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Granny's Wonderful Chair by  Frances Browne

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[147] "Once upon a time there stood upon the seacoast of the west country a certain hamlet of low cottages, where no one lived but fishermen. All round it was a broad beach of snow-white sand, where nothing was to be seen but gulls and cormorants, and long tangled seaweeds cast up by the tide that came and went night and day, summer and winter. There was no harbour nor port on all that shore. Ships passed by at a distance, with their white sails set, and on the landside there lay wide grassy downs, where peasants lived and shepherds fed their flocks. The fishermen thought themselves as well off as any people in that country. Their families never wanted for plenty of herrings and mackerel; and what they had to spare the landsmen bought from them at [148] certain village markets on the downs, giving them in exchange butter, cheese, and corn.

"The two best fishermen in that village were the sons of two old widows, who had no other children, and happened to be near neighbours. Their family names were short, for they called the one Sour, and the other Civil. There was no relationship between them that ever I heard of; but they had only one boat, and always fished together, though their names expressed the differences of their humours—for Civil never used a hard word where a soft one would do, and when Sour was not snarling at somebody, he was sure to be grumbling at everything.

"Nevertheless they agreed wonderfully, and were lucky fishers. Both were strong, active, and of good courage. On winter's night or summer's morning they would steer out to sea far beyond the boats of their neighbours, and never came home without some fish to cook and some to spare. Their mothers were proud of them, each in her own fashion—for the saying held good, 'Like mother, like son.' Dame Civil thought the whole world [149] didn't hold a better than her son; and her boy was the only creature at whom Dame Sour didn't scold and frown. The hamlet was divided in opinion concerning the young fishermen. Some thought Civil the best; some said, without Sour he would catch nothing. So things went on, till one day about the fall of winter, when mists were gathering darkly on sea and sky, and the air was chill and frosty, all the boatmen of the hamlet went out to fish, and so did Sour and Civil.

"That day they had not their usual luck. Cast their net where they would, not a single fish came in. The neighbours caught boatsful, and went home, Sour said, laughing at them. But when the sea was growing crimson with the sunset their nets were empty, and they were tired. Civil himself did not like to go home without fish—it would damage the high repute they had gained in the village. Besides, the sea was calm and the evening fair, and, as a last attempt, they steered still farther out, and cast their nets beside a rock which rose rough and grey above the water, and was called the Merman's Seat—from an old report [150] that the fishermen's fathers had seen the mermen, or sea-people, sitting there on moonlight nights. Nobody believed that rumour now, but the villagers did not like to fish there. The water was said to be deep beyond measure, and sudden squalls were apt to trouble it; but Sour and Civil were right glad to see by the moving of their lines that there was something in their net, and gladder still when they found it so heavy that all their strength was required to draw it up. Scarcely had they landed it on the Merman's Seat, when their joy was changed to disappointment, for besides a few starved mackerel, the net contained nothing but a monstrous ugly fish as long as Civil (who was taller than Sour), with a huge snout, a long beard, and a skin covered with prickles.

" 'Such a horrid ugly creature!' said Sour, as they shook it out of the net on the rough rock, and gathered up the mackerel. 'We needn't fish here any more. How they will mock us in the village for staying out so late, and bringing home so little!'

[151] " 'Let us try again,' said Civil, as he set his creel of mackerel in the boat.

" 'Not another cast will I make to-night'; and what more Sour would have said, was cut short by the great fish, for, looking round at them, it spoke out:

" 'I suppose you don't think me worth taking home in your dirty boat; but I can tell you that if you were down in my country, neither of you would be thought fit to keep me company.'

"Sour and Civil were terribly astonished to hear the fish speak. The first could not think of a cross word to say, but Civil made answer in his accustomed manner.

" 'Indeed, my lord, we beg your pardon, but our boat is too light to carry such a fish as you.'

" 'You do well to call me lord,' said the fish, 'for so I am, though it was hard to expect you could have known my quality in this dress. However, help me off the rock, for I must go home; and for your civility I will give you my daughter in marriage, if you will come and see me this day twelvemonth.'

[152] "Civil helped the great fish off the rock as respectfully as his fear would allow him. Sour was so terrified at the whole transaction, that he said not a word till they got safe home; but from that day forward, when he wanted to put Civil down, it was his custom to tell him and his mother that he would get no wife but the ugly fish's daughter.

"Old Dame Sour heard this story from her son, and told it over the whole village. Some people wondered, but the most part laughed at it as a good joke; and Civil and his mother were never known to be angry but on that occasion. Dame Civil advised her son never to fish with Sour again; and as the boat happened to be his, Civil got an old skiff which one of the fishermen was going to break up for firewood, and cobbled it up for himself.

