The Marsh King's Daughter
The storks have a great many stories, which they tell their little ones, all about the bogs and the marshes. They suit them to their ages and capacity. The youngest ones are quite satisfied with "Kribble krabble," or some such nonsense; but the older ones want something with more meaning in it, or at any rate something about the family. We all know one of the two oldest and longest tales which have been kept up among the storks; the one about Moses, who was placed by his mother on the waters of the Nile, and found there by the king's daughter. How she brought him up and how he became a great man whose burial place nobody to this day knows. This is all common knowledge.
The other story is not known yet, because the storks have kept it among themselves. It has been handed on from one mother stork to another for more than a thousand years, and each succeeding mother has told it better and better, till we now tell it best of all.
The first pair of storks who told it, and who actually lived it, had their summer quarters on the roof of the Viking's timbered house up by "Vildmosen"(the Wild Bog) in Wendsyssel. It is in the county of Hiörring, high up towards the Skaw, in the north of Jutland, if we are to describe it according to the authorities. There is still a great bog there, which we may read about in the county chronicles. This district used to be under the sea at one time but the ground has risen, and it stretches for miles. It is surrounded on every side by marshy meadows, quagmires, and peat bogs, on which grow cloud berries and stunted bushes. There is nearly always a damp mist hanging over it, and seventy years ago it was still overrun with wolves. It may well be called the Wild Bog, and one can easily imagine how desolate and dreary it was among all these swamps and pools a thousand years ago. In detail everything is much the same now as it was then. The reeds grow to the same height, and have the same kind of long purple-brown leaves with feathery tips as now. The birch still grows there with its white bark and its delicate loosely-hanging leaves. With regard to living creatures, the flies still wear their gauzy draperies of the same cut; and the storks now, as then, still dress in black and white, with long red stockings. The people certainly then had a very different cut for their clothes than at the present day; but if any of them, serf or huntsman, or anybody at all, stepped on the quagmires, the same fate befell him a thousand years ago as would overtake him now if he ventured on them in he would go, and down he would sink to the Marsh King, as they call him. He rules down below over the whole kingdom of bogs and swamps. He might also be called King of the Quagmires, but we prefer to call him the Marsh King, as the storks did. We know very little about his rule, but that is perhaps just as well.
Near the bogs, close to the arm of the Cattegat, called the Limfiord, lay the timbered hall of the Vikings with its stone cellar, its tower and its three storeys. The storks had built their nest on the top of the roof, and the mother stork was sitting on the eggs which she was quite sure would soon be successfully hatched.
One evening Father stork stayed out rather late, and when he came back he looked somewhat ruffled.
"I have something terrible to tell you!" he said to the mother stork.
"Don't tell it to me then," she answered; "remember that I am sitting, it might upset me and that would be bad for the eggs!'
"You will have to know it," said he; "she has come here, the daughter of our host in Egypt. She has ventured to take the journey, and now she has disappeared."
"She who is related to the fairies! Tell me all about it. You know I can't bear to be kept waiting now I am sitting."
"Look here, mother! She must have believed what the doctor said as you told me; she believed that the marsh flowers up here would do something for her father, and she flew over here in feather plumage with the other two Princesses, who have to come north every year to take the baths to make themselves young. She came, and she has vanished."
"You go into too many particulars," said the mother stork; "the eggs might get a chill, and I can't stand being kept in suspense."
"I have been on the outlook," said Father stork, "and tonight when I was among the reeds where the quagmire will hardly bear me, I saw three swans flying along, and there was something about their flight which said to me, 'watch them, they are not real swans! They are only in swan's plumage.' You know, mother, as well as I, that one feels things intuitively, whether or not they are what they seem to be."
"Yes, indeed!" she said, "but tell me about the Princess, I am quite tired of hearing about swan's plumage."
"You know that in the middle of the bog there is a kind of lake," said Father stork. "You can see a bit of it if you raise your head. Well there was a big alder stump between the bushes and the quagmire, and on this the three swans settled, flapping their wings and looking about them. Then one of them threw off the swan's plumage, and I at once recognised in her our Princess from Egypt. There she sat with no covering but her long black hair; I heard her beg the two others to take good care of the swan's plumage while she dived under the water to pick up the marsh flower which she thought she could see. They nodded and raised their heads, and lifted up the loose plumage. What are they going to do with it, thought I, and she no doubt asked them the same thing; and the answer came, she had ocular demonstration of it: they flew up into the air with the feather garment! 'Just you duck down,' they cried. 'Never again will you fly about in the guise of a swan; never more will you see the land of Egypt; you may sit in your swamp.' Then they tore the feather garment into a hundred bits, scattering the feathers all over the place, like a snowstorm; then away flew those two good-for-nothing Princesses."
"What a terrible thing,' said Mother stork; "but I must have the end of it."
"The Princess moaned and wept! Her tears trickled down upon the alder stump, and then it began to move, for it was the Marsh King himself, who lives in the bog. I saw the stump turn round, and saw that it was no longer a stump; it stretched out long miry branches like arms. The poor child was terrified, and she sprang away on to the shaking quagmire where it would not even bear my weight, far less hers. She sank at once and the alder stump after her, it was dragging her down. Great black bubbles rose in the slime, and then there was nothing more to be seen. Now she is buried in the Wild Bog and never will she take back the flowers she came for to Egypt. You could not have endured the sight, mother!"
"You shouldn't even tell me anything of the sort just now, it might have a bad effect upon the eggs. The Princess must look after herself! She will get help somehow; if it had been you or I now, or one of our sort, all would have been over with us!"
"I mean to keep a watch though, every day," said the stork, and he kept his word.
But a long time passed, and then one day he saw that a green stem shot up from the fathomless depths, and when it reached the surface of the water, a leaf appeared at the top which grew broader and broader. Next a bud appeared close by it and one morning at dawn, just as the stork was passing, the bud opened out in the warm rays of the sun, and in the middle of it lay a lovely baby, a little girl, looking just as fresh as if she had just come out of a bath. She was so exactly like the Princess from Egypt that at first the stork thought it was she who had grown small; but when he put two and two together, he came to the conclusion that it was her child and the Marsh King's. This explained why she appeared in a water lily. "She can't stay there very long," thought the stork; "and there are too many of us in my nest as it is, but an idea has just come into my head! The Viking's wife has no child, and she has often wished for one. As I am always said to bring the babies, this time I will do so in earnest. I will fly away to the Viking's wife with the baby, and that will indeed be a joy for her."
So the stork took up the little girl and flew away with her to the timbered house where he picked a hole in the bladder skin which covered the window, and laid the baby in the arms of the Viking's wife. This done he flew home and told the mother stork all about it; and the young ones heard wh-at he said, they were old enough to understand it.
"So you see that the Princess is not dead; she must have sent the baby up here and I have found a home for her."
"I said so from the very first," said Mother stork; "now just give a little attention to your own children, it is almost time to start on our own journey. I feel a tingling in 'my wings every now and then! The cuckoo and the nightingale are already gone, and I hear from the quails that we shall soon have a good wind. Our young people will do themselves credit at the manœuvres if I know them aright!"
