Half-way up the long steep hill that leads from Soden to Königstein, a rough road branches off to the left, plunging suddenly into a valley, and passing through the little village of Altenhain. As you walk down this steep rocky incline, the Taunus Mountains rise up grand and high in ever-changing panorama.
At the bottom of the hill lies Altenhain, an ordinary enough Taunus village, save for the beautiful shrine that stands on the high road. There a Crucifix hangs between two enormous poplar trees, one of the most beautiful natural altars in the world. The trees are tall and pointed like church spires, the trunks venerable with age. May the lightning spare these grand old trees, and the winds play gently through their boughs!
In this village lived a schoolmaster with his wife and family consisting of a daughter, twelve years old, and a baby boy. They were not really poor; for, besides their income, they had a piece of land to grow potatoes and vegetables; also a strip of vineyard and fine strawberry fields on the Dachberg, the produce of which they sold in Frankfurt for a good price. Moreover, they kept pigs and chickens and geese, and two dear little goats that gave them milk.
On a fine September day Käthchen (that was the daughter's name) was on the Dachberg, helping her parents to gather up the potatoes for the winter. Two sacks stood already full, looking from a distance like funny old peasants. Käthe liked to watch the potato fires that are lit to burn the refuse of the plants, smouldering and crackling in the dry autumn air, and the smoke curling up in the clear sky.
It was now about five o'clock, and as she had worked all day, she was tired and began to groan and grumble. So her mother said: "Hurry up and go home now, child, before it gets dark. Fetch the baby (the neighbours had taken charge of it for the day), light the fire, put on the kettle, and peel and boil the potatoes for supper."
Käthe was only too glad to be let off; her tiredness soon vanished as she flew down the steep, grassy slope of the Dachberg, slipping and tumbling every minute. The sun was low, and glowed through the pines and larches, which stand here together, making a wonderful contrast.
Käthe found her way across the wet emerald field coloured with patches of exquisite lilac from the autumn crocuses growing there in thousands, hanging out their cheeky little orange tongues. She sang and shouted for joy, and a feeling half sadness, half exhilaration, that comes to us often at the twilight, came over her. She wore a little red skirt and loose cotton blouse, and a tidy pinafore put on in order to cover her soiled frock on the way home. Her hair was ash blonde, and braided in two plaits round her head. Her eyes were dark and deep-set, and were a strange contrast to her hair. She passed over the tiny bridge where the brook crosses the field, and gathered a bunch of wild flowers, meadowsweet and harebells, water forget-me-nots and ragged robin, and made a pretty nosegay. She also picked a graceful spray of hops, the leaves slightly tinged with red, and wound it in and out of her hair. She had forgotten the baby and the supper and all the things for which she was responsible, and was just a little maiden living in her own enchanted land.
Now the path wound close by the pine woods, and the air seemed to grow chillier and more solemn. She saw great white clouds resting on the Dachberg above her. She seemed so far away, down in this valley and so alone. But she knew that her father and mother were near, probably watching her from the hill-top; it was silly to be frightened, she knew the way so well.
Suddenly something sprang out of the bushes on to the path in front of her. She gave a great jump, but then so did he and she saw that it was only an old green frog. He cheered her up at once, and she began to poke at him with a stick and to sing:
"The frog sits in the rushes,
The funny fat old man,
And sings his evening ditties
As sweetly as he can,
But as suddenly as he had appeared on the scene, the frog vanished again with a leap and a bound into the dark waters of the little brook that ran along by the side of the way.
Then she heard a rustling of the bushes and saw a little red squirrel peering at her with his bright, inquisitive eyes. Round and round the tree-trunk he went, enjoying himself thoroughly, and making fun of Käthchen, playing peep-bo like a baby.
The sun glowed through the tree trunks. It must be about six o'clock. "I must hurry up or supper will not be ready when my father and mother come home," she thought.
She then became aware of the sound of footsteps coming towards her along the path.
"Probably a peasant from Altenhain," she thought, and was pleased to think of meeting a friend. But the footsteps sounded strange and light, more like the pattering of raindrops through leaves, and then for a moment, she turned giddy; it seemed to her as if the trees were really rushing past her, as they seem to do when we look at them out of a railway carriage. One of the young oak trees seemed to be running towards her down the path; but as she looked more closely, and her head became steadier, she saw that it was a boy a little older than herself, who came running towards her, and very queer he looked.
