A Legend of the Rhine

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A Legend of the Rhine Page 7

by William Makepeace Thackeray

the herald nailed his lord's gauntlet on the castle gate. As before, the Prince

  flung him over another glove from the wall; though how he was to defend himself

  from such a warrior, or get a champion, or resist the pitiless assault that must

  follow, the troubled old nobleman knew not in the least.

  The Princess Helen passed the night in the chapel, vowing tons of wax-candles to

  all the patron saints of the House of Cleves, if they would raise her up a


  But how did the noble girl's heart sink�how were her notions of the purity of

  man shaken within her gentle bosom, by the dread intelligence which reached her

  the next morning, after the defiance of the Rowski! At roll-call it was

  discovered that he on whom she principally relied�he whom her fond heart had

  singled out as her champion, had proved faithless! Otto, the degenerate Otto,

  had fled! His comrade, Wolfgang, had gone with him. A rope was found dangling

  from the casement of their chamber, and they must have swum the moat and passed

  over to the enemy in the darkness of the previous night. "A pretty lad was this

  fair-spoken archer of thine!" said the Prince her father to her; "and a pretty

  kettle of fish hast thou cooked for the fondest of fathers." She retired weeping

  to her apartment. Never before had that young heart felt so wretched.

  That morning, at nine o'clock, as they were going to breakfast, the Rowski's

  trumpets sounded. Clad in complete armor, and mounted on his enormous piebald

  charger, he came out of his pavilion, and rode slowly up and down in front of

  the castle. He was ready there to meet a champion.

  Three times each day did the odious trumpet sound the same notes of defiance.

  Thrice daily did the steel-clad Rowski come forth challenging the combat. The

  first day passed, and there was no answer to his summons. The second day came

  and went, but no champion had risen to defend. The taunt of his shrill clarion

  remained without answer; and the sun went down upon the wretchedest father and

  daughter in all the land of Christendom.

  The trumpets sounded an hour after sunrise, an hour after noon, and an hour

  before sunset. The third day came, but with it brought no hope. The first and

  second summons met no response. At five o'clock the old Prince called his

  daughter and blessed her. "I go to meet this Rowski," said he. "It may be we

  shall meet no more, my Helen�my child�the innocent cause of all this grief. If I

  shall fall to-night the Rowski's victim, 'twill be that life is nothing without

  honor." And so saying, he put into her hands a dagger, and bade her sheathe it

  in her own breast so soon as the terrible champion had carried the castle by


  This Helen most faithfully promised to do; and her aged father retired to his

  armory, and donned his ancient war-worn corselet. It had borne the shock of a

  thousand lances ere this, but it was now so tight as almost to choke the

  knightly wearer.

  The last trumpet sounded�tantara! tantara!�its shrill call rang over the wide

  plains, and the wide plains gave back no answer. Again!�but when its notes died

  away, there was only a mournful, an awful silence. "Farewell, my child," said

  the Prince, bulkily lifting himself into his battle-saddle. "Remember the

  dagger. Hark! the trumpet sounds for the third time. Open, warders! Sound,

  trumpeters! and good St. Bendigo guard the right."

  But Puffendorff, the trumpeter, had not leisure to lift the trumpet to his lips:

  when, hark! from without there came another note of another clarion!�a distant

  note at first, then swelling fuller. Presently, in brilliant variations, the

  full rich notes of the "Huntsman's Chorus" came clearly over the breeze; and a

  thousand voices of the crowd gazing over the gate exclaimed, "A champion! a


  And, indeed, a champion HAD come. Issuing from the forest came a knight and

  squire: the knight gracefully cantering an elegant cream-colored Arabian of

  prodigious power�the squire mounted on an unpretending gray cob; which,

  nevertheless, was an animal of considerable strength and sinew. It was the

  squire who blew the trumpet, through the bars of his helmet; the knight's visor

  was completely down. A small prince's coronet of gold, from which rose three

  pink ostrich-feathers, marked the warrior's rank: his blank shield bore no

  cognizance. As gracefully poising his lance he rode into the green space where

  the Rowski's tents were pitched, the hearts of all present beat with anxiety,

  and the poor Prince of Cleves, especially, had considerable doubts about his new

  champion. "So slim a figure as that can never compete with Donnerblitz," said

  he, moodily, to his daughter; "but whoever he be, the fellow puts a good face on

  it, and rides like a man. See, he has touched the Rowski's shield with the point

  of his lance! By St. Bendigo, a perilous venture!"

