GAY banners were waving from the tower of the count's castle, and from the surrounding villages re-echoed the sound of merry bells. Joy had come to be a guest within the castle walls, and both bond and free in that domain rejoiced in its coming.
The young countess had given birth to an heir. The little lord was healthy and finely formed, made the walls resound with his strong voice, and vigorously kicked his feet, till his father's eyes shone with delight.
The day after his birth, when the child was taken to be baptized, the count dipped deeply into his treasure chest; all the servants received holiday clothes, and the poor in the land loudly praised their master's generosity. Then it became quiet in the castle. The boy lay peacefully in his nurse's arms, and his mother, Frau Gotelind, looked from her couch with a proud, blissful smile at the thriving child. She was a delicate lady, and her strength came back slowly; but it came, thanks to careful nursing and the appetizing broths made for her by old Crescenz.
She was a wise-woman, and well skilled in caring for the sick. Therefore the count had called her to the castle and intrusted to her the nursing of his wife. But the servants shook their heads thoughtfully when the old woman came in, for what people said of her was not good. Huntsmen and messengers had often met her in the moonlit wood, looking for herbs, and it was rumored that she could conjure up storms and dry the cows' milk. Therefore the menservants and maids timidly avoided her, but scrupulously followed the orders which she gave.
Frau Crescenz was sitting in the kitchen, paring vegetables. Near her stood her daughter Ortrun, whom she had brought with her to the castle, that she might help her in her work. The daughter was a tall, well-developed woman, with raven-black hair, but her forehead was low, and her nose as flat as a negro's. She had killed and plucked a chicken to make some strengthening broth for the countess, and was just cleaning it.
“Look, mother,” she cried suddenly; “see what is in the chicken's crop; he had swallowed a stone.”
“Let me see,” said old Crescenz, with curiosity, and Ortrun handed what she had found to her mother. It was a white, sparkling stone, shaped like a bean.
“Oh, you lucky child!” cried the mother; “that is a jewel more precious than a carbuncle or a diamond.” Then she looked anxiously about her, fearing lest a third person might have been watching them, but, besides the two women, there was nobody in the kitchen.
“Dearest daughter,” continued the old woman, — and her eyes shone like cats' eyes, — “the stone will bring you good luck. Keep your mouth shut and tell no human being anything about the chicken's stone. Conceal it well in your waist and guard it as the apple of your eye. The magic which the jewel contains will soon appear. And go to your room and put on your holiday gown; to-day you shall carry to the count his morning drink.”
Where the deadly nightshade grows, there flowers of noble birth must fade away.
The countess had long since recovered, but she went about sadly, with downcast eyes. Her husband's love had gone out in a night like a candle burnt to the end, and she knew, too, who had caused the sudden change. The dark Ortrun, who, by her husband's command, had been made her stewardess, had captivated the count. She carried her head high, and gave commands boldly in the house, as though she were the mistress. Frau Gotelind sat silent and grieving in her chamber by the side of her little son's cradle, and at night her pillow was wet with tears. But when the nurse gently reproved her, saying, “My lady, you will harm the child if you look at him with sorrowful eyes,” then the unhappy woman would compel herself to smile, and would sing in a low voice to the little one the old cradle song of the white and the black sheep. Thus passed a year of sorrow to the countess. But the boy thrived, and became a beautiful, sturdy child.
One day his nurse was sitting with the little one in the castle garden, the boy was playing in the grass with a small wooden horse, and his mother was standing on the balcony and delighting in the sight of him. Suddenly the child rose and stood for the first time on his feet, and made an unaided attempt to step forward. Just then the stewardess Ortrun came along, and the boy bent toward her, and seeking a support, grasped a fold of her dress with his little hand. The maid gave the child a push with her foot, so that he fell on his back with a scream, and went on her way scolding.
When the mother saw how the bold woman maltreated her child, her heart was convulsed with bitter anguish; but she was silent. She hastened down into the garden to her son, and soothed him with caresses. Then she sent the nurse under a pretext into the house, took the little one up, and, unnoticed, left the garden and the castle.
The countess and child were not missed till just as darkness was coming on. The count was much alarmed and sent out servants with torches to look for them in every direction. He himself mounted a horse and rode at random about the country. But master and servants returned without having found the lost ones.
The search was kept up for two or three days longer; then the count put on mourning, and hung a black flag from the tower.
It was supposed that the countess and her child had become the prey of some wild beast in the forest. The maid Ortrun and her wicked mother carried their heads higher than ever, and the old woman said to the young one: “It is a good thing that she has gone off with her brat of her own free will; otherwise—” But she said no more.
A short time after Ortrun took possession of the state-chamber of the vanished countess, and it was as good as decided that at the end of the year of mourning the count would make the stewardess his wife. But when the year was over, and the count wished to be married, the priest refused to unite the pair, because it was not proved that the countess was dead. So the count had the name of her who had disappeared posted up on the doors of three churches. Then after another year, if no news came about her, she might be considered as dead, according to the laws of the country, and the widower might take another wife. The second year too was drawing to an end, and nobody had heard anything from the lost wife.
But the countess was not dead, and her little son too was still alive. When, overcome by excessive grief, she had secretly left the castle, she had wandered off into the wild forest, not knowing where she was going. She walked the whole night long, carrying the sleeping child in her arms. Occasionally the eyes of a wolf shone out of the darkness of the firs, but it did the poor mother no harm. Towards morning, when the chilly wind blew through the trees, her tender feet, unused to travelling, would carry her no farther. She sank down on the wood moss and wept bitterly; now for the first time she realized that she had doomed herself and her child to destruction.
Then there suddenly stood before the desperate mother a very old man, whose snow-white beard from his face fell down like a waterfall. In his right hand he carried a staff; in his left a bundle of herbs.
The old man was a pious hermit, who had turned his back on the turmoil of the world and dwelt in the wilderness. He gave mother and child some food, and led them to his hermitage. The countess felt confidence in the hermit and told him who she was and why she had taken flight. And the old man comforted her and said, “Stay with me, and share with me my poverty.”
So the countess and her child remained with the hermit. By means of a wall of wicker-work he divided his hut into two rooms, and prepared a couch of wood moss and soft fur for his guests. For food he gave them goat's milk and whatever the woods afforded of berries, roots, and wild fruits. The life in the green forest agreed with the boy; he grew, and his limbs became strong and supple. The countess' delicate frame, too, became stronger; but her heart was still filled with a secret grief, for she could not forget her husband, and thought of him day and night. Thus passed nearly two years.
One morning the little one was jumping about in the forest and playing with a hazel switch, when the hoarse cry of a raven fell on his ear; and when he went toward the sound, he saw on the ground a flock of the black birds, who were attacking one of the number with their bills. When the boy ran toward them, the ravens flew away; but the one whom they had treated so badly could not lift himself into the air, but hopped painfully about on the ground, so that it was easy for the child to catch the bird. As he held his prisoner in his hand, he saw an arrow sticking in one of his wings. He removed it and carried the raven home. The hermit, who was skilled in the art of healing, put a salve on the wound, and the little one cared for the sick bird very faithfully; and child and raven became great friends.
After some days the bird was well again, and when he felt that his power to fly had been restored, he flapped his wings with a croak, flew out at the door, and alighted on a bough not far from the hut. The boy did not wish to lose the raven, and ran after him to catch him; but just as he thought he was going to seize the fugitive, he escaped from him, and the play continued till it grew dark, and the raven disappeared in the shadow of the trees. Now the child wanted to turn back home, but he had long since lost the hermit's hut from sight, and did not know which way to turn. And he sat down under a tree and cried and called his mother, and he was hungry too.
Suddenly the raven appeared again. He carried a piece of bread in his bill, and dropped it in front of the child. Then the little one was half comforted, ate, and fell asleep.
The next morning he was awakened by the croaking of his companion; he arose and followed the bird who flew before him, for he hoped he would lead him back to the hermitage. But the wise raven had a very different design. After some hours of wearisome wandering, the forest began to grow light, and before the boy lay a shining castle, from the tower of which waved a gay banner. It was the castle in which he had been born, but he did not know it.
The raven had disappeared, but the tired little fellow went up to the castle and sat down under a linden-tree near the gateway. The keeper with spear and helmet stepped up to him, and asked who he was, where he had come from, and what he wanted; but he could get no information. The servants gathered about the child, but they could learn nothing from him except that he came out of the forest, was hungry, and wished that he was with his mother again. Then out of compassion they gave him food and drink, and went about their work. The servants had plenty to do, for on the next day the count was to be married to the swarthy Ortrun.
The little one sat under the linden-tree and ate the food which had been brought to him. Then he heard the sound of wings. He looked up and saw the raven hovering above his head; he carried something that glistened in his bill, and now he let it fall into his lap. It was a fine gold chain from which hung a white, sparkling stone shaped like a bean. The boy examined the shining ornament with curiosity, and finally hid it in his dress. When the raven saw this he croaked with delight, and flew up to the pinnacle of the tower.
