Two or three miles from the coast of France, anyone sailing in a ship on a calm day can see deep, deep down, the trunks of great trees standing up in the water. Many hundreds of years ago these trees formed part of a large forest, full of all sorts of wild animals, and beyond the forest was a fine city, guarded by a castle in which dwelt the Dukes of Clarides. But little by little the sea drew nearer to the town; the foundations of the houses became undermined and fell in, and at length a shining sea flowed over the land. However, all this happened a long time after the story I am going to tell you.
The Dukes of Clarides had always lived in the midst of their people, and protected them both in war and peace.
At the period when this tale begins the Duke Robert was dead, leaving a young and beautiful duchess who ruled in his stead. Of course everyone expected her to marry again, but she refused all suitors who sought her hand, saying that, having only one soul she could have only one husband, and that her baby daughter was quite enough for her.
One day, she was sitting in the tower, which looked out over a rocky heath, covered in summer with purple and yellow flowers, when she beheld a troop of horsemen riding towards the castle. In the midst, seated on a white horse with black and silver trappings, was a lady whom the duchess at once knew to be her friend the Countess of Blanchelande, a young widow like herself, mother of a little boy two years older than Abeille des Clarides. The duchess hailed her arrival with delight, but her joy was soon turned into weeping when the countess sank down beside her on a pile of cushions, and told the reason of her visit.
'As you know,' she said, taking her friend's hand and pressing it between her own, 'whenever a Countess of Blanchelande is about to die she finds a white rose lying on her pillow. Last night I went to bed feeling unusually happy, but this morning when I woke the rose was resting against my cheek. I have no one to help me in the world but you, and I have come to ask if you will take Youri my son, and let him be a brother to Abeille?'
Tears choked the voice of the duchess, but she flung herself on the countess's neck, and pressed her close. Silently the two women took leave of each other, and silently the doomed lady mounted her horse and rode home again. Then, giving her sleeping boy into the care of Francœur, her steward, she laid herself quietly on her bed, where, the next morning, they found her dead and peaceful.
So Youri and Abeille grew up side by side, and the duchess faithfully kept her promise, and was a mother to them both. As they got bigger she often took them with her on her journeys through her duchy, and taught them to know her people, and to pity and to aid them.
It was on one of these journeys that, after passing through meadows covered with flowers, Youri caught sight of a great glittering expanse lying beneath some distant mountains.
'What is that, godmother?' he asked, waving his hand. 'The shield of a giant, I suppose.'
'No; a silver plate as big as the moon!' said Abeille, twisting herself round on her pony.
'It is neither a silver plate nor a giant's shield,' replied the duchess; 'but a beautiful lake. Still, in spite of its beauty, it is dangerous to go near it, for in its depths dwell some Undines, or water spirits, who lure all passers-by to their deaths.'
Nothing more was said about the lake, but the children did not forget it, and one morning, after they had returned to the castle, Abeille came up to Youri.
'The tower door is open,' whispered she; 'let us go up. Perhaps we shall find some fairies.'
But they did not find any fairies; only, when they reached the roof, the lake looked bluer and more enchanting than ever. Abeille gazed at it for a moment, and then she said:
'Do you see? I mean to go there!'
'But you mustn't,' cried Youri. 'You heard what your mother said. And, besides, it is so far; how could we get there?'
'You ought to know that,' answered Abeille scornfully. 'What is the good of being a man, and learning all sorts of things, if you have to ask me. However, there are plenty of other men in the world, and I shall get one of them to tell me.'
Youri coloured; Abeille had never spoken like this before, and, instead of being two years younger than himself, she suddenly seemed many years older. She stood with her mocking eyes fixed on him, till he grew angry at being outdone by a girl, and taking her hand he said boldly:
'Very well, we will both go to the lake.'
The next afternoon, when the duchess was working at her tapestry surrounded by her maidens, the children went out, as usual, to play in the garden. The moment they found themselves alone, Youri turned to Abeille, and holding out his hand, said:
'Come where?' asked Abeille, opening her eyes very wide.
