Once upon time there was a beautiful princess, and she married a handsome prince, who took her far away across the sea to rule with him over the city of Prague.
And Prague in November resembled an enormous wedding cake, as the Princess, who was now a Queen looked out of her castle window. After a night of snow, the roofs and the spires of the city shone and sparkled as if they were gorgeous curlicues teased out of sugar by a clever pastry chef. Only if she leaned very far out of the window could she find any sign of the dark earth at all.
Down below among the cottages pressed against the wall of the castle the snow had not settled due to the steady tread of the alchemists going back and forth to fetch coal. Day and night they tended their fires in pursuit of the secret of immortality.
As things fell out this November, the Queen was alone in the Castle because the Prince, who was now a King, was away making war on his enemies at the White Mountain. For company she had her three companions from home, Mary, Mary and Mary, and the four of them gossiped and giggled together in their native tongue as they wandered the enormous rooms, but there was no real life to be had with all the men away. The Queen also had her English players with her and that afternoon they were to perform a masque for the ladies.
Not every man had gone to the war. Down below in the city there was a young soldier who had decided to seek his fortune by other means. He had rented a small room, with a stove to sit by as he thought and thought about how to decide what is real and what is only a dream.
The English players are the mechanics of dreams. Together they raise the scaffold in the Castle throne room with easy practice - the platform on which they will become kings and even queens, although they are all men and boys. Mary Carmichael will not leave them alone. She hangs around the doorway as the crashes of the scaffold work echo up in the rafters of the Throne room, with no thought of her dignity.
She is fascinated by Rufus, the lead boy of the company who takes the main feminine roles. She loves to finger his tinsel dress and stroke his down chin and ask him "How can you play a woman when you've never known one?"
Rufus blushes but answers, "I play maids."
"Oh! Oh!" shrieks Mary Carmichael "That's put me in my place, for I could only play a maid from memory." Her laughter skirls through the great chamber high above the laughter of the men. Rufus blushes deeper, and Mary pinches his cheek and says "He blushes like a maid." But the Queen has heard the laughter and has sent Mary Seaton to take Mary Carmichael away from the players.
So the Queen and all three of her ladies walk together in the long gallery before dinner, their breath hanging before them in thin white clouds. They talk of Grace, the snow, Anabaptists and Mary Seaton's small dog, Duncan, who runs ahead of them and snuffles at the fringes of the tapestries. None of them mentions the war.
Dinner without the men is a jolly affair. Among only themselves and waited on by women, the ladies can forget their manners and be free with their appetites. Mary Carmichael is always greedy, and Mary Heaton enjoys her food when she gets the chance, although she is as thin as a needle. There is no fish, with so many men away, but even in November there are peaches and plums grown magically under the low winter sun in a room with glass walls on the roof of the castle.
When at last dinner is cleared away the light has begun to fade. Much of the throne room is already lost in shadow as the Queen leads the Marys in to see the Masque. The stage is lit with sconces, and up in the gallery the musicians have lit their candles. One could fancy that the pin pricks of candlelight are the stars in the sky. And such fancies are what make the Queen uneasy about Theatre. Surely to make a mockery of Nature is to mock its Creator? And the better the mockery the greater the spiritual danger, for a perfect imitation of form will draw Spirit into it, like the brazen head built by Cornelius Agrippa which spoke and prophesied. And in this poor light the Imagination will spring to the aid of the Intellect to make the stage, and only the stage real, and what are the dangers of the perfect illusion?
Rufus is the perfect illusion now, as he steps onto the empty platform of the stage. Who could doubt that he is what he claims to be, the Lady Moon in the Garden of the Night? He moves with delicacy and modesty. His feet glide beneath him, his arms float before him has he uses his hands to emphasize his unhappy situation, and his horse hair tresses fly around him with each toss of his head.
