THE ancient steps wound up the side of the mountain through the tall pines, patience trodden deep into them by the feet of twenty centuries. Some soul of silence, ancient and patient as the steps, brooded over them. They were wide, twenty men could have marched abreast upon them; lichens brown and orange traced strange symbols on their grey stones, and emerald mosses cushioned them. At times the steps climbed steep as stairs, and at times they swept leisurely around bastions of the mountain, but always on each side the tall pines stood close, green shoulder to shoulder, vigilant.
At the feet of the pines crouched laurels and dwarfed rhododendrons of a singular regularity of shape and of one height, that of a kneeling man. Their stiff and glossy leaves were like links on coats-of-mail... like the jade-lacquered scale-armor of the Green Archers of Kwanyin who guard the goddess when she goes forth in the Spring to awaken the trees. The pines were like watchful sentinels, and oddly like crouching archers were the laurels and the dwarfed rhododendrons, and they said as plainly as though with tongues: Up these steps you may go, and down them—but never try to pass through us!
A woman came round one of the bastions. She walked stubbornly, head down, as one who fights against a strong wind—or as one whose will rides, lashing the reluctant body on. One white shoulder and breast were bare, and on the shoulder was a bruise and blood, four scarlet streaks above the purpled patch as though a long-nailed hand had struck viciously, clawing. And as she walked she wept.
The steps began to lift. The woman raised her head and saw how steeply here they climbed. She stopped, her hands making little fluttering helpless motions.
She turned, listening. She seemed to listen not with ears alone but with every tensed muscle, her entire body one rapt chord of listening through which swept swift arpeggios of terror. The brittle twilight of the Yunnan highlands, like clearest crystal made impalpable, fell upon brown hair shot with gleams of dull copper, upon a face lovely even in its dazed horror. Her grey eyes stared down the steps, and it was as though they, too, were listening rather than seeing...
She was heavy with child...
She heard voices beyond the bend of the bastion, voices guttural and sing-song, angry and arguing, protesting and urging. She heard the shuffle of many feet, hesitating, halting, but coming inexorably on. Voices and feet of the hung-hutzes, the outlaws who had slaughtered her husband and Kenwood and their bearers a scant hour ago, and who but for Kenwood would now have her. They had found her trail.
She wanted to die; desperately Jean Meredith wanted to die; her faith taught her that then she would rejoin that scholarly, gentle lover-husband of hers whom she had loved so dearly although his years had been twice her own. It would not matter did they kill her quickly, but she knew they would not do that. And she could not endure even the thought of what must befall her through them before death came. Nor had she weapon to kill herself. And there was that other life budding beneath her heart.
But stronger than desire for death, stronger than fear of torment, stronger than the claim of the unborn was something deep within her that cried for vengeance. Not vengeance against the hung-hutzes—they were only a pack of wild beasts doing what was their nature to do. This cry was for vengeance against those who had loosed them, directed them. For this she knew had been done, although how she knew it she could not yet tell. It was not accident, no chance encounter that swift slaughter. She was sure of that.
It was like a pulse, that cry for vengeance; a pulse whose rhythm grew, deadening grief and terror, beating strength back into her. It was like a bitter spring welling up around her soul. When its dark waters had risen far enough they would touch her lips and she would drink of them... and then knowledge would come to her... she would know who had planned this evil thing, and why. But she must have time—time to drink of the waters —time to learn and avenge. She must live... for vengeance...
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!
It was as though a voice had whispered the old text in her ear. She struck her breast with clenched hands; she looked with eyes grown hard and tearless up to the tranquil sky; she answered the voice:
"A lie! Like all the lies I have been taught of—You! I am through with—You! Vengeance! Whoever gives me vengeance shall be my God!"
The voices and the feet were nearer. Strange, how slowly, how reluctantly they advanced. It was as though they were afraid. She studied the woods beyond the pines. Impenetrable; or if not, then impossible for her. They would soon find her if she tried to hide there. She must go on—up the steps. At their end might be some hiding place... perhaps sanctuary...
