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3. The Witches of Solstein

At the foot of the gigantic peak Solstein lies Zirl, a village so large and trim that it looks like a little town sheltered by the vast folds of the mountain.

About two centuries ago, Ursula Sinnis was hired as a dairymaid by a farmer not far from the Zirl village. She was tall, slight, better favoured and more quick-witted than most women in the valley. She would dress more elegantly than any of her fellows, for she was a clever needle-woman, and while she made her own clothes, she carefully copied those of the ladies who visited Zirl. Thus, the well-dressed, quick-witted and well shaped young woman got much attention from the young men. However, she rejected all of them.

It was Ursula's special delight to hang round posting station in order to catch glimpses of the fashionable women who travelled by the stage coaches. In this way, she was able to note society manners, ways of speech, and details of costume, and imitated all of it with great skill.

It was Ursula's dream to leave Zirl to live in the glorious cities beyond the pass, where there were refinements and luxuries undreamt of in Zirl. Often the girl pictured herself moving, elegantly robed, one of a fashionable crowd, surrounded by brilliant light, shimmering silk and the flash of jewels. And there were public gardens filled with fountains and statues; streets where every building was a palace and people refined in speech, manner and dress. There were theatres where world-famous artists acted; eating-houses where dainty dishes with foreign names were served on tables. When the girl pictured these high living pleasures, she would curl her lips, murmuring: "No farm husband for me!"

Ursula had no wish to marry, unless it was for climbing on the social scale.

Her good-natured employers were proud of their smart serving maid, so they tolerated many of her peculiarities, such as her refusing to drive the cows to pasture and to work in the fields. She did only light work in the house and the dairy, since her hands were kept white and soft that way. She was much concerned about her hands and complexion, and spared no pains to avoid sunburn. The sum of all these oddities irritated the other farm girls, but they appreciated that Ursula never tried to lure their sweethearts from them.

Ursula seemed disinclined to make any friends, so her companions were astonished when they discovered that she had got acquainted with a certain middle-aged lady, Frau Hott. The lady was a stranger in the district. She said she had moved from Styria when she settled in a small house on the outskirts of Zirl some years earlier. She was pleasant to her neighbours, but intimate with none. Tall, dark, dignified, with the easy manners of one who had seen much of the world. She kept a daily maid and seemed to be comfortably off, if not rich.

No one knew much about her. It was commonly reported that she took an interest in girls, and that these young women usually left the village to try their fortune in towns.

Certainly Frau Hott always praised city life loudly. "That is strange," said many, "since she has chosen to live in little Zirl."

But if Frau Hott was asked about that, she said that she needed the peace of the countryside for her health.

She got to know Ursula after saying a few flattering words about her. After some time, Ursula began to spend nearly all her spare time in Frau Hott's company. She learnt many things about the fashionable world and admired the gems and fine clothes the lady wore on occasion.

In course of time, however, Ursula's admiration was mingled with a feeling of mistrust, if not of fear; for Frau Hott at times hinted that she had certain secret powers. Nevertheless, the girl did not shy away from her, and even found her more delightful day by day.

For some time the lady had been pressing Ursula to leave the village, and seek a job in one of the great cities, where the girl quite certainly could make her fortune by getting well married, she said. Ursula, however, hesitated to follow the advice, for she did not fancy having a husband.

One summer Sunday the two were seated in Frau Hott's house at a window overlooking the beautiful valley. The two had been silent for some time when Frau Hott suddenly said:

"Dear one, listen to me. One of my friends in the fashionable world has asked me to a dance next Saturday evening. You may come with me and have a taste of such things. Why hesitate? You will come; is it not so?"

Ursula felt an odd misgiving restrained her from accepting. She tried to refuse, saying she had no suitable clothes.

"Leave such things to me," answered the other. "I shall provide you with a dress and a carriage!"

With these words she fixed her dark eyes so compellingly on Ursula that the girl gave way and asked for further directions.

"Be here on Saturday evening at half past ten," said the lady; "and see that you slip out of the house unnoticed."

She drew a phial from a cupboard and handed it to Ursula "Pour the contents into their drink at supper, and they will sleep the clock round. No, no! Don't be afraid to do it. A good, long sleep can be good for them. It will not hurt them in the least. And now, return home."

During the rest of the week Ursula felt a blend of joy and fear. On the Saturday evening, she poured the potion into the liquor that was to be served at supper. Shortly after the meal a heavy drowsiness overcame the whole household. One after one, they stumbled off to bed. By ten o'clock everyone on the farm was snoring. Ursula had placed a ladder against her bedroom window. She climbed down and shortly after ten she came near Frau Hott's house.

It was a clear, warm night, with a brilliant moon shining. Ursula hastened along the deserted roads. Frau Hott was waiting in the doorway and welcomed her with a peculiar smile. She was dressed in black and silver, with flashing jewels on hands and hair. Ursula halted amazed.

"I am glad you are here!" said the lady. "We have no time to lose. Come in. Throw off your things and wash your face, neck, bosom, hands and arms in that basin."

Ursula hastily did as she was told. A strong and delightful aromatic odour rose from the water, and as she dried herself, she was surprised at how her skin improved all of a sudden.

Frau Hott then made the girl put on silk stockings, satin shoes, and a gauzy robe. Next, after shaking out Ursula's abundant brown hair, the lady took some choice jewels from a casket and slipped them on the girl's fingers and arms.

After this she led Ursula to a mirror: "There," she exclaimed, "Come with me!"

She led Ursula outside to a large, gravelled patch in front of the house. From the wall Frau Hott lifted a cage with four mice in it. She emptied the cage and the mice were poured on the ground. At once she waved her hands over them and muttered strange words at the same time.

At once the mice became four grey horses. They stood still in front of her. The lady then took out a bleached snail-shell and a small box. From the box she drew three ladybirds. Setting all these on the gravel, waved her hands and muttered again, and then the shell turned into a dainty carriage, while the insects became a coachman and two footmen that soon harnessed the four horses. When that was done, the coachman climbed up and took the reins in his hands, one of the footmen took his place on a footboard behind the vehicle, and the other held the door open. The inside of the carriage was nicely upholstered.

"Get in, child," said Frau Hott. "We are late already."

Ursula sank on the cushions, her companion sat down beside her, the footman closed the door and joined his fellow behind the carriage, and then they drove off at an even pace.

Ursula sat very still and wondering in the coach. She felt her senses reel in the moonlight. All about her the landscape streamed by. She sank into a stupor, but was roused by Frau Hott who said, "We have arrived!"

The chill air brought Ursula fully to herself after the footman had opened the door and waited for the two women to step out.

Frau Hott led her up a steep path between great boulders. They came to an open place. Looking on it, Ursula grew cold with surprise and apprehension. Before her was a stretch of mountain turf surrounded by walls of rock, all pale in the moonlight. On the right was a large tent. Near the entrance a supper table was richly laid. Not far from the tent stood a group of musicians playing a weird tune on instruments tha Ursula had never seen before. On the grass in front of the tent, men and women, gorgeously dressed, but pale were moving to the alluring, weird tune.

Frau Hott's voice roused Ursula:

"Come, child! You must join in the dance, and you will soon be the queen of the party. Follow me!"

She led the girl into the tent where men and women were gathered round the board, seated or standing. Servants in silk, handed round the food on dishes of gold, or filled glasses with wine.

Ursula would have refused both food and drink, but Frau Hott made her accept a glass of wine. No sooner had the girl's lips touched the brew than she felt a strange intoxication tingle through her body. Her head swam as her guide introduced her to many of the pale guests. She was flattered from all sides, and afterwards several men begged her to dance with them. Ursula was good at dancing, and was soon footing it to the music with a distinguished, cold-eyed, young cavalier. As she circled, she was conscious of murmured compliments.

Her partner led Ursula back to the tent, where Frau Hott waited for her. By the lady's side stood a stately, tall man who, though past his first youth, but still vigorous. His face was cold and his eyes domineering and cruel, and a sarcastic bend of his lips. Frau Hott bowed to him with peculiar respect, saying:

"Prince, this is the girl I talked about!"

The nobleman took her hand and held her firmly: "Frau Hott had prepared me for meeting a model, but you surpass my expectations. I demand the favour of the next dance."

He had not relaxed his grasp of her hand. Ursula, however came to shudder at the chill touch of his fingers, but before she was aware of it, she was dancing with the prince.

From then on, Ursula had but a blurred memory of what followed. As they moved in tune to the music, she was dimly conscious that her partner was plying her with flattery, and talking of the effect she would create in the great world. His flattery half overcame her fear, but her heart nevertheless beat violently, the blood surged in her ears, and she found it difficult to dance on.

Some of the company started to sing:

Life is short, it passes,
All too soon your years are spent.

Faster and faster the dancers circled, and all the while Ursula felt the stranger's grip tighten until she could have shrieked with pain. Her partner, bending close, whispered that admiration, pleasure and riches could be hers if she just signed a contract with him, in which she would surrender her soul to him.

All this while his fingers gripped Ursula's hands so hard that she thought they must be crushed, but the sharp pain steadied the girl's throbbing brain. She suddenly cleared, and filled with horror she cried:

"Oh, God, help me!"

At once her partner's grasp relaxed, the music turned into a beastly scream, and confusion arose among the dancing couples.

With a desperate effort, Ursula sprang from the prince and fled through an opening among the rocks. As she did so, her ornaments turned into red-hot circles. She tore them hastily from her, but not before they had seared her flesh. At the same time her gauzy robes were changed into films of flame. She snatched at them madly, still running desperately. The next moment her foot caught in a ledge of rock, and she fell headlong into a mountain pool. She scrambled out, dripping, bruised, chilled to the bone, and raced on.

The path widened. In the moonlight she saw a stretch of turf down a steep hillside. Before she could check her pace she slipped and rolled down the grassy slope until she struck against a boulder. There she lay for a while, half stunned. But she staggered to her feet. Then she saw glimpses of wild lights. They flitted on the slope high above, as though her enemies were seeking to find her. Fortunately, the bushes round her covered her well. Hidden by them he descended in safety and reached a narrow road leading down the valley.

At this moment, far away, the clock of Zirl Church struck two. Guided by the sound, Ursula made her way to the village and hastened on to the farm, where everyone was asleep still. Ursela climbed the ladder to her room.

She examined her clothing, and found she was wrapped in rags and black, seared films. She removed all of it and put on dry clothes, sobbing. Her bruises were painful, and there were burns on her neck, arms and hands.

When she was dressed, she sat down to consider what she should do, and quickly decided to leave the place. The morning coach for the north was due at half-past five. She would take it and disappear from Zirl, for her night's adventure had filled her with such dread that there was no future near Frau Hott.

Ursula packed her things and left a letter for her employers, telling them she resigned and would move. Then she climbed down the ladder and put it in place. Before six o'clock she was already out of sight of Zirl. Later in the morning she left the coach and walked a long time in another direction. By repeating this several times, she covered her tracks so that nobody knew where she had gone.

In the village that Ursula left, no one could find out anything more than that the girl had taken the morning coach and had left it some thirty miles away to the north.

Many people suspected that Frau Hott had something to do with this, especially since shef left the village only few days after Ursula.

A generation later, the tax collector of Zirl reported that on a pleasure journey he had come across the long-lost Ursula Sinnis at the "Golden Stag," in Augsburg. She was the landlady at that inn. She was now a plump, middle-aged woman, dressed in the most expensive and smart fashion. She told him that after she had started to work in the inn many years before, she married the landlord's son. Now she was a widow with two daughters, and they were among the most elegantly dressed girls in the town.

It would also seem that on her deathbed she left an account of what had she had experienced, to warn others who should be similarly tempted. By degrees the tale made its way to Zirl, but according to the landlord of "The Swan" there, the story only made many village wenches leave the place in the hope of making their fortune elsewhere.

[Retold]

⚶⚶⚶

Those who cough for a long time, live long. (Proverb from Tyrol)

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