Stories from Old English Poetry/The Tempest

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3759894Stories from Old English Poetry — The TempestAbby Sage Richardson



Once upon a time there lived upon an island, far off in Southern seas, a wonderful wise magician, with one only daughter. The island was far away from all inhabited lands, and no human being had ever set foot on its shores, till the magician came there. But it had been the abode of genii and fairies, and all kinds of elfin creatures, ever since it first rose from the bosom of the green sea. It was an isle of more than earthly beauty. All sorts of plants and flowers grew there from spring to winter, and from winter to spring again. Groves of palms and orange-trees, of willows and of oaks, grew side by side, and the island blossomed with color and beauty such as eye never beheld in any other spot.

Here the great magician Prospero lived and reigned over myriads of subjects,—not human subjects, but all the creatures of the elements,—the fairies of the earth, air, and water, of which the isle was full. Prospero had not always been king over such an unreal kingdom as this seems to us. Not many years before, when his daughter Miranda, who was now a lovely young maiden, was an infant of two or three years, he had been ruler over a powerful realm,—nothing less than the Duchy of Milan. But though he was a good prince, and loved his people very dearly, he was too fond of the study of magic, and all sorts of occult arts and sciences. He thought, meanwhile, that his kingdom was taken good care of, for he trusted all his affairs in the hands of his only brother, whom he believed a good and loyal minister of his will. One would have imagined that Prospero’s inquiries into all the mysteries of magic might have taught him how to read the designs of men, but it seems they did not; for while he was deep in his books, and suspected no harm, this bad brother Antonio took possession of his throne, seized Prospero and the little Princess Miranda, thrust them into a leaky boat, and pushed them off into the wide ocean, all alone by themselves.

But it sometimes happens that the winds and waves, and all the great forces of Nature, though they seem so pitiless, are more kind than men. It proved so in this case, for the waves gently tossed, and the winds blew them on, to the shores of this enchanted island, where Prospero dwelt when the story commences.

When they first landed on the island, Prospero heard issuing from the forest which skirted the shores, wailings and lamentations, which seemed to be uttered by some human creature. He entered the wood, and, guided by these cries, came at length to a tall pine, and there in the heart of a living tree, with only the head and shoulders visible, he found imprisoned the body of an exquisite creature, evidently some delicate fairy of the air. He was firmly wedged in the very middle of the trunk of this huge tree, which had grown around and bound him constantly tighter and tighter in its tough, woody fibres. Prospero stopped and conjured him to tell his name, and why he was thus horribly tortured.

On this the spirit ceased his cries, and told the Duke that his name was Ariel, that he belonged to a race of fairies of the air, and that he was thus imprisoned in the entrails of this pine by the power of a vile witch named Sycorax, who had for a time possessed and governed the island. He told Prospero also that the island was now inhabited by the son of this frightful hag,—a vicious monster, whose name was Caliban,—and that this cruel wretch now occasionally visited his prison to punish and torment him in addition to his present tortures.

When Prospero heard this story, he exacted a solemn vow from Ariel that he would serve him faithfully as servant and subject if he were once set free from the pine. Prospero exacted this promise because he knew that, as fairies had no souls, he could not depend on his gratitude. When Ariel took this vow, and called on all that fairies hold most sacred to witness his oath, Prospero uttered some fearful conjuration, and in an instant Ariel spread his sparkling wings in the sunshine and hovered over their heads. He then took carefully in his arms the little Princess Miranda, and floating through the air as lightly as the down of a thistle, conducted Prospero to a cave in a huge rock, where he could find comfortable shelter.

In this rocky cave the magician made his home. He furnished it with all comforts and necessaries, and even had in it a luxurious grotto for the chamber of the little princess, which, by the means of magic, he furnished with more than royal splendor. Here his delicate Ariel served him faithfully, and here the young Miranda grew daily in the rarest grace and beauty. The monster Caliban, whom no kindness could tame, Prospero kept to do all rude offices for him, the hewing of wood and drawing of water for the little household; and the monster, not daring to disobey his commands, growled and cursed while he did his great master’s bidding.

So they lived till the time when Miranda was about sixteen. So beautiful a creature as this young daughter of Prospero had rarely been seen. Bred among the enchantments of this island, her own rich loveliness was nourished by wonders, till she seemed more like a spirit than a mortal. Her father, too, had taught her much strange and curious learning, so that she was wise in things foreign to her sex and years. She had seen no faces which resembled the human, except those of her father, and his servants Ariel and Caliban. Unaware of her rank as princess, or of the loss of worldly power which her father had suffered in her infancy, she was quite happy in his little kingdom, and regarded him as the most potent of earthly princes.

While things were in this condition on the island, a large fleet appeared with spread sails, which looked in the far distance like a flock of tiny white birds spreading their wings against the blue sky. This fleet belonged to Alonzo, King of Naples, who had just married his only daughter to an African prince, and having escorted her to the abode of her husband in Tunis, was now returning home after the marriage festivities. The duchy of Milan was tributary or subject to the kingdom of Naples, and all the principal lords of that kingdom were on board the fleet, Antonio, Prospero’s bad brother, among the rest, King Alonzo had also with him his son Ferdinand, heir to the crown of Naples, and his brother Sebastian, besides many other noblemen of Naples and Milan. All these nobles, dukes, and princes were on board the King’s vessel, which headed the fleet.

Prospero had for some time known of the approach of this fleet, and had divined what persons were on board, and at what moment the King’s ship would sail near the island. When this moment arrived he sent Ariel to intercept the King’s ship, and to separate it from the other vessels.

