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Title: The Outlaw and the Lady and Other Stories Author: Rafael Sabatini * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700471h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2017 Most recent update: June 2017 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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1. The Outlaw of
Falkensteig (Pearson's Magazine, August 1900)
2. D'Aubeville's Enterprise (Pearson's Magazine, December 1900)
3. The Hostage (Peason's Magazine, June 1901)
4. The Nuptials of Lindenstein (Pearson's Magazine, August 1901)
5. The Outlaw and the Lady (Pearson's Magazine, December 1901)
6. The Jealousy of Delventhal (Pearson's Magazine, September 1902)
7. The Shriving of Felsheim (Pearson's Magazine, November 1902)
When a man chances to love two women, and yet cannot determine which of them he loves best, then truly is he in a sorry quandary.
Thus was it with me, Otto von Ronshausen, the favourite of Ludwig IV, of Sachsenberg. On the one hand was the Lady Freda von Horst, with her fair hair and soft brown eyes, which seemed to arouse what little good there was within me; on the other, stood the Countess of Barnabatt, dark-eyed, proud, and queenly of carriage albeit, but slight of form--whose laugh had ever a disdainful ring, whose glances stirred the warrior soul that was the patrimony of those who bore my name, and inspired me to deeds of valour.
And I--I loved them both; each after a different fashion and at different seasons. In times of sorrow--and there are many sorrows in a favourite's life, although some think it not--I would turn me to my fair-haired maid for consolation; whilst in my hours of gaiety and recklessness, I would seek out my swarthy queen, who could not brook my duller moods.
As men reckon wealth, the one was poor, but carried in her soul a priceless treasure of tenderness and sympathy; the other one was rich in worldly goods, mistress of broad and fertile lands, and of--as I then thought--a barren heart.
And there between those two I swayed like a vane upon a windy day, paying my court now to the one, now to the other; and since the law so stood that I might not marry both, loving them both each day with greater fervour.
But in the end His Majesty--whose eyes were shrewd, and who noted my perplexity--settled the matter, as is the wont of kings. Now, although in the year 1638 he was still young, and found more charm in a wine-cup or in a lady's eye than in book-learning or affairs of state, yet had he a wisdom all his own--wherefore his chroniclers have dubbed him Ludwig the Astute.
"Otto," he said to me one day, "you are not a rich man," which was true enough, for besides my name and the warlike soul that I have mentioned, my inheritance was scant indeed. Yet, being a courtier, and favourite to boot, I smiled and bowed serenely.
"Not rich, your Majesty?" I cried. "Not rich when so greatly honoured with your Royal favours? Who says that I am not rich?"
"Tut, man, I say it," he answered with a laugh, "unless indeed it be in a pert tongue and a largesse of flattery. Peace, man, I am in earnest."
His Majesty in earnest was so novel a thing that the protests died upon my lips, and out of curiosity I was silent.
"There is a certain lady of my court," said he, "who seems, judging by the attentions which you have lately paid her, to hold a prominent place in your regard. She is noble, beautiful, and wealthy, and, methinks, would not be averse to becoming the lady of Ronshausen. Otto, you shall wed her."
In so delicate a matter as this, it seemed to me that His Majesty would have done better to have questioned me as to my matrimonial prospects, before commanding me to wed. However, kings and spoilt children have an original way of looking at the world, and being unwilling to lose the exalted position I occupied in Sachsenberg, there was but one reply that I could make.
"I obey your Majesty, as in all things," I said. "Name her, Sire, and if she be willing to become the lady of Ronshausen, and mistress of the lands I hold in trust for a parcel of Hebrew vampires, I will fetch a priest at once."
"You know full well whom I refer to, you dissembling rogue Hilda von Barnabatt."
I answered him that I asked no better than to obey his wishes, and forthwith I left him to ride to Leubnitz, where the lady dwelt, happy enough that matters had been thus settled, and humming a gay measure as I went.
Nor would my mood have changed had it not been that as I rode through the park of Schwerlingen I chanced upon a maid who sat meditating by a brook. She had golden hair and soft brown eyes, and her name was Freda von Horst.
I drew rein, and, smitten by a sudden sadness, I watched her, wondering what 'twere best to do, until, as she chanced to turn her head, her eyes met mine. With a glad cry, for she was at heart a child, and all unversed in the dissembling ways of Court, she arose and called me to her side.
I went, and like a stupid fool put forth my hand and said farewell.
"You are going a journey?" quoth she, with eyes wide open.
"I ride to Leubnitz," I said.
"Leubnitz? Why, 'tis not far. 'Tis but five leagues."
"True," I answered like a clown, "'tis but five leagues."
Then noting the tone wherein I spoke, and the terseness of one whose tongue--to her at least--was wont to be more eloquent, she guessed the rest.
"You go to the Schloss Barnabatt?" she inquired.
"I go to the Schloss Barnabatt," I replied, hoping that I might find the place in ruins and my future bride buried deep beneath them.
"Ah," she cried, and methought her voice trembled slightly, "I understand. Farewell, my lord," she added quickly, until I was certain that her lip quivered. "May happiness go with you. Adieu!"
I stooped to kiss her hand, but she snatched it from me and was gone before I could say another word--not that I should have found aught to say had she remained, for I had grown strangely dull that afternoon.
I watched her graceful figure through the trees until it was hidden from my sight; then, with a sigh, I vaulted into the saddle, and giving the reins a vicious shake, I rode dismally away to do my wooing.
From Schwerlingen to Leubnitz I carried the one thought in my mind to the exclusion of all else--that every stride of my mare took me further from the tender maid I loved, and nearer to the proud and distant lady whom already I began to hate.
A thousand times I cursed the nimbleness of my tongue in pledging my word to obey the King. But although we Ronshausens may not have given many saints to Heaven, yet were we men of honour, and our motto ran: "A plighted word is a deed accomplished." Should I be the first to prove unworthy of that motto? Nay. If it cost me a whole lifetime of misery and regret, my word must be fulfilled so that my descendants might point without blushing to that proud line upon their shields.
And thus it came to pass that as evening fell I drew rein in the courtyard of the Schloss Barnabatt, and alighting with a glum face that would have done more credit to a funeral than a betrothal, went in quest of the mistress of those stately towers.
She received me graciously enough, as was her wont, and, after the dust had been removed from my apparel, led me to a richly appointed table, all a-glitter with costly glass and gold and silver plate, whereof she did the honours with incomparable grace.
I had been taciturn at first and boorish but presently, beneath the influence of the Rhenish wine she set before me, and of the lively wit wherewith she sought to entertain me, my tongue was loosened and my lips remembered how to smile. Before I was aware of it, I was giving her the latest news from Court, and all the current gossipings of Schwerlingen, sprinkling upon my narratives that peppery satire which is learnt in ante-chambers and boudoirs, and which renders a dull story interesting.
And there, with those dark eyes of hers, so full of arch merriment, upon me, I blush to say that all my moodiness was gone, and with it all thought of little Freda. I was a slave, an utter, abject slave to the fascination of this lovely enchantress, and cared not a fig just then for any other woman in the world.
And presently, when our meal was done, and we had gone out on the balcony to breathe the evening air, I told her so. How I said it, I know not, nor does it signify. But I remember that I spoke long and, passionately--for the moon was in the sky, and the light it shed was full of poetic inspiration--and when I finished I found myself kneeling upon the cold stones, gazing up into her face intreatingly, and waiting to hear the answer which should make me happy or wretched.
She did not return my gaze. Her eyes looked out across the valley towards the stately Falkensteig, whose eternal snows shone silvery in the moonlight. But at length as the stones began to impart some of their coldness to my knees, I grew weary of my position, and since it would have been a grievous outrage against wooing manners to rise unanswered, I made bold to softly utter her name.
"Hilda! Ah, do not look at yonder mountain; look at me. Give me your answer."
"'Tis well that I should look at the Falkensteig," she replied softly, continuing to gaze wistfully before her, "for I have made a vow that I will be neither wooed nor wed while Basil von Kervenheim is at large upon that mountain."
"What has the traitor von Kervenheim, the outlaw of the Falkensteig, to do with you?" I exclaimed, springing to my feet.
An angry fire shone for a moment in her eyes, and her small, white hands were clenched.
"I will tell you," she said, almost fiercely. "Sit here beside me."
Meekly I obeyed her, and listened to a lengthy story of how this Kervenheim had mortally offended her--and yet, so far as I might judge, his offence was not an over-heinous one, for it appeared that it did but lie in loving her. Maybe, however, that I did not sufficiently heed the details which she set before me, for my thoughts were far away, dwelling upon memories the name of Kervenheim evoked.
In my mind I saw Basil von Kervenheim as he had been two years ago, the gayest courtier at Schwerlingen, and next to myself in the favour of the King. I remembered how His Majesty had openly slighted him, and how, in revenge, the proud nobleman had gone over to the ranks of those who sought to overthrow the Sonsbeck dynasty.
A curious scene arose in my mind of a private meeting of the council, whereat it was determined by His Majesty that the ten ringleaders of the revolutionary party should be secretly executed and upon the list of those condemned stood the name of Kervenheim.
Next I shuddered as I remembered how morning had found eight of those ten stretched stark and cold in their beds. Two had gone free; one was a foreign nobleman, concerning whose escape a curious story was related; the other was Basil von Kervenheim, who, gathering a few conspirators about him had fled to the hills to lead the life of a robber and malefactor. He had appropriated a partly ruined castle on an all but inaccessible ledge of the Falkensteig, and there he held his outlaw's court.
My companion's voice awoke me from my musings.
"Until he whom they call the Lord of Falkensteig be brought to Schwerlingen, Hilda von Barnabatt will listen to no wooings. That, my lord, is your answer."
I arose and took a turn on the balcony, revolving something in my mind. Her elfin beauty, the music of her voice, and the witchery of her dark eyes inflamed me, and I made her at last the inevitable reply. In wild, dramatic words I told her that I would seize Kervenheim or perish.
"You?" she exclaimed, a note of mockery in her voice. "You?"
"And why not I?" I retorted, frowning slightly.
"A warrior is needed for such an enterprise. Not a gallant."
For a moment I knew not whether I loved or hated her.
"Though but twenty-five years of age, madame," I answered, stung by her tone to boastfulness, "there are a score or so of duels to my credit. You are unjust to think that because I have a smooth tongue and a velvet doublet, my heart must be a craven one. If a coarse-spoken lover in a leather jerkin would suit your fancy better, I should advise you to seek for him among your grooms."
"Stay, Ronshausen," she cried, putting forth her hands. "Forgive me! I spoke hastily, nor did I wish to give my words such meaning as you have gathered from them."
My anger vanished like a cloud of smoke.
"'Twere easier far for me to die," I answered gallantly--and even sincerely--"Than to live without you. And since in your own words you will not be wooed until Kervenheim be brought to Schwerlingen--there is but one course open to me. Say no more. I am resolved, and my word is plighted. The duel has begun, my Lord of Falkensteig," I cried, turning my face to the snow-peaked mountain, where stood the outlaw's castle. "Before another sun has set, either you or I will be no more."
Hilda shuddered as I spoke, and crossed herself.
"You are resolved?" she inquired presently. "Then come with me. Perchance I may assist you."
She led me back to a room we had lately quitted, and taking pen and ink she wrote whilst I stood marveling beside her, and bade me read:
I am in sore distress, and greatly in need ofa strong arm and valiant heart to defend me. You have more than once spoken of the love you bore me. If it be not dead, and you would give me proof of it, meet me alone at the hour of Angelus to-morrow evening, by the Devil's Altar.
HILDA von BARNABATT
She sealed the missive, and addressed it to the Count Basil von Kervenheim at his castle of Falkensteig.
"A messenger of mine will deliver this before morning, and by noon to-morrow I shall have received an answer, which I promise you will be in the affirmative," she said. "Do you, my lord, get you back to Schwerlingen for a troop of horse, and proceed with them to the Devil's Altar--to succeed at last where so many have failed for the want of a woman's wit to help them."
I could have cried out for joy at her plan, since apart from the promise it gave of success it was a proof she viewed my suit with favour--why else should she be at such pains to aid me earn the right to woo her?
I swore again most lustily that before the world was twenty-four hours older the Lord of Falkensteig would find his wings clipped. Then, as I took my leave, I caught her in my arms and would have kissed her. But with gentle firmness she put me from her.
"Afterwards," she murmured. And I, remembering her vow, went forth dutifully without another murmur.
Next morning I waited upon the King at an early hour. The attendant made much ado about admitting me, remonstrating that His Majesty was yet asleep, and that I had best wait for the levée.
But in the end, by dint of much storming and not a little threatening I had my own way, and the unusual honour of beholding the Royal visage beneath a night cap.
He looked pale, and there were black circles under his eyes, for he had drunk every courtier of Schwerlingen under the table the night before--which was one of his favourite methods of showing them how vastly he was their superior.
He was too limp and drowsy to be vexed by my intrusion. But at the very mention of the name of Kervenheim, he sat bolt upright and showed himself wide-awake indeed. And when I asked for a score of men-at-arms to go and capture the hated outlaw, he gave me his consent without a moment's hesitation.
Half-an-hour later I was in the saddle again, at the head of twenty bold troopers in buff and steel, the jangle of whose accoutrements made pleasant music for a warlike ear. At my side rode Lieutenant Stoffel, a stalwart youngster athirst for adventure and promotion, than whom I could have had no better comrade.
We paused at noon in a shady glen, some three miles from Leubnitz, and whilst we rested there we were joined by an unexpected recruit. It was the Lady of Barnabatt herself.
I was surprised to see her advancing towards us through the trees, mounted upon a grey horse, and garbed in a green riding habit, trimmed with gold lace, which became her lissom figure admirably. But when she had alighted, and laughingly told me that she had come to keep her tryst at the Devil's Altar, I protested vehemently. She had, however, a way with her that generally procured her what she wanted; moreover, she proved to me in a most plausible manner that her presence would be needed.
"Depend upon it," she said confidently, "that, although Kervenheim sends word that he will be there, he will not show himself until he has seen me awaiting him. Not only would you suffer the humiliation of returning empty-handed, but, scenting treachery in my absence, he might investigate matters, and so dispose that you do not return at all."
There was much in what she said. And so in the end I agreed with her, and set myself to pacify Stoffel, who had sworn by the Henker and others that such business as ours was not nice enough for women.
The sun had barely sunk behind the Kreussen Alps when we reached the spurs of the Falkensteig. We had traveled cautiously for the last three or four leagues, keeping under the shelter of the trees, lest the glitter of steel upon so numerous a company should betray our approach to anyone on the look out from the heights above.
We halted for a moment upon the rising ground whilst I held a council of war with Stoffel, and agreed upon the manner in which we should proceed. Then we pushed rapidly forward, so that we might not keep the Lord of Falkensteig waiting.
A few minutes afterwards we were compelled to dismount, and lead our horses up through the dense forest of pines that clad the mountain side, until I again commanded a halt.
A hundred yards ahead there was an open space. Beyond that stood the mass of jagged granite rocks known as the Devil's Altar. The shadows of the trees grew longer and deeper every instant, and where we stood the darkness was almost that of night.
Even as we halted the sound of a bell tolling the Angelus reached us from the valley, borne on a breeze that sent a shivering rustle through the pines. Giving an order to my men to remain, I mounted again and rode forward to the very edge of the trees, leading my lady's horse by the bridle. At the last moment my heart grew heavy within me, lest evil should befall her, and I even whispered to her not to show herself, but to leave the matter to us.
"'Tis too late to draw back now, Ronshausen," she cried.
She was deathly pale, and the hand I carried to my lips trembled slightly. But a brave smile danced upon her lips as she strode out boldly into the open glade.
From the valley came the last peal of the Angelus as she paused by the granite altar; then the sound of hoofs awoke the echoes of the hillside.
I glanced behind me for a moment. Without a sound to betray their presence, my men were gradually spreading through the wood as I had bidden them, so as to encircle the Altar and hold themselves in readiness to spring out when I gave the signal.
The next instant a horseman stood before my lady in the open glade, and was bowing over the neck of his wiry steed with many flourishes of a plumed hat. He was a slim, lithe man of perhaps thirty years of age, with blue eyes and long, fair locks that contrasted strangely with his bronzed skin. He wore a jerkin of stout leather, but the protruding sleeves of his doublet were of rich, crimson velvet, and the lace at his wrists was both fine and plentiful. From his baldrick of black silk, trimmed with gold, hung a long, serviceable-looking rapier--and generally he had more the air of a court ruffler than of a mountain bandit.
At a glance I recognized Kervenheim, but I had little time to indulge my fancy in any comparisons as to how much he might have changed since last I had seen him. As I looked and noted the details which I have set down here, he urged his horse forward, and, before I could move a finger, he had caught the Lady Hilda round the waist with his left arm, lifted her from the saddle and flung her like a sack of corn, in front of him, across the horse's neck. Wheeling sharply, he drove the spurs into his steed, and, with a wild laugh, dashed off round the altar by the way he had come.
A faint, half-stifled woman's cry rang in my ears. "To me, Ronshausen! To the rescue!"
After them I dashed. Through the intervening trees, across the glade, and round the granite boulders I went, with set teeth and bloody spurs, at a mad pace that might have earned me a short shrift at any moment had my horse but chanced to founder. In front of me ran an almost level road, and along this, some thirty yards ahead, rode Kervenheim. His hat had fallen off, and his long, fair locks fluttered behind him in the breeze his speed created.
Yet, in spite of the double load upon his horse, I did not gain upon him, for his mount was fresh, whilst mine had ridden hard that day, and was beginning to snort in a manner that made me fear a halt at any moment.
"Stoffel!" I thundered. "Stoffel!"
The next minute a shot rang out, fired from the tree on my right, and a bullet whistled past me. Then came another, and yet another. I cursed, and drove my spurs deeper. My horse, infuriated by the punishment, plunged, then reared, and I had but time to leap from the saddle before it toppled over with a bullet in its breast. I did not pause to look to right or left, but, taking my sword under my arm, I ran on as fast as my stiff knees and heavy boots would let me. Behind me came a thunder of hoofs. I turned to look, and, to my joy, I beheld Stoffel and the others advancing towards me at a stretched gallop.
A musket cracked somewhere; then came half-a-dozen shots; then a whole regiment seemed to have let fly a volley. I glanced behind me again. Stoffel still rode a good ten yards in front of his men, but behind him I espied more than one riderless horse.
There was a bridge before me. I sprang upon it, and pushed blindly on. Kervenheim was but a blurred shadow in the twilight, waxing every moment less distinct. My gorge rose at my powerlessness, and, in my rage, I cursed and raved and wept as I ran.
But my feet had scarcely left the bridge when out from the trees on either side of that dusty mountain road came a rush of armed men. In an instant I was seized, flung down, and disarmed before I could draw. Then kneeling upon me they bound me hand and foot; a gag was thrust into my mouth, and I was left there on my back like a trussed fowl to stare up at the blue sky wherein a star was here and there becoming visible, whilst my captors turned to hold the bridge against my men. The galloping company drew nearer, and presently the hoofs rang out upon the bridge as they came fighting their way across. Shouts, oaths, groans broke forth, mingling with the fearful shrieks of the wounded animals.
