A complete and exact textual copy “read” with optical character recognition from the 1886 Edition of The Wise Woman, A Parable published by Cassell, London. It was first released in 1875 by Strahan & Co., London, and sometimes appears under the name The Lost Princess: A Double Story.
There was a certain country where things used to go rather oddly. For instance, you could never tell whether it was going to rain or hail, or whether or not the milk was going to turn sour. It was impossible to say whether the next baby would be a boy or a girl, or, even after he was a week old, whether he would wake sweet-tempered or cross.
In strict accordance with the peculiar nature of this country of uncertainties, it came to pass one day that, in the midst of a shower of rain that might well be called golden, seeing the sun, shining as it fell, turned all its drops into molten topazes, and every drop was good for a grain of golden corn, or a yellow cowslip, or a buttercup, or a dandelion at least,—while this splendid rain was falling, I say, with a musical patter upon the great leaves of the horse-chestnuts, which hung like Vandyke collars about the necks of the creamy, red-spotted blossoms, and on the leaves of the sycamores, looking as if they had blood in their veins, and on a multitude of flowers, of which some stood up and boldly held out their cups to catch their share, while others cowered down laughing under the soft patting blows of the heavy warm drops;—while this lovely rain was washing all the air clean from the motes, and the bad odours, and the poisonseeds that had escaped from their prisons during the long drought-while it fell, splashing, and sparkling, with a hum, and a rush, and a soft clashing—but stop—I am stealing, I find, and not that only, but with clumsy hands spoiling what I steal:—
“O Rain, with your dull two-fold sound,
The clash hard-by, and the murmur all round;”
—there! take it, Mr. Coleridge;—while, as I was saying, the lovely little rivers whose fountains are the clouds, and which cut their own channels through the air, and make sweet noises rubbing against their banks as they hurry down and down, until at length they are pulled up on a sudden, with a musical plash, in the very heart of an odorous flower, that first gasps and then sighs up a blissful scent, or on the bald head of a stone that never says thank you;—while the very sheep felt it blessing them, though it could never reach their skins through the depth of their long wool, and the veriest hedgehog—I mean the one with the longest spikes—came and spiked himself out to impale as many of the drops as he could,—while the rain was thus falling, and the leaves, and the flowers, and the sheep, and the cattle, and the hedgehog, were all busily receiving the golden rain, something happened. It was not a great battle, nor an earthquake, nor a coronation, but something more important than all those put together: a baby-girl was born—and her father was a king, and her mother was a queen, and her uncles and aunts were princes and princesses, and her first cousins were dukes and duchesses, and not one of her second cousins was less than a marquis or marchioness, or of her third cousins less than an earl or countess, and below a countess they did not care to count. So the little girl was Somebody; and yet for all that, strange to say, the first thing she did was to cry! told you it was a strange country.
As she grew up, everybody about her did his best to convince her that she was Somebody, and the girl herself was so easily persuaded of it that she quite forgot that anybody had ever told her so, and took it for a fundamental, innate, primary, firstborn, self-evident, necessary, and incontrovertible idea and principle that she was Somebody. And far be it from me to deny it! I will even go so far as to assert that in this odd country there was a huge number of Somebodies. Indeed, it was one of its oddities that every boy and girl in it was rather too ready to think he or she was Somebody; and the worst of it was that the princess never thought of there being more than one Somebody—and that was herself.
Far away to the north in the same country, on the side of a bleak hill, where a horse-chestnut or a sycamore was never seen, where were no meadows rich with buttercups, only steep, rough, breezy slopes, covered with dry prickly furze and its flowers of red gold, or moister, softer broom with its flowers of yellow gold, and great sweeps of purple heather, mixed with bilberries, and crowberries, and cranberries—no, I am all wrong—there was nothing out yet but a few furze blossoms, the rest were all waiting behind their doors till they were called;—and no full, slow-gliding river with meadow—sweet along its oozy banks, only a little brook here and there, that dashed past without a moment to say “How do you do?”—there—would you believe it?—while the same cloud that was dropping down golden rain all about the queen’s new baby, was dashing huge fierce handfuls of hail upon the hills, with such force that they flew spinning off the rocks and stones, went burrowing in the sheep’s wool, stung the cheeks and chin of the shepherd with their sharp, spiteful little blows, and made his dog wink and whine as they bounded off his hard wise head and long sagacious nose;—only, when they dropped plump down the chimney, and fell hissing in the little fire, they caught it then, for the clever little fire soon sent them up the chimney again, a good deal swollen, and harmless enough for a while!—there—what do you think?—among the hailstones, and the heather, and the cold mountain air, another little girl was born, whom the shepherd her father, and the shepherdess her mother, and a good many of her kindred too, thought Somebody. She had not an uncle or an aunt that was less than a shepherd or dairymaid, not a cousin that was less than a farm-labourer, not a second cousin that was less than a grocer, and they did not count farther. And yet, would you believe it? she too cried the very first thing. It was an odd country! And what is still more surprising, the shepherd and shepherdess and the dairymaids and the labourers were not a bit wiser than the king and the queen and the dukes and the marquises and the earls, for they too, one and all, so constantly taught the little woman that she was Somebody, that she also forgot that there were a great many more Somebodies besides herself in the world.
It was, indeed, a peculiar country—very different from ours—so different that my reader must not be too much surprised when I add the amazing fact, that most of its inhabitants, instead of enjoying the things they had, were always wanting the things they had not, often even the things it was least likely they ever could have. The grown men and women being like this, there is no reason to be further astonished that the Princess Rosamond—the name her parents gave her because it means Rose of the World—should grow up like them, wanting everything she could and everything she couldn’t have. The things she could have were a great many too many, for her foolish parents always gave her what they could; but still there remained a few things they couldn’t give her, for they were only a common king and queen. They could and did give her a lighted candle when she cried for it, and managed by much care that she should not burn her fingers or set her frock on fire; but when she cried for the moon, that they could not give her. They did the worst thing possible instead, however, for they pretended to do what they could not:—they got her a thin disc of brilliantly polished silver, as near the size of the moon as they could agree upon, and for a time she was delighted.
But, unfortunately, one evening she made the discovery that her moon was a little peculiar, inasmuch as she could not shine in the dark. Her nurse happened to snuff out the candles as she was playing with it, and instantly came a shriek of rage, for her moon had vanished. Presently, through the opening of the curtains, she caught sight of the real moon, far away in the sky, and shining quite calmly, as if she had been there all the time; and her rage increased to such a degree that if it had not passed off in a fit, I do not know what might have come of it.
As she grew up it was still the same—with this difference, that not only must she have everything, but she got tired of everything almost as soon as she had it. There was an accumulation of things in her nursery, and schoolroom, and bedroom that was perfectly appalling. Her mother’s wardrobes were almost useless to her, so packed were they with things of which she never took any notice. When she was five years old, they gave her a splendid gold repeater, so close set with diamonds and rubies that the back was just one crust of gems: in one of her little tempers as they called her hideously ugly rages, she dashed it against the back of the chimney, after which it never gave a single tick, and some of the diamonds went to the ash-pit. As she grew older still, she became fond of animals, not in a way that brought them much pleasure, or herself much satisfaction. When angry, she would beat them and try to pull them to pieces, and as soon as she became a little used to them, would neglect them altogether. Then, if they could, they would run away, and she was furious. Some white mice, which she had ceased feeding altogether, did so, and soon the palace was swarming with white mice. Their red eyes might be seen glowing, and their white skins gleaming, in every dark corner; but when it came to the king’s finding a nest of them in his second-best crown, he was angry, and ordered them to be drowned. The princess heard of it, however, and raised such a clamour that there they were left until they should run away of themselves, and the poor king had to wear his best crown every day till then. Nothing that was the princess’s property, whether she cared for it or not, was to be meddled with.
Of course as she grew, she grew worse, for she never tried to grow better. She became more and more peevish and fretful every day—dissatisfied not only with what she had, but with all that was around her, and constantly wishing things in general to be different. She found fault with everything and everybody and all that happened, and grew more and more disagreeable to everyone who had to do with her. At last, when she had nearly killed her nurse, and had all but succeeded in hanging herself, and was miserable from morning to night, her parents thought it time to do something.
A long way from the palace, in the heart of a deep wood of pine-trees, lived a wise woman. In some countries she would have been called a witch, but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have. As her fame was spread through all the country, the king heard of her, and, thinking she might perhaps be able to suggest something, sent for her. In the dead of the night, lest the princess should know it, the king’s messenger brought into the palace a tall woman, muffled from head to foot in a cloak of black cloth. In the presence of both their majesties, the king, to do her honour, requested her to sit, but she declined, and stood waiting to hear what they had to say. Nor had she to wait long, for almost instantly they began to tell her the dreadful trouble they were in with their only child—first the king talking, then the queen interposing with some yet more dreadful fact, and at times both letting out a torrent of words together, so anxious were they to show the wise woman that their perplexity was real, and their daughter a very terrible one. For a long while there appeared no sign of approaching pause. But the wise woman stood patiently folded in her black cloak, and listened without word or motion. At length silence fell, for they had talked themselves tired, and could not think of anything more to add to the list of their child’s enormities.
After a minute, the wise woman unfolded her arms, and her cloak dropping open in front, disclosed a garment made of a strange stuff, which an old poet who knew her well has thus described:
All lilly white, withoutten spot or pride,
That seemd like silke and silver woven neare;
But neither silke nor silver therein did appeare.
“How very badly you have treated her!” said the wise woman: “Poor child.”
“What! Treated her badly?” gasped the king.
“She is a very wicked child,” said the queen; and both glared with indignation.
“Yes, indeed,” returned the wise woman; “she is very naughty indeed, and that she must be made to feel; but it is half your fault too.”
“What!” stammered the king. “Haven’t we given her every mortal thing she wanted?”
“Surely,” said the wise woman. “What else could have all but killed her! You should have given her a few things of the other sort. But you are far too dull to understand me.”
“You are very polite!” remarked the king, with royal sarcasm on his thin, straight lips.
The wise woman made no answer beyond a deep sigh, and the king and queen sat silent also in their anger, glaring at the wise woman. The silence lasted again for a minute, and then the wise woman folded her cloak around her, and her shining garment vanished like the moon when a great cloud comes over her. Yet another minute passed and the silence endured, for the smouldering wrath of the king and queen choked the channels of their speech. Then the wise woman turned her back on them, and so stood. At this the rage of the king broke forth, and he cried to the queen, stammering in his fierceness:
“How should such an old hag as that teach Rosamond good manners? She knows nothing of them herself! Look how she stands! Actually with her back to us!”
At the word the wise woman walked from the room. The great folding doors fell to behind her, and the same moment the king and queen were quarreling like apes as to which of them was to blame for her departure. Before their altercation was over, for it lasted till the early morning, in rushed Rosamond, clutching in her hands a poor little white rabbit of which she was very fond, and from which, only because it would not come to her when she called it, she was pulling handfuls of fur, in the attempt to tear the squealing, pink-eared, red-eyed thing to pieces.
“Rosa! Rosamond!” cried the queen;—whereupon Rosamond threw the rabbit in her mother’s face. The king started up in a fury, and ran to seize her. She darted shrieking from the room. The king rushed after her, but, to his amazement, she was nowhere to be seen; the huge hall was empty.—No; just outside the door, close to the threshold, with her back to it, sat the figure of the wise woman, muffled in her dark cloak, with her head bowed over her knees. As the king stood looking at her she rose slowly, crossed the hall, and walked away down the marble staircase. The king called to her, but she never turned her head, or gave the least sign that she heard him. So quietly did she pass down the wide marble stair, that the king was all but persuaded he had seen only a shadow gliding across the white steps.
For the princess, she was nowhere to be found. The queen went into hysterics, and the rabbit ran away. The king sent out messengers, but in vain.
In a short time the palace was quiet—as quiet as it used to be before the princess was born. The king and queen cried a little now and then, for the hearts of parents were in that country strangely fashioned;—and yet I am afraid the first movement of those very hearts would have been a jump of terror if the ears above them had heard the voice of Rosamond in one of the corridors. As for the rest of the household, they could not have made up a single tear amongst them. They thought, whatever it might be for the princess, it was for every one else the best thing that could have happened; and as to what had become of her, if their heads were puzzled, their hearts took no interest in the question. The Lord Chancellor alone had an idea about it, but he was far too wise to utter it.
The fact, as is plain, was, that the princess had disappeared in the folds of the wise woman’s cloak: when she rushed from the room, the wise woman caught her to her bosom and flung the black garment around her. The princess struggled wildly, for she was in fierce terror, and screamed as loud as choking fright would permit her; but her father, standing in the door, and looking down upon the wise woman, saw never a movement of the cloak, so tight was she held by her captor. He was indeed aware of a most angry crying, which reminded him of his daughter, but it sounded to him so far away, that he took it for the passion of some child in the street, outside the palacegates. Hence, unchallenged, the wise woman carried the princess down the marble-stairs, out at the palace-door, down a great flight of steps outside, across a paved court, through the brazen gates, along half-roused streets where people were opening their shops, through the huge gates of the city, and out into the wide road vanishing northwards—the princess struggling and screaming all the time, and the wise woman holding her tight. When at length she was too tired to struggle or scream any more, the wise woman unfolded her cloak and set her down, and the princess saw the light and opened her swollen eyelids. There was nothing in sight that she had ever seen before! City and palace had disappeared. They were upon a wide road going straight on, with a ditch on each side of it, that, behind them, widened into the great moat surrounding the city. She cast up a terrified look into the wise woman’s face that gazed down upon her gravely and kindly. Now the princess did not in the least understand kindness. She always took it for a sign either of partiality or fear. So when the wise woman looked kindly upon her, she rushed at her, butting with her head like a ram. But the folds of the cloak had closed around the wise woman, and when the princess ran against it, she found it hard as the cloak of a bronze statue, and fell back upon the road with a great bruise on her head. The wise woman lifted her again, and put her once more under the cloak, where she fell asleep, and where she awoke again only to find that she was still being carried on and on.
When at length the wise woman again stopped and set her down, she saw around her a bright moonlit night, on a wide heath, solitary and houseless. Here she felt more frightened than before, nor was her terror assuaged when, looking up, she saw a stern, immovable countenance, with cold eyes fixedly regarding her. All she knew of the world being derived from nursery tales, she concluded that the wise woman was an ogress carrying her home to eat her.
I have already said that the princess was, at this time of her life, such a low-minded creature, that severity had greater influence over her than kindness. She understood terror better far than tenderness. When the wise woman looked at her thus, she fell on her knees and held up her hands to her, crying,
“Oh, don’t eat me! don’t eat me!”
Now this being the best she could do, it was a sign she was a low creature. Think of it—to kick at kindness and kneel from terror! But the sternness on the face of the wise woman came from the same heart and the same feeling as the kindness that had shone from it before: the only thing that could save the princess from her hatefulness was that she should be made to mind somebody else than her own miserable Somebody.
Without saying a word, the wise woman reached down her hand, took one of Rosamond’s, and, lifting her to her feet, led her along through the moonlight. Every now and then a gush of obstinacy would well up in the heart of the princess, and she would give a great ill-tempered tug, and pull her hand away. But then the wise woman would gaze down upon her with such a look, that she instantly sought again the hand she had rejected—in pure terror lest she should be eaten upon the spot. And so they would walk on again, and when the wind blew the folds of the cloak against the princess, she found them soft as her mother’s camel-hair shawl.
After a little while the wise woman began to sing to her, and the princess could not help listening for the soft wind amongst the low dry bushes of the heath, the rustle of their own steps, and the trailing of the wise woman’s cloak, were the only sounds beside.
And this is the song she sang.—
Out in the cold,
With a thin-worn fold
Of withered gold
Around her rolled,
Hangs in the air the weary moon
She is old, old, old;
And her bones all cold,
And her tales all told,
And her things all sold,
And she has no breath to croon.
Like a castaway clout,
She is quite shut out!
She might call and shout,
But no one about
Would ever call back—Who’s there?
There is never a hut,
Not a door to shut,
Not a footpath or rut,
Long road or short cut,
Leading to anywhere!
She is all alone
Like a dog-picked bone,
The poor old crone!
She fain would groan,
But she cannot find the breath.
She once had a fire,
But she built it no higher,
And only sat nigher
Till she saw it expire;
And now she is cold as death.
She never will smile
All the lonesome while
Oh, the mile after mile,
And never a stile!
And never a tree or a stone!
She has not a tear:
Afar and anear
It is all so drear,
But she does not care,
Her heart is as dry as a bone.
None to come near her!
No one to cheer her!
No one to jeer her!
No one to hear her!
Not a thing to lift and hold!
She is always awake,
But her heart will not break;
She can only quake,
Shiver and shake—
The old woman is very cold.
As strange as the song, was the crooning, wailing tune that the wise woman sung. At the first note almost, you would have thought she wanted to frighten the princess, and so indeed she did. For when people will be naughty, they have to be frightened, and they are not expected to like it. The princess grew angry, pulled her hand away, and cried,—
“You are the ugly old woman. I hate you.”
Therewith she stood still, expecting the wise woman to stop also, perhaps coax her to go on: if she did, she was determined not to move a step. But the wise woman never even looked about; she kept walking on steadily, the same pace as before. Little Obstinate thought for certain she would turn, for she regarded herself as much too precious to be left behind; but on and on the wise woman went, until she had vanished away in the dim moonlight. Then all at once the princess perceived that she was left alone with the moon—looking down on her from the height of her loneliness. She was horribly frightened, and began to run after the wise woman, calling aloud. But the song she had just heard came back to the sound of her own running feet—
All all alone
Like a dog-picked bone!
