Hans and the Wonderful Flower
A LONG way from here, in Germany, flows a wonderful river called the Rhine. The waters are so clear and pure that one can almost see the bottom, where the mermaids live in their palaces of coral and shell. The Rhine hurries on through valleys sweet with flowers, and past mountains and hills. The fields are full of fairies, and the hills swarm with little people, dwarfs, and pixies, and elves, and gnomes. Not every one may see the fairies and the little men, but they often play the queerest tricks upon the people they do not like, and sometimes they are good and kind.
This is the story of how they once helped a little boy.
It was little Hans, the shepherd boy, who tended the king's sheep. Hans lived with his mother in a wee house, with a tiny garden about it—and all they owned in the world was the white goat that gave them milk to drink. Every day Hans drove the king's herds to the Rhine valley, and watched them, and tended the lambs, and when night came he drove them back to the fold again. Then, do you think he played? No, indeed. All day the good mother had been busy spinning, and cooking, and sweeping; so Hans, when his day's work was done, cut the wood, and milked the white goat, and weeded the garden. They were busy and happy—Hans and his mother—but they were also very poor.
And one day, when it was winter, the good mother grew so ill she could not lift her head up from the pillow.
There was an old, old woman who came to take care of her, and she shook her head when she saw her. "There is only one thing that will cure her," she said; "the little brown herb that grows at the top of the mountain—and it is covered with ice and snow."
"But I will find it," cried Hans; "I don't mind the snow." So Hans kissed the good mother, strapped on his snow-shoes, took his stout stick, and started out to find the brown herb. Oh, but it was cold! The wind whistled through the tree-tops and the sleet blew in Hans's face. The drifts of snow were so deep in some places that they nearly covered him—but on he tramped, pushing and poking about with his stick.
"I must find the brown herb," he said over and over to himself.
Up the mountain he climbed to the very top, until he could see the river down below him. The crust on the snow was thick and hard, and his fingers ached, but he pounded with his stick, and stamped. All at once he came upon the most beautiful flower you ever saw, growing up through the snow. It was so white that it sparkled like a hundred snow crystals, and you seemed to be able to look deep down into its very heart. It had the sweetest perfume, like the breath of all the flowers in summer. It seemed to say, "Pick me, pick me, little boy."
Now, Hans loved flowers more than anything. He reached out his hand for this beautiful one, and then he seemed to see, quite plainly, the poor mother, waiting so ill at home. A little voice inside him said: "No, no, Hans; wait until you come back. Find the brown herb first."
So Hans left the beautiful flower and trudged on farther, poking about under the snow. Just as it was nearly dark he found the brown herb, and he put it fast in his pocket. He was hurrying home, down the mountain side, when he remembered the white flower.
"Now I may pick it," he said to himself, but when he went back to the place where the wonderful flower had been it was not there at all. In its place stood a wee little brown dwarf bowing and scraping, and taking off his hat to Hans.
"Don't be afraid," he said to Hans, smiling all over his wrinkled little face. "Come right in."
Then the strangest thing happened. The side of the mountain opened wide like a door, the little dwarf skipped along in front to show the way, and Hans found himself in the most beautiful castle you ever saw. It was all so bright that it dazzled his eyes. From room to room they went, and in every room were piles and piles of precious stones—emeralds, and rubies, and pearls!
"Help yourself, Hans," said the dwarf, as he brought out a stout sack. "Take home as many as you like. A little boy who is as good to his mother as you are deserves a present."
So Hans filled his bag with the most precious of all the stones, and, however many he put in, the dwarf urged him to take more. But at last the sack was full, and suddenly Hans found himself in the snow again, without so much as a crack in the ice to show where the little dwarf had stood.
Hans felt in his pocket. There was the brown herb—safe. The bag of precious stones, which he had slung over his shoulder, was still heavy; so he went home as fast as his snow-shoes would carry him.
"Mother, mother!" he cried, as he ran in and threw his arms about her. "See!" and he emptied the sack upon the floor. "We are not poor any more! And see!" he went on, as he pulled the brown herb from his pocket.
So they brewed the brown herb, and so soon as the good mother tasted it she was quite well again. And the wonderful sack of jewels stayed always full.