De Fervlans in amazement watched this unequal encounter. A masterly conflict arouses admiration even in an enemy; and Vavel certainly proved himself a master in the art of fighting.
He fought in cold blood; he was not in the least excited. He made no unnecessary thrusts, but wounded his three adversaries in the hand, the elbow, the forearm, whereby he rendered them incapable of further combat. De Fervlans saw how his skilled demons gave way before Vavel's masterly thrusts, while the Volons drew their unfortunate trumpeter from beneath his horse, and assisted him to mount again, after they had also helped the horse to his feet.
But the trumpet was now useless; it was filled with mud. Consequently a signal for retreat could not be sounded.
A dense mass of wild-hop vines inclosed the eastern side of the scene of action. De Fervlans glanced impatiently toward this green wall. The armed men who should penetrate it would decide the victory.
Even as the thought flashed through his brain, the tangle of vines began to shake violently; but the first man to appear therefrom was not Signor Trentatrante, as De Fervlans had expected, but Satan Laczi, with his ferocious followers.
The attack from this point was so unexpected that De Fervlans for a moment seemed stupefied; then quickly recovering himself, he dashed into the thick of the fight, Vavel following his example. By this time the trumpet had been cleansed, but no orders were received for a retreat signal; instead, the sound it shrilled above the fearful turmoil was: "Forward! forward!"
With the blood pouring from a gaping wound in his head, Satan Laczi, swinging a saber he had captured from a foe, now rushed to meet De Fervlans, who at once recognized the former robber.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, preparing to meet the furious onslaught, "you have not yet found your way to the gallows!"
"No; here in Hungary only traitors are hanged," retorted Satan Laczi, in a loud voice, as, with a mighty leap that would have done credit to a horse, he sprang toward the marquis, caught the reins from his hands, and with true robber-wit called: "Surrender, brother-rascal!"
De Fervlans raised himself in his stirrups and brought his saber savagely down on the robber's head. This was the second serious cut Satan Laczi had received that day, and was evidently enough to calm his enthusiasm. He staggered to one side, made several vain attempts to straighten himself, then fell suddenly to the earth. His own blade, however, remained in the breast of De Fervlans's horse, where he had thrust it to the hilt.
The marquis hardly had time to leap from the saddle before the poor beast fell under him.
All seemed lost now. His men were confused and thrown into disorder. In desperation he tore his pistols from the saddle of his fallen horse. Only a single shrub separated him from his enemy,—twenty paces,—and De Fervlans was a celebrated shot.
Count Vavel saw what was coming, and he too drew his pistol.
"Good night, Chevalier Vavel!" in a mocking tone called De Fervlans, as his finger pressed the trigger. There was a sharp report, the ball whistled through the air—but Vavel did not fall.
"Accept my greeting, marquis!" responded Vavel, He raised his pistol, and fired without taking aim. De Fervlans fell backward to the ground.
When De Fervlans's men saw that their leader had fallen they retreated toward the bridge, where a portion of the troop alighted and held at bay their pursuers, while the rest tore up and flung into the stream the planks of the bridge. Then the men who had prevented the Volons from following crossed on foot the narrow lengthwise beam to the opposite shore—a feat impossible for a man on horseback.
The spot where the fiercest fighting had occurred was already cleared when Katharina arrived upon it. She shuddered with horror, and staggered like one who walks in his sleep as she moved about the desert place.
Suddenly she came upon a large wild-rose bush covered with bloom. Close by it lay a horse with the hilt of a sword protruding from his breast. Near the dead animal lay a metal helmet ornamented with the gilded imperial eagle, and a little farther on lay a mud-stained form in a uniform of coarse gray cloth, with a gaping wound in his head; his left hand clutched the rushes among which he had fallen. As Katharina, in her peasant gown, moved timidly across the open space, she heard a voice say faintly in Hungarian:
"For God's sake, good woman, give me a drink of water."
Without stopping to question whether he was friend or foe, Katharina caught up the metal helmet to fetch the water.
There was water everywhere about her, but it was the filthy water of the morass.
Katharina remembered having heard that the shepherds of the Hansag, when they were thirsty, cut a reed and thrust it deep into the swampy earth, when clear, drinkable water would rise from the lower soil. She therefore thrust a long cane into the moist earth, then put her lips to it, and sucked up the water. On removing her lips a clear stream shot upward from the cane. She held the helmet under this improvised fountain until it was full, then returned with it to the rose-bush.
The wounded man was lying on his back, his bloodstained face upturned toward the sky. Katharina knelt by his side, and held the helmet to his lips.
