IX. A Solemn Proposal of Marriage
 

When Roland wrapped his cloak about him, and lay down on the sward at some distance from the spot where his officers already slept, he found that he could not follow their example. Although, he had remained outwardly calm when the attack was made upon him, his mind was greatly perturbed over the outlook. He reviewed his own conduct, wondering whether it would be possible for him so to amend it that he could acquire the respect and maintain the obedience of his men. If he could not accomplish this, then was his plan foredoomed to failure. His cogitations drove away sleep, and he called to mind the last occasion on which he made this same spot his bedroom. Then he had slumbered dreamlessly the night through. He was on the direct trail between Ehrenfels Castle and the town of Wiesbaden, the route over which supplies had been carried to the Castle time and again when the periodical barges from Mayence failed to arrive. It had been pointed out to him by the custodian of the Castle when the young man first became irked by the confined limits of the Schloss, and frequently since that time he had made his way through the forest to Wiesbaden and back.

Never before had he seen the little Walluf so boisterous, pretending that it was important, and he quite rightly surmised that the cause was a sudden downpour in the mountains farther east. The distant mutterings of thunder having long since ceased, he recognized that the volume of the stream was constantly lessening. As the brook gradually subsided to its customary level, the forest became more and more silent. The greater his endeavor to sleep, the less dormant Roland felt, and all his senses seemed unduly quickened by this ineffectual beckoning to somnolence. He judged by the position of the stars, as he lay on his back, that it was past midnight, when suddenly he became aware of a noise to the west of him, on the other side of the brook. Sitting up, and listening intently, he suspected, from the rustle of the underbrush, that some one was following the trail, and would presently come upon his sleeping men.

He rose stealthily, unsheathed his sword, leaped across the rivulet, and proceeded with caution up the acclivity, keeping on the trail as best he could in the darkness. He was determined to learn the business of the wayfarer, without disturbing his men, so crept rapidly up the hill. Presently he saw the glimmer of a light, and conjectured that some one was coming impetuously down, guided by a lanthorn swinging in his hand. Roland stood on guard with sword extended straight in front of him, and the oncomer's breast was almost at the point of it when he hauled himself up with a sudden cry of dismay, as the lanthorn revealed an armed man holding the path.

"I have no money," were the first words of the stranger.

"Little matter for that," replied Roland. "'Tis information I wish, not gear. Why are you speeding through the forest at night, for no sane man traverses this path in the darkness?"

"I could not wait for daylight," said the stranger, breathing heavily. "I carry a message of the greatest importance. Do not delay me, I beg of you. I travel on affairs of State; Imperial matters, and it is necessary I should reach Frankfort in time, or heads may fall."

"So serious as that?" asked Roland, lowering the point of his sword, for he saw the messenger was unarmed. "Whom do you seek?"

"That I dare not tell you. The message concerns those of the highest, and I am pledged to secrecy. Be assured, sir, that I speak the truth."

"Your voice sounds honest. Hold up the lanthorn at arm's length, that I may learn if your face corresponds with it. Ha, that is most satisfactory! And now, my hurrying youth, will you reveal your mission, or shall I be compelled to run my sword through your body?"

"You would not learn it even then," gasped the young man, shrinking still farther up the hill.

Roland laughed.

"That is true enough," he said, "therefore shall I not impale you, but will instead relate to you the secret you carry. You are making not for Frankfort--"

"I assure you, sir, by the sacred Word, that I am, and grieve my oath does not allow me to do your bidding, even though you would kill me, which is easily done, since I am unarmed."

"You pass through Frankfort, I doubt not, but your goal is a certain small room in the neighboring suburb of Sachsenhausen, and he whom you seek is a youth of about your own age, named Roland. You travel on the behest of your father, who was much agonized in mind when you left him, and he, I take it, is custodian of Ehrenfels Castle."

"In God's name!" cried the youth, aghast, "how did you guess all that?"

Again Roland laughed quietly.

