A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XII.

The Champion.

And now the noble Cleves began in good earnest to prepare his castle for the threatened siege. He gathered in all the available cattle round the property, and the pigs round many miles; and a dreadful slaughter of horned and snouted animals took place — the whole castle resounding with the lowing of the oxen and the squeaks of the gruntlings, destined to provide food for the garrison. These, when slain, (her gentle spirit, of course, would not allow of her witnessing that disagreeable operation,) the lovely Helen, with the assistance of her maidens, carefully salted and pickled. Corn was brought in in great quantities, the Prince paying for the same when he had money, giving bills when he could get credit, or occasionally, marry, sending out a few stout men-at-arms to forage, who brought in wheat without money or credit either. The charming Princess, amidst the intervals of her labors, went about encouraging the garrison, who vowed to a man they would die for a single sweet smile of hers; and in order to make their inevitable sufferings as easy as possible to the gallant fellows, she and the apothecaries got ready a plenty of efficacious simples, and scraped a vast quantity of lint to bind their warriors’ wounds withal. All the fortifications were strengthened; the fosses carefully filled with spikes and water; large stones placed over the gates, convenient to tumble on the heads of the assaulting parties; and caldrons prepared, with furnaces to melt up pitch, brimstone, boiling oil, &c., wherewith hospitably to receive them. Having the keenest eye in the whole garrison, young Otto was placed on the topmost tower, to watch for the expected coming of the beleaguering host.

They were seen only too soon. Long ranks of shining spears were seen glittering in the distance, and the army of the Rowski soon made its appearance in battle’s magnificently stern array. The tents of the renowned chief and his numerous warriors were pitched out of arrow-shot of the castle, but in fearful proximity; and when his army had taken up its position, an officer with a flag of truce and a trumpet was seen advancing to the castle gate. It was the same herald who had previously borne his master’s defiance to the Prince of Cleves. He came once more to the castle gate, and there proclaimed that the noble Count of Eulenschreckenstein was in arms without, ready to do battle with the Prince of Cleves, or his champion; that he would remain in arms for three days, ready for combat. If no man met him at the end of that period, he would deliver an assault, and would give quarter to no single soul in the garrison. So saying, the herald nailed his lord’s gauntlet on the castle gate. As before, the Prince flung him over another glove from the wall; though how he was to defend himself from such a warrior, or get a champion, or resist the pitiless assault that must follow, the troubled old nobleman knew not in the least.

The Princess Helen passed the night in the chapel, vowing tons of wax-candles to all the patron saints of the House of Cleves, if they would raise her up a defender.

But how did the noble girl’s heart sink — how were her notions of the purity of man shaken within her gentle bosom, by the dread intelligence which reached her the next morning, after the defiance of the Rowski! At roll-call it was discovered that he on whom she principally relied — he whom her fond heart had singled out as her champion, had proved faithless! Otto, the degenerate Otto, had fled! His comrade, Wolfgang, had gone with him. A rope was found dangling from the casement of their chamber, and they must have swum the moat and passed over to the enemy in the darkness of the previous night. “A pretty lad was this fair-spoken archer of thine!” said the Prince her father to her; “and a pretty kettle of fish hast thou cooked for the fondest of fathers.” She retired weeping to her apartment. Never before had that young heart felt so wretched.

That morning, at nine o’clock, as they were going to breakfast, the Rowski’s trumpets sounded. Clad in complete armor, and mounted on his enormous piebald charger, he came out of his pavilion, and rode slowly up and down in front of the castle. He was ready there to meet a champion.

Three times each day did the odious trumpet sound the same notes of defiance. Thrice daily did the steel-clad Rowski come forth challenging the combat. The first day passed, and there was no answer to his summons. The second day came and went, but no champion had risen to defend. The taunt of his shrill clarion remained without answer; and the sun went down upon the wretchedest father and daughter in all the land of Christendom.

