The Tree in the Dark Wood, by Anna McClure Sholl

Fairy Tales of Weir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"To find the three crosses," he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why do you cry?" asked Sir Godfrey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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