The Sword Maker by Robert Barr
XX. The Mystery of the Forest
Roland left the palace with a sense of elation he had never before experienced, but this received a check as he saw standing in the middle of the square the Lieutenant of the night before. His first impulse was to avoid the officer, yet almost instinctively he turned and walked directly to him, which apparently nonplussed the brave emissary of Mayence.
"Good afternoon to you, sir," began Roland, as if overjoyed to see him. "Will you permit me to speak to you, sir?"
"Well?" said the Lieutenant curtly.
"My forge, which has been black and cold for many a long day, will soon be alight and warm again. What think you of this?" He handed to the Lieutenant his order for a thousand swords, and the officer made a mental note of the commission as an interesting point in armament that would be appreciated by his chief.
"You did not inform me last night who was the merchant you hoped would finance your enterprise."
"Hoped?" echoed Roland, his eyes sparkling. "'Tis more than hope, Herr Lieutenant. His name is Goebel, and he is one of the richest and chiefest traffickers of Frankfort. Why, my fortune is made! Read this, written in his own hand. I got it from him before midday, on my mere word that I was certain of an order from his Lordship."
"You are indeed much to be envied," said the Lieutenant coldly, returning the two documents.
"Ah, but I am just at the beginning. If you would favor me by smoothing the way to his Lordship, the Archbishop of Mayence, I in return--"
"Out upon you for a base-born, profit-mongering churl! Do you think that I, an officer, would demean myself by partnering a bagman!"
The Lieutenant turned on his heel, strode away and left him. Roland pursued his way with bowed head, as though stricken by the rebuff. Nearing the bridge, he saw a crowd around an empty cart, standing by which a man in rough clothing was cursing most vociferously.
At first he thought there had been an accident, but most of the people were laughing loudly; so, halting in the outskirts, he asked the cause of the commotion.
"'Tis but a fool farmer," said a man, "who came from the country with his load of vegetables. 'Tis safer to enter a lion's den unarmed than to come into Frankfort with food while people are starving. He has been plundered to the last leaf."
Roland shouldered his way through the crowd, and touched the frantic man on the shoulder.
"What was the value of your load?" he said.
"A misbegotten liar told me this morning that a market had opened in Frankfort, and that there was money to be had. No sooner am I in the town than everything I brought in is stolen."
"Yes, yes; I know all about that. My question is, How much is your merchandise worth?"
"Worth? Thirty thalers I expected to get, and now--"
"Thirty thalers," interrupted the Prince. "Here is your money. Get you gone, and tell your neighbors there is prompt payment for all the provender they can bring in."
The man calmed down as if a bucket of water had been thrown on him. He counted the payment with miserly care, testing each coin between his teeth, then mounted his cart without a word of thanks, and, to the disappointment of the gathering mob, drove away. Roland, seething with anger, walked directly to the house of Herr Goebel, and found that placid old burgher seated at his table.
"Ten thousand curses on your indolence!" he cried. "Where are your committee, and the emissaries empowered to carry out this scheme of relief I have ordered?"
"Committee? Emissaries?" cried the astonished man. "There has been no time!"
"Time, you thick-headed fool! I'll time you by hanging you to your own front door. There has been time for me to send my men out into the country; time for a farmer to come in with a cartload of produce, and be robbed here under your very nose! Maledictions on you, you sit here, well fed, and cry there is no time! If I had not paid the yeoman he would have gone back into the country crying we were all thieves here in Frankfort. Now listen to me. I drew my sword once upon you in jest. Should I draw it a second time it will be to penetrate your lazy carcass by running you through. If within two hours there is not a paymaster at every gate in Frankfort to buy and pay for each cartload of produce as it comes, and also a number of guides to tell that farmer where to deliver his goods, I'll give your town over to the military, and order the sacking of every merchant's house within its walls."
"It shall be done; it shall be done; it shall be done!" breathed the merchant, trembling as he rose, and he kept repeating the phrase with the iteration of a parrot.
"You owe me thirty thalers," said the Prince calming down; "the first payment out of the relief fund. Give me the money."
With quivering hands Herr Goebel, seeing no humor in the application, handed over the money, which the Prince slipped into his wallet.
Dusk had fallen when at last he reached his room in Sachsenhausen, and there he found awaiting him Joseph Greusel, in semi-darkness and in total gloom.
"Your housekeeper let me in," said the visitor.
"Good! I did not expect you back so soon. Have the others returned?"
"I do not know. I came direct here. I carry very ominous news, Roland, of impending disaster in Frankfort."
"Greater than at present oppresses it?"
"Civil war, fire, and bloodshed. Close the door, Roland; I am tired out, and I do not wish to be overheard."
The Prince obeyed the request, locking the door. Going to a cupboard, he produced a generous flagon of wine and a tankard, setting the same on a small table before Greusel, then he threw himself down in the one armchair the room possessed. Greusel filled the tankard, and emptied it without drawing breath. He plunged directly into his narrative.
"I had penetrated less than half a league into the forest when I was stopped by an armed man who stepped out from behind a tree. He wore the uniform of Mayence, and proclaimed me a prisoner. I explained my mission, but this had no effect upon him. He asked if I would go with him quietly, or compel him to call assistance. Being helpless, I said I would go quietly. Notwithstanding this, he bound my wrists behind me, then with a strip of cloth blindfolded me. Taking me by the arm, he led me through the forest for a distance impossible to calculate. I think, however, we walked not more than ten minutes. There was a stop and a whispered parley; a pause of a few minutes, and a further conference, which I partially heard. The commander before whom I must be taken was not ready to receive me. I should be placed in a tent, and a guard set over me.
"This was done. I asked that the cord, which hurt my wrists, might be removed, but instead, my ankles were tied together, and I sat there on the ground, leaning against a pole at the back of the tent. Here my conductor left me, and I heard him give orders to those without to maintain a strict watch, but to hold no communication with me.
"I imagine that the tent I occupied stood back to back with the tent of the commander, for after some time I heard the sound of voices, and it seemed to me voices of two men in authority. They had come to the back part of their tent, as if to speak confidentially, and their voices were low, yet I could hear them quite distinctly, being separated from them merely by two thicknesses of cloth. What I learned was this. There is concealed in the forest, within half an hour's quick march of the southern gate, a force of seven thousand soldiers. These soldiers belong to the Archbishop of Mayence, who commands an additional three thousand within the walls of Frankfort. Mayence holds the southern gate, as Treves holds the western and Cologne the northern. You see at once what that implies. Mayence can pour his troops into Frankfort, say, at midnight, and in the morning he has ten thousand soldiers as compared with the three thousand each commanded by the Archbishops of Treves and Cologne. That means civil war, and the complete crushing of the two northern Archbishops."
"I think you take too serious a view of the matter," commented Roland. "Mayence is undoubtedly a subtle man, who takes every precaution that he shall have his own way. The reason that there will be no civil war is this. I happen to know on very excellent authority that so far as the Electoral Court goes, Mayence is paramount. He does not need to conquer Cologne and Treves by force, because he is already supreme by his genius for intrigue. He is a born ruler, and his methods are all those of diplomacy as against those of arms. I dare say if occasion demanded it he would strike quick and strike effectually, but occasion does not demand. I am rather sure of my facts, and I know that the three Archbishops, together with the Count Palatine of the Rhine, are in agreement to elect my namesake, Prince Roland, Emperor of Germany."
"Yes," said Greusel, "I heard that rumor, and it is generally believed in Frankfort. Rumor, however, as usual, speaks falsely."
The Prince smiled at his pessimistic colleague, for that colleague was talking to the man who knew; nevertheless, he listened patiently, for of course he could not yet reveal himself to his somber lieutenant, who continued his narrative:
"The two men spoke of the unfortunate Prince, who is, I understand, still a prisoner in Ehrenfels."
Here Roland laughed outright.
"My dear Greusel, you are entirely mistaken. The Prince was never really a prisoner, and is at this moment in Frankfort, as free to do what he likes as I am."
"I am sorry," said Greusel, "that you do not grasp the seriousness of the situation, but I have not yet come to the vital part of it, although I thought the very fact that seven thousand men threatened Frankfort would impress you."
"It does, Greusel," said Roland, remembering the distrust in which both the Countess and her guardian held Mayence, and also the close watch his Lordship was keeping over Frankfort, as evidenced by the domiciliary visit paid to himself by an officer of that potentate. "Go on, Greusel," he said more soberly, "I shall not interrupt you again."
"I gathered that Prince Roland actually had been chosen, but complications arose which I do not altogether understand. These complications relate to a woman, or two women; both of them equally objectionable to the Archbishop of Mayence. One of these two women was to marry the new Emperor, but rather than have this happen, Mayence determined that another than Prince Roland should be elected, the reason being that Mayence feared one Empress would be entirely under the influence of Cologne, if chosen, and the other under the influence of Treves. So his subtle Lordship is deluding both of these Electors. Cologne has been asked to bring to Frankfort the woman he controls, therefore he harbors the illusion that Mayence is reconciled to her. Treves also has been requested to bring the lady who is his relative; thus she, too, is in Frankfort, and Treves blindly believes Mayence is favorable to her cause.
"As a matter of fact Mayence will have neither, but has resolved to spring upon the Electoral Court at the last moment the name of the Grand Duke Karl of Hesse, a middle-aged man already married, and entirely under the dominance of his Lordship of Mayence."
"Pardon me, Greusel, I must interrupt, in spite of my disclaimer. What you say sounds very ingenious, but it cannot be carried out. Treves, Cologne, and the Count Palatine are already pledged to vote for Prince Roland, so is Mayence himself, and to change front at the last moment would be to forswear himself, and act as traitor to his colleagues. Now, he cannot afford to lose even one vote, and I believe that the Archbishop of Cologne will vote for Prince Roland through thick and thin. I think the same of the Count Palatine. Treves, of course, is always doubtful and wavering, but you see that the negative vote of the Archbishop of Cologne would render Mayence powerless and an Election impossible."
"Doubtless what you say is true, and now you have put your finger on the danger spot. Why has the Election been delayed beyond all precedent?"
"That I do not know," replied Roland.
"Then I will tell you. The Archbishop of Mayence has sent peremptory orders to the other three Electors, who are reported to be careless so far as Imperial affairs are concerned, and quite indifferent regarding the personality of the future Emperor. No one of these three Electors, however, dares offend so powerful a man as Mayence. If the Archbishop can overawe his colleagues nominally equal to him in position, each commanding an army, how think you can three small nobles, with no soldiers at their beck, withstand his requests, suavely given, no doubt, but with an iron menace behind them?"
"True, true," muttered Roland.
"Two of these nobles have already arrived, and are housed with the Archbishop of Mayence. The third is expected here within three days; four days at the farthest. Mayence will immediately convene the Electoral Court, when the Count Palatine, with the two Archbishops, may be astonished to find that for the first time in history, the whole seven are present in the Wahlzimmer. Mayence will ask Cologne to make the nomination, and he will put forward the name of Prince Roland. On a vote being taken the Prince will be in a minority of one. Mayence then shows his hand, nominating the Grand Duke Karl, who will be elected by a majority of one. Then may ensue a commotion in the Wahlzimmer, and accusations of bad faith, but remember that Cologne and Treves are taken completely by surprise. They cannot communicate with their commanders, for the three thousand troops which Mayence already has within Frankfort will have quietly surrounded the Town Hall that contains the Election Chamber, and Mayence's seven thousand men from the forest are pouring through the southern gate into the city, making straight for the Romer. Meanwhile the Grand Duke Karl, a man well known to the populace of Frankfort, appears on the balcony of the Kaisersaal, and is loudly acclaimed the new Emperor."
"Ah, Greusel, forgive my attitude of doubt. It is all as plain now as the Cathedral tower. Still, there will be no civil war. Treves and Cologne will gather up their troops and go home, once more defeated by a man cleverer and more unscrupulous than both of them put together. They are but infants in his hands."
"Have you any suggestion to make?" asked Greusel.
"No; there is nothing to be done. You see, the young Prince has no following. He is quite unknown in Frankfort. His name can arouse no enthusiasm, and, all in all, that strikes me as a very good thing. The Grand Duke Karl is popular, and I believe he will make a very good Emperor."
"You mean, Roland, that the Archbishop of Mayence will make a very good ruler, for he will be the real king."
"Well, after all, Joseph, there is much to be said in favor of Mayence. He is a man who knows what he wants, and, what is more, gets it, and that, after all is the main thing in life. If any one could sway the Archbishop so that he put his great talents to the benefit of his country, instead of thinking only of himself, what a triumph of influence that would be! By the Three Kings, I'd like to do it! I admire him. If I found opportunity and could persuade him to join us in the relief of Frankfort, and in opening the Rhine to commerce, we would give these inane merchants a lesson in organization."
Greusel rose from his chair, poured out another tankard full from the flagon, and drank it off.
"I must go down now and meet the guild," he said. "I have eaten nothing all day, and am as hungry as a wolf from the Taunus."
"Oh, how did you escape, by the way?"
"I didn't escape. I was led blindfolded into a tent, where my bandage was removed, and here a man in ordinary dress questioned me concerning my object in entering the forest. I told him exactly the truth, and explained what we were trying to do in Frankfort. I dare say I looked honest and rather stupid. He asked when I set out; in what direction I came; questioning me with a great affectation of indifference; wanted to know if I had met many persons, and I told him quite truthfully I met no one but the man I understood was a forester; a keeper, I supposed."
"'There are a number of us,' he said, 'hunting the wild boar, and we do not wish the animal life of these woods to be disturbed. We shall not be here longer than a week, but I advise you to seek another spot for what timber you require.'
"He asked me, finally, if any one in Frankfort knew I had come to the forest, and I answered that the guild of twenty knew, and that we were all to meet to-night at the Rheingold tavern to report. He pondered for a while on this statement, and I suppose reached the conclusion that if I did not return to Frankfort, this score of men might set out in the morning to search for me, it being well known that the forest is dangerous on account of wild boars. So, as if it were of no consequence, he blindfolded me again, apologizing privately for doing so, saying it was quite unnecessary in the first instance, but as the guard had done so, he did not wish to censure him by implication.
"I answered that it did not matter at all, but desired him to order my wrists released, which was done."
"I must say," commented Roland, "that the Archbishop of Mayence is well served by his officers. Your examiner was a wise man."
"Yes," replied Greusel, "but nevertheless, I am telling my story here in Frankfort."
"No difference for that, because, as I have said, we can do nothing. Still, it is a blessing your examiner could not guess what you overheard in the other tent. He let you go thinking you had seen and learned nothing, and in doing so warded off a search party to-morrow."