Liber LIX


Chapter VI

Without any long delay I descended the slopes and entered the city. Not knowing what might have taken place in Thebai and what news might have come thither, I did not dare declare myself; but seeking out the High Priest of Horus I showed him a certain sign, telling him that I was come from Memphis on a journey, and intended to visit Thebai to pay homage at the shrine of Isis. But he, full of the news, told me that the ancient priestess of Isis, who had become priest of Osiris, had been taken up to heaven as a sign of the signal favour of the God. Whereat I could hardly hold myself from laughter; yet I controlled myself and answered that I was not prepared to return to Memphis, for that I was vowed to Isis, and Osiris could not serve my turn.
At this he begged me to stay as his guest, and to go worship at the temple of Isis in this city. I agreed thereto, and the good man gave me new robes and jewels from the treasury of his own temple. There too I rested sweetly on soft cushions fanned by young boys with broad leaves of palm. Also he sent me the dancing girl of Sleep. It was the art of this girl to weave such subtle movements that the sense, watching her, swooned; and as she swayed she sang, ever lower and lower as she moved slower and slower, until the looker-listener was dissolved in bliss of sleep and delicate dream.
Then as he slept she would bend over him even as Nuit the Lady of the Stars that bendeth over the black earth, and in his ears she would whisper strange rhythms, secret utterances, whereby his spirit would be rapt into the realms of Hathor or some other golden goddess, there in one night to reap an harvest of refreshment such as the fields of mortal sleep yield never.
So then I woke at dawn, to find her still watching, still looking into my eyes with a tender smile on her mouth that cooed whispers infinitely soothing. Indeed with a soft kiss she waked me, for in this Art there is a right moment to sleep, and another to waken: which she was well skilled to divine.
I rose then — she flitted away like a bird — and robed myself; and, seeking my host, went forth with him to the Temple of Isis.
Now their ritual (it appeared) differed in one point from that to which I was accustomed. Thus, it was not death to intrude upon the ceremony save only for the profane. Priests of a certain rank of initiation might if they pleased behold it. I, therefore, wishing to see again that marvellous glowing of the Veil, disclosed a sufficient sign to the High Priest. Thereat was he mightily amazed; and, from the foot judging Hercules, began to think that I might be some sacred envoy or inspector from the Gods themselves. This I allowed him to think; meanwhile we went forward into the shrines and stood behind the pillars, unseen, in the prescribed position.
Now it chanced that the High Priestess herself had this day chosen to perform the rite.
This was a woman tall and black, most majestic, with limbs strong as a man's. Her gaze was hawk-keen, and her brow commanding. But at the Assumption of the God-form she went close and whispered into the Veil, so low that we could not hear it; but as it seemed with fierce intensity, with some passion that knotted up her muscles, so that her arms writhed like wounded snakes. Also the veins of her forehead swelled, and foam came to her lips. We thought that she had died; her body swelled and shuddered; last of all a terrible cry burst from her throat, inarticulate, awful.
Yet all this while the Veil glittered, though something sombrely. Also the air was filled with a wild sweeping music, which rent our very ears with its uncouth magic. For it was like no music that I had ever heard before. At last the Priestess tore herself away from the Veil and reeled — as one drunken — down the temple. Sighs and sobs tore her breast; and her nails made bloody grooves in her wet flanks.
On a sudden she espied me and my companion; with one buffet she smote him to earth — it is unlawful to resist the Priestess when she is in the Ecstasy of Union — and falling upon me, like a wild beast she buried her teeth in my neck, bearing me to the ground. Then, loosing me, while the blood streamed from me, she fixed her glittering eyes upon it with strange joy, and with her hands she shook me as a lion shakes a buck. Sinewy were her hands, with big knuckles, and the strength of her was as cords of iron. Yet her might was but a mortal's; in a little she gave one gasp like a drowning man's; her body slackened, and fell with its dead weight on mine, her mouth glued to mine in one dreadful kiss. Dreadful; for as my mouth returned it, almost mechanically, the blood gushed from her nostrils and blinded me. I too, then, more dead than alive, swooned into bliss, into trance. I was awakened by the High Priest of Horus. "Come," he said; "she is dead." I disengaged myself from all that weight of madness — and the body writhed convulsively as I turned it over — I kissed those frothy lips, for in death she was beautiful beyond belief, joyous beyond description — thence I staggered to the Veil, and saluted with all my strength, so that it glittered under the force of my sheer will. Then I turned me again, and with the High Priest sought his house.
Strange indeed was I as I went through the city, my new robes dark with blood of that most holy sorceress.
But no one of the people dared so much as lift his eyes; nor spoke we together at all. But when we were come into the house of the High Priest, sternly did he confront me.
"What is this, my son?"
And I weary of the folly of the world and of the uselessness of things answered him:
"Father, I go back to Memphis. I am the Magus of the Well."
Now he knew the Magus, and answered me:
"Why liest thou?"
And I said "I am come into the world where all speech is false, and all speech is true."
Then he did me reverence, abasing himself unto the ground even unto nine-and-ninety times.
And I spurned him and said, "Bring forth the dancing girl of Sleep; for in the morning I will away to Memphis."
And she came forth, and I cursed her and cried: "Be thou the dancing girl of Love!"
And it was so. And I went in unto her, and knew her; and in the morning I girded myself, and boarded the state barge of the High Priest, and pillowed myself upon gold and purple, and disported myself with lutes and with lyres and with parrots, and with black slaves, and with wine and with delicious fruits, until I came even unto the holy city of Memphis.
And there I called soldiers of Pharaoh, and put cruelly to death all them that had accompanied me; and I burnt the barge, adrift upon the Nile at sunset, so that the flames alarmed the foolish citizens. All this I did, and danced naked in my madness through the city, until I came to the Old Magus of the Well.
And laughing, I threw a stone upon him, crying: "Ree me the riddle of my life!"
And he answered naught.
Then I threw a great rock upon him, and I heard his bones crunch, and I cried in mockery: "Ree me the riddle of thy life!"
But he answered naught.
Then I threw down the wall of the well; and I burned the house with fire that stood thereby, with the men-servants and the maid-servants.
And none dared stay me; for I laughed and exulted in my madness. Yea, verily, I laughed, and laughed — and laughed —
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