*Text from "The King in the Golden Mask
and other stories"
Carcenet 1985, Exeter, England
Translation (c) 1982 Iain White
|Her waggon-spokes made of long spinner's legs;
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces of the smallest spider's web;
Her collars of the moonshine's watery beams...
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I, IV, 60-3.
| You say I am mad, and you have locked me up; but I laugh at your precautions and your terrors. For, the day I desire it, I shall be free; I shall flee far from your warders and your bars along a silken thread thrown me by Arachne. But the hour has still to come - though it is close: increasingly my heart is enfeebled and my blood grows paler. You who now think me mad will believe I am dead: and I shall be swinging by Arachne's thread beyond the stars.
If I were mad, I should not be so clearly aware of what has happened, I should not recall with such precision that which you have called my crime, nor the pleas made in court by your advocates, nor the sentence of your red-robed judge. I should not laugh to scorn the reports of your doctors, I should not see on the cieling of my room the clean-shaven face, the black frock-coat and the white cravat of the idiot who declared me unaccountable for my actions. No, I would not be so clearly aware - for the insane do not have clear notions; whilst I follow out my chains of reasoning with a lucid logic that I myself find astonishing. And the mad are troubled at the crown of their head: they believe - poor wretches! - that columns of smoke rise, swirling from their occiput. Whilst my own brain is so airily volatile that I often feel my skull is empty. The novels I have read, which formerly gave me pleasure, I now take in at a glance and judge for what they are worth; I see each fault in composition - and at the same time the symmetry of my own invention is so perfect that you would be dazzled were I to let you see them.
But I hold you in infinite contempt; you would not comprehend them. I leave you these lines as a final witness of my ridicule, and to bring home to you your own insanity, when you find my cell deserted.
Ariane, the pale Ariane at whose side you seized me, was an embroideress. This is what brought about her death. That is what will bring about my salvation. I loved her with an intense passion; she was tiny, dusky-skinned and nimble-fingered; her kisses were needle-pricks, her caresses palpitant embroideries. And embroideresses lead so thoughtless a life and are so fickle in hteir caprices that I very soon wished that she would quit her employment. But she resisted me: and I was enraged at the sight of the young men, pomaded and sporting cravats, that lay in wait for her as she left the workshop. My state of nervous irritation was such that I tried to re-immerse myself in the studies that had been my delight.
It was perforce that I took down volume XIII of Asiatic Researches, published in Calcutta in 1820: and mechanically I began to read the article on the Phasingars. This led me to the Thugs.
Captain Sleeman has had much to say of them. Colonel Meadows Taylor has ferreted out the secrets of their association. They were joined among themselves by mysterious bonds and served as domestics in country houses. In the evening, at supper, they would stupefy their masters with a decoction of Hemp. At night, creeping along the walls, they slipped in by the windows, open to the moon, coming silently to strangle the householders. Their cords too were made of Hemp, with a thick knot at the nape of the neck, to kill more speedily.
Thus, by means of Hemp, the Thugs linked their sleep to death. The plant that yielded the hashish with which, as with alcohol or opium, the rich besotted them, thus served to avenge them. The idea came to me that in chastening my embroideress Arachne with Silk, I would bind her to me wholly in death. And this assuredly logical idea became the bright focus of my thoughts. I did not long resist it. When she lay her head in the hollow of my shoulder, I surreptitiously passed about her throat the silken cord I had taken from her basket; and, gradually tightening it, I drank in her last breath with her final kiss.
You came upon us thus, mouth to mouth. You thought I was mad and she was dead. For you do not know that she is always with me, forever faithful, because she is the nymph Arachne. Day after day, here in my white cell, she has revealed herself to me, since the day I saw a spider spinning her web above my bed; she was tiny, brown and nimble-footed.
The first night, she came down to me by a thread; hanging above my eyes she wove over my eyeballs a silky and sombre tissue, with watery reflections and luminous purple flowers. Then I felt Ariane's compact and vigorous body at my side. She kissed my chest at the point above the heart, and I cried out at the burning sensation. And we embraced, long and silently.
The second night, she spread about me a phosphorescent veil, studded with green stars and yellow circles, traversed by brilliant points that glided about, sporting among themselves, waxing, waning and wavering in the distance. And kneeling on my chest, she bit my flesh and sucked the blood to the point of drawing me towards the nothingness of insensibility.
The third night, she bound my eyes with a band of Mahratta silk, patterned with dancing, glinting-eyed spiders. And she tightly laced my throat with an endless thread; and she violently drew my heart towards her lips through the wound her bite had left. Then she slid into my arms to whisper in my ear: "I am the nymph Arachne!"
By no means am I mad; for I at once understood that my embroideress Ariane was a mortal goddess, and that I had from all eternity been selected to draw her by her silken thread out of the labrynth of humanity. And the nymph Arachne was grateful for my having delivered her from her human chrysalis. With infinite care she has enmeshed my heart, my poor heart, in her sticky thread: she has entwined it in a thousand coils. Every night she draws closer the meshes between which this human heart shrivels like the corpse of a fly. I had eternally bound myself to Ariane by throttling her with my silk: now Arachne has eternally bound me to her with her thread by constricting my heart.
At midnight, by this mysterious bridge, I visit the Spider's realm of which she is queen. I must pass through this hell to swing, later, in the starlight.
The woodland spiders hasten there with luminous bulbs at their feet. The trapdoor spiders have eight terrible, scintillating eyes; bridstling with hairs, they pounce uopn me where the roads bend. Beside the ponds where water spiders tremble on long legs like those of harvest spiders, I am drawn into the dizzy rounds the tarantulas dance. The garden spiders watch for me at the centre of their grey circles traversed with spokes. They fix on me the innumerable facets of their eyes, like a suit of mirrors set to trap larks, and they fascinate me. As I go through the copse, tacky webs brush against my face. Crouched in the thihckets, swift-footed, hairy monsters wait for me.
Now Queen Mab is not as powerful as my Queen Arachne, for she has the power to have me ride in her marvellous car that travels along a thread. Her car is made of the hard shell of a gigantic trapdoor spider, begemmed with facetted studs cut from its black-diamond eyes. The axletrees are the articulated legs of giant harvest spiders. Transparent wings with rosettes of veins bear it aloft, rhythmically beating the air. In it we swing, hour upon hour: then abruptly, I faint away, worn out by the wound in my chest in which Arachne ceaselessly forages with her pointed lips. In my nightmare I see bellies starred with eyes bent over me, and I flee before wrinkled legs hung with filaments.
Now I distinctly sense Arachne's two knees grasping my sides, and the guggling of my blood rising towards her mouth. My heart will very soon be sucked dry; then it will remain swathed in its prison of white filaments - and I shall flee beyond the Spider's Realm towards the refulgent lattice of the stars. Thus, by the silken cord Arachne has thrown me, I shall escape with her. And I shall bequeath you - poor madmen - a pallid corpse with a tuft of blonde hair stirring in the morning breeze.