THE Passeier-Thal, which at the beginning of the present century sent Hofer and his famous band of peasant heroes to the defence of the fatherland, was in ancient times often involved in the wrangles between its rulers and those of Bavaria. The men of the Passeier-Thal were no less heroes then than now, but there were heroes in Bavaria too, so that the success was as often on one side as the other.
Klein-Else  was the daughter of a bold baron whose castle was, so to speak, one of the outposts of the valley; and as he had thus more often than others to bear the brunt of the feud, his strength became gradually diminished, and it was only by leaguing himself with his neighbours that he was enabled to repel the frequent inroads of a turbulent knight who had established himself on the other side of the old frontier, but who cultivated a strong passion for annexation. The Passeier-Thal baron did his best to strengthen his defences and keep up a watchful look-out; and the moment his scouts perceived the enemy advancing, their orders were not only to bring word of the danger to their master, but to hasten at once to the other castles of the surrounding heights, and summon their owners to his support; and then the whole valley immediately bristled with valiant defenders of their country.
But inasmuch as his adversary was reckless and determined, and much better provided with men and means, he succeeded in laying his plans so well at last, that he eluded all the vigilance of the baron's scattered handful of look-out men, and, bursting in upon his domain by surprise, carried all his defences, laid waste every thing before him, and marched upon the castle itself.
The bold baron swore he would not remain to be killed like a reptile in its hole, but sallied out with the few retainers who remained to him, to sell his life and his possessions as dearly as he might. With desperate courage he dealt the deadliest blows around which had been paid out that day. But it was all in vain. Overcome by superior numbers, he was brought back but a few hours later in piteous plight, mortally wounded.
Klein-Else bent over her father with despairing cries; and her tears fell as fast as the blood from the deep wounds she tried in vain to staunch.
"Leave the bandage, Klein-Else, it boots not," said the baron, in tones so slow and faint that she could only catch his words by putting her ear to his lips; and, as she did so, his cold breath filled her with horror.
"It boots not to staunch the blood, Klein-Else; my life is spent. But as you have ever obeyed me, listen now to my word. The enemy is at the door; you have but time to escape falling into his hands. Take this key--it opens a gate of which no one knows the secret. Count the tenth buttress in the wall, and where the ivy grows thickest, there, behind it, feel for the lock and open it. Then creep beneath; and, once on the other side, replace the branches, that no one may see they have been disturbed. You will see before you three paths: one leads down into the smiling plain, where you might think to find refuge in the houses of our people; but another destiny is for you. The second leads upwards to the thick pine forest, where you might think to lie concealed till our friends have time to come and rout out this vile usurper; but another destiny is for you. Take the path straight before you, that winds round the mountain; though it is open and exposed to view, fear not, for it leads to--to----"
And here his voice failed, so that she could no more make out what he said; and though he continued to exert himself to complete his directions, it was vain that she attempted to distinguish them. His power of articulation was gone.
Klein-Else threw herself on his cold body, and clung to it with all her might. But he who had been her guide and guardian, her will, till now, was powerless and stark; and for all her beseeching he could not answer.
The chaplain came and raised her up, and they carried the body to the sanctuary; but Klein-Else, paralyzed with sadness and despair, stood and gazed after it as though she knew not where she was.
Suddenly wild shouts broke on her ear, and the sound of many feet, and the tumult of the servants and men-at-arms bidding her fly, for the enemy had come.
"Fly, for the enemy is here!" The words recalled her father's counsel, and mechanically she clasped the key, his last legacy. Scarcely taking time to change her embroidered garments for a peasant's attire, she crept along under the wall, counting ten buttresses, with a beating heart. After the tenth, she put her hand through the thick ivy, and felt, as her father had foretold, the iron bosses of the lock. It required all her strength to turn the key; but this accomplished, there was safety and rest behind the ivy's faithful veil.
It was but just in time; the rough soldiers were close behind.
