Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Count Burkhardt
Who rides so fast through the blasted pines,
While through the cloud-rack the young moon shines?
Who rides so fast through the yew-trees’ gloom,
While low in the mountains the thunders boom?
Who rides so fast through the haunted wood,
Heedless of midnight, and storm, and flood?
The goodwife at Givers looked out from her door:
“God save thee, Count Burkhardt, the weather is sore.
“Tempt not the wood nor the foaming stream,
In marsh and in meadow the witch-lights gleam;
“I see through the white mists their flickering spears,
Though my eyes are dim with ninety years.”
Count Burkhardt laughed, and flung her good-night,
And spurred his good charger, and breasted the height,
And came to the gate by the forest well,
Where the hermit prayed in his little cell,
Moaning the deeds of his wilful youth,
Pleading for sinners with tender ruth.
He rose from his knees, and called through the dark,
“Who journeys here on the Eve of St. Mark?
“Turn back, turn back, or thou wilt not ’scape
The fiend that lurks in a woman’s shape.
“Many a young man fair and brave
Sued for her love and found his grave;
“Passed from earth, how, none could tell,
Fared deep down to nethermost hell.”
Then Burkhardt laughed the laugh of scorn.
“I never feared man of woman born,
“And shall I turn in cowardly shame
From creatures born of the erring brain
“Let them come if they will, the nymphs of the wood,
The gnomes of the mountain, the sprites of the flood,
“Nixies and pixies, red caps and grey,
I warrant my good sword will keep them at bay.”
So he rode in his pride to the crest of the hill;
Low sank the blast, the wood grew still;
And through the forest there passed a sigh;
It smote the tree-tops, and died in the sky.
Where the pine-trees dark in a solemn ring,
Their sable crests to heaven fling,
And the oak in their midst its arms uprears
Wasted and gaunt with a thousand years,
There in her naked beauty shone
A woman’s figure carved in stone.
“Is it thou, mistress Venus? good sooth, thou art fair,
I never saw flesh with thee could compare!”
And he touched with his sword her shoulder white,
And her lips grew warm and her eyes flashed bright;
Slowly she stooped her neck of stone,
And kissed him there in the wood alone.
Low moaned the pine-trees over head,
The oak-tree murmured—and she was fled.
Count Burkhardt rode by field and stream,
Slow and heavy as one in a dream.
While he brushed the clammy dews from the lawn,
Pale in the east the day ’gan dawn.
But red light gleamed from his father’s towers,
There was wassail in hall and song in the bowers;
And they jested Burkhardt that he could bide,
Wooing so long at Clara’s side,
And pledged him with beakers running o’er,
But Burkhardt von Keller laughed no more;
Nor rode he again at even-tide,
To the Lady Clara his plighted bride.
Weep not, Clara, weeping is vain;
Tears will not bring him back again.
Long at the turret thy watch thou mayst keep,
Wilt nevermore see him climb the steep.
No more he gallops at early morn,
His heart throbbing high at sound of the horn.
No more he wanders at sunset fair,
When the Angelus floats through the mellow air.
For sleeping and waking, in torturing bliss,
He feels on his mouth a burning kiss;
And with fruitless longing his way he takes
To the lonely woods and tangled brakes.
And the peasant folks who had loved him erst,
Began to whisper “Count Burkhardt is curst.”
Foul is the weather; the night is dark;
A year has passed, ’tis the Eve of St. Mark.
And he to the heathen hill will hie;
Old Rudolph follows unseen and nigh.
The hermit stands by the forest gate—
“Shrieve thee, Sir Burkhardt, ere ’tis too late.
“See where the piteous image stands,
With bleeding side and wounded hands.
“Call aloud to the merciful Christ,
To hold thee back from the hellish tryst.”
But Burkhardt passes swift as the wind:
His faithful henchman follows behind.
Through bush and bramble he hurries still,
And now they have reached the heathen hill;
And Rudolph’s limbs grow stiff with fright,
For he sees in the midst that lady white.
She holds out her arms of satin sheen,
Her breast heaves high, her dark eyes gleam;
She holds out her hand, and beckons him nigh,
Vain is old Rudolph’s warning cry;
Vainly he strives to hold his lord,
His feet cling fast to the forest sward.
But Burkhardt flies with fiery haste,
Welds his arm round her yielding waist,
Drinks hot draughts of love from her mouth,
Slaking at last the year’s long drouth,
And her arms are twining in serpent coils,
Her breath consumes him, he sinks in her toils.
He sees not, where love and beauty beamed,
The mocking face of a cruel fiend.
But Rudolph sees, and with cleaving tongue,
Utters the names in Paradise sung,
Names of potency, holy and high,
Then the forest rings with a horrid cry:
A thousand voices of rage and fear;
Bellow and shriek in Rudolph’s ear;
The ground is rent with sullen throes,
The twain have vanish’d, nought else he knows.
Up rose the morning dewy and bright,
Flushing the place with golden light,
Sowing pearls on the barren floor,
Sapphire drops on the pine-trees hoar,
And Rudolph woke amid warmth and sheen,
Marvelling much if it were a dream;
Then down to the Kellerburg went he,
And told the sire and the brothers three.
They sent for the monks from Lindenhein,
In the pleasant pastures beside the Rhine,
And from lofty Hoheneck on the steep,
Where the mellowing grapes in sunshine sleep,
And from ancient Spires in the emerald flat,
Where orchards are lush and lands are fat.
They came with relic, and book, and bell;
They prayed, and chanted, and cursed as well;
And his father was there, in anguish bowed,
And his brother, a monk of St. Francis, vowed,
And the holy abbot of Salms, and he
Bade them dig ’neath the blasted tree.
They dug and delved with right good will,
Praying, and chanting, and cursing still,
And came two fathoms deep in the ground,
But never a bone of Sir Burkhardt they found,
Nor aught save a broken, crumbling stone,
An altar raised to an evil one,
Carved with symbols wicked and weird,
Long ere the blessed Cross was upreared.
Then the brawny monks of Lindenhein
Smote it to pieces, and brayed it fine,
Sprinkled the dust with holy showers,
Cursed and banished the evil powers,
And reared on the place where the altar stood,
A shrine to our Lady in the Wood.
In Lichtenstein a pale young nun
Looks out wearily in the sun.
And in Hoheneck a faithful frère
Wrestles for Burkhardt’s soul in prayer.
Midsummer comes and brings the rose,
Yule-tide comes with its shrouding snows.
But earth’s delights and the joyance high
Of love and beauty pass them by.
Unheeded the while with bitter dole,
They plead for Burkhardt von Keller’s soul.