THE ASTROLOGER'S NIECE
I AM not sorry that I became an astrologer. The work is monotonous but not wearing, and the hours are short. As an apprentice I was a hard student, and frequently consulted the stars; but now, without conceit, I think I speak within bounds in saying that I know all there is to know about planets, stars, asteroids, comets, nebulae, and horoscopes, and twice as much as any other astrologer of my weight; so I seldom refresh my memory by going, through my telescope, directly to nature.
I admit it is inconvenient to be obliged to wear a thick woolen robe on warm days. I also admit that a shorter beard would be less in my way, and that I might shave if my customers did not object. I do not deny that my raven, a second-hand bird which once belonged to Zadkiel, is a nuisance, because of his continually stealing my spectacles. As I have only one pair, it is very hard to find them when I have no spectacles to find them with. The bird is not sympathetic, and enjoys my annoyance over the search; croaking derisively as I go stumbling around among dusty old books and brittle glass crucibles. This irritates me; and I put him on bread and water, which irritates him.
My calculations are a bore; and I am very apt to pinch my fingers or entangle my beard in the celestial globe. My customers are greedy, and insist upon being kings, duchesses, pirates, and so on, ignoring the indications which plainly show them to be intended for hurdy-gurdy players, scissors-grinders, or poets. The planets are all right; I have no particular fault to find with the fixed stars; but those vagabonds, the comets, will often act in the most unfriendly way,—spoiling my very best combinations. It makes customers ill-natured, and they hold me responsible, just as though I arranged the comets to suit myself! Perhaps it is not strange that I am a trifle touchy; I feel sure astrologers will agree that I am no more nervous than is excusable under the trials of the profession. Still, I repeat, I am satisfied with my vocation. I did hesitate between star-gazing and saw-filing; but I think my choice was not unwise; for, as an astrologer, I became more or less familiar with magic,—a pleasant recreation if pursued with proper discretion, but not fit for children. While I lived alone, I had no trouble with it; for although I made mistakes, I was indulgent enough to overlook them.
But when my only sister unfortunately died and left a lovely little daughter alone in the world, whom nobody else could be persuaded to adopt, I foolishly consented to bring up that child. It was an amiable, even admirable, weakness—but, my stars! what curious things a child can do!
I had had no kindergarten experience. I was never in an orphan asylum, so far as I know, and I was an only son. I knew nothing of children, except such superficial acquaintance as enabled me to foretell their futures and to advise parents about bringing them up; and yet in my old age I was thus, by an accident, forced to take full charge of a small girl of very decided traits—born with Jupiter in the ascendant, and Mercury not far off! What bothered me most was her goodness. A bad child can be coaxed and punished; but an affectionate, mischievous, obedient, and innocent girl—what can be done with her?
I never thought of locking up my books of magic—and she must have read them, I suppose; for, before I knew it, that youngster was working spells and charms, fixing up enchantments, and making transformations which required more time to disentangle than I could readily spare from my business hours.have displeased the colt, for he was not at all sedate in character. But the farmer who owned him did not think of that. He came to see me about it, thoughtlessly bringing his pitchfork with him; so I found it best to promise to remove the wings. Luckily, she had left the book open at the very charm that had been used, and I was able to undo it; though there was some delay, caused by the necessity of using a lock of hair from the head of the Sultan, who was kind enough to grow one for me as soon as he could.
Now that child did n't mean any harm; she could n't see why a horse should n't fly,—the little goose!—nor could I explain it to her very clearly. She promised, however, not to do so again, and of course we said no more about it.
The week after, coming home one day, I found my room filled to the brim, so to speak, with an enormous green dragon, who blew smoke from his nostrils so profusely that it gave me some trouble to convince the villagers that there was no fire and that they were nuisances, with their buckets and ladders!
Of course my magic-books were inaccessible, and we took lodgings with a neighbor until the dragon was starved out. The dragon's skin made an excellent rug, but the experience was not enjoyable. I could not reprove my niece for this, because she explained very frankly that she had made the dragon larger than she intended; it was only a misfit.
