The Sword Maker by Robert Barr
XII. The Laughing Red Margrave of Furstenberg
Ebearhard laughed, and took two steps forward. Whenever affairs became serious, one could always depend on a laugh from Ebearhard.
"Excuse me, Commander," he said, "but you placed Greusel and me in charge of this pious and sober party; therefore I, being the least of your officers, must stand the first brunt of our failure to keep these lambs peaceable for the night. Greusel, stand behind me, and in front of the Commander. I, being reasonably sober, believe I can cut down six of the innocents before they finish with me. You will attend to the next six, leaving exactly half a dozen for Roland to eliminate in his own fashion. Now, Herr Conrad Kurzbold, come on."
"We have no quarrel with you," said Kurzbold. "Stand aside."
"But I force a quarrel upon you, undisciplined pig. Defend yourself, for, by the Three Kings, I am going to tap your walking wine-barrel!"
Kurzbold, however, retreating with more haste than caution, one or two behind him were sent sprawling, and the half-dozen which were Roland's portion tumbled over one another down the steep ladder into the cabin.
Ebearhard laughed again when the last man disappeared.
"I think," he said to Roland, "that you will meet no further trouble from our friends. They evidently broke open the lockers, alarmed because Greusel and I asked for a postponement of the counting, probably intending to make the division without our assistance."
"Have you hidden the money?" asked Greusel.
"Not exactly," replied Roland; "but, in case anything should happen to me, I will tell you what I have done with it."
When he finished his recital, he added:
"I will give each of you a letter to Herr Goebel, identifying you. He is entitled to four thousand five hundred thalers of the money. The balance you will divide among those of us who survive."
Roland slept on deck, wrapped in his cloak. His two lieutenants took turn in keeping watch, but nothing except snores came up from the cabin. The mutineers were not examples of early rising next morning. The sun gave promise of another warm day, and Roland walked up and down the deck, anxiety printed on his brow. He had made up his mind to knock at the door of the Laughing Baron, a giant in stature, reported to be the most ingenious, most cruel, and bravest of all the robber noblemen of the Rhine, whose Castle was notoriously the hardest nut to crack along the banks of that famous river. For several reasons it would not be wise to linger much longer in the neighborhood of Lorch. The three castles they had entered the day before were still visible on the western bank. News of the raid would undoubtedly travel to Furstenberg, also within sight down the river, and thus the hilarious Margrave would be put on his guard, overjoyed at the opportunity of trapping the moral marauders. Furstenberg was also a fief of Cologne, and any molestation of it would involve the meddler, if identified, in complications with the Church and the Archbishop.
It was necessary, therefore, to move with caution, and to retreat, if possible, unobserved. These difficulties alone were enough to give pause to the most intrepid, but Roland was further handicapped by his own following. How could he hope to accomplish any subtle movement requiring silence, prompt obedience, and great alertness, supported by men whose brains were muddled with drink, and whose conduct was saturated with conspiracy against him? They had wine enough on board to continue their orgy, and he was quite unable to prevent their carouse. With a deep sigh he realized that he would be compelled to forego Furstenberg, and thus leave behind him a virgin citadel, which he knew was bad tactics from a military point of view.
During his meditations his men were coming up from the fuming cabin into the fresh air and the sunlight. They appeared by twos and threes, yawning and rubbing their eyes, but no one ventured to interrupt the leader as, with bent head, he paced back and forth on the deck. The men, indeed, seemed exceedingly subdued. They passed with almost overdone nonchalance from the boat to the island, and sauntered towards its lower end, from which, in the clear morning air, the grim fortress of Furstenberg could be plainly discerned diagonally across the river. It was Ebearhard who broke in upon Roland's reverie.
"Our friends appear very quiet this morning, but I observe they have all happened to coincide upon the northern part of the island as a rendezvous for their before-breakfast walk. I surmise they are holding a formal meeting of the guild, but neither Greusel nor I have been invited, so I suppose that after last night's display we two are no longer considered their brethren. This meekness on their part seems to me more dangerous than last night's flurry. I think they will demand from you a knowledge of what has been done with the gold. Have you decided upon your answer?"
"Yes; it is their right to know, so I shall tell them the truth. By this time Kruger is on his way somewhere between Ehrenfels and Wiesbaden. He will reach Frankfort to-night, and cannot be overtaken."
Is there not danger that they will desert in a body, return to Frankfort, and demand from Herr Goebel their share of the spoil?"
"No matter for that," returned Roland. "Goebel will not part with a florin except under security of such letters as I purpose giving you and Greusel, and even then only when you have proven to him that I am dead."
"That is all very well," demurred Ebearhard, "but don't you see what a dangerous power you put into the hands of the rebels? Goebel is merely a merchant, and, though rich, politically powerless. He has already come into conflict with the authorities, and spent a term in prison. Do not forget that the Archbishops have refused to take action against these robber Barons. Our men, if there happen to be one of brains among them, can easily terrify Goebel into parting with the treasure by threatening to confess their own and his complicity in the raids. Consider what an excellent case they can put forward, stating quite truly that they joined this expedition in ignorance of its purport, but on the very first day, learning what was afoot, they deserted their criminal leader, and are now endeavoring to make restitution. Goebel is helpless. If he says that they first demanded the gold from him, they as strenuously deny it, and their denial must be believed, because they come of their own free-will to the authorities. The merchant, already tainted with treason, having suffered imprisonment, and narrowly escaped hanging, proves on investigation to be up to the neck in this affair. There is no difficulty in learning that his barge went down the river, manned by a crew of his own choosing. Of course, it need never come to this, because Goebel, being a shrewd man, could at once see in what jeopardy he stood, and convinced from the men's own story that they were part, at least, of your contingent, would deliver up the treasure to them. Don't you see he must do so to save his own neck?"
Roland pondered deeply on what had been said to him, but for the moment made no reply. Greusel, who joined them during the conversation, remaining silent until Ebearhard had finished, now spoke:
"I quite agree with all that has been said."
"What, then, would you advise me to do?" asked Roland.
"I have been talking with one or two of the men," said Greusel. "(They won't speak to Ebearhard because he drew his sword on them.) I find they believe you took advantage of their absence to bury the gold in what you suppose to be a safe place. They are sure you are acquainted with no one in Lorch to whom you could safely entrust it, and of course do not suspect an emissary from Frankfort. I should advise you to say that arrangements have been made for every man to get his share so long as nothing untoward happens to you. This will preserve your life should they go so far as to threaten it, and compel them to stay on with us. After all, we are merely artisans, and not fighting men. I am convinced that if ever we are really attacked, we shall make a very poor showing, even though we carry swords. Remember how the men tumbled over one another in their haste to get out of reach when Ebearhard flourished his blade."
"I think Greusel's suggestion is an excellent one," put in Ebearhard.
"Very well," said Roland, "I shall adopt it, although I had made up my mind fully to enlighten them."
"There is one more matter that I should like to speak to you about," continued Ebearhard. "Both at Assmannshausen, and at Lorch last night, we heard a good deal anent Furstenberg. It is the most dangerous castle on the Rhine to meddle with. The Laughing Baron, as they call him, although he is a Margrave, is the only man who dared to stop a king on his way down the Rhine, and hold him for ransom."
"Yes," said Roland; "Adolf of Nassau, on his way to be crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle."
"Quite so. Well, this huge ruffian--I never can remember his name; can you, Greusel?"
"No, it beats me."
"Margrave Hermann von Katznellenbogenstahleck," said Roland, so solemnly that Ebearhard laughed and even Greusel smiled.
"That's the individual," agreed Ebearhard, "and you must admit the name itself is a formidable thing to attack, even without the giant it belongs to."
"Banish all apprehension," said Roland. "I have already decided to remain here through the day, and drop quietly down the river to-night in the darkness past Furstenberg."
"I think that is a wise decision," said Ebearhard.
"'Tis against all military rules," demurred Roland, "but nevertheless with such an army as I lead it seems the only way. Do the men know that Furstenberg is our point of greatest danger?"
"Yes; but they do not know so much as I. Last night I left them in Greusel's charge, being alarmed about what I heard of Furstenberg, and engaged a boatman to take me over there before the moon rose. I discovered that the Laughing Baron has caused a chain to be buoyed up just below the surface of the water, running diagonally up the river more than half-way across it, so that any boat coming down is caught and drawn into the landing, for the main flood of the Rhine, as you know, runs to the westward of this island. The boatman who ferried me knew about this chain, but thought it had been abandoned since traffic stopped. He says it runs right up into the Castle, and the moment a barge strikes against it, a big bell is automatically rung inside the stronghold, causing the Baron to laugh so loudly that they sometimes hear him over in Lorch."
"This is very interesting, Ebearhard, and an excellent feat of scouting must be set down to your credit. Say nothing to the men, because, although we give Furstenberg the go-by on this occasion, I shall pay my respects to Herman von Katznellenbogenstahleck on my return, and the knowledge you bring me will prove useful."
"Ha!" cried Greusel, "here are our infants returning, all in a body, Kurzbold at their head as usual. I imagine this morning they are going to depend on rhetoric, and allow their swords to remain in scabbard. They have evidently come to some momentous decision."
The three retired to the prow of the boat as the guild clambored on at the stern. The captain and two of his men had taken the skiff belonging to the barge, and were absent at Lorch, purchasing provisions. Roland stood at the prow of the barge, slightly in advance of his two lieutenants, and awaited the approach of Kurzbold, with seventeen men behind him.
"Commander," said the spokesman, with nothing of the late truculence in his tone, "we have just held a meeting of the guild, and unanimously agreed to ask you one question, and offer you one suggestion."
"I shall be pleased," replied Roland, "to answer the first if I think it desirable, and take the second into consideration."
He inclined his head to the delegation, and received a low bow in return. This was a most auspicious beginning, showing a certain improvement of method on the part of the majority.
"The question is, Commander, what have you done with the gold we captured yesterday?"
"A very proper inquiry," replied Roland, "that it gives me much pleasure to answer. I have placed the money in a custody which I believe to be absolute, arranging that if nothing happens to me, this money shall be properly divided in my presence."
"Do you deny, sir, that the money belongs to us?"
"Part of it undoubtedly does, but I, as leader of the expedition, am morally, if not legally, responsible to you all for its safe keeping. Our barge has stopped three times so far, and Captain Blumenfels tells me that he has had no real violence to complain of, but as we progress farther down the river, we are bound to encounter some Baron who is not so punctilious; for instance, the Margrave von Katznellenbogenstahleck, whose stronghold you doubtless saw from the latest meeting-place of the guild. Such a man as the Margrave is certain to do what you yourselves did without hesitation last night, that is, break open the lockers, and if gold were there you may depend it would not long remain in our possession after the discovery."
"You miss, or rather, evade the point, Commander. Is the gold ours, or is it yours?"
"I have admitted that part of it is yours."
"Then by what right do you assert the power to deal with it, lacking our consent? If you will pardon me for saying so, you, the youngest of our company, treat the rest of us as though we were children."
"If I possessed a child that acted at once so obstreperously and in so cowardly a manner as you did last night, I should cut a stick from the forest here, and thrash him with such severity that he would never forget it. As I have not done this to you, I deny that I treat you like children. The truth is that, although the youngest, I am your commander. We are engaged in acts of war, therefore military law prevails, and not the code of Justinian. It is my duty to protect your treasure and my own, and ensure that each man shall receive his share. After the division you may do what you please with the money, for you will then be under the common law, and I should not presume even to advise concerning its disposal."
"You refuse to tell us, then, what you have done with the gold?"
"I do. Now proceed with your suggestion."
"I fear I put the case too mildly when I called it a suggestion, considering the unsatisfactory nature of your reply to my question, therefore I withdraw the word 'suggestion,' and substitute the word 'command.'"
Kurzbold paused, to give his ultimatum the greater force. Behind him rose a murmur of approval.
"Words do not matter in the least. I deal with deeds. Out, then, with your command!" cried Roland, for the first time exhibiting impatience.
"The command unanimously adopted is this: the Castle of Furstenberg must be left alone. We know more of that Castle than you do, especially about its owner and his garrison. We have been gathering information as we journeyed, and have not remained sulking in the barge."
"Well, that is encouraging news to hear," said Roland. "I thought you were engaged in sampling wine."
"You hear the command. Will you obey?"
"I will not," said Roland decisively.
Ebearhard took a step forward to the side of his chief, and glanced at him reproachfully. Greusel remained where he was, but neither man spoke.
"You intend to attack Furstenberg?"
Kurzbold turned to his following:
"Brethren," he said, "you have heard this conversation, and it needs no comment from me."
Apparently the discussion was to receive no comment from the others either. They stood there glum and disconcerted, as if the trend of affairs had taken an unexpected turn.
"I think," said one, "we had better retire and consult again."
This was unanimously agreed to, and once more they disembarked upon the island, and moved forward to their Witenagemot. Still Greusel and Ebearhard said nothing, but watched the men disappear through the trees. Roland looked at one after another with a smile.
"I see," he said, "that you disapprove of my conduct."
Greusel remained silent, but Ebearhard laughed and spoke.
"You came deliberately to the conclusion that it was unwise to attack Furstenberg. Now, because of Kurzbold's lack of courtesy, you deflect from your own mature judgment, and hastily jump into a course opposite to that which you marked out for yourself after sober, unbiased thought."
"My dear Ebearhard, the duty of a commander is to give, and not to receive, commands."
"Quite so. Command and suggestion are merely words, as you yourself pointed out, saying that they did not matter."
"In that, Ebearhard, I was wrong. Words do matter, although Kurzbold wasn't clever enough to correct me. For example, I hold no man in higher esteem than yourself, yet you might use words that would cause me instantly to draw my sword upon you, and fight until one or other of us succumbed."
"You put it very flatteringly, Roland. Truth is, you'd fight till I succumbed, my swordsmanship being no match for yours. I shall say the words, however, that will cause you to draw your sword, and they are: Commander, I will stand by you whatever you do."
"And I," said Greusel curtly.
Roland shook hands in turn with the two men.
"Right," he cried. "If we are fated to go down, we will fall with banners flying."
After a time the captain returned with his supplies, but still the majority of the guild remained engaged in deliberation. Evidently discussion was not proceeding with that unanimity which Kurzbold always insisted was the case.
At noon Roland requested the captain to send some of his men with a meal for those in prolonged session, and also to carry them a cask which had been half-emptied either that morning or the night before.
"They will enjoy a picnic under the trees by the margin of the river," said Roland, as he and his two backers sat down in the empty cabin to their own repast.
"Do you think they are purposely delaying, so that you cannot cross over this afternoon?"
"'Tis very likely," said Roland. "I'll wait here until the sun sets, and then when they realize that I am about to leave them on an uninhabited island, without anything to eat, I think you will see them scramble aboard."
"But suppose they don't," suggested Greusel. "There are at least three of them able to swim across this narrow branch of the Rhine, and engage a boatman to take them off, should their signaling be unobserved."
"Again no matter. My plan for the undoing of the castles does not depend on force, but on craft. We three cannot carry away as much gold as can twenty-one, but our shares will be the same, and then we are not likely to find again so full a treasury as that at Rheinstein. My belief that these chaps would fight was dispelled by their conduct last night. Think of eighteen armed men flying before one sword!"
"Ah, you are scarce just in your estimate, Commander. They were under the influence of wine."
"True; but a brave man will fight, drunk or sober."
Although the sun sank out of sight, the men did not return. There had been more wine in the cask than Roland supposed, for the cheery songs of the guild echoed through the sylvan solitude. Roland told the captain to set his men at work and row round the top of the island into the main stream of the Rhine. The revelers had evidently appointed watchmen, for they speedily came running through the woods, and followed the movements of the boat from the shore, keeping pace with it. When the craft reached the opposite side of the island, the rowers drew in to the beach.
"Are you coming aboard?" asked Roland pleasantly.
"Will you agree to pass Furstenberg during the night?" demanded Kurzbold.
"Do you expect to succeed, as you did with the other castles?"
"Certainly; otherwise I shouldn't make the attempt."
"I was wrong," said Kurzbold mildly, "in substituting the word 'command' for 'suggestion,' which I first employed. There are many grave reasons for deferring an attempt on Furstenberg. In the heat of argument these reasons were not presented to you. Will you consent to listen to them if we go on board?"
"Yes; if you, on your part, will unanimously promise to abide by my decision."
"Do you think," said Kurzbold, "that your prejudice against me, which perhaps you agree does exist--"
"It exists," confessed Roland.
"Very well. Will you allow that prejudice to prevent you from rendering a decision in the men's favor?"
"No. If they present reasons that convince Greusel and Ebearhard against the attack on Furstenberg, I shall do what these two men advise, even although I myself believe in a contrary course. Thus you see, Herr Kurzbold, that my admitted dislike of you shall not come into play at all."
"That is quite satisfactory," said Kurzbold. "Will you tie up against the farther shore until your decision is rendered?"
"With pleasure," replied Roland; and accordingly the raiders tumbled impetuously on board the barge, whereupon the sailors bent to their long oars, and quickly reached the western bank, at a picturesque spot out of sight of any castle, where the trees came down the mountain-side to the water's edge. Here the sailors, springing ashore, tied their stout ropes to the tree-trunks, and the great barge lay broadside on to the land, with her nose pointing down the stream.
"You see," said Roland to his lieutenants, "without giving way in the least I allow you two the decision, and so I take it Furstenberg or ourselves will escape disaster on this occasion."
"Aside from all other considerations," replied the cautious Greusel, "I think it good diplomacy on this occasion to agree with the men, since they have stated their case so deferentially. They are improving, Commander."
"It really looks like it," he agreed. "You and Ebearhard had better go aft, and counsel them to begin the conference at once, for if we are to attack we must do so before darkness sets in. I'll remain here as usual at the prow."
Some of the men were strolling about the deck, but the majority remained in the cabin, down whose steps the lieutenants descended. Roland's impatience increased with the waning of the light.
Suddenly a cry that was instantly smothered rose from the cabin, then a shout:
"Treachery! Look out for yourself!"
Roland attempted to stride forward, but four men fell on him, pinioning his arms to his side, preventing the drawing of his weapon. Kurzbold, with half a dozen others, mounted on deck.
"Disarm him!" he commanded, and one of the men drew Roland's sword from its sheath, flinging it along the deck to Kurzbold's feet. The others now came up, bringing the two lieutenants, both gagged, with their arms tied behind them. Roland ceased his struggles, which he knew to be fruitless.
"We wish an amicable settlement of this matter," said Kurzbold, addressing the lieutenants, "and regret being compelled to use measures that may appear harsh. I do this only to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Earlier in the day," he continued, turning to Roland, "when we found all appeals to you were vain, we unanimously deposed you from the leadership, which is our right, and also our duty."
"Not under martial law," said Roland.
"I beg to point out that there was no talk of martial law before we left Frankfort. It was not till later that we learned we had appointed an unreasoning tyrant over us. We have deposed him, and I am elected in his place, with John Gensbein as my lieutenant. We will keep you three here until complete darkness sets in, then put you ashore unarmed. Bacharach, on this side of the Rhine, is to be our next resting-place, and doubtless so clever a man as you, Roland, may say that we choose Bacharach because it is named for Bacchus, the god of drunkards. Nevertheless, to show our good intentions towards you, we will remain there all day to-morrow. You can easily reach Bacharach along the hilltops before daybreak. We have written a charter of comradeship which all have signed except yourselves. If at Bacharach you give us your word to act faithfully under my leadership, we will reinstate you in the guild, and return your swords. By way of recompense for this leniency, we ask you to direct the captain to obey my commands as he has done yours."
"Captain Blumenfels," said Roland to the honest sailor, who stood looking on in amaze at this turn of affairs, "you are to wait here until it is completely dark. See that no lights are burning to give warning to those in Furstenberg; and, by the way," added Roland, turning to his former company, "I advise you not to drink anything until you are well past the Castle. If you sing the songs of the guild within earshot of Furstenberg, you are like to sing on the other side of your mouths before morning. Don't forget that Margrave Hermann von Katznellenbogenstahleck is the chief hangman of Germany." Then once more to the captain:
"As the Castle of Furstenberg stands high above the river, and well back from it, you will be out of sight if you keep near this shore. However, you can easily judge your distance, because the towers are visible even in the darkness against the sky. No man on the ramparts of the Castle can discern you down here on the black surface of the water, so long as you do not carry a light."
"Roland, my deposed friend," said Kurzbold, "I fear you bear resentment, for you are giving the captain orders instead of telling him to obey mine."
"Kurzbold, you are mistaken. I resign command with great pleasure, and, indeed, Greusel and Ebearhard will testify that I had already determined to pass Furstenberg unseen. As my former lieutenants are disarmed, surely the company, with eighteen swords, is not so frightened as to keep them gagged and bound. 'Tis no wonder you wish to avoid the Laughing Baron, if that is all the courage you possess."
Stung by these taunts, Kurzbold gruffly ordered his men to release their prisoners, but when the gags were removed, and before the cords were cut, he addressed the lieutenants:
"Do you give me your words not to make any further resistance, if I permit you to remain unbound?"
"I give you my word on nothing, you mutinous dog!" cried Greusel; "and if I did, how could you expect me to keep it after such an example of treachery from you who pledged your faith, and then broke it? I shall obey my Commander, and none other."
"I am your Commander," asserted Kurzbold.
"You are not," proclaimed Greusel.
"No need to question me," he said. "I stand by my colleagues."
"Gag them again," ordered Kurzbold.
"No, no!" cried Roland. "We are quite helpless. Give your words, gentlemen."
Gloomily Greusel obeyed, and merrily Ebearhard. Darkness was now gathering, and when it fell completely the three men were put off into the forest.
"You have not yet," said Kurzbold to Roland, "ordered the captain to obey me. I do not object to that, but it will be the worse for him and his men if they refuse to accept my instructions."
"Do you know this district, Captain Blumenfels?" asked Roland.
"Yes, mein Herr."
"Is there a path along the top that will lead us behind Furstenberg on to Bacharach?"
"Yes, mein Herr, but it is a very rough track."
"Is it too far for you to guide us there, and return before the moon rises?"
"Oh no, mein Herr, I can conduct you to the trail in half an hour if you consent to climb lustily."
"Very good. Herr Kurzbold, if you are not impatient to be off, and will permit the captain to direct us on our way, I will tell him to obey you."
"How long before you can return, captain?" asked Kurzbold.
"I can be back well within the hour, mein Herr."
"You will obey me if the late Commander orders you to do so?"
"Yes, mein Herr."
"Captain," said Roland, "I inform you in the hearing of these men that Herr Kurzbold occupies my place, and is to be obeyed by you until I resume command."
"You mean until you are re-elected to membership in the guild, for we do not propose to make you commander again. Now, captain, to the hill, and see that your return is not delayed."
The four men disappeared into the dark forest.
"Captain," said Roland, when they reached the track, "I have taken you up here not that I needed your guidance, for I know this land as well as you do. You will obey Kurzbold, of course, but if he tells you to make for Lorch, allow your boat to drift, and do not get beyond the middle of the river until opposite Furstenberg. There is a buoyed chain--"
"I know it well," interrupted the captain. "I have many times avoided it, but twice became entangled with it, in spite of all my efforts, and was robbed by the Laughing Baron."
"Very well; I intend you to be entrapped by that chain to-night. Offer no resistance, and you will be safe enough. Do not attempt to help these lads should they be set upon, and it will be hard luck if I am not in command again before midnight. Keep close to this shore, but if they order you into the middle of the river, or across it, dally, my good Blumenfels, dally, until you are stopped by the chain for the third time."
When the captain returned to his barge, he found Kurzbold pacing the deck in a masterly manner, impatient to be off. For once the combatants, with an effort, were refraining from drink.
"We will open a cask," said Kurzbold, "as soon as we have passed the Schloss."
He ordered the captain to follow the shore as closely as was safe, and take care that they did not come within sight of Furstenberg's tall, round tower. All sat or reclined on the dark deck, saying no word as the barge slid silently down the swift Rhine. Suddenly the speed of the boat was checked so abruptly that one or two of the standing men were flung off their feet. From up on the hillside there tolled out the deep note of a bell. The barge swung round broadside on the current, and lay there with the water rushing like hissing serpents along its side, the bell pealing out a loud alarm that seemed to keep time with the shuddering of the helpless boat.
"What's wrong, captain?" cried Kurzbold, getting on his feet again and running aft.
"I fear, sir, 'tis an anchored chain."
"Can't you cut it?"
"That is impossible, mein Herr."
"Then get out your sweeps, and turn back. Where are we, do you think?"
"Under the battlements of Furstenberg Castle."
"Damnation! Put some speed into your men, and let us get away from here."
The captain ordered his crew to hurry, but all their efforts could not release the boat from the chain, against which it ground up and down with a tearing noise, and even the un-nautical swordsmen saw that the current was impelling it diagonally toward the shore, and all the while the deep bell tolled on.
"What in the fiend's name is the meaning of that bell?" demanded Kurzbold.
"It is the Castle bell, mein Herr," replied the captain.
Before Kurzbold could say anything more the air quivered with shout after shout of laughter. Torches began to glisten among the trees, and there was a clatter of horses' hoofs on the echoing rock. A more magnificent sight was never before presented to the startled eyes of so unappreciative a crowd. Along the zigzag road, and among the trees, spluttered the torches, each with a trail of sparks like the tail of a comet. The bearers were rushing headlong down the slope, for woe to the man who did not arrive at the water's edge sooner than his master.
The torchlight gleamed on flashing swords and glittering points of spears, but chief sight of all was the Margrave Hermann von Katznellenbogenstahleck, a giant in stature, mounted on a magnificent stallion, as black as the night, and of a size that corresponded with its prodigious rider. The Margrave's long beard and flowing hair were red; scarlet, one may say, but perhaps that was the fiery reflection from the torches. Servants, scullions, stablemen carried the lights; the men-at-arms had no encumbrance but their weapons, and the business-like way in which they lined up along the shore was a study in discipline, and a terror to any one unused to war. Above all the din and clash of arms rang the hearty, stentorian laughter of the Red Margrave actually echoing back in gusts of fiendish merriment from the hills on the other side of the Rhine.
Now the boat's nose came dully against the ledge of rock, to whose surface the swaying chain rose dripping from the water, sparkling like a jointed snake under the torchlight.
"God save us all!" cried the Margrave, "what rare show have we here? By my sainted patron, the Archbishop, merchants under arms! Whoever saw the like? Ha! stout Captain Blumenfels, do I recognize you? Once more my chain has caught you. This makes the third time, does it not, Blumenfels?"
"Yes, your Majesty."
"You may as well call me 'your Holiness' as 'your Majesty.' I'm contented with my title, the 'Laughing Baron,' Haw-haw-haw-haw! And so your merchants have taken to arms again? The lesson at the Lorely taught them nothing! Are there any ropes aboard, captain?"
"Plenty, my lord."
"Then fling a coil ashore. Now, my tigers," he roared to his men-at-arms, "hale me to land those damned shopkeepers."
With a clash of armor and weapons the brigands threw themselves on the boat, and in less time than is taken to tell it, every man of the guild was disarmed and flung ashore. Here another command of the Red Margrave gave them the outlaw's knot, as he termed it, a most painful tying-up of the body and the limbs until each victim was rigid as a red of iron. They were flung face downwards in a row, and beaten black and blue with cudgels, despite their screams of agony and appeals for mercy.
"Now turn them over on their backs," commanded the Margrave, and it was done. The glare of the pitiless torches fell upon contorted faces. The Baron turned his horse athwart the line of helpless men, and spurred that animal over it from end to end, but the intelligent horse, more merciful than its rider, stepped with great daintiness, despite its unusual size, and never trod on one of the prostrate bodies. During what followed, the Red Baron, shaking with laughter, marched his horse up and down over the stricken men.
"Now, unload the boat, but do not injure any of the sailors! I hope to see them often again. You cannot tell how we have missed you, captain. What are you loaded with this time? Sound Frankfort cloth?"
"Yes, your Majesty--I mean, my lord."
"No, you mean my Holiness, for I expect to be an Archbishop yet, if all goes well," and his laughter echoed across the Rhine. "Uplift your hatches, Blumenfels, and tell your men to help fling the goods ashore."
Delicately paced the fearful horse over the prone men, snorting, perhaps in sympathy, from his red nostrils, his jet-black coat a-quiver with the excitement of the scene. The captain obeyed the Margrave with promptness and celerity. The hatches were lifted, and his sailors, two and two, flung on the ledge of rock the merchant's bales. The men-at-arms, who proved to be men-of-all-work, had piled their weapons in a heap, and were carrying the bales a few yards inland. Through it all the Baron roared with laughter, and rode his horse along its living pavement, turning now at this end and now at the other.
"Do not be impatient," he cried down to them, "'twill not take long to strip the boat of every bale, then I shall hang you on these trees, and send back your bodies in the barge, as a lesson to Frankfort. You must return, captain," he cried, "for you cannot sell dead bodies to my liege of Cologne."
As he spoke a ruddy flush spread over the Rhine, as if some one had flashed a red lantern upon the waters. The glow died out upon the instant.
"What!" thundered the Margrave, "is that the reflection of my beard, or are Beelzebub and his fiends coming up from below for a portion of the Frankfort cloth? I will share with good brother Satan, but with no one else. Boil me if I ever saw a sight like that before! What was it, captain?"
"I saw nothing unusual, my lord."
"There, there!" exclaimed the Margrave, and as he spoke it seemed that a crimson film had fallen on the river, growing brighter and brighter.
"Oh, my lord," cried the captain, "the Castle is on fire!"
"Saints protect us!" shouted the Red Margrave, crossing himself, and turning to the west, where now both hearing and sight indicated that a furnace was roaring. The whole western sky was aglow, and although the flames could not be seen for the intervening cliff, every one knew there was no other dwelling that could cause such an illumination.
Spurring his horse, and calling his men to come on, the nobleman dashed up the steep acclivity, and when the last man had departed, Roland, followed by his two lieutenants, stepped from the forest to the right down upon the rocky plateau.