THE CLOVER LEAF
The town was as silent as the grave, for all who were not compelled by sickness or infirmity to stay at home had gone out to the park, where the shooting-club were trying to shoot down, piece by piece, from the pole the two-headed eagle, the emblem of the holy Roman Empire. In the cottages, decked with wreaths of evergreen and trimmed with bright-colored banners, sat the townspeople drinking beer and foaming ale. Red-cheeked maidens with white aprons and bare arms stood behind the sausage ovens, fanning away the smoke rising from the coals. All kinds of itinerant people dressed in gay-colored tatters were practising their arts here, -knife-throwers, fire-eaters, and acrobats with hoarse voices, vaunting their skill, and a bear was performing his clumsy dance to the sound of a Polish bagpipe.
From the club-house, out of whose gable windows fluttered the banners which the Emperor Henry had presented to the club, sounded the ceaseless cracking of the heavy arquebuses, and the eagle on the pole had already lost his sceptre and imperial ball, as well as a claw and a wing. The men who on week-days wielded hammer and plane, axe and awl, managed the firearms as skillfully as the tools of their handicraft, and looked very magnificent in their shooting-jackets. But while shooting they did not forget to drink, and the great bumper, which was decorated with wild beasts in embossed work, circulated freely.
Among the women who were present at the club-house watching the skill of the men, was a slender young maiden not less conspicuous for her beauty than for her costume. She was dressed in the usual style of the country people; but her dark gown was of fine Brabaut cloth, the buttons on her waist were of solid silver, and her black silk cap, from beneath which hung down her long yellow braids, had a gold ornament, which would have been cheap at two crowns. The city damsels noticed with displeasure how the young fellows assiduously crowded about the table where the maiden sat, and turned up their little noses at the country mouse and the want of taste in the young men. However, it contributed somewhat to their peace of mind that all the endeavors of the city young men to get next the maiden were in vain. She was sitting between the king's forester, a man of sunburnt face and iron-gray beard, and a wild-looking huntsman's lad. The neighboring seats were also occupied, and, indeed, with none but huntsmen, so the beautiful girl might be considered well protected. The old man next her was her father, but the young hunter on the other side of her was her father's assistant. He had made the best shots of the day, and the city fellows envied him no less his good luck in the match than his seat next the beautiful Margaret. But she did not seem to be greatly edified by the nearness of the young fellow; she answered his questions in mono-syllables only, and when he attempted to sit nearer, she gathered the folds of her dress together by the wild youth.
Now the voice of the herald sounded through the enclosure: “Forester Henner, make ready!” The maiden's father rose from his seat, to take his turn in shooting at the bird, and the young hunter followed at the old man's heels.
Already there was nothing left of the noble eagle but his tail. But whoever should shoot this down from the pole would be king of the tournament.
The forester took aim, and shot. The people saw how the tail trembled and bent forward, but it did not fall to the ground. The cry of joy which some had already raised, ceased suddenly, and the forester planted his gunstock angrily on the ground.
Now came Witsch's turn, for such was the young hunter's name. He raised his gun and moved his lips in a whisper. Then happened something very extraordinary. The eagle's tail, as though it afterwards thought better of it, detached itself from the pole and fell to the ground, like an over-ripe apple from a tree. The hunter's gun went off too late; the bullet whistled through empty air.
Malicious laughter arose, and everybody was pleased at the young fellow's bad luck, for the sunburned Witsch was one whom nobody had confidence in nor wished well. But he did not seem to take the accident much to heart; indeed, his voice was the first to salute old Henner as king of the tournament. The forester's face beamed with joy, as the chain with the medal was hung around his neck, and he was proclaimed king. He bowed his thanks on all sides like a veritable king, and then they took him into their midst and showed him to the crowd. The drummers and buglers marched ahead, and then came the color-bearer, who, according to an ancient custom, went dancing along with wonderful agility.There were followed by the king of the festival, accompanied by the heralds; behind him marched the prize-winners, and foremost among them was Witsch; then the scorers, with the pieces of the shattered bird; and last of all the other members of the club. The procession moved in a circle around the park, and then turned back into the club-house, where the king's supper was to end the festival.
As soon as they reached there, the king of the tournament went up to his assistant, seized him by the hand, and said distinctly and loud enough to be heard by everybody: “Witsch, I am both glad and sorry for what has happened. This honor has escaped you, but you are still the better marksman of us two. Yes, dear friends,” and he turned to the others, “there is not one among you who can outdo him.”
There was a murmur of dissatisfaction in the circle of the marksmen. Then the brown country youth cast his eyes over the assembled crowd and screwed up his mouth. He looked up where, high in the air, the chimney swallows were darting hither and thither.
“Who among you,” he asked, “will venture to bring down two swallows with one bullet?”
The huntsmen were silent.
But Witsch raised his gun, took aim for a moment, fired, and two mangled swallows fell to the ground.
“Did you see that?” called out the old Henner. “No, nobody can equal that.”
The men were silent, and many looked askance at the uncanny huntsman, who stood there, as though the shot were an every-day occurrence. But the forester took him by the arm, led him to the table, and bade him sit by his daughter.
