The strange story book/The Princess of Babylon

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illustrator: H. J. Ford; see also The Princess of Babylon


Belus, King of Babylon, thought himself the greatest man in all the earth, for his subjects were continually telling him so and he had no difficulty in believing them. It was very absurd, of course, but there is this to be said in his excuse, that though his ancestors had built Babylon thirty thousand years before, it owed its chief beauties to him. Belus it was who constructed the vast palace with its famous 'hanging gardens,' and planted with fruit-trees the park stretching from the Euphrates to the Tigris, everything being kept fresh and cool in that burning heat by means of canals and fountains which scattered their waters around.

But though Babylon contained much that was beautiful, the palace itself held the most beautiful and precious thing of all, the king's only child, the Princess Formosante; and her father was prouder of her than of his whole empire put together. Still, with all his delight in his daughter's presence, he knew his duty, and that now she was eighteen it was needful to find her a suitable husband. Yet, who was worthy of such a prize? One by one Belus passed the kings of the earth in judgment before him, and could not answer this question. Then he remembered that the oracle which had been consulted at Formosante's birth had declared that only he who could bend the iron bow of Nimrod, the mighty hunter, should win the hand of the princess.

Well, since that was the decision of the oracle—which, of course, must be obeyed—matters became in one way a little easier. But, could Belus be mistaken? Had not the oracle said something else? Oh, yes! he recollected now that the arm which could draw the bow must overcome also the largest and fiercest lion ever seen in Babylon, and be the best, the cleverest, and the most splendid of men, and possess the rarest object in the whole uni verse.

And as one by one Belus recalled these conditions he sighed aloud, for where should he look for a son-in-law like that?

King Belus need not have been so anxious as regards suitors for the princess, for as an old song says:

'Where maidens are fair, many lovers will come,'

and Formosante was very fair indeed. The fame of her beauty had spread far and wide, and soon the Court of Babylon received notice that the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Shah of India, and the Khan of Scythia—such were the names these nations gave to their rulers—were on their way to Babylon to ask the hand of Formosante.

Preparations for the great event had to be made instantly, and that very day the place was marked out in the park for the erection of a marble amphitheatre capable of holding five hundred thousand persons. Opposite the amphitheatre was a high throne for King Belus and his daughter, and on each side, but a step lower, were those for the princes and nobles who might wish to see the contest. The seats for the three foreign kings were set a little apart.

The first to arrive was the King of Egypt, mounted on the bull Apis and followed by a train of eight thousand attendants; and scarcely had Belus bidden him welcome than the sound of trumpets announced the approach of the King of India, lying upon cushions in a gorgeous litter drawn by twelve elephants, and attended by a still more numerous company. The last to appear was the King of Scythia, riding a tiger as tall as the biggest horse from Persia. He had with him only a few picked warriors, magnificent men armed with bows and arrows; but the king himself was more imposing than any of his soldiers, and the Babylonians, as they looked at him, said to themselves: 'Ah! there is no doubt who will win the princess.'

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How The Stranger on the Unicorn arrived on the scene

When they were all assembled, the three monarchs fell on their faces before the king and his daughter, and then offered the gifts they had brought with them. The present of the Pharaoh consisted of two of the finest crocodiles that could be caught in the Nile, two hippopotamuses, two rats, and two mummies, all of which caused the princess to shudder at their ugliness. In his hands he held the Book of Hermes, which his magicians assured him was the rarest treasure on earth.

The Shah of India brought a hundred elephants and a document written by the hand of Xaca himself; while the Khan of Scythia, who could neither read nor write, signed to his warriors to bring forward a hundred horses covered with skins of black fox fur.

As soon as the offerings had been made, Formosante bowed modestly, but did not raise her eyes or speak, for that was never expected of a princess.

'Ah, why have I not three daughters!' exclaimed King Belus, as he conducted his guests to their thrones; 'then I could have made six people happy! Now here is the golden basin holding the lots which you must draw. The one who draws the longest, first pulls the bow.'

