept all the laws of Manu, being faithful, noble and beautiful and having borne him a son.
For, before the Indian woman had come to the King, the Queen had borne a son, Ananda, and he was pale and slender and the King despised him because of the wiles of Dwaymenau, saying he was fit only to sit among the women, having the soul of a slave, and he laughed bitterly as the pale child crouched in the corner to see him pass. If his eyes had been clear, he would have known that here was no slave, but a heart as much greater than his own as the spirit is stronger than the body. But this he did not know and he strode past with Dwaymenau's boy on his shoulder, laughing with cruel glee.
And this boy, Mindon, was beautiful and strong as his mother, pale olive of face, with the dark and crafty eyes of the cunning Indian traders, with black hair and a body straight, strong and long in the leg for his years - apt at the beginnings of bow, sword and spear - full of promise, if the promise was only words and looks.
And so matters rested in the palace until Ananda had ten years and Mindon nine.
It was the warm and sunny winter and the days were pleasant, and on a certain day the Queen, Maya, went with her ladies to worship the Blessed One at the Thapinyu Temple, looking down upon the swiftly flowing river. The temple was exceedingly rich and magnificent, so gilded with pure gold-leaf that it appeared of solid gold. And about the upper part were golden bells beneath the jewelled htee, which wafted very sweetly in the wind and gave forth a crystal-clear music. The ladies bore in their hands more gold-leaf, that they might acquire merit by offering this for the service of the Master of the Law, and indeed this temple was the offering of the Queen herself, who, because she bore the name of the Mother of the Lord, excelled in good works and was the Moon of this lower world in charity and piety.
Though wan with grief and anxiety, this Queen was beautiful. Her eyes, like mournful lakes of darkness, were lovely in the pale ivory of her face. Her lips were nobly cut and calm, and by the favour of the Guardian Nats, she was shaped with grace and health, a worthy mother of kings. Also she wore her jewels like a mighty princess, a magnificence to which all the people shikoed as she passed, folding their hands and touching the forehead while they bowed down, kneeling.
Before the colossal image of the Holy One she made her offering and, attended by her women, she sat in meditation, drawing consolation from the Tranquillity above her and the silence of the shrine. This ended, the Queen rose and did obeisance to the Lord and, retiring, paced back beneath the White Canopy and entered the courtyard where the palace stood - a palace of noble teakwood, brown and golden and carved like lace into strange fantasies of spires and pinnacles and branches where Nats and Tree Spirits and Beloos and swaying river maidens mingled and met amid fruits and leaves and flowers in a wild and joyous confusion. The faces, the blowing garments, whirled into points with the swiftness of the dance, were touched with gold, and so glad was the building that it seemed as if a very light wind might whirl it to the sky, and even the sad Queen stopped to rejoice in its beauty as it blossomed in the sunlight.
And even as she paused, her little son Ananda rushed to meet her, pale and panting, and flung himself into her arms with dry sobs like those of an overrun man. She soothed him until he could speak, and then the grief made way in a rain of tears.
"Mindon has killed my deer. He bared his knife, slit his throat and cast him in the ditch and there he lies."
"There will he not lie long!" shouted Mindon, breaking from the palace to the group where all were silent now. "For the worms will eat him and the dogs pick clean his bones, and he will show his horns at his lords no more. If you loved him, White-liver, you should have taught him better manners to his betters.
With a stifled shriek Ananda caught the slender knife from his girdle and flew at Mindon like a cat of the woods. Such things were done daily by young and old, and this was a long sorrow come to a head between the boys.
Suddenly, lifting the hangings of the palace gateway, before them stood the mother of Mindon, the Lady Dwaymenau, pale as wool, having heard the shout of her boy, so that the two Queens faced each other, each holding the shoulders of her son, and the ladies watched, mute as fishes, for it was years since these two had met.
"What have you done to my son?" breathed Maya the Queen, dry in the throat and all but speechless with passion. For indeed his face, for a child, was ghastly.
"Look at his knife! What would he do to my son?" Dwaymenau was stiff with hate and spoke as to a slave.
"He has killed my deer and mocks me because I loved him, He is the devil in this place. Look at the devils in his eyes. Look quick before he smiles, my mother."
And indeed, young as the boy was, an evil thing sat in either eye and glittered upon them. Dwaymenau passed her hand across his brow, and he smiled and they were gone.
"The beast ran at me and would have flung me with his horns," he said, looking up brightly at his mother. "He had the madness upon him. I struck once and he was dead. My father would have done the same.
"That would he not!" said Queen Maya bitterly. "Your father would have crept up, fawning on the deer, and offered him the fruits he loved, stroking him the while. And in trust the beast would have eaten, and the poison in the fruit would have slain him. For the people of your father meet neither man nor beast in fair fight. With a kiss they stab!"
Horror kept the women staring and silent. No one had dreamed that the scandal had reached the Queen. Never had she spoken or looked her knowledge but endured all in patience. Now it sprang out like a sword among them, and they feared for Maya, whom all loved.
Mindon did not understand. It was beyond him, but he saw he was scorned. Dwaymenau, her face rigid as a mask, looked pitilessly at the shaking Queen, and each word dropped from her mouth, hard and cold as the falling of diamonds. She refused the insult.
"If it is thus you speak of our lord and my love, what wonder he forsakes you? Mother of a craven milk runs in your veins and his for blood. Take your slinking brat away and weep together! My son and I go forth to meet the King as he comes from hunting, and to welcome him kingly!" She caught her boy to her with a magnificent gesture; he flung his little arm about her, and laughing loudly they went off together.
The tension relaxed a little when they were out of sight. The women knew that, since Dwaymenau had refused to take the Queen's meaning, she would certainly not carry her complaint to the King. They guessed at her reason for this forbearance, but, be that as it might, it was Certain that no other person would dare to tell him and risk the fate that waits the messenger of evil.
The eldest lady led away the Queen, now almost tottering in the reaction of fear and pain. Oh, that she had controlled her speech! Not for her own sake - for she had lost all and the beggar can lose no more - but for the boy's sake, the unloved child that stood between the stranger and her hopes. For him she had made a terrible enemy. Weeping, the boy followed her.
"Take comfort, little son," she said, drawing him to her tenderly. "The deer can suffer no more. For the tigers, he does not fear them. He runs in green woods now where there is none to hunt. He is up and away. The Blessed One was once a deer as gentle as yours."
But still the child wept, and the Queen broke down utterly. "Oh, if life be a dream, let us wake, let us wake!" she sobbed. "For evil things walk in it that cannot live in the light. Or let us dream deeper and forget. Go, little son, yet stay - for who can tell what waits us when the King comes. Let us meet him here."
For she believed that Dwaymenau would certainly carry the tale of her speech to the King, and, if so, what hope but death together?
That night, after the feasting, when the girls were dancing the dance of the fairies and spirits, in gold dresses, winged on the legs and shoulders, and high, gold-spired and pinnacled caps, the King missed the little Prince, Ananda, and asked why he was absent.
No one answered, the women looking upon each other, until Dwaymenau, sitting beside him, glimmering with rough pearls and rubies, spoke smoothly: "Lord, worshipped and beloved, the two boys quarreled this day, and Ananda's deer attacked our Mindon. He had a madness upon him and thrust with his horns. But, Mindon, your true son, flew in upon him and in a great fight he slit the beast's throat with the knife you gave him. Did he not well?"
"Well," said the King briefly. "But is there no hurt? Have searched? For he is mine."
There was arrogance in the last sentence and her proud soul rebelled, but smoothly as ever she spoke: "I have searched and there is not the littlest scratch. But Ananda is weeping because the deer is dead, and his mother is angry. What should I do?"
"Nothing. Ananda is worthless and worthless let him be! And for that pale shadow that was once a woman, let her be forgotten. And now, drink, my Queen!"