  The unknown knight had indeed defied the Rowski to the death, as the Prince of

  Cleves remarked from the battlement where he and his daughter stood to witness

  the combat; and so, having defied his enemy, the Incognito galloped round under

  the castle wall, bowing elegantly to the lovely Princess there, and then took

  his ground and waited for the foe. His armor blazed in the sunshine as he sat

  there, motionless, on his cream-colored steed. He looked like one of those fairy

  knights one has read of�one of those celestial champions who decided so many

  victories before the invention of gun powder.

  The Rowski's horse was speedily brought to the door of his pavilion; and that

  redoubted warrior, blazing in a suit of magnificent brass armor, clattered into

  his saddle. Long waves of blood-red feathers bristled over his helmet, which was

  farther ornamented by two huge horns of the aurochs. His lance was painted white

  and red, and he whirled the prodigious beam in the air and caught it with savage

  glee. He laughed when he saw the slim form of his antagonist; and his soul

  rejoiced to meet the coming battle. He dug his spurs into the enormous horse he

  rode: the enormous horse snorted, and squealed, too, with fierce pleasure. He

  jerked and curveted him with a brutal playfulness, and after a few minutes'

  turning and wheeling, during which everybody had leisure to admire the

  perfection of his equitation, he cantered round to a point exactly opposite his

  enemy, and pulled up his impatient charger.

  The old Prince on the battlement was so eager for the combat, that he seemed

  quite to forget the danger which menaced himself, should his slim champion be

  discomfited by the tremendous Knight of Donnerblitz. "Go it!" said he, flinging

  his truncheon into the ditch; and at the word, the two warriors rushed with

  whirling rapidity at each other.

  And now ensued a combat so terrible, that a weak female hand, like that of her

  who pens this tale of chivalry, can never hope to do justice to the terrific

  theme. You have seen two engines on the Great Western line rush past each other

  with a pealing scream? So rapidly did the two warriors gallop towards one

  another; the feathers of either streamed yards behind their backs as they

  converged. Their shoc
k as they met was as that of two cannon- balls; the mighty

  horses trembled and reeled with the concussion; the lance aimed at the Rowski's

  helmet bore off the coronet, the horns, the helmet itself, and hurled them to an

  incredible distance: a piece of the Rowski's left ear was carried off on the

  point of the nameless warrior's weapon. How had he fared? His adversary's weapon

  had glanced harmless along the blank surface of his polished buckler; and the

  victory so far was with him.

  The expression of the Rowski's face, as, bareheaded, he glared on his enemy with

  fierce bloodshot eyeballs, was one worthy of a demon. The imprecatory

  expressions which he made use of can never be copied by a feminine pen.

  His opponent magnanimously declined to take advantage of the opportunity thus

  offered him of finishing the combat by splitting his opponent's skull with his

  curtal-axe, and, riding back to his starting-place, bent his lance's point to

  the ground, in token that he would wait until the Count of Eulenschreckenstein

  was helmeted afresh.

  "Blessed Bendigo!" cried the Prince, "thou art a gallant lance: but why didst

  not rap the Schelm's brain out?"

  "Bring me a fresh helmet!" yelled the Rowski. Another casque was brought to him

  by his trembling squire.

  As soon as he had braced it, he drew his great flashing sword from his side, and

  rushed at his enemy, roaring hoarsely his cry of battle. The unknown knight's

  sword was unsheathed in a moment, and at the next the two blades were clanking

  together the dreadful music of the combat!

  The Donnerblitz wielded his with his usual savageness and activity. It whirled

  round his adversary's head with frightful rapidity. Now it carried away a

  feather of his plume; now it shore off a leaf of his coronet. The flail of the

  thrasher does not fall more swiftly upon the corn. For many minutes it was the

  Unknown's only task to defend himself from the tremendous activity of the enemy.

  But even the Rowski's strength would slacken after exertion. The blows began to

  fall less thick anon, and the point of the unknown knight began to make dreadful

  play. It found and penetrated every joint of the Donnerblitz's armor. Now it

  nicked him in the shoulder where the vambrace was buckled to the corselet; now

  it bored a shrewd hole under the light brissart, and blood followed; now, with

  fatal dexterity, it darted through the visor, and came back to the recover

  deeply tinged with blood. A scream of rage followed the last thrust; and no

  wonder:�it had penetrated the Rowski's left eye.

  His blood was trickling through a dozen orifices; he was almost choking in his

  helmet with loss of breath, and loss of blood, and rage. Gasping with fury, he

  drew back his horse, flung his great sword at his opponent's head, and once more

  plunged at him, wielding his curtal-axe.

  Then you should have seen the unknown knight employing the same dreadful weapon!

  Hitherto he had been on his defence; now he began the attack; and the gleaming

  axe whirred in his hand like a reed, but descended like a thunderbolt! "Yield!

  yield! Sir Rowski," shouted he, in a calm, clear voice.

  A blow dealt madly at his head was the reply. 'Twas the last blow that the Count

  of Eulenschreckenstein ever struck in battle! The curse was on his lips as the

  crushing steel descended into his brain, and split it in two. He rolled like a

  log from his horse: his enemy's knee was in a moment on his chest, and the

  dagger of mercy at his throat, as the knight once more called upon him to yield.

  But there was no answer from within the helmet. When it was withdrawn, the teeth

  were crunched together; the mouth that should have spoken, grinned a ghastly

  silence: one eye still glared with hate and fury, but it was glazed with the

  film of death!

  The red orb of the sun was just then dipping into the Rhine. The unknown knight,

  vaulting once more into his saddle, made a graceful obeisance to the Prince of

  Cleves and his daughter, without a word, and galloped back into the forest,

  whence he had issued an hour before sunset.


  The consternation which ensued on the death of the Rowski, speedily sent all his

  camp-followers, army, to the right-about. They struck their tents at the first

  news of his discomfiture; and each man laying hold of what he could, the whole

  of the gallant force which had marched under his banner in the morning had

  disappeared ere the sun rose.

  On that night, as it may be imagined, the gates of the Castle of Cleves were not

  shut. Everybody was free to come in. Wine-butts were broached in all the courts;

  the pickled meat prepared in such lots for the siege was distributed among the

  people, who crowded to congratulate their beloved sovereign on his victory; and

  the Prince, as was customary with that good man, who never lost an opportunity

  of giving a dinner-party, had a splendid entertainment made ready for the upper

  classes, the whole concluding with a tasteful display of fireworks.

  In the midst of these entertainments, our old friend the Count of Hombourg

  arrived at the castle. The stalwart old warrior swore by Saint Bugo that he was

  grieved the killing of the Rowski had been taken out of his hand. The laughing

  Cleves vowed by Saint Bendigo, Hombourg could never have finished off his enemy

  so satisfactorily as the unknown knight had just done.

  But who was he? was the question which now agitated the bosom of these two old

  nobles. How to find him�how to reward the champion and restorer of the honor and

  happiness of Cleves? They agreed over supper that he should be sought for

  everywhere. Beadles were sent round the principal cities within fifty miles, and

  the description of the knight advertised, in the Journal de Francfort and the

  Allgemeine Zeitung. The hand of the Princess Helen was solemnly offered to him

  in these advertisements, with the reversion of the Prince of Cleves's splendid

  though somewhat dilapidated property.

  "But we don't know him, my dear papa," faintly ejaculated that young lady. "Some

  impostor may come in a suit of plain armor, and pretend that he was the champion

  who overcame the Rowski (a prince who had his faults certainly, but whose

  attachment for me I can never forget); and how are you to say whether he is the

  real knight or not? There are so many deceivers in this world," added the

  Princess, in tears, "that one can't be too cautious now." The fact is, that she

  was thinking of the desertion of Otto in the morning; by which instance of

  faithlessness her heart was wellnigh broken.

  As for that youth and his comrade Wolfgang, to the astonishment of everybody at

  their impudence, they came to the archers' mess that night, as if nothing had

  happened; got their supper, partaking both of meat and drink most plentifully;

  fell asleep when their comrades began to describe the events of the day, and the

  admirable achievements of the unknown warrior; and turning into their hammocks,

  did not appear on parade in the morning until twenty minutes after the names

  were called.

  When the Prince of Cleves heard of the return of these de
serters he was in a

  towering passion. "Where were you, fellows," shouted he, "during the time my

  castle was at its utmost need?"

  Otto replied, "We were out on particular business."

  "Does a soldier leave his post on the day of battle, sir?" exclaimed the Prince.

  "You know the reward of such�Death! and death you merit. But you are a soldier

  only of yesterday, and yesterday's victory has made me merciful. Hanged you

  shall not be, as you merit�only flogged, both of you. Parade the men, Colonel

  Tickelstern, after breakfast, and give these scoundrels five hundred apiece."

  You should have seen how young Otto bounded, when this information was thus

  abruptly conveyed to him. "Flog ME!" cried he. "Flog Otto of�"

  "Not so, my father," said the Princess Helen, who had been standing by during

  the conversation, and who had looked at Otto all the while with the most

  ineffable scorn. "Not so: although these PERSONS have forgotten their duty" (she

  laid a particularly sarcastic emphasis on the word persons), "we have had no

  need of their services, and have luckily found OTHERS more faithful. You

  promised your daughter a boon, papa; it is the pardon of these two PERSONS. Let

  them go, and quit a service they have disgraced; a mistress�that is, a

  master�they have deceived."

  "Drum 'em out of the castle, Ticklestern; strip their uniforms from their backs,

  and never let me hear of the scoundrels again." So saying, the old Prince

  angrily turned on his heel to breakfast, leaving the two young men to the fun

  and derision of their surrounding comrades.

  The noble Count of Hombourg, who was taking his usual airing on the ramparts

  before breakfast, came up at this juncture, and asked what was the row? Otto

  blushed when he saw him and turned away rapidly; but the Count, too, catching a

  glimpse of him, with a hundred exclamations of joyful surprise seized upon the

  lad, hugged him to his manly breast, kissed him most affectionately, and almost

  burst into tears as he embraced him. For, in sooth, the good Count had thought

  his godson long ere this at the bottom of the silver Rhine.

  The Prince of Cleves, who had come to the breakfast-parlor window, (to invite

  his guest to enter, as the tea was made,) beheld this strange scene from the

  window, as did the lovely tea-maker likewise, with breathless and beautiful

  agitation. The old Count and the archer strolled up and down the battlements in

  deep conversation. By the gestures of surprise and delight exhibited by the

  former, 'twas easy to see the young archer was conveying some very strange and

  pleasing news to him; though the nature of the conversation was not allowed to


  "A godson of mine," said the noble Count, when interrogated over his muffins. "I

  know his family; worthy people; sad scapegrace; ran away; parents longing for

  him; glad you did not flog him; devil to pay," and so forth. The Count was a man

  of few words, and told his tale in this brief, artless manner. But why, at its

  conclusion, did the gentle Helen leave the room, her eyes filled with tears? She

  left the room once more to kiss a certain lock of yellow hair she had pilfered.

  A dazzling, delicious thought, a strange wild hope, arose in her soul!

  When she appeared again, she made some side-handed inquiries regarding Otto

  (with that gentle artifice oft employed by women); but he was gone. He and his

  companion were gone. The Count of Hombourg had likewise taken his departure,

  under pretext of particular business. How lonely the vast castle seemed to

  Helen, now that HE was no longer there. The transactions of the last few days;

  the beautiful archer-boy; the offer from the Rowski (always an event in a young

  lady's life); the siege of the castle; the death of her truculent admirer: all

  seemed like a fevered dream to her: all was passed away, and had left no trace

  behind. No trace?� yes! one: a little insignificant lock of golden hair, over


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