Bertha with the Big Foot
The Lady Bertha was very beautiful and very good. There were two things that troubled her, however; she was tall, and one foot was larger and longer than the other. She was not really a giantess, nor was her foot a deformity, but still everybody called her Bertha with the Big Foot.
One day after the household duties of the castle were over, and she sat sewing with her cousin, Aliste, and other girls of noble birth, there was the sound of a trumpet at the gate, and the noise of horses, and of men's voices. Shortly after, the voice of her father, the Count Charibert, was heard.
"Summon the Lady Bertha," he said. "A message has come from the Mayor Pepin, who demands her hand in marriage. Let her attend me in the hall at once."
Bertha and her maids went down the grand staircase and entered the hall. The attendants bowed low before her, and one of the messengers who had just arrived spoke up and said, "My master, the Mayor of the Palace, has heard of the beauty and virtue of the Lady Bertha and wishes to know if she will do him the honor of marrying him and becoming the first lady of the land."
Bertha was by no means delighted, but she was a dutiful daughter and turning to her father, replied, "It shall be as my father, the count, decides. If he wills it so, I am ready to depart and marry the Lord Pepin, Mayor of the King's Palace."
You may be sure the count was pleased with such a prospect for his gentle daughter, for Mayor Pepin was a great lord and was destined one day to become king of France.
In three weeks a great cavalcade of spearmen and attendants started from the count's castle to Paris, where lived Lord Pepin. With Bertha went Aliste, her cousin, and her uncle, Viscount Tybus, and his wife, the parents of Aliste.
Now the viscount and his wife as well as their daughter Aliste were jealous of the beauty and high rank of Bertha, and were resolved to deprive her of her good fortune. So they began to talk in her presence.
"I hear Pepin is a very terrible man, a regular monster, who is cruel to his wives and beats them," said the viscount.
"He has had five wives already," said the viscount's wife. "Two of them he has beheaded, two he has smothered, and one he has drowned in burning oil. He is a Bluebeard, for he kills every wife he has."
"I wish some one would save our dear Bertha from his hands," cried Aliste. "I would be willing to take her place if I could, for I love her so, and what matters it if Pepin should slay me if Bertha could be saved?"
All of this was untrue, of course, but it terrified the poor Bertha until she trembled on her horse and came near falling to the ground.
"Oh, unhappy me!" she cried; "what have I done to merit such a fate? Is there nothing you can do, my uncle, to avert this disaster? Of what was my dear father thinking that he should deliver me to such a monster?"
"Be calm, my dear child," replied Count Tybus. "We shall yet think of some way to save you. Let me talk with Aliste and your aunt, that we may devise some scheme to rid you of this odious marriage."
The count and his wife drew aside and talked together in low tones. Aliste was with them. Together they laid a plan to turn the fears of the Lady Bertha to their own good fortune.
Approaching the still weeping girl, they said, "Bertha, you are dearer to us than our own daughter, and we are willing for her to take your place and marry this dreadful Pepin. Therefore let Aliste be Bertha and you be her handmaiden. The Lord Pepin has never seen either of you and knows no difference. If she dies at his hand we must be content, but at any rate you shall be saved."
Bertha listened to this proposal without any suspicion of the motives of her relatives, and after pondering a while consented that Aliste should take her place and become the bride of the Lord Pepin, while she herself would be known only as her attendant.
Before the cavalcade reached Paris the change was made. Aliste put on the rich bridal robes of Bertha, and rode at the head of the procession, while Bertha sat at her feet in the modest garb of a woman-in-waiting. In this way they approached Paris and rode up to the gates of the palace, where already lights began to flare and minstrels were playing rude music.
Lord Pepin thought little of the appearance of his bride. He was content upon an alliance with the great Count Charibert, and it mattered little to him whether the count's daughter was black-haired and high-tempered, or golden-haired and sweet of nature. The marriage was celebrated in great state, and poor little Bertha was kept far in the background so that the Lord Pepin never saw her at all.
But Bertha saw him and said to herself, "He does not look like a dreadful monster at all. Nor is he so crafty and cruel. He is far better looking than what I was led to believe. I wonder if he can be so wicked as they say."
Now the Count Tybus, having safely married his daughter to Lord Pepin, resolved on getting rid of Bertha entirely. So he hired a man to take her deep into the forest of Mans and there to leave her to the mercy of wild beasts. Thus he hoped to secure his daughter firmly in her position as bride of the Mayor of the Palace.
One night as Simon the forester and his wife sat in their cabin in the heart of the great forest they heard a sound as of a voice, a low moaning cry outside.
"What can that be, wife?" asked the forester. "Here there are no sounds but the roar of the wolf and the growl of the bear. I thought I heard a child's voice without." So saying, the old forester and his wife opened the door cautiously and peered into the darkness. All was still outside, and they could see nothing.
