For I know well the Spring that flows and runs,
Although it is night.
That eternal Spring is hidden,
For I know well where it has its rise,
Although it is night.
I do not know its origin, nor has it one;
But I know that every origin has come from it,
Although it is night.
I know that nothing else is so beautiful,
That the heavens and the earth drink there,
Although it is night.
I know well that it is bottomless,
And that no one is able to cross it,
Although it is night.
Its clarity is never darkened,
And I know that every light has come from it,
Although it is night.
I know that its streams are so brimming,
They water the lands of hell, the heavens, and earth,
Although it is night.
I know well the Stream that flows from this Spring.
It is mighty in compass and power,
Although it is night.
I know the Stream proceeding from these two,
That neither of them, in fact, precedes it,
Although it is night.
This eternal Spring is hidden
In this Living Bread for our life’s sake,
Although it is night.
It is here calling out to creatures,
And they satisfy their thirst,
Although in darkness,
Because it is night.
This Living Spring that I long for
I see in the Bread of Life,
Although it is night.
Saint John of the Cross
In what follows, the discerning reader will detect the influence of William Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew), of Frank Stockton (The Discourager of Hesitancy), of C.S. Lewis (Till We Have Faces), of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Wife of Bath’s Tale), of Elisabeth Elliot (Shadow of the Almighty), of Francis Thompson (The Hound of Heaven), and of George MacDonald (The Light Princess, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, King Cole). This, however, does not constitute the full extent of my indebtedness. There are, I am sure, borrowings of which even I myself am not fully conscious. If there is any originality in the next few pages, it is but little.
The Marriage of Esmeralda
And humbly I’ll receive thee,
The Bridegroom of my soul,
No more by sin to grieve thee,
Or fly thy sweet control.
I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in
childhood: being now able to put more in,
of course, I get more out.
C.S. Lewis – “On Three Ways of
Writing for Children” (1952)
Once upon a time—long, long ago—in the country of Superbia, there lived a king who had three beautiful daughters. Now the two older daughters were very lovely indeed, and they had delightful personalities to match. The youngest princess, however, was the most stunning of all. Her hair was jet black, and she had a flawless olive complexion. She was called Esmeralda, a name which means “Emerald,” on account of her piercing green eyes. Yet although Esmeralda’s eyes were as beautiful as emeralds, her heart was as hard as any diamond. Pampered (in other words, spoiled rotten) from the time she was born, she was used to having her own way. Consequently, she was snobbish, cold, unfeeling, and often downright cruel.
Any king worth his salt wants to marry off his daughters as soon as possible. The king in this story was no exception. Long before his daughters were of marriageable age, he determined to find them suitable husbands. Naturally, he had no difficulty arranging marriages for his first two daughters; but Esmeralda proved to be a problem. As long as she kept her mouth closed and sat perfectly still, her suitors were held spellbound by her beauty. The moment she spoke or moved, the game was up, and her potential lovers would flee or, if they could not run quickly enough, limp away in terror. In time, Esmeralda’s beauty became legendary, but so did her viciousness. Alas! No prince could be found brave enough to wed her. What was her poor father to do?
Then one day, three strangers presented themselves at the palace gate and asked to be given an audience with the King. They were dressed in long flowing robes, wore turbans on their heads, and carried gleaming scimitars. They had obviously come a great distance. After the customary exchange of diplomatic pleasantries (and after the porter had taken charge of their scimitars), the three travelers were ushered into the royal presence.
“What brings you to my realm?” inquired the King. “Is your mission peaceful?”
“It is, Your Majesty,” replied one of the visitors. He spoke with a heavy accent. “We are emissaries of Prince Victor of the Kingdoms of Hesed and Emunah. Our Master wishes to take your illustrious daughter Esmeralda in marriage. We have come in his name to discuss terms of….”
