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Wagner - The Minstrel Knight

( Originally Published 1894 )



THE little girl stayed at the seashore till the middle of the autumn. That is the way sensible people do, when they can, and I have worked much in vain if I have not shown by this time that this little girl is a sensible little person. The spring is very lovely, to be sure, and of course we all love it. I should be the last one to say anything against it. But to me the most beautiful time of the whole beautiful year is the early autumn. The heat and the work and the worry of the year are over, and the clear, rich, golden good of it all is left to be enjoyed. The flowers are not pink and pale blue any more ; they are of deep, splendid yellow and red and purple. The golden-rod and the asters are lords of flowers, and the cardinal is their high-priest, while if you will have something that is delicate and modest, there is the fringed gentian, and that shows, too, how healthy and brave and free it is by keeping no company with dark shadows, and opening only when the bright sun shines full upon it.

But of the things that are best in the autumn, the best above all others is the sea. It has been lying quiet and restful all summer, and now it awakes and begins to move and to show the strength and the freedom of its glorious life. As you stand upon the shore and look at it, it draws itself away from you and away from the land as if it were done with it forever ; then it pauses, and in a moment begins to come back. Up and up the beach it marches with a majestic will that nothing else in the world is like ; as it comes it lifts itself higher and higher ; then the wave leaps into the air and its crest is turned to emerald as the sunlight strikes through it for the pause of another instant, there is a roll, a mad plunge, the spray dashes high above your head, the foam floats and flies up the beach to your very feet, the hollow rumble of the water sounds fainter and farther along the sands, and the ocean draws itself back away from you and away from the land. Its colors are different, too. Before it had all sorts of fanciful hues and shades, pale green and blue, silver, violet, almost rose sometimes, the colors of summer dreams. Now the dreaming time is over. The green of the wave-crests is luminous, the white and the blue have the gleam of polished steel, the violet and the rose are turned to deep, rich purple. The sea is not cold, harsh, and cruel yet, but it is free, bold, and majestic.

All this I knew because I remembered it, not because I saw it, for I had been back in the city a long time. The fire was lighted again and I had sat before it often, thinking of the driftwood fire away down there, with the little girl sitting before it, seeing pictures in it for herself, perhaps, and listening to the low sound of the sea, coming up through the still evening air. But one night she came and sat with me again, and once more we both looked into the same fire. " I believe I can almost see pictures myself now," she said.

" Can you ? And what do you see in the fire now ? "

" Oh, I can see a prince and a princess—and a knight—and a lovely goddess, like the one that had the apples—and a cave, like the one where the dragon lived

" And don't you see the dragon himself ? Where is he ? "

" No, there isn't any dragon ; that would be too much like the other story."

But you must not mind that. There are only a few good stories altogether, and the most we can do, as I told you once before, is to tell them over and over again in different ways."

"But I don't want any dragon in this one. Now you tell me what they all do, the goddess and the knight, and the prince and the princess, and what the cave is for."

" Very well, I will try. First I see the knight. He is riding along upon his horse, through the forests, over the hills and across the valleys. It is a lovely day of summer. When he comes to the top of a hill, he sees the country lying before him and all around him, deep green with woods and pastures and paler green where the grain is ripening. Here and there, too, it is sprinkled with tiny dots of red, where the poppies grow thick in a field, and there are spots that are almost blue with corn-flowers. A silver ribbon of a river winds through it, and the sight of it is lost among the blue mountains. As he rides down into a valley the branches wave above him and break the sunshine that falls upon the road and the grass beside it. The flecks of light and the patches of shade tremble and waver and dart across and across the way, as if they were weaving a robe for the earth, of gold and brown and green. The air is full of the smell of the flowers, a brook makes a soft, cheery little noise, and from the pastures comes the sleepy sound of sheep-bells.

" The knight is riding toward the castle of the prince. He is a minstrel, as well as a knight, and at the castle he will meet other minstrels who are his friends, and they are all to sing for a prize which the prince has offered, There is as much happiness in the heart of the knight as in everything around him, for he loves the prince's daughter, and he knows that she loves him. Besides this she is to give the prize to the one who win's it, and with his mind full of gladness and thoughts of her, he feels sure that he can win.

