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Florio and Florella by Mrs. W. J. Hays

A CHRISTMAS FAIRY TALE

CHAPTER I

There was once a child named Florio, who had neither father nor mother, uncle nor aunt, and so it happened that he was adopted by a witch. He might have had a fairy godmother if anybody had remembered to ask one to the christening, but as no one took enough interest in him for that, it was neglected, and poor Florio became the property of a hideous, hateful old hag, who was never so happy as when she was making trouble. Of course Florio was compelled to do her bidding. Naturally inoffensive and gentle, he was continually obliged to do violence to his conscience by obeying the witch.

For instance, the witch—who was known by the name of Fussioldfuri, and lived in a miserable cavern when she was not travelling about—had great delight in spoiling any one's innocent amusement or upsetting his or her plans; she even started children quarrelling and disputing; indeed, she found this one of her particular pastimes when she was not engaged in annoying older people.

It was among children that she made Florio particularly useful—so useful, in fact, that he never had a friend. If she found him amusing himself with a happy little company, she made him do some selfish or ugly thing which at once put a stop to all the cheerfulness; and often, before he knew what he was about, he would be struggling and kicking and screaming and flinging himself upon one or the other of his comrades, while Fuss—as we must call her for convenience—laughed till she shook, and tears of joy ran down her ugly leathery cheeks. Then Florio, ashamed, miserable, and unhappy, would creep off to a corner and weep as if his little heart would break.

It was after one of these dreadful occurrences one day that Florio, hiding in the woods, heard a strange rustling among the bushes. He was so used to wandering about after old Fuss, and living anyhow and anywhere, that he was more like a little creature of the woods himself than anything else, and it took a good deal to frighten him. Patter, patter, patter it went. What could it be? He peered in and out and under the bush, but he saw nothing except a nest full of little blue eggs, which he would not touch for the world; no, he knew too well how pleased old Fuss would be to have him disturb this little bird family, and he concealed it again. As he did so, the sweetest little voice said,

"That's right."

Florio jumped as if a wasp had stung him.

"Yes," continued the voice, "you couldn't have pleased me better."

"But who are you? where are you?" asked Florio, to whom kind words were unknown, but on whom they had the effect of making his heart beat with a new and strange emotion.

"I cannot tell you anything just now very well, but if you will meet me here in the moonlight this evening, Florio, I will be glad to see you."

"To-night?" questioned the boy, who did not like the darkness.

"Yes, child; have no fear. I am the fairy Florella. Adieu."

The days were generally too short for Florio, who hated the nights in the dismal cavern, when Fuss pulled his hair and pinched his nose and tripped him up over her staff by way of amusement; but now he longed for the night to come, although it must be confessed he was not without fears. Fuss was uglier than usual, but this did not affect Florio as it might have done had he not had something unusual and exciting to think of. Soon as the witch tumbled down on her heap of straw for the night, and showed by her heavy breathing and frightful snoring that she was asleep, Florio crept softly from the cavern.

It was a beautiful evening, soft and balmy, but to leave the bright roadway and enter the dark woods demanded some courage, for ill-usage had rendered Florio timid in the darkness, though, as I have said before, he did not fear wild animals. Indeed, when a young fox came cautiously out of the thicket, and glanced about, Florio approached near enough to touch his bushy tail.

It was somewhat difficult to find the precise spot of the day's occurrence, but he noticed that whenever he went in a wrong direction a crowd of fire-flies would start up and show him the right way, and thus he was enabled to find the sweet-brier bush. As he reached it he heard the same patter, patter, patter on the leaves of the bush, and looking up he saw what caused the sound. Troops of tiny creatures were fluttering from leaf to leaf. Each had little silvery wings like butterflies, and each carried sprigs and sprays of blossoms, while following them came elves of most grotesque appearance, bearing platters of fruit and wild honey. In a moment they had formed a circle on the grass, and danced about, singing as they went, while the elves arranged a feast.

When all was in readiness, one—of largest size and of apparent superiority—beckoned to Florio to come near. Afraid to disobey, yet equally fearful of treading upon them, Florio approached, and in a moment he was surrounded, and with gentle pressure obliged to take their various offerings. One gave him grape leave cups and baskets woven of perfumed grasses, another filled them with honey and fruit, while all laughed to see what appeared to them the enormous quantities necessary for one so large.