She might call and shout,
And no one about
Would ever call back—Who’s there?
and she screamed as she ran. How she wished she knew the old woman’s name, that she might call it after her through the moonlight!
But the wise woman had in truth heard the first sound of her running feet, and stopped and turned, waiting. What with running and crying, however, and a fall or two as she ran, the princess never saw her until she fell right into her arms—and the same moment into a fresh rage; for as soon as any trouble was over, the princess was always ready to begin another. The wise woman therefore pushed her away, and walked on, while the princess ran scolding and storming after her. She had to run till, from very fatigue, her rudeness ceased. Her heart gave way, she burst into tears, and ran on silently weeping.
A minute more and the wise woman stooped, and lifting her in her arms, folded her cloak around her. Instantly she fell asleep, and slept as soft and as soundly as if she had been in her own bed. She slept till the moon went down; she slept till the sun rose up; she slept till he climbed the topmost sky; she slept till he went down again, and the poor old moon came peaking and peering out once more; and all that time the wise woman went walking on and on very fast. And now they had reached a spot where a few fir-trees came to meet them through the moonlight.
At the same time the princess awaked, and popping her head out between the folds of the wise woman’s cloak—a very ugly little owlet she looked—saw that they were entering the wood. Now there is something awful about every wood, especially in the moonlight, and perhaps a fir-wood is more awful than other woods: for one thing, it lets a little more light through, rendering the darkness a little more visible, as it were; and then the trees go stretching away up towards the moon, and look as if they cared nothing about the creatures below them—not like the broad trees with soft wide leaves that, in the darkness even, look sheltering. So the princess is not to be blamed that she was very much frightened. She is hardly to be blamed either that, assured the wise woman was an ogress carrying her to her castle to eat her up, she began again to kick and scream violently, as those of my readers who are of the same sort as herself, will consider the right and natural thing to do. The wrong in her was this—that she had led such a bad life, that she did not know a good woman when she saw her—took her for one like herself, even after she had slept in her arms.
Immediately the wise woman set her down, and, walking on, within a few paces vanished among the trees. Then the cries of the princess rent the air, but the fir-trees never heeded her; not one of their hard little needles gave a single shiver for all the noise she made. But there were creatures in the forest who were soon quite as much interested in her cries as the fir-trees were indifferent to them. They began to harken and howl and snuff about, and run hither and thither, and grin with their white teeth, and light up the green lamps in their eyes. In a minute or two a whole army of wolves and hyænas were rushing from all quarters through the pillar-like stems of the fir-trees, to the place where she stood calling them without knowing it. The noise she made herself, however, prevented her from hearing either their howls or the soft pattering of their many trampling feet as they bounded over the fallen fir-needles and cones.
One huge old wolf had outsped the rest—not that he could run faster, but that from experience he could more exactly judge whence the cries came, and as he shot through the wood, she caught sight at last of his lamping eyes, coming swiftly nearer and nearer. Terror silenced her. She stood with her mouth open as if she were going to eat the wolf, but she had no breath to scream with, and her tongue curled up in her mouth like a withered and frozen leaf She could do nothing but stare at the coming monster. And now he was taking a few shorter bounds, measuring the distance for the one final leap that should bring him upon her, when out stepped the wise woman from behind the very tree by which she had set the princess down, caught the wolf by the throat half-way in his last spring, shook him once, and threw him from her dead. Then she turned towards the princess, who flung herself into her arms, and was instantly lapped in the folds of her cloak.
But now the huge army of wolves and hyænas had rushed like a sea around them, whose waves leaped with hoarse roar and hollow yell up against the wise woman. But she, like a strong stately vessel, moved unhurt through the midst of them. Ever as they leaped against her cloak, they dropped and slunk away back through the crowd. Others ever succeeded, and ever in their turn fell and drew back confounded. For some time she walked on attended and assailed on all sides by the howling pack. Suddenly they turned and swept away, vanishing in the depths of the forest. She neither slackened nor hastened her step, but went walking on as before.
In a little while she unfolded her cloak, and let the princess look out. The firs had ceased, and they were on a lofty height of moorland, stony, and bare, and dry, with tufts of heather and a few small plants here and there. About the heath, on every side, lay the forest, looking in the moonlight like a cloud; and above the forest, like the shaven crown of a monk, rose the bare moor over which they were walking. Presently, a little way in front of them, the princess espied a white-washed cottage, gleaming in the moon. As they came nearer, she saw that the roof was covered with thatch, over which the moss had grown green; It was a very simple, humble place, not in the least terrible to look at, and yet, as soon as she saw it, her fear again awoke, and always as soon as her fear awoke, the trust of the princess fell into a dead sleep. Foolish and useless as she might by this time have known it, she once more began kicking and screaming, whereupon yet once more the wise woman set her down on the heath, a few yards from the back of the cottage, and saying only, “No one ever gets into my house who does not knock at the door and ask to come in,” disappeared round the corner of the cottage, leaving the princess alone with the moon—two white faces on the cone of the night.
The moon stared at the princess, and the princess stared at the moon; but the moon had the best of it, and the princess began to cry. And now the question was between the moon and the cottage. The princess thought she knew the worst of the moon, and she knew nothing at all about the cottage, therefore she would stay with the moon. Strange, was it not, that she should have been so long with the wise woman and yet know nothing about that cottage? As for the moon, she did not by any means know the worst of her, or even that, if she were to fall asleep where she could find her, the old witch would certainly do her best to twist her face.
But she had scarcely sat a moment longer before she was assailed by all sorts of fresh fears. First of all the soft wind blowing gently through the dry stalks of the heather and its thousands of little bells raised a sweet rustling, which the princess took for the hissing of serpents, for you know she had been naughty for so long that she could not in a great many things tell the good from the bad. Then nobody could deny that there, all round about the heath, like a ring of darkness, lay the gloomy fir-wood, and the princess knew what it was full of, and every now and then she thought she heard the howling of its wolves and hyænas. And who could tell but some of them might break from their covert and sweep like a shadow across the heath? Indeed, it was not once nor twice that for a moment she was fully persuaded she saw a great beast coming leaping and bounding through the moonlight, to have her all to himself. She did not know that not a single evil creature dared set foot on that heath, or that, if one should do so, it would that instant wither up and cease. If an army of them had rushed to invade it, it would have melted away on the edge of it, and ceased like a dying wave.—She even imagined that the moon was slowly coming nearer and nearer down the sky, to take her and freeze her to death in her arms. The wise woman, too, she felt sure, although her cottage looked asleep, was watching her at some little window. In this, however, she would have been quite right if she had only imagined enough—namely, that the wise woman was watching over her from the little window. But after all, somehow, the thought of the wise woman was less frightful than that of any of her other terrors, and at length she began to wonder whether it might not turn out that she was no ogress, but only a rude, ill-bred, tyrannical, yet on the whole not altogether illmeaning person. Hardly had the possibility arisen in her mind, before she was on her feet: if the woman was anything short of an ogress, her cottage must be better than that horrible loneliness, with nothing in all the world but a stare; and even an ogress had at least the shape and look of a human being.
She darted round the end of the cottage to find the front. But to her surprise she came only to another back, for no door was to be seen. She tried the further end, but still no door! She must have passed it as she ran—but no—neither in gable nor in side was any to be found!
A cottage without a door!—she rushed at it in a rage and kicked at the wall with her feet. But the wall was hard as iron, and hurt her sadly through her gay silken slippers. She threw herself on the heath, which came up to the walls of the cottage on every side, and roared and screamed with rage. Suddenly, however, she remembered how her screaming had brought the horde of wolves and hyænas about her in the forest, and, ceasing at once, lay still, gazing yet again at the moon. And then came the thought of her parents in the palace at home. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother sitting at her embroidery with the tears dropping upon it, and her father staring into the fire as if he were looking for her in its glowing caverns. It is true that if they had both been in tears by her side because of her naughtiness, she would not have cared a straw; but now her own forlorn condition somehow helped her to understand their grief at having lost her, and not only a great longing to be back in her comfortable home, but a feeble flutter of genuine love for her parents awoke in her heart as well, and she burst into real tears—soft, mournful tears—very different from those of rage and disappointment to which she was so much used. And another very remarkable thing was that the moment she began to love her father and mother, she began to wish to see the wise woman again. The idea of her being an ogress vanished utterly, and she thought of her only as one to take her in from the moon, and the loneliness, and the terrors of the forest-haunted heath, and hide her in a cottage with not even a door for the horrid wolves to howl against.
But the old woman—as the princess called her, not knowing that her real name was the Wise Woman—had told her that she must knock at the door: how was she to do that when there was no door? But again she bethought herself—that, if she could not do all she was told, she could at least do a part of it: if she could not knock at the door, she could at least knock—say on the wall, for there was nothing else to knock upon—and perhaps the old woman would hear her and lift her in by some window. Thereupon she rose at once to her feet, and picking up a stone, began to knock on the wall with it. A loud noise was the result, and she found she was knocking on the very door itself. For a moment she feared the old woman would be offended, but the next there came a voice saying,
“Who is there?”
The princess answered, “Please, old woman, I did not mean to knock so loud.”
To this there came no reply.
Then the princess knocked again, this time with her knuckles, and the voice came again, saying,
“Who is there?”
And the princess answered, “Rosamond.”
Then a second time there was silence. But the princess soon ventured to knock a third time.
“What do you want?” said the voice.
“Oh, please, let me in!” said the princess. “The moon will keep staring at me; and I hear the wolves in the wood.”
Then the door opened, and the princess entered. She looked all around, but saw nothing of the wise woman.
It was a single bare little room, with a white deal table, and a few old wooden chairs, a fire of fir-wood on the hearth, the smoke of which smelt sweet, and a patch of thick-growing heath in one corner. Poor as it was, compared to the grand place Rosamond had left, she felt no little satisfaction as she shut the door, and looked around her. And what with the sufferings and terrors she had left outside, the new kind of tears she had shed, the love she had begun to feel for her parents, and the trust she had begun to place in the wise woman, it seemed to her as if her soul had grown larger of a sudden, and she had left the days of her childishness and naughtiness far behind her. People are so ready to think themselves changed when it is only their mood that is changed. Those who are good-tempered because it is a fine day, will be ill-tempered when it rains: their selves are just the same both days; only in the one case the fine weather has got into them, in the other the rainy. Rosamond, as she sat warming herself by the glow of the peat-fire, turning over in her mind all that had passed, and feeling how pleasant the change in her feelings was, began by degrees to think how very good she had grown, and how very good she was to have grown good, and how extremely good she must always have been that she was able to grow so very good as she now felt she had grown; and she became so absorbed in her self-admiration as never to notice either that the fire was dying, or that a heap of fir-cones lay in a corner near it. Suddenly, a great wind came roaring down the chimney, and scattered the ashes about the floor; a tremendous rain followed, and fell hissing on the embers; the moon was swallowed up, and there was darkness all about her. Then a flash of lightning, followed by a peal of thunder, so terrified the princess, that she cried aloud for the old woman, but there came no answer to her cry.
Then in her terror the princess grew angry, and saying to herself, “She must be somewhere in the place, else who was there to open the door to me?” began to shout and yell, and call the wise woman all the bad names she had been in the habit of throwing at her nurses. But there came not a single sound in reply.
Strange to say, the princess never thought of telling herself now how naughty she was, though that would surely have been reasonable. On the contrary, she thought she had a perfect right to be angry, for was she not most desperately ill-used—and a princess too? But the wind howled on, and the rain kept pouring down the chimney, and every now and then the lightning burst out, and the thunder rushed after it, as if the great lumbering sound could ever think to catch up with the swift light!
At length the princess had again grown so angry, frightened, and miserable, all together, that she jumped up and hurried about the cottage with outstretched arms, trying to find the wise woman. But being in a bad temper always makes people stupid, and presently she struck her forehead such a blow against something—she thought herself it felt like the old woman’s cloak—that she fell back—not on the floor though, but on the patch of heather, which felt as soft and pleasant as any bed in the palace. There, worn out with weeping and rage, she soon fell fast asleep.
She dreamed that she was the old cold woman up in the sky, with no home and no friends, and no nothing at all, not even a pocket; wandering, wandering for ever over a desert of blue sand, never to get to anywhere, and never to lie down or die. It was no use stopping to look about her, for what had she to do but for ever look about her as she went on and on and on—never seeing anything, and never expecting to see anything! The only shadow of a hope she had was, that she might by slow degrees grow thinner and thinner, until at last she wore away to nothing at all; only, alas! she could not detect the least sign that she had yet begun to grow thinner. The hopelessness grew at length so unendurable that she woke with a start. Seeing the face of the wise woman bending over her, she threw her arms around her neck and held up her mouth to be kissed. And the kiss of the wise woman was like the rose-gardens of Damascus.
The wise woman lifted the princess tenderly, and washed and dressed her far more carefully than even her nurse. Then she set her down by the fire, and prepared her breakfast. She was very hungry, and the bread and milk as good as it could be, so that she thought she had never in her life eaten anything nicer. Nevertheless, as soon as she began to have enough, she said to herself,—
“Ha! I see how it is! The old woman wants to fatten me! That is why she gives me such nice creamy milk! She doesn’t kill me now because she’s going to kill me then! She is an ogress after all! “
Thereupon she laid down her spoon, and would not eat another mouthful—only followed the basin with longing looks as the wise woman carried it away.
When she stopped eating, her hostess knew exactly what she was thinking; but it was one thing to understand the princess, and quite another to make the princess understand her: that would require time. For the present she took no notice, but went about the affairs of the house, sweeping the floor, brushing down the cobwebs, cleaning the hearth, dusting the table and chairs, and watering the bed to keep it fresh and alive—for she never had more than one guest at a time, and never would allow that guest to go to sleep upon anything that had no life in it. All the time she was thus busied, she spoke not a word to the princess, which, with the princess, went to confirm her notion of her purposes. But whatever she might have said would have been only perverted by the princess into yet stronger proof of her evil designs, for a fancy in her own head would outweigh any multitude of facts in another’s. She kept staring at the fire, and never looked round to see what the wise woman might be doing.
By and by she came close up to the back of her chair, and said, “Rosamond!”
But the princess had fallen into one of her sulky moods, and shut herself up with her own ugly Somebody; so she never looked round, or even answered the wise woman.
“Rosamond,” she repeated, “I am going out. If you are a good girl, that is, if you do as I tell you, I will carry you back to your father and mother the moment I return.”
The princess did not take the least notice.
“Look at me, Rosamond,” said the wise woman.
But Rosamond never moved—never even shrugged her shoulders—perhaps because they were already up to her ears and could go no further.
“I want to help you to do what I tell you,” said the wise woman. “Look at me.”
Still Rosamond was motionless and silent, saying only to herself, “I know what she’s after. She wants to show me her horrid teeth. But I won’t look. I’m not going to be frightened out of my senses to please her.”
“You had better look, Rosamond. Have you forgotten how you kissed me this morning?”
But Rosamond now regarded that little throb of affection as a momentary weakness into which the deceitful ogress had betrayed her, and almost despised herself for it. She was one of those who the more they are coaxed are the more disagreeable. For such the wise woman had an awful punishment, but she remembered that the princess had been very ill brought up, and therefore wished to try her with all gentleness first.
She stood silent for a moment, to see what effect her words might have. But Rosamond only said to herself,—
“She wants to fatten and eat me.”
And it was such a little while since she had looked into the wise woman’s loving eyes, thrown her arms round her neck, and kissed her!
“Well,” said the wise woman, gently, after pausing as long as it seemed possible she might bethink herself, “I must tell you then without; only whoever listens with her back turned, listens but half and gets but half the help.”
“She wants to fatten me,” said the princess.
“You must keep the cottage tidy while I am out. When I come back, I must see the fire bright, the hearth swept, and the kettle boiling; no dust on the table or chairs, the windows clear, the floor clean, and the heather in blossom—which last comes of sprinkling it with water three times a-day. When you are hungry, put your hand into that hole in the wall, and you will find a meal.”
“She wants to fatten me,” said the princess.
“But on no account leave the house till I come back,” continued the wise woman, “or you will grievously repent it. Remember what you have already gone through to reach it. Dangers lie all around this cottage of mine; but inside, it is the safest place—in fact the only quite safe place in all the country.”
“She means to eat me,” said the princess, “and therefore wants to frighten me from running away.”
She heard the voice no more. Then, suddenly startled at the thought of being alone, she looked hastily over her shoulder. The cottage was indeed empty of all visible life. It was soundless, too; there was not even a ticking clock or a flapping flame. The fire burned still and smouldering-wise; but it was all the company she had, and she turned again to stare into it.
Soon she began to grow weary of having nothing to do. Then she remembered that the old woman, as she called her, had told her to keep the house tidy.
“The miserable little pig-sty!” she said: “Where’s the use of keeping such a hovel clean? “
But in truth she would have been glad of the employment, only just because she had been told to do it she was unwilling; for there are people—however unlikely it may seem—who object to doing a thing for no other reason than that it is required of them.
“I am a princess,” she said, “and it is very improper to ask me to do such a thing.”
She might have judged it quite as suitable for a princess to sweep away the dust as to sit the centre of a world of dirt. But just because she ought, she wouldn’t. Perhaps she feared that if she gave in to doing her duty once, she might have to do it always—which was true enough—for that was the very thing for which she had been specially born.
Unable, however, to feel quite comfortable in the resolve to neglect it, she said to herself, “I’m sure there’s time enough for such a nasty job as that!” and sat on, watching the fire as it burned away, the glowing red casting off white flakes, and sinking lower and lower on the hearth.
