There lived once, in Russia, a peasant and his wife who would have been as happy as the day is long, if only God had given them a little child.
One day, as they were watching the children playing in the snow, the man said to the woman: "Wife, shall we go out and help the children make a snowball?" But the wife answered, smiling: "Nay, husband, but since God has given us no little child, let us go and fashion one from the snow." And she put on her long blue cloak, and he put on his long brown coat, and they went out onto the crisp snow, and began to fashion the little child.
First, they made the feet and the legs and the little body, and then they took a ball of snow for the head. And at that moment a stranger in a long cloak, with his hat well drawn over his face, passed that way, and said: "Heaven help your undertaking!" And the peasants crossed themselves and said: "It is well to ask help from Heaven in all we do." Then they went on fashioning the little child. And they made two holes for the eyes and formed the nose and the mouth. And then— wonder of wonders—the little child came alive, and breath came from its nostrils and parted lips.
And the man was feared, and said to his wife: "What have we done?" And the wife said: "This is the little girl child God has sent us." And she gathered it into her arms, and the loose snow fell away from the little creature.
Her hair became golden and her eyes were as blue as forget-me-nots—but there was no colour in her cheeks, because there was no blood in her veins.
In a few days she was like a child of three or four, and in a few weeks she seemed to be the age of nine or ten, and ran about gaily and prattled with the other children, who loved her so dearly, though she was so different from them.
Only, happy as she was, and dearly as her parents loved her, there was one terror in her life, and that was the sun. And during the day she would run and hide herself in cool, damp places away from the sunshine, and this the other children could not understand.
As the Spring advanced and the days grew longer and warmed, little Snegourka (for this was the name by which she was known) grew paler and thinner, and her mother would often ask her: "What ails you, my darling?" and Snegourka would say: "Nothing, Mother but I wish the sun were not so bright." One day, on St. John's Day, the children of the village came to fetch her for a day in the woods, and they gathered flowers for her and did all they to make her happy, but it was only when the great red sun went down that Snegourka drew a deep breath of relief and spread her little hands out to the cool evening air. And the boys, glad at her gladness, said: "Let us do something for Snegourka. Let us light a bonfire." And Snegourka not knowing what a bonfire was, she clapped her hands and was as merry and eager as they. And she helped them gather the sticks, and then they all stood round the pile and the boys set fire to the wood.
Snegourka stood watching the flames and listening to the crackle of the wood: and then suddenly they heard a tiny sound—and looking at the place where Snegourka had been standing, they saw nothing but a little snow-drift fast melting. And they called and called, "Snegourka! Snegourka!" thinking she had run into the forest. But there was no answer. Snegourka had disappeared from this life as mysteriously as she had come into it.
—Adapted by the author.
THE WATER NIXIE The river was so clear because it was the home of a very beautiful Water Nixie who lived in it, and who sometimes could emerge from her home and sit in woman's form upon the bank. She had a dark green smock upon her, the colour of the water-weed that waves as the water wills it, deep, deep down. And in her long wet hair were the white flowers of the water-violet, and she held a reed mace in her hand. Her face was very sad because she had lived a long life, and known so many adventures, ever since she was a baby, which was nearly a hundred years ago. For creatures of the streams and trees live a long, long time, and when they die they lose themselves in Nature. That means that they are forever clouds, or trees, or rivers, and never have the form of men and women again.
All water creatures would live, if they might choose it, in the sea, where they are born. It is in the sea they float hand-in-hand upon the crested billows, and sink deep in the great troughs of the strong waves, that are green as jade. They follow the foam and lose themselves in the wide ocean— "Where great whales come sailing by, Sail and sail with unshut eye;" and they store in the Sea King's palace the golden phosphor of the sea. But this Water Nixie had lost her happiness through not being good. She had forgotten many things that had been told her, and she had done many things that grieved others. She had stolen somebody else's property —quite a large bundle of happiness—which belonged elsewhere and not to her. Happiness is generally made to fit the person who owns it, just as do your shoes, or clothes; so that when you take someone else's it's very little good to you, for it fits badly, and you can never forget it isn't yours.
