A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Traitor’s Doom.

The Hombourger led his horse down the winding path which conducts from the hill and castle of Godesberg into the beautiful green plain below. Who has not seen that lovely plain, and who that has seen it has not loved it? A thousand sunny vineyards and cornfields stretch around in peaceful luxuriance; the mighty Rhine floats by it in silver magnificence, and on the opposite bank rise the seven mountains robed in majestic purple, the monarchs of the royal scene.

A pleasing poet, Lord Byron, in describing this very scene, has mentioned that “peasant girls, with dark blue eyes, and hands that offer cake and wine,” are perpetually crowding round the traveller in this delicious district, and proffering to him their rustic presents. This was no doubt the case in former days, when the noble bard wrote his elegant poems — in the happy ancient days! when maidens were as yet generous, and men kindly! Now the degenerate peasantry of the district are much more inclined to ask than to give, and their blue eyes seem to have disappeared with their generosity.

But as it was a long time ago that the events of our story occurred, ’tis probable that the good Knight Ludwig of Hombourg was greeted upon his path by this fascinating peasantry; though we know not how he accepted their welcome. He continued his ride across the flat green country until he came to Rolandseck, whence he could command the Island of Nonnenwerth (that lies in the Rhine opposite that place), and all who went to it or passed from it.

Over the entrance of a little cavern in one of the rocks hanging above the Rhine-stream at Rolandseck, and covered with odoriferous cactuses and silvery magnolias, the traveller of the present day may perceive a rude broken image of a saint: that image represented the venerable Saint Buffo of Bonn, the patron of the Margrave; and Sir Ludwig, kneeling on the greensward, and reciting a censer, an ave, and a couple of acolytes before it, felt encouraged to think that the deed he meditated was about to be performed under the very eyes of his friend’s sanctified patron. His devotion done (and the knight of those days was as pious as he was brave), Sir Ludwig, the gallant Hombourger, exclaimed with a loud voice:—

“Ho! hermit! holy hermit, art thou in thy cell?”

“Who calls the poor servant of heaven and Saint Buffo?” exclaimed a voice from the cavern; and presently, from beneath the wreaths of geranium and magnolia, appeared an intensely venerable, ancient, and majestic head —’twas that, we need not say, of Saint Buffo’s solitary. A silver beard hanging to his knees gave his person an appearance of great respectability; his body was robed in simple brown serge, and girt with a knotted cord: his ancient feet were only defended from the prickles and stones by the rudest sandals, and his bald and polished head was bare.

“Holy hermit,” said the knight, in a grave voice, “make ready thy ministry, for there is some one about to die.”

“Where, son?”

“Here, father.”

“Is he here, now?”

“Perhaps,” said the stout warrior, crossing himself; “but not so if right prevail.” At this moment he caught sight of a ferry-boat putting off from Nonnenwerth, with a knight on board. Ludwig knew at once, by the sinople reversed and the truncated gules on his surcoat, that it was Sir Gottfried of Godesberg.

“Be ready, father,” said the good knight, pointing towards the advancing boat; and waving his hand by way of respect to the reverend hermit, without a further word, he vaulted into his saddle, and rode back for a few score of paces; when he wheeled round, and remained steady. His great lance and pennon rose in the air. His armor glistened in the sun; the chest and head of his battle-horse were similarly covered with steel. As Sir Gottfried, likewise armed and mounted (for his horse had been left at the ferry hard by), advanced up the road, he almost started at the figure before him — a glistening tower of steel.

“Are you the lord of this pass, Sir Knight?” said Sir Gottfried, haughtily, “or do you hold it against all comers, in honor of your lady-love?”

“I am not the lord of this pass. I do not hold it against all comers. I hold it but against one, and he is a liar and a traitor.”

“As the matter concerns me not, I pray you let me pass,” said Gottfried.

“The matter DOES concern thee, Gottfried of Godesberg. Liar and traitor! art thou coward, too?”

