The peasants and farmers of the Wattenserthal lived quiet and peaceable lives. They grazed their cattle, ploughed, sowed, reaped, and marketed their produce in due season. They observed their feasts as the Church commanded. No man could complain of how they behaved. Life went smoothly along in that district.
Then suddenly one evening, in the late autumn, when nights were growing long and chilly, people heard a strange and terrific din from the top of Watz Mountain. Everyone was alarmed; but most agitated of all were those who lived on Zotta Farm, just at the foot of the peak.
At first people feared the noise came from a landslide, which in its wake could bring death and ruin for the Zotta family. The farmer gathered his men and began ordering them to rescue his prize cattle from their threatened sheds and lead them to a safe distance. He prodded the harassed servants with a great stick, while his wife, seizing the most valuable of her household treasures, fled for shelter to the farthest end of the village.
Meanwhile the din went on. Trees were snapped as by some giant hand; yet none came tumbling down the slope of the Alp. No landslide came along in a roaring crash of rocks into the valley. Then little Anton, the goatherd, cried: "Look! There's someone up there with a fire."
Men paused in their labours at the sound of the child's excited voice, and looked up the mountain. There, on the top and silhouetted against a background of firelight, stood a giant figure. He was in all ways formed like a man. As they stared, speechless with astonishment, the din ceased, and the stillness that followed was almost uncanny.
At last the Zotta farmer broke the silence.
"Ah!" he cried, "It's a Putz, a ghost that builds itself a hut from torn-up trees and lives on the mountain-top. They are harmless but noisy beings. I know, for one lived on top of the Schlern when I was a boy."
A murmur passed through the company. No one liked Karl Hopf of Zotta Farm; but everyone admitted that as a rule he was right in what he said.
"Put the beasts back in the sheds," he added, turning to his men; "we have nothing to fear. These ghosts never come down among men. Mind, though," he continued, glaring at them, "woe to any of you who try to go near it. These giants are said to own wonderful treasures, but the only share you'll get may be a broken head. If you meddle with them, they are both fierce and cruel."
After this the Wattenserthal settled down again. The noise of the Putz could be heard for miles round, but people grew used to it.
Towards Christmas time the spirit grew quiet, disappearing in spring and coming back in the autumn, with much outrageous clamour.
For some years this round of events continued, and although as a topic of conversation it was long since dead, men would have missed the Putz, had it departed entirely from among them.
From time to time a man would be seen in the valley, with his head tied up in his wife's kerchief. His companions usually jeered at him for a few days, asking him what he had eaten and drunk with the Putz, and what the gold dishes were like. Then the whole thing would slowly be forgotten.
Now, the farmer Karl Hopf was a mean and mean-looking little man. His eyes were watery blue, and had developed a squint. He reminded people of a starved and cunning ferret. He was often discussed in the comfortable room of the "Goldener Adler," whose landlord, owed him a grudge for the delivery of several loads of badly damaged grapes. No one ever got the better of a bargain with Hopf, and few ever received a just deal at his hands. The servants of Zotta Farm stayed on only for the reason that they were too poor to go and try their fortune elsewhere, and Karl's spouse, Bertha, took care that these wretched servants should remain poor.
Among the servants was a maid, Else, who continued in his service because her mother, a helpless and bedridden woman, depended for food and shelter on what the girl earned, little as it was and grudgingly paid.
Yet, with the cunning of their kind, Karl and Bertha liked to appear before their fellows as liberal, open-handed and worthy people. Therefore, as Christmas approached, the pair issued invitations to their neighbours to join them in a feast on Christmas Eve. Poor Else was hard put to it. She scrubbed and cooked, and rushed from place to place, pursued by the vixen tongue of her mistress, until the maid nearly dropped from fatigue. All the while, the poor girl's heart was near to breaking. Snow lay thick on the ground, and her mother was without fuel or food. Once, in despair, Else had begged Frau Hopf for a little milk, but in reply had received a look so vicious that it almost froze her.
The snowy linen and bright candles brought the girl no pleasure, and her gentle heart was almost filled with hate as she helped Bertha Hopf to adorn her scraggy body in velvet corset and gay ribbons.
The guests came early, and when salutations and compliments had been exchanged, they set themselves out to extract as much enjoyment as possible at Karl Hopf's expense. The latter was in a jubilant mood. He had that day cheated a strange packman out of half the value of a large piece of woollen cloth, so he sent the wine flagons round freely. The company soon grew quite merry as the warmth of the room sent the fumes of wine into their brains.
For a fortnight the Putz on the Watz Mountain had been very quiet, yet somehow the talk in the farmer's parlour turned on him.
"I wonder what old Putz is doing," said Mathaüs, the dairyman.
"Making a Christmas cake, perhaps," suggested Leonhard, whose farm lay next to Zotta. "He hasn't got a wife to do it for him, you see, like friend Hopf here." And Leonhard bowed towards Bertha, whose nose turned purple at the tip as she preened herself at the attention.
"Better go and see, Mattha&umuml;s," said another jocularly.
"No! No!" said the dairyman. "My herd-boy tried that a month ago, and came home with half his head wounded. Go yourself!"
"No," urged a fourth guest. "You began the talk, Mathaüs; you ought to settle the question for us."
Thus they bantered and chaffed the dairyman, but he was firm in refusing to run into danger. Besides, he was not anxious to exchange a warm room, good wine, and music for a six-mile tramp up a snow-clad mountain merely to see what a spirit was doing.
Then Karl, who had been listening to the amicable wrangling, spoke. Emphasizing his words by beating the stem of his pipe on the table, he said:
"If anyone will be brave enough to go to the Putz tonight and bring back as a proof the fellow's milking-bucket and foot-warmer, I will give that person the best cow in my shed, and her calf as well."
The guests all stared at Karl. He had never been known to give away so much as a stick from his hedge or a clod from his field. All thought that it would have served the miser right had someone accepted his offer, but of course he was safe in making it - no one wanted to go near the Putz, even for the sake of a cow and calf.
Silence hung over the room for several minutes, and Karl looked round triumphantly. As he did so, he saw the meagre figure of Else standing by his chair. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her whole attitude thoroughly despairing.
"What do you want?" he demanded irritably of the girl. "Who told you to come in when I have guests?"
"Master," said Else quietly, "I was sitting outside the door and heard what you said. You offered the best cow in your stable, together with her calf, to anyone who would go up the Watz and bring back the milking-pail and foot-warmer of the Putz. Isn't that so?"
The guests stirred. What was the girl going to do? Karl's ferrety eyes sought the company. Plainly his friends were interested.
"Why, yes! I did say so," he snarled at last. "Did you think of going yourself?" he added, in an effort to be jocular.
"Yes, master, for the sake of my mother, I will go. Also," she added with quiet emphasis, "these guests of yours will bear witness to your offer."
The farmer scowled at her last words. He certainly was given to denying his own promises when it served his pocket to do so. Moreover, the girl spoke so firmly that she really might go there. But if she did, she would get for her pains a crack in the skull instead of a milking-pail. Then they could dismiss her, for Frau Hopf was always complaining about her. Good! Let her go.
All the while he was communing with himself, Farmer Hopf knew that he must answer the child, so at last he muttered:
"Don't be silly, Else; the Putz will not let you get near him. He will fling a stick at you and that could be the end of you."
Several others tried to persuade the girl to abandon so foolhardy an idea; but she would not listen.
"I will go to the Putz," she said. "I am not venturing there out of greed or curiosity. I don't desire the cow and calf for myself. I am going because my mother is in great distress, and two such beasts will provide for her needs. I only hope God will protect me."
With these words she went out of the room to fetch her poor wraps. They offered little enough protection against the bitter wind and whirling snows of December. Still, some of the company heard her go, but a few minutes after the wine-bemused people of the farm had entirely forgotten the poor child.
All this while Else was trudging along the miles of hard, snow-covered slopes towards the hut of the Putz.
As she neared the top, she saw that the hut of the Spirit was brilliantly lighted. Within moved the clumsy and gigantic figure of the Putz himself. His back was towards the door, and he was bending over the fire with a pan in his hand. He did not appear to know that Else was drawing near. At last she stood just within the doorway and waited.
Soon the Putz straightened himself up, turned round, and bent a fierce glance on the timid figure at the entrance. Trembling violently, the girl curtseyed as well as she could. Despite her terror, she noticed that everything within the hut was most beautifully clean and that the Spirit even had a pipe between his teeth. The sight of so natural a thing cheered the girl.
"Good evening, Putz," she said politely.
"Good evening, Elschen! Come in and sup with me," returned the Spirit in a friendly tone.
Timidly Else stepped into the hut, wondering how the Putz could have learned her name.
"Come near the fire and warm yourself, girl; you have come a long way in the cold," continued the Spirit.
As she approached the fire, Else saw a black mass of something, she did not know what it could be that simmered in a great iron pan. Seizing an enormous golden spoon, the spirit put a huge helping of the loathsome mixture in a dish and handed it to Else, bidding her sit down on a little stool that he had drawn close to the fire.
Terrified, Else stared at the dish, fearing to refuse it, yet utterly unable to bring herself to taste the filthy-looking compound.
The Spirit roared with laughter at her perplexity, and the noise nearly threw Else off her stool.
"What are you afraid of, child?" asked the Putz. "Say grace over the dish and see what comes of it."
She did so, and at once the black mass was changed into a number of choice little cakes, nicer than anything she had ever seen. She gave a delighted cry, and the Putz smiled kindly on her.
Bringing up a bench nearly as big as a farmhouse table, the Spirit sat down on the other side of the fire and they ate together. Else was so pleased and comfortable that she almost forgot what she had come for.
When they had finished their meal, the Putz suddenly said:
"I know why you have paid me this visit, Else. As you are a brave girl, you shall take back my foot-warmer and milking-pail without having to ask for them. It is time Karl Hopf of Zotta Farm gets punished for his meanness and trickery. He is stingy, he is a liar, and he is a cheat. He will try to trick you out of your cow and calf when you get back; but don't worry about it, for I shall not let him do so."
The Spirit turned suddenly and spat viciously into the fire, causing a column of lurid smoke to leap up to the roof of the hut. "Pah!" he added, "he ought to be dead and buried and turned over. And when he dies, he'll be a ghost of the type we call a Wild Man, someone who turns the axes of the woodmen against themselves and trips the feet of travellers. He is that sort of fellow."
For some minutes after this outburst there was silence in the hut. Then the Putz rose and fetched the milking-bucket and foot-warmer. Else thanked him for his kindness to her. In return, he asked her to pray for him, and she promised to do so faithfully.
Stooping down to lift the ponderous-looking articles, she found that they became miraculously light and easy to carry. Thus laden, she set off for the farm, along a path now all fairylike with snow and moonlight. She looked back once or twice, and saw the Putz waving a kindly encouragement from the doorway of the hut.
It was nearly midnight when Else reached Zotta Farm. Dancing and drinking were over.
Ribbons and hair were being arranged. The farmer and his guests, sobered by the cold night air, stood at the door of the farm, ready to set out for midnight mass in the church.
White and tired, Else staggered up to them, bearing the great milk-pail and foot-warmer. At the entrance to the farm, both of them suddenly grew so heavy that she had difficulty in carrying them.
A shout of astonishment burst from the company.
"Master," panted the girl, "I claim the cow and calf, for I have brought you the things you demanded from the hut of the Putz. When I got there he was cooking a meal, and he gave me a share of it, and gave me these things. I did not even have to ask for them."
Karl opened his mouth to speak, but surprise choked him. Knowing him well, the guests waited to see by what ruse he would avoid paying his debt to Else.
"You wicked girl," he roared at last. "After all we have done for you, keeping you here though you are lazy and idle, giving you too the best of food; you exposed yourself to the danger of being killed by the Putz. Is that the way to repay benefactors? Your greed made you covet my goods, so you took selfish advantage of a silly joke of mine. Go to your room, wretched girl, and ask God to forgive you."
