THE LITTLE HOUSE IN THE FAIRY WOOD
ETHEL COOK ELIOT
TO TORKA AND NORTHWIND
I. MAGIC IN A MIST II. THE BRIGHT HOUSE III. FIRELIGHT IV. THE GOSSIP V. WORLD STORIES VI. AT THE HEART OF A TREE VII. TREE MOTHER AND THE DROWSY BOAT VIII. A WITCH AT THE WINDOW IX. THE WIND HUNT X. ON THE GRAY WALL XI. THE BEAUTIFUL WICKED WITCH XII. IVRA'S BIRTHDAY XIII. NORA'S GRANDCHILDREN XIV. SPRING COMES XV. SPRING WANDERING XVI. OVER THE TREE TOPS XVII. THE JUNE MOON XVIII. THE DEEPEST PLACE IN THE WOOD XIX. MORE MAGIC IN A MIST
MAGIC IN A MIST
That morning began no differently from any morning, though it was to be the beginning of all things new for Eric. He was awakened early by Mrs. Freg's rough hand shaking him by the arm, and her rough voice in his ears: "Get up, lazy-bones! All you boys pile out, this very minute! It's six o'clock already!" Then she reached over Eric and shook the other two boys in the bed with him, repeating and repeating "Wake up, wake up! It's six o'clock already!" When she was sure the three boys in the bed were awake and miserable, she crossed the room with a hurried, heavy tread and clumped, clumped down the stairs into the kitchen.
Though it happened just that way every morning, and it had happened so this morning, this day was to be very different from any other in Eric's life. But Eric could not know that; so he crawled farther down under the few bedclothes he had managed to keep to himself, and shut his eyes again just for a minute.
The night had been a cold one, and the other two boys in the bed, because they were older and stronger, had managed to keep most of the bedding wrapped tightly around them, while little Eric shivered on the very edge. So he had not slept at all in the way little boys of nine usually sleep,—that is, when they have a bed to themselves, and their mother has left a kiss with them. When he had slept, he had dreamed he was wading in icy puddles out in the street.
But it was only a minute that he huddled there, trying to come really awake, and then he sprang out, and without thought of a bath, was into his clothes in a minute. The two older boys followed him more slowly, yawning, growling, and quarreling.
Breakfast was served in the kitchen by Mrs. Freg. The room was bare and ugly like the rest of the house, and the food was far from satisfying. As the older boys got most of the bedding for themselves, so they got most of the breakfast, while Mr. and Mrs. Freg laughed at them, and praised them for fine, hearty boys who knew what they wanted and would get it.
"You will succeed in the world, both of you," said Mrs. Freg with mother-pride gleaming in her eyes, when they had managed to seize and divide between them little Eric's steaming cup of coffee,—the only hot thing he had hoped for that morning.
"Will I be a success, too?" asked Eric in a faint but hopeful voice.
"You!" said the harsh woman. "You, young man, had better be thankful to work on at the canning instead of starving in the streets. That's the fate of most orphans. Success indeed! Now hurry along, all of you. It's quarter to seven."
But right here is where the day began to differ from other days. Eric did not hurry along. He threw down his spoon and cried, "I'd just as soon starve in the streets, and wade in its icy puddles, too, as live here with you and your nasty boys and work in that old canning factory! I just wonder how you'd feel if I went out this morning and never, never came back! I'd like to do that!"
Mrs. Freg laughed, and her laugh was not a nice mother-laugh at all, for she was not Eric's mother, and had never pretended that she was.
"Why, little spitfire, it wouldn't matter a bit except to make one less mouth to feed. But you won't be so silly as that. You don't want to starve."
"All right," said little Eric, snatching his cap from its peg. "You said it wouldn't matter to you. You won't see me again, any of you. I hate you all, and everything in the world. I hate you. You've made me hate you hard!"
Then he suddenly ran out into the street.
In a minute he was in a flood of people, men, women and children moving towards the canning factory, a big brick building on the outskirts of the city. Eric had worked in that factory from the day he was seven. There is no need to tell you what he did there, for this is not the story of the canning factory Eric,—the queer, hating Eric who had waked up that morning.
But how he did hate! His eyes were full of hating tears, and they were running down his face, making horrid white streaks on his dirty cheeks. He was hating so hard that he did not even care if people saw his tears. He lifted his face straight up and dropped his arms straight down at his side and walked right along, no matter how fast the tears came.
Now he had often hated before, but never quite like this. Before, it had been a frightened hate, a gnawing, hurting thing deep down in his heart. But to-day it was a flaring hate, a burning thing right up in his head. It was big, too, because it included everything that he knew, Mrs. Freg, her boys, the street, the people jostling him, and hottest and wildest of all the canning factory. How terrible to go in there in the morning, when the sun was only just up, and not to come out again until it was quite down! Eric knew little about play, but he did know that if he could only be let stay out in the sunshine he would find things to do there. If they'd only let him try it once!
So he walked along in the direction the others were going, the hating tears in his eyes and on his face. But no one laughed at him, and no one asked him what was the matter, even the other children. For he was not crying in the usual way with little boys. He was walking along with his head up. So people did not bother him.
He had reached the outskirts of the town, and was almost in the shadow of the big, cruel factory, when the Magic began to work. For there was magic in this day that had started so badly. It was only waiting for Eric to see it before it would take hold of him and carry him away into happiness. It had waited for him at the door of the dull, bare little house that had never been home to him, but his tears would not let him see it. So it had followed along beside him all the way to the factory, waiting for him to feel, even if he could not see. And he did feel,—just in time to let the Magic work.
He felt that the day that had begun so freezingly was warm, strangely warm. He wiped the tears from his eyes away to the side of his face with his sleeve, and looked about. The sun was very bright, but in a mild, pleasant way. And a tree on the other side of the street was showering softly, softly, softly, yellow autumn leaves, until they covered the cobblestones all around. Eric did not think about being late. The Magic was pulling him now. He went across and stood under the tree, and felt the leaves showering on his head and shoulders, and caught a few in his hands.
All the people passed, and soon the last one was hidden behind the heavy factory door. Eric gave the door a glance or two, but did not go. Over the roof of the factory he saw the tops of tall trees waving. He had never looked so high above the factory before. But he knew there was a wood on the other side, a wood he had always been too tired to think of exploring, even on holidays. Now he saw the tops of the tall trees beckoning him in a golden mist. "The mist is the yellow leaves they're dropping," thought Eric. With every beckon the golden mist of leaves grew brighter and brighter, until he could not see the beckoning any more, but only the mist. Still he knew the beckoning was going on behind the mist.
"If I'm to live in the streets at night," he thought to himself, "there's no need to live in the factory by day. I'll just go and see what those trees want of me."
Very slowly, with little firm steps, he went by the factory door, and then around under its windows to the wood at the back.
It was Indian Summer. That was why the golden leaves were showering in a mist, and why the sun was so warm.
Eric dropped his ragged coat and cap on the edge of the wood,—it was so warm,—and went in.
A little girl had been watching him from her place at one of the factory windows where she was sorting cans. She had seen him before, working at the factory, day after day, and they had played together sometimes in the noon half hour. Now she wondered what he was doing out there. Had they sent him, perhaps, to do a different kind of work that could only be done in the woods? But as he walked away in under the trees farther and farther, the golden mist that was over the wood drew in about him; and although she leaned far forward over the cans at a great risk of knocking over dozens and setting them rolling,—he was lost in it. It had dropped down behind him like a curtain.
THE BRIGHT HOUSE
Eric knew nothing of the little girl and her thoughts. He was walking in a golden mist, but he could see quite perfectly, and even far ahead down long tree aisles. At first the trees did not grow very close together, and there was little underbrush. Several narrow paths started off in different directions,—straight little paths made by people who knew where they were going. But Eric did not know where he was going, so he struck off in a place where there was no sign of a path. Soon the trees drew closer and closer together, until their branches locked fingers overhead and shook the yellow leaves down for each other. The leaves showered softly and steadily. Eric's feet rustled loudly in them.
Soon he stopped and took off his worn shoes and stockings. He left them where he took them off and went on, barefoot. Now that he was only in his shirt and trousers he began to run and leap. He leapt for the drifting leaves, and he ran farther and farther into the happy stillness.
The trees crowded and crowded, and the mist of leaves grew brighter and brighter. No birds sang, for they had all flown away for the winter, and there were no flowers. But the drifting leaves hid the bareness, and magic covered everything.
After Eric had run and leapt and waded in the crackling pools of leaves for a long time, he grew hungry. "But there is no food here," he thought; "and anyway it doesn't matter. It's much better to be hungry here than in the dirty streets."
He decided to go to sleep and forget about it. So he lay down in the leaves. They fell over him, a steady, gentle shower, and he slept long, and without dreaming anything.
But when he woke he was cold. And worse than that, the golden mist had faded. It was almost twilight. The light was cold and still and gray. While he slept Indian Summer had vanished and its magic with it.
Now no matter how fast Eric ran, or how high he jumped, he was chilly through and through. But he did not think of trying to find the way out of the wood. The streets would be as cold as the forest, and never, never, never, if he starved and froze, was he going back to that house in the village where he had lived but never belonged. So he went on until the gray light faded, and the soft rustle of falling leaves changed to the noise of wind scraping in bare branches. When he was very cold, and ready to lie down and sleep again to forget, he came quite suddenly on an opening in the trees. In the dim light he saw a little garden closed in with a hedge of baby evergreens. The wind was rustling through the stalks of dead flowers in the garden. But in the middle of it was a little low house, and the windows and doors were glowing like new, warm flowers.
Yes, it was a house and a garden away there in the wood, but no path led to it through the forest, and there was a strangeness about it as about no house or garden Eric had ever seen.
Although no path led through the wood to the house, a path did run through the garden to the low door stone. Eric went up it and stood looking in at the door, which was open.
The glow of the house came from a leaping, jolly fire in a big stone fire-place, and from half a dozen squat candles set in brackets around the walls. It was the one lovely room that Eric had ever seen. It was so large that he knew it must occupy the whole of the little house. But in spite of all the brightness, the comers were dim and far.
There were two strange people there, or they were strange to Eric because they were so different from any people he had ever known. One was a young woman who sat sewing cross-legged on a settle at the side of the fire-place. About her the strangest thing was her hair. It was not like most women's,—long and twisted up on her head. It was short, and curled back above her ears and across her forehead like flower-petals. It was the color of the candle-flames. But her face was brown, and her neck and long hands were brown, as though she had lived a long time in the sun. Her eyes that were lifted and scarcely watching the work in her hands, were very quiet and gray.
She was watching and talking to a little girl who was skipping back and forth between a rough tea-table set near the fire and an open cupboard-door in the wall. She was carrying dishes to the table, and now and then stopping to stir something good-smelling which hung over the fire in a pewter pot, with a strong bent twig for a handle.
The child was strange in a very different way from her mother. The mother, one could see, was merry in spite of her quiet eyes. But the child was pale. Her face was pale and little and round. Her hair was pale, too, the color of ashes, and braided in two smooth little braids hanging half way down her back. She moved with almost as much swiftness as the fire-shadows, and as softly too.
Both mother and daughter were dressed in rough brown smocks, with narrow green belts falling loosely,—strange garments to Eric. And their feet were bare.
But stranger than the house, stranger than the people in it, was the fact that the mother was talking to the little girl just as people of the same age talk to each other; and though Eric was shaking with cold and aching with hunger, he could still wonder deeply at that.
"It's a long way 'round by the big pine," she was saying; "but you see I am home in time for supper. Suppose I had not come until after dark. What would you have done, Ivra?"
The little girl stopped in her busy-ness to stand on one foot and think a second. "Why, I'd have put the supper over the fire, lighted the candles, and run out to meet you."
"Oh, but you wouldn't know which way to run. I might come from any direction."
"I'd follow the wind," cried Ivra, lifting her serious face and rising to her tiptoes, one arm outstretched, as though she were going to follow the wind right then and there.
It was at that minute they noticed the door had blown open, and that a little boy was standing in it, looking at them.
But they neither stared nor exclaimed. Ivra ran to him, her arms still outstretched in the flying gesture, and drew him in. His dirty face was streaked with tears, and his legs and feet were blue with the cold. They knew it was not question-time, but comfort-time, so the mother folded an arm about him, and Ivra skipped more rapidly than ever between the cupboard and the table. Almost at once supper was ready, and the table set for three. As the last thing, Ivra brought all the candles and set them in the middle of the table. They sat down,—Eric with his back to the fire. It warmed him through and through, but their friendly faces warmed him more.
Very little was said, but when the meal was nearly over Ivra asked him how long he was going to stay with them. Immediately he stopped eating and dropped his spoon. His eyes filled with tears. He had utterly forgotten about his plight until then,—how he was homeless, workless and bound to starve and freeze sooner or later. Ivra's mother saw the misery in his face and quietly spoke, "We hope for a long time. As long as you want to, anyway. Three in a wood will be merrier than two in a wood. . . . If you like me I will be your mother."
Ivra clapped her hands. "Stay always," she cried. "I will be your playmate. There will be many playmates besides, too, and I will help you find them."
Eric glowed. The hatred that had been flaring in his head suddenly faded, and the heavy thing that had been his heart for as long as he could remember, became light as thistledown. He looked at the mother and the kindness in her eyes made him tremble. "I will stay and be your child," he said.
When supper was done the three put away the supper things, carried the table back to its place in the corner, and set the candles in their brackets about the walls. Then almost at once the mother said it was bath-time and bed-time.
Bath-time! Baths had been rare in Eric's life, and when they did happen were unhappy adventures,—cold water in a hand basin in the kitchen sink, a scratchy sponge, and a towel too small. So if Mrs. Freg had said "bath-time and bed-time" to him now, he might have run away. But if Ivra's mother said it, it must be. She was his mother too, now, and he loved her and thought her beautifully strange.
A surprise was waiting for him. The bath was a deep basin set in the wall. There was a fountain in it that one had only to turn on to have the basin fill with clear water. Eric slipped out of his ragged shirt and trousers and climbed up into it. The fountain came splashing down on his dusty, shaggy head, falling in rivulets down his back and breast. He was like a bird taking a bath; there was such happy splashing and dipping.
But no bird had ever the gentle soft drying, or was wrapped in such a warm night gown as the mother found for Eric. It was one of Ivra's night gowns, but quite large enough. Then she tucked him into a narrow couch far from the fire. It was the first time Eric could ever remember having slept alone.
Ivra was already in a bed against the opposite wall. Before the mother got into hers, which was open and ready for her, she blew out all the candles and opened the door and windows.
"Good night, my lambs," she said, and a very few minutes afterwards Eric could see by the firelight that his mother and playmate were asleep.
How cold the wind felt as it blew over his face! But how warm and snug his body was, there in the soft, clean night gown between the light, warm blankets! How fine to be there so warm in bed while his cheeks grew red in the cold air and burned deliciously. How could he ever sleep? He was too happy!
He looked at the fire. And then he looked harder. It was not a fire at all, but a young girl, all bright and golden, sitting with her head drowsily bent forward on her knees and her arms wrapped close about her legs. But as he watched she slowly lifted her bright head, and looked quietly about the room. Then she gradually and beautilully rose and stepped out of the fireplace onto the floor. Slowly she moved across to the mother's couch and stood still as though looking down at her. Slowly she bent and drew the bed-clothes higher about her shoulders, and kissed the flower-petal hair curled back on the pillow.
She moved then to Ivra's couch, still slowly and very beautifully, and Eric could see her smile at the little one huddled there, half on her face, one arm thrown up over her head. Gently the fire-girl rolled her into a relaxed position on her side, tucked in the flung arm, and kissed the closed eyelids.
Then she stood a minute, looking away, Eric did not know where. But his heart began to ache with wonder and longing. Would she come to him too—or was he only a stranger?
He lay still, watching her from his dark corner. At last she stopped looking away, and came across the floor to him. She brought all the brightness of the room with her, and her feet made no sound on the boards. When she stood above him he shut his eyes, though he wanted very much to look up into her face. She bent down and her hands smoothed his covers, warmed his pillow and lay still for a minute like sunlight on his cheek.
When he opened his eyes again, she had gone back to the fireplace, all her brightness with her, and was resting there, a drowsy, golden girl, her head bent forward on her knees and her slim arms wrapped close about her legs.
Eric lay and watched her for many sleepy minutes while her light fell dimmer and dimmer, lower and lower. When it was just a tiny flicker he dropped to sleep.
He slept long and deeply, for when he woke he felt rested. But he did not open his eyes. "It must be time for Mrs. Freg to shake me," he was thinking. "Until she does I'll just stay as I am and pretend it wasn't a dream, but real." For although he remembered very well all that had happened to him yesterday, he could not believe it was true.
So he lay still in his snug bed, wondering that Mrs. Freg's boys had left him so much of the bed-clothes. "How fine to have a little time to pretend a dream!" he said to himself. But Mrs. Freg did not come and did not come, until at last he opened his eyes, just in wonderment. "It must be six o'clock!"
When he saw where he was, and that the dream was true, his heart almost stood still for joy. He was indeed far away in the woods, safe and snug and warm in this bright house, and Mrs. Freg could never reach him here. And he would not go to the canning factory that day, nor the next, nor the next, nor ever again. The new mother had said so. His happiness brought him up in bed wide awake, and then he got out. He had not learned to bound out yet, but that came.
The fire was burning merrily. All was in order, the beds made and pushed back against the wall, the hearth swept, and some clusters of bright red berries arranged above the fireplace. But where were Ivra and Helma?—Ivra had called her mother "Helma" last night, and so it was that Eric already called her and thought of her. There was not the tiniest sign of them.
Oh, but yes. There on the floor near the hearth lay a little brown sandal, one of its strings pulled out and making a curlycue on the floor. That must belong to Ivra. The fire, the red berries, and the little, worn sandal, seemed to be wishing Eric a good morning and a happy day. There was plenty of mush in the pot swinging over the fire, and on the table drawn up to it, a wooden spoon, a bowl, and a jug of rich cream. So they had not forgotten him. They had only let him sleep as long as he would. They must have stolen about like mice, getting breakfast, clearing up, and tidying the room; and then closed the door very softly behind them when they went out.
And wonder of wonders! After yesterday's Indian Summer, outside it was a wild winter day. Gusts of snow were hurling against all the windows of the house, and blowing a fine spray under the door. Eric with his face against a windowpane could see only as far as the evergreen hedge because the trees beyond were wreathed in whirling snowclouds. The dead flowers in the garden were hidden under the blowing snow. The little straight walk up to the door was lost in it, and the footprints Ivra and Helma must have made when they went away were hidden too.
Something red blew against the hedge. For a minute Eric thought it was a big bird. But it found the opening and came through, and then he saw it was a little old woman. She came briskly up to the house, a red cape blowing about her, sometimes right up over her head, for because of the jug she was carrying she could not hold it down. She walked in without stopping to knock and was as surprised to see Eric there as he was to see her. But she got over it at once.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully, going across the room, whisking a pitcher out of the cupboard and emptying her jug of milk into it. "This is the milk for them, and it's as much as ever that I got here with it. The wind is in a fine mood-pushed me here and there all the way through the wood, and tried to steal my cape from me, say nothing of Helma's milk! Perhaps some of the Wind Creatures wanted them, or it might be old Tree Man himself, looking for a winter cape for his daughter. But I said, 'No, no. The milk is for Helma and little Ivra! I take it to them every morning and I'll take it this morning whether or no, so pull all you like—cape or milk you'll not get. The cape has a good clasp, and I've a good hold of the jug. Pull away!"
Here the old woman—the pitcher put away, and the cupboard door closed—dropped down on the settle and waited for Eric to speak. She was a jolly little old woman, one could see at a glance. Her face was the color of a good red apple, and just as round and shiny. Her eyes were beady black, bright and quick, and surrounded by a hundred finest wrinkles, that all the smiles of her life had made. Her mouth was pursed up like a button, out of which her words came shooting, quick and bright and merry.
Eric stood looking at her, not thinking to say anything. So after the briefest pause she went on, peeping into the pot.
"I see you have some mush here, so as I've come all the way from the farm and am ready for a second breakfast after my tussle with the wind, I'll share it with you. Or perhaps you have had yours already."
"No, no," cried Eric, suddenly remembering how hungry he was and hoping she would not take it all. "I have just waked up."
"So. Then we'll breakfast together," and away she flew to the cupboard again and brought out a second bowl and spoon. Then she stirred the mush round and round a few times and dished it up. Eric noticed that she divided it exactly evenly. She flooded both bowls with cream, and together they sat down to it. What a good breakfast that was, and how fast the little old woman talked!
But in spite of all her talking and flying around she had looked Eric up and down and through and through, and made up her mind what kind of a person he was. What she saw was a pale little boy of nine in a ragged shirt and trousers, and barefooted. His hair was shaggy and unbrushed but tossed back from a wide brow. His mouth was sullen. But she forgot all about shabby clothes, unbrushed hair, and sullen mouth when she came to his eyes. They were wide and clear, and returned the old woman's keen glance with a gaze of steady interest. Sullen and pale, but clear-eyed—she liked the little stranger. And so she went on talking.
"I bring them milk every day. It's a long way here from my farm, but not too far when it's for them. Helma's gone into the village, hasn't she? When I came to Little Pine Hill this morning the snow stopped whirling for a minute, and I caught a glimpse of her a-striding across the fields. It's a fine way of walking she has—like the bravest of Forest People! When I reached the Tree Man's the wind didn't stop for me, but I spied that child, Ivra, just where I knew she'd be,—racing and chasing and dancing with the Snow Witches out at the edge of the wood. 'It's a pity she can't go with her mother,' I said to myself when I saw her, 'and not be wasting her time like that. The Snow Witches are no good to any one. But—'"
Eric interrupted there, having finished his mush and pricking up his cars at the mention of witches.
"Are they really witches?" he cried. "And have you seen them yourself?"
"What else would they be?" asked the old woman. "They're the creatures that come out in windy, snowy weather, to dance in the open fields and run along country roads. Ordinary people are afraid of them and stay indoors when they're about. Their streaming white hair has a way of lashing your face as they rush by, and then they never look where they're going. They care nothing about running into you and knocking the breath out of you. Then, they're so cruel to children!"
"But Ivra isn't afraid of them!" wondered Eric.
"Not she," said the old woman. "She runs with them instead of away from them. When I saw them back there they had all taken hands and were leaping in a circle around her. She was jumping and dancing in the center as wild and lawless as they, and just as high, too. . . . But it's a pity she isn't with her mother all the same, going on decent errands in the village. Only of course it's not her fault, poor child! She daren't go into the village."
"Why daren't she?" asked Eric.
"How dare she?" cried the old woman. "She'd be seen, for she's only part fairy, of course. But hush, hush!"
She clapped her hands over her mouth. "What am I telling you,—one of the secrets of the forest, and you a stranger here? You must forget it all. Ivra's a good child. Now don't ask me any more questions, or I might tell you more."
But Eric had begun to wonder. What did it mean, that Ivra was part fairy? And why wasn't it safe for her to be seen in the village? And were there really witches, and was she playing with them out there in the wild day?
The old woman was talking on, but he heard no more.
Then the door blew open in a snowy gust of wind, and there stood Helma, the mother, her arms full of bundles, her cheeks ruddy from the wind, and her short hair crisp and blown.
Now Eric learned that the old woman's name was Nora, for that was what Helma called her, and seemed glad to find her there. She stayed on only long enough to see what Helma had brought in her bundles, and then started out for the farm, drawing her red cape closely about her this time, and not blowing much as she walked briskly to the gap in the hedge. Once through she disappeared quickly in the high drifting snow. Hardly had she gone her way when Ivra came from another, jumping the hedge and reaching the door in three bounds.
Helma had bought a good deal of thick brown cloth in the village and a strip of brown leather. It was all for Eric. She had noticed his lack of shoes and stockings last night, and that his worn clothes were much too poor and thin for winter in the forest. To-day, while she sewed for him, he would have to stay in. That was a pity, for it is such fun out in a storm. By night, though, all would be finished.
"And that is good!" exclaimed Ivra. "For to-night the Tree Man has asked us to a party. We're going to roast chestnuts and play games, and there's to be a surprise, too. The Tree Girl called it all out to me as I passed just now. She put only her head through the door, for the snow came so suddenly it caught her without a single white frock,—only a bonnet. But that was pretty. It has five points like a star, mother."
"The Tree Girl," said Eric. "What a queer name! But how did she know about me to ask me too? Did she ask me?"
"I told her about you. And of course she asked you. You are my playmate!"
Helma pulled a table to the settle and sat down with all the brown cloth before her, a work-basket, and shears. But first she measured Eric for his new clothes.
"You may make the leggins, if you want to," she said to Ivra, "and when you come to a hard place tell me and I will help. You may even measure them yourself.... We're the only Forest People, Eric, who wear anything but white in the winter. Most Forest People like to be the color of their world. They often laugh at us. But I like brown. Ivra makes me think of a brown, blown leaf, and now here will be two of them! You can blow together all over the forest."
Eric's eyes swam in sudden, happy tears, but he only said, "Nora wore red."
"Oh, she's not one of us," laughed Helma. "But she's lived close to us so long, she is able to see us. We aren't afraid of her. She's a good neighbor."
But why might they be afraid of such a nice old woman, Eric wondered. He was to learn sometime, and much beside, for this was the beginning of new things for him, and his mother, Helma, and Ivra were strange people. But how he loved them!
"Now that we are settled at our work, and nothing to interrupt, what shall it be?" asked Helma. She and Ivra were sewing briskly, one in each corner of the settle. Eric was stretched on the floor, looking now into the blaze, and now up at the windows where the snow tapped and swirled; for to-day,—Helma had said,—was to be a rest day for him. It was the first rest day he could remember, and how good it was! To know he could lie there with no cans to sort or label for hours, and no Mrs. Freg to boss him about when work was over! There were to be no more cans for him forever, and no more Mrs. Freg. Helma had said that quite firmly. He believed her and was so happy that he trembled. And so, it being true that never again should he go back to that unchildlike life that had frightened him so, and tired him so, all the breaths he drew felt like sighs of relief, and he turned his shaggy little head on his arm, crooked under it, and watched Helma's flying brown fingers with glad eyes.
"What shall it be?" asked Helma.
"Oh, World Stories, please," said Ivra, drawing her feet up under her as she bent over her sewing.
"Eric probably knows very few of the World Stories," said Helma. "So sometime I shall have to go back to the beginning and tell them all over for him."
"And I'll stay and hear them over again too!" cried Ivra, dropping her work to clasp her hands. "I love to hear stories over."
