Excerpt from Thomas Carlyle’s “German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors; with Biographical and Critical Notices.” Vol. I, 1827.
By Johann Karl August Musäus
DEEP in the Bohemian forest, which has now dwindled to a few scattered woodlands, there abode, in the primeval times, while it stretched its umbrage far and wide, a spiritual race of beings, airy and avoiding light, incorporeal also, more delicately fashioned than the clay-formed sons of men ; to the coarser sense of feeling imperceptible, but to the finer, half-visible by moonlight ; and well known to poets by the name of Dryads, and to ancient bards by that of Elves. From immemorial ages, they had dwelt here undisturbed ; till all at once the forest sounded with the din of warriors, for Duke Czech of Hungary, with his Sclavonic hordes, had broken over the mountains, to seek in these wild tracts a new habitation.
The fair tenants of the aged oaks, of the rocks, clefts and grottos, and of the flags in the tarns and morasses, fled before the clang of arms and the neighing of chargers : the stout Erl-King himself was annoyed by the uproar, and transferred his court to more sequestered wildernesses. One solitary Elf could not resolve to leave her darling oak ; and as the wood began here and there to be felled for the purposes of cultivation, she alone undertook to defend her tree against the violence of the strangers, and chose the towering summit of it for her residence.
Among the retinue of the Duke was a young Squire, Krokus by name, full of spirit and impetuosity ; stout and handsome, and of noble mien, to whom the keeping of his master’s stud had been entrusted, which at times he drove far into the forest for their pasture. Frequently he rested beneath the oak which the Elf inhabited : she observed him with satisfaction ; and at night, when he was sleeping at the root, she would whisper pleasant dreams into his ear, and announce to him in expressive images the events of the coming day. When any horse had strayed into the desert, and the keeper had lost its tract, and gone to sleep with anxious thoughts, he failed not to see in vision the marks of the hidden path, which led him to the spot where his lost steed was grazing.
The farther the new colonists extended, the nearer came they to the dwelling of the Elf ; and as by her gift of divination, she perceived how soon her life-tree would be threatened by the axe, she determined to unfold this sorrow to her guest. One moonshiny summer evening, Krokus had folded his herd somewhat later than usual, and was hastening to his bed under the lofty oak. His path led him round a little fishy lake, on whose silver face the moon was imaging herself like a gleaming ball of gold; and across this glittering portion of the water, on the farther side, he perceived a female form, apparently engaged in walking by the cool shore. This sight surprised the young warrior : What brings the maiden hither, thought he, by herself, in this wilderness, at the season of the nightly dusk ? Yet the adventure was of such a sort, that, to a young man, the more strict investigation of it seemed alluring rather than alarming.
He redoubled his steps, keeping firmly in view the form which had arrested his attention ; and soon reached the place where he had first noticed it, beneath the oak. But now it looked to him as if the thing he saw were a shadow rather than a body ; he stood wondering and motionless, a cold shudder crept over him, and he heard a sweet soft voice address to him these words : “Come hither, beloved stranger, and fear not ; I am no phantasm, no deceitful shadow : I am the Elf of this grove, the tenant of the oak, under whose leafy boughs thou hast often rested. I rocked thee in sweet delighting dreams, and prefigured to thee thy adventures ; and when a brood-mare or a foal had chanced to wander from the herd, I told thee of the place, where thou wouldst find it.
Repay this favour by a service which I now require of thee ; be the Protector of this tree, which has so often screened thee from the shower and the scorching heat ; and guard the murderous axes of thy brethren, which lay waste the forest, that they harm not this venerable trunk.”
The young warrior, restored to self-possession by this soft still voice, made answer : “Goddess or mortal, whoever thou mayest be, require of me what thou pleasest ; if I can, I will perform it. But I am a man of no account among my people, the servant of the Duke my lord. If he tell me today or tomorrow, Feed here, feed there, how shall I protect thy tree in this distant forest? Yet if thou commandest me, I will renounce the service of princes, and dwell under the shadow of thy oak, and guard it while I live.”
“ Do so,” said the Elf: “thou shalt not repent it.”
Hereupon she vanished ; and there was a rustling in the branches above, as if some breath of an evening breeze had been entangled in them, and had stirred the leaves. Krokus, for a while, stood enraptured at the heavenly form which had appeared to him. So soft a female, of such slender shape and royal bearing, he had never seen among the short squat damsels of his own Sclavonic race. At last he stretched himself upon the moss, but no sleep descended on his eyes ; the dawn overtook him in a whirl of sweet emotions, which were as strange and new to him as the first beam of light to the opened eye of one born blind.
With the earliest morning he hastened to the Court of the Duke, required his discharge, packed up his war-accoutrements, and, with rapid steps, his burden on his shoulders, and his head full of glowing enthusiasm, hied him back to his enchanted forest-hermitage.
