"Are you real or a delusion?" called the tall knight in silver armor. Lulaloo lifted her long hair so that it streamed down like a veil of light. "I'm real," she called back. But you, are you not a dream or a legend? When I shut my eyes and open them again, will you be gone?"
LULALOO—A FAIRY TALE TOLD BY A QUEEN
BY MARIE OF RUMANIA
ONCE upon a time there was a very, very old hermit. He was called Father Nicodemus, and he had built himself a diminutive hut in the very center of the forest, beside the deepest, greenest, most mysterious little lake ever seen.
Father Nicodemus was a tiny little man, and although I do not think he knew much about soap, or that sort of thing, he always looked clean and nice, because his beard was so beautifully white.
I can not say that I knew much about him till the robin told me, and I thought the story so pathetic that I am sure you will like to hear about it, too.
It was said that in his youth Father Nicodemus had been a great sinner, and that was why he became a hermit when his hair turned gray. I have heard of such things before, but all the same you will agree with me that the term, “a great sinner,” is rather vague: you can be a sinner in so many sorts of ways, and no one could be very explicit about what had been Nicodemus’ way, so I think we shall leave all that part of history alone and just listen to the robin’s tale.
By the way, it was also said that in those days when Nicodemus was a sinner, he was not called Nicodemus at all, but quite something else—but this also has nothing to do with the robin’s tale.
“I loved old Nicodemus,” said the robin; “he fitted so perfectly into the silence of our forest. He was not more disturbing than the stag, the badger, the squirrel, and all the little birds who lived quite near the deep green lake, and certainly ever so much less so than the fearful ash-gray hawk with the yellow claws and cruel eyes who came to give us a fright from time to time. I always hated the hawk, and so did all my family, and so did the mice and the baby hares and most of the other birds. He was beautiful, but ruthless, and cared very little about other people’s feelings.
“Old Nicodemus was gentle, and he let us perch our nest quite near his hut; he even let us, when it was building time pluck more than one hair from his beautiful beard to line our home with. I think he was rather absent-minded and did not always quite understand what we were about, because afterward he would rub his chin as if a gnat had stung him, and he never scolded us at all.
“It was very dark in the hermit’s hut, so he preferred sitting out in the sunshine, near the lake. There were quantities of forget-me-nots at that spot, deliciously blue and fresh, and a little farther out a few big, big, white water lilies. Sometimes, especially in the evenings, the frogs made a tremendous row—quack, quack, quack!—an ugly noise, which they all started together and just as suddenly broke off, but old Nicodemus hardly seemed to hear it at all.
“Also in the moonlight he would come and sit out on the fallen tree trunk he had scooped out into a bowl-like seat. It was really rather a funny seat, quite round, and Father Nicodemus fitted into it like an egg in its cup.
“I never really found out what the old hermit fed on, but he often busied himself with a black pot hung over the fire from a long branch of the great beech-tree which shaded his hut. Also more than once I watched him gathering mushrooms, round, fat mushrooms with hard, white stems and velvety-gray heads, but those that were beautifully red, like my breast, he never picked, though he would often gather some tiny, little orangey ones which grew in big colonies among the moss.
“You would love our forest—it is like a prodigious cathedral. In autumn it is stupendously golden, and in the early spring, especially when the sun shines through the new leaves, it is so light-green that it is full of yellow light: that is the season I like best. Down near the lake there was a group of very old, almost black fir-trees; they made a wonderful background for the beeches in early spring, and for the sloes and hawthorns which bloom incredibly white.
“Yes, our forest is beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful, and solemn and still. It is a huge forest and goes for miles and miles and miles—
“Perhaps I’m speaking too much about the forest and not enough about Nicodemus, but I wanted you to see his surroundings; he fitted so well into them that you could hardly imagine the forest or the lake without him. Of course, he was horribly lonely—perhaps he wanted to be lonely, I think he did; but one day—”
The little robin paused in his tale. I always love it when the animals, or the North Wind, or the little river tell me things, but I never hurry them, afraid of hurting their feelings. I let them take their time, but I do ask them questions; they are quite ready, all of them, to answer, and it is prodigious what a lot they know. You know, of course, that the moon tells wonderful tales. I think the moon is the best story-teller of all, but then you can not always get hold of the moon. Besides, she is shy and proud, and when there are many clouds, you don’t see her at all. —Anyhow, I was pleased to talk to the robin. He was such a dear, important-looking little fellow, with his well-kept brown jacket and perfect crimson waistcoat.
