Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Tale of the Devil's Blacksmith by W Westall 1877


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IT was winter in Gorlitz; the earth was covered with hard frozen snow; the voices of river and stream were hushed in deadly cold; the forests were filled with fantastic shapes of white and lustrous crystal. The time was night, and bright stars gleamed overhead in a sky of deepest, darkest blue—all was still; and the strokes of Volprecht's hammer rung out loud and clear in the stagnant air; and the fiery iron, as he bent him to his midnight talk, rained out showers of radiant sparks. For Volprecht had promised the Count Lothar's shield for the morn, and the good knight was bound on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre.

As the clocks were striking the hour of midnight the burly smith looked up from his work, and saw standing in the doorway, a young man of strange aspect. Long red hair hung low down on his shoulders, and streamed about his face like a mane; he had only one eye—large and piercing, and black as night; his shoulders were immensely broad, his arms long and muscular, and he walked with a stick as if lame.

"What's your pleasure, mein Herr?" asked Volprecht.

"A supper and a night's lodging, an you will, master!"

"Whence come you, and what are you?" "From the south, and I am a wandering blacksmith."

"A blacksmith! What sort of a craftsman are you? Here, take that big hammer and strike for me whilst I make this shield."

The stranger took the hammer and helped Volprecht so effectually that the shield was quickly finished, and the smith led him to his house and gave him food and a bed. In the morning he would fain have continued his journey, but the master-smith had been so much struck with his skill as a workman that he desired his services, and as there was not much difficulty on the score of wages a bargain was soon struck, and Schwefel, that being his name, agreed to remain. He was a wonderful acquisition to Volprecht—was so strong and skilful indeed that, with scarcely any help from the two apprentices, he could do all the work that came into the forge. It made no difference what it was, he could turn his hand to anything. Shoeing a horse, mending a plough, forging sword or spear, or making a suit of armour, all were equally easy to him. But he would never do a job in or about the church. When anything went wrong with the bells or the organ, or new railings were wanted round a vault it always happened that Schwefel was too busy to take the work in hand, and the master must be sent for, at which he grumbled somewhat, but the new smith was too valuable to be quarrelled with, and no one ventured to find fault with him.

Now Volprecht was very fond of a song and a glass; he drank so much beer indeed that some people said he had swallowed one of his own sparks and occupied most of his time in trying to quench it at the "Three Palm-branches." At any rate he was almost constantly there, and appeared to have given up his business entirely to his man Schwefel. Late one night, when he had drained his last tankard of beer and sung his last song, he bade adieu to his boon companions and staggered towards his home. As he neared the forge he heard the strokes of hammer on anvil, and saw the ruddy glow of the fire, and looked in to see what Schwefel was about. But Schwefel was not there, and whilst he watched the two apprentices a knight, riding a black horse, and wearing black armour, rode up to the door and inquired in a loud voice for the master smith.

"Here I am!" said Volprecht.

"Can you make me a suit of harness, master?"

"Certainly, your lordship; and better than any other smith hereabouts. Can I serve you?"

"What's your price?"

"A hundred gulden."

"And do you think you can have it ready in a week?"

"A week! If I could not make a suit of armour in three days I'd forfeit both body and soul," answered the master smith.

"A bargain!" exclaimed the black horseman. "If the harness be finished in three days exactly—listen! the clock is just going twelve—I will pay you four times the price—four hundred gulden; if not, you forfeit body and soul."

Volprecht was rather staggered at the terms of the contract, but looking upon the affair rather as a joke, and being quite confident besides that he would have the harness ready in good time, laughingly accepted the knight's conditions, and took the hundred gulden offered as earnest.

"Now," said the stranger, "it only remains to have our compact put into writing and signed." And he took from his saddle-bags an ink-horn and a pen, and wrote rapidly a few lines on a piece of parchment. Just as he had finished writing he unfortunately upset his ink-horn, spilling the ink over the floor, so that there was not enough left for the smith's signature.