'To the lake, of course,' answered the boy.
Abeille was silent. It was one thing to pretend you meant to be disobedient some day, a long time off, and quite another to start for such a distant place without anyone knowing that you had left the garden. 'And in satin shoes, too! How stupid boys were to be sure.'
'Stupid or not, I am going to the lake, and you are going with me!' said Youri, who had not forgotten or forgiven the look she had cast on him the day before. 'Unless,' added he, 'you are afraid, and in that case I shall go alone.'
This was too much for Abeille. Bursting into tears, she flung herself on Youri's neck, and declared that wherever he went she would go too. So, peace having been made between them, they set out.
It was a hot day, and the townspeople were indoors waiting till the sun was low in the sky before they set out either to work or play, so the children passed through the streets unperceived, and crossed the river by the bridge into the flowery meadows along the road by which they had ridden with the duchess. By-and-by Abeille began to feel thirsty, but the sun had drunk up all the water, and not a drop was left for her. They walked on a little further, and by good luck found a cherry-tree covered with ripe fruit, and after a rest and a refreshing meal, they were sure that they were strong enough to reach the lake in a few minutes. But soon Abeille began to limp and to say that her foot hurt her, and Youri had to untie the ribbons that fastened her shoe and see what was the matter. A stone had got in, so this was easily set right, and for a while they skipped along the path singing and chattering, till Abeille stopped again. This time her shoe had come off, and turning to pick it up she caught sight of the towers of the castle, looking such a long way off that her heart sank, and she burst into tears.
'It is getting dark, and the wolves will eat us,' sobbed she. But Youri put his arms round her and comforted her.
'Why we are close to the lake now. There is nothing to be afraid of! We shall be home again to supper,' cried he. And Abeille dried her eyes, and trotted on beside him.
Yes, the lake was there, blue and silvery with purple and gold irises growing on its banks, and white water-lilies floated on its bosom. Not a trace was there of a man, or of one of the great beasts so much feared by Abeille, but only the marks of tiny forked feet on the sand. The little girl at once pulled off her torn shoes and stockings and let the water flow over her, while Youri looked about for some nuts or strawberries. But none were to be found.
'I noticed, a little way back, a clump of blackberry bushes,' said he. 'Wait here for me, and I will go and gather some fruit, and after that we will start home again.' And Abeille, leaning her head drowsily against a cushion of soft moss, murmured something in reply, and soon fell asleep. In her dream a crow, bearing the smallest man that ever was seen, appeared hovering for a moment above her, and then vanished. At the same instant Youri returned and placed by her side a large leaf-full of strawberries.
'It is a pity to wake her just yet,' thought he, and wandered off beyond a clump of silvery willows to a spot from which he could get a view of the whole lake. In the moonlight, the light mist that hung over the surface made it look like fairyland. Then gradually the silver veil seemed to break up, and the shapes of fair women with outstretched hands and long green locks floated towards him. Seized with a sudden fright, the boy turned to fly. But it was too late.
Unconscious of the terrible doom that had befallen her foster-brother, Abeille slept on, and did not awake even when a crowd of little men with white beards down to their knees came and stood in a circle round her.
'What shall we do with her?' asked Pic, who seemed older than any of them, though they were all very old.
'Build a cage and put her into it,' answered Rug.
'No! No! What should such a beautiful princess do in a cage?' cried Dig. And Tad, who was the kindest of them all, proposed to carry her home to her parents. But the other gnomes were too pleased with their new toy to listen to this for a moment.
'Look, she is waking,' whispered Pau. And as he spoke Abeille slowly opened her eyes. At first she imagined she was still dreaming; but as the little men did not move, it suddenly dawned upon her that they were real, and starting to her feet, she called loudly:
'Youri! Youri! Where are you?'
At the sound of her voice the gnomes only pressed more closely round her, and, trembling with fear, she hid her face in her hands. The gnomes were at first much puzzled to know what to do; then Tad, climbing on a branch of the willow tree that hung over her, stooped down, and gently stroked her fingers. The child understood that he meant to be kind, and letting her hands fall, gazed at her captors. After an instant's pause she said:
'Little men, it is a great pity that you are so ugly. But, all the same, I will love you if you will only give me something to eat, as I am dying of hunger.'
A rustle was heard among the group as she spoke. Some were very angry at being called ugly, and said she deserved no better fate than to be left where she was. Others laughed, and declared that it did not matter what a mere mortal thought about them; while Tad bade Bog, their messenger, fetch her some milk and honey, and the finest white bread that was made in their ovens under the earth. In less time than Abeille would have taken to tie her shoe he was back again, mounted on his crow. And by the time she had eaten the bread and honey and drunk the milk, Abeille was not frightened any more, and felt quite ready to talk.
'Little men,' she said, looking up with a smile, 'your supper was very good, and I thank you for it. My name is Abeille, and my brother is called Youri. Help me to find him, and tell me which is the path that leads to the castle, for mother must think something dreadful has happened to us!'
'But your feet are so sore that you cannot walk,' answered Dig. 'And we may not cross the bounds into your country. The best we can do is to make a litter of twigs and cover it with moss, and we will bear you into the mountains, and present you to our king.'
Now, many a little girl would have been terrified at the thought of being carried off alone, she did not know where. But Abeille, when she had recovered from her first fright, was pleased at the notion of her strange adventure.
'How much she would have to tell her mother and Youri on her return. Probably they would never go inside a mountain, if they lived to be a hundred.' So she curled herself comfortably on her nest of moss, and waited to see what would happen.
Up, and up, and up they went; and by-and-by Abeille fell asleep again, and did not wake till the sun was shining. Up, and up, and up, for the little men could only walk very slowly, though they could spring over rocks quicker than any mortal. Suddenly the light that streamed through the branches of the litter began to change. It seemed hardly less bright, but it was certainly different; then the litter was put down, and the gnomes crowded round and helped Abeille to step out of it.
Before her stood a little man not half her size, but splendidly dressed and full of dignity. On his head was a crown of such huge diamonds that you wondered how his small body could support it. A royal mantle fell from his shoulders, and in his hand he held a lance.
'King Loc,' said one of the forest gnomes, 'we found this beautiful child asleep by the lake, and have brought her to you. She says that her name is Abeille, and her mother is the Duchess des Clarides.'
'You have done well,' answered the king; 'she shall be one of us.' And standing on tiptoe, so that he could kiss her hand, he told her that they would all take care of her and make her happy, and that anything she wished for she should have at once.
'I want a pair of shoes,' replied Abeille.
'Shoes!' commanded the king, striking the ground with his lance; and immediately a lovely pair of silver shoes embroidered with pearls were slipped on her feet by one of the gnomes.
'They are beautiful shoes,' said Abeille rather doubtfully; 'but do you think they will carry me all the way back to my mother?'
'No, they are not meant for rough roads,' replied the king, 'but for walking about the smooth paths of the mountain, for we have many wonders to show you.'
'Little King Loc,' answered Abeille, 'take away these beautiful slippers and give me a pair of wooden shoes instead, and let me go back to my mother.' But King Loc only shook his head.
'Little King Loc,' said Abeille again—and this time her voice trembled—'let me go back to my mother and Youri, and I will love you with all my heart, nearly as well as I love them.'
'Who is Youri?' asked King Loc.
'Why—Youri—who has lived with us since I was a baby,' replied Abeille; surprised that he did not know what everyone else was aware of, and never guessing that by mentioning the boy she was sealing her own fate. For King Loc had already thought what a good wife she would make him in a few years' time, and he did not want Youri to come between them. So he was silent, and Abeille, seeing he was not pleased, burst into tears.
'Little King Loc,' she cried, taking hold of a corner of his mantle, 'think how unhappy my mother will be. She will fancy that wild beasts have eaten me, or that I have got drowned in the lake.'
'Be comforted,' replied King Loc; 'I will send her a dream, so that she shall know that you are safe.'
At this Abeille's sad face brightened. 'Little King Loc,' she said, smiling, 'how clever you are! But you must send her a dream every night, so that she shall see me—and me a dream, so that I may see her.'
And this King Loc promised to do.
When Abeille grew accustomed to do without her mother and Youri, she made herself happy enough in her new home. Everyone was kind to her, and petted her, and then there were such quantities of new things for her to see. The gnomes were always busy, and knew how to fashion beautiful toys as well or better than the people who lived on the earth; and now and then, wandering with Tad or Dig in the underground passages, Abeille would catch a glimpse of blue sky through a rent in the rocks, and this she loved best of all. In this manner six years passed away.
'His Highness King Loc wishes to see you in his presence chamber,' said Tad, one morning, to Abeille, who was singing to herself on a golden lute; and Abeille, wondering why the king had grown so formal all of a sudden, got up obediently. Directly she appeared, King Loc opened a door in the wall which led into his treasure chamber. Abeille had never been there before, and was amazed at the splendid things heaped up before her. Gold, jewels, brocades, carpets, lay round the walls, and she walked about examining one glittering object after another, while King Loc mounted a throne of gold and ivory at one end of the hall, and watched her. 'Choose whatever you wish,' he said at last. A necklace of most lovely pearls was hanging from the wall, and after hesitating for a moment between that and a circlet of diamonds and sapphires, Abeille stretched up her hand towards it. But before she touched it her eyes lighted on a tiny piece of sky visible through a crack of the rock, and her hand dropped by her side. 'Little King Loc, let me go up to the earth once again,' she said.
Then King Loc made a sign to the treasurer, who opened a coffer full of nothing but precious stones, larger and more dazzling than were worn by any earthly monarch. 'Choose what you will, Abeille,' whispered King Loc.
But Abeille only shook her head.
'A drop of dew in the garden at Clarides is brighter to me than the best of those diamonds,' she answered, 'and the bluest of the stones are not as blue as the eyes of Youri.' And as she spoke a sharp pain ran through the heart of King Loc. For an instant he said nothing, then he lifted his head and looked at her. 'Only those who despise riches should possess them. Take this crown, from henceforth you are the Princess of the Gnomes.'
During thirty days no work was done in those underground regions, for a feast was held in honour of the new princess. At the end of that period, the king appeared before Abeille, clad in his most splendid garments, and solemnly asked her to be his wife.
'Little King Loc,' answered the girl, 'I love you as you are, for your goodness and kindness to me; but never, never can I love you as anything else.'
The king sighed. It was only what he had expected; still, his disappointment was great, though he tried bravely to hide it, and even to smile as he said: 'Then, Abeille, will you promise me one thing? If there should come a day when you find that there is somebody whom you could love, will you tell me?'
And in her turn Abeille promised.
After this, in spite of the fact that everyone was just as kind to her as before, Abeille was no longer the merry child who passed all her days playing with the little gnomes. People who dwell under the earth grow up much faster than those who live on its surface, and, at thirteen, the girl was already a woman. Besides, King Loc's words had set her thinking; she spent many hours by herself, and her face was no longer round and rosy, but thin and pale. It was in vain that the gnomes did their best to entice her into her old games, they had lost their interest, and even her lute lay unnoticed on the ground.
But one morning a change seemed to come over her. Leaving the room hung with beautiful silks, where she usually sat alone, she entered the king's presence, and taking his hand she led him through long corridors till they came to a place where a strip of blue sky was to be seen.
'Little King Loc,' she said, turning her eyes upon him, 'let me behold my mother again, or I shall surely die.' Her voice shook, and her whole body trembled. Even an enemy might have pitied her; but the king, who loved her, answered nothing. All day long Abeille stayed there, watching the light fade, and the sky grow pale. By-and-by the stars came out, but the girl never moved from her place. Suddenly a hand touched her. She looked round with a start, and there was King Loc, covered from head to foot in a dark mantle, holding another over his arm. 'Put on this and follow me,' was all he said. But Abeille somehow knew that she was going to see her mother.
On, and on, and on they went, through passages where Abeille had never been before, and at length she was out in the world again. Oh! how beautiful it all was! How fresh was the air, and how sweet was the smell of the flowers! She felt as if she should die with joy, but at that moment King Loc lifted her off the ground, and, tiny though he was, carried her quite easily across the garden and through an open door into the silent castle.
'Listen, Abeille,' he whispered softly. 'You have guessed where we are going, and you know that every night I send your mother a vision of you, and she talks to it in her dream, and smiles at it. To-night it will be no vision she sees, but you yourself; only remember, that if you touch her or speak to her my power is lost, and never more will she behold either you or your image.'
By this time they had reached the room which Abeille knew so well, and her heart beat violently as the gnome carried her over the threshold. By the light of a lamp hanging over the bed Abeille could see her mother, beautiful still, but with a face that had grown pale and sad. As she gazed the sadness vanished, and a bright smile came in its stead. Her mother's arms were stretched out towards her, and the girl, her eyes filled with tears of joy, was stooping to meet them, when King Loc hastily snatched her up, and bore her back to the realm of the gnomes.
If the king imagined that by granting Abeille's request he would make her happy, he soon found out his mistake, for all day long the girl sat weeping, paving no heed to the efforts of her friends to comfort her.
'Tell me what is making you so unhappy?' said King Loc, at last. And Abeille answered:
'Little King Loc, and all my friends here, you are so good and kind that I know that you are miserable when I am in trouble. I would be happy if I could, but it is stronger than I. I am weeping because I shall never see again Youri de Blanchelande, whom I love with all my heart. It is a worse grief than parting with my mother, for at least I know where she is and what she is doing; while, as for Youri, I cannot tell if he is dead or alive.'
The gnomes were all silent. Kind as they were, they were not mortals, and had never felt either great joys or deep sorrows. Only King Loc dimly guessed at something of both, and he went away to consult an old, old gnome, who lived in the lowest depth of the mountain, and had spectacles of every sort, that enabled him to see all that was happening, not only on the earth, but under the sea.
Nur, for such was his name, tried many of these spectacles before he could discover anything about Youri de Blanchelande.
'There he is!' he cried at last. 'He is sitting in the palace of the Undines, under the great lake; but he does not like his prison, and longs to be back in the world, doing great deeds.'
It was true. In the seven years that had passed since he had left the castle of Clarides to go with Abeille to the blue lake, Youri in his turn had become a man.
The older he grew the more weary he got of the petting and spoiling he received at the hands of the green-haired maidens, till, one day, he flung himself at the feet of the Undine queen, and implored permission to return to his old home.
The queen stooped down and stroked his hair.
'We cannot spare you,' she murmured gently. 'Stay here, and you shall be king, and marry me.'
'But it is Abeille I want to marry,' said the youth boldly. But he might as well have talked to the winds, for at last the queen grew angry, and ordered him to be put in a crystal cage which was built for him round a pointed rock.
It was here that King Loc, aided by the spectacles of Nur, found him after many weeks' journey. As we know, the gnomes walk slowly, and the way was long and difficult. Luckily, before he started, he had taken with him his magic ring, and the moment it touched the wall the crystal cage split from top to bottom.
'Follow that path, and you will find yourself in the world again,' he said to Youri; and without waiting to listen to the young man's thanks, set out on the road he had come.
'Bog,' he cried, to the little man on the crow, who had ridden to meet him. 'Hasten to the palace and inform the Princess Abeille that Youri de Blanchelande, for seven years a captive in the kingdom of the Undines, has now returned to the castle of Clarides.'
The first person whom Youri met as he came out of the mountain was the tailor who had made all his clothes from the time that he came to live at the castle. Of this old friend, who was nearly beside himself with joy at the sight of the little master, lost for so many years, the count begged for news of his foster-mother and Abeille.
'Alas! my lord, where can you have been that you do not know that the Princess Abeille was carried off by the gnomes on the very day that you disappeared yourself? At least, so we guess. Ah! that day has left many a mark on our duchess! Yet she is not without a gleam of hope that her daughter is living yet, for every night the poor mother is visited by a dream which tells her all that the princess is doing.'
The good man went on to tell of all the changes that seven years had brought about in the village, but Youri heard nothing that he said, for his mind was busy with thoughts of Abeille.
At length he roused himself, and ashamed of his delay, he hastened to the chamber of the duchess, who held him in her arms as if she would never let him go. By-and-by, however, when she became calmer, he began to question her about Abeille, and how best to deliver her from the power of the gnomes. The duchess then told him that she had sent out men in all directions to look for the children directly they were found to be missing, and that one of them had noticed a troop of little men far away on the mountains, evidently carrying a litter. He was hastening after them, when, at his feet, he beheld a tiny satin slipper, which he stooped to pick up. But as he did so a dozen of the gnomes had swarmed upon him like flies, and beat him about the head till he dropped the slipper, which they took away with them, leaving the poor man dizzy with pain. When he recovered his senses the group on the mountain had disappeared.
That night, when everyone was asleep, Youri and his old servant Francœur, stole softly down into the armoury, and dressed themselves in light suits of chain armour, with helmets and short swords, all complete. Then they mounted two horses that Francœur had tied up in the forest, and set forth for the kingdom of the gnomes. At the end of an hour's hard riding, they came to the cavern which Francœur had heard from childhood led into the centre of the earth. Here they dismounted, and entered cautiously, expecting to find darkness as thick as what they had left outside. But they had only gone a few steps when they were nearly blinded by a sudden blaze of light, which seemed to proceed from a sort of portcullis door, which barred the way in front of them.
'Who are you?' asked a voice. And the count answered:
'Youri de Blanchelande, who has come to rescue Abeille des Clarides.' And at these words the gate slowly swung open, and closed behind the two strangers.
Youri listened to the clang with a spasm of fear in his heart; then the desperate position he was in gave him courage. There was no retreat for him now, and in front was drawn up a large force of gnomes, whose arrows were falling like hail about him. He raised his shield to ward them off, and as he did so his eyes fell on a little man standing on a rock above the rest, with a crown on his head and a royal mantle on his shoulders. In an instant Youri had flung away his shield and sprung forward, regardless of the arrows that still fell about him.
'Oh, is it you, is it really you, my deliverer? And is it your subjects who hold as a captive Abeille whom I love?'
'I am King Loc,' was the answer. And the figure with the long beard bent his eyes kindly on the eager youth. 'If Abeille has lived with us all these years, for many of them she was quite happy. But the gnomes, of whom you think so little, are a just people, and they will not keep her against her will. Beg the princess to be good enough to come hither,' he added, turning to Rug.
Amidst a dead silence Abeille entered the vast space and looked around her. At first she saw nothing but a vast host of gnomes perched on the walls and crowding on the floor of the big hall. Then her eyes met those of Youri, and with a cry that came from her heart she darted towards him, and threw herself on his breast.
'Abeille,' said the king, when he had watched her for a moment, with a look of pain on his face, 'is this the man that you wish to marry?'
'Yes, Little King Loc, this is he and nobody else! And see how I can laugh now, and how happy I am!' And with that she began to cry.
'Hush, Abeille! there must be no tears to-day,' said Youri, gently stroking her hair. 'Come, dry your eyes, and thank King Loc, who rescued me from the cage in the realm of the Undines.'
As Youri spoke Abeille lifted her head, and a great light came into her face. At last she understood.
'You did that for me?' she whispered. 'Ah, Little King Loc——!'
So, loaded with presents, and followed by regrets, Abeille went home. In a few days the marriage took place; but however happy she was, and however busy she might be, never a month passed by without a visit from Abeille to her friends in the kingdom of the gnomes.