C. F. Van Der Velde: “Axel, A Tale of the Thirty Years’ War” Part 1 of 3
Excerpt, “Tales From the German, Comprising Specimens of the Most Celebrated Authors.” Translated by John Oxenford and C.A. Feiling. London: 1844.
A Tale of the Thirty Years’ War
The beautiful Tugendreich von Starschedel was standing in the baronial hall of her ancestral castle before the pedigree of her family, which occupied the space between two pillars in the wall. Her hand powerfully pressed her bosom, as if it wished to check the violent palpitation of her agitated heart, and her dark blue eyes wandered stealthily from the gay escutcheons and glanced through the lofty arched windows into the open riding-course, in which Axel, the groom, was just then breaking in a young stallion, with all the grace and strength of the horse-tamer Castor.
“Well,” said Gundchen, her maid, who was leaning against the window, “there is nothing, in my opinion, like a good horseman. Only look, gracious Fraulein, how the untamed animal is rearing, and how the man sits on him like a “puppet.”
“That is a silly picture, if it is intended to be flattering,” said Tugendreich, and blushing, she stepped to the window, as she feared she had betrayed herself.
“Do not torment yourself so much, Axel,” cried the baron from the window. “You and Hippolytus may break your necks together; he is sure not to leap, and the master of the stable has given him up already.”
“All depends on the rider,” replied Axel, with powerful voice.
“He shall leap, I assure you, though he had Wallenstein and Tilly on him.” So saying, he pressed the snorting animal with great strength, and galloped with him to the end of the course, that he might better leap the bar.
“A devil of a fellow this Axel,” said the nobleman, laughing in approbation.
“Heavens !” shrieked Gundchen, “there will be an accident,” and Tugendreich suppressed a sigh of anguish. With frightful sideleaps, the white horse furiously galloped towards the bar. At this moment the little daughter of the gardener ran across the course, and frightened at the approaching furious steed, fell just under his fore feet. Terror prevented the spectators from crying out, but Axel saw the child at the critical moment when the hoof was raised over its head, and, thinking of its peril, only reined the leaping horse suddenly in with such force that he fell rearing on his haunches.
“He will fall back,” cried the baron.
“I cannot look upon it,” exclaimed Gundchen, holding her hands before her eyes, and Tugendreich leaned against the recess as white as her veil. In the meanwhile Axel had given the horse so violent a blow on the head, that he was on his legs again and stood trembling; he dismounted, lifted the crying child gently from the ground and kissing it, carried it to its mother, who came up running and shrieking.
“Gallantly done,” cried the nobleman, “but the experiment might have cost your life.”
“Better that Hippolytus and I should die than the innocent child,” replied Axel. He mounted again, and the steed now knowing his master, leaped readily and gracefully without a run over the high bar.
“Well done,” cried the nobleman again.
“Come up, you shall have a bottle of wine for that.”
“I must first cool the animal,” was Axel’s short reply, as he rode off in a gentle trot.
“This fellow is not to be bought for gold,” muttered the baron; “but he sometimes assumes a tone that makes it doubtful which of us two is the master and which the groom.”
Tugendreich, agitated by the scene she had just witnessed, was about to leave the hall. On her way, she again passed the pedigree, and turning her glowing countenance upon it, a black escutcheon met her eye. This belonged to a lateral relation whom her father had only recently struck out on account of a misalliance. With a gloomy foreboding she gazed at it, then cast an anxious glance upon the one bearing her name, and hurried sobbing from the hall.
About an hour after this, Tugendreich met the dangerous groom in the anti-room of her father’s closet. Their eyes flashed as they met each other, but both immediately looked on the ground while a blush, like the sky tinged by the rising sun, overspread her cheeks.
“The gardener’s little Rosa has recovered from her fright,” she whispered softly, “I have just left her.”
“May heaven reward you, Fraulein, that sent you upon earth as a ministering reconciling angel !” cried the groom with transport.
“But promise me, Axel, not to ride so furiously again; I have been in great anxiety about thee,” stammered Tugendreich, becoming confused in the midst of her speech, as she had not yet settled in her mind as to whether she should address this groom by “thee,” or “you.”
“About me? This makes me indescribably happy,” said Axel with delight, and suddenly raised her beautiful hand to his lips, imprinting a fiery kiss on it.
At this she appeared angry, withdrew her hand from his bold grasp, though a minute too late, and saying, “You forget yourself,” quickly left the room.
Axel’s eyes followed her with rapture, and he then entered his master’s room and found him in company with Magister Talander, his spiritual adviser and factotum, playing chess, and exchanging high words. In vain did the excited magister prove from Damiano, Phillippo, Carrera, and Gustavo Seleno, that the adversary’s piece which threatened one of the squares over which the king must be moved, was one of the five impediments to castling the king. In vain did he assert that Palmedes, Xerxes, Satrenshah, and even Tamerlan could not have played otherwise. The baron stood to his own opinion, and said, the absurdity of the rule was so evident, that even his groom Axel, if he had but a notion of the moves, could not but see it.
“I know the moves, and you are wrong,” interrupted Axel.
With open mouth, the master wondered at the impudence of his servant, who quietly added: “You forget that the question here is about a paltry king of chess, about an indolent, cowardly despot, who is only born to be protected by his people; and if ever compelled to act himself, moves in a narrow, pitiful circle. It is quite consistent that such a king should take the only important step in his life with the utmost caution, and avoid doing it if there is the least appearance of danger. My king, indeed, would not recognize himself in this picture.”
“What does the fellow mean by talking about his king?” muttered the old baron. “Our gracious sovereign is the elector of Saxony.”
“But not mine,” was Axel’s proud reply. “I have the honour to be a Swede.”
“For heaven’s sake, Magister, tell me whence this fellow gets his pride, and bold words?” asked the baron softly. “Why, I have already had my meditations on that subject,” replied he, with a shake of the head; and the old baron said, in a commanding tone to Axel: “There’s your wine, but you shall drink to the health of our lord elector.”
“Most joyfully,” replied Axel, filling a bumper, and raising it in the air; “here’s to the health of your noble elector, and my heroic king, and may the concluded alliance prove a blessing to Saxony and to Sweden for many generations to come.”
“Well, that is something new again,” replied the baron, sarcastically; “I suppose you were in the cabinet when the alliance was concluded. Unfortunately we have not come to that yet.”
“We have come to it, my lord,” replied Axel, familiarly tapping the baron on the shoulder; “your elector is no chess king, who is afraid to take a quick and decisive step that shall decide the welfare of his land.”
He went away, and the two old gentlemen sat, struck with astonishment, staring at each other, like the pair of lions at Dresden.
In melancholy mood, Tugendreich was standing before an old decayed shaft, to which her walk had brought her, and her maid, like Fraulein’s little spaniel, was crawling about among the bushes in search of something. At this moment Talander came up to them, laden with a large bundle of plants on his return from botanising. To his inquiries, as to what they were in search of, Tugendreich informed him, that, in running down a hill, she had laid hold of a branch, and twisted from her finger a beautiful sapphire ring, a beloved legacy of her late mother, which had probably rolled into the shaft, as they had at present searched for it in vain.
“Oh, what youthful levity !” replied the magister, in a grumbling voice. “This precious stone ought not to have been merely valuable to you as a remembrance of your revered mother, but, having been dug and cut out under particular constellations, it was the talisman of your life. Have you been forgetful enough not to remember that the greatest secrets of nature lie in verbis, herbis et lapidibus? A foreboding which rarely deceives me, tells me that this loss will have a decisive influence on your fate.”
Tugendreich listened anxiously to the words of the old tutor, which she was wont to consider as oracles.
“Do not grieve too much, however,” continued the old man, in a milder tone, “the same foreboding tells me also that the hand from which you will receive back the lost stone, will also lead you to the true happiness of your life.” Thus saying, he walked slowly down the foot-path towards the castle, while Tugendreich looked thoughtfully after him. A crackling and rustling was heard in the branches of an old pine-tree standing near the shaft, and from its top, which touched a high rock, descended a sturdy huntsman, boldly leaping from bough to bough, who soon stood before the astonished maiden as Axel.
“I overheard all,” he said, “and joyfully will risk my life to make good the prophetic words of Talander. You shall see me either with the ring or not at all. In the latter case shed a tear over my grave.” And before the Fraulein could raise her hand to prevent him, the audacious man rushed into the shaft, and with a dull and rumbling noise pieces of earth and stones rolled after him into the dark abyss.
“He is lost,” sighed Tugendreich, sinking into the arms of Gundchen, who, astonished by the clear light which broke upon her at this moment, could not feel the same grief for the lost man. With a look of affection Tugendreich bent down over the shaft, so that Grundchen thought it advisable to lay hold of the dress of her mistress to prevent her from following her beloved, should she be inclined to do so.
A joyful sound now resounded from the depth below, and immediately Axel was struggling up the shaft through various minerals that had shot out in the shape of goblins, and with bleeding hand presented the lost ring to the Fraulein.
With a heavenly look the astonished girl thanked him, while tears of gratitude fell on the wounded hand, which Axel eagerly kissed away. Now, for the first time, she saw the blood on his hand, shrieked aloud, and insisted upon binding the wound herself of which she had been the cause. Slowly he offered his hand. Not seeing the handkerchief which her maid offered, the Fraulein took her own, binding it with the ribbon of the bow she wore on her own bosom. As she let go his hand Axel fancied that he felt a gentle pressure, but before he had time to think of this happy moment in which he saw a symbol of his future happiness, the lovely girl had fled like a frightened roe. As if in a dream he slowly pursued his way to the castle, where Talander received him at the gate, being commissioned from the Fraulein, and ready for every emergency, took out his case of surgical instruments to dress his wound in due form. While doing this the old man said, “You have a fine hand, almost too delicately formed for your station; I suppose you have also seen military service, these hard parts show that you have frequently handled the sword.”
“Ah, true,” stammered the patient, embarrassed.
“You seem altogether a strange customer,” continued Talander, “and I am somewhat curious to know more of you. Pray just show me the palm of your hand.”
“Never mind such fooleries, magister,” said Axel, withdrawing his hand.
“Only ignorance judges hastily of what it does not understand,” said the magister, angrily. “How can you thus with contempt reject that noble chiromancy to which I have devoted myself for nearly a generation.” Forcibly seizing the wounded hand he examined it long and closely, then said, muttering, “Well, these lines indicate that you were born for something superior to a stable. This line may be truly called the cingulum veneris, it promises success in love; and here are fame and honour and high dignities. Ah, ah, friend, you are not what “you appear.”
“Your crotchets deceive you in a singular manner,” said Axel, embarrassed, and wishing to escape.
“The old Talander is no woman,” said the magister, “and therefore has no crotchets, and has never deceived himself yet.” And, retaining his hold of Axel, he added, “I tell you plainly you are no groom, and if you were not a good evangelical Christian, and had not a pair of clear faithful eyes, through which one may imagine that one can look into your very heart, I should say you had some wicked design, and I should communicate my suspicions to the baron.”
“By heavens and my honour,” cried Axel, warmly, “my intentions are pure.”
“A groom may indeed be an honest man,” said Talander, mockingly, “but it is something uncommon for him to give his word of honour; it sounds rather cavalier-like, and you must act more in character. I have done now,” continued he, fastening the bandage; “give me the handkerchief and ribbon to return to the Fraulein.”
“Never,” cried Axel, as he concealed the precious pledges in his bosom.
“Never; say you, youngster! You are rather too bold for me,” said the old man, menacing with his finger.
“Go, settle it yourself with the Fraulein. There she stands in the garden, near the rose-tree, herself the most beautiful rose in the garden. How wicked must be that worm that would malignantly approach this flower to poison its sweet bloom; are you not of the same opinion ?”
