At this there was an outcry on the part of Countess Beatrix, who protested against her husband placing himself in this unnecessary jeopardy, but the Count was firm and would permit no interference with his sentence. Elsa was in despair at the unaccountable blindness of all concerned, not knowing that the Count was convinced his son was dead, and that the Countess thought continually of her boy as a child of four, taking no account of the years that had passed, although her reason, had she applied reason to that which touched her affections only, would have told her, he must now be a stalwart young man and not the little lad she had last held in her arms. For a moment Elsa wavered in her allegiance to the oath she had taken, but she saw against the wall the great crucifix which had been placed there by the first crusader who had returned to the castle from the holy wars and she breathed a prayer as she passed it, that the heir of this stubborn house might not be cut off in his youth through the sightless rancour that seemed to pervade it.
The Count tried to persuade his weeping wife not to accompany him to the walls, but she would not be left behind, and so, telling Conrad to keep close watch upon her, in case that in her despair she might attempt to harm herself, his lordship led the way to the battlements.
Wilhelm, at first jubilant that he was allowed to take part in a sword contest rather than an execution, paused for a moment as he came to the courtyard, and looked about him in a dazed manner, once or twice drawing his hand across his eyes, as if to perfect his vision. Some seeing him thus stricken silent and thoughtful, surmised that the young man was like to prove more courageous in word than in action; others imagined that the sudden coming from the semi-gloom of the castle interior into the bright light dazzled him. The party climbed the flight of stone steps which led far upward to the platform edged by the parapet from which the spring was to be made. The young man walked up and down the promenade, unheeding those around him, seeming like one in a dream, groping for something he failed to find. The onlookers watched him curiously, wondering at his change of demeanour.
Suddenly he dropped his sword on the stones at his feet, held up his hands and cried aloud:
"I have jumped from here before—when I was a lad—a baby almost—I remember it all now—where am I—when was I here before—where is my wooden sword—and where is Conrad, who made it—Conrad, where are you?"
The captain was the first to realise what had happened. He stepped hurriedly forward, scrutinising his late prisoner, the light of recognition, in his eyes.
"It is the young master," he shouted. "My Lord Count, this is no kinsman of the Outlaw, but your own son, a man grown."
The Count stood amazed, as incapable of motion as a statue of stone; the countess, gazing with dreamy eyes, seemed trying to adjust her inward vision of the lad of four with the outward reality of the man of twenty-one. In the silence rose the clear sweet voice of Elsa without the walls, her face upturned like a painting of the Madonna, her hands clasped in front of her.
"Dear Virgin Mother in Heaven, I thank thee that my prayer was not unheard, and bear me witness that I have kept my oath—I have kept my oath, and may Thy intervention show a proud and sinful people the blackness of revenge."
Count Herbert, rousing himself from his stupor, appealed loudly to the girl.
"Woman, is this indeed my son, and, if so, why did you not speak before we came to such extremity?"
"I cannot answer. I have sworn an oath. If you would learn who stands beside you, send a messenger to the Outlaw, saying you have killed him, as indeed you purposed doing," then stretching out her arms, she said, with faltering voice: "Wilhelm, farewell," and turning, fled toward the forest.
"Elsa, Elsa, come back!" the young man cried, foot on the parapet, but the girl paid no heed to his commanding summons, merely waving her hand without looking over her shoulder.
The name rang out so thrillingly strange that its reverberation instantly arrested the flying footsteps of the girl. Instinctively she knew it was the voice of a man falling rapidly through the air. She turned in time to see Wilhelm strike the ground, the impetus precipitating him prone on his face, where he lay motionless. The cry of horror from the battlements was echoed by her own as she sped swiftly toward him. The young man sprang to his feet as she approached and caught her breathless in his arms.
"Ah, Elsa," he said, tenderly, "forgive me the fright I gave you, but I knew of old your fleetness of foot, and if the forest once encircled you, how was I ever to find you?"
The girl made no effort to escape from her imprisonment, and showed little desire to exchange the embrace she endured for that of the forest.
"Though I should blush to say it, Wilhelm, I fear I am easily found, when you are the searcher."
"Then let old Schloss Schonburg claim you, Elsa, that the walls which beheld a son go forth, may see a son and daughter return."
A CITY OF FEAR
The Countess Beatrix von Schonburg warmly welcomed her lost son and her newly-found daughter. The belief of Beatrix in Wilhelm's ultimate return had never wavered during all the long years of his absence, and although she had to translate her dream of the child of four into a reality that included a stalwart young man of twenty-one, the readjustment was speedily accomplished. Before a week had passed it seemed to her delighted heart that the boy had never left the castle. The Countess had liked Elsa from the first moment when she saw her, ragged, unkempt and forlorn, among the lowering, suspicious men-at-arms in the courtyard, and now that she knew the dangers and the privations the girl had braved for the sake of Wilhelm, the affectionate heart of Beatrix found ample room for the motherless Elsa.
With the Count, the process of mental reconstruction was slower, not only on account of his former conviction that his son was dead, but also because of the deep distrust in which he held the Outlaw. He said little, as was his custom, but often sat with brooding brows, intently regarding his son, gloomy doubt casting a shadow over his stern countenance. Might not this be a well-laid plot on the part of the Outlaw to make revenge complete by placing a von Weithoff in the halls of Schonburg as master of that ancient stronghold? The circumstances in which identity was disclosed, although sufficient to convince every one else in the castle, appeared at times to the Count but the stronger evidence of the Outlaw's craft and subtlety. If the young man were actually the son of von Weithoff, then undoubtedly the Outlaw had run great risk of having him hanged forthwith, but on the other hand, the prize to be gained, comprising as it did two notable castles and two wide domains, was a stake worth playing high for, and a stake which appealed strongly to a houseless, landless man, with not even a name worth leaving to his son. Thus, while the Countess lavished her affection on young Wilhelm, noticing nothing of her husband's distraction in this excessive happiness, Count Herbert sat alone in the lofty Knight's Hall, his elbows resting on the table before him, his head buried in his hands, ruminating on the strange transformation that had taken place, endeavouring to weigh the evidence pro and con with the impartial mind of an outsider, becoming the more bewildered the deeper he penetrated into the mystery.
It was in this despondent attitude that Elsa found him a few days after the leap from the wall that had caused her return to Schonburg, a willing captive. The Count did not look up when she entered, and the girl stood for a few moments in silence near him. At last she spoke in a low voice, hesitating slightly, nevertheless going with incisive directness into the very heart of the problem that baffled Count Herbert.
"My Lord, you do not believe that Wilhelm is indeed your son."
The master of Schonburg raised his head slowly and looked searchingly into the frank face of the girl, gloomy distrust reflected from his own countenance.
"Were you sent by your uncle to allay my suspicion?
"No, my Lord. I thought that a hint of the truth being given, Nature would come to the assistance of mutual recognition. Such has been the case between my lady and her son, but I see that you are still unconvinced."
"For my sins, I know something of the wickedness of this world, a knowledge from which her purity has protected the Countess. You believe that Wilhelm is my son?"
"I have never said so, my Lord."
"What you did say was that you had taken an oath. You are too young and doubtless too innocent to be a party to any plot, but you may have been the tool of an unscrupulous man, who knew the oath would be broken when the strain of a strong affection was brought to bear upon it."
"Yet, my Lord, I kept my oath, although I saw my—my—"
The girl hesitated and blushed, but finally spoke up bravely:
"I saw my lover led to his destruction. If Wilhelm is my cousin, then did his father take a desperate chance in trusting first, to my escape from the camp, and second to my perjury. You endow him with more than human foresight, my Lord."
"He builded on your love for Wilhelm, which he had seen growing under his eye before either you or the lad had suspicion of its existence. I know the man, and he is a match for Satan, his master."
"But Satan has been discomfited ere now by the angels of light, and even by holy men, if legend tells truly. I have little knowledge of the world, as you have said, but the case appears to me one of the simplest. If my uncle wished the bitterest revenge on you, what could be more terrible than cause you to be the executioner of your own son? The vengeance, however, to be complete, depends on his being able to place before you incontrovertible proof that you were the father of the victim. Send, therefore, a messenger to him, one from Gudenfels, who knows nothing of what has happened in this castle of Schonburg, and who is therefore unable to disclose, even if forced to confess, that Wilhelm is alive. Let the messenger inform my uncle that his son is no more, which is true enough, and then await the Outlaw's reply. And meanwhile let me venture to warn you, my Lord, that it would be well to conceal your disbelief from Wilhelm, for he is high-spirited, and if he gets but an inkling that you distrust him, he will depart; for not all your possessions will hold your son if he once learns that you doubt him, so you are like to find yourself childless again, if your present mood masters you much longer."
The Count drew a deep sigh, then roused himself and seemed to shake off the influence that enchained him.
"Thank you, my girl," he cried, with something of the old ring in his voice, "I shall do as you advise, and if this embassy results as you say, you will ever find your staunchest friend in me."
He held out his hand to Elsa, and departed to his other castle of Gudenfels on the opposite side of the Rhine. From thence he sent a messenger who had no knowledge of what was happening in Schonburg.
When at last the messenger returned from the Outlaw's camp, he brought with him a wailing woman and grim tidings that he feared to deliver. Thrice his lordship demanded his account, the last time with such sternness that the messenger quailed before him.
"My Lord," he stammered at last, "a frightful thing has taken place— would that I had died before it was told to me. The young man your lordship hanged was no other than——'
"Well, why do you pause? You were going to say he was my own son. What proof does the Outlaw offer that such was indeed the case?"
"Alas! my Lord, the proof seems clear enough. Here with me is young Lord Wilhelm's nurse, whose first neglect led to his abduction, and who fled to the forest after him, and was never found. She followed him to the Outlaw's camp, and was there kept prisoner by him until she was at last given charge of the lad, under oath that she would teach him to forget who he was, the fierce Outlaw threatening death to both woman and child were his orders disobeyed. She has come willingly with me hoping to suffer death now that one she loved more than son has died through her first fault."
Then to the amazement of the pallid messenger the Count laughed aloud and called for Wilhelm, who, when he was brought, clasped the trembling old woman in his arms, overjoyed to see her again and eager to learn news of the camp. How was the stout Gottlieb? Had the messenger seen Captain Heinrich? and so on.
"Indeed, my young Lord," answered the overjoyed woman "there was such turmoil in the camp that I was glad to be quit of it with unbroken bones. When the Outlaw proclaimed that you were hanged, there was instant rebellion among his followers, who thought that your capture was merely a trick to be speedily amended, being intended to form a laughing matter to your discomfiture when you returned. They swore they would have torn down Schonburg with their bare hands rather than have left you in jeopardy, had they known their retreat imperilled your life."
"The brave lads!" cried the young man in a glow of enthusiasm, "and here have I been maligning them for cowards! What was the outcome?"
"That I do not know, my Lord, being glad to escape from the ruffians with unfractured head."
The result of the embassy was speedily apparent at Schonburg. Two days later, in the early morning, the custodians at the gate were startled by the shrill Outlaw yell, which had on so many occasions carried terror with it into the hearts of Rhine strongholds.
"Come out, Hangman of Schonburg!" they shouted, "come out, murderer of a defenceless prisoner. Come out, before we drag you forth, for the rope is waiting for your neck and the gallows tree is waiting for the rope."
Count Herbert was first on the battlements, and curtly he commanded his men not to launch bolt at the invaders, knowing the outlaws mistakenly supposed him to be the executioner of their former comrade. A moment later young Wilhelm himself appeared on the wall above the gate, and, lifting his arms above his head raised a great shout of joy at seeing there collected his old companions, calling this one or that by name as he recognised them among the seething, excited throng. There was an instant's cessation of the clamour, then the outlaws sent forth a cheer that echoed from all the hills around. They brandished their weapons aloft, and cheered again and again, the garrison of the castle, now bristling along the battlements, joining in the tumult with strident voices. Gottlieb advanced some distance toward the gate, and holding up his hand for silence addressed Wilhelm.
"Young master," he cried, "we have deposed von Weithoff, and would have hanged him, but that he escaped during the night, fled to Mayence and besought protection of the Archbishop. If you will be our leader we will sack Mayence and hang the Archbishop from his own cathedral tower."
"That can I hardly do, Gottlieb, as a messenger has been sent to the Archbishop asking him to come to Schonburg and marry Elsa to me. He might take our invasion as an unfriendly act and refuse to perform the ceremony."
Gottlieb scratched his head as one in perplexity, seeing before him a question of etiquette that he found difficult to solve. At last he said:
"What need of Archbishop? You and Elsa have been brought up among us, therefore confer honour on our free company by being married by our own Monk who has tied many a knot tight enough to hold the most wayward of our band. The aisles of the mighty oaks are more grand than the cathedral at Mayence or the great hall of Schonburg."
"Indeed I am agreed, if Elsa is willing. We will be married first in the forest and then by the Archbishop in the great hall of Schonburg."
"In such case there will be delay, for now that I bethink me, his Lordship of Mayence has taken himself to Frankfort, where he is to meet the Archbishops of Treves and Cologne who will presently journey to the capital We were thinking of falling upon his reverence of Cologne as he passed up the river, unless he comes with an escort too numerous for us, which, alas! is most likely, so suspicious has the world grown."
"You will be wise not to meddle with the princes of the Church, be their escorts large or small."
"Then, Master Wilhelm, be our leader, for we are likely to get into trouble unless a man of quality is at our head."
Wilhelm breathed a deep sigh and glanced sideways at his father, who stood some distance off, leaning on his two-handed sword, a silent spectator of the meeting.
"The free life of the forest is no more for me, Gottlieb. My duty is here in the castle of my forefathers, much though I grieve to part with you."
This decision seemed to have a depressing effect on the outlaws within hearing. Gottlieb retired, and the band consulted together for a time, then their spokesman again advanced.
"Some while since," he began in dolorous tone, "we appealed to the Emperor to pardon us, promising in such case to quit our life of outlawry and take honest service with those nobles who needed stout blades, but his Majesty sent reply that if we came unarmed to the capital and tendered submission, he would be graciously pleased to hang a round dozen of us to be selected by him, scourge the rest through the streets of Frankfort and so bestow his clemency on such as survived. This imperial tender we did not accept, as there was some uncertainty regarding whose neck should feel the rope and whose back the scourge. While all were willing to admit that more than a dozen of us sorely needed hanging, yet each man seemed loath to claim precedence over his neighbour in wickedness, and desired, in some sort, a voice in the selection of the victims. But if you will accept our following, Master Wilhelm, we will repair at once to Frankfort and make submission to his Majesty the Emperor. The remnant being well scourged, will then return to Schonburg to place themselves under your command."
"Are you willing then to hang for me, Gottlieb?"
"I hanker not after the hanging, but if hang we must, there is no man I would rather hang for than Wilhelm, formerly of the forest, but now, alas! of Schonburg. And so say they all without dissent, therefore the unanimity must needs include the eleven other danglers."
"Then draw nigh, all of you, to the walls and hear my decision."
Gottlieb waving his arms, hailed the outlaws trooping to the walls, and, his upraised hand bringing silence, Wilhelm spoke:
"Such sacrifice as you propose, I cannot accept, yet I dearly wish to lead a band of men like you. Elsa and I shall be married by our ancient woodland father in the forest and then by the Abbot of St. Werner in the hall of Schonburg. We will make our wedding journey to Frankfort, and you shall be our escort and our protectors."
There was for some moments such cheering at this that the young man was compelled to pause in his address, and then as the outcry was again and again renewed, he looked about for the cause and saw that Elsa and his mother had taken places on the balcony which overlooked the animated scene. The beautiful girl had been recognised by the rebels and she waved her hand in response to their shouting.
"We will part company," resumed Wilhelm, "as near Frankfort as it is safe for you to go, and my wife and I, accompanied by a score of men from this castle, will enter the capital. I will beg your complete pardon from his Majesty and if at first it is refused, I think Elsa will have better success with the Empress, who may incline her imperial husband toward clemency. All this I promise, providing I receive the consent and support of my father, and I am not likely to be refused, for he already knows the persuasive power of my dear betrothed when she pleads for mercy."
"My consent and support I most willingly bestow," said the Count, with a fervour that left no doubt of his sincerity.
The double marriage was duly solemnised, and Wilhelm, with his newly- made wife, completed their journey to Frankfort, escorted until almost within sight of the capital by five hundred and twenty men, but they entered the gates of the city accompanied by only the score of Schonburg men, the remaining five hundred concealing themselves in the rough country, as they well knew how to do.
Neither Wilhelm nor Elsa had ever seen a large city before, and silence fell upon them as they approached the western gate, for they were coming upon a world strange to them, and Wilhelm felt an unaccustomed elation stir within his breast, as if he were on the edge of some adventure that might have an important bearing on his future. Instead of passing peaceably through the gate as he had expected, the cavalcade was halted after the two had ridden under the gloomy stone archway, and the portcullis was dropped with a sudden clang, shutting out the twenty riders who followed. One of several officers who sat on a stone bench that fronted the guard-house within the walls, rose and came forward.
"What is your name and quality?" he demanded, gruffly.
"I am Wilhelm, son of Count von Schonberg."
"What is your business here in Frankfort?"
"My business relates to the emperor, and is not to be delivered to the first underling who has the impudence to make inquiry," replied Wilhelm in a haughty tone, which could scarcely be regarded, in the circumstances, as diplomatic.
Nevertheless, the answer did not seem to be resented, but rather appeared to have a subduing effect on the questioner, who turned, as if for further instruction, to another officer, evidently his superior in rank. The latter now rose, came forward, doffing his cap, and said:
"I understand your answer better than he to whom it was given, my Lord."
"I am glad there is one man of sense at a gate of the capital," said Wilhelm, with no relaxation of his dignity, but nevertheless bewildered at the turn the talk had taken, seeing there was something underneath all this which he did not comprehend, yet resolved to carry matters with a high hand until greater clearness came to the situation.
"Will you order the portcullis raised and permit my men to follow me?"
"They are but temporarily detained until we decide where to quarter them, my Lord. You know," he added, lowering his voice, "the necessity for caution. Are you for the Archbishop of Treves, of Cologne, or of Mayence?"
"I am from the district of Mayence, of course."
"And are you for the archbishop?"
"For the archbishop certainly. He would have honoured me by performing our marriage ceremony had he not been called by important affairs of state to the capital, as you may easily learn by asking him, now that he is within these walls."
The officer bowed low with great obsequiousness and said:
"Your reply is more than sufficient, my Lord, and I trust you will pardon the delay we have caused you. The men of Mayence are quartered in the Leinwandhaus, where room will doubtless be made for your followers.
"It is not necessary for me to draw upon the hospitality of the good Archbishop, as I lodge in my father's town house near the palace, and there is room within for the small escort I bring."
Again the officer bowed to the ground, and the portcullis being by this time raised, the twenty horsemen came clattering under the archway, and thus, without further molestation, they arrived at the house of the Count von Schonburg.
