"Chapter XII: The Favourite of the Fates." 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. 239-262.
One night there was not a breath of air, and I could not sleep. I tossed this way and that for hours, and directly the birds began to twitter, I put on my things and slipped back the bolt of the grand hall door. Once outside, it was beautifully fresh and cool, and the clouds in the sky were like wreaths of pink flowers on a turquoise sea, arched over with gleaming gold. They changed every moment, and while I watched them I forgot to look where I was going. When I stopped at last I found myself in the middle of the market place, where I had been with Father the day before.
It was empty now for no one was yet awake but me.
Among the quaint old wooden houses I noticed one that I had not seen before; at first it seemed to be indistinct, but the longer I stared at it, the clearer it grew. Over the door of the tiny shop was the figure of a hen cut into the stone, and while I was wondering who had carved it, the wings fluttered gently toward me. The bird moved its head, and its wings were lifted; it flew to the ground, and a lovely white hen was at my feet. It looked at me wistfully, and flew away; when I turned to the little house once again, it was not there. But beside me stood the Fairy Godmother.
"Come and sit in the shade," she said, when I asked her what had become of the hen, "and I will tell you all about her. She is seeking Furicchia, whom she served so well, not knowing that she is a shadow too."
The Enchanted Hen.
"Furicchia," said the Fairy Godmother, "was a very poor woman who owned a hen which an innkeeper greatly coveted. The shape of the bird was perfect; it had a most melodious voice, and its feathers were glossy and white as snow.
'Come now, good dame,' the man cried, persuasively, 'I will give you double the market value of your little hen, for I wish to make a present of her to the widow Ursula, whom I intend to espouse.'
'But the widow might kill and eat her!' said Furicchia, looking lovingly at the little hen, which she had brought up by hand from a tiny chick. It had slept beneath her best silk 'kerchief, and taken its food from her lips.
'That is as may be,' he replied. 'Come, Furicchia, I make you a handsome offer. Give me the hen, and you shall fare well next feast day.'
But Furicchia would not listen, in spite of the sad fact that her cupboard was as empty as her netted purse. The little hen was dear to her, though as yet it had lain no eggs, and she would not sacrifice her to her needs.
Ere evening came, Coccodé was clucking gaily under the kitchen table, and Furicchia found, not one egg, but three, all a rich coffee brown, and polished like porcelain. Having joyfully exchanged one with a neighbour for a dish of broth, she broke the second into it, and prudently saving the third for next day, thankfully made a good meal. When morning came, she found eggs to the number of a round dozen strewn about her tiny room, and from being almost on the verge of starvation, she had plenty now and to spare. For Coccodé, the grateful creature, laid eggs by the score, and not only were they of exquisite flavour and very large, but it was noticed that if sick folk ate them, they straightway returned to health.
Furicchia was now a famous egg-wife, and the more eggs she sold, the more eggs Coccodé laid. The little hen was both willing and industrious, and loved her kind mistress so dearly that she was never so happy as when helping to make her fortune. Her pride in Furicchia's first silk gown was comical to witness; she rustled her wings against its handsome folds, and clucked so loudly that the neighbours heard, and came to see what was the matter.
This silken gown it was that roused the anger of the Signora, a wealthy woman who had much, and knew no better than to want more. Hearing of the prodigious number of eggs which Furicchia supplied, though no one had ever seen her with other than a single hen, she set afoot much scandal concerning her, ending by declaring her to be an evil Witch. At this, Furicchia's neighbours began to look askance at her; but the eggs were so good, and so moderate in price, that on second thoughts they decided to treat the Signora's hints with the contempt which they deserved.
This made the lady still more angry; she resolved to find out Furicchia's secret, and ruin her if she could, so that she might obtain her customers for her own eggs. Coccodé was quite aware of what was going on, and before her mistress went out one morning she bade her fetch certain herbs that grew on a corner of barren land, and put these on the fire in a pot of wine.
'And now, dear mistress,' she continued, when all had been done as she said, 'do you go out and trust your luck to Coccodé.'
Furicchia had not long been gone, when the Signora's crafty face peeped slyly round the door. Finding the room apparently empty, she hurried in, delighted at such an opportunity for prying. First she peered here, and then she peered there, ransacking Furicchia's chests, and even turning over the leaves of her holy books, that she might see if an incantation to Witches had been written therein. Finally, she raised the latch of the inner chamber, where she had heard Coccodé clucking.
'I have found out Furicchia's secret now,' she thought with glee. 'Her little white hen is under a spell, and she and it shall be burnt as Witches.'
Coccodé was sitting on a pile of eggs that reached almost up to the ceiling, and even as she clucked she was laying more. The Signora drew close to her, and listened with all her ears, for she had distinguished words amidst her cluckings, and immediately jumped to the conclusion that Coccodé believed herself to be addressing her mistress. This is what she heard:
'Coccodé! now there are nine!
Bring me quickly the warm red wine.
