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Book of Scottish Story
Elphin Irving, the Fairies' Cupbearer


By Allan Cunningham

CHAPTER II

Meanwhile, the rumour flew over the vale that Elphin Irving was drowned in Corriewater. Matron and maid, old man and young, collected suddenly along the banks of the river, which now began to subside to its natural summer limits, and commenced their search; interrupted every now and then by calling from side to side, and from pool to pool, and by exclamations of sorrow for this misfortune. The search was fruitless: five sheep, pertaining to the flock which he conducted to pasture, were found drowned in one of the deep eddies; but the river was still too brown, from the soil of its moorland sources, to enable them to see what its deep shelves, its pools, and its overhanging and hazelly banks concealed. They remitted further search till the stream should become pure; and old man taking old man aside, began to whisper about the mystery of the youth’s disappearance : old women laid their lips to the ears of their co-evals, and talked of Elphin Irving’s fairy parentage, and his having been dropped by an unearthly hand into a Christian cradle. The young men and maids conversed on other themes ; they grieved for the loss of the friend and the lover, and while the former thought that a heart so kind and true was not left in the vale, the latter thought, as maidens will, on his handsome person, gentle manners, and merry blue eye, and speculated with a sigh on the time when they might have hoped a return for their love. They were soon joined by others who had heard the wild and delirious language of his sister : the old belief was added to the new assurance, and both again commented upon by minds full of superstitious feeling, and hearts full of supernatural fears, till the youths and maidens of Corrievale held no more love trysts for seven days and nights, lest, like Elphin Irving, they should be carried away to augment the ranks of the unchristened chivalry.

It was curious to listen to the speculations of the peasantry. " For my part," said a youth, "if I were sure that poor Elphin escaped from that perilous water, I would not give the fairies a pound of hiplock wool for their chance of him. There has not been a fairy seen in the land since Donald Cargill, the Cameronian, conjured them into the Solway for playing on their pipes during one of his nocturnal preachings on the hip of the Burnswark hill.”

"Preserve me, bairn," said an old woman, justly exasperated at the incredulity of her nephew, "if ye winna believe what I both heard and saw at the moonlight end of Craigyburnwood on a summer night, rank after rank of the fairy folk, ye’ll at least believe a douce man and a ghostlv professor, even the late minister of Tinwaldkirk; his only son (I mind the lad weel, with his long yellow locks and his bonnie blue eyes, when I was but a gilpie of a lassie), ‘he’  was stolen away from off the horse at his father’s elbow, as they crossed that false and fearsome water, ever Locherbriggflow, on the night of the Midsummer Fair of Dumfries. Ay, ay who can doubt the truth of that? Haw not the godly inhabitants of Almsfieldtown and Timwaldkirk seen the sweet youth riding at midnight, in the midst of the unhallowed troop, to the sound o flute and of dulcimer ; and though meikle they prayed, naebody tried to achieve his deliverance ?"

"I have heard it said, by douce folk and sponsible,” interrupted another, "that every seven years the elves and fairies pay kane, or make an offering of one of their children to the grand enemy of salvation, and that they are permitted to purloin one of the children of men to present to the fiend; a more acceptable offering, I’ll warrant, that one of their own infernal brood, that are Satan’s sib allies, and drink a drop of the deil's blood every May morning And touching this lost lad, ye all ken his mother was a hawk of an uncanny nest, a second cousin of Kate Kimmer of Barfloshan, as rank a witch as ever rode on ragwort. Ay, sirs, what’s bred in the bone is ill to come out o’ the flesh.”

On these and similar topics, which a peasantry full of ancient tradition and enthusiasm and superstition, readily associate with the commonest occurrence of life, the people of Corrievale continued to converse till the fall of evening; when each seeking their home renewed again the wondrous subject and illustrated it with all that popular belief and poetic imagination could so abundantly supply.

The night which followed this melancholy day was wild with wind and rain the river came down broader and deeper than before, and the lightning, flashing by fits over the green woods of Corrie, showed the ungovernable and perilous flood sweeping above its banks. It happened that a farmer, returning from one of the border fairs, encountered the full swing of the storm; but, mounted on an excellent horse, and rnantled from chin to heel in a good gray plaid, beneath which he had the farther security of a thick great-coat, he sat dry in his saddle, and proceeded in the anticipated joy of a subsided tempest, and a glowing morning sun. As he entered the long grove, or rather remains of the old Galwegian forest, which lines for some space the banks of the Corriewater, the storm began to abate, the wind sighed milder and milder among the trees ; and here and there a star, twinkling momentarily through the sudden rack of the clouds, showed the river raging from bank to brae. As he shook the moisture from his clothes, he was not without a wish that the day would dawn, and that he might be preserved on a road which his imagination beset with greater perils than the raging river; for his superstitious feeling let loose upon his path elf and goblin, and the current traditions of the district supplied very largely to his apprehension the ready materials of fear.

