By Rachel H. Busk

Illustrated by William Leighton Leitch

Landscape, Italy by William Leighton Leitch, 1872

They say there was once a husband and a wife; but I don’t mean that they were husband and wife of each other. The husband had lost his wife, and the wife had lost her husband, and each had one little daughter. The husband sent his daughter to the wife to be brought up along with her own daughter, and as the girl came every morning to be trained and instructed, the wife used to send a message back by her every evening, saying, “Why doesn’t your father marry me? then we should all live together, and you would no longer have this weary walk to take.”

The father, however, did not see it in the same light; but the teacher continued sending the same message. In short, at last she carried her point, having previously given a solemn promise to him that Maria, his little girl, should be always as tenderly treated as her own.

Not many months elapsed, however, before she began to show herself a true stepmother. After treating Maria with every kind of harshness, she at last sent her out into the Campagna to tend the cow, so as to keep her out of sight of her father, and estrange him from her. Maria had to keep the cow’s stall clean with fresh litter every day; sometimes she had to take the cow out to grass, and watch that it only grazed over the right piece of land; at other times she had to go out and cut grass for the cow to eat. All this was work enough for one so young; but Maria was a kind-hearted girl, and grew fond of her cow, so that it became a pleasure to her to attend to it.

When the cruel stepmother saw this she was annoyed to find her so light-hearted over her work, and to vex her more gave her a great heap of hemp to spin. It was in vain that Maria reminded her she had never been taught to spin; the only answer she got was, “If you don’t bring it home with you to-night all properly spun you will be finely punished;” and Maria knew to her cost what that meant.

When Maria went out into the Campagna that day she was no longer light-hearted; and as she littered down the stall she stroked the cow fondly, and said to her, as she had no one else to complain to, “Vaccarella! Vaccarella! what shall I do? I have got all this hemp to spin, and I never learnt spinning. Yet if I don’t get through it somehow I shall get sadly beaten to-night. Dear little cow, tell me what to do!”

But the cow was an enchanted cow, and when she heard Maria cry she turned round and said quickly and positively:—

Throw it on to the horns of me,
And go along, cut grass for me!

Maria did as she was told, went out and cut a good basketful of grass, and imagine her delight on coming back with it to find all the whole lot of hemp beautifully spun.

The surprise of the stepmother was still greater than hers, at finding that she had got through her task so easily, for she had given her enough to have occupied an ordinary person a week. Next day, therefore, she determined to vex her with a more difficult task, and gave her a quantity of spun hemp to weave into a piece of fine cloth. Maria’s pleadings were as fruitless as before, and once more she went to tell her tale of woe to her ‘dear little cow.’

Vaccarella readily gave the same answer as before:—

Throw it on to the horns of me,
And go along, cut grass for me!

Once more, when Maria came back with her basket of grass, she found all her work done, to her great surprise and delight. But her stepmother’s surprise was quite of another order. That Maria should have woven the cloth, not only without instruction, but even without a loom, proved clearly enough she must have had some one to help her—a matter which roused the stepmother’s jealousy in the highest degree, and wherein this help consisted she determined to find out. Accordingly, next day she gave her a shirt to make up, and then posted herself out of sight in a corner of the cow-house to see what happened. Thus she overheard Maria’s complaint to her dear little cow, and Vaccarella’s reply:—

Throw it on to the horns of me,
And go along, cut grass for me!

She thus also saw, what Maria did not see, that as soon as she had gone out the cow assumed the form of a woman, and sat down and stitched and stitched away till the shirt was made, and that in a surprisingly short space of time. As soon as it was finished, and before Maria came in, the woman became a cow again.

The cruel stepmother determined that Maria should be deprived of a friend who enabled her to set all her hard treatment at defiance, and next morning told her that she was going to kill the cow. Maria was broken-hearted at the announcement, but she knew it was useless to remonstrate; so she only used her greatest speed to reach her ‘dear little cow,’ and warn her of what was going to happen in time to make her escape.

“There is no need for me to escape,” replied Vaccarella; “killing will not hurt me. So dry your tears, and don’t be distressed. Only, after they have killed me, put your hand under my heart, and there you will find a golden ball. This ball is yours, so take it out, and whenever you are tired of your present kind of life, you have only to say to it on some fitting occasion ‘Golden ball, golden ball, dress me in gold and give me a lover,’ and you shall see what shall happen.”

Vaccarella had no time to say more, for the stepmother arrived just then with a man who slaughtered the cow at her order.

Under Vaccarella’s heart Maria found the promised golden ball, which she hid away carefully against some fitting occasion for using it arose.

Not long after there was a novena* of a great festival, during which Maria’s stepmother, with all her disposition to overwork her, durst not keep her from church, lest the neighbours should cry “Shame!” on her.

* A short service, with or without a sermon, said for nine days before some great festival, in preparation for it.

