Baron De La Motte Fouqué: “The Victor’s Wreath”

Excerpt, “Romantic Fiction,” by Friedrich Freiherr de la Motte Fouqué.

“The Victor’s Wreath”

An old man return to the valley, where he was allowed to live undisturbed; unable to struggle for his rights, his only son having fallen in the defense of his father’s hearth.

On his way home, the grey-haired knight always passed by a chapel which he had built in better days, and where now lay entombed the body of his brave son.  Then the father would kneel before the door of the lowly building, and offer up a prayer.  He did so on this day; and as he rose from his knees, he looked wistfully through the window; but he in vain tried to see his Sigebald’s tomb, for it stood in a niche in the wall behind the alter.

Leuthold had no means of getting into the chapel, since, in his overpowering grief after the interment of his son, he had flung the key away into the rapid stream of the Bude.  Often had he repented of this, for, poor as he now was, he had not gold enough to have another key made to fit the delicately worked lock; and thus he had shut out himself, his good wife, and his niece Diotwina, Sigebald’s betrothed bride, from the sight of all that remained of him who had been their dearest treasure.

But never had his longing been so intense as on this evening.  He gazed upon the door with keen sorrow.  He had almost entreated it to give way and let him enter, and thought it must grant his prayer; but it remained firm and unmoved, and the rusty lock yielded so little to his repeated efforts, that he became but the more aware of the great strength of the bolts and hinges.

At last, after the old man had rattled for a long while at the door of the burial-place of his son, he turned away, and proceeded to his cottage, with tears in his eyes, and mournfully shaking his head at the recollection of his own rash deed.

He found his wife awaiting him for their late evening meal.  “Where, then, is Diotwina?” he asked.

“Gone to her chamber,” answered the old woman.  “It is today the anniversary of her betrothal to Sigebald, and, as thou knowest, she always spends it in fasting and solitude.”

The knight sighed deeply, and remained silent for a long space; at length he began again, “Home much money have we altogether?”

“Nearly two rix-dollars, but not quite.”

“And the smith asks for a new key…”

“Three gold florins.”

Then the old man sighed again, and looked inquiringly round the room.

“Ah!” said his wife, “there is nought here to sell.  There might be one thing… The smith thought he could readily give two florins for it.”

“Dost thou mean that up yonder?” said the old man, pointing to his sword.

His wife nodded.  But he sprang up hastily, saying, “God forbid!  I may, indeed, never again use my old weapon in this world, but it shall rest honourably at last on my coffin.  My Sigebald in paradise would hardly forgive me if I parted with my noble sword.”

His wife hid her face in her hands, and began to weep, for she could not but remember how often her dead son, when a beautiful joyous child, had played with this sword, and lisped of his future conquests with it.  Then both the old people remained silent, put out the light, and went to bed.

It might have been about midnight when the old man heard wonderful cries and noises sound through the valley; and there shone from the woody heights a light, as of a bright flame, through the shutters of the narrow window of their room.  He would have got up to see what it was, but his wife said, “Keep still, husband; I have heard it for some time past, and I am praying to myself.  It must be a long procession of the wild huntsman.”

“Well,” said Leuthold, “I have often heard the wild huntsman hurry past me by night in the forest, but these are very different sounds.”

“Then it must be some work of the witches,” answered the old woman; “who knows what they are doing up yonder on the Brocken?  I pray thee keep still, and do not give way to foolish thoughts.”

The knight hearkened to his wife:  he lay still, and prayed softly.  But after a while he began again:  “Wife, some one is riding past our window on a grey horse, just as our blessed son used to ride.”

She trembled, and with a low voice asked him to be silent.  But again the old man spoke:  “Dost thou hear how some one on the mountain is crying out, ‘Strike hard!  Hew them down?’  The night-storm almost carries the sounds away.  But just before our Sigebald fell, he would so have called out.”

“If thou wouldst kill me with horror and fright,” said the wife, “or make me go mad, go on with such discourse, – one word more will do it.”

Then Leuthold was silent; and he drove back into his own bosom the thoughts which were stirring and thronging within him.   The wonderful sounds ceased, or were lost in more distant valleys; and towards morning the old couple both fell asleep.

The bright light of day shone again over the mountains.  Leuthold’s wife sat already at her spinning-wheel, and the knight was going forth to work with hatchet and spade in their little garden.  He turned back as he reached the door.  “It is very strange.  When the wild fancies and mysteries of night have once made their way into a man’s brain, he can get no peace from them.  I have been dreaming till break of day of our harvest-feast, as we used to keep it in better days in the castle of our fathers.”

“Strange indeed!” interrupted the wife.  “I too have dreamt of it.  The peasants were thronging in the castle-hall, with their shining scythes, their wives and daughters with rakes adorned with gay ribbons.  The harvest-wreath shone on high against the bright blue summer sky; and, ah! Before them all came my own dear child, a lovely boy, with garlands of corn-flowers wound round him; a wreath, as for a marriage, was on his head, and a large red flower in his bosom.  I know that flower well!”

Her head sank mournfully; and the knight, to turn her from the thought of her only son’s death-wound, said, “the singing was the strangest part of my dream.  Even when I awoke I still heard the hymn which the peasants used to sing as they entered, and now I could almost fancy that the same sound is coming, over the mountain, and descending the woody hill-side; as I opened the door, it seemed to me that the sound came in stronger.”

His wife listened likewise, and rose in silent wonder; she took her husband’s arm to go out and seek whence came these mysterious sounds.  Emboldened now by the cheering morning light, which gilded the stems of the trees, and the dewy grass beneath them; still more emboldened by the solemn strains of the hymn, which drew nearer and near, the sounds of flutes and pipes blending with the voices.

As the old couple went forth from their cottage, a multitude of peasants appeared amongst the trees, with green branches in their hats, and flittering scythes in their hands; some of them also carried halberds and spears.  “Old heavens!” cried the wife of Leuthold, “it is not yet harvest-time.  And whither are they going with their songs and music?  See only how the morning glow colours their scythes.”

“They must have been at some very dreadful hay-making,” murmured the knight; for he knew the red tinge on their weapons much too well to take it, like his wife, for the glow of the morning.

In the meanwhile, the peasants had formed a half-circle round the venerable pair; and while they ended their song with a joyful clashing of their arms, Diotwina stepped forth from among them, approached her astonished parents with a radiant countenance, and spoke thus:  “They who go forth early to pray, do not return without a blessing.  Here at the entrance of the wood I met these brave men, and they desire that from me you should first hear of their noble deed.  They have won back your castle – the country is free – the oppressor dead!”

The old knight gazed around as if yet in his last night’s dream.  Then drew near to him the oldest of the armed band, grey-haired like his lord; and taking gently from his hand the spade, he put in its stead an old silver staff, inlaid with gold, which the ancestors of Leuthold had possessed from remotest times, and which was now recovered with other sacred heir-looms of the family.

Then the men shouted triumphantly the words of Diotwina, “The country is free!  The oppressor dead!”  and again clashed arms and scythes.  It is indeed so,” said the old peasant to the wondering and doubting husband and wife.

“Your brother’s son, Richard, is returned from his crusade, my noble lord, and has brought to pass all these wonders since yesterday evening when he first appeared in the outer court of the castle.  He might well guess how in our hearts we longed after our rightful master, for he spoke to us as if it was a thing decreed and settled long before, till the most irresolute felt it could not be otherwise.

So the alarm-bells rung from the towers, and signal-fires kindled on the hills, and we peasants poured forth in troops, and were quickly marshaled by the young hero, and inspirited by his words.  We scoured through the valleys wherever we caught a glimpse of an armed follower of the count.  At length we stormed the castle, and the count, in his despair, threw himself on his own sword.

The young victor led us on till we came near your abode, and then galloped back to the castle, no doubt that he might have all things prepared for your reception.  If it is now your pleasure to let us escort you back, there are here three gentle well-trained horses out of your own stables, ready to bear you and the noble ladies.”

With outstretched arms the old lord blessed his brave, true-hearted people; the horses were led forward, the honoured knight and the ladies were placed upon them, and they all took the way to the castle with devoutly joyful hearts.

The old peasant walked beside the knight’s horse, and spoke of last night’s fight, and of the wonderful deeds of Richard.  As Leuthold heard with ever-growing joy and surprise of the magnanimity, and skill, and heroic valour of his nephew in many encounters, his heart swelled within him with thankful pride, till, in the eagerness of his delight, at last he exclaimed, loud enough to be heard by all around him.

“Here I pledge my knightly honour and faith, that our brave deliverer shall have for his own that which I hold dearest on earth, my niece Diotwina.  She shall be betrothed to him before God and man.”

He stretched out his right hand towards heaven, as if making a vow.  The troop stopped short in amazement, and gazed upon the eager old man; but his wife turned deadly pale with fright, and at last articulated with difficulty.  “Husband, husband, what hast thou done?  Why this unhappy impatience in they old age?  Look around thee where we are.  Yonder is the chapel where sleeps our only son; and, when he died, thou didst receive the vow of Diotwina to live and die the spotless bride of our Sigebald.  Which vow shall, then, now be broken, hers or thine?”

The old knight, greatly troubled, let fall his hand, and sighed out, “So it is!  Heaven scatters its most precious gifts; and man, in his reckless joy, turns them to his own destruction!”

The whole troop looked sorrowful and affrighted on their repentant lord; but Diotwina opened her sweet lips with an angel-smile.  “Father and mother, be not troubled.  I think our vows are not so very different as you fear.”  Then turning to the old peasant, she continued.  “How know you that your leader last night was Richard?”

“What other could it have been, noble lady?  He wore the colours of our master’s house, and its badge on his scarf and shield!  Then his words, and gestures, and way of riding, were all quite and entirely after the fashion of our lord.  He gave the war-cry of the family with his loud soldier’s voice each time that his horse dashed amongst the enemy.  Ay, and oftentimes he repeated to us that we were fighting under a branch of the old tree.  Who could it have been but the young lord, Richard?  It is true no one saw his face, for he wore his vizor always closed.”

“Now, then, let me relate what befell me last night,” said Diotwina, with a distinct voice and earnest look, “and give good heed to me, for I speak the simple truth, as befits a simple maiden.  I stood at my window, and watered, partly with fresh water, partly with my tears, a bright blooming myrtle, which in my happy days was to make my bridal wreath.  It was still flourishing and beautiful to behold, but my hopes of earthly bliss were withered for ever.

A noise at my door roused me from these and like thoughts.  I could distinctly hear a step on the stairs; it was light and soft, but with a clanging sound as of armour.  My father and mother were long since asleep, and it was midnight; a cold shudder crept over me.  Then the door was half opened, and an armed hand was extended, holding the scarf which I had worked for my betrothed, and which had been laid in his coffin.  A voice – it was that of Sigebald – spoke from without.  “It is I.  Can I enter without causing thee to die of terror?’

“Enter, in God’s name,’ I answered, trembling with fright, and longing desire to see him.  Then a pale, armed figure with open visor walked slowly and solemnly into the room.  I well knew his noble features, and yet I had not the courage to look into his face so as to discern whether his eyes were hollow as those of a corpse, or mildly beaming as of yore.

‘Dost thou yet need the myrtle-wreath for thy wedding-day?’ he asked gently.

I shook my head.

‘Never more wilt though need it?’

I again shook my head.

‘Ah!’ continued he, caressingly and with tenderness as when yet alive, ‘then weave me a victor’s wreath, my own dear bride.  For see, it has been granted me to complete the work of vengeance in this pale mortal body; and when it again lies down on its bier, it will take the wreath along with it.’

I diligently wove and wove till all the branches were woven in a bright wreath.  My betrothed stood at the door silently watching me.  When my work was done, he bent a knee before me; I placed the wreath on his helmet; and as he went forth, he looked back and spoke.  ‘Fear not, sweet love, if the noise of arms reaches you from the valley.  God has given the victory into my hands.’

Then he greeted me so tenderly that all my awe vanished, and I smiled after him as formerly, when he left me to go forth to a gay tournament.  It was not till I saw him on his grey steed passing so lightly and rapidly through the darkness, that dread came upon me again.  You now know your deliverer, dear parents, and your true, vassals.  If you will grant my prayer, and open the chapel and the tomb, I doubt not but that the myrtle-wreath on my bridegroom’s helmet will give token of the truth of my words.”

They all looked at each other in silence and doubt:  There arose, indeed, in many minds the thought that Diotwina’s pure spirit had been bewildered by the strange events of the night and a fearful dream; but when they recalled how calmly she had met them on leaving her cottage, this thought could no longer remain.  Then they remembered that their leader, after he had assembled them, had disappeared for a while, and returned with a wreath on his helmet.

Diotwina’s request was granted – the chapel was opened, the fears of his mother lest the beloved remains should be irreverently disturbed being quieted by the promise of the vassals to keep guard over the spot till the fastenings to the door were again carefully closed.  But as now the rusty hinges offered a strong resistance, it seemed that a faithless doubt destroyed in all hearts the belief in the apparition.

Diotwina’s smile alone gave confirmation to her words.  The lid of the tomb was at length removed, and there lay the young hero in full armour, a calm smile on his countenance, and on his helmet the myrtle-wreath woven by his bride.  Then all fell on their knees, and thanked and praised God.  Diotwina joyfully accomplished her own and her uncle’s vow – she remained the faithful bride of Sigebald to her death, dwelling near to the chapel in a small house.

Richard, when many years afterwards he returned home, inherited the old knight’s possessions, and consecrated this dwelling as a nunnery; under whose shelter the chapel of Sigebald long remained in holy repute, and the object of many a pilgrimage.