"In that skiff he went to sea alone all the winter, and all the summer; but though Civil was brave and skilful, he could catch little, because his boat was bad—and everybody but his mother began to think him of no value. Sour having the good boat [153] got a new comrade, and had the praise of being the best fisherman.

"Poor Civil's heart was getting low as the summer wore away. The fish had grown scarce on that coast, and the fishermen had to steer farther out to sea. One evening when he had toiled all day and caught nothing, Civil thought he would go farther too, and try his fortune beside the Merman's Rock. The sea was calm, and the evening fair; Civil did not remember that it was the very day on which his troubles began by the great fish talking to him twelve months before. As he neared the rock the sun was setting, and much astonished was the fisherman to see upon it three fair ladies, with sea-green gowns and strings of great pearls wound round their long fair hair; two of them were waving their hands to him. They were the tallest and stateliest ladies he had ever seen; but Civil could perceive as he came nearer that there was no colour in their cheeks, that their hair had a strange bluish shade, like that of deep-sea water, and there was a fiery light in their eyes that frightened him. The third, who was less of [154] stature, did not notice him at all, but kept her eyes fixed on the setting sun. Though her look was mournful, Civil could see that there was a faint rosy bloom on her cheek—that her hair was a golden yellow, and her eyes were mild and clear like those of his mother.

" 'Welcome! welcome! noble fisherman!' cried the two ladies. 'Our father has sent us for you to visit him,' and with one bound they leaped into his boat, bringing with them the smaller lady, who said:


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WITH ONE BOUND THEY LEAPED INTO HIS BOAT. . . . HIS BOAT WENT DOWN MILES DEEP INTO THE SEA.

" 'Oh! bright sun and brave sky that I see so seldom!' But Civil heard no more, for his boat went down miles deep in the sea, and he thought himself drowning; but one lady had caught him by the right arm, and the other by the left, and pulled him into the mouth of a rocky cave, where there was no water. On they went, still down and down, as if on a steep hill-side. The cave was very long, but it grew wider as they came to the bottom. Then Civil saw a faint light, and walked out with his fair company into the country of the sea-people. In that land there grew neither grass nor flowers, [155] bushes nor trees, but the ground was covered with bright-coloured shells and pebbles. There were hills of marble, and rocks of spar; and over all a cold blue sky with no sun, but a light clear and silvery as that of the harvest moon. The fisherman could see no smoking chimneys, but there were grottoes in the sparry rocks, and halls in the marble hills, where lived the sea-people—with whom, as old stories say, fishermen and mariners used to meet on lonely capes and headlands in the simple times of the world.

" 'Forth they came in all directions to see the stranger. Mermen with long white beards, and mermaids such as walk with the fishermen, all clad in sea-green, and decorated with strings of pearls; but every one with the same colourless face, and the same wild light in their eyes. The mermaids led Civil up one of the marble hills to a great cavern with halls and chambers like a palace. Their floors were of alabaster, their walls of porphyry, and their ceilings inlaid with coral. Thousands of crystal lamps lit the palace. There were seats and tables hewn out of shining spar, and a [156] great company sat feasting; but what most amazed Civil was the quantity of cups, flagons, and goblets, made of gold and silver, of such different shapes and patterns that they seemed to have been gathered from all the countries in the world. In the chief hall there sat a merman on a stately chair, with more jewels than all the rest about him. Before him the mermaids brought Civil, saying:

" 'Father, here is our guest.'

" 'Welcome, noble fisherman!' cried the merman, in a voice which Civil remembered with terror, for it was that of the great ugly fish; 'welcome to our halls! Sit down and feast with us, and then choose which of my daughters you will have for a bride.'

"Civil had never felt himself so thoroughly frightened in all his life. How was he to get home to his mother? and what would the old dame think when the dark night came without bringing him home? There was no use in talking—Civil had wisdom enough to see that: he therefore tried to take things quietly; and, having thanked the merman for his invitation, took the seat assigned [157] him on his right hand. Civil was hungry with the long day at sea, but there was no want of fare on that table: meats and wines, such as he had never tasted, were set before him in the richest of golden dishes; but, hungry as he was, the fisherman perceived that everything there had the taste and smell of the sea.

