was the night before the day fixed for his coronation, and the
young King was sitting alone in his beautiful chamber. His courtiers
had all taken their leave of him, bowing their heads to the ground,
according to the ceremonious usage of the day, and had retired
to the Great Hall of the Palace, to receive a few last lessons
from the Professor of Etiquette; there being some of them who
had still quite natural manners, which in a courtier is, I need
hardly say, a very grave offence.
The lad for he
was only a lad, being but sixteen years of age
was not sorry at their departure, and had flung himself back
with a deep sigh of relief on the soft cushions of his embroidered
couch, lying there, wild-eyed and open-mouthed, like a brown
woodland Faun, or some young animal of the forest newly snared
by the hunters.
And, indeed, it was the hunters
who had found him, coming upon him almost by chance as, bare-limbed
and pipe in hand, he was following the flock of the poor goatherd
who had brought him up, and whose son he had always fancied himself
to be. The child of the old King's only daughter by a secret
marriage with one much beneath her in station
a stranger, some said, who, by the wonderful magic of his lute-playing,
had made the young Princess love him; while others spoke of an
artist from Rimini, to whom the Princess had shown much, perhaps
too much honour, and who had suddenly disappeared from the city,
leaving his work in the Cathedral unfinished
he had been, when but a week old, stolen away from his mother's
side, as she slept, and given into the charge of a common peasant
and his wife, who were without children of their own, and lived
in a remote part of the forest, more than a day's ride from the
town. Grief, or the plague, as the court physician stated, or,
as some suggested, a swift Italian poison administered in a cup
of spiced wine, slew, within an hour of her wakening, the white
girl who had given him birth, and as the trusty messenger who
bare the child across his saddle-bow stooped from his weary horse
and knocked at the rude door of the goatherd's hut, the body
of the Princess was being lowered into an open grave that had
been dug in a deserted churchyard, beyond the city gates, a grave
where it was said that another body was also lying, that of a
young man of marvellous and foreign beauty, whose hands were
tied behind him with a knotted cord, and whose breast was stabbed
with many red wounds.
Such, at least, was the story
that men whispered to each other. Certain it was that the old
King, when on his deathbed, whether moved by remorse for his
great sin, or merely desiring that the kingdom should not pass
away from his line, had had the lad sent for, and, in the presence
of the Council, had acknowledged him as his heir.
And it seems that from the very
first moment of his recognition he had shown signs of that strange
passion for beauty that was destined to have so great an influence
over his life. Those who accompanied him to the suite of rooms
set apart for his service, often spoke of the cry of pleasure
that broke from his lips when he saw the delicate raiment and
rich jewels that had been prepared for him, and of the almost
fierce joy with which he flung aside his rough leathern tunic
and coarse sheepskin cloak. He missed, indeed, at times the fine
freedom of his forest life, and was always apt to chafe at the
tedious Court ceremonies that occupied so much of each day, but
the wonderful palace Joyeuse, as they
called it of which he now found himself lord,
seemed to him to be a new world fresh-fashioned for his delight;
and as soon as he could escape from the council-board or audience-chamber,
he would run down the great staircase, with its lions of gilt
bronze and its steps of bright porphyry, and wander from room
to room, and from corridor to corridor, like one who was seeking
to find in beauty an anodyne from pain, a sort of restoration
Upon these journeys of discovery,
as he would call them and, indeed, they were
to him real voyages through a marvellous land, he would sometimes
be accompanied by the slim, fair-haired Court pages, with their
floating mantles, and gay fluttering ribands; but more often
he would be alone, feeling through a certain quick instinct,
which was almost a divination, that the secrets of art are best
learned in secret, and that Beauty, like Wisdom, loves the lonely
Many curious stories were related
about him at this period. It was said that a stout Burgo-master,
who had come to deliver a florid oratorical address on behalf
of the citizens of the town, had caught sight of him kneeling
in real adoration before a great picture that had just been brought
from Venice, and that seemed to herald the worship of some new
gods. On another occasion he had been missed for several hours,
and after a lengthened search had been discovered in a little
chamber in one of the northern turrets of the palace gazing,
as one in a trance, at a Greek gem carved with the figure of
Adonis. He had been seen, so the tale ran, pressing his warm
lips to the marble brow of an antique statue that had been discovered
in the bed of the river on the occasion of the building of the
stone bridge, and was inscribed with the name of the Bithynian
slave of Hadrian. He had passed a whole night in noting the effect
of the moonlight on a silver image of Endymion.
