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8. Kunigunde's Lover

Nearly all of us love to wander through the ruins of old castles, seeing again in imagination the happy throngs that once trod the now mossed and broken stones. Dames in gold and jewels; knights, handsome of face and brave of bearing; chamberlains, priests, prisoners and scullions, all of them have played their little part and passed on, leaving only a shadowy memory. Among the beautiful heights of Tyrol we find many a ruined castle haunted by some sinister or tragic memory.

One of the most beautiful of these is the Castle of Maretsch. Here, we are forewarned of tragedy, for every villager will tell you of the ghost that, on clear moonlight nights, haunts the ruined tower, now ivy-covered and tenanted by owls. The ghost is that of a beautiful girl who walks round and round the courtyard, wringing her hands in passionate grief, while a ghostly wind sports with the dark tresses of her hair, blowing them wildly about her face.

"Poor Kunigunde," they say; " she is walking again."

The priest has often been called in to lay the restless and tormented spirit, but his incantations have been in vain. No words can comfort the soul of Kunigunde von Maretsch; she must wander till the day of doom.

Everyone knows about her. She lived in those far off days when the Church was calling her brave sons about her, bidding them rescue the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the infidel Turk. Every noble youth felt that his honour demanded that he should set out on at least one of these Crusades, as they were called, both for his own glory and benefit, as well as for the sake of Holy Church. Every maiden's heart beat high with mingled hope and fear as one knight after another rode away from her father's castle bearing her colours on his lance or helmet.

Now Kunigunde, only daughter of old Baron von Maretsch, was the most beautiful girl in the whole countryside. She was small, dainty and gentle, and would weep at the sight of anyone's pain. Though surrounded by pomp and the pride of birth and race, she was the first to act when deeds of mercy and kindness were called for. Everyone loved her, and there was not one but rejoiced when brave and worthy men pleaded before the old Baron, her father, for the right to win her hand. Kunigunde was still very young, and laughingly dismissed them one and all.

At last, came the young Baron Leopold von Trewenstein, and on him her choice fell. No one thought that her father would admit as a suitor one so young and untried as Leopold, however tempting the match might be in other ways. Old Maretsch was not, however, greatly displeased at his daughter's choice, for the youth's rank and possessions made him acceptable, only the suitor was very young and, so far, had not won knighthood.

One day the baron sent for the two, who were playing like children in the little walled garden of the castle.

"Leopold," he said, to the youth who stood flushed with joy and health before him, "I cannot allow my daughter to wed an unknighted boy. Go on the next Crusade, win your rank, and Kunigunde and her wealth shall be yours."

The two stood silent a moment.. A Crusade!

That meant separation, perhaps for years. Leopold might never come back even. One glance at the old man's face told the youth that argument would be useless.

"Lord Baron," he said at last, "it shall be as you command. I will go out among men, and, having done so, claim Kunigunde my wife."

Bowing to the father, Kunigunde and her love, left the hall with mingled joy and sorrow to seek comfort of each other in the woods below the castle walls.

Not many weeks after, news was brought to Castle Maretsch that Frederick of the Red Beard was about to set forth for the Holy Land. With the blessing of the Pope, he had set up his banner and all young noblemen were invited to join. The herald had scarcely delivered his message than over the drawbridge clattered Leopold von Trewenstein, armed, and mounted on a fierce charger. His face was flushed with joy. Painful as might be the separation from his loved Kunigunde, he rejoiced that his chance had come. Baron von Maretsch gave a banquet in honour of the lovers, openly betrothing them on the conditions he had before named. When the farewells were all said and the last vows exchanged, Leopold and his followers rode away to seek fame and glory enough.

During the first few weeks, Kunigunde sought to follow her accustomed way of life. But as time passed and weeks became months and months too drifted on, and still no news came from the distant lover, Kunigunde began to droop. Sadness crept into the castle; no duty was neglected; but people missed the happy laugh and gay word that was wont to cheer them up somehow. Their young countess wore the air of a cloistered nun, and spent more and more of her time in the chapel.

Every time the great horn at the main gate was winded, she started up, and seeing that the visitor was but some chance stranger asking for shelter, turned pale and sought her own room in silence.

In this way some four years crept by, and all the while no word came from Leopold, though many a man, newly returned from the Holy Land, passed that way bearing a message for this one or for that. Some of these travellers even visited the castle itself.

One autumn evening, when all the world seemed half hushed in a drowsiness that preluded winter's sleep, Kunigunde, with her parents, was sitting in the great hall of the castle. The priest was reading to them the ancient story of Troy, and of warriors and battles. The castle was so steeped in its atmosphere of sad calm that the history lisped by the aged man did not ring true.

Suddenly a servant entered, looking strangely agitated.

"Lord," he said, "a pilgrim is without; he begs for food and shelter."

"Let it be given," responded the baron, who was perhaps one of the most generous of his kind.

"It shall be done as my lord bids," answered the servant, adding, after a moment's hesitation:

"He says that he is newly come from Palestine and has seen much fighting there."

"From Palestine," exclaimed the baron.

"Yes, my lord," answered the servant.

All this while Kunigunde sat still as a statue in her chair.

"Bring the stranger here," commanded her father; "we would like to speak with him."

The servant bowed and went out, to return shortly after with a tall, bronzed man of strange appearance. His mouth and chin, covered with a thick growth of coarse white hair, contrasted oddly with the clear, youthful brightness of the eyes. He leaned heavily on a stick, yet no palsy of age shook his limbs. A dirty mantle covered him from chin to ankle, and a close-fitting cowl hid his head and forehead.

The stranger bowed low before the baron and his family, and, as befitted his condition, waited until someone should address him. Von Maretsch glanced at his daughter, as though to give her the opportunity of questioning the man, but she neither moved, nor looked at the pilgrim, nor addressed him.

"You have come from Palestine?" asked the baron at last.

"My lord, I have," responded the pilgrim, in tones roughened apparently by outdoor life; "and many strange things have I seen."

"Then are you the more welcome to us," returned von Maretsch. "Tell us your story, pray."

The pilgrim, fixing his eyes on the white face of Kunigunde, began:

"I am a native of Tyrol, and when Frederick of the Red Beard sent out his call for warriors, and set forth for the Holy Land, I too joined the eager ranks. We travelled for many weeks, over land, over sea, then over land again. Through deserts we toiled, scorched by suns and parched with thirst. We suffered. Many a gallant youth fell by the wayside, leaving his body on the burning sands.. Some escaped the desert, to fall in the clefts of rocky mountain chasms, in which death continually lurked."

The speaker paused a moment; but so still sat Kunigunde that she might not have heard him, for all the effect his words appeared to have on her.

"Battles I have seen too, fair and honourable encounters; for I will say that the Saracen, though cunning in warfare, is yet brave and honourable in open combat. And their outstanding, swift horses!

"Of the splendour of these Saracens, what shall I say? All the fabled treasures of Solomon seem to be theirs. The broidered silks, the fashion of their brasses.

"Our own camps? Yes, of them too I can speak - feasting and drinking; squabbling and peacemaking, it seems; those words sum up the tale. Ah!" the pilgrim sighed, as though oppressed by some painful memory: "Our banners did not go forward unsullied. Sin and crime crept in among us and threatened to ruin our very cause. Jealousies and petty strife wrought much sorrow and evil among us. Our banners did not happen to float proudly over the walls of Jerusalem. Those we fought against were better than us in so many ways."

The speaker mused a moment.

"Yet," he continued more brightly, "I have some pleasant things to say, especially of us of Tyrol. Shall not a man praise his own? We have had some brave hearts amongst us. There was the baron - " he paused as though seeking an elusive memory; and observing Kunigunde without seeming to do so, found that she had turned from red to white and white to red, and trembled violently though striving to retain her dignity.

"I have it!" cried the pilgrim at last. "Old Baron Hockmann of Ellbogen sallied forth one day with fifty stout warriors. He searched out and overcame an ambushed band of three times that number, and took much spoil of provisions. The great Frederick himself praised the baron publicly.

"Then the young Baron Anton of Pocol took from the enemy a powerful village and a well that we much needed. He, too, received high praise and, in due course, the accolade from the hand of Redbeard.

"There comes to my mind also, a certain beardless youth, Baron Leopold von Trewenstein, of no account at all, so I heard in his own land."

At the sound of Leopold's name, Kunigunde started in her chair.

"What of him?" she cried sharply. "Speak, what of him?"

"Of him, lady?" continued the pilgrim slowly. "Well, the youthful Leopold, it is said, was brave in battle and proved by his strategy that he had the blood of soldiers in his veins. He conquered rich and large tracts by the sea coast, and. . . ."

"He is alive, then?" interrupted Kunigunde agitatedly.

"Indeed, yes! He is alive," came the reply. "Leopold was knighted by Frederick, but alas, like so many others, he fell away from his high purpose. He was left in charge of one of the great districts he had conquered, and striking his camp, went to live in the palace of a rich lord of whose lands he was master. His followers, tired of the heat and misery of camp life, were well pleased."

"But he will return! Did he never speak of returning?" demanded Kunigunde, impatient at the slow progress of the narrative.

"What inducement had he to return?" asked the stranger. "The Saracen treated him with all honour and courtesy, as between warriors, and friendliness sprang up between them. Then, too, this infidel, who was a great man in his own country had a beautiful daughter, ripe as are the grapes in our sweet autumn. The girl's riches were in the hands of a conqueror. Leopold was allowed to see and talk with her in a way that no eastern maid of rank is wont to do.

"Well! Well! Youth will be youth. A willing maid and a handsome man need no great effort to set a fire ablaze. These two fell in love with each other. The old man made no great demur, exacting from the baron only a promise to forswear the warfare. So, before long, Leopold and Zuleika were wedded, and, I doubt not are living to this day. . . ."

The narrative broke off suddenly, for Kunigunde with a cry fell from her chair to the ground. Her mother's screams brought servants rushing to the hall. Carefully, they lifted and carried away the unconscious girl.

The pilgrim and the baron stood alone. With a loud ringing laugh, the wanderer began to tear off his garb. Mantle, stick, and cowl he cast on the ground, disclosing to view the stalwart figure and bronzed face of Leopold von Trewenstein. He flung his arms round Baron Maretsch and sought to embrace him, but the father pushed him away.

"You . . . you . . . you are Leopold?" he gasped in a faint voice.

"I am he," was the answer. "I garbed myself thus " - pointing to the cast-off attire - " in order to see how faithful my future bride had been to me. My story was but a foolish tale: the only true parts of it being that I have won my knighthood, and possess vast wealth in Palestine."

Von Maretsch continued to stare at him as at an apparition.

"Come!" cried Leopold, "let us now go to my dear Kunigunde. I must see her and tell her that I have indeed returned to claim her."

Leopold ran to the door leading to the women's apartments, calling out as he did so, but no answering voice met his ear. The old Baron followed him, fearing he knew not what.

"Kunigunde, my bride, where are you?" cried Leopold.

Still there was no answer.

Together they entered her room; but it was empty.

"Kunigunde, it is I, Leopold. My story was a foolish one and not true. Come and speak to me. Where are you? Why. . . ."

With a cry, Kunigunde's father suddenly pushed Leopold on one side and sprang to the sofa on which Kunigunde was lying. Instinctively he knew that she was dead.

Distracted and mad with grief, Leopold threw himself on his knees beside her father and sought with his embraces to revive the girl who had loved him so well. But it was too late. There, beside her dead body, Leopold swore never to look on the face of a woman again. He rushed out of the castle grounds, and no one could tell where he went. From that hour it was as though the earth had swallowed him up. Some claim to have seen him, a blind, fever-stricken beggar wandering through the villages of the Tyrol, scorned even by the poorest and spurned by the very dogs that scavenge the byways.

Be that as it may, we do know that the spirit of Kunigunde who met so untimely a death, wanders with grief-stricken face round the ruins of her old home, and, as she passes, the owl hoots with melancholy note from among the clustering ivy.

[Retold]

⚶⚶⚶

An empty sack will not stand. (Proverb from Tyrol)

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