HotFreeBooks.com
The Strong Arm
by Robert Barr
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The armour splintered like crushed ice, and Count Bertrich fell prone on his face and lay there. There was instant cry of "Treason! Treason!" and shouts of "No man may draw arms in the Emperor's presence."

"My Lord Emperor," cried the Count of Burg Arras, "I crave pardon if I have done amiss. A man does not forget the tricks of his old calling when he takes on new honours. Your Majesty has said that I am a Count. This man, having heard your Majesty's word, proclaims me blacksmith, and so gave the lie to his Emperor. For this I struck him, and would again, even though he stood before the throne in a palace, or the altar in a cathedral. If that be treason, take from me your honours, and let me back to my forge, where this same hammer will mend the armour it has broken, or beat him out a new back-piece."

"You have broken no tenet of the feudal law," said the Emperor. "You have broken nothing, I trust, but the Count's armour, for, as I see, he is arousing himself, doubtless no bones are broken as well. The feudal law does not regard a blacksmith's hammer as a weapon. And as for treason, Count of Burg Arras, may my throne always be surrounded by such treason as yours."

And for centuries after, the descendants of the blacksmith were Counts of Burg Arras, and held the castle of that name, whose ruins to-day attest the excellence of the Archbishop's building.



COUNT KONRAD'S COURTSHIP

It was nearly midnight when Count Konrad von Hochstaden reached his castle on the Rhine, with a score of very tired and hungry men behind him. The warder at the gate of Schloss Hochstaden, after some cautious parley with the newcomers, joyously threw apart the two great iron- studded oaken leaves of the portal when he was convinced that it was indeed his young master who had arrived after some tumultuous years at the crusades, and Count Konrad with his followers rode clattering under the stone arch, into the ample courtyard. It is recorded that, in the great hall of the castle, the Count and his twenty bronzed and scarred knights ate such a meal as had never before been seen to disappear in Hochstaden, and that after drinking with great cheer to the downfall of the Saracene and the triumph of the true cross, they all lay on the floor of the Rittersaal and slept the remainder of the night, the whole of next day, and did not awaken until the dawn of the second morning. They had had years of hard fighting in the east, and on the way home they had been compelled to work their passage through the domains of turbulent nobles by good stout broadsword play, the only argument their opposers could understand, and thus they had come through to the Rhine without contributing aught to their opponents except fierce blows, which were not commodities as marketable as yellow gold, yet with this sole exchange did the twenty-one win their way from Palestine to the Palatinate, and thus were they so long on the road that those in Schloss Hochstaden had given up all expectation of their coming.

Count Konrad found that his father, whose serious illness was the cause of his return, had been dead for months past, and the young man wandered about the castle which, during the past few years, he had beheld only in dreams by night and in the desert mirages by day, saddened because of his loss. He would return to the Holy Land, he said to himself, and let the castle be looked after by its custodian until the war with the heathen was ended.

The young Count walked back and forth on the stone paved terrace which commanded from its height such a splendid view of the winding river, but he paid small attention to the landscape, striding along with his hands clasped behind him; his head bent, deep in thought. He was awakened from his reverie by the coming of the ancient custodian of the castle, who shuffled up to him and saluted him with reverential respect, for the Count was now the last of his race; a fighting line, whose members rarely came to die peaceably in their beds as Konrad's father had done.

The Count, looking up, swept his eye around the horizon and then to his astonishment saw the red battle flag flying grimly from the high northern tower of Castle Bernstein perched on the summit of the next hill to the south. In the valley were the white tents of an encampment, and fluttering over it was a flag whose device, at that distance, the Count could not discern.

"Why is the battle flag flying on Bernstein, Gottlieb, and what means those tents in the valley?" asked Konrad.

The old man looked in the direction of the encampment, as if the sight were new to him, but Konrad speedily saw that the opposite was the case. The tents had been there so long that they now seemed a permanent part of the scenery.

"The Archbishop of Cologne, my Lord, is engaged in the besiegement of Schloss Bernstein, and seems like to have a long job of it. He has been there for nearly a year now."

"Then the stout Baron is making a brave defence; good luck to him!"

"Alas, my Lord, I am grieved to state that the Baron went to his rest on the first day of the assault. He foolishly sallied out at the head of his men and fell hotly on the Archbishop's troops, who were surrounding the castle. There was some matter in dispute between the Baron and the Archbishop, and to aid the settlement thereof, his mighty Lordship of Cologne sent a thousand armed men up the river, and it is said that all he wished was to have parley with Baron Bernstein, and to overawe him in the discussion, but the Baron came out at the head of his men and fell upon the Cologne troops so mightily that he nearly put the whole battalion to flight, but the officers rallied their panic- stricken host, seeing how few were opposed to them, and the order was given that the Baron should be taken prisoner, but the old man would not have it so, and fought so sturdily with his long sword, that he nearly entrenched himself with a wall of dead. At last the old man was cut down and died gloriously, with scarcely a square inch unwounded on his whole body. The officers of the Archbishop then tried to carry the castle by assault, but the Lady of Bernstein closed and barred the gate, ran, up the battle flag on the northern tower and bid defiance to the Archbishop and all his men."

"The Lady of Bernstein? I thought the Baron was a widower. Whom, then, did he again marry?"

"'Twas not his wife, but his daughter."

"His daughter? Not Brunhilda? She's but a child of ten."

"She was when you went away, my Lord, but now she is a woman of eighteen, with all the beauty of her mother and all the bravery of her father."

"Burning Cross of the East, Gottlieb! Do you mean to say that for a year a prince of the Church has been warring with a girl, and her brother, knowing nothing of this cowardly assault, fighting the battles for his faith on the sands of the desert? Let the bugle sound! Call up my men and arouse those who are still sleeping."

"My Lord, my Lord, I beg of you to have caution in this matter."

"Caution? God's patience! Has caution rotted the honour out of the bones of all Rhine men, that this outrage should pass unmolested before their eyes! The father murdered; the daughter beleaguered; while those who call themselves men sleep sound in their safe castles! Out of my way, old man! Throw open the gates!"

But the ancient custodian stood firmly before his over-lord, whose red angry face seemed like that of the sun rising so ruddily behind him.

"My Lord, if you insist on engaging in this enterprise it must be gone about sanely. You need the old head as well as the young arm. You have a score of well-seasoned warriors, and we can gather into the castle another hundred. But the Archbishop has a thousand men around Bernstein. Your score would but meet the fate of the old Baron and would not better the case of those within the castle. The Archbishop has not assaulted Bernstein since the Baron's death, but has drawn a tight line around it and so has cut off all supplies, daily summoning the maiden to surrender. What they now need in Bernstein is not iron, but food. Through long waiting they keep slack watch about the castle, and it is possible that, with care taken at midnight, you might reprovision Bernstein so that she could hold out until her brother comes, whom it is said she has summoned from the Holy Land."

"Thou art wise, old Gottlieb," said the Count slowly, pausing in his wrath as the difficulties of the situation were thus placed in array before him; "wise and cautious, as all men seem to be who now keep ward on the Rhine. What said my father regarding this contest?"

"My Lord, your honoured father was in his bed stricken with the long illness that came to be his undoing at the last, and we never let him know that the Baron was dead or the siege in progress."

"Again wise and cautious, Gottlieb, for had he known it, he would have risen from his deathbed, taken down his two-handed sword from the wall, and struck his last blow in defence of the right against tyranny."

"Indeed, my Lord, under danger of your censure, I venture to say that you do not yet know the cause of the quarrel into which you design to precipitate yourself. It may not be tyranny on the part of the overlord, but disobedience on the part of the vassal, which causes the environment of Bernstein. And the Archbishop is a prince of our holy Church."

"I leave those nice distinctions to philosophers like thee, Gottlieb. It is enough for me to know that a thousand men are trying to starve one woman, and as for being a prince of the Church, I shall give his devout Lordship a taste of religion hot from its birthplace, and show him how we uphold the cause in the East, for in this matter the Archbishop grasps not the cross but the sword, and by the sword shall he be met. And now go, Gottlieb, set ablaze the fires on all our ovens and put the bakers at work. Call in your hundred men as speedily as possible, and bid each man bring with him a sack of wheat. Spend the day at the baking and fill the cellars with grain and wine. It will be reason enough, if any make inquiry, to say that the young Lord has returned and intends to hold feasts in his castle. Send hither my Captain to me."

Old Gottlieb hobbled away, and there presently came upon the terrace a stalwart, grizzled man, somewhat past middle age, whose brown face showed more seams of scars than remnants of beauty. He saluted his chief and stood erect in silence.

The Count waved his hand toward the broad valley and said grimly:

"There sits the Archbishop of Cologne, besieging the Castle of Bernstein."

The Captain bowed low and crossed himself.

"God prosper his Lordship," he said piously.

"You may think that scarcely the phrase to use, Captain, when I tell you that you will lead an assault on his Lordship to-night."

"Then God prosper us, my Lord," replied the Captain cheerfully, for he was ever a man who delighted more in fighting than in inquiring keenly into the cause thereof.

"You may see from here that a ridge runs round from this castle, bending back from the river, which it again approaches, touching thus Schloss Bernstein. There is a path along the summit of the ridge which I have often trodden as a boy, so I shall be your guide. It is scarce likely that this path is guarded, but if it is we will have to throw its keepers over the precipice; those that we do not slay outright, when we come upon them."