All rare and costly materials
had certainly a great fascination for him, and in his eagerness
to procure them he had sent away many merchants, some to traffic
for amber with the rough fisher-folk of the north seas, some
to Egypt to look for that curious green turquoise which is found
only in the tombs of kings, and is said to possess magical properties,
some to Persia for silken carpets and painted pottery, and others
to India to buy gauze and stained ivory, moonstones and bracelets
of jade, sandal-wood and blue enamel and shawls of fine wool.
But what had occupied him most
was the robe he was to wear at his coronation, the robe of tissued
gold, and the ruby-studded crown, and the sceptre with its rows
and rings of pearls. Indeed, it was of this that he was thinking
to-night, as he lay back on his luxurious couch, watching the
great pinewood log that was burning itself out on the open hearth.
The designs, which were from the hands of the most famous artists
of the time, had been submitted to him many months before, and
he had given orders that the artificers were to toil night and
day to carry them out, and that the whole world was to be searched
for jewels that would be worthy of their work. He saw himself
in fancy standing at the high altar of the cathedral in the fair
raiment of a King, and a smile played and lingered about his
boyish lips, and lit up with a bright lustre his dark woodland
After some time he rose from
his seat, and leaning against the carved penthouse of the chimney,
looked round at the dimly-lit room. The walls were hung with
rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty. A large press,
inlaid with agate and lapis-lazuli, filled one corner, and facing
the window stood a curiously wrought cabinet with lacquer panels
of powdered and mosaiced gold, on which were placed some delicate
goblets of Venetian glass, and a cup of dark-veined onyx. Pale
poppies were broidered on the silk coverlet of the bed, as though
they had fallen from the tired hands of sleep, and tall reeds
of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from which great tufts
of ostrich plumes sprang, like white foam, to the pallid silver
of the fretted ceiling. A laughing Narcissus in green bronze
held a polished mirror above its head. On the table stood a flat
bowl of amethyst.
Outside he could see the huge
dome of the cathedral, looming like a bubble over the shadowy
houses, and the weary sentinels pacing up and down on the misty
terrace by the river. Far away, in an orchard, a nightingale
was singing. A faint perfume of jasmine came through the open
window. He brushed his brown curls back from his forehead, and
taking up a lute, let his fingers stray across the cords. His
heavy eyelids drooped, and a strange languor came over him. Never
before had he felt so keenly, or with such exquisite joy, the
magic and the mystery of beautiful things.
When midnight sounded from the
clock-tower he touched a bell, and his pages entered and disrobed
him with much ceremony, pouring rose-water over his hands, and
strewing flowers on his pillow. A few moments after that they
had left the room, he fell asleep.
And as he slept he dreamed a
dream, and this was his dream.
He thought that he was standing
in a long, low attic, amidst the whir and clatter of many looms.
The meagre daylight peered in through the grated windows, and
showed him the gaunt figures of the weavers bending over their
cases. Pale, sickly-looking children were crouched on the huge
crossbeams. As the shuttles dashed through the warp they lifted
up the heavy battens, and when the shuttles stopped they let
the battens fall and pressed the threads together. Their faces
were pinched with famine, and their thin hands shook and trembled.
Some haggard women were seated at a table sewing. A horrible
odour filled the place. The air was foul and heavy, and the walls
dripped and streamed with damp.
The young King went over to one
of the weavers, and stood by him and watched him.
And the weaver looked at him
angrily, and said, 'Why art thou watching me? Art thou a spy
set on us by our master?'
