"Is the sentence always death?"
"Always, at this secret tribunal; a sentence of death immediately carried out. In the open Fehmic court, banishment, prison, or other penalty may be inflicted, but you are summoned to appear before the secret tribunal."
"Does your Majesty know the meaning of these cabalistic letters on the dagger's hilt and on the parchment?"
"The letters 'S. S. G. G.' stand for Strick, Stein, Gras, Gruen: Strick meaning, it is said, the rope which hangs you; Stein, the stone at the head of your grave, and Gras, Gruen, the green grass covering it."
"Well, your Majesty," said Wilhelm, picking up the parchment from the floor and tearing it in small pieces, "if I have to choose between the rope and the dagger, I freely give my preference to the latter. I shall not attend this secret conclave, and if any of its members think to strike a dagger through my heart, he will have to come within the radius of my sword to do so."
"God watch over you," said the Empress fervently, "for this is a case in which the protection of an earthly throne is of little avail. And remember, Lord Wilhelm, trust not even your most intimate friend within arm's length of you. The only persons who may not become members of this dread order are a Jew, an outlaw, an infidel, a woman, a servant, a priest, or a person excommunicated."
Wilhelm escorted the Empress to the door of the red room, and there took leave of her; he being unable to suggest anything that might assuage her anxiety regarding her husband, she being unable to protect him from the new danger that threatened. Wilhelm was as brave as any man need be, and in a fair fight was content to take whatever odds came, but now he was confronted by a subtle invisible peril, against which ordinary courage was futile. An unaccustomed shiver chilled him as the palace sentinel, in the gathering gloom of the corridor, raised his hand swiftly to his helmet in salute. He passed slowly down the steps of the palace into the almost deserted square in front of it, for the citizens of Frankfort found it expedient to get early indoors when darkness fell. The young man found himself glancing furtively from right to left, starting at every shadow and scrutinising every passerby who was innocently hurrying to his own home. The name "Fehmgerichte" kept repeating itself in his brain like an incantation. He took the middle of the square and hesitated when he came to the narrow street down which his way lay. At the street corner he paused, laid his hand on the hilt of his sword and drew a deep breath.
"Is it possible," he muttered to himself, "that I am afraid? Am I at heart a coward? By the cross which is my protection," he cried, "if they wish to try their poniarding, they shall have an opportunity!"
And drawing his sword he plunged into the dark and narrow street, his footsteps ringing defiantly in the silence on the stone beneath him as he strode resolutely along. He passed rapidly through the city until he came to the northern gate. Here accosting his warders and being assured that all was well, he took the street which, bending like a bow, followed the wall until it came to the river. Once or twice he stopped, thinking himself followed, but the darkness was now so impenetrable that even if a pursuer had been behind him he was safe from detection if he kept step with his victim and paused when he did. The street widened as it approached the river, and Wilhelm became convinced that some one was treading in his footsteps. Clasping his sword hilt more firmly in his hand he wheeled about with unexpectedness that evidently took his follower by surprise, for he dashed across the street and sped fleetly towards the river. The glimpse Wilhelm got of him in the open space between the houses made him sure that he was once more on the track of von Brent, the emissary of Treves. The tables were now turned, the pursuer being the pursued, and Wilhelm set his teeth, resolved to put a sudden end to this continued espionage. Von Brent evidently remembered his former interception, and now kept a straight course. Trusting to the swiftness of his heels, he uttered no cry, but directed all his energies toward flight, and Wilhelm, equally silent, followed as rapidly.
Coming to the river, von Brent turned to the east, keeping in the middle of the thoroughfare. On the left hand side was a row of houses, on the right flowed the rapid Main. Some hundreds of yards further up there were houses on both sides of the street, and as the water of the river flowed against the walls of the houses to the right, Wilhelm knew there could be no escape that way. Surmising that his victim kept the middle of the street in order to baffle the man at his heels, puzzling him as to which direction the fugitive intended to bolt, Wilhelm, not to be deluded by such a device, ran close to the houses on the left, knowing that if von Brent turned to the right he would be speedily stopped by the Main. The race promised to reach a sudden conclusion, for Wilhelm was perceptibly gaining on his adversary, when coming to the first house by the river the latter swerved suddenly, jumped to a door, pushed it open and was inside in the twinkling of an eye, but only barely in time to miss the sword thrust that followed him. Quick as thought Wilhelm placed his foot in such a position that the door could not be closed. Then setting his shoulder to the panels, he forced it open in spite of the resistance behind it. Opposition thus overborne by superior strength, Wilhelm heard the clatter of von Brent's footsteps down the dark passage, and next instant the door was closed with a bang, and it seemed to the young man that the house had collapsed upon him. He heard his sword snap and felt it break beneath him, and he was gagged and bound before he could raise a hand to help himself. Then when it was too late, he realised that he had allowed the heat and fervour of pursuit to overwhelm his judgment, and had jumped straight into the trap prepared for him. Von Brent returned with a lantern in his hand and a smile on his face, breathing quickly after his exertions. Wilhelm, huddled in a corner, saw a dozen stalwart ruffians grouped around him, most of them masked, but two or three with faces bare, their coverings having come off in the struggle. These slipped quickly out of sight, behind the others, as if not wishing to give clue for future recognition.
"Well, my Lord," said von Brent, smiling, "you see that gagging and binding is a game that two may play at."
There was no reply to this, first, because Wilhelm was temporarily in a speechless condition, and, second, because the proposition was not one to be contradicted.
"Take him to the Commitment Room," commanded von Brent.
Four of the onlookers lifted Wilhelm and carried him down a long stairway, across a landing and to the foot of a second flight of steps, where he was thrown into a dark cell, the dimensions of which he could not estimate. When the door was closed the prisoner lay with his head leaning against it, and for a time the silence was intense. By and by he found that by turning his head so that his ear was placed against the panel of the door, he heard distinctly the footfalls outside, and even a shuffling sound near him, which seemed to indicate that a man was on guard at the other side of the oak. Presently some one approached, and in spite of the low tones used, Wilhelm not only heard what was being said, but recognised the voice of von Brent, who evidently was his jailer.
"You have him safely then?"
"Gagged and bound, my Lord."
"Is he disarmed?"
"His sword was broken under him, my Lord, when we fell upon him."
"Very well. Remove the gag and place him with No. 13. Bar them in and listen to their conversation. I think they have never met, but I want to be sure of it."
"Is there not a chance that No. 13 may make himself known, my Lord?"
"No matter if he does. In fact, it is my object to have No. 13 and No. 14 known to each other, and yet be not aware that we have suspicion of their knowledge."
When the door of the cell was opened four guards came in. It was manifest they were not going to allow Wilhelm any chance to escape, and were prepared to overpower him should he attempt flight or resistance. The gag was taken from his mouth and the thongs which bound his legs were untied, and thus he was permitted to stand on his feet. Once outside his cell he saw that the subterranean region in which he found himself was of vast extent, resembling the crypt of a cathedral, the low roof being supported by pillars of tremendous circumference. From the direction in which he had been carried from the foot of the stairs he surmised, and quite accurately, that this cavern was under the bed of the river. Those who escorted him and those whom he met were masked. No torches illuminated the gloom of this sepulchral hall, but each individual carried, attached in some way to his belt, a small horn lantern, which gave for a little space around a dim uncertain light, casting weird shadows against the pillars of the cavern. Once or twice they met a man clothed in an apparently seamless cloak of black cloth, that covered the head and extended to the feet. Two holes in front of the face allowed a momentary glimpse of a pair of flashing eyes as the yellow light from the lanterns smote them. These grim figures were presumably persons of importance, for the guards stopped, and saluted, as each one approached, not going forward until he had silently passed them. When finally the door of the cell they sought was reached, the guards drew back the bolts, threw it open, and pushed Wilhelm into the apartment that had been designated for him. Before closing the door, however, one of the guards placed a lantern on the floor so that the fellow-prisoners might have a chance of seeing each other. Wilhelm beheld, seated on a pallet of straw, a man well past middle-age, his face smooth-shaven and of serious cast, yet having, nevertheless, a trace of irresolution in his weak chin. His costume was that of a mendicant monk, and his face seemed indicative of the severity of monastic rule. There was, however, a serenity of courage in his eye which seemed to betoken that he was a man ready to die for his opinions, if once his wavering chin allowed him to form them. Wilhelm remembering that priests were not allowed to join the order of the Fehmgerichte reflected that here was a man who probably, from his fearless denunciations of the order, had brought down upon himself the hatred of the secret tribunal, whose only penalty was that of death. The older man was the first to speak.
"So you also are a victim of the Fehmgerichte?"
"I have for some minutes suspected as much," replied von Schonburg.
