Friedrich Freiherr de la Motte Fouqué: “Rosaura and her Kinsfolk” 3/4
Excerpt, “Wild Love and Other Tales from the German of De La Motte Fouqué.” London: 1844.
In his eager pursuit of a wild boar, our hero had been led far away and alone, over hill and valley, till at last all trace of his prey was lost; he hung his gun upon the branch of an oak, and sat down fatigued among the long grass under its shade.
The straggling sunbeams through the reddened autumnal foliage, the ever-green fir-branches, holding a low soft converse with the breeze, the parting cry of the birds of passage, the heavenly canopy overspread with many-tinted clouds, all conspired to send a deep sadness into his soul.
A kind of feeling which he had been familiar with even from his earliest years, when often, even in the midst of his mirthful sport, and unseen of all the world, warm tears would flow down the cheeks of the otherwise cheerful boy; and now, too, a moist drop sparkled in his eye, and he said to himself:
“These might have been designed to foreshow how cruelly the world would deal with a true heart.” Then he hid burning face in his hands, and sighed. “Rosaura!” The tones of a cittern sounded, nor far distant, in his ears, and he heard plainly sung the following words, in a voice which seemed to be interrupted by violent weeping.
“Wildeck! Thou noble deer so good –
Wildeck! Thou gentle roe;
Why stray’st thou in and out the wood,
Thy heart so full of woe?
Let that a warning to thee tell
Which once thy ancestors befell!
Shun, Wildeck! Shun the dangerous heat,
Bold looks not ever will defeat.”
All was again still.Julius scarce knew if he was awake, or in a dream.He had heard the fearful tale, how once, in ancient times, many of his ancestors, men and women, had been burned to death, through an unaccountable fire breaking out in their own castle, and how his great-great-grandfather alone was saved in a wonderful manner, whereby the noble race of a noble stem was preserved from extinction.
But who in this place could know the tale? Or was it only some popular rhyme brought hither in some accidental way? “But the voice was broken by sobbing! And ah! It sounded so sweet, so lovely!”
Again it was heard nearer —
“Wildeck! The murderer comes this way;
Thou, Wildeck, have a care;
Askest — Who may the murderer be?
‘Tis I, the murderer here!”
Julius sprung up angrily from the ground and grasped his hunting knife. He thought of the fearful huntsman. “But, fool,” whispered he. “It is a woman’s voice that sings. Surely it is but a snatch of some traditionary song on the former misfortunes of our house. But ah! Sing not quite so sweetly – not quite so plainly to be recognized. O Rosaura! And he sank back into his former seat, covering his flowing face with his hands.
Then he heard a rustling waving sound among the grass near him, while the branches of the oak rattled over his head, as if to warn him.He sprung up; the gun which he had entrusted to the noble old tree was gone!
He looked indignantly round – no one could be seen.“A fine huntsman!” said he, mockingly, to himself.“Who takes such care of his arms!And such a weapon, too – the favourite piece of a dear parent!Best stay — I must find it again.By mine honour, I shall not leave this strange mountain till I have recovered it.”
And with keen looks, proper to him both as a soldier and a huntsman, he hastened through the trees, and along the ground, and at last discovered the traces of a light, soft footstep.“Good heavens!” said he with an inward shudder.“It is a woman who has wandered hither and robbed me of my weapon!”
He followed resolutely the scarcely discerned path, and in a short time emerged from the copsewood, and found himself — near to an old grey castle, with steep walls; and if his senses did not deceive him, it was the same as he passed on his journey to Finsterborn with the scarred huntsman.
While he stood musing on this, he suddenly felt his hunting-cap torn from his head, a ball whizzed quickly through it and struck against the nearest fir-tree. He reeled involuntarily back, not knowing rightly whether he was wounded or not. Then fearfully sung a female voice:
“Askest – Who may the murderer be?
‘Tis I, the murderer here.”
Julius bethought himself:The shot had only pierced his cap; he drew it again over his head – and seized his hunting-knife, ready for an attack.There stood over against him a female form, holding in her hand his own gun, which he had but just lost; — snow white was her robe – raven black her wildly flowing tresses – fiercely rolling her dark eye.O Heavens!No doubt remained, it was Rosaura!
She looked menacingly at him once more, and threw his gun. “The murderer here am I.”
A band of females now rushed hastily out of a neighbouring thicket, wrapped Rosaura in a veiled covering, and led her away. Julius heard her weeping bitterly. “I trust, in God’s name,” cried he, “no one means to do her any harm!”
“Be calm, Count Wildeck,” said Rosaura’s aunt, whom he now first recognized among the other ladies. “Rosaura of Haldenbach is in the best and kindest of hands; and if you would do her a real kindness, then depart hence as quickly as possible, and let nothing pass your lips of what has happened to you in these mountains.”
She disappeared with a gracious and earnest farewell. Julius took up his gun, and in deep astonishment pursued his uncertain way towards Finsterborn.
The evening darkened as the strayed huntsman wearily ascended a lofty rock, the summit of which was yet glittering in the last golden rays of the setting sun, in order, if possible, to discover from thence some beaten path, or the top of a tower which might serve him as a guide.On reaching the point of the rock, he saw some one already seated there, with his back turned towards him, and his legs dangling over the steep precipice beyond.
Fearing lest, by a too sudden advance, he might dangerously alarm the stranger in his perilous position, Julius remained standing; the other turned round – it was the terrible huntsman.
Quick as lightning he stood on his feet, and with a respectful greeting calmly approached Julius.The latter hardly knew how to conduct himself, alone with this awful being, and on such a dizzy height.The scarred hunter probably read some such apprehension in his countenance.He smiled.“Do not fear, Sir Count.I am not mad.But my master, Colonel Haldenbach, surnamed Death-brand, is so.
I see well enough you think that I speak from a crazed brain; but I will tell you all in order. Only be pleased to sit down by me, for I am tired to death” (and with this he resumed his giddy seat); “or should the good count be somewhat afraid, let him stand. But do not let him charge my old age with unpoliteness.”
Julius, to whom the thought of being taxed with fear was more dreadful than almost any other earthly danger, placed himself in a moment by the side of the old man, who then spoke as follows:
“Five hundred years ago, the noble counts of Wildeck celebrated in their ancestral castle a very joyful harvest feast, and drank wine and mead.They had brought thither their wives and children, and only waited, in order to complete their enjoyment, for the arrival of a knight who was related to their family, by name Haldenbach.
But the knight had already been within the walls of the castle for some time, though they knew it not.He was lurking far below, deep in the dungeon-vaults, whither he had stealthily penetrated by a hidden passage; and because one of the daughters of the house had repulsed his suit with disdainful coldness, he thought he could not otherwise satisfy his revenge than by destroying the whole castle and its inmates.
He set fire, therefore, to all the gates and stairs of the unguarded edifice.All the Wildecks were burned to death, with their wives and children.Save one little boy, whom his nurse, to preserve his beautiful complexion, had carried into the moonlight and sprinkled with dew.That boy was thy progenitor, young hero.
But among the betrayed Wildecks there was one old man, a soothsayer; he stood amid theglowing mass, on the top of the last tottering wall, and sang forth words of strange prophecyin the night wind.He laid a fearful spell upon the race of Haldenbach – that all their descendants should be struck with madness every half year towards the hour of midnight, and that this should last each time for the space of three weeks.
God knows what secret meaning may be signified by those numbers, and this curse is to remain as long as a single Wildeck is alive upon the earth, unless – but the rest of the prophecy was drowned in the storm, and smoke, and flame.The wicked Haldenbach, in the fierce agony of his distracted conscience, could gather no more.
No way of escape is known; and twice a year during these three weeks, all the Haldenbachs are, about midnight, and sometimes also towards the evening hour, smitten with madness. Alas! Even that beautiful young lady Rosaura is regularly seized with this inherited malady; therefore, it was that I rode with you so secretly past her castle. For to see an angel like her clutched by such a demon-fury, this, indeed, is too horrible!”
“But if the last Wildeck were dead!” whispered Julius, while he bent himself forward toward the brink of the precipice.
“Sir Count, you are a Christian,” said the old man solemnly; and Julius rose from his dizzy seat.
“But whence knowest thou this?” said he after some thought. “Whence knowest thou all of this, old man?”
“Colonel Haldenbach,” replied the Huntsman, “once, in a sudden attack of his frenzy, precipitated me from this cliff, which is the cause of my scarred and disfigured countenance. He afterwards, in the agony of his remorse, confessed all to me; and, among other things, he told me that a dark tradition had assigned to his race the surname of “Death-brand,” although the Wildecks themselves knew not how that dreadful calamity came to fall upon their ancestral castle.
And since that time the colonel has more than once found it convenient to make people believe that I am the madman who disturbs the castle:A devilish instinct prompts him even to go about in my clothes.But I have thought it well on my part to inform Count Wildeck, and to save my own honour.”
“I return, nevertheless, to Castle Finsterborn, for this night,” said Julius; “direct me, therefore, thither.”
“Everyone to his own liking,” replied the Hunter, and led the way.
In the wood they met with servants and huntsmen on horse and foot, with torches in their hands, seeking for Colonel Haldenbach. He had returned before the evening had set in, but had suddenly disappeared again, nobody knew whither; and it was feared that in his wild frenzy he had run into the forest.
Julius felt too exhausted by the exertions of the day to render any assistance.He therefore proceeded with the old hunter, and they soon reached the now almost empty castle.When he found himself in his dark bed-chamber, lighted only by the dim light of a single taper, and was about to undress himself , he thought he saw in the mirror the figure of his groom standing behind him, and looking deadly pale.“Christopher, what is the matter!”asked he, appearing paler than usual himself.
The faithful boy, instead of answering, pointed to a dark corner of the room, where the tapestry, suspended in the ancient fashion from the cornice, appeared to be in motion.Julius seized his sword and turned toward the spot.
“For God’s sake, no,” whispered Christopher, and held him by the arm. “I believe the madman is behind.”
A hoarse laugh and whisper in the fearful corner confirmed the supposition, and Julius thought he could detect these words: “Ay, ay! Here the old mad Death-brand hides lurking for the last Wildeck. Only go to sleep first, my young fellow.”
Amazed, and overwhelmed with stupefying horror, Julius rushed after his servant, slammed the door behind him, and reaching the court-yard, called immediately for their horses. The old hunter stood by and praised the count’s determination. Julius told him where to search for his fearful master, and sprung forward as if on wings.
Alas! As he rode past Rosaura’s castle, the crazed song of the unhappy maiden fell upon his ear.
At Waldho, he met a military attendant, who had been sent to call him back as speedily as possible to his quarters.An unforeseen war had broken out between two neighboring states, and it appeared certain that the sovereign would take part in the contest.All the regiments, therefore, had ordered to hold themselves in readiness to march.
This was balm for Julius’ wounded heart.With far greater joy than he had dared to hope, he rode through the gate of the capital, and surveyed with sparkling looks the cannon and ammunition-wagons just drawn forth from the arsenal, and the soldiers hastening from the armoury with their field-pieces, who, giving vent to their long-suppressed feelings of martial joy, cheered each other on all sides with song and jest.
Julius’ spirit, too, soon revived through the occupation and bustle occasioned by the needful arrangements for his squadron, and the hours flew past like minutes; and yet not so fast but that Rosaura’s sad destiny, endured as it seemed for his sake, called up a sorrowful sigh from his loving bosom.
A great court-day was appointed, when the officers of the guards, who were called out to the field, should all be presented once more, before their departure, to the princesses of the reigning house.
The Princess Alwina, at other times so cheerful, was very pale and still. Julius imagined that the approaching eventful day was the only cause of this. But in passing him, she said, “Count Wildeck, I have some matters of weighty import on which to speak to you. Attend at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning in my antechamber.”
When Julius appeared at the appointed hour, he was immediately admitted. He found the princess in half-suppressed tears. She desired him to be seated opposite to her; and then began to speak in the following manner:
“On that evening at the hermitage, I enticed you, Count Wildeck, into a dangerous — nay, a very fearful piece of raillery. I see, from your countenance, that you have learned by your terrible visit to Finsterborn, the origin of the Haldenbach’s surname. I trust that no bloody tragedy has again taken place there.”
On hearing the Count’s calming reply, she breathed deeply.“God be praised!I was under dreadful apprehensions.You must know, that my wonder at Rosaura’s strange behavior that eveninginduced me to mention the circumstances to my father.He chid me severely, as well as my brother, for our untimely jesting; and he then laid before us the secret archives of the house of Haldenbach, relating to these events, and we have read with horror the whole history.
And, Count Wildeck, it much – very much – concerns you, that you should know the whole from the very foundation.”
“Your Highness,” replied Julius, “I believe I am already fully informed of this whole case of hopeless complicated fate.”
“Hopeless, alas!” replied the Princess; “And the only possibility of deliverance depends upon a condition.”
“I know it, your Highness; perhaps the impending war may bring this condition to its fulfillment, and too happy shall I reckon myself if, while I shed my blood for my prince and father-land, I can at the same time free the race of Haldenbach – so inexpressibly dear to me – from that fearful curse.”
“Now I see clearly, Count Wildeck, that you do not yet know all.Read:I shall come again presently, and ask for your decision.”And laying an old parchment scroll before him, she left him alone.
“By this instrument, we, Conrad of Thiessbach, knight, and Albert of Lahnhoff, gentleman, testify that we have learned the following from the mouth of Sir Wolfgram of Haldenbach, at the hour of his death, when he wrestled almost with despair. God be merciful to his poor soul!