"Themire!" gasped the wounded man.
At sound of the name a sudden fury seemed to seize the woman.
"De Fervlans!" she cried, in a hoarse voice. "You! you, the accursed destroyer of my daughter! May God refuse to forgive you for making of me the wretched creature I am!"
As she spoke she raised the helmet, of water above her head, as if she would dash it upon the dying man's face; but he turned his head away from her furious gaze, and did not stir again.
Slowly Katharina lowered the helmet, and struggled with her excited feelings. She looked about her, and saw another motionless form lying across a clump of turf. Perhaps he was still alive. Perhaps she might help him.
She stepped quickly to his side with the helmet of water and washed the blood and mud-stains from his face. Ah, what a hideous face it was! All the same, she carefully washed it, then bathed the gaping wounds in his head. They were horribly deep, and she was almost overcome by the fearful sight. But she looked upward for a moment, and it seemed to her as if she recognized amid the fleecy clouds a snow-white form, and heard an encouraging voice say:
"That is right, mother. I, too, performed such work."
Then she took her handkerchief and bound it around the wounded man's head. While so doing her eyes fell on the steel ring on his thumb.
"Satan Laczi!" she exclaimed.
She put her arms around him, and lifted him to a more comfortable position, wondering the while how he came to be there. Had he failed to find Marie, whom he was to accompany to Raab? Had Cambray, perhaps, prevented her from leaving the castle?
She bent over the wounded man and said:
"Satan Laczi, awake! Look up—come back to life!"
And Satan Laczi was such an obedient fellow, he opened his eyes and saw the lady kneeling by his side.
Then he opened his lips, and said in a very weak voice:
"I should like a drink of water."
Katharina made haste to fill the helmet again at her fountain.
"Thank you, sister."
"Look at me, Laczi bacsi;" commanded Katharina, in a cheerful tone. "Don't you know me? I am the woman who gave shelter to your wife and child. I am little Laczko's foster-mother."
The wounded man smiled faintly, and murmured: "Yes, yes—Laczko—Laczko is a fine lad! He came near—shooting me because—because of the maid."
"Tell me what you know about the maid," eagerly questioned Katharina. "Where is she?"
The wounded man opened his eyes, and seemed to be trying to recall something. After a pause, he said slowly, and with evident difficulty:
"You need n't—trouble about the—pretty maid. Laczko is a brave lad—and my wife—my wife is—an honest woman."
"Yes, yes, I know," returned Katharina. "A good lad, and an honest woman. But tell me, in heaven's name, where is the maid?"
"The maid—Sophie Botta went with—my wife to Raab—they are there now—and Laczko too."
How gently the lady bathed the wounded man's face and hands! How carefully she renewed the bandages on the horrible wounds!
Ludwig Vavel, who hart approached noiselessly, stood and watched her perform the labor of love. He saw, heard, and admired. Then he came close to the kneeling woman, and clasped his arms around her.
"My Katharina! Oh, what a woman art thou!"
When Count Vavel returned from his skirmish with De Fervlans's demons, he sent his betrothed at once to Raab, with instructions not to separate herself again from Marie.
He had not been able to accompany Katharina on her journey, as he had received marching orders immediately on his return to camp. On parting with his betrothed, however, he had promised to pay a visit to her and Marie at an early day, and to write to both of them daily.
The first part of his promise he had not been able to fulfil; his time was too fully occupied with the duties of the field. But he sent frequent messages to his loved ones; while every day, no matter where he might be, he would be sure to receive his letter from Raab—one sheet covered to the edges with Katharina's writing, and the other with Marie's.
Their letters were always cheerful, and filled with hope and confidence for the future. Ludwig fancied he could see the scene as Katharina described it, when Marie had opened the steel casket.
He knew just how delighted the young girl had been when she beheld nothing but ashes instead of the little garments, the documents, the portraits, the bank-notes; and he could hear her joyous laugh on finding herself relieved of the burden of her greatness. But what he could not hear was Katharina reciting his brave exploits during the fierce struggle on the Hansag, a recital Marie insisted on hearing every day.
Then the two, Marie and Katharina, would go every morning to church, to pray for Ludwig, to ask God to protect him, and bring him safely back to them. This was their daily pleasure and consolation.
Then came the bloody days of Karako, Papa, Raab, and Acs. The militia troops took active part in all these battles, and proved themselves valiant warriors.
Vavel with his Volons had been assigned to Mesko's brigade, and had shared its adventurous march from Abda, around Lake Balaton to Veszprim. Here he found his spy and scout, Master Matyas, awaiting him.
