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HOME > Short Stories > Floating Fancies among the Weird and the Occult > THE TRAGEDY OF THE GNOMES.
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 Many, many ages ago this fair old world of ours wore a solemn and forbidding aspect; no carpet of thick, green grass eased the footfall of man as he climbed the hills; no human voice was heard amid the desolation—ice, ice everywhere—from the North Pole to the center of that which is now the temperate zone, and only such life peopled this region as could endure the rigor of a more than arctic condition. Vast sheets of ice, in depth immeasurable, covered the surface of the hills and valleys, broken toward the tropics into serrated edges—the verdure running up an occasional valley, as though in laughing derisions of its neighbors the ice-imprisoned mountains. In those days there existed only hideous animals and reptiles of size great and awful; animals whose terrible voice shook the mountains like an earthquake; slimy or scaly reptiles who walked on many feet, or dragged a hideous length along the ice-covered rocks. It seemed as if the great Creator must have fashioned all existent things in an hour of wrath, or that man, having existed, had been for some sin exterminated by that icy inundation, and that animal creation had so displeased him that he had 52fashioned them in grotesque caricature upon all grace and beauty.
Man esteems himself higher than all other created things; who shall say that the great, buzzing bluebottle fly does not think the same of himself, and perhaps, with as much reason; it is at most but a grade of intelligence; and what do we understand of that Intelligence which is above us?
In one of the green valleys running up into the foothills of what is now called the Rocky Mountains, frisked and played a band of Gnomes. These were but a fairy people, differing only from the fairies of woodland glade and dell in this; those fairy folk were things of beauty like imprisoned sunbeams; lighter than gossamer, they floated hither and thither, always trending toward the tropics, where the sun shone radiantly warm, and the silvery moon lighted the verdant carpet of grass, and the sweet south wind rang the lily bells in merry chime; there they idled away each sunny day—creatures of light and frivolity.
These Gnomes were a sturdier, darker folk, short in stature, but with a breadth of shoulder, a depth of chest, and muscles fit for giants. Though for an occasional frolic they danced and roughly tossed each other about in the valley, they better loved their homes in the heart of the ice-covered mountains, where they forged beautiful things from the yellow metal, or decked their cavern homes with softly glowing, or fiery-eyed jewels; thus from earnest labor their faces gained a look of firmness and determination; 53they were homely, but were good to look upon, lighted as their faces were by love and kindliness.
One among them was wondrously fair: Lilleela they called her. Her hair was like silk as it winds from the cocoon; her eyes were blue as the sky when it shows between the fleecy clouds of summer; her cheeks were as though they had been kissed by the wild rose blooms, which left their dainty stains upon the fair skin. She was as sweet and pure as the breath of the dawn.
Walado was her lover; a short, deep-chested giant, with a face like a ripe walnut—all seams and puckers; not with age, but with jolly laughter, and intent, hard work. Lilleela must have the finest of rubies, on strings of beaten gold; tiny silver bells must be made, to ring their sweet chimes with every joyous movement; dainty chains of gold—set with amethyst, rubies and diamonds—must be wrought to bind the floating cloud of hair. Away down in the heart of the mountain Walado plied his little hammer of polished stone—clink-clink-clink all day long like a refrain it accompanied his happy song.
One fair day the troop of Gnomes went down into the green valley for a holiday.
Walado objected: “No, no! You can go, but I must finish this golden girdle for my Lilleela, and then, there are sandals of gold to be set with precious stones for her feet—they are too sweet and fair to be bruised by the rocks,” he had answered, screwing up his face into a funny little smile.
“Oh, do come, Walado! The girdle and sandals 54can wait! The sun is so cold and sorrowful up here, but down in the valley it is so beautiful!” pleaded Lilleela.
Her blue eyes moulded his will like warm wax, and over the ice they sped away many, many miles, to where its broken edges lay like icicles flattened out with huge rollers; some having sharp, sword-like points, others rounded and scalloped, as though in fanciful adornment. All along the border of the valley, reaching in places high up on the mountain side—wherever there were breaks in the ice—hardy trees had planted their feet, and lifted their heads to catch a breath of the warmer air of the tropics; some few, essaying to climb still higher, or being less hardy—reached their dead arms abroad, or pointed with ghostly fingers toward the icy desolation in warning to their kind.
