She had a little house of her own, a little garden too, this woman of whom I am going to tell you, but for all that she was not quite happy.
“If only I had a little child of my own,” she said, “how the walls would ring with her laughter, and how the flowers would brighten at her coming. Then, indeed, I should be quite happy.”
And an old witch heard what the woman wished, and said, “Oh, but that is easily managed. Here is a barley-corn. Plant it in a flower-pot and tend it carefully, and then you will see what will happen.”
The woman was in a great hurry to go home and plant the barley-corn, but she did not forget to say “thank you” to the old witch. She not only thanked her, she even stayed to give her six silver pennies.
Then she hurried away to her home, took a flower-pot and planted her precious barley-corn.
And what do you think happened? Almost before the corn was planted, up shot a large and beautiful flower. It was still unopened. The petals were folded closely together, but it looked like a tulip. It really was a tulip, a red and yellow one, too.
The woman loved flowers. She stooped and kissed the beautiful bud. As her lips touched the petals, they burst open, and oh! wonder of wonders! there, in the very middle of the flower, there sat a little child. Such a tiny, pretty little maiden she was.
They called her Thumbelina. That was because she was no bigger than the woman’s thumb.
And where do you think she slept? A little walnut shell, lined with blue, that was her cradle.
When she slept little Thumbelina lay in her cradle on a tiny heap of violets, with the petal of a pale pink rose to cover her.
And where do you think she played? A table was her playground. On the table the woman placed a plate of water. Little Thumbelina called that her lake.
Round the plate were scented flowers, the blossoms lying on the edge, while the pale green stalks reached thirstily down to the water.
In the lake floated a large tulip leaf. This was Thumbelina’s little boat. Seated there she sailed from side to side of her little lake, rowing cleverly with two white horse hairs. As she rowed backwards and forwards she sang softly to herself. The woman listening heard, and thought she had never known so sweet a song.
And now such a sad thing happened.
In through the broken window-pane hopped a big toad, oh! such an ugly big toad. She hopped right on to the table, where Thumbelina lay dreaming in her tiny cradle, under the pale pink rose leaf.
She peeped at her, this ugly old toad.
“How beautiful the little maiden is,” she croaked. “She will make a lovely bride for my handsome son.” And she lifted the little cradle, with Thumbelina in it, and hopped out through the broken window-pane, down into the garden.
At the foot of the garden was a broad stream. Here, under the muddy banks lived the old toad with her son.
How handsome she thought him! But he was really very ugly. Indeed, he was exactly like his mother.
When he saw little Thumbelina in her tiny cradle, he croaked with delight.
“Do not make so much noise,” said his mother, “or you will wake the tiny creature. We may lose her if we are not careful. The slightest breeze would waft her far away. She is as light as gossamer.”
Then the old toad carried Thumbelina out into the middle of the stream. “She will be safe here,” she said, as she laid her gently on one of the leaves of a large water lily, and paddled back to her son.
“We will make ready the best rooms under the mud,” she told him, “and then you and the little maiden will be married.”
Poor little Thumbelina! She had not seen the ugly big toad yet, nor her ugly son.
When she woke up early in the morning, how she wept! Water all around her! How could she reach the shore? Poor little Thumbelina!
Down under the mud the old toad was very busy, decking the best room with buttercups and buds of water-lilies to make it gay for her little daughter-in-law, Thumbelina.
“Now we will go to bring her little bed and place it ready,” said the old toad, and together she and her son swam out to the leaf where little Thumbelina sat.
“Here is my handsome son,” she said, “he is to be your husband,” and she bowed low in the water, for she wished to be very polite to the little maiden.
“Croak, croak,” was all the young toad could say, as he looked at his pretty little bride.
Then they took away the tiny little bed, and Thumbelina was left all alone.
How the tears stained her pretty little face! How fast they fell into the stream! Even the fish as they swam hither and thither thought, “How it rains to-day,” as the tiny drops fell thick and fast.
They popped up their heads and saw the forlorn little maiden.
“She shall not marry the ugly toad,” they said, as they looked with eager eyes at the pretty child. “No, she shall not marry the ugly toad.”
But what could the little fish do to help Thumbelina?
Oh! they were such clever little fish!
They found the green stem which held the leaf on which Thumbelina sat. They bit it with their little sharp teeth, and they never stopped biting, till at last they bit the green stem through; and away, down the stream, floated the leaf, carrying with it little Thumbelina.
