Far, far away, in the midst of a pine forest, there lived a woman who had both a daughter and a stepdaughter. Ever since her own daughter was born the mother had given her all that she cried for, so she grew up to be as cross and disagreeable as she was ugly. Her stepsister, on the other hand, had spent her childhood in working hard to keep house for her father, who died soon after his second marriage; and she was as much beloved by the neighbours for her goodness and industry as she was for her beauty.
As the years went on, the difference between the two girls grew more marked, and the old woman treated her stepdaughter worse than ever, and was always on the watch for some pretext for beating her, or depriving her of her food. Anything, however foolish, was good enough for this, and one day, when she could think of nothing better, she set both the girls to spin while sitting on the low wall of the well.
‘And you had better mind what you do,’ said she, ‘for the one whose thread breaks first shall be thrown to the bottom.’
But of course she took good care that her own daughter’s flax was fine and strong, while the stepsister had only some coarse stuff, which no one would have thought of using. As might be expected, in a very little while the poor girl’s thread snapped, and the old woman, who had been watching from behind a door, seized her stepdaughter by her shoulders, and threw her into the well.
‘That is an end of you!’ she said. But she was wrong, for it was only the beginning.
Down, down, down went the girl–it seemed as if the well must reach to the very middle of the earth; but at last her feet touched the ground, and she found herself in a field more beautiful than even the summer pastures of her native mountains. Trees waved in the soft breeze, and flowers of the brightest colours danced in the grass. And though she was quite alone, the girl’s heart danced too, for she felt happier than she had since her father died. So she walked on through the meadow till she came to an old tumbledown fence–so old that it was a wonder it managed to stand up at all, and it looked as if it depended for support on the old man’s beard that climbed all over it.
The girl paused for a moment as she came up, and gazed about for a place where she might safely cross. But before she could move a voice cried from the fence:
‘Do not hurt me, little maiden; I am so old, so old, I have not much longer to live.’
And the maiden answered:
‘No, I will not hurt you; fear nothing.’ And then seeing a spot where the clematis grew less thickly than in other places, she jumped lightly over.
‘May all go well with thee,’ said the fence, as the girl walked on.
She soon left the meadow and turned into a path which ran between two flowery hedges. Right in front of her stood an oven, and through its open door she could see a pile of white loaves.
‘Eat as many loaves as you like, but do me no harm, little maiden,’ cried the oven. And the maiden told her to fear nothing, for she never hurt anything, and was very grateful for the oven’s kindness in giving her such a beautiful white loaf. When she had finished it, down to the last crumb, she shut the oven door and said: ‘Good-morning.’
‘May all go well with thee,’ said the oven, as the girl walked on.
By-and-by she became very thirsty, and seeing a cow with a milk-pail hanging on her horn, turned towards her.
‘Milk me and drink as much as you will, little maiden,’ cried the cow, ‘but be sure you spill none on the ground; and do me no harm, for I have never harmed anyone.’
‘Nor I,’ answered the girl; ‘fear nothing.’ So she sat down and milked till the pail was nearly full. Then she drank it all up except a little drop at the bottom.
‘Now throw any that is left over my hoofs, and hang the pail on my horns again,’ said the cow. And the girl did as she was bid, and kissed the cow on her forehead and went her way.
Many hours had now passed since the girl had fallen down the well, and the sun was setting.
‘Where shall I spend the night?’ thought she. And suddenly she saw before her a gate which she had not noticed before, and a very old woman leaning against it.
‘Good evening,’ said the girl politely; and the old woman answered:
‘Good evening, my child. Would that everyone was as polite as you. Are you in search of anything?’
‘I am in search of a place,’ replied the girl; and the woman smiled and said:
‘Then stop a little while and comb my hair, and you shall tell me all the things you can do.’
‘Willingly, mother,’ answered the girl. And she began combing out the old woman’s hair, which was long and white.
Half an hour passed in this way, and then the old woman said:
‘As you did not think yourself too good to comb me, I will show you where you may take service. Be prudent and patient and all will go well.’
So the girl thanked her, and set out for a farm at a little distance, where she was engaged to milk the cows and sift the corn.
