This story is adapted from A Legend of the Rhine by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811--1863).
It takes place in the Middle Ages -- but it begins with a knight carrying an umbrella, which was not invented till much later. Other impossible things happen: the princess makes tea, the prince smokes a cigar, and musicians play music that was not yet written.
Thackeray was making fun of stories about the Middle Ages that were popular in his time. He didn't try to write a realistic story. He just tried to make his readers laugh.
A new part of this story will be posted here every weekday.
Long, long ago, a story took place on the banks of the Rhine River in Germany. It’s been written in a book, so it must be true. It’s a story of knights and ladies, love and battle, and good people who get what they deserve. It happened at exactly the time all that stuff was at its best – whenever that was.
On the cold and rainy evening of Thursday, October 26th of that year (whatever it was) a knight was riding along the road from Oberwinter to Godesberg. He was about fifty years old, with grey hair and a wrinkled face. He was not tall, but very athletic. He rode a strong grey war-horse.
It was the brave knight, Count Ludwig of Hombourg. You could tell by:
-- The design on his shield
-- His hat with a peacock feather
-- His silk umbrella (everyone knows that, at that time, only important people were allowed to use umbrellas)
-- And the tag on his suitcase that said: “Count Ludwig von Hombourg, Jerusalem”.
Actually, “Jerusalem” had been crossed out and “Godesberg” had been written in. Ludwig had certainly come a long way.
“It’s colder here than it was in Damascus,” he said, shivering. “I’m so hungry I could eat a camel! Will I get to Godesberg in time for dinner?”
He looked at his watch. It was only seven o’clock. His horse could trot 42 miles per hour. He would be at Godesberg in time for dinner at eight.
He was right. When he got to the castle – the home of his old friend, Count Karl – a bell was ringing. That meant it was time for the Count’s family to dress for dinner.
Count Ludwig rode through the castle gates. Everyone greeted him. The guards saluted. The servants all shouted, “Welcome back from the Holy Land, sir!”
They took Count Ludwig’s horse to the stables. He made sure it was comfortable. Then he went into the castle. The servants showed him to his room.
It was comfortable and welcoming. There was a fire in the fireplace. The vases were full of flowers. On the table he found a bottle of the expensive perfume made in the nearby city of Cologne.
The maids brought him hot water. They asked if he wanted his bed warmed that night. The tough old soldier said something that made them blush.
The castle barber came to see if Count Ludwig wanted a shave.
“This is better than that dungeon at Cairo,” said the count.
As the barber shaved him and put some gel in his hair, Count Ludwig asked, “How is my godson Otto? And his mother, the countess? And how is Count Karl, my old friend from the wars?”
“They’re fine,” said the barber. He sighed.
“Then why did you sigh?”
“Things have been different since Count Gottfried came here.”
“Gottfried is here?” shouted Ludwig. “Where he goes, trouble follows.”
The barber was talkative – like most barbers – and he told the count how things were in Count Karl’s family.
But you’ll learn all about it in the next chapter.
Of course, the family welcomed Count Ludwig warmly. After all, he was Count Karl’s old fellow-soldier, Countess Theodora’s good friend, and the godfather of their only child, Otto. (He’d been given this honor even though many kings and princes had asked to sponsor Otto at his baptism.)
As Ludwig changed into his evening clothes, Otto rushed in. Ludwig embraced his godson. When he’d left for the Holy Land, Otto had been just a boy. Now he was sixteen, and one of the finest young men in Germany.
“By St. Bugo, Otto! You could be one of the King of England’s grenadiers!” said Ludwig.
It was true. Otto was six feet three. He was also very graceful, with long blond curls down to his shoulders. His face was both brave and friendly.
He was wearing an expensive blue suit, made in China and brought to Germany in a sailing ship.
“Dinner is ready,” he told his godfather. Together they went to the living room to join Otto’s parents.
Countess Theodora did not look happy. For one thing, she was afraid the soup and fish were getting cold. That wasn’t all.
She took Ludwig’s arm. As they went to the dining room together, she whispered, “My husband has changed for the worse.”
“That’s just what the barber said,” said Ludwig, startled.
Theodora sighed, and sat down behind the soup. For a while, Ludwig was too busy eating to look at Count Karl, his old friend. Karl sat at the head of the table, with Gottfried on his right and Otto on his left.
“He does seem different,” Ludwig whispered to Theodora. “He hasn’t eaten any soup, or fish, or meat!”
Theodora cried into her soup plate.
“The butler will serve you some wine, Ludwig,” said Count Karl gloomily.
He didn’t even invite Ludwig to drink with him. This was so different from the old days!
The butler moved around the table, pouring the expensive South African wine. When Otto’s turn came, he held out his wine-cup like everyone else.
Suddenly, Count Karl was enraged.
He rushed over to his son and knocked the cup out of his hand. It spilled on Otto’s clean suit. Then he hit his son three or four times. This would have knocked down a buffalo, but it only made Otto blush.
“You dare to help yourself to wine!” roared the Count. “Who the hell said you could have any?”
“Karl! Karl!” shrieked the Countess.
“Shut your mouth, lady! Can’t a father hit his own child?”
“HIS OWN CHILD!” screamed the Countess. “Oh, no! What have I said?”
Count Ludwig looked around, stunned. Count Gottfried smiled nastily. Otto was still upset. The Countess was blushing, red as the lobster that had come with the fish course.
Of course, fights at the dinner table were common in those rude old times. Ludwig had often seen Count Karl throw the roast at a servant who made a mistake. Sometimes he had even thrown the gravy at the Countess. Ludwig thought this was just another outburst like those. He decided to talk about something else, to take everyone’s minds off it.
So he said, “How’s my old friend, Sir Hildebrandt?”
“By St. Buffo, this is too much!” screamed Count Karl. He ran out of the room.
“Good friends,” said Ludwig, “what is wrong with Count Karl?”
“Maybe he has a nosebleed,” Gottfried sneered.
“He just keeps getting worse,” said the Countess. Then she went to the living room for coffee.
Count Karl came back. He seemed a little calmer.
“Otto,” he said, “go join your mother. Young boys should not stay with the knights after dinner.”
Otto left. Everyone could see he didn’t want to go.
“We’re having a party tonight, to celebrate your return from the Middle East,” said Karl to Ludwig. “Hildebrandt will be there. Gottfried, my old friend, you should go and see if the crackers and dip are ready. And make sure the musicians aren’t drunk.”
Gottfried took the hint and left.
“Soon you’ll know everything, Ludwig,” said Count Karl sadly. “You don’t trust Gottfried, I know, but he’s a good friend to me. After all, he’s my cousin. He will inherit everything I have – if I have no son.”
“But you do have a son. And he looks very healthy.”
“Still, it may soon be that I have no son.”
Count Ludwig thought that his friend had just had too much to drink. He decided he’d have a few drinks too. Knights were just as brave at parties as they were on the battlefield.
“You knew Gottfried in the Holy Land?” asked the Count.
“Yes, I did.”
“Then why didn’t you greet him warmly, as an old comrade should?”
“I tell you, Karl, he’s a bad sort. He had a reputation among the Crusaders – a bad one. He won five thousand marks from King Richard of England the night before the attack on Ascalon – and I caught him with marked cards in his pocket.”
“You’re saying Gottfried is a card shark?” shouted the Count. “If anyone else had said that, I would’ve split his skull!”
“I won’t fight with you over this, old friend,” said Ludwig. “I’ll fight Gottfried if I have to. And, to give him his due, he’s a good fighter. But his behavior was so bad he was thrown out of the army. They didn’t even let him sell his commission!”
Yes, the guests were arriving. The castle was full of knights and ladies. Servants in the Godesberg colors carried around trays of snacks, coffee and tea.
No one noticed how gloomy Count Karl was.
“The two of them are together,” he said, touching Ludwig’s shoulder. “Now look!”
Ludwig turned. Hildebrandt and Otto were standing side by side. They looked as alike as two eggs.
Could Karl be right? Could Hildebrandt be Otto’s real father?
“Come, friend,” said Karl sadly. “Let’s go play cribbage.”
They went to the den and got out the cards. But, though cribbage is an interesting game, they couldn’t keep their minds on it.
In the middle of the game, Gottfried came in and whispered to Count Karl, who got very angry.
“What time did you say?” he asked.
“At daybreak, at the outer gate.”
“I will be there.”
“And so will I,” thought Ludwig.
But Count Ludwig was not at the outer gate at daybreak.
His trip had been long and rough. He had drunk a lot of wine after dinner. He slept until ten o’clock the next morning.
As he woke, he saw Count Karl sitting by his bed, looking sadder than ever.
“What time is it?” Ludwig said.
“About five o’clock, I think,” said his friend.
It was ten. It could have been twelve, two, four-thirty, twenty to six, and Karl still would’ve said, “About five o’clock, I think”. He was too miserable to notice how time passed.
“My clock says ten,” said Ludwig. “What’s happened to you, old friend? You – you haven’t shaved! You’re still wearing your tux from the party last night! You have not been to bed! What’s happened?”
“The kind of thing that happens every day,” said Karl. “An unfaithful woman. A false friend. No, I haven’t been to bed.”
“What do you mean?” shouted Ludwig. “A false friend? I am not a false friend. An unfaithful woman? Your wife isn’t –“
“I have no wife now, Ludwig. No wife and no son.”
His voice broke as he told the story.
Hildebrandt and Theodora had met at daybreak at the outer gate. They had walked together for a long time. They had embraced. Hildebrandt had left.
It had to be true – Hildebrandt was Otto’s real father.
Karl had stepped forward. Coldly, he had told Theodora he was sending her to live at a convent for the rest of her life. He was also sending Otto to a monastery to become a monk.
It had been done. Otto was on his way down the river, in a boat guarded by Count Karl’s soldiers. Count Gottfried was taking Theodora to the Green Island Convent.
“What road did Gottfried take?” asked Ludwig, grinding his teeth.
“You won’t be able to catch up with him,” said Karl. “Good old Gottfried, he’s all I’ve got now. He’ll inherit everything . . . He’ll be back soon.”
“Oh, really?” thought Ludwig. “I’ll ask him a few questions before he gets back.”
He jumped out of bed and put on his armor, which he always wore in the mornings. He rang the bell, and a servant came.
“Bring me a cup of coffee right away,” Ludwig said. “Tell the cook to pack me a sandwich. Tell the stable boys to saddle my horse. I have a long way to ride.”
Soon, he was riding out the gate. Karl never noticed his friend going away. He just went on sitting by the empty bed, silent and grieving.
Ludwig rode down the hill from the castle to the beautiful green plain below. All around were vineyards and wheat fields. On the other side of the silver Rhine River rose seven purple mountains.
He rode on to Rolandseck. There, he could see the island of Nonnenwerth, where the convent was, and everyone who came and went there.
There was a small cave in one of the rocks over the river, covered with sweet-smelling cactus and magnolia.
At the entrance to the cave was a rough stone statue of St. Buffo of Bonn. Count Ludwig knelt down and said a confirmation, an affirmation and a couple of mantras. Like most knights, he was very spiritual.
Then he shouted: “Oh, holy hermit, are you home?”
“Who is it?” called a voice from the cave. An old holy man came out under the magnolias and geraniums. He wore a simple robe and sandals. He was bald, with a gray beard down to his knees.
