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The Romans had long since departed, but their handiwork remained—a thin line laid like a whiplash across the broad country—a road. It extended northwestward from Frankfort and passed, as straight as might be, through the almost trackless forest that lay to the south of Moselle; for the great highway-builders had little patience with time-consuming curves; thus the road ranged over hill and down dale without shirking whatever came before it. Nearing the western terminus, it passed along high lands, through a level unbroken forest. A wayfarer, after travelling many monotonous leagues, came suddenly to an opening in the timber, and found himself on the brow of a hill, confronted with a scene amazing in extent, well calculated to arrest his progress and cause him to regard with admiration, the wide spread landscape beneath and beyond. The scene was the more startling that it burst unexpectedly on the view, after miles of trees that seemed innumerable, hemming in, with their unvarying cloak of green, the outlook of the traveller.
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CHAPTER I. THE EMPEROR ENTERS TREVES.
CHAPTER II. THE ARCHER INTRODUCES HIMSELF.
CHAPTER III. LISTENERS HEAR LITTLE GOOD OF THEMSELVES.
CHAPTER IV. THE EMPEROR DISAPPEARS.
CHAPTER V. LOVE LEADS THE WAY.
CHAPTER VI. AN UNWISHED-FOR MARRIAGE DAY.
CHAPTER VII. THE FLIGHT OF THE COUNTESS.
CHAPTER VIII. THE RAPIER AND THE BROADSWORD.
CHAPTER IX. A PALATIAL PRISON.
CHAPTER X. THE INTERCEPTED FUGITIVES.
CHAPTER XI. IN QUEST OF A WIFE WITH A TROOP OF HORSE.
CHAPTER XII. CUPID'S BOW GIVES PLACE TO THE ARCHER'S.
CHAPTER XIII. THE BLACK COUNT IS PERSUADED NOT TO HANG HIS EMPEROR.
CHAPTER XIV. A RELUCTANT WELCOME.
CHAPTER XV. CASTLE THURON MAKES A FULL MEAL.
CHAPTER XVI. THE COUNTESS TRIES TO TAME THE BEAR.
CHAPTER XVII. THE ENVOY'S DISASTROUS RETURN.
CHAPTER XVIII. A TWO-HANDED SWORD TEACHES DEPORTMENT.
CHAPTER XIX. A MAN AND A WOMAN MEET BY TORCHLIGHT.
CHAPTER XX. A BREAKFAST ON THE TOP OF THE SOUTH TOWER.
CHAPTER XXI. AN EXPERIMENT IN DIPLOMACY.
CHAPTER XXII. THE FIRST ATTACK ON CASTLE THURON.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE TWO ARCHBISHOPS FALL OUT.
CHAPTER XXIV. COUNT BERTRICH EXPLAINS HIS FAILURE.
CHAPTER XXV. THE SECOND ASSAULT ON THE CASTLE.
CHAPTER XXVI. AN ILLUMINATED NIGHT ATTACK ON THURON.
CHAPTER XXVII. THE TWO YEARS' SIEGE BEGINS.
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE SECOND ARCHER ANNOUNCES HIMSELF.
CHAPTER XXIX. CONRAD VENTURES HIS LIFE FOR HIS LOVE.
CHAPTER XXX. THE STRUGGLE IN THE DARK.
CHAPTER XXXI. BRAVE NEWS OF THE EMPEROR.
CHAPTER XXXII. "FOR YOUR LOVE I WOULD DEFY FATE."
CHAPTER XXXIII. A GRIM INTERRUPTION TO A LOVER'S MEETING.
CHAPTER XXXIV. THE BLACK COUNT'S DEFIANCE.
CHAPTER XXXV. THE NIGHT ESCAPE OF THE EMPEROR.
CHAPTER XXXVI. THE FIVE BILLETLESS ARROWS.
CHAPTER XXXVII. THE TRAITOR AND HIS PRICE.
CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE INCOGNITO FALLS.
CHAPTER XXXIX. THE EMPEROR AT THE HEAD OF HIS ARMY.
CHAPTER XL. THE ARCHBISHOPS ENVIRONED WITH A RING OF IRON.
CHAPTER XLI. "WHY HAVE YOU DARED TO LEVY WAR?"
CHAPTER XLII. TEKLA REPLENISHES HER WARDROBE.
CHAPTER XLIII. THE COUNTESS AND THE EMPEROR.
