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The Building of the Minster

Karl der Grosse
Nach dem Gemalde von Albrecht Durer

     As Charlemagne, the mighty ruler of the Franks, rode one day from his stronghold at Aix-la-Chapelle into the surrounding forest, his horse is said to have suddenly trodden upon a spring. On touching the water, the animal drew its foot back neighing loudly as if in great pain.

     The rider's curiosity was aroused. He alighted, and dipping his hand into the spring, found to his surprise that the water was very hot. Thus Charlemagne, as the legend records, discovered the hot spring which was to become the salvation of many thousands of ill and infirm people.

     The pious emperor recognised in this health-giving spring the kind gift of Providence, and he resolved to erect near the spot a house of God, the round shape of which should remind posterity of the horse's hoof.

     The building was soon begun, and Charlemagne saw with great satisfaction the walls of the new minster rising high into the air. He was not however destined to see its completion.

     When he died, he had to leave the great Empire of the West to a feeble son, Lewis the Pious. The latter was compelled to draw his sword against his own children in order to assure for himself the crown he had inherited.

     Many a great undertaking that Charlemagne had begun, remained unfinished.

     The building of the minster too was interrupted. The ground was left desolate, and the wails and towers were threatened with decay before they were finished.

     It was quite useless for the honourable magistrate of the town to apply for money to the charitable Christian inhabitants. Contributions came in very slowly, and were never sufficient to finish the church.

     The aldermen of Aix-la-Chapelle would very often seriously debate the question, and discuss how they could remedy the grievous lack of money and successfully effect the completion of the minster. They found however that good counsel was just as rare as building material.

     Once when they were met thus together, a stranger was announced who said he had most important news to communicate. He was allowed to enter the session room. After having duly saluted the Council, he said modestly but without any shyness, "Gentlemen, my business, in a word, is to offer you the money for the completion of the church." The worthy aldermen looked in wonder first at the speaker, then at each other.

     They silently agreed in the opinion that the man before them looked very suspicious in his quaint outlandish clothes and his sharp pointed beard.

     But the newcomer was not at all abashed by their suspicious looks. On the contrary he repeated politely but firmly his proposal, saying: "Honourable Sirs, I should like to help you out of your difficulty, and will advance you the necessary thousands without even wishing to be paid back."

     At this frank offer the councillors pricked up their ears and opened their eyes wide in astonishment. Before they could recover from their amazement, the stranger continued: "I know well, you are all far too proud to accept this great offer of mine without giving me a reward of some sort. Therefore I require a small compensation. I demand the first living being, body and soul, that enters the new minster on the inauguration day."

     On hearing this the honourable aldermen rose horrified from their seats. Many of them made the sign of the cross or uttered a short prayer, because nobody but the devil himself could require anything so monstrous.

     The eyes of the chairman shot a reproachful glance at the strange speaker, and he muttered between his teeth: "Be off! your words are giving offence."

     But Master Satan, the stranger, stood calmly in his place: "Sirs", said he, "let me answer you with a word from the scriptures, "Why are you so fearful, oh ye of little faith?" On the field of battle the sword mows down thousands of brave men. They fall often as victims to the ravening ambition of a single man. You can even see fathers fighting against their sons, brothers against their brothers, and nobody thinks it unjust. Now you cry out, when I only ask for one single living soul to be sacrificed for the welfare of the whole community."

     The eyes of the stranger looked round in triumphant joy when he had finished, for he read a favourable reply in the puzzled faces of the aldermen.

     Many of them at once gave up their scruples, and after a few minutes even the most cautious among them had no more objections to urge.

     The offer was closed with, and Master Satan left the Town Hall with a proud smile.

    The next day the council was again gathered together anxiously waiting for the promised sum.

     It arrived promptly, rightly weighed and in good honest coin.

     The joy of the aldermen was boundless.


     Once more the workmen began the work of building the minster. They worked very busily as if to make up for the long interruption, and after three years the cathedral was finished.

     On the day when the new church was to be consecrated, a great festival was held in the town.

     The distinguished company, secular as well as clerical, who appeared at the inauguration ceremony, praised the magnificence of the minster, the great liberality of the citizens, and more than all, the wisdom of the Town Council.