“Father,” said Ludwig, “someone is about to die. Please pray for him.”
“Is it you, my son?”
“Not if the right side wins,” said Ludwig. “Be ready.”
At that moment, a ferry boat left the island. Ludwig went down to wait for it.
When it landed, Gottfried got off. He then got on his spotted horse and began to ride away.
He was startled to find Ludwig in his path.
“Is this your property, sir?” he asked scornfully. “Or do you just sit here and fight anyone who rides by?”
“I am waiting here to fight with just one man. He is a liar and a traitor.”
“Well, that has nothing to do with me. So please let me pass.”
“Yes, it does have something to do with you, Gottfried! You’re a liar and a traitor. Are you a coward too?”
As soon as Ludwig said the word “coward”, Gottfried raised his lance.
“A fight!” said the old hermit. He had once been a knight himself. He lit his pipe and sat down to watch.
Gottfried shouted a word too bad to write down. Ludwig shouted his family’s battle cry: “St. Bugo for Katzenellenbogen!”
“I’ll give the signal!” said the old hermit. “Knights, are you ready? On your mark, get set, go!”
The horses charged. The two knights crashed together. Both their lances broke into thousands of splinters. The splinters flew everywhere.
“That was a good one! That splinter nearly tore off my nose!” the hermit said happily. He waved his pipe, not noticing that the splinter had knocked its bowl off. “There they go again! They’re using their swords this time. Good shot, Gray! Good defense, Spot! Go! Go! . . . Oh, but this is a sin! I forgot I was a man of peace.”
The hermit said a quick novena. Then he ran to the knights.
The battle was over. Gottfried was a good fighter, but he had not been able to beat Ludwig, who had right on his side. He was bleeding from every opening of his armor. He had been run through several times. His brain had been split right down to his nose. He had also lost several teeth.
Gottfried fell from his spotted horse. The animal jumped and stepped on Gottfried’s foot, making him scream. Then the horse ran away.
The spotted horse with no rider ran:
n through the green vineyards and golden wheatfields
n up the steep mountains, where he scared the eagles in their nests
n through the dark pine forests
n through the splashing swamps
n by castles and towns
n on highways and through villages.
Once, a toll booth man tried to stop the horse, but he just jumped over the barrier and kept going – and going, and going, and going.
The horse went on, over mountains, roads, rivers, and old ladies selling apples. He never stopped until he reached a boarding stable in Cologne, where his owner used to keep him.
But we’ve forgotten the man lying on the ground way back there.
The old hermit knelt down by him and said, “Sir, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re probably going to die.”
“Really, Father? Then I should confess. You listen too, sir, whoever you are.”
Ludwig was tying his horse to a tree. He lifted the visor of his helmet and said, “I’m a friend of your cousin, Karl von Godesberg. I am also the friend of his wife, whose good name you ruined. And I’m the godfather of Otto, whose inheritance you tried to take.”
“Yes, I did all those things,” said the dying man, “And now I’m sorry. Theodora is a faithful wife. Otto is Karl’s son. Hildebrandt is not Otto’s father. He’s his uncle.”
“His uncle!” exclaimed the knight and the hermit.
“Yes, Theodora’s brother. She never told anyone, because he was born out of wedlock. But he is her brother.”
“May I tell others what you have just told me?”
“Please do. Tell Count Karl, and ask him to forgive me. If there were a notary public here, he could take my statement,” gasped Gottfried. “You gentlemen could witness it. And I’d sign it – that is, if I could wr-wr-wr-wr-ite!”
Gottfried shuddered. Blood gushed from his mouth.
“He will never sin again,” said the hermit.
“May God forgive him!” said Ludwig. “He was a brave knight. He died with armor on his body and truth on his lips. I hope I die the same way.”
An hour later, Ludwig rode into the courtyard of Godesberg Castle, with the hermit sitting behind him. The servants felt like laughing at the little old hermit in his robe and sandals. But Ludwig frowned at them.
“Take us to the Count,” he said to one of the servants.
“What’s happened? We saw Count Gottfried’s horse run by with no one on it. Count Karl is still sitting in your room, very upset.”
“Never mind, just take us to him,” snapped Ludwig.
Poor sad Karl was still just sitting there like a stone. Ludwig took one of his hands, the hermit took the other, and they told him what had happened.
As they spoke, Karl’s eyes slowly lit up. Joy filled his face. Suddenly, he jumped up and embraced the two men so hard he nearly choked the hermit.
“Ride!” he shouted happily. “Ride this minute to the Countess! Say I’ve done her wrong. Say it’s all right, she can come back. Say I forgive her – oh, all right, say I apologize!”
His secretary quickly wrote a note saying all these things. A fast messenger took it away.
“Now write to the monastery at Cologne, and tell them to send back my boy Otto!”
The secretary wrote another letter, and another messenger left with it.
“And now,” said Ludwig, “let’s have some lunch. Holy hermit, are you up for a snack?”
The hermit couldn’t say no, at such a happy time. He sat down to eat with Karl and Ludwig. There was plenty of food left over from last night’s dinner and party.
“They’ll be home by dinner time,” said Karl happily. “Till then, let’s eat.”
They drank and joked, and waited for the Countess and her son to come back.
But three hours later, the first messenger got home from his errand, looking sad. He handed the Count this letter:
Green Island Convent, Nonnenwerth, 10-27
I have had enough! I am not taking any more of your abuse.
On Tuesday you threw a bottle of wine at me – it hit the butler, I know, but everyone could see you were aiming at me.
You threw me out of the house over a false accusation. You sent me to this hateful convent. Fine! I’m not coming back just because you change your mind. Anything is better than living with a violent drunk like you. I’m staying here forever.
I’m ashamed that my name is
Theodora von Godesberg
P.S. I’m sure you threw me out to make way for some other woman. I’d like to tear her eyes out! Don’t even think about giving her my clothes!
Count Karl was dismayed to read this letter.
“Is it true you threw a bottle at her?” asked the hermit sternly. “Throwing wine at a woman ruins both the wine and the woman.”
“But she threw a carving knife at me first,” said Karl sadly. “Oh, why did I let myself get jealous?”
“They quarreled, but they really love each other,” Ludwig whispered to the hermit.
The hermit began a lecture on family life. The two knights would have fallen asleep if the second messenger hadn’t arrived. He looked even sadder than the first messenger.
“Where is my boy?” roared the pained father. “Did you bring him with you?”
“I’ll give him a good beating when he gets here,” said Karl, trying to hide his loving feelings.
“Please, sir,” said the messenger desperately, “Count Otto is not at the monastery.”
“Then where is he? Do you know?”
“Yes,” said the messenger sadly. “He is there.” He pointed out the window at the river, lit by the sunset.
“What do you mean, there?” gasped the count furiously.
“Oh, my good sir, when he was in the boat going to the monastery, he – he jumped out suddenly and dr – dr – drowned.”
“Take this messenger out and kill him!” said the Count. “Take every man from the boat’s crew and shoot them out of the cannon – except the head boatman, and have him . . .”
No one ever knew what the Count wanted to do to the head boatman, because at that moment he fell on the floor, unconscious.
Otto was not really dead, of course.
You know that, don’t you? The hero never dies so early in a story! Besides, if Otto had really drowned:
n Count Karl would’ve died of a heart attack
n Countess Theodora would’ve gone insane
n the old hermit would’ve died of shock
n Count Ludwig would’ve retired from knighthood to take the old hermit’s place – also his robe, sandals, pipe, and beard
n and the story would’ve ended.
Since none of these things happened, you can be sure Otto was alive and well.
So what had really happened to him?
Otto had no idea why he was being sent away. He didn’t know why his father was so angry. He just knew he didn’t want to be a monk.
As the boat sailed away, he felt sad and confused. Then he decided to try to escape.
While the boatmen were steering between some dangerous rocks, he jumped out of the boat and into the swirling river.
The boatmen were horrified. They all loved Otto. They would have given their lives to save him, but none of them could swim. They watched helplessly. He went down once, twice, three times, and disappeared.
The boatmen didn’t dare go home to Godesberg. Instead, they went to the other side of the river and fled to the Duke of Nassau’s land. Since they have nothing to do with the rest of our story, let’s just leave them there.
Otto was an expert swimmer. When he went down for the third time, he knew the boatmen would think he was drowning. But he was really diving to the bottom of the river. He swam underwater, never coming up for air, all the way to Cologne. It was about twenty-five or thirty miles.
At Cologne, Otto found a quiet inn to stay at. He told everyone he’d been in a boating accident.
In his room, he put his clothes in front of the fireplace to dry. Then he went to bed. He thought about the strange things that had happened to him that day.
“This morning, I was a Count’s son, living in a castle. This evening, I’m a drifter with nothing but the money Mama gave me for my birthday. Oh well! My escape plan worked. If I go on being brave, everything else will work out too.”
He prayed for his family and himself, and fell asleep. After all that swimming, he was very tired, of course. He slept all through that night, the next day, and the next night. The maids came in with clean towels, but just tiptoed out again. The shoeshine boy knocked on the door a few times, but Otto just snored and turned over.
When he finally woke up, it was Sunday morning. Bells were ringing. People were on their way to church.
Otto got dressed. It wasn’t easy.
“This is strange,” he said. “My pants are ten inches too short! But when Mama bought them, they were too long for me. The back of my jacket is tearing. My sleeves only come to my elbows. What’s happened? Did I get taller and fatter overnight? Oh, now I understand!”
Otto laughed at himself. His clothes had shrunk from being in the water so long. He needed some new ones.
“What’s the best place to buy men’s clothes?” he asked the inn concierge.
“Moses of London,” the concierge answered. He told Otto how to get there.
On his way to the clothing store, Otto stopped at the cathedral to pray. The large church was full of men in green clothes, with bows and arrows.
Afterwards, outside the cathedral, he asked one of these men: “Why are there so many of you archers around?”
“Don’t you know? Prince Adolf of Cleves is holding an archery contest at his castle. We’re on our way there.”
Otto hadn’t known what to do next. But now he decided: he would go to Cleves and enter the archery contest.
He went on to Moses of London’s clothing store. He bought a complete archer’s outfit -- pea-green pants and coat with brass buttons – at a bargain basement price. It fit perfectly.
Next Otto went to a bow-maker’s shop. He bought an ivory bow with a silk cord, and a beautiful quiver full of fine arrows.
Finally, he found out where all the archers were staying: the Golden Stag Inn. He went there and bought drinks for all of them. Soon he was very popular. He asked the archers if he could go to the contest with them. They said they’d be happy to have him along.
At two-thirty they all left Cologne. They walked several miles, talking happily about women, war, and hunting.
Someone said to Otto, “You have no feathers in your hat.”
“I’ll find one,” he said, smiling.
“That bow of yours looks brand new,” said another archer.
“I hope you can use your old bow as well as I use my new one, Wolfgang,” said Otto.
All his new friends were wondering if he was a good archer. Soon he had a chance to show them.
Doesn’t it always go that way for the heroes of stories? Things happen to them just in time. They rescue the girl just as the monster is about to eat her. They just happen to be at the castle when the king is being crowned. They see the most interesting people at the most interesting moments. And if they need something, they find it right away. So if Otto says he’s going to find a feather for his hat, you can be sure a bird is about to appear.
