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The Tree In The Dark Wood

from The Faery Tales Of Weir





In the kingdom of the Princess Myrtle were many forests cut through with
roaring streams which dashed and danced their way over immense shining
black bowlders that looked like ebony bears lying in the current. So high
were the trees of these woods that they shut out the sun, and he who
walked through them felt himself among the columns of a gigantic temple.

In the darkest wood of all people sometimes lost their way on bitter
nights when the white stars hung just above the tree-tops and the
frost-fairies filled the air with the little snaps and crackles of their
orchestra--the queer, marred music of winter. The reddening of dawn found
these poor adventurers frozen unless they had the good fortune to find
what all the countryside knew as "The Tree in the Dark Wood."

The whispers of generations had established the fact of the existence
of this tree since the hour when the woodcutter, Peter Garland, had
wandered too far into the forest, and had been benighted on the feast
of St. Stephen when the air sometimes sings with snow. He had become
half paralyzed with the cold, his poor lantern had gone out, and he was
about to say his last prayers thinking he would never live until
morning, when suddenly, in the midst of the whirling snow, he saw
extended the limbs of a most beautiful tree. It was not so tall as the
others, and shining fruit of a delicious appearance hung upon its
branches amidst its thick foliage.

Best of all, poor, half-frozen Peter felt a wonderful warmth glowing from
its trunk, and with the warmth came a soft crimson light; so he stole up
to it as if he were a little boy and this tree were his beautiful Mother;
and he cuddled down in the arms of its great roots and went to sleep.

When he woke up it was morning; and the sun was turning the surface of
the snow into sheets of iridescent light. He yawned and stretched out his
arms, then remembering his wonderful rescue of the evening before, he
gazed upward, but saw only a tall pine tree with shining brownish cones
pendant from its branches. Where was the beautiful green summer-tree hung
with crimson fruit? Where was the light like the sun's rays through
painted glass?

"But here am I alive and warm," thought Peter. "And the night was bitter.
This tree must change its shape at the footfall of evening; and I will
mark it, lest it should be lost to us."

So taking out his knife he cut three crosses in the bark of the tree;
then setting his face to the sun, for his cottage lay to the east of the
Dark Wood, he hacked the trees all along the way; and at last emerged in
the path which led to his dwelling. His wife and all the neighbors, who
had given him up for dead, came running to meet him with cries of joy;
but when he told them what had happened they tapped their foreheads and
glanced at each other. "Poor man," they said, "the frost-king hath stolen
his wits."

"But I marked the tree with three crosses," he cried, "and I can lead you
straight to it."

They laughed, but to humor him they said he might take them to his
wonderful tree after dinner, when hot soup had given them all courage; so
that afternoon there was a long procession of people trudging through the
Dark Wood with Peter at their head. By the time he arrived at the tree he
was trembling like a leaf with excitement. There, sure enough, stood a
tall pine-tree marked with the three crosses, but it was otherwise in no
way different from its fellows. "Yes, but wait for evening; then you will
see it change," said Peter.

They laughed a little and grumbled a little; but most of them had filled
their lanterns and brought bread and cheese against a hungry time, and
after all, it was not so cold in the forest, for the North Wind with his
blue ballooned cheeks could not blow hard down those long avenues. Peter
was full of excitement, for he was sure that the tree would become
magical as soon as the sun set.

When the last splashes of crimson had faded from the topmost boughs he
began anxiously to watch the tree about which all the villagers had
seated themselves in a circle after first scraping the snow from the dead
leaves. Darker and darker grew the air, and brighter the stars, while far
off in the forest the great cats began to talk to each other, and the
owls hooted and flew. Suddenly Peter gave a cry of joy. "See! See! the
wonderful fruit, the glowing leaves!"

"Nonsense!" said his wife. "O, poor loon, he will never be right again!"
and she began to weep into her apron.

"It is true! It is true!" cried another voice, that of hard-worked Bennie
Brown, who supported an old father and mother and a crippled sister by
his labors.

