The blind woman stood for some seconds like one astounded by such an unusual order. Conrad was on the point of creeping out from his hiding-place at all hazards, to go himself and fetch what was wanted. He was only restrained by the thought that if he did, he would be very likely to bring on his mother something a great deal worse than just having to go across the street for a herring.
'Well, what's the matter now?' shouted Juechziger, bringing his fist down with a thundering crash on the table. 'Are you going, or am I to start you?'
The blind woman had hardly groped her way out at the door, before Juechziger went on:
'Can't some Swedish bullet or falling stone rid me of this blind witch? Nothing turns out as I want it to. Here are Schweinitz and Schoenleben the best of friends again, and all the trouble I've been at with them just so much labour lost. And then there's that brazen-faced journeyman I haven't paid off yet for his impudence in the forest; it seems as though I am not to get a hold on him. And never a kreuzer have I seen the colour of, to pay me for my house they pulled down. All right! It may turn out that what Freiberg won't pay for, the Swedes will. I have to look after the prisoners, so I shall stand a first-rate chance to kill two birds with one stone,—do the business of the conceited Defensioner, and help myself to my money at the same time. What, you ugly beast, are you there?'
This closing remark was addressed to the cat, which Juechziger now spied sitting by the curtain, behind which Conrad was playing the part of an unwilling listener. His stepfather picked up the heavy boot-jack, and hurled it at the cat; it missed her, but struck Conrad so sharply on the shin, that though the thick curtain broke the full force of the blow, the lad could hardly suppress a cry of pain. When, a little later, he saw his stepfather go into the inner room to hang up his great-coat, the boy ventured out, and, creeping on tip-toe across the living-room, managed to escape unobserved into the street. Just outside the door he met his mother returning, carrying the herring in her left hand, while with the right she groped her way along by the houses.
'Oh, mother,' he said, in a low, earnest voice, 'don't stay a minute longer! My mistress' house has lots of visitors in it, but I'm sure they would find a corner for you somewhere. And you and puss wouldn't be nearly so hungry if you lived with us as you are here.'
'It cannot be, my son,' replied the blind woman. 'A true wife does not leave her husband. If I were to do so, the other women would point the finger of scorn at me and call me names; and quite right, too. If I can do nothing else, I will at least take my good name with me down to the grave, and God grant it may be soon.' So saying, she hastened into the house, lest she should anger her husband by keeping him waiting.
Conrad took his way homeward with a heart overflowing with respect for his mother. On his way he met Dollie, carefully carrying in her hand a bundle wrapped in a cloth.
'Wherever are you off to so late as this, Dollie?' he asked in astonishment. 'Are you not afraid to go along the dark streets with all the shot and shell flying about?'
'Oh, I've got used to them a long time ago!' said the little one very composedly. 'I always think it doesn't seem nice when the town is quiet now.'
Conrad had to confess that she was right, for people certainly do become accustomed to everything, even to the greatest danger.
'I am taking father some warm soup, because he is on duty to-night,' Dollie went on; 'then he won't feel the dark night so cold.'
'But why does not your mother take it?' asked Conrad.
'Oh, she isn't at home,' answered Dollie. 'She had to go with a great many more women to fetch water from the Muenzbach, and carry it right into the upper town. The Swedes have done something to the water-pipes there, and there is no more water. Only think! if a fire were to begin, and they couldn't put it out! And for fear the water should freeze in the buckets, the women have to carry it in the little brewers' coppers, and keep the fires burning under it too!'
'I will go with you,' said Conrad; and the little maiden, though professing to be so brave, seemed by no means sorry to have a companion.
At last the two succeeded in reaching the neighbourhood of the Peter Gate, where a detachment of miners were acting as auxiliaries to the regular troops. Here, as at the other threatened points, soldiers, citizens, and journeymen were all actively engaged. Such parts of the fortifications as had been either injured or destroyed by the enemy's artillery-fire and mines, were now being hastily repaired. The Peter Gate and the barbican in front of it showed unmistakeable signs of the enemy's efforts to force an entrance into the town,—heaps of stones, and yawning holes and pits, alternated with covered galleries, chevaux-de-frise, uprooted palisadoes, and other works which the Freibergers were in hot haste trying to strengthen. The steady industry of so many hundred busy hands in the cold and darkness of that winter night must have struck an onlooker with surprise; but probably his surprise would have been even more excited by the unusual silence in which such heavy work was being done. That they might not attract the enemy's attention and so draw down an attack, the besieged were using the miners' dark lanterns, which open only on one side, instead of such torches or other lights as would generally be employed. From the top of the city wall and gate, these lanterns now shone down like the glimmering fires of innumerable glowworms, while, through the dusky twilight, lit up by their flickering rays, the soft white snowflakes fell steadily and quietly. The dim light and the falling snow combined to transform the brave defenders into so many ghost-like shapes. One such weird figure could be descried, leaning silent and motionless against the parapet at the top of the tower, his heavy double arquebuse by his side. No part of the man stirred save the restless eyes, and they wandered incessantly to and fro, striving to make out the movements of the enemy. The miners, busy constructing a new moat just within the battered Peter Gate, looked, as they glided about, more like mountain-gnomes than human beings. If one of these same human gnomes, with weather-beaten, swarthy face and wrinkled forehead framed in its snowy hood, had suddenly stepped out into the circle of light cast by one of the dark lanterns, people would have been strongly tempted to declare they had seen a ghost.
Up there on the Hospital Mountain, where the enemy's headquarters lay, great watch-fires were blazing through the thick, snow-laden air. Now and then the glare of a mortar shone suddenly out, followed after a few seconds by the thundering explosion. Then a fiery curve traced itself against the sky, the end of which advanced hissing towards the city, and at last burst somewhere among the houses. Such was the picture that presented itself to the eyes of the two children when they reached the Peter Gate on that dark winter's night.
 A small German coin worth about a farthing English.
 A small German coin equal to four kreuzers.
 The river that flows through Freiberg.
ORDINARY INCIDENTS OF A SIEGE.
'Dear Wahle,' said Dollie to a miner, who, with the assistance of several others, was carrying a great palisade past the spot where the children stood, 'please have you seen anything of my father? I've brought him a can of warm soup.'
'Warm soup!' said the man jocosely; 'why, the enemy cook enough of that for us, only they warm us in rather a different way. Well, child, your father is down in the moat with a lot of other men, bringing in wood that the enemy had piled up ready to burn us out. When they found their cannon could not knock a hole through at the Peter Gate here, they thought they would have a try what fire could do.'
'It looks,' said another, 'very much as if the enemy read their Bibles. Wasn't that what Abimelech did when he couldn't get round the people of Sichem any other way?'
'Ah, but when he tried it again at another place,' laughed Wahle, 'a woman dropped a stone on his head from the top of the tower, and that finished him.'
'May the same fate soon overtake Torstenson!' said a third.
'Oh, he'll never venture up here,' said Wahle. 'Don't you know the gout has him in tight grips? why, he can't even stir out of his arm-chair. His people have to play cat's paw for him, and burn their fingers just when he bids them.'
'I just wish,' said the other, 'that Torstenson might go into such a rage at not taking the town, that the gout might rise into his body. Then he would die, and a good thing for us!'
'Come, come!' said Wahle more seriously; 'we ought not to wish even our enemies such evil as that.'
The words were hardly uttered when a dozen musket-shots rang out from without the wall that surrounded the moat. Several balls whistled over the heads of the two children, and the miner who had just been rebuked fell with a cry of, 'Oh, I am killed!'
His comrades laid down the palisade they were carrying, picked up the wounded man, and bore him into the nearest covered way, where they laid him for the time in a sheltered corner. The two children, more frightened at the sight of the man's fall than at their own danger, were quite at a loss which way to go next. In another moment, however, Dollie forgot all her trouble as she caught sight of her father coming towards her, his arquebuse in his hand.
'You here, little one!' he cried, and hastily drew the children with him into the gallery, behind the protecting walls of which the combatants found shelter from the enemy's fire. 'A queer kind of supper,' he said, as he hastily gulped down the contents of the can. 'One hardly has time even to say, "Grant, O Lord, what I partake!" And yet I ought to be thankful, too, that I am here to drink my soup at all. How many miners, citizens, peasants, soldiers, and even young children, has this siege cost us already! St. Peter's churchyard is getting too small to hold them all.'
'Yes, father,' said Dollie. 'And poor Hofmann the woodcutter will never be able to eat any more soup. He fell down quite close by us as if a thunderbolt had hit him.'
'Hofmann!' said Roller hastily; 'your god-father, child, and my old friend? But,' he went on, 'who is that lying in yon dark corner?'
He rose and went across in that direction. As he did so, he caught the sound of a groan, and a feeble voice murmured: 'Ah, merciful Father, do not let the arch-enemy prevail against me, or what will become of my three boys, all of them stampers at the Prince's Shaft. If I must die, do Thou take under Thy care my wife and my four poor girls. They are at the coppersmith's house in the Erbis Street.'