Presently there was a rush towards the spot where I lay. Half-adozen brigands came struggling with a stout knave, who gave their twelve hands more work than they could comfortably deal with. But in the end they bore him down, and pinioned him, then flung him down beside me. It was poor Stoffel. He, too, was gagged and could not speak, but the eloquence of his flashing eye was terrifying.
And there side by side we lay until presently the fighting ceased, and we knew that those of ours who were not dead had run. It mattered little. The dawn, I doubted not, would find us hanging from the Falken's gibbet, whereof I had heard some gruesome stories--and my heart was heavy within me, not for myself, but for those I had brought upon this mad errand.
Stoffel and I spent the night in a dismal dungeon of the old castle, and dawn saw us cold and despondent. We were ready to meet the end we thought in store for us, but our preparations differed somewhat. I sat upon the solitary wooden bench and strove to remember an odd prayer or two which my mother had taught me in childhood. Stoffel stalked the chamber with bent head and racked his mind for long forgotten imprecations.
But, when presently my mind wandered back to things material, my thoughts naturally reverted to my lady, and I groaned aloud at my folly in allowing her to accompany us. For us--Stoffel and I--it mattered little. A short shrift is reckoned in a soldier's wage, and death--although not over sweet when one is young--is soon dealt with. For her, however, it was different. She would not even be vouchsafed the mercy of dying. She would be bidden to live--to live in the power of the lawless bandit of Falkensteig.
Vainly did I try to console myself with the argument that Kervenheim was of noble blood and a gentleman. I realised in all its fullness that a man who for two years had led the reckless life of the Lord of Falkensteig, and mingled with such associates as had been his, would scarcely be over nice in his ways and manners.
My wretched brooding was at last cut short by the opening of our door, and the advent of him who officiated as our gaoler.
"Which of you calls himself Otto von Ronshausen?" the outlaw inquired rudely. And when I told him that 'twas I, he bid me go with him to wait upon the Lord of Falkensteig.
Kervenheim nodded pleasantly as I entered the Rittersaal where he awaited me.
"Welcome to Falkensteig, my dear Ronshausen." he cried in a jovial voice. "This visit of His Majesty's prime favourite is an honour I had never dared to hope for, albeit I had often thought of it as one thinks of a castle in Spain. Come, we'll crack a bottle over it."
"'Twould suit my mood better to crack a head over it." I answered surlily. "Herrgott, sir, are you so lost to all sense of decency, and to the principles taught you, and bred in you, that you can make a jest of it? If there is a spark of honour left beneath that doublet, which I make no doubt you have filched from the packhorse of some travelling tailor, let us settle this matter between ourselves. Give me my sword, and take a turn with me outside."
He answered me with a burst of laughter.
"Plague take you, sir," he cried. "I am not minded to kill you; you are worth more to me alive. For the rest, if you are tired of life, there are other means of being rid of it besides my sword--although 'twould be a scurvy trick to die before you have served your turn with me."
"And what may that be?" I inquired, curiosity overcoming the anger which his taunt excited.
"'Tis said that the King loves you very dearly."
"I have heard it said," I answered idly.
"And, therefore, it is to be supposed that he would pay a high ransom for you."
"Kervenheim, you disgust me," I cried. "Himmel! I have associated with you, I have sat at table with you, I have thrown a main with you, but perdition take me if I would willingly stand in the same room with one who can think of such a Judas bargain--a traffic of flesh and blood that a Jew would scorn!"
A dark flush mounted to his brow, and his blue eyes grew hard and terrible. For a moment I thought he would have struck me.
"Silence, you fool!" he muttered harshly. "And if the wines of Ludwig's table have not addled your brains utterly, reflect. Who was the first to enter upon the game you and I have played? You have sat at table with me, say you. Yet you did not scruple to ask the King for a troop of horse, that you might come and capture your former associate, for whom a maid who pleased your fancy had set a trap. Did I ever wrong you, Ronshausen? What grudge had you against me? Think you that had you been outlawed and left at war with all the world to fight bitterly for your existence--think you that I would have done what you have done at a mere woman's bidding? Faugh! my lord, methinks the Judas bargain lay with you."
What could I answer him? Every word he spoke was true, although until then I had not seen the matter so. I had regarded him merely as an enemy of King and State, against whom I was justified, as a loyal subject, to wage war, without pausing to think that my action was dictated by neither loyalty nor honour, but by a woman's tongue.
Strangely enough, as I realised all this, the Lady Hilda seemed to sink in my estimation, and I loved her less from that moment for having dragged me into so unworthy an enterprise. My thoughts flew to Freda von Horst--so gentle, so good, so innocent. She would not have brought me to play the tipstaff.
And yet was I not more to blame than the Lady Hilda? Was it not I, myself, who proffered to undertake this business? She had not bidden me; she had not even suggested that I should. What were her words? Yes, I remembered them--
"Until he whom they call the lord of Falkensteig be brought to Schwerlingen, Hilda von Barnabatt will listen to no wooings."
I was unjust; she was not to blame. And then the memory of her own unfortunate position rushed in upon my mind, and almost unconsciously, "What have you done with her?" I blurted out.
"The Countess of Barnabatt. Where is she?"
He laughed softly.
"On her way to Schwerlingen," he answered.
"You have set her free!" I exclaimed eagerly.
He picked up his hat from the table and pressed it over his locks.
"She has gone to dictate the terms of your ransom to the King. 'Tis said he loves you. I trust he does, for the lands of Kervenheim, my name and honour are your ransom. Within three days either I ride to Schwerlingen to receive my pardon from His Majesty, or you, my friend, will hang from yonder pine tree."
I began to understand.
"She has gone to propose these terms?" I gasped.
"And to crave the King's permission to become my wife," he said.
My senses swam beneath that terrific blow of disillusionment. "God's curse!" I cried, "I have been fooled?"
He looked at me sadly for a moment, then uttered a sigh.
"I would that it had been otherwise, Ronshausen, yet what is done is done. Do not blame her. She loved me very dearly, and so forgot her pride to help me seize the one man in all Sachsenberg for whom I could demand the ransom I have mentioned. Still"--he sighed again--"I would that it had been otherwise."
But I, Otto von Ronshausen, as I stroke my wife's fair head, and look into her soft, brown eyes, am glad that it was not otherwise, for the King paid my ransom promptly and reinstated Kervenheim, who has since become one of his most loyal champions.
I had been warned that His Majesty's mood was passing short that morning, and it was not without some trepidation that I crossed the ante-chamber in the wake of the lackey who had summoned me from my guard-room.
I found the King closeted with my Lord of Ronshausen, and the moment I stood in his presence I knew that my informer had not exaggerated the condition of the royal nerves. His face was flushed, and the usual good-humoured expression was marred by a frown, which became a scowl the moment he set eyes on me.
"How is this, booby?" he cried, turning upon the lackey. "Why do you bring me Lieutenant Stoffel? Did I not say Captain von Grünhain?"
"Will your Majesty graciously condescend to learn that the Ritter von Grunhain is abed with an attack of gout, which prevents him from setting foot on the ground?"
"Bah! It seems my guards are in want of a new Captain whose feet are sound. Well," he thundered, blazing out again upon the luckless servant, "did I bid you wait? Will you stand there all day, dummkopf!"
The wretch retreated with alacrity before the storm of august irritability, and was lost to view a second later, in the folds of the portière. When he was gone the King recovered somewhat, and went over to the window by which my Lord of Ronshausen was standing. For some moments they conversed together in tones so low that, saving stray oaths which His Majesty rapped out at intervals, I caught nothing of what was said. At last, with a final gesture of impatience, Ludwig IV turned to me once more.
"So," he said, "your captain is unable to attend us! You have heard the news?"
"Concerning the raid upon Moritzau, sire?"
"Aye, what other? Heilige Jungfrau, but I thought to have done with those cursed Falkensteig outlaws when I pardoned Kervenheim. I looked for a disbandment, instead of which I learn that they have got themselves a new leader. Know you aught of this Felsheim, whom they have elected for their captain?"
"The Ritter von Grünhain informs me, sire, that he is a ruined gamester of Württemberg, and that he joined the outlaws of Falkensteig about a year ago. He was for a while Kervenheim's lieutenant. 'Tis said he is a very daring and reckless man."
"Aye, and a facetious one," murmured Ronshausen, "to parody your Majesty's privilege of levying taxes."
"By the Holy Grave, the laugh may be his to-day," quoth the King savagely, "but when he is dangling on the Schwarzenbaum, the humor of it will be more apparent to me. Stoffel," he added sharply, "get a score of men together, and see that you are in the saddle and ready to leave Schwerlingen in an hour."
"Where shall I go, your Majesty?"
"Where?" he ejaculated, with a fresh show of temper. "Where? To Moritzau--to the devil, wherever you please, so that you return with Felsheim or his carrion. You understand me now?"
"Perfectly, sire; I go at once." And seeing that it was dangerous to tarry in such an atmosphere, I bowed, and without more ado made shift to leave.
"Stoffel," he cried, as my hand touched the portière. "I shall offer a reward of five thousand crowns for this robber, dead or alive. Bring him to Schwerlingen and the reward shall be paid to you."
I bowed in silence, and I had already one foot in the antechamber when again he called me back.
"Stoffel--a plague on your impatience--if you bring him back, I'll make you Captain of my Guards, and pension old Grünhain curse his gouty foot!"
"Your Majesty overwhelms me. I shall do--"
"Yes, yes. Go, man, don't stand there for ever. Away with you."
In a breath he cursed my impatience and stormed at me for a sluggard because at his bidding I had lingered. In very truth his mood had scant sweetness in it that morning.
An hour later, having exchanged my plumed hat for a steel cap, and armed myself as if bent upon foreign war, I rode through the streets of Schwerlingen at the head of my troop, and clattered out through the Heinrichsthor on to the road that led to Moritzau.
We arrived there at noon the next day to be greeted with information that Felsheim had moved south, and that another raid had taken place the night before at the village of Fensbrücke. He was truly a daring knave to venture thus far from the Falkensteig stronghold.
In the hills--or rather, on the Falkensteig--he could hold his own against any army without fear of capture. But to move further into the open, whilst the King's men were hot upon his track, and to thus run the risk of having his retreat cut off, was a bold stroke which I had not looked for.
I dispatched a trooper immediately to Schwerlingen to beg the King to send me at least another score of men, and forthwith I rode on to Fensbrücke. We arrived there that evening, and the villagers hailed us gladly enough, for our coming meant protection--a thing whereof they need not have been so eager, for Felsheim had left them little that was worth protecting. Bearing this fact in mind, and also in virtue of certain news I gleaned concerning Felsheim's movements, we scarcely halted in the village, but pushed on that very night to the neighbouring town of Steinau, where for the while I set up my headquarters and awaited the troop I had solicited.
I wove a strong web wherein to catch the outlaw--with the details of which I need not weary you--as, indeed, was my duty, being Lieutenant of the Guards, and, moreover, having had his capture intrusted to me. But there was more than duty in the ardour wherewith I went to work. There was a bright maid, with merry eyes and fair hair, who sat in Schwerlingen anxiously waiting to hear that Hans Stoffel had earned glory, five thousand crowns, and a Captaincy, and that he was riding to the capital to make her his wife. She was the Ritter von Grünhain's daughter, and the old knight had not looked over-graciously upon my suit. At the outset he had scowled upon it most damnably, but later he had suffered himself to promise that when I gained my Captaincy he would listen to me.
And now my chance was come, and I was bent upon victory. In my heart I blessed Felsheim for affording me this opportunity, and I would bless him tenfold on the day that I took him to Schwerlingen to be hanged.
For three days after my arrival at Steinau I was without news of Felsheim. Doubtless the knave thought well to make no sign that might draw attention to his whereabouts. Meanwhile I sent out my spies--mostly peasants whom I had enlisted into the service with the promise of a hundred crowns to the man who should bear me the news that led to Felsheim's capture.
At last the troop arrived from Schwerlingen in command of a sergeant, who also brought me startling news of a rival who had entered the lists with me and engaged--in a wager of ten thousand crowns--that he would take Felsheim single-handed, save for such aid as he might levy at the eleventh hour for the purpose of making fast his man and conducting him to the Capital.
The news bewildered me, and I was sore afraid that this intruder might rob me of my victory by forestalling me of the sergeant, howbeit, I asked with a laugh the name of this mad boaster.
"'Tis a young French gentleman who arrived at Court on the very day of your departure, and who, I am told, having taken too much wine at table that evening, made the wager with my Lord of Ronshausen. At first His Majesty would lend no ear to the affair; but in the end the combined efforts of this Frenchman and my Lord of Ronshausen--who is greatly in need of money--induced him to grant M. d'Aubeville the warrant he craved, and whereby he is empowered to requisition the assistance for which he stipulated in his wager, should he stand in need of it."
"Yet he calls it a single-handed business?"
"Inasmuch as he is to plot, and trap Felsheim unaided. I learn that he is a bold and adventurous gentleman who performed great deeds of valour at La Rochelle in his own country, and who is held in high esteem by Louis XIV."
"He will have need of his valour in this enterprise." I muttered. "Did you see him in Schwerlingen?"
"Nay, he left on the very night of his arrival, and immediately on obtaining the King's warrant."
"Then where is he now?" I cried in amazement.
"He has not since been heard o f."
I laughed at this, for it seemed most possible that he had lost himself or fallen into the hands of the bandits in his eagerness to be at close quarters with their captain.
I had finished my noonday meal that very day, and was still at table in the common room of the "Schwarzen Stier," where I had taken up my lodging, when the door which led to the stairs was opened, and a tall, well-built man of florid countenance entered the apartment. He wore a leather jerkin over his doublet, long riding-boots of untanned leather, and carried at his side a sword of prodigious length and stoutness. A long red feather drooped over the brim of his brown hat and mingled with his hair, to which it was near akin in colour.
He was a remarkable man, and I was drawn by his appearance to scan him closely as he strode past me with a firm step, determination, strength, and alertness in every line of his well-set figure. Clearly he was a soldier. This I gathered as much from his martial bearing as from his apparel, and whilst I was speculating upon the service to which he might belong, his eye caught mine, and, suddenly becoming aware that my gaze was more assiduous than polite, I turned aside. But from the window I watched him vault upon his horse and ride away, and the sight confirmed me in the opinion I had already formed.
As he disappeared round the corner, the echoes of the peaceful street were awakened by the clatter of hoofs, the cracking of whips, and the rumble of coach-wheels. A moment later a well-appointed travelling carriage, drawn by four steaming horses, drew up with a most imposing din at the door of the "Schwarzen Stier."
Chancing at that moment to bestow a glance upon the landlord as he sped with great bustle across the threshold to receive his guest, my attention was suddenly arrested by the attitude of a peasant who had for some little time occupied the room with me, but to whom I had hitherto given scant thought. He had risen from his stool, and stood now in the doorway of the inn, staring open-mouthed down the street in the direction which the florid gentleman had taken, without appearing to vouchsafe the least attention to the newcomer. Just then he turned his eyes in my direction, and from the expression of his face methought he was on the point of addressing me, when a shadow fell athwart the lintel, and a gentle, almost effeminate voice assailed my ears.
"Ah. M. le Capitaine, good day!"
A dark, slender man was bowing before me with a monstrous flourish of his plumed hat, and overwhelming me with a thousand compliments anent the honour which this meeting with me conferred upon him.
He was dressed in the very noontide of fashion, and was armed with a slender, richly hilted rapier and a gold-headed cane; moreover he reeked most damnably of musk. For a moment I gazed askance at his graceful capers, and wondered what French dancing master it had been my lot to have become acquainted with--his speech, at least, had betrayed his nationality--when his next words enlightened me.
"I am M. d'Aubeville," he said straightening himself, and showing me his pale, highbred countenance. "Possibly you may have heard of me, and of the business which brings me to Steinau."
I bowed and answered in the affirmative, lost in astonishment at what I had heard. Was this amazing fop, this carpet knight, the man who had undertaken the capture of as bold an outlaw as ever sat a horse? Heilige Jungfrau! But for the impoliteness of it, I could have laughed in his face.
"Will you be seated, sir?" he said with the foreign accent that marked his speech, "and permit me to call for wine."
He summoned the host, who answered with alacrity, and when wine had been brought and the fellow had left us, he asked me what news I had of Felsheim.
In truth I knew little, but on what little I knew I kept tight lips, for I had good reason to resent his interference--albeit, since I had set eyes upon him I had ceased to fear it. Nevertheless, I was courteous in my reply.
"I am distressed to inform you, M. d'Aubeville, that I have no news whatever."
He made a gesture of incredulity or impatience, which stung me into adding: "It is a more difficult affair than at first may seem, Monsieur, and I fear that you may soon find it so."
He smiled a smile of supreme indulgence.
"La, la," he said, "it might be difficult were I to set about accomplishing this feat by force, as you are doing. But there is such a thing as strategy in warfare. Now tell me, Monsieur, what do you hope to do with these two score men the King has given you?"
"Cut off Felsheim's retreat to the hills."
"So I had feared. And do you imagine that Felsheim knows naught of this?"
"What of that?"
"What of that?" he echoed. "Pardieu! Tell me, M. le Capitaine, does it not occur to you that possessed of such knowledge, Felsheim will take his precautions? You are searching for an army of fifty bandits. Now what is there to hinder fifty peaceful-looking peasants from passing one by one through your lines, eh? Tell me, how do you know that this has not already taken place?"
I sat back in my chair aghast at the contingency this fop suggested, and slowly I began to realise that possibly he was not the fool I had first deemed him.
"But be at rest, M. le Capitaine," he added, laying a dainty, white hand, all ablaze with jewels, upon my sleeve, "this has not yet taken place."
"You are well informed," I cried, unable to repress a sneer.
"As you perceive," he answered coolly. "You have just told me, Monsieur, that you know nothing of Felsheim's whereabouts, adding that I was likely to find many difficulties in my task. Eh Bien, Monsieur, let me inform you that I know where to find the outlaw at nine o'clock to-night--alone. Nay, do not become excited; pray sit down and listen. I want your assistance."
I sank back into my chair, and in dismay I waited for him to continue, whilst, with an inward groan, I saw the Captaincy and the five thousand crowns fade from my grasp, and, with them, my little Agathe von Grünhain.
"I have laid a trap for the thief," pursued the Frenchman "I ascertained that there is a weak spot in this Felsheim's armour--a woman, cela va sans dire. This mad raid of his is being made not in quest of plunder, as you suppose, but in search of this wench who has been removed by her father--in virtue of this misplaced affection--from the village of Stanstadt on the spur of the Falkensteig. I wrote to Felsheim professing to posses information of his beloved's whereabouts and offering to sell it to him. I desired him to meet me at a certain place to-night, and told him that unless he came alone he would not find me at the rendez-vous. Here is his reply."
I took the proffered paper and read:
From my heart I thank you, whoever you may be,
for the ray of hope you have given me. I shall be at the
hunting-lodge at nine o'clock to-morrow night, and I swear that I
shall be alone. You are cautious, but I am none the less so, and if
you are accompanied, rest assured that you will see nothing of me,
whilst, if you betray me, believe me, you will repent.
