Her adventure with the spider gave Maya something to think about. She made up her mind to be more cautious in the future, not to rush into things so recklessly. Cassandra's prudent warnings about the greatest dangers that threaten the bees, were enough to give one pause; and there were all sorts of other possibilities, and the world was such a big place—oh, there was a good deal to make a little bee stop and think.
It was in the evening particularly, when twilight fell and the little bee was all by herself, that one consideration after another stirred her mind. But the next morning, if the sun shone, she usually forgot half the things that had bothered her the night before, and allowed her eagerness for experiences to drive her out again into the gay whirl of life.
One day she met a very curious creature. It was angular and flat as a pancake, but had a rather neat design on its sheath; and whether its sheath were wings or what, you couldn't really tell. The odd little monster sat absolutely still on the shaded leaf of a raspberry bush, its eyes half closed, apparently sunk in meditation. The scent of the raspberries spread around it deliciously. Maya wanted to find out what sort of an animal it was. She flew to the next-door leaf and said how-do-you-do. The stranger made no reply.
"How do you do, again?" And Maya gave its leaf a little tap. The flat object peeled one eye open, turned it on Maya, and said:
"A bee. The world is full of bees," and closed its eye again.
"Unique," thought Maya, and determined to get at the stranger's secret. For now it excited her curiosity more than ever, as people often do who pay no attention to us. She tried honey. "I have plenty of honey," she said. "May I offer you some?" The stranger opened its one eye and regarded Maya contemplatively a moment or two. "What is it going to say this time?" Maya wondered.
This time there was no answer at all. The one eye merely closed again, and the stranger sat quite still, tight on the leaf, so that you couldn't see its legs and you'd have thought it had been pressed down flat with a thumb.
Maya realized, of course, that the stranger wanted to ignore her, but—you know how it is—you don't like being snubbed, especially if you haven't found out what you wanted to find out. It makes you feel so cheap.
"Whoever you are," cried Maya, "permit me to inform you that insects are in the habit of greeting each other, especially when one of them happens to be a bee." The bug sat on without budging. It did not so much as open its one eye again. "It's ill," thought Maya. "How horrid to be ill on a lovely day like this. That's why it's staying in the shade, too." She flew over to the bug's leaf and sat down beside it. "Aren't you feeling well?" she asked, so very friendly.
At this the funny creature began to move away. "Move" is the only word to use, because it didn't walk, or run, or fly, or hop. It went as if shoved by an invisible hand.
"It hasn't any legs. That's why it's so cross," thought Maya.
When it reached the stem of the leaf it stopped a second, moved on again, and, to her astonishment, Maya saw that it had left behind a little brown drop.
"How very singular," she thought—and clapped her hand to her nose and held it tight shut. The veriest stench came from the little brown drop. Maya almost fainted. She flew away as fast as she could and seated herself on a raspberry, where she held on to her nose and shivered with disgust and excitement.
"Serves you right," someone above her called, and laughed. "Why take up with a stink-bug?"
"Don't laugh!" cried Maya.
She looked up. A white butterfly had alighted overhead on a slender, swaying branch of the raspberry bush, and was slowly opening and closing its broad wings—slowly, softly, silently, happy in the sunshine—black corners to its wings, round black marks in the centre of each wing, four round black marks in all. Ah, how beautiful, how beautiful! Maya forgot her vexation. And she was glad, too, to talk to the butterfly. She had never made the acquaintance of one before even though she had met a great many.
"Oh," she said, "you probably are right to laugh. Was that a stink-bug?"
"It was," he replied, still smiling. "The sort of person to keep away from. You're probably very young still?"
"Well," observed Maya, "I shouldn't say I was—exactly. I've been through a great deal. But that was the first specimen of the kind I had ever come across. Can you imagine doing such a thing?"
The butterfly had to laugh again.
"You see," he explained, "stink-bugs like to keep to themselves. They are not very popular, so they use the odoriferous drop to make people take notice of them. We'd probably soon forget the fact of their existence if it were not for the drop: it serves as a reminder. And they want to be remembered, no matter how."
"How lovely, how exquisitely lovely your wings are," said Maya. "So delicate and white. May I introduce myself? Maya, of the nation of bees."
The butterfly laid his wings together to look like only one wing standing straight up in the air. He gave a slight bow.
"Fred," he said laconically.
Maya couldn't gaze her fill.
"Fly a little," she asked.
"Shall I fly away?"
"Oh no. I just want to see your great white wings move in the blue air. But never mind. I can wait till later. Where do you live?"
"Nowhere specially. A settled home is too much of a nuisance. Life didn't get to be really delightful until I turned into a butterfly. Before that, while I was still a caterpillar, I couldn't leave the cabbage the livelong day, and all one did was eat and squabble."
"Just what do you mean?" asked Maya, mystified.
"I used to be a caterpillar," explained Fred.
"Never!" cried Maya.
"Now, now, now," said Fred, pointing both feelers straight at Maya. "Everyone knows a butterfly is first a caterpillar. Even human beings know it."
Maya was utterly perplexed. Could such a thing be?
"You must really explain more clearly," she said. "I couldn't accept what you say just so, could I? You wouldn't expect me to."
The butterfly perched beside the little bee on the slender swaying branch of the raspberry bush, and they rocked together in the morning wind. He told her how he had begun life as a caterpillar and then, one day, when he had shed his last caterpillar skin, he came out a pupa or chrysalis.
"At the end of a few weeks," he continued, "I woke up out of my dark sleep and broke through the wrappings or pupa-case. I can't tell you, Maya, what a feeling comes over you when, after a time like that, you suddenly see the sun again. I felt as though I were melting in a warm golden ocean, and I loved my life so that my heart began to pound."
"I understand," said Maya, "I understand. I felt the same way the first time I left our humdrum city and flew out into the bright scented world of blossoms." The little bee was silent a while, thinking of her first flight.— But then she wanted to know how the butterfly's large wings could grow in the small space of the pupa-case.
"The wings are delicately folded together like the petals of a flower in the bud. When the weather is bright and warm, the flower must open, it cannot help itself, and its petals unfold. So with my wings, they were folded up, then unfolded. No one can resist the sun when it shines."
"No, no—one cannot—one cannot resist the sunshine." Maya mused, watching the butterfly as he perched in the golden light of the morning, pure white against the blue sky.
"People often charge us with being frivolous," said Fred. "We're really happy—just that—just happy. You wouldn't believe how seriously I sometimes think about life."
"Tell me what all you think."
"Oh," said Fred, "I think about the future. It's very interesting to think about the future.— But I should like to fly now. The meadows on the hillside are full of yarrow and canterbury bells; everything's in bloom. I'd like to be there, you know."
This Maya understood, she understood it well, and they said good-by and flew away in different directions, the white butterfly rocking silently as if wafted by the gentle wind, little Maya with that uneasy zoom-zoom of the bees which we hear upon the flowers on fair days and which we always recall when we think of the summer.
THE LOST LEG
Near the hole where Maya had set herself up for the summer lived a family of bark-boring beetles. Fridolin, the father, was an earnest, industrious man who wanted many children and took immense pains to bring up a large family. He had done very well: he had fifty energetic sons to fill him with pride and high hopes. Each had dug his own meandering little tunnel in the bark of the pine-tree and all were getting on and were comfortably settled.
"My wife," Fridolin said to Maya, after they had known each other some time, "has arranged things so that none of my sons interferes with the others. They are not even acquainted; each goes his own way."
Maya knew that human beings were none too fond of Fridolin and his people, though she herself liked him and liked his opinions and had found no reason to avoid him. In the morning before the sun arose and the woods were still asleep, she would hear his fine tapping and boring. It sounded like a delicate trickling, or as if the tree were breathing in its sleep. Later she would see the thin brown dust that he had emptied out of his corridor.
Once he came at an early hour, as he often did, to wish her good-morning and ask if she had slept well.
"Not flying to-day?" he inquired.
"No, it's too windy."
It was windy. The wind rushed and roared and flung the branches into a mad tumult. The leaves looked ready to fly away. After each great gust the sky would brighten, and in the pale light the trees seemed balder. The pine in which Maya and Fridolin lived shrieked with the voices of the wind as in a fury of anger and excitement.
"I worked all night," he told Maya, "all night. But what can you do? You've got to do something to get somewhere. And I'm not altogether satisfied with this pine; I should have tackled a fir-tree." He wiped his brow and smiled in self-pity.
"How are your children?" asked Maya pleasantly.
"Thank you," said Fridolin, "thank you for your interest. But"—he hesitated—"but I don't supervise the way I used to. Still, I have reason to believe they are all doing well."
As he sat there, a little brown man with slightly curtailed wing-sheaths and a breastplate that looked like a head too large for its body, Maya thought he was almost comical; but she knew he was a dangerous beetle who could do immense harm to the mighty trees of the forest, and if his tribe attacked a tree in numbers then the green needles were doomed, the tree would turn sear and die. It was utterly without defenses against the little marauders who destroyed the bark and the sap-wood. And the sap-wood is necessary to the life of a tree because it carries the sap up to the very tips of the branches. There were stories of how whole forests had fallen victims to the race of boring-beetles. Maya looked at Fridolin reflectively; she was awed into solemnity at the thought of the great power these little creatures possessed and of how important they could become.
