The Miraculous Pitcher
An elderly couple are kind to two strangers and magic results!
This is a vintage fairy tale, and may contain violence. We would encourage parents to read beforehand if your child is sensitive to such themes.
One evening, in times long ago, old Philemon and his old wife Baucis sat at their cottage door, enjoying the calm and beautiful sunset. They had already eaten their frugal supper, and intended now to spend a quiet hour or two before bedtime. So they talked together about their garden, and their cow, and their bees, and their grapevine, which clambered over the cottage wall, and on which the grapes were beginning to turn purple. But the rude shouts of children, and the fierce barking of dogs, in the village near at hand, grew louder and louder, until, at last, it was hardly possible for Baucis and Philemon to hear each other speak.
“Ah, wife,” cried Philemon, “I fear some poor traveler is seeking hospitality among our neighbors yonder, and, instead of giving him food and lodging, they have set their dogs at him, as their custom is!”
“Well-a-day!” answered old Baucis, “I do wish our neighbors felt a little more kindness for their fellow-creatures. And only think of bringing up their children in this naughty way, and patting them on the head when they fling stones at strangers!”
“Those children will never come to any good,” said Philemon, shaking his white head. “To tell you the truth, wife, I should not wonder if some terrible thing were to happen to all the people in the village, unless they mend their manners. But, as for you and me, so long as Providence affords us a crust of bread, let us be ready to give half to any poor, homeless stranger that may come along and need it.”
“That’s right, husband!” said Baucis. “So we will!”
These old folks, you must know, were quite poor, and had to work pretty hard for a living. Old Philemon toiled diligently in his garden, while Baucis was always busy with her distaff, or making a little butter and cheese with their cow’s milk, or doing one thing and another about the cottage. Their food was seldom anything but bread, milk, and vegetables, with sometimes a portion of honey from their beehive, and now and then a bunch of grapes, that had ripened against the cottage wall. But they were two of the kindest old people in the world, and would cheerfully have gone without their dinners, any day, rather than refuse a slice of their brown loaf, a cup of new milk, and a spoonful of honey, to the weary traveler who might pause before their door. They felt as if such guests had a sort of holiness, and that they ought, therefore, to treat them better and more bountifully than their own selves.
Their cottage stood on a rising ground, at some short distance from a village, which lay in a hollow valley, that was about half a mile in breadth. This valley, in past ages, when the world was new, had probably been the bed of a lake. There fishes had glided to and fro in the depths, and water-weeds had grown along the margin, and trees and hills had seen their reflected images in the broad and peaceful mirror. But, as the waters subsided, men had cultivated the soil, and built houses on it, so that it was now a fertile spot, and bore no traces of the ancient lake, except a very small brook, which meandered through the midst of the village, and supplied the inhabitants with water. The valley had been dry land so long that oaks had sprung up, and grown great and high, and perished with old age, and been succeeded by others, as tall and stately as the first. Never was there a prettier or more fruitful valley. The very sight of the plenty around them should have made the inhabitants kind and gentle, and ready to show their gratitude to Providence by doing good to their fellow-creatures.
But, we are sorry to say, the people of this lovely village were not worthy to dwell in a spot on which Heaven had smiled so beneficently. They were a very selfish and hard-hearted people, and had no pity for the poor, nor sympathy with the homeless. They would only have laughed, had anybody told them that human beings owe a debt of love to one another, because there is no other method of paying the debt of love and care which all of us owe to Providence. You will hardly believe what I am going to tell you. These naughty people taught their children to be no better than themselves, and used to clap their hands, by way of encouragement, when they saw the little boys and girls run after some poor stranger, shouting at his heels, and pelting him with stones. They kept large and fierce dogs, and whenever a traveler ventured to show himself in the village street, this pack of disagreeable curs scampered to meet him, barking, snarling, and showing their teeth. Then they would seize him by his leg, or by his clothes, just as it happened; and if he were ragged when he came, he was generally a pitiable object before he had time to run away. This was a very terrible thing to poor travelers, as you may suppose, especially when they chanced to be sick, or feeble, or lame, or old. Such persons (if they once knew how badly these unkind people, and their unkind children and curs, were in the habit of behaving) would go miles and miles out of their way, rather than try to pass through the village again.
