Once upon a time there was a magic pool owned by the fairies. Its waters were as still and smooth as glass,—so very smooth that it was often called the mirror pool by those who looked into its calm, clear waters.
Now the fairies never make anything just for beauty alone.
To be sure, everything they make is beautiful, but oftentimes this beauty is hidden and you have to search for it.
This pleases the fairies, because it makes an earth-child better to search for a beautiful thing, and the fairies clap their hands in great joy whenever it is found.
Now, close to the edge of the pool, so close that their shadows lay reflected on the smooth waters, there grew a group of very strange trees.
Neither leaf nor bud nor blossom had these trees, so that you might think them quite dead, unless you looked very closely, or perhaps chipped off a small piece of bark—and then you could see the fresh sap beneath.
The very old people, who had lived a long, long time, said the fairies had beautiful deeds locked within these trees,—deeds that had not yet blossomed out, and they were waiting for someone in the earth-world to unlock them.
Now this seemed very strange, but the very old people had a reason for saying this, and I will tell you why.
Years and years before this time there had been two other trees not far from the pool—a poplar and a hazel. And they were also bare, though now it is quite the other way, for as you know, both are among our most beautiful trees in the early spring time.
But anyway, so the story ran, they were once always bare, reaching their slim network of brown twigs toward the heavens, without the sign of a leaf or blossom.
One morning at this time there was a frightful fire, and a brave earth-boy, at the risk of his own life, had plunged through the hissing flames and brought from a burning house a tiny sleeping baby. After placing it safe in the arms of the weeping mother he had turned away with a smile, though his face and arms were blistered by the great heat of the fire.
It was on that very day that the very old people noticed with great surprise that one of the trees had blossoms on it for the very first time. It was the poplar tree, and on the petal of every blossom could be seen the orange-red picture of a flame of fire,—and so you will find it to this day.
Now with the other tree—the hazel—it was very much the same.
Not long after the fire a shepherd boy, hearing a little lamb cry, climbed down a rope into a deep, black cavern, and saved the life of the poor little frightened lamb, bleating on the sharp stones below,—bringing it safe to the top and binding up its bruised body. Then it was, as if by magic, the hazel tree budded out, and decked its slender brown limbs in beautiful rope-like tassels, hanging in mossy pendants and swaying in the breeze, as if to remind you of the rope which had saved the wounded lamb.
So it seemed that what the very old people said about the trees was really true, and that they did have beautiful deeds locked within them—but it seemed strange that the group left near the pool had never blossomed, and people believed they had something to do with the magic pool.
Maybe so, but, at any rate, the pool was a very queer thing. Some people liked to look into it, and some people did not.
This was because the pool always reflected your picture just as you really and truly were—inside and out—and not as you liked to think you were.
All of the good deeds and all of the bad deeds, deep down in your very heart, draw their pictures on your face, and the fairies made this magic pool so it would surely show these pictures to you.
So you may guess why it was that some people did not like to look into the pool.
Once, it was said, a little earth-boy looked into the pool—a little boy who always wanted his way about everything.
He would never play any game except the game he liked himself. He would never do anything he did not like to do—never go anywhere he did not like to go.
Indeed, he always fussed and fretted and kicked when asked to do anything he did not like to do.
This little boy looked into the clear, still waters of the pool one day, it was said, and in place of the handsome, manly little boy he expected to see smiling back at him from the mirror pool—why, there was only the horny head of a butting, kicking goat fastened to the little boy's shoulders, just where the handsome head should have been, you know.
And the little boy turned away in anger, and hurried off from the pool, because he did not like to see just what he really favoured.
And so it was that some children never dared to look into the truthful waters of the pool.
They could not bear to see quarrelsome dogs and fighting cats and growling wolves and poisonous snakes in place of the fair, smiling faces every little girl and every little boy should wear.
But there were the other children who liked nothing better than to gaze into the still, clear waters of the magic pool—sweet children they were, whose hands were always helping, whose eyes were always kind.
What these children saw reflected from the pool must have been beautiful indeed, because of the smiles that dimpled their fair faces, and the light that danced in their eyes.
They never wearied of hearing the very old people tell the story of the poplar blossom, with its rosy flame, and of the hazel with its rope-like, tasselled fringes swinging in the breeze.
"And tell us now why the tall, strange trees so near the pool have never blossomed," they often asked, when the stories were finished.
But at this the very old people only shook their heads and answered:
"We cannot tell. Wait! the fairies know, and they will tell you by and by."
And so they did; and that is what I am going to tell you now.