THERE stood in the forest an ancient beechtree. The top of the tree had been shattered by the lightning, her side was hollow, and great mushrooms grew out of the bark. She was the oldest of all beeches, and the mother of a numerous family; but she had seen all her children, as soon as they had grown strong, fall beneath the stroke of the axe, and she had only one daughter left. She was a young beech, with smooth bark and a heaven-aspiring crown, and she was just eighty years old. This is considered the prime of life among the forest trees.
Every spring the old beech still put forth leaves and green shoots, but she felt that life was on the decline with her, for it was only with difficulty that she held herself upright. And because she felt that she must die, her love for her beautiful giant daughter was redoubled.
Spring was drawing near. The glistening white snow still lay on the branches of the trees, but the warm sap began to spring up from the roots, and the soft air blew and helped to melt the snow. The crackling ice-cakes floated down the rivers and brooks, the willows pushed their silver catkins out of their cases, and the white bell-flowers broke through the vanishing carpet of snow that covered the forest floor.
Then the old beech said to her child: “Tonight the warm south wind will come with a rush. It will lay me on the bed of leaves that I have been hoarding up all these years, and I shall return to the mother earth, from whose bosom I came forth. But before I go home, I will bequeath you a legacy that the gentle lord of the forest bestowed upon me one day a long time ago, when he was resting from his blessed labors in my shadow. You will be able to understand the words and deeds of men and to sympathize in their joys and sorrows. This is the highest good that can fall to our lot. But be prepared to see more of pain than happiness.”
Thus spoke the old beech-tree, and gave her daughter her blessing.
In the night the south wind came rushing from the desert. It buried the ships in the billows of the sea, rolled gigantic snowballs down from the mountains, and destroyed men's cottages as it passed by. It went roaring through the forest and broke down everything that was old and decayed, or whatever dared to resist its power. It stretched the old beech on the ground, and shook her sturdy daughter, but she wisely bent and bowed her head, and the mighty wind passed over. For three days the daughter wept tears of sparkling dew over her mother. Then the sun came and dried her tears.
And now on every side began such a budding and sprouting that the beech had no time to mourn. Her buds swelled and burst, and one morning a hundred thousand little tender green leaves trembled in the warm sunshine. What a delight it was!
Golden yellow primroses came up out of the ground. They did not even take time to push aside the dry leaves, but pierced right through them and lifted themselves up once more into the sunlight. Purple peas joined the primroses, and the fragrant woodruff unrolled its tender querl of leaves. What exuberance of life!
And in the midst of all this blooming life stood the young beech like a queen. A finch had built his nest in her crest and the woodpecker with his red cap came to visit her. Once the cuckoo came too, and even the distinguished squirrel, with his bushy tail over his head, found his way there now and then, although the beech with her bright spring foliage could not serve him with acorns. But she had not yet seen a human being this spring, and they were the guests she most wished to see, because she possessed the gift of understanding their sayings and doings.
Human beings were soon to come. One morning a slender young maiden, with long brown braids of hair, came tripping along through the forest and went straight up to the beech-tree. But there was not the least probability that she had come on account of the beech. She looked at the tree that lay mouldering on the ground, and said, “This is the place.” Then she put down her basket, which was filled with lilies-of-the-valley, and leaned against the beech, without even glancing at the green splendor above. The tree held her breath to listen to what the maiden might say, but the beautiful girl kept an obstinate silence.
Then from the opposite direction came a stately youth. He wore a little round hat with a curling feather, like a huntsman's. Cautiously he crept along, so cautiously that the dry leaves never once rustled beneath his footsteps. But although he stepped so gently, the maiden's sharp ears perceived his coming. She turned her head toward him, and the beech-tree thought to herself, “Now she will run away.” But the maiden did not run away; she rather sprang toward the youth and threw her arms around his brown neck.
“My Hans!” - “My Eva!” they cried at the same time. Then they kissed each other to their hearts' content, called each other again by name, and embraced each other anew, and the beech-tree found it very tiresome. Afterwards they sat down under the tree and talked of their love. It was the old, old story, but it was new to the beech, and she listened as a child listens to a fairy tale. But something still more strange happened to surprise her.
The youth rose from the ground, took out his knife; and began to cut into the bark on the trunk. Indeed it caused her some pain, but the tree held as still as a wall.
“What is it going to be?” asked the maiden.
“A heart, with your name and mine,” replied Hans, and went on cutting.
When the work was done, they both looked at it with satisfaction, and the beech was as pleased as one whom the king has honored with a golden chain. “Human beings are capital people!” she thought.