And Dwaymenau drank but the drink was bitter to her, for a ghost had risen upon her that day. She had never dreamed that such a scandal had been spoken, and it stunned her very soul with fear, that the Queen should know her vileness and the cheat she had put upon the King. As pure maid he had received her, and she knew, none better, what the doom would be if his trust were broken and he knew the child not his. She herself had seen this thing done to a concubine who had a little offended. She was thrust living in a sack and this hung between two earthen jars pierced with small holes, and thus she was set afloat on the terrible river. And not till the slow filling and sinking of the jars was the agony over and the cries for mercy stilled. No, the Queen's speech was safe with her, but was it safe with the Queen? For her silence, Dwaymenau must take measures.
Then she put it all aside and laughed and jested with the King and did indeed for a time forget, for she loved him for his black-browed beauty and his courage and royalty and the childlike trust and the man's passion that mingled in him for her. Daily and nightly such prayers as she made to strange gods were that she might bear a son, true son of his.
Next day, in the noonday stillness when all slept, she led her young son by the hand to her secret chamber, and, holding him upon her knees in that rich and golden place, she lifted his face to hers and stared into his eyes. And so unwavering was her gaze, so mighty the hard, unblinking stare that his own was held against it, and he stared back as the earth stares breathless at the moon. Gradually the terror faded out of his eyes; they glazed as if in a trance; his head fell stupidly against her bosom; his spirit stood on the borderland of being and waited.
Seeing this, she took his palm and, molding it like wax, into the cup of it she dropped clear fluid from a small vessel of pottery with the fylfot upon its side and the disks of the god Shiva. And strange it was to see that lore of India in the palace where the Blessed Law reigned in peace. Then, fixing her eyes with power upon Mindon, she bade him, a pure child, see for her in its clearness.
"Only virgin-pure can see!" she muttered, staring into his eyes. "See! See!"
The eyes of Mindon were closing. He half opened them and looked dully at his palm. His face was pinched and yellow.
"A woman - a child, on a long couch. Dead! I see!"
"See her face. Is her head crowned with the Queen's jewels? See!"
"Jewels. I cannot see her face. It is hidden."
"Why is it hidden?"
"A robe across her face. Oh, let me go!"
"And the child? See!"
"Let me go. Stop - my head - my head! I cannot see. The child is hidden. Her arm holds it. A woman stoops above them."
"A woman? Who? Is it like me? Speak! See!"
"A woman. It is like you, mother - it is like you. I fear very greatly. A knife - a knife! Blood! I cannot see - I cannot speak! I - I sleep."
His face was ghastly white now, his body cold and collapsed. Terrified, she caught him to her breast and relaxed the power of her will upon him. For that moment, she was only the passionate mother and quaked to think she might have hurt him. An hour passed and he slept heavily in her arms, and in agony she watched to see the colour steal back into the olive cheek and white lips. In the second hour he waked and stretched himself indolently, yawning like a cat. Her tears dropped like rain upon him as she clasped him violently to her.
He writhed himself free, petulant and spoilt. "Let me be. I hate kisses and women's tricks. I want to go forth and play. I have had a devil's dream.
"What did you see in your dream, prince of my heart?" She caught frantically at the last chance.
"A deer - a tiger. I have forgotten. Let me go." He ran off and she sat alone with her doubts and fears. Yet triumph coloured them too. She saw a dead woman, a dead child, and herself bending above them. She hid the vessel in her bosom and went out among her women.
Weeks passed, and never a word that she dreaded from Maya the Queen. The women of Dwaymenau, questioning the Queen's women, heard that she seemed to have heavy sorrow upon her. Her eyes were like dying lamps and she faded as they. The King never entered her palace. Drowned in Dwaymenau's wiles and beauty, her slave, her thrall, he forgot all else but his fighting, his hunting and his long war-boats, and whether the Queen lived or died, he cared nothing. Better indeed she should die and her place be emptied for the beloved, without offence to her powerful kindred.
And now he was to sail upon a raid against the Shan Tsaubwa, who had denied him tribute of gold and jewels and slaves. Glorious were the boats prepared for war, of brown teak and gilded until they shone like gold. Seventy men rowed them, sword and lance beside each. Warriors crowded them, flags and banners fluttered about them; the shining water reflected the pomp like a mirror and the air rang with song. Dwaymenau stood beside the water with her women, bidding the King farewell, and so he saw her, radiant in the dawn, with her boy beside her, and waved his hand to the last.
