It was a long story. And almost before the end the little story teller had fallen asleep with her head tipped back against the Tree Man's chest.
They spent that night in the tree, and that was good, for a storm had risen outside, and it was bitter cold in the forest.
THE BEAUTIFUL WICKED WITCH
The next morning before Eric woke Ivra slipped away to play with the Forest Children.
"On such wild days as this they usually play indoors, for they're little things and the Snow Witches love to tease them," said the Tree Man.
"Perhaps she'll be telling them World Stories," thought Eric, and so he decided to go to the little moss village, too, for though Ivra had told him dozens of World Stories by now, he always wanted to hear more. So after breakfast with the Tree Man and his pretty, shy daughter, he ran out in search of Ivra.
It was indeed a cold morning, blustering and raw. Eric felt chilled almost as soon as he was out of doors. Very soon he lost his way, for he had not been in the forest long enough to grow familiar with landmarks. Just when he was beginning to be a bit hopeless and pinched with the cold he came to the big fir where the Beautiful Wicked Witch lived. It stood green and comforting among all the bare trees of winter.
Eric stopped to look, for now he remembered the Beautiful Wicked Witch and the bird she had caged in there. He saw a door in the tree trunk ajar, and swinging to and fro with tiny tinkling music. He peeped in, and between the swingings caught glimpses of little blue and yellow flowers arranged in tight bunches in hanging vases. He could smell their sweetness even out there in the cold air.
Then high up in the tree trunk a window opened, and he heard the bird singing. The Beautiful Wicked Witch's face appeared at the window, looking down at him. Her black eyes were sparkling and she nodded good-morning to him as though he were a prince, or at least a grown-up. He could not help nodding back. He liked her very much, she was so beautiful and so friendly.
"Come in and get warm," she called, "and I'll show you my pretty bird."
Eric remembered Ivra's warnings, but he wanted to go in so much that he found himself doing it. The door tinkled louder music when he touched it, and he pushed his way through, as a bee pushes his way into a flower.
The Witch came running twinklingly down a spiral stairway. She kissed his mouth, took off his winged cap and coat, threw them somewhere out of sight, and then he had time to look at her well.
Her gown was green satin, the color of the fir boughs, and her little sandals were green satin, too. A green fir frond bound her forehead; and her black hair hung loose, soft and electric to her waist. Eric had never seen a prettier person in the world, nor one more kind.
She took his two hands and began to whirl in a happy dance. Eric danced, too, for joy and good comradeship. Round and round the room they whirled until their breath was spent.
Then the Beautiful Wicked Witch took him up the spiral staircase to show him the bird. Up and up they went, until they came to a little room high in the tree. The floor was carpeted with yellow satin, and yellow curtains hung at the window. Deep blue mirrors lined the walls, and they reflected Eric and the Beautiful Wicked Witch dozens of times over.
The pretty bird cage, all made of flowers and leaves, hung in the very middle of the room. Eric stood by it a long time. He put his fingers through the bars, and stroked the bird's soft feathers. But the gorgeous bird paid no attention to him, and did not sing.
"Why doesn't it hop about?" he asked the Beautiful Wicked Witch.
The Witch frowned and pouted. "It ought to, I'm sure. I like to see it hopping. But it would rather sulk. It thinks all the time about the forest, and its mate who is out there somewhere. Sometimes it sings, though. Its voice is wonderful."
"Oh, let's open the cage and free him," cried Eric.
But the Beautiful Wicked Witch seized his hand. "No, no, no! It is mine. I have caged it in my pretty cage. And it fits into the room, don't you think?"
"I don't know what you mean," said Eric.
"Why, you fit into it, too," said the Witch, looking hard at him. "Your yellow hair and blue eyes match the yellow and blue flowers. Would you like me to make a pretty cage for you and put you into it?"
"No, no!" Eric was suddenly afraid of the Beautiful Wicked Witch.
But she laughed at his fear, and danced a little dance, humming to herself, around the room. Then Eric noticed other cages. The walls were lined with them. Some hung from the ceiling, and some stood in corners. In every cage was a bird or animal. The one standing nearest to him held a pretty gray squirrel, running 'round and 'round on a wheel. He stopped every now and then to peer out through the bars with quick, bright eyes. In the cage next was a tiny brown field mouse. But he had given up running and playing long ago, and was huddled in the farthest and darkest corner of his cage, his little beady eyes open and watchful.
Eric walked around the room, looking at all the poor little animals and birds. One and all peered through their bars with watchful and fearful eyes. Eric remembered himself in the canning factory and pitied them more than he could ever have done had he not once been a caged little creature too. How he longed to open their doors and the window, and see them scamper and fly away!
But the Witch had stopped her dancing by the bird cage in the middle of the room, and her little hands were between the bars stroking the bright bird-breast. She was saying, "Sing for us, bird. Sing your nicest song for us. Little Eric wants to hear it."
The bird began to beat its wings and breast against the bars. Again and again its bright breast struck the door. But it did not fly open.
"It does not want to sing," laughed the Beautiful Wicked Witch; "but it must. Sing, bird, sing! It does you no good to struggle. You can't get away. Sing, sing!"
Then the bird sang. Its song was truly wonderful, high and clear, as Eric had heard it from outside. But now that he could see the bird caged he did not like the song so well. It was all too sad.
Eric wanted to go away then, out of the tree, and never, never see the Witch again. He would find Ivra and the Forest Children and forget all about these cages. So he said good-by to the Witch and ran down the spiral staircase. But he could not find the door out. He went round and round the wall, but there was no sign of a door. It was indeed as though a flower had let him in and then closed its petals tight.
The little posies swung in their cases, the bird sang up stairs, and the Beautiful Wicked Witch played and danced, and laughed at all his searching. She would do nothing to help him find the door.
All that day he wandered up stairs and down stairs, or stood at the window looking down through the green fir branches to the free forest-floor. Once the Witch offered to tell him stories. But he wanted no stories of caged things, and those were all the stories she knew. The Witch did not mind his short answers and dark face. She seemed perfectly able to have a good time with herself, and needed no comrades.
At last night fell. The rooms blossomed with candlelight. In the yellow room up stairs the Beautiful Wicked Witch paraded back and forth before the mirrors, loving her own reflection, smiling at herself, courtesying, frowning, looking back over her shoulder,—lifting her hair to let it fall again in electric waves. Eric stood by the window, thoroughly weary of his search and loneliness, and watched her. The bird sat in the cage and watched her. All the little bright eyes of animals watched her. The candles burned steadily.
How Eric longed for Ivra now, and their own big friendly room. He imagined Ivra in the room there all alone getting her supper over the fire, bathing in the fountain bath, opening the windows, and at last falling softly to sleep before the firelight faded.
Oh, if there were only a window open here! How hot it was, and how over-sweetly scented! The Beautiful Wicked Witch went on posing and preening before the mirrors, and seemed to have forgotten all about her new little prisoner.
So he pulled back the yellow satin curtain, and looked out. It was clear, cold starlight. He pressed his face against the window pane and stared down into the shadows beneath the fir. And there, standing erect in the shadow, her face lifted like a pale little moon, stood Ivra.
She saw him, but did not wave. She only nodded, as though she knew now what she had come to make sure of. She stood still for a few minutes, until Eric almost thought she was frozen in the cold. But at last she moved and disappeared under the fir.
Music tinkled through the house. The Beautiful Wicked Witch poised on her toes, surprisedly looking into the reflection of her own eyes.
"Some one has come in, for that was the door," she said. "It opens inward with music."
Eric's heart stood still. Had Ivra come into the Witch's house, Ivra who was so afraid of the Witch? He ran down the stairs and the Witch followed him. Yes, Ivra stood there in the middle of the warm, flower-hung room, like a little cold star beam.
But she did not look at the quaint flowers in their golden vases. And when the Witch ran to her and kissed her she did not even look at her. She looked only at Eric, and her eyes said, "I have come to free you."
"Oh, so you did want to try on the pretty frock after all," cried the Witch, and drew her up the stairs. Eric followed to the yellow room. "No," said Ivra. But the Witch brought it out and tried to slip it over her head. It was sheerest gossamer web, and shimmered like moonlight. And the little rosebuds seemed to make it belong to Ivra.
Eric forgot all about being a prisoner, and forgot the little caged creatures around the wall. He was delighted with the frock being pushed down on Ivra's shoulders. "How beautiful you'll be!" he cried. But Ivra wriggled away from it and stood clear. Her rudely made brown frock and worn sandals looked odd in that satin room. "I didn't come to see the frock," she said, shaking her head till her pigtails bobbed. "I came to get Eric."
