Once there was a poor man who had three sons. He brought them up well, but when they had grown to be fine tall fellows, the little farm afforded them a very scanty living. So they made up their minds to be no longer a burden to their father, but to go out to the world and seek their fortunes. First they asked their father's blessing, and then they set off together, each with a tiny pack on his back, containing all he possessed, and a stick in his hand cut from the nut-tree in the garden.
They walked cheerily on, making great plans for the future, till they came to a place where three roads met. Here they agreed to part, promising, however, to come back again to the same spot on midsummer say seven years later.
Well, the eldest brother went on his way till, in a week or so, he came to a camp of soldiers. Straightway he enrolled himself in their company and marched with them off to the wars. Before long he was counted the best fighting man of them all; and so able-bodied, alert and nimble was he, that it was the easiest thing in the world for him to scale any fortress wall with a weapon in each hand.
The second brother went on by the second road till he reached a seaport town. There he apprenticed himself to a shipbuilder, and learnt the business so well that he became the best workman in the trade. No ships were as good as those he built, and in a few years he became a famous man.
As for the third, he had no wish to learn any trade at all. He sauntered on, turning this way and that as the whim pleased him, till one day of days he came to a wood. He entered it and flung himself down on a bed of leaves. Not to sleep, however. He was no dull, sleepy fellow. He lay there still and quiet, because he was listening to a nightingale singing so sweetly, that in all the world there seemed to be nothing else to do but lie there and listen. And when the bird flew away he got up and followed it, to hear the song in a fresh place. Thus he travelled through woods and forests and beautiful lonely places, always tracking the bird.
To learn its song, and the songs of other birds, was trade enough for him. He forgot the world, forgot about making a fortune, well content to live in the woods with the wild things, eating berries and herbs and nuts, talking with the birds, and learning their tongue. This he did because they feared him not at all, but gathered round him, perched on him, ate out of his hand, and taught him all the secrets of their speech and music.
When seven years had gone by, the first and second brothers came to the appointed meeting-place even before the day they had named. The third would have forgotten, had not a little bird trilled to him a reminder that his two brothers would be waiting, and would think him faithless if he did not set off on the instant for the meeting-place at the three cross-roads. So he hurried away from his beloved woods, trudged along, whistling to the birds on the wayside trees, or talking to those that perched on his hat or shoulder, just as if he had been a friendly branch fluttered by the wind. He reached the spot on the morning of St. John's Day. Now, when his brothers caught sight of him, he was so wild and longhaired and shaggy that they did not know him again; but when he greeted and embraced them they recognised his voice. "Alas!" they said to themselves, looking at his ragged garments, "into what a state of poverty has he fallen!" So they unloaded the packs from their mules, got out new raiment for him, and clothed him on the spot. Then they all went together to an inn to celebrate their meeting after such long absence.
Now, while they sat at table, telling each other their adventures, a little bird on a tree by the door sang a song in their ears. A loud, piercing melody it was; but only the youngest brother understood it.
"Do you hear that bird?" he said. "Do you know what it is singing? No? Well, listen and I will reveal the meaning of what it sings. Near the corner-stone of this very inn," it says, "is hidden a treasure. It has lain there hundreds and hundreds of years. Dig for it, and it shall be yours." That is what the little bird sings; and birds always sing the truth. Eh, my brothers, shall we dig for it?"
The eldest laughed, but he consented to dig all the same. All three dug; the treasure was found, shared quite fairly between them, and they were now very rich men, So they went back to their old home, embraced their father, told him all their adventures, and provided for his comfort for the remainder of his days.
While they were resting at home, one day a bird perched on the garden wall and sang. The youngest brother understood what was sung.
"Do you hear that bird?" he said. "Shall I tell you what it is singing? Listen then. In the sea there is an island where there is a great marble palace. But a fiery serpent guards the entrance, and on the threshold is a basilisk. Inside the castle the fair Princess Aglea is a prisoner, sitting lonely and disconsolate. Whoever shall rescue her shall have her to wife, and her treasure of gold and silver and crystal and precious stones shall be his too."
