A JAPANESE FAIRY TALE
A very long time ago there lived in Japan a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father before him had been a very expert fisherman, but Urashima's skill in the art so far exceeded that of his father, that his name as a fisher was known far and wide beyond his own little village. It was a common saying that he could catch more fish in a day than a dozen others could in a whole week.
But it was not only as a fisher that Urashima excelled. Wherever he was known, he was loved for his kindly heart. Never had he hurt even the meanest creature. Indeed, had it not been necessary to catch fish for his living, he would always have fished with a straight hook, so as to catch only such fish as wished to be caught. And as for teasing and tormenting animals, when he was a boy, his tenderness towards all the dumb creation was a matter for laughter with his companions; but nothing would ever induce him to join in the cruel sport in which some boys delight.
One evening, as Urashima was returning from a hard day's fishing, he met a number of boys all shouting and laughing over something they were worrying in the middle of the road. It was a tortoise they had caught and were ill-treating. Between them all, what with sticks and stones and other kinds of torture, the poor creature was hard beset and seemed almost frightened to death.
Urashima could not bear to see a helpless thing treated in that way, so he interfered.
'Boys!' he said, 'that's no way to treat a harmless dumb creature. You'll kill the poor thing!'
But the boys merely laughed, and, taking no further notice, continued their cruel sport.
'What's a tortoise?' cried one. 'Besides, it's great fun. Come on, lads!' And they went on with their heartless game.
Urashima thought the matter over for a little, wondering how he could persuade the boys to give the tortoise up to him. At last he said with a smile, 'Come, boys! I know you're good-hearted young fellows: I'll make a bargain with you. What I really wanted was to buy the tortoise,—that is, if it is your own.'
'Of course it's our own. We caught it.' They had begun to gather round him at the prospect of a sale, for they relished the money to buy sweetmeats even more than the cruel sport of tormenting an innocent creature.
'Very well,' replied Urashima, bringing a string of coins out of his pocket and holding them up. 'See! you can buy a lot of nice things with this. What do you say?'
He smiled at them so sweetly and spoke so gently that, with the cash dangling before their eyes, they were soon won over. The biggest boy then grabbed the tortoise, and held it out to him with one hand, while he reached for the string of coins with the other. 'All right, uncle,' he said, 'you can have the tortoise.'
Urashima handed over the money in exchange for the poor, frightened creature, and the boys were soon making their way to the nearest sweetmeat shop.
Meanwhile Urashima looked at the tortoise, which looked back at him with wistful eyes full of meaning; and, though it could not speak, the young fisherman understood it perfectly, and his tender heart went out to it.
'Poor little tortoise!' he said, holding it up and stroking it gently to soothe its fears, 'you are all right with me. But remember, sweet little one, you've had a narrow squeak of losing a very long life. How long is it? Ten thousand years, they say;—that's ten times as long as a stork can boast of. Now I'm going to take you right back to the sea, so that you can swim away to your home and to your own people. But promise me you will never let yourself be caught again.'
The tortoise promised with its eyes. So wistful and grateful were they, that Urashima felt he could never forget them.
By this time he was down on the seashore, and there he placed the tortoise in the sea and watched it swim away. Then he went home feeling very happy about the whole thing.
Morning was breaking when Urashima pushed off his boat for his day's fishing. The sea was calm, and the air was full of the soft, sweet warmth of summer. Soon he was out skimming over the blue depths, and when the tide began to ebb, he drifted far beyond the other fishermen's boats, until his own was lost to their sight.
It was such a lovely morning when the sun rose and slanted across the waters, that, when he thought of the short span of human life, he wished that he had thousands of years to live, like the tortoise he had rescued from the boys the day before.
As he was dreaming these thoughts, he was suddenly startled by a sweet voice calling his name. It fell on his ears like the note of a silver bell dropping from the skies. Again it came, nearer than before:
He looked all around on the surface of the sea, thinking that some one had hailed him from a boat, but there was no one there, as far as the eye could reach.
And now he heard the voice again close at hand, and, looking over the side of the boat, he saw a tortoise looking up at him, and he knew by its eyes that it was the same tortoise he had restored to the sea the previous day.
'So we meet again,' he said pleasantly. 'Fancy you finding me in the middle of the ocean! What is it, you funny little tortoise? Do you want to be caught again, eh?'
'I have looked for you,' replied the tortoise, 'ever since dawn, and when I saw you in the boat I swam after you to thank you for saving my life.'
'Well, that's very nice of you to say that. I haven't much to offer you, but if you would like to come up into the boat and dry your back in the sun we can have a chat.'
The tortoise was pleased to accept the invitation, and Urashima helped it up over the side. Then, after talking of many things, the tortoise remarked, 'I suppose you have never seen Rin Gin, the Dragon Sea-King's palace, have you?'
Urashima shook his head.
'No,' he replied. 'They tell me it is a beautiful sight, but in all the years that I have spent upon the sea I have never been invited to the Dragon King's palace. It's some distance from here, isn't it?'
'I do not think you believe there is such a place,' replied the tortoise, who had seen a twinkle in Urashima's eye. 'Yet I assure you it exists, but a long way off—right down at the bottom of the sea. If you would really like to see Rin Gin, I will take you there.'
'That is very kind of you,' said Urashima with a polite bow, which pleased the tortoise greatly; 'but I am only a man, you know, and cannot swim a long way under the sea like a tortoise.'
But the little creature hastened to reassure him.
'That's not at all necessary,' it said. 'I'll do the swimming and you can ride on my back.'
Urashima laughed. The idea of his riding on the back of a tortoise that he could hold in his hand was funny, and he said so.
'Never mind how funny it is,' said the tortoise; 'just get on and see.' And then, as Urashima looked at it, the tortoise grew and grew and grew until its back was big enough for two men to ride upon.
'What an extraordinary thing!' exclaimed Urashima. 'Right you are, friend tortoise, I'll come with you.' And with that he jumped on.
'That's better,' said the tortoise; 'now we'll be off. Hold tight!'
The next moment the tortoise plunged into the sea, and dived down and down until Urashima thought they would never be able to reach the surface again in a thousand years. At last he caught sight of a land below them, shining all green with the filtered sunlight; and now, as they took a level course, he could make out the towns and villages below, with beautiful gardens full of bright flowers and waving dreamy trees. Then they passed over a vast green plain, at the further side of which, in a village at the foot of high mountains, shone the splendid portals of a magnificent palace.
'See!' said the tortoise, 'that is the entrance to Rin Gin. We shall soon be there now. How do you feel?'
'Quite well, thank you!' And indeed, when Urashima felt his clothes he found they were quite dry, which was really not so surprising because, as he was borne swiftly through the water, there was all the time a space of air around him, so that not only was he kept quite dry, but he could breathe quite easily.
When they drew nearer to the great gate, Urashima could see beyond it, half hidden by the trees, the shining domes of the palace. It was indeed a magnificent place, unlike anything ever seen in the lands above the sea.
Now they were at the great gate, and the tortoise stopped at the foot of a flight of coral steps and asked him to dismount.
'You can walk now, Urashima'; and it led the way. Then the gatekeeper—a royal sturgeon—challenged them, but the tortoise explained that Urashima was a mortal from the great kingdom of Japan, who had come to visit the Sea King, and the gatekeeper immediately showed them in.
As they advanced, they were met by the courtiers and officials. The dolphin, the bonito, the great cuttle-fish, the bright-red bream; and the mullet, the sole, the flounder, and a host of other fishes came forward and bowed gracefully before the tortoise; indeed, such homage did they pay that Urashima wondered what sway the tortoise held in this kingdom beneath the sea. Then, when the visitor was introduced, they all cried out a welcome. And the dolphin, who was a high official, remarked, 'We are delighted to see so distinguished a stranger from the great kingdom of Japan. Welcome to the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea!'
Then all the fishes went in a procession before them to the interior of the palace.
Now the humble fisherman had never been in such a magnificent place before. He had never read How to behave in a Palace, but, though much amazed, he did not feel at all shy. As he followed his guides, he suddenly noticed that the tortoise had disappeared, but he soon forgot this when he saw a lovely Princess, surrounded by her maidens, come forward to greet him.
She was more beautiful than anything on earth, and her robes of pink and green changed colour like the surface of the sea at sunset in some sheltered cove. There were threads of pure gold in her long hair, and, as she smiled, her teeth looked like little white pearls. She spoke soft words to him, and her voice was as the murmur of the sea.
Urashima was so enchanted that he could not speak a word; but he had heard that one must always bow low to a Princess, and he was about to do so when the Princess tripped to his side, and, taking his hand in hers, led him off into a splendid apartment, where she conducted him to the place of honour and asked him to be seated.
'Listen to me, Urashima,' she said in a low, sweet voice. 'I am filled with joy at welcoming you to my father's palace, and I will tell you why. Yesterday you saved the precious life of a tortoise. Urashima, I was that tortoise! It was my life that you saved!'
Urashima could not believe this at first, but, when he gazed into her beautiful eyes, he remembered their wistful look, and her sweet words were spoken in the same voice as that which had called his name upon the sea. And he was so astonished that he could not speak.
'Would you like to live here always, Urashima,—to live in everlasting youth, never growing tired or weary? This is the land of eternal summer, where all is joy, and neither death nor sorrow may come. Stay, Urashima, and I, the Princess of my father's kingdom, will be your bride!'
Urashima felt it was all a dream; yet, if it were, then from the very heart of that dream he replied in words that came of their own accord.
'Sweet Princess, if I could thank you ten thousand times I should still want to thank you all over again. I will stay here; nay—more: I simply cannot go, for this is the most wonderful place I have ever dreamed of, and you are the most wonderful thing in it.'
A smile spread over her lovely face. She bent towards him, and their lips met in the first sweet kiss of love.
Then, as if by this a magic button had been pressed, a loud gong sounded, and immediately the whole palace was in a bustle of excitement. Presently a procession of all kinds of fishes came in, all richly attired in flowing robes of various colours. Each one advanced with slow and stately pace, some bearing beautiful flowers, others great mother-of-pearl dishes laden with all the delicacies that go to make a feast; others bore trays of coral, red and white, with fragrant wines and rare fruits such as only grow at the bottom of the sea. It was the wedding feast, and with all decorum they set everything before the bride and bridegroom.
It was a day of great joy, a day of song and revelry. Throughout the whole kingdom the choice wine flowed and the sweet music resounded. In the palace the happy pair pledged themselves in a wedding cup, while the music played and glad songs were sung. Later on, the great hall of the palace was cleared for a grand ball, and all the fishes of the sea came dressed in their best gold and silver scales, and danced till the small hours. Never had Urashima known happiness so great; never had he moved amid so much splendour.
In the morning the Princess showed Urashima over the palace, and pointed out all the wonders it contained. The whole place was fashioned out of pink and white coral, beautifully carved and inlaid everywhere with priceless pearls. But, wonderful as was the palace itself, the wide gardens that encircled it appealed to Urashima even more.
These gardens were designed so as to represent the four seasons. Turning to the east, Urashima beheld all the wealth of Spring. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower, and bees were busy among the cherry blossoms. The song of the nightingale could be heard among the trees, and the sweetest fragrance was wafted on the breeze.
Facing round to the south, he saw everything at the height of Summer. The trees were fully green, and luscious fruits weighed down their branches, while over all was the drowsy hum of the cicada.
To the west the whole landscape was ablaze with the scarlet foliage of Autumn; while, in the north, the whole outlook was beautiful with snow as far as the eye could reach.
* * * * *
It was a wonderful country to live in and never grow old. No wonder that Urashima forgot his home in Japan, forgot his old parents, forgot even his own name. But, after three days of indescribable happiness, he seemed to wake up to a memory of who he was and what he had been. The thought of his poor old father and mother searching everywhere for him, perhaps mourning him as dead; the surroundings of his simple home, his friends in the little village,—all these things rushed in on his mind and turned all his joy to sadness.
'Alas!' he cried, 'how can I stay here any longer? My mother will be weeping and wringing her hands, and my father bowing his old head in grief. I must go back this very day.'
So, towards evening, he sought the Princess, his bride, and said sadly:
'Alas! alas! you have been so kind to me and I have been so very, very happy, that I have forgotten and neglected my parents for three whole days. They will think I am dead and will weep for me. I must say farewell and leave you.'
Then the Princess wept and besought him to remain with her.
'Beloved!' he protested, 'in our land of Japan there is no crime so terrible as the crime of faithlessness to one's parents. I cannot face that, and you would not have me do it. Yet it will break my heart to leave you—break my heart—break my heart! I must go, beloved, but only for one day; then I will return to you.'
'Alas!' cried the Princess, 'what can we do? You must act as your heart guides you. I would give the whole world to keep you with me just one more day. But I know it cannot be. I know something of your land and your love of your parents. I will await your return: you will be gone only one day. It will be a long day for me, but, when it is over, and you have told your parents all, you will find a tortoise waiting for you by the seashore, and you will know that tortoise: it is the same that will take you back to your parents—for one day!'
'Oh, my beloved! How can I leave you? But——'
'But you must. Wait! I have something to give you before you go.'
The Princess left him hastily and soon returned with a golden casket, set with pearls and tied about with a green ribbon made from the floating seaweed.
'Take it,' said she.
'After all your other gifts?' said he, feeling rather ashamed.
'You saved my life,' said she. 'You are my life, and all I have is yours. That casket contains all. When you go up to the dry land you must always have this box with you, but you must never open it till you return to me. If you do—alas! alas, for you and me!'
'I promise, I promise. I will never open it till I return to you.' Urashima went on his bended knee as he said these words.
Urashima was then conducted to the gate by the court officials, led by the dolphin. There the royal sturgeon blew a loud whistle, and presently a large tortoise came up. As Urashima mounted on its back, it averted its head as if to conceal its eyes. Perhaps it had a reason. And for that same identical reason Urashima sat on its back stolidly, and never a word spoken.
Down they went into the deep, green sea, and then up into the blue. For miles and miles and miles they sped along, until they came to the coast of Japan. There Urashima stepped ashore, answered the wistful eyes of the tortoise with a long, lingering gaze of love, and hastened inland.
The tortoise plunged back into the sea, and Urashima was left on the land with a sense of sadness.
He looked about him, recognising the old landmarks. Then he went up into the village; but, as he went, he noticed with some surprise that everything seemed wonderfully changed. The hills were the same, and, in a way, the village was familiar, but the people who passed him on the road were not those he had known three days ago. Surely three short days would leave him exactly where he stood before he went. Three days could never produce this change. He was at a loss to understand it. People he did not know—strangers in the village, he supposed—passed him by as if he were a complete stranger. Some of them turned and looked at him as one would look at a newcomer. Furthermore, he noticed that the slender trees of three days since were now giant monarchs of the wayside.
At last, wondering greatly, he came to his old home. How changed it was! And, when he turned the handle of the door and walked in, crying out, 'Ho, mother! ho, father! I have come back at last!' he was met by a strange man barring the doorway.
'What do you want?'
'What do you mean? I live here. Where are my father and mother? They are expecting me.'
'I do not understand. What is your name?'
'Urashima Taro!' cried the man in surprise.
'Yes, that is my name: Urashima Taro!'
The man laughed, as if he saw the joke.
'You don't mean the original Urashima Taro?' he said. 'But still, you may be some descendant of his—what?'
'I do not understand you. My name is Urashima Taro. There is no other bears that name. I am the fisherman: surely you know me.'
The man looked at Urashima very closely to see if he were joking or not.
'There was a Urashima Taro, a famous fisherman of three hundred years ago, but you—you are joking.'
'Nay, nay, I am not joking. It is you that are joking with your three hundred years. I left here three or four days ago, and now I have returned. Where have my father and mother gone?'
The man stared at him aghast.
'Are you mad?' he cried. 'I have lived in this house for thirty years at least, and, as for your father and mother—why, if you are really Urashima Taro, they have been dead three hundred years; and that is absurd. Do you want me to believe you are a ghost?'
'Not so; look at my feet.' And Urashima put out one foot and then the other, in full accordance with the Japanese belief that ghosts have no feet.
'Well, well,' said the man, 'you can't be Urashima Taro, whatever you say, for he lived three hundred years ago, and you are not yet thirty.'
With this the man banged the door in Urashima's face.
What could it all mean? Urashima Taro dead. Lived three hundred years ago. What nonsense! He must be dreaming. He pinched his ear and assured himself that he was not only alive, but wide awake. And yet—and yet—everything about him seemed very much changed since he saw it last. He stood stock still on his way to the gate, and looked this way and that, trying to find something that had suffered only three days' change. But everything was unfamiliar.
Then an idea struck him. On the morning of the day that he had rescued the tortoise from the boys, he had planted a little willow slip down by the pond in the field. He would go and look at it, and that would settle the matter.
So he took his way to the pond. Half-way he was baulked by a hedge, high and thick, which was new to him, but he found a way through a gap. Well he remembered the exact spot where he had planted the willow slip on the edge of the pond, but, when he arrived there, he could see no sign of it. In its place was a gigantic trunk bearing vast branches which towered overhead. And there the birds were singing the same songs as they sang—three days ago! Alas! could it indeed be three centuries ago?
Perplexed beyond measure, Urashima resolved to go to the fountain-head and settle the matter once and for all. Turning away, he made all haste to the village—was this the village he had known?—and inquired of a countryman he had never seen before, where the village chronicles were kept.
'Yonder,' said the man, pointing to a building which had certainly taken more than three days to erect.
Urashima thanked him and then hastened to the building and went in. He was not long in finding what he wanted. It was an ancient entry, and it ran:
'Urashima Taro—a famous fisherman who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century—the traditional patron demi-god of fishermen. There are many stories concerning this half-mythical character, chief of which is that he hooked a whale far from shore, and, as he would not relinquish the prize, his boat was dragged for ever and ever over the surface of the sea. Mariners of the present day solemnly aver that they have seen Urashima Taro sitting in his boat skimming the waves as he held the line by which he had caught the whale. Whatever the real history of Urashima Taro, it is certain that he lived in the village, and the legend concerning him is the subject of great interest to visitors from the great land of America.'
Urashima shut the book with a slam and went away, down to the seashore. As he went, he realised that those three days he had spent in perfect happiness with the Princess were not three days at all, but three hundred years. His parents were long since dead, and all was changed. What else could he do but go back to the Dragon kingdom under the sea?
But when he reached the shore, he found no tortoise ready to take him back, and, after waiting a long time, he began to think his case was hopeless. Then, suddenly, he bethought himself of the little box which the Princess had given him. He drew it forth and looked at it. He had promised her not to open it, but what did it matter now? As he did not care what happened to him, the deadly secret of the box was just as well out as in. Besides, he might learn something from it, some secret way of finding his beloved Princess—and that would be happiness; but if, on the other hand, some terrible thing happened to him, what did it signify?
So he sat down on the seashore, untied the fastenings of the little box and then lifted the lid. He was surprised to find that the box was empty; but, slowly, out of the emptiness came a little thin, purple cloud which curled up and circled about his head. It was fragrant, and reminded him of the sweet perfume of the Princess's robes. Now it floated away towards the open sea and Urashima's soul seemed to go with it.
Suddenly he stood up, thinking he heard her sweet voice calling him. For a moment he stood there, a splendid figure of early youth. Then a change came over him. His eyes grew dim, his hair turned silvery white, lines came upon his face, and his form seemed to shrivel with extreme old age.
Then Urashima Taro reeled and staggered to and fro. The burden of three hundred years was too heavy for him. He threw up his arms and fell dead upon the sand.
THE FIRE BIRD
A RUSSIAN FAIRY TALE
It was a great day when the Prince was born. The King was delighted, and the Queen nearly went mad with joy. The courtiers, though they hardly dared dance a Trepak in the palace, could not keep their heels still; while the guards, the attendants, the little pages and pretty kitchen maids, drank tea and coffee, glass after glass, till the following morning, when they all had supper, and then crept off on tip-toe to bed. The people clapped their hands and sang and danced in the squares and streets, till those who danced the longest got sore throats, and those who sang the loudest got footsore. The whole city could not sleep for joy. The young Prince was the first-born, and would one day sit upon the throne: was this a thing to put under the pillow? On with the dance! Another song! Drink deep to the young Prince!
The doctors smiled, and stroked the smile down to the tips of their grey beards as they nodded to one another amiably. The child was strong and healthy, and would live; and besides, they all agreed upon the point that he was a Prince, and had his father's nose. But alas! doctors are not everybody. After the revel a wise man from Persia, who was staying in the city at the time, awoke from his slumbers and dressed himself, and went to see the King. Sunk in a deep sleep, he had missed the celebrations, but he had found a vision of the future; and he was now hastening to see the King about it, for, as you must understand, when a wise man knows the worst he can never keep it to himself.
When he came before the King, he had scarcely the heart to tell him what would befall his first-born; but the King bade him speak out, and he obeyed.
'Sire,' he said humbly, 'I come not to tell thee bad news, but rather to warn thee in time, lest a vision that came to me in the night should perchance come true.'
The King looked a little anxious, for he had heard tales, strange but true, about this wise man from Persia and his wonderful powers.
'Speak on, Ferdasan,' he said.
'Sire,' replied the seer, 'the dream that came to me was a deep-sleep vision. Doubt not that it is a warning entrusted to me to lay before you. O King, this is the substance of it. Fifteen years came and went before my inner eyes, and the son that has been born to you from heaven grew more beautiful year by year. But at the close of the fifteenth year he—flew away!'
'Flew away!' cried the King, startled. 'And what was the manner of his flight, O Ferdasan?'
'Sire, in the midst of the palace gardens, Hausa, the Bird of the Sun, came to seek him or to be sought by him. He mounted on the back of this bird; and then, as the twilight fell, it carried him away westward.'
'With what purpose, Ferdasan?'
'That, sire, I can reveal to you only in words that hide my thoughts, and——'
'Nay, nay; tell me all, I command you.'
'His fate stands thus. He is destined to marry the Maiden of the Dawn, and, in quest of her, he will fly westward in his fifteenth year, unless——'
'Yes, unless what, man?'
'Unless you yourself, sire, keep watch and ward and so prevent him.'
The King stared at the seer. How could he believe this thing?
'It seems that you have come to disturb my peace,' he said angrily. 'What proof have I that you speak truly? If your wisdom has brought me this warning, then your wisdom can avert the evil fate. You will remain in this palace until the die is cast. That is my command.'
'Sire,' replied Ferdasan humbly, 'my work is done, and I must return to my cave in the mountains.'
'What!' cried the King in a rage, 'you defy me? I will compel you.'
'You cannot,' replied Ferdasan. 'Seers stand before kings—and that is true in two ways.
'We shall see.' The King clapped his hands fiercely. Then, as two guards came running in answer to the summons, he cried, 'Take that man and place him in a dungeon!'
The guards turned upon Ferdasan, who stood calm and unmoved, looking at the King. Then, as they were about to seize him, a strange thing happened. They clutched at the empty air and staggered against one another, amazed. For a moment the Throne-room seemed to echo a sweet music from far away; for a moment it was filled with the faint fragrance of mountain lilies; then the King saw a thin grey mist slowly issuing through one of the windows, to dissolve in the sunlight.
And then he knew.
From that time forward, the King regarded the seer's prediction with great anxiety. He watched the young Prince continually in his first years, and, when, as was often the case, he saw him gazing wistfully towards the west when the sun had set, he felt sure that the coming event had cast its shadow before.
Accordingly, as soon as the young Prince entered his fifteenth year, the King had him imprisoned in a lofty tower situated in the palace gardens, and placed a guard about it, for he was determined to take no risk whatever.
But, while he kept the Prince a close prisoner, he surrounded him with every luxury, for he loved him dearly. He even promised him that, on his fifteenth birthday, a great festival would be held in his honour, though he himself would only be allowed to watch the festivities from the high window of the tower.
The Prince implored his father to let him wander in the gardens on his birthday; but the King was so afraid that, by some means or other, he would be spirited away, that he refused. In addition to this, he double-locked and barred the topmost room of the tower in which the Prince was imprisoned.
On the day of the festival, the sun rose bright. As the Prince watched it from his high window, his heart rose with it. At noon he had fully decided to disobey his father and escape from his prison. He brooded till sunset; then, as the twilight gathered, he went to the window again and listened to the sounds of festivity in the city all around. Presently, he leaned out over the window-sill and looked down. It was a long way to the ground, but the gardens were beautiful, and he was determined to reach them and roam free among the trees and flowers. Was not this his birthday, and was not the city holding high festival in his honour? It seemed hard that he should be a prisoner, when even the guards of his prison had stolen away to join the merry throng. The city without was a blaze of light and a chorus of revel, but the gardens below seemed to be deserted: now was his opportunity.
Turning back into the apartment, he swept his eyes round for anything that would serve as a rope. There were heavy hangings falling from the high ceiling: he could not pull these down. There was the carpet; yes, he could make a rope of that.
He quickly secured a knife, and ripped from the edge of the carpet many long threads. When he had a sufficient number, he set to work to plait a rope, splicing fresh threads in at intervals until it was nearly a hundred feet long. Then he tied one end of it securely to one of the pillars supporting the roof, and let the free length of it down from the window. By the light of the full moon sailing overhead, he could see that the end of the rope reached as far as the branches of a tree growing at the foot of the tower.
It was now past midnight, and the garden below was just as silent as the city outside was loud with merriment. As the Prince climbed over the window-sill and let himself down the rope, he took no thought as to how he might get back again; it was quite enough to get away from the lonely, stifling place of his imprisonment.
At last his feet touched the topmost bough of the tree, but there was rope to spare; and he went on until, at the end of it, he was able to grasp a bough thick enough to bear his weight; and by this means he climbed along to the trunk, and so to the ground.
There was no one about. The guards were all away merrymaking in the Prince's honour. Although he was still a prisoner within the garden walls, he was enjoying his adventure and the sense of freedom to wander, even in the gardens.
He took his way along pathways where the moonbeams strayed. He drank in the cool night air, and paused ever and again to pluck a sweet-smelling night-flower. Wandering on, he came at length to a bank at the end of the garden, beyond which he knew was a steep cliff overlooking a valley. Before his father had shut him up in the tower, he had always been forbidden to approach that end of the garden, and he had never done so; but now his curiosity led him on, and he advanced cautiously along an avenue of overarching trees. But it soon grew so dense and dark, that he was about to turn back, when suddenly he espied a misty light beginning to grow brighter and brighter at the far end of the avenue.
Eager to find out where this light came from, and seeing his way more clearly now, he hastened on, and soon arrived at the mouth of a large cave, which, inside, was as bright as day. He ventured farther forward and peered round a buttress of rock; and there, in the centre of the cave, a strange sight met his eyes. A gigantic bird was standing there, getting ready to fly through the farther opening overlooking the valley. It was stretching its neck and flapping its wings; and, from every feather of these, flashed rays and sparkles of light, illuminating the whole place.
In the centre of the cavern floor was a crystal pool into which, from a ledge high up on the wall, fell a broad cascade almost like a flowing veil, and the strong light shed by the giant bird shone through this on to the rock behind it. And there the Prince saw the most beautiful thing he had ever set eyes on.
It was an oval picture, framed in crystal, and hanging behind the transparent cascade—a picture of a beautiful Princess. And, as he looked, her eyes met his.
Immediately the young Prince was filled with a great longing to find the original of this portrait, but it seemed that his only way of doing so was through the help of the great bird, which was now attracting his attention by strange signs. First it looked at him with a kindly eye; then it craned its neck towards the farther opening of the cave, and, flapping its wings as if about to fly, ran a step or two and then stopped and looked back at him. After doing this two or three times it crouched down and turned its head sideways, looking straight at him, as much as to say, 'Don't you want to ride in the air?'
The Prince saw the bird's meaning, but, to signify that he wanted to find the Princess, he pointed to the picture. At this the bird spread its wings right out until the tips brushed against each side of the cave, the feathers quivering intensely and throwing out a bright light which almost blinded the Prince.
Then the bird drew in its wings and made a sign to him to mount between them. At this the Prince, feeling sure that the giant bird meant to take him to the Princess, climbed up and seated himself between the great wings.
In another moment the bird had launched itself from the farther opening of the cave, and they were soon sailing high over the valley. Some revellers in the city looked up and saw what they took to be a meteor flashing across the sky; but it was really the Fire Bird bearing the Prince swiftly to the far-off palace of the Princess.
How many thousands of miles they flew between the darkest hour and dawn, the Prince could not tell. Nestling warm and comfortable among the soft feathers, he heard the roar of the great creature's wings, and knew they were travelling at a tremendous pace. And at last the Fire Bird craned its neck downwards, and, as they began to descend in a slanting direction, the Prince could see something sparkling on the horizon in the first rosy light of dawn.
Nearer and nearer they came, and now he could distinguish the great gates and towers of what seemed to be a palace of pure crystal, surrounded by beautiful gardens.
Swiftly they swooped downwards, and the Fire Bird alighted on the edge of a broad balcony, and crouched down for the Prince to dismount.
The journey had not been in vain. There, on a mossy bank among the beautiful flowers in the garden, he found the Princess asleep; and, as he looked down at her, he saw that her face was the face he had seen in the portrait.
He tried to wake her, but her sleep was sound: she did not stir. He breathed on her eyelids and whispered in her ear, but still she slept on.
Seeing this, the Bird grew restless, and craning its neck forward, seized the Prince with its beak and placed him again between its wings. Then it sprang upwards and soared swiftly into the sky.
Soon they were back in the cave, and the Prince, dreading to return to the prison tower, spent the hours of daylight in his warm nest between the Fire Bird's wings.
The following night, as the hours were drawing on towards dawn, the Bird set forth again. But again the Prince was unable to wake the sleeping Princess, so they returned once more. But, on the third night, when they reached the Princess, the light of dawn was in the sky, and, as it grew every moment rosier and rosier, the Princess awoke of her own accord to find the young Prince sitting among the flowers by her side. She had only just time to see the Fire Bird pluck a feather from its wing with its beak, and let it fall at her feet, before it soared away. She picked up the feather and placed it in her bosom. Then she looked at the Prince.
There is love, and there is love; but such love as sprang up at the same moment in two hearts can never be described. It was as if she had been dreaming about him all her life, and now she had awakened to find him. It was as if his journey had been to Paradise. She raised her arms to him, and he enfolded her and kissed her. Then they wandered among the flowers and trees, and all the birds understood: they sang so divinely.
Towards evening, as the shadows began to fall, the Princess's sister, who was a wicked Sorceress, came into the garden and stood behind a tree watching the lovers.
'I'll soon put an end to this,' she said, clenching her hands in jealous rage. She went away and performed spells, and, by her wicked arts, she summoned the image of the Prince before her, so that his life went out of his body, and he remained in the Princess's arms like one dead.
Terrified and distracted with grief, the Princess carried the lifeless body of her lover into the palace and laid it on a couch in her own apartment. There, exhausted with the effort, she fell upon it, weeping bitterly. She called his name, but he did not answer. His ears were deaf, his eyes were closed, his pale lips did not respond to her kisses.
But the Prince was not dead: he was bewitched. The Sorceress, by means of his image, had torn his heart from his breast and had taken it far away. Yet, all the time, that heart was still beating with life, and with love for the Princess.
Forlorn and sorrowful the Princess sat by the couch, when suddenly she started up with clenched hands.
'I know! I know!' she cried. Then she bent down and kissed the Prince's lips. She felt them tremble against hers, and, though she could not call him back, she knew that he was not dead. 'Oh! my wicked sister! This is your work. You have bewitched my love! Never again! This is the end!'
She ran everywhere, in and about the palace, in search of her sister, her hands clenched, her eyes blazing, her teeth set. But she could not find her. At last a page, terrified to death at her aspect, confessed that her sister had fled from the palace alone, mounted on the fleetest steed of the stables.
The Princess at once resolved to follow her and force her to restore the Prince to life and health. But, at the very outset, there was a terrible difficulty to be surmounted. The Princess herself had never been beyond the walls that encircled the vast grounds of the palace. She knew that there were twelve gates, and that only one of these was left unlocked from sunset till sunrise, and that none could tell which one it might be. Now the law of the palace permitted her to try one gate each night, and one gate only.
She sat down and thought, and then decided to try the same gate each night until it happened to be the right one. For twelve nights she tried, but each time she found the gate locked and barred.
Then she suddenly remembered that, when the Fire Bird had brought the Prince to her, it had plucked a bright feather from its wing and let it fall at her feet. She had preserved it in a golden casket. Could it be that this feather had magic powers? She ran with all haste to her apartment, and took it from the casket. As she did so, it sparkled and quivered. As she held it up she was more than ever convinced that it held magic powers.
She looked at the feather, and she thought of the Fire Bird itself, and wished that it could only come and advise her what to do.
Scarcely had she conceived the wish, when a faint sound from far away struck upon her ears. As she listened, it grew louder and louder, and nearer and nearer, until at last she knew it was the roar of the Fire Bird's wings. She ran out onto the balcony, and there she saw it, like a meteor in the sky, every moment growing bigger.
At last, with a glad, shrill cry, it swooped down, and its giant wings fluttered and vibrated a moment before it alighted on the edge of the balcony, its fiery golden light sparkling on the crystal pillars and shimmering in the air all around.
The Princess held up the feather, and the Fire Bird bowed its head slowly three times. Then it suddenly turned round as if to fly away, but looked back at her, and raised its wings, and fluffed out the soft, glistening feathers in the hollow of its back. Arching its head round, it began to act as if it were preparing a nest for her between its wings, and the Princess saw plainly that it was only waiting for her to seat herself there before flying away. The Bird knew what she wanted; she was sure of that. So she mounted between the wings, and nestled down on a soft feather bed of dazzling golden light, warm and comfortable. Then, with a long, jubilant cry the Bird rose in the air, and, craning its neck westward, flashed through space at a terrific rate.
Very soon they overtook the setting sun, passed it, and left it sinking on the horizon as they went on into the purlieus of the Land of Night and Silence, which lies beyond the great round shoulder of the world. And here the Fire Bird blazed along, leaving a trail of light in its wake and throwing a radiance on the hills and forests over which it passed; until it came, by way of the Valley-which-has-no-Borders, to the Forest-without-an-End.
Here the Bird swooped downwards and alighted before a black-mouthed cave. He crouched while the Princess dismounted. As she did so, the Bird plucked two fresh feathers from its wing with its beak and held them out to her. They shed a brilliant light, and she, seeing at once that they would serve as lamps, took them, one in each hand, and advanced into the gloomy cave.
She had not gone far when she heard a voice crooning a witch song, and, peering round the edge of a rock, she espied her sister seated beside a cauldron, beneath which was a freezing fire fed with blocks of frozen brine.
From the witch song her sister was singing, the Princess learned that her lover's heart was in the cauldron. She listened while the Sorceress sang:
'Seethe! Seethe! Heart of her lover, Beating in tune with mine. Never the two their love can recover, Never their arms entwine. Freeze! Freeze! Heart in this cauldron, Seared by the frozen brine!'
With a scream the Princess rushed forward, and, before her wicked sister could prevent her, she had upset the cauldron with a crash. Some of the icy fire of brine splashed up in the face of the Sorceress, and with a loud, grating shriek, she fell to the ground senseless—dead!
The Princess snatched up her lover's heart, and placed it in her bosom against her own, where she could feel it still beating. Then, without waiting another moment, she ran back to the Fire Bird, and sprang upon its back with a cry of joy, patting its neck and stroking its feathers.
Up in the sky they soared again, and away over the world towards the palace in the Home of the Dawn. And, as they neared their destination, the Princess suddenly missed something. Quickly she felt in her bosom to see if the heart of her lover was safe; but lo, it was gone! It seemed to have grown warm and melted right away.
Distressed at this, she urged the Fire Bird to still greater speed, until his track through the sky was like that of a shooting star. At length they swooped down and alighted on the balcony of the palace. The roaring of the Fire Bird's wings was stilled, but the hum of its feathers continued—a throbbing pulsation of musical sound.
As the Princess alighted, the Prince himself came running to her. Then, with a mingled cry of delight, the lovers leapt to greet each other, and, when they were enfolded in each other's arms, the Fire Bird discreetly turned his head away and preened his tail feathers.
The Princess did not trouble about her lover's heart which she had taken from the Sorceress and missed on the way. She now felt it beating against her own, and knew that it was in its right place. The Prince was free from the wicked spell at last.
* * * * *
The Fire Bird's work was done. Without a word he sprang into the air, and was soon lost to sight. And the lovers did not hear him go, for, by some mysterious power, he hushed his wings and went secretly, for, as you must have seen, he was really a very old bird.
The Prince and the Princess were married very soon, and, during the celebrations, the Fire Bird was seen to circle thrice every night round the palace, but he never settled.
As King and Queen of the People of the Dawn, they reigned for long years, and the Fire Bird was always their friend. On every anniversary of their wedding day, they awoke to the sound of his roaring wings. He always brought a present; and do you know what it was? Just a single feather of his shining wing, so that they might obtain whatever joy they wished for.
THE STORY OF THE BIRD FENG
A CHINESE FAIRY TALE
In the Book of the Ten Thousand Wonders there are three hundred and thirty-three stories about the bird called Feng, and this is one of them.
Ta-Khai, Prince of Tartary, dreamt one night that he saw in a place where he had never been before an enchantingly beautiful young maiden who could only be a princess. He fell desperately in love with her, but before he could either move or speak, she had vanished. When he awoke he called for his ink and brushes, and, in the most accomplished willow-leaf style, he drew her image on a piece of precious silk, and in one corner he wrote these lines:
The flowers of the paeony Will they ever bloom? A day without her Is like a hundred years.
He then summoned his ministers, and, showing them the portrait, asked if any one could tell him the name of the beautiful maiden; but they all shook their heads and stroked their beards They knew not who she was.
So displeased was the prince that he sent them away in disgrace to the most remote provinces of his kingdom. All the courtiers, the generals, the officers, and every man and woman, high and low, who lived in the palace came in turn to look at the picture. But they all had to confess their ignorance. Ta-Khai then called upon the magicians of the kingdom to find out by their art the name of the princess of his dreams, but their answers were so widely different that the prince, suspecting their ability, condemned them all to have their noses cut off. The portrait was shown in the outer court of the palace from sunrise till sunset, and exalted travellers came in every day, gazed upon the beautiful face, and came out again. None could tell who she was.
Meanwhile the days were weighing heavily upon the shoulders of Ta-Khai, and his sufferings cannot be described; he ate no more, he drank no more, and ended by forgetting which was day and which was night, what was in and what was out, what was left and what was right. He spent his time roaming over the mountains and through the woods crying aloud to the gods to end his life and his sorrow.
It was thus, one day, that he came to the edge of a precipice. The valley below was strewn with rocks, and the thought came to his mind that he had been led to this place to put a term to his misery. He was about to throw himself into the depths below when suddenly the bird Feng flew across the valley and appeared before him, saying:
'Why is Ta-Khai, the mighty Prince of Tartary, standing in this place of desolation with a shadow on his brow?'
Ta-Khai replied: 'The pine tree finds its nourishment where it stands, the tiger can run after the deer in the forests, the eagle can fly over the mountains and the plains, but how can I find the one for whom my heart is thirsting?'
And he told the bird his story.
The Feng, which in reality was a Feng-Hwang, that is, a female Feng, rejoined:
'Without the help of Supreme Heaven it is not easy to acquire wisdom, but it is a sign of the benevolence of the spiritual beings that I should have come between you and destruction. I can make myself large enough to carry the largest town upon my back, or small enough to pass through the smallest keyhole, and I know all the princesses in all the palaces of the earth. I have taught them the six intonations of my voice, and I am their friend. Therefore show me the picture, O Ta-Khai, and I will tell you the name of her whom you saw in your dream.'
They went to the palace, and, when the portrait was shown, the bird became as large as an elephant, and exclaimed, 'Sit on my back, O Ta-Khai, and I will carry you to the place of your dream. There you will find her of the transparent face with the drooping eyelids under the crown of dark hair such as you have depicted, for these are the features of Sai-Jen, the daughter of the King of China, and alone can be likened to the full moon rising under a black cloud.'
At nightfall they were flying over the palace of the king just above a magnificent garden. And in the garden sat Sai-Jen, singing and playing upon the lute. The Feng-Hwang deposited the prince outside the wall near a place where bamboos were growing and showed him how to cut twelve bamboos between the knots to make the flute which is called Pai-Siao and has a sound sweeter than the evening breeze on the forest stream.
And as he blew gently across the pipes, they echoed the sound of the princess's voice so harmoniously that she cried:
'I hear the distant notes of the song that comes from my own lips, and I can see nothing but the flowers and the trees; it is the melody the heart alone can sing that has suffered sorrow on sorrow, and to which alone the heart can listen that is full of longing.'
At that moment the wonderful bird, like a fire of many colours come down from heaven, alighted before the princess, dropping at her feet the portrait. She opened her eyes in utter astonishment at the sight of her own image. And when she had read the lines inscribed in the corner, she asked, trembling:
'Tell me, O Feng-Hwang, who is he, so near, but whom I cannot see, that knows the sound of my voice and has never heard me, and can remember my face and has never seen me?'
Then the bird spoke and told her the story of Ta-Khai's dream, adding:
'I come from him with this message; I brought him here on my wings. For many days he has longed for this hour, let him now behold the image of his dream and heal the wound in his heart.'
Swift and overpowering is the rush of the waves on the pebbles of the shore, and like a little pebble felt Sai-Jen when Ta-Khai stood before her....
The Feng-Hwang illuminated the garden sumptuously, and a breath of love was stirring the flowers under the stars.
It was in the palace of the King of China that were celebrated in the most ancient and magnificent style the nuptials of Sai-Jen and Ta-Khai, Prince of Tartary.
And this is one of the three hundred and thirty-three stories about the bird Feng as it is told in the Book of the Ten Thousand Wonders.