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The Silent Fountain
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While still endeavouring to compose myself, I heard the voice of the princess beside me.
"Come now," she said; "I will show you what I want you to do for me."
She led the way into the court. I followed in dazed compliance.
The moon was near the zenith, and her present silver seemed brighter than the gold of the absent sun. She brought me through the trees to the tallest of them, the one in the centre. It was not quite like the rest, for its branches, drawing their ends together at the top, made a clump that looked from beneath like a fir-cone. The princess stood close under it, gazing up, and said, as if talking to herself,
"On the summit of that tree grows a tiny blossom which would at once heal my scratches! I might be a dove for a moment and fetch it, but I see a little snake in the leaves whose bite would be worse to a dove than the bite of a tiger to me!--How I hate that cat-woman!"
She turned to me quickly, saying with one of her sweetest smiles,
"Can you climb?"
The smile vanished with the brief question, and her face changed to a look of sadness and suffering. I ought to have left her to suffer, but the way she put her hand to her wounded neck went to my heart.
I considered the tree. All the way up to the branches, were projections on the stem like the remnants on a palm of its fallen leaves.
"I can climb that tree," I answered.
"Not with bare feet!" she returned.
In my haste to follow the leopardess disappearing, I had left my sandals in my room.
"It is no matter," I said; "I have long gone barefoot!"
Again I looked at the tree, and my eyes went wandering up the stem until my sight lost itself in the branches. The moon shone like silvery foam here and there on the rugged bole, and a little rush of wind went through the top with a murmurous sound as of water falling softly into water. I approached the tree to begin my ascent of it. The princess stopped me.
"I cannot let you attempt it with your feet bare!" she insisted. "A fall from the top would kill you!"
"So would a bite from the snake!" I answered--not believing, I confess, that there was any snake.
"It would not hurt YOU!" she replied. "--Wait a moment."
She tore from her garment the two wide borders that met in front, and kneeling on one knee, made me put first my left foot, then my right on the other, and bound them about with the thick embroidered strips.
"You have left the ends hanging, princess!" I said.
"I have nothing to cut them off with; but they are not long enough to get entangled," she replied.
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