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"Fly to Venus. She can teach you!"
His words struck the people like a thunder-bolt and left them stunned, horrified. Suddenly, like a wave of anger, arose the tumult of cries.
"Listen! Hear him! Oh! Most horrible! He has been in the Venusburg."
The ladies hurried in consternation and affright from the hall. Only Elizabeth stood, pale and trembling, leaning against the throne. All her delight was turned to misery once more.
The Landgrave, the minstrels, the nobles, gathered together and gazed with horror upon Tannhauser, who, oblivious of all save the evil vision, gazed enraptured, straight ahead.
The horror of the men soon gave way to indignation, the indignation in turn to fury and hatred. As from one throat, a mighty shout went up,--
And with one accord they drew their swords and pressed upon Tannhauser to slay him. But at that instant a white figure with trailing draperies rushed toward them. She threw herself before Tannhauser, shielding him with her body. It was Elizabeth, the Princess.
"Stop," she cried. "Stay your hands!"
The men fell back in amazement as she fell upon her knees before them.
She, the proud Princess, most cruelly wronged, would she shield one who had fallen so low?
Yes, she would shield him, even with her life. He had sinned. Ah, how he had sinned! But he had sinned against God, and God must be his judge.
Who were they to judge him and deny him the opportunity to repent? Would they rob his soul of its eternal peace? Thus she pleaded and begged for Tannhauser's life, while tears rained down her white cheeks.
The men were touched. Anger slowly gave way to calm. One by one they sheathed their swords and turned toward the Landgrave.
Meanwhile Tannhauser, at the sound of Elizabeth's pleading voice, turned his head. As though just awakened from an evil dream, he stared at her kneeling figure, the drawn swords, the horror-stricken faces. Suddenly he remembered all that he had said, all that he had done. The enormity of his sin rushed upon him. He realized how he had outraged friendship, love, religion, all that was holy, pure, and good. In fearful contrition he fell upon the floor, sobbing and crying out in his misery and distress. Where could he look for pardon now?
Suddenly, through the open doorway, there came the sound of the song of the pilgrim band on its way to Rome. It was a song of prayer and praise, a song of repentance and confession, a song of peace with God. It brought hope and a promise of comfort.
Silence filled the great hall as the notes died away in the distance.
Only Elizabeth's face, white and pleading, was lifted toward the Landgrave's in silent prayer.
The Landgrave gazed at Tannhauser's bent figure, and feelings of pity mingled with the loathing he felt. Advancing solemnly toward Tannhauser, he bade him arise and join the band of pilgrims now on its way to Rome.
No other way was open to one who had sinned as he had sinned. And, if after confession, he was pardoned for his grievous wrong, he might return to the Wartburg. Otherwise they never wished to see him again.
At these words Tannhauser sprang to his feet. The echo of the pilgrim's voice still lingered in the air. He listened a moment while a ray of hope illumined his anguish-stricken face. Then with a cry "To Rome! To Rome!" he hastened from the room.
[Illustration: TANNHaUSER AT THE BIER OF ELIZABETH (After a painting by Von Kaulbach)]
The road to Rome was rough and thorny, beset with hardship, fraught with suffering. But Tannhauser, full of new-found hope, wholly repentant, longing for pardon, pushed eagerly onward. No pilgrim was of humbler mien, nor was any of more contrite spirit. The thought of Elizabeth's devotion and her prayers dispelled all his former pride of sin, and made the hardships of the journey seem all too light for his remorseful soul.
When other pilgrims sought smooth pathways through meadow and valley, he trod unshod amid rocks and thorns. When they refreshed their lips at cool mountain springs, he continued hungry and thirsty on his way. Snow and ice did not daunt him, nor the scorching rays of the sun, nor the tempest's roar. He gave of his life blood freely and faltered not. The other pilgrims found shelter and rest in hospices high up among the mountains. He made his bed in the drifting snow, the ice, the cold. Lest the beauty of Italy delight his eyes, he went blindfolded over its vine-clad hills, through its blooming meadows. For his heart burned with penitence, and his soul ached for pardon.
Thus the weeks lengthened into months, and a long year went by. At last the chime of bells was heard in the distance; the white towers of Rome were outlined against the blue Italian sky.
Weary and footsore, the pilgrims crept one by one to the holy shrine, and, one by one, each was told that his sins would be forgiven and was bidden to go rejoicing on his way and sin no more.
Finally Tannhauser's time came. With a cry of relief he prostrated himself before the throne and confessed his awful sin, his wasted years, his deep repentance. He had dwelt in an unholy place, he had been the slave of sinful pleasure, he had blasphemed his God,--but awakening had come at last. Was there pardon for such as he?
The first solemn words of answer with their accents of horror brought Tannhauser to his feet in terror. As in a dream he listened. No. There could be no pardon for such a sin. He was pronounced accursed forevermore.
The judgment continued:
"As this barren staff I hold Ne'er will put forth a flower or a leaf Thus shalt thou never more behold Salvation or thy sins relief."
Tannhauser heard no more. Hopeless and despairing, he staggered wildly from the room and away into the darkness. What mattered it which way he wandered--now, since he was an outcast and accursed forever? Ah, to find a path that would lead to forgetfulness!
The pilgrims had already gone on their way homeward to Thuringia. From out of the distance, their joyous song of praise fell upon the air.
Tannhauser took up his staff and followed in their wake, hopeless and alone.
Meanwhile throughout the long year the Princess Elizabeth had waited and prayed day after day. And Sir Wolfram, watching her devotion from afar, had grieved to see her body become weak with pain, and her face white and drawn with sorrow and suffering.
At last there came a day when, kneeling at her shrine on the forest path, the sound of the pilgrims' return broke in upon her prayers.
"They have come back!" she whispered as she rose to her feet.
The song, the steady tramp of feet, grew louder and louder. On and on came the pilgrims. And, singing of God's goodness and His divine grace, they passed Elizabeth and Wolfram, one by one. But he for whom she had prayed was not among them. He had not returned. He had not been forgiven. Her prayers had been in vain. All her strength was gone. With a last look at the valley lying peaceful, in the glow of early eventide, and with a farewell glance at Sir Wolfram, she passed wearily upward toward the castle.
Night fell. The sky grew dark with clouds save where, over the Wartburg, a single star hung. Suddenly, through the gloom, a dejected and footsore wanderer made his way. It was Tannhauser.
As his eyes fell upon the familiar scene, and upon Sir Wolfram, in knightly array, all his misery rushed upon him anew. Oh, if he could but find the path that led to forgetfulness, the path of pleasure, the path to Venus! In the days of his care-free youth, it had been but a step, but now, laden with sin, weighted with the knowledge of evil, bowed with repentance and suffering, his feet would not lead him there. With a loud cry he stretched forth his arms and called,--
"Venus, goddess, do you hear my call?"
Suddenly the roseate light, the same alluring sounds of music, the same sweet odors, enthralled him again. Venus, reclining upon her couch, appeared amid the rosy clouds.
"Take me!" cried Tannhauser, rushing forward to throw himself beside her.
At that moment, the slow and solemn chant of a funeral dirge sounded from afar. Tannhauser started. His arms fell by his side. He turned his head. Down the path from the Wartburg, the Knights were bearing a bier.
Lighted torches were at the head, the foot. A bell was tolling. Voices were singing in praise of Elizabeth, the beautiful Princess, who had gone to join the angel band, the fairest angel of all the host.
"Ah! Elizabeth!" exclaimed Tannhauser. With a despairing cry, he staggered toward the bier. Ah, yes, it was she, she who had prayed for him, she who had loved him more than he knew. Better death beside her than life in sin! Bending over Elizabeth's body, he sank slowly to the ground, and God took him home.
For it is said that not long afterward the barren staff of the head of the church blossomed and put forth leaves of green. And thus the Lord in His mercy forgave Tannhauser, the sinner, and entered him into the Kingdom of Heaven.