The Battle of Skeletons

The smoke and terror of the great struggle had surged over Oppenheim. A battle had been fought there, and the Swedes and Spaniards who had contested the field and had been slain lay buried in the old churchyard hard by the confines of the town. At least many had been granted the right of sepulture there, but in a number of cases the hasty manner in which their corpses had received burial was all too noticeable, and a stranger visiting the churchyard confines years after the combat could not fail to be struck by the many uncoffined human relics which met his gaze.

But an artist who had journeyed from far to see the summer’s sun upon the Rhine water, and who came to Oppenheim in the golden dusk, was too intent on the search for beauty to remember the grisly reputation of the town. Moreover, on entering the place the first person by whom he had been greeted was a beautiful young maiden, daughter of the innkeeper, who modestly shrank back on hearing his confident tones and, curtsying prettily, replied to his questions in something like a whisper.

“Can you recommend me to a comfortable hostelry, my pretty maid, where the wine is good and the company jovial?”

“If the Herr can put up with a village inn, that of my father is as good as any in the place,” replied the maid.

“Good, my pretty,” cried the bold painter, sending the ready blood to her face with a glance from his bright black eyes. “Lead the way, and I will follow. Or, better still, walk with me.”

By the time they had reached the inn they felt like old friends. The girl had skilfully but simply discovered the reason for the young artist’s sojourn in Oppenheim, and with glowing face and eyes that had grown brighter with excitement, she clasped her hands together and cried: “Oh, the Herr must paint my beloved Oppenheim. There is no such place by moonlight, believe me, and you will be amply repaid by a visit to the ruins of the old church to-night. See, a pale and splendid moon has already risen, and will light your work as the sun never could.”

“As you ask me so prettily, Fräulein, I shall paint your beloved abbey,” he replied. “But why not in sunlight, with your own sweet face in the foreground?”

“No, no,” cried the girl hastily. “That would rob the scene of all its romance.”

“As you will,” said the artist. “But this, I take it, is your father’s inn, and I am ready for supper. Afterward — well, we shall see!”

Supper over, the painter sat for some time over his pipe and his wine, and then, gathering together his sketching impedimenta, quitted the inn and took his way toward the ruins of Oppenheim’s ancient abbey. It was a calm, windless night, and the silver moon sailed high in the heavens. Not a sound broke the silence as the young man entered the churchyard. Seating himself upon a flat tombstone, he proceeded to arrange his canvas and sketching materials; but as he was busied thus his foot struck something hard. Bending down to remove the obstacle, which he took for a large stone, he found, to his horror, that it was a human skull. With an ejaculation he cast the horrid relic away from him, and to divert his mind from the grisly incident commenced to work feverishly. Speedily his buoyant mind cast off the gloomy train of thought awakened by the dreadful find, and for nearly a couple of hours he sat sketching steadily, until he was suddenly startled to hear the clock in the tower above him strike the hour of midnight.

He was gathering his things preparatory to departure, when a strange rustling sound attracted his attention. Raising his eyes from his task, he beheld a sight which made his flesh creep. The exposed and half-buried bones of the dead warriors which littered the surface of the churchyard drew together and formed skeletons. These reared themselves from the graves and stood upright, and as they did so formed grisly and dreadful battalions — Swedes formed with Swedes and Spaniards with Spaniards. On a sudden hoarse words of command rang out on the midnight air, and the two companies attacked one another.

The luckless beholder of the dreadful scene felt the warm blood grow chill within his veins. Hotter and hotter became the fray, and many skeletons sank to the ground as though slain in battle. One of them, he whose skull the artist had kicked, sank down at the young man’s feet. In a hollow voice he commanded the youth to tell to the world how they were forced to combat each other because they had been enemies in life, and that they could obtain no rest until they had been buried.

Directly the clock struck one the battle ceased, and the bones once more lay about in disorder. The artist (who, it need hardly be said, gave no more thought to his picture) hastened back to the inn and in faltering accents related his experiences. When the Seven Years’ War broke out, not long afterward, the people of Oppenheim declared that the apparition of the skeletons had foretold the event.

(Lewis Spence, Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine, London; New York: 1915)


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