There was once a man, my dear good friends. This man would now—I am telling no lie—this man would now be a hundred years old, if not twenty more to boot; his wife, too, was older than any body I know; she was like the Friday-goddess (Venus), and from youth to age had never had a single child. Only those who know what children are in a house can understand the uncontrollable grief in the empty home of the old man and his wife. The poor old man had done every thing in his power to have his house brightened and filled with joy by what he himself so greatly desired. He had given alms to the convents and churches, he had had liturgies read in seven churches, had sent for priests with white beards, because they are the holiest men and have more earnestness in prayer, and had had masses read for all the saints and prayers for the last unction. But every thing was useless. The old wife had clung to the witches and magicians. There was not an enchanter to whom she had not gone for advice, even if he lived a week's journey off. As I said before, what wouldn't she have done! But it was vain, all was useless.
One day the old man said sadly and thoughtfully:
"What do you want?"
"Give me some provisions to take with me on my journey, for I intend to travel through the wide world, looking wherever I go to try and find a child, for my heart aches and burns when I think that the end of my life is drawing near, and no heir will have my house after me, but all my property fall into the hands of strangers. I have tried all ways, now I will take this one. And I'll tell you one thing: If I find no child, I won't come home any more."
With these words the old man took his knapsack on his back, went out of the house, and began his journey. He walked on and on and on through the kingdom and the world, as God willed. Listen, good friends, I am telling the truth. He walked on till he came to a thick forest, so dense that it seemed like a wall. Tree was intwined with tree, bush with bush, so that the sun could not even send so much as a ray of light through the foliage. When the old man saw these vast woods he thrice made the sign of the cross toward the east, prostrated himself three times, also toward the east, and then entered with great sorrow. How long a time he spent in groping about the forest I don't know, but I do know that one day he reached the entrance of a cave. This cave was hundreds and thousands of times darker than the deep forest, as dark as it is when we shut our eyes, as dark as it usually is in endless caverns. The old man crossed himself three times, fell on his knees several times, and then, with God's assistance, turned around a projection of a rock. He went about the distance of a gun-shot and saw a light in a cranny. Approaching nearer and nearer he could not believe his eyes when he saw what was standing beside it. An old hermit! He was very old, as ancient as the world. He had a white beard that reached to his knees, and when he raised his eyebrows and then lowered them again they shaded the whole cave.
The hermit stood like a pillar of stone, his eyes fixed on a psalm-book on which his elbow rested, and which was sprinkled with big red characters; it was very, very old, so old that God alone knew to what period it belonged; and on a broad stone a yellow wax-candle blazed with a red flame and a blue smoke that was as dense as a cloud. The old man approached the praying saint and, again falling on his knees, said:
"Good-evening, holy father!"
The hermit was so absorbed in his litany that he heard nothing. So our old man spoke louder. The hermit did not stir, but made him a sign with his crutch to move aside. The old man stood aloof till the hermit had finished his prayer. When it was over, he raised his eyebrows and began:
"My son, what do you seek from me in this dark, cheerless abode? For many centuries my eyes have seen no human face, and now I wonder what has led your footsteps hither."
The old man answered:
"I kiss your right hand. My unhappiness has brought me here. I have lived with my wife many years, but we have no children, and I should like to have an heir when I behold our Lord's glorious face."
The hermit took an apple, and, after having blessed it, cut it in two, and said:
"Take these two halves of the apple; give this one to your wife, eat the other yourself, and in God's name do not wander over the world so."
