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Thomas The Rhymer

from The Scottish Fairy Book





Of all the young gallants in Scotland in the thirteenth century, there
was none more gracious and debonair than Thomas Learmont, Laird of the
Castle of Ercildoune, in Berwickshire.

He loved books, poetry, and music, which were uncommon tastes in those
days; and, above all, he loved to study nature, and to watch the habits
of the beasts and birds that made their abode in the fields and woods
round about his home.

Now it chanced that, one sunny May morning, Thomas left his Tower of
Ercildoune, and went wandering into the woods that lay about the Huntly
Burn, a little stream that came rushing down from the slopes of the
Eildon Hills. It was a lovely morning--fresh, and bright, and warm, and
everything was so beautiful that it looked as Paradise might look.

The tender leaves were bursting out of their sheaths, and covering all
the trees with a fresh soft mantle of green; and amongst the carpet of
moss under the young man's feet, yellow primroses and starry anemones
were turning up their faces to the morning sky.

The little birds were singing like to burst their throats, and hundreds
of insects were flying backwards and forwards in the sunshine; while
down by the burnside the bright-eyed water-rats were poking their noses
out of their holes, as if they knew that summer had come, and wanted to
have a share in all that was going on.

Thomas felt so happy with the gladness of it all, that he threw himself
down at the root of a tree, to watch the living things around him.

As he was lying there, he heard the trampling of a horse's hooves, as it
forced its way through the bushes; and, looking up, he saw the most
beautiful lady that he had ever seen coming riding towards him on a grey
palfrey.

She wore a hunting dress of glistening silk, the colour of the fresh
spring grass; and from her shoulders hung a velvet mantle, which matched
the riding-skirt exactly. Her yellow hair, like rippling gold, hung
loosely round her shoulders, and on her head sparkled a diadem of
precious stones, which flashed like fire in the sunlight.

Her saddle was of pure ivory, and her saddle-cloth of blood-red satin,
while her saddle girths were of corded silk and her stirrups of cut
crystal. Her horse's reins were of beaten gold, all hung with little
silver bells, so that, as she rode along, she made a sound like fairy
music.

Apparently she was bent on the chase, for she carried a hunting-horn and
a sheaf of arrows; and she led seven greyhounds along in a leash, while
as many scenting hounds ran loose at her horse's side.

As she rode down the glen, she lilted a bit of an old Scotch song; and
she carried herself with such a queenly air, and her dress was so
magnificent, that Thomas was like to kneel by the side of the path and
worship her, for he thought that it must be the Blessed Virgin herself.

But when the rider came to where he was, and understood his thoughts,
she shook her head sadly.

"I am not that Blessed Lady, as thou thinkest," she said. "Men call me
Queen, but it is of a far other country; for I am the Queen of
Fairy-land, and not the Queen of Heaven."

And certainly it seemed as if what she said were true; for, from that
moment, it was as if a spell were cast over Thomas, making him forget
prudence, and caution, and common-sense itself.

For he knew that it was dangerous for mortals to meddle with Fairies,
yet he was so entranced with the Lady's beauty that he begged her to
give him a kiss. This was just what she wanted, for she knew that if she
once kissed him she had him in her power.

And, to the young man's horror, as soon as their lips had met, an awful
change came over her. For her beautiful mantle and riding-skirt of silk
seemed to fade away, leaving her clad in a long grey garment, which was
just the colour of ashes. Her beauty seemed to fade away also, and she
grew old and wan; and, worst of all, half of her abundant yellow hair
went grey before his very eyes. She saw the poor man's astonishment and
terror, and she burst into a mocking laugh.

"I am not so fair to look on now as I was at first," she said, "but that
matters little, for thou hast sold thyself, Thomas, to be my servant for
seven long years. For whoso kisseth the Fairy Queen must e'en go with
her to Fairy-land, and serve her there till that time is past."

When he heard these words poor Thomas fell on his knees and begged for
mercy. But mercy he could not obtain. The Elfin Queen only laughed in
his face, and brought her dapple-grey palfrey close up to where he was
standing.