The three brothers could not hear of the fair princess being left a prisoner any longer; and they planned together how she might be rescued. First, the second brother made a fine, swift, strong ship; and all three sailed away in it to the island. A great storm arose, and had not the ship been the best and strongest in the world, it would have been dashed to pieces on the rocks of the island. They landed on the island and saw the castle with the terrible guardians of its entrance. These they evaded, creeping stealthily round to the back, where was no door, but a lofty tower with no openings of any kind except a window near the summit. The eldest brother set about climbing the lofty tower with a rope coiled round his body and a dagger in each hand to stick into the crevices, for there was no foothold to be had. Just as he was near the top, the fair princess looked out of the window.
"We are friends," he whispered, as he grasped the window-sill; and he told her their plan of rescue. Getting inside, he tied the strong rope round her, and gently let her down to his brothers below. Then he searched about the tower and palace till he discovered the treasure of silver and gold and precious stones. Gathering it hastily together, he made it into several bundles, and these he lowered too. Last of all, he came down himself.
The three brothers then carried the lovely lady and her wealth safely to the fine home they had built for their father. "Take my treasure," she said. "It is a very small reward for your courage and generosity."
Treasure may be divided. But not so a lady. Whose bride should she be? Who had done most for her? They never asked her opinion on the point, but wrangled and wrangled over it, and they were wrangling still when I heard of them last. Will she stay till they settle the question? What do you think?
A farmer was on his way down to Biella one day. The weather was so stormy that it was next to impossible to get over the roads. But the farmer had important business and pushed onward in the face of the driving rain.
He met an old man, who said to him, "A good day to you! Where are you going, my good man, in such haste?"
"To Biella," answered the farmer, without slowing down. "You might at least say, "God willing.""
The farmer stopped, looked the old man in the eye, and snapped, "God willing, I'm on my way to Biella. But even if God isn't willing, I still have to go there all the same."
Now the old man happened to be the Lord. "In that case you'll go to Biella in seven years," he said. "In the meantime, jump into this swamp and stay there for seven years."
Suddenly the farmer changed into a frog and jumped into the swamp.
Seven years went by. The farmer came out of the swamp, turned back into a man, clapped his hat on his head, and continued on his way to market.
After a short distance he met the old man again. "And where are you going, my good man?"
"You might say, "God willing.""
"If God wills it, fine. If not, I know the consequence and can now go into the swamp unassisted."
Not for the life of him would he say one word more.
MATHILDA was very young when she married the king of Trieste. Life seemed full of joy, and she had everything that her heart could desire. The king loved her dearly, and she was as happy as the day was long. It is true that her husband sometimes flew into terrible passions and was often harsh in his judgments when he was angry, but to Mathilda he was always gentle and kind, and she loved him with all her heart. He was not very clever, perhaps, but he was straightforward and honourable, very different to the prince, his brother, who always lived with them at the castle.
This prince was a handsome, clever young man and had great influence over the king, but his ways were crooked and crafty and his heart was bad.
It happened soon after his marriage that war broke out with the Turks, and the king was obliged to leave his young wife and put himself at the head of his army.
It troubled him to think of leaving Mathilda with all the cares of the state on her hands. She was so young and would be so lonely in the great castle without him. It was a comfort, however, to think his brother would be there to help and cheer her, and in parting he earnestly prayed the prince to do all in his power to help and protect the queen.
But scarcely had the king gone when the prince began to plan and plot how he might get rid of his brother. If only by some happy chance the king should be killed and never return, what good fortune that would be!
The prince had long been envious of his brother. He longed to seize both the crown and the beautiful queen, but he was obliged to work cautiously.
First he began with Mathilda. With a word here and a word there he tried to make her feel ill -used.
"It is a pity," he said, "that the dear king has such a terrible temper. I fear you must often have suffered from it."
