Many many hundred years ago a great king called Henry the Fowler reigned in Germany; and the little country of Belgium, which lies to the west between Germany and the sea, was also a part of his big kingdom.
In these far-off days a king required to be not only a wise ruler but also a brave soldier. He usually led his soldiers to battle, and in the fight the enemy knew when they came near the king because he wore a gold crown round his iron helmet.
At the time when this story opens, nearly a thousand years ago, Henry the Fowler was getting ready to fight the Hungarians. A wild and warlike people they were, these, Hungarians, who lived on the eastern side of Henry's German kingdom. They wanted to possess some of Henry's lands, and already they had taken by force several of his towns and villages, and had murdered the people who lived in them.
To conquer such bold neighbours Henry required a large army of good soldiers, and he went himself to different parts of his kingdom asking the nobles to collect their followers and come with him to fight the enemy.
One fair summer day King Henry arrived at Antwerp, a quaint little town in Belgium, standing on the banks of a wide river which runs very slowly to the sea, and the capital of the province of Brabant.
The nobles of Antwerp, gaily dressed and carrying fluttering banners, crowded eagerly to welcome the king. And when he told them that he needed their help, because of the evil doings of the wild Hungarians, they willingly promised their aid. For in those days men loved the art of war, and to fight under a great chief like Henry was a joy to every man who could carry a sword.
Long and merrily the king and the nobles of Antwerp feasted that evening. Next day a council was held in which King Henry sat in the royal chair, and a petition was presented to him by the people. It prayed that before he went away he would settle a dispute which had arisen amongst them as to who should be their ruler now that the young son of the brave Duke of Brabant had disappeared.
They asked permission to tell the whole story to King Henry and were ready to do whatever he advised. And the king, who was in great good humour because so many brave soldiers had promised to follow him to battle, said he would listen to the people's tale and decide justly in their quarrel.
And this is what he heard:
Six years before this story opens the good Duke of Brabant had died. He left two children, a noble youth called Gottfried, who was heir to his father's kingdom, and a fair maiden named Elsa, beloved by the people for her beauty and gentleness.
By their father's wish the two children were placed under the care of their kinsman Count Telramund, a brave soldier who had fought in many a battle. But Count Telramund was not so good as he was brave, because in his secret heart he longed that the two children might be out of his way, and that he, as the next heir, might become the ruler of Brabant. He looked on with envious eyes as the boy and girl grew to be strong and fair, and by day and night he wondered how he might get rid of them and take possession of the kingdom.
But the people loved the children, and Telramund was afraid to tell any one of his evil wishes.
A few months before the story opens Gottfried had just come of age. He was now ready to leave Count Telramund's care and become the ruler of the kingdom; and the people were preparing to give him a hearty welcome as their lord when some strange events took place which threw the kingdom into confusion and caused much quarrelling among the people.
Count Telramund, after much thought, had come to the conclusion that if he married Elsa his claim to the kingdom would be surer. So he asked the beautiful maiden to be his wife. But Elsa knew that Count Telramund was neither a good man nor a true knight, though he was a brave soldier, and she refused to marry him, or to be separated from her beloved brother Gottfried. The count was very angry, and he sat in his great palace thinking over another plan by which he might gain his end.
But besides Count Telramund there was some one else who watched Elsa and Gottfried with eyes of hate. This was the Lady Ortrud, another relative of the Duke of Brabant. Just as Count Telramund believed that the kingdom would be his, she believed it would be hers if only the two children could be got out of the way, and she too sat scheming how to get rid of Gottfried and Elsa without giving the people cause to suspect that she had done anything wrong.
Ortrud could not fight and win applause like Count Telramund, but she had other weapons, and these she used in a terrible manner. The old nurse, who had taken care of the baby Ortrud from the time her mother died, was a witch, and had taught her the art of magic. And now, by wicked spells, Ortrud could change a human being into a bird, or into a beast, and she could persuade people by her cunning tongue that all she said was true.
When Ortrud heard that Elsa had refused to marry Count Telramund she was very pleased, and she invited the count to visit her in her great castle.
Dressed in beautiful garments and surrounded by many servants, she set before him a splendid banquet with plenty of wine to drink and rare foods and fruits to eat. By her cunning talk she made him think her so rich and powerful and friendly that Telramund, who was rather a stupid man, forgot his annoyance about Elsa, and believed that Ortrud would be a far more important person to marry than the gentle girl who had refused his offer with scorn.
