T HERE was once a queer little town in a country which has now been almost forgotten. It lay just at the edge of an immense forest, and near green fields and pleasant hillsides; and if you had walked through the town you might have thought that the houses looked very much like those in other towns, and the people living in them like the people in all the rest of the world. But you would have been mistaken. In this town there was something sadly different from any other place you could find.
The difference was that no one in the town was happy, or ever smiled. At a little distance the people looked like other people, except that they had grown very thin from never laughing; but when you came closer you saw that their faces were all exceedingly long, and did not have any of the wrinkles that are made by smiling, but only those that come from worries and frowns. And at certain times of the day, such as the hour when school was dismissed and the children came out on the street, there was silence, when in other places the air was full of shouting and laughter.
The reason for all this was strange as the thing itself. There had once been in this town a wise old woman, who, besides knowing how to take care of her garden and knit stockings, had known how to care for all the sick people in the town, and make clothes for all the poor people, and cookies for all the children, and, indeed, had known how to do almost everything that could be asked. Greatest of all, the wise old woman had learned how to be happy. She said so herself, and no one had the least doubt of it. All the other people of the town wanted to learn the wonderful secret; but whenever they would come to her and say, "Where do you get your happiness?" she would always answer:
"Why, out of the Bag of Smiles, to be sure."
But as no one had ever seen the Bag of Smiles, no one knew what it was. The people hoped that, as the wise woman grew older, she would perhaps give it to some of her friends, or perhaps leave it to them when she died, if not before. But instead of dying, the old woman had simply disappeared. One sad day she had been seen walking into the great forest, as she often did to gather herbs, and she had never returned. Her little cottage was found in perfect order, left as if she might have been going away on a journey, and for a long time it was supposed that she would soon come back. But she never did.
Worst of all, they could find no trace of her secret, or of the Bag of Smiles. They hunted in her little house, but could find nothing in her drawers but what they had often seen there,—stockings that she had knitted for the poor children, neat little packages of lavender and dried sweet-clover, and herbs with which she had made medicine for the sick. After this the town grew sadder and sadder. Every one thought, since the old woman had gone, that the secret of being happy must now be discovered over again; and the richest man in the town offered a large reward to whoever would find the Bag of Smiles. No one dared to go far into the forest to look for it, where it might be that the old woman had taken it or left it hiding, for the forest was so deep and dark that it was thought to be unsafe for travelers. But almost every one hunted for the Bag in one way or another. The farmers stopped caring for their fields, so that they might have more time for the search, and there came very near being a famine. Many of the children gave up their playing and their picnics for the same reason, and it was hard to find any one who could do anything for you, because everybody wanted all his time to himself in order to find the secret.
But, instead of finding it, they all grew more and more unhappy. It was then that their faces began to grow long, and they began to forget how to smile even as much as they had done before. So people no longer came to the town, when they heard what an unhappy place it was, and things went on in the worst possible way.
Now there was a little boy named Hilary, who lived alone with his grandfather in one of the houses nearest the forest. It happened that Hilary was not quite so sad as most of the people about him, because his grandfather was old and lame, and Hilary had to take care of him and run errands for him so much that he did not have much time to think about the things that every one else was so anxious about. But of course he had often heard the story of the wise old woman and the lost Bag, and wondered if the time would ever come when he should be able to hunt for it. It seemed to him that it would be best to go into the forest, no matter how dark and dangerous it was, and try to find the old woman herself; for surely she must be in there, if she had never come out.
But Hilary never had any time to himself until his grandfather died. Then he was left alone, and at first he felt sad enough. He knew nothing of the world, except the sober people in the town, and the trees at the edge of the forest, with their whispering leaves and the little birds that sang in the branches, and of the two he preferred the trees. Then there came to him the thought that now he was free to hunt for the wise old woman, and learn the secret of the Bag of Smiles. If he could only find it, and share it with all the people in the town, what a different town it would be!
So, without waiting for the neighbors who were coming to take him to live with them, Hilary went softly about his grandfather's house, and gathered up in a handkerchief all the things that he wanted to take with him. There were nuts and buns for his luncheon; a compass to help him on his journey; a sling, in case he should meet any giants or wild animals in the forest, and one or two little things that had been his grandfather's, to remember him by. With only this bundle, and his every-day clothes and cap, Hilary started into the forest, not telling any one of his plans. When the neighbors came to the cottage they found it empty; and as no one had disappeared so strangely since the time when the wise old woman had gone away, some said that perhaps she had come out of the forest and taken Hilary, because he had been left alone.
In this way the boy began a long journey, never knowing to what place he was coming, or indeed how far he had traveled from home; but it did not matter, since he never cared to go back. The forest, even if it was big and dark, he still found more pleasant than the town full of dreary people. It was not until sunset that he began to feel lonely, and to wish for some cozy place where he might sleep. But so far there was no sign of a clearing or of any kind of house. Hilary was hurrying along, hoping that at least he might find a hollow tree in which to go to sleep, when he heard something say "Chee!" in a mournful little voice.
He looked everywhere, and at last saw a bird at the foot of an elm tree. It had evidently met with some accident and broken its wing, for it could lie only on one side, rolling its round eyes and saying, "Chee!" as though it would ask for help.
"Dear me!" said Hilary. "I am very sorry for you, but I don't think I can stop now, as it is almost dark and I am looking for a place to sleep. Perhaps your wing will be better in the morning."
"Chee-weep!" said the little bird.
"Dear me!" said Hilary again. "It is pretty bad to be alone in the forest, with a broken wing. I believe I shall have to stop and help you, after all."
So he sat down at the foot of the tree, picked up a twig, and began to make a splint for the wing, such as he had seen his grandfather make for a hurt pigeon. Then he tore a bit from his handkerchief with which to fasten the splint, while all the time the little bird rolled its eyes and tried to thank him as well as it could. At last Hilary had done all that he knew how to do, and said good-by to the bird, so that he could hurry on his journey again; but now the bird called after him so loudly that he could not help turning back. Then he saw that it had started to hop along the ground, and even to fly a few feet at a time. It was not following Hilary, but going off in another direction, and seemed to be calling to Hilary to follow. When the boy came closer, the bird moved on a little farther, still calling; and at last it occurred to Hilary that perhaps his new friend was trying to lead him to a place where it had a nest.
"Who knows," he said to himself, "but it might be a good place for me to make my nest, too, since I can find no house?" And he began to follow the little bird willingly.
Soon after this it grew dark, but the bird kept calling, so that Hilary could still follow it through the forest. And at last something happened: he saw a light ahead. Almost at the same minute he noticed that the little bird had stopped calling; in fact, it had flown into the low branch of a tree and put its head under its wing, ready for a night's sleep. So Hilary had only to go on toward the light, and see if he could find shelter.
The light was from a big house that stood in a big clearing in the forest, and when Hilary knocked at the gate he was met by a kind housekeeper, who was very glad to let him come in and to find a place for him to spend the night. Then he discovered that this was the house of a very rich man, who had so much gold and silver that he did not know what to do with it. He had been so much troubled by the people who came to ask for his money, that he had moved here to the forest, where he lived alone with his servants and his little girl.
He was met by a kind housekeeper
"Now," said Hilary to himself, "if he has lived here a long time, perhaps he can tell me something about the old woman I am looking for, or, at any rate, about the Bag of Smiles."
So in the morning, when he saw the rich man walking in the garden that surrounded the big house, he went to him, and asked if he could give him any help in his search. But the rich man said that he had never heard of the old woman, and that, although he had heard of the Bag of Smiles, he had never seen it, and doubted whether there really was any such thing. And as for knowing the secret of being happy, he was far too busy taking care of his gold and silver to have any time for that.
So Hilary, after thanking him for his night's rest and for the good breakfast that the housekeeper had given him, was ready to go on his journey again. But just at that moment one of the servants came up and told the rich man that his little daughter Phyllis was lost. She had gone into the forest for her morning walk, and it seemed that she had been chasing a butterfly until she had got a long way from her nurse, and when the nurse had gone to look for her, she was nowhere to be found.
Then the rich man began to be greatly frightened and gave orders that the servants should stop all their other work and go into the forest to look for Phyllis. And Hilary, seeing how distressed he was, offered to help also.
"If I could only meet with my little bird again," he said to himself as he started off, "I should not wonder if he would help me to find the lost Phyllis, as he helped me to find the house in the clearing."
And he had no sooner thought this than he heard something say "Chee!" Sure enough, there was the little bird hopping along in front of him. It could fly better this morning than on the night before, but never flew so far that Hilary could not easily keep up with it, and went on into the forest as if it knew just where it was going. Hilary did not know whether it would really do him any good to follow the bird, but since he had no idea of his own as to the way to go, he was sure that at least it could do no harm; so on he went, wherever his little friend led him among the trees.
At last, after a long, long walk, he saw something ahead of him that looked like gold; and when he came nearer it proved to be the hair of little Phyllis, as she lay on the grass where she had gone to sleep, after she had discovered that she was lost. So Hilary came close to her, and awakened her by speaking her name softly. Then he took her by the hand and led her back, the little bird still showing the way, to her father's house.
Hilary awakened her by speaking her name softly
When the rich man saw that Hilary had found his little daughter, he was so pleased that he invited him to stay at his house as long as he liked. But Hilary thanked him, and told him that he must go on his journey to hunt for the Bag of Smiles. "And if I ever find it," he said, "I shall come back again and let you share it."
So after he had taken luncheon with the rich man and Phyllis, he started on his way again into the forest. It was now afternoon, and of course he had no idea how far he must go before nightfall, in order to find another good resting-place; but the little bird still went with him, and Hilary felt sure that it would lead him by a good path. The forest was as dark and thick as it had been the day before, but it no longer seemed so lonely, and sunset came again before he realized it. Still the little bird led him on through the wood, until at last he saw another light ahead, and knew that they must be near another house.
Again Hilary knocked at the gate, and a kind porter let him in, and said he would be very glad to entertain him. This was another big house in another big clearing, and Hilary learned that it was the house of a very great man, who had been so famous that all the people in the world wanted to come and look at him; and to get away from them he had come into the great forest, as the rich man had done, and lived alone with his servants and his little boy. Hilary thought it very likely indeed that the great man would know something about the old woman and the Bag of Smiles, but the man told him the same thing that the rich man had told him. "And," said he, "if you wish ever to be a great man like me, I advise you to give up looking for it, for I doubt very much if it will ever be found."
So on the next morning Hilary was preparing to go on his journey again, when a strange thing happened. He heard the servants making a commotion about something, and when he inquired if there was any trouble, they told him that the great man's little boy was lost in the forest.
"How very odd," said Hilary. "I wonder if somebody is lost in the forest every day." Then he told them that he knew a little bird which could find any lost person, and he would go with the bird and try to bring back the little boy, as he had brought back Phyllis on the day before. And they were very glad to have him do so.
The little bird led the way to where the lost boy was playing in the woods, and did so even more quickly than he had found the lost Phyllis, for he was now able to fly almost as well as ever, and Hilary would run after him with his nimble legs. So they brought the little boy back to his father, and although he, too, was so grateful that he invited them to stop at his house, they excused themselves and again started on their journey.
Now on the third night the little bird brought Hilary to a third house in a third clearing, where he found the people quite as kind as he had in the other two places. It happened that this was the house of a very wise man, who had been so much troubled by the people who came from all over the world to ask for his wise advice, that he had finally come to the forest, like the rich man and the great man, and built him a house where he could live quietly among his books. He had no family, except a dwarf whom he kept to bring him his books and brush the dust off them.
"Surely," said Hilary, "this wise man will be more likely to know about the Bag of Smiles than any one I have found yet."
But he was disappointed again. For the wise man was even more certain than the rich man and the great man, that it was foolish to expect to find such a Bag. And as for learning how to be happy, "I shall perhaps begin to try to find out," he said, "when I have finished reading all the books in my library; but I doubt very much if that time will ever come."
When Hilary was ready to leave the wise man's house on the next morning, he said to himself: "Well, this time I shall really have a whole day in which to look for the old woman, for the wise man has no little boy or girl to get lost in the forest."
But the strange thing was that he was mistaken. He had already gone a long distance from the clearing when he heard some one running after him. It was one of the wise man's servants, who had been sent to ask Hilary if he had seen anything of the dwarf.
"No, indeed," said Hilary. "Is he lost?"
"No one can find him," said the servant, "and we thought he might have gone away with you."
"Well," said Hilary, "if he is in the forest, my little bird can find him; and of course we will try, since the wise man has been so kind as to entertain me."
Now the dwarf had grown tired of carrying and dusting the wise man's books, and had thought he would run away for a day and have a vacation. But he was already growing lonesome when Hilary and the bird found him, and was glad to return with them; for it was not at all certain that he could find his way back alone. And the wise man was as thankful to have his dwarf back again as the rich man and the great man had been to find their children.
When Hilary set out again on his journey, he had a new idea. He and the little bird had found so much pleasure in hunting the lost people in the forest, that he began to think he did not care to give it up.
"This is evidently a very bad forest to travel in," he said to the little bird, "unless you have some one to show you the way. And people are getting lost in it all the time, for there must be a great many others living here that we have not yet seen. Let us stay in the forest, and, instead of hunting any longer for the Bag of Smiles, since everybody tells us that we shall never find it, let us hunt for lost people, and mark little paths where they can go about without losing their way."
The little bird said "Chee!" as though he thought the idea a very good one, and Hilary felt happier over his new plan than he had ever felt in his life.
But he must have some place to live while in the forest, and he wondered where it would be. So he said to the bird:
"See if you can not find a nice little house for us, near the part of the forest where it is thickest and darkest, and where the most people are likely to be lost. It will not matter if it is empty, we shall soon learn to take care of ourselves."
Then the little bird spread its wings and flew so fast that Hilary had all he could do to keep up with it. He followed it until the trees grew so close together that he could hardly find a path, and it was so dark that he could hardly tell whether the sky was blue. On and on they went, until at last they came to a little clearing with a little house in the middle of it, and the bird flew to the top of the house, and perched on the gable of the roof.
Hilary went up to the door, and tapped, so as to find whether any one lived there. And the door was opened by the most delightful old woman that you could ever think of, with a white cap on her head, and her face full of little wrinkles such as are made by smiles. She had her knitting-work in one hand, and with the other she held the door open while she said "Good evening" to Hilary.
Hilary's eyes had grown wider and wider as he looked at her; and at last he said:
"Why, I believe you must be the wise old woman with the Bag of Smiles!"
Then he told her how he had left the town where she had once lived, to hunt for her and her Bag, and how the little bird had led him from one place to another through the forest, and how at last he had made up his mind to give up hunting for the Bag, since every one told him that it could not be found, and instead to find a house in the forest and become a guide for people who had lost their way.
"Well," said the old woman, "so you have been making friends with my bird, and trotting about with him all these days that he has been away from home?"
"Your bird!" said Hilary. "Why, if it was your bird, why did he not show me the way to your house in the first place?"
"Because," said the old woman, "he never brings any one to my house who is looking for it. Do you think that is strange? I have nothing to give anybody, and only this poor little house that you see."
"Then it is not true," asked Hilary, "that you have the Bag of Smiles?"
The old woman laughed a pleasant laugh. "Perhaps I may have it," she said, "but I never saw it. I am sure, if I have, that you must have it, too, for you were smiling as hard as you could when you told me about the way in which you and my bird have been helping people out of the forest, and how you have enjoyed it."
"And do you agree with me," said Hilary, "that that is a better thing to do than to go on hunting the Bag?"
"Of course I do," said the old woman, "and so does the bird, or he would never have brought you here. If you want to stay here and live with us, we shall be very glad to have you. My porridge is cooking now, and we can soon have supper."
So Hilary, who thought that nothing in the world would be nicer than to stay in such a dear little house with such a delightful old woman and such a friendly bird, went in and laid down his bundle. And when the old woman served the porridge for supper, the little bird flew in at the window and sang to them while they ate.