"I thank you, sir," said I, "but more for your obedience to the Prince than for the fashion of your courtesy to me."
Yet for all that he answered me never a syllable, but turned his head and played with his mustache till his man-servant brought him another coat.
ANOTHER MAN'S COAT
I followed the Prince without another word, and when he received the Princess I had the happiness of taking the Little Playmate by the hand and conducting her as gallantly as I could into the palace. And I was glad, for it helped to allay a kind of reproachful feeling in my heart, which would keep tugging and gnawing there whenever I was not thinking of anything else. I feared lest, in the throng and press of new experiences, I might a little have neglected or been in danger of forgetting the love of the many years and all the sweetness of our solitary companionship.
Nevertheless, I knew well that I loved those sweetest eyes of hers more than all the words of men and women and priests.
And even as I helped her to dismount, I went over and told her so.
It was just when I held her in my arms for a moment as she dismounted. She clung to me, and methought I heard a little sob.
"Do not ever be unkind, Hugo," she said. "I am very lonely. I wish, with all my heart, I were back again in the old Red Tower."
"Unkind—never while I live, little one," I whispered in her ear. "Cheer your heart, and to-morrow your sorrows will wear off, and you and I both shall find friendship in the strange land."
"I hate the Princess! And I shall never like her as long as I live!" she said, with that certain concentrated dislike which only good women feel towards those a degree less innocent, specially when the latter are well to look upon.
There was no time to reply immediately as I conducted her up the steps. For I had to keep my eyes open to observe how the Prince conducted himself, and in the easy ceremonial of Plassenburg it chanced that I happened upon nothing extravagant.
"But, Helene, you said a while ago that you hated me!" I said, after a little pause, smiling down at her.
"Did I?" she answered. "Surely nay!"
"Ah, but 'tis true as your eyes," I persisted. "Do you not remember when I had cut the calf's head off with the axe? You did not love the thought of the Red Tower so much then!"
"Oh, that!" she said, as if the discrepancy had been fully explained by the inflexion of her voice upon the word.
But she pressed my hand, so I cared not a jot for logic.
"You do not love her, you are sure?" she said, looking up at me when we came to the darker turn of the stairs, for the corkscrews were narrower in the ancient castle than in the new palace below.
"Not a bit!" said I, heartily, without any more pretence that I did not understand what she meant.
She pressed my hand again, momentarily slipping her own down off my arm to do it.
"It is not that I love you, Hugo, or that I want you to love me," she said, like one who explains that which is plain already, "except, of course, as your Little Playmate. But I could not bear that you should care about that—that woman."
It was evident that there were to be stirring times in the Castle of Plassenburg, and that I, Hugo Gottfried, was to have my share of them.
As soon as we had arrived at the banqueting-hall, the Prince beckoned me and presented me formally to the Lady Ysolinde.
"Your Highness, this is Captain Hugo Gottfried, my new officer-in-waiting."
The Princess bowed gravely and held out her hand. Her aqua-marine eyes were bent upon me, suffused with a certain quick and evident pleasure which became them well.
"Your Highness has chosen excellently. I can bear witness that the Captain Gottfried is a brave—a very brave man," she said.
And at that moment I was most grateful to her for the testimony. For behind us stood the young Von Reuss, pulling at his mustache and looking very superciliously over at me.
Then the Lady Ysolinde withdrew to her own apartments, and that day I got no more words with her nor yet with Helene.
The Prince also went to his room, and I remained where I was, deeming that for the present my duty was done.
The servant of the man whose coat I wore stood with another servitor close at hand—indeed, many of all ranks stood about.
"That is the fellow," I heard one say, tauntingly, meaning me to hear—"peacocking it there in my master's coat!"
His companion laughed contumeliously, at which the passion within me suddenly stirred. I gave one of them the palm of my hand, and as the other fell hastily back my foot took him.
"What ho, there! No quarrelling among the lackeys!" cried Von Reuss, insolently, from the other side of the room.
"Were you, by any chance, speaking to me?" said I, politely, looking over at him.
"Why, yes, fellow!" he said. "If you squabble with the waiting-men concerning cast-off clothes, you had better do it in the stables, where, as you say, your own wardrobe is kept."
"Sir," said I, "the coat I wear, I wear by the command of your Prince. It shall be immediately returned to you when the Prince permits me to go off duty. In the mean time, pray take notice that I am Captain Hugo Gottfried, officer-in-waiting to the Prince Karl of Plassenburg, and that my sword is wholly at your service."
"You are," retorted Von Reuss, "the son of my uncle Casimir's Hereditary Executioner, and one day you may be mine. Let that be sufficient honor for you."
"That I may be yours is the only part of my father's hereditary office I covet!" said I, pointedly.
And certainly I had him there, for immediately he turned on his heel and would have walked away.
But this I could not permit. So I strode sharply after him, and seizing him by his embroidered shoulder-strap, I wheeled him about.
"But, sir," said I, "you have insulted an officer of the Prince. Will you answer for that with your sword, or must I strike you on the face each time I meet you to quicken your sense of honor?"
Before he had time to answer the Prince came in.
"What, quarrelling already, young Spitfire!" he cried. "I made you my orderly—not my disorderly."
Von Reuss and I stood blankly enough, looking away from one another.
"What was the quarrel?" asked the Prince, when he had seated himself at table.
I looked to Von Reuss to explain. For indeed I was somewhat awed to think that thus early in my new career I had embroiled myself with the nephew of Duke Casimir, even though, like myself, he was in exile and dependent upon, the liberality of Prince Karl.
But, since he did not speak, I made bold to say: "Sire, the Count von Reuss taunted me with wearing a borrowed coat, and called me a servitor, because by birth I am the son of the Hereditary Executioner of the Wolfmark. So I told him I was an officer of your household, and that my sword was much at his service."
"So you are," cried the Prince—"so you are—a servitor! So is he—young fools both! And as for being son of the Hereditary Executioner, it is throughout all our German land an honorable office. Once I was assistant executioner myself, and wished with all my heart that I had been principal, and so pocketed the guilders. No more of this folly, Von Reuss. I am ashamed of you, and to a new-comer! Hear ye, sir, I will not have it! I will e'en resume my old trade and do a little justicing on my own account. Shake hands this instant, you young bantams!"
And the Prince sat back in his chair and looked grimly at us. I went a step forward. But Von Reuss held aloof.
"Provost Marshal!" cried the Prince, in a voice which made every one in the room jump and all the glasses ring on the table—"bring a guard!"
The Provost Marshal advanced, bowed, and was departing, when Von Reuss came forward and held his hand out, at first sulkily, but afterwards readily enough.
Then we shook hands solemnly and stiffly, of course loving each other not one whit better.
"Ah," said the Prince, "I thought you would! For if you had not, your uncle, Duke Casimir, might have been a Duke without either an heir to his Dukedom or a successor to his Hereditary Justicer."
"Now sit down, lads, sit down and agree!" he said, after a pause. "The ladies come not to table to-night. So now begin and tell me all the affair of the Earthhouses. I must ride and see the place. I declare I grow rotten and thewless in this dull Plassenburg, where they dare not stick so much as a knife in one another, all for fear of Karl Miller's Son! Since I cannot adventure forth on my own account, I am become a man that wearies for news. Tell me every part of the affair, concealing nothing. But if you can, relate even your own share in it as faithfully as becomes a modest youth."
So I told him at length all that hath already been told, giving as far as I could the credit to Jorian and Boris, as indeed was only their desert.
Whereupon the tale being finished, the Prince said: "Have the two archers up!"
And while the pursuivant had gone for them, the old Councillor leaned across the table and whispered: "Enter Field-Marshal Jorian and General Boris!"
But when the archers came in and stood like a pair of kitchen pokers, the Prince ordered them to tell the story.
Jorian turned his head to Boris, and Boris turned his head to Jorian. They both made a little impatient gesture, which said: "Tell it you!"
But neither appeared to be able to speak first.
"Wind them up with a cup of wine apiece!" cried the hearty Prince; "surely that will set one of them off."
Two great flagons of wine were handed to Jorian and Boris, and they drank as if one machine had been propelling their internal workings, throwing off the liquor with beautiful unanimity and then bringing their cups to the position of salute as if they had been musketoons at the new French drill. After which each of them, having finished, gave the little cough of content and appreciation, which among the archers means manners.
But nevertheless the Prince's information with regard to the affair of Erdberg was not increased.
"Go on!" he cried, impatiently, looking at Jorian and Boris sternly.
They were still silent.
"This officer, Captain Hugo Gottfried," said the Prince, looking at me, "tells me that the credit of the preservation of the Princess among the cave folk is due to you two brave men."
"He lies!" said Wendish Jorian, with a face like a blank wall.
"Good!" muttered Boris, approvingly.
"He did it himself!" said Boris, adding, after a pause—"with an axe!"
"Good!" quoth Jorian.
"He cut a calf's head off!" said Jorian, as a complete explanation of how the preserving of the Princess was effected.
Whereat all laughed, and the Prince more than any. For ever since he drank his first draught of wine, he had begun to mellow.
"Well, hearty fellows, what reward would you have for your great bravery?"
They turned their heads simultaneously inward without moving any other part of their bodies. They nodded to one another.
"Well," cried the Prince, "what reward do you desire?"
"Now for the Field-Marshal's wand!" said the Councillor near to me, under his breath.
"Twelve dozen Rhenish!" said Jorian.
The Prince looked at Boris.
"And you?" he said.
"Twelve dozen Rhenish!" said Boris, without moving a muscle.
"God Bacchus!" cried the Prince, "you will empty my cellars between you, and I shall not have a sober archer for a month. But you shall have it. Go!"
Jorian and Boris saluted with a wink to each other as they wheeled, which said, as plain as monk's script or plainer, "Good!"