After the banquet was over Telramund told Ortrud all about his schemes, and Ortrud listened attentively, then said:
"I wonder, noble count, that you should be cast down because a foolish maiden knows not the honour you do her in offering to make her your wife. I, too, have been scorned by Elsa of Brabant and mean to be revenged, and if you will give heed to my words she will yet be humbled before us both."
Telramund accepted with eagerness Ortrud's offer of help and suggested that they should first get married and then they could work together more easily to get rid of Gottfried and Elsa. And Ortrud agreed.
One summer day Elsa and her brother roamed together in the great forest which grows close to the little town of Antwerp. Unknown to the brother and sister the Lady Ortrud was hiding near them, and she watched with evil eyes while they walked and talked together.
From time to time Elsa stooped to gather the wild flowers which grew in great beauty in the open spaces of the forest, and Gottfried listened to the call of the birds as they flew in and out of the dark branches with no fear of the gentle youth and maiden who loved them so well.
Suddenly Gottfried started.
"Elsa, listen!" he cried; "what bird is that?" and a strange, deep, bell-like call floated across the drowsy, summer stillness. "I must find out," he added, and he left the path and crept among the thick bushes and ferns to seek the bird which sang with so strange a note.
Elsa watched him go with no foreboding of evil, and she sat down to arrange her flowers till Gottfried should return. For a time she still heard the bell-like note of the strange bird, then it ceased, but Gottfried did not come back.
"How far he must have gone," thought Elsa. "He must now be close beside the old castle with the moat, and he cannot have noticed how long the shadows are growing. I must needs go to find him."
She called and called again, but no answer came. Then Elsa set off to walk by the path to the old ruin which was a favourite haunt of the forest birds, and where Gottfried often spent the whole afternoon watching them.
The castle stood on a small hill and was surrounded by a deep moat. Water filled the moat, and clusters of creamy-white lilies with their flat leaves grew beyond the reeds and feathery grasses which edged the banks.
"Gottfried, Gottfried, where are you?" called Elsa, but no answer came. A beautiful white swan sailed slowly round the moat, uttering harsh cries as it floated past her. But Elsa was now too alarmed to think how strange it was that this beautiful bird should be in so solitary a spot where never before had she and Gottfried found other than the wild fowl of the forest.
Elsa turned to go home, and as she ran calling, ]Gottfried, Gottfried, where are you?" she met the Lady Ortrud.
"Have you seen my brother, Lady Ortrud?" she asked breathlessly. "He left me to seek a strange bird that sang in the forest, and I cannot find him."
"Go home, Elsa," answered Lady Ortrud, "and we will inquire what means this tale of your brother; I doubt if all is as it should be." And she followed the now weeping girl to the palace of the Dukes of Brabant.
But Lady Ortrud knew well what had become of Gottfried. It was she herself who had imitated the strange bird's cry to entice Gottfried away from Elsa, and then, by her magic arts, she had changed him into the snowy swan which Elsa had left floating in the castle moat.
The nobles were summoned to the palace, and Elsa told of the disappearance of her brother. Far and wide search was made for the young prince, but not a trace of him could be found, and Elsa wept by day and by night for the loss of her beloved brother.
After several months had passed the nobles and the people of Antwerp decided that, as Godfrey had disappeared, Elsa was now her father's heir and must be proclaimed the ruler of Brabant, and a council was formed to make the necessary preparations for the ceremony.
But when the important day came, and the nobles and people were gathered together in the council hall, the Lady Ortrud rose and, in a loud voice, she accused Elsa of having made away with her brother in order that she might secure the kingdom for herself. She told that on the day of Gottfried's disappearance she, too, had been in the forest, and had heard cries for help coming from the old castle with the moat. When she got there she had discovered Elsa bending over the deep well which stands within the castle courtyard, but her brother was nowhere to be seen.
Elsa listened in horror to this terrible tale; then, springing to her feet, she cried:
"Thou speakest evil, Lady Ortrud, and knowest that no truth is in thy words. My brother was dearer to me than life itself, and could I but see him alive again, most gladly would I lay down my life for his."
