Wagner - The Love Potion

( Originally Published 1894 )

THERE was a beautiful moon and everybody said it was a pity to have it wasted. So indeed it was, and everybody asked everybody else what we should do to prevent its being wasted. A few, who had made the best possible use of more moons than the rest of us, were in favor of simply sitting on the rocks and looking at the moon and the sea under it. That was really not a bad plan at all. When you sit with some-body beside you and the rest of the party not too near, on a high rock that runs far out into the water, and look at the big white moon and the soft colors of the sky around it, and then at the stretch of water, unobstructed to the horizon, with the moon's reflection broken by the waves into a million dancing sparkles, when you turn and look toward the beach, seeing the black surges rolling swiftly up to the shore and then breaking into gleaming foam, but still plunging on, like banks of tumbling snow—then indeed you can think of wonderful things and say wonderful things if you like. But perhaps you may prefer to say nothing at all, and that is a very good and pleasant way too, for at such a time it seems really not quite right to talk unless you can talk in poetry, and that is not easy to do, no matter how much you may feel like doing it.

These people who had made the best of so many moons knew all this, but some of the others thought that this moon was worthy of a greater effort and a more deep-laid plan. All the things that are usually done on moonlight nights were rejected one by one. Then one of those strange persons who are always noticing things said, not at all as if he thought it had anything to do with the subject, that there was an uncommon quantity of wood scattered along the shore. Then it was decided, just because nothing better could be thought of, that there should be a bonfire down on the shore, and nothing else, except the moon. So in the fore-noon the daily bathing party started for the shore a little earlier than usual, and instead of spending our extra time in lying on our backs with the sun in our eyes, in the hope of getting sunburned, we spent it in gathering wood for the fire.

Picking up driftwood for a bonfire is not very easy work, but there were so many of us that we soon had two good piles, one for the fire at the start and one to feed it as it burned. Among the wood there were two whole barrels, and one of them had had tar in it, so we were sure of a splendid fire. Then we all went home, and after it was dark we all came back again. The fire was lighted ; the bright-colored flames of the driftwood played together and grew and streamed up above our heads, crackled and roared and sent up torrents of black smoke mixed with golden sparks. For a little while nobody was tired of feeding it and watching it, but by and by we let a few attend to keeping it up, while the rest of us made a very little fire among the stones and let it quickly die down to a bed of red embers for toasting marsh-mallow drops. The man up at the village who keeps the shop with everything in it, and the post-office, must have a notion that city people live chiefly on marshmallow drops, that is, if he ever lets himself be troubled by any notions except those he keeps to sell.

After that the most of the people strolled away along the shore. Some said they wanted to see how the fire looked from a distance, and others, I think, were trying to get nearer to the moon. At last the little girl and I were left alone. We made cushions of folded coats and shawls, and sat leaning against a big rock, looking at the fire.

" We scarcely need the fire to-night," I said ; " if we try a little we can see pictures through it and all around it, as well as in it. See that big, black rock, that stands almost in the edge of the water, like an old castle, built upon the shore. Then look away across the water to the island over yonder. I see a ship coming from the island toward our shore; perhaps you do not see it yet. As it gets nearer I can see a knight standing in the bow. He is a big, bold, fine-looking fellow, and he is all in black armor. The ship reaches the shore and the knight and his men go toward the castle, where the King lives, while the King and all his court come out to meet him. Some people may tell you, or you may some time find out for yourself, that this King is a very wicked man, mean, cruel, and treacherous. Perhaps he is, but all I can tell you is that now he does not seem so to me; on the contrary he seems as kind and generous as you could wish.

" The knight in the black armor marches proudly up to him and tells him that he has been sent by his brother, the King of the island over there from which he came, to get the tribute which the king here has owed to him for years, and it must be paid, or else the king or some one of his knights must fight with him to see whether it shall be paid or not. The black knight is such a big man and looks like such a good fighter that the men about the King seem to think it would be a pretty good thing to pay the tribute and let him go home with it. Not one of them says a word about wanting to fight with him, for a little while ; but by and by, when all the rest have had a fair chance, a young man comes forward and asks the King if he may try. He is as big a man as the black knight himself, and as handsome and brave looking as any you ever dreamed of seeing, but he is so young that he cannot have fought many battles, and one would think that he would be afraid to set himself against the big black knight, unless one looked at his face, as I do, and saw that he could not possibly be afraid of anything."

"Is he braver than the one that killed the dragon?" the child asked.

