Famous Stories from Foreign Countries/When the Bright Nights Were

Peter Rosegger4025413Famous Stories From Foreign Countries — When the Bright Nights Were1921Edna Worthley Underwood




Petri Kettenfeier Rosegger (born in 1843 at Alpel, Steiermark) is a popular and prolific writer of Austria. His father and mother were both charcoal burners in the great forest which he has pictured so often, and his youthful surroundings were most meager. His mother was a woman of talent; she was one of nature’s poets and from her came his mental ability. At seventeen he was apprenticed to a tailor, and in the few years that followed, he worked in sixty-seven different families.

In this way he learned the life of the peasants of his country and at the same time sketched the idea of Waldheimat (Forest Home), his first important work—which has now become a classic—and from which this story is taken.

Later Dr. Svoboda, editor of a paper in Graz, heard of him, and with the aid and cooperation of friends, helped him to an education. His descriptions of the wooded country where he was born, and of peasant life in the Alps, are among the finest in the language.


The summer had been hot. The moss in the forest was faded and dry, and between the sparse blades of grass one could see the grey ground. Beside the piles of dried pine needles on the floor of the forest, lay dead ants and beetles. The stones in the bed of the river were dry and white as ivory. Fish and frogs were dying in the little round pools that were occasionally visible between the stones.

The air was heavy, and the mountains—even the near ones—were blue. When the sun arose it was as red as the autumn leaf of a beech tree, then, later, pallid and dull, so that one could look straight at it. It crawled lifelessly across the grey desert of the sky; the people began to hope for rain, but a little breeze sprang up, and when morning came, the clouds had disappeared and even the dew was not to be seen.

Down in the village they appointed a day of prayer for rain. From all the forest the people came in crowds. Only old Markus and I remained at home in the empty house, and the old servant said to me; “If fine weather comes, it will rain—so of what use is the day of prayer? If the Lord God made us and put us here, he hasn’t the foolish head to forget us. And if he hasn’t any head at all but just made the world with his hands and feet, then he hasn’t any ears, has he? So whafs the use of all this howling in the village! Don’t you agree with me yourself, Boy?”

What all do not people say! Old Markus breaks his head thinking over things he knows nothing about, is what they say.

Just then a shepherd from the Riegelberg jumped into the door. He was so excited he could hardly speak. He pointed through the window with both forefingers, toward the crest of the Filnbaum Forest. The old servant followed the direction and clasped his hands in fear. There, behind the summit, whirled upward a circling column of red smoke, which spread out and blackened the sky.

“That may be very serious,” declared Markus. He seized an axe and hurried away. The smoke rose thicker and thicker, and spread out faster and faster. I began to cry. Old Markus paid no attention to me; he had other work to do.

On the sunny slopes of the Filnbaum Forest it had begun, where there was a space overgrown with withered briars and bushes. Near the growth of dry larch trees the fire began, no one knows how. First it skipped along lightly from twig to twig, then upward from great bough to bough, with wide fluttering wings. Soon the conflagration unchained its wild powers, and set floating its red, victorious banners. Here the forest becomes thicker and loftier; long braids of moss swing from the branches, and the great trees which were wounded by a hail storm some years ago, are bare and resinous to the summit. With what relish the fiery tongues lick these great trunks, and then flare up into space! And down upon the ground a brood of little red serpents begin to crawl in all directions, and to develop a hideous life. The few wood choppers run around and around in confusion, and come and cry for help. But the great forest and all its huts are empty.

The people have gone to the village to pray for rain. When, hours later, they start to return, the great forest is in flames. There is a feverish trembling in the air, a cracking and rattling; twigs break, trunks crash down and send up a multitude of sparks, and waves of smoke. Fresh breaths of burning air float over the woodland; the flames give birth to a storm-wind which they ride.

Men worked and worked; some, half burned, had to be carried out. The servant, Markus, saw the heart-breaking result, but he did not complain nor was he discouraged, he worked quietly and persistently. His clothing began to catch fire. He ran down to the river bed and rolled in the sand until it clung to and covered his rough clothing. Now he owned a coat of mail. He hewed off branches; he cut down trees, but that did not help. The glowing river rolled on; dead trees, bare branches waited eagerly for the devouring flame, and burned at the first breath.

Now the workmen tried to get ahead of the fire by cutting down great spaces of trees, and thus by making a clearing, set a limit to its power. Then the conflagration divided itself and spread out resplendent arms in other directions. When evening came the wind rose; it tore into shreds the gorgeous and triumphant flame-banners, and scattered the fragments’ over the forest land. There was a monotonous and uncanny moaning in the heavens, and a marvelous, unnatural light flung far and wide over all the darkly wooded country.

Exhausted and helpless, the workmen rested; the women carried their belongings out of their cottages without knowing what to do with them.

In the deep valleys there was peace and quiet. There one heard only the whispering of the tall pine trees. But the night sky was rose-colored, and occasionally a fire-dragon sped overhead. Sometimes twittering birds came, and homeless animals. The deer came up to the dwellings of men.

“Our fate will be that of the deer,” complained the old women. “There is no hope of saving the forest now. It will all be burned! Oh! Holy Savior—this is the Last Judgment.”

For days the conflagration lasted.

From our house—high among the woodlands—we could look down upon the trees of the Filnbaum Forest, and watch the flames climb up. The land was covered with a sad veil, and smoke choked us. Above, in the sky, hung a huge, tragic, red wheel which the smoke whirled about but could not destroy. That was the sun. We watched the flames draw nearer and nearer to us. They swept over the heights, down into the valleys, and at length climbed the hillside toward our house. We needed no burning pine cones in the evenings, we had light enough, because ten minutes walk from our door the beautiful forest was flaming. Long ago we had driven the cattle to the Aim Meadow and carried the furniture out into the field. People came running by who were half mad. Old Martin kept his senses better than the rest, although his hut was burned, he picked cranberries at midnight by the light of the flames. My father went upon the roof of our cottage, carrying a pole on the end of which was a rag which was wet. With this he put out the falling sparks. On the fifth night, when we were sleeping in a corner of our empty rooms, we were awakened by a great roaring. Old Markus, who was keeping watch upon the roof, called to us. “That’s good! That’s good!”

A storm had arisen and now it was raging over the burning woodland, with a power that was splendid and terrifying. It roared and thundered like a cataract turned loose among the trees. The fire was turned away from our direction, and that was what caused the words of old Markus. The flames were in wild flight. They leaped over entire stretches of forest and set fire to fresh woodlands far away.

“It is over! We are saved!” exclaimed the helpless people in surprise. Some, indeed, when the smoke cleared away and they saw the bald mountain sides, regained their normal mind and said: “Surely there is going to be a great festival for the mountains have shaved themselves.”

When the storm was over, the rain came. For days the rain fell and the heavy clouds hung low. At last the fire was extinguished. Over the forest spread a frosty fog, for fall had come.

The burning of the forests was so huge a thing that it could be painted only by a powerful imagination. Such an imagination is not mine, therefore there was nothing left for me to do but to sketch it roughly with the worn pencil of memory.

After the cold mists of autumn came the snow. That winter from our windows we saw more white spaces than black. When spring came, then we realized what the great fire had done. Every where black ground, rust hued stones, roots that looked like coals, and tall, black trunks towering over all.

Workmen came. They plowed the blackened soil. They sowed grain. The early fall brought splendor. No one in all our forest land had ever seen such a magnificent harvest as covered the mountain sides. I recall what the village pastor said: “The Lord God strikes wounds, but he sends the balsam that heals. Praised be His name!”

From the Filnbaum Forest to our very door were fields, and for thirty years the burned woodland gave our people bread. Since then our people are scattered; they have moved away, and a fresh, new, forest is beginning to grow upon the mountain sides.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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