THIS story happened a long time ago in the country where anything may happen. The people who belong to that country stay there, and nothing can induce them to journey beyond its borders.
Also, very few travelers find their way in, because the road that runs that way is hidden in a rosy mist.
This mist-road winds around and around a ring of mountains that are dreadfully hard to find on the map–and sometimes are not on the map at all.
You need not read this first part unless you like. It is only a preface, and usually people skip them. The story begins here.
The King’s Highway that ran east and west through the City of Midas was a wonderful highway. The buildings fronting upon it, the houses, shops, palaces and churches, had all been colored a brilliant golden hue, and the cupolas, spires, turrets and domes topping the buildings were tipped and touched with gold-leaf.
The road was flagged with stones of deepest yellow, and the whole street was so radiant and resplendent that the citizens often wore smoked glasses when they walked abroad at noon-day.
Upon a great topaz fastened against the door of the City Hall and Court House, was engraved the legend of King Midas of the golden touch, he who had founded the city and made it his home. To the legend was added a brief note telling that the city fathers had thought it wise to color the buildings yellow, in memory of the bewitchment that had years ago come upon the avaricious King, and the miracle of his deliverance from it.
This was a warning to all and sundry to beware of covetousness and greed and the evils in their wake.
Small heed did the good people pay to the words graven on the topaz, and long and loudly they grumbled at the taxes put upon them, for it cost much money to paint and polish and gold-leaf the buildings on the wonderful road.
In their heart of hearts, probably, they took pride in the highway, for no matter how much they grumbled they paid the taxes promptly.
Now the most beautiful thing on all the beautiful highway and the most marvelous, was an apple tree.
It stood in the middle of a little square before the City Hall, and it was by far the most prized possession of the dwellers in the City of Midas–from the oldest inhabitant, tottering on his shrunken legs to rest in its shadow, to the youngest child, tottering also, but on dimpled feet to where he could stand and wonder at its shining burden of apples.
For this apple tree was of gold, root and branch and leaf and fruit. It was the one golden fact in a place of golden frauds.
As long as anyone could remember, the tree had been there, and as long as anyone they had ever seen could remember. Musty documents filed away in musty drawers, and old, old letters and deeds-of-law with crumbling edges, referred to it casually.
Ancient wills and testaments bore ancient seals stamped with a picture of this very tree.
Generations came and went, fashions came in and went out, but the old, yet ever-young apple tree lifted its golden branches to the sky, serene and unchanged.
It was taken for granted that on that far-off day when King Midas was bewitched of the golden touch, and laid hands so energetically on every object around him, including the very trees and flowers of his garden, he had touched this apple tree also, and by strange alchemy turned it to the precious metal.
Further, it was supposed that in the King’s hour of repentance, when he sprinkled the magic water on all the golden garden to transform it again into a place of green growing things, this tree had been forgotten or overlooked, until the water was all gone.
An occasional stranger gazed with awe at the tree of mystery and asked questions about it, but the citizens, who, for the most part were simple and unlettered, and given to seeing the pixies and warlocks and fairies that came and went in their own mountains, regarded the tree with pride but little curiosity, and as people do regard things they have always known.
A sentinel marched in front of it night and day, while to the very left of it was the Town Pillory, and to the right the Town Gallows. There was no chance visitor who had found his way along the rose-misty road and followed it into the golden city, who did not quickly learn just why the pillory and the gallows were on the right and left of the wonderful tree. He was straightway informed that any person who as much as touched a leaf with even the tip of a finger, was, without ceremony, made fast in the pillory to languish there, whatever the weather, for one full day; while that delinquent who, for wanton mischief, folly, or thievishness, broke a golden apple from its branch, was without much ado quickly hung upon the gallows.
Whether by reason of this law or because of sentiment, the tree was seldom molested, and the sentinel had but a dull existence. Apart from these simple restrictions the town-folk were free to come and go beneath the golden thing, and there was no more favored meeting-place than the grassy circle shadowed by the out-flung glittering branches. It may be temptation was lessened, as the apples and leaves hung high above the reach of any but the very longest arm.
Now, it was upon a certain July afternoon that various things happened in the City of Midas that afterwards were written down in the town chronicles, and so seem worth telling about.
The afternoon was so hot that the dazzling street was deserted. A white-haired priest crossing in front of the City Hall suddenly stopped, and then as though exhausted, sat down on a bench beneath the tree.