'What is it?' said Roller, turning his dark lantern so that its light fell for a moment on the dying man's pale face.
Hofmann lifted his failing eyes towards the approaching figure, and said in a broken voice, and with long pauses between: 'Comrade, there is a cold Swedish bullet rankling in my vitals. Promise me, old friend, that I shall have an honourable burial; not in this shabby miner's dress, but in my new uniform. And when they lay me in my last resting-place, let the lads say: "A good journey to thee, old comrade!"'
'A good journey to thee, old comrade,' responded Roller heartily, as Hofmann, putting his hand to his side, stopped abruptly.
Conrad and Dollie both followed Roller's example, as he folded his hands on his breast and began to repeat the simple words of the 'Our Father' over the dying man. The hollow roar of the Swedish siege-guns outside, and the constant dull thud of the cannon-balls striking the great earthwork that covered the gallery, formed a strange contrast to the solemn little service within, beside one whose spirit was taking its flight.
'You have come at a most unfortunate time, children,' said Roller, when all was over. 'You had better stay here till things are quieter outside, for the stones and bullets strike just anybody at random, and make no difference between big and little. I will tell you when it is safe for you to go; stay here till I come back.'
As Roller turned to go, he felt his leg suddenly clasped in Dollie's little arms. 'Oh, do stay here with us, dear father!' sobbed the child. 'Something might happen to you like what happened to poor Hofmann there. And then mother and I couldn't live any longer—indeed we couldn't; we should be quite sure to die.'
But Roller gently loosened the little maiden's hold, saying kindly as he did so; 'Dollie must be quiet and good, and God will take care of father. We do not know whether we are safer in here or out under the clear sky; but the great God, our heavenly Father, can take care of us wherever we are. Whether I am at work in the deep mine, or in front of the Swedish guns, or sitting quietly at home with you and dear mother, death might come to me if it was God's will, and it will never come until it is His will. Dollie must try to remember this, and think that her dear father is doing his duty.'
When he was gone, Dollie said sadly: 'The hateful war! Why ever do the stupid soldiers make it? I am sure they would all rather sit by their stoves at home, or else stop in bed, than come to Freiberg and make us all so unhappy.'
Conrad thought for a minute or two, and then said: 'Yes, war is a very funny thing; the people who begin it never have any of the trouble. And then it soon gets so big they don't know what to do, because they can't stop it. My mistress says this war was begun because of religion, and they've been fighting for twenty-three years, longer than I can remember. I daresay they want to drive religion out of the world altogether, for I don't think anybody can ever expect to make people good by firing off cannons at them. Our schoolmaster says it's like cutting a man's head off to cure him of the toothache. But oh, Dollie, I sometimes feel so sad you can't think. You have a good father to love you and take care of you, and be very sorry when anything hurts you; but nothing in the world would make my stepfather happier than for some one to go and tell him I was dead. I always have to hide like a wicked thief when he comes, and I'm sure it is a great deal worse for poor mother than it is for me. Nobody but God knows how father uses her, and I daren't go and protect her.'
'Listen!' said Dollie anxiously. 'Hofmann is coming to life again down there in the corner. I can hear him breathing.'
Both children listened.
'That noise isn't Hofmann,' said Conrad. 'It comes out of the ground.' He laid himself down and listened again, with his ear close to the earth. 'I think it's the Swedes digging some more mines,' he said at last.
'What are they?' said Dollie. 'Like father's?'
'Oh dear, no!' replied the boy, proud to show off what he knew. 'Long passages they dig through the ground till they get underneath the city wall, or else one of the gates. Then the Swedes put a great box full of gunpowder in the end of the passage, and set light to it, and then—bang! they blow everything all up into the air together.'
'Oh, do come away directly,' said Dollie in a fright, 'or else we shall all be blown up.'
'Have you forgotten what your father told us?' asked the boy.
'Oh, no indeed!' said Dollie; 'but whatever shall we do? Oh, if father or mother would only come!'
Conrad ventured to one of the loop-holes to look out; it was but little, however, that he could discern in the thick darkness outside. Here and there he saw the gleam of a light or the flash of a weapon; at times some dark mass seemed to move before his eyes, or his ears were saluted by a mysterious sound, then all was silent again. Suddenly, on the side that lay open towards the town, two men entered the covered gallery, which was just at that moment untenanted by soldiers.
'As I tell you, Schoenleben,' said a deep bass voice, 'the lad is dearer to me than almost any other in the City Guard. Cool, steady, and brave, experienced too as an old soldier, I have chosen him for these reasons to report to me from time to time how things go at the Castle and the Kreuz Gate. But I thank you all the same for your information, though what the prisoners say, especially about an old comrade, is not always to be trusted. Still, I will have the lad closely watched, and if there's the least sign of anything amiss, put him where he can do no further mischief.'
The commandant, for it was he, followed by the Burgomaster, stepped to the loop-hole from which Conrad had hastily withdrawn.
'This is our weak point,' continued Schweinitz—'the point at which the enemy would like to strike; but they shall find it a hard nut to crack yet, though gate and tower are little better than ruins. Ah! my friend, give me the devotion and bravery of the Freibergers before any number of bastions, if I am to hold the foe at bay. As things stand, our hopes of a speedy raising of the siege grow side by side with the progress of the Swedes. I would willingly have more certain news. I say, Schoenleben, couldn't you find me some trustworthy messenger that I could send to the imperial marshal?'
The entrance of a man into the gallery cut short the answer.
'Well, Hillner, what is it?' asked Schweinitz.
'Your excellency,' replied the Defensioner, saluting, 'it is thought advisable, in order to strike with greater effect at the enemy's works before the Peter Gate, to open new loop-holes in the lower part of the Wetter Tower, those in the upper storey having been rendered useless by the enemy's fire.'
'Good!' said Schweinitz; and then, turning away from the messenger, he spoke aside with the Burgomaster.
Meantime Conrad sidled up to his former fellow-workman. 'Do stop with us now you have come,' he said, catching hold of the Defensioner's coat. 'The Swedes are digging another mine; just listen at them hammering. I guess we and this old wooden box shall all go flying up into the air together pretty soon.'
As Hillner laid his ear to the ground to listen, Roller entered with several pieces of wood under his arm.
'Now you two can go,' he said to Dollie and Conrad; 'it's quieter now. And here are a few sticks I've brought in out of the moat; take them home; when I come I'll bring some more.'
'Roller,' called the Burgomaster, 'you are exactly the man I wanted. Come to me as soon as you go off duty, we have something to say to you.'
'Very good, respected Herr Burgomaster,' replied Roller, and then accompanied his little daughter out of the gallery to see her safely started on her homeward way. 'Why, where is Conrad Schmidt loitering?' he asked in surprise.
The boy was standing by his friend the Defensioner, who now sprang up from the ground and hastened to his commanding officer. 'Your excellency!' he cried, 'down in that corner the Swedes can be distinctly heard tunnelling through the earth. They are almost under the gallery now.'
'Quick, then, to countermine them!' said Schweinitz, and immediately left the gallery to give the necessary orders. Then began a severe subterranean battle. Both sides made desperate exertions in the attempt to get the upper hand, and for very plain reasons the Freibergers did their utmost to steal a march on the enemy. Although the ground was frozen so hard that it had first to be thawed by the use of fire, two hours had not passed away before the untiring energy of the miners had driven a heading of tolerable length, the foremost man in which stood Roller.
'We too may yet find that this is our last day,' said Roller composedly to the man working behind him. 'Every man's day is coming, whether he likes it or not. And besides, if the Swedes can give up their lives for mere money, cannot we do as much for fatherland, and wife and child? Therefore to work with a will! So long as we can hear the Swedes tunnelling, there is no need to light the match.'
'Now the sounds have ceased,' he muttered to himself after a short interval. 'It will soon be all over with us.' And he picked and shovelled away with redoubled energy, lest his comrades should abate their efforts on noticing that the Swedes had ceased work.
'The earth gets loose and spongy,' he said a little later. 'We must be approaching the Swedish mine. Now then for water, and hot water first of all, so as to get through the earth the quicker!'
Some of the miners went above ground and passed a long trough through the heading. This they sloped and kept constantly filled with water, which rushed gurgling down at the lower end, for the purpose of drowning the Swedish mine. Among those busy bringing the water in firemen's buckets and other utensils, was the miller of Erbisdorf, who had harnessed a team of his donkeys into a large sledge, loaded with steaming hot water.
'Slow and steady wins the race,' was his greeting to Roller, as he pointed to his long-eared friends. 'Our wives are brewing away yonder as though they had their coppers full of good wort instead of water out of the Muenzbach. Well, the Swedish tipplers are quite welcome to have it all in their mine.'
As Roller and the miller were just in the act of lifting the heavy cask from the sledge to the trough, a dull report was heard under the earth. The ground quivered, then opened, and a red stream of fire gushed forth, accompanied by clouds of smoke and stones. The Swedes had observed the presence of an unusual number of people at this point, and had exploded an already prepared mine. There was one loud, involuntary cry from those injured by the explosion, then all was still.
The dead might try to make their way out of the grave itself with as good hope of success as there was for the imprisoned Freibergers to force a passage through the mass of debris that covered them; indeed, they could never have done it had not many stout arms and willing hearts aided in their desperate toil.
'Thirteen men and four beasts of burden!' sorrowfully exclaimed Roller, who had himself escaped destruction as though by a miracle. 'And my brave old comrade, the miller of Erbisdorf, gone at last. We two were carrying the very same cask of water, yet here am I, while he is gone. Ah, it is indeed true, "The one shall be taken and the other left."'
'I say, neighbour Roller!' cried a muffled voice that seemed to come from the depths of the earth, 'help me on to my legs again, for mercy's sake. Here are clods, and stones, and bits of wood jamming me in on all sides; and here's a donkey's head, and I declare he's trying to prick his ears!'
With Roller's help the worthy miller was soon landed once more on terra firma. He found himself severely shaken and bruised, but not otherwise injured, and begged his comrade to see him safe home. Although his body was in pain, his spirit was by no means cast down. When he learned that besides killing three men and severely wounding five others, the exploded mine had cost the lives of two of his donkeys, he remarked: 'Ah, ha! Then they too have died for their fatherland, and will sleep in the temple of fame. I can tell you one thing, though; if the flour does choke us millers up a bit, I'd ten times rather have to do with that than with your Freiberg earth. There's something so big and massive about everything belonging to war, you very soon get enough of it. What will my Anna Maria say when she sees her husband brought home like a flattened pancake?'
As soon as Roller had seen his friend safely housed, and had made himself presentable, he hastened back to the Peter Gate, which seemed, as he approached it, to be all in flames. The wood and twigs the Swedes had piled against the defensive works before the bastion, had been set on fire. The rising flames cast a dreadful glare around, destroyed several of the works in question, and set fire to parts of the tower above the gate, which, falling into the covered gallery in rear of the bastion, threatened to set that too in a blaze. The besieged were able to avert this last calamity by the steady use of water, though the enemy pressed them hard all the time with artillery-fire and hand-grenades.
'The Swedes have set all the elements to work against us,' said Roller to himself. 'They have cut off our water supply, made war on us under the earth, tried to blow us up into the air, and now they turn against us the might of fire. And side by side with these great powers of nature stalks the pale phantom of death.'
DIVERSE HUMAN HEARTS.
'The miner Roller waits without, respected Herr Burgomaster!' announced Juechziger, the town servant.
'Bid him come in,' said Schoenleben. 'Yes, colonel,' he continued, turning to Schweinitz, who was with him; 'I assure you, if confidence may be put in any human being, you may trust this man. He is brave, faithful, and yet shrewd. He will come back as surely as a dove returns to its young. You may send him without hesitation.'
'Would you like to earn three ducats, my good fellow?' Schweinitz asked Roller as the latter entered the room.
'How, your excellency?' inquired the miner.
'You are to take despatches from us to Marshal Piccolomini in Bohemia, lay our condition before him in full, and get him to hasten to our assistance. The service is not without some danger, for you will have to make your way twice through the enemy's lines, and die rather than betray your secret.'
'So I should suppose,' replied Roller dryly.
'Well, what do you say? are you willing to do it, or not?' inquired Schoenleben and Schweinitz together.
'This is no question of a reward,' said Roller. 'You command, and I obey.'
'You are a fine fellow,' said Schoenleben heartily; 'and I will myself give you a couple of ducats extra if you do your business satisfactorily.'
'I crave your pardon, respected Herr Burgomaster!' replied Roller, 'I do not sell my life for silver or gold, for if so I should take sides with friend or foe, according to which would give me the highest pay. But it seems to me that we all make up, as it were, one body in what we have to do, to defend town, wife and child, from the enemy. Very well, then; you are the head, and I am one of the least members, that has to do just what the head bids it. That is what I believe, and I try to fight bravely and do my duty because I believe it.'
Schweinitz shook the brave miner heartily by the hand, saying: 'With men like you I can hold the mountain-city for a long time indeed, but we must not neglect means that may help rid us of the enemy. Come with me, my good fellow, while I make out your papers.'
The same day several children, with Roller's Dollie among them, were crouching round the air-holes of the cellar under the town hall. 'Oh, we do so want to see the Swedish prisoners!' said the child to Conrad, who happened to be passing on the way to his mother's house. 'One of them has such a dreadful great beard,' Dollie continued; 'I am sure he must be General Wrangel's bagpiper. Only think, if he had his pipes here, he could play to us! Just peep in there; sometimes one of them comes to the window and looks up at us.'
Conrad complied with the child's wish, kneeling down beside her. Suddenly a heavy hand was laid on his shoulder, and a voice he always dreaded to hear said, this time, however, in very friendly tones: 'Hallo, Conrad, and what may you be doing here?'
It was into the face of his stepfather that the startled boy stared as he rose hastily to his feet.
'Come along, my son,' said Juechziger very blandly. 'I have something to tell you.' So saying, he drew the boy aside into the passageway of the town hall. 'Listen to me,' he went on good-humouredly; 'I want you to do something for your mother.'
'For my mother!' said Conrad cheerfully. 'Oh yes; I shall be so glad to do it!'
'And for you and me at the same time,' said Juechziger. 'I just want you to go out to our house beyond the Peter Gate.'
'But it's pulled down,' objected Conrad.
'Yes, of course, I know that; but the cellar is there still, and in one corner of that cellar your mother buried a little box with all sorts of precious things in it. I want you to go and dig it up, and bring it to me.'
'But the Swedes are all round out there. They will be sure to kill me, and take the box; they are most tremendous thieves.'
'You needn't trouble yourself about that. I take care of the Swedish prisoners, and one of them has given me a safe-conduct' (he pronounced this word very carefully),—'a safe-conduct that I shall give to you. You are only to get it out if you meet a Swede, and then they'll not only not hurt a hair of your head, but be very kind indeed to you. But you must be sure and not let another soul see the safe-conduct, or else it will all be of no use.'
'Why did mother never say anything about the box?' asked Conrad.
'H'm!' said Juechziger; 'she—well—she—in fact, she didn't quite trust me, I'm sorry to say, and wanted to keep all the things in it for you. But now she sees how wrong that was, and she has confessed all about it to me. I don't want the box for myself; all I want is to see it out of danger.'
'But how can I get out?' asked Conrad again. 'Nobody may leave the town.'
'In about an hour's time there is to be a sortie from the Donat Gate, and you can manage to creep out with the men. Roller the miner is going out with them as well; he and Wahle are going all the way to General Piccolomini in Bohemia, but on no account show the safe-conduct to him.'
'I should like just to run home to mother,' said Conrad, 'to tell her about the box, and say good-bye to her.'
'Now would you really be so unkind to a poor, frightened, blind woman as that?' said his stepfather. 'Why, there's Roller; he has not even told his wife, though he is going all the way to Bohemia, and you want to make your mother unhappy because you're going a few yards outside the city wall.'
'It is quite true, stepfather,' said Conrad with a sigh. 'So give me my safe-conduct, and tell me how I am to get into the town again.'
'You can easily do that. You will only have to creep up the bed of the Muenzbach. No one will take any notice of a slight youth like you.'
Conrad then received from his stepfather a folded and sealed paper, on which was written in large letters the word 'Safe-Conduct.'
Underneath were several more words, but as they were all in Swedish the boy could make nothing out of them. When he had taken leave of Juechziger, the latter muttered to himself: 'Either the Swedes will put an end to him, or else he will do my errand and never be a bit the wiser himself. It will be a good day's work for me whichever way it goes.'
According to his stepfather's orders, Conrad hid the safe-conduct in his breast. He did not understand exactly what the thing was, but this mystery only made him think all the more highly of it, and filled his mind with a sort of confidence that his dangerous errand rendered highly useful. When he found himself really outside the gate, and heard the tumult of battle all around him, his heart beat thick and fast. The men who made the sortie threw themselves at once on the enemy's advanced works, shot or cut down such Swedes as were in them, set fire to the wooden barricades and some detached houses that the Swedes had used against the town, and destroyed everything belonging to the enemy on which they could lay their hands. As soon as the foe showed signs of bringing up men in force, the Freibergers fell back fighting, and carried off their booty into the town.
Then Conrad found himself in a desperate fix. From the ramparts of the town a steady fire was being poured on the advancing Swedes, who returned it with interest, so that the lad, finding himself between two fires, did not know which way to turn, and at last, in his bewilderment, started to run straight across country. Suddenly, without any warning, he went head over heels into a cutting about six feet deep that crossed his line of march, and proved to be neither more nor less than one of the trenches by which the Swedish sharp-shooters got so close up to the town.
As soon as Conrad had somewhat recovered from his sudden plunge, he began to look about him with much astonishment. The pathway in which he stood was so narrow he could easily touch both its sides at once by simply stretching out his arms. As he started to hurry along it, he stumbled on the dead bodies of several soldiers, some of which looked so dreadful that he turned about and ran as hard as he could go in the opposite direction. As he rounded a sharp corner, he ran into an enemy, who seemed as much surprised as himself at the unexpected meeting, and uttered a sudden cry of alarm. This enemy, however, was armed, and heaved up his 'morning-star' for a tremendous blow.
