A Fairy at School

A Nineteenth-Century Fairy Story of Old Willimantic

Rose Terry Cooke (1893)

     “What have you to say for yourself?” The voice was sweet, incisive, fine: it came from the proud lips of Titania, the Fifteenth, by the grace of Romance, queen of all the Western fairies. She sat in the heart of a great magnolia blossom, on a throne of state, rough with golden pollen, and canopied by purple anthers, and about her, rank on rank, stood the peers of her court, their wands reversed. Before her stood a tiny, graceful creature, with a sullen pout on her fair little face, her arms bound by a spider-web against her sides, her star gone, her wand broken, her long, gold hair unbound and floating to her feet. Very sulky, very pretty looked the fairy Idola as she stood before her peers, to be tried for sundry offences against the statutes of their realm.

     “What have you to say,” repeated the royal lady, “against these charges of uselessness, indolence, folly and mischief?”

     “I don’t love to work,” whined Idola.

     Just at this moment, with a shrill little laugh, a small brown gnome clambered out on the broad magnolia leaf, and hailed the Queen. He wore royal insignia, too; about his tiny black head blazed a circle of living light, diamonds from the mines his people knew and wrought, and a sceptre of whitest spar, tipped with a ruby, was poised in his right hand.

     “Ho! Ho!” he laughed, “I am amazed. Trying a fairy for laziness! My good sister, I thought that was your trade. What on earth do your tribe ever work at?”

     The Queen’s sea-green eyes blazed as he spoke. “King Jasper, do the gnomes do all that is done, think you? Who paints the pied daisies, and streaks the wild white violet with its purple throat-lines? Whose hosts go out to slaughter the evil worm and the destroying fly? Who pours into the flowers their stores of honey and perfume, the ministers of pleasure to the tribes of air and of men? Who light the fire-fly lamps and teach their bearers the midnight dances that sparkle in the fragrant dark of Summer evens? Who scatters the dew-pearls on lea and hill? What would earth be without its loveliness, its sweetness, its flowers and its fairies?”

     “Just as good for my purpose, Madam Queen; all this is flummery – stuff. There’s nothing solid but metal, nothing worth having but good, red gold and black iron, or blazing gems. Where’s your rose that isn’t faded beside my ruby, here; and this string of sapphires about my middle will glitter and shine while centuries of violets fade and die.”

     The Queen sighed. “I will not discuss the matter,” she said royally. “It is enough that Idola is useless; she loves better to curl and braid her long locks than to do her daily tasks; she hangs above the spring in the meadow, regarding herself in countless robes of one tinted petal after another, and her nights dancing and reveling in the ring, pinching my maidens, teasing my fays, till they know not whether they be my subjects or hers, and sleeping away from the dew-time and the dawn-time hidden deep in some folded bud, deaf to the summons of the bee or the shrill horn of the gnat. Truly, she is good for naught but to eat the dainty, drink the sweet, and enjoy the life of a butterfly, without intent or care or caution.”

     “She ought to be a mortal. I, who send out a sentinel and care-taker with every gem that leaves my mines, know well how these earth-folk follow the same path. Do you think these girls, whose ears and throats and hands are hung from my stores, with strings of jewels, are better than your lazy fairy, Madam Queen?”

     “Perhaps not, but they are not my subjects. Idola much receive and accept the punishment of the law breaker in Fairyland. She must be changed into some useful thing, and go through its life, conscious enough to suffer penalty, to learn her lesson, to know what all the new life means, and profit by it.”

     “Poor little soul,” squeaked the gnome. “Set one woman over another, even in Fairydom, and I pity the underling. But you know, Titania, I am in some sort, guardian of this silly thing: her fate once lay in my hands, and you gave me a right over her for the service I did her, when my infuriate loved-crazed brother fell upon her with his band and would have prisoned her in the tourmaline nodule.”

     “Yes, yes, I remember it well, brother Jasper, and I was about to summon you, when you appeared. I know you love not that women should have power; but Oberon made me Regent when he went to battle in the north, with the frost-friends, and since he rules it, I must reign; but what I ask of you is to watch with me, the long discipline which Idola must endure; see that in trusting her to the hands which shall administer it, I am not a tyrant, or unjust. Will you share my vigilance?”