"Elsa," said Wilhelm, when they were alone in their room, "there is something wrong in this city. Men look with fear one upon another, and pass on hurriedly, as if to avoid question. Others stand in groups at the street corners and speak in whispers, glancing furtively over their shoulders."
"Perhaps that is the custom in cities," replied Elsa.
"I doubt it. I have heard that townsmen are eager for traffic, inviting all comers to buy, but here most of the shops are barred, and no customers are solicited. They seem to me like people under a cloud of fear. What can it be?"
"We are more used to the forest path than to city streets, Wilhelm. They will all become familiar to us in a day or two, yet I feel as if I could not get a full breath in these narrow streets and I long for the trees already, but perhaps content will come with waiting."
"'Tis deeper than that. There is something ominous in the air. Noted you not the questioning at the gate and its purport? They asked me if I favoured Treves, or Cologne, or Mayence, but none inquired if I stood loyal to the Emperor, yet I was entering his capital city of Frankfort."
"Perhaps you will learn all from the Emperor when you see him," ventured Elsa.
"Perhaps," said Wilhelm.
The chamberlain of the von Schonburg household, who had supervised the arrangements for the reception of the young couple, waited upon his master in the evening and informed him that the Emperor would not be visible for some days to come.
"He has gone into retreat, in the cloisters attached to the cathedral, and it is the imperial will that none disturb him on worldly affairs. Each day at the hour when the court assembles at the palace, the Emperor hears exhortation from the pious fathers in the Wahlkapelle of the cathedral; the chapel in which emperors are elected; these exhortations pertaining to the ruling of the land, which his majesty desires to govern justly and well.
"An excellent intention," commented the young man, with suspicion of impatience in his tone, "but meanwhile, how are the temporal affairs of the country conducted?"
"The Empress Brunhilda is for the moment the actual head of the state. Whatever act of the ministers receives her approval, is sent by a monk to the Emperor, who signs any document so submitted to him."
"Were her majesty an ambitious woman, such transference of power might prove dangerous."
"She is an ambitious woman, but devoted to her husband, who, it perhaps may be whispered, is more monk than king," replied the chamberlain under his breath. "Her majesty has heard of your lordship's romantic adventures and has been graciously pleased to command that you and her ladyship, your wife, be presented to her to-morrow in presence of the court."
"This is a command which it will be a delight to obey. But tell me, what is wrong in this great town? There is a sinister feeling in the air; uneasiness is abroad, or I am no judge of my fellow-creatures."
"Indeed, my Lord, you have most accurately described the situation. No man knows what is about to happen. The gathering of the Electors is regarded with the gravest apprehension. The Archbishop of Mayence, who but a short time since crowned the Emperor at the great altar of the cathedral, is herewith a thousand men at his back. The Count Palatine of the Rhine is also within these walls with a lesser entourage. It is rumoured that his haughty lordship, the Archbishop of Treves, will reach Frankfort to-morrow, to be speedily followed by that eminent Prince of the Church, the Archbishop of Cologne. Thus there will be gathered in the capital four Electors, a majority of the college, a conjunction that has not occurred for centuries, except on the death of an emperor, necessitating the nomination and election of his successor."
"But as the Emperor lives and there is no need of choosing another, wherein lies the danger?
"The danger lies in the fact that the college has the power to depose as well as to elect."
"Ah! And do the Electors threaten to depose?"
"No. Treves is much too crafty for any straight-forward statement of policy. He is the brains of the combination, and has put forward Mayence and the Count Palatine as the moving spirits, although it is well known that the former is but his tool and the latter is moved by ambition to have his imbecile son selected emperor."
"Even if the worst befall, it seems but the substitution of a weak- minded man for one who neglects the affairs of state, although I should think the princes of the Church would prefer a monarch who is so much under the influence of the monks."
"The trouble is deeper than my imperfect sketch of the situation would lead you to suppose, my Lord. The Emperor periodically emerges from his retirement, promulgates some startling decree, unheeding the counsel of any adviser, then disappears again, no man knowing what is coming next. Of such a nature was his recent edict prohibiting the harrying of merchants going down the Rhine and the Moselle, which, however just in theory, is impracticable, for how are the nobles to reap revenue if such practices are made unlawful? This edict has offended all the magnates of both rivers, and the archbishops, with the Count Palatine, claim that their prerogatives have been infringed, so they come to Frankfort ostensibly to protest, while the Emperor in his cloister refuses to meet them. The other three Electors hold aloof, as the edict touches them not, but they form a minority which is powerless, even if friendly to the Emperor. Meanwhile his majesty cannot be aroused to an appreciation of the crisis, but says calmly that if it is the Lord's will he remain emperor, emperor he will remain."
"Then at its limit, chamberlain, all we have to expect is a peaceful deposition and election?"
"Not so, my lord. The merchants of Frankfort are fervently loyal, to the Emperor, who, they say, is the first monarch to give forth a just law for their protection. At present the subtlety of Treves has nullified all combined action on their part, for he has given out that he comes merely to petition his over-lord, which privilege is well within his right, and many citizens actually believe him, but others see that a majority of the college will be within these walls before many days are past, and that the present Emperor may be legally deposed and another legally chosen. Then if the citizens object, they are rebels, while at this moment if they fight for the Emperor they are patriots, so you see the position is not without its perplexities, for the citizens well know that if they were to man the walls and keep out Treves and Cologne, the Emperor himself would most likely disclaim their interference, trusting as he does so entirely in Providence that a short time since he actually disbanded the imperial troops, much to the delight of the archbishops, who warmly commended his action. And now, my Lord, if I may venture to tender advice unasked, I would strongly counsel you to quit Frankfort as soon as your business here is concluded, for I am certain that a change of government is intended. All will be done promptly, and the transaction will be consummated before the people are aware that such a step is about to be taken. The Electors will meet in the Wahlzimmer or election room of the Romer and depose the Emperor, then they will instantly select his successor, adjourn to the Wahlkapelle and elect him. The Palatine's son is here with his father, and will be crowned at the high altar by the Archbishop of Mayence. The new Emperor will dine with the Electors in the Kaisersaal and immediately after show himself on the balcony to the people assembled in the Romerberg below. Proclamation of his election will then be made, and all this need not occupy more than two hours. The Archbishop of Mayence already controls the city gates, which since the disbanding of the imperial troops have been unguarded, and none can get in or out of the city without that potentate's permission. The men of Mayence are quartered in the centre of the town, the Count Palatine's troops are near the gate. Treves and Cologne will doubtless command other positions, and thus between them they will control the city. Numerous as the merchants and their dependents are, they will have no chance against the disciplined force of the Electors, and the streets of Frankfort are like to run with blood, for the nobles are but too eager to see a sharp check given to the rising pretensions of the mercantile classes, who having heretofore led peaceful lives, will come out badly in combat, despite their numbers; therefore I beg of you, my Lord, to withdraw with her Ladyship before this hell's caldron is uncovered."
"Your advice is good, chamberlain, in so far as it concerns my wife, and I will beg of her to retire to Schonburg, although I doubt if she will obey, but, by the bones of Saint Werner which floated against the current of the Rhine in this direction, if there must be a fray, I will be in the thick of it."
"Remember, my Lord, that your house has always stood by the Archbishop of Mayence."
"It has stood by the Emperor as well, chamberlain."
The Lady Elsa was amazed by the magnificence of the Emperor's court, when, accompanied by her husband, she walked the length of the great room to make obeisance before the throne. At first entrance she shrank timidly, closer to the side of Wilhelm, trembling at the ordeal of passing, simply costumed as she now felt herself to be, between two assemblages of haughty knights and high-born dames, resplendent in dress, with the proud bearing that pertained to their position in the Empire. Her breath came and went quickly, and she feared that all courage would desert her before she traversed the seemingly endless lane, flanked by the nobility of Germany, which led to the royal presence. Wilhelm, unabashed, holding himself the equal of any there, was not to be cowed by patronising glance, or scornful gaze. The thought flashed through his mind:
"How can the throne fall, surrounded as it is by so many supporters?"
But when the approaching two saw the Empress, all remembrance of others faded from their minds. Brunhilda was a woman of superb stature. She stood alone upon the dais which supported the vacant throne, one hand resting upon its carven arm. A cloak of imperial ermine fell gracefully from her shapely shoulders and her slightly-elevated position on the platform added height to her goddess-like tallness, giving her the appearance of towering above every other person in the room, man or woman. The excessive pallor of her complexion was emphasised by the raven blackness of her wealth of hair, and the sombre midnight of her eyes; eyes with slumbering fire in them, qualified by a haunted look which veiled their burning intensity. Her brow was too broad and her chin too firm for a painter's ideal of beauty; her commanding presence giving the effect of majesty rather than of loveliness. Deep lines of care marred the marble of her forehead, and Wilhelm said to himself:
"Here is a woman going to her doom; knowing it; yet determined to show no sign of fear and utter no cry for mercy."
Every other woman there had eyes of varying shades of blue and gray, and hair ranging from brown to golden yellow; thus the Empress stood before them like a creature from another world.
Elsa was about to sink in lowly courtesy before the queenly woman when the Empress came forward impetuously and kissed the girl on either cheek, taking her by the hand.
"Oh, wild bird of the forest," she cried, "why have you left the pure air of the woods, to beat your innocent wings in this atmosphere of deceit! And you, my young Lord, what brings you to Frankfort in these troublous times? Have you an insufficiency of lands or of honours that you come to ask augmentation of either?"
"I come to ask nothing for myself, your Majesty."
"But to ask, nevertheless," said Brunhilda, with a frown.
"Yes, your Majesty."