So what with one thing and another, this Water Nixie had to be punished, and the Queen of the Sea had banished her from the waves. "You shall live for a long time in little places where you will weary of yourself.
You will learn to know yourself so well that everything you want will seem too good for you, and you will cease to claim it. And so, in time, you shall get free." Then the Nixie had to rise up and go away, and be shut into the fastness of a very small space, according to the words of the Queen. And this small space was—a tear.
At first she could hardly express her misery, and by thinking so continuously of the wideness and savour of the sea, she brought a dash of the brine with her, that makes the saltness of our tears. She became many times smaller than her own stature; even then, by standing upright and spreading wide her arms, she touched with her finger-tips the walls of her tiny crystal home. How she longed that this tear might be wept, and the walls of her prison shattered! But the owner of this tear was of a very proud nature, and she was so sad that tears seemed to her in no wise to express her grief.
She was a Princess who lived in a country that was not her home. What were tears to her? If she could have stood on the top of the very highest hill and with both hands caught the great winds of heaven, strong as they, and striven with them, perhaps she might have felt as if she expressed all she knew. Or, if she could have torn down the stars from the heavens, or cast her mantle over the sun.
But tears! Would they have helped to tell her sorrow? You cry if you soil your copybook, don't you? or pinch your hand? So you may imagine the Nixie's home was a safe one, and she turned round and round in the captivity of that tear.
For twenty years she dwelt in that strong heart, till she grew to be accustomed to her cell. At last, in this wise came her release.
An old gipsy came one morning to the Castle and begged to see the Princess.
She must see her, she cried. And the Princess came down the steps to meet her, and the gipsy gave her a small roll of paper, but in the midst of the page was a picture, small as the picture reflected in the iris of an eye. The picture shewed a hill, with one tree on the sky-line, and a long road wound round the hill.
And suddenly in the Princess' memory a voice spoke to her. Many sounds she heard, gathered up into one great silence, like the quiet there is in forest spaces, when it is Summer and the green is deep:— "Blessed are they that have the home longing, For they shall go home." Then the Princess gave the gipsy two golden pieces, and went up to her chamber, and long that night she sat, looking out upon the sky.
She had no need to look upon the honeyed scroll, though she held it closely.
Clearly before her did she see that small picture: the hill, and the tree, and the winding road, imaged as if mirrored in the iris of an eye. And in her memory she was upon that road, and the hill rose beside her, and the little tree was outlined, every twig of it, against the sky.
And as she saw all this, an overwhelming love of the place arose in her, a love of that certain bit of country that was so sharp and strong, that it stung and swayed her, as she leaned on the window-sill.
And because the love of a country is one of the deepest loves you may feel, the band of her control was loosened, and the tears came welling to her eyes. Up they brimmed and over in salty rush and follow, dimming her eyes, magnifying everything, speared for a moment on her eyelashes, then shimmering to their fall. And at last came the tear that held the disobedient Nixie.
Splish! it fell. And she was free.
If you could have seen how pretty she looked standing there, about the height of a grass-blade, wringing out her long wet hair. Every bit of moisture she wrung out of it, she was so glad to be quit of that tear. Then she raised her two arms above her in one delicious stretch, and if you had been the size of a mustard-seed perhaps you might have heard her laughing. Then she grew a little, and grew and grew, till she was about the height of a bluebell, and as slender to see.
She stood looking at the splash on the window-sill that had been her prison so long, and then with three steps of her bare feet, she reached the jessamine that was growing by the window, and by this she swung herself to the ground.
Away she sped over the dew-drenched meadows till she came to the running brook, and with all her longing in her outstretched hands, she kneeled down by the crooked willows among all the comfry and the loosestrife, and the yellow irises and the reeds.
Then she slid into the wide, cool stream.
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