What made the matter seem worse, if possible, was that when rich persons came in their chariots, or riding on beautiful horses, with their servants in rich liveries attending on them, nobody could be more civil and obsequious than the inhabitants of the village. They would take off their hats, and make the humblest bows you ever saw. If the children were rude, they were pretty certain to get their ears boxed; and as for the dogs, if a single cur in the pack presumed to yelp, his master instantly beat him with a club, and tied him up without any supper. This would have been all very well, only it proved that the villagers cared much about the money that a stranger had in his pocket, and nothing whatever for the human soul, which lives equally in the beggar and the prince.
So now you can understand why old Philemon spoke so sorrowfully, when he heard the shouts of the children and the barking of the dogs, at the farther extremity of the village street. There was a confused din, which lasted a good while, and seemed to pass quite through the breadth of the valley.
“I never heard the dogs so loud!” observed the good old man.
“Nor the children so rude!” answered his good old wife.
They sat shaking their heads, one to the other, while the noise came nearer and nearer; until, at the foot of the little eminence on which their cottage stood, they saw two travelers approaching on foot. Close behind them came the fierce dogs, snarling at their very heels. A little farther off ran a crowd of children, who sent up shrill cries, and flung stones at the two strangers, with all their might. Once or twice, the younger of the two men (he was a slender and very active figure) turned about and drove back the dogs with a staff which he carried in his hand. His companion, who was a very tall person, walked calmly along as if disdaining to notice either the naughty children or the pack of curs, whose manners the children seemed to imitate.
Both of the travelers were very humbly clad, and looked as if they might not have money enough in their pockets to pay for a night’s lodging. And this, I am afraid, was the reason why the villagers had allowed their children and dogs to treat them so rudely.
“Come, wife,” said Philemon to Baucis, “let us go and meet these poor people. No doubt, they feel almost too heavy-hearted to climb the hill.”
“Go you and meet them,” answered Baucis, “while I make haste within doors, and see whether we can get them anything for supper. A comfortable bowl of bread and milk would do wonders towards raising their spirits.”
Accordingly, she hastened into the cottage. Philemon, on his part, went forward, and extended his hand with so hospitable an aspect that there was no need of saying what nevertheless he did say, in the heartiest tone imaginable,—
“Welcome, strangers! welcome!”
“Thank you!” replied the younger of the two, in a lively kind of way, notwithstanding his weariness and trouble. “This is quite another greeting than we have met with yonder in the village. Pray, why do you live in such a bad neighborhood?”
“Ah!” observed old Philemon, with a quiet and benign smile, “Providence put me here, I hope, among other reasons, in order that I may make you what amends I can for the inhospitality of my neighbors.”
“Well said, old father!” cried the traveler, laughing; “and, if the truth must be told, my companion and myself need some amends. Those children (the little rascals!) have bespattered us finely with their mud-balls; and one of the curs has torn my cloak, which was ragged enough already. But I took him across the muzzle with my staff; and I think you may have heard him yelp, even thus far off.”
Philemon was glad to see him in such good spirits; nor, indeed, would you have fancied, by the traveler’s look and manner, that he was weary with a long day’s journey, besides being disheartened by rough treatment at the end of it. He was dressed in rather an odd way, with a sort of cap on his head, the brim of which stuck out over both ears. Though it was a summer evening, he wore a cloak, which he kept wrapped closely about him, perhaps because his under garments were shabby. Philemon perceived, too, that he had on a singular pair of shoes; but, as it was now growing dusk, and as the old man’s eyesight was none the sharpest, he could not precisely tell in what the strangeness consisted. One thing, certainly, seemed queer. The traveler was so wonderfully light and active, that it appeared as if his feet sometimes rose from the ground of their own accord, or could only be kept down by an effort.
“I used to be light-footed, in my youth,” said Philemon to the traveler. “But I always found my feet grow heavier towards nightfall.”
“There is nothing like a good staff to help one along,” answered the stranger; “and I happen to have an excellent one, as you see.”
This staff, in fact, was the oddest-looking staff that Philemon had ever beheld. It was made of olive-wood, and had something like a little pair of wings near the top. Two snakes, carved in the wood, were represented as twining themselves about the staff, and were so very skillfully executed that old Philemon (whose eyes, you know, were getting rather dim) almost thought them alive, and that he could see them wriggling and twisting.
“A curious piece of work, sure enough!” said he. “A staff with wings! It would be an excellent kind of stick for a little boy to ride astride of!”
By this time Philemon and his two guests had reached the cottage door.
“Friends,” said the old man, “sit down and rest yourselves here on this bench. My good wife Baucis has gone to see what you can have for supper. We are poor folks; but you shall be welcome to whatever we have in the cupboard.”
The younger stranger threw himself carelessly on the bench, letting his staff fall, as he did so. And here happened something rather marvelous, though trifling enough, too. The staff seemed to get up from the ground of its own accord, and, spreading its little pair of wings, it half hopped, half flew, and leaned itself against the wall of the cottage. There it stood quite still, except that the snakes continued to wriggle. But, in my private opinion, old Philemon’s eyesight had been playing him tricks again.
Before he could ask any questions, the elder stranger drew his attention from the wonderful staff, by speaking to him.
“Was there not,” asked the stranger, in a remarkably deep tone of voice, “a lake, in very ancient times, covering the spot where now stands yonder village?”
“Not in my day, friend,” answered Philemon; “and yet I am an old man, as you see. There were always the fields and meadows, just as they are now, and the old trees, and the little stream murmuring through the midst of the valley. My father, nor his father before him, ever saw it otherwise, so far as I know; and doubtless it will still be the same, when old Philemon shall be gone and forgotten!”
“That is more than can be safely foretold,” observed the stranger; and there was something very stern in his deep voice. He shook his head, too, so that his dark and heavy curls were shaken with the movement. “Since the inhabitants of yonder village have forgotten the affections and sympathies of their nature, it were better that the lake should be rippling over their dwellings again!”
The traveler looked so stern that Philemon was really almost frightened; the more so, that, at his frown, the twilight seemed suddenly to grow darker, and that, when he shook his head, there was a roll as of thunder in the air.
But, in a moment afterwards, the stranger’s face became so kindly and mild that the old man quite forgot his terror. Nevertheless, he could not help feeling that this elder traveler must be no ordinary personage, although he happened now to be attired so humbly and to be journeying on foot. Not that Philemon fancied him a prince in disguise, or any character of that sort; but rather some exceedingly wise man, who went about the world in this poor garb, despising wealth and all worldly objects, and seeking everywhere to add a mite to his wisdom. This idea appeared the more probable, because, when Philemon raised his eyes to the stranger’s face, he seemed to see more thought there, in one look, than he could have studied out in a lifetime.
While Baucis was getting the supper, the travelers both began to talk very sociably with Philemon. The younger, indeed, was extremely loquacious, and made such shrewd and witty remarks that the good old man continually burst out a-laughing, and pronounced him the merriest fellow whom he had seen for many a day.
“Pray, my young friend,” said he, as they grew familiar together, “what may I call your name?”
“Why, I am very nimble, as you see,” answered the traveler. “So, if you call me Quicksilver, the name will fit tolerably well.”
“Quicksilver? Quicksilver?” repeated Philemon, looking in the traveler’s face, to see if he were making fun of him. “It is a very odd name! And your companion there? Has he as strange a one?”
“You must ask the thunder to tell it you!” replied Quicksilver, putting on a mysterious look. “No other voice is loud enough.”
This remark, whether it were serious or in jest, might have caused Philemon to conceive a very great awe of the elder stranger, if, on venturing to gaze at him, he had not beheld so much beneficence in his visage. But undoubtedly here was the grandest figure that ever sat so humbly beside a cottage door. When the stranger conversed, it was with gravity, and in such a way that Philemon felt irresistibly moved to tell him everything which he had most at heart. This is always the feeling that people have when they meet with any one wise enough to comprehend all their good and evil, and to despise not a tittle of it.
But Philemon, simple and kind-hearted old man that he was, had not many secrets to disclose. He talked, however, quite garrulously, about the events of his past life, in the whole course of which he had never been a score of miles from this very spot. His wife Baucis and himself had dwelt in the cottage from their youth upward, earning their bread by honest labor, always poor, but still contented. He told what excellent butter and cheese Baucis made, and how nice were the vegetables which he raised in his garden. He said, too, that, because they loved one another so very much, it was the wish of both that death might not separate them, but that they should die, as they had lived, together.
As the stranger listened, a smile beamed over his countenance, and made its expression as sweet as it was grand.
“You are a good old man,” said he to Philemon, “and you have a good old wife to be your helpmeet. It is fit that your wish be granted.”
And it seemed to Philemon, just then, as if the sunset clouds threw up a bright flash from the west, and kindled a sudden light in the sky.
Baucis had now got supper ready, and, coming to the door, began to make apologies for the poor fare which she was forced to set before her guests.
“Had we known you were coming,” said she, “my good man and myself would have gone without a morsel, rather than you should lack a better supper. But I took the most part of to-day’s milk to make cheese; and our last loaf is already half eaten. Ah me! I never feel the sorrow of being poor, save when a poor traveler knocks at our door.”
“All will be very well; do not trouble yourself, my good dame,” replied the elder stranger kindly. “An honest, hearty welcome to a guest works miracles with the fare, and is capable of turning the coarsest food to nectar and ambrosia.”
“A welcome you shall have,” cried Baucis, “and likewise a little honey that we happen to have left, and a bunch of purple grapes besides.”
“Why, Mother Baucis, it is a feast!” exclaimed Quicksilver, laughing; “an absolute feast! and you shall see how bravely I will play my part at it! I think I never felt hungrier in my life.”
“Mercy on us!” whispered Baucis to her husband. “If the young man has such a terrible appetite, I am afraid there will not be half enough supper!”
They all went into the cottage.
And now, my little auditors, shall I tell you something that will make you open your eyes very wide? It is really one of the oddest circumstances in the whole story. Quicksilver’s staff, you recollect, had set itself up against the wall of the cottage. Well, when its master entered the door, leaving this wonderful staff behind, what should it do but immediately spread its little wings, and go hopping and fluttering up the doorsteps! Tap, tap, went the staff, on the kitchen floor; nor did it rest until it had stood itself on end, with the greatest gravity and decorum, beside Quicksilver’s chair. Old Philemon, however, as well as his wife, was so taken up in attending to their guests that no notice was given to what the staff had been about.
As Baucis had said, there was but a scanty supper for two hungry travelers. In the middle of the table was the remnant of a brown loaf, with a piece of cheese on one side of it, and a dish of honeycomb on the other. There was a pretty good bunch of grapes for each of the guests. A moderately sized earthen pitcher, nearly full of milk, stood at a corner of the board; and when Baucis had filled two bowls, and set them before the strangers, only a little milk remained in the bottom of the pitcher. Alas! it is a very sad business, when a bountiful heart finds itself pinched and squeezed among narrow circumstances. Poor Baucis kept wishing that she might starve for a week to come, if it were possible, by so doing, to provide these hungry folks a more plentiful supper.
And, since the supper was so exceedingly small, she could not help wishing that their appetites had not been quite so large. Why, at their very first sitting down, the travelers both drank off all the milk in their two bowls, at a draught.
“A little more milk, kind Mother Baucis, if you please,” said Quicksilver. “The day has been hot, and I am very much athirst.”
“Now, my dear people,” answered Baucis, in great confusion, “I am so sorry and ashamed! But the truth is, there is hardly a drop more milk in the pitcher. O husband, husband, why didn’t we go without our supper?”
“Why, it appears to me,” cried Quicksilver, starting up from table and taking the pitcher by the handle, “it really appears to me that matters are not quite so bad as you represent them. Here is certainly more milk in the pitcher.”
So saying, and to the vast astonishment of Baucis, he proceeded to fill, not only his own bowl, but his companion’s likewise, from the pitcher that was supposed to be almost empty. The good woman could scarcely believe her eyes. She had certainly poured out nearly all the milk, and had peeped in afterwards, and seen the bottom of the pitcher, as she set it down upon the table.
“But I am old,” thought Baucis to herself, “and apt to be forgetful. I suppose I must have made a mistake. At all events, the pitcher cannot help being empty now, after filling the bowls twice over.”
“What excellent milk!” observed Quicksilver, after quaffing the contents of the second bowl. “Excuse me, my kind hostess, but I must really ask you for a little more.”
Now Baucis had seen, as plainly as she could see anything, that Quicksilver had turned the pitcher upside down, and consequently had poured out every drop of milk, in filling the last bowl. Of course, there could not possibly be any left. However, in order to let him know precisely how the case was, she lifted the pitcher, and made a gesture as if pouring milk into Quicksilver’s bowl, but without the remotest idea that any milk would stream forth. What was her surprise, therefore, when such an abundant cascade fell bubbling into the bowl, that it was immediately filled to the brim, and overflowed upon the table! The two snakes that were twisted about Quicksilver’s staff (but neither Baucis nor Philemon happened to observe this circumstance) stretched out their heads, and began to lap up the spilt milk.
And then what a delicious fragrance the milk had! It seemed as if Philemon’s only cow must have pastured, that day, on the richest herbage that could be found anywhere in the world. I only wish that each of you, my beloved little souls, could have a bowl of such nice milk, at supper-time!
“And now a slice of your brown loaf, Mother Baucis,” said Quicksilver, “and a little of that honey!”
Baucis cut him a slice accordingly; and though the loaf, when she and her husband ate of it, had been rather too dry and crusty to be palatable, it was now as light and moist as if but a few hours out of the oven. Tasting a crumb, which had fallen on the table, she found it more delicious than bread ever was before, and could hardly believe that it was a loaf of her own kneading and baking. Yet, what other loaf could it possibly be?
But oh, the honey! I may just as well let it alone, without trying to describe how exquisitely it smelt and looked. Its color was that of the purest and most transparent gold; and it had the odor of a thousand flowers; but of such flowers as never grew in an earthly garden, and to seek which the bees must have flown high above the clouds. The wonder is, that, after alighting on a flower-bed of so delicious fragrance and immortal bloom, they should have been content to fly down again to their hive in Philemon’s garden. Never was such honey tasted, seen, or smelt. The perfume floated around the kitchen, and made it so delightful, that, had you closed your eyes, you would instantly have forgotten the low ceiling and smoky walls, and have fancied yourself in an arbor, with celestial honeysuckles creeping over it.
Although good Mother Baucis was a simple old dame, she could not but think that there was something rather out of the common way in all that had been going on. So, after helping the guests to bread and honey, and laying a bunch of grapes by each of their plates, she sat down by Philemon, and told him what she had seen, in a whisper.
“Did you ever hear the like?” asked she.
“No, I never did,” answered Philemon, with a smile. “And I rather think, my dear old wife, you have been walking about in a sort of a dream. If I had poured out the milk, I should have seen through the business at once. There happened to be a little more in the pitcher than you thought,—that is all.”
“Ah, husband,” said Baucis, “say what you will, these are very uncommon people.”
“Well, well,” replied Philemon, still smiling, “perhaps they are. They certainly do look as if they had seen better days; and I am heartily glad to see them making so comfortable a supper.”
Each of the guests had now taken his bunch of grapes upon his plate. Baucis (who rubbed her eyes, in order to see the more clearly) was of opinion that the clusters had grown larger and richer, and that each separate grape seemed to be on the point of bursting with ripe juice. It was entirely a mystery to her how such grapes could ever have been produced from the old stunted vine that climbed against the cottage wall.
“Very admirable grapes these!” observed Quicksilver, as he swallowed one after another, without apparently diminishing his cluster. “Pray, my good host, whence did you gather them?”
“From my own vine,” answered Philemon. “You may see one of its branches twisting across the window, yonder. But wife and I never thought the grapes very fine ones.”
“I never tasted better,” said the guest. “Another cup of this delicious milk, if you please, and I shall then have supped better than a prince.”
This time, old Philemon bestirred himself, and took up the pitcher; for he was curious to discover whether there was any reality in the marvels which Baucis had whispered to him. He knew that his good old wife was incapable of falsehood, and that she was seldom mistaken in what she supposed to be true; but this was so very singular a case, that he wanted to see into it with his own eyes. On taking up the pitcher, therefore, he slyly peeped into it, and was fully satisfied that it contained not so much as a single drop. All at once, however, he beheld a little white fountain, which gushed up from the bottom of the pitcher, and speedily filled it to the brim with foaming and deliciously fragrant milk. It was lucky that Philemon, in his surprise, did not drop the miraculous pitcher from his hand.
“Who are ye, wonder-working strangers!” cried he, even more bewildered than his wife had been.
“Your guests, my good Philemon, and your friends,” replied the elder traveler, in his mild, deep voice, that had something at once sweet and awe-inspiring in it. “Give me likewise a cup of the milk; and may your pitcher never be empty for kind Baucis and yourself, any more than for the needy wayfarer!”
The supper being now over, the strangers requested to be shown to their place of repose. The old people would gladly have talked with them a little longer, and have expressed the wonder which they felt, and their delight at finding the poor and meagre supper prove so much better and more abundant than they hoped. But the elder traveler had inspired them with such reverence that they dared not ask him any questions. And when Philemon drew Quicksilver aside, and inquired how under the sun a fountain of milk could have got into an old earthen pitcher, this latter personage pointed to his staff.
“There is the whole mystery of the affair,” quoth Quicksilver; “and if you can make it out, I’ll thank you to let me know. I can’t tell what to make of my staff. It is always playing such odd tricks as this; sometimes getting me a supper, and, quite as often, stealing it away. If I had any faith in such nonsense, I should say the stick was bewitched!”
He said no more, but looked so slyly in their faces, that they rather fancied he was laughing at them. The magic staff went hopping at his heels, as Quicksilver quitted the room. When left alone, the good old couple spent some little time in conversation about the events of the evening, and then lay down on the floor, and fell fast asleep. They had given up their sleeping-room to the guests, and had no other bed for themselves, save these planks, which I wish had been as soft as their own hearts.
The old man and his wife were stirring, betimes, in the morning, and the strangers likewise arose with the sun, and made their preparations to depart. Philemon hospitably entreated them to remain a little longer, until Baucis could milk the cow, and bake a cake upon the hearth, and, perhaps, find them a few fresh eggs, for breakfast. The guests, however, seemed to think it better to accomplish a good part of their journey before the heat of the day should come on. They, therefore, persisted in setting out immediately, but asked Philemon and Baucis to walk forth with them a short distance, and show them the road which they were to take.
So they all four issued from the cottage, chatting together like old friends. It was very remarkable, indeed, how familiar the old couple insensibly grew with the elder traveler, and how their good and simple spirits melted into his, even as two drops of water would melt into the illimitable ocean. And as for Quicksilver, with his keen, quick, laughing wits, he appeared to discover every little thought that but peeped into their minds, before they suspected it themselves. They sometimes wished, it is true, that he had not been quite so quick-witted, and also that he would fling away his staff, which looked so mysteriously mischievous, with the snakes always writhing about it. But then, again, Quicksilver showed himself so very good-humored, that they would have been rejoiced to keep him in their cottage, staff, snakes, and all, every day, and the whole day long.
“Ah me! Well-a-day!” exclaimed Philemon, when they had walked a little way from their door. “If our neighbors only knew what a blessed thing it is to show hospitality to strangers, they would tie up all their dogs, and never allow their children to fling another stone.”
“It is a sin and shame for them to behave so,—that it is!” cried good old Baucis vehemently. “And I mean to go this very day, and tell some of them what naughty people they are!”
“I fear,” remarked Quicksilver; slyly smiling, “that you will find none of them at home.”
The elder traveler’s brow, just then, assumed such a grave, stern, and awful grandeur, yet serene withal, that neither Baucis nor Philemon dared to speak a word. They gazed reverently into his face, as if they had been gazing at the sky.
“When men do not feel towards the humblest stranger as if he were a brother,” said the traveler, in tones so deep that they sounded like those of an organ, “they are unworthy to exist on earth, which was created as the abode of a great human brotherhood!”
“And, by the by, my dear old people,” cried Quicksilver, with the liveliest look of fun and mischief in his eyes, “where is this same village that you talk about? On which side of us does it lie? Methinks I do not see it hereabouts.”
Philemon and his wife turned towards the valley, where, at sunset, only the day before, they had seen the meadows, the houses, the gardens, the clumps of trees, the wide, green-margined street, with children playing in it, and all the tokens of business, enjoyment, and prosperity. But what was their astonishment! There was no longer any appearance of a village! Even the fertile vale, in the hollow of which it lay, had ceased to have existence. In its stead, they beheld the broad, blue surface of a lake, which filled the great basin of the valley from brim to brim, and reflected the surrounding hills in its bosom with as tranquil an image as if it had been there ever since the creation of the world. For an instant, the lake remained perfectly smooth. Then a little breeze sprang up, and caused the water to dance, glitter, and sparkle in the early sunbeams, and to dash, with a pleasant rippling murmur, against the hither shore.
The lake seemed so strangely familiar, that the old couple were greatly perplexed, and felt as if they could only have been dreaming about a village having lain there. But, the next moment, they remembered the vanished dwellings, and the faces and characters of the inhabitants, far too distinctly for a dream. The village had been there yesterday, and now was gone!
“Alas!” cried these kind-hearted old people, “what has become of our poor neighbors?”
“They no longer exist as men and women,” said the elder traveler, in his grand and deep voice, while a roll of thunder seemed to echo it at a distance. “There was neither use nor beauty in such a life as theirs; for they never softened or sweetened the hard lot of mortality by the exercise of kindly affections between man and man. They retained no image of the better life in their bosoms; therefore, the lake, that was of old, has spread itself forth again, to reflect the sky!”
“And as for those foolish people,” said Quicksilver, with his mischievous smile, “they are all transformed to fishes. There needed but little change, for they were already a scaly set of rascals, and the coldest-blooded beings in existence. So, kind Mother Baucis, whenever you or your husband have an appetite for a dish of broiled trout, he can throw in a line, and pull out half a dozen of your old neighbors!”
“Ah,” cried Baucis shuddering, “I would not, for the world, put one of them on the gridiron!”
“No,” added Philemon, making a wry face, “we could never relish them!”
“As for you, good Philemon,” continued the elder traveler,—“and you, kind Baucis,—you, with your scanty means, have mingled so much heartfelt hospitality with your entertainment of the homeless stranger, that the milk became an inexhaustible fount of nectar, and the brown loaf and the honey were ambrosia. Thus, the divinities have feasted, at your board, off the same viands that supply their banquets on Olympus. You have done well, my dear old friends. Wherefore, request whatever favor you have most at heart, and it is granted.”
Philemon and Baucis looked at one another, and then—I know not which of the two it was who spoke, but that one uttered the desire of both their hearts.
“Let us live together, while we live, and leave the world at the same instant, when we die! For we have always loved one another!”
