Her Eyes Are Doves
Her Eyes Are Doves
BY HARRIET PRESCOTT SPOFFORD
"The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine."
THE King sat alone in his chamber, where the Councillors had left him. The pages outside the door dozed among the cushions or made little bets about the flies buzzing in the panes. Faintly from distance came now and again glad cries of the wild people feeling already the thrill of to-morrow.
The crown was heavy on the King's head. It seemed to him as if, viewless though it were, it had worn its place there as the basinet frays a circle on the warrior's hair.
The question before the Council had been of peace or war. The King's voice would decide it.
It was desired to have affairs composed before the high Easter festival of the next day, when the time-honored jubilee began, and after which people scattered to their homes, the great nobles to the country houses beyond the Blue Forests or to the hunting-lodges and castles in snow-capped altitudes. And were it war, there would be time for family concerns; and were it peace— But who thought of peace!
His Majesty sat with his head propped upon his hand, leaning over the table, lost in thought, perhaps oppressed by the dissonant note of the profuse flowers about him. War, he reflected, meant the ruin of wide regions, his own and the enemy's; the destruction of myriads of strong men, of their families, of the purpose of their creation; the loosing of torrents of crime that follow, as rats do, on the heel of armies. It meant the stimulation of evil agencies in the commonwealth, the depletion of those of value; the absence of workers on the land, the cessation of crops except where grass grew rank on bloody battle-fields. With the death of grenadiers and veterans it meant an undersized race in the next generation, such as Napoleon had bequeathed to France. It meant widows, orphans, beggars, desolate hearths, broken hearts, sorrow, sorrow, sorrow! It meant the unreckoned lowering of civilization, and lifetimes to repair the ravage.
But all that he knew before; every one knew it. It was part of the commonplace of civil economy. And he knew what peace meant, too. Yet in a far less degree; for who could tell into what blest meridians the harvests of peace might stretch! Peace hovering, brooding, over the land, was a vision too dazzling to be clearly seen—the well-tilled fields of heavy-headed grain, with the shadows of clouds sweeping over them; the harbors of the river ports—since the coveted sea was impossible—crowded with masts whose tops sparkled in sun or frost, and perhaps by special pact even the freedom off that great water; the whirring wheels of mills; the billowing blaze of forges by night; the steady headlights of loaded trains that, unlike the old burning brand sent from border tribe to border tribe for signal of the fight, drew out at every turn the longer length of that golden chain which binds the whole round earth about the feet of God; the glad workmen hurrying to their tasks and to their homes; the happy children swarming from schools; the happy wives and mothers waiting; the thronging universities; the young men with no cloud of cruel possibilities hanging over them; the will, the time, the strength, to penetrate the secrets of science, to nourish the flower of art, to portray the poetry of life; peace, white as those Easter lilies with which the huge jars had already been filled; peace that meant wide comfort and content embracing the land like the embrace of heaven; that meant the uplifting, the moulding of the realm into moral and material beauty, its civilization a stride onward in the perfection of the race!
But all of this, as well, he knew before. All of this was the common breath. And the case in question must be decided irrespective of either.
The case in question was concerning certain territory, without which the realm was shut off from expansion in the most desirable direction, which gave ports on a great sea now inaccessible, and the possession of which by another, a strong Power, waiting on its arms, was ready to resist to the death. There might be, of course, doubt of the outcome; yet in the King's mind the doubt was slight. It was impossible that those armies of his, bristling with steel, had been trained and drilled to their present point for failure. For wars of one sort or another had always been waging with that kingdom. Oh no; victory was as sure to illumine his banners as the Easter sun was sure to rise on the morrow.
That was not the case, then. The case was—the case—
What was Eirene thinking of it all at this moment? What the courtiers thought was plain enough, what the Councillors thought, what the Queen Mother—the beautiful barbaric creature. What did Eirene think? If it were not for Eirene's thought the way would be so easy! Ah yes, Eirene had never thrown any veil over her thought, either. He had told her, before the Council met, that his purpose was peace; and she had spoken with joy of the disbanding of the army and the dismissal of every man to his home. And yet Ruvizan gave him pause. It was difficult to override the opinion of his father's lifelong minister, a man of wisdom. Yes, circumstances change purposes. Eirene would regret— And yet— Of what weight a woman's wish? After all, what could she know of statecraft?