Meanwhile, in his absence, a craftsman among the people, a miller by trade, had selected for himself the round straight trunk of the oak to be an axle, and was proceeding with his mill-men to fell it. The affrighted Elf sobbed bitterly, as the greedy saw began with iron tooth to devour the foundations of her dwelling. She looked wildly round, from the highest summit, for her faithful guardian, but her glance could find him nowhere ; and the gift of prophecy, peculiar to her race, was in the present case so ineffectual, that she could as little read the fate that stood before her, as the sons of Aesculapius, with their vaunted prognosis, can discover ways and means for themselves when Death is knocking at their own door.
Krokus, however, was approaching, and so near the scene of this catastrophe, that the screeching of the busy saw did not escape his ear. Such a sound in the forest boded no good : he quickened his steps, and beheld before his eyes the horror of the devastation that was visiting the tree which he had taken under his protection. Like a fury he rushed upon the woodcutters, with pike and sword, and scared them from their work ; for they concluded he must be a forest-demon, and fled in great precipitation.
By good fortune, the wound of the tree was still curable ; and the scar of it disappeared in a few summers.
In the solemn hour of evening, when the stranger had fixed upon the spot for his future habitation ; had meted out the space for hedging round as a garden, and was weighing in his mind the whole scheme of his future hermitage ; where, in retirement from the society of men, he purposed to pass his days in the service of a shadowy companion, possessed apparently of little more reality than a Saint of the Calendar, whom a pious friar chooses for his spiritual paramour the Elf appeared before him at the brink of the lake, and with gentle looks thus spoke: “Thanks to thee, beloved stranger, that thou hast turned away the wasteful arms of thy brethren from ruining this tree, with which my life is united.
For thou shalt know that Mother Nature, who has granted to my race such varied powers and influences, has combined the fortune of our life with the growth and duration of the oak. By us the sovereign of the forest raises his venerable head above the populace of other trees and shrubs ; we further the circulation of the sap through his trunk and boughs, that he may gain strength to battle with the tempest, and for long centuries to defy destructive Time.
On the other hand, our life is bound to his : when the oak, which the lot of Destiny has appointed for the partner of our existence, fades by years, we fade along with him ; and when he dies, we die, and sleep, like mortals, as it were a sort of death-sleep, till, by the everlasting cycle of things, Chance, or some hidden provision of Nature, again weds our being to a new germ ; which, unfolded by our enlivening virtue, after the lapse of long years, springs up to be a mighty tree, and affords us the enjoyment of existence anew.
From this thou mayest perceive what a service thou hast done me by thy help, and what gratitude I owe thee. Ask of me the recompense of thy noble deed ; disclose to me the wish of thy heart, and this hour it shall be granted thee.”
Krokus continued silent. The sight of the enchanting Elf had made more impression on him than her speech, of which, indeed, he understood but little. She noticed his embarrassment ; and, to extricate him from it, plucked a withered reed from the margin of the lake, broke it into three pieces, and said : “Choose one of these three stalks, or take one without a choice. In the first, lie Honour and Renown ; in the second, Riches and the wise enjoyment of them ; in the third is happiness in Love laid up for thee.”
The young man cast his eyes upon the ground, and answered: “Daughter of Heaven, if thou wouldst deign to grant the desire of my heart, know that it lies not in these three stalks which thou offerest me ; the recompense I aim at is higher. What is Honour but the fuel of Pride ? what are Riches but the root of Avarice? and what is Love but the trap-door of Passion, to ensnare the noble freedom of the heart?
Grant me my wish, to rest under the shadow of thy oak-tree from the toils of warfare, and to hear from thy sweet mouth the lessons of wisdom, that I may understand by them the secrets of the future.”
“Thy request,” replied the Elf, “is great ; but thy deserving towards me is not less so : be it then as thou hast asked.
Nor, with the fruit, shall the shell be wanting to thee ; for the wise man is also honoured ; he alone is rich, for he desires nothing more than he needs, and he tastes the pure nectar of Love without poisoning it by polluted lips.”
So saying, she again presented him the three reed-stalks, and vanished from his sight.
The young Eremite prepared his bed of moss, beneath the oak, exceedingly content with the reception which the Elf had given him. Sleep came upon him like a strong man ; gay morning dreams danced round his head, and solaced his fancy with the breath of happy forebodings. On awakening, he joyfully began his day’s work ; ere long he had built himself a pleasant hermit’s-cottage ; had dug his garden, and planted in it roses and lilies, with other odoriferous flowers and herbs ; not forgetting pulse and cold, and a sufficiency of fruit-trees.
This Elf never failed to visit him at twilight ; she rejoiced in the prospering of his labours ; walked with him, hand in hand, by the sedgy border of the lake ; and the wavering reeds, as the wind passed through them, whispered a melodious evening salutation to the trustful pair. She instructed her attentive disciple in the secrets of Nature ; showed him the origin and cause of things ; taught him their common and their magic properties and effects ; and formed the rude soldier into a thinker and philosopher.