Yes, she was sure the hung-hutzes feared the steps... they came so slowly, so haltingly... arguing, protesting...
She had seen another turn at the top of this steep. If she could reach it before they saw her, it might be that they would follow her no further. She turned to climb...
A fox stood upon the steps a dozen feet above her, watching her, barring her way. It was a female fox, a vixen. Its coat was all silken russet-red. It had a curiously broad head and slanted green eyes. On its head was a mark, silver white and shaped like the flame of a candle wavering in the wind.
The fox was lithe and graceful, Jean Meredith thought, as a dainty woman. A mad idea came, born of her despair and her denial of that God whom she had been taught from childhood to worship as all-good, all-wise, all-powerful. She thrust her hands out to the fox. She cried to it:
"Sister—you are a woman! Lead me to safety that I may have vengeance—sister!"
Remember, she had just seen her husband die under the knives of the hung-hutzes and she was with child... and who can know upon what fantastic paths of unreality a mind so beset may stray.
As though it had understood the fox paced slowly down the steps. And again she thought how like a graceful woman it was. It paused a little beyond reach of her hand, studying her with those slanted green eyes—eyes clear and brilliant as jewels, sea- green, and like no eyes she had ever seen in any animal. There seemed faint mockery in their gaze, a delicate malice, but as they rested upon her bruised shoulder and dropped to her swollen girdle, she could have sworn that there was human comprehension in them, and pity. She whispered:
There was a sudden outburst of the guttural singsong. They were close now, her pursuers, close to the bend of the steps round which she had come. Soon they must turn it and see her. She stood staring at the fox expectantly... hoping she knew not what.
The fox slipped by her, seemed to melt in the crouching bushes. It vanished.
Black despair, the despair of a child who finds itself abandoned to wild beasts by one it has trusted, closed in on Jean Meredith. What she had hoped for, what she had expected of help, was vague, unformulated. A miracle by alien gods, now she had renounced her own? Or had her appeal to the vixen deeper impulse? Atavistic awakenings, anthropomorphic, going back to that immemorial past when men first thought of animals and birds as creatures with souls like theirs, but closer to Nature's spirit; given by that spirit a wisdom greater than human, and more than human powers—servants and messengers of potent deities and little less than gods themselves.
Nor has it been so long ago that St. Francis of Assisi spoke to the beasts and birds as he did to men and women, naming them Brother Wolf and Brother Eagle. And did not St. Conan baptize the seals of the Orkneys as he did the pagan men? The past and all that men have thought in the past is born anew within us all. And sometimes strange doors open within our minds—and out of them or into them strange spirits come or go. And whether real or unreal, who can say?
The fox seemed to understand—had seemed to promise— something. And it had abandoned her, fled away! Sobbing, she turned to climb the steps.
Too late! The hung-hutzes had rounded the bend.
There was a howling chorus. With obscene gestures, yapping threats, they ran toward her. Ahead of the pack was the pock- faced, half-breed Tibetan leader whose knife had been the first to cut her husband down. She watched them come, helpless to move, unable even to close her eyes. The pock-face saw and understood, gave quick command, and the pack slowed to a walk, gloating upon her agony, prolonging it.
They halted! Something like a flicker of russet flame had shot across the steps between her and them. It was the fox. It stood there, quietly regarding them. And hope flashed up through Jean Meredith, melting the cold terror that had frozen her. Power of motion returned. But she did not try to run. She did not want to run. The cry for vengeance was welling up again. She felt that cry reach out to the fox.
As though it had heard her, the fox turned its head and looked at her. She saw its green eyes sparkle, its white teeth bared as though it smiled.
Its eyes withdrawn, the spell upon the hung-hutzes broke. The leader drew a pistol, fired upon the fox.
Jean Meredith saw, or thought she saw, the incredible.
Where fox had been, stood now a woman! She was tall, and lithe as a young willow. Jean Meredith could not see her face, but she could see hair of russet-red coifed upon a small and shapely head. A silken gown of russet-red, sleeveless, dropped to the woman's feet. She raised an arm and pointed at the pock-faced leader. Behind him his men were silent, motionless, even as Jean Meredith had been—and it came to her that it was the same ice of terror that held them. Their eyes were fixed upon the woman.
The woman's hand dropped—slowly. And as it dropped, the pock-faced Tibetan dropped with it. He sank to his knees and then upon his hands. He stared into her face, lips drawn back from his teeth like a snarling dog, and there was foam upon his lips. Then he hurled himself upon his men, like a wolf. He sprang upon them howling; he leaped up at their throats, tearing at them with teeth and talons. They milled, squalling rage and bewildered terror. They tried to beat him off—they could not.
There was a flashing of knives. The pock-face lay writhing on the steps, like a dog dying. Still squalling, never looking behind them, his men poured down the steps and away.
Jean Meredith's hands went up, covering her eyes. She dropped them— a fox, all silken russet-red, stood where the woman had been. It was watching her. She saw its green eyes sparkle, its white teeth bared as though it smiled—it began to walk daintily up the steps toward her.
Weakness swept over her; she bent her head, crumpled to her knees, covered again her eyes with shaking hands. She was aware of an unfamiliar fragrance —disturbing, evocative of strange, fleeting images. She heard low, sweet laughter. She heard a soft voice whisper:
She looked up. A woman's face was bending over her. An exquisite face... with sea-green, slanted eyes under a broad white brow... with hair of russet-red that came to a small peak in the center of that brow... a lock of silvery white shaped like the flame of a candle wavering in the wind... a nose long but delicate, the nostrils slightly flaring, daintily... a mouth small and red as the royal coral, heart-shaped, lips full, archaic.
Over that exquisite face, like a veil, was faint mockery, a delicate malice that had in them little of the human. Her hands were white and long and slender.
They touched Jean Meredith's heart... soothing her, strengthening her, drowning fear and sorrow.
She heard again the sweet voice, lilting, faintly amused—with the alien, half-malicious amusement of one who understands human emotion yet has never felt it, but knows how little it matters:
"You shall have your vengeance—Sister!" The white hands touched her eyes... she forgot... and forgot... and now there was nothing to remember... not even herself...
It seemed to Jean Meredith that she lay cushioned within soft, blind darkness—illimitable, impenetrable. She had no memories; all that she knew was that she was. She thought: I am I. The darkness that cradled her was gentle, kindly. She thought: I am a spirit still unborn in the womb of night. But what was night... and what was spirit? She thought: I am content— I do not want to be born again. Again? That meant that she had been born before... a word came to her—Jean. She thought: I am Jean... but who was Jean?
She heard two voices speaking. One a woman's, soft and sweet with throbbing undertones like plucked harp strings. She had heard that voice before... before, when she had been Jean. The man's voice was low, filled with tranquillity, human... that was it, the voice held within it a humanness the sweet voice of the woman lacked. She thought: I, Jean, am human...
The man said: "Soon she must awaken. The tide of sleep is high on the shore of life. It must not cover it."
The woman answered: "I command that tide. And it has begun to ebb. Soon she will awaken."
He asked: "Will she remember?"
The woman said: "She will remember. But she will not suffer. It will be as though what she remembers had happened to another self of hers. She will pity that self, but it will be to her as though it died when died her husband. As indeed it did. That self bears the sorrow, the pain, the agony. It leaves no legacy of them to her—save memory."
And now it seemed to her that for a time there was a silence... although she knew that time could not exist within the blackness that cradled her... and what was—time?
The man's voice broke that silence, musingly: "With memory there can be no happiness for her, long as she lives."
The woman laughed, a tingling-sweet mocking chime: "Happiness? I thought you wiser than to cling to that illusion, priest. I give her serenity, which is far better than happiness. Nor did she ask for happiness. She asked for vengeance. And vengeance she shall have."
The man said: "But she does not know who—"
The woman interrupted: "She does know. And I know. And so shall you when you have told her what was wrung from the Tibetan before he died. And if you still do not believe, you will believe when he who is guilty comes here, as come he will—to kill the child."
The man whispered: "To kill the child!"
The woman's voice became cold, losing none of its sweetness but edged with menace: "You must not let him have it, priest. Not then. Later, when the word is given you "
Again the voice grew mocking... "I contemplate a journey... I would see other lands, who so long have dwelt among these hills... and I would not have my plans spoiled by precipitancy..."
Once more Jean Meredith heard the tingling laughter. "Have no fear, priest. They will help you—my sisters."
He said, steadily: "I have no fear."
The woman's voice became gentle, all mockery fled. She said:
"I know that, you who have had wisdom and courage to open forbidden doors. But I am bound by a threefold cord—a promise, a vow, and a desire. When a certain time comes, I must surrender much—must lie helpless, bound by that cord. It is then that I shall need you, priest, for this man who will come."
The voices faded. Slowly the blackness within which she lay began to lighten. Slowly, slowly, a luminous grayness replaced it. She thought, desperately: I am going to be born! I don't want to be born! Implacably, the light increased. Now within the grayness was a nimbus of watery emerald. The nimbus became brighter, brighter...
She was lying upon a low bed, in a nest of silken cushions. Close to her was an immense and ancient bronze vessel, like a baptismal font. The hands of thousands of years had caressed it, leaving behind them an ever deepening patina like a soft green twilight. A ray of the sun shone upon it, and where the ray rested, the patina gleamed like a tiny green sun. Upon the sides of the great bowl were strange geometric patterns, archaic, the spirals and meanders of the Lei-wen—the thunder patterns. It stood upon three legs, tripodal... why, it was the ancient ceremonial vessel, the Tang font which Martin had brought home from Yunnan years ago... and she was back home... she had dreamed that she had been in China and that Martin... that Martin...
She sat up abruptly and looked through wide, opened doors into a garden. Broad steps dropped shallowly to an oval pool around whose sides were lithe willows trailing green tendrils in the blue water, wisterias with drooping ropes of blossoms, white and pale azure, and azaleas like flower flames. Rosy lilies lay upon the pool's breast. And at its far end was a small pagoda, fairy- like, built all of tiles of iridescent peacock blue and on each side a stately cypress, as though they were its ministers... why, this was their garden, the garden of the blue pagoda which Martin had copied from that place in Yunnan where lived his friend, the wise old priest...
But there was something wrong. These mountains were not like those of the ranch. They were conical, their smooth bare slopes of rose-red stone circled with trees. They were like huge stone hats with green brims...
She turned again and looked about the room. It was a wide room and a deep one, but how deep she could not see, because the sun streaming in from a high window struck the ancient vessel and made a curtain, veiling it beyond. She could see that there were beams across its ceiling, mellow with age, carved with strange symbols. She caught glimpses of ivory and of gleaming lacquer. There was a low altar of what seemed green jade, curiously carved and upon which were ceremonial objects of unfamiliar shape, a huge ewer of bronze whose lid was the head of a fox...
A man came toward her, walking out of the shadows beyond the ancient Tang vessel. He was clothed from neck to feet in a silken robe of silvery-blue upon which were embroidered, delicately as though by spiders, Taoist symbols and under them, ghostly in silver threads, a fox's head. He was bald, his face heavy, expressionless, skin smooth and faded yellow as some antique parchment. So far as age went he might have been sixty—or three hundred. But it was his eyes that held Jean Meredith. They were large and black and, liquid, and prodigiously alive. They were young eyes, belying the agelessness of the heavy face; and it was as though the face was but a mask from which the eyes had drawn all life into themselves. They poured into her strength and calmness and reassurance, and from her mind vanished all vagueness, all doubts, all fears. Her mind for the first time since the ambush was clear, crystal clear, her thoughts her own.
She remembered—remembered everything. But it was as though all had happened to another self. She felt pity for that self, but it had left no heritage of sorrow. She was tranquil. The black, youthful eyes poured tranquillity into her.
She said: "I know you. You are Yu Ch'ien, the wise priest my husband loved. This is the Temple of the Foxes.