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The Lovely Myfanwy was written by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), and was included in his Collected Stories for Children (1947).
This ebook was produced by: David T. Jones & the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net
In an old castle under the forested mountains of the Welsh Marches there lived long ago Owen ap Gwythock, Lord of Eggleyseg. He was a short, burly, stooping man with thick black hair on head and face, large ears, and small restless eyes. And he lived in his great castle alone, except for one only daughter, the lovely Myfanwy.
Lovely indeed was she. Her hair, red as red gold, hung in plaits to her knees. When she laughed, it was like bells in a faraway steeple. When she sang, Echo forgot to reply. And her spirit would sit gently looking out of her blue eyes like cushats out of their nest in an ivy bush.
Myfanwy was happy, too—in most things. All that her father could give her for her ease and pleasure was hers—everything indeed but her freedom. She might sing, dance, think and say; eat, drink, and delight in whatsoever she wished or willed. Indeed her father loved her so dearly that he would sit for hours together merely watching her—as you may watch wind over wheat, reflections in water, or clouds in the heavens. So long as she was safely and solely his all was well.
But ever since Myfanwy had been a child, a miserable foreboding had haunted his mind. Supposing she should some day leave him? Supposing she were lost or decoyed away? Supposing she fell ill and died? What then? The dread of this haunted his mind day and night. His dark brows loured at the very thought of it. It made him morose and sullen; it tied up the tongue in his head.
For this sole reason he had expressly forbidden Myfanwy even to stray but a few paces beyond the precincts of his castle; with its battlemented towers, its galleries and corridors and multitudinous apartments, its high garden and courtyard, its alleys, fountains, fish-pools and orchards. He could trust nobody. He couldn't bear her out of his sight. He spied, he watched, he walked in his sleep, he listened and peeped; and all for fear of losing Myfanwy.
So although she might have for company the doves and swans and peacocks, the bees and butterflies, the swallows and swifts and jackdaws and the multitude of birds of every song and flight and feather that haunted the castle; humans, except her father, she had none. The birds and butterflies could fly away at will wherever their wings could carry them. Even the fishes in the fish-pools and in the fountains had their narrow alleys of marble and alabaster through which on nimble fin they could win back to the great river at last. Not so Myfanwy.
She was her father's unransomable prisoner; she was a bird in a cage. She might feast her longing eyes on the distant horizon beyond whose forests lay the sea, but knew she could not journey thither. While as for the neighbouring township, with its busy streets and marketplace—not more than seven country miles away—she had only dreamed of its marvels and dreamed in vain. A curious darkness at such times came into her eyes, and her spirit would look out of them not like a dove but as might a dumb nightingale out of its nest—a nightingale that has had its tongue cut out for a delicacy to feed some greedy prince.
How criss-cross a thing is the heart of man. Solely because this lord loved his daughter so dearly, if ever she so much as sighed for change or adventure, like some stubborn beast of burden he would set his feet together and refuse to budge an inch. Beneath his heavy brows he would gaze at the brightness of her unringleted hair as if mere looking could keep that gold secure; as if earth were innocent of moth and rust and change and chance, and had never had course to dread and tremble at sound of the unrelenting footfall of Time.
All he could think of that would keep her his own was hers without the asking: delicate raiment and meats and strange fruits and far-fetched toys and devices and pastimes, and as many books as would serve a happy scholar a long life through.
He never tired of telling her how much he loved and treasured her. But there is a hunger of the heart no thing in the world can ever satisfy. And Myfanwy listened, and sighed.
Besides which, Myfanwy grew up and grew older as a green-tressed willow grows from a sapling; and now that she had come to her eighteenth spring she was lovelier than words could tell. This only added yet another and sharper dread and foreboding to her father's mind. It sat like a skeleton at his table whenever he broke bread or sipped wine. Even the twittering of a happy swallow from distant Africa reminded him of it like a knell. It was this: that some day a lover, a suitor, would come and carry her off.
Why, merely to see her, even with her back turned—to catch a glimpse of her slim shoulders, of her head stooping over a rosebush would be enough. Let her but laugh—two notes—and you listened! Nobody—prince nor peasant, knight nor squire—brave, foolish, young or weary, would be able to resist her. Owen ap Gwythock knew it in his bones. But one look, and instantly the looker's heart would be stolen out of his body. He would fall in love with her—fall as deep and irrevocably as the dark sparkling foaming water crashing over into the gorge of Modwr-Eggleyseg, scarcely an arrow's flight beyond his walls.
And supposing any such suitor should tell Myfanwy that he loved her, might she not—forgetting all his own care and loving-kindness—be persuaded to flee away and leave him to his solitude? Solitude—now that old age was close upon him! At thought of this, for fear of it, he would sigh and groan within: and he would bid the locksmiths double their locks and bolts and bars; and he would sit for hours watching the highroad that swept up past his walls, and scowling at sight of every stranger who passed that way.
He even at last forbade Myfanwy to walk in the garden except with an immense round mushroom hat on her head, a hat so wide in the brim that it concealed from any trespasser who might be spying over the wall even the glinting of her hair—everything of her indeed except her two velvet shoes beneath the hem of her dress as they stepped in turn—and softly as moles—one after the other from blossoming alley to alley and from lawn to lawn.
And because Myfanwy loved her father almost as dearly as he loved her, she tried her utmost to be gay and happy and not to fret or complain or grow pale and thin and pine. But as a caged bird with a kind mistress may hop and sing and flutter behind its bars as if it were felicity itself, and yet be sickening at heart for the wild wood and its green haunts, so it was with Myfanwy.
If only she might but just once venture into the town, she would think to herself; but just to see the people in the streets, and the pedlars in the marketplace, and the cakes and sweetmeats and honey-jars in the shops, and strangers passing to and fro, and the sunshine in the high gables, and the talking and the laughing and the bargaining and the dancing—the horses, the travellers, the bells, the starshine.
Above all, it made her heart ache to think her father should have so little faith in her duty and love for him that he would not consent to let her wander even a snail's journey out of his sight. When, supper over, she leaned over his great chair as he sat there in his crimson—his black hair dangling on his shoulders, his beard hunched up on his chest—to kiss him good night, this thought would be in her eyes even if not on the tip of her tongue. And at such times he himself—as if he knew in his heart what he would never dare to confess—invariably shut down his eyelids or looked the other way.
Now servants usually have long tongues, and gossip flits from place to place like seeds of thistledown. Simply because Myfanwy was never seen abroad, the fame of her beauty had long since spread through all the countryside. Minstrels sang of it, and had even carried their ballads to countries and kingdoms and principalities far beyond Wales.
