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She ran upstairs – softly – but her sister was awake.
"Darling," she said, "are you really safely back? Yet I have not been anxious. Somehow I felt you were all right and I have had a peaceful sleep."
Then Linde told her the whole wonderful story and showed her the little spade. And at night you may be sure they did not forget to put the jar in the appointed place, to find it in the morning replenished with rose-leaves whose perfume seemed even more delicious than ever before. So Saturday found them with plenty of their treasured wares for sale, and quickly were they bought.
Nor was this only temporary good fortune.
The fame of their dried roses spread far and wide, and orders came from great distances, so that the two sisters were able not only to go on living together in greater comfort than they had ever known, but even to lay aside savings for a possible "rainy day."
Though as far as I could learn – this story, you know, is of a fairly long ago "once upon a time" – that day never came to the happy girls. The robins never failed them. The cottage garden and the neighbouring forest grew to be famed for the peculiarly beautiful redbreasts which there abounded. The uncanny reputation of the woods was quite forgotten, and on the contrary it was said to bring good luck to those who often strolled about in them.
I think both Aria and Linde married in due time and had happy homes of their own. One or other certainly did so, for the country-folk of that remote part of the world, from whom I learnt the story, showed me a specially lovely rose – "the robins' rose," it was called, and told me that it had been cultivated by the descendants of the sisters, till, for some reasons which I could not discover, the family had moved elsewhere.
"And they do say," added one aged dame, "that they grew to be rich and important, much looked up to and respected, which one can believe, if they took after their great-grandmothers and were favoured by the 'good people,' as those pretty maidens were."
I suppose the old jar and the magic spade were carried away as heirlooms, for though I looked about in some very curious antique shops in the neighbouring town, hoping to find one or both, I never succeeded in doing so, nor could I trace the family at all, which is scarcely to be wondered at, as no one still living remembered the sisters save by the quaint names of "Aria" and "Linde" – names which I love, and which I hope this story may lead others to love also.
A Magic Table
Once upon a time – how long ago really does not matter – there lived in a certain country – and where that country is, does not matter either – three young men of about the same age. They were not brothers, but they had always been neighbours, and they must have been some sort of cousins, for they had an old relation whom they all called uncle and who called them all nephews.
"Nephew Hodge," "nephew Giles," and "nephew Michael." Those were their names, though I fancy the last – he was the youngest – was more often "Mike" than "Michael."
They were all three steady, well-behaved fellows, and very friendly with each other, which was natural as in several ways their circumstances were curiously alike.They were all orphans, and though Hodge and Giles had sisters, these were married and settled at a distance, and as for Mike he had nobody at all belonging to him, and as he was a very affectionate creature, but for his two friends he would have felt lonely indeed. They were all poor – very poor – the one thing each had inherited from his parents was a home, such as it was. Just a small cottage with a bit of garden ground, which in their leisure hours each cultivated to the best of his ability, thus growing some hardy fruit and vegetables which helped to support them, and a few pretty flowers, to brighten things up a bit.
They had a little friendly rivalry over these tiny gardens. Hodge's produced the best vegetables, Giles's the finest fruit, but young Michael's far and away the loveliest flowers. And instead of quarrelling as to which of them deserved the most praise as a gardener, like sensible fellows, each gave a present to the other two of his special triumphs.
There was still another curious bond between the three – which in most cases would have been the very reverse of a bond, and pretty certainly would have dissolved the friendship. They were all in love with the same girl. A charming girl she was, but of her, more shall be told hereafter. Perhaps the hopelessness of their admiration for her helped to keep the peace, for they were far too poor to aspire to her, as she was a damsel with a dowry of gold and silver, as well as of sweet looks and sweet character. So the three used to sit together and sing her praises with no bitterness or jealousy.
The cottages stood at some distance apart, half or a quarter of a mile or so between them. So that in busy seasons, such as hay-making or harvesting, our friends sometimes saw very little of each other for days at a time, as they were not labourers on the same farm. But the long dull winter evenings they made a point of spending together, taking their cottages in turns as a meeting-place, for as to comfort, the three dwellings were much of a muchness, though Mike's somehow always looked the nicest, as in summer he adorned it with his flowers, and even in winter managed to tie up bunches of pretty leaves and bright-coloured berries to give his kitchen a cheerful air.
