Many years ago, in a small village in Sussex, there lived a man who had a dream. His dream was an old one, and it was this: he wanted to build a tower that would reach to the stars.
The builders he hired to perform this work secretly thought that his dream was impossible, but money was money, and work was hard to come by in those days.
The tower began to rise.
It took many years, and most of the gentleman’s vast fortune. The tower now overshadowed the tiny village, and was taller than the highest of trees.
But it was not tall enough.
The gentleman sank into despair. Whenever anyone saw him – an incident which was growing rarer by the day – his eyes were downcast. He was growing thinner and thinner, and he slept far too much.
Eventually, his architect came to see him. He asked him what could possibly be wrong.
Why must you build this tower so high? the architect asked. It’s already the tallest building for miles around.
It is not tall enough, the gentleman despaired. It must reach the stars.
But why? the architect asked.
And so, the man told him.
When I was a young man, said he, I was unfortunate enough to walk on the beach at midnight. When there, I saw five beautiful maidens bathing in the sea. None of them noticed me as I stood there – and of course I turned away as soon as I saw them – but their image was burned into my mind.
For weeks, I was as distracted as you see me now. Perhaps worse, for then I had no way of finding the women I had lost. I did not know, you understand, who or what they were, while now I know all too well. I returned to the beach night after night, but I never saw them again.
Then there came a time when a fortune-teller came to our village – an old crone, who travelled in a painted caravan. I sincerely believed her to be a fraud; in those days I did not believe in magic, nor in fate.
Nonetheless, she was the person who saved me, and who nearly led to my downfall. On hearing about my illness, she came to call upon me. She looked into my eyes and told me who the women were.
And who were they? the architect asked after a pause.
Oh, they were stars, the gentleman replied. I had seen the stars in human form, as they came to play in the sea. And the old woman told me how I could have one of them as my wife.
In the spring, she said, when the constellation called Cassiopeia can no longer be seen in the sky, you must go to the beach once again. When you see the stars, hide, and steal one of their cloaks. She will not be able to leave without her clothes.
(Editor’s note: It is clear the the constellation the gentleman refers to is not in fact Cassiopeia, which can be seen throughout the year in the Northern hemisphere and contains more than six stars. The constellation to which he refers is, however, impossible to find, and will have to remain a mystery. One can only assume that he had a poor grasp of astronomy.)
I did as the old woman suggested. On the fine spring evening when Cassiopeia had finally sunk down over the horizon, I made my way to the sea.
There they all were, those beautiful star-maidens, and on the beach in front of them lay their cloaks. I tried to sneak down the beach towards them, but the shale that covers the beach was too noisy. They saw me, and fled.
The following night, I returned. I walked along the seafront so as to keep my feet on the sand, but they saw me coming from a great distance, and once again, they vanished.
I was greatly disheartened. I thought it would be impossible to do as the old woman had said – there is nowhere to hide on the beach, as you know. But then I reasoned to myself. Did I want a star-maiden as a wife if she upon seeing me? No, I thought. Such a wife would always flee, and never be happy. But my eyes were full of the star maidens, and my soul as well.
On the third night, then, I arrived at the beach before sunset. The ladies appeared before me, floating gently down from the sky.
What is it you want? one asked me. You have disturbed our bathing for the last two nights.
I told them of my having accidentally seen them the previous Autumn, and how it had affected the pattern of my life – how, in short, I had become obsessed with the possibility of seeing them again.
Cassiopeia were stern, particularly when I told them I had come to the beach to steal a cloak so that one of them would be forced to stay. The four eldest looked as though they would strike me, but the youngest intervened.
Shouldn’t he be rewarded for not doing such a dreadful thing? she asked. He could have imprisoned one of us here, and instead he chose to talk to us. Come, sisters, let us forgive him. And let us suggest a compromise.
Her compromise was a simple one: that I should be allowed to visit the sisters each evening for one hour, after which I should leave so that they could decently bathe.
The four eldest sisters agreed, begrudgingly, to the youngest’s request, and so for the entire summer I visited the stars on the beach, and talked to them. By the time that summer was ended, the youngest sister and I had fallen into a love far deeper than my original infatuation, and when her sisters returned to our night sky she agreed to stay with me and become my wife.
The man was growing tired now, the architect could see. He had been speaking for quite some time. The architect rang the bell, and asked one of the gentleman’s servants if they might have some tea.
There were conditions of course. One condition. There always are, with stars. The gentleman smiled, sadly.
I could not follow her when she left the house at night. This was her one condition. It should have been a simple enough rule to follow, but I was a fool.
In the first months of our marriage, she would leave the house around one night a week, and return at daybreak. She could not tell me where she had been, but there was always more lightness in her step on the day after such nights.
When the spring came once more, however, she began to leave the house nearly every night. She was happy in those weeks, so happy – and, like the young idiot I was, I grew jealous.
One day, the jealousy overcame me. I waited for her to leave, by foot, as she always did, and then I followed her. She led me, of course, to the sea, where her sisters awaited her. From the top of the beach, I saw them embrace and I turned back for home,cursing myself. As soon as she saw me the next morning, she knew I had followed her.She could see it in my eyes.
The gentleman broke off, and the architect pressed a cup of tea upon him. He cradled the cup in both hands, as though for warmth, and continued.
She told me that I had broken our one condition, although I knew that already. Marriage to a star does not come freely, and I had broken the promise I had made. She was sad to leave me, you know, and I think she was angry with me for forcing her to go.She returned to her sisters. I tried to find them on the beach, but they no longer return there. I believe they may have found a new beach, one I shall never discover.
And so I set myself to the business of earning money. I devoted myself to my dream, the dream of this tower. I must find her again, do you understand? And tonight is the final night before Cassiopeia dips once again beneath the horizon, and the tower is not yet ready.
He regarded the architect through red-rimmed eyes. I cannot wait yet another year before I find her, he said.
The architect could think of no way to comfort him, as he sat there, crumpled and dishevelled in front of the dying fire. He did not think it was possible, either for a man to fall in love with a star, or for the tower to ever be complete. He did not think it would be helpful to tell the man this, however.
He left, feeling awkward. The sun was just setting and, as he headed back to his lodgings, he thought he could see his employer climbing up the spiral staircase on the way to the top of the tower.
It was a long way to the top. When the architect looked out from his window a few hours later, he could see a candle’s light flickering past the windows in its ascent.
The next morning, the gentleman was missing. The servants searched everywhere for him, up to the top of the tower and into the corners of the grounds. He was nowhere to be found, and nor did he reappear in the following months.
In the village, it was speculated that he had run away in shame at his own bankruptcy. It emerged that he had spent every penny of his fortune on the great tower which now loomed higher than the Downs that surrounded the village. Eventually, since the tower could never be completed, it was torn down and replaced with a school. But the architect, after returning to London, could not help thinking about the gentleman whenever he saw the stars. He could not help wondering whether the gentleman had, at last, been able to join them.