ONCE upon a time there stood, on an island in the Vistula, a great castle surrounded by a strong rampart. At each corner was a tower, and from these there waved in the wind many a flag, while the soldiers stood on guard upon them. A bridge connected the island with the banks of the river.
In this castle lived a knight, a brave and famous warrior. When the trumpets sounded from the battlements of the castle, their notes announced that he had returned from victory loaded with booty.
In the deep dungeons of the castle many a prisoner was confined, and they were led out daily to work. They had to keep the ramparts in repair, and to see to the garden. Now among these prisoners was an old woman, who was a sorceress. She swore that she would be revenged upon the knight for his ill-treatment of her, and patiently awaited an opportunity to effect her purpose.
One day the knight came back wearied out with his exertions on one of his warlike excursions. He lay down upon the grass, closed his eyes, and was soon fast asleep.
The witch seized the opportunity. Coming gently to him, she scattered poppy seed on his eyes so that he should sleep the sounder. Then, with an aspen branch, she struck him on the breast over his heart.
The knight’s breast at once opened, so that one could look in and see the heart as it lay there and beat. The sorceress laughed, stretched out her bony arm, and with her long fingers she stole away the heart so quietly that the knight never woke.
Then the woman took a hare’s heart which she had ready, put it in the sleeping man’s breast, and closed up the opening. Going away softly, she hid herself in a thicket, to see the effect of her wicked work.
Before the knight was even awake he began to feel the change that the hare’s heart was making in him. He, who had till now never known fear, quaked and tossed himself uneasily from side to side. When he awoke he felt as if he should be crushed by his armour. The cry of his hounds, as it fell on his ear, filled him with terror.
Once he had loved to hear their deep baying as he followed them in pursuit of the prey in the wild forest, but now he was filled with fear, and fled like a timid hare. As he ran to his room the clang of his armour, the ringing of his silver spurs, the clatter of his spear, filled him with such terror that he threw all aside, and sank exhausted on his bed.
Even in his sleep fear pursued him. Once he dreamed only of battles, and of the prizes of victory, now he trembled as he dreamt. The barking of his dogs, the voices of his soldiers as they paced the ramparts while they watched, made him quake as he lay on his bed, and he buried his head, like a frightened child, in his pillow.
At length there came a body of the knight’s enemies to besiege him in his castle. The knight’s soldiers looked upon their leader, who had so often delighted in the excitement of the camp, and in the victory. In vain they waited for him to lead them forth. The once so brave knight, when he heard the clash of arms, the cry of the men, and the clang of the horses’ hoofs, fled to the topmost chamber of his castle, and from there looked down upon the force which had come against him.
When he recollected his expeditions in the time past, his combats, his victories, he wept bitterly, and cried out aloud—
“O Heaven! give me now courage, give me the old strength of heart and vigour. My men have already gone to the field, and I, who used to lead them, now, like a girl, look through the highest loophole upon my enemies. Give me my old boldness, that I may take my arms again; make me what I was once, and bless me with victory.”
These thoughts, as it were, awakened him from a dream. He went again into his chamber, put on his armour, leaped upon his horse, and rode outside the castle gate. The soldiers saw him come with joy, and sounded the trumpets. The knight went on, but in his secret soul he was afraid, and when his men gallantly threw themselves upon the enemy, deadly fear came over him, and he turned and fled.
Even when he was once more in his stronghold, when the mighty walls held him safe within them, fear did not leave him. He sprang from his horse, fled to an innermost chamber, and there, quite unmanned, awaited inglorious death.
His men had triumphed over the foe, and the salutations of the guards announced their victorious return. All wondered at the flight of their leader at such a time. They looked for him, and discovered him half dead in a deep cellar.
The unfortunate knight did not live long. During the winter he tried to warm his quaking limbs by the fireside of his castle. When spring came he would open his window that he might breathe the fresh air, and one day it chanced a swallow, that had built its nest in a hole of the roof, struck him on the head with its wing. The blow was fatal. As if he had been struck by lightning, the knight fell down upon the ground, and in a short while died.
All his men mourned for their good master. They knew not what had changed him, but about a year later, when some sorceresses were being put to the ordeal for having kept off the rain, one of them confessed that she had taken the knight’s heart, and put in his breast a hare’s heart in its place. Then the men knew how it was that a man who had formerly been so bold of heart had become so fearful. They mourned his misfortune, and, taking the witch to his grave, there they burnt her alive.