There was once a man who would now be a hundred years old. His wife, too, was older than anybody I know and had never had a single child. The poor old man had done everything in his power to have his house brightened and filled with joy by what he himself so greatly desired. He had given alms to the convents and churches; he had had prayers read in seven churches, had sent for priests with white beards and had had prayers read for all the saints. But everything was useless. The old wife had clung to the witches and magicians. There was not an enchanter to whom she had not gone for advice, even if he lived a week’s journey off. As I said before, what wouldn’t she have done! But it was in vain.
One day the old man said sadly and thoughtfully, “Old wife!”
“What do you want?”
“Give me some provisions to take with me on my journey, for I intend to travel through the wide world, looking wherever I go to try and find a child, for my heart aches and burns when I think that the end of my life is drawing near, and no heir will have my house after me, but all my property fall into the hands of strangers. I have tried all ways, now I will take this one. And I’ll tell you one thing, if I find no child, I won’t come home.”
With these words the old man took his knapsack on his back, went out of the house, and began his journey. He walked on and on and on through the kingdom and the world. He walked on till he came to a thick forest, so dense that it seemed like a wall. Tree was entwined with tree, bush with bush, so that the sun could not even send so much as a ray of light through the foliage. When the old man saw these vast woods he entered with great sorrow. One day he reached the entrance of a cave. This cave was hundreds and thousands of times darker than the deep forest. The old man went a little further in and saw a light in a cranny. Approaching nearer and nearer he could not believe his eyes when he saw what was standing beside it. An old hermit! He was very old, as ancient as the world. He had a white beard that reached to his knees, and when he raised his eyebrows and then lowered them again they shaded the whole cave.
The hermit stood like a pillar of stone, his eyes fixed on a book on which his elbow rested, and which was sprinkled with big red characters. On a broad stone a yellow wax-candle blazed with a red flame and a blue smoke that was as dense as a cloud. The old man approached the hermit and, again falling on his knees, said:
“Good evening, holy father!”
The hermit was so absorbed in his book that he heard nothing. So our old man spoke louder. The hermit did not stir, but made him a sign with his crutch to move aside. The old man stood aside till the hermit had finished. When it was over, he raised his eyebrows and began, “My son, what do you seek from me in this dark, cheerless place? For many centuries my eyes have seen no human face, and now I wonder what has led your footsteps here.”
The old man answered:
“I kiss your right hand. My unhappiness has brought me here. I have lived with my wife many years, but we have no children, and I should like to have an heir before I go from this life.”
The hermit took an apple, and, after having blessed it, cut it in two, and said, “Take these two halves of the apple; give this one to your wife and eat the other yourself.”
The old man took the gift, kissed the hermit’s right hand and feet, and left the cave. Entering the dense forest, he walked a long time before he came to the meadows. There a terrible thirst and burning sensation in the throat seized upon him. What should he do, for he found no water? He did precisely what he was destined to do. He took the half apple and ate it. But instead of the half intended for him, he ate his wife’s. He had scarcely swallowed it when he felt as if he could go no further. So he sank down on the grass and fell sound asleep. Then an angel came down from Heaven, and watched beside him. When he awoke, what did his eyes behold? The wonder of wonders! The most marvelous of marvels! By his side, among the herbs, a little child was crying and moving its tiny hands. The angel brought some basil and some water, sprinkled the child, giving it the name of “Little Wild-Rose.” The old man, happier than he had ever been at the sight of the pretty little girl, took her in his arms, kissed her, and set off with her to his wife. When he reached the house he took a box, put the little thing in it, set it on the porch, and then went into the cottage, saying, “Come quick, wife, come quick, and see what a treasure of a daughter, with golden hair and eyes like stars, our Lord has given me.”
When they hurried out, to see the treasure of a girl, they saw nothing, no trace of the child anywhere. The old man crossed himself and sighed deeply. He searched here and there, right and left, but the little girl was nowhere to be found. He hunted through the straw in the hut and on the ground behind it to see if she had fallen down. But if she wasn’t there she wasn’t, and that ended the matter.
Oh, heavens, how the old man grieved and wrung his hands in despair. How could he help being startled by such a thing! He had put the child in the box and seen her after he had laid her in it, and knew exactly where he had left her, and now to be unable to find her just a moment after was just too bad.