"Why, Heinrich," he said, "your agitation causes you to forget old friends. Hold up your lanthorn again, and learn whether or not you recognize me, as I recognized you."

"Heaven be praised! Prince Roland!"

"Yes; your journey is at an end, my good Heinrich, thank the fortune that kept me awake this night. Do you know why you are sent on this long and breathless journey?"

"Yes, Highness. There has come to the Castle from the Archbishop of Mayence a lengthy document for you to sign, and you are informed that the day after to-morrow their Lordships of Mayence, Treves, and Cologne, meet together at the Castle to hold some conversation with you."

"By my sword, then, Heinrich, had you found me in Sachsenhausen we had never attained Ehrenfels in time."

"I think I could have accomplished it," replied the young man. "I should have reached Wiesbaden before daybreak, and there bought the fastest horse that could be found. My father told me to time myself, and if by securing another horse at Frankfort for you I could not make the return journey speedily enough, I was to engage a boat with twenty rowers, if necessary, and convey you to Ehrenfels before the Archbishops arrived."

"Then, Heinrich, you must have deluded me when you said you had no money."

"No, Highness, I have none, but I carry an order for plenty upon a merchant in Wiesbaden, who would also supply me with a horse."

"Heinrich, there are many stars burning above us to-night, and I have been watching them, but your star must be blazing the brightest of all. Sit you down and rest until I return. Make no noise, for there are twenty others asleep by the stream. My cloak is at the bottom of the hill, and I must fetch it. I shall be with you shortly, so keep your candle alight, that I may not miss you."

With that Roland returned rapidly down the slope, untying his bag of money as he descended. Cautiously he fastened it to the belt of Greusel, then, snatching his cloak from the ground, he sprang once more across the stream, and climbed to the waiting Heinrich.

It was broad daylight before they saw the towers of Ehrenfels, and they found little difficulty in rousing Heinrich's father, for he had slept as badly that night as Roland himself.

The caretaker flung his arms around the young prisoner.

"Oh, thank God, thank God!" was all he could cry, and "Thank God!" again he repeated. "Never before have I felt my head so insecure upon my shoulders. Had you not been here when they came, Highness, their Lordships would have listened to no explanation."

"Really you were in little danger with such a clever son. The Archbishops would never have suspected that he was not I, for none of the three has ever seen me. I am quite sure Heinrich would have effected my signature excellently, and answered to their satisfaction all questions they might ask. So long as he complied with their wishes, there would be no inquiries set afoot, for none would suspect the change. Indeed, custodian, you have missed the opportunity of your life in not suppressing me, thus allowing your son to be elected Emperor."

"Your Highness forgets that my poor boy cannot write his own name, much less yours. Besides, it would be a matter of high treason to forge your signature, so again I thank God you are here. Indeed, your Highness, I am in great trouble about my son."

"Oh, the danger is not so serious as you think."

"Tis not the danger, Highness. That it is his duty to face, but he takes advantage of his position as prisoner. He knows I dare refuse him nothing, and he calls for wine, wine, wine, spending his days in revelry and his nights in stupor."

"You astonish me. Why not cudgel the nonsense out of him? Your arm is strong enough."

"I dare not lay stick on him, and I beg you to breathe nothing of what I have told you, for he holds us both in his grasp, and he knows it. If I called for help to put him in a real dungeon, he would blurt out the whole secret."

"In that case you must even make terms with him. 'Twill be for but a very short time, and after that we will reform him. He was frightened enough of my sword in the forest, and I shall make him dance to its point once this crisis is over."

"I shall do the best I can, Highness. But you must have been on your way to Ehrenfels. Had you heard aught of what is afoot?"

"Nothing. Twas mere chance that Heinrich and I met in the forest, and he was within a jot of impinging himself upon my sword in his hurry. I stood in the darkness, while he himself held a light for the better convenience of any chance marauder who wished to undo him."

"Unarmed, and without money," said the custodian, "I thought he was safer than otherwise. But you are surely hungry, Highness. Advance then within, and I will see to your needs."

