Fairy tales and stories (Andersen, Tegner)/The Will o the Wisps

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THERE was a man who once knew very many new fairy tales, but now they had slipped from his memory, he said. The fairy tales which used to come of themselves and visit him did not come any more and knock at his door, and why did they not come? True enough, the man had not been thinking of them for years and days, and had not been expecting they would come and knock again; but most probably they had not been near him at all, for abroad there was war, and in his country the sorrow and distress which war carries with it.

The storks and the swallows came back from their long journey; they had not been thinking of any danger, but when they arrived they found their nests were burned, the dwellings of men and the wicket-gates out of order or even gone, the horses of the enemy trampling over the old graves. They were hard and gloomy times; but even they must come to an end.

And now they had come to an end, the people said; still the fairy tales did not knock at the door or give any sign of themselves.

"They are dead and gone, I suppose, with all the others," said the man.

But fairy tales never die.

And more than a year passed and he began to long sorely after them.

"I wonder if the fairy tales will ever come back and knock at my door?" And he remembered so vividly in how many forms they had come to him, sometimes young and fair, like the spring itself, as a beautiful young maiden with a wreath of woodruff in her hair and a branch of the beech in her hand, while her eyes shone like deep forest lakes in the bright sunlight; at other times they had come in the shape of a peddler who had opened his box of wares and let the silken ribbons fly about with their verses and inscriptions of old memories; but most delightful of all, however, were the occasions when they came as "old Granny," with silver-white hair and eyes so large and clear, who could tell so well about the times of old, long before the princesses spun yarn upon golden spindles, about the times when dragons and serpents lay outside the maidens' bowers and kept guard. She would then tell her stories so vividly that all who listened to her saw black spots dancing before their eyes, the floor became black with human blood; it was terrible to behold and listen to, and yet so fascinating, for it was such a long time since it had all happened.

"Will she ever knock at my door again?" said the man, and stared at the door till black spots appeared before his eyes and on the floor; he did not know if it was blood or the black crape from the dark, gloomy days gone by.

And as he sat there the thought struck him that the fairy tales might have hidden themselves somewhere, like the princess in the very old fairy tales, and were waiting to be discovered; if she were found, she would arise and shine with renewed splendor, more glorious than ever.

"Who knows? Perhaps she has hidden herself among the straw that was thrown near the brink of the well. Take care! Be careful! Perhaps she has hidden herself inside a dried flower which has been put inside one of the large books on the shelf."

And the man went and opened one of the newest books, full of information and knowledge, but no flowers lay there. There one could read about Holger Danske; and the man read that the story was invented and composed by a monk in France, that it was a romance which had been "translated and printed in the Danish language," that Holger Danske had never existed, and could consequently never come back again, as we have so long been singing and would so gladly believe. As with William Tell, so with Holger Danske — they were only myths, which could not be depended upon; and all this was set forth in the book with great wisdom.

"Well, I shall believe what I believe," said the man; "no plantain grows where no foot has trodden."

And he shut the book, put it back on the shelf, and went over to the fresh flowers in the window; perhaps the fairy tales had hidden themselves inside the red tulips with the golden-yellow edges, or in the fragrant rose, or in the highly colored camellia. There was sunlight among the leaves, but no fairy tales.

The flowers which stood here in the time of sorrow were far more beautiful; but they were cut off, every one of them, and made into wreaths and placed in the coffins, and over them the flag was spread. Perhaps the fairy tales were buried with those flowers! But the flowers must have known of it, and the coffin would have been aware of it, the soil around it would have noticed it, every little blade of grass that shot forth would have told of it. For fairy tales never die!

"Perhaps they have been here and knocked at my door, but who had ears or eyes for them in those times?" People looked gloomily, sadly, and almost angrily at the spring sunshine, at the twittering birds, and all the budding foliage; yes, even the tongue could no longer sing the old, popular, ever-fresh melodies — they were consigned to oblivion with so many other things that were dear to our hearts. The fairy tales may have been here and knocked, but no one has heard them; they were not welcomed, and so they have gone away.

"I will set out to find them. Out into the country. Out into the woods by the open shore."

Out in the country lies an old manor-house with red walls, pointed gables, and with a flag waving from the tower. The nightingale is singing under the delicately fringed beech leaves, while he looks at the blossoming apple-trees and believes that they are bearing roses. Here in the summer sun the bees are busily fluttering about, and swarming and humming round their queen.

The autumn storms have much to tell about the wild chase, about the generations of mankind, and the leaves of the forest which sweep over the land. At Christmas time the wild swans sing from the open lake, while in the old manor-house the folks are gathering round the fireside to listen to songs and legends.

