The green and bowery summer had passed away. It was midnight when two horsemen pulled up their steeds beneath a wide oak; which, with other lofty trees, skirted the side of a winding road in an extensive forest in the south of Germany.
“By heavens!” said one, who apparently was the master, “we must even lay our cloaks, I think, under this oak; for the road winds again, and assuredly cannot lead now to our village.”
“A starlit sky in autumn can scarcely be the fittest curtain for one so weak as you, sir; I should recommend travelling on, if we keep on our horses’ backs till dawn.”
“But if we are travelling in a directly contrary way to our voiturier, honest as we may suppose him to be, if he find in the morning no paymaster for his job, he may with justice make free with our baggage. And I shall be unusually mistaken if the road we are now pursuing does not lead back to the city.”
“City, town, or village, you must sleep under no forest tree, sir. Let us ride on. It will be hard if we do not find some huntsman’s or ranger’s cottage; and for aught we know a neat snug village, or some comfortable old manor-house, which has been in the family for two centuries; and where, with God’s blessing, they may chance to have wine as old as the bricks. I know not how you may feel, sir, but a ten hours’ ride when I was only prepared for half the time, and that, too, in an autumn night, makes me somewhat desirous of renewing my acquaintance with the kitchen-fire.”
“I could join you in a glass of hock and a slice of venison, I confess, my good fellow; but in a nocturnal ride I am no longer your match. However, if you think it best, we will prick on our steeds for another hour. If it be only for them, I am sure we must soon stop.”
“Ay! do, sir; and put your cloak well round you; all is for the best. You are not, I guess, a Sabbath-born child?”
“That am I not, but how would that make our plight worse than it is? Should we be farther off supper?”
“Nearer, perhaps, than you imagine; for we should then have a chance of sharing the spoils of the Spirit Hunter.”
“Ah! Essper, is it so?”
“Truly yes, sir; and were either of us a Sabbath-born child, by holy cross! I would not give much for our chance of a down bed this night.”
Here a great horned owl flew across the road.
“Were I in the north,” said Essper, “I would sing an Ave Mary against the STUT OZEL.”
“What call you that?” asked Vivian.
“Tis the great bird, sir; the great horned owl, that always flies before the Wild Hunter. And truly, sir, I have passed through many forests in my time, but never yet saw I one where I should sooner expect to hear a midnight bugle. If you will allow me, sir, I will ride by your side. Thank God, at least, it is not the Walpurgis night!”
“I wish to Heaven it were!” said Vivian, “and that we were on the Brocken. It must be highly amusing!”
“Hush! hush! it is lucky we are not in the Hartz; but we know not where we are, nor who at this moment may be behind us.”
And here Essper began pouring forth a liturgy of his own, half Catholic and half Calvinistic, quite in character with the creed of the country through which they were travelling.
“My horse has stumbled,” continued Essper, “and yours, sir, is he not shying? There is a confounded cloud over the moon, but I have no sight in the dark if that mass before you be not a devil’s-stone. The Lord have mercy upon our sinful souls!”
“Peace! Essper,” said Vivian, who was surprised to find him really alarmed; “I see nothing but a block of granite, no uncommon sight in a German forest.”
“It is a devil-stone, I tell you, sir; there has been some church here, which he has knocked down in the night. Look! is it the moss-people that I see! As sure as I am a hungry sinner, the Wild One is out a-hunting to-night.”
“More luck for us, if we meet him. His dogs, as you say, may gain us a supper. I think our wisest course will be to join the cry.”
“Hush! hush! you would not talk so if you knew what your share of the spoils might be. Ay! if you did, sir, your cheek would be paler, and your very teeth would chatter. I knew one man who was travelling in the forest, just as we are now; it was about this time; and he believed in the Wild Huntsman about as much as you, that is, he liked to talk of the Spirit, merely to have the opportunity of denying that he believed in him; which showed, as I used to say, that his mind was often thinking of it. He was a merry knave, and as firm a hand for a boar-spear as ever I met with, and I have met many. We used to call him, before the accident, Left-handed Hans, but they call him now, sir, the Child–Hunter. Oh! it is a very awful tale, and I would sooner tell it in blazing hall than in free forest. You did not hear any sound to the left, did you?”
“Nothing but the wind, Essper; on with your tale, my man.”
“It is a very awful tale, sir, but I will make short work of it. You see, sir, it was a night just like this; the moon was generally hid, but the stars prevented it from ever being pitch dark. And so, sir, he was travelling alone; he had been up to the castle of the baron, his master; you see, sir, he was head-ranger to his lordship, and he always returned home through the forest. What he was thinking of, I cannot say, but most likely of no good; when all on a sudden he heard the baying of hounds in the distance. Now directly he heard it; I have heard him tell the story a thousand times; directly he heard it, it struck him that it must be the Spirit Huntsman; and though there were many ways to account for the hounds, still he never for a moment doubted that they were the hell-dogs. The sounds came nearer and nearer. Now I tell you this, because if ever, which the Holy Virgin forbid! if ever you meet the Wild Huntsman, you will know how to act: conduct yourself always with propriety, make no noise, but behave like a gentleman, and don’t put the dogs off the scent; stand aside, and let him pass. Don’t talk; he has no time to lose; for if he hunt after daybreak, a night’s sport is forfeited for every star left in the morning sky. So, sir, you see nothing puts him in a greater passion than to lose his time in answering impertinent questions. Well, sir, Left-handed Hans stood by the road-side. The baying of the dogs was so distinct, that he felt that in a moment the Wild One would be up: his horse shivered like a sallow in a storm. He heard the tramp of the Spirit-steed: they came in sight. As the tall figure of the Huntsman passed; I cannot tell you what it was; it might have been; Lord, forgive me for thinking what it might have been! but a voice from behind Hans, a voice so like his own, that for a moment he fancied that he had himself spoken, although he was conscious that his lips had been firmly closed the whole time; a voice from the road-side, just behind poor Hans, mind, said, ‘Good sport, Sir Huntsman, ’tis an odd light to track a stag!’ The poor man, sir, was all of an ague; but how much greater was his horror when the tall huntsman stopped! He thought that he was going to be eaten up on the spot, at least: not at all. ‘My friend!’ said the Wild One, in the kindest voice imaginable; ‘my friend, would you like to give your horse a breathing with us?’ Poor Hans was so alarmed that it never entered into his head for a single moment to refuse the invitation, and instantly he was galloping by the side of the Wild Huntsman. Away they flew! away! away! away! over bog, and over mere; over ditch, and over hedge; away! away! away! and the Ranger’s horse never failed, but kept by the side of the Wild Spirit without the least distress; and yet it is very singular that Hans was about to sell this very beast only a day before, for a matter of five crowns: you see, he only kept it just to pick his way at night from the castle to his own cottage. Well, it is very odd, but Hans soon lost all fear, for the sport was so fine and he had such a keen relish for the work, that, far from being alarmed, he thought himself one of the luckiest knaves alive. But the oddest thing all this time was, that Hans never caught sight for one moment of either buck or boar, although he saw by the dogs’ noses that there was something keen in the wind, and although he felt that if the hunted beast were like any that he had himself ever followed before, it must have been run down with such dogs, quicker than a priest could say a paternoster. At last, for he had grown quite bold, says Hans to the Wild Huntsman, ‘The beasts run quick o’ nights, sir, I think; it has been a long time, I ween, ere I scampered so far, and saw so little!’ Do you know that the old gentleman was not the least affronted, but said, in the pleasantest voice imaginable, ‘A true huntsman should be patient, Hans; you will see the game quick enough; look forward, man! what see you?’ And sure enough, your Highness, he did look forward. It was near the skirts of the forest, there was a green glade before them, and very few trees, and therefore he could see far a-head. The moon was shining very bright, and sure enough, what did he see? Running as fleet over the turf as a rabbit, was a child. The little figure was quite black in the moonlight, and Hans could not catch its face: in a moment the hell-dogs were on it. Hans quivered like a windy reed, and the Wild One laughed till the very woods echoed. ‘How like you hunting moss-men?’ asked the Spirit. Now when Hans found it was only a moss-man, he took heart again, and said in a shaking voice, that ‘It is rare good sport in good company;’ and then the Spirit jumped off his horse, and said, ‘Now, Hans, you must watch me well, for I am little used to bag game.’ He said this with a proudish air, as much as to hint, that had not he expected Hans he would not have rode out this evening without his groom. So the Wild One jumped on his horse again, and put the bag before him. It was nearly morning when Hans found himself at the door of his own cottage; and, bowing very respectfully to the Spirit Hunter, he thanked him for the sport, and begged his share of the night’s spoil. This was all in joke, but Hans had heard that ‘talk to the devil, and fear the last word;’ and so he was determined, now that they were about to part, not to appear to tremble, but to carry it off with a jest. ‘Truly, Hans,’ said the Huntsman, ‘thou art a bold lad, and to encourage thee to speak to wild huntsmen again, I have a mind to give thee for thy pains the whole spoil. Take the bag, knave, a moss-man is good eating; had I time I would give thee a receipt for sauce;’ and, so saying, the Spirit rode off, laughing very heartily. Well, sir, Hans was so anxious to examine the contents of the bag, and see what kind of thing a moss-man really was, for he had only caught a glimpse of him in the chase, that instead of going to bed immediately, and saying his prayers, as he should have done, he lighted a lamp and undid the string; and what think you he took out of the bag? As sure as I am a born sinner, his own child!”
“’Tis a wonderful tale,” said Vivian; “and did the unfortunate man tell you this himself?”
“Often and often. I knew Left-handed Hans well. He was ranger, as I said, to a great lord; and was quite a favourite, you see. For some reason or other he got out of favour. Some said that the Baron had found him out a-poaching; and that he used to ride his master’s horses a-night. Whether this be true or not, who can say? But, howsoever, Hans went to ruin; and instead of being a flourishing active lad, he was turned out, and went a-begging all through Saxony; and he always told this story as the real history of his misfortunes. Some say he is not as strong in his head as he used to be. However, why should we say it is not a true tale? What is that?” almost shrieked Essper.
Vivian listened, and heard distinctly the distant baying of hounds.
“’Tis he!” said Essper; “now don’t speak, sir, don’t speak! and if the devil make me join him, as may be the case, for I am but a cock-brained thing, particularly at midnight, don’t be running after me from any foolish feeling, but take care of yourself, and don’t be chattering. To think you should come to this, my precious young master!”
“Cease your blubbering! Do you think that I am to be frightened by the idiot tales of a parcel of old women, and the lies of a gang of detected poachers? Come, sir, ride on. We are, most probably, near some huntsman’s cottage. That distant baying is the sweetest music I have heard a long while.”
