The Strong Arm by Robert Barr
Chapter I. The Beautiful Jailer of Gudenfels
The aged Emir Soldan sat in his tent and smiled; the crafty Oriental smile of an experienced man, deeply grounded in the wisdom of this world. He knew that there was incipient rebellion in his camp; that the young commanders under him thought their leader was becoming too old for the fray; caution overmastering courage. Here were these dogs of unbelievers setting their unhallowed feet on the sacred soil of Syria, and the Emir, instead of dashing against them, counselled coolness and prudence. Therefore impatience disintegrated the camp and resentment threatened discipline. When at last the murmurs could be no longer ignored the Emir gathered his impetuous young men together in his tent, and thus addressed them.
"It may well be that I am growing too old for the active field; it may be that, having met before this German boar who leads his herd of swine, I am fearful of risking my remnant of life against him, but I have ever been an indulgent general, and am now loath to let my inaction stand against your chance of distinction. Go you therefore forth against him, and the man who brings me this boar's head shall not lack his reward."
The young men loudly cheered this decision and brandished their weapons aloft, while the old man smiled upon them and added:
"When you are bringing confusion to the camp of the unbelievers, I shall remain in my tent and meditate on the sayings of the Prophet, praying him to keep you a good spear's length from the German's broad sword, which he is the habit of wielding with his two hands."
The young Saracens went forth with much shouting, a gay prancing of the horses underneath them and a marvellous flourishing of spears above them, but they learned more wisdom in their half hour's communion with the German than the Emir, in a long life of counselling, had been able to bestow upon them. The two-handed sword they now met for the first time, and the acquaintance brought little joy to them. Count Herbert, the leader of the invaders, did no shouting, but reserved his breath for other purposes. He spurred his horse among them, and his foes went down around him as a thicket melts away before the well-swung axe of a stalwart woodman. The Saracens had little fear of death, but mutilation was another thing, for they knew that they would spend eternity in Paradise, shaped as they had left this earth, and while a spear's thrust or a wound from an arrow, or even the gash left by a short sword may be concealed by celestial robes, how is a man to comport himself in the Land of the Blest who is compelled to carry his head under his arm, or who is split from crown to midriff by an outlandish weapon that falls irresistible as the wrath of Allah! Again and again they threw themselves with disastrous bravery against the invading horde, and after each encounter they came back with lessened ranks and a more chastened spirit than when they had set forth. When at last, another counsel of war was held, the young men kept silence and waited for the smiling Emir to speak.
"If you are satisfied that there are other things to think of in war than the giving and taking of blows I am prepared to meet this German, not on his own terms but on my own. Perhaps, however, you wish to try conclusions with him again?"
The deep silence which followed this inquiry seemed to indicate that no such desire animated the Emir's listeners, and the old man smiled benignly upon his audience and went on.
"There must be no more disputing of my authority, either expressed or by implication. I am now prepared to go forth against him taking with me forty lancers."
Instantly there was a protest against this; the number was inadequate, they said.
"In his fortieth year our Prophet came to a momentous decision," continued the Emir, unheeding the interruption, "and I take a spear with me for every year of the Prophet's life, trusting that Allah will add to our number, at the prophet's intervention, should such an augmentation prove necessary. Get together then the forty oldest men under my command. Let them cumber themselves with nothing in the way of offence except one tall spear each, and see that every man is provided with water and dates for twenty days' sustenance of horse and man in the desert."
The Emir smiled as he placed special emphasis on the word "oldest," and the young men departed abashed to obey his orders.
Next morning Count Herbert von Schonburg saw near his camp by the water-holes a small group of horsemen standing motionless in the desert, their lances erect, butt downward, resting on the sand, the little company looking like an oasis of leafless poplars. The Count was instantly astride his Arab charger, at the head of his men, ready to meet whatever came, but on this occasion the enemy made no effort to bring on a battle, but remained silent and stationary, differing greatly from the hordes that had preceded it.
"Well," cried the impatient Count, "if Mahomet will not come to the mountain, the mountain for once will oblige him."
He gave the word to charge, and put spurs to his horse, causing instant animation in the band of Saracens, who fled before him as rapidly as the Germans advanced. It is needless to dwell on the project of the Emir, who simply followed the example of the desert mirages he had so often witnessed in wonder. Never did the Germans come within touch of their foes, always visible, but not to be overtaken. When at last Count Herbert was convinced that his horses were no match for the fleet steeds of his opponents he discovered that he and his band were hopelessly lost in the arid and pathless desert, the spears of the seemingly phantom host ever quivering before him in the tremulous heated air against the cloudless horizon. Now all his energies were bent toward finding the way that led to the camp by the water-holes, but sense of locality seemed to have left him, and the ghostly company which hung so persistently on his flanks gave no indication of direction, but merely followed as before they had fled. One by one the Count's soldiers succumbed, and when at last the forty spears hedged him round the Emir approached a prisoner incapable of action. The useless sword which hung from his saddle was taken, and water was given to the exhausted man and his dying horse.