These happy, childlike beings, instead of walking, had a gliding movement which carried them over the ground very rapidly; laughing, tumbling, pushing one another in merry sport, they sped on as though wings were attached to their feet. Hand in hand went Walado and Lilleela; his nut-brown face drawing into a nest of comical wrinkles, which were so many happy smiles; her look was like the sun, bright and warm.
Of a sudden she stopped and shivered: “Oh, my Walado, what was that?” From off the mountain height had come a long, low wail, and a chill was borne with it which froze them with fear.
Walado gathered her in his embrace, and 55shading his eyes with one hand, looked back over the mountain: “Fear not, my Lilleela, ’tis but the voice of the storm on its way from the far north. See! We shall soon be in the beautiful valley, where he cannot come!”
“Let us hasten, then, for in my heart I feel a chill which is like death.”
Walado gathered her closer to him: “Little sun beam! Am I not able to shield you from the shadow of the dark cloud?”
She patted his brown face with her wee, rose-leaf palms, and kissed the wrinkles on his brown cheeks lovingly.
“Yes, my Walado; your arm is as strong as your heart is brave, but—” she broke off abruptly: “Let us fly!” she finished with a sound between a laugh and a sob as the wailing came borne from the mountain heights once more.
Turning their affrighted glance backward, they saw the tall pines at the foot of the hills swaying wildly; some which stood so tall and straight were snatched off like a brittle weed and tossed down the mountain side.
Lilleela shivered again, remembering the look the fearful Ice King had given her as he rode above the mountain height upon which she stood at twilight hour; he was seated upon a cloud of inky blackness; his eyes shot forth red and yellow flame, like the terrible light which streamed up from the far north; his lips were blue and hideous, and his matted hair, and long, tangled beard, were a mixture of frost and ice. He pointed a finger at her which looked as though 56belonging to the hand of one long since dead—so rigid and bloodless it appeared—the nails showed blue and ghastly. With a voice like the whistling north wind, he said, “You’ll make a bonny bride for the Ice King! Your youth will warm my old blood finely! o-We-ee, Y-e-ss!” The cloud passed on, and bore him from her view, but the deadly chill remained, for well Lilleela knew that his love meant death, as his hate meant destruction.
For this reason the wailing sound shook her with an awful fear, but she dared not tell Walado; she feared that he would turn and seek the terrible monarch whose simple touch was death; once more she caught Walado’s hand, crying gayly, “Come, come, before the storm god overtakes us!”
They romped and played through all that happy day; they climbed the steep inclines, and sitting on the glittering ice dashed down to the valley below, tumbling over and over, with laughter sweet as the tinkling of silver bells; it seemed strange to hear such sweet and musical sounds issuing from those queer little bodies, but the sound fitfully represented the sweet harmonious souls within.
At last, worn out with play, they climbed the long, icy hills; they wound around the towering rocks, they clung to dizzy precipices; they crept by the lairs of horrible animals with noiseless tread; ever upward and onward toward the North Pole, where life had grown old and dead, while the new life had slipped down toward the equator.
57“Oh, why do we journey so far to-night, Walado?” said Lilleela wearily.
“There is a mountain lying in the light of the northern star, which is filled with yellow gold; its caverns are lined with jewels; I seek them for you, my Lilleela.”
As he ceased speaking, again that wailing sound filled with awful menace smote their ears: “o-o-W-ee” a sound that rose from fretful discontent into fiercest anger, then died away like a long sigh of satisfied hate.
“I am afraid, Walado! Oh do return!” cried Lilleela in terror.
“’Tis but the wind, beloved one,” answered Walado stoutly, though he too shivered.
“Nay! nay! It is the Ice King passing by in his chariot of storm, and drawn by his slaves—the winds of the hurricane,” she cried frantically, fear making her pallid lips tremble.
