The Underground Workers

: The Violet Fairy Book

On a bitter night somewhere between Christmas and the New Year, a

man set out to walk to the neighbouring village. It was not many

miles off, but the snow was so thick that there were no roads, or

walls, or hedges left to guide him, and very soon he lost his way

altogether, and was glad to get shelter from the wind behind a

thick juniper tree. Here he resolved to spend the night,

thinking that when the sun rose he wo
ld be able to see his path


So he tucked his legs snugly under him like a hedgehog, rolled

himself up in his sheepskin, and went to sleep. How long he

slept, I cannot tell you, but after awhile he became aware that

some one was gently shaking him, while a stranger whispered, 'My

good man, get up! If you lie there any more, you will be buried

in the snow, and no one will ever know what became of you.'

The sleeper slowly raised his head from his furs, and opened his

heavy eyes. Near him stood a long thin man, holding in his hand

a young fir tree taller than himself. 'Come with me,' said the

man, 'a little way off we have made a large fire, and you will

rest far better there than out upon this moor.' The sleeper did

not wait to be asked twice, but rose at once and followed the

stranger. The snow was falling so fast that he could not see

three steps in front of him, till the stranger waved his staff,

when the drifts parted before them. Very soon they reached a

wood, and saw the friendly glow of a fire.

'What is your name?' asked the stranger, suddenly turning round.

'I am called Hans, the son of Long Hans,' said the peasant.

In front of the fire three men were sitting clothed in white,

just as if it was summer, and for about thirty feet all round

winter had been banished. The moss was dry and the plants green,

while the grass seemed all alive with the hum of bees and

cockchafers. But above the noise the son of Long Hans could hear

the whistling of the wind and the crackling of the branches as

they fell beneath the weight of the snow.

'Well! you son of Long Hans, isn't this more comfortable than

your juniper bush?' laughed the stranger, and for answer Hans

replied he could not thank his friend enough for having brought

him here, and, throwing off his sheepskin, rolled it up as a

pillow. Then, after a hot drink which warmed both their hearts,

they lay down on the ground. The stranger talked for a little to

the other men in a language Hans did not understand, and after

listening for a short time he once more fell asleep.

When he awoke, neither wood nor fire was to be seen, and he did

not know where he was. He rubbed his eyes, and began to recall

the events of the night, thinking he must have been dreaming; but

for all that, he could not make out how he came to be in this


Suddenly a loud noise struck on his ear, and he felt the earth

tremble beneath his feet. Hans listened for a moment, then

resolved to go towards the place where the sound came from,

hoping he might come across some human being. He found himself

at length at the mouth of a rocky cave in which a fire seemed

burning. He entered, and saw a huge forge, and a crowd of men in

front of it, blowing bellows and wielding hammers, and to each

anvil were seven men, and a set of more comical smiths could not

be found if you searched all the world through! Their heads were

bigger than their little bodies, and their hammers twice the size

of themselves, but the strongest men on earth could not have

handled their iron clubs more stoutly or given lustier blows.

The little blacksmiths were clad in leather aprons, which covered

them from their necks to their feet in front, and left their

backs naked. On a high stool against the wall sat the man with

the pinewood staff, watching sharply the way the little fellows

did their work, and near him stood a large can, from which every

now and then the workers would come and take a drink. The master

no longer wore the white garments of the day before, but a black

jerkin, held in its place by a leathern girdle with huge clasps.

From time to time he would give his workmen a sign with his

staff, for it was useless to speak amid such a noise.

If any of them had noticed that there was a stranger present they

took no heed of him, but went on with what they were doing.

After some hours' hard labour came the time for rest, and they

all flung their hammers to the ground and trooped out of the


Then the master got down from his seat and said to Hans:

'I saw you come in, but the work was pressing, and I could not

stop to speak to you. To-day you must be my guest, and I will

show you something of the way in which I live. Wait here for a

moment, while I lay aside these dirty clothes.' With these words

he unlocked a door in the cave, and bade Hans pass in before him.

Oh, what riches and treasures met Hans' astonished eyes! Gold

and silver bars lay piled on the floor, and glittered so that you

could not look at them! Hans thought he would count them for

fun, and had already reached the five hundred and seventieth when

his host returned and cried, laughing:

'Do not try to count them, it would take too long; choose some of

the bars from the heap, as I should like to make you a present of


Hans did not wait to be asked twice, and stooped to pick up a bar

of gold, but though he put forth all his strength he could not

even move it with both hands, still less lift it off the ground.

'Why, you have no more power than a flea,' laughed the host; 'you

will have to content yourself with feasting your eyes upon them!'

So he bade Hans follow him through other rooms, till they entered

one bigger than a church, filled, like the rest, with gold and

silver. Hans wondered to see these vast riches, which might have

bought all the kingdoms of the world, and lay buried, useless, he

thought, to anyone.