When the Emir Soldan and his forty followers rode into camp with their prisoner there was a jubilant outcry, and the demand was made that the foreign dog be instantly decapitated, but the Emir smiled and, holding up his hand, said soothingly:
"Softly, softly, true followers of the only Prophet. Those who neglected to remove his head while his good sword guarded it, shall not now possess themselves of it, when that sword is in my hands."
And against this there could be no protest, for the prisoner belonged to the Emir alone, and was to be dealt with as the captor ordained.
When the Count had recovered speech, and was able to hold himself as a man should, the Emir summoned him, and they had a conference together in Soldan's tent.
"Western barbarian," said the Emir, speaking in that common tongue made up of languages Asiatic and European, a strange mixture by means of which invaders and invaded communicated with each other, "who are you and from what benighted land do you come?"
"I am Count Herbert von Schonburg. My castle overlooks the Rhine in Germany."
"What is the Rhine? A province of which you are the ruler?"
"No, your Highness, it is a river; a lordly stream that never diminishes, but flows unceasingly between green vine-clad hills; would that I had some of the vintage therefore to cheer me in my captivity and remove the taste of this brackish water!"
"In the name of the Prophet, then, why did you leave it?"
"Indeed, your Highness, I have often asked myself that question of late and found but insufficient answer."
"If I give you back your sword, which not I, but the demon Thirst captured from you, will you pledge me your word that you will draw it no more against those of my faith, but will return to your own land, safe escort being afforded you to the great sea where you can take ship?"
"As I have fought for ten years, and have come no nearer Jerusalem than where I now stand, I am content to give you my word in exchange for my sword, and the escort you promise."
And thus it came about that Count Herbert von Schonburg, although still a young man, relinquished all thought of conquering the Holy Land, and found himself one evening, after a long march, gazing on the placid bosom of the broad Rhine, which he had not seen since he bade good-bye to it, a boy of twenty-one, then as warlike and ambitious, as now, he was peace loving and tired of strife. The very air of the Rhine valley breathed rest and quiet, and Herbert, with a deep sigh, welcomed the thought of a life passed in comforting uneventfulness.
"Conrad," he said to his one follower, "I will encamp here for the night. Ride on down the Rhine, I beg of you, and cross the river where you may, that you may announce my coming some time before I arrive. My father is an old man, and I am the last of the race, so I do not wish to come unexpectedly on him; therefore break to him with caution the fact that I am in the neighbourhood, for hearing nothing from me all these years it is like to happen he believes me dead."
Conrad rode down the path by the river and disappeared while his master, after seeing to the welfare of his horse, threw himself down in a thicket and slept the untroubled sleep of the seasoned soldier. It was daylight when he was awakened by the tramp of horses. Starting to his feet, he was confronted by a grizzled warrior with half a dozen men at his back, and at first the Count thought himself again a prisoner, but the friendliness of the officer soon set all doubts at rest.
"Are you Count Herbert von Schonburg?" asked the intruder.
"Yes. Who are you?"
"I am Richart, custodian of Castle Gudenfels, and commander of the small forces possessed by her Ladyship, Countess von Falkenstein. I have to acquaint you with the fact that your servant and messenger has been captured. Your castle of Schonburg is besieged, and Conrad, unaware, rode straight into custody. This coming to the ears of my lady the Countess, she directed me to intercept you if possible, so that you might not share the fate of your servant, and offer to you the hospitality of Gudenfels Castle until such time as you had determined what to do in relation to the siege of your own."
"I give my warmest thanks to the Countess for her thoughtfulness. Is her husband the Count then dead?"
"It is the young Countess von Falkenstein whose orders I carry. Her father and mother are both dead, and her Ladyship, their only child, now holds Gudenfels."
"What, that little girl? She was but a child when I left the Rhine."
"Her Ladyship is a woman of nineteen now."
"And how long has my father been besieged?"
"Alas! it grieves me to state that your father, Count von Schonburg, has also passed away. He has been dead these two years."
The young man bowed his head and crossed himself. For a long time he rode in silence, meditating upon this unwelcome intelligence, grieved to think that such a desolate home-coming awaited him.
"Who, then, holds my castle against the besiegers?"
"The custodian Heinrich has stubbornly stood siege since the Count, your father, died, saying he carries out the orders of his lord until the return of the son."
