A poor mother sat watching by the cradle of her little baby. She was very anxious and sorrowful; she dreaded that it was going to be taken from her. Its little eyes were closed, and it was deathly pale; it breathed very faintly, with now and then a long trembling breath like a sigh. The mother grew sadder and sadder as she looked at it.
There was a knock at the door, and a poor old man came in; he was wrapped in a big horse-cloth, which he needed to keep him warm, it was so very cold. Outside everything was covered with ice and snow, and a biting wind whistled round the house.
As the old man was shaking with cold, and the baby had dropped asleep for a moment, the mother got up and put some beer in a little mug on the stove to warm for him. The old man sat rocking the cradle, and the woman sat down on a chair close to him and watched the sick child, who drew its breath more deeply still, and feebly waved its little hand about.
"You think I shall keep him, don't you?" said she. "The Lord won't take him from me?"
And the old man, who was Death himself, nodded in such a curious way that she did not know whether it meant yes or no. The mother bent her head, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. Her head was so heavy, she had not closed her eyes for three nights and days, and she fell asleep, but only for a moment, then she started up shivering with cold.
"What is it?" she said, looking about to every side. But the old man was gone, and her little child was gone; he had taken it with him. The old clock in the corner whirred and whirred, and the big lead weight ran right down to the ground with a bang, and then the clock stopped too.
But the poor mother rushed out of the house calling for her child.
Out there, all in the snow, sat a woman in long black clothes, and she said, "Death has been into your room. I saw him hurrying away with your child; he goes faster than the wind, and he never brings back what he takes away."
"Only tell me which way he went," said the mother. "Tell me the way, and I shall find him."
"I know the way," said the woman in the black clothes; "but before I tell it you, you must sing me all the songs you used to sing to your baby; I like them; I have often heard them before. I am Night. I saw your tears while you sang."
"I will sing them all—all," said the mother; "but don't stop me; let me go that I may find my little baby."
But Night stood still and silent, and the mother wrung her hands, sang and wept. There were many songs, but many, many more tears.
At last Night said, "Go to the right, into the dark pine wood. I saw Death take that road with your child."
In the heart of the wood she came to a cross-road, and she did not know which way to go. There was a blackthorn bush just at the crossing with neither leaf nor flower on it, for it was the hard winter time, and icicles hung from the branches.
"Have you not seen Death pass by with my little child ?"
"Yes," said the blackthorn bush; "but I won't tell you which way he went unless you will warm me at your heart. I am dying of cold; I shall soon be nothing but ice."
And she pressed the blackthorn bush to her heart so tightly, to warm it, that the thorns ran into her flesh, and great drops of blood flowed; but fresh green leaves and flowers sprang out on the thorn bush that cold winter night, such was the warmth of a sad mother's heart, and the thorn bush told her the way to go.
Then she came to a great lake, on which there were neither ships nor boats. The lake was not frozen hard enough to bear her, nor was it open or shallow enough for her to wade through it; but over it somehow she must go if she would find her child. She lay down to drink up the water, but that was of course impossible; the poor mother thought, however, that a miracle might happen.
"Now, this will never do!" said the lake. "Let us see if we two can't make a bargain! I collect pearls, and your eyes are the brightest I have seen; if you will cry them out for me, I will carry you over to the great hot-house where Death lives and looks after his plants and flowers, every one of which is a human life."
"Oh, what would I not give to reach my child!" said the weeping mother, and she wept more than ever, till her eyes dropped down to the bottom of the lake and became two precious pearls. Then the lake lifted her as if she had been in a swing, and she was borne in a moment from the shore where she stood to the other side. Here stood a curious house a mile wide; one could hardly tell whether it was a mountain covered with woods and hollows, or whether it was built up; but the poor mother could not see it, you know, for she had cried her eyes out.
"Where shall I find Death, who carried off my little child?" she said.
"He has not come back here yet," said the old crone, whose business it was to tend Death's big hot-house. "However did you get here, and who helped you?"
"Our Lord has helped me," said she. "He is merciful, and so will you be. Where shall I find my child?"
"I don't know," said the woman, "and you can't see. Many flowers and trees have withered in the night; Death will soon come and transplant them. You know that every human being has his or her tree of life, or flower, according as they are made; they look like other plants, but they have beating human hearts. A child's heart can beat too. Walk about here, perhaps you will recognise your child's; but what will you give me if I tell you what more you must do?"
"I have nothing to give," said the mother sadly, "but I will go to the end of the world for you."
"I've got nothing to do there," said the woman; "but you can give me your long black hair; I'm sure you know yourself that it is beautiful, and I fancy it. I'll give you my white hair in place of it, that will always be something."
"Don't you ask more than that," said she; "I will give it you gladly," and she gave her her beautiful black hair and received the old woman's white hair in exchange.
Then they went into Death's big hot-house, where the flowers and trees grew curiously mixed up together. Here were delicate hyacinths under bell glasses, and there were great strong peonies; here were water plants, some quite fresh, others sickly with water snakes wound round them, and little black cray fish pinching their stems. Here were beautiful palm trees, oaks and plane trees; there grew parsley and sweet scented thyme; every tree and every flower had its name. Each one was a human life, living still, one in China, one in Greenland, scattered round about the world. There were big trees in small pots, growing in a stunted way, ready to burst their pots; and there were also, in other places, little tiresome flowers in rich earth surrounded with moss, and covered and tended. But the sad mother bent over all the tiniest plants and listened for the human heart beating in them. Among a million she knew her child's at once.
"This is it!" she cried, stretching out her hands over a little blue crocus which hung feebly down to one side.
"Don't touch the flower," said the old woman, "but place yourself here, so that when Death comes (for I expect him every minute) you may prevent him from pulling it up; threaten him that you will do the same to the other flowers, then he will be frightened. He has to answer to our Lord for them, not one may be pulled up without His leave."
All at once an icy wind whistled through the place, and the blind mother felt that Death had come.
"How didst thou find thy way hither?" asked he. "How couldst thou get here before me?"
"I am a mother," she said.
Then Death stretched out his long hand towards the delicate little flower, but she clasped her hands tightly round his, in terror lest he should touch one of the leaves. Death breathed upon her hands; she felt that his breath was colder than the coldest wind, and her hands fell numbly away from his.
"You have no power against me, you see," said Death.
"But our Lord has!" said she.
"I only do His will," said Death. "I am His gardener! I take all His flowers and trees and plant them in the Garden of Paradise, in the Unknown Land; but how they grow, and what they do there, I dare not tell thee!"
"Give me back my child!" said the mother, with tears and prayers; suddenly she clutched with both hands two beautiful flowers growing close by, and called out to Death, "I will pull up all your flowers, "for I am in despair I "
"Touch them not!" said Death. "Thou sayst that thou art unhappy, yet wouldst thou make some other mother equally unhappy——!"
"Some other mother!" said the poor woman, letting go the flowers at once.
"Here hast thou thine eyes back again," said Death; "I fished them up out of the lake, they shone so brightly; I did not know that they were thine. Take them back again, they are brighter than ever. Look down into the deep well close by, I will name the names of those flowers thou wast about to pluck, and thou shalt see their whole lives, and all that future thou wast about to destroy."
And she looked down into the well; it was happiness to see how one of them became a blessing to the world, and to see how much joy and pleasure was unfolded around him. Then she saw the life of the other, and that life was all sorrow and need, sin and misery.
"Both lives are according to the will of God!" said Death.
"Which of them is the flower of misery and which of blessedness?"
"That I may not tell thee," said Death; "but I may tell thee that one of the flowers was thy own child's; it was thy child's fate thou sawest, thine own child's future."
Then the mother shrieked in terror. "Which was my child? tell me that! Save the wretched one! Save my child from all the misery! Rather carry it away! bear it into God's kingdom Forget my tears, forget my prayers, and all that I have said and done!"
"I do not understand thee!" said Death; "wilt thou have thy child back, or shall I take it whither thou knowest not!"
The mother wrung her hands, fell upon her knees, and prayed to Our Father, "Do not listen to me when I pray against Thy will, which is best; do not listen, do not listen!" And she bent her head in humble submission.
Then Death carried her child into the Unknown Land.