TWO CHOICES

The stern-faced mattern’s name was Dame Quasso; she told Mircella to
show Lalette to a small brown room angled by a dormer, where a bed with
one blanket, a chair and a chiffonier were the only furniture.

“The dress-room is down here,” said the servant, pointing. “The
regulation is that all demoiselles stir themselves together at the
ringing of the morning-bell, so that the day’s tasks may be assigned.”

“Why?” said Lalette, sitting down on the edge of the bed (so glad to
hear a voice without malice or innuendo in it that the words hardly
mattered).

The eyes were round and the mouth was round; a series of rounds. Said
Mircella; “It is the regulation. . . . You must dress your best for
evening. It is the day of the diaconals.”

“Ah?”

“Oh, some of them are quite rich. We will have roast meat for supper.
Wouldn’t it be nice if one of them would take you way up in the
mountains?”

Lalette felt her heart contract. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I am
from Dossola, and this is all new to me.”

“Why, the diaconals. Those learners who are in the second stage, almost
Initiates, so they can’t be married, and once a month they come—”

“Mircella!” came Dame Quasso’s voice, impatiently.

“I must go. You won’t have to work today. You never do on the first
day.”

Lalette thought: what trap am I caught in? It was a diaconal that Tegval
said he was, and that he had chosen me, that horrible night when—when—.
A fierce surge of anger burned through her at the widow Domijaiek, who
had babbled so of love and God, yet brought her to this dubious resort;
and once more, as when she stood in the mask-maker’s parlor, there was
the feeling of being hemmed in by metal walls. But before her fury could
rise to the performing of the black witchery already forming at the back
of her mind, the door was tapped and a toothless old man brought in her
chest and said Dame Quasso awaited her attendance.

The entrance broke a spell; Lalette was inwardly assuring herself there
was some mistake, the thing might be better than appearances, while the
mattern began in the most ordinary way to ask her what work she had done
or might be fitted for. At last Dame Quasso said:

“I do not know what you Dossolan girls are trained for by your mothers,
except marriage to counts. No one of you can earn the worth of her
clothing. You know nothing; but I will place you with the stitchers who
work on linen till you have learned something better. You will find your
witchery of little value here. I suppose the charge is justified?”

Lalette stamped her foot (all the fury returning at this treatment).
“Madame,” she cried, “as I was brought up, a girl sold into prostitution
had already earned the worth of her clothing and something else beside.”

There was a silence, in which the cool, hard eyes did not change, nor
the face around them (and Lalette had the sensation that if she looked
into them any longer, she would drown). Dame Quasso said; “Sit
down. . . . We have had girls like you before, and always they make me
doubtful of those who admit you to the company of the Myonessae.
Nevertheless, it is our task, who conduct these couvertines, to see that
you are instructed to a better way of life. Listen attentively; there is
in this domain of Mancherei and in our honorable order no question of
prostitution, which concerns those who sell for money what they should
give for love. But it is the wise ordinance of our Prophet that they who
would attain to the state of Initiates shall not marry before quitting
this material body for that life which is the God of love. For marriage
is viewed with approval by the old churches as though it were something
to be desired. Yet it is but a license to serve the god of Evil, in
whose armory no weapon is so potent as the propagation of further
mankind into this bodily world, which he wholly rules. Therefore it is
ordered that when one who has reached the diaconal estate is overcome by
the desires which the god of Evil has placed in all flesh, he shall seek
out the Myonessae, choose one, and cohabit with her for as long as they
both will. It is a matter of free choice and no compulsion. Yet during
such time, the diaconal is not allowed to continue his studies, thus
standing in danger of never becoming Initiate, but of dying and being
reborn into some ugly form, as a serpent or an insect.”

Said Lalette, nipping a lip in her little white teeth; “And what of us,
who merely satisfy the lusts of these men?”

From severity, the mattern’s face turned to astonishment. “Why, this is
the very service of love, that we offer our bodies, not in exchange for
the sustainment a man gives us and the satisfaction of our own desires,
but in the name of the love of God, that all may benefit by learning the
vanity of earthly wishes.”

“I was not told of this, and I do not think I like it.”

Dame Quasso’s face turned stern again. “Very well,” she said in an iron
voice. “There are some who will not accept instruction. I will have the
account made up of what you owe for the passage here. When it is paid,
you may have a porter take your box wherever you please.”

(Where, indeed? And how pay? Panic mingled with the anger that boiled
anew in Lalette’s mind.) “Ah,” she said, “you talk of love and holiness,
and—” then burst into tears, leaning forward with her hands covering her
face. The mattern came around and placed a surprisingly gentle hand on
the girl’s shoulder.

“My child,” she said. “It is not I nor the Initiates of Mancherei that
place you under hard compulsion, but this material world, in which the
god of Evil has all power. All you have learned, all you have gained
through witchery is straight from hell. Return to your room; meditate
what I have said until supper, when some of the diaconals will come, and
see for yourself whether it is as sour a fate to be of the Myonessae as
you now think.”

II

Rodvard had no meal at noon (lacking money), his eyeballs ached from
toiling under lamplight, and the others had finished their eating when
he reached the Gualdis’ shop. The dame’s voice was not very pleasant
(the Blue Star told him she hoped he was not going to be as much trouble
as—something he could not make out). But Leece and Vyana, the oldest
daughter, reheated for him some of the stew in a casserole, and made to
entertain him by asking him about his work. (When he told them it was
casting accounts for the Myonessae, there was something behind Vyana’s
eyes that came to him as a shapeless whirl of fear and desire, but he
could neither draw her thought more clear, nor cause the subject to be
pursued.)

