During the fourteenth century Mainz shared the power and glory of the other cities of the Rhenish Confederation, then in the full flush of its heyday. Its cathedral witnesses to its aforetime civic splendour. This magnificent building took upward of four hundred years to complete, and its wondrous brazen doors and sumptuous chapels are among the finest ecclesiastical treasures of Germany.
In the cathedral of Mainz was an image of the Virgin, on whose feet were golden slippers, the gift of some wealthy votary. Of this image the following legend is told:
A poor ragged fiddler had spent the whole of one bitter winter morning playing through the dreary streets without any taking pity upon his plight. As he came to the cathedral he felt an overmastering desire to enter and pour out his distress in the presence of his Maker. So he crept in, a tattered and forlorn figure. He prayed aloud, chanting his woes in the same tones which he used in the street to touch the hearts of the passers-by.
As he prayed a sense of solitude came upon him, and he realized that the shadowy aisles were empty. A sudden whim seized him. He would play to the golden-shod Virgin and sing her one of his sweetest songs. And drawing nearer he lifted his old fiddle to his shoulder, and into his playing he put all his longing and pain; his quavering voice grew stronger beneath the stress of his fervour. It was as if the springtime had come about him; life was before him, gay and joyful, sorrow and pain were unknown. He sank to his knees before the image, and as he knelt, suddenly the Virgin lifted her foot and, loosening her golden slipper, cast it into the old man's ragged bosom, as if giving alms for his music.
The poor old man, astounded at the miracle, told himself that the Blessed Virgin knew how to pay a poor devil who amused her. Overcome by gratitude, he thanked the giver with all his heart.
He would fain have kept the treasure, but he was starving, and it seemed to have been given him to relieve his distress. He hurried out to the market and went into a goldsmith's shop to offer his prize. But the man recognized it at once. Then was the poor old fiddler worse off than before, for now he was charged with the dreadful crime of sacrilege. The old man told the story of the miracle over and over again, but he was laughed at for an impudent liar. He must not hope, they told him, for anything but death, and in the short space of one hour he was tried and condemned and on his way to execution.
The place of death was just opposite the great bronze doors of the cathedral which sheltered the Virgin. "If I must die," said the fiddler, "I would sing one song to my old fiddle at the feet of the Virgin and pray one prayer before her. I ask this in her blessed name, and you cannot refuse me."
They could not deny the prisoner a dying prayer, and, closely guarded, the tattered figure once more entered the cathedral which had been so disastrous to him. He approached the altar of the Virgin, his eyes filling with tears as again he held his old fiddle in his hands. Then he played and sang as before, and again a breath as of springtime stole into the shadowy cathedral and life seemed glad and beautiful. When the music ceased, again the Virgin lifted a foot and softly she flung her other slipper into the fiddler's bosom, before the astonished gaze of the guards. Everyone there saw the miracle and could not but testify to the truth of the old man's former statement; he was at once freed from his bonds and carried before the city fathers, who ordered his release.
And it is said that, in memory of the miracle of the Virgin, the priests provided for the old fiddler for the rest of his days. In return for this the old man surrendered the golden slippers, which, it is also said, the reverend fathers carefully locked away in the treasure-chest, lest the Virgin should again be tempted to such extravagant almsgiving.
The Maiden's Leap
Once in the Hardt mountains there dwelt a giant whose fortress commanded a wide view of the surrounding country. Near by, a lovely lady, as daring in the hunt as she was skilful at spinning, inhabited an abandoned castle. One day the twain chanced to meet, and the giant thereupon resolved to possess the beauteous damsel.
So he sent his servant to win her with jewels, but the deceitful fellow intended to hide the treasures in a forest.
There he met a young man musing in a disconsolate attitude, who confided that poverty alone kept him from avowing how passionately he adored his sweetheart. The shrewd messenger realized that this rustic's charmer was the same fair lady who had beguiled his master's soul. He solicited the youth's aid in burying the treasures promising him a share in the spoil sufficient to enable him to wed his beloved.
In a solitary spot they dug a deep hole, when suddenly the robber assailed his companion, who thrust him aside with great violence. In his rage the youth was about to stab the wretch, when he craved pardon, promising to reveal a secret of more value than the jewels he had intended to conceal.
The youth stayed his hand, and the servant related how his master, for love of the pretty mistress of the castle, had sent him to gain her favour.
Conscious of his worth, the ardent youth scornfully declared that he feared no rival, then, seizing half of the treasure, he left the wretch to his own devices.
Meanwhile the giant impatiently awaited his servant's return. At length, tired of waiting, he decided to visit the lady and declare in person his passion for her. Upon his arrival at the castle the maid announced him, and it was with a secret feeling of dread that the lady went to meet her unwelcome visitor. More than ever captivated by her charms, the giant asked the fair maid to become his wife. On being refused, he threatened to kill her and demolish the castle.
The poor lady was terrified and she tearfully implored the giant's mercy, promising to bestow all her treasure upon him. Her maids, too, begged him to spare their mistress's life, but he only laughed as they knelt before him. Ultimately the hapless maiden consented to marry her inexorable wooer, but she attached a novel condition: she would ride a race with her relentless suitor, and should he overtake her she would accompany him to his castle. But the resolute maiden had secretly vowed to die rather than submit to such degradation. Choosing her fleetest steed, she vaulted nimbly into the saddle and galloped away. Her persecutor pursued close behind, straining every nerve to come up with her. Shuddering at the very thought of becoming his bride, she chose death as the only alternative. So she spurred her horse onward to the edge of a deep chasm.
The noble animal neighed loudly as though conscious of impending danger. The pursuer laughed grimly as he thought to seize his prize, but his laughter was turned to rage when the horse with its fair burden bounded lightly across the chasm, landing safely on the other side.
The enraged tyrant now beheld his intended victim kneeling in prayer and her steed calmly grazing among the green verdure by her side. He strode furiously hither and thither, searching for a crossing, and suddenly a shout of joy told the affrighted maid that he had discovered some passage.
His satisfaction, however, was short-lived, for just then a strange knight with drawn sword rushed upon the giant. The maid watched the contest with breathless fear, and many times she thought that the tyrant would slay her protector. At last in one such moment the giant stooped to clutch a huge boulder with which he meant to overwhelm his adversary, when, overreaching himself, he slipped and fell headlong down the steep rocks.
Then the maid hastened to thank her rescuer, and great was her surprise to discover in the gallant knight the youth whose former poverty had kept him from wooing her. They returned to the castle together, and it was not long ere they celebrated their wedding.
Both lived long and happily, and their union was blessed with many children. The rock is still known as "The Maiden's Leap."
The Wonderful Road
Near Homburg, on the pinnacle of a lofty mountain, are the ruins of Falkenstein Castle, access to which is gained by a steep, winding path.
Within the castle walls there once dwelt a maiden of surpassing beauty. Many suitors climbed the stern acclivity to woo this charming damsel, but her stern father repelled one and all. Only Kuno of Sayn was firm enough to persevere in his suit against the rebuffs of the stubborn Lord of Falkenstein, and in the end he was rewarded with the smiles and kind looks of the fair maid.
One evening, as they watched the sun set, Kuno pointed out to the maiden where his own castle was situated. The beauty of the landscape beneath them made its appeal to their souls, their hands touched and clasped, and their hearts throbbed with the passion felt by both. A few days later Kuno climbed the steep path, resolved to declare his love to the damsel's father. Fatigued with the ascent, he rested for a brief space at the entrance to the castle ere mounting to the tower.
The Lord of Falkenstein and his daughter had beheld Kuno's journey up the rugged path from the windows of the tower, and the father demanded for what purpose he had come thither. With a passionate glance at the blushing maid, the knight of Sayn declared that he had come to ask the noble lord for his daughter's hand in marriage. After meditating on the knight's proposal for some time, the Lord of Falkenstein pretended to be willing to give his consent—but he attached a condition. "I desire a carriage-drive to be made from the lowland beneath to the gate of my castle, and if you can accomplish this my daughter's hand is yours—but the feat must be achieved by to-morrow morning!"
The knight protested that such a task was utterly impossible for anyone to perform, even in a month, but all to no purpose. He then resolved to seek some way whereby he could outwit the stubborn lord, for he would not willingly resign his lady-love. He left the tower, vowing to do his utmost to perform the seemingly impossible task, and as he descended the rocky declivity his beloved waved her handkerchief to encourage him.