“One day,” continued the robin, “Father Nicodemus heard some one crying near the lake—weeping, you know, not screaming.
“Of course, the good old hermit, accustomed to his solitude at first could not believe his ears. I flew off my branch and came and stood beside him. I put my head quite on one side—it is like that, that I hear best—old Nicodemus held his hand up to his ear, and he was blinking his eyes very hard, like one too quickly awakened from sleep.
“Suddenly there was a ripple in the water, some convulsion under the surface, then we saw something rise slowly so that huge circles ran ever so quickly over the face of the lake, becoming larger and larger till they touched the banks. Then again a sound of weeping, and there staring at us over the water, was a lovely little face with huge blue eyes filled with tears!
“Yes, I know it sounds incredible—but I’m not inventing. In the middle of the lake a small face surrounded by golden hair had risen out of the water—the face of a maiden, almost a child’s face, and yet not quite a child’s.
“ ‘Who are you?’ cried old Nicodemus. His voice was quite croaky; he had almost forgotten the sound of it, and it rang out large in our solitude.
“ ‘I’m Lulaloo,’ answered the unexpected apparition. ‘I’m a lake maiden, and I’m lost—I’ve been lost for a long time—I don’t even know how I got here!’ And again she began to weep.
“ ‘Don’t weep; it upsets me. Come a little nearer,’ urged the hermit. ‘I’m too old to swim, or I’d come to you.’
“ ‘I’m Lulaloo,’ repeated the lake maiden, ‘and I’ve got a fish’s tail—just like the mermaids—but I’m a fresh-water maid!’
“ ‘Come as near as you can to the bank,’ pleaded the hermit with insistence. I’ll slip into the water if I make another step.’
“And it was true. Nicodemus already had his toes in the lake.
“The little lake maiden wagged her tail with an anxious movement; she had a fish’s tail, just like the mermaids. I never knew that lake maidens existed, but sweet Lulaloo was a proof that they do.
“I’d never seen anything sweeter than her face. It was quite round, and her mouth was round, too, just like a ripe cherry. Her eyes, also, were as round as round could be, and they were encircled with thick, dark lashes which gave them a special brilliance. Above all, Lulaloo looked touchingly young and helpless and utterly lovable, I thought.
“Old Nicodemus thought so, too; his eagerness that she should come nearer the edge was both painful and comic. He stamped about, shifting from one foot to another, till the place he stood on became quite soft and sticky.
“With little, jerky movements, which crumpled the whole surface of the lake, and with many timid hesitations, Lulaloo came toward him. I do not think she had ever seen such a wee little old man in all her life, nor anybody with such a big, big beard.
“Anyhow, her eyes became rounder and rounder. I had never imagined that eyes could open so wide, and I felt my heart go thump-thump. I think from that very first moment I fell in love with her, as did Nicodemus.
“You must not be shocked at this. A hermit! —I know; but, you see, he was very, very old and quite holy now, whatever he may have been in his youth; and I was only a humble little robin with a bright-red waistcoat and a sleek, brown back.
“That was the beginning of the whole thing—of all old Nicodemus’ joy and all his pain, also—later . . . . my pain, too, you know—but I must try and tell the story properly, so that you shall understand.
“Lulaloo came close up to the bank, and when she had a real good look at the hermit’s face and right into his eyes, she understood that he could be trusted, and she told him all about herself, and they became oh! such fast friends, though they were indeed a queer couple.
“Lulaloo seldom came quite out of the water. There must have been something of the fish about her, because it was only on the rarest occasions that she could be enticed on to the bank. She generally remained floating among the water-lilies or half-hidden in the forget-me-nots and weeds near the bank.
“Sometimes she would come half out of the water. Father Nicodemus had made a little pier of boards, and he would sit upon this pier, his toes dangling into the water, and little Lulaloo would clasp her arms around his knees and lay her fair on his lap. I generally made a third, but they did not always see me, as I am dreadfully timid and modest, and the smallest movement can frighten me away. But later Lulaloo became very fond of me, too!
