The Dovecote: A rediscovered fairy tale by Violet Jacob

Some time ago, in these pages, our Oblivioni columnist wrote of discovering a great old fairy tale, from the turn of the 20th century, and noted,

There are few literary experiences more strange and poignant than reading an utterly forgotten children’s book, especially a copy that once belonged to actual children, whose names are still legible in the book. They have since grown into adults, after all, and then grown old. (And then died, of course.) When I used to read a story like that to my kids (back when they were of the age), it was like visiting another world, one which only we knew. My kids may be the only children alive today who know and love this story, I would imagine, as I read.

That fairy tale was “The Dovecoat,” by Violet Jacob, and the column continued,

Thirty years ago or so, I pulled Violet Jacob’s 1905 story collection, The Golden Heart, from a dusty shelf in a used bookstore, somewhere out there in the world. The book was long out of print, utterly unknown. When, at the very end of the last century, my kids entered into our household, one story in this volume, The Dovecote, became a haunting favorite of ours, for a while anyway.

You can read the full post in Audere.

And now, at last, you can read “The Dovecote” yourself, or to your kids. The great story is republished in its entirety, below.


In a wide stretch of pasture, in the middle of a lonely field, with its back to the bleak north blast which swept over the shuddering grasses, making them hum and sing like complaining voices, stood a Dovecote. The solid masonry of its walls, in the crevices of which tufts of stone-crop and shepherd’s purse had sown themselves, and the irregular outlines of the crow­steps which ran up either side of its slanting roof had been familiar to the sight of so many generations that, as it had remained unused within the memory of the oldest, no one thought more of it than if it had been a stone heap in the road, nor noticed the curious fact of its never falling into disrepair. At each end of the roof, above the crow-steps, two large stone balls stood out against the sky, and on these the rooks, going home in the red sunsets to a neighboring rookery, perched from year’s end to year’s end, and no one but themselves, or a few inquisitive sheep, who might rub their woolly heads against the walls, seemed to remember the existence of the solitary building. At some little distance behind it the land rose in a steep slope, rolling upwards to where a fringe of fir-trees looked down upon the Dovecote, the fields, and the scattered habitations below.

Anyone standing beside them might see over a vast area of land. Looking to the west, the hills rose in bold relief, and towards them ran a white road which lost itself now and then, only to reappear in patches till it faded into the distance: looking eastward, there lay spread a long stretch of wooded country, over which the lights and shadows floated and the clouds sailed before the west wind on their way to the sea, which could be seen on a sunny day lying like a blue sapphire upon the horizon. Looking straight southward towards the pastures, the sloping ground at the foot of the trees was all one fertile cornfield, as yet uncut, and, half-way up it, where the hill was steepest, stood three elms, growing close together and making a dark spot of shade in the middle of the yellow grain. These were called” Maddy Norey’s trees.” What Maddy Norey’s history had been no one alive knew, but tradition said that she had lived in a small cottage under the shadow of the elms, and men ploughing the field in the late November days had run their ploughshares against deeply-embedded stones at their roots, and told each other that they had struck the foundations of Maddy Norey’s house. They did not know that the witch, Maddy Norey, was alive still, and living hardly out of the sound of their voices in the Dovecote.

But in spite of the lonely quiet of the old place, and the peace which seemed to brood over the standing corn, there was war and strife in the land. The young King, with his Queen, had been forced to fly from his palace, a fugitive and wanderer, not knowing where to seek shelter for his head; his step-brother, a wicked and unscrupulous man, having, with his plots and cunning and his smooth, lying tongue, stirred up the people in revolt against their sovereign. Through the treachery of some of the soldiery the palace gates had been broken down, the King’s capital was in the hands of the mob, and he and the Queen had made their escape, trying to reach the distant sea-board, and from it to take ship across the Northern Sea to a neighboring land ruled by one of their closest allies.

Under cover of night they fled through the streets of the capital, passing un-noticed in the confusion, and slipping through the city gates deserted by the treacherous guards. Once in the open country, they hid themselves in the woods by day, and travelled forward on foot by night, hoping against hope to elude the pursuers sent out after their flight had become known, and to reach the nearest point of coast from which they might set sail for the friendly land opposite.

