The Poet and his Little Daughter

by Mary Howitt

It was a June morning. Roses and yellow jasmine covered the old wall in the Poet's garden. The little brown mason bees flew in and out of their holds beneath the pink and white and yellow flowers. Peacock-butterflies, with large blue eyes on their crimson velvet wings, fluttered about and settled on the orange-brown wall-flowers. Aloft, in the broad-leaved sycamore-tree, the blackbird was singing as if he were out of his senses for joy; his song was as loud as any nightingale, and his heart was glad, because his young brood was hatched, and he knew that they now sat with their little yellow beaks poking out of the nest, and thinking what a famous bird their father was. All the robins and tomtits and linnets and redstarts that sat in the trees of the garden den shouted vivas and bravuras, and encored him delightfully.

The Poet himself sat under the double-flowering hawthorn, which was then all in blossom. He sat on a rustic seat, and his best friend sat beside him. Beneath the lower branches of the tree was hung the canary-bird's cage, which the children had brought out because the day was so fine, and the little canary loved fresh air and the smell of flowers. It never troubled him that other birds flew about from one end of the garden to the other, or sat and sung on the leafy branches, for he loved his cage; and when the old blackbird poured forth his grand melodies, the little canary sat like a prince in a stage-box, and nodded his head, and sang an accompaniment.

One of the Poet's children, his little daughter, sat in her own little garden, which was full of flowers, while bees and butterflies flitted about in the sunshine. The child, however, was not noticing them; she was thinking only of one thing, and that was the large daisy-root which was all in flower; it was the largest daisy-root in the whole garden, and two-and-fifty double pink-and-white daisies were crowded upon it. They were, however, no longer daisies to the child's eyes, but two-and-fifty little charity children in green stuff gowns, and white tippets, and white linen caps, that had a holiday given them. She saw them all, with their pink cheeks and bright eyes, running in a group and talking as they went; the hum of the bees around seeming to be the pleasant sound of their voices. The child was happy to think that two-and-fifty charity children were let loose from school to run about in the sunshine. Her heart went with them, and she was so full of joy that she started up to tell her father, who was sitting with his best friend under the hawthorn-tree.

Sad and bitter thoughts, however, just then oppressed the Poet's heart. He had been disappointed where he had hoped for good; his soul was under a cloud; and as the child ran up to tell him about the little charity children in whose joy she thought he would sympathize, she heard him say to his friend, "I have no longer any hope of human nature now. It is a poor miserable thing, and is not worth working for. My best endeavors have been spent in its service,—my youth and my manhood's strength, my very life,—and this is my reward! I will no longer strive to do good. I will write for money alone, as others do, and not for the good of mankind!"

The Poet's words were bitter, and tears came into the eyes of his best friend. Never had the child heard such words from her father before, for he had always been to her as a great and good angel.

"I will write," said he, "henceforth for money, as others do, and not for the good of mankind."

"My father, if you do," said the child, in a tone of mournful indignation, "I will never read what you write! I will trample your writings under my feet!"

Large tears rolled down her cheeks, and her eyes were fixed on her father's face.

The Poet took the child in his arms and kissed her. An angel touched his heart, and he now felt that he could forgive his bitterest enemies.

"I will tell you a story, my child," he said, in his usually mild voice.

The child leaned her head against his breast, and listened.

"Once upon a time," he began, "there was a man who dwelt in a great, wide wilderness. He was a poor man, and worked very hard for his bread. He lived in a cave of a rock, and because the sun shone burning hot into the cave, he twined roses and jessamines and honeysuckles all around it; and in front of it, and on the ledges of the rock, he planted ferns and sweet shrubs, and made it very pleasant. Water ran gurgling from a fissure in the rock into a little basin, whence it poured in gentle streams through the garden, in which grew all kinds of delicious fruits. Birds sang in the tall trees which Nature herself had planted; and little squirrels, and lovely green lizards, with bright, intelligent eyes, lived in the branches and among the flowers.

"All would have gone well with the man, had not evil spirits taken possession of his cave. They troubled him night and day. They dropped canker-blight upon his roses, nipped off his jasmine and honeysuckle-flowers, and, in the form of caterpillars and blight, ate his beautiful fruits.

"It made the man angry and bitter in his feelings. The flowers were no longer beautiful to him, and when he looked on them he thought only of the canker and the caterpillar.

"'I can no longer take pleasure in them,' he said; 'I will leave the cave, and go elsewhere.'

"He did so; and travelled on and on, a long way. But it was a vast wilderness in which he dwelt, and thus it was many and many a weary day before he came to a place of rest; nor did he know that all this time the evil spirits who had plagued him so in his own cave were still going with him.

"But so they were. And they made every place he came to seem worse than the last. Their very breath cast a blight upon everything.

"He was footsore and weary, and very miserable. A feeling like despair was in his heart, and he said that he might as well die as live. He lay down in the wilderness, so unhappy was he, and scarcely had he done so, when he heard behind him the pleasantest sound in the world,—a little child singing like a bird, because her heart was innocent and full of joy; and the next moment she was at his side.

"The evil spirits that were about him drew back a little when they saw her coming, because she brought with her a beautiful company of angels and bright spirits,—little cherubs with round, rosy cheeks, golden hair, and laughing eyes between two dove's wings as white as snow. The child had not the least idea that these beautiful spirits were always about her; all she knew was that she was full of joy, and that she loved above all things to do good. When she saw the poor man lying there, she went up to him, and talked to him so pityingly, and yet so cheerfully, that he felt as if her words would cure him. She told him that she lived just by, and that he should go with her, and rest and get well in her cave.

"He went with her, and found that her cave was just such a one as his own, only much smaller. Roses and honeysuckles and jasmine grew all around it; and birds were singing, and goldfish were sporting about in the water; and there were beds of strawberries, all red and luscious, that filled the air with fragrance.

"It was a beautiful place. There seemed to be no canker nor blight on anything. And yet the man saw how spiders had woven webs like the most beautiful lace from one vine-branch to another; and butterflies that once had been devouring caterpillars were flitting about. Just as in his own garden, yellow frogs were squatted under the cool green strawberry leaves. But the child loved both the frogs and the green lizards, and said that they did her no harm, and that there were plenty of strawberries both for them and for her.

"The evil spirits that had troubled the man, and followed him, could not get into the child's garden. It was impossible, because all those rosy-cheeked cherubs and white-robed angels lived there; and that which is good, be it ever so small, is a great deal stronger than that which is evil, be it ever so large. They therefore sat outside and bit their nails for vexation; and as the man stayed a long time with the child, they got so tired of waiting that a good number of them flew away forever.

"At length the man kissed the child and went back to his own place; and when he got there he had the pleasure of finding that, owing to the evil spirits having been so long away, the flowers and fruits had, in great measure, recovered themselves. There was hardly any canker or blight left. And as the child came now very often to see him,—for, after all, they did not live so very far apart, only that the man had wandered a long way round in the wilderness,—and brought with her all the bright company that dwelt with her, the place was freed, at least while she stayed, from the evil ones.

"This is a true story, a perfectly true story," added the Poet, when he had brought his little narrative to an end; "and there are many men who live like him in a wilderness, and who go a long way round about before they can find a resting-place. And happy is it for such when they can have a child for their neighbor; for our Divine Master has himself told us that blessed are little children, and that of such is the kingdom of heaven!"

The Poet was silent. His little daughter kissed him, and then, without saying a word about the little charity children, ran off to sit down beside them again, and perhaps to tell them the story which her father had just related to her.