Now the talk turned to Dossola, and especially to Count Cleudi, for the
whole family became much excited when they learned Rodvard had actually
seen that famous person in the flesh and even worked for him. It took
him several moments to realize that here in Mancherei he need not
withhold his tongue, for these people thought the Count as great a
villain as did the Sons of the New Day. Rodvard related the trick Cleudi
had played on Aiella of Arjen (keeping his own name out of it for a
reason he did not quite know), whereupon Leece asked innocently what a
“mistress” might be, and the elders laughed.

His own room was very small, with the window right over the bed and only
space for a garderobe, a cabinet and one chair. The next morning the
girl brought his breakfast very early, and it needed no Blue Star to see
that she wanted to talk, so he made her sit on the chair and took the
tray across his knees, as he asked why Vyana had been so strange about
the Myonessae the night before.

“Her sweetheart is a learner who has now become diaconal and wishes to
join the sisterhood. But father and mother want her to marry in the
usual way.” She leaned close and in a voice that was little above a
whisper said; “You won’t tell, will you? . . . But we are afraid he’ll
bring an Initiate to persuade them, and then he’ll find out that father
and mother really believe in the old religion, and he’ll send both of
them away for instruction, and all three of us will have to go into the
Myonessae, and I don’t want to.”

(So many questions whirled in Rodvard’s head that he could not find
words fast enough; and all his senses were tingling with the sudden
nearness of Leece’s red lips, the swelling breasts and the message that
darted from her eyes, saying she was pleased with this same nearness,
but not as Damaris the maid, she held herself high and. . . .) He said,
rather stupidly, not thinking of his words; “And why not? I would
think—”

She leaned back again; (the eyes went dead) the thick brows came
together. “Ah, but you do not think like a woman. We—we—want—”

“What, charming Leece?”

She flashed a smile which accepted his tiny apology and announced they
two would play the game so set in motion. “We want to be loved for
ourselves, here in this world. There! I have said it. Now, when you make
your fourth-day report before the stylarion, you have only to complain
that I am out of the law of Love, and they’ll send me somewhere for
instruction, and you won’t have to be bothered with my questions about
Dossola.”

“Defend the day! But tell me, Leece, is it contrary to the law not to be
Amorosian?”

“Oh, no, you don’t understand. It isn’t that hard, really. Only the
Initiates have to see that people don’t do wrong things, and doing
something wrong always begins with thinking, so they send people away
for instruction when they begin to think the wrong way.”

She rattled this off like a lesson learned. Rodvard said;

“But who decides whether the Initiates themselves are right?”

“Why, they have to be! They learn everything through the God of love,
and one of them couldn’t be wrong without the others finding it out.
That was how they found out that the Prophet was falling under the power
of the god of Evil, when he tried to change everything and had to leave
us.”

Rodvard picked at the bedcover for a moment (deciding it was as well to
change the subject). “But tell me—why can’t your Myonessae be loved for
themselves? I am only two days here, and know so little about your
customs.”

“By the diaconals who choose them, you mean? Ah, no. All the Myonessae
know they are only second choice. The diaconals have already chosen the
service of the God of love first.”

“Then the Myonessae are jealous of the church—or of your God of love?”

“Oh, no. Women think more spiritually than men. You must go to a service
with me and then you’ll understand.” The corner of her mouth twitched
slightly; she reached over to touch his hand. “I must go,” she said, and
was gone.

This was the beginning of a custom, by which she came to him each
morning to be his instructor in all that concerned Mancherei. Once or
twice fat Dame Gualdis wheezed up the stair and smiled through the door
at the two, wishing them good morning as she went past on some errand,
real or pretended; she seemed to find it decorous that the girl often
sat on the edge of Rodvard’s bed. Their conversation never seemed to
fail, and they took delight in minor contacts, as when he showed Leece
the fashion of sitting wrestle he had learned as a lad, with each
opponent gripping the other’s right elbow and only that arm engaged.
Leece was so nearly as strong as himself as to make the contest a true
one (and she was as greedy as he of the almost-meeting of bodies, as
the Blue Star told him. She would go a long way with him, it said,
perhaps all the way if pressed, but felt a little fearful of her own
desires, and would want him as a husband in permanence. When she left,
he would think of Damaris the maid as he dressed, and how she also had
sat on his bed, and the end of that meeting, sweet and terrifying, how
she had killed his Blue Star, and how he would surely have been trapped
into some regular connection with her, had not circumstance ordered his
flight from Sedad Vix. At this it seemed to him, walking the street to
his daily toil, that there was nothing in the world so precious as that
jewel and the use to which it must be put, and he must reach Dossola
again, and by no means do the thing that would rob the Blue Star of its
virtue; and then he thought of the penalty Lalette had promised, which
lay at the back of his mind like a dark cloud of dread. But as he took
his place on his stool, the thought came that he had already earned
whatever penalty there was. It was not credible that the accident of
having the Star’s power restored by the old woman in the hut would
disannul what he had to bear; nor was it likely that the restoration
would hide his action from one possessed of the witch-powers of the
far-away girl to whom he was bound. But why was he bound to Lalette? Now
the sweetness of the touch of Leece and the desire of her body ran
through him like a liquid fire, and he felt as though he were running
across a bridge no wider than a knife-blade over a yawning chasm, toward
a goal hidden in mist, and all his inner organs were wrung.)

“Bergelin!” said the protostylarion. “You will remember that this work
is given to you as a charity, which it will profit you not to abuse.”