Beelingo.com

Old-Fashioned Fairy Book, The

DAME MARTHA'S STEP-DAUGHTER;
OR,
THE GRANDMOTHER OF THE GNOMES.

DAME MARTHA lived at the foot of a high mountain. Her cottage was large enough to give shelter only to herself and two young girls, one of them her own child and the other the child of Dame Martha's late husband, who, about six months before this story opens, slipped down a fissure in the rocks and had nevermore been seen. Dame Martha did not bear a very good character in the neighborhood, as she was known to be violent in temper and dishonest in her dealings. While her husband lived, she had quarrelled with him from morning till night, and after he disappeared, people used to hint that Dame Martha knew better than any one else how[20] the poor man came to his sudden death. But nothing was ever proved upon her, and as the dame's cottage stood in a desolate valley, overshadowed by a frowning cliff on which grew a single lightning-blasted pine-tree, children shunned the lonely spot, and few grown people found anything to attract them in that direction. Margaret, the dame's own daughter, was a handsome haughty lass of about nineteen, so spoiled and self-willed that she bid fair to rival her mother in temper, in the course of time. Hilda, the step-daughter, was a fair and gentle little creature, sixteen years of age, who bore with patient cheerfulness all the unhappiness of her lot. Sometimes, for days together, she would be left alone in the house, while Dame Martha and Margaret dressed themselves up in all their finery, and went off to fairs and merrymakings in the neighboring town. Melancholy were the hours spent in a solitude unbroken save by the rush of the waterfall leaping from cliff to cliff, or the hootings of owls after nightfall, and the unceasing wail of the wind through the forest. But Hilda was at least spared the sound of Margaret's taunting voice and laugh, and the cruel scolding tongue of her step-mother. These two wicked women were heartily tired of Hilda, and cast[21] about in their minds how they could get rid of her, and take possession of a little bag of gold pieces coming to her from her father. Then, thought they, the old house could be shut up and left to the rats and bats, while they might set out on their travels and enjoy life.

One day, when Hilda was bleaching the linen on a patch of grass near the brook, her step-mother called out, "Hilda, the red cow has strayed away, and I hear her bell over by the old stone quarry. Be quick, and you may head her off."

Hilda secured her linen, and with nimble steps, ran up the steep mountain side. She did not fancy the idea of going by the old stone quarry, for there it had been, six months before, that her dear father was last seen in life. Near that spot his hat and shepherd-staff had been found. But Hilda was accustomed to obey without remonstrance, and away she ran, climbing as lightly as a mountain goat. She too, could hear the tinkle of the little bell far up among the bushes, and guided by the sound, she drew near the dreaded scene of her greatest sorrow. A thick screen of fir bushes lay between her and the red cow's place of refuge. Interwoven with evergreens, grew masses of[22] alpine-rose, whose tough branches became entangled in Hilda's feet, and hid the path from sight. At last, she found herself in a dense thicket, not knowing how to emerge. As she paused for a moment to look about her, the red cow's bell tinkled again—a strange uncertain tinkle this—immediately behind the bushes at her left.

"There you are, good-for-nothing!" cried Hilda, struggling bravely forward through the undergrowth in the direction indicated by the bell. She heard a low mocking laugh. Surely that laugh could come only from her step sister! "Margaret!" she called. No answer, and poor Hilda, uttering a wild shriek for help, plunged headlong down a hidden opening in the ground, into a fathomless abyss, where no foot of man might follow her.

Wicked Margaret stood on the brink of this treacherous pit-fall, known only to her mother and herself, and laughed, holding in her hand the little red cow's bell, with which she had lured Hilda to her doom.

"Rest there!" the wretched girl said, kneeling down to peer into the darkness of the rocky pit. "At any rate, you have found a burial-place for your bones, alongside of your father, who was never heard to[23] groan after my mother and I pushed him over the brink here, last autumn! And now, I will go home, and tell the old woman that we are rid of all our burdens. Ha! ha! Won't we spend the father's gold, and revel! This very night must we steal away, and seek our fortune in a distant country."