In proportion as the feelings and senses of the young man grew refined by this fair spiritual intercourse, it seemed as if the tender form of the Elf were condensing, and acquiring more consistency; her bosom caught warmth and life ; her brown eyes sparkled with the fire of love ; and with the shape, she appeared to have adopted the feelings of a young blooming maiden.
The sentimental hour of dusk, which is as if expressly calculated to awaken slumbering feelings, had its usual effect ; and after a few moons from their first acquaintance, the sighing Krokus found himself possessed of the happiness in Love, which the Third Reed-stalk had appointed him ; and did not repent that by the trap-door of Passion the freedom of his heart had been ensnared. Though the marriage of the tender pair took place without witnesses, it was celebrated with as much enjoyment as the most tumultuous espousals ; nor were speaking proofs of love’s recompense long wanting.
The Elf gave her husband three daughters at a birth ; and the father, rejoicing in the bounty of his better half, named, at the first embrace, the eldest infant, Bela ; the next born, Therba ; and the youngest, Libussa. They were all like the Genies in beauty of form;, and though not moulded of such light materials as the mother, their corporeal structure was finer than the dull earthy clay of the father. They were also free from all the infirmities of childhood ; their swathings did not gall them ; they teethed without epileptic fits, needed no calomel taken inwardly, got no rickets ; had no small-pox, and, of course, no scars, no cum-eyes, or puckered faces : nor did they require any leading-strings ; for after the first nine days, they ran like little partridges ; and as they grew up, they manifested all the talents of the mother for discovering hidden things, and predicting what was future.
Krokus himself, by the aid of time, grew skillful in these mysteries also. When the wolf had scattered the flocks through the forest, and the herdsmen were seeking for their sheep and horses ; when the woodman missed an axe or bill, they took counsel from the wise Krokus, who showed them where to find what they had lost. When a wicked prowler had abstracted naught from the common stock ; had by night broken into the pinfold, or the dwelling of his neighbour, and robbed or slain him, and none could guess the malefactor, the wise Krokus was consulted.
He led the people to a green ; made them form a ring ; then stept into the midst of them, set the faithful sieve a-running, and so failed not to discover the misdoer. By such acts his fame spread over all the country of Bohemia ; and whoever had a weighty care, or an important undertaking, took counsel from the wise Krokus about its issue. The lame and the sick, too, required from him help and recovery ; even the unsound cattle of the fold were driven to him ; and his gift of curing sick kine by his shadow, was not less than that of the renowned St. Martin of Schierbach.
By these means the concourse of the people to him grew more frequent, day by day, no otherwise than if the Tripod of the Delphic Apollo had been transferred to the Bohemian forest : and though Krokus answered all inquiries, and cured the sick and afflicted, without fee or reward, yet the treasure of his secret wisdom paid him richly, and brought him in abundant profit ; the people crowded to him with gifts and presents, and almost oppressed him with testimonies of their good-will. It was he that first disclosed the mystery of washing gold from the sands of the Elbe ; and for his recompense he had a tenth of all the produce.
By these means his wealth and store increased ; he built strongholds and palaces ; had vast herds of cattle ; possessed fertile pasturages, fields and woods ; and thus found himself imperceptibly possessed of all the Riches which the beneficently foreboding Elf had enclosed for him in the Second Reed.
One fine summer evening, when Krokus with his train was returning from an excursion, having by special request been settling the disputed marches of two townships, he perceived his spouse on the margin of the sedgy lake, where she had first appeared to him. She waved him with her hand ; so he dismissed his servants, and hastened to clasp her in his arms.
She received him, as usual, with tender love ; but her heart was sad and oppressed ; from her eyes trickled down ethereal tears, so fine and fugitive, that as they fell they were greedily inhaled by the air, and not allowed to reach the ground. Krokus was alarmed at this appearance ; he had never seen his wife’s fair eyes otherwise than cheerful, and sparkling with youthful gaiety. “ What ails thee, beloved of my heart ?” said he ; “ black forebodings overcast my soul. Speak, say what mean those tears.”
The Elf sobbed, leaned her head sorrowfully on his shoulder, and said : “Beloved husband, in thy absence I have looked into the Book of Destiny ; a doeful chance overhangs my life-tree ; I must part from thee forever. Follow me into the Castle, till I bless my children ; for from this day you will never see me more.”
“ Dearest wife,” said Krokus, “ chase away these mournful thoughts. What misfortune is it that can harm thy tree ? Behold its sound boughs, how they stretch forth loaded with fruit and leaves, and how it raises its top to the clouds. While this arm can move, it shall defend thy tree from any miscreant that presumes to wound its stem.”
