The Feather - Ford Madox Ford - ebook

Once upon a time there was a King who reigned over a country as yet, for a reason you may learn later on, undiscovered—a most lovely country, full of green dales and groves of oak, a land of dappled meadows and sweet rivers, a green cup in a circlet of mountains, in whose shadow the grass was greenest; and the only road to enter the country lay up steep, boiling waterfalls, and thereafter through rugged passes, the channels that the rivers had cut for themselves. Therefore, as you may imagine, the dwellers in the land were little troubled by inroads of hostile nations; and they lived peaceful lives, managing their own affairs, and troubling little about the rest of the world.

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Ford Madox Ford

The Feather

New Edition




New Edition

Published by Sovereign Classic

This Edition

First published in 2018

Copyright © 2018 Sovereign Classic

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 9781787248779




Once upon a time there was a King who reigned over a country as yet, for a reason you may learn later on, undiscovered—a most lovely country, full of green dales and groves of oak, a land of dappled meadows and sweet rivers, a green cup in a circlet of mountains, in whose shadow the grass was greenest; and the only road to enter the country lay up steep, boiling waterfalls, and thereafter through rugged passes, the channels that the rivers had cut for themselves. Therefore, as you may imagine, the dwellers in the land were little troubled by inroads of hostile nations; and they lived peaceful lives, managing their own affairs, and troubling little about the rest of the world.

Now this King, like many kings before and after him, had a daughter who, while very young, had, I am sorry to say, been very self-willed; and the King, on the death of his wife, finding himself utterly unable to manage the Princess, handed her over to the care of an aged nurse, who, however, was not much more successful—but that is neither here nor there.

For years everything went on smoothly, and it seemed as if everything intended to go on smoothly until doomsday, in which case this history would probably never have been written. But one evening in summer the Princess and her nurse, who had by this time become less able than ever to manage her charge, sat on a terrace facing the west. The Princess had been amusing herself by pelting the swans swimming in the river with rose-leaves, which the indignant swans snapped up as they fluttered down on the air or floated by on the river.

But after a time she began to tire of this pastime, and sitting down, looked at the sun that was just setting, a blinding glare of orange flame behind the black hills. Suddenly she turned to the nurse and said:

‘What’s on the other side of the hills?’

‘Lawk-a-mussy-me, miss!’ answered the nurse, ‘I’m sure I don’t know. What a question to ask!’

‘Then why don’t you ask some one who has been there?’

‘Because no one ever has, miss.’

‘But why not?’

‘Because there’s a fiery serpent that eats every one who comes near the hills; and if you’re not eaten up, you’re bound to tumble down a precipice that’s nearly three miles deep, before you can get over the hills.’

‘Oh, what fun! Let’s go,’ said the Princess, by no means awed. But the nurse shook her head.

‘No, miss, I won’t go; and I’m sure your pa won’t let you go.’

‘Oh yes, he will; let’s go and ask him.’

But at that moment a black shadow came across the sun, and the swans, with a terrified ‘honk, honk,’ darted across the water to hide themselves in the reeds on the other side of the river, churning dark tracks in the purple of the sunlit water’s glassy calmness.

‘Oh dear! oh dear! it’s a boggles, and it’s coming this way,’ cried the nurse.

‘But what is a boggles, nurse?’

‘Oh dear, it’s coming! Come into the house and I’ll tell you—come.’

‘Not until you tell me what a boggles is.’

The nurse perforce gave in.

‘A boggles is a thing with a hooked beak and a squeaky voice, with hair like snakes in corkscrews; and it haunts houses and carries off things; and when it once gets in it never leaves again—oh dear, it’s on us! Oh-h-h!’

Her cries only made the thing see them sooner. It was only an eagle, not a boggles; but it was on the look-out for food, and the sun shining on the Princess’s hair had caught its eyes, and in spite of the cries of the nurse it swooped down, and, seizing the Princess in its claws, began to carry her off. The nurse, however, held on to her valiantly, screaming all the while for help; but the eagle had the best of it after all, for it carried up, not only the Princess, but the nurse also.

The nurse held on to her charge for some seconds, but finding the attempt useless she let go her hold; and since it happened that at the moment they were over the river, she fell into it with a great splash, and was drifted on shore by the current.

Thus the Princess was carried off; and although the land far and wide was searched, no traces of her were discoverable. You may imagine for yourself what sorrow and rage the King indulged in. He turned the nurse off without warning, and even, in a paroxysm of rage, kicked one of his pages downstairs; nevertheless that did not bring back the Princess.

As a last resource he consulted a wise woman (ill-natured people called her a witch) who lived near the palace. But the witch could only say that the Princess would return some day, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t say when, even though the King threatened to burn her. So it was all of no use, and the King was, and remained, in despair. But, since his Majesty is not the important personage in the story, we may as well leave him and return to the Princess.

She, as you can think, was not particularly happy or comfortable, for the claws of the eagle pinched her, and besides, she was very frightened; for, you see, she didn’t know that it wasn’t a boggles, as the nurse had called it, and a boggles is a great deal worse than the worst eagle ever invented.

