The Strong Arm by Robert Barr
Chapter VI. The Holy Fehm
When the spokesman of the Fehmgerichte had finished his ominous summons, his attendants crowded round Wilhelm swiftly and silently as if to forestall any attempt at resistance either on his part or on the part of the Emperor. They hurried their victim immediately out of the cell and instantly barred the door on the remaining prisoner. First they crossed the low-roofed, thickly-pillared great hall, passing through a doorway at which two armed men stood guard, masked, as were all the others. The Judgment Hall of the dread Fehmgerichte was a room of about ten times the extent of the cell Wilhelm had just left, but still hardly of a size that would justify the term large. The walls and vaulted roof were of rough stone, and on the side opposite the entrance had been cut deeply the large letters S. S. G. G. A few feet distant from this lettered wall stood a long table, and between the wall and the table sat seven men. The Freigraf, as Wilhelm surmised him to be, occupied in the centre of this line a chair slightly more elevated than those of the three who sat on either hand. Seven staples had been driven into the interstices of the stones above the heads of the Court and from each staple hung a lighted lantern, which with those at the belts of the guard standing round, illuminated the dismal chamber fairly well. To the left of the Court was a block draped in black and beside it stood the executioner with his arms resting on the handle of his axe. In the ceiling above his head was an iron ring and from this ring depended a rope, the noose of which dangled at the shoulder of the headsman, for it was the benevolent custom of the Court to allow its victim a choice in the manner of his death. It was also a habit of the judges of this Court to sit until the sentence they had pronounced was carried out, and thus there could be no chance of mistake or rescue. No feature of any judge was visible except the eyes through the holes pierced for the purposes of vision in the long black cloaks which completely enveloped their persons.
As Wilhelm was brought to a stand before this assemblage, the Freigraf nodded his head and the guards in silence undid the thongs which pinioned together wrists and elbows, leaving the prisoner absolutely unfettered.--This done, the guard retreated backwards to the opposite wall, and Wilhelm stood alone before the seven sinister doomsmen. He expected that his examination, if the Court indulged in any such, would be begun by the Freigraf, but this was not the case. The last man to the left in the row had a small bundle of documents on the table before him. He rose to his feet, bowed low to his brother judges, and then with less deference to the prisoner. He spoke in a voice lacking any trace of loudness, but distinctly heard in every corner of the room because of the intense stillness. There was a sweet persuasiveness in the accents he used, and his sentences resembled those of a lady anxious not to give offence to the person addressed.
"Am I right in supposing you to be Wilhelm, lately of Schonburg, but now of Frankfort?"
"You are right."
"May I ask if you are a member of the Fehmgerichte?"
"I am not. I never heard of it until this afternoon."
"Who was then your informant regarding the order?"
"I refuse to answer."
The examiner inclined his head gracefully as if, while regretting the decision of the witness, he nevertheless bowed to it.
"Do you acknowledge his lordship the Archbishop of Mayence as your over lord?"
"Have you ever been guilty of an act of rebellion or insubordination against his lordship?"
"My over-lord, the Archbishop of Mayence, has never preferred a request to me which I have refused."
"Pardon me, I fear I have not stated my proposition with sufficient clearness, and so you may have misunderstood the question. I had in my mind a specific act, and so will enter into further detail. Is it true that in the Wahlzimmer you entered the presence of your over-lord with a drawn sword in your hand, commanding a body of armed men lately outlaws of the Empire, thus intimidating your over-lord in the just exercise of his privileges and rights as an Elector?"
"My understanding of the Feudal law," said Wilhelm, "is that the commands of an over-lord are to be obeyed only in so far as they do not run counter to orders from a still higher authority."
"Your exposition of the law is admirable, and its interpretation stands exactly as you have stated it. Are we to understand then that you were obeying the orders of some person in authority who is empowered to exercise a jurisdiction over his lordship the Archbishop, similar to that which the latter in his turn claims over you?"
"That is precisely what I was about to state."
"Whose wishes were you therefore carrying out?
"Those of his Majesty the Emperor."
The examiner bowed with the utmost deference when the august name was mentioned.
"I have to thank you in the name of the Court," he went on, "for your prompt and comprehensive replies, which have thus so speedily enabled us to come to a just and honourable verdict, and it gives me pleasure to inform you that the defence you have made is one that cannot be gainsaid, and, therefore, with the exception of one slight formality, there is nothing more for us to do but to set you at liberty and ask pardon for the constraint we regret having put upon you, and further to request that you take oath that neither to wife nor child, father nor mother, sister nor brother, fire nor wind, will you reveal anything that has happened to you; that you will conceal it from all that the sun shines on and from all that the rain wets, and from every being between heaven and earth. And now before our doors are thus opened I have to beg that you will favour the Court with the privilege of examining the commission that his Majesty the Emperor has signed."