The Beautiful Wicked Witch laughed. "Get him if you can," she said. Then she turned her back on the children and began to braid her black hair among the mirrors.
They went to the window and waited there, watching her.
"The door doesn't open out,—only in, I think," Eric whispered. "So we can't get out."
"Mother has told me how it would be," Ivra whispered back. "We'll have to wait until she's asleep and then find a way."
Then Ivra sat down on the floor and began to rock back and forth and sing a lullaby. It was a lullaby her mother had sung to her all her babyhood, Ivra sang in a very little voice, almost a murmur only, but by listening Eric and the Beautiful Wicked Witch could catch the words. She sang the same words over and over and over.
Night is in the forest, Tree Mother is nigh. By-abye, by-abye-bye.
Sleep is in the forest— His feathers brush your eye. By-abye, by-abye-bye.
Mother's arms are holding you, Forest dreams are folding you. By-abye, by-abye—bye.
The Beautiful Wicked Witch sat down before the mirrors after a while, still watching her reflection, but listening to the song, too. Her head gradually sank lower and lower, first resting chin in hand and at last right down on her arm stretched along the floor. Her face lay turned towards the children, and they saw the mirth slowly fade in her great black eyes, the lids drop lower and lower,—and then she was asleep suddenly. Now she looked almost as young as themselves, and like a pale child who has fallen to sleep at its play.
But the children did not stop to look at her. Once they were sure she was asleep they were off searching for the door. Up and down the stairs and all around the rooms they ran on tiptoes. But it was no use, and at last they came back to the window.
"We must jump," whispered Ivra.
Eric looked down, and wondered. It was a long way to the ground!
"The snow is soft beneath the crust," Ivra said. "It will only cut us a little."
"Let's take the bird," Eric said. Ivra ran to it, and opened the cage door. It hopped onto her finger eagerly, and she held its bill so that it would not sing.
Eric opened the window. "I'll jump first," he whispered.
But Ivra said, "Oh, let's hold hands and jump together."
The Beautiful Wicked Witch felt the cold night air from the window on her face, and stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids quivered. So the children did not wait a minute more. They climbed up onto the window sill, Ivra still holding the bird. "One, two, three," she whispered, and they jumped.
Out and down they went like two shooting stars and plunked through the snowcrust. They were up in a second. Their wrists and elbows were a little bruised and cut, but they were not really hurt at all. But strange and strange, the bird had fluttered near Ivra's hand for that second, and then flew straight back up and into the open window. It had been caged so long it did not really want its freedom after all. Eric cried out with regret.
But Ivra seized his hand, and they ran home together through the cold, starlit forest. Before they leapt the hedge into their own garden Eric saw the firelight blossoming in the windows. But he stood still outside the door, after Ivra had gone in, for a time, breathing the cold air and the clear silence right down into his toes.
"To-morrow is the shortest day in the year," Ivra told Eric one night after they were in bed. He did not answer, for he was very sleepy. But after a minute she spoke again. "It's my birthday too!"
Then he opened his eyes and sat up, for her voice sounded very queer and far away. He saw that she too was sitting up, her hands folded under her chin. "Mother always had a party for me," she said. "Such fun!"
"Perhaps one will happen to-morrow even with her away," Eric comforted. "Oh, goody! I do hope so!"
"Perhaps. Anyway I'm going to pretend there's a party waiting for me to-morrow. You pretend too, Eric, and then even if it doesn't come true we will have had the pretending at least."
Eric agreed to pretend. It was one of his favorite games. And very soon the two children nestled down under their covers and drifted into sleep and dreams of a party.
They were roused early in the morning by something tapping lightly on the doors and windows. Eric was out of bed first, and saw the Wind Creatures, half a dozen or more of them, looking in and beckoning. Their purple wings gleamed gold in the early morning sun. Wild Star was standing in the open door.
"Happy birthday!" he cried and tossed a snow ball into Ivra's bed. She popped to her knees, laughing and rosy with sleep. But then she was grave in a minute. "There's to be no party, Wild Star," she said. "Mother's not back yet. Are you all here for that?"
"Yes, we're here for that, and there is to be a party, an all day one too. Your Forest Friends have seen to that."
The children were radiant with joy. And Ivra whispered to Eric, "We had our pretending, too!"
The Wind Creatures would not come in to breakfast, for of course they do not like in-doors at all, and besides, they need very little food. So they played in the garden while the children dressed and ate. Very soon the children were done, though, and came leaping out ready for a day's joy.
The Wind Creatures led them then out through the forest. The Tree Girl was watching for them at her door. It was plain to be seen, when she joined them, that she carried something in her arms very secretly under her white cloak. But no one mentioned it. Ivra knew it must be a surprise for her birthday. Where the party was to be no one told her, and she did not ask. She liked surprises.
They came to the Forest Children's little moss village. The youngest Forest Child of all was the only one up so early. He was busily breaking dead twigs from bushes to build his morning fire and making up a little rhymeless song about Ivra's birthday as he worked.
This is her birthday, Spring's little daughter— Spring's little daughter— This is her birthday.
Wake now, wake now, All you Forest Children, Wake for her birthday And tie your sandals on.
When he saw them he cried, "Hurrah! Happy birthday, Ivra!"
At his cry all the little windows in the little moss houses opened and there were the tousled heads of the Forest Children, their eyes blinking sleepily against the gilded morning light.
"Thank you, thank you," Ivra cried back to the youngest Forest Child. "Hurry and follow."
Before they had gone on their way five minutes more the Forest Children were up with them, tugging at buckles and sandal strings as they ran, begging not to be left behind. Soon they came to Big Pine Hill, a hill deep in the forest with no trees but a giant pine at the top. The Wind Creatures had built a slide there by brushing away the snow and leaving a broad track of shining blue ice. Up under the pine were sleds enough for every one, made all of woven hemlock branches. They needed no runners for the ice was so slippery and the hill so steep anything would go down it fast enough. Ivra's Forest Friends must have worked all the day before to make those sleds—and now her shining face and clasped hands were reward enough.
She was the first to try the hill. She threw herself on her sled and down she flashed. At the bottom she tumbled off, and still on her knees shouted up to Eric and the others at the top, "Oh, it's splendid! Come on!"
Then the hill was covered with speeding sleds. The Bird Fairies had none of their own, for they were so little they might have come to harm on that hill. But they had just as good a time for all of that, catching rides with the others, clinging to shoulders or heads or feet as it happened.
Every one was there, even the Snow Witches who had not been invited. They came whirling and dancing through the forest almost as soon as the sliding had begun. Ivra gave them glad welcome in spite of their rough ways and stinging hair. For she, the only one of all who were there, liked them very well and had made them her comrades often and often on windy winter days. And they, who cared for nobody, cared for her. "She is not like anybody," they explained it to each other. "She is a great little girl."
But they would not take Ivra's sled as she wanted them to. They had not come to spoil her fun. Instead they raced down the hill behind her or before her, pushing and pulling, their stinging hair in her face. But that only made her cheeks very red, and she did not mind them at all. Then she tried sliding down on her feet, with the long line of witches pushing from behind, their hands on each other's shoulders. That was the best fun of all, and almost always ended in a tumble before the bottom was reached. Though the others avoided the witches as much as they could they admired Ivra for such hardy comrading.
Before noon every one was very hungry. Then the littlest Forest Child said, "Follow me. The Tree Girl has gone ahead."
It was true, she had slipped away when no one noticed.
The littlest Forest Child led them away to a little valley-place where hemlock boughs had been spread to make a floor and raised on three sides to make a shelter. When they had come close enough for Ivra to see what it was perched so big and white in the middle of the hemlock floor she stopped and sighed with joy while she clasped her hands.
It was a beautiful frosted birthday cake with nine brave candles of all colors and burning steadily, just the kind of cake her mother had always baked for her birthdays.—Only last year there had been eight candles. She had not hoped for this final delight. She ran quickly forward and was the first to kneel down by it. The Tree Girl was there waiting, and now Ivra knew it was the cake that she had been carrying so secretly under her cloak.
The Snow Witches did not follow into that shelter. They have a great fear of shelters, you must know, for when forced into them they quickly lose their fierceness, and their fierceness is their greatest pride. But before they left the party one of them came close to Eric, so close that tears were whipped into his eyes and quickly froze on his lashes. "Take this to your little comrade," shes said, thrusting a box made of pine cones into his hands. "It's for her to keep her paper dolls in. We witches made it."
