T HERE came once a little Elf Boy to live on this earth, and he was so much pleased with it that he stayed, never caring to go back to his own world. I do not know where his own world was, or just how he came to leave it. Some thought that he was dropped by accident from some falling star, and some that he had flown away, thinking that he could fly back again whenever he chose, because he did not know that children always lose their wings when they come into this world. But no one knew certainly, as he never told any one; and, after all, it did not matter, since, as I have already said, he liked the earth so much that he did not care to leave it.
There was a Hermit who lived in the valley where the little Boy had first come, and, as he had a room in his house for a visitor, he took him in, and they grew to like each other so well that again the little Boy did not care to go away, nor did the Hermit care to have him. The Hermit had not always been a Hermit, but he had become a sorrowful man, and did not care to live where other people lived, or to share any of their pleasures. The reason he had become a sorrowful man was that his only child had died, and it seemed to him that there was nothing worth living for after that. So he moved to the lonely valley, and I suppose would have spent the rest of his life by himself, if it had not been for the little Elf Boy.
It was a very lovely valley, with great, green meadows that sloped down to a rippling brook, and in summer-time were full of red and white and yellow blossoms. Over the brook there hung green trees, whose roots made pleasant places to rest when one was tired; and along the water's edge there grew blue flowers, while many little frogs and other live creatures played there. It was summer-time when the little Elf Boy came, and the flowers and the trees and the brook and the frogs made him very happy. I think that in the world from which he came they did not have such things: it was made chiefly of gold and silver and precious stones, instead of things that grow and blossom and keep one company. So the Elf Boy was very happy. He did not ask to go to play in the village over the hill, but was quite content with the meadows and the brook-side. The only thing that did not please him was that the old Hermit still remained sorrowful, thinking always of his child who had died; and this the Elf Boy did not understand, for in the world from which he came nothing ever died, and he thought it strange that if the Hermit's child had died he did not patiently wait for him to come back again.
So the summer went merrily on, and the Elf Boy learned to know the names of all the flowers in the meadow, and to love them dearly. He also became so well acquainted with the birds that they would come to him for crumbs, and sit on the branches close by to sing to him; the frogs would do the same thing, and although the Elf Boy did not think their voices as sweet as those of the birds, he was too polite to let them know it.
But when September came, there began to be a sad change. The first thing the Elf Boy noticed was that the birds began to disappear from the meadows. When he complained of this, the Hermit told him they had gone to make their visit to the Southland, and would come back again; and this he easily believed. But as time went on, and the air became more and more still as the last of them took their flight, he began to lose heart.
What was worse, at the same time the flowers began to disappear from the meadows. They were dead, the Hermit said, and in this way the Elf Boy learned what that meant. At first others came to take their places, and he tried to learn to like the flowers of autumn as well as those which he had known first. But as these faded and dropped off, none came after them. The mornings grew colder, and the leaves on the trees were changing in a strange way. When they grew red and yellow, instead of green, the Elf Boy thought it was a queer thing for them to put on different colors, and wondered how long it would last. But when they began to fall, he was very sad indeed. At last there came a day when every limb was bare, except for a few dried leaves at the top of one of the tallest trees. The Elf Boy was almost broken-hearted.
One morning he went out early, to see what new and dreadful thing had happened in the night, for it seemed now that every night took something beautiful out of the world. He made his way toward the brook, but when he reached the place where he usually heard it calling to him as it ran merrily over the stones, he could not hear a sound. He stopped and listened, but everything was wonderfully still. Then he ran as fast as his feet would carry him to the border of the brook. Sure enough, it had stopped running. It was covered with a hard sheet of ice.
The Elf Boy turned and went to the Hermit's house. By the time he had reached it, the tears were running down his cheeks.
"Why, what is the matter?" asked the Hermit. "The brook is dead," said the Elf Boy.
"I think not," said the Hermit. "It is frozen over, but that will not hurt it. Be patient, and it will sing to you again."
"No," said the Elf Boy. "You told me that the birds would come back, and they have not come. You told me that the trees were not dead, but their leaves have every one gone, and I am sure they are. You told me that the flowers had seeds that did not die, but would make other flowers; but I can not find them, and the meadow is bare and dark. Even the grass is not green any more. It is a dead world. In the summer-time I did not see how you could be sorrowful; but now I do not see how any one can be happy."
The Hermit thought it would be of no use to try to explain anything more to the Elf Boy; so he said again, "Be patient," and tried to find some books in which he could teach the Boy to read, and make him forget the outside world.
The next time they went for a walk to the village over the hill, the Elf Boy was very curious to see whether the same thing had happened there that had happened in their valley. Of course it had: the trees there seemed dead, too, and the flowers were all gone from the door-yards. The Boy expected that every one in the village would now be as sorrowful as the Hermit, and he was very much surprised when he saw them looking as cheerful as ever. There were some boys playing on the street-corner, who seemed to be as happy as boys could be. One of them spoke to the Elf Boy, and he answered:
"How can you play so happily, when such a dreadful thing has happened to the world?"