     “Yes,” said the gnome. “But I warn you, Queen Titania, that if she be tortured instead of taught, I shall visit the ministers to your pleasure with such hindrance and torment as lies in my power, and that may be much.”

     “Yes, it will be more than you think, Jasper, for your people and your possessions work beneath all her new life, and impel its motions every hour.”

     Jasper merely bent his sceptre toward the Queen in consent. Then Titania rose from her gold-crusted throne, and pointing her star-tipped wand at Idola, said slowly: “I give thee over to the elements for thy help and the hand of man for they teaching. Go, return to the chrysalid; begin thy new living and forget thine old life; earth and air, water and fire shall try thee, before thou fallest into the land of man. Suffering shall lead thee into joy, and pain into blessing. Go, poor, useless, loveless fairy, and learn thy lesson.”

     As she spoke, the delicate, fairy-shape dwindled and shrank together, the blue eyes closed, the long tresses faded and blew away like dandelion ghosts; two brown concave shields fell from the hands of the fairies that guarded her on either side, and clasped her vanishing figure in a close, smooth shell, and Idola was nothing to the eye but a dark seed.

     In another moment, as it seemed to her dim consciousness, she fell into the soft bosom of the earth, and was buried in its dankness and darkness. Then she seemed to sleep, heavily and long, until one day the wall about her parted; the life within her started upward with courage and hope; she forced her way gently and slowly to the upper air, but she was fast in earth, her feet had no lightness, her shape no power to move, except as the wind swayed her two small leaflets. She was a plant now, and her duty was to grow; the sap ran fiercely to and fro in its channels, and beneath the maturer blossom a tiny green casket began to form, to grow, to swell, to turn dark in the brooding red sunshine of Autumn, and to fill with milk-white down and round black seeds like the very cell that had been Idola’s prison.

     And now with song and laughter came black hands, which stripped the milk-white flakes that were the blossom, the fruit, the end and intent of the fairy’s transformation, and packed them with millions of others in a deep sack; trampled on, crowded, no longer an isolated blossoming plant, but lost in the crush and contact. Idola duly knew that the heavy bale where she was imbedded was tossed about, rolled down steep slopes, hurled into vast caverns, driven by winged winds and hissing waters for days and nights in the bosom of some shrieking monster, till at last the bag was opened, and ungentle hands tore her soft long fibres from their rest, tossed them on a heap with myriad others, and then, with one strong clutch, spread them out upon a plain surface, having weighed the fairy flakes in a balance and meted out the just measure for their purpose. On and on the loose cotton fleece sped, urged by some hidden force, against a rolling mass of metal. Here the dust of travel, the specks of earth, the carelessly dropped shreds of the rude packers were shaken and dropped from the down, and strong blasts of air drove the soil and refuse far away. The elements again had her in their grasp, and from their work she came out a white curling mass.

     They then gathered up the fleece and bore it into a great room, beautiful to see. Light poured into its broad windows on every side, and cast gleams of radiant color from the stained panes above. Flowers, gay as the colors over them, grew in the hollow sills of the windows, and softened with their damp breath all the heated air that warmed this palace. Bands of silent motion played up and down through the floors, and a soft whirring, as of swarming bees, thrilled the fleeces as they piled up, waiting for the next lesson. Idola heard King Jasper’s cynic laugh, and the clear fine voice of Titania, beside her.

     “A pretty sort of place for an industrial school for fairies,” sniffed the King, “flowers and colors, and notions of all sorts.”

     “But, Brother Jasper, it is all for good ends. Look at those bright, earnest girls who guide the processes, and those quick-eyed men who superintend them. Shut them in dimness and foul air and they would be stupid as our enemies – the owls. Nor could their task be done in such an atmosphere as would dry the fibre of these fleeces at brittleness and fill each breath they drew with heated dust. Well did I inspect these things before I sent Idola to this teaching. But come further down; come into your own regions, and see the metal monster who impels these purring bands and flying wheels.”

     Now Jasper leaped and squeaked with joy. Here, dear to the gnome heart, a ponderous mass of shining metal, wrought in bars and cylinders, holding in its mighty breast a hot and throbbing heart of steam, played up and down with steady pulse and silent grandeur, sending waves of motion upward to every band and wheel above.