It did. A heron flew slowly over them.
“Shoot, Otto,” said Rudolf, the third-best archer.
But Otto was busy tying his shoe. Rudolf shot at the heron and missed.
“Shoot, Otto,” said Wolfgang. “The bird’s getting away!”
But this time Otto was carving something on a stick. Max, the second-best archer, shot and missed.
“You had your chance, Otto. Now I’m going to try,” said Wolfgang. He aimed carefully, but he missed, too. “It’s too far away.”
Otto had just finished carving a funny picture of Wolfgang on the stick. He put it down and said, “Too far away? Ha! We still have two minutes.”
He began telling jokes. No one listened. They were all watching the heron fly away.
“Well, where should I hit him?” Otto asked finally.
“You can’t hit him now,” said Rudolf. “He looks the size of a flea!”
“I’ll try for his right eye,” said Otto. He aimed. Whiz! His arrow went off.
He picked up the stick again. He began to carve a picture of Rudolf on the other end. While he did it, he talked, laughed, and sang.
The archers stood looking up for a long time. Finally, they said, “He’s faking! The arrow’s lost. Let’s go.”
Otto laughed. Suddenly something fell out of the sky and knocked down poor Max. It was the heron.
Otto didn’t even look at the bird. “Take the arrow out of its eye, Wolfgang,” he said.
Yes, the arrow had gone right into the center of the bird’s eye.
“Are you into black magic?” asked Rudolf, amazed.
“No, my friend. It was just a lucky shot. Besides, my godfather taught me to shoot arrows the British way.”
“That must be why they call it Great Britain,” someone said.
Otto put some of the heron’s feathers in his hat. The archers walked on.
They traveled the rest of that day. That night they stopped at an inn, where they ate and drank a lot. (Otto could eat and drink four times as much as any of them.)
The next day, they walked a long way again. After dark, they arrived at the little town of Windeck.
The town gates were shut for the night. What could they do?
“Isn’t there any inn or castle where we can sleep?” Otto asked the guard. “I’m so hungry I could eat my grandma.”
The guard laughed. “You’d better go and sleep in the Castle of Windeck. Nobody will bother you there.”
Just then, the moon came out of the clouds. The moonlight showed a castle on a hill nearby – a ruined castle. The roof was gone, the windows were broken, and the towers were falling down.
“We can sleep there, but what about supper?” Otto asked the guard.
“Try calling room service,” he said, grinning. He walked away.
“Listen, boys,” Otto said to the other archers. “There are thirty of us. And I’ve heard there are only about three hundred soldiers guarding this town. Let’s attack, and make them feed us!”
But the others didn’t have his sense of adventure. They said, “No, thanks! We’d rather go to sleep hungry than risk being killed.”
So they all went to the ruined castle. It was dark, damp, and gloomy. Bats and owls flew away as they walked down the moldy halls.
They found a room that was in better shape than the others, and decided to sleep there. They chose guards for the night. Otto got the first two hours. Wolfgang would be next.
While the others slept, Otto had time to think. He remembered his home. He looked forward to the archery contest, and hoped he would do well. He was glad when it was eleven thirty, and Wolfgang’s turn to be on guard.
Wolfgang took Otto’s place. Otto lay down. When he was half asleep, he thought he saw a woman come into the room. She was dressed in white. She went up to Wolfgang and led him away.
The town clock struck twelve. Otto jumped up.
As the clock struck twelve, Wolfgang suddenly saw a woman standing in front of him. Where had she come from? She smiled at him. Her face looked beautiful, but very cold.
Wolfgang stared at her. She raised her hand and beckoned to him. A door opened by itself. Wolfgang followed the woman through it.
They went through many of the old castle’s rooms. Strangely, though it was dark, they could see perfectly well. Also, none of the bats or owls woke up as they passed by.
At last they came to a room with a table. It was set for two. The lady sat down at one side, with Wolfgang at the other. Their knees touched. Wolfgang’s legs felt cold as ice.
“Brave archer,” she said, “you must be hungry after walking all day. What would you like for supper? Lobster salad? Roast pork? Truffles? Welsh rarebit? Steak and onions? Shish kebab? All you have to do is ask.”
Wolfgang thought she was making fun of him. There was only one dish on the table. He decided to ask for some very elegant, complicated food.
“Princess, I’d like a pork chop and mashed potatoes.”
She lifted the lid of the dish. There was a huge pork chop and about six servings of mashed potatoes.
Wolfgang helped himself. For a while he was very busy eating. He didn’t notice that the lady ate nothing. Soon the meat and potatoes were gone. Wolfgang sighed.
“What would you like to drink, sweet man?” asked the lady, holding up a silver bottle.
She poured a pint of beer into his cup. It was the best he had ever tasted.
Wolfgang felt hungry again. He asked for another pork chop with mashed potatoes, then salmon, turkey, sausages, and a grilled cheese sandwich.
All this food came out of the same covered dish. After Wolfgang had eaten about fourteen different foods, he began to think it was a little strange.
“Oh, there’s no mystery,” said the pale lady, smiling. “The servants hear you. The kitchen is just below us.”
But that didn’t explain how she was able to pour beer, punch, gin, rum, and even salad dressing out of the same silver bottle. Still, Wolfgang didn’t feel like asking questions.
“Are you happy, dear?” the lady asked him.
“You bet, miss!”
“Would you like a supper like this every night, Wolfgang?”
“Well, no, not exactly. Not every night. Some nights I’d like oysters.”
“Be mine, and you can have them all year round!”
This should have warned Wolfgang. A person who can offer you oysters all year round is up to no good.
“Shall I sing you a song, dear?” asked the lady.
“Sure, honey! I’ll sing along on the choruses.”
She took out a guitar and began a song:
“A princess loved a servant boy
Nothing could their love destroy
But her family was annoyed
So they eloped to live in joy
The princess and the servant boy.”
Wolfgang tapped to the beat and sang along, off-key. If he hadn’t been so in love – or so drunk – he might have noticed that the pictures on the wall were moving to the music too. The song ended.
“I’m the princess. Wolfgang, will you be the servant boy?”
“I’ll follow you to hell!” said Wolfgang.
“Come to the chapel,” said the lady. “We’ll get married this minute!”
She held out her hand. Wolfgang took it. It was cold and damp. They left for the chapel.
The people in the pictures – a man and a woman in very old-fashioned clothes –stepped out of their frames. They sat down at the table.
As Wolfgang and his fiancée moved through the castle, all the people in the paintings on the wall got out and followed them. Well, not all – some of the people were just painted from the shoulders up, so they had no legs and couldn’t walk. Still, by the time the couple got to the chapel, nearly a hundred people were following them.
The chapel was brightly lit. The organ was playing “Here Comes the Bride” all by itself. The seats were full of people in black.
“Come on, my love,” said the lady.
“I don’t see a priest,” said Wolfgang. He was beginning to feel a little alarmed.
“Oh, I’ll get one! Hey there, bishop!” The lady leaned down toward a tombstone. “Come on up and marry us.”
The dead bishop got up. The wedding ceremony began.
Otto was worried when he saw Wolfgang leave with the mysterious lady. After a moment, he got up to follow them. But soon he was lost. The castle was huge and dark, with a thousand doors. Otto wandered for three hours, bumping into things in the dark.
Finally he found the room where Wolfgang had eaten supper. The man and woman from the pictures were now sitting at the table.
“Well, our daughter’s got a husband at last,” said the woman.
“It’s about time,” said the man. “after four hundred and fifty-three years!”
“Too bad he’s just an archer – a commoner,” said the woman. “I think he’s a butcher’s son.”
“Not all archers are commoners, dear. Some are count’s sons, though they don’t act like it. Like Otto von Godesberg, who’s listening at the door like a servant. I’ll run him through with my sword!”
Otto burst into the room, unafraid. He had a relic of St. Buffo which his mother had given him. (It was the tip of the saint’s ear, which had been cut off.) He held this up and said, “Stand back, you evil spirits!”
They screamed and jumped back into their picture frames. Otto ran out the door.
He followed the organ music to the chapel. The door was barred. He knocked, but nothing happened. Then he touched his relic to the lock.
Crash! The chapel door flew open. The organ music stopped. The candles went out. The ghosts rushed away. The bride howled and vanished. The bishop went back to his tomb.
Otto fainted in the doorway. Wolfgang fell down on the altar steps. That was how the other archers found them.
When Otto and Wolfgang woke up and told their strange story, some of the archers said, “They must’ve been drunk!”
But some of the older ones said, “They’ve seen the Lady of Windeck! Some who see her aren’t so lucky – they disappear forever!”
It was morning now. The archers went on their way to Cleves.
There are many castles between Windeck and Cleves, and each one has a ghost. At least that’s what the guidebooks say. I could have the archers meet all of them, but then our story would take forever. So let’s just say they got to Cleves without any more accidents.
They found a crowd of people gathered there to see the archery contest:
n Knights in their shining armour
n Monks in white robes
n Singers, jugglers, musicians, clowns
n Dark-eyed Gypsies
n Singing peasants in their oxcarts
n Proud ladies from different castles
n English tourists with guidebooks
Too bad I don’t have space to describe them all!
Otto and his friends spent the night at an inn. Early the next morning, they and many other archers were out on the field where the contest would take place.
A band of bagpipes, trumpets and other wind instruments marched onto the field. After them came the Prince of Cleves and his daughter, Princess Helen.
Princess Helen was so beautiful, good, and just plain wonderful that I can’t begin to describe her. But I’ll try, anyway.
Her skin looked like a model’s in a face cream ad. Her waist was so slim that even mentioning it is saying too much. Her blue eyes were so beautiful it hurt to look at them – but so kind it also made you feel better again. Her hair was as black as the finest shoe polish. It was so long her maids had to walk behind her, carrying it on a cushion. She wore an elegant hat decorated with roses, sunflowers, stuffed birds, gold lace, and pink ribbons.
Her eyes met Otto’s. They both blushed. Both their hearts beat quicker. They loved each other forever from that moment.
Otto leaned on his bow and gazed at Helen. She blew her beautiful nose to hide her strong feelings. Isn’t love wonderful?
Behind the Princess and her father came someone else important. He was also very ugly. He had red hair, crossed eyes, and a frowning mouth full of stained teeth. He wore a very elegant outfit – a sky-blue jacket trimmed with silver, pink velvet pants, and a pink hat with green feathers – but it just made him look silly. He carried several swords and knives, even though it was peacetime.
It was the terrible Rowski de Donnerblitz, Count of Eulenschreckenstein. There was a rumor that he wanted to marry Princess Helen. From time to time, he pushed his ugly face toward her, smiled, and spoke. But she just turned away and shuddered, as if he were a spoonful of horrible-tasting medicine.
“What is the prize?” whispered one of the archers.
“There are two prizes. See them on the cushion in front of the Princess?” said another. “A velvet hat that the Princess made herself, and a big gold chain.”
“I know which one I’ll choose when I win first prize,” said a mean-looking archer. He carried a black shield with a red owl – the symbol of the Rowski.
“Oh yeah? Which?” said Otto fiercely.
“The gold chain, of course! Do you think I’m stupid enough to want that velvet rag?”
Otto just laughed at him.
The trumpets played. The contest was about to begin.
