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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XV

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XV


Down the River
[Charming Waterside Pictures]

Men and women and cattle were at work in the dewy fields
by this time. The people often stepped aboard the raft,
as we glided along the grassy shores, and gossiped with us
and with the crew for a hundred yards or so, then stepped
ashore again, refreshed by the ride.

Only the men did this; the women were too busy.
The women do all kinds of work on the continent. They dig,
they hoe, they reap, they sow, they bear monstrous burdens
on their backs, they shove similar ones long distances
on wheelbarrows, they drag the cart when there is no dog
or lean cow to drag it--and when there is, they assist
the dog or cow. Age is no matter--the older the woman
the stronger she is, apparently. On the farm a woman's
duties are not defined--she does a little of everything;
but in the towns it is different, there she only does
certain things, the men do the rest. For instance,
a hotel chambermaid has nothing to do but make beds and
fires in fifty or sixty rooms, bring towels and candles,
and fetch several tons of water up several flights of stairs,
a hundred pounds at a time, in prodigious metal pitchers.
She does not have to work more than eighteen or twenty hours
a day, and she can always get down on her knees and scrub
the floors of halls and closets when she is tired and needs
a rest.

As the morning advanced and the weather grew hot, we took
off our outside clothing and sat in a row along the edge
of the raft and enjoyed the scenery, with our sun-umbrellas
over our heads and our legs dangling in the water.
Every now and then we plunged in and had a swim.
Every projecting grassy cape had its joyous group
of naked children, the boys to themselves and the girls
to themselves, the latter usually in care of some motherly
dame who sat in the shade of a tree with her knitting.
The little boys swam out to us, sometimes, but the little
maids stood knee-deep in the water and stopped their splashing
and frolicking to inspect the raft with their innocent
eyes as it drifted by. Once we turned a corner suddenly
and surprised a slender girl of twelve years or upward,
just stepping into the water. She had not time to run,
but she did what answered just as well; she promptly
drew a lithe young willow bough athwart her white body
with one hand, and then contemplated us with a simple and
untroubled interest. Thus she stood while we glided by.
She was a pretty creature, and she and her willow bough
made a very pretty picture, and one which could not
offend the modesty of the most fastidious spectator.
Her white skin had a low bank of fresh green willows for
background and effective contrast--for she stood against
them--and above and out of them projected the eager faces
and white shoulders of two smaller girls.

Toward noon we heard the inspiring cry:

"Sail ho!"

"Where away?" shouted the captain.

"Three points off the weather bow!"

We ran forward to see the vessel. It proved to be
a steamboat--for they had begun to run a steamer up
the Neckar, for the first time in May. She was a tug,
and one of a very peculiar build and aspect. I had
often watched her from the hotel, and wondered how she
propelled herself, for apparently she had no propeller
or paddles. She came churning along, now, making a deal
of noise of one kind or another, and aggravating it every
now and then by blowing a hoarse whistle. She had nine
keel-boats hitched on behind and following after her
in a long, slender rank. We met her in a narrow place,
between dikes, and there was hardly room for us both in the
cramped passage. As she went grinding and groaning by,
we perceived the secret of her moving impulse. She did
not drive herself up the river with paddles or propeller,
she pulled herself by hauling on a great chain.
This chain is laid in the bed of the river and is only
fastened at the two ends. It is seventy miles long.
It comes in over the boat's bow, passes around a drum,
and is payed out astern. She pulls on that chain,
and so drags herself up the river or down it. She has
neither bow or stern, strictly speaking, for she has a
long-bladed rudder on each end and she never turns around.
She uses both rudders all the time, and they are powerful
enough to enable her to turn to the right or the left
and steer around curves, in spite of the strong resistance
of the chain. I would not have believed that that impossible
thing could be done; but I saw it done, and therefore I
know that there is one impossible thing which CAN be done.
What miracle will man attempt next?

We met many big keel-boats on their way up, using sails,
mule power, and profanity--a tedious and laborious business.
A wire rope led from the foretopmast to the file of mules
on the tow-path a hundred yards ahead, and by dint
of much banging and swearing and urging, the detachment
of drivers managed to get a speed of two or three miles
an hour out of the mules against the stiff current.
The Neckar has always been used as a canal, and thus
has given employment to a great many men and animals;
but now that this steamboat is able, with a small crew
and a bushel or so of coal, to take nine keel-boats farther
up the river in one hour than thirty men and thirty mules
can do it in two, it is believed that the old-fashioned
towing industry is on its death-bed. A second steamboat
began work in the Neckar three months after the first one
was put in service. [Figure 4]

At noon we stepped ashore and bought some bottled beer
and got some chickens cooked, while the raft waited;
then we immediately put to sea again, and had our
dinner while the beer was cold and the chickens hot.
There is no pleasanter place for such a meal than a raft
that is gliding down the winding Neckar past green meadows
and wooded hills, and slumbering villages, and craggy
heights graced with crumbling towers and battlements.

In one place we saw a nicely dressed German gentleman
without any spectacles. Before I could come to anchor
he had got underway. It was a great pity. I so wanted
to make a sketch of him. The captain comforted me
for my loss, however, by saying that the man was without
any doubt a fraud who had spectacles, but kept them
in his pocket in order to make himself conspicuous.

Below Hassmersheim we passed Hornberg, Goetz von Berlichingen's
old castle. It stands on a bold elevation two hundred feet
above the surface of the river; it has high vine-clad walls
enclosing trees, and a peaked tower about seventy-five
feet high. The steep hillside, from the castle clear
down to the water's edge, is terraced, and clothed thick
with grape vines. This is like farming a mansard roof.
All the steeps along that part of the river which furnish
the proper exposure, are given up to the grape. That region
is a great producer of Rhine wines. The Germans are
exceedingly fond of Rhine wines; they are put up in tall,
slender bottles, and are considered a pleasant beverage.
One tells them from vinegar by the label.

The Hornberg hill is to be tunneled, and the new railway
will pass under the castle.

THE CAVE OF THE SPECTER

Two miles below Hornberg castle is a cave in a low cliff,
which the captain of the raft said had once been occupied
by a beautiful heiress of Hornberg--the Lady Gertrude--
in the old times. It was seven hundred years ago.
She had a number of rich and noble lovers and one poor
and obscure one, Sir Wendel Lobenfeld. With the native
chuckleheadedness of the heroine of romance, she preferred
the poor and obscure lover. With the native sound judgment
of the father of a heroine of romance, the von Berlichingen
of that day shut his daughter up in his donjon keep,
or his oubliette, or his culverin, or some such place,
and resolved that she should stay there until she selected
a husband from among her rich and noble lovers. The latter
visited her and persecuted her with their supplications,
but without effect, for her heart was true to her poor
despised Crusader, who was fighting in the Holy Land.
Finally, she resolved that she would endure the attentions
of the rich lovers no longer; so one stormy night she escaped
and went down the river and hid herself in the cave on
the other side. Her father ransacked the country for her,
but found not a trace of her. As the days went by,
and still no tidings of her came, his conscience began
to torture him, and he caused proclamation to be made
that if she were yet living and would return, he would
oppose her no longer, she might marry whom she would.
The months dragged on, all hope forsook the old man,
he ceased from his customary pursuits and pleasures,
he devoted himself to pious works, and longed for the
deliverance of death.

Now just at midnight, every night, the lost heiress stood
in the mouth of her cave, arrayed in white robes, and sang
a little love ballad which her Crusader had made for her.
She judged that if he came home alive the superstitious
peasants would tell him about the ghost that sang in the cave,
and that as soon as they described the ballad he would know
that none but he and she knew that song, therefore he would
suspect that she was alive, and would come and find her.
As time went on, the people of the region became sorely
distressed about the Specter of the Haunted Cave.
It was said that ill luck of one kind or another always
overtook any one who had the misfortune to hear that song.
Eventually, every calamity that happened thereabouts was
laid at the door of that music. Consequently, no boatmen
would consent to pass the cave at night; the peasants
shunned the place, even in the daytime.

But the faithful girl sang on, night after night,
month after month, and patiently waited; her reward
must come at last. Five years dragged by, and still,
every night at midnight, the plaintive tones floated out
over the silent land, while the distant boatmen and peasants
thrust their fingers into their ears and shuddered out a prayer.

And now came the Crusader home, bronzed and battle-scarred,
but bringing a great and splendid fame to lay at the feet
of his bride. The old lord of Hornberg received him as
his son, and wanted him to stay by him and be the comfort
and blessing of his age; but the tale of that young
girl's devotion to him and its pathetic consequences
made a changed man of the knight. He could not enjoy
his well-earned rest. He said his heart was broken,
he would give the remnant of his life to high deeds
in the cause of humanity, and so find a worthy death
and a blessed reunion with the brave true heart whose
love had more honored him than all his victories in war.

When the people heard this resolve of his, they came and told
him there was a pitiless dragon in human disguise in the
Haunted Cave, a dread creature which no knight had yet been
bold enough to face, and begged him to rid the land of its
desolating presence. He said he would do it. They told
him about the song, and when he asked what song it was,
they said the memory of it was gone, for nobody had been
hardy enough to listen to it for the past four years and more.

Toward midnight the Crusader came floating down the river
in a boat, with his trusty cross-bow in his hands.
He drifted silently through the dim reflections of the
crags and trees, with his intent eyes fixed upon the low
cliff which he was approaching. As he drew nearer,
he discerned the black mouth of the cave. Now--is that
a white figure? Yes. The plaintive song begins to well
forth and float away over meadow and river--the cross-bow
is slowly raised to position, a steady aim is taken,
the bolt flies straight to the mark--the figure sinks down,
still singing, the knight takes the wool out of his ears,
and recognizes the old ballad--too late! Ah, if he had
only not put the wool in his ears!

The Crusader went away to the wars again, and presently
fell in battle, fighting for the Cross. Tradition says
that during several centuries the spirit of the unfortunate
girl sang nightly from the cave at midnight, but the music
carried no curse with it; and although many listened
for the mysterious sounds, few were favored, since only
those could hear them who had never failed in a trust.
It is believed that the singing still continues, but it is
known that nobody has heard it during the present century.

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