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Ottilia and the Skull

In the little town on the chief river of Tirol, there once lived a poor little peasant-girl named Ottilia. Ottilia was very fond of her mother, but one day she lost her. Afterwards 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 get through it all as her mother had done. She had not learnt it all. The place began to get into disorder. The pigs and fowls fought and she could not keep them apart. She could not manage the spinning either, and what was worst of all, she could not carry in the loads of hay that her mother had used to do to earn a few needed pence to add to father's scanty wages.

To keep the house straight, the father found he had to take another wife. One day he brought home a tall woman called 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 into tears and said Sennal should never be her mother and that she would never obey such a mother.

The tall Sennal was not a bad woman, but she was angry when the child set herself against her; and so there came anger between the two. When she told Ottilia to do anything, Ottilia refused to do it, and when she tried to do any of the work of the house, the child's lack of experience 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.

When he came home an evening, Ottilia's father decided to take more care of her himself, hoping to set things straight and make peace. So he often put her on his knee, evening after evening in the well-warmed room, while he kissed her and told her strange stories of the days long gone by, and often said, "Trust that all will be well, my girl."

But on a day there was a terrible storm, and Ottilia's father did not come home. Sennal went out with the neighbours with lanterns and horns to look for him, while Ottilia knelt by her father's chair, crying.

In the morning some carters came in and brought her father's dead body. They had found it on their mountain way, under the snow, where it lay lay half buried.

They put him in his coffin and carried him to the churchyard ground while sad bells mourned.

"Go, child and feed the pig!" said her stepmother gruffly some weeks later, "Crying is all very well for a bit; but you're not going on like that all your life, are you?"

Ottilia retorted fiercely:

"I am not your child! I've told you so before!"

The tall Sennal had patience with her 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. At last Sennal's patience gave way. One day when Ottilia provoked her, she drove the child from the door and said, "Let me never see you here again!"

Later she repented and could have recalled the words, but by then Ottilia was already far away up the mountain-path and out of sight.

Ottilia did not know what it was like to be alone upon the mountains. She wandered on, to follow the path to the spot where her father died. The spot had been marked with a wayside cross.

Ottilia gazed at it until tears welled from her eyes and she threw herself on the ground beside. There she lay crying until she did not remember where she was. At that time, it seemed to her that she heard her father's voice: that he talked to her as he used to talk of an evening by the fireside. Now he told Ottilia about her all her naughty, senseless ways, and he was not scolding without reason. Ottilia saw he was right, and was ready to admit that she had been very unreasonable with her stepmother, and that she felt really sorry for it all.

Her father's last words in her ear were, "Put your trust in that all will yet be well."

The sun had already sunk behind the mountains, the chill night air began to be felt beneath the clothing, and hunger stared Ottilia in her face. She felt very humble now, as numbness was creeping over her. She knew the mountain-folk said that to yield to that lethargy of cold brought death.

On she walked and on and the darkness gathered thicker and thicker round her. The way was weary and the air cold, and her strength began to fail. Then suddenly, on a neighbouring peak, she saw a castle-like building standing out against the now moonlit sky.

When at last she reached the castle-gate she anxiously wondered what the people at the castle would say to a peasant-girl who came and disturbed them? But she took courage. A horn hung beside the broad portal; and when Ottilia had managed to make a note resound, she stood there and waited for someone to come and answer the summons.

After some moments of anxious waiting, a window was opened. A Death's Head was looking out of the window! Almost before she had time to be frightened, it asked her, in a very kindly voice, what was she wanted.

"A night's lodging and a bit of bread, if you don't mind!" said Ottilia faintly, and made an effort to stay her teeth from chattering together.

The Death's Head said, "Will you promise to carry me up here again if I come down and draw the bolt for you and let you in?" Scarcely knowing what she said, Ottilia agreed to it.

"You see, it is a serious matter for me. I can easily roll down all the steps, but cannot get up again by myself."

The Death's Head was soon coming rumbling down the stone stairs – 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 when the great door flew open, Ottilia trod timidly within anyway. The Death's Head was less terrible than the pitiless snow.

Ottilia did as she had promised. Bending down, she picked up the skull, placed it in her apron and and carried it carefully up the stairs.

"Lay me on the table," said the Death's Head, "and then go down into the kitchen and make a pancake. There are eggs and flour and butter in plenty there."

Ottilia started to do as he told her. It was harder than she had imagined, for there were many bones of dead people in the kitchen. But she took heart in the though, "What can bones alone do, after all? What harm or good can they do me?"

So she beat her eggs and mixed her batter and put it on to fry, till the appetising 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 the half that was nearest to herself retained its own golden colour.

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. 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. But all you have to do is not to be afraid of it. Then it can do you no harm."

Ottilia thanked the skull and went up to bed. She had not been in bed for more than three hours when she heard a great noise and rattling in the room. From downstairs the skull call up to her, "It is midnight – you only have to be brave!"

As it spoke, Ottilia saw a 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. Her father's encouraging words came to her again, "Trust that all will be well," and Ottilia remained quite quiet in her bed, and it proved to be true that the skeleton could do nothing against her. After two or three ineffectual tugs, turned and went away. 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 where the skeleton had stood the night before, by the bedside, was a beautiful woman. She was dressed in white and surrounded by golden rays.

Ottilia said, "What do you want with me lady?"

The lady vision answered, "I was the mistress of this castle, but because I was proud and vain I was sentenced to dwell in my bare bones - until someone thrifty, humble and trustful should come and set me free.

"You have done that. Now I can go to rest in peace. In gratitude, I give you this castle and all its lands and incomes."

"I must have it in writing," thought Ottilia, "or it will not work."

All of a sudden her eyes were drawn to a document lying on the bedside table. There it was, put down in writing and signed.

The bright form disappeared, and a milk-white dove winged its way upward towards heaven.

Ottilia became a rich countess and mistress of the lordly castle. No sooner was she installed than she sent for her stepmother and asked her to forgive her for all the trouble she had caused, and begged her to come up to the castle and be with her. They lived very happily together for the rest of their lives.

[Retold]

⚶ ⚶ ⚶

Keeping watch of figs and daughters is tiring. (Trentino)

At table it is nice to live. (Trentino)

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