So presently the errant Prince consumed an excellent, if early breakfast, and, without troubling to undress, flung himself upon a couch, sleeping dreamlessly through the time that Greusel and Ebearhard were conjuring up motives for him, of which he was entirely innocent.

When Roland woke in the afternoon, he had quite forgotten that a score of men who, nominally, at least, acknowledged him master, were wondering what had become of him. He called the custodian, and asked for a sight of the parchments that his Lordship of Mayence had sent across the river for his perusal. He found the documents to be a very carefully written series of demands disguised under the form of requests.

The pledges which were asked of the young Prince were beautifully engrossed on three parchments, each one a duplicate of the other two. If Roland accepted them, they were to be signed next day, in presence of the three Archbishops. Two certainties were impressed upon him when he had read the scroll: first, the Archbishops were determined to rule; and second, if he did not promise to obey they would elect some other than himself Emperor on the death or deposition of his father. The young man resolved to be acquiescent and allow the future to settle the question whether he or the Archbishops should be the head of the Empire. A strange exultation filled him at the prospect, and all thought of other things vanished from his mind.

Leaving the parchments on the table in the knights' hall, where he had examined them, he mounted to the battlements to enjoy the fresh breeze that, no matter how warm the day, blows round the towers of Ehrenfels. Here a stone promenade, hung high above the Rhine, gave a wonderful view up and down the river and along the opposite shore. From this elevated, paved plateau he could see down the river the strongholds of Rheinstein and Falkenberg, and up the river almost as far as Mayence. He judged by the altitude of the sun that it was about four o'clock in the afternoon. The sight of Rheinstein should have suggested to him his deserted company, for that was the first castle he intended to attack, but the prospect opened up to him by the communication of the Archbishops had driven everything else from his mind.

Presently the cautious custodian joined him in his eyrie, and Roland knew instinctively why he had come. The old man was wondering whether or not he would make difficulties about signing the parchments. He feared the heedless impetuosity and conceit of youth; the natural dislike on the part of a proud young prince to be restricted and bound down by his elders, and the jailer could not conceal his gratification when the prisoner informed him that of course he would comply with the desires of the three prelates.

"You see," he continued, with a smile, "I must attach my signature to those instruments in order to make good my promises to you."

He was interrupted by a cry of astonishment from his aged comrade.

"Will wonders never cease!" cried the old man. "Those merchants in Frankfort must be irredeemable fools. Look you there, Highness! Do you see that barge coming down the river, heavily laden, as I am a sinner, for she lies low in the water. It is one of the largest of the Frankfort boats, and those hopeful simpletons doubtless imagine they can make their way through to Cologne with enough goods left to pay for the journey. 'Tis madness! Why, the knights of Rheinstein and Falkenberg alone will loot them before they are out of our sight. If they think to avoid those rovers by hugging our shore, their mistake will be apparent before they have gone far."

Roland gazed at the approaching craft, and instantly remembered that he was responsible for its appearance on the Rhine. He recognized Herr Goebel's great barge, with its thick mast in the prow, on which no sail was hoisted because the wind blew upstream. On recollecting his deserted men, he wondered whether or not Greusel had brought them across the hills to Assmannshausen. Had they yet discovered that Joseph carried the bag of gold? He laughed aloud as he thought of the scrimmage that would ensue when this knowledge came to them. But little as he cared for the eighteen, he experienced a pang of regret as he estimated the predicament in which both Greusel and Ebearhard had stood on learning he had left them without a word. Still, even now he could not see how any explanation on his part was possible without revealing his identity, and that he was determined not to do.

Turning round, he said abruptly to the custodian:

"Were the seven hundred thalers paid to you each month?"

"Of a surety," was the reply.

"That will be two thousand one hundred thalers altogether. Did you spend the money?"

"I have not touched a single coin. That amount is yours, and yours alone, Prince Roland. If I have been of service I am quite content to wait for my reward, or should I not be here, I know you will remember my family."

"May the Lord forget me if I don't. Still, the twenty-one hundred thalers are all yours, remember, but I beg of you to lend me a thousand, for I possess not a single gold piece in my bag. Indeed, if it comes to that, I do not possess even a bag. I had two yesterday, but one I gave away and the other I threw away."

The old man hurried down, and presently returned with the bag of money that Roland had asked of him. Before this happened, however, Roland, watching the barge, saw it round to, and tie up at the shore some distance above Assmannshausen. He took the gold, and passed down the stone stair to the courtyard.

"I shall return," he said, "before the sun sets," and without more ado, this extraordinary captive left his prison, and descended the hill in the direction of the barge.

After greeting Captain Blumenfels, he learned that the boat had been delayed by running on a sandbank in the Main during the night, but they had got it off at daybreak, and here they were. As, standing on the shore, Roland talked with the captain on the barge, he saw approaching from Assmannshausen two men whom he recognized. Telling the captain he might not be ready for several days, he walked along the shore to meet his astonished friends, who, as was usual with them, jumped at an erroneous conclusion, and supposed that he arrived on the barge which they had seen rounding to for the purpose of taking up her berth by the river-bank.

Greusel and Ebearhard stood still until he came up to them.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen. Are you here alone, or have you brought the mob with you?"

"Your capable lieutenant, sir," said Ebearhard, before his slower companion could begin to frame a sentence, "allowed the men to think they were having their own way, but in reality diverted them into his, so they are now enjoying a credit of one liter each at the tavern of the Golden Anker."

"That," said Roland, "is but as a drop of water in a parched desert. Have they discovered you hold the money, Greusel?"

"No, not yet; but I fear they will begin to suspect by and by. I suppose you went down the valley of the brook to the Rhine, and overhauled the barge there?"

"I suppose so," said Roland. "What else did you think I could do?"

"I was sure you had done that, but I feared you would turn the barge back to Frankfort."

"I never thought of such a thing. Indeed, the captain told me he met difficulty enough navigating the shallow Main, and I think he prefers the deeper Rhine. Of course, you know why I left you."

The men looked at each other without reply, and Roland laughed.

"I see you have been harboring dark suspicions, but the case is very simple. The pious monks tell us that the Scriptures say if a man asks us to go one league with him, we should go two. My good friends of the guild last night made a most reasonable request, namely, that I should bestow upon them three thalers each, and surely, to quote the monks again, the laborer is worthy of his hire."

"Oh, that is the way you look upon it, then," said Greusel.

"From a scriptural point of view, yes; and I am going to better the teachings of my young days by giving each of the men ten times the amount he desired. Thirty thalers each are waiting in this bag for them."

"By my sword!" cried Ebearhard, "if that isn't setting a premium on mutiny it comes perilously close."

"Not so, Ebearhard; not so. You and Greusel did not mutiny, therefore to each of you I give a hundred and thirty thalers, which is the thirty thalers the mutineers receive, and a hundred thalers extra, as a reward of virtue because you did not join them. After all, there is much to be said for the men's point of view. I had led them ruthlessly under a burning July sun, along a rough and shadeless road, then dragged them away from the ample wine-vaults of Sonnenberg; next guided them on through brambles, over streams, into bogs and out again; and lastly, when they were dog-tired, hungry and ill-tempered, I carelessly pointed to a section of the landscape, and said, 'There, my dear chaps, is your bedroom'; lads who had never before slept without blankets and a roof. No wonder they mutinied; but even then, by the love of God for His creatures, they did not actually attack me when I stood up with drawn sword in my hand."

"Of course you have that at least to be thankful for," said Ebearhard. "Eighteen to one was foul odds."

"I be thankful! Surely you are dreaming, Ebearhard. Why should I be thankful, except that I escaped the remorse for at least killing a dozen of them!"

Ebearhard laughed heartily.

"Oh, if so sure of yourself as all that, you need no sympathy from me."

"You thought I would be outmatched? By the Three Kings! do you imagine me such a fool as to teach you artisans the higher qualities of the sword? There would have been a woeful surprise for the eighteen had they ventured another step farther. However, that's all past and done with, and we'll say no more about it. Let us sit down here on the sward, and indulge in the more agreeable recreation of counting money."

He spread his cloak on the grass, and poured out the gold upon it.

"I am keeping two hundred thalers for myself, as leader of the expedition, and covetous. Here are your hundred and thirty thalers, Greusel, and yours, Ebearhard. You will find remaining five hundred and forty, which, if divided with reasonable accuracy, should afford thirty thalers to each of our precious eighteen."

"Aren't you coming with us to Assmannshausen, that you may give this money to the men yourself?" asked Greusel.

"No; that pleasure falls to my lieutenants, first and second. One may divide the money while the other delivers the moral lecture against mutiny, illustrated by the amount that good behavior gains. Say nothing to the men about the barge being here, merely telling them to prepare for action. Now that you are in funds, engage a large room, exclusively for yourselves, at the Golden Anker. Thus you will be the better able to keep the men from talking with strangers, and so prevent any news of our intentions drifting across the river to Rheinstein or Falkenberg. You might put it to them, should they object to the special room, that you are reconstituting, as it were, the Kaiser cellar of Frankfort in the village of Assmannshausen. Go forward, therefore, with your usual meetings of the guild, as it was before I lowered its tone by becoming a member. Knowing the lads as I do, I suggest that you make your bargain with them before you deliver the money. No promise; no thirty thalers. And now, good-by. I shall be exceedingly busy for some days arranging for a further supply of money, so do not seek me out no matter what happens."

With this Roland shook hands, and returned to Ehrenfels Castle.

       *       *       *       *       *

The three sumptuous barges of the Archbishops hove in sight at midday, two coming up the river and one floating down. They maneuvered to the landing so that all reached it at the same time, and thus the three Archbishops were enabled to set foot simultaneously on the firm ground, as was right and proper, no one of them obtaining precedence over the other two. On entering the Castle of Ehrenfels in state, they proceeded to the large hall of the knights, and seated themselves in three equal chairs that were set along the solid table. Here a repast was spread before them, accompanied by the finest wine the Rheingau produced, and although the grand prelates ate lustily, they were most sparing in their drink, for when they acted in concert none dared risk putting himself at a disadvantage with the others. They would make up for their abstinence when each rested in the security of his own castle.

The board being cleared, Roland was summoned, and bowing deeply to each of the three he took his place, modestly standing on the opposite side of the table. The Archbishop of Mayence, as the oldest of the trio, occupied the middle chair; Treves, the next in age, at his right hand, and Cologne at his left. A keen observer might have noticed that the deferential, yet dignified, bearing of the young Prince made a favorable impression upon these rulers who, when they acted together, formed a power that only nominally was second in the realm.

It was Mayence who broke the silence.

"Prince Roland, some months ago turbulence in the State rendered it advisable that you, as a probable nominee to the throne, should be withdrawn from the capital to the greater safety which this house affords. I hope it has never been suggested to you that this unavoidable detention merited the harsh name of imprisonment?"

"Never, your Lordships," said Roland, with perfect truth.

The three slightly inclined their heads, and Mayence continued:

"I trust that in the carrying out of our behests you have been put to no inconvenience during your residence in my Castle of Ehrenfels, but if you find cause for complaint I shall see to it that the transgressor is sharply punished."

"My Lord, had such been the case I should at once have communicated with your Lordship at Mayence. The fact that you have received no such protest from me answers your question, but I should like to add emphasis to this reply by saying I have met with the greatest courtesy and kindness within these walls."

"I speak for my brothers and myself when I assert we are all gratified to hear the expression that has fallen from your lips. There was sent for your perusal a document in triplicate. Have you found time to read it?"

"Yes, my Lord, and I beg to state at once that I will sign it with the greater pleasure since in any case, if called to the high position you propose, I should have consulted your Lordships on every matter that I deemed important enough to be worthy of your attention, and in no instance could I think of setting up my own opinion against the united wisdom of your Lordships."