The old man took the gift, kissed the hermit's right hand and feet, and left the cave. Entering the dense forest, he walked a long time before he came to the meadows. There a terrible thirst and burning sensation in the throat seized upon him. What should he do, for he found no water? He did precisely what he was destined to do. He took the half apple and ate it. But instead of the half intended for him, he ate his wife's. He had scarcely swallowed it when he felt as if he could go no further. So he sank down on the grass where a quantity of yellow cheese-wort was growing, and fell sound asleep. And the angel of the Lord came down from Heaven, and watched beside him. When he awoke, what did his eyes behold? The wonder of wonders! The most marvelous of marvels! By his side, among the herbs, a little child was crying and moving its tiny hands. The angel brought some basil and some water that had been consecrated nine years, sprinkled the child, and christened it, giving it the name of "Little Wild-Rose." The old man, happier than he had ever been at the sight of the pretty little girl, took her in his arms, kissed her, and set off with her to his wife. When he reached the house he took a kneading-trough, put the little thing in it, set it on the roof, and then crawled into the cottage, saying:
"Come quick, wife, come quick, and see what a treasure of a daughter, with golden hair and eyes like stars, our Lord has given me."
When they hurried out, to see the treasure of a girl and take the trough down from the roof, they saw nothing, no trace of the child anywhere. The old man crossed himself and sighed deeply. He searched hither and thither, right and left, but the little girl was nowhere to be found. He hunted through the straw in the hut and on the ground behind it to see if she had fallen down; but if she wasn't there she wasn't, and that ended the matter, for they couldn't stamp her out of the earth.
Oh, heavens, how the old man grieved and wrung his hands in despair. How could he help being startled by such a thing! He had put the child in the trough and seen her after he had laid her in it, and knew exactly where he had left her, and now to be unable to find her just a moment after was quite too bad.
"What could have happened to the little girl? Has the angel of the Lord taken her? Have the elves and wicked gnomes stolen her away? What in the world could have occurred!" said the man, sighing. Somebody had taken her, that was plain. But neither angels nor elves nor wicked gnomes frequented the neighborhood. Now, my good friends, just listen to the amazing event. A vulture or a griffin, whichever it was, but we'll say a griffin, was passing by, and, hearing the child's cries, swooped swiftly down, seized the little one, tucked her under its right wing, soared up into the sky with her, and took her to its eyry to feed its young. After putting her in its nest, the griffin flew off again. But the young birds, instead of eating the little girl, looked kindly at her, gave her some soft bread-crumbs, made a bed for her, and covered her with their wings to protect her from the chill of the morning air.
I must now tell you that in this terrible forest, at the bottom of a well of pure poison, lived a dragon with twelve heads, and this well was not far from the tree in whose top rested the griffin's nest. This horrible dragon never let the little griffins grow up, but as soon as they were ready to fly stretched out two of its fiery heads and put an end to their lives, so that the poor old griffin had never yet, in all its life, been able to see even one of its children fly off.
The present brood were now full-grown, and were waiting for daylight to fly through the woods and mountains, when lo, just at midnight the water of the well made a splashing noise, and what appeared in the moonlight that flickered through the trees? Two fiery heads, which approached the nest, setting up such a howling and wailing that the mountains shook to their foundations and the valleys rocked to and fro like cradles. Suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, the joints of the earth and sky trembled and quaked, and the archangel, grasping a sword in his hand, appeared on a golden cloud, darting downward like a thunderbolt. Just as the dragon was going to seize the young griffins, the angel flashed his sword from east to west, and again from west to east, cutting off both heads as easily as one drinks a spoonful of water. Then two still more terrible ones came, but they were also hacked into pieces. Two others next appeared; they, too, were destroyed, and so fared all the twelve. Blood and poison flowed till the whole forest and valley were turned into a marsh, and the heads dashed against the tree which held the nest, so that the leaves fell from the boughs for ten miles around. The angel took some basil plant, and sprinkled the four quarters of the earth with water that had been consecrated in Paradise nine years before. The pools of blood all gathered into one spot, the heads lost their vitality, and the ground opened, swallowing them up with all the blood, so that the wood once more became pure and bright as God meant it to be.
When the griffin came back at dawn, found its children safe in the nest, and saw that the accursed well had disappeared, it uttered such a cry of delight that the earth for nine miles round trembled and shook.
Then it waked the young birds and said:
"Tell me quickly, my darlings, who has done me this great favor?"