"You cannot expect me to carry my commission about on my person, more especially as I had no idea I should be called upon to undergo examination upon it."
"Such an expectation would certainly be doomed to disappointment, but you are doubtless able to tell us where the document lies, and I can assure you that, wherever it is placed, an emissary of this order will speedily fetch it, whether, it is concealed in palace or in hut. Allow me to ask you then, where this commission is?"
"I cannot tell you."
"Do you mean you cannot, or you will not?"
"Take it whichever way you please, it is a matter of indifference to me."
The examiner folded his arms under his black cloak and stood for some moments in silence, looking reproachfully at the prisoner. At last he spoke in a tone which seemed to indicate that he was pained at the young man's attitude:
"I sincerely trust I am mistaken in supposing that you refuse absolutely to assist this Court in the securing of a document which not only stands between you and your liberty, but also between you and your death."
"Oh, a truce to this childish and feigned regret," cried Wilhelm with rude impatience. "I pray you end the farce with less of verbiage and of pretended justice. You have his Majesty here a prisoner. You have, through my own folly, my neck at the mercy of your axe or your rope. There stands the executioner eager for his gruesome work. Finish that which you have already decided upon, and as sure as there is a God in heaven there will be quick retribution for the crimes committed in this loathsome dungeon."
The examiner deplored the introduction of heat into a discussion that required the most temperate judgment.
"But be assured," he said, "that the hurling of unfounded accusations against this honourable body will not in the least prejudice their members in dealing with your case."
"I know it," said Wilhelm with a sneering laugh.
"We have been informed that no such commission exists, that the document empowering you to take instant command of the Imperial troops rests in the hands of the wife of his Majesty the Emperor and is unsigned."
"If you know that, then why do you ask me so many questions about it?"
"In the sincere hope that by the production of the document itself, you may be able to repudiate so serious an accusation. You admit then that you have acted without the shelter of a commission from his Majesty?"
"I admit nothing."
The examiner looked up and down the row of silent figures as much as to say, "I have done my best; shall any further questions be put?" There being no response to this the examiner said, still without raising his voice:
"There is a witness in this case, and I ask him to stand forward."
A hooded and cloaked figure approached the table.
"Are you a member of the Fehmgerichte?"
"In good and honourable standing?"
"In good and honourable standing."
"You swear by the order to which you belong that the evidence you give shall be truth without equivocation and without mental reservation?"
"I swear it."
"Has the prisoner a commission signed by the Emperor empowering him to command the Imperial troops?"
"He has not, and never has had such a commission. A document was made out and sent three times to his Majesty for signature; to-day it was returned for the third time unsigned."
"Prisoner, do you deny that statement?"
"I neither deny nor affirm."
Wilhelm was well aware that his fate was decided upon. Even if he had appeared before a regularly constituted court of the Empire instead of at the bar of an underground secret association, the verdict must inevitably have gone against him, so long as the Emperor's signature was not appended to the document which would have legalised his position.
"It would appear then," went on the examiner, "that in the action you took against your immediate over-lord, the Archbishop of Mayence, you were unprotected by the mandate of the Emperor. Freigraf and Freischoffen have heard question and answer. With extreme reluctance I am compelled to announce to this honourable body, that nothing now remains except to pronounce the verdict."
With this the examiner sat down, and for a few moments there was silence, then the Freigraf enunciated in a low voice the single word:
And beginning at the right hand, each member of the Court pronounced the word "Condemned."
Wilhelm listened eagerly to the word, expecting each moment to hear the voice of one or other of the Archbishops, but in this he was disappointed. The low tone universally used by each speaker gave a certain monotony of sound which made it almost impossible to distinguish one voice from another. This evident desire for concealment raised a suspicion in the young man's mind that probably each member of the Court did not know who his neighbours were. When the examiner at the extreme left had uttered the word "Condemned" the Freigraf again spoke:
"Is there any reason why the sentence just pronounced be not immediately carried out?"
The examiner again rose to his feet and said quietly, but with great respect:
"My Lord, I ask that this young man be not executed immediately, but on the contrary, be taken to his cell, there to be held during the pleasure of the Court."
There seemed to be a murmured dissent to this, but a whispered explanation passed along the line and the few that had at first objected, nodded their heads in assent.
"Our rule cannot be set aside," said the Freigraf, "unless with unanimous consent. Does any member demur?"