Those who had not the privilege to drink at the club table did so in a cottage in the park; and at the little tables, highly decorated with wet circles, the master-shot of the huntsman Witsch was discussed on all sides.
“Did you hear what he whispered before he shot at the tail on the pole?” asked the herald, who was resting from his work behind the tankard.
“'Skill brings not The lucky shot.' That is how the saying ran. I stood near by. I heard it. That is a benediction he didn't learn in church. It would have been an easy thing for him to shoot down the bird himself and become king of the festival, but the sly fox lets the old man have the honor and wins the daughter.”
“And what do you think of the shot at the swallows?” one of the scorers asked the herald.
The old man shook his gray head. He had been a soldier, and knew a thing or two about such matters. He began to tell about charmed bullets, enchantments, and the fernseed which makes things invisible. He also told dreadful stories of the Wild Huntsman, who rides through the clouds at night, and all kinds of ghost stories, so that his listeners became more and more excited.
A tempest was gathering over the head of the young hunter Witsch. The sorcerer, the magic shooter, ought to be tried for his life, thought a troubled master-tailor. But the others were more inclined to the opinion of a boisterous journeyman-smith, who proposed to brand Witsch on the back, so that he might remember the tournament all the rest of his life.
Night was falling; the club-house became empty. But the old Henner still sat drinking with his comrades, and paid no attention to his daughter, who repeatedly pulled at his jacket to remind him that it was time to go. One can more easily entice a fox from his hole that a forester from his beer.
Hunting and shooting adventures were here, too, the subjects of conversation, and the most incredible stories were served up in the most classic huntsman's slang. But not the least wonderful was the little anecdote of the three marksmen and the clover leaf. The story ran thus:-
Three wandering hunters once stopped at a forest tavern and disposed themselves comfortably. As soon as they had partaken abundantly of food and drink, they called the host to them and asked him if he would like to see something, the like of which nobody had ever seen before. This gratified the host, and he offered them free drinks. Then one of them picked a clover leaf, the second brought a ladder and fastened the clover leaf to the gable of the house, while the third measured off a hundred paces and called his companions to follow. Then the first one began and shot off the first leaf, the second one hit the second, and the third the third. The host was amazed, and gave each of the fellows another drink and was glad when they went away.
“If that is true,” said old Henner, “the fellows shot with charmed bullets.”
And so thought the others.
The sunburned Witsch, however, only laughed and said it was child's play; he would agree to do the same thing.
“But if somebody else should load the gun?” asked one of the men, distrustfully.
“Whoever will may load the gun,” boldly replied Witsch; “but he must be honest about it.”
“If you are successful,” exclaimed the old Henner, half intoxicated, “then, young man, I will give you whatever you may ask of me, as a prize.”
“Father!” admonished the maiden, in dismay.
“Whatever you may ask of me,” repeated the forester.
“Well, then,” said Witsch slowly, “I will shoot the little leaves of a clover from the stem, a hundred paces off, with three bullets and three shots, and you promise to give me as a prize whatever I may ask of you. It is a bargain?”
“Don't do it, father! don't do it!” cried the maiden, in genuine terror.
“Thou little fool!” said the father, laughing; and the woodsmen joined in the laughter. No one had the least doubt what the hunter would demand as his reward, and they took poor Margaret's anguish for a maiden's modesty.
“It is a bargain!” cried the forester, reaching out his hand, “my word-”
“Wait!” interrupted an old huntsman. “Supposing the little affair is not successful, what shall the shooter pay as a forfeit?”
“Whatever you say,” answered Witsch.
Margaret had risen from her seat; she was as pale as death.
“Then he shall go,” she said, “as far as his feet can carry him, and never come into my sight again.”
Witsch bit his lips.
“All right, miss,” said he, gritting his teeth; “so shall it be. Your hand, forester! I give you my word of honor.”
The agreement was sealed.
While the old man was reprimanding his daughter in a trembling voice, the sunburned Witsch took a hasty departure and went on his way. Outside the club-house a crowd of sturdy, boisterous fellows were hiding, but the one for whom they lay in wait escaped them. He probably carried fernseed with him.
In a clearing of the wood at the foot of the Thorstein mountain lay the keeper's lodge, where old Henner dwelt. Sad at heart, he sat before the door on the stone seat, and the spotted bloodhound who was lying down not far away looked up from time to time at his master. He would have gladly expressed his sympathy by a dumb caress, but he thought it wiser not to come too near the ill-humored man. The old man was displeased with himself, but still he would not admit it. He would have given his little finger if he could have taken back the agreement he had made with his assistant, for it was clear to him now that his child had an unconquerable aversion to Witsch, and although he tried to console himself with the thought that dislike is often changed to affection in the marriage state, still, in the bottom of his heart he wished that Witsch might not succeed in the clover trial.
On Midsummer day, which, according to an old custom, is kept as a holiday by the huntsmen, the forester's assistant was to prove his skill, and Midsummer day was not far distant. The poor little Margaret went about pale as the wood-nymph who sometimes meets the shepherds and charcoal-burners on moonlight nights, and the father hardly had the heart to look into her eyes, red with weeping.
Now Margaret had a goat names Whitecoat, and in all the mountains round there was no goat that could equal her in intelligence. Whitecoat saw very clearly that her mistress was troubled in heart, and when she was led to the meadow, she no longer leaped gayly about Margaret as was her wont, but went sadly along behind her with drooping ears.
Midsummer eve had come. The keeper's lodge was trimmed with
wreaths of evergreen and garlands of leaves for the reception of
the guests; but the inmates went about as though there had been a
death in the house.
Margaret had milked her goat, and now was sitting on the milking-stool, with her hands folded in her lap, and weeping bitterly.
“Oh, Whitecoat,” she said sorrowfully, “why should I be so wretched?”
It seemed as though the goat had only been waiting for her to speak to her, for to the maiden's astonishment she opened her rosy mouth and said:-
“Thou speakest at a propitious hour. In the sacred Midsummer night, when everything is set free and transformed, we animals have the power of speech, and I may answer thee. Tell me what troubles thee, and perhaps I can help thee: I am no ordinary goat.”
“What are you, then?” asked the damsel. “Are you perhaps an enchanted princess?”
“No,” answered Whitecoat; “I am something better than that. I am descended in a direct line from one of the goats who in ancient times used to draw the carriage of the old man who sleeps yonder in the Thorstein. But thou knowest nothing about that. However, believe me, I am more than other, ordinary goats, and I am willing to help thee, if it is in my power.”
“Oh, good Whitecoat, if you only could!”
And so Margaret related her trouble.
The goat listened attentively. When the maiden had finished, she said:-
“Thou must never belong to the sunburnt Witsch. He is in league with the devil, and I know why. To-morrow it will be three years since I watched him in the forest. It was about the hour of noon, over on yonder meadow. There he stood and spread out a white cloth before him, and just as the sun's disk reached the zenith, he shot at it and three drops of blood fell on the cloth. He took it up and hid it in his bosom. Since that time he has never missed a shot, and to-morrow he will hit the little clover leaves, too, even if he stand a hundred miles away from the mark.”
“You see, it is impossible to help me,” said Margaret, with a groan.
“Perhaps not,” returned Whitecoat. “It would not be the first time that sorcery has come to nought. Lead me to-morrow before sunrise to the meadow, and perhaps I may find a way to help you.”
“Where is the girl hiding?” at this moment called out the scolding voice of old Henner, putting his head through the window of the stable. “Gone to sleep while milking! - Come out, Margaret, and get my supper ready.”
The maiden jumped up from the milking-stool, where she had fallen asleep, stroked good Whitecoat's head, and went to her father.
The dream - for such it must have been - kept going round and round in the maiden's head.Before daybreak she led the goat to the meadow, and when she brought her back later to the lodge, Whitecoat sprang gayly along like a young kid, and Margaret looked peaceful, or rather almost happy, so that her father shook his gray head in surprise.
The invited guests came, and among them was the forester's assistant Witsch. He looked about insolently and seemed sure of his success. Margaret welcomed him just the same as she did the other guests, but she avoided him as much as possible.
When the guests were all present, old Henner stepped into their circle and renewed the promise he had given to his assistant at the tournament, and the latter announced that he was ready at a moment's notice to prove his skill.
The forester looked anxiously at his daughter and said:-
“Get a clover leaf at one, and fasten it with wax to the barn door.”
A clover leaf was already at hand, and Margaret fastened it to the door with trembling fingers.
The young hunter measured his distance. A hundred paces had been stipulated, but the arrogant fellow doubled the number of his own free will. The clover leaf could hardly be seen from his great distance. One of the huntsmen loaded the gun before the eyes of the others and handed it to the marksman. He raised the gun and fired, apparently without taking aim; he let the other two shots follow just as quickly.
“Now go and see!” he cried, sure of his success, and looked with wild joy towards the beautiful Margaret, who stood in the distance, with quick-beating heart.
The witnesses hastened to the barn door, while Witsch went towards the maiden.
Then they called out to him:-
“Witsch, you have lost; one little leaf still remains on the stem.”
“Impossible!” cried the huntsman, rushing towards the door. But it was no illusion. The three bullets had pierce the wood one after another, but on the stem of the clover still hung one uninjured leaf.
The huntsman's black eyes shot fire. Then he raised his fist towards heaven and uttered such a horrible curse that it made the cold shivers run down the men's backs, and then without a word he strode off into the wild forest.
But the beautiful Margaret had hastened to her goat, and laughing and weeping embraced the neck of her rescuer.
The wise Whitecoat had led the maiden that morning to a place where she found a four-leaved clover, and no magic could make a marksman hit four leaflets with three shots.
The uncanny Witsch never let himself be seen again in the neighborhood; it was as if the earth had swallowed him up. Afterward, the forest people say they have seen him in the company of the wild huntsman, but the matter remains quite uncertain.
The marks of the three bullets can still be seen in the barn door, and a descendant of the wise goat Whitecoat was shown to me when I heard the wonderful tale related on the spot, and so the story must indeed be true.