"Were you arrested and brought here, or did you come here willingly?"
"Oh, I came here willingly enough. I ran half a league in my eagerness to reach this spot and fairly jumped into it," replied Wilhelm, with a bitter laugh.
"You were in such haste to reach this spot?" said the old man, sombrely, "what is your crime?"
"That I do not know, but I shall probably soon learn when I come before the court."
"Are you a member of the order, then?"
"No, I am not."
"In that case, it will require the oaths of twenty-one members to clear you, therefore, if you have not that many friends in the order I look upon you as doomed."
"Thank you. That is as God wills."
"Assuredly, assuredly. We are all in His hands," and the good man devoutedly crossed himself.
"I have answered your questions," said Wilhelm, "answer you some of mine. Who are you?"
"I am a seeker after light."
"Well, there it is," said Wilhelm, touching the lantern with his foot as he paced up and down the limits of the cell.
"Earthly light is but dim at best, it is the light of Heaven I search after."
"Well, I hope you may be successful in finding it. I know of no place where it is needed so much as here."
"You speak like a scoffer. I thought from what you said of God's will, that you were a religious man."
"I am a religious man, I hope, and I regret if my words seem lightly spoken.
"What action of man, think you then, is most pleasing to God?"
"That is a question which you, to judge by your garb, are more able to answer than I."
"Nay, nay, I want your opinion."
"Then in my opinion, the man most pleasing to God is he who does his duty here on earth."
"Ah! right, quite right," cried the older man, eagerly. "But there lies the core of the whole problem. What is duty; that is what I have spent my life trying to learn."
"Then at a venture I should say your life has been a useless one. Duty is as plain as the lighted lantern there before us. If you are a priest, fulfil your priestly office well; comfort the sick, console the dying, bury the dead. Tell your flock not to speculate too much on duty, but to try and accomplish the work in hand."
"But I am not a priest," faltered the other, rising slowly to his feet.
"Then if you are a soldier, strike hard for your King. Kill the man immediately before you, and if, instead, he kills you, be assured that the Lord will look after your soul when it departs through the rent thus made in your body."
"There is a ring of truth in that, but it sounds worldly. How can we tell that such action is pleasing to God? May it not be better to depend entirely on the Lord, and let Him strike your blows for you?"
"Never! What does He give you arms for but to protect your own head, and what does He give you swift limbs for if not to take your body out of reach when you are threatened with being overmatched? God must despise such a man as you speak of, and rightly so. I am myself a commander of soldiers, and if I had a lieutenant who trusted all to me and refused to strike a sturdy blow on his own behalf I should tear his badge from him and have him scourged from out the ranks."
"But may we not, by misdirected efforts, thwart the will of God?"
"Oh! the depths of human vanity! Thwart the will of God? What, a puny worm like you? You amaze me, sir, with your conceit, and I lose the respect for you which at first your garb engendered in my mind. Do your work manfully, and flatter not yourself that your most strenuous efforts are able to cross the design of the Almighty. My own poor belief is that He has patience with any but a coward and a loiterer."
The elder prisoner staggered into the centre of the room and raised his hands above his head.
"Oh, Lord, have mercy upon me," he cried. "Thou who hast brought light to me in this foul dungeon which was refused to me in the radiance of Thy Cathedral. Have mercy on me, oh, Lord, the meanest of Thy servants —a craven Emperor."
"The Emperor!" gasped Wilhelm, the more amazed because he had his Majesty in mind when he spoke so bitterly of neglected duty, unconsciously blaming his sovereign rather than his own rashness for the extreme predicament in which he found himself.
Before either could again speak the door suddenly opened wide, and a deep voice solemnly enunciated the words:
"Wilhelm of Schonburg, pretended Commander of his Majesty's forces, you are summoned to appear instantly before the court of the Holy Fehm, now in session and awaiting you."
THE HOLY FEHM
When the spokesman of the Fehmgerichte had finished his ominous summons, his attendants crowded round Wilhelm swiftly and silently as if to forestall any attempt at resistance either on his part or on the part of the Emperor. They hurried their victim immediately out of the cell and instantly barred the door on the remaining prisoner. First they crossed the low-roofed, thickly-pillared great hall, passing through a doorway at which two armed men stood guard, masked, as were all the others. The Judgment Hall of the dread Fehmgerichte was a room of about ten times the extent of the cell Wilhelm had just left, but still hardly of a size that would justify the term large. The walls and vaulted roof were of rough stone, and on the side opposite the entrance had been cut deeply the large letters S. S. G. G. A few feet distant from this lettered wall stood a long table, and between the wall and the table sat seven men. The Freigraf, as Wilhelm surmised him to be, occupied in the centre of this line a chair slightly more elevated than those of the three who sat on either hand. Seven staples had been driven into the interstices of the stones above the heads of the Court and from each staple hung a lighted lantern, which with those at the belts of the guard standing round, illuminated the dismal chamber fairly well. To the left of the Court was a block draped in black and beside it stood the executioner with his arms resting on the handle of his axe. In the ceiling above his head was an iron ring and from this ring depended a rope, the noose of which dangled at the shoulder of the headsman, for it was the benevolent custom of the Court to allow its victim a choice in the manner of his death. It was also a habit of the judges of this Court to sit until the sentence they had pronounced was carried out, and thus there could be no chance of mistake or rescue. No feature of any judge was visible except the eyes through the holes pierced for the purposes of vision in the long black cloaks which completely enveloped their persons.
As Wilhelm was brought to a stand before this assemblage, the Freigraf nodded his head and the guards in silence undid the thongs which pinioned together wrists and elbows, leaving the prisoner absolutely unfettered.—This done, the guard retreated backwards to the opposite wall, and Wilhelm stood alone before the seven sinister doomsmen. He expected that his examination, if the Court indulged in any such, would be begun by the Freigraf, but this was not the case. The last man to the left in the row had a small bundle of documents on the table before him. He rose to his feet, bowed low to his brother judges, and then with less deference to the prisoner. He spoke in a voice lacking any trace of loudness, but distinctly heard in every corner of the room because of the intense stillness. There was a sweet persuasiveness in the accents he used, and his sentences resembled those of a lady anxious not to give offence to the person addressed.
"Am I right in supposing you to be Wilhelm, lately of Schonburg, but now of Frankfort?"
"You are right."
"May I ask if you are a member of the Fehmgerichte?"
"I am not. I never heard of it until this afternoon."
"Who was then your informant regarding the order?"
"I refuse to answer."
The examiner inclined his head gracefully as if, while regretting the decision of the witness, he nevertheless bowed to it.
"Do you acknowledge his lordship the Archbishop of Mayence as your over lord?"
"Have you ever been guilty of an act of rebellion or insubordination against his lordship?"
"My over-lord, the Archbishop of Mayence, has never preferred a request to me which I have refused."
"Pardon me, I fear I have not stated my proposition with sufficient clearness, and so you may have misunderstood the question. I had in my mind a specific act, and so will enter into further detail. Is it true that in the Wahlzimmer you entered the presence of your over-lord with a drawn sword in your hand, commanding a body of armed men lately outlaws of the Empire, thus intimidating your over-lord in the just exercise of his privileges and rights as an Elector?"
"My understanding of the Feudal law," said Wilhelm, "is that the commands of an over-lord are to be obeyed only in so far as they do not run counter to orders from a still higher authority."
"Your exposition of the law is admirable, and its interpretation stands exactly as you have stated it. Are we to understand then that you were obeying the orders of some person in authority who is empowered to exercise a jurisdiction over his lordship the Archbishop, similar to that which the latter in his turn claims over you?"
"That is precisely what I was about to state."
"Whose wishes were you therefore carrying out?
"Those of his Majesty the Emperor."
The examiner bowed with the utmost deference when the august name was mentioned.
"I have to thank you in the name of the Court," he went on, "for your prompt and comprehensive replies, which have thus so speedily enabled us to come to a just and honourable verdict, and it gives me pleasure to inform you that the defence you have made is one that cannot be gainsaid, and, therefore, with the exception of one slight formality, there is nothing more for us to do but to set you at liberty and ask pardon for the constraint we regret having put upon you, and further to request that you take oath that neither to wife nor child, father nor mother, sister nor brother, fire nor wind, will you reveal anything that has happened to you; that you will conceal it from all that the sun shines on and from all that the rain wets, and from every being between heaven and earth. And now before our doors are thus opened I have to beg that you will favour the Court with the privilege of examining the commission that his Majesty the Emperor has signed."
"You cannot expect me to carry my commission about on my person, more especially as I had no idea I should be called upon to undergo examination upon it."