Now Kuno of Sayn possessed both copper and silver mines, and arriving at his castle he summoned his overseer. The knight explained the nature of the task which he desired to be undertaken, but the overseer declared that all his miners, working day and night, could not make the roadway within many months.
Dismayed, Kuno left his castle and wandered into a dense forest, driven thither by his perturbed condition. Night cast dusky shadows over the foliage, and the perplexed lover cursed the obstinate Lord of Falkenstein as he forced his way through the undergrowth.
Suddenly an old man of strange and wild appearance stood in his path. Kuno at once knew him for an earth-spirit, one of those mysterious guardians of the treasures of the soil who are jealous of the incursion of mankind into their domain.
"Kuno of Sayn," he said, "do you desire to outwit the Lord of Falkenstein and win his beauteous daughter?"
Although startled and taken aback by the strange apparition, Kuno hearkened eagerly to its words as showing an avenue of escape from the dilemma in which he found himself.
"Assuredly I do," he replied, "but how do you propose I should accomplish it?"
"Cease to persecute me and my brethren, Kuno, and we shall help you to realize your wishes," was the reply.
"Persecute you!" exclaimed Kuno. "In what manner do I trouble you at all, strange being?"
"You have opened up a silver mine in our domain," said the earth-spirit, "and as you work it both morning and afternoon we have but little opportunity for repose. How, I ask you, can we slumber when your men keep knocking on the partitions of our house with their picks?"
"What, then, would you have, my worthy friend?" asked Kuno, scarcely able to suppress a smile at the wistful way in which the gnome made his complaint. "Tell me, I pray you, how I can oblige you."
"By instructing your miners to work in the mine during the hours of morning only," replied the gnome. "By so doing I and my brothers will obtain the rest we so much require."
"It shall be as you say," said Kuno; "you have my word for it, good friend."
"In that case," said the earth-spirit, "we shall assist you in turn. Go to the castle of Falkenstein after dawn to-morrow morning, and you shall witness the result of our friendship and gratitude."
Next morning the sun had scarcely risen when Kuno saddled his steed and hied him to the heights of Falkenstein. The gnome had kept his word. There, above and in front of him, he beheld a wide and lofty roadway leading to the castle-gate from the thoroughfare below. With joy in his heart he set spurs to his horse and dashed up the steep but smooth acclivity. At the gate he encountered the old Lord of Falkenstein and his daughter, who had been apprised of the miracle that had happened and had come out to view the new roadway. The knight of Sayn related his adventure with the earth-spirit, upon which the Lord of Falkenstein told him how a terrible thunderstorm mingled with unearthly noises had raged throughout the night. Terrified, he and his daughter had spent the hours of darkness in prayer, until with the approach of dawn some of the servitors had plucked up courage and ventured forth, when the wonderful avenue up the side of the mountain met their startled gaze.
Kuno and his lady-love were duly united. Indeed, so terrified was the old lord by the supernatural manifestations of the dreadful night he had just passed through that he was incapable of further resistance to the wishes of the young people. The wonderful road is still to be seen, and is marvelled at by all who pass that way.
Osric the Lion
Other tales besides the foregoing have their scene laid in the castle of Falkenstein, notable among them being the legend of Osric the Lion, embodied in the following weird ballad from the pen of Monk Lewis:
Swift roll the Rhine's billows, and water the plains, Where Falkenstein Castle's majestic remains Their moss-covered turrets still rear: Oft loves the gaunt wolf 'midst the ruins to prowl, What time from the battlements pours the lone owl Her plaints in the passenger's ear.
No longer resound through the vaults of yon hall The song of the minstrel, and mirth of the ball; Those pleasures for ever are fled: There now dwells the bat with her light-shunning brood, There ravens and vultures now clamour for food, And all is dark, silent, and dread!
Ha! dost thou not see, by the moon's trembling light Directing his steps, where advances a knight, His eye big with vengeance and fate? 'Tis Osric the Lion his nephew who leads, And swift up the crackling old staircase proceeds, Gains the hall, and quick closes the gate.
Now round him young Carloman, casting his eyes, Surveys the sad scene with dismay and surprise, And fear steals the rose from his cheeks. His spirits forsake him, his courage is flown; The hand of Sir Osric he clasps in his own, And while his voice falters he speaks.
"Dear uncle," he murmurs, "why linger we here? 'Tis late, and these chambers are damp and are drear, Keen blows through the ruins the blast! Oh! let us away and our journey pursue: Fair Blumenberg's Castle will rise on our view, Soon as Falkenstein forest be passed.
"Why roll thus your eyeballs? why glare they so wild? Oh! chide not my weakness, nor frown, that a child Should view these apartments with dread; For know that full oft have I heard from my nurse, There still on this castle has rested a curse, Since innocent blood here was shed.
"She said, too, bad spirits, and ghosts all in white, Here used to resort at the dead time of night, Nor vanish till breaking of day; And still at their coming is heard the deep tone Of a bell loud and awful—hark! hark! 'twas a groan! Good uncle, oh! let us away!"
"Peace, serpent!" thus Osric the Lion replies, While rage and malignity gleam in his eyes; "Thy journey and life here must close: Thy castle's proud turrets no more shalt thou see; No more betwixt Blumenberg's lordship and me Shalt thou stand, and my greatness oppose.
"My brother lies breathless on Palestine's plains, And thou once removed, to his noble domains My right can no rival deny: Then, stripling, prepare on my dagger to bleed; No succour is near, and thy fate is decreed, Commend thee to Jesus and die!"
Thus saying, he seizes the boy by the arm, Whose grief rends the vaulted hall's roof, while alarm His heart of all fortitude robs; His limbs sink beneath him; distracted with fears, He falls at his uncle's feet, bathes them with tears, And "Spare me! oh, spare me!" he sobs.
But vainly the miscreant he tries to appease; And vainly he clings in despair round his knees, And sues in soft accents for life; Unmoved by his sorrow, unmoved by his prayer, Fierce Osric has twisted his hand in his hair, And aims at his bosom a knife.
But ere the steel blushes with blood, strange to tell! Self-struck, does the tongue of the hollow-toned bell The presence of midnight declare: And while with amazement his hair bristles high, Hears Osric a voice, loud and terrible, cry, In sounds heart-appalling, "Forbear!"
Straight curses and shrieks through the chamber resound, Shrieks mingled with laughter; the walls shake around; The groaning roof threatens to fall; Loud bellows the thunder, blue lightnings still flash; The casements they clatter; chains rattle; doors clash, And flames spread their waves through the hall.
The clamour increases, the portals expand! O'er the pavement's black marble now rushes a band Of demons, all dropping with gore, In visage so grim, and so monstrous in height, That Carloman screams, as they burst on his sight, And sinks without sense on the floor.
Not so his fell uncle:—he sees that the throng Impels, wildly shrieking, a female along, And well the sad spectre he knows! The demons with curses her steps onwards urge; Her shoulders, with whips formed of serpents, they scourge, And fast from her wounds the blood flows.
"Oh! welcome!" she cried, and her voice spoke despair; "Oh! welcome, Sir Osric, the torments to share, Of which thou hast made me the prey. Twelve years have I languished thy coming to see; Ulrilda, who perished dishonoured by thee Now calls thee to anguish away!
"Thy passion once sated, thy love became hate; Thy hand gave the draught which consigned me to fate, Nor thought I death lurked in the bowl: Unfit for the grave, stained with lust, swelled with pride, Unblessed, unabsolved, unrepenting, I died, And demons straight seized on my soul.
"Thou com'st, and with transport I feel my breast swell: Full long have I suffered the torments of hell, And now shall its pleasures be mine! See, see, how the fiends are athirst for thy blood! Twelve years has my panting heart furnished their food. Come, wretch, let them feast upon thine!"
She said, and the demons their prey flocked around; They dashed him, with horrible yell, on the ground, And blood down his limbs trickled fast; His eyes from their sockets with fury they tore; They fed on his entrails, all reeking with gore, And his heart was Ulrilda's repast.
But now the grey cock told the coming of day! The fiends with their victim straight vanished away, And Carloman's heart throbbed again; With terror recalling the deeds of the night, He rose, and from Falkenstein speeding his flight, Soon reached his paternal domain.
Since then, all with horror the ruins behold; No shepherd, though strayed be a lamb from his fold, No mother, though lost be her child, The fugitive dares in these chambers to seek, Where fiends nightly revel, and guilty ghosts shriek In accents most fearful and wild!
Oh! shun them, ye pilgrims! though late be the hour, Though loud howl the tempest, and fast fall the shower; From Falkenstein Castle begone! There still their sad banquet hell's denizens share; There Osric the Lion still raves in despair: Breathe a prayer for his soul, and pass on!
The Conference of the Dead
A legend of later date than most of the Rhineland tales, but still of sufficient interest to merit inclusion among these, is that which attaches to the palace of Biberich. Biberich lies on the right bank of the river, not very far from Mainz, and its palace was built at the beginning of the eighteenth century by George Augustus, Duke of Nassau.
The legend states that not long after the erection of the palace a Duchess of Nassau died there, and lay in state as befitted her rank in a room hung with black velvet and lighted with the glimmer of many tapers.
Outside in the great hall a captain and forty-nine men of the Duke's bodyguard kept watch over the chamber of death.
It was midnight. The captain of the guard, weary with his vigil, had gone to the door of the palace for a breath of air. Just as the last stroke of the hour died away he beheld the approach of a chariot, drawn by six magnificent coal-black horses, which, to his amazement, drew up before the palace. A lady, veiled and clad in white, alighted and made as though she would enter the building. But the captain barred the way and challenged the bold intruder.
"Who are you," he said sternly, "who seek to enter the palace at this hour? My orders are to let none pass."
"I was first lady of the bedchamber to our late Duchess," replied the lady in cold, imperious tones; "therefore I demand the right of entrance."
As she spoke she flung aside her veil, and the captain, instantly recognizing her, permitted her to enter the palace without further hindrance.
"What can she want here at this time of night?" he said to his lieutenant, when the lady had passed into the death-chamber.
"Who can say?" replied the lieutenant. "Unless, perchance," he mused, "we were to look."
The captain took the hint, crept softly to the keyhole, and applied his eye thereto. "Ha!" he said, shrinking back in amazement and terror, and beckoning to his lieutenant. "In Satan's name what have we here?"
The lieutenant hastened to the chamber door, full of alarm and curiosity. Putting his eye to the keyhole, he also ejaculated, turned pale, and trembled. One by one the soldiers of the guard followed their officers' example, like them to retreat with exclamations of horror. And little wonder; for they perceived the dead Duchess sitting up in bed, moving her pale lips as though in conversation, while by her side stood the lady of the bedchamber, pale as she, and clad in grave-clothes. For a time the ghastly conversation continued, no words being audible to the terror-stricken guard; but from time to time a hollow sound reached them, like the murmur of distant thunder. At length the visitor emerged from the chamber, and returned to her waiting coach. Duty, rather than inclination, obliged the gallant captain to hand her into her carriage, and this task he performed with praiseworthy politeness, though his heart sank within him at the touch of her icy fingers, and his tongue refused to return the adieu her pale lips uttered. With a flourish of whips the chariot set off. Sparks flew from the hoofs of the horses, smoke and flame burst from their nostrils, and such was their speed that in a moment they were lost to sight. The captain, sorely puzzled by the events of the night, returned to his men, who were huddled together at the end of the hall furthest from the death-chamber.
On the morrow, ere the guard had had time to inform the Duke of these strange happenings, news reached the palace that the first lady of the bedchamber had died on the previous night at twelve o'clock. It was supposed that sorrow for her mistress had caused her death.
Of the castle of Eppstein, whose ruins still remain in a valley of the Taunus Mountains, north of Biberich, the following curious story is told.
Sir Eppo, a brave and chivalrous knight—and a wealthy one to boot, as were his successors of Eppstein for many generations—was one day hunting in the forest, when he became separated from his attendants and lost his way. In the heat of the chase his sense of direction had failed him, and though he sounded his bugle loud and long there was no reply.
Tired out at length with wandering hither and thither, he rested himself in a pleasant glade, and was surprised and charmed to hear a woman's voice singing a mournful melody in soft, clear tones. It was a sheer delight to Sir Eppo to listen to a voice of such exquisite purity, yet admiration was not the only feeling it roused in his breast. There was a note of sadness and appeal in the song, and what were knighthood worth if it heeded not the voice of fair lady in distress? Sir Eppo sprang to his feet, forgetting his own plight in the ardour of chivalry, and set off in the direction from which the voice seemed to come. The way was difficult, and he had to cut a passage with his sword through the dense thicket that separated him from the singer. At length, guided by the melancholy notes, he arrived before a grotto, in which he beheld a maiden of surpassing beauty, but of sorrowful mien. When she saw the handsome knight gazing at her with mingled surprise and admiration she ceased her song and implored his aid. A cruel giant, she said, had seized her and brought her thither. At the moment he was asleep, but he had tied her to a rock so that she might not escape.
Her beauty and grace, her childlike innocence, her piteous plight, moved Sir Eppo strangely. First pity, then a stronger emotion dawned in his breast. He severed her bonds with a stroke of his keen falchion.
"What can I do to aid thee, gentle maiden?" he said. "You have but to command me; henceforth I am thy knight, to do battle for thee."
The damsel blushed at the courteous words, but she lifted her eyes bravely to the champion who had so unexpectedly appeared to protect her.
"Return to my castle," she said, "and there thou wilt find a consecrated net. Bring it hither. If I lay it upon the giant he will become as weak as a babe and will be easily overcome."
Eagerly the young knight obeyed the command, and having found the net according to the damsel's directions, he made all haste to return. At the grotto he paused and hid himself, for the strident voice of the giant could be heard within. Presently the monster emerged, and departed in search of reeds wherewith to make a pipe. No sooner had he disappeared than the maiden issued from the grotto, and Sir Eppo came out of his concealment and gave her the consecrated net. She spoke a few words of heartfelt gratitude, and then hurried with her treasure to the top of the mountain, where she knew the giant had intended to go.
Arrived at her destination, she laid down the net and covered it with moss, leaves, and sweet-smelling herbs. While engaged in her task the giant came up, and the damsel smilingly told him that she was preparing a couch whereon he might take some rest. Gratified at her solicitude, he stretched himself unsuspectingly on the fragrant pile. In a moment the damsel, uttering the name of the Trinity, threw a portion of the net over him, so that he was completely enveloped. Immediately there arose such loud oaths and lamentations that the damsel ran in terror to the knight, who had now come upon the scene.
"Let us fly," she said, "lest he should escape and pursue us."
But Sir Eppo strode to the place where the howling monster lay entangled in the net, and with a mighty effort rolled him over a steep precipice, where he was instantly killed.
The story ends happily, for Sir Eppo and the maiden he had rescued were married soon after; and on the spot where they had first met was raised the castle of Eppstein. It is said that the bones of the giant may still be seen there.
Floersheim: The Shepherd Knight
In the now ruined castle of Wilenstein, overlooking the wooded heights of the Westrich, dwelt Sir Bodo of Floersheim and his fair daughter Adeline. The maiden's beauty, no less than her father's wealth, attracted suitors in plenty from the neighbouring strongholds, but the spirit of love had not yet awakened in her bosom and each and all were repulsed with disconcerting coldness and indifference, and they left the schloss vowing that the lovely Adeline was utterly heartless.
One day there came to Sir Bodo a youth of pleasing manners and appearance, picturesquely clad in rustic garb, who begged that he might enter the knight's service in the capacity of shepherd. Though he hinted that he was of noble birth, prevented by circumstances from revealing his identity, yet he based his request solely on his merits as a tender of flocks and herds, and as Sir Bodo found that he knew his work well and that his intelligence was beyond question, he gave him the desired post. As time went on Sir Bodo saw no reason to regret his action, for his flocks and herds prospered as they had never done before, and none but good reports reached him concerning his servant.
Meantime Adeline heard constant references to Otto (as the shepherd was called) both from her father and her waiting-women. The former praised his industry and abilities, while the latter spoke of his handsome looks and melancholy air, his distinction and good breeding, and the mystery which surrounded his identity. All this excited the maiden's curiosity, and her pity was aroused as well, for it seemed that the stranger had a secret grief, which sometimes found vent in tears when he thought himself unobserved.
Adeline saw him for the first time one afternoon while she was walking in the castle grounds. At sight of her he paused as though spell-bound, and the maiden blushed under his earnest scrutiny. A moment later, however, he recovered himself, and courteously asked her pardon for his seeming rudeness.
"Forgive me, fair lady," said he; "it seemed that I saw a ghost in your sweet face."
