The Devil's Ladder
In his castle at Lorch on the Rhine lived an old knight named Gilgen. He had lost nearly all his possessions through disputes with his neighbors. His wife had died, and he was left alone with a beautiful young daughter named Gerlinde. To her he was devotedly attached, and for her care and comfort he spent most of his time.
Two things he desired for his loved daughter: one was vast riches, the other was a noble marriage. In order to secure wealth he visited a hermit who lived in the mountains and was supposed to be a magician. From him he desired to learn of treasure hidden in the earth and how it could be reached.
The magician demanded gold for his knowledge, which the poor knight supplied every time it was required. But all the efforts of the magician were in vain. The knight gave up all he had, but no art of the magician could open the earth and disclose the longed-for wealth.
It was on a spring evening that Gilgen sat silent and absorbed in his armchair. The weather was rough in spite of the season of the year. The wind howled around the towers and bastions of the castle, the clouds hurried past, and drops of rain began to fall. "It bids fair to be a stormy night and a bad one for wayfarers in the mountains," said the knight to himself when he heard a particularly loud gust of wind.
Scarcely had he said these words when a groom entered and announced that a strange little man was standing at the gates of the castle asking for a night's lodging. His appearance was so odd that the porter would not admit him without the permission of the master and the groom desired to know what he should do.
The old knight was curious to see who the fellow was, and said to the groom, "Bring him to my door that I may see him."
Soon the groom returned, bringing a strange dwarf wearing a scarlet cloak, over which his long gray hair fell like a veil. On his head he wore a yellow cap, and in his hand he carried a staff that he kept continually twirling. Besides this, he kept moving his head from side to side and muttering to himself.
The hermit-magician had already warned the knight against the dwarf and gnomes of the mountains, saying they meant him no good. He therefore cried out rudely, "What do you wish?"
"Let me enter," said the dwarf, "and give me food and comfort for the night. To-morrow I shall be gone, for I have far to travel. I shall pay you well for your service."
But the knight was in no humor for hospitality, least of all, to the strange creatures of the mountains, who he believed were in league against him. "Not at all," replied Gilgen. "Such rascals as you can find no lodging under my roof. You are doubtless the one to bewitch my castle and to make my corn and eggs fly through the air. You have locked up the hills so that I can find no treasure. Begone, sir, into the rain and night, for I shall have none of you!"
He shut the door in the dwarf's face and the groom led the strange fellow outside the gates. The dwarf muttered some strange words and disappeared in the woods.
The next morning Gilgen went hunting and did not return until late in the afternoon. He learned to his great astonishment and dismay that his daughter, Gerlinde, had disappeared. No one had seen her since morning, when she had gone out for a walk alone and from which she had not returned. All efforts to find her had been in vain.
The knight was greatly alarmed. He remembered the way he had treated the dwarf and he feared that the evil creature had taken this means of being revenged. He ordered his men to search the country in every direction. He mounted his best horse and rode over the mountains, and through the valley, and beside the stream, calling for his lost child.
Coming to a mountain called Kedrich, he met a shepherd boy, of whom he inquired concerning his daughter. The boy said, "About noon to-day I saw three dwarfs in scarlet cloaks, who were leading away a beautiful maiden on horseback. They disappeared in the alder bushes of the mountain."
Gilgen rode as near as possible to the Kedrich, and called out three times, "Gerlinde, my daughter, where are you?"
Scarcely had he called when he saw on the summit of a tall cliff his child, who held out her hands to him. Behind the maiden stood the same dwarf whom the knight had turned away, and who now called out in mocking tones, "This is the reward for the way you treated me yesterday."
To climb the rocky mountain was impossible. The knight resolved to make a road up the steep cliff. The next day workmen appeared with picks, shovels and axes and began cutting into the rock. But they made no progress, for as fast as they would cut away a portion of it, it would be filled up by a shower of stones that fell from above them. After working all day in the rain the workmen withdrew.
The knight hastened to the hermit and told him of his loss and of the plight he was in. The old magician sank into deep meditation, then lit a fire, and boiled a few herbs in a pot, which emitted sparks of fire when he stirred it. Looking into the pot the magician spoke these words: "I see a knight in black armor and riding a black horse. In his dreams he has seen the maiden and is now on his way. Wait three days and he will be at your gates. That is all I can see in the pot."
At the end of the third day there was a loud noise at the gates of the castle. Some one was calling impatiently for admission. When the gates were opened there was a knight in black armor, riding a black horse covered with foam and almost dead with weariness. The knight spoke up and said, "I have dreamed of a beautiful maiden who is in great danger, and I have hastened here to save her. Lead me to her father that we both may be gone on one mission."
The heart of Gilgen leaped with joy when he heard that the knight had come. The black knight, whose name was Ruthelm, was admitted and given refreshment and a night's rest, before the quest for the maiden began. Early the next morning the two knights rode to the hermit from whom they desired directions as to the way they should proceed.
Reaching the hermit's house, all three proceeded to a cave opposite Kedrich, from which they could see the cliff where the maiden was held prisoner. The magician lit a fire, threw into it a quantity of magical wood and muttered some words as he stirred the fire with his wand. All three then sat on the ground while a strange blue light filled the cavern. Soon the walls began to open and a great crowd of dwarfs with laughing faces appeared. They poured in from all sides until the cavern was quite full.
The oldest and largest of the little fellows then approached Ruthelm, and bowing low to the ground, said, "You are the knight in distress, and if it is your wish we shall build our ladder to the skies." The other dwarfs capered about in glee and shook their heads at one another.
"It is my wish," answered the knight, "and whatever your ladder be made of or however high it may reach, I shall climb until I find the maiden of my dreams."
The dwarfs then hastened into the forest, and began cutting wood, until they had a great pile, some long pieces and some short pieces. All day long they labored with great diligence until at last the largest dwarf held up his hand. They all stopped work at once. The dwarf then gave another sign and each one seized a piece of wood and began building a ladder on the face of the cliff. Higher and higher it rose, the dwarfs swarming up and down carrying the pieces, until before dark the ladder was complete.
When it was dark the knight began the dangerous ascent. The hermit gave him a magic ring, which he placed on his finger and which he was to turn whenever in danger. With his sword by his side and the ring on his finger the knight began to climb the ladder. All night long he climbed, and it was broad day before he reached the top.
When the sun rose and the knight stepped off the last round of the ladder he found himself on a wide plain in which beautiful flowers were growing, birds were singing, and fruits of all kinds were hanging from the trees. It was an enchanted spot and the knight was amazed at the beauty all around him.
Soon the adventurer found a crystal palace, before which stood two gnomes, but they were fast asleep, though they should have been awake, for they were sentinels. Without much reflection he cut off their heads and entered the castle. Here he found seated upon a great stone in the middle of the hall, the dwarf who had stolen his maiden.
Without much ado the knight drew his sword and advanced. The dwarf leaped down and seized a great club. "Now we shall see who shall have the maiden and live in this castle," cried Ruthelm, "for I shall cut off your head, as I did to the sentinels at your door."
The fight began between the knight and the dwarf. Try as he might, the sword of the knight could not reach the ugly creature's body. On the other hand, the dwarf's blows were easily turned aside by the strong sword of the knight. At last the dwarf leaped upon the knight's back and began to bite him on the neck. As he did so, he leaned over and caught sight of the ring, which the knight had on his finger and which he had just turned.
The dwarf stiffened and lost his hold for a moment. The knight gave a great lunge and threw the dwarf forward over his head. The ugly body fell heavily against the great stone in the hall and the dwarf lay still with his neck broken.
Ruthelm wandered through the palace and at last came to a beautiful room where Gerlinde lay asleep. He thought he had never seen a lovelier face or form, and bending over her, kissed her forehead. The maiden awoke with a start, crying out,— "Oh, where am I? I thought some one had called me to go to my father."
"I am he who has come to take you home," said the knight, kneeling before the maiden. "Come with me and you shall know no danger and suffer no harm."
Together they wandered through the great crystal palace, and the grounds and the gardens, until they came to the ladder. As they put their feet on the topmost round there was a great noise and the mountain shook about them. Looking up they saw the earth open and the palace and all it contained disappear in a great chasm.
It was not long before they had reached the ground, and Gerlinde was safe in her father's home. Within a few weeks she and the knight were married, and for many years lived in their own castle, from the towers of which they could see the tall cliff on which Gerlinde had had such a dreadful experience and from which she had been so happily rescued.