The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 3/Maya, the Princess

Featured in Vol 1., No.3 of The Atlantic Monthly. (January 1858)

MAYA, THE PRINCESS.

The sea floated its foam-caps upon the gray shore, and murmured its inarticulate love-stories all day to the dumb rocks above; the blue sky was bordered with saffron sunrises, pink sunsets, silver moon-fringes, or spangled with careless stars; the air was full of south-winds that had fluttered the hearts of a thousand roses and a million violets with long, deep kisses, and then flung the delicate odors abroad to tell their exploits, and set the butterflies mad with jealousy, and the bees crazy with avarice. And all this bloom was upon the country of Larrièrepensée, when Queen Lura's little daughter came to life in the Topaz Palace that stood on Sunrise Hills, and was King Joconde's summer pavilion.

Now there was no searching far and wide for godfathers, godmothers, and a name, as there is when the princesses of this world are born: for, in the first place, Larrièrepensée was a country of pious heathen, and full of fairies; the people worshipped an Idea, and invited the fairy folk to all their parties, as we who are proper here invite the clergy; only the fairy folk did not get behind the door, or leave the room, when dancing commenced.

And the reason why this princess was born to a name, as well as to a kingdom, was, that, long ago, the people who kept records in Larrièrepensée were much troubled by the ladies of that land never growing old: they staid at thirty for ten years; at forty, for twenty; and all died before fifty, which made much confusion in dates,—especially when some women were called upon to tell traditions, the only sort of history endured in that kingdom; because it was against the law to write either lies or romances, though you might hear and tell them, if you would, and some people would; although to call a man a historian there was the same thing as to say, "You lie!" here.

But as I was saying, this evergreen way into which the women fell caused much trouble, and the Twelve Sages made a law that for six hundred years every female child born in any month of the seventy-two hundred following should be named by the name ordained for that month; and then they made a long list, containing seventy-two hundred names of women, and locked it up in the box of Great Designs, which stood always under the king's throne; and thenceforward, at the beginning of every month, the Twelve Sages unlocked the box, consulted the paper, and sent a herald through the town to proclaim the girl-name for that month. So this saved a world of trouble; for if some wrinkled old maid should say, "And that happened long ago, some time before I was born," all her gossips laughed, and cried out, "Ho! ho! there's a historian! do we not all know you were a born Allia, ten years before that date?"—and then the old maid was put to shame.

Now it happened well for Queen Lura's lovely daughter, that on herbirth-month was written the gracious name of Maya, for it seemed well to fit her grace and delicacy, while but few in that country knew its sad Oriental depth, or that it had any meaning at all.

It was all one flush of dawn upon Sunrise Hills, when the maids-of-honor, in curls and white frocks, began to strew the great Hall of Amethyst with geranium leaves, and arrange light tripods of gold for the fairies, who were that day gathered from all Larrièrepensée to see and gift the new princess. The Queen had written notes to them on spicy magnolia-petals, and now the head-nurse and the grand-equerry wheeled her couch of state into the Hall of Amethyst, that she might receive the tender wishes of the good fairies, while yet the sweet languor of her motherhood kept her from the fresh wind and bright dew out of doors.

The couch of state was fashioned like a great rose of crimson velvet; only where there should have been the gold anthers of the flower lay the lovely Queen, wrapped in a mantle of canary-birds' down, and nested on one arm slept the Child of the Kingdom, Maya. Presently a cloud of honey-bees swept through the wide windows, and settling upon the ceiling began a murmurous song, when, one by one, the flower-fairies entered, and flitting to their tripods, each garlanded with her own blossom, awaited the coming of their Head,—the Fairy Cordis.

As the Queen perceived their delay, a sudden pang crossed her pale and tranquil brow.

"Ah!" said she, to the nurse-in-chief, Mrs. Lita, "my poor baby, Maya! What have I done? I have neglected to ask the Fairy Anima, and now she will come in anger, and give my child an evil gift, unless Cordis hastens!"

"Do not fear, Madam!" said Mrs. Lita, "your nerves are weak,—take a little cordial."

So she gave the Queen a red glass full of honeybell whiskey; but she called it a fine name, like Rose-dew, or Tears-of-Flax, and then Queen Lura drank it down nicely;—so much depends on names, even in Larrièrepensée!