"If the fisherman had been the lord of lands and castles he would not have been treated with more respect. The two mermaids sat by him—one filled his plate, another filled his goblet; but the third only looked at him in a stealthy, warning way when nobody perceived her. Civil soon finished his share of the feast, and then the merman showed him all the splendours of his cavern. The halls were full of company, some feasting, some dancing, and some playing all manner of games, and in every hall was the same abundance of gold and silver vessels; but Civil was most astonished when the merman brought him to a marble chamber full of heaps of precious stones. There were diamonds there whose value the fisherman knew not—pearls larger than ever a [158] diver had gathered—emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, that would have made the jewellers of the world wonder; the merman then said:

" 'This is my eldest daughter's dowry.'

" 'Good luck attend her!' said Civil. 'It is the dowry of a queen.' But the merman led him on to another chamber; it was filled with heaps of gold coin, which seemed gathered from all times and nations. The images and inscriptions of all the kings that ever reigned were there; and the merman said:

" 'This is my second daughter's dowry.'

" 'Good luck attend her!' said Civil. 'It is a dowry for a princess.'

" 'So you may say,' replied the merman. 'But make up your mind which of the maidens you will marry, for the third has no portion at all, because she is not my daughter; but only, as you may see, a poor silly girl taken into my family for charity.'

" 'Truly, my lord,' said Civil, whose mind was already made up, 'both your daughters are too rich and far too noble for me; therefore I choose the [160] third. Her poverty will best become my estate of a poor fisherman.'

" 'If you choose her,' said the merman, 'you must wait long for a wedding. I cannot allow an inferior girl to be married before my own daughters.' And he said a great deal more to persuade him; but Civil would not change his mind, and they returned to the hall.

"There was no more attention for the fisherman, but everybody watched him well. Turn where he would, master or guest had their eyes upon him, though he made them the best speeches he could remember, and praised all their splendours. One thing, however, was strange—there was no end to the fun and the feasting; nobody seemed tired, and nobody thought of sleep. When Civil's very eyes closed with weariness, and he slept on one of the marble benches—no matter how many hours—there were the company feasting and dancing away; there were the thousand lamps within, and the cold moonlight without. Civil wished himself back with his mother, his net, and his cobbled skiff. Fishing would have been easier than those [161] everlasting feasts; but there was nothing else among the sea-people—no night of rest, no working day.

"Civil knew not how time went on, till, waking up from a long sleep, he saw, for the first time, that the feast was over, and the company gone. The lamps still burned, and the tables, with all their riches, stood in the empty halls; but there was no face to be seen, no sound to be heard, only a low voice singing beside the outer door; and there, sitting all alone, he found the mild-eyed maiden.

" 'Fair lady,' said Civil, 'tell me what means this quietness, and where are all the merry company?'

" 'You are a man of the land,' said the lady, 'and know not the sea-people. They never sleep but once a year, and that is at Christmas time. Then they go into the deep caverns, where there is always darkness, and sleep till the new year comes.'

" 'It is a strange fashion,' said Civil; 'but all folks have their way. Fair lady, as you and I are [162] to be good friends, tell me, whence come all the wines and meats, and gold and silver vessels, seeing there are neither cornfields nor flocks here, workmen nor artificers?'

" 'The sea-people are heirs of the sea,' replied the maiden; 'to them come all the stores and riches that are lost in it. I know not the ways by which they come; but the lord of these halls keeps the keys of seven gates, where they go out and in; but one of the gates, which has not been open for thrice seven years, leads to a path under the sea, by which, I heard the merman say in his cups, one might reach the land. Good fisherman, if by chance you gain his favour, and ever open that gate, let me bear you company; for I was born where the sun shines and the grass grows, though my country and my parents are unknown to me. All I remember is sailing in a great ship, when a storm arose, and it was wrecked, and not one soul escaped drowning but me. I was then a little child, and a brave sailor had bound me to a floating plank before he was washed away. Here the sea-people came round me like great fishes, and [163] I went down with them to this rich and weary country. Sometimes, as a great favour, they take me up with them to see the sun; but that is seldom, for they never like to part with one who has seen their country; and, fisherman, if you ever leave them, remember to take nothing with you that belongs to them, for if it were but a shell or a pebble, that will give them power over you and yours.'

" 'Thanks for your news, fair lady,' said Civil. 'A lord's daughter, doubtless, you must have been, while I am but a poor fisherman; yet, as we have fallen into the same misfortune, let us be friends, and it may be we shall find means to get back to the sunshine together.'

" 'You are a man of good manners,' said the lady, 'therefore, I accept your friendship; but my fear is that we shall never see the sunshine again.'

" 'Fair speeches brought me here,' said Civil, 'and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you.'

