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“‘What was left for us to do, our occupation gone? Nothing! We https://twitter.com/ggmoa1 resigned ourselves to the inevitable. One by one we deserted the111 haunts, which alas! knew us no more, and retreated farther and farther from the abodes of men. At last we chose this Marble Mountain for our home. Here long years we dwelt, a numerous colony; for other fugitives joined our retreat. The Banshee inhabited for some months a cave upon that western slope; but her perpetual lamentations made us sad, and at last we united in a remonstrance; and she left for the Ojibeway Country, where she still resides. Bogey too—harmless, though black—was for long our hewer of wood and drawer of water. He now sleeps yonder, under the greenwood tree; while beside him slumbers that forgotten worthy, “The man who lived in the chimney,” once the terror of refractory nurseries. Bug-a-boo also joined our band for a while, but deserted us for a situation among the Ku-Klux. Even Santa Claus talked at one time of uniting himself to our number, but he thought better of it. I conclude,’ said the fairy, ironically, ‘that mankind112 found out some way of turning him to account, and making him useful, or he would certainly have come.
“‘One by one our once merry company drooped and faded. The monotonous life of this place was too sad for them, used as they were to sunny nurseries, gay flower-beds, and the world of fun. The graves of my brothers and sisters lie about me, and here in the midst of them I dwell. It is years since I have left my hermitage or seen a child;—in fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a real child left in the land.’
“So saying, the fairy ended his tale with a profound sigh. He pulled his pointed cap (which was exactly like a little red extinguisher) over his eyes, and to all my questions replied not another word. And so I left him sitting alone and silent. Whether he still lives I do not know. His poor body was thin as a grasshopper’s; and I suspect when I visit the mountains113 again this year, I shall find his little skeleton hidden away under a bunch-berry or a blade of grass.”
“Oh,” sighed Thekla, “how lovely! That was the best yet.”
“I WONDER what kind of a story we shall have to-night,” said Max, as they sat on the door-step waiting for August to appear.
Thekla, who had been ironing, looked very pale and complained of a headache. The day had been hot; no cool wind had come with evening to refresh them; the leaves hung motionless. Far, far away the tinkle of a bell was audible, from some animal astray in the Forest.
“I don’t recollect much about August,” said Thekla, languidly. “Was she pretty?”
“I don’t either,” answered Max. “There was such a confusion that night the Months came, that I got them all mixed up in my mind. I115 think, though, she wasn’t a she: she was a man.”
“Oh, no!” cried Thekla, “August never could be a man, Max. What are you talking about? I remember now: she was sweet and brown, and held a sheaf of wheat in her hand.”
“No,” persisted Max: “that was September or October,—I forget which. Depend upon it, August will turn out to be a gentleman.”
“And depend upon it, she is a lady!”
Thekla’s voice was positively fretful. Max was vexed for a moment; then, remembering how patiently her little hands had worked all the morning smoothing shirts and stockings for him, his heart grew tender. Instead of going on with the dispute, he moved his seat closer; and, pulling the flushed cheek down on his shoulder, began to cool it with gentle wavings of his palm-leaf fan. It was extremely pleasant and comfortable. Thekla closed her eyes: then she began to think of a long procession of sheep jumping over a fence; and to count them one by one, first a fleecy head, then a woolly tail;—and next she was fast asleep. After which, she117 waked up suddenly; for Max gave a sudden jump, and behold, August was close to them.
Thekla was wrong, after all; and Max right. For there stood a handsome young man, with quick, fiery eyes and a bronzed face, round which floated locks of auburn hair. He seemed very hot, and was wiping the drops from his forehead; but, for all his good looks, there was something about him from which the children rather shrank.
Yet he did not appear a bad fellow either; for he made himself at home on the door-step, and borrowed the palm-leaf as if he had been one of the family. Any thing so curious or beautiful as his dress the children had never before seen. It was a loosely fitting garment of vivid green, thickly wrought all over with a pattern in which ferns and vines and dense, bright leaves were interlaced and twisted in the most wonderful manner. A chain of fire-flies swung about his neck like a collar, his hat was looped up at the side with a glow-worm of immense size, which,118 whenever he moved, glanced and gleamed in a sudden and bewildering way.
“What’s the matter?” he asked Thekla, in rather an abrupt tone.
“I’m a little tired, sir,” she replied timidly.
“Oh, ho!” said August. “I’ve caught you. You’ve been working at something! I never mistake the signs. Now see here,—that’s a thing I don’t allow: it’s against my rules. You may thank your luck I was not here. Whenever I find children doing it, I give them a rap of some sort to remember me by. So recollect that, and look out.”
Thekla shrank back, half alarmed; for, though August laughed, his voice was menacing. And she reflected with satisfaction that the big wash just concluded would be the last before winter. For you must know that, in the Black Forest, Monday is not the terrible occasion it is with us, and “washing days” come round a great way apart, once in three months perhaps, or something like that.
119 “I’m going to tell you,” said August, after sitting some time in silence, with his eyes glaring at vacancy,—“I’m going to tell you the history of a spark of fire.
“It was born in a hunter’s pipe. When he had done smoking, he shook out the hot ashes, and went his way. Most of them died in silence; but one, my little spark, fell upon a brown leaf in a lonely place.
“It was very small, and rather dull. None of its friends and relations supposed it would live long enough to attain to honor and distinction. But I saw it when it fell, and foretold for it a career; in fact, I may say assisted it somewhat in its efforts to get on.
“It had been a dry spring. All the rills and watercourses in the woods were exhausted; and where once their bubbling voices sounded, thirsty, white pebbles lay in the sun. The world was like a tinder-box. Slowly and scantily the sap coursed in the veins of the trees; the vines which clothed them were crisped with heat. The little spark had fallen at a fortunate moment.
120 “It was very little: a spoonful of water could have quenched it. But it had a soul which longed to expand and soar, and now its chance was come. Steadily and stealthily it ran to and fro: first a twig, then a bough, then a bush, received it. Day by day, day by day,—now it was a carpet, wonderful and red, glinting the ground; then a fountain, which threw sparks like spray into the air; next it climbed the trees, and hissed and shouted aloft with an angry voice; then, writhing like an angry snake, it twisted its folds round a fallen trunk, and strangled it in fierce embrace. When a week had gone by, the little spark gathered up its force, and prepared to travel. It had grown terrible. Whole rivers of water would not quench it now.
“Terrible, but full of splendor! Its crested neck reared above the forest; like a volcano its column of flame shot into the air; like an avalanche it poured in fiery flood over whole acres. Strange, fantastic patterns it traced as it went along, shapes of leaf and bough and glowing121 vine; but there was none to admire them. The breath of its fury was too hot for that!
“And now the woods were passed, and it reached the open country. You should have seen the fences rush like blazing serpents to carry the tidings to the barns! And the barns lit up in welcome, and called upon the dwellings to do the same! Out rushed the men, cows lowed, horses tied to burning mangers cried for aid with terrible voices, women and children wept, the labor of years vanished in an hour! Ah! those were glorious times for the little spark!
“I was there of course, had been there all along. Every mile of the burning lightened my work for another year, and I patted the spark on its back and urged it to speed. It was proud at heart now. ‘I will burn,’ it said, ‘till I dry up the great sea itself.’ It raised its head and defied heaven. But I saw clouds coming, dark clouds,—storm-clouds, fatal to fire,—and I cheered it on.
122 “We were drawing near a clearing. I had been there before,—a neat, thriving place where all was in order, and children played beside the door. I recollected one little girl with a rosy face, and for the first time felt the stirrings of pity round my heart. So, holding back my companion a moment, I shouted, from amid the smoke, a warning to the sleepers within,—a warning in an awful voice.
“In a minute they were awake, and out they poured. It was pitiful to see. Calmly and without fear they had lain down to sleep, thinking us miles away. And here we were at the very door! The farmer was not at home, but his wife was. And all I can say is,” remarked August, admiringly, “if he’s any more of a man than she, it would be worth people’s while to go a good way to look at him.
“For only think what that woman had on her hands. Behind, around, all was fire. Sparks were falling upon the barn, the sheep in the fields were blazing and dying in dreadful heaps.123 Her little children screamed and clung to her. But she never faltered. With quick, nervous fingers she hitched the horse to the wagon, flung in some clothes, some blankets, whatever she could find soonest, snatched up her babies, and a poor old man who lived with them, and lashed the horse to a gallop. Before them was the open road, behind was death!