'Who is thy master?' asked the
'Our master!' cried the weaver,
bitterly. 'He is a man like myself. Indeed, there is but this
difference between us that he wears fine clothes
while I go in rags, and that while I am weak from hunger he suffers
not a little from overfeeding.'
'The land is free,' said the
young King, 'and thou art no man's slave.'
'In war,' answered the weaver,
'the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make
slaves of the poor. We must work to live, and they give us such
mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they
heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before
their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow
the corn, and our own board is empty. We have chains, though
no eye beholds them; and are slaves, though men call us free.'
'Is it so with all?' he asked,
'It is so with all,' answered
the weaver, 'with the young as well as with the old, with the
women as well as with the men, with the little children as well
as with those who are stricken in years. The merchants grind
us down, and we must needs do their bidding. The priest rides
by and tells his beads, and no man has care of us. Through our
sunless lanes creeps Poverty with her hungry eyes, and Sin with
his sodden face follows close behind her. Misery wakes us in
the morning, and Shame sits with us at night. But what are these
things to thee? Thou art not one of us. Thy face is too happy.'
And he turned away scowling, and threw the shuttle across the
loom, and the young King saw that it was threaded with a thread
And a great terror seized upon
him, and he said to the weaver, 'What robe is this that thou
'It is the robe for the coronation
of the young King,' he answered; 'what is that to thee?'
And the young King gave a loud
cry and woke, and lo! he was in his own chamber, and through
the window he saw the great honey-coloured moon hanging in the
And he fell asleep again and
dreamed, and this was his dream.
He thought that he was lying
on the deck of a huge galley that was being rowed by a hundred
slaves. On a carpet by his side the master of the galley was
seated. He was black as ebony, and his turban was of crimson
silk. Great earrings of silver dragged down the thick lobes of
his ears, and in his hands he had a pair of ivory scales.
The slaves were naked, but for
a ragged loin-cloth, and each man was chained to his neighbour.
The hot sun beat brightly upon them, and the negroes ran up and
down the gangway and lashed them with whips of hide. They stretched
out their lean arms and pulled the heavy oars through the water.
The salt spray flew from the blades.
At last they reached a little
bay, and began to take soundings. A light wind blew from the
shore, and covered the deck and the great lateen sail with a
fine red dust. Three Arabs mounted on wild asses rode out and
threw spears at them. The master of the galley took a painted
bow in his hand and shot one of them in the throat. He fell heavily
into the surf, and his companions galloped away. A woman wrapped
in a yellow veil followed slowly on a camel, looking back now
and then at the dead body.
As soon as they had cast anchor
and hauled down the sail, the negroes went into the hold and
brought up a long rope-ladder, heavily weighted with lead. The
master of the galley threw it over the side, making the ends
fast to two iron stanchions. Then the negroes seized the youngest
of the slaves and knocked his gyves off, and filled his nostrils
and his ears with wax, and tied a big stone round his waist.
He crept wearily down the ladder, and disappeared into the sea.
A few bubbles rose where he sank. Some of the other slaves peered
curiously over the side. At the prow of the galley sat a shark-charmer,
beating monotonously upon a drum.
After some time the diver rose
up out of the water, and clung panting to the ladder with a pearl
in his right hand. The negroes seized it from him, and thrust
him back. The slaves fell asleep over their oars.
Again and again he came up, and
each time that he did so he brought with him a beautiful pearl.
The master of the galley weighed them, and put them into a little
bag of green leather.
The young King tried to speak,
but his tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth, and
his lips refused to move. The negroes chattered to each other,
and began to quarrel over a string of bright beads. Two cranes
flew round and round the vessel.
Then the diver came up for the
last time, and the pearl that he brought with him was fairer
than all the pearls of Ormuz, for it was shaped like the full
moon, and whiter than the morning star. But his face was strangely
pale, and as he fell upon the deck the blood gushed from his
ears and nostrils. He quivered for a little, and then he was
still. The negroes shrugged their shoulders, and threw the body
And the master of the galley
laughed, and, reaching out, he took the pearl, and when he saw
it he pressed it to his forehead and bowed. 'It shall be,' he
said, 'for the sceptre of the young King,' and he made a sign
to the negroes to draw up the anchor.