“Impotent defense,” replied she, “which a mortal arm can yield ! Ants can but secure themselves from ants, flies from flies, and the worms of Earth from other earthly worms.
But what can the mightiest among you do against the workings of Nature, or the unalterable decisions of Fate ? The kings of the Earth can heap up little hillocks, which they name fortresses and castles ; but the weakest breath of air defies their authority, blows where it lists, and mocks at their command. This oak-tree thou hast guarded from the violence of men ; canst thou likewise forbid the tempest that it rise not to disleaf its branches ; or if a hidden worm is gnawing in its marrow, canst thou draw it out, and tread it under foot ?”
Amid such conversation they arrived at the Castle. The slender maidens, as they were wont at the evening visit of their mother, came bounding forth to meet them ; gave account of their day’s employments, produced their needlework, and their embroideries, to prove their diligence : but now the hour of household happiness was joyless. They soon observed that the traces of deep suffering were imprinted on the countenance of their father ; and they looked with sympathising sorrow at their mother’s tears, without venturing to inquire their cause.
The mother gave them many wise instructions and wholesome admonitions ; but her speech was like the singing of a swan, as if she wished to give the world her farewell. She lingered with her husband, till the morning-star went up in the sky; then she embraced him and her children with mournful tenderness; and at dawn of day retired, as was her custom, through the secret door, to her oak-tree, and left her friends to their own sad forebodings.
Nature stood in listening stillness at the rising sun ; but heavy black clouds soon veiled his beaming head. The day grew sultry and oppressive ; the whole atmosphere was electric.
Distant thunder came rolling over the forest ; and the hundred-voiced Echo repeated, in the winding valleys, its baleful sound.
At the noontide, a forked thunderbolt struck quivering down upon the oak ; and in a moment shivered with resistless force the trunk and boughs, and the wreck lay scattered far around it in the forest. When Father Krokus was informed of this, he rent his garments, went forth with his daughters to deplore the life-tree of his spouse, and to collect the fragments of it, and preserve them as invaluable relics. But the Elf from that day was not seen any more.
To be continued…
The Chronicles of the Three Sisters, Part 3 of 3
Excerpt from the German of Musäus: “The Legend of Rubezahl and Other Stories.” Editor C.M. Wieland. The 1845 William Hazlitt translation.
“Of a sudden the fish plunged under water, and the boat was again set afloat, but a moment after the monster of the lake re-appeared on its surface, and opening a hideous throat as big as a moderate-sized crater, from its dark abyss, as from a subterraneous vault, sounded forth deep and distinct these words: “Audacious fisher! How durst thou thus murder my subjects? Thou canst only atone for such an outrage with thy life!”
The Count was by this time so used to such adventures, that he knew exactly how to behave himself. Speedily recovering from his first alarm, when he thus knew the fish would be willing to listen to reason, he answered quite boldly: “Master Behemoth, do not forget the rites of hospitality; grant me a dish of fish out of your pond, and if you will favor me with a visit, my kitchen and cellar shall be open to you in return.”
“Stay, stay,” replied the monster, “we are not quite such good friends as all that; know’st thou not might is right; that the strongest eats the weakest? Thou stealest my subjects to swallow them, and I will swallow thee!”
Hereupon the grim fish opened his jaws still wider. as if he would swallow man and boat and trout and all. “Ah, spare my life! Spare my life,” cried the Count. “You see I am but a sorry breakfast for your whaleship’s stomach.”
The enormous fish seemed to consider awhile. “Well,” said he, “I know thou hast a pretty daughter, promise her to me for a wife, and take thy life in exchange.”
When the Count heard the fish take this tone, he laid aside all trace of fear. “She is quite at your service,” said he. “You are a gallant son-in-law to whom no honest father could refuse his child. But what will you lay down for your bride, according to the custom of the land?”
” I have neither gold nor silver,” answered the Fish, “but at the bottom of the lake lies a great treasure of pearl shells. Thou hast only to ask and to have.”
“Done,” replied the Count. “Three bushels of pearls are next to nothing for a pretty bride.”
“They are thine,” said the Fish, “and mine the bride; in seven months I shall fetch my darling home.”
Hereupon he beat the waves lustily with his tail and sent the boat ashore.
The Count took his trout, had them boiled, and with the Countess and the beautiful Bertha enjoyed the Carthusian meal exceedingly. The poor girl little dreamed how dear this meal was to cost her.
Well, the moon increased and diminished six times, and the Count had nearly forgotten his adventure, but as she became rounder and rounder for the seventh time, he thought of the impending catastrophe, and in order not to witness it, slipped away on a little excursion into the country. At the sultry hour of noon, on the day of the full noon, a gallant band of knights galloped up to the castle gates. The Countess, alarmed at the presence of so many strange visitors, hesitated whether to admit them or not; however, when a knight, well known to her, announced himself, she no longer objected.