Then Count Telramund arose, and with many false words of regret he said that his wife's tale was true.
"Elsa has deceived us all," he said, "and many a time have I heard her wish that she might be the ruler of Brabant; little doubt is mine that she hath murdered her brother."
He then claimed that the kingdom should be taken from Elsa and given to himself as the nearest kinsman of the late Duke of Brabant. He knew himself to be a man of courage and fame, well fitted to uphold the honour and the safety of the kingdom.
The council broke up in confusion. Many believed that Elsa was innocent, but knew not how to prove it. Some, who had been quite willing to serve under Gottfried because he was the late duke's son, were not sure that a gentle maiden, such as Elsa, could look after the safety of the kingdom in those troubled times. And others, who had fought beside Count Telramund in the wars, admired his bravery and his skill as a leader, and gave little heed to the bad side of his character.
In this way the little town was divided into several parties. Angry words and even blows had already been exchanged on that fair summer day when King Henry came to Antwerp, and much need there was that he should be asked to settle the dispute as to who should rightfully rule the people.
Meantime poor Elsa wept and prayed in the lonely palace where she and Gottfried had lived together all their lives. She feared that her brother must now be dead, and she knew not how to prove that she had nothing to do with his death.
But the night King Henry arrived Elsa had a vision. As she knelt by the open window, praying that heaven would help her, there stood by her side a noble knight. From head to foot he was clad in armour which shone like polished silver. A golden horn hung at his waist, and his right hand rested on the hilt of a sword which flamed and flashed like the rising sun. The hilt of the sword was a shining cross.
Snow-white wings waved on each side of his helmet, and his eyes were filled with kindness as he said:
"Fear not, gentle Elsa, thy cause is the cause of heaven, and as heaven's knight I will champion thee to safety."
At noon next day the king held council by the riverside, and around him stood the nobles, the soldiers, and the chief citizens of Antwerp. Elsa was brought before them, a lovely, sweet-faced maiden robed in white, and with deep sadness in her beautiful blue eyes.
The people shouted, "Long live our noble princess!" but the king commanded them to be silent, and turning to Elsa, he said:
"Elsa of Brabant, I have heard the tale which accuses thee of thy brother's death: what hast thou to say to me, thy king, that may prove thou didst not this evil deed?"
"Gracious Sovereign," answered Elsa, bowing humbly, "I have naught to say except that I am innocent. And I pray that heaven's knight will be my defender from the lying words of those who seek my life."
"What knight is he whom thou meanest, fair Elsa?" asked the king.
And in a sweet, clear voice Elsa told of her vision, and of the promised aid, and as she spoke, so pure was her face, and so noble and innocent her bearing, that the king in his heart felt sure she could never have done the wicked deed.
But Count TeIramund sprang up angrily and demanded that Elsa should prove her innocence.
"It was she alone who last saw Gottfried alive," he cried; "let her tell us what she did to him that day when they walked together in the forest. As to this heavenly knight," he went on, "I challenge him, King Henry, or any other knight, to fight me to the death, and so prove which one of us speaketh truth."
"Dost thou accept the challenge, fair Elsa?" asked the king. And in a low voice the maiden answered, "Yes, may the heavenly knight be my defender and my champion."
"Then let the heralds sound the challenge," said the king; and, in shrill tones, the trumpets blew a loud blast, and the herald cried, "Who will do battle for Elsa of Brabant?"
The golden light of the summer sun flooded the slow running river, and fell on the crowd which stood round Elsa, Count Telramund, and the king. In silence all waited for an answer to the herald's call. But there came none.
Again the cry from the herald's brazen trumpet, "Who will do battle for Elsa of Brabant?" floated across the warm, noonday air. And in the silence which followed Elsa sank on her knees and prayed. And as she did so the faint sound of a horn was heard in the distance and a shout arose from the crowd, "The knight, the knight! Look, yonder he comes!"
All turned to face the river, for there on its smooth surface, which shone like a mirror, floated swiftly towards them a boat drawn by a snow-white swan. In it stood a knight, the knight of Elsa's vision. His silver armour glistened as he moved. The golden horn with which he had answered the herald's call hung at his waist, and he leaned on a naked sword whose blade flashed like flame beneath the golden cross which formed the hilt.
