Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Rescue on the Road to the Stake
By Johann Wilhelm Meinhold (1797–1851)
From ‘The Amber-Witch’: Translation of Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon
  [The following extract is from the concluding portion of the terrible experiences of Maria Schweidler. She has been tried and convicted of sorcery, and solemnly sentenced. Seated in a cart, in which her father and her godfather (the Pastor Benzensis of the chronicle) are allowed to accompany her to her doom, the young girl maintains the courage of despair. On her ride to the mountain, where the pyre has been raised, she is surrounded by successive mobs of infuriated peasants; but is not unnerved, and advances toward her death reciting prayers and hymns. Popular fury against her is deepened by the rising of a violent storm, naturally laid to the young girls last spells; and by the violent death of her chief accuser, the wicked Sheriff Wittich, who is killed by falling into the wheel of a roadside mill. At last the elements and the populace are quieted enough to allow the death procession to be resumed. Surrounded by guards with pitchforks, and bound in the cart, Maria is drawn toward the Blocksberg; and nothing apparently can interfere with the legal tragedy of which she is the heroine. At this point the incident occurs which is told in the excerpt.]

How My Daughter was at Length Saved by the Help of the All-Merciful, yea, of the All-Merciful God

MEANWHILE, by reason of my unbelief, wherewith Satan again tempted me, I had become so weak that I was forced to lean my back against the constable his knees, and expected not to live till even we should come to the mountain; for the last hope I had cherished was now gone, and I saw that my innocent lamb was in the same plight. Moreover the reverend Martinus began to upbraid her, saying that he too now saw that all her oaths were lies, and that she really could brew storms. Hereupon she answered with a smile, although indeed she was as white as a sheet, “Alas, reverend godfather, do you then really believe that the weather and the storms no longer obey our Lord God? Are storms then so rare at this season of the year that none save the foul fiend can cause them? Nay, I have never broken the baptismal vow you once made in my name, nor will I ever break it, as I hope that God will be merciful to me in my last hour, which is now at hand.” But the reverend Martinus shook his head doubtingly, and said, “The Evil One must have promised thee much, seeing thou remainest so stubborn even unto thy life’s end, and blasphemest the Lord thy God; but wait, and thou wilt soon learn with horror that the devil “is a liar, and the father of it” (St. John viii.). Whilst he yet spake this, and more of a like kind, we came to Uekeritze, where all the people both great and small rushed out of their doors, also Jacob Schwarten his wife, who as we afterwards heard had only been brought to bed the night before, and her goodman came running after her to fetch her back. In vain: she told him he was a fool, and had been one for many a weary day, and that if she had to crawl up the mountain on her bare knees, she would go to see the parson’s witch burned; that she had reckoned upon it for so long, and if he did not let her go, she would give him a thump on the chaps, etc.  1
  Thus did the coarse and foul-mouthed people riot around the cart wherein we sat; and as they knew not what had befallen, they ran so near us that the wheel went over the foot of a boy. Nevertheless they all crowded up again, more especially the lasses, and felt my daughter her clothes, and would even see her shoes and stockings, and asked her how she felt. Item, one fellow asked whether she would drink somewhat, with many more fooleries besides; till at last, when several came and asked her for her garland and her golden chain, she turned towards me and smiled, saying, “Father, I must begin to speak some Latin again; otherwise the folks will leave me no peace.” But it was not wanted this time: for our guards with the pitchforks had now reached the hindmost, and doubtless told them what had happened, as we presently heard a great shouting behind us, for the love of God to turn back before the witch did them a mischief; and as Jacob Schwarten his wife heeded it not, but still plagued my child to give her her apron to make a christening coat for her baby, for that it was a pity to let it be burnt, her goodman gave her such a thump on her back with a knotted stick which he had pulled out of the hedge that she fell down with loud shrieks: and when he went to help her up she pulled him down by his hair, and as reverend Martinus said, now executed what she had threatened; inasmuch as she struck him on the nose with her fist with might and main, until the other people came running up to them, and held her back. Meanwhile, however, the storm had almost passed over, and sank down toward the sea.  2
  And when we had gone through the little wood, we suddenly saw the Streckelberg before us covered with people, and the pile and stake upon the top, upon the which the tall constable jumped up when he saw us coming, and beckoned with his cap with all his might. Thereat my senses left me, and my sweet lamb was not much better, for she bent to and fro like a reed, and stretching her bound hands towards heaven, she once more cried out:—
  “Rex tremendæ majestatis!
