Deep in the Bohemian forest, of which now only a shadow remains, dwelt years ago, when it spread itself far and wide into the country, a little spiritual people, aeriel, uncorporeal, and shunning the light. They were of a finer nature than mankind, which is formed out of gross clay, and were therefore imperceptible to the coarser sense; but to the more refined they were half visible by moonlight, being well known to the poets under the name of the Dryads, and to the old bards under the name of the Elves. From time immemorial they had lived undisturbed here, until the forest suddenly resounded with the tumult of war; Duke Czech, of Hungary, crossed the mountains with his Slavonic hordes, to seek a new dwelling-place in this spot.
The beautiful inhabitants of the aged oaks, of rocks, caves and grottoes, as well as those of the reeds in ponds and marshes fled from the noise of weapons, and the snorting of war-horses. Even for the mighty Erl-king the tumult was too much, and he removed his court to the more remote deserts. One elf alone could not resolve to quit her beloved oak, and when the wood was hewn down in every direction to make the land arable, she alone had the courage to defend her tree against the power of the new comers, and chose its lofty top for her abode.
Among the courtiers of the duke was a young squire, named Crocus, full of courage and youthful fire, active, well made, and of noble stature. To him was entrusted the care of his master’s horses, which he sometimes drove out to feed in the forest. Often he rested under the oak which the elf inhabited; she regarded the stranger with pleasure, and when at night he slumbered by the root, she whispered pleasant dreams into his ear, predicted to him in significant images the events of the coming day; or if one of his horses had strayed in the wilderness, and the keeper had lost all traces of him, and went to sleep with heavy heart, he saw in his dream the marks of the concealed path which led to the spot where the stray horse was feeding.
The farther the new settlers spread the nearer did they approach the dwelling of the elf, who by means of her faculty of divination foresaw how soon the axe threatened her tree of life, and therefore resolved to communicate her trouble to her friend. One moonlight summer’s evening Crocus drove his herd later than usual into the fence, and hastened to his usual couch beneath the tall oak. His road wound about a lake well stored with fish, in the silver waves of which the golden crescent was reflected in the shape of a glittering cone. Straight over this shining part of the lake, on the opposite shore, he perceived in the vicinity of the oak a female form, that seemed to be walking on the cool bank. This apparition surprised the young warrior. “Whence,” he thought to himself, “could this maiden come, so solitary in these deserts, at the time of evening twilight?”
But the adventure was of such a nature, that to a young man it was more alluring than alarming to search into the affair. He doubled his pace without losing sight of the form which occupied his attention, and soon reached the place where he had first perceived her, under the oak. It now seemed to him as if what he saw was more of a shadow than a reality. He stood astounded, and a cold shuddering came over him; but he heard a soft voice, which whispered to him these words: “Come hither, dear stranger, and be not afraid; I am no deceptive form, no delusive shadow; I am the elf of this grove, the dweller in the oak, under the thick-leaved boughs of which thou hast often slumbered; I lulled thee to sweet delightful repose, foretold to thee what would befall thee, and if a mare or a colt of thy herd had strayed, I told thee of the place where it was to be found. Repay this favour by another service which I require of thee. Be the protector of this tree, which has so often protected thee against sun and rain, and prevent the murderous axe of thy brothers, who are destroying the woods, from injuring this venerable trunk.”
The young warrior, whose courage revived at this soft discourse, answered thus: “Goddess or mortal, whichever thou art, ask of me whatever thou pleasest, and if I can I will accomplish it. But I am only a humble man among my people, the servant of my lord the duke. If he says to me to-day or to-morrow, ‘feed your horses here, feed them there,’ how shall I be able to protect thy tree in this remote wood? But if thou commandest it I will leave the service of my prince, dwell in the shadow of thine oak, and protect it as long as my life lasts.” “Do so,” said the elf, “and thou wilt not repent of it.” Upon this she vanished, and there was a rustling in the tree above, as if some loud evening breeze had caught itself there, and was moving the leaves.
Crocus stood for awhile quite enchanted at the heavenly apparition which had appeared to him. Such a delicate, truly feminine creature, of such a slender form, and of such noble appearance he had never seen among the stunted Slavonic girls. At last he stretched him upon the soft moss, although sleep did not close his eyes; morning twilight surprised him in a tumult of delicious sensations, which were to him as strange and novel as the first beam of light to the newly opened eyes of one who has been born blind. At the break of day he hastened to the duke’s palace, asked for his dismissal, packed up his baggage, and hastily started with his head filled with glowing fantasies and his burden on his back, for his delightful retreat in the forest.
During his absence, however, an artificer among the people, by trade a miller, had pitched upon the sound straight trunk of the oak as an axle for his mill-wheel, and went with his men to fell it. The trembling elf sighed when the greedy saw began with its iron teeth to gnaw the foundations of her dwelling. From the top of the tree she looked anxiously around for her faithful protector; but her glance was unable to discover him anywhere, and her consternation rendered the gift of prophecy peculiar to her race so ineffective, that she no more ventured to decipher her impending fate than the sons of Esculapius with their boasted “prognosis” are able to tell when death will knock at their own doors.
However Crocus was on his way, and so near the scene of this mournful catastrophe, that the noise of the creaking saw reached his ears. He augured no good from this noise in the forest, and setting wings to his feet beheld — horrible sight — the impending destruction of the tree he had taken under his protection in his very presence. Like a madman he flew upon the workmen with his spear and drawn sword, and frightened them from their work; for they thought that a mountain demon was in their presence and fled in great confusion. Fortunately the tree’s wound was curable, and in a few summers the scar had disappeared.
In the hours of rest in the evening, after the new-comer had selected a spot for his future dwelling, had marked out the space to be hedged in for a little garden, and had again considered in his mind the whole plan of the hermitage in which he designed to pass his days, far removed from human society, in the service of a shadowy friend, who seemed to be totally unreal, the elf appeared to him on the banks of the lake, and with graceful gestures thus accosted him: “Thanks, dear stranger, that thou hast prevented the strong arms of thy brethren from felling this tree, to which my life is attached; for know that mother nature, who has endowed my race with such various powers and faculties, has nevertheless united our life to the growth and duration of the oaks. Through us does the queen of the forest raise her venerable head above the rabble of other trees and shrubs; we promote the circulation of the sap through trunk and branches, so that she gains strength to combat with the whirlwind, and to defy for centuries the destroying power of time. On the other hand, our life is knit to hers. When the oak, to whom fate has assigned us as a partner, grows old, we grow old with it, and when it dies, we die away also, and sleep like mortals, a sleep of death, until by the eternal revolution of all things, chance or some secret arrangement of nature unites our being to a new germ, which opened by our vivifying power, sprouts up after a long time to a mighty tree, and affords us the joys of life anew. From this thou mayst perceive what a service thou hast rendered me by thy assistance, and what gratitude is due to thee. Require of me the reward of thy noble act, reveal to me the desire of thy heart, and it shall be fulfilled at once.”
Crocus was silent. The sight of the charming elf had made upon him more impression than her discourse, of which he understood but little. She perceived his confusion, and to extricate him from it took a dry reed from the bank of the lake, broke it into three pieces, and said: “Choose one of these three, or take one without choice. In the first is fame and honour, in the second are riches and wise use of them, and in the third happy love is contained for thee.” The young man cast his eyes to the ground and answered: “Daughter of Heaven, if thou intendest to grant the wish of my heart, know that it is not contained in the three reeds which thou offerest; my heart seeks a still greater reward. What is honour but the fuel of pride, what are riches but the root of avarice, and what is love but the trap of passion, to ensnare the noble liberty of the heart? Grant me my desire of resting beneath the shadow of thy oak, from the fatigue of the campaign, and of hearing from thy sweet mouth doctrines of wisdom, that thus I may decipher the future.”
“Thy wish,” replied the elf, “is great, but what thou deservest at my hands is not less, and therefore let it be as thou hast requested. The bandage before thy corporeal eyes shall vanish, that thou mayst behold the secrets of hidden wisdom. With the enjoyment of the fruit take also the shell, for the wise man is also held in honour. He alone is rich, for he desires no more than he actually needs, and he tastes the nectar of love without poisoning it with impure lips.” When she had said this she again presented him the three pieces of reed, and vanished.
The young hermit prepared his bed of moss under the oak, highly delighted at the reception which the elf had accorded him. Sleep overcame him like an armed man, cheerful morning dreams danced round his head, and nourished his fancy with the fragrance of happy anticipations. As soon as he woke he joyously began his day’s work, built himself a commodious hut, dug his garden, and planted roses and lilies, and other sweetly-smelling flowers and vegetables, not without cabbages and kitchen herbs, besides an assortment of fruit-trees.
The elf did not fail to pay him a visit in the twilight of every evening, took pleasure in the produce of his industry, walked with him hand in hand along the reedy bank of the pond, until the waving reed murmured forth a melodious evening greeting to the friendly pair, when the breeze rustled through it. The elf initiated her docile pupil into the secrets of nature, instructed him in the origin and issue of things, taught him their natural and magical qualities and virtues, and formed the rough warrior to a thinker and a philosopher.
In the same degree as the feelings and senses of the young man became more refined by his intercourse with the fair shadow, the tender form of the elf became denser, and acquired more consistency. Her bosom was filled with animation and life, fire glistened from her hazel eyes, and with the form of a young girl, she seemed also to have acquired the feelings of one. In a few months the sighing Crocus was blessed with the happiness which the third reed had promised him, and did not regret that the freedom of his heart was ensnared by the trap of love. Although the marriage of the tender pair took place without witnesses, it was productive of as much happiness as the most obstreperous nuptials, and in due time pledges of conjugal affection were not wanting.
The elf presented her husband with three daughters at one birth, and the delighted father, in the first embrace, called her who had cried in his house before the two others, Bela; the next Therba, and the youngest Libussa. All were like genii in the beauty of their form; and although they did not consist of such a delicate material as their mother, their corporeal nature was finer than the coarse earthy form of their father. They were also free from all the infirmities of children, and needed no leading strings, for, after the first nine days, they all ran like so many partridges. As they grew up, they displayed all their mother’s talent for detecting hidden things, and predicting the future.
With the aid of time, Crocus also acquired much knowledge of these mysteries. When the wolf had dispersed the cattle in the wood, and the shepherds searched about for their lost sheep and oxen; when the woodmen missed an adze or a hatchet, they sought advice from the wise Crocus, who told them where to find what they had lost. If a bad neighbour made away with any of the common property, broke at night-time into the fold or dwelling of another, robbed him, or murdered his host, and no one could guess who was the criminal, the wise Crocus was always sought for counsel.
He then summoned the community to a grass-plot, made them form a circle, stepped into the midst of it, and let the infallible sieve turn, which invariably pointed out the malefactor. His fame was thus spread over all the land of Bohemia, and whoever had an affair or any business of importance, consulted the wise man as to its issue. Nay, cripples and sick persons sought from him aid and recovery; even diseased cattle were brought to him, and he knew how to cure ailing cows with his shadow, as well as the renowned St. Martin, of Schierbach. The concourse of people that sought him increased every day, just as if the tripod of the Delphic Apollo had been removed to the Bohemian forest; and although Crocus, without gain and reward, gave his information to those that questioned him, and healed the sick and crippled, the treasure of his mysterious wisdom proved very productive, and brought him great profit; for the people pressed to him with their gifts, and quite overwhelmed him with the proofs of their good-will.
He first revealed the secret of washing gold out of the sand of the Elbe, and received a tenth from all who collected the gold sand. Thus his means and his wealth were increased; he built strong castles and palaces, he kept large herds of cattle, he possessed fertile lands, woods, and fields, and imperceptibly found himself in the possession of all the wealth which the liberal elf had prophetically enclosed for him, in the second piece of reed.
One fine summer evening, when Crocus, with his attendants, was returning from an excursion, where he had settled the boundary disputes of two neighbouring congregations at their request, he perceived his wife on the brink of the pond, where she had first appeared to him. She beckoned to him with her hand, so he dismissed his retinue, and hastened to embrace her. As usual, she received him with tender love, but her heart was oppressed and mournful, while from her eyes trickled ethereal tears, so fair and transient, that they were hastily absorbed by the air, without reaching the earth. Crocus was astonished at the sight, for he had never seen the eyes of his wife look otherwise than cheerful, and with all the brilliancy of youthful joy. “What ails thee, beloved of my heart?” said he; “my soul is torn by uneasy forebodings. Tell me, what is the meaning of these tears?” The elf sighed, leaned her head mournfully on his shoulder, and said: “Dear husband, in thine absence I have read in the book of fate, that an unhappy destiny threatens my tree of life; I must leave thee for ever. Follow me to the castle, that I may bless my children, for from this day you will never see me again.” “Oh, my beloved,” replied Crocus, “banish these melancholy thoughts! What misfortune can threaten thy tree? Are not its roots and trunk firmly fixed? Look at its healthy branches, as, laden with fruit and leaves, they extend themselves, and see how it raises its top to the clouds. As long as this arm moves, it shall defend itself against every impious man who shall dare to injure its trunk.” — “Weak is the protection,” replied she, “which a mortal arm can afford! Ants can only contend with ants, gnats only with gnats, and all the worms of the earth can merely guard off their like. What can the strongest of you do against the operations of nature, or the inscrutable decrees of fate? The kings of the earth can easily overthrow the little mounds which you call your fortresses and castles, but the slightest breeze scorns their power, rustles when its pleases, and heeds not their command. Thou hast already defended this oak against the might of man, but canst thou also resist the whirlwind, when it arises to strip the leaves from its boughs; or if a concealed worm gnawed at its core, could you draw it forth and crush it?”
Discoursing thus, the affectionate pair entered the castle. The slender maidens sprang joyfully towards them, as they were accustomed to do on their mother’s evening visits, gave an account of their daily occupation, brought their embroidery and needle-work as a proof of their industry and skill; but, on this occasion, the hour of domestic happiness was totally joyless. The girls soon perceived that the traces of deep sorrow were imprinted on their father’s face, and saw with sympathising grief their mother’s tears, without venturing to inquire into the cause. Their mother gave them many wise instructions and good admonitions; but her discourse was like the song of a swan, as if she were about to take leave of the world. She remained with her beloved family till the morning-star arose; she then embraced her husband and children with melancholy tenderness, retired to her tree as usual, at day-break, through a secret door, and left them all to the most melancholy forebodings.
Nature was in breathless silence as the sun rose; but his beaming head was soon obscured by dark heavy clouds. It was a sultry day; the whole atmosphere was electrical. Distant thunders rolled along over the wood, and echo, with a hundred voices, repeated the fearful sound in the winding valleys. At noon, a forked flash of lightning darted down upon the oak, and shattered root and branches in one moment, with resistless force, so that the fragments lay scattered far and wide in the forest. When this was told to Crocus, he rent his clothes, and went out with his daughters to mourn over his wife’s tree of life, and to collect and preserve the splinters as precious relics. The elf was no more to be seen from that day.
After some years, the tender girls grew up, their virgin form bloomed as a rose starting from the bud, and the fame of their beauty was spread all over the country. The noblest youths among the people came forward, and had all sorts of petitions to lay before Father Crocus, and ask his advice. In truth this was but a pretext, that they might ogle the lovely girls, as young fellows often feign some business with the fathers, if they wish to coax the daughters. The three daughters lived together in great ease and concord, little aware of their own talents. The gift of prophecy was possessed by them all in equal degree, and their discourses were oracles without their knowing it. Soon, however, their vanity was excited by the voice of flattery, the word-catchers snapped up every sound from their lips, the Seladons interpreted every gesture, traced the slightest smile, watched the glance of their eyes, drawing from them indications more or less favourable, fancied they would thence gather their destinies, and from that time it has been the custom among lovers to question the good or bad star of love in the horoscope of the eyes.
Scarcely had vanity insinuated itself into the virgin heart, than pride was at the door with all the rabble of his train, — self-love, self-praise, obstinacy, selfishness, and all these stole in together. The elder sisters vied with each other, to excel the younger in her arts, and secretly envied her on account of her superior charms, for although all were very beautiful, Libussa was the most beautiful of them all. The Lady Bela particularly devoted herself to the study of herbs, as Lady Medea did in the days of old. She knew their hidden virtues, and how to extract from them efficacious poisons and antidotes, as well as to prepare from them scents, pleasant and unpleasant, for the invincible powers. When her censer smoked, she charmed down the spirits from the immeasurable space of ether on the other side of the moon, and they became subject to her, that with their fine organs they might inhale these sweet perfumes, but when she flung the offensive scent into the censer, she would have forced the Zihim and Ohim out of the desert.
The Lady Therba was as ingenious as Circe in contriving magic spells of all sorts, which had force enough to sway the elements, to raise storms and whirlwinds, hail and tempest, to shake the very bowels of the earth, or to lift it out of its very hinges. She made use of these arts to terrify the people, that she might be honoured and feared as a goddess, and knew better how to accommodate the weather to the wishes and caprices of mankind, than wise nature herself. Two brothers quarrelled because they never could agree in their wishes. One was a husbandman, who always wished for rain that his seed might thrive.
The other was a potter, who always wished for sunshine, that he might dry his earthen pots, which were destroyed by the rain. Because the heavens never would satisfy them, they went one day with rich presents to the house of the wise Crocus, and told their wishes to Therba. The elf’s daughter smiled at the boisterous complaints of the brothers against the beneficent arrangements of nature, and satisfied the wishes of both, letting rain fall on the seed of the agriculturist, and sunshine on the field of the potter. By their magic arts the two sisters acquired great fame and vast wealth, for they never communicated their gifts without reward; they built castles and villas out of their treasures; they laid out fine pleasure gardens; they were never weary of feasting and merry-making, and they jilted the suitors who sought their love.
Libussa had not the proud vain disposition of her sisters. Although she possessed the same faculty of penetrating into the secrets of nature and using her hidden virtues, she was satisfied with the share of miraculous power she had inherited from her mother without carrying it further, that she might make a profit of it. Her vanity did not go beyond the consciousness of her own beauty; she did not thirst after riches, and she did not, like her sisters, wish either to be feared or honoured. When these kept up a constant bustle in their villas, hurried from one exciting pleasure to another, and attached the flower of the Bohemian knighthood to their triumphal car, she remained at home in her father’s dwelling, managed the household affairs, gave council to those who asked for it, kindly assisted the oppressed and distressed, — and all from mere good will without any reward. Her disposition was gentle and modest, her life chaste and virtuous such as became a noble maiden. She was, to be sure, secretly pleased at the victories which her beauty gained over the hearts of men, and she received the sighs and cooing of pining adorers, as a fitting tribute to her charms, but no one dared breathe to her a word of love, or presume to solicit her heart. Yet the wag Cupid loves better than any thing to exercise his rights with the coy, and will often throw his burning torch on a low straw-thatched shed when he intends to fire a lofty palace.
An old knight, who had come into the land with an army of the Czechites, had settled deep in the forest. He had made the wilderness arable, and had laid out an estate, on which he intended to pass the remainder of his days in peace, living on the produce of his fields. However a powerful neighbour took possession of the property, and drove out the knight, whom a hospitable countryman took in, giving him a shelter in his own dwelling. The poor old man had a son, who was the only prop and consolation of his age — a fine youth, who however possessed nothing but a hunting spear, and a well practised fist to support his father. The plunder by the unjust Nabal excited his revenge, and he armed himself to repel force with force. The command of the careful old man, who did not wish to expose the life of his son to any danger, disarmed the noble youth, but afterwards he was determined not to relinquish his original design. So his father called him, and said, “Go, my son, to the wise Crocus, or to the wise virgins his daughters, and ask them whether the gods approve of thine enterprise, and will grant a favourable issue to it. If so, thou mayst gird on thy sword, take thy spear in thy hand, and fight for thy patrimony. If not, remain here till thou hast closed mine eyes, and then do as seems right to thee.”
The youth set out and first reached the palace of Bela, which had the appearance of a temple, inhabited by a goddess. He knocked and desired to be admitted, but the porter, as soon as he saw that the stranger appeared with empty hands, dismissed him as a beggar, and closed the door in his face. He proceeded sorrowfully, and came to the dwelling of Therba, where he knocked and desired a hearing. The porter peeped out of the window, and said, “If thou bearest gold in thy pocket so that thou canst weigh it out to my mistress, she will give thee one of her wise sayings that will tell thee thy fate. If not, go and gather on the shore of the Elbe as much of it as the tree has leaves, the sheaf has ears, and the bird has feathers, and then I will open this door for thee.” The youth thus again deceived, departed quite out of heart, especially when he learned that the prophet Crocus had gone to Poland, to officiate as umpire between some Magnates, who could not agree together. He expected no better reception from the third sister, and when he saw her paternal forest-castle from a hill in the distance, he did not venture to approach it, but concealed himself in a thick bush to brood over his grief. He was soon roused from his gloomy reflections by a noise like the tramp of horses’ feet.
A flying roe darted through the bushes followed by a beautiful huntress and her attendants, all mounted on magnificent steeds. She hurled a javelin which whizzed through the air without reaching the animal. The youth who watched the scene, at once caught up his cross-bow, and from the twanging string sent forth a winged arrow which darted at once through the heart of the beast, so that it fell down on the spot. The lady, surprised at this unexpected phenomena, looked round for the unknown hunter, which, when the marksman perceived, he stepped forward and bowed humbly to the ground. The Lady Libussa thought she had never seen a handsomer man. At the very first glance his frame made upon her so strong an impression that she could not help being involuntarily prepossessed in his favour, and confessing he was of a noble figure. “Tell me, dear stranger,” said she, “who are thou, and what chance has conducted thee to these precincts?” The youth rightly surmised that his good fortune had allowed him to find what he sought, so he modestly communicated his wishes, not forgetting to say, how uncivilly he had been dismissed from the doors of her sisters, and how much he had been afflicted in consequence. She cheered his mind with kind words. “Follow me to my dwelling,” said she, “I will question for thee the book of fate, and to-morrow at sunrise I will give thee information.”
The youth obeyed her orders: here there was no churlish porter to prevent his entrance into the palace; here the lovely resident exercised the law of hospitality most liberally towards him. He was delighted with this favourable reception, but still more so with the charms of his fair hostess. The enchanting form flitted before his eyes all night, and he carefully guarded against the approach of sleep, that the events of the past day which he reflected on with delight might not leave his thoughts for a single moment. The Lady Libussa on the other hand, enjoyed a gentle slumber, for retirement from the impressions of the outward senses, which disturb the fine anticipations of the future, is indispensable to the gift of prophecy. Nevertheless the glowing fancy of the elf’s sleeping daughter united the form of the young stranger to all the visionary forms that appeared to her in the night. She found him where she did not seek him, and under such circumstances that she could not understand how she should have any relation to this stranger.
When the fair prophetess, on waking early in the morning, endeavoured as usual to separate and unravel the visions of the night, she was disposed to reject them altogether as illusions that had sprung from an aberration of fancy, and to give them no more attention. But a dark feeling told her that the creation of her fancy was not a mere empty dream, but that it pointed to certain events, which the future would unfold, and that this same prophetic fancy, had in the night just passed, overheard the secret counsels of destiny better than ever, and had blabbed them out to her. In the same way, she found that the guest now under her roof was violently inflamed with ardent love, and her heart quite as unreservedly made her the same confession with respect to him; but she set the seal of secrecy upon the information, while the modest youth, on his side, had vowed that he would impose silence on his tongue and on his eyes, that he might not expose himself to contemptuous refusal: for the barrier which fortune had set up between him and the daughter of Crocus seemed to him insurmountable.
Although the fair Libussa knew perfectly well what answer to give to the young man’s question, she felt it very difficult to allow him to depart so quickly. At sunrise she appointed a meeting with him in the garden and said: “The veil of darkness still hangs before my eyes; to know thy destiny wait till sunset.” In the evening she said: “Wait till sunrise:” on the following morning “Wait throughout this day,” and on the third, “Have patience till to-morrow.” At last, on the fourth day, she dismissed him, because she had no pretext for detaining him any longer, without discovering her secret, and with kind words she gave him this information: “It is not the will of the gods that thou shouldst contend with a mighty one in the land; endurance is the lot of the weaker. Go to thy father: be the consolation of his age, and support him with the labour of thy industrious hand. Take from my herd two white bulls as a present, and take this rod to guide them. When it blooms and bears fruit the spirit of prophecy will rest upon thee.”
The youth considered himself unworthy of the lovely maiden’s presents, and blushed to accept a gift without being able to return it. With lips void of eloquence, but with a demeanour so much the more eloquent, he took a sorrowful farewell, and found tied up by the gate a couple of white bulls, as plump and shining as the divine bull of old, upon whose sleek back the virgin Europa swam through the blue waves. Joyfully he unloosened them, and drove them gently along. The road here seemed but a few yards in length, so completely was his soul occupied with the thoughts of the fair Libussa, and as he felt he never could share her love, he vowed he would, at any rate, never love another as long as he lived. The old knight was delighted at his son’s return, and still more delighted when he learned that the advice of the wise Crocus’s daughter so perfectly accorded with his own wishes. The youth being destined by the gods to follow the calling of a husbandman, did not delay to yoke his white bulls to the plough. The first attempt succeeded according to his wishes; the bulls were so strong and so spirited, that in one day they turned up more land than twelve oxen would commonly have managed.
Duke Czech, who had conducted the first expedition of his people into Bohemia, had died long ago, and his descendants inherited neither his dignity nor his principality. The Magnates, to be sure, assembled after his decease, to make a new election, but their savage, stormy temperaments did not allow them to come to any rational decision. Selfishness and arrogance turned the first state assembly of Bohemia into a Polish diet; too many hands seized the princely mantle at once, so they tore it to pieces, and it belonged to nobody. The government fell into a kind of anarchy; every one did as he pleased; the strong oppressed the weak, the rich the poor, the great the little. There was no longer any general security in the country, and nevertheless these mad caps thought their new republic was admirably constituted. “All” they cried “is in order; every thing goes its way with us as everywhere else; the wolf eats the lamb, the kite eats the pigeon, and the fox eats the fowl.” However, this mad constitution had no stability; and after the intoxication of visionary freedom was dissipated, and the people had again become sober, reason once more asserted her rights, and the patriots, the honest citizens, and all in fact in the country, who had any love for their father-land, took counsel to destroy the present idol, the many-headed hydra, and to unite the people again under a sovereign.
