Once upon a time—fairy tales always begin with once upon a time—once upon a time there lived in a fine old castle on the Rhine a certain Baron von Schrochslofsleschshoffinger. You will not find it an easy name to pronounce; in fact, the baron never tried it himself but once, and then he was laid up for two days afterwards; so in future we will merely call him “the baron,” for shortness, particularly as he was rather a dumpy man.
After having heard his name, you will not be surprised when I tell you that he was an exceedingly bad character. For a baron, he was considered enormously rich; a hundred and fifty pounds a year would not be thought much in this country; but still it will buy a good deal of sausage, which, with wine grown on the estate, formed the chief sustenance of the baron and his family.
Now, you will hardly believe that, notwithstanding he was the possessor of this princely revenue, the baron was not satisfied, but oppressed and ground down his unfortunate tenants to the very last penny he could possibly squeeze out of them. In all his exactions he was seconded and encouraged by his steward Klootz, an old rascal who took a malicious pleasure in his master’s cruelty, and who chuckled and rubbed his hands with the greatest apparent enjoyment when any of the poor landholders could not pay their rent, or afforded him any opportunity for oppression.
Not content with making the poor tenants pay double value for the land they rented, the baron was in the habit of going round every now and then to their houses and ordering anything he took a fancy to, from a fat pig to a pretty daughter, to be sent up to the castle. The pretty daughter was made parlor-maid, but as she had nothing a year, and to find herself, it wasn’t what would be considered by careful mothers an eligible situation. The fat pig became sausage, of course.
Things went on from bad to worse, till, at the time of our story, between the alternate squeezings of the baron and his steward, the poor tenants had very little left to squeeze out of them. The fat pigs and pretty daughters had nearly all found their way up to the castle, and there was little left to take.
The only help the poor fellows had was the baron’s only daughter, Lady Bertha, who always had a kind word, and frequently something more substantial, for them when her father was not in the way.
Now, I’m not going to describe Bertha, for the simple reason that if I did you would imagine that she was the fairy I’m going to tell you about, and she isn’t. However, I don’t mind giving you a few outlines.
In the first place, she was exceedingly tiny,—the nicest girls, the real lovable little pets, always are tiny,—and she had long silken black hair, and a dear, dimpled little face full of love and mischief. Now, then, fill up the outline with the details of the nicest and prettiest girl you know, and you will have a slight idea of her. On second thoughts, I don’t believe you will, for your portrait wouldn’t be half good enough; however, it will be near enough for you.
Well, the baron’s daughter, being all your fancy painted her and a trifle more, was naturally much distressed at the goings-on of her unamiable parent, and tried her best to make amends for her father’s harshness. She generally managed that a good many pounds of the sausage should find their way back to the owners of the original pig; and when the baron tried to squeeze the hand of the pretty parlor-maid, which he occasionally did after dinner, Bertha had only to say, in a tone of mild remonstrance, “Pa!” and he dropped the hand instantly and stared very hard the other way.
Bad as this disreputable old baron was, he had a respect for the goodness and purity of his child. Like the lion tamed by the charm of Una’s innocence, the rough old rascal seemed to lose in her presence half his rudeness, and, though he used awful language to her sometimes (I dare say even Una’s lion roared occasionally), he was more tractable with her than with any other living being. Her presence operated as a moral restraint upon him, which, possibly, was the reason that he never stayed down-stairs after dinner, but always retired to a favorite turret, which, I regret to say, he had got so in the way of doing every afternoon that I believe he would have felt unwell without it.
The hour of the baron’s afternoon symposium was the time selected by Bertha for her errands of charity. Once he was fairly settled down to his second bottle, off went Bertha, with her maid beside her carrying a basket, to bestow a meal on some of the poor tenants, among whom she was always received with blessings.
At first these excursions had been undertaken principally from charitable motives, and Bertha thought herself plentifully repaid in the love and thanks of her grateful pensioners.
Of late, however, another cause had led her to take even stronger interest in her walks, and occasionally to come in with brighter eyes and a rosier cheek than the gratitude of the poor tenants had been wont to produce.
The fact is, some months before the time of our story, Bertha had noticed in her walks a young artist, who seemed to be fated to be invariably sketching points of interest in the road she had to take. There was one particular tree, exactly in the path which led from the castle-gate, which he had sketched from at least four points of view, and Bertha began to wonder what there could be so very particular about it.
At last, just as Carl von Sempach had begun to consider where on earth he could sketch the tree from next, and to ponder seriously upon the feasibility of climbing up into it and taking it from that point of view, a trifling accident occurred which gave him the opportunity of making Bertha’s acquaintance,—which, I don’t mind stating confidentially, was the very thing he had been waiting for.
It so chanced that, on one particular afternoon, the maid, either through awkwardness, or possibly through looking more at the handsome painter than the ground she was walking on, stumbled and fell.
Of course, the basket fell, too, and equally of course, Carl, as a gentleman, could not do less than offer his assistance in picking up the damsel and the dinner.
The acquaintance thus commenced was not suffered to drop; and handsome Carl and our good little Bertha were fairly over head and ears in love, and had begun to have serious thoughts of a cottage in a wood, et cætera, when their felicity was disturbed by their being accidentally met, in one of their walks, by the baron.
Of course the baron, being himself so thorough an aristocrat, had higher views for his daughter than marrying her to a “beggarly artist,” and accordingly he stamped, and swore, and threatened Carl with summary punishment with all sorts of weapons, from heavy boots to blunderbusses, if ever he ventured near the premises again.
This was unpleasant; but I fear it did not quite put a stop to the young people’s interviews, though it made them less frequent and more secret than before.
Now, I am quite aware this was not at all proper, and that no properly regulated young lady would ever have had meetings with a young man her papa didn’t approve of.
But then it is just possible Bertha might not have been a properly regulated young lady. I only know she was a dear little pet, worth twenty model young ladies, and that she loved Carl very dearly.
And then consider what a dreadful old tyrant of a papa she had! My dear girl, it’s not the slightest use your looking so provokingly correct; it’s my deliberate belief that if you had been in her shoes (they’d have been at least three sizes too small for you, but that doesn’t matter) you would have done precisely the same.
Such was the state of things on Christmas eve in the year——Stay! fairy tales never have a year to them, so, on second thoughts, I wouldn’t tell the date if I knew,—but I don’t.
Such was the state of things, however, on the particular 24th of December to which our story refers—only, if anything, rather more so.
The baron had got up in the morning in an exceedingly bad temper; and those about him had felt its effects all through the day.
His two favorite wolf-hounds, Lutzow and Teufel, had received so many kicks from the baron’s heavy boots that they hardly knew at which end their tails were; and even Klootz himself scarcely dared to approach his master.
In the middle of the day two of the principal tenants came to say that they were unprepared with their rent, and to beg for a little delay. The poor fellows represented that their families were starving, and entreated for mercy; but the baron was only too glad that he had at last found so fair an excuse for venting his ill-humor.
He loaded the unhappy defaulters with every abusive epithet he could devise (and being called names in German is no joke, I can tell you); and, lastly, he swore by everything he could think of that, if their rent was not paid on the morrow, themselves and their families should be turned out of doors to sleep on the snow, which was then many inches deep on the ground. They still continued to beg for mercy, till the baron became so exasperated that he determined to put them out of the castle himself. He pursued them for that purpose as far as the outer door, when fresh fuel was added to his anger.
Carl, who, as I have hinted, still managed, notwithstanding the paternal prohibition, to see Bertha occasionally, and had come to wish her a merry Christmas, chanced at this identical moment to be saying good-bye at the door, above which, in accordance with immemorial usage, a huge bush of mistletoe was suspended. What they were doing under it at the moment of the baron’s appearance, I never knew exactly; but his wrath was tremendous!
I regret to say that his language was unparliamentary in the extreme. He swore until he was mauve in the face; and if he had not providentially been seized with a fit of[Pg 15] coughing, and sat down in the coal-scuttle,—mistaking it for a three-legged stool,—it is impossible to say to what lengths his feelings might have carried him.
Carl and Bertha picked him up, rather black behind, but otherwise not much the worse for his accident.
In fact, the diversion of his thoughts seemed to have done him good; for, having sworn a little more, and Carl having left the castle, he appeared rather better.
After enduring so many and various emotions, it is hardly to be wondered at that the baron required some consolation; so, after having changed his trousers, he took himself off to his favorite turret to allay, by copious potations, the irritations of his mind.
Bottle after bottle was emptied, and pipe after pipe was filled and smoked. The fine old Burgundy was gradually getting into the baron’s head; and, altogether, he was beginning to feel more comfortable.
The shades of the winter afternoon had deepened into the evening twilight, made dimmer still by the aromatic clouds that came, with dignified deliberation, from the baron’s lips, and curled and floated up to the carved ceiling of the turret, where they spread themselves into a dim canopy, which every successive cloud brought lower and lower.
The fire, which had been piled up mountain-high earlier in the afternoon, and had flamed and roared to its heart’s content ever since, had now got to that state—the perfection of a fire to a lazy man—when it requires no poking or attention of any kind, but just burns itself hollow, and then tumbles in, and blazes jovially for a little time, and then settles down to a genial glow, and gets hollow, and tumbles in again.
The baron’s fire was just in this delightful da capo condition, most favorable of all to the enjoyment of the dolce far niente.
For a little while it would glow and kindle quietly, making strange faces to itself, and building fantastic castles in the depths of its red recesses, and then the castles would come down with a crash, and the faces disappear, and a bright flame spring up and lick lovingly the sides of the old chimney; and the carved heads of improbable men and impossible women, hewn so deftly round the panels of the old oak wardrobe opposite, in which the baron’s choicest vintages were deposited, were lit up by the flickering light, and seemed to nod and wink at the fire in return, with the familiarity of old acquaintances.
Some such fancy as this was disporting itself in the baron’s brain; and he was gazing at the old oak carving accordingly, and emitting huge volumes of smoke with reflective slowness, when a clatter among the bottles on the table caused him to turn his head to ascertain the cause.
The baron was by no means a nervous man; however, the sight that met his eyes when he turned round did take away his presence of mind a little; and he was obliged to take four distinct puffs before he had sufficiently regained his equilibrium to inquire, “Who the—Pickwick—are you?” (The baron said “Dickens,” but, as that is a naughty word, we will substitute “Pickwick,” which is equally expressive, and not so wrong.) Let me see; where was I? Oh, yes! “Who the Pickwick are you?”
Now, before I allow the baron’s visitor to answer the question, perhaps I had better give a slight description of his personal appearance.
If this was not a true story, I should have liked to have made him a model of manly beauty; but a regard for veracity compels me to confess that he was not what would be generally considered handsome; that is, not in figure, for his face was by no means unpleasing.
His body was, in size and shape, not very unlike a huge plum-pudding, and was clothed in a bright-green, tightly-fitting doublet, with red holly-berries for buttons.
His limbs were long and slender in proportion to his stature, which was not more than three feet or so.
His head was encircled by a crown of holly and mistletoe.
The round red berries sparkled amid his hair which was silver-white, and shone out in cheerful harmony with his rosy, jovial face. And that face! it would have done one good to look at it.
In spite of the silver hair, and an occasional wrinkle beneath the merry, laughing eyes, it seemed brimming over with perpetual youth. The mouth, well garnished with teeth, white and sound, which seemed as if they could do ample justice to holiday cheer, was ever open with a beaming, genial smile, expanding now and then into hearty laughter. Fun and good-fellowship were in every feature.
The owner of the face was, at the moment when the baron first perceived him, comfortably seated upon the top of the large tobacco-jar on the table, nursing his left leg.
The baron’s somewhat abrupt inquiry did not appear to irritate him; on the contrary, he seemed rather amused than otherwise.
“You don’t ask prettily, old gentleman,” he replied; “but I don’t mind telling you, for all that. I’m King Christmas.”
“Eh?” said the baron.
“Ah!” said the goblin. Of course, you have guessed he was a goblin?
“And pray what’s your business here?” said the baron.
“Don’t be crusty with a fellow,” replied the goblin. “I merely looked in to wish you the compliments of the season. Talking of crust, by the way, what sort of a tap is it you’re drinking?” So saying, he took up a flask of the baron’s very best and poured out about half a glass. Having held the glass first on one side and then on the other, winked at it twice, sniffed it, and gone through the remainder of the pantomime in which connoisseurs indulge, he drank it with great deliberation, and smacked his lips scientifically. “Hum! Johannisberg! and not so very bad—for you. But I tell you what it is, baron, you’ll have to bring out better stuff than this when I put my legs on your mahogany.”
“Well, you are a cool fish,” said the baron. “However, you’re rather a joke, so, now you’re here, we may as well enjoy ourselves. Smoke?”
“Not anything you’re likely to offer me!”
“Confound your impudence!” roared the baron, with a horribly complicated oath. “That tobacco is as good as any in all Rhineland.”
“That’s a nasty cough you’ve got, baron. Don’t excite yourself, my dear boy; I dare say you speak according to your lights. I don’t mean Vesuvians, you know, but your opportunities for knowing anything about it. Try a weed out of my case, and I expect you’ll alter your opinion.”
The baron took the proffered case and selected a cigar. Not a word was spoken till it was half consumed, when the baron took it, for the first time, from his lips, and said, gently, with the air of a man communicating an important discovery in the strictest confidence, “Das ist gut!”
“Thought you’d say so,” said the visitor. “And now, as you like the cigar, I should like you to try a thimbleful of what I call wine. I must warn you, though, that it is rather potent, and may produce effects you are not accustomed to.”
“Bother that, if it is as good as the weed,” said the baron; “I haven’t taken my usual quantity by four bottles yet.”
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, that’s all. I don’t think you’ll find it unpleasant, though it is rather strong when you’re not accustomed to it.” So saying, the goblin produced from some mysterious pocket a black, big-bellied bottle, crusted, apparently, with the dust of ages.
It did strike the baron as peculiar, that the bottle, when once produced, appeared nearly as big round as the goblin himself; but he was not the sort of man to stick at trifles, and he pushed forward his glass to be filled just as composedly as if the potion had been shipped and paid duty, in the most commonplace way.
The glass was filled and emptied, but the baron uttered not his opinion. Not in words, at least, but he pushed forward his glass to be filled again in a manner that sufficiently bespoke his approval.
“Aha! you smile!” said the goblin. And it was a positive fact; the baron was smiling; a thing he had not been known to do in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. “That’s the stuff to make your hair curl, isn’t it?”
“I believe you, my b-o-o-oy!” The baron brought out this earnest expression of implicit confidence with true unction. “It warms one here!”
Knowing the character of the man, one would have expected him to put his hand upon his stomach. But he didn’t; he laid it upon his heart.
“The spell begins to operate, I see,” said the goblin. “Have another glass?”
The baron had another glass, and another after that.
The smile on his face expanded into an expression of such geniality that the whole character of his countenance was changed, and his own mother wouldn’t have known him. I doubt myself—inasmuch as she died when he was exactly a year and three months old—whether she would have recognized him under any circumstances; but I merely wish to express that he was changed almost beyond recognition.
“Upon my word,” said the baron, at length, “I feel so light I almost think I could dance a hornpipe. I used to, once, I know. Shall I try?”
“Well, if you ask my advice,” replied the goblin, “I should say, decidedly, don’t. ‘Barkis is willing,’ I dare say, but trousers are weak, and you might split ‘em.”
“Hang it all,” said the baron, “so I might. I didn’t think of that. But still I feel as if I must do something juvenile!”
“Ah! that’s the effect of your change of nature,” said the goblin. “Never mind, I’ll give you plenty to do presently.”
“Change of nature! What do you mean, you old conundrum?” said the baron.
“You’re another,” said the goblin. “But never mind. What I mean is just this. What you are now feeling is the natural consequence of my magic wine, which has changed you into a fairy. That’s what’s the matter, sir.”
“A fairy! me!” exclaimed the baron. “Get out. I’m too fat.”
“Fat! Oh! that’s nothing. We shall put you in regular training, and you’ll soon be slim enough to creep into a lady’s stocking. Not that you’ll be called upon to do anything of the sort; but I’m merely giving you an idea of your future figure.”
“No, no,” said the baron; “me thin! that’s too ridiculous. Why, that’s worse than being a fairy. You don’t mean it, though, do you? I do feel rather peculiar.”
“I do, indeed,” said the visitor. “You don’t dislike it, do you?”
“Well, no, I can’t say I do, entirely. It’s queer, though, I feel so uncommon friendly. I feel as if I should like to shake hands or pat somebody on the back.”
“Ah!” said the goblin, “I know how it is. Rum feeling, when you’re not accustomed to it. But come; finish that glass, for we must be off. We’ve got a precious deal to do before morning, I can tell you. Are you ready?”
“All right,” said the baron. “I’m just in the humor to make a night of it.”
“Come along, then,” said the goblin.
They proceeded for a short time in silence along the corridors of the old castle. They carried no candle, but the baron noticed that everything seemed perfectly light wherever they stood, but relapsed into darkness as soon as they had passed by. The goblin spoke first.
“I say, baron, you’ve been an uncommon old brute in your time, now, haven’t you?”
“H’m,” said the baron, reflectively; “I don’t know. Well, yes, I rather think I have.”
“How jolly miserable you’ve been making those two young people, you old sinner! You know who I mean.”
“Eh, what? You know that, too?” said the baron.
“Know it; of course I do. Why, bless your heart, I know everything, my dear boy. But you have made yourself an old tyrant in that quarter, considerably. Ar’n't you blushing, you hard-hearted old monster?”
“Don’t know, I’m sure,” said the baron, scratching his nose, as if that was where he expected to feel it. “I believe I have treated them badly, though, now I come to think of it.”
At this moment they reached the door of Bertha’s chamber The door opened of itself at their approach.
“Come along,” said the goblin; “you won’t wake her. Now, old flinty-heart, look there.”
The sight that met the baron’s view was one that few fathers could have beheld without affectionate emotion. Under ordinary circumstances, however, the baron would not have felt at all sentimental on the subject, but to-night something made him view things in quite a different light.
I shouldn’t like to make affidavit of the fact, but it’s my positive impression that he sighed.
Now, my dear reader, don’t imagine I’m going to indulge your impertinent curiosity with an elaborate description of the sacred details of a lady’s sleeping apartment. You’re not a fairy, you know, and I don’t see that it can possibly matter to you whether fair Bertha’s dainty little bottines were tidily placed on a chair by her bedside, or thrown carelessly, as they had been taken off, upon the hearth-rug, where her favorite spaniel reposed, warming his nose in his sleep before the last smouldering embers of the decaying fire; or whether her crinoline—but if she did wear a crinoline, what can that possibly matter to you?
All I shall tell you is, that everything looked snug and comfortable; but, somehow, any place got that look when Bertha was in it.
And now a word about the jewel in the casket—pet Bertha herself. Really, I’m at a loss to describe her. How do you look when you’re asleep?—Well, it wasn’t like that; not a bit! Fancy a sweet girl’s face, the cheek faintly flushed with a soft, warm tint, like the blush in the heart of the opening rose, and made brighter by the contrast of the snowy pillow on which it rested; dark silken hair, curling and clustering lovingly over the tiniest of tiny ears, and the softest, whitest neck that ever mortal maiden was blessed with; long silken eyelashes, fringing lids only less beautiful than the dear earnest eyes they cover. Fancy all this, and fancy, too, if you can, the expression of perfect goodness and purity that lit up the sweet features of the slumbering maiden with a beauty almost angelic, and you will see what the baron saw that night. Not quite all, however, for the baron’s vision paused not at the bedside before him, but had passed on from the face of the sleeping maiden to another face as lovely, that of the young wife, Bertha’s mother, who had, years before, taken her angel beauty to the angels.
The goblin spoke to the baron’s thought. “Wonderfully like her, is she not, baron?” The baron slowly inclined his head.
“You made her very happy, didn’t you?”
The tone in which the goblin spoke was harsh and mocking.
“A faithful husband, tender and true! She must have been a happy wife, eh, baron?”
The baron’s head had sunk upon his bosom. Old recollections were thronging into his awakened memory. Solemn vows to love and cherish somewhat strangely kept. Memories of bitter words and savage oaths showered at a quiet and uncomplaining figure, without one word in reply. And, last, the memory of a fit of drunken passion, and a hasty blow struck with a heavy hand. And then of three months of fading away; and last, of her last prayer—for her baby and him.
“A good husband makes a good father, baron. No wonder you are somewhat chary of rashly intrusting to a suitor the happiness of a sweet flower like this. Poor child! it is hard, though, that she must think no more of him she loves so dearly. See! she is weeping even in her dreams. But you have good reasons, no doubt. Young Carl is wild, perhaps, or drinks, or gambles, eh? What! none of these? Perhaps he is wayward and uncertain; and you fear that the honeyed words of courtship might turn to bitter sayings in matrimony. They do, sometimes, eh, baron? By all means guard her from such a fate as that. Poor, tender flower! Or who knows, worse than that, baron! Hard words break no bones, they say, but angry men are quick, and a blow is soon struck, eh?”
The goblin had drawn nearer and nearer, and laid his hand upon the baron’s arm, and the last words were literally hissed into his ears.
The baron’s frame swayed to and fro under the violence of his emotion. At last, with a cry of agony, he dashed his hands upon his forehead. The veins were swollen up like thick cords, and his voice was almost inarticulate in its unnatural hoarseness.
“Tortures! release me! Let me go, let me go and do something to forget the past, or I shall go mad and die!”
He rushed out of the room and paced wildly down the corridor, the goblin following him. At last, as they came near the outer door of the castle, which opened of itself as they reached it, the spirit spoke:
“This way, baron, this way. I told you there was work for us to do before morning, you know.”
“Work!” exclaimed the baron, absently, passing his fingers through his tangled hair; “oh! yes, work! the harder the better; anything to make me forget.”
The two stepped out into the court-yard, and the baron shivered, though, as it seemed, unconsciously, at the breath of the frosty midnight air. The snow lay deep on the ground, and the baron’s heavy boots sank into it with a crisp, crushing sound at every tread.
He was bareheaded, but seemed unconscious of the fact, and tramped on, as if utterly indifferent to anything but his own thoughts. At last, as a blast of the night wind, keener than ordinary, swept over him, he seemed for the first time to feel the chill. His teeth chattered, and he muttered, “Cold, very cold.”
“Ay, baron,” said the goblin, “it is cold even to us, who are healthy and strong, and warmed with wine. Colder still, though, to those who are hungry and half-naked, and have to sleep on the snow.”
“Sleep? snow?” said the baron. “Who sleeps on the snow? Why, I wouldn’t let my dogs be out on such a night as this.”
“Your dogs, no!” said the goblin; “I spoke of meaner animals—your wretched tenants. Did you not order, yesterday, that Wilhelm and Friedrich, if they did not pay their rent to-morrow, should be turned out to sleep on the snow? A snug bed for the little ones, and a nice white coverlet, eh? Ha! ha! twenty florins or so is no great matter, is it? I’m afraid their chance is small; nevertheless, come and see.”
The baron hung his head. A few minutes brought him to the first of the poor dwellings, which they entered noiselessly. The fireless grate, the carpetless floor, the broken window-panes, all gave sufficient testimony to the want and misery of the occupants. In one corner lay sleeping a man, a woman, and three children, and nestling to each other for the warmth which their ragged coverlet could afford. In the man, the baron recognized his tenant Wilhelm, one of those who had been with him to beg for indulgence on the previous day.
The keen features, and bones almost starting through the pallid skin, showed how heavily the hand of hunger had been laid upon all.
The cold night wind moaned and whistled through the many flaws in the ill-glazed, ill-thatched tenement, and rustled over the sleepers, who shivered even in their sleep.
“Ha, baron!” said the goblin, “death is breathing in their faces even now, you see; it is hardly worth while to lay them to sleep in the snow, is it? They would sleep a little sounder, that’s all.”
The baron shuddered, and then, hastily pulling the warm coat from his own shoulders, he spread it over the sleepers.
“Oho!” said the goblin; “bravely done, baron! By all means keep them warm to-night; they enjoy the snow more to-morrow, you know.”
Strange to say, the baron, instead of feeling chilled when he had removed his coat, felt a strange glow of warmth spread from the region of the heart over his entire frame. The goblin’s continual allusions to his former intention, which he had by this time totally relinquished, hurt him, and he said, rather pathetically,—
“Don’t talk of that again, good goblin. I’d rather sleep on the snow myself.”
“Eh! what?” said the goblin; “you don’t mean to say you’re sorry? Then what do you say to making these poor people comfortable?”
“With all my heart,” said the baron, “if we had only anything to do it with.”
“You leave that to me,” said the goblin. “Your brother fairies are not far off, you may be sure.”
As he spoke he clapped his hands thrice, and before the third clap had died away the poor cottage was swarming with tiny figures, whom the baron rightly conjectured to be the fairies themselves.
Now, you may not be aware (the baron was not, until that night) that there are among the fairies trades and professions, just as with ordinary mortals.
However, there they were, each with the accompaniments of his or her particular business, and to it they went manfully. A fairy glazier put in new panes to the shattered windows, fairy carpenters replaced the doors upon their hinges, and fairy painters, with inconceivable celerity, made cupboards and closets as fresh as paint could make them; one fairy housemaid laid and lit a roaring fire, while another dusted and rubbed chairs and tables to a miraculous degree of brightness; a fairy butler uncorked bottles of fairy wine, and a fairy cook laid out a repast of most tempting appearance.
The baron, hearing a tapping above him, cast his eyes upward, and beheld a fairy slater rapidly repairing a hole in the roof; and when he bent them down again they fell on a fairy doctor mixing a cordial for the sleepers. Nay, there was even a fairy parson, who, not having any present employment, contented himself with rubbing his hands and looking pleasant, probably waiting till somebody might want to be christened or married.
Every trade, every profession or occupation appeared, without exception, to be represented; nay, we beg pardon, with one exception only, for the baron used to say, when afterwards relating his experiences to bachelor friends,—
“You may believe me or not, sir, there was every mortal business under the sun, but deil a bit of a lawyer.”
The baron could not long remain inactive. He was rapidly seized with a violent desire to do something to help, which manifested itself in insane attempts to assist everybody at once. At last, after having taken all the skin off his knuckles in attempting to hammer in nails in aid of the carpenter, and then nearly tumbling over a fairy housemaid, whose broom he was offering to carry, he gave it up as a bad job, and stood aside with his friend the goblin.
He was just about to inquire how it was that the poor occupants of the house were not awakened by so much din, when a fairy Sam Slick, who had been examining the cottager’s old clock with a view to a thorough repair, touched some spring within it, and it made the usual purr preparatory to striking. When, lo! and behold, at the very first stroke, cottage, goblin, fairies, and all disappeared into utter darkness, and the baron found himself in his turret-chamber, rubbing his toe, which he had just hit with considerable force against the fender. As he was only in his slippers, the concussion was unpleasant, and the baron rubbed his toe for a good while.
After he had finished with his toe he rubbed his nose, and, finally, with a countenance of deep reflection, scratched the bump of something or other at the top of his head.
The old clock on the stairs was striking three, and the fire had gone out.
The baron reflected for a short time longer, and finally decided that he had better go to bed, which he did accordingly.
The morning dawned upon the very ideal, as far as weather was concerned, of a Christmas-day. A bright winter sun shone out just vividly enough to make everything look genial and pleasant, and yet not with sufficient warmth to mar the pure, unbroken surface of the crisp, white snow, which lay like a never-ending white lawn upon the ground, and glittered in myriad silver flakes upon the leaves of the sturdy evergreens.
I am afraid the baron had not had a very good night; at any rate, I know that he was wide-awake at an hour long before his usual time of rising.
He lay first on one side, and then on the other, and then, by way of variety, turned on his back, with his magenta nose pointing perpendicularly towards the ceiling; but it was all of no use. Do what he would, he couldn’t get to sleep, and at last, not long after daybreak, he tumbled out of bed and proceeded to dress.
Even after he was out of bed his fidgetiness continued. It did not strike him, until after he had got one boot on, that it would be a more natural proceeding to put his stockings on first; after which he caught himself in the act of trying to put his trousers on over his head.
In a word, the baron’s mind was evidently preoccupied; his whole air was that of a man who felt a strong impulse to do something or other, but could not quite make up his mind to it.
At last, however, the good impulse conquered, and this wicked old baron, in the stillness of the calm, bright Christmas morning, went down upon his knees and prayed.
Stiff were his knees and slow his tongue, for neither had done such work for many a long day past; but I have read in the Book of the joy of angels over a repenting sinner.
There needs not much eloquence to pray the publican’s prayer, and who shall say but there was gladness in heaven that Christmas morning?
The baron’s appearance down-stairs at such an early hour occasioned quite a commotion. Nor were the domestics reassured when the baron ordered a bullock to be killed and jointed instantly, and all the available provisions in the larder, including sausage, to be packed up in baskets, with a good store of his own peculiar wine.
One ancient retainer was heard to declare, with much pathos, that he feared master had gone insane.
However, insane or not, they knew the baron must be obeyed, and in an exceedingly short space of time he sallied forth, accompanied by three servants carrying the baskets, and wondering what in the name of fortune their master would do next.
He stopped at the cottage of Wilhelm, which he had visited with the goblin on the previous night. The labors of the fairies did not seem to have produced much lasting benefit, for the appearance of everything around was as wretched as could be.
The poor family thought that the baron had come himself to turn them out of house and home; and the children huddled up timidly to their mother for protection, while the father attempted some words of entreaty for mercy.
The pale, pinched features of the group, and their looks of dread and wretchedness, were too much for the baron.
“Eh! what! what do you mean, confound you? Turn you out? Of course not: I’ve brought you some breakfast. Here! Fritz—Carl; where are the knaves? Now, then, unpack, and don’t be a week about it. Can’t you see the people are hungry, ye villains? Here, lend me the corkscrew.”
This last being a tool the baron was tolerably accustomed to, he had better success than with those of the fairy carpenters; and it was not long before the poor tenants were seated before a roaring fire, and doing justice, with the appetite of starvation, to a substantial breakfast.
The baron felt a queer sensation in his throat at the sight of the poor people’s enjoyment, and had passed the back of his hand twice across his eyes when he thought no one was looking; but his emotion fairly rose to boiling when the poor father, Wilhelm, with tears in his eyes, and about a quarter of a pound of beef in his mouth, sprang up from the table and flung himself at the baron’s knees, invoking blessings on him for his goodness.
“Get up, you audacious scoundrel!” roared the baron. “What the deuce do you mean by such conduct, eh? confound you!”
At this moment the door opened, and in walked Mynheer Klootz, who had heard nothing of the baron’s change of intentions, and who, seeing Wilhelm at the baron’s feet, and hearing the latter speaking, as he thought, in an angry tone, at once jumped to the conclusion that Wilhelm was entreating for longer indulgence. He rushed at the unfortunate man and collared him. “Not if we know it,” exclaimed he; “you’ll have the wolves for bedfellows to-night, I reckon. Come along, my fine fellow.” As he spoke he turned his back towards the baron, with the intention of dragging his victim to the door.
The baron’s little gray eyes twinkled, and his whole frame quivered with suppressed emotion, which, after the lapse of a moment, vented itself in a kick, and such a kick! Not one of your Varsovianna flourishes, but a kick that employed every muscle from hip to toe, and drove the worthy steward up against the door like a ball from a catapult.
Misfortunes never come singly, and so Mynheer Klootz found with regard to the kick, for it was followed, without loss of time, by several dozen others, as like it as possible, from the baron’s heavy boots.
Wounded lions proverbially come badly off, and Fritz and Carl, who had suffered from many an act of petty tyranny on the part of the steward, thought they could not do better than follow their master’s example, which they did to such good purpose, that when the unfortunate Klootz did escape from the cottage at last, I don’t believe he could have had any os sacrum left.
After having executed this little act of poetical justice, the baron and his servants visited the other cottages, in all of which they were received with dread and dismissed with blessings.
Having completed his tour of charity, the baron returned home to breakfast, feeling more really contented than he had done for many a long year. He found Bertha, who had not risen when he started, in a considerable state of anxiety as to what he could possibly have been doing. In answer to her inquiries, he told her, with a roughness he was far from feeling, to “mind her own affairs.”
The gentle eyes filled with tears at the harshness of the reply; perceiving which, the baron was beyond measure distressed, and chucked her under the chin in what was meant to be a very conciliatory manner.
“Eh! what, my pretty, tears? No, surely. Bertha must forgive her old father. I didn’t mean it, you know, my pet; and yet, on second thoughts, yes, I did, too.” Bertha’s face was overcast again. “My little girl thinks she has no business anywhere, eh! Is that it? Well, then, my pet, suppose you make it your business to write a note to young Carl von Sempach, and say I’m afraid I was rather rude to him yesterday, but if he’ll overlook it, and come take a snug family dinner and a slice of the pudding with us to-day——”
“Why, pa, you don’t mean—yes, I do really believe you do——”
The baron’s eyes were winking nineteen to the dozen.
“Why, you dear, dear, dear old pa!” and at the imminent risk of upsetting the breakfast table, Bertha rushed at the baron, and flinging two soft white arms about his neck, kissed him—oh! how she did kiss him! I shouldn’t have thought, myself, she could possibly have had any left for Carl; but I dare say Bertha attended to his interests in that respect somehow.
Well, Carl came to dinner, and the baron was, not very many years after, promoted to the dignity of a grandpapa, and a very jolly old grandpapa he made.
Is that all you wanted to know? About Klootz? Well, Klootz got over the kicking, but he was dismissed from the baron’s service; and on examination of his accounts it was discovered that he had been in the habit of robbing the baron of nearly a third of his yearly income, which he had to refund; and with the money he was thus compelled to disgorge, the baron built new cottages for his tenants, and new-stocked their farms. Nor was he poorer in the end, for his tenants worked with the energy of gratitude, and he was soon many times richer than when the goblin visited him on that Christmas eve.
And was the goblin ever explained? Certainly not. How dare you have the impertinence to suppose such a thing?
An empty bottle, covered with cobwebs, was found the next morning in the turret-chamber, which the baron at first imagined must be the bottle from which the goblin produced his magic wine; but as it was found, on examination, to be labelled “Old Jamaica Rum,” of course that could not have had anything to do with it. However it was, the baron never thoroughly enjoyed any other wine after it, and as he did not thenceforth get intoxicated, on an average, more than two nights a week, or swear more than eight oaths a day, I think King Christmas may be considered to have thoroughly reformed him.
And he always maintained, to the day of his death, that he was changed into a fairy, and became exceedingly angry if contradicted.
Who doesn’t believe in fairies after this? I only hope King Christmas may make a few more good fairies this year, to brighten the homes of the poor with the light of Christmas charity.
Truly, we need not look far for alms-men. Cold and hunger, disease and death, are around us at all times; but at no time do they press more heavily on the poor than at this jovial Christmas season.
Shall we shut out, in our mirth and jollity, the cry of the hungry poor? or shall we not rather remember, in the midst of our happy family circles, round our well-filled tables and before our blazing fires, that our brothers are starving out in the cold, and that the Christmas song of the angels was “Good-will to men”?