The Brown Owl - Ford Madox Ford - ebook

Once upon a time, a long while ago, in fact long before Egypt had risen to power and before Rome or Greece had ever been heard of, and that was some time before you were born, you know, there was a king who reigned over a very large and powerful kingdom.

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Ford Madox Ford

The Brown Owl

New Edition




New Edition

Published by Sovereign Classic

This Edition

First published in 2018

Copyright © 2018 Sovereign Classic

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 9781787248755




Once upon a time, a long while ago—in fact long before Egypt had risen to power and before Rome or Greece had ever been heard of—and that was some time before you were born, you know—there was a king who reigned over a very large and powerful kingdom.

Now this king was rather old, he had founded his kingdom himself, and he had reigned over it nine hundred and ninety-nine and a half years already. As I have said before, it was a very large kingdom, for it contained, among other things, the whole of the western half of the world. The rest of the world was divided into smaller kingdoms, and each kingdom was ruled over by separate princes, who, however, were none of them so old as Intafernes, as he was called.

Now King Intafernes was an exceedingly powerful magician—that was why he had remained so long on the throne; for you must know that in this country the people were divided into two classes—those who were magicians, and those who weren’t. The magicians called themselves Aristocrats, and the others called themselves what they liked; also in this country, as in all other countries, the rich magicians had the upper hand over the rest, but still the others did not grumble, for they were not badly treated on the whole. Now of all the magicians in the country the King was the greatest, and no one approached him in magic power but the Chancellor, who was called Merrymineral, and he even was no match for the King.

Among other things King Intafernes had a daughter, who was exceedingly beautiful—as indeed all princesses are or ought to be. She had a very fair face, and a wealth of golden hair that fell over her shoulders, like a shining waterfall falling in ripples to her waist.

Now in the thousandth year of her father’s reign the Princess was eighteen, and in that country she was already of age. Three days before her nineteenth birthday, however, her father fell sick and gradually weakened, until at last he had only strength left to lie in his royal bed. Still, however, he retained his faculties, and on the Princess’s birthday he made all the magicians file before his bed and swear to be faithful for ever to the Princess. Last of all came the Chancellor, the pious Merrymineral, and as he took the oath the King looked at him with a loving glance and said:

‘Ah! my dear Merrymineral, in truth there was no need for thee to have taken the oath, for it is thy nature to be faithful; and it being thy nature, thou couldst not but be faithful.’

To which the pious Merrymineral answered:

‘To such a master and to such a mistress how could I but be faithful?’ and to this noble sentiment the three hundred and forty-seven magicians could not help according unanimous applause.

When they were quiet again the King said:

‘So be it, good Merrymineral, do thou always act up to thy words. But now leave, good men all, for I am near my end, and would fain spend my last moments with my daughter here.’

Sorrowfully, one by one, the courtiers left, wishing him their last adieux. He had been a good king to all, all through his long reign, and they were sorry that he had to leave them at last.

Soon they were all gone except the good Merrymineral, and at last he too went, his whole frame shaking with suppressed sobs; his body seemed powerless with grief, and his limbs seemed to refuse their functions. The King looked after him, carefully noticing whether the door was shut. Then he spoke:

‘My dear daughter,’ he said, ‘when I am gone be kind to every one, and, above all, cherish the Owl—do cherish the Owl—promise me to cherish the Owl.’

‘But how can I cherish the Owl?’ cried the poor Princess; ‘how can I, unless I know who he is?’

But the King only answered:

‘Dear Ismara, do promise to cherish the Owl!’

And he said nothing else for a long time, until at last the Princess saw that the only way to let him rest in peace was to promise, and she said:

‘I promise, dear father, but still I do wish I knew who or what the Owl is that I am to cherish.’

‘You will see that in good time,’ answered the King. ‘Now, my dear Ismara, I shall die happy, and you will be safe. If you had not promised—however, we will let that rest unsaid. Now wheel the bed to where I can see out of the window.’

