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MANY years ago a man was driving over a lake with his little son before the ice was properly p. 99 formed. It broke, and they all sank in the water, when an old man with silver-grey hair came up, and upbraided them for breaking through the winter roof of his palace. He told the man that he must stay with him, but he would give him a grey horse and a sledge with golden runners, that he might drive about under the ice in autumn, and make a noise to warn others that it was unsafe until Father Taara had strengthened it sufficiently. But he would help the boy and the horse above the ice, for they were not to blame. When the water-god had brought them from under the ice, he told the boy to go home, and not to mourn for his father, who would be very happy under the water, and to be careful not to drop anything out of the sledge. On reaching home, be found two lumps of ice in the sledge, and threw them out, but when they struck against a stone and did not break, he discovered that they were lumps of pure silver. He had now plenty to live upon comfortably; but every autumn when the lake was covered with young ice, he went to it, hoping to see or hear something of his father. The ice often cracked and heaved just before his footsteps, as if his father was trying to speak to him, but there was no other sign.
Many years passed by, and the son grew old and grey. One day he went to the lake as usual, and sat down sorrowfully on a stone, just where the river falls into it, and great tears rolled down his cheeks. Suddenly he saw, on raising his eyes, a great door of silver with golden lattice-work close to the mouth of the river. He rose up and went to it, and he had scarcely touched it when it sprang open. He hesitated a moment and then entered, and found himself in a gloomy gallery of bronze. He went some distance, and presently reached a second door like the former, but much higher. Before it stood a dwarf with a broad stone hat on his head and bronze armour. He wore a copper girdle round his waist, and held in his hand a copper halbert about six feet long. “I suppose you have come to see your father?” he said in a friendly manner. “Yes, indeed, my good man,” answered the other. “Can you not help me to see him or meet him? I am already an old man myself, and my life grows ever more lonely.” “I must not make any promises,” said the dwarf, “and it is about time for your father to fulfil his office. Hark, he is just driving off in his golden sledge with the grey horse, to warn mortals against treading incautiously on our delicate p. 101 silver roof. But as you have once before been our guest, and have ventured to come again, I will show you the house and grounds of the water-world. None of our people are at home to-day, neither the gentry nor the household, so that we can go through the rooms without interference.” As he spoke he touched the door, and the old man and his guide entered a vast and splendid palace of crystal. There they saw a great crowd of men, women, and children walking about, or sitting talking, or amusing themselves; but none of them noticed or addressed the newcomers. Presently the dwarf led the old man farther into the hall. All the fittings were of bright gold and silver, and the floor was of copper, and the farther they advanced the brighter everything shone, without any apparent end. At last the old man asked to turn back, and the dwarf said, “It is well that you mentioned it, for a little farther on the gold shines so brilliantly that the eyes of mortal men cannot endure it. And there dwells our good and mighty king, with his noble consort, surrounded by the bold heroes and lovely dames of our realm.” “You told me the gentry and dependants were not at home,” said the old man, “but who were all the people who were talking and laughing p. 102 near the door, and the children who were playing with all manner of costly toys of gold and silver? Don’t they belong to your people?” “Half-way indeed, but not quite,” said the dwarf. “They are, if I may be permitted to tell you, people from your world, who all sank into our kingdom, sooner or later. But they live a very pleasant life here, and have no wish to return to your world, even if they were permitted. For whoever comes to our kingdom must stay with us.” “Must I stay here too?” asked the old man startled, not knowing what preparations he had to make for the life below. “Do you find our home so bad?” asked the dwarf. “But fear nothing, and don’t alarm yourself. This day you can go or stay, as you please. I led you in freely, and will lead you out freely. But this is the first time that a mortal man has been permitted to leave our abode.” Then the old man asked, “Shall I never see my father again?” and tears stood in his eyes once more. The dwarf answered, “You would not see him again till after three weeks, when the ice has become strong and firm. Your father will then have finished his work for the year, and can pass his time pleasantly with us till another year has passed, and he must again perform his p. 103 office for a month.” “Must he then do this work for ever, and remember his misfortune every year?” asked the old man sadly. The dwarf answered, “He must perform this duty till another mortal accidentally damages our roof and sinks down himself. Then is the first man released from his journeying under the young ice, and the other must henceforth take the work upon himself.”
As they were thus conversing, the old man and his guide reached the gate. Then they looked in each other’s faces, and the dwarf gave the old man two rods of copper with a friendly smile, and said, “If you ever come to this gate, and don’t find me on guard, but some one whom you don’t know, strike these rods together, and I will do what you wish, as far as I can.” Then he led his guest through the lofty gate, and accompanied him through the bronze passage to the outer gate, and opened it. Then the old man found himself standing again on the banks of the lake near the mouth of the river, as if he had fallen from the clouds. The door had vanished, but the rods in his hand showed him that what he had seen was a reality. He put them in his pocket, and wandered home sunk in deep thought, and dazed like a drunken man. But here he found p. 104 no rest or pleasure in anything. He went to the mouth of the river on the lake daily for three weeks, and sat on the rock as if in a dream; and at last he disappeared, and never came home again.
Kreutzwald relates that every autumn a little grey man, who lives in the Ülemiste järv, rises from it to see if the new buildings are sufficiently decorated. When he has finished his inspection, he returns to the lake; but if he was so dissatisfied as to turn his head in the opposite direction, evil would come on Tallin (Revel), for the low-lying country would be inundated, and the town would be destroyed.
1 These beings who dwell beneath the sea or lakes are often called “underground people” in Esthonian and Lappish stories.