"Yes," answered the stranger, "I once wrote a play called 'Hamlet.'"
"You were courageous with such an original before you," said Faubourg, severely.
"Yes," said the stranger, "the original was very good, but I think," he added modestly, "that I improved upon it."
"Encore un faiseur de paradoxes!" murmured Faubourg to himself in disgust.
In the meantime Willmott was giving Professor Morgan the benefit of his views on Greek art, punctuated with allusions to Tariff Reform and devolution for the benefit of Blenheim.
Luncheon was over and cigarettes were lighted. Mrs. Bergmann had quite made up her mind that she had been cheated, and there was only one thing for which she consoled herself, and that was that she had not waited for luncheon but had gone down immediately, since so far all her guests had kept up a continuous stream of conversation, which had every now and then become general, though they still every now and then glanced at the empty chair and wondered what the coming attraction was going to be. Mrs. Milden had carried on two almost interrupted tete-a-tetes, first with one of her neighbours, then with the other. In fact everybody had talked, except the stranger, who had hardly spoken, and since Faubourg had turned away from him in disgust, nobody had taken any further notice of him.
Mrs. Baldwin, remarking this, good-naturedly leant across the table and asked him if he had come to London for the Wagner cycle.
"No," he answered, "I came for the Horse Show at Olympia."
At this moment Count Sciarra, having finished his third cigarette, turned to his hostess and thanked her for having allowed him to meet the most beautiful women of London in the most beautiful house in London, and in the house of the most beautiful hostess in London.
"J'ai vu chez vous," he said, "le lys argente et la rose blanche, mais vous etes la rose ecarlate, la rose d'amour dont le parfum vivra dans mon coeur comme un poison dore (and here he hummed in a sing-song):—
'Io son, cantava, Io son, dolce sirena' Addio, dolce sirena."
Then he suddenly and abruptly got up, kissed his hostess's hand vehemently three times, and said he was very sorry, but he must hasten to keep a pressing engagement. He then left the room.
Mrs. Bergmann got up and said, "Let us go upstairs." But the men had most of them to go, some to the House of Commons, others to fulfil various engagements.
The stranger thanked Mrs. Bergmann for her kind hospitality and left. And the remaining guests, seeing that it was obvious that no further attraction was to be expected, now took their leave reluctantly and went, feeling that they had been cheated.
Angela Lockton stayed a moment.
"Who were you expecting, Louise, dear?" she asked.
"Only an old friend," said Mrs. Bergmann, "whom you would all have been very glad to see. Only as he doesn't want anybody to know he's in London, I couldn't tell you all who he was."
"But tell me now," said Mrs. Lockton; "you know how discreet I am."
"I promised not to, dearest Angela," she answered; "and, by the way, what was the name of the man you brought with you?"
"Didn't I tell you? How stupid of me!" said Mrs. Lockton. "It's a very easy name to remember: Shakespeare, William Shakespeare."
To Cecilia Fisher
"The King said that nobody had ever danced as I danced to-night," said Columbine. "He said it was more than dancing, it was magic."
"It is true," said Harlequin, "you never danced like that before."
But Pierrot paid no heed to their remarks, and stared vacantly at the sky. They were sitting on the deserted stage of the grass amphitheatre where they had been playing. Behind them were the clumps of cypress trees which framed a vista of endless wooden garden and formed their drop scene. They were sitting immediately beneath the wooden framework made of two upright beams and one horizontal, which formed the primitive proscenium, and from which little coloured lights had hung during the performance. The King and Queen and their lords and ladies who had looked on at the living puppet show had all left the amphitheatre; they had put on their masks and their dominoes, and were now dancing on the lawns, whispering in the alleys and the avenues, or sitting in groups under the tall dark trees. Some of them were in boats on the lake, and everywhere one went, from the dark boscages, came sounds of music, thin, tinkling tunes played on guitars by skilled hands, and the bird-like twittering and whistling of flageolets.
"The King said I looked like a moon fairy," said Columbine to Pierrot. Pierrot only stared in the sky and laughed inanely. "If you persist in slighting me like this," she whispered in his ear, in a whisper which was like a hiss, "I will abandon you for ever. I will give my heart to Harlequin, and you shall never see me again." But Pierrot continued to stare at the sky, and laughed once more inanely. Then Columbine got up, her eyes flashing with rage; taking Harlequin by the arm she dragged him swiftly away. They danced across the grass semi-circle of the amphitheatre and up the steps away into the alleys. Pierrot was left alone with Pantaloon, who was asleep, for he was old and clowning fatigued him. Then Pierrot left the amphitheatre also, and putting a black mask on his face he joined the revellers who were everywhere dancing, whispering, talking, and making music in subdued tones. He sought out a long lonely avenue, in one side of which there nestled, almost entirely concealed by bushes and undergrowth, a round open Greek temple. Right at the end of the avenue a foaming waterfall splashed down into a large marble basin, from which a tall fountain rose, white and ghostly, and made a sobbing noise. Pierrot went towards the temple, then he turned back and walked right into the undergrowth through the bushes, and lay down on the grass, and listened to the singing of the night-jar. The whole garden that night seemed to be sighing and whispering; there was a soft warm wind, and a smell of mown hay in the air, and an intoxicating sweetness came from the bushes of syringa. Columbine and Harlequin also joined the revellers. They passed from group to group, with aimless curiosity, pausing sometimes by the artificial ponds and sometimes by the dainty groups of dancers, whose satin and whose pearls glimmered faintly in the shifting moonlight, for the night was cloudy. At last they too were tired of the revel, they wandered towards a more secluded place and made for the avenue which Pierrot had sought. On their way they passed through a narrow grass walk between two rows of closely cropped yew hedges. There on a marble seat a tall man in a black domino was sitting, his head resting on his hands; and between the loose folds of his satin cloak, one caught the glint of precious stones. When they had passed him Columbine whispered to Harlequin: "That is the King. I caught sight of his jewelled collar." They presently found themselves in the long avenue at the end of which were the waterfall and the fountain. They wandered on till they reached the Greek temple, and there suddenly Columbine put her finger on her lips. Then she led Harlequin back a little way and took him round through the undergrowth to the back of the temple, and, crouching down in the bushes, bade him look. In the middle of the temple there was a statue of Eros holding a torch in his hands. Standing close beside the statue were two figures, a man dressed as a Pierrot, and a beautiful lady who wore a grey satin domino. She had taken off her mask and pushed back the hood from her hair, which was encircled by a diadem made of something shining and silvery, and a ray of moonlight fell on her face, which was as delicate as the petal of a flower. Pierrot was masked; he was holding her hand and looking into her eyes, which were turned upwards towards his.
"It is the Queen!" whispered Columbine to Harlequin. And once more putting her finger on her lips, she deftly led him by the hand and noiselessly threaded her way through the bushes and back into the avenue, and without saying a word ran swiftly with him to the place where they had seen the King. He was still there, alone, his head resting upon his hands.
* * * * *
In the temple the Queen was upbraiding her lover for his temerity in having crossed the frontier into the land from which he had been banished for ever, and for having dared to appear at the court revel disguised as Pierrot. "Remember," she was saying, "the enemies that surround us, the dreadful peril, and the doom that awaits us." And her lover said: "What is doom, and what is death? You whispered to the night and I heard. You sighed and I am here!" He tore the mask from his face, and the Queen looked at him and smiled. At that moment a rustle was heard in the undergrowth, and the Queen started back from him, whispering: "We are betrayed! Fly!" And her lover put on his mask and darted through the undergrowth, following a path which he and no one else knew, till he came to an open space where his squire awaited him with horses, and they galloped away safe from all pursuit.
Then the King walked into the temple and led the Queen back to the palace without saying a word; but the whole avenue was full of dark men bearing torches and armed with swords, who were searching the undergrowth. And presently they found Pierrot who, ignorant of all that had happened, had been listening all night to the song of the night-jar. He was dragged to the palace and cast into a dungeon, and the King was told. But the revel did not cease, and the dancing and the music continued softly as before. The King sent for Columbine and told her she should have speech with Pierrot in his prison, for haply he might have something to confess to her. And Columbine was taken to Pierrot's dungeon, and the King followed her without her knowing it, and concealed himself behind the door, which he set ajar.
Columbine upbraided Pierrot and said: "All this was my work. I have always known that you loved the Queen. And yet for the sake of past days, tell me the truth. Was it love or a joke, such as those you love to play?"
Pierrot laughed inanely. "It was a joke," he said. "It is my trade to make jokes. What else can I do?"
"You love the Queen nevertheless," said Columbine, "of that I am sure, and for that I have had my revenge."
"It was a joke," said Pierrot, and he laughed again.
And though she talked and raved and wept, she could get no other answer from him. Then she left him, and the King entered the dungeon.
"I have heard what you said," said the King, "but to me you must tell the truth. I do not believe it was you who met the Queen in the temple; tell me the truth, and your life shall be spared."
"It was a joke," said Pierrot, and he laughed. Then the King grew fierce and stormed and threatened. But his rage and threats were in vain! for Pierrot only laughed. Then the King appealed to him as man to man and implored him to tell him the truth; for he would have given his kingdom to believe that it was the real Pierrot who had met the Queen and that the adventure had been a joke. Pierrot only repeated what he had said, and laughed and giggled inanely.
At dawn the prison door was opened and three masked men led Pierrot out through the courtyard into the garden. The revellers had gone home, but here and there lights still twinkled and flickered and a stray note or two of music was still heard. Some of the latest of the revellers were going home. The dawn was grey and chilly; they led Pierrot through the alleys to the grass amphitheatre, and they hanged him on the horizontal beam which formed part of the primitive proscenium where he and Columbine had danced so wildly in the night. They hanged him and his white figure dangled from the beam as though he were still dancing; and the new Pierrot, who was appointed the next day, was told that such would be the fate of all mummers who went too far, and whose jokes and pranks overstepped the limits of decency and good breeding.
