There was once a baron so rich and powerful that only the king himself was greater. He was very fierce and warlike, and what he wished for he took from rich and poor alike, and none was able to withstand him.
The baron had a very gentle and beautiful wife. Often she wept bitterly over the evil deeds her husband did in the world, but this the baron never knew, for she was careful to hide her tears from him.
One day the lady was sitting beside a fountain in the gardens, and she was very sad. Presently she leaned her head on her hand and began to weep. Suddenly the waters of the fountain were disturbed, and up from the midst of them arose the figure of a nixie or water spirit.
The lady was frightened at such a strange sight, but the nixie spoke to her gently and bade her not be afraid.
“I,” said she, “am the spirit who watches over the fortunes of the castle. I have come to tell you that within a year a child will be born to you—a little girl. This child will suffer many things, both dangers and sorrows. There is only one way in which she can be protected. If you will make me her godmother I will be able to guard her and bring her safely through her troubles, but in no other way can she be saved from them.”
The lady was filled with amazement at what she heard. She had known there was a spirit that watched over the fortunes of the castle, and now she promised eagerly that if a child came to her the nixie should be its godmother.
At once the nixie smiled at her and waved its hand, and then sank back again into the waters of the fountain.
In less than a year, as the nixie had foretold, a little daughter was born to the lady, a child as beautiful as the day. The time for christening the child was set. She was to be called Matilda, after her mother, but the lady refused to say who was to stand godmother to the child. A godmother she had chosen, but she would tell no one who that godmother was.
The hour of the christening arrived, all the ladies and gentlemen of the court were gathered together, and still no godmother. Suddenly, without a sound, a stranger appeared among them. She was dressed from head to foot in silver that shone and rippled like running water, and a silver veil was wound about her head. At once the Lady Matilda recognized her as the nixie.
The water spirit took her place as godmother to the child, and the christening proceeded. When it was over, every one looked to see what gift the godmother would give the child. They had no doubt that it would be something very rare and handsome, but instead it was only a common little carved wooden ball, such as ladies sometimes use to carry perfume in. This the godmother placed in the child’s hand. Then, turning to the lady, she said, “Guard carefully this ball which I have given to the child. Place it in some safe place for her. Her good fortune—yes, even her life itself—depends upon this ball.”
After saying this, the stranger at once disappeared, and none could tell where she went, nor how.
The Lady Matilda took the ball and put it away among her jewels in a strong chest, and orders were given that no one should touch or disturb it. As soon as the little Matilda was old enough, the mother meant to give the ball to her and tell her of its value.
Before that time, however, and while the child was still very young, the lady died, and the ball was forgotten. The little Matilda grew up, knowing nothing of its worth; indeed, she did not even know that there was such a thing in the castle.
Not long after his wife’s death the baron married again. His second wife was a very handsome woman, but she was cold and proud and envious. From the first day she saw Matilda, she hated the child because of her beauty and her gentleness. She treated her so unkindly that Matilda was very unhappy. She was worse fed and clothed than any servant in the castle, and the meanest room and the hardest bed were given to her. Still she grew in beauty day by day, and every one except the stepmother loved her for her gentle ways and her sweetness.
One day the stepmother wished to examine the jewels that had once belonged to the Lady Matilda. She intended to choose from among them such as she might admire. She had the jewel casket brought to her room, and unlocked it and began to examine the ornaments that were in it. Some of them she decided to keep, but others she threw aside. At last, hidden away in a corner, she came upon a common little carved wooden ball.
“What is this?” she asked. “Why should this have been locked away with the jewels as though it were valuable?”
Her ladies whom she had brought with her to the castle could not tell her, and she disdainfully threw the ball out through the open window of her room.
Now it so chanced that Matilda was passing under the window at that very time, and the ball fell directly at her feet. Surprised, she stooped and picked it up, and examined it. The top seemed to be screwed on, but though she tried again and again she could not unscrew it. However, Matilda took the greatest fancy to the ball. Through the day she carried it in her pocket or the bosom of her dress, and at night she slipped it under her pillow, and somehow she felt quite happy and contented now in spite of the unkindness of her stepmother.
One day Matilda sat down beside the fountain in the garden, and, as usual, she began to play with the ball, tossing it up into the air and catching it again. Suddenly the ball slipped from her fingers and fell into the fountain. Matilda bent over and tried to reach it, but it had floated beyond her reach. Then a hand appeared in the waters and seized it, and the figure of the nixie rose out of the fountain.
