On a rugged crag overlooking the Rhine above the town of Linz ( Austria) stands the ruined stronghold of Okkenfels. History tells us little or nothing concerning this ancient fortress, but legend covers the deficiency with the tale of the Baron’s Rash Oath.
Rheinhard von Renneberg, according to the story, flourished about the beginning of the eleventh century, when the Schloss Okkenfels was a favourite rendezvous with the rude nobility of the surrounding district. Though they were none of them distinguished for their manners, by far the most rugged and uncouth was the Baron von Renneberg himself. Rough in appearance, abrupt in conversation, and inclined to harshness in all his dealings, he inspired in the breast of his only daughter a feeling more akin to awe than affection.
The gentle Etelina grew up to be a maiden of singular beauty, of delicate form and feature, and under the careful tutelage of the castle chaplain she became as good as she was beautiful. Lovers she had in plenty, for the charms of Etelina and the wealth of her noble father, whose sole heiress she was, formed a combination quite irresistible in the eyes of the young gallants who frequented the castle. But none loved her more sincerely than one of the baron’s retainers, a young knight of Linz, Rudolph by name.
On one occasion Rheinhard was obliged to set out with his troop to join the wars in Italy, and ere he departed he confided his daughter to the care of the venerable chaplain, while his castle and lands he left in charge of Sir Rudolph. As may be supposed, the knight and the maiden frequently met, and ere long it became evident that Rudolph’s passion was returned. The worthy chaplain, who loved the youth as a son, did not seek to interfere with the course of his wooing, and so in due time the lovers were betrothed.
At the end of a year the alarming news reached them that the baron was returning from the wars, bringing in his train a noble bridegroom for Etelina. In despair the lovers sought the old chaplain and begged his advice. They knew only too well that the baron would not brook resistance to his will; for he had ever dealt ruthlessly with opposition. Yet both were determined that nothing should part them.
“I would rather die with Rudolph than marry another,” cried the grief-stricken maiden. And indeed it seemed that one or other of these alternatives would soon fall to her lot.
But the wise old priest was planning a way of escape.
“Ye were meant for one another, my children,” he said philosophically; “therefore it is not for man to separate you. I will marry you at once, and I know a place where you may safely hide for a season.”
It was nearing midnight on the eve of the day fixed for Rheinhard’s return, so there was no time to be lost. The three repaired to the chapel, where the marriage was at once solemnized. Taking a basket of bread, meat, and wine, a lamp, and some other necessaries, the old man conducted the newly married pair through a subterranean passage to a cavern in the rock whereon the castle stood, a place known only to himself. Then, having blessed them, he withdrew.
Early on the following morning came the baron and his train, with the noble knight chosen as a husband for Etelina.
Rheinhard looked in vain for his daughter among the crowd of retainers who waited to welcome him. “Where is my little maid?” he asked.
The chaplain answered evasively. The damsel was ill abed, he replied. When the noble lord had refreshed himself he should see her.
Directly the repast was over he hastened to his daughter’s apartment, only to find her flown! Dismayed and angry, he rushed to the chaplain and demanded an explanation. The good old man, after a vain attempt to soothe his irate patron, revealed all–all, that is, save the place where the fugitives were concealed, and that he firmly refused to divulge. The priest was committed to the lowest dungeon, a vile den to which access could only be got by means of a trap-door and a rope.
With his own hands the baron swung to the massive trap, swearing a deep oath.
“If I forgive my daughter, or any of her accomplices, may I die suddenly where I now stand, and may my soul perish for ever!”
The disappointed bridegroom soon returned to his own land, and the baron, whose increasing moroseness made him cordially hated by his attendants, was left to the bitterness of his thoughts.
Meanwhile Rudolph and his bride had escaped unseen from the castle rock and now dwelt in the forests skirting the Seven Mountains. While the summer lasted all went well with them; they, and the little son who was born to them, were content with the sustenance the forest afforded. But in the winter all was changed. Starvation stared them in the face. More and more pitiful became their condition, till at length Rudolph resolved to seek the baron, and give his life, if need be, to save his wife and child.
That very day Rheinhard was out hunting in the forest. Imagine his surprise when a gaunt figure, clad in a bearskin, stepped from the undergrowth and bade him follow, if he wished to see his daughter alive. The startled old man obeyed the summons, and arrived at length before a spacious cavern, which his guide motioned him to enter. Within, on a pile of damp leaves, lay Etelina and her child, both half-dead with starvation. Rheinhard’s anger speedily melted at the pathetic sight, and he freely forgave his daughter and Rudolph, his hitherto unrecognized guide, and bade them return with him to Okkenfels.
Etelina’s first request was for a pardon for the old chaplain, and Rheinhard himself went to raise the heavy trap-door. While peering into the gloom, however, he stumbled and fell headlong into the dungeon below. “A judgment!” he shrieked as he fell, then all was silence.
The bruised remains of the proud baron were interred in the parish church of Linz, and henceforth Etelina and her husband lived happily at Okkenfels. But both they and the old chaplain offered many a pious prayer for the soul of the unhappy Baron Rheinhard.