THE TWO CASKETS.
IT WAS a summer holiday; the sun shone with burning rays on the newly-mown banks; the roads and paths seemed knee-deep with dust; the flowers by the wayside hung their heads, as if praying for the refreshing shower; the very waters of the streamlet were heated as they passed along, and Franzl, lying indolently on its bank, plunged his hands beneath its bright surface, but found no cooling. With a peevish exclamation, he rose and sauntered away, and wished there were no holidays.
"Nay, don't wish that!" said a gentle fair-haired maiden by his side; "and just on this one, too, which I have been longing for, to fill the basket I made for mother with fresh strawberries from the wood."
"Not a bad idea of yours, Walburga; they all call you the 'wise' Walburga," replied Franzl. "There's shade in the wood, and the strawberries will be cooler and more refreshing than this nasty stream."
And with that he strolled away towards the wood.
The cottage of Franzl and Walburga was nestled into the side of a steep hill, the summit of which was mantled with a forest of lofty pines; and up the precipitous path, which wound past the very chimneys of the cottage, Franzl now strolled alone, without troubling himself to offer his hand to the patient little maiden who toiled painfully behind him, with many a slip upon the loose stones and sunburnt moss.
This was Franzl's character. He was always thus: his own amusement, his own enjoyment, and his own ease, were his sole care. Nor had the example of Walburga's loving thoughtfulness for others any effect upon him. If he took any notice of her at all, it was only to laugh and rail at her for it, till her silence shamed his reproaches.
At the pinnacle of the path there was a venerable stone cross, shaded from the weather by a little pent-house covered with ivy. Walburga knelt before it as she passed, and prayed for help to be always a good, obedient child, and a blessing to her dear parents. Franzl raised his hand to his cap mechanically, because it was the custom, but no holy thought crossed his mind.
"At last there is some coolness after all this horrid heat! and now we are close to those nice refreshing strawberries." These were his only ideas.
To Walburga, as she knelt, there came sweet lessons she had been taught to associate with the cross--of abnegation of self, obedience to higher powers, and loving devotion to others.
Franzl looked with all his eager eyes to discern the bright red berries where the shade lay diapered with the light darting between the thick clothing of the pine-trees, without so much as casting a glance at the sacred token.
"Oh, what a splendid haul!" he cried, and plunged through the thick leafage to where the ripe, rich berries clustered closest, and, without troubling himself to learn whether Walburga was as well supplied, began helping himself to his heart's content.
Walburga lined her basket with fresh green leaves, and laid the strawberries in tasteful order upon them, only now and then taking the smallest and most worthless for herself.
Though possessed with different objects, both were equally eager in the pursuit, and they pushed deeper and deeper into the thick pine forest, Walburga always keeping near Franzl, by reason of her tender, confiding spirit, which loved to be near those dear to her, though he, intent on his own gratification, had no cheerful word to enliven her.
At last they came to where the dark pines closed thick overhead--so thick that no golden rays pierced through; all was shade and silence. But here the strawberries were no longer ripe and red, for there was no sun to bring them to maturity, so Franzl peevishly turned to go, and Walburga followed gently behind. Suddenly their progress was arrested by a bright light--brighter than the burning summer sun shining beneath the gloom of the dark pines--and in the centre of that light stood a beautiful queen, and the light seemed to come from the diadem on her forehead and the garments that encompassed her!
"What are you doing here?" she said, in soft sweet accents, addressing herself to Walburga.
And Walburga, dropping her eyelids with maiden modesty, replied, hardly able to force her voice above a whisper, "Gathering strawberries for mother dear."
The beautiful Lady smiled a smile of approval; and the bright light seemed brighter when she smiled, and a sweet and balmy breeze stirred the air when she spoke again.
"Here, my child," she said, "take this casket;" and she handed her a casket made just like the strawberry-basket she had woven for her mother, only it was all of pure gold filigree, and, in place of the piled-up strawberries, it had a lid of sparkling carbuncles. "Take this, my child; and when you open it think of me."
"And what are you doing?" she said, with something less of mildness, to Franzl, who, having his hat full of strawberries, was so busy devouring them that he had not even noticed the beautiful present his sister had received.
Nor did he stop now even to reply to her; but between throwing away one chuck and picking out another fruit, he muttered, rudely,--
"I should think you might see that, without asking!"
The beautiful Lady looked at him sadly, and tears like pearls fell fast down her fair cheeks, as she gave him a dark iron casket, with the same words she had used to Walburga.
The light disappeared, and the fair Lady was seen no more.
"Who can that bright Lady be? and what can these caskets be that she has given us?" said Walburga, timidly. "Let us come home quick, and show them to mother;" and she ran onwards gaily, calling out, "Mother, mother dear, see what I have got!"
"Stuff!" replied Franzl; "I'm not going to wait for that: I want to see what's in them now." But Walburga had passed on out of hearing.
He pulled the lid off his dark iron casket; and immediately there wriggled out two great black ugly snakes, which grew bigger and longer, dancing round him; nor could he escape from their meshes. Then, finally, they closed their coils tightly round him, and carried him away through the thick, sunless forest, and no one ever saw him again!
Meantime Walburga was making her way home with all the speed she could down the dangerous mountain track, her strawberry-basket in one hand and the golden casket in the other. Her mother sat spinning in the luxuriant shade of the climbing plants over-shadowing the broad cottage-eaves.
"Mother, dear mother!" cried the child; "see what I have got. Here is a basket of fresh cool strawberries I have gathered for you in the wood, and here is a golden casket which a beautiful Lady brought me, with a great shining light! But stop till Franzl comes home, for he is coming behind, and she gave him a dark iron casket too, and we will open them both together; so eat the strawberries, mother dear, till Franzl comes."
The mother kissed her child fondly, and stroked her fair, soft, curling hair, but turned her head and wept, for she knew what had befallen.
But Franzl came not; and when Walburga had sought him every where, she said, "He must be gone round by the woodman's track to meet father, so let us open the casket, mother dear."
So she put the casket in her mother's lap, and lifted the beautiful carbuncle lid. And see! there flew thereout two tiny beings, all radiant with rainbow light, and they grew bigger and bigger, fluttering round her till they appeared two holy angels, who folded the child softly in their arms, then spread their wings and flew away with her, singing enchanting melodies, above the clouds!