“Sir Wolfgram having, in the fury of the chase, met with a deadly fall from the cliff, summoned us, his hunting companions, to come to him, and related to us, with great lamentation and remorse, all that he had formerly perpetrated against the noble house of Wildeck; which caused our very hair to stand on end with horror.”
Here followed the particulars already related of that horrible deed; but at the passage where the dying old man pronounced the malediction upon the race of Haldenbach, he proceeded thus:
“The soothsayer or prophet added yet farther, that if the family of Wildeck should become extinct, without one of them having first married a daughter of the house of Haldenbach, then the fearful spell should retain its power until the last day, whether a Wildeck should survive or not.
After this, however, it appeared that the prophet, mindful, probably, of his own situation, so soon to appear before the judgment-seat, and of the saying of his Lord, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,” – was about to add .something consolatory to the race over whom he had pronounced this malediction
But in the mean time his whole mantle became enveloped and pierced through with the fury of the flames which was so horrible to behold, that he, Sir Wolfgram, being unable, in the agony of his conscience, longer to endure the sight, hurried away and buried himself in the forest. After a while he returned, but the tumbling walls had long since buried the old man in the flame and ruins, and Sir Wolfgram, to his great sorrow, knew nothing of the words of hope which he had uttered.
“This we have had officially drawn up by the venerable father Lambert, abbot of the monastery of S. Egidius. If peradventure at some future time it may serve to the use or advantage either of the race of Wildeck or that of Haldenbach. And I, Conrad of Thiessbach, have, as a farther attestation, affixed my seal with my signature; and I, Albert of Lahnhoff, being unable to write, have added a cross under my seal. Given at the castle of Thiessbach, on the 25th day of December, in the year of our Lord, 1293.”
With deep emotion Julius had deciphered the lines of this curiously written document, the spelling as well as the characters of which were to him strange and unusual.It was now as if a voice had called to him direct from the grave of his prophetic ancestor.With high, solemn fortitude, his hands folded in silent prayer, he stood before the parchment.
The princess entered.
“Your highness best knows,” said Julius, “how far it may meet with the approval of my sovereign that I should ask the lady of Haldenbach in marriage, so that she may bear the name of Wildeck before we march.”
“You are just what I expected,” replied the noble Princess; and a beam of pure delight shone from her maidenly eye upon the young knight. “The Prince is informed of all, and he leaves the decision to you. I have written also to Romaura’s aunt. The hour of the dreadful malady has gone by. Hold yourself ready, therefore, to set out at the hour of nine-tomorrow morning. My chamberlain has orders to call for and accompany you; and I will myself be witness to the marriage-rite.”
A gracious nod dismissed him.
Overjoyed in his pure soul, Julius hastened to arrange every thing for the solemn occasion.
In the mild glimmer of the evening hour, Julius halted next day before Rosaura’s castle. The chamberlain entered, in order to prepare for the reception of the solemn bridegroom.
Julius dismounted slowly from his carriage.Already he perceived in the distance the six dapple greys of the Lady Alwina’s carriage trotting through the valley.He knew not whether he should speak to Rosaura before the arrival of the Princess:He scarcely dared to think of it.Then the chamberlain motioned to him to come within the gate, and silently pointed to the castle chapel which stood close by, under a shade of lime-trees.
The aunt of the bride was within, quite alone. With deep emotion the venerable lady took hold of the young man’s, saying “You bring hither a noble sacrifice, Count Wildeck, if it is only in virtue of marriage that it is in your power to bestow upon your spouse the noble name of Wildeck, and thereby provide for her honour and peace.”
“Oh! Is not this beyond measure enough!” whispered the glowing Julius. “Here I solemnly promise to you to perform whatever you may impose upon me, and, next to God, to keep Rosaura purely and faithfully before my eyes, even in the hour of death.”
In sweet sorrow, he knelt down before her. The pious widow breathed a holy kiss on his forehead, and disappeared.
Presently Rosaura entered, pale and beautiful as a saintly alabaster image, wearing a garland of myrtle in her hair, accompanied on one side by the Princess, and on the other by her venerable nurse.
The holy abbot pronounced the marriage-blessing over the wonderful pair, according to the prescribed ritual, visibly moved in all the features of his aged, venerable countenance; for he had been made aware of all that had happened here.
Scarcely audible, but in a silvery, pure, and firm tone, the “Yes” flew over Rosaura’s lips. And now, as Julius turned, with a reverential greeting, toward the door, she beckoned him once more back. “Thou art an angel,” whispered she, and sank weeping into her arms. Then she hid herself in the bosom of the Princess; and more blessed, and yet more agitated with sorrowful emotion, than ever was bridegroom before, Julius hastened homewards through the mist of a calm autumnal night.
To be continued…