"Chapter X: The Wild Huntsman." 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. 197-216.
The forest paths were dappled with sunlight as Father and I strolled down its winding glades, and all the wood things were chirping and chattering with joy. Now and then something brown and furry scuttled across our path, and once I all but trod on a tiny mouse, who had hidden herself under last year's leaves.
"You clumsy boy!" said a tiny voice, and I turned in time to catch sight of a wee pink Elf as she sprang from the flower Father wore in his button hole upon a bright blue butterfly which had been hovering above her for some time, and now darted swiftly away.
After a while we came to an open space where the woodmen had been felling timber. Several great trees still lay on the ground; one was particularly straight and round, and I noticed three wide crosses cut deep into the bark. I thought I would like to carve my name there too, for my knife had been most beautifully sharp since the Nain Rouge touched it, so when Father sat down soon afterward to read his letters, I went straight back to the spot. As I reached it I heard the distant baying of hounds; the sound came nearer and nearer, and mingling with it were shouts in a strange deep voice, which almost frightened me. As I looked up, my knife was jerked out of my hand by a little woman dressed in green, who pushed me breathlessly aside and sat down, sobbing bitterly, on the middle cross. I was still staring at her when there flashed through the air a huntsman on a fiery horse, followed by many hounds. Their hurrying feet knocked off my cap and rumpled all my hair. They had passed in a second, and next moment I heard their baying far away.
The little woman in green sobbed still, but she seemed to be growing calmer. Her hair and eyes were a soft light grey, and her frock was most prettily trimmed with tufts of moss.
"Aha!" I thought when I noticed this, "you are one of the Moss-women, I've no doubt." For I knew that these were supposed to haunt the forests of Southern Germany.
"That was the Wild Huntsman," said the little thing, looking at me trustfully. "But for the kindness of the woodcutters who make these marks in the trees they fell, I should have fallen to his bow and spear. When we can find three crosses we are safe, for he dare not touch us then."
I waited to hear what else she would say, for I thought of the Kobold's "Why? Why? Why?" and did not like to ask her questions. In a little while her lips were smiling, and swaying to and fro, as a tree sways in the wind, she began to sing. I knew I had heard that song before, but I could not think where until I remembered that the pines which rustled against the windows of my night nursery had often sung it when I was small.
"It's the song of the wind," she told me, "and the very first sound we hear. We are born in the roots of the tree which is to be our home, and when this dies, we must die too. So long as the sap runs through its branches, and the bark is not cut or injured, we are safe and sound in our snug recess, but at certain times we are bound to leave it, to seek for food, or to attend our lords. It is then that we are in such grave danger–and all because Elfrida tried her witcheries on a stranger."
"What did she do?" I could not help asking.
"I will tell you," said the Moss-woman sadly, "and then you will understand why even the youngest of us has now grey hair."
The Wild Huntsman
"Elfrida was the fairest of our race," she sighed, "and her palace the tallest and straightest pine that ever raised its boughs to Heaven. When she left its shelter at early dawn to bathe in some sparkling stream, or seek for sweet berries in the thickets, the Flower-Elves flocked to greet her; wild roses gave her their bloom for her oval cheeks, and the violets scented her sunny hair. Wherever she passed, the moss grew a brighter green, and she had but to breathe on a gnarled old trunk, and the softest feathery fronds came to hide its ugliness. The creatures of the forest were all her friends, and took pride, as we did, in her loveliness.
'Have a care, Elfrida–a stranger comes!' cried a squirrel one summer morning, staying his dancing feet to warn her. His up-cocked ears had caught the thud of some well-shod charger's swift approach, and he guessed he would not be riderless.
'Go back to thy palace, dear child!' cooed a motherly pigeon who had reared many broods of snowy fledglings, and misdoubted the sparkle in Elfrida's pale green eyes.
'Haste thee home, Elfrida!' cried the stream as it gurgled over the stones; 'haste thee home, and hide thy face from the sunlight.' But Elfrida pretended not to hear as she shook out the crystal drops from her gorgeous hair.
The horse and his rider were close to her now; the huntsman blew his golden horn, and in the excitement of the chase might have passed her by, unseeing, but for his hounds. In a moment they had surrounded her, baying like hungry wolves, and Elfrida sprang to a branch that overhung the water, where her white limbs gleamed against its green. The huntsman sent the dogs to heel, and dismounting from his horse, entreated the maiden to come down to him. Nothing loth, Elfrida coyly descended, and the huntsman was amazed anew at her perfect form He sat at her feet through the hush of noonday, and at even he was there still. When the moon turned the glades to silver, Elfrida left him, but she promised to meet him again next day, and he could not sleep for thinking of her.
But although she smiled on him sweetly as she lay on the banks of the stream, and listened with languid pleasure to his fond fierce wooing, which passed for her many an idle hour, she would not consent to be his wife.
'I like best the gems that I find on the lilies at daybreak,' she said, when he vowed that the richest jewels that the earth could give should deck her fair white arms. 'You must offer me something rarer than these if I am to forsake my kindred to go with you.'
Then the huntsman swore that he would give her all he had; only his honour would he hold back, for he was sick with love and longing.
Now behind Elfrida's loveliness dwelt a spirit of malice and wanton cruelty, and though she loved not this wild Huntsman, and had no intention of being his bride, she wished to see how far her power over him could go. So she asked of him these three things: the crest of his House cut in the stone over his castle gates, where it had stood for centuries; the leaf from his dead mother's Bible, whereon she had written the date of her marriage day, with the names of the children born to her; and his father's sword.
'Nay, Sweetheart!' cried the Huntsman. 'Ask me for aught else in the world, but not for these things, since they touch my honour!'
'These will I have, and nothing less,' said Elfrida wilfully, looking at him through her long gold lashes until his soul went out from him. His face was white as milk as he rode away, and the creatures of the forest cringed with shame. For they knew she had asked what was unseemly; and they ceased to attend her when she went to the stream at dawn.
When the moon was at her full the Huntsman returned with the three gifts, and now he thought to take Elfrida in his arms. But she thrust him from her with bitter words, tearing the leaf from the sacred Book into a thousand shreds, and tossing the crest and sword into the running stream.
'What!' she cried, and her scornful laugh rang through the woodland, 'shall I, Elfrida, be the sport of a man who holds the honour of his house as something less than a maiden's whim? I will have none of you–get you gone!' And she flung out her arms to the strong North Wind, who caught her to him and bore her off. But not to her high pine palace did he take her, for he was angry because of her cruelty; and far away at the grim North Pole, she shivers yet under the thickest ice. Her green eyes shine through the frost-bound floes, and light the depths of the Northern seas."
"And the Huntsman?" I questioned.
"He died in his rage, where Elfrida left him!" said the Moss-woman mournfully, "and his spirit seeks still to avenge his wrongs. To the last of our race it will pursue us, until none of our kindred lives."
"Chris! Chris! where are you?"
It was Father's voice, and the Moss-woman vanished. Father wanted to read me a funny letter from the Locust, who complained a lot of being called up at night by patients who had no money, and wouldn't have paid him even if they had. This was the way they often treated Father, but he said "Poor beggars!" and then forgot it, while the Locust was very cross.
Next day I went back to the forest, hoping to find the Moss-woman again, but she was not there. I found instead an Elf who was almost too small to be seen. She told me that she and her sisters lived in the cells which make leaves so green, and mixed things they drew in from the air and sunlight with the water that came through the roots, turning these into sugar to feed the tree: It sounded like magic, and I was so much interested that I almost forgot to ask about the Moss-women.
"Poor little things!" said the Leaf-Elf kindly, when I said I had seen one. "It is well that the woodcutters are their friends, or they would fare badly. Many a meal did they have from them in past times, and even Hans the Unlucky never grudged them what he gave. They paid him back for it, never fear, for they do not forget a kindness."
"Who was he?" I asked. And this is what she told me.
The Luck of Hans
"Of all the unlucky mortals, Hans was surely the most to be pitied, for though he was honest and frugal, nothing he touched seemed to prosper. The farm had done well in his father's lifetime, but after he died there was not one good season for three bad ones. Far from being idle, Hans was up before dawn, and still hard at work at sundown. His mother sent away her maids, since she could not pay them their wages, and kept the house straight herself; where could you find a worthier pair? But Hans' affairs went from bad to worse, and when (at the busiest time of the year) his mother lost her sight and became quite blind it was clear he was born to be unlucky.
