By George Wharton Edwards
Just beyond Colmar, overlooking the small village of Eguisheim, which boasts extravagantly of it, is a recently restored palace (but the inhabitants call it a "Pfalz" in their quaint jargon) said to date back to the eighth century. This, by the way, was so scraped of stone and shiny with paint that I could not get interested in it. The unmistakable marks of German restoration were all over the place. Then again the custode," appointed from Berlin," he informed me grandiosely, was otherwise so offensive that I turned my back upon him. A mile from the village stand the ruins of the great three towered castle of Hohen-Eguisheim, generally called the Dreien-Eguisheim or Exen, which is visible the country around.
The three towers are: the Dagesburg of the twelfth century, and the more ancient Wekmund and the Wahlenburg, both of the eleventh century. This great ruin is the pride of the region. For breadth of horizon, pride of place and romance of lordship; for play of exquisite valley and sweep of line this stately heritage of an ancient virility really stands untranscended from Kenil
worth to Heidelberg. One can hardly exaggerate its importance; dominating height and valley and poised above the quaint village nestling below, it is like unto an old imperial eagle upon its nest. If this mighty ruin is disturbed by the mine that German capitalists threaten to sink beneath its hoary walls, I can fancy uneasy stirrings in some of the many hidden tombs of the old Knights, whose war-weary bones have here rested so long in peace beneath the cross-emblazoned shields which they carried hither from the Crusades. It is said that the Roman settlers, ever envious and greedy of high places, built here their stronghold, upon the ruins of which the Knights of Eguisheim raised these mighty towers. The Romans were here, of course, long before feoffage came to occupy the region. These Romans were different men from those who succeeded them; they toiled together, man and slave, husbanding handiwork and its results for due occasion. They have left their marks all over this fair region. In the midst of thick woods one often comes across their stone altars, and the remains of their boundary walls.
They were followed by the blustering Burgraves of the Rhine, with their lavish and boasted prowess, their noisy loves and quarrels; their truculent sentimentalism, and their bloody imitation courage. Their escutcheons gave name to many a thorp hereabouts, and they held place in crusade and council, until driven out by the French, under whose rule it prospered and waxed beautiful.
French so it remained, and so it is still and always will be in spirit, no matter what befalls.
Come with me along the winding road and I will show you first a world of dark, undulating rock ground all clad in green herbage and decked with heather bells, above which hangs bristling fir. There are grassy slopes of green and gold that catch the sun. All about are hills that stand attendant, veiled in shadow for a frame. The perspective as we go along changes like a mirage, the great ruin becomes plainer, the village hides and discloses itself coquettishly; the river Laich is pretty and necessary to the picture. There are several red oxen wading in it, and one hears the sleepy pat, pat, of the washerwomen kneeling on flat stones, making soapy rings in the slow current of the stream. A drowsy fisherman leans against a tree trunk, careless of his bobbing cork. There is a sugar loaf shaped church spire, a stone wall, and a populous church yard. Sweet picture!
Now we leave this behind and climb the mount, beguiling the way with all that we can recall about the lordly owners of the castle. Perhaps in the dim past they trooped down this very path, spurring past on prancing war horse, accoutrements flashing in the morning sun, visors, lances, chain mail all agleam. Mayhap the cohort is gathered for some festa, such as a wedding or a christening; the welcome of a stranger lord, or perhaps an act of high suzerainty is on, such as the chartering of an
Abbey - or an enfranchisement of Lorraine. Alliances were made here between King Henry and the Duke of Lorraine, and oaths of fealty were sworn in the great halls above on many occasions. Vows to purge the Holy Land of the paynim hordes were solemnly taken by these lords of Eguisheim, and some of these left their bones before the sacred walls. The legends are woven into the history of this great castle like a cord of scarlet. The mighty Boufflers battered at its gates, and doubtless the names of the Knights who capitulated to him are in the chronicles writ for shame in scarlet capitals by the monks. Thereafter its history is coupled with the names of brute Barons of ill repute who occupied the region when it was mangled by their hordes. Many of these wonderful old demesnes fell in such manner.
A toilsome climb brought us to a small whitewashed house, where was a very old, but bright·eyed peasant woman, who collected a fee in advance and handed us a huge key attached by a string to a long billet of wood. She then waved us away, pointing to the pathway leading through the bushes. At length we reached a beetling tower in which was a small door. Unlocking this, we came into a deep-fissured donjon with rough, jagged walls of huge stones in which were rather forbidding openings leading to subterraneans rarely explored now. Here were great heaps of debris in which were fragments of carved capitals and floriated mouldings of beautiful
character. Looking upwards one saw mullions of windows, now empty of tracery, and the abutting supports of escutcheoned chimney-pieces. Here once clanked silver spurs, and rustled cloth of gold; here sparkled gems, rattled and clinked tall beakers; here oaths were sworn.