Meanwhile the eagle continued flying straight towards the sun, which was getting lower and lower, so that by the time they reached the mountains it was dark altogether. But the eagle didn’t seem at all afraid of the darkness, and just went on flying as if nothing had happened, until suddenly it let the Princess down on a rock—at least, that was what it seemed to her to be. Not knowing what else to do, she sat where the eagle had let her fall, for she remembered something about the precipice three miles deep, and she did not at all wish to tumble down that.

She expected that the eagle would set to and make a meal off her at once. But somehow or other, either it had had enough to eat during the day, or else did not like to begin to have supper so late for fear of nightmare; at any rate, it abstained, and that was the most interesting matter to her. Everything was so quiet around that at last, in spite of herself, she fell asleep. She slept quite easily until daylight, although the hardness of the rock was certainly somewhat unpleasant. When she opened her eyes it was already light, and the sun at her back was darting black shadows of the jagged mountains on to the shimmering gray sea of mist that veiled the land below. Her first thought was naturally of the eagle, and she did not need to look very far for him, since he was washing himself in a little pool close by, keeping an eye on her the while.

As soon as he saw her move he gave himself a final shake, so that the water flew all around, sparkling in the sunlight; after which he came towards her by hops until he was quite close—rather too close, she thought. Nevertheless she did not move, having heard somewhere that, under the circumstances, that is the worst thing to do; she also remembered animals cannot stand being looked at steadily by the human eye, therefore she looked very steadfastly at the eyes of the eagle. But the remedy did not seem to work well in this case, for the glassy yellow eyes of the bird looked bad-tempered, and it winked angrily, seeming to say, ‘Whom are you staring at?’ And then it began to stretch out its bill towards her until it was within a few inches of her face. This was more than she could stand, and she said sharply, ‘Take your head away.’

The eagle, however, took no notice whatever of this; and seeing nothing better to do, she lifted up her hand and gave it a smart box on the ear, or rather on the place where its ear should have been. The eagle drew back its beak in a hurry and scratched its head with one claw as if it were puzzled. After a moment’s reflection it put out its head again, and once more the Princess lifted up her hand; but when the eagle saw that it jumped backwards in a hurry, as if it did not care to receive a second box on the ear, and began to stride sulkily away as if it thought it better to wait a while. When it reached the edge of the rock—for I have forgotten to tell you that they were on a flat rock at the top of a mountain—it sat preening its feathers in a sulky manner, as if it imagined itself a very ill-used bird; moreover, although it seemed inclined to remain there a long time, I need not tell you that the Princess had no objections. However, after a time even the waiting began to grow unpleasant; but suddenly a peculiar sound, as of something shooting through the air, came from below, and the eagle gave a leap and fell down a mass of tumbled feathers with an arrow quivering in their centre, and, with hardly a shudder, it was dead.

The Princess, as you may imagine, was a good deal startled by this sudden occurrence, but I cannot say she was very sorry for the eagle; on the contrary, she was rather glad to be rid of him, and it suddenly came into her head that the man who had shot the arrow might possibly be somewhere below, and in that case might come up and save her if she called to him. So she tried to get up, but she was so stiff that she could hardly move, and when she did stand up she had pins and needles in one of her feet, and had to stamp hard on the ground before it would go away. So that it was some time before she got to the edge and looked over. Now it happened that, just as she bent carefully forward to look down the side, the head of a man appeared over the edge, and his hands were so near her that he almost caught hold of her foot as he put them up to help himself. As she drew back a little to let him have room, he suddenly noticed her, and almost let go his hold in astonishment.

‘Hullo, little girl,’ he said; ‘how did you come here? It’s rather early in the morning for you to be up. But who are you when you’re at home?’

‘I’m the daughter of King Caret.’

‘King how much?’

‘King Caret, I said; and I should be glad if you would help me down from this height, and show me the way back.’

‘How on earth can I show you the way back when I don’t know who King Caret is?’

‘But surely you must know who he is?’

‘Never heard of him. What’s he like, and what’s he king of?’

‘He’s the King of Aoland.’

‘And where’s Aoland?’

‘I don’t know—it’s somewhere over those mountains—the eagle brought me here, you know.’

‘Ah! the eagle brought you here, did he? It’s a little habit he’s got; he’s carried off no end of my kids and young sheep, so I suppose he thought he’d try a change and carry off one of King Turnip—I mean Caret’s. But if he brought you from over the mountains you won’t get back in a hurry, I can tell you; you’d have to jump up a precipice three miles high, and then you’d be eaten by old Kinchof the dragon.’

‘Oh dear! then I shall never get back!’

‘No, I’m afraid you won’t. But don’t begin to cry now—there, there—and I’ll take you to King Mumkie; he’s the king of this country, you know.’

‘What an awful name—Mumkie!’

‘Yes, it is rather unpleasant, isn’t it? And then, he’s a usurper—he drove the last king out and made himself king instead. He used to be a cat’s-meat man, but he got up an army and drove the other off the throne, and now he’s turned into a gardener—his name’s Abbonamento.’

‘Oh, never mind what his name is, only get me down—I’m awfully hungry; for you see I’ve been up here all night.’

‘Oh! all right. But I say, how are you going to get down—you can’t climb, can you?’

‘I don’t know,’ she answered; ‘I’ve never tried.’

‘Then you can be sure you can’t. The only thing seems to be for me to carry you down.’

But the Princess did not seem to relish the idea at all.

‘You might let me drop, you know; it’s rather steep.’ And it was pretty steep, too—about as steep as the wall of a house, and a good deal higher than a very high house. However, it seemed to be the only thing to do, so she let herself be carried down. The man took her on one arm, and yet seemed to climb down about as easily as if he were going downstairs. However, the Princess did not notice that, since she kept her eyes shut hard, for, to tell the truth, she was rather nervous.

But at last they were at the bottom, and he let her down on to the ground.

‘Now, what are you going to do?’ he said.

‘I don’t know at all. What can I do?’

‘You’d better go and see King Mumkie and ask him what to do.’

‘But he has got such a dreadful name; it sounds as if he was awfully ugly,’ she said.

‘But he’s not at all; he’s just like me, and I’m sure I’m handsome enough for any one.’

The Princess looked at him now for the first time; for you see, she had not noticed him very much while she was on the mountain. But now she could hardly repress a shudder; for he was awfully ugly. To begin with, he was big enough for any giant, and then his hair was of a purple hue, and his eyes of a delicate sea-green that flashed in the shade like a cat’s; and then his nose was awfully red, and shaped like a mangel-wurzel; and his teeth, which were long and bright green, shone in the sun like danger-signals. Altogether he was not prepossessing; and the Princess could hardly help smiling when he said that the King was as handsome as himself. However, he went on:

‘My name’s Wopole; I’m King Mumkie’s falconer, and so I can tell you all about him. Come, let’s go towards the town.’

And as there seemed nothing else to do, she set out with him; but he walked so fast that she could hardly keep up.

‘How slowly you do walk!’ he grumbled in a bad-tempered manner; ‘can’t you keep up? Come along, I can’t wait all day.’ And he went on faster than ever, so that she had to run to keep up with him. Suddenly he stopped as if he had been shot.

‘Confound it, I’ve forgotten to bring the eagle, and I shall have to go all the way back and get it. Oh—ouch!’ And he began to howl in such a dreadful manner that the Princess felt quite relieved when he turned and ran towards the hill at the top of his speed, howling all the way.

‘What on earth shall I do now?’ thought the Princess. ‘If I wait for this dreadful giant, goodness knows what may happen, and then his king has such an unpleasant name; at any rate, I should like some breakfast, for I’m awfully hungry. I think I’ll go on towards the town, and see if I can’t find some one who’ll show me the way home.’

So she went on down the lane for some way, until, coming to a place where a stream went across the path, she knelt down and scooped up a little water in the palm of her hand and drank it; for, you see, the sun was very hot now, and the heat made her throat feel quite dry and parched. When she had finished she went and lay down in the long grass that bordered the road, for she was rather tired. She intended to wait till some one came along, only she was quite resolved not to go with the giant at any rate. So she lay quietly in the shade listening to the loud humming of the bees and the chirp of a linnet that was pluming itself, swinging on a bough above her head.

She had not been waiting long before she heard a dreadful noise behind her coming down the road, and in a few minutes she recognised the voice of the giant, who seemed to be in a terrible temper. Gradually the sound of his voice and his footsteps came nearer. The Princess did not know what to do, for if she tried to run away he would only catch her up; so she lay perfectly still, hoping he would pass her without seeing her. And that is just what did happen; for, in a few moments, he came rushing round the corner shouting out, ‘Stop! stop! will you?’ And as his eyes were fixed on the road far in advance, of course he did not notice her, and was soon round another bend in the road. The Princess noticed that he had the eagle hanging with its claws round his neck, and the jolting, as he went by, had shaken one of its large tail feathers out, and as soon as she had got over her fright, she went and picked it up out of the dusty road.

Just as she picked it up, the clatter of feet running along the road came to her ears, and for a moment she feared that the giant had returned; but soon a cow trotted round the bend and stopped at the stream to drink, presently another, and then a third. Each of them took a long look at the Princess, and then bent down its head to take a draught out of the stream. Just then an old man came round the corner, and when he saw the cows had stopped he called out:

‘Gee on, Lightfoot; now, Daisy; come up, Cherry,’ and the cows gave their heads a toss, and walked slowly through the stream.

The Princess hurried to one side of the road, for, like many people, she had an instinctive dread of anything like a cow or a bull.

The old man noticed it and smiled.

‘Oh, you needn’t be afraid, miss, they won’t hurt you,’ he said; but all the same, she didn’t care to go too near them. ‘They’ve just been frightened by Wopole, King Mumkie’s falconer,’ he went on. ‘Wopole came running round the corner suddenly, and almost knocked Lightfoot—that’s the dun cow—over. He was roaring out “Where is she?” awfully loud. I pity her when he gets her, whoever she is.’

‘But who is she?’ asked the Princess.

‘I don’t know—how should I?’