Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children - Mary Macgregor

The Gay Goshawk

Lord William sat alone in his grey northern castle. He had come but lately from the sunny South, and the room in which he sat struck chill after the sun-warmed rooms to which he had grown used. Little joy had Lord William in his old grey castle, for his heart was far away in the sunny South.

All alone he sat save for his favourite bird, the gay goshawk. And it, for it loved its master well, blinked a tear from its eye as it peered into Lord William's gloomy face, blinked and peered again, so pale and lean had his master grown.

'Now what ill has befallen,' thought the bird, and it ruffled its feathers in its distress.

Lord William looked up and stroked the glossy plumage of his gay goshawk.

'Be still, my bonny bird, be still,' said Lord William, 'and I will smooth your ruffled wings.'

The goshawk blinked and peered more close into the tired face of his master. Then he began to speak.

'Have you lost your sword or spear in the tournament, have you lost them in sunny England?' asked the bird, 'or are you pale with grief because your true love is far away?'

'By my troth!' cried Lord William, 'I have lost nor sword nor spear, yet do I mourn, for my true love whom I fain would see.

'You shall carry a message to her, my gay goshawk, for you can fly over hill and dale. You shall carry a letter to my love, and you shall e'en bring me an answer,' said Lord William, 'for you can speak as well as fly, my bonny bird.'

'But how shall I know your true love?' said the bird. 'Never have I seen her face or heard her voice.'

'O well will you know my true love,' cried Lord William, 'for in all England lives there none so fair as she. The cheeks of my love are red as the red red rose, and her neck, it is whiter than new-fallen snow.

'Near to her lattice window grows a birch, whose leaves tremble in the breeze. There shall you sit, my gay goshawk, and you shall sing to her as she goes to holy church.

'With four-and-twenty maidens will she go, yet well will you know my own true love, for she is the fairest of them all. You shall know her, too, by the gold that bedecks her skirt, by the light that glimmers in her hair.'

Then Lord William sat down and wrote a letter to his love, and fastened it firm under the pinion of his gay goshawk. Away flew the bird, swift did it fly to do its master's will. O'er hill and dale it winged its flight until at length it saw the birch-tree that grew near the lady's bower.

There, on the birch-tree, did the goshawk perch, and there did he sing his song as the lady with her four-and-twenty maidens passed beneath its branches towards the church.

The sharp eyes of the goshawk glanced at each beautiful maiden, and quick was he to see Lord William's love, for sweet was she as the flowers that spring in May. Gold was embroidered on her skirt, sunlight glistened in her beautiful yellow hair.

When another day dawned the gay goshawk left the birch-tree and alighted on the gate, a little nearer to the lattice window where sat the beautiful lady to whom he had been sent. Here again he sang his song. Loud and clear he sang it first, loud and clear that all might hear. Soft and sweet he sang it after, soft and sweet that only Lord William's lady might catch the note of love. And ever, loud or soft, the last words of his song were these, 'Your true love cannot come to you here.'

Then said the lady to her four-and-twenty maidens, 'Eat, my merry maidens, eat and drink, for the feast is spread. I go but to my lattice window to listen to the birds, for hark! they are singing their evensong.'

But in her heart the lady knew there was only one song she longed to hear. Wide she opened her lattice window and, leaning out, she hearkened to the song of the gay goshawk.

'Sing on, ye bonny bird,' she cried, 'sing on, for I know no song could be so sweet that came not from my own true love.'

A little nearer flew the gay goshawk, and first his song was merry as a summer morn, and then it was sad as an autumn eve.

As she listened, tears dropped from the eyes of the beautiful lady. She put out her hand and stroked the pinions of the gay goshawk, and lo! there dropped from beneath his wing Lord William's letter.

'Five letters has my master sent to you,' said the bird, 'and long has he looked for one from you, yet never has it come, and he is weary with long waiting.'

Then the lady sighed, for no letter had she ever had from her true love. 'My stepmother has hidden the letters, for never one have I seen,' she cried. Her fingers tore open the letter which had dropped from beneath the bird's wing, and she read, and as she read she laughed aloud.

Lord William's Love


Lord William had written a letter that was full of grief, because he could not come to the lady he loved, yet did the lady laugh. And this is why she laughed both long and glad. Because she had made up her mind that as he could not come to her she herself would go to Lord William.

'Carry this message to my own true love,' said she then to the gay goshawk.

'Since you cannot come to me, I myself will come to you in your cold northern country. And as a token of my love I send you by your gay goshawk a ring from off my finger, a wreath from off my yellow hair. And lest these should not please you I send my heart, and more than that can you not wish.

'Prepare the wedding feast, invite the guests, and then haste you to meet me at St. Mary's Church, for there, ere long, will you find me.

'Fly, gay goshawk, fly and carry with you my message to Lord William.'

And the bird flew o'er hill and dale until once again he reached the grey northern castle in which his master dwelt. And he saw his master's eye grow glad, his pale cheek glow as he listened to the message, as he held the tokens of his own true love.

Then the lady, left alone, closed her lattice window and went up to her own room followed by her maidens. Here she began to moan and cry as though she were in great pain, or seized by sudden illness. So ill she seemed that those who watched her feared that she would die.

