COBB: The False Knight

Cobb’s False Knight: 16. An Adventure

Odd, that the simple maid should cry “murder, murder!” Or is it? I mean, long before anyone had been done in yet—without giving too much away. Now, any simple English maid who happened to be skulking around in any old dark secret passage and suddenly feeling a hand against her and somebody whispering might have yelled something else. Just a shriek perhaps? Or an extremely panicked sounding “help!”?

What about an American maid? Probably likewise, even in the late 1800s, I’d guess, although nowadays she’d be more likely to yell “pervert” and spray him with mace. So I wonder if Cobb using the words “murder, murder” for the poor young lady to yell really was merely a coincidence?

You see there is a common term that any Swabian or German maid might have yelled, in any play or novel of that time, and that’s “Zeter und Mordio”, “Zetermordio” or just “Mordio”. Not that anyone would yell that these days, but back then, a writer would commonly have stated that the poor young lady had yelled exactly those words. Sounds intriguingly Italian or maybe even Spanish, doesn’t it? But it’s German, from the Middle Ages. In the law courts of the time, as the Sachsenspiegel (“Saxon Mirror”) states, prosecutors would yell “Zeter und Mordio!” to signify that they wish to lay charges. (“so fure en vor den richter und schry obit den schuldigen zcether obir minen morder” , “so lead him before the judge and yell over the guilty Zeter over mine murder”)

Nobody knows for sure any more what Zeter actually meant. Today, the verb Zetern means to scold or clamor. It is assumed, because of the context, that it derives from ze aechte her, which is Middle Ages German and means “come to the punishment”, while mordio was a cry for help, derived from the German word mord, which still means murder today. These days, to yell “Zeter und Mordio” means “to scream blue murder”.

The Seven Swabians and the hare (Brothers Grimm)

An example of the use of this term in an older text isperhaps appropriate to the Black Forest settingin the Fairytale of the Seven Swabians, collected by the Brothers Grimm.

This tale, well worth reading, tells of seven timid men who go off to find adventure, carrying a huge pike which they can only lug around together. “All for seven, seven for one”, although their greater number hardly makes them Musketeers. They come across a bear on the way to Lake Constance, where they intend to kill a fabled monster. Luckily, the bear is already dead, so they pull its fur over it’s ears, hence the modern German saying “das Fell ueber die Ohren ziehen”, which means “to fleece someone” in English.

Wonderfully colloquially described by the Grimms, they are even more easily scared than the hare they mistake for the Lake Constance monster. In their final tale, they are brought down by their unintelligible Swabian dialect, yelling to a person on the other side of the Mosel how they might get across. He only calls back “Wat? Wat? Wat?”, meaning “what” of course, which the heroes mistake for “Wade, Wade, Wade”. This they also do, when they hear the order apparently mimicked by the croaking of a frog inside the washed up hat of their first and bravest, who had already waded into the river only to drown. None are ever to be seen or heard of again…

Knowing how well researched Cobb’s writings were, I really do wonder if he might have been aware of the use of Mordio“. If not, then please feel free to cry blue murder at my assumption.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

AN ADVENTURE

As the light came nearer our adventurers saw that it was borne by a woman, the position which they occupied enabling them to see so much without being themselves seen. Ernest’s heart bounded gratefully, for the garb of the woman bespoke her a servant, and he had no doubt she was of the household. Several of the female helpers in the departments of the cook and housekeeper he did not know—some of them not even by sight.

“Who is she?” asked Oberwald”, in a low whisper.

“Wait a moment. I think she is one of the cooks. If she is, she is sure to be friendly to Electra, for the dear girl had been very kind, and even loving, to them. Ah!”

“What is it?”

“Another is coming, this one has stopped. Wait a moment.”

At this time the woman who bore the light—a lighted lamp—had reached to within two or three steps of the top of the stairway, where she had stopped to await the arrival of her companion. Presently the second woman came in sight, and our hero’s heart bounded anew as he recognised the well-remembered features of a girl who had been always friendly and pleasantly familiar with the baroness and her daughter. It was Theresa, belonging to the housekeeper’s force, a girl who had often worked in his own apartment, and whom he knew he could trust.

Night Scene (1616-7), Peter Paul Rubens

“Be very careful,” whispered Martin Oberwald. “Do not run a risk that may be fatal to the very purpose we have in view.”

The youth assured him that there could be no danger. He knew the girl very well and he would run no risk in speaking with her.

The cautious hunter understood his companion to mean that he knew both the females, and that he could personally vouch for both. Had he understood otherwise he would have held him back without hesitation.

The twain were now approaching again, evidently bent upon entering the very passage in which the two intruders were ensconced, probably, thought Ernest, on their way to the apartments of the ladies in quest of something for their use and comfort.

