Nearly two days journey from the city of Nole, yet still within the borders of the great kingdom of Noland, was a little village lying at the edge of a broad river. It consisted of a cluster of houses of the humblest description, for the people of this village were all poor and lived in simple fashion. Yet one house appeared to be somewhat better than the others, for it stood on the riverbank and had been built by the ferryman whose business it was to carry all travelers across the river. And as many traveled that way, the ferryman was able in time to erect a very comfortable cottage and to buy good furniture for it, and to clothe warmly and neatly his two children.
One of these children was a little girl named Margaret, who was called "Meg" by the villagers and "Fluff" by the ferryman her father, because her hair was so soft and fluffy. Her brother, who was two years younger, was named Timothy, but Margaret had always called him "Bud" because she could not say "brother" more plainly when first she began to talk; so nearly everyone who knew Timothy called him Bud as little Meg did.
These children had lost their mother when very young, and the ferryman had tried to be both mother and father to them and had reared them very gently and lovingly. They were good children and were liked by everyone in the village. But one day a terrible misfortune befell them. The ferryman tried to cross the river for a passenger one very stormy night, but he never reached the other shore. When the storm subsided and morning came, they found his body lying on the riverbank, and the two children were left alone in the world.
The news was carried by travelers to the city of Nole, where the ferryman's only sister lived, and a few days afterward the woman came to the village and took charge of her orphaned niece and nephew. She was not a bad-hearted woman, this Aunt Rivette, but she had worked hard all her life and had a stern face and a stern voice. She thought the only way to make children behave was to box their ears every now and then, so poor Meg, who had been well-nigh heartbroken at her dear father's loss, had still more occasion for tears after Aunt Rivette came to the village.
As for Bud, he was so impudent and ill-mannered to the old lady that she felt obliged to switch him, and afterward the boy became surly and silent and neither wept nor answered his aunt a single word. It hurt Margaret dreadfully to see her little brother whipped, and she soon became so unhappy at the sorrowful circumstances in which she and her brother found themselves that she sobbed from morning to night and knew no comfort.
Aunt Rivette, who was a laundress in the city of Nole, decided she would take Meg and Bud back home with her. "The boy can carry water for my tubs, and the girl can help me with the ironing," she said. So she sold all the heavier articles of furniture that the cottage contained, as well as the cottage itself; and all the remainder of her dead brother's belongings she loaded upon the back of the little donkey she had ridden on her journey from Nole. It made such a pile of packages that the load seemed bigger than the donkey himself; but he was a strong little animal and made no complaint of his burden.
All this being accomplished, they set out one morning for Nole, Aunt Rivette leading the donkey by the bridle with one hand and little Bud with the other, while Margaret followed behind, weeping anew at this and parting with her old home and all she had so long loved. It was a hard journey. The old woman soon became cross and fretful and scolded the little ones at almost every step. When Bud stumbled, as he often did, for he was unused to walking very far, Aunt Rivette would box his ears or shake him violently by the arm or tell him he was "a good-for-nothing little beggar." And Bud would turn upon her with a revengeful look in his eyes, but say not a word. The woman paid no attention to Meg, who continued to follow the donkey with tearful eyes and drooping head.
The first night they obtained shelter at a farmhouse. But in the morning it was found that the boy's feet were so swollen and sore from the long walk of the day before that he could not stand upon them. So Aunt Rivette, scolding fretfully at his weakness, perched Bud among the bundles atop the donkey's back, and in this way they journeyed the second day, the woman walking ahead and leading the donkey, and Margaret following behind.
The woman had hoped to reach the city of Nole at the close of this day, but the overburdened donkey would not walk very fast, so nightfall found them still a two-hours' journey from the city gates, and they were forced to stop at a small inn. But this inn was already overflowing with travelers, and the landlord could give them no beds nor even a room. "You can sleep in the stable if you like," said he. "There is plenty of hay to lie down upon."
So they were obliged to content themselves with this poor accommodation. The old woman aroused them at the first streaks of daybreak the next morning, and while she fastened the packages to the donkey's back, Margaret stood in the stable yard and shivered in the cold morning air. The little girl felt that she had never been more unhappy than at that moment, and when she thought of her kind father and the happy home she had once known, her sobs broke out afresh and she leaned against the stable door and wept as if her little heart would break.
Suddenly someone touched her arm, and she looked up to see a tall and handsome youth standing before her. It was none other than Ereol the fairy, who had assumed this form for her appearance among mortals, and over the youth's arm lay folded the magic cloak that had been woven the evening before in the fairy circle of Burzee. "Are you very unhappy, my dear?" asked Ereol in kindly tones.
"I am the most unhappy person in all the world!" replied the girl, beginning to sob afresh.
"Then," said Ereol, "I will present you with this magic cloak, which has been woven by the fairies. And while you wear it you may have your first wish granted; and if you give it freely to any other mortal, that person may also have one wish granted. So use the cloak wisely and guard it as a great treasure."
Saying this, the fairy messenger spread the folds of the cloak and threw the brilliant-hued garment over the shoulders of the girl. Just then Aunt Rivette led the donkey from the stable, and seeing the beautiful cloak which the child wore, she stopped short and demanded, "Where did you get that?"
"This stranger gave it to me," answered Meg, pointing to the youth.
"Take it off! Take it off this minute and give it me -- or I will whip you soundly!" cried the woman.
"Stop!" said Ereol sternly. "The cloak belongs to this child alone, and if you dare take it from her, I will punish you severely."
"What! Punish me! Punish me, you rascally fellow! We'll see about that."
"We will indeed," returned Ereol, more calmly. "The cloak is a gift from the fairies, and you dare not anger them, for your punishment would be swift and terrible."
Now no one feared to provoke the mysterious fairies more than Aunt Rivette, but she suspected the youth was not telling her the truth, so she rushed upon Ereol and struck at him with her upraised cane. But to her amazement, the form of the youth vanished quickly into air, and then indeed she knew it was a fairy that had spoken to her. "You may keep your cloak," she said to Margaret with a little shiver of fear. "I would not touch it for the world!"
The girl was very proud of her glittering garment, and when Bud was perched upon the donkey's back and the old woman began trudging along the road to the city, Meg followed after with much lighter steps than before. Presently the sun rose over the horizon, and its splendid rays shone upon the cloak and made it glitter gorgeously. "Ah me!" sighed the little girl, half aloud. "I wish I could be happy again!"
Then her childish heart gave a bound of delight, and she laughed aloud and brushed from her eyes the last tear she was destined to shed for many a day. For though she spoke thoughtlessly, the magic cloak quickly granted to its first wearer the fulfillment of her wish.
Aunt Rivette turned upon her in surprise. "What's the matter with you?" she asked suspiciously, for she had not heard the girl laugh since her father's death.
"Why, the sun is shining," answered Meg, laughing again. "And the air is sweet and fresh, and the trees are green and beautiful, and the whole world is very pleasant and delightful." And then she danced lightly along the dusty road and broke into a verse of a pretty song she had learned at her father's knee.
The old woman scowled and trudged on again. Bud looked down at his merry sister and grinned from pure sympathy with her high spirits, and the donkey stopped and turned his head to look solemnly at the laughing girl behind him. "Come along!" cried the laundress, jerking at the bridle. "Everyone is passing us upon the road, and we must hurry to get home before noon."
It was true. A good many travelers, some on horseback and some on foot, had passed them by since the sun rose, and although the east gate of the city of Nole was now in sight, they were obliged to take their places in the long line that sought entrance at the gate.