Karl threw out his chest and worked himself up into an facade of righteous anger as he spoke, while Else stood with downcast eyes and pale face. She turned to the company.
"Kind neighbours," she said, "you heard the master's offer. Was it a joke or in earnest? Have I earned the cow and calf by fulfilling Karl Hopf's requests? Pray speak for me."
At her appeal a confused murmur passed through the crowd. People sympathised with her, but did not dare to say so. They knew only too well that for a single word Hopf would ruin them by his cunning, so they held their peace.
"Girl, I told you to be gone," repeated the farmer.
He gave her a push as he spoke and sent her stumbling through the doorway. Then, with self-righteousness looks, he and his wife went on to church to hide cruelty and cunning under the cloak of sanctity.
At Zotta Farm, the dawn of Christmas Day rose on Hopf and his wife in their comfortable chamber, and on the weeping servant girl in her loft.
The farm was astir early. Bertha and the maids were preparing breakfast; Karl was just rubbing sleep from his eyes when Heinrich the cowman rushed into the house.
"Master, master, come here! Come at once!" he shouted breathlessly.
"What is it?" cried Karl, who was easily alarmed when anything concerned his farm.
Together the men hastened to the sheds. There, in her stall, lay his beautiful cow, Maieren was missing, and so was her little calf.
Karl screamed out and flung himself down on the floor. "Stolen!" he cried. Maieren had been a prize cow and, therefore, very valuable. Who could have taken the cow? None could tell, but in the snow were marks that could never have been made by the foot of man.
It was a sad Christmas Day at Zotta Farm. Karl moaned and raved, cursed, and swore revenge. Bertha scolded and clamoured and harassed the maids out of their wits.
That night Heinrich was told to watch in the sheds through the dark hours, to keep watch over the remaining animals.
Before it was light the next morning, the people on the farm were awakened by piercing shrieks. Quickly throwing on their clothes they rushed out to find Heinrich lying in the yard with a head wound. Inside the sheds, Robblerein, another beautiful cow was missing with her calf. In the snow could be seen the print of huge feet again.
Karl was nearly mad with grief. Two of his treasured cows gone? What would happen next? He began to vow prayers, fasts, offerings and what not to the guardian saint of farmers; but a quiet voice broke in on his ravings.
"There is no need for curses or prayers, Karl Hopf. You have only to pay your debt to me, and all will be well with your farm."
All looked round in surprise. It was Else who was speaking.
"Yes," she continued, "the Putz promised to see right done to me. To my shame I forgot his promise and wept when you drove me away on Christmas Eve."
The farmer's narrow face grew narrower. He turned and would have struck the girl, had not Bertha quickly intervened.
"Give her the cow and let her go. Let her go, I say."
Karl moaned. Must he lose another cow? He began to rate and whine. He would be ruined.
He really could not lose another cow. The girl listened in silence for some minutes, but at last said firmly:
"A cow, the best you have, and a calf, Karl Hopf, nothing less. Remember, the Putz!"
"Give them to her!" screamed Bertha. "Do you want me to be lose all sleep from now on? What if the Putz clutches me in my bed? Give them to her and let her go."
Karl sighed. He knew his wife enough to obey when she commanded.
Unloosing the best remaining cow and her calf from her stall, he handed the chain to Else, bidding her to leave Zotta Farm for good.
The girl thanked for the animals and went away towards her mother's poor place, leading the cow by the chain and stroking the little calf as it ambled alongside.
From that day, all went well with the girl. In course of time she and her mother became quite well-to-do, and had a tiny farm of their own. True to her promise, Else prayed daily for the Putz, and every Sunday burned a candle for him in the church.
There was no further trouble in the cattle sheds of Zotta Farm. Year by year, however, Bertha grew more and more vixenish and Karl increasingly mean and cunning. At last, being unable, through their combined evil qualities, to preserve even an appearance of goodness, they lived friendless. When they died, no one mourned them, and that their farmstead at the foot of Watz Mountain was nearly ruined.
By then the hut of the Putz had been abandoned for many years.
Slipping is not falling, once is not always. (Proverb from Tyrol)