Ruvizan had said that all women were sentimentalists. Was it sentimentality that had led her, when he found her in her chapel at prayer last night, her long hair fallen about her, the folds of her white cloak making her seem like a kneeling marble there? She was praying for peace, clasping to her heart the image of the Prince of Peace. Was Christ a sentimentalist?
It was not peace for which the Queen Mother prayed. Storm was her element. Her spirit was like a trumpet calling to battle. The Oriental ruby in her crown blazed no more hotly than that Oriental drop in her blood which fired all the rest. She saw the bounds of the kingdom retreat into far horizons; dreams of conquest curtained her sleep.
He remembered a day when she stood with him, a child, on the top of a tower on the border, her scarf blowing in the wind, and she pointed toward the great plains with their wandering tribes and grazing herds. "All that," she said, "is to be yours. When you have strength of body and soul to take it. Doubtless in the long-gone days it belonged to your house. Boundless, beautiful, inexhaustible! One day it is to be whitened with the tents of your armies. It is to give you the freedom of the great sea! You will not content yourself with a few paltry river ports!" Yet long before he came to the throne it had seemed to him that he would have enough to do with the provinces that already called him ruler.
He had been given soldiers for his toys from his infancy; he had never greatly enjoyed their manipulation. A pastime of war had been urged upon him; a boy, he had been made the Colonel of regiments, his own and foreign; the uniforms had interested him; but after the first he had found it all a stupid business. Still, he supposed war to be something necessary to the currents of life among nations. He had been made to study books and charts upon the theory and practice of war. It had, on the whole, seemed to him like making a fine art of murder.
Because he enjoyed none of this it had gone about that he was a listless youth who preferred the stringing of a lute to the clash of arms, and for whom ancestral and national glories paled before the light in woman's eyes. And it was true that he had been for a time willing to leave a large measure of responsibility in the government, autocratic as the Crown was, to his Councillors. But if he was not all that he should have been, there was that in his steadfast look which made the lesser eye quail; eye and brow alike belonged to the pattern from which they sculpture gods.
It could not be said that he had loved another woman before Eirene came into his life. Unlike many another prisoner of his rank, the isolation of princely splendor had left his heart cold. Save for now and then, the court ladies had sailed by like phantoms; their smiles had been no more than sunbeams on the melting shapes of clouds.
Of course he could not know that it had been prearranged by the superior powers when he, a prince, first met the Princess Eirene. He would have supposed it was only the superior powers of wild nature that sent out their parallels and drew together two lives, two forces, that belonged to each other.
He was travelling, wearing the least of his titles, although attended by chamberlain and lords in waiting. He had reached that point in the Alps which, seeming the most remote from human life, is thronged with the pilgrims of a night. He had climbed with a companion from the castle where he had been lodged, and they had lingered on the long gallery of the inn, where in the last daylight people had been looking through the big telescope for a party lost to sight upon the mountain. Jew, Greek, and Mesopotamian made up the groups within and without when the deep velvet darkness came; a band gave gay, strange music; some danced, some played excitedly at games of chance, some smoked and talked and strolled along the narrow street with its ill-smelling runnel beside it, which not all the snows of all the peaks had purified. And over all hung the sinister Matterhorn with its dim glacier and the sidelong slant of its black Mephistophelian cap. Near the tip hung a young moon, a golden crescent in the black sky, cruel as a druid's sickle, and in a gap Mars blazed blood-red, while the great rock like some monstrous spirit of evil leaned over the place.