"Ah! if Heinrich is in command then is the castle safe," cried the young man, with enthusiasm. "He is a born warrior and first taught me the use of the broad-sword. Who besieges us? The Archbishop of Mayence? He was ever a turbulent prelate and held spite against our house."
Richart shifted uneasily in his saddle, and for the moment did not answer. Then he said, with hesitation:
"I think the Archbishop regards the siege with favour, but I know little of the matter. My Lady, the Countess, will possess you with full information."
Count Herbert looked with astonishment upon the custodian of Castle Gudenfels. Here was a contest going on at his very doors, even if on the opposite side of the river, and yet a veteran knew nothing of the contest. But they were now at the frowning gates of Castle Gudenfels, with its lofty square pinnacled tower, and the curiosity of the young Count was dimmed by the admiration he felt for this great stronghold as he gazed upward at it. An instant later he with his escort passed through the gateway and stood in the courtyard of the castle. When he had dismounted the Count said to Richart:
"I have travelled far, and am not in fit state to be presented to a lady. Indeed, now that I am here, I dread the meeting. I have seen nothing of women for ten years, and knew little of them before I left the Rhine. Take me, I beg of you, to a room where I may make some preparation other than the camp has heretofore afforded, and bring me, if you can, a few garments with which to replenish this faded, torn and dusty apparel."
"My Lord, you will find everything you wish in the rooms allotted to you. Surmising your needs, I gave orders to that effect before I left the castle."
"That was thoughtful of you, Richart, and I shall not forget it."
The Custodian without replying led his guest up one stair and then another. The two traversed a long passage until they came to an open door. Richart standing aside, bowed low, and entreated his lordship to enter. Count Herbert passed into a large room from which a doorway led into a smaller apartment which the young man saw was fitted as a bedroom. The rooms hung high over the Rhine, but the view of the river was impeded by the numerous heavy iron bars which formed a formidable lattice-work before the windows. The Count was about to thank his conductor for providing so sumptuously for him, but, turning, he was amazed to see Richart outside with breathless eagerness draw shut the strong door that led to the passage from which he had entered, and a moment later, Herbert heard the ominous sound of stout bolts being shot into their sockets. He stood for a moment gazing blankly now at the bolted door, now at the barred window, and then slowly there came to him the knowledge which would have enlightened a more suspicious man long before--that he was a prisoner in the grim fortress of Gudenfels. Casting his mind backward over the events of the morning, he now saw a dozen sinister warnings that had heretofore escaped him. If a friendly invitation had been intended, what need of the numerous guard of armed men sent to escort him? Why had Richart hesitated when certain questions were asked him? Count Herbert paced up and down the long room, reviewing with clouded brow the events of the past few hours, beginning with the glorious freedom of the open hillside in the early dawn and ending with these impregnable stone walls that now environed him. He was a man slow to anger, but resentment once aroused, burned in his heart with a steady fervour that was unquenchable. He stopped at last in his aimless pacing, raised his clinched fist toward the timbered ceiling, and cursed the Countess von Falkenstein. In his striding to and fro the silence had been broken by the clank of his sword on the stone floor, and he now smiled grimly as he realised that they had not dared to deprive him of his formidable weapon; they had caged the lion from the distant desert without having had the courage to clip his claws. The Count drew his broadsword and swung it hissing through the air, measuring its reach with reference to the walls on either hand, then, satisfying himself that he had free play, he took up a position before the door and stood there motionless as the statue of a war-god. "Now, by the Cross I fought for," he muttered to himself, "the first man who sets foot across this threshold enters the chamber of death."
He remained thus, leaning with folded arms on the hilt of his long sword, whose point rested on the flags of the floor, and at last his patience was rewarded. He heard the rattle of the bolts outside, and a tense eagerness thrilled his stalwart frame. The door came cautiously inward for a space of perhaps two feet and was then brought to a stand by the tightening links of a stout chain, fastened one end to the door, the other to the outer wall. Through the space that thus gave a view of the wide outer passage the Count saw Richart stand with pale face, well back at a safe distance in the centre of the hall. Two men-at-arms held a position behind their master.
"My Lord," began Richart in trembling voice, "her Ladyship, the Countess, desires----"
"Open the door, you cringing Judas!" interrupted the stern command of the count; "open the door and set me as free as your villainy found me. I hold no parley with a traitor."