“What could have happened to the little girl? Has the angel taken her? Have the elves and wicked gnomes stolen her away? What in the world could have occurred!” said the man, sighing. Somebody had taken her that was plain. But neither angels nor elves nor wicked gnomes frequented the neighborhood. A griffin, was passing by, and, hearing the child’s cries, swooped swiftly down, seized the little one, tucked her under its right wing, soared up into the sky with her, and took her to its eyrie to feed its young. After putting her in its nest, the griffin flew off again. But the young birds, instead of eating the little girl, looked kindly at her, gave her some soft bread-crumbs, made a bed for her, and covered her with their wings to protect her from the chill of the morning air.
In this terrible forest, at the bottom of a well of pure poison, lived a dragon with twelve heads, and this well was not far from the tree in whose top rested the griffin’s nest. This horrible dragon never let the little griffins grow up, but as soon as they were ready to fly stretched out two of its fiery heads and put an end to their lives, so that the poor old griffin had never yet, in all its life, been able to see even one of its children fly off.
The present brood were now full-grown, and were waiting for daylight to fly through the woods and mountains, when just at midnight the water of the well made a splashing noise, and what appeared in the moonlight that flickered through the trees? Two fiery heads, which approached the nest, setting up such a howling and wailing that the mountains shook and the valleys rocked to and fro. Suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye the earth and sky trembled and quaked, and the angel, grasping a sword in his hand, appeared on a golden cloud, darting downward like a thunderbolt. Just as the dragon was going to seize the young griffins, the angel flashed his sword from east to west, and again from west to east, cutting off both heads as easily as one drinks a spoonful of water. Then two still more terrible ones came, but they were also hacked into pieces. Two others next appeared; they, too, were destroyed, and so were all the twelve. Blood and poison flowed till the whole forest and valley were turned into a marsh, and the heads dashed against the tree which held the nest, so that the leaves fell from the boughs for ten miles around. The angel took some basil plant, and sprinkled the four quarters of the earth with water that. The pools of blood all gathered into one spot, the heads lost their vitality, and the ground opened, swallowing them up with all the blood, so that the wood once more became pure and bright as God meant it to be.
When the griffin came back at dawn, found its children safe in the nest, and saw that the accursed well had disappeared, it uttered such a cry of delight that the earth for nine miles round trembled and shook.
Then it woke the young birds and said, “Tell me quickly, my darlings, who has done me this great favor?”
The young birds shook their heads and replied: “We don’t know anything about it, we have been asleep all night.”
As the griffin looked about, its glance fell upon the little girl, whose golden hair and starry eyes were glittering in the morning sunlight, and the thought instantly darted through its mind that this beautiful light must have been responsible.
“Children,” said the griffin, angrily, “you haven’t eaten the little girl, what does this mean?” The young birds kept as still as mice, but the griffin straightway swallowed lovely little Wild-Rose, yet when she appeared again she was seven times as beautiful as before.
The griffin now set about a great task; all day long it brought flowers and soft green moss from the woodland meadows to make the little girl a room like a fairy’s nest, and this tiny chamber, whenever the wind blew, rocked to and fro like a cradle. From this time little Wild-Rose was as dear to it as its own children, and it took care of her and fed her with the very best things a griffin could find.
So the little Wild-Rose with the golden hair began to grow and flourish like a stately lily. In the morning the merry dawn kissed and woke her, at noon the shadows of the leafy boughs fanned her, and in the evening she was lulled to rest by the gentle breezes and the tunes that echoed through the forest from the shepherds’ pipes.
So the little girl grew in beauty till she was able to stand alone, and one day, just as the evening-star was bathing in the rosy light left by the sun when it sank behind the mountains it happened that little Wild-Rose stood up, came out of her little room, and for the first time gazed into the world. But when she looked at the evening-sky the air quivered, the rising stars trembled, and on the eastern horizon a second sun, more beautiful and a hundred times brighter than the one which had set behind the mountains, rose upward in majesty and splendor as if mounting from a sea of fire. The forests, chasms and valleys quaked; the flowers whispered sweetly to each other and turned their little heads toward the vivifying waves of light. The fairest flowers tried to drink in the little maid’s glances, and the trees around bowed their tops to rejoice in little Wild-Rose’s beauty.
At fourteen little Wild-Rose was beautiful. There was no one like her under the sun. Lovely as she was, no human being had seen her, and she had no idea of empires and cities. She lived on sisterly terms with the flowers, danced with the butterflies, was lulled by the murmur of the brook, accompanied the birds in singing.
