Steve/Tony Snow Queen, part III @ 06:04 pm
As with the previous installments, some content has been paraphrased & quoted from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."
Story the First: The Steel Mirror
Story the Second: The Soldier and the Smith
Story the Third: Of the Library At the Young Woman's Who Understood Witchcraft
4) The Prince and the Princess
The soldier walked and walked, until he had left the witch's cottage far behind. The farther he walked, the colder it became, until snow swirled around him and the sky overhead became the color of lead. He walked until his red boots were worn and cracked, and had his feet not been toughened by years of marching, they would surely have been sore and blistered.
He slept under hedges and beneath pine boughs, and he ate no food but handfuls of nuts and the witch's apple, one bite of which was as good as an entire meal, for an apple from a witch's garden is imbued with virtues not to be found in more ordinary fruit.
The soldier rested but little, fearing to waste any time on his journey lest he arrive in the frozen north to find himself too late, but even the most iron-willed of men may grow tired, and so it was that he found himself, many days after leaving the witch, compelled to sit on a stone by a great, snow-covered field and rest his feet, for the boots were quite battered and abused by now, and snow was staring to seep in through the cracks in the leather.
The apple was quite gone by this time, only the core remaining, and so the soldier threw it away into the field and watched as a few birds came to peck at the seeds.
As he sat, he became aware of a falcon flying in wide circles overhead. It circled for quite some time, and then, when the apple seeds had been eaten and one of the little bird had taken flight in a flurry of wings, it dove quite suddenly and seized hold of the bird in midair. There was a shower of feather, and then the falcon landed in the snow in front of the soldier, with the smaller bird, quite dead, clutched in its sharp talons.
It turned its head this way and that, surveying the soldier with each fierce golden eye in turn, and then it gave one great hop across the snow toward him and set the dead bird on the ground. "Good day," it said. "I owe you thanks for this bird, which you so cleverly lured to you with your appleseeds. I had planned to take it and fly away, but it seemed to me that it might not be good manners to steal your prey thus, so I have brought it to share with you."
The soldier thanked the falcon politely, but declined to partake of the bird.
"Oh, you are generous indeed!" cried the falcon, and he began to tear into his prey with his great, sharp beak. After he had eaten a little of it, he looked up again, and inquired what the soldier was doing out here in the great wide world all alone, if he was not hunting.
And so the soldier told the falcon the whole story of his journey, and of his friend who had gone away. "You fly over the wide world looking for prey," he said, when he had finished his tale. "Perhaps your sharp eyes have seen my friend?"
The falcon nodded its head, and said, "Perhaps I have -- it may be."
"No, do you think you have?" cried the soldier, and had the falcon been a person and not a bird, he would have kissed him, and hugged him almost to death with joy.
"Do not thank me yet," said the falcon. “I believe I know. I think it may be your friend; but he has certainly forgotten you by this time for the princess.”
“Does he live with a princess?” asked the soldier. He felt a sorrowful pang in his heart at the thought that the smith might have forgotten him, but he reminded himself that after all, he had nearly forgotten the smith during his stay in the witch's cottage, and therefore perhaps he deserved it. At the least, it was better to imagine the smith living happily somewhere without him than suffering unknown agonies at the hands of the metal woman.
"I do not know," the falcon admitted. "He may, but then again, perhaps it is not him. I will explain as well as I can."
“In this kingdom where we now are,” he began, “there lives a princess of unusual cleverness. They say she owns as many books as I have feathers, and studies philosophy and art and other such things, and speaks Latin as easily as you please. The late king made his daughter his heir, you see, because his son was the younger of the two, and the crown here always goes to the eldest, so he had her trained in statescraft instead of the usual occupations of young women."
It sounded like a sensible course of action to the soldier, and he found himself interested in the story, though he couldn't help desiring that the falcon would tell it a little more swiftly and reach the part about the smith.
"A short time ago," the falcon continued, "after ruling for several years just as well as any prince could have done, she turned to her advisors and spoke the following words:
‘Why should I not be married?’
‘Why not indeed?’ they said, and so she determined to marry if she could find a husband who knew what to say when he was spoken to, and not one who could only look grand, for that would be tiresome. Then she assembled her entire court together in the palace gardens and told them of her intentions, to much rejoicing and acclaim.
