Tales from Scottish Ballads
The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:
The Gay Gos-Hawk
It was the beautiful month of June, and among the bevy of fair maidens who acted as maids-of-honour to Queen Margaret at Windsor, there was none so fair as the Lady Katherine, the youngest of them all.
As she joined in a game of bowls in one of the long alleys under the elm trees, or rode out, hawk on wrist, in the great park near the castle, her merry face, with its rosy cheeks and sparkling blue eyes, was a pleasure to see. She had gay words for everyone, even for the sharp-tongued, grave-faced old Baroness who acted as governess to the Queen's maids, and kept a sharp lookout lest any of the young ladies under her charge should steal too shy glances at the pages and gentlemen-at-arms who waited on the King.
The old lady loved her in return, and pretended to be blind when she noticed, what every maid-of-honour had noticed for a fortnight, that there was one Knight in particular who was always at hand to pick up Lady Katherine's balls for her, or to hold her palfrey's rein if she wanted to alight, when she was riding in the forest.
This gallant Knight was not one of the King's gentlemen, but the son of a Scottish earl, who had been sent to Windsor with a message from the King of Scotland.
Lord William, for that was his name, was so tall, and strong, and brave, and manly, it was no wonder that little Lady Katherine fell in love with him, and preferred him to all the young English lords who were longing to lay their hearts at her feet.
So things went merrily on, in the pleasant June weather, until one sunny afternoon, when Lady Katherine was riding slowly through the park, under the shady beech trees, with Lord William, as usual, by her side. He was telling her how much he loved her, a story which he had told her very often before, and describing the old ivy-covered gray castle, far away in the North, where he would take her to live some day, when a little page, clad all in Lincoln green, ran across the park and bowed as he stopped at the palfrey's side. "Pardon, my lady," he said breathlessly, "but the Baroness Anne sent me to carry tidings to thee that thy Duchess mother hath arrived, and would speak with thee at once."
Then the bright red roses faded from the poor little lady's cheeks, for she knew well that the Duchess, who was not her real mother, but only her step-mother, wished her no good. Sorrowfully she rode up to the castle, Lord William at her side, and it seemed to both of them as if the little birds had stopped singing, and the sun had suddenly grown dim.
And it was indeed terrible tidings that the little maiden heard when she reached the room where her stern-faced step-mother awaited her. An old Marquis, a friend of her father's, who was quite old enough to be her grandfather, had announced his wish to marry her, and, as she had five sisters at home, all waiting to get a chance to become maids-of-honour, and see a little of the world, her step-mother thought it was too good an opportunity to let slip, and she had come to fetch her home.
In vain poor Lady Katherine threw herself at the Duchess's feet, and besought her to let her marry the gallant Scottish knight. Her ladyship only curled her lip and laughed. "Marry a beggarly Scot!" she said. "Not as long as I have any power in thy father's house. No, no, wench, thou knowest not what is for thy good. Where is thy waiting-maid? Let her pack up thy things at once; thou hast tarried here long enough, I trow."
So Lady Katherine was carted off, bag and baggage, to the great turreted mansion on the borders of Wales, where her five sisters and her grandfatherly old lover were waiting for her, without ever having a chance of bidding Lord William farewell.
As for that noble youth, he mounted his horse, and called his men-at-arms together, and straightway rode away to Scotland, and never halted till he reached the old gray castle, three days' ride over the Border. When he arrived there he shut himself up in the great square tower where his own apartments were, and frightened his family by growing so pale and thin that they declared he must have caught some fever in England, and had come home to die. In vain the Earl, his father, tried to persuade him to ride out with him to the chase; he cared for nothing but to be left alone to sit in the dim light of his own room, and dream of his lost love.
Now Lord William was fond of all living things, horses, and dogs, and birds; but one pet he had, which he loved above all the others, and that was a gay gos-hawk which he had found caught in a snare, one day, and had set free, and tamed, and which always sat on a perch by his window.
One evening, when he was sitting dreaming sadly of the days at Windsor, stroking his favourite's plumage meanwhile, he was startled to hear the bird begin to speak. "What mischance hath befallen thee, my master?" it said, "that thou lookest so pale and unhappy. Hast been defeated in a tourney by some Southron loon, or dost still mourn for that fair maiden, the lovely Lady Katherine? Can I not help thee?"
