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The next story introduces us to the Gnomes, who appear to come more frequently into contact with human beings than any of the other nature-spirits, perhaps because their nature may be more akin to that of man. They are seen with more or less similar characteristics in all the mining countries of Northern Europe, whether Celtic, as Ireland and the Isle of Man; Teutonic, as England, Germany, and Scandinavia; or Finnish-Ugrian. They were well known to the old Norsemen as the Dvergar.
ONCE upon a time a man lost his way on a stormy night between Christmas and New Year. He wore out his strength plunging through the deep snow-drifts, until, by good luck, he found some protection from the wind under a thick juniper bush. Here he resolved to pass the night, hoping to find his way easier by the clear light of the morning. He rolled himself together like a hedgehog in his warm fur-cloak and fell asleep. I don’t know how long he lay there before he was roused by somebody shaking him, and a stranger’s voice said in his ear, “Get up, farmer, or the snow will bury you, and you will never get out again.” The sleeper pushed his head out of his fur, and opened his sleepy eyes wide. He saw a tall thin man before him, who carried a young fir-tree, twice as high as himself, as his staff.
“Come with me,” said the man; “we have made a fire under the trees, where you can rest better than in this open field.” The traveller could not refuse such a friendly invitation, so he got up p. 115 directly, and walked on quickly with the stranger. The snowstorm raged so furiously that they could not see a step before them, but when the stranger lifted his fir staff and cried with a loud voice, “Ho there, mother of the snowstorm, make way!” a broad pathway appeared before them, on which no snowflakes fell. A dreadful snowstorm raged on either side of the wanderers and behind them, but it did not touch them. It appeared as if an invisible wall held back the storm on either hand. The men soon reached the wood, and they had already seen the light of the fire from afar off. “What is your name?” asked the man with the fir staff, and the peasant answered, “Hans, the son of tall Hans.”
Three men sat at the fire, clothed in white linen garments, as if it had been midsummer. For thirty paces or more around them, everything looked like summer; the moss was dry, the herbage was green, and the grass swarmed with ants and small beetles; but afar off Hans heard the blasts of wind and the raging of the storm. Still stranger seemed the burning fire, which spread a bright light around, but threw up no smoke. “What think you, tall Hans’ son? isn’t this a better resting-place for the night than under the juniper bush in the open field?” p. 116 Hans assented, and thanked the stranger for bringing him there. Then he took off his fur-cloak, rolled it up as a pillow for his head, and lay down in the glow of the fire. The man with the fir staff took his flask from under a bush and offered Hans a drink, which tasted most excellent, and warmed his heart. He then lay down too, and began conversing with his companions in a foreign language, of which Hans could not understand a word; and Hans presently fell asleep.
When he awoke, he found himself lying in a strange place, where was neither wood nor fire. He rubbed his eyes, and tried to recollect what had happened to him the night before, and thought he must have been dreaming, but he could not understand how he came to be lying in quite a strange place. A great noise resounded from a distance, and he felt the ground under his feet tremble. Hans listened for some time to find out where the noise came from, and then determined to follow it, hoping to find some people. Presently he reached the entrance to a cavern, from which the noise proceeded, and where a fire was shining. When he entered, he found a huge smithy filled with bellows and anvils, and seven workmen stood round each p. 117 anvil. But stranger smiths were not to be found in the world. They were not higher than the knee of an ordinary man, and their heads were larger than their own bodies, and they wielded hammers more than twice as large as themselves. But they smote on the anvil so lustily with these huge iron hammers that the strongest man could not have struck harder. The little smiths were clad in leathern aprons which reached from the neck to the feet; but at the back their bodies were as naked as God had made them. In the background a high bench stood against the wall, on which sat Hans’ friend with the fir staff, and looked sharply after the work of the little journeymen. A large can stood at his feet, from which the workmen took a drink now and then. The master of the smithy was no longer dressed in white, as on the previous day, but wore a black sooty coat, and round his waist a leathern belt with a great buckle. Now and then he made a sign to the workmen with his fir staff, for the noise was so great that no human voice could have been heard. Hans was uncertain whether any one had noticed him, for both master and men continued their work without paying any attention p. 118 to the stranger. After some hours, the little smiths were allowed to rest; the bellows were stopped, and the heavy hammers thrown on the ground. When the workmen had left, the master rose from the bench, and called to Hans to approach.
Oh, what riches and treasure Hans beheld there! All sorts of gold and silver lay about everywhere, and glittered and gleamed before his eyes. Hans amused himself by counting the bars of gold in a single heap, and had just counted up to five hundred and seventy, when the master turned round and said, smiling, “You’d better leave off, for it will take up too much time. You would do better to take some bars from the heap, for I will give you them as a remembrance.”
Of course Hans needed no second invitation. He grasped one of the bars of gold with both hands, but could not even move it, much less lift it from its place. The master laughed, and said, “Poor delicate flea! you cannot carry off even the least of my treasures, so you must feast your eyes on them instead.” He then led Hans into another room, and through a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth of these treasure-caverns, till they reached the seventh, which was as big as a large church, and, like the others, p. 119 was crammed with heaps of gold and silver from floor to ceiling. Hans marvelled at these immeasurable riches, which could easily have bought up all the kingdoms in the world, but which were now lying useless underground. So he asked the master, “Why do you store up these vast treasures here, where no human being can derive any benefit from the gold and silver? If these treasures came into the hands of men, they would all be rich, and nobody would have to work or suffer distress.”
“It is for this very reason,” answered the master, “that I cannot hand over these treasures to mankind. The whole world would perish from sloth, if no one needed longer to work for his daily bread. Man is created to sustain himself by toil and thrift.”