The trumpets sounded an hour after sunrise, an hour after noon, and an hour before sunset. The third day came, but with it brought no hope. The first and second summons met no response. At five o’clock the old Prince called his daughter and blessed her. “I go to meet this Rowski,” said he. “It may be we shall meet no more, my Helen — my child — the innocent cause of all this grief. If I shall fall to-night the Rowski’s victim, ’twill be that life is nothing without honor.” And so saying, he put into her hands a dagger, and bade her sheathe it in her own breast so soon as the terrible champion had carried the castle by storm.

This Helen most faithfully promised to do; and her aged father retired to his armory, and donned his ancient war-worn corselet. It had borne the shock of a thousand lances ere this, but it was now so tight as almost to choke the knightly wearer.

The last trumpet sounded — tantara! tantara! — its shrill call rang over the wide plains, and the wide plains gave back no answer. Again! — but when its notes died away, there was only a mournful, an awful silence. “Farewell, my child,” said the Prince, bulkily lifting himself into his battle-saddle. “Remember the dagger. Hark! the trumpet sounds for the third time. Open, warders! Sound, trumpeters! and good St. Bendigo guard the right.”

But Puffendorff, the trumpeter, had not leisure to lift the trumpet to his lips: when, hark! from without there came another note of another clarion! — a distant note at first, then swelling fuller. Presently, in brilliant variations, the full rich notes of the “Huntsman’s Chorus” came clearly over the breeze; and a thousand voices of the crowd gazing over the gate exclaimed, “A champion! a champion!”

And, indeed, a champion HAD come. Issuing from the forest came a knight and squire: the knight gracefully cantering an elegant cream-colored Arabian of prodigious power — the squire mounted on an unpretending gray cob; which, nevertheless, was an animal of considerable strength and sinew. It was the squire who blew the trumpet, through the bars of his helmet; the knight’s visor was completely down. A small prince’s coronet of gold, from which rose three pink ostrich-feathers, marked the warrior’s rank: his blank shield bore no cognizance. As gracefully poising his lance he rode into the green space where the Rowski’s tents were pitched, the hearts of all present beat with anxiety, and the poor Prince of Cleves, especially, had considerable doubts about his new champion. “So slim a figure as that can never compete with Donnerblitz,” said he, moodily, to his daughter; “but whoever he be, the fellow puts a good face on it, and rides like a man. See, he has touched the Rowski’s shield with the point of his lance! By St. Bendigo, a perilous venture!”

The unknown knight had indeed defied the Rowski to the death, as the Prince of Cleves remarked from the battlement where he and his daughter stood to witness the combat; and so, having defied his enemy, the Incognito galloped round under the castle wall, bowing elegantly to the lovely Princess there, and then took his ground and waited for the foe. His armor blazed in the sunshine as he sat there, motionless, on his cream-colored steed. He looked like one of those fairy knights one has read of — one of those celestial champions who decided so many victories before the invention of gun powder.

The Rowski’s horse was speedily brought to the door of his pavilion; and that redoubted warrior, blazing in a suit of magnificent brass armor, clattered into his saddle. Long waves of blood-red feathers bristled over his helmet, which was farther ornamented by two huge horns of the aurochs. His lance was painted white and red, and he whirled the prodigious beam in the air and caught it with savage glee. He laughed when he saw the slim form of his antagonist; and his soul rejoiced to meet the coming battle. He dug his spurs into the enormous horse he rode: the enormous horse snorted, and squealed, too, with fierce pleasure. He jerked and curveted him with a brutal playfulness, and after a few minutes’ turning and wheeling, during which everybody had leisure to admire the perfection of his equitation, he cantered round to a point exactly opposite his enemy, and pulled up his impatient charger.

The old Prince on the battlement was so eager for the combat, that he seemed quite to forget the danger which menaced himself, should his slim champion be discomfited by the tremendous Knight of Donnerblitz. “Go it!” said he, flinging his truncheon into the ditch; and at the word, the two warriors rushed with whirling rapidity at each other.

And now ensued a combat so terrible, that a weak female hand, like that of her who pens this tale of chivalry, can never hope to do justice to the terrific theme. You have seen two engines on the Great Western line rush past each other with a pealing scream? So rapidly did the two warriors gallop towards one another; the feathers of either streamed yards behind their backs as they converged. Their shock as they met was as that of two cannon-balls; the mighty horses trembled and reeled with the concussion; the lance aimed at the Rowski’s helmet bore off the coronet, the horns, the helmet itself, and hurled them to an incredible distance: a piece of the Rowski’s left ear was carried off on the point of the nameless warrior’s weapon. How had he fared? His adversary’s weapon had glanced harmless along the blank surface of his polished buckler; and the victory so far was with him.

The expression of the Rowski’s face, as, bareheaded, he glared on his enemy with fierce bloodshot eyeballs, was one worthy of a demon. The imprecatory expressions which he made use of can never be copied by a feminine pen.

His opponent magnanimously declined to take advantage of the opportunity thus offered him of finishing the combat by splitting his opponent’s skull with his curtal-axe, and, riding back to his starting-place, bent his lance’s point to the ground, in token that he would wait until the Count of Eulenschreckenstein was helmeted afresh.

“Blessed Bendigo!” cried the Prince, “thou art a gallant lance: but why didst not rap the Schelm’s brain out?”

“Bring me a fresh helmet!” yelled the Rowski. Another casque was brought to him by his trembling squire.

As soon as he had braced it, he drew his great flashing sword from his side, and rushed at his enemy, roaring hoarsely his cry of battle. The unknown knight’s sword was unsheathed in a moment, and at the next the two blades were clanking together the dreadful music of the combat!

The Donnerblitz wielded his with his usual savageness and activity. It whirled round his adversary’s head with frightful rapidity. Now it carried away a feather of his plume; now it shore off a leaf of his coronet. The flail of the thrasher does not fall more swiftly upon the corn. For many minutes it was the Unknown’s only task to defend himself from the tremendous activity of the enemy.

But even the Rowski’s strength would slacken after exertion. The blows began to fall less thick anon, and the point of the unknown knight began to make dreadful play. It found and penetrated every joint of the Donnerblitz’s armor. Now it nicked him in the shoulder where the vambrace was buckled to the corselet; now it bored a shrewd hole under the light brissart, and blood followed; now, with fatal dexterity, it darted through the visor, and came back to the recover deeply tinged with blood. A scream of rage followed the last thrust; and no wonder:— it had penetrated the Rowski’s left eye.

His blood was trickling through a dozen orifices; he was almost choking in his helmet with loss of breath, and loss of blood, and rage. Gasping with fury, he drew back his horse, flung his great sword at his opponent’s head, and once more plunged at him, wielding his curtal-axe.

Then you should have seen the unknown knight employing the same dreadful weapon! Hitherto he had been on his defence; now he began the attack; and the gleaming axe whirred in his hand like a reed, but descended like a thunderbolt! “Yield! yield! Sir Rowski,” shouted he, in a calm, clear voice.

A blow dealt madly at his head was the reply. ’Twas the last blow that the Count of Eulenschreckenstein ever struck in battle! The curse was on his lips as the crushing steel descended into his brain, and split it in two. He rolled like a log from his horse: his enemy’s knee was in a moment on his chest, and the dagger of mercy at his throat, as the knight once more called upon him to yield.

But there was no answer from within the helmet. When it was withdrawn, the teeth were crunched together; the mouth that should have spoken, grinned a ghastly silence: one eye still glared with hate and fury, but it was glazed with the film of death!

The red orb of the sun was just then dipping into the Rhine. The unknown knight, vaulting once more into his saddle, made a graceful obeisance to the Prince of Cleves and his daughter, without a word, and galloped back into the forest, whence he had issued an hour before sunset.

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