By and by, merely for want of something to do, she would see what the old woman had left for her in the hole of the wall. But when she put in her hand she found nothing there, except the dust which she ought by this time to have wiped away. Never reflecting that the wise woman had told her she would find food there when she was hungry, she flew into one of her furies, calling her a cheat, and a thief, and a liar, and an ugly old witch, and an ogress, and I do not know how many wicked names besides. She raged until she was quite exhausted, and then fell fast asleep on her chair. When she awoke, the fire was out.
By this time she was hungry; but without looking in the hole, she began again to storm at the wise woman, in which labour she would no doubt have once more exhausted herself, had not something white caught her eye: it was the corner of a napkin hanging from the hole in the wall. She bounded to it, and there was a dinner for her of something strangely good—one of her favourite dishes, only better than she had ever tasted it before. This might surely have at least changed her mood towards the wise woman; but she only grumbled to herself that it was as it ought to be, ate up the food, and lay down on the bed, never thinking of fire or dust, or water for the heather.
The wind began to moan about the cottage, and grew louder and louder, till a great gust came down the chimney, and again scattered the white ashes all over the place. But the princess was by this time fast asleep, and never woke till the wind had sunk to silence. One of the consequences, however, of sleeping when one ought to be awake, is waking when one ought to be asleep; and the princess awoke in the black midnight, and found enough to keep her awake. For although the wind had fallen, there was a far more terrible howling than that of the wildest wind all about the cottage. Nor was the howling all; the air was full of strange cries, and everywhere she heard the noise of claws scratching against the house, which seemed all doors and windows, so crowded were the sounds, and from so many directions. All the night long she lay half swooning, yet listening to the hideous noises. But with the first glimmer of morning they ceased.
Then she said to herself, “How fortunate it was that I woke! They would have eaten me up if I had been asleep.” The miserable little wretch actually talked as if she had kept them out! If she had done her work in the day, she would have slept through the terrors of the darkness, and awaked fearless; whereas now, she had in the storehouse of her heart a whole harvest of agonies, reaped from the dun fields of the night!
They were neither wolves nor hyænas which had caused her such dismay, but creatures of the air, more frightful still, which, as soon as the smoke of the burning fir-wood ceased to spread itself abroad, and the sun was a sufficient distance down the sky, and the lone cold woman was out, came flying and howling about the cottage, trying to get in at every door and window. Down the chimney they would have got, but that at the heart of the fire there always lay a certain fir-cone, which looked like solid gold red-hot, and which, although it might easily get covered up with ashes, so as to be quite invisible, was continually in a glow fit to kindle all the fir-cones in the world: this it was which had kept the horrible birds—some say they have a claw at the tip of every wing feather—from tearing the poor naughty princess to pieces, and gobbling her up.
When she rose and looked about her, she was dismayed to see what a state the cottage was in. The fire was out, and the windows were all dim with the wings and claws of the dirty birds, while the bed from which she had just risen was brown and withered, and half its purple bells had fallen. But she consoled herself that she could set all to rights in a few minutes—only she must breakfast first. And, sure enough, there was a basin of the delicious bread and milk ready for her in the hole of the wall!
After she had eaten it, she felt comfortable, and sat for a long time building castles in the air—till she was actually hungry again, without having done an atom of work. She ate again, and was idle again, and ate again. Then it grew dark, and she went trembling to bed, for now she remembered the horrors of the last night. This time she never slept at all, but spent the long hours in grievous terror, for the noises were worse than before. She vowed she would not pass another night in such a hateful haunted old shed for all the ugly women, witches, and ogresses in the wide world. In the morning, however, she fell asleep, and slept late.
Breakfast was of course her first thought, after which she could not avoid that of work. It made her very miserable, but she feared the consequences of being found with it undone. A few minutes before noon, she actually got up, took her pinafore for a duster, and proceeded to dust the table. But the wood-ashes flew about so, that it seemed useless to attempt getting rid of them, and she sat down again to think what was to be done. But there is very little indeed to be done when we will not do that which we have to do.
Her first thought now was to run away at once while the sun was high, and get through the forest before night came on. She fancied she could easily go back the way she had come, and get home to her father’s palace. But not the most experienced traveller in the world can ever go back the way the wise woman has brought him.
She got up and went to the door. It was locked! what could the old woman have meant by telling her not to leave the cottage? She was indignant.
The wise woman had meant to make it difficult, but not impossible. Before the princess, however, could find the way out, she heard a hand at the door, and darted in terror behind it. The wise woman opened it, and, leaving it open, walked straight to the hearth. Rosamond immediately slid out, ran a little way, and then laid herself down in the long heather.
The wise woman walked straight up to the hearth, looked at the fire, looked at the bed, glanced round the room, and went up to the table. When she saw the one streak in the thick dust which the princess had left there, a smile, half-sad, half-pleased, like the sun peeping through a cloud on a rainy day in spring, gleamed over her face. She went at once to the door, and called in a loud voice—
“Rosamond, come to me.”
All the wolves and hyænas, fast asleep in the wood, heard her voice, and shivered in their dreams. No wonder then that the princess trembled, and found herself compelled, she could not understand how, to obey the summons. She rose like the guilty thing she felt, forsook of herself the hiding-place she had chosen, and walked slowly back to the cottage she had left full of the signs of her shame. When she entered she saw the wise woman on her knees, building up the fire with fir-cones. Already the flame was climbing through the heap in all directions, crackling gently, and sending a sweet aromatic odour through the dusty cottage.
“That is my part of the work,” she said, rising. “Now you do yours. But first let me remind you that if you had not put it off, you would have found it not only far easier, but by and by quite pleasant work, much more pleasant than you can imagine now; nor would you have found the time go wearily; you would neither have slept in the day and let the fire out, nor waked at night and heard the howling of the beast-birds. More than all, you would have been glad to see me when I came back; and would have leaped into my arms instead of standing there, looking so ugly and foolish.”
As she spoke, suddenly she held up before the princess a tiny mirror, so clear that nobody looking into it could tell what it was made of, or even see it at all—only the thing reflected in it. Rosamond saw a child with dirty fat cheeks, greedy mouth, cowardly eyes—which, not daring to look forward, seemed trying to hide behind an impertinent nose—stooping shoulders, tangled hair, tattered clothes, and smears and stains everywhere. That was what she had made herself! And to tell the truth, she was shocked at the sight, and immediately began in her dirty heart to lay the blame on the wise woman, because she had taken her away from her nurses and her fine clothes; while all the time she knew well enough that, close by the heather bed, was the loveliest little well, just big enough to wash in, the water of which was always springing fresh from the ground, and running away through the wall. Beside it lay the whitest of linen towels, with a comb made of mother-of-pearl, and a brush of fir-needles, any one of which she had been far too lazy to use. She dashed the glass out of the wise woman’s hand, and there it lay, broken into a thousand pieces!
Without a word, the wise woman stooped and gathered the fragments—did not leave searching until she had gathered the last atom, after which she laid them all carefully, one by one, in the fire, now blazing high on the hearth. Then she stood up and looked at the princess, who had been watching her sulkily.
“Rosamond,” she said, with a countenance awful in its sternness, “until you have cleansed this room—”
“She calls it a room!” sneered the princess to herself.
“You shall have no morsel to eat. You may drink of the well, but nothing else you shall have. When the work I set you is done, you will find food in the same place as before. I am going from home again; and again I warn you not to leave the house.”
“She calls it a house!—It’s a good thing she’s going out of it anyhow!” said the princess, turning her back for mere rudeness, for she was one who, even if she liked a thing before, would dislike it the moment any person in authority over her desired her to do it.
When she looked again, the wise woman had vanished.
Thereupon the princess ran at once to the door and tried to open it; but open it would not. She searched on all sides, but could discover no way of getting out. The windows would not open—at least she could not open them; and the only outlet seemed the chimney, which she was afraid to try because of the fire, which looked angry, she thought, and shot out green flames, when she went near it. So she sat down to consider. One may well wonder what room for consideration there was—with all her work lying undone behind her. She sat thus, however, considering, as she called it, until hunger began to sting her, when she jumped up and put her hand as usual in the hole of the wall: there was nothing there! She fell straight into one of her stupid rages; but neither her hunger nor the hole in the wall heeded her rage. Then, in a burst of self-pity, she fell a-weeping, but neither the hunger nor the hole cared for her tears. The darkness began to come on, and her hunger grew and grew, and the terror of the wild noises of the last nights invaded her. Then she began to feel cold, and saw that the fire was dying. She darted to the heap of cones and fed it. It blazed up cheerily, and she was comforted a little. Then she thought with herself it would surely be better to give in so far, and do a little work, than die of hunger. So catching up a duster, she began upon the table. The dust flew about and nearly choked her. She ran to the well to drink, and was refreshed and encouraged. Perceiving now that it was a tedious plan to wipe the dust from the table on to the floor, whence it would have all to be swept up again, she got a wooden platter, wiped the dust into that, carried it to the fire, and threw it in. But all the time she was getting more and more hungry, and although she tried the hole again and again, it was only to become more and more certain that work she must if she would eat.
At length all the furniture was dusted, and she began to sweep the floor, which happily she thought of sprinkling with water, as from the window she had seen them do to the marble court of the palace. That swept, she rushed again to the hole—but still no food! She was on the verge of another rage, when the thought came that she might have forgotten something. To her dismay she found that table and chairs and everything was again covered with dust,—not so badly as before, however. Again she set to work, driven by hunger, and drawn by the hope of eating, and yet again, after a second careful wiping, sought the hole. But no! nothing was there for her! What could it mean?
Her asking this question was a sign of progress: it showed that she expected the wise woman to keep her word. Then she bethought her that she had forgotten the household utensils, and the dishes and plates, some of which wanted to be washed as well as dusted.
Faint with hunger, she set to work yet again. One thing made her think of another, until at length she had cleaned everything she could think of. Now surely she must find some food in the hole!
When this time also there was nothing, she began once more to abuse the wise woman as false and treacherous;—but ah! there was the bed unwatered! That was soon amended.—Still no supper!—Ah! there was the hearth unswept, and the fire wanted making up!—Still no supper! What else could there be? She was at her wits’ end, and in very weariness, not laziness this time, sat down and gazed into the fire. There, as she gazed, she spied something brilliant—shining even in the midst of the fire: it was the little mirror all whole again; but little she knew that the dust which she had thrown into the fire had helped to heal it.
She drew it out carefully, and, looking into it, saw, not indeed the ugly creature she had seen there before, but still a very dirty little animal; whereupon she hurried to the well, took off her clothes, plunged into it, and washed herself clean. Then she brushed and combed her hair, made her clothes as tidy as might be, and ran to the hole in the wall: there was a huge basin of bread and milk!
Never had she eaten anything with half the relish! Alas! however, when she had finished, she did not wash the basin, but left it as it was, revealing how entirely all the rest had been done only from hunger. Then she threw herself on the heather, and was fast asleep in a moment. Never an evil bird came near her all that night, nor had she so much as one troubled dream.
In the morning, as she lay awake before getting up, she spied what seemed a door behind the tall eight-day clock that stood silent in the corner.
“Ah!” she thought, “that must be the way out!” and got up instantly. The first thing she did, however, was to go to the hole in the wall. Nothing was there.
“Well, I am hardly used!” she cried aloud. “All that cleaning for the cross old woman yesterday, and this for my trouble—nothing for breakfast! Not even a crust of bread! Does Mistress Ogress fancy a princess will bear that!”
The poor foolish creature seemed to think that the work of one day ought to serve for the next day too! But that is nowhere the way in the whole universe. How could there be a universe in that case? And even she never dreamed of applying the same rule to her breakfast.
“How good I was all yesterday!” she said, “ and how hungry and ill-used I am today!”
But she would not be a slave, and do over again today what she had done only last night! She didn’t care about her breakfast! She might have it, no doubt, if she dusted all the wretched place again, but she was not going to do that—at least, without seeing first what lay behind the clock!
Off she darted, and, putting her hand behind the clock, found the latch of a door. It lifted, and the door opened a little way. By squeezing hard, she managed to get behind the clock, and so through the door. But how she stared, when, instead of the open heath, she found herself on the marble floor of a large and stately room, lighted only from above. Its walls were strengthened by pilasters, and in every space between was a large picture, from cornice to floor. She did not know what to make of it. Surely she had run all round the cottage, and certainly had seen nothing of this size near it! She forgot that she had also run round what she took for a hay-mow, a peat-stack, and several other things which looked of no consequence in the moonlight!
“So then,” she cried, “the old woman is a cheat! I believe she’s an ogress after all, and lives in a palace—though she pretends it’s only a cottage, to keep people from suspecting that she eats good little children like me!”
Had the princess been tolerably tractable, she would by this time have known a good deal about the wise woman’s beautiful house, whereas she had never till now got further than the porch. Neither was she at all in its innermost places now.
But, king’s daughter as she was, she was not a little daunted when, stepping forward from the recess of the door, she saw what a great lordly hall it was. She dared hardly look to the other end it seemed so far off; so she began to gaze at the things near her, and the pictures first of all, for she had a great liking for pictures. One in particular attracted her attention. She came back to it several times, and at length stood absorbed in it.
A blue summer sky, with white fleecy clouds floating beneath it, hung over a hill green to the very top, and alive with streams darting down its sides toward the valley below. On the face of the hill strayed a flock of sheep feeding, attended by a shepherd and two dogs. A little way apart, a girl stood with bare feet in a brook, building across it a bridge of rough stones. The wind was blowing her hair back from her rosy face. A lamb was feeding close beside her, and a sheep-dog was trying to reach her hand to lick it.
“Oh how I wish I were that little girl!” said the princess aloud. “I wonder how it is that some people are made to be so much happier than others! If I were that little girl, no one would ever call me naughty.”
She gazed and gazed at the picture. At length she said to herself,—
“I do not believe it is a picture. It is the real country, with a real hill, and a real little girl upon it. I shall soon see whether this isn’t another of the old witch’s cheats!”
She went close up to the picture, lifted her foot, and stepped over the frame.
“I am free! I am free!” she exclaimed, and she felt the wind upon her cheek.
The sound of a closing door struck on her ear. She turned—and there was a blank wall, without door or window, behind her! The hill with the sheep was before her, and she set out at once to reach it.
Now if I am asked how this could be, I can only answer that it was a result of the interaction of things outside and things inside, of the wise woman’s skill, and the silly child’s folly. If this does not satisfy my questioner, I can only add, that the wise woman was able to do far more wonderful things than this.
Meantime the wise woman was busy—as she always was; and her business now was with the child of the shepherd and shepherdess, away in the north. Her name was Agnes.
Her father and mother were poor, and could not give her many things. Rosamond would have utterly despised the rude simple playthings she had. Yet in one respect they were of more value far than hers: the king bought Rosamond’s with his money; Agnes’s father made hers with his hands.
And while Agnes had but few things—not seeing many things about her, and not even knowing that there were many things anywhere, she did not wish for many things, and was therefore neither covetous nor avaricious.
She played with the toys her father made her, and thought them the most wonderful things in the world—windmills, and little crooks, and waterwheels, and sometimes lambs made all of wool, and dolls made out of the leg-bones of sheep, which her mother dressed for her; and of such playthings she was never tired. Sometimes, however, she preferred playing with stones, which were plentiful, and flowers, which were few, or the brooks that ran down the hill, of which, although there were many, she could only play with one at a time, and that indeed troubled her a little—or live lambs that were not all wool, or the sheep-dogs, which were very friendly with her, and the best of playfellows, as she thought, for she had no human ones to compare them with. Neither was she greedy after nice things, but content, as well she might be, with the homely food provided for her. Nor was she by nature particularly self-willed or disobedient; she generally did what her father and mother wished, and believed what they told her. But by degrees they had spoiled her. And this was the way: they were so proud of her that they always repeated everything she said, and told everything she did, even when she was present; and so full of admiration of their child were they, that they wondered and laughed at and praised things in her which in another child would never have struck them as the least remarkable, and some things even which would in another have disgusted them altogether. Impertinent and rude things done by their child they thought so clever! laughing at them as something quite marvellous; her commonplace speeches were said over again as if they had been the finest poetry; and the pretty ways which every moderately good child has were extolled as if the result of her excellent taste, and the choice of her judgment and will. They would even say sometimes that she ought not to hear her own praises for fear it should make her vain, and then whisper them behind their hands, but so loud that she could not fail to hear every word. The consequence was that she soon came to believe—so soon that she could not recall the time when she did not believe—as the most absolute fact in the universe, that she was SOMEBODY; that is, she became immoderately conceited.
Now as the least atom of conceit is a thing to be ashamed of, you may fancy what she was like with such a quantity of it inside her! At first it did not show itself outside in any very active form, but the wise woman had been to the cottage, and had seen her sitting alone with such a smile of self-satisfaction upon her face as would have been quite startling to her, if she had ever been startled at anything. For through that smile she could see lying at the root of it the worm that made it. For some smiles are like the ruddiness of certain apples, which is owing to a centipede, or other creeping thing, coiled up at the heart of them. Only her worm had a face and shape the very image of her own; and she looked so simpering, and mawkish, and self-conscious, and silly, that she made the wise woman feel rather sick.
