In The Wilderness
Once again spring-breezes blew across the land. The melting snows flowed down in rushing mountain-torrents; timidly, half-suspiciously the first Alpine plants peeped out, as though to ask the sunshine if it were indeed in earnest, and they might venture forth a little further. Here and there isolated patches of snow still lay like forgotten linen sheets. In the evergreen pine and fir-woods, the birds lifted their wings, held twittering consultations, and attuned their little throats to the universal song of rejoicing.
From the Ferner mountains avalanches came thundering down into the valleys, and beneath the terrible, moving masses, walls and rafters, trees and bushes, crashed together. There was a thronging and wrestling, a thundering and rustling--there were threats and allurements, fears and hopes, in the heights and in the valleys, and man also, ever-venturesome, ever-inquisitive man, arose from his long winter's rest, stretched forth his feelers, and began to grope about the mountains with his alpenstock for some foothold in the loose and shifting snow.
Only Rofen yet lay in the shadow of its narrow, heaven-high walls, hidden like a late sleeper beneath its white coverlet. Before the door of the Rofen farm stood Leander, feeding Hansl with a big mouse that he had caught for him. Hansl had been Leander's pet from the hour when it came out that he belonged to Wally, and the bird was well cared for among the Rofeners.
Benedict came towards the house with his mountain pole. He had been reconnoitring the path to Murzoll, and had more than once hovered between life and death. His glance was unsteady, his whole appearance agitated and gloomy.
"Well?" asked Leander in anxious suspense.
"The road is passable at need. If I guide her, she can risk it."
"Nay, Benedict, don't thee do that, don't let her go up there--I pray thee, don't."
"What she will--she will," said Benedict gloomily.
"Tell her the mountain's not safe, then she'll remain of herself."
"Where's the good of lying? She'll not change her mind however long she stays here, and thou hast nothing to hope, I've told thee that often enough. An unfledged stripling like thee is not for a maid like Wally! Now keep thyself quiet." He went into the house, and the tears sprang into Leander's eyes with anger and pain.
Wally came with the hayfork out of the stable towards Benedict.
"Wally," he said, "if it must be so, I'll lead thee up there, I've found out the way; but it is still dangerous."
"Thank thee kindly, Benedict," said Wally, "tomorrow, then, we will go." She hung up the hayfork, and went into the kitchen. Benedict stamped with his foot, and set his alpenstock in the corner. For a while he stood reflecting, then he could keep quiet no longer--he followed her.
Wally had tucked up her gown and was preparing to wash the kitchen.
"Wally, leave all that, I want to talk with thee."
"I cannot, Benedict, I must scour the kitchen. If I go away to-morrow, I must have the whole house clean. I'll leave no dirt or disorder behind me."
"Thou's always worked more by us than thou hast eaten or drunken. Let be now, the house is clean enough, and if thou goes away--all is one." He chewed at a piece of wood, then spit out the bitten splinter. Wally saw the terrible state of excitement he was in, and left off her work that she might listen to him.
"Wally," he said, "consider once more whether thou'll not have one of us. See now, thou'st no need to be so proud. There's such a cry against thee, that it's through great love only, that one can take thee at all."
Wally nodded her head in perfect agreement.
"Now see, we Rofeners, we are people who may knock at every door, and there's not a girl but would be glad to get one of us. Thou hast the choice between two of us brothers, and refusest such a piece of luck. See, Wally, thou may some day repent of it."
"Benedict, thou means well, and I care for thee and Leander as one can care for only one person, but not enough to marry you. And I'll marry no one that I can't love as a husband, and that thou may know that I mean it, I once saw one that I can never forget, and till I do forget him, I'll take no other."
Benedict grew pale.
"See, I tell thee that thou may be at peace, and no longer torment thyself with the thought of me. Only believe, Benedict, I know well what thou hast done, thou and all of you for me. You saved me from death, you protected me when my father'd have taken me away by force, and it was really fine how thou defended me and thy rights. I'd be a happy girl if I could love thee and forget that other. I'm right thankful to thee, and if it could help thee, I'd give thee my life--but tell thyself, what would thee do with a wife who loves some one else? That were truly a bad return to a man like thee."
"Yes," said Benedict hoarsely, and wiped his forehead.
"And thou sees now, that I must go away, that things can't go on as they are?"
"Yes," he said again, and left the kitchen.
Wally looked after him as, full of emotion, he strode away, the brave and proud man who had offered her all, all that--as he himself had said in his uncouth fashion--would have made the happiness of any other girl. And she herself could not understand how it was that she could not care more for this man, who had done so much for her, than for the stranger who had never once given her a thought. And yet so it was! There was not one who could be compared with Joseph for power and excellence; she saw him always before her as when he had flung the bloody bear's skin from his shoulder and related how he had wrestled with the monster, whilst all stood around and admired him, the mighty, the beautiful, the only one! And then how he had conquered her father, the strong man who had always appeared to her hitherto so unconquerable and terrible! And with what goodness and kindness he had spoken to him afterwards, in spite of her father's hostility! No, there was not one that could rise up and stand comparison with Joseph.
She went back to her work. "If only Joseph knew all that I am giving up for his sake," she thought as she looked out, and saw how in front of the window Benedict with a red face was talking to Leander, and how Leander wept.
Old Stromminger had at first stormed against and cursed his unruly child, and not even the good pastor of Heiligkreuz had succeeded in pacifying him. When it was at length rumoured that Wally kept herself hidden at Rofen, he sent people to fetch her away. But on their own ground and territory it was easy for no one to move the "Klötze of Rofen," and they defended like knights the sacred rights and freedom of the Rofeners. When Wally however perceived that a passion for her had taken possession of the brothers, then she made a confidant of the quiet and prudent Nicodemus, and he understood what was needful to be done. He went to Stromminger, and his wise eloquence was so far successful that the old man at last gave up the idea of imprisoning Wally, and contented himself with banishing her for ever from his sight. In the summer she should tend the flocks again upon Murzoll, "because that is the only way in which one can make any use of her." In the winter she might seek service wherever she liked--only she was not to venture to come back to her home.
When Nicodemus returned with this answer, Wally insisted upon going that moment to await the flocks upon the Ferner, and only Nicodemus' firm decision prevailed upon her to wait at least till Benedict should have examined whether the mountain road were passable.
So the hour came when Wally must once more fly before the winds of spring on to the mountains, into the desert. It was hard to part with the brothers, and with good Marianne. They had become dear to her, these worthy people, who had come so readily to her help.
Benedict went up the mountain with her; he would not let himself be deprived of that. "Thou'st been entrusted to us, we will at least hand thee back again with a whole skin. Whatever may happen to thee then, we can, alas! do nought to hinder."
It was a fearful road up which they had to make their way in the midst of the wild confusion wrought by the spring, and Benedict, acknowledged far and wide to be the best and surest of guides, said himself he had never seen so bad a mountain-path. They spoke little, for they were engaged in a constant, breathless struggle for life, and could look neither to the right nor to the left. It was hard work. At length, after fighting half the day with snow and ice and crevasses, they found themselves on the summit. The old hut still stood there, somewhat more ruinous than before, and a heavy weight of snow lay on the roof and all around it.
"There thou means to house thyself--there! Sooner than become an honoured wife and lead with us down yonder a respected and home-sheltered life as a peasant of Rofen?"
"I can do no other, Benedict," said Wally gently, and looked with sad eyes at the snow-covered inhospitable hut. "I believe the mountain spirits have thrown a spell upon me, so that I must needs come back to them, and never more feel myself at home in the valleys."
"One might almost believe it! There's something strange about thee. Thou's quite different from other maids, so that one loves thee in quite a different way--much, much more dearly, and yet as if thou didn't belong to us, as if an evil spirit drove thee round."
He threw down the bundle of provisions that he had brought up with him for Wally, and began removing the snow from the door of the hut that she might be able to get into it.
"Benedict," said Wally softly, as though she could be overheard, "dost thou believe in the phantom maidens?"
Benedict looked down meditatively and shrugged his shoulders. "What can one say? I've never seen any myself--but there are people who'd hold to it to their last breath."
"I'd never believed in them--but when I came up here last year, I had a dream so lifelike, I could almost believe it was no dream, and since then, whatever happens to me, I can't help thinking of the phantom-maidens.
"What sort of a dream?"
"Thou must know that him whom I love is a chamois-hunter, and it was because of him my father sent me up last year, and the first hour I was here I dreamt that the phantom-maidens and Murzoll threatened me that if I wouldn't leave off thinking of the lad, they'd fling me down into the abyss!" And she related her whole dream in detail to Benedict. He shook his head, and became quite melancholy. "Wally, in thy place, I should be afraid."
She threw her head back. "Ah well. Thou goes on shooting the chamois, in spite of the phantom-maidens. One has only got not to be afraid. I've sprung over many a chasm since then, and I've felt well enough that there was somewhat that wished to pull me down, but I held myself firm, and kept the upper hand."
She raised her strong brown arm defiantly. "So long as I've got two arms, I've no need to fear whatever it may be."
This did not please Benedict. In his solitary wanderings over the terrible Similaun and the wild glacier peaks, he had acquired a taste for subtle meditations and reflected more deeply on many things than other people. "Take care, Wally! He who sets himself too high thrusts his head up easily enough, but that's what those up yonder won't endure, and they thrust him down again."
She was silent.
"It's too early for thee to be up here--" he began again, "no one could stand it."
"Oh, it was worse still when I was up here last autumn," said Wally, as she went into the hut.
"Who won't be advised, can't be helped. But if he doesn't some time recompense thee for all thou'rt going through for him, he deserves to be dragged round by the collar."
"If he knew of it, for sure he'd recompense me," said Wally reddening and looking down.
"He doesn't know of it?" asked Benedict astonished.
"No, he scarcely knows me."
"Now may God forgive thee that thou should so set thy heart on a strange man, and them, them who love thee, and have cherished thee and tended thee, them thou pushes from thee. That is no love--that is mere obstinacy."
Wally was silent, and Benedict also said no more. He did now as old Klettenmaier had done the year before. He set the hut in order as well as he could for Wally, and brought her a store of wood. Then he held out his hand to her in farewell. "May God guard thee up here! And if I might say one more word to thee, it would be this: Watch over thyself, and pray that no evil powers may get the better of thee!"
Wally's heart contracted as his eyes full of deep sadness rested on her. It seemed to her as though in truth she felt the evil powers hovering round her, and almost unconsciously she held the hand of her protector who had watched over her so faithfully, and accompanied him part of the way back, as though she feared to remain alone.
"Now then--here the path becomes bad; I thank thee for coming so far," said Benedict, and parted from her.
"Farewell, and a safe journey home," cried Wally after him.
He looked round no more. She turned back to the hut, and was once more alone with her vulture and her mountain spirits. But the spirits seemed appeased. Murzoll smiled kindly in the glow of the spring sunshine upon the returned child, and Wally no longer felt herself a stranger in the midst of her mighty and sublime surroundings. Each fold on Murzoll's brow was familiar to her now; she knew his smile and his frown, and it no longer frightened her when sullen clouds beset his brow, or when he rolled down avalanches into the abyss. She felt herself secure on his harsh breast, and the breath of his storms blew away from her heart the weight that she had brought up with her again from the valley. For a healing power lies in the storm; it cools the blood, it bears the soul on its rushing wings far away over the stones and thorns amongst which it would flutter, painfully entangled. As when a child has hurt itself and cries, we breathe on the place, saying, "It will soon be well," and the child smiles back to us again, so Father Murzoll blew away from the heart of his returned child the dull pain that oppressed it, and she looked with shining eyes and an uplifted heart out into the wide world--and hoped and waited.
So weeks and months passed by. The July sun shone with such power that the mountain was already completely "ausgeapert"; that is to say, the lighter winter snow was all melted away to the limits of the eternal snows where Wally dwelt. Now and then one of the Rofener brothers came up to enquire whether she had not yet changed her mind. But they came but seldom, and interrupted Wally's solitude by a few short half-hours only.
One day the sun's rays "pricked" with such sharp, unusual heat, that Wally felt as though she were passing between glowing needles. When the sun "pricks," it draws the clouds together, and soon, somewhere about midday, it had gathered about itself a thick tent of clouds behind which it disappeared, and a leaden twilight was spread heavily over the earth. A strange disquietude seized the little flock; now and then a quivering brightness shuddered through the grey cloud-chaos, as a sleeper's eyelashes quiver in dreams, and gigantic black mourning clouds waved about Murzoll's head. Now and again they were rent asunder, affording faint glimpses into the clear distance, but instantly across these thin places new veils were woven till all was closed, and no empty space, as it seemed, left between earth and Heaven.
Wally well knew what all this foreboded; she had already experienced plenty of bad weather up here on the mountains, and she drove the flock together under a projecting rock, where she had herself arranged a fold in case of need. But a young goat had wandered out of sight, and she was obliged to go and seek it. No storm had ever yet come on with such rapidity. Already hollow mutterings could be heard amongst the mountains, whilst the gusts of wind swept roaring onwards, flinging down isolated hailstones. Now it was a question of minutes only, and the kid was nowhere to be seen. Wally extinguished her hearth fire and stepped out into the conflict of the elements, like an heroic queen amongst the hosts of her rebellious subjects. And queen-like indeed she looked, without knowing or caring anything about it. She had set a little copper milk-can upside down upon her head as a helmet to protect her from the hailstones, and a thick horse-cloth hung down like a mantle from her shoulders. Thus equipped, and a shepherd's staff with its iron hook in her hand in the place of a lance, she threw herself out into the storm, and fought her way through it till she reached a point of rock from whence she could look out after the lost animal. But It was impossible through the mists to distinguish anything. Wally ascended higher and higher, till she had reached the path that leads over the Hochjoch into the Schnalser valley; and there, deep below in the ravine, the kid was clinging to the side of the steep precipice, trembling with fear and crouching beneath the blows of the heavy hailstones. The helpless animal moved her to pity--she must have compassion on it. The hail rattled down thicker and thicker around her, the wind and rain struck her like whips across the face, there was a heaving and swelling on every side like the thundering waves of an approaching deluge, but she paid no heed to it; the mute supplications of the distressed animal rose above the raging of the storm, and without a moment's hesitation she let herself down into the misty depths. With infinite trouble she got far enough down the slippery path to lay hold of the animal with her crook and draw it towards her, then throwing it over her shoulder, she climbed upwards again with hands and feet. Then, all at once, a stream of fire seemed to shoot from the zenith down into the gulf, a shivered fir-tree crashed beneath her in the depths, and in one universal roar of heaven and earth together there came a crackling from above, a rushing, a thundering of hurling streams and masses below, till to the solitary pilgrim clinging to the quaking rock it seemed as though the whole world were whirling round her in wild dissolution. Half-stunned, she swung herself up at last on to the firm edge of the pathway, then stood a moment to recover breath and wipe the moisture from her eyes, for she could hardly see, and the kid too struggled on her shoulder, so that she was obliged to bind it before carrying it any further. Meanwhile, thunder-clap after thunder-clap crashed above her, beneath her, and as though heaven had been a leaking cask filled with fire, the lightning struck downwards in fiery streams. Hark!--what was that?--a human voice! A cry for help sounded clearly above the rushing and roaring. Wally who had not trembled at the fury of the thunder and the hurricane, trembled now. A human voice--now!--up here with her in this fearful tumult of nature, in this chaos! It terrified her more than the raging of the elements. She listened with suspended breath to hear whence the voice came, and whether she had not deceived herself. Again she heard the cry, and close behind her. "Hi, thou yonder--help me, then!" And out of the mists and rain emerged a figure that seemed to drag along a second form. Wally stood as though suddenly stiffened--what face was that? The burning eyes, the black moustache, the finely aquiline nose, she looked and looked and could not stir a limb for the sweet terror that had come upon her--it was indeed St. George, it was Joseph the bear-hunter.
He himself was scarcely less startled than Wally when she turned round, but from another cause. "Jesu Maria--it's a girl," he said almost timidly, and looked at Wally with astonishment. Seeing her from behind, he had thought from her height that she was a shepherd--now he saw a maiden before him. And as she stood there, her long mantle falling around her in stiff folds, her head protected by its warlike helmet against the hail, her dark hair, loosened and dripping, hanging about her face, the crook in her hand and the kid on her broad shoulders, her great eyes flaming and fastened upon him, he had a weird feeling for a moment, as though something supernatural stood before him. In his whole life before he had never seen so powerful a woman, and he had to pause for a minute before he could clearly make her out.
"Ah," he said, "thou'rt only old Stromminger's Vulture-Wally?"
"Yes, that am I," answered the girl breathlessly.
"So--well, precisely then with thee I have nothing to do."
"Why not?" asked Wally, turning pale, and a flash of lightning quivered just over her, so that her copper helmet flashed red in the glare.
Joseph was obliged to pause, so crashing was the thunder-clap that followed, and with new fury a shower of hail came rattling down. Joseph looked at the girl in perplexity as she stood there immovable, whilst lumps of ice struck against the slight metal can on her head. Then he bent down over the lifeless form that he was carrying.
"See here, ever since that affair in Sölden I've been in disgrace with thy father, and people say that thou also art not one to have dealings with. But this poor maid can go no further; a flash of lightning struck close by her and threw her down, and she's quite out of her senses. Go, lead us to thy hut, that the girl may rest till the storm is over--then we'll leave again at once; and for certain, such a thing shall never happen again."
Wally looked strangely at him during this speech--half in defiance, half in pain. Her lips trembled as though she would have made some vehement answer, but she controlled herself, and after a short and silent struggle, "Come," she said, and strode onwards before him. Presently she paused and asked, "Who is the maid?"
"She's a poor girl out of Vintschgau on her way to the Lamb in Zwieselstein. My mother is dead, and I've had to go over to Vintschgau, where her home was, to look after the inheritance, and as our roads lay together, I've brought the girl across the mountains with me," answered Joseph evasively.
"Thy mother is dead? Oh, thou poor Joseph--" cried Wally full of sympathy.
"Yes--it was a hard blow," said Joseph in deep sadness, "the good little mother."
Wally saw that it pained him to speak of her, and was silent. They said no more till they reached the hut.
"Here's a horrible hole," said Joseph stooping and yet knocking his head as he entered. "It's not for nothing that a man sends his child off to live in a dog-kennel like this. Well, certainly thou'st done enough to deserve it."
"Ah!--thou's sure of that?" said Wally, breaking out bitterly now as she untied the kid and set it down in a corner. Then she shook up her bed and helped Joseph to lay the stranger on it. Her hands trembled as she did so.
"Well," said Joseph indifferently, "everyone knows how wild thou's been with thy father, and how thou nearly killed Vincenz Gellner dead, and set fire to thy father's barn in a rage. It seems to me, that with such a beginning thou may go still further."
"Dost know why I struck Vincenz, and fired the barn?" asked Wally with a trembling voice, "Dost know why I am up here in this dog-kennel as thou calls it? Dost know?" And with her two hands she broke a strong branch in pieces across her knee, so that the wood cracked and splintered, and Joseph involuntarily admired her strength.
"No," he said, "how should I know?"
"Well then, if thou doesn't know, thou needn't speak of it," she said low and angrily as she made up the fire that she might warm some milk for the sick girl.
"Tell me, then, if thou thinks I'm doing thee a wrong."
Wally broke out again suddenly into the shrill, bitter laugh peculiar to her when her heart was secretly bleeding. "Thee I'm to tell--thee?" she cried, "Yes, truly; thou'rt a fitting person for me to tell!" And she rinsed out a kettle with feverish haste, poured the milk into it, and hung it up over the crackling fire.
Joseph did not discover the pain that lay hidden in this scorn--he only felt the scorn, and turned away from her offended: "With thee there's nothing to be said; people are right enough there," he answered, and thenceforward occupied himself only with the sick girl.
Wally also was silent, and only now and then as she moved about her work cast a stolen glance to where Joseph, with the red light of the fire upon him, sat on a stool not far from the bed. His eyes glowed like two coals in the reflection of the flames, which shining now brightly, now faintly, lighted up the strong and handsome face of the hunter with strange changes, so that it appeared sometimes friendly, sometimes full of gloom.
All at once Wally remembered her dream on the first night of her arrival on the Hochjoch. "If the phantom-maidens could see him now, they would melt away before him like snow before the fire." Something of this she thought, and it seemed to her as if only with tears of blood--as it is said of a heart that it bleeds--could she tear her glance away from him. Two scalding drops did in truth fall from her eyes, and though they were not drops of blood, they gave her no less pain.
The stranger now recovered consciousness. "What has happened?" she asked in astonishment.
"Thou must keep thyself quiet, Afra," said Joseph, "the lightning nearly struck thee dead, and so Wally Stromminger has brought us to her hut."
"Jesu Maria, are we with the Vulture-Wally?" said the girl terrified.
"Keep thyself still," said Joseph, comforting her, "as soon as thou's recovered, we'll go on our way again."
"So over in Vintschgau even thou's heard talk of me? There, take something to drink against the fright," said Wally quietly and with a touch of good-humoured sarcasm, as she reached her the warm milk mixed with some brandy. Joseph had stood up to allow Wally to come to the bed with the drink. Afra tried to sit up but she could not manage it, and Wally coming quickly to her aid raised her and held her in her arms like a child, whilst she gave her the milk with the other hand. Afra took a thirsty draught out of the wooden bowl, but she was so weak that her head sank upon Wally's shoulder when she had done drinking, and Wally, beckoning to Joseph to take the bowl from her hand, remained sitting patiently so as not to disturb the sick girl.
Joseph looked at her meditatively, as she sat there on the edge of the bed with the girl in her arms. "Thou'rt a handsome maid," he said honestly, "it's a pity only thou should be so bad."
A slight colour passed over Wally's face at these words.
"How thy heart beats all at once!" said Afra. "I can feel it on thy shoulder." And a little stronger now, she raised her head and gazed at the beautiful tanned face, and the large eyes. Wally also now studied the girl more attentively. She saw that she had charming features, blue eyes full of expression, fair hair that looked like floss silk, and a strange, uneasy feeling of aversion stole over her. She looked at Joseph, stood up, and began to bustle round again.
"Is that really the Vulture-Wally?" asked Afra of her guide, as though she could not understand how the decried Vulture-maiden could be so kind.
"One wouldn't suppose it, but she says herself that it's she," answered Joseph half-aloud.
"And I'll soon prove to thee that I am," cried Wally proudly, and opening the door, she cried "Hansl--Hansl, where art thou?" A shrill scream answered her, and forthwith Hansl came rushing down from the roof, and in at the door.
"Heavens, what is that?" screamed Afra, crossing herself; but Joseph placed himself before her, as a protector.
"That is the vulture that I took as a child out of its nest--away yonder on the Burgsteinwand. It is from him I got my name--the Vulture-maiden!" and her eyes rested proudly on the bird, as a soldier's eyes rest on the conquered colours. "See, I've tamed him so that I can let him fly where he likes now--he never flies away from me." She set him on her shoulder and unfolded his wings, so that Joseph might see they were not cut.
"That fellow's a state-prize," said Joseph, his eyes resting with both longing and hostility on the splendid booty which no hunter will yield to another, least of all to a girl! There must have been something in the look that irritated the vulture, for he uttered a peculiar whistle, bristled up his feathers, and bent his neck forward towards Joseph. Wally felt the unwonted agitation on her shoulder and tried to quiet the bird with caresses. "Nay, Hansl, what's come to thee? Thou wert never so before."
"Aha!--thou knows the hunter, my fine fellow," said Joseph with a challenging laugh and snatching violently at the vulture as though to tear him from Wally's shoulder. Suddenly the irritated bird put forth all its might, spread out its wings, rose to the ceiling, and thence swooped with its whole strength down upon the enemy below. A shriek of terror rang from Wally's lips, Afra saved herself in a corner, the narrow hut was almost filled with the rushing monster who no longer heard his mistress's voice, but dashed again and again at Joseph with his terrible beak striving to strike his talons into the man's side. It was one wild confusion of fighting fists and wings, in which feathers flew about, and the walls grew red where Joseph's bleeding hands touched them. "My knife, if I could only get at my knife," he cried.
Wally tore the door open. "Out, Joseph, out into the open air; in this narrow hole thou can do nothing with him."
But Joseph the bear-slayer had no idea of running away from a vulture. "The devil take me if I stir from the spot," he said with a groan. For one moment longer the battle wavered. Then Joseph, his face pressed against the wall, managed with his iron fists to seize the vulture by the claws, and with giant strength forced down the struggling animal as in a trap whilst it hacked at his hands and arms with its beak. "Now my knife, draw out my knife--I have no hand free," he cried to Wally.
But Wally used the moment otherwise; she sprang by, and threw a thick cloth over the vulture's head. It was easy for her now to tie its feet together with a cord, so as to render it helpless, and Joseph flung it on the ground. Trembling and without strength the proud animal exhausted itself in struggles in the cloth on the floor, and Joseph taking up his gun, began to load it.
"What art thou doing there?" asked Wally astonished.
"Loading my gun," he said, setting his teeth with the pain of his torn hands. When it was loaded, he took the captive bird up from the floor, and flung it out of the hut into the open air. Then placing himself at a little distance, he took aim, and said low and imperiously to Wally, "Now let him loose."
"What am I to do?" said Wally, who could not believe she had heard aright.
"Let him fly!"
"That I may shoot him. Doesn't thee know that no true hunter shoots his game excepting on the spring or on the wing?"
"For God's sake," cried Wally, "thou wouldn't shoot me my Hansl?"
Joseph, in his turn, looked at her wonderingly. "Thou'd have me let the rabid brute live, perhaps?" he said.
"Joseph," said Wally, stepping resolutely up to him, "leave me my Hansl untouched. I fought with the old one for the bird at the risk of my life, I've brought him up from the nest, no one loves me as he does--he's my only one, all that I have in the world--thou shall do nothing to my Hansl."
"Indeed," said Joseph sharply and bitterly, "the devil nearly tore out my eyes, and I shall do nothing to him?"
"He didn't know thee. How can a bird help it that he has no more sense? Thou'll never revenge thyself on a beast without understanding?"
Joseph stamped his foot. "Unbind him that he may fly," he said, "or I'll shoot him in a heap, as he is." He took aim again with his rifle.
All the hot blood flew to Wally's head, and she forgot everything but her favourite. "That we will see," she cried in flaming anger, "whether thou'll dare to lay hands on my property. Put down the gun. The bird is mine! Dost hear? Mine. And none shall hurt or harm him when I am by, come what will. Away with the gun, or thou shall learn to know who I am!" And she struck the gun out of his hand with a swift blow, so that the charge went off, rattling against the wall of rock.
There was something in her demeanour that subdued the strong young fellow, the mighty bear-hunter, for he picked up his gun with apparent composure, saying with bitter scorn, "Please thyself for all I care; I'll not touch thy hook-beaked sweetheart; he's like enough the only one thou'll ever have in thy life! Thou--thou's nothing but the Vulture-Wally."
And without deigning even to look at her again he tore his pocket-handkerchief into strips, and tried to bind up his torn hands with it. Wally sprung forward and would have helped him; now for the first time she saw how severe the wounds were, and it was as if her own heart were bleeding at the sight. "O Heavens, lad, what hands thou'st got!" she cried out. "Come, and I'll wash them and dress them for thee."
But Joseph shoved her aside. "Let be--Afra can do it," he said.
He went into the hut. An anguish as of death came over Wally; she suddenly understood that she had made Joseph her enemy, perhaps for ever, and she felt as if she must die at the thought. As though suddenly crushed, she followed him in, and her eye watched the stranger as she bound up Joseph's hands, with jealous hatred.
"Joseph," said she in a stifled voice, "thee mustn't think that I don't care for thy wounds, because I wouldn't let thee shoot my Hansl. If it could have made thy hands whole, thou might have shot Hansl first, and me after him; but it would have done thee no good."
"It's no matter, there's no need to excuse thyself," said Joseph, turning away. "Afra," he continued to the girl, "can thou go on now?"
"Yes," she said.
"Make thyself ready then, we'll go."
Wally turned pale. "Joseph, thou must rest thyself a little longer. I've given thee nothing yet to eat; I will cook thee something at once, or would thou sooner have a draught of milk?"
"I thank thee kindly; but we must go so as to be home before nightfall. It no longer rains, and Afra can walk again now." And with these words he helped the girl to get ready, slung his gun over his shoulder, and took his alpenstock in his hand.
Wally picked up one of the feathers which had fallen from Hansl in the struggle, and stuck it in Joseph's hat. "Thou must wear the feather, Joseph. Thou ought to wear it, for thou conquered the vulture, and he'd have been thy booty if thou'd not given him to me."
But Joseph took the feather out of his hat. "Thou may mean well," he said, "but the feather I'll not wear. I'm not accustomed to share my booty with girls."
"Then take the vulture altogether, I'll give him to thee; only I pray thee, let him live," urged Wally breathlessly.
Joseph looked at her in wonder. "What has come to thee?" he said, "I'll take nothing from thee on which thy heart is so set; one day perhaps I may take a live bear, and if so I'll bring it up to thee that the party may be complete. But till then, thou'll see no more of me; I might happen to shoot the bird yet if I came across him anywhere, so I'd better keep away from his haunts! God be with thee, and thanks for the shelter thou's given us." So saying he walked proudly and quietly out of the hut.
Afra stooped down and picked up the feather that Joseph had thrown away. "Give me the feather," she said; "I'll lay it in my prayer-book, and so often as I see it I will say a Pater Noster for thee."'
"As thou will," said Wally gloomily; she had scarcely heard what Afra had said. Her bosom heaved and throbbed, and in her ears there was a rushing noise as though the tempest was still raging round her. She followed the departing guests out of the hut. The storm had passed away; the veil of black clouds hung raggedly down, and through the rents sparkled the wet, far-gleaming distance. But for the sullen mutterings of the Thunder-god as he withdrew, and the roar of the waters as they rushed down the gullies into the depths, all around was tranquil and silent, and a white shroud of snow and hail stones had spread itself upon the mountains.
Wally stood motionless, her hands pressed upon her bosom. "He never thinks how poor one must be to set one's heart so upon a bird," said she to herself. Then she stooped down and freed the half-numbed animal that climbed, staggering, on to her arm and looked at her with intelligence, as if to ask her forgiveness. "Aye, thou may look at me," she sobbed; "oh, Hansl, Hansl, what hast thou done for me!"
She sat down on the door-step of her little hut, and wept from the very bottom of her heart till she was weary of the sound of her own sobbing. She looked up to where a high wall of snow rose perpendicularly behind her, down to where on the right hand and on the left death had prepared his cold nest in the snowy hollows,--away into the grey distance, where long streaks of rain cloud hung down from heaven to earth, and suddenly she felt again as she had felt on the first day, that she was alone in the wilderness--and must stay there.