The Lion of the North by G. A. Henty
Chapter XXI. Flight
I thank you, count, and you, dear lady," Malcolm said gratefully, "for the confidence you place in me, and will carry out my trust were it to cost me my life. My plan is a simple one. The guard will be changed in half an hour's time. I have brought hither a suit of boy's garments, which I must pray the Countess Thekla to don, seeing that it will be impossible for her to sally out in her own garb. I show my pass to the sentry, who will deem that my companion entered with me, and is my apprentice, and will suppose that, since the sentry who preceded him suffered him to enter with me he may well pass him out without question. In the town I have a wagon in readiness, and shall, disguised as a peasant, start with it this evening. Thekla will be in the bottom covered with straw. We shall travel all night.
"Tomorrow, when your attendant discovers that your daughter has escaped, she will at once take the news to the governor. The sentries will all be questioned, and it will be found that, whereas but one clockmaker came in two went out. The city will be searched and the country round scoured but if the horsemen overtake me they will be looking for a craftsman and his apprentice, and will not suspect a solitary peasant with a wagon.
"The first danger over I must be guided by circumstances; but in any case Thekla must travel as a boy to the end of the journey, for in such troubled times as these it were unsafe indeed for a young girl to travel through Germany except under a strong escort of men-at-arms. I design to make my way to Nuremberg, and shall then place her in the hands of my good friend Jans Boerhoff, whose wife and daughters will, I am sure, gladly receive and care for her until the time, which I hope is not far off, that peace be made and you can again rejoin her."
"The plan is a good one," the count said when Malcolm had concluded, "and offers every prospect of success. `Tis hazardous, but there is no escape from such a strait as ours without risk. What say you, wife?"
"Assuredly I can think of nothing better. But what say you, Thekla? Are you ready to run the risks, the danger, and the hardships of such a journey under the protection only of this brave Scottish gentleman?"
"I am ready, mother," Thekla said quickly, "but I wish -- I wish" -- and she hesitated.
"You wish you could go in your own garments, Thekla, with jewels on your fingers and a white horse to carry you on a pillion behind your protector," the count said with a smile, for his spirits had risen with the hope of his daughter's escape from the peril in which she was placed. "It cannot be, Thekla. Malcolm's plan must be carried out to the letter, and I doubt not that you will pass well as a `prentice boy. But your mother must cut off that long hair of yours; I will keep it, my child, and will stroke it often and often in my prison as I have done when it has been on your head; your hair may be long again before I next see you."
His eyes filled with tears as he spoke, and Thekla and the countess both broke into a fit of crying. Leaving them by themselves, Malcolm returned to his work, and in half an hour had replaced the machinery of the clock and had set it in motion, while a tender conversation went on between the count and countess and their daughter. By this time the sun had set, and the attendant entered and lighted the candles in the apartment, saying, as she placed one on the table by Malcolm, "You must need a light for your work." No sooner had she left the room than Malcolm said:
"I would not hurry your parting, countess, but the sooner we are off now the better."
Without a word the countess rose, and, taking the clothes which Malcolm produced from his doublet, retired to her chamber, followed by Thekla.
"Malcolm Graheme," the count said, "it may be that we shall not meet again. The emperor is not tender with obstinate prisoners, and I have no strength to support long hardships. Should aught happen to me I beseech you to watch over the happiness of my child. Had she been a year older, and had you been willing, I would now have solemnly betrothed her to you, and should then have felt secure of her future whatever may befall me. Methinks she will make a good wife, and though my estates may be forfeited by the emperor her mother's lands will make a dowry such as many a German noble would gladly accept with his wife.
"I might betroth her to you now, for many girls are betrothed at a far younger age, but I would rather leave it as it is. You are young yet, and she in most matters is but a child, and it would be better in every way did she start on this adventure with you regarding you as a brother than in any other light. Only remember that if we should not meet again, and you in future years should seek the woman who is now a child as your wife, you have my fullest approval and consent -- nay, more, that it is my dearest wish."
"I thank you most deeply for what you have said, count," Malcolm replied gravely. "As I have seen your daughter growing up from a child I have thought how sweet a wife she would make, but I have put the thought from me, seeing that she is heiress to broad lands and I a Scottish soldier of fortune, whose lands, though wide enough for me to live in comfort at home, are yet but a mere farm in comparison with your broad estates. I have even told myself that as she grew up I must no longer make long stays in your castle, for it would be dishonourable indeed did I reward your kindness and hospitality by winning the heart of your daughter; but after what you have so generously said I need no longer fear my heart, and will, when the time comes, proudly remind you of your promise. For this journey I will put all such thoughts aside, and will regard Thekla as my merry playfellow of the last three years. But after I have once placed her in safety I shall thenceforward think of her as my wife who is to be, and will watch over her safety as over my greatest treasure, trusting that in some happy change of times and circumstances you yourself and the dear countess, whom I already regard almost as my parents, will give her to me."