Then a strange light shone in Lord William's eye, and he looked at the bird thoughtfully as it nestled closer to his heart.
"Thou shalt help me, my gay gos-hawk," he whispered, "for, for this reason, methinks, thou hast received the gift of speech. Thy wings are strong, and thou canst go where I cannot, and bring no harm to my love. Thou shalt carry a letter to my dear one, and bring back an answer," and in delight at the thought, the young man rose and walked up and down the room, the gos-hawk preening its wings on his shoulder, and crooning softly to itself.
"But how shall I know thy love?" it said at last.
"Ah, that is easy," answered Lord William. "Thou must fly up and down merrie England, especially where any great mansion is, and thou canst not mistake her. She is the fairest flower of all the fair flowers that that fair land contains. Her skin is white as milk, and the roses on her cheeks are red as blood. And, outside her chamber, by a little postern, there grows a nodding birch tree, the leaves of which dance in the slightest breeze, and thou must perch thereon, and sing thy sweetest, when she goes with her sisters and maids to hear Mass in the little chapel."
That night, when all the country folk were asleep, a gay gos-hawk flew out from a window in the square tower, and sped swiftly through the quiet air, on and on, above lonely houses, and sleeping towns, and whenthe sun rose it was still flying, hovering now and then over some great castle, or lordly manor house, but never resting long, never satisfied. Day and night it travelled, up and down the country, till at last it came one evening to a great mansion on the borders of Wales, in one side of which was a tiny postern, with a high latticed window near it, and by the door grew a birch tree, whose branches nodded up and down against the panes.
"Ah," said the gos-hawk to itself, "I will rest here." And it perched on a branch, and put its head under its wing, and slept till morning, for it was very tired. As soon as the sun rose, however, it was awake, with its bright eyes ready to see whatever was to be seen.
Nor had it long to wait.
Presently the bell at the tiny chapel down by the lake began to ring, and immediately the postern opened, and a bevy of fair maidens came laughing out, books in hand, on their way to the morning Mass. They were all beautiful, but the gay gos-hawk had no difficulty in telling which was his master's love, for the Lady Katherine was the fairest of them all, and, as soon as he saw her, he began to sing as though his little throat would burst, and all the maidens stood still for a moment and listened to his song.
When they returned from the little chapel he was still singing, and when Lady Katherine went up into her chamber the song sounded more beautiful than ever. It was a strange song too, quite unlike the song of any other bird, for first there came a long soft note, and then a clear distinct one, and then some other notes which were always the same, "Your love cannot come here; your love cannot come here." So they sounded over and over again, in Lady Katherine's ears, until the roses on her cheeks disappeared, and she was white and trembling.
"To the dining-hall, maidens; tarry not for me," she said suddenly. "I would fain be alone to enjoy this lovely song." And, as the fresh morning air had made them all hungry, they obeyed her without a moment's thought.
As soon as she was alone she ran to the window and opened it, and there, just outside, sat a gay gos-hawk, with the most beautiful plumage that she had ever seen.
"Oh," she cried faintly, "I cannot understand it; but something in my heart tells me that you have seen my own dear love."
Then the gay gos-hawk put his head on one side, and whistled a merry tune; then he looked straight into her eyes and sang a low sweet one; then he pecked and pecked at one of his wings until the tender-hearted little lady took hold of him gently to see if he were hurt, and who can describe her delight and astonishment when she found a tiny letter from Lord William tied in a little roll under his wing.
The letter was very sad, and the tears came into her eyes as she read it. It told her how he had already sent her three letters which had never reached her, and how he felt as if he must soon die, he was so sick with longing for her.
When she had read it she sat for a long time thinking, with her face buried in her hands, while the gay gos-hawk preened his feathers, and crooned to himself on the window sill. At last she sprang to her feet, her eyes flashing and her mouth set determinedly. Taking a beautiful ring from her hand, she tied it with trembling fingers under the bird's wing where the letter had been.
"Tell him that with the ring I send him my heart," she whispered passionately, and the gay gos-hawk just gave one little nod with his head, and then sat quite still to hear the rest of her message. "Tell him to set his bakers and his brewers to work," she went on firmly, "to bake rich bridal cake, and brew the wedding ale, and while they are yet fresh I will meet him at the Kirk o' St Mary, the Kirk he hath so often told me of."