"Ha! who went there?" she heard a hoarse voice say, as she noiselessly closed the door. "Saw you not the ivy move? Press through and see who passed."
"It was but a frightened hare--I saw it run," said another, with a less terrible voice.
"Nothing taller ever passed that branch," said another; and the speakers passed out of hearing.
There lay the three paths: the one straight on before--but so open, so exposed, any one who happened to be passing for miles round might have seen and pursued her, while either of the others offered instant cover and security. Klein-Else was sorely tempted to try one of them.
"If I had heard all his instructions," she reasoned, "it would have been different: I would then have done all he told me, whithersoever it might have led; but now I know not what he meant. I may go a little way along this path--and then what shall I do? Maybe, I shall fall into a greater danger than that from which he would have saved me!"
And she turned to seek the shelter of the friendly cottages in the valley beneath. But the words seemed to live in the air around her,--
"Another destiny is for you!"
Trembling and confused, she would have plunged into the hiding-place of the pine-forest above; but the wind that moaned through their lofty branches seemed charged with the words,--
"Another destiny is for you!"
She was thus impelled forward into the open path; and, creeping close to the mountain-side, she now pursued her way along it. It was with no small relief that she noticed the sun was nearly sinking behind the opposite heights, so that soon she might hope to be safe from the gaze of men.
And yet, as darkness fell around, it became but the source of other fears. And the sense of her loneliness and abandonment took away her courage to proceed any farther.
She leant against the rock for support, and her tears fell fast and warm upon its stony side--piteously enough, you might have thought, to move and melt it.
And so it was! for see! the hard rock yielded and made way before the noble form of a knight in armour, who said, with compassionate voice,--
"Maiden, wherefore these tears?"
"Because my father is dead, and his enemies have taken his castle, and I have no shelter and nothing to eat!" sobbed Klein-Else.
"If that is all," answered the noble knight, "it is easily made straight." And with that he turned to the rock, and said,--
"Open, hoary rock!"
And the hoary rock opened, and disclosed a treasure of every imaginable kind of riches stored around--jewels and coin, and shining armour, and dazzling dresses.
"All this is yours, Klein-Else," said the knight; "you have but to take what you will, when you will. It will never grow less. You have only to say, 'Open, hoary rock!' and these treasures will always appear at your bidding. Dispose of them as you like; only make a good use of them, for on that depends all your future happiness. I will come and see you again in seven years, and I shall see what use you have made of my gift; but you must remember my name, or woe will be to you." So he whispered his name in her ear, and disappeared.
Klein-Else was so dazzled and startled that she hardly knew what to think, or whether what had happened was a dream or reality. To make sure, she said to the rock, "Open, hoary rock!" and the rock opened at her bidding as quickly as at the knight's, and disclosed its glittering treasure. But it was still hard to decide all at once what to take of it; and knowing that it was in a secure store-house, and that it was dangerous to burden herself with much riches when travelling alone in the dark night, she only took a few pieces of money--enough to pay for food and lodging--and passed on with a lightened heart. The rock closed up as she went farther--but she took a note of the spot, so that she might be sure to know it again; and then made for the lights which appeared with friendly radiance at no great distance through the trees which now fringed the road, repeating the name of the knight to herself, as she went along, that she might never forget it.
Klein-Else hasted on, but was rather dismayed to find that the lights were the lights of a great castle where her money would be of no use. She could not ask for a lodging and supper for money there, and there was no other habitation near. So she put by her money again, and, with the humility befitting her wayworn aspect and lowly attire, begged the great man's servants to give her some poor employment by which she might earn a place among them.
"What can a little, dirty, ragged girl like you do?" said the cook, who was just occupied in fixing the spit through a young chamois that looked so succulent and tender, one as hungry as Klein-Else might have eaten it as it was.
"I can do whatever you please to tell me," answered Klein-Else, timidly.
"A proper answer," replied the cook. "Let's see if you can watch the poultry-house, then. You must be up by daybreak and go late to bed, and lie in the straw over the poultry-loft, and keep half awake all night to scare away the foxes, if any come; and if one smallest chicken is lost, woe betide you! you will be whipped and sent away. Here is a piece of dry bread for your supper. Now go, and don't stand idling about."
Klein-Else was so hungry that she gladly took the piece of dry black bread, and went to try to sleep on the straw in the poultry-loft. She had to get up at daybreak, when the cock crew; and she had to keep her eye on the brood all day; and late at night she had a piece of dry black bread for supper, and was sent to sleep in the straw of the poultry-loft. Her only pastime was to recall the memory of her treasure in the rock, and repeat over and over again the knight's name, that she might be sure never to forget it.
"But of what use is all my fine treasure," she mused, "if I am never to be any thing but a wretched Hennenpfösl ? And what can I do? if I come out with handfuls of gold and fine clothes, they will take me for a thief or a witch, and I shall be worse off than now; and if I show them the treasure, who knows but they will take it from me? The knight said my happiness depended on the use I made of it, yet I can make no use of it!"
So she sat and counted the hens and chickens, and repeated the knight's name, and ate her dry black bread, and slept in the straw in the poultry-loft.
At last Sunday came, and the glad church bells rang merrily, flinging their joyous notes all abroad; and the servants of the castle put on their best clothes to go to church. But how could Klein-Else be seen among them, all in their snow-white linen and bright-coloured ribbons--Klein-Else, the Hennenpfösl, with her poor rags?
"Now, at last, I can use my treasury," she said to herself; "I can at least get some of the pretty clothes that hang there, and go to church." So she washed herself in the mountain-torrent, and braided her dishevelled hair in massive golden braids, and crept round to the rock, and bid it open, saying,--
"Open, hoary rock!"
Of all the treasures it instantly disclosed, she saw none but one beautiful garment all woven out of sunbeams and glittering with jewels of morning dew. Having put this on, and once more looking like a baron's daughter, she made haste to reach the church.
The holy office had already begun, and the church was crowded right out into the porch. But when the people saw such a dazzling sight, they all made way for the lady in the shining apparel, none dreaming of Klein-Else. Now the only part of the church where there was any room was at the baron's bench. For he was a young lord, and had neither mother, sister, nor wife; and all the places reserved for his family were vacant. Klein-Else, moving on till she could find where to kneel, had thus to come and kneel by him.
The young baron was as much dazzled at the sight as Klein-Else herself had been at the treasures in the rock, and at every pause in the service he could do nothing but fix his gaze on her. As soon as it was over, however, Klein-Else glided out softly, and hasting back to the rock, hung the sunbeam-dress up again; and once more assuming her rags, hid herself in the poultry-loft, almost frightened at what she had done.
All the next week she had new subjects of thought. She felt sure the young baron had looked at her and admired her; and wasn't it more meet that she, a baron's daughter, should be kneeling by the side of the young baron than sleeping in the poultry-loft, a mere Hennenpfösl? Ah, if that came true--if the young baron married her; then she would have some one to tell her good fortune to--some one to defend her treasure. Then she could make the good use of it the knight had manifestly intended. She could wipe away the tears of all those who went without shelter, as she had once; every desolate orphan who had none to defend her; every poor Hennenpfösl, the drudge of the menials. "How strange," she said to herself, "there should be people blessed with friends, and riches, and enjoyments, who live full of their own happiness, and who have no thought for the forsaken and the outcast! She would never be like them, not she! her happiness should be in making others happy."
But, in the meantime, was she sure the baron had looked at her otherwise than out of curiosity? Was he really interested in her? and if he was, would he continue to care for her when he found she was only a Hennenpfösl? She must put him to the test; and she sat and thought how to arrange this. This was subject enough for thought; and this week was at an end only too soon.
The next Sunday came; and when the church bells rang, Klein-Else ran to her rock, took out of her store this time a garment woven out of moonbeams, and having arranged her luxuriant hair in massive tresses, once more proceeded to the church. But with all the haste she had made, she could not arrive before the holy office had begun, and the church was once more full. The people fell back again, in awe of her shining garments, and made way for her to kneel beside the baron, who could scarcely suppress a gesture of delight at beholding her once again. Nor did his joy escape Klein-Else's observation; and many a blushing glance they exchanged.
"What a noble cavalier!" thought Klein-Else; "and just such a one as my father always told me my husband should be."
"What a lovely maiden!" mused the young baron; "where can she have sprung from? Is she of earth or heaven?"
All that last week, while Klein-Else was thinking of him, he had been thinking still more of her; and had ordered his waiting-men to surround her as she came out of church, and beg her to come to him at the castle. But Klein-Else had no idea of suffering herself to be so easy a prize; so she fled so fast the baron's men could hardly approach her. And when at last she found they were gaining upon her, and that her fleet step availed her not, she threw down the pieces of money which she took the first night from the rock; and while they stopped to pick them up, pursued her way unperceived, and let the rock close on her till they had lost the trace. Then, assuming her poor rags once more, she returned silently to her poultry-loft.
Her thoughts had food enough now; but it was less with the poor orphans she was to console, than with the young baron, and how to test his love, that they were occupied.
Next Sunday she chose a garment blue like the sky, and all sparkling, as with living stars. She presented herself at the church, and found herself again placed beside the young baron. At the end of the service she went out quickly, as before, only this time he contrived, as she rose to leave, to seize her hand, and slip a gold ring on her finger. Nevertheless, Klein-Else slipped out through the midst of the congregation, and though the serving-men had had stringent orders to follow her, she had prudently provided herself with gold pieces enough to disperse the whole lot of them while she escaped.
The young baron sat alone in his castle, as he had sat this fortnight past, taking no notice of any one, but as if his whole soul was wrapt up in the fair apparition, and he was in despair, since her hiding-place could not be traced. He sat nursing his grief, and could neither be distracted from it, nor comforted. His friends sent for the most famous physicians of the country to attend him, but none of them could do any thing for his case; and daily he grew paler and gloomier, and none could help him. At last the Gräfin Jaufenstein, his aunt, came and insisted that some amusement must be found to divert him; but the young baron refused every proposal, till at last she begged him to give a great banquet, to which every one from far and near should be invited, every kind of game and every kind of costly diet should be afforded, and nothing spared to make it the most magnificent banquet ever given. To the great surprise and delight of all, he consented to this; but it was because it occurred to him that inviting the whole country, the chances were that the beautiful maiden of his choice, who yet hid herself so persistently from him, might once more mysteriously appear before him too: so he gave his aunt the Countess Jaufenstein free leave to give what orders she liked, and go to what expense she liked, only providing that she should have the invitations publicly published, so that there might be every chance of their reaching the ears of the mysterious maiden.
At last the day of the banquet came, and there was a running hither and thither in the baron's castle, with the preparations, such as can be better imagined than described. The guests swarmed in the halls, and the servants in the kitchen; and Klein-Else, creeping up from her poultry-loft, could hardly make her way up to the fire where the cook was preparing all manner of deliciously scented dishes.
"I don't know what ails the things!" cried the cook; "these pancakes are the only thing the baron will eat, and, as fate will have it, I cannot turn one of them to-night! Three and thirty years I have made pancakes in this castle, and never did I fail before to-night--to-night, when it is most important of all!" and she poured another into the pan. But as she did so, with a hand trembling with anxiety, the oil ran over the side of the pan, and the great heat of the stove set it on fire, so that a great flame curled over the pancake--and there was nothing left of it but a black, misshapen mass.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! what shall I do?" cried the cook; "there is not one of the whole lot fit to send up, and if this dish is not the best, I had just as lief I had prepared no dish at all!"
"May I have a try, friend cook?" said Klein-Else, coaxingly.
"You, indeed!" screamed the cook, indignation and envy added to her former despair; "and a little, dirty, ragged, misbegotten starveling--a vagabond--a Hennenpfösl like you, who never saw a kitchen, or a stove, or a frying-pan, or any thing else! to suppose that you can turn a pancake, when I, who have turned pancakes in this castle for three and thirty years, have failed! A likely matter indeed! What is the world coming to? Begone, with your impudence, and mind your hens! Ah! now I think of it, I believe it is you that have bewitched the eggs, and that's why the pancakes won't turn! Begone, I say, out of my kitchen, and out of the poultry-house too--I'll have no more of your tricks with my eggs!" and she turned, with a menacing gesture at Klein-Else, to try her luck once more.
But at the sight of the black mass in the frying-pan, she grew fairly discouraged, and throwing herself down in a chair, wrapt her face in her apron, and wept like a child.
Meantime Klein-Else advanced with light step to the stove, took up the frying-pan, and cleaned it out in a trice, then poured fresh oil into it, and held it over the stove till it boiled; then, while it spluttered cheerily, she deftly poured in the batter, gliding into it the ring which the baron had stealthily put on her hand at church, and along with it, one with a magnificent diamond, which she had taken from her treasury in the rock.
The boiling oil danced and chirped merrily round the cake, the batter rose as batter never rose before; and when Klein-Else shifted it lightly on to the dish, it wore a bright, golden hue, matched only by her own radiant hair.
The cook, waking from her stupor, was in a transport of delight at beholding the effect of her skill, and sent the dish at once to the baron's table, while Klein-Else took her place in an out-of-the-way corner to hear what should befall.
Nor had she long to wait. The dish had not been gone ten minutes, when the baron's body-servant came solemnly into the kitchen, with the announcement that the baron demanded the immediate attendance of the cook. "It's because I kept him waiting for the pancakes, and because the one of that little hussey's making is not so good as those I have made for him all his life, and his father before him;" and, all trembling and afraid, she rose to follow his messenger. Espying Klein-Else watching anxiously behind a pillar as she passed along, she could not forbear calling out to her, "Ah, wretched child, it is you have got me into this scrape! But you shall pay for it! Why did I let you touch the frying-pan! Why did I let you enter the castle! You had better not come under my sight any more, or I'll soon show you where the builder made the hole in the wall !" and she dragged herself along slowly, in great fear of the apprehended displeasure of the baron, but comforting herself with the determination to let him know the whole fault lay with the Hennenpfösl.
Great was her surprise, however, to find that it was with no intention of chiding that the baron had summoned her. On the contrary, the gloomy cloud his brow had lately worn had disappeared; he not only looked gay and joyous as of old, but a special radiance of pleasurable expectation lit up his countenance.
"Why, cook," he said, "you have made me good pancakes all my life, but never one like this! Now tell me honestly who made this one?"
"Nay, but if it is so, I may as well have the credit of it," thought the cook; "and, after all, I did make the batter, and that's the chief part of the work."
"Oh, I made it myself, baron, upon my soul! no one but myself makes any thing for the high table."
The baron's countenance fell. He began to look gloomy and disappointed once more--was the clue to escape him after all? He roused himself again, as with one flash of hope.
"Did no one help you to make it?"
("If I tell that she had any part in it, it is obvious, from the tone he takes, he will give the whole merit to her. No, I'll not mention her; and besides, she didn't help me to make it.")
"Oh, baron, it don't want two people to make a pancake! I've always made pancakes for this castle these three and thirty years without help;" and she tried to talk as if she felt hurt, and thus bring the conversation to an end.
The baron passed his hand roughly across his forehead, and stamped his foot in despair.
Once more a hopeful thought flashed across his mind.
"These rings! tell me, how did they get into the pancake, if you made it?" he exclaimed, in peremptory accents.
"Those rings? I never saw those rings before," stammered the cook, beginning to get a little confused.
"And what did you mutter as you passed the Hennenpfösl coming along, about it's being all her fault, and making her suffer for it?" interposed the body-servant.
"Ha! said she so?" cried the baron. "Speak, woman, what meant you by those words? Beware, and speak the truth this time, for it is matter of terrible consequence!"
"Who ever would have thought such a fuss would come of turning a pancake!" thought the cook to herself; but she said out aloud, "Well, it is true, the Hennenpfösl did hold the frying-pan while it was on the stove; I didn't know it was worth while to mention that. But what could she have to do with the beautiful rings?"
"True," replied the servant, "that can have nothing to do with it, as you say."
"Nay," replied the baron, "I'm not so clear of that. Let the Hennenpfösl, as you call her, be brought here, and let's see what account she has to give of it."
"But it's impossible; she isn't even a servant of the house. She is a little whining beggar brat, that I took in scarce three weeks ago and put in the poultry-loft, to keep her from starving."
"Three weeks!" exclaimed the baron; "said you three weeks? Let her be brought to me instantly."
"But she isn't fit to come into your presence; she's grimed with dirt, and covered in rags."
"Reason not, but send her hither," said the baron, his energy returning as his hopes kindled.
"If she is the maiden to whom I gave the ring, she is of no low birth: there is some mystery which I must penetrate. If she were nothing but a 'Hennenpfösl,' whence could she have had this brilliant ring, which puts mine to shame?" he mused within himself, as he waited impatiently for the maiden of his dreams to appear.
Klein-Else, meantime, had made no doubt that since the baron had sent for the cook, his wisdom would enable him to discover that she must be sent for next, and had accordingly repaired to her treasury in the rock, and had taken thence a resplendent attire. It was no longer now the simple gifts of nature which furnished her wardrobe; she was decked as became a baron's daughter, with all the resources of the milliner and the jeweller's art. Cavaliers and ladies-in-waiting walked beside her, and twenty pages dressed in pink and white satin, with plumed bonnets, carried her train behind, while men in rich liveries, bearing torches, ran by the side of the procession.
Gräfin Jaufenstein was at the head of the hall welcoming the guests, and doing the honours of the castle, to supply what the moody humour of its lord left lacking in courtesy. But while she courtesied to noble lords and ladies with queenly grace, and, with imperceptible asides, at the same time gave directions that every one should have his due place, and that every thing should proceed with the due order of etiquette, it never for a moment escaped her practised eye that something unusual was going on in the neighbourhood of the young baron. That he should summon the cook to his presence, probably to chide her justly for some breach of the rules of her art, if such had befallen, was indeed no unreasonable distraction for the baron's melancholy, and she hailed it as a token of returning interest in the ordinary affairs of life, which had occupied him so little of late; but when she heard him order the Hennenpfösl to be brought there in the midst of his guests, she thought it time to interfere--it became a matter of eccentricity passing all bounds. Dexterously excusing her momentary absence from her guests, she accordingly made her way up to her nephew, preparing to wrap up her remonstrance in her most honeyed language, so as better to convince without provoking him. Before she could reach his chair, there was a movement of astonishment in the vast assembly, and a cry of admiration, while the heralds proclaimed,--
"Place for the most noble baron's daughter!" And then, surrounded by her shining crowd of attendants, and glittering in her jewelled robes, Klein-Else made her way with modest, but at the same time noble carriage towards the young baron.
The young baron recognized her the moment the tapestry was raised for her to pass, and instantly went forth to meet her with courteous gestures, and led her up to the seat next his own at the banquet.
The stately countess looked on a little perplexed, for the first time in her life, but with admirable serenity and self-possession inquired the name of the fair guest who did their poor banquet the honour of attending it in so great state.
"I am the poor Hennenpfösl, madame, whom your noble nephew has done the honour to summon to his presence; and I hope you will not think I disgrace his command," replied Klein-Else, with a reverence at once lowly and full of accomplished dignity.
"The Hennenpfösl!" repeated the countess, returning the salute mechanically. "But surely there is some mistake--some----"
"Yes, dearest countess, some mystery there is," interposed her nephew; "but we will not seek to penetrate it till it shall please the lady herself to reveal it. Why she should have chosen to pass some time as the Hennenpfösl, I know not; but this is not the first time we have met, and I am sufficiently satisfied of her grace and discretion to know that for whatever reason she chose it, she chose aright. I have further determined this very night to lay myself and my fortune at her feet!"
Klein-Else started, with a little cry of satisfied expectation, then coloured modestly and looked down.
"But the lady will at least favour us with her name?" urged the countess, but half satisfied. Klein-Else turned to her chamberlain with dignity, and whispered an order; and then the chamberlain stood forward and proclaimed aloud the names and titles of the deceased baron of the Passeier-Thal, her father.
"Oh!" said the lady, in a tone of disparagement, "methinks his was a fortune which could scarcely be united with that of my nephew!"
"Countess!" exclaimed the young baron, furious at the suggestion; but before he could proceed the chamberlain once more intervened.
"There need be no difficulty on that score," he said; and he made a sign to the attendants who were behind. They came up in brave order, two and two, each pair bearing a casket in which was a thousand crowns. "A thousand such caskets contain the dowry of the baron's daughter; and she has priceless jewels without number."
"A million crowns!" echoed the whole assembly, in chorus; "was there ever such a fortune known?"
The countess was absolutely speechless, and turned to participate in the astonishment of her guests.
The young baron and Klein-Else, thus left to each other's conversation, were not slow in confessing their mutual love.
"And now all our friends are gathered round us," he exclaimed, at last, "what better time to proclaim our happiness? My friends! I present you the fair lady who has consented to become my bride!"
There was a general sound of jubilation and praise. All gathered round to felicitate the baron, and the minstrels sang the charms of the bride.
The baron begged them all to stay with him ten days, to celebrate the nuptials. And for ten days there was revelry and rapture, singing and merry-making; and when at last the guests returned home, every one carried back to his own neighbourhood the tale of the surpassing beauty, riches, and grace of Klein-Else. Every body had been won by her, there was no dissentient opinion; and even Gräfin Jaufenstein acknowledged that her nephew could not have made a nobler or better choice.
When they were left alone, the days seemed hardly long enough to tell their love. Never was there happiness equal to theirs. Before the guests left, the baron had invited them all to come back every year on the anniversary; and every year, as they gathered round, they found them more and more wrapt in each other's love.
On the second anniversary they found that their happiness had been increased by the birth of an heir; and the next year there was a little daughter too, the delight of her parents. Year by year the children grew in beauty, and grace, and intelligence, and others were added to their numbers. And every one envied the unequalled happiness of the baron and baroness.
Meantime the years were passing away, though Klein-Else had taken no account of them. To her it was one continual round of enjoyment, uncrossed by any care; each season had its own joys, and she revelled in the fresh variety of each, but counted them not as they passed.
One day they sat together under a shady grove: the baron was weaving a chaplet of roses, Klein-Else was fondling her latest-born upon her knee; round them sported their little ones, bringing fresh baskets of roses for the chaplet the baron was weaving for Klein-Else; while Otto the heir, a noble boy who promised to reproduce his father's stately figure and handsome lineaments, rejoiced them by his prowess with his bow and arrow.
"How the time has sped, Klein-Else!" whispered the baron; "it seems but yesterday that you first came and knelt beside me in your sunbeam garment. Then, just as now, it was happiness to feel you beside me. I knew not who was there, but as I heard the flutter of your drapery a glow of joy seemed to come from its shining folds, and I, who had never loved any one else, loved you from that moment as I love you now!"
"How well you say it, love!" responded Klein-Else. "Yes; where is the difference between to-day and yesterday, and last year and the year before that? Ever since that first day it has been one long love, nothing else! Yes; well I remember that day. I was poor, and despised, and had no one to talk to, and never thought any one would ever look at me again--except to scold me. And then I went into the church and knelt by you; and I felt as the new ivy twig must feel when it has crept and tossed about in vain, and then at last finds, close under its grasp, the strong, immovable oak, and clasps it--clasps it never to loose its hold again, never! but grows up clasping it ever closer and closer, till it grows quite one with it, and no one can separate them any more for ever!"
"Yes," replied the baron; "nothing can separate them any more--nothing can separate us now! We have grown together for years, and have only grown the closer. It is now--let me see--five, six, seven years, and we have only grown the closer to each other! To think it is seven years! no, it wants a few weeks; but it will soon be seven years. Seven--" he turned to look at her, for he perceived that as he spoke she had loosened her hold of him, and now he saw she was pale and trembling.
"But what ails you, Elschen ? Elschen dear! speak to me, Elschen!" he added, with anxiety, for she sank back almost unconscious against the bank.
"I shall be better presently," stammered the baroness. "I think the scent of the flowers is too powerful. I don't feel quite well--take me down by the side of the water; I shall be better presently." An attendant took the babe from her arms--and the baron remembered afterwards, that as she parted from it she embraced it with a passionate flood of tears; then he led her to the side of the stream, and bathed her burning forehead in the cooling flood.
Suddenly voices in angry altercation were heard through the trees, and the servants summoned the baron with excited gesticulations, saying there was a strange knight, all in armour, who claimed to see the baroness.
Klein-Else was near fainting again when she heard them say that.
"Claims to see the baroness, say you?" replied their lord, with menacing gesture. "Where is he? Let him say that to me!" and he darted off to meet him, without listening to the faint words Klein-Else strove to utter.
Now she was left alone by the side of the stream where, as the Hennenpfösl, she had first washed away the stains of servitude and dressed herself to meet him who was to teach her to love. It was beside that stream she had sat, and her tears had mingled with it, as she had vowed that if ever such joy was hers as now she owned, her treasure should be for those who were outcast and suffering as she had been, and her happiness should be in making others happy!
How had she fulfilled her vow? From that time to this it had passed out of her mind. Filled with her own gratification, she had left the orphan in her bereavement, the suffering in their misery, nor stretched out a helping hand.
The seven years were spent, and there was no doubt the knight was come to seek an account of the treasure he had entrusted to her. She had not only to meet him with shame for its misuse, but even his name she had forgotten! And he had said, "Woe be to you, if you have forgotten that name!"
But she had forgotten it. She pressed her hands against her throbbing temples as if to force it from her brain, and swept away the mantling hair--if but the cool breeze might waft it back to her! But the forgotten name came not.
Suddenly the knight stood before her, and terrible he was to look at in his shining armour! As she saw him she screamed and swooned away.
But he touched her, and bade her rise, then beckoned her to follow him; and she could not choose but obey. He led her over the stream and along the path in the mountain-side where the trees fringed the way; and when they reached the rock she knew so well, with its treasury whence all her means of happiness had been derived, he said in solemn accents,--
"Open, hoary rock!"
But to her he said,--
Then she could not choose but look. But oh, horror! in place of the coin and jewels, armour and apparel, it was filled with wasted forms bowed with misery and distress! the tear-worn orphan, the neglected sick. Here she saw lying a youth, wan and emaciated, struck down in all the promise of boyhood, and his mother tore her hair in agony by his side. And there stood a father, gaunt and grey, vainly grappling with Hunger, who was stealing away his children one by one from before his face. Here----
But she could bear no more. She sank upon the ground, and hid her face for very shame.
"The ransom of these, it is, you have spent upon yourself!" thundered the pitiless knight; and every word was a death-knell....
The baron and his servants continued their search for the unknown knight, but for long they found him not; one said he had seen him go this way, and another that. Till at last an artless peasant maiden told them she had seen him take the path of the mountain, across the stream, and the baroness following behind with weak and unsteady steps. The baron hasted his steps to pursue the way she pointed.
But he only found the lifeless body of Klein-Else kneeling against the hoary rock!