"Oh, how delightful it is here!" she exclaimed, flinging her arms around the baroness. "I should like to dig and work in the garden all day long with these merry girls. How happy I shall be here!"
"To-morrow we will visit the fields," said Katharina "Can you ride?"
"Ride?" echoed Marie, in smiling surprise. "Yes—on a rocking-horse."
"Then you will very soon learn to sit on a living horse."
"Do you really believe I shall?" breathlessly exclaimed Marie.
"Yes; I have a very gentle horse which you shall have for your own."
"One of those dear, tiny little horses from which one could not fall? I have seen them in picture-books."
"He is not so very small; but you will not be afraid of falling off when you have learned to ride. Then, when you can manage your horse, we will ride after the hounds—"
"No, no," hastily interposed the young girl; "I shall never do that. I could not bear to see an animal hurt or killed."
"You will have to accustom yourself to seeing such sights, my dear little daughter. Riding and hunting are necessary accomplishments; besides, they strengthen the nerves."
"Have not the peasant women got strong nerves, little mama?"
"Yes; but they strengthen them by hard work, such as washing clothes."
"Then let us wash clothes, too."
Katharina smiled indulgently on the innocent maid, and the two now entered the manor, where Marie made the acquaintance of Fraeulein Lotti, the baroness's companion.
Marie's attention was attracted by the number of books she saw everywhere; and they were all new to her. Ludwig had never brought anything like them to the castle. There were poems, histories, romances, fables. Ah, how she would enjoy reading every one of them!
"Oh, who is doing this?" she exclaimed, when her eyes fell on an easel on which was a half-finished painting—a study head.
Her admiration for the baroness increased when that lady told her the picture was the work of her own hand.
"How very clever you must be, little mama! I wonder if you could paint my portrait?"
"I will try it to-morrow," smilingly replied the baroness.
"And what is this—this great monster with so many teeth?" she asked, running to the piano.
Katharina told her the name of the "monster," and, seating herself in front of the "teeth," began to play.
Marie was in an ecstasy of delight.
"How happy you ought to be, little mama, to be able to make such beautiful music!" she cried, when Katharina turned again toward her.
"You shall learn to play, too; Fraeulein Lotti will teach you."
For this promise Marie ran to Fraeulein Lotti and embraced her.
While at dinner Marie suddenly remembered that she had not yet seen the little water-monster, and inquired about him.
The baroness told her that the boy had gone back to his fish companions in the lake; then asked: "But where did you ever see the creature?"
Marie hesitated a moment before replying; a natural modesty forbade her from confessing to Ludwig's betrothed wife that he had taught her how to swim, and had always accompanied her on her swimming excursions in his canoe.
"I saw him once with you in the park, when I was looking through the telescope," she answered, with some confusion.
"Ah! then you also have been spying upon me?" jestingly exclaimed the baroness.
"How else could I have learned that you are so good and beautiful?" frankly returned the young girl.
"Ah, I have an idea," suddenly observed the baroness. "That spy-glass is here now. The surveyor to whom Ludwig gave it sent it to me when he had done with it. Come, we will pay Herr Ludwig back in his own coin! We will spy out what the gentlemen are doing over at the castle."
Marie was charmed with this suggestion, and willingly accompanied her "little mama" to the veranda, where the familiar telescope greeted her sight.
Two of the windows in that side of the Nameless Castle which faced the manor were lighted.
"That is the dining-room; they are at dinner," explained Marie, adjusting the glass—a task of which the baroness was ignorant. When she had arranged the proper focus, she made room for Katharina, who had a better right than she had to watch Ludwig.
"What do you see?" she asked, when Katharina began to smile.
"I see Ludwig and the vice-palatine; they are leaning out of the window, and smoking—"
"Smoking?" interposed Marie. "Ludwig never smokes."
"See for yourself!"
Katharina stepped back, and Marie placed her eye to the glass. Yes; there, plainly enough, she beheld the remarkable sight: Ludwig, with evident enjoyment, drawing great clouds of smoke from a long-stemmed pipe. The two men were talking animatedly; but even while they were speaking, the pipes were not removed from their lips—Ludwig, indeed, at times vanished entirely behind the dense cloud of smoke.
"For six whole years he never once let me see him smoking a pipe!" murmured Marie to herself. "How much he enjoys it! Do you"—turning abruptly toward the baroness, who was smilingly watching her young guest—"do you object to tobacco smoke?"
She seemed relieved when the baroness assured her that tobacco smoke was not in the least objectionable.
Some time later, when reminded that it was time for little girls to be in bed, Marie protested stoutly that she was not sleepy.
"Pray, little mama," she begged, "let us look a little longer through the telescope; it is so interesting."
But even while she was giving voice to her petition the windows in the dining-room over at the castle became darkened. The gentlemen evidently had retired to their rooms for the night.
"Oh, ah-h," yawned Marie, "I am sleepy, after all! Come, little mama, we will go to bed."
Katharina herself conducted the young girl to her room. Marie exclaimed with surprise and delight when, on entering the room adjoining the baroness's own sleeping-chamber, she beheld her own furniture—the canopy-bed, the book-shelves, toys, card-table, everything. Even Hitz, Mitz, Pani, and Miura sat in a row on the sofa, and Phryxus and Helle came waddling toward her, and sat up on their hind legs.
The things had been brought over from the castle while the baroness and Marie were in the park.
"You will feel more at home with your belongings about you," said Katharina, as she returned the grateful girl's good-night kiss.
THE HUNGARIAN MILITIA
When Count Vavel and the vice-palatine disappeared from the window of the dining-room, they did not retire to their pillows. They went to Ludwig's study, where they refilled their pipes for another smoke.
"But tell me, Herr Vice-palatine," said the count, continuing the conversation which had begun at the dining-table, "why is it that six months have been allowed to pass since the Diet passed the militia law without anything having been accomplished?"
"Well, you must know that there are three essential parts among the works of a clock," returned Herr Bernat, complacently puffing away at his pipe. "There is the spring, the pendulum, and the escapement. The wheels are the subordinates. The spring is the law passed by the Diet. The pendulum is the palatine office, which has to set the law in motion; the escapement is the imperial counselor of war. The wheels are the people. We will keep to the technical terms, if you please. When the spring was wound up, the pendulum began to set the wheels going. They turned, and the loyal nobles of the country began to enroll their names—"
"How many do you suppose enrolled their names?" interrupted the count.
"Thirty thousand cavalry and forty thousand infantry—which are not all the able-bodied men, as only one member from each family is required to join the army. After the names had been entered came the question of uniforms, arms, officering, drilling, provisions. You must admit that a clock cannot strike until the hands have made their regular passage through all the minutes and seconds that make up the hour!"
"For heaven's sake! What a preamble!" ejaculated the count. "But go on. The first minute?"
"Yes; the first minute a stoppage occurred caused by the escapement objecting to furnish canteens; if the militiamen wanted canteens they must provide them themselves."
"I trust the clock was not allowed to stop for want of a few canteens," ironically observed Count Vavel.
"Moreover," continued the vice-palatine, not heeding the interruption, "the escapement gave them to understand that brass drums could not be furnished—only wooden ones—"
"They will do their duty, too, if properly handled," again interpolated Vavel.
"A more disastrous check, however, was the decision of the Komitate that the uniform was to consist of red trousers and light-blue dolman—"
"A picturesque uniform, at any rate!"
"There was a good deal of argument about it; but at last it was decided that the companies from the Danube should adopt light-blue dolmans, and those from the Theiss dark-blue."
"Thank heaven something was decided!"
"Don't be too premature with your thanks, Herr Count! The escapement would not consent to the red trousers; red dye-stuff was not to be had, because of the continental embargo. The militia must content itself with trousers made of the coarse white cloth of which peasants' cloaks are made. You can imagine what a tempest that raised in the various counties! To offer Hungarian nobles trousers made of such stuff! At last the matter was arranged: trousers and dolman were to be made of the same material. The Komitate were satisfied with this. But the escapement then said there were not enough tailors to make so many uniforms. The government would supply the cloth, and have it cut, and the militiamen could have it made up at home."
"That certainly would make the uniform of more value to the wearer!"
"Would have made, Herr Count; would have made! The escapement suddenly announced that the cloth could not be purchased; for, while the dispute about the colors of the uniform had been going on, the greedy merchants had advanced the price of all cloths to such an exorbitant figure that the government could n't afford to buy it."
"To the cuckoo with your escapement! The men have got to have uniforms!"
"Beg pardon; don't begin yet to waste expletives, else you will not have any left at the end of the hour! The counties then agreed to pay the sum advanced on the original price of the cloth, whereupon the escapement said the money would have to be forthcoming at once, as the cloth could not be bought on credit."
"Well, is there no treasury which could supply enough funds for this worthy object?" asked the count.
"Yes; there is the public treasury for current expenses. But the treasurer will not give any money to the militia until they are mounted and equipped; the escapement will not furnish the cloth for the uniforms without the money; and the treasury will not give any money until the militia has its uniforms!"
"Well, a man can fight without a uniform. If only these men have horses under them and weapons in their hands—"
"Two of these requisites we already have; but the escapement announces that arms of the latest improvements cannot be furnished, because the government has not got them."
"Well, the old ones will answer."
"They would if we had enough flints; but they are not to be had, because the insurrectionary Poles have captured the flint depot in Lemberg."
"Each man certainly could get a flint for himself."
"Even then there are only enough guns for about one half of the men. The escapement suggested that to those who had no arms it would furnish—halberds!"
"What? Halberds!" cried Vavel, losing all patience. "Halberds against Bonaparte? Halberds against the legions who have broken a path from one end of Europe to the other with their bayonets, and with them carved their triumphs on the pyramids? Halberds against them? Do you take me to be a fool, Herr Vice-palatine?"
He sprang to his feet and began to pace the floor excitedly, his guest meanwhile eying him with a roguish glance.