Then all the witches went screeching and swirling away through the forest, and Ivra, Eric and the others settled down to the business of eating the birthday cake.
But first the Tree Girl, who is very sensible, insisted that they eat some nuts and apples. Indeed, she would allow no one a bite of the wonderful cake until he had eaten at least one apple and twenty nuts.
Before Ivra cut the cake the others blew out the candles, one after another, and made her a wish in turn for every candle. The Tree Girl wished her a bright new year, the Bird Fairies that her mother would soon return, the Wind Creatures that she would keep her gay heart forever, the Forest Children that she would become the most famous story teller in the Forest World.
And then it was Eric's turn. He had never been to a birthday party before, and never had he made a wish for some one else. So he was a little puzzled. But at last he had an idea and cried, "I wish that your hair will grow golden and curly before to-morrow morning." All princesses Ivra had ever told him about had curly golden hair, and though she had never said it, Eric had suspected for some time that Ivra would like that kind of hair herself. Then he puffed his cheeks and blew out his candle, a fat green one. Ivra laughed.
"The Snow Witches would never let me keep curly hair," she said. "They'd whip it straight in an hour."
That reminded Eric of the pine cone box and he gave it to her and told her about it. She was almost as delighted with that as with the cake.
What a wonderful cake it was! Such food Eric had never dreamed of, and he was a great dreamer! The frosting was over an inch thick.
Then, of course, Ivra must tell them stories. All the Forest People loved her stories. They built a fire to keep from freezing. The Wind Creatures sat a little way off where it was cool enough for their comfort, but not too far to hear Ivra's clear voice. This time she told all she knew about the birthday of this Earth, one of the most magical and splendid and strange of her stories.
But it was the shortest day in the year, Ivra's birthday, and night fell all too soon. Then the Tree Girl, who seldom forgot to be sensible, said they had better go home. The littlest Forest Child was already asleep, curled close by the fire. They roused him gently. Good-nights were called and a few minutes after, the shelter was deserted, and the fire out. And by starlight could be seen many footprints leading away in the white snow out into all parts of the Forest.
Eric and Ivra walked toward home hand in hand. They had to pass the morning's slide on the way. When they came in sight of it they began to walk more quickly and quietly and to look intently. The blue ice shone bluer than ever in starlight, but more than the ice shone. Shining people were using the sleds and the hill was covered with them.
"Why, they must be Star People," Ivra cried excitedly.
When they were quite near they stood to watch.
The strange Star folk were very silent, never calling and laughing as those who had slid there in the morning had done. Two, a little boy and a young girl, came spinning down on the same sled and stopped so near that Ivra and Eric might have touched them by leaning forward. But the Star-two must have thought the Forest-two shadows, for they paid no attention to them at all.
Now that they were so near Eric could see that their hair was blue, like the shadows on snow, and their faces a beautiful shining white. Their straight short garments were blue like shadows, too, and their arms, legs and feet were bare. But they did not seem conscious of the cold. Eric did not hear them speak, but they looked at each other as though they were speaking, and then suddenly the little boy laughed merrily, as though the young girl had just told him something very amusing.
Soon the girl turned and ran away up the hill. But the little boy was as quick as she and threw himself on the sled while she never slackened her pace, but drew him straight and fast up the steep slope.
"I have never seen them before," Ivra whispered to Eric. "But mother has told me of them. They don't talk as we do you see. They don't have to. They know each other's thoughts. They almost never leave their Stars. Do you think—perhaps, to-night they saw our slide shining, and wondered so much about it they had to come down? Even mother has never seen them. It was Tree Mother told her."
Eric was very silent, for he had never seen such beautiful people. The little boy had had a face like a star, and great shining eyes. The young girl had been clear like the day, and without smiling her face had been brimmed with happiness.
But now he felt Ivra trembling. She whispered again, "You know, Eric, it is wonderful for us to see them like this. Some day, mother says, we may get to be like them!"
"And speak without words?" Eric asked wondering.
"Yes, and more than that. We may be as alive as they. Now we're only Forest people, and not all that even—almost dreams. They are real!"
Then she took his hand and drew him away. "I cannot look any more," she said; "can you? They are too beautiful!"
Eric put his fingers to his eyes as he walked. "Yes, it's hard to see the ground now. My eyes ache a little."
But how the children wished their mother were waiting for them in the little house to hear the tale!
One afternoon Eric and Ivra started out for the Forest Children's moss village to play with them. But when they got there they found all the little houses deserted: not a Forest Child was to be found. They must have gone into some other part of the forest to play. So Ivra and Eric wandered on and on, a little lonely, a little tired of just each other for comrades, till at last they came to the very edge of the forest,—and there was Nora's farm, a rambling red brick house, with a barn twice its size behind it. Down in the pasture by the house half a dozen Snow Witches were dancing in a circle, now near, now far, all over the pasture, and sometimes right up to the farm-house windows.
Ivra clapped her hands and bounded forward. Eric did not follow. He stood to watch. When the Snow Witches saw Ivra running to them they rushed to meet her. For a minute she was lost in a cloud of blown snow, and then there she was dancing in their circle back and forth across the pasture, and then away, away, away! But before she frolicked quite out of sight she turned to look for her playfellow, and beckoned to him.
"Come on," she called. "We're going to slide on the brook below the cornfield."
But Eric did not follow. He did not like the Snow Witches. And just as Ivra and the Witches drifted out of sight, he thought he heard the Forest Children laughing. The sound came from the barn. So Eric ran to the door. It was a big sliding door, and now stood open on a crack just large enough for a child to slip through. Eric went in.
The barn was tremendously big, a great dusty place full of the smell of hay. Ahead of him were two stalls, with a horse in one. But Eric was most interested in the empty stall, for it was from there the laughter seemed to come. He stood looking and listening, and then right down through the ceiling of the stall shot a child, and landed laughing and squealing in the hay in the manger. She sat up, saw Eric and stared. She was a little girl about his own age, freckle-faced, snub-nosed and red-haired. She had the jolliest, the nicest face in the world.
Eric opened his mouth to say, "Hello," but kept it open, silent in amazement, for another child had shot through the ceiling and landed beside the girl. This was a boy. He was red-headed, too, freckle-faced and snub-nosed. He looked even jollier than the girl.
Before Eric had closed his mouth on his amazement, "Whoop!" and down came another boy. This boy was red-haired, freckle-faced and snub-nosed, and he looked jollier than the other two put together, if that were possible, for his red hair curled in saucy, tight little ringlets, and his mouth was wide with smiles.
It was this last one who said, "Hello, who are you?"
"Eric,—who are you?"
"Nora's grandchildren, of course. Come up. We're having sport."
The three children ran across the barn to a ladder and scrambled up and disappeared through a trap door at the top. Eric followed. The attic was full of hay in mountains and little hills,—hay and hay and hay. He followed the children around the biggest mountain, through a tunnel—and there they vanished!
He found the hole in the stable ceiling and looked down. Not very far below him was the manger full of hay and red-headed children. "Look out down there! Whoop!" cried Eric, and dropped, landing among them.
Then the four laughed heartily together and ran across the barn again, up the ladder, around the hay mountain and dropped down the hole. They did that dozens of times until they were tired of it.
Then they played hide-and-go-seek in the hay country, and after that Blind Man's Buff in the barn below. The little girl was Blind Man first. They tied a red handkerchief tight over her eyes. Then they ran about, dodging her, calling her, laughing at her groping hands and hesitating steps. But after a few minutes she became accustomed to the darkness and ran and jumped about after them until they had to be very wary and swift indeed. Soon she caught Eric and then he was Blind Man.
By and by they played tag, just plain tag, and Eric liked that best of all. Back and forth across the great room they raced,—up the ladder, over the hay, through the hole into the stable, round and round, in and out, up and down until they were too tired and hot for any more.
Then they lay up in the hay where there was a little window, looking far out across the meadows.
Eric saw Ivra out there in the first field, wandering around alone and now and then looking up at the barn. She must have heard their shouts and laughter. He pointed her out to the other children. "That is my playmate out there," he said. "Let's open the window and call to her to come up. She'll tell us stories."
The children looked out eagerly. "But there's nobody there," they said.
Eric laughed. "No, look!" He pointed with his finger. "Over there by the white birch. Look! She sees us." He waved. "Quick, help me open the window."
He could not find the catch. The window was draped with cobwebs and dusty with the dust of years. It looked as though it had never been opened.
