THE WATER OF YOUTH
IT was Midsummer day and the heat of noon lay on the cornfields. Occasionally a fresh breeze blew down from the forest mountain; then the stalks would bend low, and the poppies on the border of the field would scatter their delicate petals. Crickets and grasshoppers made music in the grain, and from the hawthorn bushes on the boundary line came now and then the low call of the yellow-hammer.
Through the cornfield, which stretched from the valley to the mountain, along a narrow path a young peasant woman of slender, vigorous form, was walking. She wore the full gown customary in the country, and a red kerchief on her head to protect her from the sun's rays; a basket hung on her left arm, and in her right hand she carried a stone jug.
As soon as the gold-hammer in the hawthorn bush saw her he flew to the topmost bough and greeted her with the cry, “Little girl, little girl, how are you!” But the bird was mistaken; the fair-haired Greta was no maiden, but a young wife, and she was now on her way to her husband, who was cutting wood over in the forest.
When the beautiful woman reached the edge of the woods she stopped to listen, and soon she heard the blows of an axe, towards which she was to turn her steps. It was not long before she caught sight of her husband, who was felling a fir-tree with mighty strokes, and she called to him in a joyful voice.
“Stand still, where you are!” he shouted back; “the tree is going to fall.” And the fir-tree gave a deep groan, bent forward, and fell to the ground with a crash.
Then Greta came along, and the sun-burned wood-cutter took his young wife in his arms and kissed her fondly. Then they sat down on the trunk of a tree and took out the lunch that she had brought in the basket. Then Hans laid down his bread, seized his axe, saying, “I have forgotten something,” and went to the stump of the tree he had just felled, and cut three crosses in the wood.
“Why do you do that, Hans?” asked his wife.
“That is for the sake of the little old women of the forest,” the husband explained. “The poor little creatures have a wicked enemy, the wild huntsman. He lies in wait for them day and night, and hunts them with his dogs. But if the persecuted little women can escape to such a tree trunk, then the wild huntsman can do them no harm, on account of the three crosses.”
The young wife opened her eyes wide. “Have you ever seen one of these little forest folk?” she asked, with curiosity.
“No; they seldom let themselves be seen. But this is Midsummer day, and then they are visible.” And suddenly he called out in a clear voice into the forest, “Little forest woman, come forth!”
He had only done it to tease his wife. But on holy Midsummer day one should not make sport of such things in the forest.
Suddenly there stood before the young people a little woman about an ell high, of dainty form and beautiful face. She wore a long white dress, and a bunch of mistletoe in her yellow hair.
Hans and Greta were very much startled. They rose quickly from their seat, and Greta made a courtesy as well as she knew how.
“You called me at just the right time,” said the little creature, and pointed with her forefinger at the sun, which stood exactly over her head; “and one good turn”— here she pointed to the stump with the three marks — “deserves another. Gold and silver have I none to give you, but I know something better. Come with me; no harm will happen to you; and take your jug with you; you will be able to use it.”
Having spoken these words, she went on. Hans shouldered his axe, Greta took up her stone jug, and both followed the little woman. But she walked exactly like a duck, and Greta pulled her husband's arm, pointed to the little waddling woman, and was going to whisper something in his ear, but Hans laid his finger on his mouth. Nothing hurts the little creatures more than to have their gait made fun of. They have feet like a goose, and that is why they wear long, flowing skirts.
After a short time, the three came to an open place in the woods. Primeval trees stood in a circle around a meadow, in the grass grew lilies and bluebells, and great butterflies sat on them, opening and shutting their wings. And Hans, who thought he knew the whole forest, could not remember that he had ever been in this place before. On the border of the meadow stood a little house. The walls were covered with bark, and the roof was shingled with scales of fir cones, and each scale was fastened down with a rose-thorn. Here was the little woman's home.
She led her guests behind the house, and pointed to a well whose waters flowed noiselessly out of the black earth. Juicy colt's-foot and fleur-de-lis grew on its brink, and over the surface danced golden-green dragon-flies.
“That is the well of youth,” said the little woman. “A bath in its waters makes an old man a boy and an old woman a young girl again. But if one drinks the water, it prevents him from growing old, and grants him the freshness of youth till death. Fill your jug and carry it home. But use the precious water sparingly: one drop every Sunday is sufficient to keep you young. And one thing more: if ever you, Hans, cast your eye on any other woman, or you, Greta, on any other man, the water will lose its power. Remember that. Now fill your jug, and farewell!”
The little creature spoke these words, prevented the lucky pair from thanking her, and went into her house. But Greta filled the jug with the water of youth, and then hurried away, as fast as she could go, to her own cottage.
