VI. To Be Kept Secret from the Countess
 

There are few favored spots occupied by blue water and greensward over which a greater splendor is cast by the rising sun on a midsummer morning than that portion of the Rhine near Coblentz, and as our little procession emerged from the valley of the Saynbach every member of it was struck with the beauty of the flat country across the Rhine, ripening toward a yellow harvest, flooded by the golden glory of the rising sun.

Their route led to the left by the foot of the eastern hills, and not yet along the margin of the great river. Gradually, however, as they journeyed in a southerly direction, the highlands deflected them westward until at last there was but scant room for the road between rock and water. Always they were in the shade, a comforting feature of a midsummer journey, an advantage, however, soon to be lost when they crossed the Rhine by the ferry to Coblentz. The distance from Sayn Castle to Schloss Stolzenfels was a little less than four leagues, so their early start permitted a leisurely journey.

The Archbishop and the Countess rode side by side. Following them at some distance came Father Ambrose, deep in his meditations, and paying little attention to the horse he rode, which indeed, faithful animal, knew more about the way than did his rider. Still farther to the rear rode half a dozen mounted lancemen, two and two, the scant escort of one who commanded many thousands of armed men.

"How lovely and how peaceful is the scene," said the Countess. "How beautiful are the fields of waving grain; their color of dawn softened by the deep green of interspersed vineyards, and the water without a ripple, like a slumbering lake rather than a strong river. It seems as though anger, contention, and struggle could not exist in a realm so heavenly."

"'Seems? is the word to use," commented the Archbishop gravely, "but the unbroken placidity of the river you so much admire is a peace of defeat. I had much rather see its flood disturbed by moving barges and the turmoil of commerce. It is a peace that means starvation and death to our capital city, and, indeed, in a lesser degree, to my own town of Cologne, and to Coblentz, whose gates we are approaching."

"But surely," persisted the girl, "the outlook is improving, when you and I travel unmolested with a mere handful of men to guard us. Time was when a great and wealthy Archbishop might not stir abroad with less than a thousand men in his train."

The Archbishop smiled.

"I suppose matters mend," he said, "as we progress in civilized usage. The number of my escort, however, is not limited by my own modesty, but stipulated by the Court of Archbishops. Mayence travels down the Rhine and Treves down the Moselle, each with a similar following at his heels."

"You are pessimistic this lovely morning, my Lord, and will not even admit that the world is beautiful."

"It all depends on the point of view, Hildegunde. I regard it from a position toward the end of life, and you from the charming station of youth: the far-apart outlook of an old man and a young girl."

"Nonsense, Guardian, you are anything but old. Nevertheless I am much disappointed with your attitude this morning. I fully expected to be complimented by you."

"Doesn't my whole attitude breathe of compliment?"

"Ah, but I expected a particular compliment to-day!"

"What have I overlooked?"

"You overlooked the fact that yesterday you aroused my most intense curiosity regarding the journey we are now taking together, and the conference which is to follow. Despite deep anxiety to learn what is before me I have not asked you a single question, nor even hinted at the subject until this moment. Now, I think I should be rewarded for my reticence."

"Ah, Countess, you are an exception among women, and I merely withheld the well-earned praise until such time as I could broach the subject occupying my mind ever since we left the Castle. With the awkwardness of a man I did not know how to begin until you so kindly indicated the way."

"Perhaps, after all, I make a false claim, because I have guessed your secret, and therefore my deep solicitude is assumed."

"Guessed it?" queried the Archbishop, a shade of anxiety crossing his face.

"Yes. Your story of the former Archbishop and the Countess Matilda gave me a clue. You have discovered a document proving my right to the town of Linz on the Rhine."

The Archbishop bowed his head, but said nothing.

"Your sense of justice urges you to make amends, but such a long time has elapsed that my claim is doubtless outlawed, and you do not quite know how restoration may be effected. You have, I take it, consulted with one or other of your colleagues, Mayence or Treves, or perhaps with both. They have made objection to your proposed generosity, and put forward the argument that you are but temporary trustee of the Cologne Archbishopric; that you must guard the rights of your successor; and this truism could not help but appeal to that quality of equity which distinguishes you, so a conference of the prelates has been called, and a majority of that Court will decide whether or not the town of Linz shall be tendered to me. Perhaps a suggestion will be made that I allow things to remain as they are, in which case I shall at once refuse to accept the town of Linz. Now, Guardian, how near have I come to solving the mystery?"

They rode along in silence together, the Archbishop pondering on the problem of her further enlightenment. At last he said:

"Cologne is ruled by its Archbishop, wisely or the reverse as the case may be. The Archbishop, much as he reveres the opinion of his distinguished colleagues, would never put them to the inconvenience of giving a decision on any matter not concerning them. Linz's fate was settled when the handwriting of my predecessor, prelate of 1250 A.D., convinced me that this Rhine town belonged to the House of Sayn. Restitution has already been accomplished in due legal form, and when next the Countess Hildegunde rides through Linz, she rides through her own town."

"I shall never, never accept it, Guardian."

"It is yours now, Countess. If you do not wish to hold the town, use it as a gift to the fortunate man you marry. And now, Hildegunde, this long-postponed advice I wish to press upon your attention, must be given, for we are nearing the ferry to Coblentz, and between that town and Stolzenfels we may have company. Of the three Archbishops you will meet to-day, there is only one of whom you need take account."

"Oh, I know that," cried the girl, "his Lordship of Cologne!"

The Archbishop smiled, but went on seriously:

"Where two or three men are gathered together, one is sure to be leader. In our case the chief of the trio supposed to be equal is his Highness of Mayence. Treves and I pretend not to be under his thumb, but we are: that is to say, Treves holds I am under his thumb, and I hold Treves is under his thumb, and so when one or the other of us join the Archbishop of Mayence, there is a majority of the Court, and the third member is helpless."

"But why don't you and Treves join together?"

"Because each thinks the other a coward, and doubtless both are right. The point of the matter is that Mayence is the iron man of the combination; therefore I beg you beware of him, and I also entreat you to agree with the proposal he will make. It will be of tremendous advantage to you."

"In that case, my Lord, how could I refuse?"

"I hope, my child, you will not, but if you should make objection, do so with all the tact at your disposal. In fact, refrain wholly from objection if you can, and plead for time to consider, so that you and I may consult together, thus affording me opportunity of bringing arguments to bear that may influence your decision."

"My dear Guardian, you alarm me by the awesome way in which you speak. What fateful choice hangs over my head?"

"I have no wish to frighten you, my daughter, and, indeed, I anticipate little chance of disagreement at the conference. I merely desire that you shall understand something of Mayence. He is a man whom opposition may drive to extremity, and being accustomed to crush those who disagree with him, rather than conquer by more diplomatic methods, I am anxious you should not be led into any semblance of dissent from his wishes. By agreement between Mayence, Treves, and myself, I am not allowed to enlighten you regarding the question at issue. I perhaps strain that agreement a little when I endeavor to put you on your guard. If, at any point in the discussion, you wish a few moments to reflect, glance across the table at me, and I shall immediately intervene with some interruption which must be debated by the three members of the Court. Of course, I shall do everything in my power to protect you should our grim friend Mayence lose his temper, as may happen if you thwart him."

"Why am I likely to thwart him?"

"Why indeed? I see no reason. I am merely an old person perhaps over-cautious. Hence this warding off of a crisis which I hope will never arise."

"Guardian, I have one question to ask, and that will settle the matter here on the border of the Rhine, before we reach Stolzenfels. Do you thoroughly approve, with your heart, mind, and conscience, of the proposition to be made to me?"

"I do," replied the Archbishop, in a tone of conviction that none could gainsay. "Heart and soul, agree."

"Then, Guardian, your crisis that never came vanishes. I shall tell his Lordship of Mayence, in my sweetest voice and most ingratiating manner, that I will do whatever he requests."

Here the conversation ceased, for the solitude now gave way to a scene of activity, as they came to the landing alongside which lay the floating bridge, a huge barge, capable of carrying their whole company at one voyage. Several hundred persons, on horseback or on foot, gathered along the river-bank, raised a cheer as the Archbishop appeared. The Countess thought they waited to greet him, but they were merely travelers or market people who found their journey interrupted at this point. An emissary of the Archbishop had commanded the ferry-boat to remain at its eastern landing until his Lordship came aboard. When the distinguished party embarked, the crew instantly cast off their moorings, and the tethered barge, impelled by the swift current, gently swung across to the opposite shore.

