There was once an emperor who had two things that he loved more than all the world — his daughter and his garden. The finest linen and the richest silks of India or China decked the princess from the moment she was old enough to run alone, and the ships that brought them brought also the fairest flowers and sweetest fruits that grew in distant lands. All the time that he was not presiding over his council, or hearing the petitions of his people, the emperor passed in his garden, watching the flowers open and the fruits ripen, and by-and-by he planted trees and shrubs and made walks and alleys, till altogether the garden was the most beautiful as well as the largest that had ever been seen.
The years passed, and the princess reached the age of fourteen; quite old enough to be married, thought the kings and princes who were looking out for a bride for their sons. The emperor’s heart sank when he heard rumours of embassies that were coming to rob him of his daughter, and he shut himself up in his room to try to invent a plan by which he might keep the princess, without giving offence to the powerful monarchs who had asked for her hand.
For a long while he sat with his head on his hands, thinking steadily, but every scheme had some drawback. At length his face brightened and he sprang up from his seat.
‘Yes! that will do,’ he cried, and went down to attend his council, looking quite a different man from what he had been a few hours before.
The embassies and the princes continued to arrive, and they all got the same answer. ‘The emperor was proud of the honour done to himself and his daughter, and would give her in marriage to any man who would pass through the garden and bring him a branch of the tree which stood at the further end.’ Nothing could surely be more easy, and every prince in turn as he heard the conditions felt that the fairest damsel on the whole earth was already his wife.
But though each man went gaily in, none ever came out, nor was it ever known what had befallen them. At last so many had entered that fatal gate that it seemed as if there could be no more princes or nobles left, and the emperor began to breathe again at the thought that he would be able after all to keep his daughter.
But one day a knight of great renown, named Tirius, arrived from beyond the seas and knocked at the gate of the castle. Like the others, he was welcomed and feasted, and when the feast was ended he craved that the emperor would grant him the hand of the princess on whatever condition he might choose.
‘Right willingly,’ answered the emperor; ‘there is only one condition I have laid down, and that is an easy one, though for some strange reason no one as yet has been able to fulfil it. You have merely to walk through the garden that you see below, and bring me back a branch from a tree bearing golden fruit, which stands on the opposite side. If fame speaks true, this is child’s play to the adventures in which you have borne so noble a part.’
‘In good sooth,’ said the knight, who saw clearly that there was more in the matter than appeared —‘in good sooth your condition likes me well. Still, as fortune is ever inconstant, and may be tired of dealing me favours, I would first ask as a boon a sight of your fair daughter and leave to hearken to her voice. After that I will delay no longer, but proceed on my quest.’
‘I will take you to her myself,’ answered the emperor, who thought that he might show this small mercy to a man who was going to his death, and he led his guest down long passages and through lofty halls, till they reached the princess’s apartments.
‘In five minutes my chamberlain shall come for you, and he shall show you the way to the garden,’ said the emperor, ‘and meanwhile I bid you farewell;’ and, leaving Tirius to enter alone, he went to seek his ministers.
It would be hard to say whether the knight or the princess was most amazed as they stood gazing at each other — he at her beauty and she at his boldness, for never before had any man crossed her threshold. For a moment both were silent; then the knight, remembering how short a time was allowed him, aroused himself from his dream and spoke:
‘Gentle damsel, help me now in my need, for I have been drawn hither by love. Full well I know that many have had this adventure before me, and have entered that garden and never returned from it. Without your aid my fate will be such as theirs, and therefore, I pray you, tell me what I should do so that I may win through without harm.’
Now the knight was a goodly man and tall, and perhaps the princess may have bewailed in secret the noble youths who had fallen victims to her father’s pleasure. But, however that might be, she smiled and made reply:
‘I am ready to marry any man on whom my father wishes to bestow me, and you say you have come hither for love of me. Still, you have asked of me a hard thing, for it beseems not a daughter to betray her father’s confidence. Yet, as I am loth that any more fair youths should lose their lives for my sake, I will give you this counsel. You must first pass through a forest, which is the home of a lady who is known to all as the “Lady of Solace.” Go to her, and she will give you the help you need to journey safely through the garden.’
The princess had scarcely finished these words when the voice of the chamberlain was heard without, bidding him withdraw, and, glancing gratefully at her, the knight bowed low and took his leave.
In the great hall the chamberlain quitted him, telling him to take his ease and rest till the emperor should return, but instead the knight waited till he was alone and then plunged straight into the forest.
He walked on for a little way till he reached a green space, and there he stopped and cried, ‘Where is the Lady of Solace?’ Then he sat down on a stone and waited. In a short time he saw coming towards him two ladies, one bearing a basin and the other a cloth.
