"WHEN I lie on the tomillar  and look through the sunbeams," said Ana, "I see all the little sprites getting ready the beautiful colours to paint the flowers and the insects, and the clouds, and others that dye the tree-leaves green and gild the old walls, and others that teach the insects to hum and the birds to sing, and little children to smile.
"Do you know, Lolita," pursued Ana, "when a little baby is put into the cradle for the first, very first time, if the Sunbeam plays upon it, the little sprites always look after that baby, and never forget it, but when it is grown up into a big man or woman they still continue their care. There was once such a little baby, Lolita, born in a poor little cottage; such a poor little cottage, Lolita, that there were no shutters to the windows of any kind, when it was ever so hot the sun all came in, and made the air suffocating, unless the poor mother could pin up an old dress; but it was not often she had one besides the one she had on. So it happened that when this little baby was born, Lolita, the sunbeams were streaming in, with the little sprites all basking in them, and the sprites kissed this little baby, and said, 'Dear little girl, we will never leave you; only be good, and so long as you are good we will see that you shall want for nothing at all.'
"A very little while after, Lolita, that little baby's father died, and you might have said the sprites had forgotten her; but it was not so. They kept their word exactly. She did not know her father had died. Her mother was there, and took care of her, and she was too little to know that other children had more pleasure, so she wanted nothing.
"She did not even know, Lolita, the labour her poor mother had to work for them both, and even when she sang her to sleep with her sad, ceaseless song,--
"En los brazos te tengo,
¡Qué será de ti, niño,
Si yo me muero !"
she knew nothing of its meaning; her little face was pressed close and warm against her mother's breast, and a flower or a fruit, which the sprites had painted for her, was enough to complete her happiness.
"Before Pura--such was her name--was two years old, her mother died too. But the sprites had not forgotten her, Lolita: her mother had a sister, and when this sister came to the funeral, they had painted Pura's cheeks with such fresh, clear tints, and lit up her baby face with such a bright, sweet smile, that her aunt would not part from her, but took her home and brought her up as her own child, and was to her as a mother.
"The sprites played with her now just as before; and when she was asleep they used to dance on her bed, and say, 'Dear little girl, we will never leave you; only be good, and so long as you are good we will see that you shall want for nothing at all.'
"Meantime, Pura grew up to learn to be useful: she worked in the garden, and kept the house tidy, and fetched the water from the fountain, and did all that Tia  Trinidad wanted. She was very good and very obedient, and never wasted her time; her only amusement was lying on the thyme-bed in the sunshine, because then the sprites painted such pretty dreams for her.
"But Tia Trinidad was growing old, and after her there was no other aunt, nor any relation to look after Pura; and though she would not say it aloud to vex Pura, who was always bright and gay, she yet continually repeated in her own mind, just as the poor mother used to sing,--
"En los brazos te tengo,
¡Qué será de ti, niño,
Si yo me muero!"
"So things looked very bad again, Lolita; but the sprites had not forgotten Pura, as you shall see.
"Tia Trinidad earned her living by waiting on strangers at the little inn down in the village, and as few people came that way, she was often many days without earning a 'chavo . One day, however, there came a great gentleman who had returned from the Indies with a great lot of money; he said he had roamed the world long enough, and seen enough of great cities; he meant now to settle himself in some quiet, remote village, and the only thing he wanted in this world was a nice, good, industrious wife, who would make his home smiling and happy.
"'Then I can fit you to a nicety!' broke in Tia Trinidad, who had been seized with a most diligent dusting fit all the time the traveller had been detailing his plans to the Cura  of the village, and had not missed a word.
"'Can you?' said the traveller, not at all displeased at her boldness.
"'That can I,' continued Tia Trinidad, earnestly; 'and there isn't a girl to match her in Madrid, and the Padre Cura will bear me out!'
