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The Conqueror by Maurice Baring

 

When the ancient gods were turned out of Olympus, and the groan of dying Pan shook the world like an earthquake, none of the fallen deities was so disconsolate as Proserpine. She wandered across the world, assuming now this shape and now that, but nowhere could she find a resting-place or a home. In the Southern country which she regarded as her own, whatever shape or disguise she assumed, whether that of a gleaner or of an old woman begging for alms, the country people would scent something uncanny about her and chase her from the place. Thus it was that she left the Southern country, which she loved; she said farewell to the azure skies, the hills covered with corn and fringed everywhere with rose bushes, the white oxen, the cypress, the olive, the vine, the croaking frogs, and the million fireflies; and she sought the green pastures and the woods of a Northern country.

One evening, not long after her arrival (it was Midsummer Eve), as she was wandering in a thick wood, she noticed that the trees and the under-growth were twinkling with a myriad soft flames which reminded her of the fireflies of her own country, and presently she perceived that these flames were stars which, soft as dew and bright as moonbeams, formed the diadems crowning the hair of unearthly shapes. These shapes were like those of men and maidens, transfigured and rendered strange and delicate, as light as foam, and radiant as dragonflies hovering over a pool. They were rimmed with rainbow- coloured films, and sometimes they flew and sometimes they danced, but they rarely seemed to touch the ground. And as Proserpine approached them, in the sad majesty of her fallen divinity, they gathered round her in a circle and bowed down before her. And one of them, taller than the rest, advanced towards her and said:--

"We are the Fairies, and for a long time we have been mournful, for we have lost our Queen, our beautiful Queen. She loved a mortal, and on this account she was banished from Fairyland, nor may she ever revisit the haunt and the kingdom that were hers. But Merlin, the oldest and the wisest of the wizards, told us we should find another Queen, and that we should know her by the poppies in her hair, the whiteness of her brow, and the stillness of her eyes, and with or without such tokens we should know, as soon as we set eyes on her, that it was she and no other who was to be our Queen. And now we know that it was you and no other. Therefore shall you be our Queen and rule over us until he comes who, Merlin said, shall conquer your kingdom and deliver its secrets to the mortal world. Then shall you abandon the kingdom of the Fairies--the everlasting Limbo shall receive you."

* * * * *

It was one summer's day a long time ago, many and many years after Proserpine had become Queen of the Fairies, that a butcher's apprentice called William was enjoying a holiday, and strolling in the woods with no other purpose than to stroll and enjoy the fresh air and the cool leaves and the song of the birds. William loved the sights and sounds of the country; unlike many boys of his age, he was not deeply versed in the habits of birds and beasts, but devoted his spare time to reading such books as he could borrow from the village schoolmaster whose school he had lately left to go into trade, or to taking part in the games of his companions, for he loved human fellowship and the talk and laughter of his fellow-creatures.

The day was hot--it was Midsummer Day--and William, having stumbled on a convenient mound, fell asleep. And he dreamt a curious dream. He thought he saw a beautiful maiden walking towards him. She was tall, and clothed in dark draperies, and her hair was bound with a coronal of scarlet flowers, her face was pale and lustrous, and he could not see her eyes because they were veiled. She approached him and said:--

"You are he who has been chosen to try to conquer my kingdom, which is faery, and to possess it: if, indeed, you are able to endure the fierce ordeal and to perform the three dreadful tasks which have been appointed. If he who sets out to conquer my kingdom should fail in any one of the three tasks he dies, and the world hears of him no more. Many have tried and failed."

And William said he would try with all his might to conquer the faery kingdom, and he asked what the three tasks might be.

The maiden, who was none other than Proserpine, Queen of the Fairies, told him that the first task was to pluck the crystal apple from the laughing tree, and second to pluck the blood-red rose from the fiery rose tree, and the third to cull the white poppy from the quiet fields. William asked her how he was to set about these tasks. Proserpine told him that he had but to accept the quest and all would be made clear. So he accepted the quest without further talk.

Immediately Proserpine vanished, and William found himself in a large green garden of fruit trees, and in the distance he heard the noise of rippling laughter. He walked along many paths to the place whence he thought the laughter came, until he found a large fruit tree which grew by itself. It was laden with fruit, and from one of its boughs hung a crystal apple which shone with all the colours of the rainbow.

But the tree was guarded by a hideous old hag, covered with sores and leprous scales, loathsome to behold. And a laughing voice came from the tree saying: "He who would pluck the crystal apple must embrace its guardian." And William looked at her and felt no loathing but rather a deep pity, so that tears welled in his eyes and dropped on her, and he took her face in his hands to embrace her, and as he did so she changed into a beautiful maiden with veiled eyes, who plucked the crystal apple from the tree and gave it to him and vanished.

Then the garden changed its semblance, and all around him there seemed to be a hedge of smoking thorns and before him a fiery tree on which blood-red roses shone like rubies. The tree was guarded by a maiden with long grey eyes and flowing hair, and of spun moonshine, beautiful exceedingly, and a moaning voice came from the tree, saying: "He who would pluck the rose must slay its guardian." On the grass beneath the tree lay an unsheathed sword. William took the sword in his hands, but the maiden looked at him piteously and wept, so that he hesitated; then, hardening himself, he plunged the sword into her heart and a great moan was heard, and the fire disappeared, and only a withered rose-tree stood before him. Then he heard the voice say that he must pierce his own heart with a thorn from the tree and let the blood fall upon its roots. This he did, and as he did so he felt the sharpness of Death, as though the last dreadful moment had come; but as the drops of blood fell on the roots the beautiful maiden with veiled eyes, whom he had seen before stood before him and gave him the blood-red rose, and she touched his wound and straightway it was healed.

Then the garden vanished altogether, and he stood before a dark porch and a gate beyond which he caught a pale glimmer. And by the porch stood a terrible shape: a hooded skeleton bearing a scythe, with white sockets of fire which had no eyes in them but which were so terrible that no mortal could look on them and live. And here he heard a voice saying: "He who would cull the white poppy must look into the eyes of its guardian and take the scythe from the bony hands." And William seized the scythe and an icy darkness descended upon him, and he felt dizzy and faint; yet he persisted and wrestled with the skeleton, although the darkness seemed to be overwhelming him. He tore the hood from the bony head and looked boldly into the fiery sockets.

Then with a crash of thunder the skeleton vanished, and the maiden with veiled eyes led him through the gate into the quiet fields, and there he culled the white poppy. Then the maiden turned to him and unveiled herself, and it was Proserpine, the Queen of the Fairies.

"You have conquered," she said, "and the faery kingdom is yours for ever, and you shall visit it and dwell in it whenever you desire, and reveal its sounds and its sights to the mortals of the world: and in my kingdom you shall see, as though in a mirror, the pageant of mankind, the scroll of history, and the story of man which is writ in brave, golden and glowing letters, of blood and tears and fire. And there is nothing in the soul of man that shall be hid from you; and you shall speak the secrets of my kingdom to mortal men with a voice of gold and of honey. And when you grow weary of life you shall withdraw for ever into the island of faery voices which lies in the heart of my kingdom. And as for me I go to the everlasting Limbo."

Then Proserpine vanished, and William awoke from his dream, and went home to his butcher's shop.

Soon after this he left his native village and went to London, where he became well known; although how his surname shall be spelt is a matter of dispute, some spelling it Shakespeare, some Shakespere, and some Shaksper.