So saying, he kissed Helene and stalked out without turning his head or making any further obeisance or farewell.
We sat mazed and confounded after his departure.
The Lady Ysolinde it was who first recovered herself. She put out a kindly hand to Helene, who stood wet-eyed and drooping by the window, looking out upon the roofs of Thorn, though well I wot she saw nothing of spire, roof, or pinnacle.
"God do so to me and more also," she said, in a low, solemn voice, "if I too keep not this charge."
And I think for the moment she meant it. The trouble was that the Lady Ysolinde could not mean one thing for very long at a time. As, indeed, shall afterwards appear.
So it was arranged that within the week Helene and I should say our farewells to the Red Tower which had sheltered us so long, as well as to Gottfried Gottfried, who had ever been my kind father, and to the little Helene more than any father.
But in spite of all we wearied day by day to be gone. For, indeed, Gottfried Gottfried said right. The shadow of the Red Tower, the stain of the Red Axe, was over us both so long as we abode on the Wolfsberg. Yet what it cost us to depart—at least till we were out of the gates of the city—I cannot write down, for to both of us the first waygoing seemed bitter as death.
I remember it well. My father had been busy all the morning with his grim work on the day when we were to ride away. A gang of malefactors who had wasted a whole country-side with their cruelty had been brought in. And, as it was suspected that other more important villains were yet to be caught, there had been the repeated pain of the Extreme Question, and now there remained but the falling of the Red Axe to settle all accounts. So that when he came to bid us farewell he had but brief time to spare. And of necessity he wore the fearful crimson, which fitted his tall, spare figure like a glove.
"Fare thee well, little one!" he said, first to Helene. "Not thus, had the choice lain with me, would I have bidden thee farewell. But when it shall be that I meet you again I will surely wear the white of the festa day. I commit you to Him whose mistakes are better than our good deeds, whose judgments are kinder than our tenderest mercies."
So he kissed her, and reached a hand over her shoulder to me.
"Son Hugo," he said, "go in peace. You must return to succeed me. I see it like a picture—on the day when I lie dead you shall stand with the Red Axe in your hand waiting to do judgment. It is well. Keep this maid more sacred than your life—and, meantime, fare you well!"
So saying he left us abruptly.
Our horses were saddled in the court-yard, and as I rode last through the rarely opened gateway, I saw Duke Casimir looking out from his window upon the lower enclosure, as was his pleasure upon the days of execution. I heard the dull thud, which was the meeting of the Red Axe and the redder block as that which had been between fell apart. And for the last time I heard the blood-hounds leap and the pattering of their eager feet upon the barriers as they leaped up scenting the Duke's carrion.
Thus the latest I heard of the place of my nativity was fitting and dreadful. I was mortally glad to ride away into the clear air and the invigorating silence. But on my heart there still lay heavy the twice-repeated prediction of my father and of the Lady Ysolinde, that I should yet return and hold the Red Axe in his place.
But I resolved rather to die in the honest front of battle. Nevertheless, had I known the future, I would have seen that they and not I were right.
I was indeed fated to return and stand ready to execute doom, with the Red Axe in my hand and my father lying dead near by.
THE PRIME OF THE MORNING
Now so strange a thing is woman that, so soon as we were started down the High Street of the city of Thorn, the Little Playmate dried her eyes, turned towards me in her saddle, and straightway began to take me to task as though I had been to blame.
"I have left," said she, "the only home I ever knew, and the only man that ever truly loved me, to accompany a young man that cares not for me, and a woman whom I have seen but once, to a far land and an unkindly folk."
"It is not fair," I said, "to say that I love you not. For, as God sees me, I have ever loved you—loved you best and loved you only, little Helenchen! And though you are angered with me now, I know not why—still till now you have never doubted it."
"I doubt it sorely enough now, I know," she said, bitterly; "yet, indeed, I care not whether you or any love me at all."
And this saying I was greatly sorry for. It seemed a sad wayfaring from our old Red Tower and out of my native city of Thorn.
"Helene, little one," said I, "believe me, I love none in the whole world but my father and you. Trust me, for I am to keep you safe with my life in the far land to which we go. Do not let us quarrel, littlest. There are only the two of us here that remember the old man my father and the little room to which you came as a babe, all in white."
So presently she was somewhat pacified, and reached me a hand from the back of her beast, on pretence of leaning over to avoid a swinging sign in one of the narrow streets near by the White Gate, where we were to meet the Lady Ysolinde.
"And yet more, Little Playmate," said I, keeping her hand when I had it; "do not begin by distrusting the noble lady with whom we are to travel. For she means well to us both, and in the strange country to which we go we may be wholly in her power."
"You are sure that you do not love that woman, then?" said Helene, without looking at me. For, indeed, in many things she was but a child, and ever spoke more freely than other maids—perhaps with being brought up in the Red Tower in the company of my father, who on all occasions spoke his mind just as it came to him.
"Nay," said I, "believe me, little love, I do not love her at all."
And now on horseback Helene looked all charming, and what with the exercise, the unknown adventure, and my reassurance, she had a glow of rose color in her cheeks. She had never before been so far away from the precincts of the Wolfsberg. I had even taught her to ride in the court-yard of a summer evening, on a horse borrowed from one of the Duke's squires.
We found the Lady Ysolinde waiting for us at her house, Master Gerard talking to her in the doorway, earnestly and apart. Both of them had a look of much solemnity, as though the matter of their discourse were some very weighty one.
Presently her father kissed her and she came down the steps. I leaped from my horse to help her to the saddle, but the respectable serving-man was before me. So that instead I went about and looked to the buckles and girths, which were all in order, and patted the arching neck of the beautiful milk-white palfrey whereon she rode. Then Master Gerard waved a hand and went within.
And as we fared forth out of the Weiss Thor into the keener air of the country, I thought what a charge I had—to squire two ladies so surpassingly fair, each in her own several graces, as our Helene and the Lady Ysolinde.
No sooner, however, were we past the outer barriers, at which the soldiers of the Duke Casimir kept guard, than a vast, ungainly wight started up from the road-side.
"Jan Lubber Fiend!" cried the Lady Ysolinde; "what do you here?"
The oaf grinned his awful, writhed smile and wriggled his great body after the manner of a puppy desirous of the milk-platter.
"Think you, my lady," said he, cunningly, "that your poor Jan would abide within the precincts of the city house with that funeral ape bidding me do this and do that, sit here and sit there, come in and go out at his pleasure? A thing of dough that I could twist into knots as easily as I can crack my joints."
And of this latter accomplishment he proceeded to give us certain examples which sounded like cannon-shots delivered at close quarters.
"Get home with you!" cried Ysolinde; "I cannot have thee following us. There are two men presently to meet us, to guard us to Plassenburg, and we do not need you, Jan Lubber Fiend. Get back and take care of my father."
"Oh, as for him," said the monster, sitting down squat upon the plain road in the dust, "he is a tough old cock, and will come to no harm. We can e'en leave him with a good cook, a prime cellar, and an easy mind. But this young man is not to trust to with so many pretty maids. Jan will come and look after him."
And with that he nodded his hay-stack of a head three times at me, and going to the hedge-root he laid hold of the top of a young poplar and turned him about, keeping the stem of it over his shoulder. Then he set himself to pull like a horse that starts a load, and presently, without apparently distressing himself in the least, he walked away with the young tree, roots and all.
Having shaken off the earth roughly, he pulled out a sheath-knife and trimmed the branches till he had made him a kind of club, with which he threatened me, saying, "If I catch that young man at any tricks, with this club will Jan Lubber Fiend break every bone in his skin, like the shells of so many broken eggs."
Then laughing a little, and seeing that nothing could be made of the fellow, the Lady Ysolinde rode on and we followed her. We thought that surely there would be no difficulty in shaking him off long ere we reached our lodging-place of the evening, and that he would find his way back to the city of Thorn.
But even though we set our horses to their speed, it seemed to make no difference to the unwieldy giant. He merely stretched his legs a little farther, and caused his great gaskined feet to pass each other as fast as if they had been shod with seven-league boots. So he not only kept up with us easily, but oftentimes made a detour through the fields and over the wild country on either side, as a questing dog does, ever returning to us with some quaint vagrant fancy or quip of childish simplicity.
But what pleased me better than the appearance of the Lubber Fiend was that ere we had gone quite two miles out of the city we found two well-armed and stanch-looking soldiers waiting for us at a kind of cross-road. They were armed with the curious powder-guns which were coming into fashion from France. These went off with a noble report, and killed sometimes at as much as fifteen or twenty paces when the aim was good. The fellows had swords also, and little polished shields on their left arms—altogether worthy and notable body-guards.
"These two are soldiers of the Guard from Plassenburg," said the Lady Ysolinde, "though now they are travelling as members of a Free Company desiring to enter upon new engagements. But they will make the way easier and pleasanter for us, as well as infinitely safer, being veterans well accustomed to the work of quartering and foraging."
As indeed we were to find ere the day ended.
So we rode on in the brilliant light, and the long, long day seemed all too brief to us who were young, and scarce delivered from the prison-house of Thorn. And to my shame I admit that my heart rose with every mile that I put between me and the Red Tower.
Indeed, I hardly had a thought to spend on my father. The hot quadrangle of the Wolfsberg, ever smelling of horses and the swelter of shed blood, the howling, fox-colored demons in the kennels, the black Duke Casimir —right gladly I forgot them all. Aye, I forgot even my father, and everything save that I was riding with two fair women through a world where all was love and spring, and where it was ever the prime of a young morning.
