Household Stories from the Land of Hofer; or, Popular Myths of Tirol | Annotated Tale

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Ottilia and the Death’s Head


IN THE little town of Schwatz, on the Inn, the chief river of Tirol, there lived once a poor little peasant-girl named Ottilia. Ottilia had been very fond of her dear mother, and cried bitterly when she had the great misfortune to lose her. She tried hard to do all she had seen her mother do: she swept the house and milked the cow, and baked the bread, and stitched at her father's clothes; but she could not, with all her diligence, get through it all as her mother did. The place began to get into disorder, and the pigs and the fowls fought, and she could not keep them apart, and she could not manage the spinning; and what was worst of all, she could not carry in the loads of hay, by which her mother had earned the few pence that eked out her father's scanty wages.

               To keep the house straight, the good man found himself obliged to take another wife; and one day he brought home the tall Sennal, and told Ottilia she was to be her mother.

               When poor little Ottilia heard the tall, hard, bony woman called "her mother," she burst out into passionate tears, and declared she should never be her mother, and she would never pay her obedience!

               Now the tall Sennal was not a bad woman, but she was angry when the child set herself against her; and so there was continual anger between the two. When she told Ottilia to do any thing, Ottilia refused to do it, lest she should be thought to be thereby regarding her as her mother, which seemed to her a kind of sacrilege; and when she tried to do any of the work of the house, her childish inexperience made her do it in a way that did not suit the tall Sennal's thrift, so there was nothing but strife in the house. Yet the good father contrived, when he came home of an evening, to set things straight, and make peace; and though Ottilia had little pleasure, like other children of her years, yet she had a good woollen frock to keep out the cold, and bread and cheese and milk enough to drive away hunger, and, what she valued most, a father's knee to sit on of an evening in the well-warmed room, while he kissed her and told her weird stories of the days long gone by.

               But a day came--a day darkened by a terrible storm--on whose evening no father came home. The long Sennal went out with the neighbours with lanterns and horns, but the fierce winds extinguished their lights and drowned the sound of their horns; and Ottilia knelt by the side of her father's chair, praying and crying.

               She prayed and wept, and only slept a little now and then, all through the night; and in the morning some carters came in, and brought her father's dead body, which they had found on their mountain way, under the snow, where it lay buried.

               But Ottilia still knelt by her father's chair, and felt like one in a dream, while they put him in his coffin and carried him to the churchyard ground, and the sad bells mourned.

               "Go, child, and feed the pig!" exclaimed the harsh voice of the tall Sennal--and it sounded harsher than ever now, for there was none left to apply the curb. "Crying's all very well for a bit; but you're not going on like that all your life, I suppose?"

               Ottilia felt her helplessness, and therefore resented the admonition. Without stopping to consider its reasonableness, she retorted, fiercely,--

               "'Child!' I am no child of yours! I've told you so before, a thousand times; and it's not because my father's dead that you're going to come over me. You think you'll make me forget him by forbidding me to cry for him; but never, never will I forget him! nor shall you forget how he made you behave properly to me!"

               The tall Sennal had more patience with her than might have been expected, and said no more for that time; but Ottilia was not won by her forbearance, and only reckoned it as a victory.

               It was strife again the next day, and the next, and there was no good father to make peace. And at last the tall Sennal's patience fairly gave way, and one day, in her provocation, she drove the child from the door, and bid her never come under her eyes again!

               Her anger cooled, she could have recalled the words, but Ottilia was already far away up the mountain-path, and out of sight, gone she knew not whither.

               Ottilia had no experience of want, and knew not what it was to be alone upon the mountains; all her full heart felt at the moment was, that it would be a boon to get away from the reproaches her conscience told her were not undeserved, and be alone with her parent's memory.

               Thus she wandered on, with no more consciousness of her way than just to follow it to the spot where her father died, and which had been marked by pious custom with a wayside cross, on which was painted in vivid strokes the manner of his end.

               Ottilia gazed at the cruel scene till fresh tears started to her eyes, and she threw herself on the ground beside it, and cried till she knew no more where she was. Then it seemed to her as if the ground were again covered with snow, and that from under it she heard her father's voice; and he talked to her as he used to talk of an evening by the fireside, when she was on his knee after work and he made her peace with the tall Sennal. And now he brought home to her all her naughty, senseless ways, not scolding without reason, but making all allowance for the filial love which had been at the bottom of the strife. Ottilia seemed to herself to be listening to him with great attention, but her heart misgave her. She was ready to own now that she had been very wrong, very unreasonable, and she felt really sorry for it all--so sorry that, had her home still been his, she felt that she could have brought herself to obey Sennal, so that she might not grieve him; but now--now that he was not there--suppose he should require of her that she should go back now and live with the tall Sennal, all alone! But he did not require it of her; or, at all events, in her excitement she woke with his last words sounding in her ear, which were nothing more severe than, "Put your trust in God, and all will yet be well."

               The sun had already sunk behind the mountains, the chill night air began to penetrate Ottilia's clothing, and hunger stared her in the face. She felt very humble now, but she had no mind to go back. She rose and walked on, for numbness, as of death, was creeping over her, and she knew the mountain-folk said that to yield to that lethargy of cold was death.

               On she walked, and on, and the darkness gathered thicker and thicker round her; but she thought of her guardian angel, and she was not afraid. Still the way was weary, and the air was keen, and her strength began to fail. Then suddenly, on a neighbouring peak, she descried the broken outline of a castellated building standing out against the now moonlit sky.

               Gathering fresh force from hope, she picked her way over steep and stone, guiding her steps by the friendly light which beamed from a turret window. She had had time to realize her whole desolation. If heaven vouchsafed her another chance of finding a home, she mentally resolved, she would behave so as to win its blessing, with all her might.

               When at last she reached the castle-gate her courage once more began to fail--what would the great people at the castle say to a poor little half-starved peasant-girl, who came without friend or warrant to disturb their rest? "Where is your trust in Providence?" said a voice within, which sounded like a memory of her father's, and rekindled her courage.

               A horn hung beside the broad portal; and when, after many timorous efforts, Ottilia had succeeded in making a note resound, she stood anxiously wondering what stern warder or fierce man-at-arms would answer the summons.

               None such appeared, however. But after some moments of anxious waiting, the window whence the friendly light beamed was opened, with noise enough to make her look up, and then--what do you think she saw?

               Nothing but a Death's Head looking out of the window! Almost before she had time to be frightened, it asked her, in a very kindly voice, what was her pleasure.

               "A night's lodging and a bit of bread, for the love of Christ!" said Ottilia, faintly; and then she looked up again at the Death's Head, and she could not resist a sense of horror and faintness that crept over her. "Put your trust in God," whispered her father's voice, and she made an effort to stay her teeth from chattering together.

               Meantime, the Death's Head had answered cheerily enough, "Will you promise to carry me up here again faithfully, if I come down and draw the bolt for you, and let you in?" and scarcely knowing what she said, Ottilia gave an assent.

               "But think what you are saying, and swear that I can rely on you," persisted the Death's Head, "for, you see, it is a serious matter for me. I can easily roll down the steps, but there are a good many of them, and I can't get up again by myself."

               "Of course you may rely on me," now answered Ottilia, for she saw it was but her bounden duty to perform this return of kindness--and conscience seemed to have a reproach for her courageous alacrity, saying, "The tall Sennal never required of you any thing so hard as this." "I know she didn't," answered Ottilia, humbly; "and this is my punishment."

               All this time the Death's Head was coming rumbling down the stone stairs--and a hard, dismal sound it was. Clop, clop, clop, first round the turret spiral; then r-r-r-r-r-roll along the long echoing corridor; and then, clop, clop, clop once more all down the broad main staircase; then another r-r-r-r-r-roll; and finally, klump! bump! it came against the massive door.

               Ottilia felt her heart go clop, clop, clop, clop, too, but she struggled hard; and the cold, and the faintness of hunger made her yet feel rejoiced to hear the Death's Head take the bolt between its grinning teeth and draw it sharply back. The great door flew open, and Ottilia trod timidly within the welcome shelter. The memory of her father's fate was fresh upon her, and the Death's Head was less terrible than the pitiless snow.

               Not without some difficult mental struggles Ottilia faithfully fulfilled her promise. A temptation, indeed, came to let the skull lie. It could not pursue her--it could not possibly climb up all those stairs, though it could roll down them; besides, it had declared its incapacity for the task. She could let it lie and enter into possession of the castle--it was clear there was no one else there, or the skull would not have put itself in danger by coming to the door. But honest little Ottilia repelled the thought with indignation, and, bending down, she picked up the skull, and carried it carefully up the stairs folded in her apron.

               "Lay me on the table," said the Death's Head, when they got into the turret-chamber where the light was; "and then go down into the kitchen and make a pancake. It won't be for want of eggs and flour and butter if it is not good, for they are there in plenty."

               "What! go all the way down to the kitchen alone, in this great strange place?" said poor little trembling Ottilia to herself. "This is worse than any thing the tall Sennal ever gave me to do indeed;" but she felt it was a punishment and a trial of her resolution, and she started to obey with brave determination.

               It was a harder task even than she had imagined, for if the Death's Head was safe up-stairs in the turret tower, the "cross-bones" were at large in the kitchen, and would get in her way whatever she turned to do.

               True, her impulse for a moment was to turn and scream, and run away, but there came her father's voice, bidding her trust in God, "And besides," she said to herself, "what is there so very dreadful about the sight of dead bones, after all? and what harm can they do me?" So she took no notice of what was going on around her, but beat her eggs and mixed her batter, and put it on to fry, till the appetizing odour and the warmth of the fire brought back life and renewed her courage.

               When Ottilia brought the pancake up into the turret-room, and laid the dish with it on the table, she observed that the side of the pancake which was turned towards the skull became black, while that nearest herself retained its own golden colour; so that her curiosity was piqued, and she was much inclined to ask about it, but she managed to keep quiet and eat her share in silence. When she had finished she took the dish and washed it up, and put all away carefully; and she was just feeling very tired when the Death's Head said to her, "If you go up that staircase on the left, you will come to a little bedroom where you may sleep. About midnight a skeleton will come to your bedside, and try to pull you out of bed; all you have to do is not to be afraid of it, and then it can do you no harm."

               So Ottilia thanked the skull, and went up to bed. She had not been in bed more than three hours when she heard a great noise and rattling in the room, much like the noise the cross-bones had made in the kitchen while she was cooking the pancake. Then she heard the skull call up to her, "It is just midnight--remember you have only to be brave!" And as it spoke she saw a great skeleton come and stand in the bright moonbeam by her bedside! It stretched one of its long bare arms out towards her, and pulled off the bed-clothes with one bony hand and seized her by the hair with the other. But Ottilia listened for her father's voice bidding her put her trust in Providence; and she remained quite quiet in her bed, giving no sign of fear. When the skeleton found that she was so brave, it could do nothing against her, but, after two or three ineffectual tugs, turned and went away; and she saw nothing more of it, but slept out the rest of the night in peace.

               When she woke the next morning the bright sun was pouring cheerfully into the room, and by the bedside, where the skeleton had stood the night before, was a beautiful form of a woman, all clothed in white and surrounded by golden rays, to whom Ottilia said, "What do you want me to do, bright lady?"

               And the vision answered, "I was the mistress of this castle, who, for my pride and vanity, was condemned to dwell in my bare bones on the same spot where I had sinned by my extravagance in dress, and other wanton habits, until one should come, for the sake of whose thrifty, humble ways, and steadfast trust in God, I should be set free.

               "This you have accomplished, and now I can go to my rest; while, in gratitude, I endow you with this castle and all its lands and revenues."

               With that the bright form disappeared; and a moment afterwards Ottilia saw, through the window, a milk-white dove winging its upward flight towards heaven.

               So Ottilia became a rich countess, and mistress of the lordly castle which she had entered as a suppliant. But no sooner was she installed than she sent for the long Sennal; and, having besought her pardon for all the trouble she had given her, begged her to come up to the castle and be with her. So they lived very happily together for the rest of their lives.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Ottilia and the Death’s Head
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Household Stories from the Land of Hofer; or, Popular Myths of Tirol
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1871
Country of Origin: Austria & Italy
Classification: unclassified

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