Knight, Death, and the Devil. Engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

      My lords, I charge you, hear me now!
      A knight must keep his solemn vow,
      no matter what the consequence,
      and strive for virtue in defense
      of the glorious name of chivalry.
      My story tells of constancy
      as practiced by a lord
      who never broke his word.
      Thus he earned that poets proclaim
      forever his unblemished name,
      and won, when death could not confine
      his immortal soul, God's grace divine.

In the kingdom of the Franks there lived a bold and excellent knight, named William, heir to the county of Montabaur. He was famed for his valor and the industry with which he practiced the knightly calling, as proved both by his many tournament victories and by the fact that he had soon consumed a good two-thirds of his family estate in his pursuit of honor. At this point, his father refused to support his adventures any longer, forcing him to remain idle at home, much to his chagrin and displeasure. A man without means, I can tell you, is soon forgotten, as indeed happened to Sir William after several years of involuntary retirement.

In an adjoining land, there resided a rich and aristocratic family, whose pride was a daughter. Pampered, cultured, and beautiful, she was the talk of the land for miles around, but as she came of age, she found her wealth and high standing entailed one severe disadvantage, for there was no suitor who could be considered quite her equal.

But she had no intention of enduring spinsterhood. Calling her privy council, she addressed them. "Sirs, give me your opinion as to what I should do in the matter of taking a husband, a man worthy that you also should call him lord and master."

"My lady," replied an elder vassal, after a moment's consultation, "this business should indeed be taken care of. We propose that a great tournament be proclaimed, and, if it seems good also to your relations and friends, that you take the victor in marriage."

"You say well," she thanked them. "I shall have the winner, be he knight or knave."

When proclamations announcing the event had been drawn up, she distributed them with her own white hand to heralds, charging them faithfully to spread the news far and wide, and promising each a bonus of ten marks in red gold upon his return. They bowed deeply and rode out to the accompaniment of cymbals and flourishes.

A few days later, Sir William, out riding for pleasure, encountered one of the heralds on the highway. "Perhaps this fellow can tell me something that will lighten my boredom," thought William. "You, there, stay!" he cried. "What news is there in the land?"

"Sir, I am charged to tell one and all my message. My lady, a lovely maiden, will take a husband, but only one who proves himself worthy of her hand and fortune by heroism in the tournament which she now proclaims."

"Ah, me," sighed William, "may God who gave me valor forbid that I should have to stay home!" He turned back and rode with the herald until they came to the castle of Montabaur, where he required the herald to repeat the message to his father and show him the letter of proclamation. When the courier had been refreshed with good food and drink, he drew the letter from his pouch and offered it to anyone there who could read.

The court scribe, taking the letter, immediately recognized the lady's name. "Yes, my lords," he exclaimed, "indeed it is she. She is lovely and kind, and furthermore, I can't think of anybody who is one-tenth so rich. It says here--`now be it known to every knight in all the lands that to him who shall be judged victor in my tourney, to be held on my fields two weeks after Whitsuntide, shall I plight my troth, to love and cherish . . .' --and there's her name, right there. Oh, sirs! Here is a prize, I tell you!"

Scarcely did young Sir William dream that he might become the lucky winner whose fortune would be celebrated for years to come in song and story. Not that his courage was frail, but his means were naught. Man to man, he might equal anyone, yet he owned not so much as a packhorse, to say nothing of a charger. In such low estate, he turned for help to one of his father's personal servants, a trusted squire, entreating him to intercede with the old count.

The squire managed to win at least a concession from his master. "Jousting again, is it?" snorted the count. "Well, you tell him I'm not made of money, and I have my own life to live, too! Oh, all right, I suppose I can spare a little--a sword, and a surcoat. A couple of horses. And fifty marks. But that's all--take it or leave it."

When the squire brought this news to Sir William, he was greatly pleased. As soon as preparations could be made, he girded on the sword, took leave of his aged mother, sprang into the saddle, and rode out, with the squire in attendance, as the old woman looked tearfully after them. At the last moment, she had run to her own jewel box and fetched a handful of bright Venetian ducats, which she gave to the squire, in case her beloved son should need a little extra on the journey.

