METZENGERSTEIN by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
METZENGERSTEIN
by Edgar Allan Poe

Pestis eram vivus – moriens tua mors ero. Martin Luther

HORROR and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why
then give a date to this story I have to tell? Let it suffice to
say, that at the period of which I speak, there existed, in the
interior of Hungary, a settled although hidden belief in the doctrines
of the Metempsychosis. Of the doctrines themselves- that is, of their
falsity, or of their probability- I say nothing. I assert, however,
that much of our incredulity- as La Bruyere says of all our
unhappiness- “vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls.”
But there are some points in the Hungarian superstition which were
fast verging to absurdity. They- the Hungarians- differed very
essentially from their Eastern authorities. For example, “The soul,”
said the former- I give the words of an acute and intelligent
Parisian- “ne demeure qu’un seul fois dans un corps sensible: au
reste- un cheval, un chien, un homme meme, n’est que la ressemblance
peu tangible de ces animaux.”
The families of Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein had been at variance
for centuries. Never before were two houses so illustrious, mutually
embittered by hostility so deadly. Indeed at the era of this
history, it was observed by an old crone of haggard and sinister
appearance, that “fire and water might sooner mingle than a
Berlifitzing clasp the hand of a Metzengerstein.” The origin of this
enmity seems to be found in the words of an ancient prophecy- “A
lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his
horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the
immortality of Berlifitzing.”
To be sure the words themselves had little or no meaning. But more
trivial causes have given rise- and that no long while ago- to
consequences equally eventful. Besides, the estates, which were
contiguous, had long exercised a rival influence in the affairs of a
busy government. Moreover, near neighbors are seldom friends; and
the inhabitants of the Castle Berlifitzing might look, from their
lofty buttresses, into the very windows of the palace
Metzengerstein. Least of all had the more than feudal magnificence,
thus discovered, a tendency to allay the irritable feelings of the
less ancient and less wealthy Berlifitzings. What wonder then, that
the words, however silly, of that prediction, should have succeeded in
setting and keeping at variance two families already predisposed to
quarrel by every instigation of hereditary jealousy? The prophecy
seemed to imply- if it implied anything- a final triumph on the part
of the already more powerful house; and was of course remembered
with the more bitter animosity by the weaker and less influential.
Wilhelm, Count Berlifitzing, although loftily descended, was, at the
epoch of this narrative, an infirm and doting old man, remarkable
for nothing but an inordinate and inveterate personal antipathy to the
family of his rival, and so passionate a love of horses, and of
hunting, that neither bodily infirmity, great age, nor mental
incapacity, prevented his daily participation in the dangers of the
chase.
Frederick, Baron Metzengerstein, was, on the other hand, not yet
Mary, followed him quickly after. Frederick was, at that time, in
his fifteenth year. In a city, fifteen years are no long period- a
child may be still a child in his third lustrum: but in a
wilderness- in so magnificent a wilderness as that old principality,
fifteen years have a far deeper meaning.
The beautiful Lady Mary! How could she die?- and of consumption!
But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to
perish of that gentle disease. How glorious- to depart in the heyday
of the young blood- the heart of all passion- the imagination all
fire- amid the remembrances of happier days- in the fall of the year-
and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous autumnal leaves!
Thus died the Lady Mary. The young Baron Frederick stood without a
living relative by the coffin of his dead mother. He placed his hand
upon her placid forehead. No shudder came over his delicate frame- no
sigh from his flinty bosom. Heartless, self-willed and impetuous
from his childhood, he had reached the age of which I speak through
a career of unfeeling, wanton, and reckless dissipation; and a barrier
had long since arisen in the channel of all holy thoughts and gentle
recollections.
From some peculiar circumstances attending the administration of his
father, the young Baron, at the decease of the former, entered
immediately upon his vast possessions. Such estates were seldom held
before by a nobleman of Hungary. His castles were without number.
The chief in point of splendor and extent was the “Chateau
Metzengerstein.” The boundary line of his dominions was never clearly
defined; but his principal park embraced a circuit of fifty miles.