Adeline, who had recognized him from the descriptions she had received, now made herself known to him, and graciously granted him permission to walk with her to the castle. His offence was readily pardoned when he declared that the cause of it was a fancied resemblance between Adeline and a dear sister whom death had lately robbed him of. Ere they parted the young people were already deeply in love with one another, and had promised to meet again on the following day. The spot where they had first encountered each other became a trysting-place which was daily hallowed by fresh vows and declarations.
On one such occasion Otto told his beloved the story of his early life and revealed to her his identity. It was indeed a harrowing tale, and one which drew a full meed of sympathy from the maiden.
Otto and his sister—she whose likeness in Adeline's face had first arrested his attention—had been brought up by a cruel stepfather, who had treated them so brutally that Otto was at length forced to flee to the castle of an uncle, who received him kindly and gave him an education befitting his knightly station. A few years later he had returned home, to find his sister dead—slain by the ill-treatment of her stepfather, who, it was even said, had hastened her death with poison. Otto, overcome with grief, confronted her murderer, heaped abuse on his head, and demanded his share of the property. The only answer was a sneer, and the youth, maddened with grief and indignation, drew his sword and plunged it in his tormentor's heart. A moment later he saw the probable consequences of his hasty action, concealed himself in the woods, and thenceforth became a fugitive, renounced even by his own uncle, and obliged to remain in hiding in order to escape certain death at the hands of the murdered man's kindred. In a fortunate moment he had chanced to reach Floersheim, where, in his shepherd's guise, he judged himself secure.
Adeline, deeply moved by the tale, sought to put her sympathy in the practical form of advice.
"Dear Otto," she said, "let us go to my father and tell him all. We must dispatch an embassy to your uncle in Thuringen, to see whether he may not consent to a division of the property. Take courage, and your rightful position may yet be assured."
So it was arranged that on the following day the lovers should seek Sir Bodo and ask his advice in the matter. But alas! ere their plans could be carried out Bodo himself sent for his daughter and informed her that he had chosen a husband for her, Sir Siegebert, a wealthy and noble knight, just returned from Palestine.
In vain Adeline wept and implored. Her father remained adamant, and at last lost his temper and confined her within strict bounds till she should consent to the marriage. Sir Siegebert was but ill pleased with her pale cheeks and haggard eyes and her obvious distaste for his society; and seeing this, Bodo was more than ever wroth, and swore to send her to a nunnery if she did not greet her lover with a better face.
Day after day Otto waited at the trysting-place, yet his mistress did not appear, nor did she send him any message. He was filled with anguish at the thought that her ardent vows were forgotten, and wandered through the woods like one distraught, seeking solace and finding none. At length news reached him that on the morrow his beloved was to wed with the knight Siegebert, and his last shred of hope vanished. He made his way to a bridge where he had often watched for Adeline's coming, and with a prayer flung himself into the turbid stream beneath.
Meanwhile the unceasing cruelty to which Adeline had been subjected had reduced her to a state of terrified submission, so that, scarce knowing what she did, she consented to wed Siegebert. At length all was in readiness for the ceremony; the bells were ringing gaily, the feast was spread, and the bride arrayed in her wedding dress. Unseen she slipped out by a little postern gate and made her way quickly to the hut of her shepherd. Alas! it stood empty. In despair she ran hither and thither, calling his name in anguished accents. Suddenly she espied some shepherds endeavouring to draw something out of the water. A strange instinct told her the truth, and she crept closer to the little group. One glance sufficed to show her that it was her lover's corpse which was being taken ashore. No need to ask how he had perished, or why! With a wild cry she flung herself into the stream where Otto had met his death, and was speedily overwhelmed.
The bridal party sought high and low for the bride, but she was nowhere to be seen. Bodo loudly vented his indignation at his daughter's rebelliousness, but his anger was changed to mourning when the body of the drowned maiden was washed ashore a few days later. Too late he repented him of his rash folly. All his lamentations could not restore poor Adeline to life. He caused the lovers to be buried together, and spent the remainder of his days in prayer and penitence.
Frankfort, the castle of the Franks, was, it is said, founded by Charlemagne at the time of the overthrow of the pagan Saxons, which has already been recorded in the Song of the Saxons. Here Charlemagne was led across the Rhine by deer, escaping with his army from certain slaughter at the hands of the savage horde who sought to ambush him. Other picturesque stories cluster round the city, the best of which are the following.
The Poacher of Frankfort
In the city of Frankfort-on-the-Main stands a five-pointed tower, and in the midst of one of these points is a vane containing nine round holes, forming the figure 9. The origin of this figure is as follows:
A notorious poacher lay in the tower condemned to death for numerous offences against the stringent game-laws of the country. He awaited his end in silence, and sat moodily unobservant of the bright rays of the sun which poured into his cell through the grated window. Others, he pondered, were basking in the joyous light outside yonder in the verdant summer fields, whilst he, who even now felt the noose tighten round his neck, was plunged in semi-darkness. Well, as darkness was to be his element, he might as well make present use of it for its special purpose—to aid sleep; especially as sleep would remove him for the time being from gloomy contemplation upon his approaching end.
As he slept a pleasant smile took the place of the sombre expression natural to his waking moments. But on a sudden he started in his slumber, grating his teeth, his face transformed with violent rage.
"Ha, villain, that was a trap," he muttered, but almost immediately his countenance resumed the sad expression which had lately become habitual to it. In the course of a few moments, however, this gave way to a look of resolution and conscious strength, and even in sleep he appeared to have made up his mind unalterably upon some matter of importance.
At this juncture the turnkey entered the cell, accompanied by two officials, one of whom read to him a missive from those in authority which stated that a petition for mercy which he had made could not be entertained, and that he must suffer the extreme penalty of the law.
"I protest against such a sentence," cried the poacher, "for, after all, I have only killed those animals which were given us by God for our common use. Would you forfeit the life of a man because he has slain the beasts of chase?"
"That is not the only charge against you," retorted one of the officials harshly. "Your comrades, as well as the honourable Company of Foresters, accuse you of being in league with the enemy of mankind, and of procuring from him charmed bullets."
The poacher laughed. "It is false," he cried, "They are jealous because I am such a good shot. Provide me with a gun and with powder and shot blessed by a priest, and I will undertake to place through the vane of this tower nine shots which shall form the figure 9."
"Such an opportunity shall be afforded you," said one of the officials, who had not as yet spoken. "It would be an injustice not to give you such a chance, especially as, if you are successful, you will remove the most odious portion of the charge against you."
The news of the poacher's challenge spread quickly through Frankfort, and even the foresters who had given evidence against him were so impressed that they forced their way into the council and insisted that, should he be successful, a free pardon should be granted to him. To this the council agreed, and an intimation of the decision was conveyed to the poacher. But he was assured that if one bullet missed its mark he would certainly die. To this he agreed, and the succeeding day was fixed for the trial of skill. At an early hour the square in which the tower was situated was thronged by an immense crowd. The walls of the city, of which the tower was a part, were thronged by members of the Foresters' Guild. Soon the prisoner was led forth, and was publicly admonished by a monk not to tempt God if his skill had its origin in diabolic agencies. But to all such exhortations the poacher replied: "Fear not, I will write my answer upon yonder tower."
The master of the Foresters' Guild loaded the gun and handed it to him. Amidst a deep silence he aimed at the vane and fired. The shot found its mark. Once more he fired. Again the vane swung round, and another hole appeared therein. The crowd vented its feelings by loud huzzahs. Nine times did he fire, and nine times did the bullet hit its mark. And as the last bullet sang through the weather-cock the figure 9 showed clearly therein, and the poacher, sinking to his knees, bared his head and gave thanks for his life to God. All there, also, bared their heads and accompanied him in his thanksgiving.
That night, loaded with gifts, he quitted Frankfort, nevermore to return. But the vane on the tower remains there to this day as a witness of his prowess with the long rifle.
The Knave of Bergen
The city of Frankfort was once the scene of a great coronation festival, during the course of which a bal masque was given by the King and Queen to a brilliant assembly of high-born ladies and nobles. The knights and princes in their fancy costumes were hardly less resplendent than the ladies in their jewels and brocaded silks, and the masks they all wore added to the excitement and gaiety of the scene. In all the gathering there was but one sombre note—a knight in coal-black armour, visored, of great stature and stately in motion. His graceful mien won the admiration of the ladies and the envy of the gallants, and the question of his identity excited much speculation.
With courtly air the Black Knight approached the Queen, knelt before her, and begged that she would deign to be his partner in the dance. The charm of his voice and the modest yet dignified manner in which he proffered his request so touched the Queen that she stepped down from the dais and joined in the waltz. Never had she known a dancer with a lighter step or a more delightful gift of conversation. When that dance was over she granted him another and yet another, till the company became very curious to know who the gallant knight might be on whom the Queen bestowed her favours with such a lavish hand. At last the time came for the guests to unmask, and the dancers made themselves known to each other—with one exception, that is, for the Black Knight refused to lift his visor. The King and Queen, however, shared to the full the curiosity of their guests as to the identity of their strange guest, and they commanded him to uncover his face, whereupon the knight raised his visor, though with some reluctance. Neither the royal hosts nor any of the noble guests recognized him, but a moment later two officials of the Court advanced and to the astonishment and indignation of the company declared that the stranger was no other than the executioner of Bergen! The King's wrath knew no bounds. He commanded that the knave should be seized and put to death immediately. To think that he had allowed the Queen to dance with a common executioner! The bare idea was intolerable!
The knave fell humbly on his knees before his irate sovereign.
"I acknowledge my crime, sire," he said, "but your Majesty must be aware that even my death would not be sufficient to wipe out my disgrace, and the disgrace of her Majesty, who has danced with an executioner. There is one other way to efface my guilt and to wipe out the humiliation of your Majesty's gracious consort. You must make a knight of me, sire, and I will challenge to mortal combat any who dares to speak ill of my King!"
The King was astounded by this bold proposition, but the very audacity of it caught his fancy. He struck the executioner gently with his sword.
"Rise, Sir Knight," he said, adding, as the Black Knight rose to his feet: "You have acted like a knave this night. Henceforth you shall be called the Knave of Bergen."
Darmstadt: The Proxy
In the days of chivalry there dwelt in Birbach a knight named Walther, no less renowned for his piety than for his skill in arms, and the Virgin, according to the following legend, was not unmindful of her humble worshipper. A great tournament—so runs the tale—was to take place in Darmstadt, and Sir Walther, who was about to enter the lists for the first time, was not feeling confident as to the issue. He knew that there were to be present many knights whose strength and skill far exceeded his own, and, brave though he was, he could not but recognize that his chances of victory were small. Yet he felt that he dared not suffer defeat; he must not be disgraced before the spectators. In particular, there was a certain fair lady whose colours he wore; he must not be shamed before her. His mind, as he rode on his way to Darmstadt, was filled with conflicting emotions, love, hope, fear, shame, in turn dominating his thoughts. Suddenly he came to a wayside altar, upon which was set an image of the Virgin, and he decided to carry his troubles to her as he was wont to do. So he descended from his horse, which he secured to a tree, and made his way to the altar.
So deep were his emotions and so ardent his prayer that he passed into a sort of trance and fell at the foot of the altar like one dead. While he lay thus unconscious the Virgin descended from the altar, unlaced his armour, and donned it herself. Then taking sword and shield and lance, she mounted his steed and rode into Darmstadt. She was absent for some time, but when she returned the knight still lay in the death-like state in which she had left him. She tied his horse once more to the tree, replaced his armour, and then took her accustomed place on the altar.
Shortly after Walther recovered consciousness and rose hastily, then, after another prayer to the Virgin, he rode as quickly as he might into the town. Here, to his intense surprise, he was greeted with joyful shouts and congratulations. His friends hailed him as a mighty champion, and she who had won his affections bestowed upon him the reward of knightly valour—her promise of marriage. The bewildered Walther scarce knew whether he was awake or asleep, but at length it was borne in upon him that someone had won great triumphs in his name. Who could have so successfully personated him as to deceive even his dearest friends? Who, indeed, save she to whom he had turned in his distress, the Holy Virgin herself?
Soon he was wedded to the lady of his choice; and to show his gratitude for the intervention of Mary he built her a magnificent chapel on the spot where the miracle had taken place. Nor did he grow any less diligent in her service, but continued to live a noble and pious life, in which he was ever encouraged and assisted by his wife.
The Cooper of Auerbach
It is said that from the ruined castle of Auerbach a fragrant perfume of wine sometimes steals upon the air, and then the country folk whisper, "The cooper is tasting his wine." And if asked for the reason of this saying they tell the following story.
Once when the sun shone golden on the vine-clad hills, deepening the heavy clusters of grapes to a darker purple, a peasant, passing by the ruins, thought longingly upon the wine that, in the past, had been stored in those dark, cool cellars, wondering if perhaps some might not yet be found there, or if all had been wasted and lost. And while he yet pondered a rubicund little man, with leathern apron dark with wine-stains girded about his portly waist, stood at his side looking up at him with twinkling eyes.
"So, my friend, you think upon the wine, eh? Come and spend an hour with me and you shall taste it." As he spoke a warm, sweet wine-scent rose like incense about him, making the peasant's brain reel with delight. He could not but follow the little man, tripping under the vines, thrusting his way through thorn-hedges and over crumbling walls, till he came to a flight of ancient steps, streaked grey and green with moss, leading down to a weather-stained cellar-door. The door opened into dusky vaults and from a niche in the wall the little cooper took a candle and a huge bowl. Then on he went over the moist floor until there rose before them in the candlelight, darker than the gloom about it, a gigantic tun. In a crooning murmur the cooper began to tell of his possessions. He called the vaults his realm, the tuns his dearly loved subjects—for, as the peasant gazed, he saw a long procession of tuns stretching away into the darkness. He shouted with mad delight at the sight, he clapped his hands and smacked his lips in anticipation, he declared the tuns glittered like pure gold. At this the cooper laughed and pointed out that the wine had fashioned its own casks, gleaming crusts, from which the ancient wood had fallen away long ago.
And next he filled the huge bowl with deep glowing wine and drank to the peasant, whose hands ached to hold the bowl and lift it to his lips. At last, with a courtly bow, the cooper put it into his hands, and then the rustic emptied the bowl in one draught and drew a deep sigh of satisfaction.
In rapture he sang the praises of the wine, but the cooper assured him that there was better to come. Again he tasted, and again the little man led on from cask to cask. Then, mad with delight, the peasant sang aloud, but the song broke into wild howling; he danced about the tuns, then fell to embracing them, stroking and kissing them, babbling love-words to the dusky fragrant wine. And still the cooper led on to the next cask, still he filled the bowl, and still the peasant drank, till at last in very joy tears ran down his face, and before his eyes the tuns danced round him in a giddy whirl; then slumber fell upon him and he sank down to sleep in the gloom.
When he awoke next morning his body lay stretched in a muddy ditch, his lips pressed to clammy moss. Stumbling to his feet, he looked around for the door of the wine vault, for the flight of steps leading down to that realm of delight, but though he searched long and carefully, yet never again could he find it, nor did his eyes see the little cooper with his wine-stained leathern apron and his rubicund face.
CHAPTER VI—WORMS AND THE NIBELUNGENLIED
Worms is celebrated as the locality of the Nibelungenlied and the epic of Walthar of Aquitaine. But it has other claims to fame. Before entering on the consideration of Germany's greatest epic we will recount several of the lesser legends of the locality.
The Rose Garden: A Tale of Dietrich of Bern
Dietrich of Bern is the King Arthur of German story. Like his prototype of Britain, he has become the central figure of innumerable medieval tales and epics, a model of chivalry and martial prowess, distinguished everywhere by high deeds and mighty feats of arms, and in not a few cases displacing the rightful hero of still older myths, which thus became grafted on to the Dietrich legends. Originally he was a bona-fide historical personage, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, and as such gained a widespread popularity among his people. His historical character, however, was soon lost in the maze of legendary lore which surrounded his name, and which, as time went on, ascribed to him feats ever more wildly heroic. Among the various traditions there is one relating to the Rhenish town of Worms which calls for inclusion here as much on account of its intrinsic merit as because of its undoubted popularity. The legend of the Rose Garden of Worms is a quaint and fanciful tale, and even the circumstance that it ends with the death of several good knights and true does not rob it of a certain humorous quality it possesses.
By the time Dietrich had reached the prime of his adventurous life—so runs the story—he had gathered a considerable company of doughty paladins at his court—he formed, in fact, a kind of Round Table—and the knights who composed it were as eager as their lord to seek fresh fields wherein to display their prowess, and were second only to him in skill and valour. Among them were numbered such illustrious warriors as Herbrand, his son Hildebrand, Eckehart, Wolfhart, and Amelung.
On one occasion, as Dietrich was seated at table with his followers, he vowed that no court in Christendom could boast of such warriors as he could muster. The assembled knights greeted the assertion with hearty acclamations—all, that is, save the old warrior Herbrand, and he was silent. Dietrich looked at him in surprise.
"Hast thou nothing to say, Herbrand?" he asked.
"Thinkest thou to find better knights than these?"—indicating his followers with a wave of his hand.
Herbrand seemed somewhat reluctant to uphold his tacit objection to Dietrich's claim. "Ay," he said at length, "there are such warriors to be found."
"And where may we seek such paragons?" inquired the king, none too well pleased.
"In the town of Worms," replied the old knight, "there lies a wondrous rose garden, of great extent, where the queen and her ladies take their pleasure. None save these may enter its precincts unless the queen give him leave, and that the sacred boundaries may not be overstepped twelve warriors are set to guard the garth. Such is their strength and courage that none has ever succeeded in passing them, whatever his skill and renown."
"But wherefore should one seek to pass the guard?" asked a young knight. "Is there a prize to be won, then?"
"Truly," sighed old Herbrand, "I would not give a hair of my head for the prize. 'Tis but a crown of roses and a kiss from one of the queen's ladies; though it is said, indeed, that they are as lovely as women may be."
"Are there no fair maids in Bern?" cried the warriors indignantly. "Must we go to the Rhine for them?"
"For myself," said Dietrich, "I care little for the reward; yet methinks that for the honour and glory I would e'en meet these doughty warriors, and peradventure overcome them. Who will follow me to Burgundy?"
As with one voice his knights responded to his appeal, and he chose eight from among them to accompany him on his quest. As there were still but nine, including Dietrich himself, to meet the twelve guardians of the Rose Garden, the king decided to send for three knights who were absent from the court. At the suggestion of Hildebrand he selected Ruediger of Bechlarn, Dietleib of Styria, and Ilsan, who was brother to Hildebrand and at that time a monk in the monastery of Munchenzell. Ruediger was margrave to King Etzel, and had to obtain his lord's permission to venture forth on the romantic undertaking; Dietleib's father strongly recommended that the quest be abandoned, though the youth himself was as eager as any to accompany Dietrich; while as for Ilsan, he found it especially difficult to obtain leave of absence, for, naturally, his abbot deemed the enterprise a strange one for a monk who had fled all earthly delights. However, all difficulties were eventually overcome, and when the party was ready for departure Ruediger was sent on an embassy to King Gibich at Worms, to prepare him for their coming. Gibich gave his ready consent to the proposed trial of strength, whereupon the warriors set out for the Rhine to see whether they might not win a kiss and a garland from some fair lady.
An imposing array did the knights of the Rose Garden make as they awaited the approach of the strangers, but no less imposing were Dietrich and his warriors. Each chose an opponent and immediately engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle, which was to end disastrously for more than one brave knight. The first to dispatch his antagonist was Wolfhart, who submitted to being crowned with a rose-wreath, but disdained to accept the rest of the reward. The monk, who was the next victor, took the roses and kissed the maiden heartily. But alas! a bristly beard covered his chin, and the maid was left ruefully rubbing her pouting lips. One by one Dietrich's knights overcame their adversaries, some of whom were slain and some wounded. Toward nightfall a truce was called, and Dietrich and his company set out to return to Bern, well satisfied with having disproved the assertion of Herbrand that there were better warriors in the world than Dietrich and his noble company.
The Devil's Vineyard
There is a curious legend told to account for the excellent quality of the wine of Worms. An old nobleman who at one time lived in that neighbourhood was in the habit of drinking more of the Rhenish wine than was good for him. In every other respect he was a most worthy man, kind, generous, and pious.
His piety, in an age when such qualities were rare, roused the ire of the Devil, who determined to bring about his fall, and as the old man's love of wine was his only serious weakness, it was through this that the Fiend set himself to compass the nobleman's destruction.
The Devil therefore disguised himself as a strolling musician and made the acquaintance of the old man. The latter set before him some of the wine of the country, extolling meanwhile its rare qualities. The guest seemed not at all impressed by the recital, but spoke of a wine which he had tasted in the South and which far surpassed any other vintage. The nobleman was all curiosity. The stranger talked of the wonderful wine with feigned reluctance, and at length his host promised to give him anything he should ask if only he would fetch him some of the wine. Satan promised to plant a vineyard in Worms, asking in exchange the soul of his host, to be forfeited at the end of a fixed period.
To this the old man consented, and the strolling musician planted a vineyard which sprang up as though by magic. When the first vintage was produced it was found to be delicious beyond the dreams of the old nobleman, who was indeed a connoisseur in wines. In his delight he christened the wine Liebfrauenmilch, signifying 'Milk of our Blessed Lady.' The Devil was furious at this reference to the Holy Virgin, but he consoled himself with the thought that in due course the man's soul would be his. But the Virgin herself was pleased with the christening of the vineyard, and rather sorry for the foolish old nobleman who had bartered his soul for the Devil's wine. When, therefore, the time arrived for the Evil One to claim his fee, she sent her angels to drive him away, and thus he was robbed of his prey.
The old man, having learned the danger of treating with the Devil, now built a chapel to the Virgin in his vineyard. He lived for a long time to enjoy the luscious wine, under the protection of the saints, and never again did he make a compact with Satan.
Now, if anyone requires a proof of this marvellous story, is there not the Liebfrauenmilch, most delicious of wines to convince him of its truth?
The Maiden's Caprice
In the town of Worms there stands an old manor, built in the style of the Renaissance and known as the Wampolder Hof. At one time it belonged to the lord of Wampold, a wealthy noble of Mainz, who had appointed as castellan a kinsman of his, himself a nobleman, though landless and poor and no longer able to uphold his former dignities. In his youth the keeper had lived a gay and careless life, but now he was old and infirm and cared no longer for worldly vanities. His sole pride was his young daughter, a bewitching maiden who had more lovers than one could readily count, and who smiled upon them all impartially. With so many lovelorn youths at her beck and call it is hardly surprising that she should grow exacting and capricious, but this, as usually happens, only made them love her the more.
There was one among her suitors, however, for whom she cherished a real affection. Handsome, cultured, and, like herself, of noble birth, he was, notwithstanding his poverty, by far the most eligible of the youths who sought her in marriage, and the castellan readily granted his consent to their betrothal. So for a time everything seemed to indicate happiness in store for the young couple.
Yet the maiden remained as capricious as ever. On Walpurgis-night, when a party of lads and lasses were gathered in the Wampolder Hof, and tales of witches and witchcraft were being told in hushed tones, she conceived a wild scheme to test her lover's affection: she bade him go to the cross-roads at midnight, watch the procession of witches, and return to tell her what he saw. The awed company protested vigorously against the proposed test, but the girl persisted, and at last her lover, seeing that she was already piqued at his refusal, laughingly set out for the bewitched spot, convinced that no harm would befall him.
Meantime the company in the manor anxiously awaited his return. One o'clock came, then two—three; still there was no sign of him. Glances of horror and pity were cast at the castellan's daughter, who now wrung her hands in futile grief. At length a few braver spirits volunteered to go in search of their comrade, but no trace of him could they find. His widowed mother, of whom he had been the only son, cursed the maid who was the cause of his ghastly fate, and not long afterward the castellan's daughter lost her reason and died. On Walpurgis-nights she may still be heard in Worms calling for her lost lover, whom she is destined never to find.
The fate of the youth remains uncertain. The most popular account is that he was torn limb from limb by the infuriated witches and his remains scattered to the winds. But some, less superstitious than their neighbours, declared that he had been murdered by his rivals, the disappointed suitors, and that his body had been cast into the Rhine—for not long afterward a corpse, which might have been that of the missing youth, was drawn from the river by fishermen.
The greatest Rhine story of all is that wondrous German Iliad, the Nibelungenlied, for it is on the banks of the Rhine in the ancient city of Worms that its action for the most part takes place. The earliest actual form of the epic is referred to the first part of the thirteenth century, but it is probable that a Latin original founded on ballads or folk-songs was in use about the middle or latter end of the tenth century. The work, despite many medieval interpolations and the manifest liberties of generations of bards and minnesingers, bears the unmistakable stamp of a great antiquity. A whole literature has grown up around this mighty epic of old Germanic life, and men of vast scholarship and literary acumen have made it a veritable battle-ground of conflicting theories, one contending for its mythical genesis, another proving to his satisfaction that it is founded upon historic fact, whilst others dispute hotly as to its Germanic or Scandinavian origin.