"Why, better than that, you might tell them yourself. Would you like that?"
"Oh, yes—if I can. Do you suppose I can, mother Helma? I shall begin at the very beginning, way back before men were in the world at all, or fairies even. He'd like to hear about the big animals. And you will listen, mother, to see that I get it all right?"
Now these World Stories of Helma's were wonderful stories, but all true. They began way back when the Earth was young. There were stories about the Earth itself, how it hung in space and turned, making day and night. When the strange, great animals that by-and-by appeared on the Earth and have since gone from it first came into the stories, and then, later, the floods and glaciers, and at last the first man,—any child might have listened with delight and wonder. Ivra had listened so ever since she was a tiny girl, old enough to understand at all. And with man, and the wonderful happenings that came along with him, Ivra had begged for the stories day and night, and never could have enough of them. For then in a great procession came the stories of cities and nations, of great men and women, of explorations and adventures. They led in turn to stories of languages and writing, of painting and geometry, of music and of life. The names of these things may not promise good stories to you, but that is only because you do not know them as stories. If you could listen to Helma telling them, by the fire, or out in the starlight, deep in the wood, or swinging in a tree-top,—then no other stories you might ever hear would satisfy you quite. So perhaps it is as well you do not know now just where Helma's little house is standing deep in the wood under the snow.
Ivra always said that the nicest thing about the stories was the interruptions. Helma never minded them, and she answered all the questions Ivra asked. She answered them by making things that Ivra could see with her own eyes, by drawing pictures on the ground or in the ashes, building with earth or snow, playing with wind and water, and in a hundred other ways. Sometimes the answer to a question would take up the playtime of a whole day.
But now Eric was to hear his first story, World Story or any other kind. Can you imagine how it would feel if to-day you were to hear the first story of your life?
"All ready?" asked Helma.
The silence in the room said plainer than words that all was ready for the World Story. This time it was a story about a man named Saint Francis, and a story after Eric's own heart.
Almost as fast as the story went the work of Helma's fingers. But Ivra was neither so swift nor so skilled, and the leggins were dropped many times from forgetful hands because all her thoughts were gone away following the story.
Yet somehow the leggins got done, and the jacket and trousers got done, and even a little round cap, and all before dusk. For a finishing touch Helma sewed two soft little brown feathers she had picked up in the snow one on either side of the cap,—which gave Eric, small as they were and soft as they were, a look of flying.
Then nothing remained but the sandals, and because Eric was well rested by then, he was allowed to help at them. They were cut from the strip of brown leather, and Helma showed Eric how to shape them and sew them himself. So after supper he stood attired, all in brown, a pale, happy child, ready for his first party.
Ivra and Eric were to go to the Tree Man's party alone, for Helma was going far away from the wood to spend the evening with a comrade. It was to be a very long walk for her, for she put on her heaviest sandals and pulled the hood of her cloak up over her hair.
She walked with the children as far as Little Pine Hill. It was a low hill, bare of trees, except for a dwarfed pine on the top. In summer the slope was slippery with the needles of the little pine, but now it was several inches deep in snow. It was bright starlight, and far away down an avenue of trees, Eric saw shining open fields, and beyond them the lights of the town.
There Helma said good-by. Eric looking up at her in the starlight saw her hair like pale firelight under her dark hood and her eyes so calm and friendly. He clung to her hand for a minute.
"Have a good time," she told them. Ivra leapt away and Eric after her. Helma stood watching until their little forms had flickered out of sight among tree-shadows. Then she sped down the starlit avenue towards the open fields and the town.
AT THE HEART OF A TREE
Ivra and Eric ran until the stars were almost lost to them under the snow roof of the forest. Once Eric stopped to tie his sandal-string which had loosened and was bothering him. Then the stillness of the world startled him.
He cried to Ivra to wait, and she came back to his side. "Don't be frightened," she comforted. "There are Forest People near us. They would walk with us, for some of them are going to the party too, but they are afraid of you. That's why they've drawn their white hoods over their heads and keep away. Once we are inside the Tree Man's, though, it will be all right. They'll come in too, and not be afraid any more."
"But why are they afraid of me?" asked Eric, tugging at his sandal-string. "No one else has ever been afraid of me. Even Juno, Mrs. Freg's cat, who was afraid of 'most every one, liked me and jumped into my lap. Why are the Forest People afraid?"
"Well, they are Forest People, you see, and you are an Earth Child. Mother and I weren't afraid of you, of course, because,—we aren't exactly Forest People."
Ivra paused and the silence came back. Eric looked up at her.
"Are you cold?" he asked.
"No, no." But she began to jump up and down and knock her heels together to get warm. Eric still struggled with his lacings. Ivra stopped jumping and went down on her knees in the snow to straighten them out for him. Eric's fingers were awkward with knots, and besides, now, they were numb with the cold. But Ivra had everything right in a minute. She crossed the strings over his instep and tied them snugly above his ankle almost before he could think. Then they ran on. In starlit spaces Eric caught glimpses of hurrying figures, so swift and light he could not tell whether they walked or flew. Their cloaks sparkled white in starlight until he was not sure but they might be starbeams, and not Forest People at all.
One suddenly started up just at his elbow, and was away like the wind. Ivra began to run and to call after it. "Wild Star! Silly Wild Star! It's only I, Ivra, and my playmate. Wait for us!"
Eric followed her, running as fast as he could, but the snow held him back, and all the trees in the forest seemed to gather to stand in his way. Ivra came back to him, laughing. "They are so afraid of you! No one will come near us until the Tree Man is there to protect him."
Soon they came to a big beech-tree standing in an open space with smaller beeches making a circle around it. The starlight showed, strangely, a narrow door in the trunk. Ivra pushed it open and Eric followed in after her, wondering at going into a tree.
They were on a flight of stairs lighted by starlight from a window somewhere high up. At the head of the flight they came to a door, and through the crack beneath it streamed a warmer light than starlight. Ivra opened that door gayly, and through it with her, Eric went to his first party.
It was the jolliest room in all the world. The firelight and candlelight did not reach so far as the walls, but left them in soft darkness. So Eric had the feeling that the room was really much too large to be inside of a tree. But in spite of its bigness, it was very cozy. The fireplace was in the middle of the floor, just a great hollowed boulder, heaped with crackling twigs.
The candles, red, green, yellow, brown and orange, stood circlewise on a table by which the Tree Man sat, carving a doll out of a stick. A workbasket on the table was overflowing with bright threads and pieces of queer cloth.
Eric saw these things because just for a minute he was too shy to look at the people in the room. Almost at once he had to look at the Tree Man, however, for he came and shook him by the shoulders. Eric had been shaken by the shoulders before, so he shrank away. But this was very different from Mrs. Freg's shakings. The Tree Man was chuckling, not scolding, and the dark eyes that Eric looked up above the long white beard to find were friendly and wise.
"Do not fear us, little Earth Child," he said. "It is we that have cause to fear you. You have only to blink your eyes, pretend to be knowing, and we are nothing. But your eyes are so wide and so clear, we trust you. Ivra told us there was not the tiniest shadow in them, not even the shadow of leaf. Only hunger. But we're not afraid of hunger. Come, have a good time at the party."
Then the Tree Girl, the Tree Man's daughter, came to him. She was shy, and shook all her soft brown hair about her cheeks. A circle of little yellow leaves kept her hair from her eyes, which, in spite of her bashfulness, were steady and kind like her father's. "I am glad you are here." she said. From that minute Eric felt at home in the tree.
Eric and Ivra were the first of the guests. The others perhaps had been too scared to come. But soon knock after knock sounded at the door, and in flocked the Forest People who had been invited.
First came the Bird Fairies, five of them together, merry and good little creatures as ever lived in the wood. They had arrived only that day from their summer homes in the far north, 'way up among the snow-barrens. They always spent the winter in this wood, living in the empty birds' nests and spending their time making up songs to teach the birds that would come back in the spring. Bird Fairies cannot sing a note themselves, nor carry an air, but they make up fine songs for the spring birds, who while they can sing with beautiful voices really have but few ideas.
They are fluffy, cuddly, swift little creatures, tiny and quiet. One might think them of little account just at first, but not for long. For they are the farthest-traveled of all the Forest People, except the Wind Creatures only. Now they were fluttering in, and off came their white cloaks and forth they hopped in bright colors, little feet twinkling and pattering, little wings lifting and wavering. They gathered around the Tree Man, nestling in a row on his shoulder, running up and down his arms, giving all of the news of their long journey into his ear. He chuckled and chuckled and soon sat down by the table again, nodding his head with delight at the tales they were telling him.
Meanwhile, another group entered,—the Forest Children. The Forest Children are little girls and boys who live all by themselves in moss houses deep in the thickest of the forest, and know nothing of mothers, nurses or schools. They came tumbling, cheering, and skipping in, curls bobbing, eyes shining. When their white cloaks were taken off with the help of the Tree Girl and Ivra, it was plain to see that they had no mothers. Their frocks were torn and stained, and half their sandal-strings untied and flapping. The Tree Girl sighed as she patted the bobbing curls into some order, tied the laces and straightened a buckle here and there.