"My Lord, I implore you to listen. No harm is intended you, and my Lady, the Countess, asks of you a conference touching----"
The heavy sword swung in the air and came down upon the chain with a force that made the stout oaken door shudder. Scattering sparks cast a momentary glow of red on the whitened cheeks of the startled onlookers. The edge of the sword clove the upper circumference of an iron link, leaving the severed ends gleaming like burnished silver, but the chain still held. Again and again the sword fell, but never twice in the same spot, anger adding strength to the blows, but subtracting skill.
"My Lord! my Lord!" beseeched Richart, "restrain your fury. You cannot escape from this strong castle even though you sever the chain."
"I'll trust my sword for that," muttered the prisoner between his set teeth.
There now rang out on the conflict a new voice; the voice of a woman, clear and commanding, the tones instinct with that inborn quality of imperious authority which expects and usually obtains instant obedience.
"Close the door, Richart," cried the unseen lady. The servitor made a motion to obey, but the swoop of the sword seemed to paralyse him where he stood. He cast a beseeching look at his mistress, which said as plainly as words: "You are ordering me to my death." The Count, his weapon high in mid-air, suddenly swerved it from its course, for there appeared across the opening a woman's hand and arm, white and shapely, fleecy lace falling away in dainty folds from the rounded contour of the arm. The small, firm hand grasped bravely the almost severed chain and the next instant the door was drawn shut, the bolts clanking into their places. Count Herbert, paused, leaning on his sword, gazing bewildered at the closed door.
"Ye gods of war!" he cried; "never have I seen before such cool courage as that!"
For a long time the Count walked up and down the spacious room, stopping now and then at the window to peer through the iron grille at the rapid current of the river far below, the noble stream as typical of freedom as were the bars that crossed his vision, of captivity. It seemed that the authorities of the castle had abandoned all thought of further communication with their truculent prisoner. Finally he entered the inner room and flung himself down, booted and spurred as he was, upon the couch, and, his sword for a bedmate, slept. The day was far spent when he awoke, and his first sensation was that of gnawing hunger, for he was a healthy man. His next, that he had heard in his sleep the cautious drawing of bolts, as if his enemies purposed to project themselves surreptitiously in upon him, taking him at a disadvantage. He sat upright, his sword ready for action, and listened intently. The silence was profound, and as the Count sat breathless, the stillness seemed to be emphasised rather than disturbed by a long- drawn sigh which sent a thrill of superstitious fear through the stalwart frame of the young man, for he well knew that the Rhine was infested with spirits animated by evil intentions toward human beings, and against such spirits his sword was but as a willow wand. He remembered with renewed awe that this castle stood only a few leagues above the Lurlei rocks where a nymph of unearthly beauty lured men to their destruction, and the knight crossed himself as a protection against all such. Gathering courage from this devout act, and abandoning his useless weapon, he tiptoed to the door that led to the larger apartment, and there found his worst anticipations realised. With her back against the closed outer door stood a Siren of the Rhine, and, as if to show how futile is the support of the Evil One in a crisis, her very lips were pallid with fear and her blue eyes were wide with apprehension, as they met those of the Count von Schonburg. Her hair, the colour of ripe yellow wheat, rose from her smooth white forehead and descended in a thick braid that almost reached to the floor. She was dressed in the humble garb of a serving maiden, the square bit of lace on her crown of fair hair and the apron she wore, as spotless as new fallen snow. In her hand she held a tray which supported a loaf of bread and a huge flagon brimming with wine. On seeing the Count, her quick breathing stopped for the moment and she dropped a low courtesy.
"My Lord," she said, but there came a catch in her throat, and she could speak no further.
Seeing that he had to deal with no spirit, but with an inhabitant of the world he knew and did not fear, there arose a strange exultation in the heart of the Count as he looked upon this fair representative of his own country. For ten years he had seen no woman, and now a sudden sense of what he had lost overwhelmed him, his own breath coming quicker as the realisation of this impressed itself upon him. He strode rapidly toward her, and she seemed to shrink into the wall at his approach, wild fear springing into her eyes, but he merely took the laden tray from her trembling hands and placed it upon a bench. Then raising the flagon to his lips, he drank a full half of its contents before withdrawing it. A deep sigh of satisfaction followed, and he said, somewhat shamefacedly:
"Forgive my hurried greed, maiden, but the thirst of the desert seems to be in my throat, and the good wine reminds me that I am a German."
"It was brought for your use," replied the girl, demurely, "and I am gratified that it meets your commendation, my Lord."
"And so also do you, my girl. What is your name and who are you?"
"I am called Beatrix, my Lord, a serving-maid of this castle, the daughter of the woodman Wilhelm, and, alas! that it should be so, for the present your jailer."
"If I quarrelled as little with my detention, as I see I am like to do with my keeper, I fear captivity would hold me long in thrall. Are the men in the castle such cravens then that they bestow so unwelcome a task upon a woman?"
