A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Battle of the Bowmen.

Although there lay an immense number of castles and abbeys between Windeck and Cleves, for every one of which the guide-books have a legend and a ghost, who might, with the commonest stretch of ingenuity, be made to waylay our adventurers on the road; yet, as the journey would be thus almost interminable, let us cut it short by saying that the travellers reached Cleves without any further accident, and found the place thronged with visitors for the meeting next day.

And here it would be easy to describe the company which arrived, and make display of antiquarian lore. Now we would represent a cavalcade of knights arriving, with their pages carrying their shining helms of gold, and the stout esquires, bearers of lance and banner. Anon would arrive a fat abbot on his ambling pad, surrounded by the white-robed companions of his convent. Here should come the gleemen and jonglers, the minstrels, the mountebanks, the party-colored gipsies, the dark-eyed, nut-brown Zigeunerinnen; then a troop of peasants chanting Rhine-songs, and leading in their ox-drawn carts the peach-cheeked girls from the vine-lands. Next we would depict the litters blazoned with armorial bearings, from between the broidered curtains of which peeped out the swan-like necks and the haughty faces of the blond ladies of the castles. But for these descriptions we have not space; and the reader is referred to the account of the tournament in the ingenious novel of “Ivanhoe,” where the above phenomena are described at length. Suffice it to say, that Otto and his companions arrived at the town of Cleves, and, hastening to a hostel, reposed themselves after the day’s march, and prepared them for the encounter of the morrow.

That morrow came: and as the sports were to begin early, Otto and his comrades hastened to the field, armed with their best bows and arrows, you may be sure, and eager to distinguish themselves; as were the multitude of other archers assembled. They were from all neighboring countries — crowds of English, as you may fancy, armed with Murray’s guide-books, troops of chattering Frenchmen, Frankfort Jews with roulette-tables, and Tyrolese, with gloves and trinkets — all hied towards the field where the butts were set up, and the archery practice was to be held. The Childe and his brother archers were, it need not be said, early on the ground.

But what words of mine can describe the young gentleman’s emotion when, preceded by a band of trumpets, bagpipes, ophicleides, and other wind instruments, the Prince of Cleves appeared with the Princess Helen, his daughter? And ah! what expressions of my humble pen can do justice to the beauty of that young lady? Fancy every charm which decorates the person, every virtue which ornaments the mind, every accomplishment which renders charming mind and charming person doubly charming, and then you will have but a faint and feeble idea of the beauties of her Highness the Princess Helen. Fancy a complexion such as they say (I know not with what justice) Rowland’s Kalydor imparts to the users of that cosmetic; fancy teeth to which orient pearls are like Wallsend coals; eyes, which were so blue, tender, and bright, that while they run you through with their lustre, they healed you with their kindness; a neck and waist, so ravishingly slender and graceful, that the least that is said about them the better; a foot which fell upon the flowers no heavier than a dew-drop — and this charming person set off by the most elegant toilet that ever milliner devised! The lovely Helen’s hair (which was as black as the finest varnish for boots) was so long, that it was borne on a cushion several yards behind her by the maidens of her train; and a hat, set off with moss-roses, sunflowers, bugles, birds-of-paradise, gold lace, and pink ribbon, gave her a distingue air, which would have set the editor of the Morning Post mad with love.

It had exactly the same effect upon the noble Childe of Godesberg, as leaning on his ivory bow, with his legs crossed, he stood and gazed on her, as Cupid gazed on Psyche. Their eyes met: it was all over with both of them. A blush came at one and the same minute budding to the cheek of either. A simultaneous throb beat in those young hearts! They loved each other for ever from that instant. Otto still stood, cross-legged, enraptured, leaning on his ivory bow; but Helen, calling to a maiden for her pocket-handkerchief, blew her beautiful Grecian nose in order to hide her agitation. Bless ye, bless ye, pretty ones! I am old now; but not so old but that I kindle at the tale of love. Theresa MacWhirter too has lived and loved. Heigho!

Who is yon chief that stands behind the truck whereon are seated the Princess and the stout old lord, her father? Who is he whose hair is of the carroty hue? whose eyes, across a snubby bunch of a nose, are perpetually scowling at each other; who has a hump-back and a hideous mouth, surrounded with bristles, and crammed full of jutting yellow odious teeth. Although he wears a sky-blue doublet laced with silver, it only serves to render his vulgar punchy figure doubly ridiculous; although his nether garment is of salmon-colored velvet, it only draws the more attention to his legs, which are disgustingly crooked and bandy. A rose-colored hat, with towering pea-green ostrich-plumes, looks absurd on his bull-head; and though it is time of peace, the wretch is armed with a multiplicity of daggers, knives, yataghans, dirks, sabres, and scimitars, which testify his truculent and bloody disposition. ’Tis the terrible Rowski de Donnerblitz, Margrave of Eulenschreckenstein. Report says he is a suitor for the hand of the lovely Helen. He addresses various speeches of gallantry to her, and grins hideously as he thrusts his disgusting head over her lily shoulder. But she turns away from him! turns and shudders — ay, as she would at a black dose!

