The Black Poodle, and Other Tales
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'Well, well, my dear, be it so,' said the King; 'I did not intend to chide you. It is only that I have grown so accustomed to the frugal, hardy life of a camp, that I have imbibed a soldier's contempt for luxury.'
And, removing his boots, he followed the Queen into the Palace, as she led the way with a baleful expression upon her dark and inscrutable face.
As the pair passed up the steps and between the lofty pillars, the hounds howled from the royal kennels at the back of the Palace, and – a stranger portent still – a meteor shot suddenly through the growing gloom and burst in a rain of coloured stars above the house-top, while, shortly after, a staff fell from above upon the head of one of the Chorus – and was shivered to fragments!
?gisthus had strolled away under the colonnade, and Cassandra was left alone with the Chorus. She stood apart, mystic, moody, and impenetrable, letting down her flowing back hair.
'You prophesy, do you not?' said the kind old men at length, wishing to make her feel at home; 'might we beg you to favour us with a prediction – just a little one?'
Cassandra made excuses at first, as was proper; she had a cold, and was feeling the effects of the journey. She was really not inspired just then, she protested, and besides, she had not touched a tripod for ages.
But, upon being pressed, she gave way at last, after declaring with a little giggle that she was perfectly certain nobody would believe a single word she said.
'I see before me,' she began, in a weird, sepulchral tone which she found it impossible to keep up for many sentences, 'a proud and stately pile – but enter not. See ye yon ghoul among the chimney-pots, yon amphisb?na in the back garden? And the scent of gore pervades it!'
'It is no happy home that is thus described!' the Chorus threw in profesionally.
'But the Finger of Fate is slowly unwound, and the Hand of Destiny steps in to pace the marble halls with heavy tramp. And know, old men, that the Inevitable is not wholly unconnected with the Probable!'
At this even their politeness could not restrain a gesture of incredulity, but she heeded it not, and continued:
'Who is this that I see next – this regal warrior bounding over the blazing battlements in brazen panoply?'
('That must be Agamemnon,' cried the Chorus; 'the despatches mentioned him bounding like that. Wonderful!')
'I see him,' she resumed, 'pale and prostrate – a prey to the pangs within him, scanning the billows from his storm-tossed ship. Now he has reached his native city. Hark! how they greet him! And, behold, a stately matron meets him with a honeyed smile, inviting him to enter. He yields. And then – '
Here Cassandra stopped, with the remark that that was all – as there were limits even to the marvellous faculty of second-sight.
The Chorus were not unimpressed, for they had never seen a prediction and its literal fulfilment in quite such close conjunction before, and their own attempts always came wrong; but although they were agreed that the prophecy was charming as far as it went, they began to feel slightly afraid of the prophetess, and were secretly relieved when ?gisthus happened to come up shortly afterwards with an offer to show her such places of interest as Argos boasted.
But they were great authorities upon all points of etiquette and morality, and they all remarked (when she had gone) that she displayed an unbecoming readiness in accepting the escort of a courtier who had not been formally introduced to her.'That may be the custom in Troy,' they said, wagging their beards, 'but if she means to behave like that here —well!'
And now the last gleam of the sunset had faded, and the stars straggled out in the pale green sky, whilst the Chorus walked up and down to keep warm, for the evening was growing chilly.
Suddenly a loud cry broke the silence – a scream as of a strong man in mortal agony! It struck all of them that the voice was uncommonly like Agamemnon's, but none liked to say so, and they only observed with a forced composure that really the cats were becoming quite a nuisance.
The cry came again, louder this time, and more distinct; it seemed to come from the direction of the royal bath-room. 'Hi, here, somebody – help! They've turned on the hot water, and I can't turn it off again!'
After this there could be no possible doubt that there was something the matter far more serious than cats. Agamemnon, the king of men, was apparently in difficulties, and it was only too probable that this was Clytemnestra's fell work.
They all ran about and fell over one another in the general flurry and confusion, and then as they recovered their presence of mind they began to consult upon the best course to pursue under the circumstances. Some were of opinion that it would not be a quite unpardonable breach of court etiquette if they were to rush into the bath-room and pull the royal sufferer out; others, more cautious, asked for precedents in a case of such delicacy, and they almost quarrelled, until the wisest of them all reminded his fellows that, at all events, it was too late to interfere then, as the monarch must certainly be hard-boiled by that time – which relieved them from all responsibility in the happiest manner.
At this point the Queen appeared at the head of the marble steps, down which she glided cautiously and came towards them, evidently in a condition of suppressed excitement.
'What a beautiful evening!' said the Chorus in unison, for they considered it better taste not to appear to have noticed anything at all unusual.
'Agamemnon is with his ancestors,' she replied in a fierce whisper; 'I sewed up the sleeves of his bathing-gown and I drugged his coffee, and then from afar I turned on the hot water. And he is boiled, and it serves him right, and I'm glad of it – so now! But tell me, ye aged ones,' she added with one of her quick transitions, 'have I done well?'
Now the Chorus were distinctly disgusted at her want of tact and reserve, and would have greatly preferred not to be admitted into confidences of so purely domestic a description, but they were not the men to flinch from their duty.
'In our opinion, O Queen,' they replied coldly, 'the deed was a hasty one, and accomplished without sufficient consideration.'
'Ha!' she exclaimed angrily, 'so ye would rate me like a girl! Am I not your sovereign mistress? Guard, seize these insolents!'
And the superannuated old sentinel left his box and tottered up to seize as many of them as he could lay hold of at once, telling the remainder to consider themselves under arrest, which they did directly.
'Summon the populace,' Clytemnestra next commanded, and the Argives left the fireworks obediently and assembled before the steps.