Fridolin sighed and said in a worried tone:
"Ah, life would be beautiful if there were no woodpeckers."
"Yes, indeed, you're right. The woodpecker gobbles up every insect he sees."
"If it were only that," observed Fridolin, "if it were only that he got the careless people who fool around on the outside, on the bark, I'd say, 'Very well, a woodpecker must live too.' But it seems all wrong that the bird should follow us right into our corridors into the remotest corners of our homes."
"But he can't. He's too big, isn't he?"
Fridolin looked at Maya with an air of grave importance, lifting his brows and shaking his head two or three times. It seemed to please him that he knew something she didn't know.
"Too big? What difference does his size make? No, my dear, it's not his size we are afraid of; it's his tongue."
Maya made big eyes.
Fridolin told her about the woodpecker's tongue: that it was long and thin, and round as a worm, and barbed and sticky.
"He can stretch his tongue out ten times my length," cried the bark-beetle, flourishing his arm. "You think: 'now—now he has reached the limit, he can't make it the tiniest bit longer.' But no, he goes on stretching and stretching it. He pokes it deep into all the cracks and crevices of the bark, on the chance that he'll find somebody sitting there. He even pushes it into our passageways—actually, into our corridors and chambers. Things stick to it, and that's the way he pulls us out of our homes."
"I am not a coward," said Maya, "I don't think I am, but what you say makes me creepy."
"Oh, you're all right," said Fridolin, a little envious, "you with your sting are safe. A person'll think twice before he'll let you sting his tongue. Anybody'll tell you that. But how about us bark-beetles? How do you think we feel? A cousin of mine got caught. We had just had a little quarrel on account of my wife. I remember every detail perfectly. My cousin was paying us a visit and hadn't yet got used to our ways or our arrangements. All of a sudden we heard a woodpecker scratching and boring—one of the smaller species. It must have begun right at our building because as a rule we hear him beforehand and have time to run to shelter before he reaches us.
"Suddenly I heard my poor cousin scream in the dark: 'Fridolin, I'm sticking!' Then all I heard was a short desperate scuffle, followed by complete silence, and in a few moments the woodpecker was hammering at the house next door. My poor cousin! Her name was Agatha."
"Feel how my heart is beating," said Maya, in a whisper. "You oughtn't to have told it so quickly. My goodness, the things that do happen!" And the little bee thought of her own adventures in the past and the accidents that might still happen to her.
A laugh from Fridolin interrupted her reflections. She looked up in surprise.
"See who's coming," he cried, "coming up the tree. Here's the fellow for you! I tell you, he's a—but you'll see."
Maya followed the direction of his gaze and saw a remarkable animal slowly climbing up the trunk. She wouldn't have believed such a creature was possible if she had not seen it with her own eyes.
"Hadn't we better hide?" she asked, alarm getting the better of astonishment.
"Absurd," replied the bark-beetle, "just sit still and be polite to the gentleman. He is very learned, really, very scholarly, and what is more, kind and modest and, like most persons of his type, rather funny. See what he's doing now!"
"Probably thinking," observed Maya, who couldn't get over her astonishment.
"He's struggling against the wind," said Fridolin, and laughed. "I hope his legs don't get entangled."
"Are those long threads really his legs?" asked Maya, opening her eyes wide. "I've never seen the like."
Meanwhile the newcomer had drawn near, and Maya got a better view of him. He looked as though he were swinging in the air, his rotund little body hung so high on his monstrously long legs, which groped for a footing on all sides like a movable scaffolding of threads. He stepped along cautiously, feeling his way; the little brown sphere of his body rose and sank, rose and sank. His legs were so very long and thin that one alone would certainly not have been enough to support his body. He needed all at once, unquestionably. As they were jointed in the middle, they rose high in the air above him.
Maya clapped her hands together.
"Well!" she cried. "Did you ever? Would you have dreamed that such delicate legs, legs as fine as a hair, could be so nimble and useful—that one could really use them—and they'd know what to do? Fridolin, I think it's wonderful, simply wonderful."
"Ah, bah," said the bark-beetle. "Don't take things so seriously. Just laugh when you see something funny; that's all."
"But I don't feel like laughing. Often we laugh at something and later find out it was just because we haven't understood."
By this time the stranger had joined them and was looking down at Maya from the height of his pointed triangles of legs.
"Good-morning," he said, "a real wind-storm—a pretty strong draught, don't you think, or—no? You are of a different opinion?" He clung to the tree as hard as he could.
Fridolin turned to hide his laughing, but little Maya replied politely that she quite agreed with him and that was why she had not gone out flying. Then she introduced herself. The stranger squinted down at her through his legs.
"Maya, of the nation of bees," he repeated. "Delighted, really. I have heard a good deal about bees.— I myself belong to the general family of spiders, species daddy-long-legs, and my name is Hannibal."
The word spider has an evil sound in the ears of all smaller insects, and Maya could not quite conceal her fright, especially as she was reminded of her agony in Thekla's web. Hannibal seemed to take no notice, so Maya decided, "Well if need be I'll fly away, and he can whistle for me; he has no wings and his web is somewhere else."
"I am thinking," said Hannibal, "thinking very hard.— If you will permit me, I will come a little closer. That big branch there makes a good shield against the wind."
"Why, certainly," said Maya, making room for him.
Fridolin said good-by and left. Maya stayed; she was eager to get at Hannibal's personality.
"The many, many different kinds of animals there are in the world," she thought. "Every day a fresh discovery."
The wind had subsided some, and the sun shone through the branches. From below rose the song of a robin redbreast, filling the woods with joy. Maya could see it perched on a branch, could see its throat swell and pulse with the song as it held its little head raised up to the light.
"If only I could sing like that robin redbreast," she said, "I'd perch on a flower and keep it up the livelong day."
"You'd produce something lovely, you would, with your humming and buzzing."
"The bird looks so happy."
"You have great fancies," said the daddy-long-legs. "Supposing every animal were to wish he could do something that nature had not fitted him to do, the world would be all topsy-turvy. Supposing a robin redbreast thought he had to have a sting—a sting above everything else—or a goat wanted to fly about gathering honey. Supposing a frog were to come along and languish for my kind of legs."
"That isn't just what I mean. I mean, it seems lovely to be able to make all beings as happy as the bird does with his song.— But goodness gracious!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Mr. Hannibal, you have one leg too many."
Hannibal frowned and looked into space, vexed.
"Well, you've noticed it," he said glumly. "But as a matter of fact—one leg too few, not too many."
"Why? Do you usually have eight legs?"
"Permit me to explain. We spiders have eight legs. We need them all. Besides, eight is a more aristocratic number. One of my legs got lost. Too bad about it. However you manage, you make the best of it."
"It must be dreadfully disagreeable to lose a leg," Maya sympathized.
Hannibal propped his chin on his hand and arranged his legs to keep them from being easily counted.
"I'll tell you how it happened. Of course, as usual when there's mischief, a human being is mixed up in it. We spiders are careful and look what we're doing, but human beings are careless, they grab you sometimes as though you were a piece of wood. Shall I tell you?"
"Oh, do please," said Maya, settling herself comfortably. "It would be awfully interesting. You must certainly have gone through a good deal."
"I should say so," said Hannibal. "Now listen. We daddy-long-legs, you know, hunt by night. I was then living in a green garden-house. It was overgrown with ivy, and there were a number of broken window-panes, which made it very convenient for me to crawl in and out. The man came at dark. In one hand he carried his artificial sun, which he calls lamp, in the other hand a small bottle, under his arm some paper, and in his pocket another bottle. He put everything down on the table and began to think, because he wanted to write his thoughts on the paper.— You must certainly have come across paper in the woods or in the garden. The black on the paper is what man has excogitated—excogitated."
"Marvelous!" cried Maya, all a-glow that she was to learn so much.
"For this purpose," Hannibal continued, "man needs both bottles. He inserts a stick into the one and drinks out of the other. The more he drinks, the better it goes. Of course it is about us insects that he writes, everything he knows about us, and he writes strenuously, but the result is not much to boast of, because up to now man has found out very little in regard to insects. He is absolutely ignorant of our soul-life and hasn't the least consideration for our feelings. You'll see."
"Don't you think well of human beings?" asked Maya.
"Oh, yes, yes. But the loss of a leg"—the daddy-long-legs looked down slantwise—"is apt to embitter one, rather."
"I see," said Maya.
"One evening I was sitting on a window-frame as usual, prepared for the chase, and the man was sitting at the table, his two bottles before him, trying to produce something. It annoyed me dreadfully that a whole swarm of little flies and gnats, upon which I depend for my subsistence, had settled upon the artificial sun and were staring into it in that crude, stupid, uneducated way of theirs."
"Well," observed Maya, "I think I'd look at a thing like that myself."
"Look, for all I care. But to look and to stare like an idiot are two entirely different things. Just watch once and see the silly jig they dance around a lamp. It's nothing for them to butt their heads about twenty times. Some of them keep it up until they burn their wings. And all the time they stare and stare at the light."
"Poor creatures! Evidently they lose their wits."
"Then they had better stay outside on the window-frame or under the leaves. They're safe from the lamp there, and that's where I can catch them.— Well, on that fateful night I saw from my position on the window-frame that some gnats were lying scattered on the table beside the lamp drawing their last breath. The man did not seem to notice or care about them, so I decided to go and take them myself. That's perfectly natural, isn't it?"
"And yet, it was my undoing. I crept up the leg of the table, very softly, on my guard, until I could peep over the edge. The man seemed dreadfully big. I watched him working. Then, slowly, very slowly, carefully lifting one leg at a time, I crossed over to the lamp. As long as I was covered by the bottle all went well, but I had scarcely turned the corner, when the man looked up and grabbed me. He lifted me by one of my legs, dangled me in front of his huge eyes, and said: 'See what's here, just see what's here.' And he grinned—the brute!—he grinned with his whole face, as though it were a laughing matter."
Hannibal sighed, and little Maya kept quite still. Her head was in a whirl.
"Have human beings such immense eyes?" she asked at last.
"Please think of me in the position I was in," cried Hannibal, vexed. "Try to imagine how I felt. Who'd like to be hanging by the leg in front of eyes twenty times as big as his own body and a mouth full of gleaming teeth, each fully twice as big as himself? Well, what do you think?"
"Awful! Perfectly awful!"
"Thank the Lord, my leg broke off. There's no telling what might have happened if my leg had not broken off. I fell to the table, and then I ran, I ran as fast as my remaining legs would take me, and hid behind the bottle. There I stood and hurled threats of violence at the man. They saved me, my threats did, the man was afraid to run after me. I saw him lay my leg on the white paper, and I watched how it wanted to escape—which it can't do without me."
"Was it still moving?" asked Maya, prickling at the thought.
"Yes. Our legs always do move when they're pulled out. My leg ran, but I not being there it didn't know where to run to, so it merely flopped about aimlessly on the same spot, and the man watched it, clutching at his nose and smiling—smiling, the heartless wretch!—at my leg's sense of duty."
"Impossible," said the little bee, quite scared, "an offen leg can't crawl."
"An offen leg? What is an offen leg?"
"A leg that has come off," explained Maya, staring at him. "Don't you know? At home we children used the word offen for anything that had come off."
"You should drop your nursery slang when you're out in the world and in the presence of cultured people," said Hannibal severely. "But it is true that our legs totter long after they have been torn from our bodies."
"I can't believe it without proof."
"Do you think I'll tear one of my legs off to satisfy you?" Hannibal's tone was ugly. "I see you're not a fit person to associate with. Nobody, I'd like you to know, nobody has ever doubted my word before."
Maya was terribly put out. She couldn't understand what had upset the daddy-long-legs so, or what dreadful thing she had done.
"It isn't altogether easy to get along with strangers," she thought. "They don't think the way we do and don't see that we mean no harm." She was depressed and cast a troubled look at the spider with his long legs and soured expression.
"Really, someone ought to come and eat you up."
Hannibal had evidently mistaken Maya's good nature for weakness. For now something unusual happened to the little bee. Suddenly her depression passed and gave way, not to alarm or timidity, but to a calm courage. She straightened up, lifted her lovely, transparent wings, uttered her high clear buzz, and said with a gleam in her eyes:
"I am a bee, Mr. Hannibal."
"I beg your pardon," said he, and without saying good-by turned and ran down the tree-trunk as fast as a person can run who has seven legs.
Maya had to laugh, willy-nilly. From down below Hannibal began to scold.
"You're bad. You threaten helpless people, you threaten them with your sting when you know they're handicapped by a misfortune and can't get away fast. But your hour is coming, and when you're in a tight place you'll think of me and be sorry." Hannibal disappeared under the leaves of the coltsfoot on the ground. His last words had not reached the little bee.
The wind had almost died away, and the day promised to be fine. White clouds sailed aloft in a deep, deep blue, looking happy and serene like good thoughts of the Lord. Maya was cheered. She thought of the rich shaded meadows by the woods and of the sunny slopes beyond the lake. A blithe activity must have begun there by this time. In her mind she saw the slim grasses waving and the purple iris that grew in the rills at the edge of the woods. From the flower of an iris you could look across to the mysterious night of the pine-forest and catch its cool breath of melancholy. You knew that its forbidding silence, which transformed the sunshine into a reddish half-light of sleep, was the home of the fairy tale.
Maya was already flying. She had started off instinctively, in answer to the call of the meadows and their gay carpeting of flowers. It was a joy to be alive.
THE WONDERS OF THE NIGHT
Thus the days and weeks of her young life passed for little Maya among the insects in a lovely summer world—a happy roving in garden and meadow, occasional risks and many joys. For all that, she often missed the companions of her early childhood and now and again suffered a pang of homesickness, an ache of longing for her people and the kingdom she had left. There were hours, too, when she yearned for regular, useful work and association with friends of her own kind.
However, at bottom she had a restless nature, little Maya had, and was scarcely ready to settle down for good and live in the community of the bees; she wouldn't have felt comfortable. Often among animals as well as human beings there are some who cannot conform to the ways of the others. Before we condemn them we must be careful and give them a chance to prove themselves. For it is not always laziness or stubbornness that makes them different. Far from it. At the back of their peculiar urge is a deep longing for something higher or better than what every-day life has to offer, and many a time young runaways have grown up into good, sensible, experienced men and women.
Little Maya was a pure, sensitive soul, and her attitude to the big, beautiful world came of a genuine eagerness for knowledge and a great delight in the glories of creation.
Yet it is hard to be alone even when you are happy, and the more Maya went through, the greater became her yearning for companionship and love. She was no longer so very young; she had grown into a strong, superb creature with sound, bright wings, a sharp, dangerous sting, and a highly developed sense of both the pleasures and the hazards of her life. Through her own experience she had gathered information and stored up wisdom, which she now often wished she could apply to something of real value. There were days when she was ready to return to the hive and throw herself at the queen's feet and sue for pardon and honorable reinstatement. But a great, burning desire held her back—the desire to know human beings. She had heard so many contradictory things about them that she was confused rather than enlightened. Yet she had a feeling that in the whole of creation there were no beings more powerful or more intelligent or more sublime than they.
A few times in her wanderings she had seen people, but only from afar, from high up in the air—big and little people, black people, white people, red people, and such as dressed in many colors. She had never ventured close. Once she had caught the glimmer of red near a brook, and thinking it was a bed of flowers had flown down. She found a human being fast asleep among the brookside blossoms. It had golden hair and a pink face and wore a red dress. It was dreadfully large, of course, but still it looked so good and sweet that Maya thrilled, and tears came to her eyes. She lost all sense of her whereabouts; she could do nothing but gaze and gaze upon the slumbering presence. All the horrid things she had ever heard against man seemed utterly impossible. Lies they must have been—mean lies that she had been told against creatures as charming as this one asleep in the shade of the whispering birch-trees.
After a while a mosquito came and buzzed greetings.
"Look!" cried Maya, hot with excitement and delight. "Look, just look at that human being there. How good, how beautiful! Doesn't it fill you with enthusiasm?"
The mosquito gave Maya a surprised stare, then turned slowly round to glance at the object of her admiration.
"Yes, it is good. I just tasted it. I stung it. Look, my body is shining red with its blood."
Maya had to press her hand to her heart, so startled was she by the mosquito's daring.
"Will it die?" she cried. "Where did you wound it? How could you? How could you screw up your courage to sting it? And how vile! Why, you're a beast of prey!"
The mosquito tittered.
"Why, it's only a very little human being," it answered in its high, thin voice. "It's the size called girl—the size at which the legs are covered half way up with a separate colored casing. My sting, of course, goes through the casing but usually doesn't reach the skin.— Your ignorance is really stupendous. Do you actually think that human beings are good? I haven't come across one who willingly let me take the tiniest drop of his blood."
"I don't know very much about human beings, I admit," said Maya humbly.
"But of all the insects you bees have most to do with human beings. That's a well-known fact."
"I left our kingdom," Maya confessed timidly. "I didn't like it. I wanted to learn about the outside world."
"Well, well, what do you think of that!" The mosquito drew a step nearer. "How do you like your free-lancing? I must say, I admire you for your independence. I for one would never consent to serve human beings."
"But they serve us too!" said Maya, who couldn't bear a slight to be put upon her people.
"Maybe.— To what nation do you belong?"
"I come of the nation in the castle park. The ruling queen is Helen VIII."
"Indeed," said the mosquito, and bowed low. "An enviable lineage. My deepest respects.— There was a revolution in your kingdom not so long ago, wasn't there? I heard it from the messengers of the rebel swarm. Am I right?"
"Yes," said Maya, proud and happy that her nation was so respected and renowned. Homesickness for her people awoke again, deep down in her heart, and she wished she could do something good and great for her queen and country. Carried away on the wings of this dream, she forgot to ask about human beings. Or, like as not, she refrained from questions, feeling that the mosquito would not tell her things she would be glad to hear. The mite of a creature impressed her as a saucy Miss, and people of her kind usually had nothing good to say of others. Besides, she soon flew away.
"I'm going to take one more drink," she called back to Maya. "Later I and my friends are going flying in the light of the westering sun. Then we'll be sure to have good weather to-morrow."
Maya made off quickly. She couldn't bear to stay and see the mosquito hurt the sleeping child. And how could she do this thing and not perish? Hadn't Cassandra said: "If you sting a human being, you will die?"
Maya still remembered every detail of this incident with the child and the mosquito, but her craving to know human beings well had not been stilled. She made up her mind to be bolder and never stop trying until she had reached her goal.
At last Maya's longing to know human beings was to be satisfied, and in a way far, far lovelier and more wonderful than she had dreamed.
Once, on a warm evening, having gone to sleep earlier than usual, she woke up suddenly in the middle of the night—something that had never happened to her before. When she opened her eyes, her astonishment was indescribable: her little bedroom was all steeped in a quiet bluish radiance. It came down through the entrance, and the entrance itself shone as if hung with a silver-blue curtain.
Maya did not dare to budge at first, though not because she was frightened. No. Somehow, along with the light came a rare, lovely peacefulness, and outside her room the air was filled with a sound finer, more harmonious than any music she had ever heard. After a time she rose timidly, awed by the glamour and the strangeness of it all, and looked out. The whole world seemed to lie under the spell of an enchantment. Everything was sparkling and glittering in pure silver. The trunks of the birch-trees, the slumbering leaves were overlaid with silver. The grass, which from her height seemed to lie under delicate veils, was set with a thousand pale pearls. All things near and far, the silent distances, were shrouded in this soft, bluish sheen.
"This must be the night," Maya whispered and folded her hands.
High up in the heavens, partly veiled by the leaves of a beech-tree, hung a full clear disk of silver, from which the radiance poured down that beautified the world. And then Maya saw countless bright, sharp little lights surrounding the moon in the heavens—oh, so still and beautiful, unlike any shining things she had ever seen before. To think she beheld the night, the moon, and the stars—the wonders, the lovely wonders of the night! She had heard of them but never believed in them. It was almost too much.
Then the sound rose again, the strange night sound that must have awakened her. It came from nearby, filling the welkin, a soaring chirp with a silvery ring that matched the silver on the trees and leaves and grass and seemed to come rilling down from the moon on the beams of silver light.
Maya looked about for the source, in vain; in the mysterious drift of light and shadow it was difficult to make out objects in clear outline, everything was draped so mysteriously; and yet everything showed up true and in such heroic beauty.
Her room could keep her no longer; out she had to fly into this new splendor, the night splendor.
"The good Lord will take care of me," she thought, "I am not bent upon wrong."
As she was about to fly off through the silver light to her favorite meadow, now lying full under the moon, she saw a winged creature alight on a beech-tree leaf not far away. Scarcely alighted, it raised its head to the moon, lifted its narrow wings, and drew the edge of one against the other, for all the world as though it were playing on a violin. And sure enough, the sound came, the silvery chirp that filled the whole moonlit world with melody.
"Exquisite," whispered Maya, "heavenly, heavenly, heavenly."
She flew over to the leaf. The night was so mild and warm that she did not notice it was cooler than by day. When she touched the leaf, the chirper broke off playing abruptly, and to Maya it seemed as if there had never been such a stillness before, so profound was the hush that followed. It was uncanny. Through the dark leaves filtered the light, white and cool.
"Good night," said Maya, politely, thinking "good night" was the greeting for the night like "good morning" for the morning. "Please excuse me for interrupting, but the music you make is so fascinating that I had to find out where it came from."
The chirper stared at Maya, wide-eyed.
"What sort of a crawling creature are you?" it asked after some moments had passed. "I have never met one like you before."
"I am not a crawling insect. I am Maya, of the nation of bees."
"Oh, of the nation of bees. Indeed ... you live by day, don't you? I have heard of your race from the hedgehog. He told me that in the evening he eats the dead bodies that are thrown out of your hive."
"Yes," said Maya, with a faint chill of apprehension, "that's so; Cassandra told me about him; she heard of him from the sentinels. He comes when twilight falls and snouts in the grass looking for dead bodies.— But do you associate with the hedgehog? Why, he's an awful brute."
"I don't think so. We tree-crickets get along with him splendidly. We call him Uncle. Of course he always tries to catch us, but he never succeeds, so we have great fun teasing him. Everybody has to live, doesn't he? Just so he doesn't live off me, what do I care?"
Maya shook her head. She didn't agree. But not caring to insult the cricket by contradicting, she changed the subject.
"So you're a tree-cricket?"
"Yes, a snowy tree-cricket.— But I must play, so please don't keep me any longer. It's full moon, a wonderful night. I must play."
"Oh, do make an exception this once. You play all the time.— Tell me about the night."
"A midsummer night is the loveliest in the world," answered the cricket. "It fills the heart with rapture.— But what my music doesn't tell you I shan't be able to explain. Why need everything be explained? Why know everything? We poor creatures can find out only the tiniest bit about existence. Yet we can feel the glory of the whole wide world." And the cricket set up its happy silvery strumming. Heard from close by, where Maya sat, the music was overpowering in its loudness.
The little bee sat quite still in the blue summer night listening and musing deeply about life and creation.
Silence fell. There was a faint whirr, and Maya saw the cricket fly out into the moonlight.
"The night makes one feel sad," she reflected.
Her flowery meadow drew her now. She flew off.
At the edge of the brook stood the tall irises brokenly reflected in the running water. A glorious sight. The moonlight was whirled along in the braided current, the wavelets winked and whispered, the irises seemed to lean over asleep. "Asleep from sheer delight," thought the little bee. She dropped down on a blue petal in the full light of the moon and could not take her eyes from the living waters of the brook, the quivering flash, the flashing come and go of countless sparks. On the bank opposite, the birch-trees glittered as if hung with the stars.
"Where is all that water flowing to?" she wondered. "The cricket is right. We know so little about the world."
Of a sudden a fine little voice rose in song from the flower of an iris close beside her, ringing like a pure, clear bell, different from any earthly sound that Maya knew. Her heart throbbed, she held her breath.
"Oh, what is going to happen? What am I going to see now?"
The iris swayed gently. One of the petals curved in at the edge, and Maya saw a tiny snow-white human hand holding on to the flower's rim with its wee little fingers. Then a small blond head arose, and then a delicate luminous body in white garments. A human being in miniature was coming up out of the iris.
Words cannot tell Maya's awe and rapture. She sat rigid.
The tiny being climbed to the edge of the blossom, lifted its arms up to the moonlight, and looked out into the bright shining night with a smile of bliss lighting up its face. Then a faint quiver shook its luminous body, and from its shoulders two wings unfolded, whiter than the moonlight, pure as snow, rising above its blond head and reaching down to its feet. How lovely it was, how exquisitely lovely. Nothing that Maya had ever seen compared with it in loveliness.
Standing there in the moonlight, holding its hands up to heaven, the luminous little being lifted its voice again and sang. The song rang out in the night, and Maya understood the words.
My home is Light. The crystal bowl Of Heaven's blue, I love it so! Both Death and Life will change, I know, But not my soul, my living soul.
My soul is that which breathes anew From all of loveliness and grace; And as it flows from God's own face, It flows from His creations, too.
Maya burst into sobs. What it was that made her so sad and yet so happy, she could not have told.
The little human being turned around.
"Who is crying?" he asked in his chiming voice.
"It's only me," stammered Maya. "Excuse me for interrupting you."
"But why are you crying?"
"I don't know. Perhaps just because you are so beautiful. Who are you? Oh, do tell me, if I am not asking too much. You are an angel, aren't you? You must be."
"Oh, no," said the little creature, quite serious. "I am only a sprite, a flower-sprite.— But, dear little bee, what are you doing out here in the meadow so late at night?"
The sprite flew over to a curving iris blade beside Maya and regarded her long and kindly from his swaying perch in the moonlight.
Maya told him all about herself, what she had done, what she knew, and what she longed for. And while she spoke, his eyes never left her, those large dark eyes glowing in the white fairy face under the golden hair that ever and anon shone like silver in the moonlight.
When she finished he stroked her head and looked at her so warmly and lovingly that the little bee, beside herself with joy, had to lower her gaze.
"We sprites," he explained, "live seven nights, but we must stay in the flower in which we are born, else we die at dawn."
Maya opened her eyes wide in terror.
"Then hurry, hurry! Fly back into your flower!"
The, sprite shook his head sadly.
"Too late.— But listen. I have more to tell you. Most of us sprites are glad to leave our flowers never to return, because a great happiness is connected with our leaving. We are endowed with a remarkable power: before we die, we can fulfill the dearest wish of the first creature we meet. It is when we make up our minds seriously to leave the flower for the purpose of making someone happy that our wings grow."
"How wonderful!" cried Maya. "I'd leave the flower too, then. It must be lovely to fulfill another person's wish." That she was the first being whom the sprite on his flight from the flower had met, did not occur to her. "And then—must you die?"
The sprite nodded, but not sadly this time.
"We live to see the dawn still," he said, "but when the dew falls, we are drawn into the fine cobwebby veils that float above the grass and the flowers of the meadows. Haven't you often noticed that the veils shine white as though a light were inside them? It's the sprites, their wings and their garments. When the light rises we change into dew-drops. The plants drink us and we become a part of their growing and blooming until in time we rise again as sprites from out their flowers."
"Then you were once another sprite?" asked Maya, tense, breathless with interest.
The earnest eyes said yes.
"But I have forgotten my earlier existence. We forget everything in our flower-sleep."
"Oh, what a lovely fate!"
"It is the same as that of all earthly creatures, when you really come to think of it, even if it isn't always flowers out of which they wake up from their sleep of death. But we won't talk of that to-night."
"Oh, I'm so happy!" cried Maya.
"Then you haven't got a wish? You're the first person I've met, you know, and I possess the power to grant your dearest wish."
"I? But I'm only a bee. No, it's too much. It would be too great a joy. I don't deserve it, I don't deserve that you should be so good to me."
"No one deserves the good and the beautiful. The good and the beautiful come to us like the sunshine."
Maya's heart beat stormily. Oh, she did have a wish, a burning wish, but she didn't dare confess it. The elf seemed to guess; he smiled so you couldn't keep anything a secret from him.
"Well?" He stroked his golden hair off his pure forehead.
"I'd like to know human beings at their best and most beautiful," said the little bee. She spoke quickly and hotly. She was afraid she would be told that so great a wish could not be granted.
But the sprite drew himself up, his expression was serious and serene, his eyes shone with confidence. He took Maya's trembling hand and said:
"Come. We'll fly together. Your wish shall be granted."
WITH THE SPRITE
And so Maya and the flower-sprite started off together in the bright mid-summer night, flying low over the blossomy meadow. His white reflection crossing the brook shone as though a star were gliding through the water.
How happy the little bee was to confide herself to this gracious being! Whatever he were to do, wherever he were to lead her would be good and right, she felt. She would have liked to ask him a thousand questions had she dared.
As they were passing between a double row of high poplar-trees, something whirred above them; a dark moth, as big and strong as a bird, crossed their way.
"One moment, wait one moment, please," the sprite called.
Maya was surprised to see how readily the moth responded.
All three alighted on a high poplar branch, from which there was a far view out upon the tranquil, moonlit landscape. The quaking leaves whispered delicately. The moth, perching directly opposite Maya in the full light of the moon, slowly lifted his spread wings and dropped them again, softly, as if gently fanning—fanning a cool breath upon someone. Broad, diagonal stripes of a gorgeous bright blue marked his wings, his black head was covered as with dark velvet, his face was like a strangely mysterious mask, out of which glowed a pair of dark eyes. How wonderful were the creatures of the night! A little cold shiver ran through Maya, who felt she was dreaming the strangest dream of her life.
"You are beautiful," she said to the moth, "beautiful, really." She was awed and solemn.
"Who is your companion?" the moth asked the sprite.
"A bee. I met her just as I was leaving my flower."
The moth seemed to realize what that meant. He looked at Maya almost enviously.
"You fortunate creature!" he said in a low, serious, musing tone, shaking his head to and fro.
"Are you sad?" asked Maya out of the warmth of her heart.
The moth shook his head.
"No, not sad." His voice sounded friendly and grateful, and he gave Maya such a kind look that she would have liked to strike up a friendship with him then and there.
"Is the bat still abroad, or has he gone to rest?" This was the question for which the sprite had stopped the moth.
"Oh, he's gone to rest long ago. You want to know, do you, on account of your companion?"
The sprite nodded. Maya was dying to find out what a bat was, but the sprite seemed to be in a hurry. With a charming gesture of restlessness he tossed his shining hair back from his forehead.
"Come, Maya," he said, "we must hurry. The night is so short."
"Shall I carry you part of the way?" asked the moth.
The sprite thanked him but declined. "Some other time!" he called.
"Then it will be never," thought Maya as they flew away, "because at dawn the flower-sprite must die."
The moth remained on the leaf looking after them until the glimmer of the fairy garments grew smaller and smaller and finally sank into the depths of the blue distance. Then he turned his face slowly and surveyed his great dark wings with their broad blue stripes. He sank into revery.
"So often I have heard that I am gray and ugly," he said to himself, "and that my dress is not to be compared with the superb robes of the butterfly. But the little bee saw only what is beautiful in me.— And she asked me if I was sad. I wonder whether I am or not.— No, I am not sad," he decided, "not now."
Meanwhile Maya and the flower-sprite flew through the dense shrubbery of a garden. The glory of it in the dimmed moonlight was beyond the power of mortal lips to say. An intoxicatingly sweet cool breath of dew and slumbering flowers transformed all things into unutterable blessings. The lilac grapes of the acacias sparkled in freshness, the June rose-tree looked like a small blooming heaven hung with red lamps, the white stars of the jasmine glowed palely, sadly, and poured out their perfume as if, in this one hour, to make a gift of their all.
Maya was dazed. She pressed the sprite's hand and looked at him. A light of bliss shone from his eyes.
"Who could have dreamed of this!" whispered the little bee.
Just then she saw something that sent a pang through her.
"Oh," she cried, "look! A star has fallen! It's straying about and can't find its way back to its place in the sky."
"That's a firefly," said the flower-sprite, without a smile.
Now, in the midst of her amazement, Maya realized for the first time why the sprite seemed so dear and kind. He never laughed at her ignorance; on the contrary, he helped her when she went wrong.
"They are odd little creatures," the sprite continued. "They carry their own light about with them on warm summer nights and enliven the dark under the shrubbery where the moonlight doesn't shine through. So firefly can keep tryst with firefly even in the dark. Later, when we come to the human beings, you will make the acquaintance of one of them."
"Why?" asked Maya.
"You'll soon see."
By this time they had reached an arbor completely overgrown with jasmine and woodbine. They descended almost to the ground. From close by, within the arbor, came the sound of faint whispering. The flower-sprite beckoned to a firefly.
"Would you be good enough," he asked, "to give us a little light? We have to push through these dark leaves here; we want to get to the inside of the jasmine-arbor."
"But your glow is much brighter than mine."
"I think so, too," put in Maya, more to hide her excitement than anything else.
"I must wrap myself up in a leaf," explained the sprite, "else the human beings would see me and be frightened. We sprites appear to human beings only in their dreams."
"I see," said the firefly. "I am at your service. I will do what I can.— Won't the great beast with you hurt me?"
The sprite shook his head no, and the firefly believed him.
The sprite now took a leaf and wrapped himself in it; the gleam of his white garments was completely hidden. Then he picked a little bluebell from the grass and put it on his shining head like a helmet. The only bit of him left exposed was his face, which was so small that surely no one would notice it. He asked the firefly to perch on his shoulder and with its wing to dim its lamp on the one side so as to keep the dazzle out of his eyes.
"Come now," he said, taking Maya's hand. "We had better climb up right here."
The little bee was thinking of something the sprite had said, and as they clambered up the vine, she asked:
"Do human beings dream when they sleep?"
"Not only then. They dream sometimes even when they are awake. They sit with their bodies a little limp, their heads bent a little forward, and their eyes searching the distance, as if to see into the very heavens. Their dreams are always lovelier than life. That's why we appear to them in their dreams."
The sprite now laid his tiny finger on his lips, bent aside a small blooming sprig of jasmine, and gently pushed Maya ahead.
"Look down," he said softly, "you'll see what you have been wishing to see."
The little bee looked and saw two human beings sitting on a bench in the shadows cast by the moonlight—a boy and a girl, the girl with her head leaning on the boy's shoulder, and the boy holding his arm around the girl as if to protect her. They sat in complete stillness, looking wide-eyed into the night. It was as quiet as if they had both gone to sleep. Only from a distance came the chirping of the crickets, and slowly, slowly the moonlight drifted through the leaves.
Maya, transported out of herself, gazed into the girl's face. Although it looked pale and wistful, it seemed to be transfused by the hidden radiance of a great happiness. Above her large eyes lay golden hair, like the golden hair of the sprite, and upon it rested the heavenly sheen of the midsummer night. From her red lips, slightly parted, came a breath of rapture and melancholy, as if she wanted to offer everything that was hers to the man by her side for his happiness.
And now she turned to him, pulled his head down, and whispered a magical something that brought a smile to his face such as Maya thought no earthly being could wear. In his eyes gleamed a happiness and a vigor as if the whole big world were his to own, and suffering and misfortune were banished forever from the face of the earth.
Maya somehow had no desire to know what he said to the girl in reply. Her heart quivered as though the ecstasy that emanated from the two human beings was also hers.
"Now I have seen the most glorious thing that my eyes will ever behold," she whispered to herself. "I know now that human beings are most beautiful when they are in love."
How long Maya stayed behind the leaves without stirring, lost in looking at the boy and girl, she did not know. When she turned round, the firefly's lamp had been extinguished, the sprite was gone. Through the doorway of the arbor far across the country on the distant horizon showed a narrow streak of red.
ALOIS, LADYBIRD AND POET
The sun was risen high above the tops of the beech-trees when Maya awoke in her woodland retreat. In the first moments, the moonlight, the chirping of the cricket, the midsummer night meadow, the lovely sprite, the boy and the girl in the arbor, all seemed the perishing fancies of a delicious dream. Yet here it was almost midday; and she remembered slipping back into her chamber in the chill of dawn. So it had all been real, she had spent the night with the flower-sprite and had seen the two human beings, with their arms round each other, in the arbor of woodbine and jasmine.
The sun outside was glowing hot on the leaves, a warm wind was stirring, and Maya heard the mixed chorus of thousands of insects. Ah, what these knew, and what she knew! So proud was she of the great thing that had happened to her that she couldn't get out to the others fast enough; she thought they must read it in her very looks.
But in the sunlight everything was the same as ever. Nothing was changed; nothing recalled the blue moonlit night. The insects came, said how-do-you-do, and left; yonder, the meadow was a scene of bustling activity; the insects, birds and butterflies hopped, flew and flitted in the hot flickering air around the tall, gay midsummer flowers.
Sadness fell upon Maya. There was no one in the world to share her joys and sorrows. She couldn't make up her mind to fly over and join the others in the meadow. No, she would go to the woods. The woods were serious and solemn. They suited her mood.
How many mysteries and marvels lie hidden in the dim depths of the woods, no one suspects who hurries unobservant along the beaten tracks. You must bend aside the branches of the underbrush, or lean down and peep between the blackberry briars through the tall grasses and across the thick moss. Under the shaded leaves of the plants, in holes in the ground and tree-trunks, in the decaying bark of stumps, in the curl and twist of the roots that coil on the ground like serpents, there is an active, multiform life by day and by night, full of joys and dangers, struggles and sorrows and pleasures.
Maya divined only a little of this as she flew low between the dark-brown trunks under the leafy roof of green. She followed a narrow trail in the grass, which made a clear path through thicket and clearing. Now and then the sun seemed to disappear behind clouds, so deep was the shade under the high foliage and in the close shrubbery; but soon she was flying again through a bright shimmer of gold and green above the broad-leaved miniature forests of bracken and blackberry.
After a long stretch the woods opened their columned and over-arched portals; before Maya's eyes lay a wide field of grain in the golden sunshine. Butterfly-weed flamed on the grassy borders. She alighted on the branch of a birch-tree at the edge of the field and gazed upon the sea of gold that spread out endlessly in the tranquillity of the placid day. It rippled softly under the shy summer breeze, which blew gently so as not to disturb the peace of the lovely world.
Under the birch-tree a few small brown butterflies, using the butterfly-weed for corners, were playing puss-in-the-corner, a favorite game with butterfly-children. Maya watched them a while.
"It must be lots of fun," she thought, "and the children in the hive might be taught to play it, too. The cells would do for corners.— But Cassandra, I suppose, wouldn't permit it. She's so strict."
Ah, now Maya felt sad again. Because she had thought of home. And she was about to drift off into homesick revery when she heard someone beside her say:
"Good morning. You're a beast, it seems to me."
Maya turned with a start.
"No," she said, "decidedly not."
There sitting on her leaf was a little polished terra-cotta half-sphere with seven black dots on its cupola of a back, a minute black head and bright little eyes. Peeping from under the dotted dome and supporting it as best they could Maya detected thin legs fine as threads. In spite of his queer figure, she somehow took a great liking to the stout little fellow; he had distinct charm.
"May I ask who you are? I myself am Maya of the nation of bees."
"Do you mean to insult me? You have no reason to."
"But why should I? I don't know you, really I don't." Maya was quite upset.
"It's easy to say you don't know me.— Well, I'll jog your memory. Count." And the little rotundity began to wheel round slowly.
"You mean I'm to count your dots?"
"Yes, if you please."
"Seven," said Maya.
"Well?— Well? You still don't know. All right then, I'll tell you. I'm called exactly according to what you counted. The scientific name of our family is Septempunctata. Septem is Latin for seven, punctata is Latin for dots, points, you see. Our common name is ladybird, my own name is Alois, I am a poet by profession. You know our common name, of course."
Maya, afraid of hurting Alois' feelings, didn't dare to say no.
"Oh," said he, "I live by the sunshine, by the peace of the day, and by the love of mankind."
"But don't you eat, too?" asked Maya, quite astonished.
"Of course. Plant-lice. Don't you?"
"No. That would be—that is...."
"Is what? Is what?"
"Not—usual," said Maya shyly.
"Of course, of course!" cried Alois, trying to raise one shoulder, but not succeeding, on account of the firm set of his dome. "As a bourgeoise you would, of course, do only what is usual. We poets would not get very far that way.— Have you time?"
"Why, yes," said Maya.
"Then I'll recite you one of my poems. Sit real still and close your eyes, so that nothing distracts your attention. The poem is called Man's Finger, and is about a personal experience. Are you listening?"
"Yes, to every word."
"'Since you did not do me wrong, That you found me, doesn't matter. You are rounded, you are long; Up above you wear a flatter, Pointed, polished sheath or platter Which you move as swift as light, But below you're fastened tight!'"
"Well?" asked Alois after a short pause. There were tears in his eyes and a quaver in his voice.
"Man's Finger gripped me very hard," replied Maya in some embarrassment. She really knew much lovelier poems.
"How do you find the form?" Alois questioned with a smile of fine melancholy. He seemed to be overwhelmed by the effect he had produced.
"Long and round. You yourself said so in the poem."
"I mean the artistic form, the form of my verse."
"Oh—oh, yes. Yes, I thought it was very good."
"It is, isn't it!" cried Alois. "What you mean to say is that Man's Finger may be ranked among the best poems you know of, and one must go way back in literature before one comes across anything like it. The prime requisite in art is that it should contain something new, which is what most poets forget. And bigness, too. Don't you agree with me?"
"Certainly," said Maya, "I think...."
"The firm belief you express in my importance as a poet really overwhelms me. I thank you.— But I must be going now, for solitude is the poet's pride. Farewell."
"Farewell," echoed Maya, who really didn't know just what the little fellow had been after.
"Well," she thought, "he knows. Perhaps he's not full grown yet; he certainly isn't large." She looked after him, as he hastened up the branch. His wee legs were scarcely visible; he looked as though he were moving on low rollers.
Maya turned her gaze away, back to the golden field of grain over which the butterflies were playing. The field and the butterflies gave her ever so much more pleasure than the poetry of Alois, ladybird and poet.
How happily the day had begun and how miserably it was to end!
Before the horror swept upon her, Maya had formed a very remarkable acquaintance. It was in the afternoon near a big old water-butt. She was sitting amid the scented elder blossoms, which lay mirrored in the placid dark surface of the butt, and a robin redbreast was warbling overhead, so sweetly and merrily that Maya thought it was a shame, a crying shame that she, a bee, could not make friends with the charming songsters. The trouble was, they were too big and ate you up.
She had hidden herself in the heart of the elder blossoms and was listening and blinking under the pointed darts of the sunlight, when she heard someone beside her sigh. Turning round she saw—well, now it really was the strangest of all the strange creatures she had ever met. It must have had at least a hundred legs along each side of its body—so she thought at first glance. It was about three times her size, and slim, low, and wingless.
"For goodness sake! Mercy on me!" Maya was quite startled. "You must certainly be able to run!"
The stranger gave her a pondering look.
"I doubt it," he said. "I doubt it. There's room for improvement. I have too many legs. You see, before all my legs can be set in motion, too much time is lost. I didn't use to realize this, and often wished I had a few more legs. But God's will be done.— Who are you?"
Maya introduced herself. The other one nodded and moved some of his legs.
"I am Thomas of the family of millepeds. We are an old race, and we arouse admiration and astonishment in all parts of the globe. No other animals can boast anything like our number of legs. Eight is their limit, so far as I know."
"You are tremendously interesting. And your color is so queer. Have you got a family?"
"Why, no! Why should I? What good would a family do me? We millepeds crawl out of our eggs; that's all. If we can't stand on our own feet, who should?"
"Of course, of course," Maya observed thoughtfully. "But have you no relations?"
"No, dear child. I earn my living, and doubt. I doubt."
"Oh! What do you doubt?"
"I was born doubting. I must doubt."
Maya stared at him in wide-eyed bewilderment. What did he mean, what could he possibly mean? She couldn't for the life of her make out, but she did not want to pry too curiously into his private affairs.
"For one thing," said Thomas after a pause, "for one thing I doubt whether you have chosen a good place to rest in. Don't you know what's over there in the big willow?"
"You see! I doubted right away if you knew. The city of the hornets is over there."
Maya turned deathly white and nearly fell off the elder blossoms. In a voice shaking with fright, she asked just where the city was.
"Do you see that old nesting-box for starlings, there in the shrubbery near the trunk of the willow-tree? It's so poorly placed that I doubted from the first whether starlings would ever move in. If a bird-house isn't set with its door facing the sunrise, every decent bird will think twice before taking possession. Well, the hornets have entrenched themselves in it. It's the biggest hornets' fortress in the country. You as a bee certainly ought to know of the place. Why, the hornets are brigands who lie in wait for you bees. So, at least, I have observed."
Maya scarcely heard what he was saying. There, showing clear against the green, she saw the brown walls of the fortress. She almost stopped breathing.
"I must fly away," she cried.
Too late! Behind her sounded a loud, mean laugh. At the same moment the little bee felt herself caught by the neck, so violently that she thought her joints were broken. It was a laugh she would never forget, like a vile taunt out of hellish darkness. Mingling with it was another gruesome sound, the awful clanking of armor.
Thomas let go with all his legs at once and tumbled head over heels through the branches into the water-butt.
"I doubt if you get away alive," he called back. But the poor little bee no longer heard.
She couldn't see her assailant, her neck was caught in too firm a grip, but a gilt-sheathed arm passed before her eyes, and a huge head with dreadful pincers suddenly thrust itself above her face. She took it at first to belong to a gigantic wasp, but then realized that she had fallen into the clutches of a hornet. The black-and-yellow striped monster was surely four times her size.
Maya lost sight, hearing, speech; every nerve in her body went faint. At length her voice came back, and she screamed for help.
"Never mind, girlie," said the hornet in a honey-sweet tone that was sickening. "Never mind. It'll last until it's over." He smiled a baleful smile.
"Let go!" cried Maya. "Let me go! Or I'll sting you in your heart."
"In my heart right away? Very brave. But there's time for that later."
Maya went into a fury. Summoning all her strength, she twisted herself around, uttered her shrill battle-cry, and directed her sting against the middle of the hornet's breast. To her amazement and horror, the sting, instead of piercing his breast, swerved on the surface. The brigand's armor was impervious.
Wrath gleamed in his eyes.
"I could bite your head off, little one, to punish you for your impudence. And I would, too, I would indeed, but for our queen. She prefers fresh bees to dead carcasses. So a good soldier saves a juicy morsel like you to bring to her alive."
The hornet, with Maya still in his grip, rose into the air and made directly for the fortress.
"This is too awful," thought the poor little bee. "No one can stand this." She fainted.
When she came to her senses, she found herself in half darkness, in a sultry dusk permeated by a horrid, pungent smell. Slowly everything came back to her. A great paralyzing sadness settled in her heart. She wanted to cry: the tears refused to come.
"I haven't been eaten up yet, but I may be, any moment," she thought in a tremble.
Through the walls of her prison she caught the distinct sound of voices, and soon she noticed that a little light filtered through a narrow chink. The hornets make their walls, not of wax like the bees, but of a dry mass resembling porous grey paper. By the one thread of light she managed bit by bit to make out her surroundings. Horror of horrors! Maya was almost congealed with fright: the floor was strewn with the bodies of dead insects. At her very feet lay a little rose-beetle turned over on its back; to one side was the skeleton of a large locust broken in two, and everywhere were the remains of slaughtered bees, their wings and legs and sheaths.
"Oh, oh, to think this had to happen to me," whimpered little Maya. She did not dare to stir the fraction of an inch and pressed herself shivering into the farthest corner of this chamber of horrors.
Again she heard voices on the other side of the wall. Impelled by mortal fear, she crept up to the chink and peeped through. What she saw was a vast hall crowded with hornets and magnificently illuminated by a number of captive glow-worms. Enthroned in their midst sat the queen, who seemed to be holding an important council. Maya caught every word that was said.
If those glittering monsters had not inspired her with such unspeakable horror, she would have gone into raptures over their strength and magnificence. It was the first time she had had a good view of any of the race of brigands. Tigers they looked like, superb tigers of the insect world, with their tawny black-barred bodies. A shiver of awe ran through the little bee.
A sergeant-at-arms went about the walls of the hall ordering the glow-worms to give all the light they could; they must strain themselves to the utmost. He muttered his commands in a low voice, so as not to interrupt the deliberations, and thrust at them with a long spear, hissing as he did so:
"Light up, or I'll eat you!"
Terrible the things that were done in the fortress of the hornets!
Then Maya heard the queen say:
"Very well, we shall abide by the arrangements we have made. To-morrow, one hour before dawn, the warriors will assemble and sally forth to the attack on the city of the bees in the castle park. The hive is to be plundered and as many prisoners taken as possible. He who captures Queen Helen VIII and brings her to me alive will be dubbed a knight. Go forth and be brave and victorious and bring back rich booty.— The meeting is herewith adjourned. Sleep well, my warriors. I bid you good-night."
The queen-hornet rose from her throne and left the hall accompanied by her body-guard.
Maya nearly cried out loud.
"My country!" she sobbed, "my bees, my dear, dear bees!" She pressed her hands to her mouth to keep herself from screaming. She was in the depths of despair. "Oh, would that I had died before I heard this. No one will warn my people. They will be attacked in their sleep and massacred. O God, perform a miracle, help me, help me and my people. Our need is great!"
In the hall the glow-worms were put out and devoured. Gradually the fortress was wrapped in a hush. Maya seemed to have been forgotten. A faint twilight crept into her cell, and she thought she caught the strumming of the crickets' night song outside.— Was anything more horrible than this dungeon with its carcasses strewn on the ground!
Soon, however, the little bee's despair yielded to a definite resolve. It was as though she once more called to mind that she was a bee.
"Here I am weeping and wailing," she thought, "as if I had no brains and as if I were a weakling. Oh, I'm not much of an honor to my people and my queen. They are in danger. I am doomed anyhow. So since death is certain one way or another, I may as well be proud and brave and do everything I can to try to save them."
It was as though Maya had completely forgotten the long time that had passed since she left her home. More strongly than ever she felt herself one of her people; and the great responsibility that suddenly devolved upon her, through the knowledge of the hornets' plot, filled her with fine courage and determination.
"If my people are to be vanquished and killed, I want to be killed, too. But first I must do everything in my power to save them."
"Long live my queen!" she cried.
"Quiet in there!" clanged harshly from the outside.
Ugh, what an awful voice!— The watchman making his rounds.— Then it was already late in the night.
As soon as the watchman's footsteps had died away, Maya began to widen the chink through which she had peeped into the hall. It was easy to bite away the brittle stuff of the partition, though it took some time before the opening was large enough to admit her body. At length, in the full knowledge that discovery would cost her her life, she squeezed through into the hall. From remote depths of the fortress echoed the sound of loud snoring.
The hall lay in a subdued blue light that found its way in through the distant entrance.
"The moonlight!" Maya said to herself. She began to creep cautiously toward the exit, cowering close in the deep shadows of the walls, until she reached the high, narrow passageway that led from the hall to the opening through which the light shone. She heaved a deep sigh. Far, far away glimmered a star.
"Liberty!" she thought.
The passageway was quite bright. Softly, stepping oh so very softly, Maya crept on. The portal came nearer and nearer.
"If I fly now," she thought, "I'll be out in one dash." Her heart pounded as if ready to burst.
But there in the shadow of the doorway stood a sentinel leaning against a column.
Maya stood still, rooted to the spot. Vanished all her hopes. Gone the chance of escape. There was no getting by that formidable figure. What was she to do? Best go back where she had come from. But the sight of the giant in the doorway held her in a spell. He seemed to be lost in revery. He stood gazing out upon the moon-washed landscape, his head tilted slightly forward, his chin propped on his hand. How his golden cuirass gleamed in the moonlight! Something in the way he stood there stirred the little bee's emotions.
"He looks so sad," she thought. "How handsome he is, how superbly he holds himself, how proudly his armor shines! He never removes it, neither by day nor by night. He is always ready to rob and fight and die...."
Little Maya quite forgot that this man was her enemy. Ah, how often the same thing had happened to her—that the goodness of her heart and her delight in beauty made her lose all sense of danger.
A golden dart of light shot from the bandit's helmet. He must have turned his head.
"My God," whispered Maya, "this is the end of me!"
But the sentinel said quietly:
"Just come here, child."
"What!" cried Maya. "You saw me?"
"All the time, child. You bit a hole through the wall, then you crept along—crept along—tucking yourself very neatly into the dark places—until you reached the spot where you're standing. Then you saw me, and you lost heart. Am I right?"
"Yes," said Maya, "quite right." Her whole body shook with terror. The sentinel, then, had seen her the entire time. She remembered having heard how keen were the senses of these clever freebooters.
"What are you doing here?" he asked good-humoredly.
Maya still thought he looked sad. His mind seemed to be far away and not to concern itself with what was of such moment to her.
"I'd like to get out," she answered. "And I'm not afraid. I was just startled. You looked so strong and handsome, and your armor shone so. Now I'll fight you."
The sentinel, slightly astonished, leaned forward, and looked at Maya and smiled. It was not an ugly smile, and Maya experienced an entirely new feeling: the young warrior's smile seemed to exercise a mysterious power over her heart.
"No, little one," he said almost tenderly, "you and I won't fight. You bees belong to a powerful nation, but man for man we hornets are stronger. To do single battle with a bee would be beneath our dignity. If you like you may stay here a little while and chat. But only a little while. Soon I'll have to wake the soldiers up; then, back to your cell you must go."
How curious! The hornet's lofty friendliness disarmed Maya more than anger or hate could have done. The feeling with which he inspired her was almost admiration. With great sad eyes she looked up at her enemy, and constrained, as always, to follow the impulses of her heart, she said:
"I have always heard bad things about hornets. But you are not bad. I can't believe you're bad."
The warrior looked at Maya.
"There are good people and bad people everywhere," he said, gravely. "But you mustn't forget we are your enemies, and shall always remain your enemies."
"Must an enemy always be bad?" asked Maya. "Before, when you were looking out into the moonlight, I forgot that you were hard and dangerous. You seemed sad, and I have always thought that people who were sad couldn't possibly be wicked."
The sentinel said nothing, and Maya continued more boldly:
"You are powerful. If you want to, you can put me back in my cell, and I'll have to die. But you can also set me free—if you want to."
At this the warrior drew himself up. His armor clanked, and the arm he raised shone in the moonlight.
But the moonlight was turning dimmer in the passageway. Was dawn coming already?
"You are right," he said. "I can. My people and my queen have entrusted me with this power. My orders are that no bee who has set foot in this fortress shall leave it alive. I shall keep faith with my people."
After a pause he added softly as if to himself: "I have learned by bitter experience how faithlessness can hurt—when Loveydear forsook me...."
Little Maya was overcome. She did not know what to say. Ah, the same sentiments moved her, too—love of her own kind, loyalty to her people. Nothing to be done here but to use force or strategy. Each did his duty, and yet each remained an enemy to the other.
But hadn't the sentinel mentioned a name? Hadn't he said something about someone's having been unfaithful to him? Loveydear—why, she knew Loveydear—the beautiful dragon-fly who lived at the lakeside among the waterlilies.
Maya quivered with excitement. Here, perhaps, was her salvation. But she wasn't quite sure how much good her knowledge would be to her. So she said prudently:
"Who is Loveydear, if I may ask?"
"Never mind, little one. She's not your affair, and she's lost to me forever. I shall never find her again."
"I know Miss Loveydear." Maya forced herself to put the utmost indifference into her tone. "She belongs to the family of dragon-flies and she's the loveliest lady of all."
A tremendous change came over the warrior. He seemed to have forgotten where he was. He leapt over to Maya's sides as if blown by a violent gust.
"What! You know Loveydear? Tell me where she is. Tell me, right away."
Maya spoke quietly and firmly; she glowed with secret delight.
"I'll bite your head off if you don't tell." The warrior drew dangerously close.
"It will be bitten off anyhow. Go ahead. I shan't betray the lovely dragon-fly. She's a close friend of mine.... You want to imprison her."
The warrior breathed hard. In the gathering dawn Maya could see that his forehead was pale and his eyes tragic with the inner struggle he was waging.
"Good God!" he said wildly. "It's time to rouse the soldiers.— No, no, little bee, I don't want to harm Loveydear. I love her, more dearly than my life. Tell me where I shall find her again."
Maya was clever. She purposely hesitated before she said:
"But I love my life."
"If you tell me where Loveydear lives"—Maya could see that the sentinel spoke with difficulty and was trembling all over— "I'll set you free. You can fly wherever you want."
"Will you keep your word?"
"My word of honor as a brigand," said the sentinel proudly.
Maya could scarcely speak. But, if she was to be in time to warn her people of the attack, every moment counted. Her heart exulted.
"Very well," she said, "I believe you. Listen, then. Do you know the ancient linden-trees near the castle? Beyond them lies one meadow after another, and finally comes a big lake. In a cove at the south end where the brook empties into the lake the waterlilies lie spread out on the water in the sunlight. Near them, in the rushes, is where Loveydear lives. You'll find her there every day at noon when the sun is high in the heavens."
The warrior had pressed both hands to his pale brow. He seemed to be having a desperate struggle with himself.
"You're telling the truth," he said softly and groaned, whether from joy or pain it was impossible to tell. "She told me she wanted to go where there were floating white flowers. Those must be the flowers you speak of. Fly away, then. I thank you."
And actually he stepped aside from the entrance.
Day was breaking.
"A brigand keeps his word," he said.
Not knowing that Maya had overheard the deliberations in the council chamber, he told himself that one small bee more or less made little difference. Weren't there hundreds of others?
"Good-by," cried Maya, breathless with haste, and flew off without a word of thanks.
As a matter of fact, there was no time to spare.
Little Maya summoned every bit of strength and will power she had left. Like a bullet shot from the muzzle of a gun (bees can fly faster than most insects), she darted through the purpling dawn in a lightning beeline for the woods, where she knew she would be safe for the moment and could hide herself away should the hornet regret having let her go and follow in pursuit.
Gossamer veils hung everywhere over the level country, big drops fell from the trees on the dry leaves carpeting the ground, and the cold in the woods threatened to paralyze little Maya's wings. No ray of the dawn had as yet found its way between the trees. The air was as hushed as if the sun had forgotten the earth, and all creatures had laid themselves to eternal rest.
Maya, therefore, flew high up in the air. Only one thing mattered—to get back as quickly as strength and wits permitted to her hive, her people, her endangered home. She must warn her people. They must prepare against the attack which the terrible brigands had planned for that very morning. Oh, if only the nation of bees had the chance to arm and make ready its defenses, it was well able to cope with its stronger opponents. But a surprise assault at rising time! What if the queen and the soldiers were still asleep? The success of the hornets would then be assured. They would take prisoners and give no quarter. The butchery would be horrible.
Thinking of the strength and energy of her people, their readiness to meet death, their devotion to their queen, the little bee felt a great wrath against their enemies the hornets. Her beloved people! No sacrifice was too great for them. Little Maya's heart swelled with the ecstasy of self-sacrifice and the dauntless courage of enthusiasm.
It was not easy for her to find her way over the woods. Long before she had ceased to observe landmarks as did the other bees, who had great distances to come back with their loads of nectar. She felt she had never flown as high before, the cold hurt, and she could scarcely distinguish the objects below.
"What can I go by?" she thought. "No one thing stands out. I shan't be able to reach my people and help them. Oh, oh! And here I had a chance to atone for my desertion. What shall I do? What shall I do?"— Suddenly some secret force steered her in a certain direction. "What is pushing and pulling me? It must be homesickness guiding me back to my country." She gave herself up to the instinct and flew swiftly on. Soon, in the distance, looking like grey domes in the dim light of the dawn, showed the mighty lindens of the castle park. She exclaimed with delight. She knew where she was. She dropped closer to the earth. In the meadows on one side hung the luminous wisps of fog, thicker here than in the woods. She thought of the flower-sprites who cheerfully died their early death inside the floating veils. That inspired her anew with confidence. Her anxiety disappeared. Let her people spurn her from the kingdom, let the queen punish her for desertion, if only the bees were spared this dreadful calamity of the hornets' invasion.
Close to the long stone wall shone the silver-fir that shielded the bee-city against the west wind. And there—she could see them distinctly now—were the red, blue, and green portals of her homeland. The stormy pounding of her heart nearly robbed her of her breath. But on she flew toward the red entrance which led to her people and her queen.
On the flying-board, two sentinels blocked the entrance and laid hands upon her. Maya was too breathless to utter a syllable, and the sentinels threatened to kill her. For a bee to force its way into a strange city without the queen's consent is a capital offense.
"Stand back!" cried one sentinel, thrusting her roughly away. "What's the matter with you! If you don't leave this instant, you'll die.— Did you ever!" He turned to the other sentinel. "Have you ever seen the like, and before daytime too?"
Now Maya pronounced the password by which all the bees knew one another. The sentinels instantly released her.
"What!" they cried. "You are one of us, and we don't know you?"
"Let me get to the queen," groaned the little bee. "Right away, quick! We are in terrible danger."
The sentinels still hesitated. They couldn't grasp the situation.
"The queen may not be awakened before sunrise," said the one.
"Then," Maya screamed, her voice rising to a passionate yell such as the sentinels had probably never heard from a bee before, "then the queen will never wake up alive. Death is following at my heels. Take me to the queen! Take me to the queen, I say!" Her voice was so wild and wrathful that the sentinels were frightened, and obeyed.
The three hurried together through the warm, well-known streets and corridors. Maya recognized everything, and for all her excitement and the tremendous need for haste, her heart quivered with sweet melancholy at the sight of the dear familiar scenes.
"I am at home," she stammered with pale lips.
In the queen's reception room she almost broke down. One of the sentinels supported her while the other hurried with the unusual message into the private chambers. Both of them now realized that something momentous was taking place, and the messenger ran as fast as his legs would carry him.
The first wax-generators were already up. Here and there a little head thrust itself out curiously from the openings. The news of the incident traveled quickly.
Two officers emerged from the private chambers. Maya recognized them instantly. In solemn silence, without a word to her, they took their posts, one on each side of the doorway: the queen would soon appear.
She came without her court, attended only by her aide and two ladies-in-waiting. She hurried straight over to Maya. When she saw what a state the child was in, the severe expression on her face relaxed a little.