The archers came forward, one by one, and fired at the targets. Some hit them, and went on to the next round. Some missed, and were booed by the crowd.
As the second round began, everyone could see that the two best contestants were Squintoff (the Rowski’s archer) and Otto. Squintoff was already famous all over Europe. But everyone wondered who Otto was – especially Princess Helen.
They came to the final round of the contest. The target was set up three quarters of a mile away. It would take a lot of skill just to see it, let alone hit it.
As Squintoff was choosing an arrow, the Rowski threw him a purse full of gold coins, saying, “If you win the prize, this is yours.”
“I may as well take it right now, Count,” said Squintoff, sneering at Otto. “This whippersnapper has been lucky so far, but he’ll never be able to hit that target.”
He aimed his bow, and shot his arrow right into the middle of the bullseye.
The crowd cheered. Helen turned pale. Squintoff put the Rowski’s purse into his pocket.
“Can you beat that, kid?” he said to Otto.
“Does anybody have a pea?” Otto asked. Everybody laughed. An elderly woman who was selling pea porridge handed him a dry, yellow pea.
Otto got Squintoff to take his arrow out of the bullseye. It left a small hole. Otto stuck the pea into the hole. He went back to his place and got ready to shoot.
Helen was almost about to faint. She had never seen anyone as wonderful as Otto. He looked like a Greek god.
Otto tossed his long hair back out of his bright eyes. He took out one of his most elegant arrows. Then he balanced gracefully on his right leg, raising his left leg as high as his ear. Whiz! His arrow flew through the air.
“He has split the pea!” said Helen. She fainted.
The Rowski frowned at Otto, then at Squintoff. Squintoff swore. “He’s better than me. I guess you’ll take the gold chain, young man?” “The gold chain? Instead of the hat made by the Princess? Never!” Helen had come out of her faint by now. Otto knelt in front of her. She put the hat on Otto’s golden hair. It was red velvet, and her face was just as red as the hat. Once again, their eyes met. They had never spoken, but they knew they loved each other forever.
The Rowski frowned at Otto, then at Squintoff.
Squintoff swore. “He’s better than me. I guess you’ll take the gold chain, young man?”
“The gold chain? Instead of the hat made by the Princess? Never!”
Helen had come out of her faint by now. Otto knelt in front of her. She put the hat on Otto’s golden hair. It was red velvet, and her face was just as red as the hat.
Once again, their eyes met. They had never spoken, but they knew they loved each other forever.
“Will you serve under me?” the Rowski asked Otto. “You’ll be head archer, in place of that clumsy fool.”
“That man you call a clumsy fool is a brave and skillful archer,” said Otto. “I will not serve under the Rowski de Donnerblitz.”
Helen’s father laughed. Otto was talking so proudly, though he was just an archer.
Will you serve under the Prince of Cleves?” he asked.
“I would die for the Prince of Cleves – and his family,” said Otto.
Helen knew what he meant. Her mother was dead, and her father had no other children. She was his family.
“What’s your name, young man? I’ll tell my steward to enlist you.”
“Sir, I am -- Otto the Archer.”
That night, the other archers gave a fancy dinner to celebrate Otto’s victory. Squintoff was invited, but he was too angry to go. Wolfgang was there, and ate a lot as usual. Otto sat at the head table, but he couldn’t eat anything. He was too much in love. (I must say, love has never made me lose my appetite. But Otto was a storybook hero, and they’re never hungry when they’re in love.)
The next day, he went to join the Prince’s archers. Wolfgang, who had promised to be his friend for life, went with him.
The Prince’s steward gave them their uniforms: pink pants, yellow jackets, green cloaks, and orange hats. Wolfgang was glad to get new clothes. He had worn the same old green outfit for years. But Otto sighed deeply. He didn’t like wearing a uniform, even such a beautiful one. He was proud of his own noble family, and now he had to wear the colors of another family.
“But they’re the Princess’ colors too,” he said to himself. “And I’d do anything for her.”
After dinner, the Prince and the Rowski de Donnerblitz came out of the castle to smoke. Helen followed them at a distance. She said it was because she didn’t like the smell of cigar smoke.
Otto and Wolfgang were on guard at the castle wall.
“Look at those two archers,” said the Prince. “One is the young man who beat your archer Squintoff. The other, I think, is the third prize winner. They’re both wearing the same uniform – but doesn’t one look like a peasant, and the other like a noble?”
“Which one looks like a noble?” growled the Rowski.
“Which? Why, Otto, of course,” said Helen, coming up.
The Rowski frowned even more than usual.
“Since when do you let your peasant archers wear their hair long, like nobles?” he said. “Hey, you! Archer! Come here!”
Otto came up and saluted. For just one moment, he looked at Helen. They both blushed.
(While they’re doing that, let me just remind you: Hair was important in those days. Only important people were allowed to grow it long. Peasants who wore long hair were punished.)
“We’ll have to cut off those curls of yours, young man,” said the Prince. He spoke kindly, trying to spare Otto’s feelings. “My archers have to have short hair. That’s the rule.”
“Cut off my hair?” cried Otto.
“Yes, and your ears too, you peasant,” roared the Rowski.
“Peace, Count,” said the Prince. “Let me deal with my own men. And you, Otto, take your hand off your knife.”
Otto had been about to stab the Rowski, but now he remembered his manners.
“You don’t have to worry, Prince,” he said. “There’s a lady present.”
He took off his orange hat and bowed to Helen. She was pained to think of those beautiful curls being cut off.
Otto was pained too. He said to the Prince, “When I joined your archers, I didn’t know I’d have to cut my hair.”
“You’re free to leave if you want,’ said the Prince, annoyed. “I won’t bargain with you. And I won’t have any peasants imitating nobles in my castle.”
“I’ve made up my mind,” said Otto, also annoyed. “I will . . . “
“What?” cried Helen breathlessly.
“I will stay.”
Helen almost fainted with joy. The Rowski walked away, cursing.
“Good,” said the Prince. “Here comes Snipwitz, my barber. He’ll do the job for you.”
He walked away with his daughter. He felt sorry for Otto. The Prince, as a young man, had also had beautiful hair.
Snipwitz took Otto to a small room in a tower. Soon after, Otto came out with his hair cut short. He hid in a corner, not wanting anyone to see him – especially Helen.
“Will she love me now that I’m scarred?” he wondered. “Will she even recognize me?”
Then he saw something that lifted his spirits. Helen was coming. She kept looking around nervously, as if she was afraid someone would see her. Not noticing Otto, she went right into the little room where the barber had cut his hair. She picked up one of the curls from the floor, kissed it, and hid it inside her dress. Then she hurried away toward her own room.
Otto was filled with joy. He wanted to come out of his hiding place, fall down in front of Helen, and tell her he loved her. But he held himself back, and watched her go. He no longer minded losing his long hair. “I’d give up my head itself for her,” he thought.
The Rowski left suddenly that afternoon, after a long, loud talk with the Prince. They walked to the gate together. The Prince looked embarrassed.
The Rowski was angry. He got on his horse, ordered his trumpeters to play, and scornfully threw some money to the Prince’s servants and soldiers.
“Farewell, Prince,” he said. “But remember, this is not my last visit to the Castle of Cleves.”
He told his band to play “See the Conquering Hero Comes” and rode away.
The Prince looked moody that evening. He looked at all the defensive parts of the castle that night. He also asked his officers how much ammunition and food they had.
He didn’t say why, but Helen’s maid did. Soon everybody knew that the Rowski had proposed to Helen, and she had turned him down. Furious, he had sworn to come back and conquer the castle and everyone in it.
All were worried after hearing the news. The Rowski was one of the most fearless and powerful soldiers in Germany. He was extremely generous to his followers, but brutal to his enemies. There were many stories of the horrible things he had done to the people in towns and castles he had captured. Poor Helen was afraid all the people on her father’s land would be slaughtered, and it would all be her fault.
A few days later, a messenger rode up. He wore the uniform of the Rowski. With him was a boy carrying an armored glove on a cushion.
The messenger went up to the chair where the Prince was sitting.
“Silence!” called the Prince. “Sir Messenger, speak your message.”
“I come in the name of the high and mighty Rowski, Prince of Donnerblitz, Count of Eulenschreckenstein, Schnauzestadt, and Galgenhugel, Grand Bottle Opener of the Holy Roman Empire. He declares war on you, Adolf XXIII of Cleves. He will meet you alone, or with his army and your army, and he will fight you – to the death. In token of this, here is his glove.”
The messenger took the steel glove from the boy and threw it on the marble floor.
Helen turned pale. But her father calmly took off one of his own gloves and threw it on the floor.
“Somebody pick up the Rowski’s glove,” he said. “Butler, fill my cup with wine and give it to the messenger.”
The butler, in his black outfit, filled up the cup. It was made of decorated gold and held about three quarts.
“Drink, messenger, and keep the cup,” said the Prince. “You’ve brought me an invitation to battle, and that’s always welcome.”
He told his servants to take good care of the messenger. Then he left the room with his daughter. Everyone was impressed. The Prince had been proud, brave, and generous.
But, though nobody could see it, he was really very worried. True, he had once been a great knight. He had beaten a lion to death with his bare hands in three minutes.
He had held off seven hundred Turkish soldiers, single handed, for two hours.
But that had been thirty years before.
Since becoming Prince, Adolf had not bothered to practice fighting, or even to get much exercise. And it showed. He took out his old sword, but he could barely lift it over his head. He tried on his armor. It was too tight. When he found he couldn’t buckle it, he began to cry. No, he was in no shape to fight the terrible Rowski hand to hand.
He couldn’t hold him off with his army either. The Prince’s lands were small. His people were lazy and peaceful. He had no money to hire soldiers from outside. It looked bad for him.
The Prince stayed up all night, writing to his friends for help.
Helen didn’t sleep either. She lay thinking of the trouble she’d caused by refusing to marry the Rowski. But how could she have married him? She loved Otto.
Otto also stayed awake. But his thoughts were happy and heroic. He looked forward to the battle, and thought of how he would defend Helen and win honors for himself.
The castle began to get ready for the attack. Many cows and pigs were butchered. Helen and the maids salted and pickled the meat.
They also made bandages and gathered plenty of herbs for medicines.
In between her tasks, Helen went around talking to the soldiers and encouraging them. They all promised they’d die just for one of her smiles.
The moat was filled with water and spikes. Large stones were placed over the gates to drop on the attackers. Pots of boiling oil were heated up. Otto, who had the best eyesight in the castle, went up to the highest tower to watch for the invaders.
All too soon, he saw them. The Rowski’s large army was marching toward the castle. They stopped near the front gate – but not so near that the archers could hit them with arrows. They pitched their tents there, where everyone could see them.
A messenger with a white flag came to the castle gate. It was the same one who had brought the declaration of war.
He announced that the Rowski was ready to fight the Prince, or any knight the Prince chose. He would wait three days. If no one came to fight him by then, he would attack the castle and show no mercy to anyone.
The messenger nailed another one of the Rowski’s gloves to the castle gate. The Prince threw another one of his own gloves over the wall, showing he accepted the challenge. But he had no idea how he was going to meet it.
Helen spent the night praying in the chapel. She promised to light tons of candles to the saints if they would find a knight to fight for her.
In the morning, Helen heard some news that made her heart sink. Otto – her hero – had run away!