The Referendarius had three junior clerks to carry on the business of his department, and they in their turn were assisted by two scribes, who did most of the copying and kept the records. The work of the Department consisted in filing and annotating the petitions and cases which were referred from the lower Courts, through the channel of the Referendarius, to the Emperor.
The three clerks and their two scribes occupied a high marble room in the spacious office. It was as yet early in April, but, nevertheless, the sun out of doors was almost fierce. The high marble rooms of the office were cool and stuffy at the same time, and the spring sunshine without, the soft breeze from the sea, the call of the flower-sellers in the street, and the lazy murmur of the town had, in these shaded, musty, and parchment-smelling halls, diffused an atmosphere of laziness which inspired the clerks in question with an overwhelming desire to do nothing.
There was, indeed, no pressing work on hand. Only from time to time the Referendarius, who occupied a room to himself next door to theirs, would communicate with them through a hole in the wall, demanding information on some point or asking to be supplied with certain documents. Then the clerks would make a momentary pretence of being busy, and ultimately the scribes would find either the documents or the information which were required.
As it was, the clerks were all of them engaged in occupations which were remote from official work. The eldest of them, Cephalus by name—a man who was distinguished from the others by a certain refined sobriety both in his dark dress and in his quiet demeanour—was reading a treatise on algebra; the second, Theophilus, a musician, whose tunic was as bright as his flaming hair, was mending a small organ; and the third, Rufinus, a rather pale, short-sighted, and untidy youth, was scribbling on a tablet. The scribes were busy sorting old records and putting them away in their permanent places.
Presently an official strolled in from another department. He was a middle-aged, corpulent, and cheerful-looking man, dressed in gaudy coloured tissue, on which all manner of strange birds were depicted. He was bursting with news.
"Phocas is going to win," he said. "It is certain."
Cephalus looked vaguely up from his book and said: "Oh!"
Theophilus and Rufinus paid no attention to the remark.
"Well," continued the new-comer cheerfully, "Who will come to the races with me?"
As soon as he heard the word races, Rufinus looked up from his scribbling. "I will come," he said, "if I can get leave."
"I did not know you cared for that sort of thing," said Cephalus.
Rufinus blushed and murmured something about going every now and then. He walked out of the room, and sought the Referendarius in the next room. This official was reading a document. He did not look up when Rufinus entered, but went on with his reading. At last, after a prolonged interval, he turned round and said: "What is it?"
"May I go to the races?" asked Rufinus.
"Well," said the high official, "what about your work?"
"We've finished everything," said the clerk.
The Head of the Department assumed an air of mystery and coughed.
"I don't think I can very well see my way to letting you go," he said. "I am very sorry," he added quickly, "and if it depended on me you should go at once. But He," he added—he always alluded to the Head of the Office as He—"does not like it. He may come in at any moment and find you gone. No; I'm afraid I can't let you go to-day. Now, if it had been yesterday you could have gone."
"I should only be away an hour," said Rufinus, tentatively.
"He might choose just that hour to come round. If it depended only on me you should go at once," and he laughed and slapped Rufinus on the back, jocularly.
The clerk did not press the point further.
"You'd better get on with that index," said the high official as Rufinus withdrew.
He told the result of his interview to his sporting friend, who started out by himself to the Hippodrome.
Rufinus settled down to his index. But he soon fell into a mood of abstraction. The races and the games did not interest him in the least. It was something else which attracted him. And, as he sat musing, the vision of the Hippodrome as he had last seen it rose clearly before him. He saw the seaweed-coloured marble; the glistening porticoes, adorned with the masterpieces of Greece, crowded with women in gemmed embroideries and men in white tunics hemmed with broad purple; he saw the Generals with their barbaric officers—Bulgarians, Persians, Arabs, Slavs—the long line of savage-looking prisoners in their chains, and the golden breastplates of the standard-bearers. He saw the immense silk velum floating in the azure air over that rippling sea of men, those hundreds of thousands who swarmed on the marble steps of the Hippodrome. He saw the Emperor in his high-pillared box, on his circular throne of dull gold, surrounded by slaves fanning him with jewel-coloured plumes, and fenced round with golden swords.
And opposite him, on the other side of the Stadium, the Empress, mantled in a stiff pontifical robe, laden with heavy embroidered stuffs, her little head framed like a portrait in a square crown of gold and diamonds, whence chains of emeralds hung down to her breast; motionless as an idol, impassive as a gilded mummy.
He saw the crowd of gorgeous women, grouped like Eastern flowers around her: he saw one woman. He saw one form as fresh as a lily of the valley, all white amidst that hard metallic splendour; frail as a dewy anemone, slender as the moist narcissus. He saw one face like the chalice of a rose, and amidst all those fiery jewels two large eyes as soft as dark violets. And the sumptuous Court, the plumes, the swords, the standards, the hot, vari-coloured crowd melted away and disappeared, so that when the Emperor rose and made the sign of the Cross over his people, first to the right, and then to the left, and thirdly over the half-circle behind him, and the singers of Saint Sofia and the Church of the Holy Apostles mingled their bass chant with the shrill trebles of the chorus of the Hippodrome, to the sound of silver organs, he thought that the great hymn of praise was rising to her and to her alone; and that men had come from the uttermost parts of the earth to pay homage to her, to sing her praise, to kneel to her—to her, the wondrous, the very beautiful: peerless, radiant, perfect.
A voice, followed by a cough, called from the hole in the wall; but Rufinus paid no heed, so deeply sunk was he in his vision.
"Rufinus, the Chief is calling you," said Cephalus.
Rufinus started, and hurried to the hole in the wall. The Head of the Department gave him a message for an official in another department.
Rufinus hurried with the message downstairs and delivered it. On his way back he passed the main portico on the ground floor. He walked out into the street: it was empty. Everybody was at the games.
A dark-skinned country girl passed him singing a song about the swallow and the spring. She was bearing a basket full of anemones, violets, narcissi, wild roses, and lilies of the valley.
"Will you sell me your flowers?" he asked, and he held out a silver coin.
"You are welcome to them," said the girl. "I do not need your money."
He took the flowers and returned to the room upstairs. The flowers filled the stuffy place with an unwonted and wonderful fragrance.
Then he sat down and appeared to be once more busily engrossed in his index. But side by side with the index he had a small tablet, and on this, every now and then, he added or erased a word to a short poem. The sense of it was something like this:—
Rhodocleia, flowers of spring I have woven in a ring; Take this wreath, my offering, Rhodocleia.
Here's the lily, here the rose Her full chalice shall disclose; Here's narcissus wet with dew, Windflower and the violet blue. Wear the garland I have made; Crowned with it, put pride away; For the wreath that blooms must fade; Thou thyself must fade some day, Rhodocleia.
THE SPIDER'S WEB
To K. L.
He heard the bell of the Badia sound hour after hour, and still sleep refused its solace. He got up and looked through the narrow window. The sky in the East was soft with that luminous intensity, as of a melted sapphire, that comes just before the dawn. One large star was shining next to the paling moon. He watched the sky as it grew more and more transparent, and a fresh breeze blew from the hills. It was the second night that he had spent without sleeping, but the weariness of his body was as nothing compared with the aching emptiness which possessed his spirit. Only three days ago the world had seemed to him starred and gemmed like the Celestial City—an enchanted kingdom, waiting like a sleeping Princess for the kiss of the adventurous conqueror; and now the colours had faded, the dream had vanished, the sun seemed to be deprived of his glory, and the summer had lost its sweetness.
His eye fell upon some papers which were lying loose upon his table. There was an unfinished sonnet which he had begun three days ago. The octet was finished and the first two lines of the sestet. He would never finish it now. It had no longer any reason to be; for it was a cry to ears which were now deaf, a question, an appeal, which demanded an answering smile, a consenting echo; and the lips, the only lips which could frame that answer, were dumb. He remembered that Casella, the musician, had asked him a week ago for the text of a canzone which he had repeated to him one day. He had promised to let him have it. The promise had entirely gone out of his mind. Then he reflected that because the ship of his hopes and dreams had been wrecked there was no reason why he should neglect his obligations to his fellow-travellers on the uncertain sea.
He sat down and transcribed by the light of the dawn in his exquisite handwriting the stanzas which had been the fruit of a brighter day. And the memory of this dead joy was exceedingly bitter to him, so that he sat musing for some time on the unutterable sadness which the ghosts of perished joys bring to man in his misery, and a line of Virgil buzzed in his brain; but not, as of yore, did it afford him the luxury of causeless melancholy, but like a cruel finger it touched his open wound. The ancients, he thought, knew how to bear misfortune.
Levius fit patientia Quidquid corrigere est nefas.
As the words occurred to him he thought how much better equipped he was for the bitter trial, since had he not the certain hope of another life, and of meeting his beloved in the spaces of endless felicity? Surely then he should be able to bear his sorrow with as great a fortitude as the pagan poets, who looked forward to nothing but the dust; to whom the fabled dim country beyond the Styx was a cheerless dream, and to whom a living dog upon the earth was more worthy of envy than the King of all Elysium. He must learn of the ancients.
The magic of the lemon-coloured dawn had vanished now before the swift daylight. Many bells were ringing in the city, and the first signs of life were stirring in the streets. He searched for a little book, and read of the consolation which Cicero gave to Laelius in the De Amicitia. But he had not read many lines before he closed the book. His wound was too fresh for the balm of reason and philosophy.
"Later," he thought, "this will strengthen and help me, but not to-day; to-day my wound must bleed and be allowed to bleed, for all the philosophy in the world cannot lessen the fact that yesterday she was and to-day she is not."
He felt a desire to escape from his room, which had been the chapel of such holy prayers, the shrine where so many fervent tapers of hope had burnt, where so sweet an incense of dream had risen. He left his room and hurried down the narrow stone stairs into the street. As he left the house he turned to his right and walked on till he reached Or San Michele; there he turned to his right again and walked straight on till he reached the churches of Santa Reparata and San Giovanni. He entered San Giovanni and said a brief prayer; then he took the nearest street, east of Santa Reparata, to the Porta a ballo, and found himself beyond the walls of the city. He walked towards Fiesole.
The glory of the sunrise was still in the sky, the fragrance of the dawning summer (it was the 11th of June) was in the air. He walked towards the East. The corn on the hills was green, and pink wild roses fringed every plot of wheat. The grass was wet with dew. The city glittered in the plain beneath, clean and fresh in the dazzling air; it seemed a part of the pageant of summer, an unreal piece of imagery, distinct and clear-cut, yet miraculous, like a mirage seen in mid-ocean. "Truly," he thought, "this is the city of the flower, and the lily is its fitting emblem."
But while his heart went out towards his native town he felt a sharp pang as he remembered that the flower of flowers, the queen of the lilies, had been mowed down by the scythe, and the city which to him had heretofore been an altar was now a tomb. The lovely Virgilian dirge,
Manibus date lilia plenis . . . His saltem accumulem donis et fungar inani Munere,
rang in his ears, and he thought that he too must bring a gift and scatter lilies on her grave; handfuls of lilies; but they must be unfading flowers, wet with immortal tears. He pondered on this gift. It must be a gift of song, a temple built in verse. But he was still unsatisfied. No dirge, however tender and solemn; no elegy, however soft and majestic; no song, however piteous, could be a sufficient offering for the glorious being who had died in her youth and beauty. But what could he fashion or build? He thought with envy of Arnolfo and of Giotto: the one with his bricks could have built a tomb which would prove to be one of the wonders of the world, and the other with his brush could have fixed her features for ever, for the wonder of future generations. And yet was not his instrument the most potent of all, his vehicle the most enduring? Stones decayed, and colours faded, but verse remained, outliving bronze and marble. Yes, his monument should be more lasting than all the masterpieces of Giotto, than all the proud designs of Arnolfo; but how should it be?
He had reached a narrow lane at the foot of a steep hill covered with corn and dotted with olives. He lay down under a hedge in the shade. The sun was shining on two large bramble bushes which grew on the hedge opposite him. Above him, on his right, was a tall cypress tree standing by itself, and the corn plots stretched up behind him till they reached the rocky summits tufted with firs. Between the two bramble bushes a spider had spun a large web, and he was sitting in the midst of it awaiting his prey. But the bramble and the web were still wet with the morning dew, whose little drops glistened in the sunshine like diamonds. Every tiny thread and filament of the web was dewy and lit by the newly-awakened sun. He lay on his back in the shade and pondered on the shape and nature of his gift of song, and on the deathless flowers that he must grow and gather and lay upon her tomb.
The spider's web caught his eye, and from where he lay the sight was marvellous. The spider seemed like a small globe of fire in the midst of a number of concentric silvery lines studded with dewy gems; it was like a miniature sun in the midst of a system of gleaming stars. The delicate web with its shining films and dewdrops seemed to him as he lay there to be a vision of the whole universe, with all its worlds and stars revolving around the central orb of light. It was as though a veil had been torn away and he were looking on the naked glory of the spheres, the heart of Heaven, the very home of God.
He looked and looked, his whole spirit filled with ineffable awe and breathless humility. He lay gazing on the chance miracle of nature till a passing cloud obscured the sun, and the spider's web wore once more its ordinary appearance. Then he arose with tears in his eyes and gave a great sigh of thankfulness.
"I have found it," he thought, "I will say of her what has never yet been said of any woman. I will paint all Hell, all Purgatory, and all that is in them, to make more glorious the glory of her abode, and I will reveal to man that glory. I will show her in the circle of spotless flame, among the rivers and rings of eternal light, which revolve around the inmost heart, the fiery rose, and move obedient to the Love which moves the sun." And his thought shaped itself into verse and he murmured to himself:
L'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle.
EDWARD II. AT BERKELEY CASTLE BY AN EYE-WITNESS (With apologies to Mr. H. Belloc)
The King had not slept for three nights. He looked at his face in the muddy pool of water which had settled in the worn flagstones of his prison floor, and noticed that his beard was of a week's growth. Beads of sweat stood on his forehead, and his eyes were bloodshot. In the room next door, which was the canteen, the soldiers were playing on a drum. Over the tall hills the dawn was ruffling the clouds. There was a faint glimmer on the waters of the river. The footsteps of the gaolers were heard on the outer rampart. At seven o'clock they brought the King a good dinner: they allowed him burgundy from France, and yellow mead, and white bread baked in the ovens of the Abbey, although he was constrained to drink out of pewter, and plates were forbidden him. Eustace, his page, timidly offered him music. The King bade him sing the "Lay of the Sussex Lass," which begins thus:
Triumphant, oh! triumphant now she stands, Above my Sussex, and above my sea! She stretches out her thin ulterior hands Across the morning . . .
But the King, to whom memories were portentous, called for another song and Eustace sang a stave of that ballad which was made on the Pyrenees, and which is still unfinished (for the modern world has no need of these things), telling of how Lord Raymond drank in a little tent with Charlemagne:
Enormous through the morning the tall battalions run: The men who fought with Charlemagne are very dearly done; The wine is dark beneath the night, the stars are in the sky, The hammer's in the blacksmith's hand in case he wants to try. We'll ride to Fontarabia, we'll storm the stubborn wall, And I call.
And Uriel and his Seraphim are hammering a shield; And twice along the valley has the horn of Roland pealed; And Cleopatra on the Nile, Iseult in Brittany, And Lancelot in Camelot, and Drake upon the sea; And behind the young Republic are the fellows with the flag, And I brag!
The King listlessly opened his eyes and said that he had no stomach for such song, and from the next door came the mutter of the drums. For on that night—which was Candlemas—Thursday, or as we should now call it "Friday"—the gaolers were keeping holiday, and drinking English beer brewed in Sussex; for the beer of West England was not to their liking, as any one who has walked down the old Roman Road through Daglingworth, Brimpsfield, and Birdlip towards Cardigan on a warm summer's day can know. For a man may tramp that road and stop and ask for drink at an inn, and receive nothing but Imperialist whisky, and drinks that annoy rather than satisfy the great thirst of a Christian.
Outside, a little breeze had crept out of the West. The morning star was paling over the Quantock Hills, and the King was mortally weary. "This day three years ago," he thought, "I was spurred and harnessed for the lists in a tunic of mail, with an emerald on my shoulder-strap, and I was tilting with my lord of Cleremont before Queen Isabella of France. The birds were singing in Touraine, and the sun was beating on the lists; and the minstrels of Val-es-Dunes were chanting the song of the men who died for the Faith when they stormed Jerusalem. What is the lilt of that song," said the King, "which the singers of Val-es-Dunes sang?" And Eustace pondered, for his memory was weak and he was overwrought by nights of watching and days of vigilance; but presently he touched his strings and sang:
The captains came from Normandy In clamorous ships across the sea; And from the trees in Gascony The masts were cloven, tall and free. And Turpin swung the helm and sang; And stars like all the bells at Brie From cloudy steeples rang.
The rotten leaves are whirling down Dishevelled from September's crown; The Emperors have left the town; The Weald of Sussex, burnt and brown, Is trampled by the kings. And Harmuth gallops up the Down, And, as he rides, he sings.
He sings of battles and of wine, Of boats that leap the bellowing brine, Of April eyes that smile and shine, Of Raymond and Lord Catiline And Carthage by the sea, Of saints, and of the Muses Nine That dwell in Gascony.
And to the King, as he heard this stave, came visions of his youth; of how he had galloped from Woodstock to Stonesfield on a night of June within eleven hours, with a company of minstrels, and of how during that long feast at Arundel he made a song in the vernacular in praise of St. Anselm. And he remembered that he owed a candle to that saint. For he had vowed that if the wife of Westermain should meet him after the tournament he would burn a tall candle at Canterbury before Michaelmas. But this had escaped his mind, for it had been tossed hither and thither during days of conflict which had come later, and he was not loth to believe that the neglect of this service and the idle vow had been corner-stone of his misfortunes, and had helped to bring about his miserable plight.
While these threads of memory glimmered in his mind the small tallow rush-light which lit the dungeon flickered and went out. The chapel clock struck six. The King made a gesture which meant that the time of music was over, and Eustace went back to the canteen, where the men of the guard were playing at dice by the light of smoky rush-lights. The King lay down on his wooden pallet, whose linen was delicate and of lawn, embroidered with his own cipher and crown. The pillow, which was stuffed with scented rushes, was delicious to the cheek, and yielding.
* * * * *
All that night in London Queen Isabella had been waiting for the news from France. A storm was blowing across the Channel, and the ships (their pilots were Germans, and bungled in reading the stars) making for the port turned back towards Dunquerque. It was a storm such as, if you are in a small boat, turns you back from Broughty Ferry to the Goodwin Sands. The Queen, who took counsel of no one, was in two minds as to her daring deed, and her hostage trembled in an uncertain grasp. In Saxony the banished favourites talked wildly, cursing the counsels of London; but Saxony was heedless and unmoved. And Piers Gaveston spoke heated words in vain.
The King, who was in that lethargic state of slumber, between sleep and waking, heard a shuffle of steps beyond the door; a cold sweat broke once more on his forehead, and he waved his left hand listlessly. Outside the sun had risen, and a broad daylight flooded the wet meadows and the brimming tide of the Severn, catching the sails of the boats that were heeling and trembling on the ripple of the water, which was stirred by the South wind. The King looked towards the window with weariness, expecting, as far as his lethargy allowed, the advent of another monotonous day.
The door opened. The faces he saw by the gaoler's torch were not those he expected. The King, I say, looked towards them, and his hands trembled, and the moisture on them glistened. They were dark, and one of them was concealed by a silken mask.
Three men entered the dungeon. In the hands of the foremost of the three glowed a red-hot iron, which was to be the manner of his doom.
"Perhaps we had better not land after all," said Lewis as he was stepping into the boat; "we can explore this island on our way home."
"We had much better land now," said Stewart; "we shall get to Teneriffe to-morrow in any case. Besides, an island that's not on the chart is too exciting a thing to wait for."
Lewis gave in to his younger companion, and the two ornithologists, who were on their way to the Canary Islands in search of eggs, were rowed to shore.
"They had better fetch us at sunset," said Lewis as they landed.
"Perhaps we shall stay the night," responded Stewart.
"I don't think so," said Lewis; but after a pause he told the sailors that if they should be more than half an hour late they were not to wait, but to come back in the morning at ten. Lewis and Stewart walked from the sandy bay up a steep basaltic cliff which sloped right down to the beach.
"The island is volcanic," said Stewart.
"All the islands about here are volcanic," said Lewis. "We shan't be able to climb much in this heat," he added.
"It will be all right when we get to the trees," said Stewart. Presently they reached the top of the cliff. The basaltic rock ceased and an open grassy incline was before them covered with myrtle and cactus bushes; and further off a thick wood, to the east of which rose a hill sparsely dotted with olive trees. They sat down on the grass, panting. The sun beat down on the dry rock; there was not a cloud in the sky nor a ripple on the emerald sea. In the air there was a strange aromatic scent; and the stillness was heavy.
"I don't think it can be inhabited," said Lewis.
"Perhaps it's merely a volcanic island cast up by a sea disturbance," suggested Stewart.
"Look at those trees," said Lewis, pointing to the wood in the distance.
"What about them?" asked Stewart.
"They are oak trees," said Lewis. "Do you know why I didn't want to land?" he asked abruptly. "I am not superstitious, you know, but as I got into the boat I distinctly heard a voice calling out: 'Don't land!'"
Stewart laughed. "I think it was a good thing to land," he said. "Let's go on now."
They walked towards the wood, and the nearer they got to it the more their surprise increased. It was a thick wood of large oak trees which must certainly have been a hundred years old. When they had got quite close to it they paused.
"Before we explore the wood," said Lewis, "let us climb the hill and see if we can get a general view of the island."
Stewart agreed, and they climbed the hill in silence. When they reached the top they found it was not the highest point of the island, but only one of several hills, so that they obtained only a limited view. The valleys seemed to be densely wooded, and the oak wood was larger than they had imagined. They laid down and rested and lit their pipes.
"No birds," remarked Lewis gloomily.
"I haven't seen one—the island is extraordinarily still," said Stewart. The further they had penetrated inland the more oppressive and sultry the air had become; and the pungent aroma they had noticed directly was stronger. It was like that of mint, and yet it was not mint; and although sweet it was not agreeable. The heat seemed to weigh even on Stewart's buoyant spirits, for he sat smoking in silence, and no longer urged Lewis to continue their exploration.
"I think the island is inhabited," said Lewis, "and that the houses are on the other side. There are some sheep and some goats on that hill opposite. Do you see?"
"Yes," said Stewart, "I think they are mouflon, but I don't think the island is inhabited all the same." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he started, and rising to his feet, cried: "Look there!" and he pointed to a thin wreath of smoke which was rising from the wood. Their languor seemed to leave them, and they ran down the hill and reached the wood once more. Just as they were about to enter it Lewis stooped and pointed to a small plant with white flowers and three oval-shaped leaves rising from the root.
"What's that?" he asked Stewart, who was the better botanist of the two. The flowers were quite white, and each had six pointed petals.
"It's a kind of garlic, I think," said Stewart. Lewis bent down over it. "It doesn't smell," he said. "It's not unlike moly (Allium flavum), only it's white instead of yellow, and the flowers are larger. I'm going to take it with me." He began scooping away the earth with a knife so as to take out the plant by the roots. After he had been working for some minutes he exclaimed: "This is the toughest plant I've ever seen; I can't get it out." He was at last successful, but as he pulled the root he gave a cry of surprise.
"There's no bulb," he said. "Look! Only a black root."
Stewart examined the plant. "I can't make it out," he said.
Lewis wrapped the plant in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. They entered the wood. The air was still more sultry here than outside, and the stillness even more oppressive. There were no birds and not a vestige of bird life.
"This exploration is evidently a waste of time as far as birds are concerned," remarked Lewis. At that moment there was a rustle in the undergrowth, and five pigs crossed their path and disappeared, grunting. Lewis started, and for some reason he could not account for, shuddered; he looked at Stewart, who appeared unconcerned.
"They are not wild," said Stewart. They walked on in silence. The place and its heavy atmosphere had again affected their spirits. When they spoke it was almost in a whisper. Lewis wished they had not landed, but he could give no reason to himself for his wish. After they had been walking for about twenty minutes they suddenly came on an open space and a low white house. They stopped and looked at each other.
"It's got no chimney!" cried Lewis, who was the first to speak. It was a one-storeyed building, with large windows (which had no glass in them) reaching to the ground, wider at the bottom than at the top. The house was overgrown with creepers; the roof was flat. They entered in silence by the large open doorway and found themselves in a low hall. There was no furniture and the floor was mossy.
"It's rather like an Egyptian tomb," said Stewart, and he shivered. The hall led into a further room, which was open in the centre to the sky, like the impluvium of a Roman house. It also contained a square basin of water, which was filled by water bubbling from a lion's mouth carved in stone. Beyond the impluvium there were two smaller rooms, in one of which there was a kind of raised stone platform. The house was completely deserted and empty. Lewis and Stewart said little; they examined the house in silent amazement.
"Look," said Lewis, pointing to one of the walls. Stewart examined the wall and noticed that there were traces on it of a faded painted decoration.
"It's like the wall paintings at Pompeii," he said.
"I think the house is modern," remarked Lewis. "It was probably built by some eccentric at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who did it up in Empire style."
"Do you know what time it is?" said Stewart, suddenly. "The sun has set and it's growing dark."
"We must go at once," said Lewis, "we'll come back here to-morrow." They walked on in silence. The wood was dim in the twilight, a fitful breeze made the trees rustle now and again, but the air was just as sultry as ever. The shapes of the trees seemed fantastic and almost threatening in the dimness, and the rustle of the leaves was like a human moan. Once or twice they seemed to hear the grunting of pigs in the undergrowth and to catch sight of bristly backs.
"We don't seem to be getting any nearer the end," said Stewart after a time. "I think we've taken the wrong path." They stopped. "I remember that tree," said Stewart, pointing to a twisted oak; "we must go straight on from there to the left." They walked on and in ten minutes' time found themselves once more at the back of the house. It was now quite dark.
"We shall never find the way now," said Lewis. "We had better sleep in the house." They walked through the house into one of the furthest rooms and settled themselves on the mossy platform. The night was warm and starry, the house deathly still except for the splashing of the water in the basin.
"We shan't get any food," Lewis said.
"I'm not hungry," said Stewart, and Lewis knew that he could not have eaten anything to save his life. He felt utterly exhausted and yet not at all sleepy. Stewart, on the other hand, was overcome with drowsiness. He lay down on the mossy platform and fell asleep almost instantly. Lewis lit a pipe; the vague forebodings he had felt in the morning had returned to him, only increased tenfold. He felt an unaccountable physical discomfort, an inexplicable sensation of uneasiness. Then he realised what it was. He felt there was someone in the house besides themselves, someone or something that was always behind him, moving when he moved and watching him. He walked into the impluvium, but heard nothing and saw nothing. There were none of the thousand little sounds, such as the barking of a dog, or the hoot of a night-bird, which generally complete the silence of a summer night. Everything was uncannily still. He returned to the room. He would have given anything to be back on the yacht, for besides the physical sensation of discomfort and of the something watching him he also felt the unmistakable feeling of impending danger that had been with him nearly all day.
He lay down and at last fell into a doze. As he dozed he heard a subdued noise, a kind of buzzing, such as is made by a spinning wheel or a shuttle on a loom, and more strongly than ever he felt that he was being watched. Then all at once his body seemed to grow stiff with fright. He saw someone enter the room from the impluvium. It was a dim, veiled figure, the figure of a woman. He could not distinguish her features, but he had the impression that she was strangely beautiful; she was bearing a cup in her hands, and she walked towards Stewart and bent over him, offering him the cup.
Something in Lewis prompted him to cry out with all his might: "Don't drink! Don't drink!" He heard the words echoing in the air, just as he had heard the voice in the boat; he felt that it was imperative to call out, and yet he could not: he was paralysed; the words would not come. He formed them with his lips, but no sound came. He tried with all his might to rise and scream, and he could not move. Then a sudden cold faintness came upon him, and he remembered no more till he woke and found the sun shining brightly. Stewart was lying with his eyes closed, moaning loudly in his sleep.
Lewis tried to wake him. He opened his eyes and stared with a fixed, meaningless stare. Lewis tried to lift him from the platform, and then a horrible thing happened. Stewart struggled violently and made a snarling noise, which froze the blood in Lewis's veins. He ran out of the house with cold beads of sweat on his forehead. He ran through the wood to the shore, and there he found the boat. He rowed back to the yacht and fetched some quinine. Then, together with the skipper, the steward, and some other sailors, he returned to the ominous house. They found it empty. There was no trace of Stewart. They shouted in the wood till they were hoarse, but no answer broke the heavy stillness.
Then sending for the rest of the crew, Lewis organised a regular search over the whole island. This lasted till sunset, and they returned in the evening without having found any trace of Stewart or of any other human being. In the night a high wind rose, which soon became a gale; they were obliged to weigh anchor so as not to be dashed against the island, and for twenty-four hours they underwent a terrific tossing. Then the storm subsided as quickly as it had come.
They made for the island once more and reached the spot where they had anchored three days before. There was no trace of the island. It had completely disappeared.
When they reached Teneriffe the next day they found that everybody was talking of the great tidal wave which had caused such great damage and destruction in the islands.
THE MAN WHO GAVE GOOD ADVICE
To Henry Cust
When he was a child his baby brother came to him one day and said that their elder brother, who was grown up, had got a beautiful small ship in his room. Should he ask him for it? The child who gave good advice said: "No, if you ask him for it he will say you are a spoilt child; but go and play in his room with it before he gets up in the morning, and he will give it to you." The baby brother followed this advice, and sure enough two days afterwards he appeared triumphant in the nursery with the ship in his hands, saying: "He said I might choose, the ship or the picture-book." Now the picture-book was a coloured edition of Baron Munchausen's adventures; the boy who gave good advice had seen it and hankered for it. As the baby brother had refused it there could be no harm in asking for it, so the next time his elder brother sent him on an errand (it was to fetch a pin-cushion from his room) judging the moment to be propitious, he said to him: "May I have the picture-book that baby wouldn't have?" "I don't like little boys who ask," answered the big brother, and there the matter ended.
The child who gave good advice went to school. There was a rage for stag beetles at the school; the boys painted them and made them run races on a chessboard. They imagined—rightly or wrongly—that some stag beetles were much faster than others. A little boy called Bell possessed the stag beetle which was the favourite for the coming races. Another boy called Mason was consumed with longing for this stag beetle; and Bell had said he would give it to him in exchange for Mason's catapult, which was famous in the school for the unique straightness of its two prongs. Mason went to the boy who gave good advice and asked him for his opinion. "Don't swap it for your catty," said the boy who gave good advice, "because Bell's stag beetle may not win after all; and even if it does stag beetles won't be the rage for very long; but a catty is always a catty, and yours is the best in the school." Mason took the advice. When the races came off, the stag beetles were so erratic that no prize was awarded, and they immediately ceased to be the rage. The rage for stag beetles was succeeded by a rage for secret alphabets. One boy invented a secret alphabet made of simple hieroglyphics, which was imparted only to a select few, who spent their spare time in corresponding with each other by these cryptic signs. The boy who gave good advice was not of those initiated into the mystery of the cypher, and he longed to be. He made several overtures, but they were all rejected, the reason being that boys of the second division could not let a "third division squit" into their secret. At last the boy who gave good advice offered to one of the initiated the whole of his stamp collection in return for the secret of the alphabet. This offer was accepted. The boy took the stamp collection, but the boy who gave good advice received in return not the true alphabet but a sham one especially manufactured for him. This he found out later; but recriminations were useless; besides which the rage for secret alphabets soon died out and was replaced by a rage for aquariums, newts, and natterjack toads.
The boy went to a public school. He was a fag. His fag-master had two fags. One morning the other fag came to the boy who gave good advice and said: "Clarke (he was the fag-master) told me three days ago to clean his football boots. He's been 'staying out' and hasn't used them, and I forgot. He'll want them to-day, and now there isn't time. I shall pretend I did clean them."
"No, don't do that," said the boy who gave good advice, "because if you say you have cleaned them he will lick you twice as much for having cleaned them badly—say you forgot." The advice was taken, and the fag-master merely said: "Don't forget again." A little later the fag-master had some friends to tea, and told the boy who gave good advice to boil him six eggs for not more than three minutes and a half. The boy who gave good advice, while they were on the fire, took part in a rag that which was going on in the passage; the result was that the eggs remained seven minutes in boiling water. They were hard. When the fag-master pointed this out and asked his fag what he meant by it, the boy who gave good advice persisted in his statement that they had been exactly three minutes and a half in the saucepan, and that he had timed them by his watch. So the fag-master caned him for telling lies.
The boy who gave good advice grew into a man and went to the university. There he made friends with a man called Crawley, who went to a neighbouring race meeting one day and lost two or three hundred pounds.
"I must raise the money from a money-lender somehow," said Crawley to the man who gave good advice, "and on no account must the Master hear of it or he would send me down; or write home, which would be worse."
"On the contrary," said the man who gave good advice, "you must go straight to the Master and tell him all about it. He will like you twice as much for ever afterwards; he never minds people getting into scrapes when he happens to like them, and he likes you and believes you have a great career before you."
Crawley went to the Master of the college and made a clean breast of it. The Master told him he had been foolish—very foolish; but he arranged the whole matter in such a manner that it never came to the ears of Crawley's extremely violent-tempered and puritanical father.
The man who gave good advice got a "First" in Mods, and everyone felt confident he would get a first in Greats; he did brilliantly in nearly all his papers; but during the Latin unseen a temporary and sudden lapse of memory came over him and he forgot the English for manubioe, which the day before he had known quite well means prize-money. In fact the word was written on the first page of his note-book. The word was in his brain, but a small shutter had closed on it for the moment and he could not recall it. He looked over his neighbour's shoulder. His neighbour had translated it "booty." He copied the word mechanically, knowing it was wrong. As he did so he was detected and accused of cribbing. He denied the charge, the matter was investigated, the papers were compared, and the man who gave good advice was disqualified. In all his other papers he had done incomparably better than anyone else.
When he left Oxford the man who gave good advice went into a Government office. He had not been in it long before he perceived that by certain simple reforms the work of the office could be done twice as effectually and half as expensively. He embodied these reforms in a memorandum and they were not long afterwards adopted. He became private secretary to Snipe, a rising politician and persuaded him to change his party and his politics. Snipe, owing to this advice, became a Cabinet Minister, and the man who gave good advice, having inherited some money, stood for Parliament himself. He stood as a Conservative at a General Election and spoke eloquently to enthusiastic meetings. The wire-pullers prophecied an overwhelming majority, when shortly before the poll, at one of his meetings, he suddenly declared himself to be an Independent, and made a speech violently in favour of Home Rule and conscription. The result was that the Liberal Imperialist got in by a huge majority, and the man who gave good advice was pelted with rotten eggs.
After this the man who gave good advice abandoned politics and took to finance; in this branch of human affairs he made the fortune of several of his friends, preventing some from putting their money in alluring South African schemes, and advising others to risk theirs on events which seemed to him certain, such as the election of a President or the short-lived nature of a revolution; events which he foresaw with intuition amounting to second-sight. At the same time he lost nearly all his own money by investing it in a company which professed to have discovered a manner—cheap and rapid—of transforming copper into platinum. He made the fortune of a publisher by insisting on the publication of a novel which six intelligent men had declared to be unreadable. It was called "The Conscience of John Digby," and when published it sold by thousands and tens of thousands. But he lost the handsome reward he received for this service by publishing at his own expense, on magnificent paper, an edition of Rabelais' works in their original tongue. He frequently spotted winners for his friends and for himself, but any money that he won at a race meeting he invariably lost coming home in the train on the Three Card Trick.
Nor did he lose touch with politicians, and this brought about the final catastrophe. A great friend of his, the eminent John Brooke, had the chance of becoming Prime Minister. Parties were at that time in a state of confusion. The question was, should his friend ally himself with or sever himself for ever from Mr. Capax Nissy, the leader of the Liberal Aristocracy Party, who seemed to have a large following? His friend, John Brooke, gave a small dinner to his most intimate friends in order to talk over the matter. The man who gave good advice was so eloquent, so cogent in his reasoning, so acute in his perception, that he persuaded Brooke to sever himself for ever from Capax Nissy. He persuaded all who were present, with the exception of Mr. Short-Sight, a pig-headed man who reasoned falsely. So annoyed did the man who gave good advice become with Short-Sight, and so excited in his vexation, that he finally lost his self-control, and hit him as hard as he could on the head—after Short-Sight had repeated a groundless assertion for the seventh time—with the poker.
Short-Sight died, and the man who gave good advice was convicted of wilful murder. He gave admirable advice to his counsel, but threw away his own case as soon as he entered the box himself, which he insisted on doing. He was hanged in gaol at Reading. Many people whom he had benefited in various ways visited him in prison, among others John Brooke, the Prime Minister. It is said that he would certainly have been reprieved but for the intemperate and inexcusable letters he wrote to the Home Secretary from prison.
"It's a great tragedy—he was a clever man," said Brooke after dinner when they were discussing the misfortune at Downing Street; "a very clever man, but he had no judgment."
"No," said Snipe, the man whose private secretary the man who gave good advice had been, "That's it. It's an awful thing—but he had no judgment."
Peter, or Petrushka, which was the name he was known by, was the carpenter's mate; his hair was like light straw, and his eyes were mild and blue. He was good at his trade; a quiet and sober youth; thoughtful, too, for he knew how to read and had read several books when he was still a boy. A translation of "Monte Cristo" once fell into his hands, and this story had kindled his imagination and stirred in him the desire to travel, to see new countries and strange people. He had made up his mind to leave the village and to try his luck in one of the big towns, when, before he was eighteen, something happened to him which entirely changed the colour of his thoughts and the range of his desires. It was an ordinary experience enough: he fell in love. He fell in love with Tatiana, who worked in the starch factory. Tatiana's eyes were grey, her complexion was white, her features small and delicate, and her hair a beautiful dark brown with gold lights and black shadows in it; her movements were quick and her glance keen; she was like a swallow.
It happened when the snows melted and the meadows were flooded; the first fine day in April. The larks were singing over the plains, which were beginning to show themselves once more under the melting snow; the sun shone on the large patches of water, and turned the flooded meadows in the valley into a fantastic vision. It was on a Sunday after church that this new thing happened. He had often seen Tatiana before: that day she was different and new to him. It was as if a bandage had been taken from his eyes, and at the same moment he realised that Tatiana was a new Tatiana. He also knew that the old world in which he had lived hitherto had crumbled to pieces; and that a new world, far brighter and more wonderful, had been created for him. As for Tatiana, she loved him at once. There was no delay, no hesitation, no misunderstandings, no doubt: and at the first not much speech; but first love came to them straight and swift, with the first sunshine of the spring, as it does to the birds.
All the spring and summer they kept company and walked out together in the evenings. When the snows entirely melted and the true spring came, it came with a rush; in a fortnight's time all the trees except the ash were green, and the bees boomed round the thick clusters of pear-blossom and apple-blossom, which shone like snow against the bright azure. During that time Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the apple orchard in the evening and they talked to each other in the divinest of all languages, the language of first love, which is no language at all but a confused medley and murmur of broken phrases, whisperings, twitterings, pauses, and silences—a language so wonderful that it cannot be put down into speech or words, although Shakespeare and the very great poets translate the spirit of it into music, and the great musicians catch the echo of it in their song. Then a fortnight later, when the woods were carpeted and thick with lilies of the valley, Petrushka and Tatiana walked in the woods and picked the last white violets, and later again they sought the alleys of the landlord's property, where the lilac bushes were a mass of blossom and fragrance, and there they listened to the nightingale, the bird of spring. Then came the summer, the fragrance of the beanfields, and the ripening of corn and the wonderful long twilights, and July, when the corn, ripe and tall and stiff, changed the plains into a vast rippling ocean of gold.
After the harvest, at the very beginning of autumn, they were to be married. There had been a slight difficulty about money. Tatiana's father had insisted that Petrushka should produce a certain not very large sum; but the difficulty had been overcome and the money had been found. There were no more obstacles, everything was smooth and settled. Petrushka no longer thought of travels in foreign lands; he had forgotten the old dreams which "Monte Cristo" had once kindled in him.
It was in the middle of August that the carpenter received instructions from the landowner to make some wooden steps and a small raft and to fix them up on the banks of the river for the convenience of bathers. It did not take the carpenter and Petrushka long to make these things, and one afternoon Petrushka drove down to the river to fix them in their place. The river was broad, the banks were wooded with willow trees, and the undergrowth was thick, for the woods reached to the river bank, which was flat, but which ended sheer above the water over a slope of mud and roots, so that a bather needed steps or a raft or a springboard, so as to dive or to enter and leave the water with comfort.
Petrushka put the steps in their place—which was where the wood ended—and made fast the floating raft to them. Not far from the bank the ground was marshy and the spot was suspected by some people of being haunted by malaria. It was a still, sultry day. The river was like oil, the sky clouded but not entirely overclouded, and among the high banks of grey cloud there were patches of blue.
When Petrushka had finished the job, he sat on the wooden steps, and rolling some tobacco into a primitive cigarette, contemplated the grey, oily water and the willow trees. It was too late in the year, he thought, to make a bathing place. He dipped his hand in the water: it was cold, but not too cold. Yet in a fortnight's time it would not be pleasant to bathe. However, people had their whims, and he mused on the scheme of the universe which ordained that certain people should have whims, and that others should humour those whims whether they liked it or not. Many people—many of his fellow-workers—talked of the day when the universal levelling would take place and when all men could be equal. Petrushka did not much believe in the advent of that day; he was not quite sure whether he ardently desired it; in any case, he was very happy as he was.
At that moment he heard two sharp short sounds, less musical than a pipe and not so loud or harsh as a scream. He looked up. A kingfisher had flown across the oily water. Petrushka shouted; and the kingfisher skimmed over the water once more and disappeared in the trees on the other side of the river. Petrushka rolled and lit another cigarette. Presently he heard the two sharp sounds once more, and the kingfisher darted again across the water: a bit of fish was in its beak. It disappeared into the bank of the river on the same side on which Petrushka was sitting, only lower down.
"Its nest must be there," thought Petrushka, and he remembered that he had heard it said that no one had ever been able to carry off a kingfisher's nest intact. Why should he not be the first person to do so? He was skilful with his fingers, his touch was sure and light. It was evidently a carpenter's job, and few carpenters had the leisure or opportunity to look for kingfishers' nests. What a rare present it would be for Tatiana—a whole kingfisher's nest with every bone in it intact.
He walked stealthily through the bushes down the bank of the river, making as little noise as possible. He thought he had marked the spot where the kingfisher had dived into the bank. As he walked, the undergrowth grew thicker and the path darker, for he had reached the wood, on the outskirts and end of which was the spot where he had made the steps. He walked on and on without thinking, oblivious of his surroundings, until he suddenly realised that he had gone too far. Moreover, he must have been walking for some time, for it was getting dark, or was it a thunder-shower? The air, too, was unbearably sultry; he stopped and wiped his forehead with a big print handkerchief. It was impossible to reach the bank from the place where he now stood, as he was separated from it by a wide ditch of stagnant water. He therefore retraced his footsteps through the wood. It grew darker and darker; it must be, he thought, the evening deepening and no storm.
All at once he started; he had heard a sound, a high pipe. Was it the kingfisher? He paused and listened. Distinctly, and not far off in the undergrowth, he heard a laugh, a woman's laugh. It flashed across his mind that it might be Tatiana, but it was not her laugh. Something rustled in the bushes to the left of him; he followed the rustling and it led him through the bushes—he had now passed the ditch—to the river bank. The sun had set behind the woods from which he had just emerged; the sky was as grey as the water, and there was no reflection of the sunset in the east. Except the water and the trees he saw nothing; there was not a sound to be heard, not a ripple on the river, not a whisper from the woods.
Then all at once the stillness was broken again by quick rippling laughs immediately behind him. He turned sharply round, and saw a woman in the bushes: her eyes were large and green and sad; her hair straggling and dishevelled; she was dressed in reeds and leaves; she was very pale. She stared at him fixedly, and smiled, showing gleaming teeth, and when she smiled there was no light nor laughter in her eyes, which remained sad and green and glazed like those of a drowned person. She laughed again and ran into the bushes. Petrushka ran after her, but although he was quite close to her he lost all trace of her immediately. It was as if she had vanished under the earth or into the air.
"It's a Russalka," thought Petrushka, and he shivered. Then he added to himself, with the pride of the new scepticism he had learnt from the factory hands: "There is no such thing; only women believe in such things. It was some drunken woman."
Petrushka walked quickly back to the edge of the wood, where he had left his cart, and drove home. The next day was Sunday, and Tatiana noticed that he was different—moody, melancholy, and absent-minded. She asked him what was the matter; he said his head ached. Towards five o'clock he told her—they were standing outside her cottage—that he was obliged to go to the river to work.
"To-day is holiday," she said quietly.
"I left something there yesterday: one of my tools. I must fetch it," he explained.
Tatiana looked at him, and her intuition told her, firstly, that this was not true, and, secondly, that it was not well for Petrushka to go to the river. She begged him not to go. Petrushka laughed and said he would be back quickly. Tatiana cried, and implored him on her knees not to go. Then Petrushka grew irritable and almost rough, and told her not to vex him with foolishness. Reluctantly and sadly she gave in at last.
Petrushka went to the river, and Tatiana watched him go with a heavy heart. She felt quite certain some disaster was about to happen.
At seven o'clock Petrushka had not yet returned, and he did not return that night. The next morning the carpenter and two others went to the river to look for him. They found his body in the shallow water, entangled in the ropes of the raft he had made. He had been drowned, no doubt, in setting the raft straight.
During all that Sunday night, Tatiana had said no word, nor had she moved from her doorstep: it was only when they brought back the dripping body to the village that she stirred, and when she saw it she laughed a dreadful laugh, and the spirit went from her eyes, leaving a fixed stare.
THE OLD WOMAN
The old woman was spinning at her wheel near a fire of myrtle boughs which burnt fragrantly in the open yard. Through the stone columns the sea was visible, smooth, dark, and blue; the low sun bathed the brown hills of the coast in a golden mist. It was December. The shepherds were driving home their flocks, the work of the day was done, and a noise of light laughter and rippling talk came from the Slaves' quarter.
In the middle of the stone-flagged yard two little boys were playing at quoits. Their eyes and hair were as dark as their brown skin, which had been tanned by the sun. In one of the corners of the yard a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl was nursing a kitten and singing it to sleep. The old woman was singing too, or rather humming a tune to herself as she turned her wheel. She was very old: her hair was white and silvery, and her face was furrowed by a hundred wrinkles. Her eyes were blue as the sky, and perhaps they had once been full of fire and laughter, but all that had been quenched and washed out long ago, and Time, with his noiseless chisel, had sharpened her delicate features and hollowed out her cheeks, which were as white as ivory. But her hands as they twisted the wood were the hands of a young woman, and seemed as though they had been fashioned by a rare craftsman, so perfect were they in shape and proportion, as firm as carved marble, as delicate as flowers.
The sun sank behind the hills of the coast, and a flood of scarlet light spread along the West just above them, melting higher up into orange, and still higher into a luminous blue, which turned to green later as the evening deepened. The air was cool and sharp, and the little boys, who had finished their game, drew near to the fire.
"Tell us a story," said the elder of the two boys, as they curled themselves up at the feet of the old woman.
"You know all my stories," she said.
"That doesn't matter," said the boy. "You can tell us an old one."
"Well," said the old woman, "I suppose I must. There was once upon a time a King and a Queen who had three sons and one daughter." At the sound of these words the little girl ran up and nestled in the folds of the old woman's long cloak.
"No, not that one," one of the little boys interrupted, "tell us about the Queen without a heart." So the old woman began and said:—
"There was once upon a time a King and a Queen who had one daughter, and they invited all the gods and goddesses to the feast which they gave in honour of the birth of their child. The gods and goddesses came and gave the child every gift they could think of; she was to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world, she was to dance like the West wind, to laugh like the stream, and to sing like the lark. Her hair should be made of sunshine, and her eyes should be as the sea in midsummer. She should excel in all things, in knowledge, in wit, and in skill; she should be fleet of foot, a cunning harp-player, adept at all manner of woman-like crafts, and deft with the needle and the spinning-wheel, and at the loom. Zeus himself gave her stateliness and majesty, the Lord of the Sun gave a voice as of a golden flute; Poseidon gave her the laughter of all the waves of the sea, the King of the Underworld gave her a red ruby to wear on her breast more precious than all the gems of the world. Artemis gave her swiftness and radiance, Persephone the fragrance and the freshness of all the flowers of spring; Pallas Athene gave her curious knowledge and pleasant speech; and, lastly, the Seaborn Goddess breathed upon her and gave her the beauty of the rose, the pearl, the dew, and the shells and the foam of the sea. But, alas! the King and Queen had forgotten to ask one guest. The Goddess of Envy and Discord had been left out, and she came unbidden, and when all the gods and goddesses had given their gifts, she said: 'I too have a gift to give, a gift that will be more precious to her than any. I will give her a heart that shall be proof against all the onsets of the world.' So saying the Goddess of Envy took away the child's heart and put in its place a heart of stone, hard as adamant, bright and glittering as a gem. And the Goddess of Envy went her way mocking. The King and Queen were greatly concerned, and they asked the gods and goddesses whether their daughter would ever recover her human heart. They were told that the Goddess of Envy would be obliged to give back the child's heart to the man who loved her enough to seek and to find it, and this would surely happen; but when and how it was forbidden to them to reveal.
"The child grew up and became the wonder of the world. She was married to a powerful King, and they lived in peace and plenty until the Goddess of Envy once more troubled the child's life. For owing to her subtle planning a Prince was promised for wife the fairest woman in the world, and he took the wife of the powerful King and carried her away to Asia to the six-gated city. The King prepared a host of ships and armed men and sailed to Asia to win back his wife. And he and his army fought for ten years until the six-gated city was taken, and he brought his wife home once more. Now during all the time the war lasted, although the whole world was filled with the fame of the King's wife and of her beauty, there was not found one man who was willing to seek for her heart and to find it, for some gave no credence to the tale, and others, believing it, reasoned that the quest might last a life-time, and that by the time they accomplished it the King's wife would be an old woman, and there would be fairer women in the world. Others, again, could not believe that in so perfect a woman there could be any fault; they vowed her heart must be one with her matchless beauty, and they said that even if the tale were true, they preferred to worship her as she was, and they would not have her be otherwise or changed by a hair's breadth for all the world. Some, indeed, did set out upon the quest, but abandoned it soon from weariness and returned to bask in the beauty of the great Queen.
"The years went by. The Queen journeyed to Egypt, to the mountains of the South, and the cities of the desert; to the Pillars of Hercules and to the islands of the West. Wherever she went her fame spread like fire, and men fought and died for a glimpse of her marvellous beauty; and wherever she passed she left behind her strife and sorrow like a burning trail. After many voyages she returned home and lived prosperously. The King her husband died, her children grew up and married and bore children themselves, and she continued to live peacefully in her palace. Her fame and her glory brought her neither joy nor sorrow, nor did she heed the spell that she cast on the hearts of men.
"One day a harp-player came to her palace and sang and played before her; he made music so ravishing and so sad that all who heard him wept save the Queen, who listened and smiled, listless and indifferent. But her smile filled him with such a passion of wonder and worship that he resolved to rest no more until he had found her heart, for he knew the tale. So he sought the whole world over in vain; and for years and years he roamed the world fruitlessly. At last one day in a far country he found a little bird in a trap and he set it free, and in return the bird promised him that he should find the Queen's heart. All he had to do was to go home and to seek the Queen's palace. So the harper went home to the Queen's palace, and when he reached it he found the Queen had grown old; her hair was grey and there were lines on her cheek. But she smiled on him, and he knelt down before her, for he loved her more than ever, and to him she was as beautiful as ever she had been. At that moment, for the first time in her life the Queen's eyes filled with tears, for her heart had been given back to her. And that is all the story."
"And what happened to the harper?" asked one of the little boys.
"He lived in the palace and played to the Queen till he died."
"And is the story true?" asked the other little boy.
"Yes," said the old woman, "quite true."
The boys jumped up and kissed the old woman, and the elder of them, growing pensive, said:—
"Grandmother, were you ever young yourself?"
"Yes, my child," said the old woman, smiling, "I was once young—a very long time ago."
She got up, for the twilight had come and it was almost dark. She walked into the house, and as she rose she was neither bowed nor bent, but she trod the ground with a straightness which was not stiff but full of grace, and she moved royally like a goddess. As she walked past the smoking flames the children noticed that large tears were welling from her eyes and trickling down her faded cheek.
DR. FAUST'S LAST DAY
The Doctor got up at dawn, as was his wont, and as soon as he was dressed he sat down at his desk in his library overlooking the sea, and immersed himself in the studies which were the lodestar of his existence. His hours were mapped out with rigid regularity like those of a school-boy, and his methodical life worked as though by clockwork. He rose at dawn and read without interruption until eight o'clock. He then partook of some light food (he was a strict vegetarian), after which he walked in the garden of his house, overlooking the Bay of Naples, until ten. From ten to twelve he received sick people, peasants from the village, or any visitors that needed his advice or his company. At twelve he ate a frugal meal. From one o'clock until three he enjoyed a siesta. At three he resumed his studies, which continued without interruption until six when he partook of a second meal. At seven he took another stroll in the village or by the seashore and remained out of doors until nine. He then withdrew into his study, and at midnight went to bed.
It was, perhaps, the extreme regularity of his life, combined with the strict diet which he observed, that accounted for his good health. This day was his seventieth birthday, and his body was as vigorous and his mind as alert as they had been in his fortieth year. His thick hair and beard were scarcely grey, and the wrinkles on his white, thoughtful face were rare. Yet the Doctor, when questioned as to the secret of his youthfulness, being like many learned men fond of a paradox, used to reply that diet and regularity had nothing to do with it, and that the Southern sun and the climate of the Neapolitan coast, which he had chosen among all places to be the abode of his old age, were in reality responsible for his excellent health.
"I lead a regular life," he used to say, "not in order to keep well, but in order to get through my work. Unless my hours were mapped out regularly I should be the prey of every idler in the place and I should never get any work done at all."
On this day, as it was his seventieth birthday, the Doctor had asked a few friends to share his mid-day meal, and when he returned from his morning stroll he sent for his housekeeper to give her a few final instructions. The housekeeper, who was a voluble Italian peasant-woman, after receiving his orders, handed him a piece of paper on which a few words were scrawled in reddish-brown ink, saying it had been left by a Signore.
"What Signore?" asked the Doctor, as he perused the document, which consisted of words in the German tongue to the effect that the writer regretted his absence from the Doctor's feast, but would call at midnight. It was not signed.
"He was a Signore, like all Signores," said the housekeeper; "he just left the letter and went away."
The Doctor was puzzled, and in spite of much cross-examination he was unable to extract anything more beyond the fact that he was a "Signore."
"Shall I lay one place less?" asked the housekeeper.
"Certainly not," said the Doctor. "All my guests will be present." And he threw the piece of paper on the table.
The housekeeper left the room, but she had not been gone many minutes before she returned and said that Maria, the wife of the late Giovanni, the baker, wished to speak to him. The Doctor nodded, and Maria burst into the room, sobbing.
When her tears had somewhat subsided she told her story in broken sentences. Her daughter, Margherita, who was seventeen years old, had been allowed to spend the summer at Sorrento with her late father's sister. There, it appeared, she had met a "Signore," who had given her jewels, made love to her, promised her marriage, and held clandestine meetings with her. Her aunt professed now to have been unaware of this; but Maria assured the Doctor that her sister-in-law, who had the evil eye and had more than once trafficked with Satan, must have had knowledge of the business, even if she were not directly responsible, which was highly probable. In the meantime Margherita's brother Anselmo had returned from the wars in the North, and, discovering the truth, had sworn to kill the Signore unless he married Margherita.
"And what do you wish me to do?" asked the Doctor, after he had listened to the story.
"Anything, anything," she answered, "only calm my son Anselmo or else there will be a disaster."
"Who is the Signore?" asked the Doctor.
"The Conte Guido da Siena," she answered.
The Doctor reflected a moment, and then said: "I will see what can be done. The matter can be arranged. Send your son to me later." And then, after scolding Maria for not having taken proper care of her daughter, he sent her away.
As he did so he caught sight of the dirty piece of paper on his table. For one second he had the impression that the letters on it were written in blood, and he shivered, but the momentary hallucination and sense of discomfort passed immediately.
At mid-day the guests arrived. They consisted of Dr. Cornelius, Vienna's most learned scholar; Taddeo Mainardi, the painter; a Danish student from the University of Wittenberg; a young English nobleman, who was travelling in Italy; and Guido da Siena, philosopher and poet, who was said to be the handsomest man in Italy. The Doctor set before his guests a precious wine from Cyprus, in which he toasted them, although as a rule he drank only water. The meal was served in the cool loggia overlooking the bay, and the talk, which was of the men and books of many climes, flowed like a rippling stream on which the sunshine of laughter lightly played.
The student asked the Doctor whether in Italy men of taste took any interest in the recent experiments of a French Huguenot, who professed to be able to send people into a trance. Moreover, the patient when in the trance, so it was alleged, was able to act as a bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds, and the dead could be summoned and made to speak through the unconscious patient.
"We take no thought of such things here," said the Doctor. "In my youth, when I studied in the North, experiments of that nature exercised a powerful sway over my mind. I dabbled in alchemy; I tried and indeed considered that I succeeded in raising spirits and visions; but two things are necessary for such a study: youth, and the mists of the Northern country. Here the generous sun kills such phantasies. There are no phantoms here. Moreover, I am convinced that in all such experiments success depends on the state of mind of the inquirer, which not only persuades, but indeed compels itself by a strange magnetic quality to see the vision it desires. In my youth I considered that I had evoked visions of Satan and Helen of Troy, and what not—such things are fit for the young. We greybeards have more serious things to occupy us, and when a man has one foot in the grave, he has no time to waste."
"To my mind," said the painter, "this world has sufficient beauty and mystery to satisfy the most ardent inquirer."