No protests being made the Freigraf ordered Wilhelm to be taken to a cell, which was accordingly done.
The young man left alone in the darkness felt a pleasure in being able to stretch his arms once more, and he paced up and down the narrow limits of his cell, wondering what the next move would be in this mysterious drama. In the Judgment Chamber he had abandoned all hope, and had determined that when the order was given to seize him he would pluck the dagger of the order from the inside of his doublet, and springing over the table, kill one or more of these illegal judges before he was overpowered. The sudden change in tactics persuaded him that something else was required of him rather than the death which seemed so imminent. It was palpable that several members of the Court at least were unacquainted with the designs of the master mind which was paramount in his prosecution. They had evinced surprise when the examiner had demanded postponement of the execution. There was something behind all this that betrayed the crafty hand of the Archbishop of Treves. He was not long left in doubt. The door of the cell opened slowly and the pale rays of a lantern illuminated the blackness which surrounded him. The young man stopped in his walk and awaited developments. There entered to him one of the cloak-enveloped figures, who might, or might not, be a member of the Holy Court. Wilhelm thought that perhaps his visitor was the examiner, but the moment the silence was broken, in spite of the fact that the speaker endeavoured to modulate his tones as the others had done, the young man knew the incomer was not the person who had questioned him.
"We are somewhat loth," the intruder began, "to cut short the career of one so young as you are, and one who gives promise of becoming a notable captain."
"What have you seen of me," inquired Wilhelm, "that leads you to suppose I have the qualities of a capable officer in me?"
The other did not reply for a moment or two; then he said slowly:
"I do not say that I have seen anything to justify such a conclusion, but I have heard of your action in the Wahlzimmer, and by the account given, I judge you to be a young man of resource."
"I am indebted to you for the good opinion you express. It is quite in your power to set me free, and then the qualities you are kind enough to commend, may have an opportunity for development."
"Alas!" said the visitor, "it is not in my power to release you; that lies entirely with yourself."
"You bring comforting news. What is the price?"
"You are asked to become a member of the Fehmgerichte."
"I should suppose that to be easily accomplished, as I am now a partaker of its hospitality. What else?"
"The remaining proviso is that you take service, with his lordship, the Archbishop of Treves, and swear entire allegiance to him."
"I am already in the service of the Emperor."
"It has just been proven that you are not."
"How could the Archbishop expect faithful service from me, if I prove traitor to the one I deem my master?"
"The Archbishop will probably be content to take the risk of that."
"Are you commissioned to speak for the Archbishop?"
"Are you one of the Archbishop's men?"
"My disposition towards him is friendly; I cannot say that I am one of his men."
"Granting, then, that I took service with the Archbishop to save my life, what would he expect me to do?"
"To obey him in all things."
"Ah, be more explicit, as the examiner said. I am not a man to enter into a bargain blindly. I must know exactly what is required of me."
"It is probable that your first order would be to march your army from Frankfort to Treves. Would the men follow you, do you think?"
"Undoubtedly. The men will follow wherever I choose to lead them. Another question. What becomes of the Emperor in case I make this bargain?"
"That question it is impossible at the present moment, to answer. The Court of the Holy Fehm is now awaiting my return, and when I take my place on the bench the Emperor will be called upon to answer for his neglect of duty."
"Nevertheless you may hazard a guess regarding his fate."
"I hazard this guess then, that his fate will depend largely upon himself, just as your fate depends upon yourself."
"I must see clearly where I am going, therefore I request you to be more explicit. What will the Court demand of the Emperor that he may save his life?"
"You are questioning me touching the action of others; therefore, all I can do is merely to surmise. My supposition is that if the Emperor promises to abdicate he will be permitted to pass unscathed from the halls of the Fehmgerichte."
"And should he refuse?"
"Sir, I am already at the end of my patience through your numerous questions," and as the voice rose in something approaching anger, Wilhelm seemed to recognise its ring. "I came here, not to answer your questions, but to have you answer mine. What is your decision?"
"My decision is that you are a confessed traitor; die the death of such!"
Wilhelm sprang forward and buried the dagger of the Fehmgerichte into the heart of the man before him. His action was so unexpected that the victim could make no motion to defend himself. So truly was the fierce blow dealt that the doomed man, without a cry or even a groan, sank in his death collapse at the young man's feet in a heap on the floor.
Wilhelm, who thought little of taking any man's life in a fair fight, shuddered as he gazed at the helpless bundle at his feet; a moment before, this uncouth heap stood erect, a man like himself, conversing with him, then the swift blow and the resulting huddle of clay.