The sentinel on duty before it tramped slowly up and down and found time heavy on his hands. His uniform was tight and hot and of a flaming scarlet. His boots shone as though made of polished metal, while his helmet and musket felt heavy as lead.
Little waves of heat quivered up from the ground, and at intervals a locust sang its sudden song of the sun. The light glanced down through the golden tree until each individual leaf and apple seemed to shoot hot rays at him.
It was the sort of day when dogs go mad, and people are apt to do things unaccountable and foreign to their natures; when strong men in the fields dread a stroke from heaven, and little babies wilt like flowers left without rain.
The old priest nodded in the hot shade, and the sentinel went back and forth monotonously, all misery within, all grandeur without. He was sick of his task, sick of the heat and silence, and aimlessly wished for something to happen–for anything, indeed, to happen that might serve to distract his mind until the hour of release.
And something did happen.
Far down the golden highroad he saw a man coming towards him, swinging along at a swift dog-trot.
The sentinel stood stock-still, because there was so much that was unusual about the running figure. Also, it was strange that anyone should travel so fast in the great heat. The sentinel gazed, and wondered what method there was–if any–in this seeming midsummer madness.
On came the swinging figure down the deserted, dazzling street, and now the sentinel suddenly recognized him.
“The King’s lion-tamer!” he exclaimed to the air. “Well! By my musket, he has less sense than I thought or else is mightily pressed for time, Whatever can he want in such a hurry on such a day? In truth these strong fellows, all brawn and muscle, have small brains; but I will find out his business when he comes nearer.”
On came the King’s lion-tamer along the highway, as though he were the winged Mercury.
His wavy hair, thick and sun bleached until it was tawny as a lion’s mane, flew out around his head. He wore a leopard skin about his body, and his great shoulders and limbs gleamed like bronze against the yellow fur. Only did it show white on his forehead where the hair blew back.
There were sandals of tanned leather on his bare feet, and above one knee was a golden garter set with topaz.
On and on he came, and his pace quickened as he reached the little grassy square before the City Hall, where stood the golden apple tree.
“Halt!” cried the sentinel as he came up, more to indicate that he was in command, than for any particular reason. But the lion-tamer gave not the slightest heed. He stopped only when he was fairly underneath the tree. Then he threw back his head, and looked up into the glittering branches, and his breath came in heavy gasps.
The sentinel watched him curiously, mouth ajar. The old white-haired priest woke up and leaned forward on his cane, watching also.
The lion-tamer glanced from one to the other and a little smile flashed across his face. Then he stretched an arm towards the branch above his head.
“Watch hard, my friends!” he said. “As there are no others about, I depend on you for witnesses. Behold me pluck the forbidden fruit.”
The old priest rose with a sharp cry; the sentinel sprang forward with musket leveled.
“Take down your arm!” he commanded. “What would you do? He who even touches the tree is punished grievously, but he who plucks the fruit is a dead man! Take down your arm! Take it down!”
His words trailed off into a cry of horror, for the lion-tamer had sprung upon his strong young feet, caught an apple and twisted and broken it from the bough!
Then he stepped out into the sunlight and tossed the golden thing high into the air, catching it as it fell.
The sentinel’s knees shook beneath him and he turned cold in his hot uniform. His whole body wilted limply for a moment, then stiffened.
“The penalty! The penalty!” he exclaimed. “Do you not know it, O rash fellow? I take you prisoner in the King’s name! By my faith, it is a thing I hate to do, for ’twill be hard to see so fine a man food for carrion crows.”
The old priest had risen tremblingly to his feet, and now stood as one stricken with horror. “Why have you done this thing?” he asked, his face white and stern. “Have you any reason for this unpardonable act?”
“In sooth, good father, I have a reason,” the lion-tamer answered, with still the same smile. “I desire death. This is a straight road to it, so they tell me. I have not lived long in your country, but this much the veriest stranger soon learns.”
“But why would you die?” he asked. “Have you committed some sin, a sin too great to live and atone for? Nay, I cannot think that possible when I look at thy face.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “It is not for my sins I wish to die, good father,” he said–”though I have sins in plenty–but by reason of a heart-ache that is too great to be borne.”