The swan stopped beside the crowd and the knight sprang ashore: then, taking off his he met with the snow-white wings, he knelt before the king.
How Ortrud trembled with fear when she looked on the swan, for she knew by the gold chain round its neck that this swan was the missing Gottfried, and well she knew that no mortal knight now knelt before King Henry.
"Art thou come to do battle for Elsa of Brabant?" asked King Henry. And the knight replied:
"The Princess Elsa is innocent, and I am come to prove it. Count Telramund, I accept thy challenge, and am ready to fight thee to the death."
At once a space was cleared, and in silence the crowd watched the two knights as their swords rang sharp together when the fight began. Elsa was on her knees beside the king, and Ortrud stood beside her with a proud and angry look. Very much she feared the result of the fight, and well she might; for after a few blows the count's sword was struck from his hand, and he lay helpless on the ground at the mercy of the stranger knight.
"Rise, Count Telramund, I give thee thy life," he said. "Heaven grant that in the future thou mayst use it more worthily." And Telramund, followed by the Lady Ortrud, slunk out of sight amid the hooting of the crowd.
As the reward of his victory the knight then asked King Henry's permission to marry Elsa, and the king gave his consent.
"I have one condition to make," said the knight, "and I ask one promise from this gentle maiden. Never must she seek to know my name, nor may she ask me whence I came. Should she lose her faith in me, and ask these questions, our union will be ended. I must then return to my own country. Wilt thou promise to observe faithfully this condition, sweet Elsa," continued the knight, "and I will serve thee truly as thy loyal husband?"
Elsa promised to remember always the knight's condition, and hand in hand they walked beside King Henry towards the duke's palace, where preparations were at once set on foot for the wedding at which the king agreed to be present.
To atone for their unjust suspicion of Elsa, the people of Antwerp made up their minds that her wedding day should be a festival such as the oldest man or woman in the town had never seen. Every mouth sang the praises of Elsa's knight, and many of the nobles, who had kept silence when she was accused before the king, now tried which would outdo the other in sending her beautiful wedding gifts. And they all swore to serve faithfully the stranger knight and his fair bride.
In secret many wondered who this knight of the swan, as he was called, could be, and from whence he came; but, after seeing Count Telramund's defeat, all were too much afraid of him to ask questions which might only be answered by a challenge to fight.
Very gay and pretty the little town looked on the night before Elsa's wedding. Big flags floated above the house tops, and many smaller flags of red and yellow and blue were stretched across the narrow streets. And there were many archways covered with roses and honey-suckle which filled the air with fragrance. In the market-place large casks of wine stood ready, and tables were laid where abundance of food would be supplied next day to all who chose to ask.
On every side banners fluttered, on which were written the words, "Long live the Princess Elsa and her noble knight," and in the large square which formed the centre of the town there stood beside the public fountain a swan made of fragrant white roses. Round its neck there hung a gold chain of yellow lilies.
The windows of Elsa's palace looked on to this open square, and the Princess clapped her hands with delight when she saw this lovely emblem of the knight who had been her defender.
But now the evening had come, and the short darkness of a summer night hung over the excited little town. The duke's palace was brilliantly lighted, and from the open windows sounds of music floated on the warm June air, telling of dancing and merriment within, while lords and ladies, dressed in costly silks and satins, came and went.
In a corner of the square, close beside Elsa's home, stood the Cathedral of Antwerp. Dark and silent it looked among the gaily decorated shops and palaces which surrounded the open square. But all its decorations were inside, and, when the heavy leather-padded doors were shut, no one would have guessed that the light from many hundred wax candles made brilliant the scene within. The choicest flowers and the rarest silken hangings had been placed around the church to decorate it for the wedding" which the king would honour with his presence next day.
Seated in darkness on the wide stone steps which led to the main door of the church sat a man and a woman who watched the lighted windows of Elsa's palace with faces of envy and of hate. They were Count Telramund and Lady Ortrud. Many had been the quarrels between the husband and wife since the Knight of the Swan had defeated the Count and yet spared his life. And he had not forgiven Ortrud for persuading him to swear before the king that he believed in Elsa's guilt.
Ortrud's evil brain was trying to find some new plan by which she could persuade her husband to believe again in her cleverness, and also do harm to Elsa and her knight, whom they both hated.