His sleep that night was haunted by the ill-boding thing; and it still threw a cloud over him as he went, next morning, in a special car up the Riffel Alp. It was after he had passed the great gorge on the left, where the peaks lead down a vast valley of snow-capped tops and purple slopes into a gloom like melted amethyst, had left the car and climbed on past the incongruous place of resort to the open, that, standing in presence of the ring of great snow-clad monarchs in their eternal cold and calm, the Breithorn, the Liskam, the Silberhorn, the mightier Matterhorn, wearing a different aspect up here so close to heaven, beautiful Monte Rosa, and the rest, like gods in conclave, he saw Eirene, standing as a statue might, against the burning blue of the sky, the snow of the glacier, the wind blowing off the glacier fluttering her gown. And it seemed to him, remembering the dark and evil shadow of the night before, as if he had come from hell to heaven, and this young girl were born of the heavenly air.
She turned presently, and went back to her ladies. But not till her eyes had met his; and in that long slow glance, amid the solemn grandeur all about them, Fate found him.
They met formally a few days later at Montreux, as it had been intended they should do, before Fate interposed with her previous arrangement. They wandered then of mornings in the villa garden—a corner of Eden—or sat there at night, the evening air heavy with fragrance of lemon-leaf and jasmine, and listened to the voice fluting out of the unknown, the voice of a boy drifting in his boat on Leman. They were rowed at sunset, in the white-hooded boats on the lake whose waters seemed distilled from the blueness of jewels, under the shadow of Chillon, under the beautiful shadow of the Dent du Midi. And the light of love kindled in that first look grew to a great and steady flame as they penetrated farther and farther into the recesses each of the other's nature. And through it all, and afterward, he held her in a sort of awe, as if she were a part of the serene and solemn scene where first he saw her. When, subsequently, having returned to the capital, he learned what had been done and was to be done, he recognized in his father, with quite another kind of joy, an unsuspected tenderness, in having made this possible for his son, instead of the cold and commanded marriage of state.
The days of the bridal, and, after his very immediate ascension to the throne, of his own coronation and of his Queen's—what winged flights of splendor they seemed, as he recalled them! He saw her their radiant centre, like Helen's her beauty shadowed in white veils, streaming with a white light of jewels from head to foot, the Queen Mother's gifts and urgency. She had taken life then differently from the Queen Mother. The coronation oath had meant to her her share in the protection of the people entrusted to her husband's care. To the Queen. Mother it had meant, and still meant, only influence toward aggrandizement, extension of boundaries, the ordering of tremendous armies, and supremacy among adjoining nations. The Councillors had more heartening from her than from the new King himself.
And so the Queen Eirene had gone her way into hospital charges, orphanages, the building of homes, the saving of young girls, the cleansing of communities; all things she felt, however, to be merely palliative and not reaching the root of the greater evils. And the Queen Mother smiled upon the work without regarding it, content that there was no interference with her own.
Sometimes Eirene induced her husband to go out with her, into places where she had been before, at night and unrecognized, in forlorn quarters of the town, so that he might come to know the common folk and feel them no mere puppets, but that they lived and breathed and were glad and suffered, as he might do himself. Sometimes they journeyed together into the remoter regions of the kingdom, where they saw the needs of this and that district, what irrigation would do here, what good roads there, what trained settlements, different methods, different taxes, what advantages might come from schools, from refuges for the old, what might be done with systems of rewards and encouragement. She had him go into cabins and huts at these times and talk with the old and the young. They accosted the laborer who ditched the rude path, the priest as he left his little church made half of sods, the fisher among the nets, the old beggar by the way, the crone at her hearth.
"Yes," said the Queen Mother once, when Eirene spoke of what she had seen, "perhaps they are alive, those others, as worms are, not as we are. It hardly signifies, save that they exist for our purposes. They are our pawns."
"Yet pawns," said the Jester—still a feature of that court—speaking as if he were thinking to himself, "can become queens."
"They are souls!" said Eirene to her husband. "And they are given into our keeping."
"And we cannot keep our own!" said the King.
"Yesterday, as I went along the Dalskibanza Market—"
"Your hood drawn?"