“I never saw anything as serenely happy as the eyes of old Nicodemus during that time. His dear old face was actually all shiny with joy, and his beard seemed bristling with some deep, inner satisfaction.
“Of course, a hermit has not a very busy life; he just lives all by himself, says his prayers over and over again, and meditates deeply upon the vanities of this world. It does not sound particularly useful. I quite agree with you on that point, but we are not much in a hurry in our forest. The seasons run slowly one into another: there are rain and sunshine, storms and frost, hot, sleepy days and those sad, charm-filled days when the dead leaves fall.
“There are days when all the birds sing together, and days of tremendous silence when you can almost hear the new buds burst open; there are also days when mist veils everything so mysteriously that you can hardly believe that the trees are real; everything becomes weird, shadows, and bodiless.
“And oh! the whiteness of our forest when snow lies on the ground. That is an unhappy season for us. We are cold, so cold, and food becomes scarce. The trees look like gigantic skeletons without their leaves, and the end of each fir-tree branch is like spread-out fingers covered with thick, white gloves!
“Perhaps after Lulaloo came into his life Father Nicodemus said fewer prayers and meditated less, but if one counted together all the prayers he had said since he lived all alone in the forest, there really were enough, I think to satisfy even the ‘most jealous God.’
“I heard Lulaloo tell her old friend that she was one of six sisters, that they had been very happy together, but that one day a dreadful thing had happened. All her five sisters had been caught in a big, big net thrown out by some fishermen across the whole breadth of the lake where they had their home.
“ ‘I don’t know,’ said Lulaloo, ‘if that net was put out to catch us or the big, muddy carps that lived at the bottom of the lake, but anyhow my sisters were caught. Only I escaped. I heard their sobbing cries—and their lovely voices raised in a chorus of distress.’
“Lulaloo also had a wonderful voice, and would sometimes swim about the middle of the lake, singing too beautifully for words, so beautifully that it always brought tears to the eyes of old Nicodemus. I saw them glistening, and I, too, felt all soft inside when I heard it.
“I missed hearing just how Lulaloo got into this little lake of ours. I suppose she told it to Nicodemus a day when I was busy about my own affairs, for I had a family to feed, and later on I had to give flying lessons to my young brood.
“Maybe there was some secret, underground communication between that bigger lake where Lulaloo had lived with her five sisters and our smaller lake, but of this I can not be sure. Some things always remain inexplicable to my bird-brain.
“Well, to take up my story again, the old solitary and the lake maiden became inseparable companions.
“First thing in the morning, the dear little old fellow would crawl out of his hut, shuffle down to the water’s edge, and clap his hands; then up would pop Lulaloo’s golden head, the drops of water rolling of her hair like so many diamonds, her round eyes all full of light, her rounded little face all dimpled with smiles.
“ ‘Good morning, Lulaloo,’ he would cry.
“ ‘Good morning!’ she would answer, and then teasingly ask him if he had said his prayers.
“ ‘Are you hungry, Lulaloo?’
“ ‘I am,’ she gaily admitted.
“ ‘I’ll bring you something good,’ and back he would shuffle to his hut.
“Whatever in the world he cooked for her I really don’t know, but there was a great crackling of sticks, then sounds of old Nicodemus blowing hard to make the flame flare under his black pot; often he would sprawl on all-fours to do so, and his beautiful, white beard would trail on the ground.
“The little dish of food which he finally carried out to his fresh-water companion looked deliciously appetizing, all white in the deep earthenware plate. Where did he get his provisions? I never found it. Perhaps, being such a holy little man, the angels brought them for him in the night, but I was generally asleep then and never saw anything!
"Are you hungry, Lulaloo?" "I am," she gaily admitted. "I'll bring you something good," promised Nicodemus, and the little dish he carried to her looked deliciously appetising.
“They really had a lot to say to each other, those two. I liked to watch them. Lulaloo seemed to have forgotten her troubles and wound each day new garlands of forget-me-nots for her head; and when the time for these was over, she made them out of any other sort of weed or flower she could lay hands upon. She was just as fond of smartening herself up as any human little girl. She need not have given herself all that trouble for old Nicodemus, because he had lost his heart to her anyhow—in fact, I think, ever since that lovable little creature had risen out of our lake there was no happier mortal on earth, old or young, king or pope, than my old hermit. Besides, there was also Lulaloo’s wonderful voice!
“When she sang, the whole forest listened, and all the animals which lived in the wood came down to the lake’s edge to listen to her: the stags with their hinds, the foxes and hares and lizards, even the snails and beetles, and yet you would never think that they were fond of listening to singing, would you?
“But Lulaloo’s singing had something quite special about it; it took hold of you and ran through you like sunshine, and then suddenly you felt cold all over and sad and a cast-out without any hope at all. Really it was both lovely and terrible, but there was also a note of fatality in it which seemed a warning of winter and storms even on the warmest day.
“I don’t know exactly how long that period of blissful friendship between the old man and the lake maiden lasted—it may have been one month, or two, or three—I only know that such an extraordinary amount of happiness was crammed into it for Nicodemus that all his former life seemed never to have existed at all. He lived in the perfect joy of the moment. But one day—”
The robin paused. It was always on those same words that he paused, and then I knew that something important was going to be revealed, and I listened with redoubled interest, though I had kept my ears well open all the time, as I loved to hear all about the old hermit and the lake maiden. I could quite well picture this oddly-assorted pair enjoying each other’s company; could especially see the picture of Lulaloo’s fair head nestling amongst the rough folds of the old hermit’s cassock. I am sure the stuff of it was rusty brown, like the bark of an old cedar tree, and that Lulaloo’s lovely tresses shown deliciously against the background. But one day…?
“The old hermit had wandered a little way into the forest to seek some herbs to flavor the evening’s soup, while Lulaloo was swimming backward and forward among the water-lilies, occasionally diving under the surface and reappearing at quite another place. This she was doing to amuse me. I always admired her swimming; one is always inclined to marvel at what one can not do oneself. Each time she reappeared, she would laugh mischievously and shake a thousand glistening drops from her hair. Suddenly I saw her pause in her game, and her big blue eyes became bigger and rounder than ever; she had heard something! Like all those of my kind, I have an extraordinarily keen hearing, but so absorbed had I been, watching Lulaloo’s antics, that for once she had heard first—or rather, she had seen—yes! seen some one riding through the forest toward our lake.
“I hopped upon a low branch, ready to take refuge higher up if necessary.
“Who was it?
“Oh! what a beautiful knight, and what a beautiful horse! All glistening he was, and his horse was as dark and shiny as ripe blackberries, and its trappings were marvelously blue, all embroidered with golden arrows and crosses. I had often heard that those glittering marvelous creatures existed, that kings united such men round their round tables, and that some were good and some were wicked, and all of them brave! But I had never expected to see one!
“This one was tall and slim, clad from head to foot in silver armor; he sat very upright, and on his helmet were two metal wings which sparkled as though lights were running all over them. He held a long spear in his hand; on the other arm was a shiny shield; it was marked by a crown and three arrows. I saw it all quite plainly, but I was certain that I was dreaming, and I think Lulaloo had the same feeling—anyhow she stared and stared as if never again would she be able to close her eyes.
“This glorious apparition advanced to the very edge of the water, till the horse’s fore-feet began to sink into the sticky ground, and a strong, manly voice called out,
“ ‘Are you real or are you a delusion?’
“Yes, he said exactly that, ‘Are you a delusion?’ I had never heard that expression before.
“Lulaloo, with a deliciously graceful gesture, lifted her long hair with both arms high up, so that it streamed down on both sides of her like a veil of light.
“ ‘I’m real,’ she called back. ‘But you, are you not a dream or a legend? When I shut my eyes and open them again, will you be gone?’ And Lulaloo did not seem to be frightened at all.
“ ‘I am real enough,’ laughed the knight; but my horse is thirsty, and so am I. Will you kindly permit us to drink of the deep green water of your lake?’
“ ‘It’s not my lake,’ answered Lulaloo. ‘It belongs to Father Nicodemus and to the forest and to my friends, the robin, the stag, the squirrel, the hares and the foxes, and to all the many big and little creatures who live about here. I’m only a guest; I’m only Lulaloo!’
“ ‘You are only an astonishing little beauty!’ laughed the knight. ‘If I get off my horse, will you come a little nearer and let me see the color of your eyes?’ That’s what the beautiful knight said, and that inquisitiveness of his was the beginning of all our trouble.”