The young birds shook their heads and replied: "We don't know any thing about it, we have been asleep all night."
As the griffin looked about, its glance fell upon the little girl, whose golden hair and starry eyes were glittering in the morning sunlight like the torches of Paradise, and the thought instantly darted through its mind that this beautiful light must have rendered the unspeakable benefit.
"Children," said the griffin, angrily, "you haven't eaten the little girl, what does this mean?" The young birds kept as still as mice, but the griffin straightway swallowed lovely little Wild-Rose, yet when she appeared again she was seven times as beautiful as before.
The griffin now set about a great task; all day long it brought flowers and soft green moss from the woodland meadows to make the little girl a room like a fairy's nest, and this tiny chamber, whenever the wind blew, rocked to and fro like a cradle. From this time little Wild-Rose was as dear to it as its own children, nay, she was the very apple of the griffin's eye, and it took care of her and fed her with the very best things a griffin could find.
So the little Wild-Rose with the golden hair began to grow and flourish like a stately lily. In the morning the merry dawn kissed and woke her, at noon the shadows of the leafy boughs fanned her, and in the evening she was lulled to rest by the gentle breezes and the tunes that echoed through the forest from the shepherds' pipes.
So the little girl grew in beauty till she was able to stand alone, and one day, just as the evening-star was bathing in the rosy light left by the sun when it sank behind the mountains, the Lord permitted what had been predestined to happen, though it was something that had never occurred before, since this world was created and the sun began its course through the sky. So it happened that little Wild-Rose stood up, came out of her little room, and for the first time gazed into the world. But when she looked at the evening-sky the air quivered, the rising stars trembled, and on the eastern horizon a second sun, more beautiful and a hundred times brighter than the one which had set behind the mountains, rose upward in majesty and splendor as if mounting from a sea of fire. The forests, chasms and valleys quaked, the flowers whispered sweetly to each other and turned their little heads toward the vivifying waves of light. And now behold—the fairest flowers tried to drink in the little maid's glances, and the trees around bowed their tops to rejoice in little Wild-Rose's beauty. In short, the whole of God's creation, the birds in the sky as well as the beasts in the forest, exulted and jumped for joy over the divine miracle.
After that evening's festival, twice three days passed, then three times three, finally still more until little Wild-Rose was fourteen years old.
At fourteen little Wild-Rose was beautiful—so beautiful that I am afraid to praise her and describe her perfections, lest you should afterward say that you had seen some one equally handsome. But there was no one like her under the sun. Lovely as she was, no human being had seen her, and she had no idea of empires and cities; she lived on sisterly terms with the flowers, danced with the butterflies, was lulled by the murmur of the brook, vied with the birds in singing. Now, my dear readers, forgive me for first telling you I would say nothing, and afterward adding a few words in praise of little Wild-Rose. Who that has ever seen her can help talking about her?
So the days passed like hours and the hours like minutes, until one day a great hunt took place in the beautiful woods.
The emperor's son went to the chase too.
Well, evidently this ought to have been. The prince, in a good or evil hour—I don't know which I ought to say—saw a deer bound into the thicket, and hurried after the animal faster and faster and faster, till the young hero found himself where he had never been even in his dreams—in the very depths of the dense forest, which was still untrodden by any human foot.
When the prince discovered his situation, he stood still and listened, to try to hear some sound in this solitude; the barking of a dog, the blast of a horn, the report of a gun, any thing of the sort would have pleased the youth. But he listened in vain, utter silence and solitude surrounded him. After gazing around him for some time a dazzling light gleamed through the foliage. He glanced that way again, and felt that he must know what was there. One, two, three, and he reached the spot to see what it was. And he found—found the tree with the dainty little swinging chamber, and the young griffins staring at him. Whatever he may have thought, he drew his bow and would have instantly shot off the heads of the whole brood, when, like a thunderbolt, a blaze of light flashed into his face, dazzling him so that he dropped the bow and covered his eyes with his hands. When he looked that way again, he saw for half a minute the face and figure of little Wild-Rose, felt as if he were in the other world, and could not help falling on the grass in a fainting-fit. When he recovered his senses he called to the young girl to come down. But how was Wild-Rose to do such a thing? She did not go to a young man, but staid quietly at home with her mamma.
