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The Falcon-king

from The Old-fashioned Fairy Book - ROMANCES OF THE MIDDLE AGES





(From one of Marie's Lays.)


There lived once, in Britain, an old knight who was lord of Caerwent, a
city situated on the River Douglas. He was wealthy and avaricious, and
the sole heir to his possessions, a lovely daughter, he kept locked up
in a high tower, under the care of a cross governess. His one fear was
that this daughter would marry, and thus give some one the right to lay
claim to the gold that was dearer to him than life itself. To prevent
her from getting a husband, the old knight used every method he could
think of to keep off visitors; and any stray caller at the castle was
set upon by fierce dogs, who would tear one to pieces as soon as gnaw a
beef-bone!

Day after day the father rode off to the hunt, the governess told her
beads, and the damsel moped within the tower. One morning she was at her
wheel, singing a mournful ditty, and sighing from time to time, as she
glanced over the tree-tops at the roofs and spires of the distant city,
when suddenly the sky above her window was darkened, and she heard a
whirring noise, as of mighty wings astir. A falcon of huge size and
noble mien flew in at the casement, and lit submissively at her feet.
The maiden stroked his proud head, and at once the bird changed to a
beautiful young man, who, in a gentle voice, begged her to have no fear
of him, as he was not only a devoted lover but the humblest of her
slaves.

"Bid me go if you will," said the prince, "and deeply as I should regret
your command, you will see how quickly I shall obey it. Long have I
watched you from afar, and dearly I love you. For your sake, I have
acquired the art of magic, enabling me to assume this shape in order to
reach your prison."

"Oh! but I don't want you to go!" cried the poor little mewed-up
damsel, who was tired to death of having nobody to talk to.

As she had never seen a man younger than her father, it was a great
astonishment to her to find that the prince's hair was dark and his
cheek unwrinkled and rosy as a ripe peach.

What he meant by being a lover, she did not in the least understand.
Only, it was pleasant to hear him talk in his kind, low voice; and
praises were so rare to her, that they sounded sweet as honey dropping
from his lips.

As a matter of course, the afternoon passed quickly; but at last,
startled by the noise of a key grating in the lock of the door, the
prince quickly assumed his bird-shape, and promising to come again upon
the morrow, flew out of the window. The governess could not imagine what
had put her prisoner in such a silly state of cheerfulness, as she
thought it; and, boxing the poor girl's ears for smiling, gave her a
long piece of poetry to learn by heart, and allowed her nothing but
bread and water for her tea.

Next day the falcon came again, and for many days he continued his
visits, until the girl grew to love him as he loved her, and promised to
be his wife. Once a month the chaplain was accustomed to come to see
her, and to make her say a catechism the longest ever heard of. When
next the day came around for his visit, what was her surprise, instead
of the stern chaplain, to find a gentle and kind old priest, who, when
left alone with her, avowed himself to be a friend of the falcon-prince.

"As your father is a wicked and unworthy son of the church, and the
prince a noble and devoted one, I cannot but approve of the marriage
between you and your beloved," the old man said. "The ceremony will now
be performed, and may heaven's blessing rest upon you both."

The falcon-prince arrived at the same moment, bearing in his beak a
wedding-ring of large bright diamonds. The couple were married, and the
prince told his wife that, very soon, he would be able to furnish her
also with wings to leave the tower.

One day the governess, coming in unexpectedly, found the girl toying
with a beautiful ring, which she hurriedly concealed in her mattress.
Spite of all the governess' efforts, she could not find the jewel; nor
could she succeed in drawing from her captive any explanation of how she
had come by it. The governess told the father, who redoubled his
precautions and set spies to watch upon the outside of the tower. In a
few days, the spies reported to him that they had seen a bird of the
largest size fly in at the maiden's window, remain there for some hours,
and then fly out again.

"I'll be a match for this carrier-pigeon of hers!" said the old knight
with malicious glee. That night a trap was set upon the outside of the
window, surrounded by sharp knives, so that anything passing through it
would inevitably be caught or wounded grievously. The young wife awaited
her husband anxiously, for it was the day fixed for her escape. Soon he
arrived; but as he touched the window the trap fell, and although he
managed to pass in, a long trail of blood was left behind him.

"Lose no time, my beloved!" he said, in a voice altered by pain. "Our
enemies are upon us. Put this bracelet on your arm, and spring into the
air after me, without fear."

She obeyed, and found herself upborne by magic wings, which carried her
more swiftly than the wind over forest tops, shining river, and city
spires and domes. Glorious as was her airy flight, she could see that
her companion grew weaker. They arrived in a country adjoining the one
in which she had lived, and stopped immediately above a splendid
palace--alighting in the marble balcony of a chamber furnished with the
utmost magnificence. Here the falcon regained his man's shape, and, with
despair, his wife saw that he was deathly pale, while the blood poured
from a wound beneath his heart.

