The Dweller in High Places
To begin with then, my name is Lucy Manners and I am twelve years old. Last summer my older sister, Tiz, married Mr. Rainworth. It was a sad change for me because Tiz and I used always to be together. My brother, Gowland, is with Lord Wellington in Spain, fighting the French. So when January came Papa said he was tired of my long face and he sent me to school to Mrs. Hackett's in Great-Titchfield-Street.
On the first day two girls approached me. I was pleased, thinking to make new friends, but I soon discovered that that was not their intention. Instead they called me skin-and-bones, said that my muslin was frayed and my shoes were old-fashioned. There was no end to my faults according to Emmeline Twist and Amelia Froggett, and not content with calling me names, they tried to make me afraid with silly stories about ghosts.
"Oh! Have you not heard?" said Emmeline, "The school is haunted by a mad teacher who was turned out of her place by Mrs. Hackett!"
"She lives in one of the attics," added Amelia. "Sometimes you can hear her speaking in foreign languages and sometimes she will call to you down the chimney."
"And," said Emmeline with great satisfaction, "those girls who she speaks to die before the week is out!"
"I do not believe it," I said. "Who has died? No one at all I expect."
One bleak and windy Thursday Mrs. Hackett gave Emmeline and Amelia and me a long list of German verbs to learn. I had no wish to sit with them, so I climbed up to the top of the house, to a room beneath the attic. I had not been there long when I heard a noise from overhead—a soft, irregular thumping. I barely had time to consider whether or not I was frightened when a starling tumbled down the chimney and began to fly about the room, battering itself against the walls.
A voice hissed down the chimney. "Englishman! Englishman! My bird has flown down! Fetch it up if you please!"
I thought this a little rude. Nevertheless I called politely up the chimney, "I beg your pardon, ma'am, but what do you want it for?"
"Foolish question!" cried the unknown lady. "To eat it of course!"
I opened the window in the hopes that the bird would fly out. Then I ran out of the room and up to the attic. It was very dim, with just one skylight that let in the wind and the rain. It smelt of dead things. Something crunched beneath my foot; I looked down and saw that there were little bones, as of birds and mice, scattered over the floor. A dark shape was moving in the dimness. I could not at first make it out, but then I saw a woman's face and my heart fell to the bottom of my stomach. Her face was at the wrong end of her. It was at the bottom of the dark shape and her chin was no more than an inch or two from the floorboards.
I thought I would faint.
Suddenly she stepped into the shaft of gloomy light and I saw that she was not a woman at all. She was a lioness for the most part. She had besides, a pair of bedraggled wings and a sweet, but anxious face. Her human breasts were modestly covered with a ragged blue shawl and her hair had been put into curl papers long ago and never taken out; it was full of knots and tangles. She was altogether such a wretched sight I could not help but pity her from my heart.
We stared at one another. Her lion's tail went from side to side thoughtfully.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," I said, "but are you not a sphinx?"
"No," she said, airily. "I am the Sphinx. Egyptian sphinxes are many, but the Greek Sphinx is only one."
There was a little silence.
"I wonder, ma'am," I began timidly, "if I might comb your hair for you? It certainly needs it and it is a thing I love to do."
She gave a haughty little nod.
So I pulled a comb from my pocket and began. Her hair was exactly the sort I liked best—a soft, golden colour with a natural curl.
"Good maids are hard to come by," I said. "The same for monsters as for human ladies, I suppose."
"Monsters!" she cried, indignantly. "Who do call you a monster?"
"I beg your pardon, but you have the body of a lion and the face and breast of a woman. And . . . "
"What nonsense you talk! The world is full of monsters, of which you are certainly one—a fact I would usually be too polite to mention, but you drive me to it. A lion is a sphinx's body with a cat's head on top—which is a very horrid thing. Man is worse. In man the beautiful head and breast of a sphinx are defiled by the arms of a nasty ape and legs like a forked parsnip." She shuddered. "Ughhh!"
There was a whirr of wings in the darkness. Her head whipped round.
"Bird," she said. "Starling. They are not a bit kind. They call me spiteful names."
"Oh!" said I. "I know what you mean. There are two ignorant, ill-bred girls here who do the same to me."
"Bite them in two," she suggested.
"I do not think Mrs. Hackett would like it if I did that and, anyway, my mouth does not open so far."
"Mine does," she said with much satisfaction.
Despite her quarrelsome nature we became friends that day and whenever Mrs. Hackett set me work to do by myself, I would run up to the top of the house and climb out of the skylight on to the roof and there we would sit companionably together. She loved to be in high places looking down at everything. If ladies or gentlemen rode along Great-Titchfield-Street on horseback, she would peer over the parapet and mutter, "Centaurs. Nasty creatures."