Conrad, in his terror, sprang back several steps, and drawing his paper from his breast, called out: 'Stop! I've got a safe-conduct.'
At these words the man let his weapon sink, and stood staring at the boy, who was again cautiously approaching him holding out the paper.
'Why, bless me!' said the man at last, 'isn't this Conrad Schmidt from the Erbis Street?'
'What! is it you, Master Prieme?' said Conrad joyfully.
'What are—at least, how came you here?' asked Prieme.
'I came out with the sortie,' said Conrad.
'So did I,' grumbled Prieme. 'In the heat of battle I struck too hard at a Swede, just on the edge of this abominable ditch, and then my foot slipped and down I came into it myself, and the detestable thing's so deep there is no getting out again. Perhaps, with your help, I can manage to climb out.'
The attempt was made and proved a failure, while the continuous firing above their heads hinted that it would be much safer to keep out of the upper world for a time.
'So it seems I only came out of the town to tumble into this ditch,' grumbled Prieme again. 'If the Swedes put in an appearance, things will pretty soon begin to look ugly for me.'
'Just you keep close to me,' said Conrad patronizingly. 'I've got a safe-conduct.'
'Where is it?' asked Prieme, looking at him in astonishment. 'I can't see one.'
'Here it is all right,' said Conrad producing it. 'Can you read?'
'What stupid rubbish!' muttered Prieme. 'Now, how can a scrap of paper like that be a safe-conduct? Why, a safe-conduct is a sort of thing that even the most savage enemy is forced to respect. Why, who told you such a pack of nonsense as that?'
Either because his tumble had muddled his brains, or for some other reason best known to himself, Conrad straightway cast all his stepfather's cautions to the winds, and told neighbour Prieme the whole story of the safe-conduct and why he was there.
'This seems to me rather serious,' said the worthy citizen, speaking half to himself. 'To be sure your stepfather is, in a manner of speaking, a bit of a magistrate; but then we all know how people we should never have expected—why, there was the Burgomaster of Bautzen was loaded into a cannon and fired off for trying to betray his native city to the enemy. At all events, Juechziger can have no right to correspond with the Swedes without the commandant's knowledge. So give me that thing over here directly.'
Conrad protested against the abrupt demand, and, suddenly calling to mind his stepfather's forgotten orders, made a frantic attempt to hide the safe-conduct in his breast again. Master Prieme's strong arm would soon have gained the day, however, and deprived the boy of his paper, had not the arrival of a troop of the enemy put a sudend [Transcriber's note: sudden?] stop to their altercation.
Master Prieme, taken with a weapon in his hand, was made a prisoner of war; and Conrad Schmidt, loudly calling attention to his safe-conduct, was at once marched off to the enemy's headquarters.
Here he had a first-rate opportunity to make nearer acquaintance with the dreaded Swedes. He was led about from one point to another. He saw the batteries, mortars, and siege-guns that were destroying his native town; he saw whole regiments of Swedes; but to his immense consolation he did not see any of those men who tortured people and slaughtered little children. In front of Marshal Torstenson's quarters a huge cask of wine was being unloaded, a task in which several peasants were forced to render unwilling aid. When their work was done, however, they got off with nothing worse than a few cuffs. He saw, indeed, plenty of great beards and many dark-looking faces of very scowling aspect, for the Swedes were encamped before Freiberg in no rose-garden; but after all he could not make out any very great difference between the Swedish and Saxon fighting-men.
'I can see one thing very plainly,' said Conrad to himself, 'soldiers are all as much alike as one egg is like another. One wears a grey coat, another a red one, and another a green one, and that's about all the difference between them.'
He was suddenly interrupted in the midst of his reflections by the approach of a trooper, who came towards him with some appearance of curiosity, and with a single glance of his piercing eyes threw the boy's whole soul into a state of panic fear.
'God be with me!' murmured Conrad. 'That's the fierce Swede with the red beard again. I am sure he is taking out a pistol now to make sure of getting a good aim at me this time!'
Happily, his fears were not of long duration, for a sudden call in good German of, 'Hillner, the major wants you,' relieved him of the Swede's presence. 'Hillner!' whispered Conrad to himself. 'I wonder whether everybody with black hair and a red beard is called Hillner.'
The lad was now summoned to appear before Field-Marshal Torstenson. This was worse than his worst expectations; for was not this man the cause of all the trouble, the scourge that with its thousand lashes was tormenting the Saxon land? Conrad stepped trembling into the hall of the Bergwald Hospital, where he found a group of superior officers gathered round their general, who sat by a window with Conrad's safe-conduct in his hand. This, then, was the man whose hand played with the lives and property of so many thousand people. From just inside the door where he had to stand, Conrad stared with beating heart at the dreadful man who had conquered great armies, plundered and wasted whole countries, taken strongholds by storm, and was now conquered himself. For a shaft was quivering in his flesh that he could by no means draw out; his foot was, so to speak, stung by a glowing needle that could never be cooled, and that no medicine could heal. In the olden times men were laid on the torture-bench that they might be forced to confess their evil deeds; and God Himself sometimes uses pain to bring a sinner to repentance, when he has turned a deaf ear to all the voices of conscience and religion.
Torstenson, a man scarcely forty years of age, was seated in an arm-chair. He had no remedies to oppose to the grinding foe in his foot but patience and a bandage of coarse hemp. But such is mankind that this great general, who had at his disposal the lives of thousands of his fellow-creatures, could not control his own desires; for near him stood a table on which among other things was a bottle of wine and a large goblet partly filled, to which he betook himself from time to time. The contents of the 'safe-conduct' did not seem to afford him much consolation, for he threw it angrily on the table.
'That is my last weapon,' he said to one of the officers. 'The town must and shall be mine, this week, this very day, and without the help of a scoundrel, too!'
'Your excellency!' said the attendant physician warningly, as he saw the general's gaze turn again towards the goblet.
'Ah, doctor,' said the marshal peevishly; 'take my word for it, it was not the wine, but those six months in the damp dungeon at Ingolstadt that gave me the gout. Bring that youth forward.'
Conrad trembled as he was led before the general, though that officer looked, to his boyish eyes, more like a woman than a stalwart fighting-man. His tall body was enveloped in a great, shaggy fur coat right down to the feet, and a white nightcap covered his head. Nothing but the moustache on the pale face indicated the warlike calling of the man who now addressed Conrad.
'How many people have come to live in your town on account of the siege?'
'Oh, they might be somewhere in the sixties,' replied Conrad, carefully conformable to truth.
'Are you starving in Freiberg?'
'My mother and her cat sometimes, nobody else. And then that is all my stepfather's fault, because he will keep the bread cupboard locked up.'
'Do the citizens and soldiers hold together still? Are they not getting down-hearted?'
'Oh, well, at first there were a few squabbles. The Herr Burgomaster had a tiff with the Herr Commandant, but now they are just like brothers; all their quarrels are over, and they are in first-rate spirits.'
'Can you tell me how many men there are left in Freiberg capable of bearing arms?'
'Why, gracious sir,' said Conrad, 'it isn't only the men! Everybody that's got arms and legs does a bit of fighting. And there are nearly sixty thousand of us. Why, only yesterday evening the miller's donkeys helped to spoil your mine.'
The smile which at this sally passed across Torstenson's pale and suffering face gave Conrad a sudden courage; he knelt before the general, and began in a pleading tone, that grew bolder as he warmed with his subject: 'Gracious Field-Marshal, I pray of you, for Christ's sake, to leave off firing at our dear old town. Why should we be the people you are so angry with, and why did you choose us out? The whole wide world lies open before you, and I am sure there are many strong cities in Germany you could easily take if you would just attack them. Do you expect to seize many lumps or bars of silver in Freiberg? They are all gone long ago in this never-ending war, and there's nothing left but rubbish and stones. And I can tell you another thing, noble sir, and that is that you will never conquer the town—no, not if you and all your soldiers were to stand on your heads!'
'Silence, boy!' cried an officer angrily.
'Let the lad chatter,' said Torstenson. 'His talk helps to pass away the time. And pray,' he continued, turning to Conrad, 'who is to blame for your trouble but yourselves? Have I not many times offered the town pardon on favourable terms?'
'Yes,' returned Conrad, hesitating; 'but—with permission—people know what your excellency's pardon is like. Inside the town there, they say they would rather die than accept your excellency's pardon.'
Perhaps it was a fresh twinge of the gout that distorted Torstenson's face. He made a hasty sign to the boy to withdraw, which he was nothing loth to do, although assisted on his way by a cuff or two from the indignant attendants.
The bad temper of great men seldom passes away without producing some effect on those who surround them. The tortures Torstenson suffered found an outlet in giving orders for a general assault on the works of the city, especially on the Peter Gate. The firing of the double and single arquebuses began again, the mortars joined in with their short, sharp roar, and soon the earth shook and the air vibrated with the frightful din.