Indeed, however secret and silent men may be concerning rare beauty and goodness, somehow news of it sows itself over the wide world. A saint may sit in his cave or his cell, scarcely ever seen by mortal eye, quiet as sunshine in a dingle of the woods or seabirds in the hollows of the Atlantic, doing his deeds of pity and loving-kindness, and praying his silent prayers. And he may live to be a withered-up, hollow-cheeked old man with a long white beard, and die, and his body be shut up in a tomb. But nevertheless, little by little, the fame of his charity, and of the miracles of his compassion will spread abroad, and at last you may even chance on his image in a shrine thousands of leagues distant from the hermitage where he lived and died, and centuries after he has gone on his way.
Like this it was with the loveliness and gentleness of Myfanwy. That is why, when the Lord of Eggleyseg himself rode through the streets of the neighbouring town, he perceived out of the corner of his eye strangers in outlandish disguise who he suspected at once must be princes and noblemen from foreign climes come thither even if merely to set eyes on his daughter. That is why the streets were so full of music and singing that of a summer evening you could scarcely hear the roar of its cataracts. That is why its townsfolk were entertained with tumblers and acrobats and fortune-tellers and soothsayers and tale-tellers almost the whole year long. Ever and again, indeed, grandees visited it without disguise. They lived for weeks there, with their retinues of servants, their hawks and hounds and tasselled horses in some one of its high ancient houses. And their one sole hope and desire was to catch but a glimpse of the far-famed Myfanwy.
But as they came, so they went away. However they might plot and scheme to gain a footing in the castle—it was in vain. The portcullis was always down; there were watchmen perpetually on the look-out in its turrets; and the gates of the garden were festooned with heavy chains. There was not in its frowning ancient walls a single window less than twenty feet above the ground that was not thickly, rustily, and securely barred.
None the less, Myfanwy occasionally found herself in the garden alone. Occasionally she stole out if but for one breath of freedom, sweeter by far to those who pine for it than that of pink, or mint, or jasmine, or honeysuckle. And one such early evening in May, when her father—having nodded off to sleep, wearied out after so much watching and listening and prying and peering—was snoring in an arbour or summerhouse, she came to its western gates, and having for a moment lifted the brim of her immense hat to look at the sunset, she gazed wistfully a while through its bars out into the green woods beyond.
The leafy boughs in the rosy light hung still as pictures in deep water. The skies resembled a tent of silk, blue as the sea. Deer were browsing over the dark turf; and a wonderful charm and carolling of birds was rising out of the glades and coverts of the woods.
But what Myfanwy had now fixed her dark eyes on was none of these, but the figure of a young man leaning there, erect but fast asleep, against the bole of a gigantic beech tree, not twenty paces distant from the gate at which she stood. He must, she fancied, have been keeping watch there for some little time. His eyelids were dark with watching; his face pale. Slim and gentle does were treading close beside him; the birds had clean forgotten his presence; and a squirrel was cracking the nut it held between its clawed forepaws not a yard above his head.
Myfanwy had never before set eyes on human stranger in this valley beyond the gates. Her father's serving men were ancients who had been in his service in the castle years before she was born. This young man looked, she imagined, like a woodman, or a forester, or a swine-herd. She had read of them in a handwritten book of fantastic tales which she had chanced on among her mother's belongings.
And as Myfanwy, finger on brim of her hat, stood intently gazing, a voice in her heart told her that whoever and whatever this stranger might be, he was someone she had been waiting for, and even dreaming about, ever since she was a child. All else vanished out of her mind and her memory. It was as if her eyes were intent on some such old story itself, and one well known to her. This unconscious stranger was that story. Yet he himself—stiff as a baulk of wood against the beech-trunk, as if indeed he had been nailed to its bark—slumbered on.
So he might have continued to do, now so blessedly asleep, until she had vanished as she had come. But at that moment the squirrel there, tail for parasol immediately above his head, having suddenly espied Myfanwy beyond the bars of the gate, in sheer astonishment let fall its nut, and the young man—as if at a tiny knock on the door of his mind—opened his eyes.
For Myfanwy it was like the opening of a door into a strange and wonderful house. Her heart all but ceased to beat. She went cold to her fingertips. And the stranger too continued to gaze at Myfanwy—as if out of a dream.
And if everything could be expressed in words, that this one quiet look between them told Myfanwy of things strange that yet seemed more familiar to her than the pebbles on the path and the thorns on the rose-bushes and the notes of the birds in the air and the first few drops of dew that were falling in the evening air, then it would take a book ten times as long as this in which to print it.
But even as she gazed Myfanwy suddenly remembered her father. She sighed; her fingers let fall the wide brim of her hat; she turned away. And oddly enough, by reason of this immense ridiculous hat, her father who but a few moments before had awakened in his arbour and was now hastening along the path of the rosery in pursuit of her, caught not a single glimpse of the stranger under the beech-tree. Indeed, before the squirrel could scamper off into hiding, the young man had himself vanished round the trunk of the tree and out of sight like a serpent into the grass.
In nothing except in this, however, did he resemble a serpent. For that very evening at supper her father told Myfanwy that yet another letter had been delivered at the castle, from some accursed Nick Nobody, asking permission to lay before him his suit for her hand. His rage was beyond words. He spilt his wine and crumbled his bread—his face a storm of darkness; his eyes like smouldering coals.
Myfanwy sat pale and trembling. Hitherto, such epistles, though even from princes of renowned estate and of realms even of the Orient, had carried much less meaning to her heart than the cuckooing of a cuckoo, or the whispering of the wind. Indeed, the cuckoo of those Welsh mountains and the wind from over their seas were voices of a language which, though secret, was not one past the heart's understanding. Not so these pompous declarations. Myfanwy would laugh at them—as though at the clumsy gambollings of a bear. She would touch her father's hand, and smile into his face, to assure him they had no meaning, that she was still as safe as safe could be.
But this letter—not for a single moment had the face of the young stranger been out of her mind. Her one sole longing and despair was the wonder whether she would ever in this world look upon him again. She sat like stone.
'Ay, ay, my dear,' said her father at last, laying his thick, square hand on hers as she sat beside him in her high-backed velvet chair—'ay, ay, my gentle one. It shows us yet again how full the world is of insolence and adventurers. This is a cave, a warning, an alarum, my dear—maledictions on his bones! We must be ten times more cautious; we must be wary; we must be lynx and fox and Argus—all eyes! And remember, my all, my precious one, remember this, that while I, your father, am alive, no harm, no ill can approach or touch you. Believe only in my love, beloved, and all is well with us.'