He had often, in the days of their prosperity and profusion, attended the tournaments at the castle, had manifested rare skill in the joust, had received many a prize from the fair Bertha’s hand, and led off many a dance with her; but at the time of the change of the Count’s fortune, he had disappeared with the other knights. The worthy Countess was ashamed of having her poverty exposed to the noble chevalier and his suite, for she had nothing to serve up for their refreshment.
He, however, accosted her in a most friendly manner, and requested nothing but a draught of pure water from the castle well, just as he used to do erewhile, for he had never drunk wine , and had, indeed, been therefore called in joke the Water Knight.
The fair Bertha hastened, at her mother’s bidding, to the well, filled a jug, then poured its sparkling contents into a crystal cup, and, after putting it to her lips, presented it to the Knight. He received it from her delicate hand, and placing his mouth to the spot where her coral lips had touched the vase, pledged her with ineffable delight.
The Countess meantime was in the greatest embarrassment at not being able to offer her guest anything for breakfast; at length she recollected that there was a juicy water melon, just ripe, in the castle garden. She ran to the spot, and in a moment had plucked the melon and laid it upon an earthen plate, decked with vine leaves and the most odoriferous flowers as an offering to their guest. On returning from the garden, she found the court yard empty and silent, without either horses or horsemen, and going in doors she saw as little neither knight nor squire.
In terrible affright, she called for her daughter, Bertha; there was no answer; she sought for her all over the house; no daughter was to be found. In the hall was placed three bags, made of new canvas, which she had not remarked in her first alarm, and which felt from without as if they were filled with peas. Her affliction did not allow her to search further.
The good mother gave herself over to grief, weeping aloud till evening, when her husband returned and found her in terrible distress. She could not conceal from him what had happened though she would have fain done so, for she dreaded his reproaches for having let an unknown knight into the castle, who had been thus enabled to carry off their beloved daughter. But the Count, who comforted her most affectionately, seemed most interested in the bags of peas she had mentioned, and going out forthwith to look at them, opened one in her presence.
What was the astonishment of the afflicted Countess when there rolled out fine pearls, as large as the big peas in the garden, perfectly round, delicately pierced, and of the purest water. She clearly perceived that her daughter’s ravisher had paid every maternal tear with a pearl, and, imbued with an exalted opinion of his rank and riches, was consoled that this son-in-law was not a monster, but a stalwart and and stately knight, an error which the Count took care not to rectify.
The parents, it is true, had now parted with all their beautiful daughters, but in return they were possessed of an immense treasure. The Count soon converted a portion of it into money. From morning to night, the castle was swarming with merchants bargaining for the precious pearls. The Count redeemed his towns and estates, let his castle in the woods, and returned to his former capital where he resumed once more his princely state. No longer, however, as a reckless spendthrift but as a hospitable dignitary of the empire: for he had no more daughters left to barter away. The noble couple were now exceedingly well off, but the Countess could not get over the loss of her daughters; she constantly wore mourning and hardly ever smiled.
For a long time, she hoped to see her Bertha again, with the wealthy Knight of the Pearls, and as often as a stranger was announced at their court, she thought it was her son-in-law returning. At last the Count , who could not find it in his heart to feed these fallacious hopes any longer, confessed to her that this magnificent son-in-law was none other than an abominable fish.”
End of Excerpt and Book 1 of 3
“The Chronicles of the Three Sisters”
But, of course, not the end of the story!
The Volksmärchen of Musäus
The Chronicles of the Three Sisters, Part 2 of 3
Excerpt from the German of Musäus: “The Legend of Rubezahl and Other Stories.” Editor C.M. Wieland. The 1845 William Hazlitt translation.
“All is fish that comes to net for poor people. When Papa found that the trade in his daughters was so profitable, he consoled himself for their loss. This time he went home in capital spirits, and carefully concealed his adventure, partly to avoid the reproaches which he dreaded from the Countess, and partly not to afflict his dear girl before the time came. For appearance sake, he made a great lamentation about the lost falcon, which he said had flown away. Miss Adelheid was the cleverest spinster in all the land. She was also an excellent weaver, and had just then cut from the loom a valuable piece of linen, as fine as cambric, which she bleached on a grass plat not far from the castle. Six weeks and six days flew by without the beautiful spinster having the slightest misgiving of the fate that awaited her.
Her father, indeed, who began to be somewhat downhearted as the time fixed for fetching her away drew nigh, but privately given her many a hint of it, either relating some ominous dream he had had, or reminding her of the long since forgotten Wulfild; but Adelheid, who was of a light joyous turn of mind, only thought it was her father’s heavy temperament that put these hypochondriacal whimsies into his head. And so, on the seventh day of the seventh week, she slipped away as usual, at early dawn, light as air, to the bleaching ground, and spread out her piece of linen, that it might get saturated with the dew. When she had arranged this matter, and was looking about her a little, she perceived a splendid procession of knights and pages prancing along towards the castle.
