Charlemagne and the Robber
Charlemagne had a great castle on the Rhine, in which he loved to live. Here he could watch the beautiful river and the far-off hills and mountains, and in the deep forest could find game for himself and his friends.
One evening when he had fallen into a deep sleep an angel appeared to him in his dreams. The angel was clothed in great splendor, and around its head was a bright light. Approaching the bed of the sleeping monarch, the angel said, "Arise, great Emperor, and clothe thyself, and take thy helmet and sword. It is the will of fate that thou goest forth secretly and alone, and steal something from thy own people."
Charlemagne awoke much astonished. The dream seemed strange and wonderful. So impossible was it that an emperor should be commanded to become a robber, that he lay down and went back to sleep.
Again the angel appeared as before, standing by the side of his bed. This time it stretched forth its hand, and spoke sternly, "Arise, Emperor, as I have ordered thee! Do not tarry. Get thee into the forest and steal for thyself and thy kingdom. Thou shalt repent it forever if thou disobeyest my words." With that the vision was gone.
Charlemagne awoke from his sleep, and rose from his bed, for he dared not disobey the words of the angel, though he thought the mission was ill suited to one of his station.
"Why should I turn robber in my own forest, or on my own land?" thought he. "All I need do is to ask for what I desire, and it is mine. One can hardly steal his own." However, the emperor put on his clothes, then his armor, his helmet and his sword, and went forth in the dead of night, not allowing anyone to know that he had left the castle.
This precaution was not necessary, however, for as he passed along the halls all his knights were fast asleep; even the stable guards were asleep. The only creature awake was his own horse, which neighed loud and long at the approach of his master.
Having mounted his horse Charlemagne rode out of the castle gates. He took his way to the nearest forest saying to himself, "It is evidently the will of the Lord that I shall turn robber this night, but as I am bewildered in my mind as to how this is to be done, I shall gladly meet with Elbegast, the famous thief, who lives in this forest. I feel sure he could help me this night."
Wondering what he was going to do and whom he was going to rob, the emperor rode on into the forest. At last, by the feeble light of the moon, he saw a single knight approaching him. The knight also seemed to have perceived Charlemagne, for he rode forward, and soon they stood facing each other.
The strange knight was clothed in black armor from head to foot. He rode a black horse, covered with a black cloth. He looked at the emperor inquisitively, as if he would like to know who it was that rode so late at night through the forest. On the other hand, the emperor was equally curious about the knight clothed in black.
"I wonder whether this be the evil one or not," reflected Charlemagne. "I have heard strange stories in my day of dreadful things happening to late wanderers in these forests. Perhaps I had best find out whether this black knight be not the devil himself."
With that the emperor laid hand upon his sword.
But the black knight was the first to speak. "Who are you, that in full armor wander about by night unbidden in this forest? Are you some servant of the king, come to discover whether Elbegast be in this wood that you may trap him?"
The emperor held his peace and the strange knight continued, "If you seek Elbegast, whom men call a thief, I tell you you seek in vain. He is swifter than the wind, more cunning than the fox, and knows more of this wilderness than the wolves and deer that inhabit it."
Charlemagne now spoke up. "My ways are my own, and not for you to question. No one but the emperor demands an account of my going or my coming. If my words or my presence here do not suit you, you may draw your sword, for I shall give you what satisfaction you desire." Whereupon Charlemagne drew his sword and stood at guard.
The black knight was not a moment behind him. His own sword flashed in the moonlight, and the two were soon in desperate battle. Blow after blow was delivered by the emperor, and was returned with force by the stranger. At last the stranger struck Charlemagne so fiercely upon the helmet that his own sword fell in pieces, and he stood defenceless before the emperor.
"I do not wish to slay a defenceless man," said Charlemagne to his antagonist, "but you will declare yourself or I shall slay you as you stand."
The black knight replied, "Sir Knight, I am the thief Elbegast. I have lost all my property, and the emperor has driven me out of my country. I find my living by stealing and robbery. Now do with me what you will."
"Ah!" said Charlemagne. "If you are Elbegast, the thief, you can prove your gratitude for my sparing your life by helping me to steal. I have come to rob the emperor, and in this business you can aid me. Come, we will make common work, for I also am a thief—at least, for this night."
"I will not rob the emperor," said Elbegast, "though he has taken my property and banished me from my home. I shall not hurt my sovereign. I only rob those who have amassed fortunes unjustly."
Charlemagne was secretly delighted with these words, but did not disclose who he was. At length he spoke.
"Do you know then any one whom we can rob this night, whose unholy treasure is rightfully forfeit for the foul means by which it was gained?"
"There is Count Eggerich, who has caused much loss to honest men, and I fear is even now plotting against the life of our emperor himself. Indeed, I was on my way to his house when I met you on the way," said Elbegast.
"Lead on," said Charlemagne, "we will lighten him of his load."
Soon they reached the count's castle, where with great dexterity, Elbegast broke a hole in the wall, crept through, and bade Charlemagne to follow him. They found themselves in the count's room, but not without making a slight noise. The count, who was a light sleeper, said to his wife, "I hear a noise as of some one creeping into the house. Perhaps there are robbers in my castle; I will get up and see."
He rose, lit a torch, and searched about the halls and rooms. But the emperor and Elbegast had already slipped under the bed, where they remained concealed until the search was over. The count then went back to bed, not suspecting that there was any one in hearing.
The countess said to her husband, "My dear husband, there were no robbers in the house, as you have found out. I suspect it is your mind that is disquieted, and that does not allow you to rest. Confess to me that you have some dreadful plan on foot that keeps you from sleeping. Perhaps I can aid you in your designs."
The count replied to his wife, "Since to-morrow is the time appointed for the purpose I have in mind, I do not hesitate to tell you that I have sworn, with twelve of my knights, to murder the emperor. He has forbidden us making camps on the roads and taking toll of passers-by. Nobody knows of our intention, and I warn you not to mention it on pain of death."
Charlemagne did not miss a word of this conversation. As soon as the count and his wife were asleep he and Elbegast did not hesitate to rifle the house of all its valuables, and the emperor hastened home. He put his horse in the stable, and regained his apartment without his absence being noted.
In the morning he called his council around him and said to them, "I dreamed last night that Count Eggerich, with twelve of his knights, would come to my castle to-day with the intention of murdering me. They hate the peace of the country that I have enforced. Be sure to have a troop of armed men ready to seize them."
About noon Count Eggerich and his knights came riding into the court of the castle. The gates were closed behind them, and armed men surrounded them.
"What does this mean when I have come to see my emperor?" cried the count in alarm, and with apparent indignation.
"What does this mean, when you come to see the emperor?" asked the leader of the armed men, tearing the clothes of the count and his knights aside, and disclosing the weapons they had brought with them.
The count had no answer to make and was led before the emperor, who told him all the details of his shameful plot. The count thought his wife had betrayed his secret, but he had no chance to find out, for within an hour he and all his men were swinging from the limbs of a tree in the courtyard of the castle. As for Elbegast, he was received with honor and forgot his old life of a robber in the forest.