ONE day a poor woman of Lengenfeld, in the Oetz valley in the Tyrol, went up the mountains to meet her husband, who was guarding a flock of goats there. On her way she passed by a chapel into which she entered, and while she was praying a Lämmer vulture swooped down and carried off in his claws her little son, who was amusing himself outside on the moss. But Heaven ordained that the vulture should settle with his prey on a peak which was quite close to the goat-herd, who frightened him off with stones, and so, without knowing it, he became the preserver of his own child, whom he had not seen since the spring. Now it happened that three good fairies who resided in the neighbourhood of the Oetz-Thal, beneath an enormous mountain peak called the Morin, had been invisibly active in the saving of the goat-herd’s boy.
The boy grew up and always bore in his mind an attraction to the highest peaks of the mountains; he became a hardy Alpine climber and clever mountain shot, and as such a secret impulse ever pushed him to the heights above Morin, for there--so said the legend--was the Paradise of animals; there were herds of gazelles and stone-bucks, and no huntsman had ever succeeded in approaching them. But the fool-hardy boy wished to try his luck, and commenced his wanderings, which ended by his getting lost, and being in danger of his life. One day he didn’t know where he was, and from the ice-covered peak which reaches into the clouds over ten thousand feet high, he slipped down upon a green Alp which he had been unable to see from above, and in that fall he lost his senses.
As he came again to himself he was lying on a beautiful bed in the crystal cave of the three fairies, who had saved him for the second time. They stood round him shining with heavenly benevolence, and love, and their look awakened in him the sweetest sensations. He remained now a well-cared-for guest of the fairies, was allowed to look at their beautiful abode, their gardens, and their pets; he was told that his amiable hostesses were the protecting genii of all Alpine animals, and they made him promise never to kill or to hurt one of those innocent creatures,--no gazelle, no Alpine hare, no snow-hen, not even a weasel. He was allowed to remain with them three days, and had permission to worship and adore them. But then he was obliged to promise three things faithfully and on his soul’s salvation, if ever he wanted to return to them, or, in case he never cared to do so, if ever he wished to live happily down in the valley. Firstly, he was bound to observe a silence as deep as the grave that he had ever seen the three fairies or been in their presence; secondly, they made him swear the promise which he had already given, never to do any harm to any Alpine animal; and thirdly, never to let human eye see the way which they were going to show him, and through which he might be the more easily able to return to their abode. A fourth promise they left to his honour, without binding him down by oath or vow, and that was to preserve the love which he had shown to them, and never to have anything to do in any way with any other girl. Then, after a tender parting, the son of the Alps was taken into a steep mountain gully which led down to the valley of the rushing Achen, which tears along under bowers of Alpine rose-bushes. After these injunctions, the fairies told him that on every full-moon night he was allowed to pay them a visit of three days’ duration, and that he had only to enter through that gully, and give below a certain sign with which they acquainted him.
The boy returned home completely altered; it seemed as though he was dreaming, and soon enough from every one he gained the name of the ‘dreamer;’ for henceforth he never took an Alpine stock in his hand, never went hunting, and never to a village dance, but every full-moon night he stole quietly to the chasm in the rock, deep beneath the Morin, entered into the interior of the mountain, and was for three days happy with the fairies, to whose wondrous songs he listened entranced. At home his form shrank, he became pale and emaciated, and it was in vain that his parents and friends pressed him to tell what was the matter with him. “Nothing at all,” he always answered to these questions; “I am as happy as I can be.”
As his father and mother had become aware of his secret strolls on the full-moon nights, they followed him once quietly, and close at the entrance of the chasm his ear was struck by his mother’s voice, who called his name, and at the same moment the rocks shut together before his eyes, and the mountains crashed down with the noise of thunder, so that rocks fell down upon rocks. The poor boy’s happiness was gone for ever. Troubled and abstracted, he returned to his native village; he cared neither for his mother’s tears nor his father’s reproaches, and remained apathetic and indifferent to everything; and so he faded away until autumn arrived, until the herds were driven down into the winter stables of the village, and the beautiful summer life of the mountain world died and was covered with snow.
Then one day two friends of the goat-herd arrived, and talked of a hunting excursion which they intended to make on the top of the Morin; and then for the first time again the eyes of the pale young Alpine hunter became bright, the irresistible love of hunting awakened again in him,--perhaps, too, there was some greater attraction. He longed to penetrate once more into the dominion of the fairies be it even at the risk of his life. As to life, he no longer valued it, and death was a liberation.
The infatuated youth prepared his hunting things, borrowed an Alpine stock, for his own had been left behind broken in his fall from the peak of the Morin, and then he joined the hunting excursion which started in early morning. First he walked with them, then he hurried before higher and higher, as though he was attracted by the most irresistible power. His heart grew light as he ascended, for too long the heavy air of the narrow valley had oppressed him. He climbed as quickly as though he had eaten arsenic, that fearful poison which many an Alpine climber takes in the smallest quantities to make himself lighter, and at last he caught sight of a sentry gazelle, which whistled and disappeared behind the peak upon which it had been standing. The young Alpine hunter climbed to the top of the peak, from whence he saw down below him a little green spot, upon which were browsing, though far beyond his reach, a large herd of gazelles. Only one of them came within range, and this one he pursued pitilessly, until the poor animal in her anxiety and terror was unable to proceed further, and stopped on the edge of a precipice, which the huntsman in his excitement had never noticed. He levelled his rifle--the plaintive cry of a female voice resounded in his ears, but he paid no heed to it,--he took deadly aim and fired. Lo! at that moment he was surrounded by a halo of brightness, and in the midst of that brilliant light stood the gazelle unhurt, and before her floated the three fairies in dazzling splendour, but with severe and angry countenances. They approached him, but on seeing their faces without one smile or look of love upon them, the boy was seized with a deep horror. He staggered,--one step more, and backwards he fell down the precipice a thousand feet deep; and from the edge, where in falling his feet had stood, pieces of stone rolled down, and a tremendous wall of rock tore down after him with a fearful roar, and buried him for ever beneath its débris.
There still stands the rock, which is pointed out, even to this day as ‘The Huntsman’s Grave.’