"I hope I may live to see one man, like a knight of old, approach the foot of the throne without a request on his lips. I thought you might prove an exception, but as it is not so, propound your question?"
"I came to ask if my sword, supplemented by the weapons of five hundred followers, can be of service to your Majesty."
The Empress seemed taken aback by the young man's unexpected reply, and for some moments she gazed at him searchingly in silence.
At last she said:
"Your followers are the men of Schonburg and Gudenfels, doubtless?"
"No, your Majesty. Those you mention, acknowledge my father as their leader. My men were known as the Outlaws of the Hundsrueck, who have deposed von Weithoff, chosen me as their chief, and now desire to lead honest lives."
The dark eyes of the Empress blazed again.
"I see, my Lord, that you have quickly learned the courtier's language. Under proffer of service you are really demanding pardon for a band of marauders."
Wilhelm met unflinchingly the angry look of this imperious woman, and was so little a courtier that he allowed a frown to add sternness to his brow.
"Your Majesty puts it harshly," he said, "I merely petition for a stroke of the pen which will add half a thousand loyal men to the ranks of the Emperor's supporters."
Brunhilda pondered on this, then suddenly seemed to arrive at a decision. Calling one of the ministers of state to her side, she said, peremptorily:
"Prepare a pardon for the Outlaws of the Hundsrueck. Send the document at once to the Emperor for signature, and then bring it to me in the Red Room."
The minister replied with some hesitation:
"I should have each man's name to inscribe on the roll, otherwise every scoundrel in the Empire will claim protection under the edict."
"I can give you every man's name," put in Wilhelm, eagerly.
"It is not necessary," said the Empress.
"Your Majesty perhaps forgets," persisted the minister, "that pardon has already been proffered by the Emperor under certain conditions that commended themselves to his imperial wisdom, and that the clemency so graciously tendered was contemptuously refused."
At this veiled opposition all the suspicion in Brunhilda's nature turned from Wilhelm to the high official, and she spoke to him in the tones of one accustomed to prompt obedience.
"Prepare an unconditional pardon, and send it immediately to the Emperor without further comment, either to him or to me."
The minister bowed low and retired. The Empress dismissed the court, detaining Elsa, and said to Wilhelm:
"Seek us half an hour later in the Red Room. Your wife I shall take with me, that I may learn from her own lips the adventures which led to your recognition as the heir of Schonburg, something of which I have already heard. And as for your outlaws, send them word if you think they are impatient to lead virtuous lives, which I take leave to doubt, that before another day passes they need fear no penalty for past misdeed, providing their future conduct escapes censure."
"They are one and all eager to retrieve themselves in your Majesty's eyes!"
"Promise not too much, my young Lord, for they may be called upon to perform sooner than they expect," said Brunhilda, with a significant glance at Wilhelm.
The young man left the imperial presence, overjoyed to know that his mission had been successful.
THE PERIL OF THE EMPEROR
Wilhelm awaited with impatience the passing of the half hour the Empress had fixed as the period of his probation, for he was anxious to have the signed pardon for the outlaws actually in his hand, fearing the intrigues of the court might at the last moment bring about its withdrawal.
When the time had elapsed he presented himself at the door of the Red Room and was admitted by the guard. He found the Empress alone, and she advanced toward him with a smile on her face, which banished the former hardness of expression.
"Forgive me," she said, "my seeming discourtesy in the Great Hall. I am surrounded by spies, and doubtless Mayence already knows that your outlaws have been pardoned, but that will merely make him more easy about the safety of his cathedral town, especially as he holds Baron von Weithoff their former leader. I was anxious that it should also be reported to him that I had received you somewhat ungraciously. Your wife is to take up her abode in the palace, as she refuses to leave Frankfort if you remain here. She tells me the outlaws are brave men."
"The bravest in the world, your Majesty."
"And that they will follow you unquestioningly."
"They would follow me to the gates of—" He paused, and added as if in afterthought—"to the gates of Heaven."
The lady smiled again.
"From what I have heard of them," she said, "I feared their route lay in another direction, but I have need of reckless men, and although I hand you their pardon freely, it is not without a hope that they will see fit to earn it."
"Strong bodies and loyal souls, we belong to your Majesty. Command and we will obey, while life is left us."
"Do you know the present situation of the Imperial Crown, my Lord?"
"I understand it is in jeopardy through the act of the Electors, who, it is thought, will depose the Emperor and elect a tool of their own. I am also aware that the Imperial troops have been disbanded, and that there will be four thousand armed and trained men belonging to the Electors within the walls of Frankfort before many days are past."
"Yes. What can five hundred do against four thousand?"
"We could capture the gates and prevent the entry of Treves and Cologne."
"I doubt that, for there are already two thousand troops obeying Mayence and the Count Palatine now in Frankfort. I fear we must meet strength by craft. The first step is to get your five hundred secretly into this city. The empty barracks stand against the city wall; if you quartered your score of Schonburg men there, they could easily assist your five hundred to scale the wall at night, and thus your force would be at hand concealed in the barracks without knowledge of the archbishops. Treves and his men will be here to-morrow, before it would be possible for you to capture the gates, even if such a design were practicable. I am anxious above all things to avoid bloodshed, and any plan you have to propose must be drafted with that end in view."
"I will ride to the place where my outlaws are encamped on the Rhine, having first quartered the Schonburg men in the barracks with instructions regarding our reception. If the tales which the spies tell the Archbishop of Mayence concerning my arrival and reception at court lead his lordship to distrust me, he will command the guards at the gate not to re-admit me. By to-morrow morning, or the morning after at latest, I expect to occupy the barracks with five hundred and twenty men, making arrangement meanwhile for the quiet provisioning of the place. When I have consulted Gottlieb, who is as crafty as Satan himself, I shall have a plan to lay before your Majesty."
Wilhelm took leave of the Empress, gave the necessary directions to the men he left behind him, and rode through the western gate unmolested and unquestioned. The outlaws hailed him that evening with acclamations that re-echoed from the hills which surrounded them, and their cheers redoubled when Wilhelm presented them with the parchment which made them once more free citizens of the Empire. That night they marched in, five companies, each containing a hundred men, and the cat's task of climbing the walls of Frankfort in the darkness before the dawn, merely gave a pleasant fillip to the long tramp. Daylight, found them sound asleep, sprawling on the floors of the huge barracks.
When Wilhelm explained the situation to Gottlieb the latter made light of the difficulty, as his master expected he would.
"'Tis the easiest thing in the world," he said.
"There are the Mayence men quartered in the Leinwandhaus. The men of Treves are here, let us say, and the men of Cologne there. Very well, we divide our company into four parties, as there is also the Count Palatine to reckon with. We tie ropes round the houses containing these sleeping men, set fire to the buildings all at the same time, and, pouf! burn the vermin where they lie. The hanging of the four Electors after, will be merely a job for a dozen of our men, and need not occupy longer than while one counts five score."
"Your plan has the merit of simplicity, Gottlieb, but it does not fall in with the scheme of the Empress, who is anxious that everything be accomplished legally and without bloodshed. But if we can burn them, we can capture them, imprisonment being probably more to the taste of the vermin, as you call them, than cremation, and equally satisfactory to us. Frankfort prison is empty, the Emperor having recently liberated all within it. The place will amply accommodate four thousand men. Treves has arrived to-day with much pomp, and Cologne will be here to- morrow. To-morrow night the Electors hold their first meeting in the election chamber of the Romer. While they are deliberating, do you think you and your five hundred could lay four thousand men by the heels and leave each bound and gagged in the city prison with good strong bolts shot in on them?"
"Look on it as already done, my Lord. It is a task that requires speed, stealth and silence, rather than strength. The main point is to see that no alarm is prematurely given, and that no fugitive from one company escape to give warning to the others. We fall upon sleeping men, and if some haste is used, all are tied and gagged before they are full awake."
"Very well. Make what preparations are necessary, as this venture may be wrecked through lack of a cord or a gag, so see that you have everything at hand, for we cannot afford to lose a single trick. The stake, if we fail, is our heads."
Wilhelm sought the Empress to let her know that he had got his men safely housed in Frankfort, and also to lay before her his plan for depositing the Electors' followers in prison.
Brunhilda listened to his enthusiastic recital in silence, then shook her head slowly.
"How can five hundred men hope to pinion four thousand?" she asked. "It needs but one to make an outcry from an upper window, and, such is the state of tension in Frankfort at the present moment that the whole city will be about your ears instantly, thus bringing forth with the rest the comrades of those you seek to imprison."
"My outlaws are tigers, your Majesty. The Electors' men will welcome prison, once the Hundsrueckers are let loose on them."
"Your outlaws may understand the ways of the forest, but not those of a city."
"Well, your Majesty, they have sacked Coblentz, if that is any recommendation for them."
The reply of the Empress seemed irrelevant.
"Have you ever seen the hall in which the Emperors are nominated—or deposed?" she asked.
"No, your Majesty."
"Then follow me."
The lady led him along a passage that seemed interminable, then down a narrow winding stair, through a vaulted tunnel, the dank air of which struck so cold and damp that the young man felt sure it was subterranean; lastly up a second winding stair, at the top of which, pushing aside some hanging tapestry, they stood within the noble chamber known as the Wahlzimmer. The red walls were concealed by hanging tapestry, the rich tunnel groining of the roof was dim in its lofty obscurity. A long table occupied the centre of the room, with three heavily-carved chairs on either side, and one, as ponderous as a throne, at the head.
"There," said the Empress, waving her hand, "sit the seven Electors when a monarch of this realm is to be chosen. There, to-morrow night will sit a majority of the Electoral College. In honour of this assemblage I have caused these embroidered webs to be hung round the walls, so you see, I, too, have a plan. Through this secret door which the Electors know nothing of, I propose to admit a hundred of your men to be concealed behind the tapestry. My plan differs from yours in that I determine to imprison four men, while you would attempt to capture four thousand; I consider therefore that my chances of success, compared with yours, are as a thousand to one. I strike at the head; you strike at the body. If I paralyse the head, the body is powerless."
Wilhelm knit his brows, looked around the room, but made no reply.
"Well," cried the Empress, impatiently, "I have criticised your plan; criticise mine if you find a flaw in it."
"Is it your Majesty's intention to have the men take their places behind the hangings before the archbishops assemble?"
"Then you will precipitate a conflict before all the Electors are here, for it is certain that the first prince to arrive will have the place thoroughly searched for spies. So momentous a meeting will never be held until all fear of eavesdroppers is allayed."
"That is true, Wilhelm," said the Empress with a sigh, "then there is nothing left but your project; which I fear will result in a melee and frightful slaughter."
"I propose, your Majesty, that we combine the two plans. We will imprison as many as may be of the archbishops' followers and then by means of the secret stairway surround their lordships."
"But they will, in the silence of the room, instantly detect the incoming of your men."
"Not so, if the panel which conceals the stair, work smoothly. My men are like cats, and their entrance and placement will not cause the most timid mouse to cease nibbling."
"The panel is silent enough, and it may be that your men will reach their places without betraying their presence to the archbishops, but it would be well to instruct your leaders that in case of discovery they are to rush forward, without waiting for your arrival or mine, hold the door of the Wahlzimmer at all hazards, and see that no Elector escapes. I am firm in my belief that once the persons of the archbishops are secured, this veiled rebellion ends, whether you imprison your four thousand or not, for I swear by my faith that if their followers raise a hand against me, I will have the archbishops slain before their eyes, even though I go down in disaster the moment after."
The stern determination of the Empress would have inspired a less devoted enthusiast than Wilhelm. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"There will be no disaster to the Empress," he said, fervently.
They retired into the palace by the way they came, carefully closing the concealed panel behind them.
As Wilhelm passed through the front gates of the Palace to seek Gottlieb at the barracks, he pondered over the situation and could not conceal from himself the fact that the task he had undertaken was almost impossible of accomplishment. It was an unheard of thing that five hundred men should overcome eight times their number and that without raising a disturbance in so closely packed a city as Frankfort, where, as the Empress had said, the state of tension was already extreme. But although he found that the pessimism of the Empress regarding his project was affecting his own belief in it, he set his teeth resolutely and swore that if it failed it would not be through lack of taking any precaution that occurred to him.
At the barracks he found Gottlieb in high feather. The sight of his cheerful, confident face revived the drooping spirits of the young man.
"Well, master," he cried, the freedom of outlawry still in the abruptness of his speech, "I have returned from a close inspection of the city."
"A dangerous excursion" said Wilhelm. "I trust no one else left the barracks."
"Not another man, much as they dislike being housed, but it was necessary some one should know where our enemies are placed. The Archbishop of Treves, with an assurance that might have been expected of him, has stalled his men in the cathedral, no less, but a most excellent place for our purposes. A guard at each door, and there you are.
"Ah, he has selected the cathedral not because of his assurance, but to intercept any communication with the Emperor, who is in the cloisters attached to it, and doubtless his lordship purposes to crown the new emperor before daybreak at the high altar. The design of the archbishop is deeper than appears on the surface, Gottlieb. His men in the cathedral gives him possession of the Wahlkapelle where emperors are elected, after having been nominated in the Wahlzimmer. His lordship has a taste for doing things legally. Where are the men of Cologne?"
"In a church also; the church of St. Leonhard on the banks of the Main. That is as easily surrounded and is as conveniently situated as if I had selected it myself. The Count Palatine's men are in a house near the northern gate, a house which has no back exit, and therefore calls but for the closing of a street. Nothing could be better."
"But the Drapers' Hall which holds the Mayence troops, almost adjoins the cathedral. Is there not a danger in this circumstance that a turmoil in the one may be heard in the other?"
"No, because we have most able allies."
"What? the townsmen? You have surely taken none into your confidence, Gottlieb?"
"Oh, no, my Lord. Our good copartners are none other than the archbishops themselves. It is evident they expect trouble to-morrow, but none to-night. Orders have been given that all their followers are to get a good night's rest, each man to be housed and asleep by sunset. The men of both Treves and Cologne are tired with their long and hurried march and will sleep like the dead. We will first attack the men of Mayence surrounding the Leinwandhaus, and I warrant you that no matter what noise there is, the Treves people will not hear. Then being on the spot, we will, when the Mayence soldiers are well bound, tie up those in the cathedral. I purpose if your lordship agrees to leave our bound captives where they are, guarded by a sufficient number of outlaws, in case one attempts to help the other, until we have pinioned those of Cologne and the Count Palatine. When this is off our minds we can transport all our prisoners to the fortress at our leisure."
Thus it was arranged, and when night fell on the meeting of the Electors, so well did Gottlieb and his men apply themselves to the task that before an hour had passed the minions of the Electors lay packed in heaps in the aisles and the rooms where they lodged, to be transported to the prison at the convenience of their captors.
Many conditions favoured the success of the seemingly impossible feat. Since the arrival of the soldiery there had been so many night brawls in the streets that one more or less attracted little attention, either from the military or from the civilians. The very boldness and magnitude of the scheme was an assistance to it. Then the stern cry of "In the name of the Emperor!" with which the assaulters once inside cathedral, church or house, fell upon their victims, deadened opposition, for the common soldiers, whether enlisted by Treves, Cologne, or Mayence, knew that the Emperor was over all, and they had no inkling of the designs of their immediate masters. Then, as Gottlieb had surmised, the extreme fatigue of the followers of Treves and Cologne, after their toilsome march from their respective cities, so overcame them that many went to sleep when being conveyed from church and cathedral to prison. There was some resistance on the part of officers, speedily quelled by the victorious woodlanders, but aside from this there were few heads broken, and the wish of the Empress for a bloodless conquest was amply fulfilled.
Two hours after darkness set in, Gottlieb, somewhat breathless, saluted his master at the steps of the palace and announced that the followers of the archbishops and the Count Palatine were behind bars in the Frankfort prison, with a strong guard over them to discourage any attempt at jailbreaking. When Wilhelm led his victorious soldiery silently up the narrow secret stair, pushed back, with much circumspection and caution, the sliding panel, listened for a moment to the low murmur of their lordships' voices, waited until each of his men had gone stealthily behind the tapestry, listened again and still heard the drone of speech, he returned as he came, and accompanied by a guard of two score, escorted the Empress to the broad public stairway that led up one flight to the door of the Wahlzimmer. The two sentinels at the foot of the stairs crossed their pikes to bar the entrance of Brunhilda, but they were overpowered and gagged so quickly and silently that their two comrades at the top had no suspicion of what was going forward until they had met a similar fate. The guards at the closed door, more alert, ran forward, only to be carried away with their fellow-sentinels. Wilhelm, his sword drawn, pushed open the door and cried, in a loud voice:
"My Lords, I am commanded to announce to you that her Majesty the Empress honours you with her presence."
It would have been difficult at that moment to find four men in all Germany more astonished than were the Electors. They saw the young man who held open the door, bow low, then the stately lady so sonorously announced come slowly up the hall and stand silently before them. Wilhelm closed the door and set his back against it, his naked sword still in his right hand. Three of the Electors were about to rise to their feet, but a motion of the hand by the old man of Treves, who sat the head of the table, checked them.
"I have come," said the Empress in a low voice, but distinctly heard in the stillness of the room, "to learn why you are gathered here in Frankfort and in the Wahlzimmer, where no meeting has taken place for three hundred years, except on the death of an emperor."
"Madame," said the Elector of Treves, leaning back in his chair and placing the tips of his fingers together before him, "all present have the right to assemble in this hall unquestioned, with the exception of yourself and the young man who erroneously styled you Empress, with such unnecessary flourish, as you entered. You are the wife of our present Emperor, but under the Salic law no woman can occupy the German throne. If flatterers have misled you by bestowing a title to which you have no claim, and if the awe inspired by that spurious appellation has won your admission past ignorant guards who should have prevented your approach, I ask that you will now withdraw, and permit us to resume deliberations that should not have been interrupted."
"What is the nature of those deliberations, my Lord?"
"The question is one improper for you to ask. To answer it would be to surrender our rights as Electors of the Empire. It is enough for you to be assured, madame, that we are lawfully assembled, and that our purposes are strictly legal."
"You rest strongly on the law, my Lord, so strongly indeed that were I a suspicious person I might surmise that your acts deserved strict scrutiny. I will appeal to you, then, in the name of the law. Is it the law of this realm that he who directly or indirectly conspires against the peace and comfort of his emperor is adjudged a traitor, his act being punishable by death?"
"The law stands substantially as you have cited it, madame, but its bearing upon your presence in this room is, I confess, hidden from me."
"I shall endeavour to enlighten you, my Lord. Are you convened here to further the peace and comfort of his Majesty the Emperor?"
"We devoutly trust so, madame. His Majesty is so eminently fitted for a cloister, rather than for domestic bliss or the cares of state, that we hope to pleasure him by removing all barriers in his way to a monastery."
"Then until his Majesty is deposed you are, by your own confession, traitors."
"Pardon me, madame, but the law regarding traitors which you quoted with quite womanly inaccuracy, and therefore pardonable, does not apply to eight persons within this Empire, namely, the seven Electors and the Emperor himself."
"I have been unable to detect the omission you state, my Lord. There are no exceptions, as I read the law."
"The exceptions are implied, madame, if not expressly set down, for it would be absurd to clothe Electors with a power in the exercise of which they would constitute themselves traitors. But this discussion is as painful as it is futile, and therefore it must cease. In the name of the Electoral College here in session assembled, I ask you to withdraw, madame."
"Before obeying your command, my Lord Archbishop, there is another point which I wish to submit to your honourable body, so learned in the law. I see three vacant chairs before me, and I am advised that it is illegal to depose an emperor unless all the members of the college are present and unanimous."
"Again you have been misinformed. A majority of the college elects; a majority can depose, and in retiring to private life, madame, you have the consolation of knowing that your intervention prolonged your husband's term of office by several minutes. For the third time I request you to leave this room, and if you again refuse I shall be reluctantly compelled to place you under arrest. Young man, open the door and allow this woman to pass through."
"I would have you know, my Lord," said Wilhelm, "that I am appointed commander of the imperial forces, and that I obey none but his Majesty the Emperor."
"I understood that the Emperor depended upon the Heavenly Hosts," said the Archbishop, with the suspicion of a smile on his grim lips.
"It does not become a prince of the Church to sneer at Heaven or its power," said the Empress, severely.
"Nothing was further from my intention, madame, but you must excuse me if I did not expect to see the Heavenly Hosts commanded by a young man so palpably German. Still all this is aside from the point. Will you retire, or must I reluctantly use force?"
"I advise your lordship not to appeal to force."
The old man of Treves rose slowly to his feet, an ominous glitter in his eyes. He stood for some minutes regarding angrily the woman before him, as if to give her time to reconsider her stubborn resolve to hold her ground. Then raising his voice the Elector cried:
"Men of Treves! enter!"
While one might count ten, dense silence followed this outcry, the seated Electors for the first time glancing at their leader with looks of apprehension.
"Treves! Treves! Treves!"
That potent name reverberated from the lips of its master, who had never known its magic to fail in calling round him stout defenders, and who could not yet believe that its power should desert him at this juncture. Again there was no response.
"As did the prophet of old, ye call on false gods."
The low vibrant voice of the Empress swelled like the tones of a rich organ as the firm command she had held over herself seemed about to depart.
"Lord Wilhelm, give them a name, that carries authority in its sound."
Wilhelm strode forward from the door, raised his glittering sword high above his head and shouted:
"THE EMPEROR! Cheer, ye woodland wolves!"
With a downward sweep of his sword, he cut the two silken cords which, tied to a ring near the door, held up the tapestry. The hangings fell instantly like the drop curtain of a theatre, its rustle overwhelmed in the vociferous yell that rang to the echoing roof.
"Forward! Close up your ranks!"
With simultaneous movement the men stepped over the folds on the floor and stood shoulder to shoulder, an endless oval line of living warriors, surrounding the startled group in the centre of the great hall.
Four men, with ropes wound round their bodies, detached themselves from the circle, and darting to the four corners of the room, climbed like squirrels until they reached the tunnelled roofing, where, making their way to the centre with a dexterity that was marvellous, they threw their ropes over the timbers and came spinning down to the floor, like gigantic spiders, each suspended on his own line. The four men, looped nooses in hand, took up positions behind the four Electors, all of whom were now on their feet. Wilhelm saluted the Empress, bringing the hilt of his sword to his forehead, and stepped back.
The lady spoke:
"My Lords, learned in the law, you will perhaps claim with truth that there is no precedent for hanging an Electoral College, but neither is there precedent for deposing an Emperor. It is an interesting legal point on which we shall have definite opinion pronounced in the inquiry which will follow the death of men so distinguished as yourselves, and if it should be held that I have exceeded my righteous authority in thus pronouncing sentence upon you as traitors, I shall be nothing loath to make ample apology to the state."
"Such reparation will be small consolation to us, your Majesty," said the Archbishop of Cologne, speaking for the first time. "My preference is for an ante-mortem rather than a post-mortem adjustment of the law. My colleague of Treves, in the interests of a better understanding, I ask you to destroy the document of deposition, which you hold in your hand, and which I beg to assure her Majesty, is still unsigned."
The trembling fingers of the Archbishop of Treves proved powerless to tear the tough parchment, so he held it for a moment until it was consumed in the flame of a taper which stood on the table.
"And now, your Majesty, speaking entirely for myself, I give you my word as a prince of the Church and a gentlemen of the Empire, that my vote as an Elector will always be against the deposition of the Emperor, for I am convinced that imperial power is held in firm and capable hands."
The great prelate of Cologne spoke as one making graceful concession to a lady, entirely uninfluenced by the situation in which he so unexpectedly found himself. A smile lit up the face of the Empress as she returned his deferential bow.
"I accept your word with pleasure, my Lord, fully assured that, once given, it will never be tarnished by any mental reservation."
"I most cordially associate myself with my brother of Cologne and take the same pledge," spoke up his Lordship of Mayence.
The Count Palatine of the Rhine moistened his dry lips and said:
"I was misled by ambition, your Majesty, and thus in addition to giving you my word, I crave your imperial pardon as well."
The Archbishop of Treves sat in his chair like a man collapsed. He had made no movement since the burning of the parchment. All eyes were turned upon him in the painful stillness. With visible effort he enunciated in deep voice the two words: "And I."
The face of the Empress took on a radiance that had long been absent from it.
"It seems, my Lords, that there has been merely a slight misunderstanding, which a few quiet words and some legal instruction has entirely dissipated. To seal our compact, I ask you all to dine with me to-morrow night, when I am sure it will afford intense gratification to prelates so pious as yourselves to send a message to his Majesty the Emperor, informing him that his trust in Providence has not been misplaced."
THE NEEDLE DAGGER
Wilhelm Von Schonburg, Commander of the Imperial Forces at Frankfort, applied himself to the task of building up an army round his nucleus of five hundred with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth. He first put parties of trusty men at the various city gates so that he might control, at least in a measure, the human intake and output of the city. The power which possession of the gates gave him he knew to be more apparent than real, for Frankfort was a commercial city, owing its prosperity to traffic, and any material interference with the ebb or flow of travel had a depressing influence on trade. If the Archbishops meant to keep their words given to the Empress, all would be well, but of their good faith Wilhelm had the gravest doubts. It would be impossible to keep secret the defeat of their Lordships, when several thousands of their men lay immured in the city prison. The whole world would thus learn sooner or later that the great Princes of the Church had come to shear and had departed shorn; and this blow to their pride was one not easily forgiven by men so haughty and so powerful as the prelates of Treves, Mayence and Cologne. Young as he was, Wilhelm's free life in the forest, among those little accustomed to control the raw passions of humanity, had made him somewhat a judge of character, and he had formed the belief that the Archbishop of Cologne, was a gentleman, and would keep his word, that the Archbishop of Treves would have no scruple in breaking his, while the Archbishop of Mayence would follow the lead of Treves. This suspicion he imparted to the Empress Brunhilda, but she did not agree with him, believing that all three, with the Count Palatine, would hereafter save their heads by attending strictly to their ecclesiastical business, leaving the rule of the Empire in the hands which now held it.
"Cologne will not break the pledge he has given me," she said; "of that I am sure. Mayence is too great an opportunist to follow an unsuccessful leader; and the Count Palatine is too great a coward to enter upon such a dangerous business as the deposing of an emperor who is my husband. Besides, I have given the Count Palatine a post at Court which requires his constant presence in Frankfort, and so I have him in some measure a prisoner. The Electors are powerless if even one of their number is a defaulter, so what can Treves do, no matter how deeply his pride is injured, or how bitterly he thirsts for revenge? His only resource is boldly to raise the flag of rebellion and march his troops on Frankfort. He is too crafty a man to take such risk or to do anything so open. For this purpose he must set about the collection of an army secretly, while we may augment the Imperial troops in the light of day. So, unless he strikes speedily, we will have a force that will forever keep him in awe."
This seemed a reasonable view, but it only partly allayed the apprehensions of Wilhelm. He had caught more than one fierce look of hatred directed toward him by the Archbishop of Treves, since the meeting in the Wahlzimmer, and the regard of his Lordship of Mayence had been anything but benign. These two dignitaries had left Frankfort together, their way lying for some distance in the same direction. Wilhelm liberated their officers, and thus the two potentates had scant escort to their respective cities. Their men he refused to release, which refusal both Treves and Mayence accepted with bad grace, saying the withholding cast an aspersion on their honour. This example was not followed by the suave Archbishop of Cologne, who departed some days after his colleagues. He laughed when Wilhelm informed him that his troops would remain in Frankfort, and said he would be at the less expense in his journey down the Rhine, as his men were gross feeders.
Being thus quit of the three Archbishops, the question was what to do with their three thousand men. It was finally resolved to release them by detachments, drafting into the Imperial army such as were willing so to serve and take a special oath of allegiance to the Emperor, allowing those who declined to enlist to depart from the city in whatever direction pleased them, so that they went away in small parties. It was found, however, that the men cared little for whom they fought, providing the pay was good and reasonably well assured. Thus the Imperial army received many recruits and the country round Frankfort few vagrants.
The departed Archbishops made no sign, the Count Palatine seemed engrossed with his duties about the Court, the army increased daily and life went on so smoothly that Wilhelm began to cease all questioning of the future, coming at last to believe that the Empress was right in her estimate of the situation. He was in this pleasing state of mind when an incident occurred which would have caused him greater anxiety than it did had he been better acquainted with the governing forces of his country. On arising one morning he found on the table of his room a parchment, held in place by a long thin dagger of peculiar construction. His first attention was given to the weapon and not to the scroll. The blade was extremely thin and sharp at the point, and seemed at first sight to be so exceedingly frail as to be of little service in actual combat, but a closer examination proved that it was practically unbreakable, and of a temper so fine that nothing made an impression on its keen edge. Held at certain angles, the thin blade seemed to disappear altogether and leave the empty hilt in the hand. The hilt had been treated as if it were a crucifix, and in slightly raised relief there was a figure of Christ, His outstretched arms extending along the transverse guard. On the opposite side of the handle were the sunken letters "S. S. G. G."
Wilhelm fingered this dainty piece of mechanism curiously, wondering where it was made. He guessed Milan as the place of its origin, knowing enough of cutlery to admire the skill and knowledge of metallurgy that had gone to its construction, and convinced as he laid it down that it was foreign. He was well aware that no smith in Germany could fashion a lancet so exquisitely tempered. He then turned his attention to the document which had been fastened to the table by this needle-like stiletto. At the top of the parchment were the same letters that had been cut in the handle of the dagger.
S. S. G. G.
First warning. Wear this dagger thrust into your doublet over the heart, and allow him who accosts you, fearing nothing if your heart be true and loyal. In strict silence safety lies.
"It is some lover's nonsense of Elsa's," he said to himself. "'If your heart be true and loyal,' that is a woman's phrase and nothing else."
Calling his wife, he held out the weapon to her and said:
"Where did you get this, Elsa? I would be glad to know who your armourer is, for I should dearly love to provide my men with weapons of such temper."
Elsa looked alternately at the dagger and at her husband, bewildered.
"I never saw it before, nor anything like it," she replied. "Where did you find it? It is so frail it must be for ornament merely."
"Its frailness is deceptive. It is a most wonderful instrument, and I should like to know where it comes from. I thought you had bought it from some armourer and intended me to wear it as a badge of my office. Perhaps it was sent by the Empress. The word 'loyalty' seems to indicate that, though how it got into this room and on this table unknown to me is a mystery."
Elsa shook her head as she studied the weapon and the message critically.
"Her Majesty is more direct than this would indicate. If she had aught to say to you she would say it without ambiguity. Do you intend to wear the dagger as the scroll commands?"
"If I thought it came from the Empress I should, not otherwise."
"You may be assured some one else has sent it. Perhaps it is intended for me," and saying this Elsa thrust the blade of the dagger through the thick coil of her hair and turned coquettishly so that her husband might judge of the effect.
"Are you ambitious to set a new fashion to the Court, Elsa?" asked Wilhelm, smiling.
"No; I shall not wear it in public, but I will keep the dagger if I may."
Thus the incident passed, and Wilhelm gave no more thought to the mysterious warning. His duties left him little time for meditation during the day, but as he returned at night from the barracks his mind reverted once more to the dagger, and he wondered how it came without his knowledge into his private room. His latent suspicion of the Archbishops became aroused again, and he pondered on the possibility of an emissary of theirs placing the document on his table. He had given strict instructions that if any one supposed to be an agent of their lordships presented himself at the gates he was to be permitted to enter the city without hindrance, but instant knowledge of such advent was to be sent to the Commander, which reminded him that he had not seen Gottlieb that day, this able lieutenant having general charge of all the ports. So he resolved to return to the barracks and question his underling regarding the recent admittances. Acting instantly on this determination, he turned quickly and saw before him a man whom he thought he recognised by his outline in the darkness as von Brent, one of the officers of Treves whom he had released, and who had accompanied the Archbishop on his return to that city. The figure, however, gave him no time for a closer inspection, and, although evidently taken by surprise, reversed his direction, making off with speed down the street. Wilhelm, plucking sword from scabbard, pursued no less fleetly. The scanty lighting of the city thoroughfares gave advantage to the fugitive, but Wilhelm's knowledge of the town was now astonishingly intimate, considering the short time he had been a resident, and his woodlore, applied to the maze of tortuous narrow alleys made him a hunter not easily baffled. He saw the flutter of a cloak as its wearer turned down a narrow lane, and a rapid mental picture of the labyrinth illuminating his mind, Wilhelm took a dozen long strides to a corner and there stood waiting. A few moments later a panting man with cloak streaming behind him came near to transfixing himself on the point of the Commander's sword. The runner pulled himself up with a gasp and stood breathless and speechless.
"I tender you good-evening, sir," said Wilhelm, civilly, "and were I not sure of your friendliness, I should take it that you were trying to avoid giving me salutation."
"I did not recognise you, my Lord, in the darkness."
The man breathed heavily, which might have been accounted for by his unaccustomed exertion.
"'Tis strange, then, that I should have recognised you, turning unexpectedly as I did, while you seemingly had me in your eye for some time before."
"Indeed, my Lord, and that I had not. I but just emerged from this crooked lane, and seeing you turn so suddenly, feared molestation, and so took to my heels, which a warrior should be shamed to confess, but I had no wish to be embroiled in a street brawl."
"Your caution does you credit, and should commend you to so peacefully- minded a master as his Lordship of Treves, who, I sincerely trust, arrived safely in his ancient city."
"He did, my Lord."
"I am deeply gratified to hear it, and putting my knowledge of his lordship's methods in conjunction with your evident desire for secrecy, I should be loath to inquire into the nature of the mission that brings you to the capital so soon after your departure from it."
"Well, my Lord," said von Brent, with an attempt at a laugh, "I must admit that it was my purpose to visit Frankfort with as little publicity as possible. You are mistaken, however, in surmising that I am entrusted with any commands from my lord, the Archbishop, who, at this moment, is devoting himself with energy to his ecclesiastical duties and therefore has small need for a soldier. This being the case, I sought and obtained leave of absence, and came to Frankfort on private affairs of my own. To speak truth, as between one young man and another, not to be further gossiped about, while, stationed here some days ago, I became acquainted with a girl whom I dearly wish to meet again, and this traffic, as you know, yearns not for either bray of trumpet or rattle of drum."
"The gentle power of love," said Wilhelm in his most affable tone, "is a force few of us can resist. Indeed, I am myself not unacquainted with its strength, and I must further congratulate you on your celerity of conquest, for you came to Frankfort in the morning, and were my guest in the fortress in the evening, so you certainly made good use of the brief interval. By what gate did you enter Frankfort?"
"By the western gate, my Lord."
"No, my Lord. I entered but a short time since, just before the gates were closed for the night."
"Ah! that accounts for my hearing no report of your arrival, for it is my wish, when distinguished visitors honour us with their presence, that I may be able to offer them every courtesy."
Von Brent laughed, this time with a more genuine ring to his mirth.
"Seeing that your previous hospitality included lodging in the city prison, my Lord, as you, a moment ago, reminded me, you can scarcely be surprised that I had no desire to invite a repetition of such courtesy, if you will pardon the frank speaking of a soldier."
"Most assuredly. And to meet frankness with its like, I may add that the city prison still stands intact. But I must no longer delay an impatient lover, and so, as I began, I give you a very good evening, sir."
Von Brent returned the salutation, bowing low, and Wilhelm watched him retrace his steps and disappear in the darkness. The Commander, returning his blade to its scabbard, sought Gottlieb at the barracks.
"Do you remember von Brent, of Treves' staff?"
"That hangdog-looking officer? Yes, master. I had the pleasure of knocking him down in the Cathedral before pinioning him."
"He is in Frankfort to-night, and said he entered by the western gate just before it was closed."
"Then he is a liar," commented Gottlieb, with his usual bluntness.
"Such I strongly suspect him to be. Nevertheless, here he is, and the question I wish answered is, how did he get in?"
"He must have come over the wall, which can hardly be prevented if an incomer has a friend who will throw him a rope."
"It may be prevented if the walls are efficiently patrolled. See instantly to that, Gottlieb, and set none but our own woodlanders on watch."
Several days passed, and Wilhelm kept a sharp lookout for von Brent, or any other of the Archbishop's men, but he saw none such, nor could he learn that the lieutenant had left the city. He came almost to believe that the officer had spoken the truth, when distrust again assailed him on finding in the barracks a second document almost identical with the first, except that it contained the words, "Second warning," and the dirk had been driven half its length into the lid of the desk. At first he thought it was the same parchment and dagger, but the different wording showed him that at least the former was not the same. He called Gottlieb, and demanded to know who had been allowed to pass the guards and enter that room. The honest warrior was dismayed to find such a thing could have happened, and although he was unable to read the lettering, he turned the missive over and over in his hand as if he expected close scrutiny to unravel the skein. He then departed and questioned the guards closely, but was assured that no one had entered except the Commander.
"I cannot fathom it," he said on returning to his master, "and, to tell truth, I wish we were well back in the forest again, for I like not this mysterious city and its ways. We have kept this town as close sealed as a wine butt, yet I dare swear that I have caught glimpses of the Archbishop's men, flitting here and there like bats as soon as darkness gathers. I have tried to catch one or two of them to make sure, but I seem to have lost all speed of foot on these slippery stones, and those I follow disappear as if the earth swallowed them."
"Have you seen von Brent since I spoke to you about him?"
"I thought so, Master Wilhelm, but I am like a man dazed in the mazes of an evil dream, who can be certain of nothing. I am afraid of no man who will stand boldly up to me, sword in hand, with a fair light on both of us, but this chasing of shadows with nothing for a pike to pierce makes a coward of me."
"Well, the next shadow that follows me will get my blade in its vitals, for I think my foot is lighter than yours, Gottlieb. There is no shadow in this town that is not cast by a substance, and that substance will feel a sword thrust if one can but get within striking distance. Keep strict watch and we will make a discovery before long, never fear. Do you think the men we have enlisted from the Archbishop's company are trying to play tricks with us? Are they to be trusted?"
"Oh, they are stout rascals with not enough brains among them all to plan this dagger and parchment business, giving little thought to anything beyond eating and drinking, and having no skill of lettering."
"Then we must look elsewhere for the explanation. It may be that your elusive shadows will furnish a clue."
On reaching his own house Wilhelm said carelessly to his wife, whom he did not wish to alarm unnecessarily:
"Have you still in your possession that dagger which I found on my table?"
"Yes, it is here. Have you found an owner for it or learned how it came there?"
"No. I merely wished to look at it again."
She gave it to him, and he saw at once that it was a duplicate of the one he had hidden under his doublet. The mystery was as far from solution as ever, and the closest examination of the weapon gave no hint pertaining to the purport of the message. Yet it is probable that Wilhelm was the only noble in the German Empire who was ignorant of the significance of the four letters, and doubtless the senders were amazed at his temerity in nonchalantly ignoring the repeated warnings, which would have brought pallor to the cheeks of the highest in the land. Wilhelm had been always so dependent on the advice of Gottlieb that it never occurred to him to seek explanation from any one else, yet in this instance Gottlieb, from the same cause of woodland training, was as ignorant as his master.
It is possible that the two warnings might have made a greater impression on the mind of the young man were it not that he was troubled about his own status in the Empire. There had been much envy in the Court at the elevation of a young man practically unknown, to the position of commander-in-chief of the German army, and high officials had gone so far as to protest against what they said was regarded as a piece of unaccountable favouritism. The Empress, however, was firm, and for a time comment seemed to cease, but it was well known that Wilhelm had no real standing, unless his appointment was confirmed by the Emperor, and his commission made legal by the royal signature. It became known, or, at least, was rumoured that twice the Empress had sent this document to her husband and twice it had been returned unsigned. The Emperor went so far as to refuse to see his wife, declining to have any discussion about the matter, and Wilhelm well knew that every step he took in the fulfilment of his office was an illegal step, and if a hint of this got to the ears of the Archbishops they would be more than justified in calling him to account, for every act he performed relating to the army after he knew that his monarch had refused to sanction his nomination was an act of rebellion and usurpation punishable by death. The Empress was well aware of the jeopardy in which her attache stood, but she implored him not to give up the position, although helpless to make his appointment regular. She hoped her husband's religious fervour would abate and that he would deign to bestow some attention upon earthly things, allowing himself to be persuaded of the necessity of keeping up a standing army, commanded by one entirely faithful to him. Wilhelm himself often doubted the wisdom of his interference, which had allowed the throne to be held by a man who so neglected all its duties that intrigues and unrest were honeycombing the whole fabric of society, beginning at the top and working its way down until now even the merchants were in a state of uncertainty, losing faith in the stability of the government. The determined attitude of Wilhelm, the general knowledge that he came from a family of fighters, and the wholesome fear of the wild outlaws, under his command, did more than anything else to keep down open rebellion in Court and to make the position of the Empress possible. It was believed that Wilhelm would have little hesitation in obliterating half the nobility of the Court, or the whole of it for that matter, if but reasonable excuse were given him for doing so, and every one was certain that his cut-throats, as they were called, would obey any command he liked to give, and would delight in whatever slaughter ensued. The Commander held aloof from the Court, although, because of his position, he had a room in the palace which no one but the monarch and the chief officer of the army might enter, yet he rarely occupied this apartment, using, instead, the suite at the barracks.
Some days after the second episode of the dagger he received a summons from the Empress commanding his instant presence at the palace. On arriving at the Court, he found Brunhilda attended by a group of nobles, who fell back as the young commander approached. The Empress smiled as he bent his knee and kissed her hand, but Wilhelm saw by the anxiety in her eye that something untoward had happened, guessing that his commission was returned for the third time unsigned from the Emperor, and being correct in his surmise.
"Await me in the Administration Room of the Army," said the Empress. "I will see you presently. You have somewhat neglected that room of late, my Lord."
"I found I could more adequately fulfil your Majesty's command and keep in closer touch with the army by occupying my apartments at the barracks."
"I trust, then, that you will have a good report to present to me regarding the progress of my soldiers," replied the Empress, dismissing him with a slight inclination of her head.
Wilhelm left the audience chamber and proceeded along the corridor with which his room was connected. The soldier at the entrance saluted him, and Wilhelm entered the Administration Chamber. It was a large room and in the centre of it stood a large table. After closing the door Wilhelm paused in his advance, for there in the centre of the table, buried to its very hilt through the planks, was a duplicate of the dagger he had concealed inside his doublet. It required some exertion of Wilhelm's great strength before he dislodged the weapon from the timber into which it had been so fiercely driven. The scroll it affixed differed from each of the other two. It began with the words, "Final warning," and ended with "To Wilhelm of Schonburg, so-called Commander of the Imperial forces," as if from a desire on the part of the writer that there should be no mistake regarding the destination of the missive. The young man placed the knife on the parchment and stood looking at them both until the Empress was announced. He strode forward to meet her and conducted her to a chair, where she seated herself, he remaining on his feet.
"I am in deep trouble," she began, "the commission authorising you to command the Imperial troops has been returned for the third time unsigned; not only that, but the act authorising the reconstruction of the army, comes back also without the Emperor's signature."
Wilhelm remained silent, for he well knew that the weakness of their position was the conduct of the Emperor, and this was an evil which he did not know how to remedy.
"When he returned both documents the first time," continued the Empress, "I sent to him a request for an interview that I might explain the urgency and necessity of the matter. This request was refused, and although I know of course that my husband might perhaps be called eccentric, still he had never before forbade my presence. This aroused my suspicion."
"Suspicion of what, your Majesty?" inquired Wilhelm.
"My suspicion that the messages I sent him have been intercepted."
"Who would dare do such a thing, your Majesty?" cried Wilhelm in amazement.
"Where large stakes are played for, large risks must be taken," went on the lady. "I said nothing at the time, but yesterday I sent to him two acts which he himself had previously sanctioned, but never carried out; these were returned to me to-day unsigned, and now I fear one of three things. The Emperor is ill, is a prisoner, or is dead."
"If it is your Majesty's wish," said Wilhelm, "I will put myself at the head of a body of men, surround the cathedral, search the cloisters, and speedily ascertain whether the Emperor is there or no."
"I have thought of such action," declared the Empress, "but I dislike to take it. It would bring me in conflict with the Church, and then there is always the chance that the Emperor is indeed within the cloisters, and that, of his own free will, he refuses to sign the documents I have sent to him. In such case what excuse could we give for our interference? It might precipitate the very crisis we are so anxious to avoid."
The Empress had been sitting by the table with her arm resting upon it, her fingers toying unconsciously with the knife while she spoke, and now as her remarks reached their conclusion her eyes fell upon its hilt and slender blade. With an exclamation almost resembling a scream the Empress sprang to her feet and allowed the dagger to fall clattering on the floor.
"Where did that come from?" she cried. "Is it intended for me?" and she shook her trembling hands as if they had touched a poisonous scorpion.
"Where it comes from I do not know, but it is not intended for your Majesty, as this scroll will inform you."
Brunhilda took the parchment he offered and held it at arm's length from her, reading its few words with dilated eyes, and Wilhelm was amazed to see in them the fear which they failed to show when she faced the three powerful Archbishops. Finally the scroll fluttered from her nerveless fingers to the floor and the Empress sank back in her chair.
"You have received two other warnings then?" she said in a low voice.
"Yes, your Majesty. What is their meaning?"
"They are the death warrants of the Fehmgerichte, a dread and secret tribunal before which even emperors quail. If you obey this mandate you will never be seen on earth again; if you disobey you will be secretly assassinated by one of these daggers, for after ignoring the third warning a hundred thousand such blades are lying in wait for your heart, and ultimately one of them will reach it, no matter in what quarter of Germany you hide yourself."
"And who are the members of this mysterious association, your Majesty?
"That, you can tell as well as I, better perhaps, for you may be a member while I cannot be. Perhaps the soldier outside this door belongs to the Fehmgerichte, or your own Chamberlain, or perhaps your most devoted lieutenant, the lusty Gottlieb."
"That, your Majesty, I'll swear he is not, for he was as amazed as I when he saw the dagger at the barracks."
Brunhilda shook her head.
"You cannot judge from pretended ignorance," she said, "because a member is sworn to keep all secrets of the holy Fehm from wife and child, father and mother, sister and brother, fire and wind; from all that the sun shines on and the rain wets, and from every being between heaven and earth. Those are the words of the oath."
Wilhelm found himself wondering how his informant knew so much about the secret court if all those rules were strictly kept, but he naturally shrank from any inquiry regarding the source of her knowledge. Nevertheless her next reply gave him an inkling of the truth.
"Who is the head of this tribunal?" he asked.
"The Emperor is the nominal head, but my husband never approved of the Fehmgerichte; originally organised to redress the wrongs of tyranny, it has become a gigantic instrument of oppression. The Archbishop of Cologne is the actual president of the order, not in his capacity as an elector, nor as archbishop, but because he is Duke of Westphalia, where this tragic court had its origin."
"Your Majesty imagines then, that this summons comes from the Archbishop of Cologne?"
"Oh, no. I doubt if he has any knowledge of it. Each district has a freigraf, or presiding judge, assisted by seven assessors, or freischoffen, who sit in so called judgment with him, but literally they merely record the sentence, for condemnation is a foregone conclusion."