T HERE was once a Student—a proper Student; he lived in an attic, and owned just nothing at all. There was also a Grocer—a proper Grocer; he lived in a comfortable room, and owned the whole house. So the Nis clung to the Grocer, for the Grocer could give him, every Christmas eve, a bowl of groats, with such a great lump of butter in it! The Student could not afford him that; so the Nis dwelt in the shop, and was right comfortable there.
One evening the Student came by the back-door into the shop to buy candles and cheese; he had no servant to send so he came himself. They gave him what he wanted, he paid the money, and the Grocer and Madam, his wife—she was a woman! she had uncommon gifts of speech!—both nodded "Good evening" to him. The Student nodded in return, and was turning away when his eye fell upon something that was printed on the paper in which his cheese was wrapped, and he stood still to read it. It was a leaf torn out of an old book, a book that ought never to have been torn up, a book full of rare old poetry.
"Plenty more, if you like it," quoth the Grocer; "I gave an old woman some coffee-beans for it; you shall have the whole for eight skillings."
"Thank you," said the Student, "let me have it instead of the cheese; I can very well sup off bread and butter, and it would be a sin and a shame for such a book as this to be torn up into scraps. You are an excellent man, a practical man, but as for poetry, you have no more taste for it than that tub!"
Now this speech sounded somewhat rudely but it was spoken in jest; the Student laughed and the Grocer laughed, too. But the Nis felt extremely vexed that such a speech should be made to a Grocer who was a householder and sold the best butter.
So when night was come, the shop shut up, and all except the Student were gone to bed, the Nis stole away Madam's tongue—she did not want it while she slept. And now whatever object he put it upon not only received forthwith the faculty of speech, but was able to express its thoughts and feelings to the full as well as Madam herself. Fortunately the tongue could be in only one place at a time, otherwise there would have been a rare tumult and chattering in the shop, all speaking at once.
And the Nis put the tongue on the tub wherein all the old newspapers lay. "Is it really true," he asked, "that you do not know what poetry is?"
"Don't I know!" replied the Tub; "it is something that is put into the newspapers to fill them up. I should think I have more of it in me than the Student has, though I am only a Tub at the Grocer's!"
And the Nis put the tongue on the coffee-mill,—oh, how bravely it worked then!—and he put it on the money-box and on sundry other articles; and he asked them all the same question, and all gave much the same answer; all were of the same opinion, and the opinion of the multitude must be respected.
"Now for the Student!" and the Nis glided very softly up the back stairs leading to the Student's attic. There was light within, and the Nis peeped through the keyhole to see what the Student was about. He was reading in his new-found treasure, the torn old book. But oh, how glorious! A bright sunbeam, as it were, shot out from the book, expanding itself into a mighty, broad-stemmed tree, which raised itself on high and spread its branches over the student. Every leaf on the tree was fresh and green, every flower was like a graceful, girlish head—the faces of some lit up with eyes dark, thrilling, and passionate, and others animated by serene blue orbs, gentle as an angel's. And every fruit was like a glittering star, and such delicious melody was wafted around!
No, such glory and beauty as this never could the little Nis have imagined. And, mounted on tiptoe, he stood peeping and peeping, till at last the bright light within died away, till the Student blew out his lamp and went to bed. Nor even then could little Nis tear himself away, for soft, sweet music still floated around, lulling the Student to rest.
"This is beyond compare!" exclaimed the little Nis; "this could I never have anticipated! I believe I will stay with the Student henceforth." But he paused and reflected, and reasoned coolly with himself, and then he sighed, "The Student has no groats to give me." So down he went; yes, back he went to the Grocer's; and it was well that he did, for the Tub had, meantime, nearly worn out Madam's tongue by giving out through one ring all that was rumbling within it, and was just on the point of turning in order to give out the same through the other ring when the Nis came and took the tongue back to Madam. But from that time forward the whole shop, from the cash-box down to the pinewood fagots, formed their opinion from that of the Tub; and they all had such confidence in it, and treated it with so much respect, that when the Grocer read aloud in the evening art and the stage criticism from the Times, they all thought it was the Tub's doings.
But the little Nis was no longer content to stay quietly in the shop, listening to all the wit and wisdom to be gathered there; no, as soon as ever the lamp gleamed from the attic chamber he was gone; that slight thread of lamplight issuing from under the Student's door acted upon him as it were a strong anchor-rope drawing him upward; he must away to peep through the key-hole. And then he felt a tumult of pleasure within him, a feeling such as we all have known while gazing on the glorious sea when the Angel of the Storm is passing over it; and then he would burst out weeping, he knew not why, but they were happy, blessed tears. Oh, delightful beyond conception would it have been to sit with the Student under the tree; but that would be too much happiness, content was he and right glad of the keyhole. And there he would stand for hours in the draughty passage, with the bleak autumn wind blowing down from the trap-door in the roof full upon him; but the enthusiastic little spirit never heeded the cold, nor, indeed, felt it at all until the light in the attic had been extinguished and the sweet music had died away in the mournful night wind. Ugh! then he did shake and shiver, and crept back into his comfortable warm corner. And when Christmas eve came, and the great lump of butter in his groats—ah! then he felt that the Grocer was his master after all!
But one midnight the Nis was awaked by a terrible rat-tat upon the window-shutters; a crowd of people outside were shouting with all their might and main; the watchman was sounding his alarum; the whole street was lit up with a blaze of flame. Fire! where was it? at the Grocer's, or next door? The tumult was beyond description. Madam, in her bewilderment, took her gold ear-rings off her ears and put them in her pocket by way of saving something; the Grocer was in a state of excitement about his bonds, the maid wild for her silk mantilla. Every one would fain rescue whatsoever he deemed most precious; so would the little Nis. In two bounds he was up-stairs in the attic. The Student was standing at the open window, calmly admiring the fire, which was in the neighbor's house, not theirs; the marvelous book lay on the table, the little Nis seized it, put it into his red cap and held it aloft with both hands: the most precious thing the house possessed was saved! Away he darted with it, sprang upon the roof, and in a second was seated on the chimney-pot, the glorious raging flames like a halo around him, both hands grasping firmly the little red cap wherein lay his treasure. And now he knew where his heart was, felt that the Student was really his master; but when the fire was extinguished and he recovered his senses— what then? "I will divide my allegiance between them," quoth he; "I cannot quite give up the Grocer, because of my bowl of groats."
Now this was really quite human. The rest of us stick to the Grocer—for groats.