There was once a man who was also a writer of books.
The merit of his books lies beyond the horizon of this tale. No doubt some of them were good, and some of them were bad, and some were merely popular. But he was all the time trying to make them better, for he was quite an honest man, and thankful that the world should give him a living for his writing. Moreover, he found great delight in the doing of it, which was something that did not enter into the world's account--a kind of daily Christmas present in addition to his wages.
But the interesting thing about the man was that he had a clan or train of little sprites attending him--small, delicate, aerial creatures, who came and went around him at their pleasure, and showed him wonderful things, and sang to him, and kept him from being discouraged, and often helped him with his work.
If you ask me what they were and where they came from, I must frankly tell you that I do not know. Neither did the man know. Neither does anybody else know.
But he had sense enough to understand that they were real--just as real as any of the other mysterious things, like microbes, and polonium, and chemical affinities, and the northern lights, by which we are surrounded. Sometimes it seemed as if the sprites were the children of the flowers that die in blooming; and sometimes as if they came in a flock with the birds from the south; and sometimes as if they rose one by one from the roots of the trees in the deep forest, or from the waves of the sea when the moon lay upon them; and sometimes as if they appeared suddenly in the streets of the city after the people had passed by and the houses had gone to sleep. They were as light as thistle-down, as unsubstantial as mists upon the mountain, as wayward and flickering as will-o'-the-wisps. But there was something immortal about them, and the man knew that the world would be nothing to him without their presence and comradeship.
Most of these attendant sprites were gentle and docile; but there was one who had a strain of wildness in him. In his hand he carried a bow, and at his shoulder a quiver of arrows, and he looked as if, some day or other, he might be up to mischief.
Now this man was much befriended by a certain lady, to whom he used to bring his stories in order that she might tell him whether they were good, or bad, or merely popular. But whatever she might think of the stories, always she like the man, and of the airy fluttering sprites she grew so fond that it almost seemed as if they were her own children. This was not unnatural, for they were devoted to her; they turned the pages of her book when she read; they made her walks through the forest pleasant and friendly; they lit lanterns for her in the dark; they brought flowers to her and sang to her, as well as to the man. Of this he was glad, because of his great friendship for the lady and his desire to see her happy.
But one day she complained to him of the sprite who carried the bow. "He is behaving badly," she said; "he teases me."
"That surprises me," said the man, "and I am distressed to hear it; for at heart he is rather good and to you he is deeply attached. But how does he tease you, dear lady? What does he do?"
"Oh, nothing," she answered, "and that is what annoys me. The others are all busy with your affairs or mine. But this idle one follows me like my shadow, and looks at me all the time. It is not at all polite. I fear he has a vacant mind and has not been well brought up."
"That may easily be," said the man, "for he came to me very suddenly one day, and I have never inquired about his education."
"But you ought to do so," said she; "it is your duty to have him taught to know his place, and not to tease, and other useful lessons."
"You are always right," said the man, "and it shall be just as you say."
On the way home he talked seriously to the sprite and told him how impolite he had been, and arranged a plan for his schooling in botany, diplomacy, music, psychology, deportment, and other useful studies.
The rest of the sprites came in to the school-room every day, to get some of the profitable lessons. The sat around quiet and orderly, so that it was quite like a kindergarten. But the principal pupil was restless and troublesome.
"You are never still," said the man, "you have an idle mind and wandering thoughts."
"No!" said the sprite, shaking his head. "It is true my mind is not on my lessons. But my thoughts do not wander at all. They always follow yours."
Then the man stopped talking, and the other sprites laughed behind their hands. But the one who had been reproved went on drawing pictures in the back of his botany book. The face in the pictures was always the same, but none of them seemed to satisfy him, for he always rubbed them out and began over again.
After several weeks of hard work the master thought his pupil must have learned something, so he gave him a holiday, and asked him what he would like to do.
"Go with you," he answered, "when you take her your new stories."
So they went together, and the lady complimented the writer on his success as an educator.
"Your pupil does you credit," said she, "he talks nicely about botany and deportment. But I am a little troubled to see him looking so pale. Perhaps you have been too severe with him. I must take him out in the garden with me every day to play a while."
"You have a kind heart," said the man, "and I hope he will appreciate it."
This agreeable and amicable life continued for some weeks, and everybody was glad that affairs had arranged themselves. But one day the lady brought a new complaint.
"He is a strange little creature, and he has begun to annoy me in the most extraordinary way." "That is bad," said the man. "What does he do now?"