A. v. F.
It was a grim enough letter, and the spruce dandy before me seemed scarce the man to risk the bandit's vengeance.
"Are you minded to go?" I asked.
"Crèdieu! most certainly I am. All I desire I of you, M. le Capitaine, is that you hold yourself in readiness to-night with half a dozen men, and that precisely on the stroke of ten you ride out quietly from the town, and proceed to the hunting-lodge on the border of the Dunkler Wald. You know the place?"
"It will take you a quarter of an hour to reach it. See that you make no noise approaching; you had best dismount when within a hundred yards or so, and draw near on foot. Then wait until I summon you. If this should not take place before eleven return to Steinau, and set about catching Felsheim as best you can, for it will signify that I have failed and that Felsheim's men are in the place. You understand?"
Again I nodded, and was on the point of putting a question, when M. d'Aubeville replied to it before I had opened my lips by saying that if all went well the King's reward of five thousand crowns would still belong to me. This did much to set me in a better humour, and I little doubted but that, should our venture be successful, the Captaincy might yet be mine.
Happening to raise my eyes, I suddenly met the intent gaze of the peasant whom I had first noticed when the florid gentleman left the inn. As before, it appeared to me that the fellow was eager to address me. Nor was I wrong. For reading, maybe, a look of inquiry in my face, the man drew near and craved my leave to speak. Having received it he proceeded to inquire if I were Lieutenant Stoffel, whereunto I naturally acquiesced.
"You are seeking to capture the bandit Felsheim, are you not?"
"I am indeed," I answered.
M. d'Aubeville eyed the fellow with a curious mixture of curiosity and disdain--for to a French nobleman a peasant is not a man, but a lower animal.
"Are you acquainted with him?" was my interlocutor's next question.
"How is that possible?" I asked.
"You have not even had a description of him?"
"I have not. My departure from Schwerlingen was too sudden." Then remembering to whom I spoke, and that like a fool I stood answering the questions of an unknown, I became somewhat impatient. "Why all these questions, knave?"
A curious smile broke over his sunburnt face.
"Did you note a red-haired gentleman who quitted the hostelry a few moments before the arrival of this most noble lord?" D'Aubeville looked up quickly.
"Red-haired?" quoth he. "Was he a tall, soldierly man with a pointed beard?"
I looked from one to the other, and what I saw in their faces gave rise to a queer fancy in my mind.
"Who was he?" I inquired addressing the peasant. He answered me as I already expected.
"Andreas von Felsheim, your quarry."
"How know you this?"
"How? I am from Moritzau, where that dog stripped me a week ago of my poor belongings. I have good reason to know him."
Beside myself, I seized him by the collar of his mean coat, and shook him viciously.
"Fool!" I thundered, "you saw and knew him, yet you sat there without speaking the word that would have laid him by the heels. Did he steal your wits when he took your other possessions? Bah!"
I loosened my grasp, and turned to be bearded by M. d'Aubeville. He stood with arms akimbo, his eyes flashing dangerously, and a sneer upon his woman's face.
"Do you in truth say that you have not even a description of the man you are seeking? If I were--"
"It concerns me not what you would do," I burst out angrily, "nor does it concern you what I do."
"Pardon," he murmured, bowing; "I forgot my manners in the excitement of what I heard. You say rightly it is no concern of mine how you conduct the matter, and I pray you forgive the presumption of my question."
Despite this courteous apology our relations were thereafter somewhat strained, and I felt relieved when he betook himself to his room, saying that he must change his clothes and assume an outward appearance more in harmony with his rôle of a seller of information.
Albeit he had given me proof that he was a man of astuteness and gifted with a capacity for plotting, yet, when I compared his slender frame with the burly figure of the outlaw, I had my misgivings concerning the issue of his venture.
Unless, indeed, the dainty lace ruffles at his wrists concealed a strength at least parallel with the keen wit that was masked by his fatuous countenance, it seemed to me that the hunter was likely to prove the hunted before the chase was done. I alluded to these doubts of mine when presently I discussed the matter with my sergeant, and mentioned that I marvelled not a little by what means this dainty Frenchman hoped, single-handed, to overcome the powerful outlaw. But Gottlieb laughed for answer.
"You have not heard what it was that led to this mad wager?" he said. "I was told that, on the night 'twas made, the antecedents of this Felsheim were being discussed, and someone said that, amongst other things, the outlaw was a prince of topers. At that up jumped M. d'Aubeville to boast that if they would but bring their prince of topers to Schwerlingen, he would undertake to drink him under the table while retaining his own senses. There followed upon this the heated argument, which goaded the Frenchman into his wager that, single-handed, he would take Felsheim captive. No conditions were imposed, but it seems to have been understood that M. d'Aubeville would choose the bottle for his weapon, albeit I know not what stratagem he will employ to bring Andreas von Felsheim to sit at table with him."
I made no doubt myself but that his crafty head would devise some way of doing so. Still, it seemed a somewhat lame plan of battle, and perilous withal.
"Passing M. d'Aubeville's coach in the courtyard," said Gottlieb presently, "I chanced to see through the window a basket, from which protruded the necks of some half score flagons. From this methinks that he intends to do as I have said. He has the reputation of being the hardest drinker at the court of France. Still," mused the sergeant, "I'll warrant Felsheim is no babe."
I did not have an opportunity of questioning M. d'Aubeville upon the subject, for I did not see him again until shortly before nine o'clock that night. The change in his appearance was prodigious. He wore neither ruffles nor jewels; a broken feather hung limp from his faded hat, and he carried a stout sword in a frayed scabbard.
His clothes were threadbare, and his spurs rusted, whilst he had so bedraggled his hair as to lend a haggard expression to his pale face. He looked, indeed, like a gentleman who had fallen upon evil times.
He smiled at the amazement depicted on my face, and with a parting injunction that I must not fail him, he mounted a horse, as worn and sorry-looking as himself, and rode away.
Faithful to my promise I quitted Steinau as ten was striking, and with my small escort of six men I proceeded to the hunting-lodge on the outskirts of the Dunkler Wald. Within a hundred yards I halted, and leaving one of the men with the horses, I went forward with the other five, cautiously and noiselessly, until we stood in touch of the walls of the lodge. For perhaps a quarter of an hour we waited thus in watchful silence, but no sound broke upon the stillness of the night, nor did any ray of light relieve the gloom. The hunting-lodge had every appearance of being untenanted.
My impatience was beginning to master me, and to awaken wild imaginings, when of a sudden a window was opened softly overhead, and d'Aubeville's foreign accents hailed me.
"Are you there, Monsieur le Capitaine?"
"I am here."
"I have him safe, my friend; wait, I will unbar the door."
A few moments later d'Aubeville ushered us into the lodge, and led the way up a narrow flight of stairs to the room above, where he had entertained his guest.
By the light of a couple of candles I beheld a curious picture. In the centre of the large, bare room, stood a square table of coarse make. At this table sat a man; his head had fallen forward and rested sideways on his left arm, revealing a face which, despite its ghastly pallor, I quickly recognised as that of the florid gentleman whom I had seen that day in the inn at Steinau.
On the table, and on the floor around it, a number of playing cards were scattered. Half-a-dozen empty bottles lay here and there about the room, and on the table two glasses. Felsheim's right gripped the neck of an overturned flagon from which a streak of red wine had run across the board, and was still dripping into a puddle on the floor.
D'Aubeville eyed his work with a complacent smile.
"There, my masters," he cried, "lies your bold Felsheim, drunk as Bacchus. A prince of topers they called him at Schwerlingen--a prince of fools I dub him."
"He is more than drunk," I exclaimed, as I pushed aside his tumbled hair, the better to scan his livid countenance.
"In very truth he is; I drugged his wine. But come, it is unsafe to linger. Away with him to Steinau as fast as you can ride, and if you would avoid trouble let none know whom you carry. Get my carriage at the 'Schwarzen Stier' and take him in that. By noon tomorrow you should be in Schwerlingen, whither I will follow as soon as I have obtained another coach."
It was high noon next day when, with my two score men at my heels, and the coach containing our precious captive--who had not yet awakened from his stupor--I reached Schwerlingen. The news of our successful return had preceded us, and as we clattered merrily into the Capital, the people turned out to see us go by, and to give our progress the semblance of a triumphal home-coming from the wars.
Cheers rent the air as we rode past, whilst chancing to look up, as we made our way through the Frühling Gasse, my pulses quickened at the sight of my lovely Agathe who waved her kerchief to me from a window above.
At the Schloss we were met in the courtyard by the King himself with Ronshausen and a crowd of others in their wake. His Majesty was in a right merry mood, and clapped me on the shoulder as I alighted.
"'Tis that mad Frenchman's doing, I am told; still I will keep my promise, Captain Stoffel."
I bowed, overwhelmed by his generosity, and out of the tail of my eye I caught a glimpse of Ronshausen's glum countenance doubtless he was wondering what misguided Hebrew would lend him the ten thousand crowns.
"I doubt if he be yet sober,"' I said as I opened the door of the coach. Nor was I wrong for, within, our prisoner lay still asleep. A vigorous shaking roused him somewhat. He opened his eyes, and vouchsafed me a vacant stare, whereupon seizing him by the collar of his doublet I dragged him from the carriage.
But the moment he was outside, gazing stupidly about him, a wondrous hubbub took place behind me. I turned to look for an explanation of this. Ronshausen's face wore the look of a man who is at pains to suppress his mirth, whilst the King's was dark with anger. I gazed from one to the other of them, seized with a vague fear that something was amiss. Then the King spoke.
"Is this your prisoner?" quoth he in a thick voice. "Is this Felsheim? Speak, fool! I am waiting!"
"It is M. d'Aubeville's prisoner." I stammered, whereupon some laughed outright, whilst His Majesty stamped his foot and clenched his hands.
"M. d'Aubeville's prisoner?" he echoed jeeringly--"why, booby, this is M. d'Aubeville!"
My senses swam. Was I dreaming? This florid, red-haired man, d'Aubeville!
"Your Majesty, there must be some mistake--" I began scarcely knowing what I said.
"There is indeed a mistake, a monstrous mistake. Follow me, and bring that drunken idiot with you. Come, Ronshausen, let us sift the matter."
When we had reached His Majesty's private apartments, I told him my tale, and the King did me the honour not to interrupt me. When I had done, M. d'Aubeville--to whom restoratives had been applied--was ushered in. He looked deadly pale, and extremely dejected, but appeared to have regained possession of his wits.
"I have failed, sire," he said.
"Most prodigiously," was Ludwig's dry comment, "Pray tell us how."
"This is what took place, sire," he said. "I was visited three days ago in Fortstadt by a very threadbare gentleman who stated that he had heard of my wager and that he had a plan to trap Felsheim. He would reveal his plan to me, if I would pay him two thousand five hundred crowns; if not he would go straight to the officer in command of the expedition against the outlaw, and offer to share the reward of five thousand crowns with him. I fell in with his proposal, and he proceeded to inform me that it was his purpose to decoy Felsheim to a hunting-lodge in the Dunkler Wald by writing to him that he had news to sell him concerning a wench in whom the bandit was interested. This was done, and yesterday morning he showed me Felsheim's reply stating that at nine o'clock that night he would be at the lodge.
"My threadbare friend bid me go to the rendez-vous, saying that I should meet him there, and urged me to let no one detect my identity, lest some of the outlaw's spies should discover it, and warn their master. I obeyed him, and although yesterday I chanced upon Lieutenant Stoffel in the inn at Steinau, I never spoke to him. I went to the hunting-lodge where I found my ally awaiting me. Felsheim had not yet arrived. My threadbare friend led me upstairs into a room; closing the door he locked it, and slipped the key into his pocket. Then, before I knew what he was about, his sword-point was at my breast and he informed me that he was Felsheim, and that since I had boasted that I could drink him under the table, he had brought a basket of wine with him, and was quite ready to enter the lists with me.
"I complied--what choice had I?--and at his request surrendered my sword. Then we sat down to table, and he suggested that to while the time away we should play lansquenet. I acquiesced, and our duel at once began.
"Glass by glass we kept pace with each other for a little while, then he emptied what was left of a flagon into his own glass, and got out a fresh one from which he served me. We raised our glasses together, and together we drained them. Then, when it was too late, I was aware of a bitter taste in my mouth, and I knew that my wine had been drugged. I seized the flagon by the neck meaning to hurl it at him, when suddenly giddiness overtook me, and I can recollect no more."
There was silence for some moments when he had done, and the cloud seemed to be lifting from Ludwig's face. At last he laughed.
"By the holy grave, he has fooled the pair of you most handsomely, and I doubt not but that ere this he has regained the hills. 'Tis a chance lost, but we will hope that another may present itself. You may go, Stoffel," he said not unkindly, "but be advised by me to show yourself none too freely in Schwerlingen until this matter be forgotten."
Andreas von Felsheim, the leader of the Falkensteig outlaws, sat pensive by the fire, with furrowed brow and tightened lips, and I, his lieutenant, guessing what was in his mind, ventured not to break the weary silence. At last he rose, mechanically kicked the logs into a blaze, then, with an angry snort, strode over to the window, and peered out into the night.
"What say you, Gessler," he exclaimed presently, "think you that fool Dietrich can have blundered matters?"
"In truth," I answered, "they should have been here an hour ago had all gone well."
"What could have gone ill?" he snapped. "They had a clear coast. Hist! What was that?"
Above the moaning of the wind came the thud of hoofs growing each moment more distinct. Felsheim's brow became as black as the night.
"Beim blute Gottes," he muttered, "something has gone ill."
The horseman pulled up at the door of the inn. There was a quick step on the stairs, and a moment later the door was flung rudely open by a pale, scared-looking man, grimy and with disordered dress, in whom it was not easy to recognise the bold outlaw Wittenberg.
"We have been trapped, Captain." he cried. "Dietrich and eleven men are taken, and two are killed."
Felsheim pointed to the flagon on the table, and Wittenberg, without waste of compliments, fell upon it, and drained a bumper. "Now," quoth Felsheim coolly, "tell us what occurred."
Briefly the fellow related how half a league from Fortstadt they had fallen in with a company of the King's Guards riding south to meet the French Ambassador, who was expected to cross the frontiers of Sachsenberg on the morrow, and whom they were to escort to Schwerlingen. They had been surrounded and forced to deliver battle, and since there were but fifteen of them to oppose some two score troopers, their defeat was inevitable. Six of the outlaws had been wounded, and two killed outright before the others yielded.
Wittenberg himself had escaped by a miracle. Disguised as a peasant, he had entered Fortstadt at nightfall while the soldiers were still in the town, and had learnt that as the officer who commanded them was grievously wounded they had abandoned their task of escorting the ambassador, and were returning in haste to the capital with their prisoners.
"Fools!" cried Felsheim when Wittenberg had done. "You were fools to surrender. Was it not better to meet your death as soldiers than to be taken to Schwerlingen to perish like felons on a gallows?"
Wittenberg hung his head, but said nothing.
"How fared the soldiers. Wittenberg?" I inquired presently.
"Four of them we killed, and five others we wounded, besides the officer (our old friend Stoffel), whose hurt, I am told, is passing dangerous."
"Ho, ho!" chuckled Felsheim, then suddenly checking himself: "What does it signify? Poor Dietrich and eleven merry sparks of ours are on the road to the gibbet. Herrgott! Can we do nothing to save them?"
Taking his chin in his hand, he stood for a moment lost in thought, his eyes bent upon the ground. Then a low laugh burst from his lips.
"By the Jungfrau, I have it!" he shouted. "The ambassador will serve us right well in a way. Come," he added briskly, "we must waste not a moment if we would reach Turgen to-morrow. There is no time to get assistance from the Falkensteig, and we three must undertake the business. Call Master Schwarz, Wittenberg."
Accordingly the old landlord of the "Golden Goblet"--than whom we had no stouter ally in the kingdom--was summoned, and was desired by Felsheim to procure with all dispatch a coach such as a gentleman--say, for instance, my lord of Ronshausen, the King's favourite--would not be disgraced by travelling in.
A couple of hours later, Felsheim and I, tricked out like a pair of court gallants, stepped into a well-appointed travelling carriage, and with Wittenberg for our coachman, drove swiftly out of Hohenburg.
It was nigh noon next day when we rattled into the courtyard of the "Sachsenberger Hof" at Turgen. A rich equipage was drawn up in a corner of the quadrangle, and around it all was bustle and excitement, for its owner was no less a personage than his Excellency the Marquis de Coraille, Ambassador of Louis XIV to the Court of Schwerlingen.
"Let your eyes and ears keep watch, Gessler," said Felsheim, as he sprang to the ground, "and take heed of all that passes."
I followed him into the hostelry, where, after some conversation with the host, we were ushered into the room set apart for the Ambassador, whom we found at the table. He was a man of perhaps forty years of age, tall of stature, débonnaire of countenance, and dressed with great richness. He rose as we entered, whereupon Felsheim hurried forward, and, bowing extravagantly, informed his Excellency that he was Otto von Ronshausen, and, that, at his Majesty's express desire, he had travelled to Turgen to welcome M. le Marquis to Sachsenberg in his Royal master's name.
In a speech of overwhelming courtliness his Excellency professed himself enchanted by the honour done him, and invited Felsheim to give himself the trouble of joining him at table.
No suspicion crossed the Frenchman's mind. Felsheim--broken gamester of Wurttemberg, and outlaw that he was--had been a gentleman once, and a courtier.
And whilst I ate and drank in stolid peace, Monsieur le Marquis and Andreas von Felsheim waxed witty and merry over their wine.
At length the meal was done, and we went forth to discover that something was amiss with the axle of our carriage. Felsheim blazed into a passion at the mishap, which he attributed to Wittenberg's carelessness.
"Pish! mais donc!" cried M. de Coraille. "If you will design to honour my poor vehicle--" and he waved a bejewelled hand in the direction of his own gorgeous coach, with the Coraille escutcheon glittering bravely in the sunlight.
And so it came to pass as Felsheim had planned, and we took the road in M. de Coraille's coach accompanied by the Marquis and his valet de chambre. Wittenberg travelled outside with M. de Coraille's coachman to whom he pointed out the road.
Towards midnight we drew up at the door of the "Golden Goblet." The Marquis was led upstairs by Master Schwarz, and ushered into the very room where on the previous night Wittenberg had brought us news of the disaster which had befallen Dietrich.
With his nose in the air, M. de Coraille looked round the dismal room, and began to remove his gloves, when suddenly the sounds of a scuffle reached us from the room below. There was a loud bang as of a piece of furniture being overturned, followed by a cry for help. The Ambassador turned quickly.
"Diable!" he muttered. "What was that?"
"The frolic of some drunkard who has been forgotten in the common room," said Felsheim with a smile.
"Peste, Monsieur, there it is again. And, by my soul 'tis the voice of François."
He took a step towards the door, but Felsheim reached it before him, and confronted him with his back to it.
"If your lacquey has got himself into trouble, M. le Marquis, I cannot permit you to run any risks by attempting to get him out of it. I am responsible to the King for your safety."
There was a note of mockery in the tone, which subtle though it was, did not escape M. de Coraille.
