THE TENT OF THE PURPLE MAT

THE TENT OF THE PURPLE MAT

The Tent stands on the Mount of Lost Winters, in that bit of hospitable
land called the Fair Valley, which is like no other in the North. Whence
comes the soft wind that comforts it, who can tell? It swims through the
great gap in the mountains, and passing down the valley, sinks upon the
prairie of the Ten Stars, where it is lost. What man first placed the
Tent on the Mount none knows, though legends are many. It has a clear
outlook to the north, whence comes the gracious wind, and it is sheltered
at the south by a stout wall of commendable trees; yet these are at some
small distance, so that the Tent has a space all about it, and the figure
of the general land is as that of an amphitheatre.

It is made of deerskin, dyed by a strange process which turned it white,
and doctored by some cunning medicine. It is like a perfect parchment,
and shows no decay. It has a centre-pole of excellent fir, and from its
peak flies a strip of snake-skin, dyed a red which never fades. For the
greater part of the year the plateau whereon the Tent stands is covered
with a sweet grass, and when the grass dies there comes a fine white
frost, ungoverned by the sun, in which the footstep sinks, as into an
unfilled honeycomb.

The land has few clouds, and no storms, save of the lightest-rain which
is as mist, and snow which is as frosty haze. The sun cherishes the place
continually, and the moon rises on it with a large rejoicing.

Yet no man dwells in the valley. It is many scores of leagues from any
habitation, from the lodges of the Indians or the posts of the Company's
people. There are few tribes that know of it, and these go not to it as
tribes, but as one man or one woman has need. Men say that beyond it, in
another amphitheatre of the hills, is the White Valley, the Place of
Peace, where the sleepers are, and the Scarlet Hunter is sentinel. Yet
who knows--since any that have been there are constrained to be silent,
or forget what they have seen?

But this valley where the Tent stands is for those who have broken the
commandment, "Thou shalt not sell thy soul." Hither they come and wait
and desire continually; and this delightful land is their punishment, for
they have no relish for goodly things, the power to enjoy going from them
when they bargained their souls away. The great peace, the noble
pasturage, the equal joy of day and night wherein is neither heat nor
cold, where life is like the haze on a harvest-field, are for
chastisement, till that by great patience and striving, some one, having
the gift of sacrifice, shall give his life to buy back that soul. For it
is in the minds of this people of the North that for every life that
comes into the world one passes out, and for every soul which is bartered
away another must be set free ere it can be redeemed.

Men and women whom life and their own sins had battered came seeking the
Tent; but they were few and they were chiefly old, for conscience cometh
mostly when man can work and wanton no more. Yet one day, when the sight
of the valley was most fair to their eyes, there came out of the
southmost corner a girl, who, as soon as she set foot in the valley, laid
aside her knapsack in the hollow of a tree, also her moccasins and a
little cap of fur, and came on with bare head and feet towards the Mount
of the Lost Winters.

She was of good stature, ripely made, not beautiful of face, but with a
look which would make any man turn twice to see, a very glory of fine
hair, and a hand which spoke oftener than the lips. She had come a
month's travel, scarcely halting from sunrise to sunset, and she was as
worn in body as in spirit. Now, as she passed up the valley she stood
still several times, and looked round in a kind of dream, as well one
might who had come out of an inclement south country to this sweet
nourishment. Yet she stood not still for joy and content, but for pain.
Once or twice she lifted up her hands above her head as though appealing,
but these pauses were only for brief moments, for she kept moving on
towards the mountain with a swift step. When she had climbed the plateau
where the delicate grass yielded with a tender spring to the feet, she
paused long and gazed round, as though to take a last glance at all;
then, turning to the Tent, looked steadfastly at it, awe and wonder, and
something more difficult of interpretation, in her face. At last she
slowly came to the curtain of the Tent, and lifting it, without a pause
stepped inside, the curtain falling behind her.

The Tent was empty save for the centre-pole, a wooden trough of dried
fruit, a jar of water, and a mat of the most gentle purple colour, which
was laid between the centre-pole and the tent-curtain. The mat was of
exquisite make, as it seemed from the chosen fibres of some perfect wood,
and the hue was as that of a Tyrian dye. A soft light pervaded the place,
perhaps filtered through the parchment-like white skin of the Tent, for
it seemed to have no other fountain. Upon the farther side a token was
drawn in purple on the tentskin, and the girl, seeing it, turned quickly
to the curtain through which she had passed. Upon the curtain were other
signs. She read them slowly, and repeated them out loud in a low
uncertain voice, like a bird's note blundering in a flute:

"Four hours shalt thou look northward, kneeling on the Mat of Purple, and
thinking of the Camp of the Delightful Fires, around which is the Joyous
City; four hours shalt thou lie prone, thy face upon the soothing earth,
desiring sleep; and four hours shalt thou look within thine own breast,
thinking of thy sin; four hours also shalt thou go through the valley,
calling out that thou art lost, and praying the Scarlet Hunter to bring
thee home. Afterwards thou shalt sleep, and thou shalt comfort thyself
with food when thou wilt. If the Scarlet Hunter comes not, and thy life
faileth for misery, and none comprehending thy state offereth his life,
that thy soul may be free once more--then thou shalt gladly die, and,
yielding thine own body, shall purchase back thy soul; but this is not
possible until thou hast dwelt here a year and a day."

Having read, the girl threw herself face forward on the ground, her body
shaking with grief, and she cried out a man's name many times with great
bitterness "Ambroise! Ambroise! Ambroise!"

A long time she lay prone, crying so; but at last arose and, folding back
the curtain with hot hands, began her vigil for the redemption of a soul.

And while her sorrow grew, a father mourned for his daughter and called
his God to witness that he was guiltless of her loss, though he had said
hard words to her by reason of a man called Ambroise. Then, too, the
preacher had exhorted her late and early till her mind was in a maze--it
is enough to have the pangs of youth and love, to be awakened by the pain
of mere growth and knowledge, without the counsel of the overwise to go
jolting through the soul.

The girl was only eighteen. She had never known her mother, she had lived
as the flowers do, and when her hour of trial came she felt herself cast
like a wandering bird out of the nest. In her childhood she had known no
preachers, no teaching, save the wholesome catechism of a father's love
and the sacred intimacy of Nature. Living so, learning by signs the
language of law and wisdom, she had indrawn the significance of legend,
the power of the awful natural. She had made her own commandments.

When Ambroise the courier came, she had looked into his eyes and seen her
own--indeed, it was most wonderful, for those two pairs of eyes were as
those of one person. And each, as each looked, smiled--that smile which
is the coming laughter of a heart at itself. Yet they were different--he
a man, she a woman; he versed in evil, she taught in good; he a vagrant
of the snows, the fruit of whose life was like the contemptible stones of
the desert; she the keeper of a goodly lodge, past which flowed a water
that went softly, making rich the land, the fountain of her perfect
deeds. He, looking into her eyes, saw himself when he had no sin on his
soul; and she into his--as it seemed, her own always--saw herself as it
were in a cobweb of evils which she could not understand. As his heart
grew lighter, hers grew sick, even when she knew that these were the only
eyes in which she could ever see happiness.

It grew upon her that Ambroise's sins were hers and not his; that she,
not he, had bartered a soul for the wages of sin. When they said at the
Fort that her eyes and Ambroise's, and her face and his, were as of one
piece, the pain of the thought deepened, and other pains came likewise,
for her father and the preacher urged that a man who had sold himself to
the devil was no comrade for her in little or much. Yet she loved him as
only they can who love for the first time, and with the deep primitive
emotions which are out of the core of nature. But her heart had been
cloven as by a wedge, and she would not, and could not, lie in his arms,
nor rest her cheek to his, nor seek that haven where true love is
fastened like a nail on the wall of that inn called home. He was herself,
he must be brought back; and so, one night, while yet the winter was on,
she stole away out of the Fort, pausing at his door a moment only, laying
her hand upon it as one might tenderly lay it on the brow of a sick
sleeper. Then she stepped away out on the plains, pointing her course by
the moon, for the Mount of Lost Winters and the Tent of the Purple Mat.

When the people of the Fort waked, and it was found that she was gone,
search parties sallied out, but returned as they went after many days.
And at last, because Ambroise suffered as one ground between rolling
stones, even the preacher and the father of the girl relented towards
him. After some weeks there came word through a wandering tribe that the
body of a girl had been found on the Child o' Sin River, and black pelts
were hung as mourning on the lodges and houses and walls of the Fort, and
the father shut himself in his room, admitting no one. Still, they
mourned without great cause.

