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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XIX

A Tramp Abroad

Chapter XIX

[The Deadly Jest of Dilsberg]

However, I wander from the raft. We made the port
of Necharsteinach in good season, and went to the hotel
and ordered a trout dinner, the same to be ready
against our return from a two-hour pedestrian excursion
to the village and castle of Dilsberg, a mile distant,
on the other side of the river. I do not mean that we
proposed to be two hours making two miles--no, we meant
to employ most of the time in inspecting Dilsberg.

For Dilsberg is a quaint place. It is most quaintly
and picturesquely situated, too. Imagine the beautiful
river before you; then a few rods of brilliant green sward
on its opposite shore; then a sudden hill--no preparatory
gently rising slopes, but a sort of instantaneous hill--
a hill two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet high,
as round as a bowl, with the same taper upward that an
inverted bowl has, and with about the same relation
of height to diameter that distinguishes a bowl of good
honest depth--a hill which is thickly clothed with
green bushes--a comely, shapely hill, rising abruptly
out of the dead level of the surrounding green plains,
visible from a great distance down the bends of the river,
and with just exactly room on the top of its head
for its steepled and turreted and roof-clustered cap
of architecture, which same is tightly jammed and compacted
within the perfectly round hoop of the ancient village wall.

There is no house outside the wall on the whole hill,
or any vestige of a former house; all the houses are
inside the wall, but there isn't room for another one.
It is really a finished town, and has been finished
a very long time. There is no space between the wall
and the first circle of buildings; no, the village wall
is itself the rear wall of the first circle of buildings,
and the roofs jut a little over the wall and thus
furnish it with eaves. The general level of the massed
roofs is gracefully broken and relieved by the dominating
towers of the ruined castle and the tall spires of a
couple of churches; so, from a distance Dilsberg has
rather more the look of a king's crown than a cap.
That lofty green eminence and its quaint coronet form
quite a striking picture, you may be sure, in the flush
of the evening sun.

We crossed over in a boat and began the ascent by a narrow,
steep path which plunged us at once into the leafy deeps
of the bushes. But they were not cool deeps by any means,
for the sun's rays were weltering hot and there was
little or no breeze to temper them. As we panted up
the sharp ascent, we met brown, bareheaded and barefooted
boys and girls, occasionally, and sometimes men;
they came upon us without warning, they gave us good day,
flashed out of sight in the bushes, and were gone as
suddenly and mysteriously as they had come. They were
bound for the other side of the river to work. This path
had been traveled by many generations of these people.
They have always gone down to the valley to earn their bread,
but they have always climbed their hill again to eat it,
and to sleep in their snug town.

It is said that the Dilsbergers do not emigrate much;
they find that living up there above the world, in their
peaceful nest, is pleasanter than living down in the
troublous world. The seven hundred inhabitants are all
blood-kin to each other, too; they have always been blood-kin
to each other for fifteen hundred years; they are simply
one large family, and they like the home folks better than
they like strangers, hence they persistently stay at home.
It has been said that for ages Dilsberg has been merely
a thriving and diligent idiot-factory. I saw no idiots there,
but the captain said, "Because of late years the government
has taken to lugging them off to asylums and otherwheres;
and government wants to cripple the factory, too, and is
trying to get these Dilsbergers to marry out of the family,
but they don't like to."

The captain probably imagined all this, as modern science
denies that the intermarrying of relatives deteriorates
the stock.

Arrived within the wall, we found the usual village
sights and life. We moved along a narrow, crooked lane
which had been paved in the Middle Ages. A strapping,
ruddy girl was beating flax or some such stuff in a little
bit of a good-box of a barn, and she swung her flail
with a will--if it was a flail; I was not farmer enough
to know what she was at; a frowsy, barelegged girl was
herding half a dozen geese with a stick--driving them
along the lane and keeping them out of the dwellings;
a cooper was at work in a shop which I know he did not make
so large a thing as a hogshead in, for there was not room.
In the front rooms of dwellings girls and women were
cooking or spinning, and ducks and chickens were waddling
in and out, over the threshold, picking up chance crumbs
and holding pleasant converse; a very old and wrinkled man
sat asleep before his door, with his chin upon his breast
and his extinguished pipe in his lap; soiled children
were playing in the dirt everywhere along the lane,
unmindful of the sun.

