X. A Calamitous Conference
 

The prelate and his ward were met at the doors of Stolzenfels by the Archbishop of Treves in person, and the welcome they received left nothing to be desired in point of cordiality. There were many servants, male and female, about the Castle, but no show of armed men.

The Countess was conducted to a room whose outlook fascinated her. It occupied one entire floor of a square tower, with windows facing the four points of the compass, and from this height she could view the Rhine up to the stern old Castle of Marksburg, and down past Coblentz to her own realm of Sayn, where it bordered the river, although the stronghold from which she ruled this domain was hidden by the hills ending in Ehrenbreitstein.

When she descended on being called to mittagessen, she was introduced to a sister of the Archbishop of Treves, a grave, elderly woman, and to the Archbishop's niece, a lady about ten years older than Hildegunde. Neither of these grand dames had much to say, and the conversation at the meal rested chiefly with the two Archbishops. Indeed, had the Countess but known it, her presence there was a great disappointment to the two noblewomen, for the close relationship of the younger to the Archbishop of Treves rendered it impossible that she should be offered the honor about to be bestowed upon the younger and more beautiful Countess von Sayn.

The Archbishop of Mayence, although a resident of the Castle, partook of refreshment in the smallest room of the suite reserved for him, where he was waited upon by his own servants and catered for by his own cook.

When the great Rhine salmon, smoking hot, was placed upon the table, Cologne was generous in his praise of it, and related again, for the information of his host and household, the story of the English Princess who had partaken of a similar fish, doubtless in this same room. Despite the historical bill of fare, and the mildly exhilarating qualities of the excellent Oberweseler wine, whose delicate reddish color the sentimental Archbishop compared to the blush on a bride's cheeks, the social aspect of the midday refection was overshadowed by an almost indefinable sense of impending danger. In the pseudogenial conversation of the two Archbishops there was something forced: the attitude of the elderly hostess was one of unrelieved gloom. After a few conventional greetings to her young guest, she spoke no more during the meal. Her daughter, who sat beside the Countess on the opposite side of the table from his Lordship of Cologne, merely answered "Yes" or "No" to the comments of the lady of Sayn praising the romantic situation of the Castle, its unique qualities of architecture, and the splendid outlook from its battlements, eulogies which began enthusiastically enough, but finally faded away into silence, chilled by a reception so unfriendly.

Thus cast back upon her own thoughts, the girl grew more and more uneasy as the peculiar features of the occasion became clearer in her own mind. Here was her revered, beloved friend forcing hilarity which she knew he could not feel, breaking bread and drinking wine with a colleague while three thousand of his armed men peered down on the roof that sheltered him, ready at a signal to pounce upon Stolzenfels like birds of prey, capturing, and if necessary, slaying. She remembered the hearty cheers that welcomed them on their arrival at Coblentz, yet every man who thus boisterously greeted them, waving his bonnet in the air, was doubtless an enemy. The very secrecy, the unknown nature of the danger, depressed her more and more as she thought of it; the fierce soldiers hidden in the forest, ready to leap up, burn and kill at an unknown sign from a Prince of religion; the deadly weapons concealed in a Church of Christ: all this grim reality of a Faith she held dear had never been hinted at by the gentle nuns among whom she lived so happily for the greater part of her life.

At last her somber hostess rose, and Hildegunde, with a sigh of relief, followed her example. The Archbishop of Cologne gallantly held back the curtain at the doorway, and bowed low when the three ladies passed through. The silent hostess conducted her guest to a parlor on the same floor as the dining-room; a parlor from which opened another door connecting it with a small knights' hall; the kleine Rittersaal in which the Court of the Archbishops was to be held.

The Archbishop's sister did not enter the parlor, but here took formal farewell of Countess von Sayn, who turned to the sole occupant of the room, her kinsman and counselor, Father Ambrose.

"Were you not asked to dine with us?" she inquired.

"Yes; but I thought it better to refuse. First, in case the three Archbishops might have something confidential to say to you; and second, because at best I am poor company at a banquet."

"Indeed, you need not have been so thoughtful: first, as you say, there were not three Archbishops present, but only two, and neither said anything to me that all the world might not hear; second, the rest of the company, the sister and the niece of Treves, were so doleful that you would have proved a hilarious companion compared with them. Did my guardian make any statement to you yesterday afternoon that revealed the object of this coming Court?"

"None whatever. Our conversation related entirely to your estate and my management of it. We spoke of crops, of cultivation, and of vineyards."

"You have no knowledge, then, of the reason why we are summoned hither?"

