|ACROSS THE ZODIAC by Percy Greg|
Chapter XIX—A Complete Establishment.
Before I slept Eveena had convinced me, much to my own discomfiture, how very limited must be any authority that could be delegated to her. In such a household there could be no second head or deputy, and an attempt to devolve any effective charge on her would only involve her in trouble and odium. Even at the breakfast, spread as usual in the centre of the peristyle, she entreated that we should present ourselves separately. Eunané appeared to have performed very dexterously the novel duty assigned to her. The ambau had obeyed her orders with well-trained promptitude, and the carvee, in bringing fruit, leaves, and roots from the outer garden, had more than verified all that on a former occasion Eveena had told me of their cleverness and quick comprehension of instructions. Eunané’s face brightened visibly as I acknowledged the neatness and the tempting appearance of the meal she had set forth. She was yet more gratified by receiving charge for the future of the same duty, and authority to send, as is usual, by an ambâ the order for that principal part of each day’s food which is supplied by the confectioner. By reserving for Eveena the place among the cushions immediately on my left, I made to the assembled household the expected announcement that she was to be regarded as mistress of the house; feminine punctiliousness on points of domestic precedence strikingly contrasting the unceremonious character of intercourse among men out of doors. The very ambau recognise the mistress or the favourite, as dogs the master of their Earthly home.
The ladies were at first shy and silent, Eunané only giving me more than a monosyllabic answer to my remarks, and even Eunané never speaking save in reply to me. A trivial incident, however, broke through this reserve, and afforded me a first taste of the petty domestic vexations in store for me. The beverage most to my liking was always the carcarâ—juice flavoured with roasted kernels, something resembling coffee in taste. On this occasion the carcarâ and another favourite dish had a taste so peculiar that I pushed both aside almost untouched. On observing this, the rest—Enva, Leenoo, Elfé, and Eiralé—took occasion to criticise the articles in question with such remarks and grimaces as ill-bred children might venture for the annoyance of an inexperienced sister. I hesitated to repress this outbreak as it deserved, till Eunané’s bitter mortification was evident in her brightening colour and the doubtful, half appealing glance of tearful eyes. Then a rebuke, such as might have been appropriately addressed yesterday to these rude school girls by their governess, at once silenced them. As we rose, I asked Eveena, who, with more courtesy than the rest of us, had finished her portion—
“Is there any justice in these reproaches? I certainly don’t like the carcarâ today, but it does not follow that Eunané is in fault.”
The rest, Eunané included, looked their annoyance at this appeal; but
Eveena’s temper and kindness were proof against petulance.
“The carcarâ is in fault,” she said; “but I don’t think Eunané is. In learning cookery at school she had her materials supplied to her; this time the carve has probably given her an unripe or overripe fruit which has spoiled the whole.”
“And do you not know ripe from unripe fruit?” I inquired, turning to Eunané.
“How should she?” interposed Eveena. “I doubt if she ever saw them growing.”
“How so?” I asked of Eunané.
“It is true,” she answered. “I never went beyond the walls of our playground till I came here; and though there were a few flower beds in the inner gardens, there were none but shade trees among the turf and concrete yards to which we were confined.”
“I should have known no better,” observed Eveena; “but being brought up at home, I learned to know all the plants in my father’s grounds, which were more various, I believe, than usual.”
“Then,” I said, “Eunané has a new life and a multitude of new pleasures before her. Has this peristyle given you your first sight of flowers beyond those in the beds of your Nursery? And have you never seen anything of the world about you?”
“Never,” she said. “And Eveena’s excuse for me is, I believe, perfectly true. The carve must have been stupid, but I knew no better.”
“Well,” I rejoined, “you must forgive the bird, as we must excuse you for spoiling our breakfast. I will contrive that you shall know more of fruits and flowers before long. In the meantime, you will probably have a different if not a wider view from this roof than from that of your Nursery.”
After all, Eunané’s girlhood, typical of the whole life of many Martial women, had not, I suppose, been more dreary or confined than that of children in London, Canton, or Calcutta. But this incident, reminding me how dreary and limited that life was, served to excuse in my eyes the pettiness and poverty of the characters it had produced. A Martial woman’s whole experience may well be confined within a few acres, and from the cradle to the grave she may see no more of the world than can be discerned from the roof of her school or her husband’s home.