He had a great mass of brown curly hair tumbling about his head; green ears—it seemed to her, could it be possible? No, it must be that he had stuck oak leaves into his curly locks for ornament, pretty oak leaves tinged with soft red. Moreover he had the bluest and strangest eyes she had ever seen. They shone like wonderful jewels at one moment, and then turned dull and opaque and looked almost dead. He had on rough green trousers, and a white shirt with yellow embroidered braces; his feet were bare and very brown. When he saw Käthe, he gave a wild kind of Indian whoop, and danced round and round her, much to the poor child's dismay, his eyes flashing all sorts of colours. Her heart beat fast, but not a word or sound would come out of her mouth.
The boy then made a deep bow, and took her by the hand. Soon he had his long arms round her waist and was trying to kiss her.
Käthe began to cry with fear and indignation, "You rude, naughty boy," she said, "I will tell my mother of you."
The imp seemed much surprised, caught one of her tears on his finger, held it up to the light and then sucked it, making funny faces all the time. Käthe could not help laughing, and then she dried her tears with a corner of her apron. She sat down on a tree-trunk for a moment and tried to think.
Immediately the boy sat by her, and begged her to give him a kiss. He looked quite nice and pretty for the moment, and Käthe thought she had better do as he wished, or he might begin his antics again. So she gave him a motherly kiss, just as she would give to her baby brother, smack! on the cheek. Immediately the queer look went out of his eyes, and a more human expression took its place.
"Käthe," he said, "Käthe, I am but a lonely little imp of the forest, but I love you, Käthe, and I want you to marry me, and live with me always, and be my own little wife. Will you, O will you? O do, do, do," he said, dancing up and down in wild excitement.
"O goodness gracious me, you are certainly quite crazy," said Käthe, "I will tell my mother of you!" She began to cry again, and smacked him whenever he tried to come near her.
Then he seized her by the hand and dragged her after him into the wild woods, till they were lost in the forest.
"O dear, O dear, whatever shall I do? what will mother say when she finds no Käthe, no supper, and no baby. Boo-o-o-o!"
"Never mind," said our imp consolingly, "you can't help it now, you have run away with me you see."
"I didn't, indeed I didn't," interrupted Käthe indignantly.
"I will send a moonshine Käthchen to take your place for the night. You are fond of dreaming, aren't you?"
"O yes, mother often calls me 'Träum Lies' (Dreaming Liese)."
"Well then, it's all right, she will not notice anything, and you and I will have fine times together. If you won't marry me, at least, we can get engaged you know, that will be fine fun."
"Hum——" said Käthe, "that would be amusing. We might play at being engaged! that would not matter."
"Have you a gold ring for me?"
"O we will go and buy one at the flower shop," said he.
"At the flower shop, that is a funny place to buy rings at," said Käthe.
"Buttercups and dandelions melted to a yellow heat make splendid fairy gold," he replied.
"Ah, then you really are a fairy!" said the little girl.
"Why of course, did you think I was a human child like you? What did they teach you at school?"
"Reading, writing and arithmetic, history and geography and scripture and sewing," said Käthe.
"But not how to know a fairy when you see one, O my stars!" said our hero.
"What is the good of learning
To read and write and sew,
To count and do addition
If fairies you don't know?
How do you know a fairy?
O by his glittering eye,
And by his light, light footsteps
You know when he goes by.
O what are school and lessons,
My little maiden, pray,
If to the land of fairy
They do not show the way?"
So he sang, and Käthchen thought to herself: "I've always suspected that we did not learn everything at school."
By this time her little head was completely turned; she thought no more of supper or mother or baby, but only wondered with round eyes what would happen next.
The moon shone brilliantly through the branches, and she noticed that the trees began to move, and some of them quickly changed places.
"Have you ever seen the trees dance?" said our hero. We will call him Green Ears; for I had forgotten to say that being a tree-imp, his ears were shaped like oak leaves, and were green tinged with pinky red. It was peculiar of course, but not so very noticeable on account of his thick curly hair. He was able to move them if anything startled him, to prick up his ears in very truth; then you saw that they really belonged to him.
The trees did not wait for Käthe to reply; they formed themselves in long avenues and began a stately dance, something like a quadrille.
A soft fairy music was played by an invisible band. Squirrels sprang at intervals from one tree to another, spreading out their bushy tails and uttering strange cries like new-born babies.
Birds flew in and out singing and keeping time to the music and rhythm of the dance. It was a strange sight, grotesque yet beautiful; the trees took half human forms and faces; it was funny to see how they joined hands (or branches) from time to time in the dance. After they had watched for some time and the sport had become monotonous, Green Ears took Käthe to the top of the hill, and there they saw the beautiful peaked mountain called the Rossert, bathed in the moonlight.
"Well, children, enjoying yourselves on this fine night, I hope?" said a woman of tall and commanding presence. "Will you come home and have supper with me? I am sure Green Ears has forgotten to offer you anything to eat."