But as Mrs. Lita set away the glass, the bees upon the ceiling began to buzz in a most angry manner, and rally about the queen-bee; the south-wind cried round the palace corner; and a strange light, like the sun shining when it rains, threw a lurid glow over the graceful fairy forms. Then the door of the hall flung open, and a beautiful, wrathful shape crossed the threshold;—it was the Fairy Anima. Where she gathered the gauzes that made her rainbow vest, or the water-diamonds that gemmed her night-black hair, or the sun-fringed cloud of purple that was her robe, no fay or mortal knew; but they knew well the power of her presence, and grew pale at her anger.

With swift feet she neared the couch of state, but her steps lingered as she saw within those crimson leaves the delicate, fear-pale face of the Queen, and her sleeping child.

"Always rose-folded!" she murmured, "and I tread the winds abroad! A fair bud, and I am but a stately stem! You were foolish and frail, Queen Lura, that you sent me no word of your harvest-time; now I come angry. Show me the child!"

Mrs. Lita, with awed steps, drew near, and lifted the baby in her arms, and the child's soft hazel eyes looked with grave innocence at Anima. Truly, the Princess was a lovely piece of nature: her hair, like fine silk, fell in dark, yet gilded tresses from her snow-white brow; her eyes were thoughtless, tender, serene; her lips red as the heart of a peach; her skin so fair that it seemed stained with violets where the blue veins crept lovingly beneath; and her dimpled cheeks were flushed with sleep like the sunset sky.

Anima looked at the baby.—"Ah! too much, too much!" said she. "Queen Lura, a butterfly can eat honey only; let us have a higher life for the Princess of Larrièrepensée. Maya, I give thee for a birth-gift another crown. Receive the Spark!"

Queen Lura shrieked; but Anima stretching out her wand, a snake of black diamonds, with a blood-red head, touched the child's eyes, and from the serpent's rapid tongue a spark of fire darted into either eye, and sunk deeper and deeper,—for two tears flowed above, and hung on Maya's silky lashes, as she looked with a preternatural expression of reproach at the Fairy.

Now all was confusion. Queen Lura tried to faint,—she knew it was proper,—and the grand-equerry rang all the palace bells in a row. Anima gave no glance at the little Princess, who still sat upright in Mrs. Lita's petrified arms, but went proudly from the hall alone.

The flower-fairies dropped their wands with one sonorous clang upon the floor, and with bitter sighs and wringing hands flitted one after another to the portal, bewailing, as they went, their wasted gifts and powers.

"Why should I give her beauty?" cried the Fairy Rose; "all eyes will be dazzled with the Spark; who will know on what form it shines?"

So the red rose dropped and died.

"Why should I bring her innocence?" said the Fairy Lily; "the Spark will burn all evil from her, thought and deed!"

Then the white lily dropped and died.

"Is there any use to her in grace?" wept the Fairy Eglantine; "the Spark will melt away all mortal grossness, till she is light and graceful as the clouds above."

And the eglantine wreaths dropped and died.

"She will never want humility," said the Fairy Violet; "for she will find too soon that the Spark is a curse as well as a crown!"

So the violet dropped and died.

Then the Sun-dew denied her pity; the blue Forget-me not, constancy; the Iris, pride; the Butter-cup, gold; the Passion-flower, love; the Amaranth, hope: all because the Spark should gift her with every one of these, and burn the gift in deeply. So they all dropped and died; and she could never know the flowers of life,—only its fires.

But in the end of all this flight came a ray of consolation, like the star that heralds dawn, springing upward on the skirt of night's blackest hour. The raging bees that had swarmed upon the golden chandelier returned to the ceiling and their song; the scattered flowers revived and scented the air: for the Fairy Cordis came,—too late, but welcome; her face bright with flushes of vivid, but uncertain rose,—her deep gray eyes brimming with motherhood, a sister's fondness, and the ardor of a child. The tenderest garden-spider-webs made her a robe, full of little common blue-eyed flowers, and in her gold-brown hair rested a light circle of such blooms as beguile the winter days of the poor and the desolate, and put forth their sweetest buds by the garret window, or the bedside of a sick man.

Mrs. Lita nearly dropped the baby, in her great relief of mind; but Cordis caught it, and looked at its brilliant face with tears.