Walado’s wrinkled visage grew stern—all the pleasant lines drawn out of it; he understood more than her words told him.
“Has he dared to look upon you, with a desire to possess you? Knows he not that you are mine? I am not worthy of you—except as love for you makes me worthy—” his voice dropping into tender cadence, “but he—the monarch of all cruelty—is not of our kind. His very kiss is death; let him find a bride in his own frozen empire—the North Pole!” He shook his clinched hand in the direction of the swift rushing shadow, which so depressed them all: “Haste! haste, men and maidens! Let us flee to our own mountain home, where we can defy 58the monster! Our Lilleela has just cause for fear, for none upon whom he has looked with the desire for possession ever escaped him; and it is only by speedily reaching our caverns that we may hope for safety.”
They turned about, and like a flock of frightened birds they flitted away, with no more noise than would be made by the rustle of a bat’s wing, and were lost in the gloom.
The moon shone out cold and pale, as though grieving over the dread desolation and lighted up the angry face of the Ice King with a pallid luster; he puffed out his gaunt cheeks menacingly; his eyes darted flame like the quick thrusts of a sword blade in deadly battle; as he saw that the Gnomes had fled he shrieked in wrath. He swayed the tall trees, and tossed their dead branches in every direction; he fiercely threw the rocks from the lofty mountain summits, and as they went crashing down, down, with thunderous noise, they splintered and tore up the ice like a silver foam, which glittered and flashed with pale prismatic glow as it caught the moon’s sad, cold ray.
Faster, faster flew the tiny band; closer clung Lilleela to Walado’s hand as that wrathful shriek reached their ears; dashing wildly past the brow of the darkly towering mountain, as the crashing of rocks smote them with wild affright; leaping across the roaring torrent, to slip and sprawl on the glassy ice of the further bank; up and away, bruised and sore; past lifeless trees, whose dead branches were falling all about them, until at last they reached a mountain home seldom used 59by them. Nothing was to be seen save a tiny crevice between the rocks; one after another they lay down, and silently slid through; then, and not until then, Walado spoke:
“We are safe! Even the Ice King cannot enter here! We are safe, quite safe!”
“Are you sure? Ah, my Walado, he is so vengeful!” sighed Lilleela. Walado laughed, all his funny little puckers laughing as well:
“He knows nothing of our hiding place, and he could not force his great rigid body through the narrow opening. Oh, we are quite safe!” he reiterated gleefully.
But Lilleela sighed.
Walado felt the hopelessness of that sound, and it grieved his tender heart; he passed his rugged, brown hand over her flossy hair, with a touch as soft as the brushing of a butterfly’s wing.
“My treasure, if ill befall us here in this our vaulted hall, there are still the lower caverns, where none can possibly come save ‘we who know’.”
They soon regained confidence, and joked and made merry; they were such trusting, childlike beings, taking the comfort and joy of each hour at its utmost worth.
Their enjoyment was at its height, when faintly heard came that long chilling wail. Two of their number had gone outside unnoticed by Walado; they came shooting in through the entrance, their brown faces bleached an ashen gray, their teeth chattering, their eyes protruding. All sprang up in wild affright.
60“Where have you been? What is the matter?” cried Walado, as sternly as the gentle soul could speak.
“We but crept out for the birds we had snared! We thought to help out the feast!” said Tador, the hairy one.
“And I had a skin of berries that I gathered in the valley below; they were very sweet, Walado!” answered Sudana, the good.
“Tell me what you saw,” replied Walado sadly, his anger melted away by their deprecating looks and words.
Sudana answered: “We saw the Ice King; his cloud chariot so low that it touched the top of the mountain, he was so angry that the frost flew in great clouds from his nostrils; his breath reached us and chilled us through.”
Walado opened his lips to speak, when—“O-o-W-W-ee,” filling all that vaulted chamber with the dread sound, it came borne on a wind so chill that it pierced the hearts of each with cold and fear.
These loving souls had never felt the need of a ruler, each doing his utmost through love for all, thus there had been no dissensions; now all turned instinctively to Walado for guidance. They were growing benumbed with the chill of that icy breath.