'Citizens! Argives!' she cried in a loud clear voice, 'I am sure you will all be very sorry and disappointed to hear that your beloved sovereign, so lately restored to us' (here she broke down with the naturalness of a great artist) – 'that our beloved sovereign is – by a most deplorable and unaccountable lack of precaution – '
'Alive!' interrupted a voice from behind the Queen, and someone pushed aside the hangings before the door of the Palace, and began to descend the steps. It was Agamemnon himself.
Clytemnestra shrieked as she turned slowly, and confronted him in silence for some moments; the situation was intensely dramatic, and the Argives, a simple and affectionate people, fully appreciated this, and never once regretted the fireworks they had abandoned.
The Queen was the first to speak: 'So,' she said, pale and panting, 'you – you've – had your bath?'
'Well – no,' said Agamemnon mildly; 'I happened to observe that someone had thoughtfully sewn up the armholes of my dressing-gown, and that the coffee had a particularly nasty smell in it, and so, somehow, I thought I would rather wait. And then the boiling water came rushing in, and I saw there had been a little mistake somewhere. So it occurred to me that I too would dissemble and see what came of it, and I shouted for help. I think I see it all now.'
And then he took a higher moral tone; his manner was no longer cynical; he was not angry even – only deeply wounded, and there was something fine and striking in the stern sadness of his brow.
'So this,' he said, 'was to have been my fate? I was to return, a war-worn warrior, to the hearth and home from which I had been absent so long – so long – to be ruthlessly parboiled the very moment after my arrival, by the partner of my throne! Was this kind – was this wifely, Clytemnestra?'
'That comes so well from you, does it not?' she retorted.
'Why – why – what do you mean?' he stammered.
'You know very well what I mean,' she said. 'Bah! why play the hypocrite with me?'
'Is it possible,' he cried, 'that you can suspect me of not having been near Troy all this time – tell me, Clytemnestra – is this monstrous thing possible'
'Quite,' she replied; 'I know you haven't!'
'What – when I tell you that there is a poet, a fellow called Homer or something, who has got a sort of reputation already by putting the campaign into verses, rather long, but quite readable (you must order them); well, there's a lot about me in them.'
'Did Homer see you there?'
'Now that's a most ridiculous question,' he protested, with a feeling that she was coming round, and that he should convince her directly; 'the poet's blind, Clytemnestra, quite blind. But I will not argue – you must be content with a warrior's assurance.'
She laughed. 'I'm afraid,' she said, 'that even a warrior's assurance will find it difficult to account satisfactorily for this – and this – and these!' And as she spoke, she handed him a variety of articles: a folding hat, a guide to Corinth, a conversation manual, several unused tourist tickets, one or two theatre programmes, a green veil, some supper bills, a correct card for the Olympian races, with the names of probable starters, and three little jointed wooden dolls.
Agamemnon took them all helplessly; all his virtuous indignation had evaporated, and he looked very red and foolish as he said with a kind of nervous laugh, 'You've been looking in my pockets!'
'I have,' she said, 'and now what have you to say for yourself? I don't believe there is any such place as Troy.'
'There is indeed,' he pleaded; 'I can show it to you on the map!'
'Well,' she said, 'if there is, you never went near it!'
'Send those people away,' he said, 'and I will tell you all!'
And when they had gone, he confessed everything, explaining that he really had meant to go to Troy at first, and how, as he got nearer, he found himself less and less inclined for fighting – until at last he determined to travel about and see life instead, and, as he expressed it, 'pick up a little character.'
'Well,' said Clytemnestra, 'I will have no little characters in my palace, Agamemnon.'
But he protested that she had not understood him. 'And if I have erred, my love,' he suggested humbly, 'excuse me, but I cannot help thinking that the means devised for my correction were unnecessarily severe!'
'They were nothing of the sort,' she said; 'you deserved it all – and worse!'
Upon this Agamemnon made haste to assure her that she had shown a very proper spirit, and he respected her the more for it. 'And now,' he put it to her, 'why not let bygones be bygones?' But Clytemnestra's reply was that she would be quite willing to permit this when they were bygones, which, at present, she added, they were very far from being.
The King was in despair, until beneficent nature came to his assistance; a faint chirrup was heard from a neighbouring bush, a circumstance which he turned to admirable account.
'You hear it?' he asked tenderly, 'the dulcet strain? Know ye the note? Ah, Clytemnestra, 'tis the owl – the blithe and tuneful owl! Owls sang on our bridal night – can you hear their melody now and be unmoved? No, I did but wrong ye … a tear trembles on that eyelash, a smile flickers upon that lip! I am pardoned. Clytemnestra – wife, embrace me … we both have much to forgive!'
This speech (which was not unlike some he had heard in thrilling dramas at the 'H?mabronteion,' Corinth, where the prophetess Cassandra had been greatly admired in her impersonations of persecuted and distracted heroines) touched Clytemnestra's heart, in which, hard as it was, there was a strain of sentiment – and she fell sobbing into her husband's arms.
And so all was forgotten and forgiven in the most satisfactory manner, the Chorus (who had been considering themselves arrested until the intellectual strain had proved almost too much for them) were released, while it was found on inquiry that both ?gisthus and Cassandra were missing, and no trace of either of them was ever found again; but it was generally understood that, with a delicate unselfishness, they had been unwilling to remain where their presence would lead to inevitable complications.
And from that night – until the fatal day, some six short weeks afterwards, when each, by an unfortunate oversight, partook of a mixture which had been carefully prepared for the other – there was not a happier royal couple in all Argos than Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.
THE WRAITH OF BARNJUM.11