A long long time ago, an old couple dwelt in the very heart of a
high mountain. They lived together in peace and harmony, although
they were very different in character, the man being good-natured
and honest, and the wife being greedy and quarrelsome when anyone
came her way that she could possibly quarrel with.
One day the old man was sitting in front of his cottage, as he
was very fond of doing, when he saw flying towards him a little
sparrow, followed by a big black raven. The poor little thing was
very much frightened and cried out as it flew, and the great bird
came behind it terribly fast, flapping its wings and craning its
beak, for it was hungry and wanted some dinner. But as they drew
near the old man, he jumped up, and beat back the raven, which
mounted, with hoarse screams of disappointment, into the sky, and
the little bird, freed from its enemy, nestled into the old man's
hand, and he carried it into the house. He stroked its feathers,
and told it not to be afraid, for it was quite safe; but as he
still felt its heart beating, he put it into a cage, where it
soon plucked up courage to twitter and hop about. The old man was
fond of all creatures, and every morning he used to open the cage
door, and the sparrow flew happily about until it caught sight of
a cat or a rat or some other fierce beast, when it would
instantly return to the cage, knowing that there no harm could
come to it.
The woman, who was always on the look-out for something to
grumble at, grew very jealous of her husband's affection for the
bird, and would gladly have done it some harm had she dared. At
last, one morning her opportunity came. Her husband had gone to
the town some miles away down the mountain, and would not be back
for several hours, but before he left he did not forget to open
the door of the cage. The sparrow hopped about as usual,
twittering happily, and thinking no evil, and all the while the
woman's brow became blacker and blacker, and at length her fury
broke out. She threw her broom at the bird, who was perched on a
bracket high up on the wall. The broom missed the bird, but
knocked down and broke the vase on the bracket, which did not
soothe the angry woman. Then she chased it from place to place,
and at last had it safe between her fingers, almost as frightened
as on the day that it had made its first entrance into the hut.
By this time the woman was more furious than ever. If she had
dared, she would have killed the sparrow then and there, but as
it was she only ventured to slit its tongue. The bird struggled
and piped, but there was no one to hear it, and then, crying out
loud with the pain, it flew from the house and was lost in the
depths of the forest.
By-and-bye the old man came back, and at once began to ask for
his pet. His wife, who was still in a very bad temper, told him
the whole story, and scolded him roundly for being so silly as to
make such a fuss over a bird. But the old man, who was much
troubled, declared she was a bad, hard-hearted woman, to have
behaved so to a poor harmless bird; then he left the house, and
went into the forest to seek for his pet. He walked many hours,
whistling and calling for it, but it never came, and he went
sadly home, resolved to be out with the dawn and never to rest
till he had brought the wanderer back. Day after day he searched
and called; and evening after evening he returned in despair. At
length he gave up hope, and made up his mind that he should see
his little friend no more.
One hot summer morning, the old man was walking slowly under the
cool shadows of the big trees, and without thinking where he was
going, he entered a bamboo thicket. As the bamboos became
thinner, he found himself opposite to a beautiful garden, in the
centre of which stood a tiny spick-and-span little house, and out
of the house came a lovely maiden, who unlatched the gate and
invited him in the most hospitable way to enter and rest. 'Oh, my
dear old friend,' she exclaimed, 'how glad I am you have found me
at last! I am your little sparrow, whose life you saved, and whom
you took such care of.'
The old man seized her hands eagerly, but no time was given him
to ask any questions, for the maiden drew him into the house, and
set food before him, and waited on him herself.
While he was eating, the damsel and her maids took their lutes,
and sang and danced to him, and altogether the hours passed so
swiftly that the old man never saw that darkness had come, or
remembered the scolding he would get from his wife for returning
home so late.
Thus, in dancing and singing, and talking over the days when the
maiden was a sparrow hopping in and out of her cage, the night
passed away, and when the first rays of sun broke through the
hedge of bamboo, the old man started up, thanked his hostess for
her friendly welcome, and prepared to say farewell. 'I am not
going to let you depart like that,' said she; 'I have a present
for you, which you must take as a sign of my gratitude.' And as
she spoke, her servants brought in two chests, one of them very
small, the other large and heavy. 'Now choose which of them you
will carry with you.' So the old man chose the small chest, and
hid it under his cloak, and set out on his homeward way.
But as he drew near the house his heart sank a little, for he
knew what a fury his wife would be in, and how she would abuse
him for his absence. And it was even worse than he expected.
However, long experience had taught him to let her storm and say
nothing, so he lit his pipe and waited till she was tired out.
The woman was still raging, and did not seem likely to stop, when
her husband, who by this time had forgotten all about her, drew
out the chest from under his cloak, and opened it. Oh, what a
blaze met his eyes! gold and precious stones were heaped up to
the very lid, and lay dancing in he sunlight. At the sight of
these wonders even the scolding tongue ceased, and the woman
approached, and took the stones in her hand, setting greedily
aside those that were the largest and most costly. Then her voice
softened, and she begged him quite politely to tell her where he
had spent his evening, and how he had come by these wonderful
riches. So he told her the whole story, and she listened with
amazement, till he came to the choice which had been given him
between the two chests. At this her tongue broke loose again, as
she abused him for his folly in taking the little one, and she
never rested till her husband had described the exact way which
led to the sparrow-princess's house. When she had got it into her
head, she put on her best clothes and set out at once. But in her
blind haste she often missed the path, and she wandered for
several hours before she at length reached the little house. She
walked boldly up to the door and entered the room as if the whole
place belonged to her, and quite frightened the poor girl, who
was startled at the sight of her old enemy. However, she
concealed her feelings as well as she could, and bade the
intruder welcome, placing before her food and wine, hoping that
when she had eaten and drunk she might take her leave. But
nothing of the sort.
'You will not let me go without a little present?' said the
greedy wife, as she saw no signs of one being offered her. 'Of
course not,' replied the girl, and at her orders two chests were
brought in, as they had been before. The old woman instantly
seized the bigger, and staggering under the weight of it,
disappeared into the forest, hardly waiting even to say good-bye.
It was a long way to her own house, and the chest seemed to grow
heavier at every step. Sometimes she felt as if it would be
impossible for her to get on at all, but her greed gave her
strength, and at last she arrived at her own door. She sank down
on the threshold, overcome with weariness, but in a moment was on
her feet again, fumbling with the lock of the chest. But by this
time night had come, and there was no light in the house, and the
woman was in too much hurry to get to her treasures, to go and
look for one. At length, however, the lock gave way, and the lid
flew open, when, O horror! instead of gold and jewels, she saw
before her serpents with glittering eyes and forky tongues. And
they twined themselves about her and darted poison into her
veins, and she died, and no man regretted her.
From the Japanische Marchen und Sagen. Compiled by Andrew Lang, The Pink Fairy Book.
THE LITTLE SPARROW
Dusty seeds, sedge, brown amber, and sandalwood.
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SERPENTS WITH GLITTERING EYES AND FORKY TONGUES
Serpentine green herbs, glistening red currant, sparkling yellow lemon rind, green musk, lime, and snakeskin.
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