COBB: The False Knight

Cobb’s False Knight: 17. Beginning of the End

As the story hurtles towards what appears to be a bloody climax, our heroine and her mother, the baroness, seem like bait in a trap, a trap set to kill the only threat to Pascal Dunwolf’s dastardly plan to force Electra to marry him so he can inherit the castle.

Luring the good guy into a trap so the bad guy can get the loot was also part of the plot of the German movie The Oil Prince from 1965. Never heard of it? Why mention it? Well, 19th century American writer Cobb set The False Knight in Germany, while The Oil Prince was written by 19th century German writer Karl May, but set in the United States. Same sort of thing, just the other way around.

Karl May books and movies were unbelievably popular in Germany. Every year, the town of Bad Segeberg still hosts the Karl May Festival, in an open air theatre in September. To non-Germans, it seems rather weird to see Germans, dressed up as cowboys and Indians with heavy German accents, re-enacting bits from films and novels involving Winnetou (the noble Indian chief), Old Surehand and Old Shatterhand (the good white guy), among the buildings of a fake western town. Yet Germans still seem to love it, although the movies are long past their heyday in the sixties. Is Ernest von Linden just as doomed as Old Shatterhand (Lex Barker), tied to a post in the old movie poster? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Portrait of Karl May himself dressed as Old Shatterhand. Photograph by Alois Schiesser, 1896.

Cobb’s writings were just as popular in the English speaking world; his novel The Gunmaker of Moscow, a huge hit of the 1850s, had made it onto the film screen in 1913, via Edison Studios in Manhattan. A common thread between his work and that of Karl May seems to be the fascination of people of one culture or continent with stories about the people of far away places. Knights and damsels in distress versus Indians, settlers and western bad guys.

Nineteenth century opera composers and librettists wrote about Egyptian Princesses, French bohemians, and Japanese geisha girls too, and I love their works because of the music; yet I never really warmed to May’s western novels or the movies based on them. I’m sure it wasn’t because of Lex Barker or Stewart Grainger as Old Surehand, even if the actors may have resented being typecast as “old”. I guess it’s more of matter of too many blows by the heavy German accents of other actors, wielded as laughter inducing weapons of involuntary humor that might have done it for me. While we luckily never had some unfortunate German actor cast as Sir Pascal Dunwolf having to put on a terribly fake American accent.

Just as well perhaps. May’s books and films had females in supporting roles, for example Karin Dor as Ribanna, the daughter of an Indian chief, in the Winnetou series of novels (1892/1910), but he never wrote a novel with women as the main characters. Cobb way ahead of his time? All the more reason to enjoy this episode.


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

BEGINNING OF THE END

The man now brought before the troubled knight for examination was in a pitiable plight. He was the first who had felt the weight of our hero’s iron-wood club. If his skull had been fractured, which was probably the case, the excessive flow of blood from a long, ugly wound of the scalp had served to lessen the pressure upon the brain and to restore him to consciousness. The cut, though thickly bandaged, was still bleeding, and his face was hideously begrimed with the ghastly exudation. His name was Brandt.

He thought there were at least a dozen of his assailants. They had come upon him just as he had ascended the stairs at the rear of the lower hall. He and his companions had been standing at the far end of the hall when they were startled by the shrieks of the women, one of whom simply screamed with all her might, while the other yelled Murder! As quickly as possible they had rushed up the stairs, to meet the fate of which his lordship had been already informed.

“Did you see the faces of any of the men?” Dunwolf asked.

“No, sir,” was the answer. He said, further, that he thought their faces were covered. It had been a gigantic fellow who had given him the blow that overcame him—a man of prodigious strength and ferocity.

Sir Pascal asked several more questions, after which the man was led away, it being very evident that nothing more could be gained from him.

“Franz,” said the chief, when he and his lieutenant had been left alone together, “what do you make of this?”

“I think,” replied the other, “that somebody from outside has been in the castle.”

“Aye, that is very evident. But who were they?”

“Captain von Linden was one of them. Who the other was I am unable to say.”

“Then you think there were but two of them?”

“It so appears to me, sir.”

“I think you are right. And yet, our men—three of them—ought to have done better work.”

“As for that, Sir Pascal, you will remember that the young captain has proved himself, ere this, a dangerous customer. Remember, also, that he had our men at a disadvantage.”

Dunwolf arose from his seat and took several turns across the room. Then he pulled out his watch and looked at the time. He found it to be a few minutes past three.

