"Chapter VIII: The Silver Horn." 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. 157-174.
When the Dwarf had come to the end of his story, he very politely bade me goodbye, and bowed me out of his Castle. A week or two later we went to Saltzburg, and there I had a real adventure.
The Professor with whom we were staying hadn't a single grandchild, and as all his books were old and dusty, to say nothing of being written in German, I should have found it rather dull if he had not lent me his nephew's pony. I had learnt to ride as a little chap, when we lived in the country. It was lovely there, but no one was ever ill, and Father had so few patients that we could not stay.
The pony's name was Heinrich. He knew his way everywhere, the Professor said, so Father didn't mind my riding him alone, and I had a ripping time.
One day we went to the Wunderberg, a big hill on a wide bleak moor, which was supposed to be quite hollow, and the favourite haunt of Wild Women.
The ground was extremely bumpy, and several times I was almost thrown out of the saddle. At last I got off, for I thought I would rather walk.
It was a splendid morning, and I was glad that I wasn't the Professor's nephew, away at school, as I lay on my back and looked up at the sky.
A small black beetle crawled over my hand, but I was so comfortable that I scarcely stirred. It crossed my cuff and climbed a blade of grass; and as I watched it a shadow fell between me and the sunlight.
A slender woman in a white gown was standing close to me. Her face was thin, and very wistful, and over her shoulders, down to her very feet, fell a mantle of glistening yellow hair.
"Are you hungry, child?" she asked gently, holding out to me a slice of fine white bread.
"Not yet," I answered, for we had had Sauerkraut for breakfast, and I felt that I should not want anything more to eat for a long time. She looked disappointed, and sighed as she threw the bread away. A bird flew down and pecked it, but after a taste or two he left it where it was.
"Then surely you are thirsty, and will drink from my horn?" she pleaded, showing me a silver vessel with curious scrolls and writings traced in gold, which had been hidden by her beautiful hair. I took a sip from its bevelled edge, and had scarcely swallowed the first drop when I felt myself sinking through the hill, the Wild Woman still beside me.
"At last! At last!" she cried, clapping her shadowy hands as we stood in a wide hall lit with amber light. "O sisters, rejoice with me! I have found a child, and his eyes, his eyes are crystal clear."
She bent over me as she spoke, half smothering me with her silken tresses, and I was so afraid that those sisters of hers would hug me too, that I scrambled away and I took to my heels and ran.
But you couldn't get far in that place. It was a miniature town, with silver streets and golden houses, and gorgeous palaces in between. Every turn I took led to a wide square filled with rose trees, where fountains of gold and silver water bubbled and sparkled in the mysterious pale green light. A flock of brilliant humming birds whirred their wings in my face so that I could not see where I was going, and the Wild Women formed a circle round me and began to sing:
"Only once did mortal child,
By our silver horn beguiled,
Find a way to leave us;
Though they call us strange and wild,
Thou shalt find us soft and mild.
Stay, and do not grieve us."
Their voices were very sweet, but when they had sung that verse twice over, I did not want to hear it again.
"I don't mind staying with you for an hour or two," I said, as they stopped singing, "but I shouldn't care to live here. I am a Christmas Child, and there are other Fairy Folk I want to see."
Then they looked at each other, and drew away.
"Since he is a Christmas Child," said one, "we cannot keep him. You should have known better, Sister Snow-blossom, than to bring him here!"
"How could I tell," wailed Snow-blossom. "He seemed like any other boy, and would just have fitted the green silk suit that I wove so long ago."
"Alas, alas!" the others sighed. "The longer he stays, the more it will wring our hearts to part with him. Take him back to the hill at once, dear Snow-blossom, and bid him hasten home."
But I didn't want to go just yet, for now that they did not wish to hug me, I thought they were rather nice. Their faces were like pure marble, so still and pale, and their light green eyes were very gentle. So I asked if Snow-blossom might not show me round, as the Professors did Father when he came to a strange town. Her sisters still urged her to send me away at once, before she had time to grow fond of me, but she would not listen.
"What do you want with a mortal child?" I said, when I had been all over the empty golden houses, and had seen the tiny cathedral, the model of the one at Saltzburg, set with pearls and rubies, and many other precious stones of which I did not know the name.
"Because we are lonely," she answered; "so lonely, child. Our only friends are the little people who guard our treasures in the centre of the earth, and we would fain have mortals to bear us company. Once, long ago, a goodly youth of noble birth was almost tempted to sip from our silver horn, and had he done so his home would have known him no more. Sweet Stella, the fairest Wild Woman who drew breath between the last faint pulse of the night time and the glowing dawn of day waylaid him on the brow of the hill when he was heated in the chase, but although he craved the cooling draught she offered him, he would not drink from her hand; her exceeding beauty excited his suspicions, and he guessed that she was no mortal maid.
'Let me see what your wine is like before I taste it!' he said warily, taking the silver horn from her hands. He had no sooner grasped it, than he sprang to his horse and rode away. For many years the horn was kept amongst the treasures of the House of Oldenburg, to which he belonged, but at last, after many generations, it came back to us. No one but you and the little Karl has drunk from it since then."
We were under the rose trees in the great square, and I had found a seat in a ruby and pearl pavillion, with queer golden faces staring down on me from each corner. Snow-blossom hid her face in her hands when I asked her who was Karl, and rocked herself to and fro; then she lifted her head and looked at me, and I saw that she was crying.
"I will tell you," she said, "but first come close. For words have wings in the Wunderberg, and I would not have my sisters know I am grieving still."
I sat down beside her, and then she began, speaking very softly and slowly, with deep sighs in between. The tears on her cheeks seemed to shine like pearls, and her hair gleamed more golden than ever.