The little red-headed girl put her hand on his arm. She was laughing. "Don't be silly," she said. "There's no one by the white birch. You're imagining."
"Why, look! Of course she's there!" Eric was impatient. "She's moving now, waving to us. Of course you see her!"
"Yes," said the jolliest of the boys. "We do see it—faintly. We've seen it before too,—a kind of a shadow on the snow. But father says it's nothing to mind. Imaginings. Nothing real, just spots in our eyes or something."
Then Eric remembered all that Ivra had told him. She was half fairy. People could see her if they looked hard enough. But they were not apt to believe their own eyes when they had looked. That was dreadful for her. She had not said so, but he had guessed it from her face when she told him. Well, well, now he understood a little better. These were Earth Children, with shadows in their eyes. Ivra could never be their playmate.
But he could see her well enough because his eyes were clear. And presently he would run out to her and they would go home together. But just now it was jolly and cozy here in the barn, and these Earth Children were good fun. He hoped she would wait for him, but if she did not he would find his way alone easily enough.
"You don't really believe in it, do you?" the red-headed girl was asking. "If you do,—better not. Grown-ups will laugh at you."
"Nora, your grandmother, won't laugh," said Eric. "She knows Ivra well enough, and Helma, too."
"Oh, yes," said the jolliest boy. "But she is queer. We love her, and she's a fine grandmother, I can tell you. And she tells the best stories. But she's queer just the same, and she can't fool us."
"Let's go in and get some cookies from her," said the other boy. "They must be done by now."
So up they hopped, and without another look towards the shadow out on the snow by the white birch, jumped down the hole, and ran out of the barn into the kitchen.
Nora was there knitting by a table, two big pans of cookies just out of the oven cooling in front of her.
How good they smelled! Eric had never tasted hot ginger cookies before, and when Nora gave him one, a big round one all for his own, he almost danced with delight. He perched on the edge of the table and ate that one and many another before he was done.
"This boy, grandma," began the red-headed girl.
"His name is Eric," interrupted Nora, handing him another cookie. "I know him very well."
"Well, he saw It while we were looking out of the barn window! And he said It was real and his playmate, and he wanted to call It in to tell us stories!"
"Don't say 'It,'" said Nora. "Her name is 'Ivra.' But of course you can't play with her. She isn't an Earth Child. She's a fairy. So don't say anything about it to your father when he comes home to-night. It would make him cross."
"But it doesn't make you cross," laughed the jolliest boy. "And so won't you tell us some stories about it now. You know,—the little house in the wood, the Tree Man, the Forest Children, Helma, Ivra and all the rest of it."
"Do tell us a story," begged the other two.
So Nora put down her knitting, and taking the cat on her lap, a great sleepy white fellow who had been purring by the stove, she began to tell them stories.
She told stories about Helma and Ivra, the Wind Creatures, the Snow Witches and many more. The children listened eagerly, clapping their hands now and then, and at the end of every story asking for more.
But Eric was lost in wonder. The children thought the stories were not true,—just fairy stories told them by a grandmother. And Nora had evidently long ago given up expecting them to believe. Her black eyes twinkled knowingly when they met Eric's puzzled ones.
And all the time Eric had only to turn his head to see Ivra walking out there around in the field, looking at the farm house, waiting for him. But gradually, as the stories went on the little figure out there grew more and more to look like just a blue shadow on the snow, paler and paler. Finally he had to strain his eyes to see it at all.
Then he jumped down from the table and said he must go home. His heart was beating a little wildly. For he was afraid Ivra might fade away from him altogether. These red-headed children were fine playfellows. He liked them,—oh, so much! He wished he could stay and play with them for—a week. Yes. But he must go now. That blue shadow on the snow seemed lonely.
"Take her some cookies," said Nora, filling his pockets. The children laughed at the top of their voices. "Yes, take some cookies to the fairy. But you can eat them yourself and pretend it is the fairy eating them," they cried.
Nora laughed with them, and so after a minute Eric joined in. But he and Nora looked at each other through their laughter and nodded understanding.
When Ivra saw him at last come out of the farm house door, she didn't wait longer, but ran away into the wood. He overtook her a long way in, walking rapidly.
"Did you have a good time with the witches?" he asked.
"Why didn't you come, too?" she said
"Oh, it was too cold. Nora's grandchildren are awfully good fun. We played hide-and-go-seek, just as we played it at the Tree Man's party."
"Did they laugh at me?"
" . . . No, they laughed at me. They thought I was a funny boy."
"To have me for a playmate?"
Then Eric began to think that Ivra was not very happy. Perhaps she had been lonely.
"You're always running off with the Snow Witches," he said. "But I won't play with Nora's grandchildren any more unless they'll let you play too. I won't, truly!"
Ivra laughed. And it was like spring coming into winter. "Yes, play with them all you like! I love them, too. I've often watched them. The littlest boy, the one with the funny curls, laughs at me and stares and stares. But the other two . . . they just give me a glance and then forget all about me. They don't think I'm real. But they are awfully jolly. You play with them and when you tell me about it afterwards I'll pretend I was there playing too."
Then the two clasped hands and went skipping home.
One morning when Ivra woke up she knew spring had come before her eyes were open. But Eric had to go outdoors to make sure. He was sure enough when he smelled the ground, a good earth smell. Snow still clung to the garden in spots here and there, but the warm sun promised it would not be for long. Something in the sky, something in the air, a smell of earth, and a stirring in his own heart told him it was true. Spring had come!
Ivra had felt and known it before her eyes were open, and now that they were open, those eyes of hers looked like two blue spring flowers just awake. She hopped about in the garden poking and prodding the earth with a stick, looking for her violets, her anemones, her star flowers. Not a green leaf was pushing through yet, but oh, how soon there would be!
Suddenly she stopped and stood still looking away into the forest. Then she ran to Eric on the door stone. She cried, "Mother will come now. Don't you feel it? She will come with the spring!"
Eric did feel it. For there was magic in the day. The magic came to him in the air, in the smell of the earth, in the new warm wind and said, "Everything is yours that you want. Joy is coming." And Mother Helma was what he wanted. So he felt sure she was on the way.
"She must have found the key,—or do you suppose she climbed the gray wall?" wondered Ivra.
"Shall we go to meet her?" asked Eric.
"No, no. We must get the house clean and ready for her. We must hurry."
And then such a house-cleaning was begun as you or I have never seen. The Forest Children had been up at dawn to greet the spring, and now they came running to tell Ivra and Eric about it. When they heard that Helma was at last coming back and the house was to be cleaned they wanted to help. First it was decided to wash the floor. Pail after pail of water from the fountain they splashed on it. Streamlets of water flowed into the fireplace and out over the door stone. Out and in ran the Forest Children trying to help, and with every step making foot prints on the wet floor, muddy little foot prints, dozens of them and finally hundreds of them.
Then the windows were washed. And because the Forest Children could not run on those they were made bright and clear. But soon the Forest Children pressed their faces against the panes to watch for Helma, and as the minutes passed breath-clouds formed there, spreading and deepening until the glass sparkled no more. But no one noticed. No one cared. For now they were shining up the dishes, polishing them with cloths, and setting them in neat rows in the cupboard.
Then Wild Star appeared, his hands full of spring flowers that he had found deep in the forest in the sunniest and most protected place, the very first spring flowers. "Helma must have gotten past that wall, now it's spring," he said; "and here are some flowers to greet her. See, I left the roots on, the way she likes them. Let's plant them by the door stone."
They dug up the earth with their hands, Forest Children's hands, Wild Star's hands, Eric's and Ivra's,—and planted the flowers all about the door stone. Then Wild Star flew away a little languidly.
Ivra looked after him. "He'll soon find the deepest, darkest, coolest place," she said, "make himself a nest of smooth leaves and dream away the summer. Fall and winter are his flying times. We shall see him at no more parties for a while."
"And the Snow Witches? What will become of them?" asked Eric.
"They will get into hollows of old trees and under rocks, draw in their skirts and their hair, curl up and sleep."
"Good news!" thought Eric. But he did not say it for he knew Ivra liked the Snow Witches almost best of all to play with and would miss them.
Now the Tree Girl came through the gap in the hedge. She was wearing a green frock, green sandals, and pussy willow buds made a wreath in her hair.
"Spring, spring!" she cried as she came up the path. "We heard the sap running in our tree all night. Father has gone on a spring wandering, and I shall stay within tree no longer for a while."