“Free, free!” she sang, and her voice tinkled as a chime of fairy bells. “Free, free!” she sang merrily as she floated down the stream, away, far away out of reach of the ugly old toad and her ugly son.
And as she floated on, the little wild birds sang round her, and on the banks the little wild harebells bowed to her.
Butterflies were flitting here and there in the sunshine. A pretty little white one fluttered on to the leaf on which sat Thumbelina. He loved the tiny maiden so well that he settled down beside her.
Now she was quite happy! Birds around her, flowers near her, and the water gleaming like gold in the summer sunshine. What besides could little Thumbelina wish?
She took off her sash and threw one end of it round the butterfly. The other end she fastened firmly to the leaf. On and on floated the leaf, the little maiden and the butterfly.
Suddenly a great cockchafer buzzed along. Alas! he caught sight of little Thumbelina. He flew to her, put his claw round her tiny waist and carried her off, up on to a tree.
Poor little Thumbelina! How frightened she was! How grieved she was, too, for had she not lost her little friend the butterfly?
Would he fly away, she wondered, or would her sash hold him fast?
The cockchafer was charmed with the little maiden. He placed her tenderly on the largest leaf he could find. He gathered honey for her from the flowers, and as she sipped it, he sat near and told her how beautiful she looked.
But there were other chafers living in the tree, and when they came to see little Thumbelina, they said, “She is not pretty at all.”
“She has only two legs,” said one.
“She has no feelers,” said another.
Some said she was too thin, others that she was too fat, and then they all buzzed and hummed together, “How ugly she is, how ugly she is!” But all the time little Thumbelina was the prettiest, daintiest little maiden that ever lived.
And now the cockchafer who had flown off with little Thumbelina thought he had been rather foolish to admire her.
He looked at her again. “Pretty? No, after all she was not very pretty.” He would have nothing to do with her, and away he and all the other chafers flew. Only first they carried little Thumbelina down from the tree and placed her on a daisy. She wept because she was so ugly—so ugly that the chafers could not live with her. But all the time, you know, she was the prettiest little maiden in the world.
She was living all alone in the wood now, but it was summer and she could not feel sad or lonely while the warm golden sunshine touched her so gently, while the birds sang to her, and the flowers bowed to her.
Yes, little Thumbelina was happy. She ate honey from the flowers, and drank dew out of the golden buttercups and danced and sang the livelong day.
But summer passed away and autumn came. The birds began to whisper of flying to warmer countries, and the flowers began to fade and hang their heads, and as autumn passed away, winter came, cold, dreary winter.
Thumbelina shivered with cold. Her little frock was thin and old. She would certainly be frozen to death, she thought, as she wrapped herself up in a withered leaf.
Then the snow began to fall, and each snowflake seemed to smother her. She was so very tiny.
Close to the wood lay a corn-field. The beautiful golden grain had been carried away long ago, now there was only dry short stubble. But to little Thumbelina the stubble was like a great forest.
She walked through the hard field. She was shaking with cold. All at once she saw a little door just before her. She looked again—yes, it was a door.
The field-mouse had made a little house under the stubble, and lived so cosily there. She had a big room full of corn, and she had a kitchen and pantry as well.
“Perhaps I shall get some food here,” thought the cold and hungry little maiden, as she stood knocking at the door, just like a tiny beggar child. She had had nothing to eat for two long days. Oh, she was very hungry!
“What a tiny thing you are!” said the field-mouse, as she opened the door and saw Thumbelina. “Come in and dine with me.”
How glad Thumbelina was, and how she enjoyed dining with the field-mouse.
She behaved so prettily that the old field-mouse told her she might live with her while the cold weather lasted. “And you shall keep my room clean and neat, and you shall tell me stories,” she added.
That is how Thumbelina came to live with the field-mouse and to meet Mr. Mole.
“We shall have a visitor soon,” said the field-mouse. “My neighbor, Mr. Mole, comes to see me every week-day. His house is very large, and he wears a beautiful coat of black velvet. Unfortunately, he is blind. If you tell him your prettiest stories he may marry you.”
Now the mole was very wise and very clever, but how could little Thumbelina ever care for him? Why, he did not love the sun, nor the flowers, and he lived in a house underground. No, Thumbelina did not wish to marry the mole.