There was a door close by where our friends stood, and into the shallow place between the posts they drew themselves. The woman with the light, who was none other than Elize, one of the keepers of the captive ladies, passed without discovering them; but Martin Oberwald obtained a fair view of her face, and it struck him as sinister and dangerous. He grasped his companion’s arm, meaning to hold him back from betraying himself, but he was too late.

Already had Ernest put forth his hand, and before he could fully realise what the hunter meant by his sudden movement, he had softly whispered the girl’s name, and at the same tune touched her on the shoulder.

No sooner had he done so than he regretted it, for it flashed upon him instantly that he had done a very foolish thing. Nothing that could have happened could have more terribly frightened the simpleminded, timid girl. She was on a midnight errand, in a forsaken part of a castle given up to all sorts of wickedness and misrule, her dear mistress a prisoner in her own home; and she, at this ghostly hour, forced to accompany a woman who, she was very sure, was a companion of the dreadful robbers of the Black Forest—to accompany her to these dark, deserted halls in order to show her where she could find certain necessaries she must get for her prisoners.

Under these circumstances was poor Theresa creeping unwillingly along behind the ogress when, from a dark corner, came a man’s hand in contact with her person, and a man’s voice in her ear! She did just what our hero ought to have known she would do. She screamed for mercy!—mercy!—a scream that broke upon the midnight air with frightful force. The woman with the lamp—the ogress—heard, and turned quickly, and as she did so the two adventurers stood revealed before her, the bright rays of her lamp falling full upon them; and she, with the voice of a Stentor, shouted:

“Murder! Murder!”

And straightway the pair of them fled back to the hall and down the stairs up which they had come.

There was nothing left now for Oberwald and Ernest but instant retreat, and that of a most rapid character. The dressing room of the baroness was the nearest point whence they could gain the secret pass, and in that direction they bent their steps.

Had the youth thought of a flight of stairs at the far end of that same passage, leading up from the rear hall below, he might have taken his way towards the old picture gallery; but he did not think of it until, just as he drew near to the door of the drawing-room, a bright light flashed up that same stairway, and immediately after came two men, evidently soldiers on duty, who were upon him before he could open the door and pass in—that is, he saw that, should he succeed in gaining entrance to the drawing-room, his companion would be inevitably cut off; so he turned to face the danger.

If the headstrong youth had blundered when danger was to be only apprehended and guarded against, he made no blunder now that it had come upon him. No sooner had he seen that the escape of the hunter was a thing impossible, than he thrust his lantern into the bosom of his frock and grasped his club, his hand steady and his brain clear.

The foremost swordsman came on with his sword raised for a blow, shouting loudly: “Surrender or die!” The man behind him carried the torch. “Who are you?” added the first, as he came almost within reach of the intruder.

Quick as lightening Ernest stepped forward and dealt a blow with his iron-wood club upon the side of the trooper’s head that felled him like a dead man.

In a moment more it was discovered that two other men had come upon the scene, but they were disposed of very quickly. They had not thought of drawing their pistols, if they had them, but depended wholly on their swords. The second sentinel, upon seeing his comrade fall, sprang quickly forward, not having seen how the work had been done; but his torch was an encumbrance, and before he had fairly seen where he must strike the unerring chip fell upon his head, and he went down to keep company with the first.

Had the troopers worn their iron morions upon their heads, our friends might not have disposed of them so easily; but for duty at night, within doors, they had worn only their leathern skull caps, which afforded not a particle of protection against the blows of those marvellous clubs.

The torch borne by the last man who had fallen was not extinguished, and by it’s light, as it flared and sputtered on the pavement, the stout hunter sprang upon the remaining trooper, and before the poor fellow had fairly seen with what he had to contend he was sent to join his unfortunate companions.

By this time the first man whom Ernest had felled was beginning to move and to moan, but the adventurers did not stop to see more. They assured themselves that no more of the enemy were at hand, and then, by the light of the sputtering torch, they found the drawing-room, and entered, Oberwald passing in first, as he chanced to be nearest. As our hero started, to follow—just as his foot was raised over the threshold—he saw the glare of a light away at the far end of the passage where the two women had been first seen. Either the women were returning, or someone whom they had alarmed, but he did not stop to solve the mystery. Quickly following his companion, he closed and locked the door behind him; then drew his lantern from his bosom and opened the slide; and then away to the dressing-room, where he quickly set free and slid back the moveable panel, and in a few moments more the pair of them were beyond the possible reach of pursuers.

Down a flight of narrow steps; thence through a winding way between flanking walls, and ere long they struck the main pass. To the right would take them to the picture-gallery. They turned to the left, and followed back the path by which they had come. They were fatigued and, in a measure, out of breath; but not until they had reached the point where they had left their heavy boots did they stop to rest for a second.

“Do not scold me,” begged the youth, with sincere earnestness, after they had exchanged the covering of their feet, and had breathed awhile. ” I will acknowledge that I was foolish—stupidly foolish. I should have known better than to speak to that simple-hearted, timid girl as I did.”

“I thought you knew both the females,” said Oberwald, pleasantly. “Had you told me that one of them was a stranger to you as she proved to be, I should have advised you not to make any sign. The moment I saw that foremost woman’s face, I knew she was dangerous. I am very sure that she is the wife of one of the Schwarzwald robbers—one whom Dunwolf has brought in to keep guard over his captives, as he dares not trust any of the women of the castle.”

“Yes, I see it now; and I saw it the moment I had committed the blunder. Scarcely had the girl’s name passed my lips when I would have given much to recall it. But I was so anxious to get word to Electra.”

“Well, well, never mind now. It is too late to mend it; and, after all, no damage is done. I think we may take it for granted that your lady-love will hear of your presence in the castle. If I know anything of womankind, that Jezebel is not going to keep her adventure to herself. Even if the girl Theresa does not see the baroness, this woman will be very sure to tell her of the two interlopers whom she frightened half out of their wits. That is the way she will picture it. Naturally, the ladies will ask for a description of the wretches, and it will be given; and the narrator’s instinctive exaggeration will not fail to convey to her hearers an inkling of the truth. They will recognize you; and will be very likely to recognize me as well.”

“I hope it will be so.”

“You may not only hope, my dear boy, but you may be sure of it. Take my word for it, before the morrow is an hour old, your darling will know that you have been in the castle during the night; and she will have strong faith that you have seen and read the missive she prepared for you. Upon my word, Ernest, that girl is one of a thousand. Not many would, under such circumstances, have thought of that method of communication.”

The young lover expressed his pleasure at hearing his companion’s warm eulogium, after which the twain arose, and having trimmed their lamps, they set forth upon their homeward way, arriving at the cottage, without further hindrance, between two and three hours after midnight, where they found Irene and the dogs awake, and ready to receive them.

After they had made a simple repast, which the thoughtful girl had ready for them, the hunter took his young friend by the hand, and said to him, in a tone of mild, paternal authority:

“Now, my dear Ernest, I desire that you will attend to what I say. Put away all anxious imagining and vain surmising, and seek your rest. Accept from me the solemn assurance that all shall be well. If you would be fresh and vigorous on the morrow, you must give the few hours remaining of the night to sleep. Do you borrow no anxiety about awaking. I am older, and sleep lightly. I will see that you are called in season. If it will make you easier, I will whisper in your ear that Wolfgang is here, and is now with Thorbrand. They will be with us when we want them, be sure. Will you do as I tell you?”

Sleeping Savoyard Boy (1869), Wilhelm Leible

The youth, with more gratitude in his eloquent look than tongue could have told, answered that he would do his best. And with that he bade his kind host and gentle Irene a cheerful good night, with a God’s blessing, and then sought his rest, As he reached the door he felt a warm touch upon the back of his hand, and on looking down he found the bereaved stag-hound at his side, his great brown eyes beseechingly upraised.

“Come, Fritz! Come with me.”

No human being could have expressed more gratitude, nor expressed it more plainly. The faithful animal clung close to Ernest’s side; and almost spoke his joy in words when he was invited to make his bed upon the sofa clothing at his feet.

* * *

At the castle there was uproar and confusion. An hour after midnight, or little later, Sir Pascal was aroused by his hunchback page, who scorned to take delight in tormenting him when the opportunity offered. The page himself had been awakened by an officer of the guard, who wished to know if the master had retired, he not daring to intrude upon his sleep.

But Master Balthazar had no such fear. Having learned what was the nature of the business, he made his way to the knight’s bedside with a noisy stamping, and yelled “Murder!” into his ear. Dunwolf had gone to bed more than half drunk, as usual, and it was a considerable time before he could open his eyes, and a longer time still before he could arouse his wits. His first sensible motion was to seize the imp by the collar, and half strangle him while he shook him.

“Now, you miserable ape, what is all this racket about? Why have you awakened me at this hour?”

“O! mercy, good lord. If you knew what had happened, you wouldn’t spend your strength in shaking a fool’s ape.”

“Ha! What now? What is it, boy Speak!”

“It’s a murder, my lord!—murder mos’ foul and bloody. I don’t know how many of your best men have been killed, but the castle has been invaded, and dreadful things have been done.”

By this time, the knight had got out bed, and as he had retired with his top-boots and small-clothes on, it required but a few moments for his toilet. Moreover he had heard all that he cared to hear from Balthazar. Knowing so well the rascal’s inability to tell a straight story, he would not waste more time with him. So he hastened out, and in his office he found the officer of the guard, who told him, in few words, and as nearly as he could what had happened.

A number of men had been in the castle, one of whom had been recognized to be the young captain of the original guard of the castle. Who the others were could not be told. The intruders had first been seen by two women, whom they had tried to seize. The cries of these women had brought three men of the guard to the rescue. A conflict had followed, in which one of the guardsmen had been killed.

“And how many of the intruders were killed?”

“We do not know, my lord.”

Already his followers had begun to give him the lordly title he coveted, They saw that it flattered him and made him proud, and as it cost them nothing they did it cheerfully.

“Do not know?” thundered the chief angrily. What do you know about it? Where is the man who can speak? Where are the women? Who were they?”

Of these questions the trembling officer answered half the last. He said that the woman Elize had been one of them.

The woman was brought before him after a time, and in answer to the general question of what she knew of the affair, she said that as it was found hard for her and Zenzel to keep watch alone through the night, they had called in one of the women of the household, named Theresa. Some time after midnight the baroness had asked for a bottle of medicine that was in her old chamber, and as she had been ordered to do what she could for the lady’s comfort, she concluded that she would go and get it; and, as Zenzel chanced to wake up while they were talking, she took Theresa with her to find the thing wanted, as she knew just where to put her hand on it, while she herself might have spent half the night in the search.

She then reminded the knight that the only door, on that floor, communicating with the old keep, was locked, and that he had the key; so they had been obliged to go down stairs, into the main hall, and thence up the great staircase, to the floor they wished to reach. She then told how, in passing a corner, just off the main hall, she had heard her companion cry out, ”in a manner fit to wake the dead.” She had turned quickly, when two men were revealed to her sight.

“I went towards them, and demanded to know who they were; but instead of answering, one of them pushed me out of the way, and the pair of them made off as swiftly as their legs would carry them.” And this was all she knew.

Next, the knight sent for the girl Theresa. She came reluctantly, and with her mouth tightly closed. Elize had not been able to describe either of the men she had seen, as she had gained but a single glance, and that not entirely clear. She only knew that they had been very tall men, and very large.

Theresa declared that she did not know the men. There was but two of them, so far as she saw; but, as for that matter, there might have been a score of them beyond. Elize had carried the light, and was ahead of her at the time, so that the faces of the men were not to be seen; furthermore, she was so scared that she had no thought of trying to make out the persons. One of the men had put out his hand and touched her arm; that was the first intimation she had of their presence, and his excellency could judge how it must have frightened her.

At this point the knight put the question direct:

“Did not one of those men look to you like Captain von Linden?”

“Mercy on me!—no, your honor; no more like him than a bear looks like a young antelope.”

“If it had been the young captain, would you have recognised him, do you think?”

The girl was not to be caught. If she was prevaricating, she did it very shrewdly; and it is more than possible she was doing so. To expose the presence of Ernest might result in ill to her young mistress, which she would not have done to save her own life. Yet she told the truth so far as this: She had not recognized a friend when she screamed. Not until after she had started upon her flight had her wits returned with an inkling of the truth.

At length, in disgust, Sir Pascal sent the woman away, and caused the wounded man to be brought before him.

Meantime he ordered that the guard should be doubled throughout the castle, and that no gate or postern should be opened under any circumstances whatever, without orders from him.

“Franz!” he said to his lieutenant, “up with the bridge, and down with the portcullis! The gate shall not be opened again until I am Lord of Deckendorf.”


Notes

  • Sachsenspiegel: See Oliver Raven, Introduction to Chapter 3 (and n.) See Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel (Heidelberg U).
  • Seven Swabians: English text / The original German text, with the word yelled “Zetermordio” when one of the seven Swabians imagines the monster of Lake Constance.
  • morion: type of round helmet; cf. Spanish conquistador style. Jump to image of 17th c. German example.
  • Stentor: Mythological Greek herald during the Trojan war, with a voice as loud as that of fifty men.
  • eulogium: eulogy (praiseful speech).
  • in season: in time
  • top-boots / small clothes: “Top boots, or hunting boots (for riding, and fox hunts), during most of the 19th century usually meant knee-high leather boots of black with the top portion of the the shaft a natural brown, emulating the look of previous centuries when thigh-high boots were folded down.” / “Small clothes referred to men’s undergarments, usually of silk, linen, or cotton, but also sometimes shirts and breeches.” From R.S. Fleming’s Kate Tatersall Adventures, “Victorian fashion terms“.

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Oliver Raven

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