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Fabulous Fairy Tales for children and adults. From our vast collection of old traditional fairy tales and fables.

The Marsh King's Daughter - Part 3

'Where hast thou stolen that beauteous maiden?' cried the
robbers, seizing the horse by the bridle, and dragging the two
riders from its back.

The priest had nothing to defend himself with, but the
knife he had taken from Helga, and with this he struck out
right and left. One of the robbers raised his axe against him;
but the young priest sprang on one side, and avoided the blow,
which fell with great force on the horse's neck, so that the
blood gushed forth, and the animal sunk to the ground. Then
Helga seemed suddenly to awake from her long, deep reverie;
she threw herself hastily upon the dying animal. The priest
placed himself before her, to defend and shelter her; but one
of the robbers swung his iron axe against the Christian's head
with such force that it was dashed to pieces, the blood and
brains were scattered about, and he fell dead upon the ground.
Then the robbers seized beautiful Helga by her white arms and
slender waist; but at that moment the sun went down, and as
its last ray disappeared, she was changed into the form of a
frog. A greenish white mouth spread half over her face; her
arms became thin and slimy; while broad hands, with webbed
fingers, spread themselves out like fans. Then the robbers, in
terror, let her go, and she stood among them, a hideous
monster; and as is the nature of frogs to do, she hopped up as
high as her own size, and disappeared in the thicket. Then the
robbers knew that this must be the work of an evil spirit or
some secret sorcery, and, in a terrible fright, they ran
hastily from the spot.

The full moon had already risen, and was shining in all
her radiant splendor over the earth, when from the thicket, in
the form of a frog, crept poor Helga. She stood still by the
corpse of the Christian priest, and the carcase of the dead
horse. She looked at them with eyes that seemed to weep, and
from the frog's head came forth a croaking sound, as when a
child bursts into tears. She threw herself first upon one, and
then upon the other; brought water in her hand, which, from
being webbed, was large and hollow, and poured it over them;
but they were dead, and dead they would remain. She understood
that at last. Soon wild animals would come and tear their dead
bodies; but no, that must not happen. Then she dug up the
earth, as deep as she was able, that she might prepare a grave
for them. She had nothing but a branch of a tree and her two
hands, between the fingers of which the webbed skin stretched,
and they were torn by the work, while the blood ran down her
hands. She saw at last that her work would be useless, more
than she could accomplish; so she fetched more water, and
washed the face of the dead, and then covered it with fresh
green leaves; she also brought large boughs and spread over
him, and scattered dried leaves between the branches. Then she
brought the heaviest stones that she could carry, and laid
them over the dead body, filling up the crevices with moss,
till she thought she had fenced in his resting-place strongly
enough. The difficult task had employed her the whole night;
and as the sun broke forth, there stood the beautiful Helga in
all her loveliness, with her bleeding hands, and, for the
first time, with tears on her maiden cheeks. It was, in this
transformation, as if two natures were striving together
within her; her whole frame trembled, and she looked around
her as if she had just awoke from a painful dream. She leaned
for support against the trunk of a slender tree, and at last
climbed to the topmost branches, like a cat, and seated
herself firmly upon them. She remained there the whole day,
sitting alone, like a frightened squirrel, in the silent
solitude of the wood, where the rest and stillness is as the
calm of death.

Butterflies fluttered around her, and close by were
several ant-hills, each with its hundreds of busy little
creatures moving quickly to and fro. In the air, danced
myriads of gnats, swarm upon swarm, troops of buzzing flies,
ladybirds, dragon-flies with golden wings, and other little
winged creatures. The worm crawled forth from the moist
ground, and the moles crept out; but, excepting these, all
around had the stillness of death: but when people say this,
they do not quite understand themselves what they mean. None
noticed Helga but a flock of magpies, which flew chattering
round the top of the tree on which she sat. These birds hopped
close to her on the branches with bold curiosity. A glance
from her eyes was a signal to frighten them away, and they
were not clever enough to find out who she was; indeed she
hardly knew herself.

