Red Axe
by Samuel Rutherford Crockett
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse

"She is mad. Let the justice of the realm be done!" cried again the voice of Master Gerard.

And I think the Duke would have ordered it to be so. But there arose not only a roar from the people, but, what Otho minded far more, an ominous murmur among the nobles and gentlemen and from the ranks of men-at-arms.

"The law! The law! Read us the law!"

And even Otho dare not trifle with the will of the free companions of the Mark. For in all the realm they were now his only supporters. Helene had risen to her feet, and stood, pale of face but erect, resting, as was her wont, one hand on my shoulder.

Then Michael Texel read the scroll aloud.

"It is the immemorial privilege of the Hereditary Executioner of the Mark, being of the family of Gottfried, a privilege not to be abrogated or alienated, that during the term of office of each, he may claim—not as a boon, but as a right—the life of one man for a bond-servant, or the life of one woman for a wife. Thus, by order of the States' Council, to be the privilege of the Gottfrieds forever, it has been proclaimed!"

As Michael Texel went on, I saw the countenance of the Duke and the lawyer change. I knew that salvation had come to us like lightning from a clear sky, and I hastened to demand the right which was mine own.

So soon as he had finished I shouted with all my power:


Then went up such an acclaim from the people as never had been heard in the ancient city. Even the gentlemen within the enclosure threw their hats in the air. The soldiers put their helmets on the points of their spears, and the captains waved their colors as at a victory. The thunder of the cheering roused the very rooks and jackdaws from the towers of Thorn and the bastions of the Wolfsberg till they went drifting in a black cloud clamorously over the city.

Then Helene put her arms about my neck, and, upon the scaffold of death, before all the people, we plighted our troth.

"The Bishop—the Bishop Peter!" cried the people.

And, leaping upon an officer's horse, a messenger rode post-haste to the palace, the crowd making way for him. Duke Otho disappeared through a private door, for the thing was over-strong even for him. He knew his weakness too well to war with the immemorial privileges of the Wolfmark.

Rulers stronger than he had been broken in doing battle against ancient rights and amenities. Besides, the nobility were afraid of their own perquisites if one of so ancient a charter as that of the Hereditary Justicer were refused.

Then from the palace came the Bishop, with due and decorous attendance of crosier and solemn procession. And there, amid a turmoil of joy and the ringing of every bell in the city, we, that had gone out to be together in death, were joined in the bonds of youth and life.

But the Lady Ysolinde saw not—heard not. For they had carried her out white and still from the place where she had fallen fainting at the foot of the scaffold.



Al these things had overpast so quickly that when Helene and I found ourselves alone in the Red Tower it seemed to both of us that we dreamed.

We sat in a kind of buzzing hush, on the low window-seat of the old room, hand in hand. The shouts of the people came up to us from the square beneath. We heard the tramp of the soldiers, who cheered us as they passed to and fro. Being at last alone, we looked into each other's eyes, and we could not believe in our own happiness.

"My wife!" I said, but in another fashion than I had said it on the scaffold.

"My husband!" answered Helene, looking up at me.

But I think, for all that we realized of the truth, we might as well have called each other King and Queen of Sheba.

We had been conducted with honor to the Red Tower. For since it was in virtue of my hereditary office that I had obtained the great deliverance, I dared for the present seek no other dwelling-place. For Helene's sake, indeed, I should have felt safer elsewhere. Besides, desperate and full of baffled hatred as I knew Duke Otho to be, I did not believe that he would dare to molest us—for some time at least. The rage of the people, their unbounded jubilation at the deliverance of their Saint Helena from the jaws of death on the very scaffold, were too recent to be trifled with by a prince sitting so insecure in his ducal seat as Otho of the Wolfmark.

So here in the ancient Red Tower, I thought, we might at least be safe enough till my good fellows of Plassenburg, with the Prince at their head, should swarm hammering at the gates of Thorn.

To us, sitting thus hand in hand, there entered the Bishop Peter.

"Hail!" he said, blandly, and in his grandest manner, as we knelt for his benediction; "hail, bride and bridegroom! God has been good to you this day. Bishop Peter, the least of His servants, greets you very well. May you have long life and prosperity unfailing."

