The Ghosty Bridegroom (2)
Now let's return to the Katzenellenbogen family, who were waiting for their guest - and for their dinner. Night came, and still the count hadn't arrived. Their dinner couldn't wait. The meats were nearly burnt, the cook was half worried to death, and everyone in the castle had hungry faces, like soldiers who hadn't eaten for months.
In the end, the baron gave orders for the meal to begin immediately. Everyone was just sitting down at the table, when suddenly they heard the sound of a horn at the castle gate. A stranger was outside, asking to enter. Quickly the baron went to welcome his future son-in-law.
The gate opened, and the stranger, horn in hand, waited outside. He was a tall, fine-looking young man on a black horse. His face was pale, but he had shining mysterious eyes and a look of proud sadness about him.
The baron was surprised to see he'd come alone, without any servants. At first he felt annoyed.
'Doesn't that young man realize this is an important visit, and an important family he's marrying into?'
But then he calmed down, saying to himself, 'His youthful excitement has made him hurry here before his servants.'
'I'm sorry,' began the stranger, getting down from his horse, 'to arrive like this at this hour-'
The baron stopped him from saying more by welcoming him warmly and politely. He was proud of his own skill at speaking. Once or twice the stranger tried to stop the river of fine words, but he couldn't. In the end he just looked down at the ground and let it all wash over him.
By the time the baron had finished, they were deep inside the castle. Once more the stranger tried to speak, but this time he was stopped by the arrival of the women of the family, bringing his nervous young bride to meet him. He stared at her for a moment like a man in a dream. His eyes shone lovingly as he took in her beautiful face and figure.
One of the unmarried aunts whispered something in the young woman's ear. She tried to speak, lifting her bright blue eyes from the ground to look at her bridegroom nervously, but the words died on her soft lips.
Then she looked back at the floor, although there was now the ghost of a smile on her pretty face, showing she liked what she'd seen. Indeed it was impossible for a young girl of eighteen, who often dreamt of love, not to be pleased by this good-looking young man.
Because their guest had arrived so late, the baron said, 'Let's leave all talk of the wedding until tomorrow.'
He at once invited the young man to join them at the long table in the great hall where dinner waited for them.
From the walls the pictures of the baron's hard-faced ancestors looked down on them as they ate. Next to them there were old battle flags with lots of holes in them, several badly beaten bits of armor, and the heads of a number of wild animals from the nearby forest that different Katzenellenbogens had hunted, caught, and killed over the centuries.
The young man didn't take much notice of the other dinner guests, and touched little of the fine meal. He seemed too busy with his bride to think of things like that.
He spoke softly to her in words that those sitting next to them found hard to catch. But a woman can always hear the soft, sweet voice of her lover. His seriousness and gentleness seemed to touch the young lady deeply, and she listened closely to all he said, sometimes smiling and sometimes serious.
From time to time she said something back to him. And when he wasn't looking at her, she watched him out of the corner of her eye and sighed happily.
The two unmarried aunts, who both knew the mysteries of the heart well, told their neighbours at the table, 'We're sure the two of them fell in love the moment they met.'
The dinner went on happily. The baron's poorer relatives ate hungrily, in the way that people with little money do after they've spent days walking in the mountains.
The baron told his best stories with great success. When it was a mystery story, his listeners were suitably surprised, and when it was amusing, they laughed in all the right places.
Other, cleverer relatives told even funnier stories, or whispered things in the ladies' ears that made it hard for them not to laugh. One very happy, round-faced man sang some not very polite songs that made the unmarried aunts' faces turn red.
But instead of enjoying the fun of the party, the bridegroom looked a little out of place. His face became more miserable as the evening went on, and - strangely - the baron's funny stories made him look even sadder.
Sometimes he seemed to forget all around him. At other times he looked round the hall with restless eyes that spoke of an uneasy heart.
His conversations with his bride became more serious and mysterious. Her pretty face became clouded with worry, and she began to shake nervously at his words.
The people sitting near them noticed. They couldn't understand why the bridegroom looked so miserable, but his coldness darkened the warm happiness of all around him.
People began whispering to each other and shaking their heads. Songs and laughs died on people's lips, and there were uncomfortable silences in conversations.
Then people began telling stories about ghosts and other wild figures of the night. Each story was more frightening than the one before it. In the end, the baron made several ladies scream at the now very famous story of the 'goblin horseman'. He told of how the strange mannish thing on a black horse came quietly one dark midnight and took the beautiful Leonora, the only child of her mother and father, from her room, and how she was never seen again alive after that night.
The bridegroom listened to this story with interest. Just before the baron finished, the young man began to stand up. He grew taller and taller until - to the baron at his side - he seemed like a great mountain of a man standing over him. Immediately the story was finished, the young man sighed deeply and said goodbye to everyone. They were all surprised, and no one was more surprised than the baron himself.
'Are you planning to leave at midnight? But everything's ready for you to stay with us tonight! Please go to your room now if you'd like to lie down.'
The stranger shook his head sadly saying, 'I must lie in a different place tonight.'
There was something about this answer, and the way it was said, that made the baron's heart stop for a second. But he pulled himself together and again warmly invited the young man to stay.
The stranger shook his head silently. Waving goodbye to everyone, he walked slowly from the hall. The unmarried aunts sat as still as stones, and the bride began to cry.
The baron followed the stranger outside to where his black horse was waiting. As they stood at the castle entrance, the stranger turned and spoke to the baron in a deep, loud voice which the high roof above them made deeper and louder.
'Now we're alone I'll tell you why I must go. I have business that cannot wait which calls me away.'
'Can't you send someone in your place?'
'No. I must go myself. I have to be in Wurtzburg Cathedral-'
'Yes, but not now. Tomorrow you'll take your bride and marry her there.'
'No!' replied the stranger, ten times more seriously than before. 'I'm not going to marry. Death is waiting. I'm a dead man. I was killed by robbers. My body lies in Wurtzburg. At midnight they'll bury me. My grave is waiting. I mustn't be late!'
With that, he jumped on his horse, rode across the wooden bridge that took him to the road, and soon disappeared into the dark, windy night.
The baron returned worriedly to the great hall and told everyone there what had happened. Two ladies fainted, and others felt sick at the idea that they'd eaten dinner at the same table as a ghost.
Some said, 'Perhaps he's the Wild Hunter.'
He's a famous ghostly figure in many old German stories: a tall, strong, larger-than-life fighter, riding a black horse through the air at midnight. He often calls loudly to the group of noisy big black dogs around him. Their eyes always shine with red fire when they smell the warm meat of lonely travellers still out on the road after dark. The Wild Hunter hunts the living, and a crazy crowd of thin grey figures always dances after him. These are the ghosts of the newly dead - headless, armless, or legless - who moan and bleed helplessly as they're pulled by the Hunter and his dogs through the endless night sky.
Others disagreed with that idea. 'Perhaps he came out of the dark rocky heart of a mountain, or from deep under the ground below an old tree in the forest,' they said.
Anyone who didn't really believe the bridegroom was a terrible ghost or goblin of some kind had to change their ideas the following day. Next morning a letter arrived at the castle explaining about the young count's murder, and his funeral in Wurtzburg Cathedral.