It was the Pharaoh who was the lucky man, and the master of the ceremonies stepped forward with the long golden case, bearing the bow of Nimrod. The Pharaoh was about to take it from him, when there suddenly appeared at the barrier which had been erected in front of the royal seats a young man mounted on a unicorn, with a bird upon his wrist, accompanied by a single attendant also riding on a unicorn. His face was fair and his hair shone like the sun, and altogether he was so different from the dwellers in Babylon that the five hundred thousand spectators in the amphitheatre rose to their feet in order to stare at him better; and suddenly they shouted with one voice: 'He is the only man on earth handsome enough for the princess.'

Formosante heard and glanced up at him; then looked hastily down. The kings heard too, and grew pale.

At this moment the ushers approached the stranger and inquired if he was a king. The young man replied that he did not have that honour, but that he had travelled far to see whether the suitors who were to present themselves were worthy of Formosante, whose renown had reached even his distant country. By the King of Babylon's orders, places were found for him and his attendant in the front row of the amphitheatre: his bird perched on his shoulder, and the two unicorns crouched at his feet.

Now all was ready: the master of the ceremonies, who had during this time been holding the case, took the bow from it to the sound of trumpets, and presented it to the King of Egypt. The Pharaoh, who had not the slightest doubt that the prize would fall to him, laid it for a moment on the head of the sacred bull Apis and stepped into the middle of the arena. The bow, though made of iron, looked flexible, and he fitted an arrow to the string with a light heart. But try as he would, he could not bend it; again and again he put forth all his strength, making such dreadful faces the while that shouts of laughter rang through the amphitheatre, and even the well-brought-up Formosante could not resist a smile.

Deeply hurt at his master's failure, the Grand Almoner of Egypt hastened to his side.

'Let not your Majesty,' he said, 'struggle further for this empty honour, which is after all only a matter of muscles and sinews. In the other tests you are sure to be victor. You will conquer the lion, for have you not the sabre of the god Osiris? The Princess of Babylon is to be the prize of the king who has given proofs of the greatest intelligence; and numerous are the riddles which you have guessed. Her husband must be the most virtuous of princes. Well, were you not the favourite pupil of the Egyptian priesthood? And do you not possess the two rarest objects in the world, the bull Apis and the book of Hermes? No; you are quite safe. There is no one to dispute with you the hand of the Princess Formosante.'

'You are right,' answered the king, and seated himself on his throne.

The bow was next delivered to the King of India, who spent fifteen days in vainly trying to draw it, and when he failed as hopelessly as the King of Egypt had done before him, consoled himself with thinking that the King of Scythia would fare no better than they.

But he was wrong. The King of Scythia had passed his whole life in shooting with bows and arrows, whereas the other two kings had only begun to practise when they heard of the conditions to be fulfilled by the husband of Formosante. When therefore the Scythian monarch grasped the bow, there was an eager rustle amongst the five hundred thousand in the amphitheatre. They leaned forward with straining eyes, and held their breath like one man, as they perceived a slight movement of the bow. The king's heart beat high as he felt it quiver under his hands, but, pull as hard as he might, he could not bend it further. A sigh of disappointment swept through the audience, partly for him and partly for the princess.

'At this rate she will never be married,' they groaned.

Then the young stranger left his seat and went up to the King of Scythia.

'Do not be surprised,' he said, 'if your Majesty has not been entirely successful. These bows are made in my country, and there is a certain knack in drawing them. You have won a greater triumph in bending it even a little than I should have done in drawing it altogether.'

As he spoke he picked up an arrow and; fitting it into the string of the bow, drew, without any apparent effort, the cord to his ear, and the arrow flew out of sight beyond the barrier.

At this spectacle a shout broke from half a million throats. The walls of Babylon rang with cries of joy, and the women murmured:

'What a comfort that such a handsome young man should have so much strength!' and waited with great interest to see what would happen next.

Well, this happened which nobody expected at all. The young man took from the folds of his turban an ivory tablet, on which he wrote some lines addressed to the princess, with a golden needle, telling her how jealous the rest of the world would be of the man who carried off the prize for which so many were striving.