The robin put his head on one side—if he had not been a bird I think he would have sighed, but birds don’t sigh. I can not exactly explain how he looked sad, but he did, and he repeated for the second time, “Yes the beginning of all our trouble.
“I suppose he liked the color of Lulaloo’s eyes—we all did, even the little frogs, who had not very decided opinions of their own; but even they were quite positive about their appreciation of Lulaloo’s eyes!
“But then, you see, Father Nicodemus and all of us, we belonged to the forest, but this shiny man was a stranger—he was riding, as we heard later on, to the castle of the King. Although he was so beautiful, I do wish he had taken another way, and especially poor old Nicodemus wished it—oh! he wished it with all his heart.
“I suppose there is not so very much difference between a lake maiden and a land maiden; they always will prefer a beautiful young knight in shining armor to an old man with a long white beard! Even if it’s a foolish thing to do, I suppose they are made that way, but it really was hard on Nicodemus. Lulaloo was the miracle of his old age; she was his last hope, his spring-time; she had become the very light he lived by, her voice to him was ecstasy, the blue of her eyes was his dearest treasure, the touch of her soft hands his recompense for the many prayers and fastings and for the long, lonely years he had spent in absolute solitude—yes, Lulaloo was his all! I do not know if the knight had that same feeling for her, but I know that Lulaloo, from the very first moment she saw him, gave him her heart—he became her all, as she was the hermit’s.
“Yes, that’s just it; it’s quite simple, but it was dreadfully sad for old Nicodemus!
“I can not, either, say just how long the knight remained encamped near our lake, but he seemed to forget all about his hurry to get to the King. It was long enough, anyhow, to make us all suffer terribly, because, while he was there, no one but this marvelous stranger existed for Lulaloo! No, not even Father Nicodemus; he was just good enough to become the humble servant who prepared food for them and then stole away, upon tired feet, deep into the forest, for he could not even bear to see them sitting close together, her head on the knight’s knees as formerly she had rested it on his worn, old cassock—you must know that old Nicodemus’ little pier had now become the seat of this St. George-like being who had stolen from us what we loved best.
“He did not carry her away, you know, but he had stolen her all the same; because she paid no attention to us at all any more, to none of us!
“And she sang for him—oh! how she sang!
“One evening, or rather, one night when the moon was full and was shining down in cascades of silver upon our lake till it looked like a sheet of ice, and even the smallest blade of grass threw an ink-black shadow, I heard Lulaloo singing, singing, as the nightingales sing in spring-time. I popped my head out of my nest, and there sat the knight on Nicodemus’ pier, and in his arms, with only her tail still in the water, lay Lulaloo, singing, singing—her love-song I suppose, like the nightingale—but with us birds it is he who sings to her!
The moon was shining down in cascades of silver. There sat the knight, and in his arms Lulaloo, singing her love-song.
“The moonlight was shining straight down on her face, and I got a real fright. Her face was quite, quite white, like the face of the dead, only her eyes were big and dark. He was gazing down upon her. Then I saw him bend his head, and I saw how their lips met… That stopped her song—but in the ensuing stillness I heard something like a groan, and turning my head, I saw old Nicodemus sitting in front of his hut, his face buried in his hands. Poor old Nicodemus!
“And so it went on and on; the knight had taken off his silver armor, and the under dress he wore was of the same beautiful blue as the trappings of his horse; the sort of blue that the sky has sometimes in the summer when there are no clouds at all.
“He had hobbled his horse and allowed it to wander about free, but it never went far. I suppose it was fond of its master.
“The knight was less shiny without his armor, but, although he brought such sadness to us all, I must confess that he was none the less beautiful in blue than in silver. He had wonderful dark-brown hair, and his features were as regular as those of a saint on a church-window. He had stuck his sword upright into the moss, and upon it he had hung his helmet and armor. At night, when the moon shone upon them, they looked horribly uncanny, like some misshapen figure cowering among the trees. Tall and slim, the lance stood beside it; the moon made its point glisten like a star. All this gave something strange and unaccustomed to our forest—especially that stunted, hunch-backed figure of the armor and helmet! I hated it; it made me shiver. It would have been preferable if the sword had stood alone; that at least would have been like a cross.”