"So be it," the count said solemnly. "My blessing on you both should I ne'er see you again. I can meet whatever fate may be before me with constancy and comfort now that her future is assured -- but here they come."
The door opened, and the countess appeared, followed by Thekla, shrinking behind her mother's skirts in her boyish attire.
"You will pass well," the count said gravely, for he knew that jest now would jar upon her. "Keep that cap well down over your eyes, and try and assume a little more of the jaunty and impudent air of a boy. Fortunately it will be dark below, and the sentry will not be able to mark how fair is your skin and how delicate your hands. And now farewell, my child. Let us not stand talking, for the quicker a parting is over the better. May God in heaven bless you and keep you! Malcolm knows all my wishes concerning you, and when I am not with you trust yourself to his advice and guidance as you would to mine. There, my darling, do not break down. You must be brave for all our sakes. Should the emperor hold me in durance your mother will try and join you ere long at Nuremberg."
While the count was embracing Thekla, as she bravely but in vain tried to suppress her tears, the countess opened the door, and glanced into the anteroom to see that all was clear and the attendant in her own apartment. Then she returned, kissed her daughter fondly, and placed her hand in Malcolm's, saying to the latter, "God bless you, dear friend! Take her quickly away for her sake and ours." One last adieu and Malcolm and Thekla stood alone in the anteroom.
"Now, Thekla," he said firmly, "be brave, the danger is at hand, and your safety and escape from your fate, and my life, depend upon your calmness. Do you carry this basket of tools and play your part as my apprentice. Just as we open the door drop the basket and I will rate you soundly for your carelessness. Keep your head down, and do not let the light which swings over the door fall upon your face.''
For a minute or two Thekla stood struggling to master her emotions. Then she said, in a quiet voice, "I am ready now," and taking up the basket of tools she followed Malcolm down the stairs. Malcolm opened the door, and as he did so Thekla dropped the basket.
"How stupid you are!" Malcolm exclaimed sharply. "How often have I told you to be careful! You don't suppose that those fine tools can stand being knocked about in that way without injury? Another time an' you are so careless I will give you a taste of the strap, you little rascal."
"What is all this?" the sentry asked, barring the way with his pike, "and who are you who are issuing from this house with so much noise? My orders are that none pass out here without an order from the governor."
"And such an order have I," Malcolm said, producing the document. "There's the governor's seal. I have been sent for to repair the clock in the Count of Mansfeld's apartment, and a rare job it has been."
The sentry was unable to read, but he looked at the seal which he had been taught to recognize.
"But there is only one seal," he said, "and there are two of you."
"Pooh!" Malcolm said scornfully. "Dost think that when ten persons are admitted to pass in together the governor puts ten seals on the pass? You see for yourself that it is but a young boy, my apprentice. Why, the governor himself left scarce an hour ago, and was in the apartment with me while I was at work. Had it not been all right he would have hauled me to the prison quickly enough."
As the sentry knew that the governor had left but a short time before he came on guard this convinced him, and, standing aside, he allowed Malcolm and his companion to pass. Malcolm made his way first to the apartment he had occupied, where he had already settled for his lodging.
Leaving Thekla below he ran upstairs, and hastily donned the suit of peasant's clothes, and then making the others into a bundle descended again, and with Thekla made his way to the quiet spot outside the city gates where the wagon was standing ready for a start. He had already paid the peasant half the sum agreed, and now handed him the remainder.
"I should scarce have known you," the peasant said, examining Malcolm by the light of his pinewood torch. "Why, you look like one of us instead of a city craftsman."
"I am going to astonish them when I get home," Malcolm said, "and shall make the old folks a present of the wagon. So I am going to arrive just as I was when I left them."
The peasant asked no farther questions, but, handing the torch to Malcolm, and telling him that he would find half a dozen more in the wagon, he took his way back to the town, where be intended to sleep in the stables and to start at daybreak for his home.
He thought that the transaction was a curious one; but, as he had been paid handsomely for his wagon, he troubled not his head about any mystery there might be in the matter. As soon as he had gone Malcolm arranged the straw in the bottom of the wagon so as to form a bed; but Thekla said that for the present she would rather walk with him.