After riding hard for several days, Sir William reached the city where the tournament was to be held. Many a lovely lady would be watching, in addition to the beautiful maiden who had declared the contest. Noting that he was among the earliest to arrive, Sir William sent his squire to look for suitable quarters. "Find a prosperous host for us, who can extend credit. You know all I have is fifty marks, and that's nothing. But I must spend generously, for I mean to make a good impression, no matter what."

The squire rode about the city from one inn to another, calling on St. Gertrude for aid in locating quarters and arranging credit for his master, but with little success. At last he stopped to inquire of three wealthy townsmen standing by the great city gate.

"A knight?" snorted one of them, a merchant. "I'll have nothing more to do with their kind. Why, the last time I took one in, he died right there, owing me fifty marks, and now not one of his cheap friends or kinsmen will pay up. You know what I did? I dumped the body in an old box and stuck him in the manure pile, and there he'll stay, believe me, until I'm paid. Yes, money is money! How do you think I got to be the richest man in town? By giving charity?"

The squire, having at least found someone with plenty of capital, implored the merchant to take in Sir William. "Oh, sir, my master is a man of honor, and will pay without fail!"

"You can go beg somewhere else," retorted the merchant. "By God, I'd rather burn my house down than let another man in before I get what the last one owes me. Go tell that to your master."

"But if the debt were paid, would the man who paid it have good credit with you?" "Of course," said the merchant, grandly. "Didn't I say how rich I am? Why, I can put up thousands of marks, and not even miss it, for anyone who'll pay his debts, and buy that stinking knight back!"

The squire realized that the demanded premium amounted nearly to the whole of Sir William's resources, and rode back to his master in despair. "My lord," he apologized, "I rue the day I rode out with you, for I have failed you. No one will quarter you, with ample credit, except a merchant who demands that you first redeem a dead knight from him."

"Ah, I am in poor case indeed, even to have to redeem the dead," sighed Sir William. "But say, what befell the knight, and how much did he owe?"

"Whatever happened to him, I fear the price is too much. He owed fifty marks, and the merchant won't take a penny less."

"Pay him," said Sir William, "and then charge him to hire for me four teams of twelve men each, the best he can find, to be my squires in the tourney. Then he is also to buy the best wine and plenty of provisions for our stay here."

The faithful squire set about doing Sir William's bidding. Returning to find the merchant, he addressed him. "Come here, my good man. My master would have you know that he will indeed redeem the dead man, in the name of knighthood. Never would my master suffer that a knight should lie thus defiled in your stable, whatever the cost."

"Well, let's see how much your cash weighs," said the merchant, who among his other offices also held the privilege of minting coinage. The squire gave him the amount in silver (including a few of the fine gold ducats that Sir William's mother had sent along from her private treasury). The merchant, pleased to collect a bad debt (and seeing much promise in the quality of the coinage used to pay it), readily set about employing the requested retinue and supplying fine provisions. The squires then rode out to accompany their new lord with full honors from his encampment outside the city to his lodgings, where, upon arriving, he at once showed his nobility by freely handing out to them weaponry, riding equipment, and elegant clothes. Too bad there are so few left now who are eager for respect and show it thus! The dead knight, also, was quickly dug from his ignoble grave and then reinterred properly, all at Sir William's cost, who showed as much respect as if the deceased had been his own father. The funeral procession wound its way to the church, I am told, with a great train of mourners, among them Sir William, who saw to it that no expense was spared in providing offerings.

These events quickly made a name for him in every corner of the city, attracting general praise as well as a steady flow of minstrels, travelers, and vagrants, to all of whom he gave freely, according to their deserts, thus winning the good will of one and all. His concern was that he be respected and thought well of. He lived splendidly during his stay, as befits a great lord, riding about the city and inviting to his lodgings many a keen knight, all of whom he entertained with lavish hospitality. Thus did it come about that his name was blessed even among people who had never seen him. Their prayers became a worthy intercession for him before God, when at last he too was to die, as all men must.

As the day on which the tournament was to begin drew near, Sir William turned his attentions to the problem of finding himself a charger. His host was ready, indeed eager, to advanced the needed money, but none of the many horses he found for sale that day quite came up to his standards. "Well, wait a day or two, and we'll find one you like," said his host, the merchant, but Sir William was getting impatient. Still, there was little he could do at the moment.

He went to sit and rest for a while by one of the large windows overlooking the plaza, where the breeze offered some relief from the afternoon heat. There he chanced to see a lone rider in the street, a knight, mounted on a splendid horse, and handsomely armed. The knight would have spurred right on, but Sir William called down to him with special courtesy. "Sir, that is a very fine horse. By all the lovely ladies, I ask you, let me have a look at it!"

"Very well," replied the rider. "I was ready to let it be hacked to pieces for the sake of the lovely ladies. But now I hardly know what to do with it."

Sir William could make little of this enigmatic reply, but he hastened out to the street just as the rider halted before the host's door, where a crowd of knights soon gathered to admire the fine animal. Sir William received permission to mount it and ride out to a field nearby, where there was room to put it to trial. At once he knew that it was just the mount he would need for the tournament, but its owner refused to sell it for any price, whether silver or precious jewels. "You mistake me greatly, sir," he said. "I have no use for money."

Again puzzled at the man's reply, Sir William asked what, if not money, would move him to part with the horse.

"You may think me mad," the knight replied, "but I say you shall have it only if you give me your word to share equally with me whatever you win in the tournament. If you are the victor, and gain the maiden and lordship of her lands, half shall be mine."

"Well, if God grants me success," Sir William agreed, "I will indeed give you half my winnings." He was thinking of goods, of course, not the girl.

So Sir William took the horse, and when the day came for the tournament, he and his squires made ready as the pipers and fiddlers played lustily. He put on his armor. His horse's trappings gleamed with jewels. As he prepared to mount, a messenger arrived with a gift for him. It was a silken surcoat, brilliant red, from the maiden herself, so that she would have no difficulty recognizing him and following his fortunes from her vantage high in the tower.

Now the contestants took the field. When the heralds presented Sir William, the maiden blushed. "May God grant the prize this day to the young Count of Montabaur!" she sighed.

He carried a mighty lance, as thick as his arm, against which no opponent that day could prevail. How they jousted! They spurred their chargers and crashed together in a shower of sparks and splinters, but whoever dared to challenge Sir William was unhorsed, much to the unending delight of the ladies who were keeping anxious count of his triumphs.

Now the litter of broken lances was cleared away and fallen victims helped from the field, so that the contests of swordsmanship could begin. Again the ladies watched anxiously as flashing blade cracked against shield and helmet. When the dust and shouting had at last subsided, it was again Sir William to whom the prize was unanimously awarded. He received his accolades, rode back to his lodgings, laid aside his armor, put on his fine clothes, and sat down to take his ease, well satisfied.

The maiden, of course, was eager to meet the victor. She came to him, along with a grand train of lovely handmaids and servants, all of whom bestowed upon him the kiss of respect and welcome. The lady of the land regarded him lovingly. "Sir, I now declare that I shall grant you your reward. You shall be my husband, and none shall part us, upon my life. I give you myself and all I own."

"My beautiful lady, I am delighted," he replied, bowing deeply. "May God grant that we grow old together and attain his grace before we die!"

"Amen," she responded, solemnly, and then she laughed. "Now come on--let's not stand here, let's go to dinner!"

They went together to the feast. I can hardly imagine that the world will ever again see so elegant a celebration. The tournament, having been proclaimed abroad, had drawn the very elite of chivalry from many a land. Every knight who had responded to the call of ambition and valor now joined in the marriage banquet, prepared with all the resources a rich and powerful court commanded.

Afterward, she was brought to his bed. Had Sir William invented her in his own fondest imagination, he could hardly have made her as lovely as she really was. I'll wager they wasted little of what seemed to Sir William all too short a night in sleeping. When dawn came, there she lay next to him, a perfect vision in lily white and rose. Gone now were the afflictions he had endured in poverty, and never before nor since was there such a glorious marriage celebration. Knights and ladies thronged the court. The entire next day was given to feasting and exhibitions of horsemanship. Instead of clashing in combat, the splendidly-outfitted riders now joined in the sheer entertainment of massed equestrian maneuvers in honor of the new bride and to the general delight and cheers of the spectators.

That evening, after dinner and further diversion, the lady retired to await Sir William, who was quick to follow. He had finished undressing and dismissed the servants when, going to bolt the door, he was confronted by none other than the knight who had provided the horse on which he had ridden to victory. "Sir, remember that you must divide your gains with me," the knight said. "Last night, you lay with her. Now it is time to share."

"Of course," Sir William agreed, "I will gladly give you tomorrow half the property I have received from her. You may rest assured of that."

"Nay, nay," said the knight. "The lady is half mine too."

"Well, that's a devilish joke," snorted Sir William. "Leave off such talk, I charge you! Give you my lady? Why, I'd sooner die!"

"If your word is worthless," replied the knight, "of course, you needn't keep it. Consider well, and then choose. You must lose either your lady or your honor."

At this ultimatum, Sir William recoiled in anguish, his joys suddenly turned to horror. "Ah, wretched me, to have come to this! Always will I cry to God that I was not slain in battle, or even hanged for a thief before ever I saw my lady. Yes, that would have served me better. Cursed be that horse! Ah, had I never laid eyes on it!"

Then with tears flowing down his face, Sir William turned to the knight. "I choose--honor, sir. Though it cost me my beloved lady."

"Good," said the knight. "Now be off with you."

"One moment," Sir William entreated. "You seem a good man to me. Think how you would feel toward one who tried to take you from your lady love. I know you would cut him to pieces, if you could. No! Take all the property. I want not a hair of it, if you but give me my lady!" He burst into weeping.

"I wouldn't give a fig to have all the world my own from now till judgment day," the knight said. "Keep your word, and get out of here."

"And suppose I decide not to keep it? You'd do far better to leave her to me, and take everything else, while you have the chance."

"You love her, I'm sure, but if all the stones were gold, I wouldn't take them for my right to her. Still, if you want to cheat, of course, you can, and both are yours, land and lady."

"Dear God," groaned Sir William, "the Devil sent that horse to destroy me. My cup of sorrows is full. Honor has always been my goal, and still I strive for it. Take her!"

As he stepped out of the bedchamber and started down the hall, the knight went in and closed the door behind him, but not completely shut, leaving just a crack. Sir William cast one look back. Who wouldn't have?

Seeing this, the knight emerged. "Sir, I have put you to the test," he announced. "Know that God has heard you, and know me now also. Far more did I gain from your coming than you. For you released me from the grave of filth in which I lay, and through you do I now receive eternal joy. You have redeemed me from the poor robe of flesh in which I appear to you."

"Dear brother," stammered Sir William, "give me some sign that this has been from God!"

"Indeed you shall know. I stand here before you, as though a man, within your reach. Touch me."

Sir William put out his hand, but felt no substance, thrusting through the vision to the solid wall behind. "What wonders God can do," he cried, moved to deepest joy. "Indeed, what need have you of wife or goods?"

"None, sir," replied the vision. "By your faith and honor, I have gained divine grace in place of my former substance. Let no one rue the cost of constancy, for in the end, it will serve him best. Now, sir, I must go. I renounce my share, and will pray for you eternally. God bless you both!" The handsome soul flew off toward the throne of heaven.

Sir William returned to his bedchamber, flooded with a new happiness from the revelation God had granted him before other men. For he who practices constancy as did Sir William richly earns God's grace at last.

Next day, Sir William sent for his host, the merchant, and gave him as much silver as his treasure vault could hold, not in repayment of what the merchant had advanced him, but simply as an act of generosity. He also repaid the debt, of course, but that was a small matter to him. His largess made the merchant and all his family far richer than they had been before.

Thus did constancy gain for them all the reward of freedom from care. Ye knights, I say, honor constancy. Should God not send you a horse today, he may recompense you at last with the kingdom of heaven.