But, if the girl had taken the sins of Ambroise with her, she had left
him beside that soft flowing river of her goodness; and the savour of the
herbs on its banks was to him like the sun on a patch of pennyroyal,
bringing medicine to the sick body through the nostrils. So one morning,
after many months, having crept from the covert of remorse, he took a
guide to start him in the right trail, and began his journey to the
Valley, whither she had gone before him, though he knew it not. From the
moment that his guide left him dangers beset him, and those spirits
called the Mockers, which are the evil deeds of a man crying to Heaven,
came crying about him from the dead white trees, breathing through the
powdery air, whistling down the moonlight; so that to cheer him he called
out again and again, like any heathen:

"Keeper, O Keeper of the Kimash Hills!
I am as a dog in the North Sea,
I am as a bat in a cave,
As a lizard am I on a prison wall,
As a tent with no pole,
As a bird with one wing;
I am as a seal in the desert,
I am as a wild horse alone.
O Scarlet Hunter of the Kimash Hills!
Thou hast an arm like a shooting star,
Thou hast an eye like the North Sky fires,
Thou hast a pouch for the hungry,
Thou hast a tent for the lost:
Hear me, O Keeper of the Kimash Hills!"

And whether or not this availed him, who can tell? There be many names of
the One Thing, and the human soul hath the same north and south, if there
be any north and south and east and west, save in the words of men. But
something availed; and one day a footworn traveller, entering the Valley
at the southmost corner, laid his cap and bag, moccasins, bow and arrow,
and an iron weapon away in a hollow log, seeing not that there were also
another bag and cap, and a pair of moccasins there. Then, barefooted and
bareheaded, he marched slowly up the Valley, and all its loveliness smote
him as a red iron is buffeted at the forge; and an exquisite agony
coursed through his veins, so that he cried out, hiding his face. And yet
he needs must look and look, all his sight aching with this perfection,
never overpowering him, but keeping him ever in the relish of his
torture.

At last he came to the door of the Tent in the late evening, and, intent
not only to buy back the soul he had marketed--for the sake of the memory
of the woman, and believing that none would die for him and that he must
die for himself--he lifted the curtain and entered. Then he gave a great
cry, for there she lay asleep, face downward, her forehead on the Purple
Mat.

"Sherah! Sherah!" he cried, dropping on his knees beside her and lifting
up her head.

"Ambroise!" she called out faintly, her pale face drawing away from his
breast.

"Sherah, why didst thou come here?" he said. "Thou! thou!"

"To buy back my soul, Ambroise. And this is the last day of the year that
I have spent here. Oh, why, why didst thou come? To-morrow all should
have been well!"

"To buy back thy soul--thou didst no wrong!" But at that moment their
eyes drew close, and changed, and he understood.

"For me--for me!" he whispered.

"Nay, for me!" she replied.

Then they noticed that the Purple Mat on which they knelt was red under
their knees, and a goodly light shone through the Tent, not of the day or
night. And as they looked amazed, the curtain of the Tent drew open, and
one entered, clothed in red from head to foot; and they knew him to be
the Scarlet Hunter, the lover of the lost, the Keeper of the Kimash
Hills.

Looking at them steadfastly he said to Sherah: "Thou has prevailed.
To-night, at the setting of the sun, an old man died in Syria who uttered
thy name as in a dream when he passed. The soul of Ambroise hath been
bought back by thee."

Then he spoke to Ambroise. "Because thy spirit was willing, and for the
woman's sake thou shalt have peace; but this year which she has spent for
thee shall be taken from thy life, and added to hers. Come, and I will
start ye on the swift trail to your own country, and ye shall come here
no more."

As they rose, obeying him, they saw that the red of the Mat had gone a
perfect white, and they knew not what to think, for they had acted after
the manner of the heathen; but that night, as they travelled with joy
towards that Inn called Home, down at the Fort, a preacher with rude
noise cried to those who would hear him: "Though your sins be as scarlet
they shall become whiter than snow."

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Główna Czytelnia Literatura Przypowieści THE TENT OF THE PURPLE MAT

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