'By the big brewing-vat!' exclaimed the woman, 'haven't
you got stories enough? I really believe that most people have
enough of them. Here are other things to take notice of, other
things to examine. Even the children have gone beyond that.
Give the little boy a cigar, and the little girl a new
crinoline; they like that much better. To listen to stories!
No, indeed, there are more important things to be done here,
and other things to notice!'
'What do you mean by that?' asked the man, 'and what do
you know of the world? You don't see anything but frogs and
'Yes, beware of the Will-o'-the-Wisps,' said the
Moor-woman, 'for they're out- they're let loose- that's what
we must talk about! Come to me in the moor, where my presence
is necessary, and I will tell you all about it; but you must
make haste, and come while your seven four-leaved shamrocks,
for which one has six leaves, are still fresh, and the moon
And the Moor-woman was gone.
It struck twelve in the town, and before the last stroke
had died away, the man was out in the yard, out in the garden,
and stood in the meadow. The mist had vanished, and the
Moor-woman stopped her brewing.
'You've been a long time coming!' said the Moor-woman.
'Witches get forward faster than men, and I'm glad that I
belong to the witch folk!'
'What have you to say to me now?' asked the man. 'Is it
anything about the Story?'
'Can you never get beyond asking about that?' retorted the
'Can you tell me anything about the poetry of the future?'
resumed the man.
'Don't get on your stilts,' said the crone, 'and I'll
answer you. You think of nothing but poetry, and only ask
about that Story, as if she were the lady of the whole troop.
She's the oldest of us all, but she takes precedence of the
youngest. I know her well. I've been young, too, and she's no
chicken now. I was once quite a pretty elf-maiden, and have
danced in my time with the others in the moonlight, and have
heard the nightingale, and have gone into the forest and met
the Story-maiden, who was always to be found out there,
running about. Sometimes she took up her night's lodging in a
half-blown tulip, or in a field flower; sometimes she would
slip into the church, and wrap herself in the mourning crape
that hung down from the candles on the altar.'
'You are capitally well-informed,' said the man.
'I ought at least to know as much as you,' answered the
Moor-woman. 'Stories and poetry- yes, they're like two yards
of the same piece of stuff; they can go and lie down where
they like, and one can brew all their prattle, and have it all
the better and cheaper. You shall have it from me for nothing.
I have a whole cupboard-full of poetry in bottles. It makes
essences; and that's the best of it- bitter and sweet herbs. I
have everything that people want of poetry, in bottles, so
that I can put a little on my handkerchief, on holidays, to
'Why, these are wonderful things that you're telling!'
said the man. 'You have poetry in bottles?'
'More than you can require,' said the woman. 'I suppose
you know the history of 'the Girl who Trod on the Loaf, so
that she might not soil her shoes'? That has been written, and
'I told that story myself,' said the man.
'Yes, then you must know it; and you must know also that
the girl sank into the earth directly, to the Moor-woman, just
as Old Bogey's grandmother was paying her morning visit to
inspect the brewery. She saw the girl gliding down, and asked
to have her as a remembrance of her visit, and got her too;
while I received a present that's of no use to me- a
travelling druggist's shop- a whole cupboard-full of poetry in
bottles. Grandmother told me where the cupboard was to be
placed, and there it's standing still. Just look! You've your
seven four-leaved shamrocks in your pocket, one of which is a
six-leaved one, and so you will be able to see it.'
And really in the midst of the moor lay something like a
great knotted block of alder, and that was the old
grandmother's cupboard. The Moor-woman said that this was
always open to her and to every one in the land, if they only
knew where the cupboard stood. It could be opened either at
the front or at the back, and at every side and corner- a
perfect work of art, and yet only an old alder stump in
appearance. The poets of all lands, and especially those of
our own country, had been arranged here; the spirit of them
had been extracted, refined, criticised and renovated, and
then stored up in bottles. With what may be called great
aptitude, if it was not genius the grandmother had taken as it
were the flavor of this and of that poet, and had added a
little devilry, and then corked up the bottles for use during
all future times.
'Pray let me see,' said the man.
'Yes, but there are more important things to hear,'
replied the Moor-woman.
'But now we are at the cupboard!' said the man. And he
looked in. 'Here are bottles of all sizes. What is in this
one? and what in that one yonder?'
'Here is what they call may-balm,' replied the woman. 'I
have not tried it myself. But I have not yet told you the
'more important' thing you were to hear. THE
WILL-O'-THE-WISP'S IN THE TOWN! That's of much more
consequence than poetry and stories. I ought, indeed, to hold
my tongue; but there must be a necessity- a fate- a something
that sticks in my throat, and that wants to come out. Take
care, you mortals!'
'I don't understand a word of all this!' cried the man.
'Be kind enough to seat yourself on that cupboard,' she
retorted, 'but take care you don't fall through and break the
bottles- you know what's inside of them. I must tell of the
great event. It occurred no longer ago than the day before
yesterday. It did not happen earlier. It has now three hundred
and sixty-three days to run about. I suppose you know how many
days there are in a year?'
And this is what the Moor-woman told:
'There was a great commotion yesterday out here in the
marsh! There was a christening feast! A little
Will-o'-the-Wisp was born here- in fact, twelve of them were
born all together; and they have permission, if they choose to
use it, to go abroad among men, and to move about and command
among them, just as if they were born mortals. That was a
great event in the marsh, and accordingly all the
Will-o'-the-Wisps, male and female, went dancing like little
lights across the moor. There are some of them of the dog
species, but those are not worth mentioning. I sat there on
the cupboard, and had all the twelve little new-born
Will-o'-the-Wisps upon my lap. They shone like glow-worms;
they already began to hop, and increased in size every moment,
so that before a quarter of an hour had elapsed, each of them
looked just as large as his father or his uncle. Now, it's an
old-established regulation and favor, that when the moon
stands just as it did yesterday, and the wind blows just as it
blew then, it is allowed and accorded to all
Will-o'-the-Wisps- that is, to all those who are born at that
minute of time- to become mortals, and individually to exert
their power for the space of one year.
'The Will-o'-the-Wisp may run about in the country and
through the world, if it is not afraid of falling into the
sea, or of being blown out by a heavy storm. It can enter into
a person and speak for him, and make all the movements it
pleases. The Will-o'-the-Wisp may take whatever form he likes,
of man or woman, and can act in their spirit and in their
disguise in such a way that he can effect whatever he wishes
to do. But he must manage, in the course of the year, to lead
three hundred and sixty-five people into a bad way, and in a
grand style, too. To lead them away from the right and the
truth; and then he reaches the highest point. Such a
Will-o'-the-Wisp can attain to the honor of being a runner
before the devil's state coach; and then he'll wear clothes of
fiery yellow, and breathe forth flames out of his throat.
That's enough to make a simple Will-o'-the-Wisp smack his
lips. But there's some danger in this, and a great deal of
work for a Will-o'-the-Wisp who aspires to play so
distinguished a part. If the eyes of the man are opened to
what he is, and if the man can then blow him away, it's all
over with him, and he must come back into the marsh; or if,
before the year is up, the Will-o'-the-Wisp is seized with a
longing to see his family, and so returns to it and gives the
matter up, it is over with him likewise, and he can no longer
burn clear, and soon becomes extinguished, and cannot be lit
up again; and when the year has elapsed, and he has not led
three hundred and sixty-five people away from the truth and
from all that is grand and noble, he is condemned to be
imprisoned in decayed wood, and to lie glimmering there,
without being able to move; and that's the most terrible
punishment that can be inflicted on a lively Will-o'-the-Wisp.
'Now, all this I know, and all this I told to the twelve
little Will-o'-the-Wisps whom I had on my lap, and who seemed
quite crazy with joy.
'I told them that the safest and most convenient course
was to give up the honor, and do nothing at all; but the
little flames would not agree to this, and already fancied
themselves clad in fiery yellow clothes, breathing flames from
''Stay with us,' said some of the older ones.
''Carry on your sport with mortals,' said the others.
''The mortals are drying up our meadows; they've taken to
draining. What will our successors do?'
''We want to flame; we will flame- flame!' cried the
'And thus the affair was settled.