“Done!” roared the King, slamming his fist into his open palm and not even allowing the messenger to finish his speech. By now, he had all but given up hope of ever finding Esmeralda a husband. She was, after all, already sixteen years old—well beyond the age of betrothal. He was not about to let this golden opportunity slip through his fingers. He would gladly comply with whatever Prince Victor wanted. If this ignorant ruler was foolish enough to desire Esmeralda, sight unseen (or rather voice unheard), so be it. The girl would be his headache now.
The deal was concluded in a matter of minutes. Princess Esmeralda was to depart that very evening. (Prince Victor wasted no time.) After an arduous overland journey of about three months, she would at last be received into the Kingdom of Hesed. There, on the very next day after her arrival, she would be joined in marriage to the prince.
Needless to say, when Esmeralda heard the news, she was quite furious. She flew into one of her characteristic fits of rage. She screamed and stamped her feet. Why was she not consulted in this matter? What right did her father have to promise her to a complete stranger? Even at the height of her tantrum, however, she knew full well that there was no use protesting. The King had made up his mind, and he had given Prince Victor’s emissaries permission to use force if need be.
In a mood of seething anger and deep sorrow, the bride-to-be bade a hasty farewell to her homeland and began the difficult trek to Hesed. The three officials and the other members of Prince Victor’s delegation treated her with the utmost courtesy, and all were extremely patient with her as they labored to give her a crash course in their native language. Yet, although they succeeded to some extent in calming the princess’ anger, they could do nothing to console her in her grief. Having her security suddenly wrenched from her was no mere stripping away of her outer defenses. It was an assault on the very core of her being. Thus every step away from all that was familiar to her was like the thud of some huge mallet upon her stone-like heart. By the end of the three months, Esmeralda’s hard interior was beginning to show signs of crumbling. When finally she beheld the towering ramparts and battlements of the prince’s castle, she fell to the ground and wept, something she could not recall ever having done before.
Word of the princess’ arrival spread like wildfire. Flags were raised. Trumpets blared. Church bells rang. Men and women cheered. Children sang. Their song was a mysterious sort of chant. At first, it was difficult for Esmeralda to make out the words; but gradually the young voices became quite intelligible:
Long live Prince Victor!
Long life to her with emerald eyes!
Like a ripe fruit he hath picked her.
The plucking hurts, wherefore she cries.
Preparations for the royal wedding began immediately. The ceremony was to take place the following day at noon. As for Esmeralda, she was entrusted to the care of a number of maids in waiting and given rather comfortable accommodations in the palace. Yet all the joy and festivity of her new surroundings did nothing to stem the flood of her tears. In the evening, a great feast was set before her. She could not bring herself to taste even the smallest morsel. As might be expected, her first night in Hesed was full of anguish. Though her bed was soft and inviting, she could not sleep at all.
The first light of dawn brought a knock at her chamber door. “Arise, fair princess!” came a gentle, matronly voice. “It is time for your bath.” Poor Esmeralda! She was too weary and weepy to resist.
Yet what a splendid bath it proved to be! The vessel of water into which the princess stepped was an immense blue laver, more like a huge cauldron than a mere bathtub. To be immersed in it was like being plunged into the depths of a boundless tropical sea. The water was warm and sudsy. The soap was fragrant. It was wonderful indeed! With the bath, there came over Esmeralda a certain sense of peace. It was as though her cares were being washed away, and her anxieties dissolved—at least for the moment.
All that morning, the princess found herself the recipient of endless fussing and primping. Her attendants spent hours powdering and perfuming her skin, adjusting her gown, fixing her hair, and adorning her with exquisite jewelry. Throughout these interminable proceedings, she remained as passive as a rag doll. What else could she do? So much attention given to her outward appearance! No one seemed to care about consoling her heart, which was, by now, as tender as an open wound.
