"Silence!" by Lilian Gask (1865-)
ASTER GASPAR was the King's tailor, and high in favour with the nobility. Being an excellent workman he had amassed a fortune, but though he had a fine house, ample means, and a handsome daughter who was admired by all, he was still unsatisfied.
"If I had had a son," he sighed, "I should have brought him up to be a tailor like myself, and he would inherit my fortune. As it is, I have no one to succeed to this fine business, which I have built up by my own efforts."
When he was weary of sighing for what Fate had denied him, he invited his nephew, John, to become his apprentice, and live in his house. Now John was already in love with Marie, whom he hoped one day to make his wife, so he gladly accepted his uncle's invitation. He was a good-natured young fellow, not particularly fond of work, but all would have gone well with him in his new home had it not been for his ceaseless chatter, which distracted his companions' attention, and made Master Gaspar justly angry.
John was scolded, and Marie wept; but though the young man promised to mend his ways and work in silence, he soon forgot, and once more began to talk. This went on until Master Gaspar was out of patience, and decided that they must part.
"You must go," he said, "but it need not be for ever unless you wish. Take a journey through France, and see if you cannot learn to conquer this foolish habit of yours. When you can show me six pieces of gold that you have earned by steady work, I will take you back into the business. More than this, you shall have my daughter for your wife; but not until you have proved that you deserve her."
ARIE'S pretty face was sweet as a pink pea-blossom in a shower of rain as she blushed through her tears, and John wept with her, for he had a tender heart. As Master Gaspar refused to listen to their joint entreaties, there was nothing for John to do but to go, so he mournfully took his departure. Filled with regrets, he walked on and on, until his uncle's house was far behind him, and he reached the borders of a vast forest. A narrow pathway seemed to beckon to him, and, still thinking of the weeping Marie, he strolled on listlessly beneath gnarled old oak-trees, whose branches looked like the twisted limbs of tortured ogres.
Needless to tell, he lost his way, and though he searched in every direction, he could see no trace of the path by which he had entered the forest. Dusk came on, and the trees grew dim and shadowy. The night-birds called to each other sadly, and he heard in the distance the howling of hungry wolves. The sound filled him with dread, but in spite of his fears he was soon overcome by weariness, and, throwing himself at the foot of a tree, fell into a deep slumber.
The night was half over when he awoke, and a ray of moonlight that shone through the boughs above showed a tiny dwarf standing close beside him. Without a word the strange little creature took him by the hand, and led him to the heart of the forest, where a bright wood-fire lit up the darkness. Five other dwarfs, no less curious to look at than the first, were grouped around the glowing embers, and with silent gestures invited John to join them. He sat down gratefully and warmed his hands. Still no one spoke, and after a while he ventured on a question.
"Where am I?" he began, but could get no farther, for the nearest dwarf gave him such a slap in the face that his breath was taken away. Furious with anger, John leaped to his feet and would have flown at him, but at his first gesture the tiny dwarf instantly assumed the stature of a giant, and looked down so threateningly upon him that he feared to make another motion. As he did not stir, the wrath of the giant subsided, and he became a dwarf once more. Feeling very much subdued, John sat down again and did not open his lips for quite an hour.
HE forest was very still. The wind had dropped, and those of the wood-folk who were not asleep moved so softly that they made no sound. The silence was intolerable to chattering John, and as a last resource he took out from his satchel his scissors, needles, and thread, in order to mend an ugly rent which a briar had torn in his spick-and-span coat. At the sight of these the dwarfs got up and danced with glee, showing him at the same time many rents in their own garments. Their joy emboldened John to speak once more.
"Who are you," he cried, "and why are your coats so torn?"
THE TAILOR AND THE DWARFS
The reply to his question was another blow, and again he was overwhelmed with impotent anger. He was one against six, however, each of whom could transform himself at will into a mighty giant, so with unusual prudence he decided to hold his tongue. When the dwarfs had thrown more wood on the fire so that it blazed up brightly, he threaded his finest needle, and set to work on his coat. Immediately the eldest dwarf took off his own, and held it towards him entreatingly. John dared not refuse to do what he wanted, so he started at once to repair it. He worked away for a whole hour, and then, in spite of himself, burst out with another question. It met with the usual answer. His face ached all over with the slaps he had received, but he had no means of retaliation.