Her cold lips refused to speak. Myfanwy could find no words with which to answer him. With face averted she sat in a woeful daydream, clutching her father's thumb, and only vaguely listening to his transports of fury and affection, revenge and adoration. For her mind and heart now welled over with such a medley of thoughts and hopes and fears and sorrows that she could find no other way but this dumb clutch of expressing that she loved her father too.
At length, his rage not one whit abated, he rose from his chair, and having torn the insolent letter into thirty-two tiny pieces he flung them into the huge log fire burning in the stone chimney. 'Let me but lay a finger on the shameless popinjay,' he muttered to himself; 'I'll—I'll cut his tongue out!'
Now the first thing Myfanwy did when the chance offered was to hasten off towards the Western Gate if only to warn the stranger of her father's rage and menaces, and bid him go hide himself away and never, never, never come back again.
But when once more she approached its bars the deer were still grazing in the forest, the squirrel was nibbling another nut, the beech had unfolded yet a few more of its needle-pointed leaves into the calm evening light; but of the stranger—not a sign. Where he had stood was now only the assurance that he was indeed gone for ever. And Myfanwy turned from the quiet scene, from the forest, its sunlight faded, all its beauty made forlorn. Try as she might in the days that followed to keep her mind and her thoughts fixed on her needle and her silks, her lute and her psalter, she could see nothing else but that long look of his.
And now indeed she began to pine and languish in body, haunted by the constant fear that her stranger might have met with some disaster. And simply because her father loved her so jealously, he knew at once what worm was in her mind, and he never ceased to watch and spy upon her, and to follow her every movement.
Now Myfanwy's bedchamber was in the southern tower of this lord's castle, beneath which a road from the town to the eastward wound round towards the forests and distant mountains. And it being set so high above the ground beneath, there was no need for bars to its windows. While then, from these window-slits Myfanwy could see little more than the tops of the wayfarers' heads on the turf below, they were wide and lofty enough to let the setting sun in its due hour pour in its beams upon her walls and pictures and curtained Arabian bed. But the stone walls being so thick, in order to see out of her chamber at all, she must needs lie along a little on the cold inward sill, and peer out over the wide verdant countryside as if through the port-hole of a ship.
And one evening, as Myfanwy sat sewing a seam—and singing the while a soft tune to herself, if only to keep her thoughts from pining—she heard the murmur of many voices. And, though at first she knew not why, her heart for an instant or two stopped beating. Laying her slip of linen down, she rose, stole over the mats on the flagstones, and gently pushing her narrow shoulders onwards, peeped out and down at last through the window to look at the world below. And this was what she saw. In an old velvet cloak, his black hair dangling low upon his shoulders, there in the evening light beneath her window was a juggler standing, and in a circle round and about him was gathered a throng of gaping country-folk and idlers and children, some of whom must even have followed him out of the town. And one and all they were lost in wonder at his grace and skill.
Myfanwy herself indeed could not have imagined such things could be, and so engrossed did she become in watching him that she did not catch the whisper of a long-drawn secret sigh at her keyhole; nor did she hear her father as he turned away on tip-toe to descend the staircase again into the room below.
Indeed one swift glance from Myfanwy's no longer sorrowful eyes had pierced the disguise—wig, cloak, hat, and hose—of the juggler. And as she watched him she all but laughed aloud. Who would have imagined that the young stranger, whom she had seen for the first time leaning dumb, blind, and fast asleep against the trunk of a beech-tree could be possessed of such courage and craft and cunning as this!
His head was at the moment surrounded by a halo of glittering steel—so fast the daggers with which he was juggling whisked on from hand to hand. And suddenly the throng around him broke into a roar, for in glancing up and aside he had missed a dagger. It was falling—falling: but no, in a flash he had twisted back the sole of his shoe, and the point had stuck quivering in his heel, while he continued to whirl its companions into the golden air.
In that instant, however, his upward glance had detected the one thing in the world he had come out in hope to see—Myfanwy. He flung his daggers aside and fetched out of his travelling box a netful of coloured balls. Holloing out a string of outlandish gibberish to the people, he straightaway began to juggle with these. Higher and higher the seven of them soared into the mellow air, but one of the colour of gold soared on ever higher and higher than any. So high, indeed, that at last the people could watch it no longer because of the dazzle of the setting sun in their eyes. Presently, indeed, it swooped so loftily into the air that Myfanwy need but thrust out her hand to catch it as it paused for a breath of an instant before falling, and hung within reach of her stone window-sill.
And even as she watched, enthralled, a whispering voice within her cried, 'Take it!' She breathed a deep breath, shut her eyes, paused, and the next instant she had stretched out her hand into the air. The ball was hers.
Once more she peeped down and over, and once more the juggler was at his tricks. This time with what appeared to be a medley of all kinds of varieties of fruits; pomegranates, quinces, citrons, lemons, oranges and nectarines, and soaring high above them, nothing more unusual than an English apple. Once again the whisperer in Myfanwy's mind cried, 'Take it!' And she put out her hand and took the apple too.
Yet again she peeped and peered over, and this time it seemed that the juggler was flinging serpents into the air, for they writhed and looped and coiled around him as they whirled whiffling on from hand to hand. There was a hissing, too, and the people drew back a little, and a few of the timider children ran off to the other side of the highroad. And now, yet again, one of the serpents was soaring higher and higher above the rest. And Myfanwy could see from her coign of vantage that it was no live serpent but a strand of silken rope. And yet again and for the third time the whisperer whispered, 'Take it!' And Myfanwy put out her hand and took that too.
And, it happening that a little cloud was straying across the sun at this moment, the throng below had actually seen the highestmost of the serpents thus mysteriously disappear and they cried out as if with one voice, 'Gone!' 'Vanished!' 'Vanished!' 'Gone!' 'Magician, magician!' And the coins that came dancing into the juggler's tambourine in the moments that followed were enough to make him for that one minute the richest man in the world.
And now the juggler was solemnly doffing his hat to the people. He gathered his cloak around him more closely, put away his daggers, his balls, his fruits, his serpents, and all that was his, into a long green narrow box. Then he hoisted its strap over his shoulder, and doffing his cap once more, he clasped his tambourine under his elbow and seizing his staff, turned straight from the castle tower towards the hazy sun-bathed mountains. And, it beginning to be towards nightfall, the throng of people soon dispersed and melted away; the maids and scullions, wooed out by this spectacle from the castle, returned to their work; and the children ran off home to tell their mothers of these marvels and to mimic the juggler's tricks as they gobbled up their supper-crusts and were packed off to bed.