Eunané, with the assistance of the ambau, busied herself in removing the remains of the meal. The other five, putting on their veils, scampered up the inclined plane to the roof, much like children released from table or from tasks. Turning to Eveena, who still remained beside me, I said—
“Get your veil, and come out with me; I have not yet an idea where we are, and scarcely a notion what the grounds are like.”
She followed me to my apartment, out of which, opened the one she had chosen, and as the window closed behind us she spoke in a tone of appeal—
“Do not insist on my accompanying you. As you bade me always speak my thought, I had much rather you would take one of the others.”
“You professed,” I said, “to take especial pleasure in a walk with me, and this time I will be careful that you are not overtired.”
“Of course I should like it,” she answered; “but it would not be just. Please let me this time remain to take my part of the household duties, and make myself acquainted with the house. Choose your companion among the others, whom you have scarcely noticed yet.”
Preferring not only Eveena’s company, but even my own, to that of any of the six, and feeling myself not a little dependent on her guidance and explanations, I remonstrated. But finding that her sense of justice and kindness would yield to nothing short of direct command, I gave way.
“You forget my pleasure,” I said at last. “But if you will not go, you must at least tell me which I am to take. I will not pretend to have a choice in the matter.”
“Well, then,” she answered, “I should be glad to see you take Eunané. She is, I think, the eldest, apparently the most intelligent and companionable, and she has had one mortification already she hardly deserved.”
“And is much the prettiest,” I added maliciously. But Eveena was incapable of even understanding so direct an appeal to feminine jealousy.
“I think so,” she said; “much the prettiest among us. But that will make no difference under her veil.”
“And must she keep down her veil,” I asked, “in our own grounds?”
Eveena laughed. “Wherever she might be seen by any man but yourself.”
“Call her then,” I answered.
Eveena hesitated. But having successfully carried her own way on the main question, she would not renew her remonstrances on a minor point; and finding her about to join the rest, she drew Eunané apart. Eunané came up to me alone, Eveena having busied herself in some other part of the house. She approached slowly as if reluctant, and stood silent before me, her manner by no means expressive of satisfaction.
“Eveena thought,” I said, “that you would like to accompany me; but if not, you may tell her so; and tell her in that case that she must come.”
“But I shall be glad to go wherever you please,” replied Eunané.
“Eveena did not tell me why you sent for me, and” ——
“And you were afraid to be scolded for spoiling the breakfast? You have heard quite enough of that.”
“You dropped a word last night,” she answered, “which made me think you would keep your displeasure till you had me alone.”
“Quite true,” I said, “if I had any displeasure to keep. But you might spoil a dozen meals, and not vex me half as much as the others did.”
“Why?” she asked in surprise. “Girls and women always spite one another if they have a chance, especially one who is in disfavour or disgrace with authority.”
“So much the worse,” I answered. “And now—you know as much or as little of the house as any of us; find the way into the grounds.”
A narrow door, not of crystal as usual, but of metal painted to resemble the walls, led directly from one corner of the peristyle into the grounds outside. I had inferred on my arrival, by the distance from the road to the house, that their extent was considerable, but I was surprised alike by their size and arrangement. On two sides they were bounded by a wall about four hundred yards in length—that parting them from the road was about twice as long. They were laid out with few of the usual orchard plots and beds of different fruits and vegetables, but rather in the form of a small park, with trees of various sorts, among which the fruit trees were a minority. The surface was broken by natural rising grounds and artificial terraces; the soil was turfed in the manner I have previously described, with minute plants of different colours arranged in bands and patterns. Here and there was a garden consisting of a variety of flower beds and flowering shrubs; broad concrete paths winding throughout, and a beautiful silver stream meandering hither and thither, and filling several small ponds and fountains. That the grounds immediately appertaining to the house were not intended as usual for the purposes of a farm or kitchen garden was evident. The reason became equally apparent when, looking towards the north, where no wall bounded them, I saw—over a gate in the middle of a dense hedge of flowering shrubs, which, with a ditch beyond it, formed the limit of the park in that direction—an extensive farm divided by the usual ditches into some twenty five or thirty distinct fields, and more than a square mile in extent. This, as Eunané’s native inquisitiveness and quickness had already learnt, formed part of the estate attached to the mansion and bestowed upon me by the Camptâ. It was admirably cultivated, containing orchards, fields rich with various thriving crops, and pastures grazed by the Unicorn and other of the domestic birds and beasts kept to supply Martial tables with milk, eggs, and meat; producing nearly every commodity to which the climate was suited, and, as a very short observation assured me, capable of yielding a far greater income than would suffice to sustain in luxury and splendour a household larger than that enforced upon me. We walked in this direction, my companion talking fluently enough when once I had set her at ease, and seemingly free from the shyness and timidity which Eveena had at first displayed. She paused when we reached a bridge that spanned the ditch dividing the grounds from the farm, aware that, save on special invitation, she might not, even in my company, go beyond the former. I led her on, however, till soon after we had crossed the ditch I saw a man approaching us. On this, I desired Eunané to remain where she was, seating her at the foot of a fruit tree in one of the orchard plots, and proceeded to meet the stranger. After exchanging the usual salute, he came immediately to the point.