Leaning in the embrasure of one of the slender lancelike windows, one was confronted with an enchanting vista; the whole fronting gorge from foreground to distance is the castle's own. Right and left the valley rolls away and northward closes the gateway; southward is a vivid green sea of wavy table lands, and farther on one great dull green billow where another ruined castle upbears itself against a sky heavily piled with cumulus cloud.
The old custode showed us, in her hut below, a great bound volume clasped with brass and fastened by a chain to the wall. It was a manuscript register of vellum sheets minutely inscribed and here and there quaintly initialed. It seemed to be the steward's accounts of the castle, as well as I could make out, but it was in such bad repair from age, moisture and dirt that I could make little sense of it, even if I could have read it fluently, which I could not. I did, however, make out some noble names and titles, as well as statements as to the sale of cattle, and expenses for repairs. There was, too, an immense illuminated family tree, and this was folded several
times, so that it was fairly in rags. Into this volume were bound a large number of sheets of paper upon which appreciative travellers had written their names and comments. I am bound to confess that we did likewise and paid the fee. And now for the legend-never mind how I had it.
The tale is told thus: In days gone by a wicked Knight Otto dwelt here, who was forever preying upon or quarrelling with the neighboring nobles. But one redeeming trait had he, according to report, in his love for his daughter, Ermintrude, who was as gentle as her sire was ill-tempered. As he was the curse of the country-side, so was she its darling pride. It chanced one day that it was reported to Otto that the Seigneur Nicolas had called him an inelegant archaic name which cannot be written here, but which may be imagined. So the very next day, when Nicolas was hunting in the forest and separated from his followers, he all at once was dragged from his horse and bound and gagged, by Otto's men, carried to Eguisheim and cast into an oubliette, where lay this doughty lord languishing for many a day upon a heap of mouldy straw, awaiting the pleasure of Otto. Came a day when, having long given himself up for very despair, he had prepared to die. All at once he heard the sound of a softly-drawn bolt, and, glancing upwards, he beheld the heavy oaken plank open, and there, all aureoled like unto a very Saint, in a flood of strong light
that streamed down upon the hapless Seigneur, he looked into the sweet face of the Lady Ermintrude. Removing the plank she stepped lightly down the rungs of the iron ladder and knelt at the side of the Seigneur Nicolas, saying, "My father is at the hunt today, and I am come in pity to set you free, that your blood be not upon his head," saying which she brought forth a large file and set about severing the chain at his waist, which held him fast to the wall. He, ever praying to her his thanks in broken sentences, gazed upon her lovely face, as if it had been truly that of a Holy Angel rather than that of a lovely, wilful red-cheeked maid with braided yellow hair like spun gold. So when the heavy iron band had at length been sawn through, up rose the Seigneur Nicolas painfully to his feet, and then, all at once prostrated himself at the feet of the maiden, seizing rapturously the hem of her embroidered gown and kissing it as if he would never leave off. Dirty and unkempt as he was, she thought him handsome, and with a blush she drew away, saying: "Haste-haste away! You've not an instant to lose," and Nicolas obeyed her, "but," says the chronicle, "with great reluctance, so much was he taken with her angel beauty." Once safe away, and in his castle among his brave and doughty followers, he and they decreed that their patience with Otto being at an end, they must burn this wild boar, Otto, in his den, if they could not capture him
alive. Nicolas called upon the neighboring lords for 'help, and they, being tired of Otto and all his works, willingly and cheerfully joined Nicolas. Early the following morning a great troop of mounted horsemen emerged upon the road leading up to the gates of Eguisheim. Among these were the high lords of Albourg, Hels, Wissen, Crey, Assembal, and Echt. At their head rode Nicolas upon a big white horse.
Otto regarded them thoughtfully from the tower window, stroking his blue-black beard with a somewhat unsteady hand, for his head still throbbed with the deep libations of the night before. Then he glowered upon his followers, "Let down the bridge," he growled, "let's see if they dare to come up - I- " What more he would have said is unknown, for he never finished. Out of the tail of his eye he caught sight of Nicolas mounted upon the great white horse, at the head of the cavalcade, -Nicolas, whom he thought safely chained by the waist to the floor of his dungeon deep below the castle walls! With a howl of anger he rushed to the court, pulled away the plank, and seizing a fire-brand threw it down into the oubliette. Of course it was empty. Then all at once the truth dawned upon him, - his daughter, Ermintrude. He rushed upon her where she stood among her women at the stairway, and dragging her away by the hair, threw her down into the dungeon where Nicolas had lain so long.
The chronicle says that he cursed them both, and that it was a long and bitter battle that was fought ere the castle was entered. But finally it was surrendered to the forces of Nicolas, the torch was put to it, and Otto-hung by the heels in chains-was about to receive the "stroke of mercy" at the hands of his conqueror, who instead said to him, "Where is Ermintrude'? Tell me truly and I spare thy life, and even set thee free." But Otto, his yellow and bloodshot eyes gleaming viciously, gritted his teeth and defiantly growled out, "She is where I had thee, thou-!" "With me, warriors!" shouted Nicolas to his men; and thus into the blazing ruin of falling walls and timbers and running streams of molten lead, went the valiant Nicolas to join the fair Ermintrude, "and may their souls ever rest in Paradise." So ends the chronicle.
There is, however, it seems, another and much happier ending to this tale, which Lady Anne had from the lips of her neighbor at the table d'hote, from whom she gathered much information regarding the region. This version had it that many years afterwards, when the old tower had been repaired and Nicolas and Ermintrude, with their children, were seated in the great court enjoying the afternoon sun, to them one day came a venerable and travel-stained old man, to beg shelter and forgiveness of those he had wronged, and that he might end his days in peace and good works in the service of God. It was the once fierce and ungodly Knight Otto, who had
escaped from his captors, and gone to the Holy Land with the Crusaders, where he had been converted to Christianity. Returning thus repentant, he was welcomed by his daughter Ermintrude and forgiven by Nicolas. The tale has it that he lived long and happily with them, and was known and loved the country round for his piety and good works. Thus one may take one's choice of these endings.
The lords of this great castle were lords indeed. Paladin or Suzerain could not govern more absolutely than they. They owed allegiance only to the Emperor, and even this formed but a loose shackle that bound these marauding lords and barons to the throne. Thus the whilom lord who ruled here was at once Seigneur, Lord High Justice of provostry and town, Chief Elector, leader of all ecclesiastical officers and dignitaries, and governor in Council of State. In times of peace, when there were such, the people lived, it is gravely stated in the chronicles, "most happy and contented under such protection." Then it came to pass that ambitious Bishops and Abbots aspired to high powers. Priests overflowed the region, particularly Lotharingia (Lotharii Regnum) . Great abbatial castles were built, really fortified churches; and harvests were gathered to the sound of ringing "Te Deums."
"These holy men," the Emperor Charles the Fourth is declared to have said, "no less for the renown of their
virtue than for the merit of their piety, shine illustrious throughout the universe." Once the great Charlemagne, with his usual high-handedness, appeared here at one of these abbatial fortresses and amused himself by administering its offices for a period. But this form of amusement proved often the undoing of its devotees. The wearing of the mitre in the name of the cross, so attractive to ambitious nobles for its peculiar power, led to its particular punishment. In old paintings in the museums may be seen the ceremonies presided over by these ambitious princes, who wield the cross installed in all the pomp of the chair abbatial. This excited the spleen and envy of other powerful but less fortunate nobles, among them Siegfried, Count of Luxembourg, who at length induced the Emperor to turn them out, and restore the properties to the monks. The great castle and its abbey, stacked and piled with wealth and filled with countless treasures of art and precious objects brought to its treasury from age to age by both prince and pilgrim, became an object of desire, a very mine for depredation, so that again and again it was attacked and pillaged. More than once, 'tis said, in the fifteenth century, it was besieged and sacked by the Prince Archbishops of Treves, who turned it into a camp and arsenal. Albert of Brandenberg set it on fire. The Dutch troops held it for a period in the sixteenth century, levying a tax upon it of five thousand crowns in lieu of destroying it, and the sol
diers of Louis XIV left upon its walls traces of their occupancy. Then the Revolution blasted the walls, scattered the faithful followers of the reigning baron, blew up the great donjons, and in the smoke, fire and dust disappeared the wonderful works of art, the great library, and all that made Dreien-Eguisheim mighty, leaving the dismantled shell on this cliff as one now beholds it.
[End of Section 12]
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