The Immortal Fountain by L. Maria Child

In ancient times two little princesses lived in Scotland, one of whom was extremely beautiful, and the other dwarfish, dark colored, and deformed. One was named Rose, and the other Marion. The sisters did not live happily together. Marion hated Rose because she was handsome and everybody praised her. She scowled, and her face absolutely grew black, when anybody asked her how her pretty little sister Rose did; and once she was so wicked as to cut off all her glossy golden hair, and throw it in the fire. Poor Rose cried bitterly about it, but she did not scold, or strike her sister; for she was an amiable, gentle little being as ever lived. No wonder all the family and all the neighbors disliked Marion, and no wonder her face grew uglier and uglier every day. The Scotch used to be a very superstitious people; and they believed the infant Rose had been blessed by the Fairies, to whom she owed her extraordinary beauty and exceeding goodness.

Not far from the castle where the princesses resided was a deep grotto, said to lead to the Palace of Beauty, where the queen of the Fairies held her court. Some said Rose had fallen asleep there one day, when she had grown tired of chasing a butterfly, and that the queen had dipped her in an immortal fountain, from which she had risen with the beauty of an angel.[A] Marion often asked questions about this story; but Rose always replied that she had been forbidden to speak of it. When she saw any uncommonly brilliant bird or butterfly, she would sometimes exclaim, "O, how much that looks like Fairy Land!" But when asked what she knew about Fairy Land she blushed, and would not answer.

Marion thought a great deal about this. "Why cannot I go to the Palace of Beauty?" thought she; "and why may not I bathe in the Immortal Fountain?"

One summer's noon, when all was still save the faint twittering of the birds and the lazy hum of the insects, Marion entered the deep grotto. She sat down on a bank of moss; the air around her was as fragrant as if it came from a bed of violets; and with the sound of far-off music dying on her ear, she fell into a gentle slumber. When she awoke, it was evening; and she found herself in a small hall, where opal pillars supported a rainbow roof, the bright reflection of which rested on crystal walls, and a golden floor inlaid with pearls. All around, between the opal pillars, stood the tiniest vases of pure alabaster, in which grew a multitude of brilliant and fragrant flowers; some of them, twining around the pillars, were lost in the floating rainbow above. The whole of this scene of beauty was lighted by millions of fire-flies, glittering about like wandering stars. While Marion was wondering at all this, a little figure of rare loveliness stood before her. Her robe was of green and gold; her flowing gossamer mantle was caught upon one shoulder with a pearl, and in her hair was a solitary star, composed of five diamonds, each no bigger than a pin's point, and thus she sung:—

The Fairy Queen
Hath rarely seen
Creature of earthly mould
Within her door,
On pearly floor,
Inlaid with shining gold.
Mortal, all thou seest is fair;
Quick thy purposes declare!

As she concluded, the song was taken up, and thrice repeated by a multitude of soft voices in the distance. It seemed as if birds and insects joined in the chorus,—the clear voice of the thrush was distinctly heard; the cricket kept time with his tiny cymbal; and ever and anon, between the pauses, the sound of a distant cascade was heard, whose waters fell in music.

All these delightful sounds died away, and the Queen of the Fairies stood patiently awaiting Marion's answer. Courtesying low, and with a trembling voice, the little maiden said,—

"Will it please your Majesty to make me as handsome as my sister Rose."

The queen smiled. "I will grant your request," said she, "if you will promise to fulfil all the conditions I propose."

Marion eagerly promised that she would.

"The Immortal Fountain," replied the queen, "is on the top of a high, steep hill; at four different places Fairies are stationed around it, who guard it with their wands. None can pass them except those who obey my orders. Go home now: for one week speak no ungentle word to your sister; at the end of that time come again to the grotto."

Marion went home light of heart. Rose was in the garden, watering the flowers; and the first thing Marion observed was that her sister's sunny hair had suddenly grown as long and beautiful as it had ever been. The sight made her angry; and she was just about to snatch the water-pot from her hand with an angry expression, when she remembered the Fairy, and passed into the castle in silence.

The end of the week arrived, and Marion had faithfully kept her promise. Again she went to the grotto. The queen was feasting when she entered the hall. The bees brought honeycomb and deposited it on the small rose-colored shells which adorned the crystal table; gaudy butterflies floated about the head of the queen, and fanned her with their wings; the cucullo, and the lantern-fly stood at her side to afford her light; a large diamond beetle formed her splendid footstool, and when she had supped, a dew-drop, on the petal of a violet, was brought for her royal fingers.

When Marion entered, the diamond sparkles on the wings of the Fairies faded, as they always did in the presence of anything not perfectly good; and in a few moments all the queen's attendants vanished, singing as they went:—

The Fairy Queen
Hath rarely seen
Creature of earthly mould
Within her door,
On pearly floor,
Inlaid with shining gold.

"Mortal, hast thou fulfilled thy promise?" asked the queen.

"I have," replied the maiden.

"Then follow me."

Marion did as she was directed, and away they went over beds of violets and mignonette. The birds warbled above their heads, butterflies cooled the air, and the gurgling of many fountains came with a refreshing sound. Presently they came to the hill, on the top of which was the Immortal Fountain. Its foot was surrounded by a band of Fairies, clothed in green gossamer, with their ivory wands crossed, to bar the ascent. The queen waved her wand over them, and immediately they stretched their thin wings and flew away. The hill was steep, and far, far up they went; and the air became more and more fragrant, and more and more distinctly they heard the sound of waters falling in music. At length they were stopped by a band of Fairies clothed in blue, with their silver wands crossed.

"Here," said the queen, "our journey must end. You can go no farther until you have fulfilled the orders I shall give you. Go home now; for one month do by your sister in all respects as you would wish her to do by you, were you Rose and she Marion."