"Ah, Head of the Fairies, help me!" murmured Queen Lura, extending her arms toward Cordis; for she had kept one eye open wide enough to see what would happen while she fainted away.

"All I can, I will," said the kindly fairy, speaking in the same key that a lark sings in. So she sat down upon a white velvet mushroom and fell to thinking, while Maya, the Princess, looked at her from the rose where she lay, and the Queen, having pushed her down robe safely out of the way, leaned her head on her hand, and very properly cried as much as six tears.

Soon, like a sunbeam, Cordis looked up. "I can give the Princess a counter-charm, Queen Lura," said she,—"but it is not sure. Look you! she will have a lonely life,—for the Spark burns, as well as shines, and the only way to mend that matter is to give the fire better fuel than herself. For some long years yet, she must keep herself in peace and the shade; but when she is a woman, and the Spark can no more be hidden,—since to be a woman is to have power and pain,—then let her veil herself, and with a staff and scrip go abroad into the world, for her time is come. Now in this kingdom of Larrièrepensée there stand many houses, all empty, but swept and garnished, and a fire laid ready on the hearth for the hand of the Coming to kindle. But sometimes, nay, often, this fire is a cheat: for there be men who carve the semblance of it in stone, and are so content to have the chill for the blaze all their lives; and on some hearths the logs are green wood, set up before their time; and on some they are but ashes, for the fire has burned and died, and left the ghostly shape of boughs behind; and sometimes, again, they are but icicles clothed in bark, to save the shame of the possessor. But there are some hearths laid with dry and goodly timber; and if the Princess Maya does not fail, but chooses a real and honest heap of wood, and kindles it from the Spark within her, then will she have a most perfect life; for the fire that consumes her shall leave its evil work, and make the light and warmth of a household, and rescue her forever from the accursed crown of the Spark. But I grieve to tell you, yet one of my name cannot lie—if the Princess mistake the false for the true, if she flashes her fire upon stone, or ice, or embers, either the Spark will recoil and burn her to ashes, or it will die where she placed it and turn her to stone, or—worst fate of all, yet likeliest to befall the tenderest and best—it will reënter her at her lips, and turn her whole nature to the bitterness of gall, so that neither food shall refresh her, sleep rest her, water quench her thirst, nor fire warm her body. Is it worth the trial? or shall she live and burn slowly to her death, with the unquenchable fire of the Spark?"

"Ah! let her, at the least, try for that perfect life," said Queen Lura.

Then the Fairy Cordis drew from her delicate finger a ring of twisted gold, in which was set an opal wrought into the shape of a heart, and in it palpitated, like throbbing blood, one scarlet flash of flame.

"Let her keep this always on her hand," said Cordis. "It will serve to test the truth of the fire she strives to kindle; for if it be not true wood, this heart will grow cold, the throb cease, the glow become dim. The talisman may, will, save her, unless in the madness of joy she forget to ask its aid, or the Spark flashing upon its surface seems to create anew the fire within, and thus deceives her."

So the Fairy put the ring upon Queen Lura's hand, and kissed Maya's fair brow, already shaded with sleep. The bees upon the ceiling followed her, dropping honey as they went; the maids-of-honor wheeled away the couch of state; the castle-maids swept up the fading leaves and blossoms, drew the tulip-tree curtains down, fastened the great door with a sandal-wood bar, sprinkled the corridors with rosewater; and by moonrise, when the nightingales sung loud from the laurel thickets, all the country slept,—even Maya; but the Spark burned bright, and she dreamed.

So the night came on, and many another night, and many a new day,—till Maya, grown a girl, looked onward to the life before her with strange foreboding, for still the Spark burned.

Hitherto it had been but a glad light on all things, except men and women; for into their souls the Spark looked too far, and Maya's open brow was shadowed deeply and often with sorrows not her own, and her heart ached many a day for pains she could not or dared not relieve; but if she were left alone, the illumination of the Spark filled everything about her with glory. The sky's rapturous blue, the vivid tints of grass and leaves, the dismaying splendor of blood-red roses, the milky strawberry-flower, the brilliant whiteness of the lily, the turquoise eyes of water-plants,—all these gave her a pleasure intense as pain; and the songs of the winds, the love-whispers of June midnights, the gathering roar of autumn tempests, the rattle of thunder, the breathless and lurid pause before a tropic storm,—all these the Spark enhanced and vivified; till, seeing how blest in herself and the company of Nature the Child of the Kingdom grew, Queen Lura deliberated silently and long whether she should return the gift of the Fairy Cordis, and let Maya live so tranquil and ignorant forever, or whether she should awaken her from her dreams, and set her on her way through the world.