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis!”
And behold, scarce had she spoken these words, when the sun came out and formed a rainbow right over the mountain most pleasant to behold; and it is clear that this was a sign from the merciful God, such as he often gives us, but which we blind and unbelieving men do not rightly mark. Neither did my child heed it; for albeit she thought upon that first rainbow which shadowed forth our troubles, yet it seemed to her impossible that she could now be saved: wherefore she grew so faint, that she no longer heeded the blessed sign of mercy, and her head fell forward (for she could no longer lean it upon me, seeing that I lay my length at the bottom of the cart), till her garland almost touched my worthy gossip his knees. Thereupon he bade the driver stop for a moment, and pulled out a small flask filled with wine, which he always carries in his pocket when witches are to be burnt, in order to comfort them therewith in their terror. (Henceforth, I myself will ever do the like, for this fashion of my dear gossip pleases me well.) He first poured some of this wine down my throat, and afterwards down my child’s: and we had scarce come to ourselves again, when a fearful noise and tumult arose among the people behind us, and they not only cried out in deadly fear, “The sheriff is come back! the sheriff is come again!” but as they could neither run away forwards or backwards (being afraid of the ghost behind and of my child before them), they ran on either side; some rushing into the coppice and others wading into the Achterwater up to their necks.
  Item, as soon as Dom. Camerarius saw the ghost come out of the coppice with a gray hat and a gray feather, such as the sheriff wore, riding on the gray charger, he crept under a bundle of straw in the cart; and Dom. Consul cursed my child again, and bade the coachman drive on as madly as they could, even should all the horses die of it, when the impudent constable behind us called to him, “It is not the sheriff, but the young lord of Nienkerken, who will surely seek to save the witch: shall I then cut her throat with my sword?” At these fearful words my child and I came to ourselves again, and the fellow had already lift up his naked sword to smite her, seeing Dom. Consul had made him a sign with his hand, when my dear gossip, who saw it, pulled my child with all his strength into his lap. (May God reward him on the Day of Judgment, for I never can.) The villain would have stabbed her as she lay in his lap; but the young lord was already there, and seeing what he was about to do, thrust the boar-spear which he held in his hand in between the constable’s shoulders, so that he fell headlong on the earth, and his own sword, by the guidance of the most righteous God, went into his ribs on one side and out again at the other. He lay there and bellowed; but the young lord heeded him not, but said to my child, “Sweet maid, God be praised that you are safe!” When, however, he saw her bound hands, he gnashed his teeth; and cursing her judges, he jumped off his horse, and cut the rope with his sword which he held in his right hand, took her hand in his, and said, “Alas, sweet maid, how have I sorrowed for you! but I could not save you, as I myself also lay in chains, which you may see from my looks.”  4
  But my child could answer him never a word, and fell into a swound again for joy; howbeit she soon came to herself again, seeing my dear gossip still had a little wine by him. Meanwhile the dear young lord did me some injustice, which however I freely forgive him; for he railed at me and called me an old woman, who could do naught save weep and wail. Why had I not journeyed after the Swedish king, or why had I not gone to Mellenthin myself to fetch his testimony, as I knew right well what he thought about witchcraft? (But, blessed God, how could I do otherwise than believe the judge, who had been there? Others besides old women would have done the same; and I never once thought of the Swedish king; and say, dear reader, how could I have journeyed after him and left my own child? But young folks do not think of these things, seeing they know not what a father feels.)  5
  Meanwhile, however, Dom. Camerarius, having heard that it was the young lord, had again crept out from beneath the straw; item, Dom. Consul had jumped down from the coach and ran towards us, railing at him loudly, and asking him by what power and authority he acted thus, seeing that he himself had heretofore denounced the ungodly witch? But the young lord pointed with his sword to his people, who now came riding out of the coppice about eighteen strong, armed with sabres, pikes, and muskets, and said, “There is my authority; and I would let you feel it on your back if I did not know that you were but a stupid ass. When did you hear any testimony from me against this virtuous maiden? You lie in your throat if you say you did.” And as Dom. Consul stood and straightway forswore himself, the young lord, to the astonishment of all, related as follows:—  6
  That as soon as he heard of the misfortune which had befallen me and my child, he ordered his horse to be saddled forthwith, in order to ride to Pudgla to bear witness to our innocence: this, however, his old father would nowise suffer, thinking that his nobility would receive a stain if it came to be known that his son had conversed with a reputed witch by night on the Streckelberg. He had caused him therefore, as prayers and threats were of no avail, to be bound hand and foot and confined in the donjon-keep, where till datum an old servant had watched him; who refused to let him escape, notwithstanding he offered him any sum of money; whereupon he fell into the greatest anguish and despair at the thought that innocent blood would be shed on his account: but that the all-righteous God had graciously spared him this sorrow; for his father had fallen sick from vexation, and lay abed all this time, and it so happened that this very morning, about prayer-time, the huntsman in shooting at a wild duck in the moat had by chance sorely wounded his father’s favorite dog, called Packan, which had crept howling to his father’s bedside and had died there; whereupon the old man, who was weak, was so angered that he was presently seized with a fit and gave up the ghost too. Hereupon his people released him; and after he had closed his father’s eyes and prayed an “Our Father” over him, he straightway set out with all the people he could find in the castle in order to save the innocent maiden. For he testified here himself before all, on the word and honor of a knight,—nay, more, by his hopes of salvation,—that he himself was that devil which had appeared to the maiden on the mountain in the shape of a hairy giant: for having heard by common report that she ofttimes went thither, he greatly desired to know what she did there, and that from fear of his hard father he disguised himself in a wolf’s skin, so that none might know him, and he had already spent two nights there, when on the third the maiden came; and he then saw her dig for amber on the mountain, and that she did not call upon Satan, but recited a Latin carmen aloud to herself. This he would have testified at Pudgla, but from the cause aforesaid he had not been able: moreover his father had laid his cousin, Claus von Nienkerken, who was there on a visit, in his bed, and made him bear false witness; for as Dom. Consul had not seen him (I mean the young lord) for many a long year, seeing he had studied in foreign parts, his father thought that he might easily be deceived, which accordingly happened.  7
  When the worthy young lord had stated this before Dom. Consul and all the people, which flocked together on hearing that the young lord was no ghost, I felt as though a millstone had been taken off my heart; and seeing that the people (who had already pulled the constable from under the cart, and crowded round him like a swarm of bees) cried to me that he was dying, but desired first to confess somewhat to me, I jumped from the cart as lightly as a young bachelor, and called to Dom. Consul and the young lord to go with me, seeing that I could easily guess what he had on his mind. He sat upon a stone, and the blood gushed from his side like a fountain, now that they had drawn out the sword; he whimpered on seeing me, and said that he had in truth hearkened behind the door to all that old Lizzie had confessed to me, namely, that she herself, together with the sheriff, had worked all the witchcraft on man and beast, to frighten my poor child and force her to play the wanton. That he had hidden this, seeing that the sheriff had promised him a great reward for so doing; but that he would now confess it freely, since God had brought my child her innocence to light. Wherefore he besought my child and myself to forgive him. And when Dom. Consul shook his head, and asked whether he would live and die on the truth of this confession, he answered, “Yes!” and straightway fell on his side to the earth and gave up the ghost.  8
  Meanwhile time hung heavy with the people on the mountain, who had come from Coserow, from Zitze, from Gnitze, etc., to see my child burnt; and they all came running down the hill in long rows like geese, one after the other, to see what had happened. And among them was my ploughman, Claus Neels. When the worthy fellow saw and heard what had befallen us, he began to weep aloud for joy; and straightway he too told what he had heard the sheriff say to old Lizzie in the garden, and how he had promised a pig in the room of her own little pig, which she had herself bewitched to death in order to bring my child into evil repute. Summa: all that I have noted above, and which till datum he had kept to himself for fear of the question. Hereat all the people marveled, and greatly bewailed her misfortunes; and many came, among them old Paasch, and would have kissed my daughter her hands and feet, as also mine own, and praised us now as much as they had before reviled us. But thus it ever is with the people. Wherefore my departed father used to say:—
  “The people’s hate is death;
Their love a passing breath!”
  My dear gossip ceased not from fondling my child, holding her in his lap, and weeping over her like a father (for I could not have wept more myself than he wept). Howbeit she herself wept not, but begged the young lord to send one of his horsemen to her faithful old maid-servant at Pudgla, to tell her what had befallen us, which he straightway did to please her. But the worshipful court (for Dom. Camerarius and the scriba had now plucked up a heart, and had come down from the coach) was not yet satisfied, and Dom. Consul began to tell the young lord about the bewitched bridge, which none other save my daughter could have bewitched. Hereto the young lord gave answer that this was indeed a strange thing, inasmuch as his own horse had also broken a leg thereon; whereupon he had taken the sheriff his horse, which he saw tied up at the mill: but he did not think that this could be laid to the charge of the maiden, but that it came about by natural means, as he had half discovered already, although he had not had time to search the matter thoroughly. Wherefore he besought the worshipful court and all the people, together with my child herself, to return back thither, where, with God’s help, he would clear her from this suspicion also, and prove her perfect innocence before them all.  10
  Thereunto the worshipful court agreed; and the young lord, having given the sheriff his gray charger to my ploughman to carry the corpse, which had been laid across the horse’s neck, to Coserow, the young lord got into the cart by us, but did not seat himself beside my child, but backward by my dear gossip. Moreover, he bade one of his own people drive us instead of the old coachman, and thus we turned back in God his name. Custos Benzensis, who with the children had run in among the vetches by the wayside (my defunct Custos would not have done so, he had more courage), went on before again with the young folks; and by command of his reverence the pastor led the Ambrosian Te Deum, which deeply moved us all, more especially my child, insomuch that her book was wetted with her tears, and she at length laid it down and said, at the same time giving her hand to the young lord, “How can I thank God and you for that which you have done for me this day?” Whereupon the young lord answered, saying, “I have greater cause to thank God than yourself, sweet maid, seeing that you have suffered in your dungeon unjustly, but I justly, inasmuch as by my thoughtlessness I brought this misery upon you. Believe me that this morning, when in my donjon-keep I first heard the sound of the dead-bell, I thought to have died; and when it tolled for the third time, I should have gone distraught in my grief, had not the Almighty God at that moment taken the life of my strange father, so that your innocent life should be saved by me. Wherefore I have vowed a new tower, and whatsoe’er beside may be needful, to the blessed house of God; for naught more bitter could have befallen me on earth than your death, sweet maid, and naught more sweet than your life!”  11
  But at these words my child only wept and sighed; and when he looked on her, she cast down her eyes and trembled, so that I straightway perceived that my sorrows were not yet come to an end, but that another barrel of tears was just tapped for me; and so indeed it was. Moreover, the ass of a Custos, having finished the Te Deum before we were come to the bridge, straightway struck up the next following hymn, which was a funeral one, beginning “The body let us now inter.” (God be praised that no harm has come of it till datum.) My beloved gossip rated him not a little, and threatened him that for his stupidity he should not get the money for the shoes which he had promised him out of the Church dues. But my child comforted him, and promised him a pair of shoes at her own charges, seeing that peradventure a funeral hymn was better for her than a song of gladness.  12
  And when this vexed the young lord, and he said, “How now, sweet maid, you know not how enough to thank God and me for your rescue, and yet you speak thus?” she answered, smiling sadly, that she had only spoken thus to comfort the poor Custos. But I straightway saw that she was in earnest; for that she felt that although she had escaped one fire, she already burned in another.  13
  Meanwhile we were come to the bridge again; and all the folks stood still, and gazed open-mouthed, when the young lord jumped down from the cart, and after stabbing his horse, which still lay kicking on the bridge, went on his knees, and felt here and there with his hand. At length he called to the worshipful court to draw near, for that he had found out the witchcraft. But none save Dom. Consul and a few fellows out of the crowd, among whom was old Paasch, would follow him; item, my dear gossip and myself: and the young lord showed us a lump of tallow about the size of a large walnut which lay on the ground, and wherewith the whole bridge had been smeared, so that it looked quite white, but which all the folks in their fright had taken for flour out of the mill; item, with some other materia which stunk like fitchock’s dung, but what it was we could not find out. Soon after a fellow found another bit of tallow, and showed it to the people; whereupon I cried, “Aha! none hath done this but that ungodly miller’s man, in revenge for the stripes which the sheriff gave him for reviling my child.” Whereupon I told what he had done, and Dom. Consul, who also had heard thereof, straightway sent for the miller.  14
  He, however, did as though he knew naught of the matter; and only said that his man had left his service about an hour ago. But a young lass, the miller’s maid-servant, said that that very morning before daybreak, when she had got up to let out the cattle, she had seen the man scouring the bridge; but that she had given it no further heed, and had gone to sleep for another hour—and she pretended to know no more than the miller whither the rascal was gone. When the young lord had heard this news, he got up into the cart and began to address the people, seeking to persuade them no longer to believe in witchcraft, now that they had seen what it really was. When I heard this, I was horror-stricken (as was but right) in my conscience as a priest, and I got upon the cart-wheel, and whispered into his ear for God his sake to leave this materia; seeing that if the people no longer feared the Devil, neither would they fear our Lord God.  15
  The dear young lord forthwith did as I would have him, and only asked the people whether they now held my child to be perfectly innocent? and when they had answered “Yes!” he begged them to go quietly home, and to thank God that he had saved innocent blood. That he too would now return home, and that he hoped that none would molest me and my child if he let us return to Coserow alone. Hereupon he turned hastily towards her, took her hand, and said, “Farewell, sweet maid: I trust that I shall soon clear your honor before the world; but do you thank God therefor, not me.” He then did the like to me and to my dear gossip, whereupon he jumped down from the cart and went and sat beside Dom. Consul in his coach. The latter also spake a few words to the people, and likewise begged my child and me to forgive him (and I must say it to his honor that the tears ran down his cheeks the while); but he was so hurried by the young lord that he brake short his discourse, and they drove off over the little bridge without so much as looking back. Only Dom. Consul looked round once, and called out to me that in his hurry he had forgotten to tell the executioner that no one was to be burned to-day: I was therefore to send the churchwarden of Uekeritze up the mountain, to say so in his name; the which I did. And the bloodhound was still on the mountain, albeit he had long since heard what had befallen; and when the bailiff gave him the orders of the worshipful court, he began to curse so fearfully that it might have awakened the dead; moreover he plucked off his cap and trampled it under foot, so that any one might have guessed what he felt.  16
  But to return to ourselves. My child sat as still and as white as a pillar of salt after the young lord had left her so suddenly and so unawares; but she was somewhat comforted when the old maid-servant came running with her coats tucked up to her knees, and carrying her shoes and stockings in her hands. We heard her afar off, as the mill had stopped, blubbering for joy; and she fell at least three times on the bridge, but at last she got over safe, and kissed now mine and now my child her hands and feet; begging us only not to turn her away, but to keep her until her life’s end; the which we promised to do. She had to climb up behind where the impudent constable had sat, seeing that my dear gossip would not leave me until I should be back in mine own manse. And as the young lord his servant had got up behind the coach, old Paasch drove us home, and all the folks who had waited till datum ran beside the cart, praising and pitying as much as they had before scorned and reviled us. Scarce however had we passed through Uekeritze, when we again heard cries of—“Here comes the young lord, here comes the young lord!” so that my child started up for joy and became as red as a rose; but some of the folks ran into the buckwheat by the road again, thinking it was another ghost. It was however in truth the young lord, who galloped up on a black horse, calling out as he drew near us, “Notwithstanding the haste I am in, sweet maid, I must return and give you safe-conduct home, seeing that I have just heard that the filthy people reviled you by the way, and I know not whether you are yet safe.” Hereupon he urged old Paasch to mend his pace; and as his kicking and trampling did not even make the horses trot, the young lord struck the saddle-horse from time to time with the flat of his sword, so that we soon reached the village and the manse. Howbeit when I prayed him to dismount awhile, he would not, but excused himself, saying that he must still ride through Usedom to Anclam; but charged old Paasch, who was our bailiff, to watch over my child as the apple of his eye, and should anything unusual happen he was straightway to inform the town-clerk at Pudgla, or Dom. Consul at Usedom, thereof. And when Paasch had promised to do this, he waved his hand to us and galloped off as fast as he could.  17
  But before he got round the corner by Pagel his house, he turned back for the third time; and when we wondered thereat, he said we must forgive him, seeing his thoughts wandered to-day.  18
  That I had formerly told him that I still had my patent of nobility, the which he begged me to lend him for a time. Hereupon I answered that I must first seek for it, and that he had best dismount the while. But he would not, and again excused himself, saying he had no time. He therefore stayed without the door until I brought him the patent; whereupon he thanked me and said, “Do not wonder hereat: you will soon see what my purpose is.” Whereupon he struck his spurs into his horse’s sides and did not come back again.  19

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