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10. Skittles

Skittles (ninepins) is a bowling game in which players roll or throw a ball or disc at nine skittles and try to knock over as many of them as possible. A skittle (pin) is typically widest just above the base.

One bright moonlight night a pedlar was trudging steadily through the pine woods that skirted the right bank of the Salvesenbach, near Imst. He carried his bundle of wares on his back, and in his hand he grasped a sturdy ashen staff, the companion of many a journey. As he mounted a steep ascent in the forest an owl flew over his head and hooted vehemently in its noiseless flight.

"Good, my friend," said the pedlar speaking aloud, after the manner of one who is his own companion. "But whether you mean good night or good morning, I'm not certain. It seems late enough for the one and early enough for the other. Anyhow, I wish I could find a sleeping place as easily as you could do, if you desired. I never thought I should march on like this for hours before I reached a village.

"But what have we here? Rocks or ruins? Ah! I see, friend owl; I have reached your home, and I must suppose you are giving me a good and hearty welcome.

"At any rate, that clear sky is going to be my bedroom ceiling tonight, for I refuse to move a step further."

As he spoke these words he passed under an archway and found himself in an open grassy space surrounded by ruined walls, evidently the remains of a sturdy old castle that had been built in days gone by as a shelter and defence on this pine-clad height.

Through one of the gaps in the walls our pedlar caught sight of a small lake silvered with moonlight, and he could hear the murmur of the river and the rustling of the trees.

"Pleasure first and business later," said the man. "Now here's a soft place for my body, and a vault that will keep me dry; for there will be a heavy dew this fine night. Now for some food and a smoke. You can lie there," he remarked, laying his staff by his side. "I like you to be near at hand when I'm sleeping in these big bed-chambers."

He settled himself comfortably; ate and drank his fill; then lit his pipe and puffed luxuriously at the good tobacco and lay back against the ancient wall.

Stefan Anton was a remarkably fine-looking man with dark hair and keen, black eyes, and over six feet. He was used to toil and simple fare. Perhaps some odd beliefs crossed his mind as he lay smoking; but he did not show any fear.

However he was somewhat astonished when, not far away, a church clock struck the hour of midnight. "Think of that!" he exclaimed. "A few steps farther and I might have slept in a bed of good straw. Well, this is cheaper and much fresher. Perhaps I'm far better off here. — Come now, what is all this about?"

He sat up straight as he spoke these words and grasped his staff while counting approaching figures:

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve - twelve jolly good comrades! I thought that he had only owls for his companions. I'll get up and welcome my visitors."

He rose to his full height and stood gazing intently out of his keen black eyes.

Twelve figures cased in armour had entered the enclosure, and went silently into the middle of the sward. Nine of them each carried a large skittle, or kegel; the other three one big, flat, wooden ball a-piece. Without a word the silent beings put the skittle-pins in place, and then they all set to work, bowling solemnly at the pins. Soon the midnight air echoed with the rattle of falling skittles as the mute, solemn figures marched up and down the improvised bowling alley. The pedlar stood and watched as long as his lively nature would allow him. Then, filling his pipe afresh, he advanced into the middle of the group of twelve who were gesticulating over some debatable point.

" Good night, he cried by way of greeting, and awaited the customary answer, "To you too." But it did not come.

"Well, friends," he continued, "you may be shy; or you may be silent for other reasons. I don't know, and, to speak truth, I don't care overmuch. But I am not the champion bowler in my own village for nothing. I guarantee to take you on, one at a time, and think I can give you as good a game as any other could do. Come now, what are the stakes? Drinks all round at the village over there as soon after cockcrow as we can get them?"

The twelve figures kept silent. He added: "Ah, 'silence seems to consent.' Then get to it!"

As he said these last words a brisk stir ran through the company of twelve. One put the skittle pins up on end, another picked up a ball, and, before Stefan could light his pipe, which had gone out, he was involved in a contest that warmed his heart within him. For over an hour, and in silence, except for the pedlar's jovial remarks, the game went on till at last he stood wiping his brow in the middle of twelve well-beaten rivals.

As a good sportsman he was just beginning to belittle his own skill in praise of theirs, when suddenly a burst of joy sprang from the mouths that had been silent. A chorus of hurrahs swept round the surprised Stefan. Then the tallest of the figures came nearer to him, and said:

"Friend, for years beyond count we have been doomed to play our game in silence, awaiting the time when someone should dare to come and defeat us in this old-time game. Thanks to you we are free to mount a first-class heaven!"

The speaker mingled with his fellows in a final outburst of thanks, and then they all disappeared.

The pedlar was astonished. "Zounds!" he cried. "That was strange, and now it's too late for drinks at the inn! For now it's past closing-time."

After a little, he exclaimed: "Hullo! What's this?"

He looked around: the ruined and weather-beaten ruin walls became solid and sound before his eyes. Through ten doors came ten more warriors in armour. Each closed and locked the door behind him and moved in the calm moonlight towards the bewildered pedlar.

"Come one, come all!" he cried cheerfully, as the silent shapes swept towards him. "I could wish I might offer you all a drink of good Kuchelberger wine; but it's late. Anyway, if any of you would care to play me a game of skittles - " He pointed to the ninepins lying on the ground.

But the figures shook their heads. By signs and signals they let him know they had problems with their doors and keys. They moved to and fro and looked at the keys and at the pedlar. At first he could only stare and scratch his head in wonder. Then each of them put his key in the pedlar's hands, while pointing to the doors, to themselves and to the pedlar. This went on till an idea crossed his brain:

"Listen," he said, "just nod your heads if I am right, and shake them if I'm wrong. What I seem to gather is this: you want me to take these keys, fit them in the doors, and then hand the right key to the one among you that is to have it. Is that it?"

Each form nodded vigorously.

"Good!" cried the pedlar. He set about his task. He found the first key and the man to give it to, and told him to stand aside and leave the other nine alone. Then he went on with his task, until each of the ten stood holding his own key.

The pedlar said: "That's done. Why, you seem quite happy about it!"

The ten silent forms had joined hands, and were performing a merry jig. Round and round they capered and pranced. They hopped and leapt like children set free from school. Finally, they too broke the silence and thanked him, explaining to the dark-eyed pedlar that he had freed their souls from torment after they all once had been cursed with confusion in this matter for some reason.

Suddenly they vanished from sight in a light, as though the other side had sucked them in.

"This place," said the pedlar, "is not good for sleeping. I shall have to make up for my lack of sleep under some good haystack when the sun is high."

He paused and after a little exclaimed: "But in the name of goodness, what's this?" His eyes had caught sight of an agitated figure that bounced briskly in through one of the gaps in the ruined walls; for now the place was just as the pedlar had found it.

The pedlar needed only a glance to realise who the newcomer was, for he had batlike wings and a long, snake-like tail twitching behind him. It swept to and fro over the grass, and his eyes glowed like fire. He carried two bags in his hands.

"What's all this mischief you are at?" howled the newcomer.

"Mischief, you say?" answered the pedlar. "It's not easy work against foolish tricks."

The light in the devil's eyes grew. "Man," said he, "for your work tonight I claim your soul."

"Ah!" answered the pedlar, taking his pipe out of his pocket. "Of big words and feathers many go to the pound. There will be no such thing unless I sell it. I've never heard of a soul be taken otherwise. And what would you pay for it, i in case I would sell it?"

The light in the devil's eyes grew more ominous. He emptied one of his bags on the ground at the feet of the pedlar. A bag of gold!

"Only that?" asked the pedlar. "Why, as a pedlar I could earn that much in a year or two by honest means. Bid higher, or there will be no bargain."

The devil threw down the other bag. It was somewhat larger.

"You weary me," said the pedlar. "It's surprising that you're so stingy. I've set free twenty-two good fellows tonight, and now, in return for my own soul, you offer that little!"

He kicked away the two bags with his foot and went on:

"Here's a chance for you to show that you are a sportsman. Bring in a sack of gold as large as I can carry, and I'll play you a game of skittles for these stakes. If you win, you'll have my soul. If I win, I take the gold. Is it a bargain?"

With a rustle of his dark wings the devil was gone in a flash and returned almost as quickly afoot, groaning under a large sack. He placed it on the grass.

The pedlar bent and lifted it as easily as a mother lifts her child in her arms, for he was well built and his life as a pedlar carrying loads of wares on his back had made him tough and strong.

"How little wealth! I'm ashamed of you. Still I'll accept it, for I'm fond of playing skittles! We'd better start, for unless I'm mistaken the church clock is striking two in the morning now."

The devil winced at the word "clock", for some reason.

"Ah!" remarked the pedlar. "Come, then, put those skittles up on end. And, by the way, none of your dark tricks. See here!"

He took two pieces of wood and bound them in the form of an anchor and stuck it in the grass near the pins. "I'm not going to have any of your little demons coming to knock over the skittles when you miss. 'Fair play is a jewel,' a proverbs has it."

In reply, the devil took hold of his long tail and bound it round his middle, tying the end in a knot. But he was so agitated that the tip of the tail still twitched like a captured eel.

"And now we'll begin," said the pedlar.

It was a tough game, and the rattling skittles disturbed all the owls in the place till they screeched and hooted. The two players kept more or less even for a time until the pedlar happened to glance at the sack of gold and felt a great desire to live and enjoy wealth as he had never known till now. Therefore he focused much better on the game, recalling the many tricks and manoeuvres that had often helped him win on his his village green.

"There have been times," said he to the devil, "when with one bowl I have knocked over all nine pins at one stroke."

The devil cried: "Oh, on with the game. Only a few more minutes are left before the cocks crow, and if the score is still even, I shall claim your soul as mine."

"Really, said the pedlar. "That was not part of our agreement. That's the first time I've heard of those conditions."

The devil, darting an evil glance at him, took up the ball. He was bending to aim and bowl better when Stefan put his hot pipe on the tip of the twitching tail, which was not very hot for some reason.

"Stop that!" howled the devil.

"Sorry," said the cheerful pedlar; "my mistake. It will not happen again."

The devil bowled and knocked over seven kails in one splendid attempt.

"Good," cried the pedlar. "Now there are only the other two left."

The devil got the other two down also, with one more ball.

"Now, watch this," said the pedlar and bowled the ball. All nine pins fell to the ground.

"Three points to me," said Stefan cheerfully, and two for you. I'm in the lead."

The devil howled angrily, and as he did so a cock in the village below sung loud and clear his morning song. The devil leapt into the air at the sound, rustled his bat-like wings, and disappeared.

Stefan stretched himself.

"That's the end of a very disturbed night," he said. "I'll try and snatch a few minutes' rest; but, first of all, I'll move this sack to my corner and use it for a pillow. It should be safe enough under my head."

After a deep, refreshing sleep the pedlar arose, and swinging his pack and the gold on his stalwart shoulders, strode down to the village that he could now see clearly in the valley below. He went straight to the inn and called for the landlord.

"What place is that up there?" he asked, pointing to the ruins.

"That's the old castle of Starkenburg," answered the man; "and it was destroyed as long ago as the fifteenth century by Duke Frederick IV, also known as Frederick of the Empty Purse."

"Humph," said the pedlar. "I don't care much for his name. Is the place haunted?"

The landlord looked at him.

"The devil rules up there," he answered.

"Really?" said the pedlar. "Well, dear landlord, devil or no devil, give me the best breakfast you can provide, and we'll drink to the good things in life, and some of them in my sack."

The story goes that the pedlar later settled down in his own home and lived a long and happy life with plenty of money and time to play skittles. He was not only champion of the village, but became well known throughout Tyrol for his wonderful skill.

[Retold]

⚶⚶⚶

One may bake as long as the oven is hot. (Proverb from Tyrol)

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