The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 14
I was lying on the floor. There was a light in the room. A woman was bending over me; the woman with the snake about the waist. The memory of it recurring with a sudden sense of shock, I started up.
“Where is it?”
She looked as if she did not understand.
“Where is what?”
She smiled; why, I do not know.
“The snake? Oh, it is gone.”
Apparently it had. In its place was a plain broad band of what seemed gold. I wondered if it was gold. If so, it was worth a great deal. Still wondering, I sank back upon the floor. I saw that beside me was a queer-shaped lamp, which also seemed to be of gold. It was fashioned something like a covered butter-boat, with a handle, the flame coming from the lip. I felt drowsy; the hair seemed to be heavy with perfume; one which was new to me, having a pleasantly soothing effect upon one’s nerves. Had it not been for the strangeness of my position I believe that I should then and there have fallen asleep. Turning, I stared at the stranger, who, kneeling on my left, regarded me in turn. Silence; which she broke.
“Are many Englishwomen as beautiful as you?”
I was thinking, lazily, how beautiful she was. The appositeness of the question took me aback; it startled some of the heaviness from my eyelids. I did not know what to reply. My hesitation did not please her. A sudden gleam came into her eyes; as if the wild creature which inhabited them had all at once come to the front.
“Why do you not answer? I am used to being answered. Are many Englishwomen as beautiful as you?”
“They are much more beautiful. I am not beautiful at all”
“You are beautiful. You are a liar.”
The plain directness of her speech brought the blood into my cheeks. She marked my change of colour, as if surprised.
“How do you do that?”
My tone was meek as meek could be.
“You have gone red.” I went still redder. “How do you do it? Is it a trick? It becomes you very well; it makes you still more beautiful. Is it the blood shining through your skin? You are so white, the least thing shows. To be white I would give all that I am, all that I have.”
She uttered the last words with a simple earnestness which, if she had only known it, became her much more than my blush did me. I ventured on an inquiry.
“Who are you?”
She knelt straight up. There came to her an air of dignity which lent to her a weird and thrilling fascination.
“I am she who inhabits the inner sanctuary of the temple; to whom all men and women bring their supplications, that I may lay them at the feet of the Most High Joss.”
I had not the faintest notion what she meant; but her words and manner impressed me none the less on that account. Which fact she observing was good enough not to allow it to displease her. She went on, with the same quaint, yet awe-inspiring simplicity.
“I am she who holds joy and sorrow in the hollow of my hand; ay, life and death. When I lift it the prayers of the faithful may hope for answer; when I do not lift it, their petitions are offered up in vain, for the Great Joss is sleeping; and, when he sleeps, he attends to no one’s prayers.”
She stopped. I should have liked her to have gone on; or, at least, to have been a trifle more explicit. But, possibly, she was under the impression that she had vouchsafed sufficient information, and, in exchange, would like a little out of me. She put a point blank question.
“Are you Miss Mary Blyth?”
I motioned with my hand towards the bed.
“That’s Pollie. She’s asleep.”
“Pollie? Who is Pollie? I ask, are you Miss Mary Blyth?”
“That is Mary Blyth upon the bed. I’m a friend of hers, so I call her Pollie. She’s known to all her friends as Pollie.”
She considered, knitting her brows. I half expected her to again roundly call me liar; but, instead, she asked a question, the meaning of which I scarcely grasped.
“Is Susie a name by which one is known unto one’s friends?”
“Susie? Isn’t that the pet name for Susan?”
For some reason my answer seemed to afford her a singular amount of pleasure. She broke into a soft ripple of laughter; for sheer music I had never heard anything like it before. The sound was so infectious that it actually nearly made me smile—even then! She put her hands before her face, in the enjoyment of some joke which was altogether beyond my comprehension; then, holding out her arms, extended them on either side of her as wide as she possibly could.
“It is a pet name; Susie, a pet name! It is the pet name by which one is known to one’s—friends!”
There was a slight pause before “friends”; as if she hesitated whether or not to substitute another word. I should have liked to have inquired what the jest was, but there was something in her bearing which suggested that it was so personal to herself that I did not dare. When she had got out of it what perhaps occurred to her as being sufficient enjoyment, quitting the kneeling posture which she had occupied till then, she rose to her feet and went to the bed.
By now I was wide awake, my perceptions were well on the alert. The sense of terror which had so nearly brought me to a condition of paralysis had grown considerably less. I do not pretend that fear had altogether vanished, nor that with but a little provocation it would not have returned with all its former force. But, for the moment, certainly, curiosity was to the front. My chief anxiety was not to allow one of my mysterious visitor’s movements, no matter how insignificant, to escape my notice. I observed with what suppleness she rose to her feet; how, in the noiseless way in which she passed to the bed, there was something which reminded me of wild animals I had seen at the Zoological Gardens. When she bent over the sleeping Pollie there was something in her pose which recalled them again. For some seconds she was still; I had a peculiar feeling, as I watched her from behind, that with those extraordinary eyes of hers she was scorching the sleeper’s countenance.