Hilda fell, unharmed, upon a hillock of soft green moss, so far, so far beneath the ledge whence Margaret had pushed her, that the opening above looked no bigger than a star. The poor girl was overcome by her terrible fate, and for a long time she lay weeping as if her heart would break. Then, looking about her, she saw the opening to a cavern in the rocks, resembling an arch of crystal, so bravely did it glitter.

Around the hillock where she lay was a small courtyard with turf as smooth as velvet, and upon the rocky walls encircling it were trained vines of roses, myrtle and jasmine, covered with lovely blossoms. Hilda, who knew best the alp-rose and the corn-flower, the hardy violet and the rock-seeking columbine, had never seen such rare and radiant flowers as these, and their rich perfume intoxicated her with delight. Stealing down the side of the cliff, trickled a sparkling rivulet, its stream caught in a basin of gleaming pearl.[24] Hilda, enchanted by the lovely scene, forgot her grief, and felt a longing desire to follow the path of many-colored pebbles leading beneath the crystal arch. Without a token of fear, she tripped along this pretty path winding through a gallery supported by pillars of frosted silver. Here and there glowed a lamp of pink, blue or crimson, fashioned like a flower. Strains of sweet music were heard in the distance, and at last Hilda reached a gate of golden trellis-work, beside which slept a tiny old man, whose beard and hair fell over his red mantle to the very ground.

"He is very old, and no doubt needs his rest," said Hilda; "I won't disturb him, poor old man." So she sat down on the ground at his feet, and every time his head nodded to his knees, she would pick up the queer little red cap that fell off of it, and put it on again. After a long, comfortable nap, the old fellow woke up, and saw Hilda sitting at his feet.

"You are a kind maiden," he said, for he was of a race that know everything without waiting to be told—the Gnomes. "Since you have been so good to me, I will let you pass the wicket. Six months ago your father came this way, and if you can but make friends with our mistress, you may be allowed to see him."[25]

"My father! My dear father!" cried Hilda, overjoyed. "Oh! you good, kind gateman, do lead me to where he is."

"Hush! not a sound," said the Gnome, looking about him in alarm. "Everything has ears and tongues too in this place. One warning will I give you. Answer not when spoken to, serve faithfully, break nothing, show no surprise; and when you can capture the bird that bathes daily in the fountain of life, save the drops from off his plumage. Now go on; and farewell, as no one who passes me comes back this way."

Hilda was frightened by the mystery of the warning, but continued on her way, through a long and winding passage in the rocks, dimly lighted here and there by hanging lamps of alabaster. Reaching another little wicket-gate of golden trellis-work, she summoned all her courage and rang the bell. Out came a hideous crone, whose ears, grown to an enormous size, hung down upon her neck, and who, without asking her business, opened the gate.

"If ears grow like this," thought Hilda, "I had, indeed, better hold my tongue and say nothing to give offence." So, pretending to be dumb, she curtsied to[26] the crone, and made signs that she wanted food and drink. The old woman led Hilda along the path of a neglected garden, to a house built of gray lichen from the bark of trees, and thatched with hoary moss. The windows were barred, and in the open doorway sat a cross old dame, at her knitting. She had a hump, ears larger than those of the lodge-keeper, and claws hooked like an eagle's.

"What! another of those foolish mortals fallen down our pit!" she cried, angrily; "I have half a mind to kill her on the spot." But Hilda looked so meek and imploring, standing there and saying not a word, that the Grandmother of the Gnomes relented. "Well, well," [27]she grunted, "although she is decidedly overgrown, and has ridiculously small ears, I suppose I may as well try her for a nurse-maid. If she proves unfaithful, there will be plenty to tell of it, and she will soon go the way of all the rest."

Hilda was pleased at the idea of being a nurse-maid, for she always got on well with children. She followed the G. G. (really, if you will excuse me, it will save a great deal of trouble sometimes to abbreviate the old lady's title) inside the queer little house, and there was a room full of owls, bats, toads, mice, and spiders, who came flocking around the new-comer, with every expression of delight.

"Oh! you pretty darlings!" cried the old woman, kissing them rapturously, "here is a new nurse for you; and mind you keep her busy."