So numerous are the conflicting opinions concerning the origin of the Nibelungenlied that it is extremely difficult to present to the reader a reasoned examination of the whole without entering rather deeply into philological and mythical considerations of considerable complexity. We shall therefore confine ourselves to the main points of these controversies and refrain from entering upon the more puzzling bypaths which are only to be trodden by the 'Senior Wranglers' of the study, as they have been called.
Its Original Form
In the beginning of the nineteenth century Karl Lachmann, a philologist of some repute, put forward the theory that the poem was made up of a number of distinct ballads or lays, and he eliminated from it all parts which appeared to him to be interpolations. This reduced the whole to twenty lays, which he considered the work of twenty separate minstrels; but if certain ballads relating to episodes in the Nibelungenlied once existed in Germany it is the spirit of these more than the matter which is incorporated into the great epic. In medieval times, when the Nibelungenlied story was popular, minnesingers and harpers, in an attempt to please their audiences, would cast about for fresh incidents to introduce into the story. Popular as was the tale, even a medieval audience could tire of the oft-repeated exploits of its dramatis personae, and the minstrel, dependent upon their goodwill for bed and board, would be quick to note when the tale fell flat. Accordingly he would attempt to infuse into it some new incident or series of incidents, culled from other stories more often than not self-created. Such an interpolation is probably to be noted in the presence of Dietrich of Bern, otherwise Theodoric the Ostrogoth, at the court of Etzel or Attila. To say nothing of the probability of anachronism, geographical conditions are not a little outraged in the adoption of this incident, but the question arose who was to worst the mighty Hagen, whose sombre figure dominates in its gloomy grandeur the latter part of the saga. It would not do for any Hunnish champion to vie successfully with the Burgundian hero, but it would be no disgrace for him to be beaten by Dietrich, the greatest champion of antiquity, who, in fact, is more than once dragged into the pages of romance for the purpose of administering an honourable defeat to a hitherto unconquered champion. We can thus see how novel and subsidiary passages might attach themselves to the epic.
But a day came when the minnesingers of Germany felt that it behoved them to fix once and for all time the shape of the Lay of the Nibelungs. Indeed, not one, but several poets laboured at this task. That they worked with materials immediately to their hand is seen from the circumstance that we have proof of a Low German account, and a Rhenish version which was evidently moulded into its present shape by an Austrian or Tyrolese craftsman—a singer well versed in court poetry and courtly etiquette. The date when the Nibelungenlied received its latest form was probably about the end of the twelfth century, and this last version was the immediate source of our present manuscripts. The date of the earliest known manuscript of the Nibelungenlied is comparatively late. We possess in all twenty-eight more or less complete manuscripts preserved in thirty-one fragments, fifteen of which date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Its Fragmentary Nature
Even a surface examination is sufficient to testify to the fragmentary nature of the Nibelungenlied. We can discern through the apparent unity of texture of the work as we now possess it the patchwork where scribe or minstrel has interpolated this incident or joined together these passages to secure the necessary unity of narrative. Moreover, in none of the several versions of the Siegfried epic do we get the 'whole story.' One supplements another. And while we shall follow the Nibelungenlied itself as closely as possible we shall in part supplement it from other kindred sources, taking care to indicate these where we find it necessary to introduce them.
In the stately town of Worms, in Burgundy, dwelt the noble and beauteous maiden Kriemhild, under the care of her mother Ute, and her brothers Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. Great was the splendour and state which they maintained, and many and brave were the warriors who drank wine at their board. Given to martial exercises were those men of might, and day by day the courts of the palace rang to the clangor of sword-play and manly sport. The wealth of the chiefs was boundless, and no such magnificence as theirs was known in any German land, or in any land beyond the German frontiers.
But with all this stateliness and splendour Kriemhild, the beautiful, was unhappy. One night she had had an ominous dream. She dreamed that she had tamed a falcon strong and fierce, a beauteous bird of great might, but that while she gazed on it with pride and affection two great eagles swooped from the sky and tore it to pieces before her very eyes. Affected by this to an extent that seemed inexplicable, she related her dream to her mother, Ute, a dame of great wisdom, who interpreted it as foretelling for her a noble husband, "whom God protect, lest thou lose him too early." Kriemhild, in dread of the omen, desired to avert it by remaining unwed, a course from which her mother attempted to dissuade her, telling her that if ever she were destined to know heartfelt joy it would be from a husband's love.
Siegfried, of the Netherlands, son of Siegmund and Sieglind, a warrior bold as he was young and comely, having heard of the great beauty of Kriemhild, desired to visit Worms that he might see the far-famed princess for himself. Until this time he had been wandering through the world doing great deeds: he had won the sword and treasure of the Nibelungs, had overcome their monarchs, had conquered a dwarf Alberich, gaining possession of his cloak of darkness. Hagen, a mighty Burgundian paladin (in a passage which is obviously adapted from another version for the purpose of recounting Siegfried's previous adventures), tells how "he had slain a dragon and made himself invulnerable by bathing in its blood. We must receive him graciously, and avoid making him our enemy." Siegfried sojourned at Worms for over a year, distinguishing himself in all the martial exercises of the Burgundians and rendering them splendid service in their wars against the Saxons and Danes. A year passed without his having been allowed to meet Kriemhild, who in secret cherished the utmost admiration for him. Chagrined at the treatment meted out to him, he finally made up his mind to depart. But his hosts did not desire to lose such a valuable ally, and brought about a meeting between him and the lady of his dreams. The passage describing their first sight of one another is full of the essence of romance.
We are told that Kriemhild appeared before his eyes as does the rosy flush of dawn breaking from sombre clouds. As he beheld her his heart was soothed and all his trouble vanished, for there stood she who had cost him many a love-pang, her eyes sparkling with pleasure, brighter than the rich jewels which covered her raiment, her cheeks suffused with the blushes of maidenhood. No one had, he thought, ever seen so much beauty before. As the silver moon obscures the light of the stars by its superior splendour, so did Kriemhild obscure the beauty of the ladies who surrounded her. When he beheld her each hero drew himself up more proudly than ever and appeared as if ready to do battle for such a paragon of beauty. She was preceded by chamberlains in rich attire, but no ushers might keep back the knights from sight of her, and they crowded about her to catch a glimpse of her face. Pleased and sad was Siegfried, for, thought he, "How may I ever hope to win so peerless a creature? The hope is a rash one. Better were I to forget her—but then, alas, my heart would have ceased to beat, and I should be dead!" Pale and red he grew. He recked not of his own great worth. For all there agreed that so handsome a warrior had never come to the Rhineland, so fair of body, so debonair was he.
The Wooing of Brunhild
Siegfried now resolved to win Kriemhild, and on Gunther's asking him to accompany him on an adventure the purpose of which is to gain the hand of Queen Brunhild of Isenstein, he accepted on condition that on their return he should be rewarded by the hand of his sister. To this Gunther gave assent, and they set out, accompanied by Hagen and his brother Dankwart. But the Nibelungenlied proper is silent regarding Siegfried's previous relations with Brunhild. In Scandinavian versions—such as the Volsunga Saga, where this legend, originally a German one, is preserved in its pagan form—Brunhild was a Valkyr, or war-maiden of Odin, who sent her to sleep with a prick of a magic thorn and imprisoned her within a circle of flame, through which Siegfried (in this version almost certainly the god of nature, springtide, and the sun) broke, delivered the captive, and took her as his bride, soon, however, departing from her. In the Nibelungenlied this ancient myth is either presupposed or intentionally omitted as unfitting for consumption by a Christianized folk, but it is hinted that Brunhild had a previous claim upon Siegfried's affections.
Brunhild had made it a condition that the hero whom she would wed must be able to overcome her in three trials of prowess, losing his head as a penalty of failure. Siegfried, donning the magic cloak of invisibility he had won from Alberich, king of the dwarfs, took Gunther's place and won the three trials for him, Gunther going through a pantomime of the appropriate actions while Siegfried performed the feats. The passage which tells of the encounter is curious. A great spear, heavy and keen, was brought forth for Brunhild's use. It was more a weapon for a hero of might than for a maiden, but, unwieldy as it was, she was able to brandish it as easily as if it had been a willow wand. Three and a half weights of iron went to the making of this mighty spear, which scarce three of her men could carry. Sore afraid was Gunther. Well did he wish him safe in the Burgundian land. "Once back in Rhineland," thought he, "and I would not stir a foot's distance to win any such war-maid."