“She is not beautiful. No, she is not beautiful, like you. But there is that in her face which reminds me of another I have seen. She is clever, strong bodied, strong willed, she knows no fear. When she is brought face to face with fear she laughs at it. She sleeps sound. It is like her to sleep sound when no one else could sleep at all.” Although I could not see the speaker’s face I knew she smiled. “It is funny it should have been given to her. She will never do as she is told; it is because she is told that she will never do it. Obedience is not for her, it is for those with whom she lives to obey.” She glanced round. “It is for you.”
There was a sting in the little air of malice with which it was said, although the thing was true. It nettled me to think how soon she had found me out. She returned to Pollie without deigning to notice how her words had been received.
“Let her sleep on. So sound a sleep should know no sudden waking.” Again there was malice in her tone. She passed her hand two or three times in front of Pollie’s face. “Now she’ll have no evil dreams. It is funny it should have been given to her; very funny. It should have been given to you; you are different. But it is like that things happen; the world is crooked.”
She had returned towards me.
“Have you a lover?”
Her trick of asking the most delicate questions in the abruptest and baldest fashion I found more than a little disconcerting. Although I tried to keep it back, again the blood flamed to my cheeks, all the more because I half expected to have her repeat her enquiry as to how I got it there. For some ridiculous reason I thought of Mr. Frank Paine. It was too absurd. Of course I had only seen him once, and then I had scarcely looked at him, although I could not help noticing that, though he had not bad eyes, in other respects he was positively ugly, and most stilted in his manners. I might never see the man again, probably never should. I was sure I did not want to. And, anyhow, he was absolutely nothing to me, nor, under any possible circumstances, ever could be. It made me wild to think that I should think of him, especially when I was asked such a question as that.
“No,” I stammered.
“No? That is strange. Since you are so beautiful.”
“I am not beautiful. Why do you say that I am beautiful?”
“Is it possible that you do not know that you are beautiful? You must be very silly. I knew all about myself long before I was as old as you. You have the kind of face which, when a man sees, he desires; you also have the shape. You are not like her.” She jerked her shoulder towards the bed. “You are a woman; and a fool.”
I did not like the way she spoke to me at all. She might be a walking mystery—and she certainly was—but that was no reason why she should be impertinent as well.
“Why do you say such things to me? Is a woman of necessity a fool?”
“If she is wise she is. It is a fool that a man desires; if she is a fool she will rule him when he has her. The greater fool is governed by the lesser.”
She had a most astonishing way of talking. Considering her age, and, in years, I felt convinced that she was the merest slip of a girl, she professed to have a knowledge of the world which was amazing. I did not know what to say; not being used to carry on a conversation on the lines which she seemed to favour. So she asked another question, with another jerk of her shoulder towards the bed.
“Has she a lover?”
“No! That is stranger still! A real lover? What sort of a man is he?”
“He’s not a bad sort.”
“Not a bad sort? What is that? Is he rich?”
“Rich!” I smiled at the idea of Tom Cooper being rich. “He is very far from being rich, unfortunately for him, and for Pollie too. He is an assistant in a shop.”
“A shop? What kind of shop?”
“A draper’s? Isn’t that where they sell things for women to wear? What kind of a man is he who is in a shop in which they sell things for women to cover their bodies? Is it his life which he lives there? But, after all, that is the kind of lover one would have supposed she would have had. It is he who must obey.” I felt that she was hard on Pollie, and on Mr. Cooper. It seemed to be her way to be hard on everyone. “But you—why have you no lover?”
I really did not know what to answer. It was such a difficult question, to say nothing of its delicacy. Of course I had had lovers, of a sort. One need not give a list, but there had been incidents. At the same time it was not easy to enter into particulars, at a moment’s notice, to a perfect stranger, under such conditions as obtained just then.
“I hardly know what to say to you. I suppose I am not too old to have one yet.”
It was a silly remark to make. But it was either that or silence. And she did not seem to like me not to answer her.
“One should have a lover when one is still a little young.”
“What’s your idea of a little young? Are you inferring that I’m a trifle old?”
“The day passes; a lover should come in the morning; when the sun is just lighting the sky.”
There was an air of superiority about her which I did not altogether relish. She might be somebody wonderful, and I was quite willing to admit that she was; but one does not care to be snubbed. So far as I could see she was snubbing me all the time. So I asked her a question in my turn.
