The Three Feathers
: English Fairy Tales
Once upon a time there lived a girl who was wooed and married by a man
she never saw; for he came a-courting her after nightfall, and when they
were married he never came home till it was dark, and always left before
Still he was good and kind to her, giving her everything her heart could
desire, so she was well content for a while. But, after a bit, some of
her friends, doubtless full of envy for h
r good luck, began to whisper
that the unseen husband must have something dreadful the matter with him
which made him averse to being seen.
Now from the very beginning the girl had wondered why her lover did not
come a-courting her as other girls' lovers came, openly and by day, and
though, at first, she paid no heed to her neighbours' nods and winks,
she began at last to think there might be something in what they said.
So she determined to see for herself, and one night when she heard her
husband come into her room, she lit her candle suddenly and saw him.
And, lo and behold! he was handsome as handsome; beautiful enough to
make every woman in the world fall in love with him on the spot. But
even as she got her glimpse of him, he changed into a big brown bird
which looked at her with eyes full of anger and blame.
"Because you have done this faithless thing," it said, "you will see me
no more, unless for seven long years and a day you serve for me
And she cried with tears and sobs, "I will serve seven times seven years
and a day if you will only come back. Tell me what I am to do."
Then the bird-husband said, "I will place you in service, and there you
must remain and do good work for seven years and a day, and you must
listen to no man who may seek to beguile you to leave that service. If
you do I will never return."
To this the girl agreed, and the bird, spreading its broad brown wings,
carried her to a big mansion.
"Here they need a laundry-maid," said the bird-husband. "Go in, ask to
see the mistress, and say you will do the work; but remember you must do
it for seven years and a day."
"But I cannot do it for seven days," answered the girl. "I cannot wash
"That matters nothing," replied the bird. "All you have to do is to
pluck three feathers from under my wing close to my heart, and these
feathers will do your bidding whatever it may be. You will only have to
put them on your hand, and say, 'By virtue of these three feathers from
over my true love's heart may this be done,' and it will be done."
So the girl plucked three feathers from under the bird's wing, and after
that the bird flew away.
Then the girl did as she was bidden, and the lady of the house engaged
her for the place. And never was such a quick laundress; for, see you,
she had only to go into the wash-house, bolt the door and close the
shutters, so that no one should see what she was at; then she would out
with the three feathers and say, "By virtue of these three feathers from
over my true love's heart may the copper be lit, the clothes sorted,
washed, boiled, dried, folded, mangled, ironed," and lo! there they came
tumbling on to the table, clean and white, quite ready to be put away.
So her mistress set great store by her and said there never was such a
good laundry-maid. Thus four years passed and there was no talk of her
leaving. But the other servants grew jealous of her, all the more so,
because, being a very pretty girl, all the men-servants fell in love
with her and wanted to marry her.
But she would have none of them, because she was always waiting and
longing for the day when her bird-husband would come back to her in
Now one of the men who wanted her was the stout butler, and one day as
he was coming back from the cider-house he chanced to stop by the
laundry, and he heard a voice say, "By virtue of these three feathers
from over my true love's heart may the copper be lit, the clothes
sorted, boiled, dried, folded, mangled, and ironed."
He thought this very queer, so he peeped through the keyhole. And there
was the girl sitting at her ease in a chair, while all the clothes came
flying to the table ready and fit to put away.
Well, that night he went to the girl and said that if she turned up her
nose at him and his proposal any longer, he would up and tell the
mistress that her fine laundress was nothing but a witch; and then, even
if she were not burnt alive, she would lose her place.
Now the girl was in great distress what to do, since if she were not
faithful to her bird-husband, or if she failed to serve her seven years
and a day in one service, he would alike fail to return; so she made an
excuse by saying she could think of no one who did not give her enough
money to satisfy her.
At this the stout butler laughed. "Money?" said he. "I have seventy
pounds laid by with master. Won't that satisfy thee?"
"Happen it would," she replied.
