Story type: Literature
When the Grand Duke Ferdinand of Carinthia travelled in state to wed the Princess Sophia of Ysselmonde, he did so by land, and for two reasons; the first being that this was the shortest way, and the second that he possessed no ships. These, at any rate, were the reasons alleged by his Chancellor, to whom he left all arrangements. For himself, he took very little interest in the marriage beyond inquiring the age of his bride. “Six years,” was the answer, and this seemed to him very young, for he had already passed his tenth birthday.
The Pope, however, had contrived and blessed the match; so Ferdinand raised no serious objection, but in due course came to Ysselmonde with his bodyguard of the famous Green Carinthian Archers, and two hundred halberdiers and twelve waggons–four to carry his wardrobe, and the remaining eight piled with wedding presents. On the way, while Ferdinand looked for birds’ nests, the Chancellor sang the praises of the Princess Sophia, who (he declared) was more beautiful than the day. “But you have never seen her,” objected Ferdinand. “No, your Highness, and that is why I contented myself with a purely conventional phrase;” and the Chancellor, who practised finesse in his odd moments, began to talk of the sea, the sight of which awaited them at Ysselmonde. “And what is the sea like?” “Well, your Highness, the sea is somewhat difficult to describe, for in fact there is nothing to compare with it.” “You have seen it, I suppose?” “Sire, I have done more; for once, while serving as Ambassador at Venice, I had the honour to be upset in it.”
With such converse they beguiled the road until they reached Ysselmonde, and found the sea completely hidden by flags and triumphal arches. And there, after three days’ feasting, the little Grand Duke and the still smaller Princess were married in the Cathedral by the Cardinal Archbishop, and the Pope’s legate handed them his master’s blessing in a morocco-covered case, and as they drove back to the Palace the Dutchmen waved their hats and shouted “Boo-mp!” but the Carinthian Archers cried “Talassio!” which not only sounded better, but proved (when they obligingly explained what it meant) that the ancestors of the Grand Duke of Carinthia had lived in Rome long before any Pope.
On reaching the Palace the bride and bridegroom were taken to a gilded drawing-room, and there left to talk together, while the guests filled up the time before the banquet by admiring the presents and calculating their cost. Ferdinand said, “Well, that’s over;” and the Princess said, “Yes,”–for this was their first opportunity of conversing alone.
“You’re a great deal better than I expected,” said Ferdinand reassuringly. Indeed, in her straight dress sewn with seed-pearls and her coif of Dutch lace surmounted with a little crown of diamonds, the Princess looked quite beautiful; and he in his white satin suit, crossed with the blue ribbon of St. John Nepomuc, was the handsomest boy she had ever seen. “Besides,” he added, “my Chancellor says you are hereditary High Admiral of the Ocean–it’s in the marriage settlement; and that would make up for a lot. Where is it?”
“The Ocean?” She felt very shy still. “I have never seen it, but I believe it’s somewhere at the bottom of the garden.”
“Suppose we go and have a look at it?” She was about to say that she must ask leave of her governess, but he looked so masterful and independent that she hadn’t the courage. It gave her quite a thrill as he took her hand and led her out through the low window to the great stone terrace. They passed down the terrace steps into a garden ablaze with tulip beds in geometrical patterns; at the foot ran a yew hedge, and beyond it, in a side-walk, they came upon a scullion boy chasing a sulphur-yellow butterfly. The Grand Duke forgot his fine manners, and dropped his bride’s hand to join in the chase; but the boy no sooner caught sight of him than he fled with a cry of dismay and popped into an arbour. There, a minute later, the bride and bridegroom found him stooping over a churn and stirring with might and main.
“What are you stirring, boy?” asked Ferdinand.
“Praised be the Virgin!” said the boy, “I believe it’s an ice-pudding for the banquet. But they shouldn’t have put the ice-puddings in the same arbour as the fireworks; for, if your Highness will allow me to say so, you can’t expect old heads on young shoulders.”
“Are the fireworks in our honour too?”
“Why, of course,” the scullion answered; “everything is in your honour to-day.”
This simplified matters wonderfully. The children passed on through a gate in the garden wall and came upon a clearing beside a woodstack; and there stood a caravan with its shafts in the air. A woman sat on the tilt at the back, reading, and every now and then glancing towards two men engaged in deadly combat in the middle of the clearing, who shouted as they thrust at one another with long swords.
The little Princess, who, except when driven in her state-coach to the Cathedral, had never before strayed outside the garden, turned very pale and caught at her husband’s hand. But he stepped forward boldly.
“Now yield thee, caitiff, or thine hour has come!” shouted one of the fighters and flourished his blade.
“Sooner I’ll die than tum te tum te tum!” the other answered quite as fiercely.
“Slave of thine become,” said the woman from the caravan.
“Thank you. Sooner I’ll die than slave of thine become!” He laid about him with fresh vigour.
“Put down your swords,” commanded Ferdinand.
“And now tell me who you are.”
“We are Valentine and Orson,” they answered.
“Indeed?” Ferdinand had heard of them, and shook hands affably. “Then I’m very glad to make your acquaintance.”
“And,” said they, “we are rehearsing for the performance at the Palace to-night in your Highnesses’ honour.”
“Oh, so this is in our honour too?”