"You may believe that every word I tell you is true,” said the falcon, “for I heard it directly from a tame hawk who is flown by a noble of the princess's court. His sweetheart is a mockingbird who lives in the very palace garden I just told you of, and she saw the entire thing with her own eyes.
“The princess's advisors suggested putting notices in the newspapers, but she declined on the grounds that this would attract too many men of the ordinary sort. Instead, she wrote a proclamation out herself, in Latin, and had it copied out and affixed to the doors of every University in three kingdoms.
"The notice stated that every young man who was handsome was free to visit the castle and speak with the princess; and those who could reply loud enough to be heard when spoken to, were to make themselves quite at home at the palace; but the one who spoke best would be chosen as a husband for the princess."
The soldier expressed surprise at this unusual method of selecting a husband, and the Falcon mantled its feather and said, with a touch of annoyance, "You may believe it or not, but it is all true. I had it from the hawk, who had it from the mockingbird."
“Scholars and alchemists and theologians and other learned men came in crowds, until the palace was quite crowded with men in black gowns, but not one of them was able to meet the requirements. They could all speak very well in a lecture hall, or outside on the streets, but when they stood in the great hall of the palace, surrounded by gilded plasterwork, and rose-red tapestries, and great, silver mirrors that glowed with the light of a thousand candles, and saw the counts and barons in all their finery, and the guards in blue and silver uniforms, they grew nervous, and felt themselves shabby, though they all wore their best academic robes of black silk. And when they were called up to stand before the princess herself, seated on her throne with her golden hair as bright as the candles, they could do nothing but repeat the last thing she had said. And so she soon grew bored with each man, and sent them away.
"There was quite a long line of them reaching from the town-gate to the palace. I went myself to see them,” said the falcon. “They looked very foolish standing there, jabbering away at one another like so many crows, as practice for when they went inside.”
“But my friend! Tell me about my friend!” said the soldier, whose patience had run out at last. “Was he amongst the crowd?”
“Oh, very well," said the falcon, looking slightly put out to have his tale cut short. "Your friend arrived there on the third day, or at least, someone very like him did. He came on foot, and did not wear a black robe like the others. I did not see him myself, but the hawk did, and he says that he was tall and thin, with very dark hair."
“Then it is him!” said the soldier joyfully. "I have found him at last!" And it seemed to him then that the entire dreary winter world became brighter; the snow seemed to sparkle in the sunlight, and the icicles on the bare tree branches to glitter like diamonds.
"I am not finished," said the falcon. "I know from the hawk that he passed through the palace gates, saw the guards in their silver and blue uniforms, and the nobles in all their splendor, but was not the least embarrassed, though his own clothes were faded and worn. He went boldly up to the princess herself, who was seated on a throne entirely covered in mother of pearl, and all the ladies of the court were present with their maids, and all the counts and barons and knights with their servants; and every one of them was dressed so finely that they shone as brightly as the mirrors. Even the servants wore cloth of gold, and they were all so proud that they would not even look at him, because he had come to the palace with ink on his fingers."
“Surely it was soot from his forge,” said the soldier, “or oil from his guns. He used to come to dinner quite grease stained and with soot on his face. But tell me," he went on, "did he win the princess?” and found himself listening anxiously for the answer.
"I am getting to that," said the falcon. "He was quite solemn and not at all afraid, and said he had not come to woo the princess, but to hear her wisdom; and he was as pleased with her as she was with him.”
“Oh, certainly that was him,” said the soldier, “he was so clever; he could do sums in his head, and make anything you pleased out of clockwork. It must be him. Will you show me the way to the palace?”
“It is very easy to ask that,” replied the falcon, “but how are we to manage it? However, I will speak about it to the hawk, and ask his advice; for I must tell you it will be very difficult to gain permission for dusty and worn-down soldier like you to enter the palace.”
“I don't see why it should matter,” said the soldier, “for when my friend hears that I am there, he will come out and invite me in immediately.”
“Wait for me here in the field,” said the falcon. "I believe there is still a nest of field mice under that bush, if you are hungry while I am gone." And he nodded at a snow-covered hawthorn bush, before taking off with a fluttered of barred wings.
The sky had grown dark before the falcon returned, though the moon reflected off the snow so brightly that, indeed, there was nearly as much light to see by as there was in the daytime.