To us who read them, they do not seem perhaps to fulfil the second of the conditions imposed, but the oracle knew that to the person whose eyes fell on them for the first time, they would appear to contain all the wit and wisdom of the world. So when the princess glanced at the tablet held out to her at the end of the bow, she felt that nothing more beautiful had ever been written, and the three kings looking on were rooted to the ground in astonishment and disgust.

Meanwhile King Belus, having consulted his magicians, declared that although neither of the three kings could bend the bow, his daughter must nevertheless be married, and that they would now go on to the next test, which was the slaying of the lion. The Pharaoh, who had been educated in all the learning of his country, replied that it really was too ridiculous to expect a king to expose himself to the fury of wild beasts in order to obtain a bride, and that though no one had a greater admiration for the princess Formosante than he, yet if he were slain by the lion, he would not be able to marry her any the more. This was quite true, and the King of India entirely agreed with him. Indeed, they went so far as to say that King Belus was making a jest of them, and that it would be necessary to bring large armies from their respective kingdoms in order to punish him. When between them they had dethroned him, they could then draw lots for Formosante.

Thus grumbling, they each sent off a messenger ordering a levy of three hundred thousand men to be raised without delay.

The King of Scythia, however, gave utterance to no complaints, but descended into the arena, a curved sword in his hand. Not that he was desperately in love with the beautiful Formosante; it was a passion for glory and for no woman which had brought him to Babylon, and when he saw that his two rivals had no intention of fighting the lion, he was filled with delight. He was not afraid of any lion that trod the earth; of course, he might not be able to kill it, and it might even kill him, but after all, a man could only die once. The lion, when he rushed out from his cage, looked capable of swallowing all three kings at one mouthful, so large and fierce was he. But the King of Scythia stood firm and plunged his sword at the beast's throat. Unluckily the point of it hit against his teeth and broke into splinters, and the lion, with a roar which shook the amphitheatre to its foundation, buried his claws deep in the thighs of his enemy. Another minute and all would have been over, had not the young stranger leapt to the king's side, and, seizing a sword from the belt of an attendant, cut off the lion's head at a single blow. He next produced a little box of ointment, which he begged the king to rub into his wounds.

'It was only an accident,' he said, 'that prevented you from vanquishing the lion, and your courage is still as untarnished as if he lay dead at your feet.'

These words pleased the king even more than the ointment which was to cure his hurts; and full of gratitude he returned to his tent.

Left alone in the arena, the stranger turned to his attendant, and bade him wash the lion's head in the stream that ran below the amphitheatre, and, when that was done, to take out the teeth of the beast, and put in their place diamonds of the same size, which he produced from his sash. As soon as all was ready the young man said to the bird which had remained perched on his shoulder: 'Fair bird, I wish you to carry the head of this lion, and lay it at the feet of Formosante.'

So the bird carried the lion's head, bowing himself low before her as he placed it on the ground, and the diamonds in the mouth shone so brightly that the whole court was dazzled with their brilliance. Indeed, the bird itself was hardly less wonderful, with his beak of coral and his claws of silver mixed with purple. No peacock possessed so splendid a tail, and though his size was that of an eagle, his eyes were gentle as well as piercing. The ladies crowded round him to pat his head and stroke his golden feathers, but though he was polite to them all, he would not be tempted away from the princess. Everyone agreed that they had never beheld anything like the grace with which he received the biscuits and pistachio nuts offered him by Formosante, or the elegant gestures with which he conveyed them to his beak.

Meanwhile Belus had been considering attentively the diamonds in the lion's mouth and had made up his mind about the young stranger.

'It is plain,' he said, 'that he is the son either of the King of China, or of that part of the world known as Europe, or of Africa, which is, I am told, on the borders of Egypt. At any rate, let a magnificent feast be prepared for him.' At the same time, he ordered his equerry to ask the unknown, with all possible respect, who he was.

The stranger was about to answer, when there suddenly arrived on the scene a third unicorn ridden by a man very plainly dressed. He quickly dismounted and, addressing the victor, told him that Ocmar, his father, had only a short time to live and that they must start at once if his son wished to see him alive.