"Florio, you have done well to obey me," said the same sweet voice he had heard in the daytime. "This, added to your consideration for the bird's-nest to-day, has pleased me, and your evident misery has aroused my compassion. Fussioldfuri is an enemy of ours, and I never expected to see one trained by her show a pitiful or kind spirit. It proves to me that there must be something in you worth cultivating. Are you willing to be guided by me? Do you want to leave old Fuss, and become one of my servitors?"

Florio was not quite sure that he fully understood all that was said to him, but he was delighted at the idea of leaving Fuss, and said so.

Florella smiled upon him, and continued, "It may not be so easy as you imagine; those who serve me have to stand a test of faithfulness, energy, and courage. Our life seems one of careless mirth, but it is not so. We, of course, are happy, and enjoy ourselves; but we have many duties, and are not altogether free, as would be supposed. I am at the head of this little band. We are Flower Fairies, cousins to the Wind Fairies and Herb Elves. I am familiar with every wild-flower that grows, and I am now desirous of getting for our forests some seeds of the Swiss Edelweiss. If you can procure them for me I will reward you handsomely."

Poor Florio heard this speech with consternation. He had never in all his life known one flower from another. Where, when, how could he go? And if he went, how should he escape Fuss? These thoughts made the poor child falter and grow pale. It would have been so much easier to say he could not do it, and have done with the matter; but the remembrance of his horrible slavery, and the thought that Florella believed in his ability to aid her, stimulated his courage, and he said,

"I know nothing of flowers, dear lady; I am a very ignorant fellow; but if you will direct me, and tell me where to go, I am ready to try."

"Spoken well, my lad," said the fairy. "I do not expect impossibilities. We are the only ones who can do what seems impossible to man. The Edelweiss is a mountain flower, growing on the highest Alps, and many a man has lost his life striving to pluck it for one he loved. It is much esteemed for its rarity, and because of the often great difficulty of getting it. See, here is a dried blossom;" and she put in his hand a small white flower like an immortelle, though Florio thought that it looked as if it were made of flannel, it was so soft and woolly.

"This you must keep; see, I will put it in this case of birch-bark, and you had better place it in your bosom. Now I must tell you about the journey. To leave Fussioldfuri immediately might make the task more difficult. She is about starting for the mountains, and if you keep with her a while longer you will be able to find the place you need much sooner than if you went alone. But when you reach Geneva you are to leave her. Can you remember that?"

"Oh yes, the rhyme will help me:

"'When I get to Geneva,
Then I must leave her.'"

"Exactly; and then you are to seek the Edelweiss, and when you have gathered the seeds you are to meet me here in this forest, whether it be winter or whether it be summer. Adieu."

The fairy vanished, and with her went her band—nodding, waving, and kissing their finger-tips.

Oh, how dreary the woods seemed without the little troop! The wind sighed in the pines, and the moonlight cast fearful shadows from the gnarled and knotty boughs.

Florio rose with a sigh and stretched his limbs, wondering if it was worth while to try and do the fairy's bidding when he had to go back to hear the dreaded voice of old Fuss. Then he made sure of the birch-bark case, and again with the aid of the fire-flies found the road. Fuss was sound asleep still when he laid himself down on his bundle of straw in the farthest corner of the cavern. One thing he did not notice, and that was the young fox whose bushy tail he had touched going into the woods. It had followed him home, and crept in under the straw beside him.


CHAPTER II

High up in the Swiss mountains a storm was brewing. On their cloud-capped summits nothing could be seen but snow—dazzling, blinding white snow, and wreaths of vapor which congealed as it fell. All day the people of the hamlets had been preparing for the visitor, knowing full well that they should be housed for weeks after its descent, and as Christmas was approaching, it was needful that much should be done.

As the day grew darker, each hurried to complete his or her work, and none essayed more eagerly to do this than young Franz, the goatherd; but try as he would, the heedless, wanton little flock were constantly escaping from him, and if it had not been for Jan, the great mastiff of the famous St. Bernard breed, he would have been still more troubled. As it was, he found one goat missing when he went to house them, and again he had to take his alpenstock and try what he could do.

By this time the storm was indeed upon them, and between the wind and the snow, the icy atmosphere and the darkness, Franz had about concluded to let the goat go, when Jan began to sniff about and bark, and show by signs as easily read as print that he was seeking something. Franz thought it must be on account of the goat, but just then old Nan appeared with her customary capriciousness, and made no resistance to the cord with which Franz bound her.

