SILVERTREE AND GOLDENTREE
Retold by Susan Price
Long ago, when Arthur ruled the lands of Britain, there was a most beautiful queen living in Ireland. She was tall and slender, and moved with the slow, graceful motion of a birch sapling bending to the wind; and her hair, which fell to her feet, was as silver-gold as the heavy ring about her neck. She was named Queen Silvertree, and she had a little daughter named Goldentree because her hair was more gold than the little gold circlet she wore on her head. When people said that she would, one day, be as beautiful as her mother, Queen Silvertree would say, “No! She will be far more beautiful!” For the Queen was proud of her pretty little daughter, and spent hours each morning combing out the child's hair and dressing her.
But every day, once Goldentree was dressed, the Queen left the palace and walked through the gardens, past the flowers and the orchard, to the wild places that the palace gardeners left untouched. There, hidden in the wild places, was a shadowed pool, its water black, deep, green and cold. All round it grew hazel bushes, and the nuts from them dropped into the water. A trout that lived in the pool would rise and swallow the nuts, making silver rings on the pool's dark surface. Every day, after she had combed her daughter's hair, Queen Silvertree pushed through the tall flowers and grasses of the wild places, pulling aside branches and catching her own hair on twigs, until she reached this pool. Stooping, and dipping her hand in the cold water, she would call, “Little Trout, pretty Trout, come tell me, who is the most beautiful?”
The trout would rise and answer, “You, Silvertree, you, you and no other!”
On the day that the Queen's daughter, Goldentree, became sixteen, the Queen combed out her daughter's long hair and chose the dress she would wear, and then left the palace and walked through the flowerbeds and orchards to the wild places and the shadowed pool. She stooped beside it and trailed her hand in the chilling water, and called, as she always did, “Little Trout, pretty Trout, come tell me, who is the most beautiful?”
The trout rose and answered, “Not you, Queen!”
The Queen stood upright. “Not I? Not I? Who, then?”
“Your daughter, Goldentree!”
Queen Silvertree smiled. “Ah, my Goldentree. She is lovely indeed, but has she beauty? No. She is a pretty child.”
The trout jumped from the water, shining in the air for a moment before diving again into the darkness of the pool. “Turn and see, turn and see, where comes your daughter, Goldentree. Turn and see her, Queen, turn and see.”
The Queen turned and saw her daughter coming, slowly and gracefully, through the flowers. She saw, as if she was looking at a stranger, how tall the girl was, and how gracefully and lightly she moved. She saw how the girl's long, heavy hair hung almost to the ground, and how it had become as golden, as red-gold, as the heavy gold ring about her neck. And she saw that the trout, as always, spoke truly. Of the two of them, Goldentree was the more beautiful.
Queen Silvertree knew then that she was growing old, and losing her beauty; she knew that her beauty would fade little by little, day by day, until there was no trace of it left, and people would look at her and see an ugly old woman, and would never, never guess that she had once been the most beautiful. The jealousy that attacked Queen Silvertree then was sharp, sudden, and terrible. She trembled, and was sick and pale. She hurried away to her bed, and huddled under the covers, sometimes weeping from sorrow, sometimes screaming in rage. She did not come to the dinner table and when her husband, the King, sent to ask her to come, she sent back a message that she was too ill, and thought she was dying.
The King came to her at once. When he saw her shuddering in her bed, her face white and twisted with scowling, he was frightened, and thought that she must indeed be dying. “I am bewitched,” Silvertree said to him. “A witch is killing me – help me, love, help me!”
“Can you say who has bewitched you?” asked the King. “Can you tell me what I must do to save you?”
“The witch is Goldentree,” said the Queen. “She has witched me with her eyes, she had entangled me in spells of her hair... She is jealous of my beauty and wishes me dead – and the only thing that will save me is to eat her heart and liver, warm, from a silver dish.”
“The heart and liver of our daughter, my own Goldentree?” cried the King.
The Queen wailed and said, “If I do not eat them soon, and warm, from a silver dish, I shall die, I shall die!”
“But our own little daughter - “
“Which of us is more to you? I, your Queen, or she, your daughter?”
