Where the River Rhine reaches the gorge below Koblenz, it runs fast between steep banks, with great boulder-strewn mountains above them. They are very old mountains, with very long memories, stretching right back to the days of legend, when the castles lying crumbling on the Rhine mountains were mighty fortresses, when a good many things happened which we struggle to believe in these days, some of them true some of them not, some of them we'll never know.
One such strange story is the tale of Lorelei, who lived in ancient days—no one knows how ancient now—in a little stone cottage on a hill in the Rhine Gorge, with her grandmother. She was a very young girl, Lorelei, and her parents were dead, and her grandmother often ill in bed, so she had to work all day, growing grapes on the sunny slopes above the Rhine and keeping the goats out of the vineyard, milking and churning butter and making cheese.
In the evening, when her work was done, she would sit by the window in her little bedroom and brush her hair, looking out at the river and the moon, and sing to herself.
She was sitting by her window one beautiful warm summer evening when Konrad the robber, riding over the hills in the silver moon-light, heard her singing.
It was late at night and he was a long way from home, tired from riding. So he decided, on an impulse, to go to the little stone cottage on the hill top and meet the singer.
So Lorelei, leaning out of her window to watch the moon riding above the hill tops, heard the hoof-beats on the track, and the jangle of harness and saw, puzzled, a young man on a black horse riding up the path through the vineyard, his sword glittering in the moon-light. At first she was afraid, and shrank back from the window, but when he drew nearer she saw the jagged scar across his cheek and forehead, like an arrow-head, and she had heard that Konrad the robber had just such a scar, the dashing out-law, the terror of the Rhineland, the heart-throb of half the girls in Germany, whom she had always believed was more legend than truth. But it seemed he was true, more than that, that he was outside her home in the night.
So she leaned out of the window and called to him "May I help you, sir?"
"I'm not "sir" anything, my lady," replied Konrad, and he smiled and she thought what a handsome young man he was when he smiled. Only a boy, she thought. "I'm only-"
"Konrad, the terror of the Rhineland." She smiled. "Yes, I know. And I'm not your lady, I'm only Lorelei."
"Delighted to meet you, Lorelei," he said. And he kissed her hand.
"So, Konrad, you have not told me if I may help you…"
"If you would be good enough to give me a cup of water, my lady Lorelei."
Lorelei hurried into the kitchen and returned with a mug of water, which she gave to Konrad. He drained the cup and set it down on the window-sill. "Thank you," he said.
"My pleasure," said Lorelei.
There was a moment's silence. Suddenly the country-side seemed very quiet and the moon went out of sight over the hills.
"Well…" said Konrad, when the moon came out. "I must go. Thank you again for the water."
"It was nothing," said Lorelei in a small voice, unable to meet his sparkling blue eyes. Then she blurted, "may I see you again?". There was a moment's silence and Lorelei wondered if she had been rude, but she continued because she could not help it. "To-morrow… or the next day… or any time you can…?"
She raised her eyes to look at him. He looked stunned. "Of course," he said. "Of course, if you want me to come again, I'll come to-morrow night."
"You can have some water again if you like," said Lorelei.
So the next night Konrad the robber came again to see Lorelei at her window, and again she gave him water. And this time he told her "you sing beautifully".
The moon-light was shining on his golden hair, reflecting in his blue eyes. "Thank you," said Lorelei.
"And…" he blushed. "Forgive me being forward, my lady Lorelei, but…"
"Go on!" she smiled.
"And you're beautiful."
Again Konrad kissed her hand, again he promised to come back the next night.
Lorelei spent the whole of the next day waiting for him. As she tended the grapes or milked the goats she saw his face in her mind. As evening approached, she paced the cottage restlessly, unable to think about her needle-work or making some food for herself and her grandmother. She could think of nothing but Konrad's blue eyes.
And that night, as Lorelei leaned out of her bedroom window and talked with Konrad, the moon shone bigger and brighter and more lovely than ever.
She told him about her dream, to get away from the little stone cottage in the Rhineland, to travel to distant countries, and see strange and exotic things. To have adventures.