"I am dying," he exclaimed. "Help me to my bed yonder, and may heaven
grant me strength to tell my people that you are their lawful queen."

The poor wife aided her husband to lie down, but when he would have
spoken to her again, his voice was gone--a moment more, and he was dead.

And now in what a mournful plight the pretty new queen found herself!
Soon the attendants would, no doubt, come flocking into the room, to
discover their sovereign murdered in his bed, and a stranger cowering by
his side. Terror lent speed to her feet, and hastening back to the
balcony, she ran down a long flight of stairs communicating with the
outer court and garden of the palace. Thence she escaped to wander into
the forest, and until day broke again she never ceased to walk. For some
days she remained concealed in the forest, living upon fruit and
berries, until at last hunger drove her to the cottage of a poor
laborer. The wife of this man was very ill, and the queen offered to
stay and nurse her, which was gratefully accepted. So faithful and
devoted an attendant she proved that, when the woman of the house got
well, both husband and wife insisted their stranger guest should make
her home with them. In this secluded retreat, where only a stray
huntsman now and then passed by, the queen remained until a beautiful
son was born to her. And now, she felt a burning desire to have her boy
educated in a manner worthy of his father's rank; and poverty, that had
seemed so light a burden to herself, grew heavy when it weighed on him.
When the baby was three years old, a gay hunting-party passed that way,
among them a rich and childless lady, who, charmed with the beauty of
the boy, offered to adopt him on the spot.

The poor queen wept so bitterly at thought of parting with her treasure,
that the lady, who was a kind-hearted person, proposed she should
accompany them and serve in the capacity of the boy's governess.

To this plan the queen made no objection; and, bidding an affectionate
farewell to her humble friends, she took her place with the boy in a
travelling carriage sent to fetch them.

* * * * *

Years rolled on, and the child born in the forest had reached the age
of twenty-one. He was a handsome, manly youth, and skilled in all
athletic exercises. About this time, the family of his adopted mother
was invited to be present at a great religious ceremony in an abbey upon
the borders of a neighboring kingdom. Among the many attendants of the
nobles summoned for the occasion, was the real mother, who came dressed
in deep mourning and wearing a veil over her face; and one of the guests
was the wicked old knight, her father. The abbot of the monastery threw
open the doors of the chapel, that had long been sealed, and all flocked
into it. There, in the centre, stood a bier covered with cloth of gold
and surrounded by blazing wax-lights, while about it knelt an hundred
priests, at prayer. After a mass had been sung, the abbot announced that
in yonder bier lay the remains of the late king, their master, who, as
all his faithful subjects knew, was foully murdered twenty-one years
before; and that, by the terms of the king's will, found some time after
his death, the throne rightfully belonged to a lady who had been married
in secret by their sovereign, and was by him commended to their truest
love and honor. "For many long years," added the good abbot, "we have
sought vainly for the widow of our lamented ruler; not the faintest
trace of her has ever been found, and we have resolved to meet here and
choose to-day a successor to our king."

"Here is a worthy successor to your king!" cried a voice from the
throng; and the unfortunate queen, throwing back her veil, pointed to
her astonished son. "Behold the rightful heir! Who dares to say that he
is not the image of his father? I am the queen you have so long
sought, and this youth is, unknown to himself, my son. In proof of it,
here is the marriage ring given me by the king."

"And in proof of it," exclaimed a venerable priest, coming forward, "I
attest that I performed the marriage ceremony between our king and
this poor lady. Her appearance and her claim remove the seal from my
promise of secresy, and I unhesitatingly declare this youth to be our
lawful sovereign."

All eyes turned upon the young man, and all tongues proclaimed his
marvellous resemblance to the king. The abbot knelt at the young man's
feet and offered him a golden crown carried on a velvet cushion. Loud
cries of joy and cheers filled the air, when suddenly the unfortunate
queen was seen to totter toward the bier of her husband.

"I am glad to die on this spot," she said, snatching up the sword that
lay upon the tomb and placing it in her son's hand; then, bidding him
avenge the sad fate of his parents, she immediately expired. At the same
moment, a white-haired knight tried to steal away from the church; but
when the ancient priest perceived him, the fugitive was denounced as the
murderer of their king. Seized by the populace, the wretched old miser
was hurried to instant death; his grandson was carried in triumph to the
palace, and there installed as king.

The new monarch reigned long and wisely--an example for all future
sovereigns.





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