When the sun was near setting, and the evening's twilight
about to commence, the approaching transformation aroused her
to fresh exertion. She let herself down gently from the tree,
and, as the last sunbeam vanished, she stood again in the
wrinkled form of a frog, with the torn, webbed skin on her
hands, but her eyes now gleamed with more radiant beauty than
they had ever possessed in her most beautiful form of
loveliness; they were now pure, mild maidenly eyes that shone
forth in the face of a frog. They showed the existence of deep
feeling and a human heart, and the beauteous eyes overflowed
with tears, weeping precious drops that lightened the heart.

On the raised mound which she had made as a grave for the
dead priest, she found the cross made of the branches of a
tree, the last work of him who now lay dead and cold beneath
it. A sudden thought came to Helga, and she lifted up the
cross and planted it upon the grave, between the stones that
covered him and the dead horse. The sad recollection brought
the tears to her eyes, and in this gentle spirit she traced
the same sign in the sand round the grave; and as she formed,
with both her hands, the sign of the cross, the web skin fell
from them like a torn glove. She washed her hands in the water
of the spring, and gazed with astonishment at their delicate
whiteness. Again she made the holy sign in the air, between
herself and the dead man; her lips trembled, her tongue moved,
and the name which she in her ride through the forest had so
often heard spoken, rose to her lips, and she uttered the
words, 'Jesus Christ.' Then the frog skin fell from her; she
was once more a lovely maiden. Her head bent wearily, her
tired limbs required rest, and then she slept.

Her sleep, however, was short. Towards midnight, she
awoke; before her stood the dead horse, prancing and full of
life, which shone forth from his eyes and from his wounded
neck. Close by his side appeared the murdered Christian
priest, more beautiful than Baldur, as the Viking's wife had
said; but now he came as if in a flame of fire. Such gravity,
such stern justice, such a piercing glance shone from his
large, gentle eyes, that it seemed to penetrate into every
corner of her heart. Beautiful Helga trembled at the look, and
her memory returned with a power as if it had been the day of
judgment. Every good deed that had been done for her, every
loving word that had been said, were vividly before her mind.
She understood now that love had kept her here during the day
of her trial; while the creature formed of dust and clay, soul
and spirit, had wrestled and struggled with evil. She
acknowledged that she had only followed the impulses of an
evil disposition, that she had done nothing to cure herself;
everything had been given her, and all had happened as it were
by the ordination of Providence. She bowed herself humbly,
confessed her great imperfections in the sight of Him who can
read every fault of the heart, and then the priest spoke.
'Daughter of the moorland, thou hast come from the swamp and
the marshy earth, but from this thou shalt arise. The sunlight
shining into thy inmost soul proves the origin from which thou
hast really sprung, and has restored the body to its natural
form. I am come to thee from the land of the dead, and thou
also must pass through the valley to reach the holy mountains
where mercy and perfection dwell. I cannot lead thee to Hedeby
that thou mayst receive Christian baptism, for first thou must
remove the thick veil with which the waters of the moorland
are shrouded, and bring forth from its depths the living
author of thy being and thy life. Till this is done, thou
canst not receive consecration.'

Then he lifted her on the horse and gave her a golden
censer, similar to those she had already seen at the Viking's
house. A sweet perfume arose from it, while the open wound in
the forehead of the slain priest, shone with the rays of a
diamond. He took the cross from the grave, and held it aloft,
and now they rode through the air over the rustling trees,
over the hills where warriors lay buried each by his dead
war-horse; and the brazen monumental figures rose up and
galloped forth, and stationed themselves on the summits of the
hills. The golden crescent on their foreheads, fastened with
golden knots, glittered in the moonlight, and their mantles
floated in the wind. The dragon, that guards buried treasure,
lifted his head and gazed after them. The goblins and the
satyrs peeped out from beneath the hills, and flitted to and
fro in the fields, waving blue, red, and green torches, like
the glowing sparks in burning paper. Over woodland and heath,
flood and fen, they flew on, till they reached the wild moor,
over which they hovered in broad circles. The Christian priest
held the cross aloft, and it glittered like gold, while from
his lips sounded pious prayers. Beautiful Helga's voice joined
with his in the hymns he sung, as a child joins in her
mother's song. She swung the censer, and a wonderful fragrance
of incense arose from it; so powerful, that the reeds and
rushes of the moor burst forth into blossom. Each germ came
forth from the deep ground: all that had life raised itself.
Blooming water-lilies spread themselves forth like a carpet of
wrought flowers, and upon them lay a slumbering woman, young
and beautiful. Helga fancied that it was her own image she saw
reflected in the still water. But it was her mother she
beheld, the wife of the Marsh King, the princess from the land
of the Nile.