"There!" at last exclaimed Herr Bernat, "I will not tease you any longer. Fortunately, there is a clock-repairer who, so soon as he perceived how tardily the hands performed their task, with his finger twirled them around the entire dial, whereupon the clock struck the hour. This able repairer is our king, who at once advanced from his own exchequer enough money to equip the militia companies, distributed six thousand first-class cavalry sabers and sixteen cannon, and loaned the entire Hungarian life-guard to drill the newly formed regiments. And now, I will wager that our noble militia host will be ready for the field in less than thirty days, and that they will fight as well as the good Lord permitted them to learn how!"
"Why in the world did you not tell me this at once?" demanded Count Vavel.
"Because it is not customary to put the fire underneath the tobacco in the pipe! The king's example inspired our magnates. Those whom the law compelled to equip ten horsemen sent out whole companies, and placed themselves in command."
"As I shall do!" appended Count Vavel. "I hope, Herr Vice-palatine, that you will not forget the amnesty for Satan Laczi and his men. They will be of special value as spies."
"I have a knot in my handkerchief for that, Herr Count, and shall be sure to remember. The company to be commanded by Count Ludwig Fertoeszeg will be complete in a week."
"Why do you call me Fertoeszeg?"
"Because a Hungarian name is better for your ensign than your own foreign one. Our people have an antipathy to everything foreign—and we have cause to complain of the Frenchmen who served in our army. Most of them were spies—tools of Napoleon's. Generals Moiselle and Lefebre surrendered fortified Laibach, together with its entire brigade, without discharging a gun. And even our quondam friend, the gallant Colonel Barthelmy, has taken Dutch leave and gone back to the enemy."
"What? Gone back to the enemy!" repeated Ludwig, springing from his chair, and laughing delightedly.
"The news seems to rejoice you," observed Herr Bernat.
"I shout for very joy! The thought that we might have to fight side by side annoyed me. Now, however, we shall be adversaries, and when we meet, the man who did not steal Ange Barthelmy will send her husband to the devil! And now, Herr Vice-palatine, I think it is time to say good night. It will be the first night in six years that I shall sleep quietly."
They shook hands, and separated for the night.
From early morning until evening the enrolment of names went on at the Nameless Castle, while from time to time a squad of volunteers, accompanied by Count Vavel himself, would depart amid the blare of trumpets for the drill-ground.
The count made a fine-looking officer, with the crimson shako on his head, his mantle flung over one shoulder, his saber in his hand. When he saluted the ladies on their balconies, his spirited horse would rear and dance proudly. His company, the "Volons," had selected black and crimson as the colors for their uniform. The shako was ornamented in front with a white death's-head, and one would not have believed that a skull could be so ornamental.
The Volons' ensign was not yet finished, but pretty white hands were embroidering gold letters on the silken streamers; lead would very soon add further ornamentation!
When Ludwig Vavel opened the door of his castle to the public, he very soon became acquainted with a very different life from that of the past six years. For six years he had dwelt among a people whom he imagined he had learned to know and understand through his telescope, and from the letters he had received from a clergyman and a young law student.
The reality was quite different.
Every man that was enrolled in his volunteer corps Count Vavel made an object of special study. He found among them many interesting characters, who would have deserved perpetuation, and made of all of them excellent soldiers. The men very soon became devoted to their leader. When the troop was complete—three hundred horsemen in handsome uniforms, on spirited horses—their ensign was ready for them. Marie thought it would have been only proper for Katharina, the betrothed of the leader, to present the flag; but Count Vavel insisted that Marie must perform the duty. The flag was hers; it would wave over the men who were going to fight for her cause.
It was an inspiriting sight—three hundred horsemen, every one of noble Hungarian blood. There were among them fathers of families, and brothers; and all of them soldiers of their own free will. Of such material was the troop of Volons, commanded by "Count Vavel von Fertoeszeg."
Count Vavel had a second volunteer company, composed of Satan Laczi and his comrades. This company, however, had been formed and drilled in secret, as the noble Volons would not have tolerated such vagabonds in their ranks. There were only twenty-four men in Satan Laczi's squad, and they were expected to undertake only the most hazardous missions of the campaign.
Ah, how Marie's hand trembled when she knotted the gay streamers to the flag Ludwig held in his hands! She whispered, in a tone so low that only he could hear what she said:
"Don't go away, Ludwig! Stay here with us. Don't waste your precious blood for me, but let us three fly far away from here."
Those standing apart from the count and his fair ward fancied that the whispered words were a blessing on the ensign. She did not bless it in words, but when she saw that Ludwig would not renounce his undertaking, she pressed her lips to the standard which bore the patrona Hungaria. That was her blessing! Then she turned and flung herself into Katharina's arms, sobbing, while hearty cheers rose from the Volons:
"Why don't you try to prevent him from going away from us? Why don't you say to him, 'To-morrow we are to be wedded. Why not wait until then?'"
But there was no time now to think of marriage. There was one who was in greater haste than any bridegroom or bride. The great leader of armies was striding onward, whole kingdoms between his paces. From the slaughter at Ebersburg he passed at once to the walls of Vienna, to the square in front of the Cathedral of St. Stephen. From the south, also, came Job's messengers, thick and fast. Archduke John had retreated from Italy back into Hungary, the viceroy Eugene following on his heels.
General Chasteler had become alarmed at Napoleon's proclamation threatening him with death, and had removed his entire army from the Tyrol. His divisions were surrendering, one after another, to the pursuing foe.
Thus the border on the south and west was open to the enemy; and to augment the peril which threatened Hungary, Poland menaced her from the north, from the Carpathians; and Russia at the same time sent out declarations of war.
The countries which had been on friendly terms with one another suddenly became enemies—Poland against Hungary, Russia against Austria. Prussia waited. England hastened to seize an island from Holland. The patriotic calls of Gentz and Schlegel failed to inspire Germany. The heroic attempts of Kalt, Doernberg, Schill, and Luetzow fell resultless on the indifference of the people. Only Turkey remained a faithful ally, and the assurance that the Mussulman would protect Hungary in the rear against an invasion on the part of Moldavia was the only ray of light amid the darkness of those days.
Then came a fresh Job's messenger.
General Jelachich, with his five thousand men, had laid down his arms in the open field before the enemy. Now, indeed, it might be said: "The time is come to be up and doing, Hungary!"
He who had neglected to celebrate his nuptials yesterday would have no time for marriage feasts to-morrow. Hannibal was at the gates! The noble militia host was set in motion. The Veszprime and Pest regiments moved toward the Marczal to join Archduke John's forces. The primatial troops joined the main body of the army on the banks of the March, and what there was of soldiery on the farther side of the Danube hastened to concentrate in the neighborhood of the Raab—only half equipped, muskets without flints, without cartridges, without saddles, with halters in lieu of bridles!
Under such circumstances a fully equipped troop like that commanded by "Count Fertoeszeg," with sabers, pistols, carbines, and a leader trained in the battle-field, was of some value.
The days which followed the flag presentation were certainly not calculated to whispers of happy love, while the nights were illumined only by the light of watch-fires, and the glare over against the horizon of cannonading. Count Ludwig had so many demands on his time that he rarely found a few minutes free to visit his dear ones at the manor. Sometimes he came unexpectedly early in the morning, and sometimes late in the evening. And always, when he came, like the insurgent who dashes unceremoniously into your door, there was a confusion and a bustling to conceal what he was not yet to see—Marie's first attempts at drawing, her piano practices, or the miniature portrait Katharina was painting of her. Sometimes, too, he came when they were at a meal; and then, despite his protests that he had already dined or supped in camp, he would be compelled to take his seat between the two ladies at the table. Hardly would he have taken up his fork, however, when a messenger would arrive in great haste to summon him for something or other—some question he alone could decide; then all attempts to detain him would prove futile.
The day he received his orders to march, he was forced to take enough time to speak on some very important matters to his betrothed wife. He delivered into her hands the steel casket, of which so much has been written. When he entered the room where the two ladies were sitting, Marie discreetly rose and left the lovers alone; but she did not go very far: she knew that she would be sent for very soon. Why should she stop to hear the exchange of lovers' confidences, hear the mutual confessions which made them so happy? She did not want to see the tears which he would kiss away.
"May God protect you," sobbed Katharina, reflecting at the same moment that it would be a great pity were a bullet to strike the spot on the noble brow where she pressed her farewell kiss.
"You will guard my treasure, Katharina? Take good care of my palladium and of yourself. Before I go, let me show you what this casket which you must guard with unceasing care contains."
He drew the steel ring from his thumb, and pushed to one side the crown which formed the seal, whereupon a tiny key was revealed. With it he unlocked the casket.
On top lay a packet of English bank-notes of ten thousand pounds each.
"This sum," explained Ludwig, "will defray the expenses of our undertaking. When I shall have attained my object, I shall be just so much the poorer. I am not a rich man, Katharina; I must tell you this before our marriage."
"I should love you even were you a beggar," was the sincere response.
A kiss was her reward.
Underneath the bank-notes were several articles of child's clothing, such as little girls wear.
"Her mother embroidered the three lilies on these with her own hands," said Ludwig, laying the little garments to one side. Then he took from the casket several time-stained documents, and added: "These are the certificate of baptism, the last lines from the mother to her daughter, and the deposition of the two men who witnessed the exchange of the children. This," taking up a miniature-case, "contains a likeness of Marie, and one of the other little girl who exchanged destinies with her. The Marquis d'Avoncourt, who is now a prisoner in the Castle of Ham,—if he is still alive!—is the only one besides ourselves who knows of the existence of these things. And now, Katharina, let me beg of you to take good care of them; no matter what happens, do not lose sight of this casket."
He locked the casket, and returned the ring to his thumb.
The baroness placed the treasure intrusted to her care in a secret cupboard in the wall of her own room.
And now, one more kiss!
The girl waiting in the adjoining room was doubtless getting weary. Suddenly Ludwig heard the tones of a piano. Some one was playing, in the timid, uncertain manner of a new beginner, Miska's martial song. Ludwig listened, and turned questioningly toward his betrothed. Katharina did not speak; she merely smiled, and walked toward the door of the adjoining room, which she opened.
Marie sprang from the piano toward Ludwig, who caught her in his arms and rewarded her for the surprise. And thus it happened that Marie, after all, was the one to receive Ludwig's last kiss of farewell.
The camp on the bank of the Rabcza was shared by the troop from Fertoeszeg and by a militia company of infantry from Wieselburg.
The parole had been given out for the night. Count Vavel had completed his round of the outposts, and had returned to the officers' tent. Here he found awaiting him two old acquaintances—the vice-palatine and the young attorney from Pest, each of them wearing the light-blue dolman.
The youthful attorney, whose letters to the count had voiced the national discontent, had at once girded on his sword when the call to arms had sounded throughout the land, and was now of one mind with his quondam patron: if he got near enough to a Frenchman to strike him, the result would certainly be disastrous—for the Frenchman. Bernat bacsi also found himself at last in his element, with ample time and opportunity for anecdotes. Seated on a clump of sod the root side up, with both hands clasping the hilt of his sword, the point of which rested on the ground, he repeated what he had heard from the palatine's own lips, while dining with that exalted personage in the camp by the Raab.
At a very interesting point in his recital he was unceremoniously interrupted by the challenging call of the outposts:
"Halt! who comes there?"
Vavel hastened from the tent, flung himself on his horse, and galloped in the direction of the call. The patrol had stopped an armed man who would not give the password, but insisted that he had a right to enter the camp.
Vavel recognized Satan Laczi, and said to the guard:
"Release him; he is a friend of mine." Then to the ex-robber: "Come with me."
He led the way to his own private tent, where he bade his companion rest himself on a pallet of straw.
"I dare say you are tired, my good fellow."
"Not very," was the reply. "I have come only from Kapuvar to-day."
"Part of the way, and part of the way swimming."
"What news do you bring?"
"We captured a French courier in the marshes near Vitnyed just as he was about to ride into the stream."
"Where is he?"
"Well, you see, one of my fellows happened to grasp him a little too tightly by the collar, because he resisted so obstinately—and, besides, it must have been a very weak cord that fastened his soul to his body."
"You have not done well, Satan Laczi," reproved the count. "Another time you must bring the prisoner to me alive, for I may learn something of importance from him. Did not I tell you that I would pay a reward for a living captive?"
"Yes, your lordship, and we shall lose our reward this time. But we did n't capture the fellow for nothing, after all. We searched his pockets, and found this sealed letter addressed to a general in the enemy's army."
Vavel took the letter, and said: "Rest here until I return. You will find something to eat and drink in the corner there. I may want you to ride farther to-night."
"If I am to go on a horse, that will rest me sufficiently," was the response.
Vavel quitted the tent to read the letter by the nearest watch-fire. It was addressed to "General Guillaume."
That the general commanded a brigade of the viceroy of Italy's troops, Vavel knew.
The letter was a long one—four closely written pages. Before reading it Vavel glanced at the signature: "Marquis de Fervlans." The name seemed familiar, but he could not remember where he had heard it. He was fully informed when he read the contents:
"M. GENERAL: The intrigue has been successfully carried out. Themire has found the fugitives! They are hidden in a secluded nook on the shore of Lake Neusiedl in Hungary, where their extreme caution has attracted much attention. Themire's first move was to take up her abode in the same neighborhood, which she did in a masterly manner. The estate she bought belonged to a Viennese baron who had ruined himself by extravagance. Themire bought the property, paying one hundred thousand guilders for it, on condition that she might also assume the baron's name; such transfers are possible, I believe, in Austria. In this wise Themire became the Baroness Katharina Landsknechtsschild, and, as she thoroughly understands the art of transformation, became a perfect German woman before she took possession of her purchase. In order not to arouse suspicion on the part of the fugitives, she carefully avoided meeting either of them, and played to perfection the role of a lady that had been jilted by her lover.
"Themire learned that our fugitive owned a powerful telescope with which he kept himself informed of everything that happened in the neighborhood, and this prompted her to adopt a very amusing plan of action. I wanted to put an end at once to the matter, and had gone to Vienna for the purpose of so doing. I entered the Austrian army as Count Leon Barthelmy, in order to be near my chosen emissary. But my scheme was without result. I had planned that a notorious robber of that region should steal the girl and the documents from the Nameless Castle,—as the abode of the fugitives is called,—but my robber proved unequal to the task. Consequently I was forced to accept Themire's more tedious but successful plan. The difficulty was for Themire to become acquainted with our fugitive without arousing his suspicions. An opportunity offered. One night, when we knew to a certainty that the hermit in the Nameless Castle would be in his observatory because of an eclipse of the moon, Themire put her plan into operation. The hermit, who is only a man, after all, found a lovely woman more attractive than all the planets in the universe; he was captured in the net laid for him! When the moon entered the shadow, four masked robbers (Jocrisse was their leader!) climbed into the Baroness Landsknechtsschild's windows. The hermit in his observatory beheld this incursion, and, being a knight as well as a recluse, what else could he do but rush to the rescue of his fair neighbor? His telescope had told him she was fair. Jocrisse played his part admirably. At the approach of the deliverer the "robbers" took to their heels, and the brave knight unbound the fettered and charming lady he had delivered from the ruffians. As Themire had prepared herself for the meeting, you may guess the result: the hermit was captured!"
Oh, how every drop of blood in Vavel's veins boiled and seethed! His face was crimsoned with shame and rage. He read further:
"Themire was perfectly certain that the mysterious hermit of the Nameless Castle had fallen in love with her; and I am not so sure but Themire has ended by falling in love with the knight! Women's hearts are so impressionable.
"I managed to have my regiment sent to her neighborhood, and took up my quarters in her house. I sought by every means to lure the hermit from his den; but he is a cunning fox, is this protector of fair ladies! I could not get a sight of him. I decided at last to waylay him (when he would be out driving with the veiled lady), to pretend that I was a betrayed husband in search of his errant wife, and ask to see the face of his veiled companion. This, naturally, he would refuse. A duel would be the result; and as he has not for years had a weapon in his hand, and as I am a dead shot, you can guess the result—a hermit against a Spadassin! With a bullet in his brain, the mysterious maid would become my property."
Here an icy chill shook Vavel's frame. He read on:
"That was my intention. But something on which I had not counted prevented me from carrying it out. When I insisted on seeing the face of the veiled lady, after telling him I believed her to be my wife, Ange Barthelmy (I need not tell you that that entire story was an invention of my own; I published it in a provincial newspaper, whence it spread all over Europe), my brave hermit showed a very bold front, and we were on the point of exchanging blows, when the lady suddenly flung back her veil and revealed the face of—Themire! You may believe that I was dumfounded for an instant; then I began to believe that my faith in this woman had been misplaced. Could it be possible that she had been caught in her own trap—that she had found this Vavel's eyes more alluring than the fortune we promised her, and that instead of betraying him to us she would do the very opposite—betray us to him? It may be that she has woven a more delicate web than I can detect with which to entangle her romantic victim the more securely. At all events, when I asked Vavel what relation the lady at his side bore to him, he replied: 'She is my betrothed wife.'
"I confess I am puzzled. But I have the means of compelling Themire to keep her promise. Her daughter is in my power!"
("Her daughter?" gasped Vavel. "Her daughter? Then Katharina is a married woman!")
"But," he continued to read, "it might happen that a woman who is in love would sacrifice her child. So soon as this war broke out, Vavel threw off his hermit's mask, and is now leading a company of troopers—which he equipped at his own expense—against us.
"From Jocrisse's letters I learn that Vavel's treasures are now in Themire's hands. That which our fair emissary was commissioned to find is in her possession. Now, however, the question is, What will she do with it?
"Jocrisse also informs me that Themire is quite bewitched with the amiability of the maid who has been intrusted to her care. If this be true, then matters are in a bad way. If this is not another of Themire's schemes, but actual sympathy, if this girl, whose remarkable loveliness of character (even Jocrisse is compelled to praise her) has won the piquant little Amelie's place in her mother's heart, then it will be more difficult to separate Themire from the girl than to win her from her lover."
This was a solitary ray of sunshine amid the threatening clouds which enveloped Ludwig. He continued to read with rapidly beating heart:
"I must know to a certainty what Themire proposes to do. To-day I sent her a message by a trusty courier, informing her that I should be at a certain place at an appointed time—that I wanted her to meet me and deliver into my hands the treasures she now holds. She will have an excellent excuse for leaving the manor. Our troops are approaching Steiermark, and have already crossed the Hungarian border. Thus it will seem as if she fell by accident into the hands of the enemy.
Vavel's heart almost ceased to beat. The letter shook in his trembling hands.
"I shall not, however," he continued to read, "depend on the fickle mood of a woman, who may be swayed by a tear or a love-letter. If Themire does not appear with the maid and the documents at the designated spot to-morrow evening, then I shall ride with my troop to the manor. My troop, as you know, belongs to the 'Legion of Demons,' and they do not know the definition of the word 'impossible'! If Themire of her own free will delivers the treasures into my hands, I shall thank her becomingly. If, however, she fails to meet me, I shall take the maid and the documents by force."
Vavel did not notice that the firelight by which he was reading the letter had begun to grow dim; he believed the characters on the page before him were swimming in a blood-red mist.
"And now," the letter went on, "I come to my instructions to you, general. You will move with your division toward the southern shore of Lake Neusiedl, and cut off the way of our fugitives toward the Tyrol. There is also another task which you must undertake. The mysterious maid, once she is in our hands, must be treated with the utmost courtesy and respect. A remarkable destiny awaits her. You know the emperor is going to separate from Josephine. A new palace will be built for the new empress. Who is the fortunate lady? As yet, no one can tell. A royal maid who can bring as her dowry the crown of a sovereign. A marriage that would unite the imperial crown with the crown of Hugo Capet would firmly establish Napoleon's throne. The legitimate dynasty would then be satisfied with the sovereign chosen by the people. This fugitive maid is, I hear, lovely, amiable, generous, pure, as only the ideal of a sovereign can be."
Vavel stamped his foot in a paroxysm of fury. Had this miscreant written that Marie was to be imprisoned in a convent, he could have borne it. But to suggest that his idol, his pure, adored image of a saint, might become the consort of the man on whom all the savage hatred of his nature was concentrated—this was more horrible than all the torments of hell. But he must calm himself and read the letter to the end.