Not that the child was a fool. Had she been, the wise woman would have only pitied and loved her, instead of feeling sick when she looked at her. She had very fair abilities, and were she once but made humble, would be capable not only of doing a good deal in time, but of beginning at once to grow to no end. But if she were not made humble, her growing would be to a mass of distorted shapes all huddled together; so that, although the body she now showed might grow up straight and wellshaped and comely to behold, the new body that was growing inside of it, and would come out of it when she died, would be ugly, and crooked this way and that, like an aged hawthorn that has lived hundreds of years exposed upon all sides to salt sea-winds.
As time went on, this disease of self-conceit went on too, gradually devouring the good that was in her. For there is no fault that does not bring its brothers and sisters and cousins to live with it. By degrees, from thinking herself so clever, she came to fancy that whatever seemed to her, must of course be the correct judgment, and whatever she wished, the right thing; and grew so obstinate, that at length her parents feared to thwart her in anything, knowing well that she would never give in. But there are victories far worse than defeats; and to overcome an angel too gentle to put out all his strength, and ride away in triumph on the back of a devil, is one of the poorest.
So long as she was left to take her own way and do as she would, she gave her parents little trouble. She would play about by herself in the little garden with its few hardy flowers, or amongst the heather where the bees were busy; or she would wander away amongst the hills, and be nobody knew where, sometimes from morning to night; nor did her parents venture to find fault with her.
She never went into rages like the princess; and would have thought Rosamond—oh, so ugly and vile! if she had seen her in one of her passions. But she was no better for all that, and was quite as ugly in the eyes of the wise woman, who could not only see but read her face. What is there to choose between a face distorted to hideousness by anger, and one distorted to silliness by self-complacency? True, there is more hope of helping the angry child out of her form of selfishness than the conceited child out of hers; but on the other hand, the conceited child was not so terrible or dangerous as the wrathful one. The conceited one, however, was sometimes very angry, and then her anger was more spiteful than the other’s; and, again, the wrathful one was often very conceited too. So that, on the whole, of two very unpleasant creatures, I would say that the king’s daughter would have been the worse, had not the shepherd’s been quite as bad.
But, as I have said, the wise woman had her eye upon her: she saw that something special must be done, else she would be one of those who kneel to their own shadows till feet grow on their knees; then go down on their hands till their hands grow into feet; then lay their faces on the ground till they grow into snouts; when at last they are a hideous sort of lizards, each of which believes himself the best, wisest, and loveliest being in the world, yea, the very centre of the universe. And so they run about for ever looking for their own shadows that they may worship them, and miserable because they cannot find them, being themselves too near the ground to have any shadows; and what becomes of them at last, there is but one who knows.
The wise woman, therefore, one day walked up to the door of the shepherd’s cottage, dressed like a poor woman, and asked for a drink of water. The shepherd’s wife looked at her, liked her, and brought her a cup of milk. The wise woman took it, for she made it a rule to accept every kindness that was offered her.
Agnes was not by nature a greedy girl, as I have said; but self-conceit will go far to generate every other vice under the sun. Vanity, which is a form of self-conceit, has repeatedly shown itself as the deepest feeling in the heart of a horrible murderess.
That morning, at breakfast, her mother had stinted her in milk—just a little—that she might have enough to make some milk-porridge for their dinner. Agnes did not mind it at the time, but when she saw the milk now given to a beggar, as she called the wise woman—though surely one might ask a draught of water, and accept a draught of milk, without being a beggar in any such sense as Agnes’s contemptuous use of the word implied—a cloud came upon her forehead, and a double vertical wrinkle settled over her nose. The wise woman saw it, for all her business was with Agnes though she little knew it, and, rising, went and offered the cup to the child, where she sat with her knitting in a corner. Agnes looked at it, did not want it, was inclined to refuse it from a beggar, but thinking it would show her consequence to assert her rights, took it and drank it up. For whoever is possessed by a devil judges with the mind of that devil; and hence Agnes was guilty of such a meanness as many who are themselves capable of something just as bad will consider incredible.
The wise woman waited till she had finished it—then, looking into the empty cup, said:
“You might have given me back as much as you had no claim upon!”
Agnes turned away and made no answer—far less from shame than indignation.
The wise woman looked at the mother.
“You should not have offered it to her if you did not mean her to have it,” said the mother, siding with the devil in her child against the wise woman and her child too. Some foolish people think they take another’s part when they take the part he takes.
The wise woman said nothing, but fixed her eyes upon her, and soon the mother hid her face in her apron weeping. Then she turned again to Agnes, who had never looked round but sat with her back to both, and suddenly lapped her in the folds of her cloak. When the mother again lifted her eyes, she had vanished.
Never supposing she had carried away her child, but uncomfortable because of what she had said to the poor woman, the mother went to the door, and called after her as she toiled slowly up the hill. But she never turned her head; and the mother went back into her cottage.
The wise woman walked close past the shepherd and his dogs, and through the midst of his flock of sheep. The shepherd wondered where she could be going—right up the hill. There was something strange about her too, he thought; and he followed her with his eyes as she went up and up.
It was near sunset, and as the sun went down, a gray cloud settled on the top of the mountain, which his last rays turned into a rosy gold. Straight into this cloud the shepherd saw the woman hold her pace, and in it she vanished. He little imagined that his child was under her cloak.
He went home as usual in the evening, but Agnes had not come in. They were accustomed to such an absence now and then, and were not at first frightened; but when it grew dark and she did not appear, the husband set out with his dogs in one direction, and the wife in another, to seek their child. Morning came and they had not found her. Then the whole country-side arose to search for the missing Agnes; but day after day and night after night passed, and nothing was discovered of or concerning her, until at length all gave up the search in despair except the mother, although she was nearly convinced now that the poor woman had carried her off.
One day she had wandered some distance from her cottage, thinking she might come upon the remains of her daughter at the foot of some cliff, when she came suddenly instead upon a disconsolate-looking creature sitting on a stone by the side of a stream. Her hair hung in tangles from her head; her clothes were tattered, and through the rents her skin showed in many places; her cheeks were white, and worn thin with hunger; the hollows were dark under her eyes, and they stood out scared and wild. When she caught sight of the shepherdess, she jumped to her feet, and would have run away, but fell down in a faint.
At first sight the mother had taken her for her own child, but now she saw, with a pang of disappointment, that she had mistaken. Full of compassion nevertheless, she said to herself:
“If she is not my Agnes, she is as much in need of help as if she were. If I cannot be good to my own, I will be as good as I can to some other woman’s; and though I should scorn to be consoled for the loss of one by the presence of another, I yet may find some gladness in rescuing one child from the death which has taken the other.”
Perhaps her words were not just like these, but her thoughts were. She took up the child, and carried her home. And this is how Rosamond came to occupy the place of the little girl whom she had envied in the picture.
Notwithstanding the differences between the two girls, which were, indeed, so many that most people would have said they were not in the least alike, they were the same in this, that each cared more for her own fancies and desires than for anything else in the world. But I will tell you another difference: the princess was like several children in one—such was the variety of her moods; and in one mood she had no recollection or care about anything whatever belonging to a previous mood—not even if it had left her but a moment before, and had been so violent as to make her ready to put her hand in the fire to get what she wanted. Plainly she was the mere puppet of her moods, and more than that, any cunning nurse who knew her well enough could call or send away those moods almost as she pleased, like a showman pulling strings behind a show. Agnes, on the contrary, seldom changed her mood, but kept that of calm assured self-satisfaction. Father nor mother had never by wise punishment helped her to gain a victory over herself, and do what she did not like or choose; and their folly in reasoning with one unreasonable had fixed her in her conceit. She would actually nod her head to herself in complacent pride that she had stood out against them. This, however, was not so difficult as to justify even the pride of having conquered, seeing she loved them so little, and paid so little attention to the arguments and persuasions they used. Neither, when she found herself wrapped in the dark folds of the wise woman’s cloak, did she behave in the least like the princess, for she was not afraid. “She’ll soon set me down,” she said, too self-important to suppose that any one would dare to do her an injury.
Whether it be a good thing or a bad not to be afraid depends on what the fearlessness is founded upon. Some have no fear because they have no knowledge of the danger: there is nothing fine in that. Some are too stupid to be afraid: there is nothing fine in that. Some who are not easily frightened would yet turn their backs and run the moment they were frightened: such never had more courage than fear. But the man who will do his work, in spite of his fear is a man of true courage. The fearlessness of Agnes was only ignorance: she did not know what it was to be hurt; she had never read a single story of giant or ogress or wolf; and her mother had never carried out one of her threats of punishment. If the wise woman had but pinched her, she would have shown herself an abject little coward, trembling with fear at every change of motion so long as she carried her.
Nothing such, however, was in the wise woman’s plan for the curing of her. On and on she carried her without a word. She knew that if she set her down she would never run after her like the princess, at least not before the evil thing was already upon her. On and on she went, never halting, never letting the light look in, or Agnes look out. She walked very fast, and got home to her cottage very soon after the princess had gone from it.
But she did not set Agnes down either in the cottage or in the great hall. She had other places, none of them alike. The place she had chosen for Agnes was a strange one—such a one as is to be found nowhere else in the wide world.
It was a great hollow sphere, made of a substance similar to that of the mirror which Rosamond had broken, but differently compounded. That substance no one could see by itself. It had neither door, nor window, nor any opening to break its perfect roundness.
The wise woman carried Agnes into a dark room, there undressed her, took from her hand her knitting needles, and put her, naked as she was born, into the hollow sphere.
What sort of place it was she could not tell. She could see nothing but a faint, cold, bluish light all about her. She could not feel that anything supported her, and yet she did not sink. She stood for a while, perfectly calm, then sat down. Nothing bad could happen to her—she was so important! And, indeed, it was but this: she had cared only for Somebody, and now she was going to have only Somebody. Her own choice was going to be carried a good deal farther for her than she would have knowingly carried it for herself.
After sitting a while, she wished she had something to do, but nothing came. A little longer, and it grew wearisome. She would see whether she could not walk out of the strange luminous dusk that surrounded her.
Walk she found she could, well enough, but walk out she could not. On and on she went keeping as much in a straight line as she might, but after walking until she was thoroughly tired, she found herself no nearer out of her prison than before. She had not, indeed, advanced a single step; for, in whatever direction she tried to go, the sphere turned round and round, answering her feet accordingly. Like a squirrel in his cage, she but kept placing another spot of the cunningly suspended sphere under her feet, and she would have been still only at its lowest point after walking for ages.
At length she cried aloud; but there was no answer. It grew dreary and drearier—in her, that is; outside there was no change. Nothing was overhead, nothing under foot, nothing on either hand, but the same pale, faint, bluish glimmer. She wept at last, then grew very angry, and then sullen; but nobody heeded whether she cried or laughed. It was all the same to the cold unmoving twilight that rounded her. On and on went the dreary hours—or did they go at all?—“no change, no pause, no hope;”—on and on till she felt she was forgotten, and then she grew strangely still and fell asleep.
The moment she was asleep the wise woman came, lifted her out, and laid her in her bosom; fed her with a wonderful milk, which she received without knowing it; nursed her all the night long, and, just ere she awoke, laid her back in the blue sphere again.
When first she came to herself, she thought the horrors of the preceding day had been all a dream of the night. But they soon asserted themselves as facts, for here they were!—nothing to see but a cold blue light, and nothing to do but see it! Oh, how slowly the hours went by! She lost all notion of time. If she had been told that she had been there twenty years, she would have believed it—or twenty minutes—it would have been all the same: except for weariness, time was for her no more.
Another night came, and another still, during both of which the wise woman nursed and fed her. But she knew nothing of that, and the same one dreary day seemed ever brooding over her.
All at once, on a third day, she was aware that a naked child was seated beside her. But there was something about the child that made her shudder. She never looked at Agnes, but sat with her chin sunk on her chest, and her eyes staring at her own toes. She was the colour of pale earth, with a pinched nose, and a mere slit in her face for a mouth.
“How ugly she is!” thought Agnes. “What business has she beside me?”
But it was so lonely that she would have been glad to play with a serpent, and put out her hand to touch her. She touched nothing. The child also put out her hand—but in the direction away from Agnes. And that was well, for if she had touched Agnes it would have killed her.
Then Agnes said, “Who are you?”
And the little girl said, “Who are you?”
“I am Agnes,” said Agnes.
And the little girl said, “I am Agnes.”
Then Agnes thought she was mocking her, and said, “You are ugly.
And the little girl said, “You are ugly.”
Then Agnes lost her temper, and put out her hands to seize the little girl; but lo! the little girl was gone, and she found herself tugging at her own hair. She let go, and there was the little girl again! Agnes was furious now, and flew at her to bite her. But she found her teeth in her own arm, and the little girl was gone—only to return again; and each time she came back she was tenfold uglier than before. And now Agnes hated her with her whole heart.
The moment she hated her, it flashed upon her with a sickening disgust that the child was not another, but her Self, her Somebody, and that she was now shut up with her for ever and ever—no more for one moment ever to be alone. In her agony of despair, sleep descended, and she slept.
When she woke, there was the little girl, heedless, ugly, miserable, staring at her own toes. All at once, the creature began to smile, but with such an odious self-satisfied expression, that Agnes felt ashamed of seeing her. Then she began to pat her own cheeks, to stroke her own body, and examine her finger-ends, nodding her head with satisfaction. Agnes felt that there could not be such another hateful, ape-like creature, and at the same time was perfectly aware she was only doing outside of her what she herself had been doing, as long as she could remember, inside of her.
She turned sick at herself, and would gladly have been put out of existence, but for three days the odious companionship went on. By the third day, Agnes was not merely sick but ashamed of the life she had hitherto led, was despicable in her own eyes, and astonished that she had never seen the truth concerning herself before.
The next morning she woke in the arms of the wise woman; the horror had vanished from her sight, and two heavenly eyes were gazing upon her. She wept and clung to her, and the more she clung, the more tenderly did the great strong arms close around her.
When she had lain thus for a while, the wise woman carried her into her cottage, and washed her in the little well; then dressed her in clean garments, and gave her bread and milk. When she had eaten it, she called her to her, and said very solemnly,—
“Agnes, you must not imagine you are cured. That you are ashamed of yourself now is no sign that the cause for such shame has ceased. In new circumstances, especially after you have done well for a while, you will be in danger of thinking just as much of yourself as before. So beware of yourself I am going from home, and leave you in charge of the house. Do just as I tell you till my return.”
She then gave her the same directions she had formerly given Rosamond—with this difference, that she told her to go into the picture hall when she pleased, showing her the entrance, against which the clock no longer stood—and went away, closing the door behind her.
As soon as she was left alone, Agnes set to work tidying and dusting the cottage, made up the fire, watered the bed, and cleaned the inside of the windows: the wise woman herself always kept the outside of them clean. When she had done, she found her dinner—of the same sort she was used to at home, but better—in the hole of the wall. When she had eaten it, she went to look at the pictures.
By this time her old disposition had begun to rouse again. She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes. Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it. Could any but a low creature be conceited of not being contemptible? Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures.
So Agnes began to stroke herself once more, forgetting her late self-stroking companion, and never reflecting that she was now doing what she had then abhorred. And in this mood she went into the picture gallery.
The first picture she saw represented a square in a great city, one side of which was occupied by a splendid marble palace, with great flights of broad steps leading up to the door. Between it and the square was a marble-paved court with gates of brass, at which stood sentries in gorgeous uniforms, and to which was affixed the following proclamation in letters of gold, large enough for Agnes to read:—
“By the will of the King, from this time until further notice, every stray child found in the realm shall be brought without a moment’s delay to the palace. Whoever shall be found having done otherwise shall straightway lose his head by the hand of the public executioner.”
Agnes’s heart beat loud, and her face flushed.
“Can there be such a city in the world?” she said to herself. “If I only knew where it was, I should set out for it at once. There would be the place for a clever girl like me! “
Her eyes fell on the picture which had so enticed Rosamond. It was the very country where her father fed his flocks. Just round the shoulder of the hill was the cottage where her parents lived, where she was born and whence she had been carried by the beggar-woman.
“Ah!,” she said, “they didn’t know me there! They little thought what I could be if I had the chance. If I were but in this good, kind, loving, generous king’s palace, I should soon be such a great lady as they never saw! Then they would understand what a good little girl I had always been! And I shouldn’t forget my poor parents like some I have read of. I would be generous. I should never be selfish and proud like girls in story-books!”
As she said this, she turned her back with disdain upon the picture of her home, and setting herself before the picture of the palace, stared at it with wide ambitious eyes, and a heart whose every beat was a throb of arrogant self-esteem.
The shepherd-child was now worse than ever the poor princess had been. For the wise woman had given her a terrible lesson, one of which the princess was not capable, and she had known what it meant; yet here she was as bad as ever, therefore worse than before. The ugly creature, whose presence had made her so miserable, had indeed crept out of sight and mind too—but where was she? Nestling in her very heart, where most of all she had her company, and least of all could see her. The wise woman had called her out that Agnes might see what sort of creature she was herself; but now she was snug in her soul’s bed again, and she did not even suspect she was there.
After gazing a while at the palace picture, during which her ambitious pride rose and rose, she turned yet again in condescending mood and honoured the home picture with one stare more.
“What a poor miserable spot it is, compared with this lordly palace!” she said.
But presently she spied something in it she had not seen before, and drew nearer. It was the form of a little girl, building a bridge of stones over one of the hill-brooks.
“Ah, there I am myself!” she said. “That is just how I used to do.—No!” she resumed, “it is not me. That snub-nosed little fright could never be meant for me! It was the frock that made me think so. But it is a picture of the place. I declare I can see the smoke of the cottage rising from behind the hill! What a dull, dirty, insignificant spot it is! And what a life to lead there!”