The Lady Ysolinde could not make enough of our Little Playmate. She laughed back at her over her shoulder when she let her horse out for a canter. She marvelled loudly at Helene's good riding, and at the unbound beauty of the crisp ringlets which clustered round her head like a boy's. And our Helene smiled, well pleased, and ceased to watch my eyes or to grow silent if I checked my horse too long by the side of the Lady Ysolinde.
Mostly we three rode abreast over the pleasant country. So long as we were crossing the plain of the Wolfmark we saw few tilled fields, and the farm-houses were fewer still. But wherever these were to be seen they were fortified and defended like castles, and had gates, great and high, with iron plates upon them and knobs like the points of spears beaten blunt.
The Lady Ysolinde, who had often ridden that way, told us that these were all in the Duke Casimir's country, and were mostly possessed by the kin of his chief captains—feudal tenants, who for the right of possession were compelled to furnish so many riders to the Duke's Companies.
"But wait," she said, "till you come to the dominions of the Prince of Plassenburg. You will find that he is indeed a ruler that can make the broom-bush keep the cow."
So we rode on, and passed pleasant and exciting things, more than I had ever seen in all my life before.
Once we saw half a dozen men driving cattle across our path, and it was curious to mark how readily they drew their swords and couched their lances at us, turning themselves about this way and that like a quintain till we were quite gone by, which made us laugh. For it seemed a strange thing that men so well armed should fear a company of no more than their own numbers, and two of them maids upon palfreys.
But Ysolinde said: "It is not, after all, so strange, for over yonder blue hills dwells Joan of the Swordhand, who can lead a foray as well as any man, and once worsted Duke Casimir himself when he beset her castle."
So the day went past swiftly, with good company and the converse of folk well liking one another. And ever I wondered how we were to spend the night, and what sort of cheer we should find at our inn.
The gray plain of the Wolfmark, which we had been traversing ever since we descended out of the steep Weiss Thor of the city of Thorn, had now begun to break into ridges and mounded hills of stiff red clay. And I, who had often kept my watch on the highest pinnacle of the Red Tower, looked with astonishment back upon the city I had left behind. Seen from the plain, Thorn had an aspect almost imperial.
It rose above the colorless flat of gray suddenly, unexpectedly, almost insolently. The city, with its numberless gables, spires of churches, turreted gate-houses, occupied a ridge of gradually swelling ground which rose like a huge whale-back from the misty plain. Its walls were grim, high, and far-stretching. But as we travelled farther into the Wolfmark the city seemed to sink deeper into the plain and the dark castle of Duke Casimir to shoot ever higher into the skies. So that presently, as we looked back, we could only see the Wolfsberg itself, the abode of cruelty and wrong, standing black against the white sky of noon.
Its flanking towers stood up above the battlemented wall, their turrets climbing higher and higher towards heaven, till the topmost Red Tower—that in which my father's garrot was, and in which I had spent my entire life until this day—soared straight upward above them all, like a threatening index-finger pointing, not into the clear sky of a summer's noon, but into clouds and thick darkness.
I was glad when at last we lost sight of it. Then, indeed, I felt that I had left my old life behind me. And, in spite of the Lady Ysolinde's ink-pool prophecy and my love for my father (such as it was), I did not mean ever to trust myself within that baleful circle of gray and weary plain upon which the Red Tower looked down.
Seeing that the maids were inclined to talk the one with the other, or rather that the Lady Ysolinde spoke confidentially with Helene, and that Helene now answered her without embarrassment and with frank, equal glances, I dropped gradually behind and rode with the two stout men-at-arms. These I found to be honest lads enough, but of a strangely reserved and taciturn nature, each ever waiting for the other to answer—being, like most Wendish men, much averse to questioning and still more stiff as to replying.
"You are men of Plassenburg?" I said to the nearest, simply and innocently enough, for the purpose of improving the cordiality of our relations.
Whereupon he turned his head slowly about to his neighbor, as it were to consult him. The glance said as clearly as monk's script: "What shall we answer to this troublesome, inquisitive fellow?"
At first I thought that perhaps they spoke not the common dialect, and that as we were travelling towards regions roughly Wendish and but lately heathen, they might have some uncouth speech of their own. So, as is ever the custom with folk that are not accustomed to the speaking of foreign tongues, I repeated the question in mine own language in a louder tone, supposing that that would do as well.
"You are men of the country of Plassenburg?" cried I, as loud as I could bawl.
"We are not deaf—we have all our faculties, praise the saints!" said the more distant of the two, looking not at me but at his companion. He, on his part, nodded back at his comrade's reply, as if it had been delicately calculated at once to answer my question and at the same time not to commit them to any dangerous opinions.
I tried again.
"Your prince, I hear, is a true man, brave, and well-versed in war?"
The shorter and stouter man, who rode beside me, glanced once at my face, and slowly screwed round his head to his companion in a long, questioning gaze. Then as slowly he turned his head back again.
"Umph!" he said, judicially, with a movement of his head, which seemed a successful compromise between a nod and a shake, just as his remark might very well have resulted from an attempt to say "Yes" and "No" at the same time.
This was not encouraging to one who, like myself, was in high spirits and much inclined for conversation. But I was not to be so easily beaten off.
"The Prince of Plassenburg has a Princess," I said, "who is often upon her travels?"
It was an innocent remark, and, so far as I could see, not one in itself highly humorous. But it broke up the gravity of these red-haired northern bears as if it had been the latest gay sally of the court-fool.
"Ha! ha!" laughed the more distant, lanky man, rocking himself in his saddle till the pennon on his lance shook and the point dipped towards his horse's ear.
"Ho! ho!" chorused his companion, slapping his thigh jovially. "Jorian, did you hear that? 'The Prince of Plassenburg hath a Princess, and she is often upon her travels.' Ha! ha! ha! Ho! ho! ho!"
"He hath said it! Ho! ho! He hath said it! He is a wise fellow, after all, this beardless Jack-pudding of Thorn!" cried the other, tee-heeing with laughter till he nearly wept upon his own saddle-bow.
I began to get very angry. For we men of Thorn were not accustomed to be so flouted by any strangers, keeping mostly our own customs, and reining in the few strangers who ventured to visit Duke Casimir's dominions pretty tightly. Least of all could I brook insolence from these Wendish boors from the outskirts of half-pagan Borrussia.
"The Prince of Plassenburg hath churls among his retinue," said I, hotly, "if they be all like you two Jacks, that cannot answer a simple question without singing out like donkeys upon a common where there are no thistles to keep them quiet."
Sir Thicksides, the fat jolter-head nearest me set his thumb out to stick it into the side armor of Longlegs, his companion, who rode cheek by jowl with him.
"Oo-oo-ahoo!" cried he, crowing with mirth, as if I had said a yet more facetious thing. "'Tis a simple question—'Hath the Prince of Plassenburg a Princess, and is she not oft—ahoo!' Boris, prod me with thy lance-shaft hard, to keep me from doing myself an ill turn with this fellow's innocence."
"Hold up, Jorian !" answered the long man, promptly pounding him on the back with the butt of his spear. "Hold up, fat Jorian! Let not thy love of mirth do thee any injury. For thou art a good comrade, and fools were ever apt to divert thee too much. I have seen thee at this before—that time we went to Wilna, and the fellow in motley gave thee griping spasms with his tomfoolery."
Then was I mainly angry, as indeed I had sufficient occasion.
"You are but churls," I said, "and the next thing to knaves. And I will e'en inform the Prince when we arrive what like are the men whom he sets to escort ladies to his castle."
But though they were silenter after this, it was not from any alarm at my words, but simply because they had laughed themselves out of ply. For as I rode on in high dudgeon, half-way between the women and the men-at-arms, I could see them with the corner of an eye still nudging each other with their thumbs and throwing back their heads, and the breeze blew me scraps of their limited conversation.
"Ho! ho! Good, was it not? 'The Prince hath a Princess, and she—' Ho! ho! Good!"
The ridges of clay of which I have already spoken continued and increased in size as we went on. It was a dried-up, speckled, unwholesome-looking land. And people upon it there were none that we could see. The large fortified farms had ceased altogether. A certain frightful monotony reigned everywhere. Ravines, like cracks which the sun makes in mud, but a thousand times greater, began to split the hills perpendicularly to their very roots. The path wound perilously this way and that among them. And presently Jorian and Boris rode past me to take the lead, for Ysolinde and Helene were inclined to mistake the way as often as they came to the crossing and interweaving of the intricate paths.
And as these two jolly jackasses rode past at my right side I could see the thumb of long Boris curving towards the ribs of his companion, and the shoulders of both shaking as they chuckled.
"A rare simpleton's question, i' faith, yes. Ho! ho! Good!" they chorussed. "'The Prince hath a Princess'—the cock hath a hen, and she— Ha! ha! Good!"
At that moment I could with pleasure have slain Jorian and Boris for open-mouthed, unshaven, slab-sided Wendish pigs, as indeed they were.
Yet, had I done so, we had fared but ill without them. For had they been a thousand times jackasses and rotten pudding-heads (as they were), at least they knew the way and something of the unchristian people among whom we were going.
And so in a little while, as we wound our way along the face of these perilons rifts in the baked clay, with the mottled, inefficient river feeling its way gingerly at the bottom of the buff—colored ravine, what was my astonishment to see Jorian and Boris turn sharply at right angles and ride single file up one of the dry lateral cracks which opened, as it were, directly into the hill-side!