Down in the old part of the garden, where the great avenue of wild chestnut-trees allures one with its twilight, the man who was looking for the fairy tales was walking about. Here the wind had some time ago whispered into his ears the story of "Valdemar Daa and his Daughters." Here the dryad in the tree, the mother of fairy tales, had herself told him "The Last Dream of the Old Oak-Tree." Here in grandmother's time there were only clipped hedges; now only ferns and nettles grow there, spreading themselves over scattered fragments of old statues of stone; moss was growing in their eyes, but they could see just as well as before, while the man who was in search of the fairy tales could not; he could not see the fairy tales. Where were they?

Hundreds of crows flew over his head and the old trees, screaming "Kra! Kra!"

And he went from the garden across the moat into the alder-grove, where there was a little six-sided cottage with poultry- and duck-yards. In the middle of the room sat the old woman who looked after everything and knew exactly when each egg was laid, and knew every chicken that came out of the eggs. But she was not the fairy tales which the man was in search of; that she could prove by her certificate of Christian baptism and of vaccination, both of which were lying in her chest of drawers.

Some distance off, though not far from the house, is a hill with red hawthorn and laburnum; there lies an old tombstone, which was brought there many years ago from the churchyard in the town, in memory of one of the honorable councilors of the town, his wife, and his five daughters, all with folded hands and in ruffs, standing round him, hewed in stone. One could look so long at these figures that they seemed to have an effect upon one's thoughts, and these again seemed to influence the stone, so that it began telling stories about old times; at least, that is what happened to the man who was in search of the fairy tales. As he now came upon the spot, he saw a living butterfly sitting right on the forehead of the councilor's effigy in stone; the butterfly flapped its wings, flew some little distance, and settled down again close to the tombstone, as if to show what was growing there. Four-leaved clovers grew there; there were altogether seven of them, close to one another. If luck comes, it comes in abundance. He gathered the clovers and put them in his pocket. Luck is as good as ready money, but a new, delightful fairy tale would be much better, thought the man; but he did not find it there.

The sun went down, large and red; in the meadows vapors were rising; the woman from the marsh was brewing.

Later on in the evening the man was standing alone in his room, looking out into the garden over the meadows, the marshes, and the strand; the moon shone brightly, a mist was lying over the meadow, making it look like a great lake, which it had really been at one time. There were legends about it, and in the moonlight the legends seemed to take shape. The man then thought of what he had been reading when in town, that William Tell and Holger Danske had not existed; but still they remain in the traditions of the people, just like the lake over yonder — living evidence of the legends. Yes, Holger Danske will come back again. As he was standing there, buried in thought, something struck heavily against the window. Was it a bird, a bat, or an owl? One does n't open windows for such visitors when they knock.

The window flew open of itself, and an old woman looked right in at the man.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "Who are you? How can you look through a window on the first floor? Are you standing on a ladder?"

"You have got a four-leaved clover in your pocket," she said; "in fact, you have seven in all, and one of them is a six-leaved one."

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"The woman from the marsh," she said, — "the woman from the marsh, who brews. I was busy brewing, the tap was in the barrel, but one of the little imps from the marsh pulled out the tap for mischief, and I threw it right up here against the house and it struck against the window. Now the beer is running out of the barrel, and that won't do anybody any good."

"But do tell me," said the man.

"Yes, yes, only wait a little," said the woman from the marsh. "I have got something else to look after now," and then she was gone.

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The man was just closing the window when the woman again appeared.

"Now I am done," she said; "but half the beer I shall have to brew over again to-morrow, if the weather is suitable. Well, what was it you wanted to ask about? I came back again, because I always keep my word, and you have in your pocket seven four-leaved clovers, one of which is a six-leaved one; that commands respect; it is a decoration which grows by the roadside, but which cannot be found by every one. What is it you want to ask about? Don't stand there like a silly dolt. I must be off soon, to look after my tap and my barrel."

And the man asked after the fairy tales — whether the woman from the marsh had seen them on her way.

"By the big brew!" said the woman, "have you not had enough of fairy tales? I thought most people had had enough of them. There are other things to be looked after, and other things to mind. Even children have got beyond them. Give the little boys a cigar and the little girls a new crinoline — they care much more for these. Listen to fairy tales! No, indeed, there are other things to be looked after, much more important things to be done!"

"What do you mean by that?" asked the man. "And what do you know about the world? You see only frogs and will-o'-the-wisps."

"You had better beware of the will-o'-the-wisps," said the woman; "they are out. They have been let loose. Let's talk about them! Come and see me in the marsh, where I am wanted; there I'll tell you all about it, but make haste, while your seven four-leaved clovers, with the six-leaved one, are fresh, and while the moon still stands high."

And away went the woman from the marsh.

The clock struck twelve in the clock-tower; before it struck a quarter past the man was down in the yard, and had passed through the garden and stood in the meadow. The mist had disappeared, and the woman from the marsh had stopped brewing.

"You've been a long time coming," said the woman from the marsh. "Witches get on faster than men, and I am glad I was born a witch."

"What have you got to tell me now?" asked the man. "Is it something about the fairy tales?"

"Can you never get further than to ask about them?" said the woman.

"Then is it about the poetry of the future that you can tell me?" asked the man.

"Don't begin with any of your grand phrases," said the woman, "and I'11 be sure to answer you. You think only of poetry, — you ask only about fairy tales, as if they were the mistress of everything. She is the oldest, but she is generally taken for the youngest. I know her well enough! I have also been young, and that's no child's complaint. I was once a pretty elfin maid, and have danced with the others in the moonlight. I have listened to the nightingale and have walked in the woods, and met the fairy-tale maiden who was always gadding about. Sometimes she would take up her quarters for the night in a half-blown tulip, or in a globe-flower. At other times she would steal into the church and wrap herself up in the black crape which hung round the candles on the altar."

"You seem to be well informed," said the man.

"Well, I should say I know as much as you!" said the woman from the marsh. "Fairy tales and poetry — well, they are like two yards of the same piece of stuff; they may go and bury themselves where they like! All their ideas and talk can be brewed over again and be had much better and cheaper. You shall have them from me for nothing. I have a whole cupboard full of poetry in bottles. It is the essence, the best part of it; both the sweet and the bitter herb. I keep everything that people want of poetry in bottles, so that I can put a little on my handkerchief on Sundays to smell."

"You speak of very wonderful things," said the man. "Have you poetry in bottles?"

"More than you can stand," said the woman. "You know, I suppose, the story of 'The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf so that She Might not Dirty Her New Shoes'? It is both written and printed."

"I have told it myself," said the man.

"Well, then you must know it," said the woman; "and you must know that the little girl sank straight into the ground to the woman from the marsh, just as the devil's great-grandmother came on a visit to see the brewery. She saw the girl as she was sinking, and asked if she might have her to put on a pedestal, in remembrance of the visit. She got her, and I got a present which is of no use to me — a medicine-chest, a whole cupboard filled with poetry in bottles. Great-grandmother told me where the cupboard should stand, and there it is still standing. Just look! You have your seven four-leaved clovers in your pocket, of which one is a six-leaved one, so you will be sure to see it."

And sure enough, in the middle of the marsh was lying something like the stump of a big alder-tree; it was great-grandmother's cupboard. It was open to the woman from the marsh and to everybody from all countries, and at all times, she said, if they only knew where the cupboard was standing. It could be opened at the front and at the back, and at every side and all the corners, — a most ingenious piece of work, — and yet it only looked like the stump of an old alder-tree. The poets of all countries, especially of our own country, were re-manufactured here. Their minds were elaborated, criticized, renovated, concentrated, and then put into bottles. With great instinct, as it is called when you do not want to say genius, great-grandmother had seized upon that in nature which seemed to partake of the flavor of this or of that poet, had put a little devilry to it, and then she had his poetry in bottles for all time to come.

"Let me have a look," said the man.

"Yes, but there are more important things to listen to," said the woman from the marsh.

"But now we are at the cupboard," said the man, and looked into it. "Here are bottles of all sizes. What is there in this one? And in this?"

"This is what they call May-dew," said the woman. "I have not tried it, but I know that if you pour only a small drop of it on the floor, you have at once before you a beautiful woodland lake, with water-lilies, flowering rushes, and wild mint. You need pour only two drops upon an old exercise-book, even on those from the lowest class in the school, and the book becomes a sentimental comedy which is good enough to be performed, and over which people would be sure to fall asleep, so strong is the perfume of it. It is supposed to be out of compliment to me that the label on the bottle bears the inscription, 'The Brew of the Woman from the Marsh.'

"Here stands the bottle of 'Scandal." It looks as if there were only dirty water in it; and it is dirty water, but with effervescing powder of town gossip, three ounces of falsehood, and two grains of truth, stirred about with a birch-twig, not taken from a rod that has been in pickle or fresh from the bleeding back of sinners; no, taken right from the broom which has been used to sweep the gutter with.

"Here is the bottle with 'Pious Poetry,' set to psalm tunes. Every drop has a ring about it, like the slamming of the gates of hell, and has been prepared from the blood and sweat of the penitent. Some say it is only the gall of the dove, but doves are the gentlest of creatures; they have no gall, people say who do not know their natural history.

"Here stood the bottle of all bottles, — it took up half the cupboard, — the bottle with 'Stories of Every-dav Life.' It was covered over both with bladder and hogskin, for it would n't do to lose any of its strength. Every nation could here get its own soup; it all depended on how you turned and shifted the bottle. Here was old German blood-soup, with robber-dumplings; also thin cottagers' -soup, with real court officials, who lay like carrots at the bottom, while philosophical fat floated on the top. There was English governess-soup, and the French pótage à la coq, made from cocks' legs and sparrows' eggs, in Danish called cancan-soup; but the best of all the soups was Copenhagen-soup. That's what the family said.

"Here, in a champagne-bottle, 'Tragedy' used to stand; it could go off with grand effect, and that was necessary. 'Comedy' looked just like fine sand to throw in people's eyes — that is to say, the refined comedy; the coarser was also to be found in bottle, but consisted only of play-bills of future productions, the most attractive of which were the titles of the pieces. There were capital titles for comedies, such as: 'Dare You Spit on the Watchworks?' 'One On the Jaw,' 'The Darling Ass,' and 'She is Dead Drunk.'"

The man stood musing, but the thoughts of the woman from the marsh went further; she wanted to put an end to it all.

"I suppose you have seen enough now of the medicine-chest," she said, "now you know what there is in it; but there is something more important that you ought to know, and which you don't know — the will-o'-the-wisps are in town. That is of far greater importance than
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poetry and fairy tales. I ought to hold my tongue about it, but this must be the work of Providence, or fate — something which has taken possession of me, something that sticks in my throat; it must come out. The will-o'-the-wisps are in town. They have been let loose. You mortals had better beware!"

"I don't understand a word of it," said the man.

"Be good enough to sit down on the cupboard," she said; "but don't fall into it and break the bottles — you know what there is in them. I will tell you of the great event; it happened only yesterday, and it has happened before. This one has still three hundred and sixty-four days to run. You know, of course, how many days there are in the year?"

And the woman from the marsh began her story.

"There were grand doings out here in the marsh yesterday. There was a children's party. A little will-o'-the-wisp was born here — in fact, there were twelve of them born to the same family, and to them it is given to become mortals if they choose, and to appear, act, and command as if they were human beings. It is a great event in the marsh, and therefore all the will-o'-the-wisps, male and female, — for there are also females amongst them, but they are never mentioned, — were dancing like little lights all over the marshes and meadows. I sat on the cupboard there and had all the twelve new-born will-o'-the-wisps in my lap; they shone like glow-worms, and were already beginning to jump and increase in size every minute, so that before a quarter of an hour had passed they all began to look just as large as if they were fathers or uncles. Now it is an old established law and privilege that when the moon stands in the sky just as she did yesterday, and the same wind blows which blew yesterday, it is decreed and granted to all the will-o'-the-wisps who are born in that hour and in that minute to become mortals, and through the whole year to exercise their power everywhere, one and all of them. The will-o'-the-wisp may run at large all round the country and the whole world as well, if he is not afraid of falling into the sea or being blown out in a heavy gale. He can enter into a human being, talk to him, and make any movement he likes. The will-o'-the-wisp can assume any form whatever, man or woman, and can talk and act in their spirit, but according to his own notions of extremes, so that he arrives at any result he wishes. But in the course of the year he must know and understand how to lead three hundred and sixty-five mortals astray, — and that he must do in grand style, — to lead them astray from truth and righteousness; then he will rise to the highest position a will-o'-the-wisp can attain — that of becoming fore-runner to the devil's state chariot, with a fiery-yellow coat and the flames shooting out of his throat. That's enough to make the mouths of the common will-o'-the-wisps water!

"But there is some danger and a good deal of work to be done by an ambitious will-o'-the-wisp who intends to play such a role. If a mortal discovers who he is, and can blow him away, he is done for, and has to return to the marsh; and if a will-o'-the-wisp is seized with a longing to return to his family and abandon his mission, then he is also done for, and can no longer burn brightly, he will soon go out and cannot be lighted again. And if the year comes to an end and he has not by that time led three hundred and sixty-five mortals astray from the path of truth, and from everything that's good and beautiful, he is condemned to take up his abode in decayed wood and shine without being able to move, and that is the most terrible punishment that can befall a sprightly will-o'-the-wisp. I knew all this, and I told it all to the twelve little will-o'-the-wisps whom I had on my lap, and they became wild with joy. I told them that the easiest and most comfortable way was to give up all ambition and not to think of doing anything; but the young lights would not listen to this — they already saw themselves arrayed in the fiery-yellow coats, with the flames shooting out of their throats.

"'Remain with us!' said some of the elder ones.

"'Go and play your tricks on mankind,' said the others. 'They dry up our meadows; they have invented a system of drainage. What will become of our descendants?'

"'We want to shine, to dazzle!' said the new-born will-o'-the-wisps; and so the matter was settled.

"And now they gave a ball which was to last only a minute; it could not very well be less. The elfin maidens whirled round three times with all the others, so that they should not be thought proud, for they generally prefer to dance by themselves. Then the christening presents were distributed — playing at 'ducks and drakes' as it was called. Presents were thrown about like pebbles across the marsh lake. The elfin maidens gave the end of their veils. 'Take it,' they said, 'and then you will know all the higher dances, the most difficult figures and turns; when you are in a dilemma you will know how to deport yourself correctly, and can show yourself in the very best society.' The night raven taught each of the young will-o'-the-wisps to say: 'Bravo, bravo, bravo!' and to say it at the right moment, and that is a great gift which brings its own reward. The owl and the stork had also something to say, but it was not worth talking about, they said, and so we shall not mention it. 'King Waldemar's wild chase' was just flying past across the marsh, and when the grand company heard of the goings on they sent as a present a couple of fine dogs which could run as fast as the wind, and could easily carry from one to three of the will-o'-the-wisps. Two old witches, who got their living by riding, were also present at the feast; they taught the young will-o'-the-wisps the trick of slipping in through the keyholes; when you know this it is the same as if all doors are open to you. They offered to take the young will-o'-the-wisps to town, which they knew well. They usually rode through the air on their own long black hair, in which they had made a knot in order to sit firmly, but now they sat astride the dogs from the wild chase, and took in their laps the young will-o'-the-wisps which were going to town to beguile and lead mortals astray. Whist! Off they went! All this happened last night. Now the will-o'-the-wisps are in town, now they have begun, but how and in what way? Ay! Can you tell me that? I have a weather prophet in my big toe, which always has something to tell me."

"Why, it is a regular fairy tale!" said the man.

"Yes, but it is only the beginning of one," said the woman. "Can you tell me how the will-o'-the-wisps are now behaving and disporting themselves, and what shape they have assumed to lead mortals astray?"

"I think," said the man, "that a whole romance might be written about the will-o'-the-wisps — a romance in twelve volumes, one about each will-o'-the-wisp; or perhaps a popular drama would be still better."

"You ought to write it," said the woman, "or, rather, leave it alone."

"Yes, that is more pleasant and comfortable," said the man; "and then one does not run the risk of being sat upon by the papers, which is often as unpleasant for us as for the will-o'-the-wisp to lie in decayed wood, shining and not daring to say a word."

"It is all the same to me," said the woman; "but rather let the others write — those who can write, and those who cannot. I will give them an old tap from my barrel, which will open the cupboard with the bottles of poetry; in these they may find whatever they are short of. But you, my good man, seem to have inked your fingers quite sufficiently and to have arrived at that time of life and maturity when you should not be running after fairy tales every year. There are now far more important things to be done. You understand, of course, that there is mischief brewing?"

"The will-o'-the-wisps are in town," said the man. "I have heard it and I understand it, but what do you want me to do? I should get an overhauling if I said to people: 'Look, there goes a will-o'-the-wisp in a respectable coat!'"

"They also go about in petticoats," said the woman. "The will-o'-the-wisp can assume all kinds of shapes and appear in all sorts of places. He goes to church, but not for religious reasons; perhaps he has taken up his quarters in the parson. He speaks on election days, not for the sake of the state or the country, but for his own sake; he is an artist, both in the color-pot and in the theatrical pot, but if he comes into power, there will be an end to it. I go on talking and talking, but I must say and speak out what is sticking in my throat, even to the detriment of my own family, though I am supposed to be the woman who is to save mankind. It is not of my own free will, or for the sake of the medal, I can assure you. I do the maddest thing I can: I tell it to a poet and then the whole town soon gets to know it."

"The town will not take it to heart," said the man. "It will not affect a single person. They will believe that I am telling them a fairy tale when I tell them with the most serious face: 'The will-o'-the-wisps are in town, as the woman from the marsh says. Take care of yourselves!'"

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