A Legend of the Rhine, by William Makepeace Thackeray


The Childe of Godesberg.

It must be clear to the dullest intellect (if amongst our readers we dare venture to presume that a dull intellect should be found) that the cause of the Margrave’s fainting-fit, described in the last chapter, was a groundless apprehension on the part of that too solicitous and credulous nobleman regarding the fate of his beloved child. No, young Otto was NOT drowned. Was ever hero of romantic story done to death so early in the tale? Young Otto was NOT drowned. Had such been the case, the Lord Margrave would infallibly have died at the close of the last chapter; and a few gloomy sentences at its close would have denoted how the lovely Lady Theodora became insane in the convent, and how Sir Ludwig determined, upon the demise of the old hermit (consequent upon the shock of hearing the news), to retire to the vacant hermitage, and assume the robe, the beard, the mortifications of the late venerable and solitary ecclesiastic. Otto was NOT drowned, and all those personages of our history are consequently alive and well.

The boat containing the amazed young Count — for he knew not the cause of his father’s anger, and hence rebelled against the unjust sentence which the Margrave had uttered — had not rowed many miles, when the gallant boy rallied from his temporary surprise and despondency, and determined not to be a slave in any convent of any order: determined to make a desperate effort for escape. At a moment when the men were pulling hard against the tide, and Kuno, the coxswain, was looking carefully to steer the barge between some dangerous rocks and quicksands which are frequently met with in the majestic though dangerous river, Otto gave a sudden spring from the boat, and with one single flounce was in the boiling, frothing, swirling eddy of the stream.

Fancy the agony of the crew at the disappearance of their young lord! All loved him; all would have given their lives for him; but as they did not know how to swim, of course they declined to make any useless plunges in search of him, and stood on their oars in mute wonder and grief. ONCE, his fair head and golden ringlets were seen to arise from the water; TWICE, puffing and panting, it appeared for an instant again; THRICE, it rose but for one single moment: it was the last chance, and it sunk, sunk, sunk. Knowing the reception they would meet with from their liege lord, the men naturally did not go home to Godesberg, but putting in at the first creek on the opposite bank, fled into the Duke of Nassau’s territory; where, as they have little to do with our tale, we will leave them.

But they little knew how expert a swimmer was young Otto. He had disappeared, it is true; but why? because he HAD DIVED. He calculated that his conductors would consider him drowned, and the desire of liberty lending him wings, (or we had rather say FINS, in this instance,) the gallant boy swam on beneath the water, never lifting his head for a single moment between Godesberg and Cologne — the distance being twenty-five or thirty miles.

Escaping from observation, he landed on the Deutz side of the river, repaired to a comfortable and quiet hostel there, saying he had had an accident from a boat, and thus accounting for the moisture of his habiliments, and while these were drying before a fire in his chamber, went snugly to bed, where he mused, not without amaze, on the strange events of the day. “This morning,” thought he, “a noble, and heir to a princely estate — this evening an outcast, with but a few bank-notes which my mamma luckily gave me on my birthday. What a strange entry into life is this for a young man of my family! Well, I have courage and resolution: my first attempt in life has been a gallant and successful one; other dangers will be conquered by similar bravery.” And recommending himself, his unhappy mother, and his mistaken father to the care of their patron saint, Saint Buffo, the gallant-hearted boy fell presently into such a sleep as only the young, the healthy, the innocent, and the extremely fatigued can enjoy.

The fatigues of the day (and very few men but would be fatigued after swimming wellnigh thirty miles under water) caused young Otto to sleep so profoundly, that he did not remark how, after Friday’s sunset, as a natural consequence, Saturday’s Phoebus illumined the world, ay, and sunk at his appointed hour. The serving-maidens of the hostel, peeping in, marked him sleeping, and blessing him for a pretty youth, tripped lightly from the chamber; the boots tried haply twice or thrice to call him (as boots will fain), but the lovely boy, giving another snore, turned on his side, and was quite unconscious of the interruption. In a word, the youth slept for six-and-thirty hours at an elongation; and the Sunday sun was shining and the bells of the hundred churches of Cologne were clinking and tolling in pious festivity, and the burghers and burgheresses of the town were trooping to vespers and morning service when Otto awoke.

