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The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes by  Padraic Colum
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HOW MAID-ALONE CEASED BEING A GOOSE-HERD

[115]

T
HE next happening was that the Purveyor to the King's Castle took stock of the goose-flock.

He had to have geese of size for the feasts that were to be given in the Castle. He watched Maid-alone's flock coming home and he saw that they were as thin as corncrakes when they first come into our meadows. He notified the third under-stewardess of this and the third under-stewardess went and told the house dame. Thereupon the house dame said that she herself would go and speak to the goose-herd.

[116] Maid-alone was standing before the table in the scullery, eating her supper of scraps, with the cold of the marsh still in her bones. The day before the goose-flock had not fed because she had shown herself in her dress of gold, with her shining veil and her golden shoes. This day she had worn her Crow-feather Cloak. But because two eagles had come into the ash-trees beside the marsh and had remained watching them all day, the geese had not fed. When they went home there was two days' hunger upon them and they had a thinness that might be measured.

Dame Dale came down to the scullery to speak to the goose-herd about it, and greatly surprised was she to see that the goose-herd was no other than Maid-alone who had herded her goats. She had on a high-coifed linen cap, and her face grew very red beneath it when she looked on Maid-alone. "So," she said, "you left my seven goats straying to come here to let the King's geese go starving. Wherever you are there are losses. But what you've done here is the worst of all, and if you were in any other King's dominions [117] you would surely be tried for malfeasance; for to let the King's geese starve is a step towards over-throwing the royal realm."

The high cap on her head shook with anger. Maid-alone had never seen her so terrible. She towered up in her authority and Maid-alone thought she would order her to be thrown into a pit of serpents. She wished that Trouble-the-House was near to carry her from the Castle.

And then she saw that Dame Dale's eyes were fixed upon the star on her forehead. It was not smeared over. The look in Dame Dale's eyes frightened her so much that she felt sorry the star had ever been given her.

"I'll not let the geese go hungry again," she said.

"We'll see that you won't," said Dame Dale. "We'll get some one else to take them to the marsh. We can't have the King's geese go low in flesh and high in bone just because you want to disport yourself in the marsh or wherever else you take them to." She turned to the third [118] under-stewardess, and she said, "I require you to get another herd for the King's geese by tomorrow morning."

"I'll go away," said Maid-alone, not knowing where in the world she could go.

"I forbid you to leave the King's Castle," said Dame Dale. "There's work here that has to be done. We have no one to clear out the ashes of the seven kitchens, and if you're good for nothing else you'll do for a cinder-wench. Go, on this instant, down to the lower kitchens and take the task of keeping the hearths clear of ashes."

And that is how it came that Maid-alone, instead of going to the marsh with the goose-flock, stayed in the under-ground kitchens of the King's Castle. There had been no cinder-wench for long, and the ashes were deep on the hearths of the seven kitchens. Maid alone had to gather the ashes and to draw them to the great ash-heap outside. Soon her Crow-feather Cloak was all grey with ashes. And the soot-drops from the chimneys fell on her hands and her face. She was black with the soot and grey with the ashes, and [119] the servants in the Castle would not let her come to eat in the scullery. She had to take her dish and her porringer on her knee and sit and eat by one or the other of the great hearths. They would let her have no place to sleep near them, and she had to huddle herself by one of the hearths and go to sleep over the ashes.


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