THE WAGNER STORY BOOK
THE WAGNER STORY BOOK
FIRELIGHT TALES OF THE GREAT MUSIC DRAMAS
BY WILLIAM HENRY FROST
ILLUSTRATED BY SYDNEY RICHMOND BURLEIGH
THE STOLEN TREASURE
THE DAUGHTER OF THE GOD
THE HERO WHO KNEW NO FEAR
THE END OF THE RING
THE KNIGHT OF THE SWAN
THE PRIZE OF A SONG
THE BLOOD-RED SAIL
THE LOVE POTION
THE MINSTREL KNIGHT
THE KING OF THE GRAIL
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"AT LAST WE CAN SEE SOMETHING IN THE FIRE"
"THE GOLD SHINES OUT SO BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL"
"THE DAUGHTER OF THE GOD"
"THE SUNLIGHT FOLLOWS HIM STRAIGHT INTO THE CAVE"
"THEIR TREASURE IS THEIR OWN AGAIN"
"THE KNIGHT OF HER DREAM"
"HE SAW HER EYES BRIGHTER THAN THE STARS"
"THROUGH THE BLACK STORM AND HIS OWN BLACKER DESPAIR"
"AS IF THEY COULD NEVER GAZE ENOUGH"
"THE STRANGEST FLOWERS GROW UP UNDER THEIR FEET"
"THE KING OF THE GRAIL"
THE STOLEN TREASURE
There is a certain little girl who sometimes tries to find out when I am not over busy, so that she may ask me to tell her a story. She is kind enough to say that she likes my stories, and this so flatters my vanity that I like nothing better than telling them to her. One reason why she likes them, I suspect, is that they are not really my stories at all, the most of them. They are the stories that the whole world has known and loved all these hundreds and thousands of years, tales of the gods and the heroes, of the giants and the goblins. Those are the right stories to tell to children, I believe, and the right ones for children to hear—the wonderful things that used to be done, up in the sky, and down under the ocean, and inside the mountains. If the boys and girls do not find out now, while they are young, all about the strange, mysterious, magical life of the days when the whole world was young, it is ten to one that they will never find out about it at all, for the most of us do not keep ourselves like children always, though surely we have all been told plainly enough that that is what we ought to do.
This little girl's mother is rather a strange sort of woman. I do not know that she exactly disagrees with us about these stories that we both like so much, but she seems to have a different way of looking at them from ours. I sometimes suspect that she does not even believe in fairies at all, that she never so much as thought she saw a ghost, that, if she heard a dozen wild horses galloping over the roof of the house and then flying away into the sky, she would think it was only the wind, and that she is no more afraid of ogres than of policemen. Still she is a woman whom one cannot help liking, in some respects.
But one day she said something to the little girl that surprised me, and made me think that perhaps I had done her injustice. The child came to me with a face full of perplexity and said: "What do you suppose mamma just told me?"
"I am sure I can't guess," I replied; "your mother tells you such ridiculous things that I am always afraid to think what will be the next. Perhaps she says that William Tell didn't shoot an apple off his little boy's head, or that the baker's wife didn't box King Alfred's ears for letting the cakes burn."
"Oh, no," said the child, "it isn't a bit like that; she says that you can see pictures in the fire sometimes—men and horses and trees and all kinds of things."
"Does she, indeed? And how does your mother know what I can see in the fire or what I can't see?"
"Oh, I don't mean just you—yourself, I mean anybody. Now can you? I mean can anybody?"
"Why, yes, if that is what you mean; I think some people can. It is the most sensible thing I have known your mother to say in a long time."
"But how can anybody see such things? Can you see them? I have been looking at the fire ever so long, and I can't see anything at all but just the fire, the wood, and the ashes."
"Let us look at it together," I said; and I put a chair that was big enough to hold both of us before the fireplace. "Just see how bright the fire is; look down into those deep places under the sticks, and see how it glows and shines like melted gold. Now, you know when you look into a mirror you can see pictures of the things in front of it—your own face, the walls of the room, the furniture. That is because the mirror is so bright that it reflects these things; yet the mirror is not bright enough to reflect anything except what is there before it, such things as you can see with your eyes and touch with your hands. But the fire can do better than that, for it is a great deal brighter than the mirror, and it is so bright that it can reflect thoughts. So you must think of the pictures first, and then, if you know just how to look for them in the fire, you will find them reflected there, and after a little while you will be surprised at the wonderful things you will see."
"I don't know what you mean at all," said the child; "tell me what you can see in the fire now."
"Very well. Suppose, then, first, that you almost close your eyes, but not quite, so that you will not see the fire so plainly, and it will all run together and look dim and misty. When I look at it in that way it seems to me to be fire no more, but water. It is as if we were down under a broad, deep river, and could see all the mass of water slowly eddying and whirling and flowing on above us, with just the little glow and glimmer of brightness that come down from the daylight and the air above. But there is one little spot that is brighter, right in the middle of the fire, where you see that one little yellow flame all by itself. In my picture, it is like a big lump of pure gold, resting on a point of rock that stands straight up from the bottom of the river. It is really gold, and magic gold at that, for you know wonderful treasures often lie at the bottoms of rivers. One of the wonderful things about this gold is that, if anybody could have a ring made of it, he could compel everybody else to obey him and serve him, and could rule the whole world.
"Three forms I can see now moving backward and forward, and up and down, and around and around about the gold. Now they grow a little clearer. They are river nymphs, or something of the sort, and they are here to guard the gold, lest anybody should try to steal it. It would not be easy to steal, even if it had no guard, and knowing this has perhaps made these pretty keepers a little careless about it, so that now, instead of watching it very closely, they are swimming and diving and circling about, trying to catch one another, having the jolliest time in the world, and never thinking that there may be danger near."
"And you can see all those things in the fire?" said the little girl. "I can't see any of them. How do you see them?"
"Just as I told you at first, by thinking of them and then seeing the thoughts reflected there."
"Well, tell me some more."
"Look at that little dark spot under the fire. When I look at it in the way I have told you, it is the form of a dwarf. He is ugly and rough- looking, he is crooked, and he has a wicked face. He slips and tumbles slowly along, till he catches sight of the water nymphs, and they look so pretty and graceful and happy, as they chase one another about and up and down and around, that his cruel little eyes light up with pleasure, and he calls to them that he should like to come up and play with them too."
"Oh, now I don't believe any of it at all," said the child; "I thought just for a little while you might know how to see all those funny things in the fire, but you can't hear people talk in the fire."
"Oh, my dear child, you don't know very much about the fire if you think I can't see anything I want to in it, or hear anything I want to either. I tell you I can hear what this dwarf says, just as plainly as I can see him walk about. Still, if you don't believe any of it and don't care to know about the dwarf and the nymphs and the gold, perhaps you might better go and study your multiplication table, and I will find something else to do."
"Oh, but I do want to know about them. Please tell me some more. What do the nymphs say to the dwarf? Can you hear that too?"
"Of course I can hear it; they call to him to come up and play with them if he likes, and he clambers up over the rocks and trees to catch one of them after another, while they swim and glide away from him, and find it much better fun than chasing one another. It is good fun, no doubt, for the dwarf cannot swim like them, but only scrambles about in the most ridiculous way, with never any hope of catching one of them, except when she lets him come near her for a moment, to plague him by slipping away again quite out of his reach. At last he gets thoroughly tired and discouraged and angry, while the three sisters laugh at him and taunt him and chatter with one another, and have clearly enough forgotten all about the gold that they are supposed to be watching.
"But see now how much brighter the fire is getting. It makes me think that something must have happened up above the river. The sun must have risen, or something of that sort, for everything looks clearer and the gold shines out so bright and beautiful, that the blear-eyed dwarf himself sees it and forgets all about trying to catch water nymphs in wondering what it is. He asks the nymphs, and they tell him about the ring that could be made of it if only it could be stolen from them; but it is of no use for him to try, they say, because it is a part of the magic of the gold that it can never be stolen except by some one who loves nobody in the world and has sworn that he will never love anybody, and it is clear enough that the dwarf is in love with all three of them at this very minute. When such a strange treasure as this was to be guarded, it was no doubt very clever to set three such beautiful creatures as these to watch it, for if a thief were not in love already, it is a hundred to one that he would be before he got near enough to the gold to steal it.
"But the nymphs do not understand at all how much more a heartless little monster like this dwarf loves the glitter of gold than he could ever possibly love them. So, even while they are laughing at him, he is forgetting them completely, and then he swears a deep oath that as long as he lives he will never love any living thing. Now, if you can think of anything that anybody could do more wicked, more horrible, more cruel than that, you must know a great deal more about wicked and horrible things than you have any right to know. After that every kind of wrong is easy, and a little thing like stealing a lump of gold of the size of a bushel basket is a mere nothing. The dwarf scrambles up the point of rock again, while the nymphs, who think that he is still chasing them, swim far away from him, and he seizes the gold and plunges down to the bottom with it. The nymphs rush together again with a cry of horror and grief and fright, and in an instant everything is dark, as the flames of our fire suddenly drop down.
"But you see they fall only for a moment, and now, as they blaze up again, brighter than ever, I see another picture. It is on the hilltop above the river. The grass there is soft and fresh, the trees are cool and green, and the mellow light of morning is over them all. A light, white morning mist comes up from the river, and the sun, which has just risen from behind the purple hills, away off where the sky touches them, turns the mist into shifting and shimmering silver, so that it makes the whole scene look brighter instead of dimmer. On the hill across the river is a glorious sight. It is a castle, the grandest and most beautiful you ever saw. Its walls are thick and strong enough for a fortress, yet its towers and battlements look so light and graceful that you would think they might hold themselves up there in the air, or rest on the silver river mist, if there were no walls under them. As I look at the castle through the mist it seems half clear and solid and firm, and half wavering and dim, mysterious and magical, like a castle in a dream.
"There is something magical about it, for it was all built in one night by two giants, and they built it for the gods themselves. And now you must be prepared to meet some very fine company, for right here before us are the great Father and the great Mother of the gods, looking across the river at their splendid new home."
"Do you mean Jupiter and Juno?" the little girl asked.
"No, these are not Jupiter and Juno; and the other gods whom we shall see soon, if the fire burns right, are not the gods you know already, but they are a good deal like them in some ways. The Father of the Gods is full of joy at having such a glorious castle, and the Mother of the Gods is full of dread at the price that must be paid to the giants for building it. A terrible price indeed it is, as she does not hesitate to remind him, for the gods have promised to give the giants the beautiful Goddess of Love and Youth. It was a foolish and wicked promise for them to make, foolish because if they kept it they could never in the world get on without her, and wicked because they did not intend to keep it. The homes of the gods, like any other homes, would be dreary enough without the Goddess of Love, but it is worse than that, for she has a garden where apples grow for the gods to eat; it is eating these apples that makes the gods always young, and nobody but her knows how to care for them, so that if she goes away the gods will begin to grow old at once and will soon die."
"Were the apples like that—oh, what was it? you know the name of it— that the other gods used to eat?"
"Ambrosia? Yes, something like it, but not quite. You know the gods who ate ambrosia would live forever and are living still; we have seen some of them ourselves up among the stars. But these gods have to eat the apples often, and they must get them from the Goddess of Love. This is much the better story of the two, I think, because it shows us how gods and other people, as long as they keep love with them, will be always young, no matter how many years they may live; and how, if they let it go away from them, they will be old at once, no matter how few their years.
"All this the Father and the Mother of the Gods are talking over together now, and he tells her how the Fire God, who proposed the bargain in the first place, said that the price need never be paid and that he trusts the Fire God may yet find some way out of the trouble. Yet the giants must be made in some way to give up their price of themselves, for the Father of the Gods has the words of the promise cut upon his spear, and he cannot break a promise that he has once made. The Fire God has gone away now to search through the world for something that may be offered to the giants instead of the Goddess of Love. And now I see her come, running to the Father of the Gods for protection, and the other gods are here, to help her if they can, and the giants themselves have come to claim her for the building of the castle.
"Well, to be sure, they are all in a fine state of excitement. The giants are big, dreadful-looking fellows, with clubs made of the trunks of trees, and the poor goddess does not want to go with them in the least. All the other gods declare, too, that she shall not go with them, and the giants insist that she shall. The Thunder God is there and he has a wonderful hammer, a blow of which is like a stroke of lightning. He is about to strike the giants with it, and that, you may be sure, would settle the whole matter, big as they are, but the Father of the Gods will not let him harm them. He has promised, and whatever happens he cannot break his word.
"While everything is in this dreadful state, the Fire God comes back from his search. It is not a very cheering story that he has to tell. He has been through all the world, he says, and he has asked everywhere what there is that is as good for gods or giants, or anybody else, as the love of a woman, which makes those who have it always young. But the people in those days knew more than a good many of the people in these days, and everywhere they laughed at him and told him that he might as well give up his search, for he would never find what he sought."
"What do you mean by 'the people in those days'?" the child asked; "I thought you said you could see them right here in the fire now."
"So I can, but it is the beauty of these pictures in the fire that I can see things that happened years ago, thousands of years ago, if I like, just as well as things that happen now, and perhaps a little better. So you see the Fire God has not had very good luck, but as he was coming back, he says, he passed near where the river nymphs were, and they called to him, telling him that their beautiful gold had been stolen, and begging him to ask the Father of the Gods to get it back for them. They told him, too, about the wicked dwarf who stole it, and how, before he could steal it, he had to swear never again, as long as he lived, to love anybody or anything. The Fire God seems to have heard about the dwarf somewhere else, too, for he says that he has already made the magic ring out of the gold, that by the help of the ring he has compelled all the other dwarfs to obey him and serve him, and has piled up such a treasure of gold and jewels as was never seen before; and finally, that, if the gods are not careful, the dwarf will soon rule over them and the whole world besides.
"So it seems that there is one person in the world who has found something which he thinks is worth more than love. And there are at least two others who are as foolish as he, though they may not be quite so wicked. And these are the giants, for when they hear the Fire God tell of the wonderful treasure that the dwarf has heaped together, they say to the gods that they think the dwarf is quite right, they would rather have all that gold than the love of any woman, and, if the gods will get it for them, they may keep their Goddess of Love and Youth. The Father of the Gods hesitates; how can he get the treasure? he asks.
"'You can find some way to get it, if you like,' the giants reply.
"'I will not get it for you; you shall not have it,' says the Father of the Gods.
"'Then we will hold to our first bargain,' they answer, 'and take your Love Goddess with us. To-night we will bring her back; if you have the treasure ready for us, then you may keep her; if not, then you have lost her forever.' And they seize her and stride away, dragging her with them, while the gods look on in grief and fear. And well they may fear at the change that comes as soon as the beautiful goddess is gone. You can see the change yourself in the fire. If it did not fit the story that I am finding in it so well, I should say that the fire needed more wood, for it seems almost out; see how the blackened sticks are smouldering and smoking, with scarcely any bright flames at all. The smoke is spreading like an ugly gray cloud over everything; the trees and the flowers droop; the sky is dull and the grass is dingy; the castle looks grim and heavy, and no longer bright and graceful; the faces of the gods themselves grow pale and haggard; they feel that they are suddenly older. They have not eaten the apples of youth to-day, and nobody can get them but the one goddess who has gone. They know that they will grow older every hour and will soon die if they do not get her back, and the only way is to find the dwarf's treasure for the giants.
"'Come quickly,' says the Father of the Gods, 'and let us get this treasure; let us hasten down under the ground where the dwarfs live, for we must have it to-night, when the giants come.'
"There, where the dirty yellow smoke is pouring out between the sticks of wood at the top of the pile, I see a crevice in the rocks. The Father of the Gods and the Fire God go down into it, and the smoke comes thicker and blacker, and hides everything but those two, and I see them climbing down and down over the rough, sharp rocks, toward the caverns of the dwarfs, while the little tongues of flame shoot out at them from the fissures, as if they were trying to catch and burn and sting them, just as they shoot out from between the black, charred sticks here before our eyes.
"It is a deep, dark cave that I see now, with little spots of light here and there, like forges, and there is the sound of anvils. The dwarfs live here, and they are all working hard, as they must now, for the dwarf who stole the gold and made the ring from it. I see him too, and he is scolding and beating another dwarf, who is his brother. It is all about a piece of fine metal work that he has set his brother to do, and now the brother wants to keep what he has made. But he drops it on the ground and the dwarf king, for a king he really is now, picks it up and claps it on his head. It is a helmet, made of delicate rings of steel linked together. It is a magic helmet, and anybody who wears it can disappear from sight whenever he likes, or can take any shape he chooses. In a minute the dwarf is no more to be seen, and in his place there is only a cloud of smoke. But he can still beat his brother, and presently he leaves him whining and crying on the ground, and the cloud floats away.
"You are not to suppose because this dwarf is treated in this cruel way that he is any better than his brother who beats him. One of them is just as wicked as the other, and he deserves all he gets. So here, lying upon the ground and groaning, the two gods find him, as they come down into the cave. 'What is the matter?' they ask, and he tells them about the magic helmet. Then back comes the other dwarf, who wears the helmet and the ring, driving before him a crowd of his fellows, all laden down with gold and gems, and they throw them in a pile. They are so rich and dazzling, and there is such a quantity of them that the fire actually burns brighter there in the corner where they have heaped them up. The dwarf drives all his workmen away, and then sulkily asks the gods what they want here, for with his ring and his helmet he thinks that he is just as good as any of the gods.
"The Fire God tells him that they have heard so much about his great wealth that they have come to see it, and now they find his treasure greater and finer than anything they ever saw before. At that the dwarf is flattered and begins to boast. 'This that you see is nothing,' he says; 'I shall soon have much more, and by the magic of my ring I mean to rule the whole world and you gods too.'
"'But suppose,' says the Fire God, 'that some one should steal the ring from you while you were asleep?'
"'That shows how little you know about it,' the dwarf answers. 'Why, do you see this magic helmet of mine? With this I can make myself invisible, or I can take any form I like, and so nobody can find me while I am asleep to steal the ring.'
"'Oh, now you are telling us too big a story,' says the Fire God; 'it is nonsense to say you can take any form you like, helmet or no helmet; you can't expect us to believe that.'
"At this the dwarf begins to get a little angry; 'I tell you I can,' he cries; 'I will prove it to you; I can change myself into anything; what shall it be?'
"'Oh, whatever you like,' says the Fire God, 'only let it be something big and horrible to show just how much you can do.'
"So, to show what he can do, in a second the dwarf changes himself into a horrible dragon, with slimy scales and a writhing tail, and eyes and jaws that look as wicked as the dwarf himself, and twice as savage. The Fire God pretends to be dreadfully frightened, and when the dwarf comes back to his own shape again he says: 'That was very good, but that does not seem so hard, after all. Now, the way for you to hide, it seems to me, would be to make yourself very small, so that you could slip into a crack in the rocks. You can puff yourself up like a dragon, of course, but can you make yourself small as easily? Oh, no, I cannot believe that.'
"'I can be anything, anything, I tell you,' the dwarf cries, getting still more angry; 'I will be as small as you like,' and in another second he has changed himself into a toad, not much bigger than your hand, as slimy as ever, looking still just as wicked as the dwarf himself, and almost as ugly.
"'Now is the time—quick!' cries the Fire God, and in an instant the Father of the Gods stamps his foot upon the toad and has him fast. The Fire God stoops and pulls the magic helmet off the toad's head, and instantly he is the dwarf again, but he is still firmly held under the god's foot, and they tie him with cords and drag him away with them, up among the rocks from which they came."
"That is just the way Puss in Boots caught the ogre, when he turned himself into a mouse," said the little girl.
"Yes, to be sure it is, but you know there are only a very few stories in the world, any way, and we cannot find new ones. The most we can ever do is to tell the old ones over in different ways, and after all it is better so, for old things are better than new almost always, as you will find when you get a little older yourself. But now, with the fire burning up a little better to help me, we are back above ground. Let us put on more wood and see if we cannot make it better yet. We are just where we were before, on the hill by the river and the castle of the gods. And back now come the two gods from under the ground, dragging the dwarf with them. 'And what will you give us now,' they cry, 'if we will untie you and let you go?'
"'What must I give you?' he asks.
"'You must give us the whole of your treasure,' they answer; 'we will not let you go for anything less.'
"That seems a large price, but the dwarf is as crafty as he is wicked, though his craft seldom does him much good, and he thinks that even if he gives up all his treasure he can soon pile up as much more, with the help of the ring. So, by the power of the ring, he calls the dwarfs to bring him the treasure, and up they come with it, out of the cleft of the rocks, and they pile it in a great, glittering heap just there where the new fire is beginning to burn so bright. 'There is the gold,' cries the dwarf, 'let me go.'
"'Not yet,' says the Father of the Gods; 'give us your ring first, that belongs to the treasure.'
"At that the dwarf screams and struggles and writhes and curses the gods, but it is all of no use; the Father of the Gods tears the ring from his finger, and then they untie him and tell him to take himself off where he will. And now, as he goes, he lays a terrible curse on the ring. To every one who shall ever gain it, he swears, shall come ill luck, misfortune, sorrow, terror, and death; let him rule the world if he will, never shall he be happy; everyone shall long for the ring, and to him who gets it, it shall bring misery and ruin. Truly the dwarf has gained little by stealing the gold from the river nymphs, but the gods have done wrong as well in stealing it from him, and they are doing wrong still in not giving it back to the nymphs; so they must suffer too.
"But it is not yet time for that, for now, as the fire burns up, the whole picture grows brighter again. That is because the giants are bringing back the Goddess of Love and Youth, to see if the treasure is ready for them. The trees lift up their branches again and the happy sunlight pours down through them; the flowers open their eyes to see it; the sky is clear and bright, and the grass is again fresh; while the faces of the gods, who run to meet their sister, look young and happy as before. Only the castle is still hidden by the shining silver river mist. The giants have come near. 'Is the ransom ready for us?' they cry.
"'There is your treasure.' says the Father of the Gods, 'take it and be gone.'
"'We must see that it is enough first,' they answer; 'our treasure must be as much as your goddess, so you must pile it up before her till she is quite hidden by it; then we will take it, and you shall have her back.'
"They heap up the gold and the jewels before the goddess, higher and higher, till everything is gone from the old pile to the new one. Then one of the giants looks over it and still sees the gold of her hair above the gold of the treasure. 'Give me that helmet that you carry,' he says to the Fire God, 'to put on the top.' and he gives it. Now the other giant peeps through a chink in the pile and sees one of her eyes. 'Quick,' he cries to the Father of the Gods, 'give me that ring you wear to stop this chink.'
"'No,' says the Father of the Gods, 'you shall not have that; it is the ring that gives the power to rule the world, and I will keep it.'
"' Very well, then,' say the giants, 'we will have no more to do with you, and we will take the goddess back with us.'
"All the gods stand terrified and pale. Will their great father let the Goddess of Love be taken from them again, and must they all grow old and die, that he may keep this ring? Everything grows dark again, as our fire here drops down; only there is that pale blue flame that gives no light, away at the back of the hearth. And now, right in the pale blue flame, rises the form of a woman out of the ground. It is the Earth Goddess, the wisest woman in the world, who knows all that ever was, all that is, and all that ever shall be. She speaks to the Father of the Gods and tells him to give the ring to the giants, for the curse that the dwarf has laid upon it will surely destroy him who keeps it. Then she sinks out of sight, and the Father of the Gods takes from his finger the ring, and gives it.
"And even while the giants are stowing the treasure in a sack to carry it away, they fall to quarrelling about how it shall be divided, and one of them strikes the other a terrible blow with his club which lays him dead upon the ground. Then he strides away with the treasure, leaving the gods filled with horror at the first fatal work done by the curse of the ring.
"Yet only for a moment; their grand new castle is ready for them now. High up upon a rock stands the Thunder God. He swings his hammer and the black clouds roll around him. The thunder mutters, and lightning flames flash out from the dark vapors. The fire flickers and blazes up again, the clouds part and melt away, and all is light at last. A rainbow reaches across the river from shore to shore, and the gods slowly walk across upon it toward their castle. Up from the river, far below them, comes a sad cry of the nymphs, begging the gods to give them back their gold. But the gods do not heed it. They rest upon the rainbow, gazing only at their castle, as it stands before them, stately, graceful, radiant, and rosy in the warm glow of the sunset."
"And did you really, really see it all in the fire?" the little girl asked, after she had thought it all over for a few minutes. "It sounds just as if it was a story you had read in a book."
"Well, perhaps I may have seen something, or heard something, or read something of the kind somewhere," I replied, "but you know I told you at first that you must think of the pictures before you could see them reflected in the fire."
The little girl sat still and thought about it again for a time. "I don't believe you saw any pictures in the fire at all," she said at last.
THE DAUGHTER OF THE GOD
"If you say you can see all those things in the fire," said the little girl, with an air of doubt not yet quite overcome, "I suppose I shall have to believe it, but I don't see how. I try to think of them the way you said, but I don't see them in the fire a bit. Can you see them all the time?"
"It makes a good deal of difference how I feel about it," I answered, "and a little difference how the fire burns. To-night, you see, the fire does not burn quite as it usually does. It is cold out of doors, and there is a wind that comes in gusts and blows different ways. It gives the fire a good draught, and on the whole it burns rather fiercely, but when the wind goes down the fire goes down a little too, and when the wind changes it blows a puff of smoke down the chimney now and then. Altogether it is not a well-behaved fire at all, and I am afraid if we try to see things in it, some of them will be rather rough and rude, and none of them very cheerful. Still, if you would like to try—"
"Oh, do try," the child said, "I like nice gloomy things."
"Very well. Just now the fire is so fierce and hot that it seems to me nothing less than a house on fire. It is a house that stands all alone in the woods. Before it was set on fire a boy and a girl lived there. Neither of them had any mother, but the boy's father lived with them and took care of them, going out hunting and leaving the boy and the girl together, till the boy was old enough to go hunting with him, and then the girl was left alone. They were very happy there together, all three of them, and the father always thought that the girl would sometime grow up and be his son's wife. But now, while they are hunting, a robber has come and has burned the house, and he takes the girl with him and carries her off to his own house, far away among the mountains.
"After this it is not so pleasant roaming the woods and hunting all day, with no house to go back to and no greeting of a bright face in the evening. To make it still worse, one day, while they are hunting, the poor boy loses sight of his father and never finds him again. So now he is quite alone, but he still lives in the woods in the old way till he grows to be a tall, strong, handsome young man. Perhaps he is all the stronger and the better fighter because the most of his enemies, and his friends too, for that matter, have been wild beasts. That he has had one good enemy I know, because the coat that he wears is the skin of a bear.
"And all this time the girl has been kept a prisoner at the house of the robber, and she has grown up as well, now, to be a tall, beautiful woman. At times, no doubt, the robber has treated her well enough, and at times, I am afraid, not so well. But always he has urged her and has tried to make her promise to be his wife, and now, after all these years, at last she has promised. She has never forgotten the brave boy whom she used to love, but the robber has told her that he is dead, and finally she has come to believe it and has no more any hope of ever being happy.
"I am looking right into the robber's house now. It is a strange house, for right in the middle of it stands a large tree, which grows up through the roof and spreads its branches over the house. And more wonderful still, there is a sword sticking in this tree, up to the hilt. Perhaps I might better tell you something about this sword before we go any farther. Do you remember the gold that was stolen from the river nymphs, the other night, when we were watching the fire, and the magic ring that the dwarf made of it? Of course you do, and you remember too how the Father of the Gods got it and paid it to the giants for building his castle, and would not give it back to the river nymphs, and how one of the giants killed the other and kept all the treasure. Well, the Father of the Gods has been learning and thinking a good deal since then, and he has begun to see what a great wrong he did when he put the gold to his own uses, instead of giving it back to the nymphs. It is no light punishment that falls on gods when they do wrong, and he sees that for this sin he and all the other gods who live with him in his castle must at last be destroyed utterly. Yet he still hopes to save them if only the gold, or at least the ring, can be given back again to the nymphs.
"Now, the giant who took all the treasure carried it away to a deep cave in the side of a mountain, and then, by the help of the magic helmet, he changed himself into a horrible, fierce, fiery, poisonous dragon, so that he might stay in the cave and guard it. And there he has stayed guarding it ever since. You will see at once that the treasure never would do him any good in that way, but giants are usually stupid, and he could not think of anything better to do with it. A boy who has a penny and knows enough to buy a penny whistle with it is richer than this dragon giant. Yet he guards the treasure pretty well, and the Father of the Gods cannot take it away from him, and cannot help anybody else to take it away from him, because he paid it to him for the castle, and to touch it now would be to break his promise. Yet he wishes that somebody, without his help, would kill the dragon and give the gold back to its real owners. This would not really do him any good, for his own old sin would still be just as great, and he knows it; yet he has a strange kind of hope that it may somehow help him. But the dragon is so big and fierce and fiery and poisonous, that nobody could ever hope to kill him except the very greatest of heroes, and one who simply did not know what fear meant. Even such a hero might have a good deal of trouble about it, if he did not have a sword that was just as keen and strong, just as sharp and firm and true as himself. So, that he may not want for such a good blade, the Father of the Gods has made a magic sword. No one but a god could make a sword like this, and he has driven it up to the hilt into the great tree in the robber's house. It is quite safe there, for the magic of it is that nobody but the bravest, strongest, truest hero living can ever draw it out, but for him it will be easy. There are some things besides drawing swords out of trees which can be done easily by men who are brave and strong and true, and which no other man can do at all.
"All this time I have been looking into the robber's house. There is a storm outside, worse than the wind that is troubling our fire. It howls above the house, and tears at the branches of the tree, till even the great trunk shivers and trembles and makes the roof creak and groan. Suddenly the door is burst open, and in, out of the storm, rushes a man, and falls before the fire as if he were so weary that he could move no more. Then from another room of the house comes the woman who has promised to be the robber's wife, the girl who once lived in the house that the robber burned. When she sees the stranger lying before the fire, she lifts him up and brings him a big drinking-horn, and tells him to stay and rest till the robber comes home. Then he looks at her, and she seems to him the kindest, the sweetest, and the loveliest woman he has ever seen.
"Soon the robber comes home, and he asks the stranger what he is and how he came here. Then the stranger tells him all the story that I have told you of the burning of the house where he lived with his father, and how since then he has wandered the woods and has fought with the wild beasts and with his enemies. As soon as he tells that, the woman knows that the boy whom she used to love so long ago is not dead, but is sitting here before her, and the hope comes to her that he may take her away from this place, so that she may not have to be married to the robber. Then she asks the stranger why he is unarmed, and he says that he fought to rescue a woman from her enemies; he killed some of them, but the others were so many that they broke his spear and his shield, and he had to save himself from them, and so it was that he came to this house.
"At this the robber grows red and pale with anger. He has heard of the fight, and the men who were killed were his friends. 'Stay here to-night,' he says; 'while you are in my house I cannot harm you, but to-morrow you must go out and fight with me for killing my friends.'
"The robber and the woman have gone away and the stranger is left alone. Sad and gloomy enough are his thoughts, for to-morrow he must fight with the robber, and he has no sword, no spear, no shield. The fire before him dies down, as our fire dies down too, for the moment, and as all his hope grows darker and colder. And then, just as his life and the world and the future seem blackest, the woman comes back. Why should her coming bring him hope? He could not tell, perhaps, yet her very presence cheers him; misfortune and death seem not so near when she is by, and not so terrible, even should they come. He may not know why it is, but I know, and so do you.
"She hastens to him and shows him the sword in the tree. She tells him of its magic; he must be the hero to draw it out, she says, and then, in the fight to-morrow, he must overcome his enemy and give her revenge for all she had suffered from him. And how gladly he will do her bidding! He seizes the sword and draws it quickly out of the tree, while her eyes gaze at him and are filled with joy. The hero has come— her hero. He holds the wonderful magic sword in his hand, but only for a moment he looks upon its long, gleaming, beautiful blade. Then he turns to her again. They twine their arms about each other and together they leave this hateful house. And now, of a sudden, it is as if their two hearts were all the world, as indeed they are, to each other, for all around them the storm was stilled; the winter is gone and it is spring; the peaceful moonlight fills the happy woods with a soft glory; sweet airs breathe tenderly on them and on the flowers in their path; quiet voices speak to them out of the budding trees; and so together they are gone into the forest.
"The Father of the Gods has done more than I have told you yet to guard against the end which he knows must come, in spite of all that he can do. He has fancied that his castle might be safer if he were to fill it with strong warriors to fight for him in any need. Therefore, wherever battles are fought he sends his nine daughters to choose the bravest of the men who are killed and to bring them to his castle. Each of these daughters has a horse which flies through the air faster than any bird. When the fallen heroes have come thus to the halls of the gods, they are brought to life and their wounds are healed by means that the gods know how to use, and they live there, feasting day after day with other heroes. And lest they should forget their old skill and bravery in fighting, every day they have a battle and many of them are killed and chopped to pieces by the others' swords, but at sunset they are all alive and well again, and they go back together to their feast in the halls of the gods.
"It is one of these daughters of the god, one of these choosers of heroes, whom I see before me now. I wish that I could make you see her. She is more than a beautiful woman, and also she is less. She is tall and her form is strong, yet light and buoyant. She is dressed all in armor, and she has a spear and a shield which gleams and glistens like a beacon-light for an army. She herself, as I see her here, is as graceful and as full of warm life as a flame of the fire, the same hot glow stirs her heart and moves her to the same eager, free action. Her face is as clear and pure as the fire itself, and almost as radiant as her silver shield, while the gold of her hair breaking from under the light of her helmet, outshines them all. Beating under her bosom, thrilling through her form, glowing in her cheeks, and beaming from her eyes, is the joy of life and strength and beauty. Yet where is the tenderness that one would seek in a woman's eyes? A glad light shines in hers, but it is not softened by any kindly ray of gentleness or mercy. Where is the sweetness of a woman's lips? Hers are calm and beautiful, but they tempt no more than a stain of blood upon the snow. What is there in her face that could melt into a woman's compassion and pity? Her face is not cruel, not unkind, only still, stern, and placid as marble. She is not a woman, you know; only a goddess—a war goddess.
"Just now the Father of the Gods is telling his daughter of the fight that is to come between the robber and the hero who won the sword, and he commands her to help the hero to win. She is delighted at this, for she loves all brave, true heroes as he does, but she has scarcely left her father when the Mother of the Gods comes, riding furiously through the air in a chariot drawn by two rams. She has heard of the fight too, and she takes quite a different view of it. 'This man whom you would save and help,' she says, 'has taken the woman away from the man whose wife she promised to be. Is that all you care for a promise? He must be punished; you must help his enemy to kill him.'
"You see she cares nothing at all about heroes, but to her a promise is a promise. And the Father of the Gods himself is very particular about promises, as you must remember, so he is forced to say that he will not help the hero. But that is not enough for her; he must command his daughter not to help him. She shall not, he says, but that is not enough; he must help his enemy and see that he wins. This is hard for the Father of the Gods, for he loves the hero, and if he is left to himself he must win, with his magic sword, yet he cannot choose; the promise has been broken, and he gives his word that the hero shall die.
"The Father of the Gods is left alone, and again his daughter comes to him. He tells her sadly that she must help the robber in the fight, and that the hero must die. She is as sad as he at this command, for all that she ever wishes is to do what he would have her do, and she knows that, though he says that the hero must die, yet he would have him live. But his word is given, and, full of sorrow, the god and his daughter part. And now comes the hero himself, with his bride. She is fearful of what may befall him in the fight, and would have him flee farther away. He will not do that, and he tries to cheer her, till she faints and sinks down at his feet. Then, beautiful and sad, but still calm, stern, and placid, the Daughter of the God stands before him.
"'Soon,' she says to him, 'you must come with me to the castle of the gods. There the Father of the Gods will welcome you, there your own father, whom you lost so long ago, waits for you, there you will fight and feast with heroes, and the daughters of the god will serve you.'
"'And shall this woman here,' he asks, 'whom I love, go with me and with you there?'
"'No,' she answers, 'this woman cannot go.'
"'Then I will not go,' he replies; 'gladly I would stand before the Father of the Gods, gladly I would see my own father again and the heroes and the daughters of the god, but not without her; I will not go with you; leave us here.'
"If the daughter of the god were a woman she would understand all this, but now it would make her impatient, if anything could. She cannot know and cannot feel why this man, who has had only trouble and ill luck all his life, should choose to stay and wait for more trouble and ill luck with this one poor woman who lies at their feet, fainting and knowing not even that she is alive, rather than to sit and feast with gods and heroes. How little a war goddess can really know about brave men!
"Yet she does know that her father, whose wishes are her own, wishes this woman to live, and that she will be in danger after her hero has left her; so she tells him that he may leave his bride with her and she will protect her. But the man is still more unreasonable. He says that she is cruel and hard-hearted. That is unjust, for she is not cruel. He says too that the woman shall die rather than be left with her. If he must die, he will kill the woman, too, and he is about to do it, when the Daughter of the God holds his hand. She thinks only now of how much her father longs that this man may live; she resolves that in spite of the command she will save him; she tells him that he shall have her help in the fight, and she leaves him, just as there comes a noise and a shout of the robber with his men and his dogs hunting for the hero to kill him.
"See how the black smoke is driven down the chimney by the changing gusts of wind. It is like dark clouds gathering over the sky and dropping down upon the mountain, so that it is hard to see anything at all. The fire goes down, too, and its flames dart and flicker in sudden, angry flashes. Some of them are like lightning, brightening the whole scene for an instant, and then I can see the hero and the robber in their fight, springing and thrusting and striking at each other so that it seems as if they must both be killed a dozen times over. Again in the sparkle of the fire I see the gleaming of the magic sword, as the hero whirls it above his head and strikes at his enemy. Then comes a flare of flame that shines from the shield of the Daughter of the God, as she throws it over the hero to protect and save him. It is all in vain, for there comes a hot, red glow in which for an instant all the rest is lost, and now, in the midst of it stands the Father of the Gods himself. The daughter falls back helpless before him, and he stretches his spear toward the hero. The magic sword falls upon the spear and is shivered to pieces. Nothing indeed could shatter that blade but the spear of the god who made it, but with that spear to help him the robber springs upon his enemy and his sword is through his heart, and he is fallen.
"The Daughter of the God has come back to where the woman lay, she has lifted her from the ground and has laid her across her horse's saddle as if she were dead; she leaps upon his back and they are galloping away like the wind. The Father of the Gods has avenged the broken promise; he has killed the hero whom he loved, and now he turns for one moment toward the robber whom he has helped to win the fight. Only once the god waves his hand toward him and the robber falls dead; he will fight and kill brave men no more. But a harder task than all is to come for the Father of the Gods; how shall he deal with his own daughter, who has disobeyed him?
"The fire is burning a little better now, but it does not yet seem to be quite on good terms with the wind outside. The smoke is going up again instead of down, and that is an improvement. It rises in sudden puffs and flurries, like clouds flying across the sky after a storm. The shadows of the clouds fall upon a mountain height, a rugged, rocky, wild, beautiful place, where the daughters of the god are meeting to ride home together with the heroes they have brought from some field of battle. Now and then, as the quick flames leap up into the smoke, I can see another and another coming, riding on her flying horse, racing with the driving wind and the hurrying clouds, each with her warrior lying before her across her saddle, and so alighting here and joining her sisters. They are all here at last except the one Daughter of the God whom we have seen before, and now she comes, but she brings no warrior across her saddle, only the poor woman with whom she fled from the fight.
"She tells her sisters how she has disobeyed their father, and she begs them to protect her and the woman against his anger. They dare not help her; never has one of them done anything that was not his will. What can she do? He is coming in pursuit of her; sooner or later he must find her, but she may at least save the woman. She bids her flee alone while she waits with her sisters for her father and her punishment to come. Far away, she tells her, there is a deep forest, and in the forest is a cave where the horrible dragon that was once the giant keeps and guards his treasure. So much does the Father of the Gods dread the curse that the wicked dwarf laid upon the ring, and the doom which he knows is coming to himself because of his own sin, that he never wanders there. To this forest she must go, and there she may find a refuge. The Daughter of the God gives the woman the fragments of the broken magic sword, which she has brought with her from the field of the fight, and bids her go.
"And now, with angry lightnings flashing all around him, comes the Father of the Gods. Never before has he been shaken by such a storm as this. His daughter whom he loved more than all the others, has disobeyed him. Never before has she done anything but that which it was his will that she should do. Now she has known his will, she has heard his command, and she has broken it. She stands before him, sorrowful, but still calm, stern, and placid, and asks what is to be her punishment. She has brought her doom upon herself, he answers, and now she must be a war goddess no more, but only a woman. He must kiss her once, and all the strength and the valor and the pride of the goddess will be gone. Then she will sink to sleep, and here on this rocky mountain height she must lie till some man comes and awakes her, and she must be a woman only and his wife.
"Very dreadful this seems to the poor war goddess, but it is because she has never been a woman, and does not know much about women. To me it does not seem dreadful at all. It is much better and sweeter and nobler, I believe, to be the best that a woman can be than the strongest and greatest and proudest that a goddess can be. And I hope you will always remember what we see here in the fire to-night, and if you ever feel that there is any danger of your being a goddess, or if anybody ever tells you that you are one, then let somebody kiss you and make you a woman.
"But to one who has so long been used to wearing armor and riding through the air, and choosing the bravest of the fallen heroes, and bearing them to the castle of the gods, the change may well seem hard to suffer at first. So the Daughter of the God thinks that no heavier punishment could have been found for her. Her sisters think so, too, and they beg their father to have mercy on her, but he sternly bids them be silent and to leave him. Now the Daughter of the God tells him how she tried to do what he would have her do; she knew that he loved the hero and hated the robber, and that his command to her was given unwillingly; she hoped to gain for him the wish of his heart, in spite of his words, and she threw her shield over the hero.
"It is useless; he cannot stay her punishment now, but his anger is all gone and he is filled with sorrow like her own. He loves her still, more than any other daughter, and now he will never have her beside him in the halls of the gods again, never again see her ride to the battle, never see her return with brave men to guard his house, never again speak to her as he could to no other, and tell her all that is in his heart, never again see her glad, deep, answering eyes look into his, full of sympathy and help. One thing yet she begs: if all that they have been to each other, the god and his daughter, must be no more, if she must sleep and wait here for an unknown husband to wake her, she prays him to set some guard around her, a wall of fire, that no one but a brave man, the bravest of men, may win her for his bride.
"Yes, he will do this; she shall be shut in by fire and none shall ever come to her but the bravest of heroes, one who knows no fear at all. No one who fears even his own terrible spear, that spear which broke the magic sword that he himself had made, shall ever awake her who was his daughter, and now is to be his daughter no more. He draws her to him for one last time; he kisses her lips and they are silent; he kisses her eyes and they close. He lays her on a bank of soft moss; he closes her helmet and covers her with her shield. Near by her horse lies upon the ground asleep too; the flowers among the grass and in the crevices of the rocks droop their drowsy heads; the winds as they pass make no noise. He touches the point of his spear to the ground. Instantly the fire springs up; it makes a fierce, raging ring around the rock; surely only one who knows no fear can ever pass it. The Father of the Gods is gone. Now we can see nothing but the fire streaming up and exulting in its life and its hot defiance of all but the bravest; but there in the midst of it lies the Daughter of the God, asleep till her lover shall call her with a kiss to come with him and be a woman."
The little girl's mother had come into the room and had heard the last of the story. "Isn't it time," she said, "that the daughter of somebody else was asleep, too, if she wants to grow to be a woman?"
"It is late," I had to admit. "Well, the Daughter of the God is safe for the present. Perhaps some other time, when we have a better-behaved fire, we may see something of the lover."
THE HERO WHO KNEW NO FEAR
"Don't you think the fire is very good to-night?" the little girl asked.
"Yes, it is certainly very good indeed," I admitted.
"I should think," she said, "that anybody that could see things in fires might see very nice things in this one."
When she who might command deigns thus delicately to make a mere suggestion, it is the part both of chivalry and of loyalty to obey. I should feel that having my head chopped off was altogether too good for me if I hesitated at such a time. "Come," I said, "and let us see what the fire really looks like. What does it look like to you?"
"Oh, it doesn't look like anything at all to me, only just the fire. What does it to you?"
"It looks like a fire to me too, but it is the fire of a smith's forge. The place where it is looks half like a room and half like a cavern. It is all of rocks, but there is the forge and there are the chimney and the anvil and the bellows and all sorts of smith's tools."
"You can see things all around the fire, just the same as in it, can't you?" said the child.
"Oh, to be sure; when I want to see these things that make themselves into stories, I can see them almost anywhere, only I think the fire is a particularly good place. And who do you think is working at the forge? It is an ugly little dwarf, the very one whom we saw the other night, who made the magic helmet, the brother of the one who stole the treasure from the river nymphs. You remember he was a clever smith, else he never could have made that wonderful helmet. Now he is at work here trying to make a sword. And he does make a sword too, but he does not seem pleased with it when it is finished, and he leaves off his work and sits down, with a very dissatisfied, sulky, ugly look in his face.
"It would be hard for anybody to look more unlike the dwarf than the person I see now coming into the cave. He is a boy, or perhaps he would rather be called a young man, and I shall be glad to call him whatever he likes. He is dressed in skins and wears a little silver horn at his side. If the dwarf is short and ugly, he is tall and handsome; if the dwarf's face has a scowl of wicked hatred and cunning, his has a smile that beams with kindliness and candor; if the dwarf is old and crooked and rough and hairy, he is young and straight and graceful and fair. In short, you surely never saw a young man who looked more free, happy, generous, noble, strong, and bold than he. It makes one more good- humored to look at him, and the sunlight follows him straight into the cave. Something else follows him too, for he is leading a big brown bear by a cord twisted around its neck. He sends the bear at the dwarf, who screams and runs away in terror. The young man seems to have caught the bear in the woods just to frighten the dwarf, and he lets it go again when the dwarf tells him that the sword is finished and ready for him. He takes the sword and looks at it scornfully. It is good for nothing, he says. He strikes it upon the anvil and breaks it into a dozen pieces. He is a little particular about his swords; he does not like them unless he can chop anvils with them.
"Before we try to see any more, perhaps I ought to tell you something about this wonderful youth and why he lives here in the cave with the dwarf. He was born here. This is the forest where the treasure is hidden that was paid to the giants for building the castle of the gods. It is guarded, as you know, by the giant who killed his brother so that he might have the whole of it, and he has changed himself into a horrible dragon, by the magic helmet, so that he may guard it better. The young man's mother was the woman whom the Daughter of the God sent away into this forest to save her from the anger of the Father of the Gods, as you remember. She took refuge here in the dwarf's cave and she died soon after her son was born, and then the dwarf kept the boy and brought him up. But it was not because he cared for him at all or had the least kindly feeling for anybody. It was just because he wanted, as so many others wanted, that rich treasure and the magic helmet and the magic ring with the curse upon it.
"Now, you see, the boy's mother gave him the pieces of the broken magic sword and told him to keep them for the boy. He knew something about the sword and so he got it into his head that this was the very sword that would sometime kill that dragon. And since this boy was to have the sword, he thought, too, that he might very likely grow up to be the man who would kill the dragon. Do you see, then, why he has kept him and fed him and brought him up so carefully? It was just because he was so cunning and cruel and selfish that he took good care of the boy. He knew very well that he himself would never dare to go near enough to that dragon for it to breathe on him, but he thought: 'Some day I will give this boy the magic sword and make him go and kill the monster with it, and then I will kill him and get all the treasure, with the helmet and the ring, and then I shall be the ruler of all the dwarfs, of men, of the gods themselves, and of the whole world.'
"So the baby that the dwarf took and tended at first has grown to be this noble, brave, generous young man, and he hates the dwarf as anyone as good and strong as he must hate anything so cowardly and mean and wicked. All these years the dwarf has never told him anything about his mother or how he came to be living with him here in the cave. But now of a sudden the young man asks the dwarf some questions and shows that he means to treat him very roughly if he does not answer them. So the dwarf tells him a little of what I have told you, and to prove that what he says about his mother is true he shows him the pieces of the broken sword.
"The young man gets interested in these at once, you may be sure. 'That was a good sword,' he cries; 'that is the sword I must have; mend it for me, dwarf, and mend it quickly. I will go into the forest, and, if it is not done when I come back, you shall be sorry that you worked so badly.'
"Then away he goes to play with the bears, perhaps, in the forest. Now you can be quite sure that the dwarf has not kept that broken sword all these years without ever trying to mend it. He has tried many times, and he can no more put the pieces together than he can look as handsome as the fiery youth who has just left him here frightened half to death. So he simply sits down and lets himself get more frightened till he looks up and finds that he has a visitor.
"The visitor is a tall old man whom he does not know, but I know him; he is the Father of the Gods. He asks the dwarf to let him sit down and rest, but the dwarf is even more ill-natured than usual and bids him go away and not trouble him. The Father of the Gods replies that he might perhaps tell the dwarf something that would be of use to him if he would let him stay. Now you see what a good chance this would be for the dwarf to ask how to mend the broken sword, but he is so cross and surly that he thinks of nothing but how to be as disagreeable as possible, so he says that he knows all that he needs to know and does not care to learn from anybody. But the Father of the Gods persists; he will give the dwarf his head, he says, if he cannot answer any three questions that he may ask him. This pleases the dwarf, for he thinks it would be a pleasure to him to cut off somebody's head. 'What people, then,' he asks for his first question, 'live under the ground?'
"'The dwarfs,' says the stranger; 'one of them had a ring once, by which he ruled all the others.'
"'And what people,' asks the dwarf, 'live upon the mountains?'
"'The giants; one of them, in the form of a dragon, has the ring now.'
"'And who live up among the clouds?'
"'The gods,' says the stranger, 'and the Father of the Gods has a spear with which he rules the world.'
"As he says that, he lets the end of the spear which he carries drop upon the ground and instantly there is a peal of thunder.
"'Now,' says the stranger, 'as I have saved my head, you must pledge me yours to answer the three questions which I shall ask. Who is the strongest of heroes whom the Father of the Gods loves?'
"The dwarf answers that he thinks it must be the son of the woman who died long ago in the forest, who will kill the dragon and win the treasure. This is a good answer, and the stranger asks again: 'What sword must he use to kill the dragon?'
"What easy questions these are, to be sure! The dwarf says at once: 'The magic sword that the Father of the Gods made.'
"Now the stranger looks stern and says: 'But who shall mend the sword that it may be fit for the fight?'
"At this the dwarf is frightened indeed. He cries out in terror that he cannot do it, he knows no better smith than himself, and he does not see how it can be done. 'Then you should have asked me that,' says the stranger, 'instead of foolish questions about things that you knew already. Yet I will tell you: as none but the best of heroes could pull that sword out of the tree where it once stuck, so now none but a hero who knows no fear can put its broken pieces together. Your poor head, which belongs to me, I will leave to the same hero, and so good-by.'
"The dwarf falls upon the ground in a trembling heap, and so the young man finds him when he comes back to ask if he has yet mended the sword. 'I can never mend it,' he cries. 'Have you ever known fear?'
"'Fear?' he answers; 'no, what is fear? Is it something I ought to know how to do, something you ought to have taught me and have not? Is it a pleasant thing to have or to know or to do? What is it like?'
"'I cannot teach you fear,' says the dwarf, 'but I know one who can, or else you never can learn it. It is the dragon that lives in the cave at the end of the wood. I will take you to him and if he will not teach you fear then you may kill him.'
"'Very well,' says the young man, 'I will go; but first mend the sword for me; I shall need it.'
"'I cannot mend it for you.' the dwarf answers; 'only one who does not know how to fear can do that.'
"'Then I must do it myself,' says the young man, and he sets about it at once.
"The fire on that forge has never been so hot and the fire here on our hearth has never been so bright as now when the young man who knows no fear blows the bellows. While the coals under that eager blast shine redder and redder and then whiter and whiter he begins filing the pieces of the sword to powder. The dwarf cries out to him that that is not the way to mend a sword; but this is not a common sword, and the dwarf has shown well enough already that he knows nothing about mending it. So the young smith pays no attention to him, but goes on with his work. In mending magic swords, just as in some other things, knowing how at the start does not count for so much as not knowing any fear.
"So without any fear the young man melts the filings of the sword with the splendid fire which you can surely see just as well as anybody, and pours the melted metal into a mould of the shape of a sword blade. By this time the dwarf has found that it is of no use to interrupt him and has begun to think about his own work. When the dragon has been killed, he thinks, the hero will be hot and tired, and then he will offer him something to drink. It will be poison, the hero will die, and then he, the poor dwarf, who has worked and waited all these years for this day, will have all the treasure, with the magic helmet and the ring. So he sets himself to brewing the poison by the very same fire that the young man is using to forge his sword.
"And now the young man has heated the sword again and shaped it with hammers and cooled it with water, he is sharpening and polishing the blade and fitting it to the hilt, and now at last he holds it in his hand and it is done. He has forged the magic sword and has proved his right; he is the true hero, the hero who knows no fear. And is there any thing that such a hero loves better than a good sword? Yes, to be sure; but to this hero the time for that has not come yet, and he has never felt such delight as fills him now when he looks along the bright, smooth, keen edge of this blade. Oh, the sword was not like this before it was broken. Sometimes people say that beautiful polished things are like mirrors, but this sword is like a flame. It burns and twinkles as he holds it and turns it in his hand. I can scarcely see of what shape it is, for now it shines like a straight beam of light, now, as he twists it, there is a flash in a half circle, like a scymitar, and again the point alone gleams out and flashes, as if it would find its own way to the heart of a foe, with no hand to guide it. He swings the sword above his head, as he did the other that the dwarf made for him, and strikes it upon the anvil. And this time the anvil falls in two as if it were made of paper, and the sword glitters and shines and shimmers in the joy of its magic sharpness and strength.
"Now that the sword is ready, the dwarf leads the young man away through the woods, a long journey, to a place where he has never been before, to find the dragon. You see that deep, dark hole under the sticks; that is the dragon's cave in the side of the mountain. Just a little light shines at the very bottom of it, where the dragon is resting and breathing out fire. 'There is his hole,' says the dwarf; 'just wait here till he comes out and then kill him, Look out for his teeth or he will catch you and eat you; be careful about his breath, for it is fiery and poisonous; beware of his tail, for he may wind it around you and crush you.'
"'I do not care for his teeth or his breath or his tail,' says the young man; 'I only want to find his heart. Leave me here, and never let me see you again.'
"The dwarf goes away and the young man sits down on the grass to wait for the dragon. You see, since he knows nothing at all about fear it does not seem to him such a great thing to kill a dragon. He does not care much whether he kills it or not, and he is in no hurry about it. So he sits on the grass and looks at the gray old rocks and the bright young flowers about him, sees the golden sunlight falling in little spots and flecks through the branches, feels the cool, fresh morning air, and hears the soft rustle of the trees and the singing of the birds. Most of all, he listens to the birds that flutter about in the branches above him, as the sparks hover over the fire there, before they fly away up the chimney, and in particular to one bird, right over his head in the tree. It sings so loudly and so clearly that it seems to be talking to him, only, of course, he cannot understand what it says. He has wished for a long time that he might have some better company than the ugly dwarf, and he thinks now that he should like to talk with the bird.
"If he cannot understand the bird, perhaps the next best thing would be to make the bird understand him, so he makes a pipe out of a reed and tries to play upon it something like the bird's song. I don't know what he thinks he is saying to the bird with his reed, and he seems not much pleased with it himself, for he throws it away and blows a ringing, echoing blast on his horn instead. And now he gets an answer, for this time he has awakened the dragon, and it comes out of its cave to see what is making so much noise so early in the morning.
"Oh, but it is an ugly-looking monster! It is something like a snake, but more like a giant lizard. It has scales all over its body and it has a long, shiny tail. It walks clumsily, because its legs are too small for it, and writhes and wriggles itself along, raising its head now and then to look about, and breathing out red fire and black smoke like a blast from a furnace. When its poisonous breath has blown this smoke away for an instant, it shows two rows of teeth like knives and a long forked tongue like a snake's, and its jaws are opened wide enough to take the young man into them and bite him into a dozen pieces at one snap. Surely if he is ever to learn what fear is now is his chance.
"He sees all this just as plainly as I see it here in the fire; but do you think he is afraid? Why, he simply laughs at the monster. 'A pleasant-looking fellow you are,' he says; 'can you teach me what fear is? If you cannot, I shall prick you with my sword to make you think about it.'
"Now, this dragon can talk just as well as it could when it was a giant, so it begins to get angry and tells the impudent young man to come on and see what he can do with his little tailor's needle of a sword. He does not have to be asked twice, and in a minute there is just as lively a fight as you ever saw. The dragon tries to breathe fire upon the hero and scorch him up to a black cinder, but he does not want to be a cinder and he runs around to the dragon's side. Then the dragon tries to catch him with its long slimy tail, so that it may crush him to a jelly, but he does not want to be a jelly either, so as soon as the tail comes near enough he gives it a terrible wound with his sword, and then runs back in front of the dragon. The monster gives a dreadful roar as it feels the wound, and raises its head and breast high up in the air, striking at the hero with its long, sharp claws and trying to throw the whole weight of its body upon him. This is just what he has been watching for, and as the dragon lifts itself before him he drives his sword clear through its heart.
"Then he springs lightly away again, as the dragon, with another horrible bellow, falls down and rolls over upon its side. 'It is the curse of the ring that has killed me,' says the dragon, as it dies; 'my treasure is there in the cave; you can take it now, bold boy, but the curse of the ring will bring death to you, as it has brought it to me.'
"So the dragon lies dead. The young hero seizes the hilt of the sword to draw it from the dragon's body, and as he pulls it out the blood from the wound spurts upon his hand. It burns as if it were the fuel of the creature's fiery breath. As he feels its heat he puts his fingers into his mouth, and the instant that he tastes the blood the most wonderful thing of all happens to him. He understands the songs of the birds. The one that he tried to talk with before sings to him again, and now he knows every word. It tells him that in the cave are gold and jewels untold, that with the magic helmet he can do wonderful things, and that with the magic ring he can rule the world. He thanks the bird for telling him such good things, and goes to find the helmet and the ring. In a minute he comes back with them; he does not want the rest of the treasure, for he knows nothing about gold and cares nothing about it.
"Now the bird sings to him again. 'Beware of the dwarf,' it says, 'he means to do you harm. But when he speaks to you the blood of the dragon which you have tasted will help you to understand the meaning that is in his heart instead of the words that he says.'
"So the dwarf comes back, with a drinking-horn in which he has poured the poison, and he offers it to the hero to drink. But with all the friendly words that he tries to speak, he can hide nothing from the young man, who reads his heart and knows that he has kept him and fed him all these years only that he might kill the dragon, and that now he means to poison him and get the gold for himself. There is only one thing to be done with such wickedness as this. He raises his sword and with one blow strikes the dwarf dead.
"You can guess how the bird is delighted at this. It sings to him again: 'I know where you could find the loveliest woman in the world. There is fire burning all around her, and if you could only pass through that you could win her for your wife.'
"'But could I pass through the fire?' he asks.
"'Only the hero who knows no fear can do that,' sings the bird.
"'Very well, then, I know no fear,' he answers; 'the dragon could not teach it to me; lead me to this woman; perhaps I may learn it from her.'
"The bird flutters down a little from the tree and then flies away. Did you see the big, bright spark that flew up the chimney?
"Away runs the hero too, following the bird. It is a long journey, through the forest and over the rocks and the mountains, but he is young and eager, and his light heart makes the way almost as easy for him as it is for the bird. Yet the bird is the faster, and by and by it flies so far ahead that he cannot see it at all, and then his way is barred by a mighty form that stands before him. It is the Father of the Gods. The young man does not know what a terrible person he has met, though it is fair to say that if he did know he would not care, and he asks him if he knows where he may find the beautiful woman with the fire all about her.
"The Father of the Gods asks him in turn how he heard of this woman, what taught him to understand the song of the bird, who forged the sword with which he killed the dragon. All these things he answers, and the Father of the Gods is sure that the hero who knows no fear has come at last. Yet one test remains for him. 'There is the place you seek,' he says, as he points to the mountain-top, where the bright flames are whirling and dancing and leaping up into the very sky, 'there is your way, yet not another step upon it shall you go.' and he stretches his spear across the path to keep the young man back.
"Ah, once before that spear was raised against this magic sword. It was a mighty arm that swung the sword then, the arm of the best of heroes living, but the hero had done a wrong, he had helped to break a promise, and he who breaks promises can never break the spears of the gods. His arm had not the young strength of that which masters the sword to-day. Fierce and brave and noble was he, yet he had seen many sorrows, and he knew what fear was; the glad, free hope of the new hero was not his. The sword then was true of temper, bright and sharp, but the heat and the light of the fire of a new manhood had not been forged into it then, and it was not aflame with the glory of youth and the promise of love. And so, with a sweep and a flash as of lightning, the magic sword cuts through the spear that no other sword ever dared even strike, and as the fragments fall upon the ground, the mountain shakes and shudders, and the thunder rolls and rumbles about its top. The young man is again upon his way. Half sadly and half gladly, the Father of the Gods looks after him. He has come and has passed, the hero who knows no fear; he has not even feared the spear that ruled the world, and now that spear is broken. The time of the gods is near.
"Again I see the whole fire streaming up fiercely and joyously, as it did when the Father of the Gods kissed his daughter to sleep. The winds are still hushed around the mountain top, the flowers in the grass and on the rock still droop with folded petals, and the horse still sleeps upon the ground, for there, in the midst of the fire, on the bank of moss still lies the Daughter of the God, her form covered with her shield, and her face hidden by her closed helmet. Through all these years nothing has changed or stirred in this magic circle except the changing, stirring, restless, watchful fire that rings it around. Now, the time for life has come again. Up from the mountain side comes a ringing horn note, and in a moment the hero strides through the flames that dart and flicker and lick at him, but cannot harm him, and stands in the magic circle gazing in wonder upon its strange sleep.
"'Who is that,' he thinks, 'covered with the shield? It must be a knight, but is it not hard for him to lie there all dressed in armor?' He gently takes off the helmet and starts back in surprise as he sees the lovely face and the soft spun gold that falls out upon the moss as he lifts the helmet away. Now he raises the shield and tries to open the armor in front, that the knight may breathe more freely. He cannot unfasten it, and at last he cuts it with his sword, and then he starts again as he sees the light, snowy folds of the garment underneath. This can be no knight, this is a woman. What has he done? What shall he do? He stands and looks at her; he has never seen anything half so beautiful, and as he looks he trembles; he fears to wake her and he fears to leave her asleep. Yes, the hero who knew no fear trembles. He has learned to fear from this woman. Not by anything that she has done has she taught him, for she still sleeps. It is only because she is a woman that he fears. He is no less a hero for that. A man who lived long and never feared at all would be no hero. The time has come to him, as it must come to every man, when it is braver to fear.
"Yet, though he fears, he does not hesitate. He does just the only thing that he possibly could do. He kneels beside her and kisses her lips. Then she awakes. She opens those eyes that are blue with the depth of the sea and the light of the sky. She gazes around her at the rocks, at the trees, at the sunlight, at her hero, and her face is filled with joy. And what a face it is! No longer as it was before. At her father's kiss the goddess slept; her hero's kiss awoke the woman. Her face is as clear, as pure, and as radiant as before, but soft and gracious and gentle; her eyes are as full of light as they were, but there is tenderness in them too; her lips are as calm and beautiful, but they are all sweetness; what was still and stern and placid is full of sympathy, kind, and loving.
"The flowers lift up their heads and open to look at her; the horse neighs to say that he is awake again and knows her; the little winds come back and murmur softly at first among the leaves; then they get bolder and kiss her cheek and lift her hair and shake it out to the light, and whisper to her hero and ask him if he saw any gold like that in the dragon's cave. He has never seen any woman before, yet he knows that in all the world there cannot be another such as this. She has seen many heroes, yet this is he for whom she has waited so long. Each knows all the depth of the other's thoughts, and so they stand and gaze each into the other's eyes and into the other's heart."
"And is that all?" said the child. "It ends just like 'The Sleeping Beauty,' doesn't it?"
"No; just here it is like 'The Sleeping Beauty,' but we shall see more some other time. This is the end for the night."
THE END OF THE RING
The fire has always fascinated and charmed me. When I was a child myself I used to watch it till my eyes ached, and my habit of throwing sticks and paper into it to see them burn was a terror to all my aunts. A bonfire was a delicious joy, and fireworks, especially if I could set them off myself, were the summit of happiness. Even now, whenever I see a house on fire I am afraid my pleasure in watching it is much greater than my sorrow for the people who are losing their property or their home. I do not want houses to burn, but if they must burn I want to see them. As for the fire on the hearth, that is my counsellor and friend. When we are alone together I sit and gaze into it, and it tells me of old, happy times, of other friends who are far away now, and of the pleasant nights we had together. It speaks to me of old hopes, it is glad with me in their fulfilment or it cheers me in their loss. It talks of bright, new hopes, and tells me that even if all else fails, it will still be true to me and will try, if I will come back to it, to cheer and help me again as it cheers and helps me now.
As I sat in this way with the fire, the little girl came and took a low stool beside me. She looked into the fire too, laying her cheek upon my hand, which rested on the arm of the chair. She does not care for our talks about other hearth fires that long ago went out, so we had to do something else to entertain her. "Did you want to know more about the Daughter of the God and the Hero who knew no fear?" I said. "Well, I can see them both now, just where we saw them last on the mountain top, with the fire burning around them as it did before, but not so high and fierce as before, because it is not needed for a guard so much as it was.
"The Daughter of the God is telling her hero that he ought to go to seek more adventures. Perhaps he may find other things for his magic sword to kill besides dragons and wicked dwarfs, and the more such things he does the better she will love him when he comes back. Oh, she knows all about heroes and what they ought to do. He does not like to leave her at all, but if he knows that she really wants him to seek adventures, you may be sure he will seek them. Before he goes, he gives her the ring that he got from the dragon's cave, with the curse upon it, but they are not the sort of man and woman to trouble themselves about curses. In return she gives him her horse and her shield, not that he will need it much against his enemies, with that magic sword, and besides she knows how to cast a spell upon him so that he cannot be wounded in battle; but the shield may keep off the rain, if he has to sleep out of doors. So he goes away down the mountain and she waits for him to come back.
"Now all the fire changes to a shining river. It is the same river where the treasure was once kept by the nymphs, only now we are above it instead of under it. On the bank is the hall of a king and I see the king himself sitting on his throne, with his sister, a beautiful princess, beside him. With them too is their half-brother. He is a strange fellow and you ought to know him. His father is the dwarf who stole the treasure, and his father has told him all about it many times and has taught him to hope that some time he may get it again, so that they two may divide all the riches between them, and with the ring and the helmet may rule the world. He is just as wicked as his father, all he cares for in the world is to get that treasure, and you may be sure that he will try to get it in every way that he can find, good or bad.
"He is trying at this very moment, and in rather a strange way, you may think at first. He is telling the king that he ought to have a wife, and that his sister ought to have a husband. The king asks, just as everybody always asks when he is told that, 'Whom do you want me to have?'
"'The most beautiful and the most royal of all women,' says the half- brother, 'lives upon a rock with fire all around it for a guard, and whoever shall break through the fire and come to her shall win her for his wife.'
"This does not encourage the king at all. He never walked through a fire or did anything of the sort, and he does not even care to try. You see the difference between a king and a hero. But the half-brother says that he knows of a hero who would be glad to go through the fire and get this woman for the king, if only he might have the king's sister for himself. The princess is not displeased at all at the notion of a husband who is so brave and can do such wonderful things, but she fears that such a hero must long ago have seen and loved some woman more beautiful than she, and that he will not care for her at all. But the half-brother answers: 'There is a magic drink which you shall give him, and it will make him forget any other woman he has ever seen, no matter who she is.'
"The half-brother knows very well, I believe, that the hero already loves the Daughter of the God, and it is she that he means to make him forget before he sends him to get her for the king. Of course the king and his sister know nothing about this, or they would have nothing to do with such a wicked plan, for they are reasonably good people. The half-brother says that the hero is going about the world to find adventures and is sure to come here before long, and true enough, even while he is speaking they see him coming with his horse in a little boat on the river. They call to him to come on shore, and they welcome him as if they were never so glad to see anybody before in their lives.
"Perhaps, indeed, they never were so glad to see anybody, and I am sure the princess never was. A form so full of life and action and vigor, or a face so full of freedom and courage and cheer surely she has never seen. The fine frankness of his ways and the young grace of his motion are new to her too, and that she can hope to win him at once for herself is almost more than she can believe. She would not think of such a thing at all if she knew how little he thought or cared about her. He is charming and polite enough, of course, but as often as he thinks of her or of anything else once he thinks of the Daughter of the God twice, and when his thoughts are not especially drawn away he thinks of her all the time. But now the princess offers him a horn filled with the magic drink that is to make him forget. Oh, if only that clever little bird were here now to warn him, as it did when the dwarf mixed the drink for him, how much trouble might be saved! But, you know, he never thinks of danger, so he drinks, and then he thinks of nothing at all—nothing at all but the princess.