A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER I.

Sir Ludwig of Hombourg.

It was in the good old days of chivalry, when every mountain that bathes its shadow in the Rhine had its castle: not inhabited, as now, by a few rats and owls, nor covered with moss and wallflowers, and funguses, and creeping ivy. No, no! where the ivy now clusters there grew strong portcullis and bars of steel; where the wallflower now quivers in the rampart there were silken banners embroidered with wonderful heraldry; men-at-arms marched where now you shall only see a bank of moss or a hideous black champignon; and in place of the rats and owlets, I warrant me there were ladies and knights to revel in the great halls, and to feast, and to dance, and to make love there. They are passed away:— those old knights and ladies: their golden hair first changed to silver, and then the silver dropped off and disappeared for ever; their elegant legs, so slim and active in the dance, became swollen and gouty, and then, from being swollen and gouty, dwindled down to bare bone-shanks; the roses left their cheeks, and then their cheeks disappeared, and left their skulls, and then their skulls powdered into dust, and all sign of them was gone. And as it was with them, so shall it be with us. Ho, seneschal! fill me a cup of liquor! put sugar in it, good fellow — yea, and a little hot water; a very little, for my soul is sad, as I think of those days and knights of old.

They, too, have revelled and feasted, and where are they? — gone? — nay, not altogether gone; for doth not the eye catch glimpses of them as they walk yonder in the gray limbo of romance, shining faintly in their coats of steel, wandering by the side of long-haired ladies, with long-tailed gowns that little pages carry? Yes! one sees them: the poet sees them still in the far-off Cloudland, and hears the ring of their clarions as they hasten to battle or tourney — and the dim echoes of their lutes chanting of love and fair ladies! Gracious privilege of poesy! It is as the Dervish’s collyrium to the eyes, and causes them to see treasures that to the sight of donkeys are invisible. Blessed treasures of fancy! I would not change ye — no, not for many donkey-loads of gold. . . . Fill again, jolly seneschal, thou brave wag; chalk me up the produce on the hostel door — surely the spirits of old are mixed up in the wondrous liquor, and gentle visions of bygone princes and princesses look blandly down on us from the cloudy perfume of the pipe. Do you know in what year the fairies left the Rhine? — long before Murray’s “Guide-Book” was wrote — long before squat steamboats, with snorting funnels, came paddling down the stream. Do you not know that once upon a time the appearance of eleven thousand British virgins was considered at Cologne as a wonder? Now there come twenty thousand such annually, accompanied by their ladies’-maids. But of them we will say no more — let us back to those who went before them.

Many, many hundred thousand years ago, and at the exact period when chivalry was in full bloom, there occurred a little history upon the banks of the Rhine, which has been already written in a book, and hence must be positively true. ’Tis a story of knights and ladies — of love and battle, and virtue rewarded; a story of princes and noble lords, moreover: the best of company. Gentles, an ye will, ye shall hear it. Fair dames and damsels, may your loves be as happy as those of the heroine of this romaunt.

On the cold and rainy evening of Thursday, the 26th of October, in the year previously indicated, such travellers as might have chanced to be abroad in that bitter night, might have remarked a fellow-wayfarer journeying on the road from Oberwinter to Godesberg. He was a man not tall in stature, but of the most athletic proportions, and Time, which had browned and furrowed his cheek and sprinkled his locks with gray, declared pretty clearly that He must have been acquainted with the warrior for some fifty good years. He was armed in mail, and rode a powerful and active battle-horse, which (though the way the pair had come that day was long and weary indeed,) yet supported the warrior, his armor and luggage, with seeming ease. As it was in a friend’s country, the knight did not think fit to wear his heavy destrier, or helmet, which hung at his saddlebow over his portmanteau. Both were marked with the coronet of a count; and from the crown which surmounted the helmet, rose the crest of his knightly race, an arm proper lifting a naked sword.

At his right hand, and convenient to the warrior’s grasp, hung his mangonel or mace — a terrific weapon which had shattered the brains of many a turbaned soldan; while over his broad and ample chest there fell the triangular shield of the period, whereon were emblazoned his arms — argent, a gules wavy, on a saltire reversed of the second: the latter device was awarded for a daring exploit before Ascalon, by the Emperor Maximilian, and a reference to the German Peerage of that day, or a knowledge of high families which every gentleman then possessed, would have sufficed to show at once that the rider we have described was of the noble house of Hombourg. It was, in fact, the gallant knight Sir Ludwig of Hombourg: his rank as a count, and chamberlain of the Emperor of Austria, was marked by the cap of maintenance with the peacock’s feather which he wore (when not armed for battle), and his princely blood was denoted by the oiled silk umbrella which he carried (a very meet protection against the pitiless storm), and which, as it is known, in the middle ages, none but princes were justified in using. A bag, fastened with a brazen padlock, and made of the costly produce of the Persian looms (then extremely rare in Europe), told that he had travelled in Eastern climes. This, too, was evident from the inscription writ on card or parchment, and sewed on the bag. It first ran “Count Ludwig de Hombourg, Jerusalem;” but the name of the Holy City had been dashed out with the pen, and that of “Godesberg” substituted. So far indeed had the cavalier travelled! — and it is needless to state that the bag in question contained such remaining articles of the toilet as the high-born noble deemed unnecessary to place in his valise.

“By Saint Bugo of Katzenellenbogen!” said the good knight, shivering, “’tis colder here than at Damascus! Marry, I am so hungry I could eat one of Saladin’s camels. Shall I be at Godesberg in time for dinner?” And taking out his horologe (which hung in a small side-pocket of his embroidered surcoat), the crusader consoled himself by finding that it was but seven of the night, and that he would reach Godesberg ere the warder had sounded the second gong.

His opinion was borne out by the result. His good steed, which could trot at a pinch fourteen leagues in the hour, brought him to this famous castle, just as the warder was giving the first welcome signal which told that the princely family of Count Karl, Margrave of Godesberg, were about to prepare for their usual repast at eight o’clock. Crowds of pages and horse-keepers were in the court, when, the portcullis being raised, and amidst the respectful salutes of the sentinels, the most ancient friend of the house of Godesberg entered into its castle-yard. The under-butler stepped forward to take his bridle-rein. “Welcome, Sir Count, from the Holy Land!” exclaimed the faithful old man. “Welcome, Sir Count, from the Holy Land!” cried the rest of the servants in the hall. A stable was speedily found for the Count’s horse, Streithengst, and it was not before the gallant soldier had seen that true animal well cared for, that he entered the castle itself, and was conducted to his chamber. Wax-candles burning bright on the mantel, flowers in china vases, every variety of soap, and a flask of the precious essence manufactured at the neighboring city of Cologne, were displayed on his toilet-table; a cheering fire “crackled on the hearth,” and showed that the good knight’s coming had been looked and cared for. The serving-maidens, bringing him hot water for his ablutions, smiling asked, “Would he have his couch warmed at eve?” One might have been sure from their blushes that the tough old soldier made an arch reply. The family tonsor came to know whether the noble Count had need of his skill. “By Saint Bugo,” said the knight, as seated in an easy settle by the fire, the tonsor rid his chin of its stubby growth, and lightly passed the tongs and pomatum through “the sable silver” of his hair — “By Saint Bugo, this is better than my dungeon at Grand Cairo. How is my godson Otto, master barber; and the lady countess, his mother; and the noble Count Karl, my dear brother-inarms?”

“They are well,” said the tonsor, with a sigh.

“By Saint Bugo, I’m glad on’t; but why that sigh?”

“Things are not as they have been with my good lord,” answered the hairdresser, “ever since Count Gottfried’s arrival.”

“He here!” roared Sir Ludwig. “Good never came where Gottfried was!” and the while he donned a pair of silken hose, that showed admirably the proportions of his lower limbs, and exchanged his coat of mail for the spotless vest and black surcoat collared with velvet of Genoa, which was the fitting costume for “knight in ladye’s bower,” the knight entered into a conversation with the barber, who explained to him, with the usual garrulousness of his tribe, what was the present position of the noble family of Godesberg.

This will be narrated in the next chapter.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/legend/chapter1.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07