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XIV. THE KING’S DESIRE, AND WHAT BECAME OF IT
The party of us that came up from River Ward to Leaping Water turned aside from the meadow where the Meet had been, and settled in one of the galleries of that amphitheater looking down on its veiled cascades. The shouting of the falls came up to us mixed with the faint, incessant murmur given off by a great forest. From here the rim of the world sank westward into the thin blue ring of the sea.

We had come so slowly, being joined at times by families of Outliers, come out of safe hiding and already furnished with news. We were scarcely well settled in the place when word of the death of the Ward began to circulate among them in that mysterious way of news to travel in the open. Doubtless it came by way of runners stationed out toward Windy Covers, by which trail the seekers of the Ward 277returned. Rumor of it was rife in the camp a full hour before Mancha and Prassade came in. There was very little said about it, they were at all times as private in their griefs as wild creatures, but I think they felt better satisfied to learn that the natural progress of her betrayal had furnished its own punishment and spared them the necessity of putting Zirriloë to death.

Herman came and told me this, walking at dusk on an open hill where there was long grass blowing and shut-eyed heavy flowers among the grasses. But it was a long time before he would talk freely of that suggestion of excuse, put forth by Ravenutzi, which lay in the appeal to his craftsman’s soul of the girl’s bodily perfection. He had been no more able to resist taking into his hand that fair contrivance than any other jewel of gold and fine stones, and its turning to flesh and blood under his touch had been a bitter and unavoidable consequence. I think Herman’s inarticulateness grew out of feeling himself involved in the ruin of a lovely woman in the common culpability of men. She was a vase which they had pulled about among them in admiring, and dropped and shattered.

278I say I think Herman felt this, though I do not now recall any words that passed between us on the subject. Yet I was at that time much nearer to understanding the beguilement of beauty, and the pain of its bafflement which drives men to create of words and paint and stone, forms of it by which no confusion can come. When I saw Ravenutzi sitting among the Far-Folk, with his knees drawn up under his hands and his delicate faun’s profile bent above them, looking out at me in the old way, at once wishful and compelling, the look I sent back to him was almost kind.

The whiteness of his hair had been cut away, the drawn look of his skin smoothed out. I saw how young he was, a little of what those two women had seen who had been drawn by it to death and killing. His wife sat with her head propped against his shoulder. And for so long as she sat there, assured, accepted, it was plain there was for her neither anxiety nor pained remembrance, nor any other thing.

One supposes death at all times so natural that the wound of it heals by its own processes. It was so with the Outliers. No later than the next morning much of the bitterness of loss had drained away with the dark. The business 279of the Ward being finished they turned without discursiveness to disposing of Ravenutzi, the Far-Folk and the King’s Desire. Though we had no inkling, Herman and I, what would be done to the smith, we felt it would be just; and whatever would be done to the Far-Folk, more than kind. Concerning the Treasure there must some command have circulated. Though we had seen it glinting in the camp at River Ward—there was scarcely a man who had not brought something away with him from the last fight—there was not so much as the red sparkle of a jewel to be seen at Leaping Water.

The Council met early on the second morning, going down toward Council Hollow before the dew was dried upon the fern. All the camp, scattered as it was in a great treeless tract, hung in the breathless quiet of suspense. There was scarcely any stir of talk or movement except now and then among the Far-Folk, who lay all together like cattle on a warm hill slope, turning toward the sun.

Herman and I, since no one seemed to regard us, thought of going down to revisit the meadow and the lovely open water below the Leap. But the expectant sense that brooded 280over the camp bound us to the consideration of what might be decided about us personally at the Council. If we looked afar at the sea rim, trying to make out at what point we were, we looked suddenly back to see if the councilors were not coming up the hill. If we heard a lark rising with its breast all brightening yellow from some grassy water border, we listened the more anxiously immediately to hear if any one had come to call us in to judgment.

When the shadows were gone far toward midday we heard what might have been the breaking out of bird songs low and urgently through all the open woodland. There was a sound of feet moving all together, and then some one calling us by name. The Council men were coming up from the Hollow and the Outliers crowded up to them to hear what they had to say. They said nothing whatever until we were all come into hearing, and ranged, the Far-Folk on one side and we on the other, on the crown of a hill, open, and having a large grassy space beyond it.