Coccodé! take them away
Many more for thee will I lay.
And thou shalt be a lady grand,
As fine as any in the land,
And should it happen that any one
Drinks of the wine as I have done,
Eggs like me she shall surely lay;
This is the secret, this is the way,
1 Leyland's 'Legends of Florence'
'Aha!' said the Signora joyfully, 'now I have it!' And running back to the outer room, she lifted the wine off the fire and drank it, every drop, though it scalded her throat and made her choke. As it coursed through her veins she felt a most extraordinary sensation, and hurried home as quickly as she could. A meal was laid on the table, but she found great difficulty in taking her usual place, and could eat nothing but some brown bread, which she pecked at in a most curious manner. As the charm began to work, her legs grew thinner and thinner, and her feet so large that she had to cut off her boots. Next, her brown silk dress became a bundle of draggled feathers, while her nose turned into a beak, and her voice into a discordant cluck; in short, she was just a scraggy brown hen, and her friends held up their hands in horror. Eggs she laid by the score, but before she could sit on them they turned to mice and ran away. So she had nothing for all her trouble; and though she possessed a handsome house, she could only perch in a barn.
This is what comes of greed and envy, and of meddling with other people's business."
Just at this moment a girl darted out of a doorway opposite, followed by an elderly woman who loudly reproved her for refusing to do her share in some household task. Shrugging her shoulders, she came to a sudden end, as if she knew that her breath was wasted, and the girl disappeared with a peal of laughter.
"She is off to gossip instead of work," said the Fairy Godmother disapprovingly. "She will pay for it later, will pretty Ursula, for the Fates are not likely to interfere on her behalf as they did for Pepita."
I had to coax her to tell me this story, for she said she had much to do, and could not stay. But when she heard that the very next day Father and I were leaving Italy, she refused no more. We sat down on the step of a splendid church, and no one seemed to notice us.
The Favourite of the Fates.
"Troubles rolled off Pepita as water from a duck's back. So lighthearted and full of good humour was she that nought ever seemed to vex her, and no one living had ever heard an unkind word fall from her rosy lips. Even the three grim Fates, who rule over mortal destinies, relaxed their stern brows as they looked down on her, and smiled indulgently.
Pepita was slender as a swallow, with a warm red flush on her olive cheeks, and dainty hands that looked far too delicate and small for even the lighter household tasks. These, indeed, Pepita seldom attempted, singing instead from morn to eve, and charming her mother with soft caresses when she hardened her heart and tried to scold her.
But Pepita could spin. Ah yes, she could spin, and as no other maiden had ever been known to do since Arachne was changed into a spider. The snowy flax flew from under her fingers as though her distaff were enchanted; which, indeed, was the case, for the wayward Fates had bestowed upon her a magic gift, and having given her this, not even they could take it away from her.
Pepita's mother was often wroth with her, for the dame had much work on her hands, and sighed that her only daughter should give her so little help. Were the maiden sent to wash clothes in the stream, ten chances to one they would go floating down the current while she twisted flowers in her hair. Were she set to make sweet little chestnut cakes, she would forget to put a cool green leaf at the bottom of each round baking dish, and when they were taken out of the ashes, behold, they would be all burnt!
'You are a good-for-nothing!' her mother would cry angrily; but this was not true, for Pepita could spin.
One feast day, while her mother went to the fair, she was told to watch the pentola, and to stir it carefully if it boiled too fast. It was made of rice and good fresh meat, with vegetables from the little garden; and it smelt so delicious that Pepita's small nostrils quivered like the petals of a rose on a windy day.
'I will taste it to see that all is well,' she murmured, and drawing back the iron pot, she helped herself to a liberal portion.
The pentola was good; Pepita tasted it yet again, for she had been up early to go to Mass, and had sung herself hungry on the way home. Soon there was no meat left.
'Ah, what shall I do?' she sighed, 'My mother will scold me terribly, and will tell the Padre that I am greedy.'
She was sighing still when her eyes fell on an old leather shoe which had been cast away behind the door. Her face all dimpled with mischief, Pepita soused this under a tap, and threw it into the soup.
'They will but think that the meat is tough!' she cried with a burst of laughter; but as the shoe fell into the boiling liquid her mother crossed the threshold.
'What have you done?' demanded she, peering into the pot. 'Madonnamia! Was ever an honest woman cursed with such a daughter?' And breathing out angry hopes that an Ogre would come and take her, she drove Pepita out of the house.
At that moment a rich young merchant was strolling by, and Pepita unwittingly rushed into his arms. A thing such as this had never happened to him before, and since he scarce knew what to do, he clasped her tightly while he considered. By the time he released her, Pepita's face was pink as apple blossom, and the tears that sparkled on it were for all the world like dewdrops on the petals of a flower. Something stirred in his breast, and he blushed even more than she; for when a man falls suddenly in love he knows not where he stands. Looking from one to the other, the wrath of Pepita's mother suddenly cooled.