'And now a ball was given, a minute long; it could not
well be shorter. The little elf-maidens whirled round three
times with the rest, that they might not appear proud, but
they preferred dancing with one another.
'And now the sponsors' gifts were presented, and presents
were thrown them. These presents flew like pebbles across the
sea-water. Each of the elf-maidens gave a little piece of her
''Take that,' they said, 'and then you'll know the higher
dance, the most difficult turns and twists- that is to say, if
you should find them necessary. You'll know the proper
deportment, and then you can show yourself in the very pick of
'The night raven taught each of the young
Will-o'-the-Wisps to say, 'Goo-goo-good,' and to say it in the
right place; and that's a great gift which brings its own
'The owl and the stork- but they said it was not worth
mentioning, and so we won't mention it.
'King Waldemar's wild chase was just then rushing over the
moor, and when the great lords heard of the festivities that
were going on, they sent a couple of handsome dogs, which hunt
on the spoor of the wind, as a present; and these might carry
two or three of the Will-o'-the-Wisps. A couple of old Alpas,
spirits who occupy themselves with Alp-pressing, were also at
the feast; and from these the young Will-o'-the-Wisps learned
the art of slipping through every key-hole, as if the door
stood open before them. These Alpas offered to carry the
youngsters to the town, with which they were well acquainted.
They usually rode through the atmosphere on their own back
hair, which is fastened into a knot, for they love a hard
seat; but now they sat sideways on the wild hunting dogs, took
the young Will-o'-the-Wisps in their laps, who wanted to go
into the town to mislead and entice mortals, and, whisk! away
they were. Now, this is what happened last night. To-day the
Will-o'-the-Wisps are in the town, and have taken the matter
in hand- but where and how? Ah, can you tell me that? Still,
I've a lightning conductor in my great toe, and that will
always tell me something.'
'Why, this is a complete story,' exclaimed the man.
'Yes, but it is only the beginning,' replied the woman.
'Can you tell me how the Will-o'-the-Wisps deport themselves,
and how they behave? and in what shapes they have aforetime
appeared and led people into crooked paths?'
'I believe,' replied the man, 'that one could tell quite a
romance about the Will-o'-the-Wisps, in twelve parts; or,
better still, one might make quite a popular play of them.'
'You might write that,' said the woman, 'but it's best let
'Yes, that's better and more agreeable,' the man replied,
'for then we shall escape from the newspapers, and not be tied
up by them, which is just as uncomfortable as for a
Will-o'-the-Wisp to lie in decaying wood, to have to gleam,
and not to be able to stir.'
'I don't care about it either way,' cried the woman. 'Let
the rest write, those who can, and those who cannot likewise.
I'll grant you an old bung from my cask that will open the
cupboard where poetry's kept in bottles, and you may take from
that whatever may be wanting. But you, my good man, seem to
have blotted your hands sufficiently with ink, and to have
come to that age of satiety that you need not be running about
every year for stories, especially as there are much more
important things to be done. You must have understood what is
'The Will-o'-the-Wisp is in town,' said the man. 'I've
heard it, and I have understood it. But what do you think I
ought to do? I should be thrashed if I were to go to the
people and say, 'Look, yonder goes a Will-o'-the-Wisp in his
'They also go in undress,' replied the woman. 'The
Will-o'-the-Wisp can assume all kinds of forms, and appear in
every place. He goes into the church, but not for the sake of
the service; and perhaps he may enter into one or other of the
priests. He speaks in the Parliament, not for the benefit of
the country, but only for himself. He's an artist with the
color-pot as well as in the theatre; but when he gets all the
power into his own hands, then the pot's empty! I chatter and
chatter, but it must come out, what's sticking in my throat,
to the disadvantage of my own family. But I must now be the
woman that will save a good many people. It is not done with
my good will, or for the sake of a medal. I do the most insane
things I possibly can, and then I tell a poet about it, and
thus the whole town gets to know of it directly.'
'The town will not take that to heart,' observed the man;
'that will not disturb a single person; for they will all
think I'm only telling them a story if I say, 'The
Will-o'-the-Wisp is in the town, says the Moor-woman. Take
care of yourselves!''