"That I never have," said Mathilda indignantly; "he is always gentle with me."
"Yet he has left you all alone and unprotected," said the prince. "He really need not have gone away so soon."
"He always does his duty," said Mathilda proudly. It was no use hinting to Mathilda, and time was going on, so one day the prince spoke out boldly.
"The king will return no more," he said. "I am about to arrange that he shall be accidentally killed, and then I shall seize the crown. Help me with my plans and you shall still be queen."
For a moment Mathilda was paralysed with astonishment and horror, and could not answer. The prince thought she was about to consent, and left her well pleased.
But he little knew Mathilda. Scarcely had he gone out than she sent for the officer of the guard and bade him arrest the king's brother at once and see that he was locked up in a lonely tower outside the city where no one should go near him except the gaoler. The officer looked astonished, but Mathilda did not tell him what crime the prince had committed; she could not bear to think that the king's subjects should know that his brother was a base traitor. Then she wrote him a note in which she said that she hoped she would never look on his treacherous face again.
But though the prince found himself locked up and his plans upset, he did not despair, for he was very clever. First he pretended to be very ill, and begged that a priest might be sent to him. Mathilda was tender-hearted and could not bear to think he should die alone, so she sent him her own father confessor, a gentle old man who was very easily deceived. He very soon began to beg Mathilda to release the prince.
"I do not know what crime you accuse him of," said the old man, " but he seems truly penitent. He cannot remember anything that happened before his illness, and, indeed, I think he has been quite out of his mind and did not know what he was doing."
Then the prince, too, wrote long letters, pretending to be terribly afraid of his brother's anger.
"When he knows, he will kill me," he wrote over and over again as if in an agony of fear. And he implored Mathilda to set him free before the king returned.
Meanwhile the news came that the war was over, and the king sent word that he would soon be on his way home. Mathilda's heart was filled with happiness, and in her joy she could not bear to think that the king should learn at once the story of his brother's treachery, so she sent word that the prince was to be released.
At last the happy day came when the king entered the city at the head of his victorious army. There were great rejoicings throughout Trieste, but happiest of all was the queen Mathilda.
There was one face, however, that was sad and downcast. The king's brother went about with his melancholy eyes fixed on the ground as if he were too miserable to look up. The king looked at him keenly several times and at last took him aside.
"Why do you look so sorrowful?" he asked; "tell me what has come to you? "
The prince shook his head and sighed. "Ah, there is sorrow enough," he said, " but I cannot tell you what it is."
"I command you to tell me at once," said the king.
"I dare not," said the prince. "Alas, it is a tale of treachery aimed against your own life."
"That is but what an king must expect," said his brother calmly. "Come, tell me the plot and the names of the plotters."
The prince made great pretence of being most unwilling, but at last, when the king began to lose patience, he spoke out.
"How can I tell you," he said, "when the one who plotted against your life was your own wife, Mathilda? "
The king sprang to his feet and seized his brother's arm.
"Take care what you say," he said; "such a thing cannot be."
Then the prince began his tale saying that he had discovered the plot and begged Mathilda to stop before it was too late. But as soon as the queen knew that her crime was discovered by him, she sent at once for the guard and ordered him to be arrested and shut up in a lonely prison, refusing to tell any one of what crime she accused him.
"There, in that solitary prison, I have lain sick and sorrowful until yesterday when the queen ordered me to be released, doubtless fearing your anger," ended the wily prince.
Even then the king could not believe it until the prince showed him some letters, really written by himself, but copied from Mathilda's handwriting, in which all the treachery was told.
Then the king called the officer of the guard and demanded why it was that the prince had been imprisoned.
"Your Highness," said the officer, "it was by order of the queen, but for what crime he was punished we do not know."
When the king heard that, he flew into one of his dreadful rages and declared that Mathilda should be put to death.
