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DREAMS AND WONDERS
Stories from the Dawn of Modern Fantasy
By MIKE ASHLEY
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Mike Ashley
All rights reserved.
The New Paris
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
On the night before Whitsunday, not long since, I dreamed that I stood before a mirror engaged with the new summer clothes which my dear parents had given me for the holiday. The dress consisted, as you know, of shoes of polished leather, with large silver buckles, fine cotton stockings, black nether garments of serge, and a coat of green baracan with gold buttons. The waistcoat of gold cloth was cut out of my father's bridal waistcoat. My hair had been frizzled and powdered, and my curls stuck out from my head like little wings; but I could not finish dressing myself, because I kept confusing the different articles, the first always falling off as soon as I was about to put on the next. In this dilemma, a young and handsome man came to me, and greeted me in the friendliest manner. "Oh! you are welcome," said I: "I am very glad to see you here."
"Do you know me, then?" replied he, smiling.
"Why not?" was my no less smiling answer. "You are Mercury—I have often enough seen you represented in pictures."
"I am, indeed," replied he, "and am sent to you by the gods on an important errand. Do you see these three apples?" He stretched forth his hand and showed me three apples, which he could hardly hold, and which were as wonderfully beautiful as they were large, the one of a red, the other of a yellow, the third of a green, colour. One could not help thinking they were precious stones made into the form of fruit. I would have snatched them; but he drew back, and said, "You must know, in the first place, that they are not for you. You must give them to the three handsomest youths of the city, who then, each according to his lot, will find wives to the utmost of their wishes. Take them, and success to you!" said he, as he departed, leaving the apples in my open hands. They appeared to me to have become still larger. I held them up at once against the light and found them quite transparent; but soon they expanded upward, and became three beautiful little ladies about as large as middle-sized dolls, whose clothes were of the colours of the apples. They glided gently up my fingers: and when I was about to catch them, to make sure of one at least, they had already soared high and far; and I had to put up with the disappointment.
I stood there all amazed and petrified, holding up my hands, and staring at my fingers as if there were still something on them to see. Suddenly I saw a most lovely girl dance upon the very tips. She was smaller, but pretty and lively; and as she did not fly away like the others, but remained dancing, now on one finger-point, now on another, I regarded her for a long while with admiration. And, as she pleased me so much, I thought in the end I could catch her, and made, as I fancied, a very adroit grasp. But at the moment I felt such a blow on my head that I fell down stunned, and did not awake from my stupor till it was time to dress myself and go to church.
During the service I often called those images to mind, and also when I was eating dinner at my grandfather's table. In the afternoon I wished to visit some friends, partly to show myself in my new dress, with my hat under my arm and my sword by my side, and partly to return their visits. I found no one at home; and, as I heard that they were gone to the gardens, I resolved to follow them, and pass the evening pleasantly.
My way led towards the town wall, and I came to the spot which is rightly called the Bad Wall, for it is never quite safe from ghosts there. I walked slowly, and thought of my three goddesses, but especially of the little nymph, and often held up my fingers in hopes she might be kind enough to balance herself there again. With such thoughts I was proceeding, when I saw in the wall on my left hand a little gate which I did not remember to have ever noticed before. It looked low, but its pointed arch would have allowed the tallest man to enter. Arch and wall had been chiselled in the handsomest way, both by mason and sculptor; but it was the door itself which first properly attracted my attention. The old brown wood, though slightly ornamented, was crossed with broad bands of brass wrought both in relief and intaglio. The foliage on these, with the most natural birds sitting in it, I could not sufficiently admire. But, what seemed most remarkable, no keyhole could be seen, no latch, no knocker; and from this I conjectured that the door could be opened only from within. I was not in error; for, when I went nearer in order to touch the ornaments, it opened inwards; and there appeared a man whose dress was somewhat long, wide, and singular. A venerable beard enveloped his chin, so that I was inclined to think him a Jew. But he, as if he had divined my thoughts, made the sign of the holy cross, by which he gave me to understand that he was a good Catholic Christian.
"Young gentleman, how came you here, and what are you doing?" he said to me, with a friendly voice and manner.
"I am admiring," I replied, "the workmanship of this door; for I have never seen anything like it, except in some small pieces in the collections of amateurs."
"I am glad," he answered, "that you like such works. The door is much more beautiful inside. Come in, if you like."
