The Enchanted River
WHEN Max awoke the following day, he sat up and looked about him with bewildered eyes.
Next he rubbed them to make sure that he was not dreaming; and leaned over to touch Molly, who was still asleep, her rosy face resting upon one dimpled hand.
It was certainly Molly; therefore it could not be a dream, however much it might seem like one.
But no wonder Max stared about him in surprise, for he and Molly were lying upon a pile of cushions, in a gondola, and gliding down a beautiful river.
Great queenly water-lilies with golden hearts rested upon its shining surface; along the banks grew stately trees, and strange, lovely plants, which seemed to bend down to whisper secrets to the stream.
Max turned his head; seated in the boat was a very wonderful-looking lady, such a one as he had certainly never in his life seen before.
She was as fair and graceful as one of the lilies themselves, and her large, clear eyes were like pools of deep water when the sun shines upon them.
A golden fillet confined her long dark hair, and her dress was a shimmering robe of the palest green, fastened by a girdle, which was nothing but golden pansies linked together.
Behind this beautiful lady was a handsome youth, clad in a white tunic and crimson sash.
He was standing upright, and wielded a single oar after the fashion of the Venetian gondoliers.
His bright eyes met Max's bewildered ones, and he nodded to him with a roguish smile, continuing to ply his oar dexterously.
A sense of peacefulness and confidence stole into the little fellow's heart; for the longer Max gazed at the strange, beautiful maiden, the more did the feeling grow upon him, that, in some mysterious fashion he had seen and known her before.
"Please, who are you?"
he ventured to ask at length; and the stranger, who was looking dreamily at the river, turned with a radiant smile.
"My name is Heartsease, little Max, and it is Pip who is rowing us.
You don't know us so well as we know you, but we shall soon be good friends, I am sure.
You are wondering where we are now.
Well, this is the enchanted river that flows through Story-land."
"But how did we get here, and where are the others?"
inquired Max, in a puzzled tone.
"How did you get here?
Why, Pip carried you both, to be sure, while you were, asleep; he is wonderfully strong for his size, is Pip.
As for the others, they are gone by the Underground Way, and we shall meet them all presently.
You are not afraid to trust yourself with me, are you?"
Before Max could answer, Molly opened her blue eyes, and began to stir.
He expected that she would be as surprised as he had been at the change in their surroundings, but he was mistaken.
Molly showed neither surprise nor fear.
The instant she caught sight of Heartsease, she stretched out her arms with a little cry of delight; the fairy picked her up as if she were a bit of thistle-down, and soon Molly's golden head was nestling against the shimmering green robe.
"You little dear!"
murmured Heartsease, kissing the yellow curls; "are you happy, my precious pet?"
"Yes, I'm very, very, very happy!"
purred Molly, and then Max came and nestled down on the other side, and the fairy put her arm round him; thus they floated down the river.
Heartsease passed her right hand over each curly head.
"Now," said she, "you will be able to see things that you could not see before, because you had not the proper kind of eyes.
And you will find that you can hear better too.
Listen, my darlings, and you will understand what the birds and the flowers and the rushes are saying to each other."
Instantly Max and Molly felt as if they had become possessed of two more senses; for now it seemed to them that they could look right into the deep heart of the river, and could hear the song that it was singing as it flowed on to join the sea.
They knew, too, what the birds chattered to each other, and the leaves twittered to the rushes, and the rushes sang in undertones to the forget-me-nots, and the forget-me-nots whispered to the dragonflies.
Molly's eyes grew radiant, and Max slipped down to the bottom of the boat and leaned over the side.
A kingfisher darted past like a spark of flame, and they heard him say in uneasy tones:
"I'm late for breakfast, I'm late for breakfast! and what my wife will say I don't know, for she insists that stewed grubs lose their flavour if kept waiting.
But the sparrow tells such amusing tales, I always forget to remember to look at my watch.
Dear, dear, what will my wife say?"
He was out of sight in another moment, and Molly laughed as she looked up at Heartsease.
"What will his wife say to him, do you think?"
she asked curiously.
"Nothing at all at present," replied the fairy smiling; "for she has eaten the stewed grubs herself as a lesson to him, locked up the house, and gone out for the day with the reed-warbler.
Mr. Kingfisher will have to catch his own breakfast to-day; and it serves him right, for he is the greatest gossip on the river."