The little bird made a long pause; it jumped about restlessly and for a while made pretence at picking up some little seeds scattered on the ground. I saw quite plainly that it was trying to gain time, and yet it did not fly away; it dreaded, and at the same time was eager, to continue its tale.
“All that was bad enough,” it said at length, “but the worst was when the knight left. Yes, I know you’ll wonder why. Well, because it broke Lulaloo’s heart, that’s why! And you’ll admit that that was the very saddest thing that could happen on earth—our little Lulaloo’s heart!
“The trees were just beginning to turn; some of them were already quite yellow, like golden visitors. Others had brown or red splotches amid their green, which seemed to have appeared suddenly overnight. When a rough gust of wind swept through the branches, these bright-colored leaves would be torn off, to float away like butterflies, to dance and whirl, then settle down on the ground, only to get up and to begin their mad dancing all over again.
“And oh! oh! one morning the knight put on his armor, his shiny silver armor, and oh! dear, how beautiful he was, and how our Lulaloo stared at him, both hands pressed to her poor little heart.
“ ‘Why have you put on your armor again?’ she asked, and her fish’s tail trembled in the water.
“ ‘I have tarried already too long, Lulaloo, longer than I ought to have done—forgetful of my knightly duties toward my King, who would have every right to punish me for my neglect. But I have been so happy, so happy, Lulaloo! Lulaloo, I love you!’
“I could not bear to see the expression of her poor little face; she was still staring at him with her huge, round eyes, and her hands were still upon her heart.
“ ‘You’re coming back?’ she asked. Her voice was tiny, tiny, as if strangled in her throat.
“ ‘Yes, I’ll come back, Lulaloo; fear not, I’ll come back!’
“ ‘As soon as the King gives me permission.’
“ ‘When will that be?’
“ ‘I’ll come back, Lulaloo,’ repeated the knight in armor.
“Still she stared at him. I think she knew even then that he would not come back…
“ ‘I have a fish’s tail,’ she said.
“Oh you ought to have heard the sadness of her voice as she said it.
“ ‘But I love you, Lulaloo,’ repeated the knight. ‘I love you!’ and he opened wide his arms that flashed in the sunshine like two rays of light.
“Lulaloo, with a little sob, came swimming, oh! so quickly, up to the shore. The knight knelt down, with one knee on the slippery pier, and again they kissed—oh! how they kissed! It made my heart go pitter-patter within me—the man almost lifting soft, delicate Lulaloo right out of the water. I wonder that his hard armor did not hurt her.
“Then on his magnificent black charger he mounted, and he rode away without once turning his head, the dry branches crackling under his horse’s heavy hoofs. Smaller and smaller he grew; his armor shone through the branches like a light; then suddenly he was to be seen no more. A little shudder passed through the forest; the branches trembled so that the trees seemed weeping their leaves.
“All this time old Father Nicodemus was sitting quite still in the shadow of his hut, with his eyes fixed upon Lulaloo’s face. He could not do anything, and he felt this—that was the pity of it!
“The autumn was miraculously golden that year. Nature was doing her best to try and cheer up our Lulaloo—and you ought to have seen old Nicodemus! Mother, father, sister, and nurse all rolled into one could not have been more tender, more gentle, more thoughtful, more tactful than the worn-out old hermit.
“They talked very little in those days; they were so silent that one could hear the dead leaves fall. Both of them, I know, were always watching and harkening for the one who was to come back; neither ever really believed that he would come back, and yet they were always watching. I, too, was continually on the alert; the smallest sound made us start. We kept imagining that we heard twigs snapping beneath a heavy horse’s tread…
“The forest was one orgy of color, reds, yellows, browns, and oranges; but you felt how delicate and ephemeral all the beauty was. There was something unreal about it.
“Lulaloo plaited no more wreaths for her head, but occasionally, with trembling fingers, the old hermit would wind her wonderful coronets of bright leaves and shining red berries. But Lulaloo very rarely wore them; they generally lay neglected, a patch of ardent color upon the little pier. Only once, because her old friend had gone as far as a very distant clearing in the forest to gather them for her, did she accept a wreath of pale autumn crocuses pressed on her forehead. How delicate and lovely they were, those crocuses, tapering over toward their stalks into creamy white. Each flower was like a slim wax goblet made for fairies to drink out of; they suited our Lulaloo wonderfully, and some, having been bent, drooped right into her eyes.
