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12. The Elder Tree

The village of Enneberg lies near to the Italian border. Schloss Asch was long ago a great and powerful castle dominating the village, and ruling as well as protecting the locality. The Lord of Asch was a person of great power, and his word was law in lawless days. A nod from him, and the peasants, even in the middle of dancing the Schuhpluttler, would cease their work in a moment. At his command they would strip off their holiday attire, embroidered leather breeches, white shirts, green braces, Tyrolese hats, or what not, and rush to get into their workaday garments; a mere frown from him would check their actions. No more slapping of thighs and soles of the feet. If the master looked black; the mirth must stop.

Why, one of the villagers of Enneberg would sooner have given offence to a Putz than disobey the Lord of Asch. So any Gianot might be walking with a krattle full of grapes, through the burs, singing like an angel and careless as a new-born babe. But, if the nobleman met him and said: "Gianot, empty those grapes out of your krattle and trample them in the dust," well, poor Gianot would have obeyed at once.

Within the Castle the power and influence of the Lord of Asch was felt even to a greater degree. The whole staff of servants looked to him as sheep look to a watchdog. Woe to any who crossed the will of such a lord. To give commands and accept obedience was almost an instinct with a lord of Asch.

At the time of our story, the Lord of Asch was about to leave his castle and go to war, getting into a saddle that the lords of Asch never failed to use in battles, for it enabled its owners to pass through the hottest fray uninjured and unscathed.

The people of Enneberg were fighting against the powerful Carodini because the Lord of Asch wished them to do so. The war was his, and his dependants must of necessity support his cause. The Lords of Asch knew that if they quarrelled in their cups with some other great personage, all their soldiers would have to pay the penalty.

So the Lord of Asch was riding forth to conflict, taking his soldiers with him. This meant bidding farewell to household life, and following pursuits in the open. The great noble must devote himself wholeheartedly to fighting. He must, among other matters, say good-bye to his wife, and leave her to direct affairs in his absence.

In this instance the task might not have been too easy, for the Lady of Asch was expecting shortly to have a baby, and the departure of her lord would throw responsibility on her shoulders just at a time when most women would least desire it.

But a great lord must not be thwarted. To fight was a most engrossing and desirable deed in feudal times. Most other things must be set aside without regard for the feelings of individuals.

But Ottilia, the Lady of Asch did not repine because of her added responsibility. Indeed, she rather welcomed her opportunities. If her lord went forth to war, she would get greater authority within the castle, and she loved power. Once her husband had gone, she would have undivided control in his absence. And if, during the war, something were to happen to her lord, then the future held certain advantages that could be admirably enjoyed. Meanwhile, the coming of a baby - well, other women thought little of that.

The Lord of Asch left riding on his special saddle, and followed by a flashing train of ardent warriors, together with many soldiers. Down the valleys, and on into the sunny land of Italy they passed, the music of the trumpet growing ever less and less till finally it died away, and once again the people in the castle could hear the wind soughing in the trees outside. The Lady of Castle Asch was now in full and undisputed control.

One day some servants came into the castle with the news that an old woman was without, asking for food and shelter and refusing to depart until she had seen the good Lady of Castle Asch. They had never met such an obstinate creature, they said. Would their lady be so kind as to come herself and bid the beggar depart?

The lady listened with raised eyebrows. "Will not depart? These words to my servants?" she asked. Then, after a pause, she added, as she rose: "Bid old Wilhelm attend me at the Castle entrance with a whip."

She went down to the great door of the castle, and stood face to face with the old woman.

"What do you want?" asked the lady.

"Only food and shelter," quavered the old woman.

"Wilhelm," said Ottilia of Castle Asch, speaking slowly and sharply, "whip her off the premises." Then she turned with a haughty smile and made as though to enter the castle.

But before Wilhelm could strike, the old woman spoke rapidly, and in a high, sharp voice:

"Soulless wretch!" she cried, "Your doom will be of your own doing. Never blame me for it. Give birth to your twelve sons, and in the day of your calamity remember the old beggar woman."

Then, beneath the blows that fell on her, she tottered out of the castle gates, and was seen no more. The servants glanced at one another, quite alarmed. Only the Lady of Castle Asch was unmoved. She returned calmly to her tapestry work with her maidens.

One night, not so long after this event, twelve sons were born to Ottilia. When the nurse told her the news, the Lady of Castle lay in icy silence. The words of the old woman came throbbing to her mind: "In the day of your calamity, remember the old beggar woman."

After a time she turned to her attendant and said: "Choose the comeliest, and take the others out secretly and drown them without delay."

The nurse turned white, and stammered: "What did you say, my lady?"

The Lady of Castle Asch repeated her command, adding, "Obey me, and you shall be amply recompensed. Disobey, and you will be punished. See that my orders are accomplished by the morning." Then she fell asleep.

The woman gazed at her in horror. Yet "to hear was to obey," she knew full well like other servants of the Castle. But the inhumanity of this mother passed her comprehension. Twice she had heard the command given, and still she doubted if she had heard rightly. She decided to wait till the lady awoke and once again broach the subject.

Ottilia woke at dawn. She sat up in her bed and looked steadily at her servant.

"Have you obeyed my order?" she asked.

"Not yet, my lady," faltered the woman.

"And why not?" was the inquiry. "Do you wish to be driven from the Castle as the old hag was hunted out the other day?"

"Lady," cried the nurse. "I only waited till you woke from sleep. In case you would change your mind."

"Then wait no more. Go and do my command at once," came the icy reply.

The miserable attendant, whose name was Maria Zips, went out, taking with her eleven of the children and weeping bitterly at the prospect of the task that lay ahead. Unseen, she passed at that early hour from the precincts of the Castle, making her way along the road that led through the mountains.

She wandered on and on, striving to summon up courage to perform her cruel duty, but unable to find enough resolution. At last, towards midday, she sat down by the roadside and wept again.

As she brooded there, with her head buried in her hands, to her surprise she heard the voice of the Lord of Castle Asch addressing her. His words fell on her troubled ears like the accents of a speaker from another world.

"Why are you weeping, Maria?" he asked.

She started violently, flushed red in the face, and bent her eyes to the ground. Vainly she sought for some explanation, but none save that of the naked truth came to her worried mind.

The Lord of Castle sat waiting for her reply. Then, slowly and pitifully, and with intermingled tears, Maria told her sad story.

The Lord of Castle Asch heard her to the end.

"Give them to me," he said. "Now go back to your mistress, and say nothing of what has passed. I have, at the least, saved you from murder."

The grateful attendant placed the children in his arms, and made haste to return to the lady. Her white face and agitated manner saved her from being questioned. The Lady Ottilia took it for granted that her inhuman command was fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the Lord of Asch sat and pondered. Then he summoned to his side his personal attendant, a middle-aged and faithful servant.

"See here, Taland," said he, "here's a lusty young brood. Take the whelps; speed to some distant village, and see that instructions are given for the proper care of these youngsters. When you come back, speak of the matter to me alone. Not a whisper to anyone else. This will be on your life, man."

Taland left, and the Lord of Castle pursued his lonely way up to his castle home. On his unexpected return, everybody was in a turmoil. His lady was too indisposed to see him, nor did he urge for admittance to her chamber. He bided his time, and in due course was welcomed to Ottilia's side to see his son and heir, the child born in his absence.

Without the slightest sign of any foreknowledge of the event, he took the child in his arms and kissed it.

"We must take care of this son of ours," he said gravely. "For who knows whether heaven will grant us any more children." Then, placing the baby in its cradle, he strode from the room.

When Taland returned, he sought audience of his master. As soon as he was certain of being able to speak without being overheard, he informed the Lord of Castle Asch of all he had done. The children were now with respectable foster-mothers. Everything that could be done for their welfare was to be provided, and he himself could act as agent to bring news to his master.

"It is well, Taland," commented the lord. "Now remember, as you value your life, not a single word is to be told of this matter to anyone in the Castle, or outside it, until the day I permit it."

Taland bowed low and departed.

The Lord of Castle Asch sat, resting his head on his hand. Hour after hour passed by, but he gave no sign of life. He might have been a statue, so rigid, so inert, was this lord now. The day faded, grew grey, and night fell on.

What did he think as he sat in silence through those hours? His warfare had been triumphant; no more would his enemy mock him, scorn him, or offend him in any way, for he was dead. When a feudal lord had won a victory he would celebrate his return from the campaign with festivity and rejoicing. But no such feasting and revelry followed now. The lord of Castle Asch did not call together friends and relations and make the castle ring with the cries of victors drinking to future success. Instead a silence brooded over the place for days after his sudden return.

Was he ill? Had some strange happened to him during the war and left its mark on him? Had he seen and loved another than his lady?

As soon as the Lady Ottilia rose from her bed, she set to work to unravel this mystery. The nurse assured her that her part of the work had been accomplished satisfactorily. Taland was as silent as one of the stone turrets of the Castle. "Clearly," thought Ottilia, "his manner has nothing whatever to do with events that happened here. Those are known but to Maria and to me, and when she dies (and she will, perchance, before long, for her years are many) my heart can shelter the secret till the day when secrecy matters no longer. No! This strange silence is due to some other cause, and I will set to work to worm the reasons from him. Even a hair casts a shadow. I must watch closely."

So the Lady Ottilia employed her feminine wiles to find out the explanation of her husband's altered manner; and she watched with all that patience possessed by women when they seek to read a man's heart; but she might just as well have striven to look through a stone wall, or have sought to divine the feelings of a glacier. Her husband observed a polite but utterly cold attitude towards her, seeing that she lacked for nothing, but otherwise treading his pathway alone and in silence.

She now had more control over the domestic side of the household, and this pleased her. No longer did she come into conflict with the will of the Lord of Asch, for he left her to manage things by herself; and in her own sphere she ruled more absolutely than before. But the mystery of his silence remained.

Years sped by. In course of time the nurse, Maria Zips, died, and she and the knowledge she had were buried together. On that day, the Lady Otillia felt a load lifted from her heart, and, forthwith, she held her head higher and her rule became more imperious than before. The women-folk around her felt the difference, and wondered. But the thought in her mind was that a woman keeps secret only what she does not know, and that Maria, for that reason, was better dead.

The child, chosen to live for her delight, grew and waxed strong. In the early years he was naturally with her a great deal, but as soon as he was old enough to study more intelligently the life around him, his martial instincts led him away from the lady's bower, and nearer to the spear side of life in the Castle. Moreover, he developed a great love for that silent father of his: the lord of the castle might be stern with his servants, cold and distant to his wife and other women folk, but he exercised a great fascination for the boy.

The child meant more and more to him as the years went by, and he needed less of the somewhat exacting attentions of the Lady Ottilia. The boy preferred the broader outlook of the father to the narrower ideas of his mother, and showed his preference to a marked extent. He became the close companion of the stern lord, his father, and accompanied him everywhere. The two would spend hours in one another's company, and never a word would pass the lips of the man, but the boy studied his ways and learned his method of doing things, and so grew nearer to the role model by his side.

Thus in the great pile of Castle Asch, the occupants were divided into two distinct groups, the followers of the lord and the lady respectively, and, of the latter, it is to be feared that it included few who really loved the lady for herself. They obeyed and served because they saw no other ways, but, as she grew older, her domineering ways and lack of fascination caused her to be looked on by the members of her sex with a distaste that they were often at some difficulty to disguise.

And now, after many years, the boy had reached manhood's estate, being well trained in all those pursuits that in bygone days were necessary accomplishments for a knight. Under the tuition of his father and Taland, and other seasoned warriors of the Castle, he had advanced from one degree to another, and was fit and able to hold his own in the fields of warfare. His father's servants called him "the young lord of Castle Asch."

One hardy old fellow, Andreas Fieger, the falconer, said to Taland:

"The young lord is like his father. He will carry on the tradition of our old Castle; but I could wish that others had come to share responsibilities with him. His life and ours in the great castle would have been more joyous if the lord and lady had had more children."

Taland did not reply at once. He pointed to a hawk that was hanging poised in the air. Then he turned to Andreas, and remarked:

"When hawks are abroad, it's bad for young broods. See if your cross-bow is free from rust, old friend."

Andreas drew a shaft and, with skilful aim, pierced the bird as it hung beating its wings and searching for prey. The hawk and shaft fell to the ground.

"It is better so," said Taland slowly; "hawks are dangerous neighbours to nestlings."

"Aye," answered Andreas, "hawks to be of advantage must be trained. They must learn the use of the hood and the lure."

"And at all times," responded Taland, "he who would guard his brood must use the crossbow and the shaft."

Having said this he turned away, leaving Andreas to recover his precious arrow.

One day, not long after this incident, news spread through the Castle that great festivities were to be held to celebrate the coming of age of the young lord. The Castle was to be thrown open to all the neighbours. A great banquet was to be held, and it was further announced that the Lord of Castle Asch had invited, as befitting guests and companions for his son, a number of young knights from other parts of Tyrol, to share in the joy of this special occasion.

At once vast preparations were set on foot, and kitchen and buttery were busy all day long to provide for the coming guests. Verderers and falconers, gardeners and cooks, were busily employed. The butler studied afresh the wealth of his cellars. Men-at-arms found new occupation in fishing the streams. All was bustle and mirth.

The Lady Ottilia was keenly interested in this new departure from the ordinary life of the castle. Her immediate neighbours she knew full well, and they knew her. But to think of all these strange knights coming to the festivities! It certainly would become her to array herself befittingly for the splendid occasion. Therefore, her tire-women were set to work, and many an anxious moment was spent in the discussion of what was proper and suitable for the lady's adornment. There was stitching and sewing, re-shaping and new modelling that Ottilia might grace the board as became so great a personage, the proud mother of the young lord, and the wife of the Lord of Asch.

Vanity had never been lacking in Ottilia's nature. And how many ladies in life forget that once the bloom of youth is over, it is hard to get young again. And now the doors of the great banqueting hall were flung open; candles glittered in their sconces; servants ran here and there in organized efforts to create comfort for the assembled guests. Laughter and song rang through the old grey castle. Great lords and ladies, youths and maidens of high degree, old friends and distant relatives, vied with one another to make the merry hours still merrier, and glean the enjoyment lying close to their hands. Then came a clarion call at the castle gates; people crowded to the windows and doorways to witness a new arrival; they beheld a train of knights come riding through the courtyard and approach the great doorway where, long ago, old Wilhelm, now dead and at rest with God, had so thoroughly carried out the commands of the Lady Ottilia on the old begging woman.

As the Lady of Castle Asch, standing at a window, looked down on this glad cortege. The knights dismounted and entered the castle. They were met by the Lord of Castle Asch and his noble son. With the other guests, now that the assembly was complete, they entered the great hall, and, in bustling mirth, men and women took their appointed places. Servants bore round joints and dishes of food; goblets were filled and emptied. Pledges were made and taken. Mirth and laughter rippled round the rafters of the vast chamber, and, at the head of the board, sat the Lord of Castle Asch and his lady - host and hostess of this great gathering.

Close by them, where all could see, sat the young lord, doing his duty as entertainer of the knights who had come from afar to assist in this celebration of his coming of age. Those eleven youthful warriors, gaily attired, were, in the centre of the throng; their bursts of song, their cries of merriment kept the company alive with the glee that bubbles out from young hearts like good wine from a flagon.

Then, towards the end of the banquet, the Lord of Castle Asch, who had, in his silent manner, taken a share of duties as leader of the revels, rose to his feet and, calling for silence, began to speak in a full, deep voice.

"My guests and friends, and all of you who have journeyed to witness this coming of age, I wish you joy and long life, and my prayers are for happiness all your days. Yet one's thoughts on this occasion are more especially for my offspring. When we are older, faithful friendships and loyal companions are the main solace of existence. Yet before we drink to the health of my offspring, I have to ask you all to help me judge in a matter that bewilders my heart and brain. Never till this day have I sought for human counsel in my judgments, but now, listen to what I tell, and from your deepest wisdom assist me in my bounden duty."

So earnest were his words that a strange awe came over the guests, and the men and women, who before had chatted and laughed freely, now sat leaning forward in anticipation of some deeply serious communication. It was as though, on some sunny day of June, a dark cloud had suddenly gathered round the mountain-tops and begun to roll ominously down towards the valleys.

The Lord of Castle Asch continued:

"I have heard of a woman who gave birth to twelve children. One of my servants made me aware of it. The mother chose one of these infants and sent away the others to be put to death. It has fallen to me to judge her action. In the eyes of the law she is a murderess.

"Suppose, for example, that we had here twelve brothers" - he pointed to the group of young knights - "all of the same age. What mother could have decided which should live and which should die? And if a mother had determined that eleven should die, such a company as this would convict her of murder eleven times over. Yet, my guests, think earnestly of the woman's life before you pass judgment. It grieves me to trouble you with this matter in the middle of this festive occasion, but I cannot decide it myself; it is too deep for me. My heart is heavy at the thought. Think well, my friends, before you speak."

A deep silence hung over the assembly. Then a man sitting near the great door arose and said: "Lord, there is but one punishment for such a crime. But I suggest we leave our judgment to the noble lady at your side. She has always been known for resolute decisions."

Everyone glanced at the Lady Ottilia. She thought this must be some obscure vassal in her husband's territory. In measured and bitter tones she answered:

"The woman must be walled up alive."

The silence that had hung so heavily over the assembly seemed to descend like sleet and strike icy coldness to every heart.

The Lord of Castle Asch passed his hand across his brow. A long pause followed. Then he turned to Lady Ottilia and said:

"Out of your own mouth you are condemned. You have passed sentence on yourself. These are your twelve sons."

The Lady of Castle Asch fell across the table in a swoon. Men and women rose to their feet in horror. But the stern ruler of the castle stood with arms folded on his breast.

"Twenty-one years ago," he said, "that woman gave birth to twelve sons. Her servant met me as she was trying to make up her mind to obey her mistress's cruel order to drown eleven of the children. There was no doubt as to her decision. Maria Zips waited before obeying, and questioned her lady again, in the hope that the order might be withdrawn. The mother showed no pity.

My serving-man, Taland, by my orders, placed these boys with foster-mothers. Ever since then I have seen to their education and upbringing, and I have waited, day by day, for remorse to enter that obdurate heart. There is but one thing to do now. She has proclaimed her doom. I bid you all farewell."

One by one the guests stole silently away. The twelve young knights, after a moment's irresolution, passed sorrowfully from the hall. The great Lord of Castle Asch beckoned to Taland and his stern fellow-warriors. They approached. A muttered and scarcely audible conversation ensued.

Old people say that before the sentence was carried out the Lady Ottilia made one request. She begged that she might be buried in a certain place where all the year round the sun shone brightly; and that they should place in her mouth the seed of an elder tree. If this grew up through an opening in the stones, it would be an infallible sign that her spirit had escaped, and that all was well with her in the future world.

Certain it is that the following spring a servant approached his lord and motioned to him to follow. He led the grey-haired man to this spot in the castle walls, and pointed in silence to a long green shoot that had sprung from between the stones. The Lord of Castle Asch gazed at it silently, then wiped a tear from his eyes.

"See to it," he murmured, "that no one injures that tree. It must be allowed to grow as a sign to all in this region and as a remembrance to me and my sons as long as any of us lives."

And that was why the elder tree grew up there in the ruins of Castle Asch.

[Retold]

⚶⚶⚶

Where it's a custom, they put the cow to bed. (Proverb from Tyrol)

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