IT HAPPENED one day, however, that a daring hunter who had been led far from his usual track, and far from the country with which he was familiar, by the pursuit of a gemsbock, found himself at the entrance of a low-arched cavern. As night was about to fall and the sky wore a threatening aspect, he was glad to creep within this shelter till the light of morning should enable him to find his way home once more.
He had not proceeded far within the dim corridor, when he perceived that in proportion as he got farther from the light of day the cave became brighter instead of darker! Eagerly seeking the cause of this phenomenon, he perceived that the walls were all encrusted with gold and precious stones, which emitted constant sparkles of light. He thereby recognized at once that he had reached an approach to one of the resorts of the Mountain-folk, as the Norgs were also called from having their habitation in the hearts of the mountains.
To avoid the fate of those who had ventured within the mysterious precincts, he was about to make good his escape, when he felt something soft under his feet. It proved to be a red hood or cap, dropped there by one of the Mountain-folk, a veritable Tarnkappe which had the property of making the wearer invisible to men, and also enabled him to command admission to any part of the subterranean settlement. He had scarcely placed it on his head when one of the little men of the mountain came running up to look for his lost cap. Fritzl the hunter was much too cunning to give up the advantage of its possession, but with great good humour he told the dwarf he reckoned it too great an advantage to have the opportunity of visiting his beautiful territory to give it up for nothing; but he assured him he should have no reason to regret having given him admission. The dwarf could not choose but obey, and the Jäger enjoyed the singular privilege of surveying all the hidden treasures of the underground world.
Beautiful are the glories of the mountain world as seen by mortal eyes--gorgeous its colours when illumined by the southern sun, but all this is as barren darkness compared with the glories hidden within its stony recesses. Here, the sky overhead was all of diamonds and sapphires and carbuncles, and their light sparkled with tenfold glory and beauty to the light of the sun and moon and stars; the trees were of living gold and silver, and the flowers and fruit of precious stones; the grass all of crystal and emerald; there was no cold or heat, no perplexing change of season, but one perpetual spring spread its balmy air around; lakes there were all of opal and mother-o'-pearl, and gorgeously plumed swans perpetually crossing them served the inhabitants in lieu of boats.
The Jäger's delight and admiration at all these sights won the sympathy and regard of his guide, and by degrees he grew more communicative, and explained to him the whole economy of their mode of life. He showed him how they were divided into three distinct classes: those wearing red caps, who were gay and good-natured, and filled with goodwill towards mankind also, notwithstanding many wild pranks; those with brown caps, whose mischief was mingled with malice rather than fun, but who yet would suffer themselves to be propitiated; and those with black caps, always gloomy and morose, who boded evil wherever they went. His guide advised him to have nothing to say to these, but with some of the red and brown he was admitted to converse: he found them pleasant and sociable, and ready enough to communicate their ideas. Some asked him questions, too, about various matters which seemed to have puzzled them in their peregrinations on earth, while others, who had never been outside their own habitations, had other inquiries to make--but some there were also who had no curiosity on the subject, but rather contempt; and one thing that amused the Jäger in them was their incapacity to conceive many of the things he had to tell them, and particularly to understand what he could mean when he talked about death.
Chiefly to keep the spiteful freaks of the black-caps in check there was a guard of warrior dwarfs, whose array was shown to our Jäger. Formidable they must have been, for the armour of each was made out of one diamond, and they wore helmets and greaves and shields all of diamonds, and while they were thus impervious to every attack, their swords were of diamond too, and resistless therefore in their thrusts.
The Jäger could not restrain his raptures at their gorgeous show, as the colours of the gems around were reflected in this shining armour.
The dwarf had nothing left to show after this, but then stood and sighed over the glories of the past. "And what were the glories of the past?" inquired the Jäger, with intense interest. The dwarf watched his interlocutor closely, and satisfied himself that his interest was not feigned. Then he paused long, as hesitating whether to unburden himself to a stranger of the sad thoughts which crowded into and oppressed his mind. A few words of sympathy, however, decided him at last
"Yes, we still have some power and some riches left, and some of our ancient strength, but we have lost our kings, the kernel of our strength. It is true, we are able to surprise you with isolated exhibitions of riches and power, but, on the whole, your people has got the better of ours; and since your heroes of old destroyed the last of our royal race, we have been a doomed, disorganized, dwindling race, fast disappearing from our ancient fastnesses."
"And how happened it that our people got the better of yours? How did our heroes destroy your royal race? I pray you tell me."
The dwarf led the Jäger into a delicious alcove of the opal rock, whose pure, pale lustre seemed more in accordance with his melancholy mood than the garish brilliancies that had hitherto surrounded them. They laid them down on the bank, and the dwarf thus recounted the story.