I thanked him for his gracious words.

"The folk of the city are full of joy," he said. "I think they would almost proclaim you Duke to-day."

"I desire no such perilous honor," I replied, smiling; "it were indeed an ill-omen to have a Duke habited all in red."

"It is your marriage-dress, Hugo," said Helene; "I will not have you speak against it."

Ever since the strain of the scaffold she had not once broke down—no, nor wept—but only desired to sit very close beside me, touching me sometimes, as if to make sure that I was real. Deliverance had been too great and sudden, and those things which had come so near to us both—Death and the Beyond—had left a salt and bitter spray on our lips.

"And what of the Lady Ysolinde?" I asked of the Bishop.

Now the Bishop Peter was a good man, but, like many of his brethren, a lover of great, swelling words.

"The Lady Ysolinde," he said, oratorically, "by the immediate assistance of the city guard, was placed in a litter and deported, all unconscious as she was, to her father's house in the Weiss Thor, where she still remains. But her most seasonable extract from the laws of the Wolfmark, which so opportunely saved the life of your fair wife, and led to this present happy consummation, I have here by me, even in my hand."

And with that the Bishop drew the rolled parchment from his pocket and handed it to me, with all the original seals depending from it. Now I have small gift for the deciphering of such ancient documents, being only skilled in the common script of the day, and not over-well in that. So that I had to depend upon the offices of Bishop Peter for the interpretation.

"I think," said the Bishop, after he had finished reading it over, "that this document had best remain in my own possession. It may be safer under the seal and protection of the Church—even as, to speak truth, you and your wife would also be. I am a plain man," the Bishop continued, after a pause, "but remember that there is ever a place of refuge at the palace—and one which even Duke Otho is not likely to violate, remembering the experiences of his predecessor, Duke Casimir, when he crossed his sword against the crosier of this unworthy servant of Holy Church."

"I thank you," said I. "I would that it were possible to avail myself of your all too generous offer. But it will be necessary to abide at least this one night in the Red Tower."

"Ah," he said, "why this night?"

"Great things may happen this night, my Lord Bishop!" said I, and glanced significantly in the direction of Plassenburg.

"Ah," said the Bishop again, "so then the power of Holy Church may not be the only restraint upon Duke Otho by to-morrow at this time!"

And, calling his attendants, the suave and far-seeing prelate made his way with gravity and reverend ceremony down the streets of Thorn towards his palace.

So, bit by bit, the long day passed away, and I thought it would never end. For Helene and I sat and waited for that which might happen, with beating and anxious hearts. Ofttimes I ran to the top of the Red Tower, and sometimes it seemed that I could see a moving cloud of dust, and sometimes a flurry of startled cattle afar on the horizon. But till dusk there came to our aching eyes no better evidence that the lads of Plassenburg were coming to our rescue and to the deliverance of the down-trodden city of Thorn.

The soldiers of the garrison were still encamped in the great square. There was also a constant swarming and mustering of men upon the ramparts of the Wolfsberg. Duke Otho had certainly enough men to make a creditable resistance. True, they were Free Companions, and without other loyalty than that which they owed to their paymaster.

And beneath this warlike show lay the city, rebellious and turbulent to the core, the merchants longing for unhampered rights of trade and security in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labors, the craftsmen claiming freedom to work in their guilds without a payment of labor-bond tithes to the Duke, and especially without the fear of being snatched away at any moment from their benches and looms to join in his forays and incursions.

Towards the gloaming I had come down from the roof of the tower, and was standing, gloomy, and little like a bridegroom, at the little window whence I had so often looked down upon the playing children of Thorn. Suddenly a great hand was reached up from the pavement, a folded paper was thrust in at the lattice, and I saw the face of the Lubber Fiend looking up at me from the street below.

"Come up hither, good Jan," I cried to him. "I will run and open the gate!"

But the Lubber Fiend only shook his head till his ears flapped like burdocks in the wind by the wood edges.

"Jan will come none within that gate to tell where he has been," he said. "Jan may be a fool, but he knows better than that."

"And where have you been?" I asked, eagerly.

Jan the Lubber Fiend stood on his tiptoes and whispered up to me with his elbows on the sill.

"You are sure the Duke is not behind you?"

"There is none here—except my wife," I said, smiling. And I liked speaking the word.

"I have seen the great Prince," said Jan, nodding backward, and smiling mysteriously, "and he is coming, but not by himself. There are such a peck of mad fellows out there. There will not be much to eat in Thorn when they all come in. Better make a good dinner to-day, that is my advice to you. And I was bid to tell you that when all was ready for their coming a fire is to be lighted on a high place, and then the Prince will come to the gates."

I longed much to hear more of his adventures, but neither love nor money would induce the thrice cautious Jan to set a foot within the precincts of the Red Tower.

"I will light a bonfire when it is dark at the White Gate," he said, as he retracted himself into the dusk. "I know what will make a rare blaze. And the Prince cannot come too soon."

So indeed I thought also, as I looked out and saw the swarms of Duke Otho's men in the court-yard and about the square, and reflected on our helplessness here in the Red Tower within the defenced precincts of the Wolfsberg.



But at long and last the most tardy-footed day comes to an end. And so, just as fast as on any common day, the sun at last dropped to the edge of the horizon and slowly sank, leaving a shallowing lake of orange color behind.

The red roofs of Thorn grew gray, with purple veins of shadow in the interstices where the streets ran, or rather burrowed. The nightly hum of the city began. For, under the cruel rule of the wolves of the castle, Thorn was ever busiest in the right. Indeed, the cheating of the guard had become a business well understood of all the citizens, who had a regular code of signals to warn each other of its approach.

Lights winked and kindled in the Wolfsberg over against me. I could see the long array of lighted windows where the Duke would presently be dining with Michael Texel, High Councillor Gerard von Sturm, and most of his other intimates. There, beneath, were the stables of the Black Riders, and before them men were constantly passing and repassing with buckets and soldier gear.

I wondered if the Duke had news of the approach of the enemy.

So soon as I judged it safe I went to the top of the Red Tower and unfolded the paper which Jan the Lubber Fiend had brought me. It was without name and address or signature, and read as follows:

"To-night we shall be all in readiness. When the time is ripe let a fire be lighted upon some conspicuous tower or high place of the city. Then we will come."

Thereafter Helene, being lonely, climbed up and sat down beside me. I handed her the paper.

"To-night will be a stormy one in Thorn and the Wolfsberg, little one," said I. "I fear you and I are not yet out of the wood."

The Little Playmate read the letter and gave it back to me. I tore it up, and let the wind carry away the pieces one by one, small, like dust, so that scarce one letter clave to another.

Her hand stole into mine.

"Ah," she sighed, "I am beginning to believe in it now! To-night may be as dangerous as yesternight. But at least we are together, never to be separated. And to us two that means all."

It was a strange marriage night, this of ours—thus to sit on the roof of the Tower, under the iron beacon which had been placed there in my grandfather's time, and listen to the hum and murmur of the city, straining our eyes meanwhile through the darkness to catch the first spear-glint from the army of the Prince.

"If they do not come by midnight, or if Jan Lubber Fiend does not light his fire by the White Gate, we must e'en risk it and kindle this one here on the Red Tower."

So the night passed on till it was about eleven, or it might be a quarter of an hour later. Then all suddenly I saw a little crowd of men disengage themselves from that private entrance of the Hall of Judgment by which, on the day of the trial, Dessauer and I had entered. They made straight towards the Red Tower at a quick run.

"Dear love," said I to Helene, "see yonder! Be ready to light the beacon. I fear me much that our time has come to fight for life."

"Kiss me, then," she said, "and I will be ready for all that may be. At worst, we can die together, true husband and true wife."

Presently there came a thundering knock at the door of the Red Tower. I crouched on the stairs behind and listened intently. I could hear the breathing of several men.

"He is surely within," said a voice. "The tower has been watched every moment of the day."

Again came the loud knocking.

"Open—in the name of the Duke!" cried the voice. And the door was rattled fiercely against its fastenings.

But I knew well enough that it could hold against any force of unassisted men. For my father had ever taken a special pride in the bars and defences of the single low door which led into his much-threatened residence.

So I crouched in the dark of the stairs and listened with yet more quivering intentness. Presently I could hear shoulders set to the iron-studded surface, and a voice counted, softly, "One—two—three—and a heave!" But though I discerned the laboring of the men straining themselves with all their might, they might as well have pushed at the rough-harled wall of the Wolfsberg.

"It will not do," I heard one say at last. "We cannot hope to succeed thus. Bring the powder-bag and prepare the fuse."

So then I knew indeed that our time was at hand. I mounted the stairs three at a time till I came to the room where Helene was waiting for me in the dark.

"Fire the beacon on the Tower!" I bade her—"our enemies are upon us!"

"And after that may I come to you, Hugo?" she said.

"Nay, little one, it is better that you bide on the roof and see that the beacon burns. You will find plenty of tow and oil in the niche by the stair-head."

I could hear Helene give vent to a little sigh. But she obeyed instantly, and her light feet went pattering up the stairs.

Then I waited for the explosion, which seemed as if it would never come. I had my dagger in my belt, but of pure instinct my right hand seized the Red Axe. For I had more skill of that than any other weapon, and as I had cast it down when they brought us in from the scaffold that morning, it lay ready to my hand.

So I waited at the stair-head, and watched keenly the narrow passage up which the men must come one by one. I measured my distance with the axe-handle, and made a trial sweep or two, so that I might be sure of clearing the stones on either side. I could not see that there would be much difficulty in holding the place for a while, if only Prince Karl would haste him and come. For to me the game of breaking heads and slicing necks would be easy as cracking nuts on an anvil—at least, so long as they would come up singly.

Presently I heard the roar of burning fuel above me, and immediately after a cry from below. Through the narrow stairway lattice I could see the uncertain flicker of flames lighting up the street. Men ran backward across the open square, looking up as they ran. So by that I knew that Helene had done her work, and was now watching the burning beacon, as the flames flicked upward and clapped their fiery applausive palms.

But at the same moment, from the foot of the stairs, there came the loud report of the explosion beneath the door of the Red Tower, the rumble of stones, and then an eager rush of men to see what had been effected.

"Now for it!" I thought, as I gripped the Red Axe.

But it was not to be so soon. The iron bars, which my father had engineered so that they sank deep into the wall on either side, still held nobly, and I heard the loud voice crying again for a battering-ram. The soldiers of the attacking party went scurrying across the yard, and presently returned, carrying between them a young tree cleared of its branches, but with the rough bark still upon it.

Without, in the square, the turmoil increased, and the streets echoed with shouting. A wild hope came into my heart that Prince Karl had not awaited the summons of the beacon, and that his troops were already in the streets of Thorn. But even as the thought passed through my brain I knew that it was vain.

On the other hand, it was evident that in the town the general alarm had been given, for the trumpets blew from the ramparts of the Wolfsberg, and the call to arms resounded incessantly in the court-yard. I doubted not also that many a stout burgher was getting him under arms—and but few of them to fight for the Duke.

Suddenly the bars of the door jangled on the stones under the swinging blows of the battering-ram. I heard feet clatter on the stair. They came with a rush, but long ere they had arrived at the top the pace slackened. Only one man at a time could come up the stairway, and it is always a drag upon the enthusiasm of an assault when at least two cannot advance together. The light flickered and filtered in from the torches in the streets, and the reflected glow of the bonfire on the roof made the stair-head clear as a lucid twilight.

I waited, with the axe swinging loosely in one hand. A head bobbed up, clad in a steel cap. Bat as the unseen feet propelled it upward the Red Axe took little reck of the head. Betwixt the steel cap and the rim of steel of the body armor appeared a gray line of leather jerkin and a thinner white line of neck. The Red Axe swung. I bethought me that it was a bad light to cut off calves' heads in. But the Red Axe made no mistake. I had learned my trade. There was not even a groan—only a dull thud some way underneath, such as you may hear when the children of the quarter play football on the streets.

Then the foremost of the assailants were blocked by the fallen body, and the feet of the men behind were stayed as the strange round plaything rebounded among them.

"Back!" they cried, who were in front.

"Forward!" replied those who were hindmost and knew nothing.

"Come, men—on and finish it!" cried the voice which had commanded the powder-flask and the tree—the voice I now knew to be that of Duke Otho himself.

But the kick-ball argument of the Red Axe was mightily discouraging to those immediately concerned, and as I felt the muscles of my right arm and waited, I could hear Otho reasoning, threatening, coaxing, all in vain. Then his tones mounted steadily into hot anger. He reviled his followers for dogs, cowards, curs who had eaten his bread and now would not rid him of his enemies.

"A thousand rix-dollars to the man who kills Hugo Gottfried!" he shouted. "But, hear ye, save the girl alive!"

Yet not a man would attempt the first hazard of the stair.

"Knaves, traitors, curs!" he cried; "would that there were so much as a single true man among you—but there is not one worth spitting upon!"

"Cur yourself!" growled a man, somewhere in the dark—"you have most at stake in this. Try the stair yourself if you are so keen. We will follow fast enough!"

"God strike me dead if I do not!" shouted Otho; "if it were only to shame you cowards."

He paused to prepare his weapons.

"Follow me, men!" he shouted again; "all together!"

Again there was the clatter of iron-shod feet on the stone steps beneath me.

My grip on the Red Axe became like iron, but my joints were loose and swung easily as a flail swings on well-seasoned leathers.

"Welcome, Otho von Reuss!" I cried; "ye could not be crowned without the death of Helene my wife! Come up hither and I will crown thee once for all with the iron crown."

There, at last, was mine enemy at the turn of the stair, rushing furiously upon me, sword in hand.

"Traitor!" he cried, and his sword was almost at my breast, so fast he came.

"Murderer!" I shouted.

And almost ere I was aware the Red Axe flashed as it swept full circle with scarce a pause, but it took the head of a man with it on its way.

Otho von Reuss was crowned. Helene, the Little Playmate, was avenged.



The Duke's body sank down upon that of the soldier, still further blocking the passage. And as for his head, I know not where that went to. But the rush of his followers was utterly checked by the barrier of dead. With a wild cry, "The Duke is dead! Duke Otho is slain!" they rushed down and out of the Red Tower, eager at once to escape unharmed, and to carry to their companions in the Wolfsberg the startling news.

Nevertheless, I cleared my arm, wiped my axe, and again stood ready.

"Come!" I cried—"come all of you. You desire to kill me? Well, I am still waiting!"

But not a man answered. The stairway was clear, save of the headless dead. And then, sudden as summer thunder, through the dumb and empty silence, I heard clear and loud the clanging of the hammers of Prince Karl upon the gates of Thorn.

At that I felt that I must roar aloud in my fierce joy. I shouted angrily for more and more assailants to come up the stair, that I might kill them all. I yearned to be first at the gate, to see the men whom I had led break their way in to deliver the city. I, more than any other, had brought them there. I had trained them for that work. Best of all, across the stairway beneath me lay dead Otho, Duke of the Wolfmark, beheaded by the Red Axe of his own Justicer.

"Husband! Hugo! Are you wounded?" said a voice behind me, a voice which in a moment recalled me from my bloody imaginings and baresark fury of fighting.

"Helene!" I cried.

She approached, and would have thrown her arms about me. But I held out my hand to keep her off.

"Not now, child," I said; "touch me not. I am unwounded, but wet!"

And so I was, wet with that which had spouted from the neck of Otho von Reuss, as his trunk stood a moment headless in the stairway ere it fell prone—a hideous thing to see.

"Come, Helene," I said, "we must away. There is other work for your husband to-night. You I will place with the Bishop Peter. But my place is with the men of Plassenburg and with Karl, my noble Prince."

And I took her by the hand to lead her out.

"Not that way!" she cried, shrinking back.

For the bodies of the two slain men lay there. And the stairs ran red from step to step in red drips and lappering pools.

So I bethought me of what we should do, and ran forthwith for my father's cord, with which he was used to bind the malefactors upon the wheel.

"Come, Helene," said I, and straightway fastened the rope to the iron bar from which I had made so many descents to the pavement in the old days of the White Wolves.

I let myself down, and there in the angle of the tower wall, I waited to catch my wife. She delayed somewhat, and I could not think wherefore.

But at last she came, bringing the Red Axe in her hand.

"Go not weaponless!" she said, and I reached up and took from her hand that which had already served me so well. The Red Axe had done its work now, and she was grateful.

Then full lightly she descended to my side, and we went down the streets of Thorn, which were filled with hurrying burgesses, all with weapons in their hands, rushing to discover the cause of the clamor. I took Helene hastily to the palace of the Bishop. And when I arrived there I saw Peter himself with his head out of a window.

"I come to claim your protection for my wife!" I cried.

He came down immediately with an attendant.

"Fear not," I said, "you will never be called in question for this kindly deed. The Duke Otho is slain, and the army of Prince Karl of Plassenburg is already at the gates."

"The Duke is dead!" he gasped. "Who slew him?"

"Who but the Hereditary Justicer of the Wolfmark should slay a traitor?" said I, smiling at his astonishment. And I held up the Red Axe, on which there was now no crystal-clear rim of shining steel. All was crimson from haft to edge—red as blood.

"Here, for an hour, Helene, little wife, I must leave you!" I said. But now she sobbed and clung to me as she had not done before, even in the dungeon.

"Stay with me," she said. "I need you, Hugo!"

I took her by the hand.

"Little one," I whispered, as tenderly as I could, "I would not be worthily your husband if I went not to meet those who are fighting to save us all this night. They have come from far to deliver us. I were false and recreant if I went not to their assistance."

"I know—I know," she said. "Go!"

And with that she gave a hand to the good Bishop and went quietly within, with no more than a smile over her shoulder, like a watery April sun-glint.

Then I betook me with all speed to the Weiss Thor, where I judged the chief struggle would take place. And as I came I heard the rattle of shot and the jarring thunder of the forehammers. The soldiers without shouted, and the men within more feebly replied.

I came in sight of the gate. There on my left hand was the house of Master Gerard von Sturm.

A fire was still flickering upon the tower of it.

Without I could hear the cheering and clamoring of the besiegers. But the gates remained obstinately shut. They were stronger than the Prince had anticipated.

As I stood, uncertain what to do, I saw a slim white figure, the figure of a woman, flash across the open space towards the gate. The men who defended the gate towers were all upon the top of the wall. Before any could stop her she had thrown herself upon the wheel by which the bars were unfastened, and with a few turns had drawn them as deftly as evil Duke Casimir had been wont to remove the teeth of the rich Hebrew folk when he wanted supplies.

The White Gate slowly opened upon creaking hinges. The faces of the soldiers of Plassenburg were seen without, the weapons gleamed in their hands as they came on shouting fiercely. The guards of the Duke rushed forward to close the gate. But the woman had clamped the wheel and stood holding the bar.

It was the Lady Ysolinde. She saw me as the soldiers of Duke Otho closed threateningly upon her. She waved her hand to me almost happily.

"I have saved my soul, Hugo Gottfried!" she cried. "I have saved my soul!"

At that moment a soldier of the Black Riders struck her fiercely with his lance. I saw the white bosom of her dress redden as he plucked his weapon to him again. I was in time to catch her in my arms as the soldiers of Plassenburg, with Prince Karl at their head, came through the White Gate like a spring-tide, carrying all before them.

The Prince stayed at his wife's side.

"Ysolinde!" cried the Prince, aghast, bending over her—not heeding, nor indeed, as I think, even seeing me.

"Karl!" she said, looking gently at him, "try and forgive me all the rest. But be glad that I opened the White Gate for yon. I, Ysolinde, your wife, did it for your sake."

I put her into her husband's arms. I saw at a glance that there was no hope. She could not live many moments with that lance-thrust through her breast.

She looked at him again.

"Karl—say 'Ysolinde, I love you!'" she whispered, almost shyly.

He looked down, and a rush of unwonted tears came to the eyes of the Prince of Plassenburg.

"Ysolinde, I love you!" he made answer, in a broken voice.

She smiled, and then looked over his shoulder up at me.

"Hugo Gottfried, have I not saved my soul?" she cried.

And so passed.



There was, however, deadly work yet before the men of Plassenburg. We found, indeed, that the townsfolk were with us almost to a man. Their guild train-bands gathered and mustered at their halls. The guards at the city gates fraternally turned their arms to the ground.

"The Prince will restore your ancient liberties!" I cried. And the people shouted. "Prince Karl of Plassenburg and our ancient liberties!"

Then we made our way up the street by different routes to the Wolfsberg. There was little fighting till we arrived under those vast and gloomy walls. The Black Riders had disappeared within. Those worst tools of grim tyranny had early withdrawn themselves, knowing that small mercy would be shown them by the people if once the Wolfsberg were taken. But the common soldiers of the fighting rank, sons and brothers of the women of Thorn, tore off the badge of the bloody Dukes and with loud shouts marched with us as comrades.

But when we came before the walls, and with sound of trumpet and loud shouts summoned the Wolfsberg to surrender, a discharge of musketry from the walls, and the determined faces of a multitude of defenders showed us conclusively that all was not yet over.

It was no use wasting men in attacking the great pile of buildings with the force at our disposal. We had men in plenty, but for breeching we needed the cannon left behind by these swift forces, which, marching day and night, had arrived in the very nick of time before the walls of Thorn.

Nevertheless, it was not the fate of the Wolfsberg to be taken by Lazy Peg and her compeers.

These ponderous pieces of ordnance were presently being dragged through the swamps and over the brick-dust barrens of the borderlands, and it might be three or four days before they could arrive to aid us. There was nothing, therefore, to do but to sit down and wait, drawing a cincture that not a mouse could creep through about the cliffs of the Wolfsberg.

But deep within the heart of the old Red Tower there was one stronger than Lazy Peg fighting for us.

"Fire! Fire!" cried the people in the streets. "The Wolfsberg is on fire!" And so, surely, it was. The flames burst out from the windows of the Red Tower and were rapidly carried by a dry fanning northerly wind along the wooden workshops and kennels to the main building, where the Hall of Judgment was soon blazing like a torch. The defenders seemed paralyzed by this misadventure. Some ran to the castle well. Some threw themselves desperately from the walls, others crowded to the gates, and through the bars besought our Prince's pledge that mercy would be shown them.

Then the crowd without were ill to deal with, for they cried aloud, "No mercy to the murderers! Show us our Saint Helena!"

Then it was that I leaped once more upon the scaffold, which had seen such a sight the day before, and cried, "Duke Otho is dead! I, Hugo Gottfried, slew him with this Red Axe. Prince Karl is come to save you, and to give you back your ancient liberties. Your Saint Helena is my wife, and is safe under the protection of Bishop Peter."

But though they cheered at my words they would not cease from crying, "Show us Saint Helena, and if she bid us we will have mercy on the wolves of the Wolfsberg!"

So it was necessary for Helene to be brought and to show herself to them, for the sake of the poor souls sore driven and in jeopardy 'twixt the fire and the knives.

"Have mercy on the poor folk!" she cried, when they had done shouting because of her safety. "At worst, they are but misguided, ignorant men!"

By this time the doors of the Wolfsberg were thrown open from within, and the men crowded out, casting down their arms in heaps on either side the gate. They were then marched, under charge of the soldiers of Plassenburg, to various strongholds which were pointed out by the Burgomeister and the chiefs of the guilds. The fortified halls of the trades were filled with them. By daybreak the whole of Thorn was in our hands, while the gray barrens of the Wolfmark were lit for leagues by the flaming Wolfsberg, which, on its craggy height, vomited fire and sparks into the blackness of night.

And the reek of this great burning hung for days after in the heavens. Thus was an end made to the iniquities of the house of the Black Duke Casimir and the Red Duke Otho. And the last Duke mixed his ashes with that of the fatal Tower. For on the morrow there remained only the blackened walls and glowing skeleton beams of all that mighty palace—which, indeed, has never been rebuilt. For the people of Thorn, under the mild and equitable rule which followed, erected a great memorial church upon the spot—as may be seen to this day, a landmark from far to witness if I have lied in the tale which has been told.

So the Prince Karl gave back to Thorn its liberties, as he had promised. But the regality of the Dukedom he kept for himself, and he took the Wolfmark and made it part of his dominions, till, as he had formerly undertaken, the broom-bush kept the cow throughout the length and breadth of Plassenburg and the Mark.

It was a noble home-coming when we returned to Plassenburg—victorious and famous; but also there was mourning deep and solemn for the Princess Ysolinde, who by her sacrifice had wrought such great things for the arms of Plassenburg, and had died in the moment of victory.

Then, when after the stately funeral of the dead Princess we returned back to the palace, it was the Prince's pleasure that Helene and myself should ride on either hand of him through the city.

And when we were announced in the court, and the councillors of state stood about, my wife was named by her true name, "Helena, Princess of Plassenburg!"

Whereat the courtiers opened their mouths and widened their eyes—thinking, perhaps, that that ancient wizard, Chancellor Leopold von Dessauer had suddenly gone mad.

But when the representatives of the cities of the Princedom, and the delegates from Thorn and the Mark, had been received with due honor, the Prince bade his Chancellor recount all he had learned from my father, and all that he had discovered in the archives of Plassenburg.

Then, when Dessauer had finished, Karl the Prince arose.

"I am," he said, "a plain, brusque man. And speech was never my stronghold. But this I say. When Karl the Miller's Son goes the way of King's son and beggar's son, it is his will that Helene, legitimate Princess of Plassenburg, shall reign over you. And also that her husband, Hugo, who, as you know, won her from dreadful death, shall stand by her right hand."

Then the nobles and great lords, fearing the Prince, and perhaps also envying a little the man who was the Prince's general of his armies, shouted amain:

"We swear to obey the Princess Helena!"

Whereat uprose the Little Playmate, very princess-like and full of sweet regal dignity.

"I thank you, noble Prince," she said. "I am glad that I can claim so honorable a name and lineage; but I had rather be no Princess, nor anything else than that which my husband hath made me—the wife of the captain-general of the armies of Karl, the only true and noble Prince of Plassenburg!"

Then the Prince rose and clasped her in his arms, kissing her fondly on both cheeks.

"Fear not," he said, "dear and loyal lady. If you live to be the Princess, your goodman shall be the Prince. Never shall the gray mare flaunt it first, in Plassenburg!"

And he gave us each a hand, and conducted us to a pair of seats which had been set level with his on the platform of the Council-chamber of the Princedom.

The Prince Karl lived many days after the winning of the Wolfmark and the ending of the ducal Wolves. But he gave less and less care to the regalities, leaving them even more completely to me, sitting mostly in the pleasaunce by the river-side, or in the far-regarding room which had been the Lady Ysolinde's.

Also he never looked again on the face of a woman—except as it might be to bid them good-day—save on that of my wife, Helene, who, as you who know her may guess, waxed but the sweeter and the fairer as the years went by.

And the blessing of children came to us, and in this thing the Prince Karl was even happier than we.

One day, however, it chanced that he was seated in full Council, and right noble he looked. I had just handed him a paper to sign. But he looked neither at me nor yet at the paper. His eyes were fixed on the locked doors of the privy bedchamber, through which only those of princely blood might come.

He stared so long at it that to recall him I put my hand on his sleeve and said, "Prince, the Council waits your pleasure!"

Bat he heard me not, his eyes being fixed on the door.

"Your pardon, my lords and knights," he said, at last, fighting a little stiffly with his utterance, "but it seemed that I saw the Princess, my wife, come through the door, clad in white, and beckon me with her hand. I must go to her, my lords; I think she waits for me. The Prince Hugo will take my place at the Council."

And the old man took a step from the high seat. But at the foot of the throne he stumbled and fell into my arms.

He said but one word after that, with his eyes still fixed on the bolted door.


And so the Prince Karl and his wife were united at last.

Since then we have lived long, the Little Playmate and I; but never have we been other than comrades and friends—lovers also, which is the best of all. And so (an the good God please) we shall abide till the end comes. And in the gloaming we two also shall see the beckoning finger from beyond the bolted door and turn our feet homeward, passing the bourne of the new life hand in hand—and undismayed.


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse