The Passeier-Thal was in ancient times often involved in the wrangles between its rulers and those of Bavaria. The success was as often on one side as the other.
Klein-Else was the daughter of a bold baron whose castle was one of the outposts of the valley. Only by leaguing himself with his neighbours he was enabled to drive back the frequent inroads of a turbulent knight who had established himself on the other side of the old frontier. The Passeier-Thal baron kept up a watchful look-out, but the knight on the other side of the frontier was much better provided with men and means, and at last outwitted the baron's scattered handful of look-out men, laid waste everything before him and marched upon the castle itself.
The baron and his men rode out of the castle and fought as best they could, but the enemies were too many. The baron was brought back to the castle a few hours later, mortally wounded.
Klein-Else bent over her father and tried without much success to bandage his deep wounds.
"Stop that, daughter," said the baron. "My life is soon over now. But listen - you can escape falling into the enemy's hands if you hurry. Take this key – it opens a secret gate. Count the tenth prop in the wall and where the ivy grows thickest, there, behind it, feel for the lock and open it. Then creep beneath. Once on the other side, replace the branches, so 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 hidden 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 instead. It winds round the mountain. Though it is open and exposed to view, do not fear, for it leads to – to – – "
At this point his voice failed, so she could no more make out what he said.
Her father had been Klein-Else's guide and guardian. She wept over him..
The chaplain came and raised her up and they carried the body to the sanctuary. Suddenly they heard wild cries. The enemy had come.
She clasped the key her father had given her, changed her embroidered garments for peasant clothes, and crept along under the wall, counting ten buttresses. After the tenth, she put her hand through the thick ivy and felt the iron bosses of the lock. It took all her strength to turn the key; but she did it just in time. The rough soldiers were close behind.
There lay the three paths: "I may go a little way along the open path that I was told to take." She crept along close to the mountain-side. The sun was nearly sinking behind the heights on the other side of the valley. Soon the invaders would not be able to see her.
And yet, with the dark she felt alone and abandoned, and did not dare to climb further. She leant against the rock for support and wept for a while.
The hard rock moved aside, and a knight in armour stood in front of her there. He asked politely, "Girl, why cry?"
"It is because my father is dead and his enemies have taken his castle and I have no shelter and nothing to eat!" sobbed Klein-Else.
"I see," said the knight. With that he turned to the rock and said:
"Open, old rock!"
The old rock opened and disclosed a treasure, There were jewels and coin and shining armours 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, old rock!' and these treasures will always appear at your bidding. Use them as you like; only make a good use of them, for your future happiness depends on that. I will come and see you again in seven years and see what use you have made of my gift. There is a condition. You must remember my name, or woe will be to you." So he whispered his name in her ear and disappeared.
Klein-Else only took a few pieces of money – enough to pay for food and lodging. The rock closed by itself after she had come out. She took a note of the spot, so that she might know it again. Repeating the name of the knight to herself, so that she might never forget it, she went along towards some lights she saw. She hoped they were lights of a village, but they were the lights of a great castle. There her money would be of no use. So she put by her money again, and, asked the castle-owner's servants to hire her..
"What can a little, dirty, ragged girl like you do?" said the cook. He 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 tell me to," answered Klein-Else, timidly.
"A proper answer," answered 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 foxes come and if one smallest chicken is lost, you will be sent away. Here is a piece of dry bread for your supper. Now go and don't stand idling about."
Klein-Else 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 had to keep her eye on the brood all day. 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, so that she might be sure not to forget it.
She mused, "The knight said my happiness depended on the use I made of that treasure in the rock, but here I can make no use of it as a Hennenpfösl!"
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.
Sunday came and the glad church bells rang merrily. The servants of the castle put on their best clothes to go to church, all but Klein-Else. She had only poor rags and were left by the others.
She said to herself; "If I hurry I could get some of the pretty clothes that hang in my treasury, dress up and go to church." So she washed herself in the mountain-srreanand braided her dishevelled hair in massive braids and crept round to the rock and bid it open, saying:
"Open, old rock!"
Among all the treasures she chose a lovely dress, put it on and hastened to the church.
The church was crowded right out into the porch. But when the people saw Klein-Else coming, they took her for a lady and made way for her. Now the only part of the church where there was any room was at the young lord's bench. He 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 sit down, had thus to come and sit down by him.
The young lord liked the look of her. At every pause in the service he could do nothing but look at her. As soon as the service was over, however, Klein-Else glided out softly and hastened back to the rock, hung the dress up again; and once more put on her rags, and at last hid herself in the poultry-loft.
All the next week she felt sure the young lord had looked at her and admired her. He had what it took to defend her treasure. With him beside her she could make good use of it.
The next Sunday came; and when the others had left for church, Klein-Else washed and ran to her rock, took out of her store this time one more lovely dress, arranged her hair in tresses and hastened to the church. Once more it was full already, and once again she sat down beside the baron. Else had been thinking of him, and he had bee thinking still more of her. After the services the baron's men tried to stop her so that the lord might talk with her, but she fled and got to the rock and got inside. The men lost the trace. Then, putting on her poor rags again, she returned silently to her poultry-loft.
Next Sunday she chose a blue dress and was again placed beside the young lord - he was a baron. At the end of the service she rose to leave. He quickly sezed her hand and put a gold ring on her finger. Nevertheless, Klein-Else slipped out through the middle of the assembly, and though the lord's serving-men had been ordered to follow her, she escaped.
The young lord sat alone in his castle for a fortnight afterwards. Daily he grew paler and gloomier with longing, and none could help him. At last his aunt came and begged him to give a great banquet. Everyone from far and near should be invited. The lord agreed, for he imagined that when he invited the whole country, the beautiful girl that he longed so desperately for, would come too. He told his aunt to have the invitations publicly announced all over his country.
When the day of the banquet came, there was a running here and there in his castle. Guests swarmed in the halls and servants in the kitchen. 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.
The cook cried, "These pancakes are the only thing the baron will eat, but I cannot turn one of them tonight! Oh, dear! what shall I do?"
"May I have a try?" asked Klein-Else
"I have turned pancakes in this castle for three and thirty years, and tonight I fail. What is the world coming to? Get out of my kitchen and out of the poultry-house too!" The cook threw herself down in a chair, wrapt her face in her apron and wept like a child.
Meantime Klein-Else cleaned the frying-pan, poured fresh oil into it and held it over the stove till it was hot. While the oil spluttered cheerily, she poured in the batter, gliding into it the ring that the lord had put on her hand at church. Along with it she put a diamond ring from her rock treasury.
The batter rose in the pan and got a bright, golden hue.
The cook was greatly relieved when she lifted her head and smelt and saw what the girl had done, and sent the dish at once to the lord's table, while Klein-Else sat down in an out-of-the-way corner to hear what would happen.
She did not have to wait long. After ten minutes the baron's body-servant came into the kitchen and told the lord wanted to speak with the cook. Trembling and afraid she rose to follow his messenger. Now she noticed Klein-Else was watching it all, and as the cook passed along, she called out to her, "You have got me into this! You will pay for it!" and so on. She slowly dragged herself along, determined to let the lord know who had made his pancake.
To her great surprise, however, the lord looked as merry as before.
"Cook," he said, "did you make this fine pancake?"
The cook wanted to take the credit. "No one but myself, I dare say!"
At that the baron began to look gloomy and disappointed once more, but he roused himself with a flash of hope in his voice.
"Did someone help you to make it?"
The cook said, "There is no need for more than one to make a pancake!" She tried to talk as if she felt hurt.
The lord asked again, "These rings, how did they get into the pancake, if you made it?"
"Those rings? I have never seen them before," stammered the cook, a little confused.
The body-servant stepped in, saying, "Now, what did you mutter as you passed the poulty-girl on the way here - that it was all her fault and you would make her suffer for it?"
The lord called out, "Woman, beware and speak the truth this time!"
The cook confessed it, "Who would have thought such a fuss would come of turning a pancake! - Yes, the poultry-girl held the frying-pan while it was on the stove."
The lord told his body-servant, "Let the poultry-girl be brought to me at once so that she can tell of it too." He waited impatiently for her to come.
In the meantime, Klein-Else had walked to her treasury in the rock and put on a dress that made her look good, and a procession soon came out of the cave in the rock to follow her.
The lord's aunt was at the head of the hall and gave directions as to where the guests were to be placed at the tables. And then came Klein-Else. She made her way with modest, yet noble carriage towards the young lord. He recognised her and led her up to the seat next his own at the banquet.
His aunt looked on a little perplexed, then collected herself and asked Klein-Else who she was.
"I am a poor poulty-girl. Your nephew has done me the honour to summon me. I hope you will not think I disgrace his command," answered Klein-Else.
"A poultry-girl" repeated the countess, "There must be some mistake – some – – "
"Well, some mystery," said her nephew; "but I have decided I will lay myself and my fortune at her feet!"
"Then, what is your name?" urged the countess. Klein-Else turned to her chamberlain 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, "but did he leave his daughter riches enough to be wed to my nephew?"
"Aunt!" exclaimed the young lord, but then Klein-Else's chamberlain made a sign to the attendants who were behind. They came up, two and two, each pair bearing a casked fill with gold crowns. "A thousand such caskets is part of the dowry of the baron's daughter, and she has priceless jewels in vast numbers too."
The countess was speechless. The young baron and Klein-Else were then left to talk with one another without being distorbed any more, and they were not slow in confessing they loved one another.
The lord proclaimed to all the guests, "My friends! I present you the fair lady who has agreed to to become my bride!"
The baron invited them all to stay with him ten days to celebrate the wedding. And for ten days they made merry. When at last the guests returned home, everyone carried back to his own neighbourhood the tale of the beauty, riches and grace of Klein-Else. Even the lord's aunt said that her nephew could not have made a better choice.
Before the guests left the celebrations, the lord invited them all to come back every year on the anniversary. On the second anniversary the couple had got a son, and the next year there was a little daughter too. Later, others were added too.
Years passed by. One day the happy family sat together under a shady grove. The children were playing around the parents.
"How the time has sped, Klein-Else!" whispered the lord. "To think it is seven years since we met!"
Klein-Else responded, "Yes, dear." Then he saw she was pale and trembling.
"But what is the matter, Elschen? Elschen dear! Speak to me, Elschen!" he added, for she sank back almost unconscious against the bank.
"I don't feel quite well," stammered Klein-Elsa.
An attendant took the babe from her arms. The lord led her to the side of a stream nearby and bathed her burning forehead in the cooling flood.
Suddenly their servants made way for a strange knight who wanted to see the baroness.
"Wants to see my wife, you say?" answered the lord and darted off to meet him. Now Klein-Else was left alone by the side of the stream where she had first washed and dressed herself to meet her dear husband. A few thoughts came to her: filled with her own gratification, she had left the orphans in their bereavements, the suffering in their miseries, and had not stretched out a helping hand.
The seven years were spent. She had forgotten to do good with what she had got, and had even forgotten the knight's name, even though he had said, "Woe be to you, if you have forgotten that name!"
But she had forgotten it. Suddenly the knight stood before her. As she saw him she screamed and swooned away.
But he touched her and bade her get up on her feet, and then beckoned her to follow him. She had no choice but to obey. He led her over the stream and along the path in the mountain-side where the trees fringed the way. When they reached the rock she knew so well, he said in solemnly:
"Open, old rock!"
But to her he said:
She could not choose but look. 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 – –
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 went on 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.
Doing good to ungodly people is a useless operation. (Proverb from Trentino)
The culprit also blames his guilt. (Proverb from Trentino)