"The men are no cravens, my Lord, but this castle is at war with yours, and for each man there is a post. A woman would be less missed if so brave a warrior as Count von Schonburg thought fit to war upon us."
"But a woman makes war upon me, Beatrix. What am I to do? Surrender humbly?"
"Brave men have done so before now and will again, my Lord, where women are concerned. At least," added Beatrix, blushing and casting down her eyes, "I have been so informed."
"And small blame to them," cried the count, with enthusiasm. "I swear to you, my girl, that if women warriors were like the woodman's daughter, I would cast away all arms except these with which to enclasp her."
And he stretched out his hands, taking a step nearer, while she shrank in alarm from him.
"My Lord, I am but an humble messenger, and I beg of you to listen to what I am asked to say. My Lady, the Countess, has commissioned me to tell you that--"
A startling malediction of the Countess that accorded ill with the scarlet cross emblazoned on the young man's breast, interrupted the girl.
"I hold no traffic with the Countess," he cried. "She has treacherously laid me by the heels, coming as I did from battling for the Cross that she doubtless professes to regard as sacred."
"It was because she feared you, my Lord. These years back tales of your valour in the Holy Land have come to the Rhine, and now you return to find your house at war with hers. What was she to do? The chances stood even with only your underling in command; judge then what her fate must be with your strong sword thrown in the balance against her. All's fair in war, said those who counselled her. What would you have done in such an extremity, my Lord?"
"What would I have done? I would have met my enemy sword in hand and talked with him or fought with him as best suited his inclination."
"But a lady cannot meet you, sword in hand, my Lord."
The Count paused in the walk he had begun when the injustice of his usage impressed itself once more upon him. He looked admiringly at the girl.
"That is most true, Beatrix. I had forgotten. Still, I should not have been met with cozenry. Here came I from starvation in the wilderness, thirst in the desert, and from the stress of the battle-field, back to mine own land with my heart full of yearning love for it and for all within its boundaries. I came even from prison, captured in fair fight, by an untaught heathen, whose men lay slain by my hand, yet with the nobility of a true warrior, he asked neither ransom nor hostage, but handed back my sword, saying, 'Go in peace.' That in a heathen land! but no sooner does my foot rest on this Christian soil than I am met by false smiles and lying tongues, and my welcome to a neighbour's house is the clank of the inthrust bolt."
"Oh, it was a shameful act and not to be defended," cried the girl, with moist eyes and quivering lip, the sympathetic reverberation of her voice again arresting the impatient steps of the young man, causing him to pause and view her with a feeling that he could not understand, and which he found some difficulty in controlling. Suddenly all desire for restraint left him, he sprang forward, clasped the girl in his arms and drew her into the middle of the room, where she could not give the signal that might open the door.
"My Lord! my Lord!" she cried in terror, struggling without avail to free herself.
"You said all's fair in war and saying so, gave but half the proverb, which adds, all's fair in love as well, and maiden, nymph of the woodland, so rapidly does a man learn that which he has never been taught, I proclaim with confidence that I love thee."
"A diffident and gentle lover you prove yourself!" she gasped with rising indignation, holding him from her.
"Indeed, my girl, there was little of diffidence or gentleness in my warring, and my wooing is like to have a touch of the same quality. It is useless to struggle for I have thee firm, so take to yourself some of that gentleness you recommend to me."
He strove to kiss her, but Beatrix held her head far from him, her open palm pressed against the red cross that glowed upon his breast, keeping him thus at arm's length.
"Count von Schonburg, what is the treachery of any other compared with yours? You came heedlessly into this castle, suspecting as you say, no danger: I came within this room to do you service, knowing my peril, but trusting to the honour of a true soldier of the Cross, and this is my reward! First tear from your breast this sacred emblem, valorous assaulter of a defenceless woman, for it should be worn by none but stainless gentlemen."
Count Herbert's arms relaxed, and his hands dropped listless to his sides.
"By my sword," he said, "they taught you invective in the forest. You are free. Go."
The girl made no motion to profit by her newly acquired liberty, but stood there, glancing sideways at him who scowled menacingly at her.
When at last she spoke, she said, shyly: "I have not yet fulfilled my mission."
"Fulfil it then in the fiend's name and begone."
"Will you consent to see my Lady the Countess?"
"Will you promise not to make war upon her if you are released?"
"If, in spite of your boorishness, she sets you free, what will you do?"
"I will rally my followers to my banner, scatter the forces that surround my castle, then demolish this prison trap."
"Am I in truth to carry such answers to the Countess?"
"You are to do as best pleases you, now and forever."