Now the room was musical with sound.
The last guest arrived, Wild Star, who had run away from Eric in the forest. He was a Wind Creature. Wind Creatures are growing-up girls and boys who live near the edge of the forest. Like all fairies, they can only be seen by Earth People on a day that is clearer than a day should be, or by people like Eric who have no shadows in their eyes.
Wild Star dropped his bright white cloak as he entered. His wings were purple, the color of early morning, high and pointed. But they clapped themselves neatly down his back to avoid the ceiling. He was a beautiful boy, wild and starry, and that is how he got his name. Wind Creatures are strong and swift, a little too wide-awake and far-traveled to be very intimate with the Forest People. But Wild Star, though he was as swift and strong as any, often came to the Tree Man's, and often played with the Forest Children in their moss village for days together. He loved the Tree Man, and now he sat down cross legged by him, and laid his bright cheeck against his knee.
So the party began.
TREE MOTHER AND THE DROWSY BOAT
"Let's play hide-and-go-seek," cried the Forest Children, for that is always their favorite game.
Up jumped Wild Star, down fluttered the Bird Fairies, in crowded the Forest Children, and the Tree Man counted out for them. He pointed his finger at each in turn while he said this verse, which he made up on the spot:
"Sticks are racing in the flood— Trees are racing in the wood— In the tree-tops winds are racing— In the sky-tops clouds are chasing. In the tree-heart snug and warm, We hear nothing of the storm.
When we play at hide-and-seek, It is you must count the sheep."
At "you" the finger pointed at Eric, and it meant that he was to be "It."
"Put your head here on my knee. Shut your eyes and count one hundred sheep jumping over a stone wall, not too fast," explained the Tree Man. "While you're counting the others hide. Anywhere in this room, and anywhere on the stairs. Out-doors is no fair."
"But where are the sheep?" asked Eric, "and how can I count them with my eyes shut?"
Every one suddenly looked puzzled. The Forest Children's eyes grew wide with wondering. The Bird Fairies fluttered uneasily. The Tree Girl seemed dazed. Wild Star said, "Why, we never thought of that,—where are they?"
But Ivra laughed and ran to Eric. She took his hand and said, "The sheep are inside your own head. Just shut your eyes and try to see them. It is very easy. The wall is low, and there's a place where the stones are beginning to roll down. The sheep go over there, one by one."
Eric shut his eyes and put his head down on the Tree Man's knee. And it began to happen just as Ivra had said. There was a green hill-pasture, a little gray stone wall slanting across it, and sheep, one by one, jumping where the wall was broken down, following their leader. He counted one hundred of them and then stopped although a dear little lamb was trotting down the hill, trailing the procession. He wanted to see if the lamb would be able to jump the wall too. But the Tree Man had said one hundred, so he stopped and opened his eyes.
Things were strange. The Tree Man was nothing but an old stump. The room felt very cold and it was bare. The fire in the boulder had gone out. But he heard a soft fluttering somewhere and took heart. The Bird Fairies! They might be hiding high, having wings. He went all around the room, looking up into the dusk. At last, there they were in row on a beam, their wings spread over their eyes.
"Bird Fairies, I spy!" cried Eric, and ran towards the stump. But wings are swifter than feet, and the Bird Fairies reached the goal first.
He found Ivra at the top of the second flight of stairs, curled up in a shadow.
"I spy!" and he ran just as fast as he could down the stairs. He was ahead of her to the door, and thought he would surely win. But she passed him in the room and touched the stump first.
The Tree Girl, of all places, was kneeling behind the stump. Of course she touched it the minute Eric spied her, and so she was safe.
The Forest Children were hiding, some in the hall behind the door, some on the stairs, one under the table. And everyone of them beat him to the goal and touched it first.
"Now there's only Wild Star," Ivra cried. "You must catch him, Eric, or else you'll have to be 'It' again!"
Wild Star was outside, up in the top of the tree in the starlight. Eric discovered him by seeing one of the tips of his purple wings which was caught in a crack of the sky door. "I spy!" he called, and pulled the wing-tip to let Wild Star know he was found.
But of course Wild Star passed him like a flash, his strong wings beating down.
Tears of vexation welled in Eric's eyes. One thing he had gained though. Because he had found them all, even though he could not run so fast as they, the Tree Man had come back, and sat there in the place of the stump, and all was warm and bright again. The Tree Man had only wanted to prove for himself that Eric could see Wild Star, the Bird Fairies, and the others without Ivra to point them out to him. But he felt satisfied now that Eric's eyes were really clear, and that he would never hurt any of them by looking through them or pretending that they did not exist.
"Wild Star is It now," he said. "For he didn't play fair, going outside like that."
"Oh, I forgot outside was no fair," cried Wild Star, laughing.
So this time Eric hid with the others, while Wild Star counted sheep.
He ran wildly all round the room trying to find a hiding-place. But everywhere there was someone ahead of him. At last he came back to the Tree Man himself with Wild Star counting sheep at his knee.
"Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven," counted Wild Star. "Oh dear! Oh dear!" Eric whispered to himself in despair.
Ivra was hiding behind the Tree Man, and so she jumped out and pulled Eric back to hide with her.
"Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred!"
Wild Star started up, and never thinking to look behind the Tree Man went circling the room in swift flight. He saw Ivra and Eric as he flew over their heads, of course, and they laughed and touched the Tree Man first.
But he caught most of the others, even the Forest Children who are so swift and clever.
After that, almost everyone had to take his turn at being It.
When the merry game came to an end at last, they gathered around the boulder fireplace. The twigs were glowing embers now and looked like myriads of golden flower-buds. Then the Forest Children began clamoring for a World Story. So Ivra climbed up on the Tree Man's knee and tipping her head back against his chest, looked into the fire and told one of Helma's World Stories. It was the story of a glacier. That may not sound like a very interesting story to you, but if you could hear Ivra tell it in all its wonder just as Helma had told it to her, you would never ask for a better story. No, you would ask for that one over and over again, as the Forest Children did the minute she was through.
But instead of telling that one over, Ivra told another, a little story about some eggs and a brood of chickens. And they wanted that over. But there must be an end to everything, and so the Tree Girl brought out a bowl of beechnuts, and they forgot the stories, and ate as much as they wanted. There were apples, too, big and red and cold cheeked. Everyone was hungry.
When all were satisfied, there was sudden whispering among the guests. The Bird Fairies fluttered and hummed with excitement. The Forest Children's eyes began to shine expectantly. Ivra, who still sat on the Tree Man's knee, spoke what they were all thinking. "The surprise," she said to the Tree Man. "You know you promised us a surprise to-night. Is it time for it yet?"
"Yes," said the Tree Man. "It is. High time! Come, put on your cloaks. It's a cold night."
"But the surprise!" they all cried at once. "We don't want to go home until we have had the surprise!"
"Oh, the surprise is up in the branches. My mother is there with her air-boat, waiting to take you all home."
The Forest Children clapped their hands and jumped up and down until their sandal-laces that were not already loose and flapping came undone and flapped too. Wild Star sprang towards the stairs, his face alight, Ivra slipped down from the Tree Man's knee and ran to Eric.
"The Tree Mother! The dear, beautiful Tree Mother! We are to see her and ride with her!" she cried.
Then she dashed away for her cloak. The Forest Children, with the Tree Girl's help, were tumbling into theirs, wrong-end-to mostly, ripping off buckles in their hurry.
"The Tree Mother! The dear Tree Mother!" their little teeth chattered in ecstasy.
When all were ready they crowded up the straight starlit stairs. At the top they crawled out through the sky door, one by one, into the branches. Eric followed Ivra, and saw a great black moth-like thing poised in air by the tree's top. But it was hollowed like a boat and a shadowy woman was standing upright in it. A dark cloak covered her, but the hood had fallen back, and her face in the starlight was very beautiful and very young, younger even than Helma's, whose face Eric had thought all that day too young and glad to be a mother's. How could this be the Tree Man's mother, he wondered,—the Tree Girl's grandmother! Then he saw that her hair was white, whiter than all the snow that lay in the forest.
It was very cold kneeling there and clinging in the tip of the great beech-tree. The forest below was still and dark. But the air and the wintry star-filled sky were bright with a blue, cold light. After the warmth at the heart of the tree, the cold was almost unbearable. Eric longed to wave his arms about, and jump up and down to get warm, but he had to cling, still and motionless, to the branches to keep from falling.
At last Ivra whispered "It's our turn now," and taking Eric's hand, she made him jump with her right out into cold space. For one awful instant he thought they were both falling down, down to the ground. But they had only dropped into the air-boat. The Tree Mother leaned forward and pulled a blanket over them. Her eyes as she did it, looked straight into Eric's. They were dark, and deep as the forest shadows. He began to speak to tell her who he was, for her look was questioning. But she put her finger to her lips. Then he noticed for the first time that every one was silent. Even the Tree Man and his daughter who stood in the tree top waving good-by spoke no words, only nodded and waved. The last Bird Fairy fluttered noiselessly in. Eric lay back under the warm blanket, snuggled against Ivra. A Bird Fairy nestled into the palm of each of his hands. All was still and warm. The air-boat slipped away high and higher over the tree-tops and on and on.
