Down to the quay went the black priests, the white priests, and the red-cloaked man, preceded by rosy life, followed by ashen death. Through the funeral fires they wended, and the lurid sunset shone upon them all. To the pillars of this quay was fastened a strange, high-pooped ship with crimson sails set upon her masts. The white priests and the black priests formed lines upon either side of the broad gangway of that ship and bowed as the red-cloaked man walked over it between them quite alone, for now she with the dead roses and she of the ashen countenance had fallen back. As the sun sank, standing on the lofty stern, he cried aloud:
“Here the work is done. Now I, the Eating Fire, I the Messenger, get me to the West. Among you for a while I cease to burn; yet remember me, for I shall come again.”
As he spoke the ropes of the ship were loosened, the wind caught her crimson sails, and she departed into the night, one blood-red spot against its blackness.
The multitude watched until they could see her no longer. Then they flamed up with mingled joy and rage. They laughed madly. They cursed him who had departed.
“We live, we live, we live!” they cried. “Murgh is gone! Murgh is gone! Kill his priests! Make sacrifice of his Shadows. Murgh is gone bearing the curse of the East into the bosom of the West. Look, it follows him!” and they pointed to a cloud of smoke or vapour, in which terrible shapes seemed to move dimly, that trailed after the departing, red-sailed ship.
The black priests and the white priests heard. Without struggle, without complaint, as though they were but taking part in some set ceremony, they kneeled down in lines upon the snow. Naked from the waist up, executioners with great swords appeared. They advanced upon the kneeling lines without haste, without wrath, and, letting fall the heavy swords upon the patient, outstretched necks, did their grim office till all were dead. Then they turned to find her of the flowers who had danced before, and her of the tattered weeds who had followed after, purposing to cast them to the funeral flames. But these were gone, though none had seen them go. Only out of the gathering darkness from some temple or pagoda-top a voice spoke like a moaning wind.
“Fools,” wailed the voice, “still with you is Murgh, the second Thing created; Murgh, who was made to be man’s minister. Murgh the Messenger shall reappear from beyond the setting sun. Ye cannot kill, ye cannot spare. Those priests you seemed to slay he had summoned to be his officers afar. Fools! Ye do but serve as serves Murgh, Gateway of the Gods. Life and death are not in your hands or in his. They are in the hands of the Master of Murgh, Helper of man, of that Lord whom no eye hath seen, but whose behests all who are born obey—yes, even the mighty Murgh, Looser of burdens, whom in your foolishness ye fear.”
So spoke this voice out of the darkness, and that night the sword of the great pestilence was lifted from the Eastern land, and there the funeral fires flared no more.
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ON THE very day when Murgh the Messenger sailed forth into that uttermost sea, a young man and a maiden met together in the Blythburgh marshes, near to Dunwich, on the eastern coast of England. In this, the month of February of the year 1346, hard and bitter frost held Suffolk in its grip. The muddy stream of Blyth, it is true, was frozen only in places, since the tide, flowing up from the Southwold harbour, where it runs into the sea between that ancient town and the hamlet of Walberswick, had broken up the ice. But all else was set hard and fast, and now toward sunset the cold was bitter.
Stark and naked stood the tall, dry reeds. The blackbirds and starlings perched upon the willows seemed swollen into feathery balls, the fur started on the backs of hares, and a four-horse wain could travel in safety over swamps where at any other time a schoolboy dared not set his foot.
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