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IN ancient times there was a beautifully wooded region in Alutaga (north of Lake Peipus), which was called the Wood of Tontla. But no one dared to enter it, and those who had chanced to approach it related that they had seen an old tumbledown house through the thick trees, surrounded by creatures of human appearance, with which the grass swarmed like an anthill. These forms were ragged and dusky, and looked like gipsies, and there were many old women and half-naked children among them. A peasant who had wandered rather deeper into the wood than usual, as he was returning home one dark night after a carouse, beheld a strange sight. A number of women and children were gathered round a bright fire, and some were sitting on the ground while others danced. An old woman held a broad iron shovel in her hand, and every now and then scattered the red hot cinders over the grass, when the children flew up into the air, fluttering about like owls in the rising smoke, and then sinking p. 238 down again. Then a little old man with a long beard came out of the wood, carrying a sack longer than himself. The women and children shouted out, and ran to meet him, dancing round him, and trying to pull the sack off his back; but the old man shook himself free. After this, a black cat as large as a foal, which had been sitting on the doorstep glaring with fiery eyes, leaped upon the old man’s sack, and then disappeared in the cottage. But as the spectator’s head ached and everything swam before his eyes, his report was not clear, and people could not quite distinguish between the false and the true. It was remarkable that such stories were repeated about the Wood of Tontla from generation to generation, without anybody being able to give a more definite account of it. The King of Sweden more than once ordered the wood to be felled, but the people did not venture to execute his command. One day a rash man struck his axe into a tree, when blood flowed, and a cry was heard as of a man in pain.1 The terrified woodcutter fled, shaking all over with fear; and after this, no command was so stringent p. 239 and no reward great enough, to induce a woodcutter to touch the wood of Tontla. It was also very strange that no paths led either into or out of the wood, and that throughout the year no smoke was seen to rise which might indicate the presence of human dwellings. The wood was not large, and it was surrounded by open fields, so that it lay exposed to the view of all. If living creatures had actually dwelt there from olden times, they could only get in and out of the wood by secret subterranean passages; or else they must fly through the air by night, like witches, when all around were asleep. According to tradition, the latter alternative seemed the most probable. Perhaps we shall learn more about these strange birds if we drive on the carriage of the story a little farther, and rest at the next village.
There was a large village a few versts from the Wood of Tontla, where a peasant who had lately been left a widower had married a young wife, and, as often happens, he brought a regular shrew into the house, so that there was no end to the trouble and quarrelling.
The first wife had left a clever and intelligent p. 240 girl named Elsie,1 who was now seven years old. The wicked stepmother made the poor child’s life more intolerable than hell; she banged and cuffed her from morning to night, and gave her worse food than the dogs. As the woman was mistress in the house, the father could not protect his daughter, and even the smoke of the house was forced to dance to the woman’s tune. Elsie had now endured this miserable life for more than two years, and had shed many tears, when she went out one Sunday with the other village children to pluck berries. They strolled about as children do, till they came accidentally to the borders of the Wood of Tontla, where the grass was quite red with the finest strawberries. The children ate the sweet berries, and gathered as many as they could into their baskets, when all at once one of the older boys recognised the dreaded spot and cried out, “Fly, fly, for we are in the Wood of Tontla!” The wood was more dreaded than thunder and lightning, and the children rushed off as if all the monsters of the wood were close upon their heels. But Elsie, who had gone rather farther than the others, and had found some very p. 241 fine strawberries under the trees, went on plucking them, although she heard the boy shout. She only thought, “The dwellers in the Tontla Wood cannot be worse than my stepmother at home.”
Presently a little black dog with a silver bell hung round its neck ran up to her barking. This brought a little girl dressed in fine silken garments to the spot, who quieted the dog, and said to Elsie, “It is a good thing that you did not run away like the other children. Stay with me for company, and we will play very nice games together, and go to pluck berries every day. My mother will not refuse her consent, if I ask her. Come, and we will go to her at once.” Then the beautiful strange child seized Elsie by the hand, and led her deeper into the wood. The little black dog barked for pleasure now, and jumped upon Elsie and licked her hand as if she were an old acquaintance.
O what wonders and magnificence made Elsie open her eyes! She thought herself in heaven. A beautiful garden lay before her, filled with trees and bushes laden with fruit; birds were sitting on the branches, more brightly coloured than the most brilliant butterflies, and decked with feathers of p. 242 gold and silver. And the birds were not shy, but allowed the children to take them in their hands at pleasure. In the midst of the garden stood the dwelling-house, built of glass and precious stones, so that the roof and walls shone like the sun. A lady clad in beautiful robes sat on a bench before the door, and asked her daughter, “Who is this guest you have brought with you?” Her daughter answered, “I found her alone in the wood, and brought her with me for company. Won’t you allow her to stay here?” The mother smiled, but did not speak, and scanned Elsie sharply from head to foot. Then she told Elsie to come nearer, patted her cheek, and asked in a friendly way where she lived, whether her parents were still alive, and if she would like to stay here. Elsie kissed the lady’s hand and fell down and embraced her knees, and then answered, weeping, “My mother has long been at rest under the turf—
|“My mother was borne to the grave,|
And none left to comfort or save.
“It is true that my father still lives, but this is small comfort to me when my stepmother hates me, and beats me unmercifully every day. I cannot p. 243 do anything to please her. O my dearest lady, let me stay here! Let me mind the flacks, or set me to any other work and I will do anything, and will be always obedient to you, but don’t send me back to my stepmother. She would beat me almost to death, because I did not go back with the other village children.” The lady smiled, and answered, “We will see what we can do for you.” Then she rose from the bench and went into the house. Meantime the daughter said to Elsie, “Take comfort, for my mother is friendly to you. I can see in her face that she will consent to our wishes as soon as she has had time to think over the matter.” She then followed her mother into the house, leaving Elsie waiting outside. Elsie’s heart palpitated with hope and fear, and she waited anxiously for the decision which was to be announced to her.
After a time the daughter came out again with a box of toys in her hand, and said, “My mother says we are to play together while she considers what is to be done about you. I hope you will stay here, for I don’t want to let you leave me again. Have you been for a row on the lake?” Elsie stared, and asked, “On the lake! What is p. 244 that? I never heard anything about it.” “You’ll see presently,” said the young lady, taking off the lid of the box. lt contained a leaf of lady’s-smock, a mussel-shell, and two fish-bones. There were a few drops of water glittering on the leaf, which the girl threw on the grass. Immediately the grass, the garden, and everything else vanished, as if they had sunk in the ground, and water spread around to the horizon in every direction. Only a small patch remained dry under the feet of the children. Then the young lady set the shell in the water, and took the fish-bones in her hand. The shell began to expand, until it became a pretty boat, in which a dozen children or more could easily have found room. The two seated themselves in it, Elsie not without hesitation, but her companion only laughed, and the fish-bones turned to oars in her hands. The children were rocked by the waves as if they were in a cradle, and presently other boats came in sight, and the people in them were laughing and singing. “We should sing back to them,” said the young lady; but Elsie did not know how to sing; so she herself began to sing very sweetly. Elsie could not understand much of what the others sang, but p. 245 she heard the word Kiisike1 repeated several times, and asked what it meant, and her companion answered, “That is my name.” They floated thus together for a long time, till they heard a voice crying, “Come home, children, for it is nearly evening.” Kiisike took the box out of her pocket, and dipped the leaf in the water, so that a few drops lay upon it. Instantly they found themselves in the garden near the beautiful house: everything looked as firm and solid as before, and no water was to be seen anywhere. The shell and fishbones were put back into the box with the leaf, and the children went home.
Here they saw four-and-twenty ladies sitting round a dinner-table, all splendidly dressed as if for a wedding. The lady of the house sat at the head of the table in a golden chair.
Elsie’s eyes did not know how to admire sufficiently all the splendour which surrounded her. Thirteen gold and silver dishes stood upon the table, but one of these was taken up and carried away without the cover having been removed. Elsie ate of the dainty dishes, which were nicer than cakes, and again she thought she must be in p. 246 heaven, for she could not imagine anything like this on earth.
During dinner, conversation was carried on in low tones, but in a foreign language of which Elsie did not understand a word.1 At length the lady spoke to a maid who stood behind her chair. The latter went out, and soon returned accompanied by a little old man, whose beard was longer than himself.2 The old man made a bow, and stood waiting at the door. The lady pointed to Elsie, and said, “Look at this little peasant girl; I am going to adopt her as my foster-child. Make me an image of her, which we can send to the village to-morrow in her stead.” The old man looked at Elsie sharply, as if to take her measure, bowed to the lady again, and left the room. After dinner the lady said kindly to Elsie, “Kiisike has asked me to keep you here as a companion for her, and you said yourself that you would like to stay with us. p. 247 Is this really so?” Elsie fell on her knees, and kissed the hands and feet of the lady in gratitude for her deliverance from her cruel stepmother. But the lady raised her from the ground, stroked her head and her tearful cheeks, and said, “If you are always a good and diligent child, it shall fare well with you. I will take care of you, and you shall be carefully instructed in everything useful till you are grown up, and are able to shift for yourself. My governess, who teaches Kiisike, shall teach you all kinds of fine work, and other things besides.”
After a time the old man came back with a long trough on his shoulder filled with clay, and a covered basket in his left hand. He set them down on the ground, and took a piece of clay, which he moulded into a doll. The body was hollow, and he put three salt herrings and a bit of bread into it. Then he made a hole in the breast of the doll, took a brack snake a yard long from the basket, and made it creep through. The snake hissed and lashed its tail as if it resisted, but he forced it through the hole. After the lady had carefully inspected the doll on all sides, the old man said, “We want nothing more p. 248 now but a drop of the peasant girl’s blood.” Elsie turned pale with terror when she heard this, for she thought that her soul was sold to the Evil One. But the lady comforted her and said, “Fear nothing. We don’t want your blood for any evil purpose, but for a good end, and for your future happiness.” Then she took a small gold needle, and pricked Elsie’s arm, after which she gave the needle to the old man, who thrust it into the heart of the doll. Then he put the doll into the basket to grow, and promised to show the lady the result of his work next morning. Then they retired to rest, and a chambermaid showed Elsie to a room where she found a soft bed ready for her. When she opened her eyes next morning in the silken bed with soft pillows, she found herself wearing a shift of fine linen, and she saw rich garments lying on a chair near the bed. Then a girl came into the room, and told Elsie to wash herself and comb her hair, after which she dressed her from head to foot in the fine new clothes, like the proudest Saxon child.1 Nothing delighted Elsie so much as the p. 249 shoes,1 for until now she had always gone barefoot. Elsie thought that no king’s daughter could possess the like. She was so delighted with the shoes that she had no time to admire the rest of her outfit, although everything was beautiful. The poor clothes which she had worn had been removed during the night, for a purpose which she was afterwards to discover. They were put on the doll, which was to be sent to the village in her place. The doll had grown in its case during the night, and had now become a perfect image of Elsie, and ran about like a creature which God had made. Elsie was startled when she saw the doll which looked exactly like what she herself had been yesterday. When the lady saw Elsie’s alarm, she said, “Don’t be afraid, child. This clay image cannot do you any harm, and we will send it to your stepmother, for her to beat. She may beat it as much as she likes, for the image is as hard as stone, and cannot feel pain. But if the wicked woman does not alter her conduct, your image will some day punish her as she deserves.”
After this, Elsie lived as happily as any spoiled Saxon child which is rocked in a golden cradle. She had neither sorrow nor weariness to suffer; her lessons became easier and easier every day, and her hard life in the village seemed now no more than a bad dream. But the more happiness she found in this new life, the more wonderful everything appeared to her. It could not be natural, and some mysterious power must rule over everything here. A rock of granite stood in the enclosure about twenty paces from the house. When meal-time approached, the old man with the long beard went to the rock, drew a silver wand from his bosom, and struck the rock three times, when it gave out a clear sound. Then a large golden cock sprang out, and perched upon the rock; and as often as he clapped his wings and crowed, something came out of the rock. First came a long table with covers ready laid for all the company, and the table moved into the house of itself, as if on the wings of the wind. When the cock crowed a second time, chairs went after the table, followed by one dish after another. Everything leaped out of the rock, and flew like the wind to the table. It was the same with p. 251 bottles of mead and apples and pears; everything seemed alive, so that no one needed to fetch and carry anything. When everybody had eaten enough, the old man knocked on the rock a second time with his silver wand, and then the golden cock crowed, and the bottles, dishes, plates, chairs, and table went back into the rock. But when the thirteenth dish came, from which nothing was eaten, a great black cat ran after it, and sat on the rock with the cock, till the old man carried them away. He took the dish in his hand, the cat on his arm, and the golden cock on his shoulder, and disappeared with them under the rock. Not only food and drink, but everything else required for the household, and even clothes, came out of the rock upon the crowing of the cock. Although but little conversation was carried on at table, and even that in a foreign language, the lady and the governess talked and sang a great deal in the house and garden. In time Elsie also learned to understand almost everything, but years elapsed before she could attempt to speak the strange language herself. One day Elsie asked Kiisike why the thirteenth dish came table every day, although nobody ate anything to from it; but Kiisike could not tell her. However, p. 252 she must have asked her mother, who sent for Elsie a few days afterwards, and talked to her very seriously. “Do not vex your soul with useless curiosity. You would like to know why we never eat from the thirteenth dish? Mark well, dear child; this is the dish of hidden blessing. We dare not touch it, or our happy life would come to an end. It would be much better, too, for men in this world if they did not grasp avariciously after all things without returning anything in gratitude to the Heavenly Dispenser. Avarice is the worst fault of mankind.”1
The years flew by with arrow-like swiftness, and Elsie had now become a blooming maiden, and had learned many things which would never have become known to her during her whole life, if she had lived in the village. But Kiisike remained the same little child as on the day when she first met Elsie in the wood. The governess who lived p. 253 in the house with the lady instructed Kiisike and Elsie for some hours daily in reading and writing, and in all kinds of fine work. Elsie learned everything easily, but Kiisike had more taste for childish games than for her lessons. When the whim took her, she threw her work away, caught up her little box, and ran out of doors to play on the lake, and nobody scolded her. Sometimes she said to Elsie, “It’s a pity you’ve grown so big: you can’t play with me any longer.”
Nine years passed in this way, and one evening the lady sent for Elsie to come to her room. This surprised Elsie, for the lady had never sent for her before; and her heart beat almost to bursting. When Elsie entered, she saw that the lady’s cheeks were red, and her eyes were filled with tears, which she hastily wiped away as if to hide them. “My dear child,” said the lady, “the time has come when we must part.” “Part!” exclaimed Elsie, throwing herself at the lady’s feet. “No, dear lady, we must never part till death shall separate us. I have always behaved well; don’t drive me from you.” But the lady said soothingly, “Calm yourself, child. You do not yet know how much it will increase your happiness. You are now grown up, and I p. 254 must not keep you here any longer in confinement. You must go back among mankind, where happiness awaits you.” Elsie still besought her, “Dear lady, don’t send me away; I wish for no other happiness than to live and die with you. Let me be your chambermaid, or give me any other work to do that you like, only don’t send me out into the wide world again. It would have been better for you to have left me with my stepmother in the village than for me to have spent so many years in heaven only to be thrust out again into hell.” “Be still, dear child,” said the lady. “You cannot understand what it is my duty to do for your good, hard as it is for me also. But everything must be done as I direct. You are a child of mortal man,1 and your years must come at length to an end, and therefore you cannot remain here any longer. I myself and those around me possess human forms, but we are not human beings like you, but beings of a higher order, whom you cannot comprehend. You will find a beloved husband p. 255 far away from here, who is destined for you, and you will live happily with him, until your days draw to a close. It is not easy for me to part with you, but so it must be, and therefore you must also submit quietly.” Then she passed her golden comb through Elsie’s hair and told her to go to bed. But how should poor Elsie sleep this unhappy night? Her life seemed like a dark starless night-sky.
We will leave Elsie in her trouble, and go to the village to see what is taking place at her father’s house, to which the clay image was sent for the stepmother to beat in Elsie’s stead. It is well known that a wicked woman does not improve with age. It sometimes happens that a wild youth becomes a quiet lamb in his old age; but if a girl whose heart is bad assumes the matron’s cap, she becomes like a raging wolf in her old days. The stepmother tortured the clay image like a firebrand from hell both day and night, but she could not hurt the impassive creature, whose body was impervious to pain. If the husband endeavoured to protect his child, she beat him too, as a reward for his attempts at peacemaking. One day the stepmother had again p. 256 beaten her clay daughter terribly, and threatened to kill her. In her fury she seized the clay image by the throat with both hands, and was going to strangle it, when a black snake glided hissing from the child’s mouth and bit the stepmother in the tongue, so that she fell dead without uttering a sound. When the husband returned home in the evening, he found the dead and swollen body of his wife lying on the floor, but his daughter was nowhere to be found. He cried out, and some of the villagers assembled. They had heard a great noise in the house about noon, but as this was an almost daily occurrence, no one had gone in. In the afternoon all was quiet, but no one had seen the daughter. The body of the dead woman was washed and shrouded, and peas were boiled in salt for those who should watch the dead during the night.1 The weary man went to his room to rest, and sincerely thanked his stars that he was rid of this firebrand from hell. He found three salt herrings and a piece of bread on the table, which he ate, and then went to bed. Next morning he was found dead in bed, with his body swollen up like that of the woman. A few days p. 257 afterwards they were carried to the grave, where they could do each other no more harm. The peasants troubled themselves no further concerning the vanished daughter.
Elsie did not close her eyes all night. She wept and lamented the necessity of parting with her happiness so soon and so unexpectedly. In the morning the lady placed a gold seal-ring on Elsie’s finger, and hung a small golden casket round her neck. Then she called the old man, pointed to Elsie with her hand, and took leave of her in the same gesture. Elsie was just going to thank her for her kindness, when the old man touched her head gently three times with his silver wand. Elsie felt immediately that she was changed into a bird. Her arms became wings, and her legs became eagle’s legs with long claws, and her nose became a curved beak, while feathers covered her whole body. Then she rose up suddenly into the air, and soared away below the clouds like an eagle hatched from the egg. She flew southwards thus for several days, and would gladly have rested sometimes when her wings grew weary, but she felt no hunger. It came to pass one day that she was flying above a low wood where dogs were p. 258 barking, which could not harm the bird, for they had no wings. All at once she felt her feathers pierced through with a sharp arrow, and she fell to the ground and fainted with terror.
When Elsie awoke from her swoon and opened her eyes wide, she found herself lying under a bush in her human shape. How she came there, and all the other strange events which had happened to her, lay behind her like a dream. Presently a handsome young prince rode up, sprang from his horse, and gave his hand kindly to Elsie, saying, “By good fortune I rode here this morning. I have dreamed, dear lady, every night for the last half-year that I should find you here in the wood. Although I have ridden this way to no purpose more than a hundred times, my longing and my hopes were not extinguished. I shot a great eagle to-day, which must have fallen here, and I went to seek the game, and instead of the eagle I found—you!” Then he helped Elsie to mount the horse, and rode with her to the town, where the old king gave her a friendly reception. A few days afterwards they prepared a splendid wedding; and on the wedding morning fifty loads of treasure arrived, which had been sent by Elsie’s dear foster-mother. p. 259 After the old king’s death, Elsie became queen, and in her old age she herself related the adventures of her youth. But since that time no one has ever seen or heard any more of the Wood of Tontla.
The King of the Misty Hill (Kreutzwald) is a somewhat similar, but very inferior story. A girl who is out in a wood all night sees a fire on a hill, and finds an old man standing by it. He had a long grey beard, and only one eye, and wore an iron helmet. He threw it on the ground, when two girls appeared, and the village child stayed with them till morning, when a young woman gave her a brooch which would enable her to return to the Misty Hill whenever she pleased. On reaching home, she found she had been absent seven years. On the first opportunity she returned to the hill by night, and her friend who had given her the brooch told her that the old man was the King of the Misty Hill, and the consort of the Meadow Queen, and she was their daughter. The girl continued her nightly visits to the Misty Hill; but after her marriage, p. 260 her husband discovered her disappearance, and taking her for a were-wolf, tried to burn her; but the King of the Misty Hill carried her away to his dwelling uninjured.
1 Talking trees are common in Esthonian tales; I do not remember another instance of bleeding trees.
1 It must be remembered that the dominant race in Esthonia is German, and that the gentry, even if not fairies, would be expected to speak a language unintelligible to the people. It is significant that the very word for lady in Esthonian is proua, a corruption of Frau. Everything particularly fine is called “Saxon.”
2 In some countries the beard is regarded as a symbol of power, as well as of age and wisdom. Compare the account of Schaibar in the story of Prince Ahmed (Thousand and One Nights).
1 The Germans are generally represented in Esthonian tales as rich, and sometimes as very haughty people.
1 Compare Goody Two-Shoes; but this is a modern tale, believed to have been written by Goldsmith.
1 There is a story (French, I think) of a king who overheard a poor man and his wife abusing Adam and Eve for their poverty. The king took them home, and entertained them. They had a grand feast of many covers every day, but there was always one, the largest of all, which they were forbidden to open. The wife soon persuaded her husband to do so, when a mouse ran out, and the king turned them out of doors.
1 This expression shows the late date of the present story, for no people uninfluenced by the modern Christian notion that all reasoning beings except men must be necessarily angels or devils, and therefore immortal, represent superhuman beings as immortal, with the exception of the gods, and not always even these.
1 See page 157.