As her toilet was incomplete, she hid herself behind a wild rosebush that was in full bloom, whence she peeped out to see the gorgeous cavalcade as it passed. The handsomest knight of the whole throng, a slim young man with open vizer, bounded towards the rosebush, and said in a very gentle voice: “I seek thee, I see thee, beautiful beloved; hide not thyself, but haste , that I may put thee behind me on the horse, thou lovely Eagle’s bride.”
Adelheid knew not what in the world to think when she heard these words. The handsome knight pleased her well enough, but the title “Eagle’s bride,” made the blood freeze in her veins; she sank fainting to the ground, and when she came to her senses, she found herself in the arms of the amiable knight on her road to the forest.
Meantime, Mamma had prepared breakfast; and, as Adelheid did not make her appearance , she sent her youngest daughter to see where she was. As the messenger did not return, Mamma thought this boded no good, and went to see why her daughter stayed so long; but Mamma did not return either. Papa perceived what was going on; his heart went thump! thump! and he slunk off to the grass plat where both Mamma and daughter were still looking for Adelheid; and anxiously calling out her name; and he, too, set to work shouting at the top of his voice, though he knew perfectly well that all shouting and seeking were equally fruitless. By and by, his road took him near the wild rosebush where he perceived some objects glittering which, on examining them more closely, he found to be a couple of golden eggs, each of a hundred weight. He could now no longer help telling his wife their daughter’s adventure.
“O shameless soul kidnapper!” she cried; “O vile daughter murderer! Is it thus thou infamously sacrifice thine own flesh and blood to Moloch, for the sake of filthy lucre?”
The Count, who had, however, but an indifferent stock of eloquence, defended himself for awhile as best he might, offering as an excuse for his conduct the pressing danger her life was in at the time. The inconsolable mother would not hear a word he had to say, but continued heaping the bitterest reproaches upon him. He therefore adopted the most infallible method of putting an end to all contests — he held his tongue, and let his lady talk as long as she pleased, and meantime proceeded to secure the golden eggs by rolling them slowly before him to the castle. Then he wore family mourning for three days, for decency’s sake; after which he thought of nothing else than resuming his former life.
In a short time, the castle again became the abode of pleasure. the Elysium of hungry, sponging parasites. Balls, tourniquets and splendid feasts became every-day events. Miss Bertha shown as brightly in the eyes of the stately knights who repaired to her father’s court, as the silver moon does to the sentimental rambler on a serene summer’s night. It was she who bestowed the prize at every tournament, and led off the dance in the evening with the victorious knight. The noble hospitality of the Count, and the rare beauty of his daughter, brought to their balls knights of noble birth, from the most distant lands. Of these a dozen at the least essayed to win the heart of the rich heiress; but amongst so many suitors the choice was difficult, where each new comer seemed to surpass his predecessor in nobility and good looks.
The beautiful Bertha chose and doubted, chose and doubted so long that at last the golden ingots , to which the Count had by no means applied the file sparingly, had dwindled down from the size of roc’s eggs to mere hazel nuts.
The Count’s finances having thus again fallen into their former low estate, the tournaments were given up, knights and squires disappeared, the castle again became a desert, and the distinguished family again returned to their potato diet. The Count once more wandered the fields, in doleful dumps, longing for a fresh adventure, but meeting with none for a long time, though he went as near the forest as he dared.
One day he followed a covey of partridges so far that he came close upon the enchanted wood, and although he did not venture in, he kept walking along its skirts for some way, till, lo and behold! he saw before him an immense piece of water he had never set eyes on before, beneath whose clear silver surfaces countless trout were swimming about. The discovery delighted him very much, for the pond had a most unauspicious appearance; he, therefore, hastened home and made a net, and the next morning, betimes, there stood he on the shore, ready for fishing. To complete his good fortune, what should he see among the reeds but a little boat with an oar. Jumping into this, he rowed vigorously about the pond, and then casting his net caught more trout at one draught than he could possibly carry, with which he made for the shore, delighted with his prize.
About a stone’s throw from land, however, the boat suddenly stopped in its course, and remained immovable as if it had stuck to the bottom of the pond. The Count thought this must be the case as he tugged with all his might to set it afloat again, but in vain. The waters barred its progress on every side, above whose surface the vessel seemed to be lifted high, higher, as though it were perched on a rock. The poor fisherman could not at all tell what to make of it, and felt excessively uncomfortable. Although the boat was as if nailed to the spot, the banks appeared to recede on each side, the pond extended itself out into a great lake, the waves began to swell and roar and foam, and he perceived to his amazement and alarm that he and his boat were upon the back of an enormous fish. He resigned himself to his fate, though of course not a little anxious to see what turn things would take.”
