COBB: The False Knight

Cobb’s False Knight: 12. In the Hunter’s Cot

The Swabian Alb is indeed the area of Germany with more caves than anywhere else. Around 2000 of them, apparently. That’s because it’s a karst area: a landscape in which limestone is constantly being hollowed out by erosion. Cobb knew his geography well. Hiding in caves is a theme that has left traces in the German language that still endure.

 “Siebenschlaefer”, the “Seven Sleepers”, is what every German knows as a particular date. The 27th of June in every year. That’s because legend has it that the weather on this date predicts the weather for the following seven weeks. If it rains on the 27th of June, that means it will be rainy until mid to late August. Farmers still recite the old rhyme, “ist der Siebenschlaefer nass, regnet’s ohne Unterlass” (If the Seven Sleepers is wet, lots of rain is what you’ll get). Yikes! A “Siebenschlaefer” is also a species of fat, edible dormouse found in Western Europe. One whose burrows might be flooded if it rains on that particular day? Why on Earth would Germans, and who knows, fat dormice, believe in something like that?

It’s perhaps the most enduring example of weather lore in Europe. Quite surprising how often it can be relatively accurate. You seem to forget the years where it may have been wrong. What many Germans don’t realise is that the date is actually that of an old religious feast, meant to commemorate the “Seven Sleepers“, seven youths in antiquity who hid in a cave outside the Greek city of Ephesus to escape religious persecution. They apparently emerged again three hundred years later. The seven youths are also known in the Islamic faith, as the “Cave people”.

Seven sleepers, Anon. from Menologion of Basil II* (c.985).

Well, if anyone decided to hide in a cave these days, the Atta Cave in Westphalia might be a good choice. Because, if they ended up staying a bit longer, at least they wouldn’t starve. This one is more than seven kilometers long and is used to store thousands and thousands of tons of cheese. Bored cave hiders who might lack a bit of entertainment however would have to burrow through to another cave, the “Ruebelaender Tropfsteinhoehlen” (the “Turnip Country Dripping Stone Caves” if translated word for word) (I simply couldn’t deprive you of this gem by putting in a normal translation) in Saxony Anhalt. Even Goethe is said to have visited this particular hole in the ground, which has been used for theatre performances for a long time (Is there anywhere that Goethe didn’t visit?) There’s even a “Goethe Chamber” in one of them.

Anyone for Mervyn Peake’s “Cave”, performed in a real cave? Then head for Turnip Country. But don’t forget to take lots of hard cheese with you. To stick in your ears perhaps: performances there can be a bit grating because they are often in the somewhat heavy Saxon dialect.


CHAPTER 12

IN THE HUNTER’S COT 

Forty years, or thereabout, previous to the time of which we write, Sir Arthur von Morin, then a gallant hunter when not in the field, had accidentally discovered a wonderful cavern on the side of the Schwarzwolf Mountain; or it was rather a series of caverns, with a common entrance. Beneath an overhanging shelf of rock, completely hidden by tangled wildwood, was a broad alcove, within which were three different openings into as many large and convenient caves. They were very high, with arched roofs, and with fissures in the walls and tops, through which air could pass, and light enter, but proof against the incoming of rain. This secret the knight had kept to himself, only imparting it, after a time, to Baron Deckendorf, until Martin Oberwald chanced to come that way in search of a refuge from the world. He had known and loved Martin’s father, and Martin himself had served under him in more than one campaign.

Portrait of a Hunter, Max Kuglmayer (1863-1930). Source: invaluable.com

To Martin Oberwald, Sir Arthur imparted the secret of the cavern, and the baron gave him a deed of that side of the Mountain. His infant daughter had a home at the castle until he could prepare for her a fitting dwelling of his own. The fancy seized him to erect a substantial stone cottage so situated that its rear wall should cover the entrance to the caves; and in this covering wall, with his own hands, assisted only by a competent builder whom he could trust, he fixed a secret door, so arranged that a child might work it, but which no stranger could discover.

And here the recluse had lived, and reared his beautiful child. To more than one poor, hunted fugitive, flying from oppression and injustice, had he given safe asylum, and none to whom he had thus given his secret had betrayed it.

In one of these caves the wounded man whom Electra and Irene had succoured had been placed, and there the hunter cared for him. In all the land not a better physician than was Oberwald could have been found, and under his skilful treatment and tender nursing the patient was gaining strength fast. But very little fever had resulted from his hurts, and that was entirely gone. All he had now to do was, to make good blood and plenty of it. That would heal his wounds, and give him back the strength he had lost.

On the other two caves, one of them—that on the extreme left—was double. Opening from it, was a narrow, beautifully arched passage, leading to another chamber of good size, but so far into the mountain that no light of day could reach it. Yet the air circulated freely through it, and it was very comfortable. This double cave was given to the baroness and her daughter and good Gretchen, while Ernest von Linden took the other.

Since there was no likelihood of the baroness coming in contact with the occupant of the first-mentioned cave, the hunter did not think it best to inform her of the presence of the dreaded robber chieftain so near to her; but she was not long in discovering it. That some one was there whom Oberwald was tenderly nursing, she knew on her first visit to the sitting-room of the cottage; and finally her daughter told her who it was. At first she was inclined to be alarmed, believing, as she did, that Thorbrand was a friend and co-worker with her worst enemy.

“O! mamma,” said her daughter, “if you could see the man as I saw him, you would not fear him.” And then, for the first time, came out the story, new and wonderful to Lady Bertha and Ernest, of the heroic work of Electra in saving the robber’s life; for that she had done so was a fact not to be disputed.

“And now,” said the hunter, when Electra’s story had been sufficiently discussed, “I will make a disclosure which has been given to me as a trust; but I think that I have a right to impart it to you. This man—Thorbrand—is so far from being a friend of Dunwolf, that he will expose and punish him as soon as he is strong enough. I tell you my lady, and von Ernest, in that man rests the sole power to give you ample justice. He loved the late baron as he never loved another living being. It would be a long story to tell, and I feel that I have not the right to tell it. I have nursed him, and helped him on the road to health and strength, as much for your sakes as for his own. So, dear lady, put away your fears, and pray, if your conscience will let you, for the speedy recovery of the robber chief.”

Both the baroness and von Linden were greatly surprised by this information. They had many questions to ask, some of which their host promptly answered, while to others he only shook his head and closed his lips. But the lady put away her fears from that moment, and soon came to think o£ the terrible Thorbrand kindly, and with good wishes.

Oberwald was not long in discovering that his cot was under surveillance, and before night of the second day of the appearance of the spies he had counted a full score of them, and he knew there were more,

He had one secret more which, up to the present time, had been given to only two men beside himself. That was a covered way—a deep, narrow gorge in the mountain, caused by some great convulsion that had upheaved and rent asunder—completely hidden at both ends. At the upper extremity a porch of the cot covered it; and half a mile away, toward the village, at the extreme foot of the mountain, it was hidden by a combination of broken rocks and tangled vine and brushwood.

The second man to whom he had given the secret had been none other than Wolfgang. When that man had called to see his wounded comrade, and had expressed a desire to feel free to come when he would, Oberwald had been so wonderfully impressed in his favor that he had not only suffered him to depart by the secret pass but had bidden him come when he would by the same way.

So the good hunter borrowed no present trouble on account of this espionage. Had it been necessary for Wolfgang to come up the mountain openly, he would have felt it his duty to hasten down to the village and instruct the inn-keeper there to warn him when he came; but, as it was, if he should chance to visit the wounded chief again, he could do so safely,

Four days had passed since the spies had made their appearance in the forest; the baroness had been a full week a guest of the hunter; and, thus far, all had gone well with the indwellers of the cot and its mountain chambers.

Towards the middle of the forenoon, Irene Oberwald sat in the kitchen, having just finished a grand baking of pies and meats, and while her only servant had gone out to look to the poultry and hunt for eggs, she had laved her face and hands in fresh water, and sat down to rest. Her father had taken his gun and gone forth to hunt for game— partly that, and partly to observe the disposition of the spies, who still occupied their old places in the surrounding forest. He had not been far away from his dwelling since they made their appearance, and he would not probably go far now.

Very seldom did the people from the castle leave their cavern during the day. The hunter had striven to impress it upon them that they could be safe only while out of sight. There was no telling at what moment the eyes of one of the numerous spies might peer into the cot. As for himself, they dared not molest him without cause. Sir Pascal knew that he enjoyed a pledge of personal security from both the grand duke and the emperor. Why those magnates had thus honored him he did not know; he only knew it was so.

So Irene sat, in her high-backed chair, her eyes half closed, thinking of something that had often occupied her thoughts of late, one hand resting upon her lap, while the other stole unconsciously up until it pressed her bosom, when she was aroused from her reverie by the sound of a footfall behind her, coming from the direction of the rear of the cot. She quickly turned, and started to her feet. Her breath came and went, her face grew suddenly pale, and then the rich colour mounted to cheek and temple, while she caught the back of her chair for support.

He of whom she had been thinking, looking handsomer, she thought, than ever, his clear, honest eyes smiling upon her, with a gaze earnest and sincere, stood before her.

 “Wolfgang!” she whispered, before she thought.

 “Dear lady—lrene!—let me believe that I am welcome.”

 “But, sir, how did you come? I saw you not.”

 “No. I am a favored one. Your father, when I was here once before,—it has seemed an age to me—initiated me into the mystery of the secret pass.”

Why did her heart bound so happily at that? Why did it give her such quick, thrilling joy to know that her father had so trusted this man? Ah, poor heart! poor heart! It had become captive, and she knew it. She realized now, if never before, that she loved this man. And yet she scarcely knew him. How strange it was. How had it come to pass?

But she had no time now for further speculation or philosophising. The newcomer took her hand as a brother might have done, and asked for her father—or rather, where he was. He did not appear to be in a hurry to see him.

She told him that he had gone out to shoot some game and— She had got so far when she stopped.

“Ah, I see,” he said. ” Let us converse for a few moments. I want information which you can give me.”

He pointed her to a chair, and then sat near her.

“Now, dear lady, I want to know what is going on here. As I told you once before, I will help your friends if I can; and that the ability will be mine I have not the least particle of doubt. Trust me. You will trust a true heart, be sure.”

Her tongue was loosened as though by the touch of a magician’s wand. She could not have felt more confidence in her beloved father than she felt at that moment in the man before her. She asked him of what she should tell him.

 “Of everything,” he answered. “I want to know what Dunwolf is doing at the castle.”

Then she went on and told him the story. She told first of Dunwolf ‘s arrival at the castle immediately after the funeral of old Sir Arthur; then of the adventure of Ernest von Linden on the road; then of his being entrapped and cast into the dungeon; then of the escape and flight to the cot; and, finally, of the precautions they had been obliged to take on account of the spies that Sir Pascal had posted in the forest. She said her father had counted more than twenty of them.

It would be impossible to describe the various emotions which had been manifest in her listener during her recital.

“Ah!” he ejaculated, “and this villain thinks we will give him our help! I will help him! But it shall be to—what he little dreams of. And the ladies of the castle are still here?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Well, well,—let them remain for a time longer, but it shall not be for long. We must wait until our very dear friend in yonder chamber of the mountain is able to be up and doing. He is the man upon whom the final solution depends. We will not call his name, but, my dear girl, do not you think badly of him. Be sure he is not so black as he is painted.”

With this the young man rose quickly from his chair, and took two or three turns to and fro across the room. Once he stopped near Irene, and gazed into her face. Then he walked to and fro once more, and finally, with slow and thoughtful step, he returned to his seat, which he moved nearer to the maiden before he sat down.

“Irene,” he said, speaking with solemn earnestness, “I wish you to answer me a question—to answer it from your heart. I would have you look to your own good; but, if you can, give a little thought to me and my weal. If you thought—if you believed—that you could make of me a good and happy man—a man who should be of some use to his fellows and of value to his country—would you give yourself to the work? Would you be willing to place your hand in mine, and go with me to the end?”

His eyes of celestial blue were brimming and beaming with a light that was infinitely tender and true. The quivering maiden felt her own eyes fill; her bosom heaved tumultuously; and she could no more have spoken at the moment than she could have flown.

Wolfgang took her unresisting hand, and repeated the question. He spoke very softly, and with an earnestness that was of the heart. A little time he waited, and then said:

 “Irene,—you do not refuse me? You do not say me nay? Then, dear girl, will you by and by, when you have consulted your own heart, and reflected more deeply, give me an answer?”

“Yes, yes,” she cried, and she would have buried her face in her hands, but he gently held them fast, while he presently whispered:

“I wish you would tell me that I may hope. Irene, I have not told you how beautiful you are, nor have I told you how deeply and ardently I have learned in this brief time to love you. I would not have asked you that question if my love—the deepest, purest love my heart can know had not been all your own. And now—give me a sign, that I may live in hope of a happier, better life than I have ever yet known.”

She looked up, and met his ardent gaze, and its wondrous wistfulness conquered. A sweet, loving smile broke through the gathering moisture of her eloquent eyes as she softly whispered:

 “If it can make you happier—if it can make you—O! I dare not say, better—but if it can give you help for the coming time, I would not refuse you the hope you ask.”

“Ten thousand blessings for that word!” and he lifted her hand to his lips, and imprinted upon it a kiss.

He had just risen from his seat and was upon the point of speaking further, when the hunter entered. He started on beholding the visitor, and a cry of surprise broke from his lips.

Biondina (1879), Frederick Leighton. Source: Wikicommons

Irene arose, trembling with an apprehension she could not define. How would her father receive the man who had gained from her more than an implied pledge of love— had gained love itself? If she had fears, they were quickly set at rest. She was watching eagerly, anxiously, and this was what she saw:

With an exclamation of gladness, following close upon that of surprise, her father grasped the visitor by the hand, holding it with a fervent grip; and she saw in his face the warmth and fervor of genuine affection.

“Good old Martin,” said Wolfgang, after having quieted the hunter’s fears by informing him that he had come by way of the secret pass, “your daughter, God bless her for an angel of love and mercy, has told me of all that has transpired at the castle, and of the exodus of its mistress and her fair daughter.”

As the young man thus bestowed his heart’s blessing upon his fair informant, the hunter gazed first upon the speaker and then upon his daughter; and one who watched narrowly would have seen an expression of infinite joy and satisfaction upon his honest face. Irene saw it, and from that moment the die was cast.

The two men conversed a little further, after which the hunter cautioned his daughter to keep the visit of Wolfgang to herself, then took his visitor by the arm and led him towards the asylum of the wounded chieftain.


Notes

  • * Menologion of Basil II: The most lavishly illuminated of extant Byzantine liturgical manuscripts. Housed in Vatican Library. Jump to beautiful digitalized facsimile at Digivatlib.

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