"Chapter VI: The Seven Fair Queens of Pirou." 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. 109-132.
"Once upon a time," said Méllisande, "There dwelt at the Castle of Argouges a noble lord who was famous not only for his bravery, but for the extreme beauty of his dark features and slender form. All women loved him, but though he served them with chivalry, as became a knight, he sought his pleasure in the woods and fields rather than in their company. He knew what the brook was humming as it gurgled over the stones, and the wind told him all its secrets as it rustled among the pines. Sometimes he wrote these things on a sheet of paper and read them to himself aloud as he lay on the green sward. The Fées in the forest drew near to listen, for the voice of this lord of Argouges was sweet as the lute of Orpheus, and their lovely Queen lost her heart to him. Day after day she hovered by his side, sighing when he was sad, and rejoicing when the words he sought came quickly to his pen.
Once when he looked up suddenly he saw her as in a vision. A silvery veil of misty gauze half hid her exquisite form; and out of this her face looked down upon him, pure as an angel's, but with the love of a woman in her lustrous eyes. As he sprang to his feet, she melted away in a white cloud, and close to his ear he heard a mournful sigh, as if her spirit grieved to part from his. And he wrote no longer of flowing water or whispering wind, but of the Lady of the Woods.
For many a day he saw her no more, for Henry I of England coveted Normandy, the ancient patrimony of his house, and sent his armies to take possession of it. When the city of Bayeux was besieged, the Lord of Argouges was amongst its most gallant defenders, and his resource and daring were the talk of all. None who crossed swords with him lived to tell the tale, for his courage was equalled by his skill.
One morn a giant sprang from the enemy's ranks–a lusty German, well over seven feet, with the limbs of a prize-fed ox.
'I dare you to fight me singly, Lord of Argouges!' he cried, for he knew with whom he had to deal. The soldiers near stayed their hands to watch; the hearts of the Normans almost stood still, but the English exulted, for surely now would the Lord of Argouges bite the dust, and his fiery sword no more work havoc in their ranks! Their dismay was great when he proved himself victor, though they would not have wondered had they had vision to see how ever beside him moved the shadowy form of his Lady of the Woods, directing his arm that his aim might be swift and sure, and oft-times interposing her tender body between him and the German's thrusts. Later on, when the gallant knight fainted from his wounds and was left for dead she tended him pitifully as he lay on the blood-stained earth, moistening his lips with the dew of heaven, and whispering such sweet thoughts to him that the weary hours were eased by blissful dreams. He was still alive when morning dawned, and was found by his friends and carried into camp. Though visible to him alone, the Lady of the Woods was there beside his couch, and the terrible sights and sounds that accompanied the merciful efforts of those who tended the wounded could not scare her away from him. When his suffering was over, and he could raise himself to eat and drink, she came to him no more, and as his strength slowly returned he was consumed with a passionate desire to find her.
At length he was able to go home to his castle, and once more he roamed the forest. The songs of the birds were hushed by now, and the trees under which he used to rest were almost bare. It was autumn, for he had been long absent, and even yet his step was slow and his proud head bent with weakness. He was sick with longing for his gentle Lady; 'If I do not find her, I shall die!' he cried.
Presently he came to a glade where the naked boughs formed a splendid arch above his head, and he saw a troop of horsewomen riding toward him on snow-white steeds. In their midst was his Lady of the Woods, a bridal veil on her star-crowned hair, and myrtle at her breast. He awaited her approach in a trance of delight; nearer and nearer came the prancing horses, their skins of satin glinting in the sun. The cavalcade reached his side; the Queen of the Fées dismounted and stood beside him, while the ground at her feet became a bed of lilies. The Lord of Argouges threw himself on his knees amidst their fragrance, gazing up at her with enraptured eyes, as softly and shyly she bent toward him.
'Once more I greet you, dear lord! ' she said, and as she touched his forehead with her lips, the birds still lingering in the forest burst into joyful song. When the knight found words to tell her of his great love, she plighted her troth to him, but only he heard her whispered promise that she would be his wife.