"Excellent, my Lord, most excellent," replied the Captain, gleefully rubbing his huge hands one over the other.

"But it is not entirely to fight that we go. You are to act as convoy to those who carry bread to Castle Bernstein. We shall leave here at the darkest hour after midnight and you must return before daybreak so that the Archbishop cannot estimate our numbers. Then get out all the old armour there is in the castle and masquerade the peasants in it. Arrange them along the battlements so that they will appear as numerous as possible while I stay in Castle Bernstein and make terms with the Archbishop, for it seems he out-mans us, so we must resort, in some measure, to strategy. On the night assault let each man yell as if he were ten and lay about him mightily. Are the knaves astir yet?"

"Most of them, my Lord, and drinking steadily the better to endure the dryness of the desert when we go eastward again."

"Well, see to it that they do not drink so much as to interfere with clean sword-play against to-night's business."

"Indeed, my Lord, I have a doubt if there is Rhine wine enough in the castle's vaults to do that, and the men yell better when they have a few gallons within them."

At the appointed hour Count Konrad and his company went silently forth, escorting a score more who carried sacks of the newly baked bread on their backs, or leathern receptacles filled with wine, as well as a stout cask of the same seductive fluid. Near the Schloss Bernstein the rescuing party came upon the Archbishop's outpost, who raised the alarm before the good sword of the Captain cut through the cry. There were bugle calls throughout the camp and the sound of men hurrying to their weapons, but all the noise of preparation among the besiegers was as nothing to the demoniac din sent up by the Crusaders, who rushed to the onslaught with a zest sharpened by their previous rest and inactivity. The wild barbaric nature of their yells, such as never before were heard on the borders of the placid Rhine, struck consternation into the opposition camp, because some of the Archbishop's troops had fought against the heathen in the East, and they now recognised the clamour which had before, on many an occasion, routed them, and they thought that the Saracenes had turned the tables and invaded Germany; indeed from the deafening clamour it seemed likely that all Asia was let loose upon them. The alarm spread quickly to Castle Bernstein itself, and torches began to glimmer on its battlements. With a roar the Crusaders rushed up to the foot of the wall, as a wave dashes against a rock, sweeping the frightened bread-carriers with them. By the light of the torches Konrad saw standing on the wall a fair young girl clad in chain armour whose sparkling links glistened like countless diamonds in the rays of the burning pitch. She leaned on the cross-bar of her father's sword and, with wide-open, eager eyes peered into the darkness beyond, questioning the gloom for reason of the terrifying tumult. When Konrad strode within the radius of the torches, the girl drew back slightly and cried:

"So the Archbishop has at last summoned courage to attack, after all this patient waiting."

"My Lady," shouted the Count, "these are my forces and not the Archbishop's. I am Konrad, Count of Hochstaden."

"The more shame, then, that you, who have fought bravely with men, should now turn your weapons against a woman, and she your neighbour and the sister of your friend."

"Indeed, Lady Brunhilda, you misjudge me. I am come to your rescue and not to your disadvantage.. The Archbishop's men were put to some inconvenience by our unexpected arrival, and to gather from the sounds far down the valley they have not ceased running yet. We come with bread, and use the sword but as a spit to deliver it."

"Your words are welcome were I but sure of their truth," said the lady with deep distrust in her tone, for she had had experience of the Archbishop's craft on many occasions, and the untimely hour of the succour led her to fear a ruse. "I open my gates neither to friend nor to foe in the darkness," she added.

"Tis a rule that may well be commended to others of your bewitching sex," replied the Count, "but we ask not the opening of the gates, although you might warn those within your courtyard to beware what comes upon them presently."

So saying, he gave the word, and each two of his servitors seized a sack of bread by the ends and, heaving it, flung it over the wall. Some of the sacks fell short, but the second effort sent them into the courtyard, where many of them burst, scattering the round loaves along the cobble-stoned pavement, to be eagerly pounced upon by the starving servitors and such men-at-arms as had escaped from the encounter with the Archbishop's troops when the Baron was slain. The cries of joy that rang up from within the castle delighted the ear of the Count and softened the suspicion of the lady on the wall.

"Now," cried Konrad to his Captain, "back to Schloss Hochstaden before the dawn approaches too closely, and let there be no mistake in the Archbishop's camp that you are on the way."

They all departed in a series of earsplitting, heart-appalling whoops that shattered the still night air and made a vocal pandemonium of that portion of the fair Rhine valley. The colour left the cheeks of the Lady of Bernstein as she listened in palpable terror to the fiendish outcry which seemed to scream for blood and that instantly, looking down she saw the Knight of Hochstaden still there at the foot of her wall gazing up at her.

"My Lord," she said with concern, "if you stay thus behind your noisy troop you will certainly be captured when it comes day."

"My Lady of Bernstein, I am already a captive, and all the Archbishop's men could not hold me more in thrall did they surround me at this moment."

"I do not understand you, sir," said Brunhilda coldly, drawing herself up with a dignity that well became her, "your language seems to partake of an exaggeration that doubtless you have learned in the tropical East, and which we have small patience with on the more temperate banks of the Rhine."

"The language that I use, fair Brunhilda, knows neither east nor west; north nor south, but is common to every land, and if it be a stranger to the Rhine, the Saints be witness 'tis full time 'twere introduced here, and I hold myself as competent to be its spokesman, as those screeching scoundrels of mine hold themselves the equal in battle to all the archbishops who ever wore the robes of that high office."

"My Lord," cried Brunhilda, a note of serious warning in her voice, "my gates are closed and they remain so. I hold myself your debtor for unasked aid, and would fain see you in a place of safety."

"My reverenced Lady, that friendly wish shall presently be gratified," and saying this, the Count unwound from his waist a thin rope woven of horse-hair, having a long loop at the end of it. This he whirled round his head and with an art learned in the scaling of eastern walls flung the loop so that it surrounded one of the machicolations of the bastion, and, with his feet travelling against the stone work, he walked up the wall by aid of this cord and was over the parapet before any could hinder his ascent. The Maid of the Schloss, her brows drawn down in anger, stood with sword ready to strike, but whether it was the unwieldiness of the clumsy weapon, or whether it was the great celerity with which the young man put his nimbleness to the test, or whether it was that she recognised him as perhaps her one friend on earth, who can tell; be that as it may, she did not strike in time, and a moment, later the Count dropped on one knee and before she knew it raised one of her hands to his bending lips.

"Lovely Warder of Bernstein," cried Count Konrad, with a tremor of emotion in his voice that thrilled the girl in spite of herself, "I lay my devotion and my life at your feet, to use them as you will."

"My Lord," she said quaveringly, with tears nearer the surface than she would have cared to admit, "I like not this scaling of the walls; my permission unasked."

"God's truth, my Lady, and you are not the first to so object, but the others were men, and I may say, without boasting, that I bent not the knee to them when I reached their level, but I have been told that custom will enable a maid to look more forgivingly on such escapades if her feeling is friendly toward the invader, and I am bold enough to hope that the friendship with which your brother has ever regarded me in the distant wars, may be extended to my unworthy self by his sister at home."

Count Konrad rose to his feet and the girl gazed at him in silence, seeing how bronzed and manly he looked in his light well-polished eastern armour, which had not the cumbrous massiveness of western mail, but, while amply protecting the body, bestowed upon it lithe freedom for quick action; and unconsciously she compared him, not to his disadvantage, with the cravens on the Rhine, who, while sympathising with her, dared not raise weapon on her behalf against so powerful an over-lord as the warlike Archbishop. The scarlet cross of the Crusader on his broad breast seemed to her swimming eyes to blaze with lambent flame in the yellow torchlight. She dared not trust her voice to answer him, fearing its faintness might disown the courage with which she had held her castle for so long, and he, seeing that she struggled to hold control of herself, standing there like a superb Goddess of the Rhine, pretended to notice nothing and spoke jauntily with a wave of his hand: "My villains have brought to the foot of the walls a cask of our best wine which we dared not adventure to cast into the courtyard with that freedom which forwarded the loaves; there is also a packet of dainties more suited to your Ladyship's consideration than the coarse bread from our ovens. Give command, I beg of you, that the gates be opened and that your men bring the wine and food to safety within the courtyard, and bestow on me the privilege of guarding the open gate while this is being done."

Then gently, with insistent deference, the young man took from her the sword of her father which she yielded to him with visible reluctance, but nevertheless yielded, standing there disarmed before him. Together in silence they went down the stone steps that led from the battlements to the courtyard, followed by the torch-bearers, whom the lightening east threatened soon to render unnecessary. A cheer went up, the first heard for many days within those walls, and the feasters, flinging their caps in the air, cried "Hochstaden! Hochstaden!" The Count turned to his fair companion and said, with a smile:

"The garrison is with me, my Lady."

She smiled also, and sighed, but made no other reply, keeping her eyes steadfast on the stone steps beneath her. Once descended, she gave the order in a low voice, and quickly the gates were thrown wide, creaking grumblingly on their hinges, long unused. Konrad stood before the opening with the sword of Bernstein in his hands, swinging it this way and that to get the hang of it, and looking on it with the admiration which a warrior ever feels for a well hung, trusty blade, while the men-at-arms nodded to one another and said: "There stands a man who knows the use of a weapon. I would that he had the crafty Archbishop before him to practise on."

When the barrel was trundled in, the Lady of Bernstein had it broached at once, and with her own hand served to each of her men a flagon of the golden wine. Each took his portion, bowing low to the lady, then doffing cap, drank first to the Emperor, and after with an enthusiasm absent from the Imperial toast, to the young war lord whom the night had flung thus unexpectedly among them. When the last man had refreshed himself, the Count stepped forward and begged a flagon full that he might drink in such good company, and it seemed that Brunhilda had anticipated such a request, for she turned to one of her women and held out her hand, receiving a huge silver goblet marvellously engraved that had belonged to her forefathers, and plenishing it, she gave it to the Count, who, holding it aloft, cried, "The Lady of Bernstein," whereupon there arose such a shout that the troubled Archbishop heard it in his distant tent.

"And yet further of your hospitality must I crave," said Konrad, "for the morning air is keen, and gives me an appetite for food of which I am deeply ashamed, but which nevertheless clamours for an early breakfast."

The lady, after giving instruction to the maids who waited upon her, led the way into the castle, where Konrad following, they arrived in the long Rittersaal, at the end of which, facing the brightening east, was placed a huge window of stained glass, whose great breadth was gradually lightening as if an unseen painter with magic brush was tinting the glass with transparent colour, from the lofty timbered ceiling to the smoothly polished floor. At the end of the table, with her back to the window, Brunhilda sat, while the Count took a place near her, by the side, turning so that he faced her, the ever- increasing radiance illumining his scintillating armour. The girl ate sparingly, saying little and glancing often at her guest. He fell to like the good trencherman he was, and talked unceasingly of the wars in the East, and the brave deeds done there, and as he talked the girl forgot all else, rested her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, regarding him intently, for he spoke not of himself but of her brother, and of how, when grievously pressed, he had borne himself so nobly that more than once, seemingly certain defeat was changed into glorious victory. Now and then when Konrad gazed upon Brunhilda, his eloquent tongue faltered for a moment and he lost the thread of his narrative, for all trace of the warrior maid had departed, and there, outlined against the glowing window of dazzling colours, she seemed indeed a saint with her halo of golden hair, a fit companion to the angels that the marvellous skill of the artificer had placed in that gorgeous collection of pictured panes, lead-lined and cut in various shapes, answering the needs of their gifted designer, as a paint-brush follows the will of the artist. From where the young man sat, the girl against the window seemed a member of that radiant company, and thus he paused stricken speechless by her beauty.

She spoke at last, the smile on her lips saddened by the down turning of their corners, her voice the voice of one hovering uncertain between laughter and tears.

"And you," she said, "you seem to have had no part in all this stirring recital. It was my brother and my brother and my brother, and to hear you one would think you were all the while hunting peacefully in your Rhine forests. Yet still I do believe the Count of Hochstaden gave the heathen to know he was somewhat further to the east of Germany."

"Oh, of me," stammered the Count. "Yes, I was there, it is true, and sometimes—well, I have a fool of a captain, headstrong and reckless, who swept me now and then into a melee, before I could bring cool investigation to bear upon his mad projects, and once in the fray of course I had to plead with my sword to protect my head, otherwise my bones would now be on the desert sands, so I selfishly lay about me and did what I could to get once more out of the turmoil."

The rising sun now struck living colour into the great window of stained glass, splashing the floor and the further wall with crimson and blue and gold. Count Konrad sprang to his feet. "The day is here," he cried, standing in the glory of it, while the girl rose more slowly. "Let us have in your bugler and see if he has forgotten the battle call of the Bernsteins. Often have I heard it in the desert. 'Give us the battle call,' young Heinrich would cry and then to its music all his followers would shout 'Bernstein! Bernstein!' until it seemed the far- off horizon must have heard."

The trumpeter came, and being now well fed, blew valiantly, giving to the echoing roof the war cry of the generations of fighting men it had sheltered.

"That is it," cried the Count, "and it has a double significance. A challenge on the field, and a summons to parley when heard from the walls. We shall now learn whether or no the Archbishop has forgotten it, and I crave your permission to act as spokesman with his Lordship."

"That I most gratefully grant," said the Lady of the Castle.

Once more on the battlements, the Lord of Hochstaden commanded the trumpeter to sound the call The martial music rang out in the still morning air and was echoed mockingly by the hills on the other side of the river. After that, all was deep silence.

"Once again," said Konrad.

For a second time the battle blast filled the valley, and for a second time returned faintly back from the hills. Then from near the great tent of the Archbishop, by the margin of the stream, came the answering call, accepting the demand for a parley.

When at last the Archbishop, mounted on a black charger, came slowly up the winding path which led to the castle, attended by only two of his officers, he found the Count of Hochstaden awaiting him on the battlements above the gate. The latter's hopes arose when he saw that Cologne himself had come, and had not entrusted the business to an envoy, and it was also encouraging to note that he came so poorly attended, for when a man has made up his mind to succumb he wishes as few witnesses as possible, while if he intends further hostilities, he comes in all the pomp of his station.

"With whom am I to hold converse?" began the Archbishop, "I am here at the behest of the Bernstein call to parley, but I see none, of that name on the wall to greet me."

"Heinrich, Baron Bernstein, is now on his way to his castle from the Holy Land, and were he here it were useless for me to summon a parley, for he would answer you with the sword and not with the tongue when he learned his father was dead at your hand."

"That is no reply to my question. With whom do I hold converse?"

"I am Konrad, Count of Hochstaden, and your Lordship's vassal."

"I am glad to learn of your humility and pleased to know that I need not call your vassalage to your memory, but I fear that in the darkness you have less regard for either than you now pretend in the light of day."

"In truth, my Lord, you grievously mistake me, for in the darkness I stood your friend. I assure you I had less than a thousand rascals at my back last night, and yet nothing would appease them but that they must fling themselves upon your whole force, had I not held them in check. I told them you probably outnumbered us ten to one, but they held that one man who had gone through an eastern campaign was worth ten honest burghers from Cologne, which indeed I verily believe, and for the fact that you were not swept into the Rhine early this morning you have me and my peaceful nature to thank, my Lord. Perhaps you heard the rogues discussing the matter with me before dawn, and going angrily home when I so ordered them."

"A man had need to be dead and exceedingly deep in his grave not to have heard them" growled the Archbishop.

"And there they stand at this moment, my Lord, doubtless grumbling among themselves that I am so long giving the signal they expect, which will permit them to finish this morning's work. The men I can generally control, but my captains are a set of impious cut-throats who would sooner sack an Archbishop's palace than listen to the niceties of the feudal law which protects over-lords from such pleasantries."

The Archbishop turned on his horse and gazed on the huge bulk of Schloss Hochstaden, and there a wonderful sight met his eye. The walls bristled with armed men, the sun glistening on their polished breastplates like the shimmer of summer lightning. The Archbishop turned toward the gate again, as though the sight he beheld brought small comfort to him.

"What is your desire?" he said with less of truculence in his tone than there had been at the beginning.

"I hold it a scandal," said the Count gravely, "that a prince of the Church should assault Christian walls while their owner is absent in the East venturing his life in the uplifting of the true faith. You can now retreat without loss of prestige; six hours hence that may be impossible. I ask you then to give your assurance to the Lady of Bernstein, pledging your knightly word that she will be no longer threatened by you, and I ask you to withdraw your forces immediately to Cologne where it is likely they will find something to do if Baron Heinrich, as I strongly suspect, marches directly on that city."

"I shall follow the advice of my humble vassal, for the strength of a prince is in the sage counsel of his war lords. Will you escort the lady to the battlements?"

Then did Count Konrad von Hochstaden see that his cause was won, and descending he came up again, leading the Lady Brunhilda by the hand.

"I have to acquaint you, madame," said the Archbishop, "that the siege is ended, and I give you my assurance that you will not again be beleaguered by my forces."

The Lady of Bernstein bowed, but made no answer. She blushed deeply that the Count still held her hand, but she did not withdraw it.

"And now, my Lord Archbishop, that this long-held contention is amicably adjusted," began Von Hochstaden, "I crave that you bestow on us two your gracious blessing, potentate of the Church, for this lady is to be my wife"

"What!" cried Brunhilda in sudden anger, snatching her hand from his, "do you think you can carry me by storm as you did my castle, without even asking my consent?"

"Lady of my heart," said Konrad tenderly, "I did ask your consent. My eyes questioned in the Rittersaal and yours gave kindly answer. Is there then no language but that which is spoken? I offer you here before the world my open hand; is it to remain empty?"

He stood before her with outstretched palm, and she gazed steadfastly at him, breathing quickly. At length a smile dissolved the sternness of her charming lips, she glanced at his extended hand and said:

"'Twere a pity so firm and generous a hand should remain tenantless," and with that she placed her palm in his.

The Archbishop smiled grimly at this lovers' by-play, then solemnly, with upraised hands, invoked God's blessing upon them.



THE LONG LADDER

Every fortress has one traitor within its walls; the Schloss Eltz had two. In this, curiously enough, lay its salvation; for as some Eastern poisons when mixed neutralise each other and form combined a harmless fluid, so did the two traitors unwittingly react, the one upon the other, to the lasting glory of Schloss Eltz, which has never been captured to this day.