His friend Wolfgang had gone with him. There was a rope hanging out the window of their room. They must have left in the middle of the night, swum the moat and joined the enemy.
“Nice boy your archer turned out to be!” said her father. “And this is a nice mess you’ve gotten your poor father into.”
Helen ran to her room, crying. She had never felt so miserable.
That morning, at nine o’clock, as they were going to breakfast, they heard the Rowski’s trumpets outside. In full armor, he came out of his tent and rode his horse up and down in front of the castle, ready to fight.
This happened three times a day – an hour after sunrise, an hour after noon, and an hour before sunset. Two days went by this way, but no one came to fight the Rowski.
At five o’clock on the third day, the Prince called his daughter and blessed her.
“I shall go fight the Rowski,” he said. “You may never see me again, my child. But I cannot live without honor.”
Then he gave her a knife, and told her to kill herself if the Rowski captured the castle. Helen promised she would.
The Prince put on his old armor. It was so tight it nearly choked him. He lifted himself heavily into the saddle.
The last trumpet sounded three times. Then there was silence.
“Farewell, my child. Remember the knife,” said the Prince. “Hark! Open the gates! Sound the trumpets! May St. Bendigo pray for us!”
But before Puffendorf, the trumpeter, could begin, the sound of another trumpet came from outside the castle. It was far away at first, then nearer. Soon, they could hear it playing “The Huntsman’s Chorus”. Looking over the castle wall, everyone shouted, “A knight! A knight!”
Yes, a knight had come. He rode gracefully out of the forest on an elegant and strong cream-colored Arabian horse. Behind him came a squire on a gray horse. It was he who was playing the trumpet through the bars of his helmet.
The knight’s visor was down, so no one could see his face. There was no symbol on his shield either. But he wore a small crown with three pink ostrich feathers, showing he was noble.
He rode among the Rowski’s tents. Everyone watched anxiously, especially the Prince.
“He’s too slim to fight the Rowski,” he said sadly to his daughter. “But, whoever he is, he’s very brave. Look, he’s touched the Rowski’s shield with the point of his lance.”
This meant he would fight to the death.
The unknown knight galloped to the castle wall and bowed elegantly to the Princess. Then he waited for his opponent. His armor blazed in the sunshine. He looked like one of those mysterious warriors who appeared out of nowhere and won so many battles before gunpowder was invented.
The Rowski quickly climbed onto his enormous horse. He wore brass armor, and a helmet decorated with horns and blood-red feathers. He laughed when he saw his slim opponent. He threw his lance in the air and caught it again. Then he took his place across from the other knight.
The Prince was anxious for the fight to begin. “On your mark! Get set! Go!” he said, and the two knights rushed at each other.
How can I describe such a terrible fight? They galloped toward each other as fast as railroad engines and hit as hard as two cannonballs. The horses trembled and staggered. The unknown knight’s lance knocked off the Rowski’s helmet and a piece of his left ear. The Rowski’s lance just hit the stranger’s shield and bounced off harmlessly.
The Rowski glared at his enemy, saying words too bad to write down. The other knight could’ve killed him at this point, but instead he went back to his starting place and waited there, with the point of his lance down.
“Good fighting,” called the Prince, “But, for heaven’s sake, why didn’t you just knock his brains out?”
“Bring me a new helmet!” shouted the Rowski. His squire brought it. As soon as he had it on, he drew his sword and rushed at his opponent again. The other knight’s sword was out in a moment, and the two were fighting again.
The Rowski was active and brutal, as usual. He hacked at the other knight’s helmet, cutting off feathers and bits of the crown. For a long time, the strange knight could only defend himself. But then the Rowski began to get tired, and the other knight made his attack. His sword soon got into every joint of the Rowski’s armor and cut every part of his body. Finally it slashed through the visor of his helmet, and came out covered with blood. The Rowski screamed in rage. No wonder – the sword had gone into his left eye.
He was bleeding in a dozen places, and almost choking with blood and rage. He pulled his horse back, threw his sword at the other knight, and got out his battle ax.
The other took his own ax and attacked, shouting calmly, “Surrender, Count! Surrender!”
The Rowski didn’t answer, just striking at his head. It was the last time he ever hit anyone. The next moment the other knight’s ax split his skull. He fell off his horse. The next minute, the other knight was kneeling on his chest, holding a knife at his throat and telling him again to surrender.
There was no answer. The Rowski was dead.
The sun was just setting. The unknown knight jumped onto his horse and bowed to the Prince and Princess. Without a word, he galloped back into the forest.
CHAPTER 13: THE WEDDING
As soon as the Rowski was dead, his soldiers and followers fled. Soon they had all disappeared.
That night, there was a great celebration in the Castle of Cleves. The gates were opened so everyone could come in and join the party. All the food that had been prepared for the siege was cooked and served.
Barrels of wine were opened. The people crowded in to congratulate the Prince for his victory. Last of all, there were fireworks.
The Prince also invited many other nobles to dinner. One of the guests was our old friend, Count Ludwig of Hombourg.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to kill the Rowski,” he said to the Prince.
“You could never have done it as well as that stranger did,” said the Prince, laughing. “But who was he? That’s what I want to know. How can I find him and reward him?”
They talked about it at dinner. Finally the Prince decided to send messengers to all the nearby cities, and to put ads in the national newspapers.
“I’ll offer him Helen’s hand in marriage,” said the Prince. “Then he can inherit my lands some day.”
“But, Father,” said Helen quietly, “how will we know it’s really him? Some impostor might come along and say he was the knight. There are so many liars in the world! You can’t be too careful!”
Of course, she was thinking of Otto. When he deserted, her heart had broken.
As for Otto, he and Wolfgang shocked everyone by coming back – just in time for dinner.
They ate a lot, as usual. When the other archers began to tell them about the mysterious knight, they fell asleep. The next morning, they were twenty minutes late for roll call.
The Prince was furious. He came up to them in the courtyard, shouting, “Where were you when the castle needed you most?”
“We had pressing business elsewhere,” said Otto.
“Pressing business? A soldier’s business is to stay at his post! You know the punishment for leaving your post in wartime – death! But I’m feeling merciful. I won’t have you put to death. I’ll just have you whipped.”
“Whip me?” shouted Otto, outraged. “Me, Otto of . . .”
“No, Father,” said Helen. She had been standing nearby, frowning at Otto. “It’s true these two let down their Princess – I mean, their Prince. But it turned out we didn’t need them. We found someone else to help us. You promised me a favor, Father. Pardon these two – individuals – and throw them out of the castle forever.”
“Take back their uniforms,” the Prince ordered his officers. “Throw them out, and never mention them to me again.”
He and Helen turned angrily, and went to breakfast.
Count Ludwig was taking a walk outside the castle. He came up to see what all the noise was.
Otto turned away quickly, but his godfather had seen him. Ludwig ran up happily and embraced Otto. He had thought his godson was drowned.
Meanwhile, in the castle’s breakfast nook, Helen was making a pot of tea.
Her father went to the window to call Count Ludwig in to breakfast. He saw Ludwig walking and talking with Otto. Ludwig looked surprised and happy.
When he came to the breakfast nook, he explained: “I know his parents. Good people. Very worried since he ran away. Good thing you didn’t whip him.”
The Count was a man of few words. But these few words were enough to make Helen leave the room with tears in her eyes. She came back a little later, wanting to ask more about Otto. But he was gone. So was Wolfgang, and so was Count Ludwig.
The castle now seemed very lonely to Helen. Everything that had happened in the past few days just seemed like a dream:
n meeting Otto
n the Rowski’s proposal (a proposal is always a big event for a young woman)
n the siege of the castle
n The Rowski’s death.
There was nothing to show that all this had really happened. Well, there was one thing – a little bit of golden hair. (Helen had cried on it so much it no longer curled.)
Two days later, a messenger came to the Prince.
“I bring greetings to the Prince and Princess,” he said, “from the knight who competed with the Rowski de Donnerblitz last Wednesday. He wishes you to know he has read your advertisement, and accepts your offer of the Princess’ hand in marriage. He will be here in about half an hour.”
“Hurray!” shouted the Prince. “Put on your best dress, girl! Your husband’s coming!”
Helen went to change. She came back wearing a white satin dress and a wreath of flowers. Her face was as white as the dress.
She sat down next to her father. Just then, trumpets sounded outside. The knight was there! Helen felt sick.
The door opened. He came in – the same knight, tall, slim, and beautiful in his shining steel. He carried a newspaper. Two other knights came with him, one on each side.
He knelt in front of the Prince. “I’ve come to marry Princess Helen – as advertised,” he said, holding out the newspaper. His voice shook with strong feelings.
“Are you noble, sir?” asked the Prince.
“As noble as you.”
“Who can vouch for you?”
“I, Count Karl of Godesberg, his father!” said the knight on the right, lifting his visor.
“And I, Count Ludwig of Hombourg, his godfather!” said the knight on the left, doing the same.
Now the kneeling knight lifted his visor, and looked at Helen.
“I knew it was,” she said, fainting as she saw Otto the archer.
Countess Theodora finally agreed to leave the convent, come home to Godesberg, and make up with her husband. She settled down to spoiling her grandchildren. And so everyone is happy, and my simple story is done.
I read it in an old, old book, in a moldy old library. It was written by a French author, but he probably stole it from some other writer, who had taken it from someone else. So, at last, it has been my turn to tell this forgotten story.
This story is adapted from a short novel by the French writer, Prosper Mérimée. It takes place in Corsica.
Corsica is an island in the Mediterranean Sea. It has its own unique culture.
From 1284 to 1729, Corsica was ruled by the city-state of Genoa, in Italy. After that, the Corsicans rebelled and the island became independent in 1755. Independence did not last long. The French invaded in 1768, and since 1769, Corsica has been considered part of France.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican, became Emperor of France in the early 19th century. He is most famous for his military actions.
In 1814, he was forced to abdicate. He returned to power for a short time in 1815. But other countries moved against France, and the French were defeated badly by the British and Prussians at the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon abdicated again, this time for good.
The story of Colomba takes place a few years after these events.
Lydia Nevil was an unhappy traveler.
She and her father had just finished a tour of Italy. It was late October, 1819. In the beginning, Lydia had been very excited. She wanted to go where no other British person had ever gone, and see things none of her friends had ever seen.
But it was impossible. Wherever they went, other British tourists had been there before. They kept running into these people in other places. The other tourists would always say something like, “Did you see the Raphael painting at So-and-So Palace? It’s the best in Italy!”
Since she couldn’t be the first to discover anything, Lydia decided to be bored with everything. She said the famous paintings were just so-so. She said Mount Vesuvius was about as exciting as a factory chimney in Birmingham. She often said Italy had no “character” or “local color” – whatever that meant.
Since Lydia didn’t like Italy, her father didn’t like it either. Colonel Nevil was an Irish officer in the British army. He was now retired and a widower. Lydia was his only child.
Colonel Nevil had nothing against all the paintings and statues they saw. But he hated trying to hunt in Italy. He had to walk thirty miles through the countryside just to find a couple of partridges to shoot.
After touring Italy, they stayed at a hotel in Marseille, in the South of France.
At Marseille, they met Captain Ellis, the colonel’s former assistant. He had just spent six weeks in Corsica. He told Lydia stories about the outlaws there. He told the Colonel stories about the animals he had hunted.