Once more she mounted her snow-white steed; he seated himself behind her, and thus they rode to the castle gates, accompanied by her maidens. Here the Lord of Argouges sprang to the ground; light as a wisp of thistledown, she floated into his arms, and to the amaze of the household, who had watched the approach of the procession from the castle windows, her horse, thrice neighing, changed into a bird, and fluttered sorrowfully away.
'Farewell, sweet Queen! ' her maidens cried, and kissing their hands to her, rode swiftly back to the depths of the forest.
Then the Lord of the Argouges drew the Lady of the Woods across the threshold of the castle, and so queenly was her beauty and so gracious her demeanour, that even his aged mother, jealous of the son for whom she would have shed her life-blood, found no word to say against his choice.
'My love for him is nought beside thine,' the Fée Queen pleaded very sweetly, 'for thou didst bring him into the world, and hast anguished for him as none else can. But I too have suffered on his behalf; I pray thee, let me love him too!'
Then his mother looked long and deeply into the eyes of the woman who had dethroned her from her dear son's heart, and what she saw there filled her with peace. 'Be it as thou wilt,' she said, and that self-same night the Lord of Argouges wedded his Lady of the Woods in the castle chapel, which was decked with the fragrant lilies that sprang wherever her feet had trod. The rejoicings lasted for seven days, and the Lord of Argouges looked as one to whom the gates of Paradise had opened.
The Queen of the Fées was now to all seeming a mortal woman, and so far from regretting that she had laid aside her rank, each day found her more content in her husband's love, and by every womanly art she knew she sought to please him. One favour only she asked of him–that never in her hearing would he mention the word 'Death.'
'If you do, you will lose me for ever,' she told him fearfully, and he vowed by all that he held most sacred that this dread word should not cross his lips.
The years went on. The lovely Lady of the Woods bore him fair daughters and gallant sons, and all was well with the Lord of Argouges. But one thing grieved him; since the Fées' sweet Queen had linked her lot with his, she too was subject to the laws of Time, and her beauty waned with increasing age. The gold of her hair was streaked with silver, and her face lost some of its soft pink bloom. Her lord spake no word of what was in his mind as he looked at her earnestly one bright spring morn, but she divined his regretful thoughts, and full sorrowful were her own.
The Fées could not help her, since she had left her fairy kindred to throw in her lot with mortal man, and so, with woman's wit, she determined that at the forthcoming festival at the Court the splendour of her attire should make her lord forget Time's changes. She therefore summoned to the castle the most skilful workers in silks and broideries, who toiled in her service day and night, that she might be richly adorned at the Royal Tournament.
Her gown was of azure satin, encrusted with many gems, and her long court train glittered and shone with gold and silver. Diamonds blazed at her breast and neck, while a circlet of rubies glowed in her hair. But their rich red lustre made her pale sweet face look paler than ever, and she still gazed wistfully at her glass though the Lord of Argouges waited below, wondering what delayed her. At length he sought her himself, and in spite of his impatience, he could but admire her resplendent attire.
'You have robbed the sky of his morning glories!' he told her gallantly. Then, as she lingered still, his impatience returned: 'Fair spouse,' he said, 'it were well if Death should send you as his messenger, for you tarry long when you are bidden to haste!–Forgive me, Sweet! I should not have said that word!'
His remorse came too late, for the ominous sound had scarcely crossed his lips when with a cry of bitter anguish, his lady became once more a Fée, and vanished from his sight. Long and vainly did he seek her, for though her footmarks are still to be seen on the battlements of the Castle, and night after night she wandered round it clad in a misty robe of white, they two met on earth no more. She is pictured still in the crest of the house of Argouges, over its motto, 'A la Fe!'"
I liked this story, but I wished that it had not ended quite so sadly. When I said so to Méllisande she turned her face away from me, and I think it was a tear drop that glittered on her hand.
"Then I will tell you neither of Pressina nor Melusina," she said, "for both these Fées lived to rue the day when they put faith in the word of man. It was different with the fair Norina. She demanded no pledge, for doubt and distrust came not nigh her path, and her love brought her only gladness."