“A heart-ache!” exclaimed the old priest. “Thou wouldst throw away life with all it means–thy beautiful life, now at high-tide–because of a heart-ache! Thou must be mad or very, very young. I would know what has caused thee so hard an ache as that. Come–sit down by me on the bench. The sentinel will give us grace of a scant half-hour ere he takes thee in charge.
“Make me thy confessor. Thy time may be short when the people hear of this deed.”
They took their places on the little bench and the sentinel, somewhat addle-pated from the sun and the sudden responsibility and horror of the moment, made no protest, but stood dumbly on guard.
The priest turned his face, still white and stern, to the man beside him. “If you have aught to tell me, my son,” he began, “I am over-ready to listen, and to give help and consolation. Nay, more. I find it in my soul to make excuse for thy rash deed, if you give me reason. Still remember in this I speak for myself alone, not for the people.”
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple around in his hand, looking at it absently.
“Wouldst really know why I desire to die? Art that much concerned regarding me, good father?”
“Of a truth–yes, my son!” answered the old man quickly.
The lion-tamer glanced up through the golden branches to the blue beyond, and then down at the priest with a sudden boyish smile, half-diffident, but wholly confiding.
“Well, then,” he said slowly, “well, then, it was just by reason of bitter loneliness–and of love.”
“Of love?” exclaimed the old priest. “Of love, dost thou say? Of loneliness it may be a man would die, but not of love, methinks.”
The man nodded his tawny head in contradiction.
“Listen, good father,” he said. “I come from a country far from here–a very far country. In that country my father was a noble and I his eldest son. We had much land of forest and stream and lake and meadow.” His eyes grew absent and misty again, and he paused.
“Yes?” questioned the priest.
“War came into my country,” he went on. “My father fought and was killed. I fought also and was taken captive. They bore me, bound, many leagues on into an unknown land, and left me in a prison whose whereabouts I do not know. I only know that as I counted time, five years went by in unspeakable solitude and silence.” He paused again, and the guard stepped a little nearer to listen.
“And then?” said the old priest.
“And then I escaped. I escaped by night; and when the morning broke found myself on a road that wound around a mountain; a lovely road overhung with a rosy mist.
“This I followed, good father, and it brought me to the City of Midas.”
“Oh!” nodded the holy father. “To our good city, my son?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I was so glad at being free that weariness and sorrow slipped from me. I felt the joy of youth and strength again, after a few weeks’ rest at an inn on the edge of the city, just within the great walls. I paid the inn-keeper and his wife for their kindness by pruning their orchard. While there I chanced to hear that the King’s lion-tamer was dead and he looked for another. Now, good father, I possess a strange gift. At home they said one of the fairies had given it to me in my cradle. However that may be, I have the gift to this day. It is no less than an influence potent and strong over beasts and birds, both wild and tame. By my eyes I can hold them, by my voice I can charm them, by my touch I can lure them, and my beckoning they will follow unless they be sick or under some spell of madness. This gift I discovered when I was a little child. The animals of the forest and field were my comrades; I knew no fear of them and they no fear of me. We understood each other.
“So now I said to myself: I will go to the king and offer to take the place of the dead lion-tamer! This I did, and was accepted and made keeper and trainer of the royal beasts.”
“I heard,” said the priest, “there was another younger keeper. Reports said the king’s former lion-tamer had been killed by a lioness.”
The guard nodded in affirmation and stepped nearer, listening.
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple in his hand. “By Jessica,” he said casually. “She is still half-wild and uncertain in her moods. But to my story, good father. I have been keeper of the beasts since the winter months and have been content after a fashion until lately. Early in spring the little Princess and her ladies came to watch me train the young lions, and–and I saw the Lady Belledowin.”
The priest gave a start. “The Lady Belledowin!” he exclaimed. “The court beauty! Is she again at the castle? Her mourning for the old duke, her father, has been short.”
“She is at court,” the man answered. “She is the first lady-in-waiting to the Princess. I saw her–and loved her, good father,” he ended.
“But there is more to be told, my son?” urged the priest.
“A little more, truly,” he returned. “Often after that first visit to the lions’ quarters the Princess and her ladies came again to look on while I put the beasts through their play. It was for those short moments I lived. To-day in the great heat, they came again, the little Princess and the others; the Lady Belledowin also. I saw them coming through the trees and flowers of the garden, like a flock of bright butterflies.
