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Howard Pyle



Mother Hildegarde

O NCE upon a time there lived a king who had an only daughter, and the princess was more handsome than I can tell you. But the queen had been dead for so long that the king began to think about marrying a second time. So the upshot of the matter was that by and by there came a step-mother into the house, and a step-sister besides, for the new queen had a daughter of her own. And that was a sorrowful thing for the princess.

At first the new queen was kind enough to the poor girl; but before long there were other cakes baking in that oven, for the step-mother began saying to herself: "See now, if this hussy were out of the way my own dear girl would be the first in the land, and might, in time, have the kingdom for her very own." So, in the end, the poor princess found but little peace in the same house with the woman and her daughter.

One day the step-mother, the step-sister, and the pretty princess sat together in the castle garden beside a deep cistern of water. By the cistern hung a silver cup for the use of those who wished to drink. And as they sat there the princess grew thirsty, and would have taken the cup to quench her thirst, but the step-mother stopped her.

"See now," said she, "if you must drink you will have to stoop to the water, for the silver cup is too good for such as you."

"Alas!" said the poor princess, "the time was when a cup of gold was not too good for me!" And thereupon she began to weep as though her heart would break. But there was no help for it; if she would drink she must stoop for it; so down she knelt and began to drink from the deep water without any thought or fear of harm.

But as the princess thus stooped and drank, the wicked step-mother came behind her without her knowing it, and gave her a push so that she fell headlong into the cistern and sank to the bottom. After that the step-mother and the step-sister went back to the castle again, rejoicing and thinking that now they were rid of the princess for good and all, and that the step-sister would be the first in all of the land.

But in this they counted black chicks before they were hatched; for when the princess sank down to the bottom of the cistern, she found herself in a great wide meadow, all covered over with bright flowers, as many as there are stars in the sky at night.

Across this meadow she went on and on and on; but never a single soul did she see until at last she came to a great, fine house that stood all alone by itself, without another to be seen, near or afar. In the doorway of the house stood an old woman, whom the princess saw very plainly was not like common folk.


And she was right, for the old woman was none other than Mother Hildegarde, who is so wise that she knows almost as much as Father Time himself. Thus it was that she knew all about the princess, and who she was and whence she came, without the asking. "Listen," said she, "I will give you food and lodging, and will pay you well if you will serve me faithfully for the space of a year and a day."

That the princess was willing enough to do, for she was both tired and hungry; so into the house she went to serve Mother Hildegarde for a year and a day.

But it was no common work that the princess did, I can tell you; for listen: When she blew the bellows that the fire might blaze the brighter, the wind swept over the great brown world so that every windmill turned around and around from Jacob Pfennigdrummel's to the shores of the great black sea at the north end of the earth; and when she sprinkled the clothes, the blessed rain came tumbling down till all the gutters ran with water so that little folk had either to stay home from school or to go thither under great, wide umbrellas.

But of all this the pretty princess knew nothing whatever, but only thought that she blew the fire and sprinkled the clothes. And that is often the way of the world—at least, so Tommy Pfouce tells me.

Well, one day Mother Hildegarde said to the princess: "See, now; I am going off on a journey, and it may be a while before I am back again. Here are the keys of all of the house, and you are free to go wherever you choose. Only here is a black key that unlocks a little room into which you must not go; for if you do I will be sure to know it, and ill-luck will be certain to happen to you." Then off she went, and the princess was left all alone.

The first day the lass went here, and the second day she went there, and the third day she had gone everywhere except into the little room where Mother Hildegarde had told her not to go; and she never wanted anything in all of her life as much as she wanted just to peep into that little room.

"I wonder," said she to herself—"I wonder what harm there could be in it if I were only to take one little peep?" So the upshot of the matter was that she went there just to look at the outside of the door.

"I wonder," said she, "if the key will fit the lock?"

Yes; it did fit it.

"I wonder," said she, "if the key will turn the bolt?"

Yes, it did turn it.

"I wonder," said she, "whether it would do any harm just to peep into the room?"

And she did peep into it.

Believe me or not, all the same I tell you the truth when I say that there was not one thing in the room but a covered jar, that stood in the middle of the floor. Of course the princess must have just one peep into the jar, for as she had gone as far as she had, there could be no more harm in this than in the other. So she went to the jar and took off the lid and peeped into it.


And what do you think was in it? Nothing but water!

But as the princess looked into the water she saw Mother Hildegarde as though she were a great way off, and the Mother Hildegarde whom she saw in the water was looking at nobody in all of the world but her. As soon as the princess saw what she saw, she clapped down the lid of the jar again; but she clapped it down just a moment too late, for a lock of hair fell down over her face, and one single hair touched the water in the jar.

Yes; only one single hair. But when the princess looked she saw that every lock upon her head was turned to pure gold. Then if anybody in all of the world was frightened it was the poor princess. She twisted up the hair upon the top of her head and bound her kerchief about it so that it was all hidden; but all the same the hair was there, and could never be changed from the gold again.

Just then who should come walking into the house but Mother Hildegarde herself. "Have you obeyed all that I have told you?" said she.

"Yes," said the princess, but all the same she was so frightened that her knees knocked together.

"Did you go into the little room?" said Mother Hildegarde.

"No," said the princess; but her heart beat so that she could hardly speak.

Then Mother Hildegarde snatched the kerchief off of the princess's head, and her golden hair came tumbling down all about her shoulders, glittering, so that it was the finest sight that you could see between here and Nomansland.

"Then how came your hair to be like that?" said Mother Hildegarde.

"I do not know," said the princess; and then she began crying and sobbing as though her heart would break.

"See now," said Mother Hildegarde; "you have served me well for all of the time that you have been with me, therefore I will have pity upon you, only you must tell me the truth. Did you go into the little room while I was away?"

But for all that Mother Hildegarde spoke ever so kindly the princess could not bring herself to speak the truth.

"No," said she.

"Then how came your hair to be like that?" said Mother Hildegarde.

"I do not know," said the princess.

At this Mother Hildegarde frowned till her eyes burned like sparks of fire. She caught the princess by the arm and struck her staff upon the ground, and away they flew through the air till the wind whistled behind them. So by and by they came to a great forest, out of which there was no path to be found either to the east or the west or the north or the south.

"See now," said Mother Hildegarde, "because you have been faithful in your labor with me I will give you still another chance. But if you do not answer me truthfully this time, I will leave you alone here in the forest, and will take away your speech so that you will be as dumb as the beasts of the field. Did you go into the little room?"

But still the princess hardened her heart and answered "No."

"Then how came your hair to be like that?" said Mother Hildegarde.

"I do not know," said the princess.

Then Mother Hildegarde went away, and left the princess alone in the forest as she had promised to do; and not only that, she took away the princess's speech, so that she was quite dumb. So in the forest the princess dwelt for a long, long time, and there she would have died of hunger, only that Mother Hildegarde still cared for her and sent the wood-pigeons to feed her, which they did from day to day and from week to week and from month to month. As for the princess, she lived in the branches of the trees, for she was afraid of the wild beasts that roamed through the wood.


By and by her clothes became nothing but rags and tatters, and then she had to weave her beautiful hair about her, so that she was clad all from head to foot in her golden tresses, and in them alone.

Well, one time it happened that a young king came riding into the forest to hunt the wild boars, and many of his people came along with him. Some of those who rode on before came suddenly to where a great flock of wood-pigeons flew about in the tree-tops above them. But when they looked up, you may guess how wonder-struck they were when they saw that the pigeons were feeding a beautiful maiden who sat in the branches above, clad all in her golden hair. Back they rode to the young king and told him all that they had seen, and up he came as fast as he could ride. There he saw the maiden and how beautiful she was, and he called to her to come down. But she only shook her head, for she could not speak, and she was ashamed of being found where she was. Then the young king, seeing that she would not come down from the branches to him, climbed up himself and brought her.

He wrapped his cloak about her and set her on his horse in front of him, and then he and all that were with him rode away out of the dark forest and under the blue sky, until they had come to the king's castle. But all the time the princess did nothing but weep and weep, for she could not speak a single word. The young king gave her to his mother to care for, who was none too glad to have such a dumb maiden brought into the house, even though the lass was as pretty as milk and rose-leaves.