“She never sang any more now. Never again—oh! the sadness of it—did we hear her lift her rapturous voice; the knight must have carried it away with him. Paler and paler she grew, and sometimes I heard her whispering,
‘I have only a fish’s tail!’
“She never complained, but we saw that she was pining away.
“As though it were the simplest thing on earth, the hermit and the lake maiden had taken up again their old habit of sitting close together, he on the pier, she with her head in his lap, but there was no talking and laughing, as in those happy, happy days that were gone forever. He would only pass his hand, oh! so gently, again and again over her golden locks. The saddest of all was that both, I knew, felt the presence of the shiny knight sitting between them, separating them, and yet Lulaloo was dying of grief because he had gone away!
“Then all the leaves fell from the trees; they lay, a golden-russet carpet, on the ground. Beautiful? Yes, but with that particular sadness of things that are coming to an end. Then came rain and storm and death—yes…the death of Lulaloo!
“You see, she knew that her knight would not come back, so what was the good of trying to live? Everything was dying: all the leaves and every little flower also; so it was much easier to die with all the rest. She had only a fish’s tail, and old Nicodemus, alas! with all his love, meant nothing any more—only a pair of arms in which to die…
“He tried to keep her warm—I know he did—but he felt her getting colder and colder. And what could he do? He could not turn into a beautiful knight in shining armor. Could he? Even in the day when he was a great sinner, he could never have been so beautiful as Lulaloo’s stranger.
“So Lulaloo died, and all Father Nicodemus’ love could not keep her alive—not for himself, nor for us, nor for the lake and the forest who loved her as we did. She just died in his arms on a day when it was raining and when Father Nicodemus’ beard was all drenched and flat and depressed-looking. She died…and Nicodemus sat there and held her all cold in his arms, and the rain came more and more, till the old hermit was nothing but a heap of dripping misery, sitting like in a trance, with the dead little lake maiden in his arms—and she had only a fish’s tail!”
The little robin said nothing more for a long time, and I remained silent beside him, waiting…
“He buried her just in front of his hut,” continued the robin at last. “He had not to make a very big hole—she was so small—but all the same, it was a great effort to his weak old arms. I helped line her last resting-place with all the most beautiful leaves I could carry. I brought them one by one in my beak, and all my family, big and small, helped me, while old Nicodemus sat beside the big hole he had made, holding Lulaloo for a last time in his arms.
“Her face was as pale as on that night I had seen her, that moon-light night when the knight had kissed her.
“The scales on her tail were no longer shiny at all; they were quite faded; they had become as dull as lead.
“We worked very hard and made her bed as soft as we could, filling it with color. That morning the sun was shining, and when at last poor old Nicodemus parted with her, the grave he laid her in was full of red-golden light…
“The winter came early that year—we all suffered much, and our hearts being so heavy within us, we had less resistance against the cold.
“Nicodemus had but one thought left: that was to keep his little dead companion’s grave warm; so instead of going to his hut, he remained outside, sitting upon it. There was not much heat in him to keep anything warm, but that was just the idea he had.
“I do not think that he even said his prayers any more. Whenever I heard him murmur anything it was always the name of Lulaloo; but you will admit that it’s a sweet name: Lulaloo….
“All the animals of the forest used to come in turns to sit beside Nicodemus on Lulaloo’s grave: the foxes came and the hares, the badger, and once even the stag came, but he did not sit down, you know; they either lie or stand, and this grand fellow just stood there, quite close to old Nicodemus. He had beautiful big sad eyes, but the hermit never seemed to see anything any more, not even the stag…
“The snow came, and the frost… The snow covered up old Nicodemus, made a big, soft, white heap of him, with perfectly-rounded edges. He looked like a very beautifully-made snow-man. I don’t think he felt anything; he never moved. The snow turned to ice, and then he became an ice-man, and his great beard was a river of icicles—and when the sun shone, the ice was alive with a thousand rainbow colors.
“But old Father Nicodemus knew nothing about all those colors; he was sleeping inside that shiny covering; he did not want to know about anything any more, since Lulaloo was dead. And he did not; he was also dead, you see. But that must not make you sad; he did not want to be alive without Lulaloo…”
That is exactly how the little robin told me the tale about Father Nicodemus and about Lulaloo, the little lake maiden…who loved a knight…