“The fire had struggled from my grasp. Furious at the sight of his escaping prey, he flew forward. With rapid clutch he seized the dwelling, the farm buildings, overtook the frantic cattle, hurled them this way and that, and took the track of the retreating wagon. High in air his dreadful eye glared after the fugitives; and myriad fiery tongues licked right and left, the avenues of escape.
“But the woman never blenched! Once she stopped,—actually stopped,—though the hot breath was on her cheeks! It was at the sound of children’s voices crying aloud. There were five of them, alone in a house, with none to help. She hurried them into the wagon. There was124 no room for her now, so she stood upon the step as she drove, and lashed the horse forward. On! on! We were drawing very near.
“So near that our hands could reach them. One spark darted upon the clothing: it smouldered, then flamed. The children screamed; but the mother seized the garment and threw it from the wagon, where it blazed harmlessly. And still the horse galloped, and still the race continued.
“At last they could go no farther. The fire had outrun them: it was before, beside, behind,—it left no pathway anywhere. The mother did not give up. She stopped the horse, crowded the little ones under the wagon, hung blankets over the sides to keep off the heat, and sitting in the midst, the baby in her lap, waited her fate.
“The courage of that woman,” said August, clearing his throat, “I never saw equalled. It wasn’t in my power to help her much. Fire is a bad master, people say; and I was beginning to find it true. It mastered me. But one thing I did: I stood by the horse’s head, and held him tight so that he could not stir, even when the125 fiery rain fell fast and singed his hair. It was the only chance for the poor children. And, being there, of course I could see all that went on under the wagon.
“They were wonderfully patient. ‘Mother, are we going to burn up?’ I heard one child say. But the poor mother did not answer, she only gave a sob. None of them cried or screamed; but they just sat cuddled up together, and were very quiet. Once the smallest one asked for a drink of water! I declare, that made me feel bad!
“Just then I heard a sound above the roar of the flames which caused me to prick up my ears; for I knew its meaning, and I said, ‘Ah, ha! Master Spark, look out for yourself!’ And pretty soon a drop fell on my nose. It felt like ice, I was so hot. And next the flames began to hiss and spit, for more drops were falling; and then they made a great swoop at the wagon, but I was beforehand with them there.
“‘Hands off!’ I said, and the rain chuckled as it heard me. The fire raged; but it was no use.126 Guggle, guggle, spit, spit,—the blessed shower continued to fall; and at last its roar was louder than the flames had ever been. The spark had met its match.
“Ah! what a glad sound that was to the group under the wagon! The children laughed for joy. They crept out to catch the cool flood upon their parched limbs. But the mother did not stir. Her face was hidden in her hands. I think she was praying.
“Hours and hours did the rain continue. It fought the fire as mortal foes fight, it wrestled and beat it down, and tore and trampled it under foot. But to the last the eye of the little spark gleamed red and vengeful, and only when it was cold in death did its fury go out. Water had won the day.”
Max and Thekla had been too horrified to move during this story, which August recited rapidly and with great excitement. Tears were running down Thekla’s face when he ended. “And the children,” said she, “what did they do?”
127 “Oh, they got along somehow!” said August indifferently, as if ashamed of his emotion. “People took them in, and after a while they built another house. One little boy had intermittent fever, but that wasn’t much. I shall see them again in a few days, probably; and one thing I’ve made up my mind to,—that woman’s corn is to ripen this year, if nobody’s else does.”
So saying, August arose, and shook himself, the fire-flies round his neck gleaming like a blazing string as he did so.
“I must be off!” he said. “Where are my moments?”
Max brought them. So absorbed had he and Thekla been in the peril of the tale, that neither of them noticed that August had produced no gift. He, however, was less forgetful.
“Here’s your present, you know,” he said with a malicious smile, just as he turned to go. “Take care! I have to open the bottle first. Crick, crack!—here it goes.” As he uttered these words, he pulled out a cork, and made a kind of toss. A buzzing sound was heard:128 something small and winged flew out, and filled the air. August gave a loud laugh, and vanished in the Forest.