Lilith by George MacDonald
Chapter XXIX. The Persian Cat
I sat in silence and shame. What he said was true: I had not been a wise neighbour to the Little Ones!
Mr. Raven resumed:
"You wronged at the same time the stupid creatures themselves. For them slavery would have been progress. To them a few such lessons as you could have given them with a stick from one of their own trees, would have been invaluable."
"I did not know they were cowards!"
"What difference does that make? The man who grounds his action on another's cowardice, is essentially a coward himself.--I fear worse will come of it! By this time the Little Ones might have been able to protect themselves from the princess, not to say the giants--they were always fit enough for that; as it was they laughed at them! but now, through your relations with her,----"
"I hate her!" I cried.
"Did you let her know you hated her?"
Again I was silent.
"Not even to her have you been faithful!--But hush! we were followed from the fountain, I fear!"
"No living creature did I see!--except a disreputable-looking cat that bolted into the shrubbery."
"It was a magnificent Persian--so wet and draggled, though, as to look what she was--worse than disreputable!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Raven?" I cried, a fresh horror taking me by the throat. "--There was a beautiful blue Persian about the house, but she fled at the very sound of water!--Could she have been after the goldfish?"
"We shall see!" returned the librarian. "I know a little about cats of several sorts, and there is that in the room which will unmask this one, or I am mistaken in her."
He rose, went to the door of the closet, brought from it the mutilated volume, and sat down again beside me. I stared at the book in his hand: it was a whole book, entire and sound!
"Where was the other half of it?" I gasped.
"Sticking through into my library," he answered.
I held my peace. A single question more would have been a plunge into a bottomless sea, and there might be no time!
"Listen," he said: "I am going to read a stanza or two. There is one present who, I imagine, will hardly enjoy the reading!"
He opened the vellum cover, and turned a leaf or two. The parchment was discoloured with age, and one leaf showed a dark stain over two-thirds of it. He slowly turned this also, and seemed looking for a certain passage in what appeared a continuous poem. Somewhere about the middle of the book he began to read.
But what follows represents--not what he read, only the impression it made upon me. The poem seemed in a language I had never before heard, which yet I understood perfectly, although I could not write the words, or give their meaning save in poor approximation. These fragments, then, are the shapes which those he read have finally taken in passing again through my brain:--
"But if I found a man that could believe In what he saw not, felt not, and yet knew, From him I should take substance, and receive Firmness and form relate to touch and view; Then should I clothe me in the likeness true Of that idea where his soul did cleave!"
He turned a leaf and read again:--
"In me was every woman. I had power Over the soul of every living man, Such as no woman ever had in dower-- Could what no woman ever could, or can; All women, I, the woman, still outran, Outsoared, outsank, outreigned, in hall or bower. "For I, though me he neither saw nor heard, Nor with his hand could touch finger of mine, Although not once my breath had ever stirred A hair of him, could trammel brain and spine With rooted bonds which Death could not untwine-- Or life, though hope were evermore deferred."
Again he paused, again turned a leaf, and again began:--
"For by his side I lay, a bodiless thing; I breathed not, saw not, felt not, only thought, And made him love me--with a hungering After he knew not what--if it was aught Or but a nameless something that was wrought By him out of himself; for I did sing "A song that had no sound into his soul; I lay a heartless thing against his heart, Giving him nothing where he gave his whole Being to clothe me human, every part: That I at last into his sense might dart, Thus first into his living mind I stole. "Ah, who was ever conquering Love but I! Who else did ever throne in heart of man! To visible being, with a gladsome cry Waking, life's tremor through me throbbing ran!"
A strange, repulsive feline wail arose somewhere in the room. I started up on my elbow and stared about me, but could see nothing.
Mr. Raven turned several leaves, and went on:--
"Sudden I woke, nor knew the ghastly fear That held me--not like serpent coiled about, But like a vapour moist, corrupt, and drear, Filling heart, soul, and breast and brain throughout; My being lay motionless in sickening doubt, Nor dared to ask how came the horror here. "My past entire I knew, but not my now; I understood nor what I was, nor where; I knew what I had been: still on my brow I felt the touch of what no more was there! I was a fainting, dead, yet live Despair; A life that flouted life with mop and mow! "That I was a queen I knew right well, And sometimes wore a splendour on my head Whose flashing even dead darkness could not quell-- The like on neck and arms and girdle-stead; And men declared a light my closed eyes shed That killed the diamond in its silver cell."
Again I heard the ugly cry of feline pain. Again I looked, but saw neither shape nor motion. Mr. Raven seemed to listen a moment, but again turned several pages, and resumed:--
"Hideously wet, my hair of golden hue Fouled my fair hands: to have it swiftly shorn I had given my rubies, all for me dug new-- No eyes had seen, and such no waist had worn! For a draught of water from a drinking horn, For one blue breath, I had given my sapphires blue! "Nay, I had given my opals for a smock, A peasant-maiden's garment, coarse and clean: My shroud was rotting! Once I heard a cock Lustily crow upon the hillock green Over my coffin. Dulled by space between, Came back an answer like a ghostly mock."
Once more arose the bestial wail.
