The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes  by Padraic Colum



N O one knew how many twisted stairways and crooked passage-ways led from the underground kitchens up into the main hallway of the King's Castle. But when you were in the hallway you saw before you the great sweeping scarlet stair-case that went up to the grandest chambers. Every night seven servitors, dressed in velvets, stood on that staircase, ten steps above each other, each holding a silver candle-stick of seven branches in his hands to light the way to the grand chambers.

And in the grandest of the grand chambers, in the Solar Gallery, no less, a Ball was being held that was the grandest ever given in the Royal Realm; it was being given by the King to the Maidens who had come to the Castle and from amongst whom the King's son was to choose a wife. He was not required to make his choice at this Ball; there were to be three, and at the finish of the third Ball, he was to make his choice.

There were a thousand candles lighted in the gallery, but if there had not been on lighted the gallery would have been bright because of the hanging lustres and the standing silvers that were there. There were citrons and pomegranates heaped on the table; there were seventeen fiddlers wearing cocked hats in the little gallery; and all the maidens who came to the ball were required to wear grass-green slippers so that their feet might look well on the cloth-of-gold carpet.

Dame Dale gave her last commands to the under-servants, and then she ordered a page to go to her two daughters, Berry-bright and Butter-cup, and request them to come to her in her own chamber. The damsels came with the page behind them carrying the boxes in which were the dresses they were to wear at the Ball. Dame Dale dressed them from shoe-tie to necklace. The wreaths they brought she would not have them wear; she sent out to the King's garden for roses of the white and red, and she made fresh wreaths for them. She gave each a new, perfumed pocket-handkerchief and a fan made out of swan's feathers.

"I do not know," she said, "which of you is the best favored, but the King's son would make a good choice if he should choose either of you."

Berry-bright looked at Buttercup, and she thought that it would be a pity indeed if the King's son was misled into choosing her, and Buttercup looked at her sister and thought that somebody ought to mention to the King's son that she had a cast in her eye which she managed to conceal very unfairly.

"Pray, Mother," said Buttercup, "why do you let people from the underground kitchens come out into the main hallway? I met the Ratcatcher with his cage of brown rats, and I thought I should expire with disgust."

"The Ratcatcher will have to stay below with the other servants, including our own house-mate, Girl-go-with-the-Goats," said Dame Dale.

"Is she in the King's Castle?" asked Berry-bright. "I should have done something to keep her at a distance. You know she might claim kin with us."

"She is the cinder-wench below the stairs, and we have said enough about her," said Dame Dale.

She rubbed the cheeks of each of her daughters with a hare's foot to bring out the color; she put nose-gays bound with bright ribbons in their hands, and she took them along passages and brought them out in the main hall, just in front of the great, sweeping, scarlet stair-case.

Then up the great scarlet stair-case Buttercup and Berry-bright went, each holding her nose-gay high in her hand. The seven servitors, dressed in velvets, holding the silver candle-sticks of seven branches, lighted the way for them. And nine captive nightingales, in darkened cages, were singing in the alcove along the stairs.

Buttercup and Berry-bright entered the Solar Gallery, and they curtsied to the right to the King's son and to the left to the Peers who were there. All the young Peers of the Realm were at the Ball, but it was expected that no one less than a Duke would ask any of the maidens to dance with him.

A score of servants came in and scattered rose-leaves over the floor. Then the seventeen fiddlers tuned up their instruments, and played the Laughter Tune, and if there were any there who were not gay before, they were made gay then. 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 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.

Whoever had known him before would hardly have known him now, so changed was the King's son. He forgot all the importance that conversation with people in authority had given him. He laughed as he danced, and he danced as he laughed. He thought that each of his partners was the only matchless maiden in the world. He would not have to make his choice now, he knew; however, at the close of the Ball he would have to ask the maiden whom he thought was the fairest to distribute the citrons and pomegranates amongst the company.

The King's son danced with dark-haired maidens, and fair-haired maidens, and brown-haired maidens. At last he came to dance with Berry-bright. He admired the beauty of her white hands, and he thought that she would be the one he would choose to distribute the citrons and pomegranates amongst the company. But then he danced with Buttercup, and he thought that she was the one he would ask to do it. For Buttercup had lovely curls just touching her shoulders, and her conversation was very pleasing.

And after he had danced with Buttercup there was a lull in the music. The Chamberlain approached him and began to tell him of the points of beauty that each maiden showed as she displayed herself in the dance. But just then he noticed that all the young Peers of the Realm were standing with their bands shading their eyes to look at someone who had come into the gallery.

A maiden she was, and she wore a dress of bronze, a gleaming dress with a glittering veil and gleaming shoes. She was slender, and her white arms and her dark hair were lovely to behold. On her forehead was a star; in her cheek was a dimple, and on her mouth was a smile of eagerness and joy.

She curtsied to the right to the King's son and she curtsied to the left to the Peers of the Realm. The Dukes whispered to the lesser Peers. The King's son stood bewildered. The Chamberlain dropped the notes he had made, for here was a maiden who had points of Beauty exceeding all that the other maidens had put together.

Then the King's son collected himself and went to her. "Where have you come from, bright damsel?" he said.

"I came from Ditch-land which is by Old Shoe Garden," she said.

"And will you dance with me?" said the King's son.

"When you rede aright where I've come from," said she.

The King's son drew back from her, not knowing what to say, and the most admired of the young Dukes came and took her hand and led her into the dance.

When it was over the King's son went to her again. But now there was a lull in the music, and the fiddlers did not tune up for another dance. "Dancing is over," said the King's son, "but I beg of you to come to the table and distribute the citrons and pomegranates amongst the company."

Then the new-come maiden walked up to the table, and those who were little looked over the others' shoulders to see her pass. She took a citron and a pomegranate in each hand, and very graciously she offered them to one of the maidens. She took another citron and another pomegranate and she brought them over to another maiden. She took a great many citrons and pomegranates and was bringing them to this one and that one in the company, when suddenly there came a heavy sound into the gallery. It was the Clock in the Tower striking twelve. The new-come maiden let the citrons and the pomegranates fall, and they rolled upon the floor. She ran to the wide doorway. Before any one knew that she was out of the gallery she was speeding down the scarlet stairway, past the seven servitors holding their branched candle-sticks, and down into the main hall. They saw her in the hallway. But when the King's son with the Peers of the Realms, the seventeen fiddlers, and the score of servants who had strewn the rose-leaves came into the hallway, the maiden with the gleaming dress, the glittering veil, and the gleaming shoes, was nowhere to be seen.