When they reached home, Hans put the water in a bottle, and sealed it with fir-resin. “For the present,” he said, “we have no use for the water of youth, and we can save it; the time will come soon enough when we shall need it.” And then they put the bottle in the cupboard, where they kept their treasures,— a pair of old coins, a string of garnet beads from which hung a golden penny, and two silver spoons. “But, Greta, now be sure and take care that the water does not lose its strength!”
And what care they took! If the young forester passed by the garden, and exchanged a greeting with Greta, as he was accustomed to do, then Greta did not look up from her vegetable bed. And when Hans sat in the White Stag in the evening, and the pretty Lizzie brought him the wine, he made up a face like a cat when it thunders; and at last he gave up going to the inn, and stayed at home with his wife. So the water must surely keep its magic power.
Thus passed a year of love and happiness to the young pair; for instead of two there were three of them. In the cradle a little round boy was kicking and screaming, till the father's heart leaped for joy. “Now,” he thought, “the time has come for opening the bottle. What do you think, Greta? A drop of the water of youth will do you good.”
His wife agreed with him, and Hans went to the room where the magic drink was kept. With his hands trembling for joy, he broke the seal, and — oh dear! oh dear! the bottle slipped from his grasp, and the drink of youth flowed over the floor. A little more and Hans would have fallen on the floor, too, for he was so frightened at the misfortune. What should he do? On no account should his wife know what had happened; she might die from fright. Perhaps he would tell her later what he had done; perhaps, too, he might find the well of youth again, — which, to be sure, he had sought for hitherto in vain, — and repair the loss. He hastily filled a new bottle, which was exactly like the first, with well-water; and well-water it was too that he gave to his wife.
“Ah, how that revives and strengthens me!” said Greta. “Take a drop too, dear Hans.” And Hans obeyed, and praised the virtue of the wonderful drink; and from that time on they each took a drop when the bells were ringing for church. And Greta bloomed like a rose; as for Hans, every vein in his body swelled with health and strength. But he put off the confession of his deed from day to day; for he secretly hoped to find the well of youth again at last. But roam through the woods as much as he would, the meadow where the little old woman lived he could not find.
Thus two years more passed by. A little girl had come to join the little boy, and Greta's round chin had grown double. She did not notice it herself, for looking-glasses were not known in those days. Hans saw it, to be sure, but he took care not to speak of it, and his love for his portly wife redoubled.
Then came a misfortune; at least, Dame Greta considered it so. One day, when she was cleaning house, little Peter, her eldest, got into the cupboard, where the bottle of the supposed water of youth stood, clumsily upset it, so that it broke and spilled the contents.
“Oh, merciful heavens!” bewailed the mother. “It is lucky, though, that Hans is not at home!” With trembling hands she gathered up the pieces from the floor, and replaced the bottle with another, which she filled with ordinary water. —”The deception will surely be found out, for now it is all over with the eternal youth. Oh dear, oh dear!”— But she determined, above all, not to let her husband notice anything unusual.
Again some time passed by, and the two people lived together the same as on the day that the priest joined their hands together. Each carefully avoided letting the other notice that youth was past, and every Sunday they conscientiously took the magic drop.
One morning, when the husband was combing his hair, it happened that he came across a gray hair. And he thought, “Now the time has come for me to tell my wife the truth.” With a heavy heart he began: “Greta, it seems to me that our water of youth has lost its power. See! I have found a gray hair. I am growing old.”
Greta was startled; but she recovered herself, and, with a forced laugh, cried: “A gray hair! I was no more than ten years old when I had a gray lock in my hair. Such a thing often happens. You have just been cleaning a badger; perhaps you got some of the fat in your hair; badger's fat is known to turn the hair gray. No, dear Hans, the water still has its old power, or,”— here she gave him an anxious look —”or do you think that I am growing old too?”
Then Hans laughed outright. “You — old ? You are as blooming as a peony!” And then he threw his arms around her big waist and gave her a kiss. But when he was by himself he said with secret delight, “Thank the Lord! She doesn't notice that we are growing old. So I must have done right.”
And his wife thought the same thing.
On the evening of the same day the young people of the village danced to the fiddle of a travelling musician, and no merrier couple turned about the linden-tree than Hans and Greta. The peasant women, to be sure, made sarcastic remarks about them, but the two happy people heard none of their ridicule.