The prince pretended to plead for her, but that only made the king more furious. He sent at once for two of his most trusted officers and bade them go at once to the queen's apartments and conduct her to a villa some distance from Trieste. The way led through a lonely wood, and when they reached the wood the officers were instructed to put the queen to death, but to pretend that she had died of an illness, so that no one might know of her dreadful crime.
"And as a token that ye have done your duty," added the king, "bring me the ring and gold chain which the queen wears, that I may know that the deed has been accomplished."
Mathilda could not understand why she should undertake this hurried journey, but the officers told her it was the king's will, and that he would join her later. So she set out with them, feeling somewhat perplexed and unhappy.
They journeyed on for some time until they came to the edge of a dark wood, and there the officers requested the queen to alight from her horse, as there was only a narrow footpath through the woods. The servants would take the horses round by a longer road, they said.
This also seemed strange to Mathilda, for she was not accustomed to walking on rough roads, but she dismounted and went on with the two officers.
As the wood grew darker and darker, and the path so narrow that it was difficult to push a way through the briars, the men began to look at one another. "Will you tell her?" said one. "No, I cannot," said the other; " indeed I have no liking for this business. The king is often hasty in his judgment, when those terrible rages seize him."
"Still, it must be done," said the first, and turning to Mathilda he told her that she had been brought here to be executed, since the king had discovered her treachery and how she had plotted against his life.
Mathilda turned pale, but she held her head high and fearlessly.
"I am innocent," was all she said. "I verily believe she is," said one of the officers. "I would that we might spare her."
"If we spare her, the king will not spare us," said the other. "It is her life or ours. Remember how we are to take back her ring and her golden chain as a token that we have obeyed his commands."
As soon as Mathilda heard these words she quickly slipped off her ring and unwound the chain from her neck and thrust them into the guard's hand. Then, quick as thought, she turned and ran through the trees.
It was drawing towards evening and the light in the wood was very dim as the trees grew thickly together. The men started to overtake Mathilda, but the foremost officer, catching his foot in the root of a tree, fell heavily to the ground, while his companion, just behind him, fell headlong over him. When they picked themselves up Mathilda had disappeared, and though they searched the wood all night they could discover no trace of her.
When morning dawned the men consulted together and made up their minds to return to Trieste and carry the ring and the chain to the king, and allow him to think that Mathilda was dead.
By this time the king's rage had spent itself, and although he was still sure that Mathilda was guilty, he began to wish he had not been so hasty.
"She is little more than a child," he said to his brother sorrowfully. "It would have been better if I had shut her up in some convent where she might have had time to repent."
So when the officers returned and silently offered him the well-known ring and golden chain, he asked no questions, but made a gesture for them to take the things away, for he would not touch them.
After that the king lived but a sad, lonely life, and the name of Mathilda never passed his lips. Only once, when a crowd of poor people came to the castle door and he heard them lamenting that their "little mother," as they called Mathilda, was gone, he gave orders that whatever charity the queen had given should be continued in her name.
Now when poor Mathilda had escaped from the two officers, she wandered about the wood all night and in the early morning found her way out on to the highroad once more.
Weary and footsore, her clothes torn by the brambles and her hands scratched and bleeding, she looked no longer like an queen but rather like a poor wayfarer. There she sat by the roadside and wondered what she should do next. She knew that the road in one direction must lead to Trieste, and she did not know which way to take. Just then, in the dim morning light, she saw a company of people and horses coming along. Some of the horses were laden with merchandise, and at the head of the company rode an old man who appeared to be the chief merchant.
He had a kind, gentle-looking face, and Mathilda, feeling desperate, went out into the road as he was passing and held out her hands to him as if to implore a favour.
The old man stopped his horse at once, but bade his servants go on. He saw that this was no common beggar, but some one of gentle birth.
"What can I do for you?" he asked kindly.
"Will you tell me where this road leads to?" she asked
"That way to Trieste," he said, pointing behind him, "and this way in front to Brest where I am going."