The ships were gone and the days languished a little at Pagan. They missed the laughter and royalty of the King, and few men, and those old and weak, were left in the city. The pulse of life beat slower.
And Dwaymenau took rule in the Golden Palace. Queen Maya sat like one in a dream and questioned nothing, and Dwaymenau ruled with wisdom but none loved her. To all she was the interloper, the witch-woman, the out-land upstart. Only the fear of the King guarded her and her boy, but that was strong. The boys played together sometimes, Mindon tyrannizing and cruel, Ananda fearing and complying, broken in spirit.
Maya the Queen walked daily in the long and empty Golden Hall of Audience, where none came now that the King was gone, pacing up and down, gazing wearily at the carved screens and all their woodland beauty of gods that did not hear, of happy spirits that had no pity. Like a spirit herself she passed between the red pillars, appearing and reappearing with steps that made no sound, consumed with hate of the evil woman that had stolen her joy. Like a slow fire it burned in her soul, and the face of the Blessed One was hidden from her, and she had forgotten His peace. In that atmosphere of hate her life dwindled. Her son's dwindled also, and there was talk among the women of some potion that Dwaymenau had been seen to drop into his noontide drink as she went swiftly by. That might he the gossip of malice, but he pined. His eyes were large like a young bird's; his hands like little claws. They thought the departing year would take him with it. What harm? Very certainly the King would shed no tear.
It was a sweet and silent afternoon and she wandered in the great and lonely hall, sickened with the hate in her soul and her fear for her boy. Suddenly she heard flying footsteps - a boy's, running in mad haste in the outer hall, and, following them, bare feet, soft, thudding.
She stopped dead and every pulse cried - Danger! No time to think or breathe when Mindon burst into sight, wild with terror and following close beside him a man - a madman, a short bright dah in his grasp, his jaws grinding foam, his wild eyes starting - one passion to murder. So sometimes from the Nats comes pitiless fury, and men run mad and kill and none knows why.
Maya the Queen stiffened to meet the danger. Joy swept through her soul; her weariness was gone. A fierce smile showed her teeth - a smile of hate, as she stood there and drew her dagger for defense. For defense - the man would rend the boy and turn on her and she would not die. She would live to triumph that the mongrel was dead, and her son, the Prince again and his father's joy - for his heart would turn to the child most surely. Justice was rushing on its victim. She would see it and live content, the long years of agony wiped out in blood, as was fitting. She would not flee; she would see it and rejoice. And as she stood in gladness - these broken thoughts rushing through her like flashes of lightning - Mindon saw her by the pillar and, screaming in anguish for the first time, fled to her for refuge.
She raised her knife to meet the staring eyes, the chalk white face, and drive him back on the murderer. If the man failed, she would not! And even as she did this a strange thing befell. Something stronger than hate swept her away like a leaf on the river; something primeval that lives in the lonely pangs of childbirth, that hides in the womb and breasts of the mother. It was stronger than she. It was not the hated Mindoin - she saw him no more. Suddenly it was the eternal Child, lifting dying, appealing eyes to the Woman, as he clung to her knees. She did not think this - she felt it, and it dominated her utterly. The Woman answered. As if it had been her own flesh and blood, she swept the panting body behind her and faced the man with uplifted dagger and knew her victory assured, whether in life or death. On came the horrible rush, the flaming eyes, and, if it was chance that set the dagger against his throat, it was cool strength that drove it home and never wavered until the blood welling from the throat quenched the flame in the wild eyes, and she stood triumphing like a war-goddess, with the man at her feet. Then, strong and flushed, Maya the Queen gathered the half-dead boy in her arms, and, both drenched with blood, they moved slowly down the hall and outside met the hurrying crowd, with Dwaymenau, whom the scream had brought to find her son.
"You have killed him! She has killed him!" Scarcely could the Rajput woman speak. She was kneeling beside him - he hideous with blood. "She hated him always. She has murdered him. Seize her!"