"You are trifling with me, Monsieur," he cried stiffly. "I pray you suffer me to pass."
"Nay. That will I not."
"Will not? Sang Dieu, you have strange manners in Sachsenberg. I tell you, sir, that I mislike the looks of the landlord of this hovel, and, Ventre St. Gris, whether it please you or no, I'll not have my servant's throat cut. Stand aside, Monsieur."
"At your peril," was Felsheim's answer. And before M. de Coraille could guess what he was about, he had whipped out his sword and held it threateningly before the Frenchman's breast.
The Ambassador fell back with a cry of surprise, and stared for a moment at Felsheim. Then suddenly he seemed to take in the situation in every detail.
"Mort Dieu, my master! I understand. You have decoyed me hither, you knave. Who are you?"
"I am not Otto von Ronshausen," he answered, lowering his point, and resting it upon the tip of his boot, "nor am I the King's favourite. On the contrary, I am the King's bête noire, and my name is Andreas von Felsheim, one time a gentleman of the court of Wurttemberg, to-day known in the kingdom as the Outlaw of Falkensteig."
"And what, Master Outlaw, is your fell purpose towards me?" quoth M. de Coraille with pompous scorn.
"'Tis soon explained. Yesterday a party of men fell in with a company of the King's Guards, and, being outnumbered, the fortune of war went so scurvily against my friends that two were killed, and twelve others lie now in Schwerlingen, and are to be hanged so soon as it shall please His Majesty to have them judged and sentenced. Naturally I was sore distressed at the sorry plight wherein my comrades found themselves, and for the purpose of effecting their deliverance from the talons of the law have I hit upon an expedient which entails your confinement for a little while. Come, Monsieur, be wise and yield you. Resistance can be of no avail."
The Ambassador went white with passion.
"Yield!" quote he in a thick voice. "Yield myself to a bandit a--a thief! Sang Dieu, knave, I am a gentleman of the kingdom of France."
"By the Mass, I'll make you a gentleman of the kingdom of Heaven within the hour, unless you bridle that pert tongue of yours," snarled Felsheim. "Your sword, Monsieur!"
For answer the Marquis got out his rapier, but as the point left the scabbard, and before the Frenchman could fall on guard, Felsheim reached forward and slashed his hand with a quick upward stroke. There was a cry of pain, and M. de Coraille's weapon tinkled on the ground, where Felsheim pinned it with his foot.
"'Twas a foul stroke," cried his Excellency.
"But it saved your honour," sneered Felsheim. "How could you have carried a sword at your side after crossing blades with a thief?"
He picked up the weapon, and going over to the door he flung it open. "Ho, there Schwarz, Wittenberg! Come up. I have work for you."
The work he had for them was the trussing of M. de Coraille--work which was not carried out without a goodly sum of blasphemy from all concerned. In the end, however, it was accomplished, and Felsheim bade the landlord keep his Excellency a close prisoner until he should return to set him at liberty.
"Now, Gessler," said he, "now for the second act of our comedy. There are fresh horses in M. de Coraille's coach, and young Schwarz is arrayed in the gorgeous livery of M. de Coraille's whilom coachman, who is now endeavouring to console the luckless François in the cellar. Come, we will go to Schwerlingen--to Court, you rascal--I as his Excellency M. le Marquis de Coraille, Ambassador of the Court of France, and you as--let me think--ah, as my friend, Gaspard de Cre'spigny. 'Tis a high-sounding name, and if you say but little, none will ever guess that you were not born to it."
When within some three leagues of Schwerlingen, we came upon a troop of horses riding in the opposite direction. They were led by a sprightly young lieutenant, all plumes and love-locks, who, the moment his eye fell upon the Coraille arms on our coach, commanded a halt, and informed us that these men were destined for his Excellency's Escort, and that but for an untoward event we should have been met by such a troop at Turgen.
We reached Schwerlingen without mishap, and our reception by the King was gracious in the extreme. That night we were bidden to a gorgeous banquet, whereat Felsheim appeared in a pale blue suit with silver lace, filched from the valise of M. de Coraille. The King set him at his right hand, and for a season all went well. The young monarch loved a man who could do honour to the bottle; and in this great art the pseudo-Ambassador bid fair to eclipse all former achievements that the King had witnessed. Nothing could more readily have won him Ludwig's heart. He clapped him on the back and called him a prince of good fellows, besides a host of other absurdities which I remember not, but which clearly told us that the wine had got into his Royal head.
"By the Holy Grave, I dreamt not that France held such a noble toper," cried the King, as for the twentieth time he pledged the outlaw.
"France, sire," quoth Felsheim with a hiccough, "is a great nation! I drink to her!"
He drained his bumper, and when next he spoke his utterance was thick and interlarded with great oaths such as, I take it, a man may not make use of when speaking to a Prince. Moreover, what he said was rude beyond all measure--whereat I marvelled greatly, for the outlaw was wont to be merry in his cups and never churlish. He spoke all things French, and sang their praises loudly, whilst intermittently he would make comparisons wherein he sneeringly alluded to the manner in which like things were done in Sachsenberg.
I looked to see a storm burst at any moment, for Ludwig had the reputation of being a tempestuous man, and I cursed Felsheim's folly and indiscretion. On the faces of many of the nobles the flush of wine was spreading into the deeper flush of anger, and methought that the next moment was like to see Felsheim's handsome, wicked face washed in a bumper of Rhenish. But the King only laughed the louder--perchance because he understood the less--at each sally of Felsheim, so that the courtiers, who are but courtiers so long as they ape their master's bearing, were forced to curb their moods.
In the end, however, Andreas went too far. He spoke of hunting, and in glowing terms he painted the stag hunts at Blois which he had never seen. Then, insolently turning to those present: "What have you in the Sachsenberg of yours that will compare with that, my masters?"
The laugh died from the King's face, and by an effort he forced the muscles of his brow into a rigid frown. The chase and the bottle were his two sore points. To tell him that in either of these pastimes the world held his master was to offend him mortally.
"Beim blute Gottes," he bellowed, lurching over towards the daring bandit. "You talk bravely, M. de Coraille, and you are, methinks, rash to sneer at what you know naught of. Your Royal master hunts the stag at Blois, eh? Call you that sport? For women and children, mayhap, but not for men. Learn, sir, that in my park of Schwerlingen, which covers twice the space of your muchvaunted Paris, we hunt the boar. That, methinks, is Royal sport indeed--for warriors."
"A relic of barbaric ages, sire," said Felsheim coolly, "with the exception, I make no doubt, that you hunt the beast with arquebuses."
A roar of laughter, wherein contempt rang loud, paid tribute to the Ambassador's ignorance.
"With arquebuses!" gurgled the King. "Ho! Ho! You'll kill me sir. Nay, by my soul, I'll show you how we hunt. Ho! there, Ronshausen! Curse him for a milksop; he's asleep. You then, Altenau. Give orders for a hunt to-morrow. We'll show M. de Coraille something worth relating to the Louvre courtiers on his return to Paris."
And so having determined to go a-hunting on the morrow, His Majesty thought well to bid the company retire--a fact which I hailed most joyfully, for I was sore afraid of some calamity that Felsheim's next drunken outburst might bring about our ears.
But once we were alone in our splendid apartments, great indeed was my wonder to see the vacant leer die from Felsheim's countenance, and in its place a look of merry, sober cunning. He dropped into the nearest chair, and with his hands on his sides, he laughed as I had never heard him laugh before.
"Herrgott!" he cried, "was there ever a fish so easily angled as Ludwig the Sot?"
"Did you but act the drunkard, Andreas?" I cried, staring askance at him.
"What? You, too, Gessler? You were all deceived? You will understand all to-morrow, my friend. We hunt the boar to-morrow! Ho, ho!"
And so an hour before noon next day, a merry company in buff and green and gold lace assembled in the Schloss courtyard, and with the King rode forth into the park of Schwerlingen.
Felsheim, armed with a formidable spear, rode beside Ludwig, whose face bore traces of last night's carouse. The outlaw had said a dozen words to me that morning that well-nigh set my hair on end at the awful daring of the plan he had conceived, and for the execution of which he had lured the King to hunt the boar. For a while we rode surrounded by a little group of chattering courtiers, His Majesty keeping Felsheim at his side, desirous o f, himself, putting the Ambassador to the blush for his sneers of the night before. But the chase commenced in earnest when the animal had been sighted, and gradually those courtiers who had hovered near us began to disappear, one by one, in their eagerness to earn the jewel which it was the King's custom to offer to the man whose spear was first in the quarry's hide.
In this manner it fell out that at the end of an hour or thereabouts the only follower left the King, besides Felsheim and myself, was my Lord of Ronshausen, the favourite.
We were riding through one of the densest parts of the forest, when suddenly Felsheim half turned in his saddle with the words:
"I am consumed with impatience, sir, to be at close quarters with the boar."
This was the preconcerted signal between us for the execution of Felsheim's desperate plan.
Accordingly, whilst drawing my Lord of Ronshausen's attention to some shrubs on his right, I caught his horse a smart cut behind the ears with my whip. Stung with the pain, the brute reared, pawing the air for a second; then, with a bound that went near to unhorsing his rider, he was off like a bolt from an arbalest at a pace which bid fair to keep the favourite from dismounting for some miles, unless some overhanging bough chanced to help him from the saddle.
As Ronshausen thundered past the King--who was at the moment deep in conversation with his companion--Ludwig turned to seek a reason for such mad riding, when of a sudden Felsheim flung his right arm round the Royal neck, and with a sharp jerk laid the King sideways across his saddle so violently that he all but dragged him from his horse. Thus, taken by surprise, and rightly deeming Felsheim's attention other than affectionate, Ludwig opened his mouth to shout for help, when, with the quickness of lightning--whilst gripping his horse with his knees alone Felsheim's disengaged hand crammed a choke-pear between the monarch's teeth.
Then began a struggle on horseback which went near to driving the poor brutes frantic. The King wriggled like an eel. Yet with his arms he clung to Felsheim, as otherwise he must have fallen, whilst with his legs he still endeavoured to grip his own saddle. In a few seconds I had made him fast with the straps which Felsheim had bidden me bring. Then, bound hand and foot, Andreas took him bodily across the neck of his horse, and driving his spurs deep, set off to the right at a hard gallop, whilst I followed as best I might, leading the horse from which we had plucked the King. In this manner we went for perhaps half-an-hour, until we reached the outskirts of the park, and had set a good two leagues between the hunters and ourselves.
There we paused whilst Andreas set a mask upon the King's face, which was livid with anger.
We then turned the King's horse loose, and rode on with great precaution, shunning all frequented places. By nightfall we reached Bridewald without mishap, and finding some horses grazing in a field, we changed the saddles, with scant ceremony, from our jaded beasts to the backs of the ablest couple, and so rode on again.
All night we went on in silence and for my own part nearly dead with hunger and fatigue. As dawn was breaking we reached Hohenburg, and brought our worn horses to a halt at the door of the "Golden Goblet."
Old Schwarz was quick to answer our knock, and with many inquiries concerning our masked companion, he led us upstairs. Felsheim deposited the King in a corner, and called for wine, food, and lights. When these were brought, he bid old Schwarz return to bed, and locked the door.
We cut the bonds that fastened our captive, removed his mask and gag, and set him upon his feet. His face wore a terrible look, and his eyes blazed ominously. By the Mass, it is well for us that choke-pear had so cramped his jaw as to render articulation difficult for the moment, else Heaven only knows what blasphemies might not have visited our ears.
"You are doubtless bewildered, sire, by the strange behaviour of the French Ambassador," quoth Felsheim gravely. "And, indeed, were I the French Ambassador your bewilderment would not be amiss. Unfortunately for myself I am no such exalted personage; I am simply Andreas von Felsheim, the outlaw of Falkensteig."
"Der Teufel!" bellowed the King, finding speech at last--and his eyes, methought, would have dropped from his head--"You shall hang, you knave; as God lives you shall!"
With that Ludwig went off into a torrent of abuse, which Andreas interrupted in full flow.
"Your Majesty would do well to remember your own position. It is not wise to threaten to hang the man who holds you in his hands. I doubt not that some day, if you can catch me, you'll deliver me to the hangman or have me broken on the wheel, perchance but let that pass. There are others nearer the rope than I at present, the love of whom has driven me to the desperate expedient of seizing your sacred person as a hostage for their safety."
"If you allude to the twelve knaves taken by Stoffel, let me tell you that they shall hang as surely--as surely--as you shall hang, you hound, when I have you."
"I think not, sire," answered Felsheim in tones of terrible coolness. "If Dietrich or any one of his companions come to harm at the hands of the law, I swear, as Heaven is my witness, that with these my own hands I will hang you, King though you be, on the highest pine tree of the Falkensteig."
The King went white at the threat.
"Do you dare menace?"
"I shall dare more if you are not reasonable. Come, sire, 'tis the fortune of war. Sign the pardon of twelve comrades now lying in Schwerlingen, and in exchange I grant you your liberty, as well as that of the French Ambassador, who is a prisoner in the cellar of this very inn, and for whose safety methinks that Sachsenberg is responsible to France."
"You are mad, sir," blazed the King. "I will not bargain with you."
"Then I'll take the pair of you to the Falkensteig, and hang you as near Heaven as you'll ever chance in this world or the next. Call Schwarz, Gessler. Bid him awaken Wittenberg, and have a carriage ready to start in a couple of hours." Then turning to Ludwig: "Will your Majesty deign to honour this poor table? I doubt not you are hungry?"
"Insolent!" cried the King, whereupon Felsheim shrugged his shoulders, and turned his attention to a capon, in which profitable occupation I did presently join him, whilst Wittenberg stood guard over our prisoner.
Presently Felsheim rose, and bowing to the King, drew me from the room.
"Gessler," he said, "can I trust you and Wittenberg to get the King and M. de Coraille safely to the Falkensteig?"
"Surely you may."
"But you must not fail. If you do my neck will pay forfeit. In an hour I shall set out for Schwerlingen. I shall explain matters to my Lords of Ronshausen and Barnabatt. I shall bargain with them for Dietrich's release, and I doubt not that they will prove more reasonable than His Majesty. But if in a week from to-morrow I am not at the Falkensteig with Dietrich and the others to release our captives, you will know that I have failed, that I am probably dead, and you will do with the King as you deem best for the future welfare of our company."
Since I did not accompany him to Schwerlingen, I may not depict the manner of his reception there. I reached our mountain stronghold in the ruined castle of the Falkensteig with my prisoners two days later. And there, in deep anxiety, I waited, for the outlaws swore that if harm befell their captain they would wreak summary vengeance upon the King.
But on the seventh day after Felsheim and I parted at Hohenburg my suspense was ended by the arrival of Andreas with Dietrich and his eleven companions, besides an officer of the guards, who came blindfolded, and who was in like manner reconducted with the King and the Ambassador to the spurs of the mountain. Thence they rode out towards the hamlet of Moetlingen, where a mounted troop waited to escort the King back to his capital.
That night the outlaws of the Falkensteig made merry, and drank deep to the boldest man amongst us--Andreas von Felsheim.
In a chance encounter with a party of the Falkensteig outlaws I had received at the hands of one of the bandits a wound which laid me balancing twixt life and death for nigh upon two months. And when at length I rose from my bed of sickness, and was filled with the joy of life to that glorious extent which only those who in youth have been near to losing it can experience, it was but to make a discovery which impelled me to wish that His Majesty's physicians had been less skilful.
The Ritter von Grunhain had broken faith with me. He had ever looked upon my wooing of his daughter with marked disfavour, but seeing that both the maid and I were of one mind, and that his resistance must in the end prove unavailing, he had at last consented--with a bad grace, it is true--when once I had earned my captaincy, to suffer us to be united.
Now that I was restored to health, and at last was able to seek from the Ritter von Grunhain the fulfilment of his promise, I was dismayed in truth to find that during my illness the knight had changed his mind and was seeking by force to change his daughter's also.
The powerful, wealthy, and dissolute young Count of Lindenstein had fallen enslaved by my lovely Agathe's charms, and had presented himself as a suitor for her hand. The temptation of seeing his daughter Countess of Lindenstein, instead of merely the wife of Captain Hans Stoffel, had proved too strong for Grunhain, even to the extent of causing him to forget his plighted word.
But my sweet Agathe had proven rebellious. 'Twas Hans Stoffel she loved, and Hans Stoffel she would wed, albeit a hundred counts turned lovesick, and were consumed by their passions for her. When the Ritter von Grunhain heard that I was all but recovered, he had--fearing my intervention and a probable elopement spirited his daughter away, none knew whither. But my kind informer was able to add the opinion from news that he had culled that she was at a certain castle, in the neighbourhood of Fortstadt, belonging to an aunt of hers who shared her father's views. In this castle it was intended she should be kept a close prisoner until--as her father had it--she saw fit to come to her senses and marry Lindenstein.
And so it came to pass that one summer night, some three weeks after my recovery, I found myself in a narrow street of Fortstadt, with my back against the wall, defending myself against the swords of three cowardly ruffians who had waylaid me.
Men spoke of my sword-play as formidable. But it was like to have gone ill with me on this occasion had not (even as despair was fastening on me) a fourth blade flashed before my eyes, whilst in a voice which was curiously familiar to my ears came the welcome shout:
"To me, you cowardly knaves! To me!"
I heard his sword clatter against that of one of my opponents who turned to meet him, and a second later the ruffian's body rolled over at my feet. With a bound the newcomer ranged himself at my side to face the remaining two. More was not needed. They drew back, then turning, set off at a run.
In the fittest words I could hit upon did I thank my rescuer for the service he had rendered me, and which he belittled as becomes a gentleman. He was, so far as I could discern in that semi-darkness, a cavalier of medium stature, and appeared to be well dressed. His face I could not see for the shadows cast upon it by his hat, but his voice I had heard before, and I was puzzled to think where.
Presently he knelt beside the man he had wounded and turned him over. As he did so the cloak the fellow wore fell away revealing the outline of a white horse embroidered on his doublet.
"Himmel!" ejaculated the cavalier. "He wears the livery of the Lindensteins. So, my master, you have enemies in high places."
The livery of the Lindensteins! There lay the explanation of the assault. The Count had heard of my arrival at Fortstadt, and had attempted by this means to have me removed. Clearly the information I had received was correct, for only upon realising that I was hot upon the scent, would Lindenstein resort to employing his sbirri.
"Come," said my rescuer, "if the patrol chance this way, it will be hardly well for us that they find us here. I'll crack a bottle with you if you will honour me."
I assented willingly, and we made our way together to the hostelry of "The Pilgrim" where I had taken a room that morning on my arrival at Fortstadt.
Once in that apartment, as we stood face to face in the light of the tapers--having doffed our hats--a cry of mutual recognition burst from our lips simultaneously.
"Hauptmann Stoffel!" he ejaculated.
"Andreas von Felsheim!" I gasped.
In bewilderment we stood, staring open-mouthed at each other, and no doubt marvelling at the coincidence which had brought the famous outlaw of Falkensteig to save the life of the one man in Sachsenberg whom he had most reason to wish dead. At last Felsheim broke into a hearty laugh.
