The Strand Magazine/Volume 2/Issue 12/Otto's Folly
From the German of P. K. Rosegger.
HEY called her Anna of the Forest Castle all along both sides of the river. Nobody would call her the forester's Annchen; they thought she deserved a grander name, for Annchen was very beautiful. She was but little more than fifteen years old. Hitherto her great dreamy, child-like eyes had looked openly and fearlessly out into the world and at all mankind, but just about that time the long lashes would droop and fall, and the girl became very quiet and reserved. It was only the hungry beggar who was favoured with a kindly glance from the bright star-like eyes, as she put a piece of bread into his hand. She would give no look of greeting, hardly even a civil word, to any of the men of high standing, or the gay, handsome young fellows who, coming from afar, stopped in passing at the door of the forester's lowly hut; and if she did sometimes vouchsafe a word or two to any of the youths, it was sure to be something sharp and cutting as a knife, and many a brave young fellow felt deeply wounded thereby.
On the other side of the river lived a youth who did not think that title grand enough. Anna was the only maiden in all the country round about who would not look at him, and yet he was the handsomest young fellow in the whole neighbourhood. He was past eighteen, the only son of the manager of the well-known ironworks over on the other side, and his name was Otto. He was away studying at the Gymnasium, but when he was at home for the vacation he was always out and about with horses and dogs, lording it over the other young fellows and teasing the girls.
It was the lovely time of spring, and the feast of Whitsuntide was at hand. Anna's parents were about to celebrate their silver wedding. The little church was to be specially decorated in their honour, and there were to be great doings all round about; many in the village had ordered new clothes for the occasion, and new shoes for dancing. Being the merry month of May wreaths and nosegays would be provided in plenty.
At the manager's house, on the other side of the river, all was bustle and life. He it was who was getting up the little fête for the forester and his wife, and the rooms in his house were being prepared for the banquet.
Otto was busy in the stables and coachhouse, and as he made ready his fireworks he kept saying to himself: "To-morrow I will force her to dance with me!"
Late in the afternoon Anna came up to the big house, round by the upper bridge; she had many things to talk over for the morrow with her friend, Adelheid, Otto's sister.
"Your dear mother is to have a lovely bridal wreath," said Adelheid, "but you must not tell her that it is already the second one I have made. Otto spoilt the first one altogether. I had taken such a lot of trouble over it, and put in rosemary and evergreens, and my three first peonies which flower so late this year, when up comes this mad boy, seizes the wreath out of my hands and runs dancing away with it on his own head. I think I cried for almost an hour just with rage and despair. Otto is sometimes so dreadfully high-spirited and wild he turns the house topsy-turvy. You don't know how wild he is, Anna; I must tell it you, even though he were ten times my brother. You should just see him when he fires up! But when the storm is over then he is ashamed of himself, and is very anxious to make peace."
How true was this description Anna was soon to learn.
When she was leaving, Otto wanted to row her across the river. His mother declared he was not capable of doing it. At last, however, she had to give in, and the headstrong lad, flinging away his riding whip, rolled up his sleeves, and running down to the river bank, launched the boat out on to the swelling waves and loosened the anchor.
When Anna came up, carrying her little basket, he took off his straw hat, and led her carefully along the plank and into the dancing boat.
"For Heaven's sake, children, take care of yourselves, and you, Otto, see you steer properly! Stay! I had better send the boatman with you!"
But Otto had already pushed off.
"Just as though I were still a boy!" he muttered.
With practised hand he dipped the paddle into the bright green waves, and the little boat glided on its way across the river.
Anna sat on the little bench and waved her handkerchief until Adelheid and her mother disappeared through the garden gate. Then she fixed her gaze on the water.
Suddenly, when they had nearly reached the middle of the river, Otto let go the paddle.
"I have something to say to you, Anna," he said.
She raised her head. The boat seemed to stand still, but the willows on the bank glided slowly onwards.
"Anna," said Otto, in a clear voice, "you must love me!" And his eyes seemed on fire.
The girl was silent.
"Anna, you shall love me!" he repeated.
"Why not?" answered the girl. "You have done me no harm. But I should hardly have thought you would have ventured to use must and shall to the 'noble maiden of the forest,' as you call me."
"Anna, do not laugh at me; I will not stand it; I am a man!"
"I shall believe that when you have grown a head taller."
The lad stood up in the boat, displaying his tall slender figure.
"You are always teasing me," he rejoined; "but I will show you that I have a good head on my shoulders, and that at any rate I have every bit as much sense and wit as any of those who stare at you and run after you—and perhaps a good deal more. Look me in the face, Anna!"
