THE NICKEL  OF THE RÖHRERBÜCHEL.
FROM the fourteenth to the sixteenth, in some few places down to the seventeenth, centuries the mountains of Tirol were in many localities profitably worked in the search after the precious metals; many families were enriched; and the skill of the Tirolese miners passed into a proverb throughout Europe. When the veins lying near the surface had been worked out, the difficulty of bringing the machinery required for deeper workings into use, in a country whose soil has nowhere three square miles of plain, rendered the further pursuit so expensive that it was in great measure abandoned, though some iron and copper is still got out. There are many old shafts entirely deserted, and their long and intricate passages into the bowels of the earth not only afford curious places of excursion to the tourist, but are replete with fantastic memories of their earlier destination.
One of the most remarkable of these is the so-called Röhrerbüchel, which is situated between Kitzbühl and St. Johann, and not far from the latter place. It was one of the most productive and one of the latest worked, and it boasted of having the deepest shaft that had ever been sunk in Europe; but for above a hundred and fifty years it has been taub , that is, deaf, to the sound of the pick and the hammer and the voices of the Knappen .
I have given you my way of accounting for the cessation of the mining-works. The people have another explanation. They say that the Bergmännlein, or little men of the mountains--the dwarfs who were the presiding guardians of these mineral treasures--were so disgusted with the avarice with which the people seized upon their stores, that they refused to lend them their help any more, and that without their guidance the miners were no longer able to carry on their search aright, and the gnomes took themselves off to other countries.
One of these little men of the mountains, however, there was in the Röhrerbüchle who loved his ancient house too well to go forth to seek another; he still lingered about the mile-long clefts and passages which once had been rich with ore, and often the peasants heard him bewailing, and singing melancholy ditties, over his lonely fate. They even thought he came out sometimes to watch them sadly in their companionship of labour, and peeped through their windows at them in their cosy cottages, while it was cold and dark where he stood without: and many there were who took an interest in the Nickel of the Röhrerbüchel.
The Goigner Jössl  had been mowing the grassy slope near the opening of the Röhrerbüchl; he was just putting up his implements to carry home after his day's toil, when he espied the orphan Aennerl  coming towards him. Her dark eyes had met his before that day, and he never met her glance without a thrill of joy.
"I have been over to Oberndorf for a day's work," said orphan Aennerl, "and as I came back I thought I would turn aside this way, and see how you were getting on; and then we can go home together."
"So we will," answered Jössl; "but we're both tired, and the sun isn't gone yet--let's sit down and have a bit of talk before we go."
Orphan Aennerl was nothing loath; and they sat and talked of the events of the day, and their companions, and their work, and the weather, and the prospects of the morrow. But both seemed to feel there was something else to be said, and they sat on, as not knowing how to begin.
At last Jössl removed his pointed hat from his head and laid it by his side, and took out and replaced the jaunty feathers which testified his prowess in the holiday sport , and finally cleared his throat to say, softly,--
"Is this not happiness, Aennerl?--what can we want more in this world? True, we work hard all day, but is not our toil repaid when we sit together thus, while the warm evening sun shines round us, and the blue heaven above and the green fields below smile on us, and we are together? Aennerl, shall we not be always happy together?"
They were the very words that orphan Aennerl had so often longed to hear her Jössl say. Something like them she had repeated to herself again and again, and wondered if the happy day would ever come when she should hear them from his own lips. Had he said them to her any day of her whole life before, how warmly would she have responded to them!
To-day, however, it was different. The rich peasant's wife for whom the poor orphan worked had been harsh to her that day, and for the first time envious thoughts had found entrance into her mind, and discontent at her lowly lot.
So, instead of assenting warmly, she only said,--
"Of course it's very nice, Jössl, but then it's only for a little bit, you see. The hard toil lasts all day, nevertheless. Now to have a Hof  of one's own, like the one I work upon at Oberndorf, with plenty of cattle, and corn, and servants to work for you, that's what I should call being happy! Sitting together in the sunset is all very well, but we might have that besides."
The good, hard-working, thrifty, God-fearing Jössl looked aghast to hear his Aennerl speak so. Beyond his day's wage honestly worked for, and the feather in his Trutzhut bravely contended for, and his beloved Aennerl wooed with tenderness and constancy--he had not a thought or a wish in the wide world. Hitherto her views had been the counterpart of his; now, for the first time, he perceived there was something had come between them, and he felt disappointed and estranged.
"If that's your view, Aennerl girl, it isn't the Goigner Jössl that will be able to make you happy," replied the youth at length, coldly; "your best chance would be with the Nickel of the Röhrerbüchel," he added, almost bitterly, as one who would say, Your case is desperate; you have no chance at all.
"What was that?" said Aennerl, suddenly starting. "Who can be working so late? Don't you hear a pick go 'click, clack'? Who can it be?"
"No one is working at this hour," replied Jössl, in no mood to be pleased at the interruption. But as he spoke the bells of the villages around toned forth the Ave-Maria. Both folded their hands devoutly for the evening prayer; and in the still silence that ensued he could not deny that he heard the sound of the pick vigorously at work, and that, as it seemed, under the ground directly beneath their feet.
"It is the Bergmännlein--it must be the Bergmännlein himself!" exclaimed Aennerl, with excitement.
"Nonsense! what silly tales are you thinking of?" replied Jössl, inwardly reproaching himself for the light words he had just spoken suggesting the invocation of a superstition with which his honest, devout nature felt no sympathy; and, without letting the excited girl exert herself to catch the strange sounds further, he led her home.
Aennerl's curiosity was roused, however, and was not to be so easily laid to rest.
The next evening Jössl's work lay in a different direction, but no sooner had the hour of the evening rest arrived than he started on the road to Oberndorf, to see if he could meet his Aennerl coming home. But there was no Aennerl on the path; and he turned homewards with a heavy heart, fearing lest he had offended her, and that she was shunning him.
But Aennerl, whom the desire of being rich had overcome with all the force of a new passion, had been more absorbed on that last memorable evening by the idea of having heard the Bergmännlein at work amid the riches of the mines than with--what would have been so terrible a grief at any other time--having offended her faithful Jössl. Accordingly, on the next evening, instead of being on the look-out for Jössl to walk home with her, her one thought had been to find out the same place on the bank where they had sat--not with loving affection to recall the happy words she had heard there, but to listen for the sound of the Bergmännl's axe, and perhaps follow it out; and then--and then--who could tell what might befall? Perhaps she might be able to obtain some chips of those vast wealth-stores unperceived; perhaps the Bergmännl's heart might be opened to her--who could say but, in some mode or other, it might be the way to fortune?
She was not long in tracing out the spot, for she had marked the angle which the well-known outline of the mighty Sonnengebirg bore to the jagged "comb " of the Kitzbichler-Horn, and for a nearer token, there lay, just before her, the crushed wild-flower which her Jössl had twisted and torn in his nervousness as he had brought himself to speak to her for the first time of their future. But she thought not of all that at that time; she was only concerned to find the spot, and to listen for the stroke of the Nickel's pickaxe. "Hush!" that was it again, sure enough! She lingers not on that happy bank; she stops not to pick up one of those wild-flower tokens: 'click, clack,' goes the axe, and that is the sound to guide her steps. The village bells sound the Ave-Maria, but the sacred notes arrest her not--the evening prayer is forgotten in the thirst for gold.
But Jössl heard the holy sound as he was retracing his steps mournfully from his fruitless search after her, having missed her by but a minute's interval. He heard it as he was passing a little old, old wayside chapel, which you may yet see, with a lordly pine-tree overshadowing it, and which records the melancholy fate of some Knappen who perished in the underground workings. Jössl, who has no fear on the steep mountain-side, and loves to hang dangerously between earth and sky when he is out after the chamois, shudders when he thinks of those long, dark, mysterious passages where the miners worked underground, and, as he kneels on the stone step of that wayside memorial, obedient to the village-bell, involuntarily applies his prayer to all those who have to penetrate those strange recesses: "Be with them; help them now and in the hour of death. Amen." If you had told him his Aennerl was included in that prayer he would not have believed you then.
Meantime Aennerl had found her way to the opening of the old mine. It has a lateral shaft through which you may walk some distance--a very long way it seemed to Aennerl, now breathless and trembling, but the nearing sounds of the Bergmännl's tool kept up her courage, and determined her not to give in till she had attained the goal.
On she went, groping her way with fear and trembling, and expecting every moment to come upon some terrible sight. But, far from this, in proportion as she got deeper into the intricate passages of the Röhrerbüchel, the way, instead of getting darker, grew lighter and lighter. A pale, clear, rosy light played on the sides of the working, which, now that she looked at them close, she found to her astonishment were not made of rough, yellow clay, as she had thought hitherto, but of pure, sparkling gold, and encrusted with gems!
It was no longer fear that palsied her, it was a fascination of delight at finding herself in the midst of those riches she coveted, but the near approach of which brought back misgivings of the danger of their possession of which she had so often heard, though without ever previously feeling an application to herself in the warning.
Her curiosity far too strongly stimulated to yield to the counsel of her conscience to turn and flee the temptation, she walked stealthily on and on, till the faint, rosy light grew into a red, radiant glow, which, as she reached its focus, quite dazzled her senses.
She now found herself in a broad and lofty clearing, into which the long narrow passage she had so long been timorously pursuing ran, and in the sides of which she saw the openings of many other similar ramifications. The walls, which arched it in overhead and closed it from the daylight, were of gold and silver curiously intermixed, burnished resplendently, and their brilliance so overcame her that it was some minutes before she could recover her sight to examine more particularly the details of this magnificent abode.
Then she discovered that all this blaze of light came from one huge carbuncle , and that carbuncle was set in the breast-bib of the leathern apron worn by a dwarf, the clang of whose pickaxe had lured her to the uncanny spot.
The dwarf was much too busily and too noisily engaged to notice Aennerl's footsteps, so she had plenty of leisure to examine him. He was a little awkward-shaped fellow, nearly as broad as he was long, with brawny muscular arms which enabled him to wield his pick with tremendous effect. He seemed, however, to be wielding it merely for exercise or sport, for there did not appear to be any particular advantage to be gained from his work, which only consisted in chipping up a huge block of gold, and there were heaps on heaps of such chips already lying about. Though his muscles displayed so much strength, however, his face gave you the idea of a miserable, worn-out old man; his cheeks were wrinkled and furrowed and bronzed; and the matted hair of his head and beard was snowy white. As he worked he sang, in dull, low, unmelodious chant, to which his pick beat time,--
"The weary Bergmännl, old and grey,
Sits alone in a cleft of the earth for aye,
With never a friend to say, 'Good day.'
For a thousand years, and ten thousand more,
He has guarded earth's precious silver store,
Keeping count of her treasures of golden ore
By the light of the bright Karfunkelstein ,
The only light of the Bergmännlein
But never a friend to say, 'Good day,'
As he sits in a cleft of the earth for aye,
Has the lonely Bergmännl, old and grey!"
He had poured out his ditty many times over while Aennerl stood gazing at the strange and gorgeous scene. The ugly, misshapen, miserable old man seemed altogether out of place amid the glories of the wonderful treasure-house; and the glittering treasures themselves in turn seemed misplaced in this remote subterranean retreat. Aennerl was quite puzzled how to make it all out. It was the Nickel of the Röhrerbüchel who was before her, she had no doubt of that, for he was exactly what the tradition of the people had always described him, and she had heard his ungainly form described before she could speak; so familiar he seemed, indeed, from those many descriptions, that it took away great part of the fear natural to finding herself in so novel a situation.
At last the dwarf suddenly stopped his labour, and, as if in very weariness, flung the tool he had been using far from him, so that it fell upon a heap of gold chips near which Aennerl was standing, scattering them in all directions. One of the sharp bits of ore hit her rudely on the chin, and, anxious as she was to escape observation, she could not suppress a little cry of pain.
Old and withered and haggard as he seemed, the Cobbold's eye glittered with a light only second to that of the Karfunkelstein itself at the sound of a maiden's voice, and quickly he turned to seize her. Aennerl turned and fled, but the Nickel, throwing his leathern apron over the shining stone on his breast, plunged the whole place in darkness, and Aennerl soon lost her footing among the unevennesses of the way and lay helpless on the ground. Her pursuer, to whom every winding had been as familiar as the way to his pocket these thousand years, was by her side in a trice, still singing, as he came along,--
"But never a friend to say, 'Good day,'
As he sits in a cleft of the earth for aye,
Has the lonely Bergmännl, old and grey!"
The self-pitying words, and the melancholy tone in which they were uttered, changed most of Aennerl's alarm into compassion; and when the dwarf uncovered the carbuncle again, and the bright, warm red light played once more around them, and showed up the masses of gold after which she had so longed, she began to feel almost at home, so that when the dwarf asked her who she was and what had brought her there, she answered him quite naturally, and told him all her story.
"To tell you the truth," said the Cobbold, when she had finished, "I am pretty well tired of having all this to myself. I was very angry at one time, it is true, with the way in which your fellows went to work destroying and carrying every thing away, and leaving nothing for those that are to come after, and I was determined to put a stop to it. I am not here to look after one generation, or two, or three, but for the whole lot of you in all the ages of the world, and I must keep things in some order. But now they have given this place up and left me alone, I confess I feel not a little sorry. I used to like to listen to their busy noises, and their songs, and the tramp of their feet. So, if you've a mind to make up for it, and come and sit with me for a bit now and then, and sing to me some of the lively songs you have in your world up there, I don't say I won't give you a lapful of gold now and then."
A lapful of gold! what peasant girl would mind sitting for a bit now and then, and singing to a poor lonely old fellow, to be rewarded with a lapful of gold? Certainly not Aennerl! Too delighted to speak, she only beamed assent with her dark, flashing eyes, and clapped her hands and laughed for joy.
"It's many a day since these walls have echoed a sound like that," said the dwarf, with deep feeling, and as Aennerl's smile rested on him, it seemed to wipe away some of the rough dark wrinkles that furrowed his cheeks and relax the tension of his knit brows. "And yet there's more worth in those echoes than in all the metallic riches which resound to them! Yes, my lass, only come and see the poor old Bergmännl sometimes, and cheer him a bit, and you shall have what you will of his."
With that he led her gently back into the great vault where she had first seen him working, and, stirring up a heap with his foot, said,--
"There, lass, there's the Bergmännl's store; take what you will--it is not the Bergmännl that would say nay to a comely wench like you. Why, if I were younger, and a better-looking fellow, it would not be my lapfuls of gold I should offer you, it would be the whole lot of it--and myself to boot! No, no, I shouldn't let you go from me again: such a pretty bird does not come on to the snare to be let fly again, I promise you! But I'm old and grey, and my hoary beard is no match for your dainty cheeks. But take what you will, take what you will--only come and cheer up the poor old Bergmännl a bit sometimes."
Aennerl had not wanted to be told twice. Already she had filled her large pouch and her apron and her kerchief with all the alacrity of greed. So much occupied was she with stowing away the greatest possible amount of the spoil, that she scarcely remembered to thank the Bergmännl, who, however, found pleasure enough in observing the rapturous gestures her good fortune elicited.
"You'll come again?" said the Cobbold, as he saw her turn to go when she had settled her burden in such a way that its weight should least impede her walking.
"Oh, yes, never fear, I'll come again! When shall I come?"
"Oh, when you will! Let's see, to-day's Saturday, isn't it? Well, next Saturday, if you like."
"Till next Saturday, then, good-bye!" said Aennerl, panting only to turn her gold to account; and so full was she of calculation of what she would do with it, that she never noticed the poor old dwarf was coming behind her to light her, and singing, as he went,--
"The weary Bergmännl, old and grey,
Sits alone in a cleft of the earth for aye,
With never a friend to say, 'Good day.'
For a thousand years, and ten thousand more,
He has guarded earth's precious silver store,
Keeping count of her treasures of golden ore
By the light of the bright Karfunkelstein,
The only light of the Bergmännlein.
But never a friend to say, 'Good day,'
As he sits in a cleft of the earth for aye,
Has the lonely Bergmännl, old and grey!"
Aennerl had no time for pity; she was wholly absorbed in the calculation of the grand things she could now buy, the fine dresses she would be able to wear, and in rehearsing the harsh speeches of command with which she would let fling at the girls whom she would take into her service, and who yesterday were the companions-in-labour of orphan Aennerl.
The village was all wrapt in silence and sleep as Aennerl got back with her treasure.
"So late, and so laden! poor child!" said the parish priest, as he came out of a large old house into the lane, and met her. "I have been commending to God the soul of our worthy neighbour Bartl. He was open-handed in his charity, and the poor will miss a friend; he gave us a good example while he lived--Aennerl, my child, bet' für ihn ."
Aennerl scarcely returned his greeting, nor found one word of sorrow to lament the loss of the good old Bartl; for one thought had taken possession of her mind at first hearing of his death. Old Bartl had a fine homestead, and one in which all was in good order; but Bartl was alone in the world, there was no heir to enter on his goods: it was well known that he had left all to the hospital, and the place would be sold. What a chance for Aennerl! There was no homestead in the whole Gebiet  in such good order, or so well worth having, as the Hof of old Bartl.
Aennerl already reckoned it as hers, and in the meantime kept an eye open for any chances of good stock that might come into the market.
Nor were chances wanting. The illness which had carried old Bartl to the grave had been caught at the bedside of the Wilder Jürgl . A fine young man he had been indeed, but the villagers had not called him "Wild" without reason; and because he had loved all sorts of games, and a gossip in the tavern, and a dance with the village maids more than work, all he had was in confusion. He always said he was young, and he would set all straight by-and-by, there was plenty of time. But death cut him off, young as he was; and his widow found herself next morning alone in the world, with three sturdy boys to provide for, all too young to earn a crust, and all Jürgl's debts to meet into the bargain. There was no help for it: the three fine cows which were the envy of the village, and which had been her portion at her father's death, only six months before, must be sold.
Aennerl was the purchaser. Once conscience reproached her with a memory of the days long gone by, when she and that young widow were playmates, when orphan Aennerl had been taken home from her mother's grave by that same widow's father, and the two children had grown up in confidence and affection with each other. "Suppose I left her the cows and the money too?" mused Aennerl--but only for a moment. No; had they been any other cows, it might have been different--but just those three which all the village praised! one which had carried off the prize and the garland of roses at the last cow-fight , and the others were only next in rank. That was a purchase not to be thrown away. Still she was dissatisfied with herself, and inclined to sift her own mind further, when she was distracted by the approach of loud tramping steps, as of one carrying a burden.
It was the Langer Peterl; and a goodly burden he bore, indeed--a burden which was sure to gather round him all the people of Reith, or any other place through which he might pass.
Aennerl laughed and clapped her hands. "Oh, Peterl, you come erwünscht !" she exclaimed. "Show me what you have got to sell--show me all your pretty things! I want an entirely new rig-out. Make haste! show me the best--the very best--you have brought."
"Show you the best, indeed!" said the Langer Peterl, scarcely slackening his pace, and not removing the pipe from his mouth; for hitherto he had only known the orphan Aennerl by her not being one of his customers. "Show you the best, indeed, that what you can't buy you may amuse yourself with a sight of! And when you've soiled it all with your greasy fingers, who'll buy it, d'you suppose? A likely matter, indeed! Show you the best! ha! ha! ha! you don't come over me like that, though you have got a pair of dark eyes which look through into a fellow's marrow!"
"Nonsense, Peterl!" replied Aennerl, too delighted with the thought of the finery in prospect even to resent the taunt; "I don't want to look at it merely--not I, I can tell you! I want to buy it--buy it all up--and pay you your own price! Here, look here, does this please you?" and she showed him a store of gold such as in all his travels he had never seen before.
"Oh, if that's your game," said the long Peter, with an entirely changed manner, "pick and choose, my lady, pick and choose! Here are silks and satins and laces, of which I've sold the dittos to real ladies and countesses; there are----"
"Oh, show me the dittos of what real ladies and countesses have bought!" exclaimed Aennerl, with a scream of delight; and the pedlar, who was not much more scrupulous than others of his craft, made haste to display his gaudiest wares, taking care not to own that it was seldom enough his pack was lightened by the purchases of a "real lady." To have heard him you would have thought his dealings were only with the highest of the land.
But it needed only to say, "This is what my lady the Countess of Langtaufers wears," "This is what my lady the Baronin Schroffenstein bought of me," for Aennerl to buy it at the highest price the Long Peter's easy conscience could let him extort; and, indeed, had he not felt a certain commercial necessity for reserving something to keep up his connexion with his ordinary customers on the rest of his line of route, orphan Aennerl would have bought up all that was offered her under these pretences, and without stopping to consider whether the materials or colours were well assorted, or whether such titles as those with which the pedlar dazzled her understanding existed at all!
The next day was a village festival in Reith. And the quiet people of Reith thought the orphan Aennerl had gone fairly mad when they saw at church the extravagant figure she cut in her newly-acquired finery; for, in her hurry to display it, she had in one way and another piled her whole stock of purchases on her person at once. A showy skirt embroidered with large flowers of many colours, and trimmed with deep lace, was looped up with bright blue ribbons and rosettes over a petticoat of violet satin, beneath which another of a brilliant green was to be seen. Beneath this again, you might have descried a pair of scarlet stockings; and on her shining shoes a pair of many-coloured rosettes and shoe-buckles. The black tight-fitting bodice of the local costume was replaced by a kind of scarlet hussar's jacket trimmed with fur, fastened at the throat and waist with brooches which must have been originally designed for a stage-queen. From her ears dangled earrings of Brobdignagian dimensions; and on her head was a hat and feathers as unlike the little hat worn by all in Reith as one piece of head-gear could well be to another.
Of course, it did not befit a lady so decked to take the lowly seat which had served the orphan Aennerl; before the Divine office began she had seated herself in the most conspicuous place in the church, so that no one lost the benefit of the exhibition; and it may well be believed that the congregation had no sooner poured out of the sacred building than the appearance of the orphan Aennerl was the one theme of a general and noisy conversation.
For some it was a source of envy; for some, of ridicule; for some unsophisticated minds, of simple admiration. But the wiser heads kept silence, or said, in tones of sympathy, "The orphan Aennerl isn't the girl the Goigner Jössl took her for."
Jössl had been to church in his own village of Goign, and had therefore been spared the sight, as well as the comments it had elicited. But as he came towards Reith to take his Aennerl for the holiday walk, he noticed many strange bits of hinting in the greetings he received, which puzzled him so, that, instead of going straight on to Aennerl, he sat down on the churchyard wall, pondering what it could all mean. "I wish you joy of your orphan Aennerl!" one had said. "Goigner Jössl, Goigner Jössl, take my advice, and shun the threshold of orphan Aennerl!" were the words of another, and he was an old man and a sage friend too. "Beware, Goigner Jössl, beware!" seemed written on every face he had met--what could it all mean? He wandered forward uncertain, and then back again, then on again, till he could bear it no longer, and he determined to go down to the Wirthshaus beim Stangl, and ask his mates to their face what they all meant.
Before he came in sight of the door, however, he changed his resolution. Through the open window he heard noisy talk, and noisiest of all was the voice of the Langer Peterl. Honest Jössl had an invincible antipathy to the wheedling, the gossip, the bluster, and the evil tongue of the Langer Peterl, and he never trusted himself to join his company, for he knew a meeting with him always led to words.
Determining to wait till he was gone, he walked about outside, and as there is always a train of waggons waiting at the Wirthshaus am Stangl while the wayworn carters refresh themselves, he could easily remain unperceived.
Thus, however, he became unintentionally the hearer of all he desired to know--much more than he desired, I should say.
"I tell you, she,--Aennerl would have bought my whole pack if I'd have let her!" vociferated the Langer Peterl; "and I might have saved myself all further tramping, but that I wouldn't disappoint my pretty Ursal, and Trausl, and Moidl, and Marie," he added, in a tone of righteousness.
"Buy it, man! you don't mean buy it! She got it out of you one way or another, but you don't mean she bought it, in the sense of paying for it?"
"Yes, I do. I say, she paid for it in pure gold!"
"No, that won't do!" said other voices; "where could she get gold from?"
"Oh, that's not my affair," replied the pedlar, "where she got it from! It wouldn't do for a poor pedlar to ask where his customers get their money from--ha! ha! ha! I'm not such a fool as that! I know the girl couldn't have it rightfully, as well as you do, but it wouldn't do for me to refuse all the money I suspect is not honestly come by--ha! ha! I should then drive a sorry trade indeed!"
Jössl's first impulse had been to fly at the Langer Peterl, and, as he would have expressed it, thrust the lie down his throat; but then, he reflected; where had the girl got the money from? what could he say? To dispute it without having means of disproving it was only opening wider the sore; and while he stood dejected and uncertain the conversation went on more animated than before.
"I agree with you!" cried, between two whiffs of smoke, an idle Bursch, on whom since the death of the Wilder Jürgl that nickname had descended by common consent. "What right have we to be prying into our neighbour's business? If the girl's got money, why should any one say she hasn't a right to it? She's an uncommon fine girl, I say, and looks a long way better than she did before in her beggarly rags; and a girl that can afford to dress like that is not to be despised, I say."
That the speaker had only received the cognomen of Wild after the Wilder Jürgl was only in that he was younger; he had earned the right to it in a tenfold degree. None of the steady lads of either Goign or Reith or Elmau, or any other place in the neighbourhood, would make a friend of him, and that is why he now sat apart from the others smoking in a corner.
To be praised and defended by the Wilder Karl was a worse compliment than to be suspected by the steadier ones. The words therefore threw the assembly into some embarrassment for a moment, till the Kleiner Friedl , a sworn friend of Jössl, thinking he ought to strike a blow in his defence somewhere, cried out, in a menacing tone,--
"Very well played, Wilder Karl! but I see your game. You think because the girl's got money she's a good chance for you. You think her flaunting way will estrange steady Goigner Jössl, and then you think you may step in between them--and a sorry figure she'd cut two days after you'd had the handling of her! She wouldn't have much finery left then, I'll warrant! The Langer Peterl there would have it all back at half-price, and that half-price would all be in the pocket of our honest Wirth am Stangl. But it's in vain; whatever she is, she'll be true to the Goigner Jössl, I'll warrant--and as for you, she wouldn't look at you!"
Wilder Karl rose to his feet, and glared at the Kleiner Friedl with a glance of fury. "I wager you every thing you and I have in the world, that I'll make her dance every dance with me at the Jause  this very night!" and he shook his fist with a confident air, for he had a smooth tongue and a comely face, and Aennerl would not have been the first girl these had won over.
"That you won't," said the Wirth, coming to Friedl's rescue, who was but a young boy, and had felt rather dismayed at the proposed wager, "for I'm not sure, till all this is cleared up, that I should admit her to the dance. But the difficulty will not arise, for Aennerl herself told my daughter Moidl that now she could wear a lady's clothes it would be impossible for her to come any more to the village dance."
Strengthened by the support of the Wirth , the Kleiner Friedl felt quite strong again; and he could not forbear exclaiming, "There, I told you there was no chance for you, Wilder Karl!"
But Wilder Karl, furious at the disappointing news of the Wirth, and maddened by the invective of the Kleiner Friedl, rushed at the boy head-over-heels, bent on mischief.
But Wilder Karl, though a bully and a braggart, inspired no respect, because no feather adorned his hat, and that showed he was no champion of any manly pursuit. So the whole room was on the side of Kleiner Friedl; and the bully having been turned out, and the subject of conversation pretty well exhausted, the Goigner Jössl turned slowly home.
Now I don't say that he was right here. He was an excellent young man, endowed in an especial degree with Tirolese virtues. His parents had never had a moment's uneasiness about him; no one in the whole village was more regular or devout at church; in the field none more hard-working or trustworthy; at the village games and dances none acquitted himself better; and had a note of danger to his country sounded in his time I am sure he would have been foremost to take his place among its living ramparts, and that none would have borne out the old tradition of steadfastness more manfully than he.
But of course he had his faults too. And one of his faults was the fault of many good people,--the fault of expecting to find every one as good as themselves, of being harsh and unforgiving, of sulking and pining instead of having an open explanation.
Now, mind you, I think it would have been much better if Jössl had, after hearing the conversation I have just narrated, gone straight on to Aennerl's, and had it all out with her, had heard from her own lips the truth of the matter about which all Reith and Goign were talking, and judged her out of her own mouth, giving her, if he could not approve her conduct, advice by which she might mend it in the future.
But this was not his way. He had thought his Aennerl a model, almost a divinity. He had always treated her as such, talked to her as such, loved her as such. It was clear now, however, that in some way or other she had done wrong. Instead of getting to the bottom of it, and trying to set it straight, he gave himself up to his disappointment and went home and sulked, and refused to be comforted.
Aennerl, meantime, knew nothing of all this. She had had a great desire to be a lady and no longer a servant; and having plenty of money, and plenty of fine clothes, she thought this made her a lady, and had no idea but that every one acknowledged the fact. I don't think she exactly wished that all the village should be envious of her, but at all events she wished that she should enjoy all the prerogatives of ladyhood, and this, she imagined, was one. Then she had no parents to teach her better, and Jössl, who might have been her teacher, had forsaken her.
But it was all too new and too exciting for her to feel any misgivings yet. She amused herself with turning over all her fine things, and fancied herself very happy.
In another day or two the Hof of good neighbour Bartl was put up for sale, and another visit to the Bergmännlein enabled her to become the purchaser. She thus became the most important proprietor in Reith; but she was so little used to importance that she did not at all perceive that the people treated her very differently from the former proprietor of the Hof.
Before him every hat was doffed with alacritous esteem due to his age and worth. But poor Aennerl hardly received so much as the old greeting, which in the days of companionship in poverty had always been the token of good fellowship with her, as with every one.
It was long before any suspicion that she was mistrusted reached the mind of Aennerl. In the meantime she enjoyed her new condition to the full. Weekly visits to the Röhrerbüchel enabled her to purchase every thing she desired; and when the villagers held back from her, she ascribed their diffidence to the awe they felt for her wealth.
In time, however, the novelty began to wear off. She grew tired at last of giving orders to her farm-servants, and watching her sleek cattle, and counting her stores of grain. That Jössl had not been to see her, she never ascribed to any thing but his respect for her altered condition; and she felt that she could not demean herself by being united to a lad who worked for day-wages.
Still grandeur began to tire, and her isolation made her proud, and angry, and cross; and then people shunned her still more, and upon that she grew more vexed and angry. But, worse than this, she got even so used to her riches that she quite forgot all about the Nickel to whom she owed them. Her farm was so well stocked that it produced more than her wildest fancies required; she had no need to go back to the Röhrerbüchel to ask for more gold, and she had grown too selfish to visit it out of compassion to the dwarf.
The Bergmännlein upon this grew disappointed; but his disappointment was of a different kind from Jössl's. He was not content to sit apart and sulk; he was determined to have his revenge.
One bleak October night, when the wind was rolling fiercely down from the mountains, there was a sudden and fearful cry of "Fire!" in the village of Reith. The alarm-bells repeated the cry aloud and afar. The good people rose in haste, and ran into the lane with that ready proffer of mutual help which distinguishes the mountain-folk.
The whole sky was illumined, the fierce wind rolled the flames and the smoke hither and thither. It was Aennerl's Hof which was the scene of the devastation. The fire licked up the trees, and the farm, and the rooftree before their eyes. So swift and unnatural was the conflagration that the people were paralyzed in their endeavour to help. One ran for ladders, another for buckets; but before any help could be obtained the whole homestead was but one vast bonfire. Then, madly rushing to the top of the high pointed roof, might be seen the figure of Aennerl clothed only in her white night-dress, and shrieking fearfully, "Save me! save me!" Every moment the roof threatened to fall in, and the agonized beholders watched her and sent up loud prayers, but were powerless to save.
Suddenly, on the road from Goign a figure was seen hasting along. It was the Goigner Jössl. Would he be in time? The crowd was silent now, even their prayers were said in silence, for every one gasped for breath, and the voice failed. A trunk of an old branchless tree yet bent over the burning ruins. Jössl had climbed that trunk and was making a ladder of his body by which to rescue Aennerl all frantic from the roof. Will he reach her? Will his arm be long enough? Will he fall into the flame? Will he be overpowered by the smoke? See! he holds on bravely. The smoke rolls above his head, the flames dart out their fierce fangs beneath him! He holds on bravely still. He calls to Aennerl. She is fascinated with terror, and hears him not. "Aennerl! Aennerl!" once more, and his voice reached her, and with it a sting of reproach for her scornful conduct drives her to hide her face from his in shame.
"Aennerl! Aennerl!" yet once again; and he wakes her, as from a dream, to a life like that of the past the frenzy had obliterated. She forgets where she is; but the voice of Jössl sounded to her as it sounded in the years gone by, and she obeys it mechanically. She comes within reach--and he seizes her! But the flames are higher now, and the smoke denser and more blinding. "Jesus Maria! where are they? They have fallen into the flames at last! Jesus, erbarme Dich ihrer !"
"Hoch! Hoch! Hoch !" shouts the crowd, a minute later. "They are saved, Gott sei dank, they are saved!" and a jubilant cry rings through the valley which the hills take up and echo far and wide.
On the edge of the crowd, apart, stands a little misshapen old man with grey, matted hair and beard, whom no one knows, but who has watched every phase of the catastrophe with thrilling emotion.
It was he who first raised the cry that they had fallen into the flames; and the people sickened as they heard it, for he spoke it in joy, and not in anguish. In the gladness of the deliverance they have forgotten the old man, but now he shouted once more, as he dashed his hood over his head in a tone of disappointed fury, "I did it! and I will have my revenge yet!"
"No; let there be peace," said Jössl, who had deposited Aennerl in safe hands, and now came forth to deal one more stroke for her; "let there be peace, old man, and let bygones be bygones."
"Never!" said the Cobbold; "I have said I will have my revenge, and I will have it!"
"But," argued Jössl, "have you not had your revenge? All you gave her you have had taken away--she is as she was before: can you not leave her so?"
"No!" thundered the dwarf; "I will have the life of her before I've done."
"Never!" in his turn shouted Jössl; and he placed himself in front of the elf.
"Oh, don't be afraid," replied the dwarf, with a cold sneer, "I'm not going after her. I've only to wait a bit, and she'll come after me."
Jössl was inclined to let him go, but remembering the instability of woman, he thought it better to make an end of the tempter there and then.
"Will you promise me, that if I let you return to your hole in peace, you will do her no harm should she visit you there again?"
"I promise you that I will serve her to the most frightful of deaths--that's what I promise you!" retorted the enraged gnome.
"Then your blood be on your own head!" said Jössl, and, with his large hunting-knife drawn in his hand, he placed himself in a menacing attitude before the now alarmed dwarf.
Jössl was a determined, powerful youth, not to be trifled with. The gnome trusted to the strength of his muscles, and fled with all his speed; but Jössl, who was a cunning runner too, maintained his place close behind him. The dwarf, finding himself so hotly followed, began to lose his head, and no longer felt so clearly as at first the direction he had to take to reach the Röhrerbüchel. Jössl continued to drive him before him, puzzling him on the zigzags of the path till he had completely lost the instinct of his way of safety. Then, forcing him on as before to the edge of the precipice, he closed upon him where there was no escape.
Yes, one escape there was--it was in the floods of the Brandenburger Ache, which roared and boiled away some hundred feet below! Rather than fall ignominiously by the hand of a child of man, the gnome dashed himself, with a fierce shout, down the abyss. And that was the last that was ever seen of the Nickel of the Röhrerbüchel.
Aennerl was now poorer than ever in this world's goods, but she was rich in one deep and wholesome lesson--that it is not glittering wealth which brings true happiness. The smiles of honest friends, and the love of a true heart, and the testimony of an approving conscience are not to be bartered away for all the gold in all the mines of the earth.
Wilder Karl laughed with his two or three boon companions, and said, with a burst of contempt, "I've no doubt that fool of a Goigner Jössl will marry the orphan Aennerl now that she hasn't a penny to bless herself with!"
And the Wilder Karl judged right. Aennerl scarcely dared hope that he could love her still, and she went forth humbly to her work day by day, neither looking to the right hand nor the left, accepting all the hardships and humiliations of her lot as a worthy punishment of her folly and vanity.
But one evening as she came home from her toil, the Goigner Jössl came behind her, and he said softly in her ear, "Do you love me still, Aennerl?"
"Love you still, Jössl!" cried the girl; "you have thrice given me life--first when I was a poor, heartbroken orphan, and you made me feel there was still some one to live for in the world; and then a second time, in that dreadful fire, when hell seemed to have risen up out of the earth to punish me before the time; and now again this third time, when I began to think my folly had sickened you for good and all! Don't ask me that, Jössl, for you must know I love you more than my life! If I dared, there is one question I should ask you, Can you still love me? but I have no right to ask that."
"I must answer you in your own words, Aennerl," replied Jössl: "you must know that I love you more than my life!"
"You must, you must--you have shown it!" exclaimed Aennerl. They had reached the bank near the Röhrerbüchel where we first saw them; the rosy light of the sunset, and the scent of the wild flowers, was around them just as on that night.
"Yes," said Aennerl, after a pause, as if it were just then that Jössl had said the words --"yes, Jössl, this is happiness; we want nothing more in this world than the warm sun, and the blue sky--and to be together! Yes, Jössl, we shall always be happy together."
They walked on together; as they reached the memorial of the dead miners the village bells rang the Ave. And as they knelt down, how heartfelt was Jössl's gratitude that the prayer he had uttered at that spot once before had been so mercifully answered, and his Aennerl restored to him for ever!