Hans Andersen's fairy tales (Robinson)/The Marsh King's Daughter
SHE UNDERSTOOD THE SPEECH OF BIRDS
THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER
THE storks tell their young ones ever so many fairy tales, all of them from the fen and the moss. Generally the tales are suited to the youngsters' age and understanding. The baby birds are pleased if they are told just 'kribly, krably, plurry-murry!' which they think wonderful; but the older ones will have something with more sense in it, or, at the least, a tale about themselves. Of the two oldest and longest tales which have been told among the storks, one we all know—that about Moses, who was placed by his mother in an ark on the waters of the Nile, was found by the king's daughter, and then was taught all learning, and became a great man, and no one knows where he was buried. Everybody has heard that tale.
But the other story is not known at all even now; perhaps because it is really a chimney-corner tale. It has been handed down by mother-stork to mother-stork for hundreds of years, and each in turn has told it better, till now we are telling it best of all.
The first pair of storks who knew it had their summer quarters on a Viking's log-house by the moor in Wendsyssel, which is in the county of Hjörring, near Skagen in Jutland, if we want to be accurate. To this day there is still an enormous great moss there. You can read all about it in your geography book. The moss lies where was once the bottom of the sea, before the great upheaval of the land; and now it stretches for miles, surrounded on all sides by watery meadows and quivering bog, with turf-moss cloud-berries and stunted trees growing. A fog hangs over it almost continually, and till about seventy years ago wolves were still found there. It may certainly be called a wild moor, and you can imagine what lack of paths and what abundance of swamp and sea was there thousands of years ago. In that waste man saw ages back just what he sees to-day. The reeds were just as high, with the same kind of long leaves and purplish-brown, feathery flowers as they have now; the birches stood with white bark and fine, loose-hung leaves just as they now stand; and for the living creatures that came there, why, the fly wore its gauze suit of just the same cut as now, and the colour of the stork's dress was white and black, with red stockings. On the other hand, the men of that time wore different clothes from those we wear. But whoever it was, poor peasant or free hunter, that trod on the quagmire, it happened thousands of years ago just as it does to-day—in he went and down he sank, down to the Marsh King, as they called him, who reigned beneath in the great Moss Kingdom. He was called also the Mire King, but we will call him by the stork's name for him—Marsh King. People know very little about how he governed, but perhaps that is just as well.
Near to the moss, and right in the Liim Fjord, stood the Viking's log-house, with paved cellar and tower two storeys high. On the roof the storks had built their nest. Mother-stork sat on her eggs, and was positive they would turn out well.
One evening father-stork had been out for a long time, and when he came home he seemed excited and flurried.
'I've dreadful news for you!' he said to mother-stork.
'Don't get excited,' said she. 'Remember I'm sitting on my eggs, and I might be upset by it, and then the eggs would suffer.'
'You must know it!' he answered. 'She has come here, our landlord's daughter in Egypt! She has ventured on the journey here, and she is lost!'
'Why, she is of fairy descent! Tell me all about it; you know I can't bear to wait at this time, when I'm sitting.'
'Listen, mother. It's as you told me. She has believed what the doctor said, that the moor-flowers here could do her sick father good, and so she has flown here in a feather-dress with the other winged princesses, who have to come to the north every year to bathe and renew their youth. She has come, and she is lost!'
'You're getting too long-winded!' said mother-stork. 'The eggs may be chilled! I can't bear to be excited!'
'I have watched,' said father-stork, 'and in the evening, when I went into the reeds, where the quagmire is able to bear me, there came three swans. Something in the way they flew told me, "Watch; that isn't a real swan; it's only swan feathers." You know the feeling, mother, as well as I do; you can tell if it is right.'
'Yes, certainly,' said she; 'but tell me about the princess. I'm tired of hearing about the swan's feathers.'
'Here, in the middle of the moor, you know,' said father-stork, 'is a kind of lake; you can see a part of it if you stand up. There, by the reeds and the green quagmire, lies a great elder-stump. The three swans lighted on it, flapped their wings, and looked round them. Then one of them threw off her swan's plumage, and I saw it was our own princess, of our house in Egypt. Then she sat down, and she had no other covering than her own long, black hair. I heard her ask the two others to take great care of her swan-skin while she plunged under the water to gather a flower which she thought she saw. They nodded, and lifted up the loose feather-dress. "I wonder what they mean to do with it," said I to myself; and no doubt she asked them the same. And she got an answer, something she could see for herself. They flew aloft with her feather-dress!" Sink down," they cried; "you shall never fly in the swan-skin again; never see Egypt again! Stay in the moss!" And so they tore her feather-dress into a hundred pieces, till the feathers flew about as if it was snowing, and off flew the two good-for-nothing princesses.'
'Oh, how dreadful!' said mother-stork. 'I can't bear to hear it. But, tell me, what else happened?'
'Our princess moaned and wept. Her tears fell on the elder-stump, and it was quite moved, for it was the Marsh King himself, who lives in the quagmire. I saw the stump turn itself, so it wasn't only a trunk, for it put out long, muddy boughs like arms. Then the unhappy girl was frightened, and sprang aside into the quivering marsh, which will not bear me, much less her. In at once she sank, and down with her went the elder-stump―it was he who pulled her down. Then a few big black bubbles, and no trace of her left. She is engulfed in the marsh, and will never return to Egypt with her flower. You couldn't have borne to see it, mother!'
'You shouldn't have told me anything of the sort just now; it may affect the eggs. The princess can take good care of herself. She'll get help easily enough. Had it been you or I, there would have been an end of us.'
'However, I'll go day by day to see about it,' said father-stork; and so he did.
The days and months went by. He saw at last one day that right from the bottom of the marsh a green stalk pushed up till it reached the surface of the water. Out of it grew a leaf, that grew wider and wider, and close to it a bud put out. Then one morning, as the stork was flying over it, it opened, with the sun's warmth, into a full-blown flower, in the middle of which lay a beautiful child, a little girl, as if she were fresh from the bath. So like was the child to the princess from Egypt, that at first the stork believed it to be herself turned a child again. But when he thought it over, he decided that it was more likely to be the child of the princess and the Marsh King, and that was why she was lying in a water lily.
'She mustn't be left lying there,' thought father-stork, 'and there are too many already in my nest. But I have it! The Viking's wife has no children, and she has often wished for a little one. Yes, I get the name for bringing the babies; I will do it in sober truth for once! I'll fly to the Viking's wife with the child. They'll be delighted!'So the stork took the little girl, flew to the log-house, made a hole with his beak in the window, with panes made of bladder, laid the child on the bosom of the Viking's wife, and flew away
IT WAS HE WHO PULLED HER DOWN
to mother-stork to tell her all about it. Her young ones heard it too, for they were now old enough.
'Listen; the princess is not dead. She has sent her little one up, and the child has a home found for her.'
'Yes, so I said from the first,' said mother-stork. 'Now think a little about your own children. It's almost time for our journey. I begin to feel a tingling under my wings. The cuckoo and the nightingale are off already, and I hear the quails chattering about it, and saying that we shall soon have a favourable wind. Our young ones are quite fit for training, I'm sure.'
Glad indeed was the Viking's wife when she woke in the morning to find the beautiful little child near her side. She kissed and fondled it, but it screamed with passion, and threw out its arms and legs, and seemed utterly miserable. At last it cried itself to sleep, and there it lay, one of the prettiest babies you could set eyes on.
