James Branch Cabell
As to a Veil they Broke
So it was that Jurgen came into Cogaigne, wherein is the bedchamber of Time. And Time, they report, came in with Jurgen, since Jurgen was mortal: and Time, they say, rejoiced in this respite from the from the slow toil of delapidating cities stone by stone, and with his eyes tired by the finicky work of etching in wrinkles, went happily unto his bedchamber, and fell asleep just after sunset on this fine evening in June: so that the weather remained fair and changeless, with no glaring sun rays anywhere, and with one large star shining shining alone in the clear daylight. This was the star of Venus Mechanitis, and Jurgen derived considerable amusement from noting that this star was trundled about the dome of heaven by a largish beetle, named Khephre. And the trees everywhere kept their first fresh foliage, and the birds were about their indolent evening songs, all during Jurgen’s stay in Cocaigne, for Time had gone to sleep at the pleasantest hour of the year’s most pleasant season. So tells the tale.
And Jurgen’s shadow also went in with Jurgen, but in Cocaigne as in Glathion, nobody save Jurgen seemed to notice this curious shadow which now followed Jurgen everywhere.
In Cocaigne Queen Anaïtis (*) had a palace, where domes and pinnacles beyond numbering glimmered with a soft whiteness above the head of an old twilit forest, wherein the vegetation was unlike that which is nourished by ordinary earth. There was to be seen in these woods, for instance, a sort of moss which made Jurgen shudder. So Anaïtis and Jurgen came through narrow paths, like murmurring green caverns, into a courtyard walled and paved with yellow marble, wherein was nothing save the dimly colored statue of a god with ten heads and thirty-four arms (*): he was represented as very much engrossed by a woman, and with his unoccupied hands was holding yet another woman.
“It is Jigsbed,” said Anaïtis.
Said Jurgen: “I do not criticize. Nevertheless, I think this Jigsbed is carrying matters to extremes.”
Then they passed the statue of Tangaro Loloquong (*), and afterward the statue of Legba (*). Jurgen stroked his chin, and his color heightened. “Now certainly, Queen Anaïtis,” he said, “you have unusual taste in sculpture.”
Thence Jurgen came with Anaïtis into a white room, with copper plaques upon the walls, and there four girls were heating water in a brass tripod. They bathed Jurgen, giving him astonishing caresses meanwhile — with the tongue, the hair, the finger-nails, and the tips of the breasts, — and they anointed him with the four oils, then dressed him again in his glittering shirt. Of Caliburn, said Anaïtis, there was not present need: so Jurgen’s sword was hung upon the wall.
These girls brought silver bowls containing wine mixed with honey, and they brought pomegranates and eggs and barleycorn, and triangular red-colored loaves, whereon they sprinkled sweet-smelling little seeds with formal gestures. Then Anaïtis and Jurgen broke their fast, eating together while the four girls served them.
“And now,” says Jurgen, “and now, my dear, I would suggest that we enter into the pursuit of those curious pleasures of which you were telling me.”
“I am very willing,” responded Anaïtis, “since there is no one of these pleasures but is purchased by some diversion of a man’s nature. Yet first, as I hardly need inform you, there is a ceremonial to be obseved.”
“And what, pray, is this ceremonial?”
“Why, we call it the Breaking of the Veil.” And Queen Anaïtis explained what they must do.
“Well,” says Jurgen, “I am willing to taste any drink once.”
So Anaïtis led Jurgen into a sort of chapel, adorned with very unchurchlike paintings. There were four shrines, dedicated severally to St. Cosmo (*), to St. Damianus (*), to St. Guignole of Brest (*), and to St. Foutin de Varailles (*). In this chapel were a hooded man, clothed in long garments that were striped with white and yellow, and two naked children, both girls. One of the children carried a censer: the other held a vividly blue pitcher half filled with water, and in her left hand a cellar of salt.
First of all, the hooded man made Jurgen ready. “Behold the lance,” said the hooded man, “which must serve you in this adventure.”
“I accept the adventure,” Jurgen replied, “because I believe the weapon to be trustworthy.”
Said the hooded man: “So be it! but as you are, so once was I.”
Meanwhile, Duke Jurgen held the lance erect, shaking it with his right hand. This lance was large, and the tip of it was red with blood.
“Behold,” said Jurgen, “I am a man born of a woman incomprehensibly. Now I, who am miraculous, am found worthy to perform a miracle, and to create that which I may not comphrehend.”
Anaïtis took the salt and water from the child, and mingled these. “Let the salt of earth enable the thin fluid to assume the virtue of the teeming sea!”
Then kneeling, she touched the lance, and began to stroke it lovingly. To Jurgen she said” “Now may you be fervent of soul and body! May the endless Serpent be your crown, and the fertile flame of the sun your strength!”
Said the hooded man, again: “So be it!” His voice was high and bleating, because of that which had been done to him.
“That therefore which we cannot understand we also invoke,” said Jurgen. “By the power of the lifted lance” — and now with his left hand he took the hand of Anaïtis, — “I, being a man born of woman incomprehensibly, now seize upon that which alone I desire with my whole being. I lead you towards the east. I upraise you above the earth and all the things of the earth.”
