The Story of Child Charity by Frances Browne

Once upon a time there lived a little girl who had neither father nor mother: they both died when she was very young, and left their daughter to the care of her uncle, who was the richest farmer in all that country. He had houses and lands, flocks and herds, many servants to work about his house and fields, a wife who had brought him a great dowry, and two fair daughters.

Now, it happened that though she was their near relation, they despised the orphan girl, partly because she had no fortune, and partly because of her humble, kindly disposition. It was said that the more needy and despised any creature was, the more ready was she to befriend it; on which account the people of the West Country called her Child Charity. Her uncle would not own her for his niece, her cousins would not keep her company, and her aunt sent her to work in the dairy, and to sleep in the back garret. All the day she scoured pails, scrubbed dishes, and washed crockery-ware; but every night she slept in the back garret as sound as a princess could sleep in her palace.

One day during the harvest season, when this rich farmer’s corn had been all cut down and housed, he invited the neighbors to a harvest supper. The West Country people came in their holiday clothes, and they were making merry, when a poor old woman came to the back door, begging for broken victuals and a night’s lodging. Her clothes were coarse and ragged; her hair was scanty and gray; her back was bent; her teeth were gone. In short she was the poorest and ugliest old woman that ever came begging. The first who saw her was the kitchen-maid, and she  ordered her off; but Child Charity, hearing the noise, came out from her seat at the foot of the lowest table, and asked the old woman to take her share of the supper, and sleep that night in her bed in the back garret. The old woman sat down without a word of thanks. Child Charity scraped the pots for her supper that night, and slept on a sack among the lumber, while the old woman rested in her warm bed; and next morning, before the little girl awoke, she was up and gone, without so much as saying thank you.

Next day, at supper-time, who should come to the back door but the old woman, again asking for broken victuals and a night’s lodging. No one would listen to her, till Child Charity rose from her seat and kindly asked her to take her supper, and sleep in her bed. Again the old woman sat down without a word. Child Charity scraped the pots for her supper, and slept on the sack. In the morning the old woman was gone; but for six nights after, as sure as the supper was spread, there was she at the door, and the little girl regularly asked her in.

Sometimes the old woman said, “Child, why don’t you make this bed softer? and why are your blankets so thin?” But she never gave her a word of thanks nor a civil good-morning. At last, on the ninth night from her first coming, her accustomed knock came to the door, and there she stood with an ugly dog that no herd-boy would keep.

“Good-evening, my little girl,” she said, when Child Charity opened the door. “I will not have your supper and bed to-night—I am going on a long journey to see a friend; but here is a dog of mine, whom nobody in all the West Country will keep for me. He is a little cross, and not very handsome; but I leave him to your care till the shortest day in all the year.”

When the old woman had said the last word, she set off with such speed that Child Charity lost sight of her in a minute. The ugly dog began to fawn upon her, but he snarled at everybody else. It was with great trouble that Child Charity got leave to keep him in an old ruined cow-house. The little girl gave him part of all her meals; and when the hard frost came, took him to her own back garret, because the cow-house was damp and cold in the long nights. The dog lay quietly on some straw in a corner. Child Charity slept soundly, but every morning the servants said to her:

“What great light and fine talking was that in your back garret?”

“There was no light but the moon shining in through the shutterless window, and no talk that I heard,” said Child Charity, and she thought they must have been dreaming. But night after night, when any of them awoke in the dark, they saw a light brighter and clearer than the Christmas fire, and heard voices like those of lords and ladies in the back garret.

At length, when the nights were longest, the little parlor-maid crept out of bed when all the rest were sleeping, and set herself to watch at the keyhole. She saw the dog lying quietly in the corner, Child Charity sleeping soundly in her bed, and the moon shining through the shutterless window; but an hour before daybreak the window opened, and in marched a troop of little men clothed in crimson and gold. They marched up with great reverence to the dog, where he lay on the straw, and the most richly clothed among them said:

“Royal Prince, we have prepared the banquet hall. What will your Highness please that we do next?”

“You have done well,” said the dog. “Now prepare the feast, and see that all things are in the best style, for the Princess and I mean to bring a stranger, who never feasted in our halls before.”

“Your Highness’s commands shall be obeyed,” said the little man, making another reverence; and he and his company passed out of the window. By-and-by there came in a company of little ladies clad in rose-colored velvet, and each carrying a crystal lamp. They also walked with great reverence up to the dog, and the gayest among them said:

“Royal Prince, we have prepared the tapestry. What will your Highness please that we do next?”

“You have done well,” said the dog. “Now prepare the robes, and let all things be in the first fashion, for the Princess and I will bring with us a stranger, who never feasted in our halls before.”

“Your Highness’s commands shall be obeyed,” said the little lady, making a low curtsey; and she and her company passed out through the window, which closed quietly behind them. The dog stretched himself out upon the straw, the little girl turned in her sleep, and the moon shone in on the back garret. The parlor-maid was much amazed, and told the story to her mistress; but her mistress called her a silly girl to have such foolish dreams, and scolded her.

Nevertheless, Child Charity’s aunt thought there might be something in it worth knowing; so next night, when all the house was asleep she crept out of bed, and watched at the back garret  door. There she saw exactly what the maid had told her.

The mistress could not close her eyes any more than the maid, from eagerness to tell the story. She woke up Child Charity’s rich uncle before daybreak; but when he heard it he laughed at her for a foolish woman. But that night the master thought he would like to see what went on in the back garret; so when all the house was asleep he set himself to watch at the crevice in the door. The same thing happened that the maid and the mistress saw.

The master could not close his eyes any more than the maid or the mistress for thinking of this strange sight. He remembered having heard his grandfather say that somewhere near his meadows there lay a path, which led to the fairies’ country, and he concluded that the doings in his back garret must be fairy business, and the ugly dog a person of very great account.

Accordingly, he made it his first business that morning to get ready a fine breakfast of roast mutton for the ugly dog, and carry it to him in the old cow-house; but not a morsel would the dog taste. On the contrary, he snarled at the master, and would have bitten him if he had not run away with his mutton.

Just as the family were sitting down to supper that night, the ugly dog began to bark, and the old woman’s knock was heard at the back door. Child Charity opened it, when the old woman said:

“This is the shortest day in all the year, and I am going home to hold a feast after my travels. I see you have taken good care of my dog, and now, if you will come with me to my house, he and I will do our best to entertain you. Here is our company.”

As the old woman spoke, there was a sound of far-off flutes and bugles, then a glare of lights; and a great company, clad so grandly that they shone with gold and jewels, came in open chariots, covered with gilding and drawn by snow-white horses. The first and finest of the chariots was empty. The old woman led Child Charity to it by the hand, and the ugly dog jumped in before her. No sooner were the old woman and her dog within the chariot than a marvelous change passed over them, for the ugly old woman turned at once to a beautiful young Princess, while the ugly dog at her side started up a fair young Prince, with nut-brown hair and a robe of purple and silver.

“We are,” said they, as the chariots drove on, and the little girl sat astonished, “a Prince and Princess of Fairy-land; and there was a wager between us whether or not there were good people still to be found in these false and greedy times. One said ‘Yes,’ and the other said ‘No’; and I have lost,” said the Prince, “and must pay for the feast and presents.”

Child Charity went with that noble company into a country such as she had never seen. They took her to a royal palace, where there was nothing but feasting and dancing for seven days. She had robes of pale-green velvet to wear, and slept in a chamber inlaid with ivory. When the feast was done, the Prince and Princess gave her such heaps of gold and jewels that she could not carry them, but they gave her a chariot to go home in, drawn by six white horses, and on the seventh night, when the farmer’s family had settled in their own minds that she would never come back, and were sitting down to supper, they heard the sound of her coachman’s bugle, and saw her alight with all the jewels and gold at the very back door where she had brought in the ugly old woman. The fairy chariot drove away, and never came back to that farmhouse after. But Child Charity scrubbed and scoured no more, for she became a great lady even in the eyes of her proud cousins, who were now eager to pay her homage.