|A coign of vantage , 1895|
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
By Petre Ispirescu / Translated by Jean Harris
from The Observer Translation Project
It happened once as never before-y, ‘cause if it couldn’t be true, it wouldn’t make a story about the time when the poplar tree made berries and the willow tree broke out in cherries, when bears began to brawl with their tails, and wolf and lamb, unfurling their sails, threw arms around each other’s necks and kissed each other with brotherly pecks, when flees put on horseshoes boldly-- ninety-nine iron weights on one leg only-- then jumped right up to the sky in its glories, and they only did it to bring us stories:
About the time when flies wrote themselves on the wall,
And he’s a big liar who doesn’t believe this at all.
There was once a great emperor and an empress, both young and beautiful. Wishing to have children, they did many times over everything that had to be done about that. They went on journeys to wizards and wise men who could search the stars and tell if they might have children, but in vain. Finally, hearing that there was a cunning old man in a nearby village, the emperor sent for him. The old man, however, looked the king’s messenger straight in the eye and said that the ones needing help should come to him. Having heard as much, the emperor and empress gathered several great lords, together with soldiers and servants, and their highnesses brought themselves to the gray beard’s house. When the old man saw them coming, he went out to greet them right away.
--Welcome in good health! he said. But what are your majesties traveling to find? The wish you have will bring you sorrow.
--I didn’t come to ask you that, said the emperor. If you have some remedy which will make us have children, give it to me.
--I have, said the old man, but you will have one child only. He will be the Handsome one, the most dear Son, and you shall have no joy of him.
Taking the cure, the emperor and empress returned cheerfully to the palace, and after several days the empress felt herself full with child. The whole country, and the whole court, and all the servants rejoiced at this event
Right before the hour of birth, the child put up such a storm of weeping that no wizard was able to console him. Then the emperor began to pledge the child all the good things in the world, but neither was he able to quiet him, though he did everything in his power.
--Be quiet, Daddy’s dear one, the emperor said, and I’ll give you this or that kingdom; be quiet son, and I’ll give you this or that emperor’s daughter to wive, and a lot of other things like that. Finally, when the emperor saw over and over again that the child wouldn’t be still, he said on top of that: be quiet my son and I’ll give you youth without age and life without death.
Then the child quieted down and got born. And the footmen struck drum and
trumpet, and the whole land celebrated with great good cheer for one full week together.
The more the child grew, the more quick-witted and daring he became. They sent
him to schools and philosophers, and all the teaching that other children learned in one year, he learned in a month, so much so that the emperor was dying and resurrecting for joy. The whole country prided itself that it would have an emperor as learned and wise as Solomon. From that time forward, however-- I don’t know what Handsome Son had wrong with him that he was all melancholic, sad and lost in thoughts-- but it happened one day when the child had just turned fifteen years old and the emperor was to be found at table celebrating with wine and song among all the lords and seneschals of the kingdom that Handsome Son stood up and said:
--Father, the time has come to give me what you promised me at birth.
Hearing this, the emperor became very sad, and he said to him:
--But look, son, where can I get such an unheard of thing as that to give you? And if I promised you then, it was only to quiet you down.
--If you can not give it to me, Father, then I must need scour the whole world until I find the pledge for which I came into this life.
Then all the lords and the emperor threw themselves on their knees, with pleas that he not leave the kingdom. And the lords added:
--Since your father is an old man from here on out, we shall raise you to the throne, and we shall also bring you the most beautiful empress under the sun for a wife.
But they couldn’t turn Handsome Son from his resolution. He stuck to his word like a rock so that when his father saw that over and over again, he gave him his leave and planned vittles for the trip and all things needful.
Then Handsome Son went to pick a horse from the royal stables where the most beautiful stallions in the whole kingdom were to be found, but no sooner did he put out his hand and yank one by the tail, than he threw it down, and all the other horses collapsed in the same way. Finally, at just the moment when Handsome Son was ready to leave, he cast his eyes once again around the stable, and catching sight of a scrawny, distempered, scabby horse in a corner, he went over to him as well, but when he put his hand on that horse’s tail, the horse turned his head toward Handsome Son and said:
--Master, what do you command? Thank the Lord for helping me reach a time when a brave young man puts his hand on me again.
And stiffening his legs, he stood straight as a candle. Then Handsome Son told him what he intended to do, and the horse replied:
--To achieve your heart’s desire, you must ask your father for the saber, lance, bow, quiver and arrows, as well as the clothes he himself wore when he was a lad; while as for me, you will have to take care of me yourself with your own hand for six weeks, and all that time you must give me barley boiled in milk..
