COBB: The False Knight

Cobb’s False Knight: 15. The Midnight Mission

Secret passages were one of my favourite elements in spooky old black and white movies. There was one in Ghost Breakers (dir. George Marshall) from1940, in which Paulette Goddard plays a particular combination of keys on the dusty old pipe organ of a very haunted castle in Cuba, and suddenly, in torchlight, a heavy stone column moves, revealing a secret passage to Bob Hope…. Great stuff.

But are there real secret passages hidden in and around the old castles and churches of Germany and of course many other countries? Yes, there are.

Passage leading from beneath the altar in the chapel of Wildenstein Castle

There’s one in the chapel of Wildenstein Castle, near Leibertingen in the Black Forest. Those paying for a guided tour hear stories of the sadistic knight Heinrich von Wildenstein and his squire gruesomely knotting the legs of seditious peasants. But this short stairway down behind the altar probably only leads to a lower storey, that’s all. Those knobbled peasants probably couldn’t have managed any longer distance. But who needs a secret passage anyway if you can tie the peasants’ legs in knots? (‘Auf Burg Wildensteing’, Märchenfreude).

A hidden passage was found leading out from Liebenburg Castle, about four kilometres north of the Ancient city of Goslar, not far from where I once lived. It was only discovered in the year 2005. You see, that’s the problem. The best hidden passages remained exactly that. Hidden. Often for centuries, until the tunnels collapsed and even if the entrances are ever found, nobody knows exactly where they once led…

But why did people need secret passages back then? A silly question perhaps: to escape from enemies of course. But the reasons might be more complicated, as perhaps in the case of Liebenburg Castle, which came into the possession of Heinrich the Younger, Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in 1523. From 1541 to 1542, he hid his mistress, Eva von Trott and her three youngest children there, until she gave birth to her ninth child. Of course you would need a secret passage or two to hide a mistress with nine young kids. Even if just to have a place to hang up all the secret nappies to dry?

There was a lot more to this story than that. Trying to avoid a scandal, Heinrich the Younger, a Catholic, needed some serious secrecy. After having his mistress, with whom he had already had three children, declared dead from the plague, he had a wooden doll put into her coffin and buried after a funeral service at Gandersheim Abbey, only to clandestinely install her and the kids in Liebenburg Castle, where he continued to visit her for a few more years, fathering another six children by her. He probably visited her through that same secret passage discovered in 2005.

Underground secret passage of Liebenberg Castle, discovered in 2005

Why all the fuss? Surely, Kings, Dukes etc., even some rich Archbishops had mistresses all over the place. Yes, maybe. But they didn’t have Martin Luther and the Reformation breathing down their necks. Luther used the affair as propaganda against the Duke in Wider Hans Worst (1541) in the Schmalkaldaic War, the war which caused Eva Von Trott to flee Liebenburg castle. Ah, they don’t quite have love affairs like that any more, secret passages and all….

There are fine examples of entrances to such passages hidden in bookshelves and behind altars. The famous Admont Abbey in Austria, about forty kilometres east of Salzburg, has one, hidden in the theology section of the stunningly beautiful library. Shades of Harry Potter, the Da Vinci Code and The Name of the Rose perhaps? Not really. All that trouble creating a beautifully concealed entrance was simply to allow library users a discreet access to the upper rows of books. Now stop imagining what kinds of books the naughty monks might have hidden there!

I really do wonder if Cobb might have heard of that hidden passage at Wildenstein Castle…


CHAPTER 15

THE MIDNIGHT MISSION

The hunter returned alone to the living-room of the cot, but announcing that Wolfgang had departed.

“But, he added, as our hero’s countenance fell, he will be with us bright and early tomorrow morning. He was obliged to go—called away by business of interest to us all. I may tell you that Thorbrand is so far recovered as to be able to take the saddle, should necessity call.”

“Then why,” cried Ernest, vehemently, does he not show himself without further delay?”

The next question was of importance: Had Thorbrand given his consent or countenance to Oberwald’s accompanying him to the castle?

“Yes,” said Martin, “l am to go with you; and I received from that wonderful man information that may be of value to us. Were you aware that he was, for a considerable time, in the employ of the father of the late baron? He was for several years a boy with the Baron Gregory von Deckendorf, and loved him well and truly; and for that reason is he the more eager to assist the wife and daughter of Sir Gregory. Sir Pascal Dunwolf little dreams of what a rod I have in pickle for his back.”