And the King, because he loved his Queen, left her and sent for one of his silver dishes, and one of his huntsmen. When the dish and the man were brought before him, the King said to the man, “You must choose one of these two things: either to take my daughter, Goldentree, to the forest, and there cut out her heart and liver, and bring them back in this silver dish. Or to go into the yard with three of my guards and kneel while they chop off your head.”
The huntsman thought for a moment, and then said, “A man will always save his own life if he can, and so I choose to kill your daughter. But if I had any other choice, I would not do it.”
“You have no other choice,” said the King, and gave him the silver dish.
The huntsman, carrying the round, shining dish, went out into the palace gardens to find Goldentree. He came upon her as she was throwing a ball into the air and catching it. “Lady Goldentree,” he said, “yesterday, while I was hunting, I saw a wild rose-bush. Half of it was frozen in ice, and glittered so brightly I could hardly look at it; the other half was all roses and green leaves. I never before saw anything like it, nor anything so beautiful.”
“I should like to see it too,” said Goldentree.
The huntsman held out his hand. “Come with me, and I'll take you to it. We will gather roses from it in this dish.” Goldentree gladly took his hand and went with him into the forest.
They walked for hours. At every step Goldentree was looking for the bush of roses and ice; and the huntsman was thinking of what he had to do, and leading her on a little further to delay his ugly work a little longer. At last Goldentree stopped and said, “I am tired, and I won't go any further until you tell me how far it is.”
“Lady Goldentree,” said the huntsman. “I lied to you. There are no icy roses. Your father has ordered me to kill you, to cut out your heart and your liver, and to take them back to him in this silver dish – but I shall not do it. Lady, stay here and wait for me, and I will see that no harm comes to you.”
The huntsman went away, and with his bow and arrow, he killed a forest doe, from which he cut the heart and liver. He carried them back to the palace in the silver dish and presented them to the King, who at once carried the dish to his Queen, Silvertree. She sat up in bed and greedily ate every bit of the heart and liver, believing them to be her daughter's, and licked out the dish until the silver shone again from beneath its clouding of blood. Then she left her bed and went to her mirror, where she spent a long time gazing at her own reflection. She thought herself more beautiful than she had ever been, because she had eaten Goldentree's beauty and added it to her own. She told the King that she was cured, and the King rewarded the huntsman with a bag of gold, and told him to go far away, to another country, and never to tell what he had been employed to do.
The huntsman took the gold and went back to the forest where Goldentree was waiting. With her, he crossed the sea to Denmark, where they built themselves a house, paid for with the huntsman's gold. For a year they lived happily together.
But, on Goldentree's birthday, the Queen Silvertree walked again through the flowers of the palace gardens to the wild places and the cold, deep pool where she had not dared to go since she had eaten from the silver dish. She called, “Little Trout, pretty Trout, come tell me, who is the most beautiful?”
The trout answered, “Not you, Queen!”
The Queen fell to her knees in her shock and anger. “Not I? Who then? Who?”
“Your daughter, Goldentree.”
Queen Silvertree smiled. “Oh, Goldentree, my daughter. In the land of the dead she may be the most beautiful, but I am the most beautiful among the living.”
The trout leaped in the water and said, “Not so, Queen, not so.”
“How can you say it is not so, when a year ago, I ate her heart and liver?”
The trout leaped and called out, “You ate the heart and liver of a forest doe, and Goldentree is living still, in Denmark's land. She is the most beautiful of all!”
The Queen broke three branches from a hazel, and said, “She shall not be for long.”
She gave orders for her longship to be made ready, and herself took the helm, and steered across the sea to Denmark and the very cove where Goldentree and the huntsman had built their house. The huntsman was away from home, but Goldentree looked out from an upper window and saw the ship and recognised it. She ran down the stairs and locked all the doors and windows, for she feared that her mother would kill her.
The longship touched land, and Queen Silvertree came down from it and walked up to the house, where she knocked at the door and begged her daughter to come out and be kissed. She wept, repeating over and over that she was sorry for what she had done, and wished only to see her daughter again, now that she had found, to her joy, that Goldentree was still alive. But Goldentree said that she would not come out.
“I know you are afraid of me,” said the Queen, “and you have good reason, but won't you put your little finger through the key-hole, so I may kiss it? I can do you no harm then.”