"Yes, it is the most beautiful tree," said a young girl, who had once
sold her golden hair to buy bread for a mother with a new-born child. "O
the wonderful fruit! the sweet warmth."

The others stared and rubbed their eyes; and looked angry. "You lie,
Bennie!" one cried; "You are a silly girl, Elsa," shrieked another.

"They speak truth. See you not the crimson light?" spoke grave Henry
Baird, who had rescued many from drowning in the mountain streams.

Those who did not see grew more and more furious. "Crazy people," they
cried. "Loons! silly babblers! will you teach us?" Then some began to
beat Peter; others to belabor young Elsa, at which Bennie ran to her
rescue, and being as brave as he was good, laid about him with his fists,
and cried "Shame on you, to hurt a woman, because your own eyes are
blind." Soon everyone was fighting, but those who saw the tree felt a
great strength in all their limbs, and warmth and joy; so that they soon
escaped from the brawling disappointed ones and ran lightly homeward with
singing hearts.

But the dispute thus started went on through many months until half the
village refused to speak to the other half. Finally a good old hermit
traveled over the ridges of the mountains and forded many streams to
reach a place which had become famous by its quarrel. He arrived in
harvest time. Those who knew that the tree glowed with life were in the
fields quietly at work, for what had they to trouble them who had found
the truth? but the others who could not see were leaning over each
other's fences with their neglected gardens at their impatient heels; and
arguing and arguing the matter.

The hermit being a wise man asked no direct questions concerning the
tree, but went himself that evening into the forest and there beheld
the miracle.

Next day he made friends with the villagers; and because warm words open
the heart, soon the good hermit had the life histories of all the
inhabitants, as well as the names of those who had seen the tree and
those whose sight was blinded.

After which he retired into the wood to think upon what he had learned;
and to sort out his people like little colored beads. What he discovered
was this: that all those who had made sacrifices for their fellows, like
Bennie Brown and young Elsa, were able to see the tree, but the selfish
and the hard-hearted and the indifferent could not behold it.

When he was quite sure of this he went calmly back to the village and
calling together all the inhabitants he told them exactly why some saw
the tree and why it was hidden from the sight of others. These latter
only laughed at his words, though some of them were cut to the heart, but
they were too proud to reveal the wound.

The hermit's explanation, however, was accepted by many; and rumor
carried it far beyond the borders of the village, so that after a while
the nobility heard of it, and the burghers in the walled towns where
beautiful tapestries were always drowsing into wonderful life on looms
that could weave dreams. The result was that it grew quite fashionable to
journey to the tree to make a test of one's character, as people go to
physicians to have their blood examined. In the bright summer evenings
long processions could be seen winding like a varicolored serpent among
the gray trees. Swords flashed, banners flew, troubadours sang snatches
of little lilting airs like the rise and dip of birds' wings, and
beautiful ladies jingled the golden bridles of their steeds.

Few of these ladies brought their betrothed with them, lest they should
be made ashamed by not being able to see the tree; and should thereby be
discovered as possessing hard hearts beneath their sweet manners. It was
rumored, indeed, that people known to be selfish and cruel had
proclaimed, nevertheless, that they beheld a glorious tree, so that liars
were made, and hypocrites. Others said this was but the jealousy of
disappointed ones whose own lives had blurred their eyesight.

Now in the realm dwelt a splendid young knight whose name was Sir
Godfrey, and who took pleasure in all manner of chivalrous deeds towards
the ladies of his own rank. He was tall and strong-limbed, with clear
blue eyes, and a fresh skin, and when he wore his golden armor he looked
like the pictures of St. George. His home was a low-set castle of aged
stones held together by a vast ivy vine, and around the castle was a moat
so deep that it gave back a midnight darkness to the noon sky.

Now Sir Godfrey was in love with the Lady Beatrice whose lands adjoined
his. She was pale and slender as any lily, with black heavy hair that had
no light in it, but in her heart was much light; and because her soul
mirrored more than her eyes, she did not love easily, which reluctance of
hers was a grief to Sir Godfrey, who pressed his suit in vain.