Marion promised, and departed. She found the task harder than the first had been. She could not help speaking; but when Rose asked her for any of her playthings, she found it difficult to give them gently and affectionately, instead of pushing them along. When Rose talked to her, she wanted to go away in silence; and when a pocket-mirror was found in her sister's room, broken into a thousand pieces, she felt sorely tempted to conceal that she did the mischief. But she was so anxious to be made beautiful, that she did as she would be done by.

All the household remarked how Marion had changed. "I love her dearly," said Rose, "she is so good and amiable."

"So do I," said a dozen voices.

Marion blushed deeply, and her eyes sparkled with pleasure. "How pleasant it is to be loved!" thought she.

At the end of the month, she went to the grotto. The Fairies in blue lowered their silver wands and flew away. They travelled on; the path grew steeper and steeper; but the fragrance of the atmosphere was redoubled, and more distinctly came the sound of the waters falling in music. Their course was stayed by a troop of Fairies in rainbow robes, and silver wands tipped with gold. In face and form they were far more beautiful than anything Marion had yet seen.

"Here we must pause," said the queen; "this boundary you cannot yet pass."

"Why not?" asked the impatient Marion.

"Because those must be very pure who pass the rainbow Fairies," replied the queen.

"Am I not very pure?" said the maiden; "all the folks in the castle tell me how good I have grown."

"Mortal eyes see only the outside," answered the queen, "but those who pass the rainbow Fairies must be pure in thought, as well as in action. Return home; for three months never indulge an envious or wicked thought. You shall then have a sight of the Immortal Fountain." Marion was sad at heart; for she knew how many envious thoughts and wrong wishes she had suffered to gain power over her.

At the end of three months, she again visited the Palace of Beauty. The queen did not smile when she saw her; but in silence led the way to the Immortal Fountain. The green Fairies and the blue Fairies flew away as they approached; but the rainbow Fairies bowed low to the queen, and kept their gold-tipped wands firmly crossed. Marion saw that the silver specks on their wings grew dim; and she burst into tears. "I knew," said the queen, "that you could not pass this boundary. Envy has been in your heart, and you have not driven it away. Your sister has been ill, and in your heart you wished that she might die, or rise from the bed of sickness deprived of her beauty. Be not discouraged; you have been several years indulging in wrong feelings, and you must not wonder that it takes many months to drive them away."

Marion was very sad as she wended her way homeward. When Rose asked her what was the matter, she told her she wanted to be very good, but she could not. "When I want to be good, I read my Bible and pray," said Rose; "and I find God helps me to be good." Then Marion prayed that God would help her to be pure in thought; and when wicked feelings rose in her heart, she read her Bible, and they went away.

When she again visited the Palace of Beauty, the queen smiled, and touched her playfully with the wand, then led her away to the Immortal Fountain. The silver specks on the wings of the rainbow Fairies shone bright as she approached them, and they lowered their wands, and sung, as they flew away:—

Mortal, pass on,
Till the goal is won,—
For such, I ween,
Is the will of the queen,—
Pass on! pass on!

And now every footstep was on flowers, that yielded beneath their feet, as if their pathway had been upon a cloud. The delicious fragrance could almost be felt, yet it did not oppress the senses with its heaviness; and loud, clear, and liquid came the sound of the waters as they fell in music. And now the cascade is seen leaping and sparkling over crystal rocks; a rainbow arch rests above it, like a perpetual halo; the spray falls in pearls, and forms fantastic foliage about the margin of the Fountain. It has touched the webs woven among the grass, and they have become pearl-embroidered cloaks for the Fairy queen. Deep and silent, below the foam, is the Immortal Fountain! Its amber-colored waves flow over a golden bed; and as the Fairies bathe in it, the diamonds on their hair glance like sunbeams on the waters.

"O, let me bathe in the fountain!" cried Marion, clasping her hands in delight. "Not yet," said the queen. "Behold the purple Fairies with golden wands that guard its brink!" Marion looked, and saw beings lovelier than any her eye had ever rested on. "You cannot pass them yet," said the queen. "Go home; for one year drive away all evil feelings, not for the sake of bathing in this Fountain, but because goodness is lovely and desirable for its own sake. Purify the inward motive, and your work is done."

This was the hardest task of all. For she had been willing to be good, not because it was right to be good, but because she wished to be beautiful. Three times she sought the grotto, and three times she left in tears; for the golden specks grew dim at her approach, and the golden wands were still crossed, to shut her from the Immortal Fountain. The fourth time she prevailed. The purple Fairies lowered their wands, singing,—

Thou hast scaled the mountain,
Go, bathe in the Fountain;
Rise fair to the sight
As an angel of light;
Go, bathe in the Fountain!

Marion was about to plunge in, but the queen touched her, saying, "Look in the mirror of the waters. Art thou not already as beautiful as heart can wish?"

Marion looked at herself, and saw that her eye sparkled with new lustre, that a bright color shone through her cheeks, and dimples played sweetly about her mouth. "I have not touched the Immortal Fountain," said she, turning in surprise to the queen. "True," replied the queen, "but its waters have been within your soul. Know that a pure heart and a clear conscience are the only immortal fountains of beauty."

When Marion returned, Rose clasped her to her bosom, and kissed her fervently. "I know all," said she, "though I have not asked you a question. I have been in Fairy Land, disguised as a bird, and I have watched all your steps. When you first went to the grotto, I begged the queen to grant your wish."

Ever after that the sisters lived lovingly together. It was the remark of every one, "How handsome Marion has grown! The ugly scowl has departed from her face; and the light of her eye is so mild and pleasant, and her mouth looks so smiling and good-natured, that to my taste, I declare, she is as handsome as Rose."

 There was a superstition that whoever slept on fairy ground was carried away by the fairies.