Some lizards were nimbly running in and out of the clefts in an old tree. They understood each other very well, for they all spoke lizard language.
"What a rumbling and grumbling is going on inside the old Elf-hill," said one of the lizards. "I have not closed my eyes for the last two nights for the noise. I might just as well be having toothache, for all the sleep I get!"
"There is something up inside," said the other lizard. "They propped up the top of the hill on four red posts till. cockcrow this morning, to air it out thoroughly; and the elf maidens had been learning some new dancing steps, which they are always practising. There certainly must be something going on."
"Yes, I was talking to an earthworm of my acquaintance about it," said the third lizard. "He came straight up out of the hill, where he had been boring into the earth for days and nights. He had heard a good deal, for the miserable creature can't see, but it can feel its way, and plays the part of eavesdropper to perfection. They are expecting visitors in the Elf-hill, grand visitors; but who they are the earthworm refused to say or perhaps he did not know. All the will-o'-the-wisps are ordered for a procession of torches, as it is called; and the silver and gold plate, of which there is any amount in the hill, is all being polished up and put out in the moonlight."
"Whoever can the strangers be?" said all the lizards together.
"What on earth is happening? Hark! what a humming and buzzing!"
At this moment the Elf-hill opened, and an elderly elf-maiden tripped out. She was hollow behind, but otherwise quite attractively dressed. She was the old elf-king's housekeeper, and a distant relative. She wore an amber heart upon her forehead. She moved her legs at a great pace, "trip, trip." Good heavens! how fast she tripped over the ground; she went right down to the night-jar in the swamp.
"You are invited to the Elf-hill for to-night," said she to him. "But will you be so kind as to charge yourself with the other invitations. You must make yourself useful in other ways, as you don't keep house yourself. We are going to have some very distinguished visitors, goblins, who always have something to say, and so the old elf-king means to show what he can do."
"Who is to be invited?" asked the night-jar.
"Well, everybody may come to the big ball, even human beings, if they can only talk in their sleep, or do something else after our fashion. But the choice is to be strictly limited for the grand feast. We will only have the most distinguished people. I have had a battle with the elf-king about it; because I hold that we musn't even include ghosts. The merman and his daughters must be invited first. I don't suppose they care much about coming on dry land, but I shall see that they each have a wet stone to sit on, or something better; so I expect they won't decline this time. All the old demons of the first-class, with tails, the River-god, and the wood-sprites. And then I don't think we can pass over the Grave-pig, the Hell-horse, and the Church-grim, although they belong to the clergy, who are not of our people; but that is merely on account of their office, and they are closely connected with us, and visit us very frequently."
"Croak," said the night-jar, and he flew off to issue the invitations.
The elf-maidens had already begun to dance, and they danced a scarf dance, with scarves woven of mist and moonshine; these have a lovely effect to those who care for that kind of thing. The great hall in the middle of the Elf-hill had been thoroughly polished up for the occasion. The floor was washed with moonshine, and the walls were rubbed over with witches' fat, and this made them shine with many colours, like a tulip petal. The kitchen was full of frogs on spits, stuffed snake skins, and salads of toad stool spawn, mouse snouts and hemlock. Then there was beer brewed by the marsh witch, and sparkling salt-petre wine from the vaults. Everything of the best, and rusty nails and church window panes among the kickshaws.
The old elf-king had his golden crown polished with pounded slate-pencil, ay, and it was a head-boy's slate-pencil too, and thy are not so easy to get. They hung up fresh curtains in the bedroom, and fixed them with the slime of snails. Yes, indeed, there was a humming and a buzzing.
"Now we will fumigate with horse-hair and pig's bristles, and tbn I can do no more!" said the old elf-servant.
"Dear father!" said the youngest of the daughters, "are you not going to tell me who these grand strangers are?"
"Well, well," he said, "I suppose I must tell you now. Two of my daughters must prepare themselves to be married,—two will certainly make marriages. The old Trold chieftain from Norway, that lives on the Dovrefield, among his many rock castles and fastnesses and gold works, which are better than you would expect, is coming down here with hIs two sons. They are coming to look for wives. The old Trold is a regular honest Norwegian veteran, straightforward and merry. I used to know him in the olden days, when we drank to our good fellowship. He came here to fetch a wife, but she is dead now. She was a daughter of the king of the chalk cliffs at Möen. As the saying is, 'he took his wife on the chalk,' viz., bought her on tick. I am quite anxious to see the old fellow. The sons, they say, are a pair of overgrown, ill-mannered cubs; but perhaps they are not so bad; I daresay they will improve as they grow older. See if you can't lick them into shape a bit."
"And when do they come?" asked one of the daughters.
"That depends upon wind and weather," said the elf-king. "They travel economically, and they will take their chance of a ship. I wanted them to come round by Sweden, but the old fellow can't bring himself to that yet. He doesn't march with the times, but I don't hold with that!"
At this moment two will-o'-the-wisps came hopping along, one faster than the other, so of course one arrived before the other.
"They are coming, they are coming!" they cried.
"Give me my crown, and let me stand in the moonlight," said the elf-king.
The daughters raised their scarves and curtseyed to the ground.
There stood the Trold chieftain from the Dovrefield; he wore a crown of hardened icicles and polished fir cones, and besides this, he had on a bearskin coat and snow-shoes. His sons, on the other hand, had bare necks and wore no braces, because they were strong men.
"Is that a hill?" asked the youngest of the brothers, pointing to the Elf-hilL "We should call it a hole in Norway."
"Lads!" cried the old man, "holes go inwards, hills go upwards I Haven't you got eyes in your heads?
The only thing that astonished them, they said, was that they understood the language without any trouble.
"Don't make fools of yourselves," said the old man; "one might think you were only half baked."
Then they went into the Elf-hill, where the company was of the grandest, although they had been got together in such a hurry; you might almost say they had been blown together. It was all charming, and arranged to suit everyone's taste. The merman and his daughters sat at table in great tubs of water, and said it was just like being at home. Everybody had excellent table manners, except the two young Norwegian Trolds; they put their feet up on the table, but then they thought anything they did was right.
"Take your feet out of the way of the dishes," said the old Trold, and they obeyed him, but not at once. They tickled the ladies they took in to dinner with fir cones out of their pockets; then they pulled off their boots, so as to be quite comfortable, and handed, he boots to the ladies to hold. Their father, the old Trold chieftain, was very different; he told no end of splendid stories about the proud Norwegian mountains, and the waterfalls dashing down in white foam with a roar like thunder. He told them about the salmon leaping up against the rushing water, when the nixies played their golden harps. Then he went on to tell them about the sparkling winter nights when the sledge bells rang and the lads flew over the ice with blazing lights, the ice which was so transparent that you could see the startled fish darting away under your feet. Yes, indeed, he could tell stories, you could see and hear the things he described; the saw mills going, the men and maids singing their songs and dancing the merry Hailing dance. Huzza! All at once the old Trold gave the elf housekeeper a smacking kiss, such a kiss it was, and yet they were not a bit related. Then the elf-maidens had to dance, first plain dancing, and then step dancing, and it was most becoming to them. Then came a fancy dance.
Preserve us, how nimble they were on their legs, you couldn't tell where they began, or where they ended, you couldn't tell which were arms and which were legs, they were all mixed up together like shavings in a saw-pit. They twirled round and round so often that it made the hell-horse feel quite giddy and unwell and he had to leave the table.
"Prrrrr!" said the old Trold. "There is some life in those legs, but what else can they do besides dancing and pointing their toes and all those whirligigs?"
"We will soon shew you!" said the elf-king, and he called out his youngest daughter; she was thin and transparent as moonshine, and was the most ethereal of all the daughters. She put a little white stick in her mouth and vanished instantly; this was her accomplishment.
But the Trold said he did not like that accomplishment in a wife, nor did he think his boys would appreciate it. The second one could walk by her own side as if she had a shadow, and no elves have shadows.
The third was quite different; she had studied in the marsh witches' brewery, and understood larding alder stumps with glow-worms.
"She will be a good housewife," said the Trold, and then he saluted her with his eyes instead of drinking her health, for he did not want to drink too much.
Now came the turn of the fourth; she had a big golden harp to play, and when she touched the first string everybody lifted up their left legs (for all the elfin folk are left legged). But when she touched the second string everybody had to do what she wished.
"She is a dangerous woman!" said the Trold, but both his sons left the hill, for they were tired of it all.
"And what can the next daughter do?" asked the old Trold.
"I have learnt to like the Norwegians," she said, "and I shall never marry unless I can go to Norway!"
But the smallest of the sisters whispered to the Trold, "that is only because she once heard a song which said that when the world came to an end, the rocks of Norway would still stand, and that is why she wants to go there, she is so afraid of being exterminated."
"Ho, ho!" said the Trold, "so that slipped out. But what can the seventh do?"
"The sixth comes before the seventh," said the elf-king, for he could reckon, but she would not come forward.
"I can only tell people the truth," she said. "Nobody cares for me, and I have enough to do in making my winding sheet."
Now came the seventh and last, what could she do? Well she could tell stories as many as ever she liked.
"Here are my five fingers," said the old Trold, "tell me a story for each one."
The elf-maiden took hold of his wrist, and he chuckled and laughed, till he nearly choked. When she came to the fourth finger, which had a gold ring on it, as if it knew there was to be a betrothal, the Trold said, "Hold fast what you have got, the hand is yours, I will have you for a wife myself!" The elf-maiden said that the stories about Guldbrand, the fourth finger, and little Peter Playman, the fifth, had not yet been told.
"Never mind, keep those till winter. Then you shall tell us about the fir, 'and the birch, and the fairy gifts, and the tingling frost. You shall have every opportunity of telling us stories; nobody up there does it yet. We will sit in the Stone Hall, where the pine logs blaze, and drink mead out of the golden horns of the old Norwegian kings. The river god gave me a couple. When we sit there the mountain sprite comes to pay us a visit, and he will sing you the songs of the Sæter girls. The salmon will leap in the waterfalls, and beat against the stone wall, but it won't get in. Ah, you may believe me when I say that we lead a merry life there in good old Norway. But where are the lads?"
Yes, where were the lads? They were running about the fields, blowing out the will-o'-the-wisps, who came so willingly for the torchlight procession.
"Why do you gad about out there?" said the Trold. "I have taken a mother for you, now you can come and take one of the aunts."
But the lads said they would rather make a speech, and drink toasts; they had no wish to marry. Then they made their speeches, and drank toasts and tipped their glasses up to shew that they had emptied them. After that they pulled off their coats and went to sleep on the table, to show that they were quite at home. But the old Trold danced round and round the room with his young bride, and exchanged boots with her, which was grander than exchanging rings.
"There is the cock crowing!" said the old housekeeper. "Now we must shut the shutters, so that the sun may not burn us up."
Then the hill closed up. But the lizards went on running up and down the clefts of the tree and they said to each other. "Ah, how much I liked the old Trold."
"I liked the boys better," said the earthworm, but then it couldn't see, poor, miserable creature that it was.