The Emperor, having removed the stains of travel, followed his host downstairs to the banquet that had been prepared for him, and both fell to with an appetite sharpened by a long journey. The white wines of the Moselle, supplemented by the vintage of the Saar, speedily drove away all remembrance of the day's fatigue.
After the meal, the Baron, with a re-filled flagon at his elbow, stretched out his legs and enjoyed to the full the consciousness that he had been well fed and was comfortably housed, with nothing more arduous in prospect than an honestly earned night's repose. The young Emperor looked across at this picture of contentment with a twinkle in his eye.
"Siegfried," he said, "I have a fancy for a moonlight stroll."
The Baron drew in his feet and sat bolt upright, an expression of dismay coming into his face. The sigh that followed, truly indicated what he perhaps hesitated to express, that he wished people knew when they were well off. The Emperor laughed heartily and added, "You may not have noticed that the moon was nearly full."
"If I had," said the Baron, "I should merely have thanked heaven for it, resolved to stay indoors and follow her most excellent example. The wine flagon has more attraction for me than the fullest of moons, and I have some rare Rhenish in my cellars regarding which I was about to invite your criticism—a more potent vintage than this of the Saar."
"The Rhenish will be still older when we return, Siegfried."
"Indeed, and that is true, Rodolph. It may have aged so much that our heirs shall have the enjoyment of drinking it. The man who leaves a secure door in Treves to stroll by moonlight has no surety of ever reaching it again. A slit throat is an ill conduit for sound Rhenish."
"Is Treves, then, so turbulent? I thought the Archbishop kept strict rule."
"Much goes on in Treves that the Archbishop knows nothing of, as our own presence here is witness. The town is full of soldiers and bravos. There are many outbreaks in the streets, and a brawl might be fatal to your plans. We should assuredly be stopped and questioned, and we might have to trust to our swords."
"You think then, a jaunt in the country would be safer than a moonlight stroll in the city?"
"I do indeed."
"That tallies exactly with my purpose. Never say again that I disregard your advice, for it is not your secure door I would leave, but your insecure window, trusting to find the rope dangling there when we return. I am anxious to test your ingenious device of exit and entrance. We shall walk to the river, and you will make me free of your boat and your fleet horse. It is well that your servants at that small house on the Moselle should know me, for if I enact the part of your man in a hurry, it would avail me little to scramble down the city wall, while you bravely kept the outer door with your sword against the minions of Arnold, if your own minions by the river refused further means of escape."
"That is true, but we are safe here for the night and may we not without prejudice put off further action until to-morrow?"
"There speaks the comforting flagon, Baron. You are too well versed in siege and surprise not to know that every precaution should be taken, and that no moment is too soon for doing what reconnoitering there is to be accomplished. I would not ask you to accompany me, were it not that I need your introduction in the house by the river."
This brought Siegfried instantly to his feet.
"Where you go, I go, introduction or none. Let us then to the window before the night grows older."
They mounted the stairs again, and unbolted the swinging window-grate. The Baron going first, slid swiftly down the rope, and a moment after he reached the ground, the Emperor followed. Directly under the wall, they were in the shadow, but the broad plain before them, and the cliffs beyond, lay distinct in the moonlight. The small riverside hamlet, towards which they bent their steps, showed here and there a few twinkling lights, to guide them. The plain was uncultivated, covered with thick rank grass, which seemed to betoken a marshy nature of the soil, but the ground was nevertheless firm underfoot. The Baron, as best knowing the way, took the lead, wading knee-deep in the thick grass, and was silent, thinking rather of the luxury of bench and wine-laden table than of the expedition in hand.
The night was very quiet, the stillness being broken, now and then, by the far-away cry of some sentinel on the wall proclaiming that all was well, and that peace reigned over Treves, invoking piously a blessing on the sleeping city—which Christian benediction was a duty resting on all who kept watch and guard for that Prince of the Church, the Archbishop.
The pair walked in silence as had been arranged, and the first to violate the compact was the Baron, who stumbling over something, pitched head-foremost, uttering a good round Rhenish oath as he did so. The laugh on the Emperor's lips was checked by the sudden springing up, as if from out the earth, of a man apparently fully armed, who instantly put himself in a posture of defence. Simultaneously the swords of Rodolph and Siegfried flashed from their scabbards, and the Baron, finding the stranger had leaped up between him and his friend, rapidly executed a semi-circular retreat, and stood at the side of the Emperor, while the unexpected third, moving as on a pivot, faced Siegfried, with a stout sword in his hand, making, however, no motion of attack.
