Tales from Scottish Ballads
The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:
It was the Court of France: the gayest, and the brightest, and the merriest court in the whole world. For there the sun seemed always to be shining, and the nobles, and the fair Court ladies did not know what care meant.
In all the palace there was only one maiden who wore a sad and troubled look, and that was Burd Isbel, the King's only daughter.
A year before she had been the lightest-hearted maiden in France. Her face had been like sunshine, and her voice like rippling music; but now all was changed. She crept about in silence, with pale cheeks, and clouded eyes, and the King, her father, was in deep distress.
He summoned all the great doctors, and offered them all manner of rewards if only they would give him back, once more, his light-hearted little daughter. But they shook their heads gravely; for although doctors can do many things, they have not yet found out the way to make heavy hearts light again.
All the same these doctors knew what ailed the Princess, but they dare not say so. That would have been to mention a subject which nearly threw the King into a fit whenever he thought of it.
For just a year before, a brave young Scottish Knight had come over to France to take service at the King's Court. His name was Young Bekie, and he was so strong and so noble that at first the King had loved him like a son. But before long the young man had fallen in love with Burd Isbel, and of course Burd Isbel had fallen in love with him, and he had gone straight to the King, and asked him if he might marry her;--and then the fat was in the fire.
For although the stranger seemed to be brave, and noble, and good, and far superior to any Frenchman, he was not of royal birth, and the King declared that it was a piece of gross impertinence on his part ever to think of marrying a king's daughter.
It was in vain that the older nobles, who had known Burd Isbel since she was a child, begged for pity for the young man, and pointed out his good qualities; the King would not listen to them, but stamped, and stormed, and raged with anger. He gave orders that the poor young Knight should be shut up in prison at once, and threatened to take his life; and he told his daughter sharply that she was to think no more about him.
But Burd Isbel could not do that, and she used to creep to the back of the prison door, when no one was near, and listen wistfully, in the hope that she might hear her lover's voice. For a long time she was unsuccessful, but one day she heard him bemoaning his hard fate--to be kept a prisoner in a foreign land, with no chance of sending a message to Scotland of the straits that he was in.
"Oh," he murmured piteously to himself, "if only I could send word home to Scotland to my father, he would not leave me long in this vile prison. He is rich, and he would spare nothing for my ransom. He would send a trusty servant with a bag of good red gold, and another of bonnie white silver, to soften the cruel heart of the King of France."
Then she heard him laugh bitterly to himself.
"There is little chance that I will escape," he muttered, "for who is likely to carry a message to Scotland for me? No, no, my bones will rot here; that is clear enough. And yet how willingly I would be a slave, if I could escape. If only some great lady needed a servant, I would gladly run at her horse's bridle if she could gain me my liberty. If only a widow needed a man to help her, I would promise to be a son to her, if she could obtain my freedom. Nay, if only some poor maiden would promise to wed me, and crave my pardon at the King's hand, I would in return carry her to Scotland, and dower her with all my wealth; and that is not little, for am I not master of the forests, and the lands, and the Castle of Linnhe?"
Many a maiden would have been angry had she heard her lover speak these words; but Burd Isbel loved him too much to be offended at anything which he said, so she crept away to her chamber with a determined look on her girlish face.
"'Tis not for thy lands or thy Castle," she whispered, "but for pure love of thee. Love hath made maidens brave ere now, and it will make them brave again."
That night, when all the palace was quiet, Burd Isbel wrapped herself in a long gray cloak, and crept noiselessly from her room. She might have been taken for a dark shadow, had it not been for her long plait of lint-white hair and her little bare feet, which peeped out and in beneath the folds of her cloak, as she stole down the great polished staircase.
Silently she crept across the hall, and peeped into the guard-room.
All the guards were asleep, and, on the wall above their heads hung the keys of the palace, and beside them a great iron key. That was the key of the prison. She stole across the floor on tip-toe, making no more noise than a mouse, and, stretching up her hand, she took down the heavy key, and hid it under her cloak. Then she sped quickly out of the guard-room, and through a turret door, into a dark courtyard where the prison was. She fitted the key in the lock. It took all her strength to turn it, but she managed it at last, and, shutting the door behind her, she went into the little cell where Young Bekie was imprisoned.
A candle flickered in its socket on the wall, and by its light she saw him lying asleep on the cold stone floor. She could not help giving a little scream when she saw him, for there were three mice and two great rats sitting on the straw at his head, and they had nibbled away nearly all his long yellow hair, which she had admired so much when first he came to Court. His beard had grown long and rough too, for he had had no razors to shave with, and altogether he looked so strange that she hardly knew him.