So the days passed like hours and the hours like minutes, until one day a great hunt took place in the beautiful woods.
The emperor’s son went to the chase too.
The prince saw a deer bound into the thicket, and hurried after the animal faster and faster and faster, till the young hero found himself where he had never been even in his dreams—in the very depths of the dense forest, which was still untrodden by any human foot.
When the prince discovered his situation, he stood still and listened, to try to hear some sound in this solitude; the barking of a dog, the blast of a horn, the report of a gun, anything of the sort would have pleased the youth. But he listened in vain, utter silence and solitude surrounded him. After gazing around him for some time a dazzling light gleamed through the foliage. He glanced that way again, and felt that he must know what was there. He reached the spot to see what it was. He found the tree with the dainty little swinging chamber, and the young griffins staring at him. Whatever he may have thought, he drew his bow and would have instantly shot off the heads of the whole brood, when, like a thunderbolt, a blaze of light flashed into his face, dazzling him so that he dropped the bow and covered his eyes with his hands. When he looked that way again, he saw for half a minute the face and figure of little Wild-Rose, felt as if he were in the other world, and could not help falling on the grass in a fainting-fit. When he recovered his senses he called to the young girl to come down. But how was Wild-Rose to do such a thing? She did not go to the young man, but stayed quietly at home.
When the prince saw this he went away as he had come. Yet no, not exactly as he had come, for when he arrived his heart had not been full of love and longing. Neither had he come through the bushes without any trace of path or opening. But now he tumbled about wherever he went, as though he had no eyes. Yet, however he returned, he did return, arriving just as the shepherds were driving their cattle from the pasture into the village, and there he luckily met two of his hunting companions.
Early the next morning heralds from the royal court went through the whole country, proclaiming that whoever would promise to bring a wonder of a girl from the forest of the well with two trees, would be received by the emperor as his councilor so long as he lived and the whole court would do him honor. There came an old, lame woman, with a hump on her back and bald. “I am the person who can bring the girl from the forest of the well with the two trees,” she said. The heralds looked at the old woman and burst out laughing.
“Are you from Hell, you scare-crow?” said a herald. “. Get out of our sight.”
But the old woman insisted that she could bring the girl from the forest.
Then the oldest herald said, “Comrades, take her with us, for the emperor said plainly that we were to bring to the court any person, no matter who, that boasted of being able to execute his command; take the old woman and put her in the carriage.”
So they took the old woman and carried her to court.
“You have boasted that you could bring the girl from the forest?” asked the emperor, seated on his throne.
“Yes, I promised to do so.”
“Then set to work.”
“But first give me a kettle and a tripod.” She quickly received them and set off behind the emperor’s huntsmen, her mouth chattering and the kettle rattling. The prince had not remained at home either. How could he have stayed behind! When the party reached the forest, the hunters and the prince halted and the old woman went on alone.
The cunning old woman lighted a fire under the tree where the girl was, placed the tripod over the flames, and hung the kettle on it. But the kettle stood crooked and fell over as fast as she put it on. Little Wild-Rose, who was looking down from her room and saw the old woman’s stupidity, lost her patience and called, “Not that way, old woman, set the tripod the other way.”
“But suppose I don’t know how, my darling?”
And she vainly set it up, turned it round, and straightened it, the kettle would not stand. Wild-Rose grew more and more impatient and angry.
“Haven’t I already told you once that it won’t stand so? Turn the handle of the kettle toward the trunk of the tree.”
The old woman did exactly the opposite, and then said:
“Come down and show me, dear child.”
Wild-Rose climbed quickly down the tree to teach the old woman. But the old woman seizing her by the arm lifted her on her shoulder and ran off with her to the prince. When the prince saw Wild-Rose, he came to meet her, begged for her hand, and, trembling, kissed her. Then she was clothed in magnificent garments, which had been embroidered with gold and pearls by nine princesses.
She was placed in the royal carriage and they set off. When they reached the palace, the prince lifted her out, led her in, and seated her at the table as if she were a real princess. The young hero’s parents gazed at her with delight, and remembered their own youth. At the end of a week a magnificent wedding was celebrated, which lasted for three days and three nights, then, after twenty-four hours’ intermission, three days and three nights more were spent in splendid festivities.