The dead Christian priest desired that the sleeping woman
should be lifted on the horse, but the horse sank beneath the
load, as if he had been a funeral pall fluttering in the wind.
But the sign of the cross made the airy phantom strong, and
then the three rode away from the marsh to firm ground.

At the same moment the cock crew in the Viking's castle,
and the dream figures dissolved and floated away in the air,
but mother and daughter stood opposite to each other.

'Am I looking at my own image in the deep water?' said the
mother.

'Is it myself that I see represented on a white shield?'
cried the daughter.

Then they came nearer to each other in a fond embrace. The
mother's heart beat quickly, and she understood the quickened
pulses. 'My child!' she exclaimed, 'the flower of my heart- my
lotus flower of the deep water!' and she embraced her child
again and wept, and the tears were as a baptism of new life
and love for Helga. 'In swan's plumage I came here,' said the
mother, 'and here I threw off my feather dress. Then I sank
down through the wavering ground, deep into the marsh beneath,
which closed like a wall around me; I found myself after a
while in fresher water; still a power drew me down deeper and
deeper. I felt the weight of sleep upon my eyelids. Then I
slept, and dreams hovered round me. It seemed to me as if I
were again in the pyramids of Egypt, and yet the waving elder
trunk that had frightened me on the moor stood ever before me.
I observed the clefts and wrinkles in the stem; they shone
forth in strange colors, and took the form of hieroglyphics.
It was the mummy case on which I gazed. At last it burst, and
forth stepped the thousand years' old king, the mummy form,
black as pitch, black as the shining wood-snail, or the slimy
mud of the swamp. Whether it was really the mummy or the Marsh
King I know not. He seized me in his arms, and I felt as if I
must die. When I recovered myself, I found in my bosom a
little bird, flapping its wings, twittering and fluttering.
The bird flew away from my bosom, upwards towards the dark,
heavy canopy above me, but a long, green band kept it fastened
to me. I heard and understood the tenor of its longings.
Freedom! sunlight! to my father! Then I thought of my father,
and the sunny land of my birth, my life, and my love. Then I
loosened the band, and let the bird fly away to its home- to a
father. Since that hour I have ceased to dream; my sleep has
been long and heavy, till in this very hour, harmony and
fragrance awoke me, and set me free.'

The green band which fastened the wings of the bird to the
mother's heart, where did it flutter now? whither had it been
wafted? The stork only had seen it. The band was the green
stalk, the cup of the flower the cradle in which lay the
child, that now in blooming beauty had been folded to the
mother's heart.

And while the two were resting in each other's arms, the
old stork flew round and round them in narrowing circles, till
at length he flew away swiftly to his nest, and fetched away
the two suits of swan's feathers, which he had preserved there
for many years. Then he returned to the mother and daughter,
and threw the swan's plumage over them; the feathers
immediately closed around them, and they rose up from the
earth in the form of two white swans.

'And now we can converse with pleasure,' said the
stork-papa; 'we can understand one another, although the beaks
of birds are so different in shape. It is very fortunate that
you came to-night. To-morrow we should have been gone. The
mother, myself and the little ones, we're about to fly to the
south. Look at me now: I am an old friend from the Nile, and a
mother's heart contains more than her beak. She always said
that the princess would know how to help herself. I and the
young ones carried the swan's feathers over here, and I am
glad of it now, and how lucky it is that I am here still. When
the day dawns we shall start with a great company of other
storks. We'll fly first, and you can follow in our track, so
that you cannot miss your way. I and the young ones will have
an eye upon you.'

'And the lotus-flower which I was to take with me,' said
the Egyptian princess, 'is flying here by my side, clothed in
swan's feathers. The flower of my heart will travel with me;
and so the riddle is solved. Now for home! now for home!'