The shadows lengthened; the wood dove flew off to rejoin her mate; and Méllisande's lips began to smile as she thought of another story.
The Seven Fair Queens of Pirou.
"Long, long ago," she went on presently, "when our beautiful Normandy was known by another name, and formed part of the kingdom of Neustria, which was given to the Duke of Paris by Charles the Bald, there lived a wise and noble lord who was said to have magic powers. So gentle was he that the very birds would perch on his shoulder and twitter their joys to him, yet so brave and strong that the proudest knight cared not to provoke his wrath. He was skilled in the lore of plants and herbs, and by means of a slender hazel from the woods could tell where crystal waters flowed deep in the bowels of the earth. Full many a maid would have flown to him had he lifted his little finger, but though he was often lonely as he wandered beneath the stars, his heart went out to none, whether of high or low degree, and he preferred his own company to that of a mate whom he could not love.
One Mayday he was up at dawn, searching the fields for a tiny plant which had some special gift of healing. The grass was spangled with myriad flowers, but he passed them all till he came to the one he sought–a small pale blossom of faintest lilac, with perfume as sweet as a rose's. While yet he held it in his hand he heard a cry; it was that of some creature in pain, and forcing his way through a prickly hedge, he found a pure white dove with a broken wing lying under a thornbush.
'Poor bird!' he exclaimed compassionately. 'Who has dared to injure so fair a thing?' With tender hands he set the broken wing, binding it to her side with three green leaves and some long-stemmed grass, and fed her with juice from the lilac flower as he soothed her with gentle words. When he had stilled her flutterings, he laid her on his breast, that he might bear her home and tend her until she could fly once more under the vault of heaven.
On he strode through the meadow, and high in the sky the larks trilled their pæans of joy. Never to him had seemed the earth so fair, and the morning sun tinged his cheek with gladness. Suddenly he felt the burden on his breast grow heavy, and stayed his footsteps in surprise. No longer did he hold a wounded dove against his bosom, but a beauteous maiden in pure white garb, with three green leaves bound about her arm with stems of grass.
He set her on her feet and stared at her in amaze; she met his enraptured gaze with eyes that shone like twin blue stars. Then her eyelids fell; she drooped beneath his glance as a fragile flower beneath the sun's fierce wooing.
And as the wind sweeps over a field of corn when it is ripe for reaping, love took possession of him. Fée or woman, he swore, this beauteous maid should be his wife if she were willing, and he would guard her through good and ill while life should last.
'Art thou mine?' he asked her presently, hoarse for very joy.
'I am thine!' she said, for she had loved him long, and had but taken the form of a dove to try him. And taking her home to his castle, they were wedded by the holy priest.
No longer now was he lonely, no longer did he wander solitary beneath the stars, for the lovely Fée was as true and tender as mortal woman, and made him a faithful wife. Sons were denied them, but seven fair daughters came, and he called them after the seven gems that graced their mother's diadem.
The maidens were of such supreme loveliness that as they grew up to womanhood they were known as the Seven Fair Queens; each was without rival in her own style of beauty. Pearl was fair as day, with a skin like milk; Ruby's dark splendour was a gift from the Queen of Night, and her red, red mouth the bud of a perfect flower. The glorious hair of Amber fell round her shoulders in shimmering waves of light, and sunbeams lost themselves in her lashes. Sweet Turquoise had her mother's eyes of blue forget-me-not, while Sapphire's were of deeper hue, and Amethyst's that of the violet. Chrysolite's were a misty green, like the sky in the early morning, and no mermaid sang sweeter songs than she as she sat on the rocks at low tide.
There came a time when the father of the Seven Fair Queens fell very sick, and not all his potions could prolong his days. His call had come, and so closely were he and Norina united, that one eve at sunset her life went out with his. For awhile their orphaned daughters wept with grief as they paced the gardens, or sat by the crackling fire in the great hall. But youth cannot mourn for ever, and with a second spring, glad hopes came back to them, and once more they rode in the chase. Since they were rich as well as beautiful you may be sure they had many wooers, but all preferred to reign alone.