Upon the succession of a proprietor so young, with a character so
well known, to a fortune so unparalleled, little speculation was
afloat in regard to his probable course of conduct. And, indeed, for
the space of three days, the behavior of the heir out-heroded Herod,
and fairly surpassed the expectations of his most enthusiastic
admirers. Shameful debaucheries- flagrant treacheries- unheard-of
atrocities- gave his trembling vassals quickly to understand that no
servile submission on their part- no punctilios of conscience on his
own- were thenceforward to prove any security against the remorseless
fangs of a petty Caligula. On the night of the fourth day, the stables
of the castle Berlifitzing were discovered to be on fire; and the
unanimous opinion of the neighborhood added the crime of the
incendiary to the already hideous list of the Baron’s misdemeanors and
enormities.
But during the tumult occasioned by this occurrence, the young
nobleman himself sat apparently buried in meditation, in a vast and
desolate upper apartment of the family palace of Metzengerstein. The
rich although faded tapestry hangings which swung gloomily upon the
walls, represented the shadowy and majestic forms of a thousand
illustrious ancestors. Here, rich-ermined priests, and pontifical
dignitaries, familiarly seated with the autocrat and the sovereign,
put a veto on the wishes of a temporal king, or restrained with the
fiat of papal supremacy the rebellious sceptre of the Arch-enemy.
There, the dark, tall statures of the Princes Metzengerstein- their
muscular war-coursers plunging over the carcasses of fallen
foes- startled the steadiest nerves with their vigorous expression;
and here, again, the voluptuous and swan-like figures of the dames of
days gone by, floated away in the mazes of an unreal dance to the
strains of imaginary melody.
But as the Baron listened, or affected to listen, to the gradually
increasing uproar in the stables of Berlifitzing- or perhaps pondered
upon some more novel, some more decided act of audacity- his eyes
became unwittingly rivetted to the figure of an enormous, and
unnaturally colored horse, represented in the tapestry as belonging to
a Saracen ancestor of the family of his rival. The horse itself, in
the foreground of the design, stood motionless and statue-like- while
farther back, its discomfited rider perished by the dagger of a
Metzengerstein.
On Frederick’s lip arose a fiendish expression, as he became aware
of the direction which his glance had, without his consciousness,
assumed. Yet he did not remove it. On the contrary, he could by no
means account for the overwhelming anxiety which appeared falling like
a pall upon his senses. It was with difficulty that he reconciled
his dreamy and incoherent feelings with the certainty of being
awake. The longer he gazed the more absorbing became the spell- the
more impossible did it appear that he could ever withdraw his glance
from the fascination of that tapestry. But the tumult without becoming
suddenly more violent, with a compulsory exertion he diverted his
attention to the glare of ruddy light thrown full by the flaming
stables upon the windows of the apartment.
The action, however, was but momentary, his gaze returned
mechanically to the wall. To his extreme horror and astonishment,
the head of the gigantic steed had, in the meantime, altered its
position. The neck of the animal, before arched, as if in
compassion, over the prostrate body of its lord, was now extended,
at full length, in the direction of the Baron. The eyes, before
invisible, now wore an energetic and human expression, while they
gleamed with a fiery and unusual red; and the distended lips of the
apparently enraged horse left in full view his gigantic and disgusting
teeth.
Stupefied with terror, the young nobleman tottered to the door. As
he threw it open, a flash of red light, streaming far into the
chamber, flung his shadow with a clear outline against the quivering
tapestry, and he shuddered to perceive that shadow- as he staggered
awhile upon the threshold- assuming the exact position, and precisely
filling up the contour, of the relentless and triumphant murderer of
the Saracen Berlifitzing.
To lighten the depression of his spirits, the Baron hurried into the
open air. At the principal gate of the palace he encountered three
equerries. With much difficulty, and at the imminent peril of their
lives, they were restraining the convulsive plunges of a gigantic
and fiery-colored horse.
“Whose horse? Where did you get him?” demanded the youth, in a
querulous and husky tone of voice, as he became instantly aware that
the mysterious steed in the tapestried chamber was the very
counterpart of the furious animal before his eyes.
“He is your own property, sire,” replied one of the equerries, “at
least he is claimed by no other owner. We caught him flying, all
smoking and foaming with rage, from the burning stables of the
Castle Berlifitzing. Supposing him to have belonged to the old Count’s
stud of foreign horses, we led him back as an estray. But the grooms
there disclaim any title to the creature; which is strange, since he
bears evident marks of having made a narrow escape from the flames.