The aldermen listened to the general praise with pleasure, and accepted it as their due. They felt however bound to confess to each other that they did not feel easy when they thought of the inauguration day. None of them had spoken to anybody of Master Satan's condition.

     Only one of them, a henpecked fellow as malicious people said, confessed the whole transaction to his wife. It is needless to say that from that moment the whole town knew about the affair. On the important day of the consecration of the minster many venerable prelates, abbots, and monks, thousands of noble knights and lords who had come as guests, and the whole population of Aix-la-Chapelle looked forward to the fatal hour with beating hearts. It was a grand Procession indeed that marched on in ceremonious solemnity through the streets. The gaily coloured flags waved merrily in the air, the trumpets and clarions sounded cheerily. The nobility and clergy were in their most gorgeous attire. On every side were the signs of joy and thanksgiving.

     But the hearts of the people were all oppressed, and many a sorrowful eye gazed at the morning sky, as if expecting to see Satan flying down with his bat-like wings.

    When the aldermen in their bright robes joined the procession, the general anxiety rose to the highest pitch.

     Before the worthy councillors a bulky cage was carried by four stout footmen. What was hidden under the covering nobody knew, but everybody felt sure that it contained the victim.

     When the procession reached the minster it stopped, the cage being carried foremost.

     At a sign from the mayor, one of the footmen quickly stripped off the cover and exposed to view a howling hideous wolf. Two of the men pushed the church door wide open with their long halberds, and the fourth pushed the wolf skillfully through the open door. A terrible noise arose suddenly within.

     The devil had been waiting for his spoil, as a tiger that watches for his prey.

     When the wolf entered the devil darted towards it, but seeing that it was only a beast he burst into a wild howl of rage.

     He wrung the poor wolf's neck with the quickness of lightning and disappeared suddenly, leaving nothing behind him but a strong smell of sulphur.

     A few minutes later the bells rang, and the whole magnificent procession thronged into the church, duly to celebrate its consecration.

     While divine service was being held in the new minster, and hymns of praise and thanksgiving were offered at God's altar, the devil flew with horrible maledictions over the country.

     He swore an oath to punish with the utmost severity the population of Aix-la-Chapelle who had So. cunningly outwitted him.

     In his flight he came to the sea-shore where he stopped a little, in order to consider how he could best destroy the town. As he looked at the sandy dunes the thought struck him, that he might bury the whole town with all its prelates and abbots under such a hill. With a mighty pull he tore one of the dunes from the shore, piled it on his shoulders, and flew rapidly towards the doomed city. But the way was much longer than Master Satan had thought. He began to perspire very freely under his unwonted burden, and when from time to time the wind blew a rain of loose sand into his eyes, he swore most horribly.

     In the valley of the Soers not far from Aix-la-Chapelle he was obliged to rest, as he was very tired after his exertions.

     While he was thus sitting by the wayside wiping his forehead and looking hot and weary, an old wrinkled woman came limping along, who looked with suspicion at the man and his strange burden.

     She wanted to pass by without saying a word, but the stranger stopped her and said: "How far is it from here to Aix-la-Chapelle?" The woman cast a sharp look at the speaker.

     As she had reached years of discretion, being now in her seventy-second year, she was shrewd enough to recognise in the man before her the very devil in person. She was also quite sure, that he must have some wicked plan in his head against the good town, Aix-la-Chapelle.

     Therefore assuming a very sad expression she answered in a complaining voice: "Kind sir, I am so sorry for you, the way to the town is still very long. Only look at my boots, they are quite worn from the long way, and yet I got them new from the shoemaker at Aix-la-Chapelle."

     Master Satan uttered Something that sounded like a bitter curse. Then he shook off the sandy dune from his shoulders and flew away in a fury.

     The old woman was for a moment terror-stricken, but when she saw the fatal figure of the stranger disappearing, she was inexpressibly glad at having saved the town and outwitted the devil himself.

     If he had only looked a little more carefully he could have seen the tower of the new minster not a mile off.

     The sandy dune is still lying in the very same place where the devil dropped it. Its name is "Losberg" or "Rid mountain," so called because the town Aix-la-Chapelle got rid of a great danger.

     The memory of the poor wolf is also still preserved. Its image is engraved on the middle of the minster door, where you can also see the big cracks produced by the devil's hammering it in his impotent anger.

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