I had been at work but a few moments, when I heard small voices near me, and presently the Little Ones, as I soon found they called themselves, came creeping out from among the tiny trees that like brushwood filled the spaces between the big ones. In a minute there were scores and scores about me. I made signs that the giants had but just left me, and were not far off; but they laughed, and told me the wind was quite clean.
"They are too blind to see us," they said, and laughed like a multitude of sheep-bells.
"Do you like that rope about your ankles?" asked one.
"I want them to think I cannot take it off," I replied.
"They can scarcely see their own feet!" he rejoined. "Walk with short steps and they will think the rope is all right."
As he spoke, he danced with merriment.
One of the bigger girls got down on her knees to untie the clumsy knot. I smiled, thinking those pretty fingers could do nothing with it, but in a moment it was loose.
They then made me sit down, and fed me with delicious little fruits; after which the smaller of them began to play with me in the wildest fashion, so that it was impossible for me to resume my work. When the first grew tired, others took their places, and this went on until the sun was setting, and heavy steps were heard approaching. The little people started from me, and I made haste to put the rope round my ankles.
"We must have a care," said the girl who had freed me; "a crush of one of their horrid stumpy feet might kill a very little one!"
"Can they not perceive you at all then?"
"They might see something move; and if the children were in a heap on the top of you, as they were a moment ago, it would be terrible; for they hate every live thing but themselves.--Not that they are much alive either!"
She whistled like a bird. The next instant not one of them was to be seen or heard, and the girl herself had disappeared.
It was my master, as doubtless he counted himself, come to take me home. He freed my ankles, and dragged me to the door of his hut; there he threw me on the ground, again tied my feet, gave me a kick, and left me.
Now I might at once have made my escape; but at length I had friends, and could not think of leaving them. They were so charming, so full of winsome ways, that I must see more of them! I must know them better! "To-morrow," I said to myself with delight, "I shall see them again!" But from the moment there was silence in the huts until I fell asleep, I heard them whispering all about me, and knew that I was lovingly watched by a multitude. After that, I think they hardly ever left me quite alone.
I did not come to know the giants at all, and I believe there was scarcely anything in them to know. They never became in the least friendly, but they were much too stupid to invent cruelties. Often I avoided a bad kick by catching the foot and giving its owner a fall, upon which he never, on that occasion, renewed his attempt.
But the little people were constantly doing and saying things that pleased, often things that surprised me. Every day I grew more loath to leave them. While I was at work, they would keep coming and going, amusing and delighting me, and taking all the misery, and much of the weariness out of my monotonous toil. Very soon I loved them more than I can tell. They did not know much, but they were very wise, and seemed capable of learning anything. I had no bed save the bare ground, but almost as often as I woke, it was in a nest of children--one or other of them in my arms, though which I seldom could tell until the light came, for they ordered the succession among themselves. When one crept into my bosom, unconsciously I clasped him there, and the rest lay close around me, the smaller nearer. It is hardly necessary to say that I did not suffer much from the nightly cold! The first thing they did in the morning, and the last before sunset, was to bring the good giant plenty to eat.
One morning I was surprised on waking to find myself alone. As I came to my senses, however, I heard subdued sounds of approach, and presently the girl already mentioned, the tallest and gravest of the community, and regarded by all as their mother, appeared from the wood, followed by the multitude in jubilation manifest--but silent lest they should rouse the sleeping giant at whose door I lay. She carried a boy-baby in her arms: hitherto a girl-baby, apparently about a year old, had been the youngest. Three of the bigger girls were her nurses, but they shared their treasure with all the rest. Among the Little Ones, dolls were unknown; the bigger had the smaller, and the smaller the still less, to tend and play with.
Lona came to me and laid the infant in my arms. The baby opened his eyes and looked at me, closed them again, and fell asleep.
"He loves you already!" said the girl.
"Where did you find him?" I asked.
"In the wood, of course," she answered, her eyes beaming with delight, "--where we always find them. Isn't he a beauty? We've been out all night looking for him. Sometimes it is not easy to find!"
"How do you know when there is one to find?" I asked.
"I cannot tell," she replied. "Every one makes haste to tell the other, but we never find out who told first. Sometimes I think one must have said it asleep, and another heard it half-awake. When there is a baby in the wood, no one can stop to ask questions; and when we have found it, then it is too late."
"Do more boy or girl babies come to the wood?"
"They don't come to the wood; we go to the wood and find them."
"Are there more boys or girls of you now?"
I had found that to ask precisely the same question twice, made them knit their brows.
"I do not know," she answered.
"You can count them, surely!"
"We never do that. We shouldn't like to be counted."
"It wouldn't be smooth. We would rather not know."
"Where do the babies come from first?"
"From the wood--always. There is no other place they can come from."
She knew where they came from last, and thought nothing else was to be known about their advent.
"How often do you find one?"
"Such a happy thing takes all the glad we've got, and we forget the last time. You too are glad to have him--are you not, good giant?"
"Yes, indeed, I am!" I answered. "But how do you feed him?"
"I will show you," she rejoined, and went away--to return directly with two or three ripe little plums. She put one to the baby's lips.
"He would open his mouth if he were awake," she said, and took him in her arms.
She squeezed a drop to the surface, and again held the fruit to the baby's lips. Without waking he began at once to suck it, and she went on slowly squeezing until nothing but skin and stone were left.
"There!" she cried, in a tone of gentle triumph. "A big-apple world it would be with nothing for the babies! We wouldn't stop in it--would we, darling? We would leave it to the bad giants!"
"But what if you let the stone into the baby's mouth when you were feeding him?" I said.
"No mother would do that," she replied. "I shouldn't be fit to have a baby!"
I thought what a lovely woman she would grow. But what became of them when they grew up? Where did they go? That brought me again to the question--where did they come from first?
"Will you tell me where you lived before?" I said.
"Here," she replied.
"Have you NEVER lived anywhere else?" I ventured.
"Never. We all came from the wood. Some think we dropped out of the trees."
"How is it there are so many of you quite little?"
"I don't understand. Some are less and some are bigger. I am very big."
"Baby will grow bigger, won't he?"
"Of course he will!"
"And will you grow bigger?"
"I don't think so. I hope not. I am the biggest. It frightens me sometimes."
"Why should it frighten you?"
She gave me no answer.
"How old are you?" I resumed.
"I do not know what you mean. We are all just that."
"How big will the baby grow?"
"I cannot tell.--Some," she added, with a trouble in her voice, "begin to grow after we think they have stopped.--That is a frightful thing. We don't talk about it!"
"What makes it frightful?"
She was silent for a moment, then answered,
"We fear they may be beginning to grow giants."
"Why should you fear that?"
"Because it is so terrible.--I don't want to talk about it!"
She pressed the baby to her bosom with such an anxious look that I dared not further question her.
Before long I began to perceive in two or three of the smaller children some traces of greed and selfishness, and noted that the bigger girls cast on these a not infrequent glance of anxiety.
None of them put a hand to my work: they would do nothing for the giants! But they never relaxed their loving ministrations to me. They would sing to me, one after another, for hours; climb the tree to reach my mouth and pop fruit into it with their dainty little fingers; and they kept constant watch against the approach of a giant.
Sometimes they would sit and tell me stories--mostly very childish, and often seeming to mean hardly anything. Now and then they would call a general assembly to amuse me. On one such occasion a moody little fellow sang me a strange crooning song, with a refrain so pathetic that, although unintelligible to me, it caused the tears to run down my face. This phenomenon made those who saw it regard me with much perplexity. Then first I bethought myself that I had not once, in that world, looked on water, falling or lying or running. Plenty there had been in some long vanished age--that was plain enough--but the Little Ones had never seen any before they saw my tears! They had, nevertheless, it seemed, some dim, instinctive perception of their origin; for a very small child went up to the singer, shook his clenched pud in his face, and said something like this: "'Ou skeeze ze juice out of ze good giant's seeberries! Bad giant!"
"How is it," I said one day to Lona, as she sat with the baby in her arms at the foot of my tree, "that I never see any children among the giants?"
She stared a little, as if looking in vain for some sense in the question, then replied,
"They are giants; there are no little ones."
"Have they never any children?" I asked.
"No; there are never any in the wood for them. They do not love them. If they saw ours, they would stamp them."
"Is there always the same number of the giants then? I thought, before I had time to know better, that they were your fathers and mothers."
She burst into the merriest laughter, and said,
"No, good giant; WE are THEIR firsters."
But as she said it, the merriment died out of her, and she looked scared.
I stopped working, and gazed at her, bewildered.
"How CAN that be?" I exclaimed.
"I do not say; I do not understand," she answered. "But we were here and they not. They go from us. I am sorry, but we cannot help it. THEY could have helped it."