On a cold, starlit night, nestled in feathery warmth, to sail over the dark tree-tops, high and higher and on and on—that is a wonderful thing. And when the Tree Mother stands above you, wrapped in her dark cloak with her face shining under her cloudy white hair, now and then bending to tuck the blanket more snugly about you—what could be more blissful?
Very soon Eric became drowsy against his will. His eyelids dropped like curtains shutting out the stars. But he roused when the boat stopped, hovered, and sank down like a bird until it rested on the crusted snow in the middle of a tiny village of tiny moss houses; only now, of course, the houses were covered with snow, and looked like baby Eskimo huts. The Forest Children crept sleepily out of the boat, kissing the Tree Mother good-by as though in a dream. Not a word was spoken. There was the creak of their little feet on the cold snow,—that was all. Each child went alone into his little house. They were lighted and looked warm through the doors, and Tree Mother nodded as though that were well. But before the air-boat had risen out of sight, the lights were all out, and the Forest Children sound asleep, snuggled into their moss beds.
From then on stops were frequent, and Eric woke at each one. At every Bird Fairy nest at which they stopped, the Tree Mother leaned from the boat and scooped the crusted snow out of the nest. Then when the Bird Fairy was settled down, she powdered the snow with her fingers until it was soft, and heaped it over the little creature, who was already asleep.
Wild Star was left in the tip of the tallest tree in the forest. There he lay without covering, his face up to the cold sky, his arms flung back above his head, his wings folded tight. He half opened his slumbrous eyes on the Tree Mother as the boat floated away, but before the smile in them faded he was asleep.
There was straight, sure, even flying then to Helma's little house, set in its snowy garden,—and down they sank to the door stone. The Tree Mother carried Ivra, who was fast asleep, in in her arms. The fire leapt when they entered, until the walls and floor danced with light. The Tree Mother undressed Ivra, who never once opened her eyes, and tucked her into bed. Then she helped Eric, who was fumbling and missing buttons in a sleepy way. But he was awake enough to kiss her good-night. And that was the end of everything until morning.
A WITCH AT THE WINDOW
When the children woke the next morning, there was no Helma. Her bed had not been slept in. They had been too sleepy the night before to wonder at her absence, but now they could hardly believe their eyes. The room was strange and lonely without her. The fire had died in the night. They sat up in their beds and talked about it.
"She always comes back before bedtime," said Ivra. "She has never stayed away before."
Eric said, "Perhaps that is why the Tree Mother brought you in and undressed you—perhaps she knew our mother had not come back. She looked wise, as though she knew everything."
"She does know everything,—at least everything in the forest. But did she bring me in, right here in her arms, Eric!"
"And undressed you while you were sound asleep."
Ivra laughed with delight, and clasped her hands. "Truly, truly? The dear Tree Mother undressed me? Are you sure? Did she kiss me good-night?—" But suddenly she grew solemn. "Yes, she knew that mother was not here. She only takes care of those who have no one else. Well, we will have to wait for mother, that is all. She will surely come this morning."
But she did not come that morning, nor that day, nor for many days. You shall hear it all.
The children laid the fire, together,—shivering but hopeful. Ivra got the breakfast, teaching Eric, so that next time he could help. They chattered and played a good deal, and really had quite a merry time over it. It was only at first that Ivra was solemn over Helma's disappearance. Soon her good sense told her that Helma loved them both, and nothing could keep her long from her children.
After breakfast they washed and put away the dishes. Then they tidied the room. They hurried over it a little, perhaps, for it was a bright winter day, and all the forest was waiting to be played in. Before they ran out, they put a log on the fire that it took both of them to lift. If Helma should come back while they were away, she must find a warm house. Ivra skipped back after they were outside to set out a bowl and spoon for her, and stand the cream jug beside them.
Then away they fled, running and jumping in the frosty morning air. Ivra taught Eric some games that could be played by two alone. They were running games, climbing games, hiding games, jumping games. Ivra was swift and strong and unafraid. Her cheeks reddened like apples in the cold. She was a fine playfellow.
Not until they were hungry did they think of home. Then they ran, hand in hand at last, jumping the garden hedge like deer, their hearts beating with the expectation of running straight into Helma's arms. But no Helma was there. Nora had come with the milk, left it, eaten the rest of the porridge, and gone away again without waiting for a word with any one. The children wished she had stayed. They needed some one to talk with about their mother. Of course they knew she would come back, all in her good time. Ivra made Eric understand that. But the room seemed even emptier without her than it had in the morning. They cheered each other as best they could, drank a lot of the fresh milk and ate some nuts. They wanted to get away into the forest again and forget the empty house, so they did not try to cook anything.
They played hard all the afternoon. Towards twilight it grew warmer and began to snow, great wet flakes. They ran home, leaping the hedge again. The house was still empty. Helma was not there.
They stirred up the fire, and sat down on the floor in front of it to talk over what they should do. Then it happened,—the strange, the beautiful, the frightful thing! Eric saw a face at the window. It was so perfectly beautiful, that face, that he wanted to shut his eyes against it. It almost hurt. It was the face of a young woman, very pale, but when her eyes met Eric's they filled with dancing laughter. Her hair under her peaked, white hood glistened blue-black like a river in the snow. She lifted a small white hand and tapped on the window pane, nodding to him merrily.
Ivra turned at the sound of the little fingers on the glass. When she saw the face, she started to her feet with a frightened cry, and rushing to the door, drew the bolt.
"She can't get in. She can't get in, Eric. Don't be afraid. We are safe." But the poor little girl did not believe her own words. She was trembling.
"Why, I'm not afraid," said Eric, running to the window. The merry eyes drew him. Now her mouth danced into smiles with her eyes. She made pretty signs to him to open the window and let her in.
But Ivra pulled him back. "Don't you know? It's the Beautiful Wicked Witch!" she whispered.
But Eric was impatient. "How can she be wicked when she's so beautiful!" he exclaimed. He was so little used to beautiful people in his life that now he was fascinated and delighted.
The Beautiful Wicked Witch looked at Ivra then, and Ivra saw how her eyes were dancing, great black eyes full of splendor and fun. She caught her breath. She laughed back at the Beautiful Wicked Witch. She could not help herself. But her hands flew to her mouth to stop the laugh.
"Shut your eyes, Eric. That must be best, not to look at her at all. That is what mother did when she came before. She bolted the door and then we sat down in front of the fire and never looked at the window once, while she told me a long, lovely World Story about Psyche and her little playmate Eros. Then when we had forgotten all about the Beautiful Wicked Witch, we looked at the window by accident and she was gone. Come, I'll tell you a World Story now, the same one."
But Eric hardly heard what she was saying. He moved nearer and nearer to the window. Ivra followed him, charmed by the laughing face there too. Then together they unbolted the windowpane and opened it outward. The Beautiful Wicked Witch stepped in.
"How silly to be afraid of me, children," she laughed. "I have only come to play with you."
"Oh goody!" cried both of the children together. For now that she was in the room all their fear and wonder had vanished.
It was dusk, and so they lighted all the candles and poked the fire, before they turned to entertain their guest. But the candles did not burn very well, very faintly and flickeringly,—and the fire fell lower and lower, instead of growing higher and higher as they nursed it.
"Don't mind about that," laughed the Beautiful Wicked Witch. "There's enough light from the window for us to play together in. We won't bother with the stubborn old fire and the silly little copy-cat candles. Come, what shall we play?"
But the children had been playing hard all day, and their bodies were tired. "Oh, tell us a story instead of playing," begged Ivra. "This is the time when mother tells her very best stories."
"Well, I am not mother," said the Beautiful Wicked Witch; "but I will tell you the best stories I can. Come sit near the window where the light is stronger. That fire will never burn while I am here. I am brighter than it, and the old thing is jealous."
The children laughed at her joke. But it was true,—she was very bright. Her eyes seemed to light the room, or perhaps it was her gown, like an opal fire, blue and pink and purple, changing and glowing, and made of the softest silk.
Ivra nestled close to her knee where she could stroke the gleaming silk. Eric sprawled on the floor at her feet, his face upturned to hers.
Then she told them a story. It was not like any of Helma's World Stories, but the children liked it. It was all about a gorgeous bird she had at home in her tree-house. She told how she had heard it singing one morning in early spring, high up in the branches of her tree, and how she had watched it day after day flying back and forth in the forest, its yellow breast flashing among the green leaves. It had a long golden bill, and its tail was black as jet; and its wings were the softest gray in the world with a feather of jet in either one. Its song was the clearest, the highest, the purest of all the bird songs in the forest. It was a wonderful bird, and she wanted it for her own.
