THEODELINDA AND THE WATER-SPRITE
ON the edge of the forest, where the flowers grow that do not thrive in the deeper shade, where the brown field-mice dwell and the green lizards, where the wren dodges through the bushes and beetles in golden coats of mail tumble about the wild roses, there stood, like sentinels, two primeval pine-trees, which seemed to grow from the same root. At the foot of the twin trees was a seat formed of stones and moss, and on the seat sat a lady who only differed from the majority of her sisters in that her form showed hollows, where one was usually accustomed to find roundness. She wore a sky-blue dress and a broad-brimmed straw hat, which shaded a yellowish face, framed by two bread-colored culls. In her right hand she held a dainty pencil, in her left a little red book, on the cover of which, in gold letters, was inscribed these words: “The Blossoms of Theodelinda's Mind.”
Theodelinda was a poetess, and the latest blossom of her mind ran thus:—
In cool moss by the wood A lovely rose-bush stood. There came a lad one day And broke a rose away.
The rose, in sorrow, said, “He will my petals shed; Yet sweet it is to die, If on his breast I lie.”
The verses were written down, and the poetess' watery blue eyes looked longingly into the distance, but the lad of whom she was thinking would not come; the lad was at that moment sitting with two boisterous companions, drinking, in the forest tavern of the White Stag, and never dreamed of breaking the little rose.
Theodelinda sighed, and picked a daisy which was growing in the grass at her feet. “He loves me,” she murmured, as her sharp fingers pulled off the white petals, — “he loves me with all his heart—passionately—beyond measure—desperately—a little—not at all.” Alas, poor Theodelinda!
“That is absurd child's play,” she said, and threw the mutilated flower contemptuously on the ground. Then she tucked up her dress and walked away into the woods, probably to pluck one or two more of the blossoms of her mind in its sacred dim shade.
If Theodelinda had not been a city girl, but a peasant child of the mountains, she would have been much more careful when she undertook to go through the woods; and, above all things, would have put in her shoe a little branch of the shrub which renders harmless all magic charms. Then what came to pass would hardly have happened to her. But what could a poor city lass know about the secrets of the forest ?
Where the mightiest fir-trees, with long gray beards of moss stand, in the shade grows a plant called “err-wort.” Nobody except the woodpecker, who knows all magic plants, has ever seen it, but many a one who has stepped on it unawares, and not had the counter-charm with him, must have felt its effect.
While the poetess was trying to add “love” and “ dove “ “ heart “ and “ part “ to the blossoms of her thought, she went gradually deeper and deeper into the forest. The approaching twilight and a longing in the region of the stomach, which ordinary mortals call hunger, first warned the pleasure-seeker that it was time to return home. She turned to go back by the way she had come, but it seemed to her as though the forest were endless, for she went around in a circle, and the err-wort, on which she had stepped unawares, was to blame for it. Oh, misery! oh, misery! It grew darker and darker all the time. The shadowy creatures of the night glided across the path, and the hooting of the robber owls was heard. Theodelinda was in despair.
Suddenly she found herself before a little house, out of whose window shone a faint light. With thankful heart she knocked on the door; it opened, and she went in.
In the hut were three trim little women, no larger than half-grown girls, busy baking cakes on the hearth. They were little forest folk. They are usually invisible, but whoever steps on the err-wort is able to see the little forest folk, and many other things besides.
They received the wanderer with kindness and attention, pushed a stool up to the fire for her, and entertained her with bread and milk. Theodelinda felt confidence in them, and was soon quite at her ease in their company, for they promised when the morning came to show her the right way.
“This is for once a real adventure, such as only a poet can meet with,” thought Theodelinda; and she experienced the feeling of gentle horror, mingled with satisfaction, of a child listening to a ghost story. But it was going to be still better.
Suddenly there was a tapping on the window, and a man's voice was heard to say:—
“Open the door, ye sisters dear! The moon shines on the waters clear. It led one through the forest way. Open the door, good sisters, pray!”
“There he is again,” said one of the little women; “the fiend, the nuisance ! his mother, the old nixie, sends him here. She wants him to marry, so that the thoughtless fellow may become orderly and domestic, and so she thinks that one of us ought to count it an honor to become her daughter-in-law. But I would rather be a spinster than leave my green forest and become his wife.”
“ And so would I!” “And so would I!” said the other two little women. But Theodelinda said not a word.
“We must let him in,” continued the first one; “that can do no harm. He is a very dangerous fellow, and we dare not arouse his anger.” And, with a sigh, she unbolted the door.
The water-sprite came in. He had a pretty face and a slender form. To be sure, he had green hair, but Miss Theodelinda thought it was very becoming to him.
The guest looked somewhat disturbed when he discovered what a visitor the little folk had, but, like a well-bred person, he did not allow his displeasure to be noticed, and made himself as charming as only a water sprite knows how to be.
Theodelinda was very talkative; she told about balls and the theatre, and the water-sprite listened patiently. Then he had to tell something about himself, and he did it graciously.
Indeed, he was a fine man, and probably much better than his reputation. And besides, he had a crystal castle in the lake, which was not to be despised, and the old mother nixie was surely a very fine woman. Thus thought Theodelinda; and in her mind she was already rocking on the waves like Melusina, and floating through the air in a feathery robe.
She longed to make an impression on the water-sprite. Therefore, after a few preliminary remarks, she took the little red book out of her bosom and began to read her poetry.
For some time the water-sprite listened and murmured words of appreciation. But suddenly he jumped up and exclaimed: “Gracious goodness! I had almost forgotten that I was invited by the wild huntsman and Lady Holle to a card party. I beg you to excuse me.” Having spoken these words, he rushed out of the house.
Theodelinda looked out, surprised, at the door through which he had fled. But the little forest people clapped their hands and cried joyfully: “You have done well; you have done well! You must have a present as a reward.”
And one of the little women went to a chest, took a skein of blue yarn out of it, and handed it to the poetess with these words: “Take good care of it; there is a blessing with it.”
Theodelinda did not know what to make of it all.
Vexed at the behavior of the water-sprite, and tired from the day's exertion, she begged her to show her to a sleeping-place. The little women heaped up a bed of leaves for her. Then she lay down and fell asleep.
When she awoke, she was lying on the edge of the wood, under the twin pines. The cool morning wind was blowing through the tops of the trees and playing with Theodelinda's bread-colored locks.
“So I have been dreaming,” she said to her self, “and slept all night in the woods.” She felt in the place where she was accustomed to put away her red book, but the book was gone. She jumped up in alarm, and then a great skein of blue yarn rolled out of her lap on the ground. So it wasn't a dream, after all.
She hunted for her red book, but it had disappeared forever. Chilly, and out of sorts, she tried to reach home as soon as possible, to recover from her adventure in the forest. It ended in a hard cold.
While Theodelinda was shut up in her room on account of her indisposition, she wrote her poetry from memory in a new book. The little forest women had taken the old one away from her, while she slept, in order to use the blossoms of Theodelinda's mind as effectual weapons against the water-sprite's obtrusiveness. Indeed, that put an end to his visits, and soon after he married the daughter of a nixie of good family.
But the blue skein of yarn which the little forest folk had given the poetess as a present, was no ordinary skein; unwind as much of it as you pleased, you would never come to the end.
And Miss Theodelinda knit stocking after stocking, and made verses at the same time; and when she went along the street, the people said, “Here comes the blue-stocking.”