At five minutes to noon, Esmeralda stood, quivering, in the great cathedral of Hesed, about to walk down its long center aisle. The cathedral was a magnificent domed basilica with numerous stained glass windows to let in the sunlight. As Esmeralda looked on either side of the great aisle, she saw that the countless chairs were filled with men and women dressed in all sorts of colorful costumes and elaborate apparel. The congregation obviously included the nobles and dignitaries of Hesed as well as those of other nearby countries. The princess was astonished to recognize her own father, the King of Superbia. How had he managed to arrive in time for the wedding? Would he walk her down the aisle?
At the eastern end of the cathedral, near the high altar, stood the mitered bishop, patiently waiting for the ceremony to begin. Yet strangely enough, the bewildered bride could see no groom. She herself wore a very heavy gown of some thick, starched material, and she could hardly move. Nervousness and fear grew steadily within her. She definitely did not want to proceed with this wedding!
Suddenly, from behind, somebody gave her a rather sharp nudge, and she was on her way down the aisle whether she liked it or not. Her wedding dress was so cumbersome that she was able to take only small steps.
Now there was music coming from somewhere—trumpets and other horns accompanied by thunderous drum rolls. The congregation stood. All eyes were upon the bride. Nearer and nearer she drew to the altar. Her progress was painfully slow, both on account of the stiff fabric of her bridal gown, and also because of her mounting apprehension. At last she was only a few feet from the bishop. Then, without warning, an anonymous pair of hands from behind clapped a blindfold over her eyes! Esmeralda instinctively made an effort to reach for it, but her clumsy dress made moving her arms quite impossible. She was, as the expression goes, scared stiff! She could not see a thing. She did not know what would happen next. She was totally unprepared for what was to come.
The music ceased. All was deathly still. Almost at once, the silence was broken by the sound of a masculine tread on the flagstone. The steps grew steadily louder as they approached. They came to a halt beside the princess. “This is surely Prince Victor,” she told herself. Deprived of her eyesight, she strained her other senses for whatever information they might convey. She literally felt the presence of the bridegroom standing just inches away. She heard his measured breathing. She took in the fragrance of his clothes.
The ceremony began. Esmeralda listened intently as the bishop solemnly intoned the words of the ritual: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen….”
Before long, Latin gave way to Hesedese, and the princess realized that the prelate was addressing both her and the groom:
“Henceforth you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And where love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.”
It was now time for the exchange of vows. The bishop spoke thus: “If it is your intention to enter into holy wedlock, join your right hands and declare your consent before God and His Church.”
At these words, Esmeralda felt her trembling hand caught up in a powerful but gentle grasp. A tingling sensation surged through her whole body. It was, to be sure, love at first touch!
The prelate asked the groom: “Prince Victor of the lands of Hesed and Emunah, do you take Esmeralda, Princess of Superbia, here present, for your lawful wife according to the rite of our Holy Mother, the Church, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
“I do,” came the response in a rich baritone. The voice pierced the princess’ heart like the sudden thrust of a well-aimed dagger, leaving the wounded bride in exquisite pain. She was utterly smitten. She barely heard the bishop speaking to her.
“Princess Esmeralda of the land of Superbia, do you take Victor, Prince of Hesed and Emunah, here present, for your lawful husband according to the rite of our Holy Mother, the Church, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
The lovesick bride could scarcely get the words out. “I do,” she all but whispered.
The bishop continued: “By the authority of the Church, I ratify and bless the bond of marriage you have contracted. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. I call upon all of you here present to be witnesses of this holy union which I have now blessed. ‘Man must not separate what God has joined together.’”
From that point, it seemed to Esmeralda that the ceremony dragged on forever. Impatience numbed her perceptions as fear had previously awakened them. A ring was put on her finger. There were ceaseless prayers and innumerable blessings. Of all this, Esmeralda was but dimly conscious. She knew only one thing for certain—an intense longing. “When will it be over?” she kept asking herself. “When shall I see my prince?”
Finally, the nuptial rites were concluded, and the princess felt the blindfold being taken from her eyes. With eager anticipation, she turned to face the groom. He was gone!