     The great, glittering arms showed not speck or stain. Their grand, noiseless play was like the sport of a Titan, and no ladies’ kerchief ever fell up and down on her heaving bosom more easily and silently than rose and fell the vast beams of this wonderful worker and guider.

     “This is good. This is glorious,” squeaked the gnome. “Good brass and iron and steel for me. Flowers are flummery. Give me the solid stuff.”

     Queen Titania laughed, and the keen-eyed man who kept watch and ward in this great cell moved a little, as if he heard a great hum in the air, but sharp as his sight was, he did not perceive either gnome or fairy, and they flitted from the door and up the stairs again, just in time to see the snowy fleece that held Idola’s long fibres fed into another hungry iron creature with prickly surface, that rolled the white wool about, tore it up and down, passed it into holes and troughs, and sent it out in bands like sheets of snowy pith, every fibre laid straight, every speck eliminated.

     And now the long, white bands were fed into still other open mouths, combed again, made even by recurring processes and over and over combed and recombed; the short fibres discarded and the long ones renewedly straightened till at last it left the machine, a thin and stainless film that, with one sobbing gasp, passed into a small trumpet’s mouth that silently condensed it to a smaller compass, twirled it about with one slight twist and passed the tender semblance of a cord on to a great spool, where it was silently wound up.

     All this time the carders and combers were tended by alert and active girls, dressed with simple neatness, glowing with health, and showing in every look intelligence and capacity.

     “Mighty nice girls to tend the educators,” said King Jasper with a nod and a wink. “These aren’t the sort that make show-cases of themselves for my gems. Where do they get ‘em, Madam Queen?”

     “They gather here for labor and the genii train them,” answered Titania. “Come with me, Jasper, and see where they find that intelligence that gives them skill.”

     She led the gnome into a wide and long hall, the sides set with cases full of books, the shelves above ornamented with busts, and at the convenient tables eager and intent faces reading papers, pamphlets, magazines – all strewed about for their use and pleasure. There were volumes by the hundred on those shelves, of all rational and amusing varieties, while above them looked down from the wall a benign and beautiful face, crowned with grey hair.

     “One of the genii – the best-beloved, who has gone up higher,” explained the Queen, as Jasper lowered his spar sceptre in involuntary homage to the noble countenance and good grey head of the picture.

     “But does it pay? Does it pay, Madam Queen?” squeaked Jasper. “The end of things is to pay. Your ideas and high flown sentiments are well enough for fairies, but men and gnomes work for pay.”

     “Yes, King Jasper, set your grasping soul at ease, all this pays. Work is best that is best done, and the hand is but the servant of the brain. The keener the master’s vision, the closer his intelligent oversight, the better does the slave fulfill his task. Stupidity, ignorance, blundering, ruin all things. When Idola leaves the school of industry, she will be the best of her kind, and be of use in the best way to the multitude, as well as to the few.”

     “New talk for fairies, seems to me,” jeered Jasper.

     “New times for us all, brother. The world moves, its fires and flowers blaze and bloom to nobler ends than in the old careless days. Wait! You have not seen all. Let us go back to the Room Beautiful and watch our little sister’s further education.”

     Spin, spin, spin. She was whirling now on the great spool. Mixing and mingling strands were wound, unwound, doubled, trebled, drawn out to the fineness of the spider’s dawn-spun web, which he trails along fence and bramble for the dew to string with diamond beads; and then, on other whirling bobbins, redoubled and retwisted, while it passed in and out through limpid water that the friction of its torment might not stain the continuity of the fibre when it had almost reached perfectness.

     Hard it was to the prisoned fairy to undergo such weariness and such drill; but as her flying flakes came into shape and took on graceful fitness, the endurance grew easier. On and on she spun from one spool to another, till at last the fine-drawn thread was reeled off into a long hank and laid on a table for inspection.

     And here her guardian left her, for Jasper had said to Titania, “She is to rest. But how about all these men, girls, and children? Is it all work and no play for them?”

     “Come,” said the Queen, and invisibly to the eye of man, they sped across the green lawn of the industrial palace, and followed a part of the throng, who also left those gates, homeward.

