THE CLOCK STRIKES AND MAID-ALONE STAYS
Days that made a year went by; the maidens went away from the Castle, and Dame Dale married her two limping daughters, Berry-bright and Buttercup, to the kennel-master and the stable-master. But still the King's son went searching for the MATCHLESS MAIDEN.
He made many journeys and he brought certain quests to an end; but no Maid-alone did he find at the end of the quest or the end of the journey. Often the falconers saw him standing at the edge of the marsh, where, her bare feet in the marsh water, he had seen Maid-alone with the white and grey goose-flock around her.
It was his Muime who told him about the two starlings that used to fly beside him when he rode abroad and come back with him from his journeys. They had their shelter beside her dormer window, and that is how she had come to notice them. Well, the next time he rode out he watched for the starlings and he followed where they flew. Down winding laneways they brought him where only elder-bushes and briers grew. On he rode after them till he came to a small black house deep-sunken in the ground.
He went to the door and looked into the house. There, sitting by the fire and spinning grey threads on an old spindle he saw a woman in a Cloak of Crow Feathers. He left his horse standing and stepped into the house. The old woman looked at him and said, "Tell me what you have come to seek."
"The maiden who once wore the cloak you wear," said he.
"Where did that maiden come to you from?" said she.
"She came from Ditch-land, by Old Shoe Garden," said he, "and from Last-ember Moor, and from where a dog lapped water out of her hands."
"And have you betaken yourself to all these places?" said the old woman in the Cloak of Crow Feathers.
"I have. Many days did I spend searching for the shoe that was thrown down there. I found it. And on Last-ember Moor I spent days looking for the pot that was brought there. I fought with a Giant and did not come off scatheless. But I found and I have the pot. Then I sat by the well from which one brought water for a dog to lap his tongue in. Many days I was there, and I brought water to all the dogs that went past."
The Woman of a Thousand Years rose up and brought the King's son to the garden that was behind her little house. And there he saw Maid-alone standing in a little stream and gathering cresses.
Not the bronze dress, nor the silver dress, nor the gold dress had she on now. She was dressed in brown wincey, and her feet were bare. But more than ever in the King's son's eyes did she look the MATCHLESS MAIDEN.
Just as he laid his eyes on her one burst through the hedge and came to her. It was the Chamberlain from the Castle. He cried out, "I have found you at last. Come with me to the King's Castle, and to one who is dying for love of you."
She said, "Who is there that remembers me?"
"I, I, I!" cried the King's son.
Maid-alone came again to the King's Castle: she looked on its stables and its kennels; its mews for the hawks and its meres for the herons; its ponds for the swans and parades for the pea cocks; she looked on the little door that the third under-stewardess had opened to her on the morning she first came. By that little door she entered now. She went softly past the scullery where she used to eat her meal of scraps before she was banished to the ashy hearths, and she went past the Rat-catcher who was standing by his cage of brown rats, telling the outlandish servants that tallow was the one thing in the Castle that rats would not eat. She came to where the crooked passages and the winding stairways led up to the main hallway. Before her was the great, sweep ing, scarlet staircase. All alone she went up it, and there were no servitors standing there in their velvets, with branched silver candle-sticks in their hands. And all alone she entered the Solar Gallery, and she found a cushioned seat before a fire of peat, and she sat down on it.
And into the Solar Gallery, closing the door behind him, came another. It was the King's son. Citrons and pomegranates were on the table, and he brought them to her, taking a place on a cushioned seat beside her. Then into the gallery came a loud and a heavy sound. It was the Clock in the Tower striking twelve. Maid-alone let the citrons and the pomegranates fall. But they did not roll far. Nor did she stand up to run away, for she remembered that she and the King's son were wed, and that two starlings had sung at their wedding, and that they had leave to be together even though the clock struck twelve.