So Handsome Son set about asking the emperor for the things the horse advised. The emperor called on the court bailiff and ordered him to unlock all the coffers that held garments so that his son might choose the ones he liked. After rummaging for three days and three nights, Handsome Son finally found--in the bottom of one old trunk-- the arms and garments that had belonged to his father when he was a lad, but the things were very
rusty. Handsome Son took it on himself to cleanse the weapons of rust with his own hands, and after six weeks he succeeded in making the arms shine like a mirror. At the
same time he also took care of the horse as the horse had told him to do. He had enough work to do, but, howbeit, he succeeded.
When the horse heard from Handsome Son that the garments and arms were well cleaned and ready, he shook himself, and the boils and glanders fell off him all at once, and he stood there just as his mama made him: a strong, full-bodied horse with four wings. Seeing him thus, Handsome Son said:
--We leave three days from today.
--Long life, master. At your service. I’m even ready today, replied the horse.
On the morning of the third day, the whole court and, indeed, the whole realm were all full of woe. Handsome Son, dressed as a brave warrior with saber in hand, mounted on the horse of his choosing, said his good-bye’s to the emperor, to the empress, and all the greater and lesser nobles, the soldiers and all the servants of the court who, with tears in their eyes, begged him not to make this journey so as not to somehow lose his life, but Handsome Son giving spur to his horse, went out through the gate like the wind, and after the prince came carts with vittles, with money and some two hundred soldiers, whom the emperor ordered to accompany his boy.
Now, when Handsome Son passed out of his father’s kingdom and reached the wilderness, he divided all the wealth among the soldiers, and keeping for himself only as much food as the horse could carry, he bid the soldiers farewell and sent them back. Then catching the road that heads toward sunrise, he rode, and he rode, and he rode for three days and three nights until he reached a vast field covered with a multitude of human bones.
When they stopped to rest, the horse said to Handsome Son:
--You must know, my lord, that we are here on the estate of a fearsome Woodpecker who is so evil that no one sets foot on her estate without being slaughtered. She was once a woman like other women, but she wouldn’t listen to her parents. In the end, she made them so terribly angry that their curse turned her into a Woodpecker. The Woodpecker is with her children now, but in the forest tomorrow we will meet her as she comes to destroy you. She is terrifically big, but don’t you despair. Only have your bow ready so you can shoot her with your arrows, and keep your saber and spear close at hand to serve you at need.
That night Handsome Son and the winged horse gave themselves to rest, but when one watched, the other slept.
The next day, when dawn poured forth, they got ready to pass through the forest. Handsome Son saddled and bridled the horse. He secured the girth tighter than before, and he set out. All of a sudden he heard a frightful knocking as if someone pecked the air with a hammer blow. Then the horse said to Handsome Son:
--Hold tight and get ready, master, because the Woodpecker in coming closer.
And when she came, oh brother, she bowled over trees, that’s how fast she came, while the winged horse climbed like the wind until he was a bit above her. Then Handsome Son took her leg with an arrow, and when he was ready to strike her with a
second arrow, she cried:
--Stay your arrows, Handsome Son, that I do nothing to you! Seeing that he didn't
believe her, she gave it to him written in her own blood. And on top of that she said:
--Handsome Son, you wish that horse long life, wonder worker as he is. If it weren’t for him, I’d have eaten you roasted. Now, however, it is you who have eaten me. Know that until today not one mortal dared to step over my boundaries. The few madmen who tried it only got so far as the field where you saw that heap of bones.
They ended by going to Woodpecker’s home, where Woodpecker entertained Handsome Son most hospitably with all the honor due a traveler. But while they were at table regaling themselves with food and drink, Woodpecker groaned anew with pain. All of a sudden, Handsome Son fetched out the leg, which he kept in his pouch. He put it in place, and it healed itself forthwith. Out of happiness, Woodpecker stretched out the feast three days in a row, and she begged Handsome Son to choose one of her three daughters, beautiful as fairies. Handsome Son didn’t want that, however, and he told the Woodpecker plainly what he was looking for. Then, Woodpecker said:
--With your horse and your bravery, I believe you’ll succeed.
After three days, they got ready for the road and set out. Handsome son went, and went, and went anew. The way was long and even longer, but when he had crossed Woodpecker’s boundaries, the trail gave onto a beautiful plain. There was flowering grass on one side while on the other the grass was singed. Then Handsome Son asked the horse‑‑
--Why is the grass burned?
And the horse answered him:
--We are here on the estate of a Shrew, the Woodpecker’s sister. These sisters are so evil, they can’t live in the same place. You see, their parents’ curse landed on them, and they turned into monstrous beasts. It’s a fright, the way they hate each other. There’s nothing to stop it, and they want to seize each other’s land.
--Now, when Shrew is in an evil mood, she vomits fire and brimstone, and this burned plain shows that she must have had some fracas with her sister. With the Woodpecker coming to chase Shrew from Woodpecker-land, Shrew singed the grass where she passed. She is worse than her sister, and she has three heads.
--Let us rest a little, master, and tomorrow let’s be ready at dawn..
The next day they prepared themselves as they had when they were about to reach the Woodpecker’s estate, and they had set off when they heard a howling and a whirring the like of which they had never heard before. Then the horse cried out:
--Get ready, master, for that griffin of a Shrew is closing in.
With one jaw in the sky and the other on earth, the Shrew bore down on them fleet as the wind. The horse flew up fast as an arrow until he was a bit above her, and he held his position, rather to the side. Then Handsome Son shot the Shrew with an arrow, and he made one of her heads fly. As he was about to make another head sail, the Shrew begged him in tears to forgive her. Then she gave him her word, written in her own blood, so he would have faith in her that she meant him no harm. After that, the Shrew hosted Handsome Son even more than the Woodpecker had, while for his part, Handsome Son gave Shrew back the head he had taken with an arrow. The noggin glued itself back immediately when Shrew put it on, but after three days Handsome Son and the horse left to go further.
So it was that they passed Shrew's boarders, and on they went. They went and went yet some more until they reached a field of flowers only, all in bloom, and there, there was only spring. Every proud flower: a rare beauty‑‑ and to get you drunk, a little wind drew a sweet smell on a breeze that gently blew. Here they stayed to rest themselves until the horse said:
--As for success, master, we got on as we got on, but now we have to get over the greatest bump in our road‑-a really big danger‑‑ and if God help us escape even this, then we're stout lads. The palace of Youth without Age and Life without Death lies just ahead. This house is surrounded by dense, high forest where the wildest, strongest beasts in the world watch without sleeping, day and night, and they are many. There is no way to win with them, and as for crossing the forest, that's out of the question; so, to end off our task (if human beings can), we'll have to fly.
After that, they rested for some two days and got ready once more. Then, holding his breath, the horse said:
--Master, tighten the girth as much as you can, and on mounting, hold yourself well, both in the stirrups and by my mane. And keep your legs stuck fast about my waist so you don’t upset me in my flight.
Handsome son climbed on, made a test, and in one minute he was near the forest. And again the horse said:
--Master, now is the time when they feed the beasts of the forest and they are all brought into the courtyard. Let’s go!
Let’s go, Handsome Son answered, and let God have pity on us!
They rose into the blue, and they saw the palace gleaming so that you could stare at the sun but at that palace: never! They passed above the forest, and just as they were about to let themselves down at the palace stair, Handsome Son barely, barely touched the tip top of one of the trees with his foot, and all’f a sudden the whole forest began to move; the animals were roaring to raise the hair on your head. Handsome Son and the horse hurried to let themselves down; and if the lady of the palace were not outside, feeding her cubs (because that’s what she called the beasts of the forest), they would have fallen prey to disaster without fail.
Out of her abounding joy she helped Handsome Son and the horse escape the beasts, for until that moment not a human soul had been seen around her. She stopped her beasts, she made them tame and sent them where they belonged. The mistress was a tall fairy, slim, and dear, and beautiful-- a stunner! When Handsome Son saw her, he was dumbstruck. Howso’ere, seeing him with pity, the lady said:
--Welcome Handsome Son! What are you seeking here?
--We are looking, said he, for youth without age and life without death.
--If you are looking for that, the fairy replied, it is here.
Then Handsome Son dismounted and entered the palace. There he found two
more women, one younger than the other. They were the lady’s big sisters. He began to thank the fairies for rescuing him from danger, while they, out of pure joy, cooked him a
pleasant supper and served it forth in golden dishes. Handsome Son gave the horse his head to graze wherever he wanted to go. Then the sisters made their guest and his horse known to all the wild beasts so that they could wander at leisure through the forest.
