One easily gets acquainted with the Welsh fairies, for nearly all the good ones are very fond of music.
Or, they live down in the lakes, or up in the mountains. They are always ready to help kind or polite people, who treat them well or will give them a glass of milk, or a saucer of flummery.
But, oh, what tricks and mischief they do play on mean or stingy or grumpy folks with bad tempers! They tangle up the harness of the horses; milk the cows, letting the milk go to waste, on the stable floor; tie knots in their tails, or keep the dog’s mouth shut, when the robbers come sneaking around. Better not offend a fairy, even though no higher than a thimble!
A favorite place for the elfin ladies of the lake is high up in one of the fresh water mountain ponds. They are cousins to the mermaids, that swim in the salt water.
They say that these lake maidens love to come up close to the shore, to smell the sweet grass and flowers, which the cows like so much.
Near one of these lakes dwelt a widow, with only one son, named Gwyn. One day he took his lunch of barley bread and cheese, and went out, as usual, to tend the cows. Soon he saw rising out of the water, to dress her long and luxuriant hair, the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. In her hand she held a golden comb, and was using the bright lake-surface as a mirror.
At once Gwyn fell in love with her, and, like an unselfish lad, held out his refreshments—barley bread and cheese—all he had—bidding her to come and take.
But though the lady glided toward him, while he still held out his hand, she shook her head, saying:
O thou of the hard baked bread,
It is not easy to catch me
Sorry enough to miss such a prize, he hurried home to tell his mother. She, wondering also, whether fairies have teeth to chew, told him to take soft dough next time. Then, perhaps, the strange lady would come again.
Not much sleep did the boy get that night, and, before the sun was up, he was down by the lake side holding out his dough.
There, hour after hour, neglecting the cows, he looked eagerly over the water, but nothing appeared, except ripples started by the breeze. Again and again, he gazed in hope, only to be disappointed.
[Illustration: IN A MOMENT HE FORGOT EVERY WORD HE MEANT TO SAY]
Meanwhile he thought out a pretty speech to make to her, but he kept his dough and went hungry.
It was late in the afternoon, when the trees on the hills were casting long shadows westward, that he gave up watching, for he supposed she would come no more.
But just as he started to go back to his mother’s cabin, he turned his head and there was the same lady, looking more beautiful than ever. In a moment, he forgot every word he meant to say to her. His tongue seemed to leave him, and he only held out his hand, with the dough in it.
But the lake lady, shaking her head, only laughed and said:
Thou of the soft bread
I will not have thee
Though she dived under the water and left him sad and lonely, she smiled so sweetly, as she vanished, that, though again disappointed, he thought she would come again and she might yet accept his gift.
His mother told him to try her with bread half baked, that is, midway between hard crust and soft dough.
So, having packed his lunch, and much excited, though this time with bright hopes, Gwyn went to bed, though not to sleep. At dawn, he was up again and out by the lake side, with his half baked bread in his hand.
It was a day of rain and shine, of sun burst and cloud, but no lady appeared.
The long hours, of watching and waiting, sped on, until it was nearly dark.
When just about to turn homewards, to ease his mother’s anxiety, what should he see, but some cows walking on the surface of the water! In a few minutes, the lady herself, lovelier than ever, rose up and moved towards the shore.
Gwyn rushed out to meet her, with beseeching looks and holding the half baked bread in his hand. This time, she graciously took the gift, placed her other hand in his, and he led her to the shore.
Standing with her on land, he could not speak for many seconds. He noticed that she had sandals on her feet, and the one on the right foot was tied in a way rather unusual. Under her winsome smile, at last, he regained the use of his tongue. Then he burst out:
“Lady I love you, more than all the world besides. Will you be my wife?”
She did not seem at all willing at first, but love begets love. Finally yielding to his pleadings, she said, rather solemnly:
“I will be your bride but only on this condition, that if you strike me three times, without cause, I will leave your house and you only will be to blame, and it will be forever.”
These words stuck in his mind, and he inwardly made a vow never to give his lovely wife cause to leave him.
But not yet did happiness come, for, even while he took oath that he would rather cut off his right hand, than offend her, she darted away like an arrow, and, diving in the lake, disappeared.
At this sudden blow to his hopes and joy, Gwyn was so sorely depressed, as to wish to take his own life. Rushing up to the top of a rock, overhanging the deepest part of the lake, he was just about to leap into the water and drown himself, when he heard a voice behind him, saying:
“Hold rash lad, come here!”
He looked and there down on the shore of the lake, stood a grand looking old man, with a long white beard. On either side of him was a lovely maiden. These were his daughters.
Trembling with fear, the lad slipped down from the rock and drew near. Then the old man spoke comfortably to him, though in a very cracked voice.
“Mortal, do you wish to marry one of my daughters? Show me the one you love more than the other, and I will consent.”
