The Volksmärchen of Musäus 1/3
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