Long, long ago, when this old world was still very young, there lived a child named Epimetheus. He had neither father nor mother, and to keep him company, a little girl, who was fatherless and motherless like himself, was sent from a far country to live with him and be his playfellow. This child’s name was Pandora.
The first thing that Pandora saw, when she came to the cottage where Epimetheus lived, was a great wooden box. “What have you in that box, Epimetheus?” she asked.
“That is a secret,” answered Epimetheus, “and you must not ask any questions about it; the box was left here for safety, and I do not know what is in it.”
“But who gave it you?” asked Pandora, “and where did it come from?”
“That is a secret too,” answered Epimetheus.
“How tiresome!” exclaimed Pandora, pouting her lip. “I wish the great ugly box were out of the way;” and she looked very cross.
“Come along, and let us play games,” said Epimetheus; “do not let us think any more about it;” and they ran out to play with the other children, and for a while Pandora forgot all about the box.
But when she came back to the cottage, there it was in front of her, and instead of paying no heed to it, she began to say to herself: “Whatever can be inside it? I wish I just knew who brought it! Dear Epimetheus, do tell me; I know I cannot be happy till you tell me all about it.”
Then Epimetheus grew a little angry. “How can I tell you, Pandora?” he said, “I do not know any more than you do.”
“Well, you could open it,” said Pandora, “and we could see for ourselves!”
But Epimetheus looked so shocked at the very idea of opening a box that had been given to him in trust, that Pandora saw she had better not suggest such a thing again.
“At least you can tell me how it came here,” she said.
“It was left at the door,” answered Epimetheus, “just before you came, by a queer person dressed in a very strange cloak; he had a cap that seemed to be partly made of feathers; it looked exactly as if he had wings.”
“What kind of a staff had he?” asked Pandora.
“Oh, the most curious staff you ever saw,” cried Epimetheus: “it seemed like two serpents twisted round a stick.”
“I know him,” said Pandora thoughtfully. “It was Mercury, and he brought me here as well as the box. I am sure he meant the box for me, and perhaps there are pretty clothes in it for us to wear, and toys for us both to play with.”
“It may be so,” answered Epimetheus, turning away; “but until Mercury comes back and tells us that we may open it, neither of us has any right to lift the lid;” and he went out of the cottage.
“What a stupid boy he is!” muttered Pandora, “I do wish he had a little more spirit.” Then she stood gazing at the box. She had called it ugly a hundred times, but it was really a very handsome box, and would have been an ornament in any room.
It was made of beautiful dark wood, so dark and so highly polished that Pandora could see her face in it. The edges and the corners were wonderfully carved. On these were faces of lovely women, and of the prettiest children, who seemed to be playing among the leaves and flowers. But the most beautiful face of all was one which had a wreath of flowers about its brow. All around it was the dark, smooth-polished wood with this strange face looking out from it, and some days Pandora thought it was laughing at her, while at other times it had a very grave look which made her rather afraid.
The box was not fastened with a lock and key like most boxes, but with a strange knot of gold cord. There never was a knot so queerly tied; it seemed to have no end and no beginning, but was twisted so cunningly, with so many ins and outs, that not even the cleverest fingers could undo it.
Pandora began to examine the knot just to see how it was made. “I really believe,” she said to herself, “that I begin to see how it is done. I am sure I could tie it up again after undoing it. There could be no harm in that; I need not open the box even if I undo the knot.” And the longer she looked at it, the more she wanted just to try.
So she took the gold cord in her fingers and examined it very closely. Then she raised her head, and happening to glance at the flower-wreathed face, she thought it was grinning at her. “I wonder whether it is smiling because I am doing wrong,” thought Pandora, “I have a good mind to leave the box alone and run away.”
But just at that moment, as if by accident, she gave the knot a little shake, and the gold cord untwisted itself as if by magic, and there was the box without any fastening.
“This is the strangest thing I have ever known,” said Pandora, rather frightened, “What will Epimetheus say? How can I possibly tie it up again?”
She tried once or twice, but the knot would not come right. It had untied itself so suddenly she could not remember in the least how the cord had been twisted together. So there was nothing to be done but to let the box remain unfastened until Epimetheus should come home.
“But,” thought Pandora; “when he finds the knot untied he will know that I have done it; how shall I ever make him believe that I have not looked into the box?” And then the naughty thought came into her head that, as Epimetheus would believe that she had looked into the box, she might just as well have a little peep.
She looked at the face with the wreath, and it seemed to smile at her invitingly, as much as to say: “Do not be afraid, what harm can there possibly be in raising the lid for a moment?” And then she thought she heard voices inside, tiny voices that whispered: “Let us out, dear Pandora, do let us out; we want very much to play with you if you will only let us out?”
“What can it be?” said Pandora. “Is there something alive in the box? Yes, I must just see, only one little peep and the lid will be shut down as safely as ever. There cannot really be any harm in just one little peep.”
