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- In Midsummer Days and Other Tales - 6/20 -
"We know all that, but why we should have a Helix in our ears is as unknown to the book as to the dealer in snails--"
"I'm not a dealer in snails," bellowed the voice behind the curtain.
"What are you, then?" Victor bellowed back.
"I'm ... a troll!"
At the same moment the curtains were drawn aside a little, and a head appeared in the opening of so terrifying an aspect, that anybody but Victor would have taken to his heels. But he, who knew exactly how to treat a troll, looked steadily at the glowing pipe-bowl; for that is exactly what the troll looked like as he stood blowing rings through the parted curtains. When the smoke rings had floated within his reach, he caught them with his fingers and threw them back.
"I see you can play quoits," snarled the troll.
"A little bit," answered Victor.
"And you aren't afraid?"
"A sailor must never be afraid of anything; if he is, the girls won't like him."
And as he was tired of the snails, Victor seized the opportunity to beat a retreat without appearing to run away. He left the shop, walking backwards, for he knew that a man must never show his back to the enemy, because his back is far more sensitive than ever his face could be.
And on he went on the blue and white carpet. The passage was not a straight one, but wound and curved so that it was impossible to see the end of it; and still there were new shops, and still no people and no shop proprietors. But Victor, taught by his experience, understood that they were all in the back parlours.
At last he came to a scent shop, which smelt of all the flowers of wood and meadow; he thought of his sweetheart and decided to go in and buy her a bottle of Eau-de-Cologne.
No sooner thought than done. The shop was very much like the snail shop, but the scent of the flowers was so overpowering that it made his head ache, and he had to sit down on a chair. A strong smell of almonds caused a buzzing in his cars, but left a pleasant taste in his mouth, like cherry-wine. Victor, never at a loss, felt in his pocket for his little brass box, that had a tiny mirror on the inside of the lid, and put a piece of chewing tobacco in his mouth; this cleared his brain and cured his headache. Then he rapped on the counter and shouted:--
"Hallo! Any one there?"
There was no answer. "I'd better go into the back parlour," he thought, "and do my shopping there." He took a little run, put his right hand on the counter and cleared it at a bound. Then he pushed the curtains aside and peeped into the room. A sight met his eyes which completely dazzled him. An orange tree, laden with blossoms and fruit, stood on a long table covered with a Persian rug, and its shining leaves looked like the leaves of a camellia. There were rows of cut-crystal glasses filled with all the most beautiful scented flowers of the whole world, such as jasmine, tuberoses, violets, lilies of the valley, roses, and lavender. On one end of the table, half hidden by the orange tree, he saw two delicate white hands and a pair of slender wrists under turned-up sleeves, busy with a small distilling apparatus, made of silver. He did not see the lady's face, and she, too, did not appear to see him. But when he noticed that her dress was green and yellow, he knew at once that she was a sorceress, for the caterpillar of the hawk-moth is green and yellow, and it, too, knows how to bewitch the eye. The lower end of its body looks as if it were its head and has a horn like a unicorn, so that it frightens away its enemies with its mock face, while it feeds in peace with that part of its body which looks like its hind quarter.
"I know that I'll have a bit of a tussle with her," thought Victor, "but I'd better let her begin!" He was quite right, because if one wants to make people talk, one has but to remain silent oneself.
"Are you the gentleman who is looking for a summer resort?" asked the lady, coming towards him.
"That's me!" said Victor, merely in order to say something, for he had never thought of looking for a summer resort in the winter time.
The lady seemed embarrassed, but she was as beautiful as sin, and cast a bewitching glance at the pilot.
"It's no use trying to bewitch me, for I am engaged to a very nice girl," he said, staring between her second and third finger in the manner of a witch, when she wants to charm the judge.
The lady was young and beautiful from the waist upwards, but below the waist she seemed very old; it was just as if she had been patched together of two pieces which didn't match.
"Well, show me the summer resort," said the pilot.
"If you please, sir," replied the lady, opening a door in the background.
They went out and at once found themselves in a wood, consisting entirely of oak trees.
"We'll only just have to cross the wood, and we'll be there," said the lady, beckoning to the pilot to go on, for she did not want to show him her back.
"I shouldn't wonder if there were a bull somewhere about," said the pilot, who had all his wits about him.
"Surely you aren't afraid of a bull?" replied the lady.
"We'll see," answered the pilot.
They walked across stony hillocks, tree-roots, moors and fells, clearings and deep recesses, but Victor could not help turning round every now and then to see whether she was following him, for he could not hear her footsteps. And even when he had turned round and had her right before his eyes he had to look very hard, for her green and yellow dress made her almost invisible.
At last they came to an open space, and when Victor had reached the centre of the clearing, there was the bull; it was just as if it had stood there all the time waiting for him. It was jet black, with a white star in the middle of its forehead, and the corners of its eyes were blood-red.
Escape was impossible; there was nothing for it but to fight. Victor glanced at the ground and behold! there lay a stout cudgel, newly cut. He seized it and took up his position.
"You or I!" he shouted. "Come on! One--two--three!" The fight began. The bull backed like a steam-boat, smoke came through its nostrils, it moved its tail like a propeller, and then came on at full speed.
The cudgel flashed through the air and with a sound like a shot hit the bull right between the eyes. Victor sprang aside, and the bull dashed past him. Then everything seemed to change, and Victor, terrified, saw the monster make for the border of the wood, from whence his sweetheart, in a light summer dress, emerged to meet him.
"Climb up the tree, Anna," he shouted. "The bull's coming!" It was a cry of anguish from the very bottom of his soul.
And he ran after the monster and hit it on the slenderest part of its hind-legs in the hope of breaking its shin-bone. With superhuman strength he felled the giant. Anna was saved, and the pilot held her in his arms.
"Where shall we go?" he asked. "Home, of course?"
It did not occur to him to ask her whence she had come, for reasons which we shall learn hereafter.
They walked along the footpath, hand in hand, happy at their unexpected meeting. When they had gone a little way, Victor suddenly stood still.
"Just wait a moment," he said. "I must go and have a look at the bull; I'm sorry for it, poor brute!"
The expression of Anna's face changed, and the corners of her eyes grew bloodshot. "All right! I'll wait," she said, with a savage and malicious glance at the pilot.
Victor gazed at her sadly, for he knew that she had told him an untruth. But he followed her. There was something extraordinary about her walk, and all at once the whole of his left side grew as cold as ice.
When they had proceeded a little further, Victor stopped again.
"Give me your hand," he said. "No, the left one." He saw that she was not wearing her engagement ring.
"Where's your ring?" he asked.
"I've lost it," she replied.
"You are my Anna, and yet you are not," he exclaimed. "A stranger has taken possession of you."
As he said these words, she looked at him with a side-long glance, and all at once he realised that her eyes were not human, but the blood-shot eyes of a bull; and then he understood.
"Begone, witch!" he cried, and breathed into her face.
If you could only have seen what happened now! The would-be Anna was immediately transformed, her face grew green and yellow like gall, and she burst with rage; at the next moment a black rabbit jumped over the bilberry bushes and disappeared in the wood.
Victor stood alone in the perplexing, bewildering forest, but he
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