Just as he emerged from the wood, where a fine sloping bank, covered with short green sward, skirts the limit of the forest, his horse made a full pause, snorted, trembled, and started from side to side, stooped his head, erected his ears, and seemed to scrutinize every tree and bush. The rider, too, it may be imagined, gazed round and round, and peered warily into every suspicious-looking place. His dread of a supernatural visitation was not much allayed, when he observed a female shape seated on the ground at the root of a huge old oak tree, which stood in the centre of one of those patches of verdant sward, known by the name of "fairy rings,” and avoided by all peasants who wish to prosper. A long thin gleam of eastern daylight enabled him to examine accurately the being who, in this wild place and unusual hour, gave additional terror to this haunted spot. She was dressed in white from the neck to the knees ; her arms, long, and round, and white, were perfectly bare ; her head, uncovered, allowed her long hair to descend in ringlet succeeding ringlet, till the half of her person was nearly concealed in the fleece. Amidst the whole, her hands were constantly busy in shedding aside the tresses which interposed between her steady and uninterrupted gaze, down a line of old road which winded among the hills to an ancient burial-ground.

As the traveller continued to gaze, the figure suddenly rose, and wringing the rain from her long locks, paced round and round the tree, chanting in a wild and melancholy manner an equally wild and delirious song:—

THE FAIRY OAK OF CORRIEWATER.

I.

The small bird’s head is under its wing,
The deer sleeps on the grass;
The moon comes out, and the stars shine down,
The dew gleams like the glass:
There is no sound in the world so wide,
Save the sound of the smitten brass,
With the merry cittern and the pipe
Of the fairies as they pass.-
But oh I the fire maun burn and burn,
And the hour is gone, and will never return.

II.

The green hill cleaves, and forth, with a bound,
Come elf and elfin steed;
The moon dives down in a golden cloud,
The stars grow dim with dread;
But a light is running along the earth,
So of heaven’s they have no need :
O’er moor and moss with a shout they pass,
And the word is, spur and speed.—
But the fire maun burn, and I maun quake,
And the hour is gone that will never come back.

III.

And when they come to Craigyburn wood,
The Queen of the Fairies spoke :—
"Come, bind your steeds to the rushes so green,
And dance by the haunted oak :
I found the acorn on Heshbon-hill,
In the nook of a palmer’s poke,
A thousand years since; here it grows!"
And they danced till the greenwood shook. —
But oh ! the fire, the burning fire,
The longer it burns, it but blazes the higher.

IV.

"I have won me a youth," the Elf-queen said,
“The fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving,
My cupbearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of rne." ·
And merrily, merrily laughed the wild elves,
Round Corrie’s greenwood tree.—
But oh ! the fire it glows in my brain,
And the hour is gone, and comes not again.

V.

The Queen she has whispered a secret word,
“Come hither, my Elphin sweet,
And bring that cup of the charmed wine,
Thy lips and mine to weet.”
But a brown elf shouted a loud, loud shout,
“Come, leap on your coursers fleet,
For here comes the smell of so me baptized flesh,
And the sounding of baptized feet.”—
But oh! the fire that burns, and maun burn;
For the time that is gone will never return.

VI.

On a steed as white as the new-milked milk,
The Elf-queen leaped with a bound,
And young Elphin a steed like December snow
’Neath him at the word he found.
But a maiden came, and her christened arms
She linked her brother around,
And called on God, and the steed with a snort
Sank into the gaping ground. —
But the fire maun burn, and I maun quake,
And the time that is gone will no more come back.

VII.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grew
A wild bull waked in ire;
And she held her brother, and lo ! he changed
To a river roaring higher;
And she held her brother, and he became
A flood of the raging fire;
She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed,
Till mountain rang and mire.—
But oh ! the fire yet burns in my brain,
And the hour is gone, and comes not again.

VIII.