The Viking's wife was so happy, so gay, so well, that she could not but hope that her husband and his men would return as suddenly as the little one had come, and so she and all her household busied themselves to get everything into order. The long coloured tapestries, which she and her maidens had woven with figures of their gods Odin, Thor, Freya, as they were called were hung up; the slaves were set to polish the old shields used for decoration; cushions were arranged on the benches, and dry wood placed on the hearth in the middle of the hall, so that the fire could be lit in a moment. The Viking's wife took her share in the work, so that by the evening she was very tired, and slept soundly.
When she woke towards daybreak she was terribly frightened. The little child had vanished! She sprang up, lighted a brand, and looked everywhere around. There, just at the foot of the bed where she had lain, was, not a baby, but a great ugly toad! In utter disgust at it she took a heavy stick to kill it, but the creature looked at her with such wonderfully sad eyes that she could not destroy it. Once more she gazed round; the toad uttered a faint, mournful croak. She started, and sprang from the bedside to the window, and opened it. At that moment the sun rose, and cast its rays upon the bed and upon the great toad. All at once it seemed that the creature's wide mouth shrank, and became small and rosy; the limbs filled out into the most charming shape. It was her own beautiful babe that lay there, not the hideous reptile!
'What is this?' cried the dame. 'Was it an ill dream? Yes, there is my own sweet elfin child lying there!' She kissed it, and pressed it to her heart; but it fought and bit like a wild kitten!
The Viking, however, did not come that day, nor the next; for though he was on his way, the wind was against him as it blew to the south for the storks. Fair wind for one is foul for the other.
In those two days and nights the Viking's wife saw clearly how it was with her little child. And dreadful indeed was the spell that lay on it. By day it was as beautiful as an angel of light, but it had a bad, evil disposition. By night, on the other hand, it was a hideous toad, quiet, sad, with sorrowful eyes. It had two natures, which changed with its outward form. And so it was that the baby, brought by the stork, had by daylight its mother's own rightful shape, but its father's temper; while again, night made the kinship with him evident in the bodily form, in which, however, dwelt the mother's mind and heart. Who could loose the spell cast by the power of witchcraft? The Viking's wife was worn and distressed about it, and her heart was heavy for the unhappy being, of whose condition she did not think that she dared tell her husband if he came home then, for he would certainly follow the custom and practice of the time, and expose the poor child on the high-road for any one that liked to take away. The good dame had not the heart to do this: her husband should see the child only by daylight.
One morning the wings of storks were heard above the roof. More than a hundred pairs of the birds had rested themselves for the night after their heavy exercise, and they now flew up, preparatory to starting southwards.
'All ready, and the wives and children?' was their cry.
'Oh, I'm so light,' said the young storks. 'My bones feel all kribly-krably, as if I was filled with live frogs! How splendid it is to have to go abroad!'
'Keep up in the flight,' said father and mother, 'and don't chatter so much; it tires the chest.'
And they flew.
At the same moment a horn sounded over the moor. The Viking had landed with all his men, returning laden with booty from the coasts of Gaul, where the people, like those of Britain, used to chant in their terror: 'From the rage of the Northmen, Lord, deliver us!' Guess what stir and festival now came to the Viking's stronghold near the moor! A barrel of mead was brought into hall; a huge fire was lighted; horses were slaughtered; everything went duly. The heathen priest sprinkled the slaves with warm blood, to begin their new life; the fire crackled; the smoke curled under the roof; the soot fell down from the beams—but they were used to that. Guests were invited, and received valuable gifts. Plots and treachery were forgotten; they drank deep and threw the picked bones in each other's faces in good-humoured horse-play. The bard—a kind of musician, but a warrior as well, who went with them, saw their exploits, and sang about them—gave them a song in which they heard all their warrior-deeds and feats of prowess. Each verse ended with the refrain:
'Wealth, kindred, life cannot endure,
But the warrior's glory standeth sure.'
And they all clashed upon their shields, and beat upon the table with knives and fists, and made great clamour.
The Viking's wife sat on the cross-bench in the open banqueting-hall. She wore a robe of silk, with bracelets of gold and beads of amber. She had put on her dress of state, and the bard sang of her, and told of the golden treasure she had brought to her wealthy lord, while he was delighted with the beautiful child, for he could see it by day in all its loveliness. He was well pleased with the baby's wildness, and said she would become a right warrior-maid, and fight as his champion. She did not even blink her eyes when a skilful hand cut her eyelashes with a sharp sword as a rough joke.
The barrel of mead was drained, and a second brought in, and all got well drunk, for they were folk who loved to drink their fill. They had a proverb: 'The kine know when to go to stall from pasture, but the fool never knows when he has had enough.' They knew it well enough, but know and do are different things. They had another proverb, too: 'The dearest friend grows wearisome when he outstays his welcome.' But on they stayed. Meat and mead are good: it was glorious!—and the slaves slept in the warm ashes, and dipped their fingers in the fat and licked them. Oh, it was a great time!
Once again that year the Viking went on a raid, though the autumn gales were rising. He led his men to the coast of Britain—'just over the water,' he said; and his wife remained with the little girl. And truth to tell, the foster-mother soon grew fonder of the unhappy toad with the gentle eyes and deep sigh than of the beautiful child that fought and bit all about her.
The raw, dank autumn mist, 'Mouthless,' which devours the leaves lay over forest and moor; 'Bird Featherless,' as they called the snow, flew closely all around; winter was nigh at hand. The sparrows took the storks' nests for themselves, and criticised the ways of the late owners during their absence. And where were mother- and father-stork and their young ones all the time? Down in the land of Egypt, where the sun shone warm, as it does on a fine summer's day with us. Tamarinds and acacias bloomed round them; the crescent of Mahomet gleamed bright from the cupolas of the mosques; pairs and pairs of storks sat on the slender turrets, and rested after their long journey. Great flocks of them had built nest by nest on the huge pillars and broken arches of temples and forgotten cities. The date-palm raised its foliage on high, as if to keep off the glare of the sun. Grey-white pyramids stood out against the clear sky across the desert, where the ostrich raced at speed, and the lion crouched with great, wise eyes, and saw the marble sphinx that lay half-buried in the sand. The Nile flood had retired; the whole bed of the river was swarming with frogs, and to the stork family that was quite the best thing to be seen in the country. The young ones thought their eyes must be playing them tricks, it all seemed so wonderful.
'We always have it just like this in our warm country,' said mother-stork; and the young ones felt their appetites grow.
'Will there be anything more to see?' said they. 'Shall we go much farther into the country?'
THE NILE FLOOD HAD RETIRED
'There is nothing better to see,' said mother-stork. 'At that green border is only a wild wood, where the trees crowd one upon another, and are entangled together with thorny creepers. Only an elephant with his clumsy legs can make a way there. The snakes are too large for us, and the lizards too lively. If you try to go into the desert you get your eyes full of sand in fair weather, and if there is much wind, you find yourself buried under a sand-heap. No, this is the best place. Here are frogs and locusts. I shall stop here, and you must stay with me.' And they stayed.
The old ones sat in their nest on the slender minaret and rested themselves, while yet they were busy preening their feathers and rubbing their beaks on their red-stockinged legs. They would raise their necks, bow gravely, and hold up their heads with their high foreheads, fine, smooth feathers, and brown eyes glancing sharply. The young hen-storks walked gravely about among the coarse reeds, stealing glances at the other young storks, and devouring a frog at every third step, or else a small snake, which they found so good for their health, and so tasty. The young males began to quarrel, beat each other with their wings, pecked, yes, stabbed till the blood flowed! And so one and another got betrothed, for that was the whole purpose of life. They built nests, and from that sprang new quarrels, for in hot countries tempers are so quick! Nevertheless, it was all delightful, especially to the old ones. Everything that one's own youngsters do becomes them. Every day there was sunshine; every day was so much taken up with eating that there was hardly time to think of amusement.
But inside the rich palace of their Egyptian landlord, as they called him, joy was unknown. Rich and mighty lord, there he lay on a couch, his limbs rigid, stretched out like a mummy, in the midst of the great hall with its many-coloured walls; it looked just as if he was lying in a tulip. His kinsmen and servants stood around him; he was not dead; you could not call him alive; he existed. The healing moss-flower from the northern land, which should have been searched for and gathered by her who loved him most dearly, would never be brought. His young and beautiful daughter, who flew in swan's-plumage over sea and land, far towards the north, would never return. 'She is dead and gone!' the two swan-maidens had told him on their return. They had invented a whole history of it. Said they:—
'We all three flew high in the air: a hunter saw us and shot an arrow; it struck our friend, and singing her farewell, like a dying swan, she slowly sank, in the midst of a forest lake. There we buried her, near the shore of the lake, under a fragrant weeping-birch. But we took our revenge! We bound fire under the wings of a swallow which had built under the hunter's thatched roof! The thatch caught; the house blazed up! He was burned in it, and the light shone over the lake as far as the drooping birch tree under which she is buried. She will never come back to the land of Egypt.'
And so they both wept; and the father-stork, when he heard it, chattered with his beak till it rattled again.
'Lies and make-up!' said he. 'I have a great mind to drive my beak into their hearts.'
'And break it off!' said mother-stork. 'And what good would that do? Think first of yourself and your own family; everything else is of no consequence!'
'However, I will seat myself on the edge of the open court in the morning, when all the learned doctors are met to talk about the illness. Perhaps they will come a little nearer the truth.'
And the learned doctors came together, and talked and talked all about, so that the stork could not make head or tail of it—nor did anything come of it for the sickness, or for the daughter in the moor; but, nevertheless, we shall be glad to hear something about it, for we are obliged to listen to a great deal.
But now it will be a very good thing to learn what had gone before this meeting, in order to understand the story better, for at least we know as much as father-stork.
'Love brings life! The highest love supports the highest life! Only through love will he be able to secure the preservation of his life!' was what they said; and very wisely and well said it was, according to the learned.
'That's a pretty thought!' said father-stork.
'I don't rightly understand it!' said mother-stork, 'and it isn't my fault, but the expressions! However, be that as it may, I've something else to think about!'
Then the learned men had spoken of love for one thing to another, of the difference there is between the affection of lovers and that of parent and child; of the love of plant and sunbeam, where the rays of the sun touch the bud and the young shoot thus comes forth—all this was expounded at such great length and in so learned a way that it was impossible for father-stork to follow it, much less to repeat it. He was quite thoughtful about it, and half closed his eyes and stood on one leg a whole day afterwards; such learning was too heavy for him to bear.
However, he understood one thing. He had heard both the common folk and those of the highest rank say the same thing from the bottom of their hearts—that it was a great misfortune for thousands of people, for the country at large, that this man should be ill and not recover; it would be a joy and blessing if he were restored to health. 'But where does the flower of health grow for him?' that was what they had all inquired. They sought it from the scrolls of wisdom, from the twinkling stars, and from the winds; they had asked in all byways where they might find it, and at last the learned and wise announced, as we have said: 'Love brings forth life, the life of a father,' and so they said more than they themselves understood. They repeated it, and wrote it as a prescription: 'Love brings forth life'; but how was the thing to be done from this prescription? There lay the difficulty. At length they came to an agreement about it; the help must come from the princess, who was attached to her father with her whole soul and heart. And then they decided how it was to be brought about (all this was more than a year and a day before): she must go by night, at the new moon, to the marble sphinx near the desert, must clear away the sand from the door with her feet, and then go through the long passage that led into the middle of one of the great pyramids, where in his mummy-case lay one of the mighty kings of old, surrounded by splendour and magnificence. Here she was to hold her ear to the lips of the dead, and then it would be revealed to her how she was to gain life and health for her father.
All this she had done, and had learned in vision that, from the deep marsh in the land of Denmark, a spot most clearly indicated, she might bring home the marsh-flower, which there in the depth of the water had touched her breast. Then he would be healed. So she flew in swan's plumage from the land of Egypt to the moor.
You see, father-stork and mother-stork were aware of all this, and now we know the story more fully than before. We remember that the Marsh King dragged her down to him; we know that for those at home she is dead and gone; only the wisest of them all said still, with mother-stork: 'She takes good care of herself!' and they were obliged to wait, for that was all they knew about it.
'I believe I can steal the swans' plumage from the two good-for-nothing princesses!' said father-stork, 'then they will not be able to go to the moor to work mischief. I will hide the swans' skins themselves till they are wanted.'
'Where will you hide them?' asked mother-stork.
'In our nest on the moor!' said he. 'I and the youngest of our brood can be helped along with them, and if they are troublesome to us, there are plenty of places on the way where we can hide them till next time of moving. One swan's dress would be enough for her, but two are better; it is well to have plenty of luggage in a northern climate!'
'You will get no thanks for it!' said mother-stork. 'However, you are the master. I have nothing to say, except when I am sitting.'
In the Viking's stronghold near the moor, whither the storks flew at the spring, the little girl had received her name. They had called her Helga, but that was far too sweet for such a disposition as the one possessed by this most beautiful child. Month after month it became more evident, and as years went by—whilst the storks pursued the same journey, in autumn towards the Nile, in spring towards the moor—the little child became a grown girl, and before people thought of it, she was in her sixteenth year, and the most beautiful of maidens. But the fruit was a beautiful shell, the kernel hard and rough. She was wilder than most people even in that hard gloomy age.
It was a delight to her to splash with her white hands in the hot blood of the horse which had been slaughtered as a sacrifice; in her wildness she bit off the neck of the black cock which should have been slain by the heathen priest; and she said in sober earnest to her foster-father:—
'If thine enemy came and tied a rope to the beams of the roof, and lifted it over thy chamber, whilst thou wast asleep, I should not wake thee, even if I could! I would not hear it, my blood still so hums in my ears where thou didst slap me years ago! Thou! I remember!'
But the Viking did not believe what she said; he was, like the others, infatuated with her beauty; and he did not know how disposition and appearance changed in little Helga. She would sit without a saddle, as if she had grown to the horse, when it galloped at full speed; and she would not leap off, even when it fought with other vicious horses. In all her clothes she would often cast herself from the bank into the strong current of the fjord and swim to meet the Viking when his boat was steering towards the land. She cut off the longest lock from her beautiful long hair, and made it into a string for her bow. 'Self-made is well made!' she said.
The Viking's wife, according to the age and custom, was strong in will and in disposition, but towards the daughter she seemed a mild, anxious woman, for she knew that the dreadful child was bewitched.
When her mother stood on the balcony, or walked out into the courtyard, it seemed as if Helga took an evil delight in placing herself on the edge of the well, extending her arms and legs, and then leaping plump into the narrow, deep hole, where she, with her frog-nature, dived, and rose again, crawled out, just as if she was a cat, and came, dripping with water, into the lofty hall, so that the green leaves which were scattered on the floor floated about in the watery stream.
But there was one bond that restrained little Helga, and that was the dusk of the evening. Then she became quiet and pensive, and would allow herself to be called and led. She seemed to be drawn by some internal feeling to her mother, and when the sun went down and the transformation without and within her took place, she sat there quiet and melancholy, shrunken together into the figure of a toad. Her body, indeed, was now far larger than that creature's, but it was only so much the more disgusting. She looked like a miserable dwarf with frog's head, and web between the fingers. There was something of the deepest melancholy in the expression of her eyes; she had no voice but a hollow moan, just like a child that sobs in its dreams. The Viking's wife could then take her on her knees: she forgot the ugly form, and looked only at the sorrowful eyes, and more than once she said:—
'I could wish almost that thou wast always my dumb frog-child! Thou art more frightful to look at when thy beauty returns to thee.'
And she wrote runes against witchcraft and disease, and cast them over the wretched girl, but she saw no change.
'Now that she is a full-grown woman, and so like the Egyptian mother,' said father-stork, 'one could not believe that she was once so little that she lay in a water-lily. We have never seen her mother since! She did not take care of herself, as you and the learned men thought. Year out, year in, I have flown now in all directions over the moor, but she has never made any sign. Yes, let me tell you that every year when I have come up here some days ahead of you, to mend the nest and put one thing and another straight, I have flown for a whole night, like an owl or a bat, to and fro over the open water, but it was no use! Nor have the two swan-dresses been any use which the young ones and I dragged hither from the land of the Nile. Toilsome work it was, and it took us three journeys to do it. They have now lain for many years at the bottom of the nest, and if such a disaster as a fire should happen at any time, and the log-house be burnt, they would be lost!'
'And our good nest would be lost also!' said mother-stork. 'You think too little of that, and too much of the feather-dress, and your moss-princess! You had better take it to her and stay in the bog! You are a useless father to your own family; I have said that ever since I sat on an egg for the first time! I only hope that we or our young ones may not get an arrow in the wing from that mad Viking girl! She does not know what she is doing. We have lived here a little longer than she, she should remember! We never forget our obligations; we pay our taxes yearly, a feather, an egg, and a young one, as is right. Do you think, when she is outside, I feel inclined to go down there, as in the old days, and as I do in Egypt, where I am half a companion with them, without their forgetting me, and peep into tub and pot? No, I sit up here worrying myself about her—the hussy!—and about you too! You ought to have let her lie in the water-lily, and there would have been an end of her!'
'You are kinder than your words!' said father-stork. 'I know you better than you know yourself.'
And so he gave a jump, two heavy strokes of his wings, stretched his legs behind him, and off he flew. He sailed away, without moving his wings. At a good distance off he gave a powerful stroke; the sun shone on his white feathers; he stretched his neck and head forward! That was speed and flight!
'But he is still the handsomest of them all!' said the mother-stork, ' only I don't tell him that.'
Early that autumn the Viking came home with spoil and captives. Among these was a young Christian priest, one of those men who preached against the idols of the northern countries. Often at that period did the talk in the hall and in the bower of the women refer to the new faith, which had made its way into all the countries, of the south, and by the holy Anskarius had been brought even to Haddeby on the Schlei. Helga herself had heard of the faith in the White Christ, who out of love to men had given Himself to save them; but for her, as they say, it had gone in at one ear and out at the other. She seemed to have only a perception of that word 'love' when she crouched in that closed room in her miserable frog-form. But the Viking's wife had listened to it, and felt herself wonderfully affected by the story and traditions of the Son of the only true God. The men, on coming home from their expedition, had told of the splendid temples of costly hewn stone, erected for Him whose message was love; and they brought home with them a pair of heavy golden vessels, elaborately pierced, and with a fragrant odour about them, for they were censers, which the Christian priests used to swing before the altar where no blood was ever shed, but wine and consecrated bread changed into His body and blood who had given Himself for generations yet unborn.
In the deep paved cellar of the log house the young captive Christian priest was confined, his feet and hands securely bound. The Viking's wife said that he was 'as fair as Baldur,' and she was touched by his distress; but young Helga wished that a rope should be drawn through his legs, and that he should be tied to the tails of wild oxen.
'Then I would set the dogs loose. Halloo! away over bog and fen, out to the moor! That would be jolly to see! jollier still to be able to follow him on his course!'
But the Viking did not choose that he should be put to death that way, but, as a denier and opposer of the high gods, he should be offered the next morning on the blood-stone in the grove—the first time that a human sacrifice had been offered there.
Young Helga asked that she might sprinkle the images of the gods and the people with his blood. She sharpened her gleaming knife, and when one of the great, ferocious dogs, of which there were a good many in the court-yard, ran across her feet, she drove the knife into its side. 'That is to test it,' said she; and the Viking's wife looked sadly at the wild, ill-tempered girl, and, when the night came, and the beautiful bodily form of her daughter was changed for the beauty of soul, she spoke glowing words of sorrow to her from her own afflicted spirit.
The hideous toad with the goblin's body stood before her, and fixed its brown, sorrowful eyes on her; listening and seeming to understand with the intelligence of a human being.
'Never, even to my husband, has a word fallen from my tongue about the twofold nature I endure in thee,' said the Viking's wife. 'There is more pity in my heart for thee than I could have believed! Great is the love of a mother; but affection never comes into thy mind! Thy heart is like the cold clod! Whence didst thou then come into my house?'
At that the hideous form trembled and shook. It seemed as if the word touched some connexion between body and soul; great tears came into its eyes.
'Thy bitter trial will come some time!' said the Viking's wife; 'and terrible will it be for me! Better hadst thou been abandoned on the highway as a child, and the night-frost had lulled thee into death!' And the Viking's wife wept bitter tears, and, wrathful and sad, passed behind the loose curtains which hung over the beam and divided the room.
The shrunken toad sat alone in the corner. There was silence, but after a short interval there came from her breast a half-smothered sigh. It was as if, painfully, a soul awoke to life in a corner of her heart. She took one step forward, listened, took another step, and then with her awkward hands she seized the heavy bar that was placed before the door. Gently she put it back, and quietly she drew out the peg that was stuck in over the latch. She took the lighted lamp that stood in front of the rooms; it seemed as if a strong will gave her power. She drew the iron pin out of the bolted shutter, and moved gently towards the prisoner. He was asleep. She touched him with her cold, damp hand, and when he awoke and saw that hideous form, he shuddered, as if at an evil vision. She drew her knife, severed his bonds, and made signs to him to follow her.
He called upon the holy Name, made the sign of the cross, and as the figure stood unchanged, he repeated the words of the Bible:—
'"The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble." Who art thou? Whence is this reptile shape that yet is so full of deeds of compassion?'
The toad-figure beckoned and guided him behind sheltering curtains by a solitary way out to the stable, pointed at a horse; he mounted it, and she seated herself before him and held on by the mane of the animal. The prisoner understood her, and they rode away at a quick trot, by a path he would never have discovered, out to the open heath.
He forgot her hideous form, for the favour and mercy of the Lord were acting through this hobgoblin. He offered up pious prayers, and began to sing holy songs; and she trembled; was it the power of the prayers and hymns that acted upon her? or was it the coldness of the morning which was so quickly coming? What was it that she felt? She raised herself up in the breeze, and wished to stop the horse and spring off; but the Christian priest held her fast with all his strength, and sang aloud a Psalm, as if that would have power to loose the spell that held her in that hideous frog shape, and the horse galloped forward yet more wildly. The heaven became red; the first ray of the sun shot through the cloud, and with that clear spring of light came the change of form—she was the beautiful young girl with the demoniac, evil temper! In his arms he held a peerless maiden, and in utter terror he sprang from the horse and stopped it, for he thought he was encountering a new and deadly witchcraft. But young Helga at the same time leapt to the ground; the short child's frock reached only to her knees; she drew the sharp knife from her belt, and rushed at the startled man.
'Let me get at you!' she cried; 'let me get at you, and you shall feel the knife. Yes, you are as pale as hay! Slave! Beardless boy!'
She pressed him hard; they were engaged in a severe conflict, but it was as if an unseen power gave strength to the Christian. He held her fast, and the old oak tree hard by came to his help, for its roots, half loosened from the earth, caught her feet as they slipped under them. A spring gushed forth quite close to them; he sprinkled her with the fresh water on breast and face, and charged the unclean spirit to come out of her, signing her with the cross, according to the Christian rite. But the water of baptism had no power there, where the spring of faith had not yet arisen within.
Yet herein also was he strong; more than a man's strength against the rival power of evil lay in his act, and as if it overwhelmed her, she dropped her arms, looked with a surprised glance and pale cheeks at him, who seemed a powerful sorcerer, strong in wizardry and secret lore. They were dark runes which he spoke, mystic signs which he was making in the air! She would not have blinked if he had swung an axe or a sharp knife before her eyes, but she did when he made the sign of the cross on her forehead and breast; she now sat like a tame bird, her head bowed down on her bosom.
Gently he told her of the work of love she had done for him in the night, that she had come in the hideous skin of a frog, and had loosed his bonds, and brought him out to light and life. He said that she also was bound—bound in a closer bondage than he had been, but she, too, with him should come to light and life. He would bring her to Haddeby, to the holy Anskarius. There, in the Christian city, the enchantment would be broken. But he would not dare to carry her in front of him on the horse, although she herself was willing to sit there.
'You must sit behind me on the horse, not in front of me! Thy witch-beauty has a power that is from the evil one. I dread it—and yet there is victory for me in Christ!'
He bent his knees and prayed gently and earnestly. It was as if the silent glades of the forest were consecrated thereby into a holy church. The birds began t sing as if they belonged to a new brotherhood; the mint poured forth its fragrance as if it would take the place of incense. The priest proclaimed aloud the words of Holy Writ:—
THERE WAS A LITTLE BIRD THAT BEAT ITS WINGS
'"The Day spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace!"'
And he spoke about the longing of the whole Creation, and whilst he spoke the horse, which had carried them in its wild race, stood quiet, and shook the great brambles, so that the ripe, juicy berries fell on little Helga's hand, offering themselves for her refreshment.
Patiently she let herself be lifted on to the back of the horse, and sat there like one walks in his sleep, who is not awake, but yet is not moving in his dream. The Christian fastened two boughs together with a strip of bark to form a cross, and held it aloft in his hands. So they rode through the forest, which became denser as the way grew deeper, or rather, there was no way at all. Sloes grew across the path; one was obliged to ride around them. The spring did not become a running brook, but a standing bog, and one had to ride around that. There was strength and refreshment in the fresh forest air; there was not less power in the word of gentleness which sounded in faith and Christian love, in the heartfelt desire to bring the possessed to light and life.
They say that the drops of rain can hollow the hard stone, the billows of the sea can in time wear smooth the broken, sharp-edged pieces of rock. The dew of Grace, which had descended upon little Helga, pierced the hardness and rounded the ruggedness of her nature, although it was not yet evident, and she was not yet aware of it herself. But what does the germ in the earth know of the refreshing moisture and the warm rays of the sun, while yet it is hiding within itself plant and flower?
As a mother's song for her child imperceptibly fastens itself into its mind, and it babbles single words after her, without understanding them, although they afterwards collect themselves in its thoughts, and become clear in the course of time, so in her the Word worked which is able to create.
They rode out of the forest, away over the heath, again through pathless forest, and towards evening they met some robbers.
'Where have you stolen that fair maiden?' they shouted; they stopped the horse, and snatched the two riders from it, for they were strong men. The priest had no other weapon, than the knife which he had taken from little Helga to defend himself with; one of the robbers swung his axe, but the young Christian avoided it, and lightly sprang aside, or he would have been struck; but the edge of the axe sank deep into the horse's neck, so that the blood streamed out, and the animal fell to the earth. Then little Helga started, as if awakened out of a long, deep meditation, and threw herself down on the expiring animal. The Christian priest placed himself before her in order to defend her, but one of the robbers dashed a ponderous iron mace against his forehead, crushing it. The blood and brains spurted around, and he fell dead to the earth.
The robbers seized little Helga by her white arm. At that moment the sun went down, and as the last ray faded, she was changed to a hideous toad. Her greenish mouth opened across half her face; her arms became thin and slimy, and her hands grew broad and covered with webbing. Terror seized the robbers at the sight. She stood among them, a hideous monster; then, frog-like, hopped away, with bounds higher than she was herself, and vanished in the thicket. The robbers knew it for an evil trick of Loge, or secret magic art, and hurried away in affright.
The full moon was already rising, and soon shone forth in splendour, and little Helga crept forth from the thicket in the skin of a wretched toad. She stood by the bodies of the Christian priest and of the horse, and she looked at them with eyes that seemed to weep. Her frog's head uttered a moan like a child beginning to cry. She threw herself now upon one, now upon the other; she took water in her hand, which the webbed skin had made larger and more hollow, and poured it over them. They were dead, and would remain dead; she understood that. Wild animals would soon come and devour their bodies; but that must not be! So she dug in the earth as deep as she could. To open a grave for them was her wish, but she had nothing to dig it with except a strong bough of a tree and her weak hands; but on them there was webbing stretched between her fingers. She tore it, and the blood flowed. These means would be of no use, she could see. Then she took water and washed the dead man's face, covered it with fresh green leaves, fetched great boughs and laid them over him, shook leaves between them, then took the heaviest stones she was able to lift, laid them over the dead bodies, and filled up the openings with moss. Then the mound seemed strong and protected, but this arduous task had occupied the entire night—the sun now burst forth, and little Helga stood in all her beauty, with bleeding hands, and, for the first time, with tears on her flushed maiden cheeks.
In this transformation, it seemed as if the two natures struggled within her. She trembled, and gazed around her as if she had awoke from a frightful dream. Running to a slender beech, she held fast to it for support, then climbed to the top of the tree, as lithely as a cat, and clung fast to it. There she sat like a frightened squirrel, sat there all through the long day in the deep solitude of the forest, where all is still and deathlike as they say. Yet a pair of butterflies fluttered about at play or in quarrel; there were ant-hills close by with many hundreds of busy little creatures that crowded backwards and forwards. Countless gnats danced in the air, swarm upon swarm; hosts of buzzing flies chased each other about; birds, dragon-flies, and other small winged creatures filled the air. The earth-worm crept out from the moist soil, the mole raised itself above the ground. In all else it was still and death-like around, or what one calls death-like indeed! Nothing took any notice of little Helga, except the jays, which flew screaming around the top of the tree where she was sitting. They jumped along the branches near her in daring inquisitiveness. One glance of her eye was enough to chase them away again; but they could not quite make her out, neither could she understand herself.
When evening was near, and the sun began to go down, her approaching change called her to movement again. She let herself slide down from the tree, and when the last ray of the sun disappeared, she sat there in the toad's shrunken form, with the webbed skin of her hands lacerated, but her eyes now sparkled with a brilliancy of beauty which they had scarcely possessed before, even in her beautiful human shape. They were now the gentle eyes of a pious maiden that looked from behind the reptile's outward shape, and told of a deepened mind, of a true human heart. The beautiful eyes swam with tears, heavy tears that relieved her heart.
The cross of boughs bound together with a strip of bark, the last work of him who now lay dead and buried, was still lying on the grave she had made. Little Helga now took it, at some unprompted impulse, and planted it amongst the stones, over him and the slain horse. The sadness of the recollection brought tears to her eyes, and with the grief in her heart she traced the same sign in the earth around the grave that so honourably enclosed the dead. As with both hands she traced the sign of the cross, the webbing fell off like a torn glove! She washed herself in the water of the spring, and looked with astonishment at her fine white hands. Again she made the sign of the cross in the air between herself and the grave; her lips quivered, her tongue moved, and that Name, which she had heard pronounced most frequently on her ride through the forest, came audibly from her mouth—she said, 'Jesus Christ!'
The toad's skin fell off: she was a beautiful young maiden; but her head drooped wearily, her limbs needed repose—she slept.
Her slumber was short; at midnight she awoke. The dead horse was standing before her, shining, and full of life, that gleamed in light from its eyes and from its wounded neck. Close by she saw the murdered Christian priest, 'more beautiful than Baldur!' as the Viking's wife would have said; and he appeared surrounded with a glory of fire.
There was an earnest look in his large, gentle eyes, just and searching, so penetrating a gaze that it seemed to shine into the inmost recesses of her heart. Little Helga trembled before it, and her memory was awakened with a power as if it was the Day of Judgment. Every kind action that had been done for her, every kindly word that had been spoken to her, seemed endued with life; she understood that it was mercy which had taken care of her during her days of trial, in which the child of spirit and clay works and strives. She owned that she had only followed the bent of her own desire, and had done nothing on her own part. Everything had been given to her, everything had been allowed, so to speak. She bowed herself humbly, ashamed before Him who alone can read the hidden things of the heart; and in that instant there seemed to come to her a fiery touch of purifying flame—the flame of the Holy Spirit.
'Thou daughter of the mire,' said the Christian priest, 'from the mire, from the earth thou art sprung; from earth thou shalt again arise. The fire within thee returns in personality to its source; the ray is not from the sun, but from God. No soul shall perish, but far distant is the time when life shall be merged in eternity. I come from the land of the dead; so shalt thou at some time travel through the deep valley to the shining hill-country, where grace and fulness dwell. I may not lead thee to Hadde for Christian baptism. First thou must burst the water-shield over the deep moorland, and draw up the living root that gave thee life and cradled thee. Thou must do thy work before the consecration may come to thee.'
And he lifted her on to the horse, handed her a golden censer, like that which she had seen in the Viking's castle, from which there came a sweet, strong fragrance. The open wound on the forehead of the slain shone like a radiant diadem. He took the cross from the grave, raised it on high; and now they went off through the air, over the rustling forest, then over the mounds where the warriors were buried, sitting on their dead steeds; and these majestic forms arose, and rode out to the tops of the hills. A broad golden hoop with a gold knob gleamed on their foreheads in the moonlight, and their cloaks fluttered in the wind. The dragon that sits and broods over treasure raised its head, and looked after them. Dwarfs peered forth from the hills, and the furrows swarmed with red, blue, and green lights, like a cluster of sparks in a burnt piece of paper.
Away over wood and heath, stream and pool, they flew to the moor, and floated over that in great circles. The Christian priest raised the cross on high; it shone like gold, and from his lips came the eucharistic chant. Little Helga sang with him, as a child joins in the song of its mother. She swung the censer, and there came a fragrance as if from an altar, so powerful, so subtly operating, that the rushes and reeds of the moor put forth their flowers. All the germs sprang up from the deep soil; everything that had life arose. A veil of water-lilies spread itself like an embroidered carpet of flowers, and on it lay a sleeping woman, young and beautiful. Little Helga thought she saw herself mirrored in the still water; but it was her mother that she saw, the Marsh King's wife, the princess from the waters of the Nile.
The dead Christian priest bade the sleeper be lifted on to the horse; but that sank under the burden as if its body was only a winding-sheet flying in the breeze; but the sign of the cross made the airy phantom strong, and all three rode to the firm ground.
A cock crowed in the Viking's stronghold. The phantoms rose up in the mist, and were dispersed in the wind, but mother and daughter stood there together.
'Is that myself that I see in the deep water?' said the mother.
'Is that myself that I see in the bright shield?' exclaimed the daughter; and they came close together, breast to breast in each other's arms. The mother's heart beat strongest, and she understood it all.
'My child! My own heart's flower! My lotus from the deep waters!'
And she embraced her child, and wept over her; and the tears were as a baptism of new life and affection for little Helga.'I came hither in a swan's skin, and I took it off,' said the mother. 'I sank through the quivering swamp, deep into the mire of the bog, that enclosed me as with a wall. But soon I found a fresher current about me; a power seemed to draw me ever deeper and deeper. I felt a pressure of sleep on my eyelids; I slept, I dreamt—I seemed to lie again in the pyramids of Egypt; but there still stood before me the moving elder-stump, which had frightened me on the surface of the moor. I looked at the crevices in the bark, and they shone forth in colours and became hieroglyphics—it was the case of a mummy which I was looking at. That burst, and out of it stepped a lord a thousand years old, a mummy form, black as pitch, shining black like a wood-snail or the slimy black mud—the Marsh King, or the mummy of the pyramid, I did not know which. He flung his arms about me, and I felt that I should die. When I first returned to life again, and my
PLACED THE GOLDEN CIRCUIT ABOUT HIS NECK
breast became warm, there was a little bird which beat its wings, and twittered and sang. It flew up from my breast towards the dark, heavy roof, but a long green band still fastened it to me. I heard and understood its longing notes: "Liberty! sunshine! to my father!" Then I thought of my father in the sun-lit land of my home, my life, my affection! and I loosed the band and let him flutter away—home to his father. Since that hour I have not dreamed; I slept a long and heavy sleep till the moment when the sounds and fragrance arose and raised me.'
That green band from the mother's heart to the bird's wings, whither had it passed now? where was it lying cast away? Only the stork had seen it. The band was that green stalk; the knot was that shining flower which served as a cradle for the child who now had grown in beauty, and again reposed near the mother's heart.
And whilst they stood there in close embrace, the father-stork flew in circles about them, made speed to his nest, fetched from thence the feather-dresses kept for so many years and threw one over each of them; and they flew, and raised themselves from the earth like two white swans.
'Let us talk,' said father-stork, 'now that we can understand each other's speech, although the beak is cut differently on one bird and on the other! It is the most lucky thing possible that you came to-night. In the morning we should have been off, mother, and I, and the young ones! We are flying to the South! Yes, look at me! I am an old friend from the land of the Nile, and that is the mother; she has more in her heart than in her chatter. She always believed that the princess was only taking care of herself. I and the young ones have brought the swan-skins here. Well, how glad I am! And what a fortunate thing it is that I am here still! At daybreak we shall set off, a large party of storks. We fly in front; you can fly behind, and then you will not mistake the way. I and the young ones will then be able to keep an eye upon you!'
'And the lotus flower, that I ought to bring,' said the Egyptian princess, 'it flies in swan's plumage by my side! I have the flower of my heart with me; thus it has released itself. Homeward! homeward!'
But Helga said that she could not leave the land of Denmark till she had once more seen her foster-mother, the kind wife of the Viking. In Helga's thoughts came up every beautiful remembrance, every affectionate word, every tear which her foster-mother had shed, and it almost seemed at that instant as if she clung closest to that mother.
'Yes, we will go to the Viking's house,' said the stork-father. 'There I expect mother and the young ones. How they will open their eyes and chatter about it! Yes, mother doesn't say so very much; what she does is short and pithy, and so she thinks the best! I will sound the rattle directly, so that she will hear we are coming.'
And so father-stork chattered his beak, and flew with the swans to the Viking's stronghold.
Every one there was lying deep in slumber. The Viking's wife had not gone to rest till late that night; she was still in fear for little Helga, who had disappeared three days ago with the Christian priest. She must have helped him to escape, for it was her horse that was missing from the stable. By what power had all this been brought about? The Viking's wife thought about the wonderful works which she had heard were performed by the White Christ, and by those who believed in Him and followed Him. Her changing thoughts shaped themselves into a dream. It appeared to her that she was still sitting on her bed, awake, and meditating, and that darkness shrouded everything outside. A storm arose; she heard the rolling of the sea in the west and the east, from the North Sea and the waters of the Cattegat. That huge serpent which encircles the earth in the depths of the ocean shook convulsively; it was Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, as the heathen called the last hour, when everything should pass away, even the high gods themselves. The trumpet sounded, and the gods rode forth over the rainbow, arrayed in steel, to take part in the last contest. Before them flew the winged warrior-maidens, and behind them in array marched the forms of dead warriors. The whole sky was illuminated by the northern lights, but the darkness again prevailed. It was an appalling hour.
And close by the frightened Viking's wife little Helga sat on the floor in the hideous form of a toad, trembling and nestling herself up against her foster-mother, who took her on her lap and affectionately held her fast, although she seemed more hideous than a toad. The air was full of the sound of sword-strokes and the blows of maces, of arrows whizzing, as if a furious hail-storm was raging above them. The hour had come when earth and heaven should fail, the stars should fall, and everything be burned up in the fire of Surtr; but the dreamer knew that a new earth and heaven would come, and the corn wave where the sea now rolled over the barren sand bottom; that the God who cannot be named rules, and up to Him rose Baldur, the gentle and kind, loosed from the realm of death. He came—the Viking's wife saw him, and knew his face. It was the captive Christian priest.
'White Christ!' she cried aloud; and as she mentioned that Name she pressed a kiss on the hideous forehead of her frog-child; the toad's skin fell off, and little Helga stood there in all her beauty, gentle as she had never been before, and with beaming eyes. She kissed her foster-mother's hands, blessed her for all her care and affection with which she had surrounded her in the days of her distress and trial; thanked her for the thoughts to which she had given birth in her; thanked her for mentioning the Name which she repeated, 'White Christ!' and then little Helga rose up as a noble swan, her wings expanded themselves wide, wide, with a rustling as when a flock of birds of passage flies away!
With that the Viking's wife awoke, and still heard outside the same strong sound of wings. She knew that it was time for the storks to depart, and no doubt that was what she heard. Still, she wished to see them once before their journey, and to bid them farewell. She stood up, went out on to the balcony, and there she saw on the ridge of the out-house rows of storks, and round the courtyard and over the lofty trees crowds of others were flying in great circles. But straight in front of her, on the edge of the well, where little Helga had so often sat and frightened her with her wildness, two swans now sat and looked at her with intelligent eyes. Her dream came to her mind; it still quite filled her as if it had been reality. She thought of little Helga in the form of a swan, she thought of the Christian priest, and she felt a strange joy in her heart.
The swans beat their wings, and bent their necks, as if they wished so to salute her; and the Viking's wife stretched out her arms towards them as if she understood, and smiled at them through her tears.
Then, with a noise of wings and chattering, all the storks arose to start on their journey to the south.
'We cannot wait for the swans!' said mother-stork. 'If they wish to come with us they may; but we can't wait here till the plovers start! It is a very good thing to travel in family parties; not like the chaffinches and ruffs, where the males fly by themselves and the females by themselves; that is certainly not proper! And what are those swans flapping their wings for?'
'Every one flies in his own way!' said father-stork. 'The swans go in slanting line, the cranes in a triangle, and the plovers in a wavy, snake-like line.'
'Don't mention serpents when we are flying up here!' said mother-stork; 'it only excites the appetites of our young ones when they can't be satisfied.'
'Are those the high mountains down there which I have heard of?' asked Helga in the swan's skin.
'Those are thunder-clouds which drive below us,' said the mother.
'What are those white clouds which lift themselves so high?' asked Helga.
'Those are the everlasting snow-clad hills which you see,' said the mother; and they flew over the Alps, down towards the blue Mediterranean.
'Land of Africa! Coast of Egypt!' jubilantly sang the daughter of the Nile in her swan form, when, high in the air, she descried her native land, like a yellowish white, undulating streak.
And as the birds saw it, they hastened their flight.'I smell the mud of the Nile and the wet frogs!' said mother-stork. 'It quite excites me! Yes, now you shall taste them; now you shall see the adjutant bird, the ibis,
THEN SHE SAW THE STORKS
and the cranes! They all belong to our family, but they are not nearly so handsome as we are. They stick themselves up, especially the ibis; he is now quite pampered by the Egyptians—they make a mummy of him, and stuff him with aromatic herbs. I would rather be stuffed with live frogs, and so would you, and so you shall be. It is better to have something inside you while you live than to be in state when you are dead! That is my opinion, and that is always right!'
'Now the storks are come!' they said in the rich house on the bank of the Nile, where, in the open hall on soft cushions covered with a leopard's skin, the royal master lay outstretched, neither living nor dead, hoping for the lotus flower from the deep marsh in the north. Kinsmen and servants stood around him.
And into the hall flew two beautiful white swans, which had come with the storks! They threw off their dazzling feather-dress, and there stood two beautiful women, as much alike as two drops of dew! They bent down over the pale, withered old man; they put back their long hair, and when little Helga stooped over her grandfather, the colour returned to his cheeks, his eyes sparkled, and life came into his stiffened limbs. The old man raised himself healthy and vigorous; daughter and granddaughter held him in their arms as if they were giving him a morning salutation in their joy after a long, heavy dream.
And there was joy over all the house and in the storks' nest, but there it was chiefly over the good food, and the swarming hosts of frogs; and whilst the learned men made haste to note down in brief the history of the two princesses and the flower of health, which was such a great event and a blessing for house and country, the parent storks related it in their fashion to their own family, but not till they had all satisfied their hunger, or else they would have had something else to do than to listen to stories.
'Now you will become somebody!' whispered mother-stork; 'that is certain!'
'Well! what should I become?' said father-stork; 'and what have I done? A mere nothing!'
'You have done more than all the others! But for you and the young ones the two princesses would never have seen Egypt again, and made the old man well. You will become somebody! You will certainly receive a Doctor's degree, and our young ones will bear it afterwards, and their young ones will have it in turn. You look already like an Egyptian doctor—in my eyes!'
The wise and learned expounded the fundamental idea, as they called it, that ran through the whole history: 'Love brings forth life!'—they gave that explanation in different ways—'the warm sunbeam was the Egyptian princess, she descended to the Marsh King, and in their meeting the flower sprang forth—'
'I can't repeat the words quite right,' said father-stork, who had heard it from the roof, and was expected to tell them all about it in his nest. 'What they said was so involved, it was so clever, that they immediately received honours and gifts. Even the head cook obtained a high mark of distinction—that was for the soup!'
'And what did you receive?' inquired mother-stork; 'they ought not to forget the most important, and that is yourself. The learned have only chattered about it all, but your turn will come!'
Late that night, while peaceful slumber enwrapped the now prosperous house, there was one who was still awake; and that was not the father-stork, though he stood on one leg in the nest and slept like a sentinel. No, little Helga was awake. She leaned out over the balcony and gazed at the clear sky, with the great, bright stars, larger and purer in their lustre than she had seen them in the north, and yet the same. She thought of the Viking's wife by the moor, of her foster-mother's gentle eyes, and the tears she had shed over her poor toad-child, who now stood in the light and splendour of the stars by the waters of the Nile in the soft air of spring. She thought of the love in that heathen woman's breast, that love which she had shown to a miserable creature who, in human form, was an evil brute, and in the form of an animal, loathsome to look at and to touch. She looked at the shining stars, and called to mind the splendour on the forehead of the dead man, when they flew away over forest and moor; tones resounded in her recollection, words she had heard pronounced when they rode away, and she sat as if paralysed words about the great Author of Love, the highest Love, embracing all generations.
Yes, how much had been given, gained, obtained! Little Helga's thoughts were occupied, night and day, with all her good fortune, and she stood in contemplation of it like a child which turns quickly from the giver to all the beautiful presents that have been given; so she rose up in her increasing happiness, which could come and would come. She was indeed borne in mysterious ways to even higher joy and happiness, and in this she lost herself one day so entirely that she thought no more of the Giver. It was the strength of youthful courage that inspired her bold venture. Her eyes shone, but suddenly she was called back by a great clamour in the courtyard beneath. There she saw two powerful ostriches running hurriedly about in narrow circles. She had never before seen that creature, so great a bird, so clumsy and heavy. Its wings looked as if they were clipped, the bird itself as if it had been injured, and she inquired what had been done to it, and for the first time heard the tradition which the Egyptians relate about the ostrich.
The race had at one time been beautiful, its wings large and powerful; then, one evening, a mighty forest bird said to it: 'Brother, shall we fly to the river in the morning, if God will, and drink?' And the ostrich replied: 'I will.' When day broke they flew off, at first high up towards the sun—the eye of God—ever higher and higher, the ostrich far before all the others; it flew in its pride towards the light; it relied on its own strength, and not on the Giver; it did not say, 'If God will!' Then the avenging angel drew back the veil from the burning flame, and in that instant the bird's wings were burnt; it sank miserably to the earth. Its descendants are no longer able to raise themselves; they fly in terror, rush about in circles in that narrow space. It is a reminder to us men, in all our thoughts, in all our actions, to say: 'If God will!'
And Helga thoughtfully bowed her head, looked at the hurrying ostrich, saw its fear, saw its silly delight at the sight of its own great shadow on the white sunlit wall. And deep seriousness fixed itself into her mind and thoughts. So rich a life, so full of prosperity, was given, was obtained what would happen? What was yet to come? The best thing: 'If God will!'
In the early spring, when the storks again started for the north, little Helga took her gold bracelet, scratched her name on it, beckoned to the stork-father, placed the golden circlet about his neck, and asked him to bear it to the Viking's wife, by which she would understand that her foster-daughter was alive, and that she was happy, and thought of her.
'That is heavy to carry!' thought the father-stork when it was placed around his neck; 'but one does not throw gold and honour on the high-road. They will find it true up there that the stork brings fortune!'
'You lay gold, and I lay eggs!' said the mother-stork; 'but you only lay once, and I lay every year! But it vexes me that neither of us is appreciated.'
'But we are quite aware of it ourselves, mother!' said father-stork.
'But you can't hang that on you,' said mother-stork. 'It neither gives us fair wind nor food.'
And so they flew.
The little nightingale, that sang in the tamarind-bush, also wished to start for the north immediately. Little Helga had often heard him up there near the moor; she wished to give him a message, for she understood the speech of birds when she flew in the swan's skin, and she had often since that time used it with the stork and the swallow. The nightingale would understand her, and she asked him to fly to the beech-forest on the peninsula of Jutland, where she had erected the grave of stones and boughs; there she asked him to bid all the small birds to protect the grave, and always to sing their songs around it. And the nightingale flew—and time flew also.
The eagle stood on the pyramid in the autumn, and saw a magnificent array of richly laden camels, with armed men in costly clothing, on snorting Arabian steeds, shining as white as silver, and with red quivering nostrils, their heavy thick manes hanging down about their slender legs. Rich visitors, a royal prince from the land of Arabia, beautiful as a prince ought to be, came to that noble house, where the storks' nest now stood empty, its former occupants now far away in the northern land, but soon to return. And they came exactly on that day which was most filled with joy and mirth. There was a grand wedding, and little Helga was the bride arrayed in silk and jewels; the bridegroom was the young prince from the land of Arabia; and the two sat highest at the table between the mother and grandfather. But she did not look at the bridegroom's brown, manly cheek, where his black beard curled; she did not look at his dark, fiery eyes, which were fastened upon her; she looked outwards and upwards towards the twinkling, sparkling stars, which beamed down from heaven.
Then there was a rustling sound of strong wing-strokes outside in the air—the storks had returned; and the old couple, however tired they might be with the journey, and however much they needed rest, still flew on to the railing of the verandah immediately they were aware whose festivity it was. They had already heard, at the frontier of the country, that little Helga had allowed them to be painted on the wall because they belonged to her history.
'That is very nicely borne in mind,' said father-stork.
'It is very little!' said the stork-mother; 'she could not have done less.'
And when Helga saw them, she got up and went out into the verandah to them to pat them on the back. The old storks curtsied with their necks, and the youngest of their young ones looked on, and felt themselves honoured.
And Helga looked up to the bright stars which shone clearer and clearer; and between them and her a form seemed to move still purer than the air, and seen through it, that hovered quite near her—it was the dead Christian priest; so he came on the day of her festivity, came from the Kingdom of Heaven.
'The splendour and glory which are there surpass everything that earth knows!' he said.
And little Helga prayed gently and from her heart, as she had never prayed before, that she only for one single minute might dare to look within, might only cast one single glance into the Kingdom of Heaven, to the Father of all.
And he raised her into the splendour and glory, in one current of sounds and thoughts; it was not only round about her that it shone and sounded, but within her. No words are able to describe it.
'Now we must return; you are wanted!' he said.
'Only one glance more!' she entreated; 'only one short minute!'
'We must go back to the earth; all the guests have gone away.'
'Only one glance! the last—
And little Helga stood outside in the verandah; but all the torches outside were extinguished, all the lights in the wedding chamber were gone, the storks were gone, no guests to be seen, no bridegroom; everything seemed to be blown away in three short minutes.
Then Helga was filled with terror, and she went through the great, empty hall, into the next room. Strange soldiers were sleeping there. She opened a side door that led into her apartment, and when she expected to stand there, she found herself outside in the garden; but it was not like this before—the heaven was red and shining, it was towards daybreak.
Only three minutes in Heaven, and a whole night had passed on the earth!
Then she saw the storks; she cried to them, speaking their language, and father-stork turned his head, listened, and drew near her.
'You are speaking our language!' said he; 'what do you want? Why do you come here, you strange woman?'
'It is I! it is Helga! Don't you know me? Three minutes ago we were talking together, yonder in the verandah.'
'That is a mistake!' said the stork; 'you must have dreamt it!'
'No, no!' she said, and reminded him of the Viking's stronghold and the moor, and of the journey hither!
Then father-stork blinked his eyes: 'That is a very old story; I have heard it from my great-great-great-grandmother's time! Yes, certainly, there was such a princess in Egypt from the land of Denmark, but she disappeared on the night of her wedding many hundreds of years ago, and never came back again. That you may read for yourself on the monument in the garden; there are sculptured both swans and storks, and at the top you yourself stand in white marble.'
It was indeed so. Little Helga saw it, understood it, and fell on her knees.
The sun broke forth, and as in former times at the touch of its beams the toad form disappeared and the beautiful shape was seen, so she raised herself now at the baptism of light in a form of brighter beauty, purer than the air, a ray of light—to the Father of all.
Her body sank in dust; there lay a faded lotus-flower where she had stood.
'Then that was a new ending to the story!' said the father-stork. 'I had not at all expected it! but I rather like it!'
'I wonder what my young ones will say about it!' said the mother-stork.
'Yes, that is certainly the principal thing!' answered the father.