"'What ... Pura, you mean ... I suppose?' said the Cura, somewhat embarrassed between his desire to speak the truth, and his fear of crushing the--as it seemed to him--exaggerated ideas of his poor parishioner. 'Yes, Pura is a good girl enough;' and he paused to think how much he could say in her favour; 'young, and--pretty, and--simple, and--lively, and--notable altogether, but----'
"'Well,' interrupted the traveller, hastily, 'out with your but! for you have named the very qualities which go to make up my ideal of a wife; speak, hombre !'
"'Well, I mean--I mean, only that she is a little--a little--what shall I say?--a little homely for your wife----'
"'Homely, is it? Oh! if that's all, we sha'n't quarrel. I don't want any of your fine ladies who are only thinking of setting themselves off, and attend to nothing but their toilet! Come, good woman, ask your young friend to allow me to come and see her to-morrow.'
"Too overjoyed to answer, Tia Trinidad set off on the instant at full speed, and ran so fast you could not have told what her gown was made of as she passed. When she reached home, out of breath, she told her niece to adorn the house, and dress herself in her best, for she expected a visitor next morning.
"Pura--who, though now seventeen, still kept up her simple habit of doing whatever she was bid with alacrity--fulfilled the directions given her with great exactness and success, and never thought of asking who or what the visitor was, or what business brought him.
"When the traveller called next morning, and found the room so smiling, the sunbeams playing through the muslin blinds upon the snow-white curtains, the brightly-tinted flowers--which, by the way, the sprites had painted on purpose--so tastefully arranged, and Pura herself looking so neat, and with no thought of display in her head, he was delighted, and left with an air of satisfaction, which convinced Tia Trinidad that all was going on right. Only, as he was going away, he turned and asked Tia Trinidad if Pura could make lace; and Tia Trinidad, who deemed her niece such a pearl that there was nothing she could not do, without thinking, answered "Yes." Nevertheless, poor Pura had had too much labour with the garden and the house-work all her young life to have had leisure for indoor occupation. She could take a turn, indeed, at her aunt's spinning-wheel; but such an accomplishment as making lace she had never practised.
"'Why did you tell the gentleman I knew how to make lace, when I don't, aunt?' she exclaimed, for she could not bear an untruth about the least matter.
"'Well, I did not know what to say, all in the surprise,' replied the good aunt. 'It seemed as if I should give a false impression of your habits, which are so industrious, if I said you could not do any thing he expected of you.'
"'Then why didn't you say that I could spin, and scour, and dig?' answered Pura, ingenuously.
"'Dig, and scour, and spin, indeed! Fine recommendations for his purpose,' rejoined the aunt, mysteriously; and before Pura could ask what on earth this 'purpose' was, a messenger brought in three bobbins of fine black silk, for her to make into a piece of lace, as a proof of her skill.
"'Oh, aunt, what shall we do? What shall we do?' sobbed poor Pura, who could not endure to be thought a deceiver.
"'Don't worry, child,' returned the aunt, 'something or other will turn up. There's nothing so easy as making lace, after all, and three bobbins are gone like winking. You must get through it somehow, for your fate depends upon it.'
"Pura went to bed that night crying; and cried herself to sleep. But very early in the morning, very early indeed, Lolita, the sunbeams woke her--you see the sprites never lost sight of her. And three beautiful sprites--the three who had most care of her--came floating down the Sunbeam. Without saying a word, they took up the bobbins of silk, for they had brought every thing with them that was wanted for making lace, as if they had known all about it, and, rattling them about, en un dos por tres , they turned off a splendid mantilla, all made out with flowers, and birds, and every thing you can think of, and then threw it on the bed, and disappeared before Pura had time to recover from her surprise.
"When the stranger called next day, and saw this extraordinary proof of industry and skill, he could hardly believe his eyes, and went away more pleased than the day before.
"'Didn't I tell á su mercé  that she was a jewel?' whispered the old lady.
"'I begin to think you did not exaggerate,' answered the traveller.
"And then, turning to Pura, he asked her if she was as perfect in household duties as in accomplishments; whether, for instance, she understood cooking.
"'¡Pues no ha de saber cocer !' interposed the aunt, without allowing Pura time to speak; for she knew the good girl would have answered the strict truth; and she thought as the sprites had got her out of one scrape, they might be trusted to get her out of another.
