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Friday, March 12, 2021

de la Mare - The Lovely Myfanwy (part 2 of 4) - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Last week we started the tale of The Lovely Myfanwy, a girl imprisoned almost as much as the better known Rapunzel.  This time it was caused by the misplaced love of  her father to keep her "safe."  We saw a mysterious stranger wanting to see her and I promised magic.  The author, Walter de la Mare, considered this story a favorite of his and his family and promised a story of "strange spells cast and bargains made, and adventures rare and magical."

That stranger, of course, will reappear bringing . . . JUGGLING!  Yes, and magic, too.  

I'm too uncoordinated to juggle.  Back in grade school I was taught a dance with simple juggling of rubber balls about 6" in diameter.  Never got it!  If a storyteller can juggle, this would be a great story for them.  If interested, there are some sources on juggling after today's part of the story.  Fortunately miming the juggling while telling it is perfectly suited to what Myfanwy sees and receives from the mysterious stranger.

Having received a letter from the stranger, she takes it to her father.  The story continues with that letter.


'Ay, ay, my dear,' said her father at last, laying his thick, square hand on hers as she sat beside him in her high-backed velvet chair—'ay, ay, my gentle one. It shows us yet again how full the world is of insolence and adventurers. This is a cave, a warning, an alarum, my dear—maledictions on his bones! We must be ten times more cautious; we must be wary; we must be lynx and fox and Argus—all eyes! And remember, my all, my precious one, remember this, that while I, your father, am alive, no harm, no ill can approach or touch you. Believe only in my love, beloved, and all is well with us.'

Her cold lips refused to speak. Myfanwy could find no words with which to answer him. With face averted she sat in a woeful daydream, clutching her father's thumb, and only vaguely listening to his transports of fury and affection, revenge and adoration. For her mind and heart now welled over with such a medley of thoughts and hopes and fears and sorrows that she could find no other way but this dumb clutch of expressing that she loved her father too.

At length, his rage not one whit abated, he rose from his chair, and having torn the insolent letter into thirty-two tiny pieces he flung them into the huge log fire burning in the stone chimney. 'Let me but lay a finger on the shameless popinjay,' he muttered to himself; 'I'll—I'll cut his tongue out!'

Now the first thing Myfanwy did when the chance offered was to hasten off towards the Western Gate if only to warn the stranger of her father's rage and menaces, and bid him go hide himself away and never, never, never come back again.

But when once more she approached its bars the deer were still grazing in the forest, the squirrel was nibbling another nut, the beech had unfolded yet a few more of its needle-pointed leaves into the calm evening light; but of the stranger—not a sign. Where he had stood was now only the assurance that he was indeed gone for ever. And Myfanwy turned from the quiet scene, from the forest, its sunlight faded, all its beauty made forlorn. Try as she might in the days that followed to keep her mind and her thoughts fixed on her needle and her silks, her lute and her psalter, she could see nothing else but that long look of his.

And now indeed she began to pine and languish in body, haunted by the constant fear that her stranger might have met with some disaster. And simply because her father loved her so jealously, he knew at once what worm was in her mind, and he never ceased to watch and spy upon her, and to follow her every movement.

Now Myfanwy's bedchamber was in the southern tower of this lord's castle, beneath which a road from the town to the eastward wound round towards the forests and distant mountains. And it being set so high above the ground beneath, there was no need for bars to its windows. While then, from these window-slits Myfanwy could see little more than the tops of the wayfarers' heads on the turf below, they were wide and lofty enough to let the setting sun in its due hour pour in its beams upon her walls and pictures and curtained Arabian bed. But the stone walls being so thick, in order to see out of her chamber at all, she must needs lie along a little on the cold inward sill, and peer out over the wide verdant countryside as if through the port-hole of a ship.

And one evening, as Myfanwy sat sewing a seam—and singing the while a soft tune to herself, if only to keep her thoughts from pining—she heard the murmur of many voices. And, though at first she knew not why, her heart for an instant or two stopped beating. Laying her slip of linen down, she rose, stole over the mats on the flagstones, and gently pushing her narrow shoulders onwards, peeped out and down at last through the window to look at the world below. And this was what she saw. In an old velvet cloak, his black hair dangling low upon his shoulders, there in the evening light beneath her window was a juggler standing, and in a circle round and about him was gathered a throng of gaping country-folk and idlers and children, some of whom must even have followed him out of the town. And one and all they were lost in wonder at his grace and skill.

Myfanwy herself indeed could not have imagined such things could be, and so engrossed did she become in watching him that she did not catch the whisper of a long-drawn secret sigh at her keyhole; nor did she hear her father as he turned away on tip-toe to descend the staircase again into the room below.

Indeed one swift glance from Myfanwy's no longer sorrowful eyes had pierced the disguise—wig, cloak, hat, and hose—of the juggler. And as she watched him she all but laughed aloud. Who would have imagined that the young stranger, whom she had seen for the first time leaning dumb, blind, and fast asleep against the trunk of a beech-tree could be possessed of such courage and craft and cunning as this!