"The adventurous life is indeed fascinating, my lady Lorelei," said Konrad. "It's worth the dangers for the freedom and the living. Just the living, really living, do you know what I mean?"
There was a moment's silence while Lorelei thought about really living. "Yes," she said. "I think so."
Then Konrad said. "But the Rhine country is also lovely. Especially this spot. If I stand on the bank of the river here, I swear I can almost hear the river talking."
Lorelei laughed. "Oh, the river here is full of echoes. They say that dwarves live in caves in the rocks and the echoes are of their hammers."
When it got very late, and Konrad had to go, Lorelei asked him "Will you come again to-morrow?".
Konrad did not answer for a long time and what Lorelei could see of him in the darkness looked nervous. Then he said "Did you mean what you said, about wanting to leave here and have an adventurous life?".
"Yes," said Lorelei. "Why?"
"My lady Lorelei, if I return to your window to-morrow, will you do me the honour of marrying me?"
Lorelei looked at him, his blue eyes fixed on her face as if he would give her his soul, and clear on the wind blew the sound of the water-fall, and the river rushing, and perhaps the dwarves' enchanted hammers, and she knew that really loved him. Yes, she did.
"Yes," she said. "Yes… yes, yes, yes! I will."
Konrad seized both her hands and kissed them as fervently as holy relics. Then he was gone, the thudding of his black horse's hooves fading over the hills.
The next day, Lorelei put on her best dress and tied up her hair.
"What have you got your best frock on for?" asked her grandmother.
Lorelei thought about what her grandmother would say if she were to tell her that she was eloping with a robber that night. She might faint. Far better to do the deed and tell her afterwards, when all her protests would be useless.
So she said "I'm going to the barn dance tonight."
"All right," said her grandmother.
That night, Lorelei sat at the window and waited for Konrad with starry eye and pounding heart.
He came, as young and beautiful as ever, a crown of flowers in his hand.
"Lorelei," he said. "You look beautiful."
"Thanks," she said. Then she said "I know," and laughed.
"I have something for you," he said. "Well, two things. This." He set the flower crown on her head. "And this." He took from his pocket a little black ring, carved out of solid opal. "It fell off the back of a wagon," he said, and winked.
Laughing, Lorelei put it on, and he helped her out of the open window and up onto the horse. She had to practically sit in his lap, and she wondered if that were entirely appropriate, but she was already eloping with a robber, so how much more inappropriate could she get?
Then Konrad nudged the horse forward and they were off, away from the Rhine, into the dark forests which cloaked the higher hills. Further and further they rode, until the trees grew so thick that Lorelei could not see the moon, nor did she recognise the strange shapes the trees made, which loomed out of the darkness like strange, hunched men.
So Lorelei came to the robbers' lair, a cave deep in the woods, high off the forest floor, so dry, high and spacious, with a fire burning in the cave mouth to keep wolves and other robbers away. Konrad's band of robbers were gathered round the fire, drinking Schnapps and singing old, strange poetry in archaic languages of the gods and heroes of the early days of the human race, which lingered on deep in the forests of Germany.
"We're getting married here?" said Lorelei.
"Yes," said Konrad. "Franz here is a priest—although it's been a while since he attended his parish." He grinned. "He can marry us just as well as if we were in St Stephen's in Paris and you were Holy Roman Empress."
So he married them, and the feasting and the dancing lasted until the early hours. Lorelei, in her best dress, her new ring and her crown of flowers, was happier than she had ever been in her life.
"Listen," said Konrad. "I think the best idea is this: I'll take you home now, and to-morrow we go to plunder the coffers of the Fortress at Koblenz. We've been waiting for a good time to strike for weeks and to-morrow there'll be a big fair there. Then, to-morrow night, I'll come to your house and take you and grandmother far, far away to live on our riches and see the world."
"All right," said Lorelei. "I'm still dreading telling my grandmother what I've done."
"Don't worry about it," said Konrad. "There'll be nothing she can do about it then."
He swung her up onto the horse and leaped up behind her.