'Let us go then,' replied the young stranger; then turning to the king he added: 'Deign, sire, to permit the princess to accept the bird which I am leaving behind me. They are both of them unique.' He bowed to the king and to the spectators, and went down the marble steps to where his unicorn was waiting, but not before the equerry had obtained the information desired by Belus, and learned that the dying Ocmar was an old shepherd much respected in the neighbourhood of his home.

Nothing could equal the surprise of Belus and his daughter on hearing this news. In fact, the king refused to believe it, and desired the equerry to ride after the stranger at once, and find out more about him. But the unicorns went like the wind, and no traces could be seen of them, even from the platform of the highest towers.

Although the equerry had taken care that his words should be overheard by nobody but the king and the princess, yet somehow the news that the man who had fulfilled all the oracle's conditions was only a shepherd's son, speedily leaked out. For a long while no one talked of anything else, as is the way of courts—and other places—and it was generally held that it was a bad joke of the attendant's, who ought to have known better. One of the ladies-in-waiting went so far as to explain that the word 'shepherd' might actually mean a king, because kings were set to guard their flocks; but she found no one to agree with her. As to Formosante, she never said anything at all, but sat silently stroking her bird.

King Belus did not know what to do, and as always happened on these occasions he summoned his council, though he never paid any attention to what they said, or would have said, had they not known it to be useless. He talked to them for some time and at length decided that he would at once go and consult the oracle as to his best course, and return to tell them the result.

When he entered the council chamber after a very short absence, he looked puzzled and crestfallen.

'The oracle declares that my daughter will never be married till she has travelled all over the world,' said he. But how can a princess of Babylon, who never has stepped beyond the bounds of the park, "travel over the world"? It is absurd! indeed, if it were not sacrilege to utter such things of an oracle, I should say it was impertinent. Really, the oracle has not a spark of common-sense' and the council was of opinion that it certainly had not.

Although there was no triumphant bridegroom to grace the feast commanded by King Belus, it was held, as arranged, in the great hall where the turning roof, painted with stars, caused you to feel as if you were dining under the sky. Everything was on a scale of splendour never before seen in Babylon during the thirty thousand years of its existence; but perhaps the feast could hardly be considered a success, for the guests neither spoke nor ate, so absorbed were they in watching the incomparable manner in which the bird flew about from one to another, bearing the choicest dishes in his beak. At least, the only people who did speak were the King of Scythia and the Princess Aldee, the cousin of Formosante and scarcely less beautiful than she. To him, Aldee confided that it was she who, by law, should have been Queen of Babylon, but that on the death of her grandfather his younger son had usurped her father's rights.

'However,' she ended, in answer to a question put by the King of Scythia; 'I prefer Scythia with you to Babylon's crown without you.'

There never was any mistaking what Aldee meant.

'But I will avenge your father,' cried the king. 'In two days from now you shall fly with me back to Scythia, and when I return it will be at the head of three hundred thousand men.' And so it was settled.

Everyone was glad to go to bed early after the fatigues of the day, and all slept soundly, except Formosante. She had carried the bird with her, and placed him on an orange-tree which stood on a silver tub in her room, and bidden him good-night. But tired as she was she could not close her eyes, for the scenes she had witnessed in the arena passed one by one before her. At length she could bear it no longer:

'He will never come back! Never!' she cried, sobbing.

'Yes, he will, Princess,' answered the bird from the orangetree. 'Who, that has once seen you, could live without seeing you again?'

Formosante was so astonished to hear the bird speak—and in the very best Chaldæan—that she ceased weeping and drew the curtains.

'Are you a magician or one of the gods in the shape of a bird?' asked she. 'Oh! if you are more than man, send him back to me!'

'I am only the bird I seem,' answered the voice; 'but I was born in the days when birds and beasts of all sorts talked familiarly with men. I held my peace before the court because I feared they would take me for a magician.'

'But how old are you?' she inquired in amazement.

'Twenty-seven thousand nine hundred years and six

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months,' replied the bird. 'Exactly the same age as the change that takes place in the heavens known as the "precession of the equinoxes," but there are many creatures now existing on the earth far older than I. It is about twenty-two thousand years since I learned Chaldæan. I have always had a taste for it. But in this part of the world the other animals gave up speaking when men formed the habit of eating them.'

