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The Cathedral Builder of Cologne
It was at Cologne in the year 1248 on the eve of the Ascension day of our Lord.
Before the mighty Archbishop Kunrad of Hochstaden stood a simple architect offering the plan of a church, and arrogantly boasting that it would become one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Christendom. That man was Master Gerhard of Ryle.
The Archbishop was greatly astonished at the grandeur of the design, and ordered the execution of the bold plan without delay.
On the square which was selected for the erection ,of the new cathedral, another church had once been standing under the reign of the first king of the Franks, but it had been destroyed by the Normans.
Now again gigantic masonry, slender pillars, bold vaults and arches rose to unite into a proud dome.
Everybody admired the humble man, whose creative genius now employed thousands of industrious workmen, and Master Gerhard's name was mentioned with great praise at home and abroad.
When the choir was finished, crowds of pious pilgrims came from the surrounding suburbs and even from a distance to pray before the relics of the three holy kings which were enshrined there. Hymns of praise re-echoed through the unfinished aisles.
Everybody rejoiced. But he, who ought to have been the most glad, was sad, and dark forebodings damped his spirits. The question if after all he would live to see his proud building. finished, or if cruel fate would tear him away before he should have tasted the sweetness of triumph, tormented him day and night. His young wife saw with grief the change in hip disposition; but she tried in vain by tender words and caresses to smooth his sorrowful brow.
The more he was troubled by his gloomy thoughts, the more he urged his workmen on. Four years had elapsed; it was now 1252, The tower on the north side rose already proudly into the air. The scaffolding reached higher and higher every day.
One day Master Gerhard stood beside the big crane, watching how the gigantic blocks of stone taken from the quarries at the Drachen fels, were lifted up, He thought with pride and satisfaction that his work was going on well; and that he surely would see it finished. While thus meditating he did not observe that a stranger stood by his side watching him with an ugly sneer. A burning red cloak hung round his tall figure, a gold chain glittered on his breast, and a cock's feather nodded from a quaint velvet cap,. He introduced himself to the somewhat surprised builder as a fellow-architect. "You are building a lovely church," he then said, "but I created a far more magnificent mansion, long, long years ago. Its stone will never crumble to dust, and it will resist the influence of time and weather forever." In saying this, his eyes glittered strangely under his shaggy brows. This presumptuous speech did not please Master Gerhard, and without answering he measured the bold speaker scornfully from head to foot.
"Your church," continued the stranger, "will be a very lovely building, but don't you think that such an enterprise is far too audacious for mortal man. You, Master Gerhard, you ought to have known at the time when you laid the foundation stone of your church that you never would see your work finished."
"Who is likely to prevent it?" angrily burst forth the builder. No one had ever dared to use such language towards him, nor to wound his pride so keenly.
"Death," coolly replied the stranger.
"Never," cried Master Gerhard in a great fury, "I will finish what I began, and would even bet with the devil himself to do so."
"Hallo!" laughed the stranger grimly. "I should like to deal with such an audacious man as you, and make bold to bet with you that l will, in a shorter space of time, finish the digging of a canal from Treves to Cologne, fill it with water, and have merry ducks swimming on it, than you will take to complete your church."
"So be it!" said Master Gerhard very much startled, taking the outstretched hand Of the strange man. At the touch of his cold fingers, a sensation of horror crept into the heart of Master Gerhard. But the red-cloaked man burst into. a yelling laugh and cried out in a formidable voice, "Remember we betted for your soul." Utmost terror seized the trembling architect, cold perspiration stood on his brow, and he tried in vain to utter a word.
Suddenly a storm rose, the stranger unfolded his red cloak, and was lifted from the ground in a cloud of dust and vanished.
From that day the mind of Master Gerhard grew more and more gloomy. He kept on wandering restlessly on the scaffoldings of the building. The more he considered the huge dimensions of the cathedral, the more doubtful he felt as to whether he would be able to finish it or not.