It would be difficult to picture the amazement of Heinrich von Richenbach when he sat mute upon his horse at the brow of the wooded heights and, for the first time, beheld the imposing pile which had been erected by the Count von Eltz. It is startling enough to come suddenly upon a castle where no castle should be; but to find across one's path an erection that could hardly have been the product of other agency than the lamp of Aladdin was stupefying, and Heinrich drew the sunburned back of his hand across his eyes, fearing that they were playing him a trick; then seeing the wondrous vision still before him, he hastily crossed himself, an action performed somewhat clumsily through lack of practice, so that he might ward off enchantment, if, as seemed likely, that mountain of pinnacles was the work of the devil, and not placed there, stone on stone, by the hand of man. But in spite of crossing and the clearing of his eyes, Eltz Castle remained firmly seated on its stool of rock, and, when his first astonishment had somewhat abated, Von Richenbach, who was a most practical man, began to realise that here, purely by a piece of unbelievable good luck, the very secret he had been sent to unravel had been stumbled upon, the solving of which he had given up in despair, returning empty-handed to his grim master, the redoubtable Archbishop Baldwin of Treves.

It was now almost two months since the Archbishop had sent him on the mission to the Rhine from which he was returning as wise as he went, well knowing that a void budget would procure him scant welcome from his imperious ruler. Here, at least, was important matter for the warlike Elector's stern consideration—an apparently impregnable fortress secretly built in the very centre of the Archbishop's domain; and knowing that the Count von Eltz claimed at least partial jurisdiction over this district, more especially that portion known as the Eltz-thal, in the middle of which this mysterious citadel had been erected. Heinrich rightly surmised that its construction had been the work of this ancient enemy of the Archbishop.

Two months before, or nearly so, Heinrich von Richenbach had been summoned into the presence of the Lion of Treves at his palace in that venerable city. When Baldwin had dismissed all within the room save only Von Richenbach, the august prelate said:

"It is my pleasure that you take horse at once and proceed to my city of Mayence on the Rhine, where I am governor. You will inspect the garrison there and report to me."

Heinrich bowed, but said nothing.

"You will then go down the Rhine to Elfield, where my new castle is built, and I shall be pleased to have an opinion regarding it."

The Archbishop paused, and again his vassal bowed and remained silent.

"It is my wish that you go without escort, attracting as little attention as possible, and perhaps it may be advisable to return by the northern side of the Moselle, but some distance back from the river, as there are barons on the banks who might inquire your business, and regret their curiosity when they found they questioned a messenger of mine. We should strive, during our brief sojourn on this inquisitive earth, to put our fellow creatures to as little discomfort as possible."

Von Richenbach saw that he was being sent on a secret and possibly dangerous mission, and he had been long enough in the service of the crafty Archbishop to know that the reasons ostensibly given for his journey were probably not those which were the cause of it, so he contented himself with inclining his head for the third time and holding his peace. The Archbishop regarded him keenly for a few moments, a derisive smile parting his firm lips; then said, as if his words were an afterthought:

"Our faithful vassal, the Count von Eltz, is, if I mistake not, a neighbor of ours at Elfield?"

The sentence took, through its inflection, the nature of a query, and for the first time Heinrich von Richenbach ventured reply.

"He is, my Lord."

The Archbishop raised his eyes to the vaulted ceiling, and seemed for a time lost in thought, saying, at last, apparently in soliloquy, rather than by direct address:

"Count von Eltz has been suspiciously quiet of late for a man so impetuous by nature. It might be profitable to know what interests him during this unwonted seclusion. It behooves us to acquaint ourselves with the motives that actuate a neighbour, so that, opportunity arising, we may aid him with counsel or encouragement. If, therefore, it should so chance that, in the intervals of your inspection of governorship or castle, aught regarding the present occupation of the noble count comes to your ears, the information thus received may perhaps remain in your memory until you return to Treves."

The Archbishop withdrew his eyes from the ceiling, the lids lowering over them, and flashed a keen, rapier-like glance at the man who stood before him.

Heinrich von Richenbach made low obeisance and replied:

"Whatever else fades from my memory, my Lord, news of Count von Eltz shall remain there."

"See that you carry nothing upon you, save your commission as inspector, which my secretary will presently give to you. If you are captured it will be enough to proclaim yourself my emissary and exhibit your commission in proof of the peaceful nature of your embassy. And now to horse and away."

Thus Von Richenbach, well mounted, with his commission legibly engrossed in clerkly hand on parchment, departed on the Roman road for Mayence, but neither there nor at Elfield could he learn more of Count von Eltz than was already known at Treves, which was to the effect that this nobleman, repenting him, it was said, of his stubborn opposition to the Archbishop, had betaken himself to the Crusades in expiation of his wrong in shouldering arms against one who was both his temporal and spiritual over-lord; and this rumour coming to the ears of Baldwin, had the immediate effect of causing that prince of the Church to despatch Von Richenbach with the purpose of learning accurately what his old enemy was actually about; for Baldwin, being an astute man, placed little faith in sudden conversion.

When Heinrich von Richenbach returned to Treves he was immediately ushered into the presence of his master.

"You have been long away," said the Archbishop, a frown on his brow. "I trust the tidings you bring offer some slight compensation for the delay." Then was Heinrich indeed glad that fate, rather than his own perspicacity, had led his horse to the heights above Schloss Eltz.

"The tidings I bring, my Lord, are so astounding that I could not return to Treves without verifying them. This led me far afield, for my information was of the scantiest; but I am now enabled to vouch for the truth of my well-nigh incredible intelligence."

"Have the good deeds of the Count then translated him bodily to heaven, as was the case with Elijah? Unloose your packet, man, and waste not so much time in the vaunting of your wares."

"The Count von Eltz, my Lord, has built a castle that is part palace, part fortress, and in its latter office well-nigh impregnable."

"Yes? And where?"

"In the Eltz-thal, my Lord, a league and a quarter from the Moselle."

"Impossible!" cried Baldwin, bringing his clenched fist down on the table before him. "Impossible! You have been misled, Von Richenbach."

"Indeed, my Lord, I had every reason to believe so until I viewed the structure with my own eyes."

"This, then, is the fruit of Von Eltz's contrition! To build a castle without permission within my jurisdiction, and defy me in my own domain. By the Coat, he shall repent his temerity and wish himself twice over a captive of the Saracen ere I have done with him. I will despatch at once an army to the Eltz-thal, and there shall not be left one stone upon another when it returns."

"My Lord, I beseech you not to move with haste in this matter. If twenty thousand men marched up to the Eltz-thal they could not take the castle. No such schloss was ever built before, and none to equal it will ever be built again, unless, as I suspect to be the case in this instance, the devil lends his aid."

"Oh, I doubt not that Satan built it, but he took the form and name of Count von Eltz while doing so," replied the Archbishop, his natural anger at this bold defiance of his power giving way to his habitual caution, which, united with his resources and intrepidity, had much to do with his success. "You hold the castle, then, to be unassailable. Is its garrison so powerful, or its position so strong?"

"The strength of its garrison, my Lord, is in its weakness; I doubt if there are a score of men in the castle, but that is all the better, as there are fewer mouths to feed in case of siege, and the Count has some four years' supplies in his vaults. The schloss is situated on a lofty, unscalable rock that stands in the centre of a valley, as if it were a fortress itself. Then the walls of the building are of unbelievable height, with none of the round or square towers which castles usually possess, but having in plenty conical turrets, steep roofs, and the like, which give it the appearance of a fairy palace in a wide, enchanted amphitheatre of green wooded hills, making the Schloss Eltz, all in all, a most miraculous sight, such as a man may not behold in many years' travel."

"In truth, Von Richenbach," said the Archbishop, with a twinkle in his eye, "we should have made you one of our scrivening monks rather than a warrior, so marvellously do you describe the entrancing handiwork of our beloved vassal, the Count von Eltz. Perhaps you think it pity to destroy so fascinating a creation."

"Not so, my Lord. I have examined the castle well, and I think were I entrusted with the commission I could reduce it."

"Ah, now we have modesty indeed! You can take the stronghold where I should fail."

"I did not say that you would fail, my Lord. I said that twenty thousand men marching up the valley would fail, unless they were content to sit around the castle for four years or more."

"Answered like a courtier, Heinrich. What, then, is your method of attack?"

"On the height to the east, which is the nearest elevation to the castle, a strong fortress might be built, that would in a measure command the Schloss Eltz, although I fear the distance would be too great for any catapult to fling stones within its courtyard. Still, we might thus have complete power over the entrance to the schloss, and no more provender could be taken in."

"You mean, then, to wear Von Eltz out? That would be as slow a method as besiegement."

"To besiege would require an army, my Lord, and would have this disadvantage, that, besides withdrawing from other use so many of your men, rumour would spread abroad that the Count held you in check. The building of a fortress on the height would merely be doing what the Count has already done, and it could be well garrisoned by twoscore men at the most, vigilant night and day to take advantage of any movement of fancied security to force way into the castle. There need be no formal declaration of hostilities, but a fortress built in all amicableness, to which the Count could hardly object, as you would be but following his own example."