"Beim Teufel, 'tis a droll affair. I had little thought yesterday to fight by your side at our next meeting. I should beyond measure enjoy the honour of supping with you, Sir Captain, but I fear that your reputation might suffer were you seen in my company. >Also, Gute nacht!"
He reached out for his hat, and was indeed bent upon leaving me, but I detained him. Had he gone, this story would not have been told.
"Herr von Felsheim," I cried, "you have rendered me a great service to-night, and although you may be the most arrant outlaw in Sachsenberg, and I, the captain of the King's Guard, still I see no reason why we should not sup amicably together. To-morrow we go our separate ways, and I promise you an amnesty of three days during which you shall go unmolested. What say you?"
"That you speak like a prophet of old--words of wisdom and love which it is not well to disregard. Your health, Sir Captain."
We supped together, the hunter and his quarry--and as I live, I never spent a merrier night. We sat late and drank deep, and when at length he left me, I could not repress a sigh at the thought that we should never come face to face again as friends.
But my surmise was incorrect; Fate had planned that we should again meet as comrades, and that upon the next day.
I sat repairing a rent made in my doublet during the fray of the night before, and ruminating over my position in Fortstadt, and that of my beloved Agathe at the Schloss Eberholz in the neighbourhood, when there came a tap at the door, and to my infinite surprise the courtly figure of Felsheim stood before me.
"I am fortunate to find you here, Herr Hauptmann," quoth he, as he doffed his hat and came forward into the room. "The business which brings me is of importance. It concerns yourself and the lady whom you desire to make your wife."
I sprang to my feet.
"What know you of that?" I exclaimed.
"Enough to make me think that were I in your position I should not sit there playing the tailor. Cast aside the needle, Captain, and get your sword out."
"You presume," I cried angrily, liking not his sneering banter.
For answer Felsheim laughed, and drawing up a chair sat down.
"I am possessed," he said, "of the explanation of the attack whereof you were last night the victim. Listen. When I left you I repaired to the 'Zwei Tauben'--the landlord is a man whom I could trust not to betray my presence. I took a room, and had intended to set out at dawn for the Falkensteig. I slept late, however, and when I awakened the sun was high in the heavens, and there were voices in the next room.
"The wall between was thin, and of a sudden I distinctly heard your name. To this I attached little importance. You are a great personage--albeit, you mend your own doublets--and men talk of you in Sachsenberg. But a moment later I heard the name of Lindenstein. Like a flash the livery of that carrion we left in the Königstrasse occurred to me. I bounded from my bed and set my ear against the wall, for methought I might profit by hearing what was said. Well, Sir Captain, I will not pester you with the precise words of that most interesting dialogue which passed between my Lord of Lindenstein and Hermann Wulff, his associate--and as arrant a knave as you'll find in Germany. You may thank your patron saint that Andreas von Felsheim played the eavesdropper this morning, and learnt that wearied by the maid's persistent refusal to listen to his suit, the Count has, by the aid of that scoundrel Wulff, hit upon as damnable a plot for your undoing, and that of Mistress Agathe, as ever the devil put into the mind of man.
"Hermann Wulff is to present himself to Mistress Agathe in the rôle of an agent of yours who comes to rescue her from the clutches of her aunt, and who is to conduct her to you. Wulff will repair with her to the little chapel of St. Christopher in the hamlet of Abenthurn, where Lindenstein awaits them with a priest whom he has bribed to mumble the marriage service so that no names be heard. He commits the sacrilege of masquerading as Hans Stoffel, and trusts to the darkness--for the plot is to be carried out tonight--and to the necessity for haste wherewith they will impress the lady, and which they hope will prevent her from asking pertinent questions."
"Herrgott!" I cried; "It is monstrous! But Agathe will surely not fall a victim to such an imposture. She will detect the fraud when Lindenstein attempts to impersonate me!"
"In that case these brave gentlemen will have recourse to the strength which God gave them for the protection of the weak, and as there is no better way of protecting a woman than by becoming her husband, whether the maid wills it or no, they'll marry her to Graf von Lindenstein."
"Beim blute Gottes," I cried, "I'll kill the man."
"He has powerful friends. The King--"
"I care not. Where can I find him?"
"Fish. Tarry a moment, Sir Captain. I have devised a plan for you which is far safer and far prettier than the mere slaying of the Count. It will make him the butt of every clownish tongue in Sachsenberg when the affair is known. Now mark me well. Lindenstein and Wulff have hit upon the idea of impersonating you and a friend of yours--let us say myself. Good! Now I have thought that it would be vastly entertaining to impersonate Lindenstein and Wulff in their impersonation of you and me. Wulff is an utter stranger at the Schloss Eberholz. He is to enter the ground at ten o'clock, and cast pebbles at the lady's window until she opens it. Then he throws up his rope ladder and whispers your name. She guesses that he is an agent of yours, catches the ladder and makes it fast. Up he goes with his falsehood, and down he comes with the lady. Such, in brief, is the plan of action.
"Meanwhile the Count sets out at dusk for Abenthurn, where he will sup, repairing later to the Chapel of St. Christopher to keep the assignation which has been made for midnight."
"What is your plan?" I inquired feverishly.
"I have already told you. For the rest, if you will trust me I can promise you success."
I still pressed him for a more detailed answer, and when I got it I was forced to laugh despite my mingled anger and anxiety and to give him the confidence he sought.
Next he desired me to write three lines that he might deliver to Agathe, and that would lead her to trust him. This I did, and in addition I drew from my finger a ring which Agathe herself had given me, and which I bade him show her, thereby dispelling any doubt of his sincerity that she might foster.
Then, deeming it unwise to leave Lindenstein and his ally too long unwatched, Felsheim left me, and returned to the "Zwei Tauben" inn. In a fever of impatience, and tormented by a hundred dreads born of my own inactivity, I awaited his return.
At last he came half-an-hour or so after sunset, and success was written on his comely face.
"I waited to see my Lord of Lindenstein ride out for Abenthurn," he said. "He has just left. Courage, Sir Captain, everything goes well. I visited the Schloss two hours ago, and introduced myself to Madame as the Count's emissary, of whom Lindenstein had already spoken with her. I argued that I thought it would be well if I had speech with the maid, and prepared her for the planned elopement, to save any difficulties later. Madame suspected nought. She concurred throughout with me, and forthwith led me to Mistress Agathe--as bonny a maid as ever I beheld--to whom she presented me as a friend of Count Lindenstein, and bearer of a message from him to her.
"She left us alone, and in the twinkling of an eye I had whispered my true errand in the lady's ear. Beim Grabe! You should have seen the scornful air wherewith she had received me, melt into one of eagerness and joy. It made me tremble to think how easily that knave Wulff might have duped her, had we not forestalled him. I told her of the plot that Lindenstein had hatched, and how we had thought of circumventing it, showing her your letter and the ring as proofs of my own integrity. All is arranged, and at half-past nine tonight she will come to us in the garden; not by a rope-ladder from her own window, but through one of the windows of the dining-hall, which is but a yard or so from the ground. Then away to Abenthurn to get Lindenstein's priest to marry you. Now time presses, and we must sup."
Impatience made me fretful and robbed me of my appetite; but Felsheim made amends for that by supping like two men and sipping like four. At last the meal was ended, my score settled, and our horses at the door. Night had fallen dark and moonless, and nine o'clock had struck when we got into our saddles and rode out towards Schloss Eberholz, which stands on a hillock beyond Fortstadt.
At the foot of that little eminence we drew rein. Felsheim alighted, and leaving me to hold the horses he disappeared among the shrubs, which grow thick about the place, and above which the castle loomed like a great black shadow in the night. There followed for me another period of suspense, which happily was brief. At the end of some few minutes Felsheim reappeared, and with him a little figure in cloak and hood. With a glad cry she ran towards me, and as I caught her in my arms she nestled her winsome head against my shoulder, and there, laughing and sobbing in a breath she bid fair to remain for ever. It was Felsheim's voice, with that satirical ring from which it was never free, that awakened us to the situation.
"Time presses, Sir Captain, and since one place is much the same as another to those whom love has rendered blind, perhaps you will see fit to proceed."
A moment later we were cantering away in the direction of Abenthurn, Agathe still in my arms since we were both forced to ride the one horse.
What need to dwell upon all the things whereof Agathe and I conversed during that ride? Felsheim--with commendable discretion--rode on ahead and left us to ourselves--and so, by my faith, shall you.
It wanted rather more than half-an-hour to midnight when we reached the Chapel of St. Christopher.
Felsheim sprang to the ground and bounded up the half-dozen steps into the porch of the church, where darkness swallowed him. A moment later he reappeared with the information that the priest was already there.
We dismounted forthwith, and Felsheim led away the horses to conceal them, so that should we be surprised their presence would not betray us.
When this was done--and it occupied some precious moments--we ascended the steps together, and, lifting the latch, pushed open the door. Black, impenetrable gloom filled the little chapel, save by the altar at the far end from which four tapers shed a melancholy ring of yellow light, serving but to accentuate the shadows beyond its narrow reach. By the altar loomed a great, cassocked figure, looking for all the world as if it had been fashioned out of the darkness of the place.
We went swiftly up the aisle, our footsteps ringing out with hollow clatter, and stood at last within the weird circle of that dismal light.
"So, you are arrived?" quoth the priest in a whisper. "All is ready. Let us proceed." Then suddenly, as chancing to turn my head towards Agathe, the light fell full upon my face. "How now?" he ejaculated, thrusting forward his long, lean countenance. "You are not the Graf von Lindenstein."
"What of that, sir priest, what of that?" I retorted hastily. "Are there to be no weddings in Sachsenberg saving those of my Lord of Lindenstein. Come, hasten, sir priest."
"I know, I know. Here, take this purse, and say masses with the money."
At last it was over, and not a moment too soon. Scarce were the lines completed, when:
"Hist!" whispered Felsheim at my elbow. "They come."
From without came the thud of hoofs growing rapidly louder. Agathe drew near to me instinctively seeking protection. The priest looked askance.
"Let us away, Felsheim. Quick!"
He took two steps down the aisle, then turned.
"Too late," he said, and his hand went to his sword which he loosened in its scabbard. Then drawing a petronel from his breast, he pointed the long, shiny barrel at the priest, whose face went ashen at the sight.
"My Lord of Lindenstein comes," he said. "We do not wish that he shall find us here, and we shall remain concealed in the darkness by the door. Until he is gone this petronel will be pointed at you. Be circumspect and you have naught to fear. But betray us by word or sign, or as much as hint that there has been a marriage here tonight, and--well, our Holy Father, the Pope, will canonise another saint."
As he finished speaking, the horseman pulled up without, and we had scarcely time to gain the protection of the gloom, when the door opened, and a tall figure stood on the threshold, sharply outlined in the white radiance of the now risen moon. Simultaneously, in a voice which I recognised as Lindenstein's, came the words:
"Not yet arrived?"
"Not yet, my lord," answered the priest in a quavering voice. "'Tis high time. Ah! I hear them."
And indeed as he spoke I again caught the sound of hoofs in the distance. He closed the door and strode leisurely up the aisle.
As he came into the light, I started to see that he wore the scarlet and gold livery of the guards. He had bedraggled his hair until it fell about his face so as to almost mask his features. Not content with this, however, he calmly ascended the altar steps, and blew out two of the four tapers.
"'Tis a wanton waste of wax, and such as befits not the occasion," he laughed.
Then followed a season of waiting with bated breath, my little Agathe clinging to me the while, and my Lord of Lindenstein striding silently up and down the aisle, until I feared that in one of his turnings he must chance upon us. I would have had a mass said for his soul if he had done so. At last the waiting came to an end, but upon it followed something which well nigh made me cry out with amazement.
Hermann Wulff stood in the doorway, and by his side a woman, cloaked and hooded.
Like one in a dream I watched him lead her up to the altar where Lindenstein stood waiting. I saw the Count stoop and kiss her hand, then I heard the droning Latin of the service. I saw them kneel, I heard the benediction and I saw them rise, then come together down the aisle, and pass out into the moonlight, whilst Wulff held the door for him, leaving it wide as he followed in their wake.
"My God, Felsheim, what does it mean?"
A smothered chuckle burst from the outlaw.
"It means--hush. Listen."
Through the open door came Lindenstein's voice, harshly playful.
"And now, my little one, will you not kiss your husband?" Then the voice changed suddenly into a tone of ungovernable fury. "Heavens! What baggage have we here?"
In my excitement I advanced a step, and, whilst keeping in the shadow, I looked out. Lindenstein had drawn the hood from the girl's head, and the look of rage and horror on his face, as he gazed at her in the moonlight, was fearful to behold.
"Herrgott!" bellowed the Count. "What have you brought me, fool? Is this a jest, you hound? Speak, will you?"
"Is it not Mistress Agathe?"
"By Heaven, it is not!"
"It is not?" echoed Wulff, coming a step nearer. "Then who, in Heaven's name, is it?"
"Do you ask, you dog? Do you need telling that you have married me to a kitchen wench of the Schloss Eberholz?"
The girl sank down in a heap on the bottom step of the porch, and burst into loud sobs. Wulff stared vacantly from one to the other of them for a moment. Then the ludicrous side of the affair broke full upon his mind, and he burst into a loud guffaw.
"You laugh, you knave!" shrieked Lindenstein, beside himself with fury. Then with a frightful oath he sprang forward, and struck his accomplice on the mouth.
The laugh died in Wulff's throat, and with the roar of a maddened animal, he got out his sword and rushed at the Count.
"No man boasts that he struck Hermann Wulff and lived," he snarled. "Guard yourself!"
"The Countess of Lindenstein is like to become a widow," quoth Felsheim in my ear. Nor was he wrong, for Hermann Wulff was one of the most dangerous swordsmen in Sachsenberg. It was soon over. A quick feint, and, before my lord could recover, something glittering showed itself through his back, and with a shriek he fell.
Then Wulff--without so much as a glance at the affrighted girl who sat shuddering and moaning on the steps--untethered his horse, and springing into the saddle rode off at a gallop.
"You saw what occurred?" quoth Felsheim of the priest who came up at that moment.
"I see the result. I did not see it happen else I should have interfered," he answered with a groan.
"That is enough. If the man dies you will be able to bear witness how he met his end, as will also that poor wench whom I had not thought to pain by such a spectacle. You will minister to the Count, and here is money to provide for the immediate wants of the Countess. Now let us go."
We rode on to Steinau that very night. There, before entering the town, Felsheim took his leave.
"You owe me a matter of fifty gold crowns which it cost me to bribe Lischen, the kitchen maid, to wait in Mistress Agathe's room for Hermann Wulff, and become Countess of Lindenstein," he said.
"I owe you far more, Felsheim."
"Tush, of that we will not speak. But the money you can pay me when next we meet--which I trust in all conscience may not be soon, for I am not minded to fall into the hands of the law just yet. Farewell, madame. Farewell, Sir Captain. May happiness attend you."
He kissed Agathe's hand, pressed mine, then, wheeling his horse, he rode away into the night to his outlaw's home in the hills.
Andreas von Felsheim, the famous outlaw, chanced to ride alone one evening through the woods of Altenau. As he rode--being, for all his sins, a merry-hearted rogue--he sang a warlike ditty of his native Wurttemberg. He had just entered upon a track which in a few moments would bring him out of the wood, when of a sudden he came upon a lady garbed in a riding-dress of scarlet velvet and gold lace, who sat in a forlorn attitude, her back against a tree.
She greeted his appearance with a little cry of gladness followed by a groan of pain, whereupon, concluding that she had met with some mischance, and that she sought assistance, he reined in, and hat in hand laid his services at her commands.
"Truly, sir," quoth she, in a voice whose natural sweetness was now accentuated by a plaintive note, "I am grieved to trouble you, but your aid would come most opportunely."
"Will Madame tell me in what I can obey her?"
"Alas, sir, I was riding this way half-an-hour ago, and being deep in thought at the time I did not remark that my horse had taken fright at I know not what, until I found that the unmannerly beast had flung me from his back, and scampered off. In falling I so hurt my foot that I cannot stand, and had you not chanced to pass this way I might have been forced to spend the night here."
"Your foot is hurt, Madame; I am somewhat skilled in these matters; pray let me see to it."
She looked up at him as he came nearer, and her cheeks reddened; then with a little laugh of confusion she waved him back.
"Nay, sir; 'twere troubling you overmuch. I do but crave your aid to reach the Castle of Huldenstein."
Andreas was silent for a moment as if some hesitancy beset him. During that moment he allowed himself to look attentively at her pale, oval face, from out of which a pair of dark eyes--large and liquid as a child's--frankly returned his gaze; and as he looked he realised that she was young and very beautiful.
"If you will permit me to lift you on to my horse, Madame," he said at length, "we will reach Huldenstein in half-an-hour."
He took her lissom figure in his arms and lifted her, as though she were but a feather's weight, into the saddle. But for a second he had held her, and a ringlet of her perfumed hair had brushed against his cheek, and that second was answerable for much that befell thereafter.
Taking the bridle, he turned his horse and led it back part of the way he had just travelled. And as they went they talked of many things, as people will who are thus situated. Presently they emerged from the wood, and their way lay along the bank of the river Leub, with the Falkensteig, the outlaw's stronghold, looming up on the opposite shore, and raising its crest towards the sky.
"Is not yonder a grim looking mountain?" she said, gazing across the water. "A fit home, indeed, for the bold outlaws it shelters."
The shadow of a smile flitted across Felsheim's handsome face.
"Is it not sad," she went on, "to think that some day that brave and reckless freelance, Felsheim, will probably die the common felon's death on the gallows at Schwerlingen?"
Felsheim looked at her for a moment, then laughed.
"Beim Grabe, Madame, you speak of him as of some hero of old."
"How else would you have me speak of him? A hero of the brave, dead days is what he most resembles. It is, indeed, to live, and to taste the joys of liberty and power, to be as he is--it is to be a man!"
"Alas, Madame, it may be as you say," laughed Andreas, "but to the law he is known as a poor thief who gives the King much trouble, and as a poor thief they'll hang him, no doubt--when they have caught him."
After he had consigned her into the care of the servants who answered his knock at the gates of Huldenstein, and she had thanked him prettily for his service, he climbed into the saddle and rode briskly away, his mind full of the woman who regretted that Andreas von Felsheim would hang some day.
So far did such thoughts prove master of Andreas von Felsheim, that after that evening when he met her in the woods of Altenau, rarely a day went by but that he descended into the valley upon some pretext or other, and at times with no pretext save that he needed exercise.
Then it occurred to him to cross the river in a boat, for which purpose he borrowed the rude craft of one Anton Hübli--a peasant who dwelt on the spurs of the Falkensteig--and in it he would row across the Leub, and drift past the windows of the castle, which rose sheer from the water's edge.
On the occasion of his third journey in this fashion, he beheld her walking in the garden, which ran beside the stream, and upon seeing her his heart gave a great bound, and he realised in full what had befallen him.
She saw him, and recognising him, came forward with a smile upon her full, rich lips, and greeted him with pretty archness as her knight and deliverer. And so emboldened was he by the manner of her greeting that he craved her leave to quit his boat and walk with her in the garden, which leave was granted him with a readiness that all but drove him mad with hope and joy.
