THE PRUDENT COUNSELLOR.
ALOIS Zoschg was a peasant of the Sarnthal; his holding was inconsiderable, but it sufficed for all his needs; his cottage was small, but his family consisted of only himself and his daughter, and they found room for all their requirements.
Katharina was bright enough, however, to make any home happy. Though she shared the cottage with her father alone, she never seemed to feel the want of younger companions; thoughtful and prudent beyond her years, and thrifty and notable with all the work of the place, she was at the same time always ready with her joke and her song. It was no wonder that her father doated on her, and looked forward all through the day's toil to the evening spent in cheerful conversation with her.
There were thus the elements of a pleasant existence in Alois' lot, but there were two disturbing causes also. One was his own temper, which was violent and ungovernable at times, when he was seriously provoked. The other was the jealousy and animosity of a rich peasant neighbour, Andrä Margesin, the owner of a considerable Hof  situated at no great distance from Zoschg's cottage, auf der Putzen.
Circumstances had constantly brought the two neighbours into collision; the fault generally lay, in the first instance, on the side of the rich Andrä Margesin, who was grasping and overbearing, but Alois Zoschg once roused, would never let a quarrel rest, and his irritability and revengeful spirit were oftentimes enough to disturb the peace of the whole neighbourhood. No one could say where such quarrels might have ended, what crimes might perhaps have been the result, but for the wise interposition of Katharina, who knew how to soothe her father's ruffled spirit without ever exceeding the limits of filial respect, as well as how to conciliate the rich neighbour, without condescending to the use of any servile arts.
By her extraordinary good sense and good temper alone, she would, time after time, bring both the men back to sober reason from the highest reach of fury.
Once, however, they had a dispute which was beyond her competence to decide for them, for it involved a question of law. Andrä Margesin accused Alois Zoschg of an encroachment, while Alois Zoschg maintained he was justified in what he had done, by prescriptive right. The dispute raged high, but all Katharina could do in this case to restore peace, was to exact a promise from both parties that they would cease from all mutual recrimination, and carry the matter to be decided for them by the judge in Botzen.
When the day of hearing came on, the two disputants went up to Botzen to plead their cause; but each was so determined not to give way, and had so much to say in defence of his own position, and to the disparagement of his antagonist, that they carried their pleadings on for six days, and yet there seemed no chance of arriving at a decision which should be thoroughly justified by the evidence, so contradictory was it. At last, the judge, getting tired of the prolonged controversy, and finding it impossible to moderate the virulence of the combatants, told them that he could have no more wrangling, they had so confused the case with their statements and counter-statements, that it was impossible to say which of them was right, or, rather, which of them was least in the wrong; but he gave them one chance of obtaining a decision of the matter, and that was by accepting a test, which he would propound, of their ability and judgment, and whichever succeeded in that, he should pronounce was the one who was in the right in the original pleading.
The rivals looked somewhat disconcerted at this mode of procedure, but, as they found they could not get the affair decided on any other terms, they at last agreed to accept the proposal.
"You must tell me, then," said the judge, "by to-morrow morning at this hour, what is that which is the Strongest, the Richest, and the most Beautiful;" with these words he left the judgment-seat, and the two peasants were left standing opposite each other, looking very foolish, for they both thought that it would be impossible ever to answer such a question.
After a few moments' consideration, however, Andrä Margesin, who was a very vain man, bethought himself of an answer which, to his mind, seemed indisputably the right one. "To be sure! Of course! I wonder I didn't see it at once! There can be no doubt about it!" he exclaimed, aloud; and clapping his hands, and making other triumphant gesticulations, he stalked off homewards, telling all his friends that he had no doubt of the result.
But poor Alois Zoschg, the more he thought, the more puzzled he got, and the boasts of Andrä Margesin only made him more furious. There he stood, crying out against the judge, and against his ill-luck, against his poverty and the opulence of Margesin, till it became necessary to close the court, and his friends prevailed on him to go home. But all the way his passion grew more and more outrageous, and by the time he reached his cottage he was raging like a maniac; the other men could do nothing with him, and slunk away one by one, some in disgust, some in despair.
It was now Katharina's turn; and Katharina came out to meet him with her brightest smile and her filial greeting, just as if he had been in the best humour in the world.
But, for the first time, the sight of Katharina seemed rather to increase than allay his anger; for he found her dressed in all her festal attire--a proceeding which was quite out of character with his present disposition.
There was he, worn out with the long dispute, the weariness of the delayed decision, the provocation of his enemy's insulting mien, and still more, perhaps, by his own ill-humour; and there she stood, all smiles and bright colours, as for a joyful occasion--the white Stotzhaube  coquettishly set on her braided hair, the scarlet bodice tightly embracing her comely shape, with "follow-my-lads " streamers from her shoulder-knot, the bright red stockings showing under her short black skirt, and the blue apron over it, in place of the white apron of working days! Could any thing be more incongruous? was it not enough to increase his madness?
Nevertheless, Katharina's judgment so uniformly approved itself to his better reason, that, the first impulse passed, he gulped down the rising exclamation of annoyance until he had heard what Katharina had to say.
"Well, father, so you're all right! and I'm the first to congratulate you," she cried, and flung her arms round him with an embrace, of which, even in his present state of excitement, he could hardly resist the tenderness and effusion, and as if she did not perceive the traces of his ill-humour.
"'Right,' wench! what mean you? all wrong you should say."
"No, no, I mean it is all right; and it only remains for you to hear it pronounced by the judge to-morrow--and haven't I put on my gala suit to celebrate your success?"
"Success! speak! what mean you?" cried Alois, eagerly, his stormy vexation melting away before the sunbeam of her encouragement.
"Why, what has the judge told you to do, to decide the case?" asked Katharina, who had heard it all from a neighbour who came home hours before, while Alois was still standing perplexed in the court.
"That I should tell him by to-morrow morning," replied Alois, softened already by her consoling manner, "what it is which is the strongest, the richest, and the most beautiful--and how am I ever to guess all that? And what's more," he continued, relapsing into his former state of vexation, "that fellow Andrä Margesin has guessed it--guessed it already! and is gone off proclaiming his triumph!"
"No, father!" exclaimed Katharina, with a mocking laugh, all of fun, however, not of scorn; "you don't mean to say you believe that great bully Andrä Margesin could have guessed the right answer?"
"But he said so! he went off telling every one so," rejoined Alois, positively.
"Oh, you dear, good, simple father! do you really believe it is so because he boasts of it? Do rest easy; he's not got it."
"Well, but if he hasn't, I haven't either. How am I to guess such captious absurdities? Why couldn't the man judge the thing on its merits, instead of tormenting one to this extent?" and Alois was getting cross again.
"Why, it is the best chance in the world, you couldn't have been more favoured! As to Andrä, he'll never guess it. Now just think what answer you'll give."
"Oh, I should never guess any, if I thought till doomsday! But you"--and he started with the clever thought--"you, of course, who always find a way out of every thing--what do you say?"
"Why," answered Katharina, readily, "what is Stronger than the earth on which we stand, which bears up our houses and buildings, our rocks and mighty mountains, which all our united efforts could not suffice to move one inch from its place, and on which we all rest secure, confident that none is strong enough to displace it? What more Beauteous than spring, with its fresh, soft tints on sky and mountain, on alp  and mead, on blossom and flower--spring, with its promise and its hope? And what Richer than autumn, with its gifts which make us glad for all the year--its bursting ears of grain, its clustered grapes, its abundant olives and luscious fruits?"
"Katharina, girl, I believe you've found it!" said her father, with enthusiasm. "My bonny girl has saved me this time also!" and he clasped her in his arms. Though misgivings would come back when he recalled Andrä's assurance, he yet went to bed happy in the consciousness of at least having a good chance of not being beaten.
In the morning he was up betimes, and, having taken great pains to learn what he had to say from Katharina, who walked a good stretch of the way through the valley with him, he arrived at the court in tolerably good humour.
Andrä was there before him, and in high good humour too; taking for granted that, as the richer and more important man, and, moreover, as the victor (so he felt assured), he had the right to speak first. As soon as the judge had taken his seat, and even before he had called on him for his answer, he began,--
"Sir judge, I have the answer to your enigma; and as soon as I have told it, you will please give judgment in my favour. It was indeed easy enough to find, so I claim no merit in the discovery," he added, with the pride that apes humility. "The most Beautiful thing on earth is my wife, of course; the Strongest, are my oxen; and the Richest, am I."
The judge listened without moving a muscle of his countenance, as became a judge, and for those who were too obtuse to perceive the fine irony of the smile with which he bowed to the speaker at the conclusion of his harangue--and among these was certainly Andrä himself--it seemed as if he was quite satisfied with the answer. Nevertheless, he turned to Alois, and said,--
"Well, my man, and what is your answer?"
"But the judgment, good sir judge! would your honour be pleased to pronounce the sentence in my favour, seeing I have given your worship the answer?" interposed Andrä Margesin, fussily.
"Gently and fairly!" replied the judge; "wait only a little: we must hear what friend Alois has to say. He might have an answer, you know; and, anyhow, we must give him the opportunity."
Andrä chafed, but could not resist; and, at an encouraging word from the judge, Alois stood forward and repeated word for word the answer Katharina had taught him.
Though the judge had preserved his imperturbability through the expression of Andrä's silly bombast, this answer of Alois was too much for his composure. He had only proposed the enigma as the means of getting rid of a perplexing case. He had no idea but that both peasants would bring an answer of which he could easily expose the folly; and thus, neither having fulfilled the prescribed terms, the case would fall through of itself, and he be saved from further trouble. But he saw nothing to reply to Alois' solution of his question, nor any means of escaping from giving judgment in his favour. Every body acquiesced in the justice of the decision; and even Andrä himself had nothing to say, but, crestfallen, and in very different style from his confidence of the day before, he made his exit while people were yet engaged with the discussion of Alois' success, so as to avoid alike scorn and condolence.
The session over, the judge called Alois aside, and inquired how he had come to find so accurate an answer; upon which Alois, who burnt to proclaim the merit of his child, at once referred the honour to Katharina.
"That is it, is it?" replied the judge. "I have often seen the girl at church, and am not surprised that so comely a form is inhabited by so clever a mind. Now, go home, and tell your daughter that if she finds out the way to come to me without any clothes on, and yet not naked; not by day, and yet not by night; and by a way which shall be neither a high-road nor yet a by-path, I shall take the opportunity of her so coming to ask her to be my wife."
Alois lost no time in returning home to tell the good news to his daughter. "I suppose you'll find one of your clever ways of doing it, though, for myself, I confess I don't understand a word of it."
"But do you really mean that that good, noble, handsome judge really means to make his wife of a poor peasant girl like me?"
"He might do worse," answered her father, with archness and pride. "But there is no doubt he was in earnest. You should have seen the fire in his eye when he spoke!"
"In that case, you may depend I will find the way to fulfil his directions: trust me for that!"
Nor was she long in finding a way which satisfied the judge completely. She took off all her clothes, and then covered herself with fishing-nets; this for the first condition. Then, for the second, she timed her journey in the dusk of evening, which is neither called day nor night; and, for the third, she had previously had the road covered with boards, and upon these she walked, so that she neither trod the high-road nor yet a by-path.
Delighted at acquiring such a prize, and having so clever a maiden for his future companion through life, the judge married Katharina before the end of the month. There were great rejoicings at the wedding, to which all the country-side was invited; and then the poor peasant girl was installed in the judge's house. The judge, however, had exacted of her one condition, which was that she should never interfere with any of her clever suggestions in any case brought before him for decision, but let justice take its free and uninterrupted course.
Years passed by happily enough. The judge rejoiced more and more every day over the wisdom of his choice, and Katharina sedulously observed the condition imposed upon her, and never interfered with her husband's dealings in the court.
Nevertheless, it happened one day that a peasant whom she had known from her infancy had a case before the judge which was nearly as perplexed as that of her father had been, and, despairing of making his right apparent, the peasant came to Katharina, and begged her, by their lifelong friendship, to give him one of those good counsels for which she had been so famous at home in the days gone by.
Katharina urged her promise to her husband, and for a long time refused to break it; but the wily peasant contrived to work on her vanity so effectually, that at last, in an evil moment, she consented this once to give her advice, exacting first a promise he would never tell any one she had done so.
The case was this. Her friend's Senner  had been visited in the night by a Saligen Fraulein , who had promised to milk his cow for him, and every one knew that when a Saligen Fraulein milked a cow, it gave three times as much milk as the wont. But being a poor man, and having only one cow, he eked out his living by taking in cows to graze on his allotment; and he also only had one milking-pail. The Saligen Fraulein, therefore, when she had milked his pail full, had been obliged to take a pail belonging to the man to whom the other cows belonged, who was a rich man, and had a store of all sorts of utensils. But the milk being in one of his pails, his Senner swore that it had been milked from one of his cows, and refused to give it up, though he had no right to it whatever; and he had declined payment for the use of the pail.
Though the case had been argued since the first thing that morning, they were no nearer arriving at a decision. Now the disputants had been ordered to stand back while another case was called, but it would come on again immediately; and in the meantime the poor peasant entreated Katharina's counsel as his only chance of rescuing his milk before it turned sour.
"I see one means, I think, of bringing him to his senses," said Katharina, after she had yielded to her poor friend's importunity. "When your case is called on again, show as much indifference about the result as you have hitherto shown anxiety; then tell your adversary that during this interval, which you spent in the shade of the woods, a Saligen Fraulein had appeared to you and advised you not to use any of the milk the one who appeared to the Senner had milked for you, because she was a mischievous one, and the milk she milked was bewitched, so that all who drank of it, or of any milk mixed with it--were it only one drop of it--would be turned into asses. Then add, 'But of course, if your pailful is really the milk of your own cow, you have nothing to fear; so there's an end of the dispute.' Then he will probably be so frightened by the threat of this calamity that he will probably have nothing more to do with the pail; and that will suffice to prove that it is not the milk of his cow, and expose his deceit."
The peasant was so delighted with the wise counsel that he hardly knew how to thank his benefactress, and readily gave her the promise she required of not letting any one know he had even seen her.
He had scarcely got back to the court when the case was called on again. The peasant carried out the advice he had received with great shrewdness, and found it answer completely. Every body applauded the craft by which he had confounded his would-be oppressor, and the judge himself was very much pleased to see the end of such a troublesome case.
A few minutes' thought, however, suggested to him that there was more than a peasant's shrewdness in the matter, and he was not slow to discern the guiding of his wife in it; so he called the peasant apart, and had little difficulty in wringing from the simple clown a confession of who had been his prompter.
The discovery made the judge set off homeward in great anger. His wife had broken her promise--the fundamental condition of their union; and he would have nothing more to say to her! Out of his house she must go, whithersoever she would, but far away out of his sight.
Katharina, who had so often calmed her father's anger by her prudent reasoning, exerted herself to the utmost to bring her husband back to a better mind; but in vain. And all the concessions he would yield were, to consent that they should eat their last dinner together, and that she should take away with her one thing out of the house, whatever she had most fancy for. It was not much to obtain when required to part for ever from her home, and her hopes, and all to which she had grown united and attached--but it was all she could obtain.
Dinner-time came, and the judge, who was devotedly fond of his wife, seemed lost in sorrow at the calamity about to befall him; still he would not yield. Though she caressed him and entreated him to forgive her, he still said he could not depart from his word, and he would not allow her to speak of it. They sat down to their silent meal; and as the time of separation drew nearer he grew more sombre and sad, and at last determined to console himself with the red wine that sparkled by his side. Katharina encouraged him to drink, and as his bottle got exhausted deftly replaced it by a full one, so that he was quite unconscious of the depth of his potations.
Presently the steward came into the room ready to drive Katharina to whatever destination she should select, and, as he had heard it stipulated that she was to take with her whatever she liked best, proffered his services to assist in the removal--for she had won the respect and affection of all her dependants, and they delighted to be occupied for her.
Katharina rose to depart, thanked the man for his attention, and, in answer to his question as to the object she would take with her, pointed to her husband, who now lay helpless across his settle, his head drooping over the table.
The steward could scarcely believe his eyes, but Katharina had a way of giving orders which did not admit of being questioned. The first surprise over, too, it struck him as a capital device, and he entered heartily into the spirit of the scheme. With the help of a couple of serving-men the judge was deposited safely in the lumbering old carriage, and Katharina having taken her place beside him, they drove away by her direction over one of the worst and most uneven roads in the neighbourhood. The shaking of the vehicle presently awakened the sleeper, who was, of course, quite at a loss to conceive where he was, but, perceiving that he cut a rather silly figure, was ashamed to ask his wife, who sat by his side as if there was nothing amiss, and said nothing.
At last his curiosity got the better of his self-respect, and he begged her to tell him what all this trundling and shaking meant.
Katharina in a few words recalled to him his cruel decree, at the same time reminding him of his promise that she might take with her what she liked best, and, throwing her arms round him, asked him if there could be any doubt as to what that could be.
The judge perceived that his wife had once more shown her sense and judgment, and was not sorry to find she had contrived this opportunity of making up their difference. On renewing her petition for forgiveness, he frankly gave her his pardon; and they drove back home to live together in love and union to the end of their days.