The Countess Itha
I n the days of King Coeur-de-Lion the good Count Hartmann ruled in Kirchberg in the happy Swabian land. And never had that fair land been happier than it was in those days, for the Count was a devout Christian, a lover of peace in the midst of warlike and rapacious barons, and a ruler just and merciful to his vassals. Among the green and pleasant hills on his domain he had founded a monastery for the monks of St. Benedict, and thither he often rode with his daughter Itha, the delight of his heart and the light of the grim old castle of the Kirchberg; so that, seeing the piety of her father, she grew up in the love and fear of God, and from her gentle mother she learned to feel a deep compassion for the poor and afflicted.
No sweeter maid than she, with her blue eyes and light brown hair, was there in all that land of sturdy men and nut-brown maidens. The people loved the very earth she stood on. In their days of trouble and sorrow she was their morning and their evening star, and they never wearied of praising her goodness and her beauty.
When Itha was in the bloom of her girlhood it befell that the young Count Heinrich of the Toggenburg, journeying homeward from the famous tournament at Cologne, heard of this peerless flower of Swabia, and turned aside to the Castle of Kirchberg to see if perchance he might win a good and lovely wife. He was made welcome, and no sooner had he looked on Itha's fair and loving face, and marked with what modesty and courtesy she bore herself, than he heard joy-bells ringing in his heart, and said, "Now, by the blessed cross, here is the pearl of price for me!" Promptly he wooed her with tender words, and with eyes that spoke more than tongue could find words for, and passionate observance, and all that renders a man pleasing to a maid.
And Itha was not loth to be won, for the Count was young and handsome, tall and strong, and famous for feats of arms, and a mighty lord—master of the rich straths and valleys of the Thur River, and of many a burgh and district in the mountains beyond; and yet, despite all this, he, so noble and beautiful, loved her, even her, the little Swabian maid who had never deemed herself likely to come to such honour and happiness. Nor were the kindly father and mother ill-pleased that so goodly a man and so mighty a lord should have their dear child.
So in a little while the Count put on Itha's hand the ring of betrothal, and Itha, smiling and blushing, raised it to her lips and kissed it. "Blissful ring!" said the Count jestingly; "and yet, dearest heart, you do well to cherish it, for it is an enchanted ring, an old ring of which there are many strange stories." Even while he was speaking Itha's heart misgave her, and she was aware of a feeling of doubt and foreboding; but she looked at the ring and saw how massive was the gold and how curiously wrought and set with rare gems, and its brilliancy and beauty beguiled her of her foreboding, and she asked no questions of the stories told of it or of the nature of its enchantment.
Quickly on the betrothal followed the marriage and the leave-taking. With tears in her eyes Itha rode away with her lord, looking back often to the old castle and gazing farewell on the pleasant land and the fields and villages she should not see again for, it might be, many long years. But by her side rode the Count, ever gay and tender, and he comforted her in her sadness, and lightened the way with loving converse, till she put from her all her regret and longing, and made herself happy in their love.
So they journeyed through the rocks and wildwood of the Schwartzwald, and came in view of the blue waters of the lake of Constance glittering in the sun, and saw the vast mountain region beyond with its pine forests, and above the forests the long blue mists on the high pastures, and far over all, hanging like silvery summer clouds in the blue heavens, the shining peaks of the snowy Alps. And here, at last, they were winding down the fruitful valley of the Thur, and yonder, perched on a rugged bluff, rose the stern walls of Castle Toggenburg, with banners flying from the turrets, and the rocky roadway strewn with flowers, and vassals and retainers crowding to welcome home the bride.
Now, for all his tenderness and gaiety and sweetness in wooing, the Count Heinrich was a hasty and fiery man, quickly stirred to anger and blind rage, and in his storms of passion he was violent and cruel. Not long after their home-coming—woe worth the while!—he flashed out ever and anon in his hot blood at little things which ruffled his temper, and spoke harsh words which his gentle wife found hard to bear, and which in his better moments he sincerely repented. Very willingly she forgave him, but though at first he would kiss and caress her, afterwards her very forgiveness and her meekness chafed and galled his proud spirit, so that the first magical freshness of love faded from their life, even as the dew dries on the flower in the heat of the morning.