So the very next night the butler came to her with the seventy pounds in
golden sovereigns, and she held out her apron and took them, saying she
was content; for she had thought of a plan. Now as they were going
upstairs together she stopped and said:
"Mr. Butler, excuse me for a minute. I have left the shutters of the
wash-house open, and I must shut them, or they will be banging all night
and disturb master and missus!"
Now though the butler was stout and beginning to grow old, he was
anxious to seem young and gallant; so he said at once:
"Excuse me, my beauty, you shall not go. I will go and shut them. I
shan't be a moment!"
So off he set, and no sooner had he gone than she out with her three
feathers, and putting them on her hand, said in a hurry:
"By virtue of the three feathers from over my true love's heart may the
shutters never cease banging till morning, and may Mr. Butler's hands be
busy trying to shut them."
And so it happened.
Mr. Butler shut the shutters, but--bru-u-u! there they were hanging open
again. Then he shut them once more, and this time they hit him on the
face as they flew open. Yet he couldn't stop; he had to go on. So there
he was the whole livelong night. Such a cursing, and banging, and
swearing, and shutting, never was, until dawn came, and, too tired to be
really angry, he crept back to his bed, resolving that come what might
he would not tell what had happened to him and thus get the laugh on
him. So he kept his own counsel, and the girl kept the seventy pounds,
and laughed in her sleeve at her would-be lover.
Now after a time the coachman, a spruce middle-aged man, who had long
wanted to marry the clever, pretty laundry-maid, going to the pump to
get water for his horses overheard her giving orders to the three
feathers, and peeping through the keyhole as the butler had done, saw
her sitting at her ease in a chair while the clothes, all washed and
ironed and mangled, came flying to the table.
So, just as the butler had done, he went to the girl and said, "I have
you now, my pretty. Don't dare to turn up your nose at me, for if you do
I'll tell mistress you are a witch."
Then the girl said quite calmly, "I look on none who has no money."
"If that is all," replied the coachman, "I have forty pounds laid by
with master. That I'll bring and ask for payment to-morrow night."
So when the night came the girl held out her apron for the money, and as
she was going up the stairs she stopped suddenly and said, "Goody me!
I've left my clothes on the line. Stop a bit till I fetch them in."
Now the coachman was really a very polite fellow, so he said at once:
"Let me go. It is a cold, windy night and you'll be catching your
So off he went, and the girl out with her feathers and said:
"By virtue of the three feathers from over my true love's heart may the
clothes slash and blow about till dawn, and may Mr. Coachman not be able
to gather them up or take his hand from the job."
And when she had said this she went quietly to bed, for she knew what
would happen. And sure enough it did. Never was such a night as Mr.
Coachman spent with the wet clothes flittering and fluttering about his
ears, and the sheets wrapping him into a bundle, and tripping him up,
while the towels slashed at his legs. But though he smarted all over he
had to go on till dawn came, and then a very weary, woebegone coachman
couldn't even creep away to his bed, for he had to feed and water his
horses! And he, also, kept his own counsel for fear of the laugh going
against him; so the clever laundry-maid put the forty pounds with the
seventy in her box, and went on with her work gaily. But after a time
the footman, who was quite an honest lad and truly in love, going by the
laundry peeped through the keyhole to get a glimpse of his dearest dear,
and what should he see but her sitting at her ease in a chair, and the
clothes coming all ready folded and ironed on to the table.
Now when he saw this he was greatly troubled. So he went to his master
and drew out all his savings; and then he went to the girl and told her
that he would have to tell the mistress what he had seen, unless she
consented to marry him.
"You see," he said, "I have been with master this while back, and have
saved up this bit, and you have been here this long while back and must
have saved as well. So let us put the two together and make a home, or
else stay on at service as pleases you."
Well, she tried to put him off; but he insisted so much that at last she
"James! there's a dear, run down to the cellar and fetch me a drop of
brandy. You've made me feel so queer!" And when he had gone she out
with her three feathers, and said, "By virtue of the three feathers from
over my true love's heart may James not be able to pour the brandy
straight, except down his throat."