'When we wed, it will be with Fées!' they said disdainfully. This angered their lovers, and presently they were left in peace.
Full wisely did they use their parents' wealth, improving the land and making sure provision for all dependent on their bounty. On the coast of the Cotentin they built the Castle of Pirou, which gave work to the poor for several succeeding years, and when it was finished they filled it with gorgeous tapestries and all the treasures of art they could collect. Here they lived in splendour, keeping open house; no passing wayfarer, however humble, need miss a welcome if he cared to claim it.
They were still in the first full bloom of their beauty when their fame reached the ears of one of the great sea pirates, the dreaded Vikings who rode the waves like giant birds of prey. North, South, East and West, from Norway and Sweden, and little Denmark, they sailed in search of plunder, and such was their love of fighting that they would, if need be, challenge each other rather than allow their swords to rust with disuse. Although they robbed, they were brave men, and believed themselves entitled to all they took. Their vessels were small, and light of draught, so they could penetrate many rivers, but the great chiefs chose the sea for their battle ground, and ravaged many a town and village on the coast of France.
When the mighty Siegmund heard of the Seven Fair Queens of Pirou, he resolved to storm their castle and take the loveliest for his bride. With this intent he set sail for the coast of Cotentin with a gallant fleet. The wind and the tide were with him; he reached it one soft spring morning when the sea was a sheet of blue.
As the vessel which bore him neared the shore, the Viking espied a bevy of maidens in a sheltered cove, where the sand lay in golden ripples. Ruby and Pearl, and the gentle Turquoise sported in a sun-kissed pool; while Sapphire and Amethyst wove wreaths of seaweed, and Amber was smoothing her shining hair with a slender shell of mother-of-pearl that the waves had thrown at her feet. Chrysolite sat on a dark rock, singing, and her soft clear notes rang over the waters, enchanting Siegmund with their music.
'By Thor and Odin,' he thundered, 'our journey was well planned. Haste thee, my men, and get me to that rock! That maiden shall be my bride.'
The boat sped swiftly, with Siegmund sitting in the stern. His yellow locks streamed over his stalwart shoulders, and his face was like that of some eager god as he noted Chrysolite's beauty. The maiden saw his approach; and now the glad notes of her exquisite song changed to a mournful rhythm. She was chanting the words that her mother had breathed to her seven daughters as she lay a'dying:
'Women ye, my daughters fair
(Cloudless spreads the sky);
But when menace fills the air,
Fées, as once was I.
Slender arm shall change that day
Into snow-white plume;
Winged as birds, haste swift away
From thy threatening doom!'
As the last words left her sorrowful lips, Chrysolite's sisters gathered round her; the boat's keel grated on the sand, and Siegmund sprang eagerly forward. At the same moment the Seven Fair Queens of Pirou raised their arms, and instantly these changed, before his eyes, to fluttering wings. High in the air mounted the maidens, and to the bewildered gaze of Siegmund they were nought but a line of snow-white birds flying westward in single file high up in the sky.
When Siegmund had somewhat recovered from his amazement, he and his followers sacked the castle, and pillaged the surrounding country; it did them but little good, for a storm blew up as they sailed back northward, and the ships that carried the stolen treasure were wrecked on the rocks. As for the Seven Fair Queens, they mated with Fées, and were glad as the morning. Every year as spring comes round, they return to Pirou with their numerous descendants, in the form of a flock of wild geese, and take possession of the nests which they have hollowed out in the crumbling walls. They also appear when a child is born to the house of Pirou; if it be a daughter, and Fate has destined her for a nun, one sits apart in a corner of the courtyard, and sighs as if in sore distress. If a son is born, the male birds display their plumage, and show by their mien that they rejoice."
Méllisande rose from her throne of ferns, "It will be twilight soon," she said, "and we must go. See! the mists are already rising in the valley, and the night-birds awake and call. Farewell, dear Christmas Child, farewell!"
And, stooping down, she kissed my forehead.