“Holy Saint Buffo! ’tis a fight!” exclaimed the old hermit (who, too, had been a gallant warrior in his day); and like the old war-horse that hears the trumpet’s sound, and spite of his clerical profession, he prepared to look on at the combat with no ordinary eagerness, and sat down on the overhanging ledge of the rock, lighting his pipe, and affecting unconcern, but in reality most deeply interested in the event which was about to ensue.

As soon as the word “coward” had been pronounced by Sir Ludwig, his opponent, uttering a curse far too horrible to be inscribed here, had wheeled back his powerful piebald, and brought his lance to the rest.

“Ha! Beauseant!” cried he. “Allah humdillah!” ’Twas the battle-cry in Palestine of the irresistible Knights Hospitallers. “Look to thyself, Sir Knight, and for mercy from heaven! I will give thee none.”

“A Bugo for Katzenellenbogen!” exclaimed Sir Ludwig, piously: that, too, was the well-known war-cry of his princely race.

“I will give the signal,” said the old hermit, waving his pipe. “Knights, are you ready? One, two, three. LOS!” (let go.)

At the signal, the two steeds tore up the ground like whirlwinds; the two knights, two flashing perpendicular masses of steel, rapidly converged; the two lances met upon the two shields of either, and shivered, splintered, shattered into ten hundred thousand pieces, which whirled through the air here and there, among the rocks, or in the trees, or in the river. The two horses fell back trembling on their haunches, where they remained for half a minute or so.

“Holy Buffo! a brave stroke!” said the old hermit. “Marry, but a splinter wellnigh took off my nose!” The honest hermit waved his pipe in delight, not perceiving that one of the splinters had carried off the head of it, and rendered his favorite amusement impossible. “Ha! they are to it again! O my! how they go to with their great swords! Well stricken, gray! Well parried, piebald! Ha, that was a slicer! Go it, piebald! go it, gray! — go it, gray! go it, pie — Peccavi! peccavi!” said the old man, here suddenly closing his eyes, and falling down on his knees. “I forgot I was a man of peace.” And the next moment, muttering a hasty matin, he sprung down the ledge of rock, and was by the side of the combatants.

The battle was over. Good knight as Sir Gottfried was, his strength and skill had not been able to overcome Sir Ludwig the Hombourger, with RIGHT on his side. He was bleeding at every point of his armor: he had been run through the body several times, and a cut in tierce, delivered with tremendous dexterity, had cloven the crown of his helmet of Damascus steel, and passing through the cerebellum and sensorium, had split his nose almost in twain.

His mouth foaming — his face almost green — his eyes full of blood — his brains spattered over his forehead, and several of his teeth knocked out — the discomfited warrior presented a ghastly spectacle, as, reeling under the effects of the last tremendous blow which the Knight of Hombourg dealt, Sir Gottfried fell heavily from the saddle of his piebald charger; the frightened animal whisked his tail wildly with a shriek and a snort, plunged out his hind legs, trampling for one moment upon the feet of the prostrate Gottfried, thereby causing him to shriek with agony, and then galloped away riderless.

Away! ay, away! — away amid the green vineyards and golden cornfields; away up the steep mountains, where he frightened the eagles in their eyries; away down the clattering ravines, where the flashing cataracts tumble; away through the dark pine-forests, where the hungry wolves are howling away over the dreary wolds, where the wild wind walks alone; away through the plashing quagmires, where the will-o’-the-wisp slunk frightened among the reeds; away through light and darkness, storm and sunshine; away by tower and town, high-road and hamlet. Once a turnpike-man would have detained him; but, ha! ha! he charged the pike, and cleared it at a bound. Once the Cologne Diligence stopped the way: he charged the Diligence, he knocked off the cap of the conductor on the roof, and yet galloped wildly, madly, furiously, irresistibly on! Brave horse! gallant steed! snorting child of Araby! On went the horse, over mountains, rivers, turnpikes, apple-women; and never stopped until he reached a livery-stable in Cologne where his master was accustomed to put him up.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00