THE PRINCE'S COMPACT
In spite of all drawbacks and difficulties (and I had my share of them) I loved Plassenburg. And especially I loved the Prince. The son, so they said, of a miller in the valley of the Almer, he had entered the guard of the last Prince of Plassenburg, much as I had now entered his own service. Prince Dietrich had taken a fancy to him, and advanced him so rapidly that, after the disastrous war with Duke Casimir of the Mark and the death of the last legitimate Prince, Karl, the miller's son, having set himself to reorganize the army, succeeded so well that it was not long before he found himself the source of all authority in Plassenburg.
Thereafter he gave to the decimated and heartless land adequate defences and complete safety against foreign foes, together with security for life and property, under equal laws, within its own borders. So, in time, no man saying him nay, Karl Miller's Son became the Prince of Plassenburg, and his seat was more secure upon his throne than that of any legitimate prince for a thousand miles all round about.
After the quarrel with Von Reuss, the Prince, for reasons of his own, favored me with a great deal of his society. He was often graciously pleased to talk concerning his early difficulties.
"When I was an understrapper," he was wont to say, "the land was overswarmed and eaten up by officialdom. I could not see the good meat wasted upon crawlers. 'Get to work,' said I, 'or ye shall neither eat nor crawl!'
"'We must eat—to beg we are not ashamed, to steal is the right of our noble Ritterdom,' the crawlers replied.
"'So,' said I, 'bitte—as to that we shall see!'
"Then I made me a fine gallows, builded like that outside Paris, which I had seen once when on an embassy for Prince Dietrich. It was like a castle, with walls twelve feet thick, and on the beams of it room for a hundred or more to swing, each with his six feet of clearance, all comfortable, and no complaints.
"Then came the crawlers and asked me what this fine thing was for.
"'For the sacred Ritterdom of Plassenburg!' answered I, 'if it will not cease to burn houses and to ravish and carry off honest men's wives and daughters.'
"'But you must catch us!' quoth Crawlerdom. 'Walls fourteen feet thick!' said they.
"'Content,' cried I; 'there is the more fun in catching you. Only the end is the same—that is to say, my new, well-ventilated castle out there on the heath, fine girdles and neck-pieces and anklets of iron, and six feet of clearance for each of you to swing in.'
"So they went back to their castles, and robbed and ravished and rieved, even as did their fathers for a thousand years, thinking no evil. But I took my soldiers, whom in seven years' service I had taught to obey orders-two foot of clearance did well enough for the disobedient among them, not being either ritters or men of mark. And I, Karl the Miller's brat, as at that time they called me in contempt, borrowed cannon— great lumbering things—from my friend the Margrave George, down there to the south. A great work we had dragging them up to Plassenburg by rope and chain and laboring plough oxen. We shot them off before the fourteen-feet walls. Then arose various clouds of dust, shriekings, surrenderings, crying of 'Forgive us, great Prince, we never meant to do it,' followed, as I had said, by the six-feet clearances. But these in time I had to reduce to four—so great became the competition for places in my new Schloss Muellerssohn.
"But 'Once done, well done—done forever!' is my motto. So since that time the winds have mostly blown through my Schloss untainted, and the sons of Ritterdom, magnanimous captains and honest bailies of quiet bailiwicks, are my very good friends and faithful officers."
Prince Karl the Miller's Son was silent a moment.
"But I am still looking out for another man with a head-piece to come after me. I have no son, and if I had, the chances are ten to one that he would be either a milksop or a flittermouse painted blue. Milksops I hate, and send to the monkeries. I can endure flittermice painted blue, but they must wear petticoats—and pretty petticoats too. Have you observed those of the Princess?" said he, abruptly changing the subject.
"The Princess's flittermice?" I faltered, not well knowing what I said, for he had turned roughly and suddenly upon me.
"Aye, marry, you may say it! But I meant the Princess's wilicoats!"
"No," said I, as curtly as I could, for the subject had its obvious limitations.
"Ah, they are pretty ones," said Karl, "I assure you. She has at least an undeniable taste in lace and cambric. They say in other lands—not in this—though I would not hinder them if they did—that she wears the under-garments of men and rules the state. But I think not so. The Princess is a better Queen than wife, a better woman than either."
On this subject also I had nothing to say which I dared venture to the husband of the Lady Ysolinde.
"She read my horoscope," said I, weakly, searching for something in the corners of my brain to change the subject.
"How so?" said the Prince, quickly.
"First in a crystal and then in a pool of ink," I replied.
"It was a good horoscope and of a fortunate ending?"
"On the whole—yes!" said I; "though there was much in it that I could not understand."
"Like enow!" laughed the Prince; "I warrant she could not understand it herself! It is ever the way of the ink-pool folk."
Then ensued a silence between us.
Prince Karl remained long with his head resting on his hand. He looked critically at the twisted stem of his wineglass, twirling it between his thick fingers.
"The Princess loves you!" he said, at last, looking shrewdly at me from beneath his gray brows.
It was spoken half as a question and half as information.
"Loves me?" stammered I, the blood sucking back to my heart and leaving my head light and tingling.
The Prince nodded calmly.
"So they say!" said he.
"My Lord, it is a thing impossible!" cried I, earnestly. "I am but a poor lad—and she has been kind to me. But of love no word has been spoken. Besides—"
And I stopped.
"Out with it, man!" said the Prince, more like, as it seemed to me, a comrade inviting a confidence than a great Prince speaking to a newly made officer.
"Well, I—I love the Little Playmate."
It came out with a rush at last.
"Oh!" said he; "that is bad. I hope that is not a matter arranged, a thing serious. For if the Princess knows as much, the young woman will not have her troubles to seek in the Palace of Plassenburg."
I hung my head and said naught, save that Helene declared she loved me not, but that I thought she was mistaken.
"Ah, then," cried the Prince, like one exceedingly relieved, "it is but some boy and girl affair. That is better. She may change her mind, as you will certainly change yours—and that several times—among the ladies of the court. I was in hopes—"
And the Prince stopped in his turn, not from bashfulness, but rather like a man who desires more carefully to choose his words.
"I was in hopes," he went on, speaking slowly, "that if the Princess loved your boy's face and liked my conversation (which I may say without pride that I think she does) you and I together might have kept her at home. So over-much wandering is not good for the state. Also it gets her a name beyond all manner of ill-doing within-doors."
Once more I knew not well what to answer to this speech of the Prince's, so I remained discreetly silent.
"I have seen the Princess's flittermice about her before, often enough (I thank thee for the word, Sir Captain.), but this is the first time she has performed the ink-pool and crystal foolery with any man. There is no great harm in the Princess. In the things of love she is as inflammable as the ink, and as soft as the crystal. Fear not, Joseph, Potiphera may be depended upon not to proceed to extremities. But I was in some hopes that you and I could have arranged matters between us, being both men—aye, and honorable men."
I saw that Karl Miller's Son looked sad and troubled.
"Prince, you love the Princess!" said I, thrusting out my hand to him before I thought. He did not take it, but instead he thrust a flagon of wine into it, as if I had asked for that—yet the thing was not done by way of a rebuff. I saw that plainly.
"Pshaw! What does a grizzle-pate with love?" said he, gruffly. "Nevertheless, I was in hopes."
"Prince Karl," said I, "I give you word of honor, 'tis not as you say or they say. The Princess has indeed done me the honor to be friendly—"
"To hold your hand!" he murmured, softly, like a chorus.
"Well, to be friendly, and—"
"To caress your cheek?" put in the Prince, gently as before.
"Done me the honor to be friendly—"
"To play with your curls, lad?"
"The Princess—" I began, all in a tremor. For anything more awkward than this conversation I had never experienced. It bathed me in a drip of cold sweat.
"To kiss you, perhaps, at the waygoing?" he insinuated.
"No!" thundered I, at last. "Prince, you do your Princess great wrong."
He lifted his hand in a gentle, deprecating way, most unlike the rider who had ridden so fast and so hotly that night of our coming.
"You mistake me, sir," he said. "On the contrary, I have the greatest respect for the Princess Ysolinde. I would not wrong her for the world. But I know her track of old. You are a brave lad, and, after all, I fear there is something in that calf-love of yours—devil take it!"
I thought I could now dimly discern whither the Prince's plans were tending.
"Your Highness," said I, "I am a young man and of little experience. I cannot tell why you have chosen to speak so freely to me. But I am your servant, and, in all that hurts not the essence and matter of my love for the Little Playmate, I will do even as you say."
Prince Karl grasped my hand.
"Ah, well said!" he cried. "You are running your head into a peck of troubles, though. And you are likely to have some experience of womenkind shortly—a thing which does no brisk young fellow any harm, unless he lets them come between him and his career. Women are harmless enough, so that you keep them well down to leeward. I am Baltic-bred, and have ever held to this—that you may sail unscathed through fleets of farthingales, so being that you keep the wind well on your quarter, and see the fair-way clear before you."
I did not at the time understand half he said, but I knew we had made some sort of a bargain. And I thought, with an aching, unsatisfied heart, that though it might be well enough for an iron-gray and cynical old Prince, the thing would hardly commend itself to Helene, my Little Playmate, to whom I had so recently spoken loving words, sweeter than ever before.
"Devil take all Princes and Princesses!" I said, as I thought, to myself. But I must have spoken aloud, for the Prince laughed.
"Do not waste good prayers needlessly," he said; "he will!"
And so, with a careless and humorsome wave of his hand to one side, he went down the staircase, and so out into the quadrangle of the Palace.
LOVES ME—LOVES ME NOT
Now how this plan of my Lord Prince's worked in the Palace of Plassenburg I find it difficult to tell without writing myself down a "painted flittermouse," as the Prince expressed it. I was in high favor with my master; well liked also by most of the hard-driving, rough-riding young soldiers whom the miller's son had made out of the sons of dead and damned Ritterdom. I got my share of honor and good service, too, in going to different courts and bringing back all that Prince Karl needed. To exercise myself in the art of war, I hunted the border thieves and gave them short enough shrift. In a year I had made such an assault as that of the inn at Erdberg an impossibility all along the marches of our provinces.
The crusty old councillor, Leopold Dessauer, who had held office under the last Prince of the legitimate line, was ever ready to assist me with the kindest of deeds and the bitterest and saltest of words.
"What did I tell you about being Field-Marshal?" said he one day—"in Karl's kingdom the shorter the service, the higher the distinction. If you and the Prince live long enough, I shall see you carry a musketoon yet, and not one of the latest pattern, either. You will be promoted down, like a booby who has been raised by chance to the top of the class!"
"Well," said I, humbly, for I always reverenced age, "then I hope, High-Chancellor Dessauer, that I shall carry my musketoon as becomes a brave man!"
"I do not doubt it!" said he. "And that is the most hopeful thing I have seen about you yet. It is just possible, on the other hand, that you may yet rule and the Prince carry the piece."
"God forbid!" said I, heartily. For next to my own father, of all men I loved the Prince.
"The Princess hath a pretty hand," remarked Dessauer casually, as if he had said, "It will rain to-morrow!"
"I' faith, yes!" said I; "what have you been at to find out that?"
"Weak—weak!" he said, shaking his head. "I fear you will wreck on that rock. It is your blind peril!"
"My blind peril!" cried I. "What may that be, High Councillor?"
"Ah, lad," he said, smiling with that wise, all-patient smile which the aged affect when they mean to be impressive, yet know how useless is their wisdom, "it was never intended by the Almighty that any man should have eyes all round his head. That is why He fixed two in front, and made them look straight forward. That is also why He made us a little lower (generally a good deal lower) than the angels!"
I heard him as if I heard him not.
"You do me the honor to follow me?" he said, looking at me. He was, I think, conscious that my eyes wandered to the door, for indeed I was expecting the Little Playmate to come down every minute.
"Ah! yes, you follow indeed," he said, bitterly, "but it is the trip of feet, the flirt of farthingales down the turret steps. No matter! As I was saying, every man has his blind peril. He can see the thousand. He provides laboriously against them. He blocks every avenue of risk, he locks every dangerous door, and lo! there is the thousand-and-first right before him, yawning wide open, which he does not see—his Blind Peril!"
"And what, High-Councillor Dessauer, is my blind peril?"
"I will tell you, Hugo," he said; "not that you will believe or alter a hair. A man may do many things in this world, but one thing he cannot do. He cannot kiss the fingers of a Princess—dainty fingers, too, separating finger from finger—and kiss also the Princess's maid of honor on the mouth. The combination is certainly entertaining, but like the Friar's powder it is somewhat explosive."
"And how," asked I, "may you know all that ?"
The old man nodded his head sagely.
"Neither by ink-pool nor yet by scrying! All the same, I know. Moreover, your peril is not a blind peril only, but a blind man's peril. Ye must choose, and that quickly, little son—fingers or lips."
I heard the rustle of a skirt down the stair. It was the light, springing tread of the one I loved first and best, last and only.
"By the twelve gods, lips!" cried I, and made for the door.
And I heard the chuckling laughter of High-Chancellor Dessauer behind me as I followed Helene down the stairs. It sounded like the decanting of mellow wine, long hidden in darksome cellars, and now, in the flower of its age, bringing to the light the smiling of ancient vineyards and the shining of forgotten suns.
I found Helene arrived before me in the rose-garden. She did not turn round as I came, though she heard me well enough. Instead she walked on, plucking at a marguerite.
"Loves me—loves me not!" she said, bearing upon the last word with triumphant accent, as she continued to dismantle the poor flower.
And flashing round upon me with the solitary petal in her hand, she presented it with a low bow, in elfish mockery of the manner of the court exquisite.
"Ah, true flower!" she said, apostrophizing the bare stalk, "a flower cannot lie. It has not a glozing tongue. It cannot change back and forth. The sun shines. It turns towards the sun. The sun leaves the skies. It shuts itself up and waits his return. Ah,-true flower, dear flower, how unlike a man you are!"
"Helene," said I, "you have learned conceits from the catch-books. You quarrel by rote. Were I as eager to answer me, I might say: 'Ah, false flower, you grow out of the foulness underneath. You give your fragrance to all without discretion—a common lover, prodigal of favors, fit only to be torn to shreds by pretty, spiteful fingers, and to die at last with a lie in your mouth. Again I say—false flower!'"
"You can turn the corners, Sir Juggler, with the cup and ball of words," answered Helene. "So much they have already taught you in a court. But there is one thing that your fine-feathered tutors have not taught you—to make love to two women in one house and hide it from both of them. Hot and cold may not come too near each other. They will mix and make lukewarm of both."
A wise observation, and one that I wished I had made myself.
"May the devil take all princes and princesses!" I began, as I had done to the Prince himself.
Helene shook her head.
"Hugo," she said, "I was but a simpleton when I came hither, and knew nothing. Now I am wise, and I know!"
She touched her forehead with her finger, just where the curls were softest and prettiest.
"Oh, you have learned to be thrice more beautiful than ever you were!" I said, impetuously.
"So I am often told," answered she, calmly.
"Who dared tell you ?" cried I, quick as fire, laying my hand on my sword.
"The false common flowers by the wayside tell me!" said Helene, pertly.
"Let them beware, or I will take their heads off for rank weeds!" I answered.
For at that time, in the Court of Plassenburg, we talked in figures and romance words. We had indeed become so familiar with the mode that we could use no other, even in times of earnestness. So that a man would go to be hanged or married with a quipsome conceit on his lips.
"I think, Sir Janus Double-tongue," she said, "that you would not be the worse of a little medicine of your own concocting."
And with that she swept her skirts daintily about and tripped down in to the pleasaunce of flowers, to make which the Prince Karl had brought a skilled gardener all the way from France.
I prowled about the higher terrace, moodily watching the sky and thinking on the morrow's weather. And by-and-by I saw one come forth from among the cropped Dutch hedges, and stride across to where Helene walked with something white in her hand. I could see her again picking a flower to pieces, and methought I could hear the words. My jealous fancy conjured up the ending, "Loves me not—loves me! Loves me not!"
She turned even as she had done to me. The newcomer was that sneering Court fop, the Count von Reuss, Duke Casimir's nephew—still in hiding from the wrath of his uncle. For at that time hardly any court in Germany was without one or two of these hangers-on, and a bad, reckless, ill-contriving breed they were at Plassenburg, as doubtless elsewhere.
Then grew my heart hard and bitter, and yet, in a moment afterwards, was again only wistful and sad.
"She had been safer," thought I, "in the old Red Tower than playing flower fancies with such a man!"
For I had seen the very devil look out of his eye—which indeed it did as often as he cast it on a fair woman. In especial, I longed to throttle him each time he turned to watch Helene as she went by. And here she was walking with him, and talking pleasantly too, in the rose garden of the palace.
"Ah, devil take all princes and princesses!" said I. This one, it is true, was only a count, and disinherited. But I felt that the thing was the Prince's doing, and that it was for the sake of the covenant he had made with me that I was compelled to put up with such a toad as Von Reuss crawling and besliming the fair garden of my love.
It was an evening without clouds—everything shining clear after rain, the scent of the flowers rising like incense so full and sweet that you could almost see it. The unnumbered birds were every one awake, responsive and emulous. The deep silence of midsummer was broken up. It was like another spring.
The Princess Ysolinde came out to take the air. She was wrapped in her gown of sea-green silk, with sparkles of dull copper upon it. The dress fitted her like a snake's skin, and glittered like it too as she swayed her lithe body in walking.
"Ha, Hugo," she said, "I thought I should find you here!"
I did not say that if another had been kinder she might have found me elsewhere and otherwise employed. I had at least the discretion to leave things as they were. For the time to speak plainly was not yet.
She took my arm, and we paced up and down.
"Princess—" I began.
"Ysolinde!" corrected she, softly.
It was an old and unsettled contention between us.
"Well then, Ysolinde, to-morrow must I ride to fight the men of mine own country of the Wolfmark. I like not the duty. But since it must be, for the sake of the brave Prince, it shall be well done."
"You do not say 'For your sake, Ysolinde'?" she answered, pensively.
"No," I said, bluntly, "'for the Prince's sake.'"
"You would do all things for the Prince's sake—nothing for mine!" said the Princess, withdrawing her hand.
"On the contrary, Lady Ysolinde," I made answer, "I do all things for your sake. Save for the sake of your good-will, I should now be elsewhere."
Which was true enough. I should have been in the garden pleasaunce beneath, and probably with my sword out, arguing the case with Von Reuss.
But she pressed my arm, for she understood that I had delayed a day from my duty for her sake. So touched at heart was Ysolinde that she slipped her hand down from my arm and took my hand instead, flirting a corner of her shawl cleverly over both, to hide the fact from the men-at-arms—as Helene could not have done to save her life. But every maid of honor who passed noted and knew, lifting eyebrows at one another, I doubt not, as soon as we passed, which thing made me feel like a fool and blush hotly. For I knew that ere they were couched that night every maid of them would tell Helene, and with pleasure in the telling too.
"Devil take—" I began and stopped.
"What did you say?" asked Ysolinde, almost tenderly.
"That if I come not back again from the Wolfmark it will be the better for all of us!" I made answer, which was indeed the sense if not the exact text of my remark.
"Nay," she said, shuddering, "not better for me that am companionless!"
"Why so?" said I, boldly. "You do not love me. Deep at the bottom of your heart you love your husband, Karl the Prince. You know there is no man like him. Me you do not love at all."
"You will not let me," she said, softly, almost like a shy country maiden.
"Ah, if I had, you would have slain me long ere this," said I, "for I read you like a child's horn-book that he plays battledore with. 'Have not—love! Have—hate.' There you are, all in brief, my Lady Ysolinde."
"It is false," laughed she; "but nevertheless I love greatly to hear you call me Ysolinde."
She netted her fingers in mine beneath the shawl. Well might the High Councillor say that she had a beautiful hand. Though, God wot, much he knew about it. For Ysolinde of Plassenburg could speak with her hand, love with it, be angry with it, hate with it—and kill with it.
"I am an experiment," said I; "one indeed that has lasted you a little longer than the others, my Lady Ysolinde, only because you have not come to the end of me so soon."
"Pshaw!" she said, pushing me from her, for we were at the turning of a path, "you love another. That is the amulet against infection that you carry. Yet sometimes I think that that other is only your hateful, plain-favored, vainly conceited self!"
I saw the Prince sit alone, according to his custom, in an arbor behind us at that very moment—and judge if I blushed or no. But the Princess saw him not, being eager upon her flouting of me.
"I tell you," she cried, scornfully and disdainfully, "there is nothing interesting about you but the blueness of your eyes, and that any monk can make upon parchment, aye, and deeper and bluer, with his lapis-lazuli. An experiment!—Why should I, Ysolinde of Plassenburg, experiment with you, the son of the Red Axe of the Wolfsberg ?"
"Nay, that I know not," I answered; "but yet I am indeed no more than your arrow-butts, your target of practice, your whipping-boy, to be slung at and arrow-drilled and bullet-pitted at your pleasure!"
"I dare say," she said, bitterly; "and all the time you go scathless—no more heart-stricken than if summer flies lighted on thee. Away with such a man; he is the ghost of a man—a simulacrum—no true lover!"
"At your will, Princess. I shall indeed go away. I will to-morrow seek the spears. But, after all, you will not send me forth in anger?" I said, with a strong conviction that I knew the answer.
"And why not?" said she.
"Because," I replied, looking at her, "I am, after all, the one man who believes thoroughly in your heart's deep inward goodness. I believe in you even when you do not believe in yourself. I can affirm, for I know better than you know yourself. You cover the beauty of your heart from others. You flout and jeer. Above all, you experiment dangerously with words and actions. But, after all, I am necessary to you. You will not send me away in anger. For you need some one to believe in the soundness of your heart. And I, Hugo Gottfried, am that man!"
"Hence, flatterer!" cried the lady, smiling, but well pleased. "It is known to all that I am the Old Serpent—the deceiver—the ill fruit of the Knowledge of Evil. And now you say of Good also! And what is more and worse, you expect me to believe you. Wherein you also experiment! I pray you, do not so. That is to you the forbidden fruit. Good-night. Go, now, and pray for a more truthful tongue!"
And with that she went in, the copper spangles glancing at her waist red as the light on ripe wheat, and all her tall figure lissome as the bending corn.
INSULT AND CHALLENGE
Now, because there is still so much to tell, and so little time and space to tell it in, I must go forward rapidly. In these dull times of grouting peace, when men become like penned pigs, waking up only at feeding-time, they have no knowledge of how swiftly life went when every day brought a new living friend or a new dead enemy, when love and hate awakened fresh and fresh with each morrow's sun—and when I was young.
Perhaps that last is the true reason. But when the Baltic norther snorts without, and mine ancient thigh-wound twinges down where my hand rests, naturally I have no better resource than to fall to the goose-quill. And lo! long ere I am done with the first page, and have the ink no more than half-way to the roots of my hair, I am again in the midst of the ringing hoofs of the foray. I hear the merry dinting of steel on steel; the sullen chug-chug of the wheels of Foul Peg, the Margrave's great cannon, which more than once he lent our Prince; the oaths of the men-at-arms shouldering her up, apostrophizing most indecently her fat haunches, and the next moment getting tossed aside like ninepins by her unexpected lurches. Ah, the times that were when I was young!
I see these gallants about our later courts—Lord help them, sons of mine own, too, some of them—year in and year out, crossing their legs and staring at the gilded points of their shoon. All are grown so tame—none now to ride a-questing in the Baltic forest for border brigands —indeed, there be no brigands to quest for.
But I forget. Time was when I looked love, and I too had shoon, aye, with golden tips to match the armor of honor which the Prince gave me after I had led my first regiment to victory—even as the Lady Ysolinde had said. And noble shoes of price they were.
And I could make love, too, when I had the chance. But, nevertheless, not more than one day in six—spending the rest in the new training of my men, the perfecting of their equipment, the choosing of their horses, and the providing for their stores.
God wot—it was a good time. I mind me the year when the Prince fell out with Duke Casimir, and we played over again the old tricks with him.
Never was I gladder of any quest than that to ride within sight of the Red Tower, and wave the blue and yellow of my master under the very ramparts of the Wolfsberg, and almost within hearing of the inhuman howling of its blood-hounds.
"Singe his beard!" said my master. And with a hundred riders I did it too. For though the burghers clattered to their gates, I rode to the very walls of the Wolfsberg, which for bravado I summoned to surrender. And the best of it was that no man knew me. For I had grown soldierlike and strong, and was most unlike the lad who had ridden away so meekly and almost in tears out of the gate of that very Wolfsberg.
Of my father, thank God, I saw nothing—though I doubt not he observed my troop. For doubtless he would be with his master—aged now, soured, and prone to cower about behind his guard, fearing the dagger or the poisoned bowl, seeing an enemy in every shadowy corner, and hearing the whistle of the assassin's bullet in every wind.
And, save when an honest burgher was slain by the Black Riders, the beasts of the kennels were fed on diet more ordinary than of old.
So we rode back with our prisoners, and as much plunder as we could screw out of old Burgomeister Texel and his citizens by threats of sacking the city—a deed which I was main sorry for afterwards, in the light of that which happened at a later day. But I knew not the future then, and it was as well. For the guilders paid nobly for the new-fashioned ordnance which stood us in such good stead that autumn, when we had sterner work in hand than singeing the gray beard of Duke Casimir.
Within Schloss Plassenburg things went on much as usual. Perhaps I was lax in my wooing—I cannot tell; I loved sincerely enough, of a certainty. Nor, after this, was I backward in telling Helene of it, and sometimes she would love me well enough, and then again she would not. So that I could not tell what she would be at.
Looking back upon everything now, I see clearly how that the rankling secret thorn was the accursed understanding with the Prince, that for his peace's sake I was to abide friendly with the Princess and let her try her fool experiments on me. Which she did, God wot, innocently enough—that is, for all the harm they did me. But, nevertheless, without knowing it, I kept the Little Playmate with a sore and aching heart for many and many a day.
But I made nothing of it—thinking, like a careless, ill-deserving soldier-lover, eager for success and dazzled with ambition, chiefly of my profession, of how to win battles and take fortresses against the surrounding princelings, our Karl's enemies, till one day I found Helene with her cheeks wet and her pretty lips bitten till the blood had come.
"What is't, little one? Tell me!" said I, going to her and putting my arm about her, as indeed I had some right to do, if no more than the right of having carried her up into the Red Tower in her white gown so long ago.
But she wrested herself determinedly out of my hold, saying: "Do not touch me, sir. 'Tis all your fault!"
"What is my fault, dear lass?" said I. "Tell me, and I will instantly amend it."
"Oh!" she cried, casting her hands out from her in bitter complaint, "there is nothing so meanly selfish as a man! He will say tender things—aye, and do them, too, when it liketh him. He can be, oh, so devoted and so full of his eternal affections. He is dying all for love! And then, soon as he passes out of the door he ties his sword-knot and points his mustache to his liking, and lo! there is no more of him. He goes and straightway forgets till it shall please his High Mightiness to call again. Oh! and we—we women, poor things, must stand about with our mouths open, like mossy carp in a pond, and struggle and push for such crumbs of comfort as he will deign to throw us from the full larder of his self-satisfaction!"
This was a most mighty speech for the Little Playmate, and took me entirely by surprise. For mostly she was still enough and quiet enough in her ways and speakings.
"'Tis true, sweetheart, that some men are like that," I replied, gently, "but not Hugo Gottfried, surely. When did you ever find me unkind, unthankful, unfaithful? When went I ever away and left you alone?"
"Oh, you did—you did," she cried, the tears starting from her lovely eyes, "or I should never have been insulted—treated lightly, spoken to as a staled thing of courts and camps!"
And Helene sank down beside the garden wall in an abandonment of sorrow—so that my heart grew hot and angry at the cause of her grief, to me then unknown.
I knelt down beside her and touched her lightly on one rounded, heaving shoulder.
"Dearest," said I, "I knew nothing of this. Tell me who has insulted you. As God is in His heaven, I will have my sword in his heart or nightfall, were it the Prince himself! Tell me, and by the Lord of the Innocents, I will make him eat cold steel and drink his own blood therewith!"
"Oh, it was my own fault—I know I should not have met him—let him speak to me in the garden. But you were so cold to me, Hugo. And then I thought—I thought that the Woman was taking you away from me. Also she sent me out to be—to be in his path!"
"In whose path, I bid you tell me, and what woman?"
Though the latter I knew well enough.
"The Princess," she answered, "and the Count von Reuss. To-day he spoke to me of love, and spoke it hatefully, shamefully, when the Princess had bidden me go and carry her message to him. But it was with me that he desired to meet. And I—at first many days ago—I walked by his side and listened, for then he spoke courteously and like a gentleman. For you were on the high terrace, and I wished you to see. I thought—I hoped—"
And the little one broke off with tears.
"I know, I know!" cried I, contritely; "I am a blind, doting fool. In this Prince's court I thought no more of such dangers than when I had you safe and innocent, my Playmate of the Red Tower. But what did or said Von Reuss?"
"Truly he did naught, but only spoke—things for which I would have smitten him to death had I possessed a dagger. I bade him begone. And he swore he would execute his purpose yet in spite of every town's Executioner in the Empire."
"Ah, will he?" said I, a calm chill of hatred settling about my heart. "I, Hugo Gottfried, will execute him, if I have to send for my father's Red Axe to do it with—singed and scented monkey that he is."
"Nay," said Helene, "then I wish I had not told you. Perhaps he will not meddle with me again, and if you cross him he may slay thee. Remember, I have no friend here but you, Hugo!"
"Count von Reuss slay me! I could eat him up without salt or savory—a weak reed, a kerl without backbone save of buckram; why, I will shake him this day like a rat between my hands!"
So I spoke in my anger, hot with myself that I had let the Little Playmate suffer these things, and resolved that neither Prince nor Princess would stand between me and my love a moment longer.
But in all lands it takes more than Say-so to budge the stubborn wheels of circumstance.
I FIND A SECOND
I meant to go directly to the Prince in his chamber and tell him that from this time forth Helene and I had resolved to battle out our lives together. But it chanced that I passed through the higher terrace on my way to the lower—a bosky place of woods, where the Prince loved to linger in of a summer afternoon, drowsing there to the singing of birds and the falling of waters. For our Karl had tastes quite beyond sour black Casimir, with his church-yard glooms and raw-bone terrors.
On the upper terrace I found Von Reuss, lolling against the parapet with other blue flittermice, his peers—he himself no flittermouse, indeed, but of the true Casimir vampire breed, horrid of tooth, nocturnal, desirous of lusts and blood.
At sight of him I went straight at mine enemy, as if I had been leading a charge.
"Sir," said I, "you are a base rascal. You have insulted the Lady Helene, maid of honor to the Princess, the adopted child of my father. Her wrongs are mine. You will do me the honor of crossing weapons with me!"
"I have not learned the art of the axe," said he, turning about, listlessly. "You expect too much, Sir Executioner!"
I wasted no more words upon him, for I had not sought him to barter insults, but to force him to meet me where I could have my anger out upon him, and avenge the tears in the eyes of my Little Playmate.
Von Reuss was drawing a glove of yellow dressed kid through his hand as he spoke. This I plucked from his fingers ere he was aware, and struck him soundly on either cheek with it before flinging it crumpled up in his face.
"Now will you fight, or must I strike you with my open hand?"
Then I saw the look of his uncle stand hell-clear in his eyes. But he was not frightened, this one, only darkly and unscrupulously vengeful.
"Foul toad's spawn, now I will have your blood!" he cried, tugging at his sword.
"We cannot fight here," said I, "within sight of the palace windows. But to-night at sundown, or to-morrow at dawn, I am at your service."
"Let it be to-night, on the common at the back of the Hirschgasse—one second, and the fighting only between principals."
Very readily I agreed to that, or anything, and then, with a wave of my hat, I went off, cudgelling my brain whom I should ask to be my second. Jorian, who was now an officer, I should have liked better than any other. But, being of the people myself, it was necessary that I should have some one of weight and standing to meet the nephew of the Duke of the Wolfmark and his friend.
Moodily pacing down the glade, which led from the second terrace and the pleasaunce, I almost overran the Prince himself. He was seated under a tree, a parchment of troubadours' songs lay by him, illuminated (to judge by the woeful pictures) by no decent monkish or clerkly hand. He had a bottle of Rhenish at hand, and looked the same hearty, hard-headed, ironic soldier he ever was, and yet, what is more strange, every inch of him a Prince.
"Whither away, young Sir Amorous," he cried, pretending great indignation at my absent-mindedness, "head among the clouds or intent as ever on the damosels? Conning madrigals for lovers' lutes, mayhap? And all the while taking no more heed of God's honest princes than if they existed only for trampling under your feet."
I asked his pardon—but indeed I had not come so nigh him as that.
"I am to fight in a private quarrel," said I, "and, truth to tell, I sorely want a second, and was pondering whom to ask."
The Prince sighed.
"Ah, lad," he said, "once I had wished no better than to stand up at your side myself. I was not a Prince then though; and again, these laws—these too strict laws of mine! But what is the matter of your duel, and with whom?"
"Well," said I, "I have slapped Count von Reuss's chafts with his own glove, in the midst of his friends, on the upper terrace."
'Tis possible I may be mistaken, I suppose, but I did think then, and still do think, that I saw evident tokens of pleasure on the face of the Prince.
"And the cause—"
I hesitated, blushing temple-high, I dare say, in spite of the growth of my mustaches.
"A woman, then!" cried the Prince. Then, more low, he added, "Not the—?"
He would have said the Princess, for he paused, in his turn, with a graver look on his face.
So I hastened with my explanation.
"He insulted the young Lady Helene, maid of honor to the Princess, who is to me as a sister, having been brought up with me in one house. Her honor is my honor, both by this tie, and because, as you know, we have long loved each other. Therefore will I fight Count von Reuss to the death, and a good cause enough."
The Prince whistled—an unprincely habit, but then all millers' lads whistle at their work. So Prince Karl whistled as he meditated.
"I see further into this matter than that—if indeed you love this maid. There be other things to be thought upon than vengeance upon Von Reuss! Does the Princess know of this?"
"Suspect she may," said I; "know she cannot. It was only half an hour ago that I knew myself."
"Ha," said he, musingly, with his beard in his hand, "it hath gone no further than that. Were it not, if possible, better to conceal the cause yet a while that our compact may go on? It were surely easy enough to invent an excuse for the quarrel."
"Prince," answered I, earnestly, "this bargain of ours hath gone on over long already, in that it hath brought a true maid's honor and happiness in question. And a maid also whom I am bound to love. I will ask you this, have I been a good soldier and servant to you or not?"
"Aye to that!" quoth the Prince, heartily.
"Have I ever asked fee or reward for aught I have tried to do?"
"Nay," he said; "but you have gotten some of both without asking."
"Will you grant me the first boon I have asked of you since you became Prince and Master to Hugo Gottfried?"
"I will grant it, if it be not to separate us as friend and friend," said my master at once.
It was like the noble Prince thus to speak of our relation. I took his hand in mine to kiss it, but this he would not permit.
"Shake hands like a man," he said, "or else kiss me upon the cheek. My hand is for young, blue-painted flittermice to kiss, for whose souls' good it is to put their lips to the hand that has shifted the meal-bags."
And with that Prince Karl embraced me heartily, and kissed me on both cheeks.
"Now for this request of yours!" said he, looking expectantly at me.
"It is this," I answered him directly: "Give me a district to govern, a tower to dwell in, and Helene to be my wife."
"Nay, but these are three things, and you stipulated but for one. Choose one!" he said.
"Then give me Helene to wife!" I cried, instantly.
"Spoken like a lover," said the good Prince. "You shall have her if I have the giving of her, which I beg leave to doubt. Something tells me that much water will run under the bridges ere that wedding comes to pass. But so far as it concerns me the thing is done. Yet remember, I have never been one wisely to marry, nor yet to give in marriage."
He smiled a dry, humorsome smile—the smile of a shrewd miller casting up his thirlage upon the mill door when he sees the fields of his parish ripe to the harvest.
"I wonder why, with her crystals and her ink-pools, the Princess hath not foreseen this. By the blue robe of Mary, there will be proceedings when she does know. I think I shall straightway go a-hunting in the mountains with my friend the Margrave!"
He considered a moment longer, and took a deep draught of Rhenish.
"Then the matter of a second," continued the Prince; "he is to fight, of course?"
"No," said I; "principals only."
"I wonder," said the Prince, meditatively, "if there be anything in that. It is not our Plassenburg custom between two young men, well surrounded with brisk lads. Three seconds, and three to meet them point to point, was more our ancient way."
"It was specially arranged at the request of the Count you Reuss," I told the Prince.
"If there is to be no fighting of seconds, what do you say to old Dessauer? He was a pretty blade in my time, and has all the etiquette and chivalry of the business at his finger-ends. Also he likes you."
"At any rate, he is ever railing upon me with that sharp tongue of his!" said I.
"But did you ever hear him rail upon any of these young men that lean on rails and roll their eyes under ladies' windows?" said the Prince. "Old Leopold Dessauer is even now no weakling. I warrant he could draw a good sword yet upon occasion. Anything more lovely than his riposte I never saw."
The Prince got upon his feet with the difficulty of a man naturally heavy of body, who takes all his exercise upon horseback.
"Page!" he cried. "My compliments to High State's Councillor Dessauer, and ask him to come to me here. You will find him, I think, in the library."
So to the palace sped the boy; and presently, walking stiffly, but with great dignity, came the old man down to us.
"How about the ancestors, the noble men my predecessors?" cried the Prince, when he saw him; "have you found aught to link the miller of Chemnitz with the Princes of Plassenburg?"
The Councillor smiled, and shook his head gravely.
"Nothing beyond that bit of metal which hangs by your side, Prince Karl," said Dessauer, pointing to his Highness's sword.
The Prince looked down at the strong, unadorned hilt thoughtfully and sighed.
"I would I had another to transmit this sword to, as well as the power to wield it, when I take my place as usurper in the histories of the Princes of Plassenburg."
"I trust your Highness may long be spared to us," replied Dessauer, gravely; "but, Prince Karl, in default of an heir to your body (of which there is yet no reason to despair), wherefore may not your Highness devise the realm back to the ancient line?"
"The line of Dietrich is extinct," said the Prince, booking up sharply.
"So says Duke Casimir, hoping to succeed to your shoes, when he could not to your helmet and your sword. But I have my suspicions and my beliefs. There is more in the parchments of yonder library than has yet seen the light."
Suddenly the Prince recollected me, standing patiently by.
"But we waste time, Dessauer; we can speak of ancestors and successors anon. I and Hugo Gottfried want you to take up your ancient role. Do you mind how you snicked Axelstein, and clipped Duke Casimir of his little finger at the back of the barn, when we were all lads at the Kaiser's first diet at Augsburg?"
Old Dessauer smiled, well pleased enough at the excellence of the Prince's memory.
"I have seen worse cuts," he said; "Casimir has never rightly liked me since. And had the Black Riders caught me, over to his dogs I should have gone without so much as a belt upon me. He would have kept them without food for a week on purpose to make a clean job of my poor scarecrow pickings."
"And now this young spark," said the Prince, "for the sake of a lady's eyes, desires to do your Augsburg deed over again with Duke Casimir's nephew. So we must give him a man with quarterings on his shield to go along with him."
"I am too old and stiff," said Dessauer, shaking his head mournfully, yet with obvious desire in the itching fingers of his sword-hand; "let him seek out one of the brisk young kerls that are drumming at the blade-play all the time down there in the square by the guard-rooms."
"Nay, it is to be principals only; there is to be no fighting of seconds. The Count has specially desired that there shall be none," said the Prince; "therefore, go with the lad, Dessauer."
"No fighting of seconds!" cried the Councillor, in astonishment, holding up his hands. And I think the old swordsman seemed a little disappointed. "Well, I will go and see the lad well through, and warrant that he gets fair-play among these wolves of the Mark."
"Faith, when it comes to that, he is as rough-pelted a wolf of the Mark as any of them!" laughed the Prince.
THE WOLVES OF THE MARK
The Hirschgasse is a little inn across the river, well known to the wilder blades of Plassenburg. There they go to be outside the authority of the city magistrates, to make rendezvous with maids more complaisant than maidenly, to fight their duels, and generally to do those things without remark which otherwise bring them under the eye of the Miller's Son, as they one and all call (behind his back) the reigning Prince of Plassenburg.
It was on the stroke of seven, and as fine an evening as ever failed to touch the soul of sinful man with a sense of its beauty, that I set out to fight the nephew of Duke Casimir. I had indeed ridden far and fast, and withal kept my head since I left the Red Tower a poor homeless wanderer, otherwise I had scarce found myself going out with High Councillor Leopold von Dessauer as my second to fight my late master's heir, the proximate Duke of the Wolfmark.
What was my surprise to find the old man attired in the appropriate costume for such an occasion, a close-fitting suit of dark gray, of ancient cut indeed, and without the fashionable slashes and scallops, but both correct and practicable, either for the sword-play or the proper ordering of it in others.
Von Dessauer laughed a little dry laugh when I congratulated him on the youthfulness of his appearance. Indeed, he seemed little grateful for my felicitations. And if it had not been for the rheumatism which he had inherited from his father's campaigns on the tented field, and the weakness which came from his own in other fields, he would yet have proved as fit for the play of fence as any youngster of them all. So, at least, he averred. And to-night the wind was southerly, and his old hurts irked him not. Faith he was almost minded to try a ruffle with the cocks of the Mark on his own account.
"Mind you," he said, "guard low. The attack of the Mark ever comes from the right leg, half-way to the knee. But I forgot—what use is it to tell you, that are born of the Mark, and have learned sword-cunning in their schools?"
As we left the castle I looked about and secretly kissed a hand to that high window, where was the chamber of my Little Playmate, whose cause I was going out so gladly to champion.
Dessauer and I went quickly down through the lanes which led to the river edge where the ferry was, and more than once with the comer of my eye I seemed to see a man in a cloak and sword stealing after us. But as the sight of a man so attired going secretly in the direction of the Hirschgasse was no uncommon one, I did not pay any particular attention.
We crossed over in the large flat-boat which plied constantly between the banks before our fine new bridge was built. We found our enemies on the ground before us, and they seemed more than a little surprised when they perceived who my second was. For as we came up the bank I saw them go close and whisper together like men who hastily alter their plans at the last moment.
I presented my second in form.
"The High Councillor Leopold von Dessauer, Knight of the Empire!" said I, proudly enough.
Then the Count presented his, as the custom then was among us of the North:
"His Excellency Friedrich, Count of Cannstadt, Hereditary Cup-bearer of the Wolfmark."
Count Cannstadt was an impecunious old-young man, who, chiefly owing to accumulated gaming-debts and a disagreement with Duke Casimir concerning the payment of certain rents and duties, had sought the shelter of the Castle of Plassenburg—a refuge which the generous Prince Karl extended to all exiles who were not proven criminals.
The seconds bowed first to each other, and then to their opposing principals. In those days, duels were mostly fought with the combatants' own swords. And now Von Dessauer took my blade, and, going forward courteously, handed the hilt to Count Cannstadt, receiving that of Von Reuss in return. The seconds then compared the lengths, and found almost half an inch in favor of my opponent. Which being declared, and I offering no objection, the discrepancy was allowed and the swords returned us to fall to.
And this without further parley we did.
I was no ways afraid of my opponent. For though a pretty enough, tricky fighter, he had little practical experience. Also he had quite failed to strengthen himself by daily custom, and especially by practice at outrauce, with an enemy keen to run you through in front of you, and the necessity of keeping a wary eye on half a dozen other conflicts on either hand, as has constantly to be done in war.
The place where we fought was on a level green platform a little way above the roofs of the inn of the Hirschgasse, where many a similar conflict has been fought, and on which many a good fellow has lain, panting like a grassed trout, with the gasps growing slower and deadlier, while his opponent wiped his blade on the trampled herbage, and the seconds looked on with folded arms. There were many bushes and rocks about, and the place was very secluded to be so near a great city.
At first I did not trouble myself much, nor attempt to force the fighting. I was content to hold Von Reuss in play, and defend myself till the hunger edge of his attack was dulled. For I saw on his face a look of vicious confidence that surprised me, considering his inexperience, and he lunged with a venom and resolution which, to my mind, betokened a determination to kill at all hazards.
I knew, however, that presently he must overreach himself, so of set purpose I kept my blade short, and let him approach nearer. Immediately he began to press, thinking that he had me at his mercy. We had fought our way round to a spot on the upper side of the plateau, where for a moment Von Reuss had a momentary benefit from the nature of the ground. Here I felt that he gathered himself together, and, presently, as I had supposed he would, he centred his energy in a determined thrust at my left breast. This was well enough timed, for my guard had been short and a little high on purpose to lead him on, and now it took me all my time to turn his point aside. I saw the steel shoot past, grazing my left arm. Then with so long a recovery, and the loss of balance from lunging downhill, he was at my mercy.
As I did not wish to kill him I chose my spot almost at my leisure, and pinked him two inches below the spring of the neck and close to the collar-bone, which was running the thing as fine as I could allow myself.
What was my surprise to see my sword-blade arch itself as if it had stricken a stone wall, and to hear the unmistakable ring of steel meeting steel.
"Treachery!" cried Von Dessauer and I together; "you are villains both. He is wearing a shirt of mail!"
And the old man rushed forward with his sword bare in his hand and all a-tremble with indignation.
I heard the shrill "purl" of a silver call, and, turning me about, there was the gambler Cannstadt with a whistle at his lips. I dared not turn my head, for I had still to guard myself against the traitor Von Reuss's attack, but with the tail of my eye I could see two or three men rise from behind bushes and rocks, and come running as fast as they could towards us. Then I knew that Dessauer and I were doomed men unless something turned up that we wotted not of. For with an old man, and one so stiff as the High Councillor, for my only ally, it was impossible for me to hold my own against more than double our numbers.
Nevertheless, Von Dessauer attacked Cannstadt with surprising fury and determination, anger glittering in his eye, and resolution to punish treachery lending vigor to his thrust. I had not time to observe his method save unconsciously, for I had to change my position momentarily that I might take the points of the two men who came down the hill at speed, sword in hand.
But all this foul play among high-born folk gave me a kind of mortal sickness. To die in battle is one thing, but over against the very roofs of your home to find yourself brought to death's door by murderous treachery is quite another.
At this moment there came news of a diversion. From below was heard the crying of a stormy voice.
"Halt! I command you! Halt!"
And wheeling sufficiently to see, I observed through the twilight the figure of a stout man, who came leaping heavily up the hill towards us, waving a sword as he came. Well, thought I, the more there are of them the quicker it will be over, and the more credit for us in keeping up our end so long. Better die in a good fight than live with a bad conscience.
With which admirable reflection I sent my sword through Von Reuss's sword-arm, in the fleshy part, severing the muscle and causing him to drop his blade. I had him then at my mercy, and experienced a great desire to push my blade down his throat, for a treacherous cowardly hound as he had proved himself to me. But instead of this I had to turn towards the other two who came at the charge down the hill and were now close upon us.
I had just time to leap aside from the first and let him overrun himself when he shot almost upon the sword of the thick-set man, who came up the hill shouting to us to stop. The second man I engaged, and a stanch blade I found him, though fighting for as dirty a cause as ever man crossed swords in.
"Halt!" came the voice of command again—the voice I knew so well—"in the name of the State I bid you cease!"
It was the voice of Karl, Prince of Plassenburg.
"We must take the rough with the smooth now. We must kill them, every one, like stanch men of the Mark!" cried Von Reuss. "There is no safety for any of us else." And in a moment we were at it, the Prince furiously assaulting the second of the bravoes who came down the hill. More coolly than I had given him credit for, Von Reuss stuffed a silken kerchief into the hole in his shoulder, and repossessed himself of his weapon in his other hand.
It was the briskest kind of a bicker that ensued for a little while there on the bosky, broomy hill-side in the evening light. Ah, Dessauer was down at last and Cannstadt at his throat! I went about with a whirl, leaving my own man for the moment, and rushed upon the Count's false second. He turned to receive me, but not quite quick enough, for I got him two inches below where I had pinked his principal's ring-mail, and that made all the difference. Cannstadt did not immediately drop his sword. But his limbs weakened, and he fell forward without a sound.
Then as I looked about, there was the Prince manfully crossing swords with two, and the cowardly Von Reuss creeping up with his sword shortened in his left hand with intent to slay him from behind.
Whereat I gave a furious cry of anguish, that I should have been the means of bringing my noble master into such peril. The Prince Karl had at the same moment some intuition of the treacherous foe behind him, for he leaped aside with more agility than I had ever seen him display before on foot, and Von Reuss was too sorely wounded to follow.
Presently I was at my first bravo again, and the Prince being left with but one, Von Reuss took the opportunity to slip away over the hill.
The rest of the conflict was not long a-settling. There were loud voices from the stream beneath. The combat had been observed, and half a score of the Prince's guard were already swimming, wading, and leaping into small boats in their haste to be first to our assistance.
But we did not need their aid. I passed my blade through and through my assailant, almost at the same moment that the Prince spiked his man so directly in the throat, so that the red point stood out in the hollow of his neck behind.
Both went down simultaneously, and there was Von Reuss on horseback, just disappearing over the ridge. Prince Karl wiped his brow.
"What devil's traitors!" he cried. "Poor Dessauer, I wonder what he has gotten? Let us go to him."
We went across the plateau together, and knelt by the side of the old man. At first I could not find the wound, though there was blood enough upon his face and fencing-habit. But presently I discovered that his scalp had been cut from above the eye backwards to the crown of his head—a shallow, ploughing scratch, no more, though it had effectually stunned the old man.
Even as I held him in my arms, he came to and looked about him.
"Are they all dead?" he said, feeling about for his sword.
"You were nearly dead, dearest of friends," said my master. "But be content. You have done very well for so young a fighter. An you behave yourself, and keep from such brawling in the future, I declare I will give you a company!"
"All dead?" he asked, trying still to look about him.
"Your man is dead, or the next thing to it, two other rascals grievously wounded, and the scoundrel Von Reuss fled, as well he might. But my archers are already on his track."
Up the hill came Jorian and Boris leading the rout.
"Is the Prince safe?" cried Jorian.
"The Prince is safe," said Karl, answering for himself.
"Good!" chorussed Jorian, Boris, and all the archers together.
"Catch me that man on horseback there!" cried the Prince. "Take him or kill him, but if you can help it do not let him escape. He is the Count von Reuss, and a double traitor."
"Good!" cried the pair, and set off after him, all dripping as they were from their abrupt passage of the river.
THE FLIGHT OF THE LITTLE PLAYMATE
We carried Dessauer back to the boat with the utmost tenderness, the Prince walking by his side, and oft-times taking his hand. I followed behind them, more than a little sad to think that my troubles should have caused so good and true a man so dangerous a wound. For though in a young man the scalp-wound would have healed in a week, in a man of the High Councillor's age and delicacy of constitution it might have the most serious effects.
But Dessauer himself made light of it.
"I needed a leech to bleed me," he said. "I was coward enough to put off the kindly surgery, and here our young friend has provided me one without cost. His last operation, too, and so no fee to pay. I am a fortunate man."
We came to the gate of the Palace of Plassenburg.
My Lady Princess met us, pale and obviously anxious, with lips compressed and a strange cold glitter in her emerald eyes.
"So strange a thing has happened!" she began.
"No stranger than hath happened to us," cried the Prince.
"Why, what hath happened to you?" she demanded, quickly.
"Your fine Von Reuss has proved himself a traitor. He fought a duel with Hugo here all tricked in chain-armor, and when found out he whistled his rascals from the covert to slay us. But we bested him, and he is over the hill, with Jorian and Boris hot after his heel."
"And he hath not gone alone!" said the Princess, and her eyes were brilliant with excitement.
"Not gone alone?" said the Prince. "What do you know about this black work?"
"Because Helene, my maid of honor, hath fled to join him," she said, looking anxiously at us, like one who perils much upon a throw of the dice.
I laughed aloud. So certain was I of the utter impossibility of the thing, that I laughed a laugh of scorn. And I saw the sound of my voice jar the Lady Ysolinde like a blow on the face.
"You do not believe!" she said, standing straight before me.
"I do not believe—I know!" answered I, curtly enough.
"Nevertheless the thing is true," she said, with a curious, pleading expression, as if she had been charged with wrong-doing and were clearing herself, though none had accused her by word or look.
"It is most true," the Princess went on. "She fled from the palace an hour before sundown. She was seen mounting a horse belonging to Von Reuss at the Wolfmark gate, with two of his men in attendance upon her. She is known to have received a note by the hand of an unknown messenger an hour before."
I did not wait for the permission of the Princess, but tore up the women's staircase to Helene's room, where I found nothing out of place—not so much as a fold of lace. After a hurried look round I was about to leave the room when a crumpled scrap of paper, half hidden by a curtain, caught my eye.
I stooped and picked it up. It was written in an unknown and probably disguised hand—a hand cumbersome and unclerkly:
"Come to me. Meet me at the Red Tower. I need you."
There was no more; the signature was torn away, and if the letter were genuine it was more than enough. But no thought of its truth nor of the falseness of Helene so much as crossed my mind.
To tell the truth, it struck me from the first that the Lady Ysolinde might have placed the letter there herself. So I said nothing about it when I descended.
The Prince met me half-way up the stairs.
"Well?" he questioned, bending his thick brows upon me.
"She is gone, certainly," said I; "where or how I do not yet know. But with your permission I will pursue and find out."
"Or, I presume, without my permission?" said the Prince.
I nodded, for it was vain to pretend otherwise—foolish, too, with such a master.
"Go, then, and God be with you!" he said. "It is a fine thing to believe in love."
And in ten minutes I was riding towards the Wolfsberg.
As I went past the great four-square gibbet which had made an end of Ritterdom in Plassenburg, I noted that there was a gathering of the hooded folk—the carrion crows. And lo! there before me, already comfortably a-swing, were our late foes, the two bravoes, and in the middle the dead Cannstadt tucked up beside them, for all his five hundred years of ancestry—stamped traitor and coward by the Miller's Son, who minded none of these things, but understood a true man when he met him.
I pounded along my way, and for the first ten miles did well, but there my horse stumbled and broke a leg in a wretched mole-run widened by the winter rains. In mercy I had to kill the poor beast, and there I was left without other means of conveyance than my own feet.
It was a long night as I pushed onward through the mire. For presently it had come on to rain—a thick, dank rain, which wetted through all covering, yet fell soft as caressing on the skin.
I took shelter at last in a farm-house with honest folk, who right willingly sat up all night about the fire, snoring on chairs and hard settles that I might have their single sleeping-chamber, where, under strings of onions and odorous dried herbs, I rested well enough. For I was dead tired with the excitement and anxiety of the day—and at such times one often sleeps best.
On the morrow I got another horse, but the brute, heavy-footed from the plough, was so slow that, save for the look of the thing, I might just as well have been afoot.
Nevertheless I pushed towards the town of Thorn, hearing and seeing naught of my dear Playmate, though, as you may well imagine, I asked at every wayside place.
It was at the entering in of the strange country of the brick-dust that I met Jorian and Boris. They were riding excellent horses, unblown, and in good condition—the which, when I asked how they came by such noble steeds, they said that a man gave them to them.
"Jorian," said I, sharply, "where have you been?"
"To the city of Thorn," said he, more briskly than was his wont, so that I knew he had tidings to communicate.
"Saw you the Lady Helene?" I asked, eagerly, of them.
He shook his head, yet pleasantly.
"Nay," said he, "I saw her not. The Red Tower is not a healthy place for men of Plassenburg, nor yet the White Gate and the house of Master Gerard von Sturm. But Mistress Helene is in safety, so much Boris and I are assured of."
"Not with Von Reuss?" cried I, fear thrilling sudden in my voice that he had stolen her and now held her in captivity.
Boris held up his hand as a signal that I must not hurry his companion, who was clearly doing his best.
"She is with Gottfried Gottfried, the old man, your father, and is safe."
"Did she go to them of her own free will, or did my father send for her?" I went on, for much depended upon that question.
"Nay," answered Jorian, "that I know not. But certainly she is with him, and safe. The Count, too, is with his uncle, and they say also safe—under lock and key."
"Good!" quoth Boris.
"Let us all three go back to Plassenburg forthwith!" cried I.
"Good!" chorussed both of them together, unanimously slapping their thighs. "Choose one of our horses. He was a good man who gave us them. We wish we had known. We should have asked him for another when we were about it."
Nevertheless, I rode back to Plassenburg on the farmer's beast, sadly enough, yet somewhat contented. For Helene was with my father, and far safer, as I judged, than in the palace chambers of Plassenburg, and within striking distance of the Lady Ysolinde. And in that I judged not wrong, though the future seemed for a while to belie my confidence.
THE GOLDEN NECKLACE
The Chancellor Leopold von Dessauer, High Councillor of the Prince, with his head still bound up, was pacing the sparred gallery outside the private apartments of his master. It was in the heats of the late summer, before the ripening of the orchard fruits had had time to culminate, or the russet to come out slowly upon the apples, like a blush upon a woman's soft, dusky cheek.
The High Councillor was in a bad humor. For he had been kept waiting, and that by a man of no account. At last a forester in a uniform of dark green, with the Prince's bugle and sparrow-hawk in silver everywhere about him, made his appearance at the foot of the gallery, and stood waiting Dessauer's summons with his plumed hat of soft cloth in his hand.
"Hither, man!" cried the High Councillor, sharply. "What has kept you? Why were you not here half an hour ago? If this be the way you keep the Prince's forests, no wonder there are many deer taken by reiving rascals and the forest laws daily broken."
"High Mightiness," said the man, humbly, looking down, "it was my daughter—she would not give up the necklace. She hath had it for her own since she was a child, and she would not deliver it, though I threatened her with your well-born anger."
"And have you got it with you? Surely you and she have not dared to keep it!" began the Chancellor, with gathering fury on his eyebrow.
"Yea, truly, truly, an you will have patience, my Lord, I have it here,"-said the man, drawing a necklace of golden bars curiously arranged from his leathern wallet; and, kneeling on his knee, he presented it to the Chancellor.
"How did you prevail with the maid?" he asked, as soon as he had it in hand—"you used no constraint or force, I hope?"
"Nay, sir," said the man, "for my wife being dead and my daughter marriageable, she keeps house for me; and having a sweetheart betrothed a year ago she hath been laying aside plenishing gear and women's dainty gewgaws. So these I took one by one, beginning with a mirror of polished brass, and made as if I would dash them in pieces if she discovered not where the chain of gold was hid."
"And she revealed it?" said Dessauer.
"Aye," said the man, "but none so willingly, as you might suppose. I had Saint Peter's own trouble to get it from her. Indeed, I prayed to the Holy Apostle to aid me."
"What had Saint Peter to do with it?" said the Councillor, pausing and looking humorsomely at the man, like an ascetic sparrow with his head at one side.
"Because our Holy Saint Peter is the only saint who understands the trouble men have with the contrariness of women."
"Why so?" cried the Chancellor, rubbing his hand with a curious pleasure at the colloquy.
"Because he only among the Apostles was a married man and had experience of a mother-in-law."
"Art a wise forester. Where got you that wisdom?"
"Why," said the man, modestly, "partly by nature, partly because I also have been married, and so have graduated in the wars."
"It is the same thing," said the Chancellor, "according to your own telling."
"Aye, sir," quoth the man, "but yet the young fellows will take no warning. 'It is better to marry than to burn,' said the other Apostle. But methinks he knew nothing about it, being no better than a bachelor, or he would have amended it, 'It is better to burn than to marry and burn.'"
"Ha! art also a theologe, Sir Woodman?" cried Dessauer. "But enough; this touches on the Inquisition and the Holy Office. Let us despatch."
All this time the High Councillor had been gazing by fits and starts at the links of the necklace, turning it about and viewing it from every-angle. It was composed of short bars of gold laid horizontally three and three together, and bound together with short chains of gold. And on each of the bars there was engraven a crest. Letters also were on the bars, cut in plain deep script.
"Now tell your tale and tell it briefly—that is, if brevity be in you, which I doubt," said Dessauer.
"As I said before," quoth the forester, "I was in the wars; I mean not only in the wars with womenkind, but also with mankind. And among other things I remember the night of the Duke Casimir's famous ride, when he took Plassenburg, because there was scarce a sober man within the walls."
"And his Highness the Prince Karl away on Baltic side with his men, else had Casimir never set foot within the city!" cried the High Chancellor.
"Ah, like enow," said the woodman, "I ken naught of that. But this I do know, Plassenburg was taken with much slaughter and grievous loss of goodly gear. They captivated many noble prisoners also, and, because I slept in the stables, they took me to help lead the horses. Yet I was not ill-treated, save that I had to keep pace with the horsemen upon my feet. But I saw the Prince—"
"Which Prince? Speak plainly," said the High Councillor, gruffly.
"Why, the Prince Dietrich Hohenfriedberg of Plassenburg," said the man. "He, as your well-born Wisdom remembers, was then the only Prince in these parts—a good man, and born of the noblest, though not of the capacity of his present Highness the Prince Karl."
"Proceed somewhat faster. Yon move as slowly as one of your own forest oxen at the wood-hauling," cried the well-born Councillor in a testy tone.
"We were long in riding over to Thorn—two days and nights upon the way. It was a terrible time, and all the while those condemned beasts of the Wolfmark, Casimir's Black Riders, driving us with their spears like prick-goads, till our backs were all bleeding, gentle and simple alike. So at midnight of the third day we came to the city of Thorn, and up through the streets to the Wolfsberg. There was no gladness in the town, such as there would have been in our city had there been news of a victory, or even of some hundreds of the enemy's horses well driven. For then as now the town hated its Duke. And so they were all silent.
"Then in the darkness we came to the castle, and the word was: 'Dismount, and to the shambles!' Me and my like they meddled not with, but only the great ones. And it was then, as I told you, that I saw Prince Dietrich with the little maid in his arms. I had carried her part of the way for him, and faithfully delivered her up again, feeding her with the choicest meats I could obtain when she could eat. But she was tired, mostly, and would not look at food. So for this he gave me her necklace from about her pretty neck. But the rest of her noble golden gear, the belt and the clasps, were upon the maid when the headsman of Thorn delivered her to one that stood near by. So, being almost asleep with weariness and exhausted with terror, they carried her away, and I saw the maid no more.
"But the Prince Dietrich Hohenfriedberg was beheaded within the hour, and, as is their hellish custom, his body was thrown to the Duke's blood-hounds that were clamoring all the time behind their fence.
"God help us—such a disaster that night was for Plassenburg! Will the Prince never set about wiping away the disgrace?"
"Aye, that he will!" cried the High Chancellor, suddenly bursting into a fury, strangely unlike him. "He will wash it away in the blood of Duke Casimir and all his evil brood—the Wolves of the Mark truly are they named. And the Wolfsberg shall go up in flaming fire to heaven, so that the ashes of it shall be cast abroad to make the Mark yet grayer and more desolate—like the fell of the beasts that dwelt within it."
"Amen! Let it come quick, say I—that I may see it before I die!" cried the forester, bowing low before the Chancellor.
THE DECENT SERVITOR
"This grows past all bearing," cried the Prince one morning, when he had summoned into his hall the Chancellor Dessauer and myself. For, though the Prince was still wont to command in person in any important action, and in the general policy of his realm took counsel with none, yet it had somehow come about that we, the old man and the young, had been constituted an informal council of two which was liable to be summoned at any moment, whenever the Prince was weary or troubled.
He struck one clinched hand into the palm of the other before he spoke again.
"Duke Casimir is either in his dotage, or his riders have gotten out of hand since Hugo and you drove the young wolf over to help the old. Both are likely enough, with a people praying for deliverance and yearning for their Duke's death. A bare board and an empty treasury may render a new course of plunder necessary abroad, in order to keep his Dukedom from toppling about his ears at home. After all, 'tis natural enough. But I had thought that he would have had enough of sense to let the borders of Plassenburg alone so long as its Prince lived."
"And what, my lord, has befallen?" asked the High Councillor.
"Why," cried the Prince, "the Black Riders of the Wolfmark are out again, and have left their ancient trail behind them in slain men and frantic women—and on our borders, too, among our kindly husbandmen, our honest, sunburnt peasants. Bitterly shall Casimir Ironteeth rue the day that he meddled with Karl Miller's Son."
"Your Highness," I said, "this is indeed madness. We have but to collect our forces, choose a time, and, lo! we are within the town of Thorn! Once there, we would be welcomed by man, woman, and child. We could then besiege the Wolfsberg, and in three days make an end."
"Aye, that is it," said the Prince, grimly; "you have hit it, Hugo. We will make an end."
"Also, my Prince," I went on, boldly, "so ye give me leave and approve of my design, I will go alone to the town of Thorn, and bring you back word of their power and dispositions. Save the Count von Reuss, there is none who could now recognize me within the city walls."
"What think ye, Dessauer?" said the Prince, looking over at the High Chancellor.
"I think well," said he, a little doubtfully; "but would it not be better that two should go than that one should adventure alone into the wolf's den ?"
"Surely it were better to keep the matter between our three selves," the Prince made answer; "not even the Princess must know of our attempt. Keep a candle flame within the hollow of your palm, and though the wind blow the sparks will not fly far."
"I will go with the lad, Prince Karl," said the Chancellor, firmly. "In my youth I had some practice as a leech. I am acquainted with the art of healing. I could travel either as a doctor of healing, as a travelling philosopher seeking disputation with the scholars of each country, or, perhaps best of all, in mine own quality of a doctor of law. And in any case this young man might with all safety be my pupil or servant, whichever best liketh him."
"Servant, then," said I, "for the art of disputation I have hitherto chiefly undertaken with my fists and side-irons. And as to surgery, I am more practised in the giving of wounds than in the healing of them."
The Prince leaned his head upon his hand. He thought carefully over our proposal, taking up point after point, resolving difficulty after difficulty in his mind, as was his wont.
"How long would you be away?" he asked, looking up at us.
"Ten days, Prince," said I. "Give us but ten days and we will return."
"I will give you eight, and if ye are not home again on the eve of the last, as sure as I am Karl Miller's Son, the army of Plassenburg will be thundering on the walls of Thorn seeking for a wandering Chancellor and a lost Hugo Gottfried!"
And so it was arranged. We of the Prince's staff were indeed in great need of such a mission, for we had heard nothing from Thorn or the Wolfmark during many months; no tidings, at all events, that could be relied upon. For the cutting up of our frontiers by new raids, and the severance of all relations between us and the dwellers in the Wolfmark, through fear of reprisals, caused us to hear little news but such as was manifest lies.
As thus: Duke Casimir was collecting a great army, magnificent with cannon and munitions of war. He was shut up tight in the Wolfsberg, not daring to show his face to his own citizens. He would appear some fine day before the Palace of Plassenburg and slay every man of us. He was in a madman's cell, and Otho von Reuss was Duke of the Mark in his place.
These were only a few of the stories which were brought to regale us daily. And since there was no certainty anywhere, we were all in the dark concerning the military matters which it behooved us greatly to be acquainted with. Therefore I was honestly eager for my master's sake to undertake the perilous journey. But to tell the whole truth, the fact that I had not had a word from the Little Playmate, not so much as a line of script nor a verbal message since her disappearance, made me more eager to go than the high politics of a dozen provinces.
Since the duel, and the final declaring of my love for Helene, I had seen but little of the Princess. Indeed, I kept out of her way, so far at least as I could. And the Lady Ysolinde remained mostly in her own domains—to which, of late, I had been less and less invited. Nevertheless, when we met, she was more than kind to me—gentle, forbearing, pathetic almost in bearing and demeanor, like as a woman wronged, slighted, misconstrued.
Also there was sent to my quarters a new banner for my following, broidered and blazoned in yellow and blue, a saddle-cloth of silk for my horse, fine as a woman's robe, with a crowned Y faint and small in the corner, lettered in straw-colored gold. No man could help being touched by such kindly thought, which, after all, is more than mere liberality.
Yet I saw a sight upon her stairs one night which awoke me with a sudden start to the fact that we had one to reckon with in our journeying to the city of Thorn whom we had not as yet taken into consideration.
For it chanced that I was passing up to the Prince's apartments by the quicker way, through corridors and by stairs to which he had given me private access. And there, upon the steps leading to the Lady Ysolinde's rooms, I saw the decent servitor of Master Gerard stand waiting. He stared as hard at me as I did at him. But whereas his smooth, silent, secret face remained with me, and I knew him at a glance, it was, I judged, clean impossible that he could know the beardless stripling in the mustached leader of soldiers, walking well-accustomed and unafraid through palaces.
The man had a letter in his hand, and I saw him deliver it to a maid who came to the dividing curtain to take it.
So there was later news from the city of Thorn within the Palace of Plassenburg than we of the Prince's council of three possessed. Should I tell our Karl of this encounter? I thought it might be safer not. Because the Prince was the last man to attempt to obtain aught from his wife by compulsion, and any question, direct or indirect, might only put her upon her guard.