A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IV: The Bird at the Window." 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. 67-88.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Chapter IV
The Bird at the Window.

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There were so many things in Brittany that Father wanted to show me–places he had seen with Mother, and curious monuments, and lovely views, that I could not get out alone again until the day before we went on to Normandy. No Fairy would ever speak to me unless I was quite by myself, and the quaint little men who peered out from the old ruins when I ran on in front, scampered away at once when Father came in sight.

On that last morning a funny old postman in a blue cap brought him some letters from home. They were about the practice, and Father said that he must stay indoors to answer them. The patients did not seem to like the "locust" at all, according to Nancy. I don't suppose he gave them such nice-tasting medicines as Father did.

The moment he took up his pen I was off to the wood. The paths were carpeted with velvet moss, and starry flowers peeped through the green. Some bees were buzzing round a clump of violets that grew by the side of the fountain, and sitting on the steps were two hideous old women, with bleared red eyes and wisps of faded hair. As I drew near they scowled most horribly, and vanished in the spray. I was delighted to find my Wood-Elf by the violets, for somehow the sight of those two old crones had made me shiver.

"They were Korrigans!" the Wood-Elf whispered. "That is how they look by daylight, so it is no wonder that they hate to be seen by mortals! I shouldn't advise you to come here to-night, for they will bear you a grudge, and might tempt you to dance with them!"

I thought of what had befallen Jean, and shook my head. It must be dreadful to have a hump, though I read of one once that turned into wings. But Jean's didn't seem that kind.

"I know better than to put myself in their power," I cried, and the Wood-Elf laughed.

You think you are very wise," she said, pausing the next moment to coax a bee to give her a sip of honey, "but mortal men are not a match for Fairy Folk. The Dwarfs, or Courils, who haunt the stone tables and curious mounds you find throughout this country, compel all travellers by night who come their way to dance with them, whether they will or no. They don't let them stop dancing until they drop to the ground, worn out with fatigue, and sometimes the poor creatures never regain their strength. Mère Gautier's husband danced with the Dwarfs when he was but eight-and-twenty, and he has not done a stroke of work from that day to this, though now he is eighty-five. Mère Gautier keeps the home together, and he sits by the fireside and tells the neighbours how the Dwarfs looked and what they said. The Curé declares that such idleness is sinful, and that he might work if he would; but one cannot be sure, and he makes himself out to be a very poor creature.

The Gorics–tiny men but three feet high, though they have the strength of giants–are little better than Courils. Near Quiberon, by the sea shore, is a heap of huge stones, some say no less than four thousand in number, known as 'The House of the Gorics,' and every night the Dwarfs come out and dance round it till break of day. If they spy a belated traveller, even in the distance, they compel him to join them, just as the Courils do; and when he faints from sheer exhaustion they vanish in peals of laughter."

"The Fairy I met in the South spoke of little men who gave away fairy gold," I said, trying not to let my voice sound sleepy. The sun was hot, though it was early spring, and there was a grasshopper just at my elbow who had been chirping a lullaby to her babies for the last half-hour.

"If you shut your eyes you will see nothing! "the Wood-Elf pouted; and I knew that she had noticed my yawn. I sat up then, and told her how pretty I thought her frock, all brown and green, with a dainty girdle of silver. She laughed at this, and I coaxed her to tell me another story. It was one, she said, that had been sung in verse on the Welsh hills, for in ancient times the people of Wales and those of "Little Britain" were the closest friends.

The Wee Men of Morlaix

"Long, long ago," she began, "a lordly castle was built at Morlaix, in the midst of such pleasant surroundings that some little Dwarfs in search of a home thought that they could not do better than build their stronghold underneath it. So they set to work immediately, for they have a very wise rule that when once they decide that a thing must be done, it shall be done at once. By the time that the castle was finished, their home was completed too. Far below the ground they had fashioned a number of oval chambers, with ceilings encrusted with gleaming pearls which they found in the bay, and floors paved with precious amber. Beyond these chambers lay their treasure house, where they kept rich stores of fairy gold, and the winding passages which led to the upper world were only just wide enough to allow them to creep through. Their entrances were cunningly contrived to look like rabbit holes, so that strangers might think they led to nothing more than some sandy warren.

But the country folk knew better, for they often watched the little men run in and out, beating a faint tattoo on the silver basins in which they collected the morning dew and the evening mist, which served them for food and drink. Now and then, when the sky was a vault of blue, and the sun shone his brightest, they brought up piles of their golden coins, that they might see them glisten in the light of day. So friendly were they to mortals, that if they were surprised while thus employed, they seldom failed to share their wealth.

One very bleak autumn there was much distress on the countryside, for the harvest had failed for the third season, and many of the smaller farmers were on the verge of ruin. Jacques Bosquet–Bon Jacques–his neighbours called him, for he had never refused his help to a friend in need–was one of these. His frail old mother was weak and ailing, and he did not know how to tell her that she must leave the homestead to which she had come as a bride, full fifty years before. In his despair he tried to borrow a thousand francs from a rich merchant in the next town; but the merchant was a hard man, and his mouth closed like a cruel steel trap when he told Jacques roughly that he had no money to lend. As Jacques returned home his eyes were so dim with the tears which pride forbade him to shed, that in passing the castle of Morlaix he all but fell over three little men, who were counting out gold by a deep hole.

'What is wrong with you, friend, that you do not see where you are going?' cried the eldest of the three; and when Jacques told them of his fruitless errand, they at once invited him to help himself to their treasure.

'Take all you can hold in your hand!' they urged, and since Jacques' hand had been much broadened with honest toil, this meant a goodly sum. The three little men had vanished before Jacques found words to express his gratitude, and he hurried away with a thankful heart. The coins were of solid gold, and stamped with curious signs; to his great joy he very soon sold them for a big price, and had now sufficient not only to pay his debts, but to carry him through the winter.

When the merchant who had received his appeal so churlishly heard of his good fortune, he was full of envy, and determined to lay in wait for the little men himself. Though blessed with ample means, he coveted more, and when at last he surprised the Dwarfs as Jacques had done, he made so piteous a tale that they generously allowed him to take two handfuls instead of one. But this did not content the greedy fellow, and pushing the wee men rudely away, he stooped to fill his pockets from the heap. As he did so, a shower of blows rained fiercely round his head and face, and so heavily did they fall that he had much ado to save his skull. When at last the blows ceased, and he dared to open his eyes, the Dwarfs had gone, with all their gold, and his pockets were empty of even that which they had contained before."

The Wood-Elf paused, for a large brown bird had perched himself on a branch which overhung the fountain. She waited until he had dipped his beak in the sparkling stream and flown away before she spoke again.

"That bird is a stranger to these woods," she said presently under her breath, "and I wondered if it were really an Elf or a Fee. One never knows in these parts."

"Tell me!" I urged; for I knew by her look that she was thinking of another story.

The Bird at the Window.

"There was once a most beautiful lady," she began, "whose face was so kind and gentle that wherever she went the children flocked round her and hung on her gown. No flower in the garden could hold up its head beside her, for the roses themselves were not so sweet, and even the lilies drooped before her exceeding fairness.

From far and near lovers came to woo her, but she would none of them; for ever in her mind was a gallant knight to whom she had plighted her troth in the land of dreams. In the presence of a holy man, whose features were those of the Curé who confirmed her, he had placed a ring upon her finger; and so real did this dream seem, that she held herself to to be the knight's true wife. Her songs were all of him as she sat at her spinning, and her tender thoughts made warp and weft with the shining threads. When she went to the fountain, she heard his voice in the splash of the falling water, and when the stars shone through her casement, she fancied that they were the adoring eyes of her beloved. She prayed each night that she might be patient and faithful until he claimed her, for he, and none other, should touch her lips.

But she was very beautiful, and her parents were very poor. And when the lord of those parts saw and desired her, they gave her to him, despite her prayers, though he was bent and old. He carried her off to his grim castle, and that no man but he should gaze on her loveliness, he shut her in his tower, with only an aged widow as her attendant. The widow was half-blind and wholly deaf, and .withal so crabbed in disposition that as she passed the very dogs in the street slunk off to a safe distance. In vain the beautiful lady pleaded to be allowed to stroll in the gardens, or to ply her needle on the balcony; he would not let her stir from her gloomy chamber, and for seven long years he kept her in durance. His love had by this time turned to hate, for her beauty was dimmed with weeping. No longer did her hair make a mesh of gold for sunbeams to dance in, and her face was like a sad white pearl from which all tints had fled. And the heart of the wicked lord rejoiced, for since he could not win her favour, and she no longer delighted his eyes, he was glad that she should die.

