Once upon a time the water fairies made a piano for the Singing Brook.
It took them days and days to gather up enough rocks to make the piano, but they worked hard, and by and by there was a pile of smooth white pebbles and gray granite stones, of all shapes and sizes—some of them moss-covered, which made the music very soft.
These they placed across the pathway of the Singing Brook, that she might find it as a sweet surprise, and the songs she sang as she trailed her waters across the fairy piano were beautiful indeed.
She sang of the soft twitter of woodland birds, of the sunlight sifting through the trees, and of the dance of the moonlight zephyrs with the leaves. One morning two little brownies, hand in hand, walked through the forest in search of something to do. They were dressed in suits of velvety brown, with deep collars of lace about their throats, and sashes and slippers of brown.
On and on through the woods they walked, forgetting that the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree had told them not to go far.
She it was who was their only mother, and gave them a place to sleep in her shady hollow. She it was who loved them most, and lent her branches to the spinning spiders who spun for them their beautiful collars, and she it was who hushed them to sleep at night with story and song, and sheltered them when winds and rain raged,—safe from all harm.
A loving stepmother was the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree, and the little brownies knew no other.
But to-day they had wandered away from her watchful care, and were following along the mossy path that lay like a ribbon of green through the woods.
By and by they came to the side of the Singing Brook, and clapped their hands at the pretty piano the water fairies had made for her surprise. But the Singing Brook was fast asleep.
It is sad to tell, but the little brownies thought it would be great fun to throw stones, so without stopping to think who had gathered the stones and placed them there for the Singing Brook, they began to throw, and threw them all away.
First, they tried to see which could throw higher; then, which could throw further. And then they began throwing at the spotted frogs that hopped in the grass, and at the frightened birds, hurrying home to their birdlings, and at the bushy-tailed squirrels, and at the little white rabbits who, with ears laid back and short tails raised, scurried through the woods as fast as ever they could to get out of reach of the flying stones.
By and by all the stones were gone, and not one was left for the pretty Singing Brook. When she woke up and found someone had taken away her pretty piano she was very sad indeed, and ran quickly away to tell the water fairies, crying as she ran.
"Hush, hush, pretty one!" said the queen of the water fairies; "a little brook should only sing. We will try and find thy pretty piano, or else make thee another one."
So up and down the banks the water fairies searched, but no piano could they find,—so at last they climbed into their sunbeam chariots and rolled away through the forest woods, hunting every nook and corner for the piano of the Singing Brook.
By and by they found a stone here, and a stone there, and a stone yonder, and,—yes, by and by they found the two little brownies, each with a stone shut close in his hand,—lying asleep in the hollow of the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree.
"Wake, wake!" cried the water fairies, sprinkling rain drops into their faces. "Why have you taken away the Singing Brook's piano? She is sad and wishes it back again."
"Oh, we did not know!" mumbled the drowsy brownies. "We are sleepy; let us alone."
"Did not know?" stormed the water fairies. "Did not know? That is never an excuse for anyone! Those who do not know should be kept in prison and not allowed to roam the forest woods.
"To-day we have found delicate flowers bruised and broken, we have found frightened birds with blood-stained wings, we have found timid white rabbits, stiff with fright, and squirrels with broken limbs! And yet, you did not know!
"To be stoned as you have stoned shall be your fate, that you may do no more mischief,—come."
But the poor little brownies did not want to be stoned, and they were too stiff with fright themselves to move, so I do not know what they would have done had it not been for their stepmother, the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree.
She was both grieved and surprised at what she had heard; surprised to hear that the brownies she sheltered and loved would take away the piano from the Singing Brook,—grieved that they would stone the timid wild creatures of the woods. What a pity they did not know!
"Kind fairies," she said, rustling her leaves ever so softly, "will you listen to me?
"The brownies you see there have no mother; perhaps that is the reason why they did not know. Because of this I have sheltered and loved them, though when they strayed away I could not follow to teach them right from wrong.
"Spare them, then, from the cruel stones, I pray thee, and when they have gathered up again the stones for the Singing Brook, send them back to me.
"I shall make for them a prison house, wherein they shall be safely locked, and never shall they stray therefrom, unless taken out by the fairies themselves."
"It is well," replied the water fairies; "thy wish is granted thee, kind tree, because of thy love for these mischievous brownies,—but see to it that they stray no more from thy side, lest they forget and other mischief do."
Then, whirling their swift little sunbeam chariots, the water fairies galloped away through the forest, leaving the brownies to gather up the stones they had thrown away, and carry them again to the Singing Brook.
Some of them they could never find, and for this reason the song of the brook is sometimes sad.
The Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree kept her promise, and all through the moonlit night she worked away on their prison room, making it as dainty and snug as possible.
Outside it is round and green and very full of prickles. But inside there are two velvety cradles, as soft as down, and fit for the cradle of a king's baby.
To-day you may find it out in the woods, with the brownies locked snugly within, still dressed in their suits of velvety brown.
Do not try to let them out of their prison,—you will surely prick your fingers.
And do not pound them out with stones, either,—for the sake of the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree.
Wait, it is the frost fairies who will turn them out! They will come tripping through the silent woods, scattering their white powder everywhere. They will tap gently on the prison doors of the little brownies, and will laugh when the doors burst open and the little brownies come tumbling down to the ground beneath the Wide-Spreading Chestnut Tree.
Peep into their thorn-clad prison, so green and round, and you will see the snug little cradles as soft as down.