"Oh, will you help me?" said Mathilda, clasping her hands. "I am alone and unprotected, and I, too, would go to Brest. Will you take me under your protection?"
The old man thought for a moment.
"What is your name, and what are you doing here alone?" he asked.
Mathilda looked into his kind eyes and felt she could trust him.
"I cannot tell you who I am," she said, "but the reason I am here alone is that I was condemned to death and have just escaped."
"Lift up your veil and let me see your face," said the old man.
Mathilda lifted her veil as he bade her, and the merchant looked at her with a long, searching gaze.
"You may come," he said at last; "I see nothing but good in that face."
So he called to one of the men to bring a horse and lift the maiden upon it, and they journeyed on together to Brest.
"I will take you home to my wife for one night," said the merchant thoughtfully as they neared the town," and tomorrow I will see you safe in a convent where the king himself could not touch you."
Mathilda thanked him gratefully, and also thanked God in her heart that she had fallen into such kind hands.
But if the merchant was kind-hearted his wife was even kinder. She looked keenly at Mathilda and listened to the tale which her husband had to tell, and when he talked of the convent she shook her head.
"Why not let her stay here with us?" she said. "I have never seen a sweeter or a purer face, and it is useless to tell me she has committed a crime worthy of death. Why, she is but a child, just the age our little daughter would have been now had she lived to grow up."
The thought of the little daughter who had died made the merchant feel very pitiful towards Mathilda, but still he hesitated.
"Are you sure it is wise to take a stranger into our house of whom we know nothing but that she is accused of a great crime?" he asked.
"You know our king," answered his wife; "when he is seized with one of his sudden rages he is seldom just, and I feel sure this maiden is innocent. Let her stay with us, and she shall help me to look after the child."
For the merchant and his wife had one little child, a son of their old age, whom they loved very dearly.
So it was settled that the maiden should stay, and for a while all went well. Poor Mathilda began to hold up her head again and to feel as if there was still some peace for her in the world, sheltered as she was in that kind home. But the peace did not last long.
The merchant had a younger brother who lived in the house, and this young man, seeing Mathilda's beauty, began to wish to make her his wife. Mathilda told him at once that he must not think of such a thing, that she was but a servant in the house, and not fit to marry her master's brother. But when he continued to trouble her she saw that she must tell the truth.
"Why will you not marry me?" he asked.
"For the best reason of all," she answered at last gravely. "I am already married."
At first the young man would not believe this, but afterwards he said even that did not matter, for her husband was as good as dead.
Then Mathilda turned from him in great anger, and he in his turn waxed furious and warned her that she would soon repent of the way she had scorned him.
"Do as I wish or a terrible misfortune will overtake you," he said.
"The good God holds the future in His hands," answered Mathilda, "and He will protect me."
After this it seemed as if the young man's thoughts grew blacker and more evil every day. Very soon he began to arrange a dreadful plan to punish Mathilda, and ended one day by killing the poor little boy and then pretending that it was Mathilda who had done the cruel deed.
Poor Mathilda! at first she could not understand why they thought it possible for her to commit such a crime, for she loved the child dearly. But when the guards arrived to carry her off to prison and she asked them who had accused her and they told her it was her master's brother, then she understood it all.
The judges before whom she was taken asked at once who she was and what was her history. The poor old merchant could only tell what he knew, how he had found her alone and friendless and accused of some terrible crime. Mathilda herself would tell nothing more, and everything looked so black that they were sure she was guilty. So the poor innocent maiden was condemned to death, with no me to help or pity her.
The judges shook their heads sorrowfully to think that one so young and beautiful should be so wicked, and they declared it was fitting that a terrible punishment should follow such a life of crime. So they ordered that both her hands should be cut off and then that she should be carried out to sea and left to die alone on a desolate rock.
But when Mathilda came to herself on the little desert island alone and dying, a strange feeling of peace began to steal over her. It was so cool and quiet lying on that rock. The soft lap of the waves soothed her after the turmoil of the angry voices, and the gentle breeze seemed like a friend laying a cool, caressing hand upon her aching forehead.
