Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 – 1873) was an Irish writer. He wrote mystery, Gothic tales and what I would call supernatural stories, or stories with a slant towards folklore.
He is perhaps better known for Carmilla, Uncle Silas, Green Tea or The House by the Church-Yard. The story I have chosen is called The Child who went with the Fairies, which is literally the premise of the story in a nutshell.
The story of a superstitious woman of little means, who lives in fear of her children being stolen by the fairies from the nearby fairy mound. Unfortunately her fears become a premonition when one of her sons goes missing after catching the eye of a passing fairy.
‘A scanty pasturage, on which browsed a few scattered sheep or kine, skirts this solitary road for some miles, and under shelter of a hillock, and of two or three great ash-trees, stood, not many years ago, the little thatched cabin of a widow named Mary Ryan.’
Mary took every precaution to ensure the safety of her children, whether it be by good old common sense like locking the door or with phials of holy water hanging around the house. Anything she could think of to protect them all from the powers of the fae folk.
Here certainly were defences and bulwarks against the intrusion of that unearthly and evil power, of whose vicinity this solitary family were constantly reminded by the outline of Lisnavoura, that lonely hill-haunt of the “Good people,” as the fairies are called euphemistically,
One autumn day close to sunset three of the four of the widow’s children were playing outside the cabin, while their eldest sister Nell boiled potatoes and their mother collected turf from the bog. Moll enquires after her youngest children, who according to Nell are supposed to be playing in front of the cottage.
“Eiah, wisha! It’s tired I am with it, God bless it. And where’s the craythurs, Nell?” “Playin’ out on the road, mother; didn’t ye see them and you comin’ up?” “No; there was no one before me on the road,” she said.
Out ran tall, dark-haired Nell, looking up and down the road, but there was no sign of her two little brothers Con and Bill, nor of her sister Peg. She listened for any sound of their voices being carried by the wind.
‘How many stories had she listened to by the winter hearth, of children stolen by the fairies, at nightfall, in lonely places! With this fear she knew her mother was haunted.’
Then suddenly she saw them coming round the dip in the corner, from the direction of the dreaded hill of Lisnavoura. But there were only two of the children and one of them was crying bitterly.
“Where is Billy—where is he?” cried the mother, nearly breathless, so soon as she was within hearing. “He’s gone—they took him away; but they said he’ll come back again,” answered little Con
The children told their mother that Billy had gone with the grand ladies in the carriage, and then they had all disappeared.
With a wild exclamation the distracted woman ran on towards the hill alone, clapping her hands, and crying aloud the name of her lost child.
In the meantime Nell retreated to the cottage with her siblings and locked the door firmly behind her, and waited for her mother to return. Return she did, but without Billy.
Little Bill or Leum, about five years old, with golden hair and large blue eyes, was a very pretty boy, with all the clear tints of healthy childhood, and that gaze of earnest simplicity which belongs not to town children of the same age.
Con and Peg told their mother their tale. The children were playing in the road beside the cottage when a carriage appeared seemingly from nowhere.
It was a carriage drawn by four horses that were pawing and snorting, in impatience, as it just pulled up. Here was antique splendour. The harness and trappings were scarlet, and blazing with gold. The horses were huge, and snow white, with great manes, that as they tossed and shook them in the air, seemed to stream and float sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, like so much smoke. “Stop the princess on the highway!” cried the coachman, in a piercing treble.
The children were frightened by all the noise and fuss, perhaps even more so when a beautiful and grand looking lady looked out of the carriage window and spoke.
“The boy with the golden hair, I think,” said the lady, bending her large and wonderfully clear eyes on little Leum.
Inside the carriage another woman sat and looked over the shoulder of the beautiful woman. The children didn’t like this other woman. She had a thin face, goggle eyes and high cheekbones.
“Yes; the boy with the golden hair, I think,” repeated the lady. And her voice sounded sweet as a silver bell in the children’s ears, and her smile beguiled them like the light of an enchanted lamp when she stooped down, and stretched her jewelled arms towards him, he stretched his little hands up, and how they touched the other children did not know; but, saying, “Come and give me a kiss, my darling,” she raised him, and he seemed to ascend in her small fingers as lightly as a feather, and she held him in her lap and covered him with kisses.