The Princess did as she was told. Now from this you must not imagine that she was a very strong princess—for she was no stronger than most princesses of her age; but the old King, who was a very powerful magician, as I have told you already, made the bed easy for her to move. He might have made it move of its own accord, but he knew that it would please his daughter to be of service to him, and so he let her move it.

The view from the window was very fine. A dark wood grew in the foreground, and far away over the tree-tops were the blue hills, behind which the sun was just preparing to retire. And it seemed angry, the sun, for its face was dark and clouded, and its beams smote fiercely on everything, and gilded the tops of the autumn trees with a purer gold than their natural tint. But overhead the clouds spread darkly, and they reached in a black pall to the verge of the horizon, forming a black frame to the red-gold sunset; for only the extreme west was bright with the waning light.

The Princess sat on the bed beside the King, and the dying sun lit them both and fell with a ruddy glare on the King’s hard countenance, as if it knew that his work on earth for the day, and for ever, was done.

‘Is it not grand?’ cried the old King, as if the glorious sight warmed his blood again and made him once more young. ‘And is it not grand to think of the power that thou hast, my daughter? If thou but raise thy little finger armies will move from world’s end to world’s end. Fleets come daily from every land for thee alone; all that thou seest is thine, and utterly within thy power. Think of the power, the grand power, of swaying the world.’

But long before he had got thus far, the Princess was weeping bitterly—partly at the overwhelming prospect, and partly from her great grief. She seized her father’s hand and kissed it passionately.

‘My father, my father,’ she cried, ‘say not so; they are all thine, not mine, for thou livest still, and all is yet well.’

But the old King cut her short:

‘Dost thou see the sun? Look, its lower rim is already cut by the mountains. When its disc is hidden I too shall have joined the majority, and my soul will have left my body, and the power will be thine. But above all cherish the Owl. Never go out of its sight, for if thou do, some harm will happen.’

As he stopped speaking a flash of lightning lit up the sky, and the sullen roar of distant thunder followed.

From every church in the land the passing bell tolled forth and the solemn sounds came swelling on the breeze. Again came the flash of lightning, and again the thunder, and now the splash of falling rain accompanied and almost drowned the thunder. The sun’s rim was now almost down.

For the last time the old King kissed his daughter, as she hung weeping on his neck. Again the lightning came, but this time the thunder was drowned in a more fearful sound. Never before had the sound been heard, except at the death of the Princess’s mother. It was the passing bell of the cathedral of the town. And as its sound went forth throughout the whole land men shook their heads in sorrow, for they knew that the soul of the good King had left his body. Through the whole land the news was known—to every one except to the Princess.

For she lay on the bed passionately kissing the dead face—not yet cold in death—and calling on his name in vain; for the ears of the dead are closed ‘to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.’

Gradually the voice of the Princess died away into low sobs and her breathing came more regularly, and in spite of the tolling of the death-bell she slept, worn out by her grief. No one came near her, for at the Court no one was allowed to enter the royal presence without a command, whatever happened. So for a time the Princess slept on, clasping the still face to her warm cheek. But at last the death-cold of the face wakened her once more to the death-cold of the world. For a time her wakening dreams refused to let her believe the worst, but the stern reality forced itself on her. She raised herself on her two arms and gazed through the darkness at the white face that made her shudder when her longing eyes at last traced out its lines as a flash of lightning lit it up. She sprang off the bed with a wild impulse of calling for help.

But no sooner had she got to the door and had given the call than she once more fainted and seemed for a time lifeless.

When she came to herself again she was in bed in her own room. It was still night, and at the side of her bed a night-light was burning in a glass shade. She could not understand what it all meant; but her head did ache so, and she could not tell why they were making such a noise at the far end of the room. For you see she was lying on her back low down in the pillows, and so she could not see beyond the foot of the bed. However, she raised herself on her elbow and looked. For a short time she could see nothing, for the room was somewhat dark, as the night-light gave but little light But at the other end of the room a large fire was burning, and by its light the Princess saw a strange scene.

For in the middle of the floor she could make out a group of three ladies-in-waiting, who were struggling with a large black object—what it was the Princess could not see, but it seemed to be attempting to attack the Court doctor, who was huddled up in a corner with his umbrella spread out before him, and he was gradually sinking down behind it, giving vent to the most horrible groans and shrieks for mercy, and calling to the ladies to keep it off. However, in spite of their efforts, the ‘thing’ was gradually drawing them nearer and nearer to the poor doctor.

But the strangest thing of all was that the doctor’s face was lit up by two distinct rounds of light. It was just as if some one had turned the light of a bull’s-eye lantern on him, and this the Princess could not understand at all. However, she lay still and watched.

The doctor got farther and farther behind the umbrella until only his head appeared over the top of it. At last he shrieked:

‘Send for a regiment of Lifeguards—let them shoot the Owl—it is necessary for the health of the Princess. Owls are very bad things to have in bedrooms—they bring scarlatina, and they always carry the influenza epidemic. Lifeguards, I tell you, send for them.’ But still the ‘thing’ came nearer, and with an agonised shriek of ‘The Owl!’ he sank altogether under the rim.

This loud cry of ‘The Owl’ roused the Princess, and she remembered her promise to cherish the Owl. So she called to the ladies-in-waiting, and they, astonished, let go the thing, and the Owl immediately flew at the umbrella, underneath which the doctor was coiled up, and perched on the top. The Princess, however, thought it was rather rash to have promised to cherish the Owl if it was going to eat up her physicians in that reckless manner. However, the Owl did not seem aggressive, and only seemed as if it were waiting for further orders. The Princess determined to see if it would come when it was called, like a dog. So she called in a sweet, persuasive voice:

‘Come here, good Owl.’

Immediately the dark shape of the Owl flitted noiselessly to her side as she sat on the bed. The wind of its flight blew out the flickering night-light in spite of the glass shade. But the glittering eyes of the Owl lit up the whole room, so that there was no need of light. As it alighted on the bed it turned its eyes on the Princess as much as to say, ‘What shall I do now?’

But the fierce light of the eyes was softened as it turned to her, as if the Owl feared to hurt her with the blinding rays.

‘Cherished Owl,’ said the Princess, ‘why didst thou hurt the physician?’

The Owl shook his head; but the Princess could not understand whether he meant that he did not know why he had hurt him, or if he meant he had not hurt him. So the Princess told one of the ladies-in-waiting to remove the umbrella from over the doctor. But this was not so easy as it sounded, for the doctor held firmly on to the handle, and in spite of the united efforts of the three ladies-in-waiting he managed to hold on. At last the Princess lost patience.

‘Go and help them, good Owl,’ she said; and the Owl, overjoyed, flew to the doctor, and seizing the top of the umbrella flew with it up to the ceiling, and as the doctor still held on, he flew round and round, until the doctor, hitting the top of a cupboard, let go, and fell in a heap in the middle of the floor, where he lay half unconscious, repeating as he sat:

‘Orange juice for influenza; try a seidlitz powder and a blue pill, and keep the owls out of the room and take a warm bath, and—send for the Lifeguards.’

But the Princess did not seem inclined to send for them; and in truth it would have been rather awkward for the horses to get in, as the room was on the second floor.

So the Princess told the ladies-in-waiting to drag him out of the room, and they obeyed; but as he went he said: ‘Sleeping in unaired sheets causes rheumatism, sciatica, pleurisy, pneumonia and—owls;’ and as the door closed they heard him say, ‘Gregory powder and Epsom salts.’

The poor Princess, however, began to weep again, and the Owl sat perched on the bed-post at her feet, watching her with his bright eyes.

However, after she had cried thus for a long time, she thought it would be better to stop her tears, for they were all in vain, as she knew but too well.