The storks tell to their little ones many tales, all from the swamps and the bogs, and suited to the age and capacity of the hearers. The smallest youngsters are contented with mere sound, such as "kribble, krabble, plurremurre," and think it very grand; but the more advanced require something rational, or at least something about their family. Of the two most ancient and longest traditions that have been handed down among the storks, we are all acquainted with one—that about Moses, who was placed by his mother on the banks of the Nile, was found there by the king's daughter, was well brought up, and became a great man, such as has never been heard of since in the place where he was buried.
The other story is not well known, probably because it is a tale of home; yet it has passed down from one stork grandam to another for a thousand years, and each succeeding narrator has told it better and better, and now we shall tell it best of all.
The first pair of storks who related this tale had themselves something to do with its events. The place of their summer sojourn was at the Viking's castle, up by the wild morass, at Vendsyssel. It is in Hjöring district, away near Skagen, in the north of Jutland, speaking with geographical precision. It is now an enormous bog, as one can read in the County Guide. This place was once the bottom of the sea; but the waters have receded, and the ground has risen. It stretches itself for miles on all sides, surrounded by wet meadows and pools of water, by peat-bogs, cloudberries, and miserable stunted trees. A heavy mist almost always hangs over this place, and about seventy years ago wolves were found there. It is rightly called "the wild morass;" and one may imagine how savage it must have been, and how much swamp and sea must have existed there a thousand years ago. Yes, in these respects the same was to be seen there as is to be seen now. The rushes had the same height, the same sort of long leaves, and blue-brown, feather-like flowers, that they bear now; the birch-tree stood with its white bark, and delicate drooping leaves, as now; and, in regard to the living creatures, the flies had the same sort of crape clothing as they wear now; and the storks' bodies were white, with black and red stockings. Mankind, on the contrary, at that time wore coats cut in another fashion from what they do in our days; but every one of them, serf or huntsman, whosoever he might be who trod upon the quagmire, fared a thousand years ago as they fare now: one step forward—they fell in, and sank down to the Marsh-king , as he was called, who reigned below in the great morass kingdom. They also called him Gunke-king, but we like Marsh-king better, and we will give him that name, as the storks do. Very little is known about his rule, but that is, perhaps, a good thing.
Near the bog, close by Liimfjorden, lay the Viking's castle of three stories high, and with a tower and stone cellars. The storks had built their nest upon the roof of this dwelling. The female Stork sat upon her eggs, and felt certain they would be all hatched.
One evening the male Stork remained out very long, and when he came home he looked rumpled and flurried.
"I have something very terrible to tell thee," he said to the female Stork.
"Thou hadst better keep it to thyself," said she. "Remember I am sitting upon the eggs: a fright might do me harm, and the eggs might be injured."
"But it must be told thee," he replied. "She has come here—the daughter of our host in Egypt. She has ventured the long journey up hither, and she is lost."
"She who is of the fairies' race? Speak, then! Thou knowest that I cannot bear suspense while I am sitting."
"Know, then, mother, that she believed what the doctors said, which thou didst relate to me. She believed that the bog-plants up here could cure her invalid father; and she has flown hither, in the magic disguise of a swan, with the two other swan princesses, who every year come hither to the north to bathe and renew their youth. She has come, and she is lost."
"Thou dost spin the matter out so long," muttered the female Stork, "the eggs will be quite cooled. I cannot bear suspense just now."
"I will come to the point," replied the male. "This evening I went to the rushes where the quagmire could bear me. There came three swans. There was something in their motions which said to me, ' Take care; they are not rear swans; they are only the appearance of swans, created by magic.' Thou wouldst have known as well as I that they were not of the right sort."
"Yes, surely," she said; "but tell me about the Princess. I am tired of hearing about the swans."
"In the midst of the morass—here, I must tell thee, it is like a lake," said the male Stork; "thou canst see a portion of it if thou wilt raise thyself up a moment—yonder, by the rushes and the green morass, lay a large stump of an alder-tree. The three swans alighted upon it, flapped their wings, and looked about them. One of them cast off her swan disguise, and I recognized in her our royal Princess from Egypt. She sat now with no other mantle around her than her long dark hair. I heard her desire the other two to take good care of her magic swan garb, while she ducked down under the water to pluck the flower which she thought she saw. They nodded, and raised the empty feather dress between them. 'What are they going to do with it?' said I to myself; and she probably asked herself the same question. The answer came too soon, for I saw them take flight up into the air with her charmed feather dress. 'Dive thou there!' they cried. 'Never more shalt thou fly in the form of a magic swan—never more shalt thou behold the land of Egypt. Dwell thou in the wild morass!' And they tore her magic disguise into a hundred pieces, so that the feathers whirled about as if there were a fall of snow; and away flew the two worthless princesses."
"It is shocking!" said the lady Stork; "I can't bear to hear it. Tell me what more happened."
"The Princess sobbed and wept. Her tears trickled down upon the trunk of the alder-tree, and then it moved; for it was the Marsh-king himself— he who dwells in the morass. I saw the trunk turn itself, and then there was no more trunk—it struck up two long miry branches like arms; then the poor child became dreadfully alarmed, and she sprang aside upon the green, slimy coating of the marsh; but it could not bear me, much less her, and she sank immediately in. The trunk of the alder-tree went down with her—it was that which had dragged her down; then arose to the surface large black bubbles, and all further traces of her disappeared. She is now buried in 'the wild morass;' and never, never shall she return to Egypt with the flower she sought. Thou couldst not have borne to have seen all this, mother."
"Thou ought not to tell me such a startling tale at a time like this. The eggs may suffer. The Princess can take care of herself: she will, no doubt, be rescued. If it had been me, or thee, or any of our family, it would have been all over with us."
"I will look after her every day, however," said the male Stork; and so he did.
A long time had elapsed, when one day he saw that far down from the bottom was shooting up a green stem, and when it reached the surface a leaf grew on it. The leaf became broader and broader; close by it came a bud; and one morning, when the Stork flew over it, the bud opened in the warm sunshine, and in the centre of it lay a beautiful infant, a little girl, just as if she had been taken out of a bath. She so strongly resembled the Princess from Egypt, that the Stork at first thought it was herself who had become an infant again; but when he considered the matter, he came to the conclusion that she was the daughter of the Princess and the Marsh-king, therefore she lay in the calyx of a water-lily.
"She cannot be left lying there," said the Stork to himself; "yet in my nest we are already too over-crowded. But a thought strikes me. The Viking's wife has no children; she has much wished to have a pet. I am often blamed for bringing little ones. I shall now, for once, do so in reality. I shall fly with this infant to the Viking's wife: it will be a great pleasure to her."
And the Stork took the little girl, flew to the castle, knocked with his beak a hole in the window-pane of stretched bladder, laid the infant in the arms of the Viking's wife, then flew to his mate, and unburdened his mind to her; while the little ones listened attentively, for they were old enough now to do that.
"Only think, the Princess is not dead. She has sent her little one up here, and now it is well provided for."
"I told thee from the beginning it would be all well," said the mother Stork. "Turn thy thoughts now to thine own family. It is almost time for our long journey; I begin now to tingle under the wings. The cuckoo and the nightingale are already gone, and I hear the quails saying that we shall soon have a fair wind. Our young ones are quite able to go, I know that."
How happy the Viking's wife was, when, in the morning, she awoke and found the lovely little child lying on her breast! She kissed it and caressed it, but it screeched frightfully, and floundered about with its little arms and legs: it evidently seemed little pleased. At last it cried itself to sleep, and as it lay there it was one of the most beautiful little creatures that could be seen. The Viking's wife was so pleased and happy, she took it into her head that her husband, with all his retainers, would come as unexpectedly as the little one had done; and she set herself and the whole household to work, in order that everything might be ready for their reception. The colored tapestry which she and her women had embroidered with representations of their gods—Odin, Thor, and Freia, as they were called—were hung up; the serfs were ordered to clean and polish the old shields with which the walls were to be decorated; cushions were laid on the benches; and dry logs of wood were heaped on the fire-place in the centre of the hall, so that the pile might be easily lighted. The Viking's wife labored so hard herself that she was quite tired by the evening, and slept soundly.