"I understand. We build a house near his for neighbourliness. There is indeed much in your plan that commends itself to me, but I confess a liking for the underlying part of a scheme. Remains there anything else which you have not unfolded to me?"

"Placing in command of the new fortress a stout warrior who was at the same time a subtle man——"

"In other words, thyself, Heinrich—well, what then?"

"There is every chance that such a general may learn much of the castle from one or other of its inmates. It might be possible that, through neglect or inadvertence, the drawbridge would be left down some night and the portcullis raised. In other words, the castle, impervious to direct assault, may fall by strategy."

"Excellent, excellent, my worthy warrior! I should dearly love to have captain of mine pay such an informal visit to his estimable Countship. We shall build the fortress you suggest, and call it Baldwineltz. You shall be its commander, and I now bestow upon you Schloss Eltz, the only proviso being that you are to enter into possession of it by whatever means you choose to use."

Thus the square, long castle of Baldwineltz came to be builded, and thus Heinrich von Richenbach, brave, ingenious, and unscrupulous, was installed captain of it, with twoscore men to keep him company, together with a plentiful supply of gold to bribe whomsoever he thought worth suborning.

Time went on without much to show for its passing, and Heinrich began to grow impatient, for his attempt at corrupting the garrison showed that negotiations were not without their dangers. Stout Baumstein, captain of the gate, was the man whom Heinrich most desired to purchase, for Baumstein could lessen the discipline at the portal of Schloss Eltz without attracting undue attention. But he was an irascible German, whose strong right arm was readier than his tongue; and when Heinrich's emissary got speech with him, under a flag of truce, whispering that much gold might be had for a casual raising of the portcullis and lowering of the drawbridge, Baumstein at first could not understand his purport, for he was somewhat thick in the skull; but when the meaning of the message at last broke in upon him, he wasted no time in talk, but, raising his ever-ready battle-axe, clove the Envoy to the midriff. The Count von Eltz himself, coming on the scene at this moment, was amazed at the deed, and sternly demanded of his gate- captain why he had violated the terms of a parley. Baumstein's slowness of speech came near to being the undoing of him, for at first he merely said that such creatures as the messenger should not be allowed to live and that an honest soldier was insulted by holding converse with him; whereupon the Count, having nice notions, picked up in polite countries, regarding the sacredness of a flag of truce, was about to hang Baumstein, scant though the garrison was, and even then it was but by chance that the true state of affairs became known to the Count. He was on the point of sending back the body of the Envoy to Von Richenbach with suitable apology for his destruction and offer of recompense, stating that the assailant would be seen hanging outside the gate, when Baumstein said that while he had no objection to being hanged if it so pleased the Count, he begged to suggest that the gold which the Envoy brought with him to bribe the garrison should be taken from the body before it was returned, and divided equally among the guard at the gate. As Baumstein said this, he was taking off his helmet and unbuckling his corselet, thus freeing his neck for the greater convenience of the castle hangman. When the Count learned that the stout stroke of the battle-axe was caused by the proffer of a bribe for the betraying of the castle, he, to the amazement of all present, begged the pardon of Baumstein; for such a thing was never before known under the feudal law that a noble should apologise to a common man, and Baumstein himself muttered that he wot not what the world was coming to if a mighty Lord might not hang an underling if it so pleased him, cause or no cause.

The Count commanded the body to be searched, and finding thereon some five bags of gold, distributed the coin among his men, as a good commander should, sending back the body to Von Richenbach, with a most polite message to the effect that as the Archbishop evidently intended the money to be given to the garrison, the Count had endeavoured to carry out his Lordship's wishes, as was the duty of an obedient vassal. But Heinrich, instead of being pleased with the courtesy of the message, broke into violent oaths, and spread abroad in the land the false saying that Count von Eltz had violated a flag of truce.

But there was one man in the castle who did not enjoy a share of the gold, because he was not a warrior, but a servant of the Countess. This was a Spaniard named Rego, marvellously skilled in the concocting of various dishes of pastry and other niceties such as high-born ladies have a fondness for. Rego was disliked by the Count, and, in fact, by all the stout Germans who formed the garrison, not only because it is the fashion for men of one country justly to abhor those of another, foreigners being in all lands regarded as benighted creatures whom we marvel that the Lord allows to live when he might so easily have peopled the whole world with men like unto ourselves; but, aside from this, Rego had a cat-like tread, and a furtive eye that never met another honestly as an eye should. The count, however, endured the presence of this Spaniard, because the Countess admired his skill in confections, then unknown in Germany, and thus Rego remained under her orders.

The Spaniard's eye glittered when he saw the yellow lustre of the gold, and his heart was bitter that he did not have a share of it. He soon learned where it came from, and rightly surmised that there was more in the same treasury, ready to be bestowed for similar service to that which the unready Baumstein had so emphatically rejected; so Rego, watching his opportunity, stole away secretly to Von Richenbach and offered his aid in the capture of the castle, should suitable compensation be tendered him. Heinrich questioned him closely regarding the interior arrangements of the castle, and asked him if he could find any means of letting down the drawbridge and raising the portcullis in the night. This, Rego said quite truly, was impossible, as the guard at the gate, vigilant enough before, had become much more so since the attempted bribery of the Captain. There was, however, one way by which the castle might be entered, and that entailed a most perilous adventure. There was a platform between two of the lofty, steep roofs, so elevated that it gave a view over all the valley. On this platform a sentinel was stationed night and day, whose duty was that of outlook, like a man on the cross-trees of a ship. From this platform a stair, narrow at the top, but widening as it descended to the lower stories, gave access to the whole castle. If, then, a besieger constructed a ladder of enormous length, it might be placed at night on the narrow ledge of rock far below this platform, standing almost perpendicular, and by this means man after man would be enabled to reach the roof of the castle, and, under the guidance of Rego, gain admittance to the lower rooms unsuspected.

"But the sentinel?" objected Von Richenbach.

"The sentinel I will myself slay. I will steal up behind him in the night when you make your assault, and running my knife into his neck, fling him over the castle wall; then I shall be ready to guide you down into the courtyard."

Von Richenbach, remembering the sheer precipice of rock at the foot of the castle walls and the dizzy height of the castle roof above the rock, could scarcely forbear a shudder at the thought of climbing so high on a shaky ladder, even if such a ladder could be made, of which he had some doubts. The scheme did not seem so feasible as the Spaniard appeared to imagine.

"Could you not let down a rope ladder from the platform when you had slain the sentinel, and thus allow us to climb by that?"

"It would be impossible for me to construct and conceal a contrivance strong enough to carry more than one man at a time, even if I had the materials," said the wily Spaniard, whose thoughtfulness and ingenuity Heinrich could not but admire, while despising him as an oily foreigner. "If you made the rope ladder there would be no method of getting it into Schloss Eltz; besides, it would need to be double the length of a wooden ladder, for you can place your ladder at the foot of the ledge, then climb to the top of the rock, and, standing there, pull the ladder up, letting the higher end scrape against the castle wall until the lower end stands firm on the ledge of rock. Your whole troop could then climb, one following another, so that there would be no delay."

Thus it was arranged, and then began and was completed the construction of the longest and most wonderful ladder ever made in Germany or anywhere else, so far as history records. It was composed of numerous small ladders, spliced and hooped with iron bands by the castle armourer. At a second visit, which Rego paid to Baldwineltz when the ladder was completed, all arrangements were made and the necessary signals agreed upon.

It was the pious custom of those in the fortress of Baldwineltz to ring the great bell on Saints' days and other festivals that called for special observance, because Von Richenbach conducted war on the strictest principles, as a man knowing his duty both spiritual and temporal. It was agreed that on the night of the assault, when it was necessary that Rego should assassinate the sentinel, the great bell of the fortress should be rung, whereupon the Spaniard was to hie himself up the stair and send the watchman into another sphere of duty by means of his dagger. The bell-ringing seems a perfectly justifiable device, and one that will be approved by all conspirators, for the sounding of the bell, plainly heard in Schloss Eltz, would cause no alarm, as it was wont to sound at uncertain intervals, night and day, and was known to give tongue only during moments allotted by the Church to devout thoughts. But the good monk Ambrose, in setting down on parchment the chronicles of this time, gives it as his opinion that no prosperity could have been expected in thus suddenly changing the functions of the bell from sacred duty to the furtherance of a secular object. Still, Ambrose was known to be a sympathiser with the house of Eltz, and, aside from this, a monk in his cell cannot be expected to take the same view of military necessity that would commend itself to a warrior on a bastion; therefore, much as we may admire Ambrose as an historian, we are not compelled to accept his opinions on military ethics.

On the important night, which was of great darkness, made the more intense by the black environment of densely-wooded hills which surrounded Schloss Eltz, the swarthy Spaniard became almost pale with anxiety as he listened for the solemn peal that was to be his signal. At last it tolled forth, and he, with knife to hand in his girdle, crept softly along the narrow halls to his fatal task. The interior of Schloss Eltz is full of intricate passages, unexpected turnings, here a few steps up, there a few steps down, for all the world like a maze, in which even one knowing the castle might well go astray. At one of the turnings Rego came suddenly upon the Countess, who screamed at sight of him, and then recognising him said, half laughing, half crying, being a nervous woman:

"Ah, Rego, thank heaven it is you! I am so distraught with the doleful ringing of that bell that I am frightened at the sound of my own footsteps. Why rings it so, Rego?"