And besides these friendly evenings, the three young men always met on Sundays, and that all the year round. For on that day they had a standing invitation to dine with the old uncle, who was, as I forgot to say, also godfather to all three.
This personage was in some ways very peculiar and indeed rather mysterious. Strange stories were whispered concerning him through the country-side. Some said that he was a wizard; nearly all agreed that, at best, he had dealings with "the good people." But though to a certain extent he was feared, he was not disliked, as on more than one occasion he was known to have shown great kindness to families in distress, though how he came to hear so quickly of other folks' troubles remained a mystery, as he lived at a considerable distance from any other dwelling, and was too infirm ever to leave his own cottage.
He was of course reputed to be very rich, but that, as you will learn, was a mistake. And a miser he could not well be called, considering the kind actions I have alluded to, and the steady hospitality he showed to his godsons, Hodge, Giles, and Michael. The truth was – and there need be no secret about it – that "Uncle Peter" had a small pension for life, sufficient to keep him in simple comfort. For long ago he had been a soldier and a brave one, though he seldom talked of those old days. Sad things had happened to him, and for many years he had been a lonely man before, just about the time these grandnephews of his were born, he wandered back to the part of the country which had been his home as a boy, there, like Rip Van Winkle, to find none of his generation left, though he made friends in his own way with the remaining members of his family and their children.
Peter had travelled far and had seen queer places and queer people and had learnt some queer things. It was no great wonder that he got the name of being something of a wizard, for there was no doubt that he knew of things happening or going to happen in ways that could not be explained. But notwithstanding this, he was not regarded with fear, only with a kind of respectful awe. Even his godsons felt this, though at the same time they were really attached to him and grateful for his hospitality, in itself of a very strange character. For though he was never known to buy food of any sort, and was supposed to live entirely upon the fruit and vegetables he himself grew, and though he had no one to cook for him and no fireplace or stove where anything but the very simplest things could be boiled or roasted or even heated, the weekly dinner provided for his three guests, every Sunday, was of the very best. Not only was the food of excellent quality, it was also abundant. Indeed, at times when work was short, as in the winter often is the case, both for artisans in towns and for labourers in the country, I doubt if the three cousins would have kept as well and hearty as they did but for this substantial and nourishing meal regularly once a week.
They had often wondered how Uncle Peter managed it, and once or twice they had hazarded a tactful enquiry of their host on the subject. But it had served no purpose. On the contrary, both Hodge and Giles, who had been the questioners, had been quickly silenced by the old man's reply.
"Did you never hear the proverb about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?" he said the first time. "True, there is nothing about my dishes which you are not free to test if you choose, both as to quality and cooking. All the same, I think the saying conveys a broad hint as to the courtesy suited to those who accept a gift."
And to Giles he was even more severe.
"When you invite me to a Sunday feast, my good nephew," he said, "I promise to eat thereof with gratitude, and with no curiosity as to whence or how you procured it," at which reprimand Giles looked very foolish, and could only humbly ask Peter's pardon, adding, "That day, I misdoubt me, my respected uncle, will never dawn."
For, as I have already said, the three young men were very poor.
Still, when they were sitting of an evening by themselves, with no fear of offending the old man by their talk, it was only natural that they should discuss the mystery. There was a peculiar rule about their Sunday visit. They were obliged to be exceedingly punctual, by which I mean, neither too early nor too late. Half an hour after noon was the appointed time, so they arranged to meet at church, and when the service was over to wait in the porch till the ancient clock struck twelve, as they found that by then starting at once for Peter's cottage and walking rather quickly they reached it just a minute or two before the dinner hour.
Often, when waiting thus at the church door, they would receive a smile and a nod from the girl they all adored – pretty Ysenda – and now and then she would even stop a moment and say to whichever of the three happened to be nearest at hand, "My love to Uncle Peter, and a pleasant visit to him." Not that he was her uncle or any relation, but she had got into the habit of going to see him sometimes out of pity for his loneliness, and the old man had taken a great fancy to her. In fact she was the only visitor he ever received, with of course the exception of the nephews on Sunday.