"Oh, God above me, Over-lord of all, I struck for my King, yet I feel myself an assassin. If I am, indeed, a murderer in Thy sight, wither me where I stand, and crush me to the ground, companion to this dead body."
For a few moments Wilhelm stood rigid, his face uplifted, listening to the pulsations in his own throat and the strident beatings of his own heart. No bolt from heaven came to answer his supplication. Stooping, he, with some difficulty, drew the poniard from its resting-place. The malignant ingenuity of its construction had caused its needle point to penetrate the chain armour, while its keen double edge cut link after link of the hard steel as it sunk into the victim's breast. The severed ends of the links now clutched the blade as if to prevent its removal. Not a drop of blood followed its exit, although it had passed directly through the citadel of life itself. Again concealing the weapon within his doublet, a sudden realisation of the necessity for speed overcame the assaulter. He saw before him a means of escape. He had but to don the all-concealing cloak and walk out of this subterranean charnel house by the way he had entered it, if he could but find the foot of the stairs, down which they had carried him. Straightening out the body he pulled the cloak free from it, thus exposing the face to the yellow light of the lantern. His heart stood still as he saw that the man he had killed was no other than that exalted Prince of the Church, the venerable Archbishop of Treves. He drew the body to the pallet of straw in the corner of the cell, and there, lying on its face, he left it. A moment later he was costumed as a high priest of the order of the Fehmgerichte. Taking the lantern in his hand he paused before the closed door. He could not remember whether or not he had heard the bolts shot after the Archbishop had entered. Conning rapidly in his mind the startling change in the situation, he stood there until he had recovered command of himself, resolved that if possible no mistake on his part should now mar his chances of escape, and in this there was no thought of saving his own life, but merely a determination to get once more into the streets of Frankfort, rally his men, penetrate into these subterranean regions, and rescue the Emperor alive. He pushed with all his might against the door, and to his great relief the heavy barrier swung slowly round on its hinges. Once outside he pushed it shut again, and was startled by two guards springing to his assistance, one of them saying:
"Shall we thrust in the bolts, my Lord?"
"Yes," answered Wilhelm in the low tone which all, costumed as he was, had used. He turned away but was dismayed to find before him two brethren of the order arrayed in like manner to himself, who had evidently been waiting for him.
"What is the result of the conference? Does he consent?"
Rapidly Wilhelm had to readjust events in his own mind to meet this unexpected emergency.
"No," he replied slowly, "he does not consent, at least, not just at the moment. He has some scruples regarding his loyalty to the Emperor."
"Those scruples will be speedily removed then, when we remove his Majesty. The other members of the Court are but now awaiting us in the Judgment Chamber. Let us hasten there, and make a quick disposal of the Emperor."
Wilhelm saw that there was no possibility of retreat. Any attempt at flight would cause instant alarm and the closing of the exits, then both the Emperor and himself would be caught like rats in a trap, yet there was almost equal danger in entering the Council Chamber. He had not the remotest idea which seat at the table he should occupy, and he knew that a mistake in placing himself would probably lead to discovery. He lagged behind, but the others persistently gave him precedence, which seemed to indicate that they knew the real quality of the man they supposed him to be. He surmised that his seat was probably that of the Freigraf in the centre, but on crossing the threshold past the saluting guards, he saw that the Freigraf occupied the elevated seat, having at his left three Freischoffen, while the remaining seats at his right were unoccupied. It was a space of extreme anxiety when his two companions stopped to allow him to go first. He dared not take the risk of placing himself wrongly at the board. There was scant time for consideration, and Wilhelm speedily came to a decision. It was merely one risk to take where several were presented, and he chose that which seemed to be the safest. Leaning towards his companions he said quietly:
"I beg of you, be seated. I have a few words to address to the Holy Court."
The two inclined their heads in return, and one of them in passing him murmured the scriptural words, "The first shall be last," which remark still further assisted in reversing Wilhelm's former opinion and convinced him that the identity of the Archbishop was known to them. When they were seated, the chair at the extreme right was the only one vacant, and Wilhelm breathed easier, having nothing further to fear from that source, if he could but come forth scatheless from his speech.
"I have to acquaint the Court of the Holy Fehm," he said, speaking audibly, but no more, "that my mission to the cell of the prisoner who has just left us, resulted partly in failure and partly in success. The young man has some hesitation in placing himself in open opposition to the Emperor. I therefore suggest that we go on with our deliberations, leaving the final decision of his case until a later period."
To this the Court unanimously murmured the word: "Agreed," and Wilhelm took his place at the table.
"Bring in prisoner No. 13," said the Freigraf, and a few moments later the Emperor of Germany stood before the table.