Except the sleeping old man, everybody was at work,
but the place was very still and peaceful, nevertheless;
so still that the distant cackle of the successful hen smote
upon the ear but little dulled by intervening sounds.
That commonest of village sights was lacking here--the
public pump, with its great stone tank or trough of
limpid water, and its group of gossiping pitcher-bearers;
for there is no well or fountain or spring on this tall hill;
cisterns of rain-water are used.

Our alpenstocks and muslin tails compelled attention,
and as we moved through the village we gathered a considerable
procession of little boys and girls, and so went in some
state to the castle. It proved to be an extensive pile of
crumbling walls, arches, and towers, massive, properly grouped
for picturesque effect, weedy, grass-grown, and satisfactory.
The children acted as guides; they walked us along the top
of the highest walls, then took us up into a high tower
and showed us a wide and beautiful landscape, made up
of wavy distances of woody hills, and a nearer prospect
of undulating expanses of green lowlands, on the one hand,
and castle-graced crags and ridges on the other,
with the shining curves of the Neckar flowing between.
But the principal show, the chief pride of the children,
was the ancient and empty well in the grass-grown court
of the castle. Its massive stone curb stands up three
or four feet above-ground, and is whole and uninjured.
The children said that in the Middle Ages this well was
four hundred feet deep, and furnished all the village
with an abundant supply of water, in war and peace.
They said that in the old day its bottom was below the level
of the Neckar, hence the water-supply was inexhaustible.

But there were some who believed it had never been a well
at all, and was never deeper than it is now--eighty feet;
that at that depth a subterranean passage branched from it
and descended gradually to a remote place in the valley,
where it opened into somebody's cellar or other hidden recess,
and that the secret of this locality is now lost.
Those who hold this belief say that herein lies the
explanation that Dilsberg, besieged by Tilly and many
a soldier before him, was never taken: after the longest
and closest sieges the besiegers were astonished to
perceive that the besieged were as fat and hearty as ever,
and were well furnished with munitions of war--therefore
it must be that the Dilsbergers had been bringing these
things in through the subterranean passage all the time.

The children said that there was in truth a subterranean
outlet down there, and they would prove it. So they set
a great truss of straw on fire and threw it down the well,
while we leaned on the curb and watched the glowing
mass descend. It struck bottom and gradually burned out.
No smoke came up. The children clapped their hands and

"You see! Nothing makes so much smoke as burning straw--now
where did the smoke go to, if there is no subterranean outlet?"

So it seemed quite evident that the subterranean outlet
indeed existed. But the finest thing within the ruin's
limits was a noble linden, which the children said was
four hundred years old, and no doubt it was. It had
a mighty trunk and a mighty spread of limb and foliage.
The limbs near the ground were nearly the thickness
of a barrel.

That tree had witnessed the assaults of men in mail--
how remote such a time seems, and how ungraspable is the
fact that real men ever did fight in real armor!--and it
had seen the time when these broken arches and crumbling
battlements were a trim and strong and stately fortress,
fluttering its gay banners in the sun, and peopled with vigorous
humanity--how impossibly long ago that seems!--and here
it stands yet, and possibly may still be standing here,
sunning itself and dreaming its historical dreams,
when today shall have been joined to the days called "ancient."

Well, we sat down under the tree to smoke, and the captain
delivered himself of his legend:


It was to this effect. In the old times there was once
a great company assembled at the castle, and festivity
ran high. Of course there was a haunted chamber
in the castle, and one day the talk fell upon that.
It was said that whoever slept in it would not wake again
for fifty years. Now when a young knight named Conrad
von Geisberg heard this, he said that if the castle were
his he would destroy that chamber, so that no foolish
person might have the chance to bring so dreadful
a misfortune upon himself and afflict such as loved
him with the memory of it. Straightway, the company
privately laid their heads together to contrive some
way to get this superstitious young man to sleep in that chamber.