"Why, what has happened?"
"The flowers and trees are dead," said the Elf Boy, "and the birds are gone, and the brook is frozen, and the meadow is bare and gray. And it is so on this side of the hill also."
Then the boys in the street laughed merrily, and did not answer the Elf Boy, for they remembered that he was a stranger in the world, and supposed he would not understand if they should try to talk to him. And he went on through the village, not daring to speak to any others, but all the time wondering that the people could still be so happy.
As the winter came on, the Hermit taught him many things from the books in his house, and the Elf Boy grew interested in them and was not always sad. When the snow came he found ways to play in it, and even saw that the meadow was beautiful again, though in a different way from what it had been in summer. Yet still he could not think the world by any means so pleasant a place as it had been in the time of flowers and birds; and if it were not that he had become very fond of the Hermit, who was now the only friend he could remember, he would have wished to go back to the world from which he had come. It seemed to him now that the Hermit must miss him very much if he should go away, since they two were the only people who seemed really to understand how sorrowful a place the earth is.
The hermit taught him many things
So the weeks went by. One day in March, as he and the Hermit sat at their books, drops of water began to fall from the eaves of the roof, and they saw that the snow was melting in the sunshine.
"Do you want to take a little walk down toward the brook?"
asked the Hermit. "I should not wonder if I could prove to
"Yes," said the Elf Boy, though he did not think the Hermit could be right. It was months since he had cared to visit the brook, it made him so sad to find it still and cold.
When they reached the foot of the hillside the sheet of ice was still there, as he had expected.
"Never mind," said the Hermit. "Come out on the ice with me, and put down your ear and listen."
So the Elf Boy put down his ear and listened; and he heard, as plainly as though there were no ice between, the voice of the brook gurgling in the bottom of its bed. He clapped his hands for joy.
"It is waking up, you see," said the Hermit. "Other things will waken too, if you will be patient."
The Elf Boy did not know quite what to think, but he waited day after day with his eyes and ears wide open to see if anything else might happen; and wonderful things did happen all the time. The brook sang more and more distinctly, and at last broke through its cold coverlet and went dancing along in full sight. One morning, while the snow was still around the house, the Elf Boy heard a chirping sound, and, looking from his window, saw a red robin outside asking for his breakfast.
"Why," cried the Boy, "have you really come back again?"
"Certainly," said the robin, "don't you know it is almost spring?"
But the Elf Boy did not understand what he said.
There was a pussy-willow growing by the brook, and the Boy's next discovery was that hundreds of little gray buds were coming out. He watched them grow bigger from day to day, and while he was doing this the snow was melting away in great patches where the sun shone warmest on the meadow, and the blades of grass that came up into the daylight were greener than anything the Elf Boy had ever seen.
Then the pink buds came on the maple trees, and unfolded day by day. And the fruit trees in the Hermit's orchard were as white with blossoms as they had lately been with snow.
"Not a single tree is dead," said the Elf Boy.
Last of all came the wild flowers—blue and white violets near the brook, dandelions around the house, and, a little later, yellow buttercups all over the meadow. Slowly but steadily the world was made over, until it glowed with white and green and gold.
The Elf Boy was wild with joy. One by one his old friends came back, and he could not bear to stay in the house for many minutes from morning to night. Now he knew what the wise Hermit had meant by saying, "Be patient;" and he began to wonder again that the Hermit could be sorrowful in so beautiful a world.
One morning the church bells in the village—whose ringing was the only sound that ever came from the village over the hill—rang so much longer and more joyfully than usual, that the Elf Boy asked the Hermit why they did so. The Hermit looked in one of his books, and answered:
"It is Easter Day. The village people celebrate it on one Sunday every spring."
"May we not go also?" asked the Elf Boy, and as it was the first time he had ever asked to go to the village, the Hermit could not refuse to take him.
The village was glowing with flowers. There were many fruit trees, and they, too, were in blossom. Every one who passed along the street seemed either to wear flowers or to carry them in his hand. The people were all entering the churchyard; and here the graves, which had looked so gray and cold when the Hermit and the Boy had last seen them, were beautiful with flowers that the village people had planted or had strewn over them for Easter.
The people all passed into the church. But the Hermit and the Elf Boy, who never went where there was a crowd, stayed outside where the humming-birds and bees were flying happily among the flowers. Suddenly there came from the church a burst of music. To the Elf Boy it seemed the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. He put his finger on his lip to show the Hermit that he wanted to listen. These were the words they sang:
"I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore!"
The Boy took hold of the Hermit's hand and led him to the church door, that they might hear still better. He was very happy.
"Oh," he cried, "I do not believe that anything ever really dies."
The Hermit looked down at him and smiled. "Perhaps not," he said.
When the music began again, a strange thing happened. The Hermit sang the Easter song with the others. It was the first time he had sung for many years.