[Editor’s note: The Monks at the Ferry is an old German tale. Tibbitts, Charles John. Folklore and Legends: Germany. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott , 1892.]
From time immemorial a ferry has existed from Andernach to the opposite side of the Rhine. Formerly it was more in use than at present, there being then a greater intercourse between the two shores of the river, much of which might be traced to the Convent of St. Thomas, once the most important and flourishing nunnery on the river.
Close by this ferry, on the margin of the Rhine, but elevated somewhat above the level of the water, stands a long, roofless, ruinous building, the remains of the castle of Friedrichstein, better known, however, to the peasantry, and to all passengers on the river, as the Devil’s House. How it came by this suspicious appellative there are many traditions to explain. Some say that the Prince of Neuwied, who erected it, so ground down his subjects for its construction, that they unanimously gave it that name.
Others derive its popular sobriquet from the godless revelries of the same prince within its walls, and the wild deeds of his companions in wickedness; while a third class of local historians insist upon it that the ruin takes its name from the congregation of fiendish shapes which resort there on special occasions, and the riot and rout which they create in the roofless chambers, reeking vaults, and crumbling corridors of the desolate edifice.
It is to this ruin, and of the adjacent ferry, that the following legend belongs. It was in the time when the celebrated Convent of St. Thomas over Andernach existed in its pristine magnificence, that late on an autumnal night the ferryman from that city to the Devil’s House on the other side of the river, who lived on the edge of the bank below the ruins of the ancient palace of the kings of Austrasia, was accosted by a stranger, who desired to be put across just as the man was about to haul up his boat for the day.
The stranger seemed to be a monk, for he was closely cowled, and gowned from head to foot in the long, dark, flowing garb of some ascetic order.
“Hilloa! ferry,” he shouted aloud as he approached the shore of the river, “hilloa!”
“Here, ahoy! here, most reverend father!” answered the poor ferryman. “What would ye have with me?”
“I would that you ferry me across the Rhine to yonder shore of the river,” replied the monk. “I come from the Convent of St. Thomas, and I go afar on a weighty mission. Now, be ye quick, my good friend, and run me over.”
“Most willingly, reverend father,” said the ferryman. “Most willingly. Step into my boat, and I’ll put you across the current in a twinkling.”
The dark-looking monk entered the boat, and the ferryman shoved off from the bank. They soon reached the opposite shore. The ferryman, however, had scarce time to give his fare a good-evening ere he disappeared from his sight, in the direction of the Devil’s House. Pondering a little on this strange circumstance, and inwardly thinking that the dark monk might as well have paid him his fare, or, at least, bade him good-night before he took such unceremonious leave, he rowed slowly back across the stream to his abode at Andernach.
“Hilloa! ferry,” once more resounded from the margin of the river as he approached, “hilloa!”
“Here, ahoy!” responded the ferryman, but with some strange sensation of fear. “What would ye?”
He rowed to the shore, but he could see no one for a while, for it was now dark. As he neared the landing-place, however, he became aware of the presence of two monks, garbed exactly like his late passenger, standing together, concealed by the shadow of the massive ruins.
“Here! here!” they cried.
“We would ye would ferry us over to yonder shore of the river,” said the foremost of the twain. “We go afar on a weighty errand from the Convent of St. Thomas, and we must onwards this night. So be up quick, friend, and run us over soon.”
“Step in, then,” said the ferryman, not over courteously, for he remembered the trick played on him by their predecessor. They entered the boat, and the ferryman put off. Just as the prow of the boat touched the opposite bank of the river, both sprang ashore, and disappeared at once from his view, like him who had gone before them.
“Ah!” said the ferryman, “if they call that doing good, or acting honestly, to cheat a hard-working poor fellow out of the reward of his labour, I do not know what bad means, or what it is to act knavishly.”
He waited a little while to see if they would return to pay him, but finding that they failed to do so, he put across once more to his home at Andernach.
“Hilloa! ferry,” again hailed a voice from the shore to which he was making, “hilloa!” The ferryman made no reply to this suspicious hail, but pushed off his boat from the landing-place, fully resolved in his own mind to have nothing to do with any more such black cattle that night.
“Hilloa! ferry,” was again repeated in a sterner voice. “Art dead or asleep?”
“Here, ahoy!” cried the ferryman. “What would ye?”
He had thought of passing downwards to the other extremity of the town, and there mooring his barque below the place she usually lay in, lest any other monks might feel disposed to make him their slave without offering any recompense. He had, however, scarcely entertained the idea, when three black-robed men, clothed as the former, in long, flowing garments, but more closely cowled, if possible, than they, stood on the very edge of the stream, and beckoned him to them. It was in vain for him to try to evade them, and as if to render any effort to that effect more nugatory, the moon broke forth from the thick clouds, and lit up the scene all around with a radiance like day.
“Step in, holy fathers! step in! quick!” said he, in a gruff voice, after they had told him the same tale in the very same words as the three others had used who had passed previously.
They entered the boat, and again the ferryman pushed off. They had reached the centre of the stream, when he bethought him that it was then a good time to talk of his fee, and he resolved to have it, if possible, ere they could escape him.
“But what do you mean to give me for my trouble, holy fathers?” he inquired. “Nothing for nothing, ye know.”
“We shall give you all that we have to bestow,” replied one of the monks. “Won’t that suffice?”
“What is that?” asked the ferryman.
“Nothing,” said the monk who had answered him first.
“But our blessing,” interposed the second monk.
“Blessing! bah! That won’t do. I can’t eat blessings!” responded the grumbling ferryman.
“Heaven will pay you,” said the third monk.
“That won’t do either,” answered the enraged ferryman. “I’ll put back again to Andernach!”
“Be it so,” said the monks.
The ferryman put about the head of his boat, and began to row back towards Andernach, as he had threatened. He had, however, scarcely made three strokes of his oars, when a high wind sprang up and the waters began to rise and rage and foam, like the billows of a storm-vexed sea.
Soon a hurricane of the most fearful kind followed, and swept over the chafing face of the stream. In his forty years’ experience of the river, the ferryman had never before beheld such a tempest—so dreadful and so sudden. He gave himself up for lost, threw down his oars, and flung himself on his knees, praying to Heaven for mercy. At that moment two of the dark-robed monks seized the oars which he had abandoned, while the third wrenched one of the thwarts of the boat from its place in the centre.
All three then began to belabour the wretched man with all their might and main, until at length he lay senseless and without motion at the bottom of the boat. The barque, which was now veered about, bore them rapidly towards their original destination. The only words that passed on the occasion were an exclamation of the first monk who struck the ferryman down.
“Steer your boat aright, friend,” he cried, “if you value your life, and leave off your prating. What have you to do with Heaven, or Heaven with you?”
When the poor ferryman recovered his senses, day had long dawned, and he was lying alone at the bottom of his boat. He found that he had drifted below Hammerstein, close to the shore of the right bank of the river. He could discover no trace of his companions. With much difficulty he rowed up the river, and reached the shore. He learned afterwards from a gossiping neighbour, that, as the man returned from Neuwied late that night, or rather early the next morning, he met, just emerging from the Devil’s House, a large black chariot running on three huge wheels, drawn by four horses without heads.
In that vehicle he saw six monks seated vis-à-vis, apparently enjoying their morning ride. The driver, a curious-looking carl, with a singularly long nose, took, he said, the road along the edge of the river, and continued lashing his three coal-black, headless steeds at a tremendous rate, until a sharp turn hid them from the man’s view.