They had the very loveliest home you can imagine, with beautiful soft moss and grass to grow in, trees to form a cosy shelter from the wind, and a dear little babbling stream to water them.
There were lots of daffodils in this pretty place, and nobody ever discovered the nook to gather them. They rejoiced in the spring sunshine and gentle breezes, the greeting of the birds, and the musical chatter of the brook; then when their brief visit to the upper world was over they nestled happily down in their warm mossy beds and slept till April came again to wake them.
A little apart from the rest were four daffodils growing at the root of a gnarled oak tree, and one fine sunshiny morning three of them took it into their silly little heads that they were dull, the place was dull, the other daffodils were dull, and they wanted a change.
It was mainly the fault of the cuckoo, for he was a grumbling, mischief-making bird and used to spend a good deal of time talking to the daffodils. This particular spring he had taken up his abode in the oak tree, and was fond of talking of all the grand things he had seen, and a great many he had not seen, for the cuckoo is a bird of fine imagination; and at last, as I have already said, three of the daffodils made up their minds that to be a flower and live in a wood was a very dreadful thing, and not to be put up with any longer.
Now the cuckoo had told many strange tales about creatures with two legs and beautiful coloured leaves which grew in an odd way, and feathers only on their heads. They could not fly, but they could run about from place to place, and dance and sing; and at last the daffodils decided that they wished to be like these curious creatures, which the cuckoo called GIRLS.
Then there were sad times in that sweet little nook under the oak tree.
The naughty daffodils cried and quarrelled and bewailed their lot all day long, till they made themselves and everybody else extremely wretched. Their little sister shook her head at them, and scolded and said that for her part she was not meant to have legs; but it was all no use, the daffodils would not be quiet.
One day the Fairy Visitor who looked after the flowers in that part heard the silly blossoms crying, and stopped to ask what was the matter. When she heard the story she told them they were very foolish and discontented, and that the cuckoo was a most mischievous bird and liked to get people into trouble; but the daffodils would not listen. So knowing there is nothing so likely to cure silly flower as to give them their own silly way, she said- -"Very well, my dears, you want to be girls, and girls you shall be."
With that she waved her wand over the three daffodils and in a twinkle they were gone; in their places stood three tall pretty maidens dressed in soft yellow silk frocks with green stockings and shoes. For a minute they were too much astonished to speak, then clapping their hands they laughed and skipped for joy, and wanted to kiss the old fairy because they were so pleased at getting their own way; but the fairy would not look at them, and stooped over the little flower now growing all alone, saying kindly:-
"Well, little one, don't you want to be a pretty maiden, too?"
But the daffodil shook her head with great determination:-
"I don't want legs and I won't have legs. I was meant to be a flower and a flower I will be, but if you could keep that meddling, chattering cuckoo away from this tree for a time I should be much obliged."
And the fairy laughed and promised.
Meanwhile the three pretty maidens had set of hand in hand to seek their fortunes.
They went singing and dancing over the meadows in the soft afternoon sunshine, and thought how wise and clever they were to be girls instead of little unnoticed flowers growing in a wood.
Presently they came to a house and stopped to ask whether they could have a lodging for the night. There was no difficulty about it, for that is a happy country where there is no money and everything belongs to everybody, so the people of the house--an old man and woman--were delighted to see the beautiful maidens and made them heartily welcome, and the daffodils went to bed that night very happy and quite content with the result of their experiment. When they came to undress, however, they received a severe shock.
They were girls, real proper girls, they could chatter and eat and sleep, for the fairy was not one to do things by halves; but when they pulled off the dainty green shoes and stockings, they discovered that although they had the prettiest little legs and feet and toes in the world, they were quite green, the colour of daffodil leaves.
There wasn't anything said about a "dear, darling, kind old fairy" then, I can assure you.
The first daffodil said she was a wicked old witch. The second said she was a horrible old woman; and the third said she knew the fairy meant to pay them out, and she would like to scratch her. Then they all set to work arguing and quarrelling and crying like silly babies, when suddenly a familiar "Cuck-oo!" sounded in their ears, and they saw our old acquaintance perched on the window sill.
He looked at the six little green feet, and his eyes twinkled; but before he could speak the three angry maidens all began scolding him at once, for they were delighted to have somebody fresh to find fault with.
The cuckoo, being in some respects a philosopher, did not attempt to interrupt, but when they were quite exhausted he said he really could not see any reason for their distress. No one would ever wish to see their feet, and they could always wear stockings. He added that he had great news, and had come on purpose to bring it.
"The King of Silverland," he said, "is coming with all his court to hold high revel close to this place and celebrate the coming of age of his three sons. These princes were all born at once; and the king has decided to divide his kingdom into three equal parts and leave his sons to rule while he retires to his country place to study science. Now these Silver princes desire to marry three princesses, sisters born at once like themselves; but they are very hard to find, and the king is advertising everywhere for triplets. When I heard this I set off at once to tell you."
The three maidens were so much interested and excited that they forgot their troubles and began to sing.
The cuckoo was pleased with his success, but told them they must go to bed and to sleep, and he would fetch them in the morning to show them the way to the King of Silverland's court.
Next morning, although he arrived quite early, the maidens were up and ready for him, looking very pretty in their yellow frocks. The kind people of the house were quite sorry to part with their guests and begged them to come again, and the daffodil maidens set off in high spirits, following the cuckoo as he flew slowly ahead across the sunlit meadows. About noon they came in sight of the king's court. The gorgeous tents were of cloth of silver fastened with silver ropes; fountains were playing in the open spaces, and flags flying everywhere. The daffodils attracted a great deal of attention as they made their way, blushing and a little frightened, through the crowds of soldiers, court ladies and attendants. At the door of the largest and most gorgeous tent stood three beautiful princes dressed in silver.
When they saw the maidens approaching, hand in hand, they gave a cry of joy and ran forward to greet them.
"Dear beautiful princesses," they cried, "welcome to our court! May we ask your names and the country you come from?"
The cuckoo, perched on a tent-pole hard by, answered for them. "These are the Princesses Daffodil, daughters of the great King of Goldenland. They have come very many days' journey to be present at your revels."
Think of the cuckoo telling such a dreadful story and those naughty daffodils not contradicting him!
When the princes heard the cuckoo's words they were almost beside themselves with joy, for, as it happened, there was a real King of Goldenland (but the cuckoo did not know it), and he had three daughters of the same age whom the Silver princes were anxious to see. They dropped on one knee, kissed the maidens' hands very prettily, and then led them, blushing and delighted, into the royal tent.
The king was out, but the queen received the daffodils very graciously.
"Triplet," she said significantly, and it was the princes' turn to blush.
Then the young people visited all the beautiful tents, and the great ballroom where there was to be a ball that night, and the princes whispered to the maidens that they would dance with no one else. When they had tasted the cowslip wine from the fountains and eaten lots of wonderful sweets the daffodils declared they were quite tired; so the princes put them into hammocks with little monkeys to swing them, and the happy hours wore on until the evening.
The maidens had had a beautiful tent assigned to them by the queen, and they found lovely dresses of cloth of gold with shoes and stockings to match, all ready for them. They looked so beautiful when they were dressed that the colour of their feet did not seem to matter at all.
All that night they danced with the princes, and everyone was charmed with their beauty and grace, especially the king, who had not received a single answer to his advertisement. At the great banquet which followed the ball the betrothal of the Silver princes to the Golden princesses was solemnly announced, and their health drunk amid great rejoicing.
The dawn was red in the east before the festivities were over, and the daffodils went to bed happier than they had ever been before, happier than they ever would be again. A new and awful trouble of which they had never dreamt was about to befall them.
When the princes came to meet their betrothed next morning the maidens noticed that, although very affectionate, they were downcast and somewhat silent. At last, after a great deal of questioning, the reason came out. The king and queen had both had exactly the same curious dream, and this strange occurrence had upset their majesties very much. They both dreamt that one of the princesses, as they believed them to be, had six toes on each foot; and as no monstrosity could ever share the throne of Silverland they demanded to see the princesses' little feet with their own eyes, so as to be quite sure they all had only the right number of toes.
When the princes with many blushes broke this news to their lady- loves, they each gave a short loud scream and fainted.
Their lovers, of course, put this down to extreme modesty, and were much affected by such proper conduct; but when they succeeded in restoring them to consciousness they were not a little disturbed to find that the maidens positively refused to show their feet.
Imagine the grief of the poor princes! The king had said quite positively that not one of the princes should marry till he, the queen, and the councillors of the kingdom, had seen the bride's feet; and the maidens now declared that they would never never show them.
Matters were in this awkward state when the cuckoo appeared on the scene. He had as usual contrived to find out what was going on, and now announced that he had a private message for the Golden princesses, if they would take him to their tent.
When they were alone the daffodils began to cry their eyes out, and the cuckoo to try and comfort them.
"Green feet," he said, "are very uncommon and would no doubt be welcomed as a great rarity."
But the maidens sobbed on.
"The princes love you so much they will think your little feet the most beautiful colour in the world."
But they would not listen.
"I heard the king and queen say that green was their favourite colour," he remarked next.
This was pure invention on the cuckoo's part, but the daffodils were somewhat cheered, and after a great deal of talking the cuckoo persuaded them to give in and consent to show their feet, as they could not possibly marry the princes without. Besides, perhaps when the king found their toes were all right he would think the colour rather ornamental than otherwise. So the princes were told to their great joy that the princesses had consented to show their feet; and the king and queen, on being informed, summoned a Cabinet Council for the next morning so that their ministers might be present at the counting of the princesses' toes.
Meantime the real Goldenland princesses had arrived near the camp; but as they and their suite were very tired they resolved not to visit the Silver king till the next day, and commanded that no one should mention their arrival.
That night the daffodils never slept, for fear once more took possession of them. They scrubbed their feet, but the fairy's dye would not come off; then they scraped them, but that hurt very much and did no good. Finally they chalked them, but that was no use at all; so they had to give it up in despair, and hope for the best.
Next morning two of the court ushers came to escort them to the Cabinet Council. Poor daffodils! Their eyes were red with weeping, and they could scarcely stand for terror when they entered the tent where the examination was to take place.
In the middle on a raised dais sat the king and queen, on their right stood the three princes, on their left the councillors in their robes of state. Three chairs were placed for the maidens, and they were politely but firmly requested to take off their shoes and stockings.
Blushing crimson the daffodils slowly and unwillingly took off their shoes. Then they cried a little and said they really truly couldn't, but it was no use, and the stockings had to follow, and six little green feet were exposed to view.
"They wear two pairs, I see," said the queen, who was a little short-sighted. "Very sensible, I'm sure, in this damp place. Take off the other pair, my dears."
But the daffodils only hung their heads and wept.
Then one of the councillors cried out, in a horrified tone--"Their feet are green! They are monstrosities!" and at that very moment heralds were heard outside announcing the arrival of the Princesses of Goldenland.
Now the king was a shrewd old gentleman, and the true state of affairs suddenly flashed upon him. "They are impostors!" he cried, rising to his feet, "turn the deceitful minxes out."
At that the maidens rose and fled. They never stopped for shoes or stockings, but ran like hunted hares out of the tent across the fields; and when the people saw their little green feet a great shout of laughter went up, in which the king and the princes joined. As for the daffodils, they ran and ran and ran, not daring even to look behind them, till they suddenly stopped for want of breath; and where do you think they were? Why in their old home under the oak tree. Most of the daffodils had gone to sleep, but a few were left, and among them their little sister. At her side stood the fairy.
"Well, my dears, do you like being girls?" and there was a twinkle in her eye as she spoke.
But the daffodils were sobbing too bitterly to answer, and the fairy had a kind heart and did not press the question. "Would you be content to be daffodils again?" she asked, and smiled at them sweetly.
They murmured a thankful "Yes"; the fairy waved her wand, and in a trice the maidens were gone and there were three more flowers, very pale faded ones, growing under the gnarled oak tree. Poor discontented daffodils! They had to pay a heavy price for their folly.
The cuckoo came back time after time, and never wearied of teasing them; and their little sister made many very true but disagreeable remarks on the extreme silliness of being discontented with one's surroundings.
Perhaps by next spring things may be better; but of this you may be quite sure, no amount of cuckoos will ever persuade the flowers in that nook to be anything but what nature intended them to be--sweet little daffodils.