"Woman, what matter your hates and mine?" the Queen said slowly. "The boy is stark with fear. Carry him in and send for old Meh Shway Gon. Woman, be silent!"
When a Queen commands, men and women obey, and a Queen commanded then. A huddled group lifted the child and carried him away, Dwaymenau with them, still uttering wild threats, and the Queen was left alone.
She could not realize what she had done and left undone. She could not understand it. She had hated, sickened with loathing, as it seemed for ages, and now, in a moment it had blown away like a whirlwind that is gone. Hate was washed out of her soul and had left it cool and white as the Lotus of the Blessed One. What power had Dwaymenau to hurt her when that other Power walked beside her? She seemed to float above her in high air and look down upon her with compassion. Strength, virtue flowed in her veins; weakness, fear were fantasies. She could not understand, but knew that here was perfect enlightenment. About her echoed the words of the Blessed One: "Never in this world doth hatred cease by hatred, but only by love. This is an old rule."
"Whereas I was blind, now I see," said Maya the Queen slowly to her own heart. She had grasped the hems of the Mighty.
Words cannot speak the still passion of strength and joy that possessed her. Her step was light. As she walked, her soul sang within her, for thus it is with those that have received the Law. About them is the Peace.
In the dawn she was told that the Queen, Dwaymenau, would speak with her, and without a tremor she who had shaken like a leaf at that name commanded that she should enter. It was Dwaymenau that trembled as she came into that unknown place.
With cloudy brows and eyes that would reveal no secret, she stood before the high seat where the Queen sat pale and majestic.
"Is it well with the boy?" the Queen asked earnestly.
"Well," said Dwaymenau, fingering the silver bosses of her girdle.
"Then - is there more to say?" The tone was that of the great lady who courteously ends an audience. "There is more. The men brought in the body and in its throat your dagger was sticking. And my son has told me that your body was a shield to him. You offered your life for his. I did not think to thank you - but I thank you." She ended abruptly and still her eyes had never met the Queen's.
"I accept your thanks. Yet a mother could do no less."
The tone was one of dismissal but still Dwaymenau lingered.
"The dagger," she said and drew it from her bosom. On the clear, pointed blade the blood had curdled and dried. "I never thought to ask a gift of you, but this dagger is a memorial of my son's danger. May I keep it?"
"As you will. Here is the sheath." From her girdle she drew it - rough silver, encrusted with rubies from the mountains.
The hand rejected it.
"Jewels I cannot take, but bare steel is a fitting gift between us two."
"As you will."
The Queen spoke compassionately, and Dwaymenau, still with veiled eyes, was gone without fare well. The empty sheath lay on the seat - a symbol of the sharp-edged hate that had passed out of her life. She touched the sheath to her lips and, smiling, laid it away.
And the days went by and Dwaymenau came no more before her, and her days were fulfilled with peace. And now again the Queen ruled in the palace wisely and like a Queen, and this Dwaymenau did not dispute, but what her thoughts were no man could tell.
Then came the end.
One night the city awakened to a wild alarm. A terrible fleet of war-boats came sweeping along the river thick as locusts - the war fleet of the Lord of Prome. Battle shouts broke tile peace of the night to horror; axes battered on the outer doors; the roofs of the outer buildings were all aflame. It was no wonderful incident, but a common one enough of those turbulent days - reprisal by a powerful ruler with raids and hates to avenge on the Lord of the Golden Palace. It was indeed a right to be gainsaid only by the strong arm, and the strong arm was absent; as for the men of Pagan, if the guard failed and the women's courage sank, they would return to blackened walls, empty chambers and desolation.
At Pagan the guard was small, indeed, for the King's greed of plunder had taken almost every able man with him. Still, those who were left did what they could, and the women, alert and brave, with but few exceptions, gathered the children and handed such weapons as they could muster to the men, and themselves, taking knives and daggers, helped to defend the inner rooms.
In the farthest, the Queen, having given her commands and encouraged all with brave words, like a wise, prudent princess, sat with her son beside her. Her duty was now to him. Loved or unloved, he was still the heir, the root of the House tree. If all failed, she must make ransom and terms for him, and, if they died, it must be together. He, with sparkling eyes, gay in the danger, stood by her. Thus Dwaymenau found them.