Then Jurgen raised Queen Anaïtis so that she sat upon the altar, and that which was there before tumbled to the ground. Anaïtis placed together the tips of the thumbs and of her fingers, so that her hands made an open triangle; and waited thus. Upon her head was a network of red coral, with branches radiating downward: her gauzy tunic had twenty-two openings, so as to admit all imaginable caresses, and was of two colors, being shot with black and crimson curiously mingled: her dark eyes glittered and her breath came fast.
Now the hooded man and the two naked girls performed their share in the ceremonial, which part it is not essential to record. But Jurgen was rather shocked by it.
None the less, Jurgen said: “O cord that binds the circling of the stars! O cup which holds all time, all color, and all thought! O soul of space! not unto any image of thee do we attain unless that image show in what we are about to do. Therefore by every plant which scatters its seed and by the moist warm garden which receives and nourishes it, by the comminglement of bloodshed with pleasure, by the joy that mimics anguish with sighs and shudderings, and by the contentment which mimics death, — by all these do we invoke thee. O thou, continuous one, whose will these children attend, and whom I now adore in this fair-colored and soft woman’s body, it is thou whom I honor, not any woman, in doing what seems good to me: and it is thou who art about to speak, and not she.”
The Anaïtis said: “Yea, for I speak with the tongue of every woman, and I shine in the eyes of every woman, when the lance is lifted. To serve me is better than all else. When you invoke me with a heart wherein is kindled the serpent flame, if but for a moment, you will understand the depths of my garden, what joy unwordable pulsates therein, and how potent is the sole desire which uses all of a man. To serve me you will then be eager to surrender whatever else is in your life: and other pleasures you will take with your left hand, not thinking of them entirely: for I am the desire which uses all of a man, and so wastes nothing. And I accept you, I yearn towards you, I who am daughter and somewhat more than daughter to the sun. I who am all pleasure, all ruin, and a drunkenness of the inmost sense, desire you.”
Now Jurgen held his lance erect before Anaïtis. “O secret of all things, hidden in the being of all which lives, now that the lance is exalted I do not dread thee: for thou art in me, and I am thou. I am the flame that burns in every beating heart and in the core of the farthest star. I too am life, and the giver of life, and in me too is death. Wherein art thou better than I? I am alone: my will is justice: and there comes no other god where I am.”
Said the hooded man behind Jurgen: “So be it! but as you are, so once was I.”
The two naked children stood at each side of Anaïtis, and waited there trembling. These girls, as Jurgen learned afterward, were Alecto and Tisiphonê two of the Eumenidês (*). And now Jurgen shifted the red point of the lance, so that it rested in the open triangle made by the fingers of Anaïtis.
“I am life and the giver of life,” cried Jurgen. “Thou that art one, that makest use of all! I who am a man born of woman, I in my station honor thee in honoring this desire which uses all of a man. Make open therefore the way of creation, encourage the flaming dust which is in our hearts, and aid us in that perpetual flame’s perpetuation! For is this not thy law?”
Anaïtis answered: “There is no law in Cocaigne save, Do that which seems good to you.”
Then said the naked children: “Perhaps it is the law, but certainly it is not justice. Yet we are little and quite helpless. So presently we must be made as you are: for now you are no longer two, and you flesh is not shared merely with each other. For your flesh becomes our flesh, and your sins our sins: and we have no choice.”
Jurgen lifted Anaïtis from the altar, and they went into the chancel and searched for the adytum. There seems to be no doors anywhere in the chancel: but presently Jurgen found an opening screened by a pink veil. Jurgen thrust with his lance and broke this veil. He heard the sound of one brief wailing cry: it was followed by soft laughter. So Jurgen came into the adytum.
Black candles were burning in this place, and sulphur too was burning there, before a scarlet cross, of which the top was a circle, and whereon was nailed a living toad. And other curious matters Jurgen likewise noticed.
He laughed, and turned to Anaïtis: now that the candles were behind him, she was standing in his shadow. “Well, well! but you are a little old-fashioned, with all these equivocal mummeries. And I did not know that civilized persons any longer retained sufficient credulity to wring a thrill from god-baiting. Still, women must be humored, bless them! and at last, I take it, we have quite fairly fulfilled the ceremonial requisite to the pursuit of curious pleasures.”
Queen Anaïtis was very beautiful, even under his bedimming shadow. Triumphant too was the proud face beneath that curious coral network, and yet this woman’s face was sad.
“Dear fool,” she said, “it was not wise, when you sang of the Léshy, to put an affront upon Monday. But you have forgotten that. And now you laugh because that which you have done you do not understand: and equally that which I am you do not understand.”
“No matter what you may be my dear, I am sure that you will presently tell me all about it. For I assume that you mean to deal fairly with me.”
“I shall do that which becomes me, Duke Jurgen –”
“That is it, my dear, precisely! You intend to be true to yourself, whatever happens. The aspiration does you infinite honor, and I shall try to help you. Now I have noticed that every woman is most truly herself,” says Jurgen, oracularly, “in the dark.”
Then Jurgen looked at her for a moment, with twinkling eyes: then Anaïtis, standing in his shadow, smiled with glowing eyes: then Jurgen blew out those black candles: and then it was quite dark.