"I am but a simple serving-maid, and know nothing of high questions of state, yet it seems to me such replies do not oil prison bolts, and believe me, I grieve to see you thus detained."
"I am grateful for your consideration. Is your embassy completed?"
The girl, her eyes on the stone floor, paused long before replying, then said, giving no warning of a change of subject, and still not raising her eyes to his:
"You took me by surprise; I am not used to being handled roughly; you forget the distance between your station and mine, you being a noble of the Empire, and I but a serving-maid; if, in my anger, I spoke in a manner unbecoming one so humble, I do beseech that your Lordship pardon me."
"Now by the Cross to which you appealed, how long will you stand chattering there? Think you I am made of adamant, and not of flesh and blood? My garments are tattered at best, I would in woman's company they were finer, and this cross of Genoa red hangs to my tunic, but by a few frail threads. Beware, therefore, that I tear it not from my breast as you advised, and cast it from me."
Beatrix lifted one frightened glance to the young man's face and saw standing on his brow great drops of sweat. His right hand grasped the upper portion of the velvet cross, partly detached from his doublet, and he looked loweringly upon her. Swiftly she smote the door twice with her hand and instantly the portal opened as far as the chain would allow it. Count Herbert noticed that in the interval, three other chains had been added to the one that formerly had baffled his sword. The girl, like a woodland pigeon, darted underneath the lower chain, and although the prisoner took a rapid step forward, the door, with greater speed, closed and was bolted.
The Count had requested the girl to be gone, and surely should have been contented now that she had withdrawn herself, yet so shifty a thing is human nature, that no sooner were his commands obeyed than he began to bewail their fulfilment. He accused himself of being a double fool, first, for not holding her when he had her; and secondly, having allowed her to depart, he bemoaned the fact that he had acted rudely to her, and thus had probably made her return impossible. His prison seemed inexpressibly dreary lacking her presence. Once or twice he called out her name, but the echoing empty walls alone replied.
For the first time in his life the heavy sleep of the camp deserted him, and in his dreams he pursued a phantom woman, who continually dissolved in his grasp, now laughingly, now in anger.
The morning found him deeply depressed, and he thought the unaccustomed restraints of a prison were having their effect on the spirits of a man heretofore free. He sat silently on the bench watching the door.
At last, to his great joy, he heard the rattle of bolts being withdrawn. The door opened slowly to the small extent allowed by the chains, but no one entered and the Count sat still, concealed from the view of whoever stood without.
"My Lord Count," came the sweet tones of the girl and the listener with joy, fancied he detected in it a suggestion of apprehension, doubtless caused by the fact that the room seemed deserted. "My Lord Count, I have brought your breakfast; will you not come and receive it?"
Herbert rose slowly and came within range of his jailer's vision. The girl stood in the hall, a repast that would have tempted an epicure arrayed on the wooden trencher she held in her hands.
"Beatrix, come in," he said.
"I fear that in stooping, some portion of this burden may fall. Will you not take the trencher?"
The young man stepped to the opening and, taking the tray from her, placed it on the bench as he had previously done; then repeated his invitation.
"You were displeased with my company before, my Lord, and I am loath again to offend."
"Beatrix, I beg you to enter. I have something to say to you."
"Stout chains bar not words, my Lord. Speak and I shall listen."
"What I have to say, is for your ear alone."
"Then are the conditions perfect for such converse, my Lord. No guard stands within this hall."
The Count sighed deeply, turned and sat again on the bench, burying his face in his hands. The maiden having given excellent reasons why she should not enter, thus satisfying her sense of logic, now set logic at defiance, slipped under the lowest chain and stood within the room, and, so that there might be no accusation that she did things by halves, closed the door leaning her back against it. The knight looked up at her and saw that she too had rested but indifferently. Her lovely eyes half veiled, showed traces of weeping, and there was a wistful expression in her face that touched him tenderly, and made him long for her; nevertheless he kept a rigid government upon himself, and sat there regarding her, she flushing, slightly under his scrutiny, not daring to return his ardent gaze.
"Beatrix," he said slowly, "I have acted towards you like a boor and a ruffian, as indeed I am; but let this plead for me, that I have ever been used to the roughness of the camp, bereft of gentler influences. I ask your forgiveness."
"There is nothing to forgive. You are a noble of the Empire, and I but a lowly serving-maid."
"Nay, that cuts me to the heart, and is my bitterest condemnation. A true man were courteous to high and low alike. Now, indeed, you overwhelm me with shame, maiden of the woodlands."
"Such was not my intention, my Lord. I hold you truly noble in nature as well as in rank, otherwise I stood not here."
