WHEN ascending the Prahova Valley, hidden behind the great Bucegi, can still be seen the ruins of Cetalei Babei, or the Witch's Castle, rising like a huge ninepin amid the everlasting snowfields that stretch onwards towards the mighty Jipi.
Here, in bygone days, when wolves herded the flocks and eagles and doves built their nests side by side, stood a stately castle teeming with busy life. A perpetual sound of hammering filled the air, while thousands of hurrying footsteps were for ever on the move. At night a brilliant light shone high up in the principal tower, whence issued a strange weird song, ever keeping time to the whirr of a mighty spinning-wheel.
People as they passed would cast shy and anxious glances upwards, murmuring in terrified tones, "Ah! there she is spinning again!" For she who sat up there was a mighty sorceress, to whom the gnomes and cobolds had to bring gold from the bowels of the earth, that she might spin the golden threads for the bridal veil which decks the head of every Roumanian girl on her wedding morn. Thus the precious metal was brought up and poured out beside her, and woe to the sprite whose measure ran short!—he was mercilessly jammed between the bark and stem of a giant tree, or hung up in its branches by his beard, where he might kick and shriek, but all in vain—the old woman was deaf to his cries. This cruel punishment had earned her the name of Baba Coaja, or "mother-bark," for she was hard as a dried crust and wrinkled like an ancient oak.
She alone knew how to spin the fine golden threads, preparing and carefully laying them by for thousands of years to come.
But Baba Coaja did not live alone in her castle, she had a beautiful daughter called Alba, fair and white as the dazzling snow which covered the summit of the mountains. Her skin was soft as velvet, her brown eyes were dark and lustrous, and her long silken hair glistened like the gold threads spun by her mother.
She was always kept shut up in the castle, for Baba Coaja did not wish any one to see or wed her. She had plenty of work for the girl to do, winding the golden threads, and storing them away in the underground cellars for all future generations.
But this ceaseless labour became very weary and irksome to Alba, more especially as her mother while spinning would mutter and croon all kinds of evil incantations and charms, so that each bride should have her share of heartache and sorrow from the time that the golden threads of the veil touched her brow; and Alba grieved sadly at all the mishaps so ruthlessly predestined.
Once during her mother's absence she sat down at the big wheel, and as she span her thoughts dwelt lovingly on her work, while wishing good luck and happiness to the future wearer, at which when Baba Coaja returned she became wild and furious. Beating her daughter mercilessly she cried, "Never shall you wed until you find the threads you spun yourself!" And with these words she seized the skein and flung it among the rest, mixing them all together.
Then the old woman rejoiced. Now she should certainly keep her daughter at home, for it had been foretold at her birth that Alba should be very unhappy and die young; but how could this be when she had so effectually prevented the fatal golden threads from ever resting on her brow? The only being on this earth the old witch cared for was this lovely child of hers; but though she decked her with beautiful garments and gave her rare and costly gems, she could bring no colour to her cheeks or laughter in her eyes. The one thing the girl longed for was freedom, and this was denied her. How gladly would she have wandered beneath the shadow of the trees that covered the foot of the mountain! Up at the castle nothing grew save the short tufted grass on which the sheep fed, while the winter was always twice as long as the summer. When the wind roared and stormed round the castle as if trying to pull it to pieces, Alba's heart felt sad and heavy, and she would sit before the glowing hearth, watching the flickering flames and showers of sparks as they flew up the chimney.
At other times she would listen to her mother's weird songs, the humming of the great wheel mingling with the howling of the storm, and wonder why so much grief and bitterness should be spun into the brides' golden threads. Why should not the people be glad and happy out in the beautiful sunshine, where everything looked so bright and gay? But she never found any solution to the problem.
When down in the cellars she would often take the great rolls of gold, which looked all so exactly alike, and play with them as if imagining they were real people, to whom she would tell her own story, when they in their turn would relate all that had happened to them since they had worn the golden bridal web. As, however, she knew nothing of the world, these stories were all quite impossible.
"Mother," she asked one day, while resting her chin in her hand, "are all human beings exactly like you and me, or have they different figures and other thoughts and ideas?"
"Why do you ask about other people? They are all bad and wicked, and would only do you harm if they once got hold of you."
"But, mother, the other day a wonderful animal came up the mountain with a rider on its back, far, far more beautiful than any of our gnomes! He had coal black hair, no beard, and wore a crimson mantle. Was this not a human being?"
The old woman looked up startled. "If he should ever dare to come up here again I will break his neck, and those down in the valley shall never see him more."
"Oh, mother, mother, do not do so! He was so grand, so beautiful!"