I thought then, and I have not since reconsidered it, that of all times the noon is the most solemn in which to deliver judgment. When all the earth is quiet, shadows folded 281up, no bird singing, no beast abroad, all the outer sense drowses under the sun glare. At such a time to hear a voice crying punishment and doom is more terrible than any hour of night. A convocation of wolves in the open sun would not have seemed more singular, but this was not a business which could await a gentler time.

We could see Persilope standing up, all expression beaten out of his face by the sun, like leaf under the gold beater’s hand. Presently when we were all well quieted, he began in a voice pitched for carrying, but toneless as the light, ordering some skins to be spread in the grassy space in front of him. Then it was ordered that all the Outliers who had anything of the King’s Desire should bring it to that place. The chief held up as he spoke, the circlet which he had taken from Oca’s head; and as he turned it in the sun, it melted and ran a ring of changing fire. When he had done speaking he cast it down with so much force that the setting, which was old and delicate, burst and sent the stones scattering like broken coals. There was a little pause after that, and then Noche, springing up from behind him, held up the King’s Cup, but neither so 282high nor so steadily. A little laggard of perception, as the very strong commonly are, the point of what Ravenutzi had said about the way in which he had come to learn the secret of the Treasure, had driven slowly to the old man’s brain. Now it troubled his countenance: his eyes were dark sockets between the drift of his brows and beard. He held up the vase in his hands.

“Cup of the Four Quarters,” he said, “O Cup of Tears!” His strength surged in him with the recollection; the bowl crumpled in his grip, he bent back the base upon the stem and dropped it on the ground.

After him came every man with what he had; armlets and buckles and chains of wrought and beaten gold and jewels, and the jeweled lamps and vessels. The heap grew; it glittered and darted pain into the eyes; it had green and blue and ruby gleams in it that winked and mocked the sun. When it was all in—all but the great rubies which lie still in a place known only to some few of us who are not likely to go there to fetch them—and the men had sat down again, Persilope began.

He spoke steadily and without passion, 283saying what was well known to them, that a curse was laid on whoever lifted the King’s Desire. But the truth was, the curse lay in the mere possession of it by whatever means; as if one should expect to keep a viper in his house and not himself be stung by it. Itlan had been destroyed for it, and all those of their own people who had kept the Treasure since, had purchased nothing but wars and trouble with it. All of which being within their knowledge and true, it was agreed for the safety of the Outliers to cast out the King’s Desire as men would a poison snake which they had found among the huts.

At this there was a spark, a quiver of expectancy among the Far-Folk. As if they imagined, eyeing it so greedily, that the treasure heap was to be handed over to them as it lay, not so very unlike the snake of his comparison, coiled glisteningly upon itself with red jeweled eyes.

Such an expectation, if it amounted to that, died with Persilope’s next sentence, which was, briefly, to the effect that for all these reasons it had been determined that when the Treasure was buried again, as it shortly would be, it was to be followed by a forgetfulness 284from which there would be no revival. It was to be forgetfulness of such a fashion—here he looked over at Ravenutzi and the bleakness of his delivery augmented—that there would be no picking of their brains afterward.

I could see that the news of this conclusion had already spread and been accepted by the Outliers. It was, perhaps, in the eye of all that had recently occurred, not strange they should accept it with so much gravity, and on the part of the women with some consternation.

I looked over at Trastevera where she sat close to her husband. I saw her look doubtfully; write with her finger in the dust. Then I saw that no Outlier looked at any other, but down or up. I thought I understood that though they agreed with the judgment, no one wished to assume the responsibility and drink so deeply of the Cup. It had not yet occurred to me that there was any other way in which complete forgetfulness could be secured.

I saw Persilope search his people slowly with his glance before he spoke in a voice heard to the outer ring.

“Outliers, are you all here?”

285It was followed by the rustle and murmur by which they took account of themselves and of those left beyond River Ward with the wounded. The murmur, swelled to affirmation, passed from group to group and was handed up to Persilope by the nearest council-men.

“We are all here.”

“Know then,” he said, his voice and words shaping to formality and sounding drearily in the white aching noon, “that there is a service to be performed for the common good, and a penalty to be undertaken. The Council leaves it open to any man who loves the common good so much, now to offer himself. Is there any so offers?”