"Donnerwetter!" said the knight. "But we will easily get over that difficulty." And seizing the master smith's big hand, he slightly scratched the back of it with one of his long finger-nails, drawing thereby as much blood as sufficed for the making of Volprecht's sign-manual. Returning the parchment to his saddle-bag the horseman went on his way. His last words were, "Three days hence, at midnight, I come for my armour."

Directly afterwards the head-man returned. Volprecht told him of the bargain he had just made.

"Can you easily have the armour ready in that time?" he asked.

"Can I? Yes, by to-morrow."

"Very well," said the smith, "better set to work on it to-morrow morning," and he troubled himself no further, spent the next two days at the "Three Palm-branches," and never once during the time called at the forge. It was quite enough for him to hear, now and again, the ring of Schwefel's hammer on the anvil, and to see the glittering sparks rushing out of the chimney.

On the morning of the third day, however, the recollection of his compact with the black knight entered suddenly into his mind, and a feeling of uneasiness and even fear crept over him.

"Pooh!" he said to himself, "Schwefel has finished the job long since. I won't bother myself," and he called on his companions for another song, and tried to drown his misgivings in foaming beer. But it was of no use; they refused to be drowned or shaken off, and he felt himself constrained to go across to the smithy and ascertain if the harness were really ready.

It was all ready except one plate—an hour's work perhaps—but his apprentices told him that Schwefel had been absent since early morning, and they knew not whither he had gone. This piece of news greatly alarmed the master, and he threw off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, tied on his great leathern apron, and set earnestly about completing the knight's order. Soon he had a piece of iron red-hot, but at the first blow of the hammer it broke and flew into twenty pieces. To get another piece, to put it into the fire, to blow fiercely at the bellows, to have it out on the anvil, was only the work of a few minutes. He had scarcely made half a dozen strokes however, when the hammer-head flew off. Cursing his ill-luck, Volprecht sought a better tool; by the time he had found one his fire was out. No sooner had he relit it than he discovered a hole in the bellows, and several hours were lost before he was fairly at work with the second piece of iron. More fortunate than before he succeeded in bending the plate to its required shape and cutting it to the right size. His task was now all but completed, so nearly completed that the weary and perspiring master smith thought he might run over to the "Three Palm-branches" and refresh himself with a stoup of beer. He was only a few minutes absent, but when he returned to the forge the plate had disappeared. High and low, up and down, in every corner of the smithy he sought it, but in vain; not a trace of it could he find. The last stroke of ten sounded from the clock tower of the church.

Terribly frightened, trembling and sweating from every pore, Volprecht had to begin his work anew.

Again the iron flew in pieces, again his hammer broke. The clock went eleven. The despairing smith felt himself already in the clutches of the Evil One, but rousing all his energy he seized another piece of iron and hammered away with all his might. Luck returned to him, the fire burnt up briskly, the bellows seemed to work of themselves, and the plastic metal, under his vigorous and well-directed blows, took rapidly the acquired form and size. Volprecht's spirits rose at every ring of his hammer on the anvil. Yet half an hour and he would have fulfilled his compact with the black knight and be free of his diabolical bargain.

A sound from the church tower, a dark form at the door of the forge, a deep voice asking, "Is my suit of armour ready?"

"In a quarter of an hour, my lord knight; in fifteen minutes will all be finished."

"Too late! too late! Thou hast not kept thy bargain, and thy body and soul are forfeit!"

As he spoke those words, and as the last stroke of twelve died away in the midnight air, the floor of the forge opened, and smith, fire, anvil, bellows, armour, all descended into the earth. Ever since has Volprecht been condemned to work at his task in the nether world, and so must he go on working until the suit of harness is finished, but his hammer and his iron continue to break, his fire goes out, and ill-luck pursues him as before. And on quiet, stormless nights in autumn and at the hour of the new year, the sound of his hammer may still be heard deep down in the earth.

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