Friedrich Freiherr de la Motte Fouqué: “Rosaura and her Kinsfolk” 2/4

Excerpt, “Wild Love and Other Tales from the German of De La Motte Fouqué.” London: 1844.


Towards the evening of the next day, Julius rode pensively through the antique gate of the mountain-town, Waldho. He had before his eyes the vision of the fair Rosaura as she beckoned to him with her white handkerchief. But, again, her scornful temper arose before his mind.
He fancied now, that he had deceived himself in a strangely ridiculous manner by that dear parting salute. He raised his head aloft with sullen fortitude, and looked about for the approach of the huntsman whom the colonel had promised to send hither to meet him.
An old man stepped forth from the doorway of a neighboring hostel, muffled in a dark green cloak, and led after him a small coal-black horse with thick neck, clumsy head, and grizzly mane, but otherwise of a striking and handsome make. The horse snorted, pawed wildly on the ground, and snapped now at the strange horse, now at his own rider. The old man raised his long wrinkled arm threateningly, and the animal was still.
Julius, repressing a shudder which began to creep over him as he looked upon these strange figures, inquired, “Are you the messenger, good friend, whom the Colonel Haldenbach promised to send for me here?”
At your service, sir captain,” said the huntsman, taking off the tall cap from his snow-white head. The evening sunbeams shone red, and almost bloody, upon the scarred and wrinkled visage of the old man. He then swung himself with youthful agility into the saddle of his prancing steed, and dashed along in his rattling career over the uneven pavement so quickly, that Wildeck’s noble Arabian could scarcely, with all his efforts, keep pace with him; while the groom was left far behind.
At first starting it seemed to the Count, whose attention was now fully awakened, that the townspeople looked after him, and shook their heads. Nay, even that some crossed themselves, or stretched out their hands, as if imploring him to stay. But he continued his wild flight, scarcely knowing whither, or wherefore, he went.
By and by the hunter was obliged to ride more slowly, owing to the rough uneven ground over which they passed, and more especially since the road to Finsterborn soon left the beaten track, and led over steep mountain ridges, and again into deep untrodden valleys. The difficulty of the path, over which the wonderful steed of the huntsman trotted with such strange ease, obliged Wildeck and his groom to increase their efforts to follow.
But Julius, remembering his reputation as the boldest and most skilled horseman of his regiment, naturally disdained to check the precipitant haste and fury of the old hunter.
It was already deep twilight, when a sudden turn of the path shewed the dim outline of an old castle straight before them.
“Ho! Valiant guide,” cried Julius, “Is yonder castle, Finsterborn!”
The old man looked round with a solemn gesture, laid his finger on his lips, and shook his head. At the same time it seemed as if an inward shuddering convulsed his whole frame. He now slowly stole along the path which led right under the walls of a moss-grown castle, and along the edge of a deep precipice. It seemed, as if here the old man feared the very echo of his horse’s tread. But from the castle there proceeded the soft sound of a lute; and a female voice sung to it the following words:
“Deck hours of trial stern!
For bloody wounds that burn
From vengeful times remote;
So fearful to discern –
so changelessly devote;
Will ye from your dread behest
How and never more have rest?
Will ye never more forebear?
Ah! No more corpses bring;
And no new suffering.
Wanderer! For thyself beware!
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Julius, “Surely that is Rosaura’s voice!”
A shrill cry sounded from the castle. A lute, thrown from a broken window, flew whizzing down the precipice close by Julius’ head. The old huntsman wildly spurred his steed; and in the renewed flight dashed over rocks and stones through the growing darkness.
Clear shone the lights in Castle Finsterborn, and cast down their bright radiance into the valley, so as almost to dazzle the eyes of the travelers. Bugle-horns were heard from the battlements, sounding forth sweetly inviting airs in full long-drawn tones. “Heaven be praised!” said the strange guide, putting his horse at an easy pace, while he drew a deep breath.
“This hard ride has been rather fatiguing for you, my old friend, has it not?” said Julius good-naturedly.
The huntsman courteously but firmly replied in the negative, though it was easily seen that it was said somewhat in jest, for he could hardly speak for exhaustion. “I am very well pleased, however, to find ourselves at our journey’s end,” added he; “but there are many other reasons for that.”
“And you do well not to send the horse reeking into the stable,” answered Julius. “One can see that you are not only a bold and expert rider, but also a very prudent one. In this way, the hardest riding will not harm a good steed.”
The old man looked round upon Julius, on whose blooming countenance the full light from the castle-windows fell at the moment, and inquired in a strange low voice. “Are you really the Count Wildeck, Sir Count? Count Julius of Wildeck, the only remaining branch of your ancient house, and perhaps the last!” And on Julius replying that it was so, he added: “Now, then, the good God will dispose all for the best.”
They rode along almost close to the brink of a frowning precipice, through the sounding archway, and at last halted in the court-yard, now almost as light as dark with blazing torches and illuminated windows. Haldenbach, who stood waiting at the door, came forward and met his guest with a friendly and courteous greeting.
Julius had held himself prepared to meet with strange things on all sides on his arrival at this castle, but all seemed to go on quite in the usual way. The host entertained his young friend, calmly and cheerfully at a richly served up supper table, and pledged him in the noblest wine, which he drank out of an antique massive goblet.
Both betook themselves to rest, after agreeing to meet at the earliest dawn equipped for the boar-hunt. Only, at bidding Julius good night – as if the evening was not to pass away altogether without something mysterious – the colonel spoke in his ear, in a tone which seemed between earnest and joke. “Lock carefully the door of your chamber, and draw the bolts, too. One cannot always know …”
He went out, leaving the sentence unfinished.
A lofty chamber, hung round with antique tapestry, received the wearied youth. He scarcely thought of the warning of his host, and looked upon it, at the most, as a joke intended to try his courage. So little did he care, that he slept soundly with unfastened door until the rays of the morning sun, falling upon him, awoke him from his slumbers, and he sprung up to prepare himself for the chase. In a short time, he stood ready mounted in the court-yard.
His host stepped to the door. “Did you sleep well, Count Wildeck, last night? – and did you carefully secure the door?”
“I slept extremely well,” Julius laughed. “I neither turned key now drew bolt.”
“The colonel shook his head thoughtfully, but invited the youth, with apparent cordiality, to walk in and join him in his morning draught, preparatory to the hunt.
The high-arched apartment in which they sat looked somewhat strange and solemn; though, on the whole, it was neither dismal nor yet unlike what such rooms usually are in ancient castles. Though, at first sight, it seemed to the count that of two portraits of armed knights which hung on the wall, one bore a striking resemblance to himself and the other to the colonel; yet he soon dismissed the notion as the deceitful play of some excited fantasy.
What had fixed his attention upon these two pictures more than the others around them, was only that the knight whom he likened was represented as young and very pale, and in the midst of blazing flames; and the other, which appeared to resemble the colonel, was very old, but of a wild, dark red complexion, and encircled by a deep black cloister-arch.
He would have inquired about these two portraits, but Haldenbach interrupted him, saying with a pleasant smile.
“You please me well, young soldier, in that hunting dress of yours; and it pleases me still more that you have only put it on for her chases, and that you did not travel yesterday in it, but in your proper uniform. In this you are unlike too many officers of the present day, who can scarcely leave the garrison, or even the parade, three steps behind them. But they must straightways be changed from head to foot into fashionable citizens.
“I comply not in the least degree with such fashions,” replied Julius; “for to me it is quite insupportable to be without my armour, however, much and eloquently people may talk of the Greeks and Romans not being seen with a sword in time of peace. A hunting-dress, however, is quite agreeable to me. It reminds me of the good old German custom, according to which no freeman was allowed to appear without his blade at his side.
“So spoken after my own heart, young knight. And then you place your sword by your bedside during the night, do you not?”
And on Julius replying that he did, the old man pressingly exhorted him never to leave off this good custom, not even in the midst of hospitality; “and it would be better for many a one,” continued he in an under-tone. “If they were also to fasten the inner bolts of sleeping chamber – all the three bolts, I mean; but indeed I cannot and will not dictate to you, my brave young fellow; and so let us off to the hunt.”
Wildeck’s groom awaited his master in the yard with the noble Abdul, and beside him stood the old huntsman, his companion of yesterday, with a black horse as strange in appearance, though richly and antiquely adorned, as that which he rode on their wild journey.
Wildeck’s groom awaited his master in the yard with the noble Abdul, and beside him stood the old huntsman, his companion of yesterday, with a black horse as strange in appearance, though richly and antiquely adorned, as that which he rode on their wild journey.
“You have your choice,” said the Colonel. “Your horses are tolerably fatigued with their journey; and the powerful far-famed rider Count Julius Wildeck will certainly stand in little fear of the stout, though ill-bred and ungallant, animals which I bring among these mountains, since I, an old invalid, ride one of them every day.”
Julius swung himself, light as a feather, into the saddle of the prancing animal, and soon reined him in so skillfully, that the Colonel, while they both galloped down the descent, cried out to him:
“Thy father well might have called thee Alexander, for truly this mad animal is a kind of Bucephalus! But yet Julius is a world-conquering name, and perhaps falls more pleasantly upon the ladies’ ears. Now for it, my Julius! Today! Today, the boars must bleed!”
The boars bled; and, on the whole, a very knightly hunt was held, from which they did not return until the evening was far advanced. On the way, the Colonel became silent and serious, though he had before shewn himself so cheerful and communicative. When they ascended the stairs he took leave of Julius immediately, excusing himself by saying that over-fatigue must deprive him of the pleasure of entertaining him at the supper-table; adding, too, that probably he might not be better for some days. The old man then hastened to his chamber, which, to Julius’ astonishment, was not only locked within, but was also secured outside by the old scarred huntsman with three strong bolts. The strange servant rattled the bars twice, as if trying whether the fastenings were secure, then walked away silently, shaking his head and sighing.
Julius, thus strangely warned by the remarkable caution of his host, thought again of his inquiry in the morning; he could not, it is true, prevail upon himself to draw the bolts — it looked to him almost like a piece of cowardice; but he turned the key of the lock after he had dismissed his attendant, and, in a very different frame of mind from yesterday, betook himself to rest. “I am not now on out-guard,” said he, smilingly; and endeavoured to compose himself to sleep, in which he at last succeeded.
It might be about midnight when he was awoke by a strange rattling. It seemed to him almost as if a fast-locked door had been broken open. He thought of robbers – but how could they make their way into the moat-and-wall-encompassed castle? Meanwhile, he heard the watchman quietly blowing his horn, and calling out: It was clear moonlight; the dogs were all quiet. He laid himself down again to sleep. Presently, however, he heard plainly the sound of someone groping his way up in the dark along the wall of the winding stone stair. Julius looked round for his good sword. He now heard the figure approach the door, rattle a huge bunch of keys, and begin first to draw the latch, and at last heavily and slowly to turn the lock itself.
Who is there?” cried Julius, throwing himself out of bed, and pulling his cloak over him, while he seized his bright blade. No answer. “Who is there?” cried he a second time. A hoarse hollow laugh.
The door now opened slowly, creaking on its hinges, and in the uncertain glimmer which the moon threw through the painted window, Julius could see a tall figure with wild grey hair, wrapped in a ragged mantle, and holding an ell-long knife in its right hand. The fearful apparition, with a hoarse laugh, advanced quickly towards Julius. “What seekest thou?” cried the latter, grasping his weapon and holding it up before him. “Stand and answer, if thou wouldest not run upon the point of my sword.”
“What sword – what sword?” muttered the old man in a deep hollow voice, as if from a subterraneous dungeon. “You must throw away your sword; I must slay thee, thou young blood. Keep still, I tell you, keep still; then it will give you no pain, for my instrument is admirably sharpened.” Upon this, he stooped down with the knife pointed straight before him, as if he would creep under the sword and reach Julius’ neck.
“Thou frightful being!” cried the youth in wild amazement, “art thou some serpent – some enchanted dragon-form of the ancient time? Begone, in the name of my Saviour, or I cleave thy abominable head!”
“Hoo, hoo!” howled the crazed being; “St. George and the dragon! Hoo, hoo! The dragon must be gone!”
And thereupon he flew out at the door, which shut clanging behind him, and Julius could hear him, half tumbling half springing, rush down the winding stair.
Still and solemn lay the moonbeams around the solitary youth. He now indeed fastened the door with the three-fold bolt; but he could not shut out the terrible shuddering which had seized him. It seemed to him as if he too should go mad, like yonder ghastly apparition. Then he fell on his knees, and prayed fervently to the merciful God; his soul became calm, and he laid himself down smiling as a child in its mother’s arm, and fell into a quiet slumber.
Next morning, he was awoke by the calls and knocks of his groom. The sun was already high in the heavens. The drawn bolts shewed him too plainly that it had not been a dream. He opened; and his servant stepping in, “You appear to have been disturbed, Sir Captain. One would suppose he had been in your chamber?”
Who, then, Christopher?”
“Why, the madman! He went howling through the whole castle. Once he made a noise at the door of my room. When he went away, I listened, and looked after him through the keyhole. The long gallery without was in such bright moonlight that you might have found a pin.
There sat the horror, huddled up so close that his white tangled hair fell far down over his face. But I recognized the worn-out green mantle; and I will wager that it was no other than that ill-visaged old huntsman who made us ride that witch’s gallop hither. None of the people in the castle will speak with me on the subject; but I know the mantle well; and I disliked the old man from the very first. Ah! Good Sir Captain, are we to remain here much longer?”
“I have only three weeks’ leave of absence,” said Julius slowly and thoughtfully; “but we can, perhaps, go sooner. I hope,” added he, raising his voice, “that you are not afraid, Christopher?”
The faithful youth, elevated and ennobled in spirit through many years’ service with his honour-loving master, reddened, and smiled. “God forbid that I should fear!” Julius departed to inquire after the health of his host.
On reaching his chamber, he found the bolts of the door lying broken in pieces on the ground, while the door stood wide open.
While he looked thoughtfully at this strange spectacle, the Colonel stepped forward, deadly pale, but with a gentle smile. “You have been very unpleasantly disturbed last night, have you not, Sir Count?”
Julius answered that he had.
“Now, see, dear Count, I warned you before. There is at present a terrible old maniac in the castle, and, alas! As you see here, even the strongest bolts are as nothing against the force of his madness. I believe you would do better to visit me at another time, for truly you are not safe from him, and unhappily I can in no way get rid of him. Ride home, my dear Wildeck. Ride home!”
“If I am troublesome to you,” replied Julius, somewhat touched; “else it is not in my nature to fly from danger, and even with this disturbance I should be glad to crave your hospitality for two days longer.”
“Thou brave – thou true Wildeck,” sighed the old man. “I can – I dare deny nothing to you; so remain.”
He embraced him, full of deep emotion. At this moment, the scarred hunter approached and said threateningly: “Ah! No doubt it has been told you that it was I who alarmed the whole house last night! But let the Colonel please to have a little care on account of me!” With these words, he passed on, while a strange convulsion passed over his disfigured features. The Colonel shrunk together and remained silent until he was gone.
Then he said, “I must pardon much, very much, in this man; I owe him, indeed, much. Dear Count, do not talk of this affair.”
Thereupon, he sounded a bugle-horn which he carried in his hand; a number of huntsmen assembled (the old scarred man among them, as if nothing had happened), and a numerous party immediately set out for a fresh chase.
To be continued…