Otto stands gazing still, and leaning on his bow. “What is the prize?” asks one archer of another. There are two prizes — a velvet cap, embroidered by the hand of the Princess, and a chain of massive gold, of enormous value. Both lie on cushions before her.

“I know which I shall choose, when I win the first prize,” says a swarthy, savage, and bandy-legged archer, who bears the owl gules on a black shield, the cognizance of the Lord Rowski de Donnerblitz.

“Which, fellow?” says Otto, turning fiercely upon him.

“The chain, to be sure!” says the leering archer. “You do not suppose I am such a flat as to choose that velvet gimcrack there?” Otto laughed in scorn, and began to prepare his bow. The trumpets sounding proclaimed that the sports were about to commence.

Is it necessary to describe them? No: that has already been done in the novel of “Ivanhoe” before mentioned. Fancy the archers clad in Lincoln green, all coming forward in turn, and firing at the targets. Some hit, some missed; those that missed were fain to retire amidst the jeers of the multitudinous spectators. Those that hit began new trials of skill; but it was easy to see, from the first, that the battle lay between Squintoff (the Rowski archer) and the young hero with the golden hair and the ivory bow. Squintoff’s fame as a marksman was known throughout Europe; but who was his young competitor? Ah? there was ONE heart in the assembly that beat most anxiously to know. ’Twas Helen’s.

The crowning trial arrived. The bull’s eye of the target, set up at three-quarters of a mile distance from the archers, was so small, that it required a very clever man indeed to see, much more to hit it; and as Squintoff was selecting his arrow for the final trial, the Rowski flung a purse of gold towards his archer, saying —“Squintoff, an ye win the prize, the purse is thine.” “I may as well pocket it at once, your honor,” said the bowman with a sneer at Otto. “This young chick, who has been lucky as yet, will hardly hit such a mark as that.” And, taking his aim, Squintoff discharged his arrow right into the very middle of the bull’s-eye.

“Can you mend that, young springald?” said he, as a shout rent the air at his success, as Helen turned pale to think that the champion of her secret heart was likely to be overcome, and as Squintoff, pocketing the Rowski’s money, turned to the noble boy of Godesberg.

“Has anybody got a pea?” asked the lad. Everybody laughed at his droll request; and an old woman, who was selling porridge in the crowd, handed him the vegetable which he demanded. It was a dry and yellow pea. Otto, stepping up to the target, caused Squintoff to extract his arrow from the bull’s-eye, and placed in the orifice made by the steel point of the shaft, the pea which he had received from the old woman. He then came back to his place. As he prepared to shoot, Helen was so overcome by emotion, that ’twas thought she would have fainted. Never, never had she seen a being so beautiful as the young hero now before her.

He looked almost divine. He flung back his long clusters of hair from his bright eyes and tall forehead; the blush of health mantled on his cheek, from which the barber’s weapon had never shorn the down. He took his bow, and one of his most elegant arrows, and poising himself lightly on his right leg, he flung himself forward, raising his left leg on a level with his ear. He looked like Apollo, as he stood balancing himself there. He discharged his dart from the thrumming bowstring: it clove the blue air — whiz!

“HE HAS SPLIT THE PEA!” said the Princess, and fainted. The Rowski, with one eye, hurled an indignant look at the boy, while with the other he levelled (if aught so crooked can be said to level anything) a furious glance at his archer.

The archer swore a sulky oath. “He is the better man!” said he. “I suppose, young chap, you take the gold chain?”

“The gold chain?” said Otto. “Prefer a gold chain to a cap worked by that august hand? Never!” And advancing to the balcony where the Princess, who now came to herself, was sitting, he kneeled down before her, and received the velvet cap; which, blushing as scarlet as the cap itself, the Princess Helen placed on his golden ringlets. Once more their eyes met — their hearts thrilled. They had never spoken, but they knew they loved each other for ever.

“Wilt thou take service with the Rowski of Donnerblitz?” said that individual to the youth. “Thou shalt be captain of my archers in place of yon blundering nincompoop, whom thou hast overcome.”

“Yon blundering nincompoop is a skilful and gallant archer,” replied Otto, haughtily; “and I will NOT take service with the Rowski of Donnerblitz.”

“Wilt thou enter the household of the Prince of Cleves?” said the father of Helen, laughing, and not a little amused at the haughtiness of the humble archer.

“I would die for the Duke of Cleves and HIS FAMILY,” said Otto, bowing low. He laid a particular and a tender emphasis on the word family. Helen knew what he meant. SHE was the family. In fact her mother was no more, and her papa had no other offspring.

“What is thy name, good fellow,” said the Prince, “that my steward may enroll thee?”

“Sir,” said Otto, again blushing, “I am OTTO THE ARCHER.”


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