THE CHRISTMAS ROSE
SCHNEEWITCHEN, wrapped in white sheets, was asleep in her glassy coffin, and the cold, wicked step-mother ruled in the land. She is terrible in her fury, but when she has her good days, and lets her diamond crown shine benignantly in the sun, then mortals may venture to approach her ice-palace unmolested. She has innumerable castles, but the most beautiful one stands on the Hochgebirg, and there she prefers to hold her court. The primeval mountains stand like venerable court-marshalls, with stiff necks and powdered wigs, around the throne, on which the queen sits, and the nixies of the mountain lakes, like trembling waiting-maids, hold the crystal mirror before their exacting mistress. She looks at her snow-white face and says: “I am the most beautiful in all the land,” and not one among the people of the court dares to dissent.
Others think and speak otherwise. The blue titmice, and the golden pheasants who, hungry and cold, hop through the snow-covered branches of the fir-trees, chirping low, tell about the king's son, who will waken the sleeping Schneewitchell with a kiss; the rude raven croaks disrespectfully about the wicked queen, and the gypsy tribe of sparrows give vent to their discontent in loud abuse. The little brown wren who creeps through the dry bushes like a mouse, sings a mocking song about the severe mistress. He has made a discovery in the forest path. On yonder slope, where the mid-day sun eats up the snow, there is already a sign of life. Last night the Christmas rose broke through the sparkling covering, and with bended head greets the rising sun.
Do you know the Christmas rose? In flat countries it never grows, but among the mountains it is known to every child. In some places it is the snow-rose, in others hellebore, and it is called the Christmas rose because it blooms about Yule-tide. Its open calyx, which is about as large as the hundred-leafed rose, is snow-white, sometimes overspread with a delicate red, like a mountain snow-field at sunset; and one unacquainted with the blossom's native soil would take it for the child of some far-off zone, so wonderfully beautiful it is. But the snow-rose has beside a virtue of its own, and whoever would know its origin must pay attention.
In a fruitful AIpine valley, through which a river fed with the milk of the glaciers rolled its foaming waters, there stood on a hill in ancient times a castle with a tower and encircling walls. Farther down on the river pious monks had built a cloister, and between the castle and the monastery lay a farm. To-day the castle lies in ruins, the monastery still stands, and the farm has grown in the course of time to a market town.
It was near Christmas-time, many, many years ago, and it was even more lonely and silent in the valley than usual, for all who could carry sword and lance had gone with the count, to whom the castle and land belonged, across the mountains to Italy.
The farmer too, as one of the count's people, had been obliged to leave his home; and although he was always ready for battle, yet this time his going away was very hard, for he had to leave behind him a blooming young wife and a little three-year-old girl.
The Christmas festival was at hand. In the hall of the farmhouse the hearth-fire was crackling, and busy maids in linen aprons were mixing and kneading the dough for the holiday sweetcakes. Frau Walpurga, the mistress of the household, was not present. She was sitting with her heart heavy with anxiety by the bed of her child who was restlessly tossing about her little head burning with fever. On the opposite side of the sick-bed stood a monk with a shining bald crown and gray beard. It was Father Celestin from the monastery, a pious man, experienced in the art of healing. He scrutinized the sick child, shook his head, and began to mix a drink from the medicines he had brought with him.
Heavy footsteps were heard outside in the hall, and an old man, wearing a mantle of coarse material, entered the sick-room; in his left hand he held a broad-brimmed hat, and in his right, a lamb carved out of wood. The man was the shepherd of the farm. He looked darkly at the monk, then stepped up to the little bed, and held the lamb before the child. He had made two coal-black eyes for it with pine soot, and with the juice of berries, a red mouth; but the child did not notice the plaything. The mother sighed, and the shepherd left the room as quietly as he could. The monk gave the healing drink to the child, spoke some words of comfort, and went out. Mother and child were alone.
The physician's remedy seemed to do good to the feverish little girl. She fell into a deep sleep, and slept all day. But as the sun was going down, the child grew restless again; her forehead burned like fire, and she spoke incoherent words. All of a sudden the little one lifted herself from her pillow and said: “See, mother, see the beautiful lady and all the little children, and the lady gives me roses, white roses!” Then she fell back again, and closed her eyes. But Frau Walpurga knelt down, sobbing softly. — “The child has seen the angels of heaven; she must die.”
The mother did not long give way to her distress. She hastened to the door, and called the servants to send a messenger for Father Celestin. But both men-servants and maids had all gone to the monastery church to hear the Christmas service. Only one old lame woman had been left behind to tend the hearth-fire. Frau Walpurga commanded her to put out the fire, and stay by the child. She wrapped her cloak about her, left the house, and went in all haste to the monastery.
The sun had already set: only the mountain tops still gleamed a ruddy gold; in the valley the twilight had spread her gray garment of mist over the snow-fields. No living creature was to be seen, except two rooks flying towards the forest, slowly flapping their wings. In the far distance a light flickered through the mist; it came from the lighted windows of the monastery church; and the mother, with her heart full of anguish, hastened over the creaking snow in the direction of the light.