"It is weeks since I have been out, and I shall enjoy walking for a time; besides, it is all so strange that I should have no chance to sleep were I to lie down."
Malcolm at once consented, and taking his place at the head of the oxen, he started them, walking ahead to light the way and leading them by cords passed through their nostrils. He had not the least fear of pursuit for the present, for it had been arranged that the countess should inform their attendant that Thekla was feeling unwell, and had retired to bed, and the woman, whatever she might suspect, would take care not to verify the statement, and it would be well on in the following morning before her absence was discovered.
Malcolm tried his best to distract Thekla's thoughts from her parents, and from the strange situation in which she was placed, and chatted to her of the events of the war since he had last seen her, of the route which he intended to adopt, and the prospects of peace. In two hours' time the girl, unaccustomed to exercise, acknowledged that she was tired; she therefore took her place in the wagon.
Malcolm covered her up with straw and threw some sacks lightly over her, and then continued his journey. He travelled all night, and in the morning stopped at a wayside inn, where his arrival at that hour excited no surprise, as the peasants often travelled at night, because there was then less chance of their carts being seized and requisitioned by the troops. He only stopped a short time to water and feed the oxen, and to purchase some black bread and cheese. This he did, not because he required it, for he had an ample supply of provisions in the cart far more suited for Thekla's appetite than the peasant's fare, but to act in the usual manner, and so avoid any comment. Thekla was still asleep under the covering, which completely concealed her. Malcolm journeyed on until two miles further he came to a wood, then, drawing aside from the road, he unyoked the oxen and allowed them to lie down, for they had already made a long journey. Then he woke Thekla, who leaped up gaily on finding that it was broad daylight. Breakfast was eaten, and after a four hours' halt they resumed their way, Thekla taking her place in the wagon again, and being carefully covered up in such a manner that a passerby would not suspect that anyone was lying under the straw and sacks at one end of the wagon. Just at midday Malcolm heard the trampling of horses behind him and saw a party of cavalry coming along at full gallop. The leader drew rein when he overtook the wagon.
"Have you seen anything," he asked Malcolm, "of two seeming craftsmen, a man and a boy, journeying along the road?"
Malcolm shook his head. "I have seen no one on foot since I started an hour since."
Without a word the soldiers went on. They had no reason, indeed, for believing that those for whom they were in search had taken that particular road. As soon as Thekla's disappearance had been discovered by the waiting woman she had hurried to the governor, and with much perturbation and many tears informed him that the young countess was missing, and that her couch had not been slept on. The governor had at once hurried to the spot. The count and countess resolutely refused to state what had become of their daughter.
The sentries had all been strictly questioned, and it was found that the mender of clocks had, when he left, been accompanied by an apprentice whom the sentry previously on duty asserted had not entered with him. The woman was then closely questioned; she asserted stoutly that she knew nothing whatever of the affair. The count had commissioned her to obtain a craftsman to set the clock in order, and she had bethought her of a young man whose acquaintance she had made some time previously, and who had informed her in the course of conversation that he had come from Nuremberg, and was a clockmaker by trade, and was at present out of work. She had met him, she said, on several occasions, and as he was a pleasant youth and comely, when he had spoken to her of marriage she had not been averse, now it was plain he had deceived her; and here she began to cry bitterly and loudly.
Her story seemed probable enough, for any friend of the count who had intended to carry off his daughter would naturally have begun by ingratiating himself with her attendant. She was, however, placed in confinement for a time. The count and countess were at once removed to the fortress. Orders were given that the town should be searched thoroughly, and any person answering to the description which the governor was able to give of the supposed clockmaker should be arrested, while parties of horse were despatched along all the roads with orders to arrest and bring to Prague any craftsman or other person accompanied by a young boy whom they might overtake by the way. Several innocent peasants with their sons were pounced upon on the roads and hauled to Prague; but no news was obtained of the real fugitives, who quietly pursued their way undisturbed further by the active search which was being made for them. The anger of the emperor when he heard of the escape of the prize he had destined for one of his favourite officers was extreme. He ordered the count to be treated with the greatest rigour, and declared all his estates and those of his wife forfeited, the latter part of the sentence being at present inoperative, her estates being in a part of the country far beyond the range of the Imperialist troops. The waiting maid was after some weeks' detention released, as there was no evidence whatever of her complicity in the affair.