"If you propose to fight me together," said the stranger, quietly, "permit me to stoop unscathed for my pike, but if you are content to fall upon me one at a time, I shall be happy to meet you as I am, although you have the advantage of the longer blade."
"What need to fight at all?" asked the Emperor. "We are no enemies of thine."
"If, as I take it, you are marauders seeking gain from belated wayfarers, it is but honest to tell you that, in case of victory, which is doubtful, seeing you are but two and Germans at that, there is little to be picked from me but hard knocks, or, given a proper distance, a well-placed shaft which you would find harder to digest than anything you have taken inwardly this some time past. I say this but in the way of fair dealing as between man and man, to prevent after disappointment, and not as prejudicing a fair encounter should your inclination tend in that direction."
"Fellow, we are no marauders, but peaceable merchants from Treves."
"Then the merchandise you deal in must pertain to combat, for you came more deftly by your blades than any yard-stick-handler I have met with in all my wanderings. I know a well-hung weapon when I see it, ready for thrust or parry, yet carried with seeming carelessness, as if nothing were further from your minds than either assault or defence."
"You are a shrewd fellow," said the Emperor. "Why lie you here in ambush?"
"It is no ambush other than one to capture sleep, which I had in thrall when your comrade trod on my stomach and straightway rescued and put to flight my drowsy prisoner."
"And can a man of your ability provide yourself with no better bed than one in the high grass by the side of the Moselle?"
"There is little to complain of in the bed, my Lord, for I take you to be no merchant, but a person of quality. A bed is but a place in which to sleep, and where slumber comes, the bed has served its purpose. I have before now laid down my head within walls and under roof in circumstances of such uncertainty that a man slept at the risk of a slit throat, while here the bed is wide with no danger of falling out, having good fighting ground, if one is molested, and ample space for flight should opposition over-match me. There is small fault to find with such a resting-place."
"You are easily contented, but surely you should have a cloak to ward off, partly at least, the dews of night."
"A cloak, my Lord, although I admit its comfort, hampers a man suddenly awakened; still I should doubtless succumb to its temptations did I not need it for the protection of a weapon that I love even more than the pampering of my own body."
Saying this, the man stooped and lifted from the ground a cloak which he unfolded drawing from cover an unstrung bow somewhat longer than himself. Resting one end on the ground against his foot, and bending the upper part over his shoulder, he deftly slipped the loop of the cord into its notch, and twanged the string, making it give forth a musical note that vibrated melodiously in the still air.
"There, my Lord, is a one-stringed harp, which sings of sudden death and nothing else. Were it as good at arm's length as it is at stone's throw, I should cumber myself with no other weapon; but it is as delicate and capricious as a woman, and must be taken care of. So in the dampness of the river valley I wrap it in my cloak to keep the moisture from it."
"I should think so tender a weapon would be of little use in the rough and tumble of actual war."
"There speaks the unenlightened German! A slender shaft like this, two hundred years ago, killed a king and lost my country to the Normans. The German swine are as gross in their killing as in their eating. They appreciate not delicacy in death, but must needs mutilate the image of their Creator, slicing him with huge two-handed swords, or battering his head with battle-axe, but a gentle arrow, truly sped, passing daintily through an enemy, dipping its fleecy wing in the red core of his heart, leaving little mark to attest its passage, and furnishing thereby a corpse that is a delight to look upon, gives no pleasure to this uncivilised people."
"You forget, fellow, that you are speaking to Germans, and also that we have had the cross-bow for centuries, as well as instruments not dissimilar to thine," cried the Baron, with natural indignation at the bowman's strictures.
"Hush, Siegfried," whispered the Emperor, "let him babble on. Surely the conceit of the rascal shows he comes from England."
"I am a free man," continued the archer, calmly, "and am used to speak my mind, but I seek not to shirk responsibility for my words. If any, hearing me, take just offence at the tenour of my expressions, I shall not deny him opportunity for satisfaction, under the equitable rule that the victor enter into possession, not thereafter to be disputed, of the belongings of the conquered. On these terms therefore I shall be pleased to uphold against you, sir, the truth of my remarks about the German people, your friend seeing fair combat betwixt us."
"I cannot demean myself by fighting with a fellow of your quality."
"Those are high words to be spoken by an honest merchant, the progeny of a yard-stick, a class over which we men-at-arms hold ourselves the superior. In a fair field all men, bearing arms, willing to submit to the arbitration thereof, are considered equal. King William, perhaps with some justice surnamed the Conqueror, questioned not the quality of a yeoman who hotly beset him at the battle of Hastings, but honoured the man by cleaving him to the midriff with his battle-axe, the which is held in high esteem by the yeoman's descendants to this day. But touching the use of the long bow, I grant that you may well make some demur regarding unproven statements, if you have seen no better examples of its merits than is shown by your German archers, who lazily prefer the cumbrous cross-bow with a stake upright in the ground to steady it, necessitating thus a clumsy equipment hardly more portable than a catapult itself, whereas this fibrous length of toughened yew can be held lightly in the outstretched left hand, and given but the skill behind it, will nip you off a dozen men while the cross-bow villain is planting his marvellous engine. But let the arrow sing its own praises. You see yonder sentinel pacing back and forth in the moonlight on the wall near the gate. I will wing you a shaft through him, and he will never know whence comes the summons to a less contentious world."
Saying this, the bowman placed an arrow on the string with much deliberation and was about to raise his weapon when Rodolph and Siegfried, with simultaneous movement, sprang between the unconscious victim and the foreigner.
"Good Heavens! What are you setting out to do?" cried the Emperor. "Would you slay an innocent man, and bring a hornet's nest unnecessarily about our ears?"
"The hornets would not know whither to fly. The man would drop inside the wall most likely, or outside perchance, but no one could tell from which direction the shaft had sped, or whether it was let loose from city or country. I hold no malice against the sentinel, but merely offered this example in proof of what I spoke. Indeed I myself would be the only one put to inconvenience by the shot, for you carry no bow and it is likely they would see by the shaft when they got it, that it differs from those in use hereabouts, for the Germans have small skill in arrow-making; besides I did myself twice these last two days endeavour to gain entrance to that stupid city, hoping to win appointment to the Archbishop's train, and may have mentioned something to the guardsmen at the gate of my own merit with the bow-string, but they, on both occasions, refused admission unless I were provided with passports, the which, of course, I could not show."
"Why do you travel, or expect admittance to a walled town without papers of identification?"
"You have asked me many questions and answered none, excepting that about your occupation, which I take to be devoid of truth,—nay, no offence is meant, for I hold it each man's privilege to lie to any chance wayfarer as may suit his purpose, and I myself never cling to truth longer than my necessity serves. Are you then adherents of the Archbishop and have you any influence with his Lordship such as might bend him to look with favour on my desire for employment?"
"We are not known to the Archbishop, therefore have no influence with him. I come from Frankfort and my friend from the Rhine. We are but visitors here, and so in some measure similar to yourself."
"I take that to be well and truly answered. I shall deal with you in equal honesty. My papers would be small recommendation to Arnold von Isenberg, for they truly show that in his last campaign I fought manfully against him. But peace being unfortunately declared, I am now in want of occupation. Know you of any noble in need of an unerring bow and a courageous heart at threepence a day, with victualling, and such lodgment as a man, who cares not where he sleeps, may require?"
"I have no need of such a warrior," replied the Baron, "but a man, expert at ridding the world of his fellow-creatures, would find more to do in the turbulent valley of the Rhine than in the more peaceful vale of the Moselle. Here the nobles are awed by the Archbishop, and when he is not in arms, the country rests, but on the Rhine the Barons are at continual feud and there is no strong hand to restrain them."
"You forget the Emperor," said Rodolph, in a tone of mild reproach.
"He, alas! has gone to fight the Saracens," answered the Baron, with calm mendacity.
"Ah, would he had taken me with him," sighed the archer. "I have heard that Eastern bowmen have much skill in the art, and I would like to have tried conclusions with some of them. In truth, I had thought of going to Frankfort when I heard some rumour of the Emperor's departure. As there is little use in knocking at the door of Treves I will on the morrow set my face down the Moselle toward the Rhine, in hope of falling among a less peaceably inclined people. And now, my Lords, as it seems we can be of little use to each other, I will, if it please you, go once more to my interrupted sleep and allow you to proceed on your interrupted journey."
The archer, as he said this, unstrung his bow, and carefully wrapped it once more in his cloak. With little ceremony he prepared to lie down on the grassy couch from which he had risen.
"If I cannot give you employment," began the Baron, "I can at least offer you a more comfortable sleeping-place than the one in which I have been the means of disturbing you. We are going to my house on the river, and I think my servant can provide you with a heap of straw where you will have a roof over your head. Then you can proceed on your way down the river unmolested in the morning."
"Indeed," answered the bowman, indifferently, "in so far as the roof and the straw are concerned I would not travel a shaft's flight to secure them. I can sleep refreshingly wherever my head touches pillow, be it earth, stone, or straw, but if your generosity advances itself so far as to include a yard of beef and a stoup of wine I will not say I shall altogether and in spite of proper persuasions, refuse."
"I am unacquainted with the present condition of my servant's larder, but as he looks to his own provender at my expense, I doubt not he will be well provided, and the chance may strike you as worth the risk of a brief walk."
For answer the archer thrust his short hanger into the leathern sheath prepared for it, which hung at his belt, lifted his cloak-enveloped bow, and also a long pike, and thus accoutred signified his readiness to follow them.
They marched in file, the Baron leading and the archer bringing up the rear, reaching without further adventure the margin of the swift flowing Moselle, then proceeded along its bank until they came to the first house in the small hamlet of Zurlauben, where the procession paused, and its leader rapped lightly at the door of the dark dwelling. The only response was the baying of a hound within, and the low neigh of a horse in the adjoining outhouse. A louder knock merely resulted in a deeper bay from the hound.
"He is perhaps asleep," said the Baron. "The rascal keeps early hours."
"More likely he is absent," suggested the Emperor.
The two went partly round the house, which was built with half of it resting on the river bank, while the other half was supported by piles rising from the water. This lower portion was enclosed, and had a door that allowed the skiff to be taken in or out. The Baron, noticing that the water door was ajar, pushed it further open with his sword, and bending over, endeavoured to peer inside, as well as the darkness would allow him.
"The boat is gone," he said; "the fellow evidently fancies a moonlight row. I shall hold some account with him when he returns."
"I think he owes you an explanation," replied Rodolph. "It would be somewhat inconvenient were the Archbishop's troops after us, and we desired to escape by the water."
The Baron said nothing, but his black looks boded ill for the absent menial.
"Some apology is due to the archer for a postponed supper," continued Rodolph. "Let us quit this muddy spot and discharge that duty, in the hope that his conversation may strengthen our patience while we wait."
They climbed up the bank and came again to the front of the house, where they found the bowman fully accoutred, sitting with his back against the wall, his head inclined on one shoulder, sound asleep. The moonlight shone upon him, and he snored gently.
"His peaceful slumber is certainly a mark of confidence in his host. Blessed is he who can sleep when he wills," said the Emperor, looking down upon him. "If the fellow's skill at all equals his boasting, I might do worse than send him to Frankfort, to instruct a band of archers that would give good account of themselves in time of trouble."
"To whom in Frankfort could you send him, and whom should the bowman name as his sponsor when he arrived there? If he said he was sent by a worthy merchant in Treves, I doubt if he would receive much attention when his journey was completed."
"That is true," returned Rodolph. "I fear I must part company with him when we have fed him. Still I should like to see some sample of his skill before we dismiss him."
"That is easily tested if he does not shrink from the trial. On the other side of the river I see rising and flying further up first one heron, and then another, from which I surmise that my rascal is working his way homeward in the skiff along the further shore, where the current is slackest. He seems to be disturbing the birds and so this some time back I have noted his slow progress. If our archer can wing you one of these long-legged fowls, we may well believe he could have surprised the sentinel."
"Hey, bowman," continued the Baron, stirring up the sleeper with his foot, "I hear my servant coming and we will be in presently. But first we would like to hear the hum of your bow-string, if your skill has not deserted you since you had sinister designs on the sentinel above the gate."
The archer had sprung to his feet, wide-awake, the moment he felt a touch upon his body.
"You can hardly expect me to bring down a man on Treves' wall from here," he said, casting his eye toward the city. "My shaft does not live in the air longer than one may slowly count a score. Nevertheless I am willing to try, although I cannot guarantee a pleasurable result."
"We set no such impossibility before the strength of your weapon; what we desire——"
"Nay, I spoke not of impossibility, but of surety," interrupted the archer. "I can throw you an arrow high in the air and can guarantee that it will fall within Treves or not far short of it, but to say definitely that it will hit such and such a button in a man's doublet at that distance, would be wild prophecy, for you cannot predict the home-coming of a descending shaft, from which, as it were, the life and vigour of it has departed, as you can the unerringness of an arrow sped horizontally, retaining the message given to it by thumb and fingers until it reaches the person to whom admonition is thus forwarded through its agency."
While he spoke the archer had unwound the cloak from the bow and now he strung the weapon with anxious care, after which he plucked a shaft from the quiver that hung at his back.
"There are herons rising ever and anon from yonder bank. The darkness of the cliff somewhat obscures them, and they hang not out against the sky like your soldier on the wall. Nevertheless the moon shines fairly on them and the distance is less, so I beg of you to show us your skill upon the body of the next that comes between us and the rocks."
"Now the Fiend fry me on his gridiron," cried the archer, glancing at the opposite cliffs, "I would rather shoot you ten soldiers than one bird flapping through the air, for that asks of a bowman the measuring of the distance the heron will advance from the time the arrow leaves the string until it coincides with its quarry, the which renders necessary also the nice adjustment by the eye of the space between myself and the bird, a difficult enough task in broad day, causing such a venture in the night to mix more blind chance with marksmanship than any one not versed in necromancy should be called upon to endure."
"So this is the outcome of your bragging!" cried the Baron, already angered by the absence of his servant. "You well knew we would allow no shots at a soldier and so you boasted safely. When a fair mark is offered you, then come excuses and the making of conditions. I have a mind, braggart, to lay my sword across your back, or rather a stout cudgel which would better accord with your condition."
The archer stepped rapidly away from them at this threat and said, with arrow still notched on the string:
"If you meditate any such breach of a hospitality which I accepted at your proffer, and not of my own seeking, I would tell you first that I am a free man, formal engagement having been refused by you, so keep your cudgels for your laggard who deserves them, as standing thus by his delay between a hungry man and his meat; while secondly I would inform you that on the attempt at my chastisement, seeing the same is unmerited, I would first put this shaft through you and then its mate into the middle of your comrade, before he could lift foot to help you, and neither of you would complain of any inaccuracy of aim, swift as the shafts would follow each other. So advance one or both at your peril."
"Tush, tush," cried the Emperor, "no one will molest you. While you chatter the heron escapes. There is one rising even now and will vanish like his companions unscathed."
The archer turned quickly to the north, his bow hanging almost horizontally in his left hand. He seemed in no hurry to shoot, but watched the bird beating the air heavily with its huge wings, its long legs trailing behind, making seemingly slow and laborious motion across the moonlit face of the opposite cliff. Suddenly the archer, having to his satisfaction measured the distance with his eye, straightened himself, lifted his bow to the perpendicular, drew back the string to his right ear, and apparently taking no aim, let fly the shaft into the night. He leaned forward, trying to watch its flight, but none saw the arrow after it left the bow. The heron, however, with a cry of affright, plunged downward, and whirled over and over until it struck the water with a splash.
"Nevertheless," said the archer, in a dissatisfied tone, "'tis no fair test, and is, like enough, pure accident."
"It is a marvellous shot," cried the Emperor, with enthusiasm, "and such art is wondrous cheap at threepence a day."
"With lodgment and provender," added the archer, once more unstringing his bow.
"Here, if your pouch has no hole in the bottom of it, is three months' pay, which will not come amiss in your journey down the Moselle."
"I thank your Lordship," said the man, taking the money with great readiness, "this is more to my liking than offers of cudgelling."
"And when you hear that the Emperor has returned to Frankfort I would strongly advise you to go thither, for he is a lover of good qualities wherever found. As for the offer of cudgelling, 'twas but a jest, or at most the outcome of the delay of our custodian."
"Here he is," said the Baron. "I think he will speedily regret his absence."
Across the moonlit river, in a small boat that drifted sideways rapidly in the swift current, a man rowed with sturdy strokes. The two who awaited him stood silently on the bank and watched his approach. The archer had already seated himself with his back to the wall, and was snatching a moment's repose.
As the boatman ceased rowing and allowed his craft to float down to its harbour, the Baron said sternly:
"Get inside as speedily as you may and undo the door. Then I will have a word with you."
A few moments later there was a rattle of chains and bolts, the door was thrown open, and gave the visitors a glimpse of a young man with white face and trembling limbs.
"Come, archer," said the Baron, "arouse yourself. I have work for you to do."
"Not before the meal, I hope," objected the man, rising to his feet.
"Yes; but it will not detain you long, and the supper shall be spread before your sight, to quicken your hand."
They entered a lower room, long and narrow, meagrely furnished, containing a rough table thrust against the wall next the river, with two benches, on one of which the Emperor seated himself. The trap-door by which the man had ascended was still open and the gurgling sound of flowing water came up. The hound crouched in a corner, and eyed the visitors with lips drawn back from his teeth, uttering a low growl, as if he did not like the situation so suddenly presented to him. The man who was the cause of it all, liked it even less, and stood dumb, as one paralysed with fright.
"Close the trap-door," said the Baron, shortly. The man obeyed the order.
"Set a light in the upper window toward Treves."
The servant disappeared up a ladder, set the light, and returned.
"Place on the table supper for one, and a large flagon of wine."
When this was accomplished, the servant, who had throughout spoken no word, moving mechanically to and fro like one walking in a dream, stood once more before his angry master.
"Take your place with your back against that wall."
The man, breathing hard, but still silent, stood up at the end of the room, his wide eyes fastened in a hypnotism of fear on his master.
"Now, archer, I am ready. Notch a shaft on your string and pin me this deserter though the heart to the wall."
The archer, whose eyes had been riveted on the viands set on the table, impatiently waiting the word to set to, withdrew them with reluctance and turned them towards the victim who stood dumb and motionless at the other end of the room.
"I am as loath to keep good victuals waiting as any man in the Archbishopric, but, my Lord, I have failed to make plain to you the nature of my calling. I am no executioner, but a soldier. If you give yonder fellow a blade in his hand to protect himself, I will be glad to carve him into as many pieces as may please your Lordship, but to draw bow on an unarmed man at ten paces is a misuse of a noble weapon, and the request to do so, were it not that this good flagon yearns for lips to meet it, I would construe it into an insult to myself, warranting a hostile encounter."
"You were not so choice when you proposed to slaughter an innocent man on the walls. Here stands a traitor, who has deserted his post and richly earned his death, yet you——"
"The man on the wall, my Lord, was a soldier, at that moment bearing arms and enjoying pay for the risks he ran. When I myself mount guard I make no objection to your German cross-bowmen practising at my body with their bolts, taking whatever chance cares to offer, and holding it commendable that they should thus industriously attempt to perfect their marksmanship, but to send a shaft through a poor devil standing weaponless at arm's length, as one might say, is no work for an English archer, the which I will maintain, though you order this most tempting food back into the larder again."
The Baron scowled at the bowman, who returned his whole regard to the table. The Emperor looked at his friend with a half quizzical smile on his lips, while the speechless victim gazed helplessly at his master.
"Siegfried, a word with you," said the Emperor, pointing to the bench beside him. The Baron crossed over and sat down.
"It is not your intention to have this young man executed, is it?"
"Most assuredly; nothing but an order from the Emperor will save his deservedly forfeited life."
"Then God help him," said Rodolph, "for the Emperor is far away. If, however, my own poor word can avail him, I would gladly see him spared, and this without in any way underrating the heinousness of his crime."
"His desertion might have cost either of us our lives, as you yourself admitted but a short while since. I can forgive anything rather than absence from the post of duty."
"I grant you that if he were not alone here his offence would be unpardonable, if but for the effect on others, but there is none other to make a precedent of leniency. Then there is this to be said, he has had a stern lesson, for if ever man read death in the eye of another he saw it in yours a moment ago, although at first I thought you were jesting. If you spare him, he will therefore be the truer in future and will not soon forget this night, while another who takes his place will still have the lesson to learn. May I question him?"
"Certainly. He is yours, as I am."
"Hark ye, fellow, were you ever out with that boat before?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"You see it is not the first offence. I beg you to let me execute justice upon him," said the Baron.
"A worse man would have denied it," responded Rodolph, eagerly. "He speaks the truth when he knows it prejudices his case. I like the fellow, although he is so badly frightened. Where do you voyage, sirrah?"
"To the Archbishop's palace, my Lord."
"To the Archbishop's palace?" echoed both Rodolph and Siegfried, in a breath. "In the Fiend's name what have you to do with the Archbishop or his Palace?"
The young fellow cleared his throat, and some colour mounted to his pale face.
"My Lord," he stammered, "a maid, who is named Hilda——"
"I could have sworn it," cried the Emperor. "Now we have the woman, the riddle unravels itself. What of Hilda, my young gallant?"
"She is tirewoman of the Countess Tekla——"
"Ha!" ejaculated the Emperor, a sudden interest coming into his face, while the Baron's frown grew blacker. "You met with Hilda then to-night?"
"Not so, my Lord. I was on my way to meet her when, in the still night, I heard a knock, and fearing it might be at this door I hurried back; alas! that I kept your Lordship waiting."
"Then if I understand you aright, Hilda has now accepted our late rôle."
The man looked at the ground, evidently not comprehending the last remark.
"Hilda is at this moment waiting for you, then," explained Rodolph.
"Yes, my Lord."
The Emperor turned his frank smiling face upon the Baron, who sat with his chin in his hand, grimly regarding the servant, who, now that there seemed hope of rescue, kept his eyes fixed on the floor.
"You see," said Rodolph, "'tis but a simple lover's meeting, and I have known great affairs of State put aside for such. What wonder that the boy forgot his duty and stole away in your skiff to have a few sweet words with the doubtless charming Hilda."
"I distrust him," said the Baron, in a low voice. "I like not this traffic with the Archbishop's Palace. Arnold von Isenberg is a suspicious man, and has little scruple regarding the means he uses to satisfy either his curiosity or his resentment. This young fool may be innocent, but I doubt it. He made no protest against my judgment just now, but stood silent, like one who knew his doom was merited. The Archbishop may have heard something from his spies about this shuttered house, and its mysterious horse, never taken out save for exercise. This young fellow is practically a stranger to me. He is not one of my hereditary servants, for I wished to have a man here who knew no one in my house at Treves, and my servants there know nothing of this place at the river, except the man on guard, who unbars the window and throws down the rope when a light is displayed here, and he knows no more than that. As for this fellow here and his glib love story I mistrust him thoroughly."
"I think you do him wrong. If ever I saw an honest face, it is his. Besides, what harm can he do, since he knows nothing?"
"The mystery of the house, and even his lack of knowledge might lead to an investigation. Ordinarily I should care little for that, but now you are here, I wish to move with all caution."
"Then his truth is easily put to the test. I would vouch for the fellow from his looks alone, but, as you say, much depends on his fidelity. He cannot complain that his absence has aroused suspicion, so we will insist that a second absence shall allay it. We will go with him in the boat to meet this waiting girl and hear what comes of their conversation. He will have no chance of warning her, and if there is fair love-talk between them you will then be satisfied."
"We cannot go with him unseen."
"Why not? We shall be in the shadow of the Palace and in the bottom of the skiff with our cloaks around us. It will not be a dignified position, but anything is better than a slumbering distrust of one's underlings, and then our situation will be heavenly compared with his in any case. If he is a traitor he will assuredly betray himself by trying to warn his confederate: if he is merely a lover it will be somewhat embarrassing to uphold this character when he knows he has an audience. But a man will do much to save his neck, and he will doubtless come passably off with his rehearsal. If it is a woman who waits for him, and if she proves ardent in her affections, we may have some ado to keep from laughter, but even then our position will be enviable compared with his."
The conversation at this point was broken in upon by a doleful voice which came from the patient archer.
"I have met much hospitality of varying kinds, in different parts of the world," he said, mournfully; "but never anything bearing resemblance to this. I have heard that in savage lands they place food before a hungry prisoner, the which he is unable to reach, although the sight of it feasts his eyes and the aroma therefrom tickles his nostrils. But to think that in a Christian land, where——"
"In God's name, good fellow, are you still hungering?" cried the Baron. "I thought when everything was prepared you would not need a formal invitation. Fall to, fall to, without further delay, and prove yourself as good a trencherman as you are excellent in archery."
The bowman, losing no further time in talk, at once began his long postponed repast, and continued the same with such absorption that the Emperor and the Baron went on with their conversation in no fear of interruption from him. Siegfried, with some reluctance, agreed to the plan proposed by Rodolph. The latter beckoned to the man standing by the wall, awaiting knowledge of his fate with that extreme anxiety which the uncertain tenure whereby he held his life was sure to occasion.
"You know, doubtless," began the Emperor, "that the late desertion of the post entrusted to you has forfeited your life to your justly incensed master?"
The young man made a motion of assent to this proposition.
"Having found you false in one thing, it is but natural that your master should distrust you in all, and therefore he disbelieves the tale you have told of meeting with a maid, attributing other motives to your visit to the Palace."
"What other motive could I have?"
"That remains to be seen. Are you willing, then, that we should put your fidelity to the test?"
"I am willing."
"Remember that you gain your life thereby. Where is it that you meet this maid?"
"On the river balcony of the Palace, at the corner nearest here."
"How high is this balcony from the water?"
"Less than a man's height. Standing in the boat the floor is level with my shoulders."
"Is it your custom to ascend upon the balcony?"
"No, my Lord. I stand there holding the rope in my hand, which coming from the prow of the skiff passes round one of the balustrades. Thus, in case of interruption, I can instantly release my hold, sit down, and float away unseen."
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