"'Tis some Church festival, my Lady, which they, fighting for the Archbishop, are more familiar with than I," answered the trembling Spaniard, as frightened as the lady herself at the unexpected meeting. But the Countess was a most religious woman, well skilled in the observances of her Church, and she replied:

"No, Rego. There is no cause for its dolorous music, and to-night there seems to me something ominous and menacing in its tone, as if disaster impended."

"It may be the birthday of the Archbishop, my Lady, or of the Pope himself."

"Our Holy Father was born in May, and the Archbishop in November. Ah, I would that this horrid strife were done with! But our safety lies in Heaven, and if our duty be accomplished here on earth, we should have naught to fear; yet I tremble as if great danger lay before me. Come, Rego, to the chapel, and light the candles at the altar."

The Countess passed him, and for one fateful moment Rego's hand hovered over his dagger, thinking to strike the lady dead at his feet; but the risk was too great, for there might at any time pass along the corridor one of the servants, who would instantly raise the alarm and bring disaster upon him. He dare not disobey. So grinding his teeth in impotent rage and fear, he followed his mistress to the chapel, and, as quickly as he could, lit one candle after another, until the usual number burned before the sacred image. The Countess was upon her knees as he tried to steal softly from the room. "Nay, Rego," she said, raising her bended head, "light them all to-night. Hearken! That raven bell has ceased even as you lighted the last candle."

The Countess, as has been said was a devout lady, and there stood an unusual number of candles before the altar, several of which burned constantly, but only on notable occasions were all the candles lighted. As Rego hesitated, not knowing what to do in this crisis, the lady repeated: "Light all the candles to-night, Rego."

"You said yourself, my Lady," murmured the agonised man, cold sweat breaking out on his forehead, "that this was not a Saint's day."

"Nevertheless, Rego," persisted the Countess, surprised that even a favourite servant should thus attempt to thwart her will, "I ask you to light each candle. Do so at once."

She bowed her head as one who had spoken the final word, and again her fate trembled in the balance; but Rego heard the footsteps of the Count entering the gallery above him, that ran across the end of the chapel, and he at once resumed the lighting of the candles, making less speed in his eagerness than if he had gone about his task with more care.

The monk Ambrose draws a moral from this episode, which is sufficiently obvious when after-events have confirmed it, but which we need not here pause to consider, when an episode of the most thrilling nature is going forward on the lofty platform on the roof of Eltz Castle.

The sentinel paced back and forward within his narrow limit, listening to the depressing and monotonous tolling of the bell and cursing it, for the platform was a lonely place and the night of inky darkness. At last the bell ceased, and he stood resting on his long pike, enjoying the stillness, and peering into the blackness surrounding him, when suddenly he became aware of a grating, rasping sound below, as if some one were attempting to climb the precipitous beetling cliff of castle wall and slipping against the stones. His heart stood still with fear, for he knew it could be nothing human. An instant later something appeared over the parapet that could be seen only because it was blacker than the distant dark sky against which it was outlined. It rose and rose until the sentinel saw it was the top of a ladder, which was even more amazing than if the fiend himself had scrambled over the stone coping, for we know the devil can go anywhere, while a ladder cannot. But the soldier was a common-sense man, and, dark as was the night, he knew that, tall as such a ladder must be, there seemed a likelihood that human power was pushing it upward. He touched it with his hands and convinced himself that there was nothing supernatural about it. The ladder rose inch by inch, slowly, for it must have been no easy task for even twoscore men to raise it thus with ropes or other devices, especially when the bottom of it neared the top of the ledge. The soldier knew he should at once give the alarm: but he was the second traitor in the stronghold, corrupted by the sight of the glittering gold he had shared, and only prevented from selling himself because the rigours of military rule did not give him opportunity of going to Baldwineltz as the less exacting civilian duties had allowed the Spaniard to do and thus market his ware. So the sentry made no outcry, but silently prepared a method by which he could negotiate with advantage to himself when the first head appeared above the parapet. He fixed the point of his lance against a round of the ladder, and when the leading warrior, who was none other than Heinrich von Richenbach, himself came slowly and cautiously to the top of the wall, the sentinel, exerting all his strength, pushed the lance outward, and the top of the ladder with it, until it stood nearly perpendicular some two yards back from the wall.

"In God's name, what are you about? Is that you, Rego?"

The soldier replied, calmly:

"Order your men not to move, and do not move yourself, until I have some converse with you. Have no fear if you are prepared to accept my terms; otherwise you will have ample time to say your prayers before you reach the ground, for the distance is great."

Von Richenbach, who now leaned over the top round, suspended thus between heaven and earth, grasped the lance with both hands, so that the ladder might not be thrust beyond the perpendicular. In quivering voice he passed down the word that no man was to shift foot or hand until he had made bargain with the sentinel who held them in such extreme peril.

"What terms do you propose to me, soldier?" he asked, breathlessly.

"I will conduct you down to the courtyard, and when you have surprised and taken the castle you will grant me safe conduct and give me five bags of gold equal in weight to those offered to our captain."

"All that will I do and double the treasure. Faithfully and truly do I promise it."

"You pledge me your knightly word, and swear also by the holy coat of Treves?"

"I pledge and swear. And pray you be careful; incline the ladder yet a little more toward the wall."

"I trust to your honour," said the traitor, for traitors love to prate of honour, "and will now admit you to the castle; but until we are in the courtyard there must be silence."

"Incline the ladder gently, for it is so weighted that if it come suddenly against the wall, it may break in the middle."

At this supreme moment, as the sentinel was preparing to bring them cautiously to the wall, when all was deep silence, there crept swiftly and noiselessly through the trap-door the belated Spaniard. His catlike eyes beheld the shadowy form of the sentinel bending apparently over the parapet, but they showed him nothing beyond. With the speed and precipitation of a springing panther, the Spaniard leaped forward and drove his dagger deep into the neck of his comrade, who, with a gurgling cry, plunged headlong forward, and down the precipice, thrusting his lance as he fell. The Spaniard's dagger went with the doomed sentinel, sticking fast in his throat, and its presence there passed a fatal noose around the neck of Rego later, for they wrongly thought the false sentinel had saved the castle and that the Spaniard had murdered a faithful watchman.

Rego leaned panting over the stone coping, listening for the thud of the body. Then was he frozen with horror when the still night air was split with the most appalling shriek of combined human voice in an agony of fear that ever tortured the ear of man. The shriek ended in a terrorising crash far below, and silence again filled the valley.



"GENTLEMEN: THE KING!"

The room was large, but with a low ceiling, and at one end of the lengthy, broad apartment stood a gigantic fireplace, in which was heaped a pile of blazing logs, whose light, rather than that of several lanterns hanging from nails along the timbered walls, illuminated the faces of the twenty men who sat within. Heavy timbers, blackened with age and smoke, formed the ceiling. The long, low, diamond-paned window in the middle of the wall opposite the door, had been shuttered as completely as possible, but less care than usual was taken to prevent the light from penetrating into the darkness beyond, for the night was a stormy and tempestuous one, the rain lashing wildly against the hunting chalet, which, in its time, had seen many a merry hunting party gathered under its ample roof.

Every now and then a blast of wind shook the wooden edifice from garret to foundation, causing a puff of smoke to come down the chimney, and the white ashes to scatter in little whirlwinds over the hearth. On the opposite side from the shuttered window was the door, heavily barred. A long, oaken table occupied the centre of the room, and round this in groups, seated and standing, were a score of men, all with swords at their sides; bearing, many of them, that air of careless hauteur which is supposed to be a characteristic of noble birth.

Flagons were scattered upon the table, and a barrel of wine stood in a corner of the room farthest from the fireplace, but it was evident that this was no ordinary drinking party, and that the assemblage was brought about by some high purport, of a nature so serious that it stamped anxiety on every brow. No servants were present, and each man who wished a fresh flagon of wine had to take his measure to the barrel in the corner and fill for himself.

The hunting chalet stood in a wilderness, near the confines of the kingdom of Alluria, twelve leagues from the capital, and was the property of Count Staumn, whose tall, gaunt form stood erect at the head of the table as he silently listened to the discussion which every moment was becoming more and more heated, the principal speaking parts being taken by the obstinate, rough-spoken Baron Brunfels, on the one hand, and the crafty, fox-like ex-Chancellor Steinmetz on the other.

"I tell you," thundered Baron Brunfels, bringing his fist down on the table, "I will not have the King killed. Such a proposal goes beyond what was intended when we banded ourselves together. The King is a fool, so let him escape like a fool. I am a conspirator, but not an assassin."

"It is justice rather than assassination," said the ex-Chancellor suavely, as if his tones were oil and the Baron's boisterous talk were troubled waters.

"Justice!" cried the Baron, with great contempt. "You have learned that cant word in the Cabinet of the King himself, before he thrust you out. He eternally prates of justice, yet, much as I loathe him, I have no wish to compass his death, either directly or through gabbling of justice."