“You know, perhaps, the lions’ quarters? It is on the far side of the great Imperial gardens, and though artificial is like a bit of the desert. Quite wonderfully like it. There are silver-gray rocks rising out of the pink and yellow sand. The cages are almost invisible by reason of being painted like to the desert colors.
“The wall is stone, topped with open iron work, and there is a mighty gate barred on the outside, so when the beasts are safely caged the courtiers may enter the quarters. The timid are often content to look through the iron fence.
“The Lady Belledowin reached the great gate first, and I went to meet her from within the enclosure–for to-day it was not safe to enter. She already had drawn the bronze bolts when I came up, and we met in the open gateway. I trembled at sight of her beauty. In the afternoon light it was like a radiance that blinded one.
“‘It is not safe to enter the lions’ quarters to-day, Lady Belledowin,’ I said. ‘Even my small gate at the far side is double locked and forbidden to all but the water and food-carriers. Jessica has almost wrecked her cage. The door fastenings are loose, and I have not yet decided where to move her.’
“She laughed and threw a backward glance at the Princess and the court ladies who were coming near.
“‘Pasanello’–that is the name I bear here, good father–’Pasanello says it is dangerous to go into the enclosure,’ she said. ‘The locks are sprung on one of the cages, so he tells me; but I choose to think he wishes to frighten us, and belittle our courage. I am certainly going in. I desire to select, to-day, the lion-cub the king promised should be mine.’
“The little Princess ran to Lady Belledowin and caught her hand. You, perhaps, know the little Princess and her ways, good father?”
“I have seen and heard of her,” answered the old man.
“She possesses the sweetest heart and kindest in all the court, ’tis said,” went on the lion-tamer. “Now in most earnest fashion she coaxed Lady Belledowin to give up the thought of going near the cages. But it was useless. Had the Princess commanded she needs must have obeyed, but she would not respond to a request. With a little light and daring laugh she entered and swung the gate behind her.
“Then she ran down the stone steps into the enclosure. It is a hundred yards to the cages, but Jessica had seen the new figure and was pacing her cage furiously.
“Lady Belledowin took no heed of the warnings. She went on toward the cage where the lion cubs were sleeping, her rose-colored gown of some light silk, fluttering about her. The cubs, good father, belong to Jessica, and were removed from her because she injured one.
“Now as the lioness saw Lady Belledowin approach them, she quivered with fresh rage; then gave a terrific roar, burst the door of her cage, and with one bound came halfway to my lady across the sand. There the great beast crouched flat, gathering force for the fatal spring. Lady Belledowin stood as though turned to snow. She neither spoke nor cried out. While one’s heart has time to beat once I stood also. Then I leaped to her side.
“The lioness crouched still, and I faced her, fixing my eyes on her two blazing eyes. I could see her begin to tremble through her tense muscles. I gazed steadfastly at her, holding my Lady Belledowin back with one arm. To move would have been fatal.
“There we stood. I turned cold and my face grew wet as with rain.
“Still we stood and I suddenly felt my force over the lioness weakening. At that instant she sprang–but dropped a scant yard short of my lady.
“‘Run! Run!’ I cried to her. ‘This is the one chance. Before she springs again! Run–and make fast the gate!’
“I heard the silken flutter of her gown as she ran, but I did not withdraw my eyes from the eyes of the lioness. She crouched again where she had alighted, baffled and maddened.
“An inch nearer I moved to her, the sweat still cold on my face.
“Backward she crept an inch. So we went, she and I gazing steadfastly. Back and back she crept, and I forward. Ever she lashed her tail softly and in her throat was a sound not good to hear,–yet she crept back.
“When her cage was reached I stood quite still and straight and spoke.
“‘Enter!’ I called in the voice she knew and was used to obey.
“With drooping head she swung as on a pivot, and shrank into the cage. The muttering in her throat ended in a sort of sob, and I had conquered.
“I closed the broken door, and called to one of the cage men who now came running; with soldering iron, he made the door fast, and to-morrow the lioness will be transferred to a newer cage.”
There was a pause–then “To-morrow!” he said again and gave a short laugh.
“But that is not all, my son?” questioned the priest again.