"Oh, nothing," she answered, "and that is just the trouble. When I want to talk about you, he refuses, and says he does not like you as much as he used to. When I propose to play a game, he says he is tired and would rather sit under a tree and hear stories. When I tell them he says they do not suit him, they all end happily, and that is stupid. He is very perverse. But he clings to me like a bur. He is always teasing me to tell him the name of every flower in my garden and given him one of every kind."
"Is he rude about it?"
"Not exactly rude, but he is all the more annoying because he is so polite, and I always feel that he wants something different."
"He must not do that," said the man. "He must learn to want what you wish."
"But how can he learn what I wish? I do not always know that myself."
"It may be difficult," said the man, "but all the same he must learn it for your sake. I will deal with him."
So he took the unruly sprite out into the desert and gave him a sound beating with thorn branches. The blood ran down the poor little creature's arms and legs, and the teats down the man's cheeks. But the only words that he said were: "You must learn to want what she wishes --do you hear?--you must want what she wishes." At last the sprite whimpered and said: "Yes, I hear; I will wish what she wants." Then the man stopped beating him, and went back to his house, and wrote a little story that was really good.
But the sprite lay on his face in the desert for a long time, sobbing as if his heart would break. Then he fell asleep and laughed in his dreams. When he awoke it was night and the moon was shining silver. He rubbed his eyes and whispered to himself, "Now I must find out what she wants." With that he leaped up, and the moonbeams washed him white as he passed through them to the lady's house.
The next afternoon, when the man came to read her the really good story, she would not listen.
"No," she said, "I am very angry with you."
"You know well enough."
"Upon my honour, I do not."
"What?" cried the lady. "You profess ignorance, when he distinctly said--
"Pardon," said the man, "but who said?"
"Your unruly sprite," she answered, indignant. "He came last night outside my window, which was wide open for the moon, and shot an arrow into my breast--a little baby arrow, but it hurt. And when I cried out for the pain, he climbed up to me and kissed the place, saying that would make it well. And he swore that you made him promise to come. If that is true, I will never speak to you again."
"Then of course," said the man, "it is not true. And now what do you want me to do with this unruly sprite?"
"Get rid of him," said she firmly.
"I will," replied the man, and he bowed over her hand and went away.
He stayed for a long time--nearly a week--and when he came back he brought several sad verses with him to read. "They are very dull," said the lady; "what is the matter with you?" He confessed that he did not know, and began to talk learnedly about the Greek and Persian poets, until the lady was consumed with a fever of dulness.
"You are simply impossible!" she cried. "I wonder at myself for having chosen such a friend!"
"I am sorry indeed," said the man.
"For having disappointed you as a friend, and also for having lost my dear unruly sprite who kept me from being dull."
"Lost him!" exclaimed the lady. "How?"
"By now," said the man, "he must be quite dead, for I tied him to a tree in the forest five days a go and left him to starve."
"You are a brute," said the lady, "and a very stupid man. Come, take me to the tree. At least we can bury the poor sprite, and then we shall part forever."
So he took her by the hand and guided her through the woods, and they talked much of the sadness of parting forever.
When they came to the tree, there was the little sprite, with his wrists and ankles bound, lying upon the moss. His eyes were closed, and his body was white as a snowdrop. They knelt down, one on each side of him, and untied the cord. To their surprise his hands felt warm. "I believe he is not quite dead," said the lady. "Shall we try to bring him to life?" asked the man. And with that they fell to chafing his wrists and his palms. Presently he gave each of them a slight pressure of the fingers.
"Did you feel that?" cried she.
"Indeed I did," the man answered. "It shook me to the core. Would you like to take him on your lap so that I can chafe his feet?"
The lady nodded and took the soft little body on her knees and held it close to her, while the man kneeled before her rubbing the small, milk-white feet with strong and tender touches. Presently, as they were thus engaged, they heard the sprite faintly whispering, while one of his eyelids flickered:
"I think--if each of you--would kiss me--on opposite cheeks--at the same moment--those kind of movements would revive me."
The two friends looked at each other, and the man spoke first.
"He talks ungrammatically, and I think he is an incorrigible little savage, but I love him. Shall we try his idea?"
"If you love him," said the lady, "I am willing to try, provided you shut your eyes."
So they both shut their eyes and tried.
But just at that moment the unruly sprite slipped down, and put his hands behind their heads, and the two mouths that sought his cheeks met lip to lip in a kiss so warm, so long, so sweet that everything else was forgotten.
Now you can easily see that as the persons who had this strange experience were the ones who told me the tale, their forgetfulness at this point leaves it of necessity half-told. But I know from other sources that the man who was also a writer went on making books, and the lady always told him truly whether they were good, bad, or merely popular. But what the unruly sprite is doing now nobody knows.