His head was at the moment surrounded by a halo of glittering steel—so fast the daggers with which he was juggling whisked on from hand to hand. And suddenly the throng around him broke into a roar, for in glancing up and aside he had missed a dagger. It was falling—falling: but no, in a flash he had twisted back the sole of his shoe, and the point had stuck quivering in his heel, while he continued to whirl its companions into the golden air.

In that instant, however, his upward glance had detected the one thing in the world he had come out in hope to see—Myfanwy. He flung his daggers aside and fetched out of his travelling box a netful of coloured balls. Holloing out a string of outlandish gibberish to the people, he straightaway began to juggle with these. Higher and higher the seven of them soared into the mellow air, but one of the colour of gold soared on ever higher and higher than any. So high, indeed, that at last the people could watch it no longer because of the dazzle of the setting sun in their eyes. Presently, indeed, it swooped so loftily into the air that Myfanwy need but thrust out her hand to catch it as it paused for a breath of an instant before falling, and hung within reach of her stone window-sill.

And even as she watched, enthralled, a whispering voice within her cried, 'Take it!' She breathed a deep breath, shut her eyes, paused, and the next instant she had stretched out her hand into the air. The ball was hers.

Once more she peeped down and over, and once more the juggler was at his tricks. This time with what appeared to be a medley of all kinds of varieties of fruits; pomegranates, quinces, citrons, lemons, oranges and nectarines, and soaring high above them, nothing more unusual than an English apple. Once again the whisperer in Myfanwy's mind cried, 'Take it!' And she put out her hand and took the apple too.

Yet again she peeped and peered over, and this time it seemed that the juggler was flinging serpents into the air, for they writhed and looped and coiled around him as they whirled whiffling on from hand to hand. There was a hissing, too, and the people drew back a little, and a few of the timider children ran off to the other side of the highroad. And now, yet again, one of the serpents was soaring higher and higher above the rest. And Myfanwy could see from her coign of vantage that it was no live serpent but a strand of silken rope. And yet again and for the third time the whisperer whispered, 'Take it!' And Myfanwy put out her hand and took that too.

And, it happening that a little cloud was straying across the sun at this moment, the throng below had actually seen the highestmost of the serpents thus mysteriously disappear and they cried out as if with one voice, 'Gone!' 'Vanished!' 'Vanished!' 'Gone!' 'Magician, magician!' And the coins that came dancing into the juggler's tambourine in the moments that followed were enough to make him for that one minute the richest man in the world.

And now the juggler was solemnly doffing his hat to the people. He gathered his cloak around him more closely, put away his daggers, his balls, his fruits, his serpents, and all that was his, into a long green narrow box. Then he hoisted its strap over his shoulder, and doffing his cap once more, he clasped his tambourine under his elbow and seizing his staff, turned straight from the castle tower towards the hazy sun-bathed mountains. And, it beginning to be towards nightfall, the throng of people soon dispersed and melted away; the maids and scullions, wooed out by this spectacle from the castle, returned to their work; and the children ran off home to tell their mothers of these marvels and to mimic the juggler's tricks as they gobbled up their supper-crusts and were packed off to bed.

In the stillness that followed after the juggler's departure, Myfanwy found herself kneeling in her chamber in the tranquil golden twilight beside a wooden chair, her hands folded in her lap and her dark eyes fixed in wonderment and anxiety on the ball, and the apple and the rope; while in another such narrow stone chamber only ten or twelve stone steps beneath, her father was crouching at his window shaken with fury, and seeing in his imagination these strange gifts from the air almost as clearly as Myfanwy could see them with her naked eye.

For though the sun had been as much a dazzle to himself as to the common people in the highway, he had kept them fastened on the juggler's trickeries none the less, and had counted every coloured ball and every fruit and every serpent as they rose and fell in their rhythmical maze-like network of circlings in the air. And when each marvellous piece of juggling in turn was over, he knew that in the first place a golden ball was missing, and that in the second place a fruit like an English apple was missing, and that in the third place a silken cord with a buckle-hook to it like the head of a serpent had been flung into the air but had never come down to earth again. And at the cries and the laughter and the applause of the roaring common people and children beneath his walls, tears of rage and despair had burst from his eyes. Myfanwy was deceiving him. His dreaded hour was come.

But there again he was wrong. The truth is, his eyes were so green with jealousy and his heart so black with rage that his wits had become almost useless. Not only his wits either, but his courtesy and his spirit; for the next moment he was actually creeping up again like a thief from stair to stair, and presently had fallen once more on to his knees outside his beloved Myfanwy's chamber door and had fixed on her one of those green dark eyes of his at its little gaping cut-out pin-hole. And there he saw a strange sight indeed.

The evening being now well advanced, and the light of the afterglow too feeble to make more than a glimmer through her narrow stone window-slits, Myfanwy had lit with her tinder box (for of all things she loved light) no less than seven wax candles on a seven-branched candlestick. This she had stood on a table beside a high narrow mirror. And at the moment when the Baron fixed his eye to the pin-hole, she was standing, a little astoop, the apple in her hand, looking first at it, and then into the glass at the bright-lit reflected picture of herself holding the apple in her hand.

So now there were two Myfanwys to be seen—herself and her image in the glass. And which was the lovelier not even the juggler could have declared. Crouching there at the door-crack, her father could all but catch the words she was softly repeating to herself as she gazed at the reflected apple: 'Shall I, shan't I? Shall I, shan't I?' And then suddenly—and he dared not stir or cry out—she had raised the fruit to her lips and had nibbled its rind.

What happened then he could not tell, for the secret and sovereign part of that was deep in Myfanwy herself. The sharp juice of the fruit seemed to dart about in her veins like flashing fishes in her father's crystal fountains and water-conduits. It was as if happiness had begun gently to fall out of the skies around her, like dazzling flakes of snow. They rested on her hair, on her shoulders, on her hands, all over her. And yet not snow, for there was no coldness, but a scent as it were of shadowed woods at noonday, or of a garden when a shower has fallen. Even her bright eyes grew brighter; a radiance lit her cheek; her lips parted in a smile.

And it is quite certain if Myfanwy had been the Princess of Anywhere-in-the-World-at-All, she would then and there—like Narcissus stooping over his lilied water-pool—have fallen head over ears in love with herself! 'Wonder of wonders!' cried she in the quiet; 'but if this is what a mere nibble of my brave juggler's apple can do, then it were wiser indeed to nibble no more.' So she laid the apple down.

The Baron gloated on through the pin-hole—watching her as she stood transfixed like some lovely flower growing in the inmost silent solitude of a forest and blossoming before his very eyes.

And then, as if at a sudden thought, Myfanwy turned and took up the golden ball, which—as she had suspected and now discovered—was no ball, but a small orb-shaped box of rare inlaid woods, covered with golden thread. At touch of the tiny spring that showed itself in the midst, its lid at once sprang open, and Myfanwy put in finger and thumb and drew out into the crystal light a silken veil—but of a gossamer silk so finely spun that when its exquisite meshes had wreathed themselves downward to the floor the veil looked to be nothing more than a silvery grey mist in the candlelight.

It filmed down from her fingers to the flagstones beneath, almost as light as the air in which it floated. Marvellous that what would easily cover her, head to heel, could have been packed into so close a room as that two-inch ball! She gazed in admiration of this exquisite handiwork. Then, with a flick of her thumb, she had cast its cloudlike folds over her shoulders.

And lo!—as the jealous lord gloated on—of a sudden there was nothing to be seen where Myfanwy had stood but seven candles burning in their stick, and seven more in the mirror. She had vanished.

She was not gone very far, however. For presently he heard—as if out of nowhere—a low chuckling childlike peal of laughter which willy-nilly had broken from her lips at seeing that this Veil of Invisibility had blanked her very glass. She gazed steadily on into its clear vacancy, lost in wonder. Nothing at all of her whatsoever was now reflected there!—not the tip of her nose, not a thumb, not so much as a button or a silver tag. Myfanwy had vanished; and yet, as she well knew, here she truly was in her own body and no other, though tented in beneath the folds of the veil, as happy as flocks on April hills, or mermaids in the deep blue sea. It was a magic thing indeed, to be there and yet not there; to hear herself and yet remain transparent as water.

Motionless though she stood, her thoughts were at the same time flitting about like quick and nimble birds in her mind. This veil, too, was the gift of the juggler; her young sleeping stranger of the beech-tree in a strange disguise. And she could guess in her heart what use he intended her to make of it, even though at thought of it that heart misgave her. A moment after and as swiftly as she had gone, she had come back again—the veil in her fingers. Laughing softly to herself she folded and refolded it and replaced it in its narrow box. Then turning, she took up from the chair the silken cord, and as if in idle fancy twined it twice about her slender neck. And it seemed the cord took life into itself, for lo, showing there in the mirror, calm now as a statue of coloured ivory, stood Myfanwy; and couched over her left temple the swaying head of the Serpent of Wisdom, whispering in her ear.

Owen ap Gwythock could watch no more. Groping his way with trembling fingers through the thick gloom of the staircase he crept down to the Banqueting Hall where already his Chief Steward awaited his coming to announce that supper was prepared.


Even as Myfanwy tries out her gifts from the strange juggler, her father stops his watching.  What will happen next?  That gets us into the heart of this story and of the characters involved.

In the meantime, if you are willing to try your own hand at juggling, Canadian juggler and president of the International Jugglers AssociationMike Moore's site is a great place to start.  He also provides links to other pages.  If you have a few balls around the house and want to learn how to juggle, the link to Ball Juggling, includes a YouTube video with Jason Garfield promising that you, too, can Learn How to Juggle.  Personally I'll skip it and stick to storytelling that only mimes the juggling.

Have fun with stories (juggling that with the rest of your online time) by following any of my standard story links.


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