Walado silently pointed to the narrow passage leading deep into the bowels of the earth. Each took his beloved by the hand and prepared for the descent; before they had taken so much as one step, there came a crash so awful that it shook the great mountain to its center; the falling 61of rocks resounded in deafening commotion; the Ice King’s snarling wail echoed and re-echoed throughout the cavern; bitter, bitter cold grew the air; crash—crash—crash, came the sound of falling mountains heaped upon them; covering them deeply beneath the débris.
Then was a new horror added; the roaring and growling of many horrible beasts, as they fought and struggled for entrance through the narrow passageway, to escape the falling ruins, and the deadly cold.
There was the shrieking and tumult of the tempest; the hiss and roar of the struggling reptiles, but higher and shriller than all else was the fierce wailing menace of the angry Ice King; it shrieked to them insolently: “You defy me, do you? We’ll see! We’ll s-e-e!”
Gray and pallid grew the little brown faces as they silently followed Walado down into the bowels of the earth until they came to a lofty room; here they huddled silently together.
Thus they remained day after day, night after night, no ray of light to distinguish the one from the other; but as time passed on the pangs of hunger assailed them fiercely. Tador’s birds were divided, and by morsels eaten; Sudana’s berries were parceled out by ones and by twos, Walado adding all his share to Lilleela’s, although she knew not that it was so; grayer grew his little, wrinkled face, but ever it smiled tenderly upon Lilleela, and with patient kindness he answered all questions in unselfish endeavor to comfort and cheer the others. For a time they could feel the earth quiver and vibrate as 62though in shuddering fear, then came a time of awful calm, when the sound of a voice smote the deadly silence with all the horror of thunder tones, until they shrank affrighted, and spoke only in awed whispers—afraid of the awful echo which answered sound. Paler and more spiritlike grew Lilleela; sadder, sadder grew Walado as he pillowed her head upon his broad breast. The sighs of all rose incessantly!
At last Tador whispered, “Shall I not descend further toward the center of the earth? It will be warmer than it is here—it grows so very cold!” shivering.
“As you wish, Tador,” replied Walado sadly.
Hearing Walado’s answer all clamored to accompany him—anything seemed preferable to this inaction.
As they prepared for the descent, Sudana said: “We do not know what we may find, Walado,” trying to speak hopefully.
“Gold and jewels in plenty, but all that lies hidden in the whole mountain range, are not worth as much as one juicy berry,” and he glanced at Lilleela’s wan face. She was far too weak to accompany the party, and all insisted that Walado must remain with her; he silently folded her in his arms; he would not have left her.
She raised her sad eyes to his face: “Better had I have given myself to the Ice King; then I only should have perished,” she said.
“No! no! no!” whispered they, as with one voice.
Wearily, wearily time passed on, but they did 63not return. Lilleela dozed and whispered fitfully, but Walado sat with staring eyes, and listened intently for sounds of his comrades, he was afraid to move lest he disturb his precious burden.
At last she raised herself up on her elbow, her eyes full of agony: “Oh, Walado, take me up above—I cannot breathe here! Oh, I must get one breath of air!” her chest heaving convulsively, her hollow cheeks palpitating with the struggle for inhalation.
One great tear rolled down Walado’s cheek, and fell splashing on the rocky floor.
Around his waist he wore a rope made of the hide of animals, which served to hold his stone hammer and ax; with this rope he bound Lilleela to him, passing it under her arms and around his neck.
“Dear one, put your arms about my neck to steady yourself all that you are able, and I will carry you safely up.”
Her chest rose and fell spasmodically; her heart fluttered faintly, or thumped with wild, irregular motion.
The walls of the shaft were covered with ice, rendering it almost impossible to obtain a foothold; inch by inch he made slow headway, every muscle strained to its utmost tension; his hands leaving stains of blood with every grasp. He could at last see a ray—scarcely of light, but a little less gloom; he was so exhausted that he was gasping for breath; he placed his hands upon a slight projection for one more effort—it may have been that his eagerness was too great, 64or that he grasped but brittle ice which broke off—for he fell. Down, down he slipped, with inconceivable rapidity; weak from want of food, and frightened lest he injure his beloved, he lost his presence of mind.