And they succeeded--in this way. They persuaded
his betrothed, a lovely mischievous young creature,
niece of the lord of the castle, to help them in their plot.
She presently took him aside and had speech with him.
She used all her persuasions, but could not shake him;
he said his belief was firm, that if he should sleep
there he would wake no more for fifty years, and it made
him shudder to think of it. Catharina began to weep.
This was a better argument; Conrad could not out against it.
He yielded and said she should have her wish if she would only
smile and be happy again. She flung her arms about his neck,
and the kisses she gave him showed that her thankfulness
and her pleasure were very real. Then she flew to tell
the company her success, and the applause she received
made her glad and proud she had undertaken her mission,
since all alone she had accomplished what the multitude had
failed in.

At midnight, that night, after the usual feasting,
Conrad was taken to the haunted chamber and left there.
He fell asleep, by and by.

When he awoke again and looked about him, his heart
stood still with horror! The whole aspect of the chamber
was changed. The walls were moldy and hung with
ancient cobwebs; the curtains and beddings were rotten;
the furniture was rickety and ready to fall to pieces.
He sprang out of bed, but his quaking knees sunk under
him and he fell to the floor.

"This is the weakness of age," he said.

He rose and sought his clothing. It was clothing no longer.
The colors were gone, the garments gave way in many places
while he was putting them on. He fled, shuddering,
into the corridor, and along it to the great hall. Here he
was met by a middle-aged stranger of a kind countenance,
who stopped and gazed at him with surprise. Conrad said:

"Good sir, will you send hither the lord Ulrich?"

The stranger looked puzzled a moment, then said:

"The lord Ulrich?"

"Yes--if you will be so good."

The stranger called--"Wilhelm!" A young serving-man came,
and the stranger said to him:

"Is there a lord Ulrich among the guests?"

"I know none of the name, so please your honor."

Conrad said, hesitatingly:

"I did not mean a guest, but the lord of the castle, sir."

The stranger and the servant exchanged wondering glances.
Then the former said:

"I am the lord of the castle."

"Since when, sir?"

"Since the death of my father, the good lord Ulrich
more than forty years ago."

Conrad sank upon a bench and covered his face with his
hands while he rocked his body to and fro and moaned.
The stranger said in a low voice to the servant:

"I fear me this poor old creature is mad. Call some one."

In a moment several people came, and grouped themselves about,
talking in whispers. Conrad looked up and scanned
the faces about him wistfully.

Then he shook his head and said, in a grieved voice:

"No, there is none among ye that I know. I am old and alone
in the world. They are dead and gone these many years
that cared for me. But sure, some of these aged ones I see
about me can tell me some little word or two concerning them."

Several bent and tottering men and women came nearer
and answered his questions about each former friend
as he mentioned the names. This one they said had been
dead ten years, that one twenty, another thirty.
Each succeeding blow struck heavier and heavier.
At last the sufferer said:

"There is one more, but I have not the courage to--O
my lost Catharina!"

One of the old dames said:

"Ah, I knew her well, poor soul. A misfortune overtook
her lover, and she died of sorrow nearly fifty years ago.
She lieth under the linden tree without the court."

Conrad bowed his head and said:

"Ah, why did I ever wake! And so she died of grief for me,
poor child. So young, so sweet, so good! She never wittingly
did a hurtful thing in all the little summer of her life.
Her loving debt shall be repaid--for I will die of grief
for her."

His head drooped upon his breast. In the moment there
was a wild burst of joyous laughter, a pair of round
young arms were flung about Conrad's neck and a sweet
voice cried:

"There, Conrad mine, thy kind words kill me--the farce
shall go no further! Look up, and laugh with us--'twas
all a jest!"

And he did look up, and gazed, in a dazed wonderment--
for the disguises were stripped away, and the aged
men and women were bright and young and gay again.
Catharina's happy tongue ran on:

"'Twas a marvelous jest, and bravely carried out.
They gave you a heavy sleeping-draught before you went
to bed, and in the night they bore you to a ruined chamber
where all had fallen to decay, and placed these rags
of clothing by you. And when your sleep was spent and you
came forth, two strangers, well instructed in their parts,
were here to meet you; and all we, your friends,
in our disguises, were close at hand, to see and hear,
you may be sure. Ah, 'twas a gallant jest! Come, now,
and make thee ready for the pleasures of the day.
How real was thy misery for the moment, thou poor lad!
Look up and have thy laugh, now!"

He looked up, searched the merry faces about him
in a dreamy way, then sighed and said:

"I am aweary, good strangers, I pray you lead me to her grave."

All the smile vanished away, every cheek blanched,
Catharina sunk to the ground in a swoon.

All day the people went about the castle with troubled faces,
and communed together in undertones. A painful hush
pervaded the place which had lately been so full of
cheery life. Each in his turn tried to arouse Conrad
out of his hallucination and bring him to himself;
but all the answer any got was a meek, bewildered stare,
and then the words:

"Good stranger, I have no friends, all are at rest these
many years; ye speak me fair, ye mean me well, but I know
ye not; I am alone and forlorn in the world--prithee
lead me to her grave."

During two years Conrad spent his days, from the
early morning till the night, under the linden tree,
mourning over the imaginary grave of his Catharina.
Catharina was the only company of the harmless madman.
He was very friendly toward her because, as he said,
in some ways she reminded him of his Catharina whom he had
lost "fifty years ago." He often said:

"She was so gay, so happy-hearted--but you never smile;
and always when you think I am not looking, you cry."

When Conrad died, they buried him under the linden,
according to his directions, so that he might rest
"near his poor Catharina." Then Catharina sat under
the linden alone, every day and all day long, a great
many years, speaking to no one, and never smiling;
and at last her long repentance was rewarded with death,
and she was buried by Conrad's side.

Harris pleased the captain by saying it was good legend;
and pleased him further by adding:

"Now that I have seen this mighty tree, vigorous with
its four hundred years, I feel a desire to believe
the legend for ITS sake; so I will humor the desire,
and consider that the tree really watches over those poor
hearts and feels a sort of human tenderness for them."

We returned to Necharsteinach, plunged our hot heads
into the trough at the town pump, and then went to the
hotel and ate our trout dinner in leisurely comfort,
in the garden, with the beautiful Neckar flowing at our feet,
the quaint Dilsberg looming beyond, and the graceful
towers and battlements of a couple of medieval castles
(called the "Swallow's Nest" [1] and "The Brothers.")
assisting the rugged scenery of a bend of the river
down to our right. We got to sea in season to make the
eight-mile run to Heidelberg before the night shut down.
We sailed by the hotel in the mellow glow of sunset,
and came slashing down with the mad current into the narrow
passage between the dikes. I believed I could shoot the
bridge myself, and I went to the forward triplet of logs
and relieved the pilot of his pole and his responsibility.

1. The seeker after information is referred to Appendix
    E for our captain's legend of the "Swallow's Nest"
    and "The Brothers."

We went tearing along in a most exhilarating way, and I
performed the delicate duties of my office very well indeed
for a first attempt; but perceiving, presently, that I
really was going to shoot the bridge itself instead
of the archway under it, I judiciously stepped ashore.
The next moment I had my long-coveted desire: I saw
a raft wrecked. It hit the pier in the center and went
all to smash and scatteration like a box of matches
struck by lightning.

I was the only one of our party who saw this grand sight;
the others were attitudinizing, for the benefit of the long
rank of young ladies who were promenading on the bank,
and so they lost it. But I helped to fish them out of
the river, down below the bridge, and then described it
to them as well as I could.

They were not interested, though. They said they were
wet and felt ridiculous and did not care anything for
descriptions of scenery. The young ladies, and other people,
crowded around and showed a great deal of sympathy,
but that did not help matters; for my friends said they
did not want sympathy, they wanted a back alley and solitude.

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