“Let us,” they said, “choose a prince who shall rule over us, according to the custom of our fathers, who shall curb licentiousness, and administer justice and the laws. Not the strongest, the bravest, nor the richest, but the wisest shall be our duke!” The people being weary of the oppressions of the petty tyrants, were on this occasion unanimous, and answered the proposition with loud applause. A general assembly was appointed, and the choice of all fell upon the wise Crocus. A deputation was sent to invite him to take possession of his dignity, and although he was not covetous of the distinguished honour, he did not delay to accord with the wishes of the people. He was dressed in the purple, and he proceeded with great pomp to Vizegrad, the princely residence, where the people met him with loud rejoicings, and swore allegiance to him as their sovereign. He now perceived that even the third slip of reed offered him by the liberal elf had bestowed its gift upon him.
His love of equity and his wise legislation extended his fame over all the countries round. The Sarmatian princes, who used incessantly to quarrel, brought their disputes from a great distance to his tribunal. He weighed, with the infallible weight and measure of natural equity, in the scales of justice, and when he opened his mouth, it was as if the venerable Solon or the wise Solomon, between the twelve lions from his throne, gave judgment. Once, when some rebels had conspired against the peace of their country, and had set all the excitable nation of Poles by the ears, he marched to Poland at the head of his army, and suppressed the civil war. There likewise was he made duke by a great part of the people, out of gratitude for the peace which he had given them. He built there the city of Cracow, which still bears his name, and has the right of crowning the Polish king to the present day. Crocus reigned with great glory to the termination of his life. When he perceived that his end was approaching, and that he should now leave this world, he ordered to be made of the remains of the oak, which his wife the elf had inhabited, a box to contain his bones. He then departed in peace, wept over by his three daughters, who laid him in the box, and buried him as he had commanded, while the whole country mourned his loss.
As soon as the funeral pomp had ended, the states assembled to consider who should now occupy the vacant throne. The people were unanimous for a daughter of Crocus, only they could not agree which of the three sisters should be chosen. The Lady Bela had the fewest adherents, for her heart was not good, and she often used her magic lantern to make mischief. Nevertheless she had inspired the people with such fear, that no one ventured to object to her for fear of rousing her vengeance. When it came to the vote, all the electors were silent, there was no voice for her and none against her. At sunset the representatives broke up the meeting, and deferred the election to the following day. Then the Lady Therba was proposed, but confidence in her own magic spells had turned her head, she was proud, supercilious, and wished to be viewed as a goddess; and if incense was not always offered to her, she was peevish, wilful and ill-tempered, displaying all those qualities which deprive the fair sex of their flattering epithet. She was not so much feared as her elder sister, but then she was not more beloved. For this reason the place of election was as still as a funeral feast, and there was no voting. On the third day the Lady Libussa was proposed. As soon as this name was uttered, a familiar whispering was heard throughout the circle, the solemn faces became unwrinkled and brightened up, and every one of the electors could communicate to his neighbour some good quality of the lady.
One lauded her unassuming demeanour, another her modesty, the third her wisdom, the fourth the infallibility of her predictions, the fifth her disinterested conduct to all who asked counsel, the tenth her chastity, ninety others her beauty, and the last her thriftiness. When a lover sketches such a list of his mistress’s perfections, it is always a matter of doubt whether she really possesses one of them, but the public in its decisions does not easily err on the favourable side, though it often does on the unfavourable one. By reason of qualities so laudable, and so universally recognised, the Lady Libussa was certainly the most powerful candidate for the throne, as far as the hearts of the electors were concerned; nevertheless the preference of the younger sisters to the elder one has so often, as experience testifies, disturbed domestic peace, that it was to be feared, in a more important affair, the peace of the country would be interrupted. This consideration put the wise guardians of the people to such great embarrassment, that they could not come to any decision at all. An orator was wanted who should attach the weight of his eloquence to the good will of the electors, if the affair was to make any progress, and the good wishes of the electors were to have any effect. Such an orator appeared as if called for.
Wladomir, one of the Bohemian magnates, next in rank to the duke, had long sighed for the charming Libussa, and had solicited her hand in the lifetime of her father, Crocus. He was one of his most faithful vassals, and was beloved by him as a son, and therefore had the good father wished that love might unite the pair together. The coy mind of the maiden was, however, invincible, and he would on no account force her affections. Prince Wladomir did not allow himself to be scared by this doubtful aspect of affairs, and fancied that by fidelity and perseverance he might bear up against the lady’s hard disposition, and render it pliable by tenderness. He had attached himself to the duke’s train, as long as he lived, without advancing one step nearer to the goal of his wishes. Now he thought he had found an opportunity of opening her closed heart, by a meritorious act, and of gaining, from magnanimous gratitude, what, it seemed, he could not obtain by love. He ventured to expose himself to the hatred and revenge of the two dreaded sisters, and to raise his beloved to the throne at the peril of his life. Marking the wavering irresolution of the assembly, he took up the discourse and said: “Brave knights and nobles of the people, I will lay a simile before you, from which you may learn how to complete this election to the advantage of your father-land.” Silence having been commanded, he proceeded thus: “The bees had lost their queen, and the whole hive was melancholy and joyless.
They flew out idly and sparingly, they had scarcely spirits for making honey, and their pursuit and nourishment was on the decline. They therefore thought seriously about a new sovereign who should preside over their affairs, that all order and discipline might not be lost. The wasp then came and said: ‘Make me your queen, I am strong and terrible, the stout horse fears my sting, I can defy even your hereditary foe the lion, and prick his mouth when he approaches your honey-tree. I will guard you and protect you.’ This discourse was pleasing enough to the bees, but after mature deliberation the wisest among them said: ‘Thou art vigorous and terrible to be sure, but we dread that very sting which is to defend us; therefore thou canst not be our queen.’ Then the humble bee came up humming, and said: ‘Take me for your queen! Do you not hear that the rustle of my wings announces rank and dignity? Besides, I too have a sting to protect you.’ The bees answered, we are a peaceful and quiet race; the proud noise of thy wings would annoy us and disturb the pursuits of our industry; thou canst not be our queen.’ Then the ant desired a hearing: ‘Although I am larger and stronger than you,’ she said, ‘my superiority can never injure you, for see I am entirely without the dangerous sting, I am of a gentle disposition, and besides that, a friend of order, of frugality, know how to preside over the honey-tree and to encourage labour.’ The bees then said: ‘Thou art worthy to govern us — we will obey thee — be thou our queen!’”
Wladomir paused. The whole assembly divined the purport of the discourse, and the minds of all were favourably disposed towards the Lady Libussa. Yet at the very moment when they were about to collect the votes, a croaking raven flew over the place of election; this unfavourable omen interrupted all further deliberation, and the election was deferred to the following day. The Lady Bela had sent the ill-omened bird to disturb the proceedings, for she knew well enough the inclination of the voters, and Prince Wladomir had inspired her with the bitterest hate. She held counsel with her sister Therba, and they came to the determination that they would be revenged on the common calumniator, who had insulted both of them, and despatched a heavy nightmare, that should squeeze the soul out of his body.
The bold knight suspected nothing of this danger, but went, as was his wont, to wait upon his mistress, and received from her the first kind look, from which he promised himself a whole heaven of bliss. If any thing could increase his delight, it was the present of a rose which adorned the lady’s bosom, and which she gave him with the order that he was to let it wither by his heart. To these words he gave an interpretation very different from that which was meant, since no science is more fallacious than the art of expounding in love. There mistakes are quite at home. The enamoured knight was bent on keeping the rose fresh and blooming as long as possible; he set it in fresh water in a flower-pot, and went to sleep with the most flattering hopes.
In the gloomy hour of midnight came the destroying angel, sent by the Lady Bela. He glided in; he blew open, with his gasping breath, the locks and bolts on the doors of the bed-room, and fell with immense weight on the sleeping knight, pressing him down with such suffocating force, that he thought, when he woke, a mill-stone had been rolled upon his neck. In this painful situation, while he fancied the last moment of his life was come, he fortunately thought of the rose which stood in the flower-pot by his bed, pressed it to his heart, and said: “Fade away with me, fair rose, and perish on my lifeless bosom, as a proof that my last thought was bestowed on thy lovely possessor.”
At once his heart became lighter, the heavy nightmare could not resist the magic power of the flower, his oppressive weight did not now exceed that of so much down; the dislike of the perfume soon drove him out of the chamber altogether, and the narcotic quality of the scent again lulled the knight into a refreshing slumber. At sunrise he rose fresh and cheerful, and rode to the place of election to ascertain what impression his simile had made on the minds of the electors, and to observe the course that the affair might take this time; intending, at all events, if any opposing gale should arise, and threaten to run aground the wavering boat of his hopes and wishes, at once to seize on the helm and steer directly against it.
This time, however, there was no danger. The solemn electoral senate had during the night so thoroughly ruminated on, and digested Wladomir’s parable, that it was actually infused into their very heart and mind. A brisk knight, who perceived these favourable crises, and who in affairs of the heart sympathised with the tender Wladomir, endeavoured either to deprive the latter of the honour of placing the lady on the Bohemian throne, or at any rate to share it with him. He stepped forward, drew his sword, proclaimed with a loud voice, Libussa, Duchess of Bohemia, and desired every one who had the same opinion to draw the sword like him and defend his choice. At once several hundred swords glittered on the place of election, a loud cry of joy announced the new sovereign, and on all sides resounded the shout of the people: “Let Libussa be our duchess!” A deputation was appointed, with Prince Wladomir and the sword-drawer at the head of it, to announce to the lady her elevation to the ducal rank.
With the modest blush which gives to female charms the highest expression of grace, she accepted the sovereignty over the people, and every heart was subjugated by the magic of her pleasing aspect. The people paid her homage with the greatest delight, and although the two sisters envied her, and employed their secret arts to avenge themselves both on her and their country, for the slight that had been offered them, endeavouring by the leaven of calumny and malicious interpretation of all their sister’s deeds and actions, to bring about in the nation a shameful ferment, and to undermine the peace and happiness of her mild virgin dominion; yet Libussa knew how to meet these unsisterly attempts with prudence, and to annihilate all the hostile plans and spells of the unnatural pair, till at last they were tired of exercising upon her their inefficient powers.
The sighing Wladomir waited in the meanwhile with the most ardent longing for the development of his fate. More than once he ventured to foresee the end in the lovely eyes of his sovereign, but Libussa had imposed a deep silence on the inclinations of her heart, and it is always a precarious proceeding to require from a mistress a verbal declaration without a previous intercourse with the eyes and their significant glances. The one favourable sign which still kept his hopes alive was the imperishable rose, which, though a year had elapsed, blossomed as freshly now as on the evening when he received it from the hand of the fair Libussa. A flower from a maiden’s hand, a nosegay, a ribbon, or a lock of hair, is certainly more valuable than a tooth dropped out, but nevertheless all these pretty things are but doubtful pledges of love, unless some more certain expressions gives them a determined signification.
Wladomir, therefore quietly played the part of a sighing swain in the court of his idol, and waited to see what time and circumstances might produce in his favour. The boisterous knight Mizisla, on the other hand, carried on his plan with far more spirit, and did all he could to make himself conspicuous on every occasion. On the day of homage he was the first vassal who made the oath of allegiance to the new princess; he followed her as inseparably as the moon follows the earth, that by unasked-for services he might show his devotion to her person, and on solemn occasions and in processions he made his sword flash in her eyes, that she might not forget what good service it had done her.
Nevertheless, following the way of the world, Libussa seemed very near to have forgotten the furtherers of her good fortune; since, when an obelisk once stands upright, we think no more of the levers and instruments that raised it — at least so did the candidates for her heart interpret the lady’s coldness. Both, however, were wrong; the noble sovereign was neither insensible nor ungrateful; but her heart was no more so completely in her power, that she could do with it whatever she pleased. Love had already decided in favour of the slim hunter. The first impression which the sight of him had made on her heart was still so strong, that no second one could efface it. Three years had passed, and the colours of imagination with which the graceful youth had been sketched, were neither rubbed out, nor had they become faint, and thus her love was proved to be perfect.
For the love of the fair sex is of such a nature and quality, that if it will stand the test of three moons, it will generally last three times three, and longer, according to the evidence and example of our own times. When the heroic sons of Germany swam over distant seas, to fight out the domestic squabble of the wilful daughter of Britannia with her mother country, they tore themselves from the arms of their fair ones, with mutual protestations of truth and fidelity; but before they had passed the last buoy of the Weser, the greater part of them were forgotten by their Chloes. The fickle damsels, tired of having their hearts unoccupied, filled up the gap with new intrigues; but the faithful ones, who had had constancy enough to endure the Weser ordeal, and who, when the owners of their hearts were on the other side of the black buoy, had been guilty of no infidelity — these, they say, have kept their vow inviolate, until the return of their heroes into their German father-land, and now merit from the hands of love the reward of their constancy.
It was therefore less remarkable, that, under the circumstances, the Lady Libussa could refuse the hand of the blooming knights who solicited her heart, than that the fair Queen of Ithaca let a whole host of suitors sigh after her in vain, while her heart had only the grey-bearded Ulysses in reserve. Nevertheless, rank and high birth so very much overbalanced the attachment the lady felt for the beloved of her heart, that any thing more than a Platonic passion — that empty shade, which neither warms nor nourishes — was not to be hoped. Although, in those remote times, people cared as little about writing out genealogies, according to parchment and pedigree, as they did about arranging classes of beetles according to their wings and feelers, or flowers according to their stamens, pistils, calyx, and nectary, they knew, nevertheless, that the delicious grape alone associates with the stately elm, and not the weed that creeps along the hedge. A mésalliance caused by a difference of rank an inch wide, did not then, certainly, excite so much pedantic noise as in our classic days; but, however, a difference a yard wide, especially if rivals stood in the interval, and perceived the distance of the two ends, was observable enough.
All this, and more than this, the lady maturely weighed in her prudent mind, and therefore she did not give a hearing to the deceitful prattler, passion, loud as it might speak to the advantage of the youth, who was favoured by love. As a chaste vestal, she made an irrevocable vow that she would keep her heart locked up in virgin secresy for the period of her life, and that she would not answer any address of her suitors, either with her eyes or with her gestures; with the reserve, however, that she might platonise as much as she pleased, by way of compensation. This monastic system pleased the two aspirants so little, that they did not know what to make of the killing coldness of their sovereign; jealousy, the companion of love, whispered into their ear; one thought the other was his rival, and their spirit of observation was unwearying, in trying to make discoveries, which both of them dreaded. But the Lady Libussa, with prudence and acuteness, weighed out her scanty favours to the two honourable knights with such an equal balance, that neither scale kicked the beam.
Tired of waiting in vain, both the knights left their princess’s court, and with secret discontent retired to the estates, which Duke Crocus had granted them for military service. Both took home such a stock of ill-humour, that Prince Wladomir was a perfect pest to all his vassals and neighbours, while Prince Mizisla turned sportsman, chasing deer and foxes over the fields and enclosures of his subjects, and often treading three quarters of corn, when with his train he was following a hare. This occasioned many complaints in the country; but, however, there was no judge to remedy the evil, for no one likes to contend with the stronger, and hence this way the oppression of the people never reached the throne of the duchess. Nevertheless, through her supernatural power, no act of injustice, within the wide boundaries of her realm, remained hidden; and because her disposition corresponded to the tender character of her lovely form, she was afflicted at the wickedness of her vassals, and the wrongs committed by the strongest.
She consulted with herself as to how the evil could be remedied, and prudence suggested that she should follow the example of the wise gods,