A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IX: The Little White Feather." by Lilian Gask (1865-).
Publication: Gask, Lilian (1865-) The Fairies and the Christmas Child. Illustrated by Willy Pogány (1882-1955). London: Harrap & Co., n.d. [First published 1912] pp. 175-196.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Chapter IX
The Little White Feather.

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If you've ever tried to count the raindrops, you will know how I felt when for three whole days it poured in torrents. I was alone in the library, watching a hole in the wainscotting through which a mouse had just poked her head, when some one said "Guten Morgen" in a piping voice, and I knew this must be a Kobold. I was rather surprised that I had not met one of these House-Spirits before.

He was sitting on the edge of a bookcase–a little brown man with a wrinkled, good-natured face, and wearing no clothes. He chuckled when I said that I would rather speak English if he did not mind, and remarked that all languages were the same to him.

"I believe you have met some cousins of mine, the Brownies," he went on affably, kissing his hand to the mouse, who popped back to her hole as if he had shocked her. "They are good little chaps, but quiet and humdrum. You always know what a Brownie will do, but as for us–mortals can never tell what a Kobold will be up to next. We make ourselves quite at home in their houses, and really own them, if the truth were known. But excuse me–I should not appear before you in this undress."

In the twinkling of an eye the Kobold had changed himself into a curly haired boy, with smooth pink cheeks and a red silk coat, and knickerbockers of dark green velvet. "This is my best suit," he explained proudly, turning himself from side to side. "I usually wear it when I play with children who were born, like yourself, at the blessed feast of Christmas-tide. It is only one of my many disguises, however, though I seldom allow myself to be seen at all. I can even hide in the cast-off coat of a harmless snake, and woe to him who lays stick upon me or seeks to drive me away. The Heinzelmänchen, as we are called, can be bitter foes as well as powerful friends, and 'twas an evil day for the city of Köln when we marched out of it. It has never prospered since."

"Why—" I began, and the Kobold held up his hand to stop me, puckering his baby face into a dreadful frown.

"Why? Why? Why?" he mimicked. "How like the child of mortal man! Everything has to tell its reason–you rob the peach of its velvet bloom that you may find the secret of its ruddy splendour, and the fairy gems on the grass at dawn are to you but water distilled from earth! You would know how the tide finds a way to turn, why the light of the stars transcends your rush-lights! Elves and Fairies and such-like things are driven away by your curiosity, as the Heinzelmänchen were by Rosetta."

I was going to ask who Rosetta might be, but I remembered just in time that this would be another question. The Kobold chose a more comfortable seat, and told me of his own accord.

The Sin of Rosetta.

"Toward the end of the eighteenth century," he began, "the Heinzelmänchen, took up their abode in the city of Köln, where Johann Farina distilled the sweet-scented waters now famous all over the world. When first he blended the fragrant oils of bergamot citron, orange and rosemary, it was we who whispered to him in what proportion he should mix them, and how to imprison their lasting perfume. Not only him did we help, but wherever we came across a worthy fellow who was poor but honest, we gave him a lift up; such was Rudolph the tailor, whom we found when a lad on the steps of the great Cathedral, without a pfennig in his pocket, and with a wolf inside him big enough to swallow a little pig. When we saw how readily he returned a thaler that rolled to his feet to the feeble old woman who had dropped it, though he might well have said he had not seen it fall, we took him to our hearts, and swore to befriend him.

'So!' we said, one to the other. 'Rudolph is worthy to be our comrade. He is a good lad, and henceforth we will see that he does not want.'

The first thing to be done was to procure him decent clothing, for no one would employ him while he went in rags. We did this by pointing him out to the wife of a rich merchant, who fancied she saw in his pinched white face a likeness to the son she had lost long since.

Touched by the poor lad's poverty, she gave him a suit of clothes which had lain by for many a day, and on finding he was an orphan, apprenticed him to a tailor. The lad worked well. We took it in turns to sit beside him, showing him just where to place his needle, so that his seams were always neat, and guiding his scissors so that he cut the cloth to the best advantage. So skilful did he become that, when his time was out, his master begged him to stay on with him as head assistant, and gave him a good wage.

A fine young spright was Rudolph now, with jet-black hair and eyes like coals. His master's daughters, Euralie and Rosetta, both looked on him with favour, and for a time it seemed that he knew not which to choose. Euralie was small and slight, with eyes like a dove's; Rosetta was tall and buxom, and had she been free from the vice of curiosity would have made him a model wife. She was clever and industrious as well as witty, and when Dark Rudolph passed by the gentle Euralie, and took Rosetta for his betrothed, it was only the Heinzelmänchen who shook their heads.