"Oh yes," she said, smiling, "in eclipse. My people with me also. I spoke to a young woman carrying her child. 'It is a splendid one,' I said. 'It had better never have been born,' she answered me. 'Is it as bad as that?' I asked. 'It is as good as that!' she exclaimed. 'It is too good to be nothing but food for powder. That is all any man-child may look forward to! What every mother finds she has brought her son into the world for!' Then I said, 'Perhaps one day there will be no more wars.' And she passed on with her boy, crying, 'Will the sun rise in the west?' She was a dark and handsome girl, and when she looked at the boy her bitter laugh melted, in spite of her, into a smile of pride and joy."
"No more wars," said the King, half sadly. "No more dreams of empire."
"Surely," said his wife, "a city governed to its remotest rod, as the city descending out of heaven from God was governed, is better than an empire, vast as desert, whose people labor and groan and starve."
"Yes, I know all you would say. But this is the thing that has gone before me from my boyhood, a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night. My father's dream; my mother's purpose. Increasing empire, and war its chariot wheels."
"We wake from our dreams," she said, sweetly.
"Now to and fro rides high and low
The King of Heaven's son.
But he will know the way to go,
Though roads a-tangle run,"
the Jester on the terrace under the window was singing.
One day the Queen Eirene heard of the work of a famous painter of battle scenes, whose pictures represented with a terrible truthfulness the crudest details of the field, the bleeding wounds, the headless shapes, the corpses trampled out of likeness by maddened horses plunging and rearing to their death, the agony that bit the dust, the gaping horror of the stone-dead face, the pools and rills of blood. She sent for the painter, and arranged that his work might be seen at court.
She shuddered as she stood before those canvases reeking with their pitiless detail of blood and fire. The Queen Mother, with various of the retinue, was present. "It is wonderful," said the Queen Mother, "the vraisemblance. Look, too, at that yellow-haired young hero riding to victory," she said, with a gay eagerness. "You would know he was of royal strain!" But at a second glance she saw that the hero had his death-wound and rode on dead. "Ah, well, another will replace him," she said. "He was a centaur. Myths are made of such men. But why do we have these pictures? They do not serve any interest of art. They give what is exaggerated and revolting. They do not give the thrill that shakes the blood in your veins at the blast of the trumpet. They should be suppressed. Men die in battle? They must die sometime. Better in the rush and the struggle than in bed of a fever!"
"Made of dust, ground to dust, returned to dust," said the Jester.
But the King saw the tear on Eirene's cheek as, in a corner of one canvas, she saw a woman with her frightened weanling on her arm, searching among the dead for her man. She turned and met his gaze. "Oh, if it were I, searching for you!" she murmured.
The King remembered these things now as he sat, his head upon his hand, his pen making idle tracings on the sheet.
There was an imperious knock on the door; and then it was quickly opened, and the heavy curtain was swept aside for his mother's entrance.
"I understand," she said, "that The Enemy has sent us proposals for a lasting peace." The Queen Mother always spoke of this Power, from which the coveted territory was to be wrested, as The Enemy.
"That is so, your Majesty," he replied, rising to seat his mother. They were quite alone.
"They surrender, then, those provinces, and give us the open sea, and acknowledge our suzerainty."
"No, Madame. Nothing of the sort."
"What then?" she demanded.
"They set before us the advantages of an alliance, and those accruing to our kingdom through the long cessation from arms."
"The imbeciles! It is effrontery! How do they dare such trifling!"
"I am not sure that it is trifling."
"Not sure!" the red kindling on her dark cheek.
"We shall not find it trifling when there is a surplus in the treasury that has not been expended in feeding and clothing armies—"
"As if one could not always borrow!"
"And pay in life-destroying taxes. It will not have been trifling when we see our streets alive with traffic; when our arts have time to flourish—"
She made another impatient movement. "What has all that to do with the immemorial policy of this government, that has waited for the propitious moment for generations, till it has come to-day!"
"Other rulers had their policies, your Majesty. I may have mine. I confess peace has great attractions for me. To-morrow is the Easter morning. I would like to send the dove of peace abroad—the dove of peace brooding here, like the spirit of Christ risen in my realm—"
"This is preposterous! This is child's play—"
"Madame, I am your son. But—"
"But you are also King. Then be a King! Are you going to give the lie to all your breeding with this sentimentality, play false to your traditions, your ancestors, your oaths, to the very blood in your veins? Will you, for the sake of pleasing a sentimentalist who gives you no heir to your crown, to your name, who puts an end to your race and dynasty, will you sit still and become a thing aside, degenerate into a tenth-rate principality, while other Powers seize these provinces and hem you in, laugh at the fable of your old prestige, and make nothing of you?"
"But, my mother—"
"Peace! The attractions of peace!" she cried, not allowing him to stem the torrent of her words. "It is war, I assure you, war that is great and good, that is glorious! It makes towns hum like hives, it gives men all the strong traits, daring, will, determination! It makes great races. It made my own people. It made yours. And your father would turn in his grave to know that such a weakling dreamed in the place where he wrought and died! Think of it, Majesty, think twice before you make your country and your reign a byword in the mouths of the nations!" And she swept from the room as if every fold of her garments were purple with anger.
A strain of the song the Jester sang in the window of the great hall came through the door as it opened and closed:
"The lady with her bodkin plays,
The bold knight with his sword,
This world, they say, was made for them,
But not for me, good Lord!"
The impetuous and imperious will of the Queen Mother had always had influence with her son. It had no less now. And by her husband's will she had a place in the Council that gave her a double claim to respect. Was it indeed true, then, that peace would lixiviate the people? he asked himself, as her words rang in his ear. Born to battle, would they wither rather than flourish in the unaccustomed conditions of peace? After all, instead of blessing his subjects would he be banning them? And in refusing to enlarge his bounds was he not only curtailing the kingdom, but denying their rights to the people? There was immense treasure in those desired provinces, to say nothing of the sea. And to be had for the taking. There was that inexhaustible wealth of mines which, wherever found, means empire; there were the grain fields of the future; there were cities to be built, with harbors and docks and markets, all waiting for the victors. Was his personal love of ease, his hatred of bloodshed and all furious evil, his sympathy with suffering, indeed only unmanly weakness? Perhaps she was right. The Councillors, men grown gray in the service of the state—was it by possibility an error to assume his own view to be more correct than theirs? It might be they should lead instead of follow—their wisdom more to the present point than his divine right. Yes—it might be best to refuse his signature to the proposals.
He threw down the pen. He leaned back in his chair, discomfited, disheartened. They wanted war—let them have it!
As he lingered, lost in his bitter thoughts, he hardly heard another tap, this time upon the door behind him, and after a moment a rustle and a light step. He knew then that it was his wife; but he did not turn his head. A gale of the sweet breath of the lilies followed her. She came up behind him and laid her hand on his shoulder. He lifted his own hand and laid it over hers. And then she bent her head till the fragrant hair swept his face and whispered a swift and broken sentence.
In the instant he forgot all else. He sprang up, and turned quickly, and caught her to his breast. "My wife! My child!" he murmured over and over in an ecstasy.
"It is God's seal upon your purpose of peace," she whispered. "A little child shall lead them. Oh, it seems as though it were His hand reaching out of heaven to bless us!"
He waited a moment, his pulses ringing in his ears like joy-bells. Still holding her, he bent and signed the paper. She bent and kissed the hand that did it. He led her to the window that overlooked the great prospect beyond the town, high on whose outer edge the royal palace stood. Far to the east the wide plains and forests rolled to the low hills, bathed in the first burst of spring's living sunlit green, fading to deeps of violet distance. "The day-star that rises there to-morrow has risen first in our hearts," he said. "Our little child shall not be born into a world of war."
And in the splendor of Easter morning, with the clash of countless bells from rocking spires, the wings of the symbolic dove flashed all across the land with Peace to the People, the Easter greeting of their King.