And when the young King heard
this he gave a great cry, and woke, and through the window he
saw the long grey fingers of the dawn clutching at the fading
And he fell asleep again, and
dreamed, and this was his dream.
He thought that he was wandering
through a dim wood, hung with strange fruits and with beautiful
poisonous flowers. The adders hissed at him as he went by, and
the bright parrots flew screaming from branch to branch. Huge
tortoises lay asleep upon the hot mud. The trees were full of
apes and peacocks.
On and on he went, till he reached
the outskirts of the wood, and there he saw an immense multitude
of men toiling in the bed of a dried-up river. They swarmed up
the crag like ants. They dug deep pits in the ground and went
down into them. Some of them cleft the rocks with great axes;
others grabbled in the sand.
They tore up the cactus by its
roots, and trampled on the scarlet blossoms. They hurried about,
calling to each other, and no man was idle.
From the darkness of a cavern
Death and Avarice watched them, and Death said, 'I am weary;
give me a third of them and let me go.' But Avarice shook her
head. 'They are my servants,' she answered.
And Death said to her, 'What
hast thou in thy hand?'
'I have three grains of corn,'
she answered; 'what is that to thee?'
'Give me one of them,' cried
Death, 'to plant in my garden; only one of them, and I will go
'I will not give thee anything,'
said Avarice, and she hid her hand in the fold of her raiment.
And Death laughed, and took a
cup, and dipped it into a pool of water, and out of the cup rose
Ague. She passed through the great multitude, and a third of
them lay dead. A cold mist followed her, and the water-snakes
ran by her side.
And when Avarice saw that a third
of the multitude was dead she beat her breast and wept. She beat
her barren bosom, and cried aloud. 'Thou hast slain a third of
my servants,' she cried, 'get thee gone. There is war in the
mountains of Tartary, and the kings of each side are calling
to thee. The Afghans have slain the black ox, and are marching
to battle. They have beaten upon their shields with their spears,
and have put on their helmets of iron. What is my valley to thee,
that thou shouldst tarry in it? Get thee gone, and come here
'Nay,' answered Death, 'but till
thou hast given me a grain of corn I will not go.'
But Avarice shut her hand, and
clenched her teeth. 'I will not give thee anything,' she muttered.
And Death laughed, and took up
a black stone, and threw it into the forest, and out of a thicket
of wild hemlock came Fever in a robe of flame. She passed through
the multitude, and touched them, and each man that she touched
died. The grass withered beneath her feet as she walked.
And Avarice shuddered, and put
ashes on her head. 'Thou art cruel,' she cried; 'thou art cruel.
There is famine in the walled cities of India, and the cisterns
of Samarcand have run dry. There is famine in the walled cities
of Egypt, and the locusts have come up from the desert. The Nile
has not overflowed its banks, and the priests have cursed Isis
and Osiris. Get thee gone to those who need thee, and leave me
'Nay,' answered Death, 'but till
thou hast given me a grain of corn I will not go.'
'I will not give thee anything,'
And Death laughed again, and
he whistled through his fingers, and a woman came flying through
the air. Plague was written upon her forehead, and a crowd of
lean vultures wheeled round her. She covered the valley with
her wings, and no man was left alive.
And Avarice fled shrieking through
the forest, and Death leaped upon his red horse and galloped
away, and his galloping was faster than the wind.
And out of the slime at the bottom
of the valley crept dragons and horrible things with scales,
and the jackals came trotting along the sand, sniffing up the
air with their nostrils.
And the young King wept, and
said: 'Who were these men, and for what were they seeking?'
'For rubies for a king's crown,'
answered one who stood behind him.
And the young King started, and,
turning round, he saw a man habited as a pilgrim and holding
in his hand a mirror of silver.
And he grew pale, and said: 'For
And the pilgrim answered: 'Look
in this mirror, and thou shalt see him.'