Here she chucked him under his pointed chin.
The two children, fairy and human, turned and followed her, they felt that she was a person of authority and must be obeyed. Her fair hair fell in waving masses almost to her feet, it was covered with soft feathers, as if she had recently been filling feather beds.
The children saw a lighted cottage before them, with red roof and black-beamed walls like so many in the Taunus. A strong smell of honeysuckle was wafted towards them.
"This is my wood cottage, it is quite close to the Rossert, as you see. Some people call me the wood-woman, others Frau Holle," she said. "The Old King (the mountain called Altkönig) is my brother; Olle (slang in German for old) or Holle, it is all the same, we are all relations in the Taunus, you must know!"
In front of the house was a dear little garden. The moonlight shone brightly on the flower-beds. The fairies were awake and peeped out with the greatest interest as the children entered.
Over the door was written in letters made of light, like those beautiful advertisements of beer and chocolate which so adorn the city of London by night:
THIS WAY TO FAIRYLAND.
Käthe felt that she was learning more in one night than in all her life before of that strange dream-world on the borders of which we live.
The house was so neat and tidy, that it looked as if it had just been spring-cleaned; the windows stood wide open, the moonlight streamed in. A little table was laid for supper.
Frau Holle invited them to sit down and they did so at once.
Green Ears sat opposite to Käthe staring at her with a wistful expression of adoration and love in his eyes.
A chocolate pudding with cream and sugar and a bilberry jelly stood on the table, also rolls which were thickly buttered and spread with various kinds of fairy sausage purely vegetarian in character. Mugs of delicious-looking milk were ready for each child.
But the supper reminded Käthe of her home and she felt a little uneasy.
However she had at the bottom of all a comfortable feeling that all was right. This is the way with many of our self-imposed troubles, big people's as well as little people's. We groan and grumble, and express our views that everything is very wrong, and the world is soon going to the dogs, but at the bottom of all, we know that it is all right, and that all things work together for good.
Green Ears began to fidget; he was like a little girl I know, and could not sit still for more than one minute.
"Frau Holle," he said, "Frau Holle, Gracious Lady, we want to get engaged."
Frau Holle burst out laughing: "A mortal child and a Kobold of the forest! nonsense, it's impossible!"
Käthchen lifted up her brown eyes. "We might play at it," she said. "It would be a beautiful game."
Frau Holle chuckled so much at this that she nearly upset the milk jug.
"How do people get engaged?" said Käthe. "I have often thought about it, but I never could imagine how they do it?"
"Didn't they teach you that at school either?" said Green Ears. "My stars! What did they teach you at school?"
"Children," said the wood-woman, "children, do you mean it?"
"Certainly," said Green Ears.
"I think so," said Käthe.
"Do you wish to buy rings?"
"O yes," decidedly from both children.
"Now listen; there is a passage from my house leading to the shops, most convenient I assure you," said Frau Holle. "Everything delivered punctually on the premises within one minute of purchasing it. No lifts or motor-cars necessary. You see I know the ways of the world." So saying she opened the back door, and they passed into a lane lighted by many lamp-posts. These lamp-posts gave a very bright light and had queer faces like the man in the moon. They grinned and winked as Green Ears and Käthchen went by.
It was a lovely fair; a fair in fairyland you may imagine how gorgeous that must be!
There were stalls on which lay all sorts of tempting things, cakes, sweet and toys. Käthe felt sorry that she had no money.
At the flower stall they paused; the flowers were exquisitely arranged, and out of each peeped a little Fee.
In big gold letters was written:
CONDENSED FLOWERS FOR SALE.
As Green Ears asked boldly for engagement rings, a fairy who stood behind the stall, handed him two little gold rings made to fit any finger; they were a new patent and self-adapting, the fairy said.
Green Ears was so pleased that he turned head over heels again and again for joy, a funny proceeding for a would-be husband.
"Do you know how to get engaged," he said to the fairy.
"Why no, not exactly, but I have heard it is very simple," said she. "Mother Holle (here she made a deep curtsy), Mother Holle knows all about it."
Käthe looked out of the corner of her eyes at her lover, and wished he would behave with more dignity. Now he was cramming his mouth with sweeties.
"Aren't you going to give me any?" she said.
"O my stars!" he said again, surprised; it had never struck him. Imps are usually egoists; that is to say they think first of themselves. There are exceptions, but this is the rule.
He went rapidly from stall to stall and returned with his arms full of parcels done up in pink paper which he presented to Käthchen with a low bow. She accepted them with much delight and they fell to munching chocolate together; it was a real bond of union, and they were not the first sweethearts who discovered it.
They reached the end of the street and suddenly found themselves alone once more on the slopes of the Altenhainer Thal or Valley.