“Where did he go?” she gasped, her pulse beginning to race wildly.
Seeing her panic, the bishop pulled her gently aside and spoke to her in a low, grandfatherly voice. He patiently explained that, in the countries of Hesed and Emunah, it was the custom for a newly wed princess not to see her husband during the first year of marriage. For a whole year, the royal bride must not look upon her spouse for any reason whatever. Even the smallest glimpse was, in fact, expressly forbidden by law.
Esmeralda was horrified. “Not to see my husband?” she cried. “What kind of madness is this? Surely you are not serious! This is an outrage—a cruel outrage! I demand to see the prince! I DEMAND TO SEE THE PRINCE!” By now, horror had turned into sheer fury. The poor girl was about to scream.
“Hush!” the prelate whispered sharply, placing his hands on Esmeralda’s shoulders and giving her a good shake. When she had composed herself somewhat, he continued in a more soothing tone. “Fret not, child. The prohibition applies only to the eyes, not to the heart. You will be permitted to be with your husband as his bride every night of the coming year. Yet by no means are you to see his face. Prince Victor will come to you at midnight, in total darkness, and in darkness you will embrace him. But beware! Under no circumstances are you to bring a lighted lamp into the bridal chamber while he is with you during your first year of marriage. This sort of folly has been tried in the past, and those who dared to attempt it were driven into terrible exile. Heed my warning, child. You must not, for any reason, have a light in your bridal chamber after midnight during your first year of marriage. On your first wedding anniversary, you may indeed behold the prince’s face, but not before. Compliance with this law will bring you great joy. Disobedience will lead only to disaster. Do you understand?”
“Y-y-y-yes,” stammered Esmeralda. She could hardly believe what she had just heard.
With the bishop’s words of admonition still echoing in her ears, the new bride passed the rest of the day as if in a dream. Everything was a blur. She had a vague recollection of her heavy wedding gown being removed and of her being dressed in something far more comfortable. Some sort of formal reception was held in her honor. This consisted of a rather lavish banquet with many flowery speeches delivered by all manner of dignitaries. There was, however, no clinking of silver and crystal, signaling the bride and groom to kiss. The groom, of course, was nowhere to be seen. (Besides, all of the drinking vessels were made of gold, not crystal, and most of the banqueters had never seen a fork!)
At long last, the clock in the great hall chimed half past ten. Thereupon, Esmeralda was duly escorted by women attendants to an elegant dressing room, where she was made ready for the night.
By eleven o’clock, she found herself alone in bed in a luxurious bridal chamber. The bed was an impressive mahogany four-poster. Its clean white sheets and down comforter bore the faint scent of roses. As for the room itself, it was circular in shape and quite spacious. At regular intervals around its circumference, like the twelve numerals of some gigantic timepiece, were positioned twelve burning torches. The bed stood by itself in the exact center of the chamber. Directly above, built into the domed ceiling, was a large, twelve-sided skylight, apparently of stained glass, though the night robbed it of all color. There was, as far as Esmeralda could tell, but one door to the room, the door through which she herself had passed moments earlier. This was of sturdy oak—altogether solid and lacking any sort of window.
Through the door, at precisely quarter past eleven, came four bridesmaids dressed in white. Without so much as a word, they removed four of the chamber’s twelve torches. Fifteen minutes later, just when the clock in the palace tower struck the half hour, four bridesmaids dressed in red quietly took away four of the eight remaining torches. At exactly a quarter to midnight, four more bridesmaids, all clad in black, silently carried off the last of the luminaries. As these dark figures departed, one of them reached out and pulled at a lever just inside the door. With that, a disc-shaped section of the ceiling noiselessly slid into view and completely eclipsed the skylight. The bedchamber was now in total darkness.
Esmeralda lay in bed in the pitch blackness of uncertainty. Not daring to stir, she awaited the arrival of the prince with no little anxiety. Longing, dread, joy, and anguish—all vied for first place in her heart. The events of the day had been altogether unforeseen. What would the next few minutes bring? The seconds ticked away. Soon it would be midnight.