They did this without ever looking at the landmarks, like men who are anyways uncertain of their road. But, on the contrary, they wheeled confidently and rode jauntily on, and we three meekly followed, having by this time lost the Lubber Fiend, the devil doubtless knew where. For we must have followed Boris and Jorian unquestioningly had they led us into the bowels of the earth, as indeed, at first sight, they seemed to be doing.
THE EARTH-DWELLERS OF NO MAN'S LAND
Then presently we came to a strange place, the like of which I have never seen, save here on the borders of the Mark and the northern Wendish lands. An amalgam of lime, or binding stuff of some sort, had glued the clay of the ravines together, and set it stiff and fast like dried plaster. So, as we went up the narrow, perilous path, our horses had to tread very warily lest, going too near the edge, they should chip off enough of the foothold to send themselves and their riders whirling neck-over-toes to the bottom.
All at once the Little Playmate, who was riding immediately before me, screamed out sharp and shrill, and I hastened up to her, thinking she had fallen upon a misfortune. I found her palfrey with ears pricked and distended nostril, gazing at a head in a red nightcap which was set out of a hole in the red clay.
"The country of gnomes! Of a surety, yes! And hitherto I had thought it had been but the nonsense of folk-tales!" said I to myself.
Which is what we shall say one day of more things than red-nightcapped heads.
But the Little Playmate uttered scream after scream, for the head continued coolly to stare at her, as if fixed alive over the gateway by the craft of some cave-dwelling imp of the Red Axe.
I noticed, however, that the head chewed a straw and spat, which I deemed a gnome would not do—though wherefore straws and spitting are not free to gnomes I do not know and could not have told. Yet, at all events, such was my belief. And a serviceable one enough it was, since it took the fear out of me and gave me back my speech. And when a man can speak he can fight. Contrariwise, it is when a woman will not fight that she can talk best, as one may see in any congress of two angry vixens. So long as they rail there is but threatening and safe recriminations, but when one waxes silent, then 'ware nails and teeth! And I am not in my dotage to use such illustrations—as not unnaturally sayeth the first to read my history.
"Good man," cried I, to Sir Red Cap in the wall, "I know not why you stick your ugly head out of the mud, but retract it, I pray you! For do you not see that it alarms the lady and affrights her beast?"
The man nodded intelligently, but went on coolly chewing his straw.
Then I went up to him, and, as civilly as I could, took him by the chin and thrust his head back into the hole. And as I did so I saw for the first time that the wall of the clay cliff, tough and gritty with its alloy of lime, had been cut and hewn into houses and huts having doors of wood of exactly the same color, and in some cases even windows with bars—very marvellous to see, and such as I have never witnessed elsewhere. Presently, at the trampling of the feet of so many horses, people began to throng to their doors, and children peered out at windows and cried to each other shrilly: "See the Christians!"
For so, being but lately pagans themselves, if not partly so to this day, these outlandish men of the border No Man's Land denominated us of the south.
Presently we came to an open space sloping away from the sheer cliff, where was a wall and a door greater than the others.
Jorian rode directly up to the gate, which was of the same dull brick-red as the rest of the curious town. He took the butt of his lance and thumped and banged lustily upon it. For a time there was no reply, but the number of heads thrust out at neighboring windows and the swarms of townsfolk on the pathways before and behind us enormously increased.
Jorian thundered again, kicking with his foot and swearing explosively in mingled Wendish and German. Then he took the point of his spear, and, setting it to a hole in the wall above his head, he hooked out an entire wooden window-frame, as one is taught to pull out a shrimp with a pin on the shore of the Baltic Sea.
Whereupon a sudden outcry arose within the house, and a head popped angrily out of the aperture so suddenly created. But as instantly it returned within. For Jorian tossed the lattice to the ground by the door and thrust his spear-head into the cravat of red which the man had about his throat, shouting to him all the while in the name of the Prince, of the Duke, of the Emperor, of the Archbishop, of all potentates, lay and secular, to come down and open the gates. The man in the red cravat was threatened with the strappado, with the water-torture, with the brodequins, and finally with the devil's cannon—which, according to our man-at-arms, was to be planted on the opposite bank of the ravine, and which would infallibly bring the whole of their wretched town tumbling down into the gulf like swallows' nests from under the eaves.
And this last threat seemed to have more weight than all the rest, probably because the Prince of Plassenburg had already done something of the kind to some other similar town, and the earth-burrowers of Erdborg had good reason to fear the thunder of his artillery.
At all events, the great door opened, and a man of the same brick-red as all the other inhabitants of the town appeared at the portal. He bowed profoundly, and Jorian addressed him in some outlandishly compounded speech, of which I could only understand certain oft-recurring words, as "lodging," "victualling," and "order of the Prince."
So, presently, after a long, and on the side of our escort a stormy, conference, we were permitted to enter. Our horses were secured at the great mangers, which extended all along one side; while, opposite to the horses, but similar to their accommodation in every respect, were stalls wherein various families seemed to be encamped for the night.
With all the air of a special favor conferred, we were informed that we must take up our quarters in the middle of the room and make the best of the hardened floor there. This information, conveyed with a polite wave of the hand and a shrug of the shoulders by our landlord, seemed not unnaturally to put Jorian and Boris into a furious passion, for they drew their swords, and with a unanimous sweep of the hand cleared the capes of their leathern jacks for fighting. So, not to be outdone, I drew my weapon also, and stood by to protect Helene and the Lady Ysolinde.
These two stood close together behind us, but continued to talk indifferently, chiefly of dress and jewels—which surprised me, both in the strange circumstances, and because I knew that Helene had seen no more of them than the valueless trinkets that had belonged to my mother, and which abode in a green-lined box in the Red Tower. Yet to speak of such things seems to come naturally to all women.
As if they had mutually arranged it "from all eternity," as the clerks say, Jorian and Boris took, without hesitation, each a door on the opposite wall, and, setting their shoulders to them, they pushed them open, and went within sword in hand, leaving me alone to protect the ladies and to provide for the safety of the horses.
Presently out from the doors by which our conductors had entered there came tumbling a crowd of men and women, some carrying straw bolsters and wisps of hay, others bearing cooking utensils, and all in various dishabille. Then ensued a great buzzing and stirring, much angry growling on the part of the disturbed men, and shrill calling of women for their errant children.
Our little Helene looked sufficiently pitiful and disturbed as these preparations were being made. But the Lady Ysolinde scarcely noticed them, taking apparently all the riot and delay as so much testimony to the important quality of such great ones of the earth as could afford to travel under the escort of two valiant men-at-arms.
Presently came Jorian and Boris out at a third door, having met somewhere in the back parts of the warren.
They came up to the Lady Ysolinde and bowed humbly.
"Will your ladyship deign to choose her chamber? They are all empty. Thereafter we shall see that proper furniture, such as the place affords, is provided for your Highness."
I could not but wonder at so much dignity expended upon the daughter of Master Gerard, the lawyer of Thorn. But Ysolinde took their reverence as a matter of course. She did not even speak, but only lifted her right hand with a little casual flirt of the fingers, which said, "Lead on!"
Then Jorian marshalled us within, Boris standing at the door to let us pass, and bringing his sword-blade with a little click of salute to the perpendicular as each of us passed. But I chanced to meet his eye as I went within, whereat the rogue deliberately winked, and I could plainly see his shoulders heave. I knew that he was still chewing the cud of his stale and ancient jest: "The Prince hath a Princess, and she—"
I could have disembowelled the villain. But, after all, he was certainly doing us some service, though in a most provocative and high-handed manner.
I STAND SENTRY
There are (say some) but two things worth the trouble of making in the world—war and love. So once upon a time I believed. But since—being laid up during the unkindly monotony of our Baltic spring by an ancient wound—I fell to the writing of this history, I would add to these two worthy adventures—the making of books. Which, till I tried my hand at the task myself, I would in no wise have allowed. But now, when the days are easterly of wind and the lashing water beats on the leaded lozenges of our window lattice, I am fain to stretch myself, take up a new pen, and be at it again all day.
But I must e'en think of them that are to read me, and of their pain if I overstretch my privilege. Besides, if I prove over-long in the wind they may not read me at all, which, I own it, would somewhat mar my purpose.
I was speaking, therefore, of being in the watch and ward of two women, each of whom (in my self-conceit I thus imagined it) certainly regarded me without dislike. God forgive me for thinking so much when they had never plainly told me! Nevertheless I took the thing for granted, as it were. And, as I said before, it has been my experience that, if it be done with a careful and delicate hand, more is gained with women by taking things for granted than by the smoothest tongue and longest Jacob-and-Rachael service. The man who succeeds with good women is the man who takes things for granted. Only he must know exactly what things, otherwise I am mortally sorry for him—he will have a rough road to travel. But to my tale.
Jorian ushered Ysolinde and Helene into the rooms from which he had so unceremoniously ousted the former tenants. How these chambers were lighted in the daytime I could not at first make out, but by going to the end of the long earth-hewn passage and leaning out of a window the mystery was made plain. The ravine took an abrupt turn at this point, so that we were in a house built round an angle, and so had the benefit of light from both sides.
"And where are our rooms to be?" I asked of the stout soldier when he returned.
Jorian pointed to the plain, hard earth of the passage.
"That is poor lodging for tired bones!" I said; "have they no other rooms to let anywhere in this hostelry?"
He laughed again; indeed, he seemed to be able to do little else whenever he spoke to me.
"Tired bones will lie the stiller!" said he, at last, sententiously. "There is some wheaten straw out there which you can bring in for a bolster, if you will. But I think it likely that we shall get no more sleep than the mouse in the cat's dining-room this night. These border rascals are apt to be restless in the dark hours, and their knives prick most consumedly sharp!"
With that he went out, leaving the doors into the passages all open, and presently I could hear him raging and rummaging athwart the house, ordering this one to find him "Graubunden fleisch," the next to get him some good bread, and not to attempt to palm off "cow-cake" upon honest soldiers on pain of getting his stomach cut open—together with other amenities which occur easily to a seasoned man-at-arms foraging in an unfriendly country.
Then, having returned successful from this quest, what was my admiration to see Jorian (whom I had so lately called, and I began to be sorry for it, a Wendish pig) strip his fine soldier's coat and hang it upon a peg by the door, roll up his sleeves, and set to at the cooking in the great open fireplace with swinging black crooks against the front wall, while Boris stood on guard with a long pistolet ready in the hollow of his arm, and his slow-match alight, by the doorway of the ladies' apartment.
I went and stood by the long man for company. And after a little he became much more friendly.
"Why do you stand with your match alight?" I asked of him after we had been a while silent.
"Why, to keep a border knife out of Jorian's back, of course, while he is turning the fry in the pan," said he, as simply as if he had said that 'twas a fine night without, or that the moon was full.
"I wish I could help," I sighed, a little wistfully, for I wished him to think well of me.
"What!" he exclaimed—"with the frying-pan? Well, there is the basting ladle!" he retorted, and laughed in his old manner.
I own that, being yet little more than a lad, the tears stood in my eyes to be so flouted and made nothing of.
"I will show you perhaps sooner than you think that I am neither a coward nor a babe!" I said, in high dudgeon.
And so went and stood by myself over against the farther door of the three, which led from the outer hall to the apartments in which I could hear the murmur of women's voices. And it was lucky that I did so. For even as I reached the door a sharp cry of terror came from within, and there at the inner portal I caught sight of a narrow, foxy, peering visage, and a lean, writhing figure, prone like a worm on its belly. The rascal had been crawling towards Helene's room, for what purpose I know not. Nor did I stop to inquire, for, being stung by the taunt of the man-at-arms, I was on Foxface in a moment, stamping upon him with my iron-shod feet, and then lifting him unceremoniously up by the slackness of his back covertures, I turned him over and over like a wheel, tumbling him out of the doorway into the outer hall with an astonishing clatter, shedding knives and daggers as he went.
It was certainly a pity for the fellow that Boris had taunted me so lately. But the abusing of him gave me great comfort. And as he whirled past the group at the fire, Jorian caught him handily in the round of his back with a convenient spit, also without asking any questions, whereat the fellow went out at the wide front door by which we had first entered, revolving in a cloud of dust. And where he went after that I have no idea. To the devil, for all I care!
But Boris, standing quietly by his own door, was evidently somewhat impressed by my good luck. For soon after this he came over to me. I thought he might be about to apologize for his rudeness. And so perhaps he did, but it was in his own way.
"Did you spoil your dagger on him?" he said, anxiously, for the first time speaking to me as a man speaks to his equal.
"No," said I, "but I stubbed my toe most confoundedly, jarring it upon the rascal's backbone as he went through the door."
"Ah!" he replied, thoughtfully, nodding his head, "that was more fitting for such as he. But you may get a chance at him with the dagger yet or the night be over."
And with that he went back to his door, blowing up his slow-match as he went.
Presently the supper was pronounced cooked, and, after washing his hands, Jorian resumed his coat, amid the universal attention of the motley crew in the great hall, and began to dish up the fragrant stew. Ho had been collecting for it all day upon the march, now knocking over a rabbit with a bolt from his gun, now picking some leaves of lettuce and watercress when he chanced upon a running stream or a neglected garden—of which last (thanks to Duke Casimir and his raiders) there were numbers along the route we had traversed.
Then, when he had made all ready, our sturdy cook dished the stew into a great wooden platter—rabbits, partridges, scraps of dried flesh, bits of bacon for flavoring, fresh eggs, vegetables in handfuls, all covered with a dainty-smelling sauce, deftly compounded of milk, gravy, and red wine.
Then Jorian and Boris, one taking the heap of wooden platters and the other the smoking bowl of stew, marched solemnly within. But before he went, Boris handed me his pistolet without a word, and the slow-match with it. Which, as I admit, made me feel monstrously unsafe. However, I took the engine across my arm and stood at attention as I had seen him do, with the match thrust through my waistband.
Then I felt as if I had suddenly grown at least a foot taller, and my joy was changed to ecstasy when the Lady Ysolinde, coming out quickly, I knew not at first for what purpose, found me thus standing sentinel and blowing importantly upon my slow-match.
"Hugo," she said, kindly, looking at me with the aqua-marine eyes that had the opal glints in them, "come thy ways in and sit with us."
I made her a salute with my piece and thanked her for her good thought.
"But," said I, "Lady Ysolinde, pray remember that this is a place of danger, and that it is more fitting that we who have the honor to be your guards should dine together without your chamber doors."
"Nay," she said, impetuously, "I insist. It is not right that you, who are to be an officer, should mess with the common soldiers."
"My lady," said I, "I thank you deeply. And it shall be so, I promise you, when we are in safety. But let me have my way here and now."
She smiled upon me—liking me, as I think, none the worse for my stiffness. And so went away, and I was right glad to see her go. For I would not have lost what I had gained in the good opinion of these two men-at-arms—no, not for twenty maidens' favors.
But in that respect also I changed as the years went on. For of all things a boy loves not to be flouted and babyfied when he thinks himself already grown up and the equal of his elders in love and war.
So in a little while came out Jorian and Boris, and, having carried in the bread and wine, we three sat down to the remains of the stew. Indeed, I saw but little difference as to quantity from the time that Jorian had taken it in. For maids' appetites when they are anyways in love are precarious, but, after they are assured of their love's return, then the back hunger comes upon them and the larder is made to pay for all arrears.
Not that I mean to assert that either of these ladies was in love with me—far otherwise indeed. For this it would argue the conceit of a jack-a-dandy to imagine, much more to write such a thing. But, nevertheless, certain is it that this night they were both of small appetite.
HELENE HATES ME
However, when the provision came to the outer port, we three sat down about it, and then, by my troth, there was little to marvel at in the tardiness of our eating. For the rabbits seemed to come alive and positively leaped down our throats, the partridges almost flew at us out of the pot, the pigeons fairly rejoiced to be eaten. The broth and the gravy ebbed lower and lower in the pan and left all dry. But as soon as we had picked the bones roughly, for there was no time for fine work lest the others should get all the best, we threw the bones out to the hungry crew that watched us sitting round the stalls, their very jowls pendulous with envy.
So after a while we came to the end, and then I went to the entrance of the chamber where were bestowed the Little Playmate and the Lady Ysolinde. For I began to be anxious how Helene would be able to comport herself in the company of one so dainty and full of devices and convenances as the lady of the Weiss Thor.
But, by my faith, I need not have troubled about our little lass. For if there were any embarrassed, that one was certainly not Helene. And if any of us lacked reposefulness of manners, that one was certainly a staring jackanapes, who did not know which foot to stand upon, nor yet how to sit down on the oaken settle when a seat was offered him, nor, last of all, when nor how to take his departure when he had once sat down. And as to the identity of that jackass, there needs no further particularity.
Nevertheless, I talked pleasantly enough with both of them, and I might have been an acquaintance of the day for all the notice that the Little Playmate took of me, oven when the Lady Ysolinde told her, evidently not for the first time, of my standing sentry by the door and blowing upon the match at my girdle.
From without we heard presently the clapping of hands and loud deray of merrymaking, so I went to find out what it might be that was causing such an uproar.
There I found Jorian and Boris giving a kind of exhibition of their skill in military exercises. It might be, also, that they desired to teach a lesson for the benefit of the wild robber border folk and the yet more ruffianly kempers who foregathered in this strange inn of Erdberg on the borders of the Mark.
I summoned the maids that they might look on. For I wot the scene was a curious and pleasing one, and I could see that the eyes of the Lady Ysolinde glittered. But our little maid, being used to all these things from her youth, cared nothing for it, though the thing was indeed marvellous in itself.
When I went out our two men-at-arms had each of them in hand his straight Wendish Tolleknife, made heavy at the end of the Swedish blade, but light as to the handle, and hafted with cork from Spain.
Ten yards apart, shoulder to shoulder they stood, and, first of all, each of them poising the knife in the hollow of his hand with a peculiar dancing movement, set it writhing across the room at a marked circle on a board. The two knives sped simultaneously with a vicious whir, and stood quivering, with their blades touching each other, in the centre of the white. At the next trial, so exactly had they been aimed that the point of the one hit upon the haft of the other and stripped the cork almost to the blade. But Jorian, to whom the knife belonged, mended it with a piece of string, telling the company philosophically that it was no bad thing to have a string hanging loose to a Tolleknife, for when it went into any one the string would always hang down from the wound in order to pull it out by.
Then they got their knives again and played a more dangerous game. Jorian stood on guard with his knife, waving the blade slowly before him in the shape of a long-bodied letter S. Boris poised his weapon in the hollow of his hand, and sent it whirring straight at Jorian's heart. As it came buzzing like an angry bee, almost too quick for the eye to follow, Jorian flicked it deftly up into the air at exactly the right moment, and, without even taking his eye off it, he caught the knife by the handle as it fell. Thereafter he bowed and gave it back to the thrower ceremoniously. Then Boris guarded, and Jorian in his turn threw, with a like result, though, perhaps, a little less featly done on Boris's part.
All the while there was a clamant and manifold astonishment in the kitchen of the inn, together with prodigal and much-whispering wonder.
Then ensued other plays. Boris stood with his elbow crooked and his left hand on his hip, with his back also turned to Jorian. Buzz! went the knife! It flashed like level lightning under the arch of Jorian's armpit, and lo! it was caught in his right hand, which dropped upon it like a hawk upon a rabbit, as it sped through his elbow port.
Then came shooting with the cross-bow, and I regretted much that I had only learned the six-foot yew, and that there was not one in the company, nor indeed room to display it if there had been. For I longed to do something to show that I also was no milksop.
Now it chanced that there was in one corner a yearling calf that had been killed that day, and hung up with a bar between its thighs. I saw an axe leaning in the corner—an axe with a broad, cutting edge—and I bethought me that perhaps, after all, I knew something which even Jorian and Boris were ignorant of. So, mindful of my father's teaching, I took the axe, and, before any one was aware of my intent, I swept the long-handled axe round my head, and, getting the poise and distance for the slow drawing cut which does not stop for bone nor muscle, I divided the neck through at one blow so that the head dropped on the ground.
Then there was much applause and wonder. Men ran to lift the calf's head, and the owner of the axe came up to examine the edge of his weapon. I looked about. The eyes of the Lady Ysolinde were aflame with pleasure, but, on the other hand, the Little Playmate was crimson with shame. Tears stood in her beautiful eyes.
She marched straight up to meet me, and, clinching her hands, she said; "Oh, I hate you !"
And so went within to her chamber, and I saw her no more that night. Now I take all to witness what strange things are the mind and temper of even the best of women. And why Helene thus spoke to me I know not—nay, even to this day I can hazard no right guess. But as I have often said, God never made anything straight that He made beautiful, except only the line where the sea meets the sky.
And of all the pretty, crooked, tangled things that He has made, women are the prettiest, the crookedest—and the most distractingly tangled.
Which is perhaps why they are so everlastingly interesting, and why we blundering, ram-stam, homely favored men love them so.
But the best entertainment must at long and last come to an end. And the one in the inn of Erdberg lasted not so long as the telling of it—for the matter, being more comfortable than that which came after, I have, perhaps, not hurried so much as I might.
When at last both supper and entertainment were finished, and the earthenware platters huddled away into the hall without, there arose a mighty clamor, so that Jorian went to the door and cried out to the landlord to know what was the matter. The old brick-dusty knave came hulking forward, and, with greatly increased respect, he addressed the men-at-arms.
"What is your will, noble sirs?"
"I asked," said Jorian, "what was the reason of this so ill-favored noise. If your guests cannot be quiet, I will come among them with something that will settle the quarrels of certain of them in perpetuity."
So with sulky recurrent murmurs the fray finally settled itself, and for that time at least there was no more trouble. I went to the door of the Lady Ysolinde and the Little Playmate and cried in to them a courteous good-night. For I had been sorry to have Helene's "I hate you!" for her last word. And the Lady Ysolinde came to the door in a light robe of silk and gave me her hand to kiss. But though I said: "A sweet sleep and a pleasant, Helene!" no voice replied. Which I took very ill, seeing that I had done naught amiss that I knew of.
Then Jorian, Boris, and I made us comfortable for the night, and, being instructed by Boris, I set my straw, with the foot of my bundle to the door, which opened inward upon us. Then, putting my sword by my side and my other weapons convenient to my hand, I laid me down and braced my feet firmly against the door, thus locking it safely.
Jorian and Boris did the same at the other entrances, and before the former went to sleep he arranged a tall candle that had been placed unlighted before a little shrine of the Virgin (for, in name at least, the folk were not wholly pagan) and lighted it, so that it shed a faint illumination down the long passage in which we were bestowed, and on the inner door of the ladies' apartment.
And though I was far from being in love, yet the thought of the wandering damsels, both so fair and so far from home, moved me deeply. And I was in act to waft a kiss towards the door when Jorian caught me.
"What now?" he said; "art at thy prayers, lad ?"
"Aye, that am I," said I, "towards the shrine of the Saints' Rest."
Now this was irreverent, and mayhap afterwards we were all soundly punished for it. But at least it was on the level of their soldiers' wit—though I own, at the most, no great matter to cackle of.
"Ho! ho! Good!" chuckled Boris, under his breath. "One of them is doubtless a saint. But as to the other—well, let us ask the Prince. 'He hath a Princess, and she is oft upon her travels?' Ho! ho! ho!"
And the lout shook among his straw to such an extent that I bade him for God's dear sake to bide still, otherwise we might as lief lie in a barn among questing rattons.
"And the saints of your Saints' Rest defend us from lying among any worse!" said he, and betook him to sleep.
HUGO OF THE BROADAXE
But as for me, sleep I could not. And indeed that is small wonder. For it was the first night I had ever slept out of the Red Tower in my life. I seemed to lack some necessary accompaniment to the act of going to sleep.
It was a long while before I could find out what it could be that was disturbing me. At last I discovered that it was the howling of the kennelled blood-hounds which I missed. For at night they even raged, and leaped on the barriers with their forefeet, hearing mayhap the moving to and fro of men come sleeplessly up from the streets of the city beneath.
But here, within a long day's march of Thorn, I had come at once into a new world. Slowly the night dragged on. The candle guttered. A draught of air blew fitfully through the corridor in which we lay. It carried the flame of the candle in the opposite direction. I wondered whence it could come, for the air had been still and thick before. Yet I was glad of the stir, for it cooled my temples, and I think that but for one thing I might have slept. And had I fallen on sleep then no one of us might have waked so easily. What I heard was no more than this—once or twice the flame of the candle gave a smart little "spit," as if a moth or a fat blue-bottle had forwandered into it and fallen spinning to the ground with burned wings. Yet there were no moths in the chambers, or we should have seen them circling about the lights at the time of supper. Nevertheless, ere long I heard again the quick, light "plap!" And presently I saw a pellet fall to the ground, rolling away from the wall almost to the edge of the straw on which I lay.
I reached out a hand for it, and in a trice had it in my fingers. It was soft, like mason's putty. "Plop!" came another. I was sure now. Some one was shooting at the flame of the candle with intent to leave us in the dark. Jorian and Boris snored loudly, sleeping like true men-at-arms. I need say no more.
I lay with my head in the shadow, but by moving little by little, with sleepy grunts of dissatisfaction, I brought my face far enough round to see through the straw the window at the far end of the passage, which, as I had discovered upon our first coming, opened out upon a ravine running at right angles to the street by which we had come.
Presently I could see the lattice move noiselessly, and a white face appeared with a boy's blow-gun of pierced bore-tree at its lips.
"Alas!" said I to myself, "that I had had these soldiers' skill of the knife throwing. I would have marked that gentleman." But I had not even a bow—only my sword and dagger. I resolved to begin to learn the practice of pistol and cross-bow on the morrow.
"Plap! Scat!" The aim was good this time. We were in darkness. I listened the barest fragment of a moment. Some one was stealthily entering at the window end.
"Rise, Jorian and Boris!" I cried. "An enemy!"
And leaping up I ran to relight the candle. By good luck the wick was a sound, honest, thick one, a good housewife's wick—not such as are made to sell and put in ordinary candles of offertory.
The wick was still red, and smoked as I put my hands behind it and blew. "Twang! Twang! Zist! Zist!" went the arrows and bolts thickly about me, bringing down the clay dust in handfuls thickly from the walls.
"Down on your stomachs—they are shooting crosswise along the passage !" cried Jorian, who had instantly awakened. I longed to follow the advice, for I felt something sharp catch the back of my undersuit of soft leather, in which, for comfort, I had laid me down to sleep. But I must get the candle alight. Hurrah! the flame flickered and caught at last. "Twang! Twang!" went the bows, harder at it than ever. Something hurtled hotly through my hair—the iron bolt of an arbalest, as I knew by the song of the steel bow in a man's hand at the end of the passage.
"Get into a doorway, man!" cried Boris, as the light revealed me.
And like a startled rabbit I ran for the nearest—that within which Helene and the Lady Ysolinde were lying asleep. The candle, as I have said, was set deep in a niche, which proved a great mercy for us. For our foes, who had thought to come on us by fraud, could not now shoot it out. Also, in relighting it, in my eagerness to save myself from the hissing arrows behind me, I had pushed it to the very back of the shrine. I had no weapon now but my dagger, for, in rising to relight the candle, I had carelessly and blamefully left my sword in the straw. And I felt very useless and foolish as I stood there to bide the assault with only a bit of guardless knife in my hand.
Suddenly, however, there came a diversion.
"Crash !" went a gun in my very ear. Flame, smoke—much of both—and the stifling smell of sulphur. Jorian had fired at the face of the pop-gun knave. That putty-white countenance had a crimson plash on it ere it vanished. Then came back to us a scream of dreadful agony and the sound of a heavy fall outside.
"End of act the first! The Wicked Angels—hum, hum—go to hell! All in the day's work!" cried Jorian, cheerily, recharging his pistolet and driving home the wadding as he spoke.
It may well be imagined that during our encounter with the assailants of the candle, whose transverse fire had so nearly finished me, the company out in the great kitchen had not been content to lie snoring on their backs. We could hear them creeping and whispering out there beyond the doors; but till after the shot from the soldier's pistolet they had not dared to show us any overt act of hostility.
Suddenly Jorian, once more facing the door, now that the passage was clear, perceived by the rustling of the straw that it began to open gradually. He waited till in another moment it would have been wide enough to let in a man.
"Back there, dog, or I fire!" he bellowed. And the door was promptly shut to.
After that there came another period of waiting very difficult to get over. I wished with all my heart for a cross-bow or any shooting weapon. Much did I reproach myself that I had not learned the art before, as I might easily have done from the men-at-arms about the Wolfsberg, who, for my father's sake (or Helene's), would gladly have taught me.
The women folk in the room behind my back were now up and dressed. Indeed, the Lady Ysolinde would have come out and watched with us, but I besought her to abide where she was. Presently, however, Helene put her head without, and seeing me stand by the door with my sword, she asked if I wanted anything. She appeared to have forgotten her unkind good-night, and I was not the man to remind her of it.
"Only another weapon, Sweetheart, besides this prick-point small-sword!" said I, looking at the thing in my hand I doubt not a trifle scornfully.
Helene shut to the door, and for a space I heard no more. Presently, however, she opened it again, and thrust an axe with a long handle through to me. It was the very fellow of the weapon I had used on the pendent calf in the kitchen. I understood at once that it was her apology and her justification as well. For the Little Playmate was ever a straight lass. She ever did so much more than she promised, and ever said less than her heart meant. Which perhaps is less common than the other way about—especially among women.
"I found it on my incoming and hid it under the bed!" she said.
Then judge ye if I sheathed not my small-sword right swiftly, and made the broadaxe blade, to the skill of which I had been born, whistle through the air. For a mightily strange thing it is that, though I had ever a rooted horror at the thought of my father's office itself, and from my childhood never for a moment intended to exercise it, nevertheless I had always the most notable facility in cutting things. Never to this day have I a stick in hand, when I walk abroad among the ragweed waving yellow on the grassy pastures below the Wolfsberg, but I must need make wagers with myself to cut to an inch at the heads of the tallest and never miss. And this I can do the day by the length, and never grow weary. Then again, for pleasaunce, my father used to put me to the cutting of light wood with an axe, not always laying it upon a block or hag-clog, but sometimes setting the billet upright and making me cut the top off with a horizontal swing of the axe. And in this I became exceedingly expert. And how difficult it is no one knows till he has tried.
So it is small wonder that as soon as I gripped the noble broadaxe which Helene passed me I felt my own man again.
Then we were silent and listened—and ever again listened and held our breaths. Now I tell you when an enemy is whispering unseen without, rustling like rats in straw, and you wonder at what point they will break in next, thinking all the while of the woman you love (or do not yet love, but may) in the chamber behind—I tell you a castle is something less difficult to hold at such a time than just one's own breath.
Suddenly I heard a sound in the outer chamber which I knew the meaning of. It was the shifting of horses' feet as they turn in narrow space to leave their stalls. Our good friends were making free with our steeds. And, if we were not quick about it, we should soon see the last of them, and be compelled to traverse the rest of the road to Plassenburg upon our own proper feet.
"Jorian," cried I, "do you hear? They are slipping our horses out of the stalls! Shall you and I make a sortie against them, while Boris with that pistol of his keeps the passage from the wicks of the middle door?"
"Good!" answered Jorian. "Give the word when you are ready."
With axe in my right hand, the handle of the door in my left, I gave the signal.
"When I say 'Three!' Jorian!"
"Good!" said Jorian.
Clatter went the horses' hoofs as they were being led towards the door.
"One! Two! Three!" I counted, softly but clearly.
The door was open, and the next I mind was my axe whirling about my head and Jorian rushing out of the other door a step ahead of me, with his broadsword in his hand. I cannot tell much about the fight. I never could all my days. And I wot well that those who can relate such long particulars of tales of fighting are the folk who stood at a distance and labored manfully at the looking on—not of them that were close in and felt the hot breaths and saw the death-gleam in fierce, desperate eyes, near to their own as the eyes of lovers when they embrace. Ah, Brothers of the Sword, these things cannot be told! Yet, of a surety, there is a heady delight in the fray itself. And so I found. For I struck and warded not, that being scarce necessary. Because an axe is an uncanny weapon to wield, but still harder to stand against when well used. And I drove the rabble before me—the men of them, I mean. I felt my terrible weapon stopped now and then—now softly, now suddenly, according to that which I struck against. And all the while the kitchen of the inn resounded with yells and threatenings, with oaths and cursings.
But Jorian and I drove them steadily back, though they came at us again and again, with spits, iron hooks, and all manner of curious weapons. Also from out of the corners we saw the gleaming, watchful eyes of a dark huddle of women and children. Presently the clamorous rabble turned tail suddenly and poured through the door out upon the pathway, quicker than water through a tide-race in the fulness of the ebb.
And lo! in a moment the room was sucked empty, save only for the huddled women in the corners, who cried and suckled their children to keep them still. And some of the wounded with the axe and the sword crawled to them to have their ghastly wounds bound. For an axe makes ugly work at the best of times, and still worse on the edges of such a pagan fight as we three had just fought.
So we went back victorious to our inner doors.
Then Jorian looked at me and nodded across at Boris.
"Good!" was all that he said. But the single word made me happier than many encomiums.
In spite of all, however, we were no nearer than before to getting away that I could see. For there was still all that long, desperate traverse of the defile before we could guide our horses to firm ground again. But while I was thinking bitterly of my first night's sleep (save the mark!) away from the Red Tower, I heard something I knew not the meaning of—the beginning of a new attack, as I judged.
It sounded like a scraping and a crumbling somewhere above.
"God help us now, Jorian!" I cried, in a sudden, quick panic; "they are coming upon us everyway. I can hear them stripping off the roof-tile overhead—if such rabbit-warrens as this have Christian roofs!"
Boris sat down calmly with his back against the earthen wall and trained his pistol upward, ready to shoot whatever should appear. Presently fragments of earth and hardened clay began to drop on the pounded floor of the corridor. I heard the soft hiss of the man-at-arms blowing up his match, and I waited for the crash and the little heap of flame from the touch.
Suddenly a foot, larger than that of mortal, plumped through our ceiling of brick-dust and a huge scatterment of earth tumbled down. A great bare leg, with attachment of tattered hose hanging here and there, followed.
Before the pistol could go off, Boris meanwhile waiting shrewdly for the appearance of a more vital part, a voice cried, "Stop!"
I looked about me, and there was the Lady Ysolinde come out of her chamber, with a dagger in her hand. She was looking upward at the hole in the ceiling.
"For God's sake, do not fire!" she cried; "tis only my poor Lubber Fiend. Shame on me, that I had quite forgotten him all this time!"
At which, without turning away the muzzle, Boris put it a little aside, and waited for the disturber of brick-dust ceilings to reveal himself. Which, when presently he did, a huge, grinning face appeared, pushing forward at first slowly and with difficulty, then, as soon as the ears had crossed the narrows of the pass, the whole head to the neck was glaring down and grinning to us.
"Lubber Jan," said Ysolinde, "what do you up there?"
The head only grinned and waggled pleasantly, as it had been through a horse-collar at Dantzig fair.
"Speak!" said she, and stamped her little foot; "I will shake thee with terrors else, monster!"
"Poor Jan came down from above. It is quite easy!" he said. "But not for horses. Oh no! but now I will go and bring the Burgomeister. Do you keep the castle while I go. He bides below the town in a great house of stone, and entertains our Prince Miller's Son's archers. I will bring all that are sober of them."
"God help us then!" quoth Jorian; "it is past eleven o' the clock, and as I know them man by man, there will not be so much as one left able to prop up another by this time!"
"Aha!" cried the head above; "you say that because you know the archers. But I say I shall bring full twenty of them—because I know the strength of the Burgomeister's ale. Hold the place for half an hour and twenty right sober men shall ye have."
And with that the Lubber Fiend disappeared in a final avalanche of brick-dust and clay clods.
He was gone, and half an hour was a long time to wait. Yet in such a case there was nothing for it but to stand it out. So I besought the maids to retire again to their inner chamber, into which, at least, neither bullets nor arrows could penetrate. This, after some little persuasion, they did.
We waited. I have since that night fought many easier battles, and bloody battles, too. Now and then a face would look in momentarily from the great outer door and vanish before any one could put a shot into it. Next, ere one was aware, an arrow would whistle with a "Hisst!" past one's breast-bone and stand quivering, head-covered in the clay. Vicious things they were, too, steel-pointed and shafted with iron for half their length.
But all waitings come to an end, even that of him who waits on a fair woman's arraying of herself. Erdberg evidently did not know of the little party down at the Burgomeister's below the pass of the ravine, or, knowing, did not care. For, just as our half-hour was crawling to an end, with a unanimous yell a crowd of wild men with weapons in their hands poured in through the great door and ran shouting at our position. At the same time the window at the end of the passage opened and a man leaped through. Him I sharply attended to with the axe, and stood waiting for the next. He also came, but not through the window. He ran at me, head first, through the door, and, being stricken down, completely blocked it up. Good service! And a usefully bulky man he was. But how he bled!—Saint Christopher! that is the worst of bulky men, they can do nothing featly—not even die!
One man won past me, indeed, darting under the stroke of my axe, but he was little advantaged thereby. For I fetched a blow at the back of his head with the handle which brought him to his knees. He stumbled and fell at the threshold of the maids' chamber. And, by my sooth, the Lady Ysolinde stooped and poignarded him as featly as though it had been a work of broidering with a bodkin. Too late, Helene wept and besought her to hold her hand. He was, she said, some one's son or lover. It was deucedly unpractical. But, 'twas my Little Playmate. And after all, I suppose, the crack he got from me in the way of business would have done the job neatly enough without my lady's dagger.
I tell you, the work was hot enough about those three doors during the next few moments. I never again want to see warmer on this side of Peter's gates—especially not since I got this wound in my thigh, with its trick of reopening at the most inconvenient seasons. But the broadaxe was a blessed thought of the little Helene's, and helped to keep the castle right valiantly.
Yet I can testify that I was glad with more than mere joy when I heard the "Trot, trot!" of the Prince's archers coming at the wolf's lope, all in each other's footsteps, along the narrow ledge of the village street.
"Hurrah, lads!" I shouted; "quick and help us!"
And then at the sound of them the turmoil emptied itself as quickly as it had come. The rabble of ill-doers melted through the wide outer door, where the archers received and attended to them there. Some precipitated themselves over the cliff. Others were straightway knocked down, stunned, and bound. Some died suddenly. And a few were saved to stretch the judicial ropes of the Bailiwick. For it was always thought a good thing by such as were in authority to have a good show on the "Thieves' Architrave," or general gallows of the vicinity, as a thing at once creditable to the zeal of the worthy dispensers of local justice, and pleasing to the Kaiser's officer if he chanced to come spying that way.
MINE HOST RUNS HIS LAST RACE
Hearty were the greetings when the soldiers found us all safe and sound. They shook us again and again by the hand. They clapped us on the back. They examined professionally the dead who lay strewn about.
"A good stroke! Well smitten!" they cried, as they turned them over, like spectators who applaud at a game they can all understand. Specially did they compliment me on my axe-work. Never had anything like it been seen in Plassenburg. The head of the yearling calf was duly exhibited, when the neatness of the blow and the exactness of the aim at the weakest jointing were prodigiously admired.
The good fellows, mellow with the Burgomeister's sinall-ale, were growing friendly beyond all telling, when, in the light of the offertory taper, now growing beguttered and burning low, there appeared the Lady Ysolinde.
You never saw so quick a change in any men. The heartiest reveller forthwith became silent and slunk behind his neighbor. Knees shook beneath stalwart frames, and there seemed a very general tendency to get down upon marrow-bones.
The Lady Ysolinde stood before them, strangely different from the slim, willowy maiden I had seen her. She looked almost imperial in her demeanor.
"You shall be rewarded for your ready obedience," she said; "the Prince will not forget your service. Take away that offal!"
She pointed to the dead rascals on the floor.
And the men, muttering something that sounded to me like "Yes, your Highness !" hastened to obey.
"Did you say 'Yes, your Highness' ?" I asked one of them, who seemed, by his air of command, to be the superior among the archers.
"Aye," answered he, dryly, "it is a term usually applied to the Lady Ysolinde, Princess of Plassenburg."
I was never more smitten dazed and dumb in my life. Ysolinde, the daughter of Master Gerard, the maid who had read my fate in the ink-pool, whom I had "made suffer," according to her own telling—she the Princess of Plassenburg '.
Ah, I had it now. Here at last was the explanation of the threadbare and inexplicable jest of Jorian and Boris, "The Prince hath a Princess, and she is oft upon her travels !"
But, after all, what a Wendish barking about so small an egg. I have heard an emperor proclaimed with less cackle.
Ysolinde, Princess of Plassenburg—yes, that made a difference. And I had taken her hand—I, the son of the Red Axe—I, the Hereditary Justicer of the Wolfmark. Well, after all, she had sought me, not I her. And then, the little Helene—what would she make of it? I longed greatly to find an opportunity to tell her. It might teach her in what manner to cut her cloth.
The archers of the Prince camped with us the rest of the night in the place of the outcast crew. They behaved well (though their forbearance was perhaps as much owing to the near presence of the Princess as to any inherent virtue in the good men of the bow) to the women and children who remained huddled in the corners.
Then came the dawn, swift-foot from the east. A fair dawn it was, the sun rising, not through barred clouds, with the lightest at the horizon (which is the foul-weather dawn), but through streamers and bannerets that fluttered upward and fired to ever fleecier crimson and gold as he rose.
We rode among a subdued people, and ere we went the Princess called for the Burgomeister and bade him send to Plassenburg the landlord, so soon as he should be found, and also the heads of the half-dozen houses on either side of the inn.
Then, indeed, there was a turmoil and a wailing to speak about. Women folk crowded out of the huts and kissed the white feet of the palfrey that bore the Lady Ysolinde.
"Have mercy!" they wailed; "show kindness, great Princess! Here are our men, unwounded and unhurt, that have lain by our sides all the night. They are innocent of all intent of evil—of every dark deed. Ah, lady, send them not to your prisons. We shall never see them more, and they are all we have or our children. 'Tis they bring in the bread to this drear spot!"
"Produce me your husbands, then!" said the Lady Ysolinde.
Whereat the women ran and brought a number of frowsy and bleared men, all unwounded, save one that had a broken head.
Then Ysolinde called to the Burgomeister. "Come hither, chief of a thievish municipality, tell me if these be indeed these women's husbands."
The Burgomeister, a pallid, pouch-mouthed man, tremulous, and brick-dusty, like everything else in the village of Erdberg, came forward and peeringly examined the men.
"Every man to his woman!" he ordered, brusquely, and the women went and stood each by her own property—the men shamefaced and hand-dog, the women anxious and pale. Some of the last threw a, protecting arm about their husbands, which they for the most part appeared to resent. In every case the woman looked the more capable and intelligent, the men being apparently mere boors.
"They are all their true husbands, at least so far as one can know!" answered the Burgomeister, cautiously.
"Then," said the lady, "bid them catch the innkeeper and send him to Plassenburg, and these others can abide where they are. But if they find him not, they must all come instead of him."
The men started at her words, their faces brightening wonderfully, and they were out of the door before one could count ten. We mounted our horses, and under the very humble guidance of the Burgomeister, who led the Princess's palfrey, we were soon again upon the high table-land. Here we enjoyed to the full the breezes which swept with morning freshness across the scrubby undergrowths of oak and broom, and above all the sight of misty wisps of cloud scudding and whisking about the distant peaks-behind which lay the city of Plassenburg.
We had not properly won clear of the ravines when we heard a great shouting and turmoil behind us—so that I hastened to look to my weapons. For I saw the archers instinctively draw their quarrels and bolt-pouches off their backs, to be in readiness upon their left hips.
But it was only the rabble of men and women who had been threatened, the dwellers in those twelve houses next the inn, who came dragging our brick-faced knave of a host, with that hard-polished countenance of his slack and clammy—slate-gray in color too, all the red tan clean gone out of it.
"Mercy—mercy, great lady!" he cried; "I pray you, do execution on me here and now. Carry me not to the extreme tortures. Death clears all. And I own that for my crimes I well deserve to die. But save me from the strappado, from the torment of the rack. I am an old man and could not endure."
The Lady Ysolinde looked at him, and her emerald eyes held a steely glitter in their depths.
"I am neither judge nor"—I think she was going to say "executioner," but she remembered in time and for my sake was silent, which I thought was both gracious and charming of her. She resumed in a softer tone: "What sentence, then, would you desire, thus confessing your guilt?"
"That I might end myself over the cliff there!" said the innkeeper, pointing to the wall of rock along the edge of which we were riding.
"See, then, that he is well ended!" said the Princess, briefly, to Jorian.
"Good!" said Jorian, saluting.
And very coolly betook himself to the edge of the cliff, where he primed his piece anew, and blew up his match.
"Loose the man and stand back!" cried the Princess.
A moment the innkeeper stood nerving himself. A moment he hung on the thin edge of his resolve. The slack gray face worked convulsively, the white lips moved, the hands were gripped close to his sides as though to run a race. His whole body seemed suddenly to shrink and fall in upon itself.
"The torture! The terrible torture!" he shrieked aloud, and ran swiftly from the clutches of the men who had held him. Between the path and the verge of the cliff from which he was suffered to cast himself there stretched some thirty or forty yards of fine green turf. The old man ran as though at a village fair for some wager of slippery pig's tail, but all the time the face of him was like Death and Hell following after.
At the cliff's edge he leaped high into the air, and went headlong down, to our watching eyes as slowly as if he had sunk through water. None of us who were on the path saw more of him. But Jorian craned over, regarding the man's end calmly and even critically. And when he had satisfied himself that that which was done was properly done, as coolly as before he stowed away his match in his cover-fire, mounted his horse, and rode towards us.
He nodded to the Princess. "Good, my Lady!" quoth he, for all comment.
"I saved a charge that time!" said he to his companion.
"Good!" quoth Boris, in his turn.
We had now a safe and noble escort, and the way to Plassenburg was easy. The face of the country gradually changed. No more was it the gray, wistful plain of the Wolfmark, upon which our Red Tower looked down. No more did we ride through the marly, dusty, parched lands, in which were the ravines with their uncanny cavern villages, of which this Erdberg was the chief. But green, well-watered valleys and mountains wooded to the top lay all about us—a pleasant land, a fertile province, and, as the Princess had said, a land in which the strong hand of Karl the Prince had long made "the broom-bush keep the cow."
I had all along been possessed with great desire to meet the Prince of so noble and well-cared-for a land, and perhaps also to see what manner of man could be the husband of so extraordinary a Princess.
PRINCE JEHU MILLER'S SON
Yet now, when she was in her own country, and as good as any queen thereof, I found the Lady Ysolinde in no wise different from, what she had been in the city of Thorn and in her father's house. She called me often to ride beside her, Helene being on my other side, while the Lubber Fiend, who had saved all our lives, gambolled about and came to her to be petted like a lapdog of some monstrous sort. He licked his lips and twisted his eyes upward at her in ludicrous ecstasy till only the whites were visible whenever the Princess laid her hand on his head. So that it was as much as the archers of the guard could do to hide their laughter in their beards. But hide it they did, having a wholesome awe of the emerald eyes of their mistress, or perhaps of the steely light which sometimes came into them.
It was growing twilight upon the third day (for there were no adventures worth dwelling upon after that among the cavern dwellings of Erdberg) when for the first time we saw the towers of Plassenburg crowning a hill, with its clear brown river winding slow beneath. We were yet a good many miles from it when down the dusty road towards us came a horseman, and fifty yards or so behind him another.
"The Prince—none rides like our Karl!" said Jorian, familiarly, under his breath, but proudly withal.
"He comes alone!" said I, wonderingly. For indeed Duke Casimir of the Wolfsberg never went ten lances' length from his castle without a small army at his tail.
"Even so!" replied Jorian; "it is ever his custom. The officer who follows behind him has his work cut out—and basted. Not for nothing is our Karl called Prince Jehu Miller's Son, for indeed he rides most furiously."
Before there was time for more words between us a tall, grim-faced, pleasant-eyed man of fifty rode up at a furious gallop. The first thing I noticed about him was that his hair was exactly the same color as his horse—an iron-gray, rusty a little, as if it had been rubbed with iron that has been years in the wet.
He took off his hat courteously to the Princess.
"I bid you welcome, my noble lady," said he, smiling; "the cages are ready for the new importations."
The Lady Ysolinde reached a hand for her husband to kiss, which he did with singular gentleness. But, so far as I could see, she neither looked at him even once nor yet so much as spoke a word to him. Presently he questioned her directly: "And who may this fair young damsel be, who has done me the honor to journey to my country?"
"She is Helene, called Helene Gottfried of Thorn, and has come with me to be one of my maids of honor," answered the Lady Ysolinde, looking straight before her into the gathering mist, which began to collect in white ponds and streaks here and there athwart the valley.
The Prince gave the Little Playmate a kindly ironic look out of his gray eyes, which, as I interpreted it, had for meaning, "Then, if that be so, God help thee, little one—'tis well thou knowest not what is before thee!"
"And this young man?" said the Prince, nodding across to me.
But I answered for myself.
"I am the son of the Hereditary Justicer of the Wolfmark," said I. "I had no stomach for such work. Therefore, as I was shortly to be made my father's assistant, I have brought letters of introduction to your Highness, in the hopes that you will permit me the exercise of arms in your army in another and more honorable fashion."
"I have promised him a regiment," said the Princess, speaking quickly.
"What—of leaden soldiers?" answered the Prince, looking at her mighty soberly.
"Your Highness is pleased to be brutal," answered the Lady Ysolinde, coldly. "It is your ordinary idea of humor!"
A kind of quaint humility sat on the face of the Prince.
"I but thought that your Highness could have nothing else in her mind—seeing that our rough Plassenburg regiments will only accept men of some years and experience to lead them. But the little soldiers of metal are not so queasy of stomach."
"May it please your Highness," said I, earnestly, "I will be content to begin with carrying a pike, so that I be permitted in any fashion to fight against your enemies."
Jorian and Boris came up and saluted at this point, like twin mechanisms. Then they stood silent and waiting.
The Prince nodded in token that they had permission to speak.
"With the sword the lad fights well," said Boris. "Is it not so, Jorian?"
"Good!" said Jorian.
"But with the broadaxe he slashes about him like an angel from heaven—not so, Boris?" said Jorian.
"Good!" said Boris.
"Can you ride?" said the Prince, turning abruptly from them.
"Aye, sire!" said I. For indeed I could, and had no shame to say it.
"That horse of his is blown; give him your fresh one!" said he to the officer who had accompanied him. "And do you show these good folk to their quarters."
Hardly was I mounted before the Prince set spurs to his beast, and, with no more than a casual wave of his hand to the Princess and her train, he was off.
"Ride!" he cried to me. And was presently almost out of sight, stretching his horse's gray belly to the earth, like a coursing dog after a hare.
Well was it for me that I had learned to ride in a hard school—that is, upon the unbroken colts which were brought in for the mounting of the Duke Casimir's soldiery. For the horse that I had been given took the bit between his teeth and pursued so fiercely after his stable companion that I could scarce restrain him from passing the Prince. But our way lay homeward, so that, though I was in no way able to guide nor yet control my charger, nevertheless presently the Prince and I were clattering through the town of Plassenburg like two fiends riding headlong to the pit.
Within the town the lamps were being lit in the booths, the folks busy marketing, and the watchmen already perambulating the city and crying the hours at the street corners.
But as the Prince and I drove furiously through, like pursuer and pursued, the busy streets cleared themselves in a twinkling; and we rode through lanes of faces yellow in the lamplight, or in the darker places like blurs of scrabbled whiteness. So I leaned forward and let the beast take his chance of uneven causeway and open sewer. I expected nothing less than a broken neck, and for at least half a mile, as we flew upward to the castle, I think that the certainty of naught worse than a broken arm would positively have pleasured me. At least, I would very willingly have compounded my chances for that.
Presently, without ever drawing rein, we flew beneath the dark outer port of the castle, clattered through a court paved with slippery blocks of stone, thundered over a noble drawbridge, plunged into a long and gloomy archway, and finally came out in a bright inner palace court with lamps lit all about it.
I was at the Prince's bridle ere he could dismount.
"You can ride, Captain Hugo Gottfried!" he said. "I think I will make you my orderly officer."
And so he went within, without a word more of praise or welcome.
There came past just at that moment an ancient councillor clad in a long robe of black velvet, with broad facings and rosettes of scarlet. He was carrying a roll of papers in his hand.
"What said the Prince to yon, young sir, if I may ask without offence?" said he, looking at me with a curiously sly, upward glance out of the corner of his eye, as if he suspected me of a fixed intention to tell him a lie in any case.
"If it be any satisfaction to you to know," answered I, rather piqued at his tone, "the Prince informed me that I could ride, and that he intended to make me his orderly officer. And he called me not 'young sir,' but Captain Hugo Gottfried."
"How long has he known you?" said the Chief Councillor of State. For so by his habit I knew him to be.
"Half an hour, or thereby," answered I.
"God help this kingdom!" cried the old man, tripping off, flirting his hand hopelessly in the air—"if he had known you only ten minutes you would have been either Prime-Minister or Commander-in-Chief of the army."
It was in this strange fashion that I entered the army of the Prince of Plassenburg, a service which I shall ever look back upon with gratitude, and count as having brought me all the honors and most of the pleasures of my life.
Half an hour or so afterwards the blowing of trumpets and the thunder of the new leathern cannon announced that the Princess and her train were entering the palace. The Prince came down to greet them on the threshold in a new and magnificent dress.
"The Prince's officer-in-waiting to attend upon his Highness!" cried a herald in fine raiment of blue and yellow.
I looked about for the man who was to be my superior in my new office—that is, if Prince Karl should prove to have spoken in earnest.
"The Prince's orderly to attend upon him!" again proclaimed the herald, more impatiently.'
I saw every eye turn upon me, and I began to feel a gentle heat come over me. Presently I was blushing furiously. For I was still in my riding-clothes, and even they had not been changed after the adventure of the Brick-dust Town. So that they were in no wise fitting to attend upon a mighty dignitary.
The Prince of Plassenburg looked round.
"Ha!" he said; "this is not well—I had forgotten. My orderly ought to have been duly arrayed by this time."
"Pardon, my Prince," said I, "but all the apparel I have is upon my sumpter horse, which comes in the train of the Princess."
My master looked right and left in his quickly imperious and yet humorous manner.
"Here, Count von Reuss," he said to a tall, handsome, heavily jowled young man, "I pray you strip off thy fine coat for an hour, and lend it to my new officer-in-waiting. The ladies will admire thee more than ever in thy fine flowered waistcoat, with silk sleeves and frilled purfles of lace!"
The young man, Von Reuss, looked as if he desired much to tell the Prince to go and be hanged. But there was something in the bearing of Karl of Plassenburg, usurper as they called him, the like of which for command I have never seen in the countenance and manner of any lawfully begotten prince in the world.
So, beckoning me into an antechamber, and swearing evilly under his breath all the time, the young man stripped off his fine coat, and offered it to me with one hand, without so much as looking at me. He gave it indeed churlishly, as one might give a dole to a loathsome beggar to be rid of his importunity.