SOME two or three generations ago, a three-year-old ox, belonging to some people who lived in an alpine meadow in Westfjall, disappeared. And look for him as they would, they could not find him, and in the fall they moved down into the valley again. But while the grandmother was skimming the cream from the milk-pans in the lean-to the day before their departure, and the oldest maid in the hut was scooping the cheese out of the big kettle, a little shepherd girl came running up, and called out that the big ox was standing at the salt-lick, and licking the salt. When the mother stepped out for a moment, she saw nothing that looked at all like an ox. So she thought the little girl had probably been mistaken; but the little one insisted that the big ox had been there.
"I saw the white spot he had on his forehead, and he had broken off one of his horns," said she. The man himself and his two sons were each out searching in a different direction, and they searched and searched; but all three came back at evening, and none of them had found anything. When they heard the little girl's story, one of the sons flung himself on his horse, and rode home at full gallop, in order to fetch his gun; loaded it with small splinters from a steel arrow, hurried back posthaste, and shot it off cross-wise over the salt-lick. "If the ox is bewitched, he ought to appear now," said he. But it was of no use, the ox was gone and he stayed gone.
The oldest son was to go up on the hill once more, and take a good look all around. And he searched in every direction, far and near, until he thought he could smell the ox; yet in spite of this, he could see no sign of a living being anywhere, all day long. Finally he grew angry, and swore that for his part, the bewitched beast might go to the end of the world; if he did not want to join the rest of the herd, he could please himself. With that he turned around, and went to the herdsman's hut as fast as he could, meaning to take home with him the bear he had shot.
And there, at the fence of the herdsman's hut, stood the great ox licking salt. And one of his horns had been broken off. Where he had been knocking about so long he himself probably knew, the young fellow did not.
But now day was so nearly over that he could just about reach home if he went as he was, and hurried as fast as he could. But if he had to lead and pull along the ox besides, it would have been pitch-dark before he had fairly started. And let me tell you, the fall nights are really dark, and cold besides, and it is not wise to camp under the open sky in the mountains. For this reason he decided to wait until morning, though a night at the herdsman's hut would be bleak and lonely. So he chopped a good armful of birch-boughs, laid them on the hearth, and soon the hut grew warm and comfortable, and as bright as a room lit with Christmas candles. When he had eaten his supper, he threw himself down on the bed of planks, pulled his jew's-harp out of his waistcoat pocket, and began to play the "Bells of St. Thomas" round. But he had not been playing long before he fell asleep, with the instrument in his mouth. Suddenly he woke again, and it seemed to him that he could hear something rustling softly at the other end of the hut. He turned his head slightly, and saw a beautiful young girl standing by the table, braiding her hair. It was so long that it fell down over her hips, and as lovely and shiny as though it had been gilded. At first the young fellow could not see her face, but once, when she happened to turn in his direction, it seemed to him that she was the fairest and finest-looking maiden he had ever laid eyes on. Her like could not have been found far or near, and he knew every girl in the parish, well-to-do or otherwise. The young fellow did not dare address her, for she thought herself alone, and looked so dear and trustful that he dreaded frightening her away. So he lay there as still as a mouse, and did not venture to move so much as a foot.
Suddenly in came another girl; but she appeared to be coarser, and had a large mouth and dark complexion, not as clear and fresh as that of the first girl; and she did not please him as well. Both were dressed alike, in green jackets and bodices of red satin, blue stockings, and with bright silver buckles on their shoes. The younger maiden had white sleeves, that were so fresh and clean they fairly shone. Her bodice was cut low, and showed a handsome round clasp, which tinkled delicately whenever the maiden made the slightest move. And now the young fellow realized what sort of maidens these were, and could not get over his astonishment that there were such beautiful women among the underground folk. It was Saturday evening, and this was probably the reason they were dressing and adorning themselves so busily: no doubt they were expecting company or suitors. The young fellow could not make out what they said to each other, for they whispered so softly that he only caught a word now and then. Once they spoke of a little white lamb that had gone lame that day.
"Yes, it is the fault of that young fellow who has been rushing around in all the empty huts among the hills, looking for his fire-red ox. I saw him throw a stone at the little lamb," said the older girl, the one with the large mouth and dark skin. "He really should be punished for that!" said she.
"Yes, but he never knew it was a lamb," replied the younger one, the beauty with the red cheeks. "And it was not right of grandmother to hide his ox, and make him hunt for it far and near."
"He might have taken his ox, for it was standing just beside the hut, and he ran right past it," said the other girl.
"Yes, but you know he took it to be a rat," the younger one answered.
"O, how stupid those people are," said the older one again, and laughed until she shook. "They pretend to be wiser than wise, and cannot even tell a fire-red ox from a rat! Ha, ha, ha!" and she laughed so heartily that her sister was also carried away, and the young fellow himself could not help but smile a bit.
After a time he began to play a boisterous dance-tune. And what a fright it gave the girls! They screamed, ran off helter-skelter in their terror, and were gone in a flash. But the young fellow kept on playing. After a little while one of them thrust in her head at the door, and when they saw what had frightened them so, they began to whisper and giggle outside, in front of the hut. And after a time they ventured in again, and began to dance to the music. And those girls could really swing around and use their legs. They almost flew over the uneven floor, and were so sure of the time that every step they took was in place.
When they had danced a while, and the young fellow had made their acquaintance--or thought that he had--he unclasped his belt, and passing it around the handsomer of the two, drew her to him. And she allowed him to do so. This angered the young fellow, for he would not have believed that so dainty and lovely a girl would have allowed him to act so familiarly on such short acquaintance. And as though by chance, he let go one end of his belt and swish!--off she was. Her sister ran after her, and slammed the door behind her.
Now the young fellow was angry with himself because he had been angry with her. But he thought he was probably not worthy of obtaining the hand of so fair and loveable a maiden, for there is an old saw to the effect that none may escape their fate. Finally he thought that perhaps he could coax her back again with his music, and he played one tune after another, the most beautiful ones he knew. But the _huldra_ maidens did not appear again. At last his hands and mouth grew so tired that he had to stop. And then he happened to think of "The Blue Melody," which a minstrel from his part of the country had learned in ancient times from the underground folk. No sooner had he commenced it than both girls came sweeping in once more.
"You play beautifully, you do!" said the younger.
"One has to play beautifully when one has such beautiful listeners," returned the young fellow.
"Yes, that's what the cat said when she caught a mouse," laughed the maiden.
"Come here, and I will teach you 'The Blue Melody'!" said he. So they came to him, and watched while he played. After a time the younger one put her hand in his waistcoat pocket.
"And what is that, is it liquorice?" she asked, as she pulled out a roll of tobacco.
"Yes, try it!" the young fellow answered. She bit off a little piece, but spat it right out on the floor again.
"Yes, it is liquorice that bites," said she, and she wiped her tongue on her sleeve.
"Is it really so biting?" asked the other one, and also wanted to try it. So the young fellow gave her some as well, and she had the same experience. They never wanted to taste such liquorice again in their lives, so they assured him.
"Well, I can tell you how to get good liquorice," said the one. "You must boil the root of a plant called merilian, and you must pour the water into juniper-berry juice, and then you will have a liquorice that is so sweet and good that it will even cure a toothache." The young fellow said he would try it, some time, when he had found the plant.
Toward evening the girls wanted to leave. Yet that drove him to despair, and he begged them to stay for a little while. But the girls simply would not. Their mother would not allow it, said they. When the young fellow saw that they were really going, he went quite out of his mind. He had grown so very fond of the younger _huldra_ maiden, and now he was never to see her again. Without knowing what he did, he threw the jew's-harp at her, and hit her on the head, just as she was passing through the door. And with that she came in again.
"Mother, mother! A Christian has won sister Sireld!" cried the other, out in front of the hut. Soon after a very ancient woman came hobbling and shuffling into the hut. Her face was so wrinkled and dark that her yellow teeth shone out from it, for teeth she had, in spite of her age. "Now you may keep her, since you have won her, for now she is no longer bewitched," said the old woman to the young fellow. "And if you are kind to her, you shall never lack food or clothing, and you shall have all that you need, both Sundays and workdays. But if you treat her unkindly, you shall pay for it!" said the old woman, and raised her cane as though she were about to use it on the young fellow. Then she hobbled out again.
It seemed to him that he had won a wife very quickly, after all, in this manner, and he asked her how it all came to be.
"The jew's-harp struck my head with such force, that a drop of blood flowed," said the girl, "and it was the best thing you could have done, for I would much rather live with Christians than with the underground folk," said she.
He still thought the world and all of her, and yet it seemed to him as though he could have done nothing worse: all had happened so quickly, and he had nothing on which to marry; but after all, what was done was done. The following morning she went home with him. His family were much surprised to see him come back in such company, and were angry with him, and looked for excuses to find fault with the girl: but there was nothing to object to about her, except that she had yellow teeth, and after all, this was no such great matter. In her dealings with others she was uncommonly amiable, and there was not a girl that went to church who could equal her in beauty.
But after the wedding he gradually began to ill-treat her. For you must know that he could never forget she was not a Christian. He sulked, and was always angry and ill-natured, and never gave her a kind word. And he refused to grant her least request. Though it might be the merest trifle, he never had more than a short "No" for anything she asked. And in spite of this she was kind and friendly, and acted as though she did not hear his angry words, and was always helpful and amiable. But it made no difference, he grew worse from day to day. And they began to go downhill, for strife in the home drives luck away. At last it seemed as though they would have to take the beggar's bowl and staff, and wander from one farm-stead to another like any other beggars.
One day she did not know what to give the people to eat, for there was not even a crust of bread in the house. And then she grew sad, for all might have been different for them had he but treated her better. He was standing in the smithy at the moment, about to shoe a horse, and she went out to him.
"Won't you build me the pen now, the one I have so often, often asked you for?" she begged. "Do it now, and I will shoe the horse!" And she tore the red-hot horse-shoe from the anvil, and bent it in shape with her bare hands. When he saw that she was mistress of such arts, he grew frightened, and actually built her a fine, big pen back of the stable, set in a post, and drove a hook into it, just as she had said. The following morning the pen filled with fire-red cattle, big, fat, handsome beasts, that gave a great deal of milk. Such fine cows had never been seen anywhere. And on the hook hung a copper milk-pail, and a pair of horns of salt, with a silver ring from which to hang them. And now it was not long, as you may imagine, before they were more than prosperous at the farm-stead again.
For a time everything went well. He let her work and command in the house, and she had unfailing luck in all she undertook, so that wealth flowed in to them from every side. But at length he once more began to ill-treat her. Wherever he went he remembered that she was no Christian, no matter how kind, and amiable and obedient she might be, and just like any one else, save that she was far, far handsomer. Once he reached down the poker from the wall, and was about to beat her. She jumped up and begged him insistently not to touch her: "For else both of us will be unhappy!" But he would not listen to her, and beat her about the head, until the blood ran over the poker and fell on his hand. And then she suddenly disappeared from his sight. It seemed as though she had floated through the wall, or sunk into the ground. He saw nothing, but he heard a woman sob and weep, very quietly and softly, and painfully, and with a deadly sadness. After a little while all was silent--and then he heard no more. He searched day in, day out, here and there, hither and yon, and his neighbors, too, went along and helped him search; but to no avail, for he did not find her, and could not even discover a trace of her. When he was in the hill pastures during the summer, and the rest of the folk were up there as well, and even after they had gone, he would sit night after night, and play "The Blue Melody"; yet he never saw her again, nor any of her folk.
In the summer his little girl was old enough to begin going to school. And one day she said to her father, when he came up to the hills: "I am to bring you a kind greeting from mother!"
"Ah, no, my little girl, is that really the truth? Where did you speak to her?" he asked.
"She and two others came here the day that Guro fetched the sheep, and since then she often comes here," answered the little one, "and they gave me their clasps, too," said she, and showed him three handsome round clasps.
"Won't she come back home to us?" he asked, as well you may imagine.
"She said that she really could not do that, and that she had to protect you continually against folk who wanted to harm you!" said the little one.
Sadness had been his portion before this, and now it did not grow any less. And it was a blessing that before many years had passed the earth closed over him.