“Franz, it is very evident—in fact, we know—that these interlopers came in by way of the secret pass, the same through which Von Linden and the ladies left the castle; and from the account of Elize and Theresa, as well as from the manner in which the baroness and her daughter left us, it is equally evident that there is a hidden means of entrance to that pass somewhere in the apartments which the ladies were wont to occupy. Do you not think so yourself?”

“I am sure of it, sir.”

“Then I wish you to see to it that those apartments are strictly guarded. In every room where such an entrance could possibly be hidden have two good men stationed, with fire-arms carefully loaded, instructed to shoot any person—any man—who may appear in any such manner. Next, I wish you to look well to the known places of entrance. I know, as well as I can know anything of which my senses have not directly informed me, that Ernest von Linden was in the castle this night. He knows that I intend to make the daughter of the baroness my wife, and he means to prevent it if he can. To that end he may raise men enough in the village to give us trouble, provided they could gain entrance.

“So, Franz, you will keep the great gate fast; keep the bridge up, and the portcullis down; and also look to the smaller gate, and the posterns. At the break of day have every man of our host under arms, and ready for service at a moment’s call. Will you do this?”

The subaltern promised that he would not fail.

“Then,” said the knight, “I will seek my pillow, and try to sleep for a little time. If I am not up by six o’clock, you may call me.”

With that the aspiring chief went to the sideboard and swallowed a generous draught of strong spirit, after which he went to his sleeping-room.

While the examination of the man Brandt had been going on before Sir Pascal, the housekeeper’s assistant, Theresa, was giving to Electra details of the night’s alarm that differed somewhat from those she had given to the knight.

Our heroine knew that something unusual had happened. When the two servants had returned empty-handed from the expedition in quest of her mother’s resting-drops, Elize had declared that sentinels had been posted in the passage, and that they had not been allowed to proceed; but Electra had not believed her. The face of Theresa betrayed something startling and mysterious; but she could find no opportunity to question her until after a time the two women of the Schwarzwald fell asleep, leaving her to do the watching.

While Elize had been away, in the presence of Sir Pascal, Zenzel had been awake and watchful; but, after Theresa had been out, and had returned, both of the women of the forest surrendered themselves to their craving for sleep, giving to the anxious girl the opportunity she so much desired.

“Now, Theresa, what is it? What has happened?”

And Theresa told her the story as we know it, saving only that she knew it was the handsome young captain who had so frightened her.

“At the moment,” she explained, “I did not know him; but as soon as I had started to run his face came back to me, and then I knew.”

She said, further, that there was another with him, not quite so tall as the captain, but stouter. She thought it was Martin Oberwald.

When asked if she had told the wicked knight of this, she answered that she had not. She said she would have died first. “He tried to make me speak, but I would not.”

“My dear Theresa,” said her young mistress, in a guarded whisper, “when I was in mamma’s dressing-room—when we went to get our clothing—I dropped a little note for Ernest. 0, if I could be sure he had found it I should be very happy. Don’t you think you could go and look, and see if it has been taken away?”

The true-hearted girl said she would do all she could. Nothing but absolute force should hold her back.

“I dropped it,” explained Electra, “close to the partition between that room and the room in which I used to sleep. As you stand looking straight into mamma’s great looking-glass, it should be on the floor, at your left hand, within a foot of the wall. You understand— about halfway between the looking-glass and the door to the clothes-press. You understand?”

“Yes.”

“And you will be sure and look for it?”

“Yes. But you hope I shall not find it?”

“Of course I do. If you do not find it I shall think Ernest has it in his dear hands. 0, if he knows—if the good hunter knows—be sure help will come.”

Theresa promised once more she would do all that lay in her power to do, after which the heiress sought her pillow, and finally sleep came to her relief.

Frau Scholderer am Frühstückstisch (c. 1872), Otto Scholderer

When the new day had dawned, and while the women of the forest were thinking of breakfast, Theresa said she would go, now that it was daylight, and see if she could find her lady’s drops. No objection was made, and she departed on her errand.

She was gone but a little while; and when she returned her face, full of disappointment and chagrin, told to the anxious maiden that her effort had resulted in failure. She said to Elize, who was the first to question her, that sentinels had been posted in all the rooms in that wing and that no one was allowed to enter.

And she could tell to Electra but little more. An officer whom she had met had informed her that the orders of Sir Pascal had been peremptory. No person could be allowed in any of the rooms which either the baroness or her daughter had occupied.

“But do not give up tall hope,” whispered the faithful servitor, as her mistress groaned in the bitterness of her disappointment. “I am as sure that Captain von Linden was in that room last night as I am that I am alive. And if he was there, he must have seen the paper; for, surely, no one else had been there before him.”

Electra thanked the girl for her kindness, and said she would hope if she could.

Later, when she saw her mother suffering on her account, she took it upon herself to whisper of hope; and in seeking to strengthen another, she found her own strength revived.

They had eaten breakfast, and the table had been cleared and set aside, when Sir Pascal made his appearance. His first movement on entering was to signal to the guard-women that they might retire. At first Theresa, who was waiting upon the baroness, did not offer to move, but the knight caught her eye, and pointed to the door with a look which she dared not disregard. She had crossed the threshold, and was drawing the door to after her, when it was wrenched from her hand, and in a moment more the dark-browed knight was before her.

“Look ye, woman!” he said, in a harsh, grating whisper, eyeing her as though he would look her through if he could—”I want you to call back the events of the past few hours and try to think if there was not something forgotten in your story of the fright you received, and of the men who caused it. Your companion was not more than three or four paces in advance of you, carrying a light that illumined the way so that you saw plainly. Of course, the very first thing you did, when you felt the touch of that hand, was to look up at the face. You could not have helped it. Now I know there was light enough to reveal to you the features—or, at least, their outlines. I ask you once more—and, mark me—if I can find that you have lied to me, I will put you to the rack!—I will, as sure as fate! Now,—once more I ask you,— Did you not see the face of Captain von Linden?”

If there had been a quivering of the poor girl’s nerves when the man began to speak, it had all gone when he had concluded. She looked him straight in the eye, with a glance in which there was no sign of quailing, and stoutly answered:

“You might put me to all the racks in the world, Meinherr, and I could tell you nothing different from what I have told you. Suppose, to save myself from torture I should speak a lie, and tell you ‘Yes,’ when the truth would be ‘No,’ would it help you any?”

This simple argument fairly nonplussed the man, and having bidden the girl to hold her tongue and say nothing of that interview, he sent her away and returned to the chamber, carefully closing the door behind him.

The baroness was sitting in a large easy-chair, near one of the windows, and did not offer to rise. Electra, however, had arisen as the knight entered, and when he had turned towards her, after having closed the door, she politely pointed to a seat. He bade her to be seated first, and when she had obeyed, he moved his chair so that he might face her, and then, with a low bow, sat down.

He was arrayed in the full uniform of his rank as Colonel of the Imperial Hussars, graceful and elegant, even in that early day. It was new, and very likely donned for the first time. He had thoroughly soaked his head and laved his face, until a look of something like freshness had replaced the bloated, haggard look with which he had arisen. He had drank what would have been deeply for most men, but which, with him, had been only sufficient to steady his nerves, and give borrowed vigor to his system.

After taking his seat he recognized the baroness with a slight inclination of the head; then he fixed his gaze upon the daughter, so regarding her for a time in silence. When he at length spoke, his voice was deep and low, with a sound that might be truly termed sepulchral.

“Lady, you know what was the object of my coming to the castle. It had been for a considerable time the desire of your royal guardian, the grand duke, that I should be lord and master of Deckendorf. He had many reasons for that wish, chief of which was this: that he might have a true and reliable friend in this fortress, which, as you are aware, holds a commanding position in one of the most important passes of the Schwarzwald. At first my only desire was to please my sovereign; but since I have come hither, and have been permitted to gaze upon the face of the lady selected by him to be my bride, I have found my heart gone from me, and my duty has become my fondest hope.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (c. 1815-19). Artist unknown, copying Paul Ernst Gebauer.

“Of the little accidents that have happened since I came, we will not speak. I shall think of them no more; yet, you will allow me to tell you that I thank Heaven from the very depths of my heart that the bond between us has not been irreparably broken.”

At this point, while the maiden sat like one turned stone, her only signs of sense of feeling being the changing light of her staring eyes, and the occasional twitching of the muscles of the compressed lips and the tightly-clenched hands, the speaker took his watch from his fob and consulted it. Then he put it slowly back, and changed his position in his chair. When he next raised his eyes to the maiden’s face, they had assumed a fateful glare—a wicked threatening look—and his lips were compressed until well nigh bloodless.

“Electra!” She started when he spoke that name, as though a serpent had suddenly darted up and stung her. “Electra, it is now almost nine o’clock Before this day has seen its noon-tide you will be my wife. I know not what hopes have been held out to you of an avoidance of the union, for I will not pretend ignorance of the fact that your wish lies in that direction. I know that you have friends—they call themselves friends—who would aid you in resisting me if they could. Perhaps,” he went on, with a keener glance into the “windows of her soul,” “you have been led to think that those people can reach you here, but do you put away all such thought. My precautions are taken, and from this moment until I have held you by the hand as my wife, no human being from beyond these walls will come within the castle limits.

“It may seem foolish for me to tell you this; but I wish to satisfy you that those so-called friends who would make you discontented with the inevitable are no friends at all. It is not impossible that your wild fancy, or your wilder hope, leads you to think that your sympathizers outside will come to you through the mysterious passage by means of which you managed once to slip away from me; but, I beg you, do not cherish any such delusion. I know every place—every nook and corner—where an entrance can possibly exist; and you may be sure I shall see that they are sufficiently guarded. Further, on that point, I have only this to say: If powder and leaden ball have any power over life and death, then, woe betide the unfortunate wight who shall attempt to introduce himself into this castle through any one of those hidden ways.”

For the life of her, Electra could not repress the shudder that shook her frame as these words fell upon her ear. On the instant this picture was present before her eyes: Her dear lover, his heart bounding with eagerness to save her,—no matter who followed to assist, he would be surely in the lead,—his would be the post of danger,—she saw him, thus eager, behind the secret panel—saw him, moving quickly now that he was so near—touch the hidden spring—saw the panel slide noiselessly away into the adjacent wall—saw him, with the fire of ardor in his handsome face, start to enter the room thinking only of her and her weal, when— 0! taken suddenly, unaware of the danger, and shot through the heart on threshold of the pass.

“Does it frighten you?” the knight said with a gleam of diabolical malevolence in his wicked eyes. “Let us hope none will be so foolish as to make the venture; for, I do assure you, if they come, they will come only to their death.”

“And now,’ he added, rising as he spoke, “I give you one hour for preparation. At the end of that time I shall come for you, and you will accompany me to the place where the marriage ceremony will be performed. It will please me if I find you ready. If you wish for anything from your old apartments, you may send your maid, Theresa, who will go with Elize and get what you want. Remember—this is final.”

And without waiting for reply he turned and left the room, passing out by the way which the servants had taken on their exit. For a little time after he had gone the stricken twain sat speechless. Then Electra started up and threw herself upon her mother’s bosom, and the loving arms were clasped tightly around her. At that moment how willingly would the widowed parent have given her life to save her child.

“0, mamma! will they come? Will they be killed? 0, mamma! mamma! will they shoot my dear Ernest?” wailed poor Electra.

“Hush! hush, my child! You should know Ernest better. Be sure he will not come by a way which they can suspect. If he comes at all, as I believe he will, he will be accompanied by others—by those of whom we have been told—and when he enters the keep it will be from the vault. My word for it, this wicked man—false knight—will never think of the chapel; and if he did, it would not matter, for upon entering there our dear boy would discover his enemies before they could discover him. Think of the situation of the altar, behind which is the hidden door, and you will see and understand.”

The words were of simple fact, and they had a wonderful effect upon the hearer. In her fears for her dear lover, she had for the time forgotten herself, and now that his safety was well nigh assured, she was glad. In this spirit she resumed her seat, and shortly after Elize and Zenzel entered, behind them, a little later, coming Theresa.

Electra was asked if she would require anything from the chambers in the old wing. She shook her head, and answered, “No.”

The woman Elize said his lordship would be better pleased if she should put on wedding garments. A look was the maiden’s only reply, but it was a reply before which the bandit’s mate quailed and held her peace.

Then Theresa, with a world of love and devotion in the warm clasp of her hand, ventured forward and to help her young mistress.

“0! sweet lady,” said she, ” tell me what I can do, and I will do it if it is in my power.”

“Nothing, Theresa, only this: stay by me if you can. Help my dear mamma if she shall need.”

And then she drew close to her mother’s side, and took one of her dear hands in her own; and so she sat, and waited for what should come, her heart the while raised in earnest prayer for release from her deadly peril.


Notes

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Oliver Raven

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