ERE, the maidens were walking in the King's garden, gathering roses of the white and red, and telling each other about this and that that was said at the ball, and about such and such that was worn; there, Maid-alone, seated by the ashy hearth, was eating her luncheon of scraps and listening to the Ratcatcher complain against the servants for saying that he was letting the rats eat up all the tallow that they had for candles; and yonder, in her lady's chamber, Dame Dale sat listening to what her daughters, Berry-bright and Buttercup, were saying about he strange maiden who was the last to come into the King's ball.
"She came late and she sped away before the end to start people talking about her," said Buttercup.
"And her slippers!" said Berry-bright. "Was it noticed, I wonder, that her slippers were bronze-colored? That one should come to the ball not wearing grass-green slippers was an affront to the Chamberlain who had arranged everything to bring out the gold on the ground."
"Nobody seemed to notice that she spoiled the whole ball. Everything was going very agreeably before she came in," said Buttercup. "And the King's son would have asked me to distribute the citrons and pomegranates; that is one thing I am sure of."
"You need not be so sure of that, sister," said Berry-bright. "I saw him look from the citrons and pomegranates to my white hands, and I know for a surety what was passing in his mind."
Outside the King's son was looking over the garden wall to see if the maiden who came last to the ball was with the others. And not seeing her there he sighed and rode away.
And at that very moment the Chamberlain had finished writing down the points of beauty of the maidens who were present, and all the points of beauty that the Maiden in the bronze dress had. She had no name that he knew of, but opposite her count he wrote: The Matchless Maiden.
Then the evening breeze came and shook the strings of the little bells of silver that were hung across the Solar Gallery; the little bells chimed and chimed, wakening the nine nightingales in their darkened cages. The nightingales all began to sing. The score of servants came in and lighted the thousand candles and scattered the rose-leaves on the cloth-of-gold carpet. Then the seven servitors took their places upon the great scarlet stairway, standing ten steps above each other, each holding a silver candle-stick of seven branches in his hand.
All in their gauzes and spangles and laces the maidens began to come up the grand stairway. They all wore in their hair the high combs that the king's mother had given them for presents, and each had a rose behind her ear. When the maidens had taken a turn in the Solar Gallery the King's son and the young Peers of the Realm came up the stairway, the King's son with the diadem on his head, and all the Peers with velvet cloaks, and the Dukes wearing diamond buckles in their shoes. Berry-bright and Buttercup did not go up the stairs with the rest of the maidens; when the others were in the Solar Gallery they came in; gracefully, as their mother had taught them, they curtsied to the right to the king's son and to the left to the Peers of the Realm.
That night there were more musicians than the seventeen fiddlers in the little gallery. They all tuned up their instruments and played the Laughter Tune, and if there were any there who were not gay before they were made gay now. The King's son took off his diadem and the Peers of the Realm took off their velvet cloaks, and the maidens in their robes of gauze and spangle, of silk and satin, walked round in the procession. The King's son and the Peers of the Realm held their hands high for the procession to pass under; the King's son took the hand of the last maiden, and the dance began.
The King's son and all the Dukes would have been looking over their shoulders to the entrance of the Gallery to watch for someone else, only there was a fiddler who played more enchanting music than the rest. The Chamberlain signaled him when the dance began and he stood forward and played a music so bewitching that no one could remember anything but the dance. The King's son danced with Buttercup and with Berry-bright and he smiled so kindly upon them that each thought she surely would be asked to distribute the citrons and pomegranates that were on the table.
But the music ceased and nothing was heard but the jingle of the little silver bells that were hung across the Gallery. The fiddlers had left down fiddle and bow; all the maidens and all the Peers of the Realm were looking towards the entrance of the Solar Gallery. The king's son looked, and the heart in his breast gave a leap when he saw that she had come.
It was she indeed, the Matchless Maiden. All in silver was she dressed, with a shimmering veil and glimmering shoes. Her dark hair fell down to her waist and her eyes were full of light. Slender was she as the barely noticed moon in the sky.
She curtsied to the right to the King's son and she curtsied to the left to the Peers of the Realm. She stood as if she were listening in delight to the chiming of the little silver bells that were hung across the gallery.
The King's son went to her, and after he had bowed, he said:
"Where have you come from, bright damsel?"
"From Lost-ember Moor," said she.
"And will you dance with me?" said he.
"When you rede aright where I've come from," said she.
The King's son drew back from her, not knowing what to say. Then the Duke who had the largest diamond in his shoe came forward and led her into the dance.
Dance after dance went on, and one Duke after the other asked the Matchless Maiden to be his partner. But when there was a lull in the music the king's son went to her and said:
"We beg of you to come to the table and distribute the citrons and pomegranates amongst the company."
The Matchless Maiden walked with him to the table, and those who were little looked over the others' shoulders to watch her pass. She took a citron in one hand and a pomegranate in the other, and gracefully and graciously she offered them to one of the maidens.
The King's son went to the gallery where the musicians were. Besides the fiddler who played enchanting music there was a harper there who played music still more enchanting. The King's son spoke to him, and he took up his silver harp and began to play.
The music he played was so enchanting that it seemed to all who were there that they lived only in his notes. They forgot what was before and what was behind them. The King's son was the most enchanted of all; he stood still and watched the Matchless Maiden, the citrons and pomegranates in her hands, giving them gracefully and graciously to this one and that one of the company.
Suddenly there came a loud and a heavy sound into the gallery. It was the Clock in the Tower striking twelve. No one heeded the strokes, and the Matchless Maiden, filled with that enchanting music, went on giving the citrons and pomegranates to this one and that one in the company. But suddenly she stopped and listened to the last strokes of the Clock. The citrons and pomegranates fell from her hands and went rolling across the floor. She ran to the wide doorway. Before anyone knew she was out of the Gallery she was past the seven servitors and down the scarlet stairway. They saw her in the hall. But when the King's son with the Peers of the Realm, the fiddlers and the harper, and the score of servants who had lighted the candles came into the hallway, the maiden in the silver dress, with the shimmering veil and the glimmering shoes, was nowhere to be seen.
But now there was no one in the Castle that wasn't concerned about her. Even the outlandish servants in the underground kitchens heard of the stranger-maiden who had made an appearance at the two Balls in the Solar Gallery, and they and the Ratcatcher talked for the length of a morning about her, forgetting the quarrel that they always had about the fewness of the rats taken, and the great quantity of tallow that was made away with.
The King's son called on the Chamberlain seven times in the course of the morning. And each time he informed him that if he did not do something to hold the Matchless Maiden after the Clock struck Twelve, he, the King's son, would have him sent out of the Kingdom when he came to the throne. The Chamberlain was all flurried and flustered. He went to this one and that one, asking what was to be done; no one could help him, and we verily believe he would have been driven to distraction if it hadn't happened that he met the King's Fool on the grand stairway. "How, in the name of all the King's horses, can we hold the matchless maiden who runs down this stairway when the Clock strikes twelve?" he asked the Fool. And the Fool put his hand to his mouth and whispered . . . But what it was the Fool whispered will have to be told you later.
Anyway the Chamberlain ran lightly down the stairs and sprang lightly up the stairs. He had the thousand candles lighted in the Solar Gallery. He had the seven servitors take their places on the grand stairway, with the silver candle-sticks of seven branches in their hands. Then the maidens came up the stairway, the little bright ear-rings gleaming in their ears. Buttercup and Berry-bright came in after all had assembled, so that they might have the opportunity of curtsying to the right to the King's son and to the left to the Peers of the Realm, with all the airs their mother had shown them.
The little silver bells strung across the Gallery chimed in the breeze; the nine nightingales began to sing in their darkened cages, and the Peers of the Realm and the maidens assembled indulged in most delightful conversation. Not so the King's son. He went from place to place and from company to company. It was on account of his restlessness that the dancing did not begin.
And even when the fiddlers tuned up their instruments and played the dancing tune, and when he was out on the floor with the partner he had chosen, the King's son was ever and always looking over his shoulder to the wide doorway that was the entrance of the Solar Gallery. Others, we must think, were looking towards that entrance, too. For, as if it were at a signal, the music stopped and the dancing, and all the company, the maidens and the Dukes they were dancing with, all stood gathered together as the matchless maiden came in.
The King's son saw her standing there in a dress of gold, with a shining veil and golden shoes. She walked more gracefully than the others danced; a smile of gentleness was on her lips, and the star on her forehead was plain to be seen.
The King's son went to her. "Where have you come from, brightest of maidens?" said he.
"From where a dog's tongue lapped water from my hands," said she.
"I cannot rede where that may be, but will you not dance with me?"
"I may not dance with you till you rede all I say," said she.
He drew away from her, and the best favored of the young Dukes came, and, bowing before her, claimed her for a dance. When the dance was over, and when the music was still, the King's son went to her and begged her to distribute amongst the company the citrons and pomegranates that were on the table. All the company stood in a double line to watch her pass; Buttercup and Berry-bright were standing opposite each other, and the bright little ear-rings fell out of their ears with the anger that came over them.
The matchless maiden took a citron in one hand and a pomegranate in the other, and gracefully and graciously she handed them to Berry-bright. And again she took a citron and a pomegranate, and gracefully and graciously she handed them to Buttercup. To no others in the company did she hand citrons and pomegranates. Suddenly a loud and a heavy sound was heard in the Gallery. It was the Clock in the Tower striking twelve. The citrons and the pomegranates that were in her hands fell and rolled upon the floor.
She sped towards the wide doorway. Past the musicians and towards the grand stairway the matchless maiden ran. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven steps of the scarlet stairway she ran down. And then something held her foot.
It was the pitch that held her, the pitch that the Chamberlain had put there immediately she had entered the Ball-room. That was what the Fool had whispered him to do when he met him on the grand stairway the time he was near distraction.
The pitch held her foot. The last strokes of the Clock were being struck. The company were running out of the Ball-room. The matchless maiden took her foot out of her golden shoe and went speeding down the rest of the stairway.
The last of the seven servitors saw her in the hall. But when the King's son with the fiddlers and the servants and all the young Peers of the Realm came down into the hallway the maiden in the dress of gold, with the shining veil and the one golden shoe, was not to be seen. But the Chamberlain was there, standing before the King's son, with a golden shoe in his hands.