A great concourse of people greeted their arrival at Coblentz, and if vociferous shouts and hurrahs are signs of popularity, the Archbishop had reason to congratulate himself upon his reception. The prelate bowed and smiled, but did not pause at Coblentz, and, to the evident disappointment of the multitude, continued his way up the Rhine. When the little cavalcade drew away from the mob, the Countess spoke:

"I had no thought," she said, "that Coblentz contained so many inhabitants."

"Neither does it," replied the Archbishop.

"Then is this simply an influx of people from the country, and is the conclave of the Archbishops of such importance that it draws so many sightseers?"

"The Court held by the Archbishops on this occasion is very important. I suspect, however, that those are no sightseers, for the general public is quite unaware that we meet to-day. They who cheered so lustily just now are, I think, men of Treves."

"Do you mean soldiers?"

"Aye. Soldiers in the dress of ordinary townsmen, but I dare say they all know where to find their weapons should a war-cry arise."

"Do you imply that the Archbishop of Treves has broken his compact? I understood that your escort was limited to the few men following you."

His Lordship laughed.

"The Archbishop of Treves," he said, "is not a great strategist, yet I surmise he is ready in case of trouble to seize the city off Coblentz."

"What trouble could arise?"

"The present moment is somewhat critical, for the Emperor lies dying in Frankfort. We three Electors hope to avoid all commotion by having our plans prepared and acting upon them promptly. But the hours between the death of an Emperor and the appointment of his successor are fateful with uncertainty. I suppose the good Sisters at Nonnenwerth taught you about the Election of an Emperor?"

"Indeed, Guardian, I am sorry to confess that if they did I have forgotten all about it."

"There are seven Electors; four high nobles of the Empire and three Archbishops, Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual. The present Count Palatine of the Rhine is, like my friend Treves, completely under the dominion of the Archbishop of Mayence, so the three Lords Spiritual, with the aid of the Count Palatine, form a majority of the Electoral Court."

"I understand. And now I surmise that you assemble at Stolzenfels to choose our future Emperor."

"No; he has already been chosen, but his name will not be announced to any person save one before the Emperor dies."

"Doubtless that one is the Count Palatine."

"No, Countess, he remains ignorant; and I give you warning, Madam, I am not to be cross-questioned by indirection. You should be merciful: I am but clay in your hands, yet there is certain information I am forbidden to impart, so I will merely say that if the Archbishop happens to be in good-humor this afternoon, he is very likely to tell you who will be the future Emperor."

The girl gave an exclamation of surprise.

"To tell me? Why should he do so?"

"I said I was not to be cross-examined any further. I tremble now with apprehension lest I have let slip something I should not, therefore we will change the subject to one of paramount importance; namely, our midday meal. I intended to stop at Coblentz for that repast, but the Archbishop of Treves, whose guests we are, was good enough to accept a menu I suggested, therefore we will sit at table with him."

"You suggested a menu?"

"Yes; I hope you will approve of it. There is some excellent Rhine salmon, with a sauce most popular in Treves, a sauce that has been celebrated for centuries. Next some tender venison from the forest behind Stolzenfels, which is noted for its deer. There are, beside, cakes and various breads, also vegetables, and all are to be washed down by delicate Oberweseler wine. How does my speis-card please you, Countess?"

"I am committing it to memory, Guardian, so that I shall know what to prepare for you when next you visit my Castle of Sayn."

"Oh, this repast is not in my honor, but in yours. I feared you might object to the simplicity of it. It is upon record that this meal was much enjoyed by a young lady some centuries ago, at this very Castle of Stolzenfels, shortly after it was completed. Indeed, I think it likely she was the noble castle's first guest. Stolzenfels was built by Arnold von Isenberg, the greatest Archbishop that ever ruled over Treves, if I may except Archbishop Baldwin, the fighter. Isenberg determined to have a stronghold on the Rhine midway between Mayence and Cologne, and he made it a palace as well as a fortress, taking his time about it--in all seventeen years. He began its erection in 1242, and so was building at the time your ancestress Matilda ceded Linz to the Archbishop of Cologne, therefore I imagine Cologne probably wished to have a stronghold within striking distance of Treves' new castle.

"One of the first to visit Stolzenfels was a charming young English girl named Isabella, who was no other than the youngest daughter of John, King of England. Doubtless she came here with an imposing suite of attendants, and I surmise that the great prelate's castle saw impressive pageants and festivities, for the chronicler, after setting down the menu whose excellence I hope to test to-day, adds:

"'They ate well, and drank better, and the Royal maiden danced a great deal.'

"Her brother then occupied the English throne. He was Henry III., and of course much attention was paid over here to his dancing sister."

"Why, Guardian, what you say gives a new interest to old Stolzenfels. I have never been within the Castle, but now I shall view it with delight, wondering through which of the rooms the English Princess danced. Why did Isabella come from England all the way to the Rhine?"

"She came to meet the three Archbishops."

"Really? For what purpose?"

"That they might in ecclesiastical form, and upon the highest ecclesiastical authority, announce her betrothal."

"Announce in Stolzenfels the betrothal of an English Princess, the daughter of one king and sister of another! Did she, then, marry a German?"

"Yes; she married the Emperor, Frederick II.; Frederick of Hohenstaufen."

Slowly the girl turned her head, and looked steadfastly at the Archbishop, who was gazing earnestly up the road as if to catch a glimpse of the Castle which had been the scene of the events he related. Her face became pale, and a questioning wonder rose in her eyes. What did the Archbishop really mean by this latest historical recital? True, he was a man who had given much study to ancient lore; rather fond of exhibiting his proficiency therein when he secured patient listeners. Could there be any secret meaning in his story of the English Princess who danced? Was there any hidden analogy between the journey of the English Isabella, and the short trip taken that day by Hildegunde of Sayn? She was about to speak when the Archbishop made a slight signal with his right hand, and a horseman who had followed them all the way from Coblentz now spurred up alongside of his Lordship, who said sharply to the newcomer:

"How many of Treves' men are in Coblentz?"

"Eight hundred and fifty, my Lord."

"Enough to capture the town?"

"Coblentz is already in their possession, my Lord."

"They seem to be unarmed."

"Their weapons are stored under guard in the Church of St. Castor, and can be in the hands of the soldiers within a few minutes after a signal is rung by the St. Castor's bells."

"Are there any troops in Coblentz from Mayence?"

"No, my Lord."

"How many of my men have been placed behind the Castle of Stolzenfels?"

"Three thousand are concealed in the forest near the hilltop."

"How many men has my Lord of Mayence within call?"

"Apparently only the scant half-dozen that reached Stolzenfels with him yesterday."

"Are you sure of that?"

"Scouts have been sent all through the forest to the south, and have brought us no word of an advancing company. Other scouts have gone up the river as far as Bingen, but everything is quiet, and it would have been impossible for his Lordship to march a considerable number of men from any quarter towards Stolzenfels without one or other of our hundred spies learning of the movement."

"Then doubtless Mayence depends on his henchman Treves."

"It would seem so, my Lord."

"Thank you; that will do."

The rider saluted, turned his horse towards the north, and galloped away, and a few moments later the little procession came within sight of Stolzenfels, standing grandly on its conical hill beside the Rhine, against a background of green formed by the mountainous forests to the rear.

This conversation, which she could not help but hear, had driven entirely from the mind of Hildegunde the pretty story of the English Princess.

"Why, Guardian!" she said, "we seem to be in the midst of impending civil war."

The Archbishop smiled.

"We are in the midst of an assured peace," he replied.

"What! with Coblentz practically seized, and three thousand of your men lurking in the woods above us?"

"Yes. I told you that Treves was no strategist. I suppose he and Mayence imagine that by seizing the town of Coblentz they cut off my retreat to Cologne. They know it would be useless in a crisis for me to journey up the river, as I should then be getting farther and farther from my base of supplies both in men and provisions, therefore the Archbishop of Mayence has neglected to garrison that quarter."

"But, Guardian, you are surely entrapped, with Coblentz thus held?"

"Not so, my child, while I command three thousand men to their eight hundred."

"But that means a battle!"

"A battle that will never take place, Hildegunde, because I shall seize something much more valuable than any town, namely, the persons of the two Archbishops. With their Lordships of Treves and Mayence in my custody, cut off from communication with their own troops, I have slight fear of a leaderless army. The very magnitude of the force at my command is an assurance of peace."

They now arrived at the branching hill-road leading up to the gates of Stolzenfels just above them, and conversation ceased, but the Countess was fated to remember before the afternoon grew old the final words Cologne spoke so confidently.