Why, no, I suppose not; nobody could be braver than he, because, you know, he could not learn what fear meant, and did not even know whether it was something to feel or some-thing to eat or something to wear, but this young knight is just as brave as there is any need for anybody to be, and when he asks the King to let him try to beat the black knight, all the other knights say at once, 'By all means, let him try,' and they are really quite eager about it, and almost all of them change their minds about giving the tribute. So the King says that he may fight the battle if he will, and he puts on his armor, which is all of green, and mounts his horse.

" The black knight is on his horse too, and they ride far apart and then face each other and hold their long spears before them, ready for the battle. All the people stand far off at the sides, the heralds blow their trumpets, and the two knights run together with all the speed of their horses. The points of their spears are down and they are both well aimed, but each catches the other's spear fairly in the middle of his shield, and they rush together so hard that there is a great crash, and both the knights and both the horses fall to the ground with a terrible clatter of arms. But the knights are both on their feet again in a moment, and are falling upon each other with their swords, cutting and slashing and warding and advancing and retreating, till it is hard to tell which is the black knight and which the green, or whether they are not both black and both green. First one seems to be getting a little the better of the fight and then the other. The black knight is better trained, but the green knight is so much younger and fresher that he keeps his strength better, and by and by the black knight sees that he is surely gaining a little. Then he rushes upon the green knight and fights with all his strength and all his skill, and at last he gives him a wound on the shoulder. Then the green knight sees that if he is ever to do anything in this fight he must do it now, and he uses all his strength and all his skill too, and he brings down such a blow with his sword on the head of the black knight that it cuts through the helmet, and the edge of the sword is broken, and with another clash and clatter of arms the black knight falls to the ground.

" The black knight's men run to him and carry him to his ship, and sail away as quickly as they can toward their island. I can see them all the way, though it is a little dark out there, in spite of the moon, and I can see everything they do after they get there ; I have to, you know, or it would spoil the story. They carry him to the King's castle, and the Queen and her daughter, who know all about medicines, and even some things that are stronger than medicines, dress his wound and nurse him and watch him day and night. But it is all of no use ; nothing can cure the black knight's wound, and so he dies ; but in dressing the wound the princess has found in it a little piece of steel that was broken from the edge of the green knight's sword.

" Now you ought to know, before we go any farther, that this princess is probably altogether the most beautiful princess that you ever heard a story about."

" Oh, that's the way they always are," said the little girl ; " is she beautifuller than the one that had the fire all round her?"

" Perhaps not, but she was not a princess, you know ; she was a goddess till her father kissed her, and then she was nothing at all till her lover came and kissed her, and after that she was a woman, which was altogether the best thing she could possibly be. But when we first saw her she was a goddess, and we have a right to expect more of her than of a princess. So I say again that this is quite the most beautiful princess that you have ever heard a story about, and you must believe it, if you please, or I shall not tell you any more about her."

" Oh, I believe anything you say," said the child, " but where is the green knight ? "

" He is still here on the shore, in the King's castle, and his wound is a very bad one too, and after all the doctors have tried to cure it and have failed, one of them says that it can never be cured at all except in the country of the black knight who gave it to him. Now it is not very safe for the knight to go over to that island, where so many people would probably be glad to kill him for killing the black knight, so he disguises himself as much as he can before he goes. And he goes straight to the King's castle, just as the black knight did, and the Queen and the princess take care of him just as they took care of the black knight, only this time they have better luck, and in a little while he gets well.

" But long before he gets well the princess, who is watching by his side, sees the sword that he brought lying near by, and having nothing better to do, she looks first at the jewels in the hilt and then slowly draws the sword out of its scabbard to let her eye run along the polished blade, with its smooth, sharp edge. And then her eye quickly comes to a break in the smooth, sharp edge, and in an instant she thinks of the splinter of a sword edge that she found in her uncle's wound. At that she quickly drops the sword. Then she gets the splinter, which she has kept, and finds that it just fits the broken place in the sword, so she knows that this knight whom she is nursing and curing of his wound is the one who killed her uncle when he was fighting for her father. For a moment she thinks that she will kill him, and she lifts the sword above him, but when she sees the helpless look in his eyes she has not the heart to do it, and she lets the sword fall again. If the truth were told, I think she is already a little in love with him, and if he were any kind of knight except a green one, he would be in love with her too.

