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The High Cross at Godesberg
If you walk on the high road between Bonn and Godesberg which is not far distant, you perceive on the left side, shimmering white amid the green woodland, a high pillar crowned With a cross known as the "High Cross".
It is a pleasing sight to him who passes by on a bright day; but in the twilight its glaring white contrasting so sharply with the dark back ground, makes a dismal impression on him, which is still more enhanced by the legend told about it.
The story leads us back to the time when instead of the grey ruins, a proud stronghold near Godesberg looked down into the wonderful valley of the Rhine. An old knight lived there, who was well known far and near for his bravery and generosity. His beloved wife had died, leaving him two sons.
The elder was the very image of his mother in body and mind; he had gentle child-like manners, and it was therefore natural that the father's eye rested with more pleasure on him than on the younger son who was very daring, and in spite of his youth had already gone after strange, and not always honourable adventures. Yet the old father did not grieve much on his account, hoping that the sooner the reckless youth emptied his cup of pleasure, the sooner he would come to the bitter dregs. Then like others he would surely become more serious, and would yet fulfill the longing desire of his late mother. She had fervently wished to see him when a man, adorned with St. Matern's ring, which the bishops of Cologne wore, while Erich, the elder, should become lord of Godesberg Castle.
The father's thoughts lingered with pleasure on the pleasant prospects of his sons' future. He sent up many a fervent prayer to heaven for the fulfilment of his desires, well knowing that the spirit of his beloved wife supported him at the throne of the Almighty with her own supplications.
The old knight often spoke to his younger son about his vocation in life, but always observed with disappointment that his son avoided any allusion to the subject.
When the father felt his death approaching, he imparted once more his wish to his two sons, that the eider Should become master of the castle, and the younger, bishop of Cologne. With a blessing for them on his lips, he closed his eyes for ever.
His death was sincerely deplored by all the poor people of the neighbourhood.
Some time after the two brothers sat as usual in the high banqueting-hall of Godesberg. It was a very dismal meal, for they sat opposite to each other, the elder with reproachful looks, the younger with knitted brows.
"I only took what the ancient law of my fathers bestowed upon me," said the elder mildly but firmly, in answer to some harsh words of his companion. "I am not master, but only manager of the family possessions. All our ancestors whose pictures look down on us in this hall would curse me, if I did not take good care of their legacy. But you, my dear brother, will receive a higher gift than a castle. You, the offspring of a noble race, shall become a worthy servant of our Saviour."
"Never!" burst forth the younger one in passionate eloquence, "never will I bow my neck to an unjust law that compels one to take up arms, and another meekly to accept a monk's cassock. If they offered me now a bishop's ring or a cardinal's hat, I would not become a priest, I shall remain a knight."
The elder brother listened sorrowfully to this headstrong speech. "May God, whom you thus blaspheme, enlighten your dark heart. I would willingly share with you whatever I possess, but our father's will forbids it. Therefore bend your proud neck humbly, and beware of the judgment that will fall on him who despises the will of his dying father."
Hunting horns and trumpets sounded through the green forest which extended at that time from the town of Godesberg to the gates of Bonn. This huge wood abounded in noble game.
The two brothers were indulging together in the pleasures of the chase, as they had done so often in their father's life-time. Count Erich had gladly accepted his brother's invitation to accompany him.
He was only too glad to see how his dark mood had changed in the last few days and given way to greater cheerfulness. It appeared to Lord Erich as if his brother had come to reason, and after all had made up his mind to fulfill their parents' wish. He believed all the more in the happy change when he heard that his brother intended presenting himself to the Archbishop of Cologne, in order to deliver a letter of great importance from his late father to him.
Count Erich's heart was glad. He roamed joyfully through the forest, and his gladness seemed to increase his good luck in the sport. Several gigantic boars were pierced through by a spear sent from his hand. A deer also met with a similar doom.
The younger brother's success was on the contrary very meagre. His hand was unsteady and his whole bearing betrayed restlessness. A strange subdued fire gleamed in his eyes.
While he was following the trail of a mighty boar, Count Erich met him and offered to pursue the animal in his company.
They hunted through thorns and thicket, accompanied by the yelping hounds. Suddenly the foliage rustled, and the boar was seen to break wildly through the bushes. A spear from the younger brother whirred towards the beast, but missed its aim and remained clicking in the bark of an oak.
"Your hand is more fit to bless pious Christians,'' said Count Erich with a smile.
"But still fit enough to rid me of an inconvenient brother!" muttered the younger brother between his teeth, and tearing his hunting knife rapidly from his belt, he plunged the two-edged steel into his brother's breast. A terrible cry at the same time rang through the forest, and the murderer fled in haste.
Two attendants of the Count who were hunting close by, hearing the cry came running to see what was the matter, and found Lord Erich lying in his blood, dying. They bent down over him to see if they could help him, but alas! it was too late. The man, mortally wounded, was beyond the reach of human aid. With a last effort he opened his lips, muttered lowly but audibly the words, "My brother!" then sank back and closed his eyes for ever.
The terrible news that the Lord of Godesberg had been foully murdered by his own brother, spread swiftly through the country. Mourning again filled the castle on the mountain, when they carried the body of the poor slain man to his untimely grave. They buried him in the family vault next to the recent grave of his father.
From that time the castle stood desolate. The next relative of the noble family, who lived in a lovely part of the Rhine valley near the Palatinate, avoided a place where such an unheard of crime had been committed. Only an old man kept watch in the empty castle. But even he was soon compelled to leave it. One night the high tower was struck by lightning and the whole building burnt down. Nothing remained but blackened ruins, looking mournfully on the gay landscape beneath.
Years went by after this crime. Nobody heard or saw anything of the murderer. He seemed to have totally disappeared. Some people however whispered that on the day of the black deed, a man was seen fleeing from the forest of Godesberg. He was pale and ghastly looking, and darted off, not caring which way he went. It was he who on the previous day had fostered in his burning brain the longing desire to take possession of his brother's heritage, and now he was a murderer, and bore Cain's mark on his forehead.
The unfortunate youth had rashly contrived this hellish plan to rid himself of his brother and to become lord of Godesberg. His plan was to kill him while hunting, and then make the people believe that he had aimed at a boar and hit his brother accidentally instead. But when his victim sank down in agony, the knife dropped from his murderous hand, his courage failed him, and he felt himself driven from the wood as if chased by a demon.
After many years had come and gone, a tired wanderer once knocked at the door of the cloister of Heisterbach, which had been erected by St. Benedict's pious disciples in a remote valley of the Seven Mountains. The man who desired admission looked more like a beggar than a pilgrim. His garments hung torn and ragged round his thin body, and his face was deeply furrowed by marks of long and cruel suffering.
"Have pity on me," said he in a trembling voice, "I come from the Holy Sepulchre, my feet will bear me no further." The door-keeper was moved, and retired to inform the Abbot of the poor man's request. He received permission to bring him in. When the beggar appeared before the Abbot, he fell on his knees and renewed his demand for food and rest. For some moments the monk looked penetratingly at the man before him, then a sign of recognition passed over his face, and he cried out. "Good heavens! is it you Sir Knight?" The pilgrim trembled, prostrated himself before the Abbot, and embraced his knees in overwhelming grief. "Have mercy on me," exclaimed he, "it was I who twenty years ago slew my brother in the forest of Godesberg. During twenty long years I tried to atone for my cursed deed and obtain forgiveness and peace. As a pilgrim I cried for mercy at the grave of him whom I murdered; as a slave .of the Infidels, under the weight of heavy chains I prayed incessantly for God's mercy, but I cannot find peace. Three months ago the fetters were struck from my hands, and I have again come home, weary unto death. You, oh worthy Abbot, have known me from a child. Let me rest within the walls of this cloister, that I may daily see the castle where I was an innocent child. I will pray and do penance until death releases me from my wretched life."
The Abbot felt intense pity for the unhappy man. He bent down, laid his hands on him, and blessed him.
For many years the poor penitent remained in the cloister trying to atone for his crime with fervent prayers and hard penance. At last God in His grace called him away, and the repenting sinner died hopeful of Heaven's forgiveness. The monks buried him in a shady place in their cloister garden.Click to go to the next section of the Legends of the Rhine