The Fairy Child
AN ancient woman living at Innis-Sark said that in her youth she knew a young woman who had been married for five years, but had no children. And her husband was a rough, rude fellow, and used to taunt her and beat her often, because she was childless. But in the course of the it came to pass that a man-child was born to her; and he was beautiful to look on as an angel from heaven. And the father was so proud of the child that he often stayed at home to rock the cradle, and help his wife at the work.
One day, however, as he rocked the cradle, the child looked up suddenly at him, and lo! there was a great beard on its face. Then the father cried out to his wife--"This is not a child, but a demon! You have put an evil spell on him."
And he struck her and beat her worse than ever he had done in his life before, so that she screamed aloud for help. On this the place grew quite dark, and thunder rolled over their heads, and the door flew wide open with a great crash, and in walked two strange women, with red caps on their heads and stout sticks in their hands. And they rushed at the man, and one held his arms while the other beat him till he was nearly dead.
"We are the avengers," they said; "look on us and tremble for if you ever beat your wife again, we will come and kill you. Kneel down now, and ask her pardon."
And when the poor wretch did so, all trembling with fright, they vanished away.
"Now," said the man, when they were gone, "this house is no fit place for me. I'll leave it for ever."
So he went his way, and troubled his wife no more.
Then the child sat up in the cradle.
"Now, mother," says he, "since that man has gone, I'll tell you what you are to do. There is a holy well near this that you have never seen, but you will know it by the bunch of green rushes that grows over the mouth. Go there and stoop down and cry out aloud three times, and an old woman will come up, and whatever you want she will give it to you. Only tell no one of the well or of the woman, or evil will come of it."
So the mother promised, and went to the well, and cried out three times; and an old woman came up, and said--"'Woman, why dost thou call me?"
And the poor mother was afraid, and answered all trembling--"The child sent me, and I pray thee to do me good, and not evil."
"Come down, then, with me into the well," said the woman, "and have no fear."
So the mother held out her hand, and the other drew her down a flight of stone steps, and then they came to a massive closed door, and the old woman unlocked it and bade her enter. But the mother was afraid, and wept.
"Enter," said the other, "and fear nothing. For this is the gate of the king's palace, and you will see the queen of the fairies herself, for it is her son you are nursing; and the king, her husband, is with her on his golden throne. And have no fear, only ask no questions, and do as they order."
Then they entered into a beautiful hall, and the floor was of marble, and the walls were of solid gold, and a great light shone over everything, so that the eyes could hardly see for the light. Then they passed on into another room, and at the end of it, on a golden throne, sat the king of the fairies, He was very handsome, and beside him sat his queen, fair and beautiful to look upon, all clad in silver.
"This, madam, is the nurse of your son, the young prince," said the old woman.
The queen smiled, and bade the nurse to sit down, and asked her how she came to know of the place.
"My son it is who told her," said the king, looking very angry. But the queen soothed him, and turning to one of her ladies, said--"Bring here the other child."
Then the lady brought in an infant, and placed him in the arms of the mother.
"Take him," said the queen, "he is your own child, that we carried away, for he was so beautiful; and the boy you have at home is mine, a little elfish imp. Still, I want him back, and I have sent a man to bring him here; and you may take your own lovely child home in safety, for the fairy blessings are on him for good. And the man that beat you was not your husband at all, but our messenger, that we sent to change the children. So now go back, and you will find your own true husband at home in your own place, watching and waiting for you by day and by night."
With that the door opened, and the man who had beaten her came in; and the mother trembled and was afraid. But the man laughed, and told her not to fear, but to eat what was set before her, and then to go in peace.
So they brought. her to another hall, where was a table covered with golden dishes and beautiful flowers, and red wine in crystal cups.
"Eat," they said; "this feast has been prepared for you. As to us, we cannot touch it, for the food has been sprinkled with salt."
So she ate, and drank of the red wine, and never in all her life were so many timings set before her that were lovely and good. And, as was right and proper, after dinner was over, she stood up, and folded her hands together to give God thanks. But they stopped her, and drew her down.
"Hush!" they said, "that name is not to be named here."
There was an angry murmur in the hall. But just then beautiful music was heard, and singing like the singing of priests, and the poor mother was so enchanted that she fell on her face as one dead. And when she came to herself it was noonday, and she was standing by the door of her own house. And her husband came out and took her by the hand, and brought her in. And there was her child, more beautiful than ever, as handsome as a young prince.
"Where have you been all this while?" asked the husband.
"It is only an hour since I went away, to look for my child, that the fairies stole from me," she answered.
"An hour!" said the husband; "you have been three years away with your child! And when you were gone, a poor sickly thing was laid in the cradle--not as big as a mushroom, and I knew well it was a fairy changeling. But it so happened that one day, a tailor came by, and stopped to rest; and when he looked hard at the child, the ugly misshapen thing sat up quite straight in the cradle, and called out--
"Come now, what are you looking at? Give me four straws to play with.'
"And the tailor gave him the straws. And when he got them, the child played and played such sweet music on them as if they were pipes, that all the chairs and tables began to dance; and when he grew tired, he fell back in the cradle and dropped asleep.
" 'Now,' said the tailor, 'that child is not right; but I'll tell you what to do. Make down a great fire to begin with.'
"So we made the fire, Then the tailor shut the door, and lifted the unlucky little wretch out of the cradle, and sat it on the fire. And no sooner had the flames caught it, than it shrieked aloud and flew up the chimney and disappeared. And when everything was burned that belonged to it, I knew you would come back to me with our own fine boy. And now let us name the name of God, and make the sign of the Cross over him, and ill luck will never again fall on our house--no more for ever."
So the man and his wife lived happily from that day forth, and the child grew up and prospered, and was beautiful to look at and happy in his life; for the fairy blessings were on him of health, wealth, and prosperity, even as the queen of the fairies had promised to the mother.