And he looked in the mirror,
and, seeing his own face, he gave a great cry and woke, and the
bright sunlight was streaming into the room, and from the trees
of the garden and pleasaunce the birds were singing.
And the Chamberlain and the high
officers of State came in and made obeisance to him, and the
pages brought him the robe of tissued gold, and set the crown
and the sceptre before him.
And the young King looked at
them, and they were beautiful. More beautiful were they than
aught that he had ever seen. But he remembered his dreams, and
he said to his lords: 'Take these things away, for I will not
And the courtiers were amazed,
and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting.
But he spake sternly to them
again, and said: 'Take these things away, and hide them from
me. Though it be the day of my coronation, I will not wear them.
For on the loom of Sorrow, and by the white hands of Pain, has
this my robe been woven. There is Blood in the heart of the ruby,
and Death in the heart of the pearl.' And he told them his three
And when the courtiers heard
them they looked at each other and whispered, saying: 'Surely
he is mad; for what is a dream but a dream, and a vision but
a vision? They are not real things that one should heed them.
And what have we to do with the lives of those who toil for us?
Shall a man not eat bread till he has seen the sower, nor drink
wine till he has talked with the vinedresser?'
And the Chamberlain spake to
the young King, and said, 'My lord, I pray thee set aside these
black thoughts of thine, and put on this fair robe, and set this
crown upon thy head. For how shall the people know that thou
art a king, if thou hast not a king's raiment?'
And the young King looked at
him. 'Is it so, indeed?' he questioned. 'Will they not know me
for a king if I have not a king's raiment?'
'They will not know thee, my
lord,' cried the Chamberlain.
'I had thought that there had
been men who were kinglike,' he answered, 'but it may be as thou
sayest. And yet I will not wear this robe, nor will I be crowned
with this crown, but even as I came to the palace so will I go
forth from it.'
And he bade them all leave him,
save one page whom he kept as his companion, a lad a year younger
than himself. Him he kept for his service, and when he had bathed
himself in clear water, he opened a great painted chest, and
from it he took the leathern tunic and rough sheepskin cloak
that he had worn when he had watched on the hillside the shaggy
goats of the goatherd. These he put on, and in his hand he took
his rude shepherd's staff.
And the little page opened his
big blue eyes in wonder, and said smiling to him, 'My lord, I
see thy robe and thy sceptre, but where is thy crown?'
And the young King plucked a
spray of wild briar that was climbing over the balcony, and bent
it, and made a circlet of it, and set it on his own head.
'This shall he my crown,' he
And thus attired he passed out
of his chamber into the Great Hall, where the nobles were waiting
And the nobles made merry, and
some of them cried out to him, 'My lord, the people wait for
their king, and thou showest them a beggar,' and others were
wroth and said, 'He brings shame upon our state, and is unworthy
to be our master.' But he answered them not a word, but passed
on, and went down the bright porphyry staircase, and out through
the gates of bronze, and mounted upon his horse, and rode towards
the cathedral, the little page running beside him.
And the people laughed and said,
'It is the King's fool who is riding by,' and they mocked him.
And he drew rein and said, 'Nay,
but I am the King.' And he told them his three dreams.
And a man came out of the crowd
and spake bitterly to him, and said, 'Sir, knowest thou not that
out of the luxury of the rich cometh the life of the poor? By
your pomp we are nurtured, and your vices give us bread. To toil
for a hard master is bitter, but to have no master to toil for
is more bitter still. Thinkest thou that the ravens will feed
us? And what cure hast thou for these things? Wilt thou say to
the buyer, "Thou shalt buy for so much," and to the
seller, "Thou shalt sell at this price"? I trow not.
Therefore go back to thy Palace and put on thy purple and fine
linen. What hast thou to do with us, and what we suffer?'
'Are not the rich and the poor
brothers?' asked the young King.
'Ay,' answered the man, 'and
the name of the rich brother is Cain.'
And the young King's eyes filled
with tears, and he rode on through the murmurs of the people,
and the little page grew afraid and left him.
And when he reached the great
portal of the cathedral, the soldiers thrust their halberts out
and said, 'What dost thou seek here? None enters by this door
but the King.'