“Do not be afraid, my child,” said the nixie to Matilda. “I wish you nothing but good. I am your godmother, and it was I who gave this ball to your mother to keep for you until you were old enough to take charge of it yourself. Unfortunately she died before that time arrived. It is well you have found it at last, for the time is at hand when you will need it. Listen well to what I now tell you. This ball contains three wishes which you can use at any time. But be careful. Only in the time of your greatest need must you use its magic, for after it has given you three wishes, its power will be gone, and it can do nothing more for you.”
The nixie then told Matilda that there was one other way in which the ball could aid her. If at any time she wished to become invisible, she had only to hold it in her hand and say:
“Light to guide me,
Dark to hide me,
Let no harm nor ill betide me.”
No one then would be able to see her until she wished to become visible again.
At once, after saying this, the nixie disappeared, dissolving back into the waters, but the ball she left lying on the grass beside the fountain.
Matilda picked it up and slipped it into her bosom, and then went back to the castle, very grave and thoughtful.
Now in the years while Matilda was growing to womanhood, the baron’s enemies had grown very strong, so strong indeed that they no longer feared him. A plan was made to attack him in his castle, to take him prisoner, and to rob him of the possessions that he himself had stolen from others. The attack was planned for a certain night when there would be no moon, and it would be too dark for those inside the castle to see their enemies approach.
Matilda went to bed early that evening, and soon fell asleep. She slept for only a few hours, however. Suddenly, just before midnight, she was awakened by a great uproar and confusion. The assault had begun. The baron’s enemies had surrounded the castle. They entered in and captured the baron and his wife, and presently they came to the door of Matilda’s room and began to break down the door. The poor girl was overcome with terror.
Suddenly she remembered the charm the nixie had taught her. She caught up the wooden ball from under her pillow, and in a whisper she repeated:
“Light to guide me,
Dark to hide me,
Let no harm nor ill betide me.”
At once she became invisible. The door was broken open, and the foemen came into the room, but they saw no one. Matilda, indeed, was there close beside them, but they could not see her, and she was careful not to brush against them. Unseen, she passed from the room and down the stairs and out of the castle. There was a light in the heavens now, a red glow of flames, for the castle had been set on fire.
Matilda hurried away, and when she had gone far enough to feel that she was safe, she wished and became visible again. Just as day was breaking, she came to a deep forest. So far she had seen no one, but before venturing farther she gathered roots and herbs, and with them she stained her face and hands so that no one would have known her. She looked like a gipsy, or some poor servant-maid in search of work. She had now no fear of robbers, for who would think of stopping anyone so poor and miserable-looking as she?
All day she travelled through the forest, and by night she came out on the other side of it and saw before her a great castle. Matilda knocked at the door and humbly begged the woman who opened it to take her in and give her food and shelter. In return for such help she would gladly do any work that might be needed about the castle.
Now it so happened that the old woman was the housekeeper, and she was in need of a scullery-maid. Matilda, with her poor clothes and her darkened hands and face, looked just the one for such a place.
“If you are willing to work,” said the housekeeper, “it may be that we can strike a bargain. You may begin by scouring these pots and pans. If you do it well, I will keep you here as scullery-maid.”
Matilda at once set to work, and soon had the kettles and pans shining like new. The housekeeper was very much pleased, and decided to engage her. So Matilda became a scullery-maid in the castle. Sometimes she helped the cook, for she was very clever in cookery.
Now the nobleman to whom this castle belonged was a young and handsome count named Conrad. His father was dead and his mother was anxious to see him married; but never yet had the count seen any lady who attracted him sufficiently.
At last the old countess decided to give a ball for the count, and to invite to it all the most beautiful ladies from the country round. Among them all she hoped her son would see some one whom he would care to make his wife.
The invitations were sent out, and everywhere there was great excitement. Not only was the count young and handsome; he was also as rich as a prince, and so courteous that he was beloved by all. There were few among the ladies who did not hope that they might be chosen as his bride.
At the castle nothing was talked of but the ball that was to be given for the count. Matilda listened to all that was said, and the more she heard, the more she wished that she too might go to the dance and mingle with the other ladies. All the while she had been at the castle she had kept the ball with her, but she had been careful not to use any of the three wishes it contained. But now the time had come when she determined to try its power. The night of the ball Matilda finished her work early, and then she stole away to her room and fastened the door so that no one could come in.