Once – some time ago it was, when the custom had first begun – Michael had by accident arrived at Peter's cottage some minutes before the others. He was on the point of knocking at the door when something stopped him. He afterwards declared that he did not know what. But standing there, he heard sounds within – curious sounds – his uncle's voice, slow and solemn as if reciting something, then a very delicate tinkle as of a tiny bell, and lastly a whirring sound as of wheels moving quickly, and then complete silence. And while he was debating as to whether he should knock or not, to his relief he heard his cousins' footsteps approaching. He turned back a little way to meet them, but before he had time to tell them what he had heard, the door opened and their host stood there bidding them welcome.
Ever after that they all three came together as I have told you, and waited at a little distance till their uncle made his appearance. For Michael confided to his cousins that there had been something uncanny about the mysterious sounds. Furthermore he felt instinctively that he had not been meant to overhear them, and that if Peter knew of it he might have been angry, and possibly would never have invited them again.
Hence, Michael, of the three, was the most careful as to what he said to the old man, and never did he venture to show any curiosity on the subject of the whence or how of the mysterious feast.
But now and then he had a queer feeling that pretty Ysenda knew– what? – he could not define it, more clearly than by suspecting that she was in old Peter's confidence in a way that he and his friends were not.
And one evening – it was a Saturday – when the three were sitting together in his cottage, he expressed something of the kind to Hodge and Giles. They were very much surprised.
"She is a good, true-hearted maiden," he added. "I don't for a moment mean that she has any selfish motives for her attentions to our godfather."
"That's to say you don't suspect her of trying to supplant us in his favour, as to inheriting whatever he has to leave?" said Hodge. There was some suspicion in his tone, much as he admired Ysenda.
"One never knows," added Giles. "She may have no thought of the kind – why should she? She is rich already – all the same, Uncle Peter may make her his heir, without her being to blame."
"I think it most unlikely," replied Michael. "No such idea was in my mind. Besides," he went on, growing rather indignant, "Ysenda is just the girl to put a stop to anything unfair. She is as kind and generous as a woman can be. We all know of her goodness in any case of poverty or distress that she hears of. No, all I meant was that she may know something of Uncle Peter's dealings with the 'good people'; she is just the sort of sweet maiden that the fairies love."
"Maybe," said Giles, who was not very ready to believe in anything he could not see with his own eyes, "maybe she herself is the only fairy in the matter. Maybe she provides the feast."
"Impossible," said Hodge and Mike, and so it was.
"Anyway," persisted Giles, "I daresay it's she who tells him of the misfortunes and accidents he gets to know of so quickly."
"On the contrary," replied Michael, "she has told me herself that it has often been Uncle Peter who has been her informant in such matters, and that he has employed her to carry assistance to the sufferers. There was that great fire last winter at Olden Wood. She happened to see him the very same morning while it was still blazing, five miles off, and no one hereabouts knew of it! And the letter from over the sea telling of Widow Martha's son's death, reducing her to poverty, for he'd been a good son, always sending her money. Why," Mike went on very solemnly, "he knew what was in that letter before it had reached Martha's hands!"
There was no reply to this. Even Giles was much impressed, and all three started when just at that moment there came a tap at the door, for it was getting late, and being far on in the autumn the evening grew dark very early.
The cousins looked at each other half timorously, for even the bravest of men – and they were by no means cowards – may be momentarily frightened by anything uncanny.
The tap was repeated.
Michael got up and opened the door cautiously. What he expected to see he could not have said, but a witch astride on a gander, or a goblin with scarlet ears as big as a donkey's and a long tail, would scarcely have surprised him!
Instead – how different! – there stood two small figures – children evidently, and as a very plaintive little voice reached him, he threw open the door more widely, so that the light from within fell on the new-comers, and he perceived that they were a boy and girl, apparently about twelve or fourteen years old, poorly though decently clad, each carrying a bundle, and with pale, travel-tired faces.
"Please," said the voice – it was the boy's, the elder of the two – "oh please can you tell me if Dame Martha Swann lives here or near here?"
Michael started again. It was of this very dame he had just been speaking. Were these two of the "good people" in disguise, come to visit him for some mysterious reason? He took care to answer very politely.
"Not here, but not so very far off," he replied, and the gentleness of his tone encouraged the child to ask further. "Then can you show us the road there? We are dreadfully tired – at least my little sister is, and we have lost our way somehow."