Well! so it happened. Try as he would, James could not get the brandy
into the glass. It splashed a few drops into it, then it trickled over
his hand, and fell on the floor. And so it went on and on till he grew
so tired that he thought he needed a dram himself. So he tossed off the
few drops and began again; but he fared no better. So he took another
little drain, and went on, and on, and on, till he got quite fuddled.
And who should come down into the cellar but his master to know what the
smell of brandy meant!
Now James the footman was truthful as well as honest, so he told the
master how he had come down to get the sick laundry-maid a drop of
brandy, but that his hand had shaken so that he could not pour it out,
and it had fallen on the ground, and that the smell of it had got to his
"A likely tale," said the master, and beat James soundly.
Then the master went to the mistress, his wife, and said: "Send away
that laundry-maid of yours. Something has come over my men. They have
all drawn out their savings as if they were going to be married, yet
they don't leave, and I believe that girl is at the bottom of it."
But his wife would not hear of the laundry-maid being blamed; she was
the best servant in the house, and worth all the rest of them put
together; it was his men who were at fault. So they quarrelled over it;
but in the end the master gave in, and after this there was peace, since
the mistress bade the girl keep herself to herself, and none of the men
would say ought of what had happened for fear of the laughter of the
So it went on until one day when the master was going a-driving, the
coach was at the door, and the footman was standing to hold the coach
open, and the butler on the steps all ready, when who should pass
through the yard, so saucy and bright with a great basket of clean
clothes, but the laundry-maid. And the sight of her was too much for
James, the footman, who began to blub.
"She is a wicked girl," he said. "She got all my savings, and got me a
good thrashing besides."
Then the coachman grew bold. "Did she?" he said. "That was nothing to
what she served me." So he up and told all about the wet clothes and the
awful job he had had the livelong night. Now the butler on the steps
swelled with rage until he nearly burst, and at last he out with his
night of banging shutters.
"And one," he said, "hit me on the nose."
This settled the three men, and they agreed to tell their master the
moment he came out, and get the girl sent about her business. Now the
laundry-maid had sharp ears and had paused behind a door to listen; so
when she heard this she knew she must do something to stop it. So she
out with her three feathers and said, "By virtue of the three feathers
from over my true love's heart may there be striving as to who suffered
most between the men so that they get into the pond for a ducking."
Well! no sooner had she said the words than the three men began
disputing as to which of them had been served the worst; then James up
and hit the stout butler, giving him a black eye, and the fat butler
fell upon James and pommelled him hard, while the coachman scrambled
from his box and belaboured them both, and the laundry-maid stood by
So out comes the master, but none of them would listen, and each wanted
to be heard, and fought, and shoved, and pommelled away until they
shoved each other into the pond, and all got a fine ducking.
Then the master asked the girl what it was all about, and she said:
"They all wanted to tell a story against me because I won't marry them,
and one said his was the best, and the next said his was the best, so
they fell a-quarrelling as to which was the likeliest story to get me
into trouble. But they are well punished, so there is no need to do
Then the master went to his wife and said, "You are right. That
laundry-maid of yours is a very wise girl."
So the butler and the coachman and James had nothing to do but look
sheepish and hold their tongues, and the laundry-maid went on with her
duties without further trouble.
Then when the seven years and a day were over, who should drive up to
the door in a fine gilded coach but the bird-husband restored to his
shape as a handsome young man. And he carried the laundry-maid off to be
his wife again, and her master and mistress were so pleased at her good
fortune that they ordered all the other servants to stand on the steps
and give her good luck. So as she passed the butler she put a bag with
seventy pounds in it into his hand and said sweetly, "That is to
recompense you for shutting the shutters."
And when she passed the coachman she put a bag with forty pounds into
his hand and said, "That is your reward for bringing in the clothes."
But when she passed the footman she gave him a bag with a hundred pounds
in it, and laughed, saying, "That is for the drop of brandy you never
So she drove off with her handsome husband, and lived happy ever after.