The Small People
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
To a Lady who had asked for a Fairy Tale.
You thought it natural, my dear lady, to lay this command on me at
the dance last night. We had parted, two months ago, in London, and
we met, unexpectedly and to music, in this corner of the land where
(they say) the piskies still keep. And certainly, when I led you out
upon the balcony (that you might not see the new moon through glass
and lose a lucky month), it was not hard to picture the Small People
at their play on the turf and among the dim flower-beds below us.
But, as a matter of fact, they are dead, these Small People.
They were the long-lived but not immortal spirits of the folk who
inhabited Cornwall many thousands of years back—far beyond Christ's
birth. They were "poor innocents," not good enough for heaven yet
too good for the eternal fires; and when they first came, were of
ordinary stature. But after Christ's birth they began to grow
smaller and smaller, and at length turned into emmets and vanished
from the earth.
The last I heard of them was a sad and serious little history, very
different from the old legends. Part of it I was told by a hospital
surgeon, of all people in the world. Part I learnt by looking at
your beautiful gown last night, as you leant on the balcony-rail.
You remember how heavy the dew was, and that I fetched a shawl for
your shoulders. You did not wrap it so tightly round but that four
marguerites in gold embroidery showed on the front of your bodice;
and these come into the tale, the remainder of which I was taught
this morning before breakfast, down among the cairns by the sea where
the Small People's Gardens still remain—sheltered spots of green,
with here and there some ferns and cliff-pinks left. For me they are
libraries where sometimes I read for a whole summer's day; and with
the help of the hospital surgeon, I bring you from them a story about
your ball-gown which is perfectly true.
Twenty years ago—before the fairies had dwindled into ants, and when
wayfarers were still used to turn their coats inside out, after
nightfall, for fear of being "pisky-led"—there lived, down at the
village, a girl who knew all the secrets of the Small People's
Gardens. Where you and I discover sea-pinks only, and hear only the
wash of the waves, she would go on midsummer nights and find flowers
of every colour spread, and hundreds of little lights moving among
them, and fountains and waterfalls and swarms of small ladies and
gentlemen, dressed in green and gold, walking and sporting among
them, or reposing on the turf and telling stories to the most
ravishing soft music. This was as much as she would relate; but it
is certain that the piskies were friends of hers. For, in spite of
her nightly wanderings, her housework was always well and cleanly
done before other girls were dressed—the morning milk fresh in the
dairy, the step sanded, the fire lit and the scalding-pans warming
over it. And as for her needlework, it was a wonder.
Some said she was a changeling; others that she had found the
four-leaved clover or the fairy ointment, and rubbed her eyes with
it. But it was her own secret; for whenever the people tried to
follow her to the "Gardens," whir! whir! whir! buzzed in their
ears, as if a flight of bees were passing, and every limb would feel
as if stuck full of pins and pinched with tweezers, and they were
rolled over and over, their tongues tied as if with cords, and at
last, as soon as they could manage, they would pick themselves up,
and hobble home for their lives.
Well, the history—which, I must remind you, is a true one—goes on
to say that in time the girl grew ambitious, or fell in love
(I cannot remember which), and went to London. In any case it must
have been a strong call that took her: for there are no fairies in
London. I regret that my researches do not allow me to tell you how
the Small People at home took her departure; but we will suppose that
it grieved them deeply. Nor can I say precisely how the girl fared
for many years. I think her fortune contained both joy and sorrow
for a while; and I suspect that many passages of her life would be
sadly out of place in this story, even if they could be hunted out.
Indeed, fairy-tales have to omit so much nowadays, and therefore seem
so antiquated, that one marvels how they could ever have been in
But you may take it as sure that in the end this girl met with more
sorrow than joy; for when next she comes into sight it is in London
streets and she is in rags. Moreover, though she wears a flush on
her cheeks, above the wrinkles it does not come of health or high
spirits, but perhaps from the fact that in the twenty years' interval
she has seen millions of men and women, but not one single fairy.
In those latter days I met her many times. She passed under your
windows shortly before dawn on the night that you gave your dance,
early in the season. You saw her, I think?—a woman who staggered a
little, and had some words with the policeman at the corner: but,
after all, a staggering woman in London is no such memorable sight.
All day long she was seeking work, work, work; and after dark she
sought forgetfulness. She found the one, in small quantities, and
out of it she managed to buy the other, now and then, over the
counter. But she had long given up looking for the fairies.
The lights along the Embankment had ceased to remind her of those in
the Small People's Gardens; nor did the noise bursting from
music-hall doors as she passed, recall the old sounds; and as for the
scents, there were plenty in London, but none resembling that of the
garden which you might smell a mile out at sea.
I told you that her needlework had been a marvel when she lived down
at the village. Curiously enough, this was the one gift of the
fairies that stayed by her, and it remained as wonderful as ever.
Her most frequent employer was a flat-footed Jew with a large, fleshy
face; and because she had a name for honesty, she was not seldom
entrusted with costly pieces of stuff, and allowed to carry them home
to turn into ball-dresses under the roof through the gaps of which,
as she stitched, she could see the night pass from purple to black,
and from black to the lilac of daybreak. There, with a hundred
pounds' worth of silk and lace on her knee, she would sit and work a
dozen hours to earn as many pence. With fingers weary and—But you
know Hood's song, and no doubt have taken it to heart a dozen times.
It came to this, however, that one evening, when she had not eaten
for forty hours, her employer gave her a piece of embroidery to work
against time. The fact is, my dear lady, that you are very
particular about having your commissions executed to the hour, and
your dressmakers are anxious to oblige, knowing that you never
squabble over the price. To be sure, you have never heard of the
flat-footed Jew man—how should you? And we may believe that your
dressmakers knew just as little of the poor woman who had used to be
the friend of the Small People. But the truth remains that, in the
press of your many pleasures, you were pardonably twenty-four hours
late in ordering the gown in which you were to appear an angel.
Ah, madam! will it comfort you to hear that you were the one to
reconcile the Small People with that poor sister of yours who had
left them, twenty years before, and wanted them so sorely?
The hospital doctor gave her complaint a long name, and I gather that
it has a place by itself in books of pathology. But the woman's tale
was that, after she had been stitching through the long night, the
dawn came through the roof and found her with four marguerites still
left to be embroidered in gold on the pieces of satin that lay in her
lap. She threaded her needle afresh, rubbed her weary eyes, and
began—when, lo! a miracle.
Instead of one hand, there were four at work—four hands, four
needles, four lines of thread. The four marguerites were all being
embroidered at the same time! The piskies had forgiven, had
remembered her at last, after these many years, and were coming to
her help, as of old. Ah, madam, the tears of thankfulness that ran
from her hot eyes and fell upon those golden marguerites of yours!
Of course her eyes were disordered. There was only one flower,
really. There was only one embroidered in the morning, when they
found her sobbing, with your bodice still in her lap, and took her to
the hospital; and that is why the dressmakers failed to keep faith
with you for once, and made you so angry.
Dear lady, the piskies are not easily summoned, in these days.