Then a most horrible idea crept into the princess’ mind. No! she thought to herself. No! No! It cannot be! What if—what if the reason for the darkness is because the man I have married is so ugly that no woman can bear to look upon him in daylight? What if I have wedded some hideous monster, a creature more beast than man? Have I been tricked into becoming the bride of a brute? This line of thinking had not occurred to her before; but now, try as she might, she could not dismiss it. All sorts of grotesque and repulsive images crowded into her brain. She wanted to cry out. Yet she was unable to make so much as a whimper. Her throat was choked with terror itself. She could do nothing but tremble.
The clock struck twelve. The door to the bridal chamber groaned on its hinges—a sound Esmeralda had not noticed before. In came the groom. She felt his swift approach, and in less than an instant, she was in his arms. Almost at once, her fears and anxieties melted into nothingness. She knew in her heart that the man she had married was truly good and gentle, whatever his physical appearance. His breath was sweet; his kisses, intoxicating. Far from being in any way diminished, the princess now felt herself made whole. He has made me new, she kept repeating over and over to herself.
Ever so gingerly, the bride’s hand sought for the face of her groom, shyly examining its every feature with fingers made sensitive by her inability to see. Her inquisitive touch next explored his full beard, sturdy neck, and massive shoulders. All seemed perfectly human. Esmeralda’s perceptive fingers assured her that the prince was not only handsome, but utterly captivating. For one glimpse of his face, she would gladly traverse both land and sea, and she could well understand how others might be tempted to violate the one-year ban on seeing. She, however, resolved to be obedient, no matter what.
“You are beautiful,” she sighed.
The prince spoke softly as he embraced his new wife. She was lying with her head against his chest, and as he spoke, her whole body shook with the vibration of his deep voice.
“Esmeralda,” he said tenderly, “I have loved you ever since you were but a child. In fact, I have made it a point to know all about you.”
At these words, the princess gave a sudden start. She had assumed that Prince Victor knew nothing about her self-centered past. Yet she now felt not the slightest wish to conceal anything from him.
“Do not be alarmed,” the prince said reassuringly. There was laughter in his words. “I am truly delighted that you are my bride. Greatly have I longed for this night!” Here he began to whisper even more softly: “Now, Beloved, I shall tell you a secret. I am not only the prince and lord of this realm. I am also an enchanter, and this is the magic I shall perform for you: During every day of this coming year, I shall disguise myself as one of my subjects—a different disguise each day. The more kindness you show me while it is day, the more of my love you will know at night. Do you understand what I have just told you?”
“I think so,” said Esmeralda after a moment of silence. “You will love me more in the nighttime if I can but show you kindness during the day, only I shall never know exactly when it is that I am being kind to you, because each day you will be disguised as someone different.”
“You are partly wrong and partly right,” answered Prince Victor. “You are wrong in thinking that I shall love you more. My love for you is such that it can never know increase; for I love you fully even now, and there is nothing you can do to earn my favor. Your experience of my love is what will grow. The charity you show to me by day will reveal to you at night, in an ever-deepening manner, the riches of my love—if only you persevere in loving.”
“I see,” replied Esmeralda.
“But you are correct in this much,” continued the groom. “I am a master of dissemblance, and you will never detect my presence among my people. Make it your care, therefore, always to be loving and compassionate. Remember, charity above all else.”
