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   Chapter 12 No.12

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 7662

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The country through which they traveled was familiar to Lewis, tedious to the stranger. Sand, sparse grass, and thorn-trees; thorn-trees and sand, was their daily portion. The sun beat down and up. They traveled long hours by night, less and less by day. They talked little, for night has a way of sealing the lips of those who journey under her wing.

Water was scarce. The day before that on which they hoped to make the river, a forced march brought them to a certain water-hole. The stranger, Lewis, and the guide arrived at it far ahead of the pack-train. The water-hole was dry. They were thirsty. They pushed on to a little mud house a short way off the trail. The stranger looked up as they approached it.

"Do you think it will stand till we get there?" he asked.

Lewis smiled. The house was leaning in three directions. The weight of its tiled roof threatened at any moment to crush the long-suffering walls to the ground. At one corner stood a great earthen jar, and beside the jar an old hag. She held a gourd to her lips. On some straw in the shade of the eaves was a setting hen.

"Auntie," called Lewis, "we thirst. Give us water."

The old woman turned and stared at them. Her face, all but her eyes, was as dilapidated as her house. Her black eyes, brilliant and piercing, shone out of the ruin.

"I have no water for thee to drink, my pretty son," she answered.

"Shameless one!" cried Lewis. "Dost thou drink thyself and deny the traveler?"

"Eh, eh!" cackled the old woman. "Thou wouldst share my gourd? Then drink, for thy tongue is not so pretty as thy face." She held up the gourd to Lewis in both her hands. He took it from her and passed it to the stranger.

The stranger made a grimace, but sipped the water. Then he flung gourd and water to the ground with; half an oath.

"Bah!" he said to Lewis. "It is salt."

"Salt!" cried Lewis. "But she drank of it. I saw her drink."

"Yes," said the stranger; "she's got an alkalified stomach. Let those who hanker after immortality look upon this woman. She will never die."

The old hag laughed.

"Ah, shameless one, eh?" she mumbled. "'Tis the young one should have tasted, but no matter, for the son is the spit of the father."

"Auntie," said Lewis, smiling, "give us of thy shade."

"Willingly, my pretty son, for thou hast smiled."

They dismounted. The stranger and Lewis entered the house.

"Here," cried the old woman, "sit here; for when the house falls, the weight will go yonder."

Lewis explained to the stranger. He glanced at the old woman.

"Old Immortality has brains," he said. "Might have known it, with those eyes."

They sat on the floor of beaten earth. The old woman went out. Through the gaps in the walls Lewis saw her build a fire and put a pot of the brackish water on to boil. Then he saw her drag the setting hen from her nest and wring its neck. He jumped up and rushed out.

"What are you doing?" he cried. "Why kill a setting hen?"

"Aye," said the old woman, "it is a pity, for she is the last chicken in the world."

Lewis and the stranger were hungry. Night was falling. There was no sign of their belated pack-train. When boiling had done its utmost, they ate the last chicken on earth. Before they had finished, a child, pitifully thin, came in, bearing on her head a small jar of water.

"Now drink," said the old woman, "for this water came from the river, twelve miles away."

They drank, then the stranger set his helmet on the floor for a pillow, laid his head upon it, and slept. Lewis sat beside him. The child had curled up in a corner. The guide was snoring outside. In the doorway the old woman crouched and crooned.

Presently she turned and peered into the house. She beckoned to Lewis. He rose and followed her. She led him around the house, through a thick

et of thorn-trees, and up the slope of a small sand-dune. Toward the west sand-dunes rose and fell in monotonous succession.

At the top of the dune the old woman crouched on her heels and motioned to Lewis to sit.

"My son," she said, "thou hast taken my carcass for the common clay of these parts. I cannot blame thee, but had I the water to wash this cursed dust from my face and hands, I would show thee a skin that was stained at birth with the olive and veins whose blood flows unmixed through generations without end. These wrinkled feet have flattened the face of the earth bit by bit. Bear witness those who left me here behind to die! My eyes have looked upon things seen and unseen. I am old. To youth is given folly; to the old, wisdom. To-night my wisdom shall suckle thy folly, for the heavens have shown me a sign."

Lewis stared at the old woman with wondering eyes. He had never seen a Gipsy. What was she? he asked himself. No native. The native's mind was keen with knowledge of horses, cattle, and goats, but stolid, almost stupid, when it came to words and thoughts. There was an exception-the mad. The mad prattled and sometimes said extraordinary things. Perhaps this woman was mad. He turned half toward her.

"Look up," she commanded. "Dost thou see no sign?"

Lewis lay on his back and gazed into the sky. "I see the moon and the stars, Auntie-a young moon and very old stars-but no sign. Not even a cloud to remind the world of rain."

The old woman leaned forward and touched his arm. He started.

"Look over there!" She pointed to the west and south. "See how the young moon is held within the claws of Scorpion. His back is arched across the quarter. His tail points to the south. The Cross that some call Holy hangs like a pendent upon its tip. Look up. Upon his arched back he bears the circlet-the seven worlds of women."

"I see the Scorpion, Auntie," said Lewis, humoring her. "I see the circlet too, but it is far above his back. It is like a crown. Read me the sign of the seven worlds of women."

Lewis propped his head on one elbow. Before him squatted the old woman. Her hands were locked about her legs. Her chin rested on her knees. Her beady eyes shone like two black stars.

"And shall I not read thee a sign?" she continued, swaying from side to side. "Child of love art thou. At thy birth was thy mother rent asunder, for thou wert conceived too near the heart. Thy path through the world is blazed as one blazes a path in the forest. He who is at thy side is before thee and after thee. Thou travelest in darkness, but thou art cursed and blessed with the gift of sight. The worlds of women are seven: spirit, weed, flower, the blind, the visioned, libertine, and saint. None of these is for thee. For each child of love there is a woman that holds the seven worlds within a single breast. Hold fast to thy birthright, even though thou journey with thy back unto the light. I have spoken."

A long silence fell upon the sand-dune. Lewis felt held, oppressed. He was tired. He wished to sleep, but the woman's words rang in his brain like shouts echoing in an empty hall.

Presently came sounds from the mud hut beyond the thorn-thicket. Men were calling. There was the patter and scrape of mules' hoofs, the whistle of those that urged them on. Lewis and the old hag hurried down. The guide, the muleteers, and the stranger were having a wordy struggle.

"Hallo," said the stranger, "where have you been? What are they trying to say? I need you even in my sleep."

"They say," said Lewis, "that there is no help for it; we must push on to the river now. The mules must have water."

"Right you are," said the stranger. He pointed to one heavily laden mule. "We don't need those provisions. Give them to Old Immortality. They'll last her a hundred years."

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