"On that subject, Hildegunde, I am as ignorant as you."

"I don't think I am wholly in the dark," murmured the Countess, "although I know nothing definite."

"You surmise, in spite of your guardian's disclaimer, that the discussion will pertain to your recovery of the town of Linz?"

"Perhaps; but not likely. Did you say anything of your journey to Frankfort?"

"Not a word. I understood from you that no mention should be made of my visit unless his Lordship asked questions proving he was aware of it, in which case I was to tell the truth."

"You were quite right, Father. Did my guardian ask you to accompany us to Stolzenfels?"

"Assuredly, or I should not have ventured."

"What reason did he give, and what instructions did he lay upon you?"

"He thought you should have by your side some one akin to you. His instructions were that in no circumstances was I to offer any remark upon the proceedings. Indeed, I am not allowed to speak unless in answer to a question directly put to me, and then in the fewest possible words."

Hildegunde ceased her cross-examination, and seated herself by a window which gave a view of the steep mountain-side behind the Castle, where, sheltered by the thick, dark forest, she knew that her guardian's men lay in ambush. She shuddered slightly, wondering what was the meaning of these preparations, and in the deep silence became aware of the accelerated beating of her heart. She felt but little reassured by the presence of her kinsman, whose lips moved without a murmur, and whose grave eyes seemed fixed on futurity, meditating the mystery of the next world, and completely oblivious to the realities of the earth he inhabited.

She turned her troubled gaze once more to the green forest, and after a long lapse of time the dual reveries were broken by the entrance of an official gorgeously appareled. This functionary bowed low, and said with great solemnity:

"Madam, the Court of my Lords the Archbishops awaits your presence."

       *       *       *       *       *

The kleine Rittersaal occupied a fine position on the river-side front of Stolzenfels, its windows giving a view of the Rhine, with the strong Castle of Lahneck over-hanging the mouth of the Lahn, and the more ornamental Schloss Martinsburg at the upper end of Oberlahnstein. The latter edifice, built by a former Elector of Mayence, was rarely occupied by the present Archbishop, but, as he sat in the central chair of the Court, he had the advantage of being able to look across the river at his own house should it please him to do so.

The three Archbishops were standing behind the long table when the Countess entered, thus acknowledging that she who came into their presence, young and beautiful, was a very great lady by right of descent and rank. She acknowledged their courtesy by a graceful inclination of the head, and the three Princes of the Church responded each with a bow, that of Mayence scarcely perceptible, that of Treves deferential and courtly, that of Cologne with a friendly smile of encouragement.

In the center of the hall opposite the long table had been placed an immense chair, taken from the grand Rittersaal, ornamented with gilded carving, and covered in richly-colored Genoa velvet. It looked like a throne, which indeed it was, used only on occasions when Royalty visited the Castle. To this sumptuous seat the scarcely less gorgeous functionary conducted the girl, and when she had taken her place, the three Archbishops seated themselves. The glorified menial then bent himself until his forehead nearly touched the floor, and silently departed. Father Ambrose, his coarse, ill-cut clothes of somber color in striking contrast to the richness of costume worn by the others, stood humbly beside the chair that supported his kinswoman.

The Countess gave a quick glance at the Archbishop of Mayence, then lowered her eyes. Cologne she had known all her life; Treves she had met that day, and rather liked, although feeling she could not esteem him as she did her guardian, but a thrill of fear followed her swift look at the man in the center.

"A face of great strength," she said to herself, "but his thin, straight lips, tightly compressed, seemed cruel, as well as determined." With a flash of comprehension she understood now her guardian's warning not to thwart him. It was easy to credit the acknowledged fact that this man dominated the other two. Nevertheless, when he spoke his voice was surprisingly mild.

"Madam," he said, "we are met here in an hour of grave anxiety. The Emperor, who has been ill for some time, is now upon his death-bed, and the physicians who attend him inform me that at any moment we may be called upon to elect his successor. That successor has already been chosen; chosen, I may add, in an informal manner, but his selection is not likely to be canceled, unless by some act of his own which would cause us to reconsider our decision. Our adoption was made very recently in my castle of Ehrenfels, and we are come together again in the Castle of my brother Treves, not in our sacred office as Archbishops, but in our secular capacity as Electors of the Empire, to determine a matter which we consider of almost equal importance. It is our privilege to bestow upon you the highest honor that may be conferred on any woman in the realm; the position of Empress.

"When you have signified your acceptance of this great elevation, I must put to you several questions concerning your future duties to the State, and these are embodied in a document which you will be asked to sign."