When Hilda found that she was expected to bathe, and clean, and walk out with, and sleep with these loathsome creatures, she felt that she had rather die. But fear of the terrible G. G. kept her silent, and setting about her task, she soon had them ready for an airing in the garden. Here she beheld many strange sights, but nothing more curious than to see all the bushes and plants and trees bearing large ears, which, [28]as she drew near, became erect and fixed in an attitude of attention. Remembering the caution of the friendly gnome to express no surprise, Hilda drove her little flock before her along the garden path, then returning to the house, fed them and put them to bed in the most orderly fashion. For reward, she found, on a bench outside the door, a nice bowl of milk with fine white bread and butter, and after devouring it eagerly, she fell asleep. When she awoke next day, Hilda found herself in another garden. This one was most beautiful. All the rose-bushes had gold or silver leaves, and flowers made of jewels. She longed to twitch off one of the shining leaves, but dared not, contenting herself with watering their roots and neatly clearing up the paths, as the Gnome Grandmother had directed her. For reward, she had a bowl of delicious hot soup, and a cup[29] of amber jelly, and falling asleep, she awakened next day in still another garden. Here sported birds of radiant hue and plumage, singing delightfully, as they flitted about the brim of a great marble fountain on a grassy lawn, surrounded by blooming flowers.

"Here, children, I bring you a new nurse-maid," said the Gnome Grandmother, presenting her to the birds; and immediately, the lovely creatures surrounded Hilda, perching on her arms, her head, her shoulders, and caressing her with evident pleasure.

"Now that you have successfully met my three tests—the first, of your fidelity, by doing your duty toward the creatures you abhorred; secondly, by passing through my jewel-garden without plucking a flower or leaf; thirdly, by showing no surprise at the wonders you have seen—you have proved yourself worthy to be the keeper of my birds," said the old woman. "It is well for you that the ears have heard no grumbling. And mind you go on as you've begun."

Hilda thanked her with beaming glances, but would not venture to speak, although she longed to ask news of her dear father. "To those who wait, all things come in time," she remembered her father used to say, and determined not to break silence yet a while. The[30] Grandmother of the Gnomes disappeared, and Hilda set herself to the task of caring for her new and lovely pets. Around the garden were bowers of sweet-smelling honeysuckle, and in each of these hung a silver cage. Hilda's duty was to cover the bottoms of the cages with sand of broken diamonds, to gather fresh sprays of flowers to stick between their bars, and to fill the jewelled drinking-troughs with dew from the cups of flowers. Day after day passed in attendance upon the birds, who all became devoted to her, in return. Each morning the Grandmother of the Gnomes came into the garden, and sometimes even smiled on Hilda, her grin making her ugliness and deformity seem to increase, if possible. Still Hilda dared not speak the words that were always trembling on her tongue. When night came, the young girl retired to rest in a delightful little house shaped from a bush of growing box, out of which doors and windows had been cut. Within was a bed of moss like velvet, and a coverlet made of the woven wings of the butterfly, with blankets of swansdown. Her meals were served by unseen hands. Punctually at breakfast, dinner, and tea-time, there sprang up in the bower house a little table shaped like a huge mushroom, covered with dainty[31] food in dishes of gold and silver. New clothes were prepared for her, and laid across the foot of her couch while she slept. Among them were gauzy gowns that seemed to have been cut from the clouds after sunset, cobweb handkerchiefs, shoes made of mole-skin, and necklaces of petrified dew-drops. Hilda might have been quite happy but for the continual thought that her father was imprisoned somewhere near, and her longing to find him and tell him she was there. One night, while she lay thinking, apparently asleep, footsteps came to the side of her bed, and stopped. Somebody held a lamp close to her face, but Hilda pretended to be in a deep slumber, and soon the G. G., for she it was, went away, pattering about the bower, and talking to the old lodge-keeper, who followed her.

"She is sound asleep, so come along. We are already a little late for our round among the prisoners. Foolish creatures! Why hadn't they, too, the sense to restrain themselves as this child did, and they might all have been working in the gardens, to this day. But no! Each one must needs twitch off a leaf here, or a rose there, and stare, and chatter over what they saw, or else go into convulsions over the work given them to do for my pretty toads, and bats, and serpents.[32] That silly father of hers, for example! He seemed an honest fellow, but what should he do, when he thought no one was looking, but pluck one of my choicest ruby roses to carry back to Hilda. Hum! much likelihood there is that Hilda ever finds out where he is hidden, after a crime like that!"

