A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XI.

The Martyr of Love.

The archers who had travelled in company with young Otto gave a handsome dinner in compliment to the success of our hero; at which his friend distinguished himself as usual in the eating and drinking department. Squintoff, the Rowski bowman, declined to attend; so great was the envy of the brute at the youthful hero’s superiority. As for Otto himself, he sat on the right hand of the chairman; but it was remarked that he could not eat. Gentle reader of my page! thou knowest why full well. He was too much in love to have any appetite; for though I myself when laboring under that passion, never found my consumption of victuals diminish, yet remember our Otto was a hero of romance, and they NEVER are hungry when they’re in love.

The next day, the young gentleman proceeded to enroll himself in the corps of Archers of the Prince of Cleves, and with him came his attached squire, who vowed he never would leave him. As Otto threw aside his own elegant dress, and donned the livery of the House of Cleves, the noble Childe sighed not a little. ’Twas a splendid uniform ’tis true, but still it WAS a livery, and one of his proud spirit ill bears another’s cognizances. “They are the colors of the Princess, however,” said he, consoling himself; “and what suffering would I not undergo for HER?” As for Wolfgang, the squire, it may well be supposed that the good-natured, low-born fellow had no such scruples; but he was glad enough to exchange for the pink hose, the yellow jacket, the pea-green cloak, and orange-tawny hat, with which the Duke’s steward supplied him, the homely patched doublet of green which he had worn for years past.

“Look at you two archers,” said the Prince of Cleves to his guest, the Rowski of Donnerblitz, as they were strolling on the battlements after dinner, smoking their cigars as usual. His Highness pointed to our two young friends, who were mounting guard for the first time. “See yon two bowmen — mark their bearing! One is the youth who beat thy Squintoff, and t’other, an I mistake not, won the third prize at the butts. Both wear the same uniform — the colors of my house — yet wouldst not swear that the one was but a churl, and the other a noble gentleman?”

“Which looks like the nobleman?” said the Rowski, as black as thunder.

“WHICH? why, young Otto, to be sure,” said the Princess Helen, eagerly. The young lady was following the pair; but under pretence of disliking the odor of the cigar, she had refused the Rowski’s proffered arm, and was loitering behind with her parasol.

Her interposition in favor of her young protege only made the black and jealous Rowski more ill-humored. “How long is it, Sir Prince of Cleves,” said he, “that the churls who wear your livery permit themselves to wear the ornaments of noble knights? Who but a noble dare wear ringlets such as yon springald’s? Ho, archer!” roared he, “come, hither, fellow.” And Otto stood before him. As he came, and presenting arms stood respectfully before the Prince and his savage guest, he looked for one moment at the lovely Helen — their eyes met, their hearts beat simultaneously: and, quick, two little blushes appeared in the cheek of either. I have seen one ship at sea answering another’s signal so.

While they are so regarding each other, let us just remind our readers of the great estimation in which the hair was held in the North. Only nobles were permitted to wear it long. When a man disgraced himself, a shaving was sure to follow. Penalties were inflicted upon villains or vassals who sported ringlets. See the works of Aurelius Tonsor; Hirsutus de Nobilitate Capillari; Rolandus de Oleo Macassari; Schnurrbart; Fresirische Alterthumskunde, &c.

“We must have those ringlets of thine cut, good fellow,” said the Duke of Cleves good-naturedly, but wishing to spare the feelings of his gallant recruit. “’Tis against the regulation cut of my archer guard.”

“Cut off my hair!” cried Otto, agonized.

“Ay, and thine ears with it, yokel,” roared Donnerblitz.

“Peace, noble Eulenschreckenstein,” said the Duke with dignity: “let the Duke of Cleves deal as he will with his own men-at-arms. And you, young sir, unloose the grip of thy dagger.”

Otto, indeed, had convulsively grasped his snickersnee, with intent to plunge it into the heart of the Rowski; but his politer feelings overcame him. “The count need not fear, my lord,” said he: “a lady is present.” And he took off his orange-tawny cap and bowed low. Ah! what a pang shot through the heart of Helen, as she thought that those lovely ringlets must be shorn from that beautiful head!

Otto’s mind was, too, in commotion. His feelings as a gentleman — let us add, his pride as a man — for who is not, let us ask, proud of a good head of hair? — waged war within his soul. He expostulated with the Prince. “It was never in my contemplation,” he said, “on taking service, to undergo the operation of hair-cutting.”

“Thou art free to go or stay, Sir Archer,” said the Prince pettishly. “I will have no churls imitating noblemen in my service: I will bandy no conditions with archers of my guard.”

“My resolve is taken,” said Otto, irritated too in his turn. “I will . . . . ”

“What?” cried Helen, breathless with intense agitation.

“I will STAY,” answered Otto. The poor girl almost fainted with joy. The Rowski frowned with demoniac fury, and grinding his teeth and cursing in the horrible German jargon, stalked away. “So be it,” said the Prince of Cleves, taking his daughter’s arm —“and here comes Snipwitz, my barber, who shall do the business for you.” With this the Prince too moved on, feeling in his heart not a little compassion for the lad; for Adolf of Cleves had been handsome in his youth, and distinguished for the ornament of which he was now depriving his archer.

Snipwitz led the poor lad into a side-room, and there — in a word — operated upon him. The golden curls — fair curls that his mother had so often played with! — fell under the shears and round the lad’s knees, until he looked as if he was sitting in a bath of sunbeams.

When the frightful act had been performed, Otto, who entered the little chamber in the tower ringleted like Apollo, issued from it as cropped as a charity-boy.

See how melancholy he looks, now that the operation is over! — And no wonder. He was thinking what would be Helen’s opinion of him, now that one of his chief personal ornaments was gone. “Will she know me?” thought he; “will she love me after this hideous mutilation?”

Yielding to these gloomy thoughts, and, indeed, rather unwilling to be seen by his comrades, now that he was so disfigured, the young gentleman had hidden himself behind one of the buttresses of the wall, a prey to natural despondency; when he saw something which instantly restored him to good spirits. He saw the lovely Helen coming towards the chamber where the odious barber had performed upon him — coming forward timidly, looking round her anxiously, blushing with delightful agitation — and presently seeing, as she thought, the coast clear, she entered the apartment. She stooped down, and ah! what was Otto’s joy when he saw her pick up a beautiful golden lock of his hair, press it to her lips, and then hide it in her bosom! No carnation ever blushed so redly as Helen did when she came out after performing this feat. Then she hurried straightway to her own apartments in the castle, and Otto, whose first impulse was to come out from his hiding-place, and, falling at her feet, call heaven and earth to witness to his passion, with difficulty restrained his feelings and let her pass: but the love-stricken young hero was so delighted with this evident proof of reciprocated attachment, that all regret at losing his ringlets at once left him, and he vowed he would sacrifice not only his hair, but his head, if need were, to do her service.

That very afternoon, no small bustle and conversation took place in the castle, on account of the sudden departure of the Rowski of Eulenschreckenstein, with all his train and equipage. He went away in the greatest wrath, it was said, after a long and loud conversation with the Prince. As that potentate conducted his guest to the gate, walking rather demurely and shamefacedly by his side, as he gathered his attendants in the court, and there mounted his charger, the Rowski ordered his trumpets to sound, and scornfully flung a largesse of gold among the servitors and men-at-arms of the House of Cleves, who were marshalled in the court. “Farewell, Sir Prince,” said he to his host: “I quit you now suddenly; but remember, it is not my last visit to the Castle of Cleves.” And ordering his band to play “See the Conquering Hero comes,” he clattered away through the drawbridge. The Princess Helen was not present at his departure; and the venerable Prince of Cleves looked rather moody and chap-fallen when his guest left him. He visited all the castle defences pretty accurately that night, and inquired of his officers the state of the ammunition, provisions, &c. He said nothing; but the Princess Helen’s maid did: and everybody knew that the Rowski had made his proposals, had been rejected, and, getting up in a violent fury, had called for his people, and sworn by his great gods that he would not enter the castle again until he rode over the breach, lance in hand, the conqueror of Cleves and all belonging to it.

No little consternation was spread through the garrison at the news: for everybody knew the Rowski to be one of the most intrepid and powerful soldiers in all Germany — one of the most skilful generals. Generous to extravagance to his own followers, he was ruthless to the enemy: a hundred stories were told of the dreadful barbarities exercised by him in several towns and castles which he had captured and sacked. And poor Helen had the pain of thinking, that in consequence of her refusal she was dooming all the men, women, and children of the principality to indiscriminate and horrible slaughter.

The dreadful surmises regarding a war received in a few days dreadful confirmation. It was noon, and the worthy Prince of Cleves was taking his dinner (though the honest warrior had had little appetite for that meal for some time past), when trumpets were heard at the gate; and presently the herald of the Rowski of Donnerblitz, clad in a tabard on which the arms of the Count were blazoned, entered the dining-hall. A page bore a steel gauntlet on a cushion; Bleu Sanglier had his hat on his head. The Prince of Cleves put on his own, as the herald came up to the chair of state where the sovereign sat.

“Silence for Bleu Sanglier,” cried the Prince, gravely. “Say your say, Sir Herald.”

“In the name of the high and mighty Rowski, Prince of Donnerblitz, Margrave of Eulenschreckenstein, Count of Krotenwald, Schnauzestadt, and Galgenhugel, Hereditary Grand Corkscrew of the Holy Roman Empire — to you, Adolf the Twenty-third, Prince of Cleves, I, Bleu Sanglier, bring war and defiance. Alone, and lance to lance, or twenty to twenty in field or in fort, on plain or on mountain, the noble Rowski defies you. Here, or wherever he shall meet you, he proclaims war to the death between you and him. In token whereof, here is his glove.” And taking the steel glove from the page, Bleu Boar flung it clanging on the marble floor.

The Princess Helen turned deadly pale: but the Prince, with a good assurance, flung down his own glove, calling upon some one to raise the Rowski’s; which Otto accordingly took up and presented to him, on his knee.

“Boteler, fill my goblet,” said the Prince to that functionary, who, clothed in tight black hose, with a white kerchief, and a napkin on his dexter arm, stood obsequiously by his master’s chair. The goblet was filled with Malvoisie: it held about three quarts; a precious golden hanap carved by the cunning artificer, Benvenuto the Florentine.

“Drink, Bleu Sanglier,” said the Prince, “and put the goblet in thy bosom. Wear this chain, furthermore, for my sake.” And so saying, Prince Adolf flung a precious chain of emeralds round the herald’s neck. “An invitation to battle was ever a welcome call to Adolf of Cleves.” So saying, and bidding his people take good care of Bleu Sanglier’s retinue, the Prince left the hall with his daughter. All were marvelling at his dignity, courage, and generosity.

But, though affecting unconcern, the mind of Prince Adolf was far from tranquil. He was no longer the stalwart knight who, in the reign of Stanislaus Augustus, had, with his naked fist, beaten a lion to death in three minutes; and alone had kept the postern of Peterwaradin for two hours against seven hundred Turkish janissaries, who were assailing it. Those deeds which had made the heir of Cleves famous were done thirty years syne. A free liver since he had come into his principality, and of a lazy turn, he had neglected the athletic exercises which had made him in youth so famous a champion, and indolence had borne its usual fruits. He tried his old battle-sword — that famous blade with which, in Palestine, he had cut an elephant-driver in two pieces, and split asunder the skull of the elephant which he rode. Adolf of Cleves could scarcely now lift the weapon over his head. He tried his armor. It was too tight for him. And the old soldier burst into tears, when he found he could not buckle it. Such a man was not fit to encounter the terrible Rowski in single combat.

Nor could he hope to make head against him for any time in the field. The Prince’s territories were small; his vassals proverbially lazy and peaceable; his treasury empty. The dismallest prospects were before him: and he passed a sleepless night writing to his friends for succor, and calculating with his secretary the small amount of the resources which he could bring to aid him against his advancing and powerful enemy.

Helen’s pillow that evening was also unvisited by slumber. She lay awake thinking of Otto — thinking of the danger and the ruin her refusal to marry had brought upon her dear papa. Otto, too, slept not: but HIS waking thoughts were brilliant and heroic: the noble Childe thought how he should defend the Princess, and win LOS and honor in the ensuing combat.

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