One day as I was combing her hair, I said, "How did it happen, Sphinx, that you came to London?"
"Oh, that is easily told. I came in a ship attended by handsome young mariners. It was all arranged by a Frenchman called M'sieur Fauvel. You see, Lucy, M'sieur Fauvel lives in Athens and it is his task to purchase the most beautiful Greek carvings and sculptures and send them back to France. Imagine his dismay when he discovered that a Scottish lady and gentleman, Lord and Lady Elgin, had arrived in Athens for the same purpose! Furthermore Lady Elgin was a great favourite of the Sultan of Turkey (who governs Athens). M'sieur Fauvel was obliged to watch as great treasures (which ought in his opinion to have adorned Paris) were shipped away to his enemies in London. So he came to me and made me a present of the blue knitted shawl and begged me on his knees to come to London to persecute its citizens. Which, of course, I was glad to do."
"Good God!" I exclaimed. "But how will you do that?"
"I will ask them riddles and when they cannot answer I will strangle them."
"Oh! Don't!" I cried. "Please don't. I mean why should you? It is not as if M'sieur Fauvel's present was particularly nice. I can bring you a much prettier shawl than that shabby old blue thing."
"It is not a matter of presents," she said with dignity. "I am the Throttler. I am the Questioner. I am the Guardian of Dark Doors. I am the Dweller in High Places. I am a Blight upon Man."
"Well, if you say so, dear. It really doesn't sound very nice. But if I remember the tale of Oedipus correctly, he guessed the answer to your riddle and you were obliged to throw yourself down and dash yourself to pieces."
The Sphinx yawned. "Yes. Oedipus did claim that, did he not?"
"When will you begin? In London, I mean?"
"Any day now," she said and began to lick her paw.
Privately I did not think she was quite so industrious as M'sieur Fauvel had hoped when he chartered his ship.
She had no great opinion of Mrs. Hackett's methods of teaching. "I do not think you are learning anything useful, Lucy. Fortunately I know many wise teachers. My brother Cerberus—he who guards Hell—will fetch up dead people to tell you all their secrets. And then there is Lamia—a delightful girl with the most elegant green-scaled tail! Oh, you will dote upon her! She will show you how to pluck your eyes out of their sockets and put them back in again!"
She never explained to me why she thought this would be useful.
One day in late February when it was near to sunset, I said, "Sphinx dear, you know that I am very fond of you and that I wish you would stay in London. But if you continue in your plan to ask the citizens riddles, then I think you must ask me first and let me save London if I can."
"You know that if you give a wrong answer then I must begin by strangling you," she said.
"Do you think you are so much cleverer than the rest of London?"
"No, indeed! I don't think I am clever at all. But I know you, Sphinx, and perhaps that will help."
My heart thumped like anything. She was silent so long that I grew even more nervous and could not help saying, "Is it going to be the one about the creature that goes upon four legs in the morning, and two legs at noon and three legs in the evening, because if so . . . "
"Certainly not! No, I have it. Ready?"
"Yes, Sphinx dear."
"My first is a person that is praised to the skies,
But I shall not praise him for I hate his lies.
My second means comfort for travellers who weary
Of roads harsh and stony, a journey so dreary.
But now enters Lucy her city to save,
With a smile that is cheerful and a heart that is brave."
I thought for a moment.
"Well," I said. "Someone that is praised to the skies is a hero. And I know how much you hate heroes because they always try to make themselves seem important by exaggerating their exploits. And, by the bye, Sphinx, did I ever tell you, that the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, is considered to be very heroic? And so I think it is a little contradictory of you, dear, to be doing his work for him. As for the second part, well, a place that gives comfort to travellers is an inn." I began to cry—I could not help it. "And so put together they make 'heroine'. And it really is kind of you to say that I am one. And I am really very, very sorry to make you dash yourself into pieces."
The Sphinx smiled. "Clever girl," she said, and then gave my face a lick with a pointed pink tongue—which I suppose must be a Sphinx's kiss.
And then she leapt off the parapet, down, down to Great-Titchfield-Street.
And, oh!, what nonsense that old story of Oedipus is! For the Greek Sphinx has eagle's wings and how could a winged creature fall to her death?
Up, up she rose again with slow beats. London was sombre and dark beneath her, like a city of graves and mysterious spirits—which sounds rather dreadful, I know, but I was glad of it, for it was the very thing to please her. The last I saw of her she was above the silver ribbon of the Thames turning east towards Greece; and all the red-and-gold glory of the sunset was reflected upon her, the Dweller in High Places.