Now the two maidens were so beautiful, yet so exactly alike, that Gwyn could not note any difference. As he looked, he began to wonder whether it had been a different lady, in each case, that rose out of the water. He looked beyond the old man, to see if there were a third lady. When he saw none more, he became more distracted. He feared lest he might choose the wrong one, who had not promised to love him.
Almost in despair, he was about to run home, when he noticed that one of the maidens put forward her right foot. Then he saw that her sandal was tied in the way he had already wondered at. So he boldly went forward and took her by the hand.
“This one is mine,” said he to the father.
“You are right,” answered the old man. “This is my daughter Nelferch. Take her and you shall have as many cattle, sheep, horses, hogs, and goats, as she can count, of each, without drawing in her breath. But I warn you that three blows, without cause, will send her back to me.”
While the old man smiled, and Gwyn renewed his vow, the new wife began to count by fives—one, two, three, four, five.
At the end of each count drawing in a fresh breath, there rose up, out of the lake, as many sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, and horses, as she had counted.
So it happened that the lad, who went out of his mother’s cottage, in the morning, a poor boy, came back to her, a rich man, and leading by the hand the loveliest creature on whom man or woman had ever looked upon.
As for the old man and the other daughter, no one ever saw them again.
Gwyn and his wife went out to a farm which he bought, and oh, how happy they were! She was very kind to the poor. She had the gift of healing, knew all the herbs, which were good for medicine, and cured sick folk of their diseases.
Three times the cradle was filled, and each time with a baby boy. Eight long and happy years followed. They loved each other so dearly and were so happy together, that Gwyn’s vow passed entirely out of his mind, and he thought no more of it.
On the seventh birthday of the oldest boy, there was a wedding at some distance away, and the father and mother walked through a field where their horses were grazing. As it was too far for Lady Nelferch to walk all the way, her husband went back to the house, for saddle and bridle, while she should catch the horse.
“Please do, and bring me my gloves from off the table,” she called, as he turned towards the house.
But when he returned to the field, he saw that she had not stirred. So, before handing his wife her gloves and pointing playfully to the horses, he gave her a little flick with the gloves.
Instead of moving, instantly, she heaved a deep sigh. Then looking up at him with sorrowful and reproachful eyes, she said:
“Remember our vow, Gwyn. This is the first causeless blow. May there never be another.”
Days and years passed away so happily, that the husband and father never again had to recall the promise given to his wife and her father.
But when they were invited to the christening of a baby, every one was full of smiles and gayety, except Nelferch. Women, especially the older ones, often cry at a wedding, but why his wife should burst into tears puzzled Gwyn.
Tapping her on the shoulder, he asked the reason:
“Because,” said she, “this weak babe will be in pain and misery all its days and die in agony. And, husband dear, you have once again struck me a causeless blow. Oh, do be on your guard, and not again break your promise.”
From this time forth, Gwyn was on watch over himself, day and night, like a sentinel over whom hangs the sentence of death, should he fall asleep on duty. He was ever vigilant lest, he, in a moment of forgetfulness, might, by some slip of conduct, or in a moment of forgetfulness, strike his dear wife.
The baby, whose life of pain and death of agony Nelferch had foretold, soon passed away; for, happily, its life was short. Then she and her husband attended the last rites of sorrow, for Celtic folk always have a funeral and hold a wake, even when a baby, only a span long, lies in the coffin.
Yet in the most solemn moment of the services of burial, Nelferch the wife, laughed out, so long and with such merriment, that everyone was startled.
Her husband, mortified at such improper behavior, touched her gently, saying:
“Hush, wife! Why do you laugh?”
“Because the babe is free from all pain. And, you have thrice struck me! Farewell!”
Fleeing like a deer home to their farm, she called together, by its name, each and every one of their animals, from stable and field; yes, even those harnessed to the plow. Then, over the mountain all moved in procession to the lake.
There, they plunged in and vanished. No trace of them was left, except that made by the oxen drawing the plow, and which mark on the ground men still point out.
Broken hearted and mad with grief, Gwyn rushed into the lake and was seen no more. The three sons, grieving over their drowned father, spent their many days wandering along the lakeside, hoping once more to see one, or both, of their dear parents.
Their love was rewarded. They never saw their father again, but one day their mother, Nelferch, suddenly appeared out of the water. Telling her children that her mission on earth was to relieve pain and misery, she took them to a point in the lake, where many plants grew that were useful in medicine. There, she often came and taught them the virtues of the roots, leaves, juices and the various virtues of the herbs, and how to nurse the sick and heal those who had diseases.
All three of Nelferch’s sons became physicians of fame and power. Their descendants, during many centuries, were renowned for their skill in easing pain and saving life. To this day, Physicians’ Point is shown to visitors as a famous spot, and in tradition is almost holy.
Welsh Fairy Tales
By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS