The Violet Flame by Lydia Maria Child

Rosamond was the child of a village blacksmith, and of a lady said by the villagers to be a princess from a far land. She herself claimed to be descended from an Ocean Queen; but no one believed that, except her little girl, who thought her mother must know best. Rosamond would sit by her for hours, gazing into the river that flowed through their garden, and listening to her mothers stories of golden palaces beneath the water. But she also liked to pry about her father's forge, and wonder at the quick sparks and great roaring fires. Her cousin Alfred would stay there with her, but while she was watching the red glow of the fire and the heavy fall of her father's hammer, he was gazing upon the violet flame that flickered above her forehead.

One day, when she was playing with him in the picture gallery of the old castle, in which his mother was housekeeper, she called him to look at the portrait of a child daintily holding a bird on the tip of her finger, and arrayed in the quaint richness of the old-fashioned costume. "She looks like you," her cousin said, "only she has not a little trembling flame upon her forehead."

"Have I a flame upon my forehead?" asked Rosamond, wondering.

"Come and look," answered Alfred, and he led her to a great mirror, where she for the first time saw the violet flame. "How beautiful it is!" she exclaimed.

"O, but it is growing dim; you must not look at it," said Alfred. "Come and let us run up and down the garden, between the great hedges."

But Rosamond, having once seen the violet flame, could not be satisfied until she had been to the castle to take another look, and found so much pleasure in gazing at herself in the great mirror, that she went every day to pay herself a stolen visit, while Alfred was at school. But one day he found her there, and said, "I see how it is that the pretty flame has gone; you have been admiring it too much by yourself. I shall not love you now."

Then Rosamond felt very sorry, and wondered how she could win back Alfred's love. At length she took all her money, with which she had intended to buy her old nurse a warm cloak for the winter, and bought a golden feronière with a purple stone in it, to wear around her head in the place of the vanished flame. Then she walked into the picture gallery with a proud step. "O Rosamond!" exclaimed her cousin, "can you believe that bit of purple glass can replace the dancing flame that shone with, such a lovely violet light over your golden hair? Pray take it off, for it seems mere tinsel to me."

But neither he nor Rosamond could unclasp the feronère; and she had to go back to the jeweller, of whom she bought it, to ask him to file it off, which he tried in vain to do; and at last he said, "The pedler who sold it to me must be right. He said that, once clasped, it could only be loosened by dipping it into a hidden fountain. What fountain it is I do not know; but some old priest, who lives in a town on the mouth of a river, knows."

This was discouraging for Rosamond, there are so many towns and rivers, and so many old priests, in the world. She looked on the map, and thought it must be Paris, for that is not so very far from the sea, and there they know every thing. So, with her mother's leave, and some jewels she gave her, she went off to Paris, taking a bit of the mirror set in a gilt frame. When she arrived there, what was her surprise to find the city entirely inhabited by birds and animals! Parrots and peacocks prevailed, but ospreys and jackdaws, vultures and cormorants, crows and cockerels, and many, many other kinds of birds were also fluttering about, making a perpetual whizzing. Then there were hundreds of monkeys, all jauntily dressed, with little canes in their hands, and a great many camels and spaniels, and other animals, wild and tame, in neat linen blouses. What bewildered her still more, was to see that they were all skating about on the thinnest possible ice. Why it did not crack, to let them all through, she could not imagine. At first she was afraid even to set her foot upon it, but soon found herself skating merrily about, enjoying it as much as any of them. Another queer thing was, that, reflected in the ice, all these birds and animals appeared to be men and women; and she saw that in her own reflection she was a nice little girl. She wondered how she looked in her mirror, and took it out to see. "What kind of an animal am I?" she exclaimed. "O, I see—an ibex. What neat little horns, and how bright my eyes are! What would Alfred say if he knew I was an ibex?"

She called out to the skaters to ask them if they would look into her glass. "Hand it here," answered one, who in the ice appeared very pale, thin, and respectable. "I am a philosopher; I am not afraid of the truth." He looked in, and lo, there was a stork, standing on one leg, with his eyes half closed, and his head neatly tucked under his wing. "What a caricature!" he exclaimed, giving the glass a toss. It fell upon the ermine muff of a furbelowed old dowager, who was skating bravely about, notwithstanding her seventy years. "I will see how I look," she said, with a simpering smile; and behold, there was a puffy white owl in the mirror. Down fell the glass, but Rosamond caught and saved it.

"What a little unfledged thing you are, to be carrying that bit of broken glass about with you!" called out the philosopher.

"Better be unfledged than a one-eyed stork," answered Rosamond, and skated swiftly out of sight.

Now, the grandest skater of all was a griffin, who led all the others, skating more skilfully than any of them, and flitting like mad across the very thinnest places. It made one's head giddy to see him. His swiftness and dexterity, and a knack he had of knocking the other skaters into great black holes under the ice, whenever they crossed his path, greatly imposed upon them, and they all took care to follow straight behind, or to keep well out of his way. Now and then a bear would growl as he glided by; but the next day, Rosamond would see that bear hard at work building ice palaces, too busy to growl. One day, skating off into a corner, she found the griffin sitting apart, behind a great block of ice with his claws crossed, and looking very cold and dreary, like a snow image. "Would you not like to take a peep into my glass?" she said to him, quite amiably.

