Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Jean Ingelow > Text of Water-Lily

A short story by Jean Ingelow

The Water-Lily

Title:     The Water-Lily
Author: Jean Ingelow [More Titles by Ingelow]

My father and mother were gone out for the day, and had left me charge of the children. It was very hot, and they kept up a continual fidget. I bore it patiently for some time, for children will be restless in hot weather, but at length I requested that they would get something to do.

"Why don't you work, or paint, or read, Hatty?" I demanded of my little sister.

"I'm tired of always grounding those swans," said Harriet, "and my crochet is so difficult; I seem to do it quite right, and yet it comes wrong."

"Then why don't you write your diary?"

"Oh, because Charlie won't write his."

"A very bad reason; his not writing leaves you the more to say; besides, I thought you promised mamma you would persevere if she would give you a book."

"And so we did for a long time," said Charlie; "why, I wrote pages and pages of mine. Look here!"

So saying, he produced a copy-book with a marbled cover, and showed me that it was about half-full of writing in large text.

"If you wrote all that yourself, I should think you might write more."

"Oh, but I am so tired of it, and besides, this is such a very hot day."

"I know that, and to have you leaning on my knee makes me no cooler; but I have something for you to do just now, which I think you will like."

"Oh, what is it, sister? May we both do it?"

"Yes, if you like. You may go into the field to gardener, and ask him to get me a water-lily out of the stream; I want one to finish my sketch with."

"You really do want one? you are not pretending, just to give us something to do?"

"No, I really want one; you see these in the glass begin to wither."'

"Make haste then, Hatty. Sister, you shall have the very best lily we can find."

Thereupon they ran off, leaving me to inspect the diary. Its first page was garnished with the resemblance of a large swan with curly wings; from his beak proceeded the owner's name in full, and underneath were his lucubrations. The first few pages ran as follows:

"_Wednesday._ To-day mamma said, as all the others were writing diaries, I might do one too if I liked, so I said I should, and I shall write it every day till I am grown up. I did a long division sum, a very hard one. We dined early to-day, and we had a boiled leg of mutton and an apple pudding, but I shall not say another time what we had for dinner, because I shall have plenty of other things to say."

"_Friday._ Gardener has been mending the palings; he gave me five nails; they were very good ones, such as I like. He said if any boy that he knew was to pull nails out of his wall trees when _he'd_ done them, he should certainly tell their papa of them. Aunt Fanny came and took away Sophy to spend a fortnight. Uncle Tom came too; he said I was a fine boy, and gave me a shilling."

"_Saturday._ My half-holiday. Hurrah! I went and bought two hoop-sticks for me and Hatty; they cost fourpence each."

"_Sunday._ On Sunday I went to church."

"_Monday._ To-day I had a cold, and after school I was just going to bowl my hoop when Orris said to mamma it rained, and ma said she couldn't think of my going out in the rain, and so I couldn't go. After that Orris called me to come into her room, and gave me a fourpenny piece and two pictures, so now I've got eightpence. Orris is very kind, but sometimes she thinks she ought to command, because she is the eldest."

"_Tuesday._ I shall not write my diary every day, unless I like."

"_Wednesday._ I dined late with papa and mamma and the elder ones: it rained. If the others won't tell me what to say, of course I don't know."

"_Friday._ I went to the shop and bought some tin _tax_. I don't like writing diaries particularly. It will be a good thing to leave off till the holidays."

I had only got so far when the children ran in with a beautiful water-lily. They had scarcely deposited it in my hand when they both exclaimed in a breath:

"And what are we to do now?"

"You may bring me a glass of water to put it in."

This was soon done, and then the question was repeated. I saw there was but one chance of quiet, so I resolved to make a virtue of necessity, and say that if they would each immediately begin some ordinary occupation, I would tell them a story. What child was ever proof against a story?

"But we are to choose what it shall be about?" said one of them.


"Oh, never mind why. Shall we tell her, Harriet? Well, it's because you tell cheating stories: you say, 'I'll tell you a story about a girl, or a cottage, or a thimble, or anything you like,' and it really is something about us."

"You may choose, then."

"Then it shall be about the lily we got for you."

"Give me ten minutes to think about it, and collect your needles and pencils."

Upon this they brought together a heap of articles which they were not at all likely to want, and after altering the position of their stools and discussing what they would do, and changing their minds many times, declared at length that they were quite ready.

"Now begin, please. _There was once--_" So I accordingly began. "There was once a boy who was very fond of pictures. There were not many pictures for him to look at, for his mother, who was a widow, lived on the borders of one of the great American forests. She had come out from England with her husband, and now that he was dead, the few pictures hanging on her walls were almost the only luxuries she possessed.

"Her son would often spend his holidays in trying to copy them, but as he had very little application, he often threw his half-finished drawings away, and once he was heard to say that he wished some kind-hearted fairy would take it in hand and finish it for him.

"'Child,' said the mother, 'for my part I don't believe there are any such things as fairies. I never saw one, and your father never did; but by all accounts, if fairies there be, they are a jealous and revengeful race. Mind your books, my child, and never mind the fairies.'

"'Very well, mother,' said the boy.

"'It makes me sad to see you stand gazing at the pictures,' said his mother, coming up to him and laying her hand on his curly head; 'why, child, pictures can't feed a body, pictures can't clothe a body, and a log of wood is far better to burn and warm a body.'

"'All that is quite true, mother,' said the boy.

"'Then why do you keep looking at them, child?'

"The boy hesitated, and then answered, 'I don't know, mother.'

"'You don't know! nor I neither. Why, child, you look at the dumb things as if you loved them. Put on your cap and run out to play.'

"So the boy went out, and wandered toward the forest till he came to the brink of a sheet of water. It was too small to be called a lake, but it was deep, clear, and overhung with crowds of trees. It was evening, and the sun was getting low. There was a narrow strip of land stretching out into the water. Pine-trees grew upon it; and here and there a plane-tree or a sumach dipped its large leaves over, and seemed intent on watching its own clear reflection.

"The boy stood still, and thought how delightful it was to see the sun red and glorious between the black trunks of the pine-trees. Then he looked up into the abyss of clear sky overhead, and thought how beautiful it was to see the little frail clouds folded over one another like a belt of rose-colored waves. Then he drew still nearer to the water, and saw how they were all reflected down there among the leaves and flowers of the lilies; and he wished he were a painter, for he said to himself, 'I am sure there are no trees in the world with such beautiful leaves as these pines; I am sure there are no other clouds in the world so lovely as these; I know this is the sweetest piece of water in the world, and, if I could paint it, every one else would know it too.' He stood still for awhile, watching the water-lilies as they closed their leaves for the night, and listening to the slight sound they made when they dipped their heads under water. 'The sun has been playing tricks with these lilies as well as with the clouds,' he said to himself, 'for when I passed by in the morning they swayed about like floating snowballs, and now there is not a bud of them that has not got a rosy side. I must gather one, and see if I cannot make a drawing of it.' So he gathered a lily, sat down with it in his hand, and tried very hard to make a correct sketch of it in a blank leaf of his copy-book. He was far more patient than usual, but he succeeded so little to his own satisfaction, that at length he threw down the book, and, looking into the cup of his lily, said to it, in a sorrowful voice, 'Ah, what use is it my trying to copy anything so beautiful as you are? How much I wish I were a painter!'

"As he said these words he felt a slight quivering in the flower; and, while he looked, the cluster of stamens at the bottom of the cup floated upward, and glittered like a crown of gold; the dewdrops which hung upon them changed into diamonds before his eyes; the white petals flowed together; the tall pistil was a golden wand; and the next moment a beautiful little creature stood upon his hand, clad in a robe of the purest white, and scarcely taller than the flower from which she sprung.


"Struck with astonishment, the boy kept silence. She lifted up her face, and opened her lips more than once. He expected her to say some wonderful thing; but, when at length she did speak, she only said, 'Child, are you happy?'

"'No,' said the boy, in a low voice, 'because I want to paint, and I cannot.'

"'How do you know that you cannot?' asked the fairy.

"'Oh, fairy,' replied the boy, 'because I have tried a great many times. It is of no use trying any longer.'

"'What if I were to help you?' said the fairy.

"'There would then indeed be some pleasure in the work and some chance of success,' said the boy.

"'I was just closing my leaves for the night,' answered the fairy, 'when you drew me out of the water; and I should have made you feel the effects of my resentment if it had not happened that you are the favorite of our race. Under the water, at the bottom of this lake, are our palaces and castles; and when, after visiting the upper world, we wish to return to them, we close one of these lilies over us, and sink in it to our home. The wish that I heard you utter just now induced me to appear to you. I know a powerful charm which will ensure your success and the accomplishment of your highest wishes; but it is one which requires a great deal of care and patience in the working, and I cannot put you in possession of it unless you will promise the most implicit obedience to my directions.'

"'Spirit of a water-lily!' said the boy, 'I promise with all my heart.'

"'Go home, then,' continued the fairy, 'and you will find lying on the threshold a little key: take it up.'

"'I will,' answered the boy; 'and what then shall I do?'

"'Carry it to the nearest pine-tree,' said the fairy, 'strike the trunk with it, and a keyhole will appear. Do not be afraid to unlock that magic door. Slip in your hand, and you will bring out a wonderful palette. I have not time now to tell you half its virtues, but they will soon unfold themselves. You must be very careful to paint with colors from that palette every day. On this depends the success of the charm. You will find that it will soon give grace to your figures and beauty to your coloring; and I promise you that, if you do not break the spell, you shall not only in a few years be able to produce as beautiful a copy of these flowers as can be wished, but your name shall become known to fame, and your genius shall be honored, and your pictures admired on both sides the Atlantic.'

"'Can it be possible?' said the boy; and the hand trembled on which stood the fairy.

"'It shall be so, if only you do not break the charm,' said the fairy; 'but lest, like the rest of your ungrateful race, you should forget what you owe to me, and even when you grow older begin to doubt whether you have ever seen me, the Lily you gathered will never fade till my promise is accomplished.'

"So saying, she gathered around her the folds of her robe, crossed her arms, and dropping her head on her breast, trembled slightly; and, before the boy could remark the change, he had nothing in his hand but a flower.

"He looked up. All the beautiful rosy flowers were faded to a shady gray. The gold had disappeared from the water, and the forest was dense and gloomy. He arose with the lily in his hand, went slowly home, laid it in a casket to protect it from injury, and then proceeded to search for the palette, which he shortly found; and, lest he should break the spell, he began to use it that very night.

"Who would not like to have a fairy friend? Who would not like to work with a magic palette? Every day its virtues become more apparent. He worked very hard, and it was astonishing how soon he improved. His deep, heavy outlines soon became light and clear; and his coloring began to assume a transparent delicacy. He was so delighted with the fairy present that he even did more than was required of him. He spent nearly all his leisure time in using it, and often passed whole days beside the sheet of water in the forest. He painted it when the sun shone, and it was spotted all over with the reflection of fleeting white clouds; he painted it covered with water-lilies rocking on the ripples; by moonlight, when two or three stars in the empty sky shone down upon it; and at sunset, when it lay trembling like liquid gold.

"But the fairy never came to look at his work. He often called to her when he had been more than usually successful; but she never made him any answer, nor took the least notice of his entreaties that he might see her again.

"So a long time--several years--passed away. He was grown up to be a man, and he had never broken the charm; he still worked every day with his magic palette.

"No one in these parts cared at all for his pictures. His mother's friends told him he would never get his bread by painting; his mother herself was sorry that he chose to waste his leisure so; and the more because the pictures on her walls were brighter far than his, and had clouds and trees of far clearer color, not like the common clouds and misty hills that he was so fond of painting, and his faintly colored distant forest, with uncertain and variable hues, such as she could see any day when she looked out at her window.

"It made the young man unhappy to hear all this fault found with his proceedings, but it never made him leave off using the fairy's palette, though about this time he himself began to doubt whether he should ever be a painter. One evening he sat at his easel, trying in vain to give the expression he wished to an angel's face, which seemed to get less and less like the face in his heart with every touch he gave it. On a sudden he threw down his brush, and with a feeling of bitter disappointment upbraided himself for what he now thought his folly in listening to the fairy, and accepting her delusive gift. What had he got by it hitherto? Nothing but his mother's regrets and the ridicule of his companions. He threw himself on his bed. It grew dark; he could no longer be vexed with the sight of his unfinished angel; and presently he fell asleep and forgot his sorrow.

"In the middle of the night he suddenly awoke. His chamber was full of moonlight. The lid of the casket where he kept the lily had sprung open, and his fairy friend stood near it.

"'American painter,' she said, in a reproachful voice, 'since you think I have been rather a foe than a friend to you, I am ready to take back my gift.'

"But sleep had now cooled the young painter's mind, and softened his feelings of vexation, so that he did not find himself at all willing to part with the palette. While he hesitated how to excuse himself, she further said, 'But if you still wish to try what it can do for you, take this ring which _my sister_ sends you; wear it, and it will greatly assist the charm.'

"The youth held out his hand and took the ring. As he cast his eyes upon it, the fairy vanished. He turned it to the moonlight, and saw that it was set with a stone of a transparent blue color. It had the property of reflecting everything bright that came near it; and there was a word engraven upon it. He thought--he could not be sure--but he thought the word was 'Hope.'

"After this, and during a long time, I can tell you no more about him: whether he finished the angel's face, and whether it pleased him at last, I do not know. I only know that, in process of time, his mother died--that he came to Europe--and that he was quite unknown and very poor.

"The next thing recorded of him is this, that on a sudden he became famous. The world began to admire his works, and to seek his company. He was considered a great man, and wealth and honors flowed in upon him. It happened to him that one day in travelling he came to a great city, where there was a large collection of pictures. He went to see them, and among them he saw many of his own pictures; some of them he had painted before he had left his forest home; others were of more recent date. All the people and all the painters praised them. But there was one that they liked better than the others; and when he heard them call it his masterpiece, he went and sat down opposite to it, that he might think over again some of the thoughts that he had had when he painted it.

"It was a picture of a little child, holding in its hands several beautiful water-lilies; and the crowd that gathered round it praised the lightness of the drapery, the beauty of the infant form, the soft light shed down upon it, and, above all, the innocent expression of the baby features.

"He was pleased, but not elated. He called to mind the words of his fairy benefactress, and acknowledged to himself that at length they were certainly fulfilled.

"And then it drew toward evening, and the people one by one disappeared, till he was left alone with his masterpiece. The excitement of the day had made him anxious for repose. He was thinking of leaving the place, when suddenly he fell asleep, and dreamed that he was standing behind the sheet of water in his native country, and lingering, as of old, to watch the rays of the setting sun as they melted away from its surface. He thought, too, that his beautiful lily was in his hand, and that while he looked at it the leaves withered and fell at his feet. Then followed a confused recollection of his conversation with the fairy; and after that his thoughts became clearer, and, though still asleep, he remembered where he was, and in what place he was sitting. His impressions became more vivid. He dreamed that something lightly touched his hand. He looked up, and his fairy benefactress was at his side, standing on the arm of his chair.

"'O wonderful enchantress!' said the dreaming painter, 'do not vanish before I have had time to thank you for your magic gift. I have nothing to offer you but my gratitude in return; for the diamonds of this world are too heavy for such an ethereal being, and the gold of this world is useless to you who have no wants that it can supply. The fame I have acquired I cannot impart to you, for few of my race believe in the existence of yours. What, then, can I do? I can only thank you for your goodness. But tell me at least your name, if you have a name, that I may cut it on a ring, and wear it always on my finger.'

"'My name,' replied the fairy, 'is Perseverance.'"

"Well!" said the children, looking at each other, "she has cheated us after all!"

[The end]
Jean Ingelow's short story: The Water-Lily