"Beatrix, does any woodlander come from the forest to the castle walls and there give signal intended for you alone?"
"Oh, no, my Lord."
"Perhaps you have kindly preference for some one within this stronghold?"
"You forget, my Lord, that the castle is ruled by a lady, and that the preference you indicate would accord ill with her womanly government."
"In truth I know little of woman's rule, but given such, I suppose the case would stand as you say. The Countess then frowns upon lovers' meetings."
"How could it be otherwise?"
"Have you told her of--of yesterday?"
"You mean of your refusal to come to terms with her? Yes, my Lord."
"I mean nothing of the kind, Beatrix."
"No one outside this room has been told aught to your disadvantage, my Lord," said the girl blushing rose-red.
"Then she suspects nothing?"
"Suspects nothing of what, my Lord?"
"That I love you, Beatrix."
The girl caught her breath, and seemed about to fly, but gathering courage, remained, and said speaking hurriedly and in some confusion: "As I did not suspect it myself I see not how my Lady should have made any such surmise, but indeed it may be so, for she chided me bitterly for remaining so long with you, and made me weep with her keen censure; yet am I here now against her express wish and command, but that is because of my strong sympathy for you and my belief that the Countess has wrongfully treated you."
"I care nothing for the opinion of that harridan, except that it may bring harsh usage to you; but Beatrix, I have told you bluntly of my love for you, answer me as honestly."
"My Lord, you spoke just now of a woodlander--"
"Ah, there is one then. Indeed, I feared as much, for there can be none on all the Rhine as beautiful or as good as you."
"There are many woodlanders, my Lord, and many women more beautiful than I. What I was about to say was that I would rather be the wife of the poorest forester, and lived in the roughest hut on the hillside, than dwell otherwise in the grandest castle on the Rhine."
"Surely, surely. But you shall dwell in my castle of Schonburg as my most honoured wife, if you but will it so."
"Then, my Lord, I must bid you beware of what you propose. Your wife must be chosen from the highest in the land, and not from the lowliest. It is not fitting that you should endeavour to raise a serving-maid to the position of Countess von Schonburg. You would lose caste among your equals, and bring unhappiness upon us both."
Count Herbert grasped his sword and lifting it, cried angrily: "By the Cross I serve, the man who refuses to greet my wife as he would greet the Empress, shall feel the weight of this blade."
"You cannot kill a whisper with a sword, my Lord."
"I can kill the whisperer."
"That can you not, my Lord, for the whisperer will be a woman."
"Then out upon them, we will have no traffic with them. I have lived too long away from the petty restrictions of civilisation to be bound down by them now, for I come from a region where a man's sword and not his rank preserved his life." As he spoke he again raised his huge weapon aloft, but now held it by the blade so that it stood out against the bright window like a black cross of iron, and his voice rang forth defiantly: "With that blade I won my honour; by the symbol of its hilt I hope to obtain my soul's salvation, on both united I swear to be to you a true lover and a loyal husband."
With swift motion the girl covered her face with her hands and Herbert saw the crystal drops trickle between her fingers. For long she could not speak and then mastering her emotion, she said brokenly:
"I cannot accept, I cannot now accept. I can take no advantage of a helpless prisoner. At midnight I shall come and set you free, thus my act may atone for the great wrong of your imprisonment; atone partially if not wholly. When you are at liberty, if you wish to forget your words, which I can never do, then am I amply repaid that my poor presence called them forth. If you remember them, and demand of the Countess that I stand as hostage for peace, she is scarce likely to deny you, for she loves not war. But know that nothing you have said is to be held against you, for I would have you leave this castle as free as when you entered it. And now, my Lord, farewell."
Before the unready man could make motion to prevent her, she had opened the door and was gone, leaving it open, thus compelling the prisoner to be his own jailer and close it, for he had no wish now to leave the castle alone when he had been promised such guidance.
The night seemed to Count Herbert the longest he had ever spent, as he sat on the bench, listening for the withdrawing of the bolts; if indeed they were in their sockets, which he doubted. At last the door was pushed softly open, and bending under the chain, he stood in the outside hall, peering through the darkness, to catch sight of his conductor. A great window of stained glass occupied the southern end of the hall, and against it fell the rays of the full moon now high in the heavens, filling the dim and lofty apartment with a coloured radiance resembling his visions of the half tones of fairyland. Like a shadow stood the cloaked figure of the girl, who timidly placed her small hand in his great palm, and that touch gave a thrill of reality to the mysticism of the time and the place. He grasped it closely, fearing it might fade away from him as it had done in his dream. She led him silently by another way from that by which he had entered, and together they passed through a small doorway that communicated with a narrow circular stair which wound round and round downwards until they came to another door at the bottom, which let them out in the moonlight at the foot of a turret.
