The Ghosty Bridegroom (1)
A long time ago, on a mountain in the Odenwald - that forested part of southern Germany where the Main river meets the Rhine - Baron Von Landshort's castle stood. These days nearly nothing is left of it, but in those days it looked down on the country around it - like its owner.
The baron was a proud man from the Katzenellenbogen family. His father, a great army man, had left him the castle, and the baron took care of it as well as he could.
Other old German families had sold their uncomfortable castles in the hills and built more comfortable houses in the valleys. But the baron stayed and continued with the old family ways. This meant he often argued with his neighbours, because his ancestors had once disagreed with theirs.
The baron had only one child, a beautiful daughter. Two unmarried aunts cared for her when she was a child, and taught her all the important things a young lady should know.
By the time she was eighteen, she could read without trouble. She could also write her name without forgetting a single letter - and big enough for her aunts to read without their glasses. She could dance, play the guitar, and sing severed beautiful love songs from memory, too.
Her aunts, who had lived for love when they were young, always kept a careful eye on her, and made sure she never got into trouble. She never left the castle alone, and had to listen to endless talks about the importance of politeness.
'You must always obey your father,' one aunt told her.
'Never get close to men, and never believe a word they say,' said the other.
Her aunts felt sure that, although other young women might make mistakes in matters of love, this would never happen to the baron's daughter.
'Without her father's approval, she won't look twice at the best-looking young man in the world, even if he's dying at her feet,' they thought.
Plenty of other people lived in the baron's castle with him. He had many poorer relatives who often visited him for big family parties paid for by the baron.
They always told him after a few drinks, 'There's nothing more enjoyable than our visits to your home.'
The baron was a small man with a big heart. He loved telling stories about the brave old Katzenellenbogen fighters who stared down proudly from their pictures on the castle walls. His special favorites were ghost stories. Each story he told was always listened to happily by his poor relatives, even if it was the hundredth time they'd heard it.
This was the baron's life. He was like a king in his castle, and believed himself to be the cleverest man in the world.
On the day when my story begins, the baron had planned a big party in the castle to celebrate the arrival of his daughter's future bridegroom.
The baron and a very grand old man from one of the finest families in Bavaria had decided to join their fortunes together by marrying their children to each other. Letters of great politeness were sent and replied to. Although they hadn't even seen each other, the young pair were engaged to be married, and the date for the wedding was decided.
Young Count von Altenburg had left the army in order to come and fetch his bride from the baron's castle. Earlier he'd sent a letter from the nearest city, which the baron had read with interest:
Sir, I have some business to finish here in Wurtzburg which has made me later than I planned, but I'll arrive soon.
Now everyone in the castle was making things ready for the young man's arrival. The future bride was wearing her finest clothes. Her two aunts had argued all morning about every single thing she should wear, so she'd left them arguing and had chosen her clothes herself. Luckily she had good taste. She looked as lovely as any young bridegroom could wish for, and her excitement meant that her pink face and shining eyes made her look even more beautiful than usual.
Her sighs and the dreamy look in her eyes all told of the gentle hopes and fears that fought together in her little heart. And now her aunts were at her side, telling her what to do and what to say to her lover when he arrived. Unmarried aunts are always good at that kind of thing!
The baron was running worriedly here and there, telling his servants to take care with this or that. He had nothing special to do, but was a naturally active man who hated sitting still when all around him were in a hurry.
The castle kitchen was full of food, and a small cow was cooking on the fire, together with the fattest birds from the nearby forest. The most excellent drinks the baron had to offer were all ready for the young count to taste.
But the young bridegroom was late. After some hours, the sun began to disappear behind the mountain tops. The baron climbed to the highest room in the castle and looked out of the window, hoping to see the count and his servants coming along the mountain road.
Once he thought he could see them, but it was only some men on horses who went past his castle. In the end, it became too dark for the baron to see the road clearly.
While all this was happening, in a different part of the Odenwald forest, two young men were riding along. One was Count Von Altenburg, who was going unhurriedly to meet his future bride. The other was a good army friend of his - Herman von Starkenfaust - whom he'd met by chance in Wurtzburg.
Starkenfaust was one of the strongest, bravest men in Germany. He was returning from the army to his father's castle. This was close to Baron Landshort's home, although their two families never spoke because their ancestors had argued long ago.
The two young men were travelling the same way, so they agreed to ride onwards together.
The count told his servants, 'You can follow and catch up with me later.'
Then he rode off with his friend through the forest. On the way they first talked happily about their memories of army life. Then the count became a little boring when he started speaking about his future bride.
'Everyone says she's so beautiful, and I'm really looking forward to married life,' he said.
In those days German forests were as full of robbers as German castles were full of ghosts. So it's not surprising that, when they reached the loneliest part of the Odenwald, they were attacked by a group of thieves. Both fought bravely, but soon they were losing the battle.
Just then, the count's servants arrived and ran to help them. The criminals ran away. But before leaving, one of them pushed his knife deep into the count's side, leaving him badly hurt on the forest floor.
Slowly and carefully his servants carried him back to the city of Wurtzburg. There they took him to a man of the church who was also famous for his doctorly skill, but it was too late for half of the man's skills to be of any use. No medicines could save the young count now. He was dying.
His last words were to the friend who stood at his bedside.
'Go at once to the castle of Landshort and explain why I couldn't come to meet my bride.'
He wasn't perhaps the most loving of lovers, but he was a serious young man, and asked Starkenfaust to give the sad news as nicely as possible.
'If you don't, I won't rest in my grave.' he said.
'I'll do what you ask,' Starkenfaust promised, giving the dying man his hand.
The count took it and held it for a while, but soon he became feverish, and began talking crazily.
'I mustn't break my promise. I must ride to Landshort myself to meet my bride.'
He died while he was trying to get out of bed, run out of the door and jump onto his horse.
Starkenfaust cried a little over his friend's early death. Then he began to think of the difficult job he'd agreed to do.
'How can I visit the castle of my father's enemy unasked, bringing depressing news that will destroy his hopes and happiness?' he said to himself.
On the other hand, he was very interested in meeting this young Katzenellenbogen woman whom people said was so beautiful, and who was kept locked away from the world in her father's castle. He loved beautiful women, and he enjoyed adventures.
Before leaving Wurtzburg, he arranged for the count's funeral to take place in the cathedral, where several of Von Altenburg's relatives were buried. The rest he left to the young man's servants.