As he donned his clothes of the richest Genoa velvet, the astonished boy could not at first account for his difficulty in putting them on. “Marry,” said he, “these breeches that my blessed mother” (tears filled his fine eyes as he thought of her)—“that my blessed mother had made long on purpose, are now ten inches too short for me. Whir-r-r! my coat cracks i’ the back, as in vain I try to buckle it round me; and the sleeves reach no farther than my elbows! What is this mystery? Am I grown fat and tall in a single night? Ah! ah! ah! ah! I have it.”

The young and good-humored Childe laughed merrily. He bethought him of the reason of his mistake: his garments had shrunk from being five-and-twenty miles under water.

But one remedy presented itself to his mind; and that we need not say was to purchase new ones. Inquiring the way to the most genteel ready-made-clothes’ establishment in the city of Cologne, and finding it was kept in the Minoriten Strasse, by an ancestor of the celebrated Moses of London, the noble Childe hied him towards the emporium; but you may be sure did not neglect to perform his religious duties by the way. Entering the cathedral, he made straight for the shrine of Saint Buffo, and hiding himself behind a pillar there (fearing he might be recognized by the archbishop, or any of his father’s numerous friends in Cologne), he proceeded with his devotions, as was the practice of the young nobles of the age.

But though exceedingly intent upon the service, yet his eye could not refrain from wandering a LITTLE round about him, and he remarked with surprise that the whole church was filled with archers; and he remembered, too, that he had seen in the streets numerous other bands of men similarly attired in green. On asking at the cathedral porch the cause of this assemblage, one of the green ones said (in a jape), “Marry, youngster, YOU must be GREEN, not to know that we are all bound to the castle of his Grace Duke Adolf of Cleves, who gives an archery meeting once a year, and prizes for which we toxophilites muster strong.”

Otto, whose course hitherto had been undetermined, now immediately settled what to do. He straightway repaired to the ready-made emporium of Herr Moses, and bidding that gentleman furnish him with an archer’s complete dress, Moses speedily selected a suit from his vast stock, which fitted the youth to a T, and we need not say was sold at an exceedingly moderate price. So attired (and bidding Herr Moses a cordial farewell), young Otto was a gorgeous, a noble, a soul-inspiring boy to gaze on. A coat and breeches of the most brilliant pea-green, ornamented with a profusion of brass buttons, and fitting him with exquisite tightness, showed off a figure unrivalled for slim symmetry. His feet were covered with peaked buskins of buff leather, and a belt round his slender waist, of the same material, held his knife, his tobacco-pipe and pouch, and his long shining dirk; which, though the adventurous youth had as yet only employed it to fashion wicket-bails, or to cut bread-and-cheese, he was now quite ready to use against the enemy. His personal attractions were enhanced by a neat white hat, flung carelessly and fearlessly on one side of his open smiling countenance; and his lovely hair, curling in ten thousand yellow ringlets, fell over his shoulder like golden epaulettes, and down his back as far as the waist-buttons of his coat. I warrant me, many a lovely Colnerinn looked after the handsome Childe with anxiety, and dreamed that night of Cupid under the guise of “a bonny boy in green.”

So accoutred, the youth’s next thought was, that he must supply himself with a bow. This he speedily purchased at the most fashionable bowyer’s, and of the best material and make. It was of ivory, trimmed with pink ribbon, and the cord of silk. An elegant quiver, beautifully painted and embroidered, was slung across his back, with a dozen of the finest arrows, tipped with steel of Damascus, formed of the branches of the famous Upas-tree of Java, and feathered with the wings of the ortolan. These purchases being completed (together with that of a knapsack, dressing-case, change, &c.), our young adventurer asked where was the hostel at which the archers were wont to assemble? and being informed that it was at the sign of the “Golden Stag,” hied him to that house of entertainment, where, by calling for quantities of liquor and beer, he speedily made the acquaintance and acquired the good will of a company of his future comrades, who happened to be sitting in the coffee-room.

After they had eaten and drunken for all, Otto said, addressing them, “When go ye forth, gentles? I am a stranger here, bound as you to the archery meeting of Duke Adolf. An ye will admit a youth into your company ’twill gladden me upon my lonely way?”

The archers replied, “You seem so young and jolly, and you spend your gold so very like a gentleman, that we’ll receive you in our band with pleasure. Be ready, for we start at half-past two!” At that hour accordingly the whole joyous company prepared to move, and Otto not a little increased his popularity among them by stepping out and having a conference with the landlord, which caused the latter to come into the room where the archers were assembled previous to departure, and to say, “Gentlemen, the bill is settled!”— words never ungrateful to an archer yet: no, marry, nor to a man of any other calling that I wot of.