“No,” Pasanello returned, “though I would it were. This follows, good father. When the lioness was made safe I went up into the garden where the little Princess and her ladies still stood in frightened silence, the Lady Belledowin in their midst. She was yet white as driven snow, and her eyes were dark and wide as with lingering horror. There seemed to me also to be anger in them–anger of a kind at herself, and at the whole incident. But she stood straight and beautiful as one whose pride still dominated. Never had she looked so beautiful.
“‘Ah, Pasanello,’ she said, with cool sweetness. ‘After all, you were right, and I wrong. It seems I owe you my life. What can I give you in token of eternal gratitude?’
“Good father, I looked at her and was dazzled as by the sun. For the moment I forgot I was not in my own country, forgot I was the King’s lion-tamer, and but a mountebank of the court. Forgot the little group of court ladies. I lifted her hand to my lips. ‘I love you!’ I said. ‘I love you! I ask no gift of life but your love.’
“My words stopped and there was a strange silence, as though the Lady Belledowin and the little Princess and the others stood quite breathless for that half moment.
“Then Lady Belledowin drew her hand from mine and struck me lightly on the cheek. Catching a bracelet from her arm, she threw it down at my feet.
“‘You are insolent!’ she said in a voice low but sharp as steel.
“‘Insolent past belief. Such as you are paid in gold. They render no service that cannot be so paid. Pick up the bracelet that pays thee!’
“I stood stock still and saw it glittering on the grass. The court ladies turned and drifted away through the trees like shadows, Lady Belledowin with them.
“Still I stood, my heart pounding against my side with rage and with agony. I was as one consumed with rage and agony; one deaf and blind to everything else. There came a soft touch on my arm. I looked down and saw the Princess.
“‘Pasanello,’ she said, ‘you are very brave; very wonderful. The Lady Belledowin was cruel–more cruel than the lioness would have been. We will not forgive the Lady Belledowin for her manner of speaking to you. But you, Pasanello, you need not greatly care. It is only ourselves can hurt ourselves.‘
“‘Good-by, Pasanello,’ she said, leaving me. ‘Be brave still, Pasanello.’
“The words came to me only as in a dream. Suddenly I bethought me of the golden apple tree. A weariness of life shook me. I would be done with loneliness and humiliation–yes–and love.
“I left the King’s garden and took the highway. Perhaps I ran; I do not remember. But, good father, that is all. The rest you know.”
The sentinel laid his hand on the lion-tamer’s shoulder. He stiffened to his task. “By my musket, you have been long winded!” he said. “If yon holy father had not detained you, you would have, this last half-hour, been safe in the Court House.” His eyes belied the gruff words, but leveling his rifle he signaled Pasanello to walk before him.
The old priest paced with them until they reached the cell and the sentinel gave his prisoner to the officers.
“The mayor will be informed of your deed and will act quickly,” he assured him in parting. “To your prayers, Signor Pasanello!”
The lion-tamer reached his hand through the cell bars, and touched the priest who still waited with bowed head.
“You have been very kind, good father,” he said. “Before you go, tell me you believe my story, and give me your blessing.”
The priest lifted his head. “I believe thy words,” he returned. “Yet the plucking of the apple means death. But one thing can prevent it and that thou canst not count on.
“I would ask thee–dost thou repent?”
“Of my sins–yes, father. Of plucking the apple–no. I have had enough of life as I have found it. Yet, of thy kindness, tell me what is that one thing that might overthrow my fate?”
Holding the priest’s hand, he flashed a quick smile at him. “From what I have heard of these people and their golden tree it must be an extraordinary happening that would appease their wrath at one who robbed its branches.”
The old man shook his head. “You will learn of it on the morrow, when the multitude are assembled; my son–on that hour–that hour–” His voice trembled and broke.
“Think not of it, good father–but give me thy blessing.”
The priest raised his hand and murmured the benediction, then with uncertain steps took his way out into the sunshine.
The morrow came, and from far and wide the people assembled to see the law of their country carried out. A vast indignation swayed them, and small pity was expressed for the prisoner, a comparative stranger who had returned their hospitality by crime against their beloved tree.
The King’s heralds, in their red and blue and gold tunics, had cried the news of the lion-tamer’s deed from the city walls on the North, the South, the East and the West. The papers had flamed it out in the reddest of type. The children called it to each other excitedly, and the old stood and gossiped over it. The mothers with babies in their arms held them close, thinking of the dread things that can overtake men who were once as dear and little as those they held.
The King himself was far away on a hunting trip, or something might have been heard from him, as his moods were many, and the new lion-tamer in favor with him. But in the matter of the tree of gold the people of Midas took no advice of Kings.
The mayor, aldermen, lawyers and judges had spent the night discussing the theft. They had interviewed the lion-tamer, taken the evidence of the priest and sentinel, gazed solemnly upon the golden apple with its short, twisted stem, and looked upon the branch from which it had been broken.
The crime was fixed upon the lion-tamer, to everybody’s satisfaction, and there was no appeal. Therefore the hour for his execution had been set. His death was to take place at the ringing of the next noontide bells.
The hour came on apace. Now throngs pressed and swayed around the grassy square of the golden apple tree. All knew the King’s lion-tamer, as the royal lions were often shown in public, and a sensation of awe and horror swept over the multitude, for they were a happy people with a dread of tragedy. Yet the law was the law, the golden tree a thing mystical and almost sacred. The deed against it must, they agreed, be avenged.
The bells rang out a quarter to twelve, and the mayor and aldermen, lawyers and judges, all in their robes of office, came out on a platform before the City Hall.
The crowd made way for a group of people from the court. They were all mounted and later would go hunting, but they delayed their sport a little to see this greater thing.
Among them were old and young; friends of the King, and ladies and gentlemen in waiting to the Princess. They wore hunter’s green, braided with gold that flashed as they rode. The little Princess was not among them, but the Lady Belledowin was of those who led the way.
When the bells had done striking the quarter to twelve, two soldiers came out from the City Hall, and the lion-tamer walked between them. He wore, as he had the day before, only the leopard skin about his body, the leather sandals on his feet, and above his knee the golden garter set with topaz, whereon was cut the King’s seal.
He took his stand, towering among that richly clad company as a figure strangely out of place, and his spirit seemed quiet and unruffled. A herald blew a loud bugle-blast, and the people swayed nearer. The group of courtiers drew rein tighter on their restless horses.
When the herald’s notes died away, the mayor spoke. His crimson robes marked him from the others, and his voice carried far.
“Citizens of the City of Midas!” he said. “We have come to see the law of our city maintained. The King’s lion-tamer, who comes from a far and unknown country, has violated our most sacred code. He has plucked the imperishable fruit of our golden tree, the tree of Midas. There is the apple!” He held the golden globe up high for all to see. “The witnesses to the deed,” he continued, “are the sentinel and the good priest who stands below our platform here!”
A low, angry murmuring ran through the crowd and grew in volume and force.
The mayor lifted his hand for silence, and spoke again.
“This crime was wanton and without excuse, and witnessed. Therefore the highest judge of our land has pronounced sentence of death upon Pasanello, the King’s lion-tamer!”
The people broke into a hoarse clamoring, but the mayor again commanded silence.
“Wait, good citizens!” he said. “For we have ever been of a fair and open mind. Old as is this law of ours, that the one who plucks the golden fruit shall die, you surely remember–though it is two score years since the tree was last robbed–that there is another law just as old.” He paused and a deep silence followed his words. Then–”Tell us the other law!” they cried impatiently, “and be quick in telling.” And many called: “We know of no other law! We know of none!”
The mayor looked over the upturned faces surging toward him.
“Ay!” he returned. “You have all heard of this other law but have chosen to forget. I will remind you.”
He unrolled an old parchment. “Hereon is written,” he continued, “the only laws regarding the golden tree.
“In this place,” pointing to it with his finger, “I read: ‘The penalty of death is to be inflicted on any mortal who has come of age and thereafter breaks even one golden apple from the golden tree–unless’ (Now mark you all!) ‘unless when the criminal is brought out for execution, and haply he or she be unwedded, there should arise one among you who will willingly offer to marry that one who is under death sentence, and lead him or her away down the rose-mist path that runs around our mountains–and so out of our land forever!”
The lion-tamer stood as one little concerned with what was going on. As much as one so strong could, he looked tired, and his face was not anxious, but sad.
The court people petted their nervous horses, and beside the gallows a black-robed man looked about in sullen restlessness.
Again the mayor raised his hand.
“If there be any woman among you, whether old or young, who will wed this man, Pasanello, and go with him into the unknown lands–let her come forward!”
His clear voice rang out to the uttermost edge of the people.
A stillness answered. All eyes were lifted to the lion-tamer. His face was raised now a little disdainfully, and he seemed to smile.
Then through the crowd there ran a sudden stirring, and a word was called out here and there that soon melted into a muffled roar like the sea.
The crowd parted, and up through the midst of it came a strange little half-wild figure; a girl, young,–oh, very young–with bare brown feet, and tattered blue gown and tanned gypsy face and hands. A cloud of long, tangled, yellow hair blew about her head, and her eyes were sea-blue, with the blackest lashes that were ever seen.
In one hand she carried a rough crook, and behind her trailed a flock of gray geese, kept together by the unceasing attention of a small, shaggy dog, who saw to it that they followed the little goose-girl, and not their own will.
On she came, lightly as a brown leaf blows over the ground, until she reached the platform where stood the mayor and the city fathers and the soldiers with their prisoner.
At the foot of the platform she stopped, looked up, and then around. Then she dipped a courtesy and smiled at them all.
“An it pleases everybody,” she said sweetly, “I will wed the King’s lion-tamer and lead him away down the rose-mist road–for I know it well. So, he be willing, we will go away, and never come again, forever! an’ ever! an’ ever!”
The lion-tamer had leaned forward as she began to speak, and now looked down into her blue eyes that were raised to his. Down and down he looked into the very depths of their sea blue, and they answered his gaze steadily.
“You have heard!” the mayor said to the people with a wide gesture of his arms. “This little maid from the hills is willing to wed the prisoner.” He turned to the lion-tamer, smiling. “Prisoner,” he commanded, “what say you?”
As one in a dream he leaned toward her. “Ay!” he said softly. “By my faith, I will gladly wed thee, sweetheart! I will take thee at thy word and follow any rose-mist path where thou dost lead the way. There is that in thine eyes that calls me to thee across the very path of Death.”
Then the mayor stepped down and led the little goose-girl up to the platform.
“Come you also, good father,” he said to the old priest.
With light step the little goose-girl crossed the platform to Pasanello. He took her hand, and so they stood while the priest spoke the words that wedded them.
Then the lion-tamer, caring nothing for the presence of the staring people or the mayor and judges, took the tattered maid in his arms and bent his lips to hers.
A sudden cheering broke from the throats of all the crowd below, for all the world loves a lover.
Then in gossipy groups all scattered and went their way. The ladies and gentlemen of the court last, for it had proved so rare an entertainment.
When the green square was almost clear, the little goose-girl took the lion-tamer’s hand. “Come!” she said softly. “Come, Pasanello; we must go as we promised.”
“Truly–yes, sweetheart, as we promised. We will not linger.” He turned to the old priest.
“Good father, we give you thanks, and farewell, and eternal remembrance.”
After that they went, while the priest watched them, across the square of the golden tree and down the golden highway. There his old eyes lost them, but on they went out of the city gates and on to the road of the rose-mist, the geese following behind them, and the small shaggy dog.
Hand in hand they went, and joyously and lightly as the leaves blow over the ground, and they laughed and talked and looked into each other’s eyes.
When the city was almost lost behind them, the little goose-girl caught her two hands around the lion-tamer’s arm and turned her face up to him.
“Look at me, Pasanello!” she cried softly.
“Have I done aught but gaze at thee since the moment you came?” he questioned, smiling.
“Oh, I know!” she admitted. “But look again. Tell me what–whom thou dost see!”
Pasanello looked, and suddenly caught her to him.
“Who art thou?” he questioned. “Oh, who art thou–thou most strange little maid? Methinks I know thy face–yet doubt. Who art thou?”
“The Princess,” she nodded against his shoulder. “Only the little Princess, Pasanello, stained brown with the juice of berries. You see I loved you–even–even yesterday.“
“Oh, little Princess!” he cried, touching her yellow hair. “Forget yesterday. To-day and forever it is only you I love!”
I do not know where they went to live. I have heard that the King of the City of Midas and the country thereabout rode after them, and found them, and gave them castles and gold and lands and all the lovely things that people really do not need. But I am not sure about this. Pasanello may be only a shepherd somewhere in their hills, and the Princess may yet tend a flock of gray geese. No, I do not know for certain where they went or how they lived. The only thing I am really sure of is that they were happy wherever it was, and if we ever run across them, we will find they are happy still.