"Such an expectation would certainly be doomed to disappointment, but you are doubtless able to tell us where the document lies, and I can assure you that, wherever it is placed, an emissary of this order will speedily fetch it, whether, it is concealed in palace or in hut. Allow me to ask you then, where this commission is?"
"I cannot tell you."
"Do you mean you cannot, or you will not?"
"Take it whichever way you please, it is a matter of indifference to me."
The examiner folded his arms under his black cloak and stood for some moments in silence, looking reproachfully at the prisoner. At last he spoke in a tone which seemed to indicate that he was pained at the young man's attitude:
"I sincerely trust I am mistaken in supposing that you refuse absolutely to assist this Court in the securing of a document which not only stands between you and your liberty, but also between you and your death."
"Oh, a truce to this childish and feigned regret," cried Wilhelm with rude impatience. "I pray you end the farce with less of verbiage and of pretended justice. You have his Majesty here a prisoner. You have, through my own folly, my neck at the mercy of your axe or your rope. There stands the executioner eager for his gruesome work. Finish that which you have already decided upon, and as sure as there is a God in heaven there will be quick retribution for the crimes committed in this loathsome dungeon."
The examiner deplored the introduction of heat into a discussion that required the most temperate judgment.
"But be assured," he said, "that the hurling of unfounded accusations against this honourable body will not in the least prejudice their members in dealing with your case."
"I know it," said Wilhelm with a sneering laugh.
"We have been informed that no such commission exists, that the document empowering you to take instant command of the Imperial troops rests in the hands of the wife of his Majesty the Emperor and is unsigned."
"If you know that, then why do you ask me so many questions about it?"
"In the sincere hope that by the production of the document itself, you may be able to repudiate so serious an accusation. You admit then that you have acted without the shelter of a commission from his Majesty?"
"I admit nothing."
The examiner looked up and down the row of silent figures as much as to say, "I have done my best; shall any further questions be put?" There being no response to this the examiner said, still without raising his voice:
"There is a witness in this case, and I ask him to stand forward."
A hooded and cloaked figure approached the table.
"Are you a member of the Fehmgerichte?"
"In good and honourable standing?"
"In good and honourable standing."
"You swear by the order to which you belong that the evidence you give shall be truth without equivocation and without mental reservation?"
"I swear it."
"Has the prisoner a commission signed by the Emperor empowering him to command the Imperial troops?"
"He has not, and never has had such a commission. A document was made out and sent three times to his Majesty for signature; to-day it was returned for the third time unsigned."
"Prisoner, do you deny that statement?"
"I neither deny nor affirm."
Wilhelm was well aware that his fate was decided upon. Even if he had appeared before a regularly constituted court of the Empire instead of at the bar of an underground secret association, the verdict must inevitably have gone against him, so long as the Emperor's signature was not appended to the document which would have legalised his position.
"It would appear then," went on the examiner, "that in the action you took against your immediate over-lord, the Archbishop of Mayence, you were unprotected by the mandate of the Emperor. Freigraf and Freischoffen have heard question and answer. With extreme reluctance I am compelled to announce to this honourable body, that nothing now remains except to pronounce the verdict."
With this the examiner sat down, and for a few moments there was silence, then the Freigraf enunciated in a low voice the single word:
And beginning at the right hand, each member of the Court pronounced the word "Condemned."
Wilhelm listened eagerly to the word, expecting each moment to hear the voice of one or other of the Archbishops, but in this he was disappointed. The low tone universally used by each speaker gave a certain monotony of sound which made it almost impossible to distinguish one voice from another. This evident desire for concealment raised a suspicion in the young man's mind that probably each member of the Court did not know who his neighbours were. When the examiner at the extreme left had uttered the word "Condemned" the Freigraf again spoke:
"Is there any reason why the sentence just pronounced be not immediately carried out?"
The examiner again rose to his feet and said quietly, but with great respect:
"My Lord, I ask that this young man be not executed immediately, but on the contrary, be taken to his cell, there to be held during the pleasure of the Court."
There seemed to be a murmured dissent to this, but a whispered explanation passed along the line and the few that had at first objected, nodded their heads in assent.
"Our rule cannot be set aside," said the Freigraf, "unless with unanimous consent. Does any member demur?"
No protests being made the Freigraf ordered Wilhelm to be taken to a cell, which was accordingly done.
The young man left alone in the darkness felt a pleasure in being able to stretch his arms once more, and he paced up and down the narrow limits of his cell, wondering what the next move would be in this mysterious drama. In the Judgment Chamber he had abandoned all hope, and had determined that when the order was given to seize him he would pluck the dagger of the order from the inside of his doublet, and springing over the table, kill one or more of these illegal judges before he was overpowered. The sudden change in tactics persuaded him that something else was required of him rather than the death which seemed so imminent. It was palpable that several members of the Court at least were unacquainted with the designs of the master mind which was paramount in his prosecution. They had evinced surprise when the examiner had demanded postponement of the execution. There was something behind all this that betrayed the crafty hand of the Archbishop of Treves. He was not long left in doubt. The door of the cell opened slowly and the pale rays of a lantern illuminated the blackness which surrounded him. The young man stopped in his walk and awaited developments. There entered to him one of the cloak-enveloped figures, who might, or might not, be a member of the Holy Court. Wilhelm thought that perhaps his visitor was the examiner, but the moment the silence was broken, in spite of the fact that the speaker endeavoured to modulate his tones as the others had done, the young man knew the incomer was not the person who had questioned him.
"We are somewhat loth," the intruder began, "to cut short the career of one so young as you are, and one who gives promise of becoming a notable captain."
"What have you seen of me," inquired Wilhelm, "that leads you to suppose I have the qualities of a capable officer in me?"
The other did not reply for a moment or two; then he said slowly:
"I do not say that I have seen anything to justify such a conclusion, but I have heard of your action in the Wahlzimmer, and by the account given, I judge you to be a young man of resource."
"I am indebted to you for the good opinion you express. It is quite in your power to set me free, and then the qualities you are kind enough to commend, may have an opportunity for development."
"Alas!" said the visitor, "it is not in my power to release you; that lies entirely with yourself."
"You bring comforting news. What is the price?"
"You are asked to become a member of the Fehmgerichte."
"I should suppose that to be easily accomplished, as I am now a partaker of its hospitality. What else?"
"The remaining proviso is that you take service, with his lordship, the Archbishop of Treves, and swear entire allegiance to him."
"I am already in the service of the Emperor."
"It has just been proven that you are not."
"How could the Archbishop expect faithful service from me, if I prove traitor to the one I deem my master?"
"The Archbishop will probably be content to take the risk of that."
"Are you commissioned to speak for the Archbishop?"
"Are you one of the Archbishop's men?"
"My disposition towards him is friendly; I cannot say that I am one of his men."
"Granting, then, that I took service with the Archbishop to save my life, what would he expect me to do?"
"To obey him in all things."
"Ah, be more explicit, as the examiner said. I am not a man to enter into a bargain blindly. I must know exactly what is required of me."
"It is probable that your first order would be to march your army from Frankfort to Treves. Would the men follow you, do you think?"
"Undoubtedly. The men will follow wherever I choose to lead them. Another question. What becomes of the Emperor in case I make this bargain?"
"That question it is impossible at the present moment, to answer. The Court of the Holy Fehm is now awaiting my return, and when I take my place on the bench the Emperor will be called upon to answer for his neglect of duty."
"Nevertheless you may hazard a guess regarding his fate."
"I hazard this guess then, that his fate will depend largely upon himself, just as your fate depends upon yourself."
"I must see clearly where I am going, therefore I request you to be more explicit. What will the Court demand of the Emperor that he may save his life?"
"You are questioning me touching the action of others; therefore, all I can do is merely to surmise. My supposition is that if the Emperor promises to abdicate he will be permitted to pass unscathed from the halls of the Fehmgerichte."
"And should he refuse?"
"Sir, I am already at the end of my patience through your numerous questions," and as the voice rose in something approaching anger, Wilhelm seemed to recognise its ring. "I came here, not to answer your questions, but to have you answer mine. What is your decision?"
"My decision is that you are a confessed traitor; die the death of such!"
Wilhelm sprang forward and buried the dagger of the Fehmgerichte into the heart of the man before him. His action was so unexpected that the victim could make no motion to defend himself. So truly was the fierce blow dealt that the doomed man, without a cry or even a groan, sank in his death collapse at the young man's feet in a heap on the floor.
Wilhelm, who thought little of taking any man's life in a fair fight, shuddered as he gazed at the helpless bundle at his feet; a moment before, this uncouth heap stood erect, a man like himself, conversing with him, then the swift blow and the resulting huddle of clay.
"Oh, God above me, Over-lord of all, I struck for my King, yet I feel myself an assassin. If I am, indeed, a murderer in Thy sight, wither me where I stand, and crush me to the ground, companion to this dead body."