Goldentree thought this true, and she loved her mother though she was afraid of her, and so she pushed her little finger through the keyhole. Queen Silvertree jabbed a poisoned rose-thorn in it, and Goldentree fell down dead.
Queen Silvertree hurried back to her ship and sailed home. When she reached there, she ran through the palace gardens to the wild, overgrown place, and the pool under the hazel bushes. There she cried, “Little Trout, pretty Trout, who is the most beautiful?”
“You, Silvertree, you, you and no other!” the trout answered; and she was content for a while.
The huntsman came home and found Goldentree dead; and for three days he did nothing but sit by her, studying her face and lifting up the weight of her long hair. Even after that time, he loved her so much, and thought her so beautiful, that he could not bear to bury her from sight in the earth, and instead he laid her body on a bed in a room which he always kept locked. He carried the key to the door always on his belt.
After a long time he married a country girl, who was capable of all sorts of work, and clever, and pretty too. The huntsman loved her, though he never forgot how much more he had loved Goldentree. The country girl loved the huntsman too, and it made her miserable to see him always so sad, and she would often take his hands and ask, “Why don't you smile?”
He would answer, “I would – if only my golden tree flourished.”
She did not understand him, and searched the forest for a tree of gold, but there were only those trees that turn gold in autumn, and they were all flourishing. But there was one room in the house which her husband always kept locked, and she began to think that his strange reply must have something to do with it. One night, while he slept, she stole the key from his belt, and, when he next went hunting, she opened the room and went inside.
There she saw, lying on a bed, the most beautiful girl she had ever seen, a girl as slender as a sapling and cushioned on her own thick, shining, golden hair. “This,” said the country girl to herself, “is Goldentree. And she looked Goldentree over carefully, and found the poisoned thorn in her finger. She pulled it out, and Goldentree opened her eyes.
When the huntsman returned, he came sadly, walking with his head lowered. The country girl went to him, took his hands and asked, “Why don't you smile?”
“I would,” he said, “if my golden tree flourished.”
The girl turned and called out, “Goldentree! Goldentree!” From the house Goldentree came running to the huntsman.
For an hour he was struck dumb and could only stare at her in wonder. But then he said, “What am I to do? Now I have two wives, and in every way I love not the first, I love the second. How can I part with either?”
“She was the first wife,” said the country girl, “and you always thought of her, so I will go away.”
“No,” said Goldentree. “I would be no wife if it were not for you, and I shall not drive you from your home.”
So the three of them lived together in friendship, and were happier than they had ever been.
But on the birthday of the daughter she believed to be dead, Queen Silvertree again dared to go to wild place and the deep, cold pool and call, “Little Trout, pretty Trout, come tell me, who is the most beautiful?”
“Not you, Queen!”
“But Goldentree is dead!”
“Goldentree was dead, but now she lives, the most beautiful, in Denmark!”
Queen Silvertree had her longship made ready and took its helm herself, guiding it across the sea to Denmark. The huntsman was away from home, but Goldentree and the country girl saw the ship from an upper window, and Goldentree recognised it. “My mother is coming, and this time she will be certain to murder me!”
“Oh no,” said the country girl. “We shall go down and meet her.” And she took Goldentree's hand and led her down to the beach where the longship had touched land.
Queen Silvertree came down from the ship, carrying a silver cup. “Come to me, my daughter Goldentree,” she said. “I have brought you a drink from your own country, in friendship.”
“In this country,” said the country-girl, “it is the custom for the giver of a drink to take a sip of it first, to show good will.”
Queen Silvertree smiled and put the cup to her lips, as if she was drinking, but meaning only to wet her lips – but the country girl stepped forward and gave the cup a knock, so that the Queen swallowed the poison and fell down dead. Then Goldentree hugged the country-girl, and the two girls worked together to bury the Queen's body deep in the sand of the beach.
And the country-girl, Goldentree and the huntsman lived together happily for many years; and life was so kind to them that they died in the same hour, leaving none of them alive to mourn the others. The people of that country buried them in one grave at the edge of the forest, and from the grave grew a tall, slender tree with golden leaves; and through its branches twined sweet-scented honeysuckle and dog-rose.