Then she told the children how she had set traps for it, and how it had escaped every time. But at last she had made a dear little cage, all woven of spring flowers and leaves, and put food in it. Still the bird escaped, pulling the food out with its long bill and never getting inside the door. And finally she told them how she did capture that wild, shy bird by learning its song and singing it sitting in her tree-house with the window open, until the bird heard and came flying in wonder to find what other bird was calling it. Then she had closed the window and the bird was hers. It hung now in the pretty cage in her prettiest room, and sometimes sang in the middle of the night.
Eric liked the story, and all the better because it was a true story. And the Beautiful Wicked Witch said he could see the bird himself if he would come to her house. He could stroke its bright breast, and it would sing perhaps. Then there were other things caged in her house, cunning little animals, and some big ones, worth any boy's seeing.
But Ivra answered for Eric, shaking her head hard. "No, no. Mother doesn't want us to visit you."
But Eric said, "May I open the cage door and the window and see the bird flash away? I should like that."
"No. Well, perhaps," said the Beautiful Wicked Witch. "Will you come then?"
"I can't, I suppose, if Mother Helma doesn't want me to. Are you sure she doesn't, Ivra?"
Ivra was sure.
The Beautiful Wicked Witch laughed then. "Of course, if you tell her she won't let you come. But if you came without telling, how could she mind?"
"That sounds true,—but someway it can't be," said Ivra. And that seemed to end it.
But after a little the Beautiful Wicked Witch began another story. This one was about a frock she had made, a wonderful thing all of cobwebs and violet petals, with tiniest rosebuds around the neck. If Ivra were to slip that frock over her head, and unbraid her funny little pigtails, she would look as pretty as any fairy in the world.
Ivra was not too young to want to be pretty. If she would only go to the Beautiful Wicked Witch's house, she could try on that dress, and wear it for one whole day if she liked. Ivra clasped her hands. But then she thought, and asked a question. "Could I play in it, and run and climb? Would I be as free as in this little old brown smock?"
The Beautiful Wicked Witch raised her hands in horror. "My cobweb frock! Why, it would be ruined! It would be in shreds! How can you even think of treating it so!"
So Ivra shook her head until her funny little pigtails flopped from side to side. "I don't want to wear it then for even a minute. What fun would there be?"
"Well, think about it anyway," said the Beautiful Wicked Witch, and rose to go away. "It's the fir, you know, beyond the white birch."
"Thank you for the stories," said the children.
"Good-by," said the Beautiful Wicked Witch. "Perhaps Eric will remember and come. It's a gorgeous bird, and I haven't said he couldn't free it."
Then she slipped out into the snow flakes, turning to give them one dancing look over her shoulder before the door swung to.
Up flamed the candles, clear high flames when she was gone, and the fire crackled again, and took on new life, reaching higher and higher.
They got their supper together rather silently. But just before going to sleep Ivra roused herself to say, "Let's promise each other we won't go to the Beautiful Wicked Witch's fir until mother comes home,—and we can tell her how jolly the Witch is, and what good stories she told us."
"I don't want to go anyway," answered Eric, "unless I can free the bird."—But you see, he had not promised.
After a while, "Did you notice how pale her face was when she wasn't laughing?" asked Eric.
"Yes, and not so beautiful then. Mother may come in the night, and we never know it till morning!"
Soon they were asleep, a tired, but happy little girl and boy.
I think the Tree Mother sank down in her air-boat to look in at them and open the door wide, which they had forgotten, so they would have fresh air all night; but it was dark, and the room was shadowy, so perhaps it was only the wind.
THE WIND HUNT
After all, Mother Helma was not there the next morning,—nor the next, nor the next. She did not come back for days and days and days. Much happened before she returned, and much happened after. I will tell you.
During the days the children roamed the forest looking for their mother. They asked every one they could find whether he had seen her. The Tree Man, his daughter, the Bird Fairies, and the Forest Children, not one of them had seen or heard of her since she went away. But they all said with one accord that she would surely come back in her own time. It was not wise to go seeking her so. She loved them. She would return.
"Wait and be patient," they said. "Time will bring Helma."
But they were Forest People, who live long, long lives, and see far. Eric was an Earth Child, and Ivra was not all a Forest Child. So they found it hard to be wise and wait and do nothing but trust Helma and know she would return.
So they went wandering all the day. They did not go home for meals, even, after a while, but ate with the Tree Man and his daughter or the Forest Children. Sometimes as they walked through the forest, looking all about, even up into the trees for their mother, they would suddenly burst into play. "Tag," Ivra would cry, tapping Eric on the shoulder, and away she would fly, he after her, in a race that grew merrier and merrier as it ran on. Ivra darted and twisted away when Eric thought he had her, rolling down little hills on the snow crust, climbing trees, jumping brooks until he was lucky enough to catch her by one of her pigtails at last, or snatch her flying skirt. "Tag!" Then away he sped, and the game would go on for a happy while.
But sooner or later they always stopped running, stopped laughing, and remembered why they were wandering the wood alone. Then they would call for Helma. Ivra's voice was shrill and sweet, and rang through the bare woods like a birdsong. Eric's wavered a little uncertainly, as though he doubted whether Helma knew it well enough to answer. "Helma, Helma, Helma! Ohh Helma! Helmaa-a!"
No Helma answered. Sometimes a Forest Child came running to say, "We haven't seen her yet, Ivra. But we are watching." The Bird Fairies fluttered at the call and nodded their little heads uneasily. Children's voices calling for their mother was a sad sound, and made the kindly little creatures restless. One or two of them would fly to nestle in Ivra's neck and whisper, "Give her time. Do not hurry her so. She will come back."
But the children were losing faith. They went calling, seeking and playing through the woods all the hours of daylight. At night Ivra told Eric World Stories, World Story after World Story until sleep made them forget.
The fifth morning of their search dawned blue and clear and windy.
"The Wind Creatures will be happy to-day," said Ivra when she opened her eyes and heard the wind pushing at all the windows of the house and saw the blue morning sky. "Wild Star will be circling the world."
"Why, then he will see Helma somewhere!" cried Eric.
Ivra sprang from her bed. "Eric, how splendid! We must go with him! Why didn't I think of it at the very first!"
They did not stop for breakfast, but were into their coats and ready for the day's search in a twinkling. Neither of them had bothered to undress the night before. Ivra's hair had gone unbrushed for two days. Things like that are apt to slip when one's mother is away. So her little pigtails were no longer smooth and glossy, but frowsy and loose, and the rest of her hair was ruffled until it looked something like the Bird Fairies' soft plumage. Eric's head, too, was shaggier than ever, and a smudge from firebuilding had darkened one of his cheeks since the morning before. They had not bathed in the "bird bath" since Helma had gone away. They never seemed to have time, or else they were too sleepy.
Now they no more thought of baths than they thought of breakfast. Eric followed Ivra, who knew all the ways in the forest, to the spot where Wild Star was most likely to be, if he was to be found at all on such a windy, perfect day. They ran earnestly, never slackening to skip or play. And soon they came in sight of some giant cedar trees near the edge of the forest. There were several Wind Creatures standing there, laughing in shrill, glad voices, pointing with their arms, and flapping their purple wings. Wind Creatures are growing-up boys and girls with fairy-hearts and strong, never-tiring purple wings, remember. Wild Star was among them.
But before the children had come up to them, the Wind Creatures suddenly joined hands,—as they do just before flying,—and started running down the sloping hill that ended the forest.
For a minute Ivra was in despair. "Now they are gone for the day to circle the world, and I shall never find mother," she thought. But she did not waste any more breath running. She stopped short and lifted her voice, clear and insistent, "Wild Star! Wild Star! I need you! Don't run away. Wild Star!"
The Wind Creatures had reached the foot of the hill, running swiftly hand in hand, and their wings were already lifted for flying. But Wild Star, at the sound of Ivra's voice, leaned back suddenly on the hands he was holding, almost throwing his comrades on their faces, and breaking the line. He turned right about, swinging the others with him, and came leaping and running back.
"What is the matter, little comrade?" he asked. "What is the matter?"
"In all your flying 'round the world, Wild Star, you must have seen my mother Helma. She is lost. Oh, can't you tell us where she is?"
"Yes, of course. But I didn't know she was lost. I thought she was visiting Earth-friends."
"Truly, truly?" Ivra's eyes shone with joy, and Eric grabbed his cap from his head and threw it up in the air shouting, "Hurrah!"
"Oh, will you bring her to us right away?" Ivra begged.
Wild Star looked doubtful. "Perhaps she wouldn't want to come."
Ivra laughed merrily at that. "Then take us to her," she said, "and you will see how she wants to come when we ask her."
"Give us your hands, then!"
They held out their hands. Ivra's was grasped by Wild Star's and Eric's by another Wind Creature. With their free hands they clasped each other's. So the four started running down the hill, while the rest of the Wind Creatures flew off over their heads.
Wild Star and his comrade ran faster and faster, until Eric wondered how it was that he and Ivra were ever keeping up with them. Soon he realized that his feet were scarcely touching the ground. At the foot of the hill stood a little group of birches, and they were running right upon it. He did not see how they could either turn out or stop themselves at that speed. Almost as soon as he had seen the birches, though, they were beyond them. They had not turned out, they had jumped right over the birches, and they were much higher than Eric's head! They were running so swiftly now that only their toes ever touched the ground,—if they did.