"No, no," she said, in answer to his entreaties. "Thou didst ask the
kiss, and now thou must pay the price. So dally no longer, but mount
behind me, for it is full time that I was gone."

So Thomas, with many a sigh and groan of terror, mounted behind her; and
as soon as he had done so, she shook her bridle rein, and the grey steed
galloped off.

On and on they went, going swifter than the wind; till they left the
land of the living behind, and came to the edge of a great desert, which
stretched before them, dry, and bare, and desolate, to the edge of the
far horizon.

At least, so it seemed to the weary eyes of Thomas of Ercildoune, and
he wondered if he and his strange companion had to cross this desert;
and, if so, if there were any chance of reaching the other side of it
alive.

But the Fairy Queen suddenly tightened her rein, and the grey palfrey
stopped short in its wild career.

"Now must thou descend to earth, Thomas," said the Lady, glancing over
her shoulder at her unhappy captive, "and lout down, and lay thy head on
my knee, and I will show thee hidden things, which cannot be seen by
mortal eyes."

So Thomas dismounted, and louted down, and rested his head on the Fairy
Queen's knee; and lo, as he looked once more over the desert, everything
seemed changed. For he saw three roads leading across it now, which he
had not noticed before, and each of these three roads was different.

One of them was broad, and level, and even, and it ran straight on
across the sand, so that no one who was travelling by it could possibly
lose his way.

And the second road was as different from the first as it well could be.
It was narrow, and winding, and long; and there was a thorn hedge on one
side of it, and a briar hedge on the other; and those hedges grew so
high, and their branches were so wild and tangled, that those who were
travelling along that road would have some difficulty in persevering on
their journey at all.

And the third road was unlike any of the others. It was a bonnie,
bonnie road, winding up a hillside among brackens, and heather, and
golden-yellow whins, and it looked as if it would be pleasant
travelling, to pass that way.

"Now," said the Fairy Queen, "an' thou wilt, I shall tell thee where
these three roads lead to. The first road, as thou seest, is broad, and
even, and easy, and there be many that choose it to travel on. But
though it be a good road, it leadeth to a bad end, and the folk that
choose it repent their choice for ever.

"And as for the narrow road, all hampered and hindered by the thorns and
the briars, there be few that be troubled to ask where that leadeth to.
But did they ask, perchance more of them might be stirred up to set out
along it. For that is the Road of Righteousness; and, although it be
hard and irksome, yet it endeth in a glorious City, which is called the
City of the Great King.

"And the third road--the bonnie road--that runs up the brae among the
ferns, and leadeth no mortal kens whither, but I ken where it leadeth,
Thomas--for it leadeth unto fair Elf-land; and that road take we.

"And, mark 'ee, Thomas, if ever thou hopest to see thine own Tower of
Ercildoune again, take care of thy tongue when we reach our journey's
end, and speak no single word to anyone save me--for the mortal who
openeth his lips rashly in Fairy-land must bide there for ever."

Then she bade him mount her palfrey again, and they rode on. The ferny
road was not so bonnie all the way as it had been at first, however. For
they had not ridden along it very far before it led them into a narrow
ravine, which seemed to go right down under the earth, where there was
no ray of light to guide them, and where the air was dank and heavy.
There was a sound of rushing water everywhere, and at last the grey
palfrey plunged right into it; and it crept up, cold and chill, first
over Thomas's feet, and then over his knees.

His courage had been slowly ebbing ever since he had been parted from
the daylight, but now he gave himself up for lost; for it seemed to him
certain that his strange companion and he would never come safe to their
journey's end.

He fell forward in a kind of swoon; and, if it had not been that he had
tight hold of the Fairy's ash-grey gown, I warrant he had fallen from
his seat, and had been drowned.

But all things, be they good or bad, pass in time, and at last the
darkness began to lighten, and the light grew stronger, until they were
back in broad sunshine.

