Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories
The Old Woman
The old woman was spinning at her wheel near a fire of myrtle boughs which
burnt fragrantly in the open yard. Through the stone columns the sea was visible,
smooth, dark, and blue; the low sun bathed the brown hills of the coast in a
golden mist. It was December. The shepherds were driving home their flocks, the
work of the day was done, and a noise of light laughter and rippling talk came
from the Slaves' quarter.
In the middle of the stone-flagged yard two little boys were playing at quoits.
Their eyes and hair were as dark as their brown skin, which had been tanned by
the sun. In one of the corners of the yard a fair- haired, blue-eyed girl was
nursing a kitten and singing it to sleep. The old woman was singing too, or rather
humming a tune to herself as she turned her wheel. She was very old: her hair
was white and silvery, and her face was furrowed by a hundred wrinkles. Her
eyes were blue as the sky, and perhaps they had once been full of fire and
laughter, but all that had been quenched and washed out long ago, and Time,
with his noiseless chisel, had sharpened her delicate features and hollowed out
her cheeks, which were as white as ivory. But her hands as they twisted the
wood were the hands of a young woman, and seemed as though they had been
fashioned by a rare craftsman, so perfect were they in shape and proportion, as
firm as carved marble, as delicate as flowers.
The sun sank behind the hills of the coast, and a flood of scarlet light spread
along the West just above them, melting higher up into orange, and still higher
into a luminous blue, which turned to green later as the evening deepened. The
air was cool and sharp, and the little boys, who had finished their game, drew
near to the fire.
"Tell us a story," said the elder of the two boys, as they curled themselves up at
the feet of the old woman.
"You know all my stories," she said.
"That doesn't matter," said the boy. "You can tell us an old one."
"Well," said the old woman, "I suppose I must. There was once upon a time a
King and a Queen who had three sons and one daughter." At the sound of these
words the little girl ran up and nestled in the folds of the old woman's long cloak.
"No, not that one," one of the little boys interrupted, "tell us about the Queen
without a heart." So the old woman began and said:--
"There was once upon a time a King and a Queen who had one daughter, and
they invited all the gods and goddesses to the feast which they gave in honour of
the birth of their child. The gods and goddesses came and gave the child every
gift they could think of; she was to be the most beautiful woman in the whole
world, she was to dance like the West wind, to laugh like the stream, and to sing
like the lark. Her hair should be made of sunshine, and her eyes should be as the
sea in midsummer. She should excel in all things, in knowledge, in wit, and in
skill; she should be fleet of foot, a cunning harp-player, adept at all manner of
woman-like crafts, and deft with the needle and the spinning-wheel, and at the
loom. Zeus himself gave her stateliness and majesty, the Lord of the Sun gave a