To be continued…
The Volksmärchen of Musäus
This work is, of its kind, one of the very best
that the last quarter of the 18th Century has produced.
Weimar, June 12th, 1803
The Chronicles of the Three Sisters
Excerpt from the German of Musäus: “The Legend of Rubezahl and Other Stories.” Editor C.M. Wieland. The 1845 William Hazlitt translation.
Part 1 of 3
“There was once a very, very rich Count who wasted his substance by the most lavish expenditure. He lived in king-like style, keeping open house every day in the year. Whoever claimed his hospitality, whether knight or squire, was feasted sumptuously for three long days; and no guest but left him delighted with the entertainment he had received. He was terribly fond of gambling; his Court swarmed with golden-haired pages, running footmen, and heyducs in splendid liveries, and his stables absolutely ran over with countless horses and dogs. His treasures at last became exhausted by all this perfusion. He mortgaged one town after another, sold his jewels and plate, and dismissed his servants; and of all of his vast wealth, nothing remained but an old castle in the woods, a virtuous wife, and three wondrously beautiful daughters.
To this castle went he, abandoned by all the world. The Countess herself and her daughters saw to the kitchen, and as none of them knew anything about cookery, they could only boil potatoes. This frugal fare suited Papa’s taste so little that he grew peevish and ill-tempered, and went about the great rambling, empty house swearing and storming, till the bare walls rung again with his passion. One fine summer’s morning he snatched up his hunting spear in a fit of sheer spleen, and set off to the forest to strike a deer, or even any smaller game, so that he might have a more savoury meal than usual.
Of this forest, there ran a tale that it was haunted by ungentle spirits. Many a wanderer had lost his way in its intricacies and never been seen again, having either been throttled by wicked gnomes or torn to pieces by wild beasts. The Count did not at all believe in supernatural agency, and had consequently no fear of invisible enemies, gnomes or hobgoblins; he made his way stoutly over hill and dale into the forest, where he struggled on, through the thickets, without meeting the game he was in search of, until he was thoroughly tired. He then sat down under a fine tall oak, and drew from his pouch a few boiled potatoes and a little salt, his whole day’s stock of provisions for the mid-day’s repast.
On raising his eyes by chance just before he began, lo and behold! a terrible great bear was approaching. The poor Count was monstrously frightened at the site; escape he could not, and he was not equipped for a bear-fight. However, in this extremity he did all he could; he grasped his spear, and stood in an attitude to defend himself as best he might. The monster came nearer and nearer, and then suddenly stopped short and distinctly growled out these words: “Robber! Plunderest thou my honey-tree? Thou canst only atone for such outrage with thy life.”
“Oh, oh!” cried the Count pitifully; “Pray don’t eat me up, Master Bear; I don’t want your honey at all; I am an honest knight. If you are hungry, pray be pleased to take pot-luck with me. “
So saying, he dished up all the potatoes in his hunting cap for the Bear’s acceptance. But the latter scorned the Count’s fare, and growled out again, in a most surly tone: “Wretch, think’st thou to redeem thy life at such a price. Instantly promise me thy eldest daughter, Wulfild, for my wife, or I’ll devour thee on the spot!”
In his fright, the Count would have promised the amorous Bear all of his daughters, and his wife in the bargain, if he required it, for necessity has no law.
“She shall be yours, Master Bear,” said the Count, beginning to recover himself a little; but on condition,” he added cunningly, “that you ransom the bride according to the custom of the land. and come yourself to take her home.”
“Done,” said the Bear, “shake hands upon it.” And he presented him his rough paw. “In seven days I will come and ransom her for a hundred weight of gold, and fetch my darling home.”
“Done!” said the Count.
And thereupon they parted in peace; the Bear returning leisurely to his den, and the Count losing no time in getting out of the terrible forest, reached home at starlight, utterly worn out.
It stands to reason that a Bear who can talk and traffic rationally, like a man, is not a natural but an enchanted bear. This the Count made up his mind to; and he accordingly determined to chouse his shaggy son-in-law elect, by entrenching himself in his stronghold, so that it would be impossible for the Bear to enter, when he should come to fetch his bride on the appointed day. “For,” thought he, “though an enchanted bear may have the gift of speech and reason, still he is after all only a bear, and has in all other respects merely the qualities of an ordinary animal; so that he can’t fly like a bird, or creep through the keyhole of a locked up room like a spirit, any more than he can pass through the eye of a needle.”
On the following day be acquainted his wife and the young ladies with his adventure in the forest. Miss Wulfild swooned away with horror, when she heard she was to be married to a frightful bear; Mamma wrung her hands and wept aloud; and the other sisters shivered and shook with woe and wonder. As for Papa, he went out and surveyed the walls and the moat that surrounded the castle, and examined the iron gate to see that it was firm and fast; he then raised the drawbridge, closed every entrance, and lastly went up into the watch-tower where he found a little chamber built in the wall under the battlements, and there he shut up the young lady, who tore her fine flaxen hair, and nearly cried her blue eyes out of her head.