When the prince saw this he went away as he had come. Yet no, not exactly as he had come, for when he arrived his heart had not been full of love and longing. Neither had he come through the bushes without any trace of path or opening. But now he tumbled about wherever he went, as though he had no eyes. Yet, however he returned, he did return, arriving just as the shepherds were driving their cattle from the pasture into the village, and there he luckily met two of his hunting companions.
Early the next morning heralds from the imperial court went through the whole country, proclaiming that whoever would promise to bring a wonder of a girl from the forest of the well with two trees, would be received by the emperor as his councilor so long as he lived and the whole court would do him honor. Lo, and behold! there came an old, lame woman, with a hump on her back and as much hair on her head as there is on the palm of the hand. "I am the person who can bring the girl from the forest of the well with the two trees," she said. The heralds looked at the old woman and burst out laughing.
"Are you from Satan's kingdom, you scare-crow?" said a herald. "Who, in the Wood Witch's name, brought you in our way, for now we shall have no luck. Begone from our sight."
But the old woman insisted that she could bring the girl from the forest. And she stuck to the heralds like a bur to a sheep.
Then the oldest herald said: "Comrades, take her with us, for the emperor said plainly that we were to bring to the court any person, no matter who, that boasted of being able to execute his command; take the old woman and put her in the carriage."
So they took the old woman and carried her to court.
"You have boasted that you could bring the girl from the forest?" asked the emperor, seated on his throne.
"Long life to your majesty. Yes, I promised to do so."
"Then set to work."
"Let that be the old woman's care, but give me a kettle and a tripod." She quickly received them and set off behind the emperor's huntsmen, her mouth chattering and the kettle rattling, as the gipsies do when they bring a bride to her wedding. The prince had not remained at home either. How could he have staid behind and not known the why and wherefore! When the party reached the forest, the hunters and the prince halted and the old woman went on, like the Wood Witch, alone.
The shrewd, cunning old woman lighted a fire under the tree where the girl was, placed the tripod over the flames, and hung the kettle on it. But the kettle stood awry and upset as fast as she put it on. Little Wild-Rose, who was looking down from her room and saw the old woman's stupidity, lost her patience and called:
"Not that way, old woman, set the tripod the other way."
"But suppose I don't know how, my darling?"
And she vainly set it up, turned it round, and straightened it, the kettle would not stand. Wild-Rose grew more and more impatient and angry.
"Haven't I already told you once that it won't stand so? Turn the handle of the kettle toward the trunk of the tree."
The old woman did exactly the opposite, and then said:
"Come down and show me, dear child."
And Wild-Rose, absorbed by that one idea, climbed quickly down the tree to teach the crone. But the old woman taught her so that she needed no second lesson. Seizing her by the arm, she lifted her on her shoulder and ran off with her to the enamored prince. When the prince saw Wild-Rose, he came to meet her, begged for her hand, and, trembling, kissed her. Then she was clothed in magnificent garments, which had been embroidered with gold and pearls by nine princesses.
She was placed in the imperial carriage, and the horses stopped only once on the way home to take breath, for they had no equals except among the steeds of the sun. When they reached the palace, the prince lifted her out, led her in, and seated her at the table as if she were a real princess. The young hero's parents gazed at her with delight, and remembered their own youth. At the end of a week a magnificent wedding was celebrated, which lasted for three days and three nights, then, after twenty-four hours' intermission, three days and three nights more were spent in splendid festivities.
I was there, too, but as I am lame in one foot, I did not arrive until the wedding was over and had great trouble in finding some clear broth, which I searched in vain for a crumb of meat and then sipped from a sieve, so you can imagine how much I had and how I spent the time.