She entered quietly and without any display of emotion and stood before the high seat.
"Great Queen" - she used that title for the first time - "the leader is Meng Kyinyo of Prome. There is no mercy. The end is near. Our men fall fast, the women are fleeing. I have come to say this thing: Save the Prince."
"And how?" asked the Queen, still seated. "I have no power."
"I have sent to Maung Tin, abbot of the Golden Monastery, and he has said this thing. In the Kyoung across the river he can hide one child among the novices. Cut his hair swiftly and put upon him this yellow robe. The time is measured in minutes."
Then the Queen perceived, standing by the pillar, a monk of a stern, dark presence, the creature of Dwaymenau. For an instant she pondered. Was the woman selling the child to death? Dwaymenau spoke no word. Her face was a mask. A minute that seemed an hour drifted by, and the yelling and shrieks for mercy drew nearer.
"There will be pursuit," said the Queen. "They will slay him on the river. Better here with me."
"There will be no pursuit." Dwaymenau fixed her strange eyes on the Queen for the first time.
What moved in those eyes? The Queen could not tell. But despairing, she rose and went to the silent monk, leading the Prince by the hand. Swiftly he stripped the child of the silk pasoh of royalty, swiftly he cut the long black tresses knotted on the little head, and upon the slender golden body he set the yellow robe worn by the Lord Himself on earth, and in the small hand he placed the begging-bowl of the Lord. And now, remote and holy, in the dress that is of all most sacred, the Prince, standing by the monk, turned to his mother and looked with grave eyes upon her, as the child Buddha looked upon his Mother - also a Queen. But Dwaymenau stood by silent and lent no help as the Queen folded the Prince in her arms and laid his hand in the hand of the monk and saw them pass away among the pillars, she standing still and white.
She turned to her rival. "If you have meant truly, I thank you."
"I have meant truly."
She turned to go, but the Queen caught her by the hand.
"Why have you done this?" she asked, looking into the strange eyes of the strange woman.
Something like tears gathered in them for a moment, but she brushed them away as she said hurriedly:
"I was grateful. You saved my son. Is it not enough?"
"No, not enough!" cried the Queen. "There is more. Tell me, for death is upon us."
"His footsteps are near," said the Indian. "I will speak. I love my lord. In death I will not cheat him. What you have known is true. My child is no child of his. I will not go down to death with a lie upon my lips. Come and see."
Dwaymenau was no more. Sundari, the Indian woman, awful and calm, led the Queen down the long ball and into her own chamber, where Mindon, the child, slept a drugged sleep. The Queen felt that she had never known her; she herself seemed diminished in stature as she followed the stately figure, with its still, dark face. Into this room the enemy were breaking, shouldering their way at the door - a rabble of terrible faces. Their fury was partly checked when only a sleeping child and two women confronted them, but their leader, a grim and evil- looking man, strode from the huddle.
"Where is the son of the King?" be shouted. "Speak, women! Whose is this boy?"
Sundari laid her hand upon her son's shoulder. Not a muscle of her face flickered.
"This is his son."
"His true son - the son of Maya the Queen?"
"His true son, the son of Maya the Queen."
"Not the younger - the mongrel?"
"The younger - the mongrel died last week of a fever."
Every moment of delay was precious. Her eyes saw only a monk and a boy fleeing across the wide river.
"Which is Maya the Queen?"
"This," said Sundari. "She cannot speak. It is her son - the Prince."
Maya had veiled her face with her hands. Her brain swam, but she understood the noble lie. This woman could love. Their lord would not be left childless. Thought beat like pulses in her - raced along her veins. She held her breath and was dumb.
His doubt was assuaged and the lust of vengeance was on him - a madness seized the man. But even his own wild men shrank back a moment, for to slay a sleeping child in cold blood is no man's work.
"You swear it is the Prince. But why? Why do you not lie to save him if you are the King's woman?"
"Because his mother has trampled me to the earth. I am the Indian woman - the mother of the younger, who is dead and safe. She jeered at me - she mocked me. It is time I should see her suffer. Suffer now as I have suffered, Maya the Queen!"