The Countess did not raise her eyes. While the Archbishop was speaking the color flamed up in her cheeks, but faded away again, and her guardian, who watched her very intently across the table, saw her face become so pale that he feared she was about to faint. However, she rallied, and at last looked up, not at her dark-browed questioner, but at the Archbishop of Cologne.

"May I not know," she said, in a voice scarcely audible, "who is my future husband?"

"Surely, surely," replied her guardian soothingly, "but the Elector of Mayence is our spokesman here, and you must address your question to his Lordship."

She now turned her frightened eyes upon Mayence, whose brow had become slightly ruffled at this interruption, and whose lips were more firmly closed. He sat there imperturbable, refusing the beseechment of her eyes, and thus forced her to repeat her question, though to him it took another form.

"My Lord, who is to be the next Emperor?"

"Countess von Sayn, I fear that in modifying my opening address to accord with the comprehension of a girl but recently emerged from convent life, I have led you into an error. The Court of Electors is not convened for the purpose of securing your consent, but with the duty of imposing upon you a command. It is not for you to ask questions, but to answer them."

"You mean that I am to marry this unknown man, whether I will or no?"

"That is my meaning."

The girl sat back in her chair, and the moisture that had gathered in her eyes disappeared as if licked up by the little flame that burned in their depths.

"Very well," she said. "Ask your questions, and I will answer them."

"Before I put any question, I must have your consent to my first proposition."

"That is quite unnecessary, my Lord. When you hear my answer to your questions, you will very speedily withdraw your first proposition."

The Elector of Treves, who had been shifting uneasily in his chair, now leaned forward, and spoke in an ingratiating manner.

"Countess, you are a neighbor of mine, although you live on the opposite side of the river, and I am honored in receiving you as my guest. As guest and neighbor, I appeal to you on our behalf: be assured that we wish nothing but your very greatest good and happiness." The spark in her eyes died down, and they beamed kindly on the courtier Elector. "You see before you three old bachelors, quite unversed in the ways of women. If anything that has been said offends you, pray overlook our default, for I assure you, on behalf of my colleagues and myself, that any one of us would bitterly regret uttering a single word to cause you disquietude."

"My disquietude, my Lord, is caused by the refusal to utter the single name I have asked for. Am I a peasant girl to be handed over to the hind that makes the highest offer?"

"Not so. No such thought entered our minds. The name is, of course, a secret at the present moment, and I quite appreciate the reluctance of my Lord of Mayence to mention it, but I think in this instance an exception may safely be made, and I now appeal to his Lordship to enlighten the Countess."

Mayence answered indifferently:

"I do not agree with you, but we are here three Electors of equal power, and two can always outvote one."

The Elector of Cologne smiled slightly; he had seen this comedy enacted before, and never objected to it. The carrying of some unimportant point in opposition to their chief always gave Treves a certain sense of independence.

"My Lord of Cologne," said the latter, bending forward and addressing the man at the other end of the table "do you not agree with me?"

"Certainly," replied Cologne, with some curtness.

"In that case," continued Treves, "I take it upon myself to announce to you, Madam, that the young man chosen for our future ruler is Prince Roland, only son of the dying Emperor."

The hands of the Countess nervously clutched the soft velvet on the arms of her chair.

"I thank you," she said, addressing Treves, and speaking as calmly as though she were Mayence himself. "May I ask you if this marriage was proposed to the young man?"

Treves looked up nervously at the stern face of Mayence, who nodded to him, as much as to say:

"You are doing well; go on."

"Yes," replied Treves.

"Was my name concealed from him?"

"No."

"Had he ever heard of me before?"

"Surely," replied the diplomatic Treves, "for the fame of the Countess von Sayn has traveled farther than her modesty will admit."

"Did he agree?"

"Instantly; joyfully, it seemed to me."

"In any case, he has never seen me," continued the Countess. "Did he make any inquiry, whether I was tall or short, old or young, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly?"

"He seemed very well satisfied with our choice."

Treves had his elbows on the table, leaning forward with open palms supporting his chin. He had spoken throughout in the most ingratiating manner, his tones soft and honeyed. He was so evidently pleased with his own diplomacy that even the eye of the stern Mayence twinkled maliciously when the girl turned impulsively toward the other end of the table, and cried:

"Guardian, tell me the truth! I know this young man accepted me as if I were a sack of grain, his whole mind intent on one thing only: to secure for himself the position of Emperor. Is it not so?"

"It is not so, Countess," said Cologne solemnly.

"Prince Roland, it is true, made no stipulation regarding you."