For the next few moments, Esmeralda lay blissfully in Prince Victor’s arms. Was it really possible for her to know greater joy? At last, she fell into a deep sleep. While she slept, she dreamed. This is what she dreamt:
On a large, white rock, at the edge of a clear pool, in the midst of a verdant garden, there sat the most beautiful lady Esmeralda had ever seen. Her eyes, like those of the princess, were emerald green; but here the resemblance ended. The lady had a roses-and-cream complexion. Her hair was like burnished bronze in the sunlight and ran in luxuriant cascades down to her waist. Her gown was the same color as her eyes, yet it was impossible to tell whether it was of some luminous fabric or whether it was composed of light itself. In her left hand, the woman held what appeared to be a kind of lyre. The fingers of her right hand occasionally strayed across the strings. All the while, she herself sang a lilting melody whose words Esmeralda was somehow never able to forget.
My master went away one night to some far-distant land.
I knew not where he went, but he made me understand
That he was coming back.
“Be on guard,” he said, “and don’t grow slack!”
His entire estate he placed within my charge.
Its orchards were vast. Its fields were broad. Its granaries were large.
All was filled with every goodly thing.
He even left behind his signet ring.
No sooner had he gone, a knock upon the door.
A beggar stood outside, my kindness to implore:
“Please, m’ Lady, alms for the poor!”
Words alone are useless to a man in desperate need.
Mere tokens do quite little. I must be bold in deed.
Yet nothing in my care belonged to me by right.
My master owned it all, though he’d left that very night.
Still, the man who faced me now did have a right to live.
What was I to do? My heart made answer: Give!
So of my master’s goods I gave the pauper freely.
He went away content. He was quite happy, really.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into years.
I shared the pain of others. I saw their tears.
As for my master’s goods, I gave them all away.
As for myself, I learned to fast and pray.
When he returns, I thought, what shall I say?
At last my master came to find his home quite bare.
His treasuries were empty. His wealth had turned to air.
He looked me in the eye. I shrank before his stare.
Yet as I gazed upon his face—and this is strange to tell—
He began to smile. He said, “My friend, you’ve done so very well.
This house was once too cluttered. You’ve cleaned it out, I see.
In giving much to others, you’ve made room for me!”
My story has a lesson, a secret to reveal:
Charity to others is treasure none can steal.
This present life, for rich and poor, is full of grief and crying.
The world’s success, however great, cannot prevent our dying.
She is no fool who gives away earth’s goods, which none can keep,
To gain a home where all are rich and none shall ever weep.
There was, beside the rock on which the lady sat, a cluster of what Esmeralda at first took to be glistening dewdrops on the grassy bank. These, however, turned out to be a little heap of emeralds. As the harpist sang, she would, every so often, reach down and absent-mindedly toss one of these gems into the pool at her feet; but before each emerald could reach the glassy surface, it was instantly seized and gobbled up by a leaping goldfish. Thereupon the fish was transformed into a colorful songbird, which immediately flew up into the branches of the surrounding trees and joined its warble to the song of the lady. By the time the singer had reached the words “none shall weep,” the trees bore as many feathers as leaves, and the garden was a cacophony of birdsong. Yet despite the din, the haunting lyrics remained perfectly audible.
The next thing the princess knew, she was lying on something large and soft, and bathed in a warm rainbow light. She was, in fact, all by herself in the great mahogany bed, and the noon sunlight from the stained glass window diffused itself all about her. The prince had apparently opened the skylight on his departure from the chamber. Had she been in bed for more than twelve hours? From outside, she could hear the singing of birds, just as it had been in her dream. Or was it a dream? Poor Esmeralda! By now, she could scarcely distinguish what was real from what was merely imaginary. Yet there, on her left hand, was the gold wedding ring the prince had given her. The very thought of her groom was all the certainty the princess needed. She recalled his instructions down to the last syllable. She would try her best to please him.
Just as this resolution took shape in the new bride’s mind, the door to the bedchamber flew open, and in came a bevy of ladies in waiting with the obvious intention of preparing their mistress for the day. They surrounded her like so many merry nymphs and immediately fell to work bathing and beautifying their charge. One of the eager attendants was a bit too zealous with a hairbrush and caused Esmeralda to let out a sudden cry of pain. The princess was about to turn on the young girl in an outburst of temper; but then she at once checked herself just as a torrent of abuse was about to escape her lips. Who knows? she thought to herself. This might really be Prince Victor in disguise. With the greatest effort, she was able to hold her peace.
It was difficult enough for Esmeralda to refrain from harsh and cutting speech. It was all but impossible for her to summon the strength for even a few kind words. Habits acquired over the course of a decade and a half would not give way overnight. Despite the ponderous weight of the past, however, the princess spent her first full day of marriage making gallant attempts at being good. Sometimes, it was all she could do to keep from screaming out of pure frustration. She had to be kind to everyone. Anyone might be her prince.
That night, just as the clock tolled twelve, Prince Victor came to his bride in the darkness of the bedchamber. “I was the stable boy to whom you gave a courteous smile today,” he confessed. “For that I thank you. Now, welcome me in your arms and rejoice in my love!” A second night of bliss endowed Esmeralda with the strength and determination to be more loving in the days that followed.
Thus it was that the princess took an entire year learning how to love. Each day, her mysterious groom wore the guise of someone in need—a weary traveler, an impoverished merchant, a maiden in need of a dowry, a humble priest. (Even priests need a bit of kindness now and then!) Every day Esmeralda did her best to show compassion to all whom she encountered. At night, Prince Victor gladdened her with his embrace.
Yet as the princess plumbed the depths of her groom’s love, she found great sorrow as well as overwhelming joy. On some nights, Prince Victor grieved for all his subjects who were in any way the victims of poverty, malady, or cruelty. As he wept, so too, in some measure, did his bride. There, beneath the sealed eye of the skylight, her tears began to mingle with his. The sadness of these nights was as much a spur to Esmeralda’s daylight charity as was the joy.
On other nights, however, there were no raptures and no tears. Bride and groom simply lay side by side in the darkness, aware of one another’s presence and allowing the exquisite silence to wash over them. Their hearts were one. What need was there for words? Esmeralda came to regard these quiet times with the prince as the most precious of all.
Then there were nights—and these became more frequent with the passing of time—when the princess perceived nothing of her groom, not even his presence next to her in bed. It was as if he were not there at all. When this first happened, Esmeralda was very much confused and wept bitterly. Hadn’t Prince Victor promised me he would be with me every night? she asked herself. Have I done something to deserve his absence? Is my spouse displeased with me? Yet after only a few such nights, the princess’ heart came to her rescue. Prince Victor assured me of his nightly visitation, she told herself, fighting back the tears. I shall trust him, though all my senses tell me otherwise! I shall trust him, though the whole world call him untrue! I know he is with me, even as he pledged he would be.
Over the course of that first year, two gradual but remarkable changes occurred. First, the princess discovered that, the more she practiced virtue, the easier it became to be virtuous. She even began to take a special delight in doing what was good. Hence, her charitable deeds were soon motivated, not only by the desire to please Prince Victor and thus gain his approval, but also by the sheer joy of right conduct. How could I have ever imagined that the sun rose and set for me? she would often marvel to herself. It is actually great fun helping others.
In addition, it was not long before Esmeralda acquired a new reputation. In Superbia, she had been praised for her great physical beauty. Now, in the domains of the prince, she was lauded for her tender and loving heart. The people referred to her as “the Princess of Goodness” and “Esmeralda the Beneficent.” After a while, they were so effusive in their admiration that the princess could not help but think of the chorus of songbirds she had heard in her dream.
The weeks flew by with amazing rapidity. Esmeralda was so occupied in performing good deeds and so content in her marriage that her first wedding anniversary all but took her by surprise. Yet she could hardly fail to grasp the day’s significance. Tonight I shall behold the face of my spouse, she kept repeating to herself.
By eleven o’clock that night, as was her custom, the princess lay alone in the great bed, awaiting the arrival of Prince Victor. Needless to say, her mood was a crescendo of anticipation. She hardly noticed when, at quarter past eleven, four women attendants, dressed in black, entered the chamber and removed four of its torches. Fifteen minutes later, she was only dimly aware that four more luminaries were taken from the room, this time by four women clad in scarlet. By a quarter to midnight, she was totally oblivious to all that was happening around her. She did not even see the four light-bearers in white as they carried off the last of the torches. There she was, alone in the dark, thinking of nothing but what the next few minutes would bring.
All at once, a truly dreadful thought shattered the spell of Esmeralda’s eager longing. On her wedding night, she had trembled at the notion that she had been coerced into marrying a monster. Now, her whole being was shaken by an even more hideous idea. In just a few moments, she thought to herself, the prince will bring a light into our bedroom, a light by which I shall see his countenance for the very first time. Yet that same light will also allow my husband to see me. What if–when he beholds me in my nakedness–the light reveals some defect in me? What if my spouse finds me unattractive or, worse still, unworthy? What if he regrets having chosen me for his bride? Would that the darkness might forever hide me from his sight! How foolish I was to have longed for this night! The princess was in agony.
The clock struck twelve. Esmeralda turned her eyes in the direction of the door, expecting to see it burst open in a dazzling flash of light. Nothing happened. All remained in darkness. The princess slowly sat up in bed. She listened and waited, her emotions in a state of turmoil. She did not know whether to be angry or relieved, disappointed or hopeful, frightened or encouraged. In her perplexity, she lowered her eyes and shook her head. It was then that she saw her hands.
Yes, there they were, two dark forms against the white counterpane. Esmeralda stared in disbelief. There was light in the chamber, and it was gradually growing brighter! Before long, the princess could make out the bedposts and the twelve-sided skylight. The skylight! The attendants had left it opened, and this was the source of the ever-increasing brightness. Little by little, the light from above grew more intense. Now the whole room took on the appearance of morning gray, and soon the gray was transmuted into the various colors of the stained glass—cobalt blue, cranberry red, emerald green, and gold. The light continued to increase. It was as though the noonday sun were directly overhead, exactly as it had been when Esmeralda had awakened from her mysterious vision. Still the brightness intensified. The princess turned away from the skylight in an attempt to shield her eyes–only to find herself gazing directly into the face of the smiling prince.
It was a face of infinite love, far beyond the power of words to describe, surpassing in splendor all that Esmeralda could have imagined. Its radiant joy seemed to lend light to all in the room—to even the skylight itself. The princess had done well to comply with the old bishop’s prohibition. For a single brief glimpse of that face, even the greatest sacrifice would be as nothing. One could peer into its fathomless masculine beauty forever and never know a surfeit of seeing.
“You are truly lovely, Esmeralda,” declared Prince Victor reassuringly, taking his bride in his arms. “Your obedience has made you so. I find no flaw in you.”
At last, the princess’ heart was still.
It goes without saying that Esmeralda, Prince Victor, and their many children lived happily ever after.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the
holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your
Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for
in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified,
Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
C.S. Lewis – “The Weight of Glory”
Esmeralda’s wedding story
Is a Christian allegory.
What has been said (Teresa wist)
Pertains to Holy Eucharist.
Oh sacred Banquet! Nuptial embrace
Wherein the Bridegroom doth hide His Face!
If here below ‘twere otherwise,
This present life we should despise.
For even one slight glimpse of Him
Would render earth an exile grim.
Better blind and steeped in night,
Than, having seen, to lose the light!
But what our eyes now fail to see
Faith perceives most readily.
Each time we seek our neighbor’s weal,
Christ’s love for us becomes more real.
And love shown for the Sacrament
Redounds to others’ betterment.
This should come as no surprise,
For thus did Jesus moralize:
“The good you did for brethren least,
You did for Me. Come, join the Feast!”
Thus, with Communion fortified,
And with our neighbor at our side,
We shall tread our pilgrim way
Until at last there comes the Day
When the dark scales fall from our eyes
And we see the Groom in Paradise!