VI. The Visit to the Mill
“WHAT beautiful things you have brought home!” said his old foster-mother; and her strange-looking eagle-eyes sparkled, while she wriggled and twisted her skinny neck more quickly and strangely than ever. “You have brought good luck with you, Rudy. I must give you a kiss, my dear boy.”
Rudy allowed himself to be kissed; but it could be seen by his countenance that he only endured the infliction as a homely duty.
“How handsome you are, Rudy!” said the old woman.
“Don’t flatter,” said Rudy, with a laugh; but still he was pleased.
“I must say once more,” said the old woman, “that you are very lucky.”
“Well, in that I believe you are right,” said he, as he thought of Babette. Never had he felt such a longing for that deep valley as he now had. “They must have returned home by this time,” said he to himself, “it is already two days over the time which they fixed upon. I must go to Bex.”
So Rudy set out to go to Bex; and when he arrived there, he found the miller and his daughter at home. They received him kindly, and brought him many greetings from their friends at Interlachen. Babette did not say much. She seemed to have become quite silent; but her eyes spoke, and that was quite enough for Rudy. The miller had generally a great deal to talk about, and seemed to expect that every one should listen to his jokes, and laugh at them; for was not he the rich miller? But now he was more inclined to hear Rudy’s adventures while hunting and travelling, and to listen to his descriptions of the difficulties the chamois-hunter has to overcome on the mountain-tops, or of the dangerous snow-drifts which the wind and weather cause to cling to the edges of the rocks, or to lie in the form of a frail bridge over the abyss beneath. The eyes of the brave Rudy sparkled as he described the life of a hunter, or spoke of the cunning of the chamois and their wonderful leaps; also of the powerful fohn and the rolling avalanche. He noticed that the more he described, the more interested the miller became, especially when he spoke of the fierce vulture and of the royal eagle. Not far from Bex, in the canton Valais, was an eagle’s nest, more curiously built under a high, over-hanging rock. In this nest was a young eagle; but who would venture to take it? A young Englishman had offered Rudy a whole handful of gold, if he would bring him the young eagle alive.
“There is a limit to everything,” was Rudy’s reply. “The eagle could not be taken; it would be folly to attempt it.”
The wine was passed round freely, and the conversation kept up pleasantly; but the evening seemed too short for Rudy, although it was midnight when he left the miller’s house, after this his first visit.
While the lights in the windows of the miller’s house still twinkled through the green foliage, out through the open skylight came the parlor-cat on to the roof, and along the water-pipe walked the kitchen-cat to meet her.
“What is the news at the mill?” asked the parlor-cat. “Here in the house there is secret love-making going on, which the father knows nothing about. Rudy and Babette have been treading on each other’s paws, under the table, all the evening. They trod on my tail twice, but I did not mew; that would have attracted notice.”
“Well, I should have mewed,” said the kitchen-cat.
“What might suit the kitchen would not suit the parlor,” said the other. “I am quite curious to know what the miller will say when he finds out this engagement.”
Yes, indeed; what would the miller say? Rudy himself was anxious to know that; but to wait till the miller heard of it from others was out of the question. Therefore, not many days after this visit, he was riding in the omnibus that runs between the two cantons, Valais and Vaud. These cantons are separated by the Rhone, over which is a bridge that unites them. Rudy, as usual, had plenty of courage, and indulged in pleasant thoughts of the favorable answer he should receive that evening. And when the omnibus returned, Rudy was again seated in it, going homewards; and at the same time the parlor-cat at the miller’s house ran out quickly, crying,—
“Here, you from the kitchen, what do you think? The miller knows all now. Everything has come to a delightful end. Rudy came here this evening, and he and Babette had much whispering and secret conversation together. They stood in the path near the miller’s room. I lay at their feet; but they had no eyes or thoughts for me.
“‘I will go to your father at once,’ said he; ‘it is the most honorable way.’
“‘Shall I go with you?’ asked Babette; ‘it will give you courage.’
“‘I have plenty of courage,’ said Rudy; ‘but if you are with me, he must be friendly, whether he says Yes or No.’
”So they turned to go in, and Rudy trod heavily on my tail; he certainly is very clumsy. I mewed; but neither he nor Babette had any ears for me. They opened the door, and entered together. I was before them, and jumped on the back of a chair. I hardly know what Rudy said; but the miller flew into a rage, and threatened to kick him out of the house. He told him he might go to the mountains, and look after the chamois, but not after our little Babette.”
”And what did they say? Did they speak?” asked the kitchen-cat.
”What did they say! why, all that people generally do say when they go a-wooing—‘I love her, and she loves me; and when there is milk in the can for one, there is milk in the can for two.’
“‘But she is so far above you,’ said the miller; ‘she has heaps of gold, as you know. You should not attempt to reach her.’
“‘There is nothing so high that a man cannot reach, if he will,’ answered Rudy; for he is a brave youth.
“‘Yet you could not reach the young eagle,’ said the miller, laughing. ‘Babette is higher than the eagle’s nest.’
“‘I will have them both,’ said Rudy.
“‘Very well; I will give her to you when you bring me the young eaglet alive,’ said the miller; and he laughed till the tears stood in his eyes. ‘But now I thank you for this visit, Rudy; and if you come to-morrow, you will find nobody at home. Good-bye, Rudy.’
“Babette also wished him farewell; but her voice sounded as mournful as the mew of a little kitten that has lost its mother.
“‘A promise is a promise between man and man,’ said Rudy. ‘Do not weep, Babette; I shall bring the young eagle.’
“‘You will break your neck, I hope,’ said the miller, ‘and we shall be relieved from your company.’
“I call that kicking him out of the house,” said the parlor-cat. “And now Rudy is gone, and Babette sits and weeps, while the miller sings German songs that he learnt on his journey; but I do not trouble myself on the matter,—it would be of no use.”
“Yet, for all that, it is a very strange affair,” said the kitchen-cat.
VII. The Eagle’s Nest
FROM the mountain-path came a joyous sound of some person whistling, and it betokened good humor and undaunted courage. It was Rudy, going to meet his friend Vesinaud. “You must come and help,” said he. “I want to carry off the young eaglet from the top of the rock. We will take young Ragli with us.”
“Had you not better first try to take down the moon? That would be quite as easy a task,” said Vesinaud. “You seem to be in good spirits.”
“Yes, indeed I am. I am thinking of my wedding. But to be serious, I will tell you all about it, and how I am situated.”
Then he explained to Vesinaud and Ragli what he wished to do, and why.
“You are a daring fellow,” said they; “but it is no use; you will break your neck.”
“No one falls, unless he is afraid,” said Rudy.
So at midnight they set out, carrying with them poles, ladders, and ropes. The road lay amidst brushwood and underwood, over rolling stones, always upwards higher and higher in the dark night. Waters roared beneath them, or fell in cascades from above. Humid clouds were driving through the air as the hunters reached the precipitous ledge of the rock. It was even darker here, for the sides of the rocks almost met, and the light penetrated only through a small opening at the top. At a little distance from the edge could be heard the sound of the roaring, foaming waters in the yawning abyss beneath them. The three seated themselves on a stone, to await in stillness the dawn of day, when the parent eagle would fly out, as it would be necessary to shoot the old bird before they could think of gaining possession of the young one. Rudy sat motionless, as if he had been part of the stone on which he sat. He held his gun ready to fire, with his eyes fixed steadily on the highest point of the cliff, where the eagle’s nest lay concealed beneath the overhanging rock.
The three hunters had a long time to wait. At last they heard a rustling, whirring sound above them, and a large hovering object darkened the air. Two guns were ready to aim at the dark body of the eagle as it rose from the nest. Then a shot was fired; for an instant the bird fluttered its wide-spreading wings, and seemed as if it would fill up the whole of the chasm, and drag down the hunters in its fall. But it was not so; the eagle sunk gradually into the abyss beneath, and the branches of trees and bushes were broken by its weight. Then the hunters roused themselves: three of the longest ladders were brought and bound together; the topmost ring of these ladders would just reach the edge of the rock which hung over the abyss, but no farther. The point beneath which the eagle’s nest lay sheltered was much higher, and the sides of the rock were as smooth as a wall. After consulting together, they determined to bind together two more ladders, and to hoist them over the cavity, and so form a communication with the three beneath them, by binding the upper ones to the lower. With great difficulty they contrived to drag the two ladders over the rock, and there they hung for some moments, swaying over the abyss; but no sooner had they fastened them together, than Rudy placed his foot on the lowest step.
It was a bitterly cold morning; clouds of mist were rising from beneath, and Rudy stood on the lower step of the ladder as a fly rests on a piece of swinging straw, which a bird may have dropped from the edge of the nest it was building on some tall factory chimney; but the fly could fly away if the straw were shaken, Rudy could only break his neck. The wind whistled around him, and beneath him the waters of the abyss, swelled by the thawing of the glaciers, those palaces of the Ice Maiden, foamed and roared in their rapid course. When Rudy began to ascend, the ladder trembled like the web of the spider, when it draws out the long, delicate threads; but as soon as he reached the fourth of the ladders, which had been bound together, he felt more confidence,—he knew that they had been fastened securely by skilful hands. The fifth ladder, that appeared to reach the nest, was supported by the sides of the rock, yet it swung to and fro, and flapped about like a slender reed, and as if it had been bound by fishing lines. It seemed a most dangerous undertaking to ascend it, but Rudy knew how to climb; he had learnt that from the cat, and he had no fear. He did not observe Vertigo, who stood in the air behind him, trying to lay hold of him with his outstretched polypous arms.
When at length he stood on the topmost step of the ladder, he found that he was still some distance below the nest, and not even able to see into it. Only by using his hands and climbing could he possibly reach it. He tried the strength of the stunted trees, and the thick underwood upon which the nest rested, and of which it was formed, and finding they would support his weight, he grasped them firmly, and swung himself up from the ladder till his head and breast were above the nest, and then what an overpowering stench came from it, for in it lay the putrid remains of lambs, chamois, and birds. Vertigo, although he could not reach him, blew the poisonous vapor in his face, to make him giddy and faint; and beneath, in the dark, yawning deep, on the rushing waters, sat the Ice Maiden, with her long, pale, green hair falling around her, and her death-like eyes fixed upon him, like the two barrels of a gun. “I have thee now,” she cried.
In a corner of the eagle’s nest sat the young eaglet, a large and powerful bird, though still unable to fly. Rudy fixed his eyes upon it, held on by one hand with all his strength, and with the other threw a noose round the young eagle. The string slipped to its legs. Rudy tightened it, and thus secured the bird alive. Then flinging the sling over his shoulder, so that the creature hung a good way down behind him, he prepared to descend with the help of a rope, and his foot soon touched safely the highest step of the ladder. Then Rudy, remembering his early lesson in climbing, “Hold fast, and do not fear,” descended carefully down the ladders, and at last stood safely on the ground with the young living eaglet, where he was received with loud shouts of joy and congratulations.
VIII. What Fresh News the Parlor-Cat Had to Tell
“THERE is what you asked for,” said Rudy, as he entered the miller’s house at Bex, and placed on the floor a large basket. He removed the lid as he spoke, and a pair of yellow eyes, encircled by a black ring, stared forth with a wild, fiery glance, that seemed ready to burn and destroy all that came in its way. Its short, strong beak was open, ready to bite, and on its red throat were short feathers, like stubble.
“The young eaglet!” cried the miller.
Babette screamed, and started back, while her eyes wandered from Rudy to the bird in astonishment.
“You are not to be discouraged by difficulties, I see,” said the miller.
“And you will keep your word,” replied Rudy. “Each has his own characteristic, whether it is honor or courage.”
“But how is it you did not break your neck?” asked the miller.
“Because I held fast,” answered Rudy; “and I mean to hold fast to Babette.”
“You must get her first,” said the miller, laughing; and Babette thought this a very good sign.
“We must take the bird out of the basket,” said she. “It is getting into a rage; how its eyes glare. How did you manage to conquer it?”
Then Rudy had to describe his adventure, and the miller’s eyes opened wide as he listened.
“With your courage and your good fortune you might win three wives,” said the miller.
“Oh, thank you,” cried Rudy.
“But you have not won Babette yet,” said the miller, slapping the young Alpine hunter on the shoulder playfully.
“Have you heard the fresh news at the mill?” asked the parlor-cat of the kitchen-cat. “Rudy has brought us the young eagle, and he is to take Babette in exchange. They kissed each other in the presence of the old man, which is as good as an engagement. He was quite civil about it; drew in his claws, and took his afternoon nap, so that the two were left to sit and wag their tails as much as they pleased. They have so much to talk about that it will not be finished till Christmas.” Neither was it finished till Christmas.
The wind whirled the faded, fallen leaves; the snow drifted in the valleys, as well as upon the mountains, and the Ice Maiden sat in the stately palace which, in winter time, she generally occupied. The perpendicular rocks were covered with slippery ice, and where in summer the stream from the rocks had left a watery veil, icicles large and heavy hung from the trees, while the snow-powdered fir-trees were decorated with fantastic garlands of crystal. The Ice Maiden rode on the howling wind across the deep valleys, the country, as far as Bex, was covered with a carpet of snow, so that the Ice Maiden could follow Rudy, and see him, when he visited the mill; and while in the room at the miller’s house, where he was accustomed to spend so much of his time with Babette. The wedding was to take place in the following summer, and they heard enough of it, for so many of their friends spoke of the matter.
Then came sunshine to the mill. The beautiful Alpine roses bloomed, and joyous, laughing Babette, was like the early spring, which makes all the birds sing of summer time and bridal days.
“How those two do sit and chatter together,” said the parlor-cat; “I have had enough of their mewing.”