The Sword Maker by Robert Barr
II. The Bargain is Struck
Every epoch seems to have possessed a two-word phrase that contained, as it were, the condensed wisdom of the age, and was universally believed by the people. For instance, the aphorism "Know thyself" rose to popularity when cultured minds turned towards science. In the period to which this recital belongs the adage "Blood tells" enjoyed universal acceptance. It was, in fact, that erroneous statement "The King can do no wrong" done up into tabloid form. From it, too, sprang that double-worded maxim of the days of chivalry, "Noblesse oblige."
In our own time, the two-worded phrase is "Money talks," and if diligent inquirers probe deeply into the matter, they will find that the aspirations of the people always correspond with reasonable accuracy to the meaning of the phrase then in use. Nothing could be more excellent, for instance, than the proverb "Money talks" as representing two commercial countries like America and England. In that short sentence is packed the essence of many other wise and drastic sayings, as, for instance, "The devil take the hindmost;" for, of course, if money talks, then the man without it must remain silent, and his place is at the tail of the procession, where the devil prowls about like a Cossack at the rear of Napoleon's army.
Confronting each other in that ancient house on the Fahrgasse, we witness, then, the personification of the two phrases, ancient and modern: blood represented by the standing lad, and money by the seated merchant.
"I am Prince Roland, only son of the Emperor," the young man had said, and he saw at once by the expression on the face of his host that, could he be convinced of the truth of the assertion, the thousand thalers that the Prince had demanded would be his on the instant.
For a full minute Roland thought he had succeeded, but as the surprise died out of the merchant's countenance, there replaced it that mask of caution which had had so much to do with the building of his fortune. During their conference Herr Goebel cudgeled his brain, trying to remember where he had seen this young man before, but memory had roamed among clerks, salesmen, and industrious people of that sort where, somehow, this young fellow did not fit in. When Roland suddenly sprung on him the incredible statement that he was a member of the Imperial family, the merchant's recollection then turned towards pageants he had seen, in one of which this young stranger might very well have borne a part. Blood was beginning to tell.
But now experience came to the merchant's aid. Only in romances did princes of the blood royal wander about like troubadours. Even a member of the lesser nobility did not call unheralded at the house of a merchant. The aristocracy always wanted money, it is true, "but what they thought they might require, they went and took," as witness the piratical Barons of the Rhine, whose exactions brought misery on the great city of Frankfort.
Then all at once came the clinching remembrance that when the Electors were appealed to on behalf of the young Prince, the three Archbishops had promptly seized his Royal Highness, and, in spite of the pleadings of the Empress (the Emperor was drunk and indifferent) placed him in the custody of the Archbishop nearest to Frankfort, the warrior prelate of Mayence, who imprisoned him in the strong fortress of Ehrenfels, from which, well guarded and isolated as it was upon a crag over-hanging the Rhine, no man could escape.
"Will you kindly be seated again, sir," requested the merchant, and if he had spoken a short time before, he would have put the phrase "your Royal Highness" in the place of the word "sir."
Roland, after a moment's hesitation, sat down. He saw that his coup had failed, because he was unable to back it up by proofs. His dramatic action had been like a brilliant cavalry charge, for a moment successful, but coming to naught because there was no solid infantry to turn the temporary confusion of the enemy into complete rout. Realizing that the battle must be fought over again, the Prince sat back with a sigh of disappointment, a shade of discontent on his handsome face.
"I find myself in rather a quandary," proceeded the merchant. "If indeed you are the Emperor's son, it is not for such as I to cross-examine you."
"Ask me any questions you like, sir. I shall answer them promptly enough."
"If I beg you to supply proof of the statement you make, you would be likely to reply that as you dared not enter your father's Palace, you are unable to furnish me with corroboration."
"Sir, you put the case in better language than I could employ. In more halting terms that is what I should have said."
"When were you last in the Palace?"
"About the same time, sir, that you took up your residence in prison."
"Ah, yes; that naturally would be your answer. Now, my young friend, you have shown me that you know nothing of mercantile practice; therefore it may perhaps interest you if I explain some of our methods."
"Herr Goebel, you may save your breath. Such a recital must not only fail to interest me, but will bore me extremely. I care nothing for your mercantile procedure, and, to be quite plain with you, I despise your trade, and find some difficulty in repressing my contempt for those who practice it."
"If an emissary of mine," returned Goebel, unperturbed, "approached a client or customer for the purpose of obtaining a favor, and used as little tact as you do, I should dismiss him."
"I'm not asking any favors from you."
"You wish me to hand over to you a thousand thalers, otherwise why came you here?"
