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"I must not damp her hopefulness," she thought, "and after all – who knows?" – "Was it the same as before?" she asked, "exactly the same old woman and all?"
"Yes," Linde replied, "just the same. We were in the market, and she came by, and then stopped and seemed to be attracted by the rose-leaves' scent. Then I felt her eyes on me and heard her voice – low but clear – saying – ," and here the little girl interrupted herself, "Oh yes, there were just two words different, and that makes it seem more real. She did not say 'three times,' but 'twice more and then ask the robin.' I wonder," Linde continued, "I wonder if possibly we shall see her herself. No – I don't think we shall. I feel that she can only come in dreams."
They were at their place in the market in good time as usual. Their posies of late flowers and autumn foliage had, alas, diminished, but their supply of the fragrant leaves was rather larger than the week before, for, influenced perhaps by the "twice more" of Linde's dream visitor, Aria had divided the contents of the jar into two equal portions, each of which proved to be rather more than the first lot she had carried off for sale. In fact the useful tin canister was this time completely filled.
And the demand for their new wares was even greater than the last time. Dame Barbara and her friends had spread the fame of the wonderful leaves. Aria could have sold what she had twice over, and more than one of her customers assured her that if she could keep up the supply during the winter, orders would be forthcoming from more distant parts of the country.
"I mean to make pretty bags and fill them with your leaves, for Christmas presents to my friends," said one smiling young lady. "So don't forget that I shall want ever so much of them a little later on," and Aria thanked her and wisely refrained from saying that she feared her stock was all but exhausted.
"Don't be too sure of that," said Linde, when Aria sighed about it. "My hopes have risen sky-high since the dream came again, though how we are to 'ask the robin,' seeing that none of his kind ever come near us, or how he could help us if we did come across him, is more than I can in any way imagine! And after all, we have still enough leaves for next market-day, which will be the third time."
"Yes," Aria agreed, "it is much the best to hope on and keep up our spirits. And for the present we have no reason to despond. My old purse is delightfully well filled to-day even though I could not make up my mind to raise the price of the leaves as Dame Barbara urged me to do. I felt somehow as if it would not bring me good luck."
"I felt the same," said Linde.
They spent a cheerful evening, and the following day, Sunday, passed peacefully. When they returned from the ancient church in the neighbouring village whither since their infancy they had always gone with their parents, Linde asked Aria to let her go for a stroll in the forest by herself, to which the elder sister, who was feeling a little tired, agreed.
"You are going to look for a robin, I know," she said with a smile, "and possibly as the dreams have come to you and not to me, you may succeed where I could not.But don't go too far, dear child. I should be anxious if you were long away, for no doubt the forest is rather uncanny, somehow."
"I won't go far," said Linde. "And I hardly hope to find out anything. But I shall just look well about me. You see the real time has not yet come. We are not to 'ask the robin' till after three market-days."
When she returned home an hour or two later, she seemed thoughtful, though not exactly depressed.
"Well," asked her sister, "had you any adventures?"
Linde shook her head, yet she smiled a little.
"Only a very tiny thing happened to me," she said, "hardly worth noticing. I strolled some way along the path that leads straight to the heart of the forest – the main path, you know, Aria – and I was just thinking of turning home, when, a short way down a much smaller path, scarcely one at all, I caught sight of something bright lying on the ground. At first I thought it was a scarlet berry or two, or some of the red leaves one often sees, but when I stooped to pick it up, it was this," and she held out a small feather.
Aria took it – it was of a peculiar shade, almost more orange than red.
"I know what you are thinking," said the elder sister, – "that it is a robin's feather – from his red breast, and it certainly looks very like it, but – "
"Wait, Aria, till you hear the rest," interrupted Linde, and she opened her other hand, in which lay two more of the fairy-like feathers, exactly similar to the first. "The wonderful part of it was that though they are so tiny," and she glanced at the treasures tenderly, "and though it was not a bright day, there was no sunshine, they glowed and gleamed as if they were gems. I walked on a little way, you see, after I had picked up the one, and there, some yards ahead, lay the second, and the same with the third. But it was the last. I feel sure it was the last, though I went on some distance. And somehow, three seem the right number for a fairy message. It matches the three times in my dreams."
"Then you do think they are a message?" asked Aria.
"Of course I do. I marked the path well by breaking off twigs and making a little heap of pebbles. Indeed it was necessary, for I had never noticed before that there was a path there at all," and when she went on to describe its position Aria agreed with her that it seemed quite a new discovery.
