The Rathhaus, or municipal building, is of the quaintest and most picturesque Middle-Age architecture. It has a massive portico and steps, before it, heavily balustraded, and adorned with life-sized rusty iron knights in complete armor. The clock-face on the front of the building is very large and of curious pattern. Ordinarily, a gilded angel strikes the hour on a big bell with a hammer; as the striking ceases, a life-sized figure of Time raises its hour-glass and turns it; two golden rams advance and butt each other; a gilded cock lifts its wings; but the main features are two great angels, who stand on each side of the dial with long horns at their lips; it was said that they blew melodious blasts on these horns every hour—but they did not do it for us. We were told, later, that they blew only at night, when the town was still.
Within the Rathhaus were a number of huge wild boars’ heads, preserved, and mounted on brackets along the wall; they bore inscriptions telling who killed them and how many hundred years ago it was done. One room in the building was devoted to the preservation of ancient archives. There they showed us no end of aged documents; some were signed by Popes, some by Tilly and other great generals, and one was a letter written and subscribed by Goetz von Berlichingen in Heilbronn in 1519 just after his release from the Square Tower.
This fine old robber-knight was a devoutly and sincerely religious man, hospitable, charitable to the poor, fearless in fight, active, enterprising, and possessed of a large and generous nature. He had in him a quality of being able to overlook moderate injuries, and being able to forgive and forget mortal ones as soon as he had soundly trounced the authors of them. He was prompt to take up any poor devil’s quarrel and risk his neck to right him. The common folk held him dear, and his memory is still green in ballad and tradition. He used to go on the highway and rob rich wayfarers; and other times he would swoop down from his high castle on the hills of the Neckar and capture passing cargoes of merchandise. In his memoirs he piously thanks the Giver of all Good for remembering him in his needs and delivering sundry such cargoes into his hands at times when only special providences could have relieved him. He was a doughty warrior and found a deep joy in battle. In an assault upon a stronghold in Bavaria when he was only twenty-three years old, his right hand was shot away, but he was so interested in the fight that he did not observe it for a while. He said that the iron hand which was made for him afterward, and which he wore for more than half a century, was nearly as clever a member as the fleshy one had been. I was glad to get a facsimile of the letter written by this fine old German Robin Hood, though I was not able to read it. He was a better artist with his sword than with his pen.
We went down by the river and saw the Square Tower. It was a very venerable structure, very strong, and very ornamental. There was no opening near the ground. They had to use a ladder to get into it, no doubt.
We visited the principal church, also—a curious old structure, with a towerlike spire adorned with all sorts of grotesque images. The inner walls of the church were placarded with large mural tablets of copper, bearing engraved inscriptions celebrating the merits of old Heilbronn worthies of two or three centuries ago, and also bearing rudely painted effigies of themselves and their families tricked out in the queer costumes of those days. The head of the family sat in the foreground, and beyond him extended a sharply receding and diminishing row of sons; facing him sat his wife, and beyond her extended a low row of diminishing daughters. The family was usually large, but the perspective bad.
Then we hired the hack and the horse which Goetz von Berlichingen used to use, and drove several miles into the country to visit the place called Weibertreu—Wife’s Fidelity I suppose it means. It was a feudal castle of the Middle Ages. When we reached its neighborhood we found it was beautifully situated, but on top of a mound, or hill, round and tolerably steep, and about two hundred feet high. Therefore, as the sun was blazing hot, we did not climb up there, but took the place on trust, and observed it from a distance while the horse leaned up against a fence and rested. The place has no interest except that which is lent it by its legend, which is a very pretty one—to this effect:
In the Middle Ages, a couple of young dukes, brothers, took opposite sides in one of the wars, the one fighting for the Emperor, the other against him. One of them owned the castle and village on top of the mound which I have been speaking of, and in his absence his brother came with his knights and soldiers and began a siege. It was a long and tedious business, for the people made a stubborn and faithful defense. But at last their supplies ran out and starvation began its work; more fell by hunger than by the missiles of the enemy. They by and by surrendered, and begged for charitable terms. But the beleaguering prince was so incensed against them for their long resistance that he said he would spare none but the women and children—all men should be put to the sword without exception, and all their goods destroyed. Then the women came and fell on their knees and begged for the lives of their husbands.
“No,” said the prince, “not a man of them shall escape alive; you yourselves shall go with your children into houseless and friendless banishment; but that you may not starve I grant you this one grace, that each woman may bear with her from this place as much of her most valuable property as she is able to carry.”
Very well, presently the gates swung open and out filed those women carrying their husbands on their shoulders. The besiegers, furious at the trick, rushed forward to slaughter the men, but the Duke stepped between and said:
“No, put up your swords—a prince’s word is inviolable.”
When we got back to the hotel, King Arthur’s Round Table was ready for us in its white drapery, and the head waiter and his first assistant, in swallow-tails and white cravats, brought in the soup and the hot plates at once.
Mr. X had ordered the dinner, and when the wine came on, he picked up a bottle, glanced at the label, and then turned to the grave, the melancholy, the sepulchral head waiter and said it was not the sort of wine he had asked for. The head waiter picked up the bottle, cast his undertaker-eye on it and said:
“It is true; I beg pardon.” Then he turned on his subordinate and calmly said, “Bring another label."
At the same time he slid the present label off with his hand and laid it aside; it had been newly put on, its paste was still wet. When the new label came, he put it on; our French wine being now turned into German wine, according to desire, the head waiter went blandly about his other duties, as if the working of this sort of miracle was a common and easy thing to him.
Mr. X said he had not known, before, that there were people honest enough to do this miracle in public, but he was aware that thousands upon thousands of labels were imported into America from Europe every year, to enable dealers to furnish to their customers in a quiet and inexpensive way all the different kinds of foreign wines they might require.
We took a turn around the town, after dinner, and found it fully as interesting in the moonlight as it had been in the daytime. The streets were narrow and roughly paved, and there was not a sidewalk or a street-lamp anywhere. The dwellings were centuries old, and vast enough for hotels. They widened all the way up; the stories projected further and further forward and aside as they ascended, and the long rows of lighted windows, filled with little bits of panes, curtained with figured white muslin and adorned outside with boxes of flowers, made a pretty effect.
The moon was bright, and the light and shadow very strong; and nothing could be more picturesque than those curving streets, with their rows of huge high gables leaning far over toward each other in a friendly gossiping way, and the crowds below drifting through the alternating blots of gloom and mellow bars of moonlight. Nearly everybody was abroad, chatting, singing, romping, or massed in lazy comfortable attitudes in the doorways.
In one place there was a public building which was fenced about with a thick, rusty chain, which sagged from post to post in a succession of low swings. The pavement, here, was made of heavy blocks of stone. In the glare of the moon a party of barefooted children were swinging on those chains and having a noisy good time. They were not the first ones who have done that; even their great-great-grandfathers had not been the first to do it when they were children. The strokes of the bare feet had worn grooves inches deep in the stone flags; it had taken many generations of swinging children to accomplish that.
Everywhere in the town were the mold and decay that go with antiquity, and evidence of it; but I do not know that anything else gave us so vivid a sense of the old age of Heilbronn as those footworn grooves in the paving-stones.