“You speak as if you had had a great deal of experience. May I ask if you have a lover?”
“Can you not see it in my eyes?”
I could not. Hers were wonderful eyes, especially when the blaze came into them as it did as she spoke. But one required remarkable powers of observation to know that she had a lover merely by looking at her eyes. I hesitated, however, to say as much; and luckily she went on without rendering it necessary for me to say anything at all.
“Can you not see it in my face? my smile? the way I breathe? the joy of life that’s in me? Is it that, although you’re white, you’re stupid? I thought it was plain to all the world; to another woman most of all. One morning I woke; I was what I was; he had not come. He came before the sun set; I was what I am now; there were no shadows that night for me; the sun has not set since.”
Her language was really a little above my head. Though I confess that I liked the way in which she spoke. It set my heart all beating. And her words rang like silver trumpets in my ears. And she looked so lovely as she stood with her beautiful head thrown a little back, and her hands held out in front as if her heart was in them. Yet, at the same time, if she had expressed herself in a somewhat different manner, I should have gathered more exactly what it was she meant. She had stopped, as if she thought that it was time for me to speak. So I blundered.
“Was the gentleman a—a countryman of yours?”
“A countryman of mine? What do you mean by a countryman of mine? How do you know what my country is?”
I was sorry I had asked the question directly the words had passed my lips, though I never dreamt that she would take it up in the way she did. She flew at me in a way which gave me quite a start. The wild animal which was in her eyes came to the front with a sudden rush, as if it would spring right out at me.
“I’m sure no offence was intended, and I beg your pardon if any has been given. Because, as you say, I have not the faintest notion what your country is.”
“England is my country. I am English—all of me!—to there!”
As she put her hands behind her I suppose she meant that she was English to the backbone. All I could say was that she did not look it, and she did not sound it either. But not for worlds would I have mentioned the fact at that moment. She came closer, eyeing me as if she would have pierced me through and through.
“You think that he is black? You think it? You insult me, the daughter of the gods, in whose hands are life and death! Shall I tear the heart out of your body? Shall I kill you? Tell me!—yes or no!”
It seemed an unnecessary answer to give, but I felt that I might as well give expression to my sentiments since she was so insistent. Though I thought it quite likely that she might at any moment commence, as she called it, to tear the heart out of my body, while I waited for the moment to arrive I could not but own that, even in her rage, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. But it seemed that she decided that, after all, it would be scarcely worth her while to soil her fingers just for the sake of tearing me to pieces; so she emptied the vials of her scorn on me instead.
“Bah! You are a fool—of the fools! That is all you are. You know nothing, not even what you say. Why should I attend to the witless when they babble? Listen to me—fool!”
She held her finger up close to my nose. I listened with might and main. She spoke as if she intended to lay emphasis upon her every word.
“He is English, my lover, of the English; of the flower of the nation. He is not one who lives in shops which pretend to help ugly women to hide their ugliness; he is not that kind. His home is the wide world. He is tall, and brave, and strong; a ruler of men; handsome beyond any of his fellows.” She made that last statement as if she dared me to question it by so much as a movement of my eyelids. “Were you but to see his picture you would faint for love of him.” I wondered. “With all women it is so. But, beware! Hide yourself when he is coming; if he but deigns to look on you I’ll tear you into pieces. I suffer no woman to stand in his presence, save only I.”
Words and manner suggested not only that she was not by any means too sure of the gentleman’s affection, but, also, that there was a lively time in store for him. If she wished to be taken literally, and really did mean that no woman was to be allowed to stand in his presence except herself, then the sooner she returned to the particular parts from which, in spite of all that she might say to the contrary, I felt sure she came, then the pleasanter it would be for everyone concerned. I should like to see the man in whose presence I was not to be allowed to stand.
I said nothing when she stopped; I had nothing to say. Or, rather, if I had been allowed a moment or two to think it over, and been given time to get back a little of my breath again, I should have had such a quantity to say that I should have been at a loss as to which end I had better begin. Nor do I fancy that her temper would have been improved wherever I had started.
While she was still glaring as if she would like to eat me, her finger-nails within an inch or two of my face, and I was thinking, in spite of my natural indignation, not to speak of other things, that being in a rage positively suited her, for the second time that night, there came from below what sounded like the opening of a door. On the instant she stood up straight. She looked more than ever like one of the beautiful wild creatures at the Zoo; poised so lightly on her feet, with every sense on the alert, listening as if she did not intend to allow the dropping of a pin to escape her. Suddenly she stooped; waved her hands before my face; caught up the lamp from the floor; vanished from the room.