“I thought,” he said, “that you would not care yourself to undertake the cultivation of so extensive an estate. Indeed, the mere superintendence would occupy the whole of one man’s attention, and its proper cultivation would be the work of six or eight. I have had some little experience in agriculture, and determined to ask for this charge.”
“And who has recommended you?” I said. “Or have you any sort of introduction or credentials to me?”
He made a sign which I immediately recognised. Caution, however, was imposed by the law to which that sign appealed.
“You can read,” I said, “by starlight?”
“Better than by any other,” he rejoined with a smile.
One or two more tokens interchanged left me no doubt that the claim was genuine, and, of course, irresistible.
“Enough,” I replied. “You may take entire charge on the usual terms, which, doubtless, you know better than I.”
“You trust me then, absolutely?” he said, in a tone of some little surprise.
“In trusting you,” I replied, “I trust the Zinta. I am tolerably sure to be safe in hands recommended by them.”
“You are right,” he said, “and how right this will prove to you,” and he placed in my hand a small cake upon which was stamped an impression of the signet that I had seen on Esmo’s wrist. When he saw that I recognised it, he took it back, and, breaking it into fragments, chewed and swallowed it.
“This,” he said, “was given me to avouch the following message: —Our Chiefs are informed that the Order is threatened with a novel danger. Systematic persecution by open force or by law has been attempted and defeated ages ago, and will hardly be tried again. What seems to be intended now is the destruction of our Chiefs, individually, by secret means—means which it is supposed we shall not be able to trace to the instigators, even if we should detect their instruments.”
“But,” I remarked, “those who have warned you of the danger must know from whom it proceeds, and those who are employed in such an attack must run not only the ordinary risk of assassins, but the further risk entailed by the peculiar powers of those they assail.”
“Those powers,” he answered, “they do not understand or recognise. The instruments, I presume, will be encouraged by an assurance that the Courts are in their favour, and by a pledge in the last resort that they shall be protected. The exceptional customs of our Order, especially their refusal to send their children into the public Nurseries, mark out and identify them; and though our places of meeting are concealed and have never been invaded, the fact that we do meet and the persons of those who attend can hardly be concealed.”
“But,” I asked, “if a charge of assassination is once made and proved, how can the Courts refuse to do justice? Can the instigators protect the culprit without committing themselves?”
“They would appeal, I do not doubt, to a law, passed many ages ago with a special regard to ourselves, but which has not been applied for a score of centuries, putting the members of a secret religious society beyond the pale of legal protection. That we shall ultimately find them out and avenge ourselves, you need not doubt. But in the meantime every known dissentient from the customs of the majority is in danger, and persons of note or prominence especially so. Next to Esmo and his son, the husband of his daughter is, perhaps, in as much peril as any one. No open attempt on your life will be adventured at present, while you retain the favour of the Camptâ. But you have made at least one mortal and powerful enemy, and you may possibly be the object of well-considered and persistent schemes of assassination. On the other hand, next to our Chief and his son, you have a paramount claim on the protection of the Order; and those who with me will take charge of your affairs have also charge to watch vigilantly over your life. If you will trust me beforehand with knowledge of all your movements, I think your chief peril will lie in the one sphere upon which we cannot intrude—your own household; and Clavelta directs your own special attention to this quarter. Immediate danger can scarcely threaten you as yet, save from a woman’s hand.”
“Probably,” he returned coolly. “But of the details of the plot our Council are, I believe, as absolutely ignorant as of the quarter from which it proceeds.”
“And how,” I inquired, “can it be that the witness who has informed you of the plot has withheld the names, without which his information is so imperfect, and serves rather to alarm than to protect us?”
“You know,” he replied, “the kind of mysterious perception to which we can resort, and are probably aware how strangely lucid in some points, how strangely darkened in others, is the vision that does not depend on ordinary human senses?”
As we spoke we had passed Eunané once or twice, walking backwards and forwards along the path near which she sat. As my companion was about to continue, we were so certainly within her hearing that I checked him.
“Take care,” I said; “I know nothing of her except the Camptâ’s choice, and that she is not of us.”
He visibly started.
“I thought,” he said, “that the witness of our conversation was one at least as reliable as yourself. I forgot how it happened that you have diverged from the prudence which forbids our brethren to admit to their households aliens from the Order and possible spies on its secrets.”
“Of whom do you speak as Clavelta?” I asked. “I was not even aware that the Order had a single head.”
“The Signet,” replied my friend in evident surprise, “should have distinguished the Arch Enlightener to duller sight than yours.”
We had not spoken, of course, till we were again beyond hearing; but my companion looked round carefully before he proceeded—
“You will understand the better, then, how strong is your own claim upon the care of your brethren, and how confidently you may rely upon their vigilance and fidelity.”
“I should regret,” I answered, “that their lives should be risked for mine. In dangers like those against which you could protect me, I have been accustomed from boyhood to trust my own right hand. But the fear of secret assassination has often unnerved the bravest men, and I will not say that it may not disturb me.”
“For you,” he answered, “personally we should care as for one of our brethren exposed to especial danger, For him who saved the descendant of our Founder, and who in her right, after her father and brother, would be the guardian, if not the head, of the only remaining family of his lineage, one and all of us are at need bound to die.”
After a few more words we parted, and I rejoined Eunané, and led her back towards the house. I had learnt to consider taciturnity a matter of course, except where there was actual occasion for speech; but Eunané had chattered so fluently and frankly just before, that her absolute silence might have suggested to me the possibility that she had heard and was pondering things not intended for her knowledge, had I been less preoccupied. Enured to the perils of war, of the chase, of Eastern diplomacy, and of travel in the wildest parts of the Earth, I do not pretend indifference to the fear of assassination, and especially of poison. Cromwell, and other soldiers of equal nerve and clearer conscience, have found their iron courage sorely shaken by a peril against which no precautions were effective and from which they could not enjoy an hour’s security. The incessant continuous strain on the nerves is, I suppose, the chief element in the peculiar dread with which brave men have regarded this kind of peril; as the best troops cannot endure to be under fire in their camp. Weighing, however, the probability that girls who had been selected by the Sovereign, and had left their Nursery only to pass directly into my house, could have been already bribed or seduced to become the instruments of murderous treachery, I found it but slight; and before we reached the house I had made up my mind to discard the apprehensions or precautions recommended to me on their account. Far better, if need be, to die by poison than to live in hourly terror of it. Better to be murdered than to suspect of secret treason those with whom I must maintain the most intimate relations, and whose sex and years made it intolerable to believe them criminal. I dismissed the thought, then; and believing that I had probably wronged them in allowing it to dwell for a moment in my mind, I felt perhaps more tenderly than before towards them, and certainly indisposed to name to Eveena a suspicion of which I was myself ashamed. Perhaps, too, youth and beauty weighed in my conclusion more than cool reason would have allowed. A Martial proverb says—
“Trust a foe, and you may rue it;
Trust a friend, and perish through it.
Trust a woman if you will; —
Thrice betrayed, you’ll trust her still.”
As to the general warning, I was wishful to consult Eveena, and unwilling to withhold from her any secret of my thoughts; but equally averse to disturb her with alarms that were trying even to nerves seasoned by the varied experience of twenty years against every open peril.
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