"No, child," solemnly answered the griffin. "I know by your ironical smile that you have discovered the truth—that I am nothing but a griffin. But if the skaters believe in me, why undeceive them? Why should magpies and zebras have any thing better to reign over them?"

"But do you not see how thin the ice is? You will surely break through some day."

"I know it," he replied. "A good strong trampling, and we are all scattered far and wide. But I keep the tigers and hyenas at work, and the more sagacious elephants bear their burdens in quiet, and let me alone. If there be a lion among them, he roars so gently it does no harm. And you must be a good girl, and keep silence. I see that you also wear a crown, and you know how heavy it is."

"Yes, and it is of brass too, like yours. I am trying to free myself from it," answered Rosamond. "But I do not care for your peacocks and parrots, and will not tell them yours is not of gold; so do not be afraid;" and off she went, leaving his majesty in a very uneasy state of mind. But he had nothing to fear from her, for although she did not cry, "Vive l'Empereur!" when he skated gorgeously by, she never revealed the fact that he was only a long-clawed griffin.

Rosamond might have staid a long time in Paris, so amused was she by all the gay plumage and dazzling confusion around her; but she soon found that she was dying of starvation. She had always heard French dishes and bon-bons most highly extolled, and now she found they were nothing but dry leaves and husks, served up very prettily, to be sure, but with no nourishment in them. So she looked on the map again, and decided to go to the shore of the Baltic, and follow it along until she came to the town in which the priest lived; for it certainly was useless to look for one among the gayly-plumed skaters in Paris.

Hard walking she found it, among sands and stones, and poor living in the fishermen's huts scattered along the coast. She was quite glad, one day, to meet a little girl of her own age, picking berries. Rosamond helped Greta fill her basket, and then accepted her invitation to go home with her. After walking through a long green lane, among fields of waving grain, they entered a town built of white marble; and Rosamond knew this was the place she sought. They stopped at Greta's house; but when Rosamond saw how many children there were in it, she thought she should not be very comfortable there, and asked for a hotel. Greta told her there was none in the town, but that she would find herself welcome in any house.

So she walked about until she found a large one with handsome columns before it, and there she passed the night. In the morning the lady of the house said, "To-day I am bread maker, for you must know we all work in this town, and all share our food together. If you stay here, you must make bread with me."

Rosamond did not like this proposition at all, for her mother had never taught her to work, and besides, she felt as if, with a crown upon her head, she were a kind of queen. It seemed to her as if the villagers also thought so when they looked at her as she walked through the streets, and she bore herself very proudly for a while, but at length became so tired and hungry, that she sank down on a doorstep, her head leaning on her hand; and as she watched the passers-by through her drooping lids, she noticed how very nice their shoes and stockings were. Then she saw that her own were much torn and soiled, and looking down the street, was mortified to trace her way along by the muddy footprints she had left on the fair white marble. She went to Greta's mother, and asked permission to wash her stockings and clean her shoes. But she did not know how to do it nicely, and they still looked very badly. "Clean bare feet would look better than such shoes and stockings," said the mother.

"But I could not have bare feet and a crown," answered Rosamond.

"O, is it a crown? Excuse me, I thought it was a snake skin."

Rosamond half smiled, but said sadly, "It seems like a snake, it stings me so sharply."

"You must go to Father Alter. A lady once came here with a jewelled girdle which was clasping her to death. He sent her to a fountain high among the mountains, and she returned in a white dress with a girdle of wild flowers. She lived with me, and kept a school for children. She was a lovely lady."

This reminded Rosamond of the priest, and she asked Greta to show her where Father Alter lived.

She found him sitting in his garden of herbs among poor people who were waiting for comfort and advice, and Rosamond also had to wait. At length he turned to her, and laying his hand gently upon her golden head, said, "I see what you want, my child. You must bathe your forehead in the fountain, that the weight of this stone may be taken from it."

"How shall I find the fountain, father?" she asked.

"Ah, my child," he answered, looking tenderly upon her, "the way is long and difficult, and many who wish to seek it do not find it. Neither can I point out the path to you. Each must find it for himself. The fountain wells forth in a green valley high among the mountains, and this river on which our village is built flows from it. Yet you cannot follow the stream up to its source, for it is often lost under ground, or is hidden among dark caverns. Through these hidden caves I found my way; but your young feet may try the mountain summits. From these you will discern the valley, and can descend into it. Yet linger not too long among shining glaciers, for the cold may come upon you suddenly in that bright sunshine, and steal your life away. And tread lightly along the mountain paths, for often the slightest motion will bring down an avalanche. And, my child, take with you this osier basket, in which lies a little loaf of bread. Fear not to eat of it every day; but remember always to leave a crumb, lest you should meet a hungry bird, and have nothing to give it. And thus will the loaf be always renewed. Do not forget, and a blessing be upon you."

Rosamond went gravely forth with the osier basket in her hand. As she passed through the village she could not but long to stay among those pleasant gardens, and water flowers with the children who were so busy there; but if she lingered to speak to them, she felt the tightened clasp of the fillet upon her head, and on she hastened. At first she thought the mountains quite near; but when she had walked until she was very tired, they seemed as far off as ever, and so on for several days. At many a weary milestone she stopped, wondering who had rested there before her, and whether they had ever found the hidden valley among those yet distant mountains. At night she staid in some little cottage by the wayside, always kindly welcomed, and carrying kind wishes with her when she went away. At noon she would break her little loaf, and dip it in the stream, remembering to leave a crumb in the basket; and when she opened the basket for her supper, there would still be the loaf, whole as ever; and many and many a bird did she feed on her way.

One day when she had been walking a long distance, and was very hungry, she had forgotten about keeping the crumb, and was just breaking the last crust, when she heard the quick, sharp cry of a bird in distress. Looking round she found a wounded sparrow lying on a rock. She washed the blood from his feathers, and gave him a crumb of the bread, very thankful that he had prevented her from eating it all, for then there would have been none left either for the bird or for herself. She wrapped the sparrow gently in her dress, and carried it with her, and wherever she went, along the edge of steep precipices, or over the rough glaciers, through deep snow or amid cold winds, still she warmed that bird in her bosom and kept it alive. At length she reached the summit of the mountain, and saw the red sunset slowly become gray, and the stars come out one by one in the wide, lonely sky. So far did it stretch around her, on every side, before it touched the horizon; so near did it seem, above her, that she felt as if she were high in the heavens, and turning her face towards her village, she thought Alfred might perhaps see her there, shining among the stars. Ah, foolish little girl! Her weary feet soon sank beneath her, and she fell asleep upon the snow. But the bird fluttered and chirped in her bosom, as if it knew danger were near, and she suddenly awoke. "O, good little sparrow," she cried, "if it had not been for you, I should have been frozen to death in my sleep; but now I will not stay here longer; we will go down into the valleys."

She began to slide down the mountain, and when the sun rose, saw beneath her a green, hidden nook, in which stood a solitary tree. She thought she should reach it immediately; but sometimes her way was blocked up on all sides, and she had to creep over high rocks, or through dark chasms, often losing sight of the valley, and fearing she never should find it. At length, however, she stood safe beneath the blossoming tree, and there was the sparrow's nest with the young birds in it. Rosamond fed them with her crumbs, and looking about for water to give them, found a clear spring bubbling out from under the root of the tree. As she bent down to dip up some of the water in her hand, a few drops were sprinkled upon her brass fillet, and it fell from her head. "Why, this is the very fountain," she exclaimed; "I did not know it." When she raised her head, the free mountain wind blew through her hair, and she felt as light-hearted and happy as the bird which had found its nest.

She slept that night beneath the sheltering tree; the new moon shone upon her, and the bubbling of the water lulled her into a sweeter sleep than she had known for many nights. In the morning she gave all her bread except one crumb to the birds, then descended the mountain, following the stream glancing over the rocks. But at last she lost sight of it, and instead of finding herself by the river on which the marble town was built, she came to the little old mill near her own home. There was Alfred hard at work, for he had hired himself out as a miller's boy. Her mother was weeping beneath the willow by the river, and her father was hammering at his anvil. How pleasant his great, glowing fire looked to Rosamond, after her wanderings among the icy mountains!

Alfred came to tea, and then she had to tell them while she had been. She described the beautiful white marble town, at the mouth of the river, and said she wished they could all go and live there. Her mother's face lighted up as it did when the golden sunset shone upon it, and she said, "Ah, Rosamond, my home was once there, and there I long to be again."

The father listened very thoughtfully. "Yes, it would be good to work there, where all work together; we will go," he said at last. Alfred decided to leave the mill and go with them.

They were all ready before the new moon was full, and leaving the village, with its slow stream and low pastures behind, reached the clear river, after a few days' travel. They walked along its high banks, among stately groves, until they came to the marble town. The people were glad to receive them, and they at once felt that they were among friends.

Rosamond went down to the sea shore with her mother, to whom the ocean breeze gave a new life; but it was really the old life revived; for when she was a child, she had lived beside the sea, and in her inland home had pined for the sight of the great waves.

As they were returning to the town, they met the old priest, who said he had come to offer them part of his house to live in, but that they must not live idly there; they must look about them, and decide what they would like to do.

The next morning Rosamond asked her mother and Alfred to go near the shore with her. There she showed them a bed of fine clay, of which she proposed to make vases. She and her mother sat down on the grass together, and moulded them, just within sight of the waves gently breaking upon the beach. The vases were so beautiful it seemed as if they were modelled from the curves of the waves, and contained within them the rippling sound of the sea upon the shore.

Alfred built up an oven in the father's forge, and baked the vases. When all were finished, they presented them to their new friends, who were greatly delighted, saying they had never seen such beautiful ones.

Rosamond and her mother continued to mould, not only vases, but little images, which were very much sought after by all the villagers. Rosamond never knew that the violet flame once more burned upon her forehead; but she knew that Alfred loved her, and long and happy was their life, there, by the wide, sunny sea.