Long, long ago a good man was thrown into prison by a great king. The prison was dark and cold and still; for the gray stone walls and the stone roof and floor shut out the sunlight and all the beautiful sights and sounds of the world. There was no one for the man to talk to, and there was no work for him to do. There was one little window to let in the air, but it was so high up beyond his reach that he could not even get a glimpse of the blue sky. Here he was kept for weeks and months and years, and was not allowed to know anything about his family, friends or home. At last a door was opened into another part of the prison. The walls of this part were high and strong, and the floor was paved with the same great, gray stones, but there was no roof overhead. Here the wind could come in and the rain and the sunlight. He was allowed to walk here just for one short hour each day, and then he had to go back to his dark cell and the door was shut upon him.
Once while walking here the prisoner saw a little mound of earth rising between two of the great stones of the floor. At first he thought that some tiny worm or insect was trying to build a house for itself. Looking closer he saw that it was only the home of a little plant. The stray seed had been brought by the wind, and it was now sending its roots down into the crevice between the stones. “Poor little plant!” said the prisoner, “what a sad home you have found! Shall I not crush you? No! Perhaps you have come to comfort me in this terrible place.” Hurrying to his cell, he brought his cup of precious water. “Drink! little one,” he cried, as he poured the water out around it. “Drink! and lift up your head.”
The next day he watched it again and watered it, and the next day, and the next. How bravely it seemed to struggle to push its head up and its roots down, to open its leaves and to catch, the dull light. At last the little plant became a dear friend and companion to the man. He would bend over it the whole hour each day and talk softly to it. He called it Picciola,—his Picciola,—his little one, and as the plant grew and put on new beauty he forgot his wrongs and his heart was filled with love and gentleness.
Once there was a storm, and great hailstones beat down upon Picciola. “Ah, my poor little one will be killed!” cried the prisoner. And he bent over her and sheltered her and the cruel hail fell upon his own head until the storm was past. Fearing that other storms might come when he was shut away from her, he built a little house around her with the wood that was given him to keep him warm, and made a roof over her with a mat which he wove from the straw of his own bed. This made him happy; for, though he could be with his Picciola for but one short hour each day, he felt that she was safe. So the little plant grew and grew, and opened her flowers and sent out her perfume to make glad the heart of her lonely friend.