For a few minutes there ensued a whispered conversation among the three, then Mayence spoke again:

"Once more I voice the sentiments of my colleagues, Prince Roland, when I assure you that the words you have just spoken give us the utmost satisfaction. In the whole world to-day there is no prouder honor than that which it is in the Electors' power to bestow upon you, and it is a blessed augury for the welfare of our country when the energy and aspiration of youth in this high place associates itself with the experience of age."

Here he made a signal, and the aged custodian, who had been standing with his back against the door, well out of earshot, for the conversation was carried on in the most subdued and gentle tones, hurried forward, and Mayence requested him to produce the documents entrusted to his care. These were spread out before the young man, who signed each of them amidst a deep silence, broken only by the scratching of the quill.

Up to this point Roland had been merely a Prince of the Empire; now, to all practical purposes, he was heir-apparent to the throne. This distinction was delicately indicated by Mayence, who asked the attendant to bring forward a chair, and then requested the young man to seat himself. Roland had supposed the ceremonies at an end, but it was soon evident that something further remained, for the three venerable heads were again in juxtaposition, and apparently there was some whispered difference as to the manner of procedure. Then Cologne, as the youngest of the three, was prevailed upon to act as spokesman, and with a smile he regarded the young man before he began.

"I reside farther than my two colleagues from your fair, if turbulent, city of Frankfort, and perhaps that is one reason why I know little of the town and its ways from personal observation. You are a young man who, I may say, has greatly commended himself to us all, and so in whatever questions I may put, you will not, I hope, imagine that there is anything underneath them which does not appear on the surface."

Roland drew a long breath, and some of the color left his face.

"What in the name of Heaven is coming now," he said to himself, "that calls for so ominous a prelude? It must be something more than usually serious. May the good Lord give me courage to face it!"

But outwardly he merely inclined his head.

"We have all been young ourselves, and I trust none of us forget the temptations, and perhaps the dangers, that surround youth, especially when highly placed. I am told that Frankfort is a gay city, and doubtless you have mixed, to some extent at least, in its society." Here the Archbishop paused, and, as he evidently expected a reply, Roland spoke:

"I regret to say, my Lord, that my opportunities for social intercourse have hitherto been somewhat limited. Greatly absorbed in study, there has been little time for me to acquire companions, much less friends."

"What your Highness says, so far from being a drawback, as you seem to imagine, is all to the good. It leaves the future clear of complications that might otherwise cause you embarrassment." Here the Archbishop smiled again, and Roland found himself liking the august prelate. "It was not, however, of men that I desired to speak, but of women."

"Oh, is that all?" cried the impetuous youth. "I feared, my Lord, that you were about to treat of some serious subject. So far as women are concerned, I am unacquainted with any, excepting only my mother."

At this the three prelates smiled in differing degrees; even the stern lips of Mayence relaxing at the young man's confident assumption that consideration of women was not a matter of importance.

"Your Highness clears the ground admirably for me," continued Cologne, "and takes a great weight from my mind, because I am entrusted by my brethren with a proposal which I have found some difficulty in setting forth. It is this. The choice of an Empress is one of the most momentous questions that an Emperor is called upon to decide. In all except the highest rank personal preference has much to do with the selection of a wife, but in the case of a king do you agree with me that State considerations must be kept in view?"

"Undoubtedly, my Lord."

"This is a matter to which we three Electors have given the weightiest consideration, finally agreeing on one whom we believe to possess the necessary qualifications; a lady highly born, deeply religious, enormously wealthy, and exceedingly beautiful. She is related to the most noble in the land. I refer to Hildegunde Lauretta Priscilla Agnes, Countess of Sayn. If there is any reason why your preference should not coincide with ours, I beg you quite frankly to state it."

"There is no reason at all, your Lordships," cried Roland, with a deep sigh of relief on learning that his fears were so unfounded. "I shall be most happy and honored to wed the lady at any time your Lordships and she may select."

"Then," said the Archbishop of Mayence, rising to his feet and speaking with great solemnity, "you are chosen as the future Emperor of our land."