All this time Epimetheus had been playing with the other children in the fields, but he did not feel happy. This was the first time he had played without Pandora, and he was so cross and discontented that the other children could not think what was the matter with him. You see, up to this time everybody in the world had always been happy, no one had ever been ill, or naughty, or miserable; the world was new and beautiful, and the people who lived in it did not know what trouble meant. So Epimetheus could not understand what was the matter with himself, and he stopped trying to play games and went back to Pandora.
On the way home he gathered a bunch of lovely roses, and lilies, and orange-blossoms, and with these he made a wreath to give Pandora, who was very fond of flowers. He noticed there was a great black cloud in the sky, which was creeping nearer and nearer to the sun, and just as Ejpimetheus reached the cottage door the cloud went right over the sun and made everything look dark and sad.
Epimetheus went in quietly, for he wanted to surprise Pandora with the wreath of flowers. And what do you think he saw? The naughty little girl had put her hand on the lid of the box and was just going to open it. Epimetheus saw this quite well, and if he had cried out at once it would have given Pandora such a fright she would have let go the lid. But Epimetheus was very naughty too. Although he had said very little about the box, he was just as curious as Pandora was to see what was inside: if they really found anything pretty or valuable in it, he meant to take half of it for himself; so that he was just as naughty, and nearly as much to blame as his companion.
When Pandora raised the lid, the cottage had grown very dark, for the black cloud now covered the sun entirely and a heavy peal of thunder was heard. But Pandora was too busy and excited to notice this: she lifted the lid right up, and at once a swarm of creatures with wings flew out of the box, and a minute after she heard Epimetheus crying loudly: “Oh, I am stung, I am stung! You naughty Pandora, why did you open this wicked box?”
Pandora let the lid fall with a crash and started up to find out what had happened to her playmate. The thunder-cloud had made the room so dark that she could scarcely see, but she heard a loud buzz-buzzing, as if a great many huge flies had flown in, and soon she saw a crowd of ugly little shapes darting about, with wings like bats and with terribly long stings in their tails. It was one of these that had stung Epimetheus, and it was not long before Pandora began to scream with pain and fear. An ugly little monster had settled on her forehead, and would have stung her badly had not Epimetheus run forward and brushed it away.
Now I must tell you that these ugly creatures with stings, which had escaped from the box, were the whole family of earthly troubles. There were evil tempers, and a great many kinds of cares: and there were more than a hundred and fifty sorrows, and there were diseases in many painful shapes. In fact all the sorrows and worries that hurt people in the world to-day had been shut up in the magic-box, and given to Epimetheus and Pandora to keep safely, in order that the happy children in the world might never be troubled by them. If only these two had obeyed Mercury and had left the box alone as he told them, all would have gone well.
But you see what mischief they had done. The winged troubles flew out at the window and went all over the world: and they made people so unhappy that no one smiled for a great many days. It was very strange, too, that from this day flowers began to fade, and after a short time they died, whereas in the old times, before Pandora opened the box, they had been always fresh and beautiful.
Meanwhile Pandora and Epimetheus remained in the cottage: they were very miserable and in great pain, which made them both exceedingly cross. Epimetheus sat down sullenly in a corner with his back to Pandora, while Pandora flung herself on the floor and cried bitterly, resting her head on the lid of the fatal box.
Suddenly, she heard a gentle tap-tap inside. “What can that be?” said Pandora, raising her head; and again came the tap, tap. It sounded like the knuckles of a tiny hand knocking lightly on the inside of the box.
“Who are you?” asked Pandora.
A sweet little voice came from inside: “Only lift the lid and you will see.”
But Pandora was afraid to lift the lid again. She looked across to Epimetheus, but he was so cross that he took no notice. Pandora sobbed: “No, no, I am afraid; there are so many troubles with stings flying about that we do not want any more?”
“Ah, but I am not one of these,” the sweet voice said, “they are no relations of mine. Come, come, dear Pandora, I am sure you will let me out.”
The voice sounded so kind and cheery that it made Pandora feel better even to listen to it. Epimetheus too had heard the voice. He stopped crying. Then he came forward, and said: “Let me help you, Pandora, as the lid is very heavy.”
So this time both the children opened the box, and out flew a bright, smiling little fairy, who brought light and sunshine with her. She flew to Epimetheus and with her finger touched his brow where the trouble had stung him, and immediately the pain was gone.
Then she kissed Pandora, and her hurt was better at once.
“Pray who are you, kind fairy?” Pandora asked.
“I am called Hope,” answered the sunshiny figure. “I was shut up in the box so that I might be ready to comfort people when the family of troubles got loose in the world.”
“What lovely wings you have! They are just like a rainbow. And will you stay with us,” asked Epimetheus, “for ever and ever?”
“Yes,” said Hope, “I shall stay with you as long as you live. Sometimes you will not be able to see me, and you may think I am dead, but you will find that I come back again and again when you have given up expecting me, and you must always trust my promise that I will never really leave you.”
“Yes, we do trust you,” cried both children. And all the rest of their lives when the troubles came back and buzzed about their heads and left bitter stings of pain, Pandora and Epimetheus would remember whose fault it was that the troubles had ever come into the world at all, and they would then wait patiently till the fairy with the rainbow wings came back to heal and comfort them.