In the stillness that followed after the juggler's departure, Myfanwy found herself kneeling in her chamber in the tranquil golden twilight beside a wooden chair, her hands folded in her lap and her dark eyes fixed in wonderment and anxiety on the ball, and the apple and the rope; while in another such narrow stone chamber only ten or twelve stone steps beneath, her father was crouching at his window shaken with fury, and seeing in his imagination these strange gifts from the air almost as clearly as Myfanwy could see them with her naked eye.
For though the sun had been as much a dazzle to himself as to the common people in the highway, he had kept them fastened on the juggler's trickeries none the less, and had counted every coloured ball and every fruit and every serpent as they rose and fell in their rhythmical maze-like network of circlings in the air. And when each marvellous piece of juggling in turn was over, he knew that in the first place a golden ball was missing, and that in the second place a fruit like an English apple was missing, and that in the third place a silken cord with a buckle-hook to it like the head of a serpent had been flung into the air but had never come down to earth again. And at the cries and the laughter and the applause of the roaring common people and children beneath his walls, tears of rage and despair had burst from his eyes. Myfanwy was deceiving him. His dreaded hour was come.
But there again he was wrong. The truth is, his eyes were so green with jealousy and his heart so black with rage that his wits had become almost useless. Not only his wits either, but his courtesy and his spirit; for the next moment he was actually creeping up again like a thief from stair to stair, and presently had fallen once more on to his knees outside his beloved Myfanwy's chamber door and had fixed on her one of those green dark eyes of his at its little gaping cut-out pin-hole. And there he saw a strange sight indeed.
The evening being now well advanced, and the light of the afterglow too feeble to make more than a glimmer through her narrow stone window-slits, Myfanwy had lit with her tinder box (for of all things she loved light) no less than seven wax candles on a seven-branched candlestick. This she had stood on a table beside a high narrow mirror. And at the moment when the Baron fixed his eye to the pin-hole, she was standing, a little astoop, the apple in her hand, looking first at it, and then into the glass at the bright-lit reflected picture of herself holding the apple in her hand.
So now there were two Myfanwys to be seen—herself and her image in the glass. And which was the lovelier not even the juggler could have declared. Crouching there at the door-crack, her father could all but catch the words she was softly repeating to herself as she gazed at the reflected apple: 'Shall I, shan't I? Shall I, shan't I?' And then suddenly—and he dared not stir or cry out—she had raised the fruit to her lips and had nibbled its rind.
What happened then he could not tell, for the secret and sovereign part of that was deep in Myfanwy herself. The sharp juice of the fruit seemed to dart about in her veins like flashing fishes in her father's crystal fountains and water-conduits. It was as if happiness had begun gently to fall out of the skies around her, like dazzling flakes of snow. They rested on her hair, on her shoulders, on her hands, all over her. And yet not snow, for there was no coldness, but a scent as it were of shadowed woods at noonday, or of a garden when a shower has fallen. Even her bright eyes grew brighter; a radiance lit her cheek; her lips parted in a smile.
And it is quite certain if Myfanwy had been the Princess of Anywhere-in-the-World-at-All, she would then and there—like Narcissus stooping over his lilied water-pool—have fallen head over ears in love with herself! 'Wonder of wonders!' cried she in the quiet; 'but if this is what a mere nibble of my brave juggler's apple can do, then it were wiser indeed to nibble no more.' So she laid the apple down.
The Baron gloated on through the pin-hole—watching her as she stood transfixed like some lovely flower growing in the inmost silent solitude of a forest and blossoming before his very eyes.
And then, as if at a sudden thought, Myfanwy turned and took up the golden ball, which—as she had suspected and now discovered—was no ball, but a small orb-shaped box of rare inlaid woods, covered with golden thread. At touch of the tiny spring that showed itself in the midst, its lid at once sprang open, and Myfanwy put in finger and thumb and drew out into the crystal light a silken veil—but of a gossamer silk so finely spun that when its exquisite meshes had wreathed themselves downward to the floor the veil looked to be nothing more than a silvery grey mist in the candlelight.
It filmed down from her fingers to the flagstones beneath, almost as light as the air in which it floated. Marvellous that what would easily cover her, head to heel, could have been packed into so close a room as that two-inch ball! She gazed in admiration of this exquisite handiwork. Then, with a flick of her thumb, she had cast its cloudlike folds over her shoulders.
And lo!—as the jealous lord gloated on—of a sudden there was nothing to be seen where Myfanwy had stood but seven candles burning in their stick, and seven more in the mirror. She had vanished.
She was not gone very far, however. For presently he heard—as if out of nowhere—a low chuckling childlike peal of laughter which willy-nilly had broken from her lips at seeing that this Veil of Invisibility had blanked her very glass. She gazed steadily on into its clear vacancy, lost in wonder. Nothing at all of her whatsoever was now reflected there!—not the tip of her nose, not a thumb, not so much as a button or a silver tag. Myfanwy had vanished; and yet, as she well knew, here she truly was in her own body and no other, though tented in beneath the folds of the veil, as happy as flocks on April hills, or mermaids in the deep blue sea. It was a magic thing indeed, to be there and yet not there; to hear herself and yet remain transparent as water.
Motionless though she stood, her thoughts were at the same time flitting about like quick and nimble birds in her mind. This veil, too, was the gift of the juggler; her young sleeping stranger of the beech-tree in a strange disguise. And she could guess in her heart what use he intended her to make of it, even though at thought of it that heart misgave her. A moment after and as swiftly as she had gone, she had come back again—the veil in her fingers. Laughing softly to herself she folded and refolded it and replaced it in its narrow box. Then turning, she took up from the chair the silken cord, and as if in idle fancy twined it twice about her slender neck. And it seemed the cord took life into itself, for lo, showing there in the mirror, calm now as a statue of coloured ivory, stood Myfanwy; and couched over her left temple the swaying head of the Serpent of Wisdom, whispering in her ear.
Owen ap Gwythock could watch no more. Groping his way with trembling fingers through the thick gloom of the staircase he crept down to the Banqueting Hall where already his Chief Steward awaited his coming to announce that supper was prepared.
To think that his Lovely One, his pearl of price, his gentle innocent, his Myfanwy—the one thing on earth he treasured most, and renowned for her gentleness and beauty in all countries of the world—had even for an instant forgotten their loves, forgotten her service and duty, was in danger of leaving and forsaking him for ever! In his jealousy and despair tears rolled down his furrowed cheeks as he ground his teeth together, thinking of the crafty enemy that was decoying her away.
Worse still; he knew in his mind's mind that in certain things in this world even the most powerful are powerless. He knew that against true love all resistance, all craft, all cunning at last prove of no avail. But in this grief and despair the bitterest of all the thoughts that were now busy in his brain was the thought that Myfanwy should be cheating and deceiving him, wantonly beguiling him; keeping things secret that should at once be told.
