COBB: The False Knight

Cobb’s False Knight: 14. A Scrap of Paper

Interesting plot twists and a good knowledge of his foreign settings. Zenzel may sound a bit strange as a choice of name for one of Electra’s new maids these days, but it is a real one and reflects how much serious research Cobb put into his writing.

More common in southern Germany and particularly Bavaria is “Zenzi“. An interesting name, it sadly has very little to do with any enlightened school of Buddhism however. Nowadays used to name anything from a beach bar in Playa del Carmen to a “real food” fast food chain based in Oslo, to an expensive brand clothing store in Singapore, Bavarian “Zenzis” are usually villager girls, the name being a short form of “Kreszentia” and also “Innozenzia” and “Vincentia“.

Black Forest (Gutach) woman in costume, c. 1898, color photo lithograph

It was particularly popular in Swabia, where the short form “Zenzl” was most commonly used. Nowadays, only about one in 100,000 girls are given the name, in contrast to Bavarian cows, many of which are still named “Zenzi” to this day.

Carrying our damsels in distress down the mountain on a litter invokes a scene more common in times gone by, even if the one used is a bit makeshift. The German name for a “litter” being “Saenfte“. This word sounds a lot less like anything possibly related to rubbish, as the term comes from the word “Sanft”, which means “Gentle” or “Gently”. Usually, it describes something more like a sedan chair, but it is also used as a name for a simpler construction with poles.

Just who exactly are these homely-looking replacement maids you will read about? That “Elise”, who sounds more like some sort of nightmare female Swabian prison warder or birthday gift prank masseuse named “Battleship Potemkin” than the beautiful piano piece written for that name. I guess you just couldn’t get the staff, even in those days…


CHAPTER 14

A SCRAP OF PAPER

Half way down the mountain the ruffian band stopped, and having thrown out safe sentinels to give warning of approaching danger, the rest of them went at the work of making a litter upon which to carry their captives. This they did for their own convenience—not for any sentiment of kindness or compassion upon two weak, suffering women. On the contrary, many of them seemed to feel really provoked and indignant because on account of these women they had been forced to expose themselves to such disagreeable weather. A very fair contrivance for the purpose in hand was soon put together, and with the two ladies installed thereon the party once more set forward.

Finding a mass of fir boughs which she could pull over her head and shoulders, Electra removed the heavy trooper’s coat from that part of her body, as there was an odor coming from it which she could not endure. They made no complaints, as they well knew they would be useless; nor did they ask any favors. The baroness blamed herself for her folly in disobeying her kind protector, whereupon her daughter tried to comfort her.

“Mamma, let us be brave. You shall not see me surrender. Let us remember what good Martin told us of the robber chief, and of his lieutenant Wolfgang. If they are for us, and mean to put forth a helping hand in earnest, we may surely hope.”

“Ah! my child, you forget the characters of those men.”

“Their characters?”

“Yes. One of them a, chief of robbers!”

“O, mamma! mamma! you have not seen that chieftain’s face. He is the grandest, noblest, handsomest man that I ever saw.”

“Handsomer than Ernest?”

“Yes— because he is more massive, and more muscular—by far a larger and stronger man. You know what I mean.”

By this time they had reached the foot of the mountain, and as two of the guards came up and walked beside the litter, the captives held their peace.

Arrived at the castle, they were borne to the foot of the steps leading up to the vestibule, where they were lifted out, and taken at once to the main hall; and here Sir Pascal Dunwolf found them.

His exclamations of joy and satisfaction upon beholding the rich prize thus returned to him had more gross profanity in them than we care to transcribe. But he settled down into moderation after a time and smiled grimly when the baroness refused him her hand.

“Well, well,” he said, “I am very glad the castle has its proper mistress once more, and it is not my intention that you shall leave us again. If you give me no more trouble—if you will settle down into two well-behaved, quiet ladies, I will treat you with all respect and kindness. But, mark you, I shall know how to put a stop to any further trouble on your part. You took away a servant with you, I think.”

“A servant accompanied me, sir,” replied Lady Bertha, proudly.

 She had become calm and dignified, and resolved to quietly submit to what she could not help.

“Your servant has not returned with you?”

 “Your ruffians did not find her.”

“Oho! that’s it. Well, I must supply you with another. You may follow me.”