At last, after many days, they came to a place only a few dozen miles inland, and the King, who knew the country well, encouraged the weary Queen, telling her how short a space lay between them and the sea. They were on the borders of a birch-wood through which they had travelled all night, and, as they came out and saw the wide pasture stretched before them in the early light (for it was dawning) the Queen sank down on the ground, worn out, declaring that she could go no further.

At this the King was in despair, for day was breaking and there seemed to be no place of safety in which they could conceal themselves until night should come round again and cover the two lonely wanderers with her dark curtain.

“Lie still and rest,” said he, as he drew off his cloak and spread it over his wife, “ I will go a little way forward and find some place in which we can shelter for to-day. Do not move until I come back. I shall not be long away.” And he wandered off into the field towards a strange pile of building which he saw rising like a watch-tower from the level plain.

When he reached it he found it to be a deserted Dovecote, and he walked round it, wondering why such a solid structure had been built for the harboring of a few doves and pigeons.

As he passed round the north side he came upon a wooden door, so low that a man entering would be obliged to bend himself almost double, and he cleared away the nettles and tufts of ragwort which grew by the threshold, pushing with his shoulder against the half-rotten wood. The door opened easily.

The Dovecote was quite dark inside, and only the light from the open door behind him enabled the King to see a crazy staircase running up the side of the wall to what was apparently a room overhead. As he stood irresolute whether or not to venture up, another little door opened at the top of the flight and the bent form of an old woman peered out, illuminated by the sky-light in the ceiling of the room she had just left. The King stood amazed.

“ And so you have come at last,” she said, in a voice which seemed far too soft to proceed from such a crooked body, “and why have you not brought the Queen? Do not be afraid,” she added, seeing the look of consternation on his face, “ I have expected you for some time. I am Maddy Norey, and I have lived here for more years than you and the Queen put together could count if your ages were doubled twice over. Go at once and bring her back with you, for here she can find a safe hiding-place.”

The astonished King could only lean against the wall, and stare up at the strange figure above him.

“Go!” cried the old woman, stamping on the floor.

He turned to obey her, and began groping for the little door by which he had entered; but the more he went from wall to wall, the more amazed was he, for there was no sign nor vestige of such a thing.

Maddy Norey laughed softly.

“Now,” she said, “do you see how safe a castle mine is? If I had not chosen that you should see my door you might still be wandering round the walls among the briar s outside. Is not this a safe retreat for the Queen? “

“Let me go, Maddy Norey, and bring her to you.” And as the King said this he perceived the open door close to him, with the sun’s early beams shooting through like golden lances and striking the cobwebs which hung from the lintel.

A short time later saw him standing in the birch­ wood by the side of the Queen, who had fallen asleep from exhaustion among the silver stems. The leave s quivered in the breath of sunrise as they emerged together from the wood and took their way to the Dovecote. The wooden door was open to receive them, and Maddy Norey was at the top of her stair, peering down upon the Queen as she ascended, weary and faint, with her beautiful dark hair, which had slipped from its golden comb, falling in masses over her cloak.

“Now,” said the old woman, when they had reached her attic, “look round at my house and tell me what you think of it.”

The King and Queen were silent, for they knew not what to say. They saw nothing but a small bare room with a sky-light in the roof. The light was struggling in among the cobwebs and a cold air blew through the little row of holes among the tiles, by which bygone flocks of pigeons had entered to roost, or emerged to plume themselves in artless vanity on the slanting roof and the crow steps outside. An oaken three-legged stool stood in one corner with an old-fashioned spinning­ wheel beside it, and this was the only furniture or sign of a human inhabitant visible in the little attic.

Maddy Norey smiled.

“I can see your thoughts,” she said, turning to the King. “But you must not think that I have made no better preparation for the Queen than this. I know a great deal. I know that she will spend much time with me here, and I have arranged all that I can to help you in the time that is coming. Now look into that dark spot in the wall and tell me whether I have not prepared my house well for you.”