For the rest of the week Linde appeared satisfied to rest quietly on her oars. She made no more expeditions to the forest, and indeed spoke less than she had done of her dreams and their interpretation, though that she was thinking much about them her sister felt sure, from the look in her pretty eyes and the way she sometimes smiled to herself for no apparent reason.
So the days passed till again it was Friday evening and the sisters went early to bed. Everything was ready for their little stall at the market, but Aria sighed as she remarked that their autumn posies now made but a poor show.
"But there are the rose-leaves," said Linde.
"Yes," her sister replied, "but the last of them, alas! See, Linde, the jar is quite emptied!"
"Do not be so downcast, darling," said Linde as they kissed each other for good-night. "Why, we have seemed to change places of late! It used to be you always cheering me – now it is I to cheer you."
Aria smiled. She felt sure that it was the hope of the dream being repeated for the magic third time that was brightening her sister. But she said nothing that night. Only the next morning when she woke very early, just as the first faint streaks of coming dawn were beginning to appear, she listened anxiously, wondering if Linde was still asleep, and felt glad when a tiny rustle, followed by a whisper, showed that the little girl was also awake.
"Aria," she said, "Aria."
"Yes, dear, what is it?"
"It's come again, the third time," she exclaimed joyously. "My dream! Quite the same as before, only that the old woman just smiled at me, and said, 'Once more, then ask the robin.' Aria, darling, it must mean something."
And Aria herself was impressed.
"But where are we – or you – to find the robin?" she questioned.
"You're forgetting about the feathers, and the mysterious path," replied Linde.
She had carefully wrapped up the tiny treasures and hidden them in the front of her frock. The knowledge that she had them safely there seemed to give her courage and hope. That Saturday's sale was again a great success, and on the following day, as on the Sunday before, when they returned from church and their simple mid-day dinner was over, Linde told her sister that she was going to the forest. This time she scarcely asked Aria's leave, and though the elder girl was a little anxious, she felt that it would have been useless to attempt to stop her.
"Very well, darling," she said. "But don't go very far or stay very long. Promise me."
"I think I can promise," she said, "to be back by sundown. But, Aria, I believe I may have to go again much farther, or to do – I know not what – but feelings are coming to me," and she unconsciously touched the place where the redbreast feathers were nestling. "You won't forbid it, sister, will you?"
Aria's face grew very grave.
"Whatever has to be done, and wherever," she said, "why cannot we go together? I am afraid of the forest. Even father believed that there was some spell or enchantment over it. You remember he never allowed us to go into it beyond a certain distance.
"Yes," said Linde dreamily, "I remember. But maybe," and her face lighted up with a bright smile, "maybe, Aria, the spell, or whatever it is, is going to be broken," and though the elder sister trembled a little at the words, she, too, felt a curious thrill of pleasant excitement.
So the two kissed each other fondly and Linde set off. She was well wrapped up in a warm cloak, for the autumn days were fast growing chilly, especially of course in the forest, where the short amount of mid-day sunshine scarcely penetrated, so closely growing were the trees. The cloak had originally been their mother's, then Aria's, and now the elder girl had refreshed and rebound it for her sister. It was of good, thick stuff and red in colour, and as Linde turned for a moment to wave another good-bye at the entrance to the wood, it struck Aria that the child looked rather like a human robin redbreast herself. She smiled at the idea; somehow it cheered her. "May all good angels and the saints guard her," she murmured as she re-entered the cottage.
Linde walked on steadily. Not very fast, for she was keenly on the look-out for any signs or tokens to direct her, and most anxious not to miss the opening to what in her own mind she called "the feather path."
And to her satisfaction she found it without any difficulty. It was still of course broad daylight, that is to say as light as was usual among the trees, and as she made her way along she kept her eyes on the ground in hopes of seeing some more tiny specks of the unmistakable orange-red.
But in vain. There were no more feathers waiting for her.
Feeling rather discouraged, Linde stopped short, and looked around her.
"I must have quite passed the place where I picked up the third feather," she said to herself. "I did not come as far as this the last time. Must I go home – what shall I do?"
She drew her cloak a little closer, and as she did so, her fingers touched the spot where nestled her treasures. Immediately her hopes revived.
"Go on, go on," something above her seemed to say. She glanced upwards, almost fancying that a voice had spoken to her, but nothing was to be seen – except – yes, on the branch of a fir-tree near at hand, some yards overhead, a bird was perching, and not only a bird, to her immense delight she saw that it was a robin!
Had it spoken? She gazed at it. It chirped encouragingly and spreading its wings flew down, and then flew onwards in front of her.
"Stay, robin, stay, and tell me what to do," cried the child. But it only turned its little head towards her for half a second, and then continued its flight. Linde by this time, however, had lost all hesitation. On she ran, as fast as she could go, though now and then, as if in consideration for her, her small winged friend stopped for a moment or two, and Linde grew less breathless. Then it looked back at her again, and in this way they got over a good deal of ground, till at last – why, she could not have told – Linde stopped. And looking up, she saw that her guide had disappeared.
She gazed round her. It was a strange spot. She had never been here before. Of that she felt certain, for she could not have forgotten it.
She was standing by the edge of a small clearing among the trees. It was in the shape of a circle, and in front of the firs, whose stems are of course as a rule bare, were planted short thick bushes as if for still greater enclosing of the spot. So thickly indeed were these placed, that turning round to look behind her, Linde wondered how she had come through them, for no opening was to be seen. It was like standing in a room of which the doorway is in some way or other completely concealed. Her heart began to beat faster, for even though she had scarcely moved she felt as if she could never find her way out again.
Suddenly a clear chirping made her look up, and to her amazement she saw, in the very centre of the circular clearing, an object which she was almost certain had not been there a moment before. And it was not only her eyes which told her this, for her nostrils at once inhaled a delicious perfume which she could not, for an instant, have been unconscious of. It was that of the precious leaves!
And the object which she was gazing at was an indescribably beautiful rose-bush in full bloom, on the topmost branch of which sat her friend the robin!
He nodded encouragingly – and now his chirps took shape. They grew into words, but whether other ears than little Linde's would have heard this I cannot say. Enough that she understood.
"Yes," he said, as if in answer to her unexpressed surprise, "yes, I went down to fetch it up," and she knew that he was speaking of the rose-bush, "for you to see it for yourself, my child."
Linde gazed at him for a moment or two without speaking. Was she dreaming? she asked herself. But the familiar fragrance reassured her.
"Is it – ?" she began, "are these the roses that our fairy powder came from?"
Again the robin bent his little head.
"Even so," he replied. "Fairy roses, that never lose their perfume. And you would gladly fill the old jar again, would you not?"
Linde clasped her hands.
"Oh yes, yes!" she exclaimed. "The leaves mean everything to us. Not only food and clothing, but a home – a home for us two together, instead of terrible separation. Oh Robin, darling, may I gather the flowers and dry the leaves, ready for the market? I'd come any day – or every day, to fetch them, and oh how grateful we should be," and the tears rushed to her eyes in her eagerness.
But the redbreast's tone grew grave, and Linde began to tremble with fear that he would say it could not be. But when he spoke again his words surprised her.
"Do you know the story of the forest?" he asked.
"Yes – some part of it, at least. We know that – that – " for she felt his bright eyes fixed upon her, and it made her hesitate, "something very sad happened, and since then, no robins ever come here," she murmured.
"Sad – yes indeed," he repeated, "and worse than sad. Wicked, cruel! A monster in the shape of a boy shot one of our favoured tribe, deservedly favoured, for, as a Christian child you know since when, we have been honoured for our faithful service?"
Linde bowed her head reverently.
"I know," she whispered. "It was very wicked of the boy. But it was a long time ago," she went on. "Can't you forgive it, and come back to the forest again?"
"'Tis almost fifty years ago," the robin said. "And for fifty years the place has been under the ban. Our queen – call her fairy queen, or guardian angel as best pleases you – pronounced it. But around the tomb of the innocent victim," and he pointed downwards, "she planted the rose-trees, of whose flowers by special favour the old godmother, of whom you have heard, was allowed to gather a few. For she it was who found our poor brother – here on this very spot – and summoned us to his side. Our ancestor, I should call him, for it was long ago, and our bird lives are very short – so surely they should not be cut still shorter?"
"Surely not," said Linde. "Then are those the leaves we had in our jar? I thought it was a powder – a fairy powder that the godmother bequeathed?"
"So it was. She dried and ground the precious leaves, and with the powder perfumed the petals of her own garden roses, every year, so long as she lived. But she never re-visited the spot. It has been closed ever since the day when, the arrow still transfixing his tender body, the robin was buried, though not dead."
"Not dead," cried Linde. "What can you mean?"
