The Girl Who Sat by the Ashes  by Padraic Colum



T he tree she was beside had a hollow in it, a hollow wide and clean and dry. She put pegs in the hollow and she hung up her dresses there, the bronze dress, the silver dress, and the golden dress.

Then Maid-alone went in the direction in which she heard the peacocks cry. She came to the King's Castle with its stables and it's kennels, with its mews for hawks and its meres for herons, with its ponds for swans and its parades for peacocks. She came to the King's Castle, and she found the least grand way to enter it, and she went that way and stood before the grille that was in the lowest door. When she knocked, the third of the under-stewardesses opened the grille and looked out at her.

"What do you want, Girl in the Crow-feather Cloak?" said the third of the under-stewardesses.

"To work in the King's Castle," said Maid-alone.

Then the third of the under-stewardesses said to her, "Can you mind geese, girl?"

"Geese would be easy for me to mind," said Maid-alone.

"Then come to me after the ploughmen go into the fields and I'll take you to the goose-shelter," said the third of the under-stewardesses.

She closed the grille, but Maid-alone stayed there until she saw the ploughmen go into the fields. She knocked again, and the third of the under-stewardesses opened the lowest door in the Castle and brought her into the scullery and gave her crusts and scraps for her breakfast.

The she brought Maid-alone to the wide shelter where twoscore geese were lifting up their necks and shaking out their wings and clangouring. She gave her the rod of the goose-herd and told her to take the goose-flock down to the marsh.


When the geese were all feeding in the marsh with one gander to watch for them, Maid-alone left them for a while and came out on the highway. Along the highway a coach with four horses was coming. And at a distance from the coach a horseman was riding with a hound running beside him.

When the coach came near where she was standing it stopped, and out of it stepped two damsels grandly dressed. They were Maid-alone's foster sisters, Berry-bright and Buttercup. There was a third person in the coach and she was Dame Dale, Maid-alone's foster mother.

"It is the King's son who is riding behind us on his high-mettled horse," said Dame Dale to the damsels. "Stand beside the coach now, my fair daughters, and give him the chance of looking at you."

Buttercup and Berry-bright stood alongside the coach in their grand dresses and the King's son came riding up to them.

"Is there aught we can do to serve you, noble lord?" said Berry-bright. The King's son drew the rein of his high-mettled horse and his bell-mouthed hound stayed by him. "Is there aught we can do to serve you, noble lord?" said Buttercup.

"If you would serve me, damsels," said the King's son, "bring me a drink of water from the cold well yonder."

"We have no vessel to bring the water to you, good lord," said Berry-bright.

"Your own beautiful white hands will do to carry the water in," said Dame Dale from the coach.

Berry-bright started off for the well, and Maid-alone in her Crow-feather Cloak, unseen and unknown by them all, stood near and looked on.

Berry-bright came back with her fingers knit together and her palms hollowed out to hold the water. The King's son slipped down from his horse to drink and the hands that were made white with washings in new milk were held up to him. The face of Berry-bright was red with pride, and the face of Buttercup white with envy.

But when he stooped down to drink, the water had flowed away. He lifted his head and he turned away from her.

Then Buttercup started for the well. She came back with her fingers knit and her palms hollowed to hole the water. She held up the hands that were white with washings in new milk, and the red of pride was on her face.

But from her hands, too, the water flowed away, and after he had bent down to empty palms the King's son lifted his head and turned away from her.

Maid-alone stole to the well. She came back with her fingers knit and her palms hollowed to hold the water. The water stayed within her firm hands, and the King's son stooped down and drank all that was held there. Dame Dale and Berry-bright and Buttercup looked on the Girl in the Crow-feather Cloak and knew her for Maid-alone who had minded their Goats.

And the King's son looked on her and on her queer Cloak of crow-feathers. He looked on her once, and he looked on her again. "He is wondering what hole she came out of," said Dame Dale to her daughters.

"Bring water for my hound to dip his tongue in," said the King's son.

Maid-alone went to the well again and came back with water in the hollow of her palms. She stooped down and the King's son's hound put his tongue into the water and then lapped it up. The King's son mounted his high-mettled horse and he rode off with his bell-mouthed hound running beside him.

Berry-bright and Buttercup said not a word to Maid-alone. They stepped into the coach and seated themselves beside Dame Dale and the coach drove off towards the King's Castle.

And as for Maid-alone, she went back to where her goose-flock was feeding in the marsh, and she watched over them. Then when the sun was near sinking she gathered them together and drove them across the fields to the goose-shelter near the castle. When she was eating her supper of scraps in the scullery she heard the news of the Castle. The King's son was soon to choose a wife, and all the maidens of the land were being gathered for him to look at; they would be lodged in the fifty-five new chambers of the Castle. Two had come that very day, arriving in the fourth royal coach, and their mother, Dame Dale, was to be the new house-dame.