In silence they watched the guests as they left the lighted palace, and they saw the happiness in Elsa's face as she bade farewell to the Knight of the Swan, who was the last to leave.
Clad in a snow-white mantle, with his cross-hilted sword hanging by his side, the knight crossed the square. As he passed the public fountain beside which stood the swan made of white roses, he stopped for a minute and said,
Right well didst thou serve me, trusty bird, and the joy which thou didst wish me is nearly mine."
Count Telramund, unable to bear the sight of his hated rival, rose from the church steps and went home. But Ortrud sat on.
Presently the window of Elsa's bedroom opened and the Princess stepped on to the iron balcony which overlooked the square. Very lovely she was as with clasped hands she looked up at the dark blue sky. The royal robes which she had worn at the dance were laid aside. She was clad in a soft white gown, and her sunny hair fell like a golden shower over her slender form.
In a low voice she sang a love song into the still summer night, and, as the bird-like notes and the words of gladness reached the ears of Ortrud hidden in the shadow, a wave of envious anger surged up in her heart and an evil plan rose in her mind. Now she saw how she might destroy Elsa's happiness. Even if she could not get the kingdom for herself and her husband, at least she might prevent Elsa and her knight from reigning.
Rising to her feet, she went down the steps and stood beneath the balcony.
"Elsa, Elsa," she called softly. Elsa ceased singing and looked over the balcony into the dark square, and asked, "Who calls?"
"Bend low, I would speak with thee," said Ortrud; "for the love of heaven have pity on me to-night in the midst of thy gladness and lend thine ear to what I have to tell thee."
Elsa's heart was touched with pity as she saw the proud lady at her feet clad in humble garments, and she answered:
"Thou mayst enter, Lady Ortrud. I will listen to aught thou hast to say." Then, when they were seated in her chamber, Elsa asked, "Much do I long to know what madest thou believe that I was guilty of my brother's death?"
And Ortrud answered sadly:
"I believed, because I too had a vision, most noble Elsa, a vision which seemed to me as true as the one which showed thee thy noble knight. For in my vision I saw written on an iron scroll in letters of fire the manner in which thou hadst done the deed. Little did I guess that the vision came not from heaven, and to-night I come to ask forgiveness that I may spend the rest of my days in repentance for the mistake I made."
Elsa was much impressed by what Ortrud said. Her own vision had been so real, and its consequences so wonderful, she could not refuse to believe that Ortrud had also been guided, and she was too innocent and trusting to doubt her story. So she replied:
"I forgive thee fully, Lady Ortrud, and I invite thee now to remain in the palace this night and go with me to-morrow to my wedding."
Ortrud seemed very grateful for Elsa's forgiveness and for her kind invitation, and together they talked of the coming day and of the wonderful deeds that the Knight of the Swan had done, till the first faint light of dawn shone in the eastern sky. Elsa had meant to pass the morning hours in prayer, but, unknown to her, there was magic in Lady Ortrud's talk, and she sat enchanted as Ortrud sang the praises of her future husband.
"Tell me, fair Elsa," she said, "for I have lived in great retirement since my husband's defeat, tell me the true name and country of him whom I only know as the Knight of the Swan?" And Ortrud looked cunningly into Elsa's face, for well she knew that Elsa could not tell her whence her champion came or what he was called.
Elsa's face clouded, but she answered, "Indeed I cannot tell what thou wishest to know, Lady Ortrud. My noble knight forbids me to ask his name and country, and I, who owe him so much, have promised never to question him."
"Strange, is it not," said Ortrud, "that the Princess Elsa of Brabant should marry an unknown wanderer? Heaven grant that the magic boat drawn by the snow-white swan has brought him from the court of heaven, and that the future may not show thee to be in league with evil as did the vision in which I too believed. Wilt thou not live in fear lest thine unknown husband should vanish from thy sight as strangely as he came, for well thou knowest the saying, 'Who came by magic can by magic go'?"
But Elsa answered warmly, "No, indeed, Lady Ortrud, I have only to look into the noble face of my knight, and then I know not fear!" and with a friendly good-night they parted to meet again at noon. But, after Ortrud had left her, Elsa sat for long thinking of her words, and for the first time she asked herself why should the knight refuse to tell her, who was so soon to be his wife, the secret of his country and his name? And as Elsa went on thinking, the confiding trust of the past days began to fail her, and she made up her mind to question him as soon as the wedding should be over.
Meantime Ortrud had quickly left the house and gone home to find Count Telramund and tell him her plans. He, too, had passed a sleepless night, and Ortrud found him angry and miserable at the disgrace with which they both seemed to be overwhelmed.
"Telramund, Telramund!" Ortrud called out joyfully, "put away that sullen mood; I have news, good news, to tell thee, for we will yet triumph over Elsa and her unknown knight."
At first Telramund was inclined to doubt her, but when he heard how Ortrud had spent the night with Elsa in the palace and that she was invited to join the wedding party at noon, his belief in his wife's cleverness came back and he promised to do whatever she told him.
"I have sown suspicion in Elsa's mind," she said, "suspicion which will not rest till she question her knight, and by my magic power I know that should she break her promise and ask him whence he came, and who he is, the knight must leave her and the kingdom will be ours. There is yet one other way to gain our end, and that I must leave to thee. Let but a drop of the knight's blood be spilled and his power will depart. Surely for a brave man like thee it shall be possible to wound this proud knight even though thou couldest not kill him?"
Long and eagerly they talked together, and when noon drew near Ortrud, dressed in splendid robes, awaited the arrival of the bridal party foremost among the nobles who thronged the steps of the church. Soon a loud peal from the herald's trumpets announced the coming of the bride, and beautiful Elsa appeared clad in a robe of shimmering satin and with a wreath of roses on her sunny hair. Behind her came six noble maidens who carried baskets of fragrant flowers to strew on the path of the bride when the wedding should be over. And the great crowd of people who filled the square shouted joyously, "Long live our noble lady, Princess Elsa of Brabant!"
When Ortrud heard the loyal cheers of the crowd, and saw how lovely Elsa looked, rage and envy overcame her, and as Elsa was about to enter the church door she threw herself in front of her and said:
"Stand back, bold maiden! It is I who am the rightful ruler of Brabant, and because of my rank I shall enter this church before thee!"
Elsa was greatly surprised at the change in Ortrud. She thought of the poorly clad woman who last night had begged so humbly for forgiveness, and who now stood before her in splendid robes uttering words of scorn and anger. But she answered gently, "Methinks that thou mistakest, Lady Ortrud. As my father's heir I claim to be ruler of this kingdom, and faithfully with my noble knight will I serve it till my death"; and she stepped forward to enter the church door.
But Ortrud stood in front of her, and with a clear voice, that all might hear, she cried, "Who is thy noble knight, I ask thee? Canst thou tell me his name or country? Well I know that the Duke of Brabant would not have given his daughter to a nameless stranger, and I doubt if the people of Antwerp will allow one who is a sorcerer to rule over them!"
Elsa burst into tears, and loud murmurs arose from the crowd. But at that moment the bridegroom, followed by a train of nobles and soldiers, reached the church. The knight heard Ortrud's last words and saw her standing before the church door. Hastily he sprang up the steps, his noble face ablaze with anger. "Who gave this woman leave to come near thy presence?" he asked the weeping maiden as he drew her to his bosom. "Nast thou forgotten my warning, sweet Elsa, for little knowest thou the power of evil with which thou trifiest?"
"She came to me in sorrow and repentance, and I forgave her," sobbed Elsa. "I knew not that she was evil."
"Begone, thou deceitful woman!" said the knight, turning to Ortrud; and so terrible was the anger in his face, and so much she feared the power of his truth and nobleness, that she slunk among the crowd and was lost to sight.
But Count Telramund had been listening to all that his wife and Elsa had said, and as Ortrud left he stepped boldly to the front and challenged the unknown knight to fight him once again. "'Tis known to all," he said, "that not by strength or valour didst thou defeat me on the river bank, but by magic lent thee by the powers of evil. Declare now thy name and country, and let us then do battle man to man for the government of this kingdom."
Before the knight could reply the king appeared in the doorway of the church, followed by those who had been waiting impatiently with him inside for the arrival of the wedding party. The Knight of the Swan, with Elsa still clinging to his arm, turned to King Henry and said, "Most noble Sovereign, to thee I leave it to answer to Count Telramund for my strength and valour. To none but this maiden will I tell my name or country, and her promise she gave me in presence of ye all that never would she seek to know my secret. Since that day ye all have seen the deeds which I have done, and the manner in which I have lived among ye, but should ye now no longer believe that Heaven favours my cause, at thy bidding, King Henry, I will say farewell to the Princess Elsa and ye will never see me more."
And the king, who loved the noble knight, answered loudly so that all might hear, "I doubt thee not, Sir Knight; I am well assured of thy nobility and truth. With my hearty consent the Princess Elsa promised to be thy wife, and I know that she has vowed to respect thy secret. The priest awaits thee now to make her thine."
The king re-entered the church, and the wedding procession followed close behind, the Knight of the Swan holding Elsa's trembling hand firmly as they walked towards the altar. Soon the people heard the strains of the wedding march which pealed from the organ when the sacred words had been said, and the knight and his bride were greeted with loud cheers as they reappeared at the church door and stood bowing their thanks to the good wishes of the crowd. Elsa's face still showed signs of tears, but with the arm of the knight around her she knew no fear and smiled radiantly at the people.
In the palace a splendid banquet was spread of which the king and the principal nobles and citizens partook, and great was the rejoicing and merriment which went on till nightfall.
In the market-place the people feasted on the abundance of good cheer provided by the generosity of the Knight of the Swan, and all were glad that the Princess Elsa had wedded such a noble husband.
When darkness fell Elsa and her husband were led to the bridal-chamber, and for the first time that day they were alone and could talk over the strange events that had happened before the wedding. The knight unbuckled his sword, then kneeling down beside Elsa he asked her, "Fair wife, dost thou doubt thy husband now, or wilt thou trust me to the end even as I vow to love and cherish thee so long as thou wilt let me?"
And Elsa looked into his eyes lovingly and said, "Indeed, I love thee and trust thee in everything! but, methinks thou hast little faith in thy wife when not even she may know thy rightful name and country. It is a secret none would guard more faithfully than she."
The knight looked at her sadly and said, "Why dost thou let the words of an evil woman such as Ortrud weigh more with thee than the promise I have given thee? Thou knowest that should I tell thee my secret then I must leave thee for ever."
These words awoke again in Elsa's mind the recollection of what Ortrud had said to her only the night before, and she cried pleadingly, "Surely thy secret is one that thou art ashamed to tell if so be that thy wife may never share it!"
Long and gently the knight reasoned with her. He hinted at the heavenly nature of his home, and how to save her he had left the realms of bliss, and he spoke of the bright future which lay before them in ruling in righteousness and kindness the kingdom of Brabant. But Elsa was too excited after the great events of the day to listen to his winsome pleading. The dread of losing him she loved filled her with fears beyond the reach of reason, and she clung to his arm sobbing piteously, "Who came by magic can by magic go; tell me, oh tell me who thou art, and from what country thou comest?"
A look of great sorrow came over the knight's face, and he was about to answer her when a secret door into the room was burst open, and Count Telramund with four of his companions entered the chamber. He had hoped to find the knight and Elsa resting, when surely he might at least wound him as Ortrud had suggested.
But the knight was too quick for Telramund. He caught up his sword, and with one blow he laid the count dead at his feet. The other men fled in fear, and the knight, with his drawn sword in his hand, turned to the terrified Elsa and very gently he said:
"Thou hast asked me to tell thee my secret, and I may not refuse."
In the doorway stood a crowd of ladies and nobles who had rushed to the room on hearing the noise. The knight led Elsa to one of her maidens and said, "The dawn is breaking and I must needs go seek the king. As the Princess Elsa has so willed it, I shall tell my secret and then depart," and in haste he strode from the palace.
A few hours later the heralds once more summoned the people of Antwerp to assemble on the banks of the river. The king was there as well as all the nobles and citizens who had gathered in haste to hear the strange news which, as the heralds had made known, was to be told. And in the front of the crowd, close beside the king, once more stood Elsa, still wearing her bridal robes, but with a face so full of sadness that it made men cry to look at her.
"The knight, he comes!" rang from the heralds' trumpets, and the crowd opened a path in its midst that he might reach the spot where the king and Elsa waited. Very noble he looked as he stood beside the king, clad in the shining armour which he had worn when first he came amongst them. His great cross-hilted sword hung at his side, and the golden horn with which he had answered Count Telramund's challenge swung at his waist, while the glittering helmet with the snow-white wings covered his head.
Elsa looked at him and saw again the knight of her vision who had come with words of hope in the hour of her great misery, and the champion who had saved her life and given her the kingdom. All too surely her heart told her that she had broken her faith, and that after this time she would never see him more.
In a low, clear voice the knight spoke to the king, and the people listened in breathless silence while they watched his noble face.
"Thou knowest, gracious King, that the Princess Elsa has asked me to tell her who I am and from what country I am come, and by her request do I give answer to these questions. Alas! that her generous heart has given heed to evil tales, for now must I return to mine own country and leave her."
"Nay, noble knight," answered the king, "I trust this may not be. To-morrow I go back to Germany that I may make ready to do battle with the Hungarians, and I look to thee to lead the soldiers of Antwerp who have promised to follow at my side."
"Right gladly would I have done so," answered the knight, "but to-day I travel far from Antwerp, and will never see it more." Then turning to face the crowd so that all might hear, he said:
"In a far distant land, hidden among lonely and secret ways, there stands a town called Montsalvat. It holds a shrine in which is kept one of earth's greatest treasures—a cup so sacred that whoso looks on it is cleansed from every sin. 'Twas brought from heaven by angels, and each year a dove descends to earth renewing once again the precious gift it holds. "Tis called the Holy Grail, and we, its knights, are bound to do such service as it bids. My father is the chiefest of these knights. His name is Perceval, and Lohengrin am I."
A murmur of great surprise rose from the crowd, but the king raised his hand to command silence, and the knight went on:
"To right the wrong, to help the helpless, to defend the ignorant, to conquer all evil, is the work for which we knights of the Holy Grail have sworn to give our lives. But none must know the name of him who does the deed of love, for should the secret be disclosed the Grail withdraws its power and homeward calls the knight, whom man has doubted, to kneel once more beside its shrine."
As he ceased a cry arose from those who stood nearest to the river, "Look yonder! The swan, it comes again and all turned to gaze on the slow, flowing water. There they saw the little boat approaching rapidly, drawn by the snow-white swan whose neck was still encircled by a golden chain.
When Elsa saw the boat and knew that Lohengrin was about to leave, she flung her arms around him. "Stay, oh stay with me!" she cried with bitter sobs and tears. "Now see I the evil I have done, and if thou wilt but stay to serve these people most gladly will I die for thee now."
But Lohengrin gently put her from him as he said, "To me no choice is given; I must obey the Grail. But this thou too must know. Hadst thou but trusted me for one short year, thy brother Gottfried would again have stood beside thee and happiness had indeed been thine."
Gently he kissed Elsa and said good-bye. But as he turned to enter the boat Ortrud, who had been standing in the crowd, sprang forward, and looking with evil triumph at the sobbing Elsa, she cried, "Heaven's aid, proud Elsa, can no longer succour thee, therefore I may tell thee that yonder white swan, which even now will bear thy husband to his father's kingdom, is none other than thy brother Gottfried. It was I who called him from thy side as ye walked together in the forest, and by my power I changed him into a swan. And such he shall remain until I choose to set him free. Hadst thou but been faithful to thy husband's trust, in a year my spell must have been broken, and never again would the power have been mine to do him harm."
Then with triumph in her voice she laughed aloud.
But Lohengrin heard all.
Well he knew that the mystic power of the Holy Grail was gone, and no longer could he himself defeat Ortrud's wicked scheme. But low he sank on his knees, and with bowed head he prayed. And as he knelt, far above him in the clear blue sky appeared a fair white clove. Lower and lower it flew till it rested for an instant above the kneeling knight, then with its bill it raised the gold chain which hung round the neck of the swan, and instantly the beautiful bird sank beneath the water and Gottfried sprang to the bank.
Elsa threw herself into the arms of her brother, who kissed her tenderly. But the cries of the people, "Stay, oh do not leave us!" made her quickly raise her head. The little boat, drawn by the fair white dove, was gliding from sight on the slow-flowing river. With raised hands Lohengrin made the sign of the cross in token of forgiveness and farewell, then all too soon he disappeared from Elsa's sight, and with a cry of bitter sorrow she fell senseless at her brother's feet.