"I thought some foul thing was in the room!" said the librarian, casting a glance around him; but instantly he turned a leaf or two, and again read:--
"For I had bathed in milk and honey-dew, In rain from roses shook, that ne'er touched earth, And ointed me with nard of amber hue; Never had spot me spotted from my birth, Or mole, or scar of hurt, or fret of dearth; Never one hair superfluous on me grew. "Fleeing cold whiteness, I would sit alone-- Not in the sun--I feared his bronzing light, But in his radiance back around me thrown By fulgent mirrors tempering his might; Thus bathing in a moon-bath not too bright, My skin I tinted slow to ivory tone. "But now, all round was dark, dark all within! My eyes not even gave out a phantom-flash; My fingers sank in pulp through pulpy skin; My body lay death-weltered in a mash Of slimy horrors----"
With a fearsome yell, her clammy fur staring in clumps, her tail thick as a cable, her eyes flashing green as a chrysoprase, her distended claws entangling themselves so that she floundered across the carpet, a huge white cat rushed from somewhere, and made for the chimney. Quick as thought the librarian threw the manuscript between her and the hearth. She crouched instantly, her eyes fixed on the book. But his voice went on as if still he read, and his eyes seemed also fixed on the book:--
"Ah, the two worlds! so strangely are they one, And yet so measurelessly wide apart! Oh, had I lived the bodiless alone And from defiling sense held safe my heart, Then had I scaped the canker and the smart, Scaped life-in-death, scaped misery's endless moan!"
At these words such a howling, such a prolonged yell of agony burst from the cat, that we both stopped our ears. When it ceased, Mr. Raven walked to the fire-place, took up the book, and, standing between the creature and the chimney, pointed his finger at her for a moment. She lay perfectly still. He took a half-burnt stick from the hearth, drew with it some sign on the floor, put the manuscript back in its place, with a look that seemed to say, "Now we have her, I think!" and, returning to the cat, stood over her and said, in a still, solemn voice:--
"Lilith, when you came here on the way to your evil will, you little thought into whose hands you were delivering yourself!-- Mr. Vane, when God created me,--not out of Nothing, as say the unwise, but out of His own endless glory--He brought me an angelic splendour to be my wife: there she lies! For her first thought was power; she counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being. One child, indeed, she bore; then, puffed with the fancy that she had created her, would have me fall down and worship her! Finding, however, that I would but love and honour, never obey and worship her, she poured out her blood to escape me, fled to the army of the aliens, and soon had so ensnared the heart of the great Shadow, that he became her slave, wrought her will, and made her queen of Hell. How it is with her now, she best knows, but I know also. The one child of her body she fears and hates, and would kill, asserting a right, which is a lie, over what God sent through her into His new world. Of creating, she knows no more than the crystal that takes its allotted shape, or the worm that makes two worms when it is cloven asunder. Vilest of God's creatures, she lives by the blood and lives and souls of men. She consumes and slays, but is powerless to destroy as to create."
The animal lay motionless, its beryl eyes fixed flaming on the man: his eyes on hers held them fixed that they could not move from his.
"Then God gave me another wife--not an angel but a woman--who is to this as light is to darkness."
The cat gave a horrible screech, and began to grow bigger. She went on growing and growing. At last the spotted leopardess uttered a roar that made the house tremble. I sprang to my feet. I do not think Mr. Raven started even with his eyelids.
"It is but her jealousy that speaks," he said, "jealousy self-kindled, foiled and fruitless; for here I am, her master now whom she, would not have for her husband! while my beautiful Eve yet lives, hoping immortally! Her hated daughter lives also, but beyond her evil ken, one day to be what she counts her destruction--for even Lilith shall be saved by her childbearing. Meanwhile she exults that my human wife plunged herself and me in despair, and has borne me a countless race of miserables; but my Eve repented, and is now beautiful as never was woman or angel, while her groaning, travailing world is the nursery of our Father's children. I too have repented, and am blessed.--Thou, Lilith, hast not yet repented; but thou must.--Tell me, is the great Shadow beautiful? Knowest thou how long thou wilt thyself remain beautiful?--Answer me, if thou knowest."
Then at last I understood that Mr. Raven was indeed Adam, the old and the new man; and that his wife, ministering in the house of the dead, was Eve, the mother of us all, the lady of the New Jerusalem.
The leopardess reared; the flickering and fleeing of her spots began; the princess at length stood radiant in her perfect shape.
"I am beautiful--and immortal!" she said--and she looked the goddess she would be.
"As a bush that burns, and is consumed," answered he who had been her husband. "--What is that under thy right hand?"
For her arm lay across her bosom, and her hand was pressed to her side.
A swift pang contorted her beautiful face, and passed.
"It is but a leopard-spot that lingers! it will quickly follow those I have dismissed," she answered.
"Thou art beautiful because God created thee, but thou art the slave of sin: take thy hand from thy side."
Her hand sank away, and as it dropt she looked him in the eyes with a quailing fierceness that had in it no surrender.
He gazed a moment at the spot.
"It is not on the leopard; it is in the woman!" he said. "Nor will it leave thee until it hath eaten to thy heart, and thy beauty hath flowed from thee through the open wound!"
She gave a glance downward, and shivered.
"Lilith," said Adam, and his tone had changed to a tender beseeching, "hear me, and repent, and He who made thee will cleanse thee!"
Her hand returned quivering to her side. Her face grew dark. She gave the cry of one from whom hope is vanishing. The cry passed into a howl. She lay writhing on the floor, a leopardess covered with spots.
"The evil thou meditatest," Adam resumed, "thou shalt never compass, Lilith, for Good and not Evil is the Universe. The battle between them may last for countless ages, but it must end: how will it fare with thee when Time hath vanished in the dawn of the eternal morn? Repent, I beseech thee; repent, and be again an angel of God!"
She rose, she stood upright, a woman once more, and said,
"I will not repent. I will drink the blood of thy child." My eyes were fastened on the princess; but when Adam spoke, I turned to him: he stood towering above her; the form of his visage was altered, and his voice was terrible.
"Down!" he cried; "or by the power given me I will melt thy very bones."
She flung herself on the floor, dwindled and dwindled, and was again a gray cat. Adam caught her up by the skin of her neck, bore her to the closet, and threw her in. He described a strange figure on the threshold, and closing the door, locked it.
Then he returned to my side the old librarian, looking sad and worn, and furtively wiping tears from his eyes.