“Don’t be rash, sir; don’t be rash. If you were to give me fifty crowns now, I could not remember a single line of a single prayer. Ave Maria! it always is so when I most want it. Paternoster! and whenever I have need to remember a song, sure enough I am always thinking of a prayer. ‘Unser vater, der du bist im himmel, sanctificado se el tu nombra; il tuo regno venga.’” Here Essper George was proceeding with a scrap of modern Greek, when the horsemen suddenly came upon one of those broad green vistas which we often see in forests, and which are generally cut, either for the convenience of hunting, or carting wood. It opened on the left side of the road; and at the bottom of it, though apparently at a great distance, a light was visible.
“So much for your Wild Huntsman, friend Essper! I shall be much disappointed if here are not quarters for the night. And see! the moon comes out, a good omen!”
After ten minutes’ canter over the noiseless turf, the travellers found themselves before a large and many-windowed mansion. The building formed the farthest side of a quadrangle, which you entered through an ancient and massy gate; on each side of which was a small building, of course the lodges. Essper soon found that the gate was closely fastened; and though he knocked often and loudly, it was with no effect. That the inhabitants of the mansion had not yet retired was certain, for lights were moving in the great house; and one of the lodges was not only very brilliantly illuminated, but full, as Vivian was soon convinced, of clamorous if not jovial guests.
“Now, by the soul of my unknown father!” said the enraged Essper, “I will make these saucy porters learn their duty — What ho! there; what ho! within; within!” But the only answer he received was the loud reiteration of a rude and roaring chorus, which, as it was now more distinctly and audibly enunciated, evidently for the purpose of enraging the travellers, they detected to be something to the following effect:—
Then a prayer to St. Peter, a prayer to St. Paul!
A prayer to St. Jerome, a prayer to them all!
A prayer to each one of the saintly stock,
But devotion alone, devotion to Hock!
“A right good burden’” said Essper. The very words had made him recover his temper, and ten thousand times more desirous of gaining admittance. He was off his horse in a moment, and scrambling up the wall with the aid of the iron stanchions, he clambered up to the window. The sudden appearance of his figure startled the inmates of the lodge, and one of them soon staggered to the gate.
“What want you, ye noisy and disturbing varlets? what want you, ye most unhallowed rogues, at such a place, and at such an hour? If you be thieves, look at our bars (here a hiccup). If you be poachers, our master is engaged, and ye may slay all the game in the forest (another hiccup); but if ye be good men and true — ”
“We are!” halloed Essper, eagerly.
“You are!” said the porter, in a tone of great surprise; “then you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for disturbing holy men at their devotions!”
“Is this the way,” said Essper, “to behave, ye shameless rascals, to a noble and mighty Prince, who happens to have lost his way in your abominable forest, but who, though he has parted with his suite, has still in his pocket a purse full of ducats? Would ye have him robbed by any others but yourselves? Is this the way you behave to a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, a Knight of the Golden Fleece, and a most particular friend of your own master? Is this the way to behave to his secretary, who is one of the merriest fellows living, can sing a jolly song with any of you, and so bedevil a bottle of Geisenheim with lemons and brandy that for the soul of ye you wouldn’t know it from the greenest Tokay? Out, out on ye! you know not what you have lost!”
Ere Essper had finished more than one stout bolt had been drawn, and the great key had already entered the stouter lock.
“Most honourable sirs!” hiccuped the porter, “in our Lady’s name enter. I had forgot myself, for in these autumn nights it is necessary to anticipate the cold with a glass of cheering liquor; and, God forgive me! if I did not mistake your most mighty Highnesses for a couple of forest rovers, or small poachers at least. Thin entertainment here, kind sir (here the last bolt was withdrawn); a glass of indifferent liquor and a prayer-book. I pass the time chiefly these cold nights with a few holy-minded friends at our devotions. You heard us at our prayers, honourable lords!
“A prayer to St. Peter, a prayer to St. Paul!
A prayer to St. Jerome, a prayer to them all!”
Here the devout porter most reverently crossed himself.
“A prayer to each one of the saintly stock,
But devotion alone, devotion to Hock!”
added Essper George; “you forget the best part of the burden, my honest friend.”
“Oh!” said the porter, with an arch smile, as he opened the lodge door; “I am glad to find that your honourable Excellencies have a taste for hymns!”
The porter led them into a room, at a round table in which about half-a-dozen individuals were busily engaged in discussing the merits of various agreeable liquors. There was an attempt to get up a show of polite hospitality to Vivian as he entered, but the man who offered him his chair fell to the ground in an unsuccessful struggle to be courteous; and another one, who had filled a large glass for the guest on his entrance, offered him, after a preliminary speech of incoherent compliments, the empty bottle by mistake. The porter and his friends, although they were all drunk, had sense enough to feel that the presence of a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, a Chevalier of the Golden Fleece, and the particular friend of their master, was not exactly a fit companion for themselves, and was rather a check on the gay freedom of equal companionship; and so, although the exertion was not a little troublesome, the guardian of the gate reeled out of the room to inform his honoured lord of the sudden arrival of a stranger of distinction, Essper George immediately took his place, and ere the master of the lodge had returned the noble secretary had not only given a choice toast, sung a choice song, and been hailed by the grateful plaudits of all present, but had proceeded in his attempt to fulfil the pledge which he had given at the gate to the very letter by calling out lustily for a bottle of Geisenheim, lemons, brandy, and a bowl.
“Fairly and softly, my little son of Bacchus,” said the porter as he re-entered, “fairly and softly, and then thou shalt want nothing; but remember I have to perform my duties unto the noble Lord my master, and also to the noble Prince your master. If thou wilt follow me,” continued the porter, reeling as he bowed with the greatest consideration to Vivian; “if thou wilt follow me, most high and mighty sir, my master will be right glad to have the honour of drinking your health. And as for you, my friends, fairly and softly say I again. We will talk of the Geisenheim anon. Am I to be absent from the first brewing? No, no! fairly and softly; you can drink my health when I am absent in cold liquor, and say those things which you could not well say before my face. But mind, my most righteous and well-beloved, I will have no flattery. Flattery is the destruction of all good fellowship; it is like a qualmish liqueur in the midst of a bottle of wine. Speak your minds, say any little thing that comes first, as thus, ‘Well, for Hunsdrich, the porter, I must declare that I never heard evil word against him;’ or thus, ‘A very good leg has Hunsdrich the porter, and a tight-made lad altogether; no enemy with the girls, I warrant me;’ or thus, ‘Well, for a good-hearted, good-looking, stout-drinking, virtuous, honourable, handsome, generous, sharp-witted knave, commend me to Hunsdrich the porter;’ but not a word more, my friends, not a word more, no flattery — Now, sir, I beg your pardon.”
The porter led the way through a cloistered walk, until they arrived at the door of the great mansion, to which they ascended by a lofty flight of steps; it opened into a large octagonal hail, the sides of which were covered with fowling-pieces, stags’ heads, couteaux de chasse, boar-spears, and huge fishing-nets. Passing through this hall, they ascended a noble stair-case, on the first landing-place of which was a door, which Vivian’s conductor opened, and ushering him into a large and well-lighted chamber, withdrew. From the centre of this room descended a magnificently cut chandelier, which threw a graceful light upon a sumptuous banquet table, at which were seated eight very singular-looking personages. All of them wore hunting-dresses of various shades of straw-coloured cloth, with the exception of one, who sat on the left hand of the master of the feast, and the colour of whose costume was a rich crimson purple. From the top to the bottom of the table extended a double file of wine-glasses and goblets, of all sizes and all colours. There you might see brilliant relics of that ancient ruby-glass the vivid tints of which seem lost to us for ever. Next to these were marshalled goblets of Venetian manufacture, of a cloudy, creamy white; then came the huge hock glass of some ancient Primate of Mentz, nearly a yard high, towering above its companions, as the church, its former master, predominated over the simple laymen of the middle ages. Why should we forget a set of most curious and antique drinking-cups of painted glass, on whose rare surfaces were emblazoned the Kaiser and ten electors of the old Empire?
Vivian bowed to the party and stood in silence, while they stared a scrutinising examination. At length the master of the feast spoke. He was a very stout man, with a prodigious paunch, which his tightened dress set off to great advantage. His face, and particularly his forehead, were of great breadth. His eyes were set far apart. His long ears hung down almost to his shoulders; yet singular as he was, not only in these, but in many other respects, everything was forgotten when your eyes lighted on his nose. It was the most prodigious nose that Vivian ever remembered not only seeing, but hearing or even reading of. It fact, it was too monstrous for a dream. This mighty nose seemed to hang almost to its owner’s chest.
“Be seated,” said this personage, in no unpleasing voice, and he pointed to the chair opposite to him. Vivian took the vacated seat of the Vice–President, who moved himself to the right. “Be seated, and whoever you may be, welcome! If our words be few, think not that our welcome is scant. We are not much given to speech, holding it for a principle that if a man’s mouth be open, it should be for the purpose of receiving that which cheers a man’s spirit; not of giving vent to idle words, which, so far as we have observed, produce no other effect save filling the world with crude and unprofitable fantasies, and distracting our attention when we are on the point of catching those flavours which alone make the world endurable. Therefore, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome, Sir Stranger, from us, and from all: and first from us, the Grand Duke of Johannisberger.” Here his Highness rose, and pulled out a large ruby tumbler from the file. Each of those present did the same, without, however, rising, and the late Vice–President, who sat next to Vivian, invited him to follow their example.
The Grand Duke of Johannisberger brought forward, from beneath the table, an ancient and exquisite bottle of that choice liquor from which he took his exhilarating title. The cork was drawn, and the bottle circulated with rapidity; and in three minutes the ruby glasses were filled and emptied, and the Grand Duke’s health quaffed by all present.
“Again, Sir Stranger,” continued the Grand Duke, “briefly, but heartily, welcome! welcome from us and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Archduke of Hockheimer!”
The Archduke of Hockheimer was a thin, sinewy man, with long, carroty hair, eyelashes of the same colour, but of a remarkable length; and mustachios, which, though very thin, were so long that they met under his chin. Vivian could not refrain from noticing the extreme length, whiteness, and apparent sharpness of his teeth. The Archduke did not speak, but, leaning under the table, soon produced a bottle of Hockheimer. He then took from the file one of the Venetian glasses of clouded white. All followed his example; the bottle was sent round, his health was pledged, and the Grand Duke of Johannisberger again spoke:
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Elector of Steinberg!”
The Elector of Steinberg was a short, but very broad-backed, strong-built man. Though his head was large, his features were small, and appeared smaller from the immense quantity of coarse, shaggy, brown hair which grew over almost every part of his face and fell down upon his shoulders. The Elector was as silent as his predecessor, and quickly produced a bottle of Steinberg. The curious drinking cups of painted glass were immediately withdrawn from the file, the bottle was sent round, the Elector’s health was pledged, and the Grand Duke of Johannisberger again spoke:
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Margrave of Rudesheimer!”
The Margrave of Rudesheimer was a slender man of elegant appearance. As Vivian watched the glance of his speaking eye, and the half-satirical and half-jovial smile which played upon his features, he hardly expected that he would be as silent as his predecessors. But the Margrave spoke no word. He gave a kind of shout of savage exultation as he smacked his lips after dashing off his glass of Rudesheimer; and scarcely noticing the salutations of those who drank his health, he threw himself back in his chair, and listened seemingly with a smile of derision, while the Grand Duke of Johannisberger again spoke:
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Landgrave of Grafenberg.”
The Landgrave of Grafenberg was a rude, awkward-looking person, who, when he rose from his seat, stared like an idiot, and seemed utterly ignorant of what he ought to do. But his quick companion, the Margrave of Rudesheimer, soon thrust a bottle of Grafenberg into the Landgrave’s hand, and with some trouble and bustle the Landgrave extracted the cork; and then helping himself sat down, forgetting either to salute, or to return the salutations of those present.
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Palsgrave of Geisenheim!”
The Palsgrave of Geisenheim was a dwarf in spectacles. He drew the cork from his bottle like lightning, and mouthed at his companions even while he bowed to them.
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Count of Markbrunnen!”
The Count of Markbrunnen was a sullen-looking personage, with lips protruding nearly three inches beyond his nose. From each side of his upper jaw projected a large tooth.
“Thanks to Heaven!” said Vivian, as the Grand Duke again spoke; “thanks to Heaven, here is our last man!”
“Again, Sir Stranger, briefly, but heartily, welcome! Welcome from us, and welcome from all; and first from us, and now from the Baron of Asmanshausen!”
The Baron of Asmanshausen sat on the left hand of the Grand Duke of Johannisberger, and was dressed, as we have before said, in an unique costume of crimson purple. The Baron stood, without his boots, about six feet eight. He was a sleek man, with a head not bigger than a child’s, and a pair of small, black, beady eyes, of singular brilliancy. The Baron introduced a bottle of the only red wine that the Rhine boasts; but which, for its fragrant and fruity flavour and its brilliant tint, is perhaps not inferior to the sunset glow of Burgundy.
“And now,” continued the Grand Duke, “having introduced you to all present, sir, we will begin drinking.”
Vivian had submitted to the introductory ceremonies with the good grace which becomes a man of the world; but the coolness of this last observation recalled our hero’s wandering senses; and, at the same time, alarmed at discovering that eight bottles of wine had been discussed by the party merely as preliminary, and emboldened by the contents of one bottle which had fallen to his own share, he had the courage to confront the Grand Duke of Johannisberger in his own castle.
“Your wine, most noble Lord, stands in no need of my commendation; but as I must mention it, let it not be said that I ever mentioned it without praise. After a ten hours’ ride, its flavour is as grateful to the palate as its strength is refreshing to the heart; but though old Hock, in homely phrase, is styled meat and drink, I confess to you that, at this moment, I stand in need of even more solid sustenance than the juice of the sunny hill.”
“A traitor!” shrieked all present, each with his right arm stretched out, glass in hand; “a traitor!”
“No traitor,” answered Vivian, “noble and right thirsty lords, but one of the most hungry mortals that ever yet famished.”
The only answer that he received for some time was a loud and ill-boding murmur. The long whisker of the Archduke of Hockheimer curled with renewed rage; audible, though suppressed, was the growl of the hairy Elector of Steinberg; fearful the corporeal involutions of the tall Baron of Asmanshausen; and savagely sounded the wild laugh of the bright-eyed Margrave of Rudesheimer.
“Silence, my Lords!” said the Grand Duke. “Forget we that ignorance is the stranger’s portion, and that no treason can exist among those who are not our sworn subjects? Pity we rather the degeneracy of this bold-spoken youth, and in the plenitude of our mercy let us pardon his demand! Know ye, unknown knight, that you are in the presence of an august society who are here met at one of their accustomed convocations, whereof the purport is the frequent quaffing of those most glorious liquors of which the sacred Rhine is the great father. We profess to find a perfect commentary on the Pindaric laud of the strongest element in the circumstance of the banks of a river being the locality where the juice of the grape is most delicious, and holding, therefore, that water is strongest because, in a manner, it giveth birth to wine, we also hold it as a sacred element, and consequently most religiously refrain from refreshing our bodies with that sanctified and most undrinkable fluid. Know ye that we are the children of the Rhine, the conservators of his flavours, profound in the learning of his exquisite aroma, and deep students in the mysteries of his inexplicable näre. Professing not to be immortal, we find in the exercise of the chase a noble means to preserve that health which is necessary for the performance of the ceremonies to which we are pledged. At to-morrow’s dawn our bugle sounds, and thou, stranger, may engage the wild boar at our side; at to-morrow’s noon the castle bell will toll, and thou, stranger, may eat of the beast which thou hast conquered; but to feed after midnight, to destroy the power of catching the delicate flavour, to annihilate the faculty of detecting the undefinable näre, is heresy, most rank and damnable heresy! Therefore at this hour soundeth no plate or platter, jingleth no knife or culinary instrument, in the PALACE or THE WINES. Yet, in consideration of thy youth, and that on the whole thou hast tasted thy liquor like a proper man, from which we augur the best expectations of the manner in which thou wilt drink it, we feel confident that our brothers of the goblet will permit us to grant thee the substantial solace of a single shoeing horn.”
“Let it be a Dutch herring, then,” said Vivian, “and as you have souls to be saved grant me one slice of bread.”
“It cannot be,” said the Grand Duke; “but as we are willing to be indulgent to bold hearts, verily, we will wink at the profanation of a single toast; but you must order an anchovy one, and give secret instructions to the waiting-man to forget the fish. It must be counted as a second shoeing horn, and you will forfeit for the last a bottle of Markbrunnen.”
“And now, illustrious brothers,” continued the Grand Duke, “let us drink 1726.”
All present gave a single cheer, in which Vivian was obliged to join, and they honoured with a glass of the very year the memory of a celebrated vintage.
“1748!” said the Grand Duke.
Two cheers and the same ceremony.
1766 and 1779 were honoured in the same manner, but when the next toast was drank, Vivian almost observed in the countenances of the Grand Duke and his friends the signs of incipient insanity.
“1783!” hallooed the Grand Duke in a tone of the most triumphant exultation, and his mighty proboscis, as it snuffed the air, almost caused a whirlwind round the room. Hockheimer gave a roar, Steinberg a growl, Rudesheimer a wild laugh, Markbrunnen, a loud grunt, Grafenberg a bray, Asmanshausen’s long body moved to and fro with wonderful agitation, and little Geisenheim’s bright eyes glistened through their glasses as if they were on fire. How ludicrous is the incipient inebriety of a man who wears spectacles!
Thanks to an excellent constitution, which recent misery, however, had somewhat shattered, Vivian bore up against all these attacks; and when they had got down to 1802, from the excellency of his digestion and the inimitable skill with which he emptied many of the latter glasses under the table, he was, perhaps, in better condition than any one in the room.
And now rose the idiot Grafenberg; Rudesheimer all the time, with a malicious smile, faintly pulling him down by the skirt of his coat, as if he were desirous of preventing an exposure which his own advice had brought about. He had been persuading Grafenberg the whole evening to make a speech.
“My Lord Duke,” brayed the jackass; and then he stopped dead, and looked round the room with an unmeaning stare.
“Hear, hear, hear!” was the general cry; but Grafenberg seemed astounded at any one being desirous of hearing his voice, or for a moment seriously entertaining the idea that he could have anything to say; and so he stared again, and again, and again, till at last Rudesheimer, by dint of kicking his shins under the table, the Margrave the whole time seeming perfectly motionless, at length extracted a sentence from the asinine Landgrave.
“My Lord Duke!” again commenced Grafenberg, and again he stopped.
“Go on!” shouted all.
“My Lord Duke! Rudesheimer is treading on my toes!”
Here little Geisenheim gave a loud laugh of derision, in which all joined except surly Markbrunnen, whose lips protruded an extra inch beyond their usual length when he found that all were laughing at his friend. The Grand Duke at last procured silence.
“Shame! shame! mighty Princes! Shame! shame! noble Lords! Is it with this irreverent glee, these scurvy flouts, and indecorous mockery, that you would have this stranger believe that we celebrate the ceremonies of our Father Rhine? Shame, I say; and silence! It is time that we should prove to him that we are not merely a boisterous and unruly party of swilling varlets, who leave their brains in their cups. It is time that we should do something to prove that we are capable of better and worthier things. What ho! my Lord of Geisenheim! shall I speak twice to the guardian of the horn of the Fairy King?”
The little dwarf instantly jumped from his seat and proceeded to the end of the room, where, after having bowed three times with great reverence before a small black cabinet made of vine wood, he opened it with a golden key, and then with great pomp and ceremony bore its contents to the Grand Duke. That chieftain took from the little dwarf the horn of a gigantic and antediluvian elk. The cunning hand of an ancient German artificer had formed this curious relic into a drinking-cup. It was exquisitely polished, and cased in the interior with silver. On the outside the only ornaments were three richly-chased silver rings, which were placed nearly at equal distances. When the Grand Duke had carefully examined this most precious horn, he held it up with great reverence to all present, and a party of devout Catholics could not have paid greater homage to the elevated Host than did the various guests to the horn of the Fairy King. Even the satanic smile on Rudesheimer’s countenance was for a moment subdued, and all bowed. The Grand Duke then delivered the mighty cup to his neighbour, the Archduke of Hockheimer, who held it with both hands until his Royal Highness had emptied into it, with great care, three bottles of Johannisberger. All rose: the Grand Duke took the goblet in one hand, and with the other he dexterously put aside his most inconvenient and enormous nose. Dead silence prevailed, save the roar of the liquor as it rushed down the Grand Duke’s throat, and resounded through the chamber like the distant dash of a waterfall. In three minutes the Chairman had completed his task, the horn had quitted his mouth, his nose had again resumed its usual situation, and as he handed the cup to the Archduke, Vivian thought that a material change had taken place in his countenance since he had quaffed his last draught. His eyes seemed more apart; his ears seemed broader and longer; and his nose visibly lengthened. The Archduke, before he commenced his draught, ascertained with great scrupulosity that his predecessor had taken his fair share by draining the horn as far as the first ring; and then he poured off with great rapidity his own portion. But though, in performing the same task, he was quicker than the master of the party, the draught not only apparently, but audibly, produced upon him a much more decided effect than it had on the Grand Duke; for when the second ring was drained the Archduke gave a loud roar of exultation, and stood up for some time from his seat, with his hands resting on the table, over which he leant, as if he were about to spring upon his opposite neighbour. The cup was now handed across the table to the Baron of Asmanshausen. His Lordship performed his task with ease; but as he withdrew the horn from his mouth, all present, except Vivian, gave a loud cry of “Supernaculum!” The Baron smiled with great contempt, as he tossed, with a careless hand, the great horn upside downwards, and was unable to shed upon his nail even the one excusable pearl. He handed the refilled horn to the Elector of Steinberg, who drank his portion with a growl; but afterwards seemed so pleased with the facility of his execution that, instead of delivering it to the next bibber, the Palsgrave of Markbrunnen, he commenced some clumsy attempts at a dance of triumph, in which he certainly would have proceeded, had not the loud grunts of the surly and thick-lipped Markbrunnen occasioned the interference of the President. Supernaculum now fell to the Margrave of Rudesheimer, who gave a loud and long-continued laugh as the dwarf of Geisenheim filled the horn for the third time.
While this ceremony was going on, a thousand plans had occurred to Vivian for his escape; but all, on second thoughts, proved impracticable. With agony he had observed that supernaculum was his miserable lot. Could he but have foisted it on the idiot Grafenberg, he might, by his own impudence and the other’s stupidity, have escaped. But he could not flatter himself that he should be successful in bringing about this end, for he observed with dismay that the malicious Rudesheimer had not for a moment ceased watching him with a keen and exulting glance. Geisenheim performed his task; and ere Vivian could ask for the goblet, Rudesheimer, with a fell laugh, had handed it to Grafenberg. The greedy ass drank his portion with ease, and indeed drank far beyond his limit. The cup was in Vivian’s hand, Rudesheimer was roaring supernaculum louder than all; Vivian saw that the covetous Grafenberg had providentially rendered his task comparatively light; but even as it was, he trembled at the idea of drinking at a single draught more than a pint of most vigorous and powerful wine.
“My Lord Duke,” said Vivian, “you and your companions forget that I am little used to these ceremonies; that I am yet uninitiated in the mysteries of the näre. I have endeavoured to prove myself no chicken-hearted water-drinking craven, and I have more wine within me at this moment than any man yet bore without dinner. I think, therefore, that I have some grounds for requesting indulgence, and I have no doubt that the good sense of yourself and your friends — ”
Ere Vivian could finish, he almost fancied that a well-stocked menagerie had been suddenly emptied in the room. Such roaring, and such growling, and such hissing, could only have been exceeded on some grand feast day in the recesses of a Brazilian forest. Asmanshausen looked as fierce as a boa constrictor before dinner. The proboscis of the Grand Duke heaved to and fro like the trunk of an enraged elephant. Hockheimer glared like a Bengal tiger about to spring upon its prey. Steinberg growled like a Baltic bear. In Markbrunnen Vivian recognised the wild boar he had himself often hunted. Grafenberg brayed like a jackass, and Geisenheim chattered like an ape. But all was forgotten and unnoticed when Vivian heard the fell and frantic shouts of the laughing hyaena, the Margrave of Rudesheimer! Vivian, in despair, dashed the horn of Oberon to his mouth. One pull, a gasp, another desperate draught; it was done! and followed by a supernaculum almost superior to the exulting Asmanshausen’s.
A loud shout hailed the exploit, and when the shout had subsided into silence the voice of the Grand Duke of Johannisberger was again heard:
“Noble Lords and Princes! I congratulate you on the acquisition of a congenial co-mate, and the accession to our society of one who, I now venture to say, will never disgrace the glorious foundation; but who, on the contrary, with heaven’s blessing and the aid of his own good palate, will, it is hoped, add to our present knowledge of flavours by the detection of new ones, and by illustrations drawn from frequent study and constant observation of the mysterious näre. In consideration of his long journey and his noble achievement, I do propose that we drink but very lightly to-night, and meet by two hours after to-morrow’s dawn, under the moss-man’s oak. Nevertheless, before we part, for the refreshment of our own good bodies, and by way of reward and act of courtesy unto this noble and accomplished stranger, let us pledge him in some foreign grape of fame, to which he may perhaps be more accustomed than unto the ever-preferable juices of our Father Rhine.” Here the Grand Duke nodded to little Geisenheim, who in a moment was at his elbow.
It was in vain that Vivian remonstrated, excused himself from joining, or assured them that their conduct had already been so peculiarly courteous, that any further attention was at present unnecessary. A curiously cut glass, which on a moderate calculation Vivian reckoned would hold at least three pints, was placed before each guest; and a basket, containing nine bottles of sparkling champagne, première qualité, was set before his Highness.
“We are no bigots, noble stranger,” said the Grand Duke, as he took one of the bottles, and scrutinised the cork with a very keen eye; “we are no bigots, and there are moments when we drink Champagne, nor is Burgundy forgotten, nor the soft Bourdeaux, nor the glowing grape of the sunny Rhone!” His Highness held the bottle at an oblique angle with the chandelier. The wire is loosened, whirr! The exploded cork whizzed through the air, extinguished one of the burners of the chandelier, and brought the cut drop which was suspended under it rattling down among the glasses on the table. The President poured the foaming fluid into his great goblet, and bowing to all around, fastened on its contents with as much eagerness as Arabs hasten to a fountain.