In the following autumn it happened, as Hans was eating a Martinmas goose with his family, Dame Greta broke out one of her teeth. Then there was a great lament, for she had been proud of her white teeth. And when the husband and wife were alone together, Greta said in an unsteady voice, “Such a misfortune would not have happened if the water—”
Then Hans began to scold. “You expect the water to help everything? Doesn't it often happen that a child, in cracking a nut, breaks out a tooth? What have you against the delicious water? Are you not as fresh and healthy as a young head of lettuce? Or have you cast your eyes on another, that you mistrust the water's virtue?”
Then his wife laughed, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and kissed her old man till he nearly lost his breath. In the afternoon they sat together on the stone seat in front of the house, and sang duets about true love, and the passersby said, “The silly old people!” but the happy pair did not hear them.
Thus passed many years. The house had become too small for the children; they had married and gone away, and had children of their own. The two old people were alone again, and were as much in love with each other as on the day of their wedding; and every Sunday, when the bells were ringing for church, they each took one drop out of the bottle.
Midsummer day was drawing near again. The evening before, Hans and Greta were sitting in front of the house, looking up towards the hill where the Midsummer bonfire was blazing; and from the distance sounded the merry shouts of the young men and maidens, as they poked the fire and jumped through the flames in couples. Then the wife said, “Dear Hans, I should like to go into the forest once more. If you are willing, we will start early to-morrow morning. But you must waken me, for, at the time when the elderberries bloom, young women are apt to sleep long after daylight.”
Hans was agreed. The next morning he woke his wife and they went together to the woods. They walked along arm in arm, like two lovers, and each carefully guarded the steps of the other.
When Hans stepped cautiously over the root of a tree, his wife would say, “Oh, Hans, you jump like a young kid!” And when Greta timidly crossed a little hole, her husband would laugh, and cry, “Hold up your skirts, Greta! hop!” Then they found an old fir-tree, and in its shadow feasted on what Greta had brought with her.
“Here it was,” said Hans, “that the little old woman once appeared to us, and over yonder must lie the meadow with the well of youth. But I have never been able to find meadow or well again.”
“And, thank the Lord, that has not been necessary,” hastily interrupted Greta, “for our bottle is still far from empty.”
“To be sure, to be sure,” assented Hans. “But I should be very much pleased if we could see the good little woman once again and thank her for our good fortune. Come, let us go and look. Perhaps I may be as lucky to-day as before.”
Then they rose and went into the deep forest, and behold! after a quarter of an hour, before their eyes shone the sunny forest meadow! Lilies and harebells bloomed in the grass, bright butterflies flew hither and thither, and on the edge of the woods still stood the little house just as years before. With beating hearts they went round the house, and sure enough, there was the well of youth too, with the golden-green dragonflies hovering over it.
Hans and Greta stepped up to the brink of the well. Taking each other by the hand, they bent over the water — and out of the clear mirror of the spring, two gray heads, with kindly, wrinkled faces, looked back at them.
Then hot tears rushed to their eyes, and stammering and sobbing they confessed their guilt, and it was some time before it became clear to them that each had deceived the other, and for long years had cheated one another for love's sake.
“Then you knew that we were both growing old?” cried Hans, with delight.
“To be sure, to be sure,” said his wife, laughing in the midst of her tears.
“And so did I,” exulted the old Hans; and he tried to leap for joy. Then he took Greta's head in his hands and kissed her just as he had done when she promised to be his wife.
And, as if she had grown up out of the ground, the little forest woman stood before the two old people.
“Be welcome!” she said. “You have not been to see me for a long time. But, but,” continued the little woman, shaking her finger at them, “you have not taken good care of the water of youth. Wrinkles and gray hairs, indeed! Now,” she continued, consolingly, “those are easily remedied, and you have come at a propitious hour. Quick! Jump into the well — it is not deep — and plunge your gray heads under, then you will see a miracle. The bath will give you the strength of youth and beauty again. But be quick, before the sun goes down!”
Hans and Greta looked at each other inquiringly. “Will you?” asked the husband in an unsteady voice.
“Never!” quickly answered Greta. “Oh, if you only knew how happy I am, that at last I may dare to be old. And then it would not do, on account of our children and grandchildren. No, dear little woman; a thousand thanks for your kindness, but we will remain as we are. Is it not so, Hans?”
“Yes,” replied Hans; “we will remain old. Hurrah! If you knew, Greta, how becoming your gray hair is!”
“As you like,” said the little creature, a bit hurt. “Nothing is compulsory here.” Thus she spoke, and went into her house and closed the door behind her.
But the two old people kissed each other again. Then they went arm in arm on their homeward way through the forest, and the midsummer sun poured a golden gleam about their gray heads.