Six days passed away; the seventh had just dawned, when a loud clattering noise proceeded from the forest, just as if the Wild Hunt was abroad. Whips cracked, horns sounded, horses pranced and wheels rattled. A splendid state carriage, surrounded by horsemen, rolled over the plain, and speedily reached the castle door. All the bolts shot back, the door flew open, the drawbridge fell, and a young prince, handsome as the day, and dressed in velvet and in cloth of silver, stepped out of the carriage. Round his neck, thrice wound, was a chain of gold, solid enough to bear a man’s weight; on his hat he wore a string of pearls, and diamonds that would have dazzled your eyes to look at; the clasp that fastened his ostrich plume was worth a dukedom at least. He flew up the winding staircase with the rapidity of a whirlwind, and in the twinkling of an eye brought down the trembling bride in his arms.
The uproar awakened the Count from his morning’s slumber; he jumped out of bed and threw open the window; and when he saw the horses and the carriage, and the knights and the troopers in the courtyard, and his daughter in the arms of a strange man, who was lifting her into the bridal coach, which then set off with the rest of the party through the castlegate, a pang shot through his heart, and he cried out in a lamentable tone: “Farewell, daughter mine! God be with thee, thou Bear’s bride!”
Wulfild heard her father’s voice, and waved her handkerchief from the carriage-window, as if to bid adieu.
The parents were in utter consternation at the loss of their daughter, and looked at each other in moot dismay. Then Mamma would not believe her eyes, and determining that the whole affair was delusion and witchcraft, snatched up her bunch of keys, ran up the watch-tower and opened her cell, where she found neither her daughter nor any of her clothes; but on the table lay a silver key, of which she took possession; as she chanced to look through the window she saw a cloud of dust in the distance, towards the eastern horizon, and heard the clatter and acclamations of the bridal party, till they entered the forest. Full of sorrow, the Countess came down from the tower, put on morning, strewed her head with ashes, and wept for three whole days, her husband and daughters sharing to the full her grief and lamentations. On the fourth day, the Count left the house of mourning, in order to have a little fresh air, when as he crossed the court yard, what should he see but a beautiful great ebony chest standing there, well secured and very heavy. He readily guessed what it contained. The Countess gave him the key, he opened it, and found therein a hundred weight of gold, all in doubloons and one coinage. Joyful at this discovery, he forget his troubles, bought horses and falcons, and fine clothes for his wife and two dear daughters, hired servants, and set to work again guzzling and gormandizing, till he had drained the chest of its last doubloon. Then he ran into debt, and all his creditors came like a flock of harpies, and regularly cleared out the castle, leaving nothing in it but an old falcon. The Countess and her daughters were again obliged to boil potatoes, while the husband wandered about in the fields all day long with his bird, overcome with ennui and vexation.
One day that he had cast his hawk, it rose high up in the air and would not return to his hand, call as he might. The Count followed his flight, as well as he could, over the vast plain; the bird went on straight toward the dread forest, which the Count did not choose foolishly to tempt again, and accordingly he gave up his dear friend as lost. All of a sudden a mighty Eagle rose among the forest trees, and pursued the falcon, which no sooner saw that it was threatened by an enemy so much stronger than itself, than it flew with the speed of an arrow back to its master to seek for protection. But the Eagle darted down from aloft, and striking one of its vast talons into the Count’s shoulder, crushed the trusty falcon with the other. The Count, at once amazed and alarmed, endeavored with his spear to free himself from the feathered monster, striking and thrusting fiercely at his foe. But the Eagle seized the hunting spear, and having shivered it like a reed, screamed these words loudly into his ear: “Audacious creature, how dar’st thou disturb my airy dominions with thy sport? Thou canst only atone for such an outrage with thy life!”
The Count at once guessing from the bird’s speech what sort of adventure was likely to ensue, took courage and said: “Softly, Sir Eagle, softly! What harm have I done you? My falcon has paid for his sins, and I’ll make him over to you, to satisfy your hunger.”
“No,” screamed the Eagle; “I happen just today to have a fancy for man’s flesh, and you seem a nice fat morsel.”
“Pardon me, Master Eagle,” cried the Count in agonized alarm, “ask what you will of me, and you shall have it; only spare my life!”
“Well,” replied the horrible Eagle after a pause. “I’ll take you at your word; you have two handsome daughters, and I want a wife. Promise me your Adelheid in marriage, and I’ll let you go in peace, and ransom her with two golden ingots of a hundred weight each. In seven weeks, I shall fetch my darling home.”
So saying the monster soared toward the sky, and disappeared into the clouds.”
To be continued…
The Volksmärchen of Musäus