'I never knew they did speak,' replied the Princess, deeply interested in spite of her woes.

'Not know that they spoke? Why, the earliest fables all begin with the words "Once upon a time when beasts talked," but that is long ago! Of course, many women still talk to their dogs, but the dogs determined not to answer them; they were so angry at being forced by whips to go and hunt their brothers.

'There are besides many stories which allude to conversations with horses, and their drivers still speak to them, as you know, but so very rudely that the horses which once loved men, now hate the whole race.'

Formosante nodded her head; she had sometimes been shocked at the language of the Babylonian charioteers.

'The land where dwells my master,' continued the bird, 'is perhaps the only one in the world where animals are treated with proper respect, and where, therefore, they consent to live happily with man.'

'And where is that?' asked the Princess eagerly.

'It is in the country of the Gangarids beyond the Ganges that Amazon my master was born. He is no king—indeed I hardly think he would condescend to be one—and, like his countrymen, he is a shepherd. But you must not suppose him to be one of the shepherds such as those you know, whose sheep are usually far better dressed than themselves. The shepherds of the Gangarids own immense flocks, for it is considered one of the blackest crimes to kill a sheep—and their wool, as fine as silk, is sought after all over the East. The soil is so rich that corn and fruits grow for the asking, while diamonds can be chipped from every rock. They have no army and need none, for a hundred unicorns can put to flight the largest host that ever was assembled.

'And now, Princess, if you are to travel as the oracle desires, will you not give me the happiness of guiding you thither? '

'Oh … really, I …,' answered the Princess.

The sun was already rising when the king entered his daughter's room, and after receiving the respectful greetings of the bird sat down on her bed. He did not seem quite at his ease, but at length he informed her that as, greatly to his sorrow, the oracle had decreed that she was to go on a journey before her marriage, he had arranged for her to make a pilgrimage to Araby the Blest in company with numerous attendants.

To the princess, who had never been beyond either the Euphrates or the Tigris, the thought of a journey was enchanting. She could not sit still, and wandered out into the gardens with her bird upon her shoulder. The bird, for his part, was scarcely less happy than she, and flew from tree to tree in an ecstasy of delight.

Unluckily, the King of Egypt was strolling about the gardens likewise, shooting with bow and arrows at everything within his reach. He was the worst marksman on the banks of the Nile, and though he never by any chance hit what he aimed at, he was none the less dangerous for that, as he usually hit something else. In this way a stray shot pierced the heart of the flying bird, who fell, all bloody, into the arms of the princess.

'Burn my body,' whispered the bird, 'and see that you bear my ashes to Araby the Blest. To the east of the town of Aden spread them out in the sun, on a bed of cinnamon and cloves.'

So saying he breathed his last sigh, leaving Formosante fainting from grief.

On seeing his daughter's condition, King Belus was filled with anger against the King of Egypt, and, not knowing if the death of the bird might not be a bad omen, hurried as usual to consult the oracle. For answer, the voice to which he looked for guidance, declared:

'Mixture of everything; living death; loss and gain; infidelity and constancy; disasters and happiness.' Neither he nor his council could make any sense of it, but he was satisfied with having done his duty.

Formosante, meanwhile, had burned the body of the bird, as he had desired, and put his ashes in a golden vase from which she never parted. Her next step was to order the strange beasts brought by the King of Egypt to be put to death, and the mummies thrown into the river, and if she could have thrown their master after them she would have received some consolation! When the Egyptian monarch heard how she had treated his offering he was deeply offended, and retired to Egypt to collect an army of three hundred thousand men, with which to return and avenge the insult. The King of India promised to do likewise, and the King of Scythia (who had ridden off early that morning with Princess Aldée) might be expected back about the same time with another army of equal size, to regain his wife's lost inheritance.

Thus when the King of Babylon awoke the following morning, he found the palace quite empty. This he would not have minded for he was tired of feasting, but his fury was great at the news that the Princess Aldée had vanished also. Without losing a moment he called together his council and consulted his oracle, but he only could extract the following words, which have since become famous throughout the world:

'If you don't marry your daughters, they will marry themselves.'