One day when the roses were full-blown and all the little lambs were
skipping in the broad green fields, Sir Godfrey rode on his great white
horse towards the castle of the Lady Beatrice which was high up on a
hill, and faced the dawn. And he proudly rode because he saw that she was
watching him from the rose-terraces. But after a while he beheld her no
more, and he thought, "She knows I know she was watching." Pride put a
smile on his lips, because she had never watched for him before.

He spurred his horse to reach her the quicker while she was in this mood.
Now just before he gained the gate of the castle a goose-girl with her
geese blocked the road, and he cried impatiently, "Out of the way! out of
the way!" and scarcely reined in his horse, so that there was danger of
the girl's being hurt. She was quick on her feet, however, and sprang
aside, but one poor bird was trampled under the steed's hoofs, at which
the girl gave a sob and called out, "You are wicked, wicked!" Then he put
his hand in his purse and drew out some gold pieces and flung them
towards her; but she did not see them, for her face was buried in the
down of the bird, which was a pet.

When he reached the gate, there in the shadow of the arch stood the Lady
Beatrice. Her face was as white as a gardenia flower, and she did not
smile when she greeted him. He wondered what he had done to offend her,
and after a page had led away his horse he employed all his graceful arts
to win the smile he craved as a thirsty man longs for water. Sometimes
she glanced at him from beneath her lashes as if seeking to read his
soul; and once he saw her lips tremble, but the smile did not come.

They were pacing up and down between the nodding roses that seemed to be
saying to Sir Godfrey, "Kiss her! kiss her!" until no longer could he
bear it, and he sank on one knee before her and poured out his heart.

She listened like a maiden turned to snow. Then when he was silent she
spoke thus to him: "Will you go with me and my ladies to the Tree in the
Dark Wood this very night? If you can behold the Tree filled with fruit
and rosy flame I will marry you, if not I cannot be your bride. But you
must promise me upon the cross-hilt of your sword that you will speak
truthfully. You must not deceive me to gain my hand."

Then Sir Godfrey gave his word joyfully, for he was sure that he would
behold the magical Tree. He thought of all his noble deeds and the
beautiful ladies for whose sake he had tilted in tourney; and of all his
prowess as a knight in king's courts.

So when the sun was low, he with Lady Beatrice and her train of ladies
rode forth from the gates towards the Dark Wood which lay like a cloud
in the distance; and Sir Godfrey was full of song and jest, for he
never doubted that soon he would be the betrothed of his beautiful
lady; but she was silent and looked often towards the west where the
rosy clouds slept.

When the procession entered the wood it was as if the gray spaces had
turned all at once into a garden. Flashes of jewels and silks threw magic
colors on the twilight, and the troubadours in the train sang so sweetly
that all the birds were mute. As night came on the, pretty little
lanterns were lit and swung at the horses' bridles.

The Tree was nearly reached when Lady Beatrice halted her procession and
bade it await her and Sir Godfrey, for she loved him too well to have him
mortified before other people; and she feared that he would not behold
the glowing fruit-bearing Tree. But never a doubt crossed his mind, for
he remembered all his noble deeds that he had performed beneath the eyes
of gallant knights and fair ladies.

So they rode on to the Tree, and he unhooked the lantern from his saddle
and held it high.

"Why do you do that?" asked the Lady Beatrice.

"To find the three crosses," he said.

"But the Tree is glowing like a jewel," she cried.

Then he grew gray as the ashes of a long-spent fire, for he knew that he
had failed; and his pride suffered a mortal wound, since it was greater
than his love. "You are deceived, Lady Beatrice, like all the rest," he
said. "There is no magic Tree."

For answer she turned her horse and rode sadly away. Her heart was too
heavy for speech. As he saw her going the sense of loss cut like a
knife into his spirit, and his pain was keen, for he still loved for
his sake and not for hers. She, seeing that he suffered, longed to
comfort him, but she was not one of those who live for the moment, and
she held her peace.