Never was grander wedding feast than his. While he and Rosetta where still in church, we brought to his house the finest drinking vessels that we could lay our hands on, and pots and pans of beaten copper that were the envy of every housewife bidden as a guest. There were fairy cakes in the silver dishes, and luscious fruits such as grew in no western lands; the wine in the ruby goblets was honeyed nectar, and though his friends quaffed deeply, their heads remained quite clear. A proud man was Rudolph as he drank to his bride, and she looked so happy and gay and bright, that we resolved to take her, too, under our protection.

And this we did. When her children came, we rocked the cradle and sang them lullabies while she baked and brewed, and when they slept we scrubbed and polished from garret to cellar, until her house was the pride of the street. Often she would ask to be allowed to see us, but we always refused, telling her to respect our wish, and be content. Still she would not rest, and nothing that Dark Rudolph could say to her would induce her to hold her peace.

He had now three shops instead of one, and counted lords and barons among his customers. No one could fit as he could, for we were always at hand to nip in here or let out there, and many a fine straight figure was the result of our cunning skill. His fame spread far through the neighbouring towns, and one spring a great noble travelled to Köln to order some rich apparel for himself and his suite. Our busy tailor was at his wit's end how to get it finished in time, for all his assistants were working their hardest, and still they were behind.

'Have no fear! Dark Rudolph,' we cried, when we found him alone. 'Send your men to rest, and leave it to us. When you wake in the morning you shall find all done.'

We lost not a moment that livelong night–it was as if our needles had wings. Just before cockcrow, the door of the workroom creaked softly open, and there stood Rosetta in her white nightgown, with her hair in two long plaits, peering round the corner to see if she could catch us at work. We were justly enraged, but since we heard her in time to render ourselves invisible, and also because we loved Dark Rudolph, we decided to give her one more chance.

It was our custom to leave the lower part of the house at the hour of midnight, no matter what we might be doing, and climb the steep stairs that led to the bedrooms, to watch that the ghosts which were free to roam till cockcrow might not ruffle the children's hair; or wake them with their long-drawn sighs. Rosetta knew this, for she had often heard us comforting the little Rudolph when his sleep was disturbed by a bad dream, and with gross ingratitude she tried to be-fool us. One night, she strewed dried peas on the top steps of the winding staircase, so that when we came up we should lose our footing and fall to the bottom, and thus she might see us struggling on the ground. We knew perfectly well, however, why she had bought the peas, and stayed below. When she rose next morning, she forgot the trap she had laid for us, and tumbled headlong down the stairs. While she groaned and moaned over her broken ankle, the Heinzelmänchen marched out of the town to stirring music, which was heard by all the citizens. We sailed down the Rhine in a phantom boat, which you may yet see floating on its waters if you look for it at the right time. And Dark Rudolph and his Rosetta sighed for our help in vain."

The Kobold was a most entertaining little fellow, and stayed with me all the morning, telling me of well known House Spirits of days gone by. One of these tales was about

The Little white Feather.

"Hinzelmann," said the Kobold solemnly, "was a Spirit who haunted the castle of Hudemühlen, though it was not until late in the sixteenth century that those who lived there were aware of his presence. He seemed of so friendly a disposition that the servants became quite used to him. They never saw him, but he would often talk with them while they worked, telling them of what went on in the Underworld, and of the mighty Giants of bye-gone days who had been created in order to protect the Dwarfs from savage beasts, but had become themselves so savage in the course of the ages that they had to be done away with. In time the lord of the castle heard of his strange visitor, and sent him a message saying he desired his presence at a certain hour.

'No need to wait until then, good Sir!' laughed Hinzelmann over his shoulder. 'I assist each morning at your lordship's toilet, though you do not perceive me, and I blunt your razors when you are out of temper.'

This displeased the lord of the castle, for he thought it unseemly to be on terms of such familiar intimacy with a bodiless House-Spirit. When he rebuked him for his presumption, Hinzelmann laughed more loudly still. 'Better men than you have to put up with my company, if I will!' he cried, 'and, believe me, I do not intend to leave you!'

The nobleman grew more and more uneasy, for it disturbed him to feel that he was never alone. Hinzelmann whistled and sang through the State rooms, and when his lordship expressed irritation this was the House-Spirit's favourite song:

'If thou here wilt let me stay,
Good luck shalt thou have alway.
But if hence thou dost me chase,
Luck will ne'er come near the place.'

    1 The Fairy Mythology

He hummed this morning, noon, and night, until the lord of the castle was sick of it. 'Since I cannot drive this fellow away,' he said at last, 'I must e'en go myself;' and telling no one of his intentions, he summoned his coach and set out for Hanover. On the way he noticed that no matter how fast his horses went, a little white feather danced above their heads. Although he wondered at this, he did not connect it with the House-Spirit, and when he arrived at his chosen Inn, sought his couch with a mind at ease.

'Thank heaven,' he muttered, as he turned him over and went to sleep, 'I am free at last of this troublesome Hinzelmann. By the time I see fit to return home, he may have gone elsewhere.'

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Next morning he missed his fine gold chain, which was an heirloom, and, greatly distressed, he haughtily demanded of the Innkeeper that his servants should be searched.

'They have robbed me,' he cried, 'and they shall suffer for it! Cannot one sleep at your house without meeting with knaves and thieves?'

At this the Innkeeper was very angry. Instead of condoling with the nobleman on his loss, and offering to make it good, he roundly rebuked him for taking away the character of honest men without due proof. The noble was leaving the Inn in much haste when a soft voice asked him why he was troubled.

'If it be on account of the bauble upon which you set such store,' it continued, 'look under your pillow and you will find it. You cannot get on without Hinzelmann after all!'

'I would I had never known you, base spirit!' stormed the nobleman. 'You have put me greatly in the wrong with all these men, and my journey has been for nought, since you are here. If you do not quit me I will leave this country; it is not wide enough to hold us both.'

Then Hinzelmann spoke to him with much reason, pointing out that he wished him no harm, and that it was impossible to shake him off, since wherever the lord went, he could follow.

'It was I who flew as a little white feather in front of your coach,' he concluded. 'You played the part of a poltroon when you fled from what you believed to be evil, instead of fighting it on your own ground. Come back with me, and if you give me your friendship, I will work but good to you and yours.'

So the nobleman went back to his castle, and Hinzelmann lived there with him. A little room was set aside for his use in an upper story, and here they placed, by the nobleman's orders, a small round table, and a tiny bed. No one could ever make out if he slept on this, but once when the cook entered very quickly, to take him the dish of new milk and wheaten crumbs which was placed each morn on his table, she saw a shallow depression on the down pillow, as if something very small and soft had rested there.

When the time came for Hinzelmann to leave the castle, he presented its lord with three fairy gifts, the last of these being a leather glove richly wrought with pearls in a curious pattern of snails and scrolls. So long as this glove was in possession of his house, he told him, so long would his race flourish. And thus he requited the kindness which had been shown him. There is nothing that we like better than to help our friends."

"I know," I said, nodding my head. And the House Spirit smiled as if this pleased him.

"We need take no credit for this," he remarked, "since the Dwarf King himself sets us the example. His rescue of the poor old couple at Schillingsdorf is but one of many instances of the way in which he gladly helps those who show hospitality to him or his.

Caught in a storm, he wandered from door to door, entreating each person who answered his knock to let him enter and warm himself. One and all they refused, for his green velvet garments were stained and draggled, and they had not the wit to see that in spite of his dripping clothes and dishevelled beard he was still every whit a king. At last he came to the hut of an ancient shepherd, whose little old wife was as thin as he, for food had been very scarce. The moment she saw the wanderer, her heart went out to him.

'Come in and welcome, you poor little fellow!' she said, setting wide her door. 'Our fire is not much to boast of, but 'tis better than none on a night like this.' And the shepherd hobbled to the inner room that he might bring his Sunday coat, and place this round their visitor's shoulders while his own lay drying on the hearth. Then the old woman spread a white cloth on the table, and gave the Dwarf her share of the coarse black bread which was all her cupboard contained.

'I thank you, my friends,' he said, breaking the bread into two fragments. As he did so, one became a fine white loaf, and the other a noble cheese. The Dwarf laughed at the old couple's amazement, and bade them feast to their heart's content.

'So long as you leave on the platter a crust of bread and an inch of cheese,' he said, 'so long will a fresh loaf and a fresh cheese spring from these fragments during the night; but if ever a beggar entreats your help, and you refuse him, they will turn to dust and ashes. Now I bid you farewell, but ere long we shall meet again.'

So saying, he went out in the rain, despite their entreaties that he would at least stay with them until the storm was over.

Little sleep did they have that night, for wind and rain swept through the valley. Torrents roared down the mountain side, flooding the wooden houses, and even worse befell at daybreak. An enormous rock snapped off from a topmost peak, and carrying with it great masses of stones and uprooted firs, crashed down on the little village. All living things were buried beneath its weight except the shepherd and his wife, whose cottage yet was spared. Tremblingly they stood on the threshold, for they thought their last hour had come.

'Thou hast been a good wife, my dear one,' breathed the shepherd, as he drew her frail form close to him.

'It is well that we should go together, since thou hast lain by my side for nigh sixty years,' she whispered, hiding her face against his breast.

'How now?' cried a reassuring voice. 'Dost despair so easily?' And looking up they saw their friend the Dwarf riding on a rough raft in the centre of the stream, and steering before him the trunk of an immense pine. This he proceeded to fix crosswise in front of their little garden, so as to form a dam. The torrent now passed by the cottage, leaving it undisturbed, and the voice of the wind was hushed. The sun came out, and the birds sang; but the only people alive in Schillingsdorf were the shepherd and his old wife."

"'How now?' cried a reassuring voice."
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom