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The Sturgeon

Source: Folk-lore And Legends: German

The Convent of Schwartz-Rheindorf was founded in the year of our Lord
1152 by the Bishop of Cologne, Arnold Graf von Wied, for the reception
of noble ladies alone, and was placed by him under the strict rule of
St. Benedict. The prelate, who died in the year 1159, lies buried
beneath the high altar of the church.

Among the many other rights and privileges conferred on the convent by
the Bishop was the right of fishing in the river, within certain
limits above and below the convent's territorial boundaries. This was
a most valuable right for a long period.

The certainty of a profitable fishing was always heralded by the
appearance of two immense sturgeon. They came at the commencement of
each year, harbingers of good luck, and they were ever succeeded by
shoals of river fish, in such numbers as to be absolutely
inexhaustible until the expiration of the season. Of these sturgeon
the one, a huge male, always allowed himself to be taken by the
fishermen, but the female was never captured. It was understood by
those who knew all about these matters that on her freedom depended
the fisher's success. This good fortune lasted for centuries.

It was, however, remarked that as the discipline of the convent became
more and more relaxed, and grace grew to be less and less among its
inmates, the fishing became more and more unprofitable. The sturgeon,
it is true, still made their appearance, but they were spent and thin,
and altogether unlike those which had been wont of yore to visit the
fishing-ground of the sisterhood. The abbess and the nuns, however,
either could not or they would not perceive the cause of the falling
off in the take, or the change in the appearance of the sturgeon, but
the common people who dwelt in the vicinity of the convent, and
especially those poor persons to whom the river had been heretofore a
source of support, were neither slow in seeing the cause nor in
publishing the consequences to the world. Thus stood matters:
dissoluteness of life on the one hand, distress on the other;
profligacy and poverty, extravagance and starvation, linked
inseparably together.

It was midwinter. On the bank of the river stood the purveyor of the
convent, accompanied by the lady abbess herself and a great number of
the nuns. They waited to watch the first haul made by the fishermen on
the New Year's morning, according to the custom which had prevailed in
the convent for centuries. It was not usual for the river to be open
at that time, but this year there was not a piece of ice on its
surface. The fishermen put out in their boats, and cast their nets
into the current; then, making the circuit of the spot, they returned
to the bank and commenced to haul them in. Little difficulty was at
first experienced by them in this operation. For several years
preceding the supply of fish had scarcely sufficed to defray the
expense of catching. It would seem, however, as if fortune were
inclined to smile on the sisterhood once more. The nets had not been
more than half drawn in when the fishermen began to perceive that they
contained something heavier than usual. The lady abbess and the nuns
were made acquainted with the circumstance, and they watched, in eager
expectancy, the landing of the fish. The nets were at length with much
trouble hauled on shore.

"Hilloa!" said the principal fisherman, an aged man, to the purveyor
of the convent, "hast thou ever seen such monsters before? My soul!
but this will glad the hearts of the whole convent, and make many poor
folk happy, an it be but the harbinger of a return to the old times."

While he spoke two immense sturgeon were landed. The abbess and her
train approached the landing-place, and admired the strength and
superior size of the fish.

"It would be but folly to set one of them free," she partially
soliloquised and partially spoke to the purveyor. "The convent has
not had such a treat for years past, and we absolutely require some
change. I'll warrant me they will eat delightfully."

The purveyor, a wily Jewish-looking fellow, who passed for an Italian,
at once assented to the observations of his mistress, and added a few
remarks of his own in support of them. Not so, however, the old
fisherman, who overheard the conversation, having approached the
abbess with the purveyor to learn her will and pleasure as to the
disposal of the fish.

"Nay, nay, master," he interposed, in his rough way, "not so fast, not
so fast. My father fished on this river for full fifty years, and my
father's father did the same; and fifty years have I drawn net here
too, all in the service of the noble ladies of Schwartz-Rheindorf.
Never, in that time, knew I other than this done with these fish--the
one to be let free, the other to be given away among the poor. I'll do
nought else with them."

The abbess and the purveyor were but ill-pleased to hear what the old
man said.

"You must do as I bid you, Herman," said the former.

"You must obey my lady, your mistress," echoed the latter. "She is too
good and gracious to ye."

"Not I," said the old man bluntly,--"not I. For all the broad lands on
the Rhine I would not have hand, act, nor part in such a matter. Do as
ye list, but I'll be none your servant in the matter."

The old man walked away as he said these words, and neither the
entreaties of the abbess, the threats of the purveyor, nor the
interposition of some of the nuns present could bring him back.

Others, however, were soon found among his companions who were less
scrupulous; and the two fish were accordingly removed to the convent,
and consigned to the care of the cook, to be served up for dinner that

The dinner-hour arrived--the sisterhood were all seated at table--the
servitors, marshalled by the supple purveyor, made their appearance,
bearing the expected banquet in large covered dishes. A hasty grace
was muttered, and then every eye was turned to the covers. The abbess
had ordered the sturgeon to be served up first.

"And now, sisters," she said, with a complacent look of benignant
condescension, "I hope soon to know how you approve of our dinner. It
is my constant study to make you happy, and my efforts are unceasing
to afford you every gratification in my power. Let us begin."

The covers were removed in a twinkling by the servitors, the carvers
clattered their knives and forks impatiently; but what was the
surprise of all, when every dish as it was uncovered was found to be
empty. The wrath of the abbess rose at the sight, and the zeal of the
nuns knew no bounds in seconding her indignation. The cook was
hurriedly sent for. He stood before the excited sisterhood an abject,
trembling wretch, far more like one who expected to be made a victim
of himself, than one who would voluntarily make victims of others.

"How is this, villain?" exclaimed the abbess, her face reddening with

"How's this, villain?" echoed threescore female voices, some of them
not musical.

"Ay, how is this, hound?" growled the purveyor.

"Do you mock us?" continued the abbess, as the cook stood trembling
and silent.

"Do you mock us?" echoed the purveyor, with as much dignity as he
could impart into his thin, meagre figure.

"Speak!" said the abbess in a loud voice, while the cook cast his eyes
around as if seeking aid against the excited throng the room

Thus urged, the cook proceeded to explain--as far, at least, as he was
able. He declared that he had cut up and cooked the sturgeon,
according to the directions he had received from the purveyor, and
that, when dinner was served up, he had sent them up dressed in the
manner that official had directed.

The abbess and her nuns were much puzzled how to explain this
extraordinary occurrence, and each busied herself in conjectures
which, as usual in such cases, never approached the fact. At this
juncture the aged fisherman entered the room.

"My lady," he said to the abbess, when he learnt what had occurred,
"it is the judgment of Heaven. Even now I saw the fish in the river. I
knew them well, and I'll swear to them if necessary. They floated
away, swimming down the stream, and I am a much mistaken man if ever
ye see them any more."

The pleasurable anticipations of the day that the sisters had
entertained were completely annihilated; but it would have been well
for them if the consequences of their avarice and gluttony had ended
with that hour. Never more did the sturgeon make their appearance, and
the part of the stream which pertained to the convent thenceforth
ceased to produce fish of any kind whatsoever.

People say that the Reformation had the effect of wooing the finny
tribe back to their old haunts. At all events, whatever may have been
the cause, it is the fact that there is not at present a less
plentiful supply in this spot than there is in any other part of that
rich river.

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