Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVII

VEXATIOUS ESTATE OF QUEEN HELEN

UT how can I travel with the Equinox, with a fictitious thing, with a mere convention?" Jurgen had said. "To demand any such proceeding of me is prepost erous."

"Is it any more preposterous than to travel with an imaginary creature like a centaur?" they had retorted. "Why, Prince Jurgen, we wonder how you, who have done that perfectly unheard-of thing, can have the effrontery to call anything -e lse preposterous! Is there no reason at all in you? Why, conventions are respectable, and that is a deal more than can be said for a great many centaurs. Would you be throwing stones at respectability, Prince Jurgen? Why, we are unutterably astounded at y our objection to any such well-known phenomenon as the Equinox!" And so on, and so on, and so on, said they.

And in fine, they kept at him until Jurgen was too confused to argue, and his head was in a whirl, and one thing seemed as preposterous as another : and he ceased to notice any especial improbability in his travelling with the Equinox, and so passed, w ithout any further protest or argument about it, from Cocaigne to Leuke. But he would not have been thus readily flustered had Jurgen not been thinking all the while of Queen Helen and of the beauty that was hers.

So he inquired forthwith the way that one might quickliest come into the presence of Queen Helen.

"Why, you will find Queen Helen," he was told, "in her palace at Pseudopolis." His informant was a hamadryad, whom Jurgen encountered upon the outskirts of a forest overlooking the city from the west. Beyond broad sloping stretches of ripe corn, you saw Pseudopolis as a city builded of gold and ivory, now all a dazzling glitter under a hard-seeming sky that appeared unusually remote from earth.

"And is the Queen as fair as people report asks Jurgen.

"Men say that she excels all other women," replied the Hamadryad, "as immeasurably as all we women perceive her husband to surpass all other men-"

"But, oh, dear me I" says Jurgen.

"-Although, for one, I see nothing remarkable in Queen Helen's looks. And I cannot but think that a woman who has been so much talked about ought to be more careful in the way she dresses."

"So this Queen Helen is already provided with a husband!" Jurgen was displeased, but saw no reason for despair. Then Jurgen inquired as to the Queen's husband, and learned that Achilles, the son of Peleus, was now wedded to Helen, the Swan's daughter, and that these two ruled in Pseudopolis.

" For they report," said the Hamadryad, "that in Ades' dreary kingdom Achilles remembered her beauty, and by this memory was heartened to break the bonds of Ades: so did Achilles, King of Men, and all his ancient comrades come forth resi stlessly upon a second quest of this Helen, whom people call-and as I think, with considerable exaggeration-the wonder of this world. Then the Gods fulfilled the desire of Achilles, because, they said, the man who has once beheld Queen Helen will never an y more regain contentment so long as his life lacks this wonder of the world. Personally, I would dislike to think that all men are so foolish."

"Men are not always rational, I grant you: but then," says Jurgen, slyly, "so many of their ancestresses are feminine."

"But an ancestress is always feminine. Nobody ever heard of a man being an ancestress. Men are ancestors. Why, whatever are you talking about?"

"Well, we were speaking, I believe, of Queen Helen's marriage."

"To be sure we were! And I was telling you about the Gods, when you made that droll mistake about ancestors. Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes, however, and foreigners are always apt to get words confused. I could see at once you were a foreigne r-"

"Yes," said Jurgen, "but you were not telling me about myself but about the Gods."

"Why, you must know the ageing Gods desired tranquillity. So we will give her to Achilles, they said; and then, it may be, this King of Men will retain her so safely that his littler fellows will despair, and will cease to war for Helen : and so w e shall not be bothered any longer by their wars and other foolishnesses. For this reason it was that the Gods gave Helen to Achilles, and sent the pair to reign in Leuke: though, for my part," concluded the Hamadryad, "I shall never cease to wo nder what he saw in her-no, not if I live to be a thousand."

"I must," says Jurgen, "observe this monarch Achilles before the world is a day older. A king is all very well, of course, but no husband wears a crown so as to prevent the affixion of other head-gear."

And Jurgen went down into Pseudopolis, swaggering.

So in the evening, just after sunset, Jurgen returned to the Hamadryad: he walked now with the aid of the ashen staff which Thersites had given Jurgen, and Jurgen was mirthless and rather humble.

"I have observed your King Achilles," Jurgen says, and he is a better man than I. Queen Helen, as I confess with regret, is worthily mated."

"And what have you to say about her?" inquires the Hamadryad.

"Why, there is nothing more to say than that she is worthily mated, and fit to be the wife of Achilles." For once, poor Jurgen was really miserable. "For I admire this man Achilles, I envy him, and I fear him," says Jurgen : "a nd it is not fair that he should have been ,,created my superior."

"But is not Queen Helen the loveliest of ladies that you have ever seen?"

"As to that--!" says Jurgen. He led the Hamadryad to a forest pool hard-by the oak-tree in which she resided. The dusky water lay unruffled, a natural mirror. "Look!" said Jurgen, and he spoke with a downward waving of his staff.

The silence gathering in the woods was wonderful. Here the air was sweet and pure : and the little wind which went about the ilex boughs in search of night was a tender and peaceful wind, because it knew that the all-healing night was close at hand.

The Hamadryad replied, " But I see only my own face."

It is the answer to your question, none the less. Now do you tell me your name, my dear, so that I may know who in reality is the loveliest of all the ladies I have ever seen."

