An Invitation by Robert Barr
The proud and warlike Archbishop Baldwin of Treves was well mounted, and, although the road by the margin of the river was in places bad, the august horseman nevertheless made good progress along it, for he had a long distance to travel before the sun went down. The way had been rudely constructed by that great maker of roads--the army--and the troops who had built it did not know, when they laboured at it, that they were preparing a path for their own retreat should disaster overtake them. The grim and silent horseman had been the brains, where the troops were the limbs; this thoroughfare had been of his planning, and over it, back into Treves, had returned a victorious, not a defeated, army. The iron hand of the Archbishop had come down on every truculent noble in the land, and every castle gate that had not opened to him through fear, had been battered in by force. Peace now spread her white wings over all the country, and where opposition to his Lordship's stubborn will had been the strongest, there was silence as well, with, perhaps, a thin wreath of blue smoke hovering over the blackened walls. The provinces on each bank of the Moselle from Treves to the Rhine now acknowledged Baldwin their over-lord--a suzerainty technically claimed by his Lordship's predecessors--but the iron Archbishop had changed the nominal into the actual, and it had taken some hard knocks to do it. His present journey was well earned, for he was betaking himself from his more formal and exacting Court at Treves to his summer palace at Cochem, there to rest from the fatigues of a campaign in which he had used not only his brain, but his good right arm as well.
The palace which was to be the end of his journey was in some respects admirably suited to its master, for, standing on an eminence high above Cochem, with its score of pinnacles glittering in the sun, it seemed, to one below, a light and airy structure; but it was in reality a fortress almost impregnable, and three hundred years later it sent into a less turbulent sphere the souls of one thousand six hundred Frenchmen before its flag was lowered to the enemy.
The personal appearance of the Archbishop and the smallness of his escort were practical illustrations of the fact that the land was at peace, and that he was master of it. His attire was neither clerical nor warlike, but rather that of a nobleman riding abroad where no enemy could possibly lurk. He was to all appearance unarmed, and had no protection save a light chain mail jacket of bright steel, which was worn over his vesture, and not concealed as was the custom. This jacket sparkled in the sun as if it were woven of fine threads strung with small and innumerable diamonds. It might ward off a dagger thrust, or turn aside a half-spent arrow, but it was too light to be of much service against sword or pike. The Archbishop was well mounted on a powerful black charger that had carried him through many a hot contest, and it now made little of the difficulties of the ill-constructed road, putting the other horses on their mettle to equal the pace set to them.
The escort consisted of twelve men, all lightly armed, for Gottlieb, the monk, who rode sometimes by the Archbishop's side, but more often behind him, could hardly be counted as a combatant should defence become necessary. When the Archbishop left Treves his oldest general had advised his taking an escort of a thousand men at least, putting it on the ground that such a number was necessary to uphold the dignity of his office; but Baldwin smiled darkly, and said that where he rode the dignity of the Electorship would be safe, even though none rode beside or behind him. Few dared offer advice to the Elector, but the bluff general persisted, and spoke of danger in riding down the Moselle valley with so small a following.
"Who is there left to molest me?" asked the Archbishop; and the general was forced to admit that there was none.
An army builds a road along the line of the least resistance; and often, when a promontory thrust its rocky nose into the river, the way led up the hill through the forest, getting back into the valley again as best it could. During these inland excursions, the monk, evidently unused to equestrianism, fell behind, and sometimes the whole troop was halted by command of its chief, until Gottlieb, clinging to his horse's mane, emerged from the thicket, the Archbishop curbing the impatience of his charger and watching, with a cynical smile curling his stern lips, the reappearance of the good father.
After one of the most laborious ascents and descents they had encountered that day, the Archbishop waited for the monk; and when he came up with his leader, panting and somewhat dishevelled, the latter said, "There appears to be a lesson in your tribulations which hereafter you may retail with profit to your flock, relating how a good man leaving the right and beaten path and following his own devices in the wilderness may bring discomfiture upon himself."
"The lesson it conveys to me, my Lord," said the monk, drily, "is that a man is but a fool to leave the stability of good stout sandals with which he is accustomed, to venture his body on a horse that pays little heed to his wishes."
"This is our last detour," replied the Elector; "there are now many miles of winding but level road before us, and you have thus a chance to retrieve your reputation as a horseman in the eyes of our troop."
"In truth, my Lord, I never boasted of it," returned the monk, "but I am right glad to learn that the way will be less mountainous. To what district have we penetrated?"
"Above us, but unseen from this bank of the river, is the castle of the Widow Starkenburg. Her days of widowhood, however, are nearly passed, for I intend to marry her to one of my victorious knights, who will hold the castle for me."