How delighted the Viking's wife was when she woke in the morning and found the little baby on her bosom. She kissed and caressed it; but it screamed and kicked terribly, and seemed anything but happy. At last it cried itself to sleep, and as it lay there a prettier little thing could not have been seen. The Viking's wife was delighted, body and soul were filled with joy. She was sure that now her husband and all his men would soon come back as unexpectedly as the baby had come. So she and her household busied themselves in putting the house in order against their return. The long coloured tapestries which she and her handmaids had woven with pictures of their gods—Odin, Thor and Freya as they were called—were hung up. The serfs had to scour and polish the old shields which hung round the walls; cushions were laid on the benches, and logs upon the great hearth in the middle of the hall, so that the fire might be lighted at once. The Viking's wife helped with all this work herself so that when evening came she was very tired and slept soundly. When she woke towards morning she was much alarmed at finding that the little baby had disappeared. She sprang up and lighted a pine chip and looked about. There was no baby, but at the foot of the bed sat a hideous toad. She was horrified at the sight, and seized up a heavy stick to kill it, but it looked at her with such curious sad eyes, that she had not the heart to strike it. Once more she looked round and the toad gave a faint pitiful croak which made her start. She jumped out of bed and threw open the window shutter, the sun was just rising and its beams fell upon the bed and the great toad. All at once the monster's wide mouth seemed to contract, and to become small and rosy, the limbs stretched and again took their lovely shapes, and it was her own dear little baby which lay there, and not a hideous frog.
"Whatever is this?" she cried; "I have had a bad dream. This is my own darling elfin child." She kissed it and pressed it to her heart, but it struggled and bit like a wild kitten.
Neither that day nor the next did the Viking lord come home although he was on his way, but the winds were against him; they were blowing southwards for the storks. "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good."
In the course of a few days and nights it became clear to the Viking's wife how matters stood with her little baby; some magic power had a terrible hold over her. In the day time it was as beautiful as any fairy, but it had a bad, wicked temper; at night on the other hand she became a hideous toad, quiet and pathetic with sad mournful eyes. There were two natures in her both in soul and body continually shifting. The reason of it was that the little girl brought by the frog, by day had her. mother's form and her father's evil nature; but at night her kinship with him appeared in her outward form, and her mother's sweet nature and gentle spirit beamed out of the misshapen monster. Who could release her from the power of this witchcraft? It caused the Viking's wife much grief and trouble, and yet her heart yearned over the unfortunate being. She knew that she would never dare to tell her husband the true state of affairs, because he would without doubt, according to custom, have the poor child exposed on the highway for anyone who chose to look after it. The good woman had not the heart to do this, and so she determined that he should only see the child by broad daylight.
One morning there was a sound of stork's wings swishing over the roof; during the night more than a hundred pairs of storks had made it their resting-place, after the great manoeuvres, and they were now trying their wings before starting on their long southward flight.
"Every man ready!" they cried; "all the wives and children too."
"How light we feel," cried the young storks; "our legs tingle as if we were full of live frogs! How splendid it is to be travelling to foreign lands."
"Keep in line!" said father and mother, "and don't let your beaks clatter so fast, it isn't good for the chest." Then away they flew.
At the very same moment a horn sounded over the heath. The Viking had landed with all his men; they were bringing home no end of rich booty from the Gallic coast, where the people cried in their terror as did the people of Britain:
"Deliver us from the wild Northmen!"
What life and noise came to the Viking's home by the Wild Bog now. The mead cask was brought into the hall, the great fire lighted, and horses slaughtered for the feast, which was to be an uproarious one. The, priest sprinkled the thralls with the warm blood of the horses as a consecration. The fire crackled and roared, driving the smoke up under the roof, and the soot dripped down from the beams; but they were used to all that. Guests were invited and they received handsome presents. All feuds and double dealing were forgotten. They drank deeply, and threw the knuckle-bones in each other's faces when they had gnawed them, but that was a mark of good feeling. The Skald—the minstrel of the times, but he was also a warrior, for he went with them on their expeditions, and he knew what he was singing about—gave them one of his ballads recounting all their warlike deeds and their prowess. After every verse came the same refrain: "Fortunes may be lost, friends may die, one dies oneself, but a glorious name never dies!" Then they banged on the shields, and hammered with knives or the knuckle-bones on the table before them, till the hall rang.
The Viking's wife sat on the cross bench in the banqueting hall. She was dressed in silk with gold bracelets and large amber beads. The Skald brought her name into the song too; he spoke of the golden treasure she had brought to her wealthy husband, and his delight at the beautiful child which at present he had only seen under its charming daylight guise. He rather admired her passionate nature, and said she would grow into a doughty shield maiden or Valkyrie, able to hold her own in battle. She would be of the kind who would not blink if a practised hand cut off her eyebrows in jest with a sharp sword. The barrel of mead came to an end, and a new one was rolled up in its place; this one too was soon drained to the dregs, but they were a hard headed people who could stand a great deal. They had a proverb then, "the beast knows when it is time to go home from grass, but the fool never knows when he has had enough." They knew it very well, but people often know one thing and yet do another. They also knew that "the dearest friend becomes a bore if he sits too long in one's house!" but yet they sat on. Meat and drink are such good things! They were a jovial company! At night the thralls slept among the warm ashes, and they dipped their fingers in the sooty grease and licked them. Those were rare times indeed.
The Viking went out once more that year on a raid although the autumn winds were beginning; he sailed with his men to the coast of Britain, "it was just over the water," he said. His wife remained at home with the little girl, and certain it was that the foster-mother soon grew fonder of the poor toad with the pathetic eyes, and plaintive sighs, than she was of the little beauty who tore and bit.
The raw, wet autumn fog "gnaw-worn" which gnaws the leaves off the trees, lay over wood and heath; and "Bird loose-feather," as they call the snow, followed closely upon each other. Winter was on its way. The sparrows took the storks' nest under their protection, and discussed the absent owners in their own fashion. The stork couple and their young—where were they now?
The storks were in the land of Egypt under such a sun as we have on a warm summer's day They were surrounded by flowering tamarinds and acacias. Mahomet's crescent glittered from every cupola on the mosques, and many a pair of storks stood on the slender towers resting after their long journey. Whole flocks of them had their nests side by side on the mighty pillars, or the ruined arches of the deserted temples. The date palm lifted high its screen of branches as if to form a sunshade. The greyish white pyramids stood like shadowy sketches against the clear atmosphere of the desert where the ostrich knew it would find space for its stride. The lion crouched gazing with its great wise eyes at the marble Sphinx half buried in the sand. The Nile waters had receded and the land teemed with frogs; to the storks this was the most splendid sight in all the land. The eyes of the young ones were quite dazzled with the sight.
"See what it is to be here, and we always have the same in our warm country," said the mother stork, and the stomachs of the little ones tingled.
"Is there anything more to see?" they asked; "shall we go any further inland?"
"There is not much more to see," said the mother stork. "On the fertile side there are only secluded woods where the trees are interlaced by creeping plants. The elephant, with its strong clumsy legs, is the only creature which can force a way through. The snakes there are too big for us, and the lizards are too nimble. If you go out into the desert you will get sand in your eyes if the weather is good, and if it is bad you may be buried in a sandstorm. No, we are best here; there are plenty of frogs and grasshoppers. Here I stay and you too!" And so she stayed.
The old ones stayed in their nests on the slender minarets resting themselves, but at the same time busily smoothing their feathers and rubbing their beaks upon their red stockings. Or they would lift up their long necks and gravely bow their heads, their brown eyes beaming wisely. The young stork misses walked about gravely among the juicy reeds, casting glances at the young bachelor storks, or making acquaintance with them; they would swallow a frog at every third step, or walk about with a small snake dangling from their beak, it had such a good effect they thought, and then it tasted so good. The young he-storks engaged in many a petty quarrel, in which they flapped their wings furiously and stabbed each other with their beaks till the blood came. Then they took mates and built nests for themselves; it was what they lived for. New quarrels soon arose, for in these warm countries people are terribly passionate. All the same it was very pleasant to the old ones, nothing could be wrong that their young ones did. There was sunshine every day, and plenty to eat; nothing to think of but pleasure!
But in the great palace of their Egyptian host, as they called him, matters were not so pleasant. The rich and mighty lord lay stretched upon his couch, as stiff in every limb as if he had been a mummy. The great painted hall was as gorgeous as if he had been lying within a tulip. Relatives and friends stood around him—he was not dead—yet he could hardly be called living. The healing marsh flower from the northern lands, which was to be found and plucked by the one who loved him best, would never be brought. His young and lovely daughter, who in the plumage of a swan had flown over sea and land to the far north, would never return. The two other swan Princesses had came back and this is the tale they told:
"We were all flying high up in the air when a huntsman saw us and shot his arrow; it pierced our young friend to the heart and she slowly sank. As she sank she sang her farewell song and fell into the midst of a forest pool. There by the shore under a drooping birch we buried her; but we had our revenge; we bound fire under the wings of a swallow which had its nest under the eaves of his cottage. The roof took fire and the cottage blazed up and he was burnt in it. The flames shone on the pool where she lay, earth of the earth, under the birch. Never more will she come back to the land of Egypt."
Then they both wept, and the father stork who heard it clattered with his beak and said, "pack of lies; I should like to drive my beak right into their breasts!"
"Where it would break off, and a nice sight you would be then," said the mother stork. "Think of yourself first and then of your family, everything else comes second to that!"
"I will perch upon the open cupola to-morrow when all the wise and learned folk assemble to talk about the sick man, perhaps they will get a little nearer to the truth!"
The sages met together and talked long and learnedly, but the stork could neither make head nor tail of it. Nothing came of it, however, either for the sick man or for his daughter who was buried in the Wild Bog; but we may just as well hear what they said and we may, perhaps, understand the story better, or at least as well as the stork.
"Love is the food of life! The highest love nourishes the highest life! Only through love can this life be won back!" This had been said and well said, declared the sages.
"It is a beautiful idea!" said Father stork at once.
"I don't rightly understand it," said the mother stork; "however that is not my fault, but the fault of the idea. It really does not matter to me though, I have other things to think about!"
The sages had talked a great deal about love, the difference between the love of lovers, and that of parent and child, light and vegetation and how the sunbeams kissed the mire and forthwith young shoots sprang into being. The whole discourse was so learned that the father stork could not take it in, far less repeat it. He became quite pensive and stood on one leg for a whole day with his eyes half shut. Learning was a heavy burden to him.
Yet one thing the stork had thoroughly comprehended; he had heard from high and low alike what a misfortune it was to thousands of people and to the whole country that this man should be lying sick without hope of recovery. It would indeed be a blessed day which should see his health restored. "But where blossoms the flower of healing for him?" they had asked of one another, and they had also consulted all their learned writings, the twinkling Stars, the winds and the waves. The only answer that the sages had been able to give was, "Love is the food of life!" but how to apply the saying they knew not. At last all were agreed that succour must come through the Princess who loved her father with her whole heart and soul. And they at last decided what she was to do. It was more than a year and a day since they had sent her at night, when there was a new moon, out into the desert to the Sphinx. Here she had to push away the sand from the door at the base of it, and walk through the long passage which led right into the middle of the pyramid, where one of the mightiest of their ancient kings lay swathed in his mummy's bands in the midst of his wealth and glory. Here she was to bend her head to the corpse, and it would be revealed to her where she would find healing and salvation for her father.
All this she had done, and the exact spot had been shown her in dreams where in the depths of the morass she would find the lotus flower that would touch her bosom beneath the water. And this she was to bring home. So she flew away in her swan's plumage to the Wild Bog in the far north.
Now all this the father and mother stork had known from the beginning, and we understand the matter better than we did. We know that the Marsh King dragged her down to' himself, and that to those at home she was dead and gone. The wisest of them said like the mother stork, "she will look out for herself!" so they awaited her return, not knowing in fact what else to do.
"I think I will snatch away the swans' plumage from the two deceitful Princesses," said the father stork. "Then they could not go to the Wild Bog to do any more mischief. I will keep the plumages up there till we find a use for them."
"Up where will you keep them?" asked the mother stork.
"In our nest at the Wild Bog," said he. "The young ones and I can carry them between us, and if they are too cumbersome, there are places enough on the way where we can hide them till our next flight. One plumage would be enough for her, but two are better; it is a good plan to have plenty of wraps in a northern country!"
"You will get no thanks for it," said the mother stork; but you are the master. I have nothing to say except when I am sitting."
In the meantime the little child in the Viking's,very the Wild Bog, whither the storks flew in the spring, had had a name given her: it was Helga, but such a name was far too gentle for such a wild spirit as dwelt within her. Month by month it showed itself more, and year by year whilst the storks took the same journey, in autumn towards the Nile, and in spring towards the Wild Bog. The little child grew to be a big girl, and before one knew how, she was the loveliest maiden possible of sixteen. The husk was lovely, but the kernel was hard and rough; wilder than most, even in those hard, wild times.
Her greatest pleasure was tql dabble her white hands in the blood of the horses slaughtered for sacrifice; in her wild freaks she would bite the heads off the black cocks which the priest was about to slay, and she said in full earnest to her foster father, "If thy foe were to come and throw a rope round the beams of thy house and pull it about thine ears, I would not wake thee if I could. I should not hear him for the tingling of the blood in the ear thou once boxed years ago! I do riot forget!"
But the Viking did not believe what she said. He, like everybody else, was infatuated by her beauty, nor did he know how body and soul changed places in his little Helga in the dark hours of the night. She rode a horse barebacked as if she were a part of it, nor did she jump off while her steed bit and fought with the other wild horses. She would often throw herself from the cliff into the sea in all her clothes, and swim out to meet the Viking when his boat neared the shore; and she cut off the longest strand of her beautiful long hair to string her bow. "Self made is well made," said she.
The Viking's wife, though strong-willed and strong-minded after the fashion of the times, became towards her daughter like any other weak anxious mother, because she knew that a spell rested over the terrible child. Often when her mother stepped out on to the balcony Helga, from pure love of teasing it seemed, would sit down upon the edge of the well, throw up her hands and feet, and go backwards plump into the dark, narrow hole. Here with her frog's nature she would rise again and clamber out like a cat dripping with water, carrying a perfect stream into the banqueting hall, washing aside the green twigs strewn on the floor.
One bond, however, always held little Helga in check, and that was the twilight; when it drew near, she became quiet and pensive, allowing herself to be called and directed. An inner perception, as it were, drew her towards her mother, and when the sun sank and the transformation took place, she sat sad and quiet, shrivelled up into the form of a toad. Her body was now much bigger than those creatures ever are, but for that reason all the more unsightly. She looked like a wretched dwarf with the head of a frog and webbed fingers. There was something so piteous in her eyes; and voice she had none, only a hollow croak like the smothered sobs of a dreaming child. Then the Viking's wife would take it on her knee, and looking into its eyes would forget the misshapen form, and would often say, "I could almost wish that thou wouldst always remain my dumb frog child. Thou art more terrible to look at when thou art clothed in beauty." Then she would write Runes against sickness and sorcery. and throw them over the miserable girl, but they did no good at all.
"One would never think that she had been small enough to lie in a water lily!" said the father stork. "Now she is grown up, and the very image of her Egyptian mother, whom we never saw again! She did not manage to take such good care of herself as you and the sages said she would. I have been flying across the marsh year in, year out, and never have I seen a trace of her. Yes, I may as well tell you that all these years when I have come on in advance of you to look after the nest and set it to rights, I have spent many a night flying about like an owl or a bat scanning the open water, but all to no purpose. Nor have we had any use for the two swan plumages which the young ones and I dragged up here with so much difficulty; it took us three journeys to get them here. They have lain for years in the bottom of the nest, and if ever a disaster happens, such as a fire in the timbered house, they will be entirely lost." " And our good nest would be lost too," said the mother stork ; "but you think less of that than you do of your feather dresses, and your marsh Princess. You had better go down to her one day and stay in the mire for good. You are a bad father to your own chicks and I have always said so since the first time I hatched a brood. If only we or the young ones don't get an arrow through our wings from that mad Viking girl. She doesn't know what she is about. We are rather more at home here than she is, and she ought to remember that. We never forget our obligations. Every year we pay our toll of a feather, an egg, and a young one, as it is only right we should. Do you think that when she is about I care to go down there as I used to do, and as I do in Egypt when I am 'hail fellow well met' with everybody, and where I peep into their pots and kettles if I like? No, indeed ; I sit up here vexing myself about her, the vixen, and you too. You should have left her in the water lily, and there would have been an end of her."
"You are much more estimable than your words," said the father stork. "I know you better than you know yourself, my dear." Then he gave a hop and flapped his wings thrice, proudly stretched out his neck and soared away without moving his outspread wings. When he had gone some distance he made some more powerful strokes, his head and neck bending proudly forward, while his plumage gleamed in the sunshine. What strength and speed there were in his flight.
"He is the handsomest of them all yet," said the mother stork; "but I don't tell him that."
The Viking came home early that autumn with his booty and prisoners; among these was a young Christian priest, one of those men who persecuted the heathen gods of the north. There had often been discussions of late, both in the hall and in the women's bower, about the new faith which was spreading in all the countries to the south. Through the holy Ansgarius it had spread as far as Hedeby on the Schlei. Even little Helga had heard of the belief in the "White Christ," who from love to man had given Himself for their salvation. As far as Helga was concerned it had all gone in at one ear and out at the other, as one says. The very meaning of the word "love "only seemed to dawn upon her when she was shrivelled up into the form of a frog in her secret chamber, but the Viking's wife had listened to the story and had felt herself strangely moved by these tales about the Son of the only true God.
The men on their return from their raids told them all about the temples built of costly polished stone, which were raised to Him whose message was Love. Once a couple of heavy golden vessels of cunning workmanship were brought home about which hung a peculiar spicy odour. They were censers used by the Christian priests to swing before the altars on which blood never flowed, but where the bread and wine were changed to the Body and Blood of Him who gave Himself for the yet unborn generations.
The young priest was imprisoned in the deep stone cellars of the timber house and his feet and hands were bound with strips of bark. He was as "beautiful as Baldur," said the Viking's wife, and she felt pity for him, but young Helga proposed that he should be hamstrung and be tied to the tails of wild oxen.
"Then would I let the dogs loose on him. Hie and away over marshes and pools; that would be a merry sight, and merrier still would it be to follow in his course."
However, this was not the death the Viking wished him to die, but rather that as a denier and a persecutor of the great gods, he should be offered up in the morning upon the bloodstone in the groves. For the first time a man was to be sacrificed here. Young Helga begged that she might sprinkle the effigies of the gods and the people with his blood. She polished her sharp knife, and when one of the great ferocious dogs, of which there were so many about the place, sprang towards her, she dug her knife into its side, "to try it," she said; but the Viking's wife looked sadly at the wild, badly-disposed girl. When the night came and the girl's beauty of body and soul changed places, she spoke tender words of grief from her sorrowful heart. The ugly toad with its ungainly body stood fixing its sad brown eyes upon her, listening and seeming to understand with the mind of a human being.
"Never once to my husband has a word of my double grief through you passed my lips," said the Viking's wife. "My heart is full of grief for you, great is a mother's love I But love never entered your heart, it is like a lump of cold clay. How ever did you get into my house?"
Then the ungainly creature trembled, as if the words touched some invisible chord between body and soul, and great tears came into its eyes.
"A bitter time will come to you," said the Viking's wife, "and it will be a terrible one to me too! Better would it have been, if as a child you had been exposed on the highway, and lulled by the cold to the sleep of death!" And the Viking's wife shed bitter tears, and went away in anger and sorrow, passing under the curtain of skins which hung from the beams and divided the hall.
The shrivelled up toad crouched in the corner, and a dead silence reigned. At intervals a half stifled sigh rose within her; it was as if in anguish something came to life in her heart. She took a step forward and listened, then she stepped forward again and grasped the heavy bar of the door with her clumsy hands. Softly she drew it back, and silently lifted the latch, then she took up the lamp which stood in the ante-room. It seemed as if a strong power gave her strength. She drew out the iron bolt from the barred cellar door, and slipped in to the prisoner. He was asleep, she touched him with her cold clammy hand, and when he woke and saw the hideous creature, he shuddered as if he beheld an evil apparition. She drew out her knife and cut his bonds asunder, and then beckoned him to follow her. He named the Holy Name and made the sign of the cross, and as the form remained unchanged, he repeated the words of the Psalmist: "Blessed is the man who hath pity on the poor and needy; the Lord will deliver him in the time of trouble!" Then he asked "Who art thou? whose outward appearance is that of an animal, whilst thou willingly performest deeds of mercy?"
The toad only beckoned him and led him behind the sheltering curtains down a long passage to the stable, pointed to a horse, on to which he sprang and she after him. She sat in front of him clutching the mane of the animal. The prisoner understood her and they rode at a quick pace along a path he never would have found to the heath. He forgot her hideous form, knowing that the mercy of the Lord worked through the spirits of darkness. He prayed and sang holy songs which made her tremble. Was it the power of prayer and his singing working upon her, or was it the chill air of the advancing dawn? What were her feelings? She raised herself and wanted to stop and jump off the horse, but the Christian priest held her tightly, with all his strength, and sang aloud a psalm as if this could lift the spell which held her.
The horse bounded on more wildly than before, the sky grew red, and the first sunbeams pierced the clouds. As the stream of light touched her, the transformation took place. She was once more a lovely maiden but her demoniac spirit was the same. The priest held a blooming maiden in his arms and he was terrified at the sight. He stopped the horse and sprang down, thinking he had met with a new device of the evil one. But young Helga sprang to the ground too. The short child's frock only reached to her knee. She tore the sharp knife from her belt and rushed upon the startled man. "Let me get at thee!" she cried, "let me reach thee and my knife shall pierce thee! Thou art ashen pale, beardless slave!"
She closed upon him and they wrestled together, but an invisible power seemed to give strength to the Christian; he held her tight, and the old oak under which they stood seemed to help him, for the loosened roots above the ground tripped her up. Close by rose a bubbling spring and he sprinkled her with water and commanded the unclean spirit to leave her, making the sign of the cross over her according to Christian usage. But the baptismal water has no power if the spring of faith flows not from within. Yet even here something more than man's strength opposed itself; through him, against the evil which struggled within her. Her arms fell, and she looked with astonishment and paling cheeks at this man who seemed to be a mighty magician skilled in secret arts. These were dark Runes he was repeating and cabalistic signs he was tracing in the air. She would not have blenched had he flourished a shining sword, or a sharp axe before her face, but she trembled now as he traced the sign of the cross upon her forehead and bosom, and sat before him with drooping head like a wild bird tamed.
He spoke gently to her about the deed of love she had performed for him this night, when she came in the hideous shape of a toad, cut his bonds asunder, and led him out to light and life. She herself was bound, he said, and with stronger bonds than his; but she also, through him, should reach to light and life everlasting. He would take her to Hedeby, to the holy Ansgarius, and there, in that Christian city, the spell would be removed; but she must no longer sit in front of him on the horse, even if she went of her own free will; he dared not carry her thus.
"Thou must sit behind me, not before me; thy magic beauty has a power given by the Evil One which I dread; yet shall I have the victory through Christ!"
He knelt down and prayed humbly and earnestly. It seemed as if the quiet wood became a holy, church consecrated by his worship. The birds began to sing as if they too were also of this new congregation, and the fragrance of the wild flowers was as the ambrosial perfume of incense, while the young priest recited the words of Holy Writ: "The Day-spring from on high hath visited us. To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace."
He spoke of the yearning of all nature for redemption, and while he spoke the horse which had carried them stood quietly by, only rustling among the bramble-bushes, making the ripe, juicy fruit fall into little Helga's hands, as if inviting her to refresh herself. Patiently she allowed herself to be lifted on to the horse's back, and sat there like one in a trance, who neither watches nor wanders. The Christian man bound together two branches in the shape of a cross, which he held aloft in his hand as he rode through the wood. The brushwood grew thicker and thicker, till at last it became a trackless wilderness. Bushes of the wild sloe blocked the way, and they had to ride round them. The bubbling springs turned to standing pools, and these they also had to ride round; still they found strength and refreshment in the pure breezes of the forest, and no less a power in the tender words of faith and love spoken by the young priest in his fervent desire to lead this poor straying one into the way of light and love.
It is said that raindrops can wear a hollow in the hardest stone, and the waves of the sea can smooth and round the jagged rocks; so did the dew of mercy falling upon little Helga, soften all that was hard and smooth all that was rough in her. Not that these effects were yet to be seen; she did not even know that they had taken place, any more than the buried seed lying in the earth knows that the refreshing showers and the warm sunbeams will cause it to flourish and bloom.
As the mother's song unconsciously falls upon the child's heart, it stammers the words after her without understanding them; but later they crystallize into thoughts, and in time become clear. In this way the "Word" also worked here in the heart of Helga.
They rode out of the wood, over a heath, and again through trackless forests. Towards evening they met a band of robbers.
"Where hast thou stolen this beautiful child?" they cried, stopping the horse and pulling down the two riders, for they were a numerous party.
The priest had no weapon but the knife which he had taken from little Helga, and with this he struck out right and left. One of the robbers raised his axe to strike him, but the Christian succeeded in springing on one side, or he would certainly have been hit; but the blade flew into the horse's neck, so that the blood gushed forth, and it fell to the ground dead. Then little Helga, as if roused from a long, deep trance, rushed forward and threw herself on to the gasping horse. The priest placed himself in front of her as a shield and defence; but one of the robbers swung his iron club with such force at his head that the blood and the brains were scattered about, and he fell dead upon the ground.
The robbers seized little Helga by her white arms, but the sun was just going down, and as the last rays vanished she was changed into the form of a frog. A greenish-white mouth stretched half over her face; her arms became thin and slimy; while broad hands, with webbed fingers, spread themselves out like fans. The robbers in terror let her go, and she stood among them a hideous monster; and, according to frog nature, she bounded away with great leaps as high as herself, and disappeared in the thicket. Then the robbers perceived that this must be Loki's evil spirit or some other witchcraft, and they hurried away affrighted.
The full moon had risen and was shining in all its splendour when poor little Helga, in the form of a frog, crept out of the thicket. She stopped by the body of the Christian priest and the dead horse; she looked at them with eyes which seemed to weep; a sob came from the toad like that of a child bursting into tears. She threw herself down, first upon one, and then on the other; and brought water in her hand, which, from being large and webbed, formed a cup. This she sprinkled them with; but they were dead, and dead they must remain! This she understood. Soon wild animals would come and devour them; but no, that should never be; so she dug into the ground as deep as she could; she wished to dig a grave for them. She had nothing but the branch of a tree and her two hands, and she tore the web between her fingers till the blood ran from them. She soon saw that the task would be beyond her, so she fetched fresh water and washed the face of the dead man, and strewed fresh green leaves over it. She also brought large boughs to cover him, and scattered dried leaves between the branches. Then she brought the heaviest stones she could carry, and laid them over the dead body, filling up the spaces with moss. Now she thought the mound was strong and secure enough, but the difficult task had employed the whole night; the sun was just rising, and there stood little Helga in all her beauty with bleeding hands and maidenly tears for the first time on her blushing cheeks.
It was in this transformation as if two natures were struggling in her; she trembled and glanced round as if she were just awaking from a troubled dream. She leaned for support against a slender beech, and at last climbed to the topmost branches like a cat and seated herself firmly upon them. She sat there for the whole livelong day like a frightened squirrel in the solitude of the wood where all is still, and dead, as they say
Dead—well there flew a couple of butterflies whirling round and round each other, and close by were some anthills each with its hundreds of busy little creatures swarming to and fro. In the air danced countless midges, and swarm upon swarm of flies, lady-birds, dragon-flies with golden wings, and other little winged creatures. The earthworm crept forth from the moist ground, and the moles—but excepting these all was still and dead around; when people say this they don't quite understand what they mean. None noticed little Helga but a flock of jackdaws which flew chattering round the tree where she sat. They hopped along the branch towards her boldly inquisitive, but a glance from her eye was enough to drive them away. They could not make her out though, any more than she could understand herself.
When the evening drew near and the sun began to sink, the approaching transformation roused her to fresh exertion. She slipped down gently from the tree, and when the last sunbeam was extinguished she sat there once more, the shrivelled up frog with her torn, webbed hands; but her eyes now shone with a new beauty which they had hardly possessed in all the pride of her loveliness. These were the gentlest and tenderest maiden's eyes which now shone out of the face of the frog. They bore witness to the existence of deep feeling and a human heart; and the beauteous eyes overflowed with tears, weeping precious drops that lightened the heart.
The cross made of branches, the last work of him who now was dead and cold, still lay by the grave. Little Helga took it up, the thought came unconsciously, and she placed it between the stones which covered man and horse. At the sad recollection her tears burst forth again, and in this mood she traced the same sign in the earth round the grave—and as she formed with both hands the sign of the cross, the webbed skin fell away from her fingers like a torn glove. She washed her hands at the spring and gazed in astonishment at their delicate whiteness. Again she made the holy sign in the 'air, between herself and the dead man; her lips trembled, he bex tongue moved, and the name which she in her ride through the forest had so often heard, rose to her lips, and she uttered the words "Jesus Christ."
