The Maiden of Unai was fair as an earthly deity, but the eyes of man might not behold her. She dwelt in a hidden place in her father’s house, and of what cheer she made the live-long day not a soul could tell, but her father who kept watch, and her mother who kept ward, and her ancient nurse who tended her. The cause was this.
When the maid was about seven years old, with her black hair loose and hanging to her shoulder, an ancient man, a traveller, came, footsore and weary, to her father’s house. He was made welcome, served with rice and with tea, whilst the master of the house sat by, and the mistress, to do him honour. Meanwhile the little maid was here and there, catching at her mother’s sleeve, pattering with bare feet over the mats, or bouncing a great green and scarlet ball in a corner. And the stranger lifted his eyes and marked the child.
After he had eaten, he called for a bowl of clear water, and taking from his wallet a handful of fine silver sand he let it slip through his fingers and it sank to the bottom of the bowl. In a little he spoke.
“My lord,” he said to the master of the house, “I was hungry and weary, and you have fed me and refreshed me. I am a poor man and it is hard for me to show my gratitude. Now I am a soothsayer by profession, very far-famed for the skill of my divination. Therefore, in return for your kindness I have looked into the future of your child. Will you hear her destiny?”
The child knelt in a corner of the room bouncing her green and scarlet ball.
The master of the house bade the soothsayer speak on.
This one looked down into the bowl of water where the sand was, and said: “The Maiden of Unai shall grow up fairer than the children of men. Her beauty shall shine as the beauty of an earthly deity. Every man who looks upon her shall pine with love and longing, and when she is fifteen years old there shall die for her sake a mighty hero from near, and a valiant hero from afar. And there shall be sorrow and mourning because of her, loud and grievous, so that the sound of it shall reach High Heaven and offend the peace of the gods.”
The master of the house said, “Is this a true divination?”
“Indeed, my lord,” said the soothsayer, “it is too true.” And with that he bound on his sandals, and taking his staff and his great hat of rice-straw, he spoke no other word, but went his ways; neither was he any more seen nor heard tell of upon that country-side.
And the child knelt in a corner of the room, bouncing her green and scarlet ball.
The father and mother took counsel.
The mother wept, but she said, “Let be, for who can alter the pattern set up upon the looms of the weaving women of Heaven?” But the father cried, “I will fight. I will avert the portent; the thing shall not come to pass. Who am I that I should give credence to a dog of a soothsayer who lies in his teeth?” And though his wife shook her head and moaned, he gave her counsel no heed, for he was a man.
So they hid the child in a secret chamber, where an old wise woman tended her, fed her, bathed her, combed her hair, taught her to make songs and to sing, to dance so that her feet moved like rosy butterflies over the white mats, or to sit at a frame with a wonder of needlework stretched upon it, drawing the needle and the silken thread hour after hour.
For eight years the maid set eyes upon no human being save her father, her mother, and her nurse, these three only. All the day she spent in her distant chamber, far removed from the sights and the sounds of the world. Only in the night she came forth into her father’s garden, when the moon shone and the birds slept and the flowers had no colour. And with every season that passed the maid grew more beautiful. Her hair hung down to her knees and was black as a thundercloud. Her forehead was the plum blossom, her cheek the wild cherry, and her mouth the flower of the pomegranate. At fifteen years old she was the loveliest thing that ever saw the light, and the sun was sick with jealousy because only the moon might shine upon her.
In spite of all, the fame of her beauty became known, and because she was kept so guarded men thought of her the more, and because she might not be seen men longed to behold her. And because of the mystery and the maiden, gallants and warriors and men of note came from far and near and flocked to the house of Unai; and they made a hedge about it with themselves and their bright swords; and they swore that they would not leave the place till they had sight of the maid, and this they would have either by favour or by force.
Then the master of the house did even as he must, and he sent her mother to bring the maid down. So the mother went, taking with her a robe of grey silk and a great girdle of brocade, green and gold; and she found the maid, her daughter, sitting in her secret chamber singing.
The maid sang thus:
“Nothing has changed since the time of the gods, Neither the running of water nor the way of love.”
And the mother was astonished and said, “What manner of song is this, and where heard you of such a thing as love?”
And she answered, “I have read of it in a book.”
Then they took her, her mother and the wise woman, and they tied her hair and pinned it high upon her head with gold and coral pins, and held it with a great lacquer comb. She said, “How heavy it is!”