Green Ears sat down by Käthchen, and squeezed himself up closely to her.
"Give me your pretty little hand," he said. "Do you know which is the right finger?"
"O yes!" Käthchen knew that quite well, though I have heard that it is a disputed point in Germany.
She stuck out her little hard-worked fingers, and he put the gold ring on the third finger of the left hand. It fitted exactly and with a cry of joy Käthchen put the other on his long brown finger.
Then both the children laughed and clapped their hands, and danced merrily about. "Now we are engaged," they cried, "really engaged to be married!"
They made such a noise that the squirrels were cross and threw sticks at them for disturbing their early-morning sleep.
Then, goodness knows why—let us call it reaction—Käthe began to cry again, great, big drops.
Green Ears was much puzzled.
"You are clever, now I can't do that," he said. "You must stay with me always, and live with me in the woods, and be my own little sweetheart."
"O no," said Käthe, "I should never be allowed to do that; I must go to school every day, and then I have my exercises to do, and to help mother with the housework; the baby to mind; and—O I am always so busy."
"I will come and help you," said Green Ears.
"But you can't, you are not real, you know," said Käthe and began to cry again.
"Käthchen," said Green Ears, and he looked quite serious and thinky all at once. "Listen to me. I will go to the Old King; he is the ruler of all the fairies here, and I will beg him to teach me how to become human. It may be years before we meet again, for the way into your world is very hard for me to find. Yes it is easier for you to find the way into our world, than for us to enter yours; but cheer up, I will dare it and do it for your sake! but O sweetheart wait for me; O wait for me!"
"Wait for me, my little sweetheart,
Till I come to you again,
Win the world for you, my sweetheart,
With its joy and with its pain.
Wait for me, my little sweetheart,
For when falling on the ground
I beheld those curious dewdrops
To your heart my heart was bound.
All my fairy life is nothing,
All my fairy joy I give,
Just to hold your hands, my sweetheart,
In your world with you to live.
Wait for me, my little sweetheart:
I will find the way to you,
As a grown man I will seek you,
Seek and find you ever true."
So singing they walked arm in arm through the long winding valley, till the dawn approached like a golden bird opening its great wings to fly.
Käthchen reached her cottage door. All was silent within. "Good-bye," she said, and their eyes met in one last farewell.
"Auf Wiedersehen!" said Green Ears (that pretty German farewell greeting which means so much more than good-bye), and then he stole back down the stony street, kissing his hands again and again to the little girl.
In some strange way Käthchen passed through the door of her little cottage; she had become for the time incorporeal; through the touch of a fairy her body and soul had become loose, that is to say, and she was able to enter the house as silently as a person in a dream. She went through the kitchen and up the steep wooden stairs. It seemed to her as if her feet did not touch the ground, she floated rather than walked. She reached her own little attic, and saw the room as if it were a picture, the square window-frame, the branches of the trees outside, the old pictures on the walls that she was so fond of.
But what was her surprise to see herself curled up asleep in her big wooden bed!
The horror of it made her faint, and she remembered no more until she found herself in her own bed under her own big feather sack. In order that she should not forget her night's adventures, or think it was all merely a dream, she found a ring of yellow grass wound tightly round her third finger. From that hour, though the ring fell to pieces, the mark of it was clearly to be seen on her finger. It was a fairy ring, you see.
Her mother apparently had not missed her, and the baby was as jolly as ever.
"What was the matter with you last night, Käthe?" said her mother. "You were dreamier than ever; not a word could we get out of you. You must have been tired out, you poor child!"
"But everything was all right, wasn't it, mother, the potatoes were boiled and the supper ready?"
"Why of course you managed very nicely. Now hurry up and let us have breakfast."
Now I feel sure that all the children who read this story will want to know what happened to Käthchen and Green Ears later on.
Did he really come back to visit her as a grown man?
Did they marry and live happy ever after?
Had he green ears as a mortal?
But alas the fairies who told me this story, have left these questions unanswered, at all events for the present, so I can only guess at the conclusion.
I think myself that Green Ears was pretty sure to succeed in his quest, because if you want a thing intensely enough, you can usually get it.
They would make a rather funny married couple, that is true, and we will hope that Green Ears did not turn head over heels on his marriage day.
But the fairies assure me that the trials necessary to pass through in order to become a mortal, have a very sobering effect on the character, and so we can think of Green Ears as quite different, though still fascinating and charming.
I would have liked to be present at their wedding, wouldn't you?
"O joy when on this solid earth
Is heard the sound of fairy mirth!
O joy, when under earthly things
Is heard the sound of fairy wings,
When the impossible is true,
When I come back and marry you!"