"Oh, I know what you look like."
"Look at me, Anna!" He stayed the paddle against the boat; his eyes gleamed.
"What will happen, if I don't? Perhaps you will tear my mother's bridal wreath in pieces, as you did the one your sister made this morning?" And she hid the basket behind her back.
"They shall keep their wedding-day without us!" he exclaimed, as he loosened the paddle from its fastening. "If you will neither look at me nor love me, Anna," he went on, trembling, "I will fling this paddle into the water!"
"Then fling it into the water," retorted Anna, coldly.
He turned, and without another word let the paddle drop over the side. It fell with a splash into the river, and floated away. Otto leaned back in the corner of the boat with folded arms.
Anna had jumped up, and tried to seize the paddle. She stood there pale and motionless.
The little boat glided quietly as the waves carried it. Anna was speechless with horror. Otto leaned back with closed eyes, apparently thoroughly satisfied with himself, letting his hand hang over the boat's side and dip into the water.
The broad valley lay calm and peaceful before them. Green fields and meadows were on either side, and the high tree-tops were still illuminated by the rays of the setting sun.
Anna buried her face in her hands, and wept bitterly. Otto half rose up.
"Now," he said, "we are alone in the world you and I!" And his voice was soft and gentle.
The girl roused herself. "You must take me across the water, Otto," she cried. "You undertook to do it, and a man never breaks his word!"
"I will take you across, the river," he replied, relenting.
"But you must land me just opposite your house."
"Hush! Anna; you must see that now that would be quite impossible; our house is far behind us. Very soon we shall reach the fishing huts—we will stop there. Then I will get a carriage and horses at one of the farms, and in an hour's time you will be at home. Now, stop crying; surely you can understand a joke. I see I cannot force you to love me."
The little boat still drifted. It kept always in the middle of the river; the waves plashed and broke on either sandy bank. Often a little fish popped up and snapped after a fly, and the water bubbled over the place where it had been. The sun had gone down, banks of golden clouds floated in the skies, and the boat went dancing over purple-coloured waves.
At last, when it was dark, and the valley began to narrow, and the boat drew near the fisher-huts, Otto began to shout for help. His voice re-echoed back from the forest with a dull, empty sound. No one heard; no one came to help them. Then he tried to break off one of the benches and to make a paddle of it, but everything was firmly riveted together; and the little boat still drifted. The young man clasped his hands in agony.
"I would give my life," he exclaimed, "to change our course, but I cannot do it! Anna, night is drawing near. If we float on like this a few hours longer," and he seized her arm, with a shudder, "we shall get into the Dragon's Hole!"
"Into the Dragon's Hole!" screamed Anna. She turned shudderingly away from Otto, and then clung to him as though she were already sinking in some bottomless abyss.
The "Dragon's Hole" was the name given to the mouth of the wild cavern through which the mountain river rushed, and flowing onwards underground for many miles, came to light again at last behind the mountain where the plain began. There the river is much narrower than where it forces its way through the cavern, and often it carries with it mud, stones, fossils, and bones of animals forth into the plains beyond. The saying goes that, in the days gone by, a race of dragons lived in those unexplored grottos, and that is why the entrance to them is still called the "Dragon's Hole." That strange animals must have lived in these caves is proved by the curious bones and skeletons washed out by the river. For some time past many men of science had intended to explore these subterraneous regions; but the undertaking was by no means an inviting one—indeed, perhaps hardly feasible. The inaccessible cliffs, the unfathomable depths, were terrible merely from the thundering roar that proceeded from the cavern's mouth.
And it was towards this awful snot that the helpless little boat was drawing! As yet it still floated gently on the ripples, wafted by the mild breezes of the lovely night of May, while the stars, in all their beauty, were still shining overhead.
"The paddle must be floating after us," said Otto; "it will surely strike against the boat!"
The boat was driven slightly over to the right bank, and Otto strove to use his hands as paddles. Then he held his coat spread out to form a sail—but all in vain. The boat drifted back into the middle of the stream.
"We are foolish to exert ourselves like this," said Otto, wiping away the perspiration from his face; "of course my father will have gone on ahead of us with carriage and horses, and they will drag us ashore long before we reach the Dragon's Hole."
"How can he know that the paddle has been thrown into the water?" thought Anna; "and even if he has seen it there is no driving road through this wild country. The river alone keeps on its course; no one can come to our rescue!" But she did not give utterance to these thoughts, not wishing to increase Otto's distress.
"To-morrow we shall have a good laugh at the whole affair," said Otto suddenly; "we shall be twice as merry after a joke like this. There is to be music in the afternoon, fireworks in the evening and something else besides—but what it is I am not going to tell."
"Hush! Otto," rejoined the girl, sadly.
Again they were silent. Nothing was heard save the plashing and gurgling of the water. On both sides of the river wood-covered hills now rose high.
"One can hardly believe it possible that the river flows so quickly," muttered Otto to himself; "here is the ravine already!"
Standing up, he began to shout aloud—louder still. The sound re-echoed through the trees and against the rocks—then nothing was heard save the rushing waters as the boat glided on. Anna clung trembling to Otto's arm.
"If I take hold of you," he said, "and we throw ourselves into the water together, perhaps we can manage to reach the shore."
"You see how rough the water is, and the bank is steep. We must not foolishly court death, Otto; it would not be right. I will lie down now and close my eyes, and leave our fate to Heaven."
"Ah, it is easy for you, Anna," replied Otto, deeply moved. "But I—I shall die guilty of your death!"
The roaring of the waters grew louder and louder, and the waves dashed noisily against the cliffs on either side. At that moment the little boat rose high upon a wave; then, diving downwards, was dashed against a rock.
Otto pushed forward, and, climbing up, seized hold of the twisted roots of a bush, and swung himself on to the stones with a great cry of joy. But, Anna! he must save her. Again he jumped back into the boat to seize her and bring her ashore, when at the same moment the boat was driven from the rock, and darted again into the roaring waters.
The poor boy sank at her feet. "All is over!" he cried. "There is no help for us now, Anna!"
He took the little basket from behind her, and carefully lifting out the bridal wreath placed it on her brow. With an unspeakably loving and tender smile, she whispered: "Otto!"
The boat flew onwards, tossed and pitched upon the foaming waves. The water was seething and roaring as though alive; high above them the cliffs nearly met, shutting out the stars of heaven.
Suddenly the boat was shot into black darkness. The roaring noise was fearful. The frail skiff plunged and tossed; the waves dashed over the two terrified young creatures who, clinging together, cowered down at the bottom of the boat.
They had arrived at the "Dragon's Hole!"
Over the terrific roaring of the water they could hear how the boat groaned and creaked; often it was dashed against the rocks and whirled round in an eddying pool. But its planks held firm. Quicker and quicker it darted forward into the grotto—forward to unknown and unimagined horrors.
Anna seemed to swoon, but Otto could feel that her lips moved gently. The cave was here so low that the bow of the boat struck more than once against the low-hanging rocks. The roaring of the waters grew louder and louder, and heavy drops fell on them from above. Then the cavern seemed to widen. In the distance was heard a dull booming roar, which came nearer and nearer, until in an incredibly short time it sounded like the noise of a most terrific storm. A thick wet mist, the spray of the breaking waves enveloped them, and the sound was in their ears like rolling thunder. Faster and faster flew the boat. Otto, raising himself, cried out, "Anna, once again I beg you to forgive me!"
She could not hear his words. The deafening noise half stunned her. The boat darted like an arrow through the deep water. Then came a fearful shock, and it stuck fast between the rocks.
Otto jumped up, and, seizing hold of Anna, lifted her out upon the stony ground. The boat was jammed between the rocks, her bow well out of the water, and the spray dashing over her.
But the two young people were on solid ground again. They clambered up over the rocks in pitchy darkness, till they felt themselves on a smooth, level spot. There they sank down, side by side.
"Perhaps we may find a way out of this, Anna!" shouted Otto, in fresh hope.
Suddenly the girl gave a piercing scream, and seized hold of her companion convulsively. An icy cold reptile had crawled over her foot. She shuddered as she shook it off.
Then they tried to dry their clothes. As Otto turned his coat over, a light, thin stick covered with paper fell into his hands. It was one of the fireworks which he had prepared for the fête, and he must have put it into his pocket without thinking. A thought struck him. He hastily searched through all his pockets, and found a most welcome object in the shape of a tinder-box, which he was in the habit of carrying with him when he went out shooting.
"Now, Anna," he shouted in the girl's ear, "we shall have light!"
He began striking the rock with a bit of flint. At first no sparks came; it was as though the very flint was deprived of all powers of light in this damp, dark grotto. However, he worked on untiringly; he tried it at various places, and behold at last there came a starry spark. An exclamation of delight, continued efforts, and the sparks came more frequently, and at last the tinder was alight.
Otto placed his firework on a stone, with a little piece of the burning tinder close against it. Then he stood on one side, placing Anna at a safe distance behind him.
Round about them all was still dark as night. Then suddenly there came a flash of light darting upwards in dazzling brightness, high up along the grey and beetling crags; everything was aglow; wondrous shapes of many colours stood round about the vast grotto; and down in the abyss below foamed and hissed the fiery vapours of the terrible torrent, while Anna stood there pale as any of the dripping fossil figures, her lovely tresses hanging loose and dishevelled on her shoulders, a few leaves and flowers from the bridal wreath still clinging to her damp hair. High up among the jagged peaks the fire-ball burst asunder into thousands of gleaming sheaves and stars, pouring down a rain of fire into the depths below. Some sparks clung to the walls and shone brightly for a few brief moments; others fell and went out behind the demon-like shapes which stood grinning threateningly like so many visitors from the Inferno.
Then again all was darkness, thicker and blacker than before. A suffocating smoke and smell alone remained.
"This is heaven and hell together," said Otto. He could not hear a single word he said, and yet all was perfectly quiet. The roaring of the water in his ears had ceased.
They groped about for a dry spot, and sat down together on a stone. Otto clasped the poor girl in his arms, and on his hands he felt her warm tears fall.
Thus they sat a long time. Anna had fallen into a kind of swoon, her head resting against Otto's shoulder, her wet locks streaming over his hands. He laid his burning cheeks against her head.
"Oh, forgive me, my own darling!" he murmured. "If you were to pass away like this I would throw myself into the torrent with your body in my arms."
Presently, bringing out his tinder-box, he struck a light, and slowly and cautiously began to climb down the rocks. He wished to find out what had become of the river, since all was now so still. As he stood there in the mud, he felt as though his feet rested upon crawling reptiles, and a cold shudder ran through him. At last he reached the spot where the boat was still stuck fast between the rocks, and, kindling his light afresh, gazed into the deep and shining waters.
Suddenly he saw upon the waves a glittering line—a kind of slab with little stars upon it, and steeped in a bluish light, almost like an imitation of the starry heavens. I his slab floated backwards and forwards, now approaching, now receding. Behind it seemed to be a long, thin object, like a snake. Nothing more could he distinguish.
A sudden hopeful thought flashed across the young man's mind. He stepped out into the water up to his thighs, and stretched out his hand to reach the shining object.
What he grasped was a block of wood, having a rope attached to it.
With both hands he pulled the heavy block of wood into the boat, and passed the end of the rope through the boat's iron ring to keep it firm. All this he did in a tumult of delight not to be described in words. Then he rushed, clambering and stumbling over the rocks, to Anna, shook her and roused her, crying with all the strength of his hoarse voice that she was to come with him directly; that they were saved at last.
When they got down to the boat again it had already begun to move from the rock. By the fading light of the still burning tinder, and only just in the nick of time, they sprang into the boat, half-filled with water as it was, which, fastened firmly to the block of wood and highly stretched rope, slowly and heavily moved away.
For a while they were passing through smooth water under the overhanging rocks; then they reached the dreadful place beneath the cliffs where the waves were running high.
Then the two rescued from such peril covered their eyes with their hands. At last they were standing on dry ground, bathed in the bright, warm rays of the shining, sunny day!
On both banks of the river, close beside the Dragon's Hole, a great crowd of people had assembled. Many had climbed up on the rocks, to be the first to see the boat when it appeared. And now all was explained.
The evening before some fishermen had seen the paddle floating, and as soon as the young people were missed it was easily guessed what had happened to them. The whole night long hundreds of people were up and down along the banks of the river searching for the missing ones, till finally it was clear to all that they must have drifted into the Dragon's Hole.
Then means of saving them were thought of. For hours the crowd waited, while the endless rope was uncoiled, and, together with the piece of wood, which had been made to shine with phosphorescent light, was floated into the Dragon's Hole. Then four strong men began hauling in the rope. No one dared to hope—hope seemed impossible. But when the block appeared again, out floated from the cavern's jaws the little boat!
And when the great crowd saw it, such a shout of joy went up as drowned the roaring of the torrent. The poor parents wept for joy, as they clasped their recovered children in their arms.
But they two were deathly pale, quite deaf, and almost blind. Slowly and only by degrees did they recover from the shock, and were able to look upon the happy faces around them, and hear the roaring waters and the shouts of joy.
Arm-in-arm they got into the softly-cushioned carriage; for they quite refused to be parted.
"What a bridal gift for our silver wedding!" exclaimed the forester. And his wife added: "Truly my prayers last night were not in vain!"
Thus they returned home through the forests to their own valley, the crowd following in procession, and dragging the little boat with them, like a trophy of victory—to be kept for Otto and Anna in everlasting remembrance of that terrible Whitsun eve.