During the latter part of the afternoon the hunter made a circuit of the forest near his premises, finding, as he had expected all clear. Evidently Sir Pascal was putting forth no effort towards recapturing the young captain.

As the sun was setting supper was eaten, after which the two adventurers prepared for their nocturnal visit.

Pistols were taken, but it was understood that they should not be used except in case of great emergency—it must be a situation where nothing else would serve them. Swords they would not take. They would be awkward weapons at night, in narrow quarters; and, moreover, their clanking might betray them. They took instead short clubs of iron-wood, almost as solid and heavy as iron itself, eighteen inches in length, with a knotted knob on the larger end, and the grip, or handle, so formed that it could not be lost nor slip in the hand. At close quarters it would be a more effective weapon than a blade, and far more readily used. Stout daggers they took and that was all, of the so-called deadly weapons; though, for that matter, the iron-wood club, in the hand of a strong, clear-headed man, might be about as deadly as anything that could be used upon a human skull.

Two dark lanterns, with lamps well filled, and carefully trimmed, together with flint and steel and tinder, and soft moccasins for the feet, completed their outfit; and as the clock struck ten they were ready to set forth, though they waited a time before starting, it being their plan not to enter the castle until after the sentinels had been relieved at midnight.

Irene had no fears. She would have the dogs for company, and in case of emergency she could take refuge with the occupant  of the cavern. They had had considerable difficulty with Electra’s stag-hound, having been obliged to keep him fastened most of the time. It was not the care, however that worried them, but the poor dog’s mournful howling—his dismal, heart-rending shrieks were painful to them all. They would have set him free, knowing very well that he would have flown to the castle as swiftly as his fleet feet could have carried him, but they feared that the angry men whom he had bitten—for he had torn the flesh of two or three of them before they had captured him—might intercept and kill him. After it had become dark, however, he had taken food from Irene’s hand, and the combined efforts of the patient girl, and her St. Bernard, at length quieted him and brought him to terms.

Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1825-30), Caspar David Friedrich.

As the clock struck eleven, the two adventurers set forth. The night was clear and pleasant; the moon, a few days past its full, gave a light almost equal to day, which led them to be cautious, and to seek the shadows where they could conveniently find them. In less than half an hour they had reached the deep dell wherein was the entrance to the pass, and here, within the arch of the protecting cave or alcove, they lighted their lanterns. Then Ernest opened the hidden door, and they entered the passage.

Considering all the circumstances, Ernest felt that he was in honor, not only authorized, but bound to reveal to his companion the secret of the subterranean passage, and he commenced by showing him how to open the way by which they had entered.

“My dear boy,” said the hunter, gratefully, “it is a thing I would not have asked at your hands: but, believe me, you do no wrong in trusting me; for you do well know that with me the secret is safe, and, further, that I would never make use of the knowledge save for the purpose of good to the lawful inmates of the castle.”

More than once on the way Oberwald stopped and pointed out to his young companion places in the pass that were like unto his own pass down the mountain.

“At some time, probably before the advent of animal life upon the earth,” he said, “a mighty convulsion did this work. Who shall say that the same great upheaval which lifted these mountains to their commanding heights did not open these seams in the rock, and form the caverns as we now find them? It is wonderful! Wonderful! What a pigmy is man when compared with the stupendous forces of nature, and the omnipotent power of nature’s God. But only a pigmy in that comparison. As compared with other creatures, or with other creations, man is himself a wonder. Next to the Almighty himself is the good, true man. Made in God’s image, to live beyond the crash of worlds and the bounds of time, the man who strives in his heart to be godlike is surely no contemptible thing.

“But enough of this. I am not apt to preach, yet I love to think.”

“And I love to hear you preach, if you will call your grand theme by that name,” said the youth, with enthusiasm. “I have myself often thought in that same strain. I think until I am lost, and then I am forced to acknowledge how little I am. And here you have been giving me a pleasant, healthful thought. After all, our littleness is only in comparison with the infinite. Remembering that, we may take courage, and believe that we can, if we will, so live and act as to be worthy to be called the children of God.”

“That is true, Ernest. Why haven’t we struck this theme before, during the hours we have spent so near to each other? There’s much of profit—of mental and moral health—in such conversation. Ah! what have we here?”

“That is the murmuring of the stream above us. Just one half of our journey is done.”

“Another wonderful thing is this,” said Oberwald, stopping a moment to look up at the dripping roof above his head. “Think how this pass is opened in the solid rock in so strange a manner. A simple fissure or chasm would be easily understood, but this deep rent, roofed as though by the hand of man, is passing strange—it is inexplicable.”

After this they pushed on, beginning to ascend very shortly after passing under the stream, and so continuing until they stopped before what appeared to be a solid wall of rock, shutting off further advance.

“We are at length beneath the inner court of the castle,” said Ernest, as he stooped down and pointed out to the hunter a seam in the rock, and in the seam a tiny opening like a key-hole. Into this he bade Oberwald insert the point of his dagger, pressing with a gentle force.

It was done, and instantly a section of the rock swung inward, creating an aperture through which the pair of them readily passed. A little distance further, and they ascended a flight of stone steps, at the top of which the youth announced that they had reached a point beneath the old keep.

“And not ten yards away,” he added, is the dungeon into which I was cast.”

The hunter looked at his watch, and  found it on the stroke of low twelve—midnight.

“We want the sentinels to be surely exchanged before we enter the keep,” he said; “and I have a great desire to look into that dungeon, which I have doubtless visited from the other side. We shall have plenty of time.”

So, without further remark, Ernest kept on a few paces, then turned abruptly to the right, at a short distance further reaching the foot of a flight of narrow stone steps cut from the native rock. Up these he led the way, at the top, after listening until assured that all was safe beyond, he lifted the edge of the ponderous slab of stone directly over his head, and stepped up into the dungeon. Oberwald followed and gazed about the place. A swarm of rats scampered away, having been drawn hither by the food which had been left behind when the prisoner went away. Their means of passage was a hole near the door, where, in the course of years, they had succeeded in digging through the thick, hard masonry.

The adventurers did not tarry long here. The hunter remembered the place, having visited it in other years with Sir Gregory, little thinking then that he should ever come to it through the bowels of the earth.

“Having reached the main pass, once more they took an upward course, and at the first landing above the level of the dungeon they stopped and exchanged their boots for the soft, noiseless moccasins; and ere long thereafter the guide announced that they had arrived at the second floor of the old keep, and that the closet of the picture-gallery was directly before them.

They both bent their ears and listened attentively, very soon making sure that no one was at the other side. Then the secret opening was touched, and the panel moved back, revealing an aperture through which they passed without difficulty, finding themselves in a small room half filled with dust-covered pictures and useless lumber. Another season of listening, and they carefully opened the door of the gallery beyond. As the door was opened Oberwald, who was behind, saw a scrap of paper on the floor. He picked it up and held it to his light, it was only an old label that had fallen from one of the pictures. Another scrap was found by Ernest, which proved to be a blank. Another piece, carefully folded and dropped near the door, escaped their observation, though they might have seen it had not their attention been distracted by the others.

The gallery had a dismal, forsaken look, the sombre portraits on the wall wearing a ghostly aspect, the pictured faces of the dead-and-gone barons frowning down upon them as though in indignant reproof for the sacrilege they had committed.

Portrait of Pompeius Occo (c. 1531), Dirck Jacobsz.

“We must reach the apartments of the baroness,” said Von Linden, when they had assured themselves that nobody was moving near the place. “I am confident that the ladies expect my visit, and they will communicate with us if they possibly can.”

“Then on it is,” answered the hunter, sententiously. “We must find something.”

“The apartments are on the same floor, and not far away,” the youth explained. And without further question they carefully opened the door communicating with the hall, and stepped out, their moccasined feet falling lightly on the pavement.

Slowly and carefully they moved on, seeing no light anywhere, and hence judging that no sentinels had been posted in the neighborhood. The door of Lady Bertha’s drawing-room was reached without accident, and it was found unlocked. Ernest opened it and went in. The place was dark and silent; the proper occupants surely not there. Without hesitation they passed on into the sleeping-room, where the great bed was in a sad state of disarray, more than half the clothing having been taken away, probably to make for her ladyship a couch elsewhere.

Having carefully looked over the room for any scrap of information that might in any manner have been left, Ernest made his way into the room next adjoining—the dressing-room.

“Here,” he said to his companion, as they closed the door behind them, “is another entrance to the secret pass—the one by which we left the keep when we sought your cot. This is the panel. It is so contrived that—”

He did not finish the sentence. His eye had caught a carefully folded paper on the floor upon which a bright beam from his lantern had fallen. He picked it up, and a startled exclamation burst from his lips as he saw the superscription—“This from your captive friends.”

Giving his lantern to his companion, he opened it, and read.

“Eureka!” he cried, as he caught the meaning of the note. “Here it is, Martin. It is brief, but it is to the point. It is in Electra’s hand. ‘We are in the chambers of the new wing,’ she writes. Ah! Sir Pascal had his wits about him. He judged rightly that there could be no communication with the subterranean pass in that modern structure. They were put there when they were first brought in. Probably they were permitted to come hither under watchful eyes, to  get such articles as they might want for comfort. O! bless the dear girl! how thoughtful she was.

“Oh! the black-hearted villain! Listen to this: ‘The bad knight will, if he is not prevented, make me his wife to-morrow. To-morrow, Martin! And the day has already commenced. By heavens! We must be moving if we would prevent it.”

“Easy, my boy. There is time enough Does she say at what hour?”

“No; she only adds:  ‘We are under strict guard.’ And then she repeats: ‘Remember, it is TO-MORROW!’

“What shall we do? When will Thorbrand be ready to help us? When will Wolfgang—”

“Tut! tut! they will be ready whenever we speak the word. We have but to give them information of the need, and you shall find them up and doing on the instant.”

“But the men! Must they not assemble from the forest some of their band to help them? Think of the host which Dunwolf has at command.”

“My dear Ernest, you know not yet the power of those two men. Their appearance at the castle will be sufficient. Either one of them would be a host in himself; but let them both appear, and you shall see the stout men-at-arms quail and shrink as from a thunderbolt! Do you borrow no trouble on that score.”

A little time the youth stood, gazing in speechless amaze into the face of the hunter, and then he turned once more to the paper in his hand.

“To-morrow!” he repeated, quivering at every joint. “How many hours are there? Think of it! His wife! I would rather see her lovely form torn and rent by the wild beasts of the forest.”

“Hush! Hush! You shall see neither. We have gained all the information we desired—of course we cannot see the ladies—and we may now return. Let us thank kind Heaven that our effort has been so signally rewarded.”

“I do! I do—thank Heaven from my heart. But—l wish I could see one of the old servants. If I could but gain speech with one, though but for an instant, I should be glad.”

“For what, my dear Captain? What can you hope to gain more than we have already accomplished?”

“Can you not see?” cried the impetuous youth, in surprise. “How will the dear girl live through the coming hours if she knows not that her effort has been effective? Let her remain in ignorance of what we are doing—in ignorance of our knowledge of her situation—and her great anxiety may drive her mad, if it does not kill her. If I can see a servant and leave a sign to be given to Electra by which she may know—”

“I see,” interrupted Martin, breaking in upon his companion’s eloquent explanation. “I understand you, my dear boy, and I agree with you, too. Let us go back and make the search. Perhaps the servants’ quarters are not under surveillance. But remember this: An accident that should detain us, or, mayhap, do worse for us would be terrible.”

“We will be very careful,” pleaded Ernest, beseechingly. “O! I must get word to the dear one if I can. Let us make an effort. I will not venture far. You shall say when we must give it up.”

“Very well. Do you lead the way. Be careful of your light after you strike the open passage.”

With this they turned back and retraced their steps as far as the passage beyond the drawing-room, where, as the way was clear before them, they closed the slides of their lanterns, and moved slowly forward in the dark. They had reached the end of the passage, and were about to enter the common hall of that floor, from which all the narrower ways diverged, when they were brought to a stand by the glare upon the wall before them of a light; and in a moment more the changing of the shadows told them that the light was in motion. Some one besides themselves was astir.

Drawing back from the narrow passage pressing close against the wall, they stood and waited.


Notes

  • Heinrich the Younger: Nicknamed Der Wilde Heinrich, which translates to more like “Randy Heinrich”.
  • Martin Luther, Wider Hans Worst: a propaganda pamphlet satirising Duke Henry. “Wider” means “against”; “Hansworst” was a carnival buffoon character of the time, the name used as an insult.
  • ‘the hunter looked at his watch’: Don’t worry, spring powered clocks originated in the 15th century; pendant-watches were crafted in France and Germany in the 16th century; the pocket watch in the 18th century, when waistcoats became fashionable. See Carlos Perez, “Artifacts of the Golden Age” (2001).
  • ‘I would rather see her lovely form torn and rent…’: Easy for him to say.
  • ‘Do you borrow no trouble on that score’: ‘Don’t let that worry you.”
  • ‘signally rewarded’: conspicuously, eminently, memorably.

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Oliver Raven

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