NCE UPON A time there was a dear little girl, whose name was Elsa. Elsa's father and mother worked very hard and became rich. But they loved Elsa so much that they did not like her to do any work; very foolishly, they let her play all the time. So when Elsa grew up, she did not know how to do anything; she could not make bread, she could not sweep a room, she could not sew a seam; she could only laugh and sing. But she was so sweet and merry that everybody loved her. And by and by, she married one of the people who loved her, and had a house of her own to take care of.
Then, then, my dears, came hard times for Elsa! There were so many things to be done in the house, and she did not know how to do any of them! And because she had never worked at all it made her very tired even to try; she was tired before the morning was over, every day. The maid would come and say, "How shall I do this?" or "How shall I do that?" and Elsa would have to say, "I don't know." Then the maid would pretend that she did not know, either; and when she saw her mistress sitting about doing nothing, she, too, sat about, idle.
Elsa's husband had a hard time of it; he had only poor food to eat, and it was not ready at the right time, and the house looked all in a muddle. It made him sad, and that made Elsa sad, for she wanted to do everything just right.
At last, one day, Elsa's husband went away quite cross; he said to her, as he went out of the door, "It is no wonder that the house looks so, when you sit all day with your hands in your lap!"
Little Elsa cried bitterly when he was gone, for she did not want to make her husband unhappy and cross, and she wanted the house to look nice. "Oh, dear," she sobbed, "I wish I could do things right! I wish I could work! I wish-I wish I had ten good fairies to work for me! Then I could keep the house!"
As she said the words, a great grey man stood before her; he was wrapped in a strange grey cloak that covered him from head to foot; and he smiled at Elsa. "What is the matter, dear?" he said. "Why do you cry?"
"Oh, I am crying because I do not know how to keep the house," said Elsa. "I cannot make bread, I cannot sweep, I cannot sew a seam; when I was a little girl I never learned to work, and now I cannot do anything right. I wish I had ten good fairies to help me!"
"You shall have them, dear," said the grey man, and he shook his strange grey cloak. Pouf! Out hopped ten tiny fairies, no bigger than that!
"These shall be your servants, Elsa," said the grey man; "they are faithful and clever, and they will do everything you want them to, just right. But the neighbours might stare and ask questions if they saw these little chaps running about your house, so I will hide them away for you. Give me your little useless hands."
Wondering, Elsa stretched out her pretty, little, white hands.
"Now stretch out your little useless fingers, dear!"
Elsa stretched out her pretty pink fingers.
The grey man touched each one of the ten little fingers, and as he touched them he said their names: "Little Thumb; Forefinger; Thimble-finger; Ring-finger; Little Finger; Little Thumb; Forefinger; Thimble-finger; Ring-finger; Little Finger!" And as he named the fingers, one after another, the tiny fairies bowed their tiny heads; there was a fairy for every name.
"Hop! hide yourselves away!" said the grey man.
Hop, hop! The fairies sprang to Elsa's knee, then to the palms of her hands, and then-whisk! they were all hidden away in her little pink fingers, a fairy in every finger! And the grey man was gone.
Elsa sat and looked with wonder at her little white hands and the ten useless fingers. But suddenly the little fingers began to stir. The tiny fairies who were hidden away there were not used to remaining still, and they were getting restless. They stirred so that Elsa jumped up and ran to the cooking table, and took hold of the bread board. No sooner had she touched the bread board than the little fairies began to work: they measured the flour, mixed the bread, kneaded the loaves, and set them to rise, quicker than you could wink; and when the bread was done, it was as nice as you could wish. Then the little fairy-fingers seized the broom, and in a twinkling they were making the house clean. And so it went, all day. Elsa flew about from one thing to another, and the ten fairies did the work, just right.
When the maid saw her mistress working, she began to work, too; and when she saw how beautifully everything was done, she was ashamed to do anything badly herself. In a little while the housework was going smoothly, and Elsa could laugh and sing again.
There was no more crossness in that house. Elsa's husband grew so proud of her that he went about saying to everybody, "My grandmother was a fine housekeeper, and my mother was a fine housekeeper, but neither of them could hold a candle to my wife. She has only one maid, but, to see the work done, you would think she had as many servants as she has fingers on her hands!"
When Elsa heard that, she used to laugh, but she never, never told.