The farm went to rack and ruin, and there came a time when Hans was forced to go off to the forest to fell a tree that his poor old mother might have fuel to warm her. When the sun was high, he drew out his lunch, and a poor little Moss-woman stole out from the undergrowth to beg a few crumbs for her hungry children.
'Take it all!' he cried, thrusting his bread into her tiny hands. 'It is waste of good food for a man to eat who is as unlucky as I.'
'I cannot repay you in kind, friend Hans,' said the Moss-woman, 'but I will give you some good advice. In the house by the mill lives a sweet young girl, with a face tinged with pink like a daisy's. She has loved you long, for you are her mate. Take her to wife, and your luck will turn.'
Hans flushed deep crimson beneath his tan, and the veins on his forehead grew tense and hard.
'You–you—' he stammered; 'you must mean Elsa? And Elsa, you say, Elsa cares for me? It can't–it can't–be true.'
'A woman's heart goes where it will,' answered the Moss-woman. 'Try your luck, friend Hans, and lose no time. Life is short, and the days are flying.'
Hans went at once to the house by the mill, for had he not gazed at it time and again as the casket which held his treasure?
When Elsa saw him coming with that look upon his face, she twisted a ribbon, blue as her eyes, in the pale gold plait that crowned her head, and went shyly down to meet him.
Hans said not a word, but he found a way to make her understand, and his eyes spoke, though his lips were dumb.
"Went shyly down to meet him"
They were betrothed and married within the month, and little cared sweet Elsa that her friends marvelled at her choice. She comforted the sad blind dame, whose son was now her husband, as a happy woman comforts one who fears she has lost all, and behold! the old woman smiled again. As to Hans, the neighbours scarcely recognised him when they met him in the markets; she trimmed his beard, did Elsa, with her own hands, and mothered him as if he were a child of seven. His fields grew green, and then golden with harvest; his scanty flocks increased and multiplied.
'Hans' luck has changed!' the neighbours said, and they scoffed at him no more.
But good luck itself does not last for ever, and after three years of plenty came a bad one for all in those parts. There was a long and unusual drought, followed by so much rain that the roots rotted in the ground, and sickness spread amongst sheep and oxen. Hans lost all that he had re-gained, and to add to his misfortunes, he chopped his hand instead of a log of wood, and could do no work for weeks. He was in despair, and the old blind woman beside his hearth wept and wailed from morn till eve.
'I would I were dead,' she moaned. 'I am a useless burden, for I cannot even knit. My store of wool is exhausted, and we have no money to buy more.'
'Dear Mother,' said Elsa tenderly, 'who has a greater right than you to the last penny that Hans possesses? You carried him on your breast when he was small and helpless, and have loved him faithfully all these years!'
But the mother turned her face to the wall and wrung her idle hands.
Then Elsa sold the ring that had been her lover's gift in order to buy for her soft white bread and warming cordials, and wool wherewith to ply her needles. As she returned home with her basket, grieving to think of the pain of those she loved, a Moss-woman accosted her in the forest.
'I have nought for my children to eat,' she said. And Elsa, pitying her the more that she herself was hungry, gave her a share of what she had, even to a skein of the wool, that she might weave a coat for her crying babe.
'Wait for me here!' cried the Moss-woman earnestly, and Elsa leaned sadly against a tree, too weary to be surprised. In a moment or two the Moss-woman returned, carrying a grey ball of wool and some chips of wood.
'Give the wool to the old crone who weeps by your hearth,' said the little thing, 'and the chips to Hans. He is lucky in his wife, if in nought else!'
So saying, she disappeared, and Elsa went quickly home. Thinking to win a laugh from her husband, she opened her apron to show him the Moss-woman's gifts, and, to her amazement, found that the chips had turned to yellow gold, and the little grey ball of wool into a large one of fleecy whiteness, so soft and thick that it felt like velvet! The golden chips stocked the farm again, for they were of pure metal, and weighty, and the ball of white wool was never exhausted during the old woman's life time. She knitted away until her hundredth year, and when, long afterward, the summons came also for Hans and Elsa, in their turn, their children had good cause to bless the name of the Moss-woman."