In the women's apartments there was a great commotion. The count's bride was behaving as though she had lost her mind, and at the same time old Crescenz was scolding at the top of her voice. Ortrun had been taking a bath, and when she went to dress herself again, the magical chicken-stone had disappeared.
“Help me, mother!” cried Ortrun, in the greatest distress; “help me, so that at the last moment everything will not go to pieces.”
“Help me!” said the old woman mockingly. “Did I not tell you to guard the stone as the apple of your eye? I decoyed the bird to the lime-pole for you; keeping him was your affair, you silly, heedless girl!”
The daughter stamped her foot. “You shall help me!” she snarled. “Make use of your arts and brew me a love-potion! What is the good of your being a witch?”
The mother's eyes shone green. She gave a leap, fastened her fingers in her daughter's black hair, and threw her on the floor. “A witch, am I, you wicked vixen? That is the thanks I get for giving you a love-charm!”
She stopped abruptly, for in the open doorway stood the count. He looked as pale as death.
“Woman, what do you say about love-charms?” he cried.
The women both trembled like aspen-leaves. The count, moreover, threatened them with his sword, and swore he would strike them to the ground unless they confessed. Then they threw themselves on the floor before him, begging for mercy, and acknowledged what they had done.
And the count looked with loathing and horror at the woman who had ensnared him with magic art, and the charming form of the wife whom he had betrayed arose before him. He groaned aloud like a wounded stag, turned, and went out.
The two women collected together as many of the jewels and splendid garments as they could carry, wrapt themselves in their cloaks, and fled from the castle like two gray spectres.
At the very moment when the charm over the count was broken, bitter repentance and a yearning for what he had lost filled his heart. In order to banish his tormenting thoughts, he ordered his horse saddled, and took his hunting-gear to hunt in the forest. As he rode out at the gate, his eyes fell on the lost boy sitting under the linden-tree, and he felt a stab in his heart, for he thought of his little son who would be about the same age as the strange child if the wolves had not torn him to pieces. He drew up his horse, and looked at the child, and an irresistible power compelled him to jump from his saddle and caress the boy. And the boy threw his arms about the count's neck and besought him in a tender, childish voice:—
“Take me back to my mother!”
“Where is your mother?” asked the count.
“There!” said the boy, pointing with his finger toward the fir forest.
Then the raven came, and croaking, circled round the father and his son. And the boy cried:—
“There is the bird that led me here; he knows the way to my mother.” And the raven screamed “Krah!” and flew toward the forest; then sat down and turned his wise head towards those he had left behind him.
Then the count said: “We will try to find your mother,” lifted the child on his horse, and rode into the fir woods. And the raven flew ahead of them.
In the hermit's hut there was great distress. AIl one night and all one day Frau Gotelind and the hermit had searched in the forest for the lost child, and at evening they both returned from different directions without him. The poor mother wrung her hands in despair, and the old hermit tried in vain to speak some comforting words.
Then they heard the croaking of a raven and the sound of hoofs, and Frau Gotelind hastened out of the hut in anxious expectation. A stately knight came leaping along, holding on the saddle in front of him the lost child.
“Mother!” cried the boy, still at a distance, stretching out his little arms. Frau Gotelind was about to hurry towards him, but she trembled so that she was obliged to hold on to the door-post, for the rider was well known to her.
The count reined in his snorting steed, sprang down, and set the child on the ground. Then he turned his eyes towards the trembling lady, and with a loud cry threw himself down at her feet. She flung her arms about her husband's neck, and clung to him laughing and crying.
The sun had gone to rest, and the bright moon was wandering through the fir forest. By the hearth-fire in the hermitage sat the count and his wife, as happy as a bride and groom who have just been united.
Then the boy, who had been a long time with the raven, came running to his mother, and laid the little chain, from which hung the white stone, in her lap.
“Where did you get this ornament?” asked the mother.
“The raven gave it to me when I was sitting in front of the castle, under the tree.”
The hermit looked at the stone, took it in his hand, examined it closely, and said:—
“It is the Alectorius stone, of whose power old wise people tell wonderful things. It grows in a cock's crop, and fastens the man with magic power to the woman who wears the jewel concealed about her person. Believe me, my daughter, this stone has been the cause of your sorrow.”
Then the count seized the chain, threw it on the floor, and raised his foot in order to crush the Alectorius stone. But the raven was too quick for him, snatched the chain with his bill, and flew out of the window with it. Whether he carried the ornament to his nest to enjoy its brilliancy, or whether he tried the stone's magic power on some coy raven damsel, the one who relates this tale has never been able to find out.