The frog's skin fell away from her, she was the beautiful young maiden, but her head bent wearily and her limbs required rest. She slept. But her sleep was short, she was awakened at midnight, before her stood the dead horse prancing and full of life, which shone forth from his eyes and his wounded neck. Close by his side appeared the murdered Christian priest, "more beautiful than Baldur," the Viking's wife might indeed have said, and yet he was surrounded by flames of fire.
There was such earnestness in his large, mild eyes, and such righteous judgment in his penetrating glance which pierced into the remotest corners of her heart. Little Helga trembled, and every memory within her was awakened as if it had been the day of Judgment. Every kindness which had ever been shown her, every loving word which had been said to her, came vividly before her. She now understood that it was love which had sustained her in those days of trial, through which all creatures formed of dust and clay, soul and spirit, must wrestle and struggle. She acknowledged that she had but followed whither she was called, had done nothing for herself; all had been given her. She bent now in lowly humility, and full of shame, before Him who could read every impulse of her heart; and in that moment she felt the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit thrill through her soul.
"Thou daughter of earth!" said the Christian martyr, "out of the earth art thou come, from the earth shalt thou rise again! The sunlight within thee shall consciously return to its origin; not the beams of the actual sun, but those from God I No soul will be lost, things temporal are full of weariness, but eternity is life giving. I come from the land of the dead; thou also must one day journey through the deep valleys to reach the radiant mountain summits where dwell grace and all perfection. I cannot lead thee to Hedeby for Christian baptism; first must thou break the watery shield that covers the deep morass, and bring forth from its depths the living author of thy being and thy life; thou must first carry out thy vocation before thy consecration may take place!"
Then he lifted her up on to the horse, and gave her a golden censer like those she had seen in the Viking's hall. A fragrant perfume arose from it, and the open wound on the martyr's forehead gleamed like a radiant diadem. He took the cross from the grave, holding it high above him, while they rode rapidly through the air; across the murmuring woods, and over the heights where the mighty warriors of old lay buried, each seated on his dead warhorse. These strong men of war arose and rode out to the summits of the mounds; the broad golden circlets round their foreheads gleaming in the moonlight, and their cloaks fluttering in the wind. The great dragon hoarding his treasure raised his head to look at them, and whole hosts of dwarfs peeped forth from their hillocks, swarming with red, green, and blue lights, like sparks from the ashes of burnt paper.
Away they flew over wood and heath, rivers and pools, up north towards the Wild Bog; arrived here they hovered round in great circles. The martyr raised high the cross, it shone like gold, and his lips chanted the holy mass. Little Helga sang with him as a child joins in its mother's song. She swung the censer, and from it issued a fragrance of the altar so strong and so wonder-working that the reeds and rushes burst into blossom, and numberless flower stems shot up from the bottomless depths; everything that had life within it lifted itself up and blossomed. The water-lilies spread themselves over the surface of the pool like a carpet of wrought flowers, and on this carpet lay a sleeping woman. She was young and beautiful; little Helga fancied she saw herself, her picture mirrored in the quiet pool. It was her mother she saw, the wife of the Marsh King, the princess from the river Nile.
The martyred priest commanded the sleeping woman to be lifted up on to the horse, but the animal sank beneath the burden, as though it had no more substance than a winding-sheet floating on the wind; but the sign of the cross gave strength to the phantom, and all three rode on thrdugh the air to dry ground. Just then the cock crew from the Viking's hall, and the vision melted away in the mist which was driven along by the wind, but mother and daughter stood side by side.
"Is it myself I see reflected in the deep water?" said the mother.
"Do I see myself mirrored in a bright shield?" said the daughter. But as they approached and clasped each other heart to heart, the mother's heart beat the fastest, and she understood.
"My child! my own heart's blossom! my lotus out of the deep waters!" and she wept over her daughter her tears were a new baptism of love and life for little Helga. "I came hither in a swan's plumage, and here I threw it off," said the mother. "I sank down into the bog, which closed around me. Some power always dragged me down, deeper and deeper. I felt the hand of sleep pressing upon my eyelids. I fell asleep, and I dreamt—I seemed to be again in the vast Egyptian Pyramid; but still before me stood the moving alder stump which had frightened me on the surface of the bog. I gazed at the fissures of the bark and they shone out in bright colours and turned to hieroglyphs; it was the mummy's wrappings I was looking at. The coverings burst asunder, and out of them walked the mummy king of a thousand years ago, black as pitch, black as the shining wood-snail or the slimy mud of the swamp. Whether it were the Mummy King or the Marsh King I knew not. He threw his arms around me, and I felt that I must die. When life came back to me I felt something warm upon my bosom; a little bird fluttering its wings and twittering. It flew from my bosom high up towards the heavy dark canopy, but a long green ribbon still bound it to me; I heard and understood its notes of longing: 'Freedom! Sunshine! To the Father!' I remembered my own father in the sunlit land of my home, my life, and my love! and I loosened the ribbon and let it flutter away—home to my father. Since that hour I have dreamt no more; I must have slept a long and heavy sleep till this hour, when sweet music and fragrant odours awoke me and set me free."
Where did now the green ribbon flutter which bound the mother's heart to the wings of the bird? Only the stork had seen it. The ribbon was the green stem, the bow the gleaming flower which cradled the little baby, now grown up to her full beauty, and once more resting on her mother's breast. While they stood there pressed heart to heart the stork was wheeling above their heads in great circles; at length he flew away to his nest and brought back the swan plumages so long cherished there. He threw one over each of them; the feathers closed over them closely, and mother and daughter rose into the air as two white swans.
"Now let us talk!" said the father stork; "for we can understand each other's language, even if one sort of bird has a different shaped beak from another. It is the most fortunate thing in the world that you appeared this evening. To-morrow we should have been off, mother and I and the young ones. We are going to fly southwards. Yes, you may look at me! I am an old friend from the Nile, so is mother too; her heart is not so sharp as her beak She always said that the Princess would take care of herself! I and the young ones carried the swans' plumage up here! How delighted I am, and how lucky it is that I am still here; as soon as the day dawns we will set off, a great company of storks. We will fly in front, you had better follow us and then you won't lose your way, and we will keep an eye upon you."
"And the lotus flower which I was to take with me," said the Egyptian Princess, "flies by my side in a swan's plumage. I take the flower of my heart with me, and so the riddle is solved. Now for home! home!"
But Helga said she could not leave the Danish land without seeing her loving foster-mother once more, the Viking's wife. For in Helga's memory now rose up every happy recollection, every tender word and every tear her foster-mother had shed over her, and it almost seemed as if she loved this mother best.
"Yes, we must go to the Viking's hall," said the father stork; "mother and the young ones are waiting for us there. How they will open their eyes and flap their wings! Mother doesn't say much; she is somewhat short and abrupt, but she means very well. Now I will make a great clattering to let them know we are coming I "
So he clattered with his beak, and he and the swans flew off to the Viking's hall.
They all lay in a deep sleep within; the Viking's wife had gone late to rest, for she was in great anxiety about little Helga, who had not been seen for three days. She had disappeared with the Christian priest, and she must have helped him away; it was her horse which was missing from the stable. By what power had this been brought to pass? The Viking's wife thought over all the many miracles which were said to have been performed by the "White Christ," and by those who believed in Him and followed Him. All these thoughts took form in her dreams, and it seemed to her that she was still awake, sitting thoughtfully upon her bed while darkness reigned without. A storm arose; she heard the rolling of the waves east and west of her from the North Sea, and from the waters of the Cattegat. The monstrous serpent which, according to her faith, encompassed the earth in the depths of the ocean, was trembling in convulsions from dread of "Ragnarok," the night of the gods. He personified the day of Judgment when everything should pass away, even the great gods themselves. The Gialler horn sounded, and away over the rainbow rode the gods, clad in steel to fight their last battle; before them flew the shield maidens the Valkyrias, and the ranks were closed by the phantoms of the dead warriors. The whole atmosphere shone in the radiance of the northern lights, but darkness conquered in the end. It was a terrible hour, and in her dream little Helga sat close beside the frightened woman, crouching on the floor in the form of the hideous frog. She trembled and crept closer to her foster-mother who took her on her knee, and in her love pressed her to her bosom notwithstanding the hideous frog's skin. And the air resounded with the clashing of sword and club, and the whistling of arrows as though a fierce hailstorm were passing over them. The hour had come when heaven and earth were to pass away, the stars to fall, and everything to succumb to Surtur's fire—and yet a new earth and a new heaven would arise, and fields of corn would wave where the seas now rolled over the golden sands. The God whom none might name would reign, and to Him would ascend Baldur the mild, the loving, redeemed from the kingdom of the dead—he was coming—the Viking's wife saw him plainly, she knew his face—it was that of the Christian priest, their prisoner. "White Christ," she cried aloud, and as she named the name she pressed a kiss upon the forehead of the loathsome toad; the frog's skin fell away and before her stood little Helga in all the radiance of her beauty, gentle as she had never been before and with beaming eyes. She kissed her foster-mother's hands, and blessed her for all the care and love she had shown in the days of her trial and misery. She thanked her for the thoughts she had instilled into her, and for naming the name which she now repeated, "White Christ!" Little Helga rose up as a great white swan and spread her wings, with the rushing sound of a flock of birds of passage on the wing.
The Viking's wife was awakened by the rushing sound of wings outside; she knew it was the time when the storks took their flight, and it was these she heard. She wanted to see them once more and to bid them farewell, so she got up and went out on to the balcony; she saw stork upon stork sitting on the roofs of the outbuildings round the courtyard, and flocks of them were flying round and round in great circles. Just in front of her, on the edge of the well where little Helga so often had frightened her with her wildness, sat two white swans, who gazed at her with their wise eyes, Then she remembered her dream, which still seemed quite real to her. She thought of little Helga in the form of a swan. She thought of the Christian priest and suddenly a great joy arose in her heart. The swans flapped their wings and bent their heads as if to greet her, and the Viking's wife stretched out her arms towards them as if she understood all about it, and she smiled at them with tears in her eyes.
"We are not going to wait for the swans," said the mother stork; "if they want to travel with us they must come. We can't dawdle here till the plovers start! It is very nice to travel as we do, the whole family together, not like the chaffinches and the riffs, when the males and females fly separately; it's hardly decent! And why are those swans flapping their wings like that?"
"Well, everyone flies in his own way," said the father stork. "The swans fly in an oblique line, the cranes in the form of a triangle, and the plovers in a curved line like a snake."
"Don't talk about snakes while we are flying up here," said the mother stork. "It puts desires into the young one's heads which they can't gratify."
"Are those the high mountains I used to hear about?" asked Helga in the swan's plumage.
"Those are thunder clouds driving along beneath us," said her mother.
"What are those white clouds that rise so high?" again enquired Helga.
"Those are mountains covered with perpetual snows that you see yonder," said her mother, as they flew across the Alps down towards the blue Mediterranean.
"Africa's land! Egypt's strand!" sang the daughter of the Nile in her joy, as from far above in her swan's plumage, her eye fell upon the narrow waving yellow line, her birthplace. The other birds saw it too and hastened their flight.
"I smell the Nile mud and the frogs," said the mother stork. "I am tingling all over. Now, you will have something nice to taste, and something to see too. There are the marabouts, the ibis, and the crane. They all belong to our family, but they are not nearly so handsome as we are; they are very stuck up though, especially the ibis, they have been so spoilt by the Egyptians. They make mummies of him, and stuff him with spices. I would rather be stuffed with living frogs, and so would you, and so you shall be Better have something in your crops while you are alive, than have a great fuss made over you after you are dead. That is my opinion, and I am always right."
"The storks have come back," was said in the great house on the Nile, where its lord lay in the great hall on his downy cushions covered with a leopard skin, scarcely alive, and yet not dead either, waiting and hoping for the lotus flower from the deep morass in the north.
Relatives and servants stood round his couch, when two great white white swans who had come with the storks flew into the hall. They threw off their dazzling plumage, and there stood two beautiful women as like each other as twin drops of dew. They bent over the pale withered old man, throwing back their long hair.
As little Helga bent over her grandfather, the colour came back to his cheeks and new life returned to his limbs. The old man rose with health and energy renewed; his daughter and granddaughter clasped him in their arms, as if with a joyous morning greeting after a long troubled night.
Joy reigned throughout the house and in the stork's nest too, but there the rejoicing was chiefly over the abundance of food, especially the swarms of frogs. And while the sages hastily sketched the story of the two Princesses and the flower of healing, which brought such joy and blessing to the land, the parent storks told the sanie story in their own way to their family; but only when they had all satisfied their appetites, or they would have had something better to do than to listen to stories.
"Surely you will be made something at last," whispered the mother stork. "It wouldn't be reasonable otherwise."
"Oh, what should I be made?" said the father stork; "and what have I done? Nothing at all!"
"You have done more than all the others Without you and the young ones the two Princesses would never have seen Egypt again, nor would the old man have recovered his health. You will become something. They will at least give you a doctor's degree, and our young ones will be born with the title, and their young ones after them. Why, you look like an Egyptian doctor already, at least in my eyes!"
And now the learned men and the sages set to work to propound the inner principle, as they called it, that lay at the root of the matter. "Love is the food of life," was their text. Then came the explanations. "The Princess was the warm sunbeam; she went down to the Marsh King, and from their meeting sprang forth the blossom."
"I can't exactly repeat the words," said the father stork. He had been listening on the roof, and now wanted to tell them all about it in the nest. "What they said was so involved and so clever that they not only received rank, but presents too; even the head cook had a mark of distinction—most likely for the soup!"
"And what did you get?" asked the mother stork. "They ought not to forget the most important person, and that is what you are; the sages have only cackled about it all. But your turn will come, no doubt!"