First of all she took water and washed off the stain from her face and hands. When this was done, her skin was once more as fair as a lily, and her cheeks as red as roses. She shook down her wonderful hair so that it fell in a cloud about her. She combed and braided it, and then she took out the little wooden ball and held it in her hand.
“Little ball, I hold you close;
Little ball, I hold you tight;
By your magic power I pray
Grant my wish to me to-night,”
she whispered. And then, “I wish,” she said, “for a gown more beautiful than any that ever was seen, and for ornaments to go with it—jewels for my neck and jewels for my hair, and slippers, and a fan to wave in my hand.”
At once, upon the bed, appeared a gown more beautiful than Matilda had ever dreamed of. It was woven all of silver, and set with pearls, and with it there were ornaments for her neck and hair and a fan of shining plumes; and on the floor beside the bed stood a tiny pair of satin slippers embroidered with pearls and threads of silver.
Trembling with haste, Matilda dressed, for already the night was late, and when at last she stood clothed all in silvery white, the whole room shone with the light of her beauty.
She stole down the stairs unnoticed, and it was not long before she reached the old countess’s house where the ball was being held. Many beautiful ladies were there, the loveliest in the land, but when Matilda entered the ballroom, she outshone them all as the moon outshines the stars at night.
From the moment he saw her Count Conrad had eyes for no one else, and there was no one else with whom he would dance. Before the end of the evening he drew her aside into another room.
“Listen,” said he. “Never before in all my life have I seen anyone as beautiful as you, nor one whom I could love as already I love you. Tell me, I pray, who you are. Only some great lady or princess could be as beautiful as you.”
Matilda was filled with joy when the count said he loved her, but immediately after she became sad, for she thought that if he learned she was only a kitchen-maid in his castle, he would no longer care for her.
“Look, I beg of you,” she said, “and see whether there is not some one listening at the door.”
The count thought Matilda wished to tell him some secret, and he at once went to the door to make sure that no one could overhear it.
Matilda drew the wooden ball from her pocket and whispered:
“Light to guide me,
Dark to hide me,
Let no harm nor ill betide me.”
At once she became invisible, and she slipped past the count and hurried back to the castle.
When the count turned, he was very much surprised to find that his beautiful partner had disappeared. He could not imagine what had become of her. He hunted for her everywhere, and asked every one which way she had gone, but no one had seen her.
He was very much disquieted at this. However, there was to be another ball the next night, and Count Conrad felt sure Matilda would appear at it also. This time he was determined she should not leave him until he knew who she was and whence she came. To make sure of this, he decided to set a guard about the house, with orders to follow any strange lady who passed out alone, and watch where she went.
All the next day but little was to be heard anywhere but talk of the wonderful stranger, of how beautiful she had been, and how magnificently dressed, and of how much the count had admired her. Every one wondered whether she would appear again at the second ball.
When evening came, Matilda made haste to finish her work, and then stole away to her little garret room. Taking the ball in her hand, she said:
“Little ball, now serve me right,
Grant the wish I wish to-night.”
“I wish I may have a gown even more beautiful than the one I wore last night, and all ornaments that should go with it.”
At once the room was filled with light, and Matilda saw, lying upon the bed, a gown made entirely of cloth of gold, and set with precious stones. There were jewels for her neck and arms, and a pair of golden slippers that shone like glass. Matilda dressed in haste, and throwing a dark cloak over her, she stole away through the night to the ball.
Count Conrad had been watching for her. He would, indeed, look at no one else, and as soon as she entered, he hastened to her side.
If she had been beautiful the night before, she was far more so now. Then she had shone like the moon, but now she glittered like the sun, so that it dazzled the eyes to look at her.
The count begged her to dance with him, and as soon as he could, he drew her aside into another room. He then took from his hand a ring, and placing it upon her finger, he said, “Now you are my own true love, for you wear my ring upon your finger. But tell me, I pray of you, who you are and whence you come, that I may ask your hand in marriage in a proper manner.”
“Alas, my mother is dead,” answered Matilda, “and my father, I fear, has also been put to death by cruel enemies.”