As she said this she raised her bent figure and spread out her arms widely. A thin blue mist drove across their vision like a smoke-cloud, and through it broke a glow as of burning coals. It rolled past them, leaving only a faint vapor, behind which they could see a thick hedge of fiery-hearted roses that seemed to burn like living embers. Through a division in the midst of this radiant tangle the light from the glowing flowers shone upon a floor and walls of black oak which could be seen behind it, reflecting itself in the polished darkness beyond, as stars reflect themselves in deep water; and, at the further end of the room, in an angle where the dark walls met, stood a bed carved with designs which could be only dimly seen, and hung with curtains of a rich deep color that might have been either green or blue.

Then Maddy Norey took the Queen by the hand and led her through the roses into the soft darkness. She combed out her long hair, took from her her travel­ stained garments, and made her lie down in the carved bed. Then her weary head sank back upon the pillows, her tired eyes closed, and she drifted away into a dreamless sleep under the blue hangings.

The King and Maddy Norey sat talking in the little dusty attic all that day and far into the evening. His gratitude knew no bounds when she said that he might leave his wife in her charge while he pursued his Journey.

“When you arrive at the sea-shore,” she told him, “you will find a boat lying on the sand; you must manage so that you get there in two days from now, and during the night-time, when the fisherman to whom it belongs has gone home from fishing, and you must take the oars and row straight out to sea. You will find food and water for three days stored in the boat, for the owner is going a journey in it to an island some way off.”

“Maddy Norey,” said the young man, “promise me that you will care for the Queen.”

“I will,” answered the old woman, holding out her wrinkled hand. “ But be advised, Oh King, and spare her the parting, for it may be a long parting, and even I do not know the end of it. She will never consent to let you go alone, which, by reason of the hardships you may have to undergo, is necessary. I might have to prevent her from going with you by not allowing her to find the door. Surely you will spare her this? Look,” and she pointed to the darkening sky-light, “it will soon be night, and there is no moon. Go now-at once. By to-morrow morning you will be many miles on your way, and if you conceal yourself during the day, another night’s travelling will bring you to the shore. Go; it is best.”

The King stood up.

“I may go in and look at her? “ he said.

Maddy Norey nodded. “I will not wake her,” said he, “it would be too cruel.”

There was silence, in the Dovecote for a few minutes before the King re-appeared. He made a sign of farewell to Maddy Norey and went down the rickety stairs, through the wooden door and out into the night alone.

When the Queen awoke next morning and found that he had gone, her heart seemed broken, and she lay weeping quietly in her carved bed.

“Why did I not awake when he came to say good­bye? “ she sobbed in despair to Maddy Norey, who was sitting by her.

“My dear,” said the old woman, who did not tell her that she had caused her to sleep so soundly on purpose, “it was better it should be so, for it helped the King through it. And he hoped that you would be strong and keep a brave heart. You must summon all your courage and be helpful to him when he returns, for we do not know how soon that may be.”

With such words did Maddy Norey comfort the Queen. And she, when the first freshness of her grief was over, tried with all her strength to be cheerful and affectionate to the old woman who had done so much for them both. But every evening she used to steal away to a dark corner to weep a little and think of the King, perhaps still in hiding near the bleak coast, perhaps tossing alone on the sea.

When several days had gone by the Queen began to feel the monotony of her life very much, and to long with a great longing for the fresh air, as she dwelt in the cramped seclusion of the Dovecote. It was impossible that she should venture out alone, even for the smallest distance, in the rebellious state of the country, more especially as the search for the fugitive pair was still going on. But her strength and spirits were declining daily, and Maddy Norey began to fear that the confinement was telling upon her. One evening as they sat within the windowless walls which surrounded them, the Queen laid her hand on the witch’s knee.

“If I could only have one breath of air,” she sighed, “ and one look at the fields and the sky. May I go to the door and out for just a short, short way into the pasture? “

“ No,” she answered, “ you must not do that. I have to remember my promise to the King to keep you in safety. But I can do this. To-morrow I will work a spell upon you. I will turn you into a white pigeon, whose presence, were it noticed about the old place, would seem but natural. So long as you remain standing on your feet or touch the ground in any way, you will be a woman; but, if you make ever so small a spring upwards, the moment your feet leave the earth you will become a white bird, and you may fly for a little distance round the Dovecote, though I do not wish you to go far away. There is a clump of elm-trees in the cornfield which runs up the hillside, and to them you may go, hiding your­self among the branches, and returning here should you find yourself noticed. by even the most insignificant passer-by.”

On the following day, accordingly, Maddy Norey took from a recess behind the blue-green bed hangings a strangely-shaped goblet which had two crystal wings springing from either side; into this she shook powder which smelt aromatically; then she cut off the head of one of the burning roses and threw it upon the top.

A subtle perfumed smoke rose and filled the room, blinding the eyes of the Queen.

She felt her senses going from her, and clung to the witch’s protecting arm. She heard her repeating to herself a slow, monotonous rhyme:

Sun-spells and moon-spells, (Silver wings and red roses)

Voice that in the wind dwells (Golden wings and white roses).

Sun-power and moon-power, (Wild wings and pale roses)

Love for life or love an hour (Witch-wind and dead roses).

As the words ceased she swooned away, and when she came to herself, she was lying upon the attic floor with the air from the open sky-light blowing in, and Maddy Norey bending over her. She rose, rubbing her eyes.

“Now,” said the old woman, “spring from the ground.”

The Queen obeyed, and in an instant was standing on the window-sill in the flashing sunbeams, a pure white pigeon. She looked at the cornfield sloping away northward, and at the green clump of elms standing rich and heavy in the still heat, then spread out her new-found pinions and sailed away towards them.

Now, one day, as the white pigeon sat among the elm-boughs, her eyes wandered over the slope of golden grain to where the fir-trees stood on the top of the hill; for she knew that from that place could be seen a far wider view, and one that stretched away to the coast and the ocean. What would she not give to have but one glance at the distant leagues of water, one possible chance of seeing some sign of hope on the horizon! She thought of how Maddy Norey, the witch, had commanded her to go no further than the three elms; but she thought also of the aching, unsatisfied heart she would carry back to the Dovecote if she obeyed her. The temptation was too strong for her, and she finally looked out from her shelter, and, seeing nothing living but a few sheep grazing in the mid-day sun, flew upwards over the corn and alighted on one of the topmost branches of the firs. Then she turned her eyes east­ ward and almost fell from her resting-place.

For the blue sea was all alive with white sails-the sails of a great fleet advancing in a double line to the land.

Prudence, her promise to Maddy Norey and her own safety were alike forgotten; all that she could think of was those approaching vessels which would so soon be landing, and, without fear or hesitation, she spread her wings, and in a moment was flying madly seawards. Over the woods she sped, over the plains and marshes, only now and then passing above a solitary dwelling in the thinly-populated country she crossed. Sometimes she saw a little knot of soldiers encamped in secluded places, and guessed that they were the scouts posted about by the rebels to watch for and capture their sovereign. With a thankful heart she observed that, being stationed in low-lying parts of the country and among the woods, they could not see the sight which she saw from the height at which she flew. It was evident that none suspected the King of having left the country. She hastened forward with redoubled speed as the space between the fleet and the sea-shore lessened. Just before sunset she had almost reached the coast on which the ships were already landing, and could plainly see boats rowing to the shore to empty upon it their loads of armed warriors and going back again to return with more. The sands were black with hurrying figures.

All at once, below her there rose a shout from a watchman who had been climbing to a greater eminence than the others, and, realizing that in an hour the country might be up in arms, she strained every nerve to reach her husband in time to prepare him for an attack.

Scarcely a mile lay between her and the invading army; she was thinking how, in another few moments, she would be once more with the King, when a man, loitering about on the waste land with his crossbow saw the bird passing over his head, took an arrow from the quiver and fitted it to the string. He was a good marksman.

Suddenly a shock of pain passed through the white pigeon and the earth seemed to rise up to meet her; then a giddiness, a drop, and a heavy blow, and she was lying on the wet ground, no longer a bird, but a terrified and wounded woman with an arrow sticking in her arm. Her wing had been broken.

She raised herself a little and saw that her persecutor was rushing forward, and, as the remembrance of her mission came back, she staggered to her feet and tore the arrow from her arm. She was so near safety and succor — so near — she must make one more effort; gathering all her strength together, she bounded on, half faint from loss of blood.

As the King stood on a green mound giving orders for the encampment of his army, he heard a sound of rushing footsteps and turned round. A woman with flying hair and outstretched hands was dashing towards him, through the sea-grass, through the stones and driftwood, and, as she fell fainting at his feet, he recognized the Queen.