As soon as it was light next morning the girl got up and went into the cow-house. ‘I’m sure you must be hungry,’ said she, patting each in turn. And then she fetched hay from the barn, and while they were eating it, she swept out the cow-house, and strewed clean straw upon the floor. The cows were so pleased with the care she took of them that they stood quite still while she milked them, and did not play any of the tricks on her that they had played on other dairymaids who were rough and rude. And when she had done, and was going to get up from her stool, she found sitting round her a whole circle of cats, black and white, tabby and tortoise- shell, who all cried with one voice:
‘We are very thirsty, please give us some milk!’
‘My poor little pussies,’ said she, ‘of course you shall have some.’ And she went into the dairy, followed by all the cats, and gave each one a little red saucerful. But before they drank they all rubbed themselves against her knees and purred by way of thanks.
The next thing the girl had to do was to go to the storehouse, and to sift the corn through a sieve. While she was busy rubbing the corn she heard a whirr of wings, and a flock of sparrows flew in at the window.
‘We are hungry; give us some corn! give us some corn!’ cried they; and the girl answered:
‘You poor little birds, of course you shall have some!’ and scattered a fine handful over the floor. When they had finished they flew on her shoulders and flapped their wings by way of thanks.
Time went by, and no cows in the whole country-side were so fat and well tended as hers, and no dairy had so much milk to show. The farmer’s wife was so well satisfied that she gave her higher wages, and treated her like her own daughter. At length, one day, the girl was bidden by her mistress to come into the kitchen, and when there, the old woman said to her: ‘I know you can tend cows and keep a diary; now let me see what you can do besides. Take this sieve to the well, and fill it with water, and bring it home to me without spilling one drop by the way.’
The girl’s heart sank at this order; for how was it possible for her to do her mistress’s bidding? However, she was silent, and taking the sieve went down to the well with it. Stopping over the side, she filled it to the brim, but as soon as she lifted it the water all ran out of the holes. Again and again she tried, but not a drop would remaining in the sieve, and she was just turning away in despair when a flock of sparrows flew down from the sky.
‘Ashes! ashes!’ they twittered; and the girl looked at them and said:
‘Well, I can’t be in a worse plight than I am already, so I will take your advice.’ And she ran back to the kitchen and filled her sieve with ashes. Then once more she dipped the sieve into the well, and, behold, this time not a drop of water disappeared!
‘Here is the sieve, mistress,’ cried the girl, going to the room where the old woman was sitting.
‘You are cleverer than I expected,’ answered she; ‘or else someone helped you who is skilled in magic.’ But the girl kept silence, and the old woman asked her no more questions.
Many days passed during which the girl went about her work as usual, but at length one day the old woman called her and said:
‘I have something more for you to do. There are here two yarns, the one white, the other black. What you must do is to wash them in the river till the black one becomes white and the white black.’ And the girl took them to the river and washed hard for several hours, but wash as she would they never changed one whit.
‘This is worse than the sieve,’ thought she, and was about to give up in despair when there came a rush of wings through the air, and on every twig of the birch trees which grew by the bank was perched a sparrow.
‘The black to the east, the white to the west!’ they sang, all at once; and the girl dried her tears and felt brave again. Picking up the black yarn, she stood facing the east and dipped it in the river, and in an instant it grew white as snow, then turning to the west, she held the white yarn in the water, and it became as black as a crow’s wing. She looked back at the sparrows and smiled and nodded to them, and flapping their wings in reply they flew swiftly away.
At the sight of the yarn the old woman was struck dumb; but when at length she found her voice she asked the girl what magician had helped her to do what no one had done before. But she got no answer, for the maiden was afraid of bringing trouble on her little friends.
For many weeks the mistress shut herself up in her room, and the girl went about her work as usual. She hoped that there was an end to the difficult tasks which had been set her; but in this she was mistaken, for one day the old woman appeared suddenly in the kitchen, and said to her:
‘There is one more trial to which I must put you, and if you do not fail in that you will be left in peace for evermore. Here are the yarns which you washed. Take them and weave them into a web that is as smooth as a king’s robe, and see that it is spun by the time that the sun sets.’
‘This is the easiest thing I have been set to do,’ thought the girl, who was a good spinner. But when she began she found that the skein tangled and broke every moment.
‘Oh, I can never do it!’ she cried at last, and leaned her head against the loom and wept; but at that instant the door opened, and there entered, one behind another, a procession of cats.