When she awoke towards morning she became much alarmed, for the little child was gone. She sprang up, lighted a twig of the pine-tree, and looked about; and, to her amazement, she saw, in the part of the bed to which she stretched tier feet, not the beautiful infant, but a great ugly frog. She was so much disgusted with it that she took up a heavy stick, and was going to kill the nasty creature; but it looked at her with such wonderfully sad and speaking eyes that she could not strike it. Again she searched about. The frog gave a faint, pitiable cry. She started up, and sprang from the bed to the window; she opened the shutters, and at the same moment the sun streamed in, and cast its bright beams upon the bed and upon the large frog; and all at once it seemed as if the broad mouth of the noxious animal drew itself in, and became small and red—the limbs stretched themselves into the most beautiful form it was her own little lovely child that lay there, and no ugly frog.
"What is all this?" she exclaimed. "Have I dreamed a bad dream? That certainly is my pretty little elfin child lying yonder." And she kissed it and strained it affectionately to her heart; but it struggled, and tried to bite like the kitten of a wild cat.
Neither the next day nor the day after came the Viking, though he was on the way, but the wind was against him; it was for the storks. A fair wind for one is a contrary wind for another.
In the course of a few days and nights it became evident to the Viking's wife how things stood with the little child—that it was under the influence of some terrible witchcraft. By day it was as beautiful as an angel, but it had a wild, evil disposition; by night, on the contrary, it was an ugly frog, quiet, except for its croaking, and with melancholy eyes. It had two natures, that changed about, both without and within. This arose from the little girl whom the Stork had brought possessing by day her own mother's external appearance, and at the same time her father's temper; while by night, on the contrary, she showed her connection with him outwardly in her form, whilst her mother's mind and heart inwardly became hers. What art could release her from the power which exercised such sorcery over her? The Viking's wife felt much anxiety and distress about it, and yet her heart hung on the poor little being, of whose strange state she thought she should not dare to inform her husband when he came home; for he assuredly, as was the custom, would put the poor child out on the high road, and let any one take it who would. The Viking's good-natured wife had not the heart to allow this; therefore she resolved that he should never see the child but by day.
At dawn of day the wings of the storks were heard fluttering over the roof. During the night more than a hundred pairs of storks had been making their preparations, and now they flew up to wend their way to the south.
"Let all the males be ready," was the cry. "Let their mates and little ones join them,"
"How light we feel!" said the young storks, who were all impatience to be off. "How charming to be able to travel to other lands!"
"Keep ye all together in one flock," cried the father and mother, "and don't chatter so much—it will take away your breath."
So they all flew away.
About the same time the blast of a horn sounding over the heath gave notice that the Viking had landed with all his men; they were returning home with rich booty from the Gallic coast, where the people, as in Britain, sang in their terror,—
"Save us from the savage Normands!"
What life and bustle were now apparent in the Viking's castle near "the wild morass"! Casks of mead were brought into the hall, the pile of wood was lighted, and horses were slaughtered for the grand feast which was to be prepared. The sacrificial priests sprinkled with the horses' warm blood the slaves who were to assist in the offering. The fires tackled, the smoke rolled up under the roof, the soot dropped from the beams; but people were accustomed to that. Guests were invited, and they brought handsome gifts; rancor and falseness were forgotten; they all became drunk together, And they thrust their doubled fists into each other's faces—which was a sign of good-humor. The skald—he was a sort of poet and musician, but at the same time a warrior—who had been with them, and had witnessed what he sang about, gave them a song, wherein they heard recounted all their achievements in battle, and wonderful adventures. At the end of every verse came the same refrain,—
"Fortune dies, friends die, one dies one's self; but a glorious name never dies."
And then they all struck on their shields, and thundered with their knives or their knuckle-bones on the table, so that they made a tremendous noise.
The Viking's wife sat on the cross bench in the open banquet-hall. She wore a silk dress, gold bracelets, and large amber beads. She was in her grandest attire, and the skald named her also in his song, and spoke of the golden treasure she had brought her husband; and he rejoiced in the lovely child he had only seen by daylight, in all its wondrous beauty. The fierce temper which accompanied her exterior charms pleased him. "She might become," he said, "a stalwart female warrior, and able to kill a giant adversary." She never even blinked her eyes when a practiced hand, in sport, cut off her eyebrows with a sharp sword.
The mead casks were emptied, others were brought up, and these, too, were drained; for there were folks present who could stand a good deal. To them might have been applied the old proverb, "The cattle know when to leave the pasture; but an unwise man never knows the depth of his stomach."
Yes, they all knew it; but people often knew the right. thing, and do the wrong. They knew also that "one wears out one's welcome when one stays too long in another man's house;" but they remained there for all that. Meat and mead are good things. All went on merrily, and towards night the slaves slept amidst the warm ashes, and dipped their finger-into the fat skimmings of the soup, and licked them. It was a rare time!
And again the Viking went forth on an expedition, notwith. standing the stormy weather. He went after the crops were gathered in. He went with his men to the coast of Britain,—"it was only across the water," he said,—and his wife remained at home with her little girl: and it was soon to be seen that the foster mother cared almost more for the poor frog, with the honest eyes and plaintive croaking, than for the beauty who scratched and bit everybody around.
The raw, damp, autumn mist, that loosens the leaves from the trees, lay over wood and hedge; "Birdfeatherless," as the snow is called, was falling thickly; winter was close at hand. The sparrows seized upon the Storks' nest, and talked over, in their fashion, the absent owners. They themselves, the Stork pair, with all their young ones, where were they now?
The Storks were now in the land of Egypt, where the sure was shining warmly as with us on a lovely summer day. The tamarind and the acacia grew there; the moonbeams streamed over the temples of Mohammed. On the slender minarets sat many a pair of storks, reposing after their long journey; the whole immense flock had fixed themselves, nest by nest, amidst the mighty pillars and broken porticoes of temples and forgotten edifices. The date-tree elevated to a great height its broad leafy roof, as if it wished to form a shelter from the sun. The gray pyramids stood with their outlines sharply defined in the clear air towards the desert, where the ostrich knew he could use his legs; and the lion sat with his large grave eyes, and gazed on the marble sphinxes that lay half imbedded in the sand. The waters of the Nile had receded, and a great part of the bed of the river was swarming with frogs; and that, to the Stork family, was the pleasantest sight in the country where they had arrived. Thu young ones were astonished at all they saw.
"Such are the sights here, and thus it always is in our warm country," said the Stork-mother good-humoredly.
"Is there yet more to be seen?" they asked. "Shall we go much further into the country?"
"There is nothing more worth seeing," replied the Storkmother. "Beyond this luxuriant neighborhood there is nothing but wild forests, where the trees grow close to each other, and are still more closely entangled by prickly creeping plants, weaving such a wall of verdure, that only the elephant, with his strong, clumsy feet, can there tread his way. The snakes are too large for us there, and the lizards too lively. If ye would go to the desert, ye will meet with nothing but sand; it will fill your eyes, it will come in gusts, and cover your feathers. No, it is best here. Here are frogs and grasshoppers. I shall remain here, and so shall you."
And they remained. The old ones sat in their nest upon the graceful minaret; they reposed themselves, and yet they had enough to do to smooth their wings and rub their beaks on their red stockings; and they stretched out their necks, saluted gravely, and lifted up their heads with their high foreheads and fine, soft feathers, and their brown eyes looked so wise.
The female young ones strutted about proudly among the juicy reeds, stole sly glances at the other young storks, made acquaintances, and slaughtered a frog at every third step, or went lounging about with little snakes in their bills, which they fancied looked well, and which they knew would taste well.
The male young ones got into quarrels; struck each. other with their wings; pecked at each other with their beaks, even until blood flowed. Then they all thought of engaging themselves—the male and the female young ones. It was for that they lived, and they built nests, and got again into new quarrels; for in these warm countries every one is so hot-headed. Nevertheless they were very happy, and this was a great joy to the old storks. Every day there was warm sunshine—every day plenty to eat. They had nothing to think of except pleasure. But yonder, within the splendid palace of their Egyptian host, as they called him, there was but little pleasure to be found.