'What is the reason,' he asked of his guide, 'that you gather up

these treasures here, where they can do good to nobody? If they

fell into the hands of men, everyone would be rich, and none need

work or suffer hunger.'

'And it is exactly for that reason,' answered he, 'that I must

keep these riches out of their way. The whole world would sink

to idleness if men were not forced to earn their daily bread. It

is only through work and care that man can ever hope to be good

for anything.'

Hans stared at these words, and at last he begged that his host

would tell him what use it was to anybody that this gold and

silver should lie mouldering there, and the owner of it be

continually trying to increase his treasure, which already

overflowed his store rooms.

'I am not really a man,' replied his guide, 'though I have the

outward form of one, but one of those beings to whom is given the

care of the world. It is my task and that of my workmen to

prepare under the earth the gold and silver, a small portion of

which finds its way every year to the upper world, but only just

enough to help them carry on their business. To none comes

wealth without trouble: we must first dig out the gold and mix

the grains with earth, clay, and sand. Then, after long and hard

seeking, it will be found in this state, by those who have good

luck or much patience. But, my friend, the hour of dinner is at

hand. If you wish to remain in this place, and feast your eyes

on this gold, then stay till I call you.'

In his absence Hans wandered from one treasure chamber to

another, sometimes trying to break off a little lump of gold, but

never able to do it. After awhile his host came back, but so

changed that Hans could not believe it was really he. His silken

clothes were of the brightest flame colour, richly trimmed with

gold fringes and lace; a golden girdle was round his waist, while

his head was encircled with a crown of gold, and precious stones

twinkled about him like stars in a winter's night, and in place

of his wooden stick he held a finely worked golden staff.

The lord of all this treasure locked the doors and put the keys

in his pocket, then led Hans into another room, where dinner was

laid for them. Table and seats were all of silver, while the

dishes and plates were of solid gold. Directly they sat down, a

dozen little servants appeared to wait on them, which they did so

cleverly and so quickly that Hans could hardly believe they had

no wings. As they did not reach as high as the table, they were

often obliged to jump and hop right on to the top to get at the

dishes. Everything was new to Hans, and though he was rather

bewildered he enjoyed himself very much, especially when the man

with the golden crown began to tell him many things he had never

heard of before.

'Between Christmas and the New Year,' said he, 'I often amuse

myself by wandering about the earth watching the doings of men

and learning something about them. But as far as I have seen and

heard I cannot speak well of them. The greater part of them are

always quarrelling and complaining of each other's faults, while

nobody thinks of his own.'

Hans tried to deny the truth of these words, but he could not do

it, and sat silent, hardly listening to what his friend was

saying. Then he went to sleep in his chair, and knew nothing of

what was happening.

Wonderful dreams came to him during his sleep, where the bars of

gold continually hovered before his eyes. He felt stronger than

he had ever felt during his waking moments, and lifted two bars

quite easily on to his back. He did this so often that at length

his strength seemed exhausted, and he sank almost breathless on

the ground. Then he heard the sound of cheerful voices, and the

song of the blacksmiths as they blew their bellows--he even felt

as if he saw the sparks flashing before his eyes. Stretching

himself, he awoke slowly, and here he was in the green forest,

and instead of the glow of the fire in the underworld the sun was

streaming on him, and he sat up wondering why he felt so strange.

At length his memory came back to him, and as he called to mind

all the wonderful things he had seen he tried in vain to make

them agree with those that happen every day. After thinking it

over till he was nearly mad, he tried at last to believe that one

night between Christmas and the New Year he had met a stranger in

the forest, and had slept all night in his company before a big

fire; the next day they had dined together, and had drunk a great

deal more than was good for them--in short, he had spent two

whole days revelling with another man. But here, with the full

tide of summer around him, he could hardly accept his own

explanation, and felt that he must have been the plaything or

sport of some magician.

Near him, in the full sunlight, were the traces of a dead fire,

and when he drew close to it he saw that what he had taken for

ashes was really fine silver dust, and that the half burnt

firewood was made of gold.

Oh, how lucky Hans thought himself; but where should he get a

sack to carry his treasure home before anyone else found it?

But necessity is the mother of invention: Hans threw off his fur

coat, gathered up the silver ashes so carefully in it that none

remained behind, laid the gold sticks on top, and tied up the bag

thus made with his girdle, so that nothing should fall out. The

load was not, in point of fact, very heavy, although it seemed so

to his imagination, and he moved slowly along till he found a

safe hiding-place for it.

In this way Hans suddenly became rich--rich enough to buy a

property of his own. But being a prudent man, he finally decided

that it would be best for him to leave his old neighbourhood and

look for a home in a distant part of the country, where nobody

knew anything about him. It did not take him long to find what

he wanted, and after he had paid for it there was plenty of money

left over. When he was settled, he married a pretty girl who

lived near by, and had some children, to whom on his death-bed he

told the story of the lord of the underworld, and how he had made

Hans rich.

[Ehstnische Marchen.]