Then Thomas took courage, and looked up; and lo, they were riding
through a beautiful orchard, where apples and pears, dates and figs and
wine-berries grew in great abundance. And his tongue was so parched and
dry, and he felt so faint, that he longed for some of the fruit to
restore him.

He stretched out his hand to pluck some of it; but his companion turned
in her saddle and forbade him.

"There is nothing safe for thee to eat here," she said, "save an apple,
which I will give thee presently. If thou touch aught else thou art
bound to remain in Fairy-land for ever."

So poor Thomas had to restrain himself as best he could; and they rode
slowly on, until they came to a tiny tree all covered with red apples.
The Fairy Queen bent down and plucked one, and handed it to her
companion.

"This I can give thee," she said, "and I do it gladly, for these apples
are the Apples of Truth; and whoso eateth them gaineth this reward, that
his lips will never more be able to frame a lie."

Thomas took the apple, and ate it; and for evermore the Grace of Truth
rested on his lips; and that is why, in after years, men called him
"True Thomas."

They had only a little way to go after this, before they came in sight
of a magnificent Castle standing on a hillside.

"Yonder is my abode," said the Queen, pointing to it proudly. "There
dwelleth my Lord and all the Nobles of his court; and, as my Lord hath
an uncertain temper and shows no liking for any strange gallant whom he
sees in my company, I pray thee, both for thy sake and mine, to utter no
word to anyone who speaketh to thee; and, if anyone should ask me who
and what thou art, I will tell them that thou art dumb. So wilt thou
pass unnoticed in the crowd."

With these words the Lady raised her hunting-horn, and blew a loud and
piercing blast; and, as she did so, a marvellous change came over her
again; for her ugly ash-covered gown dropped off her, and the grey in
her hair vanished, and she appeared once more in her green riding-skirt
and mantle, and her face grew young and fair.

And a wonderful change passed over Thomas also; for, as he chanced to
glance downwards, he found that his rough country clothes had been
transformed into a suit of fine brown cloth, and that on his feet he
wore satin shoon.

Immediately the sound of the horn rang out, the doors of the Castle flew
open, and the King hurried out to meet the Queen, accompanied by such a
number of Knights and Ladies, Minstrels and Page-boys, that Thomas, who
had slid from his palfrey, had no difficulty in obeying her wishes and
passing into the Castle unobserved.

Everyone seemed very glad to see the Queen back again, and they crowded
into the Great Hall in her train, and she spoke to them all graciously,
and allowed them to kiss her hand. Then she passed, with her husband, to
a dais at the far end of the huge apartment, where two thrones stood, on
which the Royal pair seated themselves to watch the revels which now
began.

Poor Thomas, meanwhile, stood far away at the other end of the Hall,
feeling very lonely, yet fascinated by the extraordinary scene on which
he was gazing.

For, although all the fine Ladies, and Courtiers, and Knights were
dancing in one part of the Hall, there were huntsmen coming and going in
another part, carrying in great antlered deer, which apparently they had
killed in the chase, and throwing them down in heaps on the floor. And
there were rows of cooks standing beside the dead animals, cutting them
up into joints, and bearing away the joints to be cooked.

Altogether it was such a strange, fantastic scene that Thomas took no
heed of how the time flew, but stood and gazed, and gazed, never
speaking a word to anybody. This went on for three long days, then the
Queen rose from her throne, and, stepping from the dais, crossed the
Hall to where he was standing.

"'Tis time to mount and ride, Thomas," she said, "if thou wouldst ever
see the fair Castle of Ercildoune again."

Thomas looked at her in amazement. "Thou spokest of seven long years,
Lady," he exclaimed, "and I have been here but three days."

The Queen smiled. "Time passeth quickly in Fairy-land, my friend," she
replied. "Thou thinkest that thou hast been here but three days. 'Tis
seven years since we two met. And now it is time for thee to go. I would
fain have had thy presence with me longer, but I dare not, for thine
own sake. For every seventh year an Evil Spirit cometh from the Regions
of Darkness, and carrieth back with him one of our followers, whomsoever
he chanceth to choose. And, as thou art a goodly fellow, I fear that he
might choose thee.