The Hamadryad told him that her name was Chloris, and that she always looked a fright with her hair arranged as it was to-day, and that he was a strangely impudent fellow. So he in turn confessed to her he was King Jurgen of Eubonia, drawn from his rem ote kingdom by exaggerated reports as to the beauty of Queen Helen. Chloris agreed with him that rumour was in such matters invariably untrustworthy.

This led to further talk as twilight deepened: and the while that a little by a little this pretty girl was converted into a warm breathing shadow, hardly visible to the eye, the shadow of Jurgen departed from him, and he began to talk better and bette r. He had seen Queen Helen face to face, and other women now seemed unimportant. Whether or not he got into the graces of this Hamadryad did not greatly matter one way or the other: and in consequence Jurgen talked with such fluency, such apposite remarks and such tenderness as astounded him.

So he sat listening with delight to the seductive tongue of that monstrous clever fellow, Jurgen. For this plump brown-haired bright-eyed little creature, this Chloris, he was honestly sorry. Into the uneventful life of a hamadryad, here in this uncult ured forest, could not possibly have entered much pleasurable excitement, and it seemed only right to inject a little. "Why, simply in justice to her," Jurgen reflected, "I must deal fairly."

Now it grew darker and darker under the trees, and in the dark nobody can see what happens. There were only two voices that talked, with lengthy pauses: and they spoke gravely of unimportant trifles, like children at play together.

"And how does a king come thus to be travelling without any retinue or even a sword about him?"

"Why, I travel with a staff, my dear, as you perceive: and it suffices me."

"Certainly it is large enough, in all conscience. Alas, young outlander, who call yourself a king! you carry the bludgeon of a highwayman, and I am afraid of it."

"My staff is a twig from Yggdrasill, the tree of universal life : Thersites gave it me, and the sap that throbs therein arises from the Undar fountain, where the grave Norns make laws for men and fix their destinies."

"Thersites is a scoffer, and his gifts are mockery. I would have none of them."

The two began to wrangle, not at all angrily, as to what Jurgen had best do with his prized staff. "Do you take it away from me, at any rate!" says Chloris. So Jurgen hid his staff where Chloris could not possibly see it; and he drew the Hama dryad close to him, and he laughed contentedly.

"Oh, oh! O wretched King," cried Chloris, "I fear that you will be the death of me! And you have no right to oppress me in this way, for I am not your subject."

"Rather shall you be my queen, dear Chloris, receiving all that I most prize."

But you are too domineering: and I am afraid to be alone with you and your big staff! Ah! not without knowing what she talked about did my mother use to quote he Aeolic saying, The king is cruel and takes joy in bloodshed!"

"Presently you will not be afraid of me, nor will you be afraid of my staff. Custom is all. For this likewise is an Aeolic saying, The taste of the first olive is unpleasant, but the second is good."

Now for a while was silence save for the small secretive rumours of the forest. One of the large green locusts which frequent the Island of Leuke began shrilling tentatively.

"Wait now, King Jurgen, for surely I hear footsteps, and one comes to trouble us."

"It is a wind in the tree-tops : or perhaps it is a god who envies me. I pause for neither."

"Ali, but speak reverently of the Gods! For is not Love a god, and a jealous god that has wings with which to leave us?"

"Then am I a god, for in my heart is love, and in every fibre of me is love, and from me now love emanates."

"But certainly I heard somebody approaching through the forest--"

"Well, and do you not perceive I have withdrawn my staff from its hiding-place?"

e?"

"Ah, you have great faith in that staff of yours!"

"I fear nobody when I brandish it."

Another locust had answered the first one. Now the two insects were in full dispute, suffusing the warm darkness with their pertinacious whirrings.

"King of Eubonia, it is certainly true, that which you told me about olives."

"Yes, for always love begets truthfulness."

"I pray it may beget between us utter truthfulness, and nothing else, King Jurgen."

"Not 'Jurgen' now, but 'love.'"

"Indeed, they tell that even so, in such deep darkness, Love came to his sweetheart Psyche."

"Then why do you complain because I piously emulate the Gods, and offer unto Love the sincerest form of flattery?" And Jurgen shook his staff at her.

"Ali, but you are strangely ready with your flattery and Love threatened Psyche with no such enormous staff."

"That is possible: for I am Jurgen. And I deal fairly with all women, and raise my staff against none save in the way of kindness."

So they talked nonsense, in utter darkness, while the locusts, and presently a score of locusts, disputed obstinately. Now Chloris and Jurgen were invisible, even to each other, as they talked under her oak-tree: but before them the fields shone mistil y under a gold-dusted dome, for this night seemed builded of stars. And the white towers of Pseudopolis also could Jurgen see, as he laughed there and took his pleasure with Chloris. He reflected that laughing thus, very probably Achilles and Helen were a nd were not dissimilarly occupied, out yonder, in this night of wonder.

He sighed. But in a while Jurgen and the Hamadryad were speaking again, just as inconsequently, and the locusts were whirring just as obstinately. Later the moon rose, and they all slept.

With the dawn Jurgen arose, and left this Hamadryad Chloris still asleep. He stood where he overlooked the city, and the shirt of Nessus glittered in the level sun rays : and Jurgen thought of Queen Helen. Then he sighed, and went back to Chloris, and wakened her with the sort of salutation that appeared her just due.

Chapter 28