     Some went to great, swarming houses, full as a May hive; some to a group of quaint and pretty cottages; and while they rested in these gracious homes and repaired the toil and weariness of the day, Jasper stole into one house after another, and nodded his wise dark head in approval. They were the attendants in the palace, enjoying their evening leisure. Here was the tall, stately girl whom he had last seen holding the skein into which Idola’s snowy fibres had been gathered. There was the keen guardian of the great metal monster whose throbbing was now at rest.

     Back they sped across the clear rushing river, across the green lawns, across the track of a tiny, puffing, hurrying elf that sped from one great palace to another, with tireless speed, at its master’s bidding.

     “What’s that tea-kettle on wheels good for?” squeaked the gnome, still smarting a little under Titania’s scorn.

     “To fetch and carry, brother Jasper. Many a man’s time and toil are saved and supplemented by that tiny dragon.”

     But poor Idola. They found her fine spun fibre, tied and knotted in mystic, but significant fashion, plunged into a cauldron of boiling water, to take from her the last touch of earthly impurity and soften her strands to silky subtleness. “Will that be the last of her trial?” asked the gnome.

     “No, no; look here,” and in a deep underground chamber Jasper beheld great vats filled with red, brown, yellow, black liquids, wherein the heavy skeins were thrown to take the color proper to their uses.

     “Will she come from here the color of the roses she was rocked in, or the leaves that shaded her, or like those black hands that tended her young life of trial, Titania?”

     “Nothing shall stain our fairy, brother Jasper. She has yet a different test, for she is to come out white as Polar snows from her trouble.”

     And as she spoke, the gnome saw that knotted skein that was the prisoned fairy, drowned in a bath of some strange, evil-smelling mixture, and drawn out dripping, to be plunged again and again into fair water, drawn from a brimming river without, all unaware that from those pure waves a fairy prisoner had just arisen, spotless and pure.

     “But now what will be done to her? The trial is somewhat sharp, Titania.”

     “Sharp, but sure. Look here!”

     He saw the long, white skein dried now in a chamber, breathless for heat, reeled on a whirling frame, wound on another spindle, carried into another great, cheerful room full of girls, and placed on a softly running, wonderful little creature of iron that wound the delicate strand, fine as a hair, on a tiny spool of wood.

     “I must hurry back to my caverns, Titania. Let me go quickly. These mortals daunt me. What if they should send their wheels and whirrs and wondrous workers into my kingdom? Where would the gnome people be?”

     “But wait, wait, King Jasper, till our fairy has finished her trial.”

     They turned to see the fine-spun filament, winding with faultless accuracy on its spool, stopping the moment that it was full; then with myriads of other spools carried across the hall, fed into a trough where another curious mechanism labeled it on either end, and passed it onward to be approved and packed in neat boxes.

     “The trial is over,” said Titania with a sigh of relief.

     “But where is Idola?” asked the bewildered gnome.

     “Gone to be of use in the world,” said the Queen. “Her tiny chains may hold the Sunday frills and collars, finish the youth’s kerchief and the maiden’s mantel; fasten the bride’s delicate draperies; hem the matron’s snowy caps, and gather her rich laces; stitch the frail finery of the grave, and work into the hands of the mourner. When all her span is gone, when her last fibre has been used for the good of man, her lesson all learned, Idola will return to her fairy shape and semblance, and be a willing subject to our law once more. She will know and feel that to be of use is the divinest end and purpose of even a fairy’s living; that these bright intelligences and skilled hands that have guided her transformations, who so well and wisely rule and provide for their people, are the real worth of the real world, and if they gather to themselves your gold grains, brother Jasper, and make for themselves thereby homes of comfort and cheer, their work is none the less a blessing to those about them, a power and a light in the earth-mists, and fraught with higher purposes and mightier results than a fairy’s education.”

     “It’s a mighty good reform school for our girl, nevertheless,” said jasper, “and I may have a refractory gnome or two who’d be all the better for this teaching. Oh! you’ve never told me, Titania, by-the-way, what’s the name of this village, blessed with such an institution.”

     “Willimantic,” said Titania, as she sprung on the saddle of her waiting Luna moth and sped away through the sweet June air to Fairyland.