“There are plenty of wild boars,” he said. “You have to learn to tell them apart from the farm pigs. They look very much alike. If you accidentally shoot a pig, suddenly a man with a gun appears out of the bushes and demands money. Then there’s the mouflon, a very strange animal you don’t find anywhere else. Good to shoot, but difficult. Also deer, pheasants, all kinds of birds. In Corsica, you can shoot whatever you like.”
Then he told some stories about the custom called “vendetta” – revenge. When one Corsican wronged another, the victim would strike back with an act of violence against the guilty man or some relative of his.
Corsica was clearly a wild, strange country with primitive ways. Lydia began to get interested.
As for her father, that night he dreamed he had shot a mouflon and its owner was making him pay for it. He didn’t mind, because it was such an interesting animal – like a wild boar with a deer’s antlers and a pheasant’s tail.
At lunch the next day, the colonel said to his daughter, “Ellis says there’s good hunting in Corsica. If it weren’t so far, I’d like to spend a couple of weeks there.”
“Well, why don’t we?” said Lydia. “You can hunt and I can draw.”
This was the first time she had liked one of her father’s ideas. He was surprised and pleased. But he reminded her it was a wild country, where it would be hard for a woman to travel.
Lydia said she didn’t mind. She loved to travel on horseback, and she’d even like to sleep outdoors. No British woman had ever been to Corsica – she’d be the first. When she got back to London, it would be fun to show people her sketchbook and say, “This is a famous outlaw who was our guide in Corsica.” Then everyone would say, “What? You’ve been to Corsica?”
There were no steamships between France and Corsica. But there was a sailing ship -- a freighter -- that was about to sail for Ajaccio. Colonel Nevil talked to the captain. He agreed to rent them two cabins.
Lydia asked for two things: the ship should take no other passengers, and it should sail so that she could see the mountains of Corsica from the deck. The captain agreed. Soon they would be on their way.
The day came. Everything was packed and on the ship. They would sail in the evening.
Colonel Nevil and Lydia were taking a walk. The ship’s captain came looking for them.
“Is it all right if we take one more passenger?” he asked the Colonel. “It’s a relative of mine – my older son’s father-in-law’s second cousin. He has to get home to Corsica. He’s a nice boy, an officer in the infantry. He’d be a colonel by now if Napoleon were still Emperor.”
“Well, since he’s a soldier . . .” said the Colonel. He was going to say “I’ll be happy to have him with us.” But Lydia interrupted, in English.
“An infantry officer!” she protested. (Her father had been in the cavalry. She looked down on all other kinds of soldiers.) “He may be some rude man who’ll get seasick and spoil the trip for us.”
The captain didn’t understand any English. But he understood the look on Lydia’s face.
“My relative is a real gentleman,” he said. “He comes from a long line of corporals. Anyway, he won’t bother you. I’ll give him a cabin in a corner of the ship. You won’t even know he’s there.”
The Nevils were confused. First, the captain had said his relative was an officer. Now he said he was a corporal – an enlisted man. He also said he came from “a long line of corporals”. Could fathers pass on their military rank to their sons? Maybe it was another one of those strange Corsican customs.
Anyway, they thought, if this man was a corporal in the infantry, he must be very poor. The captain probably felt sorry for him. He was probably giving him a free ride.
That was fine with them. If the man were an officer, he would be their equal. They would have to talk with him, eat with him, live with him. But a corporal didn’t matter. Unless he came with his gun and his squad of soldiers, a corporal could be ignored.
“Does your relative ever get seasick?” Lydia asked.
“All right, you can bring him along,” she said.
“You can bring him along,” repeated her father.
Around five o’clock, the captain came looking for them again. It was time to board the ship.
The captain’s boat was waiting at the dock. There, they saw a tall young man in a blue coat. He had dark eyes. He looked open and intelligent. From the way he held his shoulders, it was clear he was a soldier. Also, he had a moustache – in those days, only soldiers wore them.
The young man took off his cap when he saw the Colonel. He said, “Thank you very much for the favor you’re doing me.” He didn’t seem embarrassed at all.
“Glad to help,” said the Colonel. He got into the boat.
“Your Englishman isn’t very talkative,” the young man said to the captain, softly, in Italian. He smiled and touched his forehead to show that all the English were a little crazy. Then he sat down in the boat, beside the captain. With great interest, but also with respect, he looked at Lydia.
The Colonel spoke to his daughter in English: “These French soldiers all have good manners. It’s easy to make them into officers.” Then, in French, he said to the young man, “Tell me, my good man, what regiment did you serve in?”
“The Seventh Light Infantry.”
“Were you at the battle of Waterloo? You’re very young.”
“It was my only campaign, Colonel.”
“It counts as two.’
“Papa,” said Lydia in English, “ask him how the Corsicans like Napoleon.”
Before the Colonel could ask, the young man answered – in fairly good English, but with a heavy accent.
“Well, you know, miss, nobody is a hero in his hometown. We Corsicans, Napoleon’s people, probably like him less than the French do. But I like and admire him – even though his family and my family were once enemies.”
“You speak English!” said the Colonel.
“Very badly, as you can tell.”
Lydia was surprised. But she had to laugh when the corporal said his family and the emperor’s family had been “enemies”. This must be one more strange Corsican custom. She’d write about it in her travel journal.
“Were you a prisoner of war in England?” asked the Colonel.
“No, Colonel. I learned English in France, from an English prisoner of war.” Then he turned to Lydia. “I hear you’ve just come from Italy. I’m afraid you’ll have trouble understanding our Corsican dialect.”
“Oh, my daughter understands all Italian dialects,” said the Colonel. “She has the gift of tongues. Unlike me!”
“See if you understand these words, miss. They’re from a Corsican song.” He said some lines that meant, “If I went to Heaven and you weren’t there, I’d leave.”
Lydia blushed. He should not be saying those words to her. He should not be looking at her that way, either. She said in Italian, “I understand.”
“Are you going home on leave?” asked the Colonel.
“No, Colonel. I’m out of the army now. They’ve put me on half pay, probably because I’m one of Napoleon’s people.” He sighed and looked at the sky.
The Colonel wanted to give some money to this poor man, his former enemy. He tried to think of a polite way to do it.
“Me too,” he said casually. “I’m on half pay now. But on yours, you won’t even have enough to buy tobacco. Here, Corporal.”
And he tried to put a gold coin in the young man’s hand.
The young Corsican got very red. He clenched his teeth. He looked as if he was going to speak angrily. Then, suddenly, he burst out laughing.
The Colonel was bewildered.
The young man grew serious again. “Colonel, let me give you some advice. First, never offer money to a Corsican. He may just throw it back in your face. Second, don’t call people by titles they don’t deserve. You called me Corporal, and I’m a lieutenant. Of course, there’s not much difference, but still . . .”
“Lieutenant?” said the Colonel. “But the captain told me you were a corporal. He said your father and all the men in your family had been corporals.”
The young man laughed again. The captain and the two sailors joined in.
“Excuse me, Colonel. Now I understand! Yes, our family is descended from corporals. But not the kind in the army. You see – around the year 1100, some towns in Corsica began electing their own leaders. They called them corporals. In Corsica, it’s an honor to be descended from them.”
“I’m so sorry!” said the Colonel. “Now that you understand why I made my mistake, I hope you’ll excuse me.” He shook his hand.
“It serves me right for being so proud,” said the young man, still laughing. “No, I’m not angry at all. It seems the captain didn’t do a good job of describing me to you. So let me introduce myself. My name is Orso Antonio della Rebbia. If you’re coming to Corsica to hunt, I’d be happy to show you the countryside and the mountains . . . if I haven’t forgotten them.” He sighed.
The boat arrived at the ship. They got on board.
The Colonel still felt bad about his mistake. He apologized again, and asked Orso to supper. Lydia frowned a little. But she didn’t really mind. Orso was all right – just a little boring. She liked men who were mysterious, and he was very open and cheerful.
“Lieutenant della Rebbia,” said the Colonel as they ate, “I saw many of your people in Spain.”
“Yes, many of them never came back from Spain.”
“I’ll never forget what a Corsican battalion did at the battle of Vittoria. I can’t ever forget,” the Colonel said, tapping his chest. “All day they’d been firing at us from gardens, from behind hedges. We had killed lots of them. Finally they retreated. We thought it was time for our revenge. But those sons of – sorry. Those brave men, I mean, formed a square, and we couldn’t break it. In the middle of the square – I can see him still – was an officer on a small black horse. He sat by their flag, smoking a cigar as if he were in a café.
“Sometimes, their band would play, as if they were teasing us. I ordered some of my soldiers to charge the square. The Corsicans didn’t move, and many of my men were killed. And still that damned music!
“I was furious. I decided to lead a charge myself. We moved forward, close together as bricks in a wall. The officer in the middle of the square finally put out his cigar. He pointed me out to one of his men. He said something -- and then a bullet hit me in the chest.
“They were great soldiers, Mr. della Rebbia. The 18th Light, all Corsicans, I’m told.”
“Yes,” said Orso. His eyes had been shining all through the story. “They brought back their flag. But two thirds of those brave men are buried now at Vittoria.”
“By any chance, would you happen to know the name of the officer who commanded them?” asked the Colonel.
“That was my father.”
“Your father? My God, he was a brave man! I’d like to meet him. Is he still living?”
“No, Colonel,” said the young man. He got a little pale.
“Oh, was he at Waterloo?”
“Yes, Colonel, but he wasn’t lucky enough to die in battle . . . He died in Corsica . . . two years ago . . . My God, the sea is beautiful. I haven’t seen the Mediterranean in ten years. Don’t you think it’s more beautiful than the Atlantic, Miss Nevil?”
“It’s too blue. The waves aren’t very big, either.”
“So you like wild scenery? Then I think you’ll like Corsica.”
“My daughter likes the unusual,” said the Colonel. “That’s why she didn’t like Italy.”
“I’m not familiar with Italy,” said Orso. “except for Pisa, where I went to boarding school. I think I could draw the Leaning Tower from memory.”
Lydia was afraid he was about to start talking about how wonderful Pisa was.
“It’s very pretty,” she said, yawning. “Excuse me, Father. I have a little headache. I’m going to my cabin.”
She kissed her father, nodded to Orso, and left.
The two men began to talk about hunting and the war. They figured out that they must have been across from each other at Waterloo, and must have shot at each other many times. That made them feel like old friends.
They took turns criticizing the French and British commanders in the war. Then they talked about hunting deer, wild boar and mouflons.
Finally, very late that night, when the last bottle was empty, they parted. The Colonel shook Orso’s hand again. He said, “The way we met was ridiculous, but I hope we can get to know each other better.”
It was a beautiful night. The moonlight danced on the waves. The ship swayed softly in the light breeze.
Lydia didn’t want to sleep at all. She waited until she thought the lieutenant must be asleep. A person like him wouldn’t be out enjoying the moonlight. She woke up her maid, put on her coat and went up on deck.
There was no one else on deck except a sailor at the rudder. He was singing some kind of sad song in Corsican. In the still of the night, the music was strangely beautiful.
Lydia couldn’t understand all the words. She could tell it was about a murder.
“On the battlefield, he was calm as a summer sky . . . The enemies of France could never get him, but murderers from his own country struck him down from behind . . . Hang my Cross of Honor on the wall. The ribbon is red, my shirt is redder . . . Keep them for my son who is far away. He will see two bullet holes. For each of them, a bullet hole in another shirt! . . . Vengeance will be done! I will get the hand that fired, the eye that aimed, the heart that planned . . .”
The sailor stopped suddenly.
“Why don’t you go on, my friend?” asked Lydia.
The sailor looked away. Someone was coming on deck. It was Orso.
“Finish your song,” said Lydia to the sailor. “I liked it.”
The sailor said quietly, “I don’t want to give the rimbecco to anyone.”
The sailor began to whistle.
“I see you’re admiring the sea, Miss Nevil,” said Orso, coming toward her.
“No,” said Lydia. “I was listening to this man. He was singing a beautiful sad song, and he stopped right at the best part.”
The sailor pulled sharply on her coat. He seemed to be telling her he couldn’t sing that song in front of Orso.
“What were you singing, Paolo France?” asked Orso. “Was it a vocero?”
(The vocero was a special kind of Corsican song. When someone died, a woman from the family -- or a friend, or maybe even a stranger -- would make up a song about the dead person. She sang it at the wake for the family and friends. The song was called a vocero. The woman who composed it was called a voceratrice.)
Orso went on: “The lady wants to hear the rest of it.”
“I forget the rest, Orso Antonio,” said the sailor. He began to sing a hymn to the Virgin Mary.
Lydia decided that later she’d find out what was going on.
Her maid was wondering about it, too. She was from Florence, in northern Italy. She didn’t understand all the Corsican words either. Before Lydia could stop her, she asked Orso: “Sir, what does ‘giving the rimbecco’ mean?”
“Giving the rimbecco? That means criticizing someone for not taking revenge. To a Corsican, it’s a terrible insult. Who told you about it?”
“The captain,” said Lydia quickly.
“What was he talking about?” asked Orso.
“Oh, he was telling us some old story. It was about a Corsican ruler
who killed his wife for going to the enemy during a war.”
“Oh, yes – our Corsican hero, Sampiero Corso. But you probably don’t think he was a hero.”
“He was a man of his time, and it was a brutal time. Also, he was leading his people in a war. They wouldn’t have followed him if he hadn’t punished his wife for dealing with the enemy.”
“She went without his permission,” said the sailor. “He was right to kill her.”
“She did it to save him,” said Lydia.
“She didn’t know what she was doing.”
“Well,” said Lydia, “I think he was a monster.”
“What about Othello, in the Shakespeare play?” asked Orso. “ He killed his wife. Was he a monster too?”
“That was different. He thought his wife was unfaithful.”
“It’s the same, really. They were both angry at their wives because they loved them.” Lydia just frowned at him. Then she asked the sailor when they would get to Corsica.
“The day after tomorrow, if the wind keeps up,” he said.
“I wish we were already there.” She took her maid’s arm and they
walked away. Orso wondered if he should follow them. He was afraid Lydia hadn’t enjoyed their talk.
The sailor said: “If all the fleas in my bed looked like that girl, I wouldn’t mind them biting me!”
Maybe Lydia heard this and was shocked. Anyway, she went down to her cabin very soon. Orso went below too. After he was gone, the maid came on deck again. She asked the sailor a few questions about his song.
He told her it was about Colonel della Rebbia, Orso’s father. He had been murdered two years before. If Orso heard the song, he might think the sailor was criticizing him for not taking revenge sooner.
Everyone knew who the murderers were. But they had not been punished. They came from a powerful family.
The sailor was sure Orso was going back to take revenge – to kill his father’s murderers. He said, “There’s no justice in Corsica. You have to take the law into your own hands.”
The maid went back to Lydia and told her all this.
Suddenly, Lydia liked Orso better. He wasn’t really happy and open, she thought. He was grieving, angry, and planning his revenge. He was also very good at hiding his feelings. She noticed, for the first time, that he was good-looking.
The next day, she asked him about Corsica. He told her a lot about his country, and she was very interested.
Orso had left Corsica at an early age. First he had gone to boarding school in Pisa. Then he had gone to the French military academy. But Corsica was very real in his memories. He talked about its mountains, its forests, its people and their strange customs.
Of course, when he talked about Corsican customs, he had to mention the vendetta. He criticized it, which surprised Lydia. But he also said, “Murder is never committed over anything small. And it’s true, we have lots of murders – but we have no theft.”
While he said this, Lydia watched him carefully. He showed no strong feelings. But she had already decided he could hide his feelings completely – from everyone but her, of course.
The ship was already in sight of Corsica. They looked at the coast through the Colonel’s telescope. Sometimes they would see a man on a small horse, with a long gun, riding through the forest. Lydia always thought these men were outlaws, or sons going to avenge their murdered fathers. But Orso said they were probably just villagers doing errands. He said they carried guns because all men in Corsica did. It was like a city man carrying a cane.
Lydia thought, if you were going to wear a weapon as part of your outfit, a knife would be more elegant than a gun.
Three days later, they arrived in the bay of Ajaccio. It looked a little like Naples – Naples after it was invaded by Attila the Hun. Around the city, all was wild and deserted. There were no houses or businesses around the bay, just bush and mountains. Here and there, among the trees, was a small white building. These were family tombs. It was a sad, quiet, beautiful country.
The city was the same. There were few people in the streets. There was no laughter, singing, or loud talk, as there was in Italian cities. Corsicans were serious, silent people.
Sometimes, some men played cards under a tree. They all carried guns. They never shouted or argued. If they disagreed, they just started shooting.
In the evening, a few people would come out for walks. But they were mostly foreigners. The Corsicans stayed in their houses, like falcons in their nests.
Lydia was bored again. She had seen the house where Napoleon was born. She had drawn some pictures of the bay and of an old man selling melons.
There was nothing else to do in Ajaccio. The people kept to themselves. She felt lonely, and was sorry she had come to Corsica. But she couldn’t leave just yet. That would ruin her reputation as a fearless traveler.
She decided to get Orso to give up his plans for revenge. After all, she didn’t want him to be killed or go to prison.
It would be easy to get his attention. He was in no hurry to get back to his village. He seemed happy to stay in Ajaccio, though he knew no one there.
Every day, the Colonel and Orso went hunting. Lydia wrote letters or drew pictures. Around six, the men would come back to the hotel with meat. They all ate dinner, Lydia sang, her father slept, and the young people stayed up late talking.
One day, the Colonel had to do something about his passport. He went to see the Prefect – the Frenchman who governed Corsica. The Prefect, who found his job very boring, was glad to meet the Colonel. A few days later, he came to the hotel to visit him.
It was just after dinner. The Colonel was lying on the sofa. Lydia was playing the hotel piano. Orso sat with her, turning the pages for her and looking at her shoulders and hair.
The Colonel got up and greeted the Prefect. “Do you know Mr. della Rebbia?” he said.
The Prefect looked a little surprised. “Are you Colonel della Rebbia’s son?”
“I knew your father.”
The small talk soon died out. The Colonel yawned, though he tried not to. Orso didn’t like to talk to anyone from the government. Lydia kept the conversation going. The Prefect seemed to enjoy talking about Paris and the rest of the world. But sometimes, he looked at Orso curiously.
“Did you meet Mr. della Rebbia on the mainland?” he asked Lydia.
“No, on the ship coming here.”
“He’s a nice young man,” said the Prefect. He lowered his voice. “Did he tell you why he was coming back to Corsica?”
“No, you’ll have to ask him yourself.”
A moment later, the Prefect heard Orso speak English to the Colonel.
“You seem to have traveled a lot, Mr. della Rebbia,” he said. “You must have forgotten all about Corsica . . . and its customs.”
“It’s true I’ve been away since I was very young.”
“Are you still in the army?”
“I’m on half pay, sir.”
“You’ve been in the French army so long, you must be completely French now.”
Orso said, “Do you think a Corsican is no good unless he’s been in the French army?”
“No, of course not. I was just thinking about certain customs of this country – customs that make trouble for government people like me.”
Soon after that, he left. After he was gone, Lydia said, “The Prefect seems very nice.”
“He has a strange way of talking. ‘Corsica and its customs’ – I don’t know what he meant by that.”
Lydia looked at her father, who was asleep, and said, “I think I know what he meant.”
“Then you know more than me.”
“Well, I can read people’s minds.”
“If that were true, I’d be scared – or very happy. I don’t know which.”
“Mr. della Rebbia,” said Lydia, blushing, “we haven’t known each other very long. But at sea, and in foreign countries, people get acquainted more quickly. So I hope you don’t mind if I speak to you about something personal – like a friend, not a stranger.”
“Don’t call yourself a stranger, Miss Nevil. ‘Friend’ is a much better word for you.”
“Well, then. I didn’t mean to pry into your business. But I happened to hear about – what happened to your father. I’m very sorry. And I’m worried. I’ve heard so much about your people being vengeful . . . Wasn’t that what the Prefect meant?”
“Miss Nevil, you don’t think I could ever be a murderer?” Orso turned pale.
“I know you’re not like that. But you’re back in your own country now. You’ll be surrounded by your own people. They’ll expect you to take revenge. I know you won’t. But you may feel very alone. Maybe it will be easier if you remember that I respect you for being brave enough not to give in.” She stood up. “Let’s not talk about these sad things anymore . . . You’re not angry at me?” She held out her hand.
Orso took it. “Miss Nevil, there are times I feel vengeful. Sometimes when I think of my poor father – I get terrible ideas. But you’ve freed me from them. Thank you, thank you . . .”
He would have said more. But Lydia dropped a teaspoon. The noise woke her father.
“Della Rebbia – hunting at five tomorrow! Be on time.”
The next day, Lydia went for a walk by the sea with her maid. As they were coming back to the hotel, they saw a young woman in black coming into the city. She rode a small, strong horse. Behind her rode a man with a water bottle, a pistol and a rifle. He looked just like a bandit in a play – or a middle-class Corsican on a trip.
The woman was about twenty, and very beautiful. She was tall and pale. Her eyes were dark blue and her teeth were very white. She had long chestnut-brown hair, which was braided and wound around her head. She wore a black silk veil called a mezzaro. Her black dress was neat and simple. Her face was proud and sad.
The woman rode to the hotel where the Nevils and Orso were staying. There, she spoke briefly to the innkeeper. Then she jumped off her horse. The man who was with her took the horses to the stable.
The woman sat down on a bench by the hotel door. Lydia walked by in her dress from Paris. But the other young woman didn’t even look up.
About fifteen minutes later, the Colonel and Orso came back from hunting. The woman jumped up and moved toward them. Orso looked at her curiously.
“You’re Orso Antonio della Rebbia?” she asked in a trembling voice. “I’m Colomba.”
“Colomba!” cried Orso. He embraced the woman and kissed her.
The Colonel was surprised. So was Lydia, who was watching from her window. In England, people didn’t kiss each other in the street.
“Brother,” said Colomba, “I know you didn’t ask me to come here. I’m sorry. I just wanted so much to see you . . .”
Orso kissed her again. He turned to the Colonel. “This is my sister. I would never have recognized her if she hadn’t told me who she was. Colomba, this is Colonel Nevil.”
“Bring her in. Lydia will be glad to meet her, and we can all have dinner together.”
They all went into the hotel. Colomba was introduced to Lydia.
Colomba seemed uncomfortable. When she met Lydia, she bowed but didn’t say a word. She didn’t act rude – just ill at ease.
Lydia liked her right away. There was no empty room in the hotel, and Lydia said Colomba could share hers.
Colomba said a few words of thanks. Then she followed Lydia’s maid to
their room to get ready for dinner.
When she came back to the dining room, she stopped to look at the rifles the hunters had left in a corner.
“Such beautiful guns!” she said. “Are they yours, brother?”
“No, those are the Colonel’s English rifles. They’re not just beautiful. They’re good guns.”
“I wish you had a gun like that.”
“You’ve got your wish,” said the Colonel. “I’m going to give him one of these. He knows how to use them. Today he fired fourteen shots and got fourteen animals!”
Orso tried not to accept the Colonel’s gift. Then he gave in. His sister suddenly looked very happy.
“Choose one, my friend,” said the Colonel. Orso refused.
“Then your sister will have to choose for you,” said the Colonel.
Colomba picked up the plainest rifle. It was an excellent, large-caliber Manton. “This will shoot well,” she said.
Her brother, embarrassed, thanked the Colonel. Then dinner was served.
From time to time during dinner, Colomba looked sadly at her brother. He was always the first to look away. It was as if she was silently asking him a question. And he didn’t want to answer.
The Colonel noticed the tension between the brother and sister. After dinner, he said, “Do you want to talk in private? Lydia and I can go into the other room.”
“No, thank you,” said Orso. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk back in Pietranera.” That was the name of their village.
The Colonel took his place on the sofa. Lydia tried to get Colomba to talk, but she had to give up. Then she asked Orso to read some of Dante’s poetry. He was her favorite poet.
Orso read from Dante’s Inferno. As he read, Colomba raised her head. Her eyes shone. She blushed, then grew pale, and moved sharply in her seat. Nobody had to tell her this was great poetry.
“That’s so beautiful!” she cried when the reading was over. “Who wrote it, brother?”
Orso was a little embarrassed that his sister did not recognize the famous poem.
Lydia smiled and said, “Dante Alighieri. He was a poet from Florence who lived hundreds of years ago.”
“You’ll have to read more of his work when we get back to Pietranera,’ said Orso.
“My God, it’s beautiful!” said Colomba again. She repeated a few of the verses, with great feeling.
“You really seem to like poetry,” said Lydia, surprised. “Well, you’re lucky – you get to read Dante for the first time.”
“You see what a great poet he was, Miss Nevil,” said Orso. “His words
have the power to touch this wild little girl who knows nothing but her prayers. Wait, I’m wrong. I just remembered Colomba is a poet, too! She started making up poems when she was very little. And my father wrote that she was the best voceratrice in Pietranera.”
“I’m dying to hear some Corsican poetry!” said Lydia. “Please, make something up right now.”
Orso was sorry he had mentioned his sister’s poetry. He said, “Oh, no. Corsican poetry can’t compete with Dante. We’d be letting down our country.”
But Lydia wouldn’t give in. Finally, Orso said to Colomba, “All right, make up a short poem.”
Colomba sighed and looked down for a moment. Then she put her hand over her eyes and, in an uncertain voice, recited:
“In a valley, far back behind the mountains, the sun only shines an hour a day. In the valley is a dark house, where grass grows on the doorstep. The doors and windows are always closed. But at noon, when the sun comes, a window opens. The orphan girl sits there, sewing. She sings a sad song while she sews. No other song answers it.
“One day in spring, a dove sits on the nearby tree and listens to the girl’s song. ‘Girl,’ he says, ‘you are not the only one weeping. A cruel hawk has taken my mate.’
‘Dove, show me the hawk. I’ll bring him down, even if he’s up in the clouds . . . But poor me! Who will bring me my brother, my brother in a faraway land?’
‘Girl, tell me where your brother is, and I will fly to him.’”
“What a nice dove!” said Orso, kissing his sister.
“Your poem is delightful,’ said Lydia. “I want you to write it in my album. I’ll translate it into English and have it set to music.”
The Colonel praised the poem too, though he hadn’t understood it. He said, “That dove you spoke of, miss – is it the bird we ate for dinner?”
Lydia got her album. Colomba wrote her poem in it – though it didn’t look like a poem. Instead of short lines with a margin at each side, she wrote it all in one paragraph. Her spelling was a little strange, too.
Bedtime came. The two young women went to their room. While Lydia was taking off her jewelry, she saw Colomba take something long and thin out of her dress. She put it on a table, under her veil. Then she knelt down and said her prayers. Two minutes later, she was in her bed.
Lydia was still undressing. She went over to the table and lifted the veil. Under it was a long knife with a pearl and silver handle. It was an antique, a collector’s item.
“Do all the young ladies here carry these little things under their dresses?” she asked, smiling.
“We have to,” sighed Colomba. “There are so many bad people here!”
“And would you really be brave enough to stab someone – like this?”
Lydia picked up the knife and pretended to stab. She held it as actors did in the theatre, pointing down.
“Yes, if I had to defend myself or my friends,” said Colomba. “But that’s not the way to hold it. You could hurt yourself, if the other person jumps back.” She got out of bed. “You should stab upward, like this. That’s always deadly, they say. You’re lucky you don’t have to
carry a weapon like this!”
She sighed and went to sleep.
As you’ve read earlier, Colonel della Rebbia, father of Orso and Colomba, had been murdered.
Now, in Corsica, people were not murdered by criminals who just wanted their money. They were killed by their enemies.
Why did they have enemies? That was often hard to say. Many families hated each other simply out of habit. The reasons for it had been forgotten long ago.
The Della Rebbias were enemies of several families, but especially the Barricinis. Nobody remembered why. Some said that, in the 1500’s, a Della Rebbia had seduced a Barricini girl, and a relative of hers had stabbed him to death. Others said a Della Rebbia had been seduced and a Barricini had been stabbed. Either way, there was bad blood between the families, as they say.
Unlike most Corsican murders, this one had not led to more killing. The government in Genoa had persecuted both the Della Rebbias and the Barricinis. Their young men had had to leave the country. For several generations, there was nobody to carry on the fight.
In the eighteenth century, a Della Rebbia was serving in the army of Naples. While playing cards, he got into a fight with three Italian soldiers. They called him a Corsican goat boy. He pulled out his sword and attacked them. A stranger who was playing nearby shouted, “I’m Corsican too!” and joined the fight against the soldiers.
The stranger turned out to be a Barricini.
On the mainland, Corsicans stuck together. Back in Corsica, it was different. That was what happened in this case. While they lived in Italy, Barricini and Della Rebbia were close friends. When they went back to Corsica, they never saw each other. When they died, they hadn’t spoken to each other for five or six years.
Their sons continued the feud. Ghilfuccio della Rebbia, Orso’s father, became a soldier. Giudice Barricini became a lawyer. Their work kept them from seeing each other.
But, in 1809, Giudice Barricini read in the paper that Ghilfuccio della Rebbia had been given the Cross of Honor. He said, “He just got it because his general likes him.”
Far away in Vienna, Della Rebbia heard about this remark. He said, “Giudice Barricini must be rich. He makes more money from the cases he loses than from the ones he wins.”
Barricini never figured out what this meant, but he never forgot it.
In 1812, Barricini asked to be appointed mayor of the village. But the Prefect appointed another man, a cousin of Colonel della Rebbia’s wife.
After the fall of Napoleon, the mayor lost his post. Barricini finally got it. Proudly, he took over the village hall and the official records.
From then on, everything went well for him. He began a private war against Colonel della Rebbia, who had now retired to Pietranera. Once, the Colonel was fined because his horse had damaged the Mayor’s garden. Another time, while the church was being repaired, the Mayor threw out one of the Della Rebbia tombstones.
He protected people whose goats ate the Colonel’s plants. He fired the man who ran the village post office, a friend of the Colonel. He fired the village watchman, a disabled veteran and also a friend of the Colonel. He replaced them with people who were loyal to him.
The Colonel was furious. He had a grave dug in the wood. The Mayor had one dug in the cemetery.
On the day of the funeral, the Mayor went to the church with his sons, his followers, and the police. The Della Rebbias showed up with forty armed men. They outnumbered the Mayor’s party.
When the funeral procession left the church, the Della Rebbias told the priest to go to the wood. The Mayor ordered him to go to the cemetery. The two sides began to shout threats at each other. Some even loaded their guns. But the Colonel said to his followers: “Nobody shoot until I give the order!”
The Mayor was scared. It looked as if there was going to be a battle over Mrs. della Rebbia’s remains. He left, with his followers.
The funeral procession started for the wood. They went out of their way to pass the village hall. On the way, a foolish man shouted “Long live the Emperor!” They also tried to kill one of the Mayor’s cattle, which happened to block the road. Luckily, the Colonel stopped them.
The Mayor made an official report to the Prefect. He said Colonel della Rebbia had insulted the priest. He had insulted the Mayor. He had urged the citizens to commit acts of violence. And he was plotting to overthrow the lawful government and bring back the Emperor. All this was forbidden by Articles 86 and 91 of the Criminal Code.
The report was so silly that the Prefect didn’t take it seriously. Colonel della Rebbia had relatives in the government. They stood up for him. The Mayor’s plot failed. Mrs. della Rebbia stayed buried in the wood.
No one was charged except the man who had shouted “Long live the Emperor!” He got two weeks in jail.
Mayor Barricini tried again. Colonel Della Rebbia owned a water mill. Barricini found an old paper that seemed to say the Colonel didn’t own the stream that turned the mill. The real owner was – Mayor Barricini!
There was a long court case. After a year, the court was about to rule that the Colonel owned the stream. Then the Mayor showed the court a letter from an outlaw named Agostini. He threatened to kill the Mayor and burn down his house if he didn’t drop the court case. Outlaws in Corsica often did such things to help their friends.
Then it got more complicated. Agostini wrote to the court. He said that he had not written the letter. Someone must have forged his signature. He complained that his good name was being damaged. He said if he found the forger, he would punish him in some terrible way.
Now, Barricini said that Colonel della Rebbia must have forged the letter. The Colonel said Barricini must have written it himself. The court didn’t know what to think.
In the middle of all this, Colonel della Rebbia was killed. Here are the facts the court found:
On August 2nd, just after dark, a woman named Madeleine Pietri was coming home to Pietranera, carrying food. She heard two gunshots, very close together. She thought they came from a crooked road that led to the village, about fifty paces from where she was. Just after that, she saw a man, bent over, running into the vines by the road. He stopped for a moment and made a hand signal to someone. Then he headed toward the village.
Mrs. Pietri couldn’t see the man’s face clearly at that distance. She couldn’t see the person he had signaled to, either.
She dropped what she was carrying and ran up to the vines. There, she found Colonel della Rebbia, soaked in his own blood. He had been shot twice. But he was still breathing.
Near him lay his loaded rifle. Maybe one of the men had attacked him face to face – and while the Colonel tried to defend himself, the other struck from behind.
Mrs. Pietri raised him up and asked him what had happened. But he couldn’t say a word. The bullets had gone through his lungs. He was choking on his blood.
She saw that he was trying to put his hand in his pocket. She reached in there and found a notebook. She opened it and gave it to him.