They marched joyously for several leagues, singing and joking, and telling of a thousand feats of love and chase and war. While thus engaged, some one remarked to Otto, that he was not dressed in the regular uniform, having no feathers in his hat.

“I dare say I will find a feather,” said the lad, smiling.

Then another gibed because his bow was new.

“See that you can use your old one as well, Master Wolfgang,” said the undisturbed youth. His answers, his bearing, his generosity, his beauty, and his wit, inspired all his new toxophilite friends with interest and curiosity, and they longed to see whether his skill with the bow corresponded with their secret sympathies for him.

An occasion for manifesting this skill did not fail to present itself soon — as indeed it seldom does to such a hero of romance as young Otto was. Fate seems to watch over such: events occur to them just in the nick of time; they rescue virgins just as ogres are on the point of devouring them; they manage to be present at court and interesting ceremonies, and to see the most interesting people at the most interesting moment; directly an adventure is necessary for them, that adventure occurs: and I, for my part, have often wondered with delight (and never could penetrate the mystery of the subject) at the way in which that humblest of romance heroes, Signor Clown, when he wants anything in the Pantomime, straightway finds it to his hand. How is it that — suppose he wishes to dress himself up like a woman for instance, that minute a coalheaver walks in with a shovel-hat that answers for a bonnet; at the very next instant a butcher’s lad passing with a string of sausages and a bundle of bladders unconsciously helps Master Clown to a necklace and a tournure, and so on through the whole toilet? Depend upon it there is something we do not wot of in that mysterious overcoming of circumstances by great individuals: that apt and wondrous conjuncture of THE HOUR AND THE MAN; and so, for my part, when I heard the above remark of one of the archers, that Otto had never a feather in his bonnet, I felt sure that a heron would spring up in the next sentence to supply him with an aigrette.

And such indeed was the fact: rising out of a morass by which the archers were passing, a gallant heron, arching his neck, swelling his crest, placing his legs behind him, and his beak and red eyes against the wind, rose slowly, and offered the fairest mark in the world.

“Shoot, Otto,” said one of the archers. “You would not shoot just now at a crow because it was a foul bird, nor at a hawk because it was a noble bird; bring us down yon heron: it flies slowly.”

But Otto was busy that moment tying his shoestring, and Rudolf, the third best of the archers, shot at the bird and missed it.

“Shoot, Otto,” said Wolfgang, a youth who had taken a liking to the young archer: “the bird is getting further and further.”

But Otto was busy that moment whittling a willow-twig he had just cut. Max, the second best archer, shot and missed.

“Then,” said Wolfgang, “I must try myself: a plague on you, young springald, you have lost a noble chance!”

Wolfgang prepared himself with all his care, and shot at the bird. “It is out of distance,” said he, “and a murrain on the bird!”

Otto, who by this time had done whittling his willow-stick (having carved a capital caricature of Wolfgang upon it), flung the twig down and said carelessly, “Out of distance! Pshaw! We have two minutes yet,” and fell to asking riddles and cutting jokes; to the which none of the archers listened, as they were all engaged, their noses in air, watching the retreating bird.

“Where shall I hit him?” said Otto.

“Go to,” said Rudolf, “thou canst see no limb of him: he is no bigger than a flea.”

“Here goes for his right eye!” said Otto; and stepping forward in the English manner (which his godfather having learnt in Palestine, had taught him), he brought his bowstring to his ear, took a good aim, allowing for the wind and calculating the parabola to a nicety. Whiz! his arrow went off.

He took up the willow-twig again and began carving a head of Rudolf at the other end, chatting and laughing, and singing a ballad the while.

The archers, after standing a long time looking skywards with their noses in the air, at last brought them down from the perpendicular to the horizontal position, and said, “Pooh, this lad is a humbug! The arrow’s lost; let’s go!”

“HEADS!” cried Otto, laughing. A speck was seen rapidly descending from the heavens; it grew to be as big as a crown-piece, then as a partridge, then as a tea-kettle, and flop! down fell a magnificent heron to the ground, flooring poor Max in its fall.

“Take the arrow out of his eye, Wolfgang,” said Otto, without looking at the bird: “wipe it and put it back into my quiver.”

The arrow indeed was there, having penetrated right through the pupil.

“Are you in league with Der Freischutz?” said Rudolf, quite amazed.

Otto laughingly whistled the “Huntsman’s Chorus,” and said, “No, my friend. It was a lucky shot: only a lucky shot. I was taught shooting, look you, in the fashion of merry England, where the archers are archers indeed.”

And so he cut off the heron’s wing for a plume for his hat; and the archers walked on, much amazed, and saying, “What a wonderful country that merry England must be!”

Far from feeling any envy at their comrade’s success, the jolly archers recognized his superiority with pleasure; and Wolfgang and Rudolf especially held out their hands to the younker, and besought the honor of his friendship. They continued their walk all day, and when night fell made choice of a good hostel you may be sure, where over beer, punch, champagne, and every luxury, they drank to the health of the Duke of Cleves, and indeed each other’s healths all round. Next day they resumed their march, and continued it without interruption, except to take in a supply of victuals here and there (and it was found on these occasions that Otto, young as he was, could eat four times as much as the oldest archer present, and drink to correspond); and these continued refreshments having given them more than ordinary strength, they determined on making rather a long march of it, and did not halt till after nightfall at the gates of the little town of Windeck.

What was to be done? the town-gates were shut. “Is there no hostel, no castle where we can sleep?” asked Otto of the sentinel at the gate. “I am so hungry that in lack of better food I think I could eat my grandmamma.”

The sentinel laughed at this hyperbolical expression of hunger, and said, “You had best go sleep at the Castle of Windeck yonder;” adding with a peculiarly knowing look, “Nobody will disturb you there.”

At that moment the moon broke out from a cloud, and showed on a hill hard by a castle indeed — but the skeleton of a castle. The roof was gone, the windows were dismantled, the towers were tumbling, and the cold moonlight pierced it through and through. One end of the building was, however, still covered in, and stood looking still more frowning, vast, and gloomy, even than the other part of the edifice.

“There is a lodging, certainly,” said Otto to the sentinel, who pointed towards the castle with his bartizan; “but tell me, good fellow, what are we to do for a supper?”

“Oh, the castellan of Windeck will entertain you,” said the man-at-arms with a grin, and marched up the embrasure; the while the archers, taking counsel among themselves, debated whether or not they should take up their quarters in the gloomy and deserted edifice.

“We shall get nothing but an owl for supper there,” said young Otto. “Marry, lads, let us storm the town; we are thirty gallant fellows, and I have heard the garrison is not more than three hundred.” But the rest of the party thought such a way of getting supper was not a very cheap one, and, grovelling knaves, preferred rather to sleep ignobly and without victuals, than dare the assault with Otto, and die, or conquer something comfortable.

One and all then made their way towards the castle. They entered its vast and silent halls, frightening the owls and bats that fled before them with hideous hootings and flappings of wings, and passing by a multiplicity of mouldy stairs, dank reeking roofs, and rickety corridors, at last came to an apartment which, dismal and dismantled as it was, appeared to be in rather better condition than the neighboring chambers, and they therefore selected it as their place of rest for the night. They then tossed up which should mount guard. The first two hours of watch fell to Otto, who was to be succeeded by his young though humble friend Wolfgang; and, accordingly, the Childe of Godesberg, drawing his dirk, began to pace upon his weary round; while his comrades, by various gradations of snoring, told how profoundly they slept, spite of their lack of supper.

’Tis needless to say what were the thoughts of the noble Childe as he performed his two hours’ watch; what gushing memories poured into his full soul; what “sweet and bitter” recollections of home inspired his throbbing heart; and what manly aspirations after fame buoyed him up. “Youth is ever confident,” says the bard. Happy, happy season! The moonlit hours passed by on silver wings, the twinkling stars looked friendly down upon him. Confiding in their youthful sentinel, sound slept the valorous toxophilites, as up and down, and there and back again, marched on the noble Childe. At length his repeater told him, much to his satisfaction, that it was half-past eleven, the hour when his watch was to cease; and so, giving a playful kick to the slumbering Wolfgang, that good-humored fellow sprung up from his lair, and, drawing his sword, proceeded to relieve Otto.

The latter laid him down for warmth’s sake on the very spot which his comrade had left, and for some time could not sleep. Realities and visions then began to mingle in his mind, till he scarce knew which was which. He dozed for a minute; then he woke with a start; then he went off again; then woke up again. In one of these half-sleeping moments he thought he saw a figure, as of a woman in white, gliding into the room, and beckoning Wolfgang from it. He looked again. Wolfgang was gone. At that moment twelve o’clock clanged from the town, and Otto started up.


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