The Dancers of Ramersdorf: To the day of their death they remained helpless idiots

At Ramersdorf every Sunday afternoon the lads and lasses of the hamlet gathered on the village green and danced gaily through the sunny hours. But wild prophecies of the coming end of the world, when the year 1000 should break, were spreading throughout the countryside, and the spirit of fear haunted the people, so that music died away from their hearts and there was no more dancing on the village green. Instead they spent the hours praying in the church for divine mercy, and the Abbot of Löwenburg was well pleased.

The dreaded year came and went, yet the world had not ceased; the sun still rose and set, life went on just the same. So fear passed from the hearts of the people, and because they were happy again the young folk once more assembled to dance the Sundays away on the village green. But the abbot was wroth at this. When the music began he appeared among the villagers, commanding them to cease from their revels and bethink themselves of the House of God. But the lads and lasses laughed, and the music went on as they footed it gaily. Then the abbot was angered; he raised his hands to heaven and cursed the thoughtless crowd, condemning the villagers to dance there unceasingly for a year and a day.

As they heard the dreadful words the young folk tried to stop, but their feet must needs go on to the endless music. Faster and faster in giddy round they went, day and night, rain and shine, throughout the changing seasons, until the last hours of the extra day, when they fell in a senseless heap in the hollow worn by their unresting feet. When they awoke to consciousness all reason had passed from them. To the day of their death they remained helpless idiots. Henceforth the village green was deserted; no more were seen the lads and lasses dancing there on the Sabbath day.

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

The Lorelei: ’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me

Many are the legends which cluster round the name of the Lorelei. In some of the earlier traditions she is represented as an undine, combing her hair on the Lorelei-berg and singing bewitching strains wherewith to lure mariners to their death, and one such legend relates how an old soldier named Diether undertook to capture her.

Graf Ludwig, son of the Prince Palatine, had been caught in her toils, his frail barque wrecked, and he himself caught in the whirlpool and drowned. The prince, grievously stricken at the melancholy occurrence, longed to avenge his son’s death on the evil enchantress who had wrought such havoc. Among his retainers there was but one who would undertake the venture — a captain of the guard named Diether — and the sole reward he craved was permission to cast the Lorelei into the depths she haunted should he succeed in capturing her.

Diether and his little band of warriors ascended the Lorelei’s rock in such a way as to cut off all retreat on the landward side. Just as they reached the summit the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and behold, the spirit of the whirlpool was seen sitting on the very verge of the precipice, binding her wet hair with a band of gleaming jewels.

“What wouldst thou with me?” she cried, starting to her feet.

“To cast thee into the Rhine, sorceress,” said Diether roughly, “where thou hast drowned our prince.”

“Nay,” returned the maid, “I drowned him not. ’Twas his own folly which cost him his life.”

As she stood on the brink of the precipice, her lips smiling, her eyes gleaming softly, her wet dark hair streaming over her shoulders, some strange, unearthly quality in her beauty, a potent spell fell upon the little company, so that even Diether himself could neither move nor speak.

“And wouldst thou cast me in the Rhine, Diether?” she pursued, smiling at the helpless warrior. “’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me.”

Then loosening the jewelled band from her hair, she flung it on the water and cried aloud: “Father, send me thy white steeds, that I may cross the river in safety.”

Instantly, as at her bidding, a wild storm arose, and the river, overflowing its banks, foamed right up to the summit of the Lorelei Rock. Three white-crested waves, resembling three white horses, mounted the steep, and into the hollowed trough behind them the Lorelei stepped as into a chariot, to be whirled out into the stream. Meanwhile Diether and his companions were almost overwhelmed by the floods, yet they were unable to stir hand or foot. In mid-stream the undine sank beneath the waves: the spell was broken, the waters subsided, and the captain and his men were free to return home.

Nevermore, they vowed, would they seek to capture the Lorelei.

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

Captain Picard (The Robbers of the Rhine)

For many hundreds of years the valley of the Rhine itself, and the various valleys adjacent, were the haunt of numerous bodies of rapacious and desperate banditti. The rugged, mountainous nature of the country naturally made lawlessness the more easy there, and till so late as the beginning of the nineteenth century these gangs of robbers were a constant menace to the traveller in Rhineland. At the time of the French Revolution, indeed, and for some decades thereafter, the district was literally infested with thieves; for the unsettled state of Europe at this date perforce tended to bring desperadoes from far and near, and for a while the inhabitants of the different villages on the banks of the Rhine endured a veritable reign of terror.

But almost from the outset the brigands realized that they would soon be undone if they grew too numerous. They knew that, in that event, strong military measures would probably be taken against them; so they made every effort to practise that union which is proverbially strength, and to prevent the enlisting in their ranks of anyone likely to prove cowardly or perfidious. In some cases, too, they actually had a well and capably organized system whereby one of their number could escape quickly, if need be, from the scene of his crime; for, like the French prisoners described in Stevenson’s St. Ives, they had a line of sanctuaries extending perhaps into Austria or Italy, the retreat in most instances being an inn whose keeper was sworn to hide and protect his robber guest at all costs. In short, there was honour among these thieves, and even a certain spirit of freemasonry; while, more important still, the captain of a band was very often in league with the few police officials of the neighbourhood.

The great highwaymen of Stuart and Georgian England — for example, that gallant Beau Brocade of whom Mr. Austin Dobson writes — were mostly content with waylaying a chance passer-by; while their contemporaries in France usually worked on this principle also, as witness the deeds of the band who figure in Théophile Gautier’s story Le Capitaine Fracasse. But the robbers of the Rhine were of different mettle from these, and often it was almost a predatory warfare rather than mere brigandage which they carried on. Frequently they had an agent in each of the villages on the river, this agent being usually a member of the scattered remnant of Israel; and the business of this person was to discover a house containing especial wealth, and then to inform the robbers accordingly. Having gleaned the requisite information in this wise, the gang would sally down from the mountains at dead of night; and it was customary, as they drew near to their prey, for the captain to call his henchmen to attention and see that each was ready for the imminent fray. Then, having gagged the village watchman and muffled his bell, they would proceed to surround the house they intended to rifle, and, should resistance be offered, to batter in the door with a log or other instrument. Sometimes it would transpire that the Jewish agent had misinformed them, telling them of booty where booty there was little, and woe betide him should this prove the state of affairs. Moreover, unlike the brigands in Gil Blas, these scoundrels of the Rhine would not be encumbered by prisoners, and they were wont to slay outright all who were minded to show fight.

Yet to their own brotherhood the robbers were invariably loyal, seldom failing to carry away with them such of their confrères as were wounded in the assault; for each was sworn to support his fellows under all circumstances, and awful was the fate of the marauder who violated this compact. It is told of a band commanded by one Picard, a cruel but brave leader, that one of its members chanced to be captured, and with a view to purchasing his freedom he gave information about the whereabouts of his chief. The next night, as the captive lay in his dungeon, a masked face suddenly appeared at the barred window, and in awestruck tones the prisoner asked the new-comer to declare his identity. “I am Picard, your captain,” came the answer. “As in duty bound, I have risked my life to set you free,” and having spoken thus, he proceeded to file through one of the bars, which being accomplished, the reprobate was drawn out of his cell by the aid of a rope. He breathed freely now, finding himself once more among some of his old comrades, but a moment later Picard addressed him again. “Traitor,” he snarled, “do not think that your perfidy has failed to reach our ears; you must pay the full penalty.”

“Mercy,” cried the unfortunate one; “at least let me die in action. Lead on against some foe, and let me fall at their hands.”

“Cowards,” retorted Picard, “deserve no such gallant fate,” and with these words he drove his sword deep into the heart of the traitor.

In general it was a point of honour among these bandits that none should reveal to a woman anything about the doings of his band, and one story relates how a young brigand, on the eve of setting out on his first predatory expedition, was rash enough to inform his sweetheart whither he and his mates were bound. Their commander was a Captain Jikjak, reputed something of a wit; and betimes, after the brigands had marched forward silently for a while, this worthy called upon them to halt. They imagined it was but the usual inspection of arms which was about to take place, but Jikjak, speaking in stentorian tones, told them that a traitor was in their midst, and pointing to the culprit, he bade him step forth. The young man pled his youth as an excuse for his fault, and he told the captain that, could he but get a chance to show his prowess once, they would soon see that he was as gallant a robber as any of them. But Jikjak laughed scornfully, saying he was anxious to find out which was stronger, the young man’s legs or a pair of trees. The culprit quailed on hearing the verdict, and implored a less ghastly fate; but Jikjak was obdurate, and smiling blandly, he bade his followers bend a couple of stout branches to the ground and tie their tops to the ankles of the offender….

Such, then, were the robbers of the Rhine, and such the code of honour which existed among them. A romantic institution they no doubt were, yet it was a form of picturesqueness whose disappearance can scarcely be regretted.

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

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)

he was literally a child of the Rhine, his father being a water-monster

In the middle of the fifth century arose the powerful dynasty of the Merovingians, one of the most picturesque royal houses in the roll of history. In their records we see the clash of barbarism with advancement, the bizarre tints of a semi-civilization unequalled in rude magnificence. Giant shadows of forgotten kings stalk across the canvas, their royal purple intermingling with the shaggy fell of the bear and wolf. One, Chilperic, a subtle grammarian and the inventor of new alphabetic symbols, is yet the most implacable of his race, the murderer of his wife, the heartless slayer of hundreds, to whom human life is as that of cattle skilled in the administration of poison, a picturesque cut-throat. Others are weaklings, fainéants; but one, the most dread woman in Frankish history, Fredegonda, the queen of Chilperic, towers above all in this masque of slaughter and treachery.

Tradition makes claim that Andernach was the cradle of the Merovingian dynasty. In proof of this are shown the extensive ruins of the palace of these ancient Frankish kings. Merovig, from whom the race derived its name, was said to be the son of Clodio, but legend relates far otherwise. In name and origin he was literally a child of the Rhine, his father being a water-monster who seized the wife of Clodio while bathing in that river. In time she gave birth to a child, more monster than man, the spine being covered with bristles, fingers and toes webbed, eyes covered with a film, and thighs and legs horny with large shining scales. Clodio, though aware of the real paternity of this creature, adopted it as his own son, as did King Minos in the case of the Minotaur, giving him the name Merovig from his piscatory origin. On Clodio’s death the demi-monster succeeded to the throne, and from him sprang a long line of sovereigns, worthless and imbecile for the most part.

Childeric, the son and successor of Merovig, enraged his people to such a degree by his excesses that they drove him from throne and country. One friend alone remained to him, Winomadus, who, having no female relations to suffer by the king’s attentions, did not find the friendship so irksome as others; indeed, had been a partner in his licentious pleasures. He undertook to watch over the interests of Childeric during his enforced absence in Thuringia at the court of Basinus, king of that country. The Franks had elected Aegidius, a Roman general, to the sovereignty over them, but as he proved himself no better than Childeric, whom they had deposed, they once more essayed to choose another ruler. This was made known to Childeric through his friend Winomadus. He rapidly returned to the shores of the Rhine and, reinforcing his following as he proceeded on his march, appeared before Andernach at the head of a formidable force, composed of many of his former subjects, together with Thuringian auxiliaries. The people of Andernach, unable to resist this overwhelming argument, again accepted Childeric as their king.

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