"The Countess of Starkenburg," said the monk, must surely now be at an age when the thoughts turn toward Heaven rather than toward matrimony."
"I have yet to meet the woman," replied the Archbishop, gazing upward, "who pleads old age as an excuse for turning away from a suitable lover. It is thy misfortune, Gottlieb, that in choosing a woollen cowl rather than an iron head-piece, thou should'st thus have lost a chance of advancement. The castle, I am told, has well-filled wine vaults, and old age in wine is doubtless more to thy taste than the same quality in woman. 'Tis a pity thou art not a knight, Gottlieb."
"The fault is not beyond the power of our Holy Father to remedy by special dispensation," replied the monk, with a chuckle.
The Elector laughed silently, and looked down on his comrade in kindly fashion, shaking his head.
"The wines of Castle Starkenburg are not for thy appreciative palate, ghostly father. I have already selected a mate for the widow."
"And what if thy selection jumps not with her approval. They tell me the countess has a will of her own."
"It matters little to me, and I give her the choice merely because I am loth to war with a woman. The castle commands the river and holds the district. The widow may give it up peaceably at the altar, or forcibly at the point of the sword, whichever method most commends itself to her ladyship. The castle must be in the command of one whom I can trust."
The conversation here met a startling interruption. The Archbishop and his guard were trotting rapidly round a promontory and following a bend of the river, the nature of the country being such that it was impossible to see many hundred feet ahead of them. Suddenly, they came upon a troop of armed and mounted men, standing like statues before them. The troop numbered an even score, and completely filled the way between the precipice on their left and the stream on their right. Although armed, every sword was in its scabbard, with the exception of the long two-handed weapon of the leader, who stood a few paces in advance of his men, with the point of his sword resting on the ground. The black horse, old in campaigns, recognised danger ahead, and stopped instantly, without waiting for the drawing of the rein, planting his two forefeet firmly in front, with a suddenness of action that would have unhorsed a less alert rider. Before the archbishop could question the silent host that barred his way, their leader raised his long sword until it was poised perpendicularly in the air above his head, and, with a loud voice, in measured tones, as one repeats a lesson he has learned by rote, he cried, "My Lord Archbishop of Treves, the Countess Laurette von Starkenburg invites you to sup with her."
In the silence that followed, the leader's sword still remained uplifted untrembling in the air. Across the narrow gorge, from the wooded sides of the opposite mountains, came, with mocking cadence, the echo of the last words of the invitation, clear and distinct, as if spoken again by some one concealed in the further forest. A deep frown darkened the brow of the fighting archbishop.
"The Countess is most kind," he said, slowly. "Convey to her my respectful admiration, and express my deep regret that I am unable to accept her hospitality, as I ride to-night to my Castle at Cochem."
The leader of the opposing host suddenly lowered his upraised sword, as if in salute, but the motion seemed to be a preconcerted signal, for every man behind him instantly whipped blade from scabbard, and stood there with naked weapon displayed. The leader, raising his sword once more to its former position, repeated in the same loud and monotonous voice, as if the archbishop had not spoken. "My Lord Archbishop of Treves, the Countess Laurette von Starkenburg invites you to sup with her."
The intelligent war-horse, who had regarded the obstructing force with head held high, retreated slowly step by step, until now a considerable distance separated the two companies. The captain of the guard had seen from the first that attack or defence was equally useless, and, with his men, had also given way gradually as the strange colloquy went on. Whether any of the opposing force noticed this or not, they made no attempt to recover the ground thus almost imperceptibly stolen from them, but stood as if each horse were rooted to the spot.
Baldwin the Fighter, whose compressed lips showed how loth he was to turn his back upon any foe, nevertheless saw the futility of resistance, and in a quick, clear whisper, he said, hastily, "Back! Back! If we cannot fight them, we can at least out-race them."
The good monk had taken advantage of his privilege as a non-combatant to retreat well to the rear while the invitation was being given and declined, and in the succeeding flight found himself leading the van. The captain of the guard threw himself between the Starkenburg men and the prince of the Church, but the former made no effort at pursuit, standing motionless as they had done from the first until the rounding promontory hid them from view. Suddenly, the horse on which the monk rode stood stock still, and its worthy rider, with a cry of alarm, clinging to the animal's mane, shot over its head and came heavily to the ground. The whole flying troop came to a sudden halt, for there ahead of them was a band exactly similar in numbers and appearance to that from which they were galloping. It seemed as if the same company had been transported by magic over the promontory and placed across the way. The sun shone on the uplifted blade of the leader, reminding the archbishop of the flaming sword that barred the entrance of our first parents to Paradise.