Late at night, when the whole happy household were wrapped in peaceful slumbers, there was still one watcher. It was not Father Stork, although he stood up in the nest on one leg like a sentry asleep at his post. No, it was little Helga. She was watching, bending out over the balcony in the clear air, gazing at the shining stars, bigger and purer in their radiance than she had ever seen them in the north; and yet they were the same. She thought of the Viking's wife by the Wild Bog; she thought of her foster-mother's gentle eyes, and the tears she had shed over the poor frog-child, who now stood in the bright starlight and delicious spring air by the waters or the Nile. She thought of the love in the heathen woman's breast, the love she had lavished on a miserable creature, who in human guise was a wild animal, and when in the form of an animal was hateful to the sight and to the touch. She looked at the shining stars, and remembered the dazzling light on the forehead of the martyred priest as he flew over moorland and forest. The tones of his voice came back to her, and words that he had said while she sat overwhelmed and crushed—words concerning the sublime source of love, the highest love embracing all generations of mankind. What had not been won and achieved by this love? Day and night little. Helga was absorbed in the thought of her happiness; she entirely lost herself in the contemplation of it, like a child who turns hurriedly from the giver to examine the beautiful gifts. Happy she was indeed, and her happiness seemed ever growing; more might come, would come. In these thoughts she indulged, until she thought no more of the Giver. It was in the wantonness of youth that she thus sinned. Her eyes sparkled with pride, but suddenly she was roused from her vain dream. She heard a great clatter in the courtyard below, and, looking out, saw two great ostriches rushing hurriedly round in circles; never before had she seen this great, heavy, clumsy bird, which looked as if its wings had been clipped, and the birds themselves had the appearance of having been roughly used. She asked what had happened to them, and for the first time heard the legend the Egyptians tell concerning the ostrich.
Once, they say, the ostriches were a beautiful and glorious race of birds with large, strong wings. One evening the great birds of the forest said to it, "Brother, shall we to-morrow, God willing, go down to the river to drink?" And the ostrich answered, "I will!"
At the break of day, then, they flew off, first rising high in the air towards the sun, the eye of God still higher and higher the ostrich flew, far in front of the other birds, in its pride flying close up to the light. He trusted in his own strength, and not on that of the Giver; he would not say "God-willing!" But the avenging angel drew back the veil from the flaming ocean of sunlight, and in a moment the wings of the proud bird were burnt, and he sank miser: ably to the earth. Since that time the ostrich and his race have never been able to rise in the air; he can only fly terror-stricken along the ground, or round and round in narrow circles. It is a warning to mankind, reminding us in every thought and action to say "God willing!"
Helga thoughtfully and seriously bent her head and looked at the hunted ostrich, noticed its fear and its miserable pride at the sight of its own great shadow on the white moonlit wall. Her thoughts grew graver and more earnest A life so rich in joy had already been given her; what more was to come? The best of all perhaps—"God willing!"
Early in the spring, when the storks were again about to take flight to the north, little Helga took off her gold bracelet, and, scratching her name on it, beckoned to Father stork and put it round his neck. She told him to take it to the Viking's wife, who would see by it that her foster-daughter still lived, was happy, and had not forgotten her.
"It is a heavy thing to carry!" thought Father stork, as it slipped on to his neck; "but neither gold nor honour are to be thrown upon the highway! The stork brings good luck, they say up there!"
"You lay gold, and I lay eggs," said Mother stork; "but you only lay once and I lay every year. But no one appreciates us; I call it very mortifying!"
"One always has the consciousness of one's own worth, though, mother!" said Father stork.
"But you can't hang it outside," said Mother stork; "it neither gives a fair wind nor a full meal!" And they took their departure.
The little nightingale singing in the tamarind bushes was also going north soon; Helga had often heard it singing by the Wild Bog, so she determined to send a message by it too. She knew the bird language from having worn a swan's plumage, and she had kept it up by speaking to the storks and the swallows. The nightingale understood her quite well, so she begged it to fly to the beech-wood in Jutland, where she had made the grave of stones and branches; she bade it tell all the other little birds to guard the grave and to sing over it. The nightingale flew away—and time flew away too.
In the autumn an eagle perched on one of the Pyramids saw a gorgeous train of heavily-laden camels and men clad in armour riding fiery Arab steeds as white as silver with quivering red nostrils and flowing manes reaching to the ground. A royal prince from Arabia, as handsome as a prince should be, was arriving at the stately mansion where now the storks' nest stood empty; its inhabitants were still in their northern home; but they would soon now return— nay, on the very day when the rejoicings were at their height they returned. They were bridal festivities and little Helga was the bride clad in rich silk and many jewels. The bridegroom was the young prince from Arabia, and they sat together at the upper end of the table between her mother and her grandfather.
But Helga was not looking at the bridegroom's handsome face round which his black beard curled, nor did she look into his fiery dark eyes which were fixed upon hers. She was gazing up at a brilliant twinkling star which was beaming in the heavens.
Just then there was a rustle of great wings in the air outside; the storks had come back. And the old couple, tired as they were and needing rest, flew straight down to the railing of the verandah; they knew nothing about the festivities. They had heard on the frontiers of the country that little Helga had had them painted on the wall, for they belonged to the story of her life.
"It was prettily done of her," said Father stork.
"It is little enough," said Mother stork; "they could hardly do less."
When Helga saw them she rose from the table and went out on to the verandah to stroke their wings. The old storks bowed their heads and the very youngest ones looked on and felt honoured. And Helga looked up at the shining star which seemed to grow brighter and purer; between herself and the star floated a form purer even than the air and therefore visible to her. It floated quite close to her and she saw that it was the martyred priest, he also had come to her great festival—come even from the heavenly kingdom.
"The glory and bliss yonder, far outshines these earthly splendours," he said.
Little Helga prayed more earnestly and meekly than she had ever done before, that for one single moment she might gaze into the kingdom of Heaven. Then she felt herself lifted up above the earth in a stream of sweet sounds and thoughts. The unearthly music was not only around her, it was within her. No words can express it.
"Now we must return; you will be missed," said the martyr.
"Only one glance more," she pleaded; "only one short moment more."
"We must return to earth; the guests are departing."
"Only one look—the last."
Little Helga stood once again on the verandah, but all the torches outside were extinguished and the lights in the banqueting hall were out too; the storks were gone; no guests were to be seen; no bridegroom—all had vanished in those short three minutes.
A great dread seized upon Helga; she walked through the great empty hall into the next chamber where strange warriors were sleeping. She opened a side door which led into her own room, but she found herself in a garden, which had never been there before. Red gleams were in the sky, dawn was approaching. Only three minutes in Heaven, and a whole night on earth had passed away.
Then she saw the storks; she called to them in her own language. Father stork turned his head, listened, and came up to her.
"You speak our language," he said. "What do you want? Why do you come here, you strange woman?"
"It is I, it is Helga; you know me? We were talking to each other in tle verandah three minutes ago."
"That is a mistake," said the stork; "you must have dreamt it."
"No, no," she said, and she reminded him of the Viking's stronghold, and the Wild Bog, and their journey together.
Father stork blinked his eyes and said, "Why, that is a very old story; I believe it happened in the time of my great-great-grandmother. Yes, there certainly was a princess in Egypt who came from the Danish land, but she disappeared on her wedding night many hundred years ago. You may read all about it here, on the monument in the garden. There are both storks and swans carved on it, and you are at the top yourself, all in white marble."
And so it was: Helga understood all about it now and sank upon her knees.
The sun burst forth, and as in former times the frog's skin fell away before his beams and revealed the beautiful girl; so now, in the baptism of light, a vision of beauty, brighter and purer than the air—a ray of light—rose to the Father. The earthly body dropped away in dust—only a withered lotus flower lay where she had stood.
"Well, that is a new ending to the story," said Father stork; "I hadn't expected that, but I like it very well."
"What will the young ones say about it?" asked Mother stork.
"Ah, that is a very important matter," said Father stork.