The falcon landed in the snow in front of the soldier once more, and preened his feathers briefly before announcing, "The hawk sends you greeting, and here is a piece of meat he saved out of his dinner for you, in case field mice are not to your taste."
He laid a small, bloody scrap of meat on the snow, and the soldier thanked him solemnly, and told him that he felt quite free from hunger, and that he would be much obliged if the falcon were to eat it himself. "For you have done a great deal of flying for my sake, I am sure."
In truth, he was very hungry indeed, having eaten his last bite of apple some hours ago, but his hunger was not so great as to make raw meat appear enticing.
The falcon thanked him, and ate the meat, after which he cleaned the blood off his beak and talon by dragging them through the snow. "You cannot enter the palace by the front entrance," he said, "for the soldiers in their blue and silver uniforms would surely try and stop you. The princess's younger brother is their captain, and he guards his sister's welfare most faithfully. They say he is a most fearsome young firebrand indeed. But do not worry, I will get you in. The hawk knows of a back staircase that leads to the sleeping apartments, and his sweetheart has stolen the key for him. She flew down and plucked it right out of the princess's hand today as she was walking in the garden."
As the soldier could not fly, he was obliged to walk to the palace, with the falcon flying ahead to show him the way. The moon was high overheard when the two of them reached the palace gardens, its light so bright that the soldier could see perfectly well, and so he had no trouble at all climbing the garden wall.
The garden was full of moonlight, turning the snow-covered flowerbeds into great sheets of silver. The fountains were dry, because of the cold, and the princess's gardeners had set little statues carved of ice atop them to take the place of the streams of water.
The falcon led the soldier to the back door, which stood open a crack, the hawk having already unlocked it. The soldier's heart beat swiftly with anxiety and longing; he felt as if he were a thief, sneaking in like this in the dead of night, yet all he had come for was to see the smith.
'It must be him,' he thought. 'With those soot-smudged hands, and dark hair.' He half-fancied he could see the smith smiling at him already, the way he had used to do before he fell ill; he wore mustache and a very small, pointed beard, just like you might see in a painting by Hals, and it made his teeth look very white.
He would certainly be glad to see him, and to hear what a long distance the soldier had come for his sake, and to know how empty and barren it had been in the city without him.
Such thoughts occupied the solider the entire length of the stair, until he and the falcon reached the first landing, where a lamp was burning. Beside it, perched on a bust of the goddess Minerva, was a tame hawk, with jesses tied round its ankles, turning its head from side to side and gazing at the soldier from first one eye, and then the other.
“The falcon has spoken very highly of you,” said the tame hawk. “Myself, I think you're very silly to come all this way from a fellow who would run off and leave you to marry a princess, but I suppose I may as well show you in. Take the lamp, and we will go straight up the stair. And I hope that when you friend recognizes you, and you gain the royal couple's favor, you will thank me properly."
“You may be quite sure of that,” said the falcon. "He is generous to a fault."
The hawk led the soldier up the long staircase, and the falcon followed after them. The three of them passed through a series of halls, each grander than the last. First came a hall with a floor of white marble, hung with tapestries of crimson silk. Then a hall with a floor of pink marble, hung with paintings of such size and magnificence that the soldier would ordinarily have stopped to admire them. Such was his eagerness to see the smith, however, that he rushed past them without a thought for the richness of the tints, or the skill of the brush strokes, until he reached a third hall, which had a floor of black and white marble laid in squares like a chessboard, and which was hung with mirrors in gilded frames.
At last they reached the princess's bedchamber, which was more magnificent still, with a great canopy bed in the middle, the bed-curtains thickly embroidered with gold and silver thread.
It was by far the grandest and the finest room the soldier had even been in, but all the gold and silk and marble was nothing to him, for through a narrow gap in the bed-curtains, he could see a head of dark hair, quite black in the dim flicker of the lamplight.
The soldier pushed the bed-curtain back, and found the princess and the new prince asleep in one another's arms, his face quite hidden in her golden hair.
The soldier called out the smith's name, his voice barely above a whisper, so much did emotion choke his throat, and held the lamp over him. As he did so, he tilted it without meaning to, and a drop of oil fell from it onto the smith's shoulder.
He woke, and turned his head round, unwrapping his arms from around the princess, and it was not the smith at all! He was quite another man, clean shaven and with grey streaks at his temples, though he was still young. He was only like the smith from the back, because the part of his hair that was not grey was so dark.
