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

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How the Poorest Became the Richest


THERE was once a poor peasant, named Taland, who lived in a poor cottage in the Walserthal, a valley of Vorarlberg. He was as poor in wits as in fortune, so that he was continually making himself the laughing-stock of his neighbours; yet, as he possessed a certain sort of cunning, which fortune was pleased to favour, he got on better in the long run than many a wiser man.

               Plodding along steadily, and living frugally, Taland, in process of time, laid by enough money to buy a cow; and a cow he bought without even stopping to consider that he had no means of pasturing it.

               The cow, however, provided for that by her own instinct; there were plenty of good pastures in the neighbourhood, and the cow was not slow to discover them. Wherever the grass was freshest and sweetest, thither she wandered, and by this token Taland had no difficulty in finding her out at milking time; and in the whole country round there was no sleeker or better-favoured animal.

               But the neighbours at whose expense she fed so well in course of time grew angry; and finding remonstrance vain, they met together and determined to kill the cow; and, that none might have to bear the blame of killing her more than another, every one of them stuck his knife into her. By this means, not only was poor Taland's cow destroyed, but even the hide was riddled with holes, and so rendered useless.

               Nevertheless, Taland skinned his cow, and plodded away with the hide to the nearest tanner, as if he had not the sense to be conscious that it was spoilt. The tanner was not at home, but his wife was able to decide without him, that there was no business to be done with such goods, and she sent him away with a mocking laugh, bidding him remember she dealt in hides, and not in sieves.

               Taland, however, had come a long way, and having no money to buy food, he begged so piteously for a morsel of refreshment, that the good wife could not refuse, and having spread a table before him with good cheer, went on about her business.

               Taland, delighted with the spread, determined to do justice to it; and as he sat and ate he saw the tanner's son, an urchin full of tricks, hide himself, while his mother's back was turned, in an old corn-bin which stood before the door. He went on eating and drinking, and watching the corn-bin, and still the boy never came out, till at last, he rightly judged, he had fallen asleep. Meantime, having finished his meal, he turned to take leave of the tanner's wife; and then, as he went away, he said, quite cursorily, "If you have no use for that old corn-bin yonder--it's just the thing I want--you may as well give it to me, and you won't have sent me away empty-handed."

               "What! you want that lumbering, rotten old corn-bin?" cried the tanner's wife; and she laughed more heartily than even at the riddled cow-hide. "And you would carry it all the way home on your shoulders?"

               The peasant nodded a stupid assent, without speaking.

               "Then take it, pray, and be welcome; for I just wanted to get rid of the unsightly old rubbish!"

               Taland thanked her, and loaded the chest on his shoulder, but carefully, lest he should wake the child too soon. And carefully he continued to walk along with it till the tan-yard was left far, far out of sight. Then he stopped short, and, setting the corn-bin down with a jerk calculated to wake its inmate, he holloaed out,--

               "I be going to fling the old corn-bin down the precipice!"

               "Stop, stop! I'm inside!" cried the child, but with a tone of conviction that he had only to ask, to be let out. This was not Taland's game, who wanted to give him a thorough frightening; so he shouted again, taking no heed of the child's voice,--

               "I be going to fling the old corn-bin down the precipice!"

               "Stop! stop! I tell you; I'm inside it!" repeated the boy, in a louder tone, thinking he had not made himself heard before.

               "Who be you? and what be you to me?" replied Taland, in a stupid tone of indifference. "I be going to chuck the old corn-bin down the precipice."

               "Oh, stop! for heaven's sake, stop!" screamed the now really affrighted child; "stop, and spare me! Only let me out, and mother will give you ever such a heap of gold!"

               "It's a long way back to 'mother,'" replied the peasant, churlishly. "I'd much rather chuck the old thing over, and have done with it. You're not worth enough to repay the trouble."

               "Oh, but I am though!" answered the boy, in a positive tone. "There's nothing mother wouldn't give to save my life, I know!"

               "What would she give, d'you think? Would she give five hundred thalers, now?"

               "Ay, that she would!"

               "Well, it's a longsome way; but if you promise I shall have five hundred thalers, I don't mind if I oblige you."

               "You shall have them, safe enough, never fear!"

               On this promise, Taland took the boy home, and made up a story of his surprise at finding him at the bottom of the old chest, and how hardly he had saved his life. The mother, overjoyed at the idea of her son being restored to her under such circumstances, readily counted out the five hundred thalers, and sent Taland home a richer man than when his fortune consisted of a cow.

               Elated with his good fortune, our hero determined to have a bit of fun with his spiteful neighbours, and accordingly sat himself down in an arbour, where there was a large round table, in front of the Wirthshaus, and spreading his heap of gold before him, amused himself with counting it out. Of course the sight attracted all the peasants of the place, who were just gathering for a gossip on their way home from work.

               "And where did you get such a heap of gold from?" asked a dozen excited voices at once.

               "From the sale of the cow-hide, to be sure," replied Taland, in an inanimate voice.

               "What! the cow-hide all riddled with holes?" vociferated his interlocutors, in a chorus of ridicule.

               "To be sure; that's just what made it so valuable," persisted Taland, confidently.

               "What! the tanner gives more for a hide all full of holes than for a sound one?"

               "What's the use of asking so many silly questions?" returned the imperturbable peasant "Do you see the money? and should I have got such a sum for an ordinary cow-hide? If you can answer these two questions of mine, you can answer your own for yourselves;" and gathering up his gold, he walked away with a stolid look which defied further interrogations.

               The village wiseacres were all struck with the same idea. If riddled cowhides fetched five hundred thalers apiece, the best way to make a fortune was to kill all the cows in the commune, pierce their skins all over with holes, and carry them to the tanner. Every one went home to calculate what he would make by the venture; and the morning was all too long coming, so eager were they to put their plan into execution.

               Taland, having now plenty of money, had nothing to do next day but to dress himself in his feast-day clothes and play at dominoes in the Bier-garten; but though this was a favourite enjoyment, far sweeter was that of observing the running hither and thither of his spiteful, mocking neighbours, slaughtering their sleek kine--the provision of their future lives--skinning them, and destroying the very skins out of which some small compensation might have been earned.

               Taland hardly knew how to contain his inclination to laugh, as he saw them caught in his trap so coarsely baited; and the good landlord, as he saw the irrepressible giggle again and again convulse his stupid features, thought that the gain of the five hundred thalers had fairly turned his weak head.

               The peasants had gone off to the tan-yard with their riddled cow-hides, merrily shouting and boasting; and Taland sat at home, drinking and laughing. But it was a different story by-and-by. There was a sound like the roar of a wild beast, which stopped even Taland's inclination to laugh, and made him shrink in his chair. It was the lament of the long file of peasants returning from the tan-yard from their bootless errand, filling the air as they went along with yells of fury at their ruin, and imprecations and threats of vengeance on him who had led them into the snare.

               Taland had meant to have had his laugh over their discomfiture, but finding them in this mood, he thought his wisest course was to keep out of their sight, lest they should take summary vengeance on him. So he found a corner to hide himself in; and he thus overheard their debate on the means of punishing their deceiver.

               "He's such shifts for getting out of every thing, that one doesn't know where to have him," said the noisiest speaker; and the rest re-echoed the sentiment.

               "Ay; it'll never do to let him get scent of what we're up to!"

               "But how to avoid it?"

               "Take him asleep."

               "Ay; take him when he's asleep; that's the way!"

               "Go up the stairs and rattle at his window, and when he comes out, knock him on the head!"

               "And every one have a go at him, as we did at his cow."

               "That's the plan!"

               "And the sooner the better."

               "This very night, before we go to bed!"

               "To be sure; we won't sleep tamely upon such an affront."

               "No; we'll make an end of it, that we will!"

               "And it's time we did."

               "Another day would be unbearable!"

               "Another hour is bad enough; but we must keep quiet till he's well asleep."

               "Yes; there's nothing to be done till midnight."

               "We'll meet again at midnight, then."

               "All right; we shall all be there!"

               "Good-bye, then, till midnight!"

               "Good-bye, till midnight; good-bye!"

               They all spoke at once, and the whole dark plan was concocted in a few minutes; then they dispersed to their homes with resolute steps.

               Taland listened to the sound with beating heart, and as soon as silence once more prevailed, he stole stealthily homewards.

               His wife was sitting over her spinning-wheel.

               "I've caught a cold wearing these holiday clothes out of their turn," said Taland; "will you do me the favour to sleep in the window-sill, and keep that flapping shutter close, good wife?"

               "With all my heart," responded the compliant spouse; and thus disposed, they went to rest.

               At midnight the villagers came, faithful to their appointment, in a strong body, and mounted the stairs [2] as quietly as might be. The foremost pushed open the shutter, and exclaimed, "Why, here's the old idiot lying ready for us, across the window-sill!"

               "Then we're spared the trouble of hunting for him," exclaimed the next.

               "So here goes!" cried all together; and they showered their blows on the devoted body of the old wife, while Taland, comfortably enveloped in his coverlet, once more laughed at the success of his deceit, and the discomfiture of his foes.

               Towards morning he rose, and taking up the dead body, placed it in a chair, and bore it along, together with the old spinning-wheel, a good distance down the high road; and there he left it, while he sat behind a bush to see what would happen.

               Presently a fine lord came along the road driving a noble chariot.

               "Holloa, good woman! get out of the way!" shouted the lord, while yet at a considerable distance; for he thought the old woman was silly, spinning in the roadway. But the corpse moved not for his shouting.

               "Holloa! holloa, I say! you'll be killed! move, can't you?" he cried, thinking she was deaf, and hadn't heard his first appeal. But still the corpse moved not.

               "Get out of the way! get out of the road! can't you?" at last fairly screamed the lord; for, never dreaming but that the woman would move in time, he had not reined in his fiery steeds--and now it was all too late! On one side went the old lady in the chair, and on the other side the fragments of the spinning-wheel, while the chariot dashed wildly on between them.

               "What have I done?" said the lord, alighting from his chariot as soon as he could stop, and looking round him in wild despair.

               "Why, you've run over and killed my old mother! that's what you've done!" said Taland, emerging from his hiding-place. "And now you must come with me before the judge."

               "Really, I meant no harm," pleaded the good lord; "I called to her to get out of the way, and I couldn't help it if she was deaf. But I'll make you what compensation you like. What do you say to accepting my chariot full of gold, and the horses and all, to drive home with?"

               "Why, if you say you couldn't help it, I suppose you couldn't," replied Taland. "I don't want to hurt you; and since you offer fair terms, I'm willing to accept your chariot full of gold, and the horses to drive it home. I'll square the account to your satisfaction."

               So the lord took him home to his castle and filled up the chariot with gold, and put the reins in his hands, and sent him home richer and merrier than if the neighbours had never attempted his life.

               When these same envious neighbours, however, saw him coming home in the chariot full of gold, driving the prancing horses quite gravitêtisch [3], they knew not what to make of it. And that, too, just as they were congratulating themselves that they had made an end of him!

               "It must be his ghost!" they cried. There was no other way of accounting for the reappearance. But as he drove nearer, there was no denying that it was his very self in flesh and blood!

               "Where do you come from? where did you get all that heap of money from? and what story are you going to palm off on us this time?" were questions which were showered down on him like hail.

               Taland knew how easily they let themselves be ensnared, and that the real story would do as well this time as any he could make up, so he told them exactly what had happened, and then whipped his horses into a canter which dispersed them right and left, while he drove home as gravitêtisch as before.

               Nor was he wrong in expecting his bait to take. With one accord the peasants all went home and killed their wives, and set them, with their spinningwheels before them, all along the road. Of course, however, no lucky chance occurred such as Taland's--no file of noblemen driving lordly chariots, and silly enough to mistake the dead for the living, came by; and while Taland was rich enough to marry the best woman in the place, they had all to bury their wives and live alone in their desolated homes.

               To have been so tricked was indeed enough to raise their ire; and the only consolation amid their gloom was to meet and concoct some plan for taking signal and final vengeance. This was at last found. They were to seize him by night, as before; but this time they were not to beat him to death in the dark, but keep him bound till daylight, and make sure of their man, then bind him in a sack and throw him over the precipice of the Hoch Gerach.

               As Taland was not by to overhear and provide against the arrangement, it was carried out to the letter this time; and all tied in a sack the struggling victim was borne along in triumph towards the Hoch Gerach. They had already passed the village of St. Gerold, and the fatal gorge forced through the wall of living rock by the incessant world-old wear of rushing torrents was nearly reached. Taland, paralyzed with fear and exhaustion, had desisted from his contortions for very weariness.

               The Häusergruppe [4] of Felsenau, standing like a sentinel on guard of the narrow hollow, had yet to be passed. It was near midday, and the toil of the ascent had been great. Not one of the party objected to take a snatch of rest and a sip of brandy to give them courage to complete the deed in hand.

               While they sat drinking in the shade of the cottage which stood Felsenau in lieu of a Wirthshaus, Taland was left lying on a grassy bank in the sun. About the same time a goatherd, driving his flock into Bludenz to be milked, came by that way, and seeing the strangely-shaped sack with something moving inside, arrested his steps to examine into the affair. Taland, finding some one meddling with the mouth of the sack, holloaed out,--

               "List'ee! I'll have nothing to do with the princess!"

               "What princess?" inquired the goatherd.

               "Why, the princess I was to marry. B'aint you the king?"

               "What king?" again asked the goatherd, more and more puzzled.

               "I can't talk while I'm stifled in here," replied Taland. "Let me out, and I'll tell you all about it."

               The curious goatherd released the captive from the bag, and he told his tale as follows. "The king has got a beautiful daughter--so beautiful that such a number of suitors come after her she cannot decide between them all. At last the king got tired, and said he would decide for her; and this morning he proclaimed that whoever could bear being carried about for seven hours in this sack should have her, be he peasant or prince. So I thought I might try my luck at it as well as another; and those chaps you hear talking in the little house yonder have been carrying me about for three hours, but I can't stand more of it, and away I go;" and he looked up anxiously to see if the bait had taken; for he wanted the other to propose to get into the sack, as, if he had walked away and left it empty, he knew the villagers would pursue and overtake him. Nor was he mistaken in his calculation.

               "It doesn't seem so hard to bear," said the goatherd, after some moments' consideration.

               "Would you like to try?" inquired Taland, anxiously; "it won't be so bad for you, as, if you get in now, the men won't perceive we have changed places, and you'll get the benefit of three hours for nothing."

               "You're really very kind!" responded the goatherd, drawing the sack over him; "I don't know how to thank you enough. I'm sure I can stand four hours easily enough, for the sake of being reckoned a king's son at the end. I shan't want the goats, however, when I'm married to a princess, so pray take them at a gift--only make fast the cords of the sack so that the men may not perceive that it has been meddled with."

               Taland tied up the sack exactly as it had been before, and drove home the flock of goats.

               He was scarcely out of sight when the men, now well rested, came out, and having taken up the sack again, carried it up the Hoch Gerach; and just as the unhappy goatherd within fancied he was reaching the top of some high terrace leading to the royal palace, bang, bang from rock to rock he found himself dashed by the relentless villagers!

               Confident that the job was now effectually completed, they trooped home full of rejoicing over their feat.

               The first thing that met their eye, however, was Taland seated before his door, just as if nothing had happened, milking the goats which browsed around him, making a goodly show.

               Too much awed at the sight to rush at and seize him, they once more asked him to give explanation of his unlooked-for return, and of how he became possessed of such a fine herd of goats.

               "Nothing easier!" replied Taland, gravitêtisch. "Where shall I begin?"

               "From where you were thrown over the mountain-side."

               "All right!" pursued Taland. "Well, then, as you may suppose, I struggled hard to get out of the sack, but it was too tough, and I could do nothing with it at first; but, by-and-by, from knocking against the jutting rocks again and again, it got a rent, and this rent I was able to tear open wide, so that by the time I got to the bottom there was a big hole, big enough to get out by. And where do you think I found myself when I got out? In the enchanted regions of the underground world, where the sky is tenfold as blue as it is here, and the meadows tenfold as green! It was so beautiful to look at that I gladly wandered on a little space. Presently I found a way that led up home again; but I had no mind to come away from the beautiful country till I saw, climbing the rocks by the side of the path, numbers of goats, much finer than any goats we ever see in these parts."

               "So they are! so they are!" chimed in the gullible multitude.

               "Then I thought it would be fine to bring a flock of such fine goats home--and, after all, it was easy to go back again when I wanted to see that deep blue sky and those rich pastures again; so home I came. Here am I, and here are the goats; and if you don't believe I got them there, you can go and fetch some thence and compare them."

               "But shall we really find such goats if we go?" eagerly inquired the credulous villagers.

               "To be sure you will--and sheep, and oxen, and cows too, without number."

               "Cows too! Oh, let's come and supply ourselves, and make good our losses! But first show the way you came up by."

               "Oh, it's a long, steep, weary way, and would take you two days to get down! Much the nearest way is to jump down the side of the Hoch Gerach."

               "But are you sure we shan't hurt ourselves? Didn't you get hurt at all?"

               "Not a bit. Feel me; I'm quite sound."

               "To be sure, you couldn't hurt falling on to such soft, beautiful meadows!" they replied; and off they set, only eager which should reach the Hoch Gerach first, and which should be the first to make the bold spring, and which should have the first pick and choice of the fair flocks and herds in the enchanted world underground!

               Slap! bang! plump! they all went over the side of the Hoch Gerach, one after the other, never to return! And Taland thus alone remained to inherit the houses and goods of the whole village, all for himself--and, from being the poorest of all, became possessed of the riches of all.


From Vorarlberg.


[1] It has been my aim generally, in making this collection, to give the preference to those stories which have a moral point to recommend them; my readers will not, perhaps, take it amiss, however, if I present them with this specimen of a class in which this is wanting, and which aims only at amusement. It is, moreover, interesting from the strong evidence it bears of extremely remote origin; for the light way in which putting people to death, deception, and selfishness are spoken of prove it has a pre-Christian source, while the unimportant accessories show how details get modified by transmission.

[2] It must be understood that it is an outside staircase that is here alluded to, and the shutter of an unglazed window on its landing serving for a door also.

[3] In a lordly manner.

[4] A cluster of houses too small to be designated a village.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: How the Poorest Became the Richest
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
Classification: unclassified

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