"So, as I would be loth to let harm befall thee, I will take thee back
to thine own country this very night."

Once more the grey palfrey was brought, and Thomas and the Queen mounted
it; and, as they had come, so they returned to the Eildon Tree near the
Huntly Burn.

Then the Queen bade Thomas farewell; and, as a parting gift, he asked
her to give him something that would let people know that he had really
been to Fairy-land.

"I have already given thee the Gift of Truth," she replied. "I will now
give thee the Gifts of Prophecy and Poesie; so that thou wilt be able to
foretell the future, and also to write wondrous verses. And, besides
these unseen gifts, here is something that mortals can see with their
own eyes--a Harp that was fashioned in Fairy-land. Fare thee well, my
friend. Some day, perchance, I will return for thee again."

With these words the Lady vanished, and Thomas was left alone, feeling a
little sorry, if the truth must be told, at parting with such a radiant
Being and coming back to the ordinary haunts of men.

After this he lived for many a long year in his Castle of Ercildoune,
and the fame of his poetry and of his prophecies spread all over the
country, so that people named him True Thomas, and Thomas the Rhymer.

I cannot write down for you all the prophecies which Thomas uttered, and
which most surely came to pass, but I will tell you one or two.

He foretold the Battle of Bannockburn in these words:

"The Burn of Breid
Shall rin fou reid,"

which came to pass on that terrible day when the waters of the little
Bannockburn were reddened by the blood of the defeated English.

He also foretold the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, under
a Prince who was the son of a French Queen, and who yet bore the blood
of Bruce in his veins.

"A French Quen shall bearre the Sonne;
Shall rule all Britainne to the sea,
As neere as is the ninth degree,"

which thing came true in 1603, when King James, son of Mary, Queen of
Scots, became Monarch of both countries.

* * * * *

Fourteen long years went by, and people were beginning to forget that
Thomas the Rhymer had ever been in Fairy-land; but at last a day came
when Scotland was at war with England, and the Scottish army was
resting by the banks of the Tweed, not far from the Tower of
Ercildoune.



And the Master of the Tower determined to make a feast, and invite all
the Nobles and Barons who were leading the army to sup with him.

That feast was long remembered.

For the Laird of Ercildoune took care that everything was as magnificent
as it could possibly be; and when the meal was ended he rose in his
place, and, taking his Elfin Harp, he sang to his assembled guests song
after song of the days of long ago.

The guests listened breathlessly, for they felt that they would never
hear such wonderful music again. And so it fell out.

For that very night, after all the Nobles had gone back to their tents,
a soldier on guard saw, in the moonlight, a snow-white Hart and Hind
moving slowly down the road that ran past the camp.

There was something so unusual about the animals that he called to his
officer to come and look at them. And the officer called to his brother
officers, and soon there was quite a crowd softly following the dumb
creatures, who paced solemnly on, as if they were keeping time to music
unheard by mortal ears.

"There is something uncanny about this," said one soldier at last. "Let
us send for Thomas of Ercildoune, perchance he may be able to tell us if
it be an omen or no."

"Ay, send for Thomas of Ercildoune," cried every one at once. So a
little page was sent in haste to the old Tower to rouse the Rhymer from
his slumbers.

When he heard the boy's message, the Seer's face grew grave and wrapt.

"'Tis a summons," he said softly, "a summons from the Queen of
Fairy-land. I have waited long for it, and it hath come at last."

And when he went out, instead of joining the little company of waiting
men, he walked straight up to the snow-white Hart and Hind. As soon as
he reached them they paused for a moment as if to greet him. Then all
three moved slowly down a steep bank that sloped to the little river
Leader, and disappeared in its foaming waters, for the stream was in
full flood.

And, although a careful search was made, no trace of Thomas of
Ercildoune was found; and to this day the country folk believe that the
Hart and the Hind were messengers from the Elfin Queen, and that he went
back to Fairy-land with them.





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