At the sound of her voice he woke and started up, and the mice and the rats scampered away to their holes. He knew her at once, and in a moment he forgot his dreams of slaves, and widows, and poor maidens. He sprang across the floor, and knelt at her feet, and kissed her little white hands.
"Ah," he said, "now would I stay here for ever, if I might always have thee for a companion."
But Burd Isbel was a sensible maiden, and she knew that if her lover meant to escape, he must make haste, and not waste time in making pretty speeches. She knew also that if he went out of prison looking like a beggar or a vagabond, he would soon be taken captive again, so she hurried back to the palace, and went hither and thither noiselessly with her little bare feet, and presently she returned with her hands full of parcels.
She had brought a comb to comb the hair which the rats had left on his head, and a razor for him to shave himself with, and she had brought five hundred pounds of good red money, so that he might travel like a real Knight.
Then, while he was making his toilet, she went into her father's stable, and led out a splendid horse, strong of limb, and fleet of foot, and on it she put a saddle and a bridle which had been made for the King's own charger.
Finally, she went to the kennels, and, stooping down, she called softly, "Hector, Hector."
A magnificent black hound answered her call and came and crouched at her feet, fawning on them and licking them. After him came three companions, all the same size, and all of them big enough to kill a man.
These dogs belonged to Burd Isbel, and they were her special pets. A tear rolled down her face as she stooped and kissed their heads.
"I am giving you to a new master, darlings," she said. "See and guard him well."
Then she led them to where the horse was standing, saddled and bridled; and there, beside him, stood Young Bekie. Now that his beard was trimmed, and his hair arranged, he looked as gallant, and brave, and noble as ever.
When Burd Isbel told him that the money, and the hounds, and the horse with its harness, were all his, he caught her in his arms, and swore that there had never been such a brave and generous maiden born before, and that he would serve her in life and death.
Then, as time was pressing, and the dawn was beginning to break, they had to say farewell; but before they did so, they vowed a solemn vow that they would be married to each other within three years. After this Burd Isbel opened the great gate, and her lover rode away, with money in his pocket, and hounds by his side, like the well-born Knight that he was; and nobody who met him ever imagined that he was an escaped prisoner, set free by the courage of the King's daughter.
* * * * *
Alas, alas, for the faithfulness of men! Young Bekie was brave, and gentle, and courteous, but his will was not very strong, and he liked to be comfortable. And it came about that, after he had been back in Scotland for a year, the Scotch King had a daughter for whom he wanted to find a husband, and he made up his mind that Young Bekie would be the very man for her.
So he proposed that he should marry her, and was quite surprised and angry when the young man declined.
"It is an insult to my daughter," he said, and he determined to force Bekie to do as he wanted, by using threats. So he told the Knight, that, if he agreed to marry his daughter, he would grow richer and richer, but, if he refused, he would lose all his lands, and the Castle of Linnhe.
Poor Young Bekie! I am afraid he was not a hero, for he chose to marry the Princess and keep his lands, and he tried to put the thought of Burd Isbel and what she had done for him, and the solemn vow that he had made to her, out of his head.
Meanwhile Burd Isbel lived on at her father's court, and because her heart was full of faith and love, it grew light and merry again, and she began to dance and to sing as gaily as ever.
But early one morning she woke up with a start, and there, at the foot of her bed, stood the queerest little manikin that she had ever seen. He was only about a foot high, and he was dressed all in russet brown, and his face was just like a wrinkled apple.
"Who art thou?" she cried, starting up, "and what dost thou want?"
"My name is Billy Blin," said the funny old man. "I am a Brownie, and I come from Scotland. My family all live there, and we are all very kind-hearted, and we like to help people. But it is no time to be talking of my affairs, for I have come to help thee. I have just been wondering how thou couldst lie there and sleep so peacefully when this is Young Bekie's wedding day. He is to be married at noon."
"Oh, what shall I do? what shall I do?" cried poor Burd Isbel in deep distress. "It is a long way from France to Scotland, and I can never be there in time."
Billie Blin waved his little hand. "I will manage it for thee," he said, "if thou wilt only do what I tell thee. Go into thy mother's chamber as fast as thou canst, and get two of thy mother's maids-of-honour. And, remember, thou must be careful to see that they are both called Mary. Then thou must dress thyself in thy most beautiful dress. Thou hast a scarlet dress, I know, which becomes thee well, for I have seen thee wear it. Nay, be not surprised; we Brownies can see people when they do not see us. Put that dress on, and let thy Maries be dressed all in green. And in thy father's treasury there are three jewelled belts, each of them worth an earl's ransom. These thou must get, and clasp them round thy waists, and steal down to the sea-shore, and there, on the water, thou wilt see a beautiful Dutch boat. It will come to the shore for thee, and thou must step in, and greet the crew with a Mystic Greeting. Then thy part is done. I will do the rest."
The Brownie vanished, and Burd Isbel made haste to do exactly what he had told her to do.
She ran to her mother's room, and called to two maids called Mary to come and help her to dress. Then she put on her lovely scarlet robe, and bade them attire themselves in green, and she took the jewelled girdles out of the treasury, and gave one to each of them to put on; and when they were dressed they all went down to the sea-shore.
There, on the sea, as the Brownie had promised, was a beautiful Dutch boat, with its sails spread. It came dancing over the water to them, and when Burd Isbel stepped on board, and greeted the sailors with a Mystic Greeting, they turned its prow towards Scotland, and Billy Blin appeared himself, and took the helm.
Away, away, sailed the ship, until it reached the Firth of Tay, and there, high up among the hills, stood the Castle of Linnhe.
When Burd Isbel and her maidens went to the gate they heard beautiful music coming from within, and their hearts sank. They rang the bell, and the old porter appeared.
"What news, what news, old man?" cried Burd Isbel. "We have heard rumours of a wedding here, and would fain know if they be true or no?"
"Certs, Madam, they are true," he answered; "for this very day, at noon, the Master of this place, Young Bekie, will be married to the King of Scotland's daughter."
Then Burd Isbel felt in her jewelled pouch, and drew out three merks. "Take these, old man," she said, "and bid thy master speak to me at once."
The porter did as he was bid, and went upstairs to the great hall, where all the wedding guests were assembled. He bent low before the King, and before the Queen, and then he knelt before his young lord.
"I have served thee these thirty and three years, Sire," he said, "but never have I seen ladies come to the gate so richly attired as the three who wait without at this moment. There is one of them clad in scarlet, such scarlet as I have never seen, and two are clad in green, and they have girdles round their waists which might well pay an earl's ransom."
When the Scottish Princess heard these words, she tossed her head haughtily. She was tall and buxom, and she was dressed entirely in cloth of gold.
"Lack-a-day," she said, "what a to-do about three strangers! This old fool may think them finely dressed, but I warrant some of us here are every whit as fine as they."
But Young Bekie sprang to his feet. He knew who it was, and the thought of his ingratitude brought the tears to his eyes.
"I'll wager my life 'tis Burd Isbel," he cried, "who has come over the sea to seek me."
Then he ran downstairs, and sure enough it was Burd Isbel.
He clasped her in his arms, and kissed her, and now that he had her beside him, it seemed to him as if he had never loved anyone else.
But the wedding guests came trooping out, and when they heard the story
they shook their heads.
"A likely tale," they cried. "Who is to believe it? If she be really the King of France's daughter, how came she here alone, save for those two maidens?"
But some of them looked at the jewelled girdles, and held their peace.
Then Burd Isbel spoke out clearly and simply. "I rescued my love out of prison," she said, "and gave him horse and hounds. And if the hounds know me not, then am I proved false." So saying she raised her voice. "Hector, Hector," she cried, and lo! the great black hound came bounding out of its kennel, followed by its companions, and lay down fawning at her feet, and licked them.
Then the wedding guests knew that she had told the truth, and they turned their eyes on Young Bekie, to see what he would do. He, on his part, was determined that he would marry Burd Isbel, let happen what might.
"Take home your daughter again," he cried impatiently to the King, "and my blessing go with her; for she sought me ere I sought her. This is my own true love; I can wed no other."
"Nay," answered the King, in angry astonishment, "but this thing cannot be. Whoever heard of a maiden being sent home unwed, when the very wedding guests were assembled? I tell thee it cannot be."
In despair Young Bekie turned to the lady herself. "Good lack, Madam," he cried, "is there no one else whom thou canst marry? There is many a better and manlier man than I, who goes seeking a wife. There, for instance, stands my cousin John. He is taller and stronger than I, a better fighter, and a right good man. Couldst thou not accept him for a husband? If thou couldst, I would pay him down five hundred pounds of good red gold on his wedding day."
A murmur of displeasure ran through the crowd of wedding guests at this bold proposal, and the King grasped his sword in a rage. But, to everyone's amazement, the Princess seemed neither displeased nor daunted. She blushed rosy red, and smiled softly.
"Keep thy money to thyself, Bekie," she answered. "Thy cousin John and I have no need of it. Neither doth he require a bribe to make him willing to take me for his wife. To speak truth, we loved each other long ere I set eyes on thee, and 'twas but the King, my father, who would have none of him. Perchance by now he hath changed his mind."
So there were two weddings in the Castle of Linnhe instead of one. Young Bekie married Burd Isbel, and his cousin John married the King's daughter, and they "lived happy, happy, ever after."