"Will you permit me to point out the reason that induces me to believe his continued exemption, and State policy, will not run together?" replied the advocate of the King's death. "If Rudolph escape, he will take up his abode in a neighbouring territory, and there will inevitably follow plots and counter-plots for his restoration—thus Alluria will be kept in a state of constant turmoil. There will doubtless grow up within the kingdom itself a party sworn to his restoration. We shall thus be involved in difficulties at home and abroad, and all for what? Merely to save the life of a man who is an enemy to each of us. We place thousands of lives in jeopardy, render our own positions insecure, bring continual disquiet upon the State, when all might be avoided by the slitting of one throat, even though that throat belong to the King."

It was evident that the lawyer's persuasive tone brought many to his side, and the conspirators seemed about evenly divided upon the question of life or death to the King. The Baron was about to break out again with some strenuousness in favour of his own view of the matter, when Count Staumn made a proposition that was eagerly accepted by all save Brunfels himself.

"Argument," said Count Staumn, "is ever the enemy of good comradeship. Let us settle the point at once and finally, with the dice-box. Baron Brunfels, you are too seasoned a gambler to object to such a mode of terminating a discussion. Steinmetz, the law, of which you are so distinguished a representative, is often compared to a lottery, so you cannot look with disfavour upon a method that is conclusive, and as reasonably fair as the average decision of a judge. Let us throw, therefore, for the life of the King. I, as chairman of this meeting, will be umpire. Single throws, and the highest number wins. Baron Brunfels, you will act for the King, and, if you win, may bestow upon the monarch his life. Chancellor Steinmetz stands for the State. If he wins, then is the King's life forfeit. Gentlemen, are you agreed?"

"Agreed, agreed," cried the conspirators, with practically unanimous voice.

Baron Brunfels grumbled somewhat, but when the dice-horn was brought, and he heard the rattle of the bones within the leathern cylinder, the light of a gambler's love shone in his eyes, and he made no further protest.

The ex-Chancellor took the dice-box in his hand, and was about to shake, when there came suddenly upon them three stout raps against the door, given apparently with the hilt of a sword. Many not already standing, started to their feet, and nearly all looked one upon another with deep dismay in their glances. The full company of conspirators was present; exactly a score of men knew of the rendezvous, and now the twenty-first man outside was beating the oaken panels. The knocking was repeated, but now accompanied by the words:

"Open, I beg of you."

Count Staumn left the table and, stealthily as a cat, approached the door.

"Who is there?" he asked.

"A wayfarer, weary and wet, who seeks shelter from the storm."

"My house is already filled," spoke up the Count. "I have no room for another."

"Open the door peacefully," cried the outlander, "and do not put me to the necessity of forcing it."

There was a ring of decision in the voice which sent quick pallor to more than one cheek. Ex-Chancellor Steinmetz rose to his feet with chattering teeth, and terror in his eyes; he seemed to recognise the tones of the invisible speaker. Count Staumn looked over his shoulder at the assemblage with an expression that plainly said: "What am I to do?"

"In the fiend's name," hissed Baron Brunfels, taking the precaution, however, to speak scarce above his breath, "if you are so frightened when it comes to a knock at the door, what will it be when the real knocks are upon you. Open, Count, and let the insistent stranger in. Whether he leave the place alive or no, there are twenty men here to answer."

The Count undid the fastenings and threw back the door. There entered a tall man completely enveloped in a dark cloak that was dripping wet. Drawn over his eyes was a hunter's hat of felt, with a drooping bedraggled feather on it.

The door was immediately closed and barred behind him, and the stranger, pausing a moment when confronted by so many inquiring eyes, flung off his cloak, throwing it over the back of a chair; then he removed his hat with a sweep, sending the raindrops flying. The intriguants gazed at him, speechless, with varying emotions. They saw before them His Majesty, Rudolph, King of Alluria.

If the King had any suspicion of his danger, he gave no token of it. On his smooth, lofty forehead there was no trace of frown, and no sign of fear. His was a manly figure, rather over, than under, six feet in height; not slim and gaunt, like Count Staumn, nor yet stout to excess, like Baron Brunfels. The finger of Time had touched with frost the hair at his temples, and there were threads of white in his pointed beard, but his sweeping moustache was still as black as the night from which he came.

His frank, clear, honest eyes swept the company, resting momentarily on each, then he said in a firm voice, without the suspicion of a tremor in it: "Gentlemen, I give you good evening, and although the hospitality of Count Staumn has needed spurring, I lay that not up against him, because I am well aware his apparent reluctance arose through the unexpectedness of my visit; and, if the Count will act as cup-bearer, we will drown all remembrance of a barred door in a flagon of wine, for, to tell truth, gentlemen, I have ridden hard in order to have the pleasure of drinking with you."

As the King spoke these ominous words, he cast a glance of piercing intensity upon the company, and more than one quailed under it. He strode to the fireplace, spurs jingling as he went, and stood with his back to the fire, spreading out his hands to the blaze. Count Staumn left the bolted door, took an empty flagon from the shelf, filled it at the barrel in the corner, and, with a low bow, presented the brimming measure to the King.

Rudolph held aloft his beaker of Burgundy, and, as he did so, spoke in a loud voice that rang to the beams of the ceiling:

"Gentlemen, I give you a suitable toast. May none here gathered encounter a more pitiless storm than that which is raging without!"

With this he drank off the wine, and, inclining his head slightly to the Count, returned the flagon. No one, save the King, had spoken since he entered. Every word he had uttered seemed charged with double meaning and brought to the suspicious minds of his hearers visions of a trysting place surrounded by troops, and the King standing there, playing with them, as a tiger plays with its victims. His easy confidence appalled them.

When first he came in, several who were seated remained so, but one by one they rose to their feet, with the exception of Baron Brunfels, although he, when the King gave the toast, also stood. It was clear enough their glances of fear were not directed towards the King, but towards Baron Brunfels. Several pairs of eyes beseeched him in silent supplication, but the Baron met none of these glances, for his gaze was fixed upon the King.

Every man present knew the Baron to be reckless of consequences; frankly outspoken, thoroughly a man of the sword, and a despiser of diplomacy. They feared that at any moment he might blurt out the purport of the meeting, and more than one was thankful for the crafty ex-Chancellor's planning, who throughout had insisted there should be no documentary evidence of their designs, either in their houses or on their persons. Some startling rumour must have reached the King's ear to bring him thus unexpectedly upon them.

The anxiety of all was that some one should persuade the King they were merely a storm-besieged hunting party. They trembled in anticipation of Brunfels' open candor, and dreaded the revealing of the real cause of their conference. There was now no chance to warn the Baron; a man who spoke his mind; who never looked an inch beyond his nose, even though his head should roll off in consequence, and if a man does not value his own head, how can he be expected to care for the heads of his neighbours?

"I ask you to be seated," said the King, with a wave of the hand.

Now, what should that stubborn fool of a Baron do but remain standing, when all but Rudolph and himself had seated themselves, thus drawing His Majesty's attention directly towards him, and making a colloquy between them well-nigh inevitable. Those next the ex-Chancellor were nudging him, in God's name, to stand also, and open whatever discussion there must ensue between themselves and His Majesty, so that it might be smoothly carried on, but the Chancellor was ashen grey with fear, and his hand trembled on the table.

"My Lord of Brunfels," said the King, a smile hovering about his lips, "I see that I have interrupted you at your old pleasure of dicing; while requesting you to continue your game as though I had not joined you, may I venture to hope the stakes you play for are not high?"

Every one held his breath, awaiting with deepest concern the reply of the frowning Baron, and when it came growling forth, there was little in it to ease their disquiet.

"Your Majesty," said Baron Brunfels, "the stakes are the highest that a gambler may play for."

"You tempt me, Baron, to guess that the hazard is a man's soul, but I see that your adversary is my worthy ex-Chancellor, and as I should hesitate to impute to him the character of the devil, I am led, therefore, to the conclusion that you play for a human life. Whose life is in the cast, my Lord of Brunfels?"

Before the Baron could reply, ex-Chancellor Steinmetz arose, with some indecision, to his feet. He began in a trembling voice:

"I beg your gracious permission to explain the reason of our gathering —"

"Herr Steinmetz," cried the King sternly, "when I desire your interference I shall call for it; and remember this, Herr Steinmetz; the man who begins a game must play it to the end, even though he finds luck running against him."

The ex-Chancellor sat down again, and drew his hand across his damp forehead.

"Your Majesty," spoke up the Baron, a ring of defiance in his voice, "I speak not for my comrades, but for myself. I begin no game that I fear to finish. We were about dice in order to discover whether Your Majesty should live or die."

A simultaneous moan seemed to rise from the assembled traitors. The smile returned to the King's lips.

"Baron," he said, "I have ever chided myself for loving you, for you were always a bad example to weak and impressionable natures. Even when your overbearing, obstinate intolerance compelled me to dismiss you from the command of my army, I could not but admire your sturdy honesty. Had I been able to graft your love of truth upon some of my councillors, what a valuable group of advisers might I have gathered round me. But we have had enough of comedy and now tragedy sets in. Those who are traitors to their ruler must not be surprised if a double traitor is one of their number. Why am I here? Why do two hundred mounted and armed men surround this doomed chalet? Miserable wretches, what have you to say that judgment be not instantly passed upon you?"

"I have this to say," roared Baron Brunfels, drawing his sword, "that whatever may befall this assemblage, you, at least, shall not live to boast of it."