Conrad had taken refuge in a corner of the hospital wall. When, towards evening, there came a lull in the firing, he could hear, from the breach by the Peter Gate, the jubilant tones of a hymn that touched him to the heart. 'Jesus, my Redeemer, lives,' sounded through the wintry air, chanted by the deep voices of earnest men, and Conrad, in his corner, joined in softly. And the Swedes, too, awed by the holy sounds, stood like statues, facing the singers; the sword rested in its sheath, the bullet in the arquebuse, and the shell in the mortar. In years that were gone, the Swedes themselves used to sing like that as they marched to battle, and now they stood and joined in spirit in the service that Dr. Bartholomew Sperling was holding with the defenders of the threatened breach. But when the prayer was ended, the furies of war raised their blood-red banners again, in mournful contrast to the scene that had just taken place, and the dreadful game that is played with human lives for the stakes began once more.
The whole night through did the firing continue. Early on February 4, 1643, at about six in the morning, the Swedes exploded two mines, one of which laid open the barbican, while the other hurled pieces of woodwork far over the roofs of the houses, shattering the gallery within the barbican, and destroying those who were defending it. In the confusion that arose, the Swedes, a reserve of whom had been held in readiness, immediately seized the barbican, mounted from it to the gate-tower, which was now commanded by their artillery, and placed sharp-shooters in it, who at once opened a galling fire with double arquebuses, hand-grenades, and stones on the occupants of the nearest posts held by the defenders. By way of covering themselves from this fire, the besieged at once constructed a new battery on the upper cistern in the Peter Street. From this they were soon able to open fire upon the new Swedish breastwork on the tower at the Peter Gate, the result being the enemy's speedy and enforced retirement into one of the lower and less exposed rooms of the gate-tower. Yet the Swedes had this time undoubtedly gained an important advantage, and the position of the city was becoming every hour more critical. But, in spite of all, neither courage nor resolution had as yet begun to fail.
 See note on page 87.
WAR OFTEN OPPOSES THE TEACHINGS OF CHRISTIANITY.
Conrad was detained for three days in the Swedish camp. It was on an overcast, rainy evening that he at length received permission to return. He hastened to reach the Muenzbach, which flows into the town in two streams between the Erbis and Donat Gates. In the year 1297, an enemy had made treacherous use of this river to enter and plunder the town; and the points of its entrance and exit had from that time been guarded against surprise by strong towers, beneath the arched foundations of which the river now flowed. It was towards the tower of exit that Conrad made the best of his way.
The sentries either did not see the boy approaching through the gloom, or did not consider him dangerous, for he succeeded in creeping unhindered beneath the vaulted archway that spanned the river. All soon grew quite dark around him as he waded on, and he found himself obliged to make his hands do the work of eyes. He had not proceeded far in this fashion, when he suddenly found further progress barred by a strong iron grating reaching down into the bed of the river and up to the stonework above his head. How was he to pass this unexpected obstacle? He cautiously rapped and felt the bars one by one, until, to his great delight, he found that the last bar could be quite easily pushed aside, thus leaving an opening through which the slender lad found but little difficulty in forcing his body. As he came to each of the two similar gratings that barred his way farther up the tunnel, he found the same course practicable. He continued to follow the subterranean bed of the stream for some distance farther, until it emerged into the open air again in a tanner's yard, and Conrad could leave the wet path he had followed so long. He did not let the grass grow under his feet, and very soon was listening cautiously at his mother's door. Hearing no sound, he stepped on tiptoe into the room. No one was to be seen, though a lamp was burning on the table. He crept across to the door of the bedroom, and thought he heard sounds of breathing. As he opened the door, a feeble ray of light streamed through the crevice, and he saw his mother lying in bed, with the faithful cat sitting beside her as her only companion. Puss, recognising the boy, began to purr and wave her tail, but the blind woman seemed to be stupefied by the burning heat of fever.
'Mother! mother!' cried Conrad, at first softly, then louder; at last he ventured to pull the sleeve of her night-dress.
The blind woman sat up suddenly. 'What is it?' she cried. 'Who is calling me?'
'It is I, mother,' said Conrad, with chattering teeth; for by this time the cold seemed to have spread from his wet feet all over his body.
'And have you come for me at last, my darling child?' said his mother, in tones of rapture. 'How often have I prayed that God would send you to take me home to the mansions of the blest! I come, my son; I come!'
'Why, how funny you talk, mother!' said Conrad. 'I only wanted to ask you for a pair of clean stockings, because mine have got so wet wading along the Muenzbach. I have only just come in from the Swedish camp, and I've brought you the box you buried in our old cellar.'
'Swedish camp!—box!—cellar!' repeated the bewildered woman, as though she were still in a dream. 'Have you not been dead these three days? And is not this your spirit, that a poor blind woman cannot even see?'
'Why, mother, whatever are you thinking about?' cried Conrad, laughing in spite of his cold feet. 'Here, catch hold of me, feel me; I'm flesh and blood. Did not father tell you he had sent me off to the Swedes to get this box? They didn't do me one bit of harm; they didn't even starve me. But they would not let me go and dig in our cellar; they said that was not work for stupid boys. So they did all the digging, and brought me the box all right; and, considering what a lot of thieves they are, I think that was almost a miracle. I say, mother, whatever did you put in the box? It's all nailed up so tight I couldn't open it.'
He placed a case about fifteen inches long, by six inches broad and high, in his mother's hands. The blind woman felt it all over in wonder.
'I don't know anything about any box,' she said. 'And I'm sure I never had anything to bury.'
'Perhaps Master Prieme was right after all, then,' said Conrad.
'Who is this talking in here?' cried Juechziger, coming suddenly into the room. 'Ha! is it you, you young good-for-nothing? Where have you sprung from? Quick now, confess, or I'll warm you soundly.'
'Well, I'm sure I'm cold enough, father,' said Conrad, with a feeble attempt at a joke; 'and it was on your business, too, that I got so cold. Is that all the thanks I am to have for bringing you the box all safe and sound?'
'What! is that true? You're a very fine fellow. Give it me here, quick!' cried Juechziger in a tone full of joy.
'But,' said his wife, 'I never buried a box with treasure in it. What can we have to do with this?'
'Oh, I had a dream the other night,' answered Juechziger, 'as life-like a dream as if I had really been standing in the cellar of our old house. And see here, my dream has come true, and no mistake about it. A little mountain-troll dressed, in grey stood before me in my dream, and said, "Let your son, Conrad Schmidt, dig here in this corner of the cellar. He is a Sunday's bairn and will have good luck."'
'But I didn't dig for it,' said Conrad. 'The Swedes did it for me.'
'It all comes to the same thing,' said Juechziger, 'so long as we have the box. Do you know, my son, what there is inside it?'
'How should I? See how it's all nailed and screwed up!'
'Have you brought back the safe-conduct?'
'Oh yes; I forgot that. One of the Swedish officers tied the paper over my heart and under my left arm. I was not to let a soul see it, he said, except the one from whom I first had it, and that was you, you know, father. But I'm sure it's a different letter, and it's uncommonly heavy.'
'Give it me here this instant,' said Juechziger, scarcely trying to conceal his joy. 'It will be nothing but right if the Swedes have sent their poor prisoners a ducat or two that they may get me to buy them a few things. But mind you, don't say a word about it to a living soul; for if you do, the money will all be taken from them, and I shall be punished for my kindness into the bargain.'
Conrad handed the paper over to his step-father, who put it straight into his pocket without stopping to examine it. 'You need not go back to your mistress now,' he said, when the packet was safely stowed away. 'Much better stay here and attend to your sick mother. The good woman is in sore need of all the care and help you can give her.'
Conrad was not too bewildered by all his adventures to suspect some hidden meaning in his step-father's very sudden kindness. As he thought about the story of the box and the safe-conduct, it seemed to him to grow more and more suspicious, and he longed for some friend with whom he could talk the whole thing over.
He could not relieve his mind to his sick mother, that was clear, for she was far more helpless than himself. Master Prieme was a prisoner of war; Roller was gone. Who was there left that he could trust, but his comrade the Defensioner? Yet how could he get at Hillner, with his step-father watching him as a cat watches a mouse, scarcely permitting him even to cross the threshold of the house.
Meantime, the enemy had hauled a cannon up into the tower over the Peter Gate, which was soon scattering death among the defenders. The besieged also suffered severe loss from the fire of two heavy guns planted close beside the town moat, near the Peter Gate, and covering the next tower, that which guarded the Kreuz Gate. The Freibergers, on their part, were by no means backward in doing their utmost to harass the Swedes. Behind each defensive work as it was shot down, a new one arose. Trenches, palisadoes, covered ways, counter-mines, and batteries were all used as means of defence; the houses adjoining threatened spots were turned into strongholds, and pierced for sharp-shooters, who shot every Swede that showed himself within range. The commandant was at all points where fighting was going on, ordering and encouraging his men both by word and example.
