Gerda's Ride to Her Wedding
Many hundreds of years ago there lived in the castle of Rheinstein on the river Rhine a rich and powerful knight named Sifrid. But he was as wicked as he was rich, for he had gained his riches by robbery.
Upon one occasion, in returning home laden with the spoils of a foray upon some other lord, he brought with him a beautiful girl whom he had taken captive. The girl was not only beautiful, but she was very gentle and good, and soon her captor fell a victim to her gentleness. Deeply in love with her, she became his wife, and his constant companion in everything he undertook.
The arrival of the beautiful girl wrought a great change in the life of the knight. From the time of his marriage there were no acts of violence and no more robberies. The merchants passed the dreaded castle unharmed, and the ships came and went along the river without being molested. Sifrid had listened to his lovely wife and had learned to be good.
Rheinstein, once the abode of noisy highwaymen, was now a place of peace and rest. Gradually the wild guests left it, and the rude war comrades, seeing no further booty or advantage for them, left the knight and his wife alone. Thus matters went on for a year or more, when a little girl was born, whom the knight named Gerda.
"Now my happiness is complete," exclaimed Sifrid, "for I have two dear ones to love." But his happiness did not last long, for the wife died when the baby was a few days old.
The knight fell into a deep melancholy. He refused to see anyone and gave himself up to the gloomiest thoughts. "I shall return to my old habits and become again a robber and a terror to those who pass my castle," said he.
But when he looked at the little baby and saw her smile with the face and eyes of her mother, he again changed his mind and kept to his better life. The only consolation he found was in the care and education of Gerda, and to her he devoted all his time and thoughts.
Gerda grew to be as beautiful and gentle a girl as ever was her mother. Under her father's care she developed like a rare flower until those who saw her marveled at her loveliness.
However retired Sifrid lived, still there were those who came his way and begged hospitality at his doors. Tired wanderers, pious pilgrims and others rested at the foot of the castle, and were entertained at the knight's table, and soon the story of the beauty of Gerda spread abroad.
Those who came away from the castle told others, "The Lady Gerda is the most beautiful woman in the world; her eyes are blue like the skies, her hair is as golden as ripe corn, her neck is as white as a swan's throat, and her voice is like the running of water in the moonlight."
You may be sure it was not long before a number of knights of high and low degree presented themselves at the castle and begged to have the hand of the maiden in marriage. It was known that her father was rich and powerful, so that marriage with the Lady Gerda offered double advantage of wealth and beauty to the one who secured her love.
The suitors became more and more numerous. Hardly a month passed that the old knight was not approached by some one demanding his daughter's hand. At last Sifrid, who had grown old and somewhat irritable, exclaimed, "I weary of all these suitors for the hand of my daughter. I shall appoint a tournament at Mayence, at which Gerda will assist. Her hand shall be the prize of the bravest of the knights."
To this Gerda had to consent, though she was far from satisfied.
Not easily could any tournament match this one in the number and splendor of the contestants. The festival was magnificent in the display made by the wealth of Sifrid, but by far the most beautiful object present was Gerda herself, who regarded the combatants from a balcony built expressly for her and her attendants.
Among the knights present, two distinguished themselves greatly. One was Kurt of Ehrenfels, the other was Kuno of Reichenstein—two castles that were not far from the one owned by Sifrid. Kurt was a rough knight, whom people called The Bad, for his wicked deeds. He was rich and had extensive domains, and Sifrid, who could not rid himself altogether of his avarice, secretly wished that Kurt might be the winner in the tournament and claim his daughter's hand.
Kuno, on the other hand, had a fine education and noble character. Gerda had long regarded him with favor, and as she watched the combatants from her balcony she secretly prayed that Kuno might overcome all his opponents.
The tournament proceeded amid great splendor and courage of the contestants. Knight after knight was vanquished, until only Kurt and Kuno were left in the field. Eagerly they prepared for the first onset, while Sifrid and Gerda watched them with different emotions, one with avarice and the other with the beginning of love.
The knights came together in the middle of the field. Sad to relate, Kuno was thrown from his horse, his lance was broken, and his armor pierced. Rising from his seat Sifrid exclaimed with joy, "Gerda, my daughter, Kurt shall have you for his own, for he has overcome all the others. You shall have a great castle and many riches."
Gerda made no reply. She cast down her eyes to conceal the tears of disappointment that she could not restrain.
The day of the wedding came all too quickly. Before the hour when Gerda was to appear she hastened to the chapel and threw herself down before the figure of the Holy Virgin, and cried out in her distress, "Holy Mother, save thy child from the misery of a loveless marriage. I am very unhappy, for I love not the wicked Kurt, and my heart is wholly another's."
As she knelt in prayer she seemed strangely comforted by some assurance that her petition would be granted. She rose and dressed herself in costly garments, and put on the jewels her father had given her for her wedding. Then she went forth, and meeting the impatient Kurt, said to him, "Sir, I am ready to ride with you to the wedding."
Kurt did not notice her pale cheeks, nor her eyes red with much weeping and loss of sleep. Nor did he notice when she cast her eyes upwards toward the castle of Reichenstein, where Kuno stood, sad and gloomy, watching the bridal procession start towards the chapel.
Now Gerda was riding a gray horse which Kuno had given her the day she was eighteen years old. The horse was young and spirited, and obeyed no one but his mistress, and loved no one more than he did his former master. When the procession came near the chapel, Gerda's horse which up to this time had been very quiet, became restless and began to prance. He reared so dangerously as almost to unseat his rider, and bit everyone who came near his bridle. At last he broke away and began to run furiously.
The old knight, her father, saw his daughter's plight and called out to the knights to pursue the flying animal. There was no need to urge them. Onward flew the gray horse, and onward came the eager knights, Kurt in the lead. He did not intend to be cheated of his bride.
Gerda, strangely enough, was not in the least afraid, nor was she in anywise likely to be thrown from her horse, for somehow she felt the sustaining arms of a saint about her, as she fled from her pursuers.
The horse ran straight for the Rhine, as if he would throw himself into the stream. However, he turned up the banks and began to ascend the steep rocks on which the castle of Reichenstein was built, and where Kuno was watching the flight of his beloved from her pursuing betrothed. Up the face of the cliff climbed the steed, bearing his lovely burden. From the frowning walls of the castle Kuno saw them coming.
"Unbar the gates! Down with the drawbridge! Out with the guards to meet the Lady Gerda!" cried he to his men, as the thundering hoofs came nearer. Hardly had his men opened the way when the faithful horse flew into the courtyard, and Gerda fell into the arms of the man she loved.
Kurt had followed furiously. Blind with rage, he had urged his horse up the same course that Gerda had been carried, but his horse fell and the knight's neck was broken on the rocks. As for Sifrid, he was content to let matters stand as they were, for Gerda had made up her mind, and there was nothing more to say.