However she must sing to him when he came to visit his neighbor the field-mouse. When she had sung “Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home,” and “Boys and girls come out to play,” the mole was charmed, and thought he would like to marry the little maiden with the beautiful voice.
Then he tried to be very agreeable. He invited the field-mouse and Thumbelina to walk along the underground passage he had dug between their houses. Mr. Mole was very fond of digging underground.
As it was dark the mole took a piece of tinder-wood in his mouth and led the way. The tinder-wood shone like a torch in the dark passage.
A little bird lay in the passage, a little bird who had not flown away when the flowers faded and the cold winds blew.
It was dead, the mole said.
When he reached the bird, the mole stopped and pushed his nose right up through the ceiling to make a hole, through which the daylight might shine.
There lay the swallow, his wings pressed close to his side His little head and legs drawn in under his feathers. He had died of cold.
“Poor little swallow!” thought Thumbelina. All wild birds were her friends. Had they not sung to her and fluttered round her all the long glad summer days?
But the mole kicked the swallow with his short legs. “That one will sing no more,” he said roughly. “It must be sad to be born a bird and to be able only to sing and fly. I am thankful none of my children will be birds,” and he proudly smoothed down his velvet coat.
“Yes,” said the field-mouse; “what can a bird do but sing? When the cold weather comes it is useless.”
Thumbelina said nothing. Only when the others moved on, she stooped down and stroked the bird gently with her tiny hand, and kissed its closed eyes.
That night the little maiden could not sleep. “I will go to see the poor swallow again,” she thought.
She got up out of her tiny bed. She wove a little carpet out of hay. Down the long underground passage little Thumbelina walked, carrying the carpet. She reached the bird at last, and spread the carpet gently round him. She fetched warm cotton and laid it over the bird.
“Even down on the cold earth he will be warm now,” thought the gentle little maiden.
“Farewell,” she said sadly, “farewell, little bird! Did you sing to me through the long summer days, when the leaves were green and the sky was blue? Farewell, little swallow!” and she stooped to press her tiny cheeks against the soft feathers.
As she did so, she heard—what could it be? Pit, pat, pit, pat! Could the bird be alive? Little Thumbelina listened still. Yes, it was the beating of the little bird’s heart that she heard. He had not been dead after all, only frozen with cold. The little carpet and the covering the little maid had brought warmed the bird. He would get well now.
What a big bird he seemed to Thumbelina! She was almost afraid now, for she was so tiny. She was tiny, but she was brave. Drawing the covering more closely round the poor swallow, she brought her own little pillow, that the bird’s head might rest softly.
Thumbelina stole out again the next night. “Would the swallow look at her,” she wondered.
Yes, he opened his eyes, and looked at little Thumbelina, who stood there with a tiny torch of tinder-wood.
“Thanks, thanks, little Thumbelina,” he twittered feebly. “Soon I shall grow strong and fly out in the bright sunshine once more; thanks, thanks, little maiden.”
“Oh! but it is too cold, it snows and freezes, for now it is winter,” said Thumbelina. “Stay here and be warm, and I will take care of you,” and she brought the swallow water in a leaf.
And the little bird told her all his story,—how he had tried to fly to the warm countries, and how he had torn his wing on a blackthorn bush and fallen to the ground. But he could not tell her how he had come to the underground passage.
All winter the swallow stayed there, and Thumbelina was often in the long passage, with her little torch of tinder-wood. But the mole and the field-mouse did not know how Thumbelina tended and cared for the swallow.
At last spring came, and the sun sent its warmth down where the swallow lay in the underground passage.
Little Thumbelina opened the hole which the mole had made in the ceiling, and the sunshine streamed down on the swallow and the little girl.
How the swallow longed to soar away, up and up, to be lost to sight in the blue, blue sky!
“Come with me, little Thumbelina,” said the swallow, “come with me to the blue skies and the green woods.”
But Thumbelina remembered how kind the field-mouse had been to her when she was cold and hungry, and she would not leave her.
“Farewell! farewell! then, little maiden,” twittered the swallow as he flew out and up, up into the sunshine.
Thumbelina loved the swallow dearly. Her eyes were full of tears as she watched the bird disappearing till he was only a tiny speck of black.
And now sad days came to little Thumbelina.