And his face flushed with anger,
and he said to them, 'I am the King,' and waved their halberts
aside and passed in.
And when the old Bishop saw him
coming in his goatherd's dress, he rose up in wonder from his
throne, and went to meet him, and said to him, 'My son, is this
a king's apparel? And with what crown shall I crown thee, and
what sceptre shall I place in thy hand? Surely this should be
to thee a day of joy, and not a day of abasement.'
'Shall Joy wear what Grief has
fashioned?' said the young King. And he told him his three dreams.
And when the Bishop had heard
them he knit his brows, and said, 'My son, I am an old man, and
in the winter of my days, and I know that many evil things are
done in the wide world. The fierce robbers come down from the
mountains, and carry off the little children, and sell them to
the Moors. The lions lie in wait for the caravans, and leap upon
the camels. The wild boar roots up the corn in the valley, and
the foxes gnaw the vines upon the hill. The pirates lay waste
the sea-coast and burn the ships of the fishermen, and take their
nets from them. In the salt-marshes live the lepers; they have
houses of wattled reeds, and none may come nigh them. The beggars
wander through the cities, and eat their food with the dogs.
Canst thou make these things not to be? Wilt thou take the leper
for thy bedfellow, and set the beggar at thy board? Shall the
lion do thy bidding, and the wild boar obey thee? Is not He who
made misery wiser than thou art? Wherefore I praise thee not
for this that thou hast done, but I bid thee ride back to the
Palace and make thy face glad, and put on the raiment that beseemeth
a king, and with the crown of gold I will crown thee, and the
sceptre of pearl will I place in thy hand. And as for thy dreams,
think no more of them. The burden of this world is too great
for one man to bear, and the world's sorrow too heavy for one
heart to suffer.'
'Sayest thou that in this house?'
said the young King, and he strode past the Bishop, and climbed
up the steps of the altar, and stood before the image of Christ.
He stood before the image of
Christ, and on his right hand and on his left were the marvellous
vessels of gold, the chalice with the yellow wine, and the vial
with the holy oil. He knelt before the image of Christ, and the
great candles burned brightly by the jewelled shrine, and the
smoke of the incense curled in thin blue wreaths through the
dome. He bowed his head in prayer, and the priests in their stiff
copes crept away from the altar.
And suddenly a wild tumult came
from the street outside, and in entered the nobles with drawn
swords and nodding plumes, and shields of polished steel. 'Where
is this dreamer of dreams?' they cried. 'Where is this King who
is apparelled like a beggar this boy who brings
shame upon our state? Surely we will slay him, for he is unworthy
to rule over us.'
And the young King bowed his
head again, and prayed, and when he had finished his prayer he
rose up, and turning round he looked at them sadly.
And lo! through the painted windows
came the sunlight streaming upon him, and the sun-beams wove
round him a tissued robe that was fairer than the robe that had
been fashioned for his pleasure. The dead staff blossomed, and
bare lilies that were whiter than pearls. The dry thorn blossomed,
and bare roses that were redder than rubies. Whiter than fine
pearls were the lilies, and their stems were of bright silver.
Redder than male rubies were the roses, and their leaves were
of beaten gold.
He stood there in the raiment
of a king, and the gates of the jewelled shrine flew open, and
from the crystal of the many-rayed monstrance shone a marvellous
and mystical light. He stood there in a king's raiment, and the
Glory of God filled the place, and the saints in their carven
niches seemed to move. In the fair raiment of a king he stood
before them, and the organ pealed out its music, and the trumpeters
blew upon their trumpets, and the singing boys sang.
And the people fell upon their
knees in awe, and the nobles sheathed their swords and did homage,
and the Bishop's face grew pale, and his hands trembled. 'A greater
than I hath crowned thee,' he cried, and he knelt before him.
And the young King came down
from the high altar, and passed home through the midst of the
people. But no man dared look upon his face, for it was like
the face of an angel.
The Birthday of the Infanta
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Oscar Wilde Collection