‘What is the matter, fair maiden?’ asked they. And the girl answered:
‘My mistress has given me this yarn to weave into a piece of cloth, which must be finished by sunset, and I have not even begun yet, for the yarn breaks whenever I touch it.’
‘If that is all, dry your eyes,’ said the cats; ‘we will manage it for you.’ And they jumped on the loom, and wove so fast and so skilfully that in a very short time the cloth was ready and was as fine as any king ever wore. The girl was so delighted at the sight of it that she gave each cat a kiss on his forehead as they left the room behind one the other as they had come.
‘Who has taught you this wisdom?’ asked the old woman, after she had passed her hands twice or thrice over the cloth and could find no roughness anywhere. But the girl only smiled and did not answer. She had learned early the value of silence.
After a few weeks the old woman sent for her maid and told her that as her year of service was now up, she was free to return home, but that, for her part, the girl had served her so well that she hoped she might stay with her. But at these words the maid shook her head, and answered gently:
‘I have been happy here, Madam, and I thank you for your goodness to me; but I have left behind me a stepsister and a stepmother, and I am fain to be with them once more.’ The old woman looked at her for a moment, and then she said:
‘Well, that must be as you like; but as you have worked faithfully for me I will give you a reward. Go now into the loft above the store house and there you will find many caskets. Choose the one which pleases you best, but be careful not to open it till you have set it in the place where you wish it to remain.’
The girl left the room to go to the loft, and as soon as she got outside, she found all the cats waiting for her. Walking in procession, as was their custom, they followed her into the loft, which was filled with caskets big and little, plain and splendid. She lifted up one and looked at it, and then put it down to examine another yet more beautiful. Which should she choose, the yellow or the blue, the red or the green, the gold or the silver? She hesitated long, and went first to one and then to another, when she heard the cats’ voices calling: ‘Take the black! take the black!’
The words make her look round–she had seen no black casket, but as the cats continued their cry she peered into several corners that had remained unnoticed, and at length discovered a little black box, so small and so black, that it might easily have been passed over.
‘This is the casket that pleases me best, mistress,’ said the girl, carrying it into the house. And the old woman smiled and nodded, and bade her go her way. So the girl set forth, after bidding farewell to the cows and the cats and the sparrows, who all wept as they said good-bye.
She walked on and on and on, till she reached the flowery meadow, and there, suddenly, something happened, she never knew what, but she was sitting on the wall of the well in her stepmother’s yard. Then she got up and entered the house.
The woman and her daughter stared as if they had been turned into stone; but at length the stepmother gasped out:
‘So you are alive after all! Well, luck was ever against me! And where have you been this year past?’ Then the girl told how she had taken service in the under-world, and, beside her wages, had brought home with her a little casket, which she would like to set up in her room.
‘Give me the money, and take the ugly little box off to the outhouse,’ cried the woman, beside herself with rage, and the girl, quite frightened at her violence, hastened away, with her precious box clasped to her bosom.
The outhouse was in a very dirty state, as no one had been near it since the girl had fallen down the well; but she scrubbed and swept till everything was clean again, and then she placed the little casket on a small shelf in the corner.
‘Now I may open it,’ she said to herself; and unlocking it with the key which hung to its handle, she raised the lid, but started back as she did so, almost blinded by the light that burst upon her. No one would ever have guessed that that little black box could have held such a quantity of beautiful things! Rings, crowns, girdles, necklaces–all made of wonderful stones; and they shone with such brilliance that not only the stepmother and her daughter but all the people round came running to see if the house was on fire. Of course the woman felt quite ill with greed and envy, and she would have certainly taken all the jewels for herself had she not feared the wrath of the neighbours, who loved her stepdaughter as much as they hated her.
But if she could not steal the casket and its contents for herself, at least she could get another like it, and perhaps a still richer one. So she bade her own daughter sit on the edge of the well, and threw her into the water, exactly as she had done to the other girl; and, exactly as before, the flowery meadow lay at the bottom.
Every inch of the way she trod the path which her stepsister had trodden, and saw the things which she had seen; but there the likeness ended. When the fence prayed her to do it no harm, she laughed rudely, and tore up some of the stakes so that she might get over the more easily; when the oven offered her bread, she scattered the loaves onto the ground and stamped on them; and after she had milked the cow, and drunk as much as she wanted, she threw the rest on the grass, and kicked the pail to bits, and never heard them say, as they looked after her: ‘You shall not have done this to me for nothing!’
Towards evening she reached the spot where the old woman was leaning against the gate- post, but she passed her by without a word.
‘Have you no manners in your country?’ asked the crone.
‘I can’t stop and talk; I am in a hurry,’ answered the girl. ‘It is getting late, and I have to find a place.’
‘Stop and comb my hair for a little,’ said the old woman, ‘and I will help you to get a place.’
‘Comb your hair, indeed! I have something better to do than that!’ And slamming the gate in the crone’s face she went her way. And she never heard the words that followed her: ‘You shall not have done this to me for nothing!’
By-and-by the girl arrived at the farm, and she was engaged to look after the cows and sift the corn as her stepsister had been. But it was only when someone was watching her that she did her work; at other times the cow-house was dirty, and the cows ill-fed and beaten, so that they kicked over the pail, and tried to butt her; and everyone said they had never seen such thin cows or such poor milk. As for the cats, she chased them away, and ill-treated them, so that they had not even the spirit to chase the rats and mice, which nowadays ran about everywhere. And when the sparrows came to beg for some corn, they fared no better than the cows and the cats, for the girl threw her shoes at them, till they flew in a fright to the woods, and took shelter amongst the trees.
Months passed in this manner, when, one day, the mistress called the girl to her.
‘All that I have given you to do you have done ill,’ said she, ‘yet will I give you another chance. For though you cannot tend cows, or divide the grain from the chaff, there may be other things that you can do better. Therefore take this sieve to the well, and fill it with water, and see that you bring it back without spilling a drop.’
The girl took the sieve and carried it to the well as her sister had done; but no little birds came to help her, and after dipping it in the well two or three times she brought it back empty.
‘I thought as much,’ said the old woman angrily; ‘she that is useless in one thing is useless in another.’
Perhaps the mistress may have thought that the girl had learnt a lesson, but, if she did, she was quite mistaken, as the work was no better done than before. By-and-by she sent for her again, and gave her maid the black and white yarn to wash in the river; but there was no one to tell her the secret by which the black would turn white, and the white black; so she brought them back as they were. This time the old woman only looked at her grimly but the girl was too well pleased with herself to care what anyone thought about her.
After some weeks her third trial came, and the yarn was given her to spin, as it had been given to her stepsister before her.
But no procession of cats entered the room to weave a web of fine cloth, and at sunset she only brought back to her mistress an armful of dirty, tangled wool.
‘There seems nothing in the world you can do,’ said the old woman, and left her to herself.
Soon after this the year was up, and the girl went to her mistress to tell her that she wished to go home.
‘Little desire have I to keep you,’ answered the old woman, ‘for no one thing have you done as you ought. Still, I will give you some payment, therefore go up into the loft, and choose for yourself one of the caskets that lies there. But see that you do not open it till you place it where you wish it to stay.’
This was what the girl had been hoping for, and so rejoiced was she, that, without even stopping to thank the old woman, she ran as fast as she could to the loft. There were the caskets, blue and red, green and yellow, silver and gold; and there in the corner stood a little black casket just like the one her stepsister had brought home.
‘If there are so many jewels in that little black thing, this big red one will hold twice the number,’ she said to herself; and snatching it up she set off on her road home without even going to bid farewell to her mistress.
‘See, mother, see what I have brought!’ cried she, as she entered the cottage holding the casket in both hands.
‘Ah! you have got something very different from that little black box,’ answered the old woman with delight. But the girl was so busy finding a place for it to stand that she took little notice of her mother.
‘It will look best here–no, here,’ she said, setting it first on one piece of furniture and then on another. ‘No, after all it is to fine to live in a kitchen, let us place it in the guest chamber.’
So mother and daughter carried it proudly upstairs and put it on a shelf over the fireplace; then, untying the key from the handle, they opened the box. As before, a bright light leapt out directly the lid was raised, but it did not spring from the lustre of jewels, but from hot flames, which darted along the walls and burnt up the cottage and all that was in it and the mother and daughter as well.
As they had done when the stepdaughter came home, the neighbours all hurried to see what was the matter; but they were too late. Only the hen-house was left standing; and, in spite of her riches, there the stepdaughter lived happily to the end of her days.