Some people said that Johann Adler was a lucky man, but others were not so sure. He was a farmer owning a stretch of land in Tyrol, not far from where the Marmolata, the most gigantic of all the Dolomites, lifts its glacier-crowned head towards the sky. His crops never failed, his beasts did not fall sick and die, nor did they tumble headlong down rocky precipices, as did those of his less careful neighbours. Beside his labourers and servants, his household contained three sons and his wife, a handsome dame.
The two elder youths, Fritz and Joachim, were his pride: fine upstanding lads, who worked, and played too, with a will. Josef was the youngest of the family, and its despair.
"What have I done," the father would cry, "to be afflicted with a son like you? Your brothers earn their keep," he stormed at Josef, "but you " - and, speechless, he spread out his hands in a gesture of despair.
Josef was indeed idle so far as farm work was concerned. If he were sent to the beech forest with the pigs he slept and let them stray. At a felling of trees, his tree invariably came down the wrong way and wrought damage. When he took the cows to pasture he forgot to bring them back at milking time.
Yet he could tell you the haunt of every tiny wild flower that grew between the rocks. Every bird and animal he recognized by some slight difference that others could not detect.
Instead of watching his charges, he fixed his eyes on the clouds as the shining, changeful shapes sailed by. Josef had ceased to tell the people at the farm about his dreams, for either they laughed at him or pushed him roughly aside with harsh words.
Thus it was that some people thought Johann lucky; others pitied him for possessing a son so plainly afflicted in his mind. The maids showed quite clearly what they thought. At festivals and dances Fritz and Joachim never lacked willing, eager partners; but no buxom wench ever trusted herself gladly to Josef. When he did dance his feet always got mixed up with those of the girl. He seemed never to know what to do with his hands and feet. Gina Zeps had once said in his hearing: "Josef Adler's father may be rich, but I wouldn't have his son Josef for that matter."
From that time the lad had drawn more and more away from the life of the farm, and lived with his dreams. He was now trusted with the keeping of a pen of geese near a forest pool. He could do this because, no matter how often he forgot them, the geese were unable to escape from the pen.
One afternoon, as he sat on the brow of a hill that overlooked an outlying meadow of the farm, he saw a vast wagon moving slowly through the hay field. It was not one of his father's carts, for it was painted bright red, and resembled a great boat on wheels more than any kind of farm vehicle he had known. He also saw a short, swarthy creature leading the team of horses that pulled the wagon. The dwarf looked as though he had been packed away for a long time in a box, though his clothes were fresh and of choice workmanship.
Josef felt a sudden desire to examine it all more closely. He hurried down the hillside, stumbling over branch and stone until he reached a gap in the hedge. As he did, the horses and the wagon they pulled, came shoulder by shoulder towards him in the hay field.
The driver of the horses looked round caught sight of Josef the gooseherd. For a brief moment the dwarf seemed to stare right through the gooseherd, but then he beckoned to him. Almost without knowing what he did, Josef came up to him. The little man was no more than three feet tall, but impressive. He began to speak in Josef's own tongue: "Your brothers taunt you with your foolish ways, don't they, Josef Adler?" he asked.
"Indeed," answered the youth sadly. "I know I cannot remember things as they can, and I am very foolish, but still –"
"But still," interrupted the dwarf, rubbing his hands briskly together, "you would be glad to show them that you can also be clever, wouldn't you? - Yes! Yes! I know all that; but I am very busy and very behind time. Now, if you'll help me I'll help you. If you'll pile the hay on to this cart until it is full, and then follow the cart home, you'll have a reward that will astonish you."
Josef wondered if he was dreaming. As much as he wanted a reward, he rarely was able to follow a farm cart home, for half way along he would see a bird or a flower, and away would go all thought of cart and hay - But it would be nice to go home with a reward and be praised his brothers were.
"Josef Adler, speak up!" said the dwarf snappishly. "Do you want to go home with a reward or not? I can't stand here all day."
Josef saw that either he must answer quickly or lose his chance. Therefore he plucked up courage, and said:
"I take my chances. I will try to help you and earn a reward. What must I do?"
"Forgotten already?" asked the dwarf. "Take this pitchfork and pile up all the hay in the field."
To Josef's surprise the pitchfork was of silver set in an ivory handle, but, before he could speak, the dwarf went on:
"Fill the cart and follow it home. When you get there I'll meet you."
So saying, he waved his hand. A mist passed before Josef's eyes, and when the mist cleared the dwarf was gone.
Josef did as he had been told. He forgot his geese in their pen and cleared each mound of hay. When he had cleared one mound, he horses passed on to the next without any bidding. The hay shone and gleamed with golden lights.
The work was hard. By the time the field was clear Josef was tired and thirsty. Without anyone to lead them, the horses and wagon passed out of the field to the road which was overhung by a steep cliff. The youth had often seen the bare rock, but it had never before opened to receive him as it did now. Following the wagon, he went through the opening and down a passage just wide enough to admit them all, and at once the cliff face closed behind them.
Josef was certainly afraid, but the walls, unlit by any means that he could see, gave out a peculiar radiance that made their way easy.
Presently the team drew to one side and, looking ahead, the gooseherd saw a great pillared hall. The lofty roof soared almost beyond sight, and was supported by twenty-four golden pillars, so glittery as to light up the place to noonday brightness. Among jewels, gold artifacts, curtains and other treasures in the vast hall sat the dwarf on an emerald throne, splendidly dressed.
"Ah!" said the dwarf, stepping down to meet them. "You have finished your work; now for your reward."
He turned aside for a moment and then held out to Josef a drum, gaily painted. "Take this," said the creature. "Whenever you strike it, a dwarf from our band will come to you and do as you tell him, within limits. Take it," he said again, as Josef stood staring at him.
Then he thrust it into Joseph's hands and disappeared before the youth was able to talk and say "Thank you!"
Joseph blushed. How could he go home with a drum? They would laugh at him! He kicked the musical instrument away. It rolled down the pillared hall. But then he heard a noise and looked down saw a dwarf. He was rubbing himself as though in pain.
"There is no need to strike quite so hard," he said. "I will come at the lightest tap. What is it you wish?"
Josef was still disappointed and angry, for he had fancied he would get gold and jewels for his reward, and felt he had been fooled – for he was not very wise and considerate. It did not occur to him that he could ask the dwarf for gifts of gold too. He was still as stupid as he had ever been.
"Show me the way out of this place," he shouted.
Without replying, the dwarf led the way into a tunnel. Up and down they went, through passages and caverns, strangely lighted and wet with fungus. Once it occurred to the youth to protest that this was not the way he had come, but his companion paid no heed, and Josef had to go on.
At last they came to the mouth of a tunnel. Outside it lay green fields. At the entrance the dwarf stopped and thrust the drum that he had been carrying into the youth's hands, and disappeared.
Stepping out on to the road, the gooseherd set out for home. After all, it was something to have a dwarf at one's service. p class="i"> He journeyed on for some time, and yet seemed to come no nearer his home. Indeed the country grew more and more strange. Could the dwarf have played a trick on him, and set him on the wrong road? The sun was setting when he drew near to the gates of an unknown city, still clutching his drum,. All round the city was a wall set with watchtowers, as though it guarded something most precious. Rising above the walls could be seen the turrets of a castle and the high pinnacles of fine buildings.
A long cavalcade came out of the city gates. Josef watched it carefully as it approached him.
In front was a young and handsome man. His hands were tied behind his back with rope. He was being driven forward by two soldiers with long pointed staves. Next came a noble horse, bearing the armour of the prisoner. Behind came an extremely beautiful girl carried on a chair. Eight men carried the chair with slow and stately step.
At the sight of her, the youth's heart leaped. How lovely she was!
Following the chair walked some half dozen grave men. Their white beards fell over their purple cloaks like snow. Last of all thronged a vast multitude of people, some laughing, some sobbing.
Josef joined the crowd and asked a fellow next to him: "Who is that young man, and why is he driven along like a prisoner?"
"He is the latest unlucky lover of the princess Stephanie in that chair," answered his companion.
"What has he done?" asked Josef.
The man answered: "Our princess is beautiful. She is also gentle and loving. Yet she is under a curse."
"A curse!" echoed the listener excitedly. "How so?"
"Well," resumed the other, "Since she is a beautiful and gentle princess, many seek her love. Her father was reluctant to lose her. Therefore, years ago, he placed her under a curse. It works like this: Every suitor who presents himself is told that he must perform a task before he can win her. If he fails, he must die. A wizard in the king's service always sets the task, and it is always one that no human being can perform. The poor princess is forced to witness each of these executions, and they happen often."
By now the old king would give all he has to remove the curse; but the old wizard will not agree unless he himself marries the king's daughter.," the man added., shrugging his shoulders.
By this time the procession had reached the spot where the captive man was to be executed. When it was over with, the princess, paler and colder than ever, was escorded back to the city.
Josef followed them to the city gates, pondering on what he had seen and heard, and especially the beautiful face of the girl in the chair. Slowly a desire rose in him: he wanted to free her from the curse, see her smile, and hear her speak. But how could he, a gooseherd, get an audience with her father, the king?
He sat down on a stone by the roadside to think and threw away ome broken twigs from it to sit better. By chance one of them struck the little drum he carried, but had had forgotten about.
At once a voice sounded in his ear: his dwarf had answered the summons.
"You called for me," he said. "Here I am."
The gooseherd told him that he would like to get into the city and try to win the princess. The dwarf roared with laughter for a while. The dusty and unkempt Josef was not dressed like a mate for a princess.
Josef's wits were beginning to work. He said: "Since you are my servant you will help me. Come now! Where shall I get good clothes and a horse to ride?"
The dwarf looked at him approvingly. "Good," he said; "You will want clothes, a horse, and boldness. I can get you the first two, but bold you have to be on your own."
He lifted his head whistled. In a moment an excellent young horse with a bundle on its back, came bounding up the road. The horse stopped before the dwarf. Josef trembled a little as he looked at it. He was not yet wholly awakened from his old sluggish ways. He would rather have had a gently-ambling little horse than this fiery beauty.
With nimble fingers the dwarf unpacked the bundle the horse had come with. It was clothes fit for a gentleman. After Josef had bathed in a wayside pool, he soon stood dressed in clothes with many silver details in them. A decorated cap and crimson shoes rounded off his clothing.
Josef's spirits rose somewhat. If things went wrong, he would at least be finely dressed when he was executed.
When Josef had mounted his horse, the dwarf disappeared, and he rode up to the city gates. He rapped on them, and a sentry asked what he wanted.
"I come on business to the king," said Josef. "Open."
This was a very different Josef from the one who had sat by the goose-pen less than two days ago.
The gates opened, and horse and rider were led forward down a wide road. Josef did not think of being afraid, he was mostly concerned with the thought that he would soon see again the beautiful princess that he would free with a dwarf's help.
At last Josef was led into a great hall. On a raised throne sat an old man. His face was lined with sorrow and heavy with weariness. Beside him sat the girl. All around stood sad-faced members of the court.
"Sire," said one of those who had led Josef in, "here is one who says he has business with you."
Two pairs of hands thrust Joseph forward. He said:
"Yes, sire. I wish to free the princess from the curse."
I won't prevent that," said the king at last; "but I fear you will die in trying."
"At any rate, I will try," said Joseph. At the king's command he was led away to rest for the night, but the girl had looked at him, and the memory of it kept him awake a long time.
Early next morning, the two men who had led the procession yesterday, came to fetch him. Josef was led to an open field. There he saw a hill that had not been there on the previous night. It shone and glistened like crystal.
One of his companions said: "That is a hill of glass. With no foothold for man or beast. Your task is to ride over that hill. If you can do it, you win the princess. If you fail, you die."
For a moment Josef was astounded. How could he ride over a glass hill whose sides were unbroken by a single ledge between the base and the summit? He thought with a sudden pang of the old Dolomites frowning over his home: of Fritz and Joachim: of bird and beast. Then he became conscious of a voice speaking to him again.
"You have one hour," it said, "to think out your plan. After that the king and his daughter and all the court will come to see if you succeed or not."
Then he was left alone. At once he tapped his drum. The dwarf appeared. "Here I am," said the voice he was beginning to know.
Quickly Josef told his dwarf what he had to do in an hour.
"Did you look well at the horse that brought you here?" asked the dwarf when the tale was finished.
"No," answered Josef. "What has that to do with it? No horse of flesh and blood could gain a foothold there."
"Ah!" said the dwarf. "Look at his hoofs. Listen! When the time comes, call for that horse and ride boldly for the hill. He is shod with diamonds, and these will cut deep into the glassy slopes."
The hour soon passed. The king, the princess and all the court arrived in the field. In a firm, loud voice, Josef called for his horse, mounted it, and rode forward. breathless. The rider and his horse reached the foot and began to mount. There was no slipping and stumbling; the well shod horse went steadily forward. Up and up he mounted, until he reached the summit, and then began to dismount on the other side. As he touched the earth at the bottom, shouts and clamouring rose on the air. The glassy hill behind him crumbled to a handful of white powder. King and princess leapt from their seats and ran towards him. p class="i"> That night, among great rejoicings, the now rosy, laughing girl and Josef were married. The feasting was kept up for many days.
At last the youth thought of his old home. Now he had a his beautiful wife. Summoning the dwarf again, the young man got directions for the road to his home, and in the company of Stephanie soon found himself on the brow of the hill overlooking his father's farm.
As he stepped in the doorway the family looked up from its evening meal.
"You!" snorted Fritz. "We thought you had taken yourself off for good."
"You!" grunted Joachim.
"You again!" snapped his father.
"Yes, here I am. And see what lovely bride I've got!" said Josef with a smile as a happy Stephanie came to his side from their carriage. He had prepared her for such a welcome. She took his hand in hers.
The family stared at the lovely lady with open mouths.
"Surprise!" said Joseph and told them nothing of what had happened since they saw him last.
For seven days Josef and Stephanie feasted in his own village. The dwarf that Josef could call on, stood for the delicious dishes and platters and silverware, drink and other things that were good for a feast - but he took care that no one but Josef got a chance to see him.
Then, on the eighth day, six grave men with white beards and purple cloaks came in rich carriages with many soldiers to accompany them. The procession suddenly stopped. The six grave men went up to where Josef and Stephanie stood hand in hand. They said:
"Prince, please come with us to our old city. The king does not want to reign no longer and would have you in his stead."
Josef the gooseherd - a prince? No one dared ask how or why, and had to make do with wondering.
Josef said quietly: "My lovely wife and I will do our best."
Then they were led to the coach. Just as it was about to start, the two brothers, Joachim and Fritz, sprang on to the footboard of the coach, crying:
"We'll go with you and try our fortunes in your new land."
Before Josef could answer them, two soldiers leaned forward and, each seizing a man, rolled the brothers into the wayside dust. No one in the village ever heard of Josef and his bride again. But the two were happy together since and loved by their people.
The shorter the skirt, the longer the confession. (Proverb from Tyrol)