A dark and dismal mind was his indeed. To distrust one so lovely!—that might be forgiven him. But to creep about in pursuit of her like a weasel; to spy on her like a spy; to believe her guilty before she could prove her innocence! Could that be forgiven? And even at this very moment the avenger was at his heels.
For here was Myfanwy herself. Lovely as a convolvulus wreathing a withered stake, she was looking in at him from the doorpost, searching his face. For an instant she shut her eyes as if to breathe a prayer, then she advanced into the room, and, with her own hand, laid before him on the oak table beside his silver platter, first the nibbled apple, next the golden ball, and last the silken cord. And looking at him with all her usual love in her eyes and in her voice, she told him how these things had chanced into her hands, and whence they had come.
Her father listened; but durst not raise his eyes from his plate. The scowl on his low forehead grew blacker and blacker; even his beard seemed to bristle. But he heard her in silence to the end.
'So you see, dear father,' she was saying, 'how can I but be grateful and with all my heart to one who takes so much thought for me? And if you had seen the kindness and courtesy of his looks, even you yourself could not be angry. There never was, as you well know, anybody else in the whole wide world whom I wished to speak to but to you. And now there is none other than you except this stranger. I know nothing but that. Can you suppose indeed he meant these marvellous gifts for me? And why for me and no other, father dear? And what would you counsel me to do with them?'
Owen ap Gwythock stooped his head lower. Even the sight of his eyes had dimmed. The torches faintly crackled in their sconces, the candles on the table burned unfalteringly on.
He turned his cheek aside at last like a snarling dog. 'My dear,' he said, 'I have lived long enough in this world to know the perils that beset the young and fair. I grant you that this low mountebank must be a creature of infinite cunning. I grant you that his tricks, if harmless, would be worth a charitable groat. If, that is, he were only what he seems to be. But that is not so. For this most deadly stranger is a Deceiver and a Cheat. His lair, as I guess well, is in the cruel and mysterious East, and his one desire and stratagem is to snare you into his company. Once within reach of his claws, his infamous slaves will seize on you and bear you away to some evil felucca moored in the river. It seems, beloved, that your gentle charms are being whispered of in this wicked world. Even the beauty of the gentlest of flowers may be sullied by idle tongues. But once securely in the hands of this nefarious mountebank, he will put off to Barbary, perchance, or to the horrid regions of the Turk, perchance, there to set you up in the scorching marketplace and to sell you for a slave. My child, the danger, the peril is gross and imminent. Dismiss at once this evil wretch from your mind and let his vile and dangerous devices be flung into the fire. The apple is pure delusion; the veil which you describe is a mere toy; and the cord is a device of the devil.'
Myfanwy looked at her father, stooping there, with sorrow in her eyes, in spite of the gladness sparkling and dancing in her heart. Why, if all that he was saying he thought true—why could he not lift his eyes and meet her face to face?
'Well then, that being so, dear father,' she said softly at last, 'and you knowing ten thousand times more of God's world than I have ever had opportunity of knowing, whatever my desire, I must ask you but this one small thing. Will you promise me not to have these pretty baubles destroyed at once, before, I mean, you have thought once more of me? If I had deceived you, then indeed I should be grieved beyond endurance. But try as I may to darken my thoughts of him, the light slips in, and I see in my very heart that this stranger cannot by any possibility of nature or heaven be all that you tell me of him. I have a voice at times that whispers me yes or no: and I obey. And of him it has said only yes. But I am young, and the walls of this great house are narrow, and you, dear father, as you have told me so often, are wise. Do but then invite this young man into your presence! Question him, test him, gaze on him, hearken to him. And that being done, you will believe in him as I do. As I know I am happy, I know he is honest. It would afflict me beyond all telling to swerve by a hair's-breadth from my dear obedience to you. But, alas, if I never see him again, I shall wither up and die. And that—would it not——'she added smilingly—'that would be a worse disobedience yet? If you love me, then, as from my first hour in the world I know you have loved me, and I have loved you, I pray you think of me with grace and kindness—and in compassion too.'
And with that, not attempting to brush away the tears that had sprung into her eyes, and leaving the juggler's three gifts amid the flowers and fruit of the long table before him, Myfanwy hastened out of the room and returned to her chamber, leaving her father alone.
For a while her words lay like a cold refreshing dew on the dark weeds in his mind. For a while he pondered them, even; while his own gross fables appeared in all their ugly falseness.
But alas for himself and his pride and stubbornness, these gentler ruminations soon passed away. At thought once more of the juggler—of whom his spies had long since brought him far other tidings than he had expressed—rage, hatred and envy again boiled up in him and drowned everything else. He forgot his courtesy, his love for Myfanwy, his desire even to keep her love for him. Instead, on and on he sipped and sipped, and sat fuming and plotting and scheming with but one notion in his head—by hook or by crook to defeat this juggler and so murder the love of his innocent Myfanwy.
'Lo, now,' broke out at last a small shrill voice inside him. 'Lo, now, if thou taste of the magic apple, may it not be that it will give thee courage and skill to contend against him, and so bring all his hopes to ruin? Remember what a marvel but one merest nibble of the outer rind of it wrought in thy Myfanwy!'
And the foolish creature listened needfully to this crafty voice, not realizing that the sole virtue of the apple was that of making any human who tasted it more like himself than ever. He sat there—his fist over his mouth—staring intently at the harmless-looking fruit. Then he tiptoed like a humpback across the room and listened at the entry. Then having poured out, and drained at a draught, yet another cup of wine, he cautiously picked up the apple by its stalk between finger and ringed thumb and once more squinted close and steadily at its red and green, and at the very spot where Myfanwy's small teeth had rasped away the skin.
It is in a moment that cities fall in earthquake, stars collide in the wastes of space, and men choose between good and evil. For suddenly—his mind made up, his face all turned a reddish purple—this foolish lord lifted the apple to his mouth and, stalk to dried blossom, bit it clean in half. And he munched and he munched and he munched.
He had chawed for but a few moments, however, when a dreadful and continuous change and transformation began to appear upon him. It seemed to him that his whole body and frame was being kneaded and twisted and wrung in much the same fashion as dough being made into bread, or clay in a modeller's fingers. Not knowing what these aches and stabbings and wrenchings meant, he had dropped as if by instinct upon his hands and knees, and thus stood munching, while gazing blankly and blindly, lost in some inward horror, into the great fire on the hearth.