He regarded the dread tribunal with a glance of haughty scorn while countenance and demeanour exhibited a dignity which Wilhelm had fancied was lacking during their interview in the cell.
The examiner rose to his feet and in the same suave tones he had used in questioning Wilhelm, propounded the usual formal interrogatory regarding name and quality. When he was asked:
"Are you a member of the Holy Order of the Fehmgerichte?" the Emperor's reply seemed to cause some consternation among the judges.
"I am not only a member of the Fehmgerichte, but by its constitution, I am the head of it, and I warn you that any action taken by this Court without my sanction, is, by the statutes of the order, illegal."
The examiner paused in his questioning apparently taken aback by this assertion, and looked towards the Freigraf as if awaiting a decision before proceeding further.
"We acknowledge freely," said the Freigraf, "that you are the figure- head of the order, and that in all matters pertaining to a change of constitution your consent would probably be necessary, but stretching your authority to its utmost limit, it does not reach to the Courts of the Holy Fehm, which have before now sat in judgment on the highest in the land. For more than a century the position of the Emperor as head of the Fehmgerichte has been purely nominal, and I know of no precedent where the ruler of the land has interfered with the proceedings of the secret Court. We avow allegiance to the actual head of the order, who is the Duke of Westphalia."
"Is the Duke of Westphalia here present?"
"That is a question improper for you to ask."
"If the Duke of Westphalia is one of the members of this Court, I command him by the oath which he took at his installation, to descend from his place and render his seat to me, the head of this order."
"The nominal head," corrected the Freigraf.
"The actual head," persisted the prisoner. "The position remained nominal only because the various occupants did not choose to exercise the authority vested in them. It is my pleasure to resume the function which has too long remained in abeyance, thus allowing inferior officers to pretend to a power which is practical usurpation, and which, according to the constitution of our order, is not to be tolerated. Disobey at your peril. I ask the Archbishop of Cologne, Duke of Westphalia, as the one, high vassal of the Empire, as the other, my subordinate in the Fehmgerichte, to stand forth and salute his chief."
Wilhelm's heart beat rapidly underneath his black cloak as he saw this spectacle of helpless prisoner defying a power, which, in its sphere of action, was almost omnipotent. It was manifest that the Emperor's trenchant sentences had disturbed more than one member of the convention, and even the Freigraf glanced in perplexity towards the supposed Archbishop of Treves as if for a hint anent the answer that should be given. As if in response to the silent appeal, Wilhelm rose slowly to his feet, while the examiner seated himself.
"It is my privilege," he began, "on behalf of my fellow members, to inform the prisoner that the Court of the Holy Fehm has ever based its action on the broad principles of eternal justice."
A sarcastic smile wreathed the lips of the Emperor at this. Wilhelm went on unheeding.
"A point of law has been raised by the prisoner, which, I think, at least merits our earnest consideration, having regard for the future welfare of this organisation, and being anxious not to allow any precedent to creep in, which may work to the disadvantage of those who follow us. In order that our deliberations may have that calm impartiality which has ever distinguished them, I ask unanimous consent to my suggestion that the prisoner be taken back to his cell until we come to a decision regarding the matter in dispute."
This proposition being agreed to without a dissenting voice, the prisoner was removed from the room and the eyes of all the judges were turned towards Wilhelm. The Freigraf was the first to break the silence.
"Although I have agreed to the removal of the prisoner," he said, "yet I see not the use of wasting so many words on him. While there is undoubted wisdom in winning to our side the man who controls the army, there seems to me little to gain in prolonging discussion with the Emperor, who is a nonentity at best, and has no following. The path to the throne must be cleared, and there is but one way of doing it."
"Two, I think," murmured Wilhelm.
"What other than by this prisoner's death?"
"His abdication would suffice."
"But, as you know, he has already refused to abdicate."
"Ah, that was before he saw the executioner standing here. I think he is now in a condition to reconsider his determination. Thus we will avoid discussion of the knotty points which he raised, and which I, for one, would prefer to see remain where they are. The moment he consents to abdicate, the commander of the forces is willing to swear allegiance to us. It must not be forgotten that even if we execute these two men we have still the troops who hold the city of Frankfort to reckon with, and although their leader may have disappeared, the young man has some sturdy lieutenants who will give us trouble."
"What do you propose?" asked the Freigraf.
"If the colleague at my left will accompany me, we will visit the prisoner and may have some proposals to submit to you on our return."
This being acceded to, the two left the Judgment Chamber and proceeded slowly to the cell of No. 13. On the way thither Wilhelm said to his companion:
"As the prisoner may be on his guard if we enter together, I prefer to sound him first alone, and at the proper moment, if you stay outside the door of the cell, I shall summon you to enter."
