See also Fairies, elves
Our room is pleasant; the balcony door is open, and we can look out onto a large square. Down there is spring, which has come to Paris, having arrived at the same time we did, in the form of a big, young chestnut tree with delicate leaves beginning to open. How much more richly that tree is dressed in the beauty of spring than the other trees on the square! One of them has stepped out of the row of living trees and lies on the ground with its roots torn up. Where that tree stood the young chestnut will be planted, and there it will grow.
It is still standing high up on the heavy wagon that brought it to Paris this morning from many miles out in the country. For years it had stood out there, close to a mighty oak, under which the pious old pastor often used to sit and tell his stories to the listening children. Of course, the young chestnut tree had also listened.
The Dryad that lived in this tree was then but a child; she could remember way back when the chestnut tree was so small it could hardly peep over the tall grass blades and ferns. These were then as large as they ever would be; but the tree grew bigger every year, drinking in air and sunshine, dew and rain; the powerful winds shook it and bent it back and forth, which was an important part of its education.
"Hurry, all you birds, fly there and see it; then come back and tell me about it!" was the prayer of the Dryad.
Her longing grew until it became a great desire; it became the one thought of her life. And then . . .
In the silent, solemn night the full moon was shining, and from its face the Dryad saw a spark come forth, as bright as a falling star, and fall to the foot of the tree, whose branches shivered as if shaken by a tempest – and then a mighty, shining figure stood there. It spoke with a tender voice, and yet as powerfully as the judgment- day trumpet that kisses to life and calls to judgment.
"You shall go to the city of enchantments! There you shall take root and enjoy the air and the sunshine, but your life shall be shortened. The long procession of years that awaited you here in the open country will shrink to a small number. Poor Dryad, it will be your ruin! Your longing will grow and your great desire and craving will increase until the tree itself will be a prison to you. You will leave your shelter and change your nature; you will fly forth to mingle with human beings, and then your years will shrink to half of a May fly's lifetime – to one night only! The flame of your life will be blown out. The leaves of the tree will wither and blow away, never to return."
The sun shone down on the Champ de Mars' Fata Morgana, shone over mighty Paris, over the little square with its trees and its rippling fountain, and between the high houses, where the chestnut tree stood, its branches now drooping, its leaves withered, the tree that only yesterday had stood as erect and fresh as spring itself. It was dead now, said the people, for the Dryad had left it, had passed away like the clouds – where, no one knew. On the ground there lay a withered, crumpled chestnut blossom. All the holy water of the church could not recall it to life. Human feet soon stepped on it and crushed it into the dust.
All this has happened and been experienced. We ourselves have seen it, at the Paris Exposition in 1867, in our time, the great and wonderful time of fairy tales.
Among the village children there was a little girl so ragged and so poor, but very pretty to look upon. She was always singing and laughing, and often tied red flowers in her black hair.
"Don't go to Paris!" said the old pastor. "Poor child, if you go there it will be the ruin of you!"
And yet she went. The Dryad often thought of her, for they had both had the same desire and yearning to see the great city.
Spring came, and then summer; autumn came, and then winter. A couple of years went by.
The Dryad's tree was bearing its first chestnut blossoms, and the birds chirped around them in the bright sunlight. A noble lady came driving along the road in a grand carriage. She herself was driving the beautiful and spirited horses, with a smartly dressed little groom sitting behind her. The Dryad recognized her; the old pastor knew her. He shook his head and said sadly, "You did go there, and it proved your ruin, poor Marie!"
"She, poor?" thought the Dryad. "No! What a change! She's dressed like a duchess; that's what she got in the city of enchantment. Oh, if only I were there in all that light and splendor!
Of course, everything around her knew where she was going. It seemed to her that every tree she passed stretched its branches toward her and begged, "Take me with you! Take me with you!" In every tree there lived a yearning dryad.
Where is that which I've heard so much about, which I have known and longed for, the reason I wanted to come here? What have I got – gained, found? I yearn as much as I did before. I know the life I want. I want to go out among the living people and mingle with them; I want to fly like the birds and see and feel and become like a human being! I would rather really live for half a day than spend a lifetime of years in daily idleness and languor, becoming sick, sinking, falling like dew in the meadow, and then disappearing! I want to sail like the clouds, bathe in the sun of life, look down on everything below as the clouds do, and then disappear as they do – where, no one knows!"
This was the sigh of the Dryad, going aloft as a prayer.
"Take from me all my years of life and grant me but half of a May fly's life! Free me from my prison; give me human life and human happiness, though it be but for a fleeting moment, for only this one night, and then punish me, if you wish, for my longing for life! Free me, even if this dwelling of mine, this fresh young tree, wither, be cut down, turned to ashes, and blown away by the winds!"
There was a rustling among the boughs of the tree, and a strange sensation came over it. Every leaf shivered, and fiery sparks seemed to shoot forth from them. A gust of wind shook the crown of the tree. And then there came forth a feminine form – the Dryad herself! In the same instant she found herself beneath the green boughs, rich with leaves and lit by gaslight from all sides. She was as young and beautiful as poor Marie, to whom one had said, "The great city will be your ruin!"
"Kiss me, you cooling breeze! Give me but a single kiss!"
"Soon the sun will kiss the clouds red," said the wind, "and then you will be among the dead, gone as all this glory will be gone before the year is out. And then I can once more play with the light, loose sand in this place and blow the dust over the earth and into the air. Dust! Nothing but dust!"
The Dryad felt a terror creep over her, like a woman who, bleeding to death in the bath from a severed artery, still wishes to live, while her strength gradually leaves her from loss of blood. She rose, staggered a few steps forward, and then sank again before a little church. The door was open; a light burned on the altar, and the organ sounded. What music! The Dryad never had heard such tones before, though she seemed to hear familiar voices; they came from the depths of the great heart of creation. She thought she heard the whistling of the old oak tree; she thought she heard the old pastor speaking of the great deeds of famous men and of what a creation of God could and might give to the coming ages and thus win himself eternal life. The tones of the organ swelled and rang out; they spoke in song:
"Your desire and longing tore your roots from the place God had given them. That became your ruin, poor Dryad!"