You may think me absent-minded; but it never occurred to me to forbid these practices, although, had I done so, she would have obeyed me. I forgot about it, except when some new prank brought the matter to my mind, and then I became absorbed in remedying the difficulty caused by her experiment. Once I tried to divert her mind by inducing her to adopt a doll which the raven had cleverly secured from somebody; but her care of it was so evidently due to a desire to please me that whenever she held it I was uneasy. When the raven took the doll away again (let us hope, to return it), we were both relieved.
For a time after the dragon incident, my niece was shy of using the magic-books, and I enjoyed this quiet interval very much. I was occupied in manufacturing a horoscope for the innkeeper, who was quite well-to-do. He had promised me a round sum for a favorable sketch of his future, and I was anxious to give satisfaction and to collect my bill. But the stars indicated that only the strictest economy would tide him over a coming financial crisis in his affairs—which made me fear there might be some uncertainty about my fee. Absorbed in this perplexity, I may have neglected my niece; at all events, she got into the habit of spending her time with the innkeeper's family.
A commercial magician from Lapland, of great dignity and little importance, chanced to arrive at the inn while my niece was there. Overhearing his negotiation with the landlord, she learned, through the foolish talkativeness of the magician, that the long and imposing train of mules and other companions accompanying him were not, in reality, what they appeared to be, but were simply his performing company of manufactured hallucinations disguised in their traveling shapes. Imagine the effect upon the curious and ingenuous mind of my playful niece! The heedless magician, with equal carelessness, left his wand upon the table in the front hall, where anybody could reach it. You can foresee the result.
It must have been merely by chance that she succeeded in counteracting the spell by which these creatures were confined to their every-day forms. However that may be, you may imagine what happened while the magician was at dinner that afternoon. The inquiring spirit of childhood led my niece to make trial of the wand, when, of course, the mules and attendants returned to their original shapes and flew off, a buzzing swarm of bees! I was walking in the village, and as soon as I saw the swarm I understood what had happened, and must admit I was amused.
When I arrived at the inn, the magician was discontented. He failed to appreciate the child's ingenuity and enterprise, and really seemed inclined to speak hastily to the poor girl, who stood looking on with an innocent pleasure in her success, which I found charming. But, since I was there, he only stared helplessly about and seemed anxious to say more than he could wait to pronounce, till I told him that he must have patience and fortitude. As he came to his senses, he showed signs of knowing what to do. He sent for the pepper-casters and vinegar-cruets, neatly changed them into divining-boxes, which straightway poured forth the proper necromantic fumes, and then—remembered that he needed his wand! A long search resulted in finding it up the kitchen chimney, after which a careful and laborious cleansing brought it into a suitable condition to be handled. All this my niece greatly enjoyed. By that time, the magician was very much irritated and began a powerful invocation to a muscular spirit who would, perhaps, have brought the whole party back, in a jiffy!—but I interfered, and explained to him, at some length, that the whole episode was nothing more than a piece of girlish curiosity, not calling for any harsh methods or severe measures. I offered my assistance, which he declined,—without thanks. I shrugged my shoulders and was strolling indifferently away when he began to make an answer. I saw that he had not an easy command of language.
"What nonsense!—such a fix I'm in!—Girlish curiosity?—Where do you think that pack of irresponsible insects has gone?—I hope they will—Please get away!" I withdrew. It was not my affair, but they told me that my niece, inadvertently I am sure, had injured the wand so that it failed to work, and that the magician made futile attempts to use it, until the boys laughed at him, when he desisted. Having lost all his attendants, materials, and supplies, and his wand being useless, the magician was almost distracted. He was unable to leave the village, and the landlord would n't have him at the inn, so I took him to board on credit, at a reasonable charge.
When the magician took up his abode with me, my niece was somewhat fond of questioning him, but apparently found that it was not worth her time, for she seemed to lose interest in this very soon. In fact, she forgot all about him, and about me as well, and became entirely absorbed in an attempt to teach the raven to play jack-stones—for which recreation he showed very little talent. As there was, necessarily, considerable noise in her course of instruction, I requested her to hold the sessions out of doors, and she kindly adopted the suggestion.
In order to occupy the magician's mind, I gave him some copying, but he was n't interested in his work. He was restless, and wandered out into the country searching high and low for the curious crowd of nondescripts which my careless niece had liberated in a praiseworthy attempt to gain knowledge. I called his attention to this view of the subject, and asked whether he did not see it in the same light, but I must say he was quite unreasonable and prejudiced. He left the room abruptly, forgetting his hat, leaving the door wide open, and his quill-pen behind his ear. He was gone for some time. In the afternoon he came back radiant, crying aloud: "I have found them—I have found them!" and dancing with joy. His dancing was very good, but I was busy and paid no attention to him. If he had been a man of any tact, he would have felt my indifference; but some people cannot take a hint, and he went on as eagerly as though I had shown some interest in the performance.
"As I was walking in the meadows," he shouted, "I nearly tripped over the body of a peasant lying flat upon the ground, studying an ant-hill with a magnifying-glass. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that he was The Sluggard and that he had been advised to go to the ants and consider their ways and be wise. I inquired how he was getting on; he said he was getting on very well, that he had learned to gather all he could, to store it up where it would be safe, and to keep in out of the wet."
This bored me extremely, and I coughed significantly, but the magician continued rambling:
"I asked if I might look through the lens. He said I might, and I did. Now what do you suppose I saw through that lens?"
I had not recovered my good humor. I confess that I am sensitive and that my feelings are easily hurt. This foolish attempt to ask me rhetorical conundrums displeased me, and I made no reply. But that man was not discouraged. He repeated the question. Turning toward him, I spoke in a way he could not misunderstand.
"Upon applying your eye to the glass," I remarked, "you were astonished to perceive that the small creatures which you had supposed to be common black ants were in reality a colony of bees, who seemed, for some strange reason of their own, to have chosen an abandoned ant-hill for a hive! This anomaly seems not to have attracted your notice; but, if I had been with you, I could have informed you that you might have concluded from so very significant a fact that this was the swarm which you are so anxious to find. Does not reflection incline you to agree with me?"
He was disappointed. He had foolishly hoped to surprise me—such puerility! "You are right," he replied, in a muffled sort of voice.
"Very well," said I. "Now, in my turn, I will propose a question. Your wand being out of order, how are you to get those wanderers back?" I enjoyed his discomfiture. His face was a study, and I studied it until I learned that he had no suggestion to make. His face wore no expression whatever.
Then, in a kindly spirit, I said to him: "Bring me your little wand. Sit down like a magician, and don't dance about like a dervish, and I 'll fix it for you." He was visibly moved by my kindness, and agreed to all I proposed. He brought the wand, and, after a keen examination, I found a screw loose, and with my pen-knife I tightened it. A sickly smile flitted over his face. "You are doing me a good turn," he murmured. I gave him a searching glance; but the smile was so faint, and faded so quickly, that I decided he did not mean to be humorous. It was lucky for him, for astrologers are sworn foes to humorists; and I should have broken his wand into several fragments if I had detected the slightest levity. He said no more. Having mended the wand, I handed it to him, saying: "Go, recover your chattels!" He retired with briskness, and it gives me pleasure to record the fact that I have never seen him since.
My niece told me, casually, that she was glad that the magician was gone. I offered to tell her about his departure, but she assured me she took no interest in the subject. She did not say any more about it, and, since I do not believe in encouraging childish prattle, I made no more allusions to our boarder.
I have lately asked her whether she would prefer to qualify herself to study astrology, with magic as an extra, or would be better satisfied to learn saw-filing under some well-known virtuoso. She replied with much discretion, that she thought a quiet life was the happiest after all. So, although she has not yet expressed herself more definitely, I feel sure she is giving the subject mature consideration. I admire her greatly, and predict that she will do well if carefully neglected.
As time passes, I notice that I grow older; and, although I cannot repent having chosen the career of an astrologer, if my niece chooses the saw-filing business, I may perhaps take up some similar musical pursuit, so that we may not be separated. Meanwhile, my niece is attending a very excellent school, and makes good progress in her studies. In fact her progress was so rapid at first, that she came near graduating in about two weeks; but, as I then persuaded her to give up the use of the magic-books, she is now making slower and more satisfactory progress, being quite backward.
The dust lies thick on the magic-books. Magic is amusing, but it sometimes makes trouble.