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- In Midsummer Days and Other Tales - 2/20 -
"Try and walk a little, darling," said the mother, putting the child down.
But the little foot gave way and the child could not walk a step.
"I am so tired, mammy," she laid, sitting down and beginning to cry.
But the prettiest little flowers, which looked like rose-coloured bells and smelt of sweet almonds, grew all over the spot where she was sitting. She smiled when she saw them, for she had never seen anything half as lovely, and her smile strengthened the heart of the mother so that she could continue her walk with the child in her arms.
Now they had arrived at the first gate. They passed through it and carefully re-fastened the latch.
All of a sudden they heard a noise like a loud neighing; a horse galloped towards them, blocked the path and neighed again; its neighing was answered on the right and the left and from all sides of the wood; the ground trembled, the branches of the trees cracked, and the stones were scattered in all directions by the approaching hoofs. In less than no time the poor, frightened travellers were surrounded on all sides by a herd of savage horses.
The child hid her face on her mother's shoulder, and her little heart ticked with fear like a watch.
"I am so frightened!" she whispered.
"Oh! Father in Heaven, help us!" prayed the mother.
At the same moment a blackbird, sitting on a fir tree, began to sing; the horses scudded away as fast as they could, and there was once more silence in the wood.
They came to the second gate, walked through and re-fastened the latch.
They were on fallow ground now, and the sun scorched them even worse than it had done before. They saw before them rows and rows of dull clods of earth, but in a steep place the clods suddenly began to move, and then they knew that what they had taken for clods of earth were really the backs of a flock of sheep.
Sheep are quite gentle and inoffensive, especially the little lambs, but that is a good deal more than can be said of the ram, who is a savage brute and often takes a delight in attacking those who have never done him any harm. There he was already, jumping over a ditch right into the middle of their path. He lowered his head and walked a few steps backwards.
"I am so frightened, mammy," said the little girl, and her heart began to beat fast.
"Oh! Merciful Father in Heaven, help us!" sighed the mother, with an imploring look upwards.
And high up, in the blue vault of the sky, fluttering its wings like a butterfly, a little lark began to sing. And as it sang the ram disappeared among the grey clods.
They stood before the third gate. They were on a slope now; the ground was swampy and before long they came to a crevice. The hillocks looked like little graves, overgrown with vetch or white cotton-flowers and they had to be careful to avoid sinking into the swamp. Black berries of a poisonous kind grew in abundance everywhere; the little girl wanted to gather them, and because her mother would not permit it, she began to cry, for she did not understand what poisonous meant.
And as they walked on, they noticed a white sheet, which looked as if it had been drawn in and out through the trees; the sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds and a white darkness, which was very went towards them, hoping to find some water in the place whence they came.
On their way they passed a white cottage, behind a green fence with a white gate; the gate stood hospitably open. They entered and found themselves in a garden where peonies and colombines grew. The mother noticed that the curtains in the lower storey were all drawn before the windows, and that all the curtains were white. But one of the attic windows stood open and a white hand appeared above the pots of touch-me-nots. It waved a little white handkerchief, as if it were waving a last farewell to one who was going on a long journey.
They walked as far as the cottage; in the high grass lay a wreath of myrtle and white roses. But it was too big for a bridal wreath.
They went through the front door and the mother called out if anybody were in? As there was no reply they went into the parlour. On the floor, surrounded by a whole forest of flowers, stood a black coffin with silver feet and in the coffin lay a young girl with a bridal crown on her head.
The walls of the room were made of new pinewood and only varnished with oil, so that all the knots were visible. And the knots in the knot-holes looked for all the world like so many eyes.
"Oh! Just look at all the eyes, mammy," exclaimed the little girl.
Yes, there were eyes of every description; big eyes, eloquent eyes, grave eyes; little shining baby eyes, with a lurking smile in the corner; wicked eyes, which showed too much white; frank and candid eyes, which looked one straight into the heart; and, over there, a big, gentle mother's eye, which regarded the dead girl lovingly; and a transparent tear of resin trembled on the lid, and sparkled in the setting sun like a green and red diamond.
"Is she asleep?" asked the child, looking into the face of the dead girl.
"Yes, she is asleep."
"Is she a bride, mammy?"
The mother had recognised her. It was the girl who was to be a bride on Midsummer day, when her sailor lover would return home; but the sailor had written to say that he would not be home until the autumn, and his letter had broken her heart; for she could not bear to wait until the autumn, when the leaves would drop dead from the trees and the winter wind have a rough game with them in the lanes and alleys.
She had heard the song of the dove and taken it to heart.
The young mother left the cottage; now she knew where she would go. She put the heavy basket down outside the gate and took the child into her arms; and so she walked across the meadow which separated her from the shore.
The meadow was a perfect sea of flowers, waving and whispering round her ankles, and the pollen water was calm and blue; and presently it was not water through which they sailed, but the blue blossoms of the flax, which she gathered in her outstretched hands.
And the flowers bent down and rose up again, whispering, lapping against the sides of the boat like little waves. The flax-field before them appeared to be infinite, but presently a white mist enveloped them, and they heard the plashing of real waves, but above the mist they heard a lark singing.
"How does the lark come to sing on the sea?" asked the child.
"The sea is so green that the lark takes it for a meadow," answered the mother.
The mist had dispersed again. The sky was blue and the lark was still singing.
Then they saw, straight before them, in the middle of the sea, a green island with a white, sandy beach, and people, dressed all in pure white, walking hand in hand. The setting sun shone on the golden roof of a colonnade, where white fires burnt in sacred sacrificial vessels; and the green island was spanned by a rainbow, the colour of which was rose-red and sedge-green.
"What is it, mammy?"
The mother could make no reply.
"Is it the Kingdom of Heaven of which the dove sang? What is the Kingdom of Heaven, mammy?"
"A place, darling, where all people love one another," answered the mother, "where there is neither grief nor strife."
"Then let us go there," said the child.
"Yes, we will go," said the tired, forsaken little mother.
THE BIG GRAVEL-SIFTER
An eel-mother and her son were lying at the bottom of the sea, close to the landing-stage, watching a young fisherman getting ready his line.
"Just look at him!" said the eel-mother, "there you have an example of the malice and cunning of the world . ... Watch him! He is holding a whip in his hand; he throws out the whip-lash--there it is! attached to it is a weight which makes it sink--there's the weight! and below the weight is the hook with the worm. Don't take it in your mouth, whatever you do, for if you do, you are caught. As a rule only the silly bass and red-eyes take the bait. There! Now you know all about it."
The forest of seaweed with its shells and snails began to rock; a plashing and drumming could be heard and a huge red whale passed like a flash over their heads; he had a tail-fin like a cork-screw, and that was what he worked with.
"That's a steamer," said the eel-mother; "make room!"
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