He learnt that day that she was Sophia of Huldenstein, and that she lived alone in that castle, the last of her race, since Caspar von Huldenstein had become a monk and Fritz had been assassinated in Schwerlingen. In return he told her--and the lie scorched his tongue--that he was Andreas von Bonau, a gentleman of Württemberg to whom fortune had been none too kind.
Thereafter his excursions in Hübli's boat were of almost daily occurrence, as were also his meetings with Sophia of Huldenstein in the castle garden.
But there came at last that evening in September--some three weeks after their first meeting--when, as he sat beside her by the river, the full measure of his guilt broke suddenly upon his mind, and silenced his merry tongue. For awhile she endured this mood, then:
"What ails you to-day, Master von Bonau," she asked, "that you are so dull and sad and full of sighs?"
"Alas, Madame, I have just realised that I am a very miserable knave, and the contemplation of it is none too pleasant."
She glanced at him curiously, and the colour slowly left her cheeks as she watched him sitting there, with a heavy frown between the eyes that looked sternly away across the stream.
"Madame," he exclaimed suddenly, "at whatever cost, there is something that I must tell you. My name is not Andreas von Bonau, but Andreas von Felsheim. How, Madame? You hear that--you learn that I am the outlaw of Falkensteig, a lawless, godless freebooter, and you do not shrink from me?"
She returned his look of surprise with a steady gaze that puzzled him.
"Have you forgotten, sir, what I said of Felsheim when first we met?" she asked quietly. "That to be as he is, is to be a man?
"Beim Grabe, Madame," cried Felsheim, "though these be my last words with you, I must say them now--since the hour when I looked into your eyes in the woods of Altenau yonder, and for one brief second held you in my arms as I lifted you into the saddle, my very soul became your slave. I am not a boy, Madame; I am thirty-five years of age, and I have lived more than most men could in twice the time, and when such a man as I am chances to love--"
"Hush, sir," she cried, "I cannot listen to you."
The pallor of her face, the heaving of her bosom, and the working of her hands, all witnessed to the deep agitation that possessed her.
From the river came the splash of oars, but in the excitement of the moment Felsheim was deaf to the sound.
"Go, Master Felsheim. Quick, begone! You know not the dangers that threaten you here. Ah, do not stand there," she continued, with tears of intreaty in her eyes. "I f, as you say, you love me, prove it by obeying me in this, and go at once."
Then of a sudden her eyes opened wide, and, fixed with horror, they looked past him. Her cheeks grew ashen, and a low moan escaped her lips. "My God!" he heard her whisper, "too late! too late!"
He turned quickly to seek behind him an explanation of her strange words, and the sight that greeted him was little to his taste.
A boat which had crept along under cover of the bank, and the approach of which--engrossed as he was--he had not marked, was now drawn up at the foot of the lawn, and in it stood six men-at-arms in cuirasses and headpieces.
Like a hunted beast he turned about, seeking for a road of escape; there was the door that led from the garden. But scarcely had he taken two strides in that direction, when it opened, and through it came another group of soldiers, and a boyish o fficer, who advanced boldly towards Andreas.
Drawing himself up the outlaw watched his approach with a disdainful eye; albeit he realised that at last his sands were run, and that from this plight there was like to be no extrication.
When within half-a-dozen paces, the officer halted and with a futile endeavour to set a ring of fierceness in his fresh young voice, he called upon Felsheim to yield.
Then he signed to the men who had now gathered round Andreas in a circle full twenty strong, and in obedience to that sign two of them stepped forward, and seizing each an arm they pinioned the outlaw's hands behind him.
As they led him away, he turned his head for a moment, and swept the garden with his dark eyes in the hope of one last look from Sophia of Huldenstein--a look of sympathy the memory of which he might take with him on his last journey. But she was nowhere to be seen.
That night he lay in a damp and unclean cell of the prison of Huhnenberg; but at dawn next day they brought him out, and, leaving his arms free so that he might hold the reins, they gave him a horse and started with him for Schwerlingen. They set him in their midst, and, to make him doubly safe, a trooper rode a pace or so behind with a musket poised across his saddle-bow--ready to fire upon him should he be mad enough to attempt an escape.
Notwithstanding the desperate pass to which things had come, the sunshine and the clean perfume of the fields combined with the exercise afforded him, did much to raise Felsheim's spirits from the slough of despondency into which they had fallen the night before.
It happened also that having his man safe, the anticipation of the glory which would be his for the great capture he had effected, set Lieutenant Trohldahl--the officer commanding the little troop--in a happy frame of mind.
And presently moved by desire to appear reckless to the end, and to die as he had lived with a smile on his lips and a jest on his tongue, Andreas waxed witty and gay, and it was not long ere the faces of those about him were broadened by the stamp of mirth as they hearkened to the outlaw's merry sallies.
"By the Mass, Sir Outlaw," exclaimed Trohldahl at length, "you bear your misfortunes with a brave heart."
"Pah! Would you have me sad when this day week I shall be carrion? Nay, sir, since my course is all but run let me at least be merry for the time that's left."
"And yet," persisted the lieutenant, "there are few men who, taken as you have been, would bear the blow so well."
"Taken as I have been? Surely I could not have desired more honour than to have been seized by a score of men. Had I fallen to a single blade or had I been the victim of treachery--had I been coaxed blindly into a trap, then, indeed, I might have reason for chagrin and bitterness."
Trohldahl stared askance at the outlaw.
"Heilige Jungfrau," he ejaculated, "have you no suspicion even now of how you have been duped, and of the trap which the King baited for you with a woman, and into which you walked willingly and blindly enough for all your vaunted shrewdness?"
Felsheim turned cold at the words, and in a husky voice besought the officer to enlighten him. This Trohldahl did, and at some length he narrated to his captive the story of how Stephanie von Neusch, the famous court beauty, of Schwerlingen, had undertaken that where man's strength and cunning had so often failed, her woman's wit should prevail, and that she would deliver the formidable Felsheim into the hands of the King's men.
He also told the outlaw that Felsheim's first meeting with the lady had not been the mere accident it appeared, but the execution of a plan that she had conceived at the outset, and waited weeks for an opportunity to carry out. Trohldahl and his men had been stationed at Steinau, since to have brought them to Hühnenberg would have been to have scared the outlaw from the neighbourhood. Once she had him safely in her toils, she had dispatched a messenger to them, and they had come down the river reaching Huldenstein at the hour at which she had informed them that she counted upon his presence.
Never a word spake Felsheim in answer, and for nigh upon an hour after the lieutenant had done speaking, he rode in silence with bent head and knitted brows--his erstwhile recklessness all dead within him.
They had reached the summit of the hill of Moritz, which rises so gradually from the valley of Hühnenberg as to appear undeserving of being named a hill until one has gained the highest point, and thence surveys the country below of Hühnenberg itself they could but see the housetops in the distance peeping over the woods of Altenau. But the massive, square tower of the castle of Huldenstein stood clear to view, some four leagues from the spot where they now halted.
"Heilige Jungfrau!" ejaculated the lieutenant, shading his eyes with his hand, "what is that?"
So sudden was his exclamation, and so sharp its note, that every man of the company turned in his saddle to look behind him. Above the castle something that in the distance looked like a thick black veil, was soaring skywards with a sinuous, swaying motion.
"Herrgott!" cried one of the troopers, "it is smoke. The castle has taken fire."
The soldiers looked at one another, and a very Babel of voices broke upon the morning air, subsiding, however, at a sign from Trohldahl. In the silence that followed the thud of hoofs could be distinctly heard.
"Someone rides hard this way," quoth the lieutenant. "We shall learn, perhaps, what is taking place. I like not the look of that smoke; fire suggests pillage, and pillage, Sir Outlaw, suggests your friends. By the Mass, it is a woman! I'll wager a hundred crowns 'tis your friend Stephanie, Master Felsheim."
Andreas looked down upon the white road, and there, riding, ventre à terre, in a cloud of dust, came, indeed, a woman, as Trohldahl said. And presently as she drew near, he saw that the lieutenant's surmise touching her identity was also correct.
Her face was ghastly pale, her hair dishevelled and overlaid, in common with her garments, by a cloak of thin white dust.
"Himmel!" she gasped "methought I should never come up with you! The outlaws of the Falkensteig are at Huldenstein. They have fired the castle as you may see, and they are pillaging Huhnenberg out of revenge for the capture of their leader. Ride back, sir," she cried. "Ride like the wind if you would save those poor people."
"'Tis what I feared," said the lieutenant, a scowl of anger darkening his face. "Know you how many they number, Madame?"
"A score of men, I was told."
"Ah! Then, by the Virgin, we'll find you company on your journey, Master Felsheim. You there, Michael," he exclaimed, addressing the man with the musket, "remain here to guard this robber, and do you remain also, Weiss; bind him to a tree, and await our return. If by chance any of his infernal followers come upon you, blow his brains out and then make off. You understand me? Good. Now for Huhnenberg. You, Madame, will follow at your leisure."
At his command the men fell into line, then in obedience to his crisp shout of "Vorwarts!" away they went at a gallop towards the valley, leaving Felsheim behind them with the two troopers and the woman who had betrayed him.
Michael--he of the musket--ordered Felsheim harshly to dismount, and Felsheim obeyed him mechanically, avoiding the girl's eyes, which were fixed intently upon him. Weiss dismounted at the same time, and taking the musket from Michael set it against the outlaw's breast, whilst his comrade got down also from his horse. When this was done, and Michael had provided himself with a stirrup leather, he pointed to a tree and bade Felsheim march towards it, he and his fellow following close at his heels.
Silently Michael held out his hand to take back the musket, and as silently Weiss delivered it to him. But just as the weapon was changing hands, Stephanie, who had until now sat watching the proceedings with a curious intentness, suddenly urged her horse forward on to the troopers, who, thus taken unawares, were both knocked over before they could move aside--the musket going off as they fell. Felsheim, who turned upon hearing the report, was just in time to see the girl bend towards him and hold out a petronel urging him to take it and defend himself. For a moment--after overcoming his bewilderment at this unexpected aid--Andreas was on the point of refusing the gift of liberty from her hands. Then remembering that if he did not do so, he would hang before the week was out, he took the pistol, and setting the stock against his breast, he pointed the barrel straight at Michael just as the fellow was in the act of scrambling to his feet. The other trooper lay stunned where he had fallen.
"Halt!" thundered Felsheim. "Things have changed, my friend, since Madame's horse tripped over you. If you would ever see Schwerlingen again obey me quickly and to the letter."
He walked up to the trooper and held out his left hand.
"Give me that stirrup leather. Now turn round. Beim Teufel! Turn, I say, or I'll make you turn in a death spin! So. Place your hands behind you."
Swiftly and deftly Felsheim pinioned his wrists together, then, marching the soldier up to the very tree which a moment ago the fellow had himself selected for Andreas, the outlaw passed the leather round the trunk and bound his captive securely to it.
Next Andreas selected the ablest of the three horses, and vaulted lightly into the saddle. Then he turned towards Stephanie, and for a moment he hesitated, still utterly at a loss to understand her action.
"Madame," he said at length, "did Lieutenant Trohldahl speak the truth in telling me that your name is Stephanie von Neusch?"
The blood rushed to her face, and her eyes fell as she heard the words which told her that he knew all.
"Yes, Sir," she faltered, "he spoke truly."
A silence followed, and Felsheim again appeared to hesitate whether he should speak or depart without further parley.
"Madame," he exclaimed presently, "how am I to understand your present action?"
"Do not ask, sir. Do not seek to understand, but go. Your road is clear. In an hour's time you will be across the river."
"Still, Madame, I am sorely perplexed. Either I have heard too much or not enough. Is it true that our meeting in the woods of Altenau was no chance encounter?"
"Yes," she answered faintly, "it was planned."
"And your foot was not hurt?"
"And you promised the King to undertake my capture?"
"Oh Yes, yes. Why will you torture me?"
"Then, Madame, why, in Heaven's name, after your play-acting had succeeded so finely, did you ride over those two men, and place a weapon in my hand."
"I did more than that, sir," she exclaimed with sudden vigour. "I fired the Castle of Huldenstein with my own hands, so that it might give colour to my story of a raid by your outlaws, and send Lieutenant Trohldahl back to Hühnenberg on a fool's errand, leaving but a couple of men to guard you."
Felsheim's jaw fell, and with eyes wide open he surveyed his companion.
"Herrgott--that was play-acting, too! And you have burnt a castle to make your acting seem more real. But why Madame, why?"
"Oh, you are blind, indeed, sir, if you must be told," she cried, looking away from him towards the now blazing tower. "Can you not understand that it is because I sought to save you and to undo what I had done? I warned you yesterday in the garden, and urged you to fly, but I was too late. I told the King that by acting to you I would ensnare you, and--and--God pity me," she added, bursting into tears, "I discovered yesterday that I was no longer acting."
Then, suddenly stemming her emotion:
"Oh! Why do you stand there like a fool," she cried fiercely, "and put me to the shame of saying all this? Farewell, Master von Felsheim. It is unlikely that we shall meet again. But, perchance, if you remember that, shamefully though I may have dealt with you, I have yet made amends by saving your life, you will not think unkindly of me. Adieu!"
She wheeled her horse suddenly, and before he could frame an answer, she was riding swiftly away in the direction of Steinau.
Felsheim watched her for some moments, then he heaved a monstrous sigh.
"So ends my first love affair," he muttered, "and I hope--if they be all of the same flavour--my only one.
"Beim Hölle, I wonder indeed what the real Sophie Huldenstein will say to you for making a bonfire of her castle and all for the sake of a sorry knave of my kidney."
He laughed a short, hard laugh, then clapping spurs to his horse, he made off down the hillside towards the river.
My Lord of Delventhal smote the table a blow with his fat fist that made the glasses rattle, and for the twentieth time within the hour he proclaimed the King a fool, and the Graf von Bozenhardt a knave.
Hugo von Delventhal was a short, corpulent man of forty, whose broad red face--set in a frame of straggling red hair, and decked by a short, pointed beard of the same hue--could boast scant beauty even when his mind was ruled by happy peacefulness. But on that autumn evening his countenance was rendered hideous by choler, and the sinister glitter of his little blue eyes was a thing to be avoided as though a blight lay in his glance.
We were in the autumn of the year 1643, and the rebel Duke Leopold of Drusdau with his Austrian mercenaries was marching upon the frontiers of Sachsenberg.
His Majesty, King Ludwig IV, had commissioned the Count of Bozenhardt to raise a force three hundred strong, and to assume at the head of these command of the town of Kreutzburg. To my Lord of Delventhal had been assigned the subordinate position of Bozenhardt's lieutenant, and by Bozenhardt he had been ordered to proceed to Kreutzburg escorted by myself and half a score of troopers of the guards, to appraise the burgomaster of the King's determination anent his town, and to prepare the place for the arrival of the garrison 'neath Bozenhardt's command.
He had been at some pains to conceal his indignation and jealousy at the honour thus done to Bozenhardt, and which rightly or wrongly--he conceived should have been his. But now that we sat alone in the inn of the "Schwarzen Stier," at Steinau, he cast aside the mask, and disclosed to me without reserve his feelings in the matter.
"This King Ludwig of ours," he sneered, "is by some fools surnamed `the astute.' If they dub him so after to-day, why then 'twere flattery to call them fools."
"My lord," I ventured gently, with a glance towards the closed doors, "in these troublous times methinks 'tis hardly wise to speak thus of His Majesty. You would do well to bear in mind that there are half a score of troopers out there in the common room, and were they to hear you--"
"Herrgott, Captain Stoffel," he bellowed, "what care I who hears me? They will hear the truth. 'Tis my very love for Ludwig that urges me to speak. How is he to suppress the revolt, and lay the rebel duke by the heels, if he sets about it in this fashion? What manner of man is this Bozenhardt that he should be given command of such a garrison as Kreutzburg? A place, moreover, that is cankered with treason. Pah! It makes me sick to think of it."
"He is a capable soldier," I protested.
Delventhal bestowed upon me a look most eloquent in pity and disdain.
"A capable soldier say you? An incapable fool would more fitly describe him. I even doubt his loyalty, Master Stoffel. Aye, as God lives, 'twould not surprise me did he prove a traitor! And to think that at Moritzau this morning this insolent upstart should come to me and lispingly desire me to set out for Kreutzburg to inform its Burgomaster that on Wednesday next he will enter the town with his men. Beim Hölle, Master Stoffel, have I lived to carry messages to a gutter-bred Burgomaster?"
And Delventhal laughed an ugly laugh of self-derision, and would have proceeded to utter I know not what fresh invectives, when, gently commenting upon the lateness of the hour, I rose and spoke of bed.
I slept soundly that night, albeit the cloud of war hung over Sachsenberg, and it was late ere I awakened on the morrow. To my ears came wafted, from the street below, the stamp of hoofs, the champ of bits and the jangle of accoutrements, accompanied by a hum of voices, broken by occasional shouts--all betokening the presence of a vast company of mounted men.
Thoroughly awake I sat up in bed marvelling at the sounds I heard; then, driven by curiosity, I rose, and, hastily clothing myself, I made my way down the stairs.
Midway I came upon the host, ascending with blanched face, and legs that shook visibly under his portly body.
"Sir Captain," he cried upon beholding me, "we are lost! The outlaws of the Falkensteig are upon us, led by that arch-devil, Andreas von Felsheim himself."
More he said, but I heard it not; for, with a speed born of the news he gave me, I had already reached the foot of the stairs, and thrown open the door leading to the main room of the inn.
Here I found my troopers crowding round the windows, and struggling among themselves to catch a glimpse of the scene in the street, whilst in the doorway stood Delventhal, alone, with arms akimbo, looking out. He turned as I entered, and between his brows stood two deep lines of anger.
"Beim Teufel, Captain Stoffel," he exclaimed, "there are other enemies besides Leopold of Drusdau against whom it seems that this poor kingdom must defend itself. Here is a ruffianly horde of bandits come, no doubt, to plunder Steinau, as it plundered Meiningen a month ago."
Crossing to where he stood, I beheld, through the crowd of scared citizens that had gathered in the streets, a long line of armed and mounted men numbering at least twelve score, whose fierce, uncouth and lawless air was well calculated to strike dismay and terror into the little township.
They were drawn up as if waiting some command, and presently, as I watched them--with vast curiosity, and also some dismay--there rode up to the very door of the inn a cavalier in burnished corselet, and a great, plumed hat--as gallant a figure as ever bestrode a horse. This courtly person was none other than Andreas von Felsheim, the dread outlaw of the Falkensteig, whose head was valued at the enormous price of five thousand crowns.
Upon seeing me, he greeted me with a friendly smile, and a flourish of his hat--for, though I was captain of the King's Guards, and he the leader of a lawless band of robbers, whose extermination the King had fruitlessly endeavoured hitherto to compass, yet we had been comrades once--he and I--and he had then rendered me a priceless service. Hence is it but natural that I felt a kindness for him, and that I fostered at times the hope that a day might come when I might in some measure repay the debt that lay between us.
Dismounting, and flinging the reins to one of his men, he advanced towards me.