And meanwhile, though he knew it not in full, there had been sprouting upon him grey coarse hairs—a full thick coat and hide of them—in abundance. There had come a tail to him with a sleek, dangling tassel; long hairy ears had jutted out upon his temples; the purple face turned grey, lengthening as it did so until it was at least full eighteen inches long, with a great jawful of large teeth. Hoofs for his hands, hoofs where his feet used to be, and behold!—standing there in his own banqueting hall—this poor deluded Owen ap Gwythock, Lord of Eggleyseg, transmogrified into an ass!
For minutes together the dazed creature stood in utter dismay—the self within unable to realize the change that had come over its outer shape. But, happening to stretch his shaggy and unfamiliar neck a little outward, he perceived his own image in a scoured and polished suit of armour that stood on one side of the great chimney. He shook his head, the ass's head replied. He shook himself, the long ears flapped together like a wood-pigeon's wings. He lifted his hand—a hoof clawed at nowhere!
At this the poor creature's very flesh seemed to creep upon his bones as he turned in horror and dismay in search of an escape from the fate that had overtaken him. That ass he? he himself? His poor wits in vain endeavoured to remain calm and cool. A panic of fear all but swept him away. And at this moment his full, lustrous, long-lashed, asinine eyes fell by chance upon the golden ball lying ajar on the table beside his wine-cup—the Veil of Invisibility glinting like money-spider's web from within.
Now no ass is quite such a donkey as he looks. And this Owen ap Gwythock, though now completely shut up in this uncouth hairy body, was in his mind no more (though as much) of a donkey than he had ever been. His one thought, then, was to conceal his dreadful condition from any servant that might at any moment come that way, while he himself could seek out a quiet secluded corner in the dark wherein to consider how to rid himself of his ass's frame and to regain his own usual shape. And there lay the veil! What thing sweeter could there be than to defeat the juggler with his own devices.
Seizing the veil with his huge front teeth, he jerked it out of the ball and flung it as far as he could over his shaggy shoulders. But alas, his donkey's muzzle was far from being as deft as Myfanwy's delicate fingers. The veil but half concealed him. Tail, rump and back legs were now vanished from view; head, neck, shoulders and forelegs remained in sight. In vain he tugged; in vain he wriggled and wrenched; his hard hoofs thumping on the hollow flagstones beneath. One half of him stubbornly remained in sight; the rest had vanished. For the time being he was no more even than half an ass.
At last, breathless and wearied out with these exertions, trembling and shuddering, and with not a vestige of sense left in his poor donkey's noddle, he wheeled himself about once more and caught up with his teeth the silken cord. It was his last hope.
But this having been woven of wisdom—it being indeed itself the Serpent of Wisdom in disguise—at touch of his teeth it at once converted itself into a strong hempen halter, and, before he could so much as rear out of the way to escape its noose or even bray for help, it had tethered him to a large steel hook in his own chimneypiece.
Bray he did, none the less: 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!! Hee-ee-ee-ee Haw-aw-aw!!!' His prolonged, see-saw, dismal lamentations shattered the silence so harshly and so hoarsely that the sound rose up through the echoing stone walls and even pierced into Myfanwy's own bedchamber, where she sat in the darkness at her window, looking out half in sorrow, half in unspeakable happiness, at the stars.
Filled with alarm at this dreadful summons, in an instant or two she had descended the winding stone steps; and a strange scene met her eyes.
There, before her, in the full red light of the flaming brands in the hearth and the torches on the walls, stood the forelegs, the neck, head, and ears of a fine, full-grown ass, and a yard or so behind them just nothing at all. Only vacancy!
Poor Myfanwy—she could but wring her hands in grief and despair; for there could be no doubt in her mind of who it was in truth now stood before her—her own dear father. And on his face such a look of rage, entreaty, shame and stupefaction as never man has seen on ass's countenance before. At sight of her the creature tugged even more furiously at his halter, and shook his shaggy shoulders; but still in vain. His mouth opened and a voice beyond words to describe, brayed out upon the silence these words: 'Oh, Myfanwy, see into what a pass your sorceries and deceits have reduced me!'
'Oh, my dear father,' she cried in horror, 'speak no more, I beseech you—not one syllable—or we shall be discovered. Or, if you utter a sound, let it be but in a whisper.'
She was at the creature's side in an instant, had flung her arms about his neck, and was whispering into his long hairy ear all the comfort and endearments and assurances that loving and tender heart could conceive. 'Listen, listen, dear father,' she was entreating him, 'I see indeed that you have been meddling with the apple, and the ball, and the cord. And I do assure you, with all my heart and soul, that I am thinking of nothing else but how to help you in this calamity that has overtaken us. Have patience. Struggle no more. All will be well. But oh, beloved, was it quite just to me to speak of my deceits?'
Her bright eyes melted with compassion as she looked upon one whom she had loved ever since she could remember, so dismally transmogrified.
'How can you hesitate, ungrateful creature?' the see-saw voice once more broke out. 'Relieve me of this awful shape, or I shall be strangled on my own hearthstone in this pestilent halter.'
But now, alas, footsteps were sounding outside the door. Without an instant's hesitation Myfanwy drew the delicate veil completely over the trembling creature's head, neck and fore-quarters and thus altogether concealed him from view. So—though it was not an instant too soon—when the Lord of Eggleyseg's Chief Steward appeared in the doorway, nothing whatever was changed within, except that his master no longer sat in his customary chair, Myfanwy stood solitary at the table, and a mysterious cord was stretched out between her hand and the hook in the chimneypiece.
'My father,' said Myfanwy, 'has withdrawn for a while. He is indisposed, and bids me tell you that not even a whisper must disturb his rest. Have a hot posset prepared at once, and see that the room beneath is left vacant.'
The moment the Steward had gone to do her bidding Myfanwy turned at once to her father, and lifting the veil, whispered into the long hairy ear again that he must be of good cheer. 'For you see, dear father, the only thing now to be done is that we set out together at once in search of the juggler who, meaning no unkindness, presented me with these strange gifts. He alone can and will, I am assured, restore you to your own dear natural shape. So I pray you to be utterly silent—not a word, not a murmur—while I lead you gently forth into the forest. Once there I have no doubt I shall be able to find our way to where he is. Indeed he may be already expectant of my coming.'
Stubborn and foolish though the Baron might be, he realized, even in his present shape, that this was his only wisdom. Whereupon, withdrawing the end of the bridle from the hook to which it was tethered, Myfanwy softly led the now invisible creature to the door, and so, gently onward down the winding stone staircase, on the stones of which his shambling hoofs sounded like the hollow beating of a drum.
The vast room beneath was already deserted by its usual occupants, and without more ado the two of them, father and daughter, were soon abroad in the faint moonlight that now by good fortune bathed the narrow bridle-path that led into the forest.