Still Jan kept up his scratching and sniffing and barking, and Franz knew only too well that there was no use in opposing him, although his fingers and toes were half frozen.

As soon as the dog saw that Franz recognized the necessity of following him he quieted down, and with a zealous industry nosed the path from side to side, as if in search of something; nor did he have to go far, for they presently descried what seemed like a big snow-heap on one side of the now undiscoverable path.

Here Jan halted and looked intently; then he began scratching and whining again, and Franz saw a bit of cloth. Soon an arm appeared, and next a leg, and after vigorous work from both Franz and Jan, the whole figure of a child, clasping something in its arms, was uncovered. Dead or alive, Franz knew not which it was; but very well he knew what it was the child carried, for its big bushy red tail showed it to be a fox, and it too was as motionless and lifeless as the child.

The goatherd had braved the dangers of the mountains all his lifetime, and knew how to be cool and decided in the presence of danger. He had his knife and drinking-cup beside him, and his horn slung over his shoulder. In a moment he had made Nan stand still while he milked her, and then he pried open the stiff lips of the lad, and forced the warm liquid within. As he did so, the child revived and swallowed, for he had not been long unconscious. Then putting him on Jan's back, and driving Nan before him, Franz made his way home as best he could.

It was late when tired Franz, whose mother was in the door-way looking anxiously for him, arrived. All the children were within, and the fire was burning brightly. On the table the soup was steaming. An exclamation of surprise arose from all as Jan and his burden marched in.

"Who is it?" "Where did he come from?" "Where did you find him?" "What was he doing all alone in the storm?" burst from all their lips.

"So, so; slowly, please," answered the cool and courageous Franz. Then he told them his adventure.

"A stranger lad, lost on the roadside," murmured the mother, as she took the boy from Jan and carefully undressed him, the children meanwhile attending to the nearly frozen fox.

"Poor child! poor child! he shall be welcome. A sorry Christmas it is for him."

"Not when he fell into your hands, good mother," said Franz, ladling out the soup.

"No indeed—no indeed," said one and all.

But the mother's words seemed to be the truth, for though the child revived, and was able to take nourishment, a fever set in, from which he did not rally. Day by day he lay in the little curtained recess where he could see them all with his great wondering eyes, watching them carve their beautiful toys—for this was their winter work—but saying nothing, for he knew not their language, and only one word had he uttered which they could understand.

This word was simply "Edelweiss." "Edelweiss," he muttered, when the fever was at its height, and "Edelweiss" he softly whispered when dreaming.

The children called him "Little Edelweiss," and fed his fox, which lapped their hands and brought a sweet smile to the face of the little sufferer.

Christmas-eve would be on the morrow, and all were busy dressing the room with boughs of evergreen. The tree stood in the corner, waiting for its glittering fruit. Outside the sheaf of grain had been tied to a pole for the snow-birds. All had some trifling gifts prepared for a joyful keeping of the day, Franz only seemed to be uneasy. He would glance at the pale face of his little foundling, and then he would look out to see if the weather was fine, and at last he reached up for his thickest wrap and staff, and away he went up the mountain-side. Nothing could be seen up that way but the red roof of a convent, and peak after peak of ice piercing the blue sky.

It was late when he returned and put something carefully behind the tree. All were waiting for their supper, for they were anxious to go to bed that the dear Christmas might the sooner come.

His mother scolded a little, but the stranger boy put up his thin hand reprovingly, as if he could not bear to have Franz rebuked, and then they all laughed, for they all loved Franz.

But soon they were sleeping quietly, and the moon shone upon happy faces—only the little guest tossed and murmured "Edelweiss."

The morrow came, and with it many a merry greeting. And now they could hardly wait for the day to pass. Long before dark the table was set with its sausages and spice-cake, and beside each plate a mysterious packet—for the tree bore only glittering trifles. And when the girls in their pretty scarlet bodices and whitest chemisettes sat down, and the mother reverently asked God's blessing on their food, all broke into a joyful carol. Then they examined their gifts, and the little stranger was given his share of the good things.

But just then Franz arose and brought from behind the tree a curious looking box. Tearing off the papers a small but hardy plant was revealed, and putting it in the hands of the invalid, Franz pointed to its buds and said one word, "Edelweiss."

A cry of joy burst from the boy's lips, and he clasped his treasure as if it had been indeed a flower from paradise.

"Edelweiss! Edelweiss!" was all he could utter, but the sweet and grateful tone thanked Franz better than a thousand other words could have done.

"Why, Franz," they all asked, "Where did you get it at this season? It does not grow in winter."

"No," said Franz, "I know that it does not, but I have often found it in summer, and I just happened to remember plucking some by the roots last spring for Father Glückner up at the convent—he is always gathering roots and herbs for the sick, and he has a great curiosity to transplant wild-flowers that he may see what they will produce under cultivation. See; this plant already has flowers—months too soon. He has several others, so he gave me this quite willingly."

While they were talking, the little stranger had drawn a small case of birch-bark from his pocket, and was earnestly comparing the faded and pressed flower it contained with the blooming one beside him. His face glowed with happiness, and from that moment his restoration to health began.


CHAPTER III

Again the summer-time had come, with all its warmth and beauty. The fairies were thronging all the wildwood one lovely summer evening, when a tall, handsome lad, with light, quick tread and merry glancing eyes, entered the woods, followed by a red fox, and boldly shouted, "Florella! Florella!" making the woods ring with his voice.

You would not have supposed that this could be the same boy whose sobbing aroused Florella's compassion—the poor, trembling little creature, spiritless and unhappy, who had hardly dared to say his name was Florio. But so it was; and when he called so loudly in his cheery voice, Florella quickly came forth from the sweet-brier bush and stood before him.

Doffing the cap which covered his curly pate, and bending on one knee, Florio presented without words the small plant which he had guarded with the utmost care.

A look of gracious sweetness came into the fairy's face, and she examined the flowers with the eye of one accustomed to look at things closely. Having assured herself that it was the desired plant, she turned to her assistants and invited them to examine it also. All agreed that it was the far-famed Edelweiss, and there was a great fluttering of wings, and soft exclamations of delight and excited surprise, until Florella, with a gentle wave of her hand, commanded silence.

"Now, young knight of our fair domain," she said, addressing Florio, "give me some account of your journeying, for not only have you done all that I desired, but more: here are not only seeds, but flowers and root. I pray you be seated while I listen."

Florio had learned to be mannerly, so with cap in hand he only leaned against a beech-tree, and began:

"When you bade me depart with that dreadful old Fuss, dear lady, my heart failed me entirely, and I thought I should not be able to do your bidding. So long had I been used to her cruel power that the thought of opposing her filled me with alarm; but curiously enough the very night I hastened from you to the miserable cavern we called home, a young fox followed me, and unknown to me slept by my side. When I awoke the witch was preparing for her journey, for on her back and by her side she carried bags of all shapes and sizes, with everything in them that could do mischief. In one was snuff, in another was pepper, and in a third was mustard, and in all were flinty pebbles and bits of glass. Some of these were for people's eyes and some for their feet, and she had hardly room for the mouldly old crusts and pieces of cheese which furnished us with food.

"As soon as she saw the fox, which I was petting with delight, she made a pass at it with her stick, which I am sure would have killed it had I not caught the blow. The little fellow sprang from my arms and bit her heel, which made her so very angry that I had to run for my life—but, strange to say, after that he was my only protection.

"Although she bade me drown him, and although I, remembering your commands, disobeyed her, she did not dare come near me when I had him in my arms. Day after day he followed me, night after night he slept beside me, and though I had fewer beatings, old Fuss watched me closely; she seemed to know that I wanted to get away from her.

"We toiled along on the roadsides, begging from house to house.

"At last one day we came to a beautiful sheet of water, blue and sparkling in the sunshine. Everywhere I went I had gathered flowers—sometimes they were only weeds, such as dandelions and daisies, but here on the banks of this lovely lake I found the sweetest blossoms. From every one I had tried to learn the names of the plants, but it was a very difficult matter, for half the time they misunderstood my signs, and supposed I was only making game of them; besides, when Fuss came up with her horrible jargon, every one was so disgusted that he would have nothing to do with me.

"but every day I repeated as a lesson the one word 'Edelweiss,' and whenever I had the chance I would say this to a stranger. Generally they took no notice—sometimes they would smile, and point to the mountain-peaks before us.

"The day we reached the lake Fuss was in one of her ugliest moods: she had not received a penny from any passer-by, and she had not been able to make a young boatman quarrel with his companions, although she had sprinkled pepper about until they were all sneezing as if they were crazy. I was weary and disconsolate, sitting paddling in the water, and the fox was not by me, having run after a rat that had crawled from the wreck of an old unused craft. Without a word of warning Fuss came up behind me and gave me a push.

"Over I went into the water, head and heels both submerged. Strangling, puffing, battling for my life, I rose to the surface. I had fallen just where the water was shallow, but where grasses and water-plants so entangled my feet that I could not swim, and should certainly have been drowned had not one of the boatmen thrown me a rope and drawn me to the shore.

"'Hang her!' 'Drown her for an old witch!' were the exclamations I heard from the rough by-standers, and also, 'Take her to the jail at Geneva.' This aroused me. Now I knew the name of the fine town towards which so many were wending their way.

"'When you get to Geneva,
Then you must leave her.'

"Oh, joy! Then I need no longer follow my dreadful guide! And there were people about who spoke English.

"As soon as I could discover who these English people were I made inquiries of them, and found they were servants of some persons travelling in their own conveyance. Tattered and draggled and wet, I dared not do more than run after the carriage at a respectful distance, with my fox in my arms, and so fearful was I of being overtaken by old Fuss that I darted into the woods whenever a wayfarer approached. But my fears were needless, for so alarmed had the witch been at the threats of the boatmen that she disappeared suddenly. Some said they saw her flying over the woods on a broomstick, with all her wretched rags and tags fluttering behind her like the tail of a kite.

"After this I toiled on, often hungry, always weary, but frequently meeting with kindness. I only wanted to find some place of shelter from the cold until the warm weather should return again, and I could renew my search for your flower.

"At last, one bitter day, striving to reach a convent where I had found out they received poor people like myself, I fell, during a blinding storm, and had neither the courage nor the wish to make the effort to rise. Gradually a heavy sleep came on. I forgot my woes, and dreamed of a garden of roses, among which floated brilliant butterflies and golden bees.

"I was aroused from this sleep by a barking and scratching, and the forcing open of my mouth to make me swallow some warm milk. A goatherd had found me, and putting me on the back of his great dog, carried me home. From that moment my troubles ended. Franz, the boy who found me, had a warm heart. His home became mine. I was ill, but all did what they could to make my sufferings less. I had only the one word, 'Edelweiss,' at my command, and but the one hope—that of procuring the flower.

"Christmas-day came. All were rejoicing, all were happy; but none could appreciate my joy when the noble Franz put this plant in my possession, his Christmas gift to me. I recovered immediately, and happiness so inspired me that I learned their language, and was enabled to tell them my story. All agreed that I must return to you, but must wait till I was strong for the journey. While with my friends I watched them carve their beautiful toys, some of which I have brought you, and learned to do their exquisite work myself. I also went often to the convent, and learned much from the celebrated Father Glückner about herbs and flowers. See; I have brought these packets of seeds, and a good collection of remarkable specimens. And all the time my little fox has been my pet, my companion, my solace. Accept, then, dear lady, these proofs of my obedience."

So saying, Florio finished speaking. As he stopped, his cheeks flushed with pleasant emotion, a nightingale poured forth a warbling stream of melody. The fairy drew her band around her and thus spoke:

"Happy mortal, thus to have achieved success. Your faithfulness and courage shall be well rewarded. Look! this is your home, this we have prepared for you. Our emissary, the young fox, had warned us of your approach, and we have all in readiness."

Saying this, she led the astonished Florio to a cottage of twisted vines and roots, built by herself and her attendant elves. The walls were brilliant with innumerable glow-worms and fireflies, which sparkled like living gems; the floor was soft with scented rushes. Garlands of roses festooned the rooms, in one of which was a table filled with fruit. Smiling with glee, Florella watched her young friend's admiration, which ended in complete astonishment when from an adjoining apartment came Franz and Rosa, the goatherd and his sister. His joy was now complete, but when he turned to thank Florella she was nowhere to be seen.

Thus it came to pass that we know of the famous gardener and seedsman Florio, whose plants are of boundless celebrity, and whose cultivated blossoms outrival the famous exotics of the world. In this forest he lived, and raised from season to season every flower that grows. No frost seemed to touch them, no drought withered them, for Florella was true to her promise of reward, and in addition to giving Florio a home, gave him also health and wealth and fame.

The elves were always on guard against moles and injurious worms, the fairies sprinkled the seeds and protected the young buds, and basking in the sunshine outside the cottage door was always to be found Florio's pet, the red fox, whom Florella for a time had chosen to be his guardian. Franz and Rosa also induced their family to leave the Alpine snows for the beautiful land of flowers.