" As he rides thus the evening falls. The moon comes up, and from the hills the country stretches darkly away all around, with the silver ribbon of the river still winding through it. The shade is so deep in the valleys that he has to ride through them slowly. The robe of the earth now is all of deep gray and silver. The smell of the flowers is stronger and sweeter than before, the brooks sound louder, and the sheep-bells are silent. The knight's thoughts just now are wandering away from the princess, and he is thinking of the fame that he hopes to win as a minstrel, how he will gain this prize and many other prizes, how kings will send for him to come to their courts, that they may hear his songs, how he will grow great and rich, and how his name will live on after he is dead.

" As he thinks of these things, suddenly he sees a strange form before him in the valley. It is like a woman, wonderfully beautiful, marvellously, magically beautiful. Something more than the moonlight seems to rest upon her and to show him her face with its deep eyes and soft cheeks, her movements, so graceful and gentle that it seems as if she did not move her-self at all, but were just stirred and swayed by the little breezes. A rosy light shines from her face and around her dark hair. All about her are nymphs, or fairies, dancing and gliding and scattering roses for her to walk upon. It seems really quite needless to do that, for she appears rather to float and move in the air and to rest on the flower-perfumed wind than to stand or walk upon the ground. Now a knight who was also a minstrel could not possibly make any mistake about such a person as this, and he knows at once that she is the very Goddess of Love and Beauty."

" Is she the one that had the apples?" the little girl asked.

"No, not quite the same. She is one some-thing like her, yet a good deal different." " Is she Venus then ? "

" Yes, you have guessed just right, and so at last somebody in our story has a name. But she is not altogether like the Venus that you have heard about so many times before. Some people used to believe that after the old gods whom you know so well had lost their rule on Mount Olympus, they went to live inside the mountains and under the ground, and that they were not kind to men any more, but always did harm, whenever they were able to do anything. Now, for myself, I don't quite see how this could be, because you know we have felt so sure that we saw some of them up in the sky sometimes. Yet now that I see Venus here, it does seem tome as if there were some-thing in the story after all, and I believe it would be better for the knight if he had never seen her at all. If he were thinking of the princess at the time I do not believe he would look twice at Venus. No, I am sure he would not even see her once.

" But since he is not thinking of the princess, but only of what a great man he would be if he could make his songs seem as wonderful to everybody else as they seem to himself, it is not surprising that he is delighted by such a vision, and it is not surprising, either, when the goddess and her nymphs beckon to him and then glide away as if they wanted him to follow them, that he gets off his horse and does follow them. They move along so fast that he cannot keep- up with them, and soon he cannot even see them, but it is still easy for him to follow. For every-where they go the strangest flowers spring up under their feet and make a pathway to lead him. They are huge, bright flowers, cup-shaped and star-shaped and sun-shaped. Flowers of such wonderful form and size, and such gorgeous colors the knight never saw before. Some of them seem to be made of hammered gold, and some of silver ; some have stamens of precious stones, and some look like clear crystal, blood-red, deep purple, or. orange, as if they were cut from solid gems ; some of them have petals like flames, that shimmer and glow and are reflected by the others ; the leaves are all glistening emerald and they are sprinkled with pearls like drops of evening dew. The stems twine about like serpents, and they seem to the knight to move and turn about to show him all their magic splendor. Some of them, with coiling tendrils, like gold wire, sway toward him as if they would catch him and hold him, others dance and wave about on their stems and twinkle as the other stars do, up above the trees, as if they were laughing and mocking at him, and still others bow and bend away from him and beckon him on. The whole of the fire is scarcely enough to show me this strange garden. A pale, ghostly light rises from all the flowers and hovers over the path. The knight would stop to pick some of them, but those before him seem always more beautiful than those close at hand, and, besides, he is eager to follow the goddess. So on he hurries till he sees before him a way straight into the side of the mountain and within a great glare of light. If he would only think of the princess now, for one instant ! But he goes straight on into the mountain, and the way shuts behind him and outside the magic flowers are gone, and there is nothing but the soft grass, the whispering trees, the dark sky, with the stars, and the calm night.