"I was sure of it. Any Gretchen in Germany would have done just as well. I was merely part of the bargain he was compelled to make with you, and now I announce to the Court that no power on earth will induce me to marry Prince Roland. I claim the right of my womanhood to wed only the man whom I love, and who loves me!"

Mayence gave utterance to an exclamation that might be coarsely described as a snort of contempt. The Elector of Treves was leaning back in his chair discomfited by her abrupt desertion of him. The Elector of Cologne now leaned forward, dismayed at the turn affairs had taken, deep anxiety visible on his brow.

"Countess von Sayn," he began, and thus his ward realized how deeply she had offended, "in all my life I never met any young man who impressed me so favorably as Prince Roland of Germany. If I possessed a daughter whom I dearly loved, I could wish her no better fortune than to marry so honest a youth as he. The very point you make against him should have told most strongly in his favor with a young girl. My reading of his character is that so far as concerns the love you spoke of, he knows as little of it as yourself, and thus he agreed to our proposal with a seeming indifference which you entirely misjudge. If you, then, have any belief in my goodwill towards you, in my deep anxiety for your welfare and happiness, I implore you to agree to the suggestion my Lord of Mayence has made. You speak of love knowing nothing concerning it. I call to your remembrance the fact that one noble lady of your race may have foregone the happiness that love perhaps brings, in her desire for the advancement of one whom she loved so truly that she chose for her guide the more subdued but steadier star of duty. The case is presented to you, my dear, in different form, and I feel assured that duty and love will shine together."

As the venerable Archbishop spoke with such deep earnestness, in a voice she loved so well, the girl buried her face in her hands, and he could see the tears trickle between her fingers. A silence followed her guardian's appeal, disturbed only by the agitated breathing of Hildegunde.

The cold voice of the Elector of Mayence broke the stillness, like a breath from a glazier:

"Do you consent, Madam?"

"Yes," gasped the girl, her shoulders quivering with emotion, but she did not look up.

"I fear that the object of this convocation was like to be forgotten in the gush of sentiment issuing from both sides of me. This is a business meeting, and not a love-feast. Will you do me the courtesy, Madam, of raising your head and answering my question?"

The girl dashed the tears from her eyes, and sat up straight, grasping with nervous hands the arms of the throne, as if to steady herself against the coming ordeal.

"I scarcely heard what you said. Do you consent to marry Prince Roland of Germany?"

"I have consented," she replied firmly.

"Will you use your influence with him that he may carry out the behests of the three Archbishops?"

"Yes, if the behests are for the good of the country."

"I cannot accept any qualifications, therefore I repeat my question. Will you use your influence with him that he may carry out the behests of the three Archbishops?"

"I can have no influence with such a man."

"Answer my question, Madam."

"Say yes, Hildegunde," pleaded Cologne.

She turned to him swimming eyes.

"Oh, Guardian, Guardian!" she cried, "I have done everything I can, and all for you; all for you. I cannot stand any more. This is torture to me. Let me go home, and another day when I am calmer I will answer your questions!"

The perturbed Archbishop sat back again with a deep sigh. The ignorance of women with which his colleague of Treves had credited all three was being amazingly dispelled. He could not understand why this girl should show such emotion at the thought of marrying the heir to the throne, when assured the young man was all that any reasonable woman could desire.

"Madam, I pray you give your attention to me," said the unimpassioned voice of Mayence. "I have listened to your conversation with my colleagues, and the patience I exhibited will, I hope, be credited to me. This matter of business"--he emphasized the word--"must be settled to-day, and to clear away all misapprehension, I desire to say that your guardian has really no influence on this matter. It was settled before you came into the room. You are merely allowed a choice of two outcomes: first, marriage with Prince Roland; second, imprisonment in Pfalz Castle, situated in the middle of the Rhine."

"What is that?" demanded the Countess.

"I am tired of repeating my statements."

"You would imprison me--me, a Countess of Sayn?"

Again the tears evaporated, and in their place came the smoldering fire bequeathed to her by the Crusaders, and, if the truth must be known, by Rhine robbers as well.

"Yes, Madam. A predecessor of mine once hanged one of your ancestors."

"It is not true," cried the girl, in blazing wrath. "'Twas the Emperor Rudolph who hanged him; the same Emperor that chastised an Archbishop of Mayence, and brought him, cringing, to his knees, begging for pardon, which the Emperor contemptuously flung to him. You dare not imprison me!"

"Refuse to marry Prince Roland, and learn," said the Archbishop very quietly.

The girl sprang to her feet, a-quiver with anger.

