"I Saw Three Ships A-Sailing"
A gun was fired at sunset. It was the signal for the vesper hymn, and for the shifting of the course of the three caravels to due west. The lateen sails, long and shapely as a swallow's wings, were hauled closer to the wind, and the Ace, which was the fastest sailer of the three, stood down a way of billowy fire which ran straight into the blazing orb of the sun. Then with a strange and thrilling sound in the infinite spaces of those silent seas rose the strains of the Salve Regina, the mariner's evening prayer:
The crew were still singing when the sun dipped. The track of fire died out along the heaving waters. For a few moments longer the small clouds of the trades shone in gold and rose-colour; then the warm hues faded, and the wondrous lights of heaven powdered the blue-green of the night.
The illimitable ocean, which had all day long been of deep blue, turned to a pale spectral luminousness. The long billows curled and broke in lines of flying sapphire. Gushes of liquid flame washed the sides of the caravel. Medusæ floated past in tangles and sprays of jewels. Trails of green light showed the web of death woven by the sharks as they crossed and re-crossed each other. Far astern, the shimmering wake of the Ace seemed to mark out the path for the Lassie and the Blessed Mary, on whose canvas the green crosses and the 'scutcheon of Castile were no longer visible, but lanterns burned at the mast-heads and high upon the castled poops.
On board the Ace the seamen stood together forward in small groups with their faces turned westward. Tried men they were, young for the most part and all but three of them Spaniards. That night there would be no sleep for any, unless it were for the sick. They were nearing the goal of their adventure. At any moment the dim summits of the Land of Gold and Spices might eclipse the clear stars which blazed low down on the horizon. At latest it would surely appear in the white glimmer of the dawn, and silk doublet and king's pension would fall to the lucky mortal who first sighted it.
In those steady winds, the course once set, there was seldom need to touch a sail from watch to watch, Over the long swells, teeming and sparkling with life, the small caravel of fifty tons kept her lead, but monotony, inaction, and fatigue began to have their effect on the men in spite of their keen expectancy on this last of the nights, of which there had been so many. Drowsiness was creeping over them when suddenly the thrumming of a guitar arose, and Oye! and Brava! from a dozen voices welcomed the player. "A cantilena, Pedro, a madrigal, a balada, anything to clear the dust out of our eyes."
"Caballeros," replied Pedro, "I give you the very honourable and melancholy ditty of San Pedro de Cardeña," and clearing his throat while he twanged a brisk prelude, the seaman sang:
Cries of applause greeted the close of the song but Israel the gunner, drawing up his tall figure from the bulwarks on which he had been leaning, turned to Pedro. "The Jews, Pedro Galdos," he began in quiet tones, but before he could go further, the singer sprang towards him with open hand. "Pardon brother," he cried earnestly, "pardon! I had forgotten. So long have you been one of us that no one remembered."
"That is well said, brother," replied Israel. "To me you meant no scorn, nor indeed perchance to any son of Abraham. But songs such as these make black blood between people and people, when God knows there is little need. In the old days, caballeros, an evil king came against Israel with the noise of a great multitude, horsemen in thousands, and men in mail, and elephants bearing castles on their backs; and the mountains blazed like fire as the sun flashed on the shields of brass and gold. There was but a little band to withstand them, but Eleazar Avaran saw that one of the great beasts stood higher than the rest, and that its huge body glittered with royal bucklers; and thinking that the king was in the castle which the beast carried, he leaped forward and fought with the mailed men that marched before the beast. On this side and that he slew them until they divided and gave way on either hand. Then he ran under the beast, and thrust mightily upward, and took the life of it. As it sank down dead it fell upon him, and so Eleazar Avaran gave his life for Israel."
"By the horn of the unicorn—and the Lord deliver us from it!" cried Patricio, the wild man with ruddy hair, merry blue eyes, and long upper lip, "'twas a noble death, and the man a hero, God rest his soul!"