The little Karl and the wild-woman.
"There was once a poor man named Henzel who should have been well content, for his girl-wife, Gretchen, was good and sweet, and the black bread he ate when his toil was over was pleasant to his taste. His bed was warm, and his sleep was sound. What could a man want more?
But Henzel was ever full of complainings. His neighbour, Johann, had married a rich woman, and now owned a well stocked farm with many herds. Each time that he met him, Henzel sighed.
'I might have done better than he,' he grumbled, even when he heard that Johann's wife was a great scold, and did not allow her husband a moment's peace. He looked askance at his gentle Gretchen, who bore with his rough moods tenderly, since once he had been her lover. But she grieved in secret, for never a good word had he for her now, and her flaxen hair lost its shimmer of satin, and her cheeks their dainty bloom.
She was digging in the cottage garden, for Henzel would do no work at home, when a very old man toiled slowly up the hill. His clothes were dusty, and his staff was bent; he looked very weary, and his voice, as he bade her 'Goodmorrow,' was faint and low. Gretchen's heart was filled with pity; she invited him to enter her tidy kitchen, and put before him the best she had. It was not much, but her strange guest thanked her gratefully. While he rested, she went to the forest, to cut him a strong oak sapling for a staff. The old man had vanished when she returned, and in his place sat a little Dwarf, not more than twelve inches high.
'I perceive that you have a kind disposition, Gretchen, which is better than a rich dower,' he said, waving his hand for her to be seated also. 'You are already sufficiently blessed,' he went on, 'in being both virtuous and patient, but I am willing to grant you your dearest wish. Speak out, and tell me what you most desire.'
Gretchen bent her brows, and pondered deeply. If she asked the Dwarf for gold, Henzel would rejoice, but she had lived with him long enough to know that whatever he had, he would still want more. Should she ask for another husband, then, since the one she had, had ceased to love her, and threw her but scornful looks? Nay–that would be wrong, for whatever happened she was Henzel's wife. And the flush on her girlish face became yet deeper, for a very sweet thought had fluttered across her mind. She would ask for a little child to lie on her breast, and bear her company through the long nights and days.
When the Dwarf heard her whispered request, he smiled on her very kindly.
'You are a true woman,' he said, and disappeared as Henzel crossed the threshold.
'Who has been here?' he asked, scowling at the empty cup and platter.
'An old, old man, who was tired and hungry,' Gretchen replied, and anxious to escape his further questioning, she turned to the newly-kindled fire, and put on a saucepan of broth for him. But Henzel was very curious, for strangers came that way but seldom, and before long he had drawn the whole story from Gretchen's lips, with the exception of the Dwarf's offer to grant her a wish.
'Did he not speak of rewarding you for your hospitality?' her husband persisted, guessing that something had been kept back from him. And Gretchen shyly told him for what she had asked.
Fierce was Henzel's anger at her neglect of this opportunity to make him rich. He stormed and raved until poor Gretchen longed to hide, and when at last his rage had spent itself, he was sullen as winter clouds. She would have minded this more had it not been for the dear new hope that filled her bosom, and early in the spring a little son was born to her.
What cared she then for Henzel's anger, so long as it did not touch her child? It was joy enough to feel the wee thing's fingers straying over her face, to see his limbs grow round and dimpled, and to hear him laugh as she sang to him baby songs. Henzel went in and out, taking little notice of either of them; his thoughts were all absorbed in schemes for growing rich, for the love of money held him in its grip.
When little Karl was six years old his mother died. Instead of sorrowing for her, Henzel was glad, for now he could marry the elderly widow in the next town who was ready to exchange her wealth for a handsome husband.
So Henzel, too, had now a well-stocked farm, but this brought him small satisfaction. For his new wife was a greater scold even than Johann's, and he dare not so much as cross the threshold without taking off his boots. As to Karl, he was sent to mind the cattle on the Kugelmill close by; the little lad was so ill-clad that his ragged tatters blew in the winter wind. He was hungry also, for his stepmother grudged him the simplest food, and but that he shared their berries with the birds, he must have starved.
When the hawthorns were white with the snows of spring, and the daisies showed their golden centres on the grassy slopes, we heard him crying for his mother. Stella flew to his side, and gathered him in her arms. Her lovely hair covered his shivering limbs, and the desolate child clung close to her as she held the silver horn to his curved red lips. His soft embrace set her woman-love on fire, and veiling him in her golden tresses, she brought him here.
He was happy with us–as happy as the days were long. We wove for him garments of silken sheen, and taught him to call us by the sweet name of 'Mother.' . . . One day he begged us to let him play on the hill, so we took him thither, hiding close by, that we might guard him from harm. He was seen by some wood-cutters working near, and they took word to his father; but before he could fetch him, we had spirited him away. Karl never asked to play on the hill again, and all went well with us for many years, till he sprang into a gallant youth, with his mother's eyes and a lordly will, unlike her yielding way.
And then? Ah me! His love for our beautiful Stella grew fierce and wild–the love of a mortal man for a maid. And since no Wild Woman may wed, one night he bore her away from our hill to the evening star, which is the sanctuary of lovers. Thence she sends glad dreams to motherless children, and to lonely women who pine for love."
I did not stay much longer in the Wunderberg, for somehow the scented air seemed to have grown chilly. When I said to Snow-blossom that I must leave her, she wept again, and gave me a shining strand of hair to guide me back to the moor. It turned into gossamer when I reached the daylight, and floated softly away.
Heinrich was still munching at the short grass, and stared at me very hard when I caught his bridle. I suppose he thought I had been a long while gone.