Chapter XX. Friends in Trouble
 

One day in the month of December, when Malcolm Graheme was with his regiment on outpost duty closely watching the Imperialists, a countryman approached.

"Can you direct me to Captain Malcolm Graheme, who, they tell me, belongs to this regiment?"

"You have come to the right man," Malcolm said. "I am Captain Graheme -- what would you with me?"

"I am the bearer of a letter to you," the man said, and taking off his cap he pulled out the lining and brought out a letter hidden beneath it.

"I am to ask for some token from you by which it may be known that it has been safely delivered."

Malcolm cut with his dagger the silk with which the letter was fastened. It began:

"From the Lady Hilda, Countess of Mansfeld, to Captain Malcolm Graheme of Colonel Munro's Scottish regiment. -- My dear friend, -- I do not know whether you have heard the misfortune which has fallen upon us. The town and castle of Mansfeld were captured two months since by a sudden assault of the Imperialists, and my dear husband was grievously wounded in the defence. He was brought hither a prisoner, and Thekla and I also carried here. As the count still lies ill with his wounds he is not placed in a prison, but we are treated as captives and a close watch is kept upon us. The count is threatened with the forfeiture of all his possessions unless he will change sides and join the Imperialists, and some of his estates have been already conferred upon other nobles as a punishment for the part he has taken.

"Were my husband well and free he would treat the offers with scorn, believing that the tide will turn and that he will recover his possessions. Nor even were he certain of their perpetual forfeiture would he desert the cause of Protestantism. Moreover, the estates which I brought him in marriage lie in the north of Pomerania, and the income there from is more than ample for our needs. But the emperor has ordered that if the count remain contumacious Thekla shall be taken from us and placed in a convent, where she will be forced to embrace Catholicism, and will, when she comes of age, be given in marriage to some adherent of the emperor, who will with her receive the greater portion of her father's lands.

"She is now sixteen years old, and in another year will be deemed marriageable. My heart is broken at the thought, and I can scarce see the paper on which I write for weeping. I know not why I send to you, nor does the count know that I am writing, nor does it seem possible that any aid can come to us, seeing that we are here in the heart of Bohemia, and that Wallenstein's army lies between us and you. But somehow in my heart I have a hope that you may aid us, and at any rate I know that you will sympathize with us greatly. I feel sure that if there be any mode in which we may be aided it will be seized by your ready wit. And now adieu! This letter will be brought to you by a messenger who will be hired by a woman who attends us, and who has a kind heart as well as an eye to her own interests. Send back by the messenger some token which she may pass on to me, that I may know that you have received it. Send no written answer, for the danger is too great."

Malcolm twisted off two or three links of the chain which had long before been presented to him by the count, and then, until relieved from duty, paced up and down, slowly revolving in his mind what could best be done to aid his friends. His mind was at last made up, and when his company was called in he went to his colonel and asked for leave of absence, stating his reasons for wishing to absent himself from the regiment.

"It is a perilous business, Malcolm," Colonel Munro said. "I have scarce a handful of the friends with whom I joined Gustavus but three years and a half ago remaining, and I can ill spare another; nevertheless I will not stay you in your enterprise. The Count of Mansfeld has been a steady ally of ours, and is one of the few who has appeared to have at heart the cause of Protestantism rather than of personal gain.

"Moreover, he is as you say a friend of yours, and has shown you real kindness in time of need. Therefore go, my boy, and Heaven be with you! It is not likely that there will be any more serious fighting this year. Wallenstein lies inactive, negotiating now with Saxony, now with Oxenstiern. What are his aims and plans Heaven only knows; but at any rate we have no right to grumble at the great schemer, for ever since Lutzen he has kept the emperor's best army inactive. Make it a point, Malcolm, to find out, so far as you can, what is the public opinion in Bohemia as to his real intentions. If you can bring back any information as to his plans you will have done good service to the cause, however long your absence from the camp may be."

That evening Malcolm packed up his armour, arms, court suits, and valuables, and sent them away to the care of his friend the syndic of the clockmakers of Nuremberg, with a letter requesting him to keep them in trust for him until he returned; and in the event of his not arriving to claim them in the course of six months, to sell them, and to devote the proceeds to the assistance of sick or wounded Scottish soldiers. Then he purchased garments suitable for a respectable craftsman, and having attired himself in these, with a stout sword banging from his leathern belt, a wallet containing a change of garments and a number of light tools used in clockmaking, with a long staff in his hand, and fifty ducats sewed in the lining of the doublet, he set out on foot on his journey.

It was nigh three weeks from the time when he started before he arrived at Prague, for not only had he to make a very long detour to avoid the contending armies, but he was forced to wait at each considerable town until he could join a company of travellers going in the same direction, for the whole country so swarmed with disbanded soldiers, plunderers, and marauding bands that none thought of traversing the roads save in parties sufficiently strong to defend themselves and their property. None of those with whom he journeyed suspected Malcolm to be aught but what he professed himself -- a craftsman who had served his time at a clockmaker's in Nuremberg, and who was on his way to seek for employment in Vienna.

During his three years and a half residence in Germany he had come to speak the language like a native, and, indeed, the dialect of the different provinces varied so widely, that, even had he spoken the language with less fluency, no suspicion would have arisen of his being a foreigner. Arrived at Prague, his first care was to hire a modest lodging, and he then set to work to discover the house in which the Count of Mansfeld was lying as a prisoner.

This he had no difficulty in doing without exciting suspicion, for the count was a well known personage, and he soon found that he and his family had apartments in a large house, the rest of which was occupied by Imperialist officers and their families. There was a separate entrance to the portion occupied by the count, and a sentry stood always at the door.

The day after his arrival Malcolm watched the door from a distance throughout the whole day, but none entered or came out. The next morning he resumed his watch at a much earlier hour, and presently had the satisfaction of seeing a woman in the attire of a domestic issue from the door. She was carrying a basket, and was evidently bent upon purchasing the supplies for the day. He followed her to the market, and, after watching her make her purchases, he followed her until, on her return, she entered a street where but few people were about. There he quickened his pace and overtook her.

"You are the attendant of the Countess of Mansfeld, are you not?" he said.

"I am," she replied; "but what is that to you?"

"I will tell you presently," Malcolm replied, "but in the first place please inform me whether you are her only attendant, and in the next place how long you have been in her service. I can assure you," he went on, as the woman, indignant at thus being questioned by a craftsman who was a stranger to her, tossed her head indignantly, and was about to move on, "that I ask not from any impertinent curiosity. Here is a ducat as a proof that I am interested in my questions."

The woman gave him a quick and searching glance; she took the piece of money, and replied more civilly. "I am the only attendant on the countess. I cannot be said to be in her service, since I have been placed there by the commandant of the prison, whither the count will be moved in a few days, but I have been with them since their arrival there, nigh three months since."

"Then you are the person whom I seek. I am he to whom a certain letter which you wot of was sent, and who returned by the messenger as token that he received it two links of this chain."

The woman started as he spoke, and looked round anxiously to see that they were not observed; then she said hurriedly:

"For goodness sake, sir, if you be he, put aside that grave and earnest look, and chat with me lightly and laughingly, so that if any observe us speaking they will think that you are trying to persuade me that my face has taken your admiration. Not so very difficult a task, methinks," she added coquettishly, acting the part she had indicated.

"By no means," Malcolm replied laughing, for the girl was really good looking, "and were it not that other thoughts occupy me at present you might well have another captive to look after; and now tell me, how is it possible for me to obtain an interview with the count?"

"And the countess, and the Fraulein Thekla," the girl said laughing, "for I suppose you are the young Scottish officer of whom the young countess is always talking. I don't see that it is possible."

"Twenty ducats are worth earning," Malcolm said quietly.

"Very well worth earning," the woman replied, "but a costly day's work if they lead to a prison and flogging, if not to the gallows."

"But we must take care that you run no risk," Malcolm said. "Surely such a clever head as I see you have can contrive some way for me to get in."

"Yes; it might be managed," the girl said thoughtfully. "The orders were strict just at first, but seeing that the count cannot move from his couch, and that the countess and the fraulein have no motive in seeking to leave him, the strictness has been relaxed. The orders of the sentry are stringent that neither of the ladies shall be allowed to set foot outside the door, but I do not think they have any orders to prevent others from going in and out had they some good excuse for their visit."

"Then it is not so impossible after all," Malcolm said with a smile, "for I have an excellent excuse.

"What is that?" the woman asked.

"The clock in the count's chamber has stopped, and it wearies him to lie there and not know how the time passes, so he has requested you to fetch in a craftsman to set it going again."

"A very good plan," the girl said. "There is a clock, and it shall stop this afternoon. I will find out from the sentry as I go in whether he has any orders touching the admission of strangers. If he has I will go across to the prison and try and get a pass for you. I shall come to market in the morning."

So saying, with a wave of her hand she tripped on towards the house, which was now near at hand, leaving Malcolm to arrange his plans for next day. His first care was to purchase a suit of clothes such as would be worn by a boy of the class to which he appeared to belong. Then he went to one of the small inns patronized by the peasants who brought their goods into market, and without difficulty bargained with one of them for the purchase of a cart with two oxen, which were to remain at the inn until he called for them. Then he bought a suit of peasant's clothes, after which, well satisfied with the day's work, he returned to his lodging. In the morning he again met the servant.

"It was well I asked," she said, "for the sentry had orders to prevent any, save nobles and officers, from passing in. However, I went to the prison, and saw one of the governor's deputies, and told him that the count was fretting because his clock had stopped, and, as while I said so I slipped five ducats the countess had given me for the purpose into his hand, he made no difficulty about giving me the pass. Here it is. Now," she said, "I have earned my twenty ducats."

"You have earned them well," Malcolm replied, handing them to her.

"Now mind," she said, "you must not count on me farther. I don't know what you are going to do, and I don't want to know. I have run quite a risk enough as it is, and mean, directly the count is lodged in the prison, to make my way home, having collected a dowry which will enable me to buy a farm and marry my bachelor, who has been waiting for me for the last three years. His father is an old curmudgeon, who has declared that his son shall never marry except a maid who can bring as much money as he will give him. I told Fritz that if he would trust to my wits and wait I would in five years produce the dowry. Now I have treble the sum, and shall go off and make Fritz happy."

"He is a lucky fellow," Malcolm said laughing. "It is not every one who gets beauty, wit, and wealth all together in a wife."

"You are a flatterer," the girl laughed; "but for all that I think myself that Fritz is not unfortunate."

"And now tell me," Malcolm asked, "at what time is the sentry generally changed?"

"At sunrise, at noon, at sunset, and at midnight," the girl replied; "but what is that to you?"

"Never mind;" Malcolm laughed; "you know you don't want to be told what I'm going to do. I will tell you if you like."

"No, no," the girl replied hurriedly. "I would rather be able to always take my oath on the holy relics that I know nothing about it."

"Very well," Malcolm replied; "then this afternoon I will call."

Having hidden away under his doublet the suit of boy's clothes, and with the tools of his trade in a small basket in his hand, Malcolm presented himself at three o'clock in the afternoon to the sentry at the door leading to the count's apartments. The soldier glanced at the pass and permitted him to enter without remark.

The waiting maid met him inside and conducted him upstairs, and ushered him into a spacious apartment, in which the count was lying on a couch, while the countess and Thekla sat at work beside him. She then retired and closed the door after her. The count and Thekla looked with surprise at the young artisan, but the countess ran to meet him, and threw her arms round his neck as if she had been his mother, while Thekla gave a cry of delight as she recognized him.

"Welcome a thousand times! Welcome, my brave friend!" the countess exclaimed. "What dangers must you not have encountered on your way hither to us! The count and Thekla knew not that I had written to you, for I feared a failure; and when I learned yesterday that you had arrived I still kept silence, partly to give a joyful surprise to my lord today, partly because, if the governor called, I was sure that this child's telltale face would excite his suspicion that something unusual had happened."

"How imprudent!" the count said, holding out his hand to Malcolm. "Had I known that my wife was sending to you I would not have suffered her to do so, for the risk is altogether too great, and yet, indeed, I am truly glad to see you again."

Thekla gave Malcolm her hand, but said nothing. She had now reached an age when girls feel a strange shyness in expressing their feelings; but her hand trembled with pleasure as she placed it in Malcolm's, and her cheek flushed hotly as, in accordance with the custom of the times, she presented it to his kiss.

"Now," the count said, "do not let us waste time; tell us quickly by what miracle you have arrived here, and have penetrated to what is really my prison. You must be quick, for we have much to say, and your visit must be a short one for every third day the governor of the prison pays me a visit to see how I am getting on, and I expect that he will be here ere long."

"Then," Malcolm said, "I had best prepare for his coming, for assuredly I am not going to hurry away."

So saying, he lifted down the great clock which stood on a bracket on the wall, and placed it on a side table. "I am a clockmaker," he said, "and am come to put this machine, whose stopping has annoyed you sadly, into order."

So saying, he took some tools from his basket, removed the works of the clock, and, taking them in pieces, laid them on the table.

"I spent much of my time at Nuremberg," he said, in answer to the surprised exclamations of the count, "in learning the mysteries of horology, and can take a clock to pieces and can put it together again with fair skill. There, now, I am ready, and if the governor comes he will find me hard at work. And now I will briefly tell you how I got here; then I will hear what plans you may have formed, and I will tell you mine."

"For myself, I have no plans," the count said. "I am helpless, and must for the present submit to whatever may befall me. That I will not renounce the cause of my religion you may be sure; as for my wife, we know not yet whether, when they remove me to the fortress, they will allow her to accompany me or not. If they do, she will stay with me, but it is more likely that they will not. The emperor is merciless to those who oppose him. They will more likely keep her under their eye here or in Vienna. But for ourselves we care little; our anxiety is for Thekla. It is through her that they are striking us. You know what they have threatened if I do not abandon the cause of Protestantism. Thekla is to be placed in a convent, forced to become a Catholic, and married to the man on whom the emperor may please to bestow my estates."

"I would rather die, father, than become a Catholic," Thekla exclaimed firmly.

"Yes, dear!" the count said gently, "but it is not death you have to face; with a fresh and unbroken spirit, it were comparatively easy to die, but it needs an energy and a spirit almost superhuman to resist the pressure which may be placed on those who are committed to a convent. The hopelessness, the silence, the gloom, to say nothing of threats, menaces, and constant and unremitting pressure, are sufficient to break down the firmest resolution. The body becomes enfeebled, the nerves shattered, and the power of resistance enfeebled. No, my darling, brave as you are in your young strength, you could not resist the influence which would be brought to bear upon you."

"Then it is clear," Malcolm said cheerfully, "that we must get your daughter out of the clutches of the emperor and the nuns."

"That is what I have thought over again and again as I have lain here helpless, but I can see no means of doing so. We have no friends in the city, and, could the child be got safely out of this place, there is nowhere whither she could go."

"And it is for that I have sent for you," the countess said. "I knew that if it were in any way possible you would contrive her escape and aid her to carry it out."

"Assuredly I will, my dear countess," Malcolm said. "You only wanted a friend outside, and now you have got one. I see no difficulty about it."

At this moment the door suddenly opened; the waiting maid put in her head and exclaimed, "The governor is alighting at the door." Malcolm at once seated himself at the side table and began oiling the wheels of the clock, while the countess and Thekla took up their work again and seated themselves, as before, by the couch of the count. A moment later the attendant opened the door and in a loud voice announced the Baron of Steinburg.

The governor as he entered cast a keen glance at Malcolm, and then bowing ceremoniously approached the count and inquired after his health, and paid the usual compliments to the countess. The count replied languidly that he gained strength slowly, while the countess said quietly that he had slept but badly and that his wound troubled him much. It was well for Thekla that she was not obliged to take part in the conversation, for she would have found it impossible to speak quietly and indifferently, for every nerve was tingling with joy at Malcolm's last words. The prospect had seemed so hopeless that her spirits had sunk to the lowest ebb. Her mother had done her best to cheer her, but the count, weakened by pain and illness, had all along taken the most gloomy view. He had told himself that it was better for the girl to submit to her fate than to break her heart like a wild bird beating out its life against the bars of its cage, and he wished to show her that neither he nor the world would blame her for yielding to the tremendous pressure which would be put upon her.

For himself, he would have died a thousand times rather than renounce his faith; but he told himself that Thekla was but a child, that women cared little for dogmas, and that she would learn to pray as sincerely in a Catholic as in a Protestant church, without troubling her mind as to whether there were gross abuses in the government of the church, in the sale of absolutions, or errors in abstruse doctrines. But to Thekla it had seemed impossible that she could become a Catholic.

The two religions stood in arms against each other; Catholics and Protestants differed not only in faith but in politics. In all things they were actively and openly opposed to each other, and the thought that she might be compelled to abjure her faith was most terrible to the girl; and she was firmly resolved that, so long as her strength lasted and her mind was unimpaired, she would resist whatever pressure might be placed upon her, and would yield neither to menaces, to solitary confinement, or even to active cruelty. The prospect, however; had weighed heavily upon her mind. Her father had appeared to consider any escape impossible; her mother had said nothing of her hopes; and the words which Malcolm had spoken, indicating something like a surety of freeing her from her terrible position, filled her with surprise and delight.

"Whom have you here?" the governor asked, indicating Malcolm by a motion of the head.

"It is a craftsman from Nuremberg. The clock had stopped, and the count, with whom the hours pass but slowly, fretted himself at not being able to count them; so I asked our attendant to bring hither a craftsman to put it in order, first sending her with a note to you asking for permission for him to come; as you were out your deputy signed the order."

"He should not have done so," the baron said shortly, "for the orders are strict touching the entry of any here. However, as he has taken the clock to pieces, he can put it together again." So saying he went over to the table where Malcolm was at work and stood for a minute or two watching him. The manner in which Malcolm fitted the wheels into their places, filing and oiling them wherever they did not run smoothly, satisfied him that the youth was what he seemed.

"You are young to have completed your apprenticeship," he said.

"It is expired but two months, sir," Malcolm said, standing up respectfully.

"Under whom did you learn your trade?" the governor asked; "for I have been in Nuremberg and know most of the guild of clockmakers by name."

"Under Jans Boerhoff, the syndic of the guild," Malcolm replied.

"Ah!" the baron said shortly; "and his shop is in -- "

"The Cron Strasse," Malcolm said promptly in answer to the implied question.

Quite satisfied now, the baron turned away and conversed a few minutes with the count, telling him that as the surgeon said he could now be safely removed he would in three days be transferred to an apartment in the fortress.

"Will the countess be permitted to accompany me?" the count asked.

"That I cannot tell you," the baron replied. "We are expecting a messenger with his majesty's orders on the subject tomorrow or next day. I have already informed you that, in his solicitude for her welfare, his majesty has been good enough to order that the young countess shall be placed in the care of the lady superior of the Convent of St. Catherine."

A few minutes later he left the room. Not a word was spoken in the room until the sound of horse's hoofs without told that he had ridden off.

As the door closed the countess and Thekla had dropped their work and sat anxiously awaiting the continuance of the conversation. The count was the first to speak.

"How mean you, Malcolm? How think you it possible that Thekla can escape, and where could she go?"

"I like not to make the proposal," Malcolm said gravely, "nor under any other circumstances should I think of doing so; but in a desperate position desperate measures must be adopted. It is impossible that in your present state you can escape hence, and the countess will not leave you; but what is absolutely urgent is that your daughter should be freed from the strait. Save myself you have no friends here; and therefore, count, if she is to escape it must be through my agency and she must be committed wholly to my care. I know it is a great responsibility; but if you and the countess can bring yourselves to commit her to me I swear to you, as a Scottish gentleman and a Protestant soldier, that I will watch over her as a brother until I place her in all honour in safe hands."

The count looked at the countess and at Thekla, who sat pale and still.

"We can trust you, Malcolm Graheme," he said after a pause. "There are few, indeed, into whose hands we would thus confide our daughter; but we know you to be indeed, as you say, a Scottish gentleman and a Protestant soldier. Moreover, we know you to be faithful, honourable, and true. Therefore we will, seeing that there is no other mode of escape from the fate which awaits her, confide her wholly to you. And now tell us what are your plans?"