A few great Lizards race nimbly about in the clefts of an old tree; they could understand each other very well, for they spoke the lizards language.
“How it grumbles and growls in the old elf-hill !”said one Lizard. “I've not been able to close my eyes for two nights, beause of the noise; I might just as well lie and have the toothache, for then I can't sleep either.”
“There's something going on in there,”said the other Lizard.“They let the hill stand on four red posts till the cook crows at morn. It is regularly aired, and the elf girls have learned new dances. There's something going on.”
“Yes, I have spoken with an earthworm of my acquaintance,” said the third Lizard.“The earthworm came straight out of the hill, where he had been grubbing in the ground night and day: he had heard much. He can't see, the miserable creature, but he understands how to feel his way about and listen. They expect some friends in the elfhill----grand strangers; but who they are the earthworm would not tell, or perhaps, indeed, he did not know. All the Will-o'-the-wisps are ordered to hold a torchlight procession, as it is called; and silver and gold, of which there is enough in the elf-hill, is being polished and put out in the moonshine. ”
“Who may these strangers be? asked all the Lizards.“What can be going on there? Hark, how it hums! Hark, how it murmurs!”
At the same moment the elf-hill opened, and an old elf maid, hollow behind, but otherwise very respectably dressed, came tripping out. She was the old Elf King's housekeeper. She was a distant relative of the royal family, and wore an amber heart on her forehead. Her legs moved so rapidly----trip, trip! Gracious! how she could trip! straight down to the moss, to the night Raven.
“You are invited to the elf-hill for this evening,”said she;“but will you not first do us a great service and undertake the invitations? You must do something, as you don't keep any house yourself. We shall have some very distinguished friends, magicians who have something to say; and so the old Elf King wants to make a display.”
“Who's to be invited?”asked the night Raven.
“To the great ball the world may come, even men, if they can talk in their sleep, or do something that falls in our line. But at the first feast there's to be a strict selection; we will have only the most distinguished. I have had a dispute with the Elf King, for I declared that we could not even admit ghosts. The merman and his daughters must be inited first. They may not be very well pleased to come on the dry land, but they shall have a wet stone to sit upon, or something still better, and then I think they won't refuse for this time. All the old demons of the first class, with tails, and the river man and the goblins we must have; and then I think we may not leave out the grave pig, the death horse, and the church lamb; they certainly belong to the clergy, and are not reckoned among our people. But that's only their office: they are closely related to us, and visit us diligently.
“Bravo!”said the night Raven, and flew away to give the invitations.
The elf girls were already dancing on the elf-hill, and they danced with shawls which were woven of mist and moonshine; and that looks very pretty for those who like that sort of thing. In the midst, below the elf-hill, the great hall was splendidly decorated; the floor had been washed with moonshine, and the walls rubbed with witches salve, so that they glowed like tulips in the light. In the kitchen, plenty of frogs were turning on the spit, snake skins with children's fingers in them and salads of mushroom spawn, damp mouse muzzles, and hemlock; beer brewed by the marsh witch, gleaming saltpetre wine from grave cellars: everything very grand; and rusty nails and church window glass among the sweets.
The old Elf King had one of his crowns polished with powdered slate pencil; it was slate pencil from the first form, and it's very difficult for the Elf King to get first form slate pencil! In the bedroom, curtains were hung up, and fastened with snail slime. Yes, there was a humming and murmuring there!
“Now we must burn horse-hair and pig's bristles as incense here,”said the Elf King,“and then I think I shall have done my part.”
“Father dear! said the youngest of the daughters, “shall I hear now who the distinguished strangers are?”
“Well,” said he,“I suppose I must tell it now. Two of my daughters must hold themselves prepared to be married; two will certainly be married. The old gnome from Norway yonder, he who lives in the Dovre mountain, and possesses many rock castles of granite, and a gold mine which is better than one thinks, is coming with his two sons, who want each to select a wife. The old gnome is a true old honest Norwegian veteran, merry and straightforward. I know him from old days, when we drank brotherhood with one another. He was down here to fetch his wife; now she is dead,----she was a daughter of the King of the Chalk-rocks of M en. He took his wife upon chalk, as the saying is. Oh, how I long to see the old Norwegian gnome! The lads, they say, are rather rude, forward lads; but perhaps they are belied, and they'll be right enough when they grow older. Let me see that you can teach them manners.”
“And when will they come?”asked one of the daughters.
“That depends on wind and weather,”said the Elf King.“They travel economically: they come when there's a chance by a ship. I wanted them to go across Sweden, but the old one would not incline to that wish. He does not advance with the times, and I don't like that.”
Then two Will-o'-the-wisps came hopping up, one quicker than the other, and so one of them arrived first.
“They're coming! they're coming!”they cried.
“Give me my crown, and let me stand in the moonshine,” add the Elf King.
And the daughters lifted up their shawls and bowed down to the earth.
There stood the old gnome of Dovre, with the crown of hardened ice and polished fir cones; moreover, he wore a bear-skin and great warm boots. His sons, on the contrary, went bare-necked, and with trousers without braces, for they were strong men.
“Is that a hillock?”asked the youngest of the lads; and he pointed to the elf-hill. “In Norway yonder we should call it a hole.”
“Boys!”said the old man,“holes go down, mounds go up. Have you no eyes in your heads?”
The only thing they wondered at down here, they said, was that they could understand the language without difficulty.
“Don't give yourselves airs,”said the old man.“One would think you were home-nurtured.”
And then they went into the elf-hill, where the really grand company were assembled, and that in such haste that one might almost say they had been blown together. But for each it was nicely and prettily arranged. The sea folks sat at table in great washing tubs: they said it was just as if they were at home. All observed the ceremonies of the table except the two young Northern gnomes, and they put their legs up on the table; but they thought all that suited them well.
“Your feet off the table-cloth!”cried the old gnome.
And they obeyed, but not immediately. Their ladies they tickled with pine cones that they had brought with them, and then took off their boots for their own convenience, and gave them to the ladies to hold. But the father, the old Dovre gnome, was quite different from them: he told such fine stories of the proud Norwegian rocks, and of the waterfalls which rushed down with white foam and with a noise like thunder and the sound of organs; he told of the salmon that leaps up against the falling waters when Necken plays upon the golden harp; he told of shining winter nights, when the sledge bells sound, and the lads run with burning torches over the ice, which is so transparent that they see the fishes start beneath their feet. Yes! he could tell it so finely that one saw what he described: it was just as if the sawmills were going, as if the servants and maids were singing songs and dancing the Halling dance. Hurrah! all at once the old gnome gave the old elf girl a kiss: that was a kiss! and yet they were nothing to each other.
Now the elf maidens had to dance, both with plain and with stamping steps, and that suited them will; then came the artistic and solo dance. Wonderful how they could use their legs! one hardly knew where they began and where they ended, which were their arms and which their legs----they were all mingled together like wood shavings; and then they whirled round till the death horse turned giddy and was obliged to leave the table.
“Prur! said the old gnome;“that's the way to use one's legs. But what can they do more than dance, stretch out their limbs, and make a whirlwind?”
“You shall soon know!”said the Elf King.
And then he called forward the youngest of his daughters. She was as light and graceful as moonshine; she was the most delicate of all the sisters. She took a white peg in her mouth, and then she was quite gone: that was her art.
But the old gnome said he should not like his wife to possess this art, and he did not think that his boys cared for it.
The other could walk beside herself, just as if she had a shadow, and the gnome people had none. The third daughter was of quite another kind; she had served in the brewhouse of the moor witch, and knew how to stuff elder-tree knots with glow-worms.
“She will make a good housewife,”said the old gnome; and then he winked a health with his eyes, for he did not want to drink too much.
Now came the fourth: she had a great harp to play upon, and when she struck the first chord all lifted up their left feet, for the gnomes are left-legged; and when she struck the second chord, all were compelled to do as she wished.
“That's a dangerous woman! said the old gnome; but both the sons went out of the hill, for they had had enough of it.
“And what can the next daughter do?”asked the old gnome.
“I have learned to love what is Norwegian,”said she, “and I will never marry unless I can go to Norway.”
But the youngest sister whispered to the old gnome, That's only because she has heard in a Norwegian song, that when the world sinks down the cliffs of Norway will remain standing like monuments, and so she wants to get up there, because she is afraid of perishing.
“Ho! ho!”said the old gnome,“is that the reason? But what can the seventh and last do?”
“The sixth comes before the seventh!”said the Elf King, for he could count. But the sixth would not come out.
“I can only tell people the truth!”said she. “Nobody cares for me, and I have enough to do to sew my shroud.”
Now came the seventh and last, and what could she do? Why, she could tell stones, as many as she wished.
“Here are all my five fingers,”said the old gnome; “tell me one for each.”
And she took him by the wrist, and he laughed till it clucked within him; and when she came to the ring finger, which had a ring round its waist, just as if it knew there was to be a wedding, the old gnome said,
“Hold fast what you have: the hand is yours; I'll have you for my own wife.”
And the elf girl said that the story of the ring finger and of little Peter Playman, the fifth, were still wanting.
“We'll hear those in winter,”said the gnome,“andwe'll hear about the pine tree, and about the birch, and about the fairies' gifts, and about the biting frost. You shall tell your tales, for no one up there knows how to do that well; and then we'll sit in the stone chamber where the pine logs burn, and drink mead out of the horns of the old Norwegian Kings----Necken has given me a couple; and when we sit there, and the Brownie comes on a visit, he'll sing you all the songs of the milking-girls in the mountains. That will be merry. The salmon will spring in the waterfall, and beat against the stone walls, but he shall not come in.
“Yes, it's very good living in Norway; but where are the lads?”
Yes, where were they? They were running about in the fields, and blowing out the Will-o'-the-wisps, which had come so good-naturedly for the torchight procession.
“What romping about is that?”said the old gnome. “I have taken a mother for you, and now you may take one of the aunts.
But the lads said that they would rather make a speech and drink brotherhood----they did not care to marry; and they made speeches, and drank brotherhood, and tipped up their glasses on their nails, to show they had emptied them. Afterwards they took their coats off and lay down on the table to sleep, for they made no ceremony. But the old gnome danced about the room with his young bride,and he changed boots with her, for that's more fashionable than exchanging rings.
“Now the cock crows, said the old elf girl who attended to the housekeeping.“Now we must shut the shutters, so that the sun may not burn us.”
And the hill shut itself up. But outside, the Lizards ran up and down in the cleft tree, and one said to the other,
“Oh, how I like that old Norwegian gnome!”
“I like the lads better,”said the Earthworm. But he could not see, the miserable creature.