'Take her to wife,' she said, 'and you'll not get a bad bargain. True, she is nought in the house, but she can spin. And with all her faults she is not a scold.'
'One wants more in a wife than that!' said the merchant shrewdly, though the last of her statements went far with him, since his mother had a tongue. Looking into Pepita's eyes, which were heavenly blue, and sweet as an angel's, he lost his last qualm of doubt, and lifted her hand to his lips. Then he turned once more to the elder woman. 'I have vowed to my mother I will not wed without her free consent, but if your daughter meets with her approval, I will gladly do as you say.'
Guido's mother was in her seventieth year, and though she had never beheld a face more winning than merry Pepita's, it did not please her, and she gave her mind to finding a task which would prove beyond her powers.
'The garden paths are green with weeds,' she quavered; 'they have been sadly neglected since Pietro fell ill. Take the hoe, and root them up; leave not a single one.'
'Nay, mother! I seek not a gardener for my wife!' her son protested hotly, for Pepita's small hands could barely lift the hoe, and he had set his heart on her.
'Unless the paths be clear of weeds ere the sun sets, I will not give thee my consent,' said the old woman obstinately; and there was nothing left for Pepita to do but to hoe up the weeds as best she could.
No sooner had Guido's mother ceased watching her from the window, than Pepita whistled gently, and swift at her call came the birds she had fed with crumbs when the fields were bare. Pointing to the weeds, she made signs to them to destroy them, and by the time the old mother awoke from her nap, not one was left behind. This vexed her instead of giving her pleasure, for she did not wish her son to marry, and telling her maids they might have a holiday, she commanded Pepita to prepare the evening meal.
The maiden was now in much perplexity, for she knew not how to cook, and her experience that morning with the pentola had taught her little. But the Brownies who dwelt behind the hearth, and love to see a fair young face bending over the pots and pans bade her be not discouraged, for they would stand her friends.
Then the nimble little men flew hither and thither, fetching garlic and oil and meat and rice in just the proportions that Guido loved, and adding certain secret flavours of their own until the smell of the broth made the old woman's mouth water, and she could not but praise Pepita's cooking. When it came to the time to test her skill at spinning, she was completely reconciled to her son's choice, and put no obstacles in the way of the wedding.
And now Pepita sang more blithely than ever, for though he was less well favoured, and slower of speech than many a young man who had wooed her, she adored her husband. She was as happy as the day was long until, wishing to have the biggest bank account as well as the prettiest wife in the neighbourhood, he took it into his head to turn her talent for spinning to account, and kept her beside her distaff from morn till eve.
'I shall soon, at this rate, be richer even than the notary,' he thought, as he looked delighted at his stores of flax; and Pepita besought him in vain to give her a little rest, for he could be as obstinate as his mother.
It was now that the Fates interfered on her behalf, though many more worthy than she are left to shift for themselves.
'She has lost her bloom!' sighed one grim sister.
'Her cheeks are hollow!' observed the second.
'Her songs are sad ones!' said the third with a dreadful frown. And then they put their heads together, and formed a plan whereby Guido might be outwitted.
As he sat in the doorway that evening while Pepita span, denying himself the sight of her in order that her work might not be disturbed, there came up the garden path a hideous old hag, who besought him to give her alms.
'Look at me, Signor!' she groaned, lifting her head so that he saw the wrinkled folds that lapped her chin. 'Once I was fair as your Pepita, but I sat so long at my spinning wheel, that all my comeliness left me.'
Guido hastily gave her a coin, and urged her to begone; for he did not want Pepita to see her, or to hear what she had to say.
Next eve came a second old woman, uglier, if possible, than the last, and bent like some brutish beast. She had the same story to tell him of bygone loveliness, and Guido sped her down the hill with even more haste than before.
The next night a third old woman appeared, so dread of aspect that he was obliged to avert his gaze. Against his wish, he felt himself constrained to enquire the cause of her terrible affliction.
'I sat at my wheel, good master,' was the reply, 'until beauty and sight both left me, and my skin became even as you see.'
Now thoroughly alarmed, he dismissed her quickly with a handful of coins, and calling Pepita to him, gazed at her long and searchingly. When the flush that his now unaccustomed touch had brought to her sweet face faded, he saw she was pale and thin. Her mouth drooped sadly, and purple shadows brooded round her eyes. With a cry of remorse he drew her to his breast, and kissed her tenderly.
'You shall spin no longer, my Pepita,' he said, 'for I would rather have you as you are than be rich as Satan himself!'"
And this was the very last story I heard. We started for home next morning, and I went to school at the half term–a ripping school where there was any amount of cricket, and so many other games that I had no time to think of Fairies.
But some day I'm going to find the Peri, and those other wonderful Sprites and Goblins of which Titania told me when I met her in the wood that Christmas day.
Printed by W. W. Curtis, Ltd., Cheylesmore Press, Coventry.