This meeting the sanction of Wilhelm's companion, the young man entered the cell alone, carefully closing the door behind him.
"Your Majesty," he whispered, "the situation is extremely critical, and I entreat you to maintain silence while I make explanation to you. I am Wilhelm, the loyal commander of the Imperial forces, your Majesty's most devoted servant."
"Are you then," said the amazed monarch, "also a member of the Fehmgerichte? I thought you came here as a prisoner, and, like myself, a victim."
Wilhelm drew off over his head the cloak which enveloped him, leaving his limbs free, standing thus in his own proper person before the Emperor.
"I was, indeed, a prisoner, and was visited in my cell by the Archbishop of Treves. It was in his robe that I emerged from my cell undetected, hoping to escape and bring rescue to your Majesty, but other brethren were awaiting me outside, and I found myself compelled to sit in the Court before which you made such an able defence."
"It was you, then, who proposed that I should be taken back to my cell?"
"Yes, your Majesty. And now a colleague remains outside this door, who waits, expecting a summons to enter, but first I came to give warning to your Majesty that you may make no outcry, if you should see what appears to be two brothers of the order struggling together."
"I shall keep strict silence. Is the Archbishop of Treves then a prisoner in your cell?"
"He is, I assure you, a fast prisoner."
"You propose that I should don the cloak of the incomer, and that thus we make our escape together. We must be in haste, then, for if the Archbishop releases himself from his bonds, he may produce such an uproar in his cell that suspicion will be aroused."
"The bonds in which I left the Archbishop of Treves will hold him firm until we are outside this nest of vipers. And now, your Majesty, I beg you to put on this cloak which I have been wearing, which will leave me free speedily to overpower our visitor."
The Emperor arrayed himself and stood, as he was fully entitled to do, a fully costumed member of the Fehmgerichte. Wilhelm opened the door and said softly:
"Enter, brother, that I may learn if the arrangements just made are confirmed by your wisdom."
The light within had been placed at the further end of the cell, and the visitor's own lantern gave but scant illumination. The moment the door was firmly closed Wilhelm sprang upon him and bore him to the ground. If the assaulted man attempted to make any sound, it was muffled by the folds of his own cloak. A moment later, however, Wilhelm got a firm grip on his bare throat, and holding him thus, pulled away his disguise from him, revealing the pallid face of the Archbishop of Mayence. The young man plucked the dagger from the inside of his doublet and placed it at the breast of the prostrate man.
"If you make the slightest sound," he whispered, "I shall bury this dagger in your heart. It is the weapon of the Fehmgerichte and you know it will penetrate chain armour."
It was evident that the stricken Archbishop was much too frightened to do anything to help himself, and Wilhelm unbuckling his own empty sword-belt, proceeded to tie his trembling limbs. The Emperor whispered:
"The cords which bound me are still here, as well as the gag which silenced me."
Wilhelm put those instruments of tyranny to immediate use, and shortly the Archbishop was a helpless silent heap in the further corner of the room. Wilhelm and the Emperor each with a lantern, and each indistinguishable from other members of the secret organisation, pushed open the door and emerged from the cell. Closing the door again, Wilhelm said to the guard:
"Bolt this portal firmly and allow no one to enter who does not give you this password."
The young man stooped and whispered into the ear of the guard the word "Elsa." The two fugitives then walked slowly along the great hall, the young man peering anxiously to his right for any sign of the stairway by which he had descended. They passed numerous doors, all closed, and at last Wilhelm began to wonder if one of these covered the exit which he sought. Finally they came to the end of the large hall without seeing trace of any outlet, and Wilhelm became conscious of the fact that getting free from this labyrinth was like to prove more difficult than the entering had been. Standing puzzled, not knowing where next to turn, aware that precious time was being wasted fruitlessly, Wilhelm saw a man masked and accoutred as a guard approach them.
"Is there anything in which I can pleasure your Lordships?" he asked deferentially.
"Yes," said Wilhelm, "we desire to have a breath of fresh air; where is the exit?"
"If your Lordship has the password, you may go out by the entrance in the city. If you have not the word, then must you use the exit without the wall, which is a long walk from here."
"That does not matter," replied Wilhelm, "it is the country air we wish to breathe."
"I cannot leave my post, but I shall get one who will guide you."
So saying, the man left them for several anxious minutes, going into a room that apparently was used as guard-house, and reappearing with a man who rubbed his eyes sleepily, as if newly awakened. Then the first guard drew bolts from a stout door and pulled it open, revealing a dark chasm like the entrance to a cell. Both Wilhelm and the Emperor viewed this black enigma with deep suspicion, but their guide with his lantern plunged into it and they followed, after which the door was closed and barred behind them.
