THE WILDER JÄGER AND THE BARONESS.
THERE was a rich and powerful baron who owned a broad patrimony in South Tirol, Baron di Valle. He was not only one of the richest and most powerful, he was also one of the happiest, for he had the prettiest and most sensible woman of Tirol for his bride. The brief days were all too short for the pleasure they found in each other's society, and they were scarcely ever apart the whole day through.
Once, however, the Baron went on a hunting party through a part of the country which was too rough for the Baroness to follow him. The day was splendid, the scent good, and the Baron full of enthusiasm for his favourite sport; but what egged him on more than all these, was the sight of a strange bold hunter who bestrode a gigantic mount, and who dashed through brake and briar, and over hill and rock, as if no obstacle could arrest him. Baron di Valle, who thought he was the boldest hunter of the whole country-side, was quite mad to see himself outdone; nor could he suffer this to be. Determined to outstrip his rival, he spurred his horse on, so that he might but pass him somewhere; but the Wilder Jäger, for it was he, always kept on ahead, and though the brave Baron kept close to his heels, he was never able to pass him by.
They had long outstripped all the rest. But all this time the Baron had taken no note of whither he went; now he found himself in the midst of a thick forest of tall fir-trees, with their lower branches cut off because they were planted so thick and close together that there was no room between them, and their tops were intergrown so that they formed one compact mass, excluding the very air and the light of day. The Wild Hunter stopped his mad career before this barrier, and then, turning, pretended for the first time to be aware of the Baron's presence.
"What do you want here?" he exclaimed, fiercely, his rolling eyes glaring like fire. "How dare you invade my domain!" and with that he blew a mighty blast on his hunting-horn, at sound of which a whole troop of wild huntsmen, habited like himself, and with similar fiery eyes, appeared suddenly, surrounding the Baron.
"Stand back!" cried the Baron, in a commanding tone, as the wild huntsmen dismounted and prepared to seize him.
"No one commands here but I," said the Wilder Jäger. And then he added, addressing his men, "Seize him, and carry him off!"
"Hold!" said the Count, but speaking more humbly than before, for he saw he must yield something to the necessity of the case; "I suppose there is some ransom upon which you will let me off? I have wronged you in nothing, and meant no offence. I admired your brave riding, and I thought what one brave man might do, another might."
"Since you take that tone," said the Wilder Jäger, "I will do what I can for you. I will let you ransom yourself at one price. You must know, that it is not you that I want at all; I only lured you here as a means of getting hold of the Baroness, and had you been uppish and violent, I should have kept you in chains for the rest of your life, while I married her. But as you know how to keep a civil tongue in your head, I will show you that I can appreciate courtesy. So now I give you permission to return, to be yourself the bearer to your wife of my conditions.
"Tell her, then, that I have won her for my own, and she belongs irrevocably to me; it is useless that she attempt to escape, for you see that my people are countless, and violence is of no avail against me. But I am a good sort of fellow, and as I love her, I don't want to do any thing to alarm her, so long as she shows no foolish resistance."
"But the ransom? You spoke of a ransom just now," interposed the Baron, hastily; "what, about that?"
"All in good time," replied the Wilder Jäger--"give a fellow time to speak. The only mode of ransom is this--let the Baroness guess my name. I give her three guesses of three words each, and an interval of a month. But if she doesn't succeed, remember, she is mine! this day month I appear and claim her. If, in the meantime, she thinks she has made the guess, and wants to satisfy herself as to its correctness"--and he laughed a ghastly laugh of scorn, as if to impress the Baron with the hopelessness of the idea--"she has only to come to the ilex grove on the border of this forest which marks the frontier between your territory and mine. If she stands there, beside the centre tree, and blows this horn--see what a pretty little gold horn it is, that I have had studded with diamonds and rubies--just fit for her pretty little fingers!" he added, with a grin of scorn--"at sound of her voice I shall be with her on the instant."
The Baron was not one to have tolerated such talk from any human being soever, but he felt the necessity of vanquishing his temper this time--a more difficult matter ordinarily than vanquishing a foe--for a dearer life than his own was at stake; and if he could not altogether save the Baroness from the power of the Wilder Jäger, he could take counsel with her as to the means of finding out the hidden name, and at least spend with her the last days that he could call her his.
Accordingly he took the horn, and stuck it in his belt without a word. And indeed no word would have availed him, for the whole troop of the wild huntsmen had vanished as it came, and he was left alone.
There was no difficulty in finding his way back by the path by which he had come, for it was plainly marked by the havoc of the surrounding vegetation the wild chase had cost. And though he now put spurs to his steed that he might reach home without losing an hour more than he could help of the companionship of his beloved wife, he now for the first time apprehended how swiftly he had come, for, riding the utmost of mortal speed, it took him three days to get back to the ilex grove which marked the boundary of his own territory. Hence it was still half a day's journey to reach his castle. But while he was yet a great way off his loving wife came out to meet him, full of joy at his approach, for since the rest of the hunt had come home without him she had done nothing but watch from the highest turret of the castle, that she might catch the first sight of him returning; her thirsty eyes had not been slow to discern his figure as he hastened home.
Great was her amazement, however, to find that, instead of returning her greeting with his wonted delight, he turned his head away, as if he dared not look at her, and wept. She rode beside him all the way home, but he still kept silence, for he could not bear to render her sorrowful with the message of which he was the bearer. But he could conceal nothing from her loving solicitude, and soon he had told her all.
Being a woman of prudent counsel and strong trust in God, she was much less cast down, however, than he had expected. Though bewildered at first, and seeing no way out of the difficulty, she yet declared she was sure some way of escape would be opened to her, it only remained to consider where they should find it. And never a word of angry recrimination did she utter to remind him that it was his mad vanity had brought them to this plight.
The Baron felt the full force of this forbearance, for he did nothing but reproach himself with his folly. But the fresh proof of her amiability only occasioned another pang at the thought of the approaching separation.
Still no good counsel came to mind, and the Baroness herself began almost to lose heart. The Baron had abandoned the hunt and all his sports, and sat gloomily in the ancient seat of his ancestors. The Baroness sat among the flowers of her oriel window, her embroidery in her hand; but her mind was far away over the tops of the dark green trees, looking for some bright thought to bring deliverance to her from above. Every morning and evening they knelt together in the chapel of the castle, and prayed that a spirit of prudence and counsel might be given them.
Ten days had passed, and no good thought had come. The Baron reclined gloomily in the ancient seat of his ancestors, and the lady sat among the flowers of the oriel window gazing over the tops of the high dark fir-trees, full of hope that some wise counsel would be given her. Suddenly she rose and clapped her hands, and her ringing laugh brought the Baron bounding to her side.
"I have found it, Heinrich!" she exclaimed; "I am sure I have found the name! Doesn't the Wilder Jäger live among the tall fir-trees?"
"Yes; among the tall fir-trees is his dwelling."
"And didn't he speak of three names?"
"Yes; he said your guess must include three names."
"Then I have it, Heinrich! What more natural than that he should be called from the names of the trees which form his palace? As I was gazing over the tops of the high dark trees the words came into my mind, 'Tree, Fir, Pine'--those will be the three words. Come, and let us go out to the ilex grove, and be free to belong to each other as of old!"
She was so lively that the Baron caught some spark of her hopefulness, but he was too far sunk in despondency to enter into her joy all at once. Nevertheless, it was not a moment when, if ever, he would have thwarted her, so he ordered the horses to be saddled, for it was still early morning. And they rode together to the ilex grove which was the boundary of the Wilder Jäger's domain; the Baroness striving every minute by some sprightly speech to distract the Baron, and the Baron utterly incapable of rousing himself from his gloomy fears.
The Baroness was the first to reach the grove; in fact, she had ridden on a good way in advance, that she might have it out with the Wilder Jäger before her husband came, so that she might greet him on his arrival with the news that she was free.
Merrily she sounded the jewelled horn, and before its sound had died away the Wilder Jäger was at her side. He no longer looked dusty, wild, and fierce, as during the Baron's mad chase. He seemed a man of noble presence, carefully dressed in a green hunting-suit, with a powerful bow in his hand, and a beautiful boy to hold his arrows. In his belt was a jewelled hunting-knife of exquisite workmanship, and to a cord across his shoulder hung a golden horn of similar pattern to that he had sent the Baroness, and, moreover, as a further act of gallantry, he wore a scarf of red and white, the favourite colours of the Baroness. A jewelled cap shaded the sun from his brow, which a red and white plume gracefully crested.
The Baroness looked astonished to find she had nothing more formidable to meet, and felt that had she not already been the wife of the Baron di Valle, she would not have found it so great a calamity to be obliged to marry the Wilder Jäger.
The Wilder Jäger was not slow to perceive that the impression he had produced was good, and bowing towards her with courtly mien, paid her a respectful salutation, and immediately added,--
"Your eyes are so clever, fair Baroness, that I very much fear you are going to pronounce my name, and rob me of the happiness I had so nearly bought! Spare me, therefore, lovely lady--say not the word! but come with me into the shady pine-forest, where you shall have every thing heart can desire--the noblest palace, the widest domain, and unlimited command; retainers without number, pleasures without alloy, and every wish gratified without condition!"
He approached her as he spoke. His eyes sparkled no longer with the angry fury which had thrilled the Baron, but with a mild fire of tenderness and devotion. Nothing more attractive and winning than his whole appearance and manner could be conceived, and for a moment the Baroness had almost forgotten the less accomplished--but, oh! more sincere--passion of her Heinrich.
It was only for a moment. The weakness passed, she instantly drew herself up with dignity, and stepped back against the friendly ilex.
"It was not to hear such words I came," she said, "but to pronounce those which are to free me from ever having to listen to such protestations again----"
"Oh, say them not! say them not!" said the Wilder Jäger, throwing himself at her feet. "Any thing but that! Name any wish by fulfilling which I can win your favour; name any difficult task by accomplishing which I can prove myself worthy of your love----"
"My love," said the Baroness, striving to speak coldly, "is another's already; you see, there is none to be won from me. But interrupt me no more. I have guessed your name, to discover which was to be the price of my freedom. It is----"
The Wilder Jäger clasped her feet in despair, entreating her not to pronounce it, but she went on, with a clear, confident voice, to utter the words,--
"Tree! Fir! Pine!"
The Wilder Jäger looked up as if he did not quite understand what she meant.
"Now, let go your hold, and let me pass, for I am free!" she said, resolutely.
"'Free,' say you?" said the handsome Cobbold, with astonishment. "Free? did you mean you thought that was my unknown name?"
"Yes," replied the lady, in a voice of conviction.
"Oh, dear, it is nothing like it!" he answered, with glee, and yet not without a delicate regard for her disappointment. "No, that is not it; nor is it likely you should ever arrive at it. So days of happiness are before us yet." He had no need to kneel to her longer, but it was joy to him to be at her feet.
"Dare not to speak so before me!" replied the Baroness, trying to tear herself away. "I know of no happiness, except with Heinrich; and I am persuaded that, though I have failed this time, it will yet be given to me to find the word which shall restore me to him completely."
The Baron arrived as she finished speaking; and though he saw by the sorrowful look which now had possession of her bright face, and the triumphant mien of the Cobbold, that she had failed, and that she was still under the Wilder Jäger's spell, he was so incensed to find him in such an attitude that he drew his sword, and would have closed with him then and there, but the Wilder Jäger blew one note upon his horn, and in an instant he was surrounded, as before, by his myrmidons, who unarmed him and held him bound upon the ground, while the Cobbold himself approached to seize the hand of the Baroness. A fiery fury took possession of him, and sparks darted from his eyes which fell smouldering among the twigs of fir. Powerless to defend his wife by force, the Baron once more mastered his anger, and reminded his adversary courteously of his promise to leave them at peace for the interval of a month.
"I am always ready to answer you in whatever tone you elect to adopt," said the Wilder Jäger, rising, and leaving the side of the Baroness. "You see, it is useless to attempt force against me; but when you behave with due consideration, so will I." At a sign from him the sprites loosed the Baron's bonds, gave him back his sword, and held his stirrup with the most respectful care, while he mounted his horse.
"Depart, then, unharmed," said the Wilder Jäger, "since you set so much store on prolonging your suspense. I should say, it was wiser to make the best of a bad bargain and submit to your fate at once, with grace. However, I have given my word and won't go back from it. I restrain my power over you till the full end of the month; and, what is more, I not only give the lady three guesses, but as many as she likes. For," he added, with a cynical leer, "she is as little likely to guess it in thirty as in three; while every time that she chooses to essay the thing, it gives me the happiness of seeing her." And he turned away with a peal of wild laughter which made the lady shudder.
The sprites vanished as they had come; and the Baron and his wife rode sadly home, without the courage to exchange a word.
If the Baroness had for a moment been won by the comely presence and devoted admiration of the Wilder Jäger, she had now seen enough reason to fear his treacherous humour, and to dread her impending fate as much as at the first.
They spent the rest of the evening in prayers and tears in the chapel of the castle, and the next evening, and the next; and the days flowed by as before, but more sadly, and with even less of hope. The Baroness scarcely now dared raise her eyes so high as the tops of the tall dark trees; they fell abroad over the beautiful landscape stretched out beneath them, and the good gifts of God cropping up out of the ground; and she thought how beautiful was that nature to which she must so soon say adieu!
Thus ten days passed without a gleam of expectation. Suddenly she rose and clapped her hands; and her silvery laugh brought her husband bounding to her side.
"I have it this time, Heinrich!" she said.
And the Baron listened anxiously, but trusted himself never to speak.
"Said you not that the Wilder Jäger's domain was entirely among the tall dark trees?"
"So it seemed to me it was," responded her husband.
"But I certainly discerned through the forest patches of ripe golden grain. Saw you them not too?"
"The first time I rode too fast to notice them, but I do think on this last journey I saw such here and there by the wayside."
"No doubt," continued the lady, "it is hence he takes his name; these small patches of golden grain are more worth than all the vast forests. Order the horses, for I have guessed his name! It came to my mind just now, as I looked over the harvest-fields stretched out yonder.
"Wheat, Oats, Maize--that will be his name!"
The Baron knew her counsel had often proved right when he least expected, and even disputed it, and though he was now too desponding to expect success, he was likewise least inclined to dispute her word. So he ordered the horses round, for it was yet early morning, and they rode to the ilex grove.
The Baroness, whose hope seemed to rise as she got nearer the goal of the journey, was full of spirit and cheerfulness, and, finding it impossible to work up the Baron to the same expectation as herself, rode on to accomplish her work ere he arrived.
One note of the jewelled horn brought the Wilder Jäger to her presence.
As she had failed before, he had less fear of her success this time, and he was proportionately less subservient and submissive.
"So you think you are come to give me my dismissal, beautiful Baroness? But you have no reason to repulse me so--be assured I mean it well with you; and though there is no limit to my power over you, I shall never treat you otherwise than with honour," he said, with a little scornful laugh which suited his fine features exactly, and made him look handsomer than before. And as he spoke so, his haughty tone, not unmixed with warmth and admiration, thrilled her with the notion that, after all, if it were not for her troth plighted to the Baron, it would not be so very dreadful to owe obedience to one who knew how to command so gracefully.
But it was only for a moment. The weakness passed, she drew herself up with dignity, and, retreating against the support of the friendly ilex, said,--
"Silence! and remember your promise to leave me at peace till the fatal month is out. I cannot listen to you. And now for your name----"
The Cobbold bowed, with a half-mocking, half-respectful inclination, as if forcing himself to listen out of courtesy, but secure that she would not guess right.
"Wheat! Oats! Maize!" said the Baroness, with a positive air.
The Cobbold stared comically, as if doubting whether she was in earnest; and at last, as if to relieve her out of politeness, he replied,--
"Oh, dear no, that's not at all like it!"
The Baroness hung her head in despair; then, drawing herself up again, she said,--
"How do I know you are not deceiving me? You say this is not your name, and I have to believe you--but suppose I maintain that it is it?"
"You are not fair, beautiful Baroness," replied the Wilder Jäger, with a charming dignity. "I have never deceived you, nor ever would I deceive so noble a lady! what I have promised, I have kept; but in this case I have no means of deceiving you--great as is my power, that is one thing beyond it. Could a mortal, indeed, discover and pronounce my name in my presence, I could not stand before him an instant. But this it is not given to mortals to know, and that is why I proposed this difficulty to you. Should I have paid you so bad a compliment," he added, with his cynical laugh, "as to render it possible that I should lose so great a prize?"
The Baron rode up while he was saying this, and shrank dumb with despair at the cruel words and the positive tone in which they were uttered.
Without condescending to exchange a word with the Cobbold this time, he lifted his wife on to her palfrey and rode away with her in silence.
It was now all over. His despondency even gained the Baroness, and she ceased to rack her brain with the hope of finding the inconceivable name. Her eye not only dared not raise itself to the tall dark trees--it had not even power to range over the landscape. With her head sunk upon her breast, she sat silently among her flowers in her oriel window, nor cared even to look at them. Only in the morning and the evening they knelt together in the chapel of the castle, and prayed that the calamity might pass away yet.
The days went by, and now the last but one had come; and the Baroness trembled, for her imagination pictured the Cobbold coming to carry her away. But her courage did not forsake her even now, and she proposed to go out into the forest to meet her fate, as more noble than waiting for it to overtake her.
The Baron, too dispirited to discuss any matter, and indifferent to every thing, now that all he cared for was to be taken from him, gave a listless consent. The next morning, having prayed and wept together in the castle chapel, they set out on their mournful pilgrimage, the young wife led as a lamb to the sacrifice.
The flowers bloomed beneath their feet, and the sun shone warm overhead, the birds sang blithe and gay--all nature was bright and fresh; but with heavy hearts they passed through the midst, nor found a thought but for their own great sorrow. As they came to the borders of the forest, however, the Baroness discerned the cry as of one in distress. Forgetting for the moment her own agony, her compassionate heart was at once moved, and she begged her husband to turn aside with her, and find out the poor wretch who pleaded so piteously. In a little time they had followed up the sound, and they found one of the Wilder Jäger's men tied in front of a lately lighted fire. In a few minutes more the heaped-up wood would have been all in flames, and then the luckless wight must have been slowly roasted! At a word from the Baroness, the Baron cut his bonds; and then they inquired what was the occasion of his punishment. "Oh, it don't want much to get a punishment out of the Wilder Jäger!" was the answer.
"Is he so very severe, then?" asked the Baroness, her cheek blanching with fear.
"At times, yes; it depends how the fancy takes him--if he is out of humour he spares no one. If he were not so violent and arbitrary, I would do you a good turn for that you have done me; but I dare not, his anger is too fearful."
The more he descanted on the Wilder Jäger's barbarity, the more the Baroness prayed that he would tell her the word that would save her; but he dared not, and all her instance was in vain. "And yet there might be a means," he said, for he was desirous of doing a service to his deliverers.
"Oh, speak! tell us what we can do--no matter what it is, we will do it!" answered both at once.
"Well, if you happen to overhear it, I shan't have told you, and yet it will serve your turn just as well;" and with that he walked on close in front of them, singing carelessly as he went.
"How are we to 'overhear' it, Heinrich?" said the Baroness, after a bit.
"He seems to have forgotten us," replied the Baron, in despair. "I have been expecting him every minute to turn round and give us a hint of how he meant to help us; but it is just like every one you do a favour to--when they have got what they want, they forget all about you."
They walked on in silence; and the fellow kept on close in front of them, singing as before, and always the same verse.
At last the Baroness got wearied with hearing the same thing over and over again, and she began repeating the words over to herself, mechanically. She could not make them out at all at first, for he had a rough, abrupt articulation, but by dint of perseverance in an occupation which served as a distraction to her agony, she at last made it out, word by word:--
"The Wild Huntsman's betrothed (though he is not tamed)
To a lady fair
Driven to despair.
If she only knew he's Burzinigala named!"
"'Burzinigala named!' exclaimed the Baroness, with the ringing laugh of former days, and clapping her hands merrily.
"I have it all right this time, you may depend, Heinrich!" and she laughed again.
The Baron was too delighted for words--he embraced his wife in his joy; and they walked on with a very different mien from what they wore before. The first joy over, they turned to thank their helper; but he had already disappeared, climbing over the tops of the trees to get out of sight of the Wilder Jäger's eye for as long as might be.
There was no more lingering now, they hasted on, anxious only to proclaim their triumph.
The ilex grove was soon reached, and the jewelled horn quickly produced the Wilder Jäger.
To-day he was habited with greater care even than on the former occasions, and there was also still more assurance in his manner, and still more forwardness to flatter.
"Well, lady fair," he said, with a mocking air, "do you deem you have guessed my name this time?"
"Really, it is so difficult," replied the lady, "that how can you think I can hope to succeed? Besides, why should I wish to do what would deprive me of so charming a companion?"
The Wilder Jäger in his turn was perturbed. Nothing could have made him happier than to hear such words from her lips, could he have deemed them sincere; but there was an irony in her tone and a playfulness in her countenance which showed that her heart was not in her words. Yet he felt convinced she could not discover his name; and so he knew not what to think, and scarcely what to say. And the Baroness, delighting in his confusion, continued teasing him, like a cat with a mouse.
After a good deal of this bantering, in which the Wilder Jäger got quite bewildered, the Baroness rose majestically.
"Have we not had enough talking?" she said, with emphasis; "when are you going to take me home--Sir Burzinigala?"
It would be impossible to describe the effect of this word. He rose from the earth with one bound. The beauty, the calmness, the commanding air, which had at one time charmed the Baroness, had all fled. Wild, savage, and furious as he had first appeared and tenfold more, he now showed; and the sparks flew from his eyes on all around. Through the thick tops of the trees he passed, they hardly knew how; and soon the only trace of him left was that of the sparks that smouldered on the dry heath.
It only remained for the Baron and Baroness to return home, locked in each other's arms. And they continued loving each other more than ever before to the end of their days.