THE ASTROLOGER'S NIECE MARRIES
OF course, when she had finished her education, I thought my niece would be glad to stay quietly at home with me for a year or two at least. But she was of a restless disposition, and soon tired of the monotony of our quiet village life. I did my best to entertain her, and was even ingenious, I thought, in providing her with amusements. For instance, when a traveling circus came to a neighboring city, by the use of the well-known spell (Magic-Book VIII, chap. ii, §32) I caused the advance-agent to believe our village a populous city full of those persons of limited means who usually patronize the theater and the fine arts generally. As a result of my well-meant deception, he gave performances for a week to an audience consisting only of me, my niece, the innkeeper's family, and the innkeeper.
The performers, especially the ring-master, were furious, and thought the advance-agent was crazy. We did n't mind that, as he insisted upon completing the performances; but my niece found no pleasure in the show except as a means of amusing herself at the expense of those who took part in the ring. When one of the acrobats would leap into the air and begin to turn a somersault, she would secretly use some form of enchantment—for she had never forgotten the knowledge of the science picked up in her youth—and cause the poor fellow to remain hanging in the air upside down. This seriously interfered with the show, but the circus-people did not mind it very much until she carried her skylarking beyond all reason. But when she made the trick-mule suddenly become as gentle as a lamb, and rode him around the ring, she sitting as placidly upon him as Queen Elizabeth upon a palfrey, and the trick-mule carrying her with a proudly angelic smile, and when she claimed the large reward the ring-master had offered—it was really too much.
With tears in his eyes the ring-master said it would ruin the circus to pay her, and so she let the reward go unpaid, on condition that they left at once. I concluded that she had lost interest in the hippodrome.
I tell this only as an instance of my unremitting efforts to supply her with pastimes of a really elevating character, and to show that it was not lack of diversion, but a restless disposition, which caused her to say she would go to seek her fortune.
I had no wish to leave home. My cook was an artist, and my house had a southern exposure and an astrological cupola of the most modern construction. So I told her flatly that I would not go under any consideration whatever.
We started the next morning. I suggested a sea route, as I was very susceptible to seasickness and desired above all things to go by land. She acquiesced at once, and we set sail early in a lug-rigged barker, or a bark-riggged lugger, one or the other, and as I went below I heard the captain order the crew to luff.
I cannot say what luffing is, because, when I came on deck again, we had been out for three days. It seemed longer, and I do not at all care for marine life—it interferes sadly with accuracy in astrological observations and with regularity of meals, both of which are hobbies of mine.
On the morning of the fifth day, one of the sailors said out loud, "Land hoe!" and I concluded he was an agriculturist, but had n't time to verify this conclusion because my niece insisted upon being rowed ashore at once. I was not ready to go ashore, but she preferred not to go alone, and so we went together.
As we rowed into a beautiful bay surrounded by the customary palm-trees, a sentinel on shore said, "Boat ahoy!"
I answered pleasantly, "Boat ahoy."
"What boat is that?" he inquired.
"It's just an ordinary boat," I answered.
"What boat is it?" he asked aeain.
"I'm sure I don't know," said I. "What do you want to know for?"
"If you don't answer the hail, I 'll fire on you!" he said sternly.
"I'm answering as fast as I can," I replied good-naturedly. "What do you expect me to say?"
At this he raised his crossbow and leveled it (I think that is the technical term employed by military men) at the boat,—in fact, at me.
"Come ashore!" he cried in a peremptory tone.
"We are coming," I answered. He seemed very obtuse and unreasonable, but I make it a point never to quarrel with soldiers on duty. We landed at a little neat quay, and were received by the comrades of the conversationalist with the crossbow.
They surrounded us in a very attentive way and said, "Forward, march!"
We started. I was a trifle uneasy about our destination, and ventured to inquire of my niece where she thought we were going. She admitted that she did n't know, and added languidly that she did n't feel like talking. So on we went in silence for about half an hour. Then I asked the captain of the guard,—I knew he was the captain because he would n't keep step,—and he told me we were going to the Palace. I asked whether it was far. He said it was about as far as any place he ever saw, and suggested that I should keep my breath for walking. I despise useless taciturnity, but followed his advice under protest. We walked on for another half-hour, and then just as I had concluded to refuse further pedestrianism, we saw in the distance several minarets from the top of which pennants were rippling in the breeze.
"That's the Palace," said the captain.
In a few minutes we came to a lofty wall, and a gate guarded by two Ethiopians in fancy dress, each carrying a curved sword.