Malcolm continued his journey quietly towards the frontier of Bavaria; but, on arriving at a small town within a few miles of Pilsen, he learned that Wallenstein had fallen back with his army to that place. Much alarmed at the news he determined to turn off by a cross road and endeavour to avoid the Imperialists. He had not, however, left the place before a party of Imperialist horse rode in.
Malcolm was at once stopped, and was told that he must accompany the troops to Pilsen, as they had orders to requisition all carts for the supply of provisions for the army. Malcolm knew that it was of no use to remonstrate, but, with many loud grumblings at his hard lot, he moved to the marketplace, where he remained until all the wagons in the place and in the surrounding country had been collected.
Loud and bitter were the curses which the peasants uttered at finding themselves taken from their homes and compelled to perform service for which the pay, if received at all, would be scanty in the extreme. There was, however, no help for it; and when all were collected they started in a long procession guarded by the cavalry for Pilsen. On arriving there they were ordered to take up their station with the great train of wagons collected for the supply of the army.
Thekla had from her hiding place heard the conversation, and was greatly alarmed at finding that they were again in the power of the Imperialists. No one, however, approached the wagon, and it was not until darkness had set in that she heard Malcolm's voice whispering to her to arise quietly.
"We must leave the wagon; it will be impossible for you to remain concealed here longer, for tomorrow I may be sent out to bring in supplies. For the present we must remain in Pilsen. The whole country will be scoured by the troops, and it will not be safe to traverse the roads. Here in Pilsen no one will think of looking for us.
"Wallenstein's headquarters are the last place where we should be suspected of hiding, and you may be sure that, however close the search may be elsewhere, the governor of Prague will not have thought of informing Wallenstein of an affair so foreign to the business of war as the escape from the emperor's clutches of a young lady. I have donned my craftsman dress again, and we will boldly seek for lodgings."
They soon entered the town, which was crowded with troops, searching about in the poorer quarters.
Malcolm presently found a woman who agreed to let him two rooms. He accounted for his need for the second room by saying that his young brother was ill and needed perfect rest and quiet, and that the filing and hammering which was necessary in his craft prevented the lad from sleeping. As Malcolm agreed at once to the terms she asked for the rooms, the woman accepted his statement without doubt. They were soon lodged in two attics at the top of the house, furnished only with a table, two chairs, and a truckle bed in each; but Malcolm was well contented with the shelter he had found.
Seeing that it would be extremely difficult at present to journey further, he determined to remain some little time in the town, thinking that he might be able to carry out the instructions which he had received from Colonel Munro, and to obtain information as to the plans of Wallenstein and the feelings of the army.
"You will have to remain a prisoner here, Thekla, I am afraid, almost as strictly as at Prague, for it would not do to risk the discovery that you are a girl by your appearing in the streets in daylight, and after dark the streets of the town, occupied by Wallenstein's soldiers, are no place for any peaceful persons.
"I may as well be here as at Nuremberg," Thekla said, "and as I shall have you with me instead of being with strangers, the longer we stay here the better."
The next morning Malcolm sallied out into the town to see if he could find employment. There was, however, but one clockmaker in Pilsen, and the war had so injured his trade that he had discharged all his journeymen, for clocks were still comparatively rare luxuries, and were only to be seen in the houses of nobles and rich citizens. Knowing that Wallenstein was devoted to luxury and magnificence, always taking with him, except when making the most rapid marches, a long train of baggage and furniture, Malcolm thought it possible that he might obtain some employment in his apartments. He accordingly went boldly to the castle where the duke had established himself, and, asking for his steward, stated that he was a clockmaker from the workshop of the celebrated horologist, Master Jans Boerhoff, and could repair any clocks or watches that might be out of order.
"Then you are the very man we need," the steward said. "My master, the duke, is curious in such matters, and ever carries with him some half dozen clocks with his other furniture; and, use what care I will in packing them, the shaking of the wagons is constantly putting them out of repair. It was but this morning the duke told me to bring a craftsman, if one capable of the work could be found in the town, and to get the clocks put in order, for it displeases him if they do not all keep the time to the same minute. Follow me."
He led the way into the private apartments of the duke. These were magnificently furnished, the walls being covered with rich velvet hangings. Thick carpets brought from the East covered the floors. Indeed, in point of luxury and magnificence, Wallenstein kept up a state far surpassing that of his Imperial master.
There were several clocks standing on tables and on brackets, for Wallenstein, although in most respects of a clear and commanding intellect, was a slave to superstition. He was always accompanied by an astrologer, who read for him the course of events from the movements of the stars, who indicated the lucky and unlucky days, and the hours at which it was not propitious to transact important business. Hence it was that he placed so great an importance on the exact observance of the hour by his numerous time pieces.
"Here are some of the clocks," the steward said, indicating them. "Of course you cannot work here, and they are too heavy to be removed, besides being too costly to intrust out of my charge, I will have a room prepared in the castle where you can work. Come again at noon with your tools, and all shall be in readiness."
At the hour appointed Malcolm again presented himself.
"The duke has given personal instructions," he said, "that a closet close by shall be fitted up for you, in order that he himself if he chooses may see you at work."
Malcolm was conducted to a small room near at hand. Here one of the clocks which had stopped had been placed on the table, and he at once set to work. He soon discovered that one of the wheels had been shaken from its place by the jolting of the wagons, and that the clock could be set going by a few minutes work. As, however, his object was to prolong his visit to the castle as long as possible, he set to work and took it entirely to pieces. Two hours later the door opened and a tall handsome man of commanding presence entered. Malcolm rose and bowed respectfully, feeling that he was in the presence of the great general.
"You come from Nuremberg," Wallenstein said, "as I am told, and have learned your craft in the workshop of Master Jans Boerhoff, who is well known as being the greatest master of his craft."
Malcolm bowed silently.
"It is strange," Wallenstein muttered to himself, "that this young man's destiny should be connected with mine; and yet the astrologer said that he who should present himself at the castle nearest to the stroke of nine this morning would be a factor in my future, and, as my steward tells me, the clock sounded nine as this young man addressed him." He then asked Malcolm several questions as to the work upon which he was engaged, and then said abruptly: "Dost know the day and hour on which you were born?"
Malcolm was somewhat surprised at the question, for he had not heard the muttered words of Wallenstein, but he at once replied that he had heard that he was born at the stroke of midnight on the last day in the year.
The duke said no more, but left the closet and proceeded at once to an apartment near his own bed chamber, which, although he had arrived but a few hours previously, had already been fitted up for the use of his astrologer. The walls were hidden by a plain hanging of scarlet cloth; a large telescope stood at the window, a chart of the heavens was spread out on the table, and piles of books stood beside it. On the ceiling the signs of the zodiac had been painted, and some mystical circles had been marked out on the floor. A tall spare old man with a long white beard was seated at the table. He rose when Wallenstein entered.
"I cannot but think," the duke said, "that your calculations must for once have been mistaken, and that there must have been an error in the hour, for I see not how the destiny of this craftsman, who seems to be a simple lad, can in any way be connected with mine."
"I have made the calculation three times, your grace," the old man replied, "and am sure there is no error."
"He was born," Wallenstein said, "at midnight on December 31st, 1613. Work out his nativity, and see what stars were in the ascendant, and whether there are any affinities between us."
"I will do so at once," the astrologer said; "by tonight I shall be able to give your grace the information you require."
"Tonight," the duke said, "we will go over your calculations together as to our great enterprise. It is all important that there should be no mistake. I have for a whole year remained inactive because you told me that the time had not yet come, and now that you say the propitious moment is approaching would fain be sure that no error has been committed. All seems well, the troops are devoted to me, and will fight against whomsoever I bid them. By lavish gifts and favours I have attached all my generals firmly to me, and soon this ungrateful emperor shall feel how rash and foolish he has been to insult the man to whom alone he owes it that he was not long ago a fugitive and an exile, with the Swedes victorious masters of his capital and kingdom.
"Have not I alone saved him? Did not I at my own cost raise an army and stand between him and the victorious Gustavus? Have not I alone of all his generals checked the triumphant progress of the invaders? And yet he evades all his promises, he procrastinates and falters. Not one step does he take to give me the sovereignty of Bohemia which he so solemnly promised me, and seems to think that it is honour and reward enough for me to have spent my treasure and blood in his service. But my turn is at hand, and when the hand which saved his throne shall cast him from it he will learn how rash he has been to have deceived and slighted me. And you say that the stars last night all pointed to a favourable conjunction, and that the time for striking the great blow is at hand?"
"Nothing could be better," the astrologer said; "Jupiter, your own planet, and Mars are in the ascendant. Saturn is still too near them to encourage instant action, but he will shortly remove to another house and then your time will have come."
"So be it," Wallenstein said, "and the sooner the better. Now I will leave you to your studies, and will ride out to inspect the troops, and to see that they have all that they need, for they must be kept in the best of humours at present."