Then I turned and said to Eve,
"Mother, one couch next to Lona is empty: I know I am unworthy, but may I not sleep this night in your chamber with my dead? Will you not pardon both my cowardice and my self-confidence, and take me in? I give me up. I am sick of myself, and would fain sleep the sleep!"
"The couch next to Lona is the one already prepared for you," she answered; "but something waits to be done ere you sleep."
"I am ready," I replied.
"How do you know you can do it?" she asked with a smile.
"Because you require it," I answered. "What is it?"
She turned to Adam:
"Is he forgiven, husband?"
"From my heart."
"Then tell him what he has to do."
Adam turned to his daughter.
"Give me that hand, Mara, my child."
She held it out to him in her lap. He took it tenderly.
"Let us go to the cottage," he said to me; "there I will instruct you."
As we went, again arose a sudden stormful blast, mingled with a great flapping on the roof, but it died away as before in a deep moan.
When the door of the death-chamber was closed behind us, Adam seated himself, and I stood before him.
"You will remember," he said, "how, after leaving my daughter's house, you came to a dry rock, bearing the marks of an ancient cataract; you climbed that rock, and found a sandy desert: go to that rock now, and from its summit walk deep into the desert. But go not many steps ere you lie down, and listen with your head on the sand. If you hear the murmur of water beneath, go a little farther, and listen again. If you still hear the sound, you are in the right direction. Every few yards you must stop, lie down, and hearken. If, listening thus, at any time you hear no sound of water, you are out of the way, and must hearken in every direction until you hear it again. Keeping with the sound, and careful not to retrace your steps, you will soon hear it louder, and the growing sound will lead you to where it is loudest: that is the spot you seek. There dig with the spade I will give you, and dig until you come to moisture: in it lay the hand, cover it to the level of the desert, and come home.--But give good heed, and carry the hand with care. Never lay it down, in what place of seeming safety soever; let nothing touch it; stop nor turn aside for any attempt to bar your way; never look behind you; speak to no one, answer no one, walk straight on.--It is yet dark, and the morning is far distant, but you must set out at once."
He gave me the hand, and brought me a spade.
"This is my gardening spade," he said; "with it I have brought many a lovely thing to the sun."
I took it, and went out into the night.
It was very cold, and pitch-dark. To fall would be a dread thing, and the way I had to go was a difficult one even in the broad sunlight! But I had not set myself the task, and the minute I started I learned that I was left to no chance: a pale light broke from the ground at every step, and showed me where next to set my foot. Through the heather and the low rocks I walked without once even stumbling. I found the bad burrow quite still; not a wave arose, not a head appeared as I crossed it.
A moon came, and herself showed me the easy way: toward morning I was almost over the dry channels of the first branch of the river-bed, and not far, I judged, from Mara's cottage.
The moon was very low, and the sun not yet up, when I saw before me in the path, here narrowed by rocks, a figure covered from head to foot as with a veil of moonlit mist. I kept on my way as if I saw nothing. The figure threw aside its veil.
"Have you forgotten me already?" said the princess--or what seemed she.
I neither hesitated nor answered; I walked straight on.
"You meant then to leave me in that horrible sepulchre! Do you not yet understand that where I please to be, there I am? Take my hand: I am alive as you!"
I was on the point of saying, "Give me your left hand," but bethought myself, held my peace, and steadily advanced.
"Give me my hand," she suddenly shrieked, "or I will tear you in pieces: you are mine!"
She flung herself upon me. I shuddered, but did not falter. Nothing touched me, and I saw her no more.
With measured tread along the path, filling it for some distance, came a body of armed men. I walked through them--nor know whether they gave way to me, or were bodiless things. But they turned and followed me; I heard and felt their march at my very heels; but I cast no look behind, and the sound of their steps and the clash of their armour died away.
A little farther on, the moon being now close to the horizon and the way in deep shadow, I descried, seated where the path was so narrow that I could not pass her, a woman with muffled face.
"Ah," she said, "you are come at last! I have waited here for you an hour or more! You have done well! Your trial is over. My father sent me to meet you that you might have a little rest on the way. Give me your charge, and lay your head in my lap; I will take good care of both until the sun is well risen. I am not bitterness always, neither to all men!"
Her words were terrible with temptation, for I was very weary. And what more likely to be true! If I were, through slavish obedience to the letter of the command and lack of pure insight, to trample under my feet the very person of the Lady of Sorrow! My heart grew faint at the thought, then beat as if it would burst my bosom.
Nevertheless my will hardened itself against my heart, and my step did not falter. I took my tongue between my teeth lest I should unawares answer, and kept on my way. If Adam had sent her, he could not complain that I would not heed her! Nor would the Lady of Sorrow love me the less that even she had not been able to turn me aside!
Just ere I reached the phantom, she pulled the covering from her face: great indeed was her loveliness, but those were not Mara's eyes! no lie could truly or for long imitate them! I advanced as if the thing were not there, and my foot found empty room.
I had almost reached the other side when a Shadow--I think it was The Shadow, barred my way. He seemed to have a helmet upon his head, but as I drew closer I perceived it was the head itself I saw--so distorted as to bear but a doubtful resemblance to the human. A cold wind smote me, dank and sickening--repulsive as the air of a charnel-house; firmness forsook my joints, and my limbs trembled as if they would drop in a helpless heap. I seemed to pass through him, but I think now that he passed through me: for a moment I was as one of the damned. Then a soft wind like the first breath of a new-born spring greeted me, and before me arose the dawn.
My way now led me past the door of Mara's cottage. It stood wide open, and upon the table I saw a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. In or around the cottage was neither howl nor wail.
I came to the precipice that testified to the vanished river. I climbed its worn face, and went on into the desert. There at last, after much listening to and fro, I determined the spot where the hidden water was loudest, hung Lilith's hand about my neck, and began to dig. It was a long labour, for I had to make a large hole because of the looseness of the sand; but at length I threw up a damp spadeful. I flung the sexton-tool on the verge, and laid down the hand. A little water was already oozing from under its fingers. I sprang out, and made haste to fill the grave. Then, utterly fatigued, I dropped beside it, and fell asleep.