“Oh, maiden, why waxed thy faith so faint,
Thy spirit so slack and slaw?
Thy courage kept good till the flame waxed wud,
Then thy might began to thaw ,
Had ye kissed him with thy christened lip,
Ye had won him frae ’mang us a'.
Now bless the fire, the elfin fire,
That made thee faint and fa';
Now bless the fire, the elfin fire,
The longer it burns it blazes the higher.”

At the close of this unusual strain, the figure sat down on the grass, and proceeded to bind up her long and disordered tresses, gazing along the old and unfrequented road.

"Now God be my helper,” said the traveller, who happened to be the Laird of Johnstonebank, "can this be a trick of the fiend, or can it be bonnie Phemie Irving, who chants this dolorous song? Something sad has befallen, that makes her seek her seat in this eerie nook amid the darkness and tempest: through might from abune, I will go on and see.”

And the horse, feeling something of the owner’s reviving spirit in the application of the spur-steel, bore him at once to the foot of the tree. The poor delirious maiden uttered a piercing yell of joy as she beheld him, and, with the swiftness of a creature winged, linked her arms round the rider’s waist, and shrieked till the woods rang.

"Oh, I have ye now, Elphin, I have ye now!" and she strained him to her bosom with a convulsive grasp.

"What ails ye, my bonnie lass?” said the Laird of Johnstonebank, hisfears of the supernatural vanishing when he beheld her sad and bewildered look.

She raised her eyes at the sound, and, seeing a strange face, her arms slipped their hold, and she dropped with a groan on the ground.

The morning had now fairly broken : the flocks shook the rain from their sides, the shepherds hastened to inspect their charges, and a thin blue smoke began to stream from the cottages of the valley into the brightening air. The laird carried Phemie Irving in his arms, till he observed two shepherds ascending from one of the loops of Corriewater, hearing the lifeless body of her brother. They had found him whirling round and round in one of the numerous eddies, and his hands, clutched and filled with wool, showed that he had lost his life in attempting to save the flock of his sister.

A plaid was laid over the body, which, along with the unhappy maiden in a half lifeless state, was carried into a cottage, and laid in that apartment distinguished among the peasantry by the name of "the chamber.” While the peasant’s wife was left to take care of Phemie, old man, and matron, and maid had collected around the drowned youth, and each began to relate the circumstances of his death, when the door suddenly opened, and his sister, advancing to the corpse with a look of delirious serenity, broke out into a wild laugh, and said,—

"O, it is wonderful, it’s truly wonderful! that bare and death-cold body, dragged from the darkest pool of Corrie, with its hands filled with fine wool, wears the perfect similitude of my own Elphin! I’ll tell ye—the spiritual dwellers of the earth, the fairyfolk of our evening tale, have stolen the living body, and fashioned this cold and inanimate clod to mislead your pursuit. In common eyes, this seems all that Elphin Irving would be, had he sunk in Corriewater ; but so it seems not to me. Ye have sought the living soul, and ye have found only its garment. But oh, if ye had beheld him, as I beheld him to-night, riding among the elfin troop, the fairest of them all ; had you clasped him in your arms, and wrestled for him with spirits and terrible shapes from the other world, till your heart quailed and your flesh was subdued, then would ye yield no credit to the semblance which this cold and apparent flesh bears to my brother. But hearken—on Hallowe’en, when the spiritual people are let loose on earth for a season, I will take my stand in the burial-ground of Corrie; and when my Elphin and his unchristened troop come past with the sound of all their minstrelsy, I will leap on him and win him, or perish for ever. ”

All gazed aghast on the delirious maiden, and many of her auditors gave more credence to her distempered speech than to the visible evidence before them. As she turned to depart, she looked round, and suddenly sunk upon the body, with tears streaming from her eyes, and sobbed out, "My brother! oh, my brother!” She was carried out insensible, and again recovered; but relapsed into her ordinary delirium, in which she continued till the Hallow-eve after her brother’s burial.

She was found seated in the ancient burial-ground, her back against a broken grave-stone, her locks white with frost-time, watching with intensity of look the road to the kirk-yard; but the spirit which gave life to the fairest form of all the maids of Annandale was fled for ever.

Such is the singular story which the peasants know by the name of Elphin Irving, the Fairies’ Cupbearer; and the title, in its fullest and most supernatural sense, still obtains credence among the industrious and virtuous dames of the romantic vale of Corrie.


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