For a few moments Wilhelm stood rigid, his face uplifted, listening to the pulsations in his own throat and the strident beatings of his own heart. No bolt from heaven came to answer his supplication. Stooping, he, with some difficulty, drew the poniard from its resting-place. The malignant ingenuity of its construction had caused its needle point to penetrate the chain armour, while its keen double edge cut link after link of the hard steel as it sunk into the victim's breast. The severed ends of the links now clutched the blade as if to prevent its removal. Not a drop of blood followed its exit, although it had passed directly through the citadel of life itself. Again concealing the weapon within his doublet, a sudden realisation of the necessity for speed overcame the assaulter. He saw before him a means of escape. He had but to don the all-concealing cloak and walk out of this subterranean charnel house by the way he had entered it, if he could but find the foot of the stairs, down which they had carried him. Straightening out the body he pulled the cloak free from it, thus exposing the face to the yellow light of the lantern. His heart stood still as he saw that the man he had killed was no other than that exalted Prince of the Church, the venerable Archbishop of Treves. He drew the body to the pallet of straw in the corner of the cell, and there, lying on its face, he left it. A moment later he was costumed as a high priest of the order of the Fehmgerichte. Taking the lantern in his hand he paused before the closed door. He could not remember whether or not he had heard the bolts shot after the Archbishop had entered. Conning rapidly in his mind the startling change in the situation, he stood there until he had recovered command of himself, resolved that if possible no mistake on his part should now mar his chances of escape, and in this there was no thought of saving his own life, but merely a determination to get once more into the streets of Frankfort, rally his men, penetrate into these subterranean regions, and rescue the Emperor alive. He pushed with all his might against the door, and to his great relief the heavy barrier swung slowly round on its hinges. Once outside he pushed it shut again, and was startled by two guards springing to his assistance, one of them saying:
"Shall we thrust in the bolts, my Lord?"
"Yes," answered Wilhelm in the low tone which all, costumed as he was, had used. He turned away but was dismayed to find before him two brethren of the order arrayed in like manner to himself, who had evidently been waiting for him.
"What is the result of the conference? Does he consent?"
Rapidly Wilhelm had to readjust events in his own mind to meet this unexpected emergency.
"No," he replied slowly, "he does not consent, at least, not just at the moment. He has some scruples regarding his loyalty to the Emperor."
"Those scruples will be speedily removed then, when we remove his Majesty. The other members of the Court are but now awaiting us in the Judgment Chamber. Let us hasten there, and make a quick disposal of the Emperor."
Wilhelm saw that there was no possibility of retreat. Any attempt at flight would cause instant alarm and the closing of the exits, then both the Emperor and himself would be caught like rats in a trap, yet there was almost equal danger in entering the Council Chamber. He had not the remotest idea which seat at the table he should occupy, and he knew that a mistake in placing himself would probably lead to discovery. He lagged behind, but the others persistently gave him precedence, which seemed to indicate that they knew the real quality of the man they supposed him to be. He surmised that his seat was probably that of the Freigraf in the centre, but on crossing the threshold past the saluting guards, he saw that the Freigraf occupied the elevated seat, having at his left three Freischoffen, while the remaining seats at his right were unoccupied. It was a space of extreme anxiety when his two companions stopped to allow him to go first. He dared not take the risk of placing himself wrongly at the board. There was scant time for consideration, and Wilhelm speedily came to a decision. It was merely one risk to take where several were presented, and he chose that which seemed to be the safest. Leaning towards his companions he said quietly:
"I beg of you, be seated. I have a few words to address to the Holy Court."
The two inclined their heads in return, and one of them in passing him murmured the scriptural words, "The first shall be last," which remark still further assisted in reversing Wilhelm's former opinion and convinced him that the identity of the Archbishop was known to them. When they were seated, the chair at the extreme right was the only one vacant, and Wilhelm breathed easier, having nothing further to fear from that source, if he could but come forth scatheless from his speech.
"I have to acquaint the Court of the Holy Fehm," he said, speaking audibly, but no more, "that my mission to the cell of the prisoner who has just left us, resulted partly in failure and partly in success. The young man has some hesitation in placing himself in open opposition to the Emperor. I therefore suggest that we go on with our deliberations, leaving the final decision of his case until a later period."
To this the Court unanimously murmured the word: "Agreed," and Wilhelm took his place at the table.
"Bring in prisoner No. 13," said the Freigraf, and a few moments later the Emperor of Germany stood before the table.
He regarded the dread tribunal with a glance of haughty scorn while countenance and demeanour exhibited a dignity which Wilhelm had fancied was lacking during their interview in the cell.
The examiner rose to his feet and in the same suave tones he had used in questioning Wilhelm, propounded the usual formal interrogatory regarding name and quality. When he was asked:
"Are you a member of the Holy Order of the Fehmgerichte?" the Emperor's reply seemed to cause some consternation among the judges.
"I am not only a member of the Fehmgerichte, but by its constitution, I am the head of it, and I warn you that any action taken by this Court without my sanction, is, by the statutes of the order, illegal."
The examiner paused in his questioning apparently taken aback by this assertion, and looked towards the Freigraf as if awaiting a decision before proceeding further.
"We acknowledge freely," said the Freigraf, "that you are the figure- head of the order, and that in all matters pertaining to a change of constitution your consent would probably be necessary, but stretching your authority to its utmost limit, it does not reach to the Courts of the Holy Fehm, which have before now sat in judgment on the highest in the land. For more than a century the position of the Emperor as head of the Fehmgerichte has been purely nominal, and I know of no precedent where the ruler of the land has interfered with the proceedings of the secret Court. We avow allegiance to the actual head of the order, who is the Duke of Westphalia."
"Is the Duke of Westphalia here present?"
"That is a question improper for you to ask."
"If the Duke of Westphalia is one of the members of this Court, I command him by the oath which he took at his installation, to descend from his place and render his seat to me, the head of this order."
"The nominal head," corrected the Freigraf.
"The actual head," persisted the prisoner. "The position remained nominal only because the various occupants did not choose to exercise the authority vested in them. It is my pleasure to resume the function which has too long remained in abeyance, thus allowing inferior officers to pretend to a power which is practical usurpation, and which, according to the constitution of our order, is not to be tolerated. Disobey at your peril. I ask the Archbishop of Cologne, Duke of Westphalia, as the one, high vassal of the Empire, as the other, my subordinate in the Fehmgerichte, to stand forth and salute his chief."
Wilhelm's heart beat rapidly underneath his black cloak as he saw this spectacle of helpless prisoner defying a power, which, in its sphere of action, was almost omnipotent. It was manifest that the Emperor's trenchant sentences had disturbed more than one member of the convention, and even the Freigraf glanced in perplexity towards the supposed Archbishop of Treves as if for a hint anent the answer that should be given. As if in response to the silent appeal, Wilhelm rose slowly to his feet, while the examiner seated himself.
"It is my privilege," he began, "on behalf of my fellow members, to inform the prisoner that the Court of the Holy Fehm has ever based its action on the broad principles of eternal justice."
A sarcastic smile wreathed the lips of the Emperor at this. Wilhelm went on unheeding.
"A point of law has been raised by the prisoner, which, I think, at least merits our earnest consideration, having regard for the future welfare of this organisation, and being anxious not to allow any precedent to creep in, which may work to the disadvantage of those who follow us. In order that our deliberations may have that calm impartiality which has ever distinguished them, I ask unanimous consent to my suggestion that the prisoner be taken back to his cell until we come to a decision regarding the matter in dispute."
This proposition being agreed to without a dissenting voice, the prisoner was removed from the room and the eyes of all the judges were turned towards Wilhelm. The Freigraf was the first to break the silence.
"Although I have agreed to the removal of the prisoner," he said, "yet I see not the use of wasting so many words on him. While there is undoubted wisdom in winning to our side the man who controls the army, there seems to me little to gain in prolonging discussion with the Emperor, who is a nonentity at best, and has no following. The path to the throne must be cleared, and there is but one way of doing it."
"Two, I think," murmured Wilhelm.
"What other than by this prisoner's death?"
"His abdication would suffice."
"But, as you know, he has already refused to abdicate."
"Ah, that was before he saw the executioner standing here. I think he is now in a condition to reconsider his determination. Thus we will avoid discussion of the knotty points which he raised, and which I, for one, would prefer to see remain where they are. The moment he consents to abdicate, the commander of the forces is willing to swear allegiance to us. It must not be forgotten that even if we execute these two men we have still the troops who hold the city of Frankfort to reckon with, and although their leader may have disappeared, the young man has some sturdy lieutenants who will give us trouble."
"What do you propose?" asked the Freigraf.