When they reached the waiting procession everyone looked at Sir Godfrey,
and his pride was, by the challenge of their eyes, again aroused, for he
could do nothing, nor feel nothing unless he was before a mirror. So he
began to be very gay; and though he would have scorned to speak a lie, he
acted one that everyone might believe he had seen the magic Tree. But the
Lady Beatrice remained silent and sad. When they reached her gates he
asked her permission to enter; then she said: "Some day, not now."

He rode away without a jest, for she had never before refused him any
courtesy, and his heart was heavy within him. That night he could not
sleep, but tossed upon his bed, sometimes grieving because he had not
seen the magic Tree and so had been made of no worth in the Lady
Beatrice's eyes; sometimes in anguish because she had not allowed him to
enter her gates.

But in all this he loved himself, so the pain was but transitory, and
next day he put on his finest doublet of leaf-green satin lined with
primrose silk and edged with pale corals, and rode to her gates. There
the porter brought back word that the Lady Beatrice could not see him.

Sir Godfrey was angry then, and he sought to make her jealous. Next day
when at the jousts, he sat at the feet of her cousin, Lady Alladine, nor
did he look towards the Lady Beatrice.

But all that only heaped fire on his own heart, and he rode home to his
castle with his brow dark. The singing birds seemed to mock him, and he
thought he heard the shrill laughter of the goblin-men, who live in the
deep dells. That night he could not sleep; but murmured again and again
that she was his own love, and not the Lady Alladine.

So full of meekness he rode next day to the castle of his heart's life,
but the porter brought back to him the same message, and Sir Godfrey
departed full of anguish. His pain, like a scourge, drove him on and on
until he was far off in the desert amid the tangled and tripping briers
and the keen-edged stones. The rain beat upon his head and upon his
silken clothes, but he was unmindful of it, because he had begun to
grieve not for himself, but for his sweet lost love.

The days went by and he grew thin and worn with his grieving; and because
he learned how salt is the taste of tears he began to pity everything
that suffered. He was well-nigh worn out with his memories, for now he
never thought of his noble deeds, but of the times when he had given pain
to others. Often he remembered the poor goose-girl and her birds. At
first he would say, "I gave her gold"; then a voice in his heart
answered, "Gold cannot pay for life."

So one day he went to the market-place and bought a fine gray goose with
a bill as red as a cardinal's robe; and he tucked the bird under his arm,
though the people jeered to see a noble knight carrying a goose. But Sir
Godfrey cared not. He went straight to the village green where the
goose-girl was leading her birds around, and bowed low before her as if
she were a great lady.

"I am sorry that I killed one of your flock," he said. "Will you take
this fellow for forgiveness's sake?"

Then the tears came into her eyes, and she took into her arms from his
the gray goose whose bill was red as a cardinal's robe; and stroked
his feathers.

"Why do you cry?" asked Sir Godfrey.

"I am glad you are a true knight," she answered.

Then Sir Godfrey wished with all his heart that he might bring tears to
the eyes of the Lady Beatrice, for he felt that never more would she
believe him a true knight.

The world was full of flying leaves, for it was autumn; then the winds
died and the snows came. Bitter winter chained the mountain streams and
laid the forests asleep. The stars shone blue, and on the windowpanes
were fairy pictures.

Now the time drew near the birth of Christ, and one day Sir Godfrey
was overjoyed to receive a message from the Lady Beatrice, bidding him
to a feast on Christmas Eve. It seemed to him that he could not wait
for the hour to come, and all that day he thought upon the joy of
beholding her again.

Towards nightfall the wind rose and the snow began to fly, but to Sir
Godfrey it was as if the air were full of dainty flowers. Nor did he
regard the cold nor the whistling tempest, but rode in deep joy and
humility to the castlegate of the Lady Beatrice.

When he had nearly reached it he heard a feeble voice crying: "Stop, Sir
Knight; for the love of heaven, stop!" and looking down he saw a bent old
woman holding her hands out to him in supplication.

Every moment's delay was as the point of a sharp sword against his heart,
but he had himself suffered too much to turn from the voice of pain; and
leaning from his saddle he said, "What can I do for you, Mother?"