But Helga said she could not leave the Danish land without
once more seeing her foster-mother, the loving wife of the
Viking. Each pleasing recollection, each kind word, every tear
from the heart which her foster-mother had wept for her, rose
in her mind, and at that moment she felt as if she loved this
mother the best.

'Yes, we must go to the Viking's castle,' said the stork;
'mother and the young ones are waiting for me there. How they
will open their eyes and flap their wings! My wife, you see,
does not say much; she is short and abrupt in her manner; but
she means well, for all that. I will flap my wings at once,
that they may hear us coming.' Then stork-papa flapped his
wings in first-rate style, and he and the swans flew away to
the Viking's castle.

In the castle, every one was in a deep sleep. It had been
late in the evening before the Viking's wife retired to rest.
She was anxious about Helga, who, three days before, had
vanished with the Christian priest. Helga must have helped him
in his flight, for it was her horse that was missed from the
stable; but by what power had all this been accomplished? The
Viking's wife thought of it with wonder, thought on the
miracles which they said could be performed by those who
believed in the Christian faith, and followed its teachings.
These passing thoughts formed themselves into a vivid dream,
and it seemed to her that she was still lying awake on her
couch, while without darkness reigned. A storm arose; she
heard the lake dashing and rolling from east and west, like
the waves of the North Sea or the Cattegat. The monstrous
snake which, it is said, surrounds the earth in the depths of
the ocean, was trembling in spasmodic convulsions. The night
of the fall of the gods was come, 'Ragnorock,' as the heathens
call the judgment-day, when everything shall pass away, even
the high gods themselves. The war trumpet sounded; riding upon
the rainbow, came the gods, clad in steel, to fight their last
battle on the last battle-field. Before them flew the winged
vampires, and the dead warriors closed up the train. The whole
firmament was ablaze with the northern lights, and yet the
darkness triumphed. It was a terrible hour. And, close to the
terrified woman, Helga seemed to be seated on the floor, in
the hideous form of a frog, yet trembling, and clinging to her
foster-mother, who took her on her lap, and lovingly caressed
her, hideous and frog-like as she was. The air was filled with
the clashing of arms and the hissing of arrows, as if a storm
of hail was descending upon the earth. It seemed to her the
hour when earth and sky would burst asunder, and all things be
swallowed up in Saturn's fiery lake; but she knew that a new
heaven and a new earth would arise, and that corn-fields would
wave where now the lake rolled over desolate sands, and the
ineffable God reign. Then she saw rising from the region of
the dead, Baldur the gentle, the loving, and as the Viking's
wife gazed upon him, she recognized his countenance. It was
the captive Christian priest. 'White Christian!' she exclaimed
aloud, and with the words, she pressed a kiss on the forehead
of the hideous frog-child. Then the frog-skin fell off, and
Helga stood before her in all her beauty, more lovely and
gentle-looking, and with eyes beaming with love. She kissed
the hands of her foster-mother, blessed her for all her
fostering love and care during the days of her trial and
misery, for the thoughts she had suggested and awoke in her
heart, and for naming the Name which she now repeated. Then
beautiful Helga rose as a mighty swan, and spread her wings
with the rushing sound of troops of birds of passage flying
through the air.

Then the Viking's wife awoke, but she still heard the
rushing sound without. She knew it was the time for the storks
to depart, and that it must be their wings which she heard.
She felt she should like to see them once more, and bid them
farewell. She rose from her couch, stepped out on the
threshold, and beheld, on the ridge of the roof, a party of
storks ranged side by side. Troops of the birds were flying in
circles over the castle and the highest trees; but just before
her, as she stood on the threshold and close to the well where
Helga had so often sat and alarmed her with her wildness, now
stood two swans, gazing at her with intelligent eyes. Then she
remembered her dream, which still appeared to her as a
reality. She thought of Helga in the form of a swan. She
thought of a Christian priest, and suddenly a wonderful joy
arose in her heart. The swans flapped their wings and arched
their necks as if to offer her a greeting, and the Viking's
wife spread out her arms towards them, as if she accepted it,
and smiled through her tears. She was roused from deep thought
by a rustling of wings and snapping of beaks; all the storks
arose, and started on their journey towards the south.


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