The Lady Moon has nightingales and owls for company and it is the sweetest scented flowers which exhale their perfumes during the hours of darkness. Yet all is not well with her. She loves the Lord Sun, loves him and fears him, for she is afraid that in his great light she will disappear. She would take that risk but her cruel father Saturn keeps her away from her lover.
The Queen hears Mary Heaton draw her handkerchief from her sleeve ready to weep for Lady Moon. The Queen is moved too. She knows what is to be the daughter and lover of powerful men. She is gripped rather more than she would like.
Here comes Mercury, a lithe and nimble lad, resplendent in yellow robes. His dances and songs are so gay that even Lady Moon forgets her troubles and laughs. Mercury brings hope as well as laughter, for he knows a way to bring Lady Moon together with her love, but it will require her to change completely. Lady Moon asks herself if she dare trust Mercury, the Guardian of the Dead, the Master of Shadows and decides she has no choice. They depart in different directions.
Here comes Lord Sun in golden armor. All the ladies gasp. His heralds are the roosters, his knights are the eagles. He is all seeing and master of all that he can see. Poor Lady Moon, for surely such a magnificent being must be complete in himself? He who has everything must want nothing. Lady Moon's cause must be hopeless.
Yet, strangely, Lord Sun is susceptible to flattery. Mercury skips on and sings his praises and his Lordship is very pleased. Sly Mercury then sings a song of longing and love from afar. Lord Sun is moved and asks where Mercury learned it. Mercury says that he heard it from a lady in a secluded garden, a garden where the Lord Sun can never go.
Lord Sun is devastated, he wants more than anything to enter the garden and court the lady. Mercury promises that he can arrange just that but it will involve great sacrifice on Lord Sun's part. Without hesitation the Lord Sun says he will agree to anything that Mercury asks of him.
Lord Sun departs and Mercury reveals to his select audience that his game is deeper than either Lord Sun and Lady Moon can guess. Their marriage will be the accomplishment of the Great Work. He summons his two servants Castor and Pollux to send word to Lord Sun and Lady Moon to meet him in the Garden of the Hesperides, the garden in the West, where Day and Night meet.
Castor and Pollux are not the most competent of servants but after a few misadventures together which set the Queen and her ladies laughing, they go their separate ways to perform their errands.
Mercury appears again and announces he is in the Garden of the Hesperides the orchard whose golden fruit bring wisdom and immortality to any who dare to eat of them. Lord Sun and Lady Moon appear form opposite sides of the stage. After they have sung in celebration, Mercury instructs them to strip to their shifts. Then the atmosphere darkens. Lady Moon announces that her cruel Father Saturn is about to arrive and stop the wedding.
In fact it is another person altogether who stops the ceremony. A young knight runs into the throne room and falls on his knees before the Queen. The mud and the blood on his clothes speak of his valor and yet he weeps like a child. Through his tears he tells the Queen that the King has been defeated at the White Mountain and she and her ladies must flee Prague that very night.
Lights are called for everywhere and all the servants are stirred up to pack whatever can be carried off. Mary Heaton begins to weep and the Queen tells her if she has tears to shed she should not waste them on herself but cry for the women of Prague who have nowhere to flee to and must await the mercy of the enemy army.
Down below in the city the young soldier wakes up beside his stove, and in the moments between sleep and waking he realizes he is dreaming his life and in those same moments he realizes that if he is dreaming himself, there must be a self to do the dreaming. And in the years that were to follow, the young man wrote his thoughts about this in a book, and many wise men have come to believe that the young soldier was right.
And beside the Castle the Alchemists went back forth to fetch coal as they always did. Day and night they tend their fires in search of the secret of immortality: living, in effect, as if they had already found it.
Bio: William Saunders is a London based poet, journalist and author. His collection of short stories is called Leah And Her Twelve Brothers.
Bio: Jessie Dunlop is an archaeologist who lives in Vancouver. These are her first published illustrations.
Leah And Her Twelve Brothers
EC readers are invited to download "The White Marriage" as a free .pdf here:
or via this page where it is listed as Prague.