But now the Princess Maya began to grow pale and listless. Her eyes shone brighter than ever, but she was consumed with a feverish longing to see new and strange things. On her knees, and weeping, she implored her mother to release her from the court routine, and let her wander in the woods and watch the village children play.

So Queen Lura, having now another little daughter, named Maddala, who was just like all other children, and a great comfort to her mother, was the more inclined to grant Maya's prayer. She therefore told Maya all that was before her, and having put upon her tiny finger the fairy-ring, bade the tiring-woman take off her velvet robe, and the gold circlet in her hair, and clothe her in a russet suit of serge, with a gray kirtle and hood. King Joconde was gone to the wars. Queen Lura cried a little, the Princess Maddala laughed, and Maya went out alone,—not lonely, for the Spark burned high and clear, and showed all the legends written on the world everywhere, and Maya read them as she went.

Out on the wide plain she passed many little houses; but through all their low casements the red gleam of a fire shone, and on the door-steps clustered happy children, or a peasant bride with warm blushes on her cheek sat spinning, or a young mother with pensive eyes lulled her baby to its twilight sleep and sheltered it with still prayers.

One of these kindly cottages harbored Maya for the night; and then her way at dawn lay through a vast forest, where the dim tree-trunks stretched far away till they grew undefined as a gray cloud, and only here and there the sunshine strewed its elf-gold on ferns and mosses, feathery and soft as strange plumage and costly velvet. Sometimes a little brook with bubbling laughter crept across her path and slid over the black rocks, gurgling and dimpling in the shadow or sparkling in the sun, while fish, red and gold-speckled, swam noiseless as dreams, and darting water-spiders, poised a moment on the surface, cast a glittering diamond reflection on the yellow sand beneath.

The way grew long, and Maya weary. The new leaves of opalescent tint shed odors of faint and passionate sweetness; the birds sang love-songs that smote the sense like a caress; a warm wind yearned and complained in the pine boughs far above her; yet her heart grew heavy, and her eyes dim; she was sick for home;—not for the palace and the court; not for her mother and Maddala; but for home;—she knew her exile, and wept to return.

That night, and for many nights, she slept in the forest; and when at length she came out upon the plain beyond, she was pale and wan, her dark eyes drooped, her slender figure was bowed and languid, and only the mark upon her brow, where the coronet had fretted its whiteness, betrayed that Maya was a princess born.

And now dwellings began to dot the country: brown cottages, with clinging vines; villas, aërial and cloud-tinted, with pointed roofs and capricious windows; huts, in which some poor wretch from his bed of straw looked out upon the wasteful luxury of his neighbor, and, loathing his bitter crust and turbid water, saw feasts spread in the open air, where tropic fruits and beaded wine mocked his feverish thirst; and palaces of stainless marble, rising tower upon tower, and turret over turret, like the pearly heaps of cloud before a storm, while the wind swept from their gilded lattices bursts of festal music, the chorus that receives a bride, or the triumphal notes of a warrior's return.

All these Maya passed by, for no door was open, and no fireless hearth revealed; but before night dropped her starry veil, she had travelled to a mansion whose door was set wide, and, within, a cold hearth was piled with boughs of oak and beech. The opal upon Maya's finger grew dim, but she moved toward the unlit wood, and at her approach the false pretence betrayed itself; the ice glared before her, and chilled her to the soul, as its shroud of bark fell off. She fled over the threshold, and the house-spirit laughed with bitter mirth; but the Spark was safe.

Now came thronging streets, and many an open portal wooed Maya, but wooed in vain. Once, upon the steps of a quaint and picturesque cottage stood an artist, with eyes that flashed heaven's own azure, and lit his waving curls with a gleam of gold. His pleading look tempted the Child of the Kingdom with potent affinities of land and likeness; his fair cottage called her from wall and casement, with the spiritual eyes of ideal faces looking down upon her, forever changeless and forever pure; but when, from purest pity, kindness, and beauty-love, she would have drawn near the hearth, a sigh like the passing of a soul shivered by her, and before its breath the shapely embers fell to dust, the hearth beneath was heaped with ashes, and with tearful lids Maya turned away, and the house-spirit, weeping, closed the door behind her.

