In the green valley of the Yarrow, near the castle-keep of Norham, dwelt an honest sonsy little family, whose only grief was an unhappy son, named Robin.
Janet, with jimp form, bonnie eyes, and cherry cheeks, was the best of daughters: the boys, Sandie and Davie, were swift-footed, brave, kind, and obedient; but Robin, the youngest, had a stormy temper, and, when his will was crossed, he became as reckless as a reeling hurricane. Once, in a passion, he drove two of his father’s “kye,” or cattle, down a steep hill to their death. He seemed not to care for home or kindred, and often pierced the tender heart of his mother with sharp words. When she came at night, and “happed” the bed-clothes carefully about his form, and then stooped to kiss his nut-brown cheeks, he turned away with a frown, muttering, “Mither, let me be.”
It was a sad case with Wild Robin, who seemed to have neither love nor conscience.
“My heart is sair,” sighed his mother, “wi’ greeting over sich a son.”
“He hates our auld cottage and our muckle wark,” said the poor father. “Ah, weel! I could a’maist wish the fairies had him for a season, to teach him better manners.”
This the gudeman said heedlessly, little knowing there was any danger of Robin’s being carried away to Elfland. Whether the fairies were at that instant listening under the eaves, will never be known; but it chanced, one day, that Wild Robin was sent across the moors to fetch the kye.
“I’ll rin away,” thought the boy: “’tis hard indeed if ilka day a great lad like me must mind the kye. I’ll gae aff; and they’ll think me dead.”
So he gaed, and he gaed, over round swelling hills, over old battle-fields, past the roofless ruins of houses whose walls were crowned with tall climbing grasses, till he came to a crystal sheet of water, called St. Mary’s Loch. Here he paused to take breath. The sky was dull and lowering; but at his feet were yellow flowers, which shone, on that gray day, like freaks of sunshine.
He threw himself wearily upon the grass, not heeding that he had chosen his couch within a little mossy circle known as a “fairy’s ring.” Wild Robin knew that the country people would say the fays had pressed that green circle with their light feet. He had heard all the Scottish lore of brownies, elves, will-o’-the-wisps, and the strange water-kelpies, who shriek with eldritch laughter. He had been told that the queen of the fairies had coveted him from his birth, and would have stolen him away, only that, just as she was about to seize him from the cradle, he had sneezed; and from that instant the fairy-spell was over, and she had no more control of him.
Yet, in spite of all these stories, the boy was not afraid; and if he had been informed that any of the uncanny people were, even now, haunting his footsteps, he would not have believed it.
“I see,” said Wild Robin, “the sun is drawing his night-cap over his eyes, and dropping asleep. I believe I’ll e’en take a nap mysel’, and see what comes o’ it.”
In two minutes he had forgotten St. Mary’s Loch, the hills, the moors, the yellow flowers. He heard, or fancied he heard, his sister Janet calling him home.
“And what have ye for supper?” he muttered between his teeth.
“Parritch and milk,” answered the lassie gently.
“Parritch and milk! Whist! say nae mair! Lang, lang! may ye wait for Wild Robin: he’ll not gae back for oatmeal parritch!”
Next a sad voice fell on his ear.
“Mither’s; and she mourns me dead!” thought he; but it was only the far-off village-bell, which sounded like the echo of music he had heard lang syne, but might never hear again.
“D’ye think I’m not alive?” tolled the bell. “I sit all day in my little wooden temple, brooding over the sins of the parish.”
“A brazen lie!” cried Robin.
“Nay, the truth, as I’m a living soul! Wae worth ye, Robin Telfer: ye think yersel’ hardly used. Say, have your brithers softer beds than yours? Is your ain father served with larger potatoes or creamier buttermilk? Whose mither sae kind as yours, ungrateful chiel? Gae to Elfland, Wild Robin; and dool and wae follow ye! dool and wae follow ye!”