"If the colleague at my left will accompany me, we will visit the prisoner and may have some proposals to submit to you on our return."
This being acceded to, the two left the Judgment Chamber and proceeded slowly to the cell of No. 13. On the way thither Wilhelm said to his companion:
"As the prisoner may be on his guard if we enter together, I prefer to sound him first alone, and at the proper moment, if you stay outside the door of the cell, I shall summon you to enter."
This meeting the sanction of Wilhelm's companion, the young man entered the cell alone, carefully closing the door behind him.
"Your Majesty," he whispered, "the situation is extremely critical, and I entreat you to maintain silence while I make explanation to you. I am Wilhelm, the loyal commander of the Imperial forces, your Majesty's most devoted servant."
"Are you then," said the amazed monarch, "also a member of the Fehmgerichte? I thought you came here as a prisoner, and, like myself, a victim."
Wilhelm drew off over his head the cloak which enveloped him, leaving his limbs free, standing thus in his own proper person before the Emperor.
"I was, indeed, a prisoner, and was visited in my cell by the Archbishop of Treves. It was in his robe that I emerged from my cell undetected, hoping to escape and bring rescue to your Majesty, but other brethren were awaiting me outside, and I found myself compelled to sit in the Court before which you made such an able defence."
"It was you, then, who proposed that I should be taken back to my cell?"
"Yes, your Majesty. And now a colleague remains outside this door, who waits, expecting a summons to enter, but first I came to give warning to your Majesty that you may make no outcry, if you should see what appears to be two brothers of the order struggling together."
"I shall keep strict silence. Is the Archbishop of Treves then a prisoner in your cell?"
"He is, I assure you, a fast prisoner."
"You propose that I should don the cloak of the incomer, and that thus we make our escape together. We must be in haste, then, for if the Archbishop releases himself from his bonds, he may produce such an uproar in his cell that suspicion will be aroused."
"The bonds in which I left the Archbishop of Treves will hold him firm until we are outside this nest of vipers. And now, your Majesty, I beg you to put on this cloak which I have been wearing, which will leave me free speedily to overpower our visitor."
The Emperor arrayed himself and stood, as he was fully entitled to do, a fully costumed member of the Fehmgerichte. Wilhelm opened the door and said softly:
"Enter, brother, that I may learn if the arrangements just made are confirmed by your wisdom."
The light within had been placed at the further end of the cell, and the visitor's own lantern gave but scant illumination. The moment the door was firmly closed Wilhelm sprang upon him and bore him to the ground. If the assaulted man attempted to make any sound, it was muffled by the folds of his own cloak. A moment later, however, Wilhelm got a firm grip on his bare throat, and holding him thus, pulled away his disguise from him, revealing the pallid face of the Archbishop of Mayence. The young man plucked the dagger from the inside of his doublet and placed it at the breast of the prostrate man.
"If you make the slightest sound," he whispered, "I shall bury this dagger in your heart. It is the weapon of the Fehmgerichte and you know it will penetrate chain armour."
It was evident that the stricken Archbishop was much too frightened to do anything to help himself, and Wilhelm unbuckling his own empty sword-belt, proceeded to tie his trembling limbs. The Emperor whispered:
"The cords which bound me are still here, as well as the gag which silenced me."
Wilhelm put those instruments of tyranny to immediate use, and shortly the Archbishop was a helpless silent heap in the further corner of the room. Wilhelm and the Emperor each with a lantern, and each indistinguishable from other members of the secret organisation, pushed open the door and emerged from the cell. Closing the door again, Wilhelm said to the guard:
"Bolt this portal firmly and allow no one to enter who does not give you this password."
The young man stooped and whispered into the ear of the guard the word "Elsa." The two fugitives then walked slowly along the great hall, the young man peering anxiously to his right for any sign of the stairway by which he had descended. They passed numerous doors, all closed, and at last Wilhelm began to wonder if one of these covered the exit which he sought. Finally they came to the end of the large hall without seeing trace of any outlet, and Wilhelm became conscious of the fact that getting free from this labyrinth was like to prove more difficult than the entering had been. Standing puzzled, not knowing where next to turn, aware that precious time was being wasted fruitlessly, Wilhelm saw a man masked and accoutred as a guard approach them.
"Is there anything in which I can pleasure your Lordships?" he asked deferentially.
"Yes," said Wilhelm, "we desire to have a breath of fresh air; where is the exit?"
"If your Lordship has the password, you may go out by the entrance in the city. If you have not the word, then must you use the exit without the wall, which is a long walk from here."
"That does not matter," replied Wilhelm, "it is the country air we wish to breathe."
"I cannot leave my post, but I shall get one who will guide you."
So saying, the man left them for several anxious minutes, going into a room that apparently was used as guard-house, and reappearing with a man who rubbed his eyes sleepily, as if newly awakened. Then the first guard drew bolts from a stout door and pulled it open, revealing a dark chasm like the entrance to a cell. Both Wilhelm and the Emperor viewed this black enigma with deep suspicion, but their guide with his lantern plunged into it and they followed, after which the door was closed and barred behind them.
It was, indeed, as the first man had said, a long walk, as Wilhelm knew it must be if it extended under the western gate and out into the country. The passage was so narrow that two could not walk abreast, and frequently the arched ceiling was so low that the guide ahead warned them to stoop as they came on. At last he reached the foot of a stairway, and was about to mount when Wilhelm said to him:
"Stand here till we return. Allow no one to pass who does not give you this word," and again he whispered the word "Elsa" in the man's ear.
To the dismay of Wilhelm, the Emperor addressed the guard:
"Are there many prisoners within?"
"There are two only," replied the man, "numbers 13 and 14. I helped to carry No. 14 down the stair, and am glad his sword broke beneath him as he fell, for, indeed, we had trouble enough with him as it was."
Here Wilhelm took the liberty of touching the Emperor on the arm as if to warn him that such discourse was untimely and dangerous. With beating heart the young man led the way up the stairs, and at the top of the second flight, came into what seemed to be the vestibule of a house, in which, on benches round the wall, there sat four men seemingly on guard, who immediately sprang to their feet when they saw the ghostly apparitions before them.
"Unbar the door," said Wilhelm, quietly, in the tone of one whose authority is not to be disputed. "Close it after us and allow none to enter or emerge who does not give you the word 'Elsa.'"
This command was so promptly obeyed that Wilhelm could scarcely believe they had won so easily to the outer air. The house stood alone on the bank of the river at the end of a long garden which extended to the road. Facing the thoroughfare and partly concealing the house from any chance straggler was a low building which Wilhelm remembered was used as a wayside drinking-place, in which wine, mostly of a poor quality, was served to thirsty travellers. The gate to the street appeared deserted, but as the two approached by the walk leading from the house, a guard stood out from the shadow of the wall, scrutinised for a moment their appearance, then saluting, held the gate open for them.
Once on the road, the two turned towards the city, whose black wall barred their way some distance ahead, and whose towers and spires stood out dimly against the starlit sky. A great silence, broken only by the soothing murmur of the river, lay on the landscape. Wilhelm cast a glance aloft at the star-sprinkled dome of heaven, and said:
"I judge it to be about an hour after midnight."
"It may be so," answered the Emperor, "I have lost all count of time.
"Has your Majesty been long in prison?"
"That I do not know. I may have lain there two days or a dozen. I had no means of measuring the length of my imprisonment."
"May I ask your Majesty in what manner you were lured into the halls of the Fehmgerichte?"
"It was no lure. While I lay asleep at night in the cloisters by the Cathedral I was bound and gagged, carried through the dark streets helpless on a litter and finally flung into the cell in which you found me."
"May I further inquire what your Majesty's intentions are regarding the fulfilment of the duties imposed upon you by your high office?"
There was a long pause before the Emperor replied, then he said:
"Why do you ask?"
"Because, your Majesty, I have on several occasions imperilled my life for an Emperor who does not rule, who has refused even to sign my commission as officer of his troops."
"Your commission was never sent to me."
"I beg your Majesty's pardon, but it was sent three times to you in the cloisters of the Cathedral, and returned three times unsigned."
"Then it is as I suspected," returned the Emperor, "the monks must have connived at my capture. I have pleasure in confirming your appointment. I am sure that the command could not be in more capable hands. And in further reply to your question, if God permits me to see the light of day, I shall be an emperor who rules."
"It delights my heart to hear you say so. And now I ask, as a favour, that you allow me to deal untrammelled with the Fehmgerichte."
"I grant that most willingly."
By this time they were almost under the shadow of the great wall of the city, and Wilhelm, stopping, said to the Emperor:
"I think it well that we now divest ourselves of these disguises."
They had scarcely thrown their cloaks behind the bushes at the side of the road when they were accosted by the guard at the top of the wall.