"When this king's father was king before him," continued the gunner, "and the heathen revelled in the temple of the Lord, and the children of Israel were constrained to go crowned with ivy and roses and vine leaves in the processions of the false gods and to eat of the meats offered to idols, there was a woman with seven sons who would do none of these things. She and her sons were taken before the king; and the eldest son was scourged and tortured and slain with fire, before the face of his mother and his brethren. One after another they took her sons, and maimed and slew them, while she stood by with her hope set on the Lord, and bade them be of good courage for the sake of the Law. When they came to the last of the sons, the king said, 'Thou art but a lad, and the light is pleasant to the young, and thy mother has no other left her but thee; eat and live.' And when the king could not win him to his will either by wealth or power or promise of friendship, he said to the mother, 'Speak thou to him, he is thy youngest and the last of thy children; bid him save himself.' 'I will speak to him,' said the woman gladly, and laughed scornfully at the king. 'Dear son,' she said, in the speech of her fathers, 'have pity on me who bore you, and for three years suckled you, and nourished and reared you unto these days. Lift up your eyes, dear child, and see the things in heaven and earth all made by God out of nought, and the children of men with them. Have no fear of this butcher; show yourself worthy of your brothers, so that in God's mercy I may receive you again with them.' Then said the lad, 'Why do we wait?' and he rebuked the king to his face, and was tortured still more cruelly than the others. And when they had slain him, they slew the mother also. The Jew has no country now, caballeros, but Israel has still men brave as Eleazar, and women as noble as this mother without a name."
"By the horn of the unicorn and the jewel that's into it," exclaimed Patricio, "the lady was the better man, señor gunner. A most enchanting and magnanimous lady!—like Queen Maev herself, and who should know but me that's a king's son in my own country? I am telling you, boys and caballeros, there's not a country on all the big flat of the world that has not its champions and its fine women to it. And why not? Did not the Lord in heaven make us all of the one clay and moisten the clay with the one river of the garden, and blow His own blessed breath into it? And so He did."
"That is a true word, Don Patricio," said Gioia the Sicilian. "In my country where I was born—and that's in Sicily—on the other side of the river there are mounds and broken pillars of marble. In the ancient times, the priest told me, that was a glorious city, and the governor was Duke Himera. Now a mighty African king came over the seas against it with ten thousand ships, for he wanted to have the city and all the island and then go against Rome and drive out the holy pope, for the king was a pagan. He landed and pitched a great camp and drew up his caravels and round ships on the shore, and the fighting began, and Duke Himera had a bad time of it. But on a day they brought in a prisoner, and he told the duke that one of the western cities in the island had turned traitor, and was sending the African a body of horsemen to help him."
"That reminds me now," said Patricio; "go on sir, go on; I won't interrupt you."
"Well, the duke laughed and clapped his hands together at the news. He sent out his own horsemen under cloud of night, and they fetched a round through the hills, and came to the African camp in the twilight of the morning. 'We are the cavalry from the west,' said they, and the Africans threw open the camp-gates to them with shouts of joy. But before any one could guess what they were about, the horsemen galloped down to the shore and set the ships on fire, and then they began to slaughter. When the clouds of smoke and flame were seen from the city, Duke Himera and his troops rushed out against the enemy; and all that day there was mighty fighting along the sea-shore.
"This way and that the battle swung like a wood in the wind; now it was the duke winning, and now it was the invaders. And all that day the African king stood beside a great altar of fire on the high ground of the camp and sacrificed living men to his gods. Hour after hour the strife went on with changing fortunes, but as the bloody day drew to its end the Africans began to give way, and Himera to drive them to the sea and the wrecks of the smoking ships. Then the African king saw at last that his kingdom had been taken from him, and lifting up his hands, he raised a wild chant to the setting sun, and cast himself into the great fire."
"By the horn of the unicorn and his collar of gold," cried Patricio, "he was a glorious old sinner, the heavens be his bed! for sure the Lord knew it was Himself the man would be worshipping, but hadn't heard His name. Now, boys and caballeros, these horsemen of the duke brought to memory an old story of one of the kings in my country, and who should remember it better than myself that's a king's son, now in exile? Will ye hear it? Long and long ago then, on a summer evening, a rider on horseback came to a poor cabin on the morning side of the green hills of Wicklow. The man of the cabin was working on his bit of land, and he looked up at the sound of the hoofs. 'A good day to you, and the blessing of God,' says the rider; 'where's the woman of the cabin?' 'She's within doors,' said the man. 'Then tell her she's wanted,' and when the woman came the rider throws back his cloak, and there was a child in the bend of his arm. 'Take it,' says he, 'and don't let it fall. It's two years old he is, and you'll call him Brian the Red. Here's a bag of silver with him, and you'll bring him up kindly for your own child, till I come this way again.' Before the woman could find a word, the rider was galloping off into the hills, and there was the boy in her arms laughing up in her face.
"Now, caballeros, when Brian the Red was five years old, this mother of his brought him from the fair a wooden horse that went on wheels, for it was of horses and of horses that the small soul was talking day in and day out. 'Sure then,' says she, 'it's a king's son he is, and a horse he shall have, if I have to go bare for it.' After that, up and down goes Brian the Red, dragging his horse after him, and talking to him, and putting words into the creature's mouth to answer himself.
"A mile or more from the cabin there was a fairy fort, and who steps boldly into it but Brian, and sits down on the grass, and gives his horse handfuls of the grass to eat? But somehow that day it comes upon him that the horse is only bits of wood pinned together, and not a living creature at all. With that he flings him on one side, and lets out a mighty cry of misery. In a moment a green turf of the mound is tilted up, and out looks a woman's face, small as small but pretty as you please. 'Are you hungry, now, bright pulse of my heart? ' says she. 'I am not, thank you kindly,' says Brian. 'Then why are you bawling, my darling?' says she. 'The horse is wood, and can't go,' says the soul, 'and he's not a horse at all,' and began to roar again. 'Was it a real live horse you wanted?' 'Sure, then, I'm a real live boy,' he answers. 'Get on your feet then, hero-boy,' says she laughing, 'for here is one that will teach you the horseman's word and the foal's cry, and make you a lord of horses.'
"Out of the green window of the fairy fort looks a little merry man of the 'good people' and calls the lad to him. 'Listen now,' says he, 'and remember. This is the horseman's word, and the horse that hears it will break bounds or kill himself but he will come to you. And he will follow you like a lamb and love you truer than a woman. But keep the word for his own ear.' And when the little man had whispered the word, 'This,' says he, 'is the foal's cry, and never a mare in the world but will come to you at the sound of it, uproarious and fighting-mad to protect its young—and that's you, my son, until you appease it with the horseman's word. Away now, and get what you want. Yonder in the hollow of the Grassy Land are the King of Wicklow's horses.' 'Are they big? ' asks the soul. 'The King of Wicklow's stallion is the biggest beast in the world.' 'Thank you, lady; and thank you, sir,' says Brian, and picks up his wooden horse, and trots away with joy in the eyes of him.
"In the grey of the next day in the morning comes up the soul out of the hollow of the Grassy Land, with the mighty stallion walking like a mountain by the side of him, and stops at the cabin. 'Come out, mother, and look at him,' he shouts; 'he's a real horse and the biggest in the world.' 'Where did you get him from?' asks the man of the cabin. 'Sure, he's the King of Wicklow's stallion,' says Brian, 'and I got him on the Grassy Land.' 'Ochone, ochone! ' cries the woman; 'it's a killed boy you will be, stealing the king's stallion.' 'I didn't steal him,' says Brian; 'he just came with me.'
"Away to court goes the poor man, all trembling. The countryside was astir, seeking high and low for the King of Wicklow's mighty horse; and to make a long story short, the man tells the king's warriors where they will find the stallion. 'You can't take him without me,' says Brian when they got to the cabin. And sure they could not, for the stallion lays back his ears, and bares his white teeth, and lashes out when any one steps near. 'Put me on his back,' says the soul, 'and it's quiet as a lamb he'll go;' and 'Whoa!' says he to the stallion. A tall soldier lifts the lad on to the beast's back, and the stallion whinnies with pleasure at the feel of him.
"'Why did you steal the best of my horses?' said the King of Wicklow. 'Sure, King of Wicklow dear, steal him I did not, but I spoke to him and he came with me. And if you think I couldn't have taken the others, I could.' 'Could you then?' says the king, wondering at the queerness and the boldness of the soul. 'Then and now,' says Brian, 'but I didn't want them.' 'What for did you want this one? ' says the king. 'Look,' says Brian, holding out his wooden horse, 'this is the only horse I had, and it can't go, and it is not alive, and it's not as big as myself.' 'It is not,' says the king; 'what do you keep it for?' 'Ah, well,' says Brian, hugging it to him, 'it's a fine horse when you make believe, and he's an old friend.' 'Whose lad is this?' asked the king. 'That's a secret mystery, King of Wicklow,' says the woman of the cabin, and tells him how the soul was brought to them. 'When was that?' asked the king eagerly. 'Three years ago and more it was,' says the woman. 'Glory be to the Father,' cries the king, 'it's my own boy that was stolen.' With that he hugs the lad to him, and there was great rejoicing from the green hills of Wicklow to the sea.