But the young king cared nothing whatever for what his mother thought about the matter, for the more he looked at the princess, the more beautiful she appeared in his eyes. So the end of the matter was that he married her, even though she had not a word to say for herself.

Well, time went on and on, till one day the storks that lived on the castle roof brought a baby boy to the poor dumb princess, whereat everybody was as glad as glad could be.

But their gladness was soon changed to sadness, for that night, when every one in the king's house was fast and sound asleep, Mother Hildegarde came softly into the princess's room. She gave her back her speech for the time being, and then she said, "I will still have pity upon you. If you will only tell me the truth you shall have your speech again, and all will go well with you. But if you tell me a falsehood once more, still greater troubles will come upon you. Now tell me, did you go into the little room?"

"No," said the princess, for still she could not bring herself to confess to Mother Hildegarde.

"Then how came your hair to be like that?"

"I do not know," said the princess.

So Mother Hildegarde took away her speech once more.

After that she smeared the mouth of the princess with blood, and then, wrapping the baby in her mantle, she carried it away with her, leaving the mother weeping alone.


You can guess what a hubbub there was the next morning in the castle, when they came and found that the baby was gone, and that the princess's mouth was smeared with blood. "See," said the king's mother, "what did I tell you from the very first. Do you not see that you have brought a wicked witch into the house and that she has killed her own child?"

But the king would listen to no such words as these, for it seemed to him that the princess was too beautiful and too good to do such a wicked thing.

After a time there came another baby to the princess, and once more Mother Hildegarde came to her and said, "Did you go into the little room?"

"No," said the princess.

"Then how came your hair to be like that?"

"I do not know," said the princess.

So Mother Hildegarde took this baby away as she had done the other, and left the princess with her lips smeared with blood.

And now every one of the king's household began to mutter and to whisper to his neighbor, and the king had nothing to say, but only left the room silently, for his heart was like heavy lead within his breast. Still he would not hear of harm coming to the princess, no matter what had happened.

In time there came a third baby, but still the princess could not soften her heart, and Mother Hildegarde took it away as she had done the others. This time the king could do nothing to save the princess, for every one cried out upon her that she was a wicked witch who killed her children, and that she should be burned at the stake, as was fitting for such a one. So a great pile of fagots was built out in the castle courtyard, and the princess was brought out and tied to a stake that stood in the midst. Then they lit the pile of fagots and it began to crackle and burn around her where she stood.

Then suddenly Mother Hildegarde stood beside her in the midst of the fire. In her arms she held the princess's youngest baby, and the others stood, one upon one side and the other upon the other, and held on to her skirts.

She gave the princess her speech again, and then she said, "Now, tell me, did you go into the little room?"

Even yet the princess would have answered "No;" but when she saw her children standing in the midst of the fire with her, her heart melted away within her.

"Yes!" she cried, "I went in and I saw."

"And how came your hair to be like that?" said Mother Hildegarde.

"Alas!" said the princess, "I gazed upon that which I should not have gazed upon, and looked into that which I should not have looked into, and one hair touched the water and all was turned to gold."

Then Mother Hildegarde smiled till her face shone as white as the moon. "The truth is better late than not at all," said she: "and if you had but spoken in the first place, I would have freely forgiven you." As she spoke a shower of rain fell down from the sky, and the fire of the fagots was quenched.

And now you can guess what joy there was in the king's castle when every one knew all that had happened, and it was seen how the right thing had come about at last, though it was the toss of a farthing betwixt this and that. Even the king's mother was glad enough when she came to know that it was a real princess whom her son had married after all.

And now listen to what happened in the end.

They gave a great feast, and everybody was asked to come from far and near. Then who should come travelling along with the others, as grand as you please, but the wicked step-mother and step-sister of the princess.

Dear, dear, how they stared and goggled when they saw who the young queen really was, and that the poor princess had married the richest and greatest king in all of the land!

Their hearts were so filled with envy that they swelled and swelled until they burst within them, and they fell down dead, and there was an end of them.

Thus it is that everything turns out right in the long run—that is in fairy tales.

But, after all, if the princess had only told the truth in the first place, she would never have gotten in all this peck of trouble.

And then who knows what Mother Hildegarde would have done for her, for she is a strange woman, is Mother Hildegarde.