Suddenly her feet stopped, and her breath failed her. Out of the forest came a long procession of misty forms, led by a beautiful, tall, serious lady, in a broad, full cloak, and behind her tripped a crowd of little children with pale faces, clad in white.
The trembling mother concealed herself behind the trunk of a tree, and let the procession pass by. At the very end came a child who could hardly follow the others, for she was constantly stepping on her dress, which dragged on the ground. Then Frau Walpurga forgot her distress, and overcame her dread. She stepped toward the child, and tucked up her little frock so that she could keep pace with the other children.
And the beautiful pale lady turned her face toward the helper, smiled at her, and pointed with her forefinger to the ground at her feet.
At this moment the sound of monastery bells trembled through the air, the procession disappeared like mist scattered by the wind, and Frau Walpurga stood in the twilight alone on the snow-covered plain.
With timid steps she approached the spot to which the woman had pointed, and her heart leaped for joy. Out of the ice-covered earth was growing a bush, bearing green leaves and white roses.
“Those are the roses my child saw in her dream!” exclaimed Frau Walpurga; then she plucked three of the blossoms, and hurried as fast as she could go back to the farmhouse.
Besides the maid she found the old shepherd by the sick-bed. He had little regard for the skill of the monks, and therefore he himself had made a drink out of goat's gall and juniper berries, and had given it to the little sick girl.
Frau Walpurga stepped up to the bed, laid the three roses on the spread, and watched the child with anxious expectation. She seized the flowers with her little, trembling hands, held them to her face, and sneezed loud and strong.
“God bless her!” cried mother, shepherd, and maid. Then the child asked for a drink, turned her head on one side, and fell asleep.
“Now the fever is broken,” said the shepherd. “My drink and the sneeze have saved the child. But where did you get those roses, Frau?”
Frau Walpurga quietly told the old man what had happened to her.
“That was none other than Frau Berchta with the cricket folk,” explained the shepherd. “She wanders about every evening from Christmas till Twelfth Night, and my father has seen them too. Formerly she dwelt up in the Frauenstein, but when the monks built their house of stone she departed, and only shows herself during the twelve nights after Christmas, and blesses the land. It was lucky for you, Frau Walpurga, that you helped the cricket. Frau Berchta is a gentle lady, and rewards every service that has been rendered her.” And then the old shepherd told what he knew about Frau Berchta, and he would have talked on till the cocks crowed, if Frau Walpurga had not brought him out of the sick-room with friendly words.
Once more she was sitting alone by her child's bed. The little one held the three roses in her closed hand, and she breathed peacefully and easily. Only once she murmured in her sleep, when the sound of the organ and the monks' song of praise, Gloria in Excelsis, were heard from the monastery. And the mother knelt down and was long at prayer.
When Father Celestin came the next day to see the sick child she was sitting up in bed, playing with the lamb which the shepherd had carved for her.
“Frau Walpurga,” said the delighted physician, “the fever has disappeared. But it was a costly drink that I prepared for the child. I hope you will show your gratitude to the monastery.”
But Frau Walpurga drew the monk aside and told him confidentially what had befallen her on Christmas Eve.
The Father knit his brow. “You were dreaming,” he said, “or else the snow blinded your eyes. Take good care that none of your idle talk comes to the ears of our abbot; it might cost you a heavy penance.” But when Frau Walpurga showed him the marvellous roses, the like of which the botanical doctor had never seen before, he grew thoughtful, and he finally said:—
“Woman, you have been highly favored. You have with your bodily eyes beheld the Queen of Heaven and the blessed angels in her company. Our Dear Lady it was who gave you the three roses, the mother of our Lord, and not the dreadful sorceress, whose name no Christian may bring to his lips. Be assured of that, woman. And now Iisten to me further. The Madonna above the side-altar in our church is in need of a new robe as well as a crown. Show your gratitude to the mother of God, and provide her with new apparel. Will you promise me that?”
And Frau Walpurga, frightened by the monk's warning, said, “Yes, it shall be as you wish.”
Thereupon she had a side of bacon, two fat geese, a pot of lard, and a bottle of red wine placed in a basket, and ordered a maid to take it and follow after Father Celestin to the monastery. And Father Celestin, with a smirk, blessed mother and child, servants and house, and went away, followed by the panting maid. But the old shepherd muttered to himself, “There again, one carries away the thanks which belong to another”; and by “another” he meant himself.
Frau Walpurga thought the same, but she said nothing. She gave the shepherd a handsome present; and the Madonna in the monastery received a silver crown and a new robe, on which lace and spangles were not used sparingly.
But the flower which grew up in the footprints of the heavenly queen — or was it, after all, Frau Berchta? — bore seeds and multiplied in the land, and according to trustworthy witnesses has in later times worked many a miracle.