She turned once more to the city picture. And now a strange thing took place. In proportion as the other, to the eyes of her mind, receded into the back-ground, this, to her present bodily eyes, appeared to come forward and assume reality. At last, after it had been in this way growing upon her for some time, she gave a cry of conviction, and said aloud—
“I do believe it is real! That frame is only a trick of the woman to make me fancy it a picture, lest I should go and make my fortune. She is a witch, the ugly old creature! It would serve her right to tell the king and have her punished for not taking me to the palace—one of his poor lost children he is so fond of! I should like to see her ugly old head cut off. Anyhow I will try my luck without asking her leave. How she has ill-used me!”
But at that moment she heard the voice of the wise woman calling, “Agnes!” and, smoothing her face, she tried to look as good as she could, and walked back into the cottage. There stood the wise woman, looking all round the place and examining her work. She fixed her eyes upon Agnes in a way that confused her, and made her cast hers down, for she felt as if she were reading her thoughts. The wise woman, however, asked no questions, but began to talk about her work, approving of some of it, which filled her with arrogance, and showing how some of it might have been done better, which filled her with resentment. But the wise woman seemed to take no care of what she might be thinking, and went straight on with her lesson. By the time it was over, the power of reading thoughts would not have been necessary to a knowledge of what was in the mind of Agnes, for it had all come to the surface—that is, up into her face, which is the surface of the mind. Ere it had time to sink down again, the wise woman caught up the little mirror and held it before her: Agnes saw her Somebody—the very embodiment of miserable conceit and ugly illtemper. She gave such a scream of horror that the wise woman pitied her, and laying aside the mirror, took her upon her knees, and talked to her most kindly and solemnly; in particular about the necessity of destroying the ugly things that come out of the heart—so ugly that they make the very face over them ugly also.
And what was Agnes doing all the time the wise woman was talking to her? Would you believe it?—instead of thinking how to kill the ugly things in her heart, she was with all her might resolving to be more careful of her face, that is, to keep down the things in her heart so that they should not show in her face; she was resolving to be a hypocrite as well as a self-worshipper. Her heart was wormy, and the worms were eating very fast at it now.
Then the wise woman laid her gently down upon the heather-bed, and she fell fast asleep, and had an awful dream about her Somebody. When she woke in the morning, instead of getting up to do the work of the house, she lay thinking—to evil purpose. In place of taking her dream as a warning, and thinking over what the wise woman had said the night before, she communed with herself in this fashion:—
“If I stay here longer, I shall be miserable. It is nothing better than slavery. The old witch shows me horrible things in the day, to set me dreaming horrible things in the night. If I don’t run away, that frightful blue prison and the disgusting girl will come back, and I shall go out of my mind. How I do wish I could find the way to the good king’s palace! I shall go and look at the picture again—if it be a picture—as soon as I’ve got my clothes on. The work can wait. It’s not my work. It’s the old witch’s, and she ought to do it herself.”
She jumped out of bed, and hurried on her clothes. There was no wise woman to be seen, and she hastened into the hall. There was the picture, with the marble palace, and the proclamation shining in letters of gold upon its gates of brass! She stood before it and gazed and gazed; and all the time it kept growing upon her in some strange way until at last she was fully persuaded that it was no picture, but a real city, square, and marble palace, seen through a framed opening in the wall. She ran up to the frame, stepped over it, felt the wind blow upon her cheek, heard the sound of a closing door behind her, and was free. Free was she?—with that creature inside her?
The same moment a terrible storm of thunder and lightning, wind and rain, came on. The uproar was appalling. Agnes threw herself upon the ground, hid her face in her hands, and there lay until it was over. As soon as she felt the sun shining on her, she rose. There was the city far away on the horizon! Without once turning to take a farewell look at the place she was leaving, she set off, as fast as her feet would carry her, in the direction of the city. So eager was she that again and again she fell, but only to get up and run on faster than before.
The shepherdess carried Rosamond home, gave her a warm bath in the tub in which she washed her linen, made her some bread-and-milk, and after she had eaten it, put her to bed in Agnes’s crib, where she slept all the rest of that day and all the following night.
When at last she opened her eyes, it was to see around her a far poorer cottage than the one she had left—very bare and uncomfortable indeed, she might well have thought; but she had come through such troubles of late, in the way of hunger and weariness and cold and fear, that she was not altogether in her ordinary mood of fault-finding, and so was able to lie enjoying the thought that at length she was safe, and going to be fed and kept warm. The idea of doing anything in return for shelter and food and clothes, did not, however, even cross her mind.
But the shepherdess was one of that plentiful number who can be wiser concerning other women’s children than concerning their own. Such will often give you very tolerable hints as to how you ought to manage your children, and will find fault neatly enough with the system you are trying to carry out; but all their wisdom goes off in talking, and there is none left for doing what they have themselves said. There is one road talk never finds, and that is the way into the talker’s own hands and feet. And such never seem to know themselves—not even when they are reading about themselves in print. Still, not being specially blinded in any direction but their own, they can sometimes even act with a little sense towards children who are not theirs. They are affected with a sort of blindness like that which renders some people incapable of seeing except sideways.
She came up to the bed, looked at the princess, and saw that she was better. But she did not like her much. There was no mark of a princess about her, and never had been since she began to run alone. True, hunger had brought down her fat cheeks, but it had not turned down her impudent nose, or driven the sullenness and greed from her mouth. Nothing but the wise woman could do that—and not even she, without the aid of the princess herself. So the shepherdess thought what a poor substitute she had got for her own lovely Agnes—who was in fact equally repulsive, only in a way to which she had got used; for the selfishness in her love had blinded her to the thin pinched nose and the mean self-satisfied mouth. It was well for the princess, though, sad as it is to say, that the shepherdess did not take to her, for then she would most likely have only done her harm instead of good.
“Now, my girl,” she said, “you must get up and do something. We can’t keep idle folk here.”
“I’m not a folk,” said Rosamond; “I’m a princess.”
“A pretty princess—with a nose like that! And all in rags too! If you tell such stories, I shall soon let you know what I think of you.”
Rosamond then understood that the mere calling herself a princess, without having anything to show for it, was of no use. She obeyed and rose, for she was hungry; but she had to sweep the floor ere she had anything to eat.
The shepherd came in to breakfast, and was kinder than his wife. He took her up in his arms and would have kissed her; but she took it as an insult from a man whose hands smelt of tar, and kicked and screamed with rage. The poor man, finding he had made a mistake, set her down at once. But to look at the two, one might well have judged it condescension rather than rudeness in such a man to kiss such a child. He was tall, and almost stately, with a thoughtful forehead, bright eyes, eagle nose, and gentle mouth; while the princess was such as I have described her.
Not content with being set down and let alone, she continued to storm and scold at the shepherd, crying she was a princess, and would like to know what right he had to touch her! But he only looked down upon her from the height of his tall person with a benignant smile, regarding her as a spoiled little ape whose mother had flattered her by calling her a princess.
“Turn her out of doors, the ungrateful hussy!” cried his wife. “With your bread and your milk inside her ugly body, this is what she gives you for it! Troth, I’m paid for carrying home such an ill-bred tramp in my arms! My own poor angel Agnes! As if that ill-tempered toad were one hair like her!”
These words drove the princess beside herself; for those who are most given to abuse can least endure it. With fists and feet and teeth, as was her wont, she rushed at the shepherdess, whose hand was already raised to deal her a sound box on the ear, when a better appointed minister of vengeance suddenly showed himself. Bounding in at the cottage door came one of the sheep-dogs, who was called Prince, and whom I shall not refer to with a which, because he was a very superior animal indeed, even for a sheep-dog, which is the most intelligent of dogs: he flew at the princess, knocked her down, and commenced shaking her so violently as to tear her miserable clothes to pieces. Used, however, to mouthing little lambs, he took care not to hurt her much, though for her good he left her a blue nip or two, by way of letting her imagine what biting might be. His master, knowing he would not injure her, thought it better not to call him off, and in half a minute he left her of his own accord, and, casting a glance of indignant rebuke behind him as he went, walked slowly to the hearth, where he laid himself down with his tail towards her. She rose, terrified almost to death, and would have crept again into Agnes’s crib for refuge; but the shepherdess cried—“Come, come, princess! I’ll have no skulking to bed in the good daylight. Go and clean your master’s Sunday boots there.”
“I will not!” screamed the princess, and ran from the house.
“Prince!” cried the shepherdess, and up jumped the dog, and looked in her face, wagging his bushy tail.
“Fetch her back,” she said, pointing to the door.
With two or three bounds Prince caught the princess, again threw her down, and taking her by her clothes dragged her back into the cottage, and dropped her at his mistress’ feet, where she lay like a bundle of rags.
“Get up,” said the shepherdess.
Rosamond got up, as pale as death.
“Go and clean the boots.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Go and try. There are the brushes, and yonder is the blacking pot.”
Instructing her how to black boots, it came into the thought of the shepherdess what a fine thing it would be if she could teach this miserable little wretch, so forsaken and ill-bred, to be a good, well-behaved, respectable child. She was hardly the woman to do it, but everything well meant is a help, and she had the wisdom to beg her husband to place Prince under her orders for a while, and not take him to the hill as usual, that he might help her in getting the princess into order.
When her husband was gone, and his boots, with the aid of her own finishing touches, at last quite respectably brushed, the shepherdess told the princess that she might go and play for a while, only she must not go out of sight of the cottage door.
The princess went right gladly, with the firm intention, however, of getting out of sight by slow degrees, and then at once taking to her heels. But no sooner was she over the threshold than the shepherdess said to the dog, “Watch her;” and out shot Prince.
The moment she saw him, Rosamond threw herself on her face, trembling from head to foot. But the dog had no quarrel with her, and of the violence against which he always felt bound to protest in dog fashion, there was no sign in the prostrate shape before him; so he poked his nose under her, turned her over, and began licking her face and hands. When she saw that he meant to be friendly, her love for animals, which had had no indulgence for a long time now, came wide awake, and in a little while they were romping and rushing about, the best friends in the world.
Having thus seen one enemy, as she thought, changed to a friend, she began to resume her former plan, and crept cunningly farther and farther. At length she came to a little hollow, and instantly rolled down into it. Finding then that she was out of sight of the cottage, she ran off at full speed.
But she had not gone more than a dozen paces when she heard a growling rush behind her, and the next instant was on the ground, with the dog standing over her, showing his teeth, and flaming at her with his eyes. She threw her arms round his neck, and immediately he licked her face, and let her get up. But the moment she would have moved a step farther from the cottage, there he was in front of her, growling and showing his teeth. She saw it was of no use, and went back with him.
Thus was the princess provided with a dog for a private tutor just the right sort for her.
Presently the shepherdess appeared at the door and called her. She would have disregarded the summons, but Prince did his best to let her know that, until she could obey herself, she must obey him. So she went into the cottage, and there the shepherdess ordered her to peel the potatoes for dinner. She sulked and refused. Here Prince could do nothing to help his mistress, but she had not to go far to find another ally.
“Very well, Miss Princess!” she said; “we shall soon see how you like to go without when dinnertime comes.”
Now, the princess had very little foresight, and the idea of future hunger would have moved her little; but happily, from her game of romps with Prince, she had begun to be hungry already, and so the threat had force. She took the knife and began to peel the potatoes.
By slow degrees the princess improved a little. A few more outbreaks of passion, and a few more savage attacks from Prince, and she had learned to try to restrain herself when she felt the passion coming on; while a few dinnerless afternoons entirely opened her eyes to the necessity of working in order to eat. Prince was her first, and Hunger her second dog-counsellor.
But a still better thing was that she soon grew very fond of Prince. Towards the gaining of her affections, he had three advantages: first, his nature was inferior to hers; next, he was a beast; and last, she was afraid of him; for so spoiled was she that she could more easily love what was below than what was above her, and a beast than one of her own kind, and indeed could hardly have ever come to love anything much that she had not first learned to fear, and the white teeth and flaming eyes of the angry Prince were more terrible to her than anything had yet been, except those of the wolf, which she had now forgotten. Then, again, he was such a delightful playfellow, that, so long as she neither lost her temper, nor went against orders, she might do almost anything she pleased with him. In fact, such was his influence upon her, that she who had scoffed at the wisest woman in the whole world, and derided the wishes of her own father and mother, came at length to regard this dog as a superior being, and to look up to him as well as love him. And this was best of all.
The improvement upon her, in the course of a month, was plain. She had quite ceased to go into passions, and had actually begun to take a little interest in her work and try to do it well.
Still, the change was mostly an outside one. I do not mean that she was pretending. Indeed she had never been given to pretence of any sort. But the change was not in her, only in her mood. A second change of circumstances would have soon brought a second change of behaviour; and so long as that was possible, she continued the same sort of person she had always been. But if she had not gained much, a trifle had been gained for her: a little quietness and order of mind, and hence a somewhat greater possibility of the first idea of right arising in it, whereupon she would begin to see what a wretched creature she was, and must continue until she herself was right.
Meantime the wise woman had been watching her when she least fancied it, and taking note of the change that was passing upon her. Out of the large eyes of a gentle sheep she had been watching her—a sheep that puzzled the shepherd; for every now and then she would appear in his flock, and he would catch sight of her two or three times in a day, sometimes for days together, yet he never saw her when he looked for her, and never when he counted the flock into the fold at night. He knew she was not one of his; but where could she come from, and where could she go to? For there was no other flock within many miles, and he never could get near enough to her to see whether or not she was marked. Nor was Prince of the least use to him for the unraveling of the mystery; for although, as often as he told him to fetch the strange sheep, he went bounding to her at once, it was only to lie down at her feet.
At length, however, the wise woman had made up her mind, and after that the strange sheep no longer troubled the shepherd.
As Rosamond improved, the shepherdess grew kinder. She gave her all Agnes’s clothes, and began to treat her much more like a daughter. Hence she had a great deal of liberty after the little work required of her was over, and would often spend hours at a time with the shepherd, watching the sheep and the dogs, and learning a little from seeing how Prince, and others as well, managed their charge—how they never touched the sheep that did as they were told and turned when they were bid, but jumped on a disobedient flock, and ran along their backs, biting, and barking, and half choking themselves with mouthfuls of their wool.
Then also she would play with the brooks, and learn their songs, and build bridges over them. And sometimes she would be seized with such delight of heart that she would spread out her arms to the wind, and go rushing up the hill till her breath left her, when she would tumble down in the heather and lie there till it came back again.
A noticeable change had by this time passed also on her countenance. Her coarse, shapeless mouth had begun to show a glimmer of lines and curves about it, and the fat had not returned with the roses to her cheeks, so that her eyes looked larger than before; while, more noteworthy still, the bridge of her nose had grown higher, so that it was less of the impudent, insignificant thing inherited from a certain great-great-great-grandmother, who had little else to leave her. For a long time it had fitted her very well, for it was just like her; but now there was ground for alteration, and already the granny who gave it her would not have recognized it. It was growing a little like Prince’s, and Prince’s was a long, perceptive, sagacious nose—one that was seldom mistaken.
One day, about noon, while the sheep were mostly lying down, and the shepherd, having left them to the care of the dogs, was himself stretched under the shade of a rock a little way apart, and the princess sat knitting, with Prince at her feet, lying in wait for a snap at a great fly—for even he had his follies—Rosamond saw a poor woman come toiling up the hill, but took little notice of her until she was passing, a few yards off, when she heard her utter the dog’s name in a low voice.
Immediately on the summons, Prince started up and followed her—with hanging head, but gently wagging tail. At first the princess thought he was merely taking observations, and consulting with his nose whether she was respectable or not, but she soon saw that he was following her in meek submission. Then she sprung to her feet and cried, “Prince! Prince!” But Prince only turned his head and gave her an odd look, as if he were trying to smile and could not. Then the princess grew angry, and ran after him, shouting, “Prince, come here directly.” Again Prince turned his head, but this time to growl and show his teeth.
The princess flew into one of her forgotten rages, and picking up a stone, flung it at the woman. Prince turned and darted at her, with fury in his eyes, and his white teeth gleaming. At the awful sight the princess turned also, and would have fled, but he was upon her in a moment, and threw her to the ground, and there she lay.
It was evening when she came to herself. A cool twilight wind, that somehow seemed to come all the way from the stars, was blowing upon her. The poor woman and Prince, the shepherd and his sheep, were all gone, and she was left alone with the wind upon the heather.
She felt sad, weak, and, perhaps for the first time in her life, a little ashamed. The violence of which she had been guilty had vanished from her spirit, and now lay in her memory with the calm morning behind it, while in front the quiet dusky night was now closing in the loud shame betwixt a double peace. Between the two her passion looked ugly. It pained her to remember. She felt it was hateful, and hers.
But, alas, Prince was gone! That horrid woman had taken him away! The fury rose again in her heart, and raged—until it came to her mind how her dear Prince would have flown at her throat if he had seen her in such a passion. The memory calmed her, and she rose and went home. There, perhaps, she would find Prince, for surely he could never have been such a silly dog as to go away altogether with a strange woman!
She opened the door and went in. Dogs were asleep all about the cottage, it seemed to her, but nowhere was Prince. She crept away to her little bed, and cried herself asleep.
In the morning the shepherd and shepherdess were indeed glad to find she had come home, for they thought she had run away.
“Where is Prince?” she cried, the moment she waked.
“His mistress has taken Him,” answered the shepherd.
“Was that woman his mistress?”
“I fancy so. He followed her as if he had known her all his life. I am very sorry to lose him, though.”
The poor woman had gone close past the rock where the shepherd lay. He saw her coming, and thought of the strange sheep which had been feeding beside him when he lay down. “Who can she be?” he said to himself; but when he noted how Prince followed her, without even looking up at him as he passed, he remembered how Prince had come to him. And this was how: as he lay in bed one fierce winter morning, just about to rise, he heard the voice of a woman call to him through the storm, “Shepherd, I have brought you a dog. Be good to him. I will come again and fetch him away.” He dressed as quickly as he could, and went to the door. It was half snowed up, but on the top of the white mound before it stood Prince. And now he had gone as mysteriously as he had come, and he felt sad.
Rosamond was very sorry too, and hence when she saw the looks of the shepherd and shepherdess, she was able to understand them. And she tried for a while to behave better to them because of their sorrow. So the loss of the dog brought them all nearer to each other.
After the thunder-storm Agnes did not meet with a single obstruction or misadventure. Everybody was strangely polite, gave her whatever she desired, and answered her questions, but asked none in return, and looked all the time as if her departure would be a relief. They were afraid, in fact, from her appearance, lest she should tell them that she was lost, when they would be bound, on pain of public execution, to take her to the palace.
But no sooner had she entered the city than she saw it would hardly do to present herself as a lost child at the palace gates; for how were they to know that she was not an impostor, especially since she really was one, having run away from the wise woman? So she wandered about looking at everything until she was tired, and bewildered by the noise and confusion all around her. The wearier she got, the more was she pushed in every direction. Having been used to a whole hill to wander upon, she was very awkward in the crowded streets, and often on the point of being run over by the horses, which seemed to her to be going every way like a frightened flock. She spoke to several persons, but no one stopped to answer her; and at length her courage giving way, she felt lost indeed, and began to cry. A soldier saw her, and asked what was the matter.
“I’ve nowhere to go to,” she sobbed. “Where’s your mother?” asked the soldier.
I don’t know,” answered Agnes. “I was carried off by an old woman, who then went away and left me. I don’t know where she is, or where I am myself.”
“Come,” said the soldier, “this is a case for his Majesty.”
So saying he took her by the hand, led her to the palace, and begged an audience of the king and queen. The porter glanced at Agnes, immediately admitted them, and showed them into a great splendid room, where the king and queen sat every day to review lost children, in the hope of one day thus finding their Rosamond. But they were by this time beginning to get tired of it. The moment they cast their eyes upon Agnes, the queen threw back her head, threw up her hands, and cried “What a miserable, conceited, white-faced little ape!” and the king turned upon the soldier in wrath, and cried, forgetting his own decree, “What do you mean by bringing such a dirty, vulgar-looking, pert creature into my palace? The dullest soldier in my army could never for a moment imagine a child like that, one hair’s-breadth like the lovely angel we lost?”
“I humbly beg your Majesty’s pardon,” said the soldier, “but what was I to do? There stands your Majesty’s proclamation in gold letters on the brazen gates of the palace.”
“I shall have it taken down,” said the king. “Remove the child.”
“Please your Majesty, what am I to do with her?”
“Take her home with you.”
“I have six already, sire, and do not want her.”
“Then drop her where you picked her up.”
“If I do, sire, some one else will find her, and bring her back to your Majesties.”
“That will never do,” said the king. “I cannot bear to look at her.”
“For all her ugliness,” said the queen, “she is plainly lost, and so is our Rosamond.”
“It may be only a pretence, to get into the palace,” said the king.
“Take her to the head scullion, soldier,” said the queen, “and tell her to make her useful. If she should find out she has been pretending to be lost, she must let me know.”
The soldier was so anxious to get rid of her, that he caught her up in his arms, hurried her from the room, found his way to the scullery, and gave her, trembling with fear, in charge to the head maid, with the queen’s message.
As it was evident that the queen had no favour for her, the servants did as they pleased with her, and often treated her harshly. Not one amongst them liked her; nor was it any wonder, seeing that, with every step she took from the wise woman’s house, she had grown more contemptible, for she had grown more conceited. Every civil answer given her, she attributed to the impression she made, not to the desire to get rid of her; and every kindness, to approbation of her looks and speech, instead of friendliness to a lonely child. Hence by this time she was twice as odious as before; for whoever has had such severe treatment as the wise woman gave her, and is not the better for it, always grows worse than before. They drove her about, boxed her ears on the smallest provocation, laid everything to her charge, called her all manner of contemptuous names, jeered and scoffed at her awkwardnesses, and made her life so miserable that she was in a fair way to forget everything she had learned, and know nothing but how to clean saucepans and kettles.
They would not have been so hard upon her, however, but for her irritating behaviour. She dared not refuse to do as she was told, but she obeyed now with a pursed-up mouth, and now with a contemptuous smile. The only thing that sustained her was her constant contriving how to get out of the painful position in which she found herself. There is but one true way, however, of getting out of any position we may be in, and that is, to do the work of it so well that we grow fit for a better: I need not say this was not the plan upon which Agnes was cunning enough to fix.
She had soon learned from the talk around her the reason of the proclamation which had brought her hither.
“Was the lost princess so very beautiful?” she said one day to the youngest of her fellow-servants.
“Beautiful!” screamed the maid; “she was just the ugliest little toad you ever set eyes upon.”
“What was she like?” asked Agnes.
“She was about your size, and quite as ugly, only not in the same way; for she had red cheeks, and a cocked little nose, and the biggest, ugliest mouth you ever saw.”
Agnes fell a thinking.
“Is there a picture of her anywhere in the palace?” she asked.
“How should I know? You can ask a housemaid.”
Agnes soon learned that there was one, and contrived to get a peep of it. Then she was certain of what she had suspected from the description given of her, namely, that she was the same she had seen in the picture at the wise woman’s house. The conclusion followed, that the lost princess must be staying with her father and mother, for assuredly in the picture she wore one of her frocks.
She went to the head scullion, and, with humble manner but proud heart, begged her to procure for her the favour of a word with the queen.
“A likely thing indeed!” was the answer, accompanied by a resounding box on the ear.
She tried the head cook next, but with no better success, and so was driven to her meditations again, the result of which was that she began to drop hints that she knew something about the princess. This came at length to the queen’s ears, and she sent for her.
Absorbed in her own selfish ambitions, Agnes never thought of the risk to which she was about to expose her parents, but told the queen that in her wanderings she had caught sight of just such a lovely creature as she described the princess, only dressed like a peasant—saying that, if the king would permit her to go and look for her, she had little doubt of bringing her back safe and sound within a few weeks.
But although she spoke the truth, she had such a look of cunning on her pinched face that the queen could not possibly trust her, but believed that she made the proposal merely to get away, and have money given her for her journey. Still there was a chance, and she would not say anything until she had consulted the king.
Then they had Agnes up before the lord chancellor, who, after much questioning of her, arrived at last, he thought, at some notion of the part of the country described by her—that was, if she spoke the truth, which, from her looks and behaviour, he also considered entirely doubtful. Thereupon she was ordered back to the kitchen, and a band of soldiers, under a clever lawyer, sent out to search every foot of the supposed region. They were commanded not to return until they brought with them, bound hand and foot, such a shepherd-pair as that of which they received a full description.
And now Agnes was worse off than before. For to her other miseries was added the fear of what would befall her when it was discovered that the persons of whom they were in quest, and whom she was certain they must find, were her own father and mother.
By this time the king and queen were so tired of seeing lost children, genuine or pretended—for they cared for no child any longer than there seemed a chance of its turning out their child—that, with this new hope, which, however poor and vague at first, soon began to grow upon such imaginations as they had, they commanded the proclamation to be taken down from the palace gates, and directed the various sentries to admit no child whatever, lost or found, be the reason or pretence what it might, until further orders.
“I’m sick of children!” said the king to his secretary, as he finished dictating the direction.
After Prince was gone, the princess, by degrees, fell back into some of her old bad ways, from which only the presence of the dog, not her own betterment, had kept her. She never grew nearly so selfish again, but she began to let her angry old self lift up its head once more, until by and by she grew so bad that the shepherdess declared she should not stop in the house a day longer, for she was quite unendurable.
“It is all very well for you, husband,” she said, “for you haven’t her all day about you, and only see the best of her. But if you had her in work instead of play hours, you would like her no better than I do. And then it’s not her ugly passions only, but when she’s in one of her tantrums, it’s impossible to get any work out of her. At such times she’s just as obstinate as-as-as—”
She was going to say “as Agnes,” but the feelings of a mother overcame her, and she could not utter the words.
“In fact,” she said instead, “she makes my life miserable.”
The shepherd felt he had no right to tell his wife she must submit to have her life made miserable, and therefore, although he was really much attached to Rosamond, he would not interfere; and the shepherdess told her she must look out for another place.
The princess was, however, this much better than before, even in respect of her passions, that they were not quite so bad, and after one was over, she was really ashamed of it. But not once, ever since the departure of Prince, had she tried to check the rush of the evil temper when it came upon her. She hated it when she was out of it, and that was something; but while she was in it, she went full swing with it, wherever the prince of the power of it pleased to carry her. Nor was this all: although she might by this time have known well enough that as soon as she was out of it she was certain to be ashamed of it, she would yet justify it to herself with twenty different arguments that looked very good at the time, but would have looked very poor indeed afterwards, if then she had ever remembered them.
She was not sorry to leave the shepherd’s cottage, for she felt certain of soon finding her way back to her father and mother; and she would, indeed, have set out long before, but that her foot had somehow got hurt when Prince gave her his last admonition, and she had never since been able for long walks, which she sometimes blamed as the cause of her temper growing worse. But if people are good-tempered only when they are comfortable, what thanks have they? Her foot was now much better; and as soon as the shepherdess had thus spoken, she resolved to set out at once, and work or beg her way home. At the moment she was quite unmindful of what she owed the good people, and, indeed, was as yet incapable of understanding a tenth part of her obligation to them. So she bade them good-bye without a tear, and limped her way down the hill, leaving the shepherdess weeping, and the shepherd looking very grave.
When she reached the valley, she followed the course of the stream, knowing only that it would lead her away from the hill where the sheep fed, into richer lands where were farms and cattle. Rounding one of the roots of the hill, she saw before her a poor woman walking slowly along the road with a burden of heather upon her back, and presently passed her, but had gone only a few paces farther when she heard her calling after her in a kind old voice—
“Your shoe-tie is loose, my child.”
But Rosamond was growing tired, for her foot had become painful, and so she was cross, and neither returned answer, nor paid heed to the warning. For when we are cross, all our other faults grow busy, and poke up their ugly heads like maggots, and the princess’s old dislike to doing anything that came to her with the least air of advice about it returned in full force.
“My child,” said the woman again, “if you don’t fasten your shoe-tie, it will make you fall.”
“Mind your own business,” said Rosamond, without even turning her head, and had not gone more than three steps when she fell flat on her face on the path. She tried to get up, but the effort forced from her a scream, for she had sprained the ankle of the foot that was already lame.
The old woman was by her side instantly.
“Where are you hurt, child?” she asked, throwing down her burden and kneeling beside her.
“Go away,” screamed Rosamond. “You made me fall, you bad woman!”
The woman made no reply, but began to feel her joints, and soon discovered the sprain. Then, in spite of Rosamond’s abuse, and the violent pushes and even kicks she gave her, she took the hurt ankle in her hands, and stroked and pressed it, gently kneading it, as it were, with her thumbs, as if coaxing every particle of the muscles into its right place. Nor had she done so long before Rosamond lay still. At length she ceased, and said:—
“Now, my child, you may get up.”
“I can’t get up, and I’m not your child,” cried Rosamond. “Go away.”
Without another word the woman left her, took up her burden, and continued her journey.
In a little while Rosamond tried to get up, and not only succeeded, but found she could walk, and, indeed, presently discovered that her ankle and foot also were now perfectly well.
“I wasn’t much hurt after all,” she said to herself, nor sent a single grateful thought after the poor woman, whom she speedily passed once more upon the road without even a greeting.
Late in the afternoon she came to a spot where the path divided into two, and was taking the one she liked the look of better, when she started at the sound of the poor woman’s voice, whom she thought she had left far behind, again calling her. She looked round, and there she was, toiling under her load of heather as before.
“You are taking the wrong turn, child,” she cried.
“How can you tell that?” said Rosamond. “You know nothing about where I want to go.”
“I know that road will take you where you don’t want to go,” said the woman.
“I shall know when I get there, then,” returned Rosamond, “and no thanks to you.”
She set off running. The woman took the other path, and was soon out of sight.
By and by, Rosamond found herself in the midst of a peat-moss—a flat, lonely, dismal, black country. She thought, however, that the road would soon lead her across to the other side of it among the farms, and went on without anxiety. But the stream, which had hitherto been her guide, had now vanished; and when it began to grow dark, Rosamond found that she could no longer distinguish the track. She turned, therefore, but only to find that the same darkness covered it behind as well as before. Still she made the attempt to go back by keeping as direct a line as she could, for the path was straight as an arrow. But she could not see enough even to start her in a line, and she had not gone far before she found herself hemmed in, apparently on every side, by ditches and pools of black, dismal, slimy water. And now it was so dark that she could see nothing more than the gleam of a bit of clear sky now and then in the water. Again and again she stepped kneedeep in black mud, and once tumbled down in the shallow edge of a terrible pool; after which she gave up the attempt to escape the meshes of the watery net, stood still, and began to cry bitterly, despairingly. She saw now that her unreasonable anger had made her foolish as well as rude, and felt that she was justly punished for her wickedness to the poor woman who had been so friendly to her. What would Prince think of her, if he knew? She cast herself on the ground, hungry, and cold, and weary.
Presently, she thought she saw long creatures come heaving out of the black pools. A toad jumped upon her, and she shrieked, and sprang to her feet, and would have run away headlong, when she spied in the distance a faint glimmer. She thought it was a Will-o’-the-wisp. What could he be after? Was he looking for her? She dared not run, lest he should see and pounce upon her. The light came nearer, and grew brighter and larger. Plainly, the little fiend was looking for her—he would torment her. After many twistings and turnings among the pools, it came straight towards her, and she would have shrieked, but that terror made her dumb.
It came nearer and nearer, and lo! it was borne by a dark figure, with a burden on its back: it was the poor woman, and no demon, that was looking for her! She gave a scream of joy, fell down weeping at her feet, and clasped her knees. Then the poor woman threw away her burden, laid down her lantern, took the princess up in her arms, folded her cloak around her, and having taken up her lantern again, carried her slowly and carefully through the midst of the black pools, winding hither and thither. All night long she carried her thus, slowly and wearily, until at length the darkness grew a little thinner, an uncertain hint of light came from the east, and the poor woman, stopping on the brow of a little hill, opened her cloak, and set the princess down.
“I can carry you no farther,” she said. “Sit there on the grass till the light comes. I will stand here by you.”
Rosamond had been asleep. Now she rubbed her eyes and looked, but it was too dark to see anything more than that there was a sky over her head. Slowly the light grew, until she could see the form of the poor woman standing in front of her; and as it went on growing, she began to think she had seen her somewhere before, till all at once she thought of the wise woman, and saw it must be she. Then she was so ashamed that she bent down her head, and could look at her no longer. But the poor woman spoke, and the voice was that of the wise woman, and every word went deep into the heart of the princess.
“Rosamond,” she said, “all this time, ever since I carried you from your father’s palace, I have been doing what I could to make you a lovely creature: ask yourself how far I have succeeded.”
All her past story, since she found herself first under the wise woman’s cloak, arose, and glided past the inner eyes of the princess, and she saw, and in a measure understood it all. But she sat with her eyes on the ground, and made no sign.
Then said the wise woman:—
“Below there is the forest which surrounds my house. I am going home. If you please to come there to me, I will help you, in a way I could not do now, to be good and lovely. I will wait you there all day, but if you start at once, you may be there long before noon. I shall have your breakfast waiting for you. One thing more: the beasts have not yet all gone home to their holes; but I give you my word, not one will touch you so long as you keep coming nearer to my house.”
She ceased. Rosamond sat waiting to hear something more; but nothing came. She looked up; she was alone.
Alone once more! Always being left alone, because she would not yield to what was right! Oh, how safe she had felt under the wise woman’s cloak! She had indeed been good to her, and she had in return behaved like one of the hyænas of the awful wood! What a wonderful house it was she lived in! And again all her own story came up into her brain from her repentant heart.
“Why didn’t she take me with her?” she said. “I would have gone gladly.” And she wept. But her own conscience told her that, in the very middle of her shame and desire to be good, she had returned no answer to the words of the wise woman; she had sat like a tree-stump, and done nothing. She tried to say there was nothing to be done; but she knew at once that she could have told the wise woman she had been very wicked, and asked her to take her with her. Now there was nothing to be done.
“Nothing to be done!” said her conscience. “Cannot you rise, and walk down the hill, and through the wood?”
“But the wild beasts!”
“ There it is! You don’t believe the wise woman yet! Did she not tell you the beasts would not touch you?”
“But they are so horrid!”
“Yes, they are; but it would be far better to be eaten up alive by them than live on such a worthless creature as you are. Why, you’re not fit to be thought about by any but bad ugly creatures.” This was how herself talked to her.
All at once she jumped to her feet, and ran at full speed down the hill and into the wood. She heard howlings and yellings on all sides of her, but she ran straight on, as near as she could judge. Her spirits rose as she ran. Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyænas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire. She was no more afraid after that, and ere the sun was up she was out of the wood and upon the heath, which no bad thing could step upon and live. With the first peep of the sun above the horizon, she saw the little cottage before her, and ran as fast as she could run towards it. When she came near it, she saw that the door was open, and ran straight into the outstretched arms of the wise woman.
