The Blue Star
Chapter 19: 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.”
“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.”
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.)