The King stood unmoved as Baron Brunfels was about to rush upon him, but Count Staumn and others threw themselves between the Baron and his victim, seeing in the King's words some intimation of mercy to be held out to them, could but actual assault upon his person be prevented.

"My Lord of Brunfels," said the King, calmly, "sheath your sword. Your ancestors have often drawn it, but always for, and never against the occupant of the Throne. Now, gentlemen, hear my decision, and abide faithfully by it. Seat yourselves at the table, ten on each side, the dice-box between you. You shall not be disappointed, but shall play out the game of life and death. Each dices with his opposite. He who throws the higher number escapes. He who throws the lower places his weapons on the empty chair, and stands against yonder wall to be executed for the traitor that he is. Thus half of your company shall live, and the other half seek death with such courage as may be granted them. Do you agree, or shall I give the signal?"

With unanimous voice they agreed, all excepting Baron Brunfels, who spoke not.

"Come, Baron, you and my devoted ex-Chancellor were about to play when I came in. Begin the game."

"Very well," replied the Baron nonchalantly. "Steinmetz, the dice-box is near your hand: throw."

Some one placed the cubes in the leathern cup and handed it to the ex- Chancellor, whose shivering fingers relieved him of the necessity of shaking the box. The dice rolled out on the table; a three, a four, and a one. Those nearest reported the total.

"Eight!" cried the King. "Now, Baron."

Baron Brunfels carelessly threw the dice into their receptacle, and a moment after the spotted bones clattered on the table.

"Three sixes!" cried the Baron. "Lord, if I only had such luck when I played for money!"

The ex-Chancellor's eyes were starting from his head, wild with fear.

"We have three throws," he screamed.

"Not so," said the King.

"I swear I understood that we were to have three chances," shrieked Steinmetz, springing from his chair. "But it is all illegal, and not to be borne. I will not have my life diced away to please either King or commons."

He drew his sword and placed himself in an attitude of defence.

"Seize him; disarm him, and bind him," commanded the King. "There are enough gentlemen in this company to see that the rules of the game are adhered to."

Steinmetz, struggling and pleading for mercy, was speedily overpowered and bound; then his captors placed him against the wall, and resumed their seats at the table. The next man to be doomed was Count Staumn. The Count arose from his chair, bowed first to the King and then to the assembled company; drew forth his sword, broke it over his knee, and walked to the wall of the condemned.

The remainder of the fearful contest was carried on in silence, but with great celerity, and before a quarter of an hour was past, ten men had their backs to the wall, while the remaining ten were seated at the table, some on one side, and some on the other.

The men ranged against the wall were downcast, for however bravely a soldier may meet death in hostile encounter, it is a different matter to face it bound and helpless at the hands of an executioner.

A shade of sadness seemed to overspread the countenance of the King, who still occupied the position he had taken at the first, with his back towards the fire.

Baron Brunfels shifted uneasily in his seat, and glanced now and then with compassion at his sentenced comrades. He was first to break the silence.

"Your Majesty," he said, "I am always loath to see a coward die. The whimpering of your former Chancellor annoys me; therefore, will I gladly take his place, and give to him the life and liberty you perhaps design for me, if, in exchange, I have the privilege of speaking my mind regarding you and your precious Kingship."

"Unbind the valiant Steinmetz," said the King. "Speak your mind freely, Baron Brunfels."

The Baron rose, drew sword from scabbard, and placed it on the table.

"Your Majesty, backed by brute force," he began, "has condemned to death ten of your subjects. You have branded us as traitors, and such we are, and so find no fault with your sentence; merely recognising that you represent, for the time being, the upper hand. You have reminded me that my ancestors fought for yours, and that they never turned their swords against their sovereign. Why, then, have our blades been pointed towards your breast? Because, King Rudolph, you are yourself a traitor. You belong to the ruling class and have turned your back upon your order. You, a King, have made yourself a brother to the demagogue at the street corner; yearning for the cheap applause of the serf. You have shorn nobility of its privileges, and for what?"

"And for what?" echoed the King with rising voice. "For this; that the ploughman on the plain may reap what he has sown; that the shepherd on the hillside may enjoy the increase which comes to his flock; that taxation may be light; that my nobles shall deal honestly with the people, and not use their position for thievery and depredation; that those whom the State honours by appointing to positions of trust shall content themselves with the recompense lawfully given, and refrain from peculation; that peace and security shall rest on the land; and that bloodthirsty swashbucklers shall not go up and down inciting the people to carnage and rapine under the name of patriotism. This is the task I set myself when I came to the Throne. What fault have you to find with the programme, my Lord Baron?"

"The simple fault that it is the programme of a fool," replied the Baron calmly. "In following it you have gained the resentment of your nobles, and have not even received the thanks of those pitiable hinds, the ploughman in the valley or the shepherd on the hills. You have impoverished us so that the clowns may have a few more coins with which to muddle in drink their already stupid brains. You are hated in cot and castle alike. You would not stand in your place for a moment, were not an army behind you. Being a fool, you think the common people love honesty, whereas, they only curse that they have not a share in the thieving."

"The people," said the King soberly, "have been misled. Their ear has been abused by calumny and falsehood. Had it been possible for me personally to explain to them the good that must ultimately accrue to a land where honesty rules, I am confident I would have had their undivided support, even though my nobles deserted me."

"Not so, Your Majesty; they would listen to you and cheer you, but when the next orator came among them, promising to divide the moon, and give a share to each, they would gather round his banner and hoot you from the kingdom. What care they for rectitude of government? They see no farther than the shining florin that glitters on their palm. When your nobles were rich, they came to their castles among the people, and scattered their gold with a lavish hand. Little recked the peasants how it was got, so long as they shared it. 'There,' they said, 'the coin comes to us that we have not worked for.'

"But now, with castles deserted, and retainers dismissed, the people have to sweat to wring from traders the reluctant silver, and they cry: 'Thus it was not in times of old, and this King is the cause of it,' and so they spit upon your name, and shrug their shoulders, when your honesty is mentioned. And now, Rudolph of Alluria, I have done, and I go the more jauntily to my death that I have had fair speech with you before the end."

The King looked at the company, his eyes veiled with moisture. "I thought," he said slowly, "until to-night, that I had possessed some qualities at least of a ruler of men. I came here alone among you, and although there are brave men in this assembly, yet I had the ordering of events as I chose to order them, notwithstanding that odds stood a score to one against me. I still venture to think that whatever failures have attended my eight years' rule in Alluria arose from faults of my own, and not through imperfections in the plan, or want of appreciation in the people.

"I have now to inform you that if it is disastrous for a King to act without the co-operation of his nobles, it is equally disastrous for them to plot against their leader. I beg to acquaint you with the fact that the insurrection so carefully prepared has broken out prematurely. My capital is in possession of the factions, who are industriously cutting each other's throats to settle which one of two smooth-tongued rascals shall be their President. While you were dicing to settle the fate of an already deposed King, and I was sentencing you to a mythical death, we were all alike being involved in common ruin.

"I have seen to-night more property in flames than all my savings during the last eight years would pay for. I have no horsemen at my back, and have stumbled here blindly, a much bedraggled fugitive, having lost my way in every sense of the phrase. And so I beg of the hospitality of Count Staumn another flagon of wine, and either a place of shelter for my patient horse, who has been left too long in the storm without, or else direction towards the frontier, whereupon my horse and I will set out to find it."

"Not towards the frontier!" cried Baron Brunfels, grasping again his sword and holding it aloft, "but towards the capital. We will surround you, and hew for you a way through that fickle mob back to the throne of your ancestors."

Each man sprang to his weapon and brandished it above his head, while a ringing cheer echoed to the timbered ceiling.

"The King! The King!" they cried.

Rudolph smiled and shook his head.

"Not so," he said. "I leave a thankless throne with a joy I find it impossible to express. As I sat on horseback, half-way up the hill above the burning city, and heard the clash of arms, I was filled with amazement to think that men would actually fight for the position of ruler of the people. Whether the insurrection has brought freedom to themselves or not, the future alone can tell, but it has at least brought freedom to me. I now belong to myself. No man may question either my motives or my acts. Gentlemen, drink with me to the new President of Alluria, whoever he may be."

But the King drank alone, none other raising flagon to lip. Then Baron Brunfels cried aloud:

"Gentlemen: the King!"

And never in the history of Alluria was a toast so heartily honoured.



THE HOUR-GLASS

Bertram Eastford had intended to pass the shop of his old friend, the curiosity dealer, into whose pockets so much of his money had gone for trinkets gathered from all quarters of the globe. He knew it was weakness on his part, to select that street when he might have taken another, but he thought it would do no harm to treat himself to one glance at the seductive window of the old curiosity shop, where the dealer was in the habit of displaying his latest acquisitions. The window was never quite the same, and it had a continued fascination for Bertram Eastford; but this time, he said to himself resolutely, he would not enter, having, as he assured himself, the strength of mind to forego this temptation. However, he reckoned without his window, for in it there was an old object newly displayed which caught his attention as effectually as a half-driven nail arrests the hem of a cloak. On the central shelf of the window stood an hour-glass, its framework of some wood as black as ebony. He stood gazing at it for a moment, then turned to the door and went inside, greeting the ancient shopman, whom he knew so well.

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