"Your sword is bent, my friend," I said to one of them.
He scowled and looked uneasily at it.
"Why don't you have a straight one?—it would reach farther," I went on, "and it is really curious why so many of the Eastern nations prefer—"
I was interrupted. He tried to cut my head off, and if he had used a straight sword would have succeeded. I dodged him. remarking, without loss of dignity, "You see, now, that illustrates what—"
My niece here pulled me by my robe, and I dropped the subject. They rolled up the gate, a kind of portcullis, and we entered. I should like to describe the courtyard in detail, but as I had left my spectacles at home, having forgotten them in our hasty embarkation, I could not see anything but a confused blur of colors.
Going up some very tiresome stairways, we were led into a vast audience-room and brought before a kind of king or something—one of those men who sit on fancy chairs and order people around.
"Whom have you brought before us?' asked this very consequential individual.
"Lord of—" began the captain in a second-tenor voice.
"Tut, tut!" said the King. "Who are they?"
"Royal and Imperial—" said the captain.
"And so forth," rejoined the monarch; "thanks! Who are they?"
"I don't know," said the captain.
"Where from?" said the King.
"I don't know," said the captain.
"What do they want?" asked the King.
"I don't know," answered the officer.
"Enough," said the King, hastily; "we are satisfied that your specialty is honest ignorance. We appoint you Court Historian."
The captain bowed low.
"Return to your post for the present; and forget as much as you can until you are called upon to assume your new duties." The captain withdrew.
"Now," said the King to me, "who are you?"
"An astrologer, your Highness," I answered with some natural pride.
"A star-gazer, eh?" he said pleasantly. "Well, what did you come here for?"
"I don't know," I answered after a moment's reflection.
The King seemed vexed.
"Does anybody know anything about anything in particular?" he asked with fine sarcasm. It made me shake in my sandals, especially as the headsman, who was standing beside the King, here tightened his belt and took a large and shiny ax from a page at his left.
But, as usual, my niece came to the rescue, and said, in her quiet and unpretending way, that she knew considerable about several things. The headsman looked at her very keenly, handed the ax back to the page, and said in a low tone that he was going out to luncheon. He went.
"Well, well," said the King. "Suppose you tell us about this?"
To my surprise my niece said that she had come to his kingdom to marry the prince.
Naturally the King was a little put out. It seemed sudden to him, no doubt. I am sure it did to me. He was lost in thought for a few moments, and then said absently:
"Oh!—yes. Well, where's—the—the headsman?"
"Gone to luncheon, your Majestic Majesty," answered the page.
"Very inconvenient," said the King, looking annoyed. "He's never here when he's needed. No matter. This amuses us. We find this novel and—yes—amusing in a way. We must get sport from this. Young woman," said he to my niece, "if you can sit down for a few moments, the executioner will be back, and he will attend to you first. The astrologer can afford to give you precedence. He won't have long to wait. The audience is over. I 'll be at the executions this afternoon."
"Long live the King!" cried the crowd.
Then a brass band struck up "Pop Goes the Weasel," and the audience-room was emptied. Soon we were alone with the guards. They had no captain, and seemed at a loss to know what to do next. My niece sat in a very comfortable chair playing a curious game which she invented herself. It was a round box with little partitions in it, and four or five marbles rolling around between them. She would try to make the marbles roll into a little box in the center. She seemed much amused by it. It appeared stupid to me. I wondered how long we should have to wait there. The noise of the marbles made me nervous.
At this moment the captain, or rather the Court Historian, came in.
"Shoulder arms!" he said sharply. The men obeyed. "Conduct the prisoners to the donjon!" he went on.
"This is all right," I said. "I suppose you know your own business. But it seems to me that you are acting queerly for a Court Historian!"
"It is all right," he said. "I have forgotten all about that. So has the King. Forward march!"
We were escorted to the donjon.
Don't ever go to a donjon if you can help it. We stayed there the rest of the day. I was looking through the bars, and my niece said nothing until late in the afternoon. Then she told me she had got them all in.
"You have got us all in," I said, with bitter meaning. She laughed.
After a while the guards came and told us to prepare for instant execution. I pointed out the illogical absurdity of "preparing for instant execution," but they could n't see it, and, as it only annoyed them and set them to talking about some "old crank," I saw they cared more for mechanics than for logic, and said nothing further. What a number of dull people there are in foreign climes!
We followed them along some very damp corridors which needed whitewashing, and soon came to a large plaza. I could not see very well, but I heard many voices saying, "Here they come!" "Bring them out!" "See the old fogy!"—by which they must have meant the captain, I suppose.
It suddenly occurred to me that possibly they meant to execute me and my niece. My mind sometimes will grasp an idea with breathless celerity. It was an annoying experience, and I resolved to avoid the scaffold, if it were possible to do so without loss of dignity or the family prestige.
"My dear child," said I to my niece, "has it occurred to you that they have invited us out to an afternoon execution, and that they mean to chop our heads off?"
She admitted that they seemed to think they were, but begged me to give myself no uneasiness, promising to see that no harm came of our little pleasure-excursion. Young girls are so rash!—but my niece always takes me with her.
"But what is this absurdity about a prince?" I asked.
She said it was no absurdity at all. That she had come to marry the prince, and would marry the prince—if she liked his looks.
"Have n't you seen him?" I asked in some surprise.
She shook her head, and then assured me again that I need not be uneasy—that the whole journey was her own plan, and she felt sure of its ultimate success. It is not profitable to argue with a person who pays no attention to what you say, and who never on any account does anything you think it best to do, so I said no more.
Amid renewed jeers, we climbed the steps to the scaffold.
The headsman was waiting for us. His ax looked very large to me, but he seemed strong enough to handle it. The King was there, and was plainly in a hurry to get away, for he said with some attempt at pleasantry:
"Now, then, Headsman, here's the young lady who wishes to marry the prince. Off she goes,—and then for the old star-gazer!"
I thought his remarks were not in the best of taste. They put my niece's head upon the block, the headsman raised his ax, and the ax-head immediately flew off in the form of a black crow, saying, "Caw!"
The headsman looked after it with much interest.
"Never," said he with emphasis, "in the whole course of my professional experience, did I ever see anything like that."
"My niece," I said, "is certainly not an ordinary girl. You 'll all admit that, I am sure, when you have known her as long as I have."
The headsman sent the page for another ax. The people waited in silence, hardly knowing what had taken place. The King seemed to enjoy the experience. It was something new, and kings (at least all the kings I know) are terribly bored, and fond of novelty. He clapped his hands and called out, "Brava!"
The crowd separated at one point and the page arrived with the spare ax. The headsman handled it with the caressing hand of an artist, poised it lightly in the air, and brought it down with a swish upon my niece's swanlike neck. I had a swanlike neck when younger.
"Huzza!" cried the hireling crowd. But they had shouted too soon. As the keen edge neared her golden ringlets, the ax-head left the handle and becoming a garland of flowers encircled her neck in a really effective manner. I could not but admire the esthetic value of the colors against her fair skin. Old men are somewhat forgetful, and I do not distinctly recall whether I have mentioned my niece's beauty. It is a family characteristic, and in my young days I was universally admitted to be the handsomest astrologer in our parish.
The King had by this time lost his temper. "He had come out," as he remarked in high dudgeon, "to see an execution—not to witness an exhibition of legerdemain!" (His choice of language was always excellent, by the way.) So now he rose to his feet, and ordered the guards to seize the prisoners.
The guards were arranged in a hollow square around the scaffold, and at the word of command they pointed some very jagged halberds and other painful poking instruments in our direction. I looked at my niece with some misgiving, but apparently she was quite able to take care of herself. She stood up also, and pronounced some magical words. I do not really know just what they were. In fact, she had rather gone ahead of me in the text-books, and could do a number of things which I should not like to attempt. Probably, if I had been in her situation, I should have disappeared from view, or changed myself into a humming-bird or a dragon-fly,—something with wings, you know,—and soared gently away into the blue ether. But she was not satisfied with ordinary magical charms. She took most of hers from the Appendix in the back of the book, and usually aimed at the more picturesque methods.This time I heard her silvery laugh, and I looked with curiosity at the advancing guards. When they began their short march they were veterans. After a few steps they became recruits. A few steps more, and they were cadets, and so it went on. They became boys and then toddlers; and finally, when they reached the foot of the platform, they were babies, creeping on all fours and crying and cooing.
Those babes in uniform were very ridiculous. After a great shout of laughter, some of the women in the crowd picked up the helpless infants and bore them away in their arms. I afterward learned that the foundling asylum was much overcrowded that night.
This last experience seemed to open the King's eyes to the peculiarities of my niece's disposition. He realized that she must be coaxed rather than driven. I do not mean to say he told me so, for in all the course of our acquaintance we did not exchange a dozen words. He called me the "star-gazer," and seemed to think me rather a fussy old fellow. Perhaps he was right,—my horoscope indicated something of the kind.
The populace had now run away, and the King and a few courtiers came to the foot of the platform and invited us to come to the Palace and make ourselves at home. The King offered his arm to my niece, and she took it with an ease of manner which she inherited from her grandfather. My father was a sorcerer, and of the very best school. All his house-work was done by familiars, and genii did the farm-work and ran errands.
When the King had escorted my niece and her uncle to the private audience-room, we sat down to a very well-served table, and then the King and my niece came to an understanding. I heard only the last part of the conversation.
"You cannot marry my son!" said the King, decidedly. "It's against all precedent."
My niece said in her winning way that she did n't care a button for precedent, and that several great men had called attention to the fact that there could n't be a precedent for anything the first time it was done.
"I won't argue," said the King; "but I will only say, I forbid it."
Then, to my secret amusement, my niece said very sweetly, as she toyed with a sprig of celery, that she was not fond of argument herself, and therefore would only say that she would then and there turn the king into a canvasback duck, unless he consented to the wedding.
"I defy you!" said the King.
My niece clapped her hands, and he became a canvasback duck.
"This is preposterous!" said the duck in a rage.
My niece giggled.
"It is monstrous!" said the duck, walking bow-legged around the table.
I joined in the mirth. "Star-gazer," indeed!
"It is high treason!" insisted the royal fowl.
My niece rose from the table. The duck looked at her in perplexity. Then he said:
"I give in. Please fix me straight again."
She clapped her hands, and he regained his shape.
"Now," said he uneasily, "I am a man—of my word. Send for my son."
Several admirals, dukes, and footmen started for the door, but the seneschal had a good lead, and soon returned, ushering in a young man whose physical perfections were not noticed only because of his graceful bearing and exquisite air of high breeding and royal intelligence. When I saw him I had a curious remembrance of having seen him before. But it was a mistake. I was thinking of a certain beautiful miniature of myself, which my father had given me on my twenty-first birthday.
"Come in," said the King pleasantly. "This, my son, is your promised bride. She is the niece of this old gentleman. He is a star-gazer. Bow to your uncle-in-law. The wedding will take place to-morrow. Good evening, young people. Good evening, star-gazer."
He retired through the cloth-of-gold portière, and the prince, by his courtly bearing, soon put us all at our ease. At first his manner, while with my niece, was just a trifle constrained; but at 12.45 a. m. when I went to bed, they had eaten twelve philopenas and had ordered the yawning butler to bring more almonds.
Next morning a grand procession set forth for the cathedral. I, however, with her permission, remained at home and watched the event through my second-best magic telescope, with which one can look around two corners and through a thin stone wall.
I will briefly describe what took place. The King must have spent the night in plotting mischief, for he had gathered together a large army, and secured the services of several witches, enchanters, exorcists, and so on. Just as the ceremony was to be performed, these myrmidons surrounded the bridal party and attempted to seize my niece. I was not alarmed, for I had much confidence in her presence of mind and her readiness of resource in emergencies.
Just as they gathered around her, she began to grow larger. Soon she increased so enormously that she took the prince up in one hand, put him under her arm, and walked in a leisurely way down the aisle. He did not seem to object. In fact, he had previously done his best to protect her, and had knocked down one witch with her own broomstick early in the proceedings.
Still my niece continued to grow. She rose to the top of the cathedral, put her golden ringlets through the roof, and the slates began to tumble upon the people below. How they scattered!
At this moment the King begged for pardon, and promised reformation and acquiescence—at least I judged so from his attitude. Upon the disappearance of the rabble, my niece regained her proper size; and after the wedding-party was brought together again, she became a lovely bride, shrinking and tender.
When the bridal couple came down the aisle, they were beautiful. I threw down the glass and hastened to meet them at the palace gate.
The prince seemed very happy, and so did the princess—my niece. I felt that I was safe in leaving her to her husband's care, and I set sail the next day for home.
I have received a letter from her since. It told many particulars of her new life, and described her husband's flawless character and disposition at some length. This was the postscript:
P. S.—Jack says (John is my husband's name—one of them) that magic is beneath the dignity of a married woman. I think so, too, and have promised to give it up, maybe. The King is an old duck—not a canvasback, you know. He sends his love to the "star-gazer."
I feel lonely without her. One could not be long dull in her company. Astrology, too, is not what it once was—there is too much cutting of rates and competition.
May my dear niece be happy, for certainly she married the man of her choice!