"In the evening, the messenger came again, this time followed by two other porters, each carrying baskets of provisions, which they set down, with the message that Pura was to make a famous olla podrida, and the gentleman would come in and dine off it the next day.
"Pura's tears fell fast on the beautiful market spoil, on which Tia Trinidad stood feasting her gaze. Never had such a provision of generous diet stood within sight of her hearth! But Pura only reflected on her incapacity to deal with such choice materials, and she knew there was no help to be got from her aunt, to whose cuisine even a piece of bacon was a rare delicacy.
"Pura went to bed that night as sad as the night before, for she kept saying to herself, 'Suppose the gentleman should think it is I who have been deceiving him!'
"But the sprites did not forget her, Lolita. Very early in the morning--very early!--they came in on the Sunbeam, as bright and as beautiful as before; and in a trice they had laid the fire in the stove and blown the charcoal into a fine red glow; then, while one took down the large ollas  from the shelf, and filled them with water at the well, one was busy plucking the fowls, and another washing and preparing the vegetables. The vegetables were soon put on in one olla with the bacon; and then the fowls, the ham, the sausages, the tripe, the pigs'-fry, the rolls of lean meat nicely larded and stuffed, all set to stew in another, and all seasoned with the greatest care and delicacy. The whole morning Pura watched the sprites. And though Tia Trinidad saw nothing but the Sunbeam playing about the kitchen, Pura saw them, as they carefully skimmed the pots, added to the liquor or the flavouring, made up or slackened the fire; then, an hour before dinner-time the contents of the two ollas were mingled with care, and once more set on to simmer, while with herbs, and bread-crumbs, and garlic, pimento, and parsley, certain albóndigas gruesas  were being made ready, and fried in sparkling oil to a fine golden hue, ready to drop into the olla the moment before serving up.
"The traveller came, faithful to his appointment, and the delicious odours of the olla met him directly he entered the garden-gate, overpowering the perfume of the carnations on the window-sills. Proudly Tia Trinidad bore in the lordly dish, for she knew that never in the palace was a more perfect stew served. The traveller dined with undisguised satisfaction; he confessed it was the ne plus ultra of cooking. Nothing was wanting, of nothing was there too much, every thing was in its due proportion and proved the handiwork of a true artist in cooking.
"'As you understand so well how to prepare this homely dish,' he said, at the close of many compliments, as he took leave, 'I am sure your delicate taste must be equally faultless at confections--I shall ask you to make me a turron  to-morrow.'
"Pura, struck dumb with perplexity, was vainly striving to frame some speech by means of which to explain how little part she had had in the performances he had been led to ascribe to her; but while she was yet thinking, her admirer had already plucked a carnation for her hair, and, raising his hand in affectionate farewell, had taken his departure.
"Tia Trinidad busied herself with putting by the remains of the abundant meal: there was meat enough to last her frugal needs a week, and more, and some to spare for a poor neighbour besides.
While she schemed and portioned, Pura, torn by conflicting thoughts, stood still, with the carnation in her hand, gazing after the form of the stranger as he disappeared among the trees, and wondering why she had not courage to run after him and explain all.
"She stood thus leaning against the window-pane, and still gazing, perplexed, hours afterwards, when the same messenger who had visited her on the two evenings before, again appeared, with a load of almonds and filberts, pine-kernels and walnuts, honey and eggs. Pura took the things from him with a heavy heart, for she was much too humble and simple to expect that the sprites could be so kind as to help her again; so she went to bed in as great distress as on the preceding nights. Nevertheless, early in the morning--very early, very soon after sunrise, that is as soon as the sun was up high enough for his beams to get in at her window--in came the three sprites, and, without saying a word, set to work, just as they had the day before; then began such a wonderful bruising, and pounding, and mixing, that Pura soon lost all fear of the work not being performed as perfectly as on the two former occasions. They had not yet half finished their mixing, when all of a sudden she noticed a soft buzzing sound, like the humming of bees, but all in beautiful melody; and then she saw the Sunbeam full of sprites of every hue like living flowers. They were the genii of the flowers, and they wore the very forms of the flowers, their bright petals making so many wings, and they came and poured each its own perfumed nectar into the confection, giving it a flavour such as no turron, of earth at least, ever possessed before.