'My father!' moaned the lady, 'tell my father that I am ill; bid him come to me without delay.'

Up to her room hastened her father, and sorely did he grieve when he saw that his daughter was so ill.

'Father, dear father,' she cried, holding his strong hand in her pale white one, 'grant me a boon ere I die.'

'An you ask not for the lord who lives in the cold north country, my daughter, you may ask for what you will, and it shall be granted.'

'Promise me, then,' said his daughter, 'that though I die here in the sunny South, you will carry me when I am dead to the cold grey North.

'And at the first church to which we come, tarry, that a mass may be said for my soul. At the second let me rest until the bells be tolled slow and solemn. When you come to the third church, which is named St. Mary's, grant that from thence you will not bear me until the night shades fall.'

Then her father pledged his word that all should be done as she wished.

Now as her father left her room, the lady sent her four-and-twenty maidens down to her bower that they might eat and drink. And when she was left alone she hastened to drink a sleeping draught which she had already prepared in secret.

This draught would make her seem as one who was dead. And indeed no sooner had she drunk it than she grew pale and still.

Her cruel stepmother came up into the room. She did not love the beautiful maiden, and when she saw her lying thus, so white, so cold, she laughed, and said, 'We shall soon see if she be really dead.'

Then she lit a fire in the silent room, and placing some lead in a little goblet, she stirred it over the flames with an iron spoon until it melted. When the lead was melted the stepmother carried a spoonful carefully to the side of the bed, and stood there looking down upon the still white form. It neither moved nor moaned.

'She is not dead,' murmured the cruel woman to herself; 'she deceives us, that she may be carried away to the land of her own true love. She will not lie there silent long.' And she let some drops of the burning lead fall on to the heart of the quiet maiden. Yet still the maiden never moved nor cried.

'Send for her father,' shouted the cruel stepmother, going to the door of the little room, for now she believed the maiden was really dead.

'Alas, alas!' cried her father when he came and saw his daughter lying on her white bed, so pale, so cold. 'Alas, alas, my child is dead indeed!'

Then her seven brothers wept for their beautiful sister; but when they had dried their tears, they arose and went into the forest. There they cut down a tall oak-tree and made a bier for the maiden, and they covered the oak with silver.

Her seven sisters wept for their beautiful sister when they saw that she neither stirred nor moaned. They wept, but when they had dried their tears they arose and sewed a shroud for the maiden, and at each stitch they took they fastened into it a little silver bell.

Now the duke, her father, had pledged his word that his daughter should be carried, ere she was buried, to St. Mary's Church. Her seven brothers therefore set out on the long sad journey toward the gloomy north country, carrying their sister in the silver-mounted bier. She was clad in the shroud her seven sisters had sewed, and the silver bells tinkled softly at each step her seven strong brothers took along the road.

The stepmother had no tears to shed. Indeed she had no time to weep, for she must keep strict watch over the dead maiden's seven sisters, lest they too grew ill and thus escaped her power.

As for the poor old father, he shut himself up alone to grieve for his dear lost child.

When the seven brothers reached the first church, they remembered their father's promise to their sister. They set down the bier and waited, that a mass might be sung for the lady's soul.

Then on again they journeyed until before them they saw another church. 'Here will we rest until the bell has been tolled,' they said, and again the bier was placed in the holy church.

'We will come to St. Mary's ere we tarry again,' said the seven brothers, and there they knew that their journey would be over. Yet little did they know in how strange a way it would end.

Slow and careful were the brothers' steps as they drew near to the church of St. Mary, slow and sad, for there they must part from their beautiful pale sister.

The chime of the silver bells floated on the still air, dulling the sound of the seven strong brothers' footsteps.

They were close to St. Mary's now, and as they laid the bier down the brothers started, for out of the shadows crept tall armed men, and in their midst stood Lord William. He had come as he had been bidden to meet his bride. The brothers knew him well, the lord from the cold grey country, who had stolen the heart of their beautiful sister.

'Stand back,' commanded Lord William, and his voice was stern, for not thus had he thought to meet the lady he loved. 'Stand back and let me look once more upon the face of my own true love.'

Then the seven brothers, though they had but little goodwill for the northern lord, lifted the bier and laid it at his feet, that once again he might look upon the face of their pale cold sister.

And lo! as Lord William took the hand, the cold white hand, of his true love in his own, it grew warm, as his lips touched hers they grew rosy, and the colour crept into her cheeks. Ere long she lay smiling back at her own true love with cheeks that bloomed and eyes that shone. The power of the sleeping draught was over.

'Give me bread, dear lord,' cried the lady, 'for no food have I tasted for three long days and nights, and this have I done that I might come to you, my own true love.'

When the lady had eaten she turned to her seven strong brothers. 'Begone, my seven bold brothers,' she cried, 'begone to your home in the sunny South, and tell how your sister has reached her lord.'

'Now woe betide you,' answered her bold brothers, 'for you have left your seven sisters and your old father at home to weep for you.'

'Carry my love to my old father,' cried the lady, 'and to my sisters seven. Bid them that they dry their tears nor weep for me, for I am come to my own true love.'

Then the seven brothers turned away in anger and went back to their home in the South. But Lord William carried his own true love off to the old grey castle where they were married. And the gay goshawk sang their wedding song.