" Do you see how very wrong it is for the knight to go away after the goddess into the mountain? When people let themselves be led away like that by fairies and goddesses it is usually a long time before they get back. A knight like this one, who is a minstrel as well, ought to know all about such things, and I dare say he does. He must have heard of men who went to such places and saw beautiful and wonderful sights, and feasted and danced till they thought that they had been away from their homes for a day, or a week, and then, when they went back to them, found that they had really been gone for years, perhaps for hundreds of years, and that all their friends were dead. He ought to think of his friends, the other knights and minstrels, who will be grieved when they meet and he is not with them. For his own sake he ought to know better than to run into strange and dangerous places just because they look pleasant. More than all, he ought to think of the princess. If he does not care for the prize of his song any more for itself he should care for her who is to give it. He should remember how much she loves him, little as he deserves it. She will not forget him as he does her. When she waits and waits for him and he does not come she will believe that he is dead, and she will cry her pretty eyes out. She will never think that he has gone away from her to visit a goddess of love and beauty who lives in a cave.

" Now I see the cave of the goddess, deep in the mountain. It seems dim and misty and con-fused at first, but gradually I can see it clearer. All around the sides and the top are great pendants of gems, like icicles, of all sorts of colors, as if the precious stones had once been liquid and had run down into the cave and then had frozen into crystal. Here and there are diamonds and rubies and opals and emeralds as big as your head, set in the roof, and they have some magical way of shining all by themselves and light up the whole cave like lamps. The ground is covered with flowers like those that made the path to lead the knight to the place. A stream of water runs from the cave and is fed by fountains in the middle. These fountains are wonderful affairs too. Sometimes they throw jets of liquid silver almost to the roof ; then they fall down and spread out wide in sheets, of the color and the brightness of melted gold ; again the water rises in little streams that twine and weave themselves together like basket-work, and all of deep, shining crimson ; then the fountains take other fantastic forms and other colors, purple or green or orange, but always glowing with light, and so they pass to silver and to gold again.

This is the cave of Venus. It is filled with the nymphs who attend her, and they are singing choruses in her praise, and dancing wonderful, mazy, mad, delirious dances. They whirl about and around alone, in couples, in lines, in circles, and in crowds, their arms waving and their hair streaming in the air. Some-times while they dance every one is plainly to be seen, and again their garments surround them like clouds, and they are all one waving, streaming, fluttering mass. These mists of light robes then are like the fountains, for now they are shining white, now red or yellow or green or purple, now all the colors together, mixed and blended like broken and tangled rainbows.

" If you could see all that I see here in the fire I think you would be delighted with it, for a little while. But how do you suppose the minstrel knight likes it? He sits beside the goddess and looks at it wearily. He has seen them all so much that walls of gems and streams of gold and whirling rainbows do not please him any more. He has been here in the cave for a whole year. He sees now how wrong it was for him to come, and he is so tired of it all that he is beginning to feel that he would rather die than be among these mad pleasures any longer.

But he cannot do that because nobody ever dies here. When he sees these walls of cold crystal, gleaming with the colored light from the great gems, he thinks of the broad, lovely country that he once saw, that stretched away and ended only at the blue mountains, and of the silver river that never changed to blood, or to green fire, with the clear sunlight brightening them all.

" If he tries to rest his eyes upon the great, glowing, magic flowers that cover the ground, they only make him think of the red poppies that shone out from the fields of ripening grain, and of the blue of the corn-flowers, and then he tries to think of the perfume from the flowers that filled the air after it grew still at evening. There are odors here, too, but they are so heavy and sweet that after a time it is almost a pain to smell them. He hears the rush and the dash of the fountains, and he longs for the low, merry little sound of the brook that ran along beside his road. The air here is full of music, the rich harmonies of many instruments and the voices of the nymphs who sing their choruses to Venus, but his ears are tired of the sounds, and he wishes that he might hear only the sleepy tinkle of the sheep-bells, chiming with the voice of the brook. But more than every-thing else he thinks of the princess. He re-members now how kind and true she was, and how much truer he ought to have been in re-turn than he really was. He wonders if she still remembers him, if she thinks him dead, and then his heart stops, as he wonders if she her-self is dead. Oh, it is a fine time now to think of these things! If he had only remembered the princess once before, instead of thinking what a great minstrel he was, he would never have followed Venus into her cave. Now he can only think of that great wrong he did and long for the fresh fields and woods, for the air, the sunlight—and the princess.

