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In Kropfsberg Keep

Scary Books: Black Spirits And White

To the traveller from Innsbrueck to Munich, up the lovely valley of the

silver Inn, many castles appear, one after another, each on its beetling

cliff or gentle hill,--appear and disappear, melting into the dark fir

trees that grow so thickly on every side,--Laneck, Lichtwer, Ratholtz,

Tratzberg, Matzen, Kropfsberg, gathering close around the entrance to

the dark and wonderful Zillerthal.

But to us--Tom R
ndel and myself--there are two castles only: not the

gorgeous and princely Ambras, nor the noble old Tratzberg, with its

crowded treasures of solemn and splendid mediaevalism; but little Matzen,

where eager hospitality forms the new life of a never-dead chivalry, and

Kropfsberg, ruined, tottering, blasted by fire and smitten with

grievous years,--a dead thing, and haunted,--full of strange legends,

and eloquent of mystery and tragedy.

We were visiting the von C----s at Matzen, and gaining our first

wondering knowledge of the courtly, cordial castle life in the

Tyrol,--of the gentle and delicate hospitality of noble Austrians.

Brixleg had ceased to be but a mark on a map, and had become a place of

rest and delight, a home for homeless wanderers on the face of Europe,

while Schloss Matzen was a synonym for all that was gracious and kindly

and beautiful in life. The days moved on in a golden round of riding and

driving and shooting: down to Landl and Thiersee for chamois, across the

river to the magic Achensee, up the Zillerthal, across the Schmerner

Joch, even to the railway station at Steinach. And in the evenings after

the late dinners in the upper hall where the sleepy hounds leaned

against our chairs looking at us with suppliant eyes, in the evenings

when the fire was dying away in the hooded fireplace in the library,

stories. Stories, and legends, and fairy tales, while the stiff old

portraits changed countenance constantly under the flickering firelight,

and the sound of the drifting Inn came softly across the meadows far


If ever I tell the Story of Schloss Matzen, then will be the time to

paint the too inadequate picture of this fair oasis in the desert of

travel and tourists and hotels; but just now it is Kropfsberg the Silent

that is of greater importance, for it was only in Matzen that the story

was told by Fraeulein E----, the gold-haired niece of Frau von C----, one

hot evening in July, when we were sitting in the great west window of

the drawing-room after a long ride up the Stallenthal. All the windows

were open to catch the faint wind, and we had sat for a long time

watching the Otzethaler Alps turn rose-color over distant Innsbrueck,

then deepen to violet as the sun went down and the white mists rose

slowly until Lichtwer and Laneck and Kropfsberg rose like craggy islands

in a silver sea.

And this is the story as Fraeulein E---- told it to us,--the Story of

Kropfsberg Keep.

* * * * *

A great many years ago, soon after my grandfather died, and Matzen came

to us, when I was a little girl, and so young that I remember nothing

of the affair except as something dreadful that frightened me very much,

two young men who had studied painting with my grandfather came down to

Brixleg from Munich, partly to paint, and partly to amuse

themselves,--"ghost-hunting" as they said, for they were very sensible

young men and prided themselves on it, laughing at all kinds of

"superstition," and particularly at that form which believed in ghosts

and feared them. They had never seen a real ghost, you know, and they

belonged to a certain set of people who believed nothing they had not

seen themselves,--which always seemed to me very conceited. Well, they

knew that we had lots of beautiful castles here in the "lower valley,"

and they assumed, and rightly, that every castle has at least one

ghost story connected with it, so they chose this as their hunting

ground, only the game they sought was ghosts, not chamois. Their plan

was to visit every place that was supposed to be haunted, and to meet

every reputed ghost, and prove that it really was no ghost at all.

There was a little inn down in the village then, kept by an old man

named Peter Rosskopf, and the two young men made this their

headquarters. The very first night they began to draw from the old

innkeeper all that he knew of legends and ghost stories connected with

Brixleg and its castles, and as he was a most garrulous old gentleman he

filled them with the wildest delight by his stories of the ghosts of the

castles about the mouth of the Zillerthal. Of course the old man

believed every word he said, and you can imagine his horror and

amazement when, after telling his guests the particularly blood-curdling

story of Kropfsberg and its haunted keep, the elder of the two boys,

whose surname I have forgotten, but whose Christian name was Rupert,

calmly said, "Your story is most satisfactory: we will sleep in

Kropfsberg Keep to-morrow night, and you must provide us with all that

we may need to make ourselves comfortable."

The old man nearly fell into the fire. "What for a blockhead are you?"

he cried, with big eyes. "The keep is haunted by Count Albert's ghost, I

tell you!"