Long days and nights passed ere she essayed again; and then, weary and faint with home-woe, she lingered on the steps of a lofty house whose carved door was swung open, whose jasper hearthstone was heaped with goodly logs, and beside it, on the soft flower-strewn skin of a panther, slept a youth beautiful as Adonis, and in his sleep ever murmuring, "Mother!" Maya's heart yearned with a kindred pang. She, too, was orphaned in her soul, and she would gladly have lit the fire upon this lonely hearth, and companioned the solitude of the sleeper; but, alas! the boughs still wore their summer garland, and from each severed end slow tears of dryad-life distilled honeyedly upon the stone beneath. Of such withes and saplings comes no living fire! Maya, smiling, set a kiss upon the boy-sleeper's brow, but the Spark lay quiet, and the house-spirit flung a blooming cherry-bough after its departing guest.

The year was now wellnigh run. The Princess Maya despaired of home. The earth seemed a harsh stepmother, and its children rather stones than clay. A vague sense of some fearful barrier between herself and her kind haunted the woman's soul within her, and the unquenchable flames of the Spark seemed to girdle her with a defence that drove away even friendly ingress. Night and day she wept, oppressed with loneliness. She knew not how to speak the tongues of men, though well she understood their significance. Only little children mated rightly with her divine infancy; only the mute glories of nature satisfied for a moment her brooding soul. The celestial impulses within her beat their wings in futile longing for freedom, and with inexpressible anguish she uttered her griefs aloud, or sung them to such plaintive strains that all who heard wept in sympathy. Yet she had no home.

After many days she came upon a broad, champaign, fertile land, where, on a gentle knoll, among budding orchards, and fields green with winter grains, stood a low, wide-eaved house, with gay parterres and clipped hedges around it, all ordered with artistic harmony, while over chimney and cornice crept wreaths of glossy ivy, every deep green leaf veined with streaks of light, and its graceful sprays clasping and clinging wherever they touched the chiselled stone beneath. Upon the lawn opened a broad, low door, and the southern sun streamed inward, showing the carved panels of the fireplace and its red hearth, where heavy boughs of wood and splinters from the heart of the pine lay ready for the hand of the Coming to kindle. Upon the threshold, plucking out the dead leaves of the ivy, stood one from whose face strength, and beauty, and guile that the guileless knew not, shone sunlike upon Maya; and as she faltered and paused, he spoke a welcome to her in her own language, and held toward her the clasping hand of help. A thrill of mad joy cleft the heart of the Princess, a glow of incarnate summer dyed with rose her cheek and lip, the Spark blazed through her brimming eyes, weariness vanished. "Home! home!" sung her rapt lips; and in the delirious ecstasy of the hour she pressed toward the hearth, laid down her scrip and staff upon the heaped wood, flung herself on the red stone, and, heedless of the opal talisman, flashed outward from her joyful eyes the Spark,—the Crown, the Curse! So a forked tongue of lightning speeds from its rain-fringed cloud, and cleaves the oak to its centre; so the blaze of a meteor rushes through mid-heaven, and—is gone! The Spark lit, quivered, sunk, and flashed again; but the wood lay unlighted beneath it. Maya gasped for breath, and with the long respiration the Spark returned, lit upon her lips, seared them like a hot iron, and entered into her heart,—the blighting canker of her fate, a bitterness in flesh and spirit forevermore.

Writhing with anguish and contempt, she turned away from the wrought stone whose semblance had beguiled her to her mortal loss; and as she passed from the step, another hand lit a consuming blaze beneath her staff and scrip, sending a sword of flame after her to the threshold, and the house-spirit shrieked aloud, "Only stones together strike fire, Maya!"—while from the casement above looked forth two faces, false and fair, with eyes of azure ice, and disdainful smiles, and bound together by a curling serpent, that ringed itself in portentous symbol about their waists.