Now when the Egyptian king quitted the court of Babylon he left some spies behind him, with orders to let him know the road taken by the princess to reach Araby the Blest. Therefore, when after three days' travelling she stopped at a rest-house for a little repose, she beheld, to her dismay, the King of Egypt following her. And worse than that: in a few minutes he had placed guards before every door, so that it was useless for her to attempt to escape him. For small though her experience of the world might be, Formosante was well aware that the Pharaoh's vanity had been deeply wounded by his failure in the matter of the bow, and she knew she could expect no mercy.

Therefore, on receiving the king's message that he craved an interview with her, the princess saw that her only chance lay in cunning, and, as soon as he began to speak to her, she knew she had guessed rightly. He addressed her very roughly, and told her that she was in his power; that he intended to marry her that evening after supper, and that it was useless for her to object as he had now got the upper hand.

Formosante pretended to be quite overcome by his kindness, and assured him that in secret he had been the lover she had always preferred, although she was afraid to say so. And she added, with her head hanging modestly down, that she would sup with him that evening with all the pleasure in life, and hoped he would deign to invite his Grand Almoner also, as he had appeared to her in Babylon to be a man full of wisdom and learning. Further, that she had with her some of the rare and precious wine of Shiraz which, she trusted, she might be permitted to bring for his Majesty's use.

So well did she act that the Pharaoh was completely deceived, and when the hour for supper arrived, he sat down to the table with his wounded vanity soothed and his good temper restored.

Anyone acquainted with the ways of princesses will not need to be told that Formosante not only drugged the wine set aside for the king and the almoner, but also the bottles which her maid distributed amongst the guards. The powder had been given her long ago by a magician in Babylon, with directions how to use it. 'If,' he said, 'you wish it to take effect at once, put in two pinches. If in an hour, one; if the next morning, a quarter of a pinch. Remember what I tell you; some day your life may depend on it.'

For reasons of her own, Formosante thought it better to get through part of the supper before the king and his guest
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became unconscious. The Pharaoh was just then well pleased with himself and everyone else, and after paying her compliments on her beauty which grew more ardent as time wore on, begged permission to give her a kiss.

'Certainly, your Majesty,' answered the princess, though it was the last thing she desired. But as she bent her forehead towards him, the drug did its work; the king fell back heavily on his chair, the almoner sank sideways to the ground, and a blackbird, which unnoticed by all had been perched in a corner, flew out through the window.

Then the princess rose calmly from her seat, summoned her maid, and mounting two horses which were saddled in readiness, they rode straight to Araby the Blest.

As soon as she and her maid Irla beheld the town of Aden lying before them, they got down and prepared, as the bird had bidden them, his funeral pyre of cinnamon and cloves. But what was the surprise of the princess when, on scattering the ashes on the little pyre, a flame suddenly broke forth! In the midst of the fire lay an egg, and out of the egg came her bird, more brilliant and beautiful than ever!

'Take me to the country of the Gangarids,' she gasped when she was able to speak, 'and let us find Amazan.'

Fortunately for the princess the bird was able to satisfy her.

'Two of my best friends among the griffins,' he said, 'live not far from here. A pigeon shall start at once with a message, and they can be with us by night.' And so they were; and the princess and Irla did not lose a moment in mounting a small car which was attached to them, and in setting out for the land of the Gangarids.

'I wish to speak to Amazan,' cried the phœnix, as soon as the griffins halted before his house. And it was as well that the bird was there, for between joy and hope and fatigue the princess's heart was fluttering to such a degree that she could have said nothing.

'Amazan!' replied the man whose crook betokened him to be a shepherd also; 'he went away three hours ago——.'

'Ah, that is what I feared!' exclaimed the phœnix, while the princess sank back upon her cushions nearly fainting with disappointment. 'Those three hours you passed in the rest-house, may have cost you the happiness of your life. But I will try if anything can be done to repair the mischief. We must see his mother at once,' he added, and Formosante, with hope springing anew within her, followed him into a large room where the air was filled with song, which proceeded from the throats not only of a thousand different birds, but of shepherds and shepherdesses.