"How long have you been here?" I asked, more and more puzzled--in the hope of some side-light on the matter.
"Always, I think," she replied. "I think somebody made us always."
I turned to my scraping.
She saw I did not understand.
"The giants were not made always," she resumed. "If a Little One doesn't care, he grows greedy, and then lazy, and then big, and then stupid, and then bad. The dull creatures don't know that they come from us. Very few of them believe we are anywhere. They say NONSENSE!--Look at little Blunty: he is eating one of their apples! He will be the next! Oh! oh! he will soon be big and bad and ugly, and not know it!"
The child stood by himself a little way off, eating an apple nearly as big as his head. I had often thought he did not look so good as the rest; now he looked disgusting.
"I will take the horrid thing from him!" I cried.
"It is no use," she answered sadly. "We have done all we can, and it is too late! We were afraid he was growing, for he would not believe anything told him; but when he refused to share his berries, and said he had gathered them for himself, then we knew it! He is a glutton, and there is no hope of him.--It makes me sick to see him eat!"
"Could not some of the boys watch him, and not let him touch the poisonous things?"
"He may have them if he will: it is all one--to eat the apples, and to be a boy that would eat them if he could. No; he must go to the giants! He belongs to them. You can see how much bigger he is than when first you came! He is bigger since yesterday."
"He is as like that hideous green lump in his hand as boy could look!"
"It suits what he is making himself."
"His head and it might change places!"
"Perhaps they do!"
"Does he want to be a giant?"
"He hates the giants, but he is making himself one all the same: he likes their apples! Oh baby, baby, he was just such a darling as you when we found him!"
"He will be very miserable when he finds himself a giant!"
"Oh, no; he will like it well enough! That is the worst of it."
"Will he hate the Little Ones?"
"He will be like the rest; he will not remember us--most likely will not believe there are Little Ones. He will not care; he will eat his apples."
"Do tell me how it will come about. I understand your world so little! I come from a world where everything is different."
"I do not know about WORLD. What is it? What more but a word in your beautiful big mouth?--That makes it something!"
"Never mind about the word; tell me what next will happen to Blunty."
"He will wake one morning and find himself a giant--not like you, good giant, but like any other bad giant. You will hardly know him, but I will tell you which. He will think he has been a giant always, and will not know you, or any of us. The giants have lost themselves, Peony says, and that is why they never smile. I wonder whether they are not glad because they are bad, or bad because they are not glad. But they can't be glad when they have no babies! I wonder what BAD means, good giant!"
"I wish I knew no more about it than you!" I returned. "But I try to be good, and mean to keep on trying."
"So do I--and that is how I know you are good."
A long pause followed.
"Then you do not know where the babies come from into the wood?" I said, making one attempt more.
"There is nothing to know there," she answered. "They are in the wood; they grow there."
"Then how is it you never find one before it is quite grown?" I asked.
She knitted her brows and was silent a moment:
"They're not there till they're finished," she said.
"It is a pity the little sillies can't speak till they've forgotten everything they had to tell!" I remarked.
"Little Tolma, the last before this baby, looked as if she had something to tell, when I found her under a beech-tree, sucking her thumb, but she hadn't. She only looked up at me--oh, so sweetly! SHE will never go bad and grow big! When they begin to grow big they care for nothing but bigness; and when they cannot grow any bigger, they try to grow fatter. The bad giants are very proud of being fat."
"So they are in my world," I said; "only they do not say FAT there, they say RICH."
"In one of their houses," continued Lona, "sits the biggest and fattest of them--so proud that nobody can see him; and the giants go to his house at certain times, and call out to him, and tell him how fat he is, and beg him to make them strong to eat more and grow fat like him."
The rumour at length reached my ears that Blunty had vanished. I saw a few grave faces among the bigger ones, but he did not seem to be much missed.
The next morning Lona came to me and whispered,
"Look! look there--by that quince-tree: that is the giant that was Blunty!--Would you have known him?"
"Never," I answered. "--But now you tell me, I could fancy it might be Blunty staring through a fog! He DOES look stupid!"
"He is for ever eating those apples now!" she said. "That is what comes of Little Ones that WON'T be little!"
"They call it growing-up in my world!" I said to myself. "If only she would teach me to grow the other way, and become a Little One!--Shall I ever be able to laugh like them?"
I had had the chance, and had flung it from me! Blunty and I were alike! He did not know his loss, and I had to be taught mine!