A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter II: The Princess with the Sea-Green Hair." 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. 25-44.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Chapter II
The Princess with the Sea-Green Hair.

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The cliffs were hidden in the mist when we left Dover, and the sky was dull and grey. But very soon it began to clear; a silvery light shone behind the clouds, and then the sun came out, and the rolling waves turned emerald green. They tossed our steamer up and down as if it were a cork, and Father soon went below, but I begged so hard to be allowed to stay on deck that he said I might if I would promise, "honour bright," not to get into mischief.

When he had gone I put my cap into my pocket, so that it might not blow off, and leaned over the rails to watch the swell of the sea. I wasn't thinking of Fairies then, nor of being a Christmas child, but of how it must feel to be shipwrecked. So when the spray blew in my face and made me blink, I was surprised to see a merry red face grinning up at me from the foam. It had curls of seaweed upon its forehead, and a mouth like a big round "O".

"I'm Father Neptune," it roared, so loudly that I could hear it quite distinctly above the noise of the wind. "Why not take a header, and come and ride one of my fine sea horses? 'Father wouldn't like it?' Ho! ho! ho! What a molly-coddle of a boy!"

A big wave tossed him on one side, and on its crest was a beautiful girl with a shining tail, and hair like a stream of gold. Of course I knew she was a mermaid, and would want me to go to her coral caves.

"Won't you come with me and play with my sheeny pearls?" she cried. "They gleam like the dawn on a summer morning, and you shall choose the loveliest for your very own."

She held out her arms and I nearly sprang into them, for I thought that a pearl would be splendid for Father's pin. But just behind her I saw two ugly mermen, with horrid green teeth and bright red eyes, and ropes of seaweed in their long thin hands. Then I remembered that mermaids were dangerous, and I ran straight over to the other side of the steamer and put my fingers into my ears, so that I might not hear her call. She spoke so sweetly that it was difficult to resist, but I did not trust her.

The water was calmer on this side, and I wondered why until I saw some funny brown men, rather like Brownies, but ever so much bigger and stronger, stretched out at full length on the tops of the waves. They were blowing on conchs as hard as they could, and wherever they blew, the waves grew quieter. I guessed at once that they were Tritons–seafolk who live with Neptune in his crystal palace under the sea. I was still watching them when Father came up behind me, and told me that we were really in.

We stayed the night at a big hotel where almost everyone spoke in a language which I did not understand, and I had a grown-up dinner with Father, with heaps of different dishes, most of them tasting much alike. Next day we went on for hours in the train, and the air grew warmer and warmer, and the grass more green, until at last we were in the south of France. There were palms and orange groves and heaps of flowers, and it would have been just splendid if Father had been all right. He hadn't had time to be ill at home you see, and now there were no sick people to worry him, he was so tired that he couldn't do anything. But he told me not to worry, for once he was really rested, he would soon get well.

And so he did, though it took a long time to rest him, and we couldn't explore a bit. In the mornings we strolled through the gardens, or down to the sea, and most afternoons we did nothing at all. Very often, as I sat beside him on the verandah, with the sun shining full on the green awning, and the roses nodding to us over the balcony, he would fall asleep; and then a Flower-Fairy would peep through the ferns, and tell me the loveliest stories. The Rose-Fairy came, and the Queen of the Lilies, with a lovely gold crown upon her head; but my favourite Fairy lived in a bed of violets. Her frock was purple, and I knew when she was coming because the air all round grew sweet. Her stories were the best of all. She had heard them from the wind, she said, as he played with her leaves at dawn. My favourite was one that she said he had brought from Provence.

The Princess with the Sea-Green Hair.

"A worthy couple at Marseilles," she began, "had longed for a child for years in vain, and great was their joy when they knew at last that their wish was about to be granted. The boy was born during a fearful storm, and the first sound he heard was the crash of the sea as it broke on the shore. He was christened Paul, and grew up into a handsome lad with a quantity of thick fair hair which curled like the tips of the waves, and piercing blue eyes which were always twinkling with fun and mischief.

There was not any question as to what calling he should follow, for the sea claimed him as a son of her own, and he was never content on dry land. When his ship came home and the crew was dismissed, he could not rest, and every evening at sunset he would row himself out in a little boat as far as he could go. One summer night, when a thousand ripples danced on the waves, he leaned over the side of his boat, gazing down–down–down. He did not know why, but he felt quite sure that someone was calling him, and with all his heart he longed to obey the summons. Presently he felt himself lifted gently, and drawn through the gleaming water by hands which he could not see. It was black as night before they released him, for neither sun nor moon pierce the depths of the ocean. He would have been in total darkness but for the strange-shaped fish who carried lanterns on their heads, and guided him to the gates of a palace, formed of millions of barnacles. These were piled one on the top of the other until they reached an enormous height, and were decorated with what looked like a row of human eyes.

The gates flew open as Paul approached them, and through a passage of mother-of-pearl he reached a chamber that flashed with opal lights. Here a Fairy Princess awaited him–a Princess so exquisitely beautiful in spite of her sea-green hair, that though his heart did not go out to her, he was not repelled by the love she showed him.

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She kept him with her for many hours, and at dawn of day she bade him return to his home, giving him two golden fish which he was to show to all who asked him where he had spent the night, telling them he had been a' fishing. The invisible hands which had brought him thither bore him back to his boat, and he landed just at sunrise. His golden fish were a source of awe and wonder to his neighbours, who had never seen their like before; but the priest shook his head, and warned him to have no dealings with the powers of darkness.

But Paul could not resist rowing out to the edge of the sunset. Evening after evening he plied his oars, and always at twilight he was drawn down–down, to the palace of the strange Princess with the sea-green hair. When he went on a voyage all was well with him, for his vessel bore him to other seas, where no one called him when the sky grew red; but he was no sooner at home with his parents than something within him made him row out to the west.

At last it seemed as if he had forgotten the Princess, for he fell in love with sweet Lucile, who was as good and gentle as she was fair, and willingly gave him her troth. Their wedding was fixed for Easter Day, and the night before, Paul wandered down to the seashore, thinking of the bliss in store for him on the morrow. His love-lit eyes fell dreamily on his boat, which had lain for months in the shallow cove where he had moored her, and without thinking what he was doing, he stepped inside and took the oars in his hands. Alas! No sooner did he feel the boat moving under him, than he was seized by the old wild longing to sail towards the west.

All happened as before, until he reached the Princess's palace; but now, instead of smiling sweetly, she received him with threatening looks which showed an array of cruel teeth behind her rose-red lips.

'So! you have been unfaithful to me!' she cried. 'I will not slay you, since I have greater punishments in store than death . . . You shall stay in the depths of the sea until your yellow hair is bleached and white, and your face a mask of hideous wrinkles. Then, and then only, shall yon return to land, and those who have loved you best shall spurn you from them as something loathsome. Scorn for scorn, and pain for pain. Thus will I take my revenge.'

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So for seven long years Paul was a prisoner in the darkness of the deep, his bed the black and slimy ooze, and his companions fearsome monsters who would fain have devoured him. At last, when his hair was white as snow, and his face so wrinkled and ugly that the children of the mer-folk shuddered as they passed, he was seized by a sprawling octopus, and dragged up through the water. The loathsome creature held him fast until they reached a spot not far from the little brown cottage where Lucile had lived with her old father, and here it loosened its coils; and a great wave cast Paul on shore. The cottage was empty and deserted, and the winding path he had trodden so often was covered with moss. Close by, however, was another cottage, far more spacious, and through the open door of this Paul saw his old sweetheart sitting beside a cradle. She sang as she rocked it gently with her foot, and her shining needles flew in and out of a fisherman's coarse blue sock.

As the shadow fell across the threshold she looked up brightly, expecting to see her husband. Meeting Paul's gaze instead, her own grew strained with horror, and snatching her baby from the cradle she fled to the inner room. Without a word Paul hastened away. He knew his doom, and hastened to throw himself back to the sea.

In his headlong flight he stumbled against an old, old woman, gathering drift-wood on the wreck-strewn coast. She would have fallen if he had not caught her in his arms, and as he held her she saw his eyes. They alone were unchanged, and his mother knew them.

'My boy–my dear boy!' she cried with a sob of joy. And she drew his seared face. down to her bosom, murmuring over it the same fond words she had used when he was a child. She kissed him, and the spell was broken; once more he was good to look upon .... The Princess had not known, you see, that a mother's love is immortal."

Father was still asleep when the story came to an end, so I implored the Fairy to tell me another.

"This comes from Provence, too," she said in answer to my pleading, "and will show you that sea-folk can sometimes be merciful."

"Among the crew of the good ship L'Oiseau, was a sailor named Antoine, who kept all on board alive with his merry wit. One day, while sailing the waters of the Mediterranean, the sea only faintly ruffled by the breeze that helped them on their way, they espied what at first appeared to be a huge sea-serpent making its way towards them. For a few moments the mariners watched it in much alarm; then, to their immense relief, they found that their 'sea-serpent' was a string of harmless porpoises, swimming in a row, with their shining black backs just appearing above the surface of the water. As they neared the ship they broke their ranks, and evidently regarding the sailors as their friends, gambolled upon the waves like boisterous children. No man dreamt of interfering with them until Antoine thoughtlessly picked up a rusty spear and threw it at one of those farthest away. He did not do this from any desire to kill, but only to show how excellent was his aim, and when he saw his shaft strike home, tinging the sea with red as his victim sank with a convulsive shudder, he was seized with self-reproach and a nameless dread.

And behold! a great storm shook the sea, as if the gods themselves were angry. Thunder and lightning rolled and flashed, and raindrops heavy as leaden balls fell in swift torrents. So fearful was the tempest that it threatened to overwhelm the ship, and the Captain was in despair.

In this dire extremity a knight on a magnificent black charger came riding over the waves.

'Surrender him who threw the spear!' he cried, and the sea stayed its turmoil to listen. 'Do this, and I will save the ship. Else shall it perish, with all on board, and sea creatures shall gnaw your bones.'

The sailors were exceedingly afraid, but they would not betray their comrade. Seeing this, Antoine stepped forth of his own accord, for he would not let his shipmates suffer for his fault. Leaping from the deck, he landed upon the haunches of the charger, behind the knight, and that moment the sea became smooth as glass, and the strange steed disappeared with his two riders.

The ship made good way, and his shipmates never expected to see poor Antoine again, but. to the amazement and joy of all, he rejoined the vessel a few days later as though it had stood by for him. The excitement of the men was great as they gathered round him to hear of his adventures.

And truly he had a marvellous story to relate. He had ridden, he told them, to a distant island, where in a castle of shimmering gold, on a bed of the softest eiderdown, he found a knight stretched in agony. It was he whom he had wounded, while in the form of a porpoise, and the spear he had thrown so thoughtlessly was still sticking in his side. He drew this out, with tears of shame, and then, with his guilty right hand, he cleansed and bathed the wound. When this was done, the knight fell into a deep sleep, and woke at dawn well as ever. Taking Antoine's hand, he led him through many corridors lit with gems to a resplendent banquet hall, where the walls were encrusted with star-shaped sapphires, and the floor was of beaten gold. Many other knights were assembled here, and maidens so fair that Antoine sighed to think of them. When he had feasted on curious dishes of rich fruits, the same knight who had brought him thither took him back to the seashore, where the same black horse awaited their coming. Mounting as before, the charger sped like the wind over the sea until the ship hove in sight. When they came to within one hundred yards of the vessel, the black steed and his rider disappeared as mysteriously as they had come, and Antoine was left struggling in the water. However, he was an excellent swimmer, and soon reached the ship's side, up which he easily clambered by the aid of a rope which fortunately happened to be trailing in the water.

This was the tale that Antoine told his shipmates, and in memory of the clemency of the porpoise-knight, the sailors vowed that never again would they injure a porpoise. Not only were they as good as their word, but the vow is kept to this day by their children's children."

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom