Above the steep wall of rock that bars the Oetzal valley towers the huge Biburg Spitz, and at the foot of the Spitz lies a large sheet of water. Sheltered by silvery mountain folds, its transparent depths are seldom ruffled, but faithfully mirror the tranquil heights and the fleeting glories of the sky overhead.
The lake is beautifully framed during the greater part of the year in a rich setting of wild flowers. The brightest day does not dispel the melancholy that seems to rest on it, as if a tragic history had steeped the water in a melancholy mood.
According to legend, there was a time when a strong castle and a small but heavily fortified town stood where the lake now shimmers. Both town and castle were governed by the counts of Biburg. Their neighbours said they were evil. Like the people of their town, they had grown rich by extorting heavy dues from travelling merchants in times when great numbers of merchants were compelled to cross Tyrol to get to the other side of the mountains. For Tyrol used to be the main highway between South Germany and Italy, then the centre of trade between Middle Europe and the East.
Wealth and some measure of success from extorting dues made the Biburgs and the townsmen insolently harsh and grasping. Safe behind their walls, they governed the land ruthlessly, compelling unfortunate peasants and farmers to sell them produce and stock at a loss; besides requiring them to perform forced labour on the roads.
The luxury and lawless ways of the last count were notorious all over Tyrol and South Germany, but it complaints were made to the Emperor in vain that. Civil war rendered him powerless to interfere, and the count continued in his ways.
But one night news came that a dreadful earthquake had shattered Biburg valley, and when people plucked up courage to visit the place, castle and town, together with their inhabitants, had disappeared. A deep lake covered the spot where those wretches had lived so lawlessly.
From that time all avoided the place, for it was said to be haunted by evil spirits. The few who ventured to sail across the lake reported that on fine, calm days, when the light was strong and the waters unruffled, the sunken town was visible in the depths, and that shapes of unearthly beings could often be seen wandering through the shadowy streets.
It was also rumoured that misfortune dogged all who tried to pry into those mysteries, and, in consequence, year by year the place became more and more deserted.
Some centuries after the Biburg town and castle were destroyed, a peasant called Schoff enclosed a piece of land not far from the lake. Here he built a house and lived in it with his wife and his son Gottfried. This lad, when full-grown, became famous as a powerful and venturesome youth. There was a tale that once, down at Buchenstein, he had met the Orco, that dreadful mountain spirit in the shape of a big bear. He had baffled the Orco by showing a bold front.
However that might be, Gottfried had mettle and was a solitary youth with a passion for adventure. The legend of the Biburg See fascinated him, and he began to spend all his spare time by its waters. The family had a clumsy boat there. They used it to ferry loads of hay from the Alp on the further side of the lake, so as to avoid a long and difficult cartage round the shores. Often, as the clumsy craft moved across the surface, Gottfried had stopped rowing to look down into the depths and ponder on the tale of the sunken castle and city. For a long time he could not see anything nothing, but by degrees he began to feel sure that now and again he had caught glimpses of buildings far below: roofs, pinnacles, towers, all blurred, yet unmistakable, in spite of the gloom of the water. With practice, he could even distinguish clearly the outline of the town, and even to trace its plan when the light was strong.
For all his boldness, he was more than once startled by the sight of ghostly forms moving, now singly, now in groups, along the dark paths that revealed the course of a street, deep between the buildings. These shapes were different to look at. Some of them were jelly-like, or like silken bags, pale, iridescent, or brightly coloured. Many were of serpent form and fierce: others were great fish of unknown kinds, covered with hard, glittering armour.
Among these monsters, Gottfried singled out one that looked like a giant pike cased in scales of such brilliance that they lit the water around it.
Gottfried also remembered hearing that, many years ago, a man who happened to visit the lake on a hot day was tempted to bathe. On entering the water he had been attacked by a huge eel-like monster. The fellow had escaped, but not before the creature, pursuing him through the shallows, had, with several ferocious bites, maimed him for life.