Lorelei felt his arms around her shoulders, the night wind blowing sharp on her face, saw the knarled old trees shaking with cold. She looked over her shoulder at the last glimmer of the robbers' fire fading from view and wondered, as the orange sparks drifted among the trees and were gone, if this were not a mad dream, that she had eloped in the night with a robber, but Konrad's arms stayed warm and solid around her neck, the horse was warm and solid beneath her, his warm breath steaming in the night, and she remained in the forest in the dark.
The sun was rising when Konrad lifted her back through the bedroom window, the goats, awake already, were rattling their chains and clanking.
"Until to-morrow, Lorelei," said Konrad.
"Take care," she said. "Be careful in Koblenz."
"Don't worry about me," he said. "I've done it all before. And this time I have you to live for. Remember, Lorelei, for as long as I'm breathing my heart is in your hands." And this time he kissed her on the mouth.
Lorelei remained at the window after her husband was long gone, until her grandmother began to nag.
The next evening Lorelei was waiting at her window, her black opal ring gleaming. She would not tell her grandmother anything until Konrad came.
But Konrad did not come. The sun set, the sky wept pink, the moon rose, the stars came out one by one. Lorelei waited, awake and watchful, at her window. Why was Konrad not here? Surely he was not dead? Surely, surely, if she were his wife, she would know if he were dead? She sat at the window, young, in love, increasingly desperate. The night was pitch black now, Lorelei could not even see her own hands. And still Konrad did not come.
At last the sun rose, and, numb with despair, Lorelei sank down on the window-ledge, exhausted with two sleepless days and nights, with grief and worry, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next night too Lorelei sat at the window with her lamp, and the night after that, and after that… For a whole week.
She barely ate, she barely slept, she could not work. What had happened to Konrad? What had happened to her husband? Why had he left her on her wedding night, so happy and hopeful, with his ring on her finger and his flowers in her hair, just kissed her and left her and… not come back. Not a word. Not so much as a good-bye. She was his wife and she had never been able to say goodbye.
At the end of the week, the lord of the manor, the Count, went out riding past Lorelei's house. The Count was a young man, not much older than Lorelei, but when she stood on the hill-side to watch him pass he looked like something from another world, sitting as easy as a young centaur on his huge white horse, pure white as the driven snow, with his falcon on his wrist, huge amber eyes gleaming in the sun-light, his sword glittering cold at his side. When he turned his head to look up the valley and saw Lorelei watching, his eyes were cold, too. They looked not just at Lorelei but into her, into the recesses of her soul. They frightened her.
He was very rich, this young Count, he had made his money fighting the Turks, the Russians, whomever else came within range of his sword. He was a great war-lord, everyone said that, he had won his spurs against the barbarian tribes in the north-lands, when he was only twelve years old. A great war-lord, the said. They said he was a cruel man, too.
He lived in a castle on the cliffs over-looking the Rhine, and he hunted and hawked and rowed and swam. And everyone said his horses and dogs were the loves of his life, for he had no wife.
The next day the Count came knocking at Lorelei's door.
"Sir?" she said.
"I have come here to announce our engagement."
"What?" Lorelei could barely breathe with horror.
"I have come here to announce our engagement." And when she only stared, and shivered like a frightened rabbit he said to her "I am here to take you as my wife. Do you not understand that?".
"Why?" said Lorelei.
"Because I am in need of a wife and you are in need of a husband. You are young, strong and Christian."
"But sir, I can't."
"What do you mean you can't."
"I don't want to marry you."
Then Lorelei hung her head in shame, for her reason was the most feeble of all reasons. "I don't love you, sir."
"You could learn to love me after we were married."
Lorelei could hardly tell him that she was married to Konrad the robber, or he would hang her or worse. But nor could she marry the Duke. She knew, though that to refuse him was dangerous, for he had a sharp sword and a strong arm, so she said "Please, sir, give me a little more time to decide," for while the Duke still thought there was a chance she would marry him, he would let her live.
"You have until to-morrow," said the Duke, glaring down her from his dazzling white horse. "You will give me your answer to-morrow."
And Lorelei could only nod and close her eyes and hope and pray that tonight Konrad would come to her.
The next day, sure as Judgement Day the Duke was there again.
"You will give your consent now, my lady?" he asked her.