By day-break he could be seen among his workmen, and till late in the evening he wandered about on the building-ground, praising the industrious and blaming the idle. He looked out anxiously sometimes in the direction of Treves to see if he could discern anything uncommon there. But he never saw the slightest change, nor any sign that the stranger with whom he had betted, had really begun his canal in earnest, and he looked more hopefully into the future.
One day he was standing as usual on the top ,of one of the completed towers, when he felt a hand laid on his shoulder. Turning round, he beheld with disagreeable surprise the ghostly stranger. Was he a master of the black art or was he the devil himself? "Well, Master Gerhard,'' began the unwelcome visitor, "how are you getting on with your work? I see it is making good progress. Happily I shall soon have finished my canal, .else I should run the risk of losing my bet."
"I can scarcely believe your boasting speech," answered the builder scornfully, "because I do not perceive the slightest trace of your having begun the canal.... Know, my dear man, that I am worth more than a hundred workmen together and, as I told you, my work is nearly, ready," said the man in red.
"Really," said Master Gerhard a little startled, "I should like to know what magic power could enable you to do so."
"Come and follow me," replied the stranger, taking the builder by the hand. Off they flew through the air with the quickness of lightning, and reached the earth in the district near Treves in a few seconds. At the place where they descended, a spring arose from the ground and sent its crystal waters into an opening in a rock. "Come with me," said the magic stranger, and bending down he disappeared in this opening.
Master Gerhard followed him and came into a high glittering grotto, where he perceived that the water gushed tumultuously into the mouth of a black underground channel.
"You see," said the stranger, "how well I have used my time. If you have the heart for it, we will follow the waters, and see how far nay canal reaches already."
Scarcely had he uttered these words, than a mysterious power seized both and pushed them forward with tremendous rapidity.
Master Gerhard saw now with terror that the work of the Evil One was indeed not far from its completion, for when they emerged from the dark canal, they had the City of Cologne lying close before them. The cathedral-builder could no longer doubt the great skill of his rival, and he felt sure that he would lose his bet. The red-cloaked man seemed to take great delight in the builder's discomfiture, and he said with an ugly grin.
"Well, Master Gerhard, I see you have found more than you expected. I am sure you would like to see the merry ducks which shall swim on my brook, according to our bet."
He clapped his hands three times and then listened. Some minutes passed, but no ducks appeared. The stranger's face assumed an expression of rage, when he found his summons unsuccessful. He tried again but in vain. After this he gave a frightful yell, and vanished all at once, leaving nothing behind him but a smell of sulphur.
The cathedral-builder had looked on in wonder, and new hope began to fill his heart, that after all he could win the bet.
"I know well, why the ducks wont appear," thought he, "but I shall never betray my secret to him." After this adventurous journey, Master Gerhard was a prey to melancholy.
He was seen oftener than before on the building ground. It was impossible for him to doubt any longer, that the stranger with whom he had made the fatal bet, was the devil himself. The unfortunate man was well aware that not only was his life at stake, but that the salvation of his soul was likewise in danger, should the master of hell carry out his work.
There was only one little hope left for him, namely, that the devil would be unable to find out how to keep the ducks alive while they w, ere swimming through the long underground channel. So Master Gerhard took courage, saying to himself: "He cannot win and I know why."
His young wife was strangely moved at her husband's silence and melancholy. She tried by increased tenderness and love to unstop his silent lips and to make him tell what was lying so heavily on his heart.
He appreciated her endeavours to cheer him very much, but could not be brought to tell of his dealings with the Evil One, and so he kept his secrets to himself.
One day, not long after the mysterious journey of Master Gerhard, a stranger, apparently a scholar, entered the architect's house, while he was as usual on the building ground. A scarlet cloak enveloped his tall figure, and a cock's feather sat boldly on his black cap.
His manners were soft and in general those of a gentleman. Hearing that the builder was not at home, he asked for his wife. She came and soon found that she liked talking to him, because he showed not only great eloquence, but also great sympathy for her husband.
Involuntarily she disclosed to the kind stranger her secret grief about Master Gerhard's sadness. The scholar listened to her troubles with great attention, and seemed to feel for her in her sorrow. "My dear Mistress," said he in a soft voice," there is surely some secret weighing heavily on his mind, and this and nothing else is the cause of his melancholy. Unless we know it, we cannot cure him. You are nearest to his heart. If you are very loving and tender to him, he will not withhold the secret for long from you. Be extremely kind to him. After three days I shall come back to see if you have been successful. If not, I will give you a remedy that will unfailingly make him tell you his inmost thoughts.
Thus speaking he took his leave, and she was unable to find words to express her gratitude.
For three days she tried the scholar's advice, but found that her husband, in spite of all her coaxing and caresses, would not tell the cause of his melancholy.
On the fourth day, the scholar called again and heard with apparent grief how badly her endeavours had succeeded, "I pity you heartily,'' said he, "but don't despair. Here is a wonderful herb. Prepare a beverage with it for your husband and make him drink it before he goes to sleep. He will dream after the draught and betray his secrets in his sleep."
She accepted the gift gratefully, and prepared the potion according to his advice. Her husband took the beverage willingly, and soon fell into a profound sleep. After some time dreams seemed to trouble him; he tossed restlessly to and fro in his bed murmuring incoherent words. His wife listened anxiously and beard in feverish excitement about the terrible dealings between him and the devil. After a pause Master Gerhard muttered:
"He will never win, because I hold the secret.''
"What may that be?" whispered she in the dreamer's ear.
"He may do what he will," unconsciously answered he, "it is quite impossible that ducks should swim through the underground channel, unless he makes air-holes at every mile. Of course this idea will never come into his head."
The next morning the scholar called upon the wife anti heard how well his scheme had succeeded. She told him every thing. When she had revealed her husband's secret to him, the meek features of her strange guest suddenly changed. He gave a loud shrill scream of joy and disappeared. The poor wife remained on the same spot, pale and terror-stricken.
Master Gerhard was standing the next day by the high crane of the cathedral as usual.
The air was sultry, and black clouds were gathering from across the Rhine. He felt very restless, and urged his workmen even more than before to hurry on. The builder's heart was strangely filled with dark forebodings. All at once he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turning round, he beheld with terror the fatal stranger. A wondrous gleam of red-like flames seemed to radiate all round his figure.
The cathedral builder grew pale as death and trembled from head to foot. He was unable to utter a word.
Beaming with the joy of triumph, the Evil One pointed with his hand downwards, and forced Master Gerhard to look in the same direction.
Behold! At the foot of the cathedral a silvery brook was visible running from the direction of Treves. Merry ducks were swimming on its shining surface.
It is impossible to describe the feelings of the builder at the sight of the completed work of his rival. Despair and agony made his heart sink within him, but the Evil One looked with joy on his victim. When he suddenly tried to grasp him, Master Gerhard darted to the edge of the scaffolding with a heart-rending scream, and dashed himself down into the depth below, and was instantly killed.
A roar of thunder filled the air at that moment, and the devil vanished in a blaze of lightning. The thunder-storm grew more and more violent. After a few minutes the unhappy cathedral builder's house was struck by lightning and burnt to ashes in less than an hour. Unfortunately, the admirable plan of the splendid church was also destroyed.
This was the sad end of Master Gerhard and his ambition.
The cathedral remained untouched for more than six centuries after. Its unfinished walls and towers began to decay as if they mourned the terrible death of their builder. The Cologne people believed for a long time that the Spirit of Master Gerhard used to hover about midnight round the high towers and the desolated vaults. Strange sounds like the sighs of somebody in anguish were often heard in the deserted building, and people said it was Master Gerhard's ghost complaining that his proud cathedral remained unfinished.
Generation after generation passed by, and six centuries elapsed before busy workmen began again hammering and building on the ground which had lain so long quiet.
In 1880 the dome was finished, and towers now in all its majesty high above the dwellings of the people, and can be seen miles away.
Since that glorious day when the last stone was added to the cathedral of Cologne, Master Gerhard's ghost has never been heard or seen again.Click to go to the next section of the Legends of the Rhine