A young man named Wilhelm was staying at an inn in the city. One day as he was going up-stairs he met a little girl coming down. He would have taken her for a boy if it had not been for the long curls of black hair wound about her head. As she ran by, he caught her in his arms and asked her to whom she belonged. He felt sure that she must be one of the ropedancers who had just come to the inn. She gave him a sharp, dark look, slipped out of his arms, and ran away without speaking.
The next time he saw her, Wilhelm spoke to her again.
“Do not be afraid of me, little one,” he said kindly. “What is your name?”
“They call me Mignon,” said the child.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“No one has counted,” the child answered.
Wilhelm went on, but he could not help wondering about the child, and thinking of her dark eyes and strange ways.
One day not long after that, there was a great outcry among the crowd that was watching the ropedancers. Wilhelm went down to find out what was the matter. He saw that the master of the dancers was beating little Mignon with a stick. He ran and held the man by the collar.
“Let the child alone!” he cried. “If you touch her again, one of us shall never leave this spot.”
The man tried to get loose, but Wilhelm held him fast. The child crept away and hid herself in the crowd.
“Pay me what her clothes cost,” cried the ropedancer at last, “and you may take her.”
As soon as all was quiet, Wilhelm went to look for Mignon; for she now belonged to him. But he could not find her, and it was not until the ropedancers had left the town that she came to him.
“Where have you been?” asked Wilhelm in his kindest tones, but the child did not speak.
“You are to live with me now, and you must be a good child,” he said.
“I will try,” said Mignon gently.
From that time she tried to do all that she could for Wilhelm and his friends. She would let no one wait on him but herself. She was often seen going to a basin of water to wash from her face the paint with which the ropedancers had reddened her cheeks: indeed, she nearly rubbed off the skin in trying to wash away its fine brown tint, which she thought was some deep dye.
Mignon grew lovelier every day. She never walked up and down the stairs, but jumped. She would spring along by the railing, and before you knew it, would be sitting quietly above on the landing.
To each one, she would speak in a different way. To Wilhelm, it was with her arms crossed upon her breast. Often for a whole day, she would not say one word, and yet in waiting upon Wilhelm she never tired.
One night he came home very weary and sad. Mignon was waiting for him. She carried the light before him upstairs. She set the light down upon the table, and in a little while she asked him if she might dance.
“It might ease your heart a little,” she said.
Wilhelm, to please her, told her that she might.
Then she brought a little carpet and spread it upon the floor. At each corner, she placed a candle, and on the carpet she put a number of eggs. She arranged the eggs in the form of certain figures. When this was done, she called a man who was waiting with a violin. She tied a band about her eyes, and then the dancing began.
How lightly, quickly, nimbly, wonderfully, she moved! She skipped so fast among the eggs, she trod so closely beside them, that you would have thought she must crush them all. But not one of them did she touch. With all kinds of steps, she passed among them. Not one of them was moved from its place.
Wilhelm forgot all his cares. He watched every motion of the child. He almost forgot who and where he was.
When the dance was ended, Mignon rolled the eggs together with her foot into a little heap. Not one was left behind, not one was harmed. Then she took the band from her eyes and made a little bow.
Wilhelm thanked her for showing him a dance that was so wonderful and pretty. He praised her, petted her, and hoped that she had not tired herself too much.
When she had gone from the room, the man with the violin told Wilhelm of the care she had taken to teach him the music of the dance. He told how she had sung it to him over and over again. He told how she had even wished to pay him with her own money for learning to play it for her.
There was yet another way in which Mignon tried to please Wilhelm, and make him forget his cares. She sang to him.
The song which he liked best was one whose words he had never heard before. Its music, too, was strange to him, and yet it pleased him very much. He asked her to speak the words over and over again. He wrote them down, but the sweetness of the tune was more delightful than the words. The song began in this way:–
“Do you know the land where citrons, lemons, grow,
And oranges under the green leaves glow?”
Once, when she had ended the song, she said again, “Do you know the land?”
“It must be Italy,” said Wilhelm. “Have you ever been there?”
The child did not answer.