Billy’s siblings would have gladly followed him into the arms of the beguiling woman if it wasn’t for the other woman in the carriage.There was something not quite right about her, in that instant they trusted their gut instinct. Instead they looked upon the beautiful lady, who dropped a delicious looking apple out of the carriage.
‘a large russet apple in her fingers, and the carriage began to move slowly on, and with a nod inviting them to take the fruit, she dropped it on the road from the window; it rolled some way beside the wheels, they following, and then she dropped another, and then another’
Before they knew it they had followed the carriage to a cross-road and then in a flash of dust the carriage, the lady and their little golden-haired brother disappeared.
‘They screamed their brother’s name after him, but their cries were lost in the vacant air. At the same time they thought they heard a hollow voice say, close to them, “Go home.’
The mother never saw her golden-haired child again, the same cannot be said for his siblings. Now and again little Billy would appear at the doorway of the cottage, as if peering in through a window.
they saw the pretty face of little Billy peeping in archly at the door, and smiling silently at them, and as they ran to embrace him, with cries of delight, he drew back. Sometimes he would peep for a longer time, sometimes for a shorter time, sometimes his little hand would come in, and, with bended finger, beckon them to follow; but always he was smiling with the same arch look and wary silence—and always he was gone when they reached the door.
This went on for eight months until Billy stopped appearing altogether. Then one wintry morning about one year and a half after his disappearance Billy visited the family for the last time. This time his appearance spoke of little joy and of great sadness.
saw little Billy enter and close the door gently after him. There was light enough to see that he was barefoot and ragged, and looked pale and famished. The little girl clutched her sister in terror and whispered, “Waken, Nelly, waken; here’s Billy come back!”
Warming his hands near the fire his face seemed to express fear instead of welcome. Did he think they would not want him? Or was this perhaps the end of his journey and a last goodbye to his earthly family?
the little boy, whose hands were extended close over the coals, turned and looked toward the bed, it seemed to her, in fear, and she saw the glare of the embers reflected on his thin cheek as he turned toward her. He rose and went, on tiptoe, quickly to the door, in silence, and let himself out as softly as he had come in.
After that, the little boy was never seen any more by any one of his kindred.Not a whisper, nor a sigh, not a glimpse nor an image. Slowly the memory of Billy slid into the a forest of forgotten memories.
So little Billy was dead to mother, brother, and sisters; but no grave received him. There was no landmark to show where little Billy was hidden from their loving eyes
Occasionally throughout the passing years one of his siblings would cast a glance upon the fairy hill, as they walked along the cross-roads. They would sigh and remember their golden-haired brother with the joyous laugh and beautiful spirit, shake their heads and mourn the child they knew for a moment and would never know as an adult.
The moral of the story is ‘don’t live next to a fairy mound, because you never know when they might come a calling for your precious children.’
On a more serious note Le Fanu is quite adept at creating an atmosphere of mystery with a twist of superstition. The reader is often left with the lingering doubt of whether to believe some essence of the tale is based on reality or just a figment of his imagination. Certainly worth the read.
Read The Child That Went With the Fairies, The Ghost Stories of Chapelizod, Uncle Silas, An Account of some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, The Mysterious Lodger free at Feedbooks. Green Tea, Willing to Die, Wylder’s Hand, The Room in the Dragon Volant, The Evil Guest, The House by the Church-Yard, The Tenants of Malory, Uncle Silas, Carmilla, Madame Crowl’s Ghost and the Dead Sexton free at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to Carmilla, The Evil Guest, The Child That Went with the Fairies part 1 and part 2, Wylder’s Hand or Uncle Silas.
Read American Fairy Tales, The Book of Wonder, Abbott and Costello in Giantland, Tales of Irish Fae, Flower Fables, The Silence, The Solitude and the Shame, Spooks run Wild, Gold Diggers in need of Sugar Daddies, Stories of Dragons, Beat the Devil, The Invaders, The Empty House or The Skull right here on the blog.