At these words the gay gos-hawk opened his eyes a shade wider. "Beshrew me, lady," he said to himself, "but thou talkest as if thou hadst wings"; but he knew his duty was to act and not to talk, so with one merry whistle he spread his wings, and flew away to the North.
That night, when all the people in the great house were asleep, the little postern opened very gently, and a gray-cloaked figure crept softly out. It went slowly in the shadow of the trees until it came to
the little chapel by the lake; then it ran softly and lightly through the long grass until it reached a tiny little cottage under a spreading oak tree. It tapped three times on the window, and presently a quavering old voice asked who was there.
"'Tis I, Dame Ursula; 'tis thy nursling Katherine. Open to me, I pray thee; I am in sore need of thy help."
A moment later the door was opened by a little old woman, with a white cap, and a rosy face like a wrinkled apple.
"And what need drives my little lady to me at this time of night?" she asked.
Then the maiden told her story, and made her request.
The old woman listened, shaking her head, and laughing to herself meanwhile. "I can do it, I can do it," she cried, "and 'twere worth a year's wages to see thy proud stepdame's face when thy brothers return to tell the tale." Then she drew Lady Katherine into her tiny room, and set her down on a three-legged stool by the smouldering fire, while she pottered about, and made up a draught, taking a few drops of liquid from one bottle, and a few drops from another; for this curious old woman seemed to keep quite a number of bottles, as well as various bunches of herbs, on a high shelf at one end of her kitchen.
At last she was finished, and, turning to the maiden, she handed her a little phial containing a deep red-coloured mixture.
"Swallow it all at once," she chuckled, "when thou requirest the spell to work. 'Twill last three days, and then thou wilt wake up as fresh as a lark."
Next morning the Duke and his seven sons were going a-hunting, and the courtyard rang with merry laughter as one after another came out to mount the horses which the pages held ready for them. The ladies were on the terrace waiting to wave them good-bye, when, just as the Duke was about to mount his horse, his eldest daughter, whom he loved dearly, ran into the courtyard and knelt at his feet.
"A boon, a boon, dear father," she cried, and she looked so lovely with her golden hair waving in the wind, and her bright eyes looking up into his, that he felt that he could not refuse her anything.
"Ask what thou wilt, my daughter," he said kindly, laying his hand on her head, "and I will grant it thee. Except permission to marry that Scottish squire," he added, laughing.
"That will I never ask, Sire," she said submissively; "but though thou forbiddest me to think of him, my heart yearns for Scotland, the country that he told me of, and if 'tis thy will that I marry and live in
England, I would fain be buried in the North. And as I have always had due reverence for Holy Church, I pray thee that when that day comes, as come it must some day, that thou wilt cause a Mass to be sung at the first Scotch kirk we come to, and that the bells may toll for me at the second kirk, and that at the third, at the Kirk o' St Mary, thou wilt deal out gold, and cause my body to rest there."
Then the Duke raised her to her feet.
"Talk not so, my little Katherine," he said kindly. "My Lord Marquis is a goodly man, albeit not too young, and thou wilt be a happy wife and mother yet; but if 'twill ease thy heart, child, I will remember thy fancy." Then the kind old man rode away, and Katherine went back to her sisters.
"What wert thou asking, girl?" asked her jealous step-mother with a frown as she passed.
"That I may be buried in Scotland when my time comes to die," said Katherine, bowing low, with downcast eyes, for in those days maidens had to order themselves lowly to their elders, even although they were Duke's daughters.
"And did he grant thy strange request?" went on the Duchess, looking suspiciously at the girl's burning cheeks.
"Yes, an' it please thee, Madam," answered her step-daughter meekly, and then with another low curtsey she hurried off to her own room, not waiting to hear the lady's angry words: "I wish, proud maiden, that I had had the giving of the answer, for, by my troth, I would have turned a deaf ear to thy request. Buried in Scotland, forsooth! Thou hast a lover in Scotland, and it is he thou art hankering after, and not a grave."
