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Lilith George MacDonald

The Princess

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I stood silent: she had struck me dumb with beauty; she held me dumb with sweetness.

Taking me by the hand, she drew me to the spot of light, and again flashed upon me. An instant she stood there.

"You have grown brown since last I saw you," she said.

"This is almost the first roof I have been under since you left me," I replied.

"Whose was the other?" she rejoined.

"I do not know the woman's name."

"I would gladly learn it! The instinct of hospitality is not strong in my people!" She took me again by the hand, and led me through the darkness many steps to a curtain of black. Beyond it was a white stair, up which she conducted me to a beautiful chamber.

"How you must miss the hot flowing river!" she said. "But there is a bath in the corner with no white leeches in it! At the foot of your couch you will find a garment. When you come down, I shall be in the room to your left at the foot of the stair."

I stood as she left me, accusing my presumption: how was I to treat this lovely woman as a thing of evil, who behaved to me like a sister?--Whence the marvellous change in her? She left me with a blow; she received me almost with an embrace! She had reviled me; she said she knew I would follow and find her! Did she know my doubts concerning her--how much I should want explained? COULD she explain all? Could I believe her if she did? As to her hospitality, I had surely earned and might accept that--at least until I came to a definite judgment concerning her!

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Could such beauty as I saw, and such wickedness as I suspected, exist in the same person? If they could, HOW was it possible? Unable to answer the former question, I must let the latter wait!

Clear as crystal, the water in the great white bath sent a sparkling flash from the corner where it lay sunk in the marble floor, and seemed to invite me to its embrace. Except the hot stream, two draughts in the cottage of the veiled woman, and the pools in the track of the wounded leopardess, I had not seen water since leaving home: it looked a thing celestial. I plunged in.

Immediately my brain was filled with an odour strange and delicate, which yet I did not altogether like. It made me doubt the princess afresh: had she medicated it? had she enchanted it? was she in any way working on me unlawfully? And how was there water in the palace, and not a drop in the city? I remembered the crushed paw of the leopardess, and sprang from the bath.

What had I been bathing in? Again I saw the fleeing mother, again I heard the howl, again I saw the limping beast. But what matter whence it flowed? was not the water sweet? Was it not very water the pitcher-plant secreted from its heart, and stored for the weary traveller? Water came from heaven: what mattered the well where it gathered, or the spring whence it burst? But I did not re-enter the bath.

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