"That is why we are going there to-morrow night; we wish to make the

acquaintance of Count Albert."

"But there was a man stayed there once, and in the morning he was


"Very silly of him; there are two of us, and we carry revolvers."

"But it's a ghost, I tell you," almost screamed the innkeeper; "are

ghosts afraid of firearms?"

"Whether they are or not, we are not afraid of them."

Here the younger boy broke in,--he was named Otto von Kleist. I remember

the name, for I had a music teacher once by that name. He abused the

poor old man shamefully; told him that they were going to spend the

night in Kropfsberg in spite of Count Albert and Peter Rosskopf, and

that he might as well make the most of it and earn his money with


In a word, they finally bullied the old fellow into submission, and when

the morning came he set about preparing for the suicide, as he

considered it, with sighs and mutterings and ominous shakings of the


You know the condition of the castle now,--nothing but scorched walls

and crumbling piles of fallen masonry. Well, at the time I tell you of,

the keep was still partially preserved. It was finally burned out only a

few years ago by some wicked boys who came over from Jenbach to have a

good time. But when the ghost hunters came, though the two lower floors

had fallen into the crypt, the third floor remained. The peasants said

it could not fall, but that it would stay until the Day of Judgment,

because it was in the room above that the wicked Count Albert sat

watching the flames destroy the great castle and his imprisoned guests,

and where he finally hung himself in a suit of armor that had belonged

to his mediaeval ancestor, the first Count Kropfsberg.

No one dared touch him, and so he hung there for twelve years, and all

the time venturesome boys and daring men used to creep up the turret

steps and stare awfully through the chinks in the door at that ghostly

mass of steel that held within itself the body of a murderer and

suicide, slowly returning to the dust from which it was made. Finally it

disappeared, none knew whither, and for another dozen years the room

stood empty but for the old furniture and the rotting hangings.

So, when the two men climbed the stairway to the haunted room, they

found a very different state of things from what exists now. The room

was absolutely as it was left the night Count Albert burned the castle,

except that all trace of the suspended suit of armor and its ghastly

contents had vanished.

No one had dared to cross the threshold, and I suppose that for forty

years no living thing had entered that dreadful room.

On one side stood a vast canopied bed of black wood, the damask hangings

of which were covered with mould and mildew. All the clothing of the bed

was in perfect order, and on it lay a book, open, and face downward. The

only other furniture in the room consisted of several old chairs, a

carved oak chest, and a big inlaid table covered with books and papers,

and on one corner two or three bottles with dark solid sediment at the

bottom, and a glass, also dark with the dregs of wine that had been

poured out almost half a century before. The tapestry on the walls was

green with mould, but hardly torn or otherwise defaced, for although the

heavy dust of forty years lay on everything the room had been preserved

from further harm. No spider web was to be seen, no trace of nibbling

mice, not even a dead moth or fly on the sills of the diamond-paned

windows; life seemed to have shunned the room utterly and finally.

The men looked at the room curiously, and, I am sure, not without some

feelings of awe and unacknowledged fear; but, whatever they may have

felt of instinctive shrinking, they said nothing, and quickly set to

work to make the room passably inhabitable. They decided to touch

nothing that had not absolutely to be changed, and therefore they made

for themselves a bed in one corner with the mattress and linen from the

inn. In the great fireplace they piled a lot of wood on the caked ashes

of a fire dead for forty years, turned the old chest into a table, and

laid out on it all their arrangements for the evening's amusement: food,

two or three bottles of wine, pipes and tobacco, and the chess-board

that was their inseparable travelling companion.

All this they did themselves: the innkeeper would not even come within

the walls of the outer court; he insisted that he had washed his hands

of the whole affair, the silly dunderheads might go to their death their

own way. He would not aid and abet them. One of the stable boys

brought the basket of food and the wood and the bed up the winding stone

stairs, to be sure, but neither money nor prayers nor threats would

bring him within the walls of the accursed place, and he stared

fearfully at the hare-brained boys as they worked around the dead old

room preparing for the night that was coming so fast.

At length everything was in readiness, and after a final visit to the

inn for dinner Rupert and Otto started at sunset for the Keep. Half the

village went with them, for Peter Rosskopf had babbled the whole story

to an open-mouthed crowd of wondering men and women, and as to an

execution the awe-struck crowd followed the two boys dumbly, curious to

see if they surely would put their plan into execution. But none went

farther than the outer doorway of the stairs, for it was already growing

twilight. In absolute silence they watched the two foolhardy youths with

their lives in their hands enter the terrible Keep, standing like a

tower in the midst of the piles of stones that had once formed walls

joining it with the mass of the castle beyond. When a moment later a

light showed itself in the high windows above, they sighed resignedly

and went their ways, to wait stolidly until morning should come and

prove the truth of their fears and warnings.

In the mean time the ghost hunters built a huge fire, lighted their

many candles, and sat down to await developments. Rupert afterwards told

my uncle that they really felt no fear whatever, only a contemptuous

curiosity, and they ate their supper with good appetite and an unusual

relish. It was a long evening. They played many games of chess, waiting

for midnight. Hour passed after hour, and nothing occurred to interrupt

the monotony of the evening. Ten, eleven, came and went,--it was almost

midnight. They piled more wood in the fireplace, lighted new candles,

looked to their pistols--and waited. The clocks in the village struck

twelve; the sound coming muffled through the high, deep-embrasured

windows. Nothing happened, nothing to break the heavy silence; and with

a feeling of disappointed relief they looked at each other and

acknowledged that they had met another rebuff.

Finally they decided that there was no use in sitting up and boring

themselves any longer, they had much better rest; so Otto threw himself

down on the mattress, falling almost immediately asleep. Rupert sat a

little longer, smoking, and watching the stars creep along behind the

shattered glass and the bent leads of the lofty windows; watching the

fire fall together, and the strange shadows move mysteriously on the

mouldering walls. The iron hook in the oak beam, that crossed the

ceiling midway, fascinated him, not with fear, but morbidly. So, it was

from that hook that for twelve years, twelve long years of changing

summer and winter, the body of Count Albert, murderer and suicide, hung

in its strange casing of mediaeval steel; moving a little at first, and

turning gently while the fire died out on the hearth, while the ruins of

the castle grew cold, and horrified peasants sought for the bodies of

the score of gay, reckless, wicked guests whom Count Albert had gathered

in Kropfsberg for a last debauch, gathered to their terrible and

untimely death. What a strange and fiendish idea it was, the young,

handsome noble who had ruined himself and his family in the society of

the splendid debauchees, gathering them all together, men and women who

had known only love and pleasure, for a glorious and awful riot of

luxury, and then, when they were all dancing in the great ballroom,

locking the doors and burning the whole castle about them, the while he

sat in the great keep listening to their screams of agonized fear,

watching the fire sweep from wing to wing until the whole mighty mass

was one enormous and awful pyre, and then, clothing himself in his

great-great-grandfather's armor, hanging himself in the midst of the

ruins of what had been a proud and noble castle. So ended a great

family, a great house.

But that was forty years ago.

He was growing drowsy; the light flickered and flared in the fireplace;

one by one the candles went out; the shadows grew thick in the room. Why

did that great iron hook stand out so plainly? why did that dark shadow

dance and quiver so mockingly behind it?--why-- But he ceased to wonder

at anything. He was asleep.

It seemed to him that he woke almost immediately; the fire still burned,

though low and fitfully on the hearth. Otto was sleeping, breathing

quietly and regularly; the shadows had gathered close around him, thick

and murky; with every passing moment the light died in the fireplace; he

felt stiff with cold. In the utter silence he heard the clock in the

village strike two. He shivered with a sudden and irresistible feeling

of fear, and abruptly turned and looked towards the hook in the ceiling.

Yes, It was there. He knew that It would be. It seemed quite natural, he

would have been disappointed had he seen nothing; but now he knew that

the story was true, knew that he was wrong, and that the dead do

sometimes return to earth, for there, in the fast-deepening shadow, hung

the black mass of wrought steel, turning a little now and then, with the

light flickering on the tarnished and rusty metal. He watched it

quietly; he hardly felt afraid; it was rather a sentiment of sadness and

fatality that filled him, of gloomy forebodings of something unknown,

unimaginable. He sat and watched the thing disappear in the gathering

dark, his hand on his pistol as it lay by him on the great chest. There

was no sound but the regular breathing of the sleeping boy on the


It had grown absolutely dark; a bat fluttered against the broken glass

of the window. He wondered if he was growing mad, for--he hesitated to

acknowledge it to himself--he heard music; far, curious music, a strange

and luxurious dance, very faint, very vague, but unmistakable.

Like a flash of lightning came a jagged line of fire down the blank wall

opposite him, a line that remained, that grew wider, that let a pale

cold light into the room, showing him now all its details,--the empty

fireplace, where a thin smoke rose in a spiral from a bit of charred

wood, the mass of the great bed, and, in the very middle, black against

the curious brightness, the armored man, or ghost, or devil, standing,

not suspended, beneath the rusty hook. And with the rending of the wall

the music grew more distinct, though sounding still very, very far away.

Count Albert raised his mailed hand and beckoned to him; then turned,

and stood in the riven wall.

Without a word, Rupert rose and followed him, his pistol in hand. Count

Albert passed through the mighty wall and disappeared in the unearthly

light. Rupert followed mechanically. He felt the crushing of the mortar

beneath his feet, the roughness of the jagged wall where he rested his

hand to steady himself.

The keep rose absolutely isolated among the ruins, yet on passing

through the wall Rupert found himself in a long, uneven corridor, the

floor of which was warped and sagging, while the walls were covered on

one side with big faded portraits of an inferior quality, like those in

the corridor that connects the Pitti and Uffizzi in Florence. Before him

moved the figure of Count Albert,--a black silhouette in the

ever-increasing light. And always the music grew stronger and stranger,

a mad, evil, seductive dance that bewitched even while it disgusted.

In a final blaze of vivid, intolerable light, in a burst of hellish

music that might have come from Bedlam, Rupert stepped from the corridor

into a vast and curious room where at first he saw nothing,

distinguished nothing but a mad, seething whirl of sweeping figures,

white, in a white room, under white light, Count Albert standing before

him, the only dark object to be seen. As his eyes grew accustomed to the

fearful brightness, he knew that he was looking on a dance such as the

damned might see in hell, but such as no living man had ever seen


Around the long, narrow hall, under the fearful light that came from

nowhere, but was omnipresent, swept a rushing stream of unspeakable

horrors, dancing insanely, laughing, gibbering hideously; the dead of

forty years. White, polished skeletons, bare of flesh and vesture,

skeletons clothed in the dreadful rags of dried and rattling sinews, the

tags of tattering grave-clothes flaunting behind them. These were the

dead of many years ago. Then the dead of more recent times, with yellow

bones showing only here and there, the long and insecure hair of their

hideous heads writhing in the beating air. Then green and gray horrors,

bloated and shapeless, stained with earth or dripping with spattering

water; and here and there white, beautiful things, like chiselled ivory,

the dead of yesterday, locked it may be, in the mummy arms of rattling


Round and round the cursed room, a swaying, swirling maelstrom of death,

while the air grew thick with miasma, the floor foul with shreds of

shrouds, and yellow parchment, clattering bones, and wisps of tangled


And in the very midst of this ring of death, a sight not for words nor

for thought, a sight to blast forever the mind of the man who looked

upon it: a leaping, writhing dance of Count Albert's victims, the score

of beautiful women and reckless men who danced to their awful death

while the castle burned around them, charred and shapeless now, a living

charnel-house of nameless horror.

Count Albert, who had stood silent and gloomy, watching the dance of the

damned, turned to Rupert, and for the first time spoke.

"We are ready for you now; dance!"

A prancing horror, dead some dozen years, perhaps, flaunted from the

rushing river of the dead, and leered at Rupert with eyeless skull.


Rupert stood frozen, motionless.


His hard lips moved. "Not if the devil came from hell to make me."

Count Albert swept his vast two-handed sword into the f[oe]tid air while

the tide of corruption paused in its swirling, and swept down on Rupert

with gibbering grins.

The room, and the howling dead, and the black portent before him circled

dizzily around, as with a last effort of departing consciousness he

drew his pistol and fired full in the face of Count Albert.

* * * * *

Perfect silence, perfect darkness; not a breath, not a sound: the dead

stillness of a long-sealed tomb. Rupert lay on his back, stunned,

helpless, his pistol clenched in his frozen hand, a smell of powder in

the black air. Where was he? Dead? In hell? He reached his hand out

cautiously; it fell on dusty boards. Outside, far away, a clock struck

three. Had he dreamed? Of course; but how ghastly a dream! With

chattering teeth he called softly,--


There was no reply, and none when he called again and again. He

staggered weakly to his feet, groping for matches and candles. A panic

of abject terror came on him; the matches were gone! He turned towards

the fireplace: a single coal glowed in the white ashes. He swept a mass

of papers and dusty books from the table, and with trembling hands

cowered over the embers, until he succeeded in lighting the dry tinder.

Then he piled the old books on the blaze, and looked fearfully around.

No: It was gone,--thank God for that; the hook was empty.

But why did Otto sleep so soundly; why did he not awake?

He stepped unsteadily across the room in the flaring light of the

burning books, and knelt by the mattress.

* * * * *

So they found him in the morning, when no one came to the inn from

Kropfsberg Keep, and the quaking Peter Rosskopf arranged a relief

party;--found him kneeling beside the mattress where Otto lay, shot in

the throat and quite dead.