"Halt! Who approaches the gate?"
Wilhelm strode forward.
"Is Gottlieb at the guard-house or at the barracks?" he asked.
"He is at the guard-house," replied the sentinel, recognising the questioner.
"Then arouse him immediately, and open the gates."
"Gottlieb," said Wilhelm, when once within the walls, "take a score of men with you and surround the first house on the margin of the river up this street. I shall accompany you so that there may be no mistake. Send another score under a trusty leader to the house which stands alone outside of the gates also on the margin of the stream. Give orders that the men are to seize any person who attempts to enter or to come out; kill if necessary, but let none escape you. Let a dozen men escort me to the Palace."
Having seen the Emperor safely housed in the Palace, Wilhelm returned quickly to the place where Gottlieb and his score held guard over the town entrance of the cellars he had quitted.
"Gottlieb, are you fully awake?" asked Wilhelm.
"Oh, yes, master; awake and ready for any emergency."
"Then send for some of your most stalwart sappers with tools to break through a stone wall, and tell them to bring a piece of timber to batter in this door."
When the men arrived three blows from the oaken log sent the door shattering from its hinges. Wilhelm sprang at once over the prostrate portal, but not in time to prevent the flight of the guard down the stairway. Calling the sappers to the first landing, and pointing to the stone wall on the right:
"Break through that for me," he cried.
"Master," expostulated Gottlieb, "if you break through that wall I warn you that the river will flow in."
"Such is my intention, Gottlieb, and a gold piece to each man who works as he has never wrought before."
For a few moments there was nothing heard but the steady ring of iron on stone as one by one the squares were extracted, the water beginning to ooze in as the energetic sappers reached the outer course. At last the remaining stones gave way, carried in with a rush by the torrent.
"Save yourselves!" cried Wilhelm, standing knee deep in the flood and not stepping out until each man had passed him. There was a straining crash of rending timber, and Gottlieb, dashing down, seized his master by the arm, crying:
"My Lord, my Lord, the house is about to fall!"
With slight loss of time commander and lieutenant stood together in the street and found that the latter's panic was unwarranted, for the house, although it trembled dangerously and leaned perceptibly toward the river, was stoutly built of hewn stone. Grey daylight now began to spread over the city, but still Wilhelm stood there listening to the inrush of the water.
"By the great wine tub of Hundsrueck!" exclaimed Gottlieb in amazement, "that cellar is a large one. It seems to thirst for the whole flood of the Main."
"Send a messenger," cried Wilhelm, "to the house you are guarding outside the gates and discover for me whether your men have captured any prisoners."
It was broad daylight when the messenger returned, and the torrent down the stair had become a rippling surface of water at the level of the river, showing that all the cavern beneath was flooded.
"Well, messenger, what is your report?" demanded his commander.
"My Lord, the officer in charge says that a short time ago the door of the house was blown open as if by a strong wind; four men rushed out and another was captured in the garden; all were pinioned and gagged, as you commanded."
"Are the prisoners men of quality or common soldiers?"
"Common soldiers, my Lord."
"Very well; let them be taken to the prison. I will visit them later in the day."
As Wilhelm, thoroughly fatigued after a night so exciting, walked the streets of Frankfort toward his home the bells of the city suddenly began to ring a merry peal, and, as if Frankfort had become awakened by the musical clangor, windows were raised and doors opened, while citizens inquired of each other the meaning of the clangor, a question which no one seemed prepared to answer.
Reaching his own house, Wilhelm found Elsa awaiting him with less of anxiety on her face than he had expected.
"Oh, Wilhelm!" she cried, "what a fright you gave me, and not until I knew where you were, did any peace come to my heart."
"You knew where I was?" said Wilhelm in amazement. "Where was I, then?"
"You were with the Emperor, of course. That is why the bells are ringing; the Emperor has returned, as you know, and is resolved to take his proper place at the head of the state, much to the delight of the Empress, I can assure you. But what an anxious time we spent until shortly after midnight, when the Emperor arrived and told us you had been with him."
"How came you to be at the Palace?"
"It happened in this way. You had hardly left the court last night when his lordship the Archbishop of Cologne came and seemed anxious about the welfare of the Emperor."
"The Archbishop of Cologne! Is he still there or did he go elsewhere?"
"He is still there, and was there when the Emperor came in. Why do you ask so eagerly? Is there anything wrong?"
"Not so far as the Archbishop is concerned, apparently. He has kept his word and so there is one less high office vacant. Well, what did the Archbishop say?"
"He wished to see you, and so the Empress sent for you, but search as we would, you were nowhere to be found. On hearing this I became alarmed and went at once to the Palace. The Archbishop seemed in deep trouble, but he refused to tell the Empress the cause of it, and so increased our anxiety. However, all was right when the Emperor came, and now they are ringing the bells, for he is to appear before the people on the balcony of the Romer, as if he were newly crowned. We must make haste if we are to see him."
Wilhelm escorted his wife to the square before the Romer, but so dense was the cheering crowd that it was impossible for him to force a way through. They were in time to see the Emperor appear on the balcony, and Wilhelm, raising his sword aloft, shouted louder than any in that throng, Elsa herself waving a scarf above her head in the enthusiasm of the moment.
THE COUNT'S APOLOGY
The fifteen nobles, who formed the Council of State for the Moselle Valley, stood in little groups in the Rittersaal of Winneburg's Castle, situated on a hill-top in the Ender Valley, a league or so from the waters of the Moselle. The nobles spoke in low tones together, for a greater than they were present, no other than their over-lord, the Archbishop of Treves, who, in his stately robes of office, paced up and down the long room, glancing now and then through the narrow windows which gave a view down the Ender Valley.
There was a trace of impatience in his Lordship's bearing, and well there might be, for here was the Council of State in assemblage, yet their chairman was absent, and the nobles stood there helplessly, like a flock of sheep whose shepherd is missing. The chairman was the Count of Winneburg, in whose castle they were now collected, and his lack of punctuality was thus a double discourtesy, for he was host as well as president.
Each in turn had tried to soothe the anger of the Archbishop, for all liked the Count of Winneburg, a bluff and generous-hearted giant, who would stand by his friends against all comers, was the quarrel his own or no. In truth little cared the stalwart Count of Winneburg whose quarrel it was so long as his arm got opportunity of wielding a blow in it. His Lordship of Treves had not taken this championship of the absent man with good grace, and now strode apart from the group, holding himself haughtily; muttering, perhaps prayers, perhaps something else.
When one by one the nobles had arrived at Winneburg's Castle, they were informed that its master had gone hunting that morning, saying he would return in time for the mid-day meal, but nothing had been heard of him since, although mounted messengers had been sent forth, and the great bell in the southern tower had been set ringing when the Archbishop arrived. It was the general opinion that Count Winneburg, becoming interested in the chase, had forgotten all about the Council, for it was well known that the Count's body was better suited for athletic sports or warfare than was his mind for the consideration of questions of State, and the nobles, themselves of similar calibre, probably liked him none the less on that account.
Presently the Archbishop stopped in his walk and faced the assemblage. "My Lords," he said, "we have already waited longer than the utmost stretch of courtesy demands. The esteem in which Count Winneburg holds our deliberations is indicated by his inexcusable neglect of a duty conferred upon him by you, and voluntarily accepted by him. I shall therefore take my place in his chair, and I call upon you to seat yourselves at the Council table."
Saying which the Archbishop strode to the vacant chair, and seated himself in it at the head of the board. The nobles looked one at the other with some dismay, for it was never their intention that the Archbishop should preside over their meeting, the object of which was rather to curb that high prelate's ambition, than to confirm still further the power he already held over them.
When, a year before, these Councils of State had been inaugurated, the Archbishop had opposed them, but, finding that the Emperor was inclined to defer to the wishes of his nobles, the Lord of Treves had insisted upon his right to be present during the deliberations, and this right the Emperor had conceded. He further proposed that the meeting should be held at his own castle of Cochem, as being conveniently situated midway between Coblentz and Treves, but to this the nobles had, with fervent unanimity, objected. Cochem Castle, they remembered, possessed strong walls and deep dungeons, and they had no desire to trust themselves within the lion's jaws, having little faith in his Lordship's benevolent intentions towards them.
The Emperor seemed favourable to the selection of Cochem as a convenient place of meeting, and the nobles were nonplussed, because they could not give their real reason for wishing to avoid it, and the Archbishop continued to press the claims of Cochem as being of equal advantage to all.
"It is not as though I asked them to come to Treves," said the Archbishop, "for that would entail a long journey upon those living near the Rhine, and in going to Cochem I shall myself be called upon to travel as far as those who come from Coblentz."
The Emperor said:
"It seems a most reasonable selection, and, unless some strong objection be urged, I shall confirm the choice of Cochem."
The nobles were all struck with apprehension at these words, and knew not what to say, when suddenly, to their great delight, up spoke the stalwart Count of Winneburg.
"Your Majesty," he said, "my Castle stands but a short league from Cochem, and has a Rittersaal as large as that in the pinnacled palace owned by the Archbishop. It is equally convenient for all concerned, and every gentleman is right welcome to its hospitality. My cellars are well filled with good wine, and my larders are stocked with an abundance of food. All that can be urged in favour of Cochem applies with equal truth to the Schloss Winneburg. If, therefore, the members of the Council will accept of my roof, it is theirs."
The nobles with universal enthusiasm cried:
"Yes, yes; Winneburg is the spot."
The Emperor smiled, for he well knew that his Lordship of Treves was somewhat miserly in the dispensing of his hospitality. He preferred to see his guests drink the wine of a poor vintage rather than tap the cask which contained the yield of a good year. His Majesty smiled, because he imagined his nobles thought of the replenishing of their stomachs, whereas they were concerned for the safety of their necks; but seeing them unanimous in their choice, he nominated Schloss Winneburg as the place of meeting, and so it remained.
When, therefore, the Archbishop of Treves set himself down in the ample chair, to which those present had, without a dissenting vote, elected Count Winneburg, distrust at once took hold of them, for they were ever jealous of the encroachments of their over-lord. The Archbishop glared angrily around him, but no man moved from where he stood.
"I ask you to be seated. The Council is called to order."
Baron Beilstein cleared his throat and spoke, seemingly with some hesitation, but nevertheless with a touch of obstinacy in his voice:
"May we beg a little more time for Count Winneburg? He has doubtless gone farther afield than he intended when he set out. I myself know something of the fascination of the chase, and can easily understand that it wipes out all remembrance of lesser things."
"Call you this Council a lesser thing?" demanded the Archbishop. "We have waited an hour already, and I shall not give the laggard a moment more."
"Indeed, my Lord, then I am sorry to hear it. I would not willingly be the man who sits in Winneburg's chair, should he come suddenly upon us."
"Is that a threat?" asked the Archbishop, frowning.
"It is not a threat, but rather a warning. I am a neighbour of the Count, and know him well, and whatever his virtues may be, calm patience is not one of them. If time hangs heavily, may I venture to suggest that your Lordship remove the prohibition you proclaimed when the Count's servants offered us wine, and allow me to act temporarily as host, ordering the flagons to be filled, which I think will please Winneburg better when he comes, than finding another in his chair."
"This is no drunken revel, but a Council of State," said the Archbishop sternly; "and I drink no wine when the host is not here to proffer it.
"Indeed, my Lord," said Beilstein, with a shrug of the shoulders, "some of us are so thirsty that we care not who makes the offer, so long as the wine be sound."
What reply the Archbishop would have made can only be conjectured, for at that moment the door burst open and in came Count Winneburg, a head and shoulders above any man in that room, and huge in proportion.
"My Lords, my Lords," he cried, his loud voice booming to the rafters, "how can I ask you to excuse such a breach of hospitality. What! Not a single flagon of wine in the room? This makes my deep regret almost unbearable. Surely, Beilstein, you might have amended that, if only for the sake of an old and constant comrade. Truth, gentlemen, until I heard the bell of the castle toll, I had no thought that this was the day of our meeting, and then, to my despair, I found myself an hour away, and have ridden hard to be among you."
Then, noticing there was something ominous in the air, and an unaccustomed silence to greet his words, he looked from one to the other, and his eye, travelling up the table, finally rested upon the Archbishop in his chair. Count Winneburg drew himself up, his ruddy face colouring like fire. Then, before any person could reach out hand to check him, or move lip in counsel, the Count, with a fierce oath, strode to the usurper, grasped him by the shoulders, whirled his heels high above his head, and flung him like a sack of corn to the smooth floor, where the unfortunate Archbishop, huddled in a helpless heap, slid along the polished surface as if he were on ice. The fifteen nobles stood stock-still, appalled at this unexpected outrage upon their over-lord. Winneburg seated himself in the chair with an emphasis that made even the solid table rattle, and bringing down his huge fist crashing on the board before him, shouted:
"Let no man occupy my chair, unless he has weight enough to remain there."
Baron Beilstein, and one or two others, hurried to the prostrate Archbishop and assisted him to his feet.
"Count Winneburg," said Beilstein, "you can expect no sympathy from us for such an act of violence in your own hall."
"I want none of your sympathy," roared the angry Count. "Bestow it on the man now in your hands who needs it. If you want the Archbishop of Treves to act as your chairman, elect him to that position and welcome. I shall have no usurpation in my Castle. While I am president I sit in the chair, and none other."
There was a murmur of approval at this, for one and all were deeply suspicious of the Archbishop's continued encroachments.
His Lordship of Treves once more on his feet, his lips pallid, and his face colourless, looked with undisguised hatred at his assailant. "Winneburg," he said slowly, "you shall apologise abjectly for this insult, and that in presence of the nobles of this Empire, or I will see to it that not one stone of this castle remains upon another."
"Indeed," said the Count nonchalantly, "I shall apologise to you, my Lord, when you have apologised to me for taking my place. As to the castle, it is said that the devil assisted in the building of it, and it is quite likely that through friendship for you, he may preside over its destruction."
The Archbishop made no reply, but, bowing haughtily to the rest of the company, who looked glum enough, well knowing that the episode they had witnessed meant, in all probability, red war let loose down the smiling valley of the Moselle, left the Rittersaal.
"Now that the Council is duly convened in regular order," said Count Winneburg, when the others had seated themselves round his table, "what questions of state come up for discussion?"
For a moment there was no answer to this query, the delegates looking at one another speechless. But at last Baron Beilstein shrugging his shoulder, said drily:
"Indeed, my Lord Count, I think the time for talk is past, and I suggest that we all look closely to the strengthening of our walls, which are likely to be tested before long by the Lion of Treves. It was perhaps unwise, Winneburg, to have used the Archbishop so roughly, he being unaccustomed to athletic exercise; but, let the consequences be what they may, I, for one, will stand by you."
"And I; and I; and I; and I," cried the others, with the exception of the Knight of Ehrenburg, who, living as he did near the town of Coblentz, was learned in the law, and not so ready as some of his comrades to speak first and think afterwards.
"My good friends," cried their presiding officer, deeply moved by this token of their fealty, "what I have done I have done, be it wise or the reverse, and the results must fall on my head alone. No words of mine can remove the dust of the floor from the Archbishop's cloak, so if he comes, let him come. I will give him as hearty a welcome as it is in my power to render. All I ask is fair play, and those who stand aside shall see a good fight. It is not right that a hasty act of mine should embroil the peaceful country side, so if Treves comes on I shall meet him alone here in my castle. But, nevertheless, I thank you all for your offers of help; that is all, except the Knight of Ehrenburg, whose tender of assistance, if made, has escaped my ear."
The Knight of Ehrenburg had, up to that moment, been studying the texture of the oaken table on which his flagon sat. Now he looked up and spoke slowly.
"I made no proffer of help," he said, "because none will be needed, I believe, so far as the Archbishop of Treves is concerned. The Count a moment ago said that all he wanted was fair play, but that is just what he has no right to expect from his present antagonist. The Archbishop will make no attempt on this castle; he will act much more subtly than that. The Archbishop will lay the redress of his quarrel upon the shoulders of the Emperor, and it is the oncoming of the Imperial troops you have to fear, and not an invasion from Treves. Against the forces of the Emperor we are powerless, united or divided. Indeed, his Majesty may call upon us to invest this castle, whereupon, if we refuse, we are rebels who have broken our oaths."
"What then is there left for me to do?" asked the Count, dismayed at the coil in which he had involved himself.
"Nothing," advised the Knight of Ehrenburg, "except to apologise abjectly to the Archbishop, and that not too soon, for his Lordship may refuse to accept it. But when he formally demands it, I should render it to him on his own terms, and think myself well out of an awkward position."
The Count of Winneburg rose from his seat, and lifting his clinched fist high above his head, shook it at the timbers of the roof.
"That," he cried, "will I never do, while one stone of Winneburg stands upon another."
At this, those present, always with the exception of the Knight of Ehrenburg, sprang to their feet, shouting:
"Imperial troops or no, we stand by the Count of Winneburg!"
Some one flashed forth a sword, and instantly a glitter of blades was in the air, while cheer after cheer rang to the rafters. When the uproar had somewhat subsided, the Knight of Ehrenburg said calmly:
"My castle stands nearest to the capital, and will be the first to fall, but, nevertheless, hoping to do my shouting when the war is ended, I join my forces with those of the rest of you."
And amidst this unanimity, and much emptying of flagons, the assemblage dissolved, each man with his escort taking his way to his own stronghold, perhaps to con more soberly, next day, the problem that confronted him. They were fighters all, and would not flinch when the pinch came, whatever the outcome.
Day followed day with no sign from Treves. Winneburg employed the time in setting his house in order to be ready for whatever chanced, and just as the Count was beginning to congratulate himself that his deed was to be without consequences, there rode up to his castle gates a horseman, accompanied by two lancers, and on the newcomer's breast were emblazoned the Imperial arms. Giving voice to his horn, the gates were at once thrown open to him, and, entering, he demanded instant speech with the Count.
"My Lord, Count Winneburg," he said, when that giant had presented himself, "His Majesty the Emperor commands me to summon you to the court at Frankfort."
"Do you take me as prisoner, then?" asked the Count.
"Nothing was said to me of arrest. I was merely commissioned to deliver to you the message of the Emperor."
"What are your orders if I refuse to go?"
A hundred armed men stood behind the Count, a thousand more were within call of the castle bell; two lances only were at the back of the messenger; but the strength of the broadcast empire was betokened by the symbol on his breast.
"My orders are to take back your answer to his Imperial Majesty," replied the messenger calmly.
The Count, though hot-headed, was no fool, and he stood for a moment pondering on the words which the Knight of Ehrenburg had spoken on taking his leave:
"Let not the crafty Archbishop embroil you with the Emperor."
This warning had been the cautious warrior's parting advice to him.
"If you will honour my humble roof," said the Count slowly, "by taking refreshment beneath it, I shall be glad of your company afterwards to Frankfort, in obedience to his Majesty's commands."
The messenger bowed low, accepted the hospitality, and together they made way across the Moselle, and along the Roman road to the capital.
Within the walls of Frankfort the Count was lodged in rooms near the palace, to which his conductor guided him, and, although it was still held that he was not a prisoner, an armed man paced to and fro before his door all night. The day following his arrival, Count Winneburg was summoned to the Court, and in a large ante-room found himself one of a numerous throng, conspicuous among them all by reason of his great height and bulk.
The huge hall was hung with tapestry, and at the further end were heavy curtains, at each edge of which stood half-a-dozen armoured men, the detachments being under command of two gaily-uniformed officers. Occasionally the curtains were parted by menials who stood there to perform that duty, and high nobles entered, or came out, singly and in groups. Down the sides of the hall were packed some hundreds of people, chattering together for the most part, and gazing at those who passed up and down the open space in the centre.
The Count surmised that the Emperor held his Court in whatever apartment was behind the crimson curtains. He felt the eyes of the multitude upon him, and shifted uneasily from one foot to another, cursing his ungainliness, ashamed of the tingling of the blood in his cheeks. He was out of plaice in this laughing, talking crowd, experiencing the sensations of an uncouth rustic suddenly thrust into the turmoil of a metropolis, resenting bitterly the supposed sneers that were flung at him. He suspected that the whispering and the giggling were directed towards himself, and burned to draw his sword and let these popinjays know for once what a man could do. As a matter of fact it was a buzz of admiration at his stature which went up when he entered, but the Count had so little of self-conceit in his soul that he never even guessed the truth.
Two nobles passing near him, he heard one of them say distinctly:
"That is the fellow who threw the Archbishop over his head," while the other, glancing at him, said:
"By the Coat, he seems capable of upsetting the three of them, and I, for one, wish more power to his muscle should he attempt it."
The Count shrank against the tapestried walls, hot with anger, wishing himself a dwarf that he might escape the gaze of so many inquiring eyes. Just as the scrutiny was becoming unbearable, his companion touched him on the elbow, and said in a low voice:
"Count Winneburg, follow me."
He held aside the tapestry at the back of the Count, and that noble, nothing loth, disappeared from view behind it.
Entering a narrow passage-way, they traversed it until they came to a closed door, at each lintel of which stood a pikeman, fronted with a shining breastplate of metal. The Count's conductor knocked gently at the closed door, then opened it, holding it so that the Count could pass in, and when he had done so, the door closed softly behind him. To his amazement, Winneburg saw before him, standing at the further end of the small room, the Emperor Rudolph, entirely alone. The Count was about to kneel awkwardly, when his liege strode forward and prevented him.
"Count Winneburg," he said, "from what I hear of you, your elbow-joints are more supple than those of your knees, therefore let us be thankful that on this occasion there is no need to use either. I see you are under the mistaken impression that the Emperor is present. Put that thought from your mind, and regard me simply as Lord Rudolph—one gentleman wishing to have some little conversation with another."
"Your Majesty—" stammered the Count.
"I have but this moment suggested that you forget that title, my Lord. But, leaving aside all question of salutation, let us get to the heart of the matter, for I think we are both direct men. You are summoned to Frankfort because that high and mighty Prince of the Church, the Archbishop of Treves, has made complaint to the Emperor against you alleging what seems to be an unpardonable indignity suffered by him at your hands."
"Your Majesty—my Lord, I mean," faltered the Count. "The indignity was of his own seeking; he sat down in my chair, where he had no right to place himself, and I—I—persuaded him to relinquish his position."
"So I am informed—that is to say, so his Majesty has been informed," replied Rudolph, a slight smile hovering round his finely chiselled lips. "We are not here to comment upon any of the Archbishop's delinquencies, but, granting, for the sake of argument, that he had encroached upon your rights, nevertheless, he was under your roof, and honestly, I fail to see that you were justified in cracking his heels against the same."
"Well, your Majesty—again I beg your Majesty's pardon—"
"Oh, no matter," said the Emperor, "call me what you like; names signify little."
"If then the Emperor," continued the Count, "found an intruder sitting on his throne, would he like it, think you?"
"His feeling, perhaps, would be one of astonishment, my Lord Count, but speaking for the Emperor, I am certain that he would never lay hands on the usurper, or treat him like a sack of corn in a yeoman's barn."
The Count laughed heartily at this, and was relieved to find that this quitted him of the tension which the great presence had at first inspired.
"Truth to tell, your Majesty, I am sorry I touched him. I should have requested him to withdraw, but my arm has always been more prompt in action than my tongue, as you can readily see since I came into this room."
"Indeed, Count, your tongue does you very good service," continued the Emperor, "and I am glad to have from you an expression of regret. I hope, therefore, that you will have no hesitation in repeating that declaration to the Archbishop of Treves."
"Does your Majesty mean that I am to apologise to him?"
"Yes," answered the Emperor.
There was a moment's pause, then the Count said slowly:
"I will surrender to your Majesty my person, my sword, my castle, and my lands. I will, at your word, prostrate myself at your feet, and humbly beg pardon for any offence I have committed against you, but to tell the Archbishop I am sorry when I am not, and to cringe before him and supplicate his grace, well, your Majesty, as between man and man, I'll see him damned first."
Again the Emperor had some difficulty in preserving that rigidity of expression which he had evidently resolved to maintain.
"Have you ever met a ghost, my Lord Count?" he asked.
Winneburg crossed himself devoutly, a sudden pallor sweeping over his face.
"Indeed, your Majesty, I have seen strange things, and things for which there was no accounting; but it has been usually after a contest with the wine flagon, and at the time my head was none of the clearest, so I could not venture to say whether they were ghosts or no."
"Imagine, then, that in one of the corridors of your castle at midnight you met a white-robed transparent figure, through whose form your sword passed scathlessly. What would you do, my Lord?"
"Indeed, your Majesty, I would take to my heels, and bestow myself elsewhere as speedily as possible."
"Most wisely spoken and you, who are no coward, who fear not to face willingly in combat anything natural, would, in certain circumstances, trust to swift flight for your protection. Very well, my Lord, you are now confronted with something against which your stout arm is as unavailing as it would be if an apparition stood in your path. There is before you the spectre of subtlety. Use arm instead of brain, and you are a lost man.
"The Archbishop expects no apology. He looks for a stalwart, stubborn man, defying himself and the Empire combined. You think, perhaps, that the Imperial troops will surround your castle, and that you may stand a siege. Now the Emperor would rather have you fight with him than against him, but in truth there will be no contest. Hold to your refusal, and you will be arrested before you leave the precincts of this palace. You will be thrown into a dungeon, your castle and your lands sequestered; and I call your attention to the fact that your estate adjoins the possessions of the Archbishop at Cochem, and Heaven fend me for hinting that his Lordship casts covetous eyes over his boundary; yet, nevertheless, he will probably not refuse to accept your possessions in reparation for the insult bestowed upon him. Put it this way if you like. Would you rather pleasure me or pleasure the Archbishop of Treves?"