"'We have done all these things for you,' said the sprites, when they had completed their handiwork; 'now, we want you to do one thing for us.'
"'Oh, whatever you like! only tell me any thing I can do!' answered Pura, with a ready grace.
"'Well, it is this. We know three poor girls, very poor and very sick; they are all terribly deformed cripples. They are so deformed and so ugly that they live in the hospital, and never get asked any where. It would be such a pleasure to them to come to your wedding-fête. They will be no ornament to it, I know; but still, will you let them come?'
"'Oh, yes; to be sure, poor things;' answered Pura, with grateful and charitable alacrity; 'that is, whenever I get married. But who would marry a poor penniless orphan-girl, who can do nothing? More likely I shall have to go to the hospital too, when aunt dies.'
"'Oh, no; you're going to be married very soon, to that traveller who has been here so often.'
"'What; to that kind, handsome gentleman!' cried Pura, in raptures. But a moment after, a cloud stole over her joyous countenance; and, hiding her face in her hands, she said, sadly, 'No; that can never be. I dread even to meet him again, because we have been deceiving him. Oh, it was very wrong; I would not have done it for the world if I had had time to speak. If he wants to marry me, it's because he thinks I'm so clever; and when he finds I can do nothing he will turn his back, and that is not the worst. When he finds he is deceived, and I can do nothing, oh, how he will despise me!' And she sobbed again.
"'No, it is not because you are clever,' answered the sprites; 'it is because you are good. If you have not learned more, it is because you had not the opportunity. You have always been industrious at doing what you did understand; and as to deceiving him, that has never been your will and intention. So cheer up! we will make it all right. Only don't forget to invite the three poor girls from the hospital to the feast.' And the sprites floated away on the sunbeam.
"'Be sure I shall not forget them, poor things!' cried Pura after them.
"The next day the stranger came again; and having tasted the exquisite turron, which seemed indeed to have been perfumed by no ordinary taste, he told Tia Trinidad he hoped she would let him marry her niece at once.
"There was nothing the old lady desired more; for she had inquired about him meantime, and found he was a worthy man, as well as abundantly supplied with this world's goods; so all was speedily arranged.
"To her surprise, when she came to announce her good fortune to her niece, and to arrange preliminaries with her, she found she was any thing but pleased, and only burst into tears.
"'Why, child! what ever is the matter with you?' she exclaimed. 'You don't mean you don't like him? I'm sure he has spoken kindly and fondly enough to you. And what is more, he has spoken kindly and fondly enough behind your back, too; which shows his esteem is genuine, and no mere flattery.'
"'That's it. That's just what makes me so wretched,' sobbed Pura.
"'What, wretched to think a good man loves you!'
"'No, aunt, no; but to think that he is so good and so kind, and we have been deceiving him. When he finds I can do none of the things he has fancied I am so clever at, what will he think of me? With what face can I meet him? Will he ever respect me again?' and she sobbed harder than ever.
"'Nonsense, child, don't take on like that,' responded the aunt. 'You've got through it all so far. Do as I bid you, and it will all come right in the end.'
"Pura, used to obey, and trusting in great measure also to the promises of the sunbeam-sprites, prepared to do her aunt's bidding, though with somewhat mixed feelings.
"When the wedding-day was fixed, and all preparations made, Pura did not forget to go out early into the tomillar, and ask the sprites of the sunbeam how she should find their protégées, the three cripples of the hospital. 'Leave that to us,' said the sprites. 'You have done your part in remembering them. We will take care they have the invitation; only give us the token by which they may be sure of being admitted.'
"'A red and white carnation will suffice,' answered Pura; and a cloud overshadowed the sunbeam.
"The wedding came, and the fêtes, and the cripples. A pitiable sight they were, indeed. They were still young; but their distorted forms only made their youth a motive for greater compassion. The back of one was curled over so that her chin touched her waist, and her arms were so short they were no longer than the fins of a fish. Those of the second were so swollen that each was the size of her whole body, and you could scarcely tell which was which; and on her forehead was a great swelling like the horn of a rhinoceros. The skin of the third was all shrivelled and seamed with scars, and her eyes were red all round, and stood out from her head worse than those of a lobster.
"'Pura!' exclaimed the bridegroom, as they made their approach, 'how on earth did these three scarecrows get in? they are almost enough to cast an evil eye on our happiness.'
"'Say not so, beloved,' replied Pura; 'they are three poor girls who might have been as happy as you and I, but that misfortune overtook them. Their life is sad enough, shall we not try to make them glad for once, on our own happy day?'
"'Sweet child, you are right, and I was hasty,' answered the bridegroom; 'but how did you come to know them?'
"'Some one who was very kind to me seemed to take an interest in them too, and asked me to invite them, that they might have one bright day at least.'
"'Then, if that is the case, they have my heartiest welcome; I had rather see them here than if they were the highest duchesses of the land.'
"And with that he sent the friend who attended to marshalling the guests, to put them in the best places, nearest to the bride and himself.
"Nevertheless, he could not get over his curiosity, to know why they were formed in such an extraordinary manner; and when the conversation began to get sufficiently general and familiar, he went up to the first, and after an exchange of ordinary compliments, and feeling his way by little and little, at last allowed himself to say in the politest tone,--
"'May I ask, dear friend, how it is your back comes to be so bent, and your arms so very short?'
"And while he waited in great perturbation, lest he should have offended or hurt the poor thing, she answered cheerfully enough,--
"'By all means, I am not at all ashamed of it. I used to be a famous hand at making lace, and my step-mother, finding she could make a lot of money out of my work, kept me at it so hard that from bending over it so much my back never came straight again; and my arms, from continually twisting the bobbins, got quite worn away and screwed like into the sockets, and never would come out any more.'
"'Indeed!' exclaimed the bridegroom, almost abruptly, for his alarm got the better of his courtesy; and with that he sprang to the side of his bride, and exacted from her a promise that she would never never make any lace from that day forward.
"Pura gave the promise willingly enough; and, his composure somewhat restored, her husband before long found his curiosity lead him to the side of the second 'scarecrow' guest, to ask her why her arms were so very thick, and why she had such a bump on her forehead.
"'Because,' she answered, in a tone which seemed to show she was pleased to have the opportunity of explaining the circumstance, 'because I used to be a rare hand at making almendrado  and turrones of every kind, and from continually pounding, pounding at the almonds and nuts, my arms grew as thick as you see; and as I often knocked my forehead with the big pestle we used, I got this ugly bump.'
"With greater trepidation than before, he darted, at hearing this, to Pura's side, and taking her hand in his, required her to promise him with the greatest solemnity that she would never touch any confectionary again.
"Encouraged by the good-natured reception his curiosity had met with in the two former cases, he soon found himself by the side of the third cripple, asking her why her eyes were so red and goggled, and her skin so scarred.
"'Because I was a famous cook,' was the answer. 'I was married very young, and my husband was very particular about his dinner. I never could be away from the cooking-stove, there was always something to be got ready; and that injured my eyes. And worse than that, one day I had a frying-pan in my hand, full of boiling oil, and I was just going to drop in the chops, when bang went a pane of glass. Some one had frightened the cat, and in he had bounded through the window, scattering the glass right and left. The noise gave me such a start, that I upset the frying-pan over the heated stove, the oil flared up in my face, and burnt me all over as you see me.'
"Without retaining sufficient self-command to say the few words of sympathy and consolation which would not have failed him at another time, he hasted back to Pura, and insisted that then and there she would promise him never to touch a frying-pan or an olla more.
"Then Pura understood why the sprites had bid her invite the cripples to her wedding; and she had her reward for her charity. And you see, Lolita, dear, how they kept their promise. So no wonder I am fond of looking into the sunbeam."