Maria accordingly went to church with all the rest of the people, and when she had made her way through the crowd to a little distance from her stepmother, she took her golden ball out of her pocket and whispered to it:— “Golden ball, golden ball, dress me in gold and give me a lover.”

Instantly the golden ball burst gently open and enveloped her, and she came out of it all radiant with beautiful clothing, like a princess. Everybody made way for her in her astonishing brightness.

The eyes of the king’s son were turned upon her, no less than the eyes of all the people; and the prayers were no sooner over than he sent some of his attendants to call her and bring her to him. Before they could reach her, however, Maria had restored her beautiful raiment to the golden ball, and, in the sordid attire in which her stepmother dressed her, she could easily pass through the crowd unperceived.

At home, her stepmother could not forbear talking, like everyone else in the town, about the maiden in glittering raiment who had appeared in the midst of the church; but, of course, without the remotest suspicion that it was Maria herself. But Maria sat still and said nothing.

So it happened each day of the Novena; for, though Maria was not at all displeased with the appearance and fame of the husband whom her ‘dear little cow’ seemed to have appointed for her, she did not wish to be too easy a prize, and thought it but right to make him take a little trouble to win her. Thus she every day restored all her bright clothing to the golden ball before the prince’s men could overtake her. Only on the last day of the Novena, when the prince, fearful lest it might also be the last on which he would have an opportunity of seeing her, had told them to use extra diligence, they were so near overtaking her that, in the hurry of the moment, she dropped a slipper. This the prince’s men eagerly seized, feeling no compunction in wresting it from the mean-looking wench (so Maria now looked) who disputed possession of it with them, not in the least imagining that she could be the radiant being of whom they were in search.

The Novena over, Maria once more returned to her ceaseless toil; but the stepmother’s hatred had grown so great that she determined to rid herself of her altogether and in the most cruel way.

Down in the cellar there stood a large barrel, which had grown dirty and mouldy from neglect, and wanted scalding out. “Get into the barrel, Maria girl,” she bid her next morning for her task, “and scrape it and rub it well before we scald it.”

Maria did as she was bid, and the stepmother went away to boil the water.

Meantime, the prince’s men had taken Maria’s slipper to him, and he, delighted to have any token of his fair one, appointed an officer to go into every house, and proclaim that the maiden whom the slipper might fit should be his bride. The officer went round from house to house, trying the slipper on everybody’s foot. But it fitted no one, for it was under a spell.

But the stepmother’s own daughter had gone down to the cellar to help Maria, unbeknown to her mother; and it so happened that, just as she was inside the barrel and Maria outside, the king’s officer happened to come by that way. He opened the door, and, seeing a damsel standing within, tried on the sandal without waiting to ask leave. As the sandal fitted Maria to perfection, the officer was all impatience to carry her off to the prince, and placed her in the carriage which was waiting outside, and drove off with her before anyone had even observed his entrance.

Scarcely had all this passed than the stepmother came back, with her servants, each carrying a can of boiling water. They placed themselves in a ring round the barrel, and each emptied her charge into it. As it was the stepmother’s daughter who was inside at the time, instead of Maria, it was she who got scalded to death in her place.

By-and-by, when the house was quiet, the bad stepmother went to the barrel, intending to take out the body of Maria and hide it. What was her dismay when she found, instead of Maria’s body, that of her own daughter! As soon as her distress and grief subsided sufficiently to enable her to consider what she had to do, the idea suggested itself to conceal the murder by putting the blame of it on some one else. For this purpose she took the body of her daughter, and, dressing it in dry clothes, seated it on the top of the stairs against her husband’s return.

Presently, home he came with his ass-load of wood, and called to her daughter to come and help him unload it, as usual. But the daughter continued sitting on the top of the stairs, and moved not. Again and again he called, louder and louder, but still she moved not; till at last, irritated beyond all endurance, he hurled one of his logs of wood at her, which brought the badly-balanced corpse rolling and tumbling all the way down the stairs, just as the stepmother had designed.

The husband, however, was far from being deceived by the device. He could see the body presented no appearance of dying from a recent fall.

“Where’s Maria?” he asked, as soon as he got up into the room.

“Nobody knows; she has disappeared!” replied the stepmother; nor was he slow to convince himself she was nowhere in the house.

“This is no place for me to stay in,” said the husband to himself. “One child driven away, and one murdered; who can say what may happen next?”

Next morning, therefore, he called to him the little daughter born to him since his marriage with Maria’s stepmother, and went away with her for good and all. So that bad woman was deprived, as she deserved, of her husband and all her children in one day.

Just as the father and his daughter were starting to go away, Maria drove by in a gilded coach with the prince her husband; so he had the satisfaction, and her stepmother the vexation, of seeing her triumph.

From Roman legends: a collection of the fables and folk-lore of Rome, by Rachel Harriette Busk.
Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1877.


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