The Old Woman by Maurice Baring

The old woman was spinning at her wheel near a fire of myrtle boughs which burnt fragrantly in the open yard. Through the stone columns the sea was visible, smooth, dark, and blue; the low sun bathed the brown hills of the coast in a golden mist. It was December. The shepherds were driving home their flocks, the work of the day was done, and a noise of light laughter and rippling talk came from the Slaves' quarter.

In the middle of the stone-flagged yard two little boys were playing at quoits. Their eyes and hair were as dark as their brown skin, which had been tanned by the sun. In one of the corners of the yard a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl was nursing a kitten and singing it to sleep. The old woman was singing too, or rather humming a tune to herself as she turned her wheel. She was very old: her hair was white and silvery, and her face was furrowed by a hundred wrinkles. Her eyes were blue as the sky, and perhaps they had once been full of fire and laughter, but all that had been quenched and washed out long ago, and Time, with his noiseless chisel, had sharpened her delicate features and hollowed out her cheeks, which were as white as ivory. But her hands as they twisted the wood were the hands of a young woman, and seemed as though they had been fashioned by a rare craftsman, so perfect were they in shape and proportion, as firm as carved marble, as delicate as flowers.

The sun sank behind the hills of the coast, and a flood of scarlet light spread along the West just above them, melting higher up into orange, and still higher into a luminous blue, which turned to green later as the evening deepened. The air was cool and sharp, and the little boys, who had finished their game, drew near to the fire.

"Tell us a story," said the elder of the two boys, as they curled themselves up at the feet of the old woman.

"You know all my stories," she said.

"That doesn't matter," said the boy. "You can tell us an old one."

"Well," said the old woman, "I suppose I must. There was once upon a time a King and a Queen who had three sons and one daughter." At the sound of these words the little girl ran up and nestled in the folds of the old woman's long cloak.

"No, not that one," one of the little boys interrupted, "tell us about the Queen without a heart." So the old woman began and said:—

"There was once upon a time a King and a Queen who had one daughter, and they invited all the gods and goddesses to the feast which they gave in honour of the birth of their child. The gods and goddesses came and gave the child every gift they could think of; she was to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world, she was to dance like the West wind, to laugh like the stream, and to sing like the lark. Her hair should be made of sunshine, and her eyes should be as the sea in midsummer. She should excel in all things, in knowledge, in wit, and in skill; she should be fleet of foot, a cunning harp-player, adept at all manner of woman-like crafts, and deft with the needle and the spinning-wheel, and at the loom. Zeus himself gave her stateliness and majesty, the Lord of the Sun gave a voice as of a golden flute; Poseidon gave her the laughter of all the waves of the sea, the King of the Underworld gave her a red ruby to wear on her breast more precious than all the gems of the world. Artemis gave her swiftness and radiance, Persephone the fragrance and the freshness of all the flowers of spring; Pallas Athene gave her curious knowledge and pleasant speech; and, lastly, the Seaborn Goddess breathed upon her and gave her the beauty of the rose, the pearl, the dew, and the shells and the foam of the sea. But, alas! the King and Queen had forgotten to ask one guest. The Goddess of Envy and Discord had been left out, and she came unbidden, and when all the gods and goddesses had given their gifts, she said: 'I too have a gift to give, a gift that will be more precious to her than any. I will give her a heart that shall be proof against all the onsets of the world.' So saying the Goddess of Envy took away the child's heart and put in its place a heart of stone, hard as adamant, bright and glittering as a gem. And the Goddess of Envy went her way mocking. The King and Queen were greatly concerned, and they asked the gods and goddesses whether their daughter would ever recover her human heart. They were told that the Goddess of Envy would be obliged to give back the child's heart to the man who loved her enough to seek and to find it, and this would surely happen; but when and how it was forbidden to them to reveal.

"The child grew up and became the wonder of the world. She was married to a powerful King, and they lived in peace and plenty until the Goddess of Envy once more troubled the child's life. For owing to her subtle planning a Prince was promised for wife the fairest woman in the world, and he took the wife of the powerful King and carried her away to Asia to the six-gated city. The King prepared a host of ships and armed men and sailed to Asia to win back his wife. And he and his army fought for ten years until the six-gated city was taken, and he brought his wife home once more. Now during all the time the war lasted, although the whole world was filled with the fame of the King's wife and of her beauty, there was not found one man who was willing to seek for her heart and to find it, for some gave no credence to the tale, and others, believing it, reasoned that the quest might last a life-time, and that by the time they accomplished it the King's wife would be an old woman, and there would be fairer women in the world. Others, again, could not believe that in so perfect a woman there could be any fault; they vowed her heart must be one with her matchless beauty, and they said that even if the tale were true, they preferred to worship her as she was, and they would not have her be otherwise or changed by a hair's breadth for all the world. Some, indeed, did set out upon the quest, but abandoned it soon from weariness and returned to bask in the beauty of the great Queen.

"The years went by. The Queen journeyed to Egypt, to the mountains of the South, and the cities of the desert; to the Pillars of Hercules and to the islands of the West. Wherever she went her fame spread like fire, and men fought and died for a glimpse of her marvellous beauty; and wherever she passed she left behind her strife and sorrow like a burning trail. After many voyages she returned home and lived prosperously. The King her husband died, her children grew up and married and bore children themselves, and she continued to live peacefully in her palace. Her fame and her glory brought her neither joy nor sorrow, nor did she heed the spell that she cast on the hearts of men.

"One day a harp-player came to her palace and sang and played before her; he made music so ravishing and so sad that all who heard him wept save the Queen, who listened and smiled, listless and indifferent. But her smile filled him with such a passion of wonder and worship that he resolved to rest no more until he had found her heart, for he knew the tale. So he sought the whole world over in vain; and for years and years he roamed the world fruitlessly. At last one day in a far country he found a little bird in a trap and he set it free, and in return the bird promised him that he should find the Queen's heart. All he had to do was to go home and to seek the Queen's palace. So the harper went home to the Queen's palace, and when he reached it he found the Queen had grown old; her hair was grey and there were lines on her cheek. But she smiled on him, and he knelt down before her, for he loved her more than ever, and to him she was as beautiful as ever she had been. At that moment, for the first time in her life the Queen's eyes filled with tears, for her heart had been given back to her. And that is all the story."

"And what happened to the harper?" asked one of the little boys.

"He lived in the palace and played to the Queen till he died."

"And is the story true?" asked the other little boy.

"Yes," said the old woman, "quite true."

The boys jumped up and kissed the old woman, and the elder of them, growing pensive, said:—

"Grandmother, were you ever young yourself?"

"Yes, my child," said the old woman, smiling, "I was once young—a very long time ago."

She got up, for the twilight had come and it was almost dark. She walked into the house, and as she rose she was neither bowed nor bent, but she trod the ground with a straightness which was not stiff but full of grace, and she moved royally like a goddess. As she walked past the smoking flames the children noticed that large tears were welling from her eyes and trickling down her faded cheek.