On the second morning after the night of Conrad's return, Schweinitz approached the Defensioner Hillner where he stood at a loop-hole in the tower at the Kreuz Gate. Hillner respectfully made way for his superior officer, who wished to look out.
'Just see that impudent rascal!' cried the commandant, after a few moments' survey. 'He is riding his horse right up to the city moat in sheer bravado. Quick, Defensioner, and show the fellow that there are men in here. Put a bullet through his head.'
Alert and willing, Hillner at once placed the muzzle of his piece in the loop-hole. Just as he had covered the Swede, however, he lowered his weapon and turned pale.
'What's the matter?' cried Schweinitz. 'Why do you tremble? Are you hurt? Here, then, give me your weapon. I will chastise the insolent scoundrel myself.' As he spoke, Schweinitz grasped at the arquebuse, on which Hillner's hand closed like a vice.
'So please your excellency and my gracious commandant,' said the Defensioner in a tone of entreaty, 'do whatever you please with my life, but I cannot shoot the man out yonder; neither can I give you my weapon for you to do it.'
'What!' shouted Schweinitz. 'I, your general, command it. That weapon, instantly, or—you know the penalty that attaches to insubordination. Loose it, I tell you!'
'I know well,' replied the young man, 'what penalty belongs to insubordination; but ought I not to obey God rather than man?'
'No, a thousand times!' cried Schweinitz, his face aflame with rage. 'In war, God's command counts for nothing, and the general's for everything. What will happen next, if a soldier is to stand and argue instead of obeying the orders of his superior officer? The soldier is a mere machine at the absolute will and disposal of his officer, and must do whatever that officer commands—must kill father, son, or brother whenever he receives orders to do so. This is what war demands, and the morality of your catechisms has no place in it. War puts its trust in the strong arm, the sword, and the fire-lock alone. Speak, fellow! why would you not shoot that Swede?'
'Many of the enemy have already met their death by my hand during the past few weeks,' replied Hillner quietly; 'and only against one have I refused to raise my weapon, for that one was—my father;—an unnatural father, it is true, who deceived my poor mother, and shamefully deserted her, and made me fight against my fatherland,—but yet, in spite of all, my father. His blood flows in my veins; but for him I should never have existed. So I say again, let me die rather than kill him.'
'We can easily manage that,' said Schweinitz angrily. 'All such talk as this in war-time is so much rubbish. Bah! While I stand here debating with a traitor, the villain yonder has prudently taken himself out of range.' Defensioner, you will give me your weapons, both firelock and sabre. You are my prisoner. Ha! Schoenleben doubtless had sound reasons for warning me against you.'
His step-father's absence and his mother's quiet slumber having given Conrad the opportunity he wanted, he was on the way to his mistress' house to find his friend Hillner, when he saw the Defensioner coming along the street, closely surrounded by the guard, and followed by a crowd of curious people. The boy stared in astonishment at hearing the ugly word 'traitor' applied to his old comrade, and did not fully recover himself until he caught sight of his step-father marching with a joyful face close beside the prisoner, on the way to lock him up in one of the strongest cells at the town hall.
When the news of Hillner's arrest reached Mistress Bluethgen's house, where it produced great excitement, the miller, who had not yet fully recovered, remarked dryly to the women:
'Seems to me as though our Defensioner must have acted rather like one of my donkeys. He could have obeyed the commandant's order, aimed his weapon, and fired over the Swede's head. He had it all in his own hands.'
'No,' said his wife, showing, what was very unlike her, the deepest emotion, 'Hillner was right not to lift his hand against his father, even in pretence. What marksman in the whole wide world can say where his bullet shall go, when it is once out of his gun and flying towards a mark that some mischievous sprite may shift at any moment. And to kill his father! Fie! I would rather see Hillner hanged, an innocent man, than do such a deed.'
These words of the miller's brave wife made deep and lasting impression on Conrad, who stood by and heard them. Though Juechziger was a cruel stepfather, a hard struggle had been going on in the boy's mind as to whether it was his duty to bring a terrible suspicion on that father by telling all he knew. He now determined to let his secret remain locked up in his own heart.
While the scene narrated in our last chapter was being enacted, another and more joyous one was taking place at the Donat Gate. Three men, two of them miners, suddenly appeared running towards the gate, and making eager signs to the sentries in the barbican with the view of obtaining speedy admission. This being at once granted, the little party turned out to consist of the two miners, Roller and Wahle, sent some days before on a special mission, together with Master Prieme, who had fortunately succeeded in making his escape. Roller and his comrade brought letters and advices from Marshal Piccolomini; these, addressed to the commandant and the town authorities, and written at Brix on February 5th, promised that within six, or at longest eight days, the imperial army should be seen on the mountain beyond the city, advancing to free Freiberg, by the blessing of God, from the presence of the foe. The marshal further announced that as he approached he would set fire to a house or two in the village of Leichtenberg on the Mulda, so that by midnight his advance should be known in the city; and that immediately on reaching the mountain, where the enemy would doubtless discover his presence, he would fire six guns morning and evening, and three more as he actually began his march down towards the city. Thus the garrison would have timely notice of the arrival of help.
Piccolomini's despatch to Schoenleben ran as follows:—
'To our trusty, best, and right well-beloved Burgomaster, Herr Jonas Schoenleben,—Be it known that I have kept the messengers by me, that their bodily eyes might see my army set forward on its march, and that thus they might take assured news thereof into the good city of Freiberg. And inasmuch as I shall in few days arrive before Freiberg with such army (whereof the enemy neither have knowledge nor can conceive aught aright), and so, with the help of Almighty God, shall relieve the city, I hereby beseech the said noble Burgomaster to do his utmost, with aid of all and sundry those brave and honourable burghers by whom he is at this present sustained, to maintain and defend the said post until my arrival; and to that end to encourage and hearten all men, as hitherto hath been so notably done by him, that they may not make surcease for so few days of that stedfast toil and bravery which they have heretofore shown. May God have all in his keeping!'
The receipt of these cheering messages revived the spirits of the besieged—a service the more necessary because the enemy, getting word that a hostile army was on the march, made strenuous efforts to gain possession of the town. The fortifications, many of which were now little more than heaps of rubbish, were still obstinately defended by the unconquerable bravery of the besieged. Pieces of both the outer and inner walls, twenty and thirty ells in length, had been destroyed by mines and artillery-fire, and their downfall had in many places choked up the moat. Some of the barbicans before the gates were in the enemy's possession, and even the Peter Gate itself. The towers that guarded the town resembled ancient ruins; and the defensive works were now chiefly represented by wooden galleries, palisadoes, piles of gabions, and the walls of half-destroyed houses, behind which, however, the besieged found shelter, from which they still kept up a vigorous fire. The underground war, too, was still hotly maintained; and when, as often happened, the hostile sappers heard the sounds of each other's voices, emulation still excited them to struggle as if for life and death.
On February 14th the Swedes attempted to storm two of the defenders' positions, and advanced to the assault with loud shouts and in considerable force. A few bold soldiers, indeed, succeeded in making good their entrance into one of the towers; but the besieged, in expectation of this attack, had filled the inside of the tower with wood and other combustibles. Fire was set to these materials, and to the gallery adjoining the tower, and thus the enemy was compelled to withdraw. Meantime, behind the burning ruin, the citizens constructed a new defensive work, and both here and in the breach offered so brave a resistance, that the foe, after repeated attempts, was once more baffled and compelled to fall back.
In the evening of the same day Roller appeared at home with his head bound up.
'It is nothing!' he assured his alarmed family. 'A Swedish bullet glanced aside and grazed my temple; that is all. But you, my dear people—ah! you may lift up your heads to look whether your day of deliverance is coming; you may gaze towards the Liechtenberg, and try to make out the beacon fire our deliverers were to kindle. Not six or even eight, but nine whole days have gone by, and no helpers have made their appearance! "Put not your trust in man," was as true a word as was ever spoken!'
This was the first time Roller had ever given way to repining before the women. The next day, February 15th, the Friebergers, wishful to gain time, resolved on asking Marshal Torstenson for an armistice, hoping to use that opportunity of smuggling two or three persons unobserved out of the city, and so sending word to Dresden of Freiberg's desperate straits.
On pretence of discussing the proposed armistice, three Swedish colonels appeared by consent of the besieged on the top of the tower at the Peter Gate. They made good use of their eyes to learn all that could be learned about the condition of the defence, and found it still such as to inspire them with all due respect. When this result had been satisfactorily achieved, the armistice was formally refused, the battle being at once renewed; and at two o'clock in the afternoon of the same day, the city was once more summoned to surrender. The prompt refusal of this demand provoked renewed efforts on the part of the besiegers to gain possession of the hard-pressed city.
Matters stood at this desperate pass, when, on the evening of the same day, the shout of 'Fire!' sounded through the streets of Freiberg. It was no alarm, but a genuine cry of joy.
'Fire! fire!' exclaimed Mistress Bluethgen, as with a beaming face she came rushing into the living-room, where the disabled miller and his wife, Roller, with bandaged head, surrounded by his family, and the remaining members of the household were all assembled. 'Fire over the Liechtenberg at last!' she cried again, throwing her arms, as she spoke, round the neck of the miller's wife.
'Fire over the Liechtenberg!' rang along the narrow street outside. All who could, now climbed out on to the roof of the house to see the long-desired sight for themselves. If, at the beginning of the siege, a magnificent rainbow had been hailed as an omen of good, the Freibergers now gazed at the red glow on the distant horizon as at a beacon-light that surely could not deceive them.
'It seems to me,' said Roller, pushing back the bandage that covered his ear, 'it seems to me as though I heard firing as well.'
The dull roar of cannon, several times repeated, was now plainly heard from the far-off height.
'It is they! it is our deliverers!' cried all, as their joy broke out afresh.
Confidence and hope work wonders. They nerved the courage of these distressed Freibergers, until the most faint-hearted among them rose into a hero. Let the Swedes renew their assault on the next day as fiercely as they pleased; let them summon the town three times over to surrender, and make all their preparations for a final attack; nothing could now take away the joyful assurance of immediate relief. On the previous day, a mine had torn down a large piece of the main city wall, twenty yards in length, near the Peter Gate, and so shattered the great flanking tower at that point that its downfall seemed every moment imminent. In spite of a heavy fire, the Freibergers made good use of the night in preparing trenches, thickly studded with palisadoes, close behind the main wall, in throwing up great piles of branches and trunks of trees in the new breach, and doubling the number of men at the points chiefly threatened. Having made these preparations, they confidently awaited the onset of the enemy, whose numerous forces were now steadily drawing nearer and nearer to the city.
Who would not have trembled for Freiberg at sight of that veteran army, trained in long and stormy years of battle, and led by a renowned general, bent on destroying the city and putting all its inhabitants—men and women, old and young—to the sword? Ambition and shame alike stimulated the Swedish general, as he thought how this insignificant country town had so long thwarted all his best efforts. His men, on the other hand, were inspired by thirst for plunder and a burning desire to avenge all the toils and troubles they had endured amid the severities of that bitter winter.
On the side of the Swedes were many thousand veteran men-at-arms, a commander well known to fame, over a hundred pieces of artillery, and free access to the whole country around, furnishing constant fresh supplies both of men and the necessaries of war. On the side of the Saxons was a little band of three hundred soldiers, a leader of whom renown as yet had scarcely heard, an untrained crowd of peaceful citizens and country-people, and last, though not least, the true-hearted miners. These, with the help of a few cannon and a limited supply of ammunition, were holding shattered heaps of ruins against an unwearied foe. But the Freibergers threw into the scale on their side, loyalty to their prince, love for fatherland, for hearth, and home, and liberty; and thus the balance weighed in their favour.
With thoughts like these present in many minds, passed away the daylight hours of that memorable 16th of February, and the night appointed for the general assault came down at last. Eight captains, each with a hundred and twenty men, a company of seventy or eighty picked men with hand-grenades, and as many more with axes, were told off to make the first attack, their advance being supported by four thousand men of the main storming party. In the evening, Torstenson had, by a great effort, ridden quite round the town, marking out the points to be specially attacked, assigning his troops their respective places, and ordering several new batteries to be placed in position. As Wallenstein once before Stralsund, so now Torstenson before Freiberg, swore to take the city, even though it were under the special protection of Heaven itself.
The besieged were aware, both through their prisoners and by other means of information, that the most desperate of all their struggles awaited them to-night, and they did not attempt to conceal from themselves the terrible peril in which they stood. They spent a social hour at home with wife and children, took what might well prove a final farewell, and then each man went forth to his dangerous post with the stedfast determination to die rather than yield. And among those ranks of silent, resolute men in the deadly breach, was seen the reverend figure of good Master Spelling, in his preacher's robe, the book of the Holy Gospels in his hand.
'My beloved brethren in Christ!' he cried; 'if we live we live unto the Lord, and if we die we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. Yea, the Lord is our strength and our shield; and though we wander through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for His right hand hath holden us up that we should not fall. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth. He will hear their cry and will save them. "Call upon me," saith He, "in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me." Put your trust in the Lord, not in the Imperialists, and not in your own might. Think who it was that broke the power of Sennacherib before Jerusalem, when a hundred and eighty thousand of Israel's foes perished in a single night! The Lord our God! And His power is not lessened since that day, neither is His glory dimmed. Three men once sang in the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Cannot we, too, lift our feeble voices to God where we stand in the deadly breach? Let "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" be our shout of victory when the foe comes on against us; and let us, ere we part, chant together the jubilant words, "Jesus lives; I shall live also. O Death! where is thy sting?"'
So they sang, and their voices sounded far out into the night; they knelt, and their pastor invoked God's blessing on them for the approaching battle,—for victory, if so it might be, or for a happy and joyous entrance into the better land.
TREACHERY AND DELIVERANCE.
With the exception of babes and very young children, no one in Freiberg slept that night. All were wakeful and astir. Men stood armed for battle in their places on the city walls; women and children prayed in the churches; mothers watched with anxious hearts over slumbering little ones, not knowing when the dreaded Swedes might burst in to slaughter all alike.
'Stay with me, my son,' Mistress Juechziger begged of Conrad. 'Do not let your poor blind mother be left to meet the Swedes alone. At least, let us die together.'
Conrad obeyed like a dutiful son, though staying in the house to-night was a task most irksome to his adventurous spirit, which urged him forth into the busy turmoil where the brave citizens were making ready to fight for all they held dear.
Juechziger, too, seemed a stranger to peace and quietness of spirit, though for a very different reason. He was seen first in one place and then in another, in different parts of the city. At last he hastened through the streets towards his own house, but took special care to avoid the churches and the praying people. After entering the living-room of his home, he moved restlessly about the apartment, alternately taking up and laying down various trifling objects. At last, towards ten at night, he started forth with the Swedish treasure-box under his arm, and did not return.
'Whatever can there be in that box!' said Conrad after a time to his mother, who, though still an invalid, could not rest for anxiety, and had exchanged her bed for an easy-chair by the stove. 'It is nailed and screwed up still, as tight as ever, unless I am mistaken.'
Before the mother could reply, the door was suddenly opened from without, and Master Prieme, fully armed, entered the room.
'Where is Juechziger?' he said instantly. 'He is to come at once to the Burgomaster.'
'He went out a little while ago,' replied Conrad, 'and did not leave word where he was going.'
'What! you here, boy!' cried Prieme, in evident surprise. 'Ha! And how did you get out of the Swedes' hands and into the town again? How about that safe-conduct and that precious buried box? The whole thing looked very suspicious, very suspicious indeed.'
Conrad found himself in a great difficulty. Should he make a clean breast of it, and perhaps get his step-father into dreadful trouble? He at first hesitated, and then stammered—
'Well—the—the Swedes—let me go in three days.'
'And the box? What about that?'
'Oh—well,' stammered Conrad, incapable of telling a lie, 'the box? I got that too.'
'Dug it out of the cellar?'
'No; not that. The Swedes dug it up, and gave it me; and then'—
'That's false!' cried Prieme. 'Sooner get blood out of a post than a box worth keeping out of the clutches of a Swede. What was in it?'
'I'm sure I don't know. It was nailed up so tight; and my step-father wouldn't let me even peep into it. I don't think it has ever been opened.'
'Just like Juechziger! a regular downright skinflint! And how did you get into the town again? Who let you in across the moat and through the gate?'
Conrad was by this time nearer crying than laughing. He looked imploringly at his questioner, remained silent, and then, when further pressed, stammered out—
'Along the Muenzbach—under the water-tower.'
'That's sheer nonsense!' cried Prieme again. 'Three gratings of the toughest hammered iron are firmly fixed across the way. Don't lie to me, boy, or I'll break every bone in your body.'
'But I did, indeed I did,' persisted Conrad. 'In all the gratings one bar was eaten away by rust or something, so that I could easily push them on one side and creep through.'
Prieme turned pale. 'Merciful heaven!' he cried; 'this means treachery. Quick to give the alarm! Perhaps we may even yet save the city.'
'Oh, please do be reasonable, Master Prieme!' pleaded Conrad, seizing the man by the arm as he was hastening away. 'It has been exactly like that for several days now, and no harm has come of it. Pray don't give an alarm, or the end of it will be you'll get my step-father into a mess, and then what is to become of me?'
'Such talk is all no use,' answered Prieme, 'no use at all; not even if Juechziger were your real father, which he isn't.'
'But only think what all the people in the town would say if I got my step-father into trouble. Didn't everybody except the governor praise Hillner when he wouldn't shoot at his father?'
'That's a totally different thing,' said Prieme impatiently; 'then it was only one Swede, and it didn't much matter whether he lived or died. But, boy, if many thousand innocent people are about to perish through one man's knavish trick, ought we not to bring the traitor to justice, ay, though he be father, brother, or son? Look at that dear, good woman, your blind mother! Do you want the Swedes to get in and slaughter her? Are you going to let sixty thousand brave men and women perish, and all our toils and struggles be in vain, just to save one villain from the punishment he deserves?'
'Oh, dear me, whatever shall I do? No, indeed, neighbour Prieme,' said Conrad, in great distress. 'But I'm sure I don't know anything at all about my step-father, except that he'—
'Juechziger is to come instantly to the Burgomaster,' cried a well-known voice, as the door of the living-room opened, and Roller's bandaged head appeared.
'Yes,' said Prieme in a tone of vexation; 'but the bird has flown, and even now I am busy with his brood. Good woman, cannot you give us some information about your husband?'
'Nothing more,' said Mistress Juechziger, 'than this, that about an hour ago, while Conrad was gone out of the room, my husband was burning something over the lamp. At first I thought it was only tinder, but there was a sudden noise at the room door, and I fancied I heard my husband hastily crumple up a piece of paper, and throw it either under the window-seat or the cupboard. No one entered as my husband seemed to expect; it was only the cat scratching to be let in.'
'You here!' cried Roller to his dog, which had followed him in, and which now went open-mouthed at the cat, she in her turn retiring under the cupboard, a safe refuge into which the dog could not follow her. 'You here!' said Roller again. 'Get out, Turk!'
Turk had planted himself in front of the cupboard, and was now scratching vigorously with his fore-paws at the unhappy cat's hiding-place. As he did so, he threw out a ball of paper rolled closely together, which the sharp-sighted Prieme instantly picked up and unfolded. It was a fragment of a written sheet, partly burned, and in several places quite illegible.
In a state of the highest excitement, Prieme brought the paper into the lamp-light, and with trembling lips read as follows:—
'To rouse the prisoners singly and without being observed . . . in conjunction with forty of our bravest soldiers under Captain . . . into the city . . . as soon as the petard sent herewith has done its work and the tower is destroyed, the corps held in readiness will make an attack on that point, which you will powerfully support with the men placed under your guidance. At the same time the storm on all the other positions . . . The fifty ducats required to make up the sum named shall'—
A loud report sounding at this moment through the air, and overpowering the noise of the artillery, cut short the further reading of the paper.
'There goes the water-tower!' groaned Prieme. 'The Swedish petard you brought in as such a precious treasure, boy, has indeed done its work. Can't you hear the shouts of the enemy's storming-party? But,' he went on with a sudden outburst of enthusiasm, 'do not let them think they will get into the town, for all that! I would drive them out headlong with the help of only women and children, though we had no weapons but stones and fire-brands.' So saying, he rushed forth into the night.
Mistress Juechziger wrung her hands, and her son seemed almost stunned by all these untoward events. But prudent Roller said quietly,
'Would God have let this rascally trick be found out when it was too late? Let us at least do all we can; and first, to examine the town hall, find out about the prisoners, and see whether Juechziger is there.'
'Mother, do let me go too,' pleaded Conrad; 'just to learn the truth, and bring you word back.'
He hastened away with Roller to the cellars under the town hall. They found the garrison was gone, every man being now needed to confront the enemy at the fortifications. As the two groped their way through the dark rooms, Conrad's foot struck against something that gave forth a metallic clink. It was the bunch of keys that Juechziger had thrown away after liberating the Swedish prisoners. Just as they made this alarming discovery, they heard a loud knocking at one of the inner doors.
'The Swedish prisoners have fled!' shouted Hillner's voice. 'Look out for treachery!'
'Roller,' said Conrad, 'let Hillner out. He is quite innocent. Why, it was my step-father and no one else that made the Burgomaster and the governor suspect him. If any one can help to put a stop to this business, I am sure it is my old comrade. See, here are the keys all ready.'
'I will promise you faithfully,' said Hillner from within, 'to place myself under arrest again the instant the danger is over.'
'In the name of God, then, and may He guide us aright!' said Roller, opening the door. 'And now, to put all on the hazard of one bold stroke.'
The three friends immediately set off at a rapid pace for the lower town. Whatever persons they met on the way, whether men or women, were pressed into the service, and the little company armed itself as best it might in the hurry of the moment. The women, for the most part, could hit on nothing better than to fill their aprons as they went with stones from the street pavements. The men, with Conrad among them, threw the light of their torches from both sides at once under the vaulted arches that spanned the Muenzbach, and were longer or shorter according as their position required. As soon as it was ascertained that the way was clear at one point, the little party went on instantly to the next. Roller and Conrad soon made out, to their great relief, that the water-tower was still standing. They were by this time approaching it, and just as they reached the last tunnel, the one through which the Muenzbach leaves the city, at the point where it flows away under the street below the water-tower, a youth announced that he had descried the forms of several men creeping through the darkness of the archway.
Whilst two of their number went off at once to alarm the garrison of the water-tower and the men on the neighbouring fortifications, the rest of the courageous little band took post around the vaulted entrance of the tunnel, in readiness to give the enemy a warm reception. This arrangement was not completed without some noise; and, as a consequence, a head appeared from beneath the archway to see what was going on outside. It was the head of the treacherous town servant; and Roller promptly dealt it so severe a blow with a stout cudgel, that its owner instantly drew back with a yell of pain. Some minutes of ominous silence then passed, in which the enemy were doubtless busy taking counsel as to what should be done next. Then they suddenly burst forth with loud shouts and wild uproar. Though one and another of their number dropped beneath the shower of stones with which they were greeted, they did not even pause, but pressed furiously forward against their antagonists.
'Light the petard!' shouted a terrible voice from beneath the archway, at the sound of which Hillner's arm seemed involuntarily to lose its power. Immediately afterwards a Swede made his appearance, whose murderous eyes and bushy red beard were plainly visible in the torchlight.
'Father!' cried Hillner sadly; and his strong right arm fell mechanically at his side, while the left was extended imploringly, as though to shield him from his father's uplifted sword.
A frightful oath was the answer, the one that Conrad heard on the Erbisdorf road, and, by his comrade's wish, wrote down on paper; and the oath was at once followed up by a desperate cut. The young man's wounded hand fell helpless; and a second blow his father levelled at him must undoubtedly have been at once fatal, had not a well-aimed stone struck the Swede in the face at the critical moment and made him stagger back. Before he could recover himself, a musket-ball struck him in the chest, and he fell to rise no more. This fortunate shot, with a volley of others that now greeted the Swedes, was fired by a party of men approaching at a rapid pace under the leadership of Master Prieme.
'We wanted to snatch a laurel from your wreath,' was his hasty greeting to Hillner, who, after his father's fall, was once more, with his uninjured hand, doing vigorous work against the enemy.
The foe, attacked in rear by the garrison of the water-tower, were gradually compelled to give way before the superior force of the Freibergers, and were at length driven back beneath the arched vault of the Muenzbach, a retreat into which the Saxon bullets followed them, rapidly thinning their ranks.
'Yield, you dogs!' shouted Prieme, fearful, and not without good reason, that they might even now explode the petard.
Thereupon arose a short, sharp contest among the entrapped Swedes, in which the smaller and more courageous section wished to fire the petard already sunk in the foundations of the water-tower, and bury all in the ruins; while the other party did their utmost to prevent this design from being put into execution. The less bold majority gained the day, and announced their intention to yield themselves up as prisoners of war. Juechziger had received his reward. His body, with a severe wound on the head, was found lying trampled down by the feet of the Swedish soldiers into the waters of the Muenzbach; and the dangerous petard was discovered sunk into a hole prepared with much toil and secrecy by Juechziger in the strong arch on which the tower stood.
The fight was hardly over when the commandant appeared, come to see what was going on.
'I trust,' said Hillner respectfully, 'that your excellency will pardon my being here, instead of under arrest where I was placed. I shall now hasten to give myself up again. But that I am at least no traitor to my fatherland, this wounded hand may surely bear witness.'
'My dear Defensioner,' replied Schweinitz heartily, 'the enemy may commence their grand assault at any moment. There is no time now to examine into your affair. For the present you are liberated on parole. Be of good courage, and get your wound attended to the very first thing.'
With these words, the commandant, finding his presence no longer necessary, hastened away.
The firing on both sides continued till midnight. Then the Freibergers heard loud sounds of confusion and disturbance and much shouting in the Swedish camp; but the dreaded general assault was still unaccountably delayed.
Between two and three o'clock on the morning of February 17th, there arrived at the city moat an Imperialist soldier, who had been taken prisoner by the Swedes before Leipzig, and had now made his escape. On being admitted into the town, he announced that the enemy were making hasty preparations for departure, that the military stores were already loaded, and that he himself had been employed with others in removing the charges from the Swedish mines. This joyful and unexpected news passed rapidly from mouth to mouth, and put the whole city in a ferment. Hope turned to glad certainty, when, at break of day, the enemy's army, with its artillery and baggage-waggons, was seen marching away from the city, and taking the road towards Klein-Waltersdorf; although four or five hundred Swedish dragoons still held the Hospital Church, whence they fired on the town and on all who issued from it. The Freibergers, instead of abandoning themselves to the transports of an excessive joy, re-occupied the Peter Gate without delay, and made a sortie in which they set fire to the enemy's batteries and advanced works.