So you want to hear the story about the Fairy Queen, do ye?
“Oh yes, uncle Michael!”
Very well then, children. Once upon a time there lived in green Ireland a little girl by the name of Nora. Her home was a small thatched cottage of stone beside the hill at the foot of a mountain, in the midst of a woodland so deep that in the summer time when the trees were full the sun only got its rays inside a few hours of the day and at night you could only catch glimpses of the starry night sky.
It was a famous meeting-place for the fairies, this haunt at the foot of the mountain by the stream, for the Little Folk from the heather above used gather every night in the meadow with the Little Folk from the woodland below, and there they danced the long night through among the shamrocks. But although Nora had heard about the fairies from her grandmother, who sat all day tending the peat fire, and something more about them from her mother when of an evening after supper she had time to speak to Nora of herself when she was a girl, yet Nora had never in all her life set eyes upon one of these forest-dwellers. For the fairies, mind you, come only to two kinds of folk, to those who believe in them and to those who need them. Now Nora believed in the fairies all right, all right, but she had never been in need of them until now, at this time that I’m telling you of.
Now this same Nora was one of these girls that is a wee bit gloomery. And ye don’t know what this gloomery is? Well, she was at times a bit sad. So it was plain enough to the fairies that she was in some need of them.
One day Nora went into the deep of the wood a few steps below her mother’s cottage to a secret place where she often went when she had the time away from her daily jobs.
She had been unusually busy that morning, as all of us are at times, by being obliged to do many things for the which she had little liking. The spot was a favorite one of Nora’s.
There was a shelter of rocks above, almost like a cave or roof, and below there was a tiny stream of water that ran out of a spring in the back of the hill and sang its way down the bank of the hill below. In this pool Nora nearly always laid some flowers from the fields, because they kept fresher there than anywhere else. From the low seat that Nora had made out of a stone in the back of her shelter she looked out into a sunny place in the woods, around which stood, as if they were pillars of a palace, six gray beech trees.
Now upon this sunny afternoon that I am speaking of, hardly had Nora sat upon her seat, feeling a bit drowsy no doubt with the heat, yet not quite sleepy you know, listening to a robin singing, when she heard a light tapping on the wall of the largest beech tree, the one that was nearest to the place where she was lying. At first when she heard this sound she thought that it was the robin redbreast that she had noticed hopping up and down in the open place in the sunlight, and yet she knew well that robins do not drum upon the bark of trees like woodpeckers. So she jumped lightly up and ran to the tree, and at once she was aware that the tapping was from inside the tree. And between the taps that were no louder than those of a branch against a window-pane she distinctly heard a very tiny voice.
How tiny was the voice you wonder? Let me see if I can tell you. You have heard the sound of the trickle of water when it falls upon mossy stones in the pasture? Well, it was about as loud as the echo of that if you should walk thirty paces away and then listen. So Nora had to put her ear up close against the breast of the beech-tree and even then the voice sounded no louder than the sound of a beech-leaf when it falls from a branch into the moss-bed. But she could hear what that voice was saying, and it was these words: “Nora, my darling, turn the key and let me out.” Nora looked around in amazement, but sure enough, there on the face of the trunk of the beech, about the height of her heart, was a small key of the color of the bark, that she had never noticed before, though she had hugged that beech-tree every morning of her life. So Nora turned the key at once, and out stepped——”
“A fairy, Michael?”
Yes, better than a fairy, a dryad, that is a fairy of the tree. For a fairy of a tree is as much higher in rank than a fairy of the meadow as a duchess is than a goose-girl. She was about the size of the robin redbreast, and she was dressed all in green, except a lovely cloak of red that, when it was folded about her, made her look very much indeed like the redbreast himself, and she was no bit bigger than the robin either.
“Nora Mavourneen,” said the dryad, “I have been noticing that you seem a bit sad-hearted of late, and for no reason either that anybody knows, so if you don’t mind I will take you with me for a walk this afternoon through fairyland, and we will see if we cannot do something to restore your good spirits again.”
At these words Nora danced for joy, and you would never have been able to guess that she had ever known a downhearted moment. So the dryad clapped her tiny hands three times, and out of the open door into the beech-tree stepped a little gnome who came and bowed low before them, holding in his hands a silver tray on which lay a little pellet.