This story, far from daunting the young farmer, whetted his curiosity. He determined to probe the mystery. Although he was brave, he was not rash, and therefore laid his plans carefully. After getting some strong copper wire, he fashioned a kind of trawl, and hoped to catch some of these monsters in it, and, perhaps the huge, gleaming fish too.
When the trawl was ready, he waited for a suitable occasion.
One Sunday, at the beginning of autumn, the afternoon was windless, the sky clear, and the sun shone richly on the lake. Gottfried went down the shore and launched his boat. He had with him a coil of rope, the trawl, an axe, a heavy knife, and a hunting spear, bought at the fair in Oertz - a powerful weapon, whose handle he had bound with steel wire to prevent the prey from biting through the wood. This and the copper network of the trawl would, he thought, make sure that a catch could not escape.
Moreover, as a precaution against spells, he had secretly borrowed a tiny silver anchor belonging to his mother, and hung it round his neck by a cord steeped in healing water.
The breeze was favourable, though very light, as it always is in that enclosed valley, Gottfried hoisted the clumsy sail, and sailed northwards across the lake. When the boat drew near the sunken town, he leaned over the bows, peering into the depths.
The young man knew his time was limited, seeing that within two hours vespers would ring from the tower of Oertz, and he had observed earlier that whenever the sound of bells fleeted across the surface, every phantom shape vanished, and did not appear again for a long while.
The afternoon was fine, and the green depths unusually clear. After a time Gottfried began to see the outline of the sunken buildings quite welly. Shadowy creatures in great numbers were moving through the dark troughs that marked the course of the streets. Among these shapes he was delighted to spy the long, gleaming fish, just a little way ahead of the boat.
The trawl was hanging in the water at the stern. Noiselessly, Gottfried released it, and paid out rope, till its slackness told him the trawl had grounded in the gloomy trench of a street. All this while, his boat was gliding steadily under sail, and the adventurer, looking over the bows, laid his course straight for the brilliant fish, which glittered below, a yard or two toward the stern. Round the shiny fish other forms seemed to have gathered.
Standing up, Gottfried drew the trawl through the group, and by the strain on the guiding rope he knew he had made a catch. Hand over hand he hauled, till the trawl came to the surface in a flurry of foam. But it was not the splendid fish he had caught, but a strange creature that struggled desperately in the meshes.
Using all his strength, the young man hoisted the trawl aboard and stood, spear in hand, staring at his prize It was a sinister, grey, pulpy mass- In its round, blunt head gleamed pale eyes rolling in anguish. From its gills hung two pearls of unusual size and lustre.
Gottfried poised his spear threateningly, and the monster uttered a sharp shriek and lay very still. At the same moment, the water round the boat was violently stirred, for the huge, brilliant fish was swimming round the craft, together with other creatures that pressed frantically about the sides of the vessel, as if they sought to board it. They could not accomplish that and fell back, awed by the thrusts of the hunting spear, but they still swam round the boat, just out of reach.
In the meantime, the captured monster, writhing in the meshes of the trawl, managed to raise its head. To Gottfried's horror and amazement, the monster suddenly spoke to him in German. The voice was that of a middle-aged woman:
"For pity's sake, sir, don't harm me, but hear me."
Gottfried felt for the little silver anchor round his neck and got a little bolder through it.
"I don't know who you are," he answered. "However, I'm sure no beast can use human language."
He brought the point of his spear close to the meshes. "Speak if you wish, but remember that, on the first attempt to play me a foul trick, I drive this home without mercy."
The sobbing monster said: "I am in your power, and besides I would not hurt you if I could, for too much evil already lies on my conscience as it is. I am not what I seem. Centuries ago I lived among men. I was Adelheid, wife of Franz Otto, the last count of Biburg. My husband was proud and stern, and I was audacious and cruel. I took delight in goading my husband to savage and oppressive acts, so that, within a few years he terrorised neighbours, and made others starve.
"For a long time the peasants suffered and died patiently, but at length despair drove them to action. Led by a hermit, a deputation came to the castle. I remember how the poor people knelt before us in the banqueting hall, with its well-filled tables. Humbly they begged for mercy and for bread.
"The hermit alone did not kneel, but, standing erect and fearless he reproached the Biburgs for their conduct, and warned us of what was to come unless we changed our ways. My husband was evidently shaken, cowed, but what the hermit said, so I sprang up, determined to shame such weakness.
"On the table was a large silver bowl full of milk. By my orders, the bowl was placed before my youngest daughter, a girl of five, seated by me. I washed her in the milk. Then I set the bread and milk on the floor and called up the dogs, who lapped it greedily.
"The kneeling, starving peasants groaned at the sight, but the hermit looked on in disdainful silence. Frenzied with rage, I caught a jug of wine and emptied it on the floor to stress that that we would not yield to disrespectful begging. Then I commanded some servants to flog the poor wretches out of the castle. They refused to do it, however, for even the ruffians in our service would not take part in such wrongdoing.
"The hermit turned without saluting and told the people to follow him. At the door, he paused. Pointing to us, he said sternly: "Remember, I warned you."
"There was no more peace in the castle or town that day. Even my husband looked askance on me, gloomily.
"That same night, in the dead of dark, while we slept, we heard a terrible sound. The mountains seemed to be crumbling about us. Before we could rise, the earth shook and yielded beneath Biburg. A great rush of waters swept over castle and town, and every soul in them was drawn down to a dreadful, living death.
Since that time, now centuries ago, we have been imprisoned in the shape of monsters in this lake, The giant fish who attempted to rescue me just now is my husband. Thescales that encase him, as they also clothe the armed men we formerly employed to carry out our wicked crimes, are a mocking semblance of the armour, once his pride.
We have long hoped for a deliverer. You may easily become one.?"
Gottfried said. "What must I do to help you?"
The countess-monster answered:
"Release me at once. I shall go down to Biburg and fetch the jewels I used to exult in without thought of others, or the poor. Sell the jewels and distribute the money among the poor in the district. It will be a long, difficult business, and you must use care and discretion.
For your pains, and as a reward, keep the two pearls I am wearing. They are of great value, so that you will be well paid. Do as I tell, and our spirits will find some rest."
At once Gottfried stooped over the trawl, raised it, and released the uncanny creature from it. With a shudder he laid hold of the slimy form and helped it over the boat-side. He lowered his sail and rowed round the spot. Soon, out of the lake, breast high, appeared the head and shoulders of a grey-haired, harsh-featured woman who seemed worn by suffering. Clinging to the boat, she held out an ivory casket. After that, she removed the earrings and, handing them to Gottfried, fixed anxious eyes on him, with these words:
"As you have trusted me, I trust you. The jewels are really valuable. The pearl drops are your reward. Deal faithfully by us. Farewell, and most grateful thanks."
So saying, she slid back into the water and disappeared.
Gottfried peered over the top side of the boat and saw, not strange, beast-like shapes, but shadowy figures of men and women underneath. They were looking up at him through the green depths with pleading glances.
As he sat with his eyes fixed on the glooms below, the music of vesper bells came faintly across the lake. At once the phantoms faded, and he could not see them any longer.
Gottfried kept his promise to the countess, and as a result, many grateful souls prayed earnestly for her and her companions and the other troubled spirits. So great was the value of the pearl drops that the Schoffs found themselves in very easy circumstances. Moreover, a blessing seemed to rest on all they undertook, so by the time his father died, Gottfried was looked on as the wealthiest landowner for many miles around. He was, however, a man of simple tastes, and continued to live at the farm.
Often he used to walk by the Biburg See, half hoping for some glimpse of the spirits that had haunted it. None ever appeared to him. And since that time, no ghosts of the lake have been seen.
The most beautiful weapon in the world is the plough in the field. (Proverb from Tyrol)