Not far from the castle, in a clearing in the woods, nestled the little convent and chapel of Our Lady in the Meadow, and thither, attended by one of her pages, the Countess Itha went daily to pray for her husband, that he might conquer the violence of his wild heart, and for herself, that she might not grow to fear him more than she loved him. In these days of her trial, and in the worse days to come, a great consolation it was to her to kneel in the silent chapel and pour out her unhappiness to her whose heart had been pierced by seven swords of sorrow.
Time went by, and when no little angel came from the knees of God to lighten her burden and to restrain with its small hands the headlong passion of her husband, the Count was filled with bitterness of spirit as he looked forward to a childless old age, and reflected that all the fruitful straths of the Toggenburg, and the valleys and townships, would pass away to some kinsman, and no son of his would there be to prolong the memory of his name and greatness. When this gloomy dread had taken possession of him, he would turn savagely on the Countess in his fits of fury, and cry aloud: "Out of my sight! For all thy meekness and thy praying and thy almsgiving, God knows it was an ill day when I set eyes on that fair face of thine!" Yet this was in no way his true thought, for in spite of his lower nature the Count loved her, but it is ever the curse of anger in a man that it shall wreak itself most despitefully on his nearest and best. And Itha, who had learned this in the school of long-suffering, answered never a word, but only prayed the more constantly and imploringly.
In the train of the Countess there were two pages, Dominic, an Italian, whom she misliked for his vanity and boldness, and Cuno, a comely Swabian lad, who had followed her from her father's house. Most frequently when she went to Our Lady in the Meadow she dismissed Dominic and bade Cuno attend her, for in her distress it was some crumb of comfort to see the face of a fellow-countryman, and to speak to him of Kirchberg and the dear land she had left. But Dominic, seeing that the Swabian was preferred, hated Cuno, and bore the lady scant goodwill, and in a little set his brain to some device by which he might vent his malice on both. This was no difficult task, for the Count was as prone to jealousy as he was quick to wrath, and with crafty hint and wily jest and seemingly aimless chatter the Italian sowed the seeds of suspicion and watchfulness in his master's mind.
Consider, then, if these were not days of heartbreak for this lady, still so young and so beautiful, so unlovingly entreated, and so far away from the home of her happy childhood. Yet she bore all patiently and without complaint or murmur, only at times when she looked from terrace or tower her gaze travelled beyond the deep pine-woods, and in a wistful day-dream she retraced, beyond the great lake and the Black Forest, all the long way she had ridden so joyfully with her dear husband by her side.
One day in the springtime, when the birds of passage had flown northward, carrying her tears and kisses with them, she bethought her of the rich apparel in which she had been wed, and took it from the carved oaken coffer to sweeten in the sun. Among her jewels she came upon her betrothal ring, and the glitter of it reminded her of what her lord had said of its enchantment and the strange stories told of it. "Are any of them so sad and strange as mine?" she wondered with tears in her eyes; then kissing the ring in memory of that first kiss she had given it, she laid it on a table in the window-bay, and busied herself with the bridal finery; and while she was so busied she was called away to some cares of her household, and left the chamber.
When she returned to put away her marriage treasures, the betrothal ring was missing. On the instant a cold fear came over her. In vain she searched the coffer and the chamber; in vain she endeavoured to persuade herself that she must have mislaid the jewel, or that perchance the Count had seen it, and partly in jest and partly in rebuke of her carelessness, had taken it. The ring had vanished, and in spite of herself she felt that its disappearance portended some terrible evil. Too fearful to arouse her husband's anger, she breathed no word of her loss, and trusted to time or oblivion for a remedy.
No great while after this, as the Swabian page was rambling in the wood near the convent, he heard a great outcry of ravens around a nest in an ancient fir-tree, and prompted partly by curiosity to know the cause of the disquiet, and partly by the wish to have a young raven for sport in the winter evenings, he climbed up to the nest. Looking into the great matted pack of twigs, heather and lamb's wool, he caught sight of a gold ring curiously chased and set with sparkling gems; and slipping it gleefully on his finger he descended the tree and went his way homeward to the castle.
A few days later when the Count by chance cast his eye on the jewel, he recognised it at a glance for the enchanted ring of many strange stories. The crafty lies of the Italian Dominic flashed upon him; and, never questioning that the Countess had given the ring to her favourite, he sprang upon Cuno as though he would strangle him. Then in a moment he flung him aside, and in a voice of thunder cried for the wildest steed in his stables to be brought forth. Paralysed with fright, the luckless page was seized and bound by the heels to the tail of the half-tame creature, which was led out beyond the drawbridge, and pricked with daggers till it flung off the men-at-arms and dashed screaming down the rocky ascent into the wildwood.
Stung to madness by his jealousy, the Count rushed to the apartment of the Countess. "False and faithless, false and faithless!" he cried in hoarse rage, and clutching her in his iron grasp, lifted her in the air and hurled her through the casement into the horrible abyss below.
As she fell Itha commended her soul to God. The world seemed to reel and swim around her; she felt as if that long lapse through space would never have an end, and then it appeared to her as though she were peacefully musing in her chair, and she saw the castle of Kirchberg and the pleasant fields lying serene in the sunlight, and the happy villages, each with its great crucifix beside its rustic church, and men and women at labour in the fields. How long that vision lasted she could not tell. Then as in her fall she was passing through the tops of the trees which climbed up the lower ledges of the castle rocks, green leafy hands caught her dress and held her a little, and strong arms closed about her, and yielded slowly till she touched the ground; and she knew that the touch of these was not the mere touch of senseless things, but a contact of sweetness and power which thrilled through her whole being.
Falling on her knees, she thanked God for her escape, and rising again she went into the forest, wondering whither she should betake herself and what she should do; for now she had no husband and no home. She left the beaten track, and plunging through the bracken, walked on till she was tired. Then she sat down on a boulder. Among the pines it was already dusk, and the air seemed filled with a grey mist, but this was caused by the innumerable dry wiry twigs which fringed the lower branches of the trees with webs of fine cordage; and when a ray of the setting sun struck through the pine trunks, it lit up the bracken with emerald and brightened the ruddy scales of the pine bark to red gold. Here it was dry and sheltered, with the thick carpet of pine-needles underfoot and the thick roof of branches overhead: and but for dread of wild creatures she thought she might well pass the night in this place. To-morrow she would wander further and learn how life might be sustained in the forest.
The last ray of sunshine died away; the deep woods began to blacken; a cool air sighed in the high tops of the trees. It was very homeless and lonely. She took heart, however, remembering God's goodness to her, and placing her confidence in His care.
Suddenly she perceived a glimmering of lights among the pines. Torches they seemed, a long way off; and she thought it must be the retainers of the Count, who, finding she had not been killed by her fall, had sent them out to seek for her. The lights drew nearer, and she sat very still, resigned to her fate whatsoever it might be. And yet nearer they came, till at length by their shining she saw a great stag with lordly antlers, and on the tines of the antlers glittered tongues of flame.
Slowly the beautiful creature came up to her and regarded her with his large soft brown eyes. Then he moved away a little and looked back, as though he were bidding her follow him. She rose and walked by his side, and he led her far through the forest, till they came to an overhanging rock beside a brook, and there he stopped.
In this hidden nook of the mountain-forest she made her home. With branches and stones and turf she walled in the open hollow of the rock. In marshy places she gathered the thick spongy mosses, yellow and red, and dried them in the sun for warmth at night in the cold weather. She lived on roots and berries, acorns and nuts and wild fruit, and these in their time of plenty she stored against the winter. Birds' eggs she found in the spring; in due season the hinds, with their young, came to her and gave her milk for many days; the wild bees provided her with honey. With slow and painful toil she wove the cotton-grass and the fibres of the bark of the birch, so that she should not lack for clothing.
In the warm summer months there was a great tranquility and hushed joy in this hard life. A tender magic breathed in the colour and music of the forest, in its long pauses of windless day-dreaming, in its breezy frolic with the sunshine. The trees and boulders were kindly; and the turf reminded her of her mother's bosom. About her refuge the wild flowers grew in plenty—primrose and blue gentian, yellow cinquefoil and pink geranium, and forget-me-nots, and many more, and these looked up at her with the happy faces of little children who were innocent and knew no care; and over whole acres lay the bloom of the ling, and nothing more lovely grows on earthly hills. Through breaks in the woodland she saw afar the Alpine heights, and the bright visionary peaks of snow floating in the blue air like glimpses of heaven.
But it was a bitter life in the winter-tide, when the forest fretted and moaned, and snow drifted about the shelter, and the rocks were jagged with icicles, and the stones of the brook were glazed with cold, and the dark came soon and lasted long. She had no fire, but, by God's good providence, in this cruel season the great stag came to her at dusk, and couched in the hollow of the rock beside her, and the lights on his antlers lit up the poor house, and the glow of his body and his pleasant breath gave her warmth.
Here, then, dead to the world, dead to all she loved most dearly, Itha consecrated herself body and soul to God for the rest of her earthly years. If she suffered as the wild children of nature suffer, she was free at least from the cares and sorrows with which men embitter each other's existence. Here she would willingly live so long as God willed; here she would gladly surrender her soul when He was pleased to call it home.
The days of her exile were many. For seventeen years she dwelt thus in her hermitage in the forest, alone and forgotten.
Forgotten, did I say? Not wholly. The Count never forgot her. Stung by remorse (for in his heart of hearts he could not but believe her true and innocent), haunted by the recollection of the happiness he had flung from him, wifeless, childless, friendless, he could find no rest or forgetfulness except in the excitement and peril of the battle-field. But the slaughter of men and the glory of victory were as dust and ashes in his mouth. He had lost the joy of life, the pride of race, the exultation of power. For one look from those sweet eyes, over which, doubtless, the hands of some grateful peasant had laid the earth, he would have joyfully exchanged renown and lordship, and even life itself.
At length in the fulness of God's good time, it chanced that the Count was hunting in a distant part of the forest, when he started from its covert a splendid stag. Away through the open the beautiful creature seemed to float before him, and Heinrich followed in hot chase. Across grassy clearings and through dim vistas of pines, over brooks and among boulders and through close underwood, the fleet quarry led him without stop or stay, till at last it reached the hanging rock which was Itha's cell, and there it stood at bay; and alarmed by the clatter of hoofs, a tall pale woman, rudely clad in her poor forest garb, came to the entrance.
Surprised at so strange a sight, the Count drew rein and stared at the woman. Despite the lapse of time and her pallor and emaciation, in an instant he recognised the wife whom he believed dead, and she too recognised the husband she had loved.
How shall I tell of all that was said between those two by that lonely hermitage in the depth of the forest? As in the old days, she was eager to forgive everything; but it was in vain that the Count besought her to return to the life which she had forgotten for so many years. Long had she been dead and buried, so far as earthly things were concerned. She would prefer, despite the hardness and the pain, to spend in this peaceful spot what time was yet allotted to her, but that she longed once more to hear the music of the holy bells, to kneel once more before the altar of God.
What plea could Heinrich use to shake her resolution? His shame and remorse, even his love, held him tongue-tied. He saw that she was no longer the meek gentle Swabian maiden who had shrunk and wept at every hasty word and sharp glance of his. He had slain all human love in her; nothing survived save that large charity of the Saints which binds them to all suffering souls on the earth.
Woefully he consented to her one wish. A simple cell was prepared for her in the wood beside the chapel of Our Lady in the Meadow, and there she dwelt until, in a little while, her gentle spirit was called home.