The Strong Arm by Robert Barr
Chapter V. The Needle Dagger
Wilhelm Von Schonburg, Commander of the Imperial Forces at Frankfort, applied himself to the task of building up an army round his nucleus of five hundred with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth. He first put parties of trusty men at the various city gates so that he might control, at least in a measure, the human intake and output of the city. The power which possession of the gates gave him he knew to be more apparent than real, for Frankfort was a commercial city, owing its prosperity to traffic, and any material interference with the ebb or flow of travel had a depressing influence on trade. If the Archbishops meant to keep their words given to the Empress, all would be well, but of their good faith Wilhelm had the gravest doubts. It would be impossible to keep secret the defeat of their Lordships, when several thousands of their men lay immured in the city prison. The whole world would thus learn sooner or later that the great Princes of the Church had come to shear and had departed shorn; and this blow to their pride was one not easily forgiven by men so haughty and so powerful as the prelates of Treves, Mayence and Cologne. Young as he was, Wilhelm's free life in the forest, among those little accustomed to control the raw passions of humanity, had made him somewhat a judge of character, and he had formed the belief that the Archbishop of Cologne, was a gentleman, and would keep his word, that the Archbishop of Treves would have no scruple in breaking his, while the Archbishop of Mayence would follow the lead of Treves. This suspicion he imparted to the Empress Brunhilda, but she did not agree with him, believing that all three, with the Count Palatine, would hereafter save their heads by attending strictly to their ecclesiastical business, leaving the rule of the Empire in the hands which now held it.
"Cologne will not break the pledge he has given me," she said; "of that I am sure. Mayence is too great an opportunist to follow an unsuccessful leader; and the Count Palatine is too great a coward to enter upon such a dangerous business as the deposing of an emperor who is my husband. Besides, I have given the Count Palatine a post at Court which requires his constant presence in Frankfort, and so I have him in some measure a prisoner. The Electors are powerless if even one of their number is a defaulter, so what can Treves do, no matter how deeply his pride is injured, or how bitterly he thirsts for revenge? His only resource is boldly to raise the flag of rebellion and march his troops on Frankfort. He is too crafty a man to take such risk or to do anything so open. For this purpose he must set about the collection of an army secretly, while we may augment the Imperial troops in the light of day. So, unless he strikes speedily, we will have a force that will forever keep him in awe."
This seemed a reasonable view, but it only partly allayed the apprehensions of Wilhelm. He had caught more than one fierce look of hatred directed toward him by the Archbishop of Treves, since the meeting in the Wahlzimmer, and the regard of his Lordship of Mayence had been anything but benign. These two dignitaries had left Frankfort together, their way lying for some distance in the same direction. Wilhelm liberated their officers, and thus the two potentates had scant escort to their respective cities. Their men he refused to release, which refusal both Treves and Mayence accepted with bad grace, saying the withholding cast an aspersion on their honour. This example was not followed by the suave Archbishop of Cologne, who departed some days after his colleagues. He laughed when Wilhelm informed him that his troops would remain in Frankfort, and said he would be at the less expense in his journey down the Rhine, as his men were gross feeders.
Being thus quit of the three Archbishops, the question was what to do with their three thousand men. It was finally resolved to release them by detachments, drafting into the Imperial army such as were willing so to serve and take a special oath of allegiance to the Emperor, allowing those who declined to enlist to depart from the city in whatever direction pleased them, so that they went away in small parties. It was found, however, that the men cared little for whom they fought, providing the pay was good and reasonably well assured. Thus the Imperial army received many recruits and the country round Frankfort few vagrants.
The departed Archbishops made no sign, the Count Palatine seemed engrossed with his duties about the Court, the army increased daily and life went on so smoothly that Wilhelm began to cease all questioning of the future, coming at last to believe that the Empress was right in her estimate of the situation. He was in this pleasing state of mind when an incident occurred which would have caused him greater anxiety than it did had he been better acquainted with the governing forces of his country. On arising one morning he found on the table of his room a parchment, held in place by a long thin dagger of peculiar construction. His first attention was given to the weapon and not to the scroll. The blade was extremely thin and sharp at the point, and seemed at first sight to be so exceedingly frail as to be of little service in actual combat, but a closer examination proved that it was practically unbreakable, and of a temper so fine that nothing made an impression on its keen edge. Held at certain angles, the thin blade seemed to disappear altogether and leave the empty hilt in the hand. The hilt had been treated as if it were a crucifix, and in slightly raised relief there was a figure of Christ, His outstretched arms extending along the transverse guard. On the opposite side of the handle were the sunken letters "S. S. G. G."
Wilhelm fingered this dainty piece of mechanism curiously, wondering where it was made. He guessed Milan as the place of its origin, knowing enough of cutlery to admire the skill and knowledge of metallurgy that had gone to its construction, and convinced as he laid it down that it was foreign. He was well aware that no smith in Germany could fashion a lancet so exquisitely tempered. He then turned his attention to the document which had been fastened to the table by this needle-like stiletto. At the top of the parchment were the same letters that had been cut in the handle of the dagger.
S. S. G. G.
First warning. Wear this dagger thrust into your doublet over the heart, and allow him who accosts you, fearing nothing if your heart be true and loyal. In strict silence safety lies.
"It is some lover's nonsense of Elsa's," he said to himself. "'If your heart be true and loyal,' that is a woman's phrase and nothing else."
Calling his wife, he held out the weapon to her and said:
"Where did you get this, Elsa? I would be glad to know who your armourer is, for I should dearly love to provide my men with weapons of such temper."
Elsa looked alternately at the dagger and at her husband, bewildered.
"I never saw it before, nor anything like it," she replied. "Where did you find it? It is so frail it must be for ornament merely."
"Its frailness is deceptive. It is a most wonderful instrument, and I should like to know where it comes from. I thought you had bought it from some armourer and intended me to wear it as a badge of my office. Perhaps it was sent by the Empress. The word 'loyalty' seems to indicate that, though how it got into this room and on this table unknown to me is a mystery."
Elsa shook her head as she studied the weapon and the message critically.
"Her Majesty is more direct than this would indicate. If she had aught to say to you she would say it without ambiguity. Do you intend to wear the dagger as the scroll commands?"
"If I thought it came from the Empress I should, not otherwise."
"You may be assured some one else has sent it. Perhaps it is intended for me," and saying this Elsa thrust the blade of the dagger through the thick coil of her hair and turned coquettishly so that her husband might judge of the effect.
"Are you ambitious to set a new fashion to the Court, Elsa?" asked Wilhelm, smiling.
"No; I shall not wear it in public, but I will keep the dagger if I may."
Thus the incident passed, and Wilhelm gave no more thought to the mysterious warning. His duties left him little time for meditation during the day, but as he returned at night from the barracks his mind reverted once more to the dagger, and he wondered how it came without his knowledge into his private room. His latent suspicion of the Archbishops became aroused again, and he pondered on the possibility of an emissary of theirs placing the document on his table. He had given strict instructions that if any one supposed to be an agent of their lordships presented himself at the gates he was to be permitted to enter the city without hindrance, but instant knowledge of such advent was to be sent to the Commander, which reminded him that he had not seen Gottlieb that day, this able lieutenant having general charge of all the ports. So he resolved to return to the barracks and question his underling regarding the recent admittances. Acting instantly on this determination, he turned quickly and saw before him a man whom he thought he recognised by his outline in the darkness as von Brent, one of the officers of Treves whom he had released, and who had accompanied the Archbishop on his return to that city. The figure, however, gave him no time for a closer inspection, and, although evidently taken by surprise, reversed his direction, making off with speed down the street. Wilhelm, plucking sword from scabbard, pursued no less fleetly. The scanty lighting of the city thoroughfares gave advantage to the fugitive, but Wilhelm's knowledge of the town was now astonishingly intimate, considering the short time he had been a resident, and his woodlore, applied to the maze of tortuous narrow alleys made him a hunter not easily baffled. He saw the flutter of a cloak as its wearer turned down a narrow lane, and a rapid mental picture of the labyrinth illuminating his mind, Wilhelm took a dozen long strides to a corner and there stood waiting. A few moments later a panting man with cloak streaming behind him came near to transfixing himself on the point of the Commander's sword. The runner pulled himself up with a gasp and stood breathless and speechless.
"I tender you good-evening, sir," said Wilhelm, civilly, "and were I not sure of your friendliness, I should take it that you were trying to avoid giving me salutation."
"I did not recognise you, my Lord, in the darkness."
The man breathed heavily, which might have been accounted for by his unaccustomed exertion.
"'Tis strange, then, that I should have recognised you, turning unexpectedly as I did, while you seemingly had me in your eye for some time before."
"Indeed, my Lord, and that I had not. I but just emerged from this crooked lane, and seeing you turn so suddenly, feared molestation, and so took to my heels, which a warrior should be shamed to confess, but I had no wish to be embroiled in a street brawl."
"Your caution does you credit, and should commend you to so peacefully- minded a master as his Lordship of Treves, who, I sincerely trust, arrived safely in his ancient city."
"He did, my Lord."
"I am deeply gratified to hear it, and putting my knowledge of his lordship's methods in conjunction with your evident desire for secrecy, I should be loath to inquire into the nature of the mission that brings you to the capital so soon after your departure from it."
"Well, my Lord," said von Brent, with an attempt at a laugh, "I must admit that it was my purpose to visit Frankfort with as little publicity as possible. You are mistaken, however, in surmising that I am entrusted with any commands from my lord, the Archbishop, who, at this moment, is devoting himself with energy to his ecclesiastical duties and therefore has small need for a soldier. This being the case, I sought and obtained leave of absence, and came to Frankfort on private affairs of my own. To speak truth, as between one young man and another, not to be further gossiped about, while, stationed here some days ago, I became acquainted with a girl whom I dearly wish to meet again, and this traffic, as you know, yearns not for either bray of trumpet or rattle of drum."
"The gentle power of love," said Wilhelm in his most affable tone, "is a force few of us can resist. Indeed, I am myself not unacquainted with its strength, and I must further congratulate you on your celerity of conquest, for you came to Frankfort in the morning, and were my guest in the fortress in the evening, so you certainly made good use of the brief interval. By what gate did you enter Frankfort?"
"By the western gate, my Lord."
"No, my Lord. I entered but a short time since, just before the gates were closed for the night."
"Ah! that accounts for my hearing no report of your arrival, for it is my wish, when distinguished visitors honour us with their presence, that I may be able to offer them every courtesy."
Von Brent laughed, this time with a more genuine ring to his mirth.
"Seeing that your previous hospitality included lodging in the city prison, my Lord, as you, a moment ago, reminded me, you can scarcely be surprised that I had no desire to invite a repetition of such courtesy, if you will pardon the frank speaking of a soldier."
"Most assuredly. And to meet frankness with its like, I may add that the city prison still stands intact. But I must no longer delay an impatient lover, and so, as I began, I give you a very good evening, sir."
Von Brent returned the salutation, bowing low, and Wilhelm watched him retrace his steps and disappear in the darkness. The Commander, returning his blade to its scabbard, sought Gottlieb at the barracks.
"Do you remember von Brent, of Treves' staff?"
"That hangdog-looking officer? Yes, master. I had the pleasure of knocking him down in the Cathedral before pinioning him."
"He is in Frankfort to-night, and said he entered by the western gate just before it was closed."
"Then he is a liar," commented Gottlieb, with his usual bluntness.
"Such I strongly suspect him to be. Nevertheless, here he is, and the question I wish answered is, how did he get in?"
"He must have come over the wall, which can hardly be prevented if an incomer has a friend who will throw him a rope."
"It may be prevented if the walls are efficiently patrolled. See instantly to that, Gottlieb, and set none but our own woodlanders on watch."
Several days passed, and Wilhelm kept a sharp lookout for von Brent, or any other of the Archbishop's men, but he saw none such, nor could he learn that the lieutenant had left the city. He came almost to believe that the officer had spoken the truth, when distrust again assailed him on finding in the barracks a second document almost identical with the first, except that it contained the words, "Second warning," and the dirk had been driven half its length into the lid of the desk. At first he thought it was the same parchment and dagger, but the different wording showed him that at least the former was not the same. He called Gottlieb, and demanded to know who had been allowed to pass the guards and enter that room. The honest warrior was dismayed to find such a thing could have happened, and although he was unable to read the lettering, he turned the missive over and over in his hand as if he expected close scrutiny to unravel the skein. He then departed and questioned the guards closely, but was assured that no one had entered except the Commander.
"I cannot fathom it," he said on returning to his master, "and, to tell truth, I wish we were well back in the forest again, for I like not this mysterious city and its ways. We have kept this town as close sealed as a wine butt, yet I dare swear that I have caught glimpses of the Archbishop's men, flitting here and there like bats as soon as darkness gathers. I have tried to catch one or two of them to make sure, but I seem to have lost all speed of foot on these slippery stones, and those I follow disappear as if the earth swallowed them."
"Have you seen von Brent since I spoke to you about him?"
"I thought so, Master Wilhelm, but I am like a man dazed in the mazes of an evil dream, who can be certain of nothing. I am afraid of no man who will stand boldly up to me, sword in hand, with a fair light on both of us, but this chasing of shadows with nothing for a pike to pierce makes a coward of me."
"Well, the next shadow that follows me will get my blade in its vitals, for I think my foot is lighter than yours, Gottlieb. There is no shadow in this town that is not cast by a substance, and that substance will feel a sword thrust if one can but get within striking distance. Keep strict watch and we will make a discovery before long, never fear. Do you think the men we have enlisted from the Archbishop's company are trying to play tricks with us? Are they to be trusted?"
"Oh, they are stout rascals with not enough brains among them all to plan this dagger and parchment business, giving little thought to anything beyond eating and drinking, and having no skill of lettering."
"Then we must look elsewhere for the explanation. It may be that your elusive shadows will furnish a clue."
On reaching his own house Wilhelm said carelessly to his wife, whom he did not wish to alarm unnecessarily:
"Have you still in your possession that dagger which I found on my table?"
"Yes, it is here. Have you found an owner for it or learned how it came there?"
"No. I merely wished to look at it again."
She gave it to him, and he saw at once that it was a duplicate of the one he had hidden under his doublet. The mystery was as far from solution as ever, and the closest examination of the weapon gave no hint pertaining to the purport of the message. Yet it is probable that Wilhelm was the only noble in the German Empire who was ignorant of the significance of the four letters, and doubtless the senders were amazed at his temerity in nonchalantly ignoring the repeated warnings, which would have brought pallor to the cheeks of the highest in the land. Wilhelm had been always so dependent on the advice of Gottlieb that it never occurred to him to seek explanation from any one else, yet in this instance Gottlieb, from the same cause of woodland training, was as ignorant as his master.
It is possible that the two warnings might have made a greater impression on the mind of the young man were it not that he was troubled about his own status in the Empire. There had been much envy in the Court at the elevation of a young man practically unknown, to the position of commander-in-chief of the German army, and high officials had gone so far as to protest against what they said was regarded as a piece of unaccountable favouritism. The Empress, however, was firm, and for a time comment seemed to cease, but it was well known that Wilhelm had no real standing, unless his appointment was confirmed by the Emperor, and his commission made legal by the royal signature. It became known, or, at least, was rumoured that twice the Empress had sent this document to her husband and twice it had been returned unsigned. The Emperor went so far as to refuse to see his wife, declining to have any discussion about the matter, and Wilhelm well knew that every step he took in the fulfilment of his office was an illegal step, and if a hint of this got to the ears of the Archbishops they would be more than justified in calling him to account, for every act he performed relating to the army after he knew that his monarch had refused to sanction his nomination was an act of rebellion and usurpation punishable by death. The Empress was well aware of the jeopardy in which her attache stood, but she implored him not to give up the position, although helpless to make his appointment regular. She hoped her husband's religious fervour would abate and that he would deign to bestow some attention upon earthly things, allowing himself to be persuaded of the necessity of keeping up a standing army, commanded by one entirely faithful to him. Wilhelm himself often doubted the wisdom of his interference, which had allowed the throne to be held by a man who so neglected all its duties that intrigues and unrest were honeycombing the whole fabric of society, beginning at the top and working its way down until now even the merchants were in a state of uncertainty, losing faith in the stability of the government. The determined attitude of Wilhelm, the general knowledge that he came from a family of fighters, and the wholesome fear of the wild outlaws, under his command, did more than anything else to keep down open rebellion in Court and to make the position of the Empress possible. It was believed that Wilhelm would have little hesitation in obliterating half the nobility of the Court, or the whole of it for that matter, if but reasonable excuse were given him for doing so, and every one was certain that his cut-throats, as they were called, would obey any command he liked to give, and would delight in whatever slaughter ensued. The Commander held aloof from the Court, although, because of his position, he had a room in the palace which no one but the monarch and the chief officer of the army might enter, yet he rarely occupied this apartment, using, instead, the suite at the barracks.
Some days after the second episode of the dagger he received a summons from the Empress commanding his instant presence at the palace. On arriving at the Court, he found Brunhilda attended by a group of nobles, who fell back as the young commander approached. The Empress smiled as he bent his knee and kissed her hand, but Wilhelm saw by the anxiety in her eye that something untoward had happened, guessing that his commission was returned for the third time unsigned from the Emperor, and being correct in his surmise.
"Await me in the Administration Room of the Army," said the Empress. "I will see you presently. You have somewhat neglected that room of late, my Lord."
"I found I could more adequately fulfil your Majesty's command and keep in closer touch with the army by occupying my apartments at the barracks."
"I trust, then, that you will have a good report to present to me regarding the progress of my soldiers," replied the Empress, dismissing him with a slight inclination of her head.
Wilhelm left the audience chamber and proceeded along the corridor with which his room was connected. The soldier at the entrance saluted him, and Wilhelm entered the Administration Chamber. It was a large room and in the centre of it stood a large table. After closing the door Wilhelm paused in his advance, for there in the centre of the table, buried to its very hilt through the planks, was a duplicate of the dagger he had concealed inside his doublet. It required some exertion of Wilhelm's great strength before he dislodged the weapon from the timber into which it had been so fiercely driven. The scroll it affixed differed from each of the other two. It began with the words, "Final warning," and ended with "To Wilhelm of Schonburg, so-called Commander of the Imperial forces," as if from a desire on the part of the writer that there should be no mistake regarding the destination of the missive. The young man placed the knife on the parchment and stood looking at them both until the Empress was announced. He strode forward to meet her and conducted her to a chair, where she seated herself, he remaining on his feet.
"I am in deep trouble," she began, "the commission authorising you to command the Imperial troops has been returned for the third time unsigned; not only that, but the act authorising the reconstruction of the army, comes back also without the Emperor's signature."
Wilhelm remained silent, for he well knew that the weakness of their position was the conduct of the Emperor, and this was an evil which he did not know how to remedy.
"When he returned both documents the first time," continued the Empress, "I sent to him a request for an interview that I might explain the urgency and necessity of the matter. This request was refused, and although I know of course that my husband might perhaps be called eccentric, still he had never before forbade my presence. This aroused my suspicion."
"Suspicion of what, your Majesty?" inquired Wilhelm.
"My suspicion that the messages I sent him have been intercepted."
"Who would dare do such a thing, your Majesty?" cried Wilhelm in amazement.
"Where large stakes are played for, large risks must be taken," went on the lady. "I said nothing at the time, but yesterday I sent to him two acts which he himself had previously sanctioned, but never carried out; these were returned to me to-day unsigned, and now I fear one of three things. The Emperor is ill, is a prisoner, or is dead."
"If it is your Majesty's wish," said Wilhelm, "I will put myself at the head of a body of men, surround the cathedral, search the cloisters, and speedily ascertain whether the Emperor is there or no."
"I have thought of such action," declared the Empress, "but I dislike to take it. It would bring me in conflict with the Church, and then there is always the chance that the Emperor is indeed within the cloisters, and that, of his own free will, he refuses to sign the documents I have sent to him. In such case what excuse could we give for our interference? It might precipitate the very crisis we are so anxious to avoid."
The Empress had been sitting by the table with her arm resting upon it, her fingers toying unconsciously with the knife while she spoke, and now as her remarks reached their conclusion her eyes fell upon its hilt and slender blade. With an exclamation almost resembling a scream the Empress sprang to her feet and allowed the dagger to fall clattering on the floor.
"Where did that come from?" she cried. "Is it intended for me?" and she shook her trembling hands as if they had touched a poisonous scorpion.
"Where it comes from I do not know, but it is not intended for your Majesty, as this scroll will inform you."
Brunhilda took the parchment he offered and held it at arm's length from her, reading its few words with dilated eyes, and Wilhelm was amazed to see in them the fear which they failed to show when she faced the three powerful Archbishops. Finally the scroll fluttered from her nerveless fingers to the floor and the Empress sank back in her chair.
"You have received two other warnings then?" she said in a low voice.
"Yes, your Majesty. What is their meaning?"
"They are the death warrants of the Fehmgerichte, a dread and secret tribunal before which even emperors quail. If you obey this mandate you will never be seen on earth again; if you disobey you will be secretly assassinated by one of these daggers, for after ignoring the third warning a hundred thousand such blades are lying in wait for your heart, and ultimately one of them will reach it, no matter in what quarter of Germany you hide yourself."
"And who are the members of this mysterious association, your Majesty?
"That, you can tell as well as I, better perhaps, for you may be a member while I cannot be. Perhaps the soldier outside this door belongs to the Fehmgerichte, or your own Chamberlain, or perhaps your most devoted lieutenant, the lusty Gottlieb."
"That, your Majesty, I'll swear he is not, for he was as amazed as I when he saw the dagger at the barracks."
Brunhilda shook her head.
"You cannot judge from pretended ignorance," she said, "because a member is sworn to keep all secrets of the holy Fehm from wife and child, father and mother, sister and brother, fire and wind; from all that the sun shines on and the rain wets, and from every being between heaven and earth. Those are the words of the oath."
Wilhelm found himself wondering how his informant knew so much about the secret court if all those rules were strictly kept, but he naturally shrank from any inquiry regarding the source of her knowledge. Nevertheless her next reply gave him an inkling of the truth.
"Who is the head of this tribunal?" he asked.
"The Emperor is the nominal head, but my husband never approved of the Fehmgerichte; originally organised to redress the wrongs of tyranny, it has become a gigantic instrument of oppression. The Archbishop of Cologne is the actual president of the order, not in his capacity as an elector, nor as archbishop, but because he is Duke of Westphalia, where this tragic court had its origin."
"Your Majesty imagines then, that this summons comes from the Archbishop of Cologne?"
"Oh, no. I doubt if he has any knowledge of it. Each district has a freigraf, or presiding judge, assisted by seven assessors, or freischoffen, who sit in so called judgment with him, but literally they merely record the sentence, for condemnation is a foregone conclusion."
"Is the sentence always death?"
"Always, at this secret tribunal; a sentence of death immediately carried out. In the open Fehmic court, banishment, prison, or other penalty may be inflicted, but you are summoned to appear before the secret tribunal."
"Does your Majesty know the meaning of these cabalistic letters on the dagger's hilt and on the parchment?"
"The letters 'S. S. G. G.' stand for Strick, Stein, Gras, Gruen: Strick meaning, it is said, the rope which hangs you; Stein, the stone at the head of your grave, and Gras, Gruen, the green grass covering it."
"Well, your Majesty," said Wilhelm, picking up the parchment from the floor and tearing it in small pieces, "if I have to choose between the rope and the dagger, I freely give my preference to the latter. I shall not attend this secret conclave, and if any of its members think to strike a dagger through my heart, he will have to come within the radius of my sword to do so."
"God watch over you," said the Empress fervently, "for this is a case in which the protection of an earthly throne is of little avail. And remember, Lord Wilhelm, trust not even your most intimate friend within arm's length of you. The only persons who may not become members of this dread order are a Jew, an outlaw, an infidel, a woman, a servant, a priest, or a person excommunicated."
Wilhelm escorted the Empress to the door of the red room, and there took leave of her; he being unable to suggest anything that might assuage her anxiety regarding her husband, she being unable to protect him from the new danger that threatened. Wilhelm was as brave as any man need be, and in a fair fight was content to take whatever odds came, but now he was confronted by a subtle invisible peril, against which ordinary courage was futile. An unaccustomed shiver chilled him as the palace sentinel, in the gathering gloom of the corridor, raised his hand swiftly to his helmet in salute. He passed slowly down the steps of the palace into the almost deserted square in front of it, for the citizens of Frankfort found it expedient to get early indoors when darkness fell. The young man found himself glancing furtively from right to left, starting at every shadow and scrutinising every passerby who was innocently hurrying to his own home. The name "Fehmgerichte" kept repeating itself in his brain like an incantation. He took the middle of the square and hesitated when he came to the narrow street down which his way lay. At the street corner he paused, laid his hand on the hilt of his sword and drew a deep breath.
"Is it possible," he muttered to himself, "that I am afraid? Am I at heart a coward? By the cross which is my protection," he cried, "if they wish to try their poniarding, they shall have an opportunity!"
And drawing his sword he plunged into the dark and narrow street, his footsteps ringing defiantly in the silence on the stone beneath him as he strode resolutely along. He passed rapidly through the city until he came to the northern gate. Here accosting his warders and being assured that all was well, he took the street which, bending like a bow, followed the wall until it came to the river. Once or twice he stopped, thinking himself followed, but the darkness was now so impenetrable that even if a pursuer had been behind him he was safe from detection if he kept step with his victim and paused when he did. The street widened as it approached the river, and Wilhelm became convinced that some one was treading in his footsteps. Clasping his sword hilt more firmly in his hand he wheeled about with unexpectedness that evidently took his follower by surprise, for he dashed across the street and sped fleetly towards the river. The glimpse Wilhelm got of him in the open space between the houses made him sure that he was once more on the track of von Brent, the emissary of Treves. The tables were now turned, the pursuer being the pursued, and Wilhelm set his teeth, resolved to put a sudden end to this continued espionage. Von Brent evidently remembered his former interception, and now kept a straight course. Trusting to the swiftness of his heels, he uttered no cry, but directed all his energies toward flight, and Wilhelm, equally silent, followed as rapidly.
Coming to the river, von Brent turned to the east, keeping in the middle of the thoroughfare. On the left hand side was a row of houses, on the right flowed the rapid Main. Some hundreds of yards further up there were houses on both sides of the street, and as the water of the river flowed against the walls of the houses to the right, Wilhelm knew there could be no escape that way. Surmising that his victim kept the middle of the street in order to baffle the man at his heels, puzzling him as to which direction the fugitive intended to bolt, Wilhelm, not to be deluded by such a device, ran close to the houses on the left, knowing that if von Brent turned to the right he would be speedily stopped by the Main. The race promised to reach a sudden conclusion, for Wilhelm was perceptibly gaining on his adversary, when coming to the first house by the river the latter swerved suddenly, jumped to a door, pushed it open and was inside in the twinkling of an eye, but only barely in time to miss the sword thrust that followed him. Quick as thought Wilhelm placed his foot in such a position that the door could not be closed. Then setting his shoulder to the panels, he forced it open in spite of the resistance behind it. Opposition thus overborne by superior strength, Wilhelm heard the clatter of von Brent's footsteps down the dark passage, and next instant the door was closed with a bang, and it seemed to the young man that the house had collapsed upon him. He heard his sword snap and felt it break beneath him, and he was gagged and bound before he could raise a hand to help himself. Then when it was too late, he realised that he had allowed the heat and fervour of pursuit to overwhelm his judgment, and had jumped straight into the trap prepared for him. Von Brent returned with a lantern in his hand and a smile on his face, breathing quickly after his exertions. Wilhelm, huddled in a corner, saw a dozen stalwart ruffians grouped around him, most of them masked, but two or three with faces bare, their coverings having come off in the struggle. These slipped quickly out of sight, behind the others, as if not wishing to give clue for future recognition.
"Well, my Lord," said von Brent, smiling, "you see that gagging and binding is a game that two may play at."
There was no reply to this, first, because Wilhelm was temporarily in a speechless condition, and, second, because the proposition was not one to be contradicted.
"Take him to the Commitment Room," commanded von Brent.
Four of the onlookers lifted Wilhelm and carried him down a long stairway, across a landing and to the foot of a second flight of steps, where he was thrown into a dark cell, the dimensions of which he could not estimate. When the door was closed the prisoner lay with his head leaning against it, and for a time the silence was intense. By and by he found that by turning his head so that his ear was placed against the panel of the door, he heard distinctly the footfalls outside, and even a shuffling sound near him, which seemed to indicate that a man was on guard at the other side of the oak. Presently some one approached, and in spite of the low tones used, Wilhelm not only heard what was being said, but recognised the voice of von Brent, who evidently was his jailer.
"You have him safely then?"
"Gagged and bound, my Lord."
"Is he disarmed?"
"His sword was broken under him, my Lord, when we fell upon him."
"Very well. Remove the gag and place him with No. 13. Bar them in and listen to their conversation. I think they have never met, but I want to be sure of it."
"Is there not a chance that No. 13 may make himself known, my Lord?"
"No matter if he does. In fact, it is my object to have No. 13 and No. 14 known to each other, and yet be not aware that we have suspicion of their knowledge."
When the door of the cell was opened four guards came in. It was manifest they were not going to allow Wilhelm any chance to escape, and were prepared to overpower him should he attempt flight or resistance. The gag was taken from his mouth and the thongs which bound his legs were untied, and thus he was permitted to stand on his feet. Once outside his cell he saw that the subterranean region in which he found himself was of vast extent, resembling the crypt of a cathedral, the low roof being supported by pillars of tremendous circumference. From the direction in which he had been carried from the foot of the stairs he surmised, and quite accurately, that this cavern was under the bed of the river. Those who escorted him and those whom he met were masked. No torches illuminated the gloom of this sepulchral hall, but each individual carried, attached in some way to his belt, a small horn lantern, which gave for a little space around a dim uncertain light, casting weird shadows against the pillars of the cavern. Once or twice they met a man clothed in an apparently seamless cloak of black cloth, that covered the head and extended to the feet. Two holes in front of the face allowed a momentary glimpse of a pair of flashing eyes as the yellow light from the lanterns smote them. These grim figures were presumably persons of importance, for the guards stopped, and saluted, as each one approached, not going forward until he had silently passed them. When finally the door of the cell they sought was reached, the guards drew back the bolts, threw it open, and pushed Wilhelm into the apartment that had been designated for him. Before closing the door, however, one of the guards placed a lantern on the floor so that the fellow-prisoners might have a chance of seeing each other. Wilhelm beheld, seated on a pallet of straw, a man well past middle-age, his face smooth-shaven and of serious cast, yet having, nevertheless, a trace of irresolution in his weak chin. His costume was that of a mendicant monk, and his face seemed indicative of the severity of monastic rule. There was, however, a serenity of courage in his eye which seemed to betoken that he was a man ready to die for his opinions, if once his wavering chin allowed him to form them. Wilhelm remembering that priests were not allowed to join the order of the Fehmgerichte reflected that here was a man who probably, from his fearless denunciations of the order, had brought down upon himself the hatred of the secret tribunal, whose only penalty was that of death. The older man was the first to speak.
"So you also are a victim of the Fehmgerichte?"
"I have for some minutes suspected as much," replied von Schonburg.
"Were you arrested and brought here, or did you come here willingly?"
"Oh, I came here willingly enough. I ran half a league in my eagerness to reach this spot and fairly jumped into it," replied Wilhelm, with a bitter laugh.
"You were in such haste to reach this spot?" said the old man, sombrely, "what is your crime?"
"That I do not know, but I shall probably soon learn when I come before the court."
"Are you a member of the order, then?"
"No, I am not."
"In that case, it will require the oaths of twenty-one members to clear you, therefore, if you have not that many friends in the order I look upon you as doomed."
"Thank you. That is as God wills."
"Assuredly, assuredly. We are all in His hands," and the good man devoutedly crossed himself.
"I have answered your questions," said Wilhelm, "answer you some of mine. Who are you?"
"I am a seeker after light."
"Well, there it is," said Wilhelm, touching the lantern with his foot as he paced up and down the limits of the cell.
"Earthly light is but dim at best, it is the light of Heaven I search after."
"Well, I hope you may be successful in finding it. I know of no place where it is needed so much as here."
"You speak like a scoffer. I thought from what you said of God's will, that you were a religious man."
"I am a religious man, I hope, and I regret if my words seem lightly spoken.
"What action of man, think you then, is most pleasing to God?"
"That is a question which you, to judge by your garb, are more able to answer than I."
"Nay, nay, I want your opinion."
"Then in my opinion, the man most pleasing to God is he who does his duty here on earth."
"Ah! right, quite right," cried the older man, eagerly. "But there lies the core of the whole problem. What is duty; that is what I have spent my life trying to learn."
"Then at a venture I should say your life has been a useless one. Duty is as plain as the lighted lantern there before us. If you are a priest, fulfil your priestly office well; comfort the sick, console the dying, bury the dead. Tell your flock not to speculate too much on duty, but to try and accomplish the work in hand."
"But I am not a priest," faltered the other, rising slowly to his feet.
"Then if you are a soldier, strike hard for your King. Kill the man immediately before you, and if, instead, he kills you, be assured that the Lord will look after your soul when it departs through the rent thus made in your body."
"There is a ring of truth in that, but it sounds worldly. How can we tell that such action is pleasing to God? May it not be better to depend entirely on the Lord, and let Him strike your blows for you?"
"Never! What does He give you arms for but to protect your own head, and what does He give you swift limbs for if not to take your body out of reach when you are threatened with being overmatched? God must despise such a man as you speak of, and rightly so. I am myself a commander of soldiers, and if I had a lieutenant who trusted all to me and refused to strike a sturdy blow on his own behalf I should tear his badge from him and have him scourged from out the ranks."
"But may we not, by misdirected efforts, thwart the will of God?"
"Oh! the depths of human vanity! Thwart the will of God? What, a puny worm like you? You amaze me, sir, with your conceit, and I lose the respect for you which at first your garb engendered in my mind. Do your work manfully, and flatter not yourself that your most strenuous efforts are able to cross the design of the Almighty. My own poor belief is that He has patience with any but a coward and a loiterer."
The elder prisoner staggered into the centre of the room and raised his hands above his head.
"Oh, Lord, have mercy upon me," he cried. "Thou who hast brought light to me in this foul dungeon which was refused to me in the radiance of Thy Cathedral. Have mercy on me, oh, Lord, the meanest of Thy servants --a craven Emperor."
"The Emperor!" gasped Wilhelm, the more amazed because he had his Majesty in mind when he spoke so bitterly of neglected duty, unconsciously blaming his sovereign rather than his own rashness for the extreme predicament in which he found himself.
Before either could again speak the door suddenly opened wide, and a deep voice solemnly enunciated the words:
"Wilhelm of Schonburg, pretended Commander of his Majesty's forces, you are summoned to appear instantly before the court of the Holy Fehm, now in session and awaiting you."