And still the eye of no Outlier sought any other eye, only I saw Trastevera look up from her drawing and, leaning a little past the others, gaze steadily toward some spot beyond her with a long, compelling look. Before I could follow it to its point of attention, almost before Persilope had done speaking, I saw Noche getting on his feet, blinking a little as though the light abashed him, and fumbling embarrassedly at his girdle like a child.

“If I should be counted worthy ... if I 286could be trusted again....” He shook with eagerness. “Tribesmen, it is my right, for it was through my doddering old tongue the secret escaped.... Ask him.” He pointed to Ravenutzi. “He said so; ask them.” His great, gnarly arm, like the stump of an oak, was stretched toward Prassade and Mancha, and it trembled like an oak when the axe is at its roots. “Ask them if he did not say so at the Place of Caves ... though I would have died rather....”

“It was from my hand the Ward was loosed ... under my eyes he seduced her mind ... fool, fool!” This was the voice of Waddyn, who rose up in his place behind Noche, tall and very gaunt, as some old wolf of the wilderness. He struck himself on the breast. “We are old men,” he said, “shall we have discredit at the last? Chief, are we accepted?”

In their eagerness he and Noche had struck hands together like two children come to beg a holiday, dropping apart as the murmur of acceptance ran among the Outliers and made them men again. “You are accepted,” announced Persilope. So they sat down again, each in his place, quite contented.

There was a little pause here. I was trying 287from where I sat to have a glimpse of Ravenutzi, to see how this affected him, if at all, when I heard some disturbance behind me, and a voice crying out:

“No, no, I cannot lose you both!”

I turned, and I saw Prassade stooping to disengage his knees from his wife’s clinging, and holding her from him by the shoulders, begin to speak.

“I also....”

“Outliers,” he said, and by the hollowness of his voice and the sinking of his cheek under the red beard they saw what havoc grief and disgrace had made in him, “Outliers, it is through my blood dishonor came, and one of my blood must cure it. There is none but me.”

There was a general outcry of dismayed protest and assurance.

“Not you, Prassade, not you....”

“No fault of yours....”

“She has paid....”

“She was but a child, she has paid in full....”

And then from the woman at his feet:

“Think of me, Prassade.”

288“Think of what I think on day and night,” cried Prassade, “and let me go.”

“Prassade,” said the young chief, greatly troubled, “in that which we propose to do, when this business is settled, I shall have great need, as in the past I have had great benefit, from your interest and advice....”

“No, no!...” The man’s voice was a desperate gasp merely. “Never shall I give counsel who could not advise my own child against dishonor”—holding his wife from him still, though the poor creature worked toward him on her knees. “Never shall I beget children again who have been betrayed by my own child.... Ah ... let me go ... let me go ... and by service ... by forgetting....” There was something almost of madness in his wounded desperation. I suppose his wife must have seen that. She left off entreaty and took his hand, fondling it quietly, turning as she was, upon her knees, toward Persilope and the elders, quite broken and submissive.

“It is best you let him go,” she said, “he will be happier so.”

Prassade caught at this, his lip was wet with eagerness.

289“Ay, ay, how can I know happiness again? She knows I cannot.”

“Are you sure,” said Persilope to the wife, “that you are prepared for ... that you understand?”

“I understand,” she answered back, neither of them looking at the man in question. “If it means peace for him, I am....” She threw out her hands to show how obedient she was to destiny.

“Am I accepted, chief; am I accepted?” The man trembled with the hope of deliverance.

“You are accepted,” the chief admitted, seeing there was no one disposed to deny him. There was a space of stillness in the bright palpitating noon before Persilope, measuring the heap of gold and jeweled vessels with his eye, had turned back and said: “It wants yet another.”

Then I saw his wife leaning a little from where she sat with her glance still fixed and compelling. I followed it past the line of elders and found it fixed on Ravenutzi. Before I could shape in my mind what wordless urgency lay behind that look, I saw the smith rise slowly, and stepping carefully among the 290rows of seated captives, come and stand beside Prassade and the two others. Trastevera sunk backward in her seat with the look of one justified in a long belief.

“I,” he said, “offer myself.”