“How little was the pellet, uncle?”
“Well, what would you say if I told you that it was as small as a humming bird’s egg? Oh, you think it was smaller than that? Well, how about the seed of a coriander? No? Then I will tell you the truth. It was as small as the spec of dust that gets into your eye, that feels as big as a rat.”
So Nora took the pellet from the platter and thanked the gnome kindly and she ate it down, and no sooner had she swallowed it than she was no bigger than the dryad herself.
So the dryad took her by the hand and they walked gaily into the beech-tree door, and the door shut behind them.
They went down and down a lot of winding stairs lit only by small windows in the bark of the tree that Nora had never noticed before and could never find afterward. It was very cool and pleasant, for they could hear the sap go singing on its way from the roots up to the branches and leaves and when a summer shower went by they could hear the raindrops as they went singing down the trunk outside to the roots. After they had reached the foot of the stairs they walked for a long way through a cool corridor. It was not quite dark, for Little People stood at every turn who seemed to be doing what fireflies do on summer nights in the grass, and each one whistling to himself as he held his softly shaded lantern up. Down the side passages Nora could see thousands of tiny miners at work. And what do you think they are doing?
“Digging for gold and diamonds.”
They were tending the woodland plants that hang their golden blossoms in the pathways and carrying up the dewdrops that sparkle like diamonds from their leaves in the daybreak. And it was pleasant to see them work, for they were all singing.
By and by Nora and the dryad came to a place where there was a brighter light ahead, and as they drew nearer Nora could see that they had come to the bank of the pond that is below Nora’s cottage, only that they were under the surface, looking up through a light so soft that it cast no shadows. And now the dryad took Nora’s hand and she found herself in a little boat, no bigger than a leaf, sailing across the pond but still beneath its surface. And here she saw on every hand, working amid the swampy water, such jolly little divers, who were feeding the fish and tending the pond lily roots, and, like all the others, singing at their tasks.
Now you will know of course that they were on their way to the home of the fairy queen. And it was but a short while before they were there. I need not tell you, children, how lovely is her palace, with its golden floor and silver walls and its hangings of the colors of the rainbow. Nor need I say how beautiful is her majesty herself, with wings like the most splendid butterfly and a gown like the morning and a face like the sunshine.
It seems that Nora had come upon the queen’s birthday, and she was just giving the birthday honors. So Nora and the dryad stood in the background and watched the scene. Around the throne stood gallant fairy gentlemen clad like beetles and dragon flies for splendor and ladies whose long gowns hung like the light on a waterfall. But to the amazement of Nora, those who came forward to receive the honors were for the most part dressed like workmen and many of them were bent with hard labor. As each advanced and bowed with respect, the royal herald read the deed for which the rank of knighthood was about to be awarded. For one he read: “To our faithful servant who covered the lilies of Moira from the attack of the Frost King”; and to another: “To the gallant attendant who watered the grain field of Kilvellin”; and to still another: “To him who dug the trench by the roadside and kept safe the highway to Throselwait Fair.” And as each came forward the trumpets pealed in triumph, and after a gold star had been pinned upon the new knight’s breast the gentlemen and ladies of the court greeted them with hearty reverence. And Nora looked in the smiling face of the dryad, but said nothing.
Then Nora herself, in a breathless moment of fear, was presented to the queen, and the queen kissed her daintily just above her lips on both sides. And suddenly Nora found herself back on her stony bench by the spring with the branches of the beech-tree waving silently before her.
“Oh, mothereen and grandmotherkin,” she cried as soon as she got home, and she ran home all the way—”let me tell you about the wonderful visit I have been making out in the wildwood.” And after she had told her story, mothereen said, “I think Nora has been dreaming,” but grandmotherkin said, “No, daughter, I think our little acushla darling has had her eyes opened the day.” Then Nora in triumph showed the two dimples where the fairy queen had kissed her. And do you know, my darlings, I cannot but think that she told the truth after all, for ever after, if one kissed Nora upon those two dimples or even touched them or even looked at them, she would break into the sweetest smile, and she never was gloomerin’ or lowerin’ any more.