One morning in May when the dew lay thick upon the meadows and every thrush had found a mate, the old lord went off for a long day's hunting, and the aged widow fell fast asleep. The beautiful lady sighed anew as the sweet spring sunshine flooded her prison, seeming to mock her with its splendour. 'Ah, woe is me!' she cried. 'I may not even rejoice in the sun as the meanest of God's creatures!' And in her great despair she called aloud to her own true knight, bidding him deliver her from her misery. Even as she spoke, a shadow fell across the window. A bird had stayed his flight beside it; he pressed through the bars and was at her feet. His ash-brown plumage and rounded wings told her he was a goshawk, and from the jesses on his legs she saw he had been a'hunting. While she gazed in surprise at his sudden appearance, she beheld a transformation, and in less time than it takes to tell, the goshawk had become a gallant knight, with raven locks and flashing eyes. It was the knight of her dreams, and with a cry of joy she flew to him.

'I could not come to thee before, my Sweet,' said he, 'since thou didst not call for me aloud. Now shall I be with thee at thy lightest wish, and no more shalt thou be lonely. But beware of the aged crone who guards thy door! Her purblind eyes are not beyond seeing, and should she discover me I must die.'

And now the beautiful lady no longer pined to leave her prison, for she had only to breathe his name, and her lover reappeared. Her beauty came back to her as gladness to the earth when the sun shines after rain, and her songs were as joyous as those of the lark when it soars high in the heavens. The old lord was greatly puzzled, and bade the ancient widow keep a careful watch.

'My beautiful lady is gay!' he said, with an ugly smile. 'We must learn why she and sighs are strangers. I had thought ere this to lay her to sleep beneath a smooth green coverlet, and it does not please me to see her thus content.'

The aged crone bathed her eyes in water that flowed from a sacred shrine, so that sight might come back to them, and hid herself behind a curtain when the beautiful lady thought that she had left the tower. From this place of vantage she beheld, shortly after, the arrival of the goshawk, and his transformation into a handsome and tender knight. Slipping away unseen, she hastened to her master and told him all, not forgetting to describe the beautiful lady's rapture in her knight's embrace.

The jealous lord was furious with rage, and caused, at dead of night, four sharp steel spikes to be fixed to the bars of the window in the tower. On leaving his love, the goshawk flew past these safely, but when he returned at dusk the next evening, he overlooked them in his eagerness, and was sorely hurt. The beautiful lady hung over her beloved, distraught with grief; all bleeding from his wounds, he sought to comfort her.

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'Dear love, I must die!' he murmured faintly, 'but thou shalt shortly bear me a son who will dispel thy sorrows and avenge my fate.' Then he gave her a ring from his finger, telling her that while she wore it neither the old lord nor the widow would remember aught that she would have them forget. He also gave her his jewelled sword, and bade her keep it till the day when Fate should bring her to his tomb, and she should 'learn the story of the dead.' Then, and then only, he commanded, was his son to know what had befallen him.

The beautiful lady wept anew, and in a passion of grief begged him not to leave her; but once more bidding her a fond farewell, he resumed the form of a goshawk, and flew mournfully away.

It happened as the knight foretold. Neither the widow nor the old lord remembered his coming, and when the beautiful lady's son was born, the old lord was proud and happy. His satisfaction made him somewhat less cruel to the beautiful lady, who lived but for her boy. In cherishing him her grief grew less, but though she had now her freedom, she never ceased to long for the time when her son should know the truth about his father.

The boy grew into a lad, and the lad into a handsome and gallant knight. He was high in favour at court, since none could approach him in chivalry or swordmanship, and many marvelled that one so brave and pure as he could be the son of the old lord, whose advancing years were as evil as those of his youth had been. One day his mother and he were summoned by the King to a great festival, and rather than let them out of his sight, the old lord rose from his bed to go with them. They halted on their way at a rich Abbey, where the Abbot feasted them royally and before they left desired to show them some of the Abbey's splendours. When they had duly admired the exquisite carvings in the chapels, and the golden chalice on the High Altar, he conducted them to a chapter room, where, covered with hangings of finely wrought tapestry, and gorgeous embroideries of blue and silver, was a stately tomb. Tapers in golden vessels burned at its head and feet, and the clouds of incense that filled the air floated from amethyst vessels. It was the tomb, the Abbot said, of 'a noble and most valiant knight,' who had met his death for love's sweet sake, slain by certain mysterious wounds which he bore on his stricken breast.

When the beautiful lady heard this, she knew she had found the resting place of her own true love, and taking his sword from the silken folds of her gown, where she had ever carried it concealed from view, she handed it to the young knight and told him all.

'Fair son, you now have heard,' she said,
'That God hath us to this place led.
It is your father who here doth lie,
Whom this old man slew wrongfully.'

With this she fell dead at her son's feet and forthwith he drew the sword from its jewelled scabbard, and with one swift blow smote off the old lord's head.

Thus did he avenge the wrongs of his parents, whom he vowed to keep in his remembrance while life should last."

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom