Deep in the Bohemian forest, of which now only a shadow remains, dwelt years ago, when it spread itself far and wide into the country, a little spiritual people, aeriel, uncorporeal, and shunning the light. They were of a finer nature than mankind, which is formed out of gross clay, and were therefore imperceptible to the coarser sense; but to the more refined they were half visible by moonlight, being well known to the poets under the name of the Dryads, and to the old bards under the name of the Elves. From time immemorial they had lived undisturbed here, until the forest suddenly resounded with the tumult of war; Duke Czech, of Hungary, crossed the mountains with his Slavonic hordes, to seek a new dwelling-place in this spot.
The beautiful inhabitants of the aged oaks, of rocks, caves and grottoes, as well as those of the reeds in ponds and marshes fled from the noise of weapons, and the snorting of war-horses. Even for the mighty Erl-king the tumult was too much, and he removed his court to the more remote deserts. One elf alone could not resolve to quit her beloved oak, and when the wood was hewn down in every direction to make the land arable, she alone had the courage to defend her tree against the power of the new comers, and chose its lofty top for her abode.
Among the courtiers of the duke was a young squire, named Crocus, full of courage and youthful fire, active, well made, and of noble stature. To him was entrusted the care of his master’s horses, which he sometimes drove out to feed in the forest. Often he rested under the oak which the elf inhabited; she regarded the stranger with pleasure, and when at night he slumbered by the root, she whispered pleasant dreams into his ear, predicted to him in significant images the events of the coming day; or if one of his horses had strayed in the wilderness, and the keeper had lost all traces of him, and went to sleep with heavy heart, he saw in his dream the marks of the concealed path which led to the spot where the stray horse was feeding.
The farther the new settlers spread the nearer did they approach the dwelling of the elf, who by means of her faculty of divination foresaw how soon the axe threatened her tree of life, and therefore resolved to communicate her trouble to her friend. One moonlight summer’s evening Crocus drove his herd later than usual into the fence, and hastened to his usual couch beneath the tall oak. His road wound about a lake well stored with fish, in the silver waves of which the golden crescent was reflected in the shape of a glittering cone. Straight over this shining part of the lake, on the opposite shore, he perceived in the vicinity of the oak a female form, that seemed to be walking on the cool bank. This apparition surprised the young warrior. “Whence,” he thought to himself, “could this maiden come, so solitary in these deserts, at the time of evening twilight?”
But the adventure was of such a nature, that to a young man it was more alluring than alarming to search into the affair. He doubled his pace without losing sight of the form which occupied his attention, and soon reached the place where he had first perceived her, under the oak. It now seemed to him as if what he saw was more of a shadow than a reality. He stood astounded, and a cold shuddering came over him; but he heard a soft voice, which whispered to him these words: “Come hither, dear stranger, and be not afraid; I am no deceptive form, no delusive shadow; I am the elf of this grove, the dweller in the oak, under the thick-leaved boughs of which thou hast often slumbered; I lulled thee to sweet delightful repose, foretold to thee what would befall thee, and if a mare or a colt of thy herd had strayed, I told thee of the place where it was to be found. Repay this favour by another service which I require of thee. Be the protector of this tree, which has so often protected thee against sun and rain, and prevent the murderous axe of thy brothers, who are destroying the woods, from injuring this venerable trunk.”
The young warrior, whose courage revived at this soft discourse, answered thus: “Goddess or mortal, whichever thou art, ask of me whatever thou pleasest, and if I can I will accomplish it. But I am only a humble man among my people, the servant of my lord the duke. If he says to me to-day or to-morrow, ‘feed your horses here, feed them there,’ how shall I be able to protect thy tree in this remote wood? But if thou commandest it I will leave the service of my prince, dwell in the shadow of thine oak, and protect it as long as my life lasts.” “Do so,” said the elf, “and thou wilt not repent of it.” Upon this she vanished, and there was a rustling in the tree above, as if some loud evening breeze had caught itself there, and was moving the leaves.
Crocus stood for awhile quite enchanted at the heavenly apparition which had appeared to him. Such a delicate, truly feminine creature, of such a slender form, and of such noble appearance he had never seen among the stunted Slavonic girls. At last he stretched him upon the soft moss, although sleep did not close his eyes; morning twilight surprised him in a tumult of delicious sensations, which were to him as strange and novel as the first beam of light to the newly opened eyes of one who has been born blind. At the break of day he hastened to the duke’s palace, asked for his dismissal, packed up his baggage, and hastily started with his head filled with glowing fantasies and his burden on his back, for his delightful retreat in the forest.
During his absence, however, an artificer among the people, by trade a miller, had pitched upon the sound straight trunk of the oak as an axle for his mill-wheel, and went with his men to fell it. The trembling elf sighed when the greedy saw began with its iron teeth to gnaw the foundations of her dwelling. From the top of the tree she looked anxiously around for her faithful protector; but her glance was unable to discover him anywhere, and her consternation rendered the gift of prophecy peculiar to her race so ineffective, that she no more ventured to decipher her impending fate than the sons of Esculapius with their boasted “prognosis” are able to tell when death will knock at their own doors.
However Crocus was on his way, and so near the scene of this mournful catastrophe, that the noise of the creaking saw reached his ears. He augured no good from this noise in the forest, and setting wings to his feet beheld — horrible sight — the impending destruction of the tree he had taken under his protection in his very presence. Like a madman he flew upon the workmen with his spear and drawn sword, and frightened them from their work; for they thought that a mountain demon was in their presence and fled in great confusion. Fortunately the tree’s wound was curable, and in a few summers the scar had disappeared.
In the hours of rest in the evening, after the new-comer had selected a spot for his future dwelling, had marked out the space to be hedged in for a little garden, and had again considered in his mind the whole plan of the hermitage in which he designed to pass his days, far removed from human society, in the service of a shadowy friend, who seemed to be totally unreal, the elf appeared to him on the banks of the lake, and with graceful gestures thus accosted him: “Thanks, dear stranger, that thou hast prevented the strong arms of thy brethren from felling this tree, to which my life is attached; for know that mother nature, who has endowed my race with such various powers and faculties, has nevertheless united our life to the growth and duration of the oaks. Through us does the queen of the forest raise her venerable head above the rabble of other trees and shrubs; we promote the circulation of the sap through trunk and branches, so that she gains strength to combat with the whirlwind, and to defy for centuries the destroying power of time. On the other hand, our life is knit to hers. When the oak, to whom fate has assigned us as a partner, grows old, we grow old with it, and when it dies, we die away also, and sleep like mortals, a sleep of death, until by the eternal revolution of all things, chance or some secret arrangement of nature unites our being to a new germ, which opened by our vivifying power, sprouts up after a long time to a mighty tree, and affords us the joys of life anew. From this thou mayst perceive what a service thou hast rendered me by thy assistance, and what gratitude is due to thee. Require of me the reward of thy noble act, reveal to me the desire of thy heart, and it shall be fulfilled at once.”
Crocus was silent. The sight of the charming elf had made upon him more impression than her discourse, of which he understood but little. She perceived his confusion, and to extricate him from it took a dry reed from the bank of the lake, broke it into three pieces, and said: “Choose one of these three, or take one without choice. In the first is fame and honour, in the second are riches and wise use of them, and in the third happy love is contained for thee.” The young man cast his eyes to the ground and answered: “Daughter of Heaven, if thou intendest to grant the wish of my heart, know that it is not contained in the three reeds which thou offerest; my heart seeks a still greater reward. What is honour but the fuel of pride, what are riches but the root of avarice, and what is love but the trap of passion, to ensnare the noble liberty of the heart? Grant me my desire of resting beneath the shadow of thy oak, from the fatigue of the campaign, and of hearing from thy sweet mouth doctrines of wisdom, that thus I may decipher the future.”
“Thy wish,” replied the elf, “is great, but what thou deservest at my hands is not less, and therefore let it be as thou hast requested. The bandage before thy corporeal eyes shall vanish, that thou mayst behold the secrets of hidden wisdom. With the enjoyment of the fruit take also the shell, for the wise man is also held in honour. He alone is rich, for he desires no more than he actually needs, and he tastes the nectar of love without poisoning it with impure lips.” When she had said this she again presented him the three pieces of reed, and vanished.
The young hermit prepared his bed of moss under the oak, highly delighted at the reception which the elf had accorded him. Sleep overcame him like an armed man, cheerful morning dreams danced round his head, and nourished his fancy with the fragrance of happy anticipations. As soon as he woke he joyously began his day’s work, built himself a commodious hut, dug his garden, and planted roses and lilies, and other sweetly-smelling flowers and vegetables, not without cabbages and kitchen herbs, besides an assortment of fruit-trees.
The elf did not fail to pay him a visit in the twilight of every evening, took pleasure in the produce of his industry, walked with him hand in hand along the reedy bank of the pond, until the waving reed murmured forth a melodious evening greeting to the friendly pair, when the breeze rustled through it. The elf initiated her docile pupil into the secrets of nature, instructed him in the origin and issue of things, taught him their natural and magical qualities and virtues, and formed the rough warrior to a thinker and a philosopher.
In the same degree as the feelings and senses of the young man became more refined by his intercourse with the fair shadow, the tender form of the elf became denser, and acquired more consistency. Her bosom was filled with animation and life, fire glistened from her hazel eyes, and with the form of a young girl, she seemed also to have acquired the feelings of one. In a few months the sighing Crocus was blessed with the happiness which the third reed had promised him, and did not regret that the freedom of his heart was ensnared by the trap of love. Although the marriage of the tender pair took place without witnesses, it was productive of as much happiness as the most obstreperous nuptials, and in due time pledges of conjugal affection were not wanting.
The elf presented her husband with three daughters at one birth, and the delighted father, in the first embrace, called her who had cried in his house before the two others, Bela; the next Therba, and the youngest Libussa. All were like genii in the beauty of their form; and although they did not consist of such a delicate material as their mother, their corporeal nature was finer than the coarse earthy form of their father. They were also free from all the infirmities of children, and needed no leading strings, for, after the first nine days, they all ran like so many partridges. As they grew up, they displayed all their mother’s talent for detecting hidden things, and predicting the future.