"Well met, sir Captain," quoth he, "I have news for you. I trust that I am not too late to find the noble Lord of Delventhal in your company?"
Before I could reply, Delventhal had thrust himself forward. "What is your will with me, Master Felsheim?" he inquired in a surly tone.
"For once, my lord, I am not come to pillage, but to serve the King--and you."
Delventhal looked incredulous.
"Fine words," he sneered. "What profit do you look to make?"
"The service I desire to do the State is of such value that I shall not be overpaid by the free pardon for past outlawry which I shall claim for myself and my company," answered the bandit. "Nor will you, my lord, be paying me more than I shall have earned for the service that I am about to render you, by advancing my enterprise and interesting yourself hereafter to see that the pardon I speak of is meted out to me. Grant me a few moments' conversation and you shall learn that which I have come hither to impart. Host, a flagon of Rhenish at yonder table."
He pointed out a table in a corner of the apartment and thither, at his invitation, we went and seated ourselves.
"My business touches you very nearly, my lord," said Felsheim, filling his glass. "I learn that you have been appointed--I know not through what gross misconception of your deserts--lieutenant to the Count Bozenhardt, who, with three hundred men is to occupy the town of Kreutzburg and hold it against the rebel Duke Leopold. Am I rightly informed?"
"Your own loyalty to King Ludwig--whom God protect, although he loves me none too fondly--is well-known, my lord, and it is due to this that I am come to you to tell you that the man 'neath whom you serve has sold himself and his levies to the Duke Leopold, and that you are assisting him to take possession of Kreutzburg, to hold it not for the King, as you imagine, but for the Austrian rebel."
Delventhal stared open-mouthed at the outlaw and the colour fled from his fat cheeks at the amazing news.
"Do you mean," he gasped, when at last he had found his tongue, "that Bozenhardt is a traitor?"
"Aye, worse than that--he is such a traitor as Judas was, for he betrays his very master. I have been to Kreutzburg. Of all the cities in Sachsenberg there is none so full of treason. This much, my lord, you must know already. But something that I imagine you do not know, is that not only are the inhabitants for the most part adherents of Leopold, but the garrison itself--which is a hundred strong--and the very Burgomaster are in league with the rebel and have hatched a plot with the perfidious Bozenhardt which you, my lord, are blindly aiding them to carry out."
Delventhal grew crimson with suppressed excitement, and, bringing down his hand upon the table, said:
"Can you prove it, man," he gasped, "can you prove it?"
"Yesterday morning," said Felsheim, "when I had left Kreutzburg some three leagues behind me, I chanced upon a ruffianly snatch-purse who was rifling the pockets of a wretch whose head he had just cracked. He made off upon seeing me, and I dismounted to tend the wounded man. I unfastened his doublet to give him air, when a package lying next to his skin attracted my attention. I drew it out and with vast surprise I discovered it to be a letter addressed by Carl Greinitz, Burgomaster of Kreutzburg, to His Grace the Duke Leopold of Drusdau, at Turgen, where the messenger was seemingly to have met him."
"Herrgott!" roared Delventhal, "you have this letter?"
For answer Felsheim drew a paper from his pocket, and spreading it out upon the table he presented it to Delventhal.
There followed a moment's silence whilst the nobleman perused the missive, then came a very storm of oaths, and Delventhal set the paper before me and bade me read:
My Lord Duke,
With the utmost respect and satisfaction let me inform Your Grace of the allegiance sworn to you by the inhabitants and garrison of Kreutzburg. The Count Arnold von Bozenhardt promises to join me within the week with a force three hundred strong. Once these are within the walls of Kreutzburg our gates will be closed until Your Grace comes to claim admittance.
Then came some well-chosen words of good augury and lastly the signature of Carl Greinitz.
I gasped in my amazement. The Count of Bozenhardt disaffected! Without such overwhelming proof as this letter furnished, I would as soon have believed the King himself attached to Leopold.
Amazed as I was, and grieved withal to have discovered such treacherous scheming, yet in my heart I must confess to a certain rejoicing at the turn of events, for methought I saw Felsheim already pardoned and leading a new and honourable life.
"'Tis as the price of this information, Master Felsheim," I ventured, "that you claim a pardon from the King for past misdeeds?"
"And," cried Delventhal, "Biem Grabe, 'tis but a seemly recompense for the service you have rendered the State."
"Not yet, not yet," said the outlaw with a smile. "Knowing of your presence here, this letter suggested to me how the tables might be turned upon the Count Bozenhardt. 'Tis for the execution of my plan that I have brought some three hundred men with me. For five years," he continued with a touch of sadness in his voice, "have I led a lawless life, deriding the King and setting the State at naught. I have gone near capture more than once, but fortune has been kind, and I have escaped unhurt. Still my trade is a dangerous one, and like to have an unsavoury end. To-day I purpose to have done with it--to draw my sword for King and State, and strike a blow for the Sonsbeck Dynasty which shall earn me the pardon of a grateful prince. Listen, my lord; it is true, is it not, that you are on your way to prepare the town of Kreutzburg for the advent of Bozenhardt?"
"That is so, Master Felsheim."
"Then I propose, my lord, that you shall set out forthwith for Kreutzburg with your troopers as an escort, and carry out the mission upon which you were sent by Count Bozenhardt, as if naught had chanced since you parted from him. Only you will inform the treacherous Burgomaster that to-night at midnight--and not on Wednesday--Bozenhardt will reach the town. My men and I shall take the place of the Count and his force, and, under cover of darkness, we shall enter Kreutzburg in their stead; once inside the place we can laugh at Bozenhardt and all his rebels. What say you, my lord, shall I not have earned my pardon and that of my followers then?"
Delventhal was much smitten by the outlaw's plan, and loud and prodigal in his praises of it. The reason was not far to seek. It lay not in his loyalty to Ludwig so much as in his jealousy of Bozenhardt. He was jubilant rather at the discovery of the Count's treason and the thought of his approaching disgrace and defeat, than at the prospect of saving Kreutzburg from Leopold of Drusdau. Also mayhap, he saw himself already covered with glory by the enterprise Felsheim suggested.
"To save any unnecessary trouble and blood-shed when the Burgomaster discovers how he has been duped," said Felsheim, "it were well that you told him that Bozenhardt desires to effect his entrance secretly, and thus contrive that he does not turn his garrison out to meet us. Our success depends greatly upon taking them by surprise."
Delventhal agreed most heartily.
"Never fear," quoth he, "I shall contrive that the garrison be abed when you arrive."
Then he filled his glass to the brim, and, getting on his feet, he toasted Felsheim and drank success to his undertaking and confusion to Bozenhardt. When that was done he grew impatient to set upon his errand. He ordered my troopers to make ready, and half-an-hour later he set out for Kreutzburg. Me he left behind to follow with Felsheim.
It was about an hour after sunset when Andreas von Felsheim mustered his bandits once more in the main street of Steinau, and when he had given the command we rode out of the township, much to the relief of the burghers, who could not understand their good fortune at having been visited by the Falkensteig outlaws without suffering violence.
We took the road to Kreutzburg at a good pace, and so well did we use our mounts that shortly after midnight we stood beneath the stout and ancient walls of the disaffected town.
At the Southern gate we found the drawbridge down, and in the shadows 'neath the archway we could faintly discern a little group of waiting figures. 'Twas clear from this and from the silence within those walls that Greinitz had obeyed Delventhal's injunction of secrecy.
Felsheim drew aside whilst his men rode over the bridge, headed by Gessler, his lieutenant. He followed in their wake with me beside him. In the open space within the gate we found the outlaws drawn up in order; a little in advance of them stood the Burgomaster, attended by half a score of pikemen with lanthorns swinging on their halberts, and a pert young o fficer. As we entered, Greinitz came forward and, scanning us closely, muttered the name of Arnold von Bozenhardt. He was a small grey-bearded man, who sought by the aid of ponderous armour and a great sword to lend an air of vigour and importance to his weakly frame.
He recognised me and saluted gravely--albeit methought I detected a light of wonder in his glance--then turned his eyes upon Felsheim, who was unknown to him.
"How come it, my master," he said in a thin, quavering voice, "that I do not see the Count of Bozenhardt?"
"So!" cried Felsheim with a harsh laugh. "You are not likely to see him until you mount the scaffold with him, master rebel."
The Burgomaster drew himself up, stiff as a broom handle, and measured the outlaw with his eyes.
"I do not know you, sir," he answered with calm dignity, "nor do I understand you."
"Perchance you will understand the hangman better."
"This to me!" gurgled Greinitz in a voice thick with passion. "This to me--Burgomaster of Kreutzburg!"
"Burgomaster no longer," answered Felsheim, drawing a pistol from his holster and presenting it at the old man's head. "Yield you, Master Greinitz."
The harsh challenge and the sight of the weapon routed the Burgomaster's dignity and courage utterly. With a face white as milk and knees that knocked together he turned to Delventhal and besought him in trembling accents to explain why he was thus accused and to save his life.
"Your life we do not seek, Master Greinitz," said Delventhal. "But you shall deliver up your sword and the keys of Kreutzburg. Your treason is discovered, and that of your accomplice, Arnold von Bozenhardt, and your letters to the Duke Leopold have been intercepted."
"'Tis a lie!" shrieked the little man. "I wrote no letters. 'Tis some plot to seize the town, and you that are the rebels. Ho, there, pikemen! To the rescue!"
But his call came too late. Already a score of Felsheim's followers had surrounded the little force and demanded their weapons, which had been surrendered with that docility fear teaches men. Upon seeing this, the little spark of spirit that for a moment had actuated the Burgomaster was extinguished, and he became a craven pitiful to behold. The persuasion of Felsheim's pistol was too eloquent to be long withstood, and he meekly obeyed the outlaw's every order, though constantly protesting through chattering teeth that he was as loyal a subject of King Ludwig as could be found in Sachsenberg.
"Peace, fool," thundered Felsheim at length, "and lead the way to your guard-house."
Without another word Greinitz did as he was bidden, and presently we stood before a large square building, situated at perhaps a hundred paces from the gate by which we had entered. Half-a-dozen men at arms came forth and stood staring at us, openmouthed, as we drew near. Upon Felsheim commanding them to summon their officer they retreated into the house, and presently emerged again accompanied by a tall, stately man, whose looks betrayed the bewilderment wherewith the sight of our company filled him.
Succinctly Felsheim told him that the treason of Kreutzburg and its garrison had been discovered, and bade him go back and send out his men without weapons.
"Who are you?" the officer demanded.
"Beim Grabe!" blazed Felsheim. "Think you that I have journeyed hither to answer the questions of a rebel?"
There followed a fierce uproar, which ended in the officer's sudden discovery that he was disarmed and pinioned.
Lights were beginning to appear in the windows of the guardhouses, and also in those of the neighbouring buildings, and an alarmed crowd of hastily clad citizens was gathering in the street, attracted by the clatter of hoofs, the clash of arms and the sound of high-pitched voices.
Felsheim spurred his horse up to the door where the soldiers who had first emerged still loitered stupidly, and asked them what other officer they had besides the two we had already arrested. There was, they answered, none other save a sergeant. Him, Felsheim ordered them to summon, and when the fellow came, he repeated to him the commands which his better had refused to obey. The sergeant proved more tractable, and utterly overcome by the outlaw's fierce assurance--given in a voice loud enough to be heard by all who stood about--that unless the men constituting the garrison of Kreutzburg consented to come forth disarmed one by one, from the guard-house, he would fire the building and give no quarter. Some parleying there was, but in the end the garrison surrendered, stupid as a flock of sheep, and hardly understanding what was taking place.
From the guard-house they went ignominiously to the town goal, escorted by a hundred outlaws under Gessler's command, whilst Felsheim turned his attention once more to the shivering Burgomaster, and bade him lead the way to the Rathaus, desiring Delventhal--who was in high glee at our achievement--and myself to accompany him and witness an act of justice. We went, preceded by a score of knaves, who cleared the way for us with the butts of their pikes through the crowd which had now grown to vast proportions--but timid and fearful as are such burgher crowds in the presence of armed men.
Once in the council chamber to which Greinitz led us, Felsheim was quick to settle matters with him.
"This treason hole of yours contains, I believe, some seven thousand inhabitants," said he.
"Seven thousand five hundred," corrected the Burgomaster. Felsheim smiled darkly.
"So much the better. To save the town from the pillage it deserves you shall pay me the sum of fifty thousand crowns, which I shall deliver to the State Treasury towards the expenses of his campaign against your leader, Leopold the rebel."
"It is preposterous," he cried. "You have no authority for this. 'Tis an act of brigandage. Moreover, sir, all the trumped up story of our treason--"
"Master Greinitz," broke in the outlaw, "I thought to have already made clear that I am not here to bandy words. You protest in vain; I have proof of your treachery."
"But fifty thousand crowns!" groaned Greinitz, quailing before him, "Herrgott, there is not so much money to be found in all this town."
"There are silver-smiths and gold-smiths in Kreutzburg. But there! I have said it, I will not bandy words. Pay me the sum I have named or deliver up the town to my men for pillage, and I dare swear twice the account will be forthcoming. And, as God lives, Master Greinitz, if you trifle further with me in this matter I'll hang you unshriven to one of your own rafters."
Greinitz drew back in terror. "The money shall be paid tomorrow," he groaned, wringing his hands.
"Now you are reasonable," said Felsheim with a laugh. "See that you fulfil your promise."
With that we left him, and withdrew to the hostelry of the "Königin," and after Felsheim had intrusted to his lieutenant Gessler the garrisoning of the place we sought our beds.
Next morning we were visited betimes by Greinitz, who came to pay over to Felsheim the money he demanded.
The town was quiet, and though men congregated here and there and discussed events in hushed voices, they gave us no trouble.
Felsheim spent the day in seeing to the defences of the town, for on the morrow (which was Wednesday) Bozenhardt should arrive, and it was necessary to be prepared. Delventhal accompanied him, and that night, as we supped together, the nobleman could not find sufficient words wherein to praise the outlaw for whose future he predicted great things already.
But Felsheim cut short his protestations with little grace, and sat moody and silent, neither drinking nor speaking.
Seeing the work that the morrow was likely to bring us we got ourselves early abed, where I, at least, slept soundly.
I was awakened next morning by a loud knocking below, and, as I sat up, asking myself what it could mean, I caught the hum of many voices, the jingle of accoutrements and the stamp of hoofs, which brought to my mind my awakening in the inn at Steinau two days before.
Springing out of the bed I crossed to the window and looked down into the street, marvelling greatly at what I there beheld.
A vast array of steel-decked soldiers stretched as far as I could see, whilst just beneath me half-a-dozen gaily dressed figures on horseback riveted my attention--for before them, and looking the very picture of abject terror, stood Carl Greinitz, speaking with great earnestness. Then suddenly an oath escaped me as I recognised the Count von Bozenhardt in one of the foremost figures of the group. He had entered the place, then, despite our preparations! But where was Felsheim, and where his three hundred men?
Could it be that the outlaws of the Falkensteig were taken at last? If so, I thought, it was like to go hard with those who had been Felsheim's allies--even in a good cause--for Bozenhardt was not the man to leave life or liberty to any who might witness to his treachery; and Felsheim had given us good evidence of that.
There was a knock at my door and Delventhal entered the room half dressed. His fat face looked pale and careworn, and with a hand that shook like an aspen he held out to me a scrap of paper.
"Do you see who is below, my lord?" I cried.
"I have seen," he answered dolefully.
"But, what does it mean? Where is Felsheim?"
"Gone, beim blute Gottes, gone! Gone with his three hundred ruffians and the fifty thousand crowns paid him by that craven fool. Curses on us all for being made the dupes of such a rogue!"
The news staggered me; moreover, Delventhal's tone was pregnant with disaster. "I don't understand," I ventured at last.
"Read that," he said, pointing to the paper which mechanically I had taken from his hand. "You will understand everything. It was thrust beneath my door during the night."
With an ominous foreboding I scanned the paper, which ran:
When you see this, in all probability the Count of Bozenhardt will have entered Kreutzburg, whilst I shall be well on my way to the Falkensteig. In return for the fifty thousand crowns which I have earned at considerable risk let me give you two words of advice. Next time you are in a hostelry do not proclaim your jealousy and your opinions at the top ofyour voice lest there be a man in the room above, who chancing to overhear you, profits by what he learns. With my own hand I penned the letter of Greinitz to the Duke Leopold, and whilst you slept on Saturday night at Steinau I brought my three hundred knaves from the Falkensteig. The rest you will understand, and you will curse me no doubt for a very scurvy rascal.
When I had read I returned the paper to Delventhal, who took it with a groan, and I, unable to hit upon a more fitting expression of my thoughts, groaned in echo.
Half-an-hour later Delventhal and I were under arrest for treason, and some ten days afterwards we stood before the King in Schwerlingen, and told him our story, showing him the outlaw's letter.
His Majesty's candour on that occasion is a thing that I have scant pleasure in recalling. Delventhal and I were unquestionably in disgrace, and had not the war afforded me an opportunity, a month or so later, of redeeming my character it is more than possible that the affair would have cost me my captaincy.
"Felsheim dies at noon!"
That one hideous thought kept clanging through my brain as I sat alone in the squalid room that I rented in the house of Haensel, the leather worker.
The outlaws of the Falkensteig were no more a powerful, gallant company, defying King and State in their mountain stronghold. In a mad hour Felsheim, our chief, had thrown in his lot with the rebel Duke Leopold, and on the disastrous field of Meiernatt, where the ambitious Duke had suffered his final defeat, Felsheim left more than three-fourths of his merry followers.
Twice that day did Felsheim save the Duke's life, and once he went within an ace of forfeiting his own in doing so.
But for the risk he ran he earned at least Leopold's gratitude, and that night, when all was lost, the Duke besought him to return to Austria, where Leopold promised to find him honourable employment in the army.
To me, Felsheim's lieutenant, he made a similar proposal and in my eagerness to accept I urged Felsheim to do likewise. Indeed, he needed no persuasion, for of his own accord he appeared willing enough to seize his chance of mending his ways, and forsaking his freebooter's trade, now that there were no freebooters left to lead.
But there arose in his mind the memory of a woman, whose sweet face had--in absence--swayed his heart for months, and by whom he deemed himself beloved. So that, albeit he assented gratefully enough to the Duke's proposal, he yet avowed his purpose of first going to Schwerlingen to ask the Lady Stephanie von Neusch to wed him and bear him company into Austria and the new life he thought to lead.
Vainly did I point out to him the dangers which must perforce beset him in the very capital of Sachsenberg; that there was a price of five thousand crowns offered for his head, and many a knave ready to earn the money; he was obdurate in his resolve, and go he would. So, recognising in the end the futility of seeking to alter his determination, I signified my intention of accompanying him, and in this my purpose I had stood as firm as he in his.
So after taking leave of Duke Leopold, to Schwerlingen we had come, and Andreas von Felsheim had gone about his wooing and prospered. All was in readiness for our departure, and it seemed that none suspected our presence, when, of a sudden, like a thunderbolt from out of a serene sky, had come to me the news that Felsheim was taken.
Through many a desperate pass had Andreas won during our outlaws' life, but never yet had they immured him in prison to come forth no more but to journey to the scaffold. Hope withered in my breast, and I did but linger in Schwerlingen that I might see the end of as brave and bold and gallant a man as ever wore a sword.
"Felsheim dies at noon to-morrow!"
Beim blute Gottes, the thought grew unbearable. I rose to my feet, and crossing to the window, threw back the shutters and gazed out into the black November night. Above the wailing of the wind and the patter of the rain, there came to me, as I stood there, the sound of wheels and hoofs on the uneven paving of the street below. It ceased, and the coach stopped at the very door of the house that sheltered me.
In alarm I moved away from the window and waited. Clearly this visitor in a coach was for me. Who could it be? The thought of the law struck a passing chill through me; then the stairs creaked, the door was flung wide, and on the threshold stood a woman in a cloak, with a mask upon her face.
Before I could speak she had closed the door and come forward into the room; then, divesting herself of cloak and mask, she revealed to me, by the light of the single taper that burnt upon the table, the form and face of Stephanie von Neusch, the most beautiful woman at the court of Schwerlingen--the woman who had unwittingly brought Felsheim to his doom. She was pale as death, and, beneath those wondrous dark eyes of hers that glittered feverishly there were black lines that told of suffering and sleeplessness.
"Thank God, Master Gessler, that I have found you! But how is it that you have dared to linger here?" she cried, without heeding the chair which I had set for her.
"Why have you remained?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I hardly know, madame, saving indeed that I could not bring myself to leave this place until I had seen the last of my poor leader."
"And you have been content to lie here concealed, without ever stirring hand or foot to aid him?"
"Aid him! Herrgott, madame, what could I do--myself proscribed and hunted? I have but to show my face where it is known, to forfeit my own freedom and my life."
"And think you," she exclaimed with sudden scorn, "that had you been in Felsheim's place to-night, he would have left you to the hangman out of fear for his own life? Remember how he saved Dietrich when the King had sworn to hang him. Think of that, Master Gessler."
"Alas, madame," I answered with a sigh, "Felsheim is a man of great resource, such as I possess not. But, Beim Grabe, you wrong me in thinking that I fear to imperil my own life. Did I but see a way to help him, no matter what the risk to myself, I would undertake it. Unfortunately, madame, I see no way."
"Oh, that I were a man!" she cried, as many another woman has cried. "As it is, what can I do! A woman's only weapons are her tears and her intreaties, and these I have employed, God knows, until I have made myself a sport for every fool at court, where one simpering dolt has even dared to speak of me as 'the robber's widow!'" She shuddered as she spoke the words.
"I went to the King, and on my knees I begged Felsheim's life of him, telling him that the outlaw had but come to Schwerlingen to ask me to go with him to Austria as his wife, and that did His Majesty pardon him he was like to be rid of him for all time. But Ludwig only laughed at me and counselled me to abandon a hopeless quest, lest my fair name should suffer by being coupled with a robber's.
"I have carried my intreaties to the Queen-Mother, to the Duke of Retzbach, to my Lord of Ronshausen, and everywhere everywhere have I heard the same answer. There are too many counts against Felsheim and the King has sworn that he shall hang. And to-morrow--oh, God pity me, 'tis I--I who have brought him to this!"
She sank into the chair and sat there dry-eyed and staring, with a look of anguish on her lovely face pitiful to behold. Presently regaining her composure:
"You will marvel perchance, Master Gessler," she said, "why I have come to you. It is because, seeing how hopeless it was to gain a pardon for Andreas by supplications, I besought the King to-day, to at least grant me leave to pay Felsheim a farewell visit, and to take a priest with me so that he may shrive him. At first he would not hear of it, but in the end he consented grudgingly.
"So fearful was he lest Felsheim should again elude him, that he had commanded the o fficer of the Schloss Goedelt to allow none to visit his captive without a permit signed by His Majesty himself. This permit he has given me, for myself and a Capuchin monk of the monastery of Loebli, whilst to the abbot he dispatched a message bidding him to allow a monk to accompany me to the prison to-night. I am now on my way to Loebli for the priest, and with him I shall go straight to the Schloss Goedelt, unless--" Pausing she gazed eagerly into my face.
"Unless what, madame?"
"That is why I have sought you out. I shall go to the Schloss unless this permit and this priest prompts you with some idea for saving Felsheim even now."
Her suggestion set my head in a whirl and my nerves a-quivering with excitement.
"Madame," I cried "Felsheim must strip the monk of his habit and make his escape in it, leaving the monk in his place. I will accompany you."
She shook her head.
"The permit reads: 'A woman, bearer of this warrant, and a priest.'"
"Then, madame, you must accomplish it without me. Surely if you speak to Felsheim, he will contrive to overpower the monk, and thereafter, to assume his clothes."
"You forget that this is hardly to be done in silence. The turnkey will be there to hear and give the alarm. Oh, think again, sir, think again, in Heaven's name."
Vainly did I rack my brain for a fresh plan. I saw no other way. A very fever consumed me; my eyes burnt, my mouth was parched, and my thoughts paralysed.
"I cannot, madame!" I cried at last. "Leave me. Go to Loebli. Let me think calmly and alone. When you have your monk, return here, and by then, mayhap that I shall have found a way. If not why, 'twill be time enough to think of shriving Felsheim, and you can take your priest to him."
"You will not fail us, Master Gessler. I will pray that heaven may inspire you," she said.
When she was gone I flung myself into the nearest chair, and with my chin in my open palms I sat there thinking, thinking, thinking. It was a desperate venture, truly, and yet there was no alternative but to cast ourselves upon the mercy of the fates.
Again I turned that wild thought over in my mind, and tested it, then springing to my feet I opened the door and called my host.
Haensel was a burly, swart-faced fellow of forty or thereabouts, a cunning and resourceful rogue whom I could trust. I told him briefly what I required, and was rejoiced to hear him answer that he knew whence to obtain the things in a few minutes. I gave him what money he asked, then, while he was away, I set myself about removing all trace of beard and mustachios from my face. And so great a change did this make in my appearance that when presently he returned, he stared at me, and but for the garments I wore 'tis likely he would not have known me.
"You have been successful," I cried, seeing the habit of coarse brown cloth he bore upon his arm. "Good. Now let us complete the change. I shall require your aid, Haensel."
I removed my doublet and, sitting down once more, I bade him tonsure me, using all dispatch. With a laugh at my whim, the full purport of which he was far from guessing, he sheared my lengthy locks, then went to work upon the crown of my head which was soon bald as an egg, incircled by a little fringe of short, black hair. When that was done, I divested myself of boots and hose, and on my naked feet I strapped the sandals he had bought me. Next I exchanged my soft shirt and velvet breeches, for a shirt and breeches of coarse wool. Lastly I took up the habit, and having donned it I stood before him with my beads dangling from my girdle, as saintly a Capuchin as ever plied a scourge.
When the Lady Stephanie returned, she looked askance at me for a moment, then calmly inquired how I came there and upon what mission, and where was the cavalier whose room I occupied. It was no time for jesting, so:
"Have you brought the monk, madame?" I inquired.
She drew back with an affrighted cry. Then, staring at me with eyes wide opened:
"Master Gessler!" quoth she. "Oh, 'tis impossible!"
"Reassure yourself, madame, 'tis I, indeed."
"What do you in these garments?"
In answer I told her of the idea that I had conceived. She heard me through with parted lips and heaving bosom, and when I had done she caught my hand in hers, and before I knew what she was about she had carried it again and yet again to her lips--her sweet lips upon that rascally hand of mine! I snatched it away for very shame, and cutting the undeserved blessings which she invoked upon my head, I begged her beguile the monk to climb the stairs. I know not with what fiction she achieved it, but presently into my room there came a portly monk, rubicund of visage and vast of girth, who greeted me with a murmured Benedicite.
"Sir Priest," quoth I (whereupon he blinked amazedly), "this Felsheim, whom you intend to visit is a dear friend of mine, and I must have two words with him before he dies. Therefore I have determined to visit him in your place, whilst you shall sojourn in the cellar for a little while. Nay, shrink not; have no fear. Your sanctity shall stand in no peril of temptation, for the place, I make no doubt, is empty."
My accents, I take it, were not priestly; they lacked that mellow, soothing sound, born of the free use of Latin. Moreover, I had addressed him as "Sir Priest," which marked me outright for an impostor.
"My son," cried the Priest in trepidation, "What travesty is this? What sacrilege are you committing? What sin do you contemplate?"
How monstrous a sinner I was my answer told him, for in the most unholy terms did I command him to descend with me into the cellar, where he might--for want of better occupation--pray that the sin on the brink of which I stood, might recoil upon the heads of those who drove me to it.
'Twas not done without much argument, but in the end 'twas done, despite his protests that in that empty, cheerless cellar he was like to take his death of cold.
I entered the coach that waited below, and with Lady Stephanie beside me, drove swiftly, through the wind and rain of that wild night, to the Schloss Goedelt where Felsheim lay. Clearly the coach was awaited, for the gates were at once opened to admit us into the courtyard of the fortress. There we alighted, and a soldier bearing a lanthorn led us up a flight of steps and through a sombre doorway at the top, along a gloomy, endless corridor in which the clatter of my sandals found a hollow echo, halting at last by a door on which he knocked, then opened and bade us enter.
We stood in a well-furnished room, lighted by a half score of tapers in silver sconces, and warmed by a great blazing fire that cheered me vastly--for I had found my priestly garments passing cold. A tall, well-favoured man with all the bearing of a soldier came forward to meet us, and bowing to my companion he informed her that he was Ritter von Gevenich, Governor of the fortress; and although prepared for our visit, he scanned the warrant none the less attentively, then touched a hand-bell that stood upon the table.
"Send Bauer to me," he said to the soldier who answered the summons.
When the fellow was gone he spoke a few words with the Lady Stephanie, whose pallor and visible trembling he no doubt set down to the grief 'neath which she laboured at the sad predicament of her lover. I began to tell my beads, hoping that seeing me thus profitably occupied, he would refrain from impiously breaking in upon my devotions. But he had no such seemly scruples.
"I am sore afraid, Father," he said, "that you may find Master Felsheim's mood none too penitent."
Calmly I pursued my mumbling, with downcast eyes as if finishing the Ave upon which I was then engaged, and during the respite thus gained I weighed my answer. Looking up slowly:
"You said, my son?" I inquired in a voice so mild that I hardly knew it for my own.
"That I fear you will find Master Felsheim none too penitent for his numerous sins."
"Alas," I sighed. "I can but pray that the Grace of Heaven may melt his heart into pious sorrow, and thus prepare him fitly for his approaching end."
At that moment there came a knock and there followed the announcement that Bauer was without. He was a tall knave of forbidding aspect bearing the keys, which announced his calling, at his girdle.
"You will conduct this lady and this reverend priest to Felsheim's cell," said Gevenich. "The lady is to remain five minutes, and the priest--who will visit the outlaw after her--a quarter of an hour. In both cases you will wait without. You will also re-conduct them to their carriage when the visit is at an end. I shall retire forthwith."
The Governor's words removed a fear by which I had been beset--a fear lest he should seek to learn how the shriving of Felsheim had fared. I breathed freely once more, and in the wake of the turnkey, and with the Lady Stephanie by my side, I went along one corridor then another; down steps and up steps, and down again, until at length we reached a small oaken door decked with great iron studs, by which a man at arms stood sentinel. Into the lock Bauer thrust a heavy key, and turning it with a clatter, he opened and signed to the Lady Stephanie to enter.
Then followed a brief spell of waiting. Bauer said something to me, but I was busy with my beads again, and merely bowed my head. I was determined that neither he nor the soldier should hear my voice. At last Stephanie came forth, sobbing, and with bent head and folded hands I went forward into the cell, closing the door behind me.
Stephanie and I had decided that the better to test the impenetrability of my disguise, for what might follow, she should not disclose to Felsheim the identity of the monk she told him she had brought. The cell was bare save for a pallet in the corner, a chair and a table upon which stood a lanthorn and an open book.
Felsheim received me with a bow, and thanked me for the comfort whereof I was the bearer--and of which he little guessed the extent just then. He looked paler than usual, but otherwise his handsome face was as calm and lofty as ever in its expression, whilst his lithe figure was erect and showed no sign of weakness. I crossed to the chair, my cowl thrown back so that the light might fall full upon my face as I sat down, and albeit his dark eyes were bent upon me, they were lighted by no ray of recognition.
In obedience to my sign he knelt beside me, nor did he recognise my voice as in a half whisper I bade him recite the Confiteor after me.
"Confiteor Deo Omnzpotente," I began, then, suddenly resuming my natural accents, "the Devil take you, Felsheim, for a dull-witted knave," I added.
In an instant he was upon his feet with a low cry of surprise, and staring at me awhile in wonder and amazement. At last:
"Gessler!" he gasped, yet mastering his emotion sufficiently to utter it in a whisper--and a soft laugh escaped him.
But every moment was of endless value, and in a quick, feverish whisper I told him of my plan. At first he would not hear of it, in virtue of the risk I ran, whereupon I grew angry at the waste of time, and urged with emphasis that slight was my risk indeed; then, as he still wavered, I spoke of her who awaited him, and his resistance was overcome.
So, swiftly I went to work and clipped away his beard and mustachios, albeit his hair there was no time to meddle with.
He wore a broad, blue sash of silk over his doublet, as was then the fashion--one of those sashes that are wound about a man, and measure some four or five yards in length. Upon this sash I had counted. At my direction he removed it, and thereafter also his doublet and ruffles, whilst I divested myself of my habit, and stood before him in nought but my shirt and breeches of wool and my sandals, which scant garments--coupled with my hairless head and bare legs--gave me a wondrous air of nakedness. Then he took up his sash at my bidding, and with one end of it he tied my ankles together, then winding it twice round me, he pinioned my hands behind me with the other end and laid me on the bed, helpless as a trussed fowl.
Next he took up my Capuchin habit, and having arrayed himself in it, he drew the cowl over his head far enough to mask his face from his nose upwards, yet leaving his shorn chin and upper lip disclosed. When he had made fast the girdle, and our change was completed, he came over to the bed, and bending towards me:
"How can I ever thank you, my faithful friend?" he murmured. "Herrgott! If evil should befall you--"
"None will," I answered, "and as for thanking me, wait till we meet at Turgen. You had best go. Take the lanthorn and the book, and bid them leave Felsheim to his devotions. They have not heard my voice, so that you need no fear of speaking to them, if you but dissemble your own. There is a bag in the coach containing a hundred crowns, which you will need."
"But you? You will need money also."
"I have thought of that. There are a hundred crowns in the belt I am wearing beneath this shirt. Good luck, Felsheim. Now gag me and go." He bound a kerchief firmly about my mouth, then with a muttered farewell, he rose and taking the lanthorn and the book from the table, he opened the door and passed out, pulling it after him with a clatter. In a nasal voice which I guessed was Felsheim's rather than recognised as his, came the words:
"The wretched man is at his prayers. I have brought away the light and the book, leaving him in darkness so that naught may distract him from communion with his God."
There was a guttural answer, then the key was turned, and there followed the sound of retreating footsteps. A closing door rattled in the distance, then all was peace, save for the tramp of the man at arms outside my door, and the tumultuous thumping within my breast.
At last, when about a quarter of an hour had elapsed and naught occurred, I was able to breathe freely again in the conviction that they had made good their escape.
Then came a long period of waiting in a position of passing discomfort, until at length midnight boomed out from the belfry above. Felsheim had a start of two hours, and more I dared not give him. So I made shift to free my jaws as best I might, and when this was done I set up a lusty bellowing for help.
The tramp of the soldier came to a halt outside my door, whereupon I redoubled my cries, and presently I had the satisfaction of hearing his footsteps rapidly retreat, thereby conjecturing that, alarmed, he was gone to summon the Governor. Nor was I mistaken. For presently I caught the sound of voices and the quick patter of hurrying feet. Then the key grated again in the lock; the door was thrown wide, and into my cell rushed Bauer with a lanthorn; the Governor--half-dressed--came hard upon his heels.
Seeing me lying there, a curious half-naked figure, bound hand and foot, and still half gagged, Gevenich swore a great oath.
"Herr Gott Donnerwetter! 'Tis the priest! But Felsheim--"
He stopped abruptly, and looked round him in bewilderment, as if he yet expected to find the outlaw in some cranny. Then the full realisation burst upon him. "My god! He has escaped," he cried. "I see it all! That woman has be-fooled us and got him away in this Capuchin's garments. Fool!" he blazed out, turning upon Bauer in a fine rage. "Whom did you reconduct to the coach?"
"Why the lady and the monk, freilich!"
"The monk, booby! Do you not understand? The monk was none other than Felsheim. And you, Sir Priest," he cried turning upon me as I lay there, enchanted by the swiftness with which the Governor's mind grasped the situation. "Speak! Let us learn how this cursed business came to pass."
When, in obedience to my request, they had cut my bonds, and I had stood up with a groan and a fair show of suffering, I told him how upon entering, the impious and ungrateful bandit, whose soul I came to rescue from the Hell that gaped for it, had caught me by the throat in a grip so tight as to stifle my utterance, and thus had held me until for very want of breath I fainted, deeming myself dead already.
When--by a miracle--I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the sorry plight from which he had rescued me. More I knew not, but I added a hope that perchance it was not long since this took place, and that the graceless robber might yet be taken and hanged.
"Not long," cried the Governor. "Why, 'tis two hours since he left the prison, and in two hours he will be well on his way moreover, we know not what road he has taken. Beim Hölle, I know not, nor does it please me to think what His Majesty will say when he hears of it. Methinks the Schloss Goedelt will have a new Governor hereafter. Come, Sir Priest, we must inform the King at once. Despite the lateness of the hour you shall accompany me to the Palace and there tell your miserable tale. Come, sir."
And thus it fell out that with a cloak thrown about me to hide the scantiness of my attire, I stood half an hour later in the chamber of King Ludwig--who was abed--and to him I repeated the story that I had told Gevenich. His wrath was right kingly, and his oaths most royal in their fervour and awfulness. Poor Gevenich he roundly cursed as a fool unfit for trust, and a moment came, when, in the fury of his frenzy, methought he would have flung himself upon the luckless Governor. He controlled himself, however, and when he had done with Gevenich, he turned once more to me.
"Out of my sight, Sir Monk!" he thundered. "The sight of you makes me sick. Get you back to your monastery, and there clothe yourself in garments more befitting the dignity of your calling."
I needed no second dismissal, and a few seconds later saw me driving from the palace in a coach, wherewith the King had bidden me to be supplied.
Once without the gates of Schwerlingen, I surprised the driver by levelling a pistol at his head, and desiring him to take the road to Fortstadt, and to drive as if the fiend himself came hot-foot behind us.
Fortstadt I reached without mishap, and there contrived to get a suit of cavalier clothes and--fortunately--a wig.
A week later I came up with Felsheim and the Lady Stephanie at Turgen, finding them already joined in wedlock. Together we journeyed into Austria, leaving peril and our lawless life behind us, and there we were warmly welcomed by Duke Leopold, who kept his promise.
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