Musäus: “Libussa” 2/5

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

In some few years, the tender girls had waxed in stature; their maiden forms blossomed forth, as the rose pushing up from the bud ; and the fame of their beauty spread abroad over all the land. The noblest youths of the people crowded round, with cases to submit to Father Krokus for his counsel ; but at bottom, these their specious pretexts were directed to the fair maidens, whom they wished to get a glimpse of ; as is the mode with young men, who delight to have some business with the master of the household, when his daughters are beautiful.
The three sisters lived in great simplicity and unity together ; as yet but little conscious of their talents. The gift of prophecy had been communicated to them in an equal degree ; and all their words were oracles, although they knew it not.
Yet soon their vanity awoke at the voice of flattery ; word-catchers eagerly laid hold of every sound proceeding from their lips ; Celadons noted down every look, spied out the faintest smile, explored the aspect of their eyes, and drew from it more or less favourable prognostics, conceiving that their own destiny was to be read by means of it ; and from this time, it has become the mode with lovers to deduce from the horoscope of the eyes the rising or declining of their star in courtship.
Scarcely had Vanity obtained a footing in the virgin heart, till Pride, her dear confidante, with her wicked rabble of a train, Self-love, Self-praise, Self-will, Self-interest, were standing at the door ; and all of them in time sneaked in. The elder sisters struggled to outdo the younger in their arts ; and envied her in secret her superiority in personal attractions. For though they all were very beautiful, the youngest was the most so. Fraulein Bela turned her chief attention to the science of plants ; as Fraulein Medea did in earlier times.
She knew their hidden virtues, could extract from them poisons and antidotes ; and farther, understood the art of making from them sweet or nauseous odours for the unseen Powers. When her censer steamed, she allured to her Spirits out of the immeasurable depth of aether, from beyond the Moon, and they became her subjects, that with their fine organs they might be allowed to snuff these delicious vapours : and when she scattered villianous perfumes upon the coals, she could have smoked away with it the very Zihim and the Ohim from the Wilderness.
Fraulein Therba was inventive as Circe in devising magic formulas, which could command the elements, could raise tempests and whirlwinds, also hail and thunder ; could shake the bowels of the Earth, or lift itself from the sockets of its axle.
She employed these arts to terrify the people, and be feared and honoured by them as a goddess ; and she could, in fact, arrange the weather more according to the wish and taste of men than wise old Nature does. Two brothers quarreled on this subject, for their wishes never were the same. The one was a husbandman, and still desired rain for the growth and strengthening of his crops. The other was a potter, and desired constant sunshine to dry his dishes, which the rain destroyed.
And as Heaven never could content them in disposing of this matter, they repaired one day with rich presents to the Castle of the wise Krokus ; and submitted their petitions to Therba. The daughter of the Elf gave a smile over their unquiet grumbling at the wise economy of Nature ; and contented the demands of each : she made rain fall on the seedlands of the cultivator ; and the sun shone on the potter-field close by. By these enchantments both the sisters gained much fame and riches, for they never used their gifts without a fee.
With their treasures they built castles and country-houses ; laid out royal pleasure-gardens ; to their festivals and divertisements there was no end. The gallants, who solicited their love, they gulled and laughed at.
Fraulein Libussa was no sharer in the vain proud disposition of her sisters. Though she had the same capacities for penetrating the secrets of Nature, and employing its hidden powers in her service, she remained contented with the gifts she had derived from her maternal inheritance, without attempting to increase them, or turn them to a source of gain.
Her vanity extended not beyond the consciousness that she was beautiful ; she cared not for riches ; and neither longed to be feared nor to be honoured like her sisters. Whilst these were gadding up and down among their country-houses, hastening from one tumultuous pleasure to another, with the flower of the Bohemian chivalry fettered to their chariot-wheels, she abode in her father’s house, conducting the economy, giving counsel to those who begged it, friendly help to the afflicted and oppressed ; and all from good-will, without remuneration.
Her temper was soft and modest, and her conduct virtuous and discreet, as beseems a noble virgin. She might secretly rejoice in the victories which her beauty gained over the hearts of men, and accept the sighing and cooing of her languishing adorers as a just tribute to her charms ; but none dared speak a word of love to her, or venture on aspiring to her heart. Yet Amor, the roguish urchin, takes a pleasure in exerting his privileges on the coy ; and often hurls his burning torch upon the lowly straw-roof, when he means to set on fire a lofty palace.
Far in the bosom of the forest lived an ancient Knight, who had come into the land with the host of Czech. In this seclusion he had fixed his settlement ; reduced the desert undercultivation, and formed for himself a small estate, where he thought to pass the remainder of his days in peace, and live upon the produce of his husbandry. A strong-handed neighbour took forcible possession of the land, and expelled the owner, whom a hospitable peasant sheltered in his dwelling.
The distressed old Knight had a son, who now formed the sole consolation and support of his age ; a bold active youth, but possessed of nothing save a hunting-spear and a practised arm,for the sustenance of his gray-haired father. The injustice of their neighbour stimulated him to revenge, and he had been prepared for resisting force by force ; but the command of the anxious father, unwilling to expose his son to danger, had disarmed him. Yet ere long he resumed his former purpose.
Then the father called him to his presence, and said : “ Pass over, my son, to the wise Krokus, or to the cunning virgins his daughters, and ask counsel whether the gods approve thy undertaking, and will grant it a prosperous issue. If so, gird on thy sword, and take the spear in thy hand, and go forth to fight for thy inheritance. If not, stay here till thou hast closed my eyes and laid me in the earth ; then do what shall seem good to thee.”
The youth set forth, and first reached Bela’s palace, a building like a temple for the habitation of a goddess. He knocked at the door, and desired to be admitted ; but the porter observing that he came empty-handed, dismissed him as a beggar, and shut the door in his face. He went forward in sadness, and reached the house of Sister Therba, where he knocked and requested an audience. The porter looked upon him through his window, and said : “ If thou bringest gold in thy bag, which thou canst weigh out to my mistress, she will teach thee one of her good saws to read thy fortune withal.
If not, then go and gather of it in the sands of the Elbe as many grains as the tree hath leaves, the sheaf ears, and the bird feathers, then will I open thee this gate.” The mocked young man glided off entirely dejected ; and the more so, as he learned that Seer Krokus was in Poland, arbitrating the disputes of some contending Grandees. He anticipated from the third sister no more flattering reception ; and as he descried her father’s castle from a hill in the distance, he could not venture to approach it, but hid himself in a thicket to pursue his bitter thoughts.
Ere long he was roused by an approaching noise ; he listened, and heard a sound of horses’ hoofs. A flying roe dashed through the bushes, followed by a lovely huntress and her maids on stately steeds. She hurled a javelin from her hand ; it flew whizzing through the air, but did not hit the game. Instantly the watchful young man seized his bow and launched from the twanging cord a bolt, which smote the deer through the heart, and stretched it lifeless on the spot. The lady, in astonishment at this phenomenon, looked round to find her unknown hunting partner : and the archer, on observing this, stept forward from his bush, and bent himself humbly before her to the ground.
Fraulein Libussa thought she had never seen a finer man. At the first glance, his figure made so deep an impression on her, that she could not but award him that involuntary feeling of good-will which a beautiful appearance claims as its prerogative. “Tell me, fair stranger,” said she to him, “ who art thou, and what chance is it that leads thee to these groves ?”
The youth guessed rightly that his lucky star had brought him what he was in search of ; he disclosed his case to her in modest words; not hiding how disgracefully her sisters had dismissed him, or how the treatment had afflicted him. She cheered his heart with friendly words. “Follow me to my abode,” said she; “I will consult the Book of Fate for thee, and answer thy demand tomorrow by the rising of the sun.”
The young man did as he was ordered. No churlish porter here barred for him the entrance of the palace; the fair lady exercised the rights of hospitality with generous attention. He was charmed by this benignant reception, but still more by the beauty of his gentle hostess. Her enchanting figure hovered all night before his eyes ; he carefully defended himself from sleep, that he might not for a moment lose from his thoughts the delightful events of the day.
Fraulein Libussa, on the contrary, enjoyed soft slumber: for seclusion from the influences of the external senses, which disturb the finer presentiments of the future, is an indispensable, condition for the gift of prophecy. The glowing fancy of the maiden blended the form of this young stranger with all the dreaming images which hovered through her mind that night. She found him where she had not looked for him, in connexion with affairs in which she could not understand how this unknown youth had come to be involved.
On her early awakening, at the hour when the fair prophetess was wont to separate and interpret the visions of the night, she felt inclined to cast away these phantasms from her mind, as errors which had sprung from a disturbance in the operation of her prophetic faculty, and were entitled to no heed from her.
Yet a dim feeling signified that this creation of her fancy was not idle dreaming ; but had a significant allusion to certain events which the future would unravel ; and that last night this presaging Fantasy had spied out the decrees of Fate, and blabbed them to her, more successfully than ever. By help of it, she found that her guest was inflamed with warm love to her ; and with equal honesty her heart confessed the same thing in regard to him.
But she instantly impressed the seal of silence on the news ; as the modest youth had, on his side, set a guard upon his lips and his eyes, that he might not expose himself to a contemptuous refusal ; for the chasm which Fortune had interposed between him and the daughter of the wise Krokus seemed impassable.
Although the fair Libussa well knew what she had to say in answer to the young man’s question, yet it went against her heart to let him go from her so soon. At sunrise she called him to her in her garden, and said : “The curtain of darkness yet hangs before my eyes ; abide with me till sunset ;” and at night she said : ” Stay till sunrise ;” and next morning : ” Wait another day ;” and the third day: ” Have patience till tomorrow.”
On the fourth day she at last dismissed him ; finding no more pretexts for detaining him, with safety to her secret. At parting, she gave him his response in friendly words : ” The gods will not that thou shouldst contend with a man of violence in the land; to bear and suffer is the lot of the weaker. Return to thy father ; be the comfort of his old age ; and support him by the labour of thy diligent hand. Take two white Steers as a present from my herd; and this Staff to drive them ; and when it blossoms and bears fruit, the spirit of prophecy will descend on thee.”
To be continued…