"Venus, sitting by his side, sees that he is troubled and asks him why. He tells her how much he wishes that he might see again the world he used to know, and live the life he used to live, and he begs her to let him go. She is angry at first. Has she not brought him to live here among such delights as no man before ever knew, and is he tired of them now, and does he want to escape from them? He can only say that he will never forget her or the beautiful things he has seen here, but he can never be happy here again, and if she will only let him he must go. At last she tells him that he may go. But you will not be happy,' she says; `your old friends will scorn you when they know where you have been. They will never forgive you for coming here. You will find no rest, no help, no hope. Then, when you learn that you can have peace nowhere else, come back to me and stay with me forever.'

" All at once the cave, with everything in it, is gone. The knight knows how or where it went no more than I. As for him, he does not know that he has moved from his place, and as for me, the fire is burning just as it did before. Yet now I see him lying on the soft grass of a beautiful valley. Above him are the sky and the nodding branches of the trees ; around are the hills. He sees and he smells the flowers that were lost to him so long. The low tinkle of the sheep-bells comes again drowsily to his ears. A little way up the hill a shepherd is playing softly on his pipe. He picks a flower and smells it, to be sure that it is all real. Then the tears come to his eyes as he thinks of all the beauty and sweetness of the life that he lost and has found again.

" But now a band of pious pilgrims passes, on the way to Rome. They are going to ask the Pope to forgive their sins. The sight of them brings a new thought to the knight. It is the thought of his own sin. Now that he sees again the sweet loveliness of the world, he feels at last fully how wicked it was for him to leave it and all his own duties and his friends in it. He is in despair when he thinks that he is no longer worthy of the princess, if indeed he ever were. He dares not see her again ; he dares not ask his friends to be his friends longer ; he throws himself upon the ground and feels that he has no more a place in this happy world.

" At this very moment comes a company of huntsmen riding past. Their leader is the prince himself and the rest are the friends of the minstrel knight, the very ones with whom he should have sung for the prize a year ago. Very glad they are to find him, after thinking him dead so long, and they insist that he must come with them and be one of them again. He will not go with them. He feels that he is not like them any more. His wrong has been so great that he dares not be with brave, good men. They urge him, but it is useless. But there is one among them, a knight and a minstrel too, who also loves the princess. She does not love him, but his own love is so deep and true that he will do anything to make her happy. When he finds that nothing else can move the stubborn knight he tells him that the princess still loves him, that she has grieved for him all the time that he has been lost, and that he must come back to them for her sake. He is touched at last. He had not dared to ask of her, and now he knows that he may see her again, that she could never forget like him, that she will love him and forgive him. He cannot resist. He will go.

" They are all in the hall of the prince's castle now. They are to sing again for a prize and again the princess is to give it. The prince tells them that they must all sing of love. The knight who loves the princess hopelessly begins. He sings of his own love, how it is fixed upon one who does not love him in re-turn, and how still his love for her is all the joy he has, and he would gladly lose the last blood of his heart for her. They all cry out that he has sung nobly, except the knight from the cave of Venus. He thinks this is a very weak, silly kind of love ; he sings in a very different way, and he tells them that if they want to know what love really is they must go and learn of the Goddess of Love.

