The Loving Cup Which Was Made of Iron
UPON the edge of a great forest a woodcutter had built him a cottage, and soon he brought a fair young bride to live in it. She was a neat, trim, little body, who wasted nothing and kept everything in the house in perfect order, so that in a short time their small yard showed her care also.
One day some cousins came from town to see the woodcutter, and his wife. They brought with them their dinner in a large basket, and a jolly time they had of it, wandering through the woods, lying on the soft green grass, and gathering the wild flowers. Finally, hunger drove them back to the woodcutter's house, and as they sat on the porch eating their luncheon, they thoughtlessly threw the skins of their oranges and the banana peelings on the grass in front of them. The woodcutter's wife said nothing, but she felt sure that such litter and dirt on the fresh green grass would grieve the wood-fairies who were trying to keep the forest and all of its surroundings as beautiful as possible. Therefore when the guests had gone, she quietly picked up all the skins and scraps of paper and burned them.
This so pleased the wood-fairies, that when her first boy baby came, they sent him a loving-cup of gold. Around it were circles of diamonds and pearls and deep red rubies. Of course, the young mother was very happy, for she knew that such a gift meant her son would some day possess much money. So she set herself to work to make her yard more beautiful than it had been before, by planting flower-seeds in a border by the fence. "If my son is to become a rich man," said she to herself, "he must learn to love what is beautiful, that he may use his money wisely." She did not stop when she had made her own yard beautiful, but soon began scattering more flower-seed down by the spring that the wood-fairies might have flowers to enjoy while they came to drink. Before long her kind heart led her to plant other flowers by the dusty road-side and down in the lonely valley, in order that weary travelers, as they journeyed along, might see the bright blossoms and smell the sweet perfume.
This pleased the wood-fairies even more than her thoughtful tidiness had done, so, when her second boy baby came, they sent him a loving-cup of pure silver. Around the outside of it were carved pictures of youths and maidens dancing in a circle on the green grass. This gift made the mother even happier than the first had done, for she read in the carving on the cup that her boy would love the open air and would grow up strong and healthy and her heart grew tender to all things about her.
She had noticed that some of the ugliest and most neglected weeds often bore delicate flowers, which, however, soon faded for lack of care. "I will see," said she, "if I cannot make the weeds grow into flowers by watering them and pruning them and lovingly caring for them. In this way I can help to make the whole forest wholesome, and thus show the wood-fairies that I am grateful to them for their gift of health to my second son."
She began by caring for the weeds which stood nearest her own home, and was rewarded by seeing them slowly change into shapely plants and their blossoms become strong and beautiful. Then her care extended to the weeds along the wayside, and in a short time there was not a hurtful weed to be found in the neighborhood. All had been changed, by a little patient care, into strong, thrifty shrubs and plants, each blooming according to its own nature, but all gladdening the sight by their bright flowers and healthy green leaves.
This changing of weeds into flowers so surprised and delighted the wood-fairies who had never heard of such a thing, that when her third boy-baby came, they consulted among themselves and decided to send him the best gift they had to bestow. Accordingly they sent to the new baby a loving-cup made of strong, black iron, and with it, three large earthen jars. One was filled with the sweetest golden nectar ever tasted by mortal lips, another contained a brown vinegar so sour that half a teaspoonful of it would make your face wrinkle, while the third jar held a blackish-looking gall, of such a bitter flavor that one drop of it would make one shrink from ever wanting to taste it again. With this strange present they sent word that if the mother loved her boy, whom by the way she had named Philip, she would mix a cupful of the sweet nectar, the sour vinegar and the bitter gall, using half as much vinegar as she did nectar, and half as much gall as vinegar, and give it to the boy to drink on his birthday, each year, until he was twenty-one years old.
The mother hesitated. It seemed so hard to make her darling child taste of the bitter gall when there was plenty of the sweet nectar to last until he was grown, but she knew that the wood-fairies were wise. Were they not trying to make the whole earth beautiful? Surely they would not require so hard a thing of her unless it was for little Philip's welfare.
Therefore, each succeeding birthday she mixed the fairies' drink and poured it into the iron cup and gave it to the child. Sometimes he cried and sometimes he fretted, but she held the cup firmly to his lips until the last drop was drained, and then she would kiss him and tell him that he was her dear, brave boy, and would some day thank her for making him drink the fairies' potion. He soon found that if he drank the contents of the loving-cup early in the morning, he tasted nothing but the sweet nectar, whereas if he put it off until noon, he could not taste anything but the sour vinegar, and when he delayed the drinking of it until night, it seemed as if the whole contents of the cup had changed to gall, and he would be days and days getting over the bitter taste. So being a sensible boy, he learned to drink it as soon as it was mixed.
Each year he grew more loving and thoughtful of others, more like the wood-fairies in his effort to make the world around him beautiful. Little by little he gained the power which the wood-fairies alone can give—the wonderful power of knowing just what is going on in the hearts of the people about you, even when you do not speak to them or they to you.
If he chanced to meet a sad-faced man or woman on the street, his beautiful eyes seemed to say more tenderly than words could say, "I see you are in trouble and I feel so sorry for you." If he passed a group of merry makers, his smile was so bright that they knew it meant "What a lot of fun you are having! I am so glad!" As he grew older his hands became almost as wonderful as his eyes, or his smile. If he found a little child crying over a broken toy he would stop and mend it, and in a few moments the tears would be gone and the little one would go off laughing or singing, hugging his mended toy.
Sometimes a young girl would come to him with a beautiful picture which she had been embroidering on a screen, but which had been spoiled by some crooked, careless stitches, and he would patiently sit down beside her and would point out to her just where the wrong stitches had been put into the picture, and would help her take them out. Then he would show her how to put in the right kind of stitches and she would go away happy and contented, ready to work day by day on the lovely screen with which she was someday going to make her future home beautiful.
Now and then a young musician would find that his silver flute played only harsh discords instead of sweet melodies and he would grow discouraged and be ready to throw it away, when Philip would come along and pick up the flute quietly and examine it and discover that the jarring sounds came because it was not free from the dust and dirt of the street. Then he would tell the young player what was the matter and would stay with him until he had made the flute as clean as a flute should be, and he was usually rewarded by some fine music from the grateful musician. Occasionally he would come across a man toiling along the road with a pack on his back, so heavy that he was bent nearly double by it. Then Philip would stop him and plan with him how the load could be divided into two packs so that he might carry one under each arm, and thus be able to walk straight and erect and hold his head up as a man should. Nobody ever dreamed of telling him a lie! "He knows just how we feel" people used to say, and somehow the sight of his strong, manly face stirred within them a desire to be brave and noble, and true, and he was beloved by all who knew him.
This indeed was the most precious gift which the wood-fairies could give.