"No, sir," said Lorelei.
"Why? I am a Duke, a rich man, why are you not glad to marry me?"
Again, Lorelei could only say "I don't love you, sir." Before the young man on his white horse, with his hand on his long, cruel sword, it sounded a hollow, hopeless thing to say, but Lorelei clung to it as her only shield. And still she did not tell him the true reason.
"You are a sentimental fool," said the Duke, every word hitting Lorelei's face like hail-stones. "You are my serf and you live on my land. Whatever I want from my serfs I expect to get. And I make I sure do get it."
Again, Lorelei could only plead with him for a little more time to make up her mind.
"Very well," said the Duke, his face a frozen mask of rage, his eyes glittering like his falcon's before she swooped. "I will give you until to-morrow."
That night Lorelei was frantic. She lay on her bed and sobbed until her throat was dry and she could not sleep for terror. Her only hope was that even now, at the eleventh hour, Konrad would come riding over the hill-tops to her rescue, on his great black charger, but as the hours passed she knew that it was a dwindling hope, that she might as well pray for a hoard of angels to come to her rescue as Konrad. Wherever he was and whatever had happened to him, he could not come to save her.
She knew now how the condemned man felt in his cell. As the sky greyed and lightened, and the first rays of sun-light appeared, her heart sank heavier and heavier, until at last she fell into a kind of swoon, hoping, perhaps, in the depths of her heart, that she would never wake again.
But wake she did, to the inevitable knocking at the door. The Duke was there, with his men with swords. He had come for his agreement.
In desperation Lorelei scrambled out of the window, barefoot and in her shift, her hair wild, and tried to flee, but the Duke's men leaped at her, grabbed her and dragged her to her knees before the Duke's horse.
There was no escape. Lorelei crouched before the Duke in terror. He would marry her or put her to the sword. Well, if necessary, she would go to the sword. Not only for herself but for Konrad. She was his wife, and never, not while there was a chance he was alive, would she marry the Duke. So she pleaded with him, she wept at his feet.
But she only enraged him. When she cried for mercy, that she was a poor girl, for him to take pity on her, he ignored her pleading and his frozen eyes bored into her like icy knives.
"I have given you my final answer girl," he said. "Now get up. Show some spirit."
Then Lorelei knew she had no choice.
"Sir, I can't marry you. I'm already married to somebody else."
"To whom?" Lorelei flinched from his sudden open rage as if it would burn her.
But she had no choice now but to continue. So she did what the Duke wanted her to do: she got up and showed some spirit. She answered him with all the calmness of despair. "To Konrad the robber," she said. "And if you're going to kill me for it, my lord, go right ahead and do it. I shan't move." And she bowed her head or the sword.
But the Duke was laughing. "To Konrad the robber? Has all the girls' heart-throb found his match at last? That's good, girl, that's good… Don't expect him to come riding to the rescue, girl, because Konrad the robber lies in chains in the dungeon at Koblenz."
"Well, one day they will free him," she said. "And then he'll come back to me, to his rightful wife. And we'll go away together. Far away, where you can never find us."
The Duke's eyes became harder and colder. "I can hardly punish you for your loyalty to your husband, girl. And I can't marry you if you're already married to somebody else. But I can punish you for choosing a robber for a husband in the first place. I'm sure you know that robbery is punishable by death. However, it seems unfair to kill you for your husband's crimes and I'm a fair man." His voice was like steel. She might have been a barbarian tribesman awaiting slaughter for all the pity she would get. "Your sentence, proud, wilful, passionate Lorelei, is to be taken to the nunnery at Bingen and be walled up as an anchorite. There's a ferry at Assmanshausen."
Lorelei nearly fainted with horror. "No," she whispered. Not the slow, choking death of the anchorite's cell, not the suffocating spiral into madness. Anything but that. Torture, death, anything but that. Let him kill her. Let him kill her here, now, where she could see the sky. "No," she gasped. "My lord Duke, my lord Duke, please… As you're a Christian… For the love of God, sir, you call this fair? This is torture…"
But his face was turned away to the far horizon and she knew she was already dead to him. Four knights lifted her onto a horse and led her away over the hills' down the road towards Bingen, two riding before the horse, two behind. Lorelei was in a trance of despair. She was riding along the hill-tops above the Rhine in the grey light of early morning, but already the black stone walls of the anchorite's cell were closing around her, the darkness was descending.
The knights looked pityingly at Lorelei from time to time, because she was so young and an anchorite's life was so hard, but the Duke wanted them to take her to the abbey at Bingen and the Duke was no a man to be disobeyed.
They reached the great rock, hanging over the river. "Sirs," said Lorelei. "May I climb the rock and see the river Rhine, just once more?"
The knights looked at each other, shrugged and nodded. They handed Lorelei down from her horse and she walked alone up the steep rock to the edge of the cliff. Here she could see clear across the river to the hills and vineyards on the other side. The sun was rising behind her, casting long shadows across the water, melting the frost on the grass and rising a warm breeze which stirred Lorelei's hair and stroked her face. The sun itself glowered in baleful splendour, the red sunlight shining on the dark river, so that it looked as if the Rhine herself were bleeding.
Lorelei stood on the high rock and took great lungfuls of clear morning air. She drank in the scene she would see for the last time. Then, as if sleep-walking, she took a step nearer to the edge. She loved him. Yes, she did. It was so easy…
She stepped off the edge. Down she tumbled, down, down, down, bouncing off the rocks, like a lamb who had strayed too near the edge and fallen. Then she slipped down into the shimmering blue water of the Rhine, which clutched her in its icy grip and dragged her down.
That night, dark, chill, moonless, something climbed out of the river onto the rock. Perhaps it was the ring that saved her, if she could be called saved, the poor, shivering, drowned thing. Perhaps she remembered what Konrad had said to her. For as long as I'm breathing my heart is in your hands. At any rate, she came. And set down on the rocks to wait, for she could not climb up to the top.
The days became weeks, then months. Konrad swaggered out of his dungeon in Koblenz, eyes as blue as ever, and sprang up onto his black horse and dashed away. He dashed into the arms of a beautiful milk-maid called Helga and when he heard that Lorelei was dead, he married her in secret, and, setting a pearl necklace round her neck, kissed her and told her that as long as he was breathing his heart was in her hands. After all, who knew that he had married Lorelei? Only, perhaps, some old woman whom nobody would believe anyway. But Lorelei knew.
Some months later, as winter set in on the Rhine, Konrad did indeed raid the fortress at Koblenz, his spell in the dungeon only increasing his thirst for revenge. With the money, he gave up robbing, bought a castle on a hill-top overlooking the Rhine and decided to settle down with Helga.
That night, he took a boat and set out down the Rhine to Helga's home, to take her to his castle. It was a cold night, very dark, no moon. As he struck out into the middle of the river, a storm blew up, sharp and cruel.
He continued, for he was a good sailor and he didn't mind the dark, but the currents around the rock of the Lorelei were treacherous and many boats ran aground on the shoals.
Lorelei sat on her rock, waiting. For as long as I'm breathing my heart is in your hands. Konrad had betrayed her. Anger burned in her soul, consumed her. She had waited for him. Waited for so long. Drowned before she betrayed him. She was close enough to see his face now, the light of hope in his eyes, the grin as he weathered the storm. She had no hope. She was drowned already. Drowned and waiting for him on her rock, with death in her heart, to sweep him into an embrace he would never escape from. The wind was driving the little boat straight onto the rocks, now. Lorelei waited with bated breath and gleaming eyes.
Then the wind changed direction and whisked the little boat away, skimming out across the dark water to the arms of the waiting Helga.
Lorelei was alone in the dark with the howling wind. And there she remained alone, for centuries, always young, always golden-haired. In the years that followed many a sailor, striking out across the Rhine when the wind was up, shivered with terror at the sight of a young girl, with golden hair and glittering eyes and clothes dripping water, up on the echoing rock, where Lorelei, cheated of her prey, paces on dark and stormy nights. And many of those sailors never saw anything else again. She's very old, Lorelei, and very patient, and hungry. She never forgives and she never forgets.
But nobody sees her very much any more. Romance is dead, after all.