THERE was once upon a time a widow who had two daughters. The eldest was so much like her in the face and humor that whoever looked upon the daughter saw the mother whether they wanted to or not. They were both so disagreeable and so proud that there was no living with them, but of course neither of them had much of a choice in the matter.
The youngest, who was the very picture of her father for courtesy and sweetness of temper, was withal one of the most beautiful girls ever seen. That isn’t necessarily to her credit, mind you; sweetness of temper came naturally to her, without any effort, which is to say that she did as she pleased, and anyone can do that. What I mean to say is that’s not an accomplishment; acting according to one’s own nature doesn’t take any effort.
As people naturally love their own likeness, this mother even doted on her eldest daughter and at the same time held a coldness in her heart for the youngest. This could not be helped either, but never mind. The youngest daughter pleased without trying, and the eldest couldn’t please whether she tried or no, so it seemed easier after a while not to try at all. So things went on.
Among other things, this youngest child was forced twice a day to draw water above a mile and a-half off the house, and bring home a pitcher full of it. It was an easy walk along a level path, but people can’t stand the sight of a beautiful person doing chores. It breaks their hearts.
One day, as she was at this fountain, there came to her a poor woman, who begged of her to let her drink.
“Oh! ay, with all my heart, Goody,” said this pretty little girl; and rinsing immediately the pitcher, she took up some water from the clearest place of the fountain, and gave it to her, holding up the pitcher all the while, that she might drink the easier. Some things come easy to people. Some lives come easy. Some people nod and smile their way easy from cradle to grave, and people fall all over themselves to thank them for it. Well, let be.
The good woman, having drunk, said to her:
“You are so very pretty, my dear, so good and so mannerly, that I cannot help giving you a gift.”
There are some who would say the daughter had already been given a gift, had been given more than her fair share of gifts, but there is something about the sight of someone already obviously blessed that makes strangers want to heap further blessings on them. Let them, then.
For this was a fairy, who had taken the form of a poor country woman, to see how far the civility and good manners of this pretty girl would go. “I will give you for a gift,” continued the Fairy, “that, at every word you speak, there shall come out of your mouth either a flower or a jewel.” Some people can’t help but please. All right. All right.
When this pretty girl came home her mother scolded her for staying so long at the fountain.
“I beg your pardon, mamma,” said the poor girl, “for not making more haste.”
And in speaking these words there came out of her mouth two roses, two pearls, and two diamonds
“What is it I see there?” said the mother, quite astonished. “I think I see pearls and diamonds come out of the girl’s mouth! How happens this, child?”
This was the first time she had ever called her child.
The poor creature told her frankly all the matter, not without dropping out infinite numbers of diamonds.
“In good faith,” cried the mother, “I must send my child thither. Come hither, daughter; look what comes out of thy sister’s mouth when she speaks. Wouldst not thou be glad, my dear, to have the same gift given thee? Thou hast nothing else to do but go and draw water out of the fountain, and when a certain poor woman asks you to let her drink, to give it to her very kindly.”
It would have been nice, too, to have the same gift given, but she did not know how to want it properly. When you are too far from a virtue to want it for its own sake, you cannot ask for it. But she did know enough to want to not be like herself as she was.
I’m only being honest, she had tried to explain.
No, you’re not; you’re being cruel.
Better not to try to explain after all.
“I have no real wish to be try to be kind,” she said, “only I would not dislike to wake up kind tomorrow, and to feel kindly, and to be treated as if I were kind.”
And her mother said, “Well, that’s ridiculous.”
“It would be a very fine sight indeed, then,” snapped the minx, “to see me go draw water.” (She had forgotten to want to be kind already; it is very easy to forget to.)
“You shall go, hussy!” said the mother; “and this minute.”
So away she went, but grumbling all the way, taking with her the best silver tankard in the house.
She was no sooner at the fountain than she saw coming out of the wood a lady most gloriously dressed, who came up to her, and asked to drink. This was, you must know, the very fairy who appeared to her sister, but now had taken the air and dress of a princess, to see how far this girl would go.
Which is hardly fair, to tempt one towards goodness and to tempt the other towards rudeness, when one is already almost entirely good and the other hardly good at all. She was ready to help an old beggar-woman; not a queen, who could already help herself.
“Am I come hither,” said the proud one, “to serve you with water, pray? I suppose the silver tankard was brought purely for your ladyship, was it? However, you may drink out of it, if you have a fancy.”
Which, for the eldest daughter, was fairly restrained. If it helps, you should know she was sorry as soon as she said it.
“You are not over and above mannerly,” answered the Fairy, without putting herself in a passion.
“I suppose not,” answered the daughter, without apologizing or snapping. She only said it. It was only true. “And I don’t suppose you’re a princess at all.”
“No,” said the Fairy.
“And I don’t suppose you’re at all inclined to feel sorry for me,” the girl said.
“No,” the Fairy said.
“And I don’t suppose there would be much point asking about the diamonds, and the rubies.”
“I don’t suppose there would be,” the Fairy said. “Well, then, since you have so little breeding, and are so disobliging, I give you for a gift that at every word you speak there shall come out of your mouth–”
“I have a suggestion,” the girl said. “What if you changed it so that every word that came out of my lips was pleasing, and kind, and made people feel at ease, instead of — instead of the way they come out now?”
And the fairy said nothing.
“I know you could fill my lips with toads and vipers and that sort of thing. But it isn’t fair, really, to appear to her as an old woman in need of help, and to come to me as — as you are now.”
“Would you apologize?” the fairy asked. “If I gave you your wish?”
“Apologize for what?” the girl said without thinking, but knowing full well what she said. “For not offering to fetch water for every beautiful stranger who wanders in front of a well?”
“I think,” said the fairy, whose mouth was ordered in a straight line from left to right, “that I will let you continue as you are, only slightly more so.”
“No toads? No vipers?”
“No toads will fall from your lips,” said the fairy, “and no vipers. But no apologies either. And no explanations. And you will transgress, and wound, and be misunderstood, and you will not have the words to set it right.”
“But no toads,” said the daughter, which was really the sticking point.
“No toads,” said the fairy, “But no one will ever understand you again, and you will never bring yourself to make right what you’ve done wrong.” The fairy vanished.
And, as there was very little the daughter could do about it, she went home.
So soon as her mother saw her coming she cried out:
“Well, mother?” answered her daughter crossly, and went to poke at the fire with an iron. She was sorry to have said it, of course, but there’s no putting off a curse.
And they were both so disagreeable and so proud that there was no living with them, but of course neither of them had much of a choice in the matter.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.