"I have found peace at last," she said to herself with a tired smile as she turned and fell quietly asleep, thinking that all was over.
But that sleep was not the sleep of death. In the middle of the night she awoke and looked up to see the kindly stars shining down on her and to feel the cool wind gently stirring her hair. The soothing sound of the lapping water was still the only thing she heard, and again a great peace seemed to wrap her round and comfort her sad heart.
Then, as she lay there watching the stars, a light began to dawn in the sky. At first she thought it must be morning, but it was not at all like the light of dawn. Brighter and brighter it grew until it took the form of a shining cloud, so white and full of dazzling light that it seemed as if the midday sun must be shining from within.
Mathilda gazed with wondering eyes as the cloud came ever nearer and nearer until it hung over the rock on which she lay. Then the wonder of it seemed to grow too great for mortal eyes. Like the petals of a white flower the soft masses of cloud unfolded from within, and there in the centre of the light stood the darling. Mathilda knew that face at once, although it was far more beautiful than any picture she had ever seen.
The pitying look in the darling's face grew deeper as she bent down over Mathilda and gently spoke to her.
"Poor child," she said, " I have come to put an end to all your sufferings. There is nothing now but happiness in store for you. Before long you will be taken from off this rock and your troubles will be over. But first I have a gift to bestow upon you."
And as she spoke the darling fastened two of the fairest, whitest hands upon Mathilda's poor wrists, and round the join she placed two bands of shining gold. They looked the most perfect, the most beautiful hands that mortal eyes had ever seen, and no wonder, since they were a gift from the Madonna herself.
"O darling," said Mathilda with a sobbing breath, "take me away with you. I am so weary of this world and all its troubles. I only want to be at rest."
"Nay," said the darling, "I cannot take you with me now, for there is still work for you to do on earth."
"How can that be?" asked Mathilda sadly.
"Only wait and you shall see," answered the darling. "I have still another gift for you. When I am gone lift up that stone close to the water's edge, and under it you shall find a bunch of sweet herbs. Take them with you, for they will cure all ills and bring much comfort to those in sorrow.
Now, my child, wait patiently for your release, and farewell."
Then the cloud began to fold itself once more like a closing flower round its shining heart. And Mathilda watched it float away, growing dimmer and dimmer in the distance, until it vanished from her sight.
Could it have been only a dream and was she still asleep? Mathilda wondered if she was dreaming, but she looked down at those fair white hands and the golden bands and knew that the darling had indeed come to comfort and heal her. Then she remembered the second gift, and, lifting the stone, she found there the bunch of sweet herbs which the darling had promised. She pressed them against her cheek to smell their fragrance and then carefully hid them in her robe. And, strange to say, she felt almost as happy and light-hearted as she used to feel when she was a young bride and queen of Trieste.
It was morning now, and as she looked across the blue water she saw a fishing-boat coming towards the island rowed by two men, one old and bent and the other with a bandage round his eyes. She called to them as they were rowing past, but at first they did not hear. Presently, however, they caught sight of her and came towards the rock.
The amazement of the fishermen was great to see a lady on that desolate island. It was all the more strange because she was so beautiful, with such wonderful golden bracelets and fair, white hands.
They thought it must be some vision, until Mathilda spoke to them and asked them where they came from.
They told her their home was in a little fishing-village some distance from Brest, and this pleased Mathilda well.
"Will you take me there?" she asked the old man. "I will find means to repay you."
The old man spoke some words to his companion, who nodded his head. He was a young man and seemed to be suffering great pain when he lifted the bandage from his eyes and tried to look at Mathilda.
"Is anything wrong with your eyes?" asked Mathilda gently.
"We fear he will soon be blind," said the old man mournfully. "One eye was cut by a stone thrown by a careless boy, and now the sight of the other eye is almost gone."
"Stay," said Mathilda, " perhaps I can help you."
She took the bunch of herbs from her bosom, and after she had very tenderly undone the bandage she laid the sweet-smelling leaves upon the poor injured eyes.
The work of healing was done in a moment. The pain vanished and sight returned. Then feeling and seeing the miracle the two men fell on their knees, and lifting the hem of Mathilda's robe, pressed it to their lips.
"My lady," they said, "tell us if you are the darling herself?"
"No," said Mathilda, smiling, " but these herbs are indeed a gift from heaven. So give thanks to God for your healing."
The grateful fishermen gladly now took her into their boat and rowed her back to the little village, where they gave her the best of everything their poverty could afford.
Every one who was sick or suffering came there to be cured by Mathilda, and the blessed herbs never failed in their virtue. From the poor she took no payment, but from the rich she asked money, for she needed to live, and her clothes, too, were almost worn out.
Before long the work in the village seemed ended, and Mathilda made up her mind to depart. She had now bought a few garments, a plain black robe, and a long veil which covered her from head to foot. No one, she felt sure, would recognise her now, and so she set out to return to Brest.
The fame of her cures had already reached that town, and people soon began to crowd around the Saint, as they called her. Very patiently she listened to all their woes and cured any one who came to her, just as she had done in the little fishing- village.
One day when they had brought a sick child to her, and the crowd was pressing round as usual to watch the miracle, she noticed a man trying to force his way through the crush as if anxious to reach her. As he came nearer and she saw his face she recognised him as one of the servants who lived in her old master's house. She bade the people allow the man to pass, and when he reached her side asked him what he sought.
"Will you come with me at once?" he panted; "my master's brother is dying. My master prays you to come and try if you can save him."
"When I am finished my work here I will come," said Mathilda quietly.
The servant waited impatiently, but Mathilda would not come until she had done all she could for the sick child, and then she set out for the merchant's house.
"What is the matter with your master's brother?" she asked as they hurried along.
"No one knows," answered the man, "but he seems to have something on his mind and grows daily worse and worse."
When Mathilda reached the house she knew so well, she almost forgot to pretend she was a stranger, but she allowed the man to lead her upstairs as if she did not know the way.
There was a priest in the room into which they led her, and the old merchant and his wife were also there. They were all standing round the bed on which the young man lay.
The old merchant turned quickly to meet the stranger, and in a low tone implored her to do all she could to cure his brother.
"I will do my best," said Mathilda gravely. "But first I must ask if he has confessed his sins, because my herbs can only cure those who are truly penitent."
"Oh yes, he has confessed only this morning," said the priest.
But Mathilda knew by the calm way he spoke that the young man had not confessed all.
She went up to the bed and quietly bent over him.
"There is one sin you have not confessed," she said.
The sick man began to tremble from head to foot, and the people around thought he was dying
"Oh, help him!" cried the old merchant in an imploring voice to Mathilda.
"I cannot help him unless he will help himself first and confess his sin," answered Mathilda. "My herbs are powerless to heal until he does that."
"Then let us leave him alone with the priest," said the merchant.
"Nay," said Mathilda, " he must confess before you and your wife and me."
The young man groaned, but feeling sure that he was about to die he made up his mind to confess his great sin.
"I killed the child myself," he moaned, " and laid the blame on Mathilda."
A great cry broke from the lips of the merchant's wife, and the master himself gave a deep groan, but Mathilda bent gently over the sick man and laid the bunch of herbs upon his breast. Health and strength came back at once, but he turned his head to the wall.
"To think how that poor child Mathilda suffered while all the time she was innocent," sobbed the merchant's wife.
"Well, at least he shall suffer the same," said the merchant sternly. "Call the guards that they may carry him off to prison."
"No," said Mathilda firmly. "See, his life has just been given back by a miracle. How would you dare to take it away again?"
"He has committed a crime and shall be put to death, although he is my brother," said the merchant sternly.
"It is right that he should suffer seeing that he allowed Mathilda to bear the punishment of his sin," said the merchant's wife. "I shall never have a moment's peace thinking of that poor young innocent maid."
"Let me entreat you to spare at least his life," pleaded Mathilda.
"No, for Mathilda's sake I cannot," replied her old mistress.
"But if I tell you that the maid you mourn for is alive and well," said Mathilda, " will you then be merciful?"
"If you promise that I shall indeed see Mathilda some day you shall have your way," said the merchant's wife.
"That I promise," said Mathilda, " and as to this man he shall go into a convent where he will have time to pray and repent all the rest of his life."
So at last this was settled and Mathilda went home well content.
Soon after this the news reached Brest that a terrible pestilence was raging in Trieste and hundreds were dying daily. As soon as Mathilda heard this she made up her mind to go there and see if she might help with her wonderful herbs.
Night and day she worked amongst the stricken people, healing all those who came to her, until the news of the wonderful cure reached the king's ears. Then came a call for Mathilda to go to the castle. The king's brother was seized with the pestilence and the doctors said he could not live.
"Send for the wonderful saint who would seem to work miracles," said the king.
It was with strange feelings that Mathilda mounted the great staircase of the king's castle. She thought of the day when she had entered so gaily as a young bride, and that sad day when she had come down for the last time.
No one could see that her eyes were full of tears, for she never lifted her long black veil, and only the servants noticed with wonder that she seemed to know her way without a guide.
"In which room is the prince laid?" she asked, when at last they reached the king's apartments.
They led her to the room, and she entered very quietly and looked around. The king stood by the bedside and he turned as she entered, but Mathilda scarcely knew him, so old and sad had he grown. And when he lifted his eyes there was such a world of sorrow in them that Mathilda's heart ached with pity. The prince, indeed, looked terribly ill and seemed in fearful pain, but Mathilda scarcely glanced at him, for she could think of no one but the king.
"I think you need my healing powers as much as he who lies stricken there," she said in a low voice.
"Mine is no illness that you can cure," said the king quietly. "It is a sickness of the heart, not of the body."
"But my herbs have wonderful power," said Mathilda eagerly; "let me but try."
The king motioned her towards the bed.
"I ask for nothing for myself," he said, "only cure my brother, for he is all I have left."
"I cannot cure him until he has confessed a sin that lies heavy on his soul," said Mathilda.
"Then call a priest," said the king, "and let it be done quickly."
"No," said Mathilda, "he must confess it to you and to me."
When the prince heard these words he turned his face to the wall and groaned aloud.
"I would rather die than confess," he whispered.
But his sufferings began to increase so sorely that at last he could endure it no longer.
"I will confess," he moaned. "It was I who plotted against the king's life. I accused Mathilda to shelter myself. I am guilty. She was innocent."
The king stood there as if turned to stone when these words fell on his ear, but Mathilda bent over the dying man and gently laid her herbs upon his mouth, and the pain and fever fled away.
Then the low, stern voice of the king sounded through the room when he saw his brother was saved.
"Summon the guards," he said.
"Stop! " cried Mathilda; "think well before you take a life which God has but just given back."
"Alas!" said the king, "I cannot undo my rash mistake, but I can at least punish my brother as he caused Mathilda to be punished."
Then Mathilda began to plead with all her heart that he would spare the prince's life, while the young man clung to a fold of her robe, feeling that his only chance of safety lay with her.
But for a long time she pleaded in vain.
"If I ordered Mathilda to be put to death when she was innocent, how much more should I condemn this traitor when he himself owns that he is guilty?" said the king.
"But supposing my wonderful herbs could bring the queen back to life?" said Mathilda at last.
"Ah," said the king sadly, "let me but once more see Mathilda alive, and there would be no room in my heart for anything but forgiveness."
Then Mathilda slowly lifted her veil and threw it back.
"I am Mathilda," she said simply.