The Strong Arm by Robert Barr
Chapter III. A City of Fear
The Countess Beatrix von Schonburg warmly welcomed her lost son and her newly-found daughter. The belief of Beatrix in Wilhelm's ultimate return had never wavered during all the long years of his absence, and although she had to translate her dream of the child of four into a reality that included a stalwart young man of twenty-one, the readjustment was speedily accomplished. Before a week had passed it seemed to her delighted heart that the boy had never left the castle. The Countess had liked Elsa from the first moment when she saw her, ragged, unkempt and forlorn, among the lowering, suspicious men-at-arms in the courtyard, and now that she knew the dangers and the privations the girl had braved for the sake of Wilhelm, the affectionate heart of Beatrix found ample room for the motherless Elsa.
With the Count, the process of mental reconstruction was slower, not only on account of his former conviction that his son was dead, but also because of the deep distrust in which he held the Outlaw. He said little, as was his custom, but often sat with brooding brows, intently regarding his son, gloomy doubt casting a shadow over his stern countenance. Might not this be a well-laid plot on the part of the Outlaw to make revenge complete by placing a von Weithoff in the halls of Schonburg as master of that ancient stronghold? The circumstances in which identity was disclosed, although sufficient to convince every one else in the castle, appeared at times to the Count but the stronger evidence of the Outlaw's craft and subtlety. If the young man were actually the son of von Weithoff, then undoubtedly the Outlaw had run great risk of having him hanged forthwith, but on the other hand, the prize to be gained, comprising as it did two notable castles and two wide domains, was a stake worth playing high for, and a stake which appealed strongly to a houseless, landless man, with not even a name worth leaving to his son. Thus, while the Countess lavished her affection on young Wilhelm, noticing nothing of her husband's distraction in this excessive happiness, Count Herbert sat alone in the lofty Knight's Hall, his elbows resting on the table before him, his head buried in his hands, ruminating on the strange transformation that had taken place, endeavouring to weigh the evidence pro and con with the impartial mind of an outsider, becoming the more bewildered the deeper he penetrated into the mystery.
It was in this despondent attitude that Elsa found him a few days after the leap from the wall that had caused her return to Schonburg, a willing captive. The Count did not look up when she entered, and the girl stood for a few moments in silence near him. At last she spoke in a low voice, hesitating slightly, nevertheless going with incisive directness into the very heart of the problem that baffled Count Herbert.
"My Lord, you do not believe that Wilhelm is indeed your son."
The master of Schonburg raised his head slowly and looked searchingly into the frank face of the girl, gloomy distrust reflected from his own countenance.
"Were you sent by your uncle to allay my suspicion?
"No, my Lord. I thought that a hint of the truth being given, Nature would come to the assistance of mutual recognition. Such has been the case between my lady and her son, but I see that you are still unconvinced."
"For my sins, I know something of the wickedness of this world, a knowledge from which her purity has protected the Countess. You believe that Wilhelm is my son?"
"I have never said so, my Lord."
"What you did say was that you had taken an oath. You are too young and doubtless too innocent to be a party to any plot, but you may have been the tool of an unscrupulous man, who knew the oath would be broken when the strain of a strong affection was brought to bear upon it."
"Yet, my Lord, I kept my oath, although I saw my--my--"
The girl hesitated and blushed, but finally spoke up bravely:
"I saw my lover led to his destruction. If Wilhelm is my cousin, then did his father take a desperate chance in trusting first, to my escape from the camp, and second to my perjury. You endow him with more than human foresight, my Lord."
"He builded on your love for Wilhelm, which he had seen growing under his eye before either you or the lad had suspicion of its existence. I know the man, and he is a match for Satan, his master."
"But Satan has been discomfited ere now by the angels of light, and even by holy men, if legend tells truly. I have little knowledge of the world, as you have said, but the case appears to me one of the simplest. If my uncle wished the bitterest revenge on you, what could be more terrible than cause you to be the executioner of your own son? The vengeance, however, to be complete, depends on his being able to place before you incontrovertible proof that you were the father of the victim. Send, therefore, a messenger to him, one from Gudenfels, who knows nothing of what has happened in this castle of Schonburg, and who is therefore unable to disclose, even if forced to confess, that Wilhelm is alive. Let the messenger inform my uncle that his son is no more, which is true enough, and then await the Outlaw's reply. And meanwhile let me venture to warn you, my Lord, that it would be well to conceal your disbelief from Wilhelm, for he is high-spirited, and if he gets but an inkling that you distrust him, he will depart; for not all your possessions will hold your son if he once learns that you doubt him, so you are like to find yourself childless again, if your present mood masters you much longer."
The Count drew a deep sigh, then roused himself and seemed to shake off the influence that enchained him.
"Thank you, my girl," he cried, with something of the old ring in his voice, "I shall do as you advise, and if this embassy results as you say, you will ever find your staunchest friend in me."
He held out his hand to Elsa, and departed to his other castle of Gudenfels on the opposite side of the Rhine. From thence he sent a messenger who had no knowledge of what was happening in Schonburg.
When at last the messenger returned from the Outlaw's camp, he brought with him a wailing woman and grim tidings that he feared to deliver. Thrice his lordship demanded his account, the last time with such sternness that the messenger quailed before him.
"My Lord," he stammered at last, "a frightful thing has taken place-- would that I had died before it was told to me. The young man your lordship hanged was no other than----'
"Well, why do you pause? You were going to say he was my own son. What proof does the Outlaw offer that such was indeed the case?"
"Alas! my Lord, the proof seems clear enough. Here with me is young Lord Wilhelm's nurse, whose first neglect led to his abduction, and who fled to the forest after him, and was never found. She followed him to the Outlaw's camp, and was there kept prisoner by him until she was at last given charge of the lad, under oath that she would teach him to forget who he was, the fierce Outlaw threatening death to both woman and child were his orders disobeyed. She has come willingly with me hoping to suffer death now that one she loved more than son has died through her first fault."
Then to the amazement of the pallid messenger the Count laughed aloud and called for Wilhelm, who, when he was brought, clasped the trembling old woman in his arms, overjoyed to see her again and eager to learn news of the camp. How was the stout Gottlieb? Had the messenger seen Captain Heinrich? and so on.
"Indeed, my young Lord," answered the overjoyed woman "there was such turmoil in the camp that I was glad to be quit of it with unbroken bones. When the Outlaw proclaimed that you were hanged, there was instant rebellion among his followers, who thought that your capture was merely a trick to be speedily amended, being intended to form a laughing matter to your discomfiture when you returned. They swore they would have torn down Schonburg with their bare hands rather than have left you in jeopardy, had they known their retreat imperilled your life."
"The brave lads!" cried the young man in a glow of enthusiasm, "and here have I been maligning them for cowards! What was the outcome?"
"That I do not know, my Lord, being glad to escape from the ruffians with unfractured head."
The result of the embassy was speedily apparent at Schonburg. Two days later, in the early morning, the custodians at the gate were startled by the shrill Outlaw yell, which had on so many occasions carried terror with it into the hearts of Rhine strongholds.
"Come out, Hangman of Schonburg!" they shouted, "come out, murderer of a defenceless prisoner. Come out, before we drag you forth, for the rope is waiting for your neck and the gallows tree is waiting for the rope."
Count Herbert was first on the battlements, and curtly he commanded his men not to launch bolt at the invaders, knowing the outlaws mistakenly supposed him to be the executioner of their former comrade. A moment later young Wilhelm himself appeared on the wall above the gate, and, lifting his arms above his head raised a great shout of joy at seeing there collected his old companions, calling this one or that by name as he recognised them among the seething, excited throng. There was an instant's cessation of the clamour, then the outlaws sent forth a cheer that echoed from all the hills around. They brandished their weapons aloft, and cheered again and again, the garrison of the castle, now bristling along the battlements, joining in the tumult with strident voices. Gottlieb advanced some distance toward the gate, and holding up his hand for silence addressed Wilhelm.
"Young master," he cried, "we have deposed von Weithoff, and would have hanged him, but that he escaped during the night, fled to Mayence and besought protection of the Archbishop. If you will be our leader we will sack Mayence and hang the Archbishop from his own cathedral tower."
"That can I hardly do, Gottlieb, as a messenger has been sent to the Archbishop asking him to come to Schonburg and marry Elsa to me. He might take our invasion as an unfriendly act and refuse to perform the ceremony."
Gottlieb scratched his head as one in perplexity, seeing before him a question of etiquette that he found difficult to solve. At last he said:
"What need of Archbishop? You and Elsa have been brought up among us, therefore confer honour on our free company by being married by our own Monk who has tied many a knot tight enough to hold the most wayward of our band. The aisles of the mighty oaks are more grand than the cathedral at Mayence or the great hall of Schonburg."
"Indeed I am agreed, if Elsa is willing. We will be married first in the forest and then by the Archbishop in the great hall of Schonburg."
"In such case there will be delay, for now that I bethink me, his Lordship of Mayence has taken himself to Frankfort, where he is to meet the Archbishops of Treves and Cologne who will presently journey to the capital We were thinking of falling upon his reverence of Cologne as he passed up the river, unless he comes with an escort too numerous for us, which, alas! is most likely, so suspicious has the world grown."
"You will be wise not to meddle with the princes of the Church, be their escorts large or small."
"Then, Master Wilhelm, be our leader, for we are likely to get into trouble unless a man of quality is at our head."
Wilhelm breathed a deep sigh and glanced sideways at his father, who stood some distance off, leaning on his two-handed sword, a silent spectator of the meeting.
"The free life of the forest is no more for me, Gottlieb. My duty is here in the castle of my forefathers, much though I grieve to part with you."
This decision seemed to have a depressing effect on the outlaws within hearing. Gottlieb retired, and the band consulted together for a time, then their spokesman again advanced.
"Some while since," he began in dolorous tone, "we appealed to the Emperor to pardon us, promising in such case to quit our life of outlawry and take honest service with those nobles who needed stout blades, but his Majesty sent reply that if we came unarmed to the capital and tendered submission, he would be graciously pleased to hang a round dozen of us to be selected by him, scourge the rest through the streets of Frankfort and so bestow his clemency on such as survived. This imperial tender we did not accept, as there was some uncertainty regarding whose neck should feel the rope and whose back the scourge. While all were willing to admit that more than a dozen of us sorely needed hanging, yet each man seemed loath to claim precedence over his neighbour in wickedness, and desired, in some sort, a voice in the selection of the victims. But if you will accept our following, Master Wilhelm, we will repair at once to Frankfort and make submission to his Majesty the Emperor. The remnant being well scourged, will then return to Schonburg to place themselves under your command."
"Are you willing then to hang for me, Gottlieb?"
"I hanker not after the hanging, but if hang we must, there is no man I would rather hang for than Wilhelm, formerly of the forest, but now, alas! of Schonburg. And so say they all without dissent, therefore the unanimity must needs include the eleven other danglers."
"Then draw nigh, all of you, to the walls and hear my decision."
Gottlieb waving his arms, hailed the outlaws trooping to the walls, and, his upraised hand bringing silence, Wilhelm spoke:
"Such sacrifice as you propose, I cannot accept, yet I dearly wish to lead a band of men like you. Elsa and I shall be married by our ancient woodland father in the forest and then by the Abbot of St. Werner in the hall of Schonburg. We will make our wedding journey to Frankfort, and you shall be our escort and our protectors."
There was for some moments such cheering at this that the young man was compelled to pause in his address, and then as the outcry was again and again renewed, he looked about for the cause and saw that Elsa and his mother had taken places on the balcony which overlooked the animated scene. The beautiful girl had been recognised by the rebels and she waved her hand in response to their shouting.
"We will part company," resumed Wilhelm, "as near Frankfort as it is safe for you to go, and my wife and I, accompanied by a score of men from this castle, will enter the capital. I will beg your complete pardon from his Majesty and if at first it is refused, I think Elsa will have better success with the Empress, who may incline her imperial husband toward clemency. All this I promise, providing I receive the consent and support of my father, and I am not likely to be refused, for he already knows the persuasive power of my dear betrothed when she pleads for mercy."
"My consent and support I most willingly bestow," said the Count, with a fervour that left no doubt of his sincerity.
The double marriage was duly solemnised, and Wilhelm, with his newly- made wife, completed their journey to Frankfort, escorted until almost within sight of the capital by five hundred and twenty men, but they entered the gates of the city accompanied by only the score of Schonburg men, the remaining five hundred concealing themselves in the rough country, as they well knew how to do.
Neither Wilhelm nor Elsa had ever seen a large city before, and silence fell upon them as they approached the western gate, for they were coming upon a world strange to them, and Wilhelm felt an unaccustomed elation stir within his breast, as if he were on the edge of some adventure that might have an important bearing on his future. Instead of passing peaceably through the gate as he had expected, the cavalcade was halted after the two had ridden under the gloomy stone archway, and the portcullis was dropped with a sudden clang, shutting out the twenty riders who followed. One of several officers who sat on a stone bench that fronted the guard-house within the walls, rose and came forward.
"What is your name and quality?" he demanded, gruffly.
"I am Wilhelm, son of Count von Schonberg."
"What is your business here in Frankfort?"
"My business relates to the emperor, and is not to be delivered to the first underling who has the impudence to make inquiry," replied Wilhelm in a haughty tone, which could scarcely be regarded, in the circumstances, as diplomatic.
Nevertheless, the answer did not seem to be resented, but rather appeared to have a subduing effect on the questioner, who turned, as if for further instruction, to another officer, evidently his superior in rank. The latter now rose, came forward, doffing his cap, and said:
"I understand your answer better than he to whom it was given, my Lord."
"I am glad there is one man of sense at a gate of the capital," said Wilhelm, with no relaxation of his dignity, but nevertheless bewildered at the turn the talk had taken, seeing there was something underneath all this which he did not comprehend, yet resolved to carry matters with a high hand until greater clearness came to the situation.
"Will you order the portcullis raised and permit my men to follow me?"
"They are but temporarily detained until we decide where to quarter them, my Lord. You know," he added, lowering his voice, "the necessity for caution. Are you for the Archbishop of Treves, of Cologne, or of Mayence?"
"I am from the district of Mayence, of course."
"And are you for the archbishop?"
"For the archbishop certainly. He would have honoured me by performing our marriage ceremony had he not been called by important affairs of state to the capital, as you may easily learn by asking him, now that he is within these walls."
The officer bowed low with great obsequiousness and said:
"Your reply is more than sufficient, my Lord, and I trust you will pardon the delay we have caused you. The men of Mayence are quartered in the Leinwandhaus, where room will doubtless be made for your followers.
"It is not necessary for me to draw upon the hospitality of the good Archbishop, as I lodge in my father's town house near the palace, and there is room within for the small escort I bring."
Again the officer bowed to the ground, and the portcullis being by this time raised, the twenty horsemen came clattering under the archway, and thus, without further molestation, they arrived at the house of the Count von Schonburg.
"Elsa," said Wilhelm, when they were alone in their room, "there is something wrong in this city. Men look with fear one upon another, and pass on hurriedly, as if to avoid question. Others stand in groups at the street corners and speak in whispers, glancing furtively over their shoulders."
"Perhaps that is the custom in cities," replied Elsa.
"I doubt it. I have heard that townsmen are eager for traffic, inviting all comers to buy, but here most of the shops are barred, and no customers are solicited. They seem to me like people under a cloud of fear. What can it be?"
"We are more used to the forest path than to city streets, Wilhelm. They will all become familiar to us in a day or two, yet I feel as if I could not get a full breath in these narrow streets and I long for the trees already, but perhaps content will come with waiting."
"'Tis deeper than that. There is something ominous in the air. Noted you not the questioning at the gate and its purport? They asked me if I favoured Treves, or Cologne, or Mayence, but none inquired if I stood loyal to the Emperor, yet I was entering his capital city of Frankfort."
"Perhaps you will learn all from the Emperor when you see him," ventured Elsa.
"Perhaps," said Wilhelm.
The chamberlain of the von Schonburg household, who had supervised the arrangements for the reception of the young couple, waited upon his master in the evening and informed him that the Emperor would not be visible for some days to come.
"He has gone into retreat, in the cloisters attached to the cathedral, and it is the imperial will that none disturb him on worldly affairs. Each day at the hour when the court assembles at the palace, the Emperor hears exhortation from the pious fathers in the Wahlkapelle of the cathedral; the chapel in which emperors are elected; these exhortations pertaining to the ruling of the land, which his majesty desires to govern justly and well.
"An excellent intention," commented the young man, with suspicion of impatience in his tone, "but meanwhile, how are the temporal affairs of the country conducted?"
"The Empress Brunhilda is for the moment the actual head of the state. Whatever act of the ministers receives her approval, is sent by a monk to the Emperor, who signs any document so submitted to him."
"Were her majesty an ambitious woman, such transference of power might prove dangerous."
"She is an ambitious woman, but devoted to her husband, who, it perhaps may be whispered, is more monk than king," replied the chamberlain under his breath. "Her majesty has heard of your lordship's romantic adventures and has been graciously pleased to command that you and her ladyship, your wife, be presented to her to-morrow in presence of the court."
"This is a command which it will be a delight to obey. But tell me, what is wrong in this great town? There is a sinister feeling in the air; uneasiness is abroad, or I am no judge of my fellow-creatures."
"Indeed, my Lord, you have most accurately described the situation. No man knows what is about to happen. The gathering of the Electors is regarded with the gravest apprehension. The Archbishop of Mayence, who but a short time since crowned the Emperor at the great altar of the cathedral, is herewith a thousand men at his back. The Count Palatine of the Rhine is also within these walls with a lesser entourage. It is rumoured that his haughty lordship, the Archbishop of Treves, will reach Frankfort to-morrow, to be speedily followed by that eminent Prince of the Church, the Archbishop of Cologne. Thus there will be gathered in the capital four Electors, a majority of the college, a conjunction that has not occurred for centuries, except on the death of an emperor, necessitating the nomination and election of his successor."
"But as the Emperor lives and there is no need of choosing another, wherein lies the danger?
"The danger lies in the fact that the college has the power to depose as well as to elect."
"Ah! And do the Electors threaten to depose?"
"No. Treves is much too crafty for any straight-forward statement of policy. He is the brains of the combination, and has put forward Mayence and the Count Palatine as the moving spirits, although it is well known that the former is but his tool and the latter is moved by ambition to have his imbecile son selected emperor."
"Even if the worst befall, it seems but the substitution of a weak- minded man for one who neglects the affairs of state, although I should think the princes of the Church would prefer a monarch who is so much under the influence of the monks."
"The trouble is deeper than my imperfect sketch of the situation would lead you to suppose, my Lord. The Emperor periodically emerges from his retirement, promulgates some startling decree, unheeding the counsel of any adviser, then disappears again, no man knowing what is coming next. Of such a nature was his recent edict prohibiting the harrying of merchants going down the Rhine and the Moselle, which, however just in theory, is impracticable, for how are the nobles to reap revenue if such practices are made unlawful? This edict has offended all the magnates of both rivers, and the archbishops, with the Count Palatine, claim that their prerogatives have been infringed, so they come to Frankfort ostensibly to protest, while the Emperor in his cloister refuses to meet them. The other three Electors hold aloof, as the edict touches them not, but they form a minority which is powerless, even if friendly to the Emperor. Meanwhile his majesty cannot be aroused to an appreciation of the crisis, but says calmly that if it is the Lord's will he remain emperor, emperor he will remain."
"Then at its limit, chamberlain, all we have to expect is a peaceful deposition and election?"
"Not so, my lord. The merchants of Frankfort are fervently loyal, to the Emperor, who, they say, is the first monarch to give forth a just law for their protection. At present the subtlety of Treves has nullified all combined action on their part, for he has given out that he comes merely to petition his over-lord, which privilege is well within his right, and many citizens actually believe him, but others see that a majority of the college will be within these walls before many days are past, and that the present Emperor may be legally deposed and another legally chosen. Then if the citizens object, they are rebels, while at this moment if they fight for the Emperor they are patriots, so you see the position is not without its perplexities, for the citizens well know that if they were to man the walls and keep out Treves and Cologne, the Emperor himself would most likely disclaim their interference, trusting as he does so entirely in Providence that a short time since he actually disbanded the imperial troops, much to the delight of the archbishops, who warmly commended his action. And now, my Lord, if I may venture to tender advice unasked, I would strongly counsel you to quit Frankfort as soon as your business here is concluded, for I am certain that a change of government is intended. All will be done promptly, and the transaction will be consummated before the people are aware that such a step is about to be taken. The Electors will meet in the Wahlzimmer or election room of the Romer and depose the Emperor, then they will instantly select his successor, adjourn to the Wahlkapelle and elect him. The Palatine's son is here with his father, and will be crowned at the high altar by the Archbishop of Mayence. The new Emperor will dine with the Electors in the Kaisersaal and immediately after show himself on the balcony to the people assembled in the Romerberg below. Proclamation of his election will then be made, and all this need not occupy more than two hours. The Archbishop of Mayence already controls the city gates, which since the disbanding of the imperial troops have been unguarded, and none can get in or out of the city without that potentate's permission. The men of Mayence are quartered in the centre of the town, the Count Palatine's troops are near the gate. Treves and Cologne will doubtless command other positions, and thus between them they will control the city. Numerous as the merchants and their dependents are, they will have no chance against the disciplined force of the Electors, and the streets of Frankfort are like to run with blood, for the nobles are but too eager to see a sharp check given to the rising pretensions of the mercantile classes, who having heretofore led peaceful lives, will come out badly in combat, despite their numbers; therefore I beg of you, my Lord, to withdraw with her Ladyship before this hell's caldron is uncovered."
"Your advice is good, chamberlain, in so far as it concerns my wife, and I will beg of her to retire to Schonburg, although I doubt if she will obey, but, by the bones of Saint Werner which floated against the current of the Rhine in this direction, if there must be a fray, I will be in the thick of it."
"Remember, my Lord, that your house has always stood by the Archbishop of Mayence."
"It has stood by the Emperor as well, chamberlain."
The Lady Elsa was amazed by the magnificence of the Emperor's court, when, accompanied by her husband, she walked the length of the great room to make obeisance before the throne. At first entrance she shrank timidly, closer to the side of Wilhelm, trembling at the ordeal of passing, simply costumed as she now felt herself to be, between two assemblages of haughty knights and high-born dames, resplendent in dress, with the proud bearing that pertained to their position in the Empire. Her breath came and went quickly, and she feared that all courage would desert her before she traversed the seemingly endless lane, flanked by the nobility of Germany, which led to the royal presence. Wilhelm, unabashed, holding himself the equal of any there, was not to be cowed by patronising glance, or scornful gaze. The thought flashed through his mind:
"How can the throne fall, surrounded as it is by so many supporters?"
But when the approaching two saw the Empress, all remembrance of others faded from their minds. Brunhilda was a woman of superb stature. She stood alone upon the dais which supported the vacant throne, one hand resting upon its carven arm. A cloak of imperial ermine fell gracefully from her shapely shoulders and her slightly-elevated position on the platform added height to her goddess-like tallness, giving her the appearance of towering above every other person in the room, man or woman. The excessive pallor of her complexion was emphasised by the raven blackness of her wealth of hair, and the sombre midnight of her eyes; eyes with slumbering fire in them, qualified by a haunted look which veiled their burning intensity. Her brow was too broad and her chin too firm for a painter's ideal of beauty; her commanding presence giving the effect of majesty rather than of loveliness. Deep lines of care marred the marble of her forehead, and Wilhelm said to himself:
"Here is a woman going to her doom; knowing it; yet determined to show no sign of fear and utter no cry for mercy."
Every other woman there had eyes of varying shades of blue and gray, and hair ranging from brown to golden yellow; thus the Empress stood before them like a creature from another world.
Elsa was about to sink in lowly courtesy before the queenly woman when the Empress came forward impetuously and kissed the girl on either cheek, taking her by the hand.
"Oh, wild bird of the forest," she cried, "why have you left the pure air of the woods, to beat your innocent wings in this atmosphere of deceit! And you, my young Lord, what brings you to Frankfort in these troublous times? Have you an insufficiency of lands or of honours that you come to ask augmentation of either?"
"I come to ask nothing for myself, your Majesty."
"But to ask, nevertheless," said Brunhilda, with a frown.
"Yes, your Majesty."
"I hope I may live to see one man, like a knight of old, approach the foot of the throne without a request on his lips. I thought you might prove an exception, but as it is not so, propound your question?"
"I came to ask if my sword, supplemented by the weapons of five hundred followers, can be of service to your Majesty."
The Empress seemed taken aback by the young man's unexpected reply, and for some moments she gazed at him searchingly in silence.
At last she said:
"Your followers are the men of Schonburg and Gudenfels, doubtless?"
"No, your Majesty. Those you mention, acknowledge my father as their leader. My men were known as the Outlaws of the Hundsrueck, who have deposed von Weithoff, chosen me as their chief, and now desire to lead honest lives."
The dark eyes of the Empress blazed again.
"I see, my Lord, that you have quickly learned the courtier's language. Under proffer of service you are really demanding pardon for a band of marauders."
Wilhelm met unflinchingly the angry look of this imperious woman, and was so little a courtier that he allowed a frown to add sternness to his brow.
"Your Majesty puts it harshly," he said, "I merely petition for a stroke of the pen which will add half a thousand loyal men to the ranks of the Emperor's supporters."
Brunhilda pondered on this, then suddenly seemed to arrive at a decision. Calling one of the ministers of state to her side, she said, peremptorily:
"Prepare a pardon for the Outlaws of the Hundsrueck. Send the document at once to the Emperor for signature, and then bring it to me in the Red Room."
The minister replied with some hesitation:
"I should have each man's name to inscribe on the roll, otherwise every scoundrel in the Empire will claim protection under the edict."
"I can give you every man's name," put in Wilhelm, eagerly.
"It is not necessary," said the Empress.
"Your Majesty perhaps forgets," persisted the minister, "that pardon has already been proffered by the Emperor under certain conditions that commended themselves to his imperial wisdom, and that the clemency so graciously tendered was contemptuously refused."
At this veiled opposition all the suspicion in Brunhilda's nature turned from Wilhelm to the high official, and she spoke to him in the tones of one accustomed to prompt obedience.
"Prepare an unconditional pardon, and send it immediately to the Emperor without further comment, either to him or to me."
The minister bowed low and retired. The Empress dismissed the court, detaining Elsa, and said to Wilhelm:
"Seek us half an hour later in the Red Room. Your wife I shall take with me, that I may learn from her own lips the adventures which led to your recognition as the heir of Schonburg, something of which I have already heard. And as for your outlaws, send them word if you think they are impatient to lead virtuous lives, which I take leave to doubt, that before another day passes they need fear no penalty for past misdeed, providing their future conduct escapes censure."
"They are one and all eager to retrieve themselves in your Majesty's eyes!"
"Promise not too much, my young Lord, for they may be called upon to perform sooner than they expect," said Brunhilda, with a significant glance at Wilhelm.
The young man left the imperial presence, overjoyed to know that his mission had been successful.