Never before in all her years on earth had Myfanwy strayed beyond the Castle walls; never before had she stood lost in wonder beneath the dark emptiness of the starry skies. She breathed in the sweet fresh night air, her heart blossoming within her like an evening primrose, refusing to be afraid. For she knew well that the safety of them both—this poor quaking animal's and her own—depended now solely on her own courage and resource, and that to be afraid would almost certainly lead them only from one disaster into another.
Simply, however, because a mere ownerless ass wandering by itself in the moonlit gloom of the forest would be a spectacle less strange than that of a solitary damsel like herself, she once more drew down her father's ear to her lips and whispered into it, explaining to him that it was she who must now be veiled, and that if he would forgive her such boldness—for after all, he had frequently carried her pickaback when she was a child—she would mount upon his back and in this way they would together make better progress on their journey.
Her father dared not take offence at her words, whatever his secret feelings might be. 'So long as you hasten, my child,' he gruffed out in the hush, striving in vain to keep his tones no louder than a human whisper, 'I will forgive you all.' In a moment then there might be seen jogging along the bridle-path, now in moonlight, now in shadow, a sleek and handsome ass, a halter over its nose, making no stay to browse the dewy grass at the wayside, but apparently obeying its own whim as it wandered steadily onward.
Now it chanced that night there was a wild band of mountain robbers encamped within the forest. And when of a sudden this strange and pompous animal unwittingly turned out of a thicket into the light of their camp fire, and raised its eyes like glowing balls of emerald to gaze in horror at its flames, they lifted their voices together in an uproarious peal of laughter. And one of them at once started up from where he lay in the bracken, to seize the creature's halter and so make it his prize.
Their merriment, however, was quickly changed into dismay when the robbers saw the strange creature being guided, as was evident, by an invisible and mysterious hand. He turned this way, he turned that, with an intelligence that was clearly not his own and not natural even to his kind, and so eluded every effort made by his enemy to get a hold on his halter, his teeth and eyeballs gleaming in the firelight.
At this, awe and astonishment fell upon these outlaws. Assuredly sorcery alone could account for such ungainly and un-asslike antics and manoeuvres. Assuredly some divine being must have the beast in keeping, and to meddle with it further might only prove their own undoing.
Fortunate indeed was it that Myfanwy's right foot, which by mischance remained uncovered by the veil, happened to be on the side of the animal away from the beams of the camp fire. For certainly had these malefactors seen the precious stones blazing in its buckle, their superstitions would have melted away like morning mist, their fears have given place to cupidity, and they would speedily have made the ass their own and held its rider to an incalculable ransom.
Before, however, the moon had glided more than a soundless pace or two on her night journey, Myfanwy and her incomparable ass were safely out of sight: and the robbers had returned to their carousals. What impulse bade her turn first this way, then that, in the wandering and labyrinthine glades and tracks of the forest, she could not tell. But even though her father—not daring to raise his voice in the deep silence—ever and again stubbornly tugged upon his halter in the belief that the travellers had taken a wrong turning and were irrevocably lost, Myfanwy kept steadily on her way.
With a touch of her heel or a gentle persuasive pat of her hand on his hairy neck she did her best to reassure and to soothe him. 'Only trust in me, dear father: I am sure all will be well.'
Yet she was haunted with misgivings. So that when at last a twinkling light, sprinkling its beams between the boughs, showed in the forest, it refreshed her heart beyond words to tell. She was reaching her journey's end. It was as if that familiar voice in the secrecy of her heart had murmured, 'Hst! He draws near!'
There and then she dismounted from off her father's hairy back and once more communed with him through that long twitching ear. 'Remain here in patience a while, dear father,' she besought him, 'without straying by a hair's-breadth from where you are; for everything tells me our Stranger is not far distant now, and no human being on earth, no living creature, even, must see you in this sad and unseemly disguise. I will hasten on to assure myself that the light which I perceive beaming through the thicket yonder is his, and no other's. Meanwhile—and this veil shall go with me in case of misadventure—meanwhile do you remain quietly beneath this spreading beech-tree, nor even stir unless you are over-wearied after our long night journey and you should feel inclined to rest a while on the softer turf in the shadow there under that bush of fragrant roses, or to refresh yourself at the brook whose brawling I hear welling up from that dingle in the hollow. In that case, return here, I pray you; contain yourself in patience, and be your tongue as dumb as a stone. For though you may design to speak softly, dearest father, that long sleek throat and those great handsome teeth will not admit of it.'
And her father, as if not even the thick hairy hide he wore could endure his troubles longer, opened his mouth as if to groan aloud. But restraining himself, he only sighed, while an owl out of the quiet breathed its mellow night-call as if in response. For having passed the last hour in a profound and afflicted reverie, this poor ass had now regained in part his natural human sense and sagacity. But pitiful was the eye, however asinine the grin, which he now bestowed as if in promise on Myfanwy who, with veil held delicately in her fingers stood there, radiant as snow, beside him in the moonlight.
And whether it was because of her grief for his own condition or because of the expectancy in her face at the thought of her meeting with the Stranger, or because maybe the ass feared in his despair and dejection that he might never see her again, he could not tell; but true it was that she had never appeared in a guise so brave and gay and passionate and tender. It might indeed be a youthful divinity gently treading the green sward beside this uncouth beast in the chequered light and shadow of that unearthly moonshine.
Having thus assured herself that all would be well until her return, Myfanwy kissed her father on his flat hairy brow, and veil in hand withdrew softly in the direction of the twinkling light.
Alas, though the Baron thirsted indeed for the chill dark waters whose song rose in the air from the hollow beneath, he could not contain himself in her absence, but unmindful of his mute promise followed after his daughter at a distance as she made her way to the light, his hoofs scarce sounding in the turf. Having come near, by peering through the dense bushes that encircled the juggler's nocturnal retreat in the forest, he could see and hear all that passed.
As soon as Myfanwy had made sure that this stranger sitting by his glowing watch-fire was indeed the juggler and no man else—and one strange leap of her heart assured her of this even before her eyes could carry their message—she veiled herself once more, and so, all her loveliness made thus invisible, she drew stealthily near and a little behind him, as he crouched over the embers. Then pausing, she called gently and in a still low voice, 'I beseech you, Stranger, to take pity on one in great distress.'
The juggler lifted his dreaming face, ruddied and shadowed in the light of his fire, and peered cautiously but in happy astonishment all around him.
'I beseech you, Stranger,' cried again the voice from the unseen, 'to take pity on one in great distress.'
And at this it seemed to the juggler that now ice was running through his veins and now fire. For he knew well that this was the voice of one compared with whom all else in the world to him was nought. He knew also that she must be standing near, though made utterly invisible to him by the veil of his own enchantments.
