The Sword Maker by Robert Barr
XVI. My Lady Scatters the Freebooters and Captures Their Chief
Greusel appeared on one of the balconies, and called down to his leader.
"There are," he said, "a number of women in the western rooms of the Castle. They have bolted their doors, but tell me that the rooms contain the Pfalzgravine von Stahleck and other noble ladies, with their tirewomen. What am I to do?"
"Place a guard in the corridor, Greusel, to make sure that these ladies communicate with no one outside the fortress."
"I thought it well," explained Greusel, "not to break in the doors without definite instructions from you to that effect."
"Quite right. Tell the ladies we will not molest them."
"You molested me!" cried the handsome girl in the courtyard, her dark eyes flashing in the glow of the torches.
"This person," said the unemotional Greusel, betraying no eye for beauty, "called us every uncomplimentary name she could think of. We were the scum of the earth, according to her account."
The girl laughed scornfully.
"But I would not have dislodged her," continued Greusel, unperturbed, "had she not said there was a window in her room, which is on the eastern side of the Castle, overlooking the operations of the Pfalzgraf on the barge, and she proclaimed her determination to warn Stahleck that his Castle was filled with freebooters, as soon as she could make her voice heard above the din at the landing. Therefore I broke in the door, ordering her and the tirewomen to descend to the courtyard. On examining her room I find there is no such window as she described, and she could not communicate with the Count, so I advise that you send her back again."
Once more the young lady laughed, and exclaimed:
"I could not break down the door for myself, so compelled you and your clods to do it. I am immured here; a reluctant captive. You will not have me sent back to my cell, I hope, Commander?"
"No; if you are really my fellow-prisoner, and not one of the enemy."
"She may be deluding you also," warned Greusel.
"I will take the risk of that," replied Roland, smiling at the girl, who smiled back at him. She had a will of her own, but seemed sensitively responsive to fair treatment.
"Are there any men-servants?" asked Roland.
"Only three, and they are tottering with age," replied Greusel, "more frightened than the women themselves. Nevertheless, one of the retainers is important, being, as he told me, keeper of the treasure-house. I relieved him of his keys, and find that the strong-room is well supplied with bags of gold. 'Twill be the richest haul yet, excepting our two barrels of coin from--"
"Hush, hush!" cried Roland. "Mention no names. Did you discover any other exit excepting the door by which we entered?"
"No; but at the northern end there is a window through which a man of ordinary size might pass. It is, however, high above the rocks, and I discern floating in the tide a fleet of small boats."
"Ah," said Roland, "that is important."
"Taken in conjunction with the gold, most amiable robber," suggested the girl.
"Taken in conjunction with the gold," repeated Roland, smiling again; and adding, "Taken also in conjunction with a lady who, if I understand her, wishes to escape from the Pfalz."
"You are right," agreed the young girl archly. "Do I receive a share of the money?"
"Yes; if you join our band."
"Oh!" she cried, with a pout of feigned disappointment, "I thought you had already accepted me as a member. And what am I to call my new overlord, who acquires wealth so successfully that he does not wish the amount mentioned, or the place from which it was taken specified?"
"My name is Roland. Will you consent to a fair exchange?"
"I am called Hilda by my friends."
"Then, Hilda," said the young man, looking at her with admiration, "I welcome you as one of my lieutenants."
"One, indeed!" she exclaimed, with affected indignation. "I shall be first lieutenant or nothing."
"Up to this moment Herr Joseph Greusel, who so unceremoniously made your acquaintance, has been my chief lieutenant, but I willingly depose him, and give you his place."
"Do you hear that, Joseph?" Hilda called up to the man leaning over the balcony.
The deposed one made a grimace, but no reply.
"Set your guard, and come down, Greusel."
Presently Greusel appeared in the courtyard, followed by four men.
"I have left two on guard," he said.
"Right. What have you done with the servants?"
"Tied them up in a hard knot. I found a loft full of ropes."
"Right again. Take your four men, and stand guard at the door. Send Ebearhard to me."
Before Ebearhard arrived, Roland turned to the girl.
"Retire to your room," he said, "and bid your women gather together whatever you wish to carry with you."
"I'd rather stay where I am," protested Hilda, "being anxious to hear what your plans are. I confess I don't know how you can emerge from this Castle in safety."
"Fraeulein Hilda, the first duty of a chief lieutenant is obedience."
"Refusing that, what will you do?"
"I shall call two of my men, cause you to be transported to your room, and order them to see that you do not leave it again."
"Remaining here when you have departed?"
"That, of course."
"You will take the gold, however."
"Certainly; the gold obeys me; doing what I ask of it."
For a few moments the girl stood there, gazing defiance at him, but although a slight smile hovered about his lips, she realized in some subtle way--woman's intuition, perhaps--that he meant what he said. Her eyes lowered, and an expression of pique came into her pretty face; then she breathed a long sigh.
"I shall go to my room," she said very quietly.
"I will call upon you the moment I have given some instructions to my third lieutenant."
"You need not trouble," she replied haughtily, speaking, however, as mildly as himself. "I remain a prisoner of the Pfalzgraf von Stahleck, who, though a distinguished pillager like yourself, nevertheless possesses some instincts of a gentleman."
With that, the young woman retired slowly up the stairway, and disappeared, followed by her two servants.
"Ebearhard," said Roland, when that official appeared, "Greusel has discovered a window to the north through which yourself and a number of your men can get down to the rocks with the aid of a cord, and he tells me there is a loft full of ropes. A flotilla of boats is tied up at the lower end of the Castle. He has visited the treasury, and finds it well supplied with bags of coin. I intend to effect a junction between those bags and that flotilla. Our position here is quite untenable, for there is probably some secret entrance to this Castle that we know nothing of. There are also a number of women within whom we cannot coerce, and must not starve. Truth to tell, I fear them more than I do the ruffians outside. Have any of the men-at-arms discovered that we pulled up the ladder and closed the door?"
"I think not, for in such case they would return from their pillages as quickly as did the Red Margrave when he found his house was ablaze. My opinion is that they are making a clean job of looting the barge."
"If that is so, our barrels of gold are gone, rendering it the more necessary that we should carry away every kreuzer our friend Stahleck possesses. Call, therefore, every man except one from the door. Greusel has the keys, and will lead you to the treasury. Hoist the bags to the north window. While your men are doing this, rive a stout rope so that you may all speedily descend to the rocks, except as many as are necessary to lower the bags. When this is accomplished, Greusel is to report to me from the balcony, and then descend, taking with him the man on guard at the door. Apportion men and bags in all the boats but one. That one I shall take charge of. Put Greusel in command of the flotilla, and tell him to convey his fleet as quietly as possible to the eastern shore; then paddle up in slack water until he is, say, a third of a league above Pfalz. There he must await my skiff. You will stand by that skiff until I join you. I shall likely be accompanied by three women, so retain the largest and most comfortable of the small boats."
Ebearhard raised his eyebrows at the mention of the women, but said nothing.
Roland went in person to the room occupied by the young woman, and knocked at her door, whereupon it was opened very promptly.
"Madam," he said, "there is opportunity for escape if you care to avail yourself of it."
The girl had been seated when he entered, but now she rose, speaking in a voice that was rather tremulous.
"Sir, I was wrong to disobey you when you had treated me so kindly. I shall therefore punish myself by remaining where I am."
"In that case, Madam, you will punish me as well; and, indeed, I deserve it, forgetting as I did for the moment that I addressed a lady. If you will give me the pleasure of escorting you, I shall conduct you in safety to whatever place of refuge you wish to reach."
"Sir, you are most courteous, but I fear my intended destination might take you farther afield than would be convenient for you."
"My time is my own, and nothing could afford me greater gratification than the assurance of your security. Tell me your destination."
"It is the Convent of Nonnenwerth, situated on an island larger than this, near Rolandseck."
"I shall be happy to convoy you thither."
"Again I thank you. It is my desire to join the Sisterhood there."
"Not to become a nun?" cried Roland, an intonation of disappointment in his voice.
"Yes; although to this determination my guardian is opposed."
"Alas," said Roland, with a sigh, "I confess myself in agreement with him so far as your taking the veil is concerned. Still, imprisonment seems an unduly harsh alternative."
The girl's seriousness fled, and she smiled at him.
"As you have had some experience of my obstinacy, and proposed an even harsher remedy than that--"
"Ah, you forget," interrupted Roland, "that I apologized for my lack of manners. I hope during our journey to Nonnenwerth I may earn complete forgiveness."
"Oh, you are forgiven already, which is magnanimous of me, when you recollect that the fault was wholly my own. I will join you in the courtyard at once if I may."
"Very well. I shall be down there after I have given final instructions to my men."
Roland arrived at the north window, and saw that the flotilla had already departed. He could discern Ebearhard standing with his hand on the prow of the remaining boat, so pulled up the rope, untied it from the ring to which it was fastened, and threw it down to his lieutenant.
"A rope is always useful," he whispered, "and we will puzzle the good Pfalzgraf regarding our exit."
In the courtyard he found the three women awaiting him. Quietly he drew back the heavy bolts, and undid the stout chains. Holding the door slightly ajar, he peered out at the scene on the landing, brightly illuminated by numerous torches which the servants held aloft.
The men-at-arms were enjoying themselves hugely, and the great heap of bales already on the rocks showed that they resolved not to leave even one package on the barge. The fact that they stood in the light prevented their seeing the exit of the quartette from the Castle, even had any been on the outlook.
Roland swung the door wide, placed the ladder in exactly the same position it had formerly occupied, assisted the three women to the ground, and then led them round the western side of the Castle through the darkness to Ebearhard and his skiff. Dipping their paddles with great caution, they kept well out of the torchlight radius.
As they left the shadow of the Castle, and came within sight of the party on the landing, they were somewhat startled by a lusty cheer.
"Ah," said Ebearhard, "they have discovered our barrels of gold."
"'Tis very likely," replied Roland.
"Still," added Ebearhard consolingly, "I think we have made a good exchange. There appears to be more money in Stahleck's bags than in our two barrels."
"By the Three Kings!" cried Roland, staring upstream, "the barge is getting away. They have looted her completely, and are giving her a parting salute. The robbers evidently bear no malice against our popular captain. Hear them inviting him to call again!"
They listened to the rattle of the big chain. It was more amenable than that at Furstenberg, confirming Roland in his belief that Stahleck was the inventor of the device. They saw half a dozen men paying out a rope, while the first section of the chain sank, leaving a passage-way for the barge. Silhouetted against the torchlight, the boatmen were getting ready with their sweeps, prepared to dip them into the water as soon as the vessel got clear of the rocky island.
"We will paddle alongside before they begin to row," said Roland; and Captain Blumenfels was gently hailed from the river, much to his astonishment.
"Make for the eastern bank, captain," whispered Roland, "and keep a lookout ahead for a number of small boats like this."
Presently, rowing up the river strenuously, close to the shore, the barge came upon the flotilla. Here Roland bade Hilda remain where she was, and leaving Ebearhard in charge of the skiff, he clambered up on the barge, ordering Greusel to range his boats alongside and fling aboard the treasure.
"Well, captain, did his Excellency of Pfalz leave you anything at all?"
"Not a rag," replied the captain. "The barge is empty as a drum."
"In that case there is nothing for it but a speedy return to Frankfort. I do not regret the cloth, which has been paid for over and over again, but I am mercenary enough to grudge Stahleck our two barrels of gold."
"Oh, as to the gold," replied the captain gravely, "I took the liberty of reversing your plan at Lorch."
"Your honor poured gold into wine barrels, but I poured the red wine of Lorch into the gold barrels, and threw the empty cask overboard. Perhaps you know that the Pfalzgraf grows excellent white wine round his Castle of Stahleck, and despises the red wine of Lorch and Assmannshausen. He tasted the wine, which had not been improved by being poured into the dirty gold barrels, spat it out with an oath, and said we were welcome to keep it. He has also promised to send me a cask of good white wine to Frankfort."
"Captain, despite your quiet, unassuming manner, you are the most ingenious of men."
"Indeed, I but copied your honor's ingenuity."
"However it happened, you saved the gold, and that action alone will make a rich man of you, for you must accept my third share of the money."
By this time the bags had been heaved aboard. Greusel followed them, and stood ready to receive further orders.
"You will all make for Frankfort," said Roland, "keeping close as possible to this side of the river. No man is to be allowed ashore until you reach the capital. Captain, are there provisions enough aboard for the voyage?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Very well. Put every available person at the oars, and get past Furstenberg before daybreak. My men, who have not had an opportunity to distinguish themselves as warriors, will take their turn at the sweeps. You and Ebearhard," he continued, turning to Greusel, "will employ the time in counting the money and making a fair division. With regard to the two barrels, the captain will receive my third share, and also be one of us in the apportionment of the gold we secured to-night. It was through his thoughtfulness that the barrels were saved. Whatever portion you find me entitled to, place in the keeping of the merchant, Herr Goebel. And now I shall tie four bags to my belt for emergencies."
"Are you not coming with us, Roland?" asked Greusel anxiously.
"No. Urgent business requires my presence in the neighborhood of Bonn, but I shall meet you in the Kaiser cellar before a month is out."
Saying this, he shook hands with the captain and Greusel, and descended into the small boat, bidding farewell to Ebearhard.
"Urge them," were his last words, "to get well out of sight of Pfalz and Furstenberg before the day breaks, and as for the small boats, turn them loose; present them as a peace-offering to the Rhine."
In the darkness Prince Roland allowed his frail barque to float down the stream, using his paddle merely to keep it toward the east, so to avoid the chain. He found himself accompanied by a silent, spectral fleet; the empty boats that his men had sent adrift. To all appearance the little squadron lay motionless, while the dim Castle of Pfalz, with its score of pointed turrets piercing a less dark sky, seemed like a great ship moving slowly up the Rhine. When it had disappeared to the south, Roland ventured to speak, in a low voice.
"Madam," he said, "tell your women so to arrange what extra apparel you have brought to form a couch, where you may recline, and sleep for the rest of the night."
"Captain Roland," she replied, her gentle little laugh floating with so musical a cadence athwart the waters that he found himself regretting such a sweet voice should be kept from the world by the unappreciative walls of a convent,--"Captain Roland, I was never more awake than I am at this moment. Life has somehow become unexpectedly interesting. I experience the deliciously guilty feeling of belonging to a stealthy society of banditti. Do not, I beg of you, deprive me of that pleasure by asking me to sleep."
"In the morning, Madam, there will be little opportunity for rest. We must put all the distance we can between ourselves and the. I expect you to ride far and fast to-morrow."
"Do you intend, then, to abandon this boat?"
"I must, Madam. The river has been long so empty that this flotilla, which I cannot shake off, being unaccustomed to oars or paddle, will attract attention from both sides of the Rhine, and when the darkness lifts we are almost certain to be stopped. The boats will be recognized as belonging to the Pfalzgraf, and I wish to sever all connection between this night's work and my own future."
"What, then, do you propose?"
"As soon as day breaks we will come to land, and allow our boat to float away with the rest. Can you walk?"
"I love walking," cried the girl with enthusiasm. "I ask your pity for myself, immured in that windowless dungeon, situated on a tiny point of rock; I, who have roamed the hills and explored the valleys of my own land on foot, breathing the air of freedom with delight. Let me, therefore, I beg of you, remain awake that I may taste the pleasure of anticipation in my thoughts; or is such a wish disobedience on the part of your first lieutenant? I do not mean it so, and will quietly cry myself to sleep if you insist."
"Indeed, Hilda," said Roland, laughing, and abandoning the more formal title of "madam," "I am no such tyrant as you suppose. Besides, your office of first lieutenant has lapsed, because our men have all gone south, while we travel north."
"Then may I talk with you?"
"Nothing would please me better. I was thinking of your own welfare, and not of my desire, when I counseled slumber."
"Oh, I assure you I slept very well during the first part of the night, for, there being nothing else to do, I went to bed early, and was quite unconscious until the dreadful ringing of that alarm bell, which set the whole Castle astir."
"Why were you imprisoned?"
"Because--because," she replied haltingly, "I had chosen the religious life, the which my guardian opposed. He appeared to think that some experience of the rigors of the convent might make me less eager to immure myself in a nunnery, which, like Pfalz Castle, is also on a restricted island."
"Then his remedy has proved unavailing?"
"Quite. The Sisters will be very good to me, for I shall enrich their convent with my wealth. 'Twill be vastly different from incarceration in Pfalz."
"Hilda, I doubt that. Captivity is captivity, under whatever name you term it. I cannot understand why one who spoke so enthusiastically just now of hills and valleys and liberty should take the irrevocable step which you propose; a step that will rob you forever of those joys."
The girl remained silent, and he went on, speaking earnestly:
"I think in one respect you are like myself. You love the murmur of the trees, and the song of the running stream."
"I do, I do," she whispered, as if to herself.
"The air that blows around the mountain-top inspires you, and you cannot view the hills on the horizon without wishing to explore them, and learn what is on the other side."
There was light enough for him to see that the girl's head sank into her open hand.
"You, I take it, have never been restricted by discipline."
Her head came up quickly.
"You think that because of what I said in the courtyard?"
"No; my mind was running towards the future rather than to the past. The rigor of strict rules would prove as irksome to you as would a cage to a free bird of the forest."
"I fear you are in the right," she said with a sigh; and then, impatiently, "Oh, you do not understand the situation, and I cannot explain! The convent is merely a retreat for me; the lesser of two evils presented."
"You spoke of your land. Where is that land?"
"Do you know Schloss Sayn?" she asked.
"Sayn? Sayn?" he repeated. "Where have I heard that name before, and recently too? I thought I knew every castle on the Rhine, but I do not remember Sayn."
The girl laughed.
"You will find no fellow-craftsman there, Pirate Roland, if ever you visit it. The Schloss is not on the Rhine, and, perhaps on that account, rather than because of its owner's honesty, is free from the taint you suggest. It stands high in the valley of the Saynbach, more than half a league from this river."
"Ah, that accounts for my ignorance. I never saw Sayn Castle, although I seem to have heard of it. Are you its owner?"
"Yes; I told you I was wealthy."
"Where is the Schloss situated?"
"Below Coblentz, on the eastern side of the river."
"Then why not let me take you there instead of to the convent?"
"Willingly, if you had brought your barge-load of armed men, but in Sayn Castle I am helpless, commanding a peaceful retinue of servants who, although devoted to me, are useless when it comes to defense."
"I cannot account for it," said Roland in meditative tone, "but the thought of that convent becomes more and more distasteful. You will be free of your guardian, no doubt, but you merely exchange one whom you know for another whom you don't, and that other a member of your own sex."
"Do you disparage my sex, then?"
"No; but I cannot imagine any man being discourteous to you. Surely every gentleman with a sword by his side should spring at once to your defense."
The girl laughed.
"Ah, Captain Roland, you are very young, and, I fear, inexperienced, despite your filibustering. However, this lovely, still, summer night, with its warm, velvety darkness, was made for pleasant thoughts. Enough about myself. Let me hear something of you. Did you come up the river or down, with your barge?"
"We came down."
"How long since you adopted a career of crime? You do not seem to be a hardened villain."
"Believe me," protested Roland earnestly, "I am not, and I do not admit that my career is one of crime."
"Indeed," said the girl, laughing again, "I am not so gullible as you think. I could almost fancy that you were the incendiary of Furstenberg Castle."
"What!" exclaimed Roland in consternation. "How came you to learn of its destruction?"
"There!" cried the girl gleefully, "you have all but confessed. You are as startled as if I had said: 'I arrest you in the name of the Emperor!'"
"Who told you that Furstenberg Castle was burned?" demanded the young man sternly.
"Yesterday morning there came swiftly down the river, with no less than twelve oarsmen, a long, thin boat, traveling like the wind. It did not pause at Pfalz, but the man standing in the stern hailed the Castle, and shouted to the Pfalzgraf that Furstenberg had been burned by the outlaws of the Hunsruck. He was on his way to Bonn to inform the Archbishop of Cologne, and he carried also Imperial news for his Lordship: tidings that the Emperor is dead."
"Dead!" breathed Roland in horror, scarcely above his breath. "The Emperor dead! I wonder if that can be true."
"Little matter whether it is true or no," said the girl indifferently. "He doubtless passed away in a drunken sleep, and I am told his drunken son will be elected in his place."
"Madam!" said Roland harshly, awakened from his stupor by her words, "I must inform your ignorance that the Emperor's son is not a drunkard, and, indeed, scarcely touches wine at all, being a most strenuous opposer to its misuse. How can one so fair, and, as I believed, so honest, repeat such unfounded slander?"
"Are you a partisan of his?"
"I come from Frankfort; have seen the Prince, and know I speak the truth."
"Ah, well," replied the girl lightly, "you and I will not quarrel over his Highness. I accept your amendment, and will never more bear false witness against him. After all, it makes slight difference one way or the other. An Emperor goes, and an Emperor is elected in his place as powerless as his predecessor. 'Tis the Archbishops who rule."
"You seem well versed in politics, Madam."
The girl leaned forward to him.
"Do not 'madam' me, I beg of you, Roland. I dare say rumor has prejudiced me against the young man, but I have promised not to speak slightingly of him again. I wish this veil of darkness was lifted, that I might see your face, to note the effect of anger. Do you know, I am disappointed in you, Roland? You spoke in such level tones in the courtyard that I thought anger was foreign to your nature."
"I am not angry," said Roland gruffly, "but I detest malicious gossip."
"Oh, so do I, so do I! I spoke thoughtlessly. I will kneel to the new Emperor and beg his pardon, if you insist."
Roland remained silent, and for a time they floated thus down the river, she trailing her fingers in the water, which made a pleasant ripple against them, looking up at him now and then. Perceptibly the darkness was thinning. One seemed to smell morning in the air. A bird piped dreamily in the forest at intervals, as if only half-awakened. The two women reclining in the prow were sound asleep.
Roland picked up the paddle, and with a strong, sweeping stroke turned the head of the boat towards the land. Now she could see his lowering brow, and if the sight pleased her, 'twas not manifested in her next remark.
She took her hand from the water, drew herself up proudly, and said:
"I shall not apologize to you again, and I hate your blameless Prince!"
"Madam, I ask for no apology, and whether you hate or like the Prince matters nothing to me, or, I dare say, to him, either."
"Cannot you even allow a woman her privilege of the last word?" she cried indignantly.
Roland's brow cleared, and a smile came to his lips, as he remained silent, thus bestowing upon her the prerogative she seemed to crave. Hilda lay back in the prow of the boat between her sleeping women, with hands clasped behind her head, and her eyes closed. More and more the light increased, and sturdily with his paddle Roland propelled the boat towards the shore, bringing it alongside the low bank at last. He sprang out on the turf, and with the paddle in one hand held the boat to land with the other.
"We are now," he said, "a short distance above St. Goarhausen, where I hope to purchase horses. Will you kindly disembark?"
The girl, without moving, or opening her eyes, said quietly:
"Please throw the paddle into the boat again. I shall make for Nonnenwerth in this craft, which is more comfortable than a saddle."
The paddle came rattling down upon the bottom of the skiff. Roland stooped, and before she knew what he was about, took Hilda in his arms, lifted her ashore, and laid her carefully on the grass.
"Come," he cried to the newly-awakened serving-women, "tumble out of that without further delay," and they obeyed him in haste.
He stepped into the skiff, flung their belongings on the sward, turned the prow to the west, and, leaping ashore, bestowed a kick upon the boat that impelled it like an arrow far out into the stream.
Hilda was standing on her feet now, speechless with indignation.
"Come along," urged Roland cheerfully, "breakfast awaits us when we earn it;" but seeing that she made no move, the frown furrowed his brow again.
"Madam," he said, "I tell you frankly that to be thwarted by petulance annoys me. It happens that time is of the utmost importance until we are much farther from Pfalz. If you think that the ownership of wealth and a castle gives you the right to flout a plain, ordinary man, you take a mistaken view of things. I care nothing for your castle, or for your wealth. You may be a lady of title for aught I know, but even that does not impress me. We must not stand here like two quarrelsome children. I will conduct you to the Adler Inn at St. Goarhausen, where I know from experience you will be taken care of. I shall then purchase four horses, and return to the inn after you have breakfasted. Three of these horses are at your disposal, also the fourth and myself, if you will condescend to make use of us. If not, I shall ask you to accept what money you need for your journey, so that you may travel north unmolested, while I take my way in the other direction."
"How can I repay the money," she demanded, "if I do not know who and what you are?"
"I shall send for it, either to your Castle of Sayn, or the Convent of Nonnenwerth. You need be under no obligation to me."
"But," cried the girl with a sob, "I am already under obligation to you; an obligation which I cannot repay."
"Oh yes, you can."
"By coming with me, who will persuade you, as readily as you did with your guardian, who coerced you."
"I am an ungrateful simpleton," she murmured. "Of course your way is the right one, and I am quite helpless if you desert me."
"There," cried Roland, with enthusiasm, "you have more than repaid whatever you may owe."
After breakfasting at St. Goarhausen and purchasing the horses, they journeyed down the rough road that extended along the right bank of the Rhine. Roland and Hilda rode side by side, the other two following some distance to the rear. The young man maintained a gloomy silence, and the girl, misapprehending his thoughts, remained silent also, with downcast eyes, seeing nothing of the beautiful scenery they were passing. Every now and then Roland cast a sidelong glance at her, and his melancholy deepened as he remembered how heedlessly he had pledged his word to the three Archbishops regarding his marriage.
"I see," she said at last, "that I have offended you more seriously than I feared."
"No, no," he assured her. "There is a burden that I cannot cast from my mind."
"May I know what it is?"
"I dare not tell you, Hilda. I have been a fool. I am in the position of a man who must break his oath and live dishonored, or keep it, and remain for ever unhappy. Which would you do were you in my place?"
"Once given, I should keep my oath," she replied promptly, "unless those who accepted it would release me."
Roland shook his head.
"They will not release me," he said dolefully.
Again they rode together in silence, content to be near each other, despite the young man's alternations of elation and despair. 'Twas, all in all, a long summer's day of sweet unhappiness for each.
One of Roland's reasons for choosing the right bank of the Rhine was to avoid the important city of Coblentz, with its inevitable questioning, and it was late afternoon when they saw this town on the farther shore, passing it without hindrance.
"You will rest this night," she said, "in my Castle of Sayn, and then, as time is pressing, to-morrow you must return. We have met no interference even by this dangerous route, and I shall make my way alone without fear to Nonnenwerth, for I know you are anxious to be in Frankfort once more."
"I swear to you, Hilda, that if, without breaking my oath, I should never see Frankfort again, I would be the most joyous of men."
"Does your oath relate to Frankfort?"
"My oath relates to a woman," he said shortly.
"Ah," she breathed, "then you must keep it," and so they fell into silence and unhappiness again.
She had talked of security on the road they traversed, but turning a corner north of Vallandar they speedily found that a Rhine road is never safe.
Both reined in their horses as if moved by the same impulse, but to retreat now would simply draw pursuit upon them. Mounted on a splendid white charger, gorgeous with trappings, glittering with silver and gold, rode a dignified man in the outdoor habit of a general in times of peace.
Following him came an escort of twoscore horsemen; they in the full panoply of war; and behind them, on foot, in procession extending like a gigantic snake down the Rhine road, an army of at least three thousand men, the setting sun flashing fire from the points of their spears. Here and there, down the line, floated above them silken flags, and Roland recognized the device on the foremost one.
"God!" he shouted in dismay. "The Archbishop of Cologne!"
The girl uttered a little frightened cry, and edged her horse nearer to that of her escort.
"My guardian! My guardian!" she breathed. "I shall be rearrested!"
Seeing them standing as if stricken to stone, two horsemen detached themselves from the cavalry and galloped forward.
"Make way there, you fools!" cried the leader. "Get ye to the side; into the river; where you like; out of the path of my Lord the Archbishop."
Nevertheless Roland stood his ground, and dared even to frown at the officers of his Lordship.
"Stand aside you," he commanded in a tone of mastery, "and do not venture to intrude between the Archbishop and me."
The rider knew that no man who valued his head would dare use such language in the very presence of the Archbishop, unless he were the highest in the land. His dignified Lordship looked up to see the cause of this interruption, and of these angry words.
First came into his face an expression of amazement, then a smile melted the stern lips as he looked on Roland and recognized him. The impetuous horsemen faded away to the background. There was no answering smile on Roland's face. He reached out and clasped the hand of the girl.
"Now, by the Three Kings!" he whispered, "I shall break my oath."
Hilda glanced up at him, frightened by his vehemence, wincing under his iron grasp.
An unexpected sound interrupted the tension. The Archbishop had come to a stand, and "Halt! Halt! Halt!" rang out the word along the line of men, whose feet ceased to stir the dust of the road. The unexpected sound was that of hearty laughter from the dignified and mighty Prince of the Church.
"Forgive me, your Highness!" he cried, "but I laugh to think of the countenances of my somber brothers, Treves and Mayence, when they learn how sturdily you have kept your word with them. By the true Cross, Prince Roland, although we wished you to marry her, we had no thought that you would break into the Castle of Pfalz to win her hand. Ah, dear, what a pity 'tis we grow old! The impetuousness of youth outweighs the calculated wisdom of the three greatest prelates outside Rome. Judging by your fair face (and I have always held it to be beautiful, remember), you, Hildegunde Lauretta Priscilla Agnes, Countess of Sayn, are not moving northward to Nonnenwerth. I always insisted that the Saalhof at Frankfort was a more cheerful edifice than any nunnery on the Rhine, yet you never turned upon me such a glance of confidence as I see you bestow on your future Emperor."
"I hope, my Lord and Guardian," cried the girl, "that I have met you in time to deflect your course to my Castle of Sayn."
"Sweet Countess, I thank you for the invitation. My men can go on to their camp in the stronghold of my brother of Mayence, Schloss Martinsburg, and I shall gladly return with you to the hospitable hearth of Sayn. Indeed," said the Archbishop, lowering his voice, "I shall feel safer there than in enjoying the hospitality I had intended to accept."
"Are you not surprised to meet me?" asked the lady, with a laugh, adjusting words and manner to the new situation, which she more quickly comprehended than did her companion, who glanced with bewilderment from Countess to prelate, and back again.
The Archbishop waved his hand.
"Nothing you could do would surprise me, since your interview with the Court of Archbishops. I am on my way to Frankfort." Then, more seriously, to Prince Roland: "You heard of your father's death?"
"I learned it only this morning, my Lord. I shall return to Frankfort when I am assured that this gentlewoman is in a place of safety."
"Ah, Countess, there will be no lack of safety now! But will you not ease an old man's conscience by admitting he was in the right?"
The Countess looked up at Roland with a smile.
"Yes, dear Guardian," she said. "You were in the right."