"Sir Knight," she replied, "my home lies on the farther side of the Dark
Wood, and the neighbor who was to convey me thither has no doubt
forgotten his promise. I have a sick son there for whose sake I made this
journey. Wilt thou, for the love of heaven, take me up behind thee and
convey me through the Dark Wood to my dwelling? I cannot walk through
this tempest, and my son may die."

Then Sir Godfrey was as a man turned into marble by enchantment, and his
heart was sore with struggle. Before him were the lights of the castle
which held his love. If he carried this woman to her home, he could not
see his Lady Beatrice, who, perhaps, would never forgive him for not
appearing at her summons.

The thought was as death to him, and he looked broodingly down at the
poor woman. "I am bidden to a feast, Mother," he said, "the porter of
this castle will give you shelter for the night, and in the morning I
will convey you through the Dark Wood to your home."

"The morning may be too late, Sir Knight," she said sadly.

Then without a word Sir Godfrey turned his horse, and though his heart
was like lead, he bent a cheerful countenance to the stranger, and
assisted her to the place behind the saddle, and off they rode together
through the night and storm.

Sir Godfrey spoke but little, since his thoughts were with the Lady
Beatrice and the empty chair at the feast which should have been his. He
saw her face imprinted on the night's dark veil and heard her voice
calling him on the whistling wind. The old woman behind him muttered of
the storm while on and on they rode.

At last they entered the Dark Wood, and here they made slower progress,
for the light of Sir Godfrey's little lantern was feeble and the trees
cast confusing shadows. By and by the old woman began to moan that she
was cold, that she felt herself dying of the cold. "O would that we could
reach the Tree which sheds warmth and bears fruit even in this bitter
weather," she cried. "O Knight, hasten forward to the Tree."

But Sir Godfrey made no answer, for he was now sure that he should never
be holy enough to behold the Tree; and he, too, felt the sorrow and cold
of death creep upon him, and a dreadful fear that never again should he
leave the Dark Wood alive, but would perish there miserably. He could no
longer see the path, and the arms of the old woman clinging to him were
like the touch of ice. "O Mother!" he cried, "Pray for our deliverance,
for I have lost the road."

At that moment his lantern went out, and he gave a cry of despair, for he
had nothing wherewith to relight it.

"Fear not," cried the old woman, "but press on."

So through the dark he urged his horse, seeing nothing and feeling more
dead than alive; for he now knew that both he and his passenger must
perish of the cold.

But even as he was resigning his heart to the will of heaven, he saw afar
off a beautiful, clear, rosy light shedding long rays over the snow, and
where the light lay the snowflakes fell no more, but a delicate breeze,
soft and caressing, issued like a breath of spring from that circle. The
old woman cried, "The Tree! the Tree!"

Sir Godfrey's heart leaped with joy. He could not believe that he was
at last worthy to behold the Tree, yet there it rose, oh, so glorious!
its trunk glowing with a sweet, warm fire, its branches covered with
lights and heavy with delicious fruit. He laughed with joy, while the
old woman softly wept. Even the horse saw the fine sight, for he
whinnied his pleasure.

Then the knight dismounted and turned to lift the old woman down, when
suddenly she threw back her hood, and straightened herself; and there,
smiling into his eyes, was his own love, the Lady Beatrice. "O my true
Knight," she cried. "For the sake of a stranger thou didst brave death.
Now with thy love shalt thou live."

Then Sir Godfrey cried out with joy and took her in his arms and kissed
her many times, while from behind the Tree came running all the
true-hearted nobles and peasants who had been able to see its wonders,
and they all circled Sir Godfrey and the Lady Beatrice while they
plighted their troth. Then all ate the fruit, and made merry in the rosy
warmth until the Christmas morning dawned, when they went back in the
sunshine to celebrate the marriage of Sir Godfrey and the Lady Beatrice,
who lived happily ever afterwards; for how otherwise could it be with
lovers that had together beheld the Tree in the Dark Wood?





Next: The Cat That Winked

Previous: The Invisible Wall



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