Two hours afterwards, when the Duke and his sons came back from hunting, they found the castle in an uproar. All the servants were running about, wringing their hands, and crying; and indeed it was little wonder, for had not Lady Katherine's waiting-woman, when she went into her young lady's room at noon, found her lying cold and white on her couch, and no one had been able to rouse her? When the poor old Duke heard this, he rushed up to her chamber, followed by all his seven sons; and when he saw her lying there, so white, and still, he covered his face with his hands, and cried out that his little Katherine, his dearly loved daughter, was dead.
But the cruel step-mother shook her head and said nothing. Somehow she did not believe that Lady Katherine was really dead, and she determined to do a very cruel thing to find out the truth. When everyone had left the room she ordered her waiting-maid, a woman who was as wicked as herself, to melt some lead, and bring it to her in an iron spoon, and when it was brought she dropped a drop on the young girl's breast; but she neither started nor screamed, so the cruel Duchess had at last to pretend to be satisfied that she was really dead, and she gave orders that she should be buried at once in the little chapel by the lake.
But the old Duke remembered his promise, and vowed that it should be performed.
So Lady Katherine's seven brothers went into the great park, and cut down a giant oak tree, and out of the trunk of it they hewed a bier, and they overlaid it with silver; while her sisters sat in the turret room and sewed a beautiful gown of white satin, which they put on Lady Katherine, and laid her on the silver bier; and then eight of her father's men-at-arms took it on their shoulders, and her seven brothers followed behind, and so the procession set out for Scotland.
And it all fell out as the old Duke had promised. At the first Scotch kirk which the procession came to, the priests sang a solemn Mass, and at the second, they caused the bells to toll mournfully, and at the third kirk, the Kirk o' St Mary, they thought to lay the maiden to rest.
But, as they came slowly up to it, what was their astonishment to find that it was surrounded by a row of spearmen, whose captain, a tall, handsome young man, stepped up to them as they were about to enter the kirk, and requested them to lay down the bier. At first Lady Katherine's seven brothers objected to this being done. "What business of the stranger's was it?" they asked, and they haughtily ordered the men-at-arms to proceed. But the young soldier gave a sign to his men, and in an instant they had crossed their spears across the doorway, and the rest surrounded the men who carried the bier, and compelled them to do as they were bid.
Then the young captain stepped forward to where Lady Katherine was lying in her satin gown, and knelt down and took hold of her hand.
Immediately the rosy colour began to come back to her cheeks, and she opened her eyes; and when they fell on Lord William--for it was he who had come to meet her at the Kirk o' St Mary, as she had bidden him--she smiled faintly and said, "I pray thee, my lord, give me one morsel of bread and a mouthful of thy good red wine, for I have fasted for three days, ever since the draught which my old nurse Ursula gave me, began to do its work."
When she had drunk the wine her strength came back, and she sprang up lightly, and a murmur of delight went round among Lord William's spearmen when they saw how lovely she was in the white satin gown which her sisters had made, and which would do beautifully for her wedding.
But her seven brothers were very angry at the trick which had been played on them, and if they had dared, they would have carried her back to England by force; but they dare not, because of all the spearmen who stood round.
"Thou wilt rue this yet, proud girl," said her eldest brother; "thou mightest have been a Marchioness in England, with land, and castles, and gold enough and to spare, instead of coming to this beggarly land, and breaking thy father's, and thy mother's heart."
Then the little lady put her hand in that of her lover, and answered quietly, "Nay, but I had no mind to wed with one who was already in his dotage; little good the lands, and castles, and gold would have done me, had I been obliged to spend my time in nursing an old man; and, as for my father, I know he will secretly rejoice when he hears, that, after all, I shall wed my own true love, who, I would have him know, is an Earl's son, although he may not be so rich as is my lord the Marquis; and, as for my cruel step-mother, 'tis no matter what she thinks."
Her brother stamped his foot in useless anger. "Then," said he, pointing to the silver bier lying forgotten on the grass, "I swear that that bier on which thou camest hither shall be the only wedding portion that thy husband will ever see of thine; mayhap poverty will bring thee to thy senses."
But his sister only laughed as she pressed closer to her bridegroom and said bravely, "Happiness is more than gold, brother, and the contented heart better than the restless one which is ever seeking riches."
So the seven brothers went back to England in a rage, while Lord William married his brave little bride in the old Kirk o' St Mary; and then they rode home to the gray ivy-covered castle, where the gay gos-hawk was waiting on the square tower to sing his very sweetest song to greet them.