"We know, we know!" crowed Ivra. "I knew before my eyes were open this morning. Eric had to smell the ground first. Imagine! We have been cleaning house. Mother will surely come now. Don't you feel it?"
The Tree Girl lifted her face up in the new warm wind. Her soft hair floated feather-like. "Yes, I feel it. She is on the way. Spring brings everything."
A bird flashed from the trees. It lighted on the hedge for a second and was away again. But Eric had had time to recognize the beautiful bird he had seen caged in the Witch's fir.
"The caged bird!" he cried to Ivra. "It is free! It is flying away."
The Bird Fairies were flying away, too. They were going to meet the birds corning up from the south and teach them their songs as they flew. They came to say good-by to the children.
"Look for us next winter," they called back, as they fluttered off in a silvery cloud.
And finally, at high noon, just as Ivra had known she would since early morning, Helma came,—running through the forest, jumping the hedge, and gathering Ivra and Eric into her arms.
They three knelt on the ground by the spring flowers embracing each other for a long, long minute.
"Did you find the key to that gate?" Eric asked when his breath came back, "Or did they let you come at last."
"I didn't have to find the key, and they didn't let me come. They would never have done that. But the minute I had on a light spring frock I found I could climb the wall easily enough, and so I came running all the way. And now they shall never get me back behind doors again. I am free! I am as free as you, my children!"
She held them off and looked into their eyes.
She was dressed in a brown silk gown, all torn and stained from her wall-climbing and rush through the bushes. Her feet were bare, for she had kicked off her funny high-heeled city boots the minute she had reached the forest. Her hair had grown to her shoulders and looked more like flower petals than ever. But her face was not brown and serene, as Eric had first seen it. It was pale and wild.
"They don't believe in you, children," she said. "They don't believe in me, not the me that I am. And from morning to night they made me a slave. They made me wear such ugly, hurting things, and then they made me dance! Every night we danced in hot rooms and ate strange bad-tasting food. They called dancing like that a party. But I could only remember our forest parties, and our dancing here under the cool moon.
"The only glimpse of the forest I had was your Snow Witches, Ivra. Sometimes I saw them from my bedroom window, 'way out in the fields, whirling and scudding in mad games. And then at last one morning some Wind Creatures flew by, above the garden wall! But when I called Wild Star back and tried to ask him about you, children, as he perched on the wall, they came rushing into the garden and dragged me away. They said it was time for luncheon, and I must change my frock. But let us forget. I am here! It is spring!"
She jumped up and stood just as the Tree Girl had stood earlier that morning, her face lifted in the wind. Slowly that face grew calm and warm color flooded it.
"How nicely cleaned the house is!" she exclaimed when at last they went in. For she did not see the tracks on the floor nor the clouded windows. All she saw was that the children had worked there to make it fit for her home-coming.
Ivra was proud and glad that she noticed. "I have made you a spring frock too," she said, bringing it out. "And Eric has made you some sandals. He makes fine sandals now!"
The frock was a brown smock with a narrow green belt.
The sandals were well made, and very soft and light.
Helma stripped off the tattered silk frock, the funny thing with its long sleeves and stiff lace collar, and hid it away out of sight. On went the new smock over her head in a twinkling. She stepped into the sandals. And there was their mother, the Helma Eric had first seen.
"The garden now, we must see about that," she said in her old quiet way. Then they went out into the garden, and Helma began to plan just where there should plant seeds and just what must be done. The children clung to her hands, looking up into her face, and would not let her take a step away from them. When she stood still they leaned against her, one against either side, and wound their arms about her.
In mid-afternoon, Spring came—not the spring of the year, but Spring himself, the person the season is named for. He was a tall young man, with a radiant face, and fair curls lifting in a cloud from his head. Where he walked the earth sprang up in green grass after his bare feet, and flowers followed him like a procession. Helma ran to him, swifter than the children, and he kissed her lips. He lifted Ivra nigh on his shoulder for one minute where she thought she looked away over the treetops hundreds of miles to the blue ocean. But it may have been only his eyes, which were very blue, that shee was looking into.
With him came two Earth Giants. They were huge brown fellows with rolling muscles and kind, sleepy eyes. They crouched down at the opening in the hedge and waited for Spring to go on with them.
"Shall we plant the garden, Helma?" asked Spring.
"Yes, yes," cried the children, and Helma said, "Yes, yes," as eagerly as they.
So the Earth Giants came in and plowed it all up with their hands,—hands twenty times as large as an Earth Man's! When they were done, the garden was a rich golden color, and right for planting. Then Helma pointed out to Spring where she wanted the seeds to be, violets here, roses there, lilies there, pansies there and daisies there. Spring gave some seeds to the children and sowed some himself. Helma sat on the door stone and joyously directed the work.
By twilight the garden was done, and Spring went away with his Earth Giants.
As he went out through the forest, flowers and green grass followed him—and the next morning even the dullest Earth Person would know that Spring had come.
As for Helma and Ivra and Eric, the house would not hold their joy, and so they dragged out their beds and slept that night in the new-plowed, sweet-smelling garden.
"There goes another," said Helma as she stood in the door the very next morning after her return. "The littlest Forest Child that was, and all by himself. He seems rather small to go spring-wandering alone."
"He likes to go alone," Ivra answered. She was setting the table for breakfast, and Eric was helping her. "'Most always he's playing or wandering off by himself somewhere."
Helma stood watching the little fellow until he had vanished amid the delicate green of the forest morning. Then she tossed back her hair with a shake of her head and cried gayly, "Let's go wandering ourselves, pets. It's good to be home, but we have all our lives for that now. Let's adventure!"
The children were overjoyed. They did not want to wait for breakfast. But Helma thought they had better, for no one knew where, when or how their next meal would be. Of course, though, it was hard to eat. You know yourself how you feel about food when you are going on an adventure. However the bowls of cereal were swallowed somehow. Then the stoutest sandals were strapped on, and the three were ready to set out.
First they went to Nora's farm and before they had waited many minutes in the shadow of the trees on the edge of the field Nora came from the door carrying their jug of milk. They ran to meet her and tell her not to leave any more milk until they should come back. How glad the old woman was to see Helma. "I thought spring would bring you," she said. "Spring frees everything."
Then Helma, Ivra and Eric were off for their spring wandering. It seemed as though every one else was wandering, too, for they could hardly walk a mile without meeting some friend or stranger Forest Person. All gave them greeting, whether stranger or friend, and all looked very glad that Helma was in the forest again, for good news travels fast there, and even the strangers knew of her home-coming.
In a secret wooded valley, walking softly to hear the birds and the thousand little other songs of earth, they suddenly came upon a strange and thrilling sight. A party of little girls and boys all in bright colored frocks, purple, orange, green, blue, yellow, were putting the finishing touches on an air-boat they were making. It was built of delicate leaved branches and decorated with wild flowers. A great anchor of dog-tooth violets hung over the sides and kept it on the ground.
When they saw Helma and the children coming so silently toward them they jumped into the boat and crowded there looking like a bunch of larger spring flowers. Then they drew in the anchor rapidly. But the little girl sitting high in the back, the one in the torn yellow dress and with blowing cloud-dark hair, cried, "Oh, no fear, it's Ivra and her mother and the clear-eyed Earth Child. Want to come, Ivra? We're off spring wandering among the white clouds."
Ivra shook her head and called, "Not unless three of us can come."
"Too full for that," called down the yellow-frocked one, for now the boat had lifted softly almost to the tree tops. "Your Earth Child would weigh us down. So hail and farewell. Good wandering!"
So the three on the ground stood looking up and waving and calling back, "Good wandering!" until the green boat had drifted away and away and was lost in the spring sky. But for a long time after, there floated down to them in the valley far laughter and glad cries.
The spring nights were cold, and so at twilight they made themselves a shelter of boughs. They slept as soon as it was night and woke and were off at the break of dawn. Helma carried sweet chocolate in her pockets, and forest friends and strangers offered them from their store all along the way. Sometimes when they were tired or warm with walking they would climb into the top of some tall tree, and there swinging among the cool new leaves, Helma began telling them her World Stories again, while the children looked off over the trembling forest roof and watched for homing birds.
But when the hemlock and fir trees began to crowd out the maples and oaks, Helma said quietly one day, "We are nearing the sea." "The sea," cried Eric almost wild with sudden delight. "Shall we see it? Shall we swim in it? Oh, I have never seen it!"
"Oh, I saw it from Spring's shoulder," Ivra cried—she really thought she had—"But mother, mother, what a wonderful surprise you had for us!"
They began to run in their eagerness. But Helma held them back. "It's a day's journey yet," she said. And so they walked as patiently as they could down a long, long slope through dark firs and hemlocks.
It was noon of the following day when they finally came to the sea. They had struggled through a thick undergrowth of thorned bushes where the great arms of the firs shut out everything ahead. Then suddenly they were out of it, in the open, on the shore with the waves almost lapping their toes. It was high tide. The blue sea stretched away to the blue sky.
Eric's legs gave way under him, and he knelt on the white sand, just looking and looking at the bigness of it, the splendor of it, the color of it, and listening to the music of it. Ivra ran right out into the foam brought in by the breakers, up to her waist, where she splashed the water with her palms until her hair and face were drenched with salt spray. Helma stood looking away to foreign countries which she could almost see.
But they were not left long to themselves. The heads of a little girl and boy and a young woman appeared over the crest of a great wave, and the three were swept up to the shore. They grabbed Ivra and drew her along with them as they passed, laughing musically. Ivra did not like it at first, and sprang away from them the minute she could shake herself free. But when she saw their merry faces and heard them laugh, she returned shyly.
The children were about Eric's and Ivra's ages, and the young woman was their mother. The children's names were Nan and Dan, and the woman's name was Sally. But though they had Earth names they were of the fairy-kind,—called in the Forest "Blue Water People."
Just peer into a clear pool or stream, almost any bright day, and you will be pretty sure to see one of them looking up at you. They are the sauciest and most mischievous of all fairies. Only stare at them a little, and they will mock you to your face with smiles and pouts, and will not go away as long as you stay. For they have no fear of you or any Earth People. They follow their streams right into towns and cities, under bridges and over dams. You are as likely to find one in your city park as in the Forest.
Helma spoke to Sally, while the children eyed each other curiously. She said, "How happy you Blue Water People must be now Spring has freed you at last!"
Sally dropped down on the beach, her dark hair flung like a shadow on the sand. Her laughing face looked straight up into the sky. She stretched her arms above her head.
"He came just in time. Another day—and we would have had to break through the ice ourselves. Truly. We've never had such a long winter. Why, a month ago we began to look for Spring. We lay with our faces pressed against the cold ice for hours at a time, watching. We could just see light through, and shadows now and then."
"And then I saw him first," cried Dan, who was listening to his mother.
"No, I!" cried Nan.
"No, no," Sallv laughed. "I heard him, singing, a long way off. And I called you children away from your game of shells. When his foot touched the ice we danced in circles of joy, and tapped messages through to him with our fingers. The ice vanished under his feet, and our stream rushed hither away to the sea. We came with it, and waved him hail and farewell as we poured down. Who can stop at home in spring-time? And we had been ice-bound so long!"
"And now we're here," boasted Dan, "I'm going to swim across the sea to-morrow,—or the next day!"
"You're too little for that. Calm water is best, or little rushing streams," warned Sally.
"What is it like across the sea?" asked Eric. "Another world?"
"I'll tell you about it in the next story," promised Helma. "And then when I have told you, Eric, you may want to go across yourself and see the wonders."
Eric drew a deep breath. "Yes, you and Ivra and I. In a boat." He pointed to a white sail far out stuck up like a feather slantwise in the water.
Ivra clapped her hands.
But Helma shook her head. "When you go, it must be alone, Ivra and I belong to the Forest."
"Why, then I don't want to go, ever." Eric shook the thought from him like water.
"Well, let's swim across now," Dan shouted, and ran into the waves, falling flat as soon as he was deep enough and swimming fast away. The other children followed him, ready for a frolic. You or I would have found that water very cold, but these were hardy children; and one of them all winter had made comrades of the Snow Witches, remember.
They waded out to the surf and plunged through it, head first. They took hands and floated in a circle beyond, rising and falling in the even motion of the rollers. Nan was very mischievous, and soon succeeded in pushing Eric out, under where the waves broke. When he looked up suddenly and saw the great watery roof hanging over him, he was terrified but he did not scream. People who comraded with Ivra could not do that. He shut his eyes tight, and then thundering down came the water-roof, and a second after, up bobbed Eric like a cork, choking and sputtering. They were laughing at him, even Ivra. The minute the salt water was out of his eyes he laughed, too, and tried to push Nan into the surf. But she was too quick for him, and slipped away, farther out to sea.
Then began a game of water tag. Eric, because he was not such a good swimmer as the others, was It most of the time. But Ivra had to take a few turns as well. It was impossible to catch the other two. They moved in the water as reflected light moves along a wall, not really swimming at all, but flashing from spot to spot.
Helma and Sally lay on the sand in the spring sunshine and talked about their children.
"Nan and Dan tear their clothes so," sighed Sally, "I could spend all my time mending."
"I must make little Eric some new clothes," said Helma. "I hope I have cloth enough at home."
"Nan is naughty, but she is a darling," laughed Sally as Eric was pushed under the surf.
Helma waited to see that he came up smiling and then said, "Ivra and Eric never quarrel. They play together from morn till night like two squirrels."
. . . They all had lunch together on the shore. The Blue Water Children instead of eating smelled some spring flowers which Sally had found. That is the way they always take their nourishment. Helma turned some little cakes of chocolate out of her pockets, and though at first it seemed like a small luncheon, when it was all eaten they felt satisfied.
All the afternoon the children played up and down the beach. They found a smooth round pink sea-shell which they used for a ball. Eric was the best at throwing. It made him happy and proud to excel in something at last. He taught them how to play base ball, which he had once watched Mrs. Freg's boys playing on Sundays in the back yard. They used a piece of drift wood for a bat, and when the shell got accidentally batted into the sea the Blue Water Children fielded it like fishes.
When they were tired of ball, the Blue Water Children drew lines on the sand for "hop scotch,"—a game they had sometimes watched city children playing in a park,—and taught Ivra and Eric about that.
Then they built a castle of sand, and walled it in with sea shells. Helma showed them how to make the moat and the bridge, and Sally and she took turns and made up a story about the castle and told it to them.
Towards evening some Earth People came by, near to the shore, in a little steam launch. There were men and women and several children in it. They crowded into the side of the boat towards the shore to stare curiously at Helma and Eric. They could not see the others, of course. Helma with her free, bright hair and bare feet looked very strange to them. And they could not understand what Eric was doing with his arms held straight out at each side. He was between Dan and Nan, holding their hands, and standing to watch. But the Earth People looked right through the Blue Water Children, or thought they were shadows perhaps.
One of the men put his hands to his mouth like a megaphone and called to Helma, asking her if she did not want to be picked up. They thought her being there in that wild place with a little boy, alone, and barefooted, very singular. They thought she might have been shipwrecked. But Helma shook her head, and so they had to take their wonder away with them. The boat swept by.
Ivra ran out into the waves waist deep to watch the strange thing. She had never seen a steam launch before, or anything like it. A baby, held in his nurse's arms, caught sight of her and waved tiny dimpled hands, calling and cooing. She saw his sparkling eyes, his light fuzzy hair, his little white dress and socks. She ran farther into the water, waving back to him and throwing him dozens of kisses. But no one else in the boat saw her, and after a minute the baby's attention turned to a sea gull flying overhead.
Ivra returned to shore, her face shining. There had been no doubt of it—the baby had seen her at once, and had had no doubts. He had laughed and reached his hands to her. The little Fairy Child almost hugged herself with delight. . . .
They built themselves shelters of drift wood when night fell. Eric's was just large enough for him to crawl into and lie still. One whole side of it was open to the sea. Soft fir boughs made his bed, and Helma had left a kiss with him. But he did not sleep for a long while. He lay on his side looking out over the star-sprinkled water and up at the star-flowering sky. And he could not have told how or from where the command had come, but he knew as he looked that he must cross that sea and go into the new world beyond it and see all things for himself. World Stories were good. But they were not enough.
How he was to go, or how live when he got there—he did not once think of that. Just that he was to go filled his whole mind. He forgot that he had said he would not go without Helma and Ivra. He did not think of them at all. He just lay still listening to the sea's command to go beyond and beyond.
OVER THE TREE TOPS
He was waked by Ivra's joyous cries just at dawn, and rolled out of his shelter, rubbing his eyes and stretching his arms and legs. But as soon as his eyes were well open he jumped up and uttered a cry of joy himself. For hanging just above the water on the edge of the sea was a great blue sea-shell air-boat with blue sails; and the Tree Mother stood in it, talking to Helma and Ivra who had run down to the water's edge.
The boat and the sails were blue. Tree Mother's gown was blue. The sea and the sky were blue. Tiny white caps feathered the water. Tiny white clouds feathered the sky. And Tree Mother's hair was whiter and more feathery than either. Her eyes were dark like the Tree Man's, only keener and softer, both. And in spite of her being a grandmother her face was brown and golden like a young out-of-door girl's, and she was slim and quick and more than beautiful. Eric stood beside Ivra, his face lifted up to the Tree Mother's, aglow and quivering.
"She is going to take us home," Ivra said softly.
Then Tree Mother turned the boat, and it drifted in and down on the sand. The children and Helma climbed in. The Tree Mother said very little on the long ride, but her presence was enough. The three were almost trembling for joy, for the Tree Mother's companionship is rare, and one of the splendidest things that can happen to a Forest Person.
The minute they were in the boat, it shot up and away towards home.
"Where are the Blue Water Children?" Eric cried, suddenly remembering their playmates of yesterday.
"Have you been playing with Blue Water Children?" asked Tree Mother. "They are gypsy-folk and you never know where you will find them next. They are probably miles away by now."
"Faster, faster, Tree Mother," begged Ivra, who was hanging over the side of the boat and losing herself in joy with the motion and height.
"Faster?" said the Tree Mother. "Then take care! Hold on!"
The boat shot forward with a sudden rush. The spring air changed from cool feathers to a sharp wing beating their faces. Eric and Ivra slipped to the floor and lay on their backs. They dared not sit up for fear of being swept overboard. They could see nothing but the sky from where they lay, but they loved the speed, and clapped their hands, and Ivra cried, "Faster, faster!"
The Tree Mother laughed. "These are brave children," she thought. "Shut your eyes then," she said, "and don't try too hard to breathe."
They swept on more swiftly than a wild-goose, so swiftly that soon the children could neither hear, speak nor see. And then at last they were traveling so fast that it felt as though the boat were standing perfectly still in a cold dark place.
Gradually light began to leak through their shut eyelids, the wing of the wind beat away from them, and the boat rocked slower and slower in warm, spring-scented air. But in that brief time, they had traveled many, many miles.
Now when the children leaned over the side, they saw that they were sailing slowly over their own Forest. The tree tops were like a restless green sea just a little beneath them. They flew low enough to hear bird calls and the voices of the streams.
It was then they suddenly noticed that the littlest of the Forest Children was there curled up fast asleep at Tree Mother's feet. Ivra cried to him in surprise, and he woke slowly, stretching his little brown legs, shaking his curly head, and lifting a sleepy face. He was puzzled at seeing others beside Tree Mother in the boat. He had been riding and awake with her all night up near the stars, and had dropped to sleep as the stars faded.
She bent now and took his hand. "I picked these wanderers up at dawn," she said, "and now we are all going back together. We are well on the way."
They had left the forest roof and were sailing over open country,—a short cut, Tree Mother explained.
"Oh, look," cried Ivra excitedly, almost tumbling over the edge in her endeavor to see better, "isn't that the gray wall off there?"
Yes, it was the gray wall, the gray wall that had prisoned their mother all winter. The boat went slower and slower as they neared it and then almost hung still over the garden. The garden was full of people, having some kind of a party, for many little tables were set there with silver and glass that shone brilliantly in the sun. Servants were hurrying back and forth carrying trays and their gilt buttons sparkled almost as much as the silver.
But how strange were the people! Eric and Ivra and the littlest Forest Child laughed aloud. They were standing about so straight and stiff, holding their cups and saucers, and their voices rising up to the air-boat in confusion sounded like a hundred parrots.
"Why don't they sit down on the grass to eat?" wondered the littlest Forest Child. "And why don't they wash their feet in the fountain? They look so very hot and walk as though it hurt!"
"Sitting on the grass and washing their feet in the fountain is against the law there," Helma said.
But neither Ivra nor the littlest Forest Child knew what "against the law" meant. Eric knew, however, for he had lived nine years, remember, where most everything a little boy wanted was against the law.
"But why do they stay?" Eric asked.
Helma looked a little grave. "Why did you stay, dear, for nine long years?"
He thought a minute. "I hadn't seen the magic beckoning," he answered then.
"Neither have they," she said, "and perhaps never will, for their eyes are getting dimmer all the time."
"But how can they help seeing it?" cried the littlest Forest Child. "See, all around the garden!"
It was true. All around the garden the tall trees stood and beckoned with their high fingers, beckoned away and away with promise of magic beyond magic. But the people in the garden never lifted their eyes to see it. They were looking intently into their tea cups as though it might be there magic was waiting.
"They are prisoners," said Tree Mother, "just as you were, Helma, with this one difference. You were locked in, but they have locked themselves in and carry their keys like precious things next their hearts."
Helma sighed and laughed at once. Then she leaned far out and tossed a daffodil she was carrying down on the heads in the garden, shaking her short, flower petal hair as she did it—she had cut it before starting on the adventure—in a free, glad way.
No one looked up to see where the flower had dropped from. The people down there were not interested in offerings from the heavens. So the boat sailed on. Away and away over the canning factory they drifted, where the little girl looked out from her window and up, and waved her hands. "What are you waving at like that?" a man asked who was working near. "Oh, just a white summer cloud," she said. For she knew very well he did not want the truth. And I might as well tell you here that that pale little girl was a prisoner who had not turned the lock herself, and did not carry the key next her heart. Others had done that before she was born. And she had seen the beckoning in spite of the lock and now was only waiting a little while to answer it.
The children were glad to find the forest roof beneath them again. It was noon when they sank down in the garden at their own white door stone. Tree Mother left them there and flew away with the littlest Forest Child, the one who liked to wander alone by himself.
Nora was in the house when they ran in. She had cleaned it with a different cleaning from what it had had for Helma's first return. There were no little foot prints on the floor now, and the window panes shone like clear pools in sunlight. Three dishes of early strawberries and three deep bowls of cream were standing on the table before the open door. And then besides there was a big loaf of golden-brown bread.
"I thought you would be hungry," said Nora, pointing to the feast.
They were hungry indeed, for they had had nothing at all to eat since yesterday's lunch of chocolate. They very soon finished the strawberries and cream, and a jug of milk besides.
"You are a good neighbor, Nora," Helma said gratefully.
All Nora wanted in return for her labor and kindness was the story of their adventure. She listened eagerly to every word. "I shall tell this to my grandchildren," she said when the story was done, "and they will think it just a fairy tale. They'll never believe it's fairy truth! Oh, if they would only stop pretending to be so wise they themselves might some time get the chance of a ride over the tree tops with Tree Mother. But they never will. Come play with them again sometime, Eric. They often talk about you."
"I'll come to-day and bring Ivra if they'll play with her, too!"
But Nora shook her head as she went away. "They don't believe in Ivra. How could they play with her? Their grandmother can teach them nothing. But they'll like the story of this adventure none the less for not believing it."
When she was gone the three took the dishes into the house and washed them. Then they went out and worked in the garden until dusk.
THE JUNE MOON
Now every day Eric was becoming acquainted with strange Forest People: those who had hidden away from winter in trees, and those who were wandering up from the south along with the birds, and Blue Water People, of course, all along the Forest streams. The Forest teemed with new playmates for him and Ivra.
Hide-and-go-seek was still the favorite game. And now it was more fun to be "It" than to be hiding almost, for one was likely to come upon strangers peeping out of tree hollows, swimming under water, or swinging in the tree tops, any minute. When the person who was "It" came across one of these strangers he would simply say, "I spy, and you're It." Then he would draw the stranger away to the goal, where he usually joined the game and was as much at home as though he had been playing in it from the very first.
The day that Eric found Wild Thyme so was the best of all,—or rather she was the best of all. And that was strange, for when he first spied her he did not like her at all. Her dress was a purple slip just to her knees, with a big rent in the skirt. Her hair was short and bushy and dark. And her face was soberer than most Forest People's faces. She was sitting out at the edge of the Forest on a flat rock, her chin in her hands, and she did not look eager to make friends with any one.
But he cried, "I spy! You're It!" just the same. She did not lift her eyes. She only said, "You must catch me first. I am Wild Thyme, and that will be hard!"
Eric laughed, for she was not a yard away from him. And he sprang forward as he laughed. But she was quicker than he. She had been at perfect rest on the rock, her chin in her hands, and not looking at him, but the instant he jumped she was off like a flash, a purple streak across the field.
But Eric did not let his surprise delay him. He ran after her just as fast as he could, and that was very, very fast, for running with Ivra had taught him to run faster than most Earth Children ever dream of running. Soon, Wild Thyme slowed down a little, and faced him, running backward, her bushy hair raised from her head in the wind of her running, her little brown face and great purple eyes gleaming mischievously. Eric sprang for her. She dodged. He sprang again. She dodged again. He cried out in vexation and sprang again, straight and sure. He caught her by her bushy hair as she turned to fly.
And a strange thing happened to him in that second, the second he caught her hair. Instead of Wild Thyme and the sunny field, he was looking at the sea. He was standing on the shore, looking away and away, almost to foreign lands. Now ever since that spring night on the shore he had been thinking of the sea and longing with all his might to cross it and see foreign lands for himself. Only that had seemed impossible, and something he must surely wait till he was grown up to do. But now, in a flash, as his fingers closed on Wild Thyme's hair, he knew that he could indeed do that, and anything else he really set his heart on.
No girl, even a fairy, likes to have her hair pulled. So Wild Thyme was angry. She pinched Eric's arm with all her strength. Then he was angry. And so they stood holding each other, he her by the hair, and she him by the arm, staring hotly into each other's faces. But slowly they relaxed, and becoming their own natural selves again, broke into laughter.
"You'll play with us, won't you?" Eric asked.
"Of course," she said, "and I am It!" And away they ran to find the others, Ivra, the Tree Girl, the Forest Children, and Dan and Nan. When those saw who it was Eric had captured they ran to meet her, shouting gayly, "Wild Thyme! Goody! Goody! Hello, Wild Thyme!" They seemed to have known her always. She and Ivra threw their arms about each other's shoulders and danced away to the goal.
Wild Thyme was a wonderful playfellow. She was so wild, so free, so strong, so mischievous. And when the game was ended she invited them to a dance that very night. "It's to be around the Tree Man's Tree," she said. "And all come—come when the moon rises."
. . . Perhaps Eric's good times in the Forest reached their very height that June night of the dance. He had never been to a dance before, and just at first he did not think there would be much fun in it. But Ivra wanted him to go, and offered to show him about the dances. So they ran away from the others to the edge of the field where Eric had discovered Wild Thyme, and there on the even, grassy ground Ivra showed him how to dance. It was very easy,—not at all like the dances Earth Children dance. It was much more fun, and much livelier. The dances were just whirling and skipping and jumping, each dancer by himself, but all in a circle. Eric liked it as well as though it had been a new game.
Late that afternoon Helma and Ivra and Eric gathered ferns and flowers to deck themselves for the evening. They put them on over the stream, which was the only mirror in the Forest.
Helma made a girdle of brakes for herself, and a dandelion wreath for her hair. She wove a dear little cap of star flowers for Ivra, and a chain of them for her neck. Eric crowned himself with bloodroot and contrived grass sandals for his feet. But the sandals, of course, wore through before the end of the first dance and fell off.
They had a splendid supper of raspberries and cream, which they sat on the door stone to eat, and then told stories to each other, while they waited for the moon to rise. It came early, big and round and yellow, shining through the trees, flooding the aisles of the Forest with silver light until they looked like still streams, and the trees like masts of great ships standing in them.
Then the three hurried away to the Tree Man's. They ran hand in hand through the forest aisles, their faces as bright to each other as in daylight. But before they even came in sight of the tree they heard music.
"Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrummmm, thrummmmmmmmmmmm." Very soft, very insistent, very simple and strangely thrilling. When they came to the tree, there were the Forest Children, who had come early, whirling around in a circle, and the Tree Girl in the center of the circle making music with a tiny instrument she held in one hand and touched with the fingers of the other.
Soon Forest People began arriving from every direction. There were the Blue Water Children, bright pebbles around their necks, and white sea shells in their blue hair. The Forest Children were crowned with maidenhair fern. The Tree Girl was the most beautiful of all in her silver cobweb frock and her cloudy hair. The Tree Man stood still in the shadow, but his long white beard gleamed out, and his deep eyes. Wild Thyme wore a rope of the flower that is named for her around her neck, but there was a new rent in her purple frock and her legs were scratched as though she had remembered her dance only the last minute and come plunging the shortest way through bushes, which was true.
Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrummmmmmmmmm.
Every one except the Tree Man was dancing, bewitched in the moonlight, all over the grassy space around the great tree. The grass was cool and refreshing under Eric's bare feet, and he often dug his bare toes into the soft earth at its roots as he leapt or ran just to make sure he was on earth at all. For he felt as though he were swimming in moonlight, or at least treading it.
Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrummmmmmmmmm.
When the Tree Girl's music stopped between dances, then it would go on in Eric's head. It was just the sound of the night after all. Once Eric noticed that the Beautiful Wicked Witch was dancing next to him in the circle but he was not afraid of her there with the others, and in bright moonlight. And she was plotting no ill. Her face was sparkling with delight and she had utterly forgotten herself in the dance.
When the great moon hung just above them, and shadows were few and far between, the Tree Mother came walking through the Forest, quieter and more beautiful than the moon. Wild Thyme ran to her and laid her bushy head against her breast. For Wild Thyme only of all the Forest People loved her without awe. The Tree Mother put her hand on Wild Thyme's head and stood to watch the dancing. Her robe gleamed like frost, and her hair was a pool of light above her head.
Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrummmmmmmmm.
Wild Thyme jumped back into the dance and the Tree Mother stood alone. But although she stood as still as a moonbeam under the tree, she made Eric think of dancing more than all the others put together. It was her eyes. The thrum, thrum, thrum, thrummmmmmmmmm was in them, and the rest of that night Eric felt as though the music-instrument the Tree Girl was swinging was silent, and that all the music flowed from Tree Mother.
But Eric, after all, was only an Earth Child, and his legs got very tired in spite of the music and the moonlight. So at last he slipped out of the circle, and stumbling with weariness and sleepiness went to Tree Mother. She picked him up in her arms, and the minute his head touched her shoulder he was sound asleep, the music at last hushed in his head.
When he woke it was summer dawn. The birds were flitting above in the tree-boughs and making high singing. He was alone, lying beneath a silver birch, his head among the star flowers.
He knew that Helma and Ivra had not wanted to wake him, but had gone home when the moon set, and were waiting breakfast for him there now. So he jumped up and ran home through the dew.
THE DEEPEST PLACE IN THE WOOD
It was on the hottest day of all the hot days of summer that Eric found the deepest place in the Forest. He wandered into it while he was looking for Wild Thyme. Ivra had been no good to him that day. She was usually ready to play in any weather; but on this, the hottest day of the year, she stayed indoors, where it was a little cooler, and lying on the settle she drew paper dolls on birch bark, and afterwards cut them out. Yes, even fairy children love paper dolls and Ivra loved them more than most. Eric wanted her to go swimming in the stream, but he teased her to in vain, for she was entranced with the dolls and would hardly lift her eyes from them.
Helma was swinging in a vine swing she had made for herself high in a tree above the garden. One of the Little People was perched on a leaf just over her head, and they were chattering together like equals. Their eager voices floated down to Eric standing disconsolate near the door stone. But Helma usually knew when her children were in trouble, no matter how tiny the trouble, and so before Eric had stood there long or dug up more than a bushel of earth with his bare toes, she leaned over the nest and called to him.
"Why don't you go and play with Wild Thyme? She doesn't mind the heat. Every one else is staying quiet till sundown."
Wild Thyme was a happy thought, and Eric walked away in search of her. But she was in the very last place he would have thought to look on such a scorching day, and that is how he missed her. She was lying full length on the hot burnt grass in the field at the Forest's edge, loving the heat and sunshine, which covered her like a mantle. If Eric had seen her it is probable he would not have known her or stopped to look twice. He would have thought her just a little patch of the flower that is named for her.
So he wandered on and on, looking high and low and all about for her, and he went deeper and deeper into the Forest. The deeper he went the cooler it became, for the forest roof kept out the sunshine. The light grew dimmer and dimmer too. Eric had never been so far in before and everything was strange to him.
He saw no Forest People except a little brown goblin who peered at him from some underbrush and then scuttled away into the darkness of denser brush. Eric had never seen a goblin before, but he had no fear of goblins, and so this one did not bother him at all. He heard others scuttling and squeaking, and one threw a chunk of gray moss at him. He stopped and picked it up and threw it back with a laugh in the direction it had come from.