The soldier fell back a step, disappointed and ashamed, his voice deserting him entirely, and then the princess woke as well, and sat up and asked what was the matter.
The soldier, in a torment of embarrassment, told his story. When he was done, the prince and the princess looked quite sorrowful, for learned as they both were, neither of them knew any more about the metal woman than the soldier did, though the prince asked with a keen interest after the ant, saying that they had been at University together once. The princess, regretting that she could not help more, and not at all angry to be woken in the middle of the night by a strange man with a musket and soldier's helmet standing in her bedchamber, offered to have another notice delivered through three kingdoms inquiring after the smith's whereabouts.
They also, greatly impressed at the ingenuity of the two birds, offered them fixed appointments as courtiers, on the condition that the key to the princess's staircase be returned, but both the hawk and the falcon refused.
"For I am a wild bird," the falcon said, "and I would rather have my independence, even if it means I must hunt for my own dinner."
"I am to marry very shortly," said the hawk, "and if I were made a courtier, I would have to marry a fine lady, and not a common mockingbird, and that would not suite me or my sweetheart at all. And she is very sharp-tongued when she is unhappy. No, if you give anyone a gift, it ought to be the soldier, for he has come very far looking for his friend who left him, and if his friend won't treat him properly, then someone else ought to."
And then the prince and princess summoned servants to have a bed made up in a spare room for the soldier, and to bring him bread and butter from the kitchens for his dinner, and the soldier slept on a soft mattress for the first time since he had left the witch's house.
While he slept, it seemed to him that he was back in the smith's workshop, surrounded by the ticking and chiming of clocks. The smith was there, working on one of his clockwork toys, and the soldier had a stick of charcoal and a sheet of paper, and was sketching him while he worked. But all of this was only a dream, and vanished as soon as he awoke.
The following day, he was served breakfast in a great hall, out of a golden bowl, and the prince and princess, who were dining with him, talked to him about what he had seen on his journeys, and about art, which the princess had studied a little, in between reading philosophy books, and about military tactics, and they invited him to stay at the palace for a few days, and enjoy himself.
But the soldier shook his head, and asked only for a new pair of boots, to replace his that were so worn, and provisions to continue his journey.
He was given, not just boots, but also a fine pair of gloves, everything made of red leather that exactly matched his old, cracked boots. And when he was ready to go, he found waiting at the door for him a fine, tall horse, its hide a deep grey color like polished steel, with a black mane and tail. Its saddle and bridle were trimmed with silver bells, and its saddle-cloth had the prince and princess's coats of arms, entwined, embroidered on it in silk thread.
The prince and princess themselves saw him off, and wished him success. The falcon accompanied him for the first three miles, perched on the soldier's shoulder, while the tame hawk bid them goodbye from the garden gate, flapping his wings in farewell, the mockingbird perched beside him.
“Farewell, farewell,” cried the prince and princess, and the soldier waved, and the falcon waved; and then, after a few miles, the falcon also said “Farewell,” and this was the saddest parting.
"Are you certain that you wish to go on seeking your friend?" the falcon asked. "The way is long, and filled with dangers, and you do not even know for certain that you will find him. If you like, you can stay here in my hunting grounds and hunt with me. I have only known you a short while, but already I like you very much indeed, and would be sorry to see you go."
The soldier thought of the witch, whom he had left alone in her cottage without a single human soul for company; here was another parting that he regretted. He seemed to be forever leaving people behind on his journey, and it was very tiresome always being so alone.
But then he thought of the smith, and he knew that he could not stay, anymore than he had been able to stay in the city, or with the witch, or in the prince and princess's palace.
When the ant had told him that he was quite content to give up the human world entirely, so long as he could remain with the wasp, the soldier had been surprised, and had wondered at the sort of man who would make such a sacrifice.
Now, he did not wonder any longer, for he thought he was beginning to understand.
And so he bid the falcon farewell, albeit with a heavy and regretful heart, and turned his horse's head north. As he rode away, the horse's hooves rang loudly against the frozen ground, and the silver bells on its bridle sparkled in the sunlight.
The falcon perched on a tree by the road and watched it go, flapping his brown and white wings in farewell until the horse and its rider had disappeared from sight.