The Grandmother of the Gnomes seemed to have worked herself up into such an angry state, that Hilda dared not give any sign of waking. So she lay, still as a mouse, till the old couple had laid across her couch the new robe for next day, and trotted off. Then, gliding swiftly from her bed, the girl followed them, down a long green alley of the garden, to a grassy bank she had often noticed. There, putting her hand upon a trap-door, half hidden from sight by a mass of vines, the old crone knocked thrice, saying, "Open to the Grandmother of the Gnomes!"

The door opened, and behind it was a narrow passage-way guarded by two dwarfs in red. No one spoke, and the dwarfs, prostrating themselves upon their faces, remained motionless while their sovereign lady passed in. Hilda seized this opportunity to follow, and crept unnoticed to the mouth of a circular vault of gray granite, hung with curtains of black velvet[33] and lighted by swinging lamps of lurid red. In the centre was a long row of white marble tombs, and on each one of these tombs lay a human being apparently asleep, enclosed in a crystal casket. With a thrill of emotion, Hilda recognized in one of these placid sleepers her beloved father. The Grandmother of the Gnomes walked past each bier, sprinkling it with the liquid from a vial in her hand. At once the sleepers aroused and sat up, rolling their eyes and extending their arms to her with a beseeching gesture. The G. G. sternly shook her head, and proceeded to open a little door in each casket, through which the old lodge-keeper gave food and drink to all the prisoners in turn. The poor wretches ate and drank in silence, then turning over on their sides, the crone waved her wand above them, and instantly they fell again into a trance-like sleep.

"Sleep now, till this day week!" said the Grandmother of the Gnomes, solemnly, retiring as she came. Hilda hid in a nook of the wall of rock, and followed her guides out, noiselessly and unnoticed by the prostrate dwarfs in red.

And now her sole thought was how she might get possession of the reviving liquid. Alone and unprotected[34] as she was, at the mercy of her gnome mistress, Hilda knew not where to turn for help. In the extremity of her distress, she thought of what the friendly gnome at the outer gate had said to her. "When you can capture the bird that bathes in the water of life, save the drops from off his plumage." But although Hilda racked her brain for a solution of the mystery, none could she find. All day long her birds came and went among the branches of the beautiful garden, and at night returned to their silver cages in the honeysuckle bowers. The only bath she had ever seen them take, was in the wide marble basin on the grass-plot beneath the fountain. At last, lying down to rest one day upon a bank of lilies, she fell asleep, and in her dreams, heard two of the birds talking on the bough above.

"To-morrow, our friend, the little brown wren returns from his travels to the Spring of Life," said one of them.

"Yes, he has been gone longer than usual, this time," said the other. "What a lucky creature he is to have gained our mistress's favor, and to be allowed to take those baths, which have the power to make him know everything, live forever, and sing more sweetly than the nightingale."[35]

"There is something mysterious about that wren, undoubtedly," sighed the first bird. "Nobody knows whether it is fear or favor that gains so many more privileges for him than for the rest of us. Do you know that if he should ever drop the single golden feather in his tail, he will become like the rest of us again, a slave and captive? And the lucky person who finds it, will be able to see all the hidden treasures of the caves beneath the mountain, pierce his way through solid rock and iron, and even defy the authority of our Sovereign Lady herself!"

Hilda listened, her heart beating high with hope. Next day, indeed, there came a new bird among her charges, a little brown wren, who sat upon the topmost twig of the highest tree in the garden, and dried and smoothed his feathers, singing so exquisitely that all the others gathered around him in delight, while the disconsolate lark and nightingale, canary, mocking-bird and wood-robin, retired to a thicket of green leaves, and wept for jealousy.

Spite of all Hilda's blandishments and wiles, the little brown wren would never come near enough for her to handle him. She could see him, flying amid the upper branches, the single golden feather in his[36] tail shining splendidly, but nothing secured his presence within reach or touch. Even the Grandmother of the Gnomes was powerless to control the wilful creature.

