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French tale

Emmerick, count of Poitou, was a nobleman of great wealth and eminent for his virtues. He had two children, a son named Bertram and a daughter Blaniferte. In the great forest which stretched away in all directions around the knoll on which stood the town and castle of Poictiers lived a count de la Forêt, related to Emmerick but poor and with a large family. Out of compassion for his kinsman, the Count of Poitou adopted his youngest son Raymond, a beautiful and amiable youth, and made him his constant companion in hall and in the chase.

One day the Count and his retinue hunted a boar in the forest of Colombiers, and, distancing his servants, Emmerick found himself alone in the depths of the wood with Raymond. The boar had escaped. Night came on, and the two huntsmen lost their way. They succeeded in lighting a fire, and were warming themselves over the blaze when suddenly the boar plunged out of the forest upon the Count. Raymond snatched a sword and struck at the beast, but the blow glanced off and slew the Count. A second blow lay the boar at his side. Raymond then perceived with horror that his friend and master was dead. In despair he mounted his horse and fled, not knowing whither he went.

Presently the boughs of the trees became less interlaced and the trunks fewer, and, next moment, his horse crashed through the shrubs and brought him out on a pleasant glade, white with rime and illumined by the new moon. In the midst bubbled up a limpid fountain and flowed away over a pebbly floor with a soothing murmur. Near the fountainhead sat three maidens in glimmering white dress, with long waving golden hair and faces of inexpressible beauty.

Raymond was riveted to the spot with astonishment. He believed that he saw a vision of angels and would have prostrated himself at their feet had not one of them advanced and stayed him. The lady inquired the cause of his manifest terror, and the young man after a slight hesitation told her of his dreadful misfortune. She listened with attention, and at the conclusion of the story recommended him to remount his horse and gallop out of the forest and return to Poictiers as though unconscious of what had taken place.

All the huntsmen had lost themselves in the wood that day, and were returning singly at intervals to the castle, so no suspicion would attach to him. The body of the count would be found, and from the proximity of the dead boar it would be concluded that he had fallen before the tusk of the animal to which he had given its deathblow.

Relieved of his anxiety, Raymond was able to devote his attention exclusively to the beauty of the lady who addressed him, and found means to prolong the conversation till daybreak. He had never beheld charms equal to hers, and the susceptible heart of the youth was completely captivated by the fair unknown. Before he left her he obtained from her a promise to be his. She then told him to ask of his kinsman Bertram, as a gift, so much ground around the fountain where they had met as could be covered by a stag’s hide. Upon this ground she undertook to erect a magnificent place. Her name, she told him, was Melusina. She was a water-fay of great power and wealth. She consented to be his, but on one condition: that her Saturdays might be spent in complete seclusion upon which he should ever venture to intrude.

Raymond then left and followed her advice to the letter. Bertram, who succeeded his father, readily granted the land he asked for, but was not a little vexed when he found that, by cutting the hide into threads, Raymond had succeeded in making it into a considerable area.

Raymond then invited the young count to his wedding, and the marriage festivities took place with unusual splendor, in the magnificent castle erected by Melusina. On the evening of the marriage the bride, with tears in her eyes, implored her husband on no account to attempt an intrusion on her privacy upon Saturdays, for such an intrusion must infallibly separate them forever. The enamoured Raymond readily swore to observe her wishes strictly in this matter.

Melusina continued to extend the castle and strengthen its fortifications, till the like was not to be seen in all the country round. On its completion she named it after herself, Lusina, a name which has been corrupted to Lusignan, which it bears to this day. [The castle was destroyed in 1574 as a Huguenot retreat]

In course of time the Lady of Lusignan gave birth to a son who was baptized Urian. He was a strangely shaped child. His mouth was large, his ears pendulous. One of his eyes was red, the other green. A twelvemonth later she gave birth to another son whom she called Gedes. He had a face that was scarlet. In thank-offering for his birth she erected and endowed the convent of Malliers, and as a place of residence for her child built the strong castle of Favent.

Melusina the bore a third son who was christened Gyot. He was a fine handsome child, but one of his eyes was higher up in his face than the other. For him his mother built La Rochelle. Her next son, Anthony, had long claws on his finger and was covered with hair. The next again had but a single eye. The sixth was Geoffrey with the Tooth, so called from a boar’s tusk that protruded from his jaw. Other children she had, but all were in some way disfigured and monstrous.

Year passed, and the love of Raymond for his beautiful wife never diminished. Every Saturday she left she left him and spent the twenty-four hours in the strictest seclusion, without her husband thinking of intruding on her privacy. The children grow up to be great heroes and illustrious warriors. One, Freimund, entered the Church and became a pious monk in the abbey of Malliers. The aged Count de la Forêt and the brothers of Raymond shared in his good fortune, and the old man spent his last years in the castle with his son, whilst the brothers were furnished with money and servants suitable to their rank.

One Saturday the old father inquired at dinner after his daughter-in-law. Raymond replied that she was not visible on Saturdays. Thereupon one of his brothers, drawing him aside, whispered that strange gossiping tales were about relative to this Sabbath seclusion, and that it behooved him to inquire into it and set the minds of the people at rest. Full of wrath and anxiety, the count rushed off the private apartments of the countess, but found them empty. One door alone was locked, and that opened into a bath. He looked through the keyhole and to his dismay beheld her in the water, her lower extremities changed into the tail of a monstrous fish or serpent.

Silently he withdrew. No word of what he had seen passed his lips. It was not loathing that filled his heart, but anguish at the thought that by his fault he must lose the beautiful wife who had been the charm and glory of his life. Some time passed by, however, and Melusina gave no token of consciousness that she had been observed during the period of her transformation. But one day news reached the castle that Geoffrey with the Tooth had attacked the monastery of Malliers and burned it, and that in the flames had perished Freimund with the abbot and a hundred monks. On hearing of this disaster, the poor father, in a paroxysm of misery, exclaimed as Melusina approached to comfort him: “Away, odious serpent, contaminator of my honourable race!”

At these words she fainted, and Raymond full of sorrow for having spoken thus intemperately, strove to revive her. When she came to herself again, with streaming tears she kissed and embraced him for the last time. ” O husband! She said tenderly, “I leave two little ones in the cradle. Look tenderly after them, bereaved of their mother. And now farewell forever! Yet know that thou, and those that succeed thee, shall see me hover over this castle of Lusignan whenever a new lord is to come”. And with a long wail of agony she swept from the window, leaving the impression of her foot on the stone she last touched.

The children in arms she had left were Dietrich and Raymond. At night the nurses beheld a glimmering figure appear near the cradle of the babes, most like vanished countess, but from heir waist downwards terminating in a scaly fish-tail enameled blue and white. At her approach the little ones extended their arms and smiled, and she took them to her breast and sucked them. But as the grey dawn stole in at the casement she vanished, and the children’s cries told the nurses that their mother was gone.

Long was it believed in France that the unfortunate Melusina appeared in the air, wailing over the ramparts of Lusignan before the death of one of its lords; and that on the extinction of the family she was seen whenever a king of France was to depart this life.

The story of the love of a man for a water-sprite and of her longing for normal life is an old root-tale of Aryan folklore with many parallels, from Undine to Hans Christian Andersen. The tale of Melusina became immensely popular in France and Germany and Spain, appearing in a score of books during the century 1478-1577, and this pretty account is perhaps best left to make its own effect, without a superfluity of comment.

Hardy E. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, New York 1978, pp.129-133.

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