My heart, in some degree, failed me. The mysterious dress of the porter, the seclusion, and a something, I know not what, that seemed to be in the air, oppressed me. I paused, therefore, under the pretext of examining the outside still longer; and at the same time I cast stolen glances into the garden, for a garden it was which had opened before me. Just inside the door I saw a space. Old linden-trees, standing at regular distances from each other, entirely covered it with their thickly interwoven branches; so that the most numerous parties, during the hottest of the day, might have refreshed themselves in the shade. Already I had stepped upon the threshold, and the old man contrived gradually to allure me on. Properly speaking, I did not resist; for I had always heard that a prince or sultan in such a case must never ask whether there be danger at hand. I had my sword by my side too; and could I not soon have finished with the old man, in case of hostile demonstrations? I therefore entered perfectly re-assured: the keeper closed the door, which bolted so softly that I scarcely heard it. He now showed me the workmanship on the inside, which in truth was still more artistic than the outside, explained it to me, and at the same time manifested particular good will.
Being thus entirely at my ease, I let myself be guided in the shaded space by the wall, that formed a circle, where I found much to admire. Niches tastefully adorned with shells, corals, and pieces of ore, poured a profusion of water from the mouths of tritons into marble basins. Between them were aviaries and other lattice-work, in which squirrels frisked about, guinea-pigs ran hither and thither, with as many other pretty little creatures as one could wish to see. The birds called and sang to us as we advanced: the starlings, particularly, chattered the silliest stuff. One always cried, "Paris, Paris!" and the other, "Narcissus, Narcissus!" as plainly as a schoolboy can say them. The old man seemed to continue looking at me earnestly while the birds called out thus; but I feigned not to notice it, and had in truth no time to attend to him, for I could easily perceive that we went round and round, and that this shaded space was in fact a great circle, which enclosed another much more important. Indeed, we had actually reached the small door again, and it seemed as though the old man would let me out. But my eyes remained directed towards a golden railing, which seemed to hedge round the middle of this wonderful garden, and which I had found means enough of observing in our walk; although the old man managed to keep me always close to the wall, and therefore pretty far from the centre.
Now, just as he was going to the door, I said to him, with a bow, "You have been so extremely kind to me that I would fain venture to make one more request before I part from you. Might I not look more closely at that golden railing, which appears to enclose in a very wide circle the interior of the garden?"
"Very willingly," replied he, "but in that case you must submit to some conditions."
"In what do they consist?" I asked hastily.
"You must leave here your hat and sword, and must not let go my hand while I accompany you."
"Most willingly," I replied; and laid my hat and sword on the nearest stone bench. Immediately he grasped my left hand with his right, held it fast, and led me with some force straight forwards. When we reached the railing, my wonder changed into amazement. On a high plinth of marble stood innumerable spears and partisans, ranged beneath each other, joined by their strangely ornamented points, and forming a complete circle. I looked through the intervals, and saw just behind a gently flowing piece of water, bounded on both sides by marble, and displaying in its clear depths a multitude of gold and silver fish, which moved about now slowly and now swiftly, now alone and now in shoals. I would also fain have looked beyond the canal, to see what there was in the heart of the garden. But I found, to my great sorrow, that the other side of the water was bordered by a similar railing, and with so much art, that to each interval on this side exactly fitted a spear or partisan on the other. These, and the other ornaments, rendered it impossible for one to see through, stand as he would. Besides, the old man, who still held me fast, prevented me from moving freely. My curiosity, meanwhile, after all I had seen, increased more and more; and I took heart to ask the old man whether one could not pass over.
"Why not?" returned he, "but on new conditions." When I asked him what these were, he gave me to understand that I must put on other clothes. I was satisfied to do so: he led me back towards the wall into a small, neat room, on the sides of which hung many kinds of garments, all of which seemed to approach the Oriental costume. I soon changed my dress. He confined my powdered hair under a many-coloured net, after having to my horror violently dusted it out. Now, standing before a great mirror, I found myself quite handsome in my disguise, and pleased myself better than in my formal Sunday clothes. I made gestures, and leaped, as I had seen the dancers do at the fair-theatre. In the midst of this I looked in the glass, and saw by chance the image of a niche which was behind me. On its white ground hung three green cords, each of them twisted up in a way which from the distance I could not clearly discern. I therefore turned round rather hastily, and asked the old man about the niche as well as the cords. He very courteously took a cord down, and showed it to me. It was a band of green silk of moderate thickness, the ends of which, joined by green leather with two holes in it, gave it the appearance of an instrument for no very desirable purpose. The thing struck me as suspicious, and I asked the old man the meaning. He answered me very quietly and kindly, "This is for those who abuse the confidence which is here readily shown them." He hung the cord again in its place, and immediately desired me to follow him; for this time he did not hold me, and so I walked freely beside him.
My chief curiosity now was, to discover where the gate and bridge, for passing through the railing and over the canal, might be; since as yet I had not been able to find anything of the kind. I therefore watched the golden fence very narrowly as we hastened towards it. But in a moment my sight failed: lances, spears, halberds, and partisans began unexpectedly to rattle and quiver; and the strange movement ended in all the points sinking towards each other just as if two ancient hosts, armed with pikes, were about to charge. The confusion to the eyes, the clatter to the ears, was hardly to be borne; but infinitely surprising was the sight, when, falling perfectly level, they covered the circle of the canal, and formed the most glorious bridge that one can imagine. For now a most variegated garden parterre met my sight. It was laid out in curvilinear beds, which, looked at together, formed a labyrinth of ornaments; all with green borders of a low, woolly plant, which I had never seen before; all with flowers, each division of different colours, which, being likewise low and close to the ground, allowed the plan to be easily traced. This delicious sight, which I enjoyed in the full sunshine, quite riveted my eyes. But I hardly knew where I was to set my foot; for the serpentine paths were most delicately laid with blue sand, which seemed to form upon the earth a darker sky, or a sky seen in the water: and so I walked for a while beside my conductor, with my eyes fixed upon the ground, until at last I perceived, that, in the middle of this round of beds and flowers, there was a great circle of cypresses or poplar-like trees, through which one could not see, because the lowest branches seemed to spring out of the ground. My guide, without taking me exactly the shortest way, led me nevertheless immediately towards that centre; and how was I astonished, when, on entering the circle of high trees, I saw before me the peristyle of a magnificent garden-house, which seemed to have similar prospects and entrances on the other sides! The heavenly music which streamed from the building transported me still more than this model of architecture. I fancied that I heard now a lute, now a harp, now a guitar, and now something tinkling which did not belong to any of these instruments.
The door for which we made opened soon on being lightly touched by the old man. But how amazed I was when the female porter who came out perfectly resembled the delicate girl who had danced upon my fingers in the dream! She greeted me as if we were already acquainted, and invited me to walk in. The old man stayed behind; and I went with her through a short passage, arched and finely ornamented, to the middle hall, the splendid, dome-like ceiling of which attracted my gaze on my entrance, and filled me with astonishment. Yet my eye could not dwell on this long, being allured down by a more charming spectacle. On a carpet, directly under the middle of the cupola, sat three women in a triangle, clad in three different colours,—one red, the other yellow, the third green. The seats were gilt, and the carpet was a perfect flower-bed. In their arms lay the three instruments which I had been able to distinguish from without; for, being disturbed by my arrival, they had stopped their playing.
"Welcome!" said the middle one, who sat with her face to the door, in a red dress, and with the harp. "Sit down by Alerte, and listen, if you are a lover of music."
I now saw for the first time that there was a rather long bench placed obliquely before them, on which lay a mandolin. The pretty girl took it up, sat down, and drew me to her side. Now also I looked at the second lady on my right. She wore the yellow dress, and had the guitar in her hand; and if the harp-player was dignified in form, grand in features, and majestic in her deportment, one might remark in the guitar-player an easy grace and cheerfulness. She was a slender blonde, while the other was adorned by dark-brown hair. The variety and accordance of their music could not prevent me from remarking the third beauty, in the green dress, whose lute-playing was for me at once touching and striking. She was the one who seemed to notice me the most, and to direct her music to me: only I could not make up my mind about her; for she appeared to me now tender, now whimsical, now frank, now self-willed, according as she changed her mien and mode of playing. Sometimes she seemed to wish to excite my emotions, sometimes to tease me; but, do what she would, she got little out of me; for my little neighbour, by whom I sat elbow to elbow, had gained me entirely to herself: and while I clearly saw in those three ladies the sylphides of my dream, and recognized the colours of the apples, I conceived that I had no cause to detain them. I should have liked better to lay hold of the pretty little maiden if I had not but too well remembered the blow she had given me in my dream. Hitherto she had remained quite quiet with her mandolin; but, when her mistresses had ceased, they commanded her to perform some pleasant little piece. Scarcely had she jingled off some dance-tune, in a most exciting manner, than she sprang up: I did the same. She played and danced; I was hurried on to accompany her steps; and we executed a kind of little ballet, with which the ladies seemed satisfied; for, as soon as we had done, they commanded the little girl to refresh me with something nice till supper should come in. I had indeed forgotten that there was anything in the world beyond this paradise.
Excerpted from DREAMS AND WONDERS by MIKE ASHLEY. Copyright © 2010 Mike Ashley. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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