But Hans did not like this view of the matter, and disputed energetically with the master. At last he asked him to explain how it was that all this gold and silver was the property of one man and was left to rust, and why the master of the treasure incessantly laboured to increase it when he had already such an amazing superfluity of riches. The master answered, “I am not a man, although I have the form and appearance of one. I belong to a nobler race, which was formed by the decree of the p. 120 Creator to rule the world.1 By his decree, I must work constantly with my little companions to prepare gold and silver under the earth, and every year a small portion is assigned to the use of men, but not more than just sufficient for their necessities. No one is allowed to receive the gift without trouble. So we are obliged to pound up the gold first, and mix the grains with earth, clay, and sand, and they are afterwards found by chance in this mass, and must be diligently sought for. But, my friend, we must break off our conversation, for it is almost noon. If you would like to look at my treasures longer, stay here, and rejoice your heart with the glitter of gold till I come to call you to dinner.” Thereupon he left Hans alone.
Hans wandered about again from one treasure-chamber to another, and now and then he attempted to lift one of the smaller pieces of gold, but found it quite impossible. In former times, he had often heard clever people say how heavy gold was, but he would never believe it. Now, however, he learned it from his own experience. After a time the master returned, but he was so much altered that Hans did not recognise him at first sight. He wore red flame-coloured p. 121 silken robes, richly decorated with golden lace and golden fringes. He wore a broad gold belt round his waist, and a gold crown adorned his head, sparkling with jewels like stars on a clear winter’s night. Instead of the fir staff, he now held a small gold sceptre in his hand, which branched in such a way that it looked like a shoot of the great fir staff.
After the royal master of the treasure had locked the doors of the treasure-chambers and put the key in his pocket, he took Hans by the hand and led him from the smithy to another room where dinner was set out. The seats and tables were of silver, and in the midst of the room stood a beautifuI dinner-table, with a silver chair on each side. All the utensils, such as cups, dishes, plates, jugs, and mugs, were of gold. When the master and his guest had seated themselves at the table, twelve dishes were presented in succession. The waiters were just like the little men in the smithy, only that they were not naked, but wore clean white clothes. Their quickness and dexterity was very remarkable, for although they did not appear to be provided with wings, they moved about as lightly as birds. They were not tall enough to reach the table, and p. 122 were obliged to skip up to it like fleas. Meantime they held the great dishes and tureens in their hands, and were so skilful that they did not spill a drop of the contents. During dinner the little waiters poured mead and delicate wines into the mugs, and handed them to the company. The master carried on a friendly conversation, and explained many mysteries to Hans. Thus, when they came to talk over his nocturnal meeting with Hans, he said, “Between Christmas and New Year I am accustomed to amuse myself by wandering about the world, to watch the doings of men, and to make myself acquainted with some of them. I cannot say anything very remarkable about those whom I have seen and talked to. Most men live only to injure and plague each other. Everybody complains more or less of others. Nobody regards his own faults and failings, but lays the blame on others for what he has done himself.”
Hans tried his best to dispute the truth of these words, but his friendly host made the waiters fill his glass so heedfully that his tongue became too heavy at last to utter another word, and he was equally unable to understand what his host said. Presently he fell asleep in his chair, and knew nothing more of what happened.
While he slept, he had wonderfully vivid dreams, in which the gold bars constantly floated before him. As he felt much stronger in his dreams, he took a few gold bars on his back, and easily carried them away. But at last his strength failed under the heavy burden, and he was obliged to sit down and take breath. Then he heard loud voices, which he took to be the singing of the little smiths, and the bright fire from their forges shone in his eyes. When he looked up, blinking, he saw the green wood around him. He was lying on the flowery herbage, and it was not the forge fires, but the sun-rays which shone cheerfully on his face. He shook off his drowsiness, but it was some time before he could fully recall what had happened to him.
At last, when he had fully recovered his recollection, everything seemed so strange and wonderful to him that he could not reconcile it with the ordinary course of events. Hans reflected how he had wandered from the path during a stormy winter night between Christmas and New Year, and what had happened to him afterwards came back to his recollection. He had slept by a fire with a stranger, and next day the stranger, who carried a fir staff, p. 124 had received him as his guest. He had dined with him and had drunk a good deal; in short, he had spent a few days in jollity and carousal. But now it was the height of summer all around him; there must be magic in it all. When he stood up, he found that he was close by the ashes of an extinguished fire, which shone wonderfully in the sun. But when he examined the place more carefully, he saw that the supposed heap of ashes was fine silver dust, and the remaining sticks were bright gold. Oh, what luck! where could he find a bag in which to carry the treasure home? Necessity is the mother of invention. Hans pulled off his winter fur coat, swept the silver ashes together, so that not a particle was left, put the gold faggots and silver ashes into the fur, and tied it together with his belt like a bag, so that nothing could fall out. Although it was not a large bundle, he found it awfully heavy, so that he had to drag it manfully before he could find a suitable place to hide his treasure.
Thus Hans became suddenly enriched by an unexpected stroke of good fortune, and might have bought himself an estate. But after taking counsel with himself, he decided that it was better for him p. 125 to leave his old dwelling-place, and to look for a fresh one at some distance, where the people did not know him. There he bought himself a nice piece of land, and he had still a good stock of money left over. Then he took to himself a wife, and lived happily like a rich man to the end of his days. Before his death he told his children his secret, and how he had visited the master of the underground treasures, who had made him rich. The story was spread about by his children and grandchildren.
1 Jannsen regards this master-smith as Ilmarine.