Weeks passed and Hilda was always on guard to follow the Gnome Grandmother and her attendant upon their expeditions to the crypt where the prisoners were kept. By means of the stratagem she had first employed, she never failed to be present when her father was so mysteriously recalled to life, and then dismissed again into the shadowy border-land of death. Although she could not speak to him, or tell him she was near, it was some comfort to see him arise up strong and well. Oh! if the day should come, when she might capture that tantalizing little brown bird! He had become less shy with her of late, and more inclined to perch upon the branch above her head, and, while keeping a safe distance, observe her motions closely. At last, one evening, quite disheartened, Hilda went within her own little bowery house, and sat her down and wept. For the first time since her arrival in the gnome garden, she spoke aloud.

"Oh! I can bear it no longer. My heart will break! My heart will break."[37]

Hilda Listens to the Little brown bird.

To Hilda's utter astonishment, a voice came from the foliage around her window, in reply.

"Cheer up, dear maiden; the sound of a human voice has broken the spell cast over me, and I now see you as you are. I am he whom you have known as the little brown bird, in reality a mortal prince, bewitched by that wicked old woman, the Grandmother of the Gnomes, who makes everything within her kingdom subservient to her power. She is my deadly enemy, because I once discovered the secret of her fountain of life;[38] and, when on a journey thither with my followers, I was captured and changed into my present shape, while they, poor creatures, were carried prisoners to her crypt. Should I regain my shape, it can only be done by the help of a being brave and true like yourself."

"But why, why did you not make friends with me at first?" said the joyful Hilda.

"The spell cast upon me forbade my recognizing one of my own kind, unless she or he spoke, and you know how human speech is punished in this place. For three long years I have lived in solitude, compelled by the crone to fly back and forth to fetch her the water of life for her magical incantations; what I receive upon my own plumage, while drawing the water for her, has, however, secured my immortality. As for my golden plume it is the magic blade presented to me at birth, by a wonderful old wiseman, who said that it would point me to the treasures beneath the earth, defy the powers of evil, and pierce its way through solid rock. This sword, the Grandmother of the Gnomes was unable, much as she wished to do so, to deprive me of. The utmost she could accomplish was to transform it into a golden plume. Should I ever be so unfortunate as to drop it, the finder will be my[39] conqueror. See what confidence I have in your goodness of heart, when I thus give my life into your hands."

"Never could I be so base as to betray you, dear prince," said Hilda joyfully.

"Oh! speak on, loveliest of maidens," cried the disguised prince. "Every syllable you utter brings back life and hope to my sad heart. Strange that I should have watched you come and go without knowing what you are. It was the first utterance of your silvery voice in lamentation that awakened my benumbed senses. Now, shall we not work together for our deliverance?"

Gladly did Hilda pour forth all the story of her woes to her newly found confidant. The prince bade her to be of good cheer, for it was his intention to set forth on the morrow upon his monthly journey in search of the water of life.

"A week hence I shall return, and although it would be impossible for me to secrete any of the precious fluid so that our mistress would fail to find it out, yet I will take care to saturate my plumage with the water, so that you can obtain enough to free your father and the other sufferers. That done, we can proceed[40] to stronger measures. Only be guided by me, and obey all I tell you to do, and I promise you release and happiness."

Hilda promised and the brown bird took his leave. Next day he was no longer to be seen in the higher tree-tops, and after a week's absence, he arrived at nightfall dripping wet, and perched upon Hilda's window.

Carefully did Hilda collect every drop that fell from his plumage, and when next she followed the Grandmother of the Gnomes into the fatal crypt, it was with joyful footsteps, for in her hand she concealed a leaf-cup full of the elixir of life. Not even Hilda noticed that the little brown bird also entered the crypt when she did. On this occasion, she waited as usual to see the prisoners aroused and fed, then cast again into sleep; but instead of following the two crones on their return, she remained concealed in her crevice of the rock, and saw close upon her the doors of this living tomb. Now a sudden terror overtook her, and her knees trembled.

"Oh, dearest little bird, were you but by my side!" she whispered imploringly.

"I am here, Hilda," came in a well-known voice.[41] "Remember that all depends upon your courage and obedience. Go up to the crystal caskets and sprinkle a drop upon each in turn."

Hilda did so, and in a few moments had the inexpressible joy of seeing about twenty brave knights and other captives arise from their couches of marble. Last of all came her beloved father, who clasped her to his breast with rapture unspeakable.

"Now there is not a moment to be lost," said the brown bird, flying to Hilda. "Here, brave maiden, pluck the golden feather from my tail."

Hilda obeyed, and found that she held a shining sword within her hand.

"Quick, stab me to the heart!" said the bird.

Hilda burst into tears and pleaded with him to spare her; but the brown bird reminded her that, because of the water of life, he could never really die; so the young girl, trembling in every limb, plunged the blade into his breast.

As the warm blood rushed forth, a cloud of vapor arose, filling the cave; and blowing presently away, it revealed to all present the face and figure of a gallant youth, who, proud and smiling, knelt at Hilda's feet.

"Now is the enchantment banished!" he cried, as his[42] friends, recognizing their master, came flocking around him in delight. "But we must not again venture into the precincts of the gnome's garden, for who knows what might befall our lovely lady here? Come, my brave sword, point us a way of exit."

Swinging it in the air above his head, he brought the blade into a horizontal line in front of him. At once the sword pointed to a fissure in the walls of the crypt, and as the rescued band approached, it slowly widened to an opening through which a man might pass.

This was not a moment too soon, for the dwarfs on guard had discovered their attempt to escape, and a shrill whistle sounded in their ears. Swift as the lightning flash arrived the Grandmother of the Gnomes, this time in her worst aspect, fire darting from her eyes. Behind her came an army of angry little men in red, with hammers in their uplifted hands, prepared to do battle to the death. What was their fury to find the biers empty, and a long line of stalwart men, led by Hilda, escaping through a doorway in the solid rock! The last to depart was the prince, and advancing upon him with a horrible yell and glare of defiance came the Grandmother of the Gnomes. The[43] prince met her with extended sword, and the enchanted blade pierced her to the heart. The frightened gnomes, surrounding their dead chief, laid her upon the marble slab from which Hilda's father had arisen, and then flew in pursuit of the avenger. But it was too late. The rocky wall had closed upon the retreating party, and the Grandmother of the Gnomes arose no more from her final resting-place.

The divining-sword led Hilda and her companions straightway to the surface of the earth, taking care, as they passed it by, to point out sufficient hidden treasure to enrich every man of the party. As for the prince, as he was already the owner of one of the richest kingdoms of the world, all he desired was to regain it, in company with his beloved Hilda, who by this time had pledged herself to be his bride. Hilda's father accompanied them to the palace of the prince, and was by him ennobled and enriched. The marriage took place, and just as the guests were enjoying the festivities, the new queen saw her servants turning away from the door a miserable-looking pair of beggar women. Bidding these pitiful creatures draw near to receive her alms, the queen recognized in them Dame Martha and her daughter. Such was the generosity of[44] her nature, that Hilda could not resist disclosing her self to them, and assuring them that the accident of her fall had been the means of securing her wonderful good fortune.

She ordered fine clothes and fine rooms to be prepared for the couple, and would have forgiven them entirely, but that her father and the prince, interfering, ordered the wicked schemers to be driven from the house and kingdom.

Some time after, Dame Martha and Margaret reappeared in the neighborhood of their old home. They were very sullen and close-mouthed, and were last seen hovering around the mountain-side in the direction of the old stone quarry, after which they were lost to human view.

The facts in the case are that Dame Martha's envy of her step-daughter led her to the desperate resolve to herself descend into the pit in company with her amiable child. Upon reaching the dwelling of the late Grandmother of the Gnomes, they were immediately seized and made to do duty in the cellar with the toads, mice, serpents, owls, and bats, where in all probability they are still enjoying life in congenial companionship.[45]

Hilda and her prince lived a long and happy life. The bright sword hung unused upon the wall, as no enemies appeared against whom to unsheath it, and the prince never again felt tempted to risk a visit to the kingdom of the gnomes.


[47]

1 of 2
2 of 2