"That was the decree," he replied. "For fifty years he was to lie here, till the forest could be purified from the pollution of cruelty."
"And how can that be done?" Linde asked eagerly.
"By the hands of a maiden – a child-maiden, who never, never has been guilty of cruelty to any living thing. Linde, are you that maiden?"
The little girl was silent. Then she looked up, and her blue eyes did not falter beneath the piercing gaze of the bird.
"I think, yes, I think," she said, "no, I know that I have never wished or meant to cause suffering. If ever it has come through me, it has not been by any intention of mine."
"You speak the truth. We have watched and tested you, though you knew it not," was the reply. "Now something more is asked of you. Courage!"
"I'm afraid, I'm dreadfully afraid I'm not very brave," said poor Linde, all sorts of alarming ideas rushing through her brain as to what might be asked of her. Were they going to shoot her, possibly? Or to shut her up in the tomb with the dead, or not dead robin?
"Do not look so terrified," said the robin. "More shall not be asked of you than you can do. We are not a revengeful race, as you well know. We have always been faithful and loving friends to human beings. You know the story of – "
"Of the Babes in the Wood," interrupted Linde. "Of course I do. It was partly that, that made me think of you, about leaves, you know," and her face brightened. "I will try to be brave," she added.
"That is right," said the bird. "Some expiation must be made for that boy's evil deed, and, as I have already told you, it was decreed that the one to offer it must be a child entirely innocent of cruelty or unkindness. For this, you, little Linde, have been chosen. Three nights hence the fifty years come to an end – the moment for the spell to be broken will arrive. Before midnight, you must be here, standing on this very spot, where you now see me."
Linde started. Had she shut her eyes for an instant? – what had happened to them? For, to her amazement, the rose-bush was no longer there! The robin stood on the grass, in the centre of the cleared circle. Yet she had not seen the disappearance, nor heard the faintest rustle!
"Oh dear," she thought, "magic doings are very queer. There was a rose-bush there, I am quite certain," but she said nothing. Some instinct told her it was best to take things calmly, and to listen attentively to the robin's instructions. "Where you now see me," he went on, "till you hear the clock strike twelve."
"The clock," Linde repeated. "There's no clock here in the middle of the wood."
"Indeed," said the robin. "Would you like to know the time at the present moment?"
"Yes," Linde replied. "I suppose it's nearly four o'clock."
"Listen," whispered the bird, and as she obeyed, there fell on her ears the prettiest bell-like chimes she had ever heard. "One, two, three – " on to twenty, then a pause and in deeper tones, "one, two, three, four."
"Twenty minutes to four," said her friend. "If it had been past four, the four would have struck first. All our clocks are what your clumsy human watchmakers call 'repeaters,' you see."
"And what do you do to make them tell you the time?" asked the little girl eagerly.
"You just say 'What o'clock is it?' That is of course if you are at one of the entrances to fairyland. You can generally find one if you look about. They are always in the centre of a ring."
"Oh," replied Linde, "that's a good thing to know. I often see fairy rings, but I had no idea they had a door in the middle. Then tell me more, please. I must wait till I hear the fairy clock strike twelve, and then – will the door open? And – what do you want me to do? And – if I can do it, will you let me gather some roses?"
"Not so fast, not so fast," said the robin. "Let me see – what was I saying? You stand here – the clock strikes, at the twelfth stroke you tap the ground with the three feathers – you have them safe?"
"Yes," replied Linde, feeling for them as she spoke.
"The door will then open and you will descend. That is all you require to know at present. Three nights hence, three nights hence."
"But," began the little girl, "I must know something more. How am I to find my way here in the middle of the night when it is all dark? It wasn't easy to distinguish the path even by daylight, and now, even now, I don't know how to get through these thick bushes on to it. I can't see any opening in them."
Instead of replying the robin suddenly spread his wings and alighted on a bush close beside her, and at once Linde perceived that there was a narrow sort of passage through the hedge. She turned towards it.
"Thank you," she said, adding timidly, "May Aria come with me? Together we might find our way better perhaps. We might bring a little lantern."
"It will not be needed, and you must come alone. You may tell Aria all I have told you; and if she is wise she will encourage you. I make no promises. It is not for me to do so. But this you may depend upon – never will you have cause to regret obedience to this summons," and as he spoke, he spread his wings again and flew upwards. As he passed her, there came a breath of the delicious perfume, and Linde felt that it meant a promise after all, which raised her spirits, as pushing her way through the hedge she found herself on the path outside and started on her way home.
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