The wealthy, mighty chief lay upon his couch, stiffened in all his limbs— stretched out like a mummy in the centre of the grand saloon with the many-colored painted walls: it was as if he were lying in a tulip. Kinsmen and servants stood around him. Dead he was not, yet it could hardly be said that he lived. The healing bog-flower from the far-away lands in the north—that which she was to have sought and plucked for him— she who loved him best—would never now be brought. His beautiful young daughter, who in the magic garb of a swan had flown over sea and land away to the distant north, would never more return. "She is dead and gone," had the two swan ladies, her companions, declared on their return home. They had concocted a tale, and they told it as follows:—
"We had flown all three high up in the air when a sportsman saw us, and shot at us with his arrow. It struck our young friend; and, slowly singing her farewell song, she sank like a dying swan down into the midst of the lake in the wood. There, on its banks, under a fragrant weeping birch-tree, we buried her. But we took a just revenge: we bound fire under the wings of the swallow that built under the sportsman's thatched roof. It kindled—his house was soon in flames—he was burned within it—and the flames shone as far over the sea as to the drooping birch, where she is now earth within the earth. Alas! never will she return to the land of Egypt."
And they both wept bitterly; and the old Stork-father, when he heard it, rubbed his bill until it was quite sore.
"Lies and deceit!" he cried. "I should like, above all things, to run my beak into their breasts."
"And break it off," said the Stork-mother; "you would look remarkably well then. Think first of yourself, and the interests of your own family; everything else is of little consequence."
"I will, however, place myself upon the edge of the open cupola to-morrow, when all the learned and the wise are to assemble to take the case of the sick man into consideration: perhaps they may then arrive a little nearer to the truth."
And the learned and the wise met together, and talked touch, deeply, and profoundly, of which the Stork could make nothing at all; and, sooth to say, there was no result obtained from all this talking, either for the invalid or for his daughter in "the wild morass;" yet, nevertheless, it was all very well to listen to—one must listen to a great deal in this world.
But now it were best, perhaps, for us to hear what had happened formerly. We shall then be better acquainted with the story—at least, we shall know as much as the Stork-father did.
"Love bestows life; the highest love bestows the highest life; it is only through love that his life can be saved," was what had been said; and it was amazingly wisely and well said, the learned declared.
"It is a beautiful thought," said the Stork-father.
"I don't quite comprehend it," said the Stork-mother, "but that is not my fault—it is the fault of the thought: though it is all one to me, for I have other things to think upon."
And then the learned talked of love between this and that—that there was a difference. Love such as lovers felt, and that between parents and children; between light and plants; how the sunbeams kissed the ground, and how, thereby, the seeds sprouted forth—it was all so diffusely and learnedly expounded, that it was impossible for the Stork-father to follow the discourse, much less to repeat it. It made him very thoughtful, however; he half closed his eyes, and actually stood on one leg the whole of the next day, reflecting on what he had heard. So much learning was difficult for him to digest.
But this much the Stork-father understood. He had heard both common people and great people speak as if they really felt it, that it was a great misfortune to many thousands, and to the country in general, that the King lay so ill, and that nothing could be done to bring about his recovery. It would be a joy and a blessing to all if he could but be restored to health.
"But where grew the health-giving flower that might cure him?" Everybody asked that question. Scientific writings were searched, the glittering stars were consulted, the wind and the weather. Every traveller that could be found was appealed to, until, at length, the learned and the wise, as before stated, pitched upon this: "Love bestows life—life to a father." And though this dictum was really not understood by themselves, they adopted it, and wrote it out as a prescription. "Love bestows life"—well and good. But how was this to be applied? Here they were at a stand. At length, however, they agreed that the Princess must be the means of procuring the necessary help, as she loved her father with all her heart and soul. They also agreed on a mode of proceeding. It is more than a year and a day since then. They settled that, when the new moon had just disappeared, she was to betake herself by night to the marble sphinx in the desert, to remove the sand from the entrance with her foot, and then to follow one of the long passages which led to the centre of the great pyramids, where one of the moss mighty monarchs of ancient times, surrounded by splendor and magnificence, lay in his mummy-coffin. There she was to lean her head over the corpse, and then it would be revealed to her where life and health for her father were to be found.
All this she had performed, and in a dream had been instructed that from the deep morass high up in the Danish land—the place was minutely described to her— she might bring home a certain lotus-flower, which beneath the water would touch her breast, that would cure him.
And therefore she had flown, in the magical disguise of a swan, from Egypt up to "the wild morass." All this was well known to the Stork-father and the Stork-mother: and now, though rather late, we also know it. We know that the Marsh-king dragged her down with him, and that, as far as regarded her home, she was dead and gone; only the wisest of them all said, like the Stork-mother, "She can take care of herself;" and, knowing no better, they waited to see what would turn up.
"I think I shall steal their swan garbs from the two wicked princesses," said the Stork-father; "then they will not be able to go to the 'wild morass' and do mischief. I shall leave the swan disguises themselves up yonder till there is some use for them."
"Where could you keep them?" asked the old female Stork.
"In our nest near 'the wild morass,' " he replied. "I and our eldest young ones can carry them; and if we find them too troublesome, there are plenty of places on the way where wr can hide them until our next flight. One swan's dress would be enough for her, to be sure; but two are better. It it a good thing to have abundant means of travelling at command in a country so far north."
"You will get no thanks for what you propose doing," said the Stork-mother; " but you are the master, and must please yourself. I have nothing to say except at hatching-time."
At the Viking's castle near "the wild morass," whither the Storks were flying in the spring, the little girl had received her name. She was called Helga; but this name was too soft for one with such dispositions as that lovely creature had. She grew fast month by month; and in a few years, even while the Storks were making their habitual journeys in autumn towards the Nile, in spring towards "the wild morass," the little child had grown up into a big girl, and before any one could have thought it, she was in her sixteenth year, and a most beautiful young lady—charming in appearance, but hard and fierce in temper—the most savage of the savage in that gloomy, cruel time.
It was a pleasure to her to sprinkle with her white hands the reeking blood of the horse slaughtered for an offering. She would bite, in her barbarous sport, the neck of the black-cock which was to be slaughtered by the sacrificial priest; and to her foster-father she said, in positive earnestness,—
"If your enemy were to come and cast ropes over the beams that support the roof, and drag them down upon your chamber whilst you were sleeping, I would not awaken you if I could—I would not hear it—the blood would tingle as it does now in that ear on which, years ago, you dared to give me a blow. I remember it well."
But the Viking did not believe she spoke seriously. Like every one else, he was fascinated by her extreme beauty, and never troubled himself to observe if the mind of little Helga were in unison with her looks. She would sit on horseback without a saddle, as if grown fast to the animal, and go at full gallop; nor would she spring off, even if her horse and other ill-natured ones were biting each other. Entirely dressed as she was, she would cast herself from the bank into the strong current of the fiord, and swim out to meet the Viking when his boat was approaching the land. Of her thick, splendid hair she had cut off the longest lock, and plaited for herself a string to her bow.
"Self-made is well made," she said.
The Viking's wife, according to the manners and customs of the age in which she lived, was strong in mind and decided in purpose; but with her daughter she was like a soft, timid woman. She was well aware that the dreadful child was under the influence of sorcery.
And Helga apparently took a malicious pleasure in frightening her mother. Often when the latter was standing on the balcony, or walking in the court-yard, Helga would place herself on the side of the well, throw her arms up in the air, and then let herself fall headlong into the narrow, deep hole, where, with her frog nature, she would duck and raise herself up again, and then crawl up as if she had been a cat, and run dripping with water into the grand saloon, so that the green rushes which were strewed over the floor partook of the wet stream.
There was but one restraint upon little Helga—that was the evening twilight. In it she became quiet and thoughtful—would allow herself to be called and guided; then too she would seem to feel some affection for her mother; and when the sun sank, and the outer and inward change took place, she would sit still and sorrowful, shriveled up into the form of a frog, though the head was now much larger than that little animal's, and therefore she was uglier than ever: she looked like a miserable dwarf, with a frog's head and webbed fingers. There was something very sad in her eyes; voice she had none except a kind of croak, like a child sobbing in its dreams. Then would the Viking's wife take her in her lap; she would forget the ugly form, and look only at the melancholy eyes; and more than once she exclaimed,—
"I could almost wish that thou wert always my dumb fairy-child, for thou art more fearful to look at when thy form resumes its beauty."
And she wrote Runic rhymes against enchantment and infirmity, and threw them over the poor creature; but there was no change for the better.
"One could hardly believe that she was once so small as to lie in the calyx of a water-lily," said the Stork-father. She is now quite a woman, and the image of her Egyptian mother. Her, alas! we have never seen again. She did not take good care of herself, as thou didst expect and the learned people predicted. Year after year I have flown backward and forward over 'the wild morass,' but never have I seen a sign of her. Yes, I can assure thee, during the years we have been coming up here, when I have arrived some days before thee, that I might mend the nest and set everything in order in it, I have for a whole night flown, as if I had been an owl or a bat, continually over the open water, but to no purpose. We have had no use either for the two swan disguises which I and the young ones dragged all the way up here from the banks of the Nile. It was hard enough work, and it took us three journeys to bring them up. They have now lain here for years at the bottom of our nest; and should a fire by any chance break out, and the Viking's castle be burned down, they would be lost."
"And our good nest would be lost," said the old female Stork; "but thou thinkest less of that than of these feather things and thy bog Princess. Thou hadst better go down to her at once, and remain in the mire. Thou art a hard-hearted father to thine own: that I have said since I laid my first eggs. What if I or one of our young ones should get an arrow under our wings from that fierce, crazy brat at the Viking's? She does not care what she does. This has been much longer our home than hers, she ought to recollect. We do not forget our duty; we pay our rent every year—a feather, an egg, and a young one—as we ought to do. Dost thou think that when she is outside I can venture to go below, as in former days, or as I do in Egypt, where I am almost everybody's comrade, not to mention that I can there even peep into the pots and pans without any fear? No; I sit up here and fret myself about her—the hussy! and I fret myself at thee too. Thou shouldst have left her lying in the water-lily, and there would have been an end of her."
"Thy words are much harder than thy heart," said the Stork-father. "I know thee better than thou knowest thyself."
And then he made a hop, flapped his wings twice, stretched his legs out behind him, and away he flew, or rather sailed, without moving his wings, until he had got to some distance. Then he brought his wings into play; the sun shone upon his white feathers; he stretched his head and his neck forward, and hastened on his way.
"He is, nevertheless, still the handsomest of them all," said his admiring mate; "but I will not tell him that."
Late that autumn the Viking returned home, bringing with him booty and prisoners. Among these was a young Christian priest, one of the men who denounced the gods of the Northern mythology. Often about this time was the new religion talked of in baronial halls and ladies' bowers—the religion that was spreading over all lands of the south, and which, with the holy Ansgarius, had even reached as far as Hedeby. Even little Helga had heard of the pure religion of Christ, who, from love to mankind, had given Himself as a sacrifice to save them; but with her it went in at one ear and out at the other, to use a common saying. The word love alone seemed to have made some impression upon her, when she shrunk into the miserable form of a frog in the closed-up chamber. But the Viking's wife had listened to, and felt herself wonderfully affected by, the rumor and the saga about the Son of the one only true God.
The men, returning from their expedition, had told of the splendid temples of costly hewn stone raised to Him whose errand was love. A pair of heavy golden vessels, beautifully wrought out of pure gold, were brought home, and both had a charming, spicy perfume. They were the censers which the Christian priests swung before the altars, on which blood never flowed; but wine and the consecrated bread were changed into the blood and body of Him who had given Himself for generations yet unborn.
To the deep, stone-walled cellars of the Viking's castle was the young captive, the Christian priest, consigned, fettered with cords round his feet and his hands. He was as beautiful as Baldur to look at, said the Viking's wife, and she was grieved at his fate; but young Helga wished that he should be hamstrung, and bound to the tails of wild oxen.
"Then I should let loose the dogs. Halloo! Then away over bogs and pools to the naked heath. Ha! that would be something pleasant to see—still pleasanter to follow him on the wild journey."
But the Viking would not hear of his being put to such a death. On the morrow, as a scoffer and denier of the high gods, he was to be offered up as a sacrifice to them upon the blood stone in the sacred grove. He was to be the first human sacrifice ever offered up there.
Young Helga prayed that she might be allowed to sprinkle with the blood of the captive the images of the gods and the assembled spectators. She sharpened her gleaming knife, and, as one of the large, ferocious dogs, of which there were plenty in the court-yard, leaped over her feet, she stuck the knife into his side.
"That is to prove the blade," she exclaimed.
And the Viking's wife was shocked at the savage-tempered, evil-minded girl; and when night came, and the beauteous form and disposition of her daughter changed, she poured forth her sorrow to her in warm words, which came from the bottom of her heart.
The hideous frog with the ogre head stood before her, and fixed its brown, sad eyes upon her, listened, and seemed to understand with a human being's intellect.
"Never, even to my husband, have I hinted at the double sufferings I have through you," said the Viking's wife. "There is more sorrow in my heart on your account than I could have believed. Great is a mother's love. But love never enters your mind. Your heart is like a lump of cold, hard mud. From whence did you come to my house?"
Then the ugly shape trembled violently; it seemed as if these words touched an invisible tie between the body and the soul—large tears started to its eyes.
"Your time of trouble will come some day, depend on it," said the Viking's wife, "and dreadful will it also be for me. Better had it been had you been put out on the highway, and the chillness of the night had benumbed you until you slept in death;" and the Viking's wife wept salt tears, and went angry and distressed away, passing round behind the loose skin partition that hung over an upper beam to divide the chamber.
Alone in a corner sat the shriveled frog. She was mute, hut after a short interval she uttered a sort of half-suppressed sigh. It was as if in sorrow a new life had awoke in some nook of her heart. She took a step forward, listened, advanced again, and grasping with her awkward hands the heavy bar that was placed across the door, she removed it softly, and quietly drew away the pin that was stuck in over the latch. She then seized the lighted lamp that stood in the room beyond: it seemed as if a great resolution had given her strength. She made her way down to the dungeon, drew back the iron bolt that fastened the trap-door, and slid down to where the prisoner was lying. He was sleeping. She touched him with her cold, clammy hand; and when he awoke, and beheld the disgusting creature, he shuddered as if he had seen an evil apparition. She drew her knife, severed his bonds, and beckoned to him to follow her.
He named holy names, made the sign of the cross, and when the strange shape stood without moving, he exclaimed, in the words of the Bible,—
" 'Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.' Who art thou? How comes it that, under the exterior of such an animal, there is so much compassionate feeling?"
The frog beckoned to him, and led him, behind tapestry that concealed him, through private passages, out to the stables, and pointed to a horse. He sprang on it, and she also jumped up; and, placing herself before him, she held by the animal's mane. The prisoner understood her movement; and at full gallop they rode, by a path he never could have found, away to the open heath.
He forgot her ugly form; he knew that the grace and mercy of God could be evinced even by means of hobgoblins; he put up earnest prayers, and sang holy hymns. She trembled. Was it the power of the prayers and hymns that affected her thus? or was it a cold shivering at the approach of morning, that was about to dawn? What was it that she felt? She raised herself up into the air, attempted to stop the horse, and was on the point of leaping down; but the Christian priest held her fast with all his might, and chanted a psalm, which he thought would have sufficient strength to overcome the influence of the witchcraft under which she was kept in the hideous disguise of a frog. And die horse dashed more wildly forward, the heavens became red, the first ray of the sun burst forth through the morning sky, and with that clear gush of light came the miraculous change—she was the young beauty, with the cruel, demoniacal spirit. The astonished priest held the loveliest maiden in his arms he had ever beheld; but he was horror-struck, and, springing from the horse, he stopped it, expecting to see it also the victim of some fearful sorcery. Young Helga sprang at the same moment to the ground, her short, childlike dress reaching no farther than her knees. Suddenly she drew her sharp knife from her belt, and rushed furiously upon him.
"Let me but reach thee—let me but reach thee, and my knife shall find its way to thy heart. Thou art pale in thy terror, beardless slave!"
She closed with him; a severe struggle ensued, but it seemed as if some invincible power bestowed strength upon the Christian priest. He held her fast; and the old oak-tree close by came to his assistance, by binding down her feet with its roots, which were half loosened from the earth, her feet having slid under them. There was a fountain near, and he splashed the clear, fresh water over her face and neck, commanding the unclean spirit to pass out of her, and signed her according to the Christian rites; but the baptismal water had no power where the fountain of belief had not streamed upon the heart.
Yet still he was the victor. Yes, more than human strength could have accomplished against the powers of evil, lay in his acts, which, as it were, overpowered her. She suffered her arms to sink, and gazed with wondering looks and blanched cheeks upon the man, whom she deemed some mighty wizard, strong in sorcery and the black art. These were mystic Runes he had recited, and magic characters he had traced in the air. Not for the glancing axe or the well-sharpened knife, if he had brandished these before her eyes, would they have blinked, or would she have winced; but she winced now when he made the sign of the cross upon her brow and bosom, and she stood now like a tame bird, her head bowed down upon her breast.
Then he spoke kindly to her of the work of mercy she had performed towards him that night, when, in the ugly disguise of a frog, she had come to him, had loosened his bonds, and brought him forth to light and life. She also was bound—bound even with stronger fetters than he had been, he said; but she also should be set free, and like him, attain to light And life. He would take her to Hedeby, to the holy Ansgarius. There, in the Christian city, the witchcraft in which she was held would be exorcised; but not before him must she it on horseback, even if she wished it herself—he dared not place her there.
"Thou must sit behind me on the horse, not before me. Thine enchanting beauty has a magic power bestowed by the evil one. I fear it; and yet the victory shall be mine through Christ."
He knelt down and prayed fervently. It seemed as if the surrounding wood had been consecrated into a holy temple; the birds began to sing as if they belonged to the new congregation; the wild thyme sent forth its fragrant scent, as if to take the place of incense; while the Priest proclaimed these Bible words: "To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death; to guide our feet into the way of peace."
And he spoke of everlasting life; and as he discoursed, the horse which had carried them in their wild flight stood still, and pulled at the large bramble-berries, so that the ripest Imes fell on little Helga's hand, inviting her to pluck them for herself.
She allowed herself patiently to be lifted upon the horse, and she sat on its back like a somnambulist, who was neither in a waking nor a sleeping state. The Christian priest tied two small green branches together in the form of a cross, which he held high aloft; and thus they rode through the forest, which became thicker and thicker, and the path, if path it could be called, taking them further into it. The blackthorn stood as if to bar their way, and they had to ride round outside of it; the trickling streams swelled no longer into mere rivulets, but into stagnant pools, and they had to ride round them; but as the soft wind that played among the foliage of the trees was refreshing and strengthening to the travellers, so the mild words that were spoken in Christian charity and truth served to lead the benighted one to light and life.
It is said that a constant dripping of water will make a hollow in the hardest stone, and that the waves of the sea will, in time, round the edges of the sharpest rocks. The dew of grace which fell for little Helga, softened the hard, and smoothed the sharp, in her nature. True, it was not discernible yet in her, nor was she aware of it herself. What knows the seed in the ground of the effect which the refreshing dew and the warm sunbeams are to have in producing from it vegetation and flowers?
As a mother's song to her child, unmarked, makes an impression upon its infant mind, and it prattles after her several of the words without understanding them, but in time these words arrange themselves into order, and they become clearer, so in the case of Helga worked that word which is mighty to save.
They rode out of the forest, and crossed an open heath; then again they entered a pathless wood, where, towards evening, they encountered a band of robbers.
"Whence didst thou steal that beautiful wench?" they shouted, as they stopped the horse, and dragged its two riders down; for they were strong and robust men. The Priest had no other weapon than the knife which he had taken from little Helga. With that he now stood on his defense. One of the robbers swung his ponderous axe, but the young Christian fortunately sprang aside in time to avoid the blow, which then fell on the luckless horse, and the sharp edge entered into its neck; blood streamed from the wound, and the poor animal fell to the ground. Helga, who had only at that moment awoke from her long, deep trance, sprang forward, not cast herself over the gasping creature. The Christian priest placed himself before her as a shield and protection from the lawless men; but one of them struck him on the forehead with an iron hammer, so that it was dashed in, and the blood and brains gushed forth, while he fell down dead on the spot.
The robbers seized Helga by her white arms; but at that moment the sun went down, its last beam faded away, and she was transformed into a hideous-looking frog. The pale green mouth stretched itself over half the face; its arms became thin and slimy; and a broad hand, with webbed-like membranes, extended itself like a fan. Then the robbers withdrew their hold of her in terror and astonishment. She stood like the ugly animal among them, and, according to the nature of a frog, she began to hop about, and, jumping faster than usual, she soon escaped into the depths of the thicket. The robbers were then convinced that it was some evil artifice of the mischief-loving Loke, or else some secret magical deception; and in dismay they fled from the place.
The full moon had risen, and its silver light penetrated even the gloomy recesses of the forest, when from among the low, thick brushwood, in the frog's hideous form, crept the young Helga. She stopped when she reached the bodies of the Christian priest and the slaughtered horse; she gazed on them with eyes that seemed full of tears, and the frog uttered a sound that somewhat resembled the sob of a child who was on the point of crying. She threw herself first over the one, then over the other; then took water up in her webbed hand, and poured it over them; but all was in vain—they were dead, and dead they would remain. She knew that. Wild beasts would soon come and devour their bodies. No, that must not be; therefore she determined to dig a grave in the ground for them, but she had nothing to dig it with except the branch of a tree and both her own hands. With these she worked away until her fingers bled. She found she made so little progress, that she feared the work would never be completed. Then she took water, and washed the dead man's face; covered it with fresh green leaves; brought large boughs of the trees, and laid them over him; sprinkled dead leaves amongst the branches; fetched the largest stones she could carry, and placed them over the bodies, and filled up the openings with moss. When she had done all this she thought that their tomb might be strong and safe; but during her long and arduous labor the night had passed away. The sun arose, and young Helga stood again in all her beauty, with bloody hands, and, for the first time, with tears on her blooming cheeks.
During this change it seemed as if two natures were wrestling within her; she trembled, looked ground her as if awakening from a painful dream, then seized upon the slender branch of a tree near, and held fast by it as if for support; and in another moment she climbed like a cat up to the top of the tree, and placed herself firmly there. For a whole long day she sat there like a frightened squirrel in the deep loneliness of the forest, where all is still and dead, people say. Dead! There flew by butterflies chasing each other, either in sport or in strife. There were ant-hills near, each covered with hundreds of little busy laborers, passing in swarms to and fro. In the air danced innumerable gnats; crowds of buzzing flies swept past; lady-birds, dragon-flies, and other winged insects, floated hither and thither; earth-worms crept forth from the damp ground; moles crawled about; otherwise it was still—dead, as people say and think.
None remarked Helga, except the jays that flew screeching to the top of the tree where she sat; they hopped on the branches around her with impudent curiosity, but there was something in the glance of her eye that speedily drove them away; they were none the wiser about her, nor, indeed, was she about herself. When the evening approached, and the sun began to sink, the transformation time rendered a change of position necessary. She slipped down the tree, and, as the last ray of the sun faded away, she was again the shriveled frog, with the webbed-fingered hands; but her eyes beamed now with a charming expression, which they had not worn in the beautiful form; they were the mildest, sweetest girlish eyes that glanced from behind the mask of a frog—they bore witness to the deeply thinking human mind, the deeply feeling human heart; and these lovely eyes burst into tears,—tears of unfeigned sorrow.
Close to the lately raised grave lay the cross of green boughs that had been tied together—the last work of him who was now dead and gone. Helga took it up, and the thought presented itself to her that it would be well to place a amidst the stones, above him and the slaughtered horse. With the sad remembrances thus awakened, her tears flowed faster; and in the fullness of her heart she scratched the same sign in the earth round the grave—it would be a fence that would guard it so well. And just as she was forming, with both of her hands, the figure of the cross, her magic disguise fell off like a torn glove; and when she had washed herself in the clear water of the fountain near, and in amazement looked at her delicate white hands, she made the sign of the cross between herself and the dead Priest; then her lips moved, then her tongue was loosened; and that name which so often, during the ride through the forest, she had heard spoken and chanted, became audible from her mouth—she exclaimed, "Jesus Christ!"
When the frog's skin had fallen off she was again the beautiful maiden; but her head drooped heavily, her limbs seemed to need repose—she slept.
Her sleep was only a short one, however; she awoke about midnight, and before her stood the dead horse full of life; its eyes glittered, and light seemed to proceed from the wound In its neck. Close to it the dead Christian priest showed himself—"more beautiful than Baldur," the Viking's wife would have said; and yet he came as a flash of fire.
There was an earnestness in his large, mild eyes, a search-pig, penetrating look—grave, almost stern—that thrilled the young proselyte to the utmost depths of her heart. Helga trembled before him; and her memory awoke as if with the power it would exercise on the great day of doom. All the kindness that had been bestowed on her, every affectionate word that had been said to her, came back to her mind with in impression deeper than they had ever before made. She understood that it was love that, during the days of trial here, had supported her—those days of trial in which the offspring of a being with a soul, and a form of mud, had writhed and struggled. She understood that she had only followed the promptings of her own disposition, and had done nothing to help herself. All had been bestowed on her—all had been ordained for her. She bowed herself in lowly humility and shame before Him who must be able to read every thought of the heart; and at that moment she felt as if a purifying flame darted through her—a light from the Holy Spirit.
"Daughter of the dust" said the Christian priest, "from dust, from earth bast thou arisen—from earth shalt thou again arise! A ray from God's invisible sun shall stream on thee. No soul shall be lost. But far off is the time when life takes flight into eternity. I come from the land of the dead. Thou also shalt once pass through the dark valley into you lofty realms of brightness, where grace and perfection dwell. I shall not guide thee now to Hedeby for Christian baptism. First must thou disperse the slimy surface over the deep morass, draw up the living root of thy life and thy cradle, and perform thy appointed task, ere thou darest to seek the holy rite."
And he lifted her up on the horse, and gave her a golden censer like those she had formerly seen at the Viking's castle; and strong was the perfume which issued from it. The open wound on the forehead of the murdered man shone like a diadem of brilliants. He took the cross from the grave, and raised it high above him; then away they went through the air, away over the rustling woods, away over the mountains where the giant heroes are buried, sitting on the slaughtered steed. Still onward the phantom forms pursued their way; and in the clear moonlight glittered the gold circlet round their brows, and the mantle fluttered in the breeze. The magic dragon, who was watching over his treasures, raised his head and gazed at them. The hill dwarfs peeped out from their mountain recesses and plough-furrows. There were swarms of them, with red, blue, and green lights, that looked like the numerous sparks in the ashes of newly-burned paper.
Away over forest and heath, over limpid streams and stagnant pools, they hastened towards "the wild morass," and over it they flew in wide circles. The Christian priest held aloft the cross, which looked as dazzling as burnished gold, and as he did so he chanted the mass hymns. Little Helga sang with him as a child follows its mother's song. She swung the censer about as if before the altar, and there came a perfume so strong, so powerful in its effect, that it caused the reeds and sedges to blossom; every sprout shot up from the deep bottom; everything that had life raised itself up; and with the rest arose a mass of water-lilies, which looked like a carpet of embroidered flowers. Upon it lay a sleeping female, young and beautiful. Helga thought she beheld herself mirrored in the calm water; but it was her mother whom she saw—the Marsh-king's wife—the Princess from the banks of the Nile.
The dead Christian priest prayed that the sleeper might be lifted upon the horse. At first the latter sank under the additional burden, as if its body were but a winding-sheet fluttering in the wind; but the sign of the cross gave strength to the airy phantom, and all three rode on it to the solid ground.
'Then crowed the cock at the Viking's castle, and the apparitions seemed to disappear in a mist, which was wafted away by the wind; but the mother and daughter stood together.
"Is that myself I behold in the deep water?" exclaimed the mother.
"Is that myself I see on the shining surface?" said the ghter.
And they approached each other till form met form in a warm embrace, and wildly the mother's heart beat when she perceived the truth.
"My child! my heart's own flower! my lotus from the watery deep!"
And she encircled her daughter with her arm, and wept. I let tears caused a new sensation to Helga—they were the baptism of love for her.
"I came hither in the magic disguise of a swan, and I threw it off," said the mother. "I sank through the swaying mire deep into the mud of the morass, which like a wall closed around me; but soon I perceived that I was in a fresher stream—some power drew me deeper and still deeper down. I felt my eyelids heavy with sleep; I slumbered and I dreamed. I thought that I was again in the interior of the Egyptian pyramid, but before me still stood the heaving alder-trunk that had so terrified me on the surface of the morass. I saw the cracks in the bark, and they changed their appearance, and became hieroglyphics. It was the mummy's coffin I was looking at; it burst open, and out issued from it the monarch of a thousand years ago—the mummy form, black as pitch, dark and shining as a wood-snail, or as that thick, slimy mud. It was the Marsh-king, or the mummy of the pyramids; I knew not which. He threw his arms around me, and I felt as if I were dying. I only felt that I was alive again when I found something warm on my breast, and there a little bird was flapping with its wings, twittering and singing. It flew from my breast high up in the dark, heavy space; but a long green string bound it still to me. I heard and I comprehended its tones and its longing: 'Freedom! Sunshine! To the father!' Then I thought of my father in my distant home, that dear, sunny land—my life, my affection—and I loosened the cord, and let it flutter away home to my father. Since that hour I have not dreamed. I have slept a long, dark, heavy sleep until now, when the strange sounds and perfume awoke me and set me free."
That green tie between the mother's heart and the bird's wings, where now did it flutter? what now had become of it? The Stork alone had seen it. The cord was the green stem; the knot was the shining flower—the cradle for that child who now had grown up in beauty, and again rested near her mother's heart.
And as they stood there embracing each other, the Stork father flew in circles round them, hastened back to his nest, took from it the magic feather disguises that had been hidden away for so many years, cast one down before each of them, and then joined them as they raised themselves from the ground like two white swans.
"Let us now have some chat," said the Stork-father; "now we understand each other's language, even though one bird's beak is not exactly made after the pattern of another's. It is most fortunate that you came to-night; to-morrow we should all have been away—the mother, the young ones, and myself. We are off to the south. Look at me! I am an old friend from the country where the Nile flows, and so is the mother, though there is more kindness in her heart than in her tongue. She always believed that the Princess would make her escape. The young ones and I brought these swan garbs up here. Well, how glad I am, and how fortunate it is that I am here still! At dawn of day we shall take our departure—a large party of storks. We shall fly foremost, and if you will follow us you will not miss the way. The young ones and myself will have an eye to you."
"And the lotus flower I was to have brought," said the Egyptian Princess; "it shall go within the swan disguise, by my side, and I shall have my heart's darling with me. Then homewards—homewards!"
Then Helga said that she could not leave the Danish land until she had once more seen her foster-mother, the Viking's excellent wife. To Helga's thoughts arose every pleasing recollection, every kind word, even every tear her adopted mother had shed on her account; and, at that moment, she felt that she almost loved that mother best.
"Yes, we must go to the Viking's castle," said the Stork; "there my young ones and their mother await me. How they will stare! The mother does not speak much; but, though she is rather abrupt, she means well. I will presently make a little noise, that she may know we are coming."
And he clattered with his bill as he and the swans flew close to the Viking's castle.
Within it all were lying in deep sleep. The Viking's wife had retired late to rest; she lay in anxious thought about little Helga, who now for full three days and nights had disappeared along with the Christian priest: she had probably assisted him in his escape, for it was her horse that was missing from the stables. By what power had all this been accomplished? The Viking's wife thought upon the wondrous works she had heard had been performed by the immaculate Christ, and by those who believed on him and followed him.
Her changing thoughts assumed the shapes of life in her dreams; she fancied she was still awake, lost in deep reflection; she imagined that a storm arose—that she heard the sea roaring in the east and in the west, the waves dashing from the Kattegat and the North Sea; the hideous serpents which encircled the earth in the depths of the ocean strug filing in deadly combat. It was the night of the gods—Ragnarok, as the heathens called the last hour, when all should be changed, even the high gods themselves. The reverberating horn sounded, and forth over the rainbow rode the gods, clad in steel, to fight the final battle; before them flew the winged Valkyries, and the rear was brought up by the shades of the dead giant-warriors; the whole atmosphere was illuminated around them by the Northern lights, but darkness conquered all—it was an awful hour!
And near the terrified Viking's wife sat upon the floor little Helga in the ugly disguise of the frog; and she shivered and worked her way up to her foster-mother, who took her in her lap, and, disgusting as she was in that form, lovingly caressed her. The air was filled with the sounds of the clashing of swords, the blows of clubs, the whizzing of arrows, like a violent hail-storm. The time was come when heaven and earth should be destroyed, the stars should fall, and all be swallowed up below in Surtur's fire; but a new earth and a new heaven she knew were to come; the corn was to wave where the sea now rolled over the golden sands; the unknown God at length reigned; and to him ascended Baldur, the mild, the lovable, released from the kingdom of death. He came; the Viking's wife beheld him; she recognized his countenance: it was that of the captive Christian priest. "Immaculate Christ!" she cried aloud; and whilst uttering this holy name, she impressed a kiss upon the ugly brow of the frog-child. Then fell the magic disguise, and Helga stood before her in all her radiant beauty, gentle as she had never looked before, and with speaking eyes. She kissed her foster-mother's hands, blessed her for all the care and kindness which she, in the days of distress and trial, had lavished upon her; thanked her for the thoughts with which she had inspired her mind; thanked her for mentioning that name which she now repeated, "Immaculate Christ!" and then lifting herself up in the suddenly adopted shape of a graceful swan, little Helga spread her wings widely out with the rustling sound of a flock of birds of passage on the wing, and in another moment she was gone.
The Viking's wife awoke, and on the outside of her case-went were to be heard the same rustling and flapping of wings. It was the time, she knew, when the storks generally took their departure; it was them she heard. She wished to see them once more before their journey to the south, and bid them farewell. She got up, went out on the balcony, and then she saw, on the roof of an adjoining outhouse, stork upon stork, while all around the place, above the highest aces, flew crowds of them, wheeling in large circles; but below, on the brink of the well, where little Helga had but no lately often sat, and frightened her with her wild actions, sat now two swans, looking up at her with expressive eyes; and she remembered her dream, which seemed to her almost a reality. She thought of Helga in the appearance of a swan; she thought of the Christian priest, and felt a strange gladness in her heart.
The swans fluttered their wings and bowed their necks, as if they were saluting her; and the Viking's wife opened her arms, as if she understood them, and smiled amidst her tears and manifold thoughts.
Then, with a clattering of bills and a noise of wings, the storks all turned towards the south to commence their long journey.
"We will not wait any longer for the swans," said the Stork-mother. "If they choose to go with us, they must come at once; we cannot be lingering here till the plovers begin their flight. It is pleasant to travel as we do in a family party, not like the chaffinches and strutting cocks. Among their species the males fly by themselves, and the females by themselves: that, to say the least of it, is not at all seemly. What a miserable sound the stroke of the swans' wings has, compared with ours!"
"Every one flies in his own way," said the Stork-father. "Swans fly slantingly, cranes in triangles, and plovers in serpentine windings."
"Name not serpents or snakes when we are about to fly up yonder," said the Stork-mother. "It will only make the young ones long for a sort of food which they can't get just now."
"Are these the high hills, beneath yonder, of which I have heard?" asked Helga, in the disguise of a swan.
"These are thunder-clouds driving under us," replied her mother.
"What are these white clouds that, seem so stationary?" asked Helga.
"These are the mountains covered with everlasting snow that thou seest," said her mother; and they flew over the Alps toward the blue Mediterranean.
"There is Africa! there is Egypt!" cried, in joyful accents, under her swan disguise, the daughter of the Nile, as high up in the air she descried, like a whitish-yellow, billow-shaped streak, her native soil.
The storks also saw it, and quickened their flight.
"I smell the mud of the Nile and the wet frogs," exclaimed the Stork-mother. "It makes my mouth water. Yes, now ye shall have nice things to eat, and ye shall see the marabout, the ibis, and the crane: they are all related to our family, but are not nearly so handsome as we are. They think a great deal, however, of themselves, particularly the ibis: he has been spoiled by the Egyptians, who make a mummy of him, and stuff him with aromatic herbs. I would rather be stuffed with living frogs; and that is what ye would all like also, and what ye shall be. Better a good dinner when one is living, than to be made a grand show of when one is dead. That is what I think, and I know I am right."
"The storks have returned," was told in the splendid house on the banks of the Nile, where, within the open hall, upon soft cushions, covered with a leopard's skin, the King lay, neither living nor dead, hoping for the lotus flower from the deep morass of the north. His kindred and his attendants were standing around him.
And into the hall flew two magnificent white swans—they had arrived with the storks. They cast off the dazzling magic feather garbs, and there stood two beautiful women, as like each other as two drops of water. They leaned over the pallid, faded old man; they threw back their long hair; and, as little Helga bowed over her grandfather, his cheeks flushed; his eyes sparkled, life returned to his stiffened limbs. The old man rose hale and hearty; his daughter and his granddaughter pressed him in their arms, as if in a glad morning salutation after a long, heavy dream.
And there was joy throughout the palace, and in the Storks' nest also; but there the joy was principally for the good food, the swarms of nice frogs; and whilst the learned noted down in haste, and very carelessly, the history of the two princesses and of the lotus flower as an important event, and a blessing to the royal house, and to the country in general, the old Storks related the history in their own way to their own family; but not until they had all eaten enough, else these would have had other things to think of than listening to any story.
"Now thou wilt be somebody," whispered the Stork-mother; "it is only reasonable to expect that."
"O! what should I be?" said the Stork-father. "And what have I done? Nothing!"
"Thou hast done more than all the others put together. Without thee and the young ones the two princesses would never have seen Egypt again, or cured the old man. Thou wilt be nothing! Thou shouldst, at the very least, be appointed court doctor, and have a title bestowed on thee, which our young ones would inherit, and their little ones after them. Thou dost look already exactly like an Egyptian doctor in my eyes."
The learned and the wise lectured upon "the fundamental notion," as they called it which pervaded the whole tissue of events. "Love bestows life." Then they expounded their meaning in this manner:—
"The warm sunbeam was the Egyptian Princess; she descended to the Marsh-king, and from their meeting sprang a flower"—
"I cannot exactly repeat the words," said the Stork-father, who had been listening to the discussion from the roof, and was now telling in his nest what he had heard. "What they said was not easy of comprehension, but it was so exceedingly wise that they were immediately rewarded with rank and marks of distinction. Even the Prince's head cook got a handsome present—that was, doubtless, for having prepared the repast."
"And what didst thou get?" asked the Stork-mother. "They had no right to overlook the most important actor in the affair, and that was thyself. The learned only babbled about the matter. But so it is always."
Late at night, when the now happy household reposed in peaceful slumbers, there was one who was still awake; and that was not the Stork-father, although he was standing upon his nest on one leg, and dozing like a sentry. No; little Helga was awake, leaning over the balcony, and gazing through the clear air at the large blazing stars, larger and brighter than she had ever seen theiri in the north, and yet the same. She was thinking upon the Viking's wife near "the wild morass;" upon her foster-mother's mild eyes; upon the tears she had shed over the poor frog-child, who was now standing under the light of the glorious stars, on the banks of the Nile, in the soft spring air. She thought of the love in the heathen woman's breast—the love she had shown towards an unfortunate being, who, in human form, was as vicious as a wild beast, and in the form of a noxious animal was horrible to look upon or to touch. She gazed at the glittering stars, and thought of the shining circle on the brow of the dead Priest, when they flew over the forest and the morass. Tones seemed again to sound on her ears—words she had heard spoken when they rode together, and she sat like an evil spirit there—words about the great Source of love, the highest love, that which included all races and all generations. Yes, what was not bestowed, won, obtained? Helga's thoughts embraced by day, by night, the whole of her good fortune; she stood contemplating it like a child who turns precipitately from the giver to the beautiful gifts; she passed on to the increasing happiness which might come, and would come. Higher and higher rose her thoughts, till she so lost herself in the dreams of future bliss that she forgot the Giver of all good. It was the superabundance of youthful spirits which caused her imagination to take so bold a flight. Her eyes were flashing with her thoughts, when suddenly a loud noise in the court beneath recalled her to mundane objects. She saw there two enormous ostriches running angrily round in a narrow circle. She had never before seen these large, heavy birds, who looked as if their wings were clipped; and when she asked what had happened to them, she heard for the first time the Egyptian legend about the ostrich.
Its race had once been beautiful, its wings broad and strong. Then one evening the largest forest birds said to it, "Brother, shall we fly to-morrow, God willing, to the river and drink?" And the Ostrich answered, "Yes, I will." At dawn they flew away, first up toward the sun, higher and higher, the Ostrich far before the others. It flew on in its pride up toward the light; it relied upon its own strength, not upon the Giver of that strength; it did not say, "God willing." Then the avenging angel drew aside the veil from the streaming flames, and in that moment the bird's wings were burnt, and he sank in wretchedness to the earth. Neither he nor his species were ever afterwards able to raise themselves up in the air. They fly timidly—hurry along in a narrow space; they are a warning to mankind in all our thoughts and all our enterprises to say, "God willing."
And Helga humbly bowed her head, looked at the ostriches rushing past, saw their surprise and their simple joy at the sight of their own large shadows on the white wall, and more serious thoughts took possession of her mind, adding to her present happiness—inspiring brighter hopes for the future, What was yet to happen? The best for her, "God willing."
In the early spring, when the storks were about to go north again, Helga took from her arm a golden bracelet, scratched her name upon it, beckoned to the Stork-father, hung the gold band round his neck, and bade him carry it to the Viking's wife, who would thereby know that her adopted daughter lived, was happy, and remembered her.
"It is heavy to carry," thought the Stork, when it was hung round his neck; "but gold and honor must not be flung away upon the high road. The stork brings luck—they must admit that up yonder."
"Thou layest gold, and I lay eggs," said the Stork-mother; "but thou layest only once, and I lay every year. But neither of us gets any thanks, which is very vexatious."
"One knows, however, that one has done one's duty," said the Stork-father.
"But that can't be hung up to be seen and lauded; and if it could be, fine words butter no parsnips."
So they flew away.
The little nightingale that sang upon the tamarind-tree would also soon be going north, up yonder near "the wild morass." Helga had often heard it—she would send a message by it; for, since she had flown in the magical disguise of the swan, she had often spoken to the storks and the swallows. The nightingale would therefore understand her, and she prayed it to fly to the beech-wood upon the Jutland peninsula, where the tomb of stone and branches had been erected. She asked it to beg all the little birds to protect the sacred spot, and frequently to sing over it.
And the nightingale flew away, and time flew also.
And the eagle stood upon a pyramid, and looked in the autumn on a stately procession with richly laden camels, with armed and splendidly equipped men on snorting Arabiain horses shining white like silver, with red trembling nostrils, with long thick manes hanging down to their slender legs. Rich guests—a royal Arabian Prince, handsome as a prince should be—approached the gorgeous palace where the storks' nests stood empty. Those who dwelt in these nests were away in the far north, but they were soon to return; and they arrived on the very day that was most marked by joy and festivities. It was a wedding feast; and the beautiful Helga, clad in silk and jewels, was the bride. The bridegroom was the young Prince from Arabia. They sat at the upper end of the table, between her mother and grandfather.
But she looked not at the bridegroom's bronzed and manly cheek, where the dark beard curled. She looked not at his black eyes, so full of fire, that were fastened upon her. She gazed outwards upon the bright, twinkling stars that glittered in the heavens.
Then a loud rustling of strong wings was heard in the air. The storks had come back; and the old pair, fatigued as they were after their journey, and much in need of rest, flew immediately down to the rails of the veranda, for they knew what festival was going on. They had heard already at the frontiers that Helga had them painted upon the wall, introducing them into her own history.
"It was a kind thought of hers," said the Stork-father.
"It is very little," said the Stork-mother. "She could hardly have done less."
And when Helga saw them she rose, and went out into the veranda to stroke their backs. The old couple bowed their necks, and the youngest little ones felt themselves much honored by being so well received.
And Helga looked up towards the shining stars, that glittered more and more brilliantly; and between them and her she beheld in the air a transparent form. It floated nearer to her. It was the dead Christian priest, who had also come to her bridal solemnity—come from the kingdom of heaven.
"The glory and beauty up yonder far exceed all that is known on earth," he said.
And Helga pleaded softly, earnestly, that but for one moment she might be allowed to ascend up thither, and to cast one single glance on those heavenly scenes.
Then he raised her amidst splendor and magnificence, and stream of delicious music. It was not around her only that all seemed to be brightness and music, but the light seemed to stream in her soul, and the sweet tones to be echoed there. Words cannot describe what she felt.
"We must now return," he said; "thou wilt be missed."
"Only one more glance!" she entreated. "Only one short minute!"
"We must return to earth—the guests are all departing."
"But one more glance—the last!"
And Helga stood again in the veranda, but all the torches outside were extinguished; all the light in the bridal saloon was gone; the Storks were gone; no guests were to be seen—no bridegroom. All had vanished in these three short minutes.
Then Helga felt anxious. She wandered through the vast empty halls—there slept foreign soldiers. She opened the side door which led to her own chambers, and, as she fancied she was entering them, she found herself in the garden: it had not stood there. Red streaks crossed the skies; it was the dawn of day.
Only three minutes in heaven, and a whole night on earth had passed away.
Then she perceived the Storks. She called to them, spoke their language, and the old Stork turned his head toward her, and listened, and drew near.
"Thou dost speak our language," said he. "What wouldst thou? Whence comest thou, thou foreign maiden?"
"It is I—it is Helga! Dost thou not know me? Three minutes ago we were talking together in the veranda."
"That is a mistake," said the Stork. "Thou must have dreamt this."
"No, no," she said, and reminded him of the Viking's castle, "the wild morass," the journey thence.
Then the old Stork winked with his eyes.
"That is a very old story; I have heard it from my great-great-grandmother's time. Yes, truly, there was once in Egypt a Princess from the Danish land; but she disappeared on the evening of her wedding, many hundred years ago, and was never seen again. Thou canst read that thyself upon the monument in the garden, upon which are sculptured both swans and storks, and above it stands one like thyself in the white marble."
And so it was. Helga saw, comprehended it all, and sank on her knees.
The sun burst forth in all its morning splendor, and as, in former days, with its first rays fell the frog disguise, and the lovely form became visible: so now, in the baptism of light, arose a form of celestial beauty, purer than the air, as if in a veil of radiance to the Father above. The body sank into dust, and where she had stood lay a faded lotus flower!
"Well, this is a new ending to the story," said the Stork-father, "which I by no means expected; but I am pleased with it."
"What will the young ones say to it?" wondered the Stork-mother.
"Ah! that, indeed, is of the most consequence," said the Stork-father.