" If he only would fall in love now it might save a good deal of trouble afterwards, but because of his habit of wearing green clothes and green armor, or for some other reason, he does not, and when his wound is quite cured he sails cheerfully away again, just as if it were an everyday affair to be nursed by a queen and a princess. He sails back here to our own shore now, to the King's castle, and the King and every-body else are as glad as possible to see him. He tells them all about the Queen and the princess, and how beautiful she is, for it seems he did notice that, till by and by, when the knights of the court find that he is talking about her only in the way he would talk about a picture that pleased him, they whisper to the King that such a princess, who is so beautiful, and knows so much about curing wounds, would no doubt make a good queen, and they advise him to send for her and marry her. The green knight him-self hears these whispers, and he says, ` Yes, by all means ; I will go and get her ; she will be glad to come, and her father and mother will be de-lighted to have her.' Did you ever hear of such absurd conduct from a young man dressed in green ?

" Away he sails again, over to the island, and when he tells his errand the King and the Queen are delighted indeed. The princess is not so much delighted as some young women might be at the prospect of being married to a king, but she pretends to be very well pleased and says that she will go. This time it is she who makes a sad mistake, for if she would only say, right out aloud, ` I do not want to be married to this King ; I want to be married to the green knight,' again it might save a good deal of trouble afterwards. She need not say it to him, but she might say it to her mother, and if he did not love her the Queen would know very well how to make him, as you shall see by and by. Still, if there were no trouble there would be no story, so we might better not complain, as long as the trouble will not be ours. So the princess sails away with the knight, and the Queen, before she goes, like a careful mother, gives her a little box of medicines such as she uses herself. That is to say, medicines and other things. One of the other things is a poison that kills anybody who drinks it, in just about a minute, and it looks and tastes just like wine. Another is a stranger mixture yet, for when a man and a woman drink it together it makes them, from that instant, love each other as long as they live, more than they love life or honor or their country or anything or anybody else in the world. And this, too, looks and tastes just like wine. It would not be easy to find two more dangerous drinks than these together.

" I see the knight and the princess now on board the ship, coming here to our shore. The knight stands near the helmsman, looking away at the sea and the sky, and thinking of nothing more sensible than how glad his King will be when he sees his bride, and how much his King will thank him for finding for him and bringing to him such a lovely princess. But the princess, who is sitting far away from him, at the other end of the ship, is thinking a great deal, and of such bitter things that she does not look at the beautiful sea and sky at all. The end of half her thoughts is that in a very little while now she will have to be the wife of a king whom she has never seen and never wants to see, because she loves the green knight, and the end of the other half of her thoughts is that she hates the knight who has brought her to this, as she could never in the world hate anybody except one whom she loved.

" And this is how her thoughts come, for you know I can see thoughts just as plainly as I can see castles and ships and battles : she thinks of her uncle, whom she loved, who fought for her father and for her country, who was wounded, and whose life she could not save ; she thinks of the unknown knight who came to her, wounded too, whom she nursed and did save; she thinks how she began to love him, for the most of us love better those whom we help than those who help us ; she thinks of that time when she saw his sword and knew that it was he who had killed her uncle, how her anger rose against him for that and because he had dared to come to her for help, how she had been about to kill him, and how she saw that helpless look in his eyes and had not the heart to do it. It is now that her thoughts grow bitter, for she thinks how he went away again and never dreamed of loving her for healing his wound and saving his life, and then sparing his life and loving him, when she ought to hate him and kill him, because he killed her uncle. She is beautiful enough to be loved, she thinks. Then comes a maddening thought of how this man whom she loved not only cared no more for her than for one of her father's dogs, but himself came back to ask her hand for another. This seems an insult to her and it makes her whole soul burn. She wishes she had killed him when she had his sword in her hands; and the madness fills her mind and burns her soul till she resolves that she will kill him now.

" She not only thinks all this but says it to her maid, and she orders her to take the poison out of the box of medicines that her mother gave her, and put it into a goblet, and she says that the knight shall drink some of it and that she will drink the rest herself, and so punish her enemy and be rid of the King who is to be her husband, for she will gladly die rather than be married to him. Of course this throws the poor maid into a terrible fright, for she is not a princess, and poisoning and cutting off heads, and such things seem like serious matters to her, so she would gladly save the knight and her mistress too, if she could. If you were in her place I know very well what you would do. You would give the princess some wine instead of the poison, and before she could find out what you had done, she and the knight would be on shore and would be saved. But this poor girl is so frightened that she can think of nothing to do but to give her mistress and the knight the love drink instead of the poison.

" The princess calls the knight to her and frowns upon him as dreadfully as she knows how. Can you think how a bunch of sweet, fresh, red and white roses would look if it should get terribly angry ? Well, that is about the way the princess frowns. But it is not her fault. She was not made to frown. She tells the knight that he has been very cruel and very untrue to her, and that she ought to have killed him for killing her uncle ; but now she says she will forgive him, and to show that they are friends she asks him to drink this wine with her. And now you may see how brave this green knight really is, for he sees well enough that she does not forgive him at all and means to kill him ; yet he takes the goblet from her hand without a tremor of his own and drinks. Then she snatches the goblet from him and drinks the rest herself, and cries,

"Now we shall both die ; I have my revenge upon you, and you shall not marry me to your King ! '

" But, oh, it is the drink of love, and instead of dying the two stand and gaze at each other as if they could never gaze enough, then they stretch their arms toward each other, and so they meet, and now, whatever happens to either of them, they must always love each other as long as they live, more than they love life or honor or their country or anything or anybody else in the world.

" How they ever get on shore I don't know, but I do know that when they arc there they make another great mistake, for they hide from the King that they love each other, and they let him think still that the princess means to be married to him, when I am sure she can mean nothing of the kind. He is a very good sort of King, who wants everybody to be as happy as possible, and he never has seen this princess before, so what can he really care for her? If they would only tell him I am sure he would be glad to help them, instead of standing in their way, but they are just as foolish as they have both been all along, and they say nothing about it.

" The princess is in the garden of the castle with her maid and they are waiting for the knight to come. The King and all his men have ridden a-hunting. It is night, and a torch burns at the castle door; at last we can see something in the fire. The knight will not come till they put out the torch, for that is the signal they have arranged, and they will not put out the torch till the hunting party is far away. You see they are still so absurdly secret about it ! The maid tells the princess that she might better not put out the torch at all, for a treacherous friend of the knight has watched them, suspects their love, and has told the King ; that the hunting party is only a trap, and that the King will soon come back. If it were a real hunt it would be strange for the green knight himself not to go, for he is the best huntsman in the whole country. All this is quite true ; for the King, kind and generous as he is, does not like to be deceived any better than anybody else, and he wants people to keep the promises that they make to him.

" But the princess is in such haste to see the green knight again that she will not heed the maid's warning. She sends her up to the tower to watch, as soon as she thinks the hunters are far enough away, and then she throws the torch down upon the ground and puts it out. Then the green knight comes. But they have scarcely sat down on the grassy bank to tell each other how much they love each other, and to forget all about the poor King, when the maid cries out from the tower that the hunts-men are coming back, the knight's old servant comes running with his sword drawn to his master and begs him to save himself, and in a minute they all come, the treacherous friend of the green knight leading the way, and the King next after him. The knight is standing before the princess, not thinking of himself, and the traitor, who could never match him for a moment in a fair fight, rushes upon him and wounds him, but before he can do more the King himself holds him back. The old servant raises the knight from the ground where he has fallen, drags him quickly to the shore and puts him in a ship that is there, and once more they sail away.

" The rock there by the water is no longer the castle of the King. It is the green knight's castle now, in another country, across the sea. The old servant has brought the knight here, away from his enemies, to try to heal his wound. All his care seems useless. The poor knight has all the time grown worse. But his faithful old servant has remembered who it was that cured another wound of his before, and he has sent a ship with secret messengers to bring the princess if they can. That he may know as soon as he sees the ship whether the princess is on board, he has told the sailors to hoist white sails if they bring her with them, and black sails if they do not. He is watching now for the ship to come back.

It is the courtyard of the castle that I see, and a sweet, calm, lovely picture it is. The knight and his servant have been so long away that the place has been neglected, but it is all the prettier for that. The grass has grown long, and, as the light winds breathe upon it, it sways and sinks and rises in waves, as if it tried to be like the sea down there below it. The gray old walls and ramparts of the castle have bright green moss upon them, and from the crannies hang little plants and vines. High up, where a rough stone projects a little from the tower, a cluster of bluebells swings in the breeze and nods to the other flowers and the grass and the trees down below. Are the blue-bells trying to say to the grass that up there on their airy lookout they can see away over the shining water, that the ship is not yet in sight, but that they know she will come ? Beyond and away, clear to the edge of the sky, just as it is here before us now, lies the sea. Smooth and peaceful it is, as if it were resting all through this calm day. Over it all the sun is sending a flood of light, fifty times as bright as the light of this splendid moon of ours. But now and then it is dimmed a little, for far away on the sea lies a strip of shade, the shadow of a cloud ; slowly it moves toward the land, as the cloud sails through the blue sky, and as it comes it is seen plainer and moves faster, till the shadow reaches the shore and rests for an instant on the castle and the court-yard, and then it passes away into the land and every-thing is sunny again.

" Yet in all this light and peaceful beauty there is something that seems like sadness. In the courtyard, on his couch, lies the knight, in the cool shade. He does not know where he is, and he does not know his servant, who stands beside him, with the tears in his faithful old eyes, but he must know that he is in a beautiful place. Does everything in the place know that he is here, too, and feel sad to see him lying sick and wounded and weak and weary? The sun veils his face oftener than he does on some of our bright days, and when there is no cloud he shines with a soft, mellow light, the sea throws shades of purple over its blue and silver, and its waves break against the shore with only a soft little sound, and a sort of hushed song that is like a moan and is like a lullaby too. You can hear it down there among the pebbles around the rock. The bluebells swing softly, as if they were afraid to ring out aloud and disturb the sleeping knight. The hard walls look softer for their coverings of moss ; the grass waves slowly and bends toward the wounded man, seeming to listen to his breathing. A shepherd leans over the rampart and plays a soft, sad, sleepy little air on his pipe. Is the knight awake ? ' he calls to the servant.

" ` No,' the servant answers, ` and unless the princess comes I fear he will never wake ; watch for the ship.'

" ` I will watch,' the shepherd says, ` and if I see the ship I will play a lively tune on my pipe to tell you of it.'

" The knight begins to wake and stir ; he asks where he is, and the servant tells him that he is at his own castle. He has been dreaming of the princess, and the servant says, ` I have sent the ship for her ; she will come to-day.' But the knight is so weak that he cannot under-stand or talk of one thing very long, and he falls half asleep again and dreams of the princess, and because he has heard of a ship he dreams of other ships. He has his old wound now and is lying, just as he lies here, in that ship which bore him the first time toward the princess; now she is with him and his face grows lighter. She is looking at his sword ; she raises it again, as she did so long ago, to kill him ; but she sees again the helpless look in his eyes and has not the heart to do it, and she lets the sword fall again. He is on a second ship, sailing toward the princess to bring her for the King's bride ; now the ship is sailing back and they are together on the deck. She holds out to him that goblet of strange wine ; they both drink, they gaze into each other's eyes, the dream is too happy to last, and he awakes and cries, ` Has the ship come? Can you not see her yet?'

" ` Not yet,' the servant answers ; ' but she must come soon.'

" The knight is in the garden of the castle—the other castle—waiting for the princess to put out the torch, that he may come to her. The torch falls upon the ground, he runs to-ward the place, and they are together yet again. It is another happy dream that cannot stay. Is the ship nowhere in sight?'

" Before the servant can answer he hears the merry tune from the shepherd's pipe and knows that the ship is coming now, indeed. He looks away across the sea and tells his master how swiftly it flies over the water toward them, with its white sails, for the sails are white and the princess is on board. The time seems long to the knight and his servant, yet it is really short, for the wind is fair. The ship comes nearer and nearer, it passes the dangerous reef, it is so near that the servant can see the faces of the princess and the helmsman and the sailors. Now it is at the very shore and the princess is at the gate. Ah, it was not medicines that the knight needed. With the very knowledge that the princess is there, he raises himself from his couch and walks toward the gate. Then his little strength fails again and he would fall, but the princess herself catches him in her arms and holds him. This time it is no dream.

" She leads him back to the couch, he sinks upon it, and she bends over him. But suddenly the shepherd runs to the rampart and cries that another ship is coming, the King's ship. Are the King's men coming then to carry back the princess, perhaps to kill the knight? The servant calls the men of the castle and they try to barricade and guard the gate. But they are too late ; the King's men and the King himself break through the barriers and are in the court-yard. The very first of them is the knight's treacherous friend ; the old servant instantly cuts him down with his sword, and there is one good stroke at least. Then the King calls to all to hold their hands and to strike no more ; he has come only to give the princess to the knight. He has heard of the love drink, and knows at last that they were not to blame for what they did, and that they never meant to be false to him.

" But still the knight lies there on his couch and the princess kneels by his side and bends over him, and neither of them speaks or moves."

" And will the knight get well again?" the little girl asked.

" Let us not try to find out any more now," I said. " The knight and the princess are both here, and I know that they are happier together than they have ever been before. That is enough, is it not ? "

All at once there were voices behind us, three voices at least.

"Hello, there! who's attending to the fire? You're letting it all go out, and there's plenty of wood left."

" What are you two doing here all alone? Don't you know you'll catch your death o' cold sitting here so long? "

" Are there any marshmallows left ? "

" No," said the little girl, answering the last question, " we don't care about marshmallows any way," and I really believe just then she thought she did not care about them, though usually she likes them almost as well as any-body.

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