"Chapter I: The Fairy Ring." by Lilian Gask (1865-).
Publication: Gask, Lilian (1865-) The Fairies and the Christmas Child. Illustrated by Willy Pogány (1882-1955). London: Harrap & Co., n.d. [First published 1912] pp. 1-24.
The worst of being a Christmas Child is that you don't get birthday presents, but only Christmas ones. Old Naylor, who was Father's coachman, and had a great gruff voice that came from his boots and was rather frightening, used to ask how I expected to grow up without proper birthdays, and I thought I might have to stay little always. When I told Father this he laughed, but a moment later he grew quite grave.
"Listen, Chris," he said. And then he took me on his knee–I was a small chap then–and told me things that made me forget old Naylor, and wish and wish that Mother could have stayed with us. The angels had wanted her, Father explained; well, we wanted her too, and there were plenty of angels in heaven, anyway. When I said this Father gave me a great squeeze and put me down, and I tried to be glad that I was a Christmas child. But I wasn't really until a long time afterwards, when I had found the Fairy Ring, and met the Queen of the Fairies.
This was how it happened. Father and I lived at one end of a big town, in a funny old house with an orchard behind it, where the sparrows ate the cherries and the apple trees didn't flower. Once upon a time, said Father, there had been country all round it, but the streets and the roads had grown and grown until they drove the country away, and now there were trams outside the door, and not a field to be seen. I often thought that our garden must be sorry to be so crowded up, and that this was why it wouldn't grow anything but weedy nasturtiums and evening primroses.
Father is a doctor, and most awfully clever. If you cut off the top of your finger, he'd pop it on again in no time, and he used to cure all sorts of illnesses with different coloured medicines he made himself behind a screen.
But though he had lots and lots of patients–sometimes the surgery was full of them, 'specially on cold nights when there was a fire–they didn't seem to have much money to give him, and sometimes they ran away with their furniture in the night so's not to pay their bills. This worried Father dreadfully, and even Santa Claus was scared away by the things he said. On Christmas Eve the old fellow quite forgot to fill my stocking. It was all limp and empty when I woke in the morning, and if I hadn't remembered that when I grew up I was going to be a Commander-in-Chief, I should never have swallowed that lump in my throat.
Father couldn't even take me to hear "Hark The Herald Angels" at the big church down the road that day, for someone sent for him in a hurry, and when he didn't come in for dinner, I wished it wasn't Christmas at all. Nancy Blake, who kept house for us and was most stingy over raisins, banged the kitchen door when I said I would make her some toffee, and I couldn't find anything else to do. I looked at all my books and pretended I was a soldier in a lonely fort; then I thought I would make up medicine myself, so's to save Father trouble when he came home. But I burnt my fingers with some nasty stuff in a green bottle, and it hurt a good deal. So I determined to go to meet him, and tell him what I'd done.
The trams were running as usual, and as I had a penny left out of my pocket money–I hadn't spent it before as it had got stuck in some bulls' eyes–I took the car to the corner; then I jumped out and walked. There wasn't a sign of Father all down the road, and I remembered at last that he had said he must look in at the Hospital, which was in quite a different direction. I should have gone home then, if it hadn't been so dull with no one but Nancy Blake.
"He won't be back until tea time anyhow," I thought, and I made up my mind to be a boy scout, and go and explore.
It was a splendid day, and the roofs of the shops and houses glittered from millions of tiny points, just as you see on Christmas cards. I walked on and on, feeling gladder every moment, for my fingers had left off hurting me and I knew that I couldn't be far from the woods, which were just outside the town. I had been there once with Father, and it was lovely; so I hurried on as quickly as I could.
When I got there they made me think of Fairyland. The trees were sparkling with the same frost-diamonds I had noticed on the roofs, and through the criss-cross branches above my head the sky was as blue as blue. A jolly little robin was twittering in a bush, enjoying himself no end; his bright red breast reminded me of the holly I had stuck over Father's mantelpiece, and I began to feel sad again. For it did seem hard lines that though Christmas was my birthday, no one, not even Father, had thought of it.