The round yellow sun had dropped behind the hills; the evening breezes began to blow; and now could be heard the faint trampling of small hoofs, and the tinkling of tiny bridle-bells: the fairies were trooping over the ground. First of all rode the queen.
“Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,
Her mantle of the velvet fine;
At ilka tress of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.”
But Wild Robin’s closed eyes saw nothing; his sleep-sealed ears heard nothing. The queen of the fairies dismounted, stole up to him, and laid her soft fingers on his cheeks.
“Here is a little man after my ain heart,” said she: “I like his knitted brow, and the downward curve of his lips. Knights, lift him gently, set him on a red-roan steed, and waft him away to Fairy-land.”
Wild Robin was lifted as gently as a brown leaf borne by the wind; he rode as softly as if the red-roan steed had been saddled with satin, and shod with velvet. It even may be that the faint tinkling of the bridle-bells lulled him into a deeper slumber; for when he awoke it was morning in Fairy-land.
Robin sprang from his mossy couch, and stared about him. Where was he? He rubbed his eyes, and looked again. Dreaming, no doubt; but what meant all these nimble little beings bustling hither and thither in hot haste? What meant these pearl-bedecked caves, scarcely larger than swallows’ nests? these green canopies, overgrown with moss? He pinched himself, and gazed again. Countless flowers nodded to him, and seemed, like himself, on tiptoe with curiosity, he thought. He beckoned one of the busy, dwarfish little brownies toward him.
“I ken I’m talking in my sleep,” said the lad; “but can ye tell me what dell is this, and how I chanced to be in it?”
The brownie might or might not have heard; but, at any rate, he deigned no reply, and went on with his task, which was pounding seeds in a stone mortar.
“Am I Robin Telfer, of the Valley of Yarrow, and yet canna shake aff my silly dreams?”
“Weel, my lad,” quoth the queen of the fairies, giving him a smart tap with her wand, “stir yersel’, and be at work; for naebody idles in Elf-land.”
Bewildered Robin ventured a look at the little queen. By daylight she seemed somewhat sleepy and tired; and was withal so tiny, that he might almost have taken her between his thumb and finger, and twirled her above his head; yet she poised herself before him on a mullein-stalk and looked every inch a queen.
Robin found her gaze oppressive; for her eyes were hard and cold and gray, as if they had been little orbs of granite.
“Get ye to work, Wild Robin!”
“What to do?” meekly asked the boy, hungrily glancing at a few kernels of rye which had rolled out of one of the brownie’s mortars.
“Are ye hungry, my laddie? Touch a grain of rye if ye dare! Shell these dry beans; and if so be ye’re starving, eat as many as ye can boil in an acorn-cup.”
With these words she gave the boy a withered bean-pod, and, summoning a meek little brownie, bade him see that the lad did not over-fill the acorn-cup, and that he did not so much as peck at a grain of rye.
Then glancing sternly at her prisoner, she withdrew, sweeping after her the long train of her green robe.
The dull days crept by, and still there seemed no hope that Wild Robin would ever escape from his beautiful but detested prison. He had no wings, poor laddie; and he could neither become invisible nor draw himself through a keyhole bodily.
It is true, he had mortal companions: many chubby babies; many bright-eyed boys and girls, whose distracted parents were still seeking them, far and wide, upon the earth. It would almost seem that the wonders of Fairy-land might make the little prisoners happy. There were countless treasures to be had for the taking, and the very dust in the little streets was precious with specks of gold: but the poor children shivered for the want of a mother’s love; they all pined for the dear home-people.
If a certain task seemed to them particularly irksome, the heartless queen was sure to find it out, and oblige them to perform it, day after day. If they disliked any article of food, that, and no other, were they forced to eat, or starve.
Wild Robin, loathing his withered beans and unsalted broths, longed intensely for one little breath of fragrant steam from the toothsome parritch on his father’s table, one glance at a roasted potato. He was homesick for the gentle sister he had neglected, the rough brothers whose cheeks he had pelted black and blue; and yearned for the very chinks in the walls, the very thatch on the home-roof.