The voices seemed to chime in with the melancholy of the princess, who rose, trembling, as the mother of Amazan entered.

'Ah, give him back to me!' she cried; 'for his sake I have quitted the most brilliant court in the world, and have braved all kinds of dangers. I have escaped the snares of the King of Egypt and now I find he has fled from me.'

'Princess,' answered the lady, 'did you not happen to notice while you were at supper with the King of Egypt—a blackbird flying about the room?'

'Ah, now you say so, I do recollect one!' rejoined the princess; 'and I remember that when the king bent forward to give me a kiss, the bird disappeared through the window with a cry of anguish.'

'You are right, alas!' replied the lady, 'and from that moment all our troubles can be dated. That blackbird had been sent by my son to bring him news of your health, as he meant as soon as the burial ceremonies for his father had been completed to return and throw himself at your feet. For when a Gangarid is in love, he is in love. But as soon as he was told how gay you seemed, above all, as soon as he heard of you ready to accept the kiss of the monarch who had killed the phœnix, despair filled his soul, and that in the very moment in which he had learned that he was your cousin and that therefore the King of Babylon might be induced to listen to his suit.'

'My cousin! But how?'

'Never mind that now. He is your cousin! But I feared he would never survive the news of the kiss which you had given to the King of Egypt.'

'Oh, my aunt, if you could only understand!' cried the princess, wringing her hands. 'I dared not excite the king's suspicions or I should never have escaped! I swear it by the ashes and the soul of the phoenix which were then in my pocket! Tell her, Bird of Wisdom, that what I say is true.'

'It is! It is!' exclaimed the phoenix eagerly. 'But now what we have to do is to go in search of Amazan. I will despatch unicorns in all directions, and I hope before many hours to be able to tell you where he is.'

The phœnix was as good as his word. At length one of the unicorns learned that Amazan was in China. Without losing a moment they set out, and arrived, travelling through the air, in the short space of eight days, but only to find that they had again missed him by a few hours. The emperor would gladly have kept Formosante to show her the wonders of his country, but as soon as he heard her story and how all this misery had its root in a kiss given out of pure fidelity, he saw that the one thing he could do for the princess was to discover for her the road which Amazan had taken.

From that day began a series of journeys such as no Babylonish princess had ever gone through during the thirty thousand years of the monarchy. There was not a kingdom either in Asia or in Europe that Formosante did not visit, and in spite of the fact that she had no room in her mind for any thought except the finding of Amazan (who had invariably left but a few hours before), she was forced to pick up some new ideas on the way. Strange things she saw which her father, King Belus, would never have believed to exist: a country in which the young king had made an agreement with his subjects that the farmer and the noble might sit side by side and make their own laws; another kingdom in which one man had power to prevent any law from being passed by the rest of the assembly; a third in which the will of one queen had changed the face of the world as if by magic, though, perhaps, if the princess had returned for a second visit, she might not have felt so certain that the changes would last. Once it was only a thick fog off an island called Albion which prevented her vessel from meeting the one containing Amazan, but at length they both found themselves in a province bordering on the Mediterranean, where Formosante, driven to despair by a rumour that Amazan was faithless to her, was looking out for a ship that might take her to Babylon.

As usual, she trusted to the phœnix to make all her arrangements, and the people in whose house she was living having overheard the bird speaking to her, at once imagined she was a witch and locked her and her maid Irla in their rooms. They would have seized the phœnix also, but at the sound of the key being turned he quickly flew out of the window and started in search of Amazan. After these long months of wandering the bird and its master met on the road which runs from north to south, and at first then*joy was such that even the princess was forgotten. But not for long.

'And Formosante, where is she?'

'A prisoner, alas! on suspicion of being a witch, and you know what that means,' answered the phœnix, with tears in his eyes.

Amazan did know, and for an instant was frozen with horror as the vision flashed across his mind of Formosante tied to a stake and the flames gathering round her. Then he aroused himself, and gave the phœnix some orders. In two hours help came, and Amazan was kneeling at the feet of the princess.

So, united at last, we will leave them.