The boat presently swept past the kingfisher, sitting in a dejected attitude on the branch of a tree.
He was gazing thoughtfully at the water, and the children heard him say in deliberate tones:
"When Maria comes back, I shall take her quietly but firmly by the wing, and I shall say to her, Now, Maria, look here —"
The rest of the sentence was unfortunately lost, because the gondola shot round a bend of the river.
The next moment Max and Molly were both deeply interested in a number of young water-beetles, who were attending school upon a huge lily leaf.
A learned looking Professor Beetle, in horn spectacles, flourished a willow twig in his hand, and seemed to be keeping his pupils in good order.
At the same time Molly noticed that now and then the last row slipped into the water, when they thought the master did not see them.
"First class in riverology!"
bawled the Professor, whereupon six beetles came to the front, looking rather alarmed, especially the fifth, because he had not even glanced at his lesson.
As luck would have it, the Professor pounced upon him the first.
"What do you chiefly find at the bottom of a river?
asked the Professor gruffly.
The unhappy beetle lost his head.
"Mud-larks," he muttered, eyeing the willow rod fearfully.
"What did you say, sir?"
thundered the Professor, advancing towards him.
"I meant sand-turtles!"
cried the beetle desperately.
In his alarm he stepped too near the edge of the leaf, and fell into the water on his back.
Being a water-beetle this was rather a refreshment to him than otherwise; but Max, forgetting this, immediately bent over, picked him up, and placed him upon another leaf farther off.
The Professor looked up in astonishment, but nodded gaily when he caught sight of Heartsease.
"Ah, ha, there you are!"
he cried, taking off his spectacles and waving them; "we fancied you would have been along here yesterday.
And how are you getting on, my dear?"
This was to Molly, who replied politely:
"Very nicely, thank you, sir; and would you mind letting the school have a half-holiday today?"
"Is it your birthday?"
inquired the Professor eagerly.
"Because if it is, I have a sort of a kind of an idea that I know of a present."
"Oh, no, it isn't our birthday!"
Molly hastened to assure him; "you know Max and I have a birthday between us, half each, because we’re the same age."
"Well, perhaps it's a good thing," returned the Professor, in a relieved tone, "as, upon second thoughts, I don't think I do know of a present.
As for a half-holiday —"
He looked round, but his pupils had taken advantage of his back being turned to dive into the river.
All that could be seen of them was the tips of their shining noses.
"Get along all the lot of you!"
cried the Professor in affable tones; "you are to have a half-holiday because it isn't Max and Molly's birthday."
"That is rather an odd reason, isn't it?"
said Heartsease smiling; "but then the Professor is not an ordinary person."
"I should rather say not!"
remarked the old gentleman, winking at Pip in anything but a scholastic manner.
"Well, don't let me detain you if you are in a hurry; we may meet at the palace.
Pip plied his oar, the boat went on, and when the children got a last glimpse of the Professor, he was sitting on the extreme edge of the lily leaf with his boots in the water.
"Who is that over there?"
suddenly cried Max, pointing to a pretty little girl who was nodding and smiling at them from the left bank.
"She seems to know us."
"And don't you know her too?"
"It's little Bo-peep."
"Oh! is that little Bo-peep?"
cried Molly, beaming.
"Look, Max, she has the sweetest ‘little crook.
Please, I do so want to ask her whether she has found her sheep!"
"Not yet," called out Bo-peep, without the least concern; "but, you know, if I only leave them alone, they'll be sure to come home.’
What is the use of troubling oneself?"
"Yes, — but —" began Max doubtfully, "supposing they came home without — supposing somebody cut off — their —"
Bo-peep looked across the meadow, and gave a piercing shriek.
"Oh, the naughty creatures! they've left their tails behind them, their beautiful, long, woolly tails.
Whatever shall I do?"
"I was afraid it would be like that," said Max thoughtfully, while Molly looked grave.
But Heartease pointed out to them a fat old lady on the opposite bank.
"See, there is Mrs. Bond," said the fairy; "she has a visitor to dinner, and the ducks won't come off the pond to be killed.
Isn't it fun?"
Poor Mrs. Bond; it did not seem fun to her, for she kept running round and round the pond, flourishing an immense carving-knife.