With this the knight made a sign to a man who stood near at hand—a man in the garb of a mountaineer, whom the baroness had never before seen; and no wonder for it was none other than the brigand, Hildegund. In answer to the sign, he bowed respectfully and went away. Then the master beckoned to another man; and, as he started to lead the way up the great staircase, this last man followed behind.

The knight bent his course, not towards the apartments which the ladies had formerly occupied, but towards a wing of the keep which had been erected during the time of the two or three generations last past, rightly judging that the new work could have no connection with the secret passes, through which his captives had so unexpectedly escaped him.

The wing in question, connected with which was a tower with an observatory on its top, had been completed with the late baron’s father. On reaching it, the ladies were ushered into a suite of four small chambers, all connected, three of them being respectably furnished.

“There,” said the knight, as the countess and her daughter stood and glanced about them; “here you may make yourselves very comfortable if you will. You can, of course, understand why I do not give you back the apartments which you so readily forsook. Yet,” he added, with a malicious twinkle in his deep-set eyes, “if you will promise to show me how you made your escape—if you will point out to me and explain the secret pass, I will allow you to occupy your old rooms.”

“We shall be as comfortable here, sir, as we can be anywhere under your control. The secret of which you speak is not mine to give.”

“As you will. I do not suppose I can force you to speak.”

He then pointed out to them the two apartments which he had supposed they would appropriate to themselves, remarking that the third was for the use of their servants. The room not furnished might be fitted up as they should later suggest.

“But one small bed has been provided for two servants,” he said, “because only one of them will sleep at the same time.”

He had just spoken, when Hildegund appeared, accompanied by two females. They were women of middle age; large, coarse looking, with faces hard and uncompromising. One of them, however, was more repelling in appearance than was the other.

“Ah, here are our helpers!” Dunwolf went on, as the women appeared. “My good Hildegund, will you have the kindness to introduce them to her ladyship.”

Head of a Peasant with White Cap (1884), Vincent van Gogh

“This,” said the man thus addressed, answering promptly, “is Elize. She is variously accomplished, and of a most excellent disposition; only she likes to be well treated, as she has always been used to it.”

This was the harshest and most forbidding of the twain,—a woman of five-and-thirty, or thereabout; tall and heavily framed; low-browed, and sharp-eyed; coarse, unkempt hair, of a reddish brown color; with quite a beard upon her long upper lip and her heavy massive chin.

“And this,” the robber continued, presenting the other, “is our fair Zenzel. If she is not so accomplished as is the gentle Elize, she at least has the quality of faithfulness. I think they will make madam very comfortable.”

Zenzel was a few years older than her companion; her face was not so dark; her brow was higher; her eyes were larger, with more of softness in their light; her hair was of a dark brown, and well bestowed; and her face looked as though she could laugh upon occasion, which was more than could be said of the other. But she was far from being happy-looking, and was not by any means such a person as either the baroness or her daughter would have chosen for a servant.

Further than this Sir Pascal informed the ladies that their meals would be served to them where they now were; that one of the household servants, to be selected by himself, would be permitted to come for orders; and that they should have for food anything they chose to order. He then asked them if they had any request to make.

“Sir Pascal Dunwolf,” said the baroness, after a moment’s thought, “there are a few

Things in my old apartments which I would like to obtain; and I must go for them myself. If you will allow me to go, you may send your whole troop to over-look, if you wish. No other person can find them.”

The knight stood for a few seconds as if in doubt; then his brow unbent, and he told the lady she might go.

“By and by,” he said, “when you have had your dinner, these two women shall accompany you, and you may get what you like.”

Then he turned to the woman named Elize, and instructed her in the matter. At any time after the ladies had eaten their dinner, she and her companion might go with them to the apartments which they had formerly occupied, and there allow them to gather up what they pleased, at the same time sternly bidding them to remember that he should look to them for the safety of their charge.

With this he turned towards the door, motioning for Hildegund to pass out before him; and when the man had gone, and was out of hearing, he once more turned, and bent a keen, significant glance upon the maiden. He started twice to speak, but hesitated. At length with a gleam of triumph in his dark eyes, he said:

“Young lady,—Once you have escaped me. Had you remained in your castle you would have been my wife ere this. I have no doubt that your flight was for the purpose of avoiding that interesting ceremony. But know ye, my dear girl, that your fate is sealed. I will give you fair warning, that you may be prepared. You shall rest to-day, for on the morrow, before the sun shall have set, you will be a wife. For the purpose of becoming your husband, and lord of Deckendorf, I came hither; that purpose I intend to accomplish; and the sooner it is done the better for all concerned.—Lady Bertha,” to the baroness, “you will be wise if you can help your daughter as she may need. Do not resist the inevitable.”