“The letters W. V. B. are also branded very distinctly on his
forehead,” interrupted a second equerry, “I supposed them, of
course, to be the initials of Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing- but all at
the castle are positive in denying any knowledge of the horse.”
“Extremely singular!” said the young Baron, with a musing air, and
apparently unconscious of the meaning of his words. “He is, as you
say, a remarkable horse- a prodigious horse! although, as you very
justly observe, of a suspicious and untractable character, let him
be mine, however,” he added, after a pause, “perhaps a rider like
Frederick of Metzengerstein, may tame even the devil from the
stables of Berlifitzing.”
“You are mistaken, my lord; the horse, as I think we mentioned, is
not from the stables of the Count. If such had been the case, we
know our duty better than to bring him into the presence of a noble of
your family.”
“True!” observed the Baron, dryly, and at that instant a page of the
bedchamber came from the palace with a heightened color, and a
precipitate step. He whispered into his master’s ear an account of the
sudden disappearance of a small portion of the tapestry, in an
apartment which he designated; entering, at the same time, into
particulars of a minute and circumstantial character; but from the low
tone of voice in which these latter were communicated, nothing escaped
to gratify the excited curiosity of the equerries.
The young Frederick, during the conference, seemed agitated by a
variety of emotions. He soon, however, recovered his composure, and an
expression of determined malignancy settled upon his countenance, as
he gave peremptory orders that a certain chamber should be immediately
locked up, and the key placed in his own possession.
“Have you heard of the unhappy death of the old hunter
Berlifitzing?” said one of his vassals to the Baron, as, after the
departure of the page, the huge steed which that nobleman had
adopted as his own, plunged and curvetted, with redoubled fury, down
the long avenue which extended from the chateau to the stables of
Metzengerstein.
“No!” said the Baron, turning abruptly toward the speaker, “dead!
say you?”
“It is indeed true, my lord; and, to a noble of your name, will
be, I imagine, no unwelcome intelligence.”
A rapid smile shot over the countenance of the listener. “How died
he?”
“In his rash exertions to rescue a favorite portion of his hunting
stud, he has himself perished miserably in the flames.”
“I-n-d-e-e-d-!” ejaculated the Baron, as if slowly and
deliberately impressed with the truth of some exciting idea.
“Indeed;” repeated the vassal.
“Shocking!” said the youth, calmly, and turned quietly into the
chateau.
From this date a marked alteration took place in the outward
demeanor of the dissolute young Baron Frederick Von Metzengerstein.
Indeed, his behavior disappointed every expectation, and proved little
in accordance with the views of many a manoeuvering mamma; while his
habits and manner, still less than formerly, offered any thing
congenial with those of the neighboring aristocracy. He was never to
be seen beyond the limits of his own domain, and, in this wide and
social world, was utterly companionless- unless, indeed, that
unnatural, impetuous, and fiery-colored horse, which he henceforward
continually bestrode, had any mysterious right to the title of his
friend.
Numerous invitations on the part of the neighborhood for a long
time, however, periodically came in. “Will the Baron honor our
festivals with his presence?” “Will the Baron join us in a hunting
of the boar?”- “Metzengerstein does not hunt;” “Metzengerstein will
not attend,” were the haughty and laconic answers.
These repeated insults were not to be endured by an imperious
nobility. Such invitations became less cordial- less frequent- in
time they ceased altogether. The widow of the unfortunate Count
Berlifitzing was even heard to express a hope “that the Baron might be
at home when he did not wish to be at home, since he disdained the
company of his equals; and ride when he did not wish to ride, since he
preferred the society of a horse.” This to be sure was a very silly
explosion of hereditary pique; and merely proved how singularly
unmeaning our sayings are apt to become, when we desire to be
unusually energetic.
The charitable, nevertheless, attributed the alteration in the
conduct of the young nobleman to the natural sorrow of a son for the
untimely loss of his parents- forgetting, however, his atrocious and
reckless behavior during the short period immediately succeeding
that bereavement. Some there were, indeed, who suggested a too haughty
idea of self-consequence and dignity. Others again (among them may be
mentioned the family physician) did not hesitate in speaking of morbid
melancholy, and hereditary ill-health; while dark hints, of a more
equivocal nature, were current among the multitude.
Indeed, the Baron’s perverse attachment to his lately-acquired
charger- an attachment which seemed to attain new strength from every
fresh example of the animal’s ferocious and demon-like propensities-
at length became, in the eyes of all reasonable men, a hideous and
unnatural fervor. In the glare of noon- at the dead hour of night- in
sickness or in health- in calm or in tempest- the young Metzengerstein
seemed rivetted to the saddle of that colossal horse, whose
intractable audacities so well accorded with his own spirit.
There were circumstances, moreover, which coupled with late
events, gave an unearthly and portentous character to the mania of the
rider, and to the capabilities of the steed. The space passed over
in a single leap had been accurately measured, and was found to
exceed, by an astounding difference, the wildest expectations of the
most imaginative. The Baron, besides, had no particular name for the
animal, although all the rest in his collection were distinguished
by characteristic appellations. His stable, too, was appointed at a
distance from the rest; and with regard to grooming and other
necessary offices, none but the owner in person had ventured to
officiate, or even to enter the enclosure of that particular stall. It
was also to be observed, that although the three grooms, who had
caught the steed as he fled from the conflagration at Berlifitzing,
had succeeded in arresting his course, by means of a chain-bridle
and noose- yet no one of the three could with any certainty affirm
that he had, during that dangerous struggle, or at any period
thereafter, actually placed his hand upon the body of the beast.
Instances of peculiar intelligence in the demeanor of a noble and
high-spirited horse are not to be supposed capable of exciting
unreasonable attention- especially among men who, daily trained to
the labors of the chase, might appear well acquainted with the
sagacity of a horse- but there were certain circumstances which
intruded themselves per force upon the most skeptical and phlegmatic;
and it is said there were times when the animal caused the gaping
crowd who stood around to recoil in horror from the deep and
impressive meaning of his terrible stamp- times when the young
Metzengerstein turned pale and shrunk away from the rapid and
searching expression of his earnest and human-looking eye.
Among all the retinue of the Baron, however, none were found to
doubt the ardor of that extraordinary affection which existed on the
part of the young nobleman for the fiery qualities of his horse; at
least, none but an insignificant and misshapen little page, whose
deformities were in everybody’s way, and whose opinions were of the
least possible importance. He- if his ideas are worth mentioning at
all- had the effrontery to assert that his master never vaulted into
the saddle without an unaccountable and almost imperceptible
shudder, and that, upon his return from every long-continued and
habitual ride, an expression of triumphant malignity distorted every
muscle in his countenance.
One tempestuous night, Metzengerstein, awaking from a heavy slumber,
descended like a maniac from his chamber, and, mounting in hot
haste, bounded away into the mazes of the forest. An occurrence so
common attracted no particular attention, but his return was looked
for with intense anxiety on the part of his domestics, when, after
some hours’ absence, the stupendous and magnificent battlements of the
Chateau Metzengerstein, were discovered crackling and rocking to their
very foundation, under the influence of a dense and livid mass of
ungovernable fire.
As the flames, when first seen, had already made so terrible a
progress that all efforts to save any portion of the building were
evidently futile, the astonished neighborhood stood idly around in
silent and pathetic wonder. But a new and fearful object soon rivetted
the attention of the multitude, and proved how much more intense is
the excitement wrought in the feelings of a crowd by the contemplation
of human agony, than that brought about by the most appalling
spectacles of inanimate matter.
Up the long avenue of aged oaks which led from the forest to the
main entrance of the Chateau Metzengerstein, a steed, bearing an
unbonneted and disordered rider, was seen leaping with an
impetuosity which outstripped the very Demon of the Tempest, and
extorted from every stupefied beholder the ejaculation- “horrible.”
The career of the horseman was indisputably, on his own part,
uncontrollable. The agony of his countenance, the convulsive
struggle of his frame, gave evidence of superhuman exertion: but no
sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips,
which were bitten through and through in the intensity of terror.
One instant, and the clattering of hoofs resounded sharply and shrilly
above the roaring of the flames and the shrieking of the
winds- another, and, clearing at a single plunge the gate-way and the
moat, the steed bounded far up the tottering staircases of the palace,
and, with its rider, disappeared amid the whirlwind of chaotic fire.
The fury of the tempest immediately died away, and a dead calm
sullenly succeeded. A white flame still enveloped the building like
a shroud, and, streaming far away into the quiet atmosphere, shot
forth a glare of preternatural light; while a cloud of smoke settled
heavily over the battlements in the distinct colossal figure of- a
horse.
-THE END-
.

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