"If you think of him once again I will lock you up in the deepest cellar and make you weigh out gold day and night. As it is you have done nothing lately but sit idle asking foolish questions. Have you not got everything your heart can wish?"
"No, mother. I should so like to have just another such beautiful animal to ride on. Here we have only sheep, and one cannot sit on them."
"You foolish child! What next would you want? Don't you see that it would be at the risk of your life to ride up here? The grass is slippery, the precipices deep and dangerous; one false step and you would lie crushed at the bottom."
Alba wondered why it should be dangerous for horses when sheep walked along so safely, but to this also she received no answer, for she was afraid to question her mother again. The little gnomes appeared to her more ugly than ever, and she could hardly bear the sight of the gold. She thought only of the beautiful horse and the handsome youth who was to lose his life if ever he appeared near the castle again. Why did her mother wish to kill him? But to this also she could get no answer, however much she thought about it.
A few days later the beautiful youth rode up the mountain again. He was curious to find out who lived in the great big castle whose walls were fashioned out of the solid rock.
He was a king's son and a king himself, and young Porfirie was not used to being thwarted. His brave, strong nature revelled in overcoming difficulties and dangers. When his mother spoke to him of marriage he replied that she need not trouble to send forth any stately embassies. He would win his bride for himself, were she surrounded by dragons or chained to a rock.
Alba had been busy all the morning winding off large reels of golden thread, and had now gone up to her chamber to dress, and so pass away the time. She bathed her face and hands to wash away the touch of the hated gold, combed her long silky hair, twining a double row of pearls in it, and placed a fresh Alpine rose at one side. Over her soft white garment, which was clasped at the waist by a golden girdle, she hung a green velvet mantle, caught up at each shoulder with strings of pearls. Round her snowy throat gleamed an emerald necklace, each stone the size of a pigeon's egg, a gift from the little gnomes ; and as she fastened it she looked in the glass, but she could not see how her golden hair shimmered and glistened as it spread over the green velvet mantle. No; either she could not see properly or her glass spoke falsely, for, hiding her face in her hands, she cried: "Alas, alas! how ugly I am! oh! how ugly! No doubt it is for this reason that my mother hides me from all the world, and gives me beautiful clothes and jewels fit for a queen, to make me forget how ugly I am."
"SHE BATHED HER FACE AND HANDS TO WASH AWAY THE TOUCH OF THE HATED GOLD, COMBED HER LONG SILKY HAIR, TWINING A DOUBLE ROW OF PEARLS IN IT, AND PLACED A FRESH ALPINE ROSE AT ONE SIDE."
At this moment the sound of a horse's hoof on the rocks beneath rang clearly through the air, and with terror-struck eyes the girl beheld approaching the youth whose life was to be sacrificed if he ventured near the castle again. He must be warned at any price ere it was too late. Like a frightened deer she flew down the mountain side, with mantle flowing and streaming hair, which seemed to catch the sunbeams as she ran.
The young king saw her flying down the rocks; her feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground, and he reined in his horse, lost in silent wonderment. What princely maid was this? What mountain fairy flying thus towards him? And as she came nearer, wildly waving both her arms, she cried breathlessly: "Back, back! come not one step nearer! It will be your death!"
"And if it were my death," he cried, "so would I joyfully die, my eyes having beheld the most beautiful maiden on earth."
Alba paused before him. A slight colour suffused her cheeks, as with wide-opened eyes she questioned: "Am I beautiful?"
"Yes; more than beautiful. So perfect, so lovely, with that golden hair and those lustrous eyes that from this moment, fair maid, I love you to all eternity, and will gladly lay down my life for you."
"And I too love you," replied Alba innocently, not knowing that in the world one must not always say to others all one thinks. "But oh! do not call my hair golden, for gold is so ugly."
"Ugly!" cried Porfirie. "It is the first time I have ever heard it called so. Have you then seen so much of it that you find it ugly?"
"Oh yes; I see nothing but gold at home. Instead of green trees, only gold; instead of flowers, gold; instead of people, gold; nothing but gold. Oh, such heaps and heaps!" and she spread out her arms, turning round in a circle. "Oh, how much rather would I ride on that beautiful animal. I have never seen a horse before; may I touch it?"
"Yes, yes; touch him and stroke him, and then mount up beside me, and you shall ride as long as you like."
So saying he bade her place her foot on his, and grasping both her hands in his, he drew her up on to the saddle in front of him, placing his arm round her. He thought she would be frightened when the horse moved; but no, in her utter innocence she knew no fear. As soon as the ground permitted he spurred on his horse and away they flew, beneath the shadow of the trees and over the flowery meadows,
Alba clapped her hands, joyfully exclaiming: "Faster! still faster! "Thus they approached the town through which they had to pass ere reaching the palace. Then as they rode slowly through the streets a sudden fear took possession of her.
"Are all these human beings?" she asked, pointing to the people. "And does not the wind blow down those little houses?"
"No," laughingly replied Porfirie; "for here the wind does not blow so fiercely as up in the mountains." Then turning to the crowds he cried: "See, my people. Here I bring you your queen. This is a wonderful blossom that I have gathered from the mountains."
"But I am no queen," said Alba, somewhat terrified.
"I am a king, and as you will be my wife you will become a queen."
"Your wife! Why, my mother said I was never to wed any man."
"She only said that because she knew that you must belong to me alone."
"Then you are not wicked and cruel?"
"No, indeed I am not."
"Then you cannot be a human creature?" cried Alba.
"Nay, but indeed I am," laughed Porfirie.
"But my mother says that all men are bad, and that I must never have anything to do with them."
"Who is your mother?" he questioned.
"I do not know. I only know she lives up there in the castle on the mountain and spins gold," she replied.
"Spins gold! for what purpose?"
"For the brides' veils; but I will have no gold at my wedding," added Alba quickly, placing both hands on her head, as if to ward off evil.
"I fear that can hardly be, sweet one," said Porfirie. "You know it is the custom, and all the people would think it strange and wrong. But never fear, dear one, no harm shall come near you. Here we are at home," he continued, as they entered the courtyard, "and now be friendly with my mother."
"Is she old and ugly?"
"No, no! She is beautiful and proud.
"What is proud ? " asked Alba.
Porfirie gazed into her eyes—they were clear and pure as the sunshine. He pressed the maiden to his heart; then, throwing the reins to a servant, he sprang to the ground, and tenderly lifting Alba from the saddle, took her hand and led her up the broad flight of stone steps.
They entered a large hall where sat a tall and stately lady surrounded by many maidens spinning lovely yellow silk. All rose from their work and gazed with joyful surprise at the beautiful couple in the doorway, bathed in the glow of the setting sun.
"ALL ROSE FROM THEIR WORK AND GAZED WITH JOYFUL SURPRISE AT THE BEAUTIFUL COUPLE IN THE DOORWAY."
"Here, mother," cried Porfirie, "is your dear daughter and my own sweetest bride. I have brought her down from the near neighbourhood of the clouds. Indeed, I am not sure yet that she is not an inhabitant of the heavenly regions, and may at any moment spread her wings and fly away from us."
"Oh, beautiful lady," cried Alba, sinking down at the feet of the Queen, who graciously raised her, pressing a kiss upon her brow; "and you too spin like my mother, only what you spin is much more beautiful and delicate, like snowflakes and leafy blossoms."
"What then does your mother spin? " asked the Queen.
"Oh, always that hard, ugly gold!"
"Gold!" rose like a cry all round the circle. Many laughed and did not believe.
"Can you too spin gold?" they asked.
"I can, but I must not."
"Must not? Why?"
Alba opened her lips to tell the words her mother muttered while spinning, but suddenly a strange fear took possession of her, and she felt how angrily they would all look at her if they heard of the evils and misfortunes that were spun into their bridal veils. And yet with it all, these wicked people against whom her mother had always warned her, how kind and loving they seemed; far, far kinder than her mother, of whom the little cobolds stood in such terrible fear.
She was relieved from her painful embarrassment by one of the girls saying half whisperingly, "Your dress is velvet, real white velvet!"
"And your jewels! Who gave you those beautiful jewels?" asked another somewhat louder.
"Some of my friends," replied Alba. "Would you like to have them? I have plenty more such toys at home;" and loosening the emeralds from her neck she gave each girl one. She would have done the same with the pearls, but the Queen stopped her.
"Are your friends then so rich?" she asked.
"I do not know. What is being rich? They bring up these things in great sacks from the centre of the earth, and when they do not bring enough they are punished."
At this the Queen's face darkened visibly. She drew her son aside, saying, "This maiden is none other than the daughter of that terrible witch Baba Coaja. Take her back again quickly whence you brought her. She will only bring misfortune to this house."
"Anything but that, mother," said the young King turning deathly pale. "I love this fair innocent girl with all my soul, with every drop of blood in my veins, and with every breath I draw! To live without her were death! Were she Baba Coaja herself, I could not part from her!"
The Queen sighed heavily. Then she ordered a chamber to be prepared for the maiden beside her own, and it was decided that the wedding should take place next day.
As the time drew near, the Queen wished to deck her new daughter with her own hands, but she had a stiff battle to fight over the golden web. Alba would not have it touch her head. Like a frightened doe she fled through the castle, threw herself on the ground, hid beneath the rugs that covered the divans, and with tears and prayers entreated that she might be spared. Would not the Queen cover her with one of her own beautiful silk webs instead of that terrible, terrible gold?
But while she thus kneeled and wept, the Queen beckoned to two of her attendants, who held her hands while the golden veil was fastened on her head. They all expected an outburst of anger and despair. But Alba was quite still. Pale as death, she bowed her lovely head beneath the golden burden. "You are harder than my mother," she said; "she would not let me wed any man, lest evil might befall me; you have called down misfortune on my head."
No one understood these words, and Alba could not be brought to explain their meaning, which still further increased the feeling of mistrust against her. She looked so pale and sad that the people no longer recognised the bright joyous maiden of the day before, and not all the loving words and caresses of her young husband were able to chase away the clouds from her brow.
At Court nothing else was spoken of but the countless treasures of the young Queen, and many of the King's friends urged him to get a nearer sight of them. He did not trouble much about the treasures; he only longed to bring back the smiles to his young bride's face, and fancied that if he were to bring her the things she had been accustomed to, she might be bright and merry again; for she only smiled sadly at the stones the others called jewels, and could not believe that they were of any value.
But when she heard that Porfirie thought of returning to the castle, she was terribly frightened and begged and entreated him not to go. "It will be your death, and I shall never, never see you more!"
Porfirie, however, would not be dissuaded. The greater she depicted the dangers that awaited him, the more anxiously did he long to brave them all; and early in the morning, while she was still wrapped in slumber, he departed secretly, and, accompanied by a few friends, he rode up to Baba Coaja's castle.
The old woman quickly spied him while still at a distance.
"A curse be upon thee!" she cried, "for having carried off my child in order to make her unhappy! There—there! satisfy thy greed, which drives thee back to me, thou miscreant! I never asked thee to come; but since thou art here—there—take what thou earnest for!"
With these words, she showered down jewels in endless quantity on the horsemen. But as the precious stones passed through the air, they were turned into snow and ice, and swirled down in such clouds that the unfortunate men could not protect themselves, and at last lost all trace of their way. Most of them fell down the steep precipices, but the young King, fired with passion and revenge, advanced close up to the castle to try and reach the old hag. Here, however, he became so completely enveloped that he could not stir hand or foot, and was soon entirely buried in the snow.
"THE UNFORTUNATE MEN COULD NOT PROTECT THEMSELVES, AND AT LAST LOST ALL TRACE OF THEIR WAY."
Then Baba Coaja gave a fiendish laugh. "Ha—ha! I have won the day! Now my pretty bird will return here to look for him—but she will have to stay with me! I shall have my child back again; she shall not remain in the wicked world, and among the people whom I hate!"
And even as she spoke, Alba, faint and weary, in her white velvet dress, now covered with dust, came up the mountain.
"Where, where is he—my husband?" she cried, with lips blanched and trembling.
"So!" exclaimed Baba Coaja; "you ran away from me with a stranger, and now you return and ask not for me but him? Well—he is not here."
"He is, he is! I traced his footsteps to the very edge of the snow! Oh, mother, where have you hidden him? "
"Ha, ha! " laughed the witch, "you are right. He never got any further than the snow. He was smothered beneath your jewels."
With a piercing scream Alba threw herself on the glistening ground, and began wildly tearing away the snow with her hands. But all in vain; the massive white covering which shrouded her beloved was frozen too hard! Uttering a wild heart-broken cry, "Mother, mother, you have killed your child!" Alba fell down dead on the cold white ground.
Then Baba Coaja hurled forth a curse so deep and loud that the mountain shook to its very foundation, and the castle crumbled to the ground burying the witch and her treasures beneath its ruins.
But on the spot where Alba had breathed out her innocent young life, a fair white flower, with soft white velvet leaves, blossomed forth, known as Alba Regina or Edelweiss. It is only found on the edge of the everlasting snowfields, and is to this day the symbol of all true love.
Some day, perhaps, the glistening snow will again change into precious stones, when a fair and spotless maiden treads over its pure cold surface. But meanwhile the precious golden web spun by Alba is still eagerly searched for; each bride, in turn, hoping she may be the lucky finder. They, therefore, do not fear the golden threads, despite the un- uttered imprecations interwoven with them, for each one trusts and believes that her bridal veil may contain the skein which will bring luck and happiness as her portion.