So saying she dropped her fan. The count at once stooped to pick it up. Quick as thought, as he stooped, Matilda drew her ball from her pocket and whispered the magic charm:
“Light to guide me,
Dark to hide me,
Let no harm nor ill betide me.”
At once she became invisible, and slipping from the room, she hastened back to the castle.
When the count looked up and found that his beautiful partner had once more disappeared, he was in despair. He searched through every room, and then sent for his guards and questioned them closely. None of them could tell him anything of the stranger, however. Not one had seen her pass by. This was not strange, for Matilda had remained invisible until she reached the castle. She was even then in her little attic room, slipping off her beautiful clothes, and staining her face and hands that she might again appear as the kitchen wench.
Again the count had lost her. But now he determined to give a ball himself. He caused it to be made known that this ball was in honour of the unknown beauty, and he had no doubt but that she would appear at it as she had at the other two. This time he determined that not for one instant would he lose sight of her.
The count’s ball was to be much more magnificent than those that the old countess had given. All the servants in the castle were set to work preparing for it, and Matilda was no less busy than the others. She had not a moment to herself.
The night of the ball arrived, and there was still much to be done in the kitchen. Matilda began to see that there would be no chance for her to slip away from her work and appear at the ball.
She did indeed ask the housekeeper to allow her an hour that she might go outside and peep in through a window at the dancers, but the housekeeper refused her angrily.
“Look in through the windows!” she cried. “What are you thinking of? You would frighten the ladies to death with your gipsy face and your big eyes. No; do you stay here in the kitchen where you belong, and do your work in a proper manner.”
Matilda would not disobey her, but as she scoured the pots and pans, she could not prevent the tears from falling. She could think of nothing but Count Conrad, of how handsome he was, and how kind and gentle.
Meanwhile the count was standing close to the door of the ballroom, waiting for the beautiful stranger to appear. Great coaches rolled up to the entrance of the castle. Beautiful ladies in silks and satins and jewels swept through the rooms. They waved their fans and smiled at the count, but he had no eyes for any of them. His thoughts were all of Matilda. Little he guessed that even then she was scouring kettles in the kitchen below and weeping as she scoured.
As hour after hour passed and she did not appear, the count’s heart grew heavy with grief. By the time the ball was over and his guests were leaving, he was quite ill with disappointment. He could hardly stand to bid them farewell. The beautiful stranger had not come, and now he feared he would never see her again.
The next day word passed through the castle that the young count was unable to leave his bed. He had fallen ill through grief and disappointment. Doctors were sent for, but they could do nothing for him. One thing could cure him and one alone, and that was some knowledge of the beautiful stranger who had danced with him.
Matilda had managed to win the confidence of the old housekeeper, and now she went to her and said, “I have heard how ill the count is and how all the medicines the doctors have given him have failed to help him. If you will but let me, I can make a broth of such wonderful qualities that if the count will but taste of it he will be cured.”
At first the housekeeper refused, but Matilda still urged and entreated, until at last the old woman grew tired of saying ‘no’ to her.
“Very well, then,” she said. “It will do no harm for you to make a bowl of broth, but as to its having the power to cure the count, that, of course, I do not believe.”
Matilda at once set to work, and as she was very clever at cooking, she made a broth so rich and delicious that it made the mouth water just to smell of it. It was as clear as crystal, and of a rich amber colour. When it was done, she put it in a silver bowl and covered it over with a napkin, but before doing this she managed to drop into it the ring that the count had given her.
The broth was so good that the housekeeper was delighted with it, and she herself carried it up to her master’s room.
When she entered with it, the count turned away his head. “Why do you come here?” he said. “Do not trouble me. I wish for nothing.”
But the housekeeper would not be sent away in this manner. “I have brought you a bowl of broth,” she said, “and it is so delicious that if you will but taste of it, I am sure you will be better.”
With these words she uncovered the bowl and placed it before the count, and the broth was so clear that at once he saw the ring lying at the bottom of it.
“What is this!” he cried. “Who has made this broth? Tell me immediately.”
The housekeeper was frightened at his look and tone. “It is good broth,” she cried; “the best of broth, I am sure, even though it was made by our little kitchen-maid.”
“Whoever made it, send her to me at once,” demanded the count.
The housekeeper was very much concerned. She hurried away to the kitchen.
“What is to be done now?” she said to Matilda. “The count demands to see you, but the sight of your rags and dark face would surely throw him into a fever. This is a pretty piece of work!”
“Do not be troubled,” said Matilda. “I will wash my face and hands, and then do you lend me your cloak and your long veil. With them I can cover myself so that he will not be able to see what I look like.”
To this the housekeeper agreed, as she could think of no better plan.
Matilda took the cloak and veil and hastened away with them to her own room. There she combed her hair and washed off the stain, and then she put on her golden dress and her jewels, which she had kept hidden away since the night of the ball. When she was dressed, she covered herself carefully with the cloak and veil, so that even the housekeeper’s prying eyes could not catch a glint of the finery beneath. So disguised, Matilda went up to Count Conrad’s room and stood modestly just inside the doorway.
The count had been waiting for her impatiently, and as soon as she entered, he said, “Was it you who made the broth the housekeeper brought to me?”
“It was I,” answered Matilda.
“And who was it who put the ring in it?”
“It was I.”
“Then tell me,” cried the count, “who gave you the ring. How came you by it?”
“It was you yourself who gave me the ring, and it was you who placed it on my finger,” said Matilda.
With these words she put aside the veil and dropped the cloak from her shoulders. There she stood before him, blushing, and filling all the room with the light of her beauty.
The count was transported with joy. “You have come!” he cried, “and you have come at the time when I most despaired of finding you. Now we will be married, and never again shall you leave me.”
At these words Matilda grew very sad. “Alas, that may not be,” said she. “Have you forgotten that I am only your kitchen-maid?”
But the count loved her too dearly to care for that. “You will be my wife,” he said, “and then who will dare to remember what you were before?”
“Yes, but there is another reason why we can never, never marry,” sighed Matilda. “You will agree with me as to that when I tell you that my father was your father’s bitterest enemy.”
“Who was your father?” asked the count, wondering.
Matilda then related to him her whole story, who her father was, how her mother had died while she was still a child, and about her stepmother and her nixie godmother. She also told him of how she had chanced to come to his castle and take service there.
The count listened to all she had to say, and when she had come to an end, he took her in his arms and embraced her tenderly.
“I care not who you are,” he said, “nor whence you come. I know only that I love you, and that you and you alone shall be my bride.”
Matilda was very happy when she heard this. She already loved the count dearly, and now she could no longer refuse him.
Almost at once preparations for the wedding were begun, and people from far and near were invited to come to it.
The first to be asked was the count’s mother, a proud and covetous old woman. She had been the one who was most eager for her son to marry, but when she heard whom he had chosen for a bride, that it was the daughter of an enemy, and, moreover, a girl both poor and homeless, she was filled with rage.
At once she hastened to the castle, and urged and entreated the count to give up Matilda, but he would not listen to her. He loved his bride too tenderly for that.
When his mother found that all her efforts to separate them were in vain, she left the castle in a fury, and drove away to her home. Never again, she vowed, would she set foot in the castle as long as Matilda was there, and the time would come when the young count would bitterly regret his choice of a wife.
Count Conrad was grieved at his mother’s anger, but he was too happy with Matilda to grieve long. He and she were soon married, and so sweet and gentle was her character that every day the count loved her better and was more contented with his choice.
When the count and Matilda had been married for a year, a child was born to them, a little boy so handsome and big and strong that the count was filled with joy and pride.
The nurse who had charge of the child was sent to the castle by the old countess, and both the count and Matilda were delighted at what they took to be a sign that his mother had forgiven them. This was not the case however. The old countess still hated Matilda with a bitter hatred, and had sent the nurse, hoping she might find some way to injure her, and if possible to separate her from the count.
Matilda always slept with the baby’s cradle close to her own bed. One night, when all the castle was wrapped in sleep, the old nurse slipped into the room, and lifting the child carefully from the cradle, she carried it away without waking anyone.
In the morning, as soon as Matilda awoke, her eyes as usual turned first of all to the cradle. She was greatly surprised to see that it was empty, and at once called the nurse and demanded what had become of the child.
The nurse pretended to be equally surprised. “I do not know,” she answered. “When I last saw him, he was asleep in the cradle beside your ladyship.”
Matilda was very much alarmed. The count was called, the castle searched thoroughly, and every one was questioned, but they could find no trace of the baby.
“It must be some evil spirit or enchantress who has carried him away,” said the nurse. “Last night I heard a beating of wings outside my window, and a strange sound of sighing and moaning, but I thought it was only some great bird that was lost in the night.”
This the nurse said not because she had really heard anything, but because this was part of a plot that she and the old countess had hatched between them.
Days passed, and still nothing was heard of the child. The count was in despair. Even Matilda herself was scarcely more dear to him than his infant son.
At the end of a year another child was born to Matilda, and this also was a son, a child as strong and handsome as the first.
But again, when the infant was only a few weeks old, the nurse stole it away secretly in the night, without being seen by anyone. In the morning the cradle was empty, and no trace of the child could be found anywhere.
The count was filled with grief and anguish. In his heart he secretly blamed Matilda because she had not awakened when the child was carried away. But he restrained himself from reproaching her. He could not help treating her somewhat coldly, however, and Matilda was grieved to the heart not only over the loss of the child, but because she feared her husband no longer loved her.
At the end of the year, still a third child was born, and now, in order to make sure that it should not be stolen, a watch was kept over the infant—by day and night; and though he slept by Matilda’s side, there was always some one else in the room with them.
But even this precaution could not keep the nurse from carrying out her wicked plans. When the child was still only a few weeks old, she managed one evening to put a sleeping potion in the repast that was served to Matilda, and in that of the attendant as well.
Night came and the child was laid in the cradle close to Matilda’s bed. The attendant took her place at the door. It was not long, however, before Matilda and the attendant fell into a deep sleep. The nurse then stole into the room, and lifting the child from the cradle, she carried it away with her as she had the two others.
When morning came, and it was discovered that this child too had been stolen, the count could restrain himself no longer. The woman who had been in attendance was thrown into prison, and he heaped reproaches on Matilda for having allowed this third child, the most beautiful of them all, to be stolen from her side.
“You should not be surprised,” said the wicked nurse, “and the attendant is not to blame. There is some enchantment in this, and if you will come aside with me into a private room, I will tell you of some things I have seen here in the castle in the last three years.”
The count was in a state to listen to anything, and he allowed the nurse to speak to him in private, and to tell him the story that she and the old countess had arranged between them.
She told him that though Matilda seemed so fair and gentle, she was in reality a wicked enchantress. This his mother had known, and it was for this reason she had been so unwilling that he should marry her, and for no other cause. During the night when the child was stolen, the nurse said, she had been awakened by a beating of wings, and had stolen to the door and looked out. There she had seen Matilda talking with a being that from its looks could be nothing but an evil spirit. Presently (so the nurse said) Matilda had gone back into her chamber, and when she returned she was carrying the child, and she had given it into the hands of the strange being. “After that,” said the nurse, “I saw no more, for I was afraid to look. But I make no doubt that that is what has become of all the children, and that the young countess caused the attendant to fall into an enchanted sleep so that she might have a chance to give the baby to the evil spirit.”
The count was so distracted with grief that he was ready to believe anything. He remembered what Matilda had told him of her godmother the nixie, and it seemed to him possible that this water spirit had some power over her that might cause her to sacrifice her children. In his distraction he sent for his mother to question her as to what she knew.
The old countess had been waiting for this summons. She came to him at once and in haste, and her heart was full of evil joy at the thought that at last she was to have Matilda in her power.
When she appeared before her son, however, she dissembled her joy, and pretended to be sad.
“Alas, my dear son,” said she, “what I feared has come to pass at last. I would have warned you before that the bride you had chosen was a wicked enchantress, but I knew you would not listen to me. Now, however, she has shown herself in her own wicked character. She has sacrificed her children to an evil spirit, and it is only right that she should be punished for her wickedness.”
The count knew not what to answer to this. He still loved Matilda, but if she had done such a wicked thing as to give her children to an evil spirit, she must suffer for it.
“What you say may be true,” said he to his mother. “As for me, I am so distracted that I no longer seem to understand anything. I will go away on a long journey, and I will leave Matilda in your hands. Do as you think best with her, only treat her as gently as you can.”
As soon as the count had said this he left his mother and went away, and it was well for his mother that he did so. She was so overjoyed at the way her plans had turned out that she could no longer hide her satisfaction. The count left the castle without bidding farewell to his wife. Matilda was cut to the heart when she found he had left her without a word. She was also terrified at the thought that now the old countess had her in her power.
Matilda had indeed good cause for fear. As soon as the count had gone, his mother caused an iron room to be built. All about this room were ovens arranged in such a way that the room could be made so hot that it would be impossible for anyone to remain in it for long and live. After it was finished, Matilda was induced to go into it, and as soon as she was inside, the door was shut and locked.
The moment Matilda found that she had been locked in the room alone, she suspected some evil. She looked about her for a way of escape, but the walls were of iron, and the room had been built in such a way that there were no windows.
“Alas,” said Matilda, “are my misfortunes never to end? Oh, my dear husband, how had you the heart to leave me here alone and in the power of that wicked woman?”
In her despair Matilda threw herself down upon the floor of the room. As she did so, she felt something hard in the pocket of her dress. She slipped her hand into it and drew out the wooden ball that she had so long forgotten. One more wish was left to her. Now, if ever, was her time of need. Holding it in her hand she whispered:
“Little ball, so great my need,
Only you can help indeed;
Save me now and set me free,
Give my children back to me.”
Without her willing it, the ball slipped from her fingers and fell upon the floor, and was broken to pieces. From these fragments arose a silvery mist that spread through the room and filled it with a refreshing coolness. In the midst of the mist appeared the nixie, and in her arms she carried three beautiful little boys. They were the children who had been stolen from Matilda.
The nixie smiled upon her godchild and spoke in a voice like the flowing of cool waters. “At last you have remembered me and my gift,” she said. “Long have I been waiting for you to call upon me, my child. Now I am here, and no harm can come to you. Look! Here are the three children that the wicked old countess caused to be thrown into the water, thinking to drown them. But I saved them. They have been safe in my care until you should call upon me, and now I restore them to you.”
So saying, she placed the children in Matilda’s arms, and the mother clasped them to her, weeping with joy.
Meanwhile the men who had been in charge of the ovens that were to heat the room found that in spite of all they could do the walls of it remained cool. They went to the old countess and told her this. “Our fires are burning brightly,” they said, “and are so hot that we can scarcely go near them, and yet the walls of the room are even cooler than when we began.”
The countess could not understand how this could be. She was about to go and probe the mystery when she heard a clatter of hoofs outside, and a sound of loud voices. She looked from a window, and saw to her surprise and alarm that it was her son returning to the castle.
The count, indeed, had been unable to bear the thought of having left Matilda in his mother’s care. He feared some harm might come to her, and the farther he went, the more anxious he had grown. At last he had turned his horse and ridden back with all speed to tell Matilda that he still loved her, and that whatever their sorrow was, they would bear it together.
As soon as the old countess saw her son, she knew that her plots had failed, and she feared his wrath when he should find his wife shut in the iron room. She determined not to wait for that, and calling the wicked nurse, they escaped together from the castle and fled away, nobody knew whither.
As for the count, he hurried through the castle, searching everywhere for Matilda, and at last he came to the iron room. When he found that she was locked inside it, and saw the ovens all about it, he was like one distracted.
He turned the key and threw open the door, but he scarce dared look inside. He dreaded what he might see there.
When he did summon courage, however, what was his wonder to see not only his wife, but there in her arms the three children they had lost. He could hardly believe his eyes and was well-nigh crazy with joy. Flinging himself on his knees before her, he begged her to forgive him for having doubted her and for having left her as he had done.
Matilda, who was all mildness and sweetness, raised him from his knees and placed the children in his arms.
“See,” said she, “you have no longer any reason to mistrust me. These are our own dear children whom the nixie has returned to us.”
She then told the count the whole story, and when she came to an end they kissed each other and the children, and from that time on they lived in mutual love and happiness.
As for the wicked old countess, unless she died of spite, she may be living and wandering over the world to this very day.
SHORT STORY FOR CHILDREN BY KATHARINE PYLE
Vintage story illustration by Katharine Pyle
Header illustration by Atelier Sommerland
LET’S CHAT ABOUT THE STORIES ~ IDEAS FOR TALKING WITH KIDS
1. When the Count wanted to marry Matilda, she told him who her father was and who she was, even though she was worried that he wouldn’t want to marry her any more. Why did she do this? Why do you think honesty is important?
2. At the end of the story, the narrator wonders if the wicked countess died of spite. Do you think it is possible to die of spite? Why or why not?
3. Even if spite could not cause a person to die, what do you think it could do to you all the same?
4. If you had a wooden ball with three wishes, what would your wishes be?