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9. The Venediger Manndl

In the olden days, strange travellers from beyond the Alps used to visit Tyrol. These men were sallow, lean fellows, very courteous and good-natured. As a rule they arrived in the spring, and left about the end of September, coming and going in a somewhat mysterious fashion. Still more perplexing was the business that brought them north, for they spent their time in secluded valleys washing gold from the gravel and sand of mountain streams. This they seemed to do with great success, although people who tried to follow their example never found enough precious metal to repay the trouble of collecting the scattered grains. Envy is not charitable, and a belief spread that such foreigners were magicians. In consequence, they were looked on with suspicion throughout Tyrol, although everyone had to confess that these visitors never harmed anyone, but, on the contrary, often did a good turn to men they had dealings with.

In a lonely gorge near Reshen, some three hundred years ago, lived an old farmer, by name Jacob Hirn. He was a hard, sour man, so violent and cross-grained that he had a difficulty in keeping any arm workers. One labourer alone remained more than a few months with him. This was a lad named Matthias (or Matz) Kneisl. Hirn used to treat him harshly, taking advantage of the fact that, as the young fellow was an orphan, he had no one to protect him. The two lived in a lonely farmhouse, waited on by an old woman, who came up for a few hours daily from Reshen village.

Now, during six or seven years, one of the Italian strangers, a Venediger Manndl, as they were called, had visited those parts every spring, and lodged at Hirn's place. As was usual with his kind, the Manndl arrived about the end of April, and remained until September. He passed his time in washing the sands of torrents, profitably, too, it appeared, since he always left with a good store of gold. Like most of these southerners, he was a dark, sinewy man, soberly dressed in black.

Despite his sombre appearance, he was cheerful, and so openhearted that, on more than one occasion, he had shown Hirn the treasure he was taking back to Italy. More than that, he used regularly to give the farmer a handful of gold, in addition to the money he paid for board and lodging.

The covetous Hirn had often tried to wring from the Manndl the secret of his success, but the other laughingly refused to disclose it, bidding his host seek and he would find. However, Hirn always failed to do this, although, having spied on the stranger, he copied his methods carefully. In consequence the farmer grew more and more churlish.

Each year when the Italian appeared, Hirn received him in a sourer fashion. Indeed, he would have been downright uncivil, if he had not been restrained by thoughts of the good money the Manndl paid for accommodation, and of the present he invariably added on leaving.

The foreigner observed with pitying disgust Hirn's treatment of Matz, and was very good to the boy, slipping many a coin into the poor lad's hand. For these things, Matz, unused to any kindness, was extremely grateful. He became quite attached to the Venediger Manndl, and looked forward to his yearly visit.

One September evening, the stranger suddenly announced that, as he proposed leaving at dawn next day, he would like to settle up before he went to bed. The farmer surlily presented his account, which the Italian paid without haggling, though it was outrageously large. When the bill was receipted, the Manndl went up to his room, and came down with a canvas bag. This he opened, and Him covetously observed that it was full of gold dust and nuggets.

"Lord master," he said, "you seem to have had a good season. Some people do have all the luck to be sure!"

The stranger chuckled. "Yes! I cannot complain," he answered. "These last few years have been fairly profitable to me; in fact I do not expect to return here, as I think of retiring for good. Come, cheer up, man! We have had some pleasant hours together, and I shall send you friends in my place. Please accept this little present to go on with." And he gave the farmer a handful of gold.

Hirn thanked him ungraciously. His glimpse of the treasure had filled him with such envy and hate that he conceived the villainous plan of killing his guest in the night so as to become possessed of his hoard.

In the meantime, the Venediger Manndl had gone out to meet Matz, who was returning from the pastures. The Italian spoke kindly to him, adding a handsome gift of money, and together they returned to the farm in the twilight.

After supper the Manndl retired early, saying he must be up betimes to begin the southward journey. His room was upstairs, whereas Hirn and Matz slept on the ground floor in the large living-room, where each of them occupied a deep bunk in the wall.

That night, though he was tired, the boy could not sleep, for a foreboding of evil kept him awake. All through the evening, ever since the Manndl and Matz had returned, Hirn's manner had been peculiar, and, more than once, the boy had caught the farmer looking at the Italian in a sinister way

The lad's mind misgave him so much that he pretended to sleep, but all the while he kept a close watch on Hirn, and was horrified to observe that the old man, before retiring, had furtively hidden a weapon in his bunk. He felt sure that the wretch was planning some dreadful mischief against their visitor, but did not know in what way he could prevent this, though he was determined to interfere, even at the risk of his life. While he was wondering how he should act, Hirn suddenly called out:

"Get up there, Matz! Go out at once to the stables, and see whether Liese has broken loose. I feel sure I heard a noise of hoofs just now. If she has got out, you must search till you find her. Come back without the skittish brute, and I will bruise every bone in your body."

The lad slipped on his clothes, and went off to the stables. Sure enough, the door stood wide open. He lifted his lantern, and saw that all the cows were in their stalls, except Liese, whose place was empty; yet he remembered that he had tied her up safely as usual, for she was a spirited animal, fond of breaking loose. But how had she freed herself from the halter, and pushed open the door?

Looking closely at the headstall, he saw that the rope had snapped. Matz examined the broken end carefully, and, at once, the hideous truth was plain to him. Someone had cut half-way through the cord, so that a jerk of the cow's head should be enough to snap it. The boy realized that Hirn had contrived the accident in order to keep him away from the farm while the crime was committed. He remembered clearly that, just before going to bed the old man had left the house for a short while.

There was no time to lose. In a moment Matz had formed his plan. Taking a ladder from the hayloft, he rested it against the house, and mounted to the stranger's window, which, fortunately, stood open because the night was close. Creeping up to the bed, he cautiously roused the Italian, and told him of Hirn's design. At once the southerner rose, and, gathering up clothes and gold, noiselessly followed the boy down the ladder.

In order to delay Hirn's attempt, Matz ran in to tell the old man that Liese had broken loose, and that he himself was off to find her. The farmer, who had evidently lain down at the noise of the youngster's approach, dismissed him on his errand with many threats and curses. Thereupon Matz again mounted to the Italian's window, closed it, and removed the ladder to the yard. There he found the Manndl ready dressed, waiting for him. Together they made their way across the fields, as far as the high road. Here the stranger departed with many grateful thanks, and a handsome gift of money.

Matz now went off in search of Liese, and, knowing the creature's habits, found her within an hour, but it was dawn before he ventured to drive her into the farmyard. There he was met by Hirn, who, with savage looks, cursed him for carelessness in stabling the cows.

The old ruffian's manners made Matz decide not to spend another night alone with him. His own share in the Manndl's escape, and fear of being killed by Hirn if he had got any suspicions of the truth, put a new spirit into the lad. He purposely picked a quarrel with the farmer, and, to Hirn's dismay, left that very morning.

The money the Italian had given Matz, enabled him to live till he found new employment at Sistrans near Innsbruck. There he got a kind master and spent the next few years happily. During this time he often thought of the Venediger Manndl, and tried to learn what had become of him. It did not seem he had returned to Tyrol, though others of his kind were heard of in various places.

When Matz was about twenty-five years old, he became engaged to one Lotta Rimmel, a dairymaid on a farm not far from Reschen. She was an orphan like himself, and not well treated by her employers. Both young people would have been glad to marry straight away, but could not, as Matz was still a poor man. After the two had been engaged for a year, Lotta's ill-tempered and exacting master and mistress began to put on her so much life became a burden to her. This made Matz miserable. If he had had only a little money it would have been possible to buy, or at least hire, a farm. So far, however, his savings out of the scanty wages he earned were barely enough to pay for furniture. Many a twilight talk he and Lotta had on the subject, but marriage seemed out of the question for years to come.

One day, Matz had gone with some cattle to the fair at Reit. In the evening, he was about to return when a foreigner came up to him, took him aside, and said in stumbling German:

"Matz Kneisl, the Italian you saved from being murdered bu Jacob Hirn one night, has not forgotten you. Without you knowing it, he has kept an eye on you and knows that you are troubled because you cannot marry Lotta Rimmel, and that her employers treat her harshly. Don't ask how he who sent me, knows these things. Let it be enough that he has told me to give you this bag. It contains enough money to buy a small farm. Your industry must do the rest.

Further, he asked me to tell you that he wishes you well, and also to inform you that, if you should at any time visit Venice, he will be glad to see you. On this paper you will find his address.

Now I have done what he asked me to, so let me congratulate you and leave."

So saying, he bowed and was gone before the astonished Matz could keep him back. Matz stared, for the stranger seemed to have dissolved into air. With eager hands Matz opened the bag. Inside the canvas pouch was a good store of gold, more than an ordinary man could hold out easily at arm's length.

Next day Matz surprised Lotta when they met around sunset.

With the money a farm was soon found, and the two set up house. Everything went well with them, and by the time their first child, a sturdy boy, was born, there was not a more prosperous smallholder in all Tyrol.

Now, when the youngster was two years old, it happened that, in the market at Reshen, Matz came across Rudolph Gstrein, a carrier who conveyed goods by pack-mule to and from all parts. This man, having heard of Kneisl's skill with animals, asked the latter to accompany him on a journey into Italy, for the purpose of buying mules there. This offer attracted Matz. The harvest had just been carried, and work on the holding was slack. Two or three of the farm hands employed by him were reliable men, and these, under Lotta's direction - for her early training had given her a good knowledge of farm work - could be safely left in charge during the month's absence required to perform the Italian journey. Matz wondered whether his wife would object, so he told Gstrein that he wished to consult her before accepting.

However, when he discussed the plan with Lotta, she said at once:

"By all means go. Who knows but that south of the mountains you may find a better market for our cattle? A cousin of the Meyers, those wicked people for whom I worked in the bad old days before you rescued me, used to sell his bullocks at a good price down there. Besides, I have often thought you should call on the Vene-diger Manndl, and thank him for his great kindness. As for me, I shall manage the farm quite easily with the help of Anton and Peter. Don't worry about my being left alone. I have the boy to look after, and I might also ask the wife of Lorenz Hofer to come on a visit here. She was very good to me during the time I slaved for the Meyers. Her husband has just been called up for military service, so that it will be a charity to invite the woman. I will get your things ready at once."

Accordingly, within a fortnight Matz found himself in Venice. The sunshine and beauty of the south, above all the loveliness of the silent city, delicately coloured and fretted like some fantastic creation of the sea, dazzled his northern eyes. He walked the narrow streets lined with noble buildings, and crossed numberless canals that shone as if paved with emeralds or sapphires set in a network of silver. Full of astonishment, he elbowed his way through the Merceria, where brilliant fabrics and other wares from the East lighted the gloom of ancient shops. From these he passed into the square before St. Mark's church, and stood amazed, looking at that jewelled wonder.

Thence, at the steps in front of the ducal palace, he took a gondola, and floated down a broad channel, flanked by palaces of flushed marble, whose reflections lay pearly on the quiet waterway. Barges laden with brilliantly coloured fruit passed him on their way to the market up the canal; southwards, across the gleaming water, the huge, silvery dome of Santa Maria della Salute hovered above the raking masts of many ships, lean, Mediterranean sailing craft.

Matz had brought with him the Venediger Manndl's address, and on the second day, in the afternoon, asked a gondolier to take him there. The man rowed up the Grand Canal, and put in at the steps of a splendid palace that faced southwards. Matz landed, and not without some hesitation, for he felt very countrified in such surroundings, knocked at the door, and asked whether the master were at home. A stately manservant at once showed him upstairs to a large, richly furnished room. On its walls hung splendid pictures, the like of which Matz had never seen or imagined, and frescoes even more wonderful covered the ceiling.

As he stood awkwardly, hat in hand, admiring these things, the Manndl entered. Matz stared at him in amazement, for neither in dress, nor even in appearance, did the man seem a whit altered; yet he must be fully ten years older.

The Italian greeted him most cordially, and insisted that Matz should spend the afternoon and evening with him. He showed his guest the wonders of the house, after which a choice meal was served on a terrace contrived on the roof. A pergola supporting a vine covered it; all round were boxes of terra-cotta, adorned with reliefs, and filled with heliotrope and carnations. Seated at table, they could see beyond the gleaming lagoons as far as the beautiful hills clear against the gold of the southwest horizon, and, northwards, the great rampart of the Dolomites rose red in the setting sun.

As they conversed in the brief southern twilight, Matz suddenly observed a change in the Italian's face and manner. His face had grown paler, his dark eyes were troubled, and his speech wandering. After a time he stood up, and asked Matz to follow him down to a room on the floor below. Here the Manndl lighted seven tapers, carefully arranged in a pattern on a table of alabaster. Then, out of a cabinet, he took a mirror set in a frame on which curious figures were carved. Into this he looked for a time, evidently much disturbed by what he saw. Matz, chilled by these odd proceedings, longed to withdraw.

Presently the Manndl begged his guest to excuse him for a few minutes. He left the apartment, but soon returned with a phial and a large black mantle, on the hem of which mystic signs were embroidered in gold thread. Very gravely, the Italian asked Matz to accompany him upstairs. They returned to the balcony, and stood under the brilliant starlight.

The Manndl turned to the farmer, and said gravely:

"Kneisl, I have something to tell you; grievous news indeed. Don't be alarmed, however.

Follow my directions and all will end happily. Now listen. Two days ago, your child, Bartl, was taken ill with a fever, and is now at the point of death. You must return home straight away. By my help you can be at his bedside within half an hour. As soon as you arrive, give him what is in this phial, and, before three days are out, he will be perfectly well. Here also is a small gift for the boy. Slip it in your pocket, and remember that I am, and shall always be, your friend. "One thing only I require of you. Save to your wife, and that under a pledge of secrecy, speak to no one about the events of this night. When your son is twenty-one years old, you may inform him, but he also must keep the matter to himself till the birth of his first child. And now it is time you were going."

He led Matz to the marble balustrade of the terrace, fastened the cloak securely about him, and drew the hood well over his head, saying:

"Close your eyes, and do not attempt to open them till your feet rest on the ground. To disobey may be fatal. Give me your word that you will do this."

"You have it, sir," answered the trembling Matz.

"Farewell, and fear nothing," rejoined the Italian; then, in a loud voice, he cried:

"Reshen! Reshen! Abi et redi celeriter!"

Before the sound of these words had died in Kneisl's ears, a deep silence gathered around him. Wrapped in the mantle, as in a black cloud, he seemed to be moving swiftly through the night; his senses swam, and he lost all knowledge of place or time.

When he came to himself, he was standing cloakless outside the door of his home, where one window shone bright-lit in the gloom. He opened the door and entered. At the sound of his steps, Lotta ran down to meet him, her face streaming with tears.

"How is it you have returned so soon?" she gasped. "But, thank God, you have come before it is too late. Oh, Matz! Bartl is dying of fever, and I could not let you know in time, because I thought you were so far away."

Her husband hurried upstairs. On the bed lay his son, deathly white, and half-conscious. Without delay, Matz took a cup, emptied the phial into it, and offered the drink to the child. The little feverish lips drank eagerly, a flush passed over the pale face, and Bartl, turning on his side, settled into an easy sleep.

"Don't ask me any questions now, Lotta," whispered Matz. "Let us pray for the child instead!"

All through the night they watched by the bed, and with every hour the sleeper seemed to take a firmer hold on life. At dawn the doctor arrived and examined the boy with evident amazement.

At length he stood up, and, leading both parents from the room, said to the mother:

"Last night, I had not the heart to inform you that, short of a miracle, nothing could save your son. The miracle has taken place. I don't profess to understand it, but for your comfort I tell you that, so far as I can judge, all danger is over, and within a few days the boy should be completely well again."

The doctor was still more astonished when, on the third morning, he found Bartl busy with a big bowl of bread-and-milk, on the steps of the farm house.

Full of gratitude for the child's recovery, and for the hundred gold pieces in the purse that the Venediger Manndl had sent to their son, Matz and Lotta wrote the Italian a warm letter of thanks. No answer to it came, nor, though they tried to have news of their benefactor, did they succeed in getting any information him.

More mysterious still; when, some years later, Matz and his wife went to Venice and called on the Manndl, they found that the house had long been occupied by some wealthy foreigners, who told them the Italian had left shortly after Kneisl's previous visit; since when, no one seemed to know where he had settled.

[Retold]

⚶⚶⚶

Who gives more than he has is a scoundrel. (Proverb from Tyrol)

To know everything gives you a headache. (Proverb from Tyrol)

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