A Latvian tale, this version is taken from the 1938 anthology Wonder Tales from Baltic Wizards by Frances Jenkins Olcott.
Once on a time, in a farmhouse, a young Maiden sat spinning by the light of a burning pine-splinter. The farmer’s wife and her daughter–the farmer had been dead for three years–were asleep already, for they were very lazy and liked to play the grand lady.
They always put off all the household tasks on the Maiden, who from sun-up to midnight had to keep her hands busy, without ever satisfying those who provided her with bread. If she did anything well and carefully, it was always, “What of it? Bestir yourself and finish the rest.” And at the very least fault, it was scoldings and blows.
What was there to do? Ilsa, for that was the Maiden’s name, had no parents and was poor. So she had to endure both the bad and the good. And there was a special reason why this was hard–the neighbor’s son, a brave, handsome lad, would have her for his wife if his parents were not against it. It was not fitting, they thought, that the heir to a farm should woo a poor girl. He should bring home a farmer’s daughter. And she was already chosen–no other than the daughter of the Maiden’s Mistress. The wedding was to take place at Easter.
Ilsa loved the good Hans with all her heart, but she had to shut away her feelings in her breast, from the eyes and ears of the world. She was, yes! a poor orphan. Who cared to ask after her weal or woe? So Ilsa sat brooding at the spinning-wheel, while the icy North Wind howled and raged around the house, and whirled the flocks of snowflakes against its walls.
Many bitter tears fell on the flax, many heavy sighs ascended to the low smoke-blackened rafters. Till from the sighs and tears there was formed a sad complaining little song:
See! The sun is hurrying on.
Let me to the shadows flee!
Little Mother can no more
In the sunshine lead poor me.
Wait! O wait, thou hurrying sun!
To my words, O listen! hear!
Take a thousand greetings sweet,
To my little Mother dear.
Low sets the sun–so very low!
Little Mother’s far away.
I cannot overtake the sun,
Nor words to little Mother say!
The hoarse voice of the Mistress growled from her room, “To the Evil One with your sing-song!”
The daughter then began to scold, “If you will complain, go outside and howl with the North Wind.”
Ilsa was silent and tried to spin on, but eyes and hands refused their service. Tired, she leaned her blond golden head against the hard wall, and closed her eyes. The pine-splinter had burned down and gone out, and it was dark in the room. Outside the North Wind howled and raged.
It was about six o’clock in the morning when the Maiden was startled out of her sleep, by a knocking on the little window. She stepped outside, but in the darkness of the winter morning could see no one. A trembling voice like an old beggar’s fell on her ear:
“Pity me, dear Maiden, a lost, hungry, nigh-frozen, old man!”
Ilsa thought for a moment. She knew well that her Mistress never gave anything to a beggar, but chased any beggar from the house with insults and jeering. But she and her daughter were sleeping now, and would certainly not get up till seven o’clock.
“Come with me to the cow stable, Old Man,” Ilsa said compassionately. “There you may warm yourself, and I will give you some bread and milk.”
She let the benumbed old man into the stable, let him sit down on an overturned bucket, and milked some milk into a bowl. Then she fetched from the house a bit of bread, which the night before, in her great sorrow, she had not been able to choke down.
The beggar refreshed himself, and warmed himself as best he was able. Then he said to Ilsa, but not in a trembling voice, no! but with musical accents:
“Receive my thanks for your pity and your charity. I am not he for whom you take me. Who I am, however, it is not necessary for you to learn. But this I may say, I know you and all that your heart thinks and feels. I wish your happiness. Listen, now, to my words! Have you never heard of Lauskis and his Gold Axe?”
Ilsa said, “No.”
“Lauskis is a Spirit of the Cold, who, when the frost is strong, goes about cracking the earth with his Gold Axe. If a young and innocent Maiden at midnight, just between the first and twelfth stroke of the hour, runs three times around the house, it comes about that Lauskis the Frost Spirit loses his Axe. This Axe is fashioned out of rich heavy gold, and whoever finds it will receive for it many thousands of gold pieces. Only innocence, courage, and swiftness can win it.”
So spoke the old man.
Ilsa gazed on him in wonderment. But where was he? The bucket on which he had been sitting was empty! And the dull light of dawn showed no trace of him. The young girl involuntarily said a short prayer, and went back thoughtfully to the house. There was the mistress already up, and the every-day misery began again. So the winter passed away.
The stormy January was followed by a bitter cold February. At night the earth cracked and the ice burst on the pond. One day the Mistress and her daughter went to the city to buy a few trinkets for the wedding. They were not to return till the next afternoon. Ilsa was left all alone in the house.
That evening while she was spinning, the half-forgotten tale of the strange old man came back to her, and the longer she thought of his words, the greater grew in her an irresistible desire to run a race with the Lauskis.
The hours till midnight went by like a dream. Just as the old wall-clock in the Mistress’ room struck, the Maiden rushed out and hurried like the wind three times around the house.
There came such a fearful crash! House, stable, and corncrib trembled and began to rock to and fro. Ilsa could scarcely keep herself upright by holding on to the doorposts.
But soon this was all over. The moon shone out sharp and clear, as it does only in the Northland winter, and it shone on a magnificent Gold Axe lying directly at Ilsa’s feet.
At Easter-time the neighbors celebrated the wedding of Hans, not to the daughter of the farmer’s wife, but to the long despised Maiden, the poor orphan, now the richest girl in the neighborhood.
As the years passed the pair lived happily and contented; and if they are not dead they are living today.