‘We give you greeting, sir,’ they said; ‘the Lady of Solace has sent us to you, and she bids you first wash your feet in this basin, and then go with us to her palace.’ So the knight washed his feet, and dried them in the white cloth, and rose up and went with the ladies to the palace, which was built of blue marble, and the fairest that ever he saw. The Lady of Solace was fair likewise and of a marvellous sweet countenance, and her voice was soft like the voice of a thrush as she asked him what he wanted with her. At that the knight told his errand, and how the princess had bade him come to her, for she alone could help him to win through the enchanted garden.
‘I am called the Lady of Solace,’ said she, with a smile which seemed made up of all the beautiful things in the world, ‘and I give succour to all those who need it. Here is a ball of thread; take it and bind it round the post of the gate of the garden, and hold fast the thread in your hand, unwinding it as you go. For if you lose the clue, you will perish like those before you. And more. A lion dwells in the garden, who will spring out and devour you, as he has devoured the rest. Therefore, arm yourself with armour, and see that the armour be anointed thickly with ointment. When the lion sees you, he will take your arm or your leg into his mouth, and his teeth shall stick fast in the ointment, and when you sunder yourself from him his teeth shall be drawn out, and you shall kill him easily. But during the fight beware lest you let go the clue.’
And after the lion shall come four men, who will set on you and seek to turn you from their path; but beware of them also, and if you are in peril call to me, and I will succour you. And now return to the palace and put on your armour, and so, farewell.’
When the knight heard this he was right glad, and stole back to the palace, where he found that the emperor was still sitting at his council. He sat down in the great hall to await him, but the time seemed very long before his host entered.
‘How have you sped?’ asked he.
‘My lord, now that through your goodness I have seen the princess,’ said the knight, ‘there can be but one ending to my journey. I go at once in quest of the tree, and I am content whatever fate may befall me.’
‘May fortune be with you!’ answered the emperor, who never failed to give good wishes to his daughter’s suitors, as he felt quite sure that they would be of no use.
So the knight bowed low and left the hall, going straight to the gatekeeper’s house, where he had put off his armour on arriving. On pretence of sharpening his sword, he borrowed a pot of ointment from the man, and, unseen by him, rubbed the paste thickly over his armour. After this he looked about to see that no one was watching him, and took the path that led to the garden.
A large iron gate supported by two posts stood at the entrance, and round one of these he firmly bound one end of the thread which the Lady of Solace had given him. Holding the other end in his hand, he advanced for a long while without seeing or hearing any strange thing, till a roar close to him caused him to start. The knight had just time to draw his sword and hold up his shield before the lion was upon him; but, as he had been forewarned, the great beast dashed aside the shield, and fastened his teeth in the arm that held it. The pain was such that the knight leaped backwards, but the lion’s teeth were fixed fast in the ointment, and they all came out of his mouth, so that he could bite no more. And when he rushed at his enemy with his claws they stuck also, so that the knight with a blow of his sword was able to kill him with ease.
Mightily he rejoiced at seeing his foe dead before him, and by ill fortune he forgot that, had it not been for the counsel of the Lady of Solace, it was he who would have been slain, and not the lion. He swelled with pride and conceit at the ease with which he had won the victory, and never noted that the clue of thread was no longer in his hands.
‘Ah, lovely princess, I come to seek my reward,’ cried he to himself, and turned his face towards the palace. But a little way on he spied seven trees, very fair to view, all covered with fruit that shone temptingly in the sun. He gathered a cluster that hung just above his head, and when he had eaten that, he thought that it tasted so delicious he really must have another, and another also.
He was still eating when three men passed by, and asked him what he was doing there. The knight was so puffed up that he did not answer them civilly after his manner, but gave them rude words, for which in return he received buffets. In the end, the men dragged him away from the tree and flung him into a ditch that was full of water, and his armour weighed him down, so that he could not get out. Then at last he remembered his clue, and felt for it, but it was not there, and his pride broke down, and he saw that he had brought his ruin on himself. And in despair he lifted up his voice and cried, ‘O Lady of Solace, help me, I beseech you, in my great need, for I am nigh dead.’ He shut his eyes for very misery, but opened them again in a moment, for a lady stood by him, and she said:
‘Did not I tell you that if you lost the clue you could never more find your way out of the garden? I will lift you out of the ditch, but, for the clue, you must seek for it yourself till you find it.’ And with that she vanished.
Not that day did the knight find the clue, nor the next, nor the next. Faint and weary was he, but he dared not eat of the fruit that was around him, some hanging from the boughs of trees and some growing on the ground. At length he wandered back to the spot where he had fought with the lion, and there, covered with blood, lay the clue he had so long sought. By its help he was led to the tree with the golden fruit, which stood at the far end of the garden, and plucking one of the boughs he turned to retrace his steps, wondering, now that he held the thread, at the shortness of the way.
‘Here is the branch, O Emperor! and now give me the princess,’ he said, kneeling and laying the bough down on the steps of the throne. And the emperor could not gainsay him, but bade his officers fetch his daughter, and after they had been married she went with her husband into his own country, where they lived happily till they died.
[From the Gesia Romanorum.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57