At this simple and unexpected intrusion of the smith into the situation, there burst from the Outliers a sudden sharp hiss of refusal and indignation. It was followed instantly after by harsh ironical laughter. Cries sounded, here and there two arms and a head cast up, like the crest of a wolf out of a pack, protestingly, and hands pulled him down again.

“The smith, the smith!” they cried. “A reparation, a reparation!”

They were fierce for the moment with the irony of the situation and their grim enjoyment of it. Yet, though there was a kind of justice in making the man who had dared most to possess the King’s Desire the best keeper of it, I thought they might easily have found a better punishment. Ravenutzi was, as I believed, a man of great sensibility. There must have been many things in that connection he would be wishful to forget. And I could not understand why his willingness to take the Cup in such company confirmed in Trastevera 291the hope of a latent nobleness in him which had been her own excuse for her former kindness. Neither could I any more understand the unmirthful humor of the Outliers.

Nor, I think, did the Far-Folk then understand it, looking askance and half hopeful, as if in spite of everything they expected Ravenutzi’s wit to bring something out of the situation to their profit. But the Outliers continuing to shout: “The smith, the smith! A reparation!” Persilope was obliged formally to announce his acceptance.

Ravenutzi’s part in the reburial of the Treasure being settled, the four men went to work to cord it up conveniently for carrying. Without further ceremony they took tools for digging and set out from the camp with the Treasure swung between them. They went toward the deep forest and by such a trail that, when they had passed over a little rise of ground a few hundred yards from us, no one could see the way they went. No one moved from his place lest he should accuse himself of a wish to do so.

We sat and watched below us the banner of the Leap stream through its irised changes, saw the shadows shrink and stretch toward 292afternoon. Sat so still that a little black bear came out of the manzanita and whoofed and ran across the outstretched legs of the Outliers, and a troop of deer trotted up from the valley and stared soft-eyed at us, skirting the rim of the hollow. Two or three hours went over us, and hawks began to dart out of the scrub to hunt before we heard the four returning. They were tired, overdone, but they had bathed at the creek and set their clothing in order. No soiling traces betrayed where they had been.

They came up and delivered themselves as for inspection to Persilope. What followed was very brief.

“Is it accomplished?” said the chief.

“It is accomplished.”

“You are prepared, then?”

“We are prepared.”

Some slight bequests followed concerning articles of property, which the chief took as executor.

“My young sons ...” said Prassade.

“Are mine.”

“Then we are ready.”

All this time Ravenutzi had not said a word. One by one the Outliers, as I had seen them do 293with Daria, came up to take their leave. It was done with a deep and moving brevity. I came in my turn and cried a little over old Noche.

“Have you forgiven me for overhearing what you never meant for me?” said I.

“Child, I bless you for it: but for you we might not have had back again what my prattling lost.”

All this time no one spoke to Ravenutzi. Trastevera stopped before him for a moment or two, and some wordless assurance of reconciliation passed between them. He had not asked for farewells from his own people and the Outliers had not suggested it. All being over, the four men began to walk from the camp and away from the sun. As they passed the old King of the Far-Folk, he stood up, biting his long beard.

“Oh, my King,” said Ravenutzi, speaking loud that the Outliers might suspect no hidden communication, “I have done what I could.”

“O smith,” said Oca, bitter with impotence, “it shall be remembered.”

They passed on until they had reached a knoll that lifted them clear of intervening 294scrub. They stood there, turned facing us; the light, strong against them, made them indistinct, the wind blurred the folds of their garments. I looked about expecting one with the Cup, and saw instead a score of the slingsmen measuring off their ground.

They stood with the sun to their backs and swung their slings lightly to free them for action. Until that moment I had not a notion what was really forward, nor I think had the Far-Folk. When they heard the slight preparatory whistling of the slings I saw the wife of Ravenutzi start as if they had stung upon her flesh. She looked up and saw the four standing so quietly and the young men with their slings drawn to position across the grassy intervening space. Noiselessly she sprang up and began running. Swiftly as she cleared the space between her and Ravenutzi it was not swift enough. The word was given, the slings were up and whirling; swifter than birds the stones took their flight. I saw her leaping on the knoll and her husband’s arms opened to receive her, then I heard the singing of the stones and saw them go down, with her body across his, all so quietly, as grass is mown in summer.


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