As the boy went on speaking, Michael's misgivings left him. The two were plainly ordinary human beings, though something in the child's voice or accent showed that they did not belong to this part of the world.
"Come in and rest yourselves for a while," said Mike. "Warm yourselves too. It is a chilly evening."
"Oh thank you," was the reply, as the two eagerly accepted his invitation. He led them towards the fire and drew forward seats, while Hodge and Giles, their pipes in their hands, stared in surprise.
"Whom have we here?" exclaimed Hodge; his tone sounded suspicious, and Giles too hung back a little.
"How should I know?" said Michael sharply. "You see as much as I. Whoever they are and wherever from, it's surely the least one can do to let them rest for a few minutes. No doubt they can explain about themselves. You were asking for old Dame Martha, my boy?" he went on.
"Yes, yes," was the ready reply, "we are her grandchildren. My name is Paul – Paul Swann, like father," his voice shook, "and – "
"I'm Mattie," said the girl, speaking for the first time. "That's for 'Martha,' like granny. Oh how I wish this was her house! I'm so tired."
"Poor little maid," said Michael kindly. "Well it's not so far to your granny's, and I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll carry you there myself. But first you must have a bite of bread and a drink of milk. I'll have it ready in a minute," and he turned to the cupboard, which was almost as bare as Mother Hubbard's, for the bread and milk were all there was for his own breakfast!
The children were famishing. The food disappeared in a twinkling. Then the boy explained that they had come all across the sea to take refuge with their grandmother in their desolation since their father's death, for their mother had died five years ago. Some kindly disposed people had seen them on board the ship, and given them a little money to carry them the rest of the way on landing. But the very first night ashore some wicked person had stolen it, so there was nothing for it but to come on, on foot. It was really no very great distance, not more than eight to ten miles from the seaport, but they were strangers in a strange land, almost afraid to ask their way, and they had probably wandered astray. This was their pitiful story.
But already Michael's kindness had revived them, and they stood up, eager to get to the only home they had now a chance of. The cousins looked at each other. What was in store for the poor things? Their grandmother, a loving soul, would welcome them no doubt, and share with them all she had. But that "all" was really nothing. She was feeble and crippled with rheumatism. But for old Peter and his friend Ysenda, she would before this have risked dying of starvation.
However – "Cheer up," said Michael, as he hoisted little Mattie on to his shoulder, Paul loading himself with the bundles. "Cheer up. We'll be at the good dame's in no time. Giles," he went on, for Hodge was looking sulky and disapproving, "Giles, you might do worse than help the boy – or at least bring a bundle of my faggots and come with us. Martha's fire will be none too big."
Giles started forward, half shamed into doing his part – and Hodge, who was, after all, more stupid than bad-hearted, drew out of his pocket two small copper coins, which he handed to Paul.
"Tell your granny," he said, "that's to help to get you some milk for breakfast from the farm near by her cottage."
Paul smiled gratefully and thanked him.
Then they set off – Hodge walking with them a part of the way, till he reached the turning to his own home.
The poor dame was still up – sitting by the tiny fire in her kitchen, grudging to lose any of its welcome warmth, when Michael – leaving the others at the door – stepped in warily with a cheerful "good evening," so as not to terrify the lonely old woman.
Mingled indeed were her feelings, as you can imagine. Loving delight as she clasped the little travellers in her trembling arms, though even in that first moment the dire misgiving seized her as to how they were to be fed and clothed! So pathetic are often the greatest joys of the very poor.
But the children for the moment had no such fears.
"Oh granny, granny," cried the little girl, "it is so sweet, so lovely to have found you," and Paul turned away to hide the tears which he thought himself too big a boy to give way to.
They were near Michael's own eyes, and even Giles had a lump in his throat as he set to work to build up the fire with the bundle of his cousin's faggots.
The dame looked about her anxiously.
"My darlings, you must be hungry," she was beginning, but the little new-comers interrupted her.
"No, no," they said, with the quick thoughtfulness of the children of their class, "this kind man," pointing to Michael, "gave us supper at his house. We only want to go to bed, and it will be so beautiful to wake in the morning and to find we are with our own granny."
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