"But," said the Englishman, "is not this world a phantom and a dream as insubstantial as the visions of the ardent mind?"
"Men and women are the only study fit for a man," interrupted Guido, "and as for the philosopher's stone I have found it. I found it some months ago in a garden at Sorrento. It is a pearl radiant with all the hues of the rainbow."
"With regard to that matter," said the Doctor, "we will have some talk later. The wench's brother has returned from the war. We must find her a husband."
"You misunderstand me," said Guido. "You do not think I am going to throw my precious pearl to the swine? I have sworn to wed Margherita, and wed her I shall, and that swiftly."
"Such an act of folly would only lead," said the Doctor, "to your unhappiness and to hers. It is the selfish act of a fool. You must not think of it."
"Ah!" said Guido, "you are young at seventy, Doctor, but you were old at twenty-five, and you cannot know what these things mean."
"I was young in my day," said the Doctor, "and I found many such pearls; believe me, they are all very well in their native shell. To move them is to destroy their beauty."
"You do not understand," said Guido. "I have loved countless times; but she is different. You never felt the revelation of the real, true thing that is different from all the rest and transforms a man's life."
"No," said the Doctor, "I confess that to me it was always the same thing." And for the second time that day the Doctor shivered, he knew not why.
Soon after the meal was over the guests departed, and although the Doctor detained Guido and endeavoured to persuade him to listen to the voice of reason and commonsense, his efforts were in vain. Guido had determined to wed Margherita.
"Besides which, if I left her now, I should bring shame and ruin on her," he said.
The Doctor started—a familiar voice seemed to whisper in his ear: "She is not the first one." A strange shudder passed through him, and he distinctly heard a mocking voice laughing. "Go your way," he said, "but do not come and complain to me if you bring unhappiness on yourself and her."
Guido departed and the Doctor retired to enjoy his siesta.
For the first time during all the years he had lived at Naples the Doctor was not able to sleep. "This and the hallucinations I have suffered from to-day come from drinking that Cyprus wine," he said to himself.
He lay in the darkened room tossing uneasily on his bed and sleep would not come to him. Stranger still, before his eyes fiery letters seemed to dance before him in the air. At seven o'clock he went out into the garden. Never had he beheld a more glorious evening. He strolled down towards the seashore and watched the sunset. Mount Vesuvius seemed to have dissolved into a rosy haze; the waves of the sea were phosphorescent. A fisherman was singing in his boat. The sky was an apocalypse of glory and peace.
The Doctor sighed and watched the pageant of light until it faded and the stars lit up the magical blue darkness. Then out of the night came another song—a song which seemed familiar to the Doctor, although for the moment he could not place it, about a King in the Northern Country who was faithful to the grave and to whom his dying mistress a golden beaker gave.
"Strange," thought the Doctor, "it must come from some Northern fishing smack," and he went home.
He sat reading in his study until midnight, and for the first time in thirty years he could not fix his mind on his book. For the vision of the sunset and the song of the Northern fisherman, which in some unaccountable way brought back to him the days of his youth, kept on surging up in his mind.
Twelve o'clock struck. He rose to go to bed, and as he did so he heard a loud knock at the door.
"Come in," said the Doctor, but his voice faltered ("the Cyprus wine again!" he thought), and his heart beat loudly.
The door opened and an icy draught blew into the room. The visitor beckoned, but spoke no word, and Doctor Faust rose and followed him into the outer darkness.
THE FLUTE-PLAYER'S STORY
There is a village in the South of England not far from the sea, which possesses a curious inn called "The Green Tower." Why it is called thus, nobody knows. This inn must in days gone by have been the dwelling of some well-to-do squire, but nothing now remains of its former prosperity, except the square grey tower, partially covered with ivy, from which it takes its name. The inn stands on the roadside, on the brow of a hill, and at the top of the tower there is a room with four large windows, whence you can see all over the wooded country. The ex-Prime Minister of a foreign state, who had been driven from office and home by a revolution, happening to pass the night in the inn and being of an eccentric disposition, was so much struck with this room that he secured it, together with two bedrooms, permanently for himself. He determined to spend the rest of his life here, and as he was within certain limits not unsociable, he invited his friends to come and stay with him on any Saturday they pleased, without giving him notice.
Thus it happened that of a Saturday and Sunday there was nearly always a mixed gathering of men at "The Green Tower", and after they had dined they would sit in the tower room and drink old Southern wines from the ex-Prime Minister's country, and talk, or tell each other stories. But the ex-Prime Minister made it a stringent rule that at least one guest should tell one story during his stay, for while he had been Prime Minister a Court official had been in his service whose only duty it was to tell him a story every evening, and this was the only thing he regretted of all his former privileges.
On this particular Sunday, besides myself, the clerk, the flute-player, the wine merchant (the friends of the ex-Prime Minister were exceedingly various), and the scholar were present. They were smoking in the tower room. It was summer, and the windows were wide open. Every inch of wall which was not occupied by the windows was crowded with books. The clerk was turning over the leaves of the ex-Prime Minister's stamp collection (which was magnificent), the flute-player was reading the score of Handel's flute sonatas (which was rare), the scholar was reading a translation in Latin hexameters of the "Ring and the Book" (which the ex-Prime Minister has written in his spare moments), and the wine merchant was drinking generously of a curious red wine, which was very old.
"I think," said the ex-Prime Minister, "that the flute-player has never yet told us a story."
The guests knew that this hint was imperative, and so putting away the score, the flute-player said: "My story is called, 'The Fiddler.'" And he began:—
"This happened a long time ago in one of the German-speaking countries of the Holy Roman Empire. There was a Count who lived in a large castle. He was rich, powerful, and the owner of large lands. He had a wife, and one daughter, who was dazzlingly beautiful, and she was betrothed to the eldest son of a neighbouring lord. When I say betrothed, I mean that her parents had arranged the marriage. She herself—her name was Elisinde—had had no voice in the matter, and she disliked, or rather loathed, her future husband, who was boorish, sullen, and ill-tempered; he cared for nothing except hunting and deep drinking, and had nothing to recommend him but his ducats and his land. But it was quite useless for Elisinde to cry or protest. Her parents had settled the marriage and it was to be. She understood this herself very well.
"All the necessary preparations for the wedding, which was to be held on a splendid scale, were made. There was to be a whole week of feasting; and tumblers and musicians came from distant parts of the country to take part in the festivities and merry-making. In the village, which was close to the castle, a fair was held, and the musicians, tumblers, and mountebanks, who had thronged to it, performed in front of the castle walls for the amusement of the Count's guests.
"Among these strolling vagabonds was a fiddler who far excelled all the others in skill. He drew the most ravishing tones from his instrument, which seemed to speak in trills as liquid as those of the nightingale, and in accents as plaintive as those of a human voice. And one of the inmates of the castle was so much struck by the performance of this fiddler that he told the Count of it, and the fiddler was commanded to come and play at the Castle, after the banquet which was to be held on the eve of the wedding. The banquet took place in great pomp and solemnity, and lasted for many hours. When it was over the fiddler was summoned to the large hall and bidden to play before the Lords and Ladies.
"The fiddler was a strange looking, tall fellow with unkempt fair hair, and eyes that glittered like gold; but as he was dressed in tattered uncouth rags (and they were his best too) he cut an extraordinary and almost ridiculous figure amongst that splendid jewelled gathering. The guests tittered when they saw him. But as soon as he began to play, their tittering ceased, for never had they heard such music.
"He played—in view of the festive occasion—a joyous melody. And, as he played, the air seemed full of sunlight, and the smell of wine vats and the hum of bees round ripe fruit. The guests could not keep still in their places, and at last the Count gave orders for a general dance. The hall was cleared, and soon all the guests were breathlessly dancing to the divine lilt of the fiddler's melody. All except Elisinde who, when her betrothed came forward to lead her to the dance, pleaded fatigue, and remained seated in her chair, pale and distraught, and staring at the fiddler. This did not, to tell the truth, displease her betrothed, who was a clumsy dancer and had no ear for music. Breathless at last with exhaustion the guests begged the untiring fiddler to pause while they rested for a moment to get their breath.
"And while they were resting the fiddler played another tune. This time it was a sad tune: a low, soft tune, liquid and lovely as a human voice. A great hush came on the company. It seemed as if after the heat and splendour of a summer's day the calm of evening had fallen; the quiet of the dusk, when the moon rises in the sky, still faintly yellow in the west with the ebb of sunset, and pours on the stiff cornfields its cool, silvery frost; and the trees quiver, as though they felt the freshness and were relieved, and a breeze comes, almost imperceptible and not strong enough to shake the boughs, from the sea; and a bird, hidden somewhere in the leaves, sings a throbbing song.
"Everyone was spellbound, but none so much as Elisinde. The music seemed to be speaking straight to her, to pierce the very core of her heart. It was an inarticulate language which she understood better than any words. She heard a lonely spirit crying out to her, that it understood her sorrow and shared her pain. And large tears poured down her cheeks.
"The fiddler stopped playing, and for a moment or two no one spoke. At last Elisinde's betrothed gave a great yawn, and the spell was broken.
"'You play very well—very well, indeed,' said the Count.
"'But that sad music is, I think, rather out of place to-day,' said the Countess.
"'Yes, let us have another cheerful tune,' said the Count.
"The fiddler struck up once more and played another dance. This time there was an almost elfish magic in his melody. It took you captive; it was irresistible; it called and commanded and compelled; you longed to follow, follow, anywhere, over the hills, over the sea, to the end of the world.
"Elisinde rose from her chair as though the spirit of the music beckoned her, but looking round she saw no partner to her taste. She sat down again and stared at the fiddler. His eyes were fixed on her, and as she looked at him his squalor and rags seemed to fade away and his blue eyes that glittered like gold seemed to grow larger, and his hair to grow brighter till it shone like fire. And he seemed to be caught in a rosy cloud of light: tall, splendid, young, and glowing like a god.