The Fairies and the Christmas Child Part 15

'Unless the paths be clear of weeds ere the sun sets, I will not give thee my consent,' said the old woman obstinately; and there was nothing left for Pepita to do but to hoe up the weeds as best she could.

No sooner had Guido's mother ceased watching her from the window, than Pepita whistled gently, and swift at her call came the birds she had fed with crumbs when the fields were bare. Pointing to the weeds, she made signs to them to destroy them, and by the time the old mother awoke from her nap, not one was left behind. This vexed her instead of giving her pleasure, for she did not wish her son to marry, and telling her maids they might have a holiday, she commanded Pepita to prepare the evening meal.

The maiden was now in much perplexity, for she knew not how to cook, and her experience that morning with the _pentola_ had taught her little.

But the Brownies who dwelt behind the hearth, and love to see a fair young face bending over the pots and pans, bade her be not discouraged, for they would stand her friends.

Then the nimble little men flew hither and thither, fetching garlic and oil and meat and rice in just the proportions that Guido loved, and adding certain secret flavours of their own until the smell of the broth made the old woman's mouth water, and she could not but praise Pepita's cooking. When it came to the time to test her skill at spinning, she was completely reconciled to her son's choice, and put no obstacles in the way of the wedding.

And now Pepita sang more blithely than ever, for though he was less well favoured, and slower of speech than many a young man who had wooed her, she adored her husband. She was as happy as the day was long until, wishing to have the biggest bank account as well as the prettiest wife in the neighbourhood, he took it into his head to turn her talent for spinning to account, and kept her beside her distaff from morn till eve.

'I shall soon, at this rate, be richer even than the notary,' he thought, as he looked delighted at his stores of flax; and Pepita besought him in vain to give her a little rest, for he could be as obstinate as his mother.

It was now that the Fates interfered on her behalf, though many more worthy than she are left to shift for themselves.

'She has lost her bloom!' sighed one grim sister.

'Her cheeks are hollow!' observed the second.

'Her songs are sad ones!' said the third with a dreadful frown. And then they put their heads together, and formed a plan whereby Guido might be outwitted.

As he sat in the doorway that evening while Pepita span, denying himself the sight of her in order that her work might not be disturbed, there came up the garden path a hideous old hag, who besought him to give her alms.

'Look at me, Signor!' she groaned, lifting her head so that he saw the wrinkled folds that lapped her chin. 'Once I was fair as your Pepita, but I sat so long at my spinning wheel, that all my comeliness left me.'

Guido hastily gave her a coin, and urged her to begone; for he did not want Pepita to see her, or to hear what she had to say.

Next eve came a second old woman, uglier, if possible, than the last, and bent like some brutish beast. She had the same story to tell him of bygone loveliness, and Guido sped her down the hill with even more haste than before.

The next night a third old woman appeared, so dread of aspect that he was obliged to avert his gaze. Against his wish, he felt himself constrained to enquire the cause of her terrible affliction.

'I sat at my wheel, good master,' was the reply, 'until beauty and sight both left me, and my skin became even as you see.'

Now thoroughly alarmed, he dismissed her quickly with a handful of coins, and calling Pepita to him, gazed at her long and searchingly.

When the flush that his now unaccustomed touch had brought to her sweet face faded, he saw she was pale and thin. Her mouth drooped sadly, and purple shadows brooded round her eyes. With a cry of remorse he drew her to his breast, and kissed her tenderly.

'You shall spin no longer, my Pepita,' he said, 'for I would rather have you as you are than be rich as Satan himself!'"

And this was the very last story I heard. We started for home next morning, and I went to school at the half term--a ripping school where there was any amount of cricket, and so many other games that I had no time to think of Fairies.

But some day I'm going to find the Peri, and those other wonderful Sprites and Goblins of which t.i.tania told me when I met her in the wood that Christmas day.

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