Her face was like a peony, and she was plaintively calling:
"Dilly, dilly, dilly! Did anyone ever see such obstinate ducks! Come, dilly, dilly, dilly, I only want to kill you, my dears; and, sure it ought to be a pleasure to you, to be stuffed and served up with green peas.
Dilly, dilly, dilly; come, you aggravating young things!"
The ducks bobbed up and down in the middle of the pond, and laughed in the old dame's face.
She could not get at them there, and they knew it.
"You must content yourself with the stuffing, old lady," shouted a pert young drake; "for we don't mean to have our heads cut off with that Indian sword of yours.
No, thank you, ma’am, not to-day!"
and he snapped up a fly in the most provoking manner.
In doing so, however, he went rather too near the bank, and Mrs. Bond, who, although short and stout, was an active old body, wade a rush, and had him by the neck, before you could say Jack Robinson!
Max and Molly were greatly astonished at this, while the prisoner uttered a dismal "Quawk!"
Mrs. Bond was preparing to waddle off to her farmhouse, the carving-knife in one hand, the struggling bird in the other, when she perceived the gondola.
"Good-morning, my dears!"
she called out cheerfully; "did you see me catch him?
There was nimbleness for you, if you like; and he's nice and plump, and only wants the stuffing.
Dilly, dilly, dilly, come and be killed, my beauty!"
said the drake feebly, for all the conceit was taken out of him.
"Won't you let him go just this once?"
pleaded Molly; "I'm sure he won't be rude again."
"No, my dear, I can answer for that; especially when he has been roasted gently for an hour and a half.
It is astonishing what a difference roasting makes in a bird's character; he is quite another creature after it; so tender and sociable that it is really a pleasure to sit down to table with him."
Mrs. Bond laughed, and patted the drake on the back with the blade of the knife, which made him shiver.
"Oh, please let him go!"
said tender-hearted Molly, looking ready to cry.
"I know he's dreadfully sorry, and I can't bear to have him killed and stuffed!"
Mrs. Bond and Heartsease exchanged smiles.
"What, let him go, and have all my trouble over again?"
cried Mrs. Bond; "well, to please you, child, I suppose I must, but it's a pity, for he's just ready for killing."
"I don't think he feels quite ready himself," observed Max, as the bird, with a jubilant "Quack, quack ", dashed back to the pond, and rejoined his companions.
To the surprise of the children, Mrs. Bond immediately trotted, after him, and began to cry "Dilly, dilly, dilly ", again.
But the boat passed on, and all they could do was to hope that the ducks would not be so foolish as to get caught.
For some time they were silent, nestling against Heartsease, and gazing with happy, wondering eyes at the many curious things to be seen on the Enchanted River.
The gentle "squish" of the water as the gondola shot through it was so soothing that the fairy bent down to see whether her charges had not fallen asleep.
But both pairs of blue eyes smiled back at hers with childlike love and confidence.
Pip was crooning a queer little song to himself as he rowed, but he paused an instant to point with his oar to a slender, golden-haired maiden sitting under a tree, so busily stitching that she did not even raise her eyes to look at the boat.
By her side was a great heap of nettles, and the odd-looking garment she was making, seemed far too rough and coarse for such delicate fingers.
"What is she doing?"
asked Max in a whisper.
"She is making shirts of stinging-nettles for her eleven brothers, who have been changed into swans by their cruel stepmother.
When the last shirt is finished, the spell will be broken, and her brothers will turn into young men again.
But all the time she is working, she must not speak a single word, or even smile."
"But see how she has hurt her fingers with the nettles," cried Molly, distressed; "doesn't she mind?"
"No, she doesn't mind, because she loves her brothers so dearly," answered Heartsease; "do you understand that, little Molly?"
"If Max were a swan, I would make him a shirt," said Molly practically, and the fairy smiled, and kissed the golden head leaning against her knee.
The swan-maiden, with her sweet, serious face, quickly faded out of sight; the gondola swept on, and its occupants were greeted by sounds of merriment that seemed to proceed from a sheltered nook on the left bank.
A picnic was evidently going forward, and the company were thoroughly enjoying themselves, judging from the noise they made.
The moment they caught sight of Pip's face, they all began beckoning to him to row to the bank.
"We will stop here for a few minutes," said Heartsease.