A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER IX.

The Lady of Windeck.

As the bell with iron tongue called midnight, Wolfgang the Archer, pacing on his watch, beheld before him a pale female figure. He did not know whence she came: but there suddenly she stood close to him. Her blue, clear, glassy eyes were fixed upon him. Her form was of faultless beauty; her face pale as the marble of the fairy statue, ere yet the sculptor’s love had given it life. A smile played upon her features, but it was no warmer than the reflection of a moonbeam on a lake; and yet it was wondrous beautiful. A fascination stole over the senses of young Wolfgang. He stared at the lovely apparition with fixed eyes and distended jaws. She looked at him with ineffable archness. She lifted one beautifully rounded alabaster arm, and made a sign as if to beckon him towards her. Did Wolfgang — the young and lusty Wolfgang — follow? Ask the iron whether it follows the magnet? — ask the pointer whether it pursues the partridge through the stubble? — ask the youth whether the lollipop-shop does not attract him? Wolfgang DID follow. An antique door opened, as if by magic. There was no light, and yet they saw quite plain; they passed through the innumerable ancient chambers, and yet they did not wake any of the owls and bats roosting there. We know not through how many apartments the young couple passed; but at last they came to one where a feast was prepared: and on an antique table, covered with massive silver, covers were laid for two. The lady took her place at one end of the table, and with her sweetest nod beckoned Wolfgang to the other seat. He took it. The table was small, and their knees met. He felt as cold in his legs as if he were kneeling against an ice-well.

“Gallant archer,” said she, “you must be hungry after your day’s march. What supper will you have? Shall it be a delicate lobster-salad? or a dish of elegant tripe and onions? or a slice of boar’s-head and truffles? or a Welsh rabbit a la cave au cidre? or a beefsteak and shallot? or a couple of rognons a la brochette? Speak, brave bowyer: you have but to order.”

As there was nothing on the table but a covered silver dish, Wolfgang thought that the lady who proposed such a multiplicity of delicacies to him was only laughing at him; so he determined to try her with something extremely rare.

“Fair princess,” he said, “I should like very much a pork-chop and some mashed potatoes.”

She lifted the cover: there was such a pork-chop as Simpson never served, with a dish of mashed potatoes that would have formed at least six portions in our degenerate days in Rupert Street.

When he had helped himself to these delicacies, the lady put the cover on the dish again, and watched him eating with interest. He was for some time too much occupied with his own food to remark that his companion did not eat a morsel; but big as it was, his chop was soon gone; the shining silver of his plate was scraped quite clean with his knife, and, heaving a great sigh, he confessed a humble desire for something to drink.

“Call for what you like, sweet sir,” said the lady, lifting up a silver filigree bottle, with an india-rubber cork, ornamented with gold.

“Then,” said Master Wolfgang — for the fellow’s tastes were, in sooth, very humble —“I call for half-and-half.” According to his wish, a pint of that delicious beverage was poured from the bottle, foaming, into his beaker.

Having emptied this at a draught, and declared that on his conscience it was the best tap he ever knew in his life, the young man felt his appetite renewed; and it is impossible to say how many different dishes he called for. Only enchantment, he was afterwards heard to declare (though none of his friends believed him), could have given him the appetite he possessed on that extraordinary night. He called for another pork-chop and potatoes, then for pickled salmon; then he thought he would try a devilled turkey-wing. “I adore the devil,” said he.

“So do I,” said the pale lady, with unwonted animation; and the dish was served straightway. It was succeeded by black-puddings, tripe, toasted cheese, and — what was most remarkable — every one of the dishes which he desired came from under the same silver cover: which circumstance, when he had partaken of about fourteen different articles, he began to find rather mysterious.

“Oh,” said the pale lady, with a smile, “the mystery is easily accounted for: the servants hear you, and the kitchen is BELOW.” But this did not account for the manner in which more half-and-half, bitter ale, punch (both gin and rum), and even oil and vinegar, which he took with cucumber to his salmon, came out of the self-same bottle from which the lady had first poured out his pint of half-and-half.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Voracio,” said his arch entertainer, when he put this question to her, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy:” and, sooth to say, the archer was by this time in such a state, that he did not find anything wonderful more.

“Are you happy, dear youth?” said the lady, as, after his collation, he sank back in his chair.

“Oh, miss, ain’t I?” was his interrogative and yet affirmative reply.

“Should you like such a supper every night, Wolfgang?” continued the pale one.

“Why, no,” said he; “no, not exactly; not EVERY night: SOME nights I should like oysters.”

“Dear youth,” said she, “be but mine, and you may have them all the year round!” The unhappy boy was too far gone to suspect anything, otherwise this extraordinary speech would have told him that he was in suspicious company. A person who can offer oysters all the year round can live to no good purpose.

“Shall I sing you a song, dear archer?” said the lady.

“Sweet love!” said he, now much excited, “strike up, and I will join the chorus.”

She took down her mandolin, and commenced a ditty. ’Twas a sweet and wild one. It told how a lady of high lineage cast her eyes on a peasant page; it told how nought could her love assuage, her suitor’s wealth and her father’s rage: it told how the youth did his foes engage; and at length they went off in the Gretna stage, the high-born dame and the peasant page. Wolfgang beat time, waggled his head, sung wofully out of tune as the song proceeded; and if he had not been too intoxicated with love and other excitement, he would have remarked how the pictures on the wall, as the lady sung, began to waggle their heads too, and nod and grin to the music. The song ended. “I am the lady of high lineage: Archer, will you be the peasant page?”

“I’ll follow you to the devil!” said Wolfgang.

“Come,” replied the lady, glaring wildly on him, “come to the chapel; we’ll be married this minute!”

She held out her hand — Wolfgang took it. It was cold, damp — deadly cold; and on they went to the chapel.

As they passed out, the two pictures over the wall, of a gentleman and lady, tripped lightly out of their frames, skipped noiselessly down to the ground, and making the retreating couple a profound curtsy and bow, took the places which they had left at the table.

Meanwhile the young couple passed on towards the chapel, threading innumerable passages, and passing through chambers of great extent. As they came along, all the portraits on the wall stepped out of their frames to follow them. One ancestor, of whom there was only a bust, frowned in the greatest rage, because, having no legs, his pedestal would not move; and several sticking-plaster profiles of the former Lords of Windeck looked quite black at being, for similar reasons, compelled to keep their places. However, there was a goodly procession formed behind Wolfgang and his bride; and by the time they reached the church, they had near a hundred followers.

The church was splendidly illuminated; the old banners of the old knights glittered as they do at Drury Lane. The organ set up of itself to play the “Bridesmaid’s Chorus.” The choir-chairs were filled with people in black.

“Come, love,” said the pale lady.

“I don’t see the parson,” exclaimed Wolfgang, spite of himself rather alarmed.

“Oh, the parson! that’s the easiest thing in the world! I say, bishop!” said the lady, stooping down.

Stooping down — and to what? Why, upon my word and honor, to a great brass plate on the floor, over which they were passing, and on which was engraven the figure of a bishop — and a very ugly bishop, too — with crosier and mitre, and lifted finger, on which sparkled the episcopal ring. “Do, my dear lord, come and marry us,” said the lady, with a levity which shocked the feelings of her bridegroom.

The bishop got up; and directly he rose, a dean, who was sleeping under a large slate near him, came bowing and cringing up to him; while a canon of the cathedral (whose name was Schidnischmidt) began grinning and making fun at the pair. The ceremony was begun, and . . . .

As the clock struck twelve, young Otto bounded up, and remarked the absence of his companion Wolfgang. The idea he had had, that his friend disappeared in company with a white-robed female, struck him more and more. “I will follow them,” said he; and, calling to the next on the watch (old Snozo, who was right unwilling to forego his sleep), he rushed away by the door through which he had seen Wolfgang and his temptress take their way.

That he did not find them was not his fault. The castle was vast, the chamber dark. There were a thousand doors, and what wonder that, after he had once lost sight of them, the intrepid Childe should not be able to follow in their steps? As might be expected, he took the wrong door, and wandered for at least three hours about the dark enormous solitary castle, calling out Wolfgang’s name to the careless and indifferent echoes, knocking his young shins against the ruins scattered in the darkness, but still with a spirit entirely undaunted, and a firm resolution to aid his absent comrade. Brave Otto! thy exertions were rewarded at last!

For he lighted at length upon the very apartment where Wolfgang had partaken of supper, and where the old couple who had been in the picture-frames, and turned out to be the lady’s father and mother, were now sitting at the table.

“Well, Bertha has got a husband at last,” said the lady.

“After waiting four hundred and fifty-three years for one, it was quite time,” said the gentleman. (He was dressed in powder and a pigtail, quite in the old fashion.)

“The husband is no great things,” continued the lady, taking snuff. “A low fellow, my dear; a butcher’s son, I believe. Did you see how the wretch ate at supper? To think my daughter should have to marry an archer!”

“There are archers and archers,” said the old man. “Some archers are snobs, as your ladyship states; some, on the contrary, are gentlemen by birth, at least, though not by breeding. Witness young Otto, the Landgrave of Godesberg’s son, who is listening at the door like a lackey, and whom I intend to run through the —”

“Law, Baron!” said the lady.

“I will, though,” replied the Baron, drawing an immense sword, and glaring round at Otto: but though at the sight of that sword and that scowl a less valorous youth would have taken to his heels, the undaunted Childe advanced at once into the apartment. He wore round his neck a relic of St. Buffo (the tip of the saint’s ear, which had been cut off at Constantinople). “Fiends! I command you to retreat!” said he, holding up this sacred charm, which his mamma had fastened on him; and at the sight of it, with an unearthly yell the ghosts of the Baron and the Baroness sprung back into their picture-frames, as clowns go through a clock in a pantomime.

He rushed through the open door by which the unlucky Wolfgang had passed with his demoniacal bride, and went on and on through the vast gloomy chambers lighted by the ghastly moonshine: the noise of the organ in the chapel, the lights in the kaleidoscopic windows, directed him towards that edifice. He rushed to the door: ’twas barred! He knocked: the beadles were deaf. He applied his inestimable relic to the lock, and — whiz! crash! clang! bang! whang! — the gate flew open! the organ went off in a fugue — the lights quivered over the tapers, and then went off towards the ceiling — the ghosts assembled rushed away with a skurry and a scream — the bride howled, and vanished — the fat bishop waddled back under his brass plate — the dean flounced down into his family vault — and the canon Schidnischmidt, who was making a joke, as usual, on the bishop, was obliged to stop at the very point of his epigram, and to disappear into the void whence he came.

Otto fell fainting at the porch, while Wolfgang tumbled lifeless down at the altar-steps; and in this situation the archers, when they arrived, found the two youths. They were resuscitated, as we scarce need say; but when, in incoherent accents, they came to tell their wondrous tale, some sceptics among the archers said —“Pooh! they were intoxicated!” while others, nodding their older heads, exclaimed —“THEY HAVE SEEN THE LADY OF WINDECK!” and recalled the stories of many other young men, who, inveigled by her devilish arts, had not been so lucky as Wolfgang, and had disappeared — for ever!

This adventure bound Wolfgang heart and soul to his gallant preserver; and the archers — it being now morning, and the cocks crowing lustily round about — pursued their way without further delay to the castle of the noble patron of toxophilites, the gallant Duke of Cleves.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/legend/chapter9.html

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