It was old Clementina—a white-haired, delicate-featured peasant woman, with a brightly-coloured handkerchief tied cornerwise on her head, a big ball of coarse white wool stuck on a little stick in the right-hand side of the band of her big apron, and the sock she was knitting carried in the other hand. My companion had gone down to Pistoia to do some shopping: I was alone in our rooms in the straggling primitive little village that clings to the hill among the chestnut woods above. Clementina thought I must be very lonely; besides, she was anxious to know what sort of things these extraordinary “forestieri”—foreigners—did all by themselves. They wrote, she believed—well, but how did they look when they were writing, and what sort of tools did they use? So she suddenly appeared in the doorway with a bright smile, and:—“Buon giorno a Lei.” It was just lunch time, so I pushed aside my work, glad enough, as it happened, to see her; begged her to sit down and tell me while I ate, one of those nice stories which she, as great-grandmother, must know so well.
My lunch was the “necci” of the country people—a cake of sweet chestnut-flour cooked in leaves of the same tree and eaten with cheese—mountain strawberries, brown bread and country wine. Through the open window of the whitewashed room came the noises of the village street, the fresh mountain breeze and the bright sunlight which lighted up the old woman’s well-cut features and kindling brown eyes, as, seating herself with the grace of any lady, she leaned forward and began:—
ONCE upon a time there lived a king who had one little girl called Elisa. She was a dear little girl, and her father and mother loved her very much. But presently her mother died, and the step-mother got quite angry with jealousy of the poor little thing. She thought and she thought what she could do to her, and at last she called a witch and said:—
“Get rid of Elisa for me.”
The witch spirited her away into some meadows a long, long way off, in quite another country, and left her there all alone; so that poor little Elisa was very frightened. Presently there came by three fairies who loved her because she was so pretty, and asked her who she was. She said she was a king’s daughter, but she did not know where her home was or how she had come to be where she was now, and that she was very unhappy.
“Come with us,” said the fairies, “and we will take care of you.”
So they led her into another field where was a big hole. They took her down into the hole, and there was the most beautiful palace that Elisa had ever seen in her life.
“This palace is yours,” said the fairies, “live here, and do just as you like.”
Well, time went by and Elisa forgot her home, and was very happy, when one night her step-mother had a dream. She dreamt that Elisa was not dead, but alive and happy. She called the witch again, and said:—
“Elisa is not dead, she is alive and well. Take some schiacciata (a kind of cake), put poison in it, and take it to her. She is very fond of schiacciata, and will be sure to eat it.”
So the witch went to the hole and called “Elisa.”
“What do you want?” said Elisa.
“Here’s some schiacciata for you.”
“I don’t want schiacciata,” said Elisa; “I have plenty.”
“Well, I’ll put it here, and you can take it if you like”: so she put it down and went away.
Presently there came by a dog, who ate the schiacciata and immediately fell down dead. In the evening the fairies came home, took up the dog and showed him to Elisa.
“See you never take anything that anyone brings you,” said they, “or this will happen to you, too.”
Then they put the dog into their garden.
After a time the queen dreamt again that Elisa was alive and happy, so she called the witch and said:—
“Elisa is very fond of flowers; pick a bunch and cast a spell upon them, so that whoever smells them shall be bewitched.”
The witch did as she was told, and took the flowers to the hole.
“Elisa,” she called down.
“What is it?” said Elisa.
“Here are some flowers for you.”
“Well, you can put them down and go away. I don’t want them.”
So the witch put them down and went home. Soon some sheep and a shepherd came by; the sheep saw the flowers, smelt them and became spell-bound; the shepherd went to drive off the sheep, and became spell-bound too. When the fairies came home that night, they found the sheep and the shepherd, showed them to Elisa as a warning, and put them too into their garden.
But the queen dreamt a third time, and a third time she called the witch, saying:—
“Elisa is well and happy. Take a pair of golden slippers this time, pianelle (slippers with a covering for the toe only), bewitch them, and take them to Elisa: those she will certainly put on.”
And the queen was right. When the witch had gone away from the hole Elisa came up to look at the pretty golden pianelle. First she took them in her hands, and then she put one on, and afterwards the other. As soon as she had done it she was quite spell-bound, and could not move. When the fairies came home they were very sad. They took her up and put her into the garden, with the dog, the sheep, and the shepherd, because they did not know what else to do with her.
There she stayed a long time, till one day the king’s son rode by as he went out hunting. He looked through the garden gate, and saw Elisa.
“Oh, look,” said he to the hunters, “look at that lovely girl who does not move; I never saw anyone so beautiful. I must have her.”
So he went into the garden, took Elisa, carried her home, and put her into a glass case in his room. Now he spent all the time in his room; he would never come out, and would not even let the servants in to make his bed, for he loved Elisa more and more every day, and could not bear to leave her, or to let anyone else see her.
“What can be in there?” said the servants; “we can’t keep his room clean if we’re not allowed to go into it.”
So they watched their opportunity, and one day when the prince had gone to take the holy water, they made their way in to dust.
“Oh! oh!” said they, “the prince was quite wise to keep his room shut up. What a beautiful woman, and what lovely slippers!”
With that one went up, and said, “This slipper’s a little dusty; I’ll dust it.”
While he was doing so, it moved; so he pushed it a little more, and it came off altogether. Then he took off the other too, and immediately Elisa came back to life. When the prince came home he wanted to marry her at once; but his father said:—
“How do you know who she is? She may be a beggar’s daughter.”
“Oh, no,” said Elisa, “I’m a princess,” and she told them her father’s name.
Then a grand wedding feast was prepared, to which her father and step-mother were invited; and they came, not knowing who the bride was to be. When they saw Elisa, the father was very glad, but the step-mother was so angry that she went and hanged herself. Nevertheless the marriage feast went off merrily. Elisa and the prince were very happy, and presently united the two kingdoms under their single rule. If they’re not alive now, they must be dead; and if they’re not dead, they must still be alive.