"With this probability in view, I request that you send your wife and daughter, with a proper escort, of course, to meet me in one of the border cities, say Friedberg, where the ladies will be prepared to take charge of the maid. You will understand that a lady of her exalted position must travel only in company with distinguished persons. Countess Themire Dealba's role is concluded. She must not be allowed, in any character, to accompany our presumptive sovereign to Paris. She will receive her five millions of francs, as promised, and that will conclude our business transactions with her. Pray communicate my desire to your wife and daughter, and bid them prepare for the journey.
"MARQUIS DE FERVLANS."
Not for one instant did Ludwig Vavel deliberate as to his course of action.
He could not leave his post. For a soldier to quit his post before the enemy is treason. He hurried back to his tent. Satan Laczi was stretched on the bare ground, sleeping soundly.
Ludwig shook him vigorously.
"Awake—awake! You must depart at once."
Satan Laczi sprang to his feet.
"Take my own horse, and ride for your life the shortest way to Fertoeszeg."
"And what am I to do there?"
"Do you remember that an officer once asked you to steal the treasure I kept concealed in the Nameless Castle?"
"Yes; but I did n't do it."
"Well, I want you to do it now for me."
"Which do you want, the maid or the casket?"
"Both, if possible; the maid in any case. But you must be sure that she is alone when you approach her. Then say merely the name 'Sophie Botta,' and she will listen quietly to what you have to say. Then show her this ring,—here, put it on your left thumb"—he drew the steel ring from his own thumb and slipped it on to Satan Laczi's,—"and say, 'The person who wears this ring sent me to fetch you away from here. You are to come with me at once.'"
"And where am I to take her?"
"You will have a carriage with four swift horses at the park gate nearest the cemetery, and must drive with the maid to Raab.—Don't stop on any account until you get there. In Raab you will inquire for the house of Dr. Tromfszky, who is our army physician. He will have been advised of your coming, and will take charge of the maid. Then you will return to me here, and report what you have done. Here is a passport; if you are stopped at our lines show it to the guard. And here is a purse; don't spare the contents. And do not speak to a living soul about your mission."
"Your orders shall be obeyed," responded Satan Laczi, as he turned to leave the tent.
Vavel did not go back to the officers' tent. He went out into the night, and stood with folded arms, gazing with unseeing eyes into the darkness.
KATHARINA OR THEMIRE?
It was a delightful May evening. Marie was practising diligently her piano lesson, in order to surprise Ludwig with her progress when he should return from the war. That he would return Marie was quite certain.
Katharina had gone into the park for a solitary promenade. She had complained all day of a headache—a headache that began to trouble her after she had read the letter she had received that morning from the Marquis de Fervlans. She held the letter in her hand now, and read it again for the hundredth time.
Yes, she had accomplished her mission successfully; the fugitive maid and the important documents were in her possession; and yet her trembling hand refused to grasp the promised reward. A fortune awaited her for the comedy she had played with such success—a comedy in which she had acted the part of the charitable lady of the manor.
And what if there had been something of reality in the farce? Suppose her heart had learned to thrill with emotions hitherto unknown to it? Suppose it had learned to know the true meaning of gratitude—of love?
But five millions of francs!
If she were alone in the world! But there was Amelie, her dear little daughter, who was now almost fifteen years old—almost a young lady. Should she leave Amelie in her present disagreeable position, a member of "Cythera's Brigade," or should she send for her, and confess to the man whose respect she desired to retain that the child was her daughter, and that she was a widow? Could she tell him what she had once been? Would he continue to respect, to love her?
Five millions of francs!
It was an enormous sum, and would become hers if she should order the carriage, and, taking Marie and the casket with her, drive leisurely along the highway until stopped by a troop of soldiers that would suddenly surround the carriage. A politely smiling face would then appear at the window of the carriage, and a courteous voice would say:
"Don't be alarmed, ladies. You are with friends. We are Frenchmen."
But to renounce the love and respect so hardly won! Ah, how very dearly she loved the man to whom she had betrothed herself in jest! In jest? No, no; it was not a jest!
But five millions of francs!
Would all the millions in the world buy one faithful heart?
Katharina was suffering for her transgressions. She had intended to play with the heart of another, and had lost her own. Besides, she could not bear to think of betraying the innocent girl who loved and trusted her and called her "mother."
But time pressed. Three times already Jocrisse had interrupted her meditations to inquire if her answer to the marquis's letter was ready. And still she struggled with herself. When Jocrisse appeared again, she said to him:
"My letter is of such importance that I cannot think of intrusting it to the hands of a stranger. You yourself, Jocrisse, must take it to the marquis."
"I am ready to depart at once, madame."
Katharina wrote her reply, sealed it carefully, and gave it to Jocrisse, who set out at once on his errand.
In the letter he carried were but three words:
"Io non posso" ("I cannot").
Katharina locked herself in the pavilion in the park, and gave orders to the servants not to admit any visitors, whether acquaintances or strangers.
An hour or more had passed when she heard a timid knock at the door, and an apologetic voice said:
"A strange gentleman is here. I told him your ladyship would see no one; then he bade me give your ladyship this, which he said he had brought from Paris."
Katharina opened the door wide enough to receive the object. It was a small ivory locket, yellow with age. Katharina's hand shook violently as she pressed the spring to open it. She cast a hasty glance at the miniature,—the likeness of her daughter Amelie,—then said in a faltering voice: "You may tell the gentleman I will see him."
In a few minutes the visitor entered the pavilion.
"M. Cambray!" exclaimed the baroness.
"Yes, madame; I am Cambray, with my other name, Marquis Richard d'Avoncourt. I am he to whom you once said: 'I shall be grateful to you so long as I live.'"
"How—how came you here?" gasped the baroness.
"I managed to escape from my prison at Ham, went to Paris, where I saw your daughter—"
"You saw my daughter?" interrupted the baroness, excitedly. "Did you speak to her? Oh, tell me—tell me what you know about her."
"You shall hear all directly, madame. I told the countess that I intended to search for her mother, and asked if she had any message to send to her."
"Did she send a letter with you?" again interrupted the baroness.
"She did, madame. But before I give it to you I should like to have a shovel of hot coals and a bit of camphor."
"But why—why?" demanded the baroness.
"I will tell you. Do you know what Napoleon brought home with him from the bloody battle of Eilau?"
"I have not heard."
"The 'influenza.' I dare say you have never even heard the name; but you will very soon hear it often enough! It is a pestilential disease that is rather harmless where it originated, but when it takes hold of a strange region it becomes a deadly pestilence—as in Paris, where a special hospital has been established for patients with the disease. It was in this hospital I found your daughter as a nurse."
"Jesu Maria!" shrieked the mother, in a tone of agony. "A nurse in that pest-house?"
"Yes," nodded the marquis. Then he took from his pocket a letter, and added: "She wrote this to you from there."
The baroness eagerly extended her hand to take the letter.
"Would it not be better to fumigate it first?" said the marquis.
"No, no; I am not afraid! Give it to me, I beg of you!"
She caught the letter from his hand, tore it open, and read:
"DEAR LITTLE MAMA: What sort of a life are you leading out yonder in that strange land? Do you never get weary or feel bored? Have you anything to amuse you? I have become satiated with my life—lying, cheating, deceiving every day in order to live! While I was a little girl I was proud of the praises heaped upon me for my cleverness. But a day came when everything disgusted me. It is an infamous trade, this of ours, little mama, and I have given it up. I have begun to lead a different life—one with which I am satisfied; and if you will take the advice of one who wishes you well, you, too, will quit the old ways. You can embroider beautifully and play the piano like a master. You could earn a livelihood giving lessons in either. Do not trouble any further about me, for I can take care of myself. If only you knew how much happier I am now, you would rejoice, I know! Let me beg you to become honest and truthful, and think often of your old friend and little daughter,
"AMELIE (now SOEUER AGNES)."
Katharina's nerveless hands dropped to her lap. This sharp rebuke from her only child was deserved.
Then she sprang suddenly toward her visitor, grasped his arm, and cried:
"Tell me—tell me about my daughter, my little Amelie! How does she look now? Is she much changed? Has she grown? Oh, M. Cambray! in pity tell me—tell me about her!"
"I have brought you a portrait of her as she looked when I saw her last."
He drew from his pocket a small case, and, opening it, disclosed a pallid face with closed eyes. A wreath of myrtle encircled the head, which rested on the pillow of a coffin.
"She is dead!" screamed the horror-stricken mother, staring with wild eyes at the sorrowful picture.
"Yes, madame, she is dead," assented the marquis. "This portrait is sent by your daughter as a remembrance to the mother who exposed her on the streets, one stormy winter night, in order that she might spy upon another little child—a persecuted and homeless little child."
The baroness cowered beneath the merciless words as beneath a stinging lash: but the man knew no pity; he would not spare the heartbroken woman.
"And now, madame," he continued in a sharp tone, "you can go back to your home and take possession of your reward. You have worked hard to earn the blood-money."
Here the baroness sat suddenly upright, tore from her bosom a small gold note-case, in which was the order for the five millions of francs. She opened the case, took out the order, and tore it into tiny bits. Then she flung them from her, crying savagely:
"Curse him who brought me to this! God's curse be upon him who brought this on me!"
"Madame," calmly interposed the marquis, "you have not yet completed the task you were set to do."
"No, no; I have not—I have not," was the excited response, "and I never will. Come—come with me! The maid and what belongs to her are here—safe, unharmed. Take her—fly with her and hers whithersoever you choose to go; I shall not hinder you."
"That I cannot do, madame. I am a stranger in a strange land. I know not who is my friend or who is my foe. You must save the maid. If atonement is possible for you, that is the way you may win it. You know best where the maid will be safe from her persecutors. Save her, and atone for your transgression against her. Ludwig Vavel gave you his love and, more than that, his respect. Would you retain both, or will you tear them to tatters, as you have the order for the five million francs? Will you let me advise you?" he asked, suddenly.