"I desire to bestow upon you the greatest of boons, namely to open up the Rhine, and bring back prosperity to Frankfort, which you brainless, cowardly merchants have allowed to slip through your fingers, blaming now the Barons, now the Emperor, now the Electors; censuring everybody, in fact, except the real culprits ... yourselves. You speak of the money as a favor, but it is merely an advance for a few weeks, and will be returned to you; yet because I desire to confer this inestimable gift upon you and your city, you expect me to cringe to you, and flatter you, as if I were a member of your own sycophantic league. I refuse to do anything of the kind, and yet, by God, I'll have the money!"
The merchant, for the first time during their conference, laughed heartily. The young man's face was aflame with anger, yet the truculent words he used did more to convince Herr Goebel that he belonged to the aristocracy than if he had spoken with the most exemplary humility. Goebel felt convinced he was not the Prince, but some young noble, who, intimate with the Royal Family, and knowing the Emperor's son to be out of the way, thought it safe to assume his name, the better to carry forward his purpose, whatever that purpose might actually be. That it was to open the Rhine he did not for a moment credit, and that he would ever see his cash again, if once he parted with it, he could not believe.
"At the risk of tiring you, I shall nevertheless proceed with what I was about to say. We merchants, for our own protection, contribute to a fund which might be entitled one for secret service. This fund enables us to procure private information that may be of value in our business. Among other things we need to know are accurate details pertaining to the intentions and doings of our rulers, for whatever our own short-comings may be, the actions of those above us affect business one way or the other. May I read you a short report that came in while I was serving my term of imprisonment?"
"Oh, read what you like," said Roland indifferently, throwing back his head, and partially closing his eyes, with an air of ennui.
The merchant drew towards him a file of papers, and going through them carefully, selected a document, and drew it forth, then, clearing his throat, he read aloud--
"'At an hour after midnight, on St. Stanislas' Day, three nobles, one representing the Archbishop of Mayence, the second the Archbishop of Treves, and the third the Archbishop of Cologne, armed with authority from these three Electors and Princes of the Church, entered the Saalhof from the side facing the river, and arrested in his bed the young Prince Roland. They assured the Empress, who protested, that the Prince would be well cared for, and that, as an insurrection was feared in Frankfort, it was considered safer that the person whom they intended to elevate to the throne on the event of the Emperor's death, should be out of harm's way, being placed under the direct care of the Archbishop of Mayence. They informed the Empress that the Archbishops would not remove the Prince from the Palace in opposition to the wishes of either the Emperor or herself, but if this permission was not given, a meeting of the Electors would at once be called, and some one else selected to succeed the present ruler.
"'This consideration exerted a great influence upon the Empress, who counseled her son to acquiesce. The young man was led to a boat then in waiting by the river steps of the Palace, and so conveyed down the Main to the Rhine, which was reached just after daybreak. Without landing, and keeping as much as possible to the middle of the river, the party proceeded down the Rhine, past Bingen, to the foot of the crag on which stands the castle of Ehrenfels. The Prince was taken up to the Castle, where he now remains.
"'The Archbishops from their revenues allot to him seven hundred thalers a month, in addition to his maintenance. It is impossible for him to escape from this stronghold unaided, and as the Emperor takes no interest in the matter, and the Empress has given her consent, he is like to be an inmate of Ehrenfels during the pleasure of the Archbishops, who doubtless will not elect him to the throne in succession unless he proves compliant to their wishes. The Prince being a young man of no particular force of character'" (the merchant paused in his reading, and looked across at his vis-a-vis with a smile, but the latter appeared to be asleep), "'he will probably succumb to the Archbishops, therefore merchants are advised to base no hopes upon an improvement in affairs, even though the son should succeed the father. Despite the precautions taken, the arrest and imprisonment of the Prince, and even the place of his detention, became rather generally known in Frankfort, but the news is in the form of rumor only, and excites little interest throughout the city.'
"There, Sir Roland, what do you say to that?"
"Oh, nothing much," replied Roland. "The account might have stated that in the boat were five rowers, who worked lustily until we reached the Rhine, when, the wind being favorable, a sail was hoisted, and with the current assisting the wind, we made excellent time to Ehrenfels. I observe, further, that your secret service keeps you very well informed, and therefore withdraw a tithe of the harsh things I said regarding the stupidity of the merchants."
"Many thanks for the concession," said Goebel, replacing the document with its fellows. "Now, as a plain and practical man, what strikes me is this: you need only return to Ehrenfels for two months, and as there is little use for money in that fortress, your maintenance being guaranteed, and seven hundred thalers allowed, you can come away with four hundred thalers more than the sum you demand from me, and thus put your project into force without being under obligations to any despised merchant."
"True, Herr Goebel, but can you predict what will happen in Frankfort before two months are past? You learn from that document that the shrewd Archbishops anticipate an insurrection, and doubtless they command the force at hand ready to crush it, but during this conflict, which you seem to regard so lightly, does it ever occur to you that the merchants' palaces along the Fahrgasse may be sacked and burnt?"
"That, of course, is possible," commented the merchant.
"Nay, it is absolutely certain. Civil war means ruin, to innocent and guilty alike."
"You are in the right. Now, will you tell me how you escaped from Ehrenfels?"
"Yes; if you agree to my terms without further haggling."
"I shall agree to your terms if I believe your story."
"It seems impossible, sir, to pin you down to any definite bargain. Is this the way you conduct your business?"
"Yes; unless I am well assured of the good faith of my customer. I offered you ordinary business terms when I asked for security, or for the signature of three responsible merchants to your bond. It is because I am a merchant, and not a speculator, that I haggle, as you term it."
"Very well, then, I will tell you how I got away, but I begin my recital rather hopelessly, for you always leave yourself a loophole of escape. If you believe my story, you say! Yes: could I weave a romance about tearing my sheets into ropes; of lowering myself in the dark from the battlements to the ground; of an alarm given; of torches flashing; of diving into the Rhine, and swimming under the water until I nearly strangled; of floating down over the rapids, with arrows whizzing round me in the night; of climbing dripping to the farther shore, far from sight of Ehrenfels, then, doubtless, you would believe. But my escape was prosaically commonplace, depending on the cupidity of one man. The material for it was placed in my hands by the Archbishops themselves. Your account states that the Castle is well guarded. So it is, but when the Archbishop needs an augmentation of his force, he withdraws his men from Ehrenfels to Mayence, as my prison is the nearest of his possessions to his capital city, and thus at times it happens that the Castle is bereft of all save the custodian and his family. His eldest son happens to be of my own age, and not unlike me in appearance. None of the guards saw me, except the custodian, and you must remember he was a very complacent jailer, for the reason that he knew well every rising sun might bring with it tidings that I was his Emperor, so he cultivated my acquaintance, to learn in his own thrifty, peasant way what manner of ruler I might become, and I, having no one else to talk to, made much of his company.
"Frequently he impressed upon me that his task of jailer was most irksome to him, but poverty compelling, what could he do? He swore he would accomplish whatever was in his power to mitigate my captivity, and this indeed did; so at last when the Castle was empty I made him a proposal. Now remember, Sir Merchant, that what I tell you is in confidence, and should you break faith with me, I will have you hanged if I become Emperor, or slit your throat with my own sword if I don't."
"Go on. I shall tell no one."
"I said to my jailer: 'There are not half a dozen people in this world who know me by sight, and among that half-dozen no Elector is included. Outside the Palace at Frankfort I am acquainted with a sword maker or two, and about a score of good fellows who are friends of theirs, but to them I am merely a fencing-master. Now, seven hundred thalers a month pass through your honest hands to mine, and will continue to do so. Your son seems to be even more silent than yourself, and he is a young fellow whom I suspect knows the difference between a thaler and a button on his own coat. If you do what I wish, there will be some slight risk, but think of the reward immediate and in future! At once you come into an income of seven hundred thalers a month. If I am elected Emperor, I shall ennoble you, and present you with the best post in the land. If you don't do what I wish, I shall cause your head cut off as the first act of my first day of power,'"
"You did not threaten to slit his throat with your own sword, failing your elevation?" asked the merchant, with a smile.
"No. He was quite safe from my vengeance unless I came to the throne."
"In that case I should say the custodian need not fear the future. But please go on with your account."
"I proposed that his son and I should exchange costumes; in short, the young man was to take my place, occupying the suite of rooms assigned to me in the Castle. I told his father there was not the slightest fear of discovery, for if the Archbishop of Mayence sent some one to see that the Prince was safe, or even came himself, all the young man need do was to follow my example and keep silent, for I had said nothing from the time I was roused in my room in the Saalhof until I was lodged in Ehrenfels. I promised, if set at liberty, to keep within touch of Frankfort, where, at the first rumor of any crisis, I could return instantly to Ehrenfels.
"The custodian is a slow-minded man, although not so laggard in coming to an agreement as yourself. He took a week to turn the matter over in his mind, and then made the plunge. He is now jailer to his own son, and that young peasant lives in a style he never dreamed of before. The Archbishops are satisfied, because they believe I cannot escape from the stronghold--like yourself, holding but a poor opinion of my abilities; and their devout Lordships know that outside the fortress no person, not even my mother, wishes me forth. I took in my wallet five hundred thalers, and fared like the peasant I seemed to be, down the Rhine, now on one side, now on the other, until I came to the ancient town of Castra Bonnensia of the Romans, which name the inhabitants now shorten to Bonn. There I found the Archbishop in residence, and not at Cologne, as I had supposed. The town being thronged with soldiers and inquisitive people of Cologne's court, I returned up the Rhine again, remembering I had gone rather far afield, and although you may not believe it, I called upon my old friend the custodian of Ehrenfels, and enjoyed an excellent meal with him, consuming some of the seductive wine that is grown on the same side of the river about a league above Ehrenfels."
"I dare say," said the merchant, "that I can give the reason for this apparently reckless visit of yours to Ehrenfels. You were in want of money, the five hundred thalers being spent."
"Sir, you are exactly in the right, and I got it, too, without nearly so much talk as I have been compelled to waste on the present occasion."
"What was your object in going down the river instead of turning to Frankfort?"
"I had become interested in my prison, and had studied methods by which it could be successfully attacked. I knew that my father allowed the Barons of the Rhine to override him, and I wondered if his wisdom was greater than I thought. Probably, said I to myself, he knew their castles to be impregnable, but, with the curiosity of youth, I desired to form an opinion of my own. I therefore lodged as a wayfarer at every castle to I could gain admittance, making friends with some underling, and getting a bed on occasion in the stables, although often I lodged within the castle itself. Thus I came to the belief, which I bring to you, that assisted by twenty fearless men I can capture any castle on the Rhine with the exception of three. And now, Herr Goebel, I have said all I intend to say. Do you discredit my story?"
The merchant gazed across at him quizzically for some time without making any reply, then he said:
"Do you think I believe you?"
"Frankly, I do not."
"If I am unable to give you the gold, I can at least furnish some good advice. Set up as a poet, good Master Roland, and weave for our delectation stories of the Rhine. I think your imagination, if cultivated, would give you a very high place among the romancers of our time."
With a patience that Herr Goebel had not expected, Roland replied:
"It grieves me to return empty-handed to my twenty friends, who last night bade me a very confident adieu."
"Yes, they will be disappointed, and I shrewdly suspect that my thousand thalers would not go towards the prosecuting of the expedition you have outlined, but rather in feasting and in wine."
"Again, sir, you are right. It is unfortunate that I am so often compelled to corroborate your statements, when all the acumen with which you credit my mind is turned towards the task of proving you a purse-proud fool, puffed up in your own conceit, and as short-sighted as an owl in the summer sunlight. However, let us stick to our text. If what I said had been true, although of course you know it isn't, you have nevertheless enough common sense to be aware that I would certainly show a pardonable reluctance about visiting my father's Palace. It is thronged with spies of the Archbishop, and although, as I have said, I am not very well known, there is a chance that one or another might recognize me, and then, almost instantly, a man on a swift horse would be on his way to Mayence. If I knew that I had been discovered, I should make at once for Ehrenfels, arriving there before an investigation was held. But my twenty comrades would wait for me in vain. Nevertheless, I shall venture into the Saalhof this very afternoon, and bring to you a letter written by my mother certifying that I am her son. Would that convince you?"
"Yes; were I sure the signature was genuine."
"Ah, there you go again! Always a loophole!"
The young man spoke in accents of such genuine despair that his host was touched despite his incredulity.
"Look you here," he said, bending across the table. "There is, of course, one chance in ten thousand that you are what you say. I have never seen the signature of the Empress, and such a missive could easily be forged by a scholar, which I take you to be. If, then, you wish to convince me, I'll put before you a test which will be greatly to your advantage, and which I will accept without the loophole."
"In Heaven's name, let's hear what it is."
"There is something that you cannot forge: the Great Seal of the Realm, attached to all documents signed by the Emperor."
"I have had no dealings with my father for years," cried the young man. "I have not even seen him these many months past. I can obtain the signature of my mother to anything I like to write, but not that of my father."
"Patience, patience," said the merchant, holding up his hand. "'Tis well known that the Empress can bend the Emperor to her will when she chooses to exert it. You see, in spite of all, I am quite taking it for granted that you are the Prince, otherwise 'twere useless to waste time in this talk. You display all the confidence of youth in speaking of the exploits you propose, and, indeed, it is cheering for a middle-aged person like myself to meet one so confident of anything in these pessimistic days. But have you considered what will happen if something goes wrong during one of your raids?"
"Nothing can go wrong. I feel no fear on that score."
"I thought as much. Very well, I will tell you what could go wrong. Some Baron may entrap you and your score, and forthwith hang you all from his battlements. Now, it is but common sense to prevent such a termination, if it be possible. Therefore seek out the Empress. Tell her that you and your twenty companions are about to embark on an enterprise greatly beneficial to the land. Say that you go incognito, and that, even should you fail, 'twill bring no discredit to your Royal House. But point out the danger of which I forewarn you. Ask her to get the signature of the Emperor attached to a safe-conduct, together with the device of the Great Seal; then if the Baron who captures you cannot read, he will still know the potency of the picture, and as there is no loophole to my acceptance of this proof, I will, for your convenience, and for my own protection, write the safe-conduct on as sound a bit of parchment as ever was signed in a palace."
Saying this, Herr Goebel rose, and went to his desk in a corner of the room, where he indited the memorial he had outlined, and, after sprinkling it with sand, presented it to Roland, who read:
"These presents warn him to whom they are presented that Roland the bearer is my son, and that what he has done has been done with my sanction, therefore he and his twenty comrades are to be held scathless, pending an appeal to me in my capital city of Frankfort.
"Whomsoever disobeys this instrument forfeits his own life, and that of his family and followers, while his possessions will be confiscated by the State."
"Doesn't it please you?" asked Goebel, his suspicions returning.
"Well, it seems to me rather a plebeian action, to attack a man's castle, and then, if captured, crawl behind a drastic threat like this."
The merchant shrugged his shoulders.
"That's a sentimental objection, but of course you need not use the document unless you wish, though I think if you see twenty-one looped ropes dangling in the air your hesitation will vanish. Oh, not on your own account," cried Goebel, as a sign of dissent from his visitor, "but because of those twenty fine young fellows who doubtless wait to drink wine with you."
"That is true," said Roland, with a sigh, folding up the stiff parchment, opening his cloak, and thrusting it under his belt, standing up as he did this.
"Bring me that parchment, bearing the Emperor's signature and the Great Seal, and you will find the golden coins awaiting you."
"Very well. At what time this evening would it please you to admit me?"
"Friends of mine are coming to-night, but they are not likely to stop long; merely a few handshakes, and a few cups of wine. I shall be ready for you when the Cathedral clock strikes ten."
With this the long conference ended, and the aged servitor in the hall showed Roland into the Fahrgasse.
As the young man proceeded down the Weckmarkt into the Saalgasse, he muttered to himself:
"The penurious old scoundrel! God keep me in future from dealing with such! To the very last he suspects me of being a forger, and has written this with his own hand, doubtless filling it with secret marks. Still, perhaps it is as well to possess such a safeguard. This is my loophole out of the coming enterprise, I fear we are all cowards, noble and merchant alike."
He walked slowly past the city front of the Palace, cogitating some means of entering without revealing his identity, but soon found that even this casual scrutiny made him an object of suspicion. He could not risk being accosted, for, if taken to the guard-room and questioned--searched, perhaps, and the sword found on him--a complication would arise adding materially to the difficulties already in his way. Quickening his pace, he passed through the Fahrthor, and so to the river-bank, where he saw that the side of the Saalhof fronting the Main was guarded merely by one or two sentries, for the mob could not gather on the surface of the waters, as it gathered on the cobble-stones of the Saalgasse and the Fahrthor.
Retracing his steps, the Prince walked rapidly until he came to the bridge, advancing to the iron Cross which commemorates the fowl sacrifice to the devil, as the first living creature venturing upon that ancient structure. Here he leaned against the parapet, gazed at the river facade of the Palace, and studied his problem. There were three sets of steps from the terrace to the water, a broad flight in the center for use upon state occasions, and a narrow flight at either end; the western staircase being that in ordinary use, and the eastern steps trodden by the servants carrying buckets of water from the river to the kitchen.
"The nearer steps," he said to himself, "offer the most feasible opportunity. I'll try them."
He counted his money, for here was probably a case for bribery. He found twenty-four gold pieces, and some loose silver. Returning the coins to his pouch, he walked to the land, and proceeded up the river until he reached a wharf where small skiffs were to let. One of these he engaged, and refusing the services of a waterman, stepped in, and drifted down the stream. He detached sword and scabbard from his belt, removed the cloak and wrapped the weapon in it, placing the folded garment out of sight under the covering at the prow. With his paddle he kept the boat close to the right bank, discovering an excellent place of concealment under the arch supporting the steps, through which the water flowed. He waited by the steps for a few moments until a scullion in long gabardine came down and dipped his bucket in the swift current.
"Here, my fine fellow," accosted Roland, "do you wish to earn a pair of gold pieces?" and he showed the yellow coins in the palm of his hand.
The menial's eyes glistened, and he cast a rapid glance over his shoulder.
"Yes," he replied breathlessly.
"Then leave your bucket where it is, and step into this wherry."
The underling, again with a cautious look around, did as he was ordered.
"Now throw off that outer garment, and give it to me."
Roland put it on over his own clothes, and flung his bonnet beside the cloak and sword, for the servant was bareheaded.
"Get under that archway, and keep out of sight until you hear me whistle."
Taking the bucket, Roland mounted the steps, and strode out of the brilliant sunlight into the comparative gloom of the corridor that led to the kitchen. He had been two hours with the merchant, and it was now the time of midday eating. Every one was hurrying to and fro, with no time to heed anything that did not pertain to the business in hand, so placing the bucket in a darkened embrasure, the intruder flung off the gabardine beside it, and searching, found a back stair which he ascended.
Once in the upper regions, he knew his way about, and proceeded directly to his mother's room, being sure at this hour to find her within. On his unannounced entrance the Empress gave utterance to an exclamation that indicated dismay rather than pleasure, but she hurried forward to meet and embrace him.
"Oh, Roland!" she cried, "what do you here? How came you to the Palace?"
"By way of the river. My boat is under the arch of the servants' stairway, and I have not a moment to lose."
"How did you escape from Ehrenfels, and why have you come here? Surely you know the Palace will be the first place searched for you?"
"There will be no search, mother. Take my word for it that no one is aware of my absence from Ehrenfels but the custodian, and for the best of reasons he dare not say a word. Do not be alarmed, I beg of you. I am free by his permission, and shall return to the Castle before he needs me. Indeed, mother, so far from jeopardizing my own safety, I am here to preserve it."
He drew from under his belt Herr Goebel's parchment, and handed it to her.
"In case it should occur to the good Archbishop, or any other noble, to hang me, I thought it best to get such a declaration signed by the Emperor, and decorated with the Great Seal of the Empire. Then, if any attempt is made on my life, as well as on my liberty, I may produce this Imperial decree, and bring my case to Frankfort."
"Surely, surely," exclaimed the agitated lady, her hands trembling as she held the document and tried to read it; "I can obtain your father's signature, but the Great Seal must be attached by the Chamberlain."
"Very good, mother. The Chamberlain will do as his Majesty orders. The seal is even more important than the signature, if it comes to that, and I am sure the Chamberlain will make no objection when the instrument is for the protection of your son's life. It is not necessary to say that I am here, or have anything to do with the matter. But lose not a moment, and give orders that no one shall enter this room."
The empress hastened away with the parchment, while the young man walked impatiently up and down the room. It seemed hours before she returned, but at last she came back with the document duly executed. Roland thrust it under his belt again, and reassuring his mother, who was now weeping on his shoulder, he tried to tear himself away. The Empress detained him until, with fumbling hands, she unlocked a drawer in a cabinet, and took from it a bag that gave forth a chink of metal as she pressed it on her son.
"I must not take it," he said. "I am quite well provided. The generous Archbishops allow me seven hundred thalers a month, which is paid with exemplary regularity."
"There are only five hundred thalers here," replied the Empress. "I wish there were more, but you must accept it, for I should feel easier in my mind to know that you possess even that much. Do they misuse you at Ehrenfels, my son?"
"Oh, no, no, no! I live like a burgomaster. You need feel no fear on my account, mother. Ehrenfels is a delightful spot, with old Bingen just across the water. I like it much better than I did Frankfort, with its howling mobs, and shall be very glad to get quit again of the city."
Then, with a hurried farewell, he left the weeping woman, and descending the back stair, secured the abandoned gabardine, put it on, and so came to the water's edge, entering into possession of his boat again. Returning the craft to its owner, he resumed sword and cloak once more, and found his way to a tavern, where he ordered a satisfactory meal.
In the evening he arrived at the Rheingold, and meeting the landlord in the large, empty, public cellar, asked that worthy if his friends had assembled yet, and was told they were all within the Kaiser cellar.
"Good!" he cried. "I said I would be gone a week, but here I am within a day. If that's not justifying a man's word, I should like to know what is. And now, landlord, set forth the best meal you can provide, with a double quantity of wine."
"For yourself, sir?"
"For all, landlord. What else? The lads have had no supper, I'll warrant."
"A little black bread has gone the rounds."
"All the more reason that we should have a huge pasty, steaming hot, or two or three of them if necessary. And your best wine, landlord. That from the Rheingau."
But the landlord demurred.
"A meal for yourself, sir, as leader, I could venture upon, but feeding a score of hungry men is a different matter. Remember, sir, I have not seen the color of their silver for many a long day, and, since these evil times have set in, I am a poor man."
"Sordid silver? Out upon silver! unless it is some silvery fish from the river, fresh and firm; and that's a good idea. We will begin with fish while you prepare the meat. 'Tis gold I deal with to-night, and most of it is for your pouch. Run your hand in here and enjoy the thrill," and Roland held open the mouth of the bag which contained his treasure.
"Ah!" cried the inn-keeper, his face aglow. "No such meal is spread to-night in Frankfort as will be set before you."
There was a great shout as Roland entered the Kaiser cellar, and a hurrah of welcome.
"Ha, renegade!" cried one. "Have you shirked your task so soon?"
"Coward, coward, poltroon!" was the cry. "I see by his face he has failed. Never mind them, Roland. Your chair at the head of the table always awaits you. There is a piece of black bread left, and though the wine is thin, it quenches thirst."
Roland flung off his cloak, hung it and the sword on a peg, and took his seat at the head of the table. Pushing away the flagons that stood near him, he drew the leathern bag from his belt, and poured the shining yellow coins on the table, at the sight of which there arose such a yell that the stout beams above them seemed to quake.
"Apologize!" demanded Roland, when the clamor quieted down. "The man who refuses to apologize, and that abjectly, must take down his sword from the peg and settle with me!"
A shout of apology was the response.
"We grovel at your feet, High Mightiness!" cried the man who had called him poltroon.
"I have taken the liberty of ordering a fish and meat supper, with a double quantity of Rudesheimer wine. Again I offer to fight any man who resents this encroachment on my part."
"I could spit you with a hand tied behind my back," cried one, "but I am of a forgiving nature, and will wait instead for the spitted fowl."
"Most of this money," continued Roland quietly, "goes, I suspect, to the landlord, as a slight recognition of past kindness, but I am promised a further supply this evening, which will be divided equally among ourselves. I ask you, therefore, to be sparing of the wine." Here he was compelled to pause for some moments, and listen to groans, hoots, howls, and the rapping of empty flagons on the stout table.
The commotion was interrupted by the entrance of the landlord, who brought with him the promised Rhine wine; for, hearing the noise, he supposed it represented impatience of the company at the delay, a mistake which no one thought it worth while to rectify. He promised that the fish would follow in a very few minutes, and went out to see that his word was kept.
"Why should we be sparing of the wine?" asked a capable drinker, who had drained his flagon before asking the question. "With all that money on the table it seems to me a scandalous proviso."
"'Tis not a command at all," replied Roland, "but merely a suggestion. I spoke in the interests of fair-play. An appointment was made by me for ten o'clock this evening, and I wish to keep it and remain uninfluenced by wine."
"What's her name, Roland?" inquired the wine-bibber.
"I was about to divulge that secret when you interrupted me. The name is Herr Goebel."
"What! the cloth merchant on the Fahrgasse?"
"Is it cloth he deals in? I didn't know the particulars of his occupation beyond the facts that he is a merchant, and lives in the Fahrgasse. This morning I enjoyed the privilege of presenting to Herr Goebel a mutually beneficial plan which would give us all something to do."
"Oh, is Goebel to be our employer? I'm a sword forger, and work for no puny cloth merchant," said Kurzbold.
"This appointment," continued Roland, unheeding, "is set for ten o'clock, and I expect to return here before half-past, therefore--"
"Therefore we're not to drink all the wine."
Their leader sat down as the landlord, followed by an assistant, entered, carrying the paraphernalia for the substantial repast, and proceeded to set the table.
When the hilarious meal was finished, the company sat for another half-hour over its wine, then Roland rose, buckled on his sword, and flung his cloak over his shoulders.
"Roland, I hope you have not sold your soul for this gold?"
"No; but I have pledged your bodies, and my own as well. Greusel, will you act as secretary and treasurer? Scrutinize the landlord's bill with a generous eye, and pay him the amount we owe. If anything is left, we will divide it equally," and with that he waved his hand to them, departing amidst a round of cheers, for the active youths were tired of idleness.
Punctuality is the politeness of kings, and as the bells of Frankfort were ringing ten o'clock, Roland knocked at the door of the merchant's house in the Fahrgasse. It was promptly opened by the ancient porter, who, after securing it again, conducted the young man up the solid stairway to the office-room on the first floor.
Ushered in, the Prince found the merchant seated in his usual chair, as if he had never moved from the spot where Roland had left him at noon that day. Half a dozen candles shed their soft radiance over the table, and on one corner of it, close by Herr Goebel's right elbow, the visitor saw a well-filled doeskin bag which he fancied might contain the thousand thalers.
"Good even to you, Herr Goebel," said the young man, doffing his bonnet. "I hope I have not trodden too closely on the heels of my appointment, thus withdrawing you prematurely from the festivities, which I trust you enjoyed all the more that you breathed the air of liberty again."
"The occasion, sir, was solemn rather than festive, for although I was glad to see my old friends again, and I believe they were glad to see me, the condition of the city is such, and growing rapidly worse, that merchants cannot rejoice when they are gathered together."
"Ah, well, Herr Goebel, we will soon mend all that. How long will it require to load your boat and choose your crew?"
"Everything can be ready by the evening of the day after to-morrow."
"You will select one of your largest barges. Remember, it must house twenty-one men besides the crew and the goods."
"Yes; I shall see that complete arrangements are made for your comfort."
"Thank you. But do not provide too much luxury. It might arouse suspicion from the Barons who search the boat."
"But the Barons will see you and your men in the boat."
"I think not. At least, we don't intend to be seen. I will call upon you again to-morrow at ten o'clock. Will you kindly order your captain to be here to meet me? I wish you to give him instructions in my presence that he is to do whatever I ask of him. We will join the boat on the Rhine between Ehrenfels and Assmannshausen. Instruct him to wait for us midway between the two places, on the right bank. And now the money, if you please."
"The money is here," said the merchant, sitting up a little more stiffly in his chair as he patted the well-stuffed bag. "The money is here if you have brought the instrument that authorizes you to take it."
"I have brought it with me, mein herr."
"Then show it to me," demanded the merchant, adjusting his horn glasses with the air of one who will not allow himself to be hoodwinked.
"With the greatest pleasure," returned the young man, standing before him. He unfastened his cloak, and allowed it to fall at his feet, then whisked out his sword, and presented the point of it to the merchant's throat.
Goebel, who had been fumbling with his glasses, suddenly became aware of his danger, and shrank back so far as his chair allowed, but the point of the sword followed him.
"What do you mean by that?" he gasped.
"I mean to show you that in this game iron is superior to gold. Your card is on the table, represented by that bag. Mine is still in my hand, and unplayed, but it takes the trick, I think. I hope you see the uselessness of resistance. You cannot even cry out, for at the first attempt a thrust of this blade cuts the very roots of utterance. It will be quite easy for me to escape, because I shall go quietly out with the bag under my cloak, telling the porter that you do not wish to be disturbed."
"It is the Prince of Thieves you are, then," said Herr Goebel.
"So it would appear. With your right hand pass that bag of gold across the table, and beg of me to accept it."
The merchant promptly did what he was told to do.
The young man put his sword back in its place, laughing joyously, but there was no answering smile on the face of Herr Goebel. As he had said, the condition of things in Frankfort, especially in that room, failed to make for merriment. Roland, without being invited, drew up a chair, and sat down at the opposite side of the table.
"Please do not attempt to dash for the door," he warned, "because I can quite easily intercept you, as I am nearer to it than you are, and more active. Call philosophy to your aid, and take whatever happens calmly. I assure you, 'tis the best way, and the only way."
He untied the cord, and poured the bulk of the gold out upon the table. The merchant watched him with amazement. For all the robber knew, the door might be opened at any moment, but he went on with numbering the coins as nonchalantly as if seated in the treasury of the Corn Exchange. When he had counted half the sum the bag contained, he poured the loose money by handfuls into the wallet that had held his mother's contribution, and pushed towards the merchant the bag, in which remained five hundred thalers.
"You are to know," he said with a smile, abandoning his bent-forward posture, "that when I visited my mother this afternoon, she quite unexpectedly gave me five hundred thalers, so I shall accept from you only half the sum I demanded this morning."
"Your mother!" cried the merchant. "Who is your mother?"
"The Empress, as I told you. Oh, at last I understand your uneasiness. You wished to see that document! Why didn't you ask for it? I asked for the money plainly enough. Well, here it is. Examine Seal and sign-manual."
The merchant minutely scrutinized the Great Seal and the signature above it.
"I don't know what to think," stammered Herr Goebel at last, gazing across the table with bewildered face.
"Think of your good fortune. A moment ago you imagined a thousand thalers were lost. Now it is but five hundred thalers invested, and you are a partner with the Royal House of the Empire."