Musäus: “Libussa” 1/5

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


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…