'Draw near, traveller. Have no fear,' he cried out softly into the darkness. 'All will be well. Tell me only how I may help you.'
But Myfanwy drew not a hair's-breadth nearer. Far from it. Instead, she flitted a little across the air of the glade, and now her voice came to him from up the wind towards the south, and fainter in the distance.
'There is one with me,' she replied, 'who by an evil stratagem has been transformed into the shape of a beast, and that beast a poor patient ass. Tell me this, sorcerer—how I may restore him to his natural shape, and mine shall be an everlasting gratitude. For it is my own father of whom I speak.'
Her voice paused and faltered on the word. She longed almost beyond bearing to reveal herself to this unknown one, trusting without the least doubt or misgiving that he would serve her faithfully in all she asked of him.
'But that, gentle lady,' replied the juggler, 'is not within my power, unless he of whom you speak draws near to show himself. Nor—though the voice with which you speak to me is sweeter than the music of harp-strings twangling on the air—nor is it within my power to make promises to a bodiless sound only. For how am I to be assured that the shape who utters the words I hear is not some dangerous demon of the darkness who is bent on mocking and deluding me, and who will bring sorcery on myself?'
There was silence for a while in the glade, and then 'No, no!' cried the juggler. 'Loveliest and bravest of all that is, I need not see thy shape to know thee. Thou art most assuredly the lovely Myfanwy, and all that I am, have ever been, and ever shall be is at thy service. Tell me, then, where is this poor ass that was once thy noble father?'
And at this, and at one and the same moment, Myfanwy, withdrawing the veil from her head and shoulders, disclosed her fair self standing there in the faint rosy glow of the slumbering fire, and there broke also from the neighbouring thicket so dreadful and hideous a noise of rage and anguish—through the hoarse and unpractised throat of the eavesdropper near by—that it might be supposed the clamour was not of one but of a chorus of demons—though it was merely our poor ass complaining of his fate.
'Oh, sir,' sighed Myfanwy, 'my dear father, I fear, in his grief and anxiety has been listening to what has passed between us. See, here he comes.'
Galloping hoofs were indeed now audible as the Lord of Eggleyseg in ass's skin and shape drew near to wreak his vengeance on the young magician. But being at this moment in his stubborn rage and folly more ass than human, the glaring of the watch-fire dismayed his heavy wits, and he could do no else but paw with his forelegs, lifting his smooth nose with its gleaming teeth into the night air, snuffing his rage and defiance some twenty paces distant from the fire.
The young magician, being of a nature as courteous as he was bold, did not so much as turn his head to scan the angry shivering creature, but once more addressed Myfanwy. She stood bowed down a little, tears in her eyes; in part for grief at her father's broken promise and the humiliation he had brought upon himself, in part for joy that their troubles would soon be over and that she was now in the very company of the stranger who unwittingly had been the cause of them all.
'Have no fear,' he said, 'the magic that has changed the noble Baron your father into a creature more blest in its docility, patience, and humbleness than any other in the wide world, can as swiftly restore him to his natural shape.'
'Ah then, sir,' replied the maid, 'it is very certain that my father will wish to bear witness to your kindness with any small gift that is in our power. For, as he well knows, it was not by any design but his own that he ate of the little green apple of enchantment. I pray you, sir, moreover, to forgive me for first stealing that apple, and also the marvellous golden ball, and the silken cord from out of the air.'
The juggler turned and gazed strangely at Myfanwy. 'There is only one thing I desire in all this starry universe,' he answered. 'But I ask it not of him—for it is not of his giving. It is for your own forgiveness, lady.'
'I forgive you!' she cried. 'Alas, my poor father!'
But even as she spoke a faint smile was on her face, and her eyes wandered to the animal standing a few paces beyond the margin of the glow cast by the watch-fire, sniffing the night air the while, and twitching dismally the coarse grey mane behind his ears. For now that her father was so near his deliverance her young heart grew entirely happy again, and the future seemed as sweet with promise as wild flowers in May.
Without further word the juggler drew from out of his pouch, as if he always carried about with him a little privy store of vegetables, a fine, tapering, ripe, red carrot.
'This, lady,' said he, 'is my only wizardry. I make no bargain. My love for you will never languish, even if I never more again refresh my sleepless eyes with the vision of your presence in this solitary glade. Let your noble father the Lord of Eggleyseg draw near without distrust. There is but little difference, it might be imagined, between a wild apple and a carrot. But then, when all is said, there is little difference in the long sum between any living thing and another in this strange world. There are creatures in the world whose destiny it is in spite of their gentleness and humility and lowly duty and obedience to go upon four legs and to be in service of masters who deserve far less than they deserve, while there are men in high places of whom the reverse might truly be said. It is a mystery beyond my unravelling. But now all I ask is that you bid the ass who you tell me is hearkening at this moment to all that passes between us to nibble of this humble but useful and wholesome root. It will instantly restore him to his proper shape. Meanwhile, if you bid, I will myself be gone.'
Without further speech between them, Myfanwy accepted the magic carrot, and returned once more to the ass.
'Dear father,' she cried softly, 'here is a root that seems to be only a carrot; yet nibble of it and you will be at once restored, and will forget you were ever an—as you are. For many days to come, I fear, you will not wish to look upon the daughter that has been the unwilling cause of this night's woeful experience. There lives, as I have been told, in a little green arbour of the forest yonder, a hermit. This young magician will, I am truly certain, place me in his care a while until all griefs are forgotten between us. You will of your kindness consent, dear father, will you not?' she pleaded.
A long prodigious bray resounded dolefully in the hollows of the far-spread forest's dells and thickets. The Lord of Eggleyseg had spoken.
'Indeed, father,' smiled Myfanwy, 'I have never before heard you say "Yes" so heartily. What further speech is needed?'
Whereupon the ass, with more dispatch than gratitude, munched up the carrot, and in a few hours Owen ap Gwythock, once more restored to his former, though hardly his more appropriate shape, returned in safety to his Castle. There for many a day he mourned his woeful solitude, but learned, too, not only how true and faithful a daughter he had used so ill, but the folly of a love that is fenced about with mistrust and suspicion and is poisoned with jealousy.
And when May was come again, a prince, no longer in the disguise of a wandering juggler, drew near with his adored Myfanwy to the Lord of Eggleyseg's ancient castle. And Owen ap Gwythock, a little older but a far wiser man, greeted them with such rejoicings and entertainment, with such feastings and dancing and minstrelsy and jubilations as had never been heard of before. Indeed he would have been ass unadulterated if he had done else.
[End of The Lovely Myfanwy by Walter de la Mare]