The Sabbath-day drew to a close in the summer-tide of the year of grace one thousand and one, and the rustics of Ramersdorf amused themselves with a dance, as was their wont to do, in the courtyard of the monastery. It was a privilege that they had enjoyed time immemorial, and it had never been gainsaid by the abbots who were dead and gone, but Anselm von Lowenberg, the then superior of the convent, an austere, ascetic man, who looked with disdain and dislike on all popular recreations, had long set his face against it, and had, moreover, tried every means short of actual prohibition to put an end to the profane amusement. The rustics, however, were not to be debarred by his displeasure from pursuing, perhaps, their only pleasure; and though the pious abbot discountenanced their proceedings, they acquiesced not in his views, and their enjoyment was not one atom the less.
The day had been very beautiful, and the evening was, if possible, more so. Gaily garbed maidens of the village and stalwart rustics filled the courtyard of the convent. A blind fiddler, who had fiddled three generations off the stage, sat in front of a group of elders of either sex, who, though too old and too stiff to partake in the active and exciting amusement, were still young enough to enjoy looking on. A few shaven crowns peered from the latticed casements which looked out on to the merry scene. The music struck up, the dance began. Who approaches? Why are so many anxious glances cast in yonder direction? It is the Abbot.
"Cease your fooling," he spake to them, in a solemn tone; "profane not the place nor the day with your idle mirth. Go home, and pray in your own homes for the grace of the Lord to govern ye, for ye are wicked and wilful and hard of heart as the stones!"
He waved his hand as if to disperse them, but his words and his action were equally unheeded by the dancers and the spectators.
"Forth, vile sinners!" he pursued. "Forth from these walls, or I will curse ye with the curse."
Still they regarded him not to obey his behest, although they so far noticed his words as to return menacing look for look, and muttered threats for threat with him. The music played on with the same liveliness, the dancers danced as merrily as ever, and the spectators applauded each display of agility.
"Well, then," spake the Abbot, bursting with rage, "an ye cease not, be my curse on your head—there may ye dance for a year and a day!"
He banned them bitterly; with uplifted hands and eyes he imprecated the vengeance of Heaven on their disobedience. He prayed to the Lord to punish them for the slight of his directions. Then he sought his cell to vent his ire in solitude.
From that hour they continued to dance until a year and a day had fully expired. Night fell, and they ceased not; day dawned, and they danced still. In the heat of noon, in the cool of the evening, day after day there was no rest for them, their saltation was without end. The seasons rolled over them. Summer gave place to autumn, winter succeeded summer, and spring decked the fields with early flowers, as winter slowly disappeared, yet still they danced on, through coursing time and changing seasons, with unabated strength and unimpaired energy. Rain nor hail, snow nor storm, sunshine nor shade, seemed to affect them. Round and round and round they danced, in heat and cold, in damp and dry, in light and darkness. What were the seasons—what the times or the hour or the weather to them? In vain did their neighbours and friends try to arrest them in their wild evolutions; in vain were attempts made to stop them in their whirling career; in vain did even the Abbot himself interpose to relieve them from the curse he had laid on them, and to put a period to the punishment of which he had been the cause. The strongest man in the vicinity held out his hand and caught one of them, with the intention of arresting his rotation, and tearing him from the charmed circle, but his arm was torn from him in the attempt, and clung to the dancer with the grip of life till his day was done. The man paid his life as the forfeit of his temerity. No effort was left untried to relieve the dancers, but every one failed. The sufferers themselves, however, appeared quite unconscious of what was passing. They seemed to be in a state of perfect somnambulism, and to be altogether unaware of the presence of any persons, as well as insensible to pain or fatigue. When the expiration of their punishment arrived, they were all found huddled together in the deep cavity which their increasing gyrations had worn in the earth beneath them. It was a considerable time before sense and consciousness returned to them, and indeed they never after could be said to enjoy them completely, for, though they lived long, they were little better than idiots during the remainder of their lives.