The ladies asked Handsome Son to live with them from now on, for they told him, they were sick and tired of sitting around all alone while he, for is part, did not wait to be asked again. He agreed with all thankfulness since he was looking for that exactly.
They got used to each other bit by bit. Handsome Son told the ladies the story and all he suffered until he reached them, and not long after he married the youngest daughter as well. At the wedding, the mistresses of the house gave him leave to go through all the places round about, wherever he wished. Only, they said, he must not go to one valley, which they also showed him, for it would not be well for him. On top of that, they told him the dell was called The Crying Valley.
Handsome Son stayed there time out of mind, none the wiser, for he remained as young as when he came. He ranged through the forest, without bothering his head in the least. He delighted in the golden palaces, lived in peace and quiet with his wife and sisters-in-law, and enjoyed the beauty of the flowers and the sweetness and cleanliness of the air--all as a happy man. He often went out hunting, but one day he took off after a hare. He shot an arrow and missed. He shot a second and missed again. Angrily, he ran after the hare and shot a third arrow, which struck the hare. Howso’ere-- unhappy man!--in the rush he didn’t notice that while running after the hare, he had crossed into the Crying Valley.
Taking the hare, Handsome Son returned home, when what do you think? All of a sudden he was caught by a longing for his father and mother. Handsome Son didn’t dare to tell the ladies, who were skilled in knowledge. They knew it none-the-less for they saw the sadness and restlessness inside.
--O unhappy man, they said most fearfully, you crossed, into the Crying Valley!
--I crossed over, my dears, without meaning to do this foolish thing, and now my legs are melting from under me from longing for my parents, yet I can not suffer myself to leave you. I have been with you many days, and I have not complained of any sorrow. I will go to see my parents one more time, and then I will return to leave no more.
--Don’t leave us, dearest. Your parents haven’t lived for hundreds of years, and as for you, if you go, we fear you shall not return again. Stay with us, for our thoughts tell us, you will perish.
All the women’s prayers as well as the horse’s weren’t able to soothe Handsome Son’s longing for his parents, which seared him through and through. In the last resort, the horse said :
--If you don’t want to listen to me master, anything may happen to you. Know that you are alone to blame. Now, I have to tell you a word or two, and if you accept my bargain, I will carry you back.
--I accept, said Handsome Son most thankfully. Be it as you say!
--As we reach your father’s palace, I shall let you down, and I will go back if you
should want to remain even one hour.
--So be it, said Handsome Son.
They got ready to leave, they embraced the women, and after they said their goodbyes they set out, leaving the fairies with tears in their eyes. They reached a place where the Shrew’s estate had been. There they found cities. The woods had changed to fields. Handsome Son asked one after another for news of the Shrew and her dwelling; but they answered him that their grandparents had heard of their grandparents prattling to each other about such nonsense.
--How can that be, said Handsome Son. I passed by here just the day before yesterday, and then he would begin to tell all he knew.
The people he was talking to laughed at him as at one who raved or told them waking dreams while Handsome Son went angrily onward without getting it into his head that his hair and his beard were turning gray.
Reaching the estate of the Woodpecker, he made question as at Shrew’s estate, and there, too, he received the same answers. He was not able to make sense of how in several days the places had changed this way. And, upset again, he left with a white beard down to his belt, and sensing that his legs trembled a bit, he reached his father’s country. Here: other people, other cities, and the old things were changed so that he knew them no more. At long last, he reached the palaces where he was born. As he got down, the horse kissed his hand and said:
--Your health! Let me go back to the place I came from. If you want to go too, climb up and let’s go!
--Go in good health, said Handsome Son, for I also hope to return ‘passing soon. The horse took off swift as an arrow.
Seeing the palace buildings ruined and weeds grown over them, Handsome Son sighed, and with tears in his eyes, he sought to remember how full of light these buildings used to be and how he had spent his childhood in them. He circled some two or three times there, searching every room, every little corner that brought to mind all things past-- the stable in which he found the horse...then he descended into the cellar, its latch filled with fallen debris.
Searching in one part and another, with a white beard down to his knees, raising his eyelids with his hands, and hardly moving, he found nothing down there, other than a beat up trunk. He opened it. Howso’ere he found nothing inside. Then he lifted the lid of a hidden drawer inside, and a thin, cracked voice said:
---You are well-come. Had you been much later, I would have perished myself.
Death, who had dried to a hook in the bottom of the trunk, gave him one slap, and he fell dead and turned to dust right away.