The young Duchess of Brabant, Elsa the Beautiful, had gone into the woods hunting, and becoming separated from her attendants, sat down to rest under a wide-branching linden-tree.
She was sorely troubled, for many lords and princes were asking for her hand in marriage. More urgent than all the others was the invincible hero, Count Telramund, her former guardian, who since the death of her father had ruled over the land with masterly hand. Now the duke, her father, on his death-bed had promised Telramund that he might have Elsa for wife, should she be willing; and Telramund was continually reminding her of this. But Elsa blushed with shame at the mere thought of such a union, for Telramund was a rough warrior, as much hated for his cruelty as he was feared for his strength. To make matters worse he was now at the court of the chosen King Henry of Saxony, threatening her with war and even worse calamities.
In the shade of the linden Elsa thought of all this, and pitied her own loneliness in that no brother or friend stood at her side to help her. Then the sweet singing of birds seemed to comfort her, and she dropped into a gentle sleep. As she dreamed it seemed to her that a young knight stepped out of the depths of the forest. Holding up a small silver bell, he spoke in friendly tones:
"If you should need my help, just ring this."
Elsa tried to take the trinket, but she could neither rise nor reach the outstretched hand. Then she awoke.
Thinking over the apparition Elsa noted a falcon circling over her head. It came nearer and finally settled on her shoulder. Around his neck hung a bell exactly like that she had seen in the dream. She loosened it, and as she did so the bird rose and flew away. But she still held the little bell in her hand, and in her soul was fresh hope and peace.
When she returned to the castle she found there a message, bidding her appear before the king in Cologne on the Rhine. Filled with confidence in the protection of higher powers, she did not hesitate to obey. In gorgeous costume, with many followers, she set out.
King Henry was a man who loved justice and exercised it, but his kingdom was in constant danger from inroads by wild Huns, and for this reason he wished to do whatever would win the favor of the powerful Count Telramund. When, however, he saw Elsa in all her beauty and innocence he hesitated in his purpose.
The plaintiff brought forward three men who testified that the duchess had entered into a secret union with one of her vassals. Only two of these men were shown to be perfidious; the testimony of the other seemed valid, though this was not enough to condemn her.
Then Telramund seized his sword, crying out that God Himself should be the judge, and that a duel should decide the matter. So a duel was arranged to take place three days later.
Elsa cast her eyes around the circle of nobles, but saw no one grasp his sword in defense of her innocence. Fear of the mighty warrior Telramund filled them all.
Remembering the little bell, she drew it forth from her pocket and rang it. The clear tones broke the stillness, grew louder and louder until they reached even the distant mountains.
"My champion will appear in the contest," she said; whereupon the count let forth such a mocking laugh that the hearts of all were filled with intense fear.
The day of the contest was at hand. The king sat on his high throne and watched the majestic river that sent its mighty waters through the valley. Princes and brave knights were gathered together. Before them stood Telramund, clad in armor, and at his side the accused Elsa, adorned with every grace that Nature can bestow.
Three times the mighty hero challenged some one to come forward as a champion for the accused girl, but no one stirred. Then arose from the Rhine the sound of sweet music; something silvery gleamed in the distance, and as it came nearer it was plain that it was a swan with silver feathers. With a silver chain he was pulling a small ship, in which lay sleeping a knight clad in bright armor.
When the bark landed, the knight awoke, rose, and blew three times on a golden horn. This was the signal that he took up the challenge. Quickly he strode into the lists.
"Your name and descent?" cried the herald.
"My name is Lohengrin," answered the stranger, "my origin royal: more it is not necessary to tell."
"Enough," broke in the king, "nobility is written on your brow."
Trumpets gave the signal for the fight to begin. Telramund's strokes fell thick as hail, but suddenly the stranger knight rose and with one fearful stroke split the count's helmet and cut his head.
"God has decided," cried the king. "His judgment is right; but you, noble knight, will help us in the campaign against the barbarian hordes and will be the leader of the detachment which the fair duchess will send from Brabant."
Gladly Lohengrin consented, and amid cries of delight from the assembled people he rode over to Elsa, who greeted him as her deliverer.
Lohengrin escorted Elsa back to Brabant, and on the way love awoke in their hearts, and they knew that they were destined for each other. In the castle of Antwerp they were pledged, and a few weeks later the marriage took place. As the bridal couple were leaving the cathedral, Lohengrin said to Elsa:
"One thing I must ask of you, and that is that you never inquire concerning my origin, for in the hour that you put that question must I surely part from you."
It was not long after the ceremony that the cry to arms came from King Henry, and Elsa accompanied her husband and his troops to Cologne, where all the counts of the kingdom were assembled. Here there were many inquiries concerning Lohengrin, and when none seemed to know of his origin, some jealously claimed that he was the son of a heathen magician, and that he gained his victories by the power of black arts.
Elsa, who had heard rumors of these charges, was deeply grieved; for she knew the noble heart of her husband. He had even relieved her fears for his safety by the assurance that he was under the protection of powers higher than human.
But she could not banish the evil rumors from her mind, and forgetting the warning her husband had given her on the day of her marriage, she dropped to her knees and asked him concerning his birth.
"Dear wife," he cried in great distress, "now will I tell to you and to the king and to all the assembled princes, what up to this time I have kept secret; but know that the time of our parting is at hand."
Then the hero led his trembling wife before the king and his nobles who were assembled on the banks of the Rhine.
"The son of Parsifal am I," he said, "the son of Parsifal, the keeper of the Holy Grail. Gladly would I have helped you, O King, in your fight against the barbarians, but an unavoidable fate calls me away. You will, however, be victorious, and under your descendants will Germany become a powerful nation."
When he finished speaking there was a deep silence, and then, as upon his arrival, there rose the sound of music—not joyful this time, but solemn, like a chant at the grave of the dead. It came nearer and again the swan and the boat appeared.
"Farewell, dear one," Lohengrin cried, folding his wife in his arms. "Too dearly did I hold you and your pleasant land of earth; now a higher duty calls me."
Weeping, Elsa clung to him; but the swan song sounded louder, like a warning. He tore himself free and stepped into the boat. Was it the ship of death and destruction, or only the ship that carried the blessed to the sacred place of the Grail? No one knew.
Elsa, lonely and sad, did not live long after the separation. Her only hope was that she would be reunited to her dear husband; and she parted willingly with her own life, as other children of earth have done when they have lost all that they held most precious.