« ПретходнаНастави »
skin, did not tend to diminish, so speaking for himself and his followers, he said that, “ As a member of the royal house of Piast, he could if it so pleased him refuse to reply to a stranger who couched his inquiries in so overbearing and authoritative a style ; yet rather than appear churlish, he would inform him that they knew nothing whatever of the ruins, indeed had neither seen nor heard of them before, and their only design in seeking them at the present time was to procure
shelter from the storm." The old man, in no wise disconcerted by the rising ire of the prince, or the assertion of his title, replied, “Full well know I you, my prince,
Ι and to preserve you in safety have I interrupted your journey even now, for know that yonder castle is a place accursed both by GoD and man, and for all the wealth of my lord duke none of the neighbouring peasantry would venture so near to its walls as the spot whereon you now stand. A horrible retribution was there enacted, and since that day until now, yes now, for this day is the anniversary of that dread episode, no human foot has passed within its walls, and the only living creatures to be found there are the bear, the wolf, the night-owl, the bittern, and the bat. And above all, nightly within its deserted corridors and roofless halls, are held the midnight rendezvous of sin-stained witches, of bloodthirsty ghouls, and of hateful demons. But I beg your forgiveness, my prince, you will not understand this, for my thoughts and explanations are, as I am, of another nation. now with me, my lord, if you will deign to honour me with your presence, come with me, and you too, noble lords, follow me to my poor hut, and there I will provide you with both shelter from the weather, and such food as I possess.”
“With all my heart,” replied the young prince, " if your dwelling is nigh at hand ;” and following their mysterious guide, they in a few minutes arrived at a small cot or rather hut, constructed of logs and branches, and hidden by the friendly shades of the tangled wilderness from the profane gaze of too curious passers by.
The inside of this hut was as plain, I may say uncouth, as were its outer walls. The huge logs of which it was constructed were but roughly hewn, and the interstices that everywhere intervened between them were filled in with mud, wattled twigs, grasses, and moss; the roof consisted of ferns strewn thickly over heavy rafters placed across horizontally from the one wall to the other; and coarse, rugged, and shapeless as the whole structure appeared, it was evidently of more
than sufficient stability to protect its occupant from the fierce bears, lynxes, wolves, and other beasts of prey, that shared with him the freedom of the forest.
Immediately upon their entrance, the eyes of the guests were attracted by a singular object in one corner of the room. Why it was so they could not explain ; there was nothing dangerous in its appearance, yet it was something of a nature that they had never before seen, and their gaze seemed drawn towards it as if by a magnet.
What was this thing ?
It was a square mound of earth, having a rudely squared stone pillar placed at either corner as for support, over it was spread a rich but chaste silken coverlet, the manufacture of the people of some far off Eastern country; upon this again were placed two pine torches, and an instrument of unusual construction. It consisted simply of two pieces of wood of unequal length, the shorter of which was joined crossways to the other, at about a foot from the top.
But their awe was greatly deepened as they noticed their host, each time he approached that portion of the hut, bestow a mute sign of reverence on the object of their wonder. And yet what could it be?
Surely,” thought they, “it is not a weapon of destruction either defensive or offensive, for it is not sufficiently strong and weighty for such a purpose, nor would such peculiar care and attention be bestowed upon it were such the case ; its singularity of shape of necessity prevents it from being used for any artistic or domestic purpose ; and yet if it is only intended for ornament it is to say the least a very uncommon one, and the only object of such a nature that the hut possesses.
No doubt their host perceived their curiosity, but as they feared to offend by questioning him as to its meaning, feeling certain that something more than ordinary was connected therewith, so he on his part proffered them no explanation, but rather appeared desirous to avoid any possible queries by hurrying back and forth, setting before the weary youths such coarse viands as his cot could boast of, and piling additional pine logs upon the already huge fire that blazed and crackled merrily upon the wide mud hearth, and enveloped its surroundings with a veil of smoke.
Long, however, before the arrangements of their host were completed, the storm burst upon them in all its fury, the thunder no
longer rolled in awful grandeur amongst the rocky clouds, but burst overhead with sharp and incessant reports like countless volleys of musketry, whilst the surrounding forest seemed literally on fire with the vivid flashes of fiery electricity that streamed downwards continuously and without intermission from the surcharged clouds. Streams of rain, and monstrous hailstones fell in more than abundance, and the woods resounded with the crashing of branches and falling trees ; and to add to the dread solemnity of the scene the aforementioned torrent, swollen with the additional body of waters, rushed madly onwards, dashing with sullen fury against its confining banks, and roaring as with ferocious rage.
Suddenly the interior of the hut was filled with a lurid glare, before which all the previous outpourings of the streaming lightning paled in comparison. Instantaneously with the flash a peal of heaven's thunder, stunning, deafening as a whole park of puny man's artillery opening at the same moment, shook the massive walls to their foundations. And the crackling of the flames amongst the leaves, accompanied by the rattling downfall of branches close by the refuge, announced that one if not both of the gigantic oaks, beneath whose shelter the cottage had been erected, had been stricken with the fiery ball. Dismayed and greatly terrified the young men rose hastily, and rushed towards the door, that they might provide for their own safety by flight, should the hut of their stranger host be endangered by the hungry flames. Their host, however, preserved his tranquillity, and the prince ere reaching the door heard the old man breathe out a fervent ejaculation in some unknown and mysterious language, and looking round perceived him make a cabalistic sign upon his breast and forehead. This circumstance recalled to the young prince's mind his own grand natal day, the visit of the impenetrable unknown ones, and his father's accession to the throne ; and he easily persuaded himself that one of the actors in that momentous drama stood before him.
Seeing that all around, with the exception of the riven tree (which, the fire having been extinguished by the rain, lay a blackened shapeless mass about ten yards distant from the doorway), was uninjured, the prince inclined to the belief that, either the old and venerable person before him was one of the gods of Lechia, or he was some one deputed by those gods to watch over and protect the house and dynasty of Piast.
Calmed by this view of the personality of his entertainer, he
returned to the fire, his mind perfectly reassured ; and by his cheering words and self-possessed demeanour, insensibly raised the drooping spirits of his despondent followers.
With the approach of evening the storm ceased, but our brave wolfhunters, not relishing a night encampment in the dripping forest, desired that they might remain with their host until the following day. Pleased with their request he readily complied, and spreading fresh bundles of fragrant rushes over the cold earth floor, made such preparations as would enable them to pass the night in comfort. When the whole party had again seated themselves around the glowing fire, the hospitable master of the house, in order to while away the tedious hours of twilight, detailed to his guests the tradition connected with the ruined castle on the bank of the torrent; but ere he commenced his narrative, he warned them that he could not vouch for the accuracy of his tale, inasmuch as it was but the oral tradition of the peasantry, who entertained such a deeply-rooted aversion to the place (its last owner had with his whole family been torn to pieces by loathsome vermin, a judgment upon him for an atrocious murder committed just before,)that they could not be persuaded to dwell, or indeed scarcely to pass, within three miles of the much dreaded ruins. As for himself, he said he had always lived harmlessly and inoffensively, so he had never been disturbed by the midnight revelries or unwelcome intrusions of its demoniac and magic-dealing denizens.
The old man told his diresome tale with every sickening accompaniment of detail, and when he had concluded he proposed that the astonished prince, and his pallid astounded attendants, should retire to their rushleaf couches. As the night was now far advanced they did so, and lay down, but not to sleep. Now in the solitude and stillness of the night an oppressive dread came upon them, and a sense of inward terror possessed them. It was not bodily fear that they felt, nor an apprehension of physical danger, for that they could have striven to avert; it was rather an impalpable unseen foe that they felt in awe of, one against whom carnal weapons could not possibly prevail, and from whom very probably neither the great serpent of Krakuns, the spirits of their ancestors, the genii of the woods and valleys, or even the ruler of the storm-clouds himself, possessed the power and the ability to preserve them; in a word, they felt around them and about them the presence of the supernatural.
1 See “Gnesneic Castle,” Churchman's Companion, July, 1868.
From whence did this feeling spring ?
Well, in truth, though in the blaze of day, and in the pale twilight of eventide, only the prince had suspected the messenger of the Polish gods, if not a real present impersonification of one of those dread spirits, in the person of that mysterious host who had not only assisted them out of a position of danger and difficulty, but strangely represented in feature one of those visitants of bygone years to whom his family owed its rise and its prosperity ; yet now that the pale moon shone high in heaven's vaulted dome, the stars blinked out from the black æthrous chaos yclept the firmament, the light fleecy clouds like delicate lacework, or fairy drapery, now and then obscuring their refulgence only to let it reappear the moment after in brighter lustre, and the weird hour--the witching time of midnight-drew on apace, all of them began to feel the nearness of the great unseen, to realise the coming of some terrible unknown one, whose herald was the past, the present, and the unreadable future rolled, crushed, moulded into one dark, dire, loathsome, and all-destroying fatality. With this vague, but not for that less true, anguish of spirit pervading them, they could not otherwise than connect their host, and in a secondary degree even the unusual structure in the hut, with their sensations, and they appealed in whispered intercessions to the manes of their departed sires for aid.
Even as they pray the air is rent with a wild unearthly shriek, and the youths rushing out in the open space beheld the ruins of the castle enveloped in flames; upon its burning walls are dancing strange frightful demon forms, fair, or rather once fair, women, their faces disfigured by evil looks, tall stalwart men with blood gushing from their breasts, serpents twined around their limbs and amidst their hair, while imprecations, or peals as of horrid laughter, issue forth from their parched lips, as they quiver in the burning pile, and the reptiles prey upon their vitals. There was the form of the lion, the bear, the cruel wolf, the crafty fox, the screeching night-owl, and the damp-winged vampire bat; but the beholders, affrighted as they were, knew well—far, far too well—that all this was delusion; that those yelling, triumphing, yet tortured forms, were but assumed, that they were intangible, unreal, and only put on for the nonce by the denizens of the spirit world. But above all this, supported in mid air, a tall perfectly formed man (but with malignant features withal) stood, apparently master of the ceremonies ; around him was a body guard of