Gladly would he have given every fairy-flower, at the root of which clung a lump of gold ore, if he might have had his own coverlet “happed” about him once more by the gentle hands he had despised.
“Mither,” he whispered in his dreams, “my shoon are worn, and my feet bleed; but I’ll soon creep hame, if I can. Keep the parritch warm for me.”
Robin was as strong as a mountain-goat; and his strength was put to the task of threshing rye, grinding oats and corn, or drawing water from a brook.
Every night, troops of gay fairies and plodding brownies stole off on a visit to the upper world, leaving Robin and his companions in ever-deeper despair. Poor Robin! he was fain to sing,—
“Oh that my father had ne’er on me smiled!
Oh that my mother had ne’er to me sung!
Oh that my cradle had never been rocked,
But that I had died when I was young!”
Now, there was one good-natured brownie who pitied Robin. When he took a journey to earth with his fellow-brownies, he often threshed rye for the laddie’s father, or churned butter in his good mother’s dairy, unseen and unsuspected. If the little creature had been watched, and paid for these good offices, he would have left the farmhouse forever in sore displeasure.
To homesick Robin he brought news of the family who mourned him as dead. He stole a silky tress of Janet’s fair hair, and wondered to see the boy weep over it; for brotherly affection is a sentiment which never yet penetrated the heart of a brownie. The dull little sprite would gladly have helped the poor lad to his freedom, but told him that only on one night of the year was there the least hope, and that was on Hallow-e’en, when the whole nation of fairies ride in procession through the streets of earth.
So Robin was instructed to spin a dream, which the kind brownie would hum in Janet’s ear while she slept. By this means the lassie would not only learn that her brother was in the power of the elves, but would also learn how to release him.
Accordingly, the night before Hallow-e’en, the bonnie Janet dreamed that the long-lost Robin was living in Elf-land, and that he was to pass through the streets with a cavalcade of fairies. But, alas! how should even a sister know him in the dim starlight, and among the passing troops of elfish and mortal riders? The dream assured her that she might let the first company go by, and the second; but Robin would be one of the third:—
“First let pass the black, Janet,
And syne let pass the brown;
But grip ye to the milk-white steed,
And pull the rider down.
For I ride on the milk-white steed,
And aye nearest the town:
Because I was a christened lad
They gave me that renown.
My right hand will be gloved, Janet;
My left hand will be bare;
And these the tokens I give thee,
No doubt I will be there.
They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,
A toad, snake, and an eel;
But hold me fast, nor let me gang,
As you do love me weel.
They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,
A dove, bat, and a swan:
Cast your green mantle over me,
I’ll be myself again.”
The good sister Janet, far from remembering any of the old sins of her brother, wept for joy to know that he was yet among the living. She told no one of her strange dream; but hastened secretly to the Miles Cross, saw the strange cavalcade pricking through the greenwood, and pulled down the rider on the milk-white steed, holding him fast through all his changing shapes. But when she had thrown her green mantle over him, and clasped him in her arms as her own brother Robin, the angry voice of the fairy queen was heard:—
“Up then spake the queen of fairies,
Out of a bush of rye,
‘You’ve taken away the bonniest lad
In all my companie.
‘Had I but had the wit, yestreen,
That I have learned to-day,
I’d pinned the sister to her bed
Ere he’d been won away!’”
However, it was too late now. Wild Robin was safe, and the elves had lost their power over him forever. His forgiving parents and his leal-hearted brothers welcomed him home with more than the old love.
So grateful and happy was the poor laddie, that he nevermore grumbled at his oatmeal parritch, or minded his kye with a scowling brow.
But to the end of his days, when he heard mention of fairies and brownies, his mind wandered off in a mizmaze. He died in peace, and was buried on the banks of the Yarrow.