The King and his wife sat in the royal tent together. Her arm was stiff and painful and the King was uneasy, for he longed to place her under more skillful care than any which could be got in their present position. They sat at the tent door under the stars; just before morning, when all was beginning to be astir with preparations for the march, a star dropped from its place and fell across the Northern heavens. It travelled slowly along, leaving in its wake a little train of blue sparks.

“That is a good omen,” the Queen said.

Soon the rebels got news that the King bad landed, and they-came with their troops to meet him. There was a great battle that lasted from noon until the evening, and all day the King rode unharmed through the fray with a white pigeon on his shoulder-a white pigeon with a broken wing. The enemy looked upon this strange sight with superstitious awe, and many an arrow tried to find its way to the mysterious bird’s heart. But none succeeded, and when, at the end of that hard day, the King stood victorious on the field, the only signs of blood to be seen upon him were the drops that dripped upon his shoulder from the wing of the white pigeon.

At last he was able to go to his tent and lay aside sword and armor, and he placed the bird tenderly upon the ground. The Queen at once returned to her own shape, half dead with pain and fatigue and scarcely able to stand.

A great fear took hold upon the King. How if he were even now, in the hour of his success, to lose her?

It took him but one moment to make up his mind.

He would take her to Maddy Norey, for, if there were help to be found under heaven, he knew that the witch would give it to him.

Commanding a fresh horse should be brought, he mounted as the moon rose and rode out into the night, holding the bird in the folds of his cloak. The people, when they heard of the advance of the troops and the great defeat from some fugitives who had escaped from the battle, had abandoned their houses and fled in all directions, so it was through a desolate country that the King spurred his good horse. He rode grimly on with his sword drawn in his hand, ready to cut down the first obstacle that might present itself, his eyes fixed steadily in front of him, looking neither to the right nor the left. In the early dawn he stood, as he had stood not so long since, at the foot of the Dovecote. There was the little door in front of him, with its rusty latch and hanging cobwebs. He threw himself from the saddle and rushed into the building and up the crazy stair. Maddy Norey’s voice came from inside the attic.

“Be quick, be quick,” she said, holding out her hands for the bird, “you have not come a moment too soon. Give her to me.”

They laid the fluttering creature on the ground, and, when her natural shape had returned, the Queen was carried to the carved bed where the witch dressed her wound, and, with charms and spells, charmed back her sinking life; and, having been assured by the old woman that all danger was past, the King left her with hope in his heart, and returned to meet his troops.

From that day everything went well; the march to the capital was but a triumphal progress, and the victors were soon joined by bands of those who had remained loyal during the rebellion, but who had not been able to gain the day for their sovereign by reason of the tremendous odds against which they fought.


The cornfield below Maddy Norey’s trees had been cut, the stooks were standing on the hill-side, and the elm-trees were beginning to be faintly touched with autumn, when, one blue, misty morning, the King rode through the pastures to fetch the Queen. He came alone, leading a grey horse by the bridle; and he tied the two animals to an iron ring in the Dovecote wall while he went up to the witch’s attic.

He found the old woman at her spinning-wheel with the young one beside her.

“When he comes to fetch me,” the Queen was saying, “ you will leave the Dovecote, will you not, dear Maddy Norey, and come with us? For our home shall be yours. You have been so good to us that we cannot bear to part from you. Say that you will come.”

“No,” said the witch, “it is impossible. I have lived in this room for such countless years that I can never leave it now. When you have gone no one will ever find the little door again.”

And nothing that they could say would make her consent.

So they went down the wooden stair together, and Maddy Norey came to the top to bid them farewell. For one moment she laid her hand on the King’s curling hair as he bent over her wrinkled figure, and she kissed the Queen, who threw her arms around her crooked neck; then she stood a little space at the head of the stair, looking at the two bright figures as they went out from her into the light.

At the threshold they turned and saw that she was holding up her hands as if in blessing.

Very silently they rode out of the pasture, and, as they were about to turn the corner of the birch-wood, they reined in their horses to take a last look at the curious old building as it stood solitary in the morning mist.

There were tears in the Queen’s eyes.