"The Story of the Ten Sources." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
THE wild Carpathians, where the everlasting hills lift their peaks far into the serene blue of Heaven, a torrent known as the River of the Ten Sources rushes with eager fury down the steep slopes of the mountain walls rising in wild disorder on every side. Even the perpetual thunder of its fall is soon swallowed up in the mightier silence which broods upon the scene, and, save for the roar of some beast of prey, the profound stillness is rarely broken, even by the echo of the hunters' "tally-ho."
N this remote spot the mountains Bükk and Mátra join hands together, and through the dense forests which cling to their shoulders and clothe their naked limbs, the cataract pursues its way to the abyss whose rocky jaws gape wide to receive it. High on the cliffs above, the passage of the torrent may be traced by clouds of spray and arches of glowing colours where the sunbeams play amidst the vapour tossed up by the impetuous stream; and farther up may be seen three faint wreaths, like gossamer garments of the mountain elves, which mark the spots where three hot springs mingle with the icy stream from seven other sources near by.
Long, long ago, this wild and romantic scene was peopled by the fairies, and on a day there came ten young hunters who had pressed far beyond the haunts of their kind on the tracks of bears, boars, bison, and other wild beasts which roamed the deep recesses of the woods. Ten bold and adventurous brothers they were, and merrily did they wind their horns, and blithely did they sing the deeds of brave warriors and bold huntsmen as they forced their way through the forest wilds. Suddenly they came to a glimpse of the open sky, and they saw a sight which stilled their songs and riveted their feet to the ground. Towering above the giant firs were two mountain peaks flushed with the rays of the noonday sun. But fairer than the deep blue of the sky, fairer than the rosy hues of the mountain peaks, were the forms of a host of fairies, the most beautiful that mortal eyes had ever looked upon. They were standing on the peaks, tossing diamond balls from one to the other across the deep chasm, and as the sun shone upon the balls it seemed to the brothers that they had never seen rainbow so beautiful as this glittering arch which spanned the abyss. As they stood open-mouthed with delight they beheld an even more wonderful sight. For suddenly a fairy seated herself upon one of the balls and flew like the wind to the opposite peak. Others followed, and while they sported in this charming way, they laughed and sang as only fairies can, and the young hunters' hearts leaped within them for joy at this awesome and wonderful sight. Suddenly, however, as with one mind, they caught up their bows, fitted the arrows to the strings, and the ten shafts sped with unerring aim to as many diamond balls.
The next moment a ball fell at each of the brothers' feet, but alas! the fairies had vanished and the entrancing vision was seen no more.
The young men picked up the balls and bestowed them safely in their knapsacks, sighing the while at the foolishness which had led them to sacrifice so delightful a sight. They lingered for awhile in the hope that they might again behold it, but at last, very sad at heart, they turned away.
Gradually the shadows lengthened in the forest aisles; wild creatures crossed the hunters' path again and again, but the brothers paid heed to naught as they wandered moodily on. They thought only of the rash act which had deprived them of the entrancing vision, and the diamond ball which each had secured seemed but a poor substitute for the bewitching countenances of the fairy damsels.
The young men were so deeply engaged in their bitter reflections that they failed to notice that they had come to the edge of the forest. Suddenly, however, an exclamation from one of the brothers caused them all to look up, and lo! before them was a castle like no fastness that mortal eye had ever seen. Its walls were mossy and rugged like those of the mountains around, but here and there were projecting casements, rounded in form, which sparkled and gleamed like the balls in the young men's knapsacks, and a great dome like a gigantic diamond surmounted the castle and reflected the rays of the dying sun from a million points. But more wonderful and more grateful to the eyes of the brothers was the vision of the fairy damsels whom they beheld gazing tenderly upon them from the outer walls. With a cry of joy the hunters flew to the great gates. They found them open and unguarded, and in less time than it takes to tell the story the young men had clasped each a maiden in his arms. There is small need for words when heart speaks to heart, and all knew that they had met the desire of their souls. Together they now entered the castle, where they were met by a crowd of gorgeously attired servants, who invited the young men to refresh themselves after their toilsome march through the forest glades. They brought to them rich costumes befitting the sons of kings: robes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and swords whose hilts and sheaths were studded with diamonds and rubies.
The brothers were now conducted to the banqueting-hall, where preparations had been made for a wedding-feast. And the young men could hardly believe their good fortune when they learned that the lovely fairy maidens were to be their brides that very evening. You may be sure that they feasted and drank right merrily, and never was there such a wedding-feast. Golden dishes glided upon the table as though moved by invisible hands, plates and glasses were filled of themselves; it was only necessary to wish, and lo! the choicest viands and the most delicious wines were before them.
Many happy days followed, in which the brothers forgot all else but the good fortune which had guided them to the fairy castle. Their brides were as good as they were beautiful, and it would have been wonderful indeed had they remembered that envious Time bestows few such blissful days upon even the most favoured.
The fairy maidens were daughters of the Queen of the Stars, who had been absent in a distant part of her realm when the young hunters arrived before her castle. Tidings of what had taken place had now reached her, and in hot haste she descended upon a moonbeam and appeared before her daughters at the close of day.
"Miserable children," she said, "what foolish deed have you committed? Know you not that fay and mortal may not mate, and that she who disobeys this law of fairyland must be for ever cast out from the happy companionship of the immortals?"
At these threatening words the poor maidens pleaded tearfully with their mother that she should not drop their stars from the sky; 1 but the Queen answered sorrowfully that she was powerless to save them from the fate which their disobedience had brought upon them.
That same night the brothers one and all were visited by the self-same dream. In a vision of the night the Turul, that ill-omened bird of war, alighted upon each couch and croaked a call to battle which no hero may refuse to obey. The harsh sound was in their ears as they awoke on the morrow, and each told his wife sadly of the summons that called him away. The fairy maidens knew full well that never would they see their beloved husbands again, and very sad of heart were they as they bravely bade them good-bye and watched them disappear into the forest, which had never before seemed so full of gloom.
EVEN days and seven nights went by. The maidens could not rest for the terrible fear that was in their hearts. Never before had they known of fear, but now they tasted its bitterness, both for themselves and those whom they loved so fondly. At last on the seventh night they were wandering in the forest, for there was something in the stillness of the leafy aisles which eased their pain, when they beheld ten stars fall from the sky. It was the death of their last lingering hopes. Their husbands had fallen in battle, and never more would they hear their loved voices or gaze upon their manly forms. The maidens wept so piteously that even the stars which keep so cold a watch in the sky were moved. But they did not all weep for the same cause. The three youngest thought only of the husbands whom they had lost for ever, but their sisters grieved mostly for their own sad fate. At last, utterly exhausted, all alike sank into a quiet and restful sleep, and as they reclined upon the grassy bank where they had flung themselves in the first agony of grief, the Queen of the Stars came on a moonbeam and gazed pityingly upon her children. Her heart was full as she beheld the pearly tears which told of the grief which even sleep could not banish, and silently she bestowed a tender kiss upon each loved face. Then she touched the maidens lightly with a magic wand, and instantly the sleeping forms were changed into bubbling springs. Seven were icy cold, but the streams which issued from the spots where the three youngest had lain were boiling hot.
And to this day, if we go to where the Bükk and Mátra meet, we may see the ten springs known to the peasants of that hill-country as "The Ten Sisters," flowing to mingle their waters in the common stream which rushes for ever through the valley far beneath.
1 According to ancient superstition in Hungary every one has his star, which falls from the sky when he dies.