"I do refuse! Prince Roland has hoodwinked the three of you! He is a libertine and a brawler, consorting with the lowest in the cellars of Frankfort; a liar and a thief, and not a brave thief at that, but a cutthroat who holds his sword to the breast of an unarmed merchant while he filches from him his gold. Added to that, a drunkard as his father is; and, above all, a hypocrite, as his father is not, yet clever enough, with all his vices, to cozen three men whose vile rule has ruined Frankfort, and left the broad Rhine empty of its life-giving commerce;" she waved her hand toward the vacant river.

The Archbishop of Cologne was the first to rise, horror-stricken.

"The girl is mad!" he murmured.

Treves rose also, but Mayence sat still, a sour smile on his lips, yet a twinkle of admiration in his eyes.

"No, my poor Guardian, I am not mad," she cried, regarding him with a smile, her wrath subsiding as quickly as it had risen. "What I say is true, and it may be that our meeting, turbulent as it has been, will prevent you from making a great mistake. He whom you would put on the throne is not the man you think."

"My dear ward!" cried Cologne, "how can you make such accusations against him? What should a girl living in seclusion as you live, know of what is passing in Frankfort."

"It seems strange, Guardian, but it is true, nevertheless. Sit down again, I beg of you, and you, my Lord of Treves. Even my Lord of Mayence will, I think, comprehend my abhorrence when such a proposal was made to me, and I hope, my Lord, you will forgive my outburst of anger just now."

She heard the trembling Treves mutter:

"Mayence never forgives."

"Now, Father Ambrose, come forward."

"Why?" asked Ambrose, waking from his reverie.

"Tell them your experiences in Frankfort."

"I am not allowed to speak," objected the monk.

"Speak, speak!" cried Cologne. "What, sir, have you had to do with this girl's misleading?"

"I thought," he said wistfully to his kinswoman, "that I was not to mention my visit to Frankfort unless my Lord the Archbishop brought up the subject."

"Have you not been listening to these proceedings?" cried the girl impatiently. "The subject is brought up before three Archbishops, instead of before one. Tell their Lordships what you know of Prince Roland."

Father Ambrose, with a deep sigh, began his recital, to which Treves and Cologne listened with ever-increasing amazement, while the sullen Mayence sat back in his chair, face imperturbable, but the thin lips closing firmer and firmer as the narrative went on.

When the monologue ended, his Reverence of Cologne was the first to speak:

"In the name of Heaven, why did you not tell me all this yesterday?"

Father Ambrose looked helplessly at his kinswoman, but made no reply.

"I forbade him, my Lord," said the girl proudly, and for the first time addressing him by a formal title, as if from now on he was to be reckoned with her enemies. "I alone am responsible for the journey to Frankfort and its consequences, whatever they may be. You invoked the name of Heaven just now, my Lord, and I would have you know that I am convinced Heaven itself intervened on my behalf to expose the real character of Prince Roland, who has successfully deluded three men like yourselves, supposed to be astute!"

The Archbishop turned upon her sorrowful eyes, troubled yet kindly.

"My dear Countess," he said, "I have not ventured to censure you; nevertheless I am, or have been, your guardian, and should, I think, have been consulted before you committed yourself to an action that threatens disaster to our plans."

The girl replied, still with the hauteur so lately assumed:

"I do not dispute my wardship, and have more than once thanked you for your care of me, but at this crisis of my life--a crisis transforming me instantly from a girl to a woman--you fail me, seeing me here at bay. I wished to spend a month or two at the capital city, but before troubling you with such a request I determined to learn whether or not the state of Frankfort was as disturbed as rumor alleged. Finding matters there to be hopeless, the project of a visit was at once abandoned, and knowing nothing of the honor about to be conferred on Prince Roland, I thought it best to keep what had been discovered regarding his character a secret between the Reverend Father and myself. I dare say an attempt will be made to cast doubt on the Reverend Father's story, and perhaps my three judges may convince themselves of its falseness, but they cannot convince me, and I tell you finally and formally that no power on earth will induce me to marry a marauder and a thief!"

This announcement effectually silenced the one friend she possessed among the three. Mayence slowly turned his head, and looked upon the colleague at his right, as much as to say, "Do you wish to add your quota to this inconsequential talk?"

Treves, at this silent appeal, leaned forward, and spoke to the perturbed monk, who knew that, in some way he did not quite understand, affairs were drifting towards a catastrophe.

"Father Ambrose," began the Elector of Treves, "would you kindly tell us the exact date when this encounter on the bridge took place?"

"Saint Cyrille's Day," replied Father Ambrose.

"And during the night of that day you were incarcerated in the cellar among the wine-casks?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Would it surprise you to know, Father Ambrose, that during Saint Cyrille's Day, and for many days previous to that date, Prince Roland was a close prisoner in his Lordship of Mayence's strong Castle of Ehrenfels, and that it was quite impossible for you to have met him in Frankfort, or anywhere else?"

"Nevertheless, I did meet him," persisted Father Ambrose, with the quiet obstinacy of a mild man.

Treves smiled.

"Where did you lodge in Frankfort, Father?"

"At the Benedictine Monastery in Sachsenhausen."

"Do the good brethren supply their guests with a potent wine? Frankfort is, and always has been, the chief market of that exhilarating but illusion-creating beverage."

The cheeks of the Countess flushed crimson at this insinuation on her kinsman's sobriety. The old monk's hand rested on the arm of her throne, and she placed her own hand upon his as if to encourage him to resent the implied slander. After all, they were two Sayns hard pressed by these ruthless potentates. But Ambrose answered mildly:

"It may be that the monastery contains wine, my Lord, and doubtless the wine is good, but during my visit I did not taste it."

Cross-examination at an end, the Lord of Mayence spoke scarcely above a whisper, a trace of weariness in his manner.

"My Lords," he said, "we have wandered from the subject. The romance by Father Ambrose is but indifferently interesting, and nothing at all to the point. Even a child may understand what has happened, for it is merely a case of mistaken identity, and my sympathy goes out entirely towards the unknown; a man who knew his own mind, and being naturally indignant at an interference both persistent and uncalled for, quite rightly immured the meddler among the casks, probably shrewd enough to see that this practicer of temperance would not interfere with their integrity.

"Madam, stand up!"

The Countess seemed inclined to disobey this curt order, but a beseeching look from her now thoroughly frightened guardian changed her intention, and she rose to her feet.

"Madam, the greatest honor which it is in the power of this Empire to bestow upon a woman has been proffered to you, and rejected with unnecessary heat. I beg therefore, to inform you, that in the judgment of this Court you are considered unworthy of the exalted position which, before knowing your true character, it was intended you should fill. The various calumnies you have poured upon the innocent head of Prince Roland amount in effect to high treason."

"Pardon, my Lord!" cried the Archbishop of Cologne, "your contention will hold neither in law nor in fact. High treason is an offense that can be committed only against the realm as a whole, or against its ruler in person. Prince Roland is not yet Emperor of Germany, and however much we may regret the language used in his disparagement, it has arisen through a misunderstanding quite patent to us all. A good but dreamy man made a mistake, which, however deplorable, has been put forward with a sincerity that none of us can question; indeed, it was the intention of Father Ambrose to keep his supposed knowledge a secret, and you both saw with what evident reluctance he spoke when commanded to do so by my colleague of Treves. Whatever justice there may be in disciplining Father Ambrose, there is none at all for exaggerated censure upon my lady, the Countess of Sayn, and before pronouncing a further censure I beg your Lordship to take into consideration the circumstances of the case, by which a young girl, without any previous warning or preparation, is called upon suddenly to make the most momentous decision of her life. I say it is to her ladyship's credit that she refused the highest station in the land in the interests of what she supposes to be, however erroneously, the cause of honesty, sobriety, and, I may add, of Christianity; qualities for which we three men should stand."

"My Lord," objected Treves, "we meet here as temporal Princes, and not as Archbishops of the Church."

"I know that, my brother of Treves, and my appeal is to the temporal law. Prince Roland, despite his high lineage, is merely a citizen of the Empire, and a subject of his Majesty, the Emperor. It is therefore impossible that the crime of treason can be committed against him."

During this protest and discussion the Elector of Mayence had leaned back again in his usual attitude of tired indifference; his keen eyes almost closed. When he spoke he made no reference to what either of his two confreres had said.

"Madam," he began, without raising his voice, "it is the sentence of this Court that you shall be imprisoned during its pleasure in the Castle of Pfalzgrafenstein, which stands on a rock in the middle of the Rhine. Under the guardianship of the Pfalzgraf von Stableck, who will be responsible for your safe keeping, I hope you will listen to the devout counsel of his excellent wife to such effect that when next you are privileged to meet a Court so highly constituted as this you may be better instructed regarding the language with which it should be addressed. You are permitted to take with you two waiting-women, chosen by yourself from your own household, but all communication with the outside world is forbidden. You said something to the effect that this Court dared not pronounce such sentence against you, but if you possessed that wisdom you so conspicuously lack, you might have surmised that a power which ventured to imprison the future Emperor of this land would not hesitate to place in durance a mere Countess von Sayn."

The Countess bowed her head slightly, and without protest sat down again. The Elector of Cologne arose.

"My Lord, I raised a point of law which has been ignored."

"This is the proper time to raise it," replied Mayence, "and you shall be instantly satisfied. This Court is competent to give its decision upon any point of law. If my Lord of Treves agrees with me, your objection is disallowed."

"I agree," said the Elector of Treves.

"My Lord of Cologne," said Mayence, turning towards the person addressed, "the decision of the Court is against you."

Hildegunde was already learning a lesson. Although dazed by the verdict, she could not but admire the quiet, conversational tone adopted by the three men before her, as compared with her own late vehemence.

"The decision of the Court is not unexpected," said Cologne, "and I regret that I am compelled to appeal."

"To whom will you appeal?" inquired Mayence mildly, "The Emperor, as you know, is quite unfit for the transaction of public business, and even if such were not the case, would hesitate to overturn a decision given by a majority of this Court."

"I appeal," replied Cologne, "to a power that even Emperors must obey; the power of physical force."

"You mean," said Mayence sadly, "to the three thousand men concealed in the forest behind this house in which you are an honored guest?"

The Elector of Cologne was so taken aback by this almost whispered remark that he was momentarily struck speechless. A sudden pallor swept the usual ruddiness from his face. The Lord of Mayence gently inclined his head as if awaiting an answer, and when it did not come, went on impassively:

"I may inform you, my Lord, that my army occupies the capital city of Frankfort, able and ready to quell any disturbance that may be caused by the announcement of the Emperor's death, but there are still plenty of seasoned troops ready to uphold the decisions of this Court. When your spies scoured the country in the forests, and along the river almost to the gates of my city of Mayence, they appeared to labor under the illusion that I could move my soldiers only overland. Naturally, they met no sign of such an incursion, because I had requisitioned a hundred barges which I found empty in the river Main by Frankfort. These were floated down the Main to Mayence, and there received their quota of a hundred men each. The night being dark they came down the Rhine, it seems, quite unobserved, and are now concealed in the mouth of the river Lahn directly opposite this Castle.

"When my flag is hoisted on the staff of the main tower this flotilla will be at the landing below us within half an hour. You doubtless have made similar arrangements for bringing your three thousand down upon Stolzenfels, but the gates of this Castle are now closed. Indeed, Stolzenfels was put in condition to withstand a siege very shortly after you and your ward entered it, and it is garrisoned by two hundred fighting men, kindly provided at my suggestion by my brother of Treves. I doubt if its capture is possible, even though you gave the signal, which we will not allow. Of course, your plan of capturing Treves and myself was a good one could it be carried out, for a man in jeopardy will always compromise, and as I estimate you are in that position I should be glad to know what arrangement you propose."

The Archbishop of Cologne did not reply, but stood with bent head and frowning brow. It was the Countess von Sayn who, rising, spoke:

"My Lord Archbishop of Mayence," she said, "I could never forgive myself if through action of mine a fatal struggle took place between my countrymen. I have no desire to enact the part of Helen of Troy. I am therefore ready and willing to be imprisoned, or to marry Prince Roland of Frankfort, whichever alternative you command, so long as no disadvantage comes to my friend, his Lordship of Cologne."

"Madam," said Mayence suavely, "there are not now two alternatives, as you suppose."

"In such case, your Highness, I betake myself instantly to Pfalz Castle, and I ask that my guardian be allowed to escort me on the journey."

"Madam, your determination is approved, and your request granted, but, as the business for which the three Electors were convened is not yet accomplished, I request you to withdraw until such time as an agreement has been arrived at. Father Ambrose is permitted to accompany you."

The gallant Elector of Treves sprang at once to his feet, pleading for the privilege of conducting the Countess to the apartments of his sister and her daughter. As the door to the ante-room opened the Elector of Cologne, whose eyes followed his departing ward, did not fail to observe that the lobby was thronged with armed men, and he realized now, if he had not done so from Mayence's observation, how completely he was trapped. Even had a hundred thousand of his soldiers stood in readiness on the hills, it was impossible for him to give the signal bringing them to his rescue.

A few minutes later the Elector of Treves returned, and took his place at Mayence's right hand. The latter spoke as though the conference had been unanimous and amiable.

"Now that we three are alone together, I think we shall discuss our problems under a feeling of less apprehension if the small army in the forest is bade God-speed on its way to Cologne. Such being the case," he went on, turning to Cologne, "would you kindly write an order to that effect to your commander. Inform him that we three Electors wish to review your troops from the northern balcony, and bid them file past from the hills to the river road. They are to cross the Moselle by the old bridge, and so return to your city. You will perhaps pledge faith that no signal will be made to your officers as they pass us. I make this appeal with the greater confidence since you are well aware three thousand men would but destroy themselves in any attempt to capture this Castle, with an army of ten thousand on their flank to annihilate them. Do you agree?"

"I agree," replied Cologne.

He wrote out the order required, and handed it to Mayence, who scrutinized the document with some care before passing it on to Treves. Mayence addressed Cologne in his blandest tones:

"Would you kindly instruct our colleague how to get that message safely into the hands of your commander."

"If he will have it sent to the head of my small escort, ordering him to take it directly up the hill behind this Castle until he comes to my sentinels, whom he knows personally, they will allow him to pass through, and deliver my written command to the officer in charge."

This being done, and Treves once more returned, Mayence said:

"I am sure we all realize that the Countess von Sayn, however admirable in other respects, possesses an independent mind and a determined will rendering her quite unsuited for the station we intended her to occupy. I think her guardian must be convinced now, even though he had little suspicion of it before, that this lady would not easily be influenced by any considerations we might place before her. The regrettable incidents of this conference have probably instilled into her mind a certain prejudice against us."

Here, for the first time, the Elector of Cologne laughed.

"It is highly probable, my Lord," he said, "and, indeed, your moderate way of putting the case is unanswerable. Her ladyship as an Empress under our influence is out of the question. I therefore make a proposal with some confidence, quite certain it will please you both. I venture to nominate for the position of Empress that very demure and silent lady who is niece of my brother the Elector of Treves."

Treves strangled a gasp in its birth, but could not suppress the light of ambition that suddenly leaped into his eyes. The elevation of his widowed sister's child to the Imperial throne was an advantage so tremendous, and came about so unexpectedly, that for the moment his slow brain was numbed by the glorious prospect. It seemed incredible that Cologne had actually put forward such a proposition.

The eyes of Mayence veiled themselves almost to shutting point, but in no other manner did emotion show. Like a flash his alert mind saw the full purport of the bombshell Cologne had so carelessly tossed between himself and his henchman. Cologne, having lost everything, had now proved clever enough to set by the ears those who overruled him by their united vote. If this girl were made Empress she would be entirely under the influence of her uncle, of whose household she had been a pliant member ever since childhood. Yet what was Mayence to do? Should he object to the nomination, he would at once obliterate the unswerving loyalty of Treves, and if this happened, Treves and Cologne, joining, would outvote him, and his objection would prove futile. He would enrage Treves without carrying his own point, and he knew that he held his position only because of the dog-like fidelity of the weaker man. Slow anger rose in his heart as he pictured the conditions of the future. Whatever influence he sought to exert upon the Emperor by the indirect assistance of the Empress, must be got at through the complacency of Treves, who would gradually come to appreciate his own increased importance.

All this passed through the mind of Mayence, and his decision had been arrived at before Treves recovered his composure.

"It gives me great pleasure," said the Elector of Mayence, firmly suppressing the malignancy of his glance towards the man seated on his left,--"it gives me very great pleasure indeed to second so admirable a nomination, the more so that I am thus permitted to offer my congratulations to an esteemed colleague and a valued friend. My Lord of Treves, I trust that you will make this nomination unanimous, for, to my delight, his Lordship of Cologne anticipated, by a few moments the proposal I was about to submit to you."

"My Lord," stammered Treves, finding his voice with difficulty, "I--I--of course will agree to whatever the Court decides. I--I thank you, my Lord, and you too, my brother of Cologne."

"Then," cried Mayence, almost joyfully, "the task for which we are convened is accomplished, and I declare this Court adjourned."

He rose from his chair. The overjoyed Prince at his right took no thought of the fact that their chairman had not called upon the lady that she might receive the decision of the conclave and answer the questions to be put to her, but Cologne perceived the omission, and knew that from that moment Mayence would set his subtility at work to nullify the nomination. Even though his bombshell had not exploded, and the two other Electors were apparently greater friends than ever, Cologne had achieved his immediate object, and was satisfied.

Through the open windows came the sound of the steady tramping of disciplined men, and the metallic clash of armor and arms in transit.

"Ah, now," cried Mayence, "we will enjoy the advantage of reviewing the brave troops of Cologne. Lead the way, my Lord of Treves. You know the Castle better than we do."

The proud Treves, treading on air, guided his guests to the northern balcony.