“Indeed I am of the same opinion,” said the groom; “be unconcerned about this sweet flower which so proudly sets forth your care as its gardener. With the ray of love it will bloom more beautifully, and if myrtle and laurel shall once be entwined around it you will weep tears of joy.”
“Amen,” said the old man, with emotion, and Axel ran to the garden to Tugendreich.
“The magister demanded from me the handkerchief and ribbon in your name, Fraulein,” said Axel; “I only bring you back the former, stained with the blood which flowed for you. May it speak a friendly word for poor Axel, when some day he will sigh far from you. The ribbon I must keep. It rested on your angelic heart, it is hallowed, and it will also hallow and purify the heart upon which it shall rest from this time.”
Tugendreich wished to answer but was unable, she wished to look up but could not. It then occurred to her that she ought really to be indignant at this audacity, but that she could do still less ; and the beautiful rose which she held in her hand became the victim of her inward struggle, for she plucked off leaf after leaf, dropping them on the ground.
“May I keep the ribbon?” asked Axel, imploringly.
She at length raised her eyes, and a ray of love flashed powerfully from them. Enraptured he stretched out his arms to embrace her; deeply blushing, she sank into them, and he pressed the first pure kiss of ardent love on her lips.
At this moment the baron suddenly appeared from behind the hedge, contemplating the group with a truly noble horror. “Begone to the castle!” he cried to his daughter; “to the stable!” he cried, in a voice of thunder, to Axel. Like a finger-post, he pointed to the places mentioned, and the frightened couple obeyed in silence.
In anxious expectation of what would follow, Tugendreich had been standing for some time in the window of the baronial hall, from which she had in the morning admired Axel’s horsemanship, when her father came up to her with a wrathful countenance, seized her hand, and led her to the gigantic portrait of the ancestors of the Starschedels, which gloomily and menacingly looked down, as it were, from the gold frame upon the delinquent.
“Who is that?” asked the baron, with suppressed wrath.
“Magnus von Starcshedel, the founder of our family,” repeated Tugendreich, words which had been impressed on her memory from infancy.
“In the war against the emperor, Henry IV., Duke Rudolph of Swabia dubbed him knight, A.D. 1078, at Stronow, near Mellenstk’dt; and he fell in the battle fought against the same emperor, near Wirzburg, A.D. 1086, after his valour had contributed to gain the victory.”
“What think you this glorious knight would have done, if he had, like myself, seen you from behind the hedge?” asked her father, while Tugendreich cast her eyes down on the squares of the inlaid floors. “He would have cleft the head of the unfaithful servant,” continued the baron, raising his voice, “and thrown the degenerate girl into the dungeon, until he should have placed her and her passion forever in a cloister.”
The Fraulein gave a silent assent to the justice of this sentence.
“Tugendreich ! Tugendreich !” continued her father, reproaching her; “why did I give you this lovely name? I ought to have christened you Philippe, for Talander has interpreted this name to me, to mean a lover of horses, and it would therefore be some excuse for your predilection for the stable.”
(*The name Tugendreich means ” rich in virtue.”)
Now a feeling of pride rose within her, and she cried “I deserve blame, but do not merit your contempt. My feelings are pure, and I need not be ashamed of him.”
The furious impetuosity of noble wrath would now have broken through the last barrier of paternal love, when fortunately for the poor Fraulein a loud shriek of terror resounded from the court-yard, and Talander entered the hall with a countenance as pale as death.
“May God and his holy gospel protect us,” exclaimed the old man. “A swarm of Croats is storming through the country, and may probably come this very night.”
“Well,” replied the baron, with affected composure, “Saxony has nothing to fear from the troops of his “Imperial Majesty.”
“So you think, my lord, but I do not,” rejoined the magister, trembling.
“People whisper already about the alliance concluded between Saxony and Sweden, and if the Croats are terrible even as friends, may Heaven preserve us against their inroads as enemies. They are said to commit the most awful havoc on the estates of the protestant noblemen.”
To be continued…
The Thirty Years’ War devastated much of Europe 1618–1848.