“To be sure,” said the woman; “and I am to dress up as Hymen and speak the Epilogue in a saffron robe. It has some good lines; for instance–“
‘Ye Loves and Genial Hours, conspire
To gratify this Royal Pair
With Sons impetuous as their Sire,
And Daughters as their Mother fair!’
“Thank you,” said Ferdinand. “But we are very busy to-day and must take one thing at a time. Can you tell us the way to the sea, please?”
The woman pointed along a path which led to a moss-covered gate and an orchard where the apple-blossom piled itself in pink clouds against the blue sky: as they followed the path they heard her laughing, and looked back to see her still staring after them and laughing merrily, while Valentine and Orson leaned on their swords and laughed too.
The orchard was the prettiest in the whole world. Blackbirds played hide-and-seek beneath the boughs, blue and white violets hid in the tall grass around the boles, and the spaces between were carpeted with daisies to the edge of a streamlet. Over the streamlet sang thrushes and goldfinches and bull-finches innumerable, and their voices shook down the blossom like a fall of pink snow, which threatened to cover even the daisies. The Grand Duke and the Princess believed that all this beauty was in their honour, no less than the chorus of the bells floating across the tree-tops from the city.
“This is the best of all,” said Ferdinand as they seated themselves by the stream. “I had no idea marriage was such fun. And they haven’t even forgotten the trout!” he cried, peering over the brink.
“Can you make daisy-chains?” asked the Princess timidly.
He could not; so she taught him, feeling secretly proud that there was something he could learn of her. When the chain was finished he flung it over his neck and kissed her. “Though I don’t like kissing, as a rule,” he explained.
“And this shall be my wedding present,” said she.
“Why, I brought you six waggon-loads!–beauties–all chosen by my Chancellor.”
“But he didn’t make or choose this one,” said Sophia, “and I like this one best.” They sat silent for a moment. “Dear me,” she sighed, “what a lot we have to learn of each other’s ways!”
“Hullo!” Ferdinand was staring down the glade. “What’s that line at the end there, across the sky?”
Sophia turned. “I think that’s the sea–yes, there is a ship upon it.”
“But why have they hung a blue cloth in front of it?”
“I expect that’s in our honour too.”
They took hands and trotted to the end of the orchard; and there, beyond the hedge, ran a canal, and beyond the canal a wide flat country stretched away to the sea,–a land dotted with windmills and cattle and red-and-white houses with weathercocks,–a land, too, criss-crossed with canals, whereon dozens of boats, and even some large ships, threaded their way like dancers in and out of the groups of cattle, or sailed past a house so closely as almost to poke a bowsprit through the front door. The weather-cocks spun and glittered, the windmills waved their arms, the boats bowed and curtseyed to the children. Never was such a salutation. Even the blue cloth in the distance twinkled, and Ferdinand saw at a glance that it was embroidered with silver.
But the finest flash of all came from a barge moored in the canal just below them, where a middle-aged woman sat scouring a copper pan.
“Good-day!” cried Ferdinand across the hedge. “Why are you doing that?”
“Why, in honour of the wedding, to be sure. ‘Must show one’s best at such times, if only for one’s own satisfaction.” Then, as he climbed into view and helped Sophia over the hedge, she recognised them, and, dropping her pan with a clatter, called on the saints to bless them and keep them always. The bridal pair clambered down to the towpath, and from the towpath to her cabin, where she fed them (for they were hungry by this time) with bread and honey from a marvellous cupboard painted all over with tulips: in short, they enjoyed themselves immensely.
“Only,” said Ferdinand, “I wish they hadn’t covered up the sea, for I wanted a good look at it.”
“The sea?” said the barge-woman, all of a shiver. Then she explained that her two sons had been drowned in it. “Though, to be sure,” said she, “they died for your Majesty’s honour, and, if God should give them back to me, would do so again.”
“For me?” exclaimed Sophia, opening her eyes very wide.
“Ay, to be sure, my dear. So it’s no wonder–eh?–that I should love you.”
By the time they said good-bye to her and hurried back through the orchard, a dew was gathering on the grass and a young moon had poised herself above the apple-boughs. The birds here were silent; but high on the stone terrace, when they reached it, a solitary one began to sing. From the bright windows facing the terrace came the clatter of plates and glasses, with loud outbursts of laughter. But this bird had chosen his station beneath a dark window at the corner, and sang there unseen. It was the nightingale.
They could not understand what he sang. “It is my window,” whispered Sophia, and began to weep in the darkness, without knowing why; for she was not miserable in the least, but, on the contrary, very, very happy. They listened, hand in hand, by a fountain on the terrace. Through the windows they could see the Papal legate chatting at table with the King, Sophia’s father, and the Chancellor hobnobbing with the Cardinal Archbishop. Only the Queen of Ysselmonde sat at the table with her wrists on the arms of her throne and her eyes looking out into the darkness, as though she caught some whisper of the bird’s song. But the children knew that he sang for them, not for her; for he told of all the adventures of the day, and he told not as I am telling them, but so beautifully that the heart ached to hear. Yet his song was of two words only. “Young–young–young! Love love–love!”–the same words over and over.
A courtier came staggering out from the banqueting-hall, and the bird flew away. The children standing by the fountain watched him as he found the water and dipped his face in it, with a groan. He was exceedingly drunk; but as he lifted his head he caught sight of them in the moonlight and excused himself.
“In your Highnesses’ honour,” he assured them: “‘been doing my best.”
“Poor man!” said Sophia. “But how loyal!”