It was, indeed, as the first man had said, a long walk, as Wilhelm knew it must be if it extended under the western gate and out into the country. The passage was so narrow that two could not walk abreast, and frequently the arched ceiling was so low that the guide ahead warned them to stoop as they came on. At last he reached the foot of a stairway, and was about to mount when Wilhelm said to him:
"Stand here till we return. Allow no one to pass who does not give you this word," and again he whispered the word "Elsa" in the man's ear.
To the dismay of Wilhelm, the Emperor addressed the guard:
"Are there many prisoners within?"
"There are two only," replied the man, "numbers 13 and 14. I helped to carry No. 14 down the stair, and am glad his sword broke beneath him as he fell, for, indeed, we had trouble enough with him as it was."
Here Wilhelm took the liberty of touching the Emperor on the arm as if to warn him that such discourse was untimely and dangerous. With beating heart the young man led the way up the stairs, and at the top of the second flight, came into what seemed to be the vestibule of a house, in which, on benches round the wall, there sat four men seemingly on guard, who immediately sprang to their feet when they saw the ghostly apparitions before them.
"Unbar the door," said Wilhelm, quietly, in the tone of one whose authority is not to be disputed. "Close it after us and allow none to enter or emerge who does not give you the word 'Elsa.'"
This command was so promptly obeyed that Wilhelm could scarcely believe they had won so easily to the outer air. The house stood alone on the bank of the river at the end of a long garden which extended to the road. Facing the thoroughfare and partly concealing the house from any chance straggler was a low building which Wilhelm remembered was used as a wayside drinking-place, in which wine, mostly of a poor quality, was served to thirsty travellers. The gate to the street appeared deserted, but as the two approached by the walk leading from the house, a guard stood out from the shadow of the wall, scrutinised for a moment their appearance, then saluting, held the gate open for them.
Once on the road, the two turned towards the city, whose black wall barred their way some distance ahead, and whose towers and spires stood out dimly against the starlit sky. A great silence, broken only by the soothing murmur of the river, lay on the landscape. Wilhelm cast a glance aloft at the star-sprinkled dome of heaven, and said:
"I judge it to be about an hour after midnight."
"It may be so," answered the Emperor, "I have lost all count of time.
"Has your Majesty been long in prison?"
"That I do not know. I may have lain there two days or a dozen. I had no means of measuring the length of my imprisonment."
"May I ask your Majesty in what manner you were lured into the halls of the Fehmgerichte?"
"It was no lure. While I lay asleep at night in the cloisters by the Cathedral I was bound and gagged, carried through the dark streets helpless on a litter and finally flung into the cell in which you found me."
"May I further inquire what your Majesty's intentions are regarding the fulfilment of the duties imposed upon you by your high office?"
There was a long pause before the Emperor replied, then he said:
"Why do you ask?"
"Because, your Majesty, I have on several occasions imperilled my life for an Emperor who does not rule, who has refused even to sign my commission as officer of his troops."
"Your commission was never sent to me."
"I beg your Majesty's pardon, but it was sent three times to you in the cloisters of the Cathedral, and returned three times unsigned."
"Then it is as I suspected," returned the Emperor, "the monks must have connived at my capture. I have pleasure in confirming your appointment. I am sure that the command could not be in more capable hands. And in further reply to your question, if God permits me to see the light of day, I shall be an emperor who rules."
"It delights my heart to hear you say so. And now I ask, as a favour, that you allow me to deal untrammelled with the Fehmgerichte."
"I grant that most willingly."
By this time they were almost under the shadow of the great wall of the city, and Wilhelm, stopping, said to the Emperor:
"I think it well that we now divest ourselves of these disguises."
They had scarcely thrown their cloaks behind the bushes at the side of the road when they were accosted by the guard at the top of the wall.
"Halt! Who approaches the gate?"
Wilhelm strode forward.
"Is Gottlieb at the guard-house or at the barracks?" he asked.
"He is at the guard-house," replied the sentinel, recognising the questioner.
"Then arouse him immediately, and open the gates."
"Gottlieb," said Wilhelm, when once within the walls, "take a score of men with you and surround the first house on the margin of the river up this street. I shall accompany you so that there may be no mistake. Send another score under a trusty leader to the house which stands alone outside of the gates also on the margin of the stream. Give orders that the men are to seize any person who attempts to enter or to come out; kill if necessary, but let none escape you. Let a dozen men escort me to the Palace."