The leader, with ringing voice, that had a touch of menace in it, cried:
"My Lord Archbishop of Treves, the Countess Laurette von Starkenburg invites you to sup with her."
"Trapped, by God!" muttered the Elector between his clinched teeth. His eyes sparkled with anger, and the sinister light that shot from them had before now made the Emperor quail. He spurred his horse toward the leader, who lowered his sword and bowed to the great dignitary approaching him.
"The Countess of Starkenburg is my vassal," cried the Archbishop. "You are her servant; and in much greater degree, therefore, are you mine. I command you to let us pass unmolested on our way; refuse at your peril."
"A servant," said the man, slowly, "obeys the one directly above him, and leaves that one to account to any superior authority. My men obey me; I take my orders from my lady the countess. If you, my Lord, wish to direct the authority which commands me, my lady the countess awaits your pleasure at her castle of Starkenburg."
"What are your orders, fellow?" asked the Archbishop, in a calmer tone.
"To convey your Lordship without scathe to the gates of Starkenburg."
"And if you meet resistance, what then?"
"The orders stand, my Lord."
"You will, I trust, allow this mendicant monk to pass peaceably on his way to Treves."
"In no castle on the Moselle does even the humblest servant of the Church receive a warmer welcome than at Starkenburg. My lady would hold me to blame were she prevented from offering her hospitality to the mendicant."
"Does the same generous impulse extend to each of my followers?"
"It includes them all, my Lord."
"Very well. We will do ourselves the honour of waiting upon this most bountiful hostess."
By this time the troop which had first stopped the Archbishop's progress came slowly up, and the little body-guard of the Elector found themselves hemmed in with twenty men in the front and twenty at the rear, while the rocky precipice rose on one hand and the rapid river flowed on the other.
The cortege reformed and trotted gently down the road until it came to a by-way leading up the hill. Into this by-way the leaders turned, reducing their trot to a walk because of the steepness of the ascent. The Archbishop and his men followed, with the second troop of Starkenburg bringing up the rear. His Lordship rode at first in sullen silence, then with a quick glance of his eye he summoned the captain to his side. He slipped the ring of office from his finger and passed it unperceived into the officer's hand.
"There will be some confusion at the gate," he said, in a low voice. "Escape then if you can. Ride for Treves as you never rode before. Stop not to fight with any; everything depends on outstripping pursuit. Take what horses you need wherever you find them, and kill them all if necessary, but stop for nothing. This ring will be warrant for whatever you do. Tell my general to invest this castle instantly with ten thousand men and press forward the siege regardless of my fate. Tell him to leave not one stone standing upon another, and to hang the widow of Starkenburg from her own blazing timbers. Succeed, and a knighthood and the command of a thousand men awaits you."
"I will succeed or die, my Lord."
"Succeed and live," said the Archbishop, shortly.
As the horses slowly laboured up the zigzagging road, the view along the silvery Moselle widened and extended, and at last the strong grey walls of the castle came into sight, with the ample gates wide open. The horsemen in front drew up in two lines on each side of the gates without entering, and thus the Archbishop, at the head of his little band, slowly rode first under the archway into the courtyard of the castle.
On the stone steps that led to the principal entrance of the castle stood a tall, graceful lady, with her women behind her. She was robed in black, and the headdress of her snow-white hair gave her the appearance of a dignified abbess at her convent door. Her serene and placid face had undoubtedly once been beautiful; and age, which had left her form as straight and slender as one of her own forest pines, forgetting to place its customary burden upon her graceful shoulders, had touched her countenance with a loving hand. With all her womanliness, there was, nevertheless, a certain firmness in the finely- moulded chin that gave evidence of a line of ancestry that had never been too deferential to those in authority.
The stern Archbishop reined in his black charger when he reached the middle of the courtyard, but made no motion to dismount. The lady came slowly down the broad stone steps, followed by her feminine train, and, approaching the Elector, placed her white hand upon his stirrup, in mute acknowledgment of her vassalage.
"Welcome, prince of the Church and protector of our Faith," she said. "It is a hundred years since my poor house has sheltered so august a guest."
The tones were smooth and soothing as the scarcely audible plash of a distant fountain; but the incident she cited struck ominously on the Archbishop's recollection, rousing memory and causing him to dart a quick glance at the countess, in which was blended sharp enquiry and awakened foreboding; but the lady, unconscious of his scrutiny, stood with drooping head and downcast eyes, her shapely hand still on his stirrup-iron.
"If I remember rightly, madame, my august predecessor slept well beneath this roof."
"Alas, yes!" murmured the lady, sadly. "We have ever accounted it the greatest misfortune of our line, that he should have died mysteriously here. Peace be to his soul!"
"Not so mysteriously, madame, but that there were some shrewd guesses concerning his malady."
"That is true, my Lord," replied the countess, simply. "It was supposed that in his camp upon the lowlands by the river he contracted a fever from which he died."
"My journey by the Moselle has been of the briefest. I trust, therefore, I have not within me the seeds of his fatal distemper."
"I most devoutly echo that trust, my Lord, and pray that God, who watches over us all, may guard your health while sojourning here."
"Forgive me, madame, if, within the shadow of these walls, I say 'Amen' to your prayer with some emphasis."
The Countess Laurette contented herself with bowing low and humbly crossing herself, making no verbal reply to his Lordship's remark. She then beseeched the Archbishop to dismount, saying something of his need of rest and refreshment, begging him to allow her to be his guide to the Rittersaal.
When the Archbishop reached the topmost step that led to the castle door, he cast an eye, not devoid of anxiety, over the court-yard, to see how his following had fared. The gates were now fast closed, and forty horses were ranged with their tails to the wall, the silent riders in their saddles. Rapid as was his glance, it showed him his guard huddled together in the centre of the court, his own black charger, with empty saddle, the only living thing among them that showed no sign of dismay. Between two of the hostile horsemen stood his captain, with doublet torn and headgear awry, evidently a discomfited prisoner.
The Archbishop entered the gloomy castle with a sense of defeat tugging down his heart to a lower level than he had ever known it to reach before; for in days gone by, when fate had seemed to press against him, he had been in the thick of battle, and had felt an exultation in rallying his half-discouraged followers, who had never failed to respond to the call of a born leader of men. But here he had to encounter silence, with semi-darkness over his head, cold stone under foot, and round him the unaccustomed hiss of women's skirts.
The Countess conducted her guest through the lofty Knight's Hall, in which his Lordship saw preparations for a banquet going forward. An arched passage led them to a small room that seemed to be within a turret hanging over a precipice, as if it were an eagle's nest. This room gave an admirable and extended view over the winding Moselle and much of the surrounding country. On a table were flagons of wine and empty cups, together with some light refection, upon all of which the Archbishop looked with suspicious eye. He did not forget the rumoured poisoning of his predecessor in office. The countess asked him, with deference, to seat himself; then pouring out a cup of wine, she bowed to him and drank it. Turning to rinse the cup in a basin of water which a serving-woman held, she was interrupted by her guest, who now, for the first time, showed a trace of gallantry.
"I beg of you, madame," said the Archbishop, rising; and, taking the unwashed cup from her hand, he filled it with wine, drinking prosperity to herself and her home. Then, motioning her to a chair, he said seating himself: "Countess von Starkenburg, I am a man more used to the uncouth rigour of a camp than the dainty etiquette of a lady's boudoir. Forgive me, then, if I ask you plainly, as a plain man may, why you hold me prisoner in your castle."
"Prisoner, my lord?" echoed the lady, with eyebrows raised in amazement. "How poorly are we served by our underlings, if such a thought has been conveyed to your lordship's mind. I asked them to invite you hither with such deference as a vassal should hold toward an over-lord. I am grievously distressed to learn that my commands have been so ill obeyed."
"Your commands were faithfully followed, madame, and I have made no complaint regarding lack of deference, but when two-score armed men carry a respectful invitation to one having a bare dozen at his back, then all option vanishes, and compulsion takes its place."
"My lord, a handful of men were fit enough escort for a neighbouring baron should he visit us, but, for a prince of the Church, all my retainers are but scanty acknowledgment of a vassal's regard. I would they had been twenty thousand, to do you seemly honour."
"I am easily satisfied, madame, and had they been fewer I might have missed this charming outlook. I am to understand, then, that you have no demands to make of me; and that I am free to depart, accompanied by your good wishes."
"With my good wishes now and always, surely, my Lord. I have no demands to make--the word ill befits the lips of a humble vassal; but, being here----"
"Ah! But, being here----" interrupted the Archbishop, glancing keenly at her.
"I have a favour to beg of you. I wish to ask permission to build a castle on the heights above Trarbach, for my son."
"The Count Johann, third of the name?"
"The same, my Lord, who is honoured by your Lordship's remembrance of him."
"And you wish to place this stronghold between your castle of Starkenburg and my town of Treves? Were I a suspicious man, I might imagine you had some distrust of me."
"Not so, my lord. The Count Johann will hold the castle in your defence."
"I have ever been accustomed to look to my own defence," said the Archbishop, drily; adding, as if it were an afterthought, "with the blessing of God upon my poor efforts."
The faintest suspicion of a smile hovered for an instant on the lips of the countess, that might have been likened to the momentary passing of a gleam of sunshine over the placid waters of the river far below; for she well knew, as did all others, that it was the habit of the fighting Archbishop to smite sturdily first, and ask whatever blessing might be needed on the blow afterwards.
"The permission being given, what follows?"
"That you will promise not to molest me during the building."
"A natural corollary. 'Twould be little worth to give permission and then bring up ten thousand men to disturb the builders. That granted, remains there anything more?"
"I fear I trespass on your Lordship's patience but this is now the end. A strong house is never built with a weak purse. I do entreat your lordship to cause to be sent to me from your treasury in Treves thousand pieces of gold, that the castle may be a worthy addition to your province."
The Archbishop arose with a scowl on his face, and paced the narrow limits of the room like a caged lion. The hot anger mounted to his brow and reddened it, but he strode up and down until he regained control of himself, then spoke with a touch of hardness in his voice:
"A good fighter, madame, holds his strongest reserves to the last. You have called me a prince of the Church, and such I am. But you flatter me, madame; you rate me too high. The founder of our Church, when betrayed, was sold for silver, and for a lesser number of pieces than you ask in gold."
The lady, now standing, answered nothing to this taunt, but the colour flushed her pale cheeks.
"I am, then, a prisoner, and you hold me for ransom, but it will avail you little. You may close your gates and prevent my poor dozen of followers from escaping, but news of this outrage will reach Treves, and then, by God, your walls shall smoke for it. There will be none of the Starkenburgs left, either to kidnap or to murder future archbishops."
Still the lady stood silent and motionless as a marble statue. The Elector paced up and down for a time, muttering to himself, then smote his open palm against a pillar of the balcony, and stood gazing on the fair landscape of river and rounded hill spread below and around him. Suddenly he turned and looked at the Countess, meeting her clear, fearless grey eyes, noticing, for the first time, the resolute contour of her finely-moulded chin.
"Madame," he said, with admiration in his tone, "you are a brave woman."
"I am not so brave as you think me, my Lord," she answered, coldly. "There is one thing I dare not do. I am not brave enough to allow your Lordship to go free, if you refuse what I ask."
"And should I not relent at first, there are dungeons in Starkenburg where this proud spirit, with which my enemies say I am cursed, will doubtless be humbled."
"Not so, my Lord. You will be treated with that consideration which should be shown to one of your exalted station."
"Indeed! And melted thus by kindness, how long, think you, will the process take?"
"It will be of the shortest, my Lord, for if, as you surmise rumour should get abroad and falsely proclaim that the Archbishop lodges here against his will, there's not a flying baron or beggared knight in all the land but would turn in his tracks and cry to Starkenburg, 'In God's name, hold him, widow, till we get our own again!' Willingly would they make the sum I beg of you an annual tribute, so they might be certain your Lordship were well housed in this castle."
"Widow, there is truth in what you say, even if a woman hath spoken it," replied the Archbishop, with a grim smile on his lips and undisguised admiration gleaming from his dark eye. "This cowardly world is given to taking advantage of a man when opportunity offers. But there is one point you have not reckoned upon: What of my stout army lying at Treves?"
"What of the arch when the keystone is withdrawn? What of the sheep when the shepherd disappears? My Lord, you do yourself and your great military gifts a wrong. Through my deep regard for you I gave strict command that not even the meanest of your train should be allowed to wander till all were safe within these gates, for I well knew that, did but a whisper of my humble invitation and your gracious acceptance of the same reach Treves, it might be misconstrued; and although some sturdy fellows would be true, and beat their stupid heads against these walls, the rest would scatter like a sheaf of arrows suddenly unloosed, and seek the strongest arm upraised in the melee sure to follow. Against your army, leaderless, I would myself march out at the head of my two-score men without a tremor at my heart; before that leader, alone and armyless, I bow my head with something more akin to fear than I have ever known before, and crave his generous pardon for my bold request."
The Archbishop took her unresisting hand, and, bending, raised it to his lips with that dignified courtesy which, despite his disclaimer, he knew well how, upon occasion, to display.
"Madame," he said, "I ask you to believe that your request was granted even before you marshalled such unanswerable arguments to stand, like armoured men, around it. There is a tern and stringent law of our great Church which forbids its servants suing for a lady's hand. Countess, I never felt the grasp of that iron fetter until now."
Thus came the strong castle above Trarbach to be builded, and that not at the expense of its owners.