Bringing a torch they searched the path, and to their amazement found a fair-haired girl lying a few rods from their door, all crumpled up, and fainting from hunger and weariness.
"In God's name what is this?" exclaimed the forester. "A girl, and in such a plight! Quick, wife, lend a hand or she will die!"
Soon they had the fainting girl inside the cabin and by the fire. When she had eaten some food and was revived in her strength she told a sad story of how her uncle had deceived her, and had turned her over to a hired soldier to be slain in the wood, or left to be devoured by the wolves. The soldier had not killed the fair girl, but he had left her to wander in the forest, until, worn out with fatigue and exhausted by hunger, she saw the light of the cabin and had cried out for help as she fell fainting in the path.
Bertha concealed her real rank from the good forester and his wife, and was content to remain in the cabin in the woods and be the servant girl of the forester's wife.
Meanwhile, Aliste was living in all the glory of a wife of a Mayor of the Palace, though she was by no means the sweet-tempered girl that Lord Pepin had been led to expect. In fact, she often gave way to fits of anger that made those around her declare she was quite ugly and unworthy to be the wife of a great man.
Back in the castle of Count Charibert, the Countess Blanche, the mother of Bertha, became lonely and longed to see the face of her beloved daughter.
"My lord, I beseech you, let me journey to Paris, that I may again see my daughter Bertha, wife of the Mayor of the Palace," said she one day to her husband.
"Thou art foolish to ask such a thing," replied the count. "Your daughter is now so high in state that she would care little for either of us."
But the Countess Blanche was not to be turned aside. So it came about that she set out for Paris, escorted by horsemen, and attended by her women as became the wife of a count.
As she neared the palace she smiled upon the people and said to them, "I am the mother of the mayor's wife. I pray you tell me of my daughter."
"Your daughter is a fiend, a witch, a tyrant. She does nothing but storm all day and beat her servants with rods," they told her, which greatly distressed the countess, for she knew that Bertha must have changed greatly since her marriage, if what they said was true.
Lord Pepin welcomed the Countess Blanche at the palace gate. "And where is my daughter?" asked she. "Fares she well, and makes she a good and dutiful wife, my lord? She was ever gentle and loving at home and I hope her great good fortune has not spoiled her temper."
Lord Pepin said his wife was not well and begged not to be seen by her mother. In fact, she had given orders not to admit the Countess Blanche to her rooms at all.
"My daughter not see her mother!" cried the countess. "Here is something wrong. I shall see her as is my right," and sweeping past the guard she made her way to the room where Aliste had shut herself up, fearing exposure of the fraud she had practiced.
As she drew near the room she heard an angry voice berating a serving woman : "I shall not see her, I tell you, I shall not see her! I shall cover myself in bed with these draperies first!"
The countess threw open the door as Aliste jumped into the bed. But alas! the draperies were short and Aliste's feet were exposed beyond the cover.
"This is not Bertha. This is not my daughter," cried out the countess to the attendants who followed her into the room. "My daughter has one large foot and one small foot, while this woman has two large feet; what means this?"
With that she pulled the draperies aside. Aliste sprang from the couch and the two women faced each other.
"You are not Bertha, you are Aliste, her cousin. You have deceived my Lord Pepin. You are an impostor and a vile woman!" exclaimed the countess. "And now where is my daughter and what has become of her?" she asked of Lord Pepin.
The mayor was in a great rage. "What trick is this you play me, woman? Who are you and why have you deceived me?" he cried in his wrath.
Aliste fell on her knees and confessed all her deception. Nothing could save her, however, and the mayor had her shut up in a convent and sent her guilty father and mother to the gallows.
But where was Bertha? No one knew, therefore no one could tell. The soldier who had taken her to the forest was silent as to his part in her disappearance. The mayor became gloomy and stern, and followed the chase to rid himself of the shame he had endured, and to forget the loss he had suffered.
One day deep in the forest the mayor had brought to bay a great wild boar. The beast attacked the hunter, who was alone, and after a terrible fight inflicted many wounds upon the mayor, though the boar was finally killed. As the great hog fell dead it bore down the mayor with its huge body and pinned him to the ground.
Weak with loss of blood the mayor almost fainted with the heavy weight upon his chest. At that moment, a fair-haired girl ran from out the forest, seized the mighty beast by the legs and pulled him off the almost exhausted man. It was not a moment too soon, for the mayor was almost suffocated.
As he rose from the ground and turned to the girl he saw her standing barefoot before him. Looking at her feet he exclaimed in amazement, "Bertha, my lost Bertha! At last I have found you!"
"My Lord Pepin!" said the girl, and knelt on the ground before him.
It did not take long for Lord Pepin to carry Bertha back to his palace and make her his wife. There was great rejoicing at the event, and there would have been more if the people could have known that she was to be the mother of Charlemagne and of a line of kings that for two hundred and fifty years reigned over France.