Having seen the Emperor safely housed in the Palace, Wilhelm returned quickly to the place where Gottlieb and his score held guard over the town entrance of the cellars he had quitted.
"Gottlieb, are you fully awake?" asked Wilhelm.
"Oh, yes, master; awake and ready for any emergency."
"Then send for some of your most stalwart sappers with tools to break through a stone wall, and tell them to bring a piece of timber to batter in this door."
When the men arrived three blows from the oaken log sent the door shattering from its hinges. Wilhelm sprang at once over the prostrate portal, but not in time to prevent the flight of the guard down the stairway. Calling the sappers to the first landing, and pointing to the stone wall on the right:
"Break through that for me," he cried.
"Master," expostulated Gottlieb, "if you break through that wall I warn you that the river will flow in."
"Such is my intention, Gottlieb, and a gold piece to each man who works as he has never wrought before."
For a few moments there was nothing heard but the steady ring of iron on stone as one by one the squares were extracted, the water beginning to ooze in as the energetic sappers reached the outer course. At last the remaining stones gave way, carried in with a rush by the torrent.
"Save yourselves!" cried Wilhelm, standing knee deep in the flood and not stepping out until each man had passed him. There was a straining crash of rending timber, and Gottlieb, dashing down, seized his master by the arm, crying:
"My Lord, my Lord, the house is about to fall!"
With slight loss of time commander and lieutenant stood together in the street and found that the latter's panic was unwarranted, for the house, although it trembled dangerously and leaned perceptibly toward the river, was stoutly built of hewn stone. Grey daylight now began to spread over the city, but still Wilhelm stood there listening to the inrush of the water.
"By the great wine tub of Hundsrueck!" exclaimed Gottlieb in amazement, "that cellar is a large one. It seems to thirst for the whole flood of the Main."
"Send a messenger," cried Wilhelm, "to the house you are guarding outside the gates and discover for me whether your men have captured any prisoners."
It was broad daylight when the messenger returned, and the torrent down the stair had become a rippling surface of water at the level of the river, showing that all the cavern beneath was flooded.
"Well, messenger, what is your report?" demanded his commander.
"My Lord, the officer in charge says that a short time ago the door of the house was blown open as if by a strong wind; four men rushed out and another was captured in the garden; all were pinioned and gagged, as you commanded."
"Are the prisoners men of quality or common soldiers?"
"Common soldiers, my Lord."
"Very well; let them be taken to the prison. I will visit them later in the day."
As Wilhelm, thoroughly fatigued after a night so exciting, walked the streets of Frankfort toward his home the bells of the city suddenly began to ring a merry peal, and, as if Frankfort had become awakened by the musical clangor, windows were raised and doors opened, while citizens inquired of each other the meaning of the clangor, a question which no one seemed prepared to answer.
Reaching his own house, Wilhelm found Elsa awaiting him with less of anxiety on her face than he had expected.
"Oh, Wilhelm!" she cried, "what a fright you gave me, and not until I knew where you were, did any peace come to my heart."
"You knew where I was?" said Wilhelm in amazement. "Where was I, then?"
"You were with the Emperor, of course. That is why the bells are ringing; the Emperor has returned, as you know, and is resolved to take his proper place at the head of the state, much to the delight of the Empress, I can assure you. But what an anxious time we spent until shortly after midnight, when the Emperor arrived and told us you had been with him."
"How came you to be at the Palace?"
"It happened in this way. You had hardly left the court last night when his lordship the Archbishop of Cologne came and seemed anxious about the welfare of the Emperor."
"The Archbishop of Cologne! Is he still there or did he go elsewhere?"
"He is still there, and was there when the Emperor came in. Why do you ask so eagerly? Is there anything wrong?"
"Not so far as the Archbishop is concerned, apparently. He has kept his word and so there is one less high office vacant. Well, what did the Archbishop say?"
"He wished to see you, and so the Empress sent for you, but search as we would, you were nowhere to be found. On hearing this I became alarmed and went at once to the Palace. The Archbishop seemed in deep trouble, but he refused to tell the Empress the cause of it, and so increased our anxiety. However, all was right when the Emperor came, and now they are ringing the bells, for he is to appear before the people on the balcony of the Romer, as if he were newly crowned. We must make haste if we are to see him."
Wilhelm escorted his wife to the square before the Romer, but so dense was the cheering crowd that it was impossible for him to force a way through. They were in time to see the Emperor appear on the balcony, and Wilhelm, raising his sword aloft, shouted louder than any in that throng, Elsa herself waving a scarf above her head in the enthusiasm of the moment.