"Ever after the lad was free to go among the horses and play with them as he liked. When some time had gone by, there was war broke out with the King of Meath, and that king sent down a great host with chariots and horses against the King of Wicklow. 'Father,' says Brian, 'I will give you this battle for nothing if you like.' 'How will you do that?' asks the king. 'Sure then,' says the hero-boy, 'I will stand on the hillside, and as the King of Meath goes by with his horses and chariots, I will let out the cry of the foal, and there is not a mare but will turn and run to me, and in the confusion you can fall on the King of Meath.' By the horn—"
But before Patricio could cry out, "A light!" the voice of Rodriguez of Triana came ringing from the bows, "Land ho! Land!"
Far away to the west gleamed a light which rose and fell, as though it were a torch burning on a fishing-boat at sea. Beyond the light rose a dim outline of land, making a blank among the low stars, yet itself scarcely visible in the blue-green sky.
"Fire a gun," said the captain, "and let the admiral know we have won;" and Israel the gunner lit the first powder burnt in those western seas.
The caravels shortened sail and lay-to until day. In the blaze of the morning sun, when the air blew sweet as the breath of spring in Andalusia, and only the nightingales were wanting, the boats' dashed in to a long green isle covered with new-world trees.
A tall man, ruddy and fair, with blue eyes and long hair white as silver, was the first to leap ashore, to fall on his knees and kiss the earth. It was the Admiral Cristobal Colon. Drawing his sword and spreading the royal standard of the green cross, he took possession of the island in the name of the sovereigns of Castile. As he returned thanks to God for all His mercies, one thought ran uppermost in his mind: Now surely, O Lord, I shall live to free the land of Thy holy sepulchre. That was really the dream of his life; and his search for the Land of Gold and Spices was undertaken to provide him with the means of attaining his end.
Our last story was told on Twelfth Night, and the snow was deep on the ground.
"And this is the last of the apple-tree fires," said the Truthful Story-teller, who had measured his magic fuel to suit the stories.
"Is there no more of that lovely old apple-wood?" exclaimed Beatrice. "Oh, what a pity!"
"I like it," said Vigdis emphatically, "it is warm! Doesn't it bring back the breezy summer days when the crows went sailing over, and we heard the apples dropping?"
"What ages ago it all seems!" said Beatrice. "Do you mind how Hedgehog escaped into the plantation, and we went hunting for him?"
"I wonder where Hog o' the Hedge is now. Wasn't he a spiky old bird?"—this from Simplicia.
"And Giggums came after us," continued Beatrice, "and we both nearly died of laughing, doing Claribel!"
"My dears!" exclaimed mother. "Spiky bird! Doing Claribel!"
"Oh, you sweet thing!" cried Simplicia, "that's Tennyson—
like Brer Rabbit, only Claribel sounds nicer!"
At which mother heaved a tragic sigh, and the Truthful Story-teller laughed, and we all went on chattering nonsense till it was quite late.
"Must you go to-morrow, Beatrice?" asked Vigdis; "I am sorry."
"So am I," said Simplicia; "we must try to live without you."
"Oh, I shall be back in July," rejoined Beatrice cheerily.
"Then we must try to live with you," said Simplicia.
Whereupon these two rushed gleefully at each other, and closed in the hug practised by the Giant Wrestlers.
Whereupon also, the Truthful Story-teller, referring ironically to bear-gardens and other select places of amusement, wrapped up, and went out into the snow with Sigfrid. For, as it has been noted, it was Twelfth Night; and when the roads are white and the flakes falling, the words "Twelfth Night" are like a magic pipe leading back to old snowy winters, and Elizabethan revels, and the hills from which the turbaned kings and the horses and camels come winding in Orient splendour in Fabriano's altar-piece of the Magi at Bethlehem.