"I wish that I hadn't been born on Christmas Day!" I said aloud, when I had reached the very heart of the wood, and I sat down to rest on the stump of a tree close to a little circle of bright green. It was here I had come that day with Father, and he had told me that though it was called a "Fairy Ring," it was really made by the spread of a very small fungus, or mushroom. I liked the idea of the fairy ring much better, and as I touched it with my foot I wished again that I wasn't a Christmas child. And then I heard a sigh.
It wasn't the robin, for he was still twittering on his bush, and it wasn't the wind, for the air was quite sheltered behind the bank, which was sweet with wild thyme in summer. The next moment I heard another sigh, and this seemed to come from a frond of bracken just outside the fairy ring. It was brown and withered, but the frost had silvered it all over, and as I looked at it I saw the loveliest little creature you can imagine clinging to the stem. She was only about three inches high, but her tiny form was full of grace, and her eyes so bright and beautiful that they shone like stars. Her hair was the palest silver-gold, and she had a crown of diamonds and an amethyst wand that sparkled when she moved it. The scarf wreathed round her shoulders flashed all the colours of mother-of-pearl, and throwing it from her she hummed to herself a little song about violets and eglantine, and sweet musk roses. Her notes were as clear as the lark's, and as if she had called them, more Fairies showed amidst the bracken.
They were lovely too, though not so lovely as she. One was dressed in pink, like a pink pea; another had a long grey coat, spangled with drops of dew, while the third had wings like a big grey moth, and the smallest Elf was all in brown.
"It is Titania who sings," chirped the robin in my left ear; "Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, though some call her the fair Queen Mab!" And he hopped to the foot of the frond of bracken and made a funny little duck with his head.
"Good bird!" cried Titania, breaking off her song. "You, too, sing through the winter gloom, and are here to welcome the sweet o' the year." Then she pointed her gleaming wand at me, and shook her head.
"O Christmas child," she said reproachfully, "it is well that it was I who heard you, and not my brave lord Oberon, who has less patience with mortal folly. So you wish you had not been born on Christmas Day? Why, 'tis the day most blessed in all the year–the day when the King of Kings sent peace and goodwill to Man in the form of the Christ Child. It is His birthday as well as yours, and in memory of Him the Fairies show themselves to Christmas children, if they are pure in heart and word and deed. Your Mother knew this, and she was glad. She called you 'Chris' to remind you always which day you came."
And then I was sure that I hadn't been dreaming after all, though Nancy said, "Stuff and Nonsense," when I fancied that I had seen those wee brown men busy about the house on winter mornings, or flitting in shadowy corners at night, before she lit the gas. I had never spoken to them, for I thought if I did they might run away; but I was pleased to know they had been real.
"You would have seen us before," said Titania, "but you live in a big town, and your eyes were dimmed with smoke and fog. My dainty Elves love dales and streams, and the depths of forests; in spring they throng the meadows, decking the cowslips' coats of gold at early dawn with splotches of ruby, my choicest favours, and hanging pearls in their dainty ears. In summer they sleep in the roseleaves, and ride behind the wings of butterflies, while in winter they hush the babble of the brooks, and powder the branches of the trees with frost to hide their nakedness. Away with you, Peas-blossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard-seed! Go, freeze the fingers of Father Time into glassy icicles, and forget not to seek for crimson berries on which our friends the birds may feed at morn! "
She clapped her hands, and the Fairies fled. I wondered why she did not fall, since she no longer clung to the frond of bracken; but her tiny feet were firmly planted in the fork of a leaf, and behind her glinted a pair of wings which had been invisible before. As I watched her I thought of a question I had often wanted to ask.
"Where do Fairies come from?" I said, hoping she would not be offended.
"Ah," she replied, "that is more than I may tell you. But we were here, in these very islands, long before the people of the woods, and the white-haired Druids who worshipped the God of the Oak. There were spirits then, as now, in streams and rivers, and sweet-voiced Sirens in the deep blue sea. Some Fairies rode on magic horses, and some were even smaller than I, and lived in the ears of the yellow corn. Dagda then was the King of the Fairies, a mighty spirit whose cauldron was supposed to be the vast grey dome of the sky. Those were the days of Witches, Dwarfs, and Giants, and little people who lived in the hills, and many other Fairies known by different names.
We are found in various guises all over the world, but our home is said first to have been in Persia. There dwelt the ancient Jinn who haunted the mountain recesses and the forest wilds ages before the first man trod the earth. Here, too, were Deevs, malicious creatures of terrible strength who warred with our sisters, the Peries. These exquisite creatures abode at Kâf, in the deep green mountains of Chrysolite, the realm of Pleasure and Delight, wherein was the beauteous Amber City. Some day you may go to Persia, and then, if you meet a Peri, she will tell you how a mortal man once came to her sisters' rescue, and conquered the wicked Deevs."
The thought of meeting a Peri took my breath away, for I had read about them on winter evenings.
"Do yon mean that wherever I go I shall see the Fairies, just as I see you now?" I cried.
"Wherever you go!" she said, nodding her head, "and soon I believe you will cross the sea and travel through other lands. But you must not think," she went on earnestly, "that the Fairies in your own country are less worth knowing, for you might spend your life in making friends with them, and yet have much to learn."
I can't remember half of all that Titania told me after this, but she spoke of fair White Elves who live among the trees, and are ruled by a King who rides abroad in a beautiful little coach with trappings of gold and silver; of mischievous Black Elves who live underground, and haunt people with nasty tempers; of Nymphs and Gnomes and sad-faced Trolls, and of Brownies and Portunes and Pixies. I should have liked to hear more about the Brownies and Portunes, but it was fun to learn how the Brownies play tricks on lazy people who lie in bed and won't get up, pulling the clothes right off them, and throwing these on the floor, and of how they help the farmers' wives to bake and brew if they are clean and neat. Titania said that Fairies dislike people who are untidy, and I hoped that she hadn't seen my playbox or my chest of drawers. I made up my mind that directly I got home I would put them straight, and so that she might not notice how red I had grown, I asked her to tell me what Portunes were.
"Queer little wrinkled creatures with faces like old men," she said. "They wear long green coats covered with darns and patches, and are only found now in the depths of the country. They like to live on prosperous farms, and though some of them are barely an inch high, they can lift heavier weights than the strongest labourer. Like the Brownies, they can be mischievous as well as helpful. A farmer once offended a Portune by speaking disrespectfully of his kindred, and the next time that the good man rode home from market in the dusk, the little fellow sprang on to the horse's reins, and guided him into the bog. Both horse and man had to flounder out as best they could, and the farmer was careful henceforth to mind his tongue."
"And what are Pixies like?" I asked. She had said that I reminded her of one of these, so of course I was curious about them.
"They are much taller than we are, and very fair," answered Titania, "with blue-grey eyes like yours. If you want to meet them, you must go to Devonshire, for it is there that they make their home. They love the ferns and the heather, and the rich red earth, and live in a Pixy-house in a rock. They, also, are ruled by a King, who commands them as I do my Elves and Fays, despatching them hither and thither to do his will. Sometimes he sends them down to the mines, to show the men who work there where the richest lode is to be found; and if the miners grumble, or are discontented, the Pixies lead them astray by lighting false fires. On other occasions they are told off to help the villagers with their housework, and their attentions are warmly welcomed by the Devon folk. One good dame was so pleased with the help a ragged little Pixie who had torn her frock on a sweet-briar bush gave her with her spinning, that she made her a new set of clothes of bright green cloth, and laid these by the spinning wheel. The Pixy put them on at once, and singing
"Pixy fine, Pixy gay,sped out of the house in broad daylight, and, alas! she never came back again."
Pixy now will run away!"
"Ho! ho! ho!" laughed a merry voice, and a shock-headed little fellow swung himself down from a bough just behind me, and turned a somersault on the ground.
"Welcome, gay Puck!" Titania cried. "Whence do you come, and what do you do this night?"
"I come from the court of King Oberon, sweet Titania," answered the Elf, "and tonight I plait the manes and tails of Farmer Best's grey horses. At early dawn I shall skim the cream off the milk in his good wife's dairy, since yester-e'en she grudged a drink of it to an orphan child. 'Robin Goodfellow has been here!' she will cry when she sees what I have been after, and her greedy old eyes will fill with tears. That is one of my pet names, Wide-eyes," he added, hopping on to my shoulder and pinching my ear. "I am also Pouke, Hobgoblin, and Robin Hood. But where are the Urchins, my merry playfellows? It is high time that they were here, for the lady moon has hung her lamp i' the sky."
The clouds were all tinted a deep rose pink, and behind the trees, just where the moon had risen, was a haze of purple. I knew by this that it must be nearly tea-time, and I was just going to say that I must go, when Titania left the frond of bracken, and alighted in the centre of the Fairy Ring. Waving her wand, she summoned her "gladsome sprites," and next moment the Fairy Ring was thronged with dancing Elves who wore red caps and silver shoes, with bright green mantles buttoned with bobs of silk. Puck flew to join them, but Peas-blossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard-seed, who sprang from nowhere, danced in an inner circle round the Fairy Queen. They sang as they danced, and this is their song. I found it afterwards in a book of Father's, which he said had in it more wonderful things than all books in the world but one:
"By the moon we sport and play,
With the night begins our day.
As we frisk the dew doth fall,
Trip it, little urchins all.
Lightly as the little bee,
Two by two and three by three,
And about goe wee, goe wee."
"And about goe wee, goe wee!" echoed down the glade, and then the Elves suddenly disappeared, with Puck and Titania and her attendants.
"The Fairy Ring was thronged with dancing Elves"
The wood was growing darker every minute, but the sparkles of frost were glittering still, and lit my way. At the end of the scrub I saw Father coming to meet me, swinging down the road with such long steps that he looked like a kindly big giant. He had guessed where I had gone, and he was so pleased to find me that he forgot to say I mustn't explore any more without him, as I was afraid he would. He took my hand, and we both ran; it was lovely at home by the fire.
I meant to have told him about Queen Titania while we were having tea, but Nancy had made such scrumptious cakes that there wasn't time at first, and before I had finished he began to open the letters that had come just after he left that morning. They seemed to be all bills, and Father sighed as he looked them over, his forehead puckered into rucks and lines. Presently he came to a big blue envelope, and he turned this round and round as if he thought there might be something horrid inside. The paper crackled like anything as he drew it out, and when it was unfolded he sat looking at it for a long time, though there didn't seem to be much writing. At last he gave an odd kind of gasp, and took my face between his hands. He pressed it so hard that he made me say "O!" though I didn't want to do this, and I wondered what had happened.
"Your great-aunt Helen is dead, Chris," he said at last, as he let me go. "I haven't seen her for years and years.... She was not over kind to me when I was a lad, though I believe she meant well.... And now she's left us all her money. We shan't be poor any more."
This was the beginning of ever so many surprises. First, Father and I had warm new overcoats, with woolly stuff inside them that felt like blankets, only much more soft and fluffy, and Nancy had the blue silk dress she always vowed that she should buy when her ship came home. There was a fire every night in Father's study, and I had one in my bedroom. More patients came up for soup than they did for medicine, and they said "God bless you, Sir!" to Father so often that he wanted to run away. The children in the hospital had the biggest tree that the ward would hold, and all the old men and women in the workhouse had a big tea, and shawls and mufflers.
A few weeks later a strange young man with a very shiny collar and a new brown bag came to stay with us. Father said he was a "locum," but Nancy said it ought to be "locust," for his appetite was enormous, and she couldn't make enough buttered toast to please him. He had come to take care of Father's patients until someone bought all the medicines and things in the surgery, and I was awfully glad to hear we were going away.
"We'll go straight to the sunshine, Chris," said Father, "where there are trees and flowers instead of long rows of houses, and the air isn't full of smoke."
And that night I dreamt all about fairies, and of what I was going to see and hear in foreign lands.