For weeks he had not had a word from his loved ones. When he had sent them to Raab he believed he had selected a secure haven for them, but the course which events had taken proved that he had made a mistake in his calculations. Katharina and Marie were now surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
It was while he was oppressed with these gloomy thoughts that his spy and scout suddenly appeared before him. Noah in his ark had not looked more longingly for the dove than had he for his brave Matyas.
"Well, Master Matyas, what news?"
"All sorts, Herr Count."
"Good or bad?"
"Well, mixed. Both good and bad. I will leave the good till the last. To begin: Poor Satan Laczi was buried yesterday—may God have mercy on his sinful soul! They fired three salvos over his grave, and the primate himself said the prayers for his soul. If Satan Laczi himself could have seen it all, he could hardly have believed that so much honor would be shown to his dead body. Poor Laczi! His last words were a greeting to his kind patron."
"His life closed well!" observed the count. "He got what he longed for—a soldier's death. But tell me what you know about Raab."
"I know all about it. I come from there."
"Ah, did you see them? Has not the enemy besieged the city?"
"Yes; the city as well as the fortress is in the hands of the enemy, and the baroness and the princess are both in it."
"Who told you to call her a princess?" demanded Count Vavel, his face darkening.
"I will come to that all in good time," composedly replied Matyas, who was not to be hurried. "Colonel Pechy," he went on, "bravely defended the fortress for ten days against the Frenchmen; but he had to yield at last—"
"Where are Katharina and Marie?" impatiently interrupted Vavel. "What became of them when the city capitulated?"
"All in good time, Herr Count, all in good time! I can tell you all about them, for I am just come from them."
"Were they in any danger?"
"Danger? No, indeed! When the city surrendered they were concealed in a house where they passed as the nieces of the Herr Vice-palatine Goeroemboelyi."
"Is the vice-palatine with them now?"
"Certainly. He has surrendered, too."
"Excellent man! Who commands the Frenchmen at Raab?"
"General Guillaume?" excitedly interrupted Vavel.
"Yes, certainly; Guillaume—that is his name. And he is a very polite gentleman. He does not ill-treat the citizens; on the contrary, the very next day after he entered the city he gave a ball in the large hotel, and invited all the distinguished citizens with their wives and daughters. The Herr Count's dear ones also received an invitation."
"As the nieces of the vice-palatine, of course?"
"Not exactly! I saw the invitation-card, and it was to 'Madame la Comtesse de Alba, avec la Princesse Marie.'"
"Princess Marie?" echoed Vavel.
"As I tell you; and that is how I come to know she is a princess."
Vavel's brain seemed paralyzed. He could not even think.
"The vice-palatine," nonchalantly continued Matyas, "protested that a mistake had been made; but the French general replied that he knew very well who the ladies were, and that he had received instructions how to treat them. From that day, two French grenadiers began to guard the baroness's door, day and night, just exactly as if they were standing guard over a potentate."
Vavel paced the floor, mute with rage and fear.
"Why did I desert them!" he exclaimed at last, in desperation. "Why did I not do as Marie wished—flee with her and Katharina into the wide world—we three alone!"
"Well, you see you did n't, and this is the way matters stand now," responded Master Matyas. "The general's adjutant visits the house twice every day to inquire after the ladies; then he reports to his superior."
"If only Cambray had not died!" ejaculated the count.
"Yes, but I helped to bury him, too," added Matyas, shaking his head.
"Yes, so I was told. How did you manage to get the body from behind the metal screen?"
"Oh, that was easy enough. You know the spring is connected with the bell in your study; when the screen unrolled, the bell rang. It was only necessary to reverse the operation: by pulling the bell-wire in the Herr Count's study the screen was rolled up."
"A very simple arrangement, indeed," observed Count Vavel, smiling in spite of his gloom. "Ah, Master Matyas, if only you were clever enough to open for me the locks which now imprison my dear ones! That would be a masterpiece, indeed!"
"I can do that easily enough," was the confident rejoinder.
"You can? How?"
"Did n't I say I would leave the good news until the last?"
"Yes, yes. Tell me what you have in view."
"I must whisper the secret in your ear; I have often overheard important secrets listening at the keyhole or while hiding under a bed, and what I have done another may be doing."
Vavel bent his head so that Master Matyas might whisper the important information in his ear.
The words were few, but they served to restore Vavel to a cheerful mood.
He laughed heartily, slapped Master Matyas on the shoulder, and exclaimed:
"You are truly a wonderful fellow!" Then he took a roll of bank-notes from his pocket, and pressed it into Matyas's hand. "Here—take these, and buy what is necessary. We will make the attempt at once."
Master Matyas thrust the money into his own pocket, and darted from the room as if he had stolen it. Ludwig hastened to his general, to beg for leave of absence.
"Everything is ready," said Master Matyas to Vavel, pointing toward three covered luggage-wagons, which the Volons had captured from the Frenchmen at Klein-Zell.
The "Death-head troop," as Vavel's Volons were designated, marched in the rear of the brigade; consequently they could drop out from it any time without attracting special notice.
To-day the brigade marched toward Palota, and the Volons turned into the road which led to Zircz. They seemed, however, to have been swallowed up by the Bakonye forest, for nothing was seen again of them after they entered it. The inhabitants of Ratota still repeat tales of the handsome troopers—every man of them a true Magyar!—who rode through their village to the sound of the trumpet, nodding to the pretty girls, and paying gold coin for their refreshment at the inn. But the dwellers in Zircz complained that, instead of Magyar troopers, a squad of hostile cavalry passed through their village—Frenchmen in blue mantles, with cocks' feathers in their helmets, with a commandant who had given all sorts of orders that no one could understand. Luckily, the prior of the Premonstrants could speak French, and he acted as interpreter for the French commandant. And everybody felt relieved when he marched farther with his troop.
These were the transformed Volons. They had exchanged their crimson shakos in the dense forest for the French helmets, and wrapped themselves in the blue mantles taken from the luggage-wagons. No one would have doubted that they were French chasseurs—even the trumpeter sounded the calls according to the regulations in the armies of France.
Master Matyas hurried on in advance of the troop to learn if the way was clear. It would have been equally unpleasant to have met either Hungarian or French soldiery. They encountered neither, however; and at daybreak on the second day arrived at the village of Boercs, on the Rabcza, where is an interesting monument of times long past—a redoubt of considerable extent, in the center of which stands the village church.
Vavel's troop camped within this redoubt, where they could escape attracting attention. The country about them, for a long distance, was occupied by French troops.
The highway which led to Raab might be seen from the steeple of the church, and here Vavel took up his station with a field-glass.
He had not been long in his tower of observation when he saw a heavy cloud of dust moving along the highway, and very soon was able to distinguish a body of horsemen. It was a company of cuirassiers, whose polished breastplates glittered in the sunlight like stars. The company was divided into two squads: one rode in front of a four-horse traveling-coach, the other in the rear of it.
There were two ladies in the coach. The elder of the two shielded her face from the dust with a heavy veil; the younger lady wore no veil over her pale face, but held in front of it a fan, from behind which she took an occasional look at the variegated plain, where the ripening grain, blended with the green of the meadows, formed a rich, carpet on either side of the road.
The young officer riding beside the coach sought to entertain the elder lady with observations on the country through which they were passing, and from time to time exchanged tender glances with the younger. These ladies were the wife and daughter of General Guillaume. They were on their way to Raab, where they expected an addition to their party in the person of la Princesse Marie, whom they were going to accompany to Paris. The troop of cuirassiers was their escort.
"There come some chasseurs on a foraging expedition," observed the young officer, pointing toward a body of horsemen that was approaching across the green plain.
And, judging from the appearance of the riders, he was right; for the Volons, in order to deceive the Frenchmen, were bringing with them a couple of loaded hay-wagons, which they were dragging through the middle of the highway.
While yet a considerable distance away from the approaching chasseurs, the postilions began to blow their horns for a clear way.
The hay-wagons were turned, in obedience to the signal, but, in turning, the second one ran into the one in advance with such force that the pole was broken clean off.
In front of the barricade thus formed Vavel halted his men, and commanded them to throw off their French cloaks and helmets. In a second the order was obeyed; the crimson shakos with their grim death-heads were donned, and the troop dashed forward upon the escort accompanying the coach.
The astonished cuirassiers, who were wholly unprepared for the assault, were soon overpowered by the Volons, who also outnumbered them.
The youthful leader had at once placed himself in front of the coach, ready for combat with the leader of the attacking foe, and Vavel was obliged to exercise all his skill to disarm without injuring him.
At the moment when the young French champion's sword flew from his hand, the younger lady, forgetting all ceremony, cried in terror:
"Oh mon Dieu, ne tuez pas Arthur!"
Ludwig Vavel turned toward her, bowed courteously, and said in Talma's most exquisite French:
"Do not be alarmed, ladies. You are perfectly safe. We are Hungarian gentlemen!"
"But what do you want of us?" demanded the elder lady, haughtily surveying the count. "What business have we with you? We do not belong to the combatants."
"I will tell this brave young chevalier what I want," replied Vavel, turning toward the youthful leader. "First, let me restore your sword, monsieur. You handle it admirably, only you need to grasp it more firmly. Then, let me beg of you to mount your horse—a beautiful animal! And third, I beg you to ride as quickly as possible to Raab, and give General Guillaume this message: 'I, Count Vavel de Versay, have this day taken captive the wife and daughter of General Guillaume. The general holds as prisoners my betrothed wife, Countess Themire Dealba, and my adopted daughter, Sophie Botta, or, if he prefers, la Princess Marie. I demand my loved ones in exchange for Madame and Mademoiselle Guillaume.' I have no further demands, monsieur, and the sooner you return the better. I shall await you in yonder redoubt, where you see the church-steeple. Adieu."
The younger lady, with hands clasped pleadingly, mutely besought the youthful officer to assent. As if he would not do everything in his power to urge the general to consent to the exchange! The young Frenchman galloped down the road toward Raab. Count Vavel took his place beside the coach, and ordered the postilions to drive to Boercs. At first, the general's wife heaped reproaches on her captor.
"This is a violation of national courtesies," she exclaimed irately. "It is brigandage, to waylay and take as prisoners two distinguished women."
"Madame's husband has also detained as prisoners two distinguished women," in a respectful tone responded Vavel.
"But my daughter is so nervous."
"There is not a more timid creature in the world than my poor little Marie."
"At all events, monsieur, you are a Frenchman, and know what is due to ladies of our station."
"In that respect, madame, I shall follow General Guillaume's example."
They were now among the gardens of Boercs, where the cherry-trees, heavily laden with fruit, rose above the tall hedges; and very soon they turned into a beautiful street shaded by walnut-trees, which led to the redoubt. The parsonage was the only house of importance in the village. The pastor was standing at his door when Vavel ordered the coach to stop. He assisted the ladies to alight, and begged the pastor to grant them the hospitality of his roof. The request was not refused, and the ladies were made as comfortable as possible.
"Do you care to see the sights of the village, madame?" asked Vavel of the mother, after they had partaken of the lunch prepared by the pastor's housekeeper. The young lady, who was exhausted by the journey, had gone to her room. "There is a very old church here which is interesting."
"Are there any fine pictures in it?" inquired madame.
"There is one,—a very touching scene,—'The Samaritan.'"
"Ancient or modern?" queried the lady.
"The subject is old—it dates back to the first years of Christianity, madame. The execution is modern."
"Is it the work of a celebrated artist?"
"No; it is the work of our clerical host."
The lady shook her head; she was uncertain whether Count Vavel was making sport of her or of the pastor.
But she understood him when she entered the church. The house consecrated to the service of God had become a hospital, and was crowded with wounded French soldiers. The women of the village, as volunteer nurses, were taking care of them, and performed the task as faithfully as if the invalids were their own sons and brothers. The pastor himself supplied the necessary medicines from his own cupboard; for no army surgeon came here at a time when twenty thousand wounded Frenchmen lay at Aspern, and twenty-two thousand at Wagram.
"Is it not an affecting tableau, madame?" said Count Vavel. "It would be a suitable altar-piece for Notre Dame—and the name of its creator deserves perpetuation!"
Monsieur le Capitaine Descourcelles rode an excellent horse, was a capital rider, and was plainly very much in love. These three circumstances combined brought back the gallant soldier from Raab by five o'clock in the afternoon.
The captain of the cuirassiers was not a little surprised to find the general's wife playing cards with the hostile leader.
"General Guillaume agrees to everything," he announced immediately, on entering the room. "He will release the ladies he has been holding as prisoners."
Vavel hastened to shake hands with the bearer of these glad tidings, who was, however, more eager to kiss the hand of Vavel's partner, and to inquire:
"I hope I find the ladies perfectly comfortable?"
"Very comfortable indeed," replied madame. "Messieurs les Cannibales are very polite, and leur Catzique plays an excellent hand at piquet."
"And where is mademoiselle? I trust she is not suffering from the fatigue of the journey?"
"Oh, no; she is very well. She is making her toilet, and will soon join us. I hope we shall leave here very soon."
Madame now rose, and left the two soldiers alone in the room.
"Here," observed the French captain, handing Vavel a paper, "is the sauf conduit."
The pass contained the information that "Vavel de Versay, expatriated French nobleman and magnate of Hungary, together with the Countess Themire Dealba (alias Baroness Katharina Landsknechtsschild) and Sophie Botta (pretended Princess Marie Charlotte Capet), with attendants, were to be allowed to travel unmolested by any French troops they might chance to meet."
Ludwig Vavel looked at this document a long time.
"Do you doubt the assurance of a French officer, monsieur?" asked the captain.
"No; I was just unable to understand why a word had been used here. I dare say it is a mistake. But no matter. I am greatly obliged to you."
"Pray don't speak of it," responded the Frenchman, cordially shaking the hand Vavel extended toward him. "I must not forget to tell you that a four weeks' armistice was agreed upon to-day."
The ladies now entered the room, prepared to continue their journey. The face of the younger one wore a more cheerful expression than on her arrival at the parsonage. Madame thanked Vavel for his courtesy, then, with her daughter, entered the carriage and drove away.
Madame Guillaume was forgetful: she neglected to take leave of her host the pastor, and of her wounded countrymen in the church.
Vavel communicated the news of the armistice to his adjutant, and commanded him to return at once with the Volons to Fertoeszeg, there to quarter themselves in the Nameless Castle, and await further orders. Then he mounted his horse, and, accompanied by Master Matyas, galloped out of the village.
Twilight had deepened into night when the two men arrived at Raab. The clocks were striking eight, and the French trumpets were sounding the retreat at every gate. Vavel, therefore, would not be allowed to enter the city until the next morning; but Master Matyas, who did not stop to inquire which was the proper way when he wanted to go anywhere, knew of a little garden that belonged to a certain tanner, and very soon found an entrance along a rather circuitous route among the tan-vats.
Vavel had already seen battered walls, and dwellings ruined by bombs and flames, yet the thought that he should find his loved ones amid these smoke-blackened ruins oppressed his heart.
The two men attracted no attention. In the last days there had been many strangers in the city, deputations from the militia camps, to assist in establishing the line of demarcation. Master Matyas, without difficulty, led the way among the ruins to the neat little abode where the worthy vice-palatine had established his proteges. When they came within sight of the house Matyas observed:
"The two Frenchmen with their bearskin caps are not on guard to-day. The vice-palatine's servant seems to be doing sentry-duty."
Vavel applied his spurs and cantered briskly toward the house, but moderated his speed when he came nearer. He remembered how easily Marie was frightened by the clatter of horse-hoofs.
At the corner of the street he alighted, and cautioning Matyas to exercise slowly the fatigued horses, proceeded on foot to the house.
The servant on guard at the door saluted in military fashion with drawn sword. Ludwig hurried into the house. In the hall he encountered the little Laczko, who, at sight of the visitor, dropped the boot and brush he held in his hands, and disappeared through a door at the end of the hall. Vavel followed him, and found himself in the kitchen, where the widow of Satan Laczi also dropped to the floor the cooking-utensil she had in her hand.
The count did not stop to question her, but went on into the adjoining room, whence proceeded the sound of voices, and here he found three acquaintances—the vice-palatine, Dr. Tromfszky, and the surveyor, Herr Doboka. The three started in alarm when they beheld Vavel. The doctor even made as if he would rush from the room—as when in the Nameless Castle the furious invalid had seized his groom by the throat.
The expressions on the three startled countenances brought a sudden fear to Ludwig's heart.
"Is any one ill here?" he asked.
The vice-palatine and the doctor looked at each other, but did not speak; the surveyor began to stammer:
"I say—I say that—"
"Is Marie ill?" interrupted Vavel, excitedly.
Herr Bernat silently nodded assent, and pointed toward the door leading into the next room.
Vavel did not stop to inquire further, but strode into the adjoining chamber.
What a familiar little room it was, another fairy-like retreat like that of the Nameless Castle! Here were Marie's toys, her furniture; the four cats were purring in the window-seat, and the two pugs lay dozing on the sofa.
A canopy-bed stood in the alcove, and among the pillows lay Marie. Katharina was sitting by the bedside.
"Oh, God!" cried Vavel, in a tone so full of anguish that every one who heard it, man, woman, and child, burst into tears. The invalid among the pillows alone laughed—laughed aloud for joy.
And had she not cause to rejoice? Ludwig—her Ludwig—did not hasten first to embrace and kiss his betrothed wife. No, she, his little Marie, was the first!
He flung himself on his knees by the bed and covered the pale face with kisses and tears.
"Oh, my dearest! My adored saint! My idol!" he sobbed, while Marie's face glowed with the purest earthly happiness.
She pressed Ludwig's head to her breast and whispered soothingly:
"Don't grieve, Ludwig; I am not going to die. I have not got that horrid influenza poor papa Cambray brought with him from Paris. I took a little cold the night we ran away from the bombs; but I shall soon be well again, now that you are come. I want to live, Ludwig, and you, who rescued me from death once before, will know how to do it again."
Katharina laid her hand tenderly on the maid's head, and said gently:
"Don't talk any more now, dearest; you know you must not excite yourself."
Marie grasped the white hand and drew it down to Ludwig's lips.
"Kiss it, Liadwig; kiss this dear, good hand. Oh, she has been a good little mother to me! She has wept so much because of me. If only you knew what she had planned to do when they were going to tear me away from her! But that danger is past, and now that you are come everything will be well. We have been reading about you, Ludwig. What a hero you are—our knight, St. George! I have n't been really ill, you know, Ludwig; it was only anxiety about you. I shall soon be well again. Please tell the doctor I don't need any more medicine. I want to get up—I feel strong already. I want to put on my gown; then I will take your arm and Katharina's, and we three will promenade to the window. I want to see the evening star. Please send Frau Satan to me; she can lift me more easily than Katharina, for I am very heavy. Ludwig, take Katharina into the next room while I am dressing. I know you have much to say to each other."
Frau Satan now entered in answer to the summons. The doctor had ordered that the invalid's wishes must be obeyed.
Ludwig and Katharina went into the next room. They looked long into each other's eyes, and in the gaze lay many of the thoughts which, if they cannot be told to the one person on earth, are never heard by any one else. Suddenly Katharina, without word of warning, dropped on her knees at her lover's feet, seized his hand, and laid her face against it.
"You are my guardian angel," she whispered (the invalid in the next room must not be disturbed by the sound of voices); "you have rescued that saint from her enemies and saved me from perdition. Oh, Ludwig, if only you knew what I have suffered! Marie's every sigh, the feverish words uttered in her delirium, have been so many accusations oppressing my heart. These have been terrible days! To be compelled hourly to dread either of two horrible blows, and to have to pray to God that, if both could not be averted, to let the milder one fall! Death would have been welcome, indeed, compared to the other one. To listen tremblingly, hour after hour, for the knock at the door which would announce the messenger sent to bear Marie to Paris, or death with his scythe to bear her to the grave! And then to have to look on her sufferings, and hear her pray for her betrayer! Oh, it was terrible, terrible! Ludwig, you are just—as God is just. I have suffered as any woman in the Bible suffered. You have taken my load of sorrow from me, have released my heart from the tortures of perdition. All the evil I have done, you have made good. Therefore, do you pronounce judgment on me. Condemn me or forgive me. I deserve both; I will accept either at your hands."
Without a word Ludwig Vavel raised the woman to her feet, clasped her in his arms, and pressed his lips to hers in a long, long kiss. In it were forgiveness, love, union.
* * * * *
From the adjoining room came the sounds of a piano. Some one was playing the hymn of the Hungarian militia.
Ludwig and Katharina hurried into the room. Marie was seated at the piano, arrayed in her favorite blue gown. Her transparent hands hovered over the ivory keys, and lured from them the melancholy air, to which she sang, in a voice that seemed to come from the distant clouds:
"Was kleinliche Bosheit ausgedacht, Hat unserer Liebe ein Ende gemacht."
At the last word her arms sank to her sides; the exertion had completely exhausted her. But she struggled bravely to overcome her weakness. She smiled brightly at Ludwig and Katharina, and said:
"This melancholy song was not intended for you two. It was only to show Ludwig how I have improved. You two will love each other very dearly, won't you? And you will go far, far away from here, and leave 'Marie' buried in her tomb. I don't mean myself; I mean the troublesome girl who has made so much ill feeling in the world, because of whom so many people have suffered; the girl whose ashes rest there in the steel casket, and whose life was so sad that she had no desire to live longer. But 'Sophie' is going with you out into the world. She will see how happy you two can be. And now, help me to the window; I want to look at the evening star,"
They rolled her arm-chair to the window, and Vavel opened the sash to admit the fresh air from the garden.
Marie clasped Ludwig's and Katharina's hands in both her own, and whispered in a faint voice:
"You will forget the past, will you not? or think of it only as a dream—a disagreeable dream. And don't go back to the Nameless Castle. The veiled woman, the locked doors, the silent man, the telescope, the lonely promenades in the garden—all, all were dreams. Don't think of them! Forget them all! The clanking swords, the thunder of cannons—all these were not. We only dreamed it. We never lived under the shadow of a throne. Who was Marie? A sovereign of cats, and crown princess in the realm of little dogs and birds—a nursery tale to tell naughty little children who will not go to sleep! But Sophie Botta will be here to-morrow, and the next day, and always; she will be with you, the silly, stupid little maid, who can do nothing but obey those whom she loves with all her heart."
Vavel with difficulty refrained from giving voice to his overwhelming grief.
"Just see," Marie continued in a gay tone, "how much better I am! Heretofore, when the hour came for the evening star to appear, the fever would come too, and to-day it has failed to come with the star. Joy has cured me. Don't take your hands away from me, Ludwig—Katharina. They will—hold me—hold me—fast."
But they did not "hold her fast."
And why should such a being remain on this earth—a being that could do naught else but love and renounce, adoring her nation even when it persecuted her?
* * * * *
A dark thunder-cloud rose above the horizon out over the Hansag. The sky looked like a vaulted ceiling hung with mourning draperies. From time to time a distant flash of lightning illumined the cloud-curtain, then would be heard the rumbling of thunder, like the deep tones of a distant organ.
Under the threatening sky lay the glittering lake. Its surface of quicksilver was streaked here and there with black shadows—the track of the wind-gusts racing across it. The trees were rustling in the wind, making a sound like a distant choral.
On the shore of Lake Neusiedl stood the Volons in rank and file. They were waiting for something that was coming from the farther shore of the little cove.
Presently the glistening surface of the water was ruffled by a black object that pushed out from the shore. It was a boat. Six men were rowing, a seventh held the rudder. There was a coffin in the boat, covered with a simple pall. No ostentatious trappings ornamented the coffin; only a myrtle wreath lay on it. A woman, sat at the head of it, another at the foot—the former a lady, the latter a peasant wife.
The six men, with even and powerful strokes, sent the craft through the ripples which occasionally leaped into the boat, as if they would salute her who had so often toyed with them.
At the moment the boat touched the shore the storm burst. Vivid lightning illumined the heavy downpour of rain, and it seemed as if the black-robed forms bore the coffin to its grave amid a flood of harpstrings that reached from heaven to earth.
The two weeping women followed the coffin; at a little distance they seemed two shadows. The helmsmen of the funeral boat now stepped to the head of the grave and opened his lips to speak, but a heavy peal of thunder drowned his voice. When it had ceased he said:
"My brave comrades, you are here to pay a last honor to your patroness. There is nothing left for us to fight for. Peace has been proclaimed. The conqueror takes from you a plot of ground twenty-four hundred square miles in extent. The one lying here takes from you only six feet of earth. To you remain your tattered flag and your wounds. Return to your homes. My sword has finished its work, and will accompany the saint for whom it was drawn!"
As he spoke he broke the keen blade in twain and cast the pieces into the grave, adding impressively, "May God give us forgetfulness, and may we be forgotten!"
The Volons fired three salvos over the grave, the reverberating thunder and the flashing lightning mingling with the noise of the muskets.
When the storm had passed the moon rose in a cloudless sky. Only the waves, which had been stirred by the tempest, continued to murmur to their favorite who was sleeping peacefully in her grave on the shore.
Marie had asked to be buried on the grassy slope by the side of her old friend the Marquis d'Avoncourt, and that no other monument should mark her resting-place save the imperishable tree which turns to stone after it dies.
And what could have been graven on her tomb? A name that was not hers? A history that was not true?
Or would it have been well to carve on the marble her true life-history, that those who would not believe it might wage a lawsuit against an epitaph?
No; it was better so. No one would ever learn what had become of her.
Vavel had prayed for forgetfulness—that he might be forgotten.
His prayer was granted.
For a few years afterward tales were repeated about Sophie Botta, and some of her kinsfolk came from a distance to claim the sum of money Vavel had placed in the hands of the authorities for the young girl's heirs. But none of the claimants could produce satisfactory proofs of kinship, and after a while Sophie Botta was forgotten by all the world, as were Count Vavel and Katharina.
The Nameless Castle as well vanished from the face of the earth, as have entire villages which once stood on the treacherous shores of Lake Neusiedl.
Gradually, imperceptibly, the castle disappeared; gradually, imperceptibly, bastion after bastion vanished, until not even the stone hand which held aloft the sword in the noble escutcheon, or the towering weathervane, could be seen above the placid waters of the lake.