"Beatrix," whispered the young man, "I am not going to demand you of the Countess. I shall not be indebted to her for my wife. You must come with me now."
"No, no," cried the girl shrinking from him, "I cannot go with you thus surreptitiously, and no one but you and me must ever learn that I led you from the castle. You shall come for me as a lord should for his lady, as if he thought her worthy of him."
"Indeed, that do I. Worthy? It is I who am unworthy, but made more worthy I hope in that you care for me."
From where they stood the knight saw the moonlight fall on his own castle of Schonburg, the rays seeming to transform the grey stone into the whitest of marble, the four towers standing outlined against the blue of the cloudless sky. The silver river of romance, flowed silently at its feet reflecting again the snowy purity of the reality in an inverted quivering watery vision. All the young man's affection for the home he had not seen for years seemed to blend with his love for the girl standing there in the moonlight. Gently he drew her to him, and kissed her unresisting lips.
"Woodland maiden," he said tenderly, "here at the edge of the forest is your rightful home and not in this grim castle, and here will I woo thee again, being now a free man."
"Indeed," said the girl with a laugh in which a sob and a sigh intermingled, "it is but scanty freedom I have brought to you; an exchange of silken fetters for iron chains."
His arms still around her, he unloosed the ribbon that held in thrall the thick braid of golden hair, and parting the clustering strands speedily encompassed her in a cloak of misty fragrance that seemed as unsubstantial as the moonlight that glittered through its meshes. He stood back the better to admire the picture he seemed to have created.
"My darling," he cried, "you are no woodland woman, but the very spirit of the forest herself. You are so beautiful, I dare not leave you here to the mercies of this demon, who, finding me gone, may revenge herself on you. If before she dared to censure you, what may she not do now that you have set me free? Curse her that she stands for a moment between my love and me."
He raised his clenched fist and shook it at the tower above him, and seemed about to break forth in new maledictions against the lady, when Beatrix, clasping her hands cried in terror:
"No, no, Herbert, you have said enough. How can you pretend to love me when implacable hatred lies so near to your affection. You must forgive the Countess. Oh, Herbert, Herbert, what more could I do to atone? I have withdrawn my forces from around your castle; I have set you free and your path to Schonburg lies unobstructed. Even now your underling, thinking himself victorious, is preparing an expedition against me, and nothing but your word stands, between me and instant attack. Ponder, I beseech of you, on my position. War, not of my seeking, was bequeathed to me, and a woman who cannot fight must trust to her advisers, and thus may do what her own heart revolts against. They told me that if I made you prisoner I could stop the war, and thus I consented to that act of treachery for which you so justly condemn me."
"Beatrix," cried her amazed lover, "what madness has come over you?"
"No madness touched me, Herbert, until I met you, and I sometimes think that you have brought back with you the eastern sorcery of which I have heard--at least such may perhaps make excuse for my unmaidenly behaviour. Herbert, I am Beatrix of Gudenfels, Countess von Falkenstein, who is and ever will be, if you refuse to pardon her, a most unhappy woman."
"No woodland maiden, but the Countess! The Countess von Falkenstein!" murmured her lover more to himself than to, his eager listener, the lines on his perplexed brow showing that he was endeavouring to adjust the real and the ideal in his slow brain.
"A Countess, Herbert, who will joyfully exchange the privileges of her station for the dear preference shown to the serving-maid."
A smile came to the lips of Von Schonburg as he held out his hands, in which the Countess placed her own.
"My Lady Beatrix," he said, "how can I refuse my pardon for the first encroachment on my liberty, now that you have made me your prisoner for life?"
"Indeed, my captured lord," cried the girl, "you are but now coming to a true sense of your predicament. I marvelled that you felt so resentful about the first offence, when the second was so much more serious. Am I then forgiven for both?"
It seemed that she was, and the Count insisted on returning to his captivity, and coming forth the next day, freed by her commands, whereupon, in the presence of all her vassals, he swore allegiance to her with such deference that her advisers said to her that she must now see they had been right in counselling his imprisonment. Prison, they said, had a wonderfully quieting effect upon even the most truculent, the Count being quickly subdued when he saw his sword-play had but little effect on the chain. The Countess graciously acknowledged that events had indeed proved the wisdom of their course, and said it was not to be wondered at that men should know the disposition of a turbulent man, better than an inexperienced woman could know it.
And thus was the feud between Gudenfels and Schonburg happily ended, and Count Herbert came from the Crusades to find two castles waiting for him instead of one as he had expected, with what he had reason to prize above everything else, a wife as well.