“Be it so!” replied the stranger, with majestic kindness. “Now, look towards your cottage!”
They did so. But what was their surprise on beholding a tall edifice of white marble, with a wide-open portal, occupying the spot where their humble residence had so lately stood!
“There is your home,” said the stranger, beneficently smiling on them both. “Exercise your hospitality in yonder palace as freely as in the poor hovel to which you welcomed us last evening.”
The old folks fell on their knees to thank him; but, behold! neither he nor Quicksilver was there.
So Philemon and Baucis took up their residence in the marble palace, and spent their time, with vast satisfaction to themselves, in making everybody jolly and comfortable who happened to pass that way. The milk-pitcher, I must not forget to say, retained its marvelous quality of being never empty, when it was desirable to have it full. Whenever an honest, good-humored, and free-hearted guest took a draught from this pitcher, he invariably found it the sweetest and most invigorating fluid that ever ran down his throat. But, if a cross and disagreeable curmudgeon happened to sip, he was pretty certain to twist his visage into a hard knot, and pronounce it a pitcher of sour milk!
Thus the old couple lived in their palace a great, great while, and grew older and older, and very old indeed. At length, however, there came a summer morning when Philemon and Baucis failed to make their appearance, as on other mornings, with one hospitable smile overspreading both their pleasant faces, to invite the guests of over-night to breakfast. The guests searched everywhere, from top to bottom of the spacious palace, and all to no purpose. But, after a great deal of perplexity, they espied, in front of the portal, two venerable trees, which nobody could remember to have seen there the day before. Yet there they stood, with their roots fastened deep into the soil, and a huge breadth of foliage overshadowing the whole front of the edifice. One was an oak, and the other a linden-tree. Their boughs—it was strange and beautiful to see—were intertwined together, and embraced one another, so that each tree seemed to live in the other tree’s bosom much more than in its own.
While the guests were marveling how these trees, that must have required at least a century to grow, could have come to be so tall and venerable in a single night, a breeze sprang up, and set their intermingled boughs astir. And then there was a deep, broad murmur in the air, as if the two mysterious trees were speaking.
“I am old Philemon!” murmured the oak.
“I am old Baucis!” murmured the linden-tree.
But, as the breeze grew stronger, the trees both spoke at once,—“Philemon! Baucis! Baucis! Philemon!”—as if one were both and both were one, and talking together in the depths of their mutual heart. It was plain enough to perceive that the good old couple had renewed their age, and were now to spend a quiet and delightful hundred years or so, Philemon as an oak, and Baucis as a linden-tree. And oh, what a hospitable shade did they fling around them! Whenever a wayfarer paused beneath it, he heard a pleasant whisper of the leaves above his head, and wondered how the sound should so much resemble words like these:—
“Welcome, welcome, dear traveler, welcome!”
And some kind soul, that knew what would have pleased old Baucis and old Philemon best, built a circular seat around both their trunks, where, for a great while afterwards, the weary, and the hungry, and the thirsty used to repose themselves, and quaff milk abundantly from the miraculous pitcher.
And I wish, for all our sakes, that we had the pitcher here now!
Vintage illustration by Water Crane
Header illustration by Cranach
1. This story is about a couple who are rewarded for helping two poor strangers. Why do you think it is a good thing to help people who are less lucky than we are?
2. The old couple didn’t have a lot to eat, but still managed to share their food. In real life, do you think you need a lot of something in order to be able to share it? Why or why not?
3. When the old couple helped the two poor strangers, those strangers helped the old couple in return. Can you think of some other ways this could happen in real life, if you were to help someone less lucky than you?
4. The old couple were given the opportunity to wish for anything they wanted. Why do you think they didn’t wish for riches, a beautiful house, or youth?
5. The old couple let the poor travellers into their home even though they didn’t know who they were. Do you think this was dangerous? Why do you think they decided to trust the strangers?
6. What did the old couple gain from being kind to the strangers?
7. What is the difference between an old couple letting strangers into their home, and you doing it?