Then the youth began to sing. The beech had long known the songs of the finches and blackbirds by heart; now she was going to hear something quite different from the songs of the birds. The song ran thus:—
Behind the forest cover I strode,the wild path over,— The air was cool and clear. I left the young fawn browsing, Nor stags nor red roses rousing, I sought a different kind of deer.
My search was soon rewarded; I' the shade a beech accorded I found my love alone. She threw her arms around me And with caresses crowned me — My rival's heart was turned to stone.
Upon the beech-tree hoary, A symbol of our story, A single heart I grave. And there our hearts united Shall tell of true love plighted As long as forest trees shall wave.
“Listen, Hans!” said the maiden, when the youth had ended. “Your song reminds me of something. I know — the people say that in the autumn you go secretly after game in the forest. Let hunting alone! The forester has a grudge against you anyway — you know why. And if he should meet you as a poacher in the forest, then — oh, my Hans, if they should bring you home shot through the heart —”
The young fellow bent down over the maiden, who leaned caressingly against his shoulder, and kissed her mouth. “The people tell many things. Don't believe all that people say, my dear heart's love!” Then he threw his arm around her waist, and went away singing with her into the woods.
When the pair had disappeared behind the trees, a man in hunting-dress, with a rifle on his back and a huntsman's knife at his side, leaped out of the bushes. His face was pale and distorted. He walked up to the beech and looked at the heart which Hans had cut in the bark. He laughed wildly, and took out his knife to erase the names; but he changed his mind, and thrust the blade back into its sheath. He shook his fist threateningly in the direction which the Iovers had taken, and grinding his teeth, said: “If I meet you once more poaching in the forest, then you will have heard the cuckoo's call for the last time.”
With these words he went into the woods, and the tree shook her head with displeasure.
*In the course of the summer the beech saw many human beings,— poor women, who gathered leaves or dry branches; children, picking berries; forest-folk, and travellers. But the most welcome guests to her shady roof were the youth and the maiden with the brown braids. They came once a week, spoke of their love, and embraced each other; and the beech grew more and more fond of them every day.
One morning before sunrise, when the forest mountain still had on its gray hood of mist, Hans came alone. He carried a rifle by a leather strap, and walked carefully through the underbrush — as carefully as though he wished to surprise his sweetheart. But this time his coming was not to meet the beautiful Eva, but the stag, which had his haunt here. At the foot of the beechtree the youth stopped and stood as motionless as though he were a tree himself. The cool morning breeze came and blew the mist down in streaks. The birds awoke and flew away after water. There was a stirring in the underbrush of the forest, and Hans lifted his gun.
There came a shot out of the thicket. Hans dropped his rifle, leaped up, and then fell on the ground.
Out of the forest, with hasty bounds, came a man, carrying a smoking gun in his left hand. The beech knew him well.
The forester bent over the fallen man. “It is all over with him,” he said. Then he loaded his rifle and disappeared in the thicket.
The sun rose and shone on the pale face of a dead man. The tree bent down her branches mournfully, and wept shining tears. The robin redbreast flew along and put flowers on the dead youth's face, till his glassy eyes were entirely covered over.
In the afternoon the wood-cutters came along the path and found the corpse.
“He was shot while poaching,” they said. Then they lifted him up and carried him down into the valley.
An old man lingered by the tree. He took his knife and cut a cross in the bark. He put it directly over the heart. Then he took off his hat and said a prayer.
There was a rustling in the top of the beech; the tree also was praying after her fashion.
For many summers in succession the murdered youth's sweetheart came on the day of his death to the beech-tree, knelt down, and wept and prayed; and every time she looked paler and more languid. Finally she came no more.
“She must be dead,” said the beech; and so she was.
*Years had passed, and the beech had grown to a mighty tree. Her bark was covered with brownish moss; vines of woodbine climbed up the trunk, and both heart and cross were covered over with green.
One day there came a man, who added a third mark to the other two; and the beech knew what it signified. The tree was marked to be cut down.
Farewell, thou verdant, delectable forest!
It was not long before the wood-cutters came, and their axes cut the beech-tree to the heart. A sullen-looking man in hunting-dress, with gray beard and hair, directed the wood-cutters.
The beech knew the man right well, and the man seemed to recognize the tree. He went up to her and tore the moss and ivy-tresses away from her trunk, so that the cross and heart became visible.
“Here it was,” he said in an undertone; and his limbs shook with horror.
“Back, forester, back! “ screamed the woodcutters. “The tree will fall.”
The forester staggered back, but it was too late. The beech fell with a crash to the ground, and buried him under her boughs.
When they took him out, he was dead. The beech had shattered his head.
And the men stood around in a circle and prayed.