"This promise cheered the lady's heart, and she and Civil spent that Christmas time seeing [164] the wonders of the sea country. They wandered through caves like that of the great merman. The unfinished feast was spread in every hall; the tables were covered with most costly vessels; and heaps of jewels lay on the floors of unlocked chambers. But for the lady's warning, Civil would fain have put away some of them for his mother.

"The poor woman was sad of heart by this time, believing her son to be drowned. On the first night when he did not come home, she had gone down to the sea and watched till morning. Then the fisherman steered out again, and Sour having found his skiff floating about, brought it home, saying, the foolish young man was doubtless lost; but what better could be expected when he had no discreet person to take care of him?

"This grieved Dame Civil sore. She never expected to see her son again; but, feeling lonely in her cottage at the evening hour when he used to come home, the good woman accustomed herself to go down at sunset and sit beside the sea. That winter happened to be mild on the coast of the [165] west country, and one evening when the Christmas time was near, and the rest of the village preparing to make merry, Dame Civil sat, as usual, on the sands. The tide was ebbing and the sun going down, when from the eastward came a lady clad in black, mounted on a black palfrey, and followed by a squire in the same sad clothing; as the lady came near, she said:

'Woe is me for my daughter, and for all that have lost by the sea!'

" 'You say well, noble lady,' said Dame Civil. 'Woe is me also for my son, for I have none beside him.'

"When the lady heard that, she alighted from her palfrey, and sat down by the fisherman's mother, saying:

" 'Listen to my story. I was the widow of a great lord in the heart of the east country. He left me a fair castle, and an only daughter, who was the joy of my heart. Her name was Faith Feignless; but, while she was yet a child, a great fortune-teller told me that my daughter would marry a fisherman. I thought this would be a [166] great disgrace to my noble family, and, therefore, sent my daughter with her nurse in a good ship, bound for a certain city where my relations live, intending to follow myself as soon as I could get my lands and castles sold. But the ship was wrecked, and my daughter drowned; and I have wandered over the world with my good Squire Trusty, mourning on every shore with those who have lost friends by the sea. Some with whom I have mourned grew to forget their sorrow, and would lament with me no more; others being sour and selfish, mocked me, saying, my grief was nothing to them; but you have good manners, and I will remain with you, however humble be your dwelling. My squire carries gold enough to pay all our charges.' So the mourning lady and her good Squire Trusty went home with Dame Civil, and she was no longer lonely in her sorrow, for when the dame said:

" 'Oh! if my son were alive, I should never let him go to sea in a cobbled skiff!' the lady answered:

" 'Oh! if my daughter were but living, I should [167] never think it a disgrace though she married a fisherman!'

"The Christmas passed as it always does in the west country—shepherds made merry on the downs, and fishermen on the shore; but when the merrymakings and ringing of bells were over in all the land, the sea-people woke up to their continual feasts and dances. Like one that had forgotten all that was past, the merman again showed Civil the chamber of gold and the chamber of jewels, advising him to choose between his two daughters; but the fisherman still answered that the ladies were too noble, and far too rich for him. Yet as he looked at the glittering heap, Civil could not help recollecting the poverty of the west country, and the thought slipped out:


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THE MERMAN AGAIN SHOWED CIVIL THE CHAMBER OF GOLD AND THE CHAMBER OF JEWELS

" 'How happy my old neighbours would be to find themselves here!'

" 'Say you so?' said the merman, who always wanted visitors.

" 'Yes,' said Civil, 'I have neighbours up yonder in the west country whom it would be hard to send home again if they got sight of half this wealth'; [168] and the honest fisherman thought of Dame Sour and her son.

"The merman was greatly delighted with these speeches—he thought there was a probability of getting many land-people down, and by and by said to Civil:

" 'Suppose you took up a few jewels, and went up to tell your poor neighbours how welcome we might make them?'

"The prospect of getting back to his country rejoiced Civil's heart, but he had promised not to go without the lady, and therefore, answered prudently what was indeed true:

" 'Many thanks, my lord, for choosing such a humble man as I am to bear your message; but the people of the west country never believe anything without two witnesses at the least; yet if the poor maid whom I have chosen could be permitted to accompany me, I think they would believe us both.'

"The merman said nothing in reply, but his people, who had heard Civil's speech, talked it over among themselves till they grew sure that [169] the whole west country would come down, if they only had news of the riches, and petitioned their lord to send up Civil and the poor maid by way of letting them know.

"As it seemed for the public good, the great merman consented; but, being determined to have them back, he gathered out of his treasure chamber some of the largest pearls and diamonds that lay convenient, and said:

" 'Take these as a present from me, to let the west country people see what I can do for my visitors.'