The golden corn was once more waving in the sunshine above the house of the field-mouse, but Thumbelina must not go out lest she lose herself among the corn.
Not go out in the bright sunshine! Oh, poor little Thumbelina!
“You must get your wedding clothes ready this summer,” said the field-mouse. “You must be well provided with linen and worsted. My neighbor the mole will wish a well-dressed bride.”
The mole had said he wished to marry little Thumbelina before the cold winter came again.
So Thumbelina sat at the spinning-wheel through the long summer days, spinning and weaving with four little spiders to help her.
In the evening the mole came to visit her. “Summer will soon be over,” he said, “and we shall be married.”
But oh! little Thumbelina did not wish the summer to end.
Live with the dull old mole, who hated the sunshine, who would not listen to the song of the birds—live underground with him! Little Thumbelina wished the summer would never end.
The spinning and weaving were over now. All the wedding clothes were ready. Autumn was come.
“Only four weeks and the wedding-day will have come,” said the field-mouse.
And little Thumbelina wept.
“I will not marry the tiresome old mole,” she said.
“I shall bite you with my white tooth if you talk such nonsense,” said the field-mouse. “Among all my friends not one of them has such a fine velvet coat as the mole. His cellars are full and his rooms are large. You ought to be glad to marry so well,” she ended.
“Was there no escape from the underground home?” little Thumbelina wondered.
The wedding-day came. The mole arrived to fetch his little bride.
How could she say good-by for ever to the beautiful sunshine?
“Farewell, farewell!” she cried, and waved her little hands towards the glorious sun.
“Farewell, farewell!” she cried, and threw her tiny arms round a little red flower growing at her feet.
“Tell the dear swallow, when he comes again,” she whispered to the flower, “tell him I will never forget him.”
“Tweet, tweet!” what was that Thumbelina heard? “Tweet, tweet!” Could it be the swallow?
The flutter of wings was round her. Little Thumbelina looked. How glad she was, for there, indeed, was the little bird she had tended and cared for so long. She told him, weeping, she must not stay. She must marry the mole and live underground, and never see the sun, the glorious sun.
“Come with me, come with me, little Thumbelina,” twittered the swallow. “You can sit on my back, and I will fly with you to warmer countries, far from the tiresome old mole. Over mountains and seas we will fly to the country where the summer never ends, and the sunlight always shines.”
Then little Thumbelina seated herself on her dear swallow’s back, and put her tiny feet on his outstretched wing. She tied herself firmly with her little sash to the strongest feather of the bird.
And the swallow soared high into the air. High above forests and lakes, high above the big mountains that were crested with snow, he soared.
And little Thumbelina shivered as she felt the cold air, but soon she crept under the bird’s warm feathers, and only pushed out her little head to see the beauty all around her.
They had reached the warm countries now. The sun was more brilliant here, the flowers more radiant.
On and on flew the swallow, till he came to a white marble palace. Half-ruined it was, and vine leaves trailed up the long slender pillars. And among the broad, green leaves many a swallow had built his nest, and one of these nests belonged to Thumbelina’s little swallow.
“This is my home,” said the bird, “but you shall live in one of these brilliant flowers, in the loveliest of them all’.”
And little Thumbelina clapped her hands with joy.
The swallow flew with her to a stately sunflower, and set her carefully on one of the broad yellow petals.
But think, what was her surprise! In the very heart of the flower stood a little Prince, fair and transparent as crystal. On his head he wore a crown of gold, on his shoulders a pair of delicate wings, and he was small, every bit as small as Thumbelina. He was the spirit of the flower.
For you know in each flower there is a spirit, a tiny little boy or girl, but this little Prince was King of all the flower spirits.
The little King thought Thumbelina the loveliest maiden he had ever seen. He took off his golden crown and placed it on the tiny head of the little maid, and in a silvery voice he asked, “Will you be my bride, little Thumbelina, and reign with me over the flower spirits?”
How glad Thumbelina was!
The little King wished to marry her. Yes, she would be his little Queen.
Then out of each blossom stepped tiny little children. They came to pay their homage to little Thumbelina.
Each one brought her a present, and the most beautiful of all the presents was a pair of wings, delicate as gossamer. And when they were fastened on the shoulders of the little Queen, she could fly from flower to flower.
And the swallow sat on his nest above, and sang his sweetest bridal song for the wedding of little Thumbelina.