He paused a moment, and bent his eyes to the floor. When he next spoke he had assumed what he doubtless thought a frank, generous expression, and his voice was carefully modulated:

“My dear young lady,—allow me to call you Electra,—l wish you would try to believe that I will make you happy if you will let me. You shall have every privilege you can in honour ask; you shall have state and pomp, if you like it; in short, no lady of the whole Rhine country shall stand above you. Is not your pride something? Would you not like to be worshipped and admired? Think of it; reflect upon it; and be wise in time.”

And then, without waiting for a response,—perhaps not desiring one, he turned and strode away, leaving one of the new servants to close the door after him.

For several minutes after the knight had gone not a word was spoken in the chamber where the four women had been left. The baroness and her child sat in deep thought, looking now upon one another, then towards the strange servants, and anon around the bare and cheerless rooms.

At length Electra bent her head upon her hand, so remaining for a considerable time. When she finally looked up, she turned to the woman called Elize and addressed her quickly, but in an offhand, easy manner, in French, a language with which both she and her mother were entirely familiar.

The woman stared at her in blank amaze. Our heroine repeated the question, so inclining her glance that either of the servants might consider it as put to herself. But they were both alike. Neither of them understood her.

“Pardon me, I pray you,” she said, with a pleasant smile. ” I did not stop to reflect that you might be ignorant of the language.”

The twain shook their heads, and Elize responded, gruffly:

“We know our own language, and that is all; and it is enough for us.”

“You are not from the village, are you?” Electra pursued, with all the affability she could command.

“Not from your village, my lady.”

“I have no desire to pry into your secrets, my good woman; but surely since we are to be together for a time, it would be pleasant for us all if my mother and I knew whence you come.”

Elize looked first upon the speaker and then upon her companion, and she was evidently upon the point of returning another crisp and unsatisfactory answer, when the other—Zenzel—with a flush upon her face, and a peculiar snapping of the eye, spoke up:

“Why should we not tell the truth? Lady, we are from the uttermost depths of the Schwarzwald. We are of Thorbrand’s people, and have been reared with the robbers of the Wald from childhood. Our men are brigands, as are the soldiers of our grand duke; only there is this difference: While your soldiers never do good, but kill, kill, kill, the robbers of the Schwarzwald—brave Thorbrand’s men—never kill if they can avoid it; and the cry of distress is never made to them in vain.”

“Zenzel,  l have not a word to say against Thorbrand. I have heard him spoken very well of. For the good that is in him I honor him.”

“Ah, lady, I wish you could tell us where he is to be found.”

“How? Has he gone away?”

“He left us—now two weeks or more ago—to come to this castle. That, we know, was his purpose when he set forth. There went with him the Paladin of our host—young Wolfgang, the fairest and the bravest, next to the chief himself, of our gallant men. They went from us, those many days ago, and that is the last we know. He has not been here. At least, so the knight says.”

Old Peasant Woman (c. 1905), Paula Modersohn-Becker

“I think he speaks truly,” said Electra, as the speaker looked towards her inquiringly. “My mother and I were here several days after Sir Pascal came, and we know that during those days he was anxiously expecting the chieftain, who did not come.”

Here the conversation ended, and shortly afterwards it was proposed they should think of dinner. It was now well on into the afternoon, and the ladies were hungry. Elize went away to order the meal, having first learned what was wanted, leaving her companion to keep guard. Zenzel was evidently determined to be strict in the performance of her duty; but she was not obtrusive, nor did she make herself unnecessarily attentive in any way. The result was that mother and daughter enjoyed opportunity for private conversation without resorting to a foreign tongue, though they hold that resort in reserve in case of emergency.

“Electra, what was your object in speaking that woman in French? Was it simply to know if we might safely converse in that tongue?”

“No, mamma, not wholly that. In fact, I was not thinking of conversing at all. Can you not guess?”

“No. I fail to think of anything else.”

“Mamma,” the daughter said with a quick glance towards their guard, “how long do you suppose ie will be before Ernest comes to the castle.”

The baroness started, but did not forget her caution.

“Of course,” the girl continued, “he will not let the night pass without an effort to learn something of our fate, and of Dunworth’s purpose. He cannot hope to set us free, because the knight will guard against any further use of the secret passage by us. Yet he will do all he can. If he cannot see us, he will contrive to see some one of the old servants who can tell him how we are situated. You understand?”

“Yes.”

“And there is one thing more to be remembered: Thorbrand has pledged his word that he will deliver us from the power of that bad man. if you knew this wonderful chieftain as I know him, or if you could have seen him as did I, you would give him your confidence without reserve. And Thorbrand is almost well. Oberwald said yesterday that he was almost as strong as ever, and only waited for the coming of his companion, Wolfgang, to be ready to act.

“Now, mamma, remembering all this, do you not see how necessary it is that we should let them know at the cot what will happen if we remain here unprotected through another day? for I am sure the wretch means exactly what he says. You follow me so far?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we have Dunwolf’s permission to go to our own apartments in quest of whatever we may want; and we must, if possible, persuade our guards to let us go to the old picture gallery, as in the store-room connected with that is one of the most direct and important entrances to the hidden pass, and it is the one I think Ernest will select—either that or the one in your dressing-room. He may think that our captor will not allow those rooms to be occupied, as we have once escaped from them, and consequently come that way. But one or the other of these he will surely use.

“Now, this is why I wished to know if these women knew anything of French. I will write two brief notes, telling our friends what must be done if I am to be saved—write them in French—which I will drop in the picture gallery, where it cannot fail of being seen by any one who shall come forth from the secret passage. Of course, it is possible that the paper may be detected by one or both of our followers; but they will be none the wiser from seeing it. Something tells me that it will be a success.”

The baroness was not only favourably impressed, but the details of the scheme had given her new hope and courage.

Elize had returned while they were talking, being accompanied by one of the servants of the household, who modestly saluted the ladies on entering, but spoke with them no more.

Lady Bertha chanced to have in her pocket a book of prayer—the last gift of her husband,—and from this, when she found opportunity, she carefully tore out two blank leaves. Electra had a pencil, and while the women were busy preparing the meal she wrote what she could; but though the missives were very brief, it cost her a number of trials before the work was accomplished. This was what she wrote:

“For E. V. L.—We are in the chambers of the new wing, where we were put this forenoon, on being brought here. The bad knight will, if he is not prevented, make me his wife to-morrow. We are under strict guard. Remember, —IT IS TO-MORROW!”

Two of these were written and carefully folded and on the outside she found opportunity to write, also, in French, “THIS FROM YOUR CAPTIVE FRIENDS.” She had scarcely completed the work when the woman Elize having seen the table cleared, informed the ladies that she and Zenzel were at liberty to go with them to their apartments. Before setting forth the last-named of the keepers expressed the hope that she and her companion would not be forced to harshness.

“You know what our duty is,” she said, ” and if you make it easy for us it will be better for all concerned.”

Both the baroness and her daughter gave their word that they would offer no movement to which objection could be made, after which they set forth, Zenzel going in advance, while Elize brought up the rear.

The old picture gallery was on the same floor of the old keep with the apartments which the baroness had occupied, and not far distant.  She wished to go there, she said, to find a book which she was sure had been left there; and, moreover, it would give them—the guards—an opportunity to see the pictures. Both the women were fond of pictures, though they had seen but very few during their lives; and without opposition, and with but little question, they went first to the gallery, where Electra had no trouble in dropping her folded paper in the little store-closet without being detected.

She had more trouble in the old dressing-room. By a curious chance Zenzel found the paper after it had been dropped. Electra saw her pick it up, and open it, and examine it; then saw her, with a “Pshaw!” give it a twist and throw it down.

To our heroine this seemed an augury of good, and she accepted it as such. When she looked back, as she and her mother were being conducted out from the old chambers, and saw the note lying very near the spot where she had dropped it, her heart was filled with thanksgiving. That scrap of paper seemed to her a connecting link between her dear lover and herself.


Notes

  • Gutach (photo in preface): town in district of Ortenau in Baden-Württemberg; also the name of a river in the area.
  • brigands: ‘a bandit, especially one of a band of robbers in mountain or forest regions’ (dictionary.com).
  • ‘looking […] anon around the bare and cheerless rooms’: in this context, ‘anon’ assumes the sense ‘once in a while’.
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker (illust.): (1876-1907), early German expressionist painter.

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