Ariel did his work well and faithfully, like a true creature of the elements to which he belonged. He made the whole atmosphere around the ship glitter with flames and flash with lightning. Here, there, and everywhere, he flamed in the eyes of the astonished crew. Upon the mast, the bows, and in the vessel’s track he sat aflame, so that the air and water seemed to vomit fires. The sailors, struck with fear, could hardly work the ship, which Ariel all the time drew closer and closer to the shores of the island. At length the lords, the young prince, and the King himself, leaped into the foaming sea, and all swam to the shore in safety.

Ariel plunged the sailors into a deep sleep, and left them securely fastened under the hatches on the vessel. Then he managed cunningly to separate into small groups those who swam to land, so that each party supposed the others lost. In one part of the island he drew some of the lower officers of the ship’s crew; in another sheltered portion of the shores were placed the King Alonzo, Duke Antonio, Sebastian the King’s brother, and some other nobles; and by some strange music, that had enchantment in it, he led the son of the King, Prince Ferdinand, to the entrance of the cave, where Prospero awaited him.

Ferdinand was amazed at this wondrous sweet music, which seemed to float over his head, and although he was grieving for the loss of his father and all his friends, whom he thought dead, he could not help listening to and admiring this sweet song:—

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Court’sied when you have and kissed
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.
Burden.— Hark, hark!
Bow, wow!
The watch-dogs bark.
Bow, wow!
Ariel.— Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock a doodle doo!”

As Ariel ended, Ferdinand looked up and met the eyes of the loveliest maiden he had ever gazed on. Since everything seemed to be enchanted in this place, he thought she must be the goddess of the isle. He spoke to her thus, but she told him that she was no goddess, only a simple maiden, and as mortal as himself. And as she had never seen any human shape before save that of her father and his two servants, the handsome young prince seemed to her something almost supernatural, and like a hero of romance. Thus it happened, that from the first moment they looked into each other’s eyes they loved each other.

Although it was a part of Prospero’s plans that these two should love, yet he did not desire that his daughter should be too easily won; so at this moment he advanced and claimed Ferdinand as his prisoner. The prince tried to resist, and was about to draw his sword at being so rudely attacked, when his arm was instantly made powerless by the force of magic, and he was obliged to yield. He followed Prospero into his cave, and in spite of Miranda’s tears and entreaties, was treated as a captive. Prospero, affecting the manner of a severe master, set him to the task of removing some heavy logs, and piling them up near the grotto.

During all this time King Alonzo, Antonio, Sebastian, and the rest, were in another part of the island. They, too, heard all sorts of strange noises, and saw all kinds of strange sights. Fatigued with all their escapes and adventures, Alonzo and some of the others lay down upon the ground to sleep, leaving only Antonio and Sebastian awake. Now Antonio was one of those bad men who are not satisfied with their own wickedness and the fruits of it, but wish to tempt others to bad deeds. As they watched there together, he began to say to Sebastian, that since Ferdinand was drowned, he, the brother of the King, was the next heir to the throne. Then he went on skillfully to hint that if Alonzo were dead, Sebastian might now ascend the throne. Sebastian listened till his avarice and ambition were aroused, and he had drawn his sword and was about to kill the King, when Ariel, who was always on the alert, came in to interrupt the plan, aroused the sleeping lords, and so saved Alonzo. The wicked project of the two conspirators was thus defeated. Then they all rose up and went together to see if they could find any sign of human habitation.

Caliban had been sent off by Prospero to gather fagots to burn, and on his way met two common fellows belonging to the ship, who had managed to get to shore with a bottle of liquor from the wreck, and were already half drunk with what they had taken. Caliban had never seen man except Prospero, and supposing all human beings to be equally powerful, he paid them great respect. Stephano, the one who had possession of the bottle, generously gave the monster a drink, and the fumes of the liquor, rising straight to Caliban’s brain, made him partly intoxicated. The stupid monster then concluded that the man who owned so potent a beverage must be even more powerful than his master, and he proposed to them to aid him in a plot to assassinate Prospero, that they might become owners of the island, which he described as abounding in all sorts of natural wealth. Stephano and his companion, Trinculo, readily entered into the plan, and they all journeyed back to the cave, to get possession of Prospero’s magic books and robes, and then to murder him.

When evening came on, all Prospero’s plans were working famously. Ferdinand had told the story of his parentage and rank to Prospero, had besought him that he might have Miranda for his wife, and the old Duke had graciously given his blessing to their love. Alonzo, Sebastian, and Antonio were now close by, in a grove near the entrance of the cave. The drunken fellows and Caliban, whose designs Ariel had overheard and betrayed to his master, were being well pinched and tortured by spirits of the air, whom Prospero set on to harass them. As the King and his followers drew close to the cave, Prospero suddenly revealed himself to their astonished eyes, and accused Antonio of his crime in stealing the kingdom. He also reproached the King of Naples for having countenanced his brother in defrauding him of his duchy. Alonzo was overcome with grief and remorse, especially as he was ready to consider the loss of his son as a punishment for his misdeeds.

While he stood in grief, Prospero drew aside a curtain, and showed Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess together. They were a lovely sight, the handsome prince and young maid, as they sat there, wholly wrapt in contemplation of each other, and unconscious of the party who were gazing on them.

But when the Prince and King recognized each other, you can imagine the joy of the meeting. Everything was explained; the King gave his consent to the marriage of the young lovers, while Antonio, unable to resist the just demands of his powerful brother, yielded him back his dukedom, and pretended to be penitent.

Prospero nobly forgave all injuries, and giving the dainty Ariel his liberty from that time forth, he embarked upon the King’s ship, which lay peacefully in the harbor, and they all set sail for Naples, where Ferdinand and Miranda were speedily united in marriage. Prospero was again placed on the throne of Milan, and the enchanted island has never since known human inhabitant, but remains lonely and beautiful in the midst of the sea.