"Civil and the lady took the presents, saying:

" 'Oh, my lord, you are too generous. We want nothing but the pleasure of telling of your marvellous riches up yonder.'

" 'Tell everybody to come down, and they will get the like,' said the merman; 'and follow my eldest daughter, for she carries the key of the land gate.'

"Civil and the lady followed the mermaid through a winding gallery, which led from the chief banquet hall far into the marble hill. All was [170] dark, and they had neither lamp nor torch, but at the end of the gallery they came to a great stone gate, which creaked like thunder on its hinges. Beyond that there was a narrow cave, sloping up and up like a steep hill-side. Civil and the lady thought they would never reach the top; but at last they saw a gleam of daylight, then a strip of blue sky, and the mermaid bade them stoop and creep through what seemed a crevice in the ground, and both stood up on the broad sea-beach as the day was breaking and the tide ebbing fast away.

" 'Good times to you among your west country people,' said the mermaid. 'Tell any of them that would like to come down to visit us, that they must come here midway between the high and low water-mark, when the tide is going out at morning or evening. Call thrice on the sea-people, and we will show them the way.'

"Before they could make answer, she had sunk down from their sight, and there was no track or passage there, but all was covered by the loose sand and sea-shells.

" 'Now,' said the lady to Civil, 'we have seen [171] the heavens once more, and we will not go back. Cast in the merman's present quickly before the sun rises'; and taking the bag of pearls and diamonds, she flung it as far as she could into the sea.

"Civil never was so unwilling to part with anything as that bag, but he thought it better to follow a good example, and tossed his into the sea also. They thought they heard a long moan come up from the waters; but Civil saw his mother's chimney beginning to smoke, and with the fair lady in her sea-green gown he hastened to the good dame's cottage.

"The whole village were woke up that morning with cries of 'Welcome back, my son!' 'Welcome back, my daughter!' for the mournful lady knew it was her lost daughter, Faith Feignless, whom the fisherman had brought back, and all the neighbours assembled to hear their story. When it was told, everybody praised Civil for the prudence he had shown in his difficulties, except Sour and his mother; they did nothing but rail upon him for losing such great chances of making himself and the whole country rich. At last, when they heard [172] over and over again of the merman's treasures, neither mother nor son would consent to stay any longer in the west country, and as nobody persuaded them, and they would not take Civil's direction, Sour got out his boat and steered away with his mother toward the Merman's Rock. From that voyage they never came back to the hamlet. Some say they went down and lived among the sea-people; others say—I know not how they learned it—that Sour and his mother grumbled and growled so much that even the sea-people grew weary of them, and turned them and their boat out on the open sea. What part of the world they chose to land on nobody is certain; by all accounts they have been seen everywhere, and I should not be surprised if they were in this good company. As for Civil, he married Faith Feignless, and became a great lord."


Here the voice ceased, and two that were clad in sea-green silk, with coronets of pearls, rose up, and said:

"That's our story."

[173] "Oh, mamma, if we could get down to that country!" said Princess Greedalind.

"And bring all the treasures back with us!" answered Queen Wantall.

"Except the tale of yesterday, and the four that went before it, I have not heard such a story since my brother Wisewit went from me, and was lost in the forest," said King Winwealth. "Readyrein, the second of my pages, rise, and bring this maiden a purple velvet mantle."

The mantle was brought, and Snowflower having thanked the king, went down upon her grandmother's chair; but that night the little girl went no farther than the lowest banquet hall, where she was bidden to stay and share the feast, and sleep hard by in a wainscot chamber. That she was well entertained there is no doubt, for King Winwealth had been heard to say that it was not clear to him how he could have got through the seven days' feast without her grandmother's chair and its stories; but next day being the last of the seven, things were gayer than ever in the palace. The music had never been so merry, the dishes so rich, [174] or the wines so rare; neither had the clamours at the gate ever been so loud, nor the disputes and envies so many in the halls.

Perhaps it was these doings that brought the low spirits earlier than usual on King Winwealth, for after dinner his majesty fell into them so deeply that a message came down from the highest banquet hall, and the cupbearer told Snowflower to go up with her chair, for King Winwealth wished to hear another story.

Now the little girl put on all her finery, from the red shoes to the purple mantle, and went up with her chair, looking so like a princess that the whole company rose to welcome her. But having made her courtesy, and laid down her head, saying, "Chair of my grandmother, tell me a story," the clear voice from under the cushion answered:

"Listen to the Story of Merrymind."


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