With star-like eyes, proud lips, and erect head, Maya went out. Her laugh rang loud; her song soared in wild and mocking cadence to the stars; her rigid brow wore scorn like a coronal of flame; and with a scathed nature she trod the streets of the city, mixed with its wondering crowds, made the Spark a blaze and a marvel in all lands,—but hid the opal in her bosom; for its scarlet spot of life-blood had dropped away, and the jewel was broken across.

So the wide world heard of Maya, the Child of the Kingdom, and from land to land men carried the stinging arrows of her wit, or signalled the beacon-fires of her scorn, while seas and shores unknown echoed her mad and rapt music, or answered the veiled agony that derided itself with choruses of laughter, from every mystic whisper of the wave, or roar of falling headlands.

And then she fled away, lest, in the turbulent whirl of life, the Curse should craze, and not slay her. For sleep had vanished with wordless moans and frighted aspect from her pillow,—or if it dared, standing afar off, to cast its pallid shadow there, still there was neither rest nor refreshing in the troubled spell. Nor could the thirst that consumed her quench itself with red wine or crystal water, translucent grapes or the crimson fruits that summer kisses into sweetness with her heats; forever longing, and forever unsated, it parched her lips and burnt her gasping mouth, but there was no draught to allay it. And even so food failed of its office. Kindly hands brought to her, whose queenliness asserted itself to their souls with an innocent loftiness, careless of pomp or insignia, all delicate dates and exquisite viands; but neither the keen and stimulating odors of savory meat, the crisp whiteness of freshest bread, nor the slow-dropping gold of honeycomb could tempt her to eat. The simplest peasant's fare, in measure too scanty for a linnet, sustained her life; but the Curse lit even upon her food, and those lips of fire burned all things in their touch to tasteless ashes.

So she fled away; for the forest was cool and lonely, and even as she learned the lies and treacheries of men, so she longed to leave them behind her and die in bitterness less bitter for its solitude. But Maya fled not from herself: the winds wailed like the crying of despair in her harp-voiced pines; the shining oak-leaves rustled hisses upon her unstrung ear; the timid forest-creatures, who own no rule but patient love and caresses, hid from her defiant step and dazzling eye; and when she knew herself in no wise healed by the ministries of Nature, in the very apathy of desperation she flung herself by the clear fountain that had already fallen upon her lips and cooled them with bitter water, and hiding her head under the broad, fresh leaves of a calla that bent its marble cups above her knitted brow and loosened hair, she lay in deathlike trance, till the Fairy Anima swept her feet with fringed garments, and cast the serpent wand writhing and glittering upon her breast.

"Wake, Maya!" said the organ-tones of the Spark-Bringer; and Maya awoke.

"So! the Spark galls thee?" resumed those deep, bitter-sweet tones; and for answer the Princess Maya held toward her, with accusing eyes, the broken, bloodless opal.

"Cordis's folly!" retorted Anima. "Thou hadst done best without it, Maya; the Spark abides no other fate but shining. Yet there is a little hope for thee. Wilt thou die of the bitter fire, or wilt thou turn beggar-maid? The sleep that charity lends to its couch shall rest thee; the draught a child brings shall slake thy thirst; the food pity offers shall strengthen and renew. But these are not the gifts a Princess receives; she who gathers them must veil the Crown, shroud the Spark, conceal the Curse, and in torn robes, with bare and bleeding feet, beg the crumbs of life from door to door. Wilt thou take up this trade?"

Maya rose up from the leaves of the cool lily, and put aside the veiling masses of her hair.

"I will go!" she whispered, flutelike, for hope beat a living pulse in her brain.

So with scrip and hood she went out of the forest and begged of the world's bounty such life as a beggar-maid may endure.

Long ago the King and Queen died in Larrièrepensée, and there the Princess Maddala reigns with a goodly Prince beside her, nor cares for her lost sister; but songless, discrowned, desolate, Maya walks the earth.

All ye whose fires burn bright on the hearth, whose dwellings ring with child-laughter, or are hushed with love-whispers and the peace of home, pity the Princess Maya! Give her food and shelter; charm away the bitter flames that consume her life and soul; drop tears and alms together into the little wasted hand that pleads with dumb eloquence for its possessor; and even while ye pity and protect, revere that fretted mark of the Crown that still consecrates to the awful solitude of sorrow Maya, the Child of the Kingdom!

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.