This was reasonable - this was like the women he bad known. His doubt was gone - he laughed aloud.
"Then feed full of vengeance!" he cried, and drove his knife through the child's heart.
For a moment Sundari wavered where she stood, but she held herself and was rigid as the dead.
"Tha-du! Well done!" she said with an awful smile. "The tree is broken, the roots cut. And now for us women - our fate, O master?"
"Wait here," he answered. "Let not a hair of their heads be touched. Both are fair. The two for me. For the rest draw lots when all is done."
The uproar surged away. The two stood by the dead boy. So swift had been his death that he lay as though he still slept - the black lashes pressed upon his cheek.
With the heredity of their different races upon them, neither wept. But silently the Queen opened her arms; wide as a woman that entreats she opened them to the Indian Queen, and speechlessly the two clung together. For a while neither spoke.
"My sister!" said Maya the Queen. And again, "O great of heart!"
She laid her cheek against Sundari's, and a wave of solemn joy seemed to break in her soul and flood it with life and light.
"Had I known sooner!" she said. "For now the night draws on."
"What is time?" answered the Rajput woman. "We stand before the Lords of Life and Death. The life you gave was yours, and I am unworthy to kiss the feet of the Queen. Our lord will return and his son is saved. The House can be rebuilt. My son and I were waifs washed up from the sea. Another wave washes us back to nothingness. Tell him my story and he will loathe me."
"My lips are shut," said the Queen. "Should I betray my sister's honour? When he speaks of the noble women of old, your name will be among them. What matters which of us he loves and remembers? Your soul and mine have seen the same thing, and we are one. But I - what have I to do with life? The ship and the bed of the conqueror await us. Should we await them, my sister?"
The bright tears glittered in the eyes of Sundari at the tender name and the love in the face of the Queen. At last she accepted it.
"My sister, no," she said, and drew from her bosom the dagger of Maya, with the man's blood rusted upon it. "Here is the way. I have kept this dagger in token of my debt. Nightly have I kissed it, swearing that, when the time came, I would repay my debt to the great Queen. Shall I go first or follow, my sister?"
Her voice lingered on the word. It was precious to her. It was like clear water, laying away the stain of the shameful years.
"Your arm is strong," answered the Queen. "I go first. Because the King's son is safe, I bless you. For your love of the King, I love you. And here, standing on the verge of life, I testify that the words of the Blessed One are truth - that love is All; that hatred is Nothing."
She bared the breast that this woman had made desolate - that, with the love of this woman, was desolate ho longer, and, stooping, laid her hand on the brow of Mindon. Once more they embraced, and then, strong and true, and with the Rajput passion behind the blow, the stroke fell and Sundari had given her sister the crowning mercy of deliverance. She laid the body beside her own son, composing the stately limbs, the quiet eyelids, the black lengths of hair into majesty. So, she thought, in the great temple of the Rajput race, the Mother Goddess shed silence and awe upon her worshippers. The two lay like mother and son - one slight hand of the Queen she laid across the little body as if to guard it.
Her work done, she turned to the entrance and watched the dawn coming glorious over the river. The men shouted and quarreled in the distance, but she heeded them no more than the chattering of apes. Her heart was away over the distance to the King, but with no passion now: so might a mother have thought of her son. He was sleeping, forgetful of even her in his dreams. What matter? She was glad at heart. The Queen was dearer to her than the King - so strange is life; so healing is death. She remembered without surprise that she had asked no forgiveness of the Queen for all the cruel wrongs, for the deadly intent - had made no confession. Again what matter? What is forgiveness when love is all?
She turned from the dawn-light to the light in the face of the Queen. It was well. Led by such a hand, she could present herself without fear before the Lords of Life and Death - she and the child. She smiled. Life is good, but death, which is more life, is better. The son of the King was safe, but her own son safer.
When the conqueror reentered the chamber, he found the dead Queen guarding the dead child, and across her feet, as not worthy to lie beside her, was the body of the Indian woman, most beautiful in death.
Ricardo M Marcenaro - Facebook
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