"My uncle used to grumble if I chattered," he groaned to himself, "but these fellows reward me with frightful blows." As he did not know what else to do, he kept on stitching until the coat was neatly mended, when he handed it back to its owner without a word.
The dwarf examined it with lively interest, and, having no fault to find, took out of his pocket a gleaming piece of gold, which John, to his great delight, found was intended for himself.
"Come," he thought cheerfully, "here's one piece of gold already. If I can earn the rest as quickly I shall not have long to wait before I can claim dear Marie for my wife."
By this time the night was almost spent. The birds were beginning to twitter drowsily, and the fire waned dull in the dawning light. With a sigh of relief John put by his needles and thread, and was preparing to leave his strange companions, when one of them offered him a draught of wine, which he thankfully accepted. It tasted like fairy nectar, and he drained the silver cup to its very dregs. As he set it down a wave of cold ran through his body, and he shivered like the leaves of an aspen when the wind blows up for a storm.... In a few moments he had dwindled down to the size of the dwarfs themselves. His cry of alarm was met with another blow, and as he staggered to his feet he felt with despair that resistance was useless.
Making signs for him to follow them, the dwarfs led the way through the waking forest, and though shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy of leaves, and made ladders of gold on the soft green moss over which he trod, John could think of nothing but his sad fate, and what was likely to happen next.
The forest came to an end at last, and a huge black rock loomed before them like a giant's fortress. One of the dwarfs touched its jagged surface; a hidden door flew open silently, and John and his companions passed through it into a long wide corridor. On both sides of this were tiny bedrooms, with furniture of mother-of-pearl and small white beds with hangings of rose pink silk. Sounds of exquisite music were wafted from a distance, and John caught a glimpse of a brilliantly lighted ballroom at the far end of the corridor, filled with many dancers. He would have liked nothing better than to question his guides, but, wise at last, he resisted the inclination. After a moment's pause, they showed him into one of the bedrooms and pointed to the bed. He at once undressed, and laid his head on the pillow. The music was now as soft as the lapping of waves on the seashore, and he fell asleep like a tired child.
He woke in the twilight to find one of the dwarfs at the foot of his bed. The little fellow seemed impatient for him to rise, and when John opened his lips as if to speak, he raised his head so angrily that the youth deemed it advisable to keep his mouth shut. Dressing himself as quickly as he could, he followed the dwarf into the wide corridor, where the others joined them. All passed together out of the rock, and re-entered the forest as the last ray of light faded out of the sky.
A fire was blazing under an arch of beeches, and once more John sat down and warmed himself. Not daring to speak, he thought it would be more agreeable to sew than to do nothing, so he again took out his needles and thread. At this another dwarf came forward with a torn coat, and John, while skilfully repairing it, made two attempts to speak. On each occasion he received one of the heavy blows he had learnt to dread, and for the rest of the night he uttered no word. Just before dawn the coat was finished, and on handing it back he was given a second piece of gold.
Instead of rejoicing he could only mourn.
HAT wretched luck that I should have been transformed into a dwarf!" he sighed, as he followed the little men back to the rock. "Two pieces of gold are mine already, and, were it not for my misfortune, my uncle would give me Marie when I have earned six."
The wind in the trees re-echoed his sighs, as it rustled amongst the fallen leaves. The air was chill, and already the frosts of winter were turning the berries red.
"That's curious," said John–to himself, you may be certain, for he knew better by this time than to speak out loud. "Yesterday was the fifteenth of October; yet to-day one might well think that it was mid-November."
Again the rock opened at the dwarf's light touch and they all went in as before. The same sweet music fell on John's ears, and the dancers still twisted and turned in the brilliantly lighted ballroom at the far end of the corridor. John spent the day in the little white bed with the rose-silk hangings, and when once again he was roused by a dwarf he dressed himself without risking a question. Only three dwarfs awaited them in the corridor, and on reaching the forest he was amazed to find that the ground was covered with snow.
OW strange!" he thought. "It might be December, though only three days and nights have passed since I bade dear Marie farewell. Ah! how changed I am! Marie would not know me now, and even if she did my uncle would never let her marry a dwarf.... Why did I chatter so heedlessly, and play such tricks on my fellow-apprentices? If I had held my tongue I should never have come to this dreadful forest, to be struck and buffeted by stunted creatures who would not reach above my natural waist."
THIRD night passed in the same way as the rest, and only once did he forget himself and speak. The blow that followed made him sick with pain, but when, overcome by anger, he put down his work, the dwarfs looked so miserable that he took it up again, and finished mending a third coat. For this he was given a third piece of gold, and once again the dwarfs returned to the rock. A fourth and a fifth night passed in exactly the same way, but on the sixth occasion only one dwarf accompanied him to the forest. The trees were still bare, but the cold was not so intense; here and there in sheltered nooks the snowdrops were showing their dainty heads. By this time John felt rich, for five gold pieces jingled in his pockets.
"Ah," he thought, as a rift in the trees above gave him a glimpse of the sky, the blue of which reminded him of Marie's eyes, "it seems to me as if it were months since the day I left her. If uncle could see my plight, he would be sorry for me."
That night only the one dwarf sat with him by the fire. John worked on steadily at the last torn coat, for he had now quite lost the habit of chattering, and was as silent as Master Gaspar could have wished.
As the sixth piece of gold was added to his store, he could scarcely restrain his tears as he thought how, but for his transformation, he might now claim Marie for his bride. The grateful dwarf offered him another cup of wine, but he shook his head, and then, to his great surprise, the little man whom he had imagined to be dumb began to speak.
"Drink without fear, young man," he cried. "This wine will at once restore you to your former size."
John seized the cup eagerly, and emptied it at one draught. In a few moments he was as tall and as strong as when he quitted his uncle's house, but although his joy was great he did not dare to express it audibly.
O doubt," the dwarf continued, looking at him kindly, "you would like to have some explanation of what you have seen.... A hundred years ago, I and my five companions quarrelled in the King's ballroom, and flew at each other like angry wolves. Justly indignant at our folly, for quarrelling is not allowed in his domains, the King laid us under sentence of banishment, decreeing that we should spend the fifteenth night of each month in this dreary forest until a tailor came who could mend the garments we had torn. That we might learn to govern our unruly tongues, we were condemned neither to speak nor be spoken to, and the King declared that if we allowed anyone to talk to us, we should never return to our own homes.
"Year after year went by, with no sign of a tailor, and we had lost all hope, when we found you sleeping under a tree. Our hearts were filled with joy, for by the marks on your thumb and forefinger we guessed to what trade you belonged. But alas! you persisted in talking, and so we were obliged to stop you in the only way we could. Now that you have mended our coats, however, our troubles are at an end, and you can go back to your uncle's house. You will be surprised to find how long you have been away, for we made you sleep a month at a time. It was the fifteenth of October when you arrived, and now it is the fifteenth of March."
The bridal songs of the blackbirds and thrushes were not more gay than the merry tune John hummed to himself as he hurried homeward. Marie greeted him with tender joy, and when in answer to the questions of Master Gaspar he proudly showed him his six gold pieces, he was at once allowed to take his old place in the workshop. Since he stitched most deftly, and in utter silence, his uncle was delighted, and there was nothing now to come between him and his heart's desire.
His wedding with Marie was celebrated with much rejoicing, and no man ever had a fairer or sweeter bride.
Years afterwards he would sometimes relate his adventures to his boys and girls as they sat round the fire on frosty nights.
h, my dear children," he would say, "silence is an excellent thing. I learnt the lesson in a painful manner, but I have never regretted it. Chat away to your hearts' content in your leisure moments, but when you work, work with all your might, and be sure to do it in silence."