XIII. "A Sentence; Come, Prepare!"
 

"Captain," said Roland quietly, "bring your crew ashore, and fling these bales on board again as quickly as you can."

An instant later the sailors were at work, undoing their former efforts.

"In mercy's name, Roland," wailed one of the stricken, "get a sword and cut our bonds."

"All in good time," replied Roland. "The bales are more valuable to me than you are, and we have two barrels of gold at the foot of the cliff to bring in, if they haven't sunk in the Rhine. Greusel, do you and Ebearhard take two of the crew, launch the small boat, and rescue the barrels if you can find them."

"Mercy on us, Roland! Mercy!" moaned his former comrades.

"I have already wasted too much mercy upon you," he said. "If I rescue you now, I shall be compelled to hang you in the morning as breakers of law, so I may as well leave you where you are, and allow the Red Margrave to save me the trouble. The loss of his castle will not make him more compassionate, especially if he learns you were the cause of it. You will then experience some refined tortures, I imagine; for, like myself, he may think hanging too good for you. I should never have fired his castle had it not been for your rebellion."

The men on the ground groaned but made no further appeal. Some of them were far-seeing enough to realize that an important change had come over the young man they thought so well known to them, who stood there with an air of indifference, throwing out a suggestion now and then for the more effective handling of the bales; suggestions carrying an impalpable force of authority that caused them to be very promptly obeyed. They did not know that this person whom they had regarded as one of themselves, the youngest at that, treating him accordingly, had but a day or two before received a tremendous assurance, which would have turned the head of almost any individual in the realm, old or young; the assurance that he was to be supreme ruler over millions of creatures like themselves; a ruler whose lightest word might carry their extinction with it.

Yet such is the strange littleness of human nature that, although this potent knowledge had been gradually exercising its effect on Roland's character, it was not the rebellion of the eighteen or their mutinous words that now made him hard as granite towards them. It was the trivial fact that four of them had dared to manhandle him; had made a personal assault upon him; had pinioned his helpless arms, and flung his sword, that insignia of honor, to the feet of Kurzbold, leader of the revolt.

The Lord's Anointed, he was coming to consider himself, although not yet had the sacred ointment been placed upon his head. A temporal Emperor and a vice-regent of Heaven upon earth, his hand was destined to hold the invisible hilt of the Almighty's sword of vengeance. The words "I will repay" were to reach their fulfillment through his action. Notwithstanding his youth, or perhaps because of it, he was animated by deep religious feeling, and this, rather than ambition, explained the celerity with which he agreed to the proposals of the Archbishops.

The personage the prisoners saw standing on the rock-ledge of Furstenberg was vastly different from the young man who, a comrade of comrades, had departed from Frankfort in their company. They beheld him plainly enough, for there was now no need of torches along the foreshore; the night was crimson in its brilliancy, and down the hill came a continuous roar, like that of the Rhine Fall seventy leagues away.

Into this red glare the small boat and its four occupants entered, and Roland saw with a smile that two well-filled casks formed its freight. The bales were now aboard the barge again, and the Commander ordered the crew to help the quartette in the small boat with the lifting of the heavy barrels. Greusel and Ebearhard clambered over the side, and came thus to the ledge where Roland stood, as the crew rolled the barrels down into the cabin.

"Lieutenants," said the Commander, "select two stout battle-axes from that heap. Follow the chain up the hill until you reach that point where it is attached to the thick rope. Cut the rope with your axes, and draw down the chain with you, thus clearing a passage for the barge."

The two men chose battle-axes, then turned to their leader.

"Should we not get our men aboard," they said, "before the barge is free?"

"These rebels are prisoners of the Red Margrave. They belong to him, and not to me. Where they are, there they remain."

The lieutenants, with one impulse, advanced to their Commander, who frowned as they did so. A cry of despair went up from the pinioned men, but Kurzbold shouted:

"Cut him down, Ebearhard, and then release us. In the name of the guild I call on you to act! He is unarmed; cut him down! 'Tis foul murder to desert us thus."

The cutting down could easily have been accomplished, for Roland stood at their mercy, weaponless since the emeute on the barge. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the occasion, the optimistic Ebearhard laughed, although every one else was grave enough.

"Thank you, Kurzbold, for your suggestion. We have come forward, not to use force, but to try persuasion. Roland, you cannot desert to death the men whom you conducted out of Frankfort."

"Why can I not?"

"I should have said a moment ago that you will not, but now I say you cannot. Kurzbold has just shown what an irreclaimable beast he is, and on that account, because birth, or training, or something has made you one of different caliber, you cannot thus desert him to the reprisal of that red fiend up the hill."

"If I save him now, 'twill be but to hang him an hour later. I am no hangman, while the Margrave is. I prefer that he should attend to my executions."

Again Ebearhard laughed.

"'Tis no use, Roland, pretending abandonment, for you will not abandon. I thoroughly favor choking the life out of Kurzbold, and one or two of the others, and will myself volunteer for the office of headsman, carrying, as I do, the ax, but let everything be done decently and in order, that a dignified execution may follow on a fair trial"

"Commander," shouted the captain from the deck of the barge, "make haste, I beg of you. The rope connecting with the Castle has been burnt, and the chain is dragging free. The current is swift, and this barge heavy. We shall be away within the minute."

"Get your crew ashore on the instant," cried Roland, "and fling me these despicable burdens aboard. A man at the head, another at the heels, and toss each into the barge. Is there time, captain, to take this heap of cutlery with us as trophies of the fray?"

"Yes," replied the captain, "if we are quick about it."

The howling human packages were hurled from ledge to barge; the strong, unerring sailors, accustomed to the task, heaved no man into the water. Others as speedily fell upon the heap of weapons, and threw them, clattering, on the deck. All then leaped aboard, and Roland, motioning his lieutenants to precede him, was the last to climb over the prow.

The chain came down over the stones with a clattering run, and fell with a great splash into the river. The barge, now clear, swung with the current stern foremost; the sailors got to their oars, and gradually drew their craft away from the shore. A little farther from the landing, those on deck, looking upstream, enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the magnificent conflagration. The huge stone Castle seemed to glow white hot. The roof had fallen in, and a seething furnace reddened the midnight sky. Like a flaming torch the great tower roared to the heavens. The whole hilltop resembled the crater of an active volcano. Timber floors and wooden partitions, long seasoned, proved excellent material for the incendiaries, and even the stones were crumbling away, falling into the gulf of fire, sending up a dazzling eruption of sparks, as section after section tumbled into this earthly Hades.

The long barge floated placidly down a river resembling molten gold. The boat was in disarray, covered with bales of cloth not yet lowered into the hold, cluttered here and there with swords, battle-axes, and spears. In the various positions where they had been flung lay the helpless men, some on their faces, some on their backs. The deck was as light as if the red setting sun were casting his rays upon it. Roland seated himself on a bale, and said to the captain:

"Turn all these men face upward," and the captain did so.

"Ebearhard, you said execution should take place after a fair trial. There is no necessity to call witnesses, or to go through any court of law formalities. You two are perfectly cognizant of everything that has taken place, and no testimony will either strengthen or weaken that knowledge. As a preliminary, take Kurzbold, the new president, and Gensbein, his lieutenant, from among that group, and set them apart. Two members of the crew will carry out this order," which was carried out accordingly.

Roland rose, walked along the prostrate row, and selected, apparently at haphazard, four others, then said to the members of his crew:

"Place these four men beside their leader. Left to myself," he continued to his lieutenants, "I should hang the six. However, I shall take no hand in the matter. I appoint you, Joseph Greusel, and you, Gottlieb Ebearhard, as judges, with power of life and death. If your verdict on any or all of the accused is death, I shall use neither the ax nor the cord, but propose flinging them into the river, and if God wills them to reach the shore alive, their binding will be no hindrance to escape."

Kurzbold and his lieutenant broke out into alternate curses and appeals, protesting that Greusel and Ebearhard had not been expelled from the guild, and calling upon them by their solemn oath of brotherhood to release them now that they possessed the power. To these appeals the newly-appointed judges made no reply, and for once Ebearhard did not laugh.

The other four directed their supplications to Roland himself. They had been misled, they cried, and deeply regretted it. Already they suffered punishment of a severity almost beyond power of human endurance, and they feared their bones were broken with the cudgeling, since which assault their bonds grievously tortured them. All swore amendment, and their grim commander still remaining silent, they asked him in what respect they were more guilty than the dozen others whom seemingly he intended to spare. At last Roland replied.

"You four," he said sternly, "dared to lay hands upon me, and for that I demand from the judges a sentence of death."

Even his two lieutenants gazed at him in amazement, that he should make so much of an action which they themselves had endured and nothing said of it. Surely the laying-on of hands, even in rudeness, was not a capital crime, yet they saw to their astonishment that Roland was in deadly earnest.

The leader turned a calm face toward their scrutiny, but there was a frown upon his brow.

"Work while ye have the light," he said. "Judges, consider your decision, and deliver your verdict."

Greusel and Ebearhard turned their backs on every one, walked slowly aft, and down into the cabin. Roland resumed his seat on the bale of cloth, elbows on his knees, and face in his hands. All appeals had ceased, and deep silence reigned, every man aboard the boat in a state of painful tension. The fire in the distant castle lowered and lowered, and darkness was returning to the deck of the barge. At last the judges emerged from the cabin, and came slowly forward.

It was Greusel who spoke.

"We wish to know if only these six are on trial?"

"Only these six," replied Roland.

"Our verdict is death," said Greusel. "Kurzbold and Gensbein are to be thrown into the Rhine bound as they lie, but the other four receive one chance for life, in that the cords shall be cut, leaving their limbs free."

This seeming mercy brought no consolation to the quartette, for each plaintively proclaimed that he could not swim.

"I thank you for your judgment," said Roland, "which I am sure you must have formed with great reluctance. Having proven yourself such excellent judges, I doubt not you will now act with equal wisdom as advisers. A phrase of yours, Ebearhard, persists in my mind, despite all efforts to dislodge it. You uttered on the ledge of rock yonder something to the effect that we left Frankfort as comrades together. That is very true, and unless you override my resolution, I have come to the conclusion that if any of us are fated to die, the penalty shall be dealt by some other hand than mine. The twelve who lie here are scarcely less guilty than the six now under sentence, and I propose, therefore, to put ashore on the east bank Kurzbold and Gensbein, one a rogue, the other a fool. The sixteen who remain have so definitely proven themselves to be simpletons that I trust they will not resent my calling them such. If however, they abandon all claim to the comradeship that has been so much prated about, swearing by the Three Kings of Cologne faithfully to follow me, and obey my every word without cavil or argument, I will pardon them, but the first man who rebels will show that my clemency has been misplaced, and I can assure them that it shall not be exercised again. Captain, your sailors are familiar with knotted ropes. Bid them release all these men except the six condemned."

The boatmen, with great celerity, freed the prostrate captives from their bonds, but some of the mutineers had been so cruelly used in the cudgeling that it was necessary to assist them to their feet. The early summer daybreak was at hand, its approach heralded by the perceptible diluting of the darkness that surrounded them, and a ghastly, pallid grayness began to overspread the surface of the broad river. Down the stream to the west the towers of Bacharach could be faintly distinguished, looking like a dream city, the lower gloom of which was picked out here and there by points of light, each betokening an early riser.

It was a deeply dejected, silent group that stood in this weird half-light, awaiting the development of Roland's mind regarding them; he, the youngest of their company, quiet, unemotional, whose dominion no one now thought of disputing.

"Captain," he continued, "steer for the eastern shore. I know that Bacharach is the greatest wine mart on the Rhine, and well sustains the reputation of the drunken god for whom it is named, but we will nevertheless avoid it. There is a long island opposite the town, but a little farther down. I dare say you know it well. Place that island between us and Bacharach, and tie up to the mainland, out of view from the stronghold of Bacchus. He is a misleading god, with whom we shall hold no further commerce.

"Now, Joseph Greusel, and Gottlieb Ebearhard, do you two administer the oath of the Three Kings to these twelve men; but before doing so, give each one his choice, permitting him to say whether he will follow Kurzbold on the land or obey me on the water."

Here Kurzbold broke out again in trembling anger:

"Your pretended fairness is a sham, and your bogus option a piece of your own sneaking dishonesty. What chance have we townsmen, put ashore, penniless, in an unknown wilderness, far from any human habitation, knowing nothing of the way back to Frankfort? Your fraudulent clemency rescues us from drowning merely to doom us to starvation."

The daylight had so increased that all might see the gentle smile coming to Roland's lips, and the twinkle in his eye as he looked at the wrathful Kurzbold.

"A most intelligent leader of men are you, Herr Conrad. I suppose this dozen will stampede to join your leadership. They must indeed be proud of you when they learn the truth. I shall present to each of you, out of my own store of gold that came from the castle you so bravely attacked last night, one half the amount that is your due. This will be more money than any of you ever possessed before; each portion, indeed, excelling the total that you eighteen accumulated during your whole lives. I could easily bestow your share without perceptible diminution of the fund we three, unaided, extracted from the coffers of the Red Margrave. The reason I do not pay in full is this. When you reach Frankfort, I must be assured that you will keep your foolish tongues silent. If any man speaks of our labors, I shall hear of it on my return, and will fine that man his remaining half-share.

"It distresses me to expose your ignorance, Kurzbold, but I put you ashore amply provided with money, barely two-thirds of a league from Lorch, where you spent so jovial an evening, and where a man with gold in his pouch need fear neither hunger nor thirst. Lorch may be attained by a leisurely walker in less than half an hour; indeed, it is barely two leagues from this spot to Assmannshausen, and surely you know the road from that storehouse of red wine to the capital city of Frankfort, having once traversed it. A child of six, Kurzbold, might be safely put ashore where you shall set foot on land. Therefore, lieutenants, let each man know he will receive a bag of coin, and may land unmolested to accompany the brave and intelligent Kurzbold."

As he finished this declamation, that caused even some of the beaten warriors to laugh at their leader, the barge came gently alongside the strand, well out of sight of Bacharach. Each of the dozen swore the terrible, unbreakable oath of the Three Kings to be an obedient henchman to Roland.

"You may," said Roland, "depart to the cabin, where a flagon of wine will be served to every man, and also an early breakfast. After that you are permitted to lie down and relax your swollen limbs, meditating on the extract from Holy Writ which relates the fate of the blind when led by the blind."

When the dozen limped away, the chief turned to his prisoners.

"Against you four I bear resentment that I thought could not be appeased except by your expulsion, but reflection shows me that you acted under instruction from the foolish leader you selected, and therefore the principal, not the agent, is most to blame. I give you the same choice I have accorded to the rest. Unloose them, captain; and while this is being done, Greusel, get two empty bags from the locker, open one of the casks, and place in each bag an amount which you estimate to be one half the share which is Kurzbold's due."

The four men standing up took the oath, and thanked Roland for his mercy, hurrying away at a sign from him to their bread and wine.

"Send hither," cried Roland after them, "two of the men who have already refreshed themselves, each with a loaf of bread and a full flagon of wine. And now, captain, release Kurzbold and Gensbein."

When these two stood up and stretched themselves, the bearers of bread and wine presented them with this refreshment, and after they had partaken of it, Greusel gave them each a bag of gold, which they tied to their belts without a word, while Greusel and Ebearhard waited to escort them to land.

"We want our swords," said Kurzbold sullenly.

Ebearhard looked at his chief, but he shook his head.

"They have disgraced their swords," he said, "which now by right belong to the Margrave Hermann von Katznellenbogenstahleck. Put them ashore, lieutenant."

It was broad daylight, and the men had all come up from the cabin, standing in a silent group at the stern. Kurzbold, on the bank, foaming at the mouth with fury, shook his fist at them, roaring:

"Cowards! Pigs! Dolts! Asses! Poltroons!"

The men made no reply, but Ebearhard's hearty laugh rang through the forest.

"You have given us your titles, Kurzbold," he cried. "Send us your address whenever you get one!"

"Captain," said Roland, "cast off. Cross to this side of that island, and tie up there for the day. Set a man on watch, relieving the sentinel every two hours. We have spent an exciting night, and will sleep till evening."

"Your honor, may I first stow away these bales, and dispose of the battle-axes, spears, and broadswords, so to clear the deck?"

"You may do that, captain, at sunset. As for the bales, they make a very comfortable couch upon which I intend to rest."