Lilleela recalled his wandering faculties; after one frantic scream, she made no outcry—indeed she had little breath for speech—but with her lips close to his ear she whispered: “Throw out your hands and feet against the wall, and I will do the same; we may at least break the fall!” Little by little the speed decreased, until as Walado’s foot touched another projection they stopped altogether. He waited long enough to recover breath and a little strength. Lilleela’s head fell over sidewise; she had fainted, and hung a dead weight about his neck; he dared not loose his hands, though he madly longed to caress the cheek which felt so cold to his trembling lips. Once more, nerved by desperation, he made an effort to reach the upper cave; slowly and carefully he climbed; resting often—a hand or foot slipping—clinging frantically as the ice became thicker, and the ascent more difficult. At last, just as his fingers were over the upper edge his foot slipped, and threw the other from its resting-place; for one breathless instant he hung suspended by his fingers—Lilleela’s lifeless weight dragging him down! Sparks of fire shot before his eyes! A noise as of rushing water sounded in his ears: His breathing became labored and stertorious! A bitter cry rose to his lips as Lilleela’s cold cheek touched his drooping face; he made one supreme effort, and 65half unconscious he lay upon the floor of the upper cavern, Lilleela’s cold form clasped in his embrace!
The chill at length restored him to consciousness; he sat up and unbound Lilleela; he struck two pieces of flint rapidly together, and ignited the punk which he carried in a bag about his neck. He observed that the cold wind had ceased blowing in, thus he knew that the Ice King must have departed, probably believing that all were dead. Well, so they were—all but himself—and—perhaps Lilleela!
He felt for her heart, but could find no pulsation; he kissed her cold cheeks, and blew his warm breath between her parted lips; at last the madness of despair took possession of him. He groveled on the icy floor! He shrieked aloud, to be answered only by a thousand hollow echoes! He ran to the opening through which they had entered, and found the passage barred by rocks and dirt; he tore at the rubbish with his hands as an animal digs with its claws, only to fall back in despair with the tears coursing down his cheeks.
“Oh, my Lilleela! If I could but reach the air! If I could only carry you into the sunshine and let it warm your cold face! Oh, my Lilleela. Oh, my Lilleela!” he cried, gathering her once more into his arms. All the cave was now lighted with a dim, red light, from a few slivers of wood ignited with the burning punk. Water had oozed through the rocks from above and formed long, glittering icicles, frozen by the fierce breath of the Ice King; the floors and 66walls were likewise of ice, cold and scintillating. The sighs which had arisen from the imprisoned Gnomes had congealed into forms of wonderful beauty, as pure as the white souls of the passing spirits; all over that arched ceiling hung fairy curtains of frost, wonderful jewels, each like a frozen tear, ornamented each jutting point. Walado sat down with his back against an angle of the wall, and clasped Lilleela in loving embrace; he smiled sadly yet lovingly as his eyes rested upon walls and dome: “It is a fitting tomb for thy fair body, my beloved! Thy spirit, not even the Ice King can imprison; and I—thine even in death—I go with thee, to serve thee still!”
He bowed his face against her fair hair, and as he so rested his spirit left his homely little body.
It seems almost a pity that they could not have known how fully their wrongs were avenged. Hot waves washed up from the tropic seas and melted the crust of ice with which the cruel monarch had encased all the hills; and he was driven by the south wind to his lair at the North Pole, there to remain in expiation forever. Thus the hills became fertile, and with the passing of those pure souls there sprang to life on the mountain side—the primrose, for Lilleela’s pink-white skin; the columbine, for the azure of her eyes; the gentian, for the crimson of her lips; and the tall, white lily, for the stately grace of her body; and always the brown-coated robin, with his warm breast, sings lovingly by day and sleeps in their midst by night, and thus Walado’s soul still faithfully serves his beloved.

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