"Advise me, and I will follow it to the letter!"
"Then disguise yourself as a peasant, hide the steel casket in a hamper, and take it to Ludwig Vavel, wherever he may be."
"You cannot with safety take her with you. The maid and the casket must not remain together. You must conceal Marie somewhere until you return from the camp."
"Will you not stay here and keep watch over her until I return?"
"I thank you, madame, for your hospitality, but I must not accept it. I come direct from the influenza hospital. I feel that the disease has laid hold of me. I have comfortable quarters at the Nameless Castle, where my old friend Lisette will take care of me. Don't let Marie come to see me; and if I should not recover from this illness, which I feel will be a severe one, let me be buried down yonder on the shore of the lake."
When the Marquis d'Avoncourt left the pavilion he was shaking with a violent chill, and as he took his way with tottering steps toward the Nameless Castle, Katharina, broken-hearted and filled with anguish, wept out her heart in bitter tears.
Marie had finished practising her lesson, and hastened to join Katharina in the park. She found her in the pavilion, and was filled with alarm when she saw her "little mama" kneeling among the fragments of her fortune. Katharina's tear-stained eyes, swollen face, and drawn lips betrayed how terribly she was suffering.
"My dearest little mama!" exclaimed Marie, hastening toward the kneeling woman, and trying to lift her from the floor, "what is the matter? What has happened?"
"Don't touch me," moaned the baroness. "Don't come near me. I am a murderess. I murdered her who called me mother."
She held the ivory locket toward Marie, and added: "See, this is what she was like when I deserted her—my little daughter Amelie!"
"Your daughter?" repeated Marie, wonderingly. "You have been married? Are you a widow?"
Katharina now held toward the young girl the portrait M. Cambray had given her. "And this," she explained in a hollow tone, "is what she is like now—now, when I wanted her to come to me."
"Good heaven!" ejaculated Marie, gazing in terror at the miniature, "she is dead?"
"Yes—murdered—as you, too, will be if you stay with me! You must fly—fly at once!"
"Katharina!" interposed the young girl, "why do you speak so?"
"I say that you must leave me. Go—go at once! Go down to the parsonage, and ask Herr Mercatoris to give you shelter. Tell him to clothe you in rags; and when you hear the tramp of horses, hide yourself, and don't venture from your concealment until they are gone. I, too, am going away from here."
"But why may not I come with you?" asked Marie, in a troubled tone.
"Where I go you cannot accompany me. I am going to steal through the lines of Ludwig's camp."
"You are going to Ludwig?" interrupted the young girl.
"Yes, to deliver into his hands the casket containing your belongings. After that I—I don't know what will become of me."
"Katharina! Don't frighten me so! Do you imagine that Ludwig will cease to love you when he learns you are a widow, and that you had a daughter?"
"Oh, no; he will not hate me because I had a daughter," returned Katharina, shaking her head sadly, "but because my wickedness destroyed her."
"Don't talk so, Katharina," again expostulated Marie.
"Why, don't you see that she is dead? Look at these closed eyes, the white face! Ask these closed lips to open and tell you that I did not murder her!"
"Katharina, this is not true! Your enemies have told you this to grieve you. Look at these two pictures! There is not the least resemblance between them. This pale one is not your daughter. He who told you so lied cruelly."
Katharina sighed mournfully.
"He who told me so does not lie. It was your old friend Cambray."
"Cambray?" echoed Marie, with mingled delight and astonishment. "Cambray is here? My deliverer, my second father! Where is he?"
"He is gone. He accomplished that for which he came,—to crush me to the earth, and to serve you,—and has gone away again."
"Gone away?" repeated Marie, incredulously. "Gone away? Impossible! Cambray would not go away without seeing me! Which way did he go? I will run after him and overtake him."
"No; stay where you are!" commanded Katharina, seizing her arm. "You must not follow him."
"Listen, and I will tell you. Cambray brought these pictures and this letter from Paris. The letter was written by my daughter in the hospital, where she caught the dreadful disease which caused her death. She had been nursing the sick, like a heroine, and died like a saint. It is well with her now, for she is in heaven. If I weep, it is not for her, but for myself. The deadly disease Amelie died of has seized upon your friend Cambray; and the noble old man is unselfish even in dying. He does not want you to come near him, lest you, too, become affected by the pestilence. He is gone to the Nameless Castle, where Lisette will take care of him—"
"Lisette?" interrupted Marie, excitedly. "Lisette, who was afraid to go near her own husband when he lay dying!"
"Well, what would you? Shall I send some one to nurse him?"
"No—no. I am the one to take care of him! He was a father to me. For my sake he was imprisoned, persecuted, buried alive all these years! And I am to let him die over yonder—alone, without a friend near him! No; I am going to him. That which your other daughter had the courage to do, this one also will do!"
"Marie! Think of Ludwig! Do you wish to drive him to despair?"
"God watches over us. He will do what is well for all of us!"
"Marie"—Katharina made a last effort to detain the young girl—"Marie, do you wish to go to Cambray to learn from him that I am the curse-laden creature who was sent after you to capture you and deliver you into the hands of your enemies?"
Marie turned at these desperate words, held out her hand, and said gently:
"And if he were to tell me that, Katharina, I should say to him that, instead of destroying me you liberated me, and instead of hating me you love me as I love you."
She made as if she would kiss Katharina; but the excited woman turned away her face, and held toward Marie the letter Cambray had given her.
"Read this, and learn to know me as I am," she said in a choking voice.
While Marie was reading the letter, Katharina covered her burning face with both hands; but they were gently drawn away and held in the young girl's warm clasp, while she spoke:
"A reply must be sent to this letter, little mother. I shall say to her, through the soul now on the eve of departure to the better land where she dwells: 'Little sister, your mother will wear the pure white garment, as you desired, in mourning for you. Instead of you, she will have me, and will love me, as I shall love her, in your stead. Bless us both, and be happy.' Shall I not send this message to your Amelie with my good friend Cambray?"
"Go, then; go—go," convulsively sobbed Katharina, and fell upon her face on the floor as Marie hastened from the pavilion.
When her grief had exhausted itself, Katharina stole back to the manor, where she removed the steel casket from its hiding-place, wrapped it in her shawl, and, passing noiselessly and unseen down a staircase that was rarely used, crossed the park to the farmer's cottage.
Here she told the farmer's wife that she was going to play a trick on her betrothed, that she wanted to borrow a gown and a kerchief. She bade the farmer saddle the mule which his wife rode when she went to the village, and to hang the hampers, as usual, from the pommel. In one of these she placed the steel casket, in the other a pistol, and filled them both with all sorts of provisions. Thus disguised, she mounted the quadruped, and set out alone on her way toward the camp.
Almost at the same moment that Ludwig Vavel had learned of the deceit of the woman he loved, he became convinced that his ambitious designs had come to naught. The rising of the German patriots against Napoleon had ended in their defeat, and not a trace was left of the uprising among the French people themselves.
It was the third day after the battle of Aspern when Master Matyas entered Count Vavel's tent.
The jack of all trades had proved himself a useful member of the army—not, indeed, where there was any fighting, for he much preferred looking on, when a battle was in progress, to taking an active part in the fray. But as a spy he was invaluable.
"I have seen everything," he announced. "I saw the balloon in which a French engineer made an ascent to the clouds, to reconnoiter the Austrian camp. He went up as high as a kite, and they held on to the rope below, down which he sent his messages—observations of the Austrians' movements. I saw the bridge, which is two hundred and forty fathoms long, which can be transported from place to place, and reaches from one bank of the Danube to the other. And I saw that demi-god flying on his white horse. He was pale, and trembled."
"And how came you to see all these sights, Master Matyas?" interrupted Vavel.
"I allowed the Frenchmen to capture me; then I was set to work in the intrenchments with the other prisoners."
"And did you manage to deliver my letter?"
"Oh, yes. The Philadelphians are easily recognized from the silver arrow they wear in their ears. When I whispered the password to one of them, he gave it back to me, whereupon I handed him your letter. I came away as soon as he brought me the answer. Here it is."
This letter by no means lightened Vavel's gloomy mood. Colonel Oudet, the secret chief of the Philadelphians in the French army, heartily thanked Count Vavel for his offer of assistance to overthrow Napoleon; but he also gave the count to understand that, were Bonaparte defeated, the republic would be restored to France. In this case, what would become of Vavel's cherished plans?
It was after midnight. The pole of "Charles's Wain" in the heavens stood upward. Ludwig approached the watch-fire, and told the lieutenant on guard that he might go to his tent, that he, Vavel, would take his place for the remainder of the night. Then he let the reins drop on the neck of his horse, and while the beast grazed on the luxuriant grass, his rider, with his carbine resting in the hollow of his arm, continued the night watch. The night was very still; the air was filled with odorous exhalations, which rose from the earth after the shower in the early part of the evening. From time to time a shooting star sped on its course across the sky.
One after the other, Ludwig Vavel read the two letters he carried in his breast. He did not need to take them from their hiding-place in order to read them. He knew the contents by heart—every word. One of them was a love-letter he had received from his betrothed; the other was the Judas message of his enemy and Marie's.
At one time he would read the love-letter first; then that of the arch-plotter. Again, he would change the order of perusal, and test the different sensations—the bitter after the sweet, the sweet after the bitter.
Suddenly, through the silence of the night, he heard the distant tinkle of a mule-bell. It came nearer and nearer. He heard the outpost's "Halt! Who comes there?" and heard the pleasant-voiced response: "Good evening, friend. God bless you."
"Ah!" muttered Ludwig, with a scornful smile, "my beautiful bride is sending another supply of dainties. How much she thinks of me!"
The mule-bell came nearer and nearer.
By the light of the watch-fire Vavel could see the familiar red kerchief the farmer's wife from the manor was wont to wear over her head. The mule came directly toward the watch-fire, and stopped when close to Vavel's horse. The woman riding the beast slipped quickly to the ground, emptied the provisions from the hampers, then, lifting the object which had been concealed in the bottom of one of them, came around to Vavel's side, saying:
"It is I. I have come to seek you."
"Who is it?" he demanded sternly, recognizing the voice; "Katharina or Themire?"
"Katharina—Katharina; it is Katharina," stammered the trembling woman, looking pleadingly up into his forbidding face.
"And why have you come here?"
"I came to bring you this," she replied, holding toward him the steel casket.
"Where is Marie?"
"She is safe—with the Marquis d'Avoncourt."
"What?" exclaimed Vavel, in amazement, flinging his carbine on the ground. "Cambray—d'Avoncourt—here?"
"Yes; he is at the Nameless Castle, and Marie is with him."
"After all, there is a God in heaven!" with deep-toned thankfulness ejaculated Ludwig. Then he added: "Oh, Katharina, how I have suffered because of—Themire!"
"Themire is dead!" solemnly returned the baroness. "Let us not speak of her. Here, take these treasures into your own keeping; they are no longer safe with me. Open the casket and convince yourself that everything is there."
"I cannot open it; I have not got the key."
"Have you lost your ring?"
"No. I have trusted the most notorious thief in the country with it. I have sent him with the ring to Marie. I bade him show it to her, and tell her that she was to follow him wherever he might lead her. Satan Laczi has the ring."
Katharina covered her eyes with her hand, and stood with drooping head before her lover.
"I have deserved this," she murmured brokenly.
Vavel passed his hand over his face, and sighed. "It was all a dream! It was madness to expect impossibilities," he murmured. "I am familiar enough with the stars to have known that there are constellations which never descend to the horizon. The 'Crown' is one of them! Of what use are these rags now?" he exclaimed, with sudden vehemence, pointing to the casket, which Katharina still held on her arm. "Whom can they serve? They have brought only sorrow to him who has guarded them, and to her to whom they belong. I cannot open the casket; but I need not do that to destroy the contents. Pray throw it into the fire yonder."
Katharina obeyed without an instant's hesitation. After a while the metal casket began to glow in the midst of the flames. It became red, then a pale rose-color, while a thin cord of vapor trailed through the keyhole.
"The little garments are burning," whispered Vavel, "and the documents, and the portraits, and the heap of worthless money. From to-day," he added, in a louder tone, "I begin to learn what it is to be a poor man."
"I have already learned what poverty means," said Katharina. "Look at these clothes! I have no others, and even these are borrowed."
"I love you in them," involuntarily exclaimed Vavel, extending his hand toward her.
"What? You offer me your hand? Do you believe that I am Katharina—only Katharina?"
"That I may wholly and entirely believe that you are Katharina, and not Themire, answer one question. A creature who calls himself the Marquis de Fervlans and Leon Barthelmy is lying in ambush somewhere in this neighborhood, waiting for you to settle an old account with him. If you are the same to me that you once were, and if I am the same to you that I was once, tell me where I shall find De Fervlans, for it will be my duty then to settle with him."
Katharina's face suddenly blazed with eager excitement. She flung back her head with a proud gesture.
"I will lead you to the place. Together we will seek him!" she cried, with animation in every feature.
"Then give me your hand. You are Katharina—my Katharina!"
He bent toward her, and the two hands met in a close clasp.
* * * * *
Count Fertoeszeg ordered the drums to beat a reveille; then he selected from his troop one hundred trusty men, and galloped with them in the direction of Neusiedl Lake. Katharina on her mule, without the tinkling bell, trotted soberly by his side.
SATAN AND DEMON
There was a notorious troop with Napoleon's army, the sixth Italian regiment, which was called the "Legion of Demons."
The troop was made up of worthless members of society—idlers, highwaymen, outcasts, and desperate characters, who had lost all sense of respectability and morality. The majority of them had sought the asylum of the battle-field to escape imprisonment or worse.
When their commander led his "demons" to an attack, he was wont to urge them thus:
"Avanti, avanti, Signori briganti! Cavalieri ladroni, avanti!" ("Forward, forward, Messieurs Highwaymen! My chivalrous footpads, forward!")
A division of this legion of demons had made its way with the vice-king of Italy thus far through the belt-line, and had been intrusted with the mission mentioned in De Fervlans's letter to General Guillaume. The marquis commanded this body of the demons, he having, as Colonel Barthelmy in the Austrian army, become thoroughly familiar with that part of Hungary.
* * * * *
Lisette and Satan Laczi's little son were living alone at the Nameless Castle.
When Marie, who was come in quest of her friend Cambray, rang the bell, the door was opened by the lad.
"Is there a strange gentleman here?" she asked.
"I don't know. He went to see Lisette, and I did not see him come away," was the reply.
"Then let me come in," said the young girl. "I want to speak to Lisette, too."
"She will beat me if I let you come in," returned the boy, opening the door after a moment's hesitation.
The fumes of camphor were perceptible even in the vestibule; and when Marie's little conductor knocked at the door of the kitchen, a heaping shovelful of hot and smoking coals was thrust toward him, and a scolding voice demanded irritably:
"What do you want again? Why do you keep annoying me, you little torment!"
"Excuse me, Lisette," humbly apologized the lad, "but our young mistress from the manor is here."
At this announcement Lisette hastily shut the door again, and opened a small loophole in an upper panel, through which she spoke in a sharp tone:
"Why do you come here? Has the Lord forsaken you over yonder, that you come back to this pest-house? Get out of it as quickly as you can. Go down and hide yourself in the Schmidt's cottage—perhaps they will not betray you. Anyway, you can't stop here with us."
"That is just what I mean to do, Lisette,—stop here with you," smilingly responded Marie. "Where is my friend Cambray?"
"How should I know where he is? A pretty question to ask me! He is n't anywhere. He has gone to bed, and you can't see him."
"I shall hunt till I find him, Lisette."
"Well, you will do as you like, of course; but you will not find M. Cambray, for he does n't want to see you."
"Very well," returned Marie. Then to the lad by her side, "Come with me, Laczko; we will hunt for the gentleman."
Lisette was beside herself with terror at the danger which threatened Marie; but before she could utter another word, the young girl and her little escort had disappeared down the corridor.
There was a great change everywhere in the castle. The floors were covered with muddy foot-tracks; huge nails had been driven into the varnished walls, and great heaps of dust, straw, and hay lay about on the inlaid floors of the halls and salon. Marie hardly recognized her former immaculate asylum.
She called, with her clear, soft-toned voice, into every room, "Cambray! father! art thou here?" but received no reply.
Then she mounted the staircase to her own apartment. The door was open like all the rest, but a first glance told Marie that the room had not been used until now. Lisette, beyond a doubt, had lodged her respected guest in this only habitable chamber.
Marie entered and looked about her. The metal screen was down!
She hastened toward it. There was a light burning in the alcove, and she could see through the links by placing her eyes close to them. The noble old knight was lying on the bare floor, with his hands forming a pillow for his head. His glassy eyes were fixed and staring, and burning with a startling brightness. His parched lips were half-open, as if he were speaking.
"Cambray! father!" called Marie; in a tone of distress.
"Who calls? Marie?" gasped the fever-stricken man, making a vain attempt to rise. He fell back with a deep groan, but flung out his hand as if to ward off her approach.
"Let me come in, Cambray. It is I, your little Marie. Please let me come in. There, close to your right hand, is a button in the floor. Press it, and this screen will rise."
The sick man began to laugh; only his face showed that he was laughing, no sound came from his parched throat. He was laughing because he had prevented his favorite from coming to his pestilential resting-place.
Marie deliberated a moment, then decided to resort to stratagem:
"If you will not let me come in to you, papa Cambray," she called, simulating a petulant tone, "I shall go away, and not come back again. If you should want anything there will be a little boy here, outside; you can summon him by pressing that button. Good night, dear papa Cambray!"
The sick man turned his face toward the screen and listened in dreamy ecstasy to the sweet voice. He raised his hand, waved it weakly toward the speaker, then clasped it with the other on his breast, while his lips moved as if in prayer.
"Go fetch candles, and the tinder-box," whispered Marie to the little Laczko. "Place them here by the sofa, then light the lamp in the corridor."
"May I fetch my gun, too?" asked the boy.
"Your gun? What for?"
"I should n't be afraid if I had it with me."
"Then fetch it; but don't come into the room with it, for I am dreadfully afraid of guns. Leave it just outside the door."
It was quite dark when Laczko returned with the candles and a heavy double-barreled fowling-piece. He carefully placed the latter in the corner, then asked:
"Shall I light the candles now?"
"Certainly not. I don't want the gentleman to know that I am here. Maybe he may want something, and open the screen. I am going to lie down on this sofa, and you are to stand close by the alcove and watch the gentleman. If he should lift the screen, and I have fallen asleep, you must waken me at once."
Marie wrapped herself in her shawl, and lay down on the leather couch. Laczko took up his station as directed, close by the metal screen, through which he peered from time to time.
But there was no danger of Marie falling asleep. She could not even keep her eyes closed. Every few moments she would sit up and ask in a cautious whisper:
"What is he doing now?"
"He is tossing from side to side."
This reply was repeated several times.
At last the answer came that the invalid was perfectly quiet, whereupon Marie decided not to inquire again for an hour.
Suddenly she heard the lad say, in a trembling voice:
"I am dreadfully frightened."
"What of?" whispered Marie.
"The gentleman lies so still. He has n't stirred for a long time."
"He is asleep, I dare say."
"If he were sleeping his breast would rise and fall; but he is perfectly still."
Marie rose, and hastened to the screen. The smoking wick in the night-lamp near Cambray's head illumined his ghastly face. Marie had already seen one such pallid countenance—that of the old servant Henry when he lay dead on his bier.
She shuddered, and retreated with trembling limbs, drawing the lad with her.
"You may light the candle now," she whispered; "then we will go back to Lisette."
Laczko lighted the candle, then shouldered his gun, and preceded his young mistress down the staircase to the lower story.
They had almost reached the door of Lisette's room when Marie, who had been peering sharply ahead, stopped abruptly, and exclaimed in a startled tone:
"There is a man!"
Even as she spoke a dark form stepped from a doorway into the corridor in front of them. Marie retreated several steps; but her little escort proved that he was made of sterner stuff. He placed himself valiantly in front of his young mistress, laid his gun against his cheek, and aiming directly for the stranger's breast, said, in a brave tone:
"Halt, or I will shoot you."
"That's my brave lad," commented the stranger. "But don't shoot. It is I, your father."
"Don't come any nearer, I tell you!" responded the lad, threateningly.
"Why, I am not moving a muscle, lad; don't be foolish."
"What do you want here?" demanded Laczko. "I will not let you do any harm to my mistress."
Here Marie, who had recovered from her alarm, came forward, and laid her hand over her small defender's eyes.
"Take down your gun, Laczko," she commanded. Then turning to the stranger asked: "What do you want, my good man?"
For answer the man merely pronounced a name:
Without an instant's hesitation, and although she shuddered involuntarily when her eyes fell on the stranger's repulsive countenance, the young girl went close to his side, and said calmly:
"What do you wish me to do?"
Satan Laczi held the thumb-ring toward her, and said:
"The person who wears this sent me to fetch you away from here. Are you ready to come with me at once?"
"I am," replied Marie, who seemed unable to remove her eyes from the hideously ugly face before her.
"My master," continued the ex-robber, "also bade me fetch a little steel casket. Do you know where it is hidden?"
"The person who had it in her care has already taken it to your master," was Marie's response.
"Ah, she has taken it to him?" repeated Satan Laczi. "Then it is all right. I know now what I have to do. My master bade me convey you to a place of concealment; but my face is not exactly the sort to win anybody's confidence. Besides, I know some one who can perform this errand as well as I. The way to Raab is clear. Instead of taking you there myself, my wife will go with you. I think you would rather have her for a companion?"
"Yes, I think I would rather go with a woman," diplomatically assented Marie.
"As an additional protection, take this little lad with you." Here the ex-robber laid his hand on his son's shoulder, and looked proudly down on him. "His heart is already in the right place. And then he is not a wicked rascal like his father."
He was silent a moment, then added: "But I intend to reform. When my master has spoken with the woman to whom he intrusted his treasures, and if she has not betrayed him, then I know where he will be to-morrow. And Satan Laczi will be there, too! Then I and my comrades will show them what we can do. But come, we must make haste, and get on as far as possible while the moon is shining."
"But I am not properly clad for a journey," interposed Marie.
"My wife brought a nice warm bunda to wrap you in; it is in the carriage out yonder," returned the ex-robber.
"One word first: you are acquainted with the man who made the metal screen in my apartments. Could you see him?"
"He is in Count Vavel's service, and I can see him when I return to the camp."
"Then tell him to come to the Nameless Castle at once. He understands the secret spring of the screen, behind which he will find a dead man. This man was a very good friend, and I want him properly buried."
"I will give Master Matyas your order."
Marie now took leave of the Nameless Castle, feeling that she would never again come back to it. But she had not the courage to enter her apartments again.
The four-horse coach waited at the park gate. Marie entered it, wrapped the warm sheep-skin around her, and tied a cotton kerchief over her head in peasant fashion. Satan Laczi's wife took a seat by her side; the little Laczko climbed to the coachman's box, where he sat with his gun between his knees. Then the coachman cracked his whip, and the vehicle rattled down the road amid a cloud of dust. Satan Laczi looked after the coach until it disappeared around a turn in the road. Then he blew a shrill blast on his whistle, whereupon a number of wild-looking men, each armed to the teeth, emerged from the shrubbery and came toward him. Whispered orders were given, then the men in a body moved toward the willow-copse on the shore of the lake. Here were two flatboats drawn up on the beach. These were pushed into the water; the men entered them, each took an oar, and the unwieldy vessels were propelled along the shore toward the marshes.
The Marquis de Fervlans had camped with his company of demons on the shore of Neusiedl Lake. The marquis himself had taken quarters at the inn in the nearest village, where, assisted by two companions of questionable respectability but of undoubted valor, he was testing the quality of the fiery wine of the region, when a peasant cart, drawn by three horses, drew up before the inn, and Jocrisse, Baroness Katharina's messenger, alighted.
"Ah, here comes a sensible fellow," exclaimed the marquis. "I wonder what news he brings."
He was very soon enlightened.
"Hum! 'Io non posso!'" he repeated, after reading the brief message Jocrisse delivered to him. "Very well, madame, I think I shall know what to do if you 'cannot'! Jocrisse, how is the country around Odenburg garrisoned?"
"A division of militia cavalry occupies every town,"
"That is exasperating! Not that I fear these militiamen might give my demons too much work; but I am afraid I may alarm them; then they will scamper in all directions, and frighten the entire Neusiedl region, so that when I arrive at Fertoeszeg I shall find the birds flown and the nest empty. We must take them by surprise. Have you ever before been in this part of the country, Jocrisse?"
"I accompanied the county surveyor once as far as Frauenkirchen."
"Is the road practicable for wheels?"
"To Frauenkirchen it is good for wagons; but beyond the city it is in a wretched condition."
"Very well. You will engage a post-chaise here, and follow us to Frauenkirchen, where you will wait for further orders. What time did you leave Fertoeszeg?"
"Listen. I suspect that your mistress will try to escape with the maid. If that is the case, we must bestir ourselves. But women are afraid to travel by night; and even if they have already left the manor, they cannot have gone very far. The water in the Danube was unusually high on the day of the battle at Aspern; that would cause the Raab to rise, and overflow the bridges crossing it. I shall doubtless overtake the fugitives at Vitnyed."
"It will be rather risky crossing the Hansag at night," observed Jocrisse, "and no amount of money would induce one of these natives about here to act as guide. They are a peculiar folk."
"Yes; but I shall not need a guide. I have an excellent map of the neighborhood, which I used when I was in garrison here. I used to hunt all over this region after wild boars and turkeys, and never had any difficulty finding my way, even at night."
De Fervlans now sent orders to his troop to break camp at once, with as little stir as possible; and before twilight shadows fell upon the land, the demons were riding toward the Hansag.
If we assume that Marie left the Nameless Castle in company with the wife of Satan Laczi at midnight, we can easily see that she would have but a few hours' advantage of the demons, who broke camp at sunset. If the latter met with no hindrance on their way, they would overtake the coach of the fugitives at the crossing of the Raab. As it was after midnight when Ludwig Vavel learned of the danger which threatened Marie, he could not, even if he had set out at once, have reached the Hansag before noon of the following day, by which time De Fervlans and his demons would have accomplished their errand. Therefore nothing short of a miracle could save the maid.
The miracle happened—a true miracle, like the one of the biblical legend, when the Red Sea obstructed the way of the persecutor Pharaoh.
Those who may doubt this assertion are referred to the "Monograph on Lake Neusiedl," in which may be read a description of the phenomenon. In the last years Lake Neusiedl had been drained, and where it had joined the lakes of the Hansag, a stout dam had been built. When the waters of the Hansag chain rose, the muddy undercurrent threw up great mounds of earth, like enormous excrescences on a diseased body. One of these huge mounds burst open at the top and emitted a black, slimy mud that inundated the surrounding morass for a considerable distance.
Already in the neighborhood of St. Andras this slimy ooze was noticeable when the troop of demons galloped over the plantain-covered flats which here and there bent under the weight of the horsemen. As they proceeded, the enormous numbers of frogs became surprising, as if this host of amphibia had leagued against the invading demons. Then flocks of water-fowl, with clamorous cries and rustling wings, rose here and there, startled from their quiet nests by the approaching inundation, which by this time had completely hidden what was called in that region the public road. De Fervlans, at a loss what to make of this singular freak of nature, sent a horseman to the right, and one to the left, to examine the ground, and learn whence came the sea of slime, and how it might be avoided. Each of his messengers returned with the information that the slime was flowing in the direction he had ridden. The source, then, must be near where they had halted.
"This is bad," said De Fervlans, impatiently. "This eruption of mud will hinder our progress. We can't run a race with it. We must look up another route, and this will delay us perhaps for hours. But we can make that up when on a hard road again."
De Fervlans, who was familiar with the neighborhood, now led his troop in the direction of the path which ran through the morass toward the village of Banfalva, hoping thus to gain the excellent highway of Eszterhaza. Here and there from the swamp rose slight elevations of dry earth which were overgrown with alders and willows. On one of these "hills" De Fervlans concluded to halt for a rest, as both men and horses were weary with the toilsome journey over the wretched roads.
Very soon enough dry wood was collected for a fire. There was no need to fear that the light might attract attention; the camp was far enough from human habitation, and neither man nor beast ever spent the night in the morass of the Hansag. Besides, they could have seen, from the top of a tree, if any one were approaching. They could see in the bright moonlight the long poplar avenue which led to Eszterhaza; and even a gilded steeple might be seen gleaming in the Hungarian Versailles, which was perhaps a two hours' ride distant.
Suddenly the sharp call, "Qui vive?" was heard. It was answered by a sort of grunt, half-brute, half-human. Again the challenging call broke the silence, and was followed in a few seconds by a gunshot. Then a wild laugh was heard at some distance from the hill. De Fervlans hurried toward the guard.
"What was it?" he asked.
"I don't know whether it was a wild beast or a devil in human form," was the reply. "It was a strange-looking monster with a large head and pointed ears."
"I 'll wager it is my runaway fish-boy!" exclaimed the marquis.
"When I challenged the creature he stood up on his feet, and barked, or grunted, or whatever you might call it; and when I called out the second time he seemed to strike fire with something; at any rate, he did not act in the proper manner, so I fired at him. But I did n't hit him."
"I should be sorry if you had," responded the marquis. "I am convinced that it was my little monster. I taught him to strike fire; and he was evidently attracted by the light of our camp-fire."
Perhaps it would have been better had the guard shot the amphibious dwarf. Hardly had De Fervlans returned to his seat when the adjutant called his attention to a suspicious flashing in the morass a short distance from the hill on which they were resting. Suddenly, while they were watching the flashes of light, a column of flame rose toward the sky, then another, and another—the morass was on fire in a dozen places.
"Hell, and all devils!" shouted De Fervlans, springing toward his horse. "The little monster has set the marsh-grass on fire, and it was I who taught the devil's spawn how to use touchwood! Give chase to the creature!"
But the order for a chase came too late. In ten minutes the reeds growing about the hill were burning, and the demons were compelled to use their spurs in order to speed their horses from the dangerous conflagration.
They did not stop until they had reached the Valla plain—driven to their mad gallop by the caricature of the "militiaman"!
"This is a pretty state of affairs!" grumbled De Fervlans. "Mire first, then flames, bar our way. Quis quid peccat, in eo punitur—he who sins will be punished by his sin! I sinned in teaching that monster to strike fire. It has made us lose four more hours."
The four hours were of some consequence to the fugitive maid and Ludwig Vavel.
Dawn broke before the demons found the road between the groups of hills, and when they reached it, they still had before them that half of the Hansag which is formed by a series of small lakes.
De Fervlans now became anxious to shorten their route. A lakelet of fifty or sixty paces in width is not an impassable hindrance for a horseman. Therefore it was not necessary to ride perhaps a thousand paces in making a detour of the lakelets—the demons must ride through them. How often had he, when following a deer, swam with his horse through just such a body of water. Only then it was autumn, and now it was spring.
The flora of this marsh country has many species which hide underneath the water, and in the springtime send their long stems and tendrils toward the surface. De Fervlans was yet to learn that even plants may become foes. Those of his demons who were the first to plunge into the water suddenly began to call for help. Neither man nor beast can swim through a network of growing plants; at every movement they become entangled among the clinging tendrils and swaying stems, and sink to the bottom unless promptly rescued. The men on shore were obliged to grasp the tails of the struggling horses and draw them back to land. De Fervlans, who could not be convinced that it was impossible to swim across the narrow stretch of water, came very near losing his life among the aquatic growths. There was now no likelihood of their reaching the highway before sunrise.
There was still another hindrance. The fire in the morass had alarmed the entire neighborhood, and the inhabitants were out, to a man, fighting the flames which threatened their meadows. Therefore De Fervlans, who wished to avoid attracting attention to his troop, was obliged to make his way through thickets and over rough byways, which was very tedious work.
It was noon when they arrived at the bridge which crossed the Raab half a mile from Pomogy. At the farther end of this bridge was the custom-house, which was also a public inn.
"We must rest there," said De Fervlans, "or our worn-out beasts will drop under us."
Just as the troop rode on to the bridge, two men ran swiftly from the custom-house toward the swampy lowland. Before they entered the marsh they stopped, and bound long wooden stilts to their feet; and, thus equipped, stepped without difficulty from one earth-clod to another. No horseman could have followed them across the treacherous ground. De Fervlans's adjutant became uneasy when he saw these two men, whose actions seemed suspicious to him; but the marquis assured him that they were only shepherds whose herds pastured in the marshes.
The troop dismounted at the inn, and demanded of the host whatever he had of victuals and drinks. He could offer them nothing better than sour cider, mead, and wild ducks' eggs. But when a demon is hungry and thirsty, even these will satisfy him. De Fervlans, who had not for one instant doubted that his expedition would be successful, spread out his map and planned their further march. General Guillaume would have received one of his letters at least,—he had sent two, with two different couriers in different directions,—and would now be waiting at Friedberg for the arrival of the demons and their distinguished captive. Therefore the most direct route to that point must be selected. It was not likely that any militia troops would be idling about that cart of the country; and if there were, the demons could very easily manage them.
One of the two men who crossed the morass on stilts was Master Matyas, whose distance marches during this campaign were something phenomenal. Matyas found Count Vavel with his troop already at Eszterhaza, and apprized him at once of De Fervlans's arrival at the bridge-inn. The Volons had not yet rested, but they had traveled over passable roads, and were not so exhausted. Their leader at once gave orders to mount.
When Ludwig saw that Katharina also prepared to accompany the troop, he hurried to her side.
"Don't come any farther, Katharina," he begged. "Remain here, where you will be perfectly safe. Something might happen to you when we meet the enemy."
Katharina's smiling reply was:
"No, my dear friend. I have paid a very high entrance-fee to see this tragedy, for that you will kill Barthelmy Fervlans I am as certain as that there is a just God in heaven!"
"But your presence will make me fear at a moment when I must not feel afraid—afraid for your safety."
"Oh, don't trouble about yourself. I know you better. When you come in sight of the enemy you will forget all about me. As for me, I am going with you."
The troop now set out on the march through the poplar avenue. When they drew near to Pomogy, Vavel sent a squad in advance to act as skirmishers, while he, with the rest of his men, took possession of a solitary elevation near the road, which was the work of human hands. It was composed of the refuse from a soda-factory, and encircled on three sides a low building. Vavel concealed his horsemen behind this artificial hillock, then, accompanied by Katharina, he ascended to the top to take a view of the surrounding country.
He could see through his field-glass the bridge across the Raab and the inn at the farther end. The entire region was nothing but morass. A trench ran from the highway toward Lake Neusiedl; it could be traced by the dense growth of broom along its edges.
"You are my adjutant," jestingly remarked Vavel to Katharina. "I am going down now; for if I should be seen here it will be known what is behind me. You are a farmer's wife, and will not arouse suspicion; stop here, therefore, and take observations with my glass, and keep me informed of what happens."
The Marquis de Fervlans was enjoying a tankard of foaming mead when his adjutant came hastily into the room with the announcement that some troopers were approaching the bridge on the farther side of the river. De Fervlans hurried from the inn and gave orders to mount. As yet only the crimson hats of the troopers could be seen above the tall reeds on the farther shore.
"Those are Vavel's Volons," said De Fervlans, taking a look through his glass. "I recognize the uniform from Jocrisse's description. Madame Themire has turned traitor, and sent the count to deal with me instead of coming herself. Very good! We will show the gentleman that war and star-gazing are different occupations. He was a soldier once; but I don't think he paid much attention to military tactics, else he would not have neglected to occupy yon hill, on which I see a peasant woman with a red kerchief over her head. That is an old soda-factory—I know the place well. I should n't wonder if Vavel had concealed some men there after all! That small body coming this way is evidently bent on a skirmishing errand. Well, our tactics will be to lure him from his concealment."
He held a consultation with his subordinates; after which he turned toward the waiting demons, and called:
The man came forward—a true type of the gladiator of the Vatican.
"Dismount," ordered the marquis. "Take thirty men, and proceed on foot to the farther side of yon thicket, where you will lie in ambush until I have begun an assault on the soda-factory over yonder. The men in hiding there will show up when we approach; I shall then pretend to retreat, and lure them toward the thicket. You will know what to do then—fall upon them in the rear. When you have arrived at the thicket let me know. Set fire to that tallest clump of reeds near the willow-shrubs."
"All right!" returned the signor. Then he selected thirty of his companions, who also dismounted, and they started at once to obey the orders of their leader.
The "peasant woman with a red kerchief over her head," who was standing on the soda-factory hill, called in a low, clear tone to Ludwig:
"De Fervlans is coming with his troop."
"Then we must prepare a greeting for him," responded Vavel. He ordered his men into their saddles, then sallied forth with them to meet the enemy.
The two bodies of soldiers moving toward each other were very nearly alike in numbers. Neither seemed to be in a particular hurry to begin an assault. Suddenly a column of smoke rose from the thicket near the bridge—it was the signal De Fervlans was waiting for. He gave orders to halt. The next instant there was a rattling salute from the demons' carbines. The "peasant woman" on the hill covered her face with both hands and shivered. The messengers of death flew about the head of her lover, but left him unharmed.
Vavel now moved nearer to the attacking foe, and himself made straight for the leader. One of De Fervlans's lieutenants, however, a thick-set, sun-browned Sicilian, met the count's assault. There was a little sword-play, then Vavel struck his adversary's blade from his hand with a force that sent it whizzing through the air, and with his left hand thrust the Sicilian, who was reaching for his pistols, from the saddle.
Nor had Vavel's companions been idle the while. The first assault was a success for the count's troop. De Fervlans now ordered a retreat. The death-heads looked upon this as a victory, and eagerly pursued the retreating foe. But the woman on the hill had already perceived that the retreat was but a feint. She saw the demons crouching among the reeds in the thicket, and guessed their intention.
"Vavel!" she shouted at the top of her voice, "Vavel, take care! Look to your rear!"
She imagined that her lover would hear her amid the tumult of the fight.
But Vavel had ears and eyes only for what was in front of him. Nearer and nearer he approached to the trap De Fervlans had laid for him. He was in it! The trench was behind him now, and the demons in ambush were preparing to spring upon their prey.
Katharina could look no longer. She ran down the hill, sprang on her mule, and galloped after her lover.
De Fervlans's retreat was conducted in proper order, step by step, from earth-clod to earth-clod.
Suddenly Katharina discovered that a mule was an obstinate beast. The one she was riding stopped abruptly, and would not advance another step. In vain she urged and coaxed. At last she sprang from the saddle, and on foot made her way toward the scene of the fray.
At this moment the demons creeping steathily along the trench sprang from their concealment, their bayonets ready for action. They were on the point of firing a volley into the black backs of the Volons, when a rattling fire in their own rear brought down half of them dead and wounded. The uninjured on turning found themselves confronted by Satan Laczi and his comrades, who, black and slimy from their passage through the morass, sprang like tigers upon the foe.
"Strike for their heads!" commanded Satan Laczi, as, with sabers drawn, the ex-robbers rushed upon the bewildered demons, who had at last met their match.
When De Fervlans heard the firing in the neighborhood of the trench, he believed it to come from the muskets of his own men, and quickly sounded an attack. The demons, who had been feigning to retreat, now turned and met their pursuers, and a hand-to-hand conflict began.
Vavel also had heard the firing behind him, and believed himself surrounded by the enemy. He beckoned to his trumpeter, to whom he wished to give orders to sound a retreat, but the man's horse unfortunately stumbled, and threw his rider to the earth. Three demons, at once sprang to capture the fallen trumpeter; but Vavel, who knew how necessary the man was to him, hastened to his assistance.