Wagner - The Knight Of The Swan

( Originally Published 1894 )

THE little girl was lying on the rug before the fire, one elbow buried in the long fur, and one cheek resting on her hand. She was gazing into the fire, studying the bright, flickering flames and the red embers. I had not noticed that she was there till her mother said, " You will ruin that child's eyes with your stories about the things in the fire. She would watch it half the day if I would let her ; it is too bright and too hot to look at so long and so near. Come away, dear, and don't look at the fire again today."

" But why can't I see such things as you see? " the child said to me, with a little sigh, as she got up slowly from the rug and came toward me.

"Just because you have not quite learned how yet," I said ; "now suppose you give up trying for a little while, because you might hurt your eyes, as your mother says, and let me look into the fire for you again. Sit here in the big chair with me; turn your face right away from the fire and lay it against my shoulder. Now shut your eyes. Some people can see a great deal better with their eyes shut, especially such things as we are trying to see, because when their eyes are open they see the every-day things all around them, and it con-fuses them and prevents their seeing what they want to see or what they ought to see. They are people who have not learned to look right through the every-day things and see others, in spite of them, that are much better and more beautiful, as you will learn to do some time. But just now keep your eyes shut.

" I see then, first, a splendid company of knights and people. The shining of the fire is like the light of the sun, that glances from the polished armor, the gleaming weapons, the standards, and the banners of bright-colored silk and gold. It is all so fine that it looks like a holiday time ; but it is not that, for the crowds of people seem bent on something more important than dancing and playing games. They are all looking toward the King, who stands under a great tree and seems to have something to say to them. The heralds are blowing their trumpets and calling to the people to come and hear what the King has to say, though they are all there already and are only too anxious to hear, and so the King speaks. He says that far away at the other end of the country there is danger. Enemies are coming against him and his people, and he calls upon all the men here about him to help him to guard the land.

" Then they all shout and wave their banners and their arms, as I can see in the flickering of the bright little flames, and they all cry that they will fight for their King and their country. But this does not satisfy the King, for he says that since he has come here he finds everything going wrong and everybody quarrelling, and he asks what it all means. Now there comes forward a man who has all this while been standing silent beside his wife; and it may be as well to say just here that this man's wife is a wicked witch and that the man himself is none too good. So a part of what he tells the King is true and another good large part is not true at all. When he tells what the King knew before, he tells the truth,; and when he tells any-thing that the King did not know before, it is generally a lie.

" So he tells the King that he was left the guardian of the two children of the Duke who ruled in this part of the country, and who died a few years ago. One of the children was a girl and the other was a boy, and he tells the King, too, how he took care of them as they grew up. All this is true and the King knew all about it before. But now he goes on to say that one day, when the brother and the sister had gone away from their castle together, the sister came back alone, trembling and crying and saying that she had lost her brother. Probably this is true enough too, but when he says that the poor sister was not really sorry at all, because she had killed her brother herself, he is telling a dreadful, cruel lie. Still perhaps it is not so much his fault, for his wife, the witch, who you must remember is a good deal more wicked than himself, knows much more about it all than it would do for her to tell, and she may have deceived him as well as other people.

" Of course the King is shocked at such a dreadful story as this, and he wants to know how the sister could ever have done anything so wicked. Well, of course the man who accuses her so boldly has a reason to give for what he says she did, or he never would have dared mention it at all. So he explains that the sister was to be married to him and that she refused him, and then he married the witch instead, only he does not call her a witch. He thinks that the sister must have had some other lover, and she must have thought that if her brother, who ought to be Duke as soon as he should be old enough, were only dead, she could be married to her lover, and then he would be the Duke. And now he says that he thinks he himself ought to be Duke, since there is nobody who deserves to be one better than he, and he asks the King to make him so.

" Now, of course anybody as bright as you are can see at once that the whole reason for all these wicked stories is just that he wants to be Duke ; but kings and knights and crowds of people are not always very bright, though they may look so there in the fire, and they do not feel so sure about it as you or I would. So the quarrel lies between a rich and powerful man who is a soldier and once saved the King's life, with a wife who is a witch and knows all about magic, and one poor girl who knows nothing about magic and who has no friends who would dare to help her. For these people here about the King are a peculiar sort of people who shout very loud about justice and their own rights and others' rights, but seldom do anything unless they feel sure that they are on the side that is going to win. There are no such people nowadays, of course ; but there were once.

" But the King himself is a good king, and he means to be quite fair and just, and he calls for the sister to come before him and tell her own story. So the heralds blow their trumpets again and call for her, and she comes. She is dressed all in white, and she looks so beautiful and pale and sad that nobody who was not wicked himself could ever suspect her of doing anything wicked, and all the men about mutter that the one who says that she killed her brother will have to prove it. They have just heard the King say something of the kind, so they feel very righteous and very bold about it. The King, then, asks her if she can say anything about this dreadful accusation, and she tells him how often she has prayed for help, how, after she has prayed, she has fallen into a sweet sleep and has seen a knight in bright armor, leaning on his sword, and how he has comforted her. This knight, she says, shall be the one to fight for her and to protect her.

" Now, of course, this is all very pretty, but it does not seem to have much to do with the question of whether she killed her poor little brother or not. Yet it does have something to do with it, and I will tell you how. A long time ago, hundreds of years, when people had quarrels, they did not hire lawyers to argue and plead and plot and contrive for them, but they just stood up together, if they were both strong men, and fought till one of them killed the other or showed that he could if he wanted to. And everybody who looked on felt perfectly sure that the one who was right could not possibly lose such a fight and the one who was wrong could not possibly win it. If one of the two who had the quarrel was a woman, some friend who trusted her enough to think that she was right would fight for her."

" But what made the man who was wrong ever fight at all," the little girl asked, " if everybody believed that he was sure to get beaten ? "

" I have thought of that myself," I admitted, " and I think that it must have been for one of two reasons : either the bad people did not believe that the right was sure to win, or else the people who were wrong usually thought that they were really right. I believe that was the true reason, and it shows that bad people are not always quite so bad as we think, for they usually contrive in some way, I am sure, to make themselves believe they are right. And now, though all these things that I am telling you are things that I see right here in the fire, yet they are like things that must have happened long, long ago, and this very way of settling disagreements by a good hard fight is the way that the question of this poor girl's guilt or innocence must be settled. She probably knows this just as well as anybody, and that is what she means when she says that the knight she saw in her dream shall be the one to fight for her. But the accuser turns every-thing against her, as usual, and says : ` You see it is just as I said ; she is talking about this lover of hers who she hopes will marry her and be Duke instead of her brother.' Yet he says he is quite ready to fight anybody who wants to try it with him, and he invites any of the men standing about to come forward and fight for the poor, helpless girl, if he wants to. But they all say no, they should be very sorry to have to kill such a great man and so brave a soldier. The truth is, you see, they are all afraid that if they should fight they might get hurt, and why should they trouble themselves about this girl's rights or wrongs ?

" Still she says that the knight whom she saw in her dream shall be her champion, and if he will come now and help her in this need she will be his bride if he will take her, and he shall have all her father's lands and his crown, since her brother is dead. But nobody comes, and the people all begin to think that she must be guilty after all, and that, instead of the accuser having to prove that she is, she will have to prove that she is not, if she wants any sympathy from them, though why she should want it I hardly know. But the King still means to give her every chance, and he orders the heralds to blow their trumpets toward the north and the east and the south and the west, and to call upon anybody who will defend her straight-way to appear. And the heralds blow their loud trumpets and the people gaze anxiously in all directions, but nobody comes to help her. And then she tells the King that her knight dwells far off and does not hear, and she begs him to call upon him again, and the heralds blow once more, and she prays that her knight may be sent to her, and now suddenly all the eyes of the crowd are turned one way, and all the people shout and point and gaze at some-thing which they see away in the distance.

" I can see it too, for there in the fire, back on the hearth, is a bed of bright embers that shines and glitters like a broad river under the sun of noon, and at the very farthest place is one little spot brighter than all the rest, and it seems to come nearer and nearer, and as it comes I begin to make out its wonderful shape. There is a little boat, and in it stands a knight, all in silver armor, and it is his armor that shines so. But the strangest thing of all is that a beautiful white swan, its wings almost as bright as the knight's armor, is drawing the boat along by a silver chain wound about its neck. It is this that makes the people gaze and point, and, while the swan and the boat are coming nearer, I will tell you more about the knight than he will be willing to tell about himself. Did you ever hear of the Holy Grail ? It was the crystal cup, the old stories say, out of which the Saviour drank at the Last Supper, and afterward His blood was caught in it, as He hung upon the cross. Hundreds of years later it was kept in a beautiful temple which nobody ever knew how to find, except a few chosen knights, who guarded the Grail and did its bidding, for this cup seemed still to have the life of that blood in it, and it had ways of telling its knights what they must do. And so they were some-times sent far away to fight for the right or to punish wrong, but wherever they went they never knew hunger or thirst or weariness, and they could never be killed or overcome in battle ; but no one must ever ask one of these knights his name or his dwelling place, and, if anyone having the right should ask these questions, the knight must return to the temple of the Holy Grail. Now, seven days ago a bell in the temple rang, all of itself, meaning that help was needed somewhere. One of the knights put on his armor and called for his horse, and stood ready, but he knew not where he was to go or what he was to do, till a swan drawing a little boat came sailing along upon the river, and the knight said : `Take back the horse ; I will go with the swan,' and so here is he come to see what help is wanted of him.

" And now I see him step on shore, and the girl whom he has come to rescue knows him as the knight of her dream, and everybody is glad of his coming except the accuser and his wife, the witch, and she, strangely enough, seems a good deal more frightened at the sight of the swan than at that of the knight. Now the knight asks the young girl whether, if he will fight her battle and win it, she will promise never to ask him whence he comes or what he is, and she swears that she will always love him and trust him, and will do whatever he commands. So now the two knights, with all the people looking on and holding their breaths with anxiety, and the king watching that all may be done fairly and in order, draw their swords and stand against each other. But I see only one or two little flashes of the flames as the gleaming swords are whirled above their heads, and then the wicked accuser falls and the Knight of the Swan spares his life, while all the people shout and lift the knight above their heads on his shield, just as if they had known all along that the girl was innocent, and just as if they would not have shouted just as loud if the battle had gone the other way.

" The fire is going down a little and everything looks darker. It is night now. Here on one side is a church, all dark, and on the other side, where the light still shines, I can see the bright windows of the palace, where they are making preparations for a grand wedding to-morrow, and you can guess who are to be married. On the steps of the church, looking up at the palace windows and the lights that shine in them, are the witch and her husband. He is bemoaning his disgrace and accusing his wife of causing it all by telling him that the good sister had killed her brother. And this shows me, more than anything he has done be-fore, how bad he is, and what a coward he is, because, when a man has tried to gain things that he knows are not his by ways that he knows are not right, he ought to take all the consequences, if he fails, like a man, and not snivel and say that a woman made him do it. But the witch says that there is a chance yet for them to be revenged, for, if only the Knight of the Swan can be made to tell who he is, he will have to go away as he came and be lost, and she believes she can find some way to tempt his bride to ask him the forbidden questions, and then he will have to answer.

" Now the bride that is to be to-morrow comes out upon a balcony of the palace, and the witch, sending her husband away, calls to her and tells her how sorry they both are for all that they have done. No doubt they are very sorry indeed, as they ought to be. But the bride is so happy and so kind that she can-not bear to see anybody unhappy, so she says that she forgives them, and if she has injured them in any way she asks that they forgive her. That is absurd, of course. Then she lets the witch talk to her till the wicked woman says that she hopes the knight who came to her in such a strange way, that nobody can account for, will never deceive her, and that she will always live happily with him ; and by this she means, of course, that she thinks that he will deceive her and that she will not be happy. But the bride says that she trusts her knight wholly, and she asks the witch to come in with her and rest for the night. And that is just the one thing she ought not to do, for here is what I hope you will see and remember more than anything else in all this : be as kind and as helpful and as compassionate as you can, always, but never help, never listen to, never allow to be near you a man or a woman who says one word against anyone you love. Put no trust in anyone till you know that trust is safe, and, when you once know, never hear of one breath of doubt again.

" The fire burns higher and brighter, and the morning is coming. The square grows light and fills with people. Now come the heralds again, and they sound their trumpets and pro-claim that the Knight of the Swan is to have the crown of his bride's father, and is to be called Guardian instead of Duke, that the accuser of his bride is an outcast and must be shunned by all men, and finally that everybody to-day is to come to the marriage, but that to-morrow all the men must go to the defence of the King and the country. And now, with all its sparkle and glitter, comes the procession, leading the bride to the church, when, just as she is at the door, right before her stands the witch, full of anger and pride, and cries aloud that it is her place to go before this woman, and no one shall keep her from the place that is hers, and she taunts the bride with not knowing who or what her knight is ; and so a great clamor arises among the people, and in the midst of it come the King and the Knight of the Swan and their train. The witch's wicked husband comes, too, and calls out that the knight beat him yesterday by magic and not by honest fighting, and he demands that the King ask the knight who he is. But he and his wife are put aside, and the procession goes into the church, and as I look into the church itself now the whole of the fire is a blaze of candles on the altar. Now turn your face away from the fire as it was before and shut your eyes again. There is no more to be seen in this wedding than there was in the battle of the two knights, and all that there is I will tell you.

"The light of the candles on the altar changes to a blaze of wedding torches, and the King and the knights and the ladies are leading the bride and the bridegroom to their chamber. Slowly and solemnly, yet joyfully, they march along, and it is all so clear to me that I can even hear the music that they chant as they come. Soft and low it is at first, and then it swells out fuller and stronger and clearer, but always so noble and pure and stately in its melody and its rhythm that nobody who had once heard it could ever forget how grand and beautiful it was. I have heard it many times, and you will hear it often, too, and once, I hope — I almost know—you will hear it at one of the sweetest moments of your life, and whenever you hear it I think it will be more full of meaning for you if you will think of the Knight of the Swan and his bride. But do not think of what comes to them afterward, for that need never come to you or to anyone who remembers what I told you a little while ago ; and if ever you feel tempted to forget for one moment, then think of this true and lovely music—you will know it well and can think of it when you like by that time—and I am sure you will feel truer and better again at once.

" But the torches pass away and out of sight, and the knight and his bride are left alone ; and now conies the sad part, for the poor bride has listened too much to those who spoke evil of her husband, or something evil has come into her own mind and made her forget her promise, for she tells him that she loves him so much that she wishes she might know what he is whom she loves. Now this may be very natural and might be very right if she had not promised never to ask ; but though he begs her not to demand of him this one thing, yet she implores him more and more to tell her, till at last she speaks very cruelly to him, and as much as tells him that he does not love her at all. You would never think that she was the same poor girl who knelt by the river and prayed that her knight might be sent to help her in her danger. And suddenly, as he is about to tell her all she asks, her old accuser breaks into the room with his men, and rushes with his sword drawn to kill the knight, and now indeed his bride does seize his sword and hold it out to him, while he draws it from the sheath ; then there is one little flash of a flame as he swings it high above his head, and his enemy lies at last dead before him. He tells the men to take him away and to lead his bride before the King, where he will come and tell her everything.

" It is morning again on the banks of the river, and the knights and the people are coming in crowds as I saw them in the beginning. The King comes, and the poor bride, sadder now even than she was at first. The Knight of the Swan comes too, and he asks the King if he did right to kill his wicked enemy, who was trying to kill him unprepared. The King answers that he did right. Then he says that he cannot go with the King to his wars, because his bride has forgotten her promise to him, and has asked him whence he came, and now, by the law which he obeys, as soon as he has answered her, he must leave her and all the rest forever. Then, while they all listen in sorrow, he tells them that he is a Knight of the Holy Grail, and must go back to the temple which he left to come here and help his bride. And while she weeps at the thought of losing him, suddenly I see the swan again on the river, drawing the little boat as before, ready to take the knight away, and then he tells his bride that if she could but have trusted him and never questioned him for a year, her brother would have come back to her.

" And now for one last time the witch stands up, more proud and revengeful then ever, and cries out that she has beaten them all, for the swan is really the brother, and that it was she who wound the chain about his neck that en-chanted him and made him a swan. But while she exults in her triumph, there flies down over the heads of all of them a beautiful white dove. It is the dove that comes once a year to the temple and strengthens the power of the Holy Grail, and as the knight sees it he kneels and prays and then rises and unwinds the silver chain from the swan's neck, and at the very instant the swan is changed into a beautiful boy, the lost brother, and he runs to his sister and they clasp each other in their arms, while the witch falls down upon the ground, overcome at last and powerless, and the knight steps into the boat, the dove lifts the silver chain, and they glide away upon the river, farther and farther, and the little spot where they were, that was the brightest in the fire, grows dimmer and fainter and goes out and is dark."

" And won't the knight come back at all ? " asked the little girl.

" No," I answered, " the brother and the sister are close in each other's arms and they are gazing away upon the river as far as they can see, but the Knight of the Swan will never, come back."

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