What fun it was to run like that, the wind at their backs, and the Wind Creatures drawing them strongly forward faster and faster and faster until they were really flying just above the snow.
Across white fields they skimmed,—over fences and frozen streams, bushes and banks, through orchards and meadows, on, on, on, until they came to the town.
There Ivra pulled back for a minute, and the Wind Creatures slowed down. Eric knew why Ivra was afraid of the town. She had told him all about it while they played in the wood. Helma, her mother, was a human, but she hated the town and loved the fairies and their ways. That was why she had run away to live by herself in the wood. But Ivra was neither fairy nor human; she was both.
Now the fairies are afraid of humans because humans look right through them and do not see them. That upsets the fairies and makes them uncomfortable. Of course Helma and Eric were exceptions, for because they had no shadows in their eyes they could see them and play with them. So the fairies accepted those two as one of themselves. Ivra was different. Because she was only half fairy, any human could see her whether his eyes were shadowed or not if he would only look hard enough. The dreadful part was that when a human did see her, he was likely not to believe in her. He would just think he was day-dreaming, and that the little girl with the soft eyes, the ash-colored pigtails, and the quick feet was just a piece of his day-dream. Not to be seen is bad enough. But it is much worse to be seen and not believed in. That was why Ivra was afraid of the town. People saw her there and either rubbed their eyes and looked another way, or laughed.
But now she was going for her mother, and she could bear anything, even that. She did not hold back long. They ran past the canning factory, and Eric did not give a glance to it. A little girl looking out over a pile of cans saw him, however, and wondered at his warm suit of brown cloth, his leggins, sandals and the cap with wings. She remembered him in rags. She saw Ivra too, and did not rub her eyes and think her a dream. But she did not call to any one in the factory or point, for she knew they would think it a dream.
Through the crooked narrow streets, past the crooked narrow houses,—one of them Mrs. Freg's,—they sped faster than the wind! On, on, on,—up the wide avenue through the "residential section" where big houses eyed them from proud terraces,—out into the country again they raced.
There they came to a high gray stone wall, blocking their way, and stood still.
"You must climb," said Wild Star. "She is in there."
ON THE GRAY WALL
It was a very high wall that hid their mother, and at first glance it seemed impossible that they could ever climb it. But Ivra did not stop to wonder. She ran up and down, hunting for a foothold. At last she reached the end of the wall and disappeared around the corner. Eric and the Wind Creatures followed. When they came up to her she had already found a place where the stones were laid a bit unevenly, one on the other, and was half way to the top, clinging with toes and fingers.
"Bravo!" cried the Wind Creatures. Eric went up after her, often slipping back and bruising and scratching his hands and knees, but as resolute as his playmate. At last they gained the top. The Wind Creatures had flown up and were waiting for them there, sitting cross-legged with their purple wings folded down their backs.
The wall enclosed the garden of a very rich family. It was a formal garden with straight walks, trellises, fountains, benches and neat flower beds laid out in squares and circles, now piled high with blossoming snow.
Just as the children reached the top of the wall, the door into the garden from the stern gray mansion behind it opened and through it came three people. First was a very tall lady all wrapped up in furs,—tails and heads of the poor animals that had been slain to make them hanging from her shoulders and down her back. Even the children could see that her face was sour in spite of all its smiling. Then came a young man in a stiff, funny hat, carrying a cane, beating up the snow flowers with it as he passed the flower beds. And behind them walked—Helma, with her gaze on the ground. That is why they did not know her at first, that and her very strange clothes. She was dressed all in velvet and fur, and her arms up to her elbows were hidden in a huge white muff. She swayed as she walked on weird little high heels and the toes of her boots drew out to long points, almost like a goblin's. Her hat was a velvet affair, so awkward and heavy it seemed to weigh down her head, and her candleflame hair was smothered under it. Is it any wonder that they did not know her like that!
But when she walked close under the wall and they heard her voice they knew her, and the Wind Creatures had to hold Ivra from jumping down and throwing herself into her arms. "Wait," they whispered.
From their high place on the wall they could look down on the heads of the three people, and hear all they were saying. They had never learned that it is not fair to listen that way.
From all Helma said they could plainly see she was a prisoner. She was pleading with the old woman. She was saying, "No, never, never, never, in a thousand days and years will I ever be happy here. My place is in the forest. Oh, how these heels bother!"
"Silly girl!" cried the old woman, smiling more than ever, and looking more disagreeable than ever at the same time. "Your place is where you were born-in a fine house and wearing clothes like other people. Heels indeed! Did you expect them to do any thing else but bother? Mine have bothered for sixty years, but you haven't heard me complain."
"Neither would I," Helma said, "if I didn't know about other kinds of shoes that don't hurt. Those sandals I wore when you caught me didn't hurt. Why can't I wear those, at least when I walk in the garden?"
"Well, you might," began the old woman, a little more kindly, and smiling less, "if you promise always to put on the high heels before coming into the drawing room—"
"No," said the young man sharply. "Let her once into the garden in her sandals and she'll climb the wall and be off. I say that we give her no chance to escape. After she has been to a hundred or so balls and worn these beautiful and appropriate clothes long enough she'll be glad of her luck, and nothing could drag her into the forest. Believe me!"
Now Helma stopped pleading, and laughed at the young man. "Do you think high heels, or even a hat that weighs down my head like this horrid one can keep me much longer from my little daughter, and that dear new little boy? What they are doing without me all this time—I wonder!" She stopped laughing to sigh.
The old woman took her hand not unkindly. "My poor, dear girl," she said, "how many times must I tell you it is only a dream, that house in the woods and the little girl and boy? They aren't really there at all, you know. You have dreamed them. Come, cheer up. Be a brave girl. We have parties and good times enough here, if you will only get into the spirit of them, to make up for all your forest foolishness."
Helma answered in a low even voice, that showed well enough how sure she was of the truth of what she was saying—"No, they are realer than you. Ivra is realer than all the people in that mansion put together, cousins, uncles, aunts, guests, servants and all. She is my little fairy daughter."
"No," said the young man.
The wings of the Wind Creatures on the top of the wall rustled just then in a gust of cold north wind. Helma threw up her head as at a familiar sound, and her eyes slowly lifted to the faces of the children looking down. For a minute she looked steadily at them without believing, and then it was as though her pale face suddenly burst into song. But the old woman and the young man were not looking at her and so they noticed nothing. The young man said, "The neighbors have talked about us enough already for all your queer ideas and doings. So you'll wear no sandals, no, nor sleep with your skylight open, as you're always asking, nor go one step outside the wall until you have come to your senses and are more like other people. So there!"
But Helma laughed, her head thrown back, so that the children could look into her happy eyes and see the glow of her short hair under her grotesque hat.
"Keep your keys, cousin," she said, "and your old skylight keep shut tight as tight. I shall find a way out. But my children must be patient, and Ivra must teach Eric to keep his face and body clean. They must not forget meal-times, and when anything goes wrong, or they think it is going wrong, they must ask the Tree Man's advice. I will find a way to them soon. They must keep happy and wait."
She said all that slowly and distinctly, her eyes smiling into theirs.
"What silly talk," laughed the sour old lady. "Just as though you were making a speech. Well, it must be luncheon time now, and high time we were changing our frocks. Wear your gray velvet, Helma, and don't forget to put on stockings to match. There's to be strawberry ice to-day,—and goose to begin with of course. Cook says she has never seen a tenderer—"
The old lady went on talking about the wonderful luncheon they were to have until they were out of hearing. But the children on the gray wall could see that Helma was going in differently from the way she had come out. Her head was high, and she stepped out in her funny high heeled boots as though she were walking in sandals. At the little door into the mansion she turned and waved her queer great muff to the children and the Wind Creatures, and they heard her laugh.
But when she was gone, and the door was shut and locked—they heard the great key scrape—Eric turned joyfully to Ivra. She was staring intently at the closed door, her face very pale. Suddenly she buried her head in her arms and burst into sobs, hoarse, jerky sobs, the first and the last time Eric was ever to hear her cry. Eric and the Wind Children sat cross-legged and waited. Soon she stopped and wiped her face on her sleeve.
"She is locked in, but she will find a way home," she said, almost laughing. "How glad and how surprised she was to see us! It was almost as though she had begun to believe all their talk about dreams, until she heard the Wind Creatures' wings!"
The Wind Creatures took them back to the forest. Under the giant cedars they said good-by and left them. The children went straight to the Tree Man's to tell him the news. He gave them deep bowls of warm milk to drink, and took off their sandals so that their toes might spread and warm in front of the fire.
Then the Tree Girl begged for a story, and Ivra told a World Story about the rivers,—how they go in search of their mother, the ocean, day and night, around mountains and through mountains, and across whole continents, and never stop until they find her,—and of the myriad presents they carry to her,—of the things they see and the things they do, as they flow searching.