But up spake Dankwart, Hagen's valiant brother: "Now is the day come on which we must bid farewell to our lives. An ill journey has this been, I trow, for in this land we shall perish at the hands of women. Oh, that my brother Hagen and I had but our good swords here! Then would these carles of Brunhild's check their laughter. Without arms a man can do nothing, but had I a blade in hand even Brunhild herself should die ere harm came to our dear lord."
This speech heard the warrior-maid. "Now put these heroes' swords into their hands," she commanded, "and accoutre them in their mail."
Right glad was Dankwart to feel iron in his hand once more and know its weight upon his limbs. "Now I am ready for such play as they list," he cried. "Since we have arms, our lord is not yet conquered."
Into the ring of contest mighty men bore a great stone. Twelve of them it took to carry it, so ponderous it was. Woe were they of Burgundy for their lord at sight of the same.
Brunhild advanced on Gunther, brandishing her spear. Siegfried was by his side and touched him lightly to give him confidence, but Gunther knew not it was he and marvelled, for no one saw him there.
"Who hath touched me?" said he.
"'Tis I, Siegfried," replied his friend. "Be of good cheer and fear not the maiden. Give me thy shield and mark well what I say. Make thou motions as if to guard and strike, and I will do the deeds. Above all hearken to my whispered advice."
Great was Gunther's joy when he knew that Siegfried was by him. But he had not long to marvel, for Brunhild was on him, her great spear in hand, the light from its broad blade flashing in his eyes. She hurled the spear at his shield. It passed through the iron as if it had been silk and struck on the rings of Gunther's armour. Both Gunther and Siegfried staggered at the blow. But the latter, although bleeding from the mouth with the shock of the thrown weapon, seized it, reversing the point, and cast it at Brunhild with such dreadful might that when it rang on her armour she was overthrown.
Right angry was Brunhild. But she weened that the blow was Gunther's, and respected him for his strength. Her anger, however, overcame her esteem, and seizing the great stone which had been placed in the ring of combat, she cast it from her twelve fathoms. Leaping after it, she sprang farther than she had thrown it. Then went Gunther to the stone and poised it while Siegfried threw it. He cast the stone farther than Brunhild had done, and so great was his strength that he raised King Gunther from the earth and leapt with him a greater distance than Brunhild had leapt herself. Men saw Gunther throw and leap alone.
Red with anger grew Brunhild when she saw herself defeated. Loudly she addressed her men.
"Ho, ye liegemen of mine," she cried, "now are ye subject to Gunther the King, for, behold, he has beaten me in the sports."
The knights then acclaimed Gunther as the victor. By his own strength of arm had he won the games, said they, and he in turn greeted them lovingly. Brunhild came forward, took him by the hand, and granted to him full power throughout her dominions. They proceeded to her palace and Gunther's warriors were now regaled with better cheer than before. But Siegfried carefully concealed his magic cloak.
Coming to where Gunther and Brunhild sat, he said: "My lord, why do you tarry? Why are the games of which Queen Brunhild doth speak not yet begun? I long to see how they may be played." He acted his part so well that Brunhild really believed that he was not aware the games were over and that she was the loser.
"Now, Sir Siegfried," said she, "how comes it that you were not present when the games, which Gunther has won, were being played?"
Hagen, fearing that Siegfried might blunder in his reply, took the answer out of his mouth and said: "O Queen, the good knight Siegfried was hard by the ship when Gunther won the games from you. Naught indeed knew he of them."
Siegfried now expressed great surprise that any man living had been able to master the mighty war-maid. "Is it possible," he exclaimed, "is it possible, O Queen, that you have been vanquished at the sports in which you excel so greatly? But I for one am glad, since now you needs must follow us home to the Rhineland."
"You are speedy of speech, Sir Siegfried," replied Brunhild. "But there is much to do ere yet I quit my lands. First must I inform my kindred and vassals of this thing. Messengers must be sent to many of my kinsmen ere I depart from Isenstein."
With that she bade couriers ride to all quarters, bidding her kinsmen, her friends, and her warriors come without delay to Isenstein. For several days they arrived in troops: early and late they came, singly and in companies. Then with a large escort Brunhild sailed across the sea and up the Rhine to Worms.
Siegfried and Brunhild
It now became increasingly clear that Siegfried and Brunhild had had affectionate relations in the past. [Indeed, in the Volsunga Saga, which is an early version of the Nibelungenlied, we find Grimhild, the mother of Gudrun (Kriemhild), administering to Sigurd (Siegfried) a magic potion in order that he should forget about Brunhild.] On seeing Siegfried and Kriemhild greet each other with a kiss, sadness and jealousy wrung the heart of the war-maiden, and she evinced anything but a wifely spirit toward her husband Gunther, whom, on the first night of their wedded life, she wrestled with, defeated, and bound with her girdle, afterward hanging him up by it on a peg in the wall! Next day he appealed to Siegfried for assistance, and that night the hero donned his magic cloak of invisibility, contended with Brunhild in the darkness, and overcame her, she believing him to be Gunther, who was present during the strife. But Siegfried was foolish enough to carry away her ring and girdle, "for very haughtiness." These he gave to Kriemhild, and sore both of them rued it in after-time. Brunhild's strength vanished with her maidenhood and thenceforth she was as any other woman.
Siegfried and Kriemhild now departed to the capital of Santen, on the Lower Rhine, and peace prevailed for ten years, until Brunhild persuaded Gunther to invite them to a festival at Worms. She could not understand how, if Siegfried was Gunther's vassal, as Gunther had informed her, he neither paid tribute nor rendered homage. The invitation was accepted cordially enough. But Kriemhild and Brunhild quarrelled bitterly regarding a matter of precedence as to who should first enter church, and at the door of the minster of Worms there was an unseemly squabble. Then Kriemhild taunted Brunhild with the fact that Siegfried had won and deserted her, and displayed the girdle and ring as proof of what she asserted.
Siegfried, confronted with Brunhild, denied that he had ever approached her in any unseemly way, and he and Gunther attempted to make peace between their wives. But all to no avail. A deadly feud had sprung up between them, which was to end in woe for all. Hagen swore a great oath that Siegfried should pay for the insult his wife had put upon Brunhild.
The Plot against Siegfried
Now, but four days after, news came to Gunther's court that war was declared against him. But this was merely a plot to draw Siegfried from the court and compass his death. The heroes armed for war, among them Siegfried. When Hagen bade farewell to Kriemhild she recommended Siegfried to his care. Now, when Siegfried slew the dragon which guarded the treasure of the Nibelungs, he bathed in its blood and became, like Achilles, invulnerable, save at a spot where a linden leaf had fallen between his shoulders as he bathed, and so prevented contact with the potent stream. Hagen inquired of Kriemhild the whereabouts of this vulnerable spot, pretending that he would guard Siegfried against treachery in battle; and she, fully believing in his good faith, sewed a silken cross upon Siegfried's mantle to mark the place.
On the following morning Siegfried, with a thousand knights, took horse and rode away, thinking to avenge his comrades. Hagen rode beside him and carefully scanned his vesture. He did not fail to observe the mark, and having done so, he dispatched two of his men with another message. It was to the effect that the King might know that now his land would remain at peace. This Siegfried was loath to hear, for he would have done battle for his friends, and it was with difficulty that Gunther's vassals could hold him back. Then he rode to Gunther, who thanked him warmly for having so quickly granted his prayer. Gunther assured him that if need be he would at any time come to his aid, and that he held him the most trusty of all his friends. He pretended to be so glad that the threat of war was past that he suggested that they should ride hunting to the Odenwald after the bear and the boar, as they had so often done before. This was the counsel of the false Hagen.
It was arranged that they should start early for the greenwood, and Gunther promised to lend Siegfried several dogs that knew the forest ways well. Siegfried then hurried home to his wife, and when he had departed Hagen and the King took counsel together. After they had agreed upon the manner in which they would compass the destruction of Siegfried, they communicated their plans to their comrades. Giselher and Gernot would not take part in the hunt, but nevertheless they abstained from warning Siegfried of his danger. For this, however, they paid dearly in the end.
The morning dawned bright and clear, and away the warriors cantered with a clatter of hoofs and a boasting of bugles.
Siegfried's Farewell to Kriemhild
Before departing Siegfried had said farewell to Kriemhild, who, she knew not why, was filled with dark forebodings.
"God grant I may see thee safe and well again," said Siegfried. "Keep thou a merry heart among thy kin until I return."
Then Kriemhild thought on the secret she had betrayed to Hagen, but she could not tell Siegfried of it. Sorely she wept, wishing that she had never been born, and keen and deep was her grief.