The same operation was performed as regularly and as skilfully by all except Vivian. Eight burners were extinguished; eight diamond drops had fallen clattering on the table; eight human beings had finished a miraculous carouse, by each drinking off a bottle of sparkling champagne. It was Vivian’s turn. All eyes were fixed on him with the most perfect attention. He was now, indeed, quite desperate; for had he been able to execute a trick which long practice alone could have enabled any man to perform, he felt conscious that it was quite out of his power to taste a single drop of the contents of his bottle. However, he loosened his wire and held the bottle at an angle with the chandelier; but the cork flew quite wild, and struck with great force the mighty nose of Johannisberger.
“A forfeit!” cried all.
“Treason, and a forfeit!” cried the Margrave of Rudesheimer.
“A forfeit is sufficient punishment,” said the President; who, however, still felt the smarting effect of the assault on his proboscis. “You must drink Oberon’s horn full of champagne,” he continued.
“Never!” said Vivian. “Enough of this. I have already conformed in a degree which may injuriously affect my health with your barbarous humours; but there is moderation even in excess. And so, if you please, my Lord, your servant may show me to my apartment, or I shall again mount my horse.”
“You shall not leave this room,” said the President, with great firmness.
“Who shall prevent me?” asked Vivian.
“I will, all will!”
“Now, by heavens! a more insolent and inhospitable old ruffian did I never meet. By the wine you worship, if one of you dare touch me, you shall rue it all your born days; and as for you, sir, if you advance one step towards me, I will take that sausage of a nose of yours and hurl you half round your own castle!”
“Treason!” shouted all, and looked to the chair.
“Treason!” said enraged majesty. The allusion to the nose had done away with all the constitutional doubts which had been sported so moderately at the commencement of the evening.
“Treason!” howled the President: “instant punishment!”
“What punishment?” asked Asmanshausen.
“Drown him in the new butt of Moselle,” recommended Rudesheimer. The suggestion was immediately adopted. Every one rose: the little Geisenheim already had hold of Vivian’s shoulder; and Grafenberg, instigated by the cowardly but malicious Rudesheimer, was about to seize him by the neck. Vivian took the dwarf and hurled him at the chandelier, in whose brazen chains the little being got entangled, and there remained. An unexpected cross-buttocker floored the incautious and unscientific Grafenberg; and following up these advantages, Vivian laid open the skull of his prime enemy, the retreating Margrave of Rudesheimer, with the assistance of the horn of Oberon; which flew from his hand to the other end of the room, from the force with which it rebounded from the cranium of the enemy. All the rest were now on the advance; but giving a vigorous and unexpected push to the table, the Johannisberger and Asmanshausen were thrown over, and the nose of the former got entangled with the awkward windings of the Fairy King’s horn. Taking advantage of this move, Vivian rushed to the door. He escaped, but had not time to secure the lock against the enemy, for the stout Elector of Steinberg was too quick for him. He dashed down the stairs with extraordinary agility; but just as he had gained the large octagonal hall, the whole of his late boon companions, with the exception of the dwarf of Geisenheim, who was left in the chandelier, were visible in full chase. Escape was impossible, and so Vivian, followed by the seven nobles, headed by their President, described with all possible rapidity a circle round the hall. He gave himself up for lost; but, luckily, for him, it never occurred to one of his pursuers to do anything but follow their leader; and as, therefore, they never dodged Vivian, and as, also, he was a much fleeter runner than the fat President, whose pace, of course, regulated the progress of his followers, the party might have gone on at this rate until all of them had dropped from fatigue, had not the occurrence of a ludicrous incident prevented this consummation.
The hall door was suddenly dashed open, and Essper George rushed in, followed in full chase by Hunsdrich and the guests of the lodge, who were the servants of Vivian’s pursuers. Essper darted in between Rudesheimer and Markbrunnen, and Hunsdrich and his friends following the same tactics as their lords and masters, without making any attempt to surround and hem in the object of their pursuit, merely followed him in order, describing, but in a contrary direction, a lesser circle within the eternal round of the first party. It was only proper for the servants to give their masters the wall. In spite of their very disagreeable and dangerous situation, it was with difficulty that Vivian refrained from laughter, as he met Essper regularly every half minute at the foot of the great staircase. Suddenly, as Essper passed, he took Vivian by the waist, and with a single jerk placed him on the stairs; and then, with a dexterous dodge, he brought Hunsdrich the porter and the Grand Duke in full contact.
“I have got you at last,” said Hunsdrich, seizing hold of his Grace of Johannisberger by the ears, and mistaking him for Essper.
“I have got you at last,” said his master, grappling, as he supposed, with Vivian. Both struggled; their followers pushed on with impetuous force, the battle was general, the overthrow universal. In a moment all were on the ground; and if any less inebriated or more active individual attempted to rise, Essper immediately brought him down with a boar-spear.
“Give me that large fishing-net,” said Essper to Vivian; “quick, quick.”
Vivian pulled down a large coarse net, which covered nearly five sides of the room. It was immediately unfolded, and spread over the fallen crew. To fasten it down with half a dozen boar-spears, which they drove into the floor, was the work of a moment. Essper had one pull at the proboscis of the Grand Duke of Johannisberger before he hurried Vivian away; and in ten minutes they were again on their horses’ backs and galloping through the star-lit wood.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49