" They are all filled with horror. They know now where he has been. He has left the princess for Venus ; he has learned to scorn their knightly love ; worse than all, it seems to them, he, a Christian man, has passed a whole year in the home of a heathen goddess. They declare that he has betrayed them in daring to come among them like an honest knight. They for-get that he refused to come, that he told them he was unworthy of them and was too wicked to be one of them, and they almost compelled him. So their swords are out to kill him. But the princess, whom he has injured a thousand times as much as all of them put together, commands them to spare him. He may yet be forgiven, she says, and it is not for them to judge. She will pray for him as long as she lives, and God may pardon him. At her word they draw back and put up their swords, yet they think his guilt too great ever to be forgiven. There can be but one only hope for him, says the prince; some of the pilgrims on their way to Rome are still in the valley ; he must go with them and pray for pardon from the Pope.

" Never another pilgrim toiled along the road to Rome feeling such a heavy weight of sin to be forgiven as the minstrel knight. He does not talk with the others or lighten the way as they do with holy songs. He knows not how to suffer enough for his guilt, and to seek out punishments for himself is his only content. Some of the pilgrims walk where the grass is soft and cool ; he chooses the paths that are full of stones and thorns. They drink at the springs of cold water ; he thirsts more than they, but he turns away and lets the noon sun blaze down upon his bare head. They find shelter and rest for the night ; he lies upon the snow of the mountain and sleeps there, if he sleeps at all. When he comes near to Italy he fears that the sight of that lovely land will be pleasing to his eyes, and so he has himself led blindfold on to Rome.

" The Pope sits upon his throne, and before him come all who seek for pardon. He forgives them, blesses them, and sends them away. At last comes the minstrel knight. He throws himself on the stones before the feet of the Pope and tells the story of all the wrong that he has done. The Pope listens and is filled with horror, as the prince and the knights were before, and there is no princess here to say one word of love or mercy. ` There is no hope for you,' he answers, ` no pardon, no hope. Your guilt is too deep and black. As soon shall this naked staff I hold bear flowers and leaves as one like you find forgiveness or mercy.'

" And so the minstrel knight shrinks away. He knows not where to turn. All places are alike to him, alike full of darkness and despair. The pilgrims are returning home. He follows them, as a dog that had been struck and wounded might crawl after men who had been his friends.

" I see the beautiful valley again. The princess is kneeling before a little cross. She is praying that the knight whom she loves may be forgiven. Back in the rising shadows of the evening stands the knight who loves her hopelessly, watching her as she prays. The pilgrims are coming from Rome. They are singing songs of mercy and peace. The princess looks eagerly among them. The minstrel knight is not there. ` He will never come back,' she sighs, and she turns away and slowly climbs the hill toward her father's castle, where she may pray for him again.

" And now a dark figure comes slowly, fear-fully on, by the way that the pilgrims have passed. He sees his friend, standing where he stood while the princess prayed. He calls to him to stand back ; he is too guilty for any good man to touch or come near him. He tells him how he went to Rome and what the Pope said. Then he tells the awful thought that is now in his mind. The Goddess of Love and Beauty bade him when all hope should be lost to come to her again and stay with her forever. He is seeking her mountain now. He calls to her to guide him. Now at the very back of the fire I see a rising red glow. The goddess is there and she calls to him to hasten to her. `You are mad,' cries his friend ; ` stay ; be brave ; bear it all, and you may yet be forgiven.'

" Suddenly there comes to the knight another thought—the best thought he has ever had—the princess. Instantly the red glow is gone and the goddess is hidden from him forever. His friend knows his thought. ` She is up there,' he says, `praying for you still.'

"At last the knight is humbled, overcome, subdued. He falls upon his face and prays for pardon, as the princess is praying for him up there in the castle. And now all at once there is a glad shout, a song of happiness and peace. Another band of pilgrims has come from Rome. They are bringing the staff of the Pope, and all in a night it has borne flowers and leaves. The smell of lilies fills the air. They are carrying the staff through the land to tell the knight and all other men like him, if, indeed, there are others, that they are forgiven. The minstrel knight has found pardon and he may rest."

" And what became of the princess? " the little girl asked.

" The fire is too low," I said ; " I cannot see any more. What do you think became of her?"

" I don't know," she answered, " but I think she must be very happy that the knight is forgiven."

" I think they are both very happy," I said.



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