The wise woman kissed her and stroked her hair, set her down by the fire, and gave her a bowl of bread and milk.
When she had eaten it, she drew her before her where she sat, and spoke to her thus:
“Rosamond, if you would be a blessed creature instead of a mere wretch, you must submit to be tried.”
“Is that something terrible?” asked the princess, turning white.
“No, my child; but it is something very difficult to come well out of. Nobody who has not been tried knows how difficult it is; but whoever has come well out of it, and those who do not overcome never do come out of it, always looks back with horror, not on what she has come through, but on the very idea of the possibility of having failed, and being still the same miserable creature as before.”
“You will tell me what it is before it begins?” said the princess.
“I will not tell you exactly. But I will tell you some things to help you. One great danger is that perhaps you will think you are in it before it has really begun, and say to yourself, ‘Oh! this is really nothing to me. It may be a trial to some, but for me I am sure it is not worth mentioning.’ And then, before you know, it will be upon you, and you will fail utterly and shamefully.”
“I will be very, very careful,” said the princess. “Only don’t let me be frightened.”
“You shall not be frightened, except it be your own doing. You are already a brave girl, and there is no occasion to try you more that way. I saw how you rushed into the middle of the ugly creatures; and as they ran from you, so will all kinds of evil things, as long as you keep them outside of you, and do not open the cottage of your heart to let them in. I will tell you something more about what you will have to go through.
“Nobody can be a real princess—do not imagine you have yet been anything more than a mock one—until she is a princess over herself, that is, until, when she finds herself unwilling to do the thing that is right, she makes herself do it. So long as any mood she is in makes her do the thing she will be sorry for when that mood is over, she is a slave, and no princess. A princess is able to do what is right even should she unhappily be in a mood that would make another unable to do it. For instance, if you should be cross and angry, you are not a whit the less bound to be just, yes, kind even—a thing most difficult in such a mood—though ease itself in a good mood, loving and sweet. Whoever does what she is bound to do, be she the dirtiest little girl in the street, is a princess, worshipful, honourable. Nay, more; her might goes farther than she could send it, for if she act so, the evil mood will wither and die, and leave her loving and clean. Do you understand me, dear Rosamond?”
As she spoke, the wise woman laid her hand on her head, and looked—oh, so lovingly!—into her eyes.
“I am not sure,” said the princess, humbly.
“Perhaps you will understand me better if I say it just comes to this, that you must not do what is wrong, however much you are inclined to do it, and you must do what is right, however much you are disinclined to do it.”
“I understand that,” said the princess.
“I am going, then, to put you in one of the mood-chambers of which I have many in the house. Its mood will come upon you, and you will have to deal with it.”
She rose and took her by the hand. The princess trembled a little, but never thought of resisting.
The wise woman led her into the great hall with the pictures, and through a door at the farther end, opening upon another large hall, which was circular, and had doors close to each other all round it. Of these she opened one, pushed the princess gently in, and closed it behind her.
The princess found herself in her old nursery. Her little white rabbit came to meet her in a limping canter as if his back were going to tumble over his head. Her nurse, in her rocking-chair by the chimney corner, sat just as she had used. The fire burned brightly, and on the table were many of her wonderful toys, on which, however, she now looked with some contempt. Her nurse did not seem at all surprised to see her, any more than if the princess had but just gone from the room and returned again. “Oh! how different I am from what I used to be!” thought the princess to herself, looking from her toys to her nurse. “The wise woman has done me so much good already! I will go and see mamma at once, and tell her I am very glad to be at home again, and very sorry I was so naughty.” She went towards the door. “Your queen-mamma, princess, cannot see you now,” said her nurse.
“I have yet to learn that it is my part to take orders from a servant,” said the princess, with temper and dignity.
“I beg your pardon, princess,” returned her nurse, politely; “but it is my duty to tell you that your queen-mamma is at this moment engaged. She is alone with her most intimate friend, the Princess of the Frozen Regions.”
“I shall see for myself,” returned the princess, bridling, and walked to the door.
Now little bunny, leap-frogging near the door, happened that moment to get about her feet, just as she was going to open it, so that she tripped and fell against it, striking her forehead a good blow. She caught up the rabbit in a rage, and, crying, “It is all your fault, you ugly old wretch!” threw it with violence in her nurse’s face.
Her nurse caught the rabbit, and held it to her face, as if seeking to sooth its fright. But the rabbit looked very limp and odd, and, to her amazement, Rosamond presently saw that the thing was no rabbit, but a pocket-handkerchief. The next moment she removed it from her face, and Rosamond beheld—not her nurse, but the wise woman—standing on her own hearth, while she herself stood by the door leading from the cottage into the hall.
“First trial a failure,” said the wise woman quietly.
Overcome with shame, Rosamond ran to her, fell down on her knees’ and hid her face in her dress.
“Need I say anything?” said the wise woman, stroking her hair.
“No, no,” cried the princess. “I am horrid.”
“You know now the kind of thing you have to meet: are you ready to try again?”
“May I try again?” cried the princess, jumping up. “I’m ready. I do not think I shall fail this time.”
“The trial will be harder.”
Rosamond drew in her breath, and set her teeth. The wise woman looked at her pitifully, but took her by the hand, led her to the round hall, opened the same door, and closed it after her.
The princess expected to find herself again in the nursery, but in the wise woman’s house no one ever has the same trial twice. She was in a beautiful garden, full of blossoming trees and the loveliest roses and lilies. A lake was in the middle of it, with a tiny boat. So delightful was it that Rosamond forgot all about how or why she had come there, and lost herself in the joy of the flowers and the trees and the water. Presently came the shout of a child, merry and glad, and from a clump of tulip-trees rushed a lovely little boy, with his arms stretched out to her. She was charmed at the sight, ran to meet him, caught him up in her arms, kissed him, and could hardly let him go again. But the moment she set him down he ran from her towards the lake, looking back as he ran, and crying “Come, come.”
She followed. He made straight for the boat, clambered into it, and held out his hand to help her in. Then he caught up the little boat-hook, and pushed away from the shore: there was a great white flower floating a few yards off, and that was the little fellow’s goal. But, alas! no sooner had Rosamond caught sight of it, huge and glowing as a harvest moon, than she felt a great desire to have it herself. The boy, however, was in the bows of the boat, and caught it first. It had a long stem, reaching down to the bottom of the water, and for a moment he tugged at it in vain, but at last it gave way so suddenly, that he tumbled back with the flower into the bottom of the boat. Then Rosamond, almost wild at the danger it was in as he struggled to rise, hurried to save it, but somehow between them it came in pieces, and all its petals of fretted silver were scattered about the boat. When the boy got up, and saw the ruin his companion had occasioned, he burst into tears, and having the long stalk of the flower still in his hand, struck her with it across the face. It did not hurt her much, for he was a very little fellow, but it was wet and slimy. She tumbled rather than rushed at him, seized him in her arms, tore him from his frightened grasp, and flung him into the water. His head struck on the boat as he fell, and he sank at once to the bottom, where he lay looking up at her with white face and open eyes.
The moment she saw the consequences of her deed she was filled with horrible dismay. She tried hard to reach down to him through the water, but it was far deeper than it looked, and she could not. Neither could she get her eyes to leave the white face: its eyes fascinated and fixed hers; and there she lay leaning over the boat and staring at the death she had made. But a voice crying, “Ally! Ally!” shot to her heart, and, springing to her feet she saw a lovely lady come running down the grass to the brink of the water with her hair flying about her head.
“Where is my Ally?” she shrieked.
But Rosamond could not answer, and only stared at the lady, as she had before stared at her drowned boy.
Then the lady caught sight of the dead thing at the bottom of the water, and rushed in, and, plunging down, struggled and groped until she reached it. Then she rose and stood up with the dead body of her little son in her arms, his head hanging back, and the water streaming from him.
“See what you have made of him, Rosamond!” she said, holding the body out to her; “and this is your second trial, and also a failure.”
The dead child melted away from her arms, and there she stood, the wise woman, on her own hearth, while Rosamond found herself beside the little well on the floor of the cottage, with one arm wet up to the shoulder. She threw herself on the heather-bed and wept from relief and vexation both.
The wise woman walked out of the cottage, shut the door, and left her alone. Rosamond was sobbing, so that she did not hear her go. When, at length she looked up, and saw that the wise woman was gone, her misery returned afresh and tenfold, and she wept and wailed. The hours passed, the shadows of evening began to fall, and the wise woman entered
She went straight to the bed, and, taking Rosamond in her arms, sat down with her by the fire.
“My poor child!” she said. “Two terrible failures! And the more the harder! They get stronger and stronger. What is to be done?”
“Couldn’t you help me?” said Rosamond piteously.
“Perhaps I could, now you ask me,” answered the wise woman. “When you are ready to try again, we shall see.”
“I am very tired of myself,” said the princess. “But I can’t rest till I try again.”
“That is the only way to get rid of your weary, shadowy self, and find your strong, true self. Come, my child; I will help you all I can, for now I can help you.”
Yet again she led her to the same door, and seemed to the princess to send her yet again alone into the room. She was in a forest, a place half wild, half tended. The trees were grand, and full of the loveliest birds, of all glowing gleaming, and radiant colours, which, unlike the brilliant birds we know in our world, sang deliciously, every one according to his colour. The trees were not at all crowded, but their leaves were so thick, and their boughs spread so far, that it was only here and there a sunbeam could get straight through. All the gentle creatures of a forest were there, but no creatures that killed, not even a weasel to kill the rabbits, or a beetle to eat the snails out of their striped shells. As to the butterflies, words would but wrong them if they tried to tell how gorgeous they were. The princess’s delight was so great that she neither laughed nor ran, but walked about with a solemn countenance and stately step.
“But where are the flowers?” she said to herself at length.
They were nowhere. Neither on the high trees, nor on the few shrubs that grew here and there amongst them, were there any blossoms; and in the grass that grew everywhere there was not a single flower to be seen.
“Ah, well!” said Rosamond again to herself, “where all the birds and butterflies are living flowers, we can do without the other sort.”
Still she could not help feeling that flowers were wanted to make the beauty of the forest complete.
Suddenly she came out on a little open glade; and there, on the root of a great oak, sat the loveliest little girl, with her lap full of flowers of all colours, but of such kinds as Rosamond had never before seen. She was playing with them—burying her hands in them, tumbling them about, and every now and then picking one from the rest, and throwing it away. All the time she never smiled, except with her eyes, which were as full as they could hold of the laughter of the spirit—a laughter which in this world is never heard, only sets the eyes alight with a liquid shining. Rosamond drew nearer, for the wonderful creature would have drawn a tiger to her side, and tamed him on the way. A few yards from her, she came upon one of her castaway flowers and stooped to pick it up, as well she might where none grew save in her own longing. But to her amazement she found, instead of a flower thrown away to wither, one fast rooted and quite at home. She left it and went to another; but it also was fast in the soil, and growing comfortably in the warm grass. What could it mean? One after another she tried, until at length she was satisfied that it was the same with every flower the little girl threw from her lap.
She watched then until she saw her throw one, and instantly bounded to the spot. But the flower had been quicker than she: there it grew, fast fixed in the earth, and, she thought, looked at her roguishly. Something evil moved in her, and she plucked it.
“Don’t! don’t!” cried the child. “My flowers cannot live in your hands.”
Rosamond looked at the flower. It was withered already. She threw it from her, offended. The child rose, with difficulty keeping her lapful together, picked it up, carried it back, sat down again, spoke to it, kissed it, sang to it—oh! such a sweet, childish little song!—the princess never could recall a word of it—and threw it away. Up rose its little head, and there it was, busy growing again! Rosamond’s bad temper soon gave way: the beauty and sweetness of the child had overcome it; and, anxious to make friends with her, she drew near, and said:
“Won’t you give me a little flower, please, you beautiful child?”
“There they are; they are all for you,” answered the child, pointing with her outstretched arm and forefinger all round.
“But you told me, a minute ago, not to touch them.”
“Yes, indeed, I did.”
“They can’t be mine, if I’m not to touch them.”
“If, to call them yours, you must kill them, then they are not yours, and never, never can be yours. They are nobody’s when they are dead.”
“But you don’t kill them.”
“I don’t pull them; I throw them away. I live them.”
“How is it that you make them grow?”
“I say, ‘You darling!’ and throw it away, and there it is.”
“Where do you get them?”
“In my lap.”
“I wish you would let me throw one away.”
“Have you got any in your lap? Let me see.”
“No; I have none.”
“Then you can’t throw one away, if you haven’t got one.”
“You are mocking me!” cried the princess.
“I am not mocking you,” said the child, looking her full in the face, with reproach in her large blue eyes.
“Oh, that’s where the flowers come from!” said the princess to herself, the moment she saw them, hardly knowing what she meant.
Then the child rose as if hurt, and quickly threw away all the flowers she had in her lap, but one by one, and without any sign of anger. When they were all gone, she stood a moment, and then, in a kind of chanting cry, called, two or three times, “Peggy! Peggy! Peggy!”
A low, glad cry, like the whinny of a horse, answered, and, presently, out of the wood on the opposite side of the glade, came gently trotting the loveliest little snow-white pony, with great shining blue wings, half-lifted from his shoulders. Straight towards the little girl, neither hurrying nor lingering, he trotted with light elastic tread.
Rosamond’s love for animals broke into a perfect passion of delight at the vision. She rushed to meet the pony with such haste, that, although clearly the best trained animal under the sun, he started back, plunged, reared, and struck out with his fore feet ere he had time to observe what sort of a creature it was that had so startled him. When he perceived it was a little girl, he dropped instantly upon all-fours, and content with avoiding her, resumed his quiet trot in the direction of his mistress. Rosamond stood gazing after him in miserable disappointment.
When he reached the child, he laid his head on her shoulder, and she put her arm up round his neck; and after she had talked to him a little, he turned and came trotting back to the princess.
Almost beside herself with joy, she began caressing him in the rough way which, notwithstanding her love for them, she was in the habit of using with animals; and she was not gentle enough, in herself even, to see that he did not like it, and was only putting up with it for the sake of his mistress. But when, that she might jump upon his back, she laid hold of one of his wings, and ruffled some of the blue feathers, he wheeled suddenly about, gave his long tail a sharp whisk which threw her flat on the grass, and, trotting back to his mistress, bent down his head before her as if asking excuse for ridding himself of the unbearable.
The princess was furious. She had forgotten all her past life up to the time when she first saw the child: her beauty had made her forget, and yet she was now on the very borders of hating her. What she might have done, or rather tried to do, had not Peggy’s tail struck her down with such force that for a moment she could not rise, I cannot tell.
But while she lay half-stunned, her eyes fell on a little flower just under them. It stared up in her face like the living thing it was, and she could not take her eyes off its face. It was like a primrose trying to express doubt instead of confidence. It seemed to put her half in mind of something, and she felt as if shame were coming. She put out her hand to pluck it; but the moment her fingers touched it, the flower withered up, and hung as dead on its stalk as if a flame of fire had passed over it.
Then a shudder thrilled through the heart of the princess, and she thought with herself, saying—“What sort of a creature am I that the flowers wither when I touch them, and the ponies despise me with their tails? What a wretched, coarse, ill-bred creature I must be! There is that lovely child giving life instead of death to the flowers, and a moment ago I was hating her! I am made horrid, and I shall be horrid, and I hate myself, and yet I can’t help being myself!”
She heard the sound of galloping feet, and there was the pony, with the child seated betwixt his wings, coming straight on at full speed for where she lay.
“I don’t care,” she said. “They may trample me under their feet if they like. I am tired and sick of myself—a creature at whose touch the flowers wither!”
On came the winged pony. But while yet some distance off, he gave a great bound, spread out his living sails of blue, rose yards and yards above her in the air, and alighted as gently as a bird, just a few feet on the other side of her. The child slipped down and came and kneeled over her.
“Did my pony hurt you?” she said. “I am so sorry!”
“Yes, he hurt me,” answered the princess, “but not more than I deserved, for I took liberties with him, and he did not like it.”
“Oh, you dear!” said the little girl. “I love you for talking so of my Peggy. He is a good pony, though a little playful sometimes. Would you like a ride upon him?”
“You darling beauty!” cried Rosamond, sobbing. “I do love you so, you are so good. How did you become so sweet?”
“Would you like to ride my pony?” repeated the child, with a heavenly smile in her eyes.
“No, no; he is fit only for you. My clumsy body would hurt him,” said Rosamond.
“You don’t mind me having such a pony?” said the child.
“What! mind it?” cried Rosamond, almost indignantly. Then remembering certain thoughts that had but a few moments before passed through her mind, she looked on the ground and was silent.
“You don’t mind it, then?” repeated the child.
“I am very glad there is such a you and such a pony, and that such a you has got such a pony,” said Rosamond, still looking on the ground. “But I do wish the flowers would not die when I touch them. I was cross to see you make them grow, but now I should be content if only I did not make them wither.”
As she spoke, she stroked the little girl’s bare feet, which were by her, half buried in the soft moss, and as she ended she laid her cheek on them and kissed them.
“Dear princess,” said the little girl, “the flowers will not always wither at your touch. Try now—only do not pluck it. Flowers ought never to be plucked except to give away. Touch it gently,”
A silvery flower, something like a snowdrop, grew just within her reach. Timidly she stretched out her hand and touched it. The flower trembled, but neither shrank nor withered.
“Touch it again,” said the child.
It changed colour a little, and Rosamond fancied it grew larger.
“Touch it again,” said the child.
It opened and grew until it was as large as a narcissus, and changed and deepened in colour till it was a red glowing gold.
Rosamond gazed motionless. When the transfiguration of the flower was perfected, she sprang to her feet with clasped hands, but for very ecstasy of joy stood speechless, gazing at the child.
“Did you never see me before, Rosamond?” she asked.
“No, never,” answered the princess. “I never saw anything half so lovely.”
“Look at me,” said the child.
And as Rosamond looked, the child began, like the flower, to grow larger. Quickly through every gradation of growth she passed, until she stood before her a woman perfectly beautiful, neither old nor young; for hers was the old age of everlasting youth.
Rosamond was utterly enchanted, and stood gazing without word or movement, until she could endure no more delight. Then her mind collapsed to the thought—had the pony grown too? She glanced round. There was no pony, no grass, no flowers, no bright-birded forest—but the cottage of the wise woman—and before her, on the hearth of it, the goddess-child, the only thing unchanged.
She gasped with astonishment.
“You must set out for your father’s palace immediately,” said the lady.
“But where is the wise woman?” asked Rosamond, looking all about.
“Here!” said the lady.
And Rosamond, looking again, saw the wise woman, folded as usual in her long dark cloak. “It was you, then, after all!” she cried in delight, and kneeled before her, burying her face in her garments.
“It always is me, after all,” said the wise woman, smiling.
“And it was you all the time?”
“It always is me all the time.”
“But which is the real you?” asked Rosamond; “this or that?”
“Or a thousand others?” returned the wise woman. “But the one you have just seen is the likest to the real me that you are able to see just yet—but—. And that me you could not have seen a little while ago.—But, my darling child,” she went on, lifting her up and clasping her to her bosom, “you must not think, because you have seen me once, that therefore you are capable of seeing me at all times. No; there are many things in you yet that must be changed before that can be. Now, however, you will seek me. Every time you feel you want me, that is a sign I am wanting you. There are yet many rooms in my house you may have to go through; but when you need no more of them, then you will be able to throw flowers like the little girl you saw in the forest.”
The princess gave a sigh.
“Do not think,” the wise woman went on, “that the things you have seen in my house are mere empty shows? You do not know, you cannot yet think, how living and true they are. Now you must go.
She led her once more into the great hall, and there showed her the picture of her father’s capital, and his palace with the brazen gates.
“There is your home,” she said. “Go to it.”
The princess understood, and a flush of shame rose to her forehead. She turned to the wise woman and said:—
“Will you forgive all my naughtiness, and all the trouble I have given you?”
“If I had not forgiven you, I would never have taken the trouble to punish you. If I had not loved you, do you think I would have carried you away in my cloak?”
“How could you love such an ugly, ill-tempered, rude, hateful little wretch?”
“I saw, through it all, what you were going to be,” said the wise woman, kissing her. “But remember you have yet only begun to be what I saw.”
“I will try to remember,” said the princess, holding her cloak, and looking up in her face.
“Go, then,” said the wise woman.
Rosamond turned away on the instant, ran to the picture, stepped over the frame of it, heard a door close gently, gave one glance back, saw behind her the loveliest palace-front of alabaster, gleaming in the pale-yellow light of an early summer-morning, looked again to the eastward, saw the faint outline of her father’s city against the sky, and ran off to reach it.
It looked much further off now than when it seemed a picture, but the sun was not yet up, and she had the whole of a summer-day before her.
The soldiers sent out by the king, had no great difficulty in finding Agnes’s father and mother, of whom they demanded if they knew anything of such a young princess as they described. The honest pair told them the truth in every point—that, having lost their own child and found another, they had taken her home, and treated her as their own; that she had indeed called herself a princess, but they had not believed her, because she did not look like one; that, even if they had, they did not know how they could have done differently, seeing they were poor people, who could not afford to keep any idle person about the place; that they had done their best to teach her good ways, and had not parted with her until her bad temper rendered it impossible to put up with her any longer; that, as to the king’s proclamation, they heard little of the world’s news on their lonely hill, and it had never reached them; that if it had, they did not know how either of them could have gone such a distance from home, and left their sheep or their cottage, one or the other, uncared for.
“You must learn, then, how both of you can go, and your sheep must take care of your cottage,” said the lawyer, and commanded the soldiers to bind them hand and foot.
Heedless of their entreaties to be spared such an indignity, the soldiers obeyed, bore them to a cart, and set out for the king’s palace, leaving the cottage door open, the fire burning, the pot of potatoes boiling upon it, the sheep scattered over the hill, and the dogs not knowing what to do.
Hardly were they gone, however, before the wise woman walked up, with Prince behind her, peeped into the cottage, locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and then walked away up the hill. In a few minutes there arose a great battle between Prince and the dog which filled his former place—a well-meaning but dull fellow, who could fight better than feed. Prince was not long in showing him that he was meant for his master, and then, by his efforts, and directions to the other dogs, the sheep were soon gathered again, and out of danger from foxes and bad dogs. As soon as this was done, the wise woman left them in charge of Prince, while she went to the next farm to arrange for the folding of the sheep, and the feeding of the dogs.
When the soldiers reached the palace, they were ordered to carry their prisoners at once into the presence of the king and queen, in the throne room. Their two thrones stood upon a high dais at one end, and on the floor, at the foot of the dais, the soldiers laid their helpless prisoners. The queen commanded that they should be unbound, and ordered them to stand up. They obeyed with the dignity of insulted innocence, and their bearing offended their foolish majesties.
Meantime the princess, after a long day’s journey, arrived at the palace, and walked up to the sentry at the gate.
“Stand back,” said the sentry.
“I wish to go in, if you please,” said the princess gently.
“Ha! ha! ha!” laughed the sentry, for he was one of those dull people who form their judgment from a person’s clothes, without even looking in his eyes; and as the princess happened to be in rags, her request was amusing, and the booby thought himself quite clever for laughing at her so thoroughly. “I am the princess,” Rosamond said quietly.
“What princess?” bellowed the man. “The princess Rosamond. Is there another?” she answered and asked. But the man was so tickled at the wondrous idea of a princess in rags, that he scarcely heard what she said for laughing. As soon as he recovered a little, he proceeded to chuck the princess under the chin, saying—
“You’re a pretty girl, my dear, though you ain’t no princess.”
Rosamond drew back with dignity.
“You have spoken three untruths at once,” she said. “I am not pretty, and I am a princess, and if I were dear to you, as I ought to be, you would not laugh at me because I am badly dressed, but stand aside, and let me go to my father and mother.”
The tone of her speech, and the rebuke she gave him, made the man look at her; and looking at her, he began to tremble inside his foolish body, and wonder whether he might not have made a mistake. He raised his hand in salute, and said—
“I beg your pardon, Miss, but I have express orders to admit no child whatever within the palace gates. They tell me his majesty the king says he is sick of children.”
“He may well be sick of me!” thought the princess; “but it can’t mean that he does not want me home again.—I don’t think you can very well call me a child,” she said, looking the sentry full in the face.
“You ain’t very big, Miss,” answered the soldier, “but so be you say you ain’t a child, I’ll take the risk. The king can only kill me, and a man must die once.”
He opened the gate, stepped aside, and allowed her to pass. Had she lost her temper, as every one but the wise woman would have expected of her, he certainly would not have done so.
She ran into the palace, the door of which had been left open by the porter when he followed the soldiers and prisoners to the throne-room, and bounded up the stairs to look for her father and mother. As she passed the door of the throne-room she heard an unusual noise in it, and running to the king’s private entrance, over which hung a heavy curtain, she peeped past the edge of it, and saw, to her amazement, the shepherd and shepherdess standing like culprits before the king and queen, and the same moment heard the king say—
“Peasants, where is the princess Rosamond?”
“Truly, sire, we do not know,” answered the shepherd.
“You ought to know,” said the king.
“Sire, we could keep her no longer.”
“You confess, then,” said the king, suppressing the outbreak of the wrath that boiled up in him, “that you turned her out of your house?”
For the king had been informed by a swift messenger of all that had passed long before the arrival of the prisoners.
“We did, sire; but not only could we keep her no longer, but we knew not that she was the princess.”
“You ought to have known, the moment you cast your eyes upon her,” said the king. “Any one who does not know a princess the moment he sees her, ought to have his eyes put out.”
“Indeed he ought,” said the queen.
To this they returned no answer, for they had none ready.
“Why did you not bring her at once to the palace,” pursued the king, “whether you knew her to be a princess or not? My proclamation left nothing to your judgment. It said every child.
“We heard nothing of the proclamation, sire.”
“You ought to have heard,” said the king.” It is enough that I make proclamations; it is for you to read them. Are they not written in letters of gold upon the brazen gates of this palace?”
“A poor shepherd, your majesty—how often must he leave his flock, and go hundreds of miles to look whether there may not be something in letters of gold upon the brazen gates? We did not know that your majesty had made a proclamation, or even that the princess was lost.”
“You ought to have known,” said the king.
The shepherd held his peace.
“But,” said the queen, taking up the word, “all that is as nothing, when I think how you misused the darling.”
The only ground the queen had for saying this, was what Agnes had told her as to how the princess was dressed; and her condition seemed to the queen so miserable, that she had imagined all sorts of oppression and cruelty.
But this was more than the shepherdess, who had not yet spoken, could bear.
“She would have been dead, and not buried, long ago, madam, if I had not carried her home in my two arms.”
“Why does the woman say her two arms?” said the king to himself “Has she more than two? Is there treason in that?”
“You dressed her in cast-off clothes,” said the queen.
“I dressed her in my own sweet child’s Sunday clothes. And this is what I get for it!” cried the shepherdess, bursting into tears.
“And what did you do with the clothes you took off her? Sell them?”
“Put them in the fire, madam. They were not fit for the poorest child in the mountains. They were so ragged that you could see her skin through them in twenty different places.”
“You cruel woman, to torture a mother’s feelings so!” cried the queen, and in her turn burst into tears.
“And I’m sure,” sobbed the shepherdess, “I took every pains to teach her what it was right for her to know. I taught her to tidy the house, and”
“Tidy the house!” moaned the queen. “My poor wretched offspring!”
“And peel the potatoes, and—”
“Peel the potatoes!” cried the queen. “Oh, horror!”
“And black her master’s boots,” said the shepherdess.
“Black her master’s boots!” shrieked the queen.
“Oh, my white-handed princess! Oh, my ruined baby!”
“What I want to know,” said the king, paying no heed to this maternal duel, but patting the top of his sceptre as if it had been the hilt of a sword which he was about to draw, “is, where the princess is now.”
The shepherd made no answer, for he had nothing to say more than he had said already.
“You have murdered her!” shouted the king. “You shall be tortured till you confess the truth; and then you shall be tortured to death, for you are the most abominable wretches in the whole wide world.”
“Who accuses me of crime?” cried the shepherd, indignant.
“I accuse you,” said the king; “but you shall see, face to face, the chief witness to your villainy. Officer, bring the girl.”
Silence filled the hall while they waited. The king’s face was swollen with anger. The queen hid hers behind her handkerchief The shepherd and shepherdess bent their eyes on the ground, wondering. It was with difficulty Rosamond could keep her place, but so wise had she already become that she saw it would be far better to let everything come out before she interfered.
At length the door opened, and in came the officer, followed by Agnes, looking white as death, and mean as sin.
“The shepherdess gave a shriek, and darted towards her with arms spread wide; the shepherd followed, but not so eagerly.
“My child! my lost darling! my Agnes!” cried the shepherdess.
“Hold them asunder,” shouted the king. “Here is more villainy! What! have I a scullery-maid in my house born of such parents? The parents of such a child must be capable of anything. Take all three of them to the rack. Stretch them till their joints are torn asunder, and give them no water. Away with them!”
The soldiers approached to lay hands on them. But, behold! a girl, all in rags, with such a radiant countenance that it was right lovely to see, darted between, and careless of the royal presence, flung herself upon the shepherdess, crying,—
“Do not touch her. She is my good, kind mistress.”
But the shepherdess could hear or see no one but her Agnes, and pushed her away. Then the princess turned, with the tears in her eyes, to the shepherd, and threw her arms about his neck and pulled down his head and kissed him. And the tall shepherd lifted her to his bosom and kept her there, but his eyes were fixed on his Agnes.
“What is the meaning of this?” cried the king, starting up from his throne. “How did that ragged girl get in here? Take her away with the rest. She is one of them, too.”
But the princess made the shepherd set her down, and before any one could interfere she had run up the steps of the dais and then the steps of the king’s throne like a squirrel, flung herself upon the king, and begun to smother him with kisses.
All stood astonished, except the three peasants, who did not even see what took place. The shepherdess kept calling to her Agnes, but she was so ashamed that she did not dare even lift her eyes to meet her mother’s, and the shepherd kept gazing on her in silence. As for the king, he was so breathless and aghast with astonishment, that he was too feeble to fling the ragged child from him as he tried to do. But she left him, and running down the steps of the one throne and up those of the other, began kissing the queen next. But the queen cried out,—
“Get away, you great rude child!—Will nobody take her to the rack?”
Then the princess, hardly knowing what she did for joy that she had come in time, ran down the steps of the throne and the dais, and placing herself between the shepherd and shepherdess, took a hand of each, and stood looking at the king and queen.
Their faces began to change. At last they began to know her. But she was so altered—so lovelily altered, that it was no wonder they should not have known her at the first glance; but it was the fault of the pride and anger and injustice with which their hearts were filled, that they did not know her at the second.
The king gazed and the queen gazed, both half risen from their thrones, and looking as if about to tumble down upon her, if only they could be right sure that the ragged girl was their own child. A mistake would be such a dreadful thing!
“My darling!” at last shrieked the mother, a little doubtfully.
“My pet of pets!” cried the father, with an interrogative twist of tone.
Another moment, and they were half way down the steps of the dais.
“Stop!” said a voice of command from somewhere in the hall, and, king and queen as they were, they stopped at once half way, then drew themselves up, stared, and began to grow angry again, but durst not go farther.
The wise woman was coming slowly up through the crowd that filled the hall. Every one made way for her. She came straight on until she stood in front of the king and queen.
“Miserable man and woman!” she said, in words they alone could hear, “I took your daughter away when she was worthy of such parents; I bring her back, and they are unworthy of her.
That you did not know her when she came to you is a small wonder, for you have been blind in soul all your lives: now be blind in body until your better eyes are unsealed.”
She threw her cloak open. It fell to the ground, and the radiance that flashed from her robe of snowy whiteness, from her face of awful beauty, and from her eyes that shone like pools of sunlight, smote them blind.
Rosamond saw them give a great start, shudder, waver to and fro, then sit down on the steps of the dais; and she knew they were punished, but knew not how. She rushed up to them, and catching a hand of each, said—
“Father, dear father! mother dear! I will ask the wise woman to forgive you.”
“Oh, I am blind! I am blind!” they cried together. “Dark as night! Stone blind!”
Rosamond left them, sprang down the steps, and kneeling at her feet, cried, “Oh, my lovely wise woman! do let them see. Do open their eyes, dear, good, wise woman!”
The wise woman bent down to her, and said, so that none else could hear,—
“I will one day. Meanwhile you must be their servant, as I have been yours. Bring them to me, and I will make them welcome.”
Rosamond rose, went up the steps again to her father and mother, where they sat like statues with closed eyes, half-way from the top of the dais where stood their empty thrones, seated herself between them, took a hand of each, and was still.
All this time very few in the room saw the wise woman. The moment she threw off her cloak she vanished from the sight of almost all who were present. The woman who swept and dusted the hall and brushed the thrones, saw her, and the shepherd had a glimmering vision of her; but no one else that I know of caught a glimpse of her. The shepherdess did not see her. Nor did Agnes, but she felt her presence upon her like the heat of a furnace seven times heated.
As soon as Rosamond had taken her place between her father and mother, the wise woman lifted her cloak from the floor, and threw it again around her. Then everybody saw her, and Agnes felt as if a soft dewy cloud had come between her and the torrid rays of a vertical sun. The wise woman turned to the shepherd and shepherdess.
“For you,” she said,” you are sufficiently punished by the work of your own hands. Instead of making your daughter obey you, you left her to be a slave to herself; you coaxed when you ought to have compelled; you praised when you ought to have been silent; you fondled when you ought to have punished; you threatened when you ought to have inflicted—and there she stands, the full grown result of your foolishness! She is your crime and your punishment. Take her home with you, and live hour after hour with the pale-hearted disgrace you call your daughter. What she is, the worm at her heart has begun to teach her. When life is no longer endurable, come to me.”
“Madam,” said the shepherd, “may I not go with you now?”
“Husband! husband!” cried the shepherdess, “how are we two to get home without you?”
“I will see to that,” said the wise woman. “But little of home you will find it until you have come to me. The king carried you hither, and he shall carry you back. But your husband shall not go with you. He cannot now if he would.”
The shepherdess looked, and saw that the shepherd stood in a deep sleep. She went to him and sought to rouse him, but neither tongue nor hands were of the slightest avail.
The wise woman turned to Rosamond.
“My child,” she said, “I shall never be far from you. Come to me when you will. Bring them to me.”
Rosamond smiled and kissed her hand, but kept her place by her parents. They also were now in a deep sleep like the shepherd.
The wise woman took the shepherd by the hand, and led him away.
And that is all my double story. How double it is, if you care to know, you must find out. If you think it is not finished—I never knew a story that was. I could tell you a great deal more concerning them all, but I have already told more than is good for those who read but with their foreheads, and enough for those whom it has made look a little solemn, and sigh as they close the book.
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