Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
THE RED AXE
By S.R. Crockett
I. DUKE CASIMIR RIDES LATE
II. THE LITTLE PLAYMATE COMES HOME III. THE RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK
IV. THE PRINCESS HELENE
V. THE BLOOD-HOUNDS ARE FED
VI. DUKE CASIMIR’S FAMILIAR
VII. I BECOME A TRAITOR
VIII. AT THE BAR OF THE WHITE WOLF IX. A HERO CARRIES WATER IN THE SUN
X. THE LUBBER FIEND
XI. THE VISION IN THE CRYSTAL
XII. EYES OF EMERALD
XIII. CHRISTIAN’S ELSA
XIV. SIR AMOROUS IS PLEASED WITH HIMSELF XV. THE LITTLE PLAYMATE SETTLES ACCOUNTS XVI. TWO WOMEN–AND A MAN
XVII. THE RED AXE IS LEFT ALONE
XVIII. THE PRIME OF THE MORNING
XIX. WENDISH WIT
XX. THE EARTH-DWELLERS OF NO MAN’S LAND XXI. I STAND SENTRY
XXII. HELENE HATES ME
XXIII. HUGO OF THE BROADAXE
XXIV. THE SORTIE
XXV. MINE HOST RUNS HIS LAST RACE XXVI. PRINCE JEHU MILLER’S SON
XXVII. ANOTHER MAN’S COAT
XXVIII. THE PRINCE’S COMPACT
XXIX. LOVES ME–LOVES ME NOT
XXX. INSULT AND CHALLENGE
XXXI. I FIND A SECOND
XXXII. THE WOLVES OF THE MARK
XXXIII. THE FLIGHT OF THE LITTLE PLAYMATE XXXIV. THE GOLDEN NECKLACE
XXXV. THE DECENT SERVITOR
XXXVI. YSOLINDE’S FAREWELL
XXXVII. CAPTAIN KARL MILLER’S SON
XXXVIII. THE BLACK RIDERS
XXXIX. THE FLAG ON THE RED TOWER
XL. THE TRIAL OF THE WITCH
XLI. THE GARRET OF THE RED TOWER
XLII. PRINCESS PLAYMATE
XLIII. THE TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT
XLIV. SENTENCE OF DEATH
XLV. THE MESSAGE FROM THE WHITE GATE XLVI. A WOMAN SCORNED
XLVII. THE RED AXE DIES STANDING UP XLVIII. HUGO GOTTFRIED, RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK XLIX. THE SERPENT’S STRIFE
L. THE DUNGEON OF THE WOLFSBERG
LI. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE MORN
LII. THE HEADSMAN’S RIGHT
LIII. THE LUBBER FIEND’S RETURN
LIV. THE CROWNING OF DUKE OTHO
LV. THE LADY YSOLINDE SAVES HER SOUL LVI. HELENA, PRINCESS OF PLASSENBURG
THE RED AXE
DUKE CASIMIR RIDES LATE
Well do I, Hugo Gottfried, remember the night of snow and moonlight when first they brought the Little Playmate home. I had been sleeping–a sturdy, well-grown fellow I, ten years or so as to my age–in a stomacher of blanket and a bed-gown my mother had made me before she died at the beginning of the cold weather. Suddenly something awoke me out of my sleep. So, all in the sharp chill of the night, I got out of my bed, sitting on the edge with my legs dangling, and looked curiously at the bright streams of moonlight which crossed the wooden floor of my garret. I thought if only I could swim straight up one of them, as the motes did in the sunshine, I should be sure to come in time to the place where my mother was–the place where all the pretty white things came from–the sunshine, the moonshine, the starshine, and the snow.
And there would be children to play with up there–hundreds of children like myself, and all close at hand. I should not any longer have to sit up aloft in the Red Tower with none to speak to me–all alone on the top of a wall–just because I had a crimson patch sewn on my blue-corded blouse, on my little white shirt, embroidered in red wool on each of my warm winter wristlets, and staring out from the front of both my stockings. It was a pretty enough pattern, too. Yet whenever one of the children I so much longed to play with down on the paved roadway beneath our tower caught sight of it he rose instantly out of the dust and hurled oaths and ill-words at me–aye, and oftentimes other missiles that hurt even worse–at a little lonely boy who was breaking his heart with loving him up there on the tower.
“Come down and be killed, foul brood of the Red Axe!” the children cried. And with that they ran as near as they dared, and spat on the wall of our house, or at least on the little wooden panel which opened inward in the great trebly spiked iron door of the Duke’s court-yard.
But this night of the first home-coming of the Little Playmate I awoke crying and fearful in the dead vast of the night, when all the other children who would not speak to me were asleep. Then pulling on my comfortable shoes of woollen list (for my father gave me all things to make me warm, thinking me delicate of body), and drawing the many-patched coverlet of the bed about me, I clambered up the stone stairway to the very top of the tower in which I slept. The moon was broad, like one of the shields in the great hall, whither I went often when the great Duke was not at home, and when old Hanne would be busy cleaning the pavement and scrubbing viciously at the armor of the iron knights who stood on pedestals round about.
“One day I shall be a man-at-arms, too,” I said once to Hanne, “and ride a-foraying with Duke Ironteeth.”
But old Hanne only shook her head and answered:
“Ill foraying shalt thou make, little shrimp. Such work as thine is not done on horseback–keep wide from me, _toadchen_, touch me not!”
For even old Hanne flouted me and would not let me approach her too closely, all because once I had asked her what my father did to witches, and if she were a witch that she crossed herself and trembled whenever she passed him in the court-yard.
Now, having little else to do, I loved to look down from the top of the tower at all times. But never more so than when there was snow on the ground, for then the City of Thorn lay apparent beneath me, all spread out like a painted picture, with its white and red roofs and white houses bright in the moonlight–so near that it seemed as though I could pat every child lying asleep in its little bed, and scrape away the snow with my fingers from every red tile off which the house-fires had not already melted it.
The town of Thorn was the chief place of arms, and high capital city of all the Wolfmark. It was a thriving place, too, humming with burghers and trades and guilds, when our great Duke Casimir would let them alone; perilous, often also, with pikes and discontents when he swooped from the tall over-frowning Castle of the Wolfsberg upon their booths and guilderies–“to scotch the pride of rascaldom,” as he told them when they complained. In these days my father was little at home, his business keeping him abroad all the day about the castle-yard, at secret examinations in the Hall of Judgment, or in mysterious vaults in the deepest parts of the castle, where the walls are eighteen feet thick, and from which not a groan can penetrate to the outside while the Duke Casimir’s judgment was being done upon the poor bodies and souls of men and women his prisoners.
In the court-yard, too, the dogs, fierce russet-tan blood-hounds, ravined for their fearsome food. And in these days there was plenty of it, too, so that they were yelling and clamoring all day, and most of the night, for that which it made me sweat to think of. And beneath the rebellious city cowered and muttered, while the burghers and their wives shivered in their beds as the howling of Duke Casimir’s blood-hounds came fitfully down the wind, and Duke Casimir’s guards clashed arms under their windows.
So this night I looked down contentedly enough from my perched eyrie on the top of the Red Tower. It had been snowing a little earlier in the evening, and the brief blast had swept the sky clean, so that even the brightest stars seemed sunken and waterlogged in the white floods of moonlight. Under my hand lay the city. Even the feet of the watch made no clatter on the pavements. The fresh-fallen snow masked the sound. The kennels of the blood-hounds were silent, for their dreadful tenants were abroad that night on the Duke’s work.
Yet, sitting up there on the Wolfsberg, it seemed to me that I could distinguish a muttering as of voices full of hate, like men talking low on their beds the secret things of evil and treason. I discerned discontent and rebellion rumbling and brooding over the city that clear, keen night of early winter.
Then, when after a while I turned from the crowded roofs and looked down upon the gray, far-spreading plain of the Wolfmark, to the east I saw that which appeared like winking sparks of light moving among the black clumps of copse and woodland which fringed the river. These wimpled and scattered, and presently grew brighter. A long howl, like that of a lonely wolf on the waste when he calls to his kindred to tell him their where-abouts, came faintly up to my ears.
A hound gave tongue responsively among the heaped mews and doggeries beneath the ramparts. Lights shone in windows athwart the city. Red nightcaps were thrust out of hastily opened casements. The Duke’s standing guard clamored with their spear-butts on the uneven pavements, crying up and down the streets: “To your kennels, devil’s brats, Duke Casimir comes riding home!”
Then I tell you my small heart beat furiously. For I knew that if I only kept quiet I should see that which I had never yet seen–the home-coming of our famous foraying Duke. I had, indeed, seen Duke Casimir often enough in the castle, or striding across the court-yard to speak to my father, for whom he had ever a remarkable affection. He was a tall, swart, black-a-vised man, with a huge hairy mole on his cheek, and long dog-teeth which showed at the sides of his mouth when he smiled, almost as pleasantly as those of a she-wolf looking out of her den at the hunters.
But I had never seen the Duke of all the Wolfmark come riding home ere daybreak, laden with the plunder of captured castles and the rout of deforced cities. For at such times my father would carefully lock the door on me, and confine me to my little sleeping-chamber–from whence I could see nothing but the square of smooth pavement on which the children chalked their games, and from which they cried naughtily up at me, the poor hermit of the Red Tower. But this night my father would be with the Duke, and I should see all. For high or low there was none in the empty Red Tower to hinder or forbid.
As I waited, thrilling with expectation, I heard beneath me the quickening pulse-beat of the town. The watch hurried here and there, hectoring, threatening, and commanding. But, in spite of all, men gathered as soon as their backs were turned in the alleys and street openings. Clusters of heads showed black for a moment in some darksome entry, cried “U-g-g-hh!” with a hateful sound, and vanished ere the steel-clad veterans of the Duke’s guard could come upon them. It was like the hide-and-seek which I used to play with Boldo, my blood-hound puppy, among the dusty waste of the lumber-room over the Hall of Judgment, before my father took him back to the kennels for biting Christian’s Elsa, a child who lived in the lower Guard opposite to the Red Tower.
But this was a stranger hide-and-seek than mine and Boldo’s had been. For I saw one of the men who cried hatefully to the guard stumble on the slippery ice; and lo! or ever he had time to cry out or gather himself up, the men-at-arms were upon him. I saw the glitter of stabbing steel and heard the sickening sound of blows stricken silently in anger. Then the soldiers took the man up by head and heels carelessly, jesting as they went. And I shuddered, for I knew that they were bringing him to the horrible long sheds by the Red Tower through which the wind whistled. But in the moonlight the patch which was left on the snow was black, not red.
After this the crooked alleys were kept clearer, and I could see down the long High Street of Thorn right to the Weiss Thor and the snow-whitened pinnacles of the Palace, out of which Duke Casimir had for the time being frightened Bishop Peter. Black stood the Gate Port against the moonlight and the snow when I first looked at it. A moment after it had opened, and a hundred lights came crowding through, like sheep through an entry on their way to the shambles–which doubtless is their Hall of Judgment, where there waits for them the Red Axe of a lowlier degree.
The lights, I say, came thronging through the gate. For though it was moonlight, the Duke Casimir loved to come home amid the red flame of torches, the trail of bituminous reek, and with a dashing train of riders clattering up to the Wolfsberg behind him, through the streets of Thorn, lying black and cowed under the shadows of its thousand gables.
So the procession undulated towards me, turbid and tumultuous. First a reckless pour of riders urging wearied horses, their sides white-flecked above with blown foam, and dark beneath with rowelled blood. Many of the horsemen carried marks upon them which showed that all had not been plunder and pleasuring upon their foray. For there were white napkins, and napkins that had once been white, tied across many brows. Helmets swung clanking like iron pipkins from saddle-bows, and men rode wearily with their arms in slings, drooping haggard faces upon their chests. But all passed rapidly enough up the steep street, and tumbled with noise and shouting, helter-skelter into the great court-yard beneath me as I watched, secure as God in heaven, from my perch on the Red Tower.
Then came the captives, some riding horses bare-backed, or held in place before black-bearded riders–women mostly these last, with faces white-set and strange of eye, or all beblubbered with weeping. Then came a man or two also on horseback, old and reverend. After them a draggled rabble of lads and half-grown girls, bound together with ropes and kept at a dog’s trot by the pricking spears of the men-at-arms behind, who thought it a jest to sink a spear point-deep in the flesh of a man’s back–“drawing the claret wine” they called it. For these riders of Duke Casimir were every one jolly companions, and must have their merry jest.
After the captives had gone past–and sorry I was for them–the body-guard of Duke Casimir came riding steadily and gallantly, all gentlemen of the Mark, with their sons and squires, landed men, towered men, free Junkers, serving the Duke for loyalty and not servitude, though ever “living by the saddle”–as, indeed, most of the Ritterdom and gentry of the Mark had done for generations.
Then behind them came Duke Casimir himself. The Eastland blood he had acquired from his Polish mother showed as he rode gloomily apart, thoughtful, solitary, behind the squared shoulders of his knights. After him another squadron of riders in ghastly armor of black-and-white, with torches in their hand and grinning skulls upon their shields, closed in the array. The great gate of the Wolfsberg was open now, and, leaving behind him the hushed and darkened town, the master rode into his castle. The Wolf was in his lair. But in the streets many a burgher’s wife trembled on her bed, while her goodman peered cautiously over the leads by the side of a gargoyle, and fancied that already he heard the clamor of the partisans thundering at his door with the Duke’s invitation to meet him in the Hall of Judgment.
THE LITTLE PLAYMATE COMES HOME
But there was to be no Session in the Hall of Judgment that night. The great court-yard, roofed with the vault of stars and lit by the moon, was to see all done that remained to be done. The torches were planted in the iron hold-fasts round about. The plunder of the captured towns and castles was piled for distribution on the morrow, and no man dared keep back so much as a Brandenburg broad-piece or a handful of Bohemian gulden. For the fear of the Duke and the Duke’s dog-kennels was upon every stout fighting-kerl. They minded the fate of Hans Pulitz, who had kept back a belt of gold, and had gotten himself flung by the heels with no more than the stolen belt upon him, into the kennels where the Duke’s blood-hounds howled and clambered with their fore-feet on the black-spattered barriers. And they say that the belt of gold was all that was ever seen again of the poor rascal. Hans Pulitz–who had hoped for so many riotous evenings among the Fat Pigs of Thorn and so many draughts of the slippery wine of the Rheingan careering down the poor thirsty throat of him. But, alas for Hans Pulitz! the end of all imagining was no more than five minutes of snapping, snarling, horrible Pandemonium in the kennels of the Wolfsberg, and the scored gold chain on the ground was all that remained to tell his tale. Verily, there were few Achans in Duke Casimir’s camp.
And it is small wonder after this, that scant and sparse were the jests played on the grim master of the Wolfsberg, or that the bay of a blood-hound tracking on the downs frightened the most stout-hearted rider in all that retinue of dare-devils.
Going to the side of the Red Tower, which looked towards the court-yard, I saw the whole array come in. I watched the prisoners unceremoniously dismounted and huddled together against the coming of the Duke. There was but one man among them who stood erect. The torch-light played on his face, which was sometimes bent down to a little child in his arms, so that I saw him well. He looked not at all upon the rude men-at-arms who pushed and bullied about him, but continued tenderly to hush his charge, as if he had been a nurse in a babe-chamber under the leads, with silence in all the house below.
It pleased me to see the man, for all my life I had loved children. And yet at ten years of age I had never so much as touched one–no, nor spoken even, only looked down on those that hated me and spat on the very tower wherein I dwelt. But nevertheless I loved them and yearned to tell them so, even when they mocked me. So I watched this little one in the man’s arms.
Then came the Duke along the line, and behind him, like the Shadow of Death, paced my father Gottfried Gottfried, habited all in red from neck to heel, and carrying for his badge of office as Hereditary Justicer to the Dukes of the Wolfmark that famous red-handled, red-bladed axe, the gleaming white of whose deadly edge had never been wet save with the blood of men and women.
The guard pushed the captives rudely into line as the Duke Casimir strode along the front. The women he passed without a sign or so much as a look. They were kept for another day. But the men were judged sharp and sudden, as the Duke in his black armor passed along, and that scarlet Shadow of Death with the broad axe over his shoulder paced noiselessly behind him.
For as each man looked into the eyes of Casimir of the Wolfsberg he read his doom. The Duke turned his wrist sharply down, whereupon the attendant sprites of the Red Shadow seized the man and rent his garment down from his neck–or the hand pointed up, and then the man set his hand to his heart and threw his head back in a long sigh of relief.
It came the turn of the man who carried the babe.
Duke Casimir paused before him, scowling gloomily at him.
“Ha, Lord Prince of so great a province, you will not set yourself up any more haughtily. You will quibble no longer concerning tithes and tolls with Casimir of the Wolfmark.”
And the Duke lifted his hand and smote the man on the cheek with his open hand.
Yet the captive only hushed the child that wailed aloud to see her guardian smitten.
He looked Duke Casimir steadfastly in the eyes and spoke no word.
“Great God, man, have you nothing to say to me ere you die?” cried Duke Casimir, choked with hot, sudden anger to be so crossed.
The elder man gazed steadily at his captor.
“God will judge betwixt me, a man about to die, and you, Casimir of the Wolfmark,” he said at last, very slowly–“by the eyes of this little maid He will judge!”
“Like enough,” cried Casimir, sneeringly. “Bishop Peter hath told me as much. But then God’s payments are long deferred, and, so far as I can see, I can take Him into my own hand. And your little maid–pah! since one day you took from me the mother, I, in my turn, will take the daughter and make her a titbit for the teeth of my blood-hounds.”
The man answered not again, but only hushed and fondled the little one.
Duke Casimir turned quickly to my father, showing his long teeth like a snarling dog:
“Take the child,” he said, “and cast her into the kennels before the man’s eyes, that he may learn before he dies to dread more than God’s Judgment Seat the vengeance of Duke Casimir!”
Then all the men-at-arms turned away, heart-sick at the horror. But the man with the child never blanched.
High perched on the top tower, I also heard the words and loved the maid. And they tell me (though I do not remember it) that I cried down from the leads of the Red Tower: “My father, save the little maid and give her to me–or else I, Hugo Gottfried, will cast myself down on the stones at your feet!”
At which all the men looked up and saw me in white, a small, lonely figure, with my legs hanging over the top of the wall.
“Go back!” my father shouted. “Go back, Hugo! ‘Tis my only son–my successor–the fifteenth of our line, my lord!” he said to the Duke in excuse.
But I cried all the more: “Save the maid’s life, or I will fling myself headlong. By Jesu-Mary, I swear it!”
For I thought that was the name of one great saint.
Then my father, who ever doted on me, bent his knee before his master: “A boon!” he cried, “my first and last, Duke Casimir–this maid’s life for my son!”
But the Duke hung on the request a long, doubtful moment.
“Gottfried Gottfried,” he said, even reproachfully, “this is not well done of you, to make me go back on my word.”
“Take the man’s life,” said my father–“take the man’s life for the child’s and the fulfilling of your word, and by the sword of St. Peter I will smite my best!”
“Aye,” said the man with the babe, “even so do, as the Red Axe says. Save the young child, but bid him smite hard at this abased neck. Ye have taken all, Duke Casimir, take my life. But save the young child alive!”
So, without further word or question, they did so, and the man who had carried the child kissed her once and separated gently the baby hands that clung about his neck. Then he handed her to my father.
“Be gracious to Helene,” he said; “she was ever a sweet babe.”
Now by this time I was down hammering on the door of the Red Tower, which had been locked on the outside.
Presently some one turned the key, and so soon as I got among the men I darted between their legs.
“Give me the babe!” I cried; “the babe is mine; the Duke himself hath said it.” And my father gave her to me, crying as if her heart would break.
Nevertheless she clung to me, perhaps because I was nearer her own age.
Then the dismal procession of the condemned passed us, followed by my father, who strode in front with his axe over his shoulder, and the laughing and jesting men-at-arms bringing up the rear.
As I stood a little aside for them to pass, the hand of the man fell on my head and rested there a moment.
“God’s blessing on you, little lad!” he said. “Cherish the babe you have saved, and, as sure as that I am now about to die, one day you shall be repaid.” And he stooped and kissed the little maid before he went on with the others to the place of slaughter.
Then I hurried within, so that I might not hear the dull thud of the Red Axe, on the block nor the inhuman howlings of the dogs in the kennels afterwards.
When my father came home an hour later, before even he took off his costume of red, he came up to our chamber and looked long at the little maid as she lay asleep. Then he gazed at me, who watched him from under my lids and from behind the shadows of the bedclothes.
But his quick eye caught the gleam of light in mine.
“You are awake, boy!” he said, somewhat sternly.
I nodded up to him without speaking.
“What would you with the little maid?” he said. “Do you know that you and she together came very near losing me my favor with the Duke, and it might be my life also, both at one time to-night?”
I put my hand on the maiden’s head where it lay on the pillow by me.
“She is my little wife!” I said. “The Duke gave her to me out in the court-yard there!”
And this is the whole tale of how the Little Playmate came to dwell with us in the Red Tower.
THE RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK
Just as clearly do I remember the next morning. The Little Playmate lay by me on my bed, wrapped in one of my childish night-gowns–which old Hanne had sought out for her the night before. It was a brisk, chill, nippy daybreak, and I had piled most of the bedclothes upon her. I lay at the nether side clipped tight in my single brown blanket. It was perishing cold. Out of the heaped coverings I saw presently a pair of eyes, great and dark, regarding me.
Then a little voice spoke, sweetly and clearly, but yet strangely sounding to me who had never before heard a babe speak.
“I want my father–tell him to send Grete, my maid, to attend on me, and then to come himself to sit by the bed and amuse me!”
Alas! her father–well I knew what had come to him–that which in the mercy of the Duke Casimir and in the crowning mercy of the Red Axe, I had seen come to so many. The dogs did not howl at all that morning. They, too, were tired with the hunting and sated with the quarry.
All the same, I tried to answer my companion.
“Little Maid!” said I, “let me be your maid and your father. I will gladly get you all you want. But your good father has gone on a weary journey, and it will be long ere he can hope to return.”
“Well,” she said, “send lazy Grete, then. I will scold her soundly for not bringing the sop of hot milk-and-bread, which, indeed, is not food for a lady of my age. But my father insists upon it. He is dreadfully obstinate.”
Now there was no one but our old deaf Hanne in the kitchen of the Red Tower. She stayed only for cooking and keeping the house clean. My father never paid her wages, and she never asked any. She did her work and took that which she needed out of the household purse without check or question. It was long before I guessed that Hanne also owed her life to my father’s care. I had noticed, indeed, when he had upon him the red headman’s dress, which fitted him like a flame climbing up a tall back log on the winter’s fire, that old Hanne trembled from head to foot and shrank away into her den under the stairs. Many a time have I seen her peeping round the corner of the kitchen-door and tottering back when she heard him come down the stair from the garret. And I guessed so well the reason of her fear that I used to cry to her:
“Come out, good Hanne; the Red Axe is gone.”
Then would she run, pattering like a scared rabbit over the uneven floor, to the window, and watch my father stalking, grim and tall, across the open spaces of the yard towards the Judgment Hall of Duke Casimir, the men-at-arms avoiding him with deft reverence. For though they hated him almost as much as did the fat burghers, they feared him, too. And that because Gottfried Gottfried was deep in the confidence of the Duke; and, besides, was no man to stand in the ill-graces of when one lived within the walls of the Wolfsberg.
So this morning it was to the ancient Hanne that I ran down and told her how, as quickly as she might, she must bring milk and bread to the little one.
“But,” said she, “there is none save that which is to be sodden for your father’s breakfast and your own.”
“Do as you are bid, bad Hanne!” cried I, being, like all solitary children, quickly made angry, “or I will tell my father to drive you before him when next he goes forth clad in red to the Hall of Justice.”
At which the poor old woman gave vent to a sharp, screechy cry and caught at her skinny throat with twitching, bony fingers.
“Oh, but you know not what you say, cruel boy!” she gasped. “For the love of God, speak not such words in the house of the Red Axe!”
But, like an ill-governed child, I was cruel because I knew my power, and so made sure that Hanne would do what I asked.
“Well, then, bring the sop quickly,” said I, “or by Peter-and-Paul I will speak to my father. He and I can well be doing with beaten cakes made crisp on the iron girdle. In these you have great skill.”
This last I said to cheer her, for she loved compliments on her cooking. Though, strange to tell, I never saw her eat anything herself all the years she remained in our house.
When I was gone up-stairs again I looked about for the Little Playmate. She was not to be seen anywhere. There was only a tiny cosey-hole down among the blankets, which was yet warm when I thrust my hand within it. But it was empty and the top a little fallen in, as if the occupant had set her knee on it when she crawled out. A baby stocking lay outside it on the floor.
“Little maid!” I cried, “where are you?”
But I heard nothing except a hissing up on the roof, and then a great slithering rumble down below, which boomed like the distant cannons the Margraf sent to besiege us. I listened and shuddered; but it was only the snow from the tall roof of the Red Tower which had slipped off and fallen to the ground. Then I had a vision of a slender little figure clambering on the leads and the treacherous snow striking her out into the air, and then–the cruel stones of the pavement.
“Little maid, little maid!” I cried out again, beginning to weep myself for pity at my thought, “where are you? Speak to me. You are my playmate.”
Then I ran to the roof, and, though the stones chilled me to the bone and the frost-bitten iron hasps of the fastenings burned me like fire, I opened the trap-door and looked out. There above me was the crow-stepped gable of the Red Tower, with the axe set on the pinnacle rustily bright in the coming light of the morning–all swept clean of snow. But no little maid.
I ran to the verge and peered down. I saw a great heap of frozen snow fallen on its edge and partly canted over, half covering a deep red stain which was turning black and horrid in the daylight. But no little maid.
Then I ran all over the house calling to her, but could not find her anywhere. I was just beginning to bethink me that she might be a fairy child, one that came at night and vanished like the dream gold which is forever turning to withered leaves in the morning. At last I bethought me of my father’s room, where even I, his son, had never been at night, and indeed but seldom in the day. For it was the Hereditary Justicer’s fancy to lodge himself in the high garret which ran right across the top of the Red Tower, and was entered only by a little ladder from the first turning of the same staircase by which I had run out upon the leads.
I went to the bottom of the garret turnpike. The little barred door stood open, and I heard–I was sure that I heard–light, irregularly pattering footsteps moving about above.
It gave me strange shakings of my heart only to listen. For, though I was noways afraid of my father myself, yet since I had never seen any man, woman, or child (save the Duke only) who did not quail at his approach, it was a curious feeling to think of the lonely little child skipping about up there, where abode the axe and the block–the axe which had done, I knew so well what, to her father only the night before.
So I mustered all my courage–not from any fear of Gottfried Gottfried, but rather from the uncertainty of what I should see, and quickly mounted the stair.
I shall never forget what I saw as I stood with my feet on the rickety hand-rail of the ladder. The long dim garret was already half-lighted by the coming day. Red cloaks swung and flapped like vast, deadly, winged bats from the rafters, and reached almost to the ground. There was no glass in any of the windows of the garret, for my father minded neither heat nor cold. He was a man of iron. Summer’s heat nor winter’s cold neither vexed nor pleasured him. So it was no marvel that at the chamber’s upper end, and quite near to my father’s bed, lay a wreath of snow, with a fine, clean-cut, untrampled edge, just as it had blown in at the gable window when the storm burst from the east.
My father lay stretched out on his bed, his head thrown back, his neck bare–almost as if he had done justice on himself, or at least as if he waited the stroke of another Red Axe through the eastern skylight which the morning was already crimsoning. His scarlet sheathings of garmentry lay upon a black oaken stool, trailing across the floor lank and hideous, one of the cuffs which had been but recently dyed a darker hue making a wet sop upon the boards.
All this I had seen many a time before. But that which made me tremble from head to foot with more and worse than cold, was the little white figure that danced about his bed–for all the world like a crisped leaf in late autumn which whirls and turns, skipping this way and spinning that in the wanton breezes. It was the Little Playmate. But I could not form a word wherewith to call her. My tongue seemed dried to the roots.
She had taken the red eye-mask which came across my father’s face when he did his greater duties and tied it about her head. Her great, innocent, childish eyes looked elfishly through the black socket holes, sparkling with a fairy merriment, and her tangled floss of sunny hair escaped from the string at the back and fell tumultuously upon her shoulders.
And even as I looked, standing silent and trembling, with a little balancing step she danced up to the Red Axe itself where it stood angled against the block, and seizing it by the handle high up near the head she staggered towards the bed with it.
Then came my words back to my mouth with a rush.
“For the Holy Virgin’s sake, little maid, put the Red Axe down!” I cried, whisperingly. “You know not what you do!”
Then even as I spoke I saw that my father had drawn himself up in bed, and that he too was staring at the strange, elfish figure. Gottfried Gottfried, as I remember him in these days, was a tall, dark, heavily browed man, with a shock of bushy blue-black hair, of late silvering at the temples–grave, sombre, quiet in all his actions.
But what was my surprise as the little maid came nearer to the bed with her pretty dancing movement, carrying the axe much as if it had been an over-heavy babe, to see the Duke’s Justicer suddenly skip over the far side of the bedstead and stand with his red cloak about him, watching her.
THE PRINCESS HELENE
“What devil’s work is this?” he said, frowning at her severely.
And I confess that I trembled, but not so the little maid.
“Do not be afraid, mannie,” she said, laying down the axe on the stock of the couch, against which its broad red blade and glass-clear cutting edge made an irregular patch of light. “Come and sit down beside me on your bed. I shall not hurt you indeed, mannie, and I want to talk to you. There is nothing but a little boy down-stairs. And I like best to talk with men.”
“I declare it is the dead man’s brat I saved last night for Hugo’s sake!” I heard my father mutter, “the maid with the girdle of golden letters.”
Presently a smile of amusement struggled about his mouth at her bairnly imperiousness, but he came obediently enough and sat down. Nevertheless he took away the heavy axe from her and said, “Put this down, then, or give it to me. It is not a pretty plaything for little girls!”
The small figure in white put up a tiny fat hand, and solemnly withdrew the red patch of mask from before the wide-open baby eyes.
“I am not a little _girl_, remember, mannie,” she said, “I am a Princess and a great lady.”
My father bowed without rising.
“I shall not forget,” he said.
“You should stand up and bow when I tell you that,” said she. “I declare you have no more manners than the little boy in the brown blanket down-stairs.”
“Princess,” said my father, gravely, “during my life I have met a great many distinguished people of your rank; and, do you know, not one of them has ever complained of my manners before.”
“Ah,” cried the little maid, “then you have never met my father, the Prince. He is terribly particular. You must go _so_” (she imitated the mincing walk of a court chamberlain), “you must hold your tails thus” (wagging her white nightrail and twisting about her head to watch the effect), “and you must retire–so!” With that she came bowing backward towards the well of the staircase, so far that I was almost afraid she would fall plump into my arms. But she checked herself in time, and without looking round or seeing me she tripped back to my father’s bedside and sat down quite confidingly beside him.
“Now you see,” cried she, “what you would have had to put up with if you had met my father. Be thankful then that it is only the little Princess Helene that is sitting here.”
“I think I had the honor to meet your father,” said Gottfried Gottfried, gravely, again removing the restless baby fingers from the Red Axe and laying it on the far side of the couch beyond him.
“Then, if you met him, did he not make you bow and bend and walk backward?” asked the Playmate, looking up very sharply.
“Well, you see, Princess,” explained my father, “it was for such a very short time that I had the honor of converse with him.”
“Ah, that does not matter,” cried the maid; “often he would be most difficult when you came running in just for a moment. Why, he would straighten you up and make you do your bows if you were only racing after a kitten, or, what was worse, he would call the Court Chamberlain to show you how to do it. But when I am grown up–ah, then!–I mean to make the Chamberlain bow and walk backward; for you know he is only taking care of my princedom for me. Oh, and I shall have you well taught by that time, long man. It is cold–cold. Let me get into your bed and I will give you your first lesson now.”
So with that she skipped into my father’s place and drew the great red cloak about her.
“Now then, first position,” she commanded, clapping her hands like a Sultana, “your feet together. Draw back your left–so. Very well! Bend the knee–stupid, not that one. Now your head. If I have to come to you, sir–there, that is better. Well done! Oh, I shall have a peck of trouble with you, I can see that. But you will do me credit before I have done with you.”
In a little while she tired of the lesson.
“Come and sit down now”–she waved her hand graciously–“here on the bed by me. Though I am a Princess really, I am not proud, and, as I said, I may make something of you yet.”
My father came forward gravely, wrapped himself in another of his red cloaks, and sat down. I shivered in my blanket on the stair-head, but I could not bear to move nor yet reveal myself. This was better than any play I had ever watched from the sparred gallery of the palace, to which Gottfried Gottfried took me sometimes when the mummers came from Brandenburg to divert Duke Casimir.
“My father, the great Prince, took me for a long ride last night. There was much noise and many bonfires behind us as we rode away, and some of the men spoke roughly, for which my father will rate them soundly to-day. Oh, they will be sick and sorry this morning when the Prince takes them to task. I hope you will never make him angry,” she said, laying her hand warningly on my father’s; “but if ever you do, come to me and I will speak to the Prince for you. You need not be bashful, for I do not mind a bit speaking to him, or indeed to any one. You will remember and not be bashful when you have something to ask?”
“I will assuredly not be bashful,” said my father, very solemnly. “I will come and tell you at once, little lady, if I ever have the misfortune to offend the most noble Prince.”
Then he bent his head and raised her hand to his lips. She bowed in return with exquisite reserve and hauteur; and, as it seemed to me, more with her long eyelashes than with anything else.
“Do you know, Black Man,” she said–“for, you know, you are black, though you wear red clothes–I am glad you are not afraid of me. At home every one was afraid of me. Why, the little children stood with their mouths open and their eyes like this whenever they saw me.”
And she illustrated the extremely vacant surprise into which her appearance paralyzed the infantry of her native city.
“I am glad my father left me here till he should come back. Do you know, I like your house. There are so many interesting things about it. That funny axe over there is nice. It looks as if it could cut things. Has it ever cut anything? It is so nicely polished. How do you keep it so, and can I help you?”
“I had just finished polishing and oiling it before I fell asleep,” answered Gottfried Gottfried. “You see, little Princess, I had very many things to cut with it last night.”
“What a pity the Prince had not time to wait and see you! He is so very fond of going out into the forest with the woodman. Once he took me to see the tallest tree in all our woods cut down with just such an axe as that–only it was not red. Have you ever seen a high tree cut down?”
“I have cut down some pretty tall ones myself!” said the Duke’s Justicer, smiling quietly at her.
“Ah, but not as tall as my father! It is beautiful to see him strip his doublet and lay to. They say there is not a woodman like him in all our land.”
Helene looked at my father, whose arms were folded in his great cloak.
“But you have fine strong arms too,” she said. “You look as if you could cut things. Did my father ever see you cut down tall trees?”
“Yes,” said Gottfried Gottfried, slowly, “once!”
“And did he say that you cut well?” the little maid went on, with a strange, wilful persistence in her idea.
“He neither said that I did well nor yet that I did ill,” replied Gottfried Gottfried.
“Ah!” said Helene, “that was just like the Prince. He was afraid of flattering you and making you unfit for your work. But if he said nothing, depend upon it he was pleased.”
“Thank you, Princess,” said my father. “I think he was well enough pleased.”
Just then there came a noise that I knew–a sound which chilled every bone in my body.
It was the clear ring of a steady footstep upon the pavement without. It came heavily and slowly across the yard. The outer hasp of our door clicked. The door opened, and the footstep began to ascend the stair.
There was but one man in the world who dared make so free with the Red Tower and its occupant. Our visitor was without doubt the Duke Casimir himself.
For the first time I saw my father manifestly disconcerted. The little maid’s life might be worth no more than a torn ballad if Duke Casimir happened to be in evil humor or had repented him of his mercy of the past night. I saw the Red Axe look aimlessly about for a hiding-place. There was a niche round which certain cloaks and coverlets were hung.
“Come in here,” he said, abruptly.
“Why should I hide, whoever comes?” asked the Little Playmate, indignantly.
“It is the Duke Casimir,” whispered my father, hurriedly, stirred as I had never seen him. “Come hither quickly!”
But the little maid struck an attitude, and tapped the floor with her foot.
“I will not,” she said. “What is the Duke Casimir to me that am a Princess? If he is good, I will give him my hand to kiss!”
But at this point I rushed from the ladder-head, and, taking her in my arms, I sped up the turret stairs with her out upon the leads, my hand over her mouth all the time.
And as I ran I could hear the Duke trampling upward not twenty steps in the rear. I opened the trap-door and went out into the clear morning sunshine. And only the turn of the stair prevented Casimir from seeing me go up the narrow turret corkscrew with my little white burden.
Then I heard voices beneath, and I knew, as if I had seen it, that my father stood up straight at the salute. Presently the voices lowered, and I knew also that the Duke Casimir was unbending as he did to none else in his realm save to the Hereditary Justicer of the Wolfmark.
But I had my hands full with the little Princess. I dared not go down the stairs. I dared not for a moment take my palm off her mouth. For as like as not she would call out for the Duke Casimir to come and deliver her from my cruelty. So I stuck to my post, even though I knew that I angered her.
The morning was warm for a winter’s day in Thorn, and I pulled open my brown blanket and wrapped her coseyly within it, chilling myself to the bone as I did so.
It seemed ages before the Duke strode down the stair again, and took his way across the yard, with my father, in black, after him. For so he was used to dress when he went to the Hall of Judgment, to be present and assist at the discovery of crime by means of the Minor and Extreme Questions.
Then, so soon as they were fairly gone, I took my hand from the mouth of the Little Playmate, and carried her down-stairs; which as soon as I had done, she slapped my face soundly.
“I will never, never speak to you any more so long as I live, rude boy–common street brat!” she said, biting her under-lip in ineffectual, petulant anger. “Listen, never as long as I live! So do not think it! Upstart, so to treat a lady and a Princess!”
And with that she burst into tears.
THE BLOOD-HOUNDS ARE FED
But the Princess-Playmate spoke to me again. I was even permitted to call her Helene. Me she addressed uniformly as “Hugo Gottfried.” But neither her name nor mine interfered with our plays, which were wholly happy and undisturbed by quarrelling–at least, so long as I did exactly what she wished me to do.
On these terms life was made easy for me from that day forth. No longer did I wistfully watch the children of the street from the lonely window of the Red Tower. They might spit all day on the harled masonry at the foot of the wall for aught I cared. I no longer desired their society. Had I not that of a real Princess, and if my companion was inclined to be a little wayward and domineering–why, was not that the very birthright of all Princesses?
Helene and I had great choice of plays within the walls of the solemn castle. So long as we kept to the outer yard and did not intrude upon the Duke’s side of the enclosure, we were free to come and go at our pleasure. For even Casimir himself was soon well accustomed to see us run about like puppies, slapping and tumbling, and minded us no more than the sparrows that pecked in the litter of the stable-yard. Indeed, I think he had forgotten all about the strange home-coming of the Little Playmate.
The kennels of the blood-hounds especially were full of fascination for us. That fatal deep-mouthed clamoring at morn and even drew us like a magnet. Helene, in particular, never tired of gazing between the chinks of the fence of cloven pine-wood at the great russet-colored beasts with their flashing white teeth, over which the heavy dewlaps fell. And when my father, with his red livery upon him and a loaded whip in his hand, once a day opened the tall, narrow door and went within, we thought him brave as a god. Then the way the fierce beasts shrank cowering from him, the fashion in which they crouched on their bellies and heaved their shoulders up without taking their hind quarters off the ground, equally delighted and surprised us.
“Your father is almost as great a man as _my_ father,” said the Princess Helene, who, however, was rapidly forgetting her dignity. Indeed, already it had become little more than a fairy-tale to her. And that was perhaps as well.
One day, when I was about thirteen, or a little older, my father came out with a new short mantle in his hand, red like his own.
“Come hither, Hugo Gottfried!” he said, for he had learned the trick of the name from Helene.
I went to him tardy-foot, greatly wondering.
“Here, chick,” he said, in his kindly fashion, “it is time you were beginning to learn your duties. Come with me to-day into the kennels of the blood-hounds.”
But I hung back, shifting the new mantle uneasily on my shoulders, yet not daring to throw it off.
“I do not want to go, father,” said I, edging away in the direction of the Playmate.
“What, lad!” he cried, slapping me on the shoulder; “they will not hurt thee with that cloak on. They know their masters better–as their fathers and mothers knew our fathers. Have we, the Gottfrieds, been the Hereditary Justicers of the Wolfmark for six hundred years to be afraid now of the blood-hounds that are kept to hunt the Duke’s enemies and to feed on the Duke’s carrion?”
“It is not that I am afraid of the dogs, father,” I made answer to him. “I would quickly enough go among them, if only you would let me go without this scarlet cloak.”
My father laughed heartily and loudly–that is, for him. A quick ear might have heard him quite three feet away.
“Silly one!” he exclaimed, “do you not know that even the Duke Casimir dares not set foot in the kennels–no, nor I myself, save in the garb they know and fear–as indeed do all men in this state.”
Still I hung my head down and scraped the gravel with my foot.
“Haste thee,” said my father, roughly. “Once it is permitted to a man to be afraid; to fear twice, and fear the same thing, is to be a coward. And no Gottfried ever yet was a coward. Let not my Hugo be the first.”
Then I took courage and spoke to him.
“I do not wish to be executioner,” I said; “I would rather ride a-soldiering far away, and be in the drive of battle and the front of danger. Let me be a soldier and a man-at-arms, my father. I am sure I could become a war-captain and a great man!”
Gottfried Gottfried stared blankly at me, and his blue-black hair rose in a crest–not with anger, of which he never showed any to me, but in sheer astonishment. He continued to rub it with his hand, as if in this manner he might possibly reach an explanation of the mystery.
“Not wish to be Hereditary Executioner? Why, are you not a Gottfried, the only son of a Gottfried, the only son of his father, who also was a Gottfried and Hereditary Red Axe of the Wolfmark? Why, lad, before there was a Duke at all in the Wolfsberg, before he and his folk came out of the land of the Poles to fight with the Ritterdom of the North, we, the Gottfrieds of Thorn, wore the sign of the Red Axe and dwelt apart from all the men of the Mark. For fourteen generations have we worn it!”
“But,” said I, sadly, “the very children on the street hate me and spit on me as I pass; the maids will not so much as speak to me. They scyrry in-doors and slam the wicket in my face. Think you that is pleasant? And when as a lad of older years I set out to woo, whither shall I betake me? For what door is open to a Gottfried, to him who carries the sign of the Red Axe?”
“Ah, lad,” said my father, patiently, “life comes and life goes. It is nigh on to forty years since even thus my father held out the curt mantle for me. And even so said I. Time eats up all things but the hearts of men. And they abide ever the same–yearning for that which they cannot have, but nevertheless accepting with a sharp relish the things which are decreed to them; even as do the Duke’s carrion-eaters yonder, which, by-the-way, are waiting most impatiently for their meal while we thus stand arguing.”
He was about to move away when his eye fell on Helene. At sight of her he seemed to remember my last words, about going a-wooing.
He considered a moment and then said: “You are young yet to think of courting, Hugo, but have no fear either for the love-making or the wedding. Sweet maids a many shall surely come hither. Why, there is one growing up yonder that will prove as fair as any. I tell you the Gottfrieds have married great ladies in their time–dames and dainty damsels. They have had princesses to be their sweethearts ere now. Come, then, lad–no more words, but follow me.”
And for that time I went after him obediently enough, but all the same my heart was rebellious within me. And I determined that if I had to ran to the ends of the earth, I should never be Hereditary Executioner nor yet handle the broadaxe on the bared necks of my fellow-men.
We went in among the dogs–great, lank, cowering, tooth-slavering brutes. I followed my father till we came to the feeding-troughs. Then he bade me to stand where I was till he should set their meat in order. So he vanished behind, the barriers. Then, when he had prepared the beasts’ horrid victual, though I saw not what, he opened the narrow gate, and the howling, clambering throng broke helter-skelter for the troughs, cracking and crunching the thigh-bones, tearing at the flesh, and growling at one another till the air rang with the ear-piercing din.
And outside the little Helene flung herself frantically at the split pines of the enclosure, crying, bitterly, “Take off that hateful mantle, Hugo Gottfried! I hate it–I hate it! Take it off!”
My father stood behind the dogs, whose arched and bristling backs I could just manage to see over the fence of wooden spars, and dealt the whip judicially among them–at once as a warning to encroachers and a punishment for greed.
Then all unharmed we went out, and as soon as my father had gone up to his garret-room in the tower, I tore the red cloak off and trampled it in the dirt of the yard. Then I went and hid it in a little blind window of the tower opposite the foot of the ladder which led to my father’s room. For, because of my father’s anger, I dared not destroy the badge of shame altogether, as both Helene and I wished to do.
Day by day the Little Playmate (for so I was now allowed to call her–the Princesshood being mostly forgotten) grew great and tall, her fair, almost lint-white hair darkening swiftly to coppery gold with the glint of ripe wheat upon it.
Old Hanne followed her about with eyes at once wistful and doubtful. Sometimes she shook her head sadly. And I wondered if ever the poor old stumbling crone, wizened like a two-year-old winter apple, had been as light and gay a thing as our dainty rose-leaf girl.
One day I was laboring at the art of learning to write, along with Friar Laurence–a scrawny, ill-favored monk, who, for good deeds or misdeeds, I know not which, was warded in a cell opening out of the lower or garden court of the Wolfsberg, when I heard Helene dance down the stairs to the kitchen of the Red Tower.
“Hannchen!” she cried, merrily, “come and teach me that trick of the broidering needle. I never can do it but I prick myself. Nevertheless, I can fashion the Red Axe almost as clearly as the pattern, and far finer to see.”
Friar Laurence raised his great, softly solid face, blue about the jowls and padded beneath the eyes with craft.
“That little maid is over much with old Hanne,” he said, as if he meditated to himself; “she will teach her other prickings than the needle-play. The witch-pricking at the images of wax was what brought her here. Aye, and had it not been for your father wanting a house-keeper, the Holy Office would have burned the hag, and sent her to hell, flaming like a torch of pine knots.”
Now this was the first I had heard with exactness of the matter of old Hanne’s having been a witch. And now that I knew it for certain I began to imagine all sorts of unholy things about the poor wretch, and grew greatly jealous of Helene being so often in the kitchen. Whereas before I had thought nothing at all about the matter, save that Hannchen was a dull, pleasant, muttering, shuffling-footed old woman, who could make rare good cream-cakes when you got her in the humor.
And that was not often.
DUKE CASIMIR’S FAMILIAR
I mind it was some tale of years later that I got my first glimpse below the surface of things in the town of Thorn, and especially in the castle of the Wolfsberg.
Duke Casimir continued to move, as of yore, in cavalcade through his subject city. The burghers bowed as obsequiously as ever when they could not avoid meeting him. There were the old lordly perquisitions–thunderings at iron-studded doors, battering-rams set between posts, and the clouds of dust flying from the driven lintels, the screams of maids, the crying of women, a stray corpse or two flung on to the street, and then the procession as before, arms and legs, with a mercenary soldier between each pair, fore and aft. All this was repeated and repeated, till the dull monotony of tyranny began to wear through the long Teutonic patience to the under-quick of Wendish madness.
It chanced that one night I could not sleep. It was no matter of maids that kept me awake, though by this time I was sixteen or seventeen and greatly grown–running, it is true, mostly to knees and elbows, but nevertheless long of limb and stark of bone, needing only the muscle laid on in lumps to be as strong as any.
I had begun to steal out at nights too–not on any ill errand, but that I might have the company of those about my own age–‘prentice lads and the wilder sons of burghers, who had no objection to my parentage, and thought it rather a fine thing to be hand-in-glove with the son of the Red Axe of Thorn. And there we played single-stick, smite-jacket, skittles, bowls–aye, and drank deep of the city ale–the very thinnest brew that was ever passed by a bribed and muzzy ale-taster. All this was mightily pleasant to me. For so soon as they knew that I had determined to be a soldier, and not the Red Axe of the Wolfmark, they complimented me greatly on my spirit.
Well, as I lay awake and waited for the chance to slip down a rope from my bedroom window, whose foot should I hear on the turret stairs but that of my Lord Duke Casimir! My very heart quailed within me. For the fear of him sat heavy on every man and woman in the land. And as for the children–why, as far as the Baltic shore and the land of the last Ritters, mothers frightened their bairns with the Black Duke of the Wolfsberg and his Red Axe.
So now the Duke and the Red Axe were to be in conference–as indeed had happened nearly every day and night since I could remember. So that people called my father the Duke’s Private Devil, his Familiar Spirit, his Evil Genius. But I knew other of it–and this night, of all nights in the year, I was to know better still.
It was a summer midnight–not like the one I told of when the story began, white with snow and glittering with the keen polish of frost. But a soft, still night, drowsy yet sleepless, with an itch of thunder tingling in the air–and, indeed, already the pulsing, uncertain glow of sheet-lightning coming and going at long intervals along the south.
I crouched and nestled in the hole in the wall where I had long ago hidden the hated red cloak, pulling my knees up uncomfortably to my chin. And great lumps of bone they were, knotted as if a smith had made them in the rough with a welding hammer and had forgotten to reduce them with the file afterwards. At that time I was thoroughly ashamed of my knees.
But no matter for them now. Duke Casimir passed in and shut the door.
“Gottfried,” I heard him say, “I am a dead man!”
These words from the great Duke Casimir startled me, and though I knew well enough that Michael Texel, the Burgomeister’s son, was waiting for me by the corner of the Jew’s Port, I decided that, as I might never hear Duke Casimir declare his secretest soul again, I should even bide where I was; and that was in the crevice of the wall among the old clothes, which gave off such a faint, musty, sleepy smell I could scarcely keep awake.
But the Duke’s next words effectually roused me.
“A dead man!” repeated Casimir. “I have not a friend in all the realm of the Mark besides yourself. And there is none of all that take my bounty or eat my bread that is sorry for me. See here,” he said, querulously, “twice have I been stricken at to-day–once a tile fell from a roof and dinted the crown of my helmet, and the second time a young man struck at my breast with a dagger.”
“Did he wound you, Duke Casimir?” asked my father, speaking for the first time, but in a strangely easy and equal voice, not with the distance and deference which he showed to his lord in public.
“Nay, Gottfried,” replied Duke Casimir; “but he bruised my shirt of mail into my breast.”
And I heard plainly enough the clinking of the rings of chain-armor as the Duke showed his hurt to my father. Presently I heard his voice again.
“And the Bishop has touched me in a new place,” he said. “He declares that he will lay his interdict upon me and my people–ill enough to hold in hand as they are even now. When that is done they will rise in rebellion. My very men-at-arms and knights I cannot depend upon–only upon you and the Black Riders.”
“In the matter of the Bishop’s interdict, or in other matters, do you mean that you can trust my counsel, Duke Casimir?” asked my father.
“‘Tis in the burial of the dead that the shoe will pinch first with these burghers of Thorn and among our soldiers at the Wolfsberg. For mass, indeed, they care not a dove’s dropping–but that the corpse should be carried to a dog’s grave, that they cannot away with. Red Axe, I tell you we shall have the State of the Mark about our ears in the slipping of a hound’s leash–and as for me, I know not what I shall do.”
“Listen, and I will counsel you, Duke Casimir! Care you not though the east wind brought Bishop Peters whirling over the Mark, as many as the January snowflakes that come to us from Muscovy. I, Gottfried Gottfried, tell you what to do. In every parish of the Mark there is a parson. Every clerk of them hath a Presbytery, in which he dwells with those that are abiding with him. Bid you the soldiers that are obedient to you to carry all the corpses of the dead to the Presbytery, and leave them there under guard. Then let us see whether or no the parsons will give them burial. What think you of the counsel, Duke Casimir?”
I could hear the Duke rise and pace across the floor to where my father sat on his bed. And by the silence I knew that the two men were shaking hands.
“Red Axe,” said the Duke, much moved, “of a truth you are a great man–none like you in the Dukedom. These beard-wagging, chain-jingling gentry I have small notion of. And would you but accept it, I would give you to-morrow the collar of gold which befits the Chancellor of the Mark. None deserves to wear it so well as thou.”
My father laughed a low scornful laugh.
“Because I bid you teach the parsons their own religion, am I to be made Chancellor of the Mark? A great gray wolf out of the forest were as suitable a Chancellor of the Mark as Gottfried Gottfried, the fourteenth hereditary Red Axe of Thorn!”
Then I heard him reach over his bed for something. I stole out of the hole in the wall and crouched down till my eyes rested at the great latchet hole through which the tang of leather to lift the bolt ordinarily goes. I could see my father sitting on his bed and the Red Axe lying across his knees. He took it in hand, dangling it like an infant. He caressed it as he spoke, and ran his thumb lovingly along the shining edge.
“Ah,” he said, “my beauty, ’tis you and not your master they should make High Chancellor of this realm. ‘Tis you that have held the power of life and death, and laid the spirit of rebellion any time these twenty years. And well indeed wouldst thou look with a red robe about thee” (here he reached for a cloak that swung from the rafters contiguous to his hand); “a noble presence wouldst thou be in a tun-bellied robe and a collar of shining gold! Bravely, great State’s Chancellor of the Wolfmark, wouldst thou then lead the processions and preside at the diets of justice–as indeed thou dost mostly as it is.”
And he made the Red Axe bow like a puppet in his hands as he swept the cloak of red out behind the handle.
I could see Duke Casimir now. He had drawn up a stool and sat opposite my father, with his elbows on his knees. One hand was stroking the side of his head, and his haughtiness had all fallen from him like a forgotten overmantle. He looked another man from the cruel, relentless Prince who had ridden so sternly at the head of his men-at-arms and looked so callously on at the death of men and the yet more bitter agony of women.
He stared at the floor, absorbed in his own gloomy thoughts, while my father regarded him with his eyes as though he had been a lad in his ‘prenticing who needed encouragement to persevere.
“Duke,” he said, steadily, “you have borne the rule many years, and I have stood behind you. Have I ever advised you wrong? Make peace with the young man, your nephew; he is now only the Count von Reuss, but one day he will be Duke Otho. And if he be rightly guided he may be a brave ruler yet. But if not, and he gather in his hand the various seditions and confused turbulences in the Dukedom, why, a worse thing may befall.”
“You advise me,” said the Duke, lifting his head and looking at his Justicer, “to recall my nephew and risk all that threatened us ere he fled to the Prince of Plassenburg–Karl, the Miller’s Son.”
Gottfried Gottfried continued to run his thumb to and fro along the edge of the Red Axe.
“Even so,” he replied, without raising his head; “give him the command of the Black Riders of the Guard, who, as it is, adore him. Let him try his ‘prentice hand on Bamberg and Reichenan. And if he offend, why, then it will be time to apply for further advice to this chancellor in the Red Robe, whose face so shines with wisdom.”
The Duke rose.
“Well, on your head be it!” he said.
“Nay,” said my father, “I but advise, it is for you to decide, my Lord. If Duke Casimir sees a better way of it, why, then the words of his servant are but as the tunes that the east wind whistles through the key-hole.”
And at the mention of key-holes I imagined that I saw my father’s eyes rest on the latchet crevice. So I bethought me that it was time for me to be retiring to bed. To my room, therefore, I went straightway, tiptoeing on the points of my hose. And with ears cocked I heard my father attend the Duke to the door, and on across the yard, lest any night-wandering traitor should take a fancy to make a hole in the back of Duke Casimir of the Wolfmark.
Presently came my father in again, and I heard his foot climb steadily up to my room. The door opened, and never was I in so deep a sleep. He turned down the coverlet to see that I was undressed–but that I had seen to. Whereat he departed fully satisfied.
Nevertheless this interview left me with a great feeling of insecurity. If the Duke Casimir were thus full of fears, doubts, misgivings, whence came the fierce and cruel courage with which he dominated his liege burghers and harassed the country round about for a hundred leagues? The cunning of a weak man? Say, rather, the contrivance of a strong servant to hide the frailty of a weak master.
Then first it was that I saw that my father Gottfried Gottfried was the true ruler of the Wolfmark, and that the man who had carried me on his shoulders and played with the little Helene was–at least, so long as Duke Casimir lived–the greatest man in all the Dukedom and first Councillor of State, whether the matter were one of peasant or Kaiser.
I BECOME A TRAITOR
Much was I flattered, and very naturally so, when Michael Texel made so manifest a work about pleasing me and having me for his comrade. For though I was now nineteen, he was five years my senior, and his father, being both Burgomeister and Chief Brewer, was of the first consideration in the town of Thorn.
“Hugo,” said Michael Texel, “there be many lads in the city that are well, and well enough, but none of them please me like you. It may be that your keeping so greatly to yourself has made you passing thoughtful for your age. And whereas these street-corner scraps of rascaldom care for nothing but the pleasing of pothouse Gretchens, we that are men think of the concerns of the State, and make us ready for the great things that shall one day come to pass in Thorn and the Wolfmark.”
I nodded my head as if I knew all about it. But, indeed, in my heart, I too preferred the way of the other lads–as the favor of maids, and other lighter matters. But since one so great and distinguished as Michael Texel declared that such things were but useless gauds, unworthy of thought, I considered that I had better keep my tongue tight-reined as to my own desires.
I shall now tell the manner of my introduction to the famous society of the White Wolf.
From the very first time that ever I saw him, Michael Texel had much to say about a certain wondrous league of the young men of Thorn and the Wolfmark. He told me how that every man with a heart in him was enrolled among them: the sons of the rich and great, like himself; the sons of the folk of no account (like myself, doubtless); the soldiers of the Duke–nay, it was whispered very low in my ear, that even the young Count Otho von Reuss, the Duke’s nephew and heir, had taken high rank in the society.
I asked Michael what were the declared objects of the association.
“See,” he cried, grandly, with a wave of his hand, “this city of Thorn. It lies there under the Wolfsberg. With a few cannon like Paul Grete, the Margrave’s treasure, Duke Casimir could lay our houses in ruins. Therefore, in the meantime, let us not break out against Duke Casimir. But one day there will come an end to the tyrant Duke. Tiles will not always break harmless on helmets, nor the point of steel always be turned aside by links of chain-armor. As I say, an hour will come for Casimir as for other malefactors. And then–why, there is the young Otho. And he has sworn the vows of the White Wolf to make of Thorn a free city with a Stadtholder–one with power and justice, chosen freely by the people, as in other Baltic cities. Is there a man of us that has not been plundered?–a maid that does not go in fear of her honor while Casimir reigns? Shall this thing be? Not surely forever. The White Wolf shall see to it. She has many children, and they are all dear to her. Let the Duke Casimir take his count with that!”
So, as was natural, I became after that more than ever eager to join this most notable league of the White Wolf.
One night I had sat late talking to the Little Playmate, who was now growing a great maid and a beautiful–none like her, so far as I could see, in all the city of Thorn–a circumstance which made me more ready to be of Michael Texel’s opinion with regard to any flighty and irresponsible courting of the maids of the town. For had I not the fairest and the best of them all at home close by me? On this night of which I speak it was almost bedtime when I heard a knocking at the outer port, and went to open the wicket.
And lo! there was Michael Texel come all the way to the Red Tower for me, though it was by his own trysting that we had agreed to meet at the inn of the White Swan. Nevertheless there he was. So there was nothing for it but to bring him in. I presented him in form to the Little Playmate, who had quite forgotten her Princess-ship by this time in the sweetness of being our house-angel of the Red Tower.
I saw in a moment that Michael Texel was astonished at Helene’s beauty, as indeed well he might be. But she, on her part, hardly so much as glanced at him, though he was a tall and well-grown youth enough, with nothing remarkable about him save pale hair of much the same color as his complexion, and a cut on one side of his upper lip which in certain lights gave him a sneering expression.
But to Helene he spoke very carefully and courteously, asking her whether she ever went to any of the Guild entertainments for which Thorn was famous. And upon her saying no–that my father did not think it fitting, Michael said, “I was sure of it; none could forget if once they had seen. For never in the history of Thorn has so fair a face graced Burgher dance or Guild festival, nor yet has a foot so light been shaken on the green in any of our summer outgoings.”
Now this was well enough said in its way, but only what I myself had often thought. Not that the Playmate took any notice of his words or was in any degree elated, but kept her head bent demurely on her work all the time Michael Texel was with us.
Presently there entered to us, thus sitting, Gottfried Gottfried, who had come striding gloomily across the yard in his black suit from the Hall of Judgment, and at his entrance Michael instantly became awkward, nervous, and constrained.
“I must be going,” he said; “the Burgomeister bade me be early within doors to-night.”
“Is the noble Burgomeister lodging at the White Swan?” asked my father, with his usual simple directness, as he went hither and thither ordering his utensils without heeding the visitor.
“No,” said Michael, startled out of his equanimity; “he bides in his own house by the Rath-house–the sign is that of the Three Golden Tuns.”
The Red Axe nodded.
“I had forgotten,” he said, indifferently, and stood by the great polished platter-frame over the sideboard, dropping oil on the screws of a certain cunning instrument which he was wont to use in the elucidation of the Greater Question.
I could see Michael turning yellow and green, but whether with anger or fear I could not tell. Helene, who loved not the tools of my father, had, upon his entrance, promptly gathered up her white cobwebs and lace, and had betaken herself to her own room.
“I must be bidding you a fortunate evening and wishing you an untroubled sleep,” said Michael, with studious politeness, rising to his feet. Yet he did not immediately move away, but stood awkwardly fingering his hat, as if he wished to ask a question and dared not.
“It is indeed a fine place for a sound sleep,” said my father, nodding his head grimly, “this same upper courtyard of the Wolfsberg. There are few that have once slept here, my noble young sir, who have ever again complained of wakefulness.”
At this moment the hounds in the kennels raised their fierce clamor. And, without waiting for another word, Michael Texel took himself off down the stairs of the Red Tower. Nor did he regain his composure till I had opened the wicket and ushered him out upon the street.
Then, as the postern clicked and the familiar noises of the city fell on his ear–the slapping flat-footed lasses crying “Fried Fish,” the sellers of “Hot Oyster Soup,” the yelling venders of crout and salad–Michael gradually picked up his courage, and we proceeded down the High Street of Thorn to the retired hostel of the White Swan.
“Frederika,” he cried, as he entered, “are the lads here yet?”
“Aye, sir, aye–a full muster,” answered the old mild-faced hostess, who was busily employed knitting a stocking of pale blue in the porch, looking for all the world like the sainted mother of a family of saints.
Michael Texel walked straight through a passage and down a narrow alley, the beautiful apple-cheeked old woman following us with her eyes as we went.
Our feet rang suddenly on hollow pavement as we stooped to enter a low door in the side wall, almost concealed from observation by an overgrowth of ivy.
“Halt!” cried a voice from the dusk ahead of us, and instantly there was a naked sword at each of our breasts. We heard also the click of swords meeting behind us. I turned my head, and lo! there at my very shoulder I saw the gleam of crossed steel. My heart beat a little faster; but, after all, I had been brought up with sights and sounds more terrible than these, and, more than that, I had within the hour seen Michael Texel, the high-priest of these mysteries, turn all manner of rainbow colors at the howling of our blood-hounds and a simple question from my father. So I judged that these mighty terrifications could portend no great ill to one who was the son of the formidable Red Axe of the Wolfsberg.
Sometimes it is a mighty comfortable thing to have a father like mine.
I did not hear the question which was asked of my guide, but I heard the answer.
“First in charge,” said Michael Texel, “and with him one of the Wolf’s litter.”
So we were allowed to proceed. But in the bare room which received us I was soon left alone, for, with another question as briefly asked and answered, the click of swords crossed and uncrossed before and behind him, and the screechy grind of bolts, Michael passed out of sight within. While as for me, I was left to twirl my thumbs, and wish that I had stayed at home to watch the nimble fingers of the Playmate busy at her sewing, and the rounded slenderness of her sweet body set against the light of evening, which would at that hour be shining through the windows of the Red Tower.
Nevertheless, it was no use repining or repenting. Here was I, Hugo Gottfried, the son of the Red Axe, at the inner port of a treasonable society. It was certainly a curious position; but even thus early I had begun to consider myself a sort of amateur of strange situations, and I admit that I found a certain stimulus in the thought that in an hour I might have ceased to be heir to the office of Hereditary Justicer of the ducal province of the Wolfmark.
Presently through the door there came one clothed in the long white garments of a Brother of Pity, the eye-holes dark and cavernous, and the eyes shining through the mask with a look as if the wearer were much more frightened than those who looked upon him.
“Child of the White Wolf,” he said, in a shaking voice, “would you dare all and become one of the companions of the mysteries?”
But the accent of his voice struck me, the son of Gottfried Gottfried, the dweller in the enclosure of the Red Tower, as painfully hollow and pretentious. I had looked upon real terror, even plumbed some of the grimmer mysteries of existence, and I had no fears. On the contrary, my spirits rose, and I declared my readiness to follow this paltering, knock-kneed Brother of Pity.
We stopped and went through another narrow passage, in the midst of which we were stayed by thin bars, which were shot before and behind us, and by a cold point of iron laid lightly against my brow. In this constrained position my eyes were bandaged by unseen fingers.
The starveling Brother of the Wolf took me by the hand and led me on. Then in another moment came the sense of lights and wider spaces, the rustle of many people settling down to attention; and I knew that I was in the presence of the famous secret tribunal of the White Wolf, which had been set up in defiance of the authority of the Duke and against the laws of the Mark.
AT THE BAR OF THE WHITE WOLF
“Who waits at the bar with you, brother?” said a voice which, though disguised, carried with it a suggestion of Michael Texel.
The announcement was made by the officer who brought me in.
“‘Tis one Hugo Gottfried, son of Gottfried Gottfried, hereditary executioner to the tyrant.”
I could hear the thrill of interest which pervaded the assembly at the announcement. And for the first time I thought almost well of the honorable office to which I had been born.
“And what do you here, son of the Red Axe, in the place of the Sacred Fehme of the White Wolf?”
The question was the first addressed directly to me.
“I came,” said I, as straightforwardly and simply as I could, “with Michael Texel, because he asked me to come. And also because I heard that there was good ale to be had for the drinking at the White Swan of Thorn, where we are now met.”
A low moan of horror went about the assembly at the frivolity of my answer, which plainly was not what had been expected.
“Daring mocker!” cried a stern voice, “you speak as one unacquainted with the dread power of the White Wolf, which has within her grasp the keys of life and death–and has suckled great empires at her dugs. Beware, tempt not the All-powerful to exercise her right of axe and cord!”
“I do not tempt any,” answered I, boldly enough–yet with no credit to myself, for I could have laughed aloud at all this hollow pretence, having been brought up within the range of that which was no mockery. “I am willing to become a loyal member of the Society of the White Wolf for the furtherance of any honest purpose. All things, I admit, are not well within the body politic. Let us, in the city of Thorn, strive after the same rights as are possessed by the Free Cities of the North. If that be your object, the son of the Red Axe is with you–with you to the death, if need be. But for God’s sake let us take off these masks and set ourselves down to the tankard and the good brown bread with less mummery–a sham of which others have the reality.”
“Peace, vain, ignorant fly!” cried the same speaker, one with a young voice, which he was trying, as I thought, to make grave and old; “terror must first strike your heart, or you cannot sit down with the Society of the White Wolf. You stand convicted of blasphemy against this our ancient and honorable institution–blasphemy which must be suddenly and terribly punished. Hugo Gottfried, I command you–make your head ready for the striker. Bare the neck and bow the knee!”
But I stood as erect as I could, though I felt hands laid upon my shoulders and the breathing of many close about me.
“Knights and gentlemen,” said I, “I am not afraid to die, if need be. But ere you do your will upon me, I would fain tell you a tale and give you a warning. Here I am one among many. I am also of your opinion, if your opinion be against tyranny. But for God’s sake seek it as wise men and not as posturing knaves. As for Michael Texel–“
“Name not the mortal names of men in this place of the White Wolf!” said the same grave voice.
At which I laughed a little.
“If you will tell me what to say instead in the language of the immortals, I will call my friend by that name. Till then Michael Texel, I say–“
I was pulled by force down upon my knees.
“Your pleasure, gentlemen,” said I, as coolly as I might; “you may do with me as you will, but give me at least leave to speak. Your meetings here at the White Swan are known to the Red Axe, my father, and therefore to the Duke Casimir.”
A low groan filled the wide hall. I could feel that my words touched them on the raw.
“Also this very night I saw one of your noblest members tremble with alarm–for the Society, not for himself, I warrant–when Gottfried Gottfried spake lightly of your meetings here as of a thing well known. I am not afraid of my life. In the sight of my father I went forth from the Red Tower in the company of Michael Texel. He knew of your place of meeting. And well I wot that if I am not within the precincts of the Red Tower by midnight, the officers of Duke Casimir and his Judgment Hall will come knocking at these doors of yours. I ask you, are you ready to open?”
“Rash mortal!” said the voice again to me, “you mistake the White Wolf if you think that she or her children are afraid of any tyrant or of his officers. You yourself shall die, as has been appointed. For none may speak lightly of the White Wolf and live to tell the tale!”
“So be it,” I replied, calmly; “but first let me recount to you the story of Hans Pulitz. Not for the hiding of a belt of gold, as men say, was he condemned. But because he had plotted against the life of the Duke and of his minister of justice, the Red Axe. Would you know what happened? I will tell you briefly:
“Ten men, accounted strong, held Hans Pulitz. Ten men could scarce lead him through the court-yard to the chair on which sat Duke Casimir. I saw him judged. Was he not of the White Wolf? Did the White Wolf save him? Have her teeth ravened for those that condemned him? Or have you that are of that noble society kept close in your halls and played out your puppet shows, while poor Hans, who was faithful to you to the end, went–whither?”
A sough of angry whispering filled the room, rising presently into a roar of indignation.
“Traitor! Murderer! Spy!” they cried.
“Nay,” said I, “‘fore God, Hugo Gottfried was more sorry for the poor deceived slave than any here. For, in the presence of the Duke, I cried out against the horror. But being no more than a boy, I was stricken to silence by the hand of a man-at-arms. Then I saw Hans Pulitz cast loose. I saw him seized by one man–even by the Red Axe–raised high in the air, and flung over the barriers among the ravening and leaping blood-hounds. I heard the hideous noises that followed–the yells of a man fighting for his life in a place of fiends. I shut my ears with my hands, yet could I not shut out that clangor of hell. I shut my eyes, closer than you have shut them for me now. I fled, I knew not where, terror pursuing me. And yet I saw, and do now see, the Duke sitting with crossed hands as if at prayers, and the Red Axe standing motionless before the men-at-arms, pointing with one hand to the Duke’s vengeance! Shall I tell you now why I am not afraid?”
After hearing these words it was small wonder that they cried yet more against me.
“Death to the traitor–bloody death–like that which he has rejoiced in!”
“Nay, my friends,” said I, “it was because of the death of Hans Pulitz and that of others that I would strengthen the hands of liberty and make an end of tyranny. But not, an’ it please you, with child’s plays and the cast-off garmentry of tyrants. What can you do to me in the Inn of the Swan that can equal the end of poor Hans Pulitz–of whom they found neither bone nor hair, took up no fragment of skin or nail, save the golden chain only, tooth-scarred and beslavered, which he wore about his waist. And the belt you may see for yourselves any day if you give me your company within the Red Tower.”
Now, as may well be understood, if the Society of the White Wolf was angry before, it was both angry and frightened now, which is a thing infinitely more dangerous.
“Let him die straightway! Let the taunting blasphemer die!” they cried. And again, for the third time, the hollow voice pronounced my doom.
“It is well,” I shouted amid the din. “It is thrice well. But look ye to it. By the morrow’s morn there shall not be one of you in your beds–aye, and those whose heads are rolled in the dust shall count yourselves the fortunate ones. For they at least will escape the fate of poor Hans Pulitz.”
Now sorely do I wonder, at this distance of time, that they did not slay me in good earnest. But I have learned from that night in the Inn of the Swan that when defiance has to be made, it is ever best to deal in no half-measures. And, besides, coming from the Red Tower of the Wolfsberg, their precious Society of the White Wolf, with its mummery and flummery, filled me with a hot contempt.
“Kneel down!” cried the judge; “lay your head on the block! It has often been wet with the blood of traitors, never with that of a blacker traitor than Hugo Gottfried!”
So with that those about me thrust me forward and forced my head down. I was obliged to clasp the block with both my hands. As I did so I felt it well all over. Then I laughed aloud, with a laugh that must have appeared strange and mad to them.
For this their mock tribunal could not deceive one who had been brought up within the hum of judges of life and death, and with a father who as his daily business propounded the Greater and Lesser Questions. And their precious block, as smooth as sawn and polished timber, with never a notch from side to side, could not take in Hugo Gottfried, who had made a playmate and a printed book of the worn blocks of a hundred executions–to whom each separate chip made by the Red Axe had been a text for Gottfried Gottfried to expatiate upon concerning his own prowess and that of his fathers.
Nevertheless, it certainly gave me a strange turn when ice-cold steel was laid across my neck-bone. It burned like fire, turning my very marrow to water, and for the first time I wished myself well out of it. But only for a moment.
For there came a loud rattling of arms without, a thunderous and insistent knocking at the door, which disturbed the assembly.
“Open, in the name of the Duke!” cried, clamorously, many fierce voices without. I heard the rush and scuffle of a multitude of feet. The hands that had held me abruptly loosened their grip, and I was free. I raised my bound wrists to my brow and tried to push the bandage back. But it was firmly tied, and it was but dimly that I saw the hall of the White Wolf filled with the armed men of the Duke’s body-guard, boisterously laughing, with their hands on their sides, or kicking over the mock throne covered with white cloth, the coils of rope, the axes of painted wood, and the other properties of this very faint-hearted Fehmgericht.
“But what have we here?” they cried, when they came upon me, bound and helpless, with the bandage only half pushed off my eyes.
“Heave him up on his pins, and let us look at him,” quoth a burly guardsman. “I trust he is no one of any account. I want not to see another such job done on a poor scheming knave like that last, when the Duke Casimir settled accounts with Hans Pulitz!”
“Ha! ha!” laughed his companion; “a rare jest, i’ faith; ’tis the son of our own Red Axe–a prisoner of the White Wolf and ready for the edge. We came not a moment too soon, youngster. What do you here?”
“Why,” said I, “it chanced that I spoke slightingly of their precious nonsense of a White Wolf. But they dared not do me harm. They were all more frightened than a giggling maiden is of the dark, when no man is with her.”
Then I saw my father at the end of the hall. He came towards me, clad in his black Tribunal costume.
“Well,” he said, quaintly, like one that has a jest with himself which he will not tell, “have you had enough of marching hand-in-glove with treason? I wot this mummery of the White Wolf will serve you for some time.”
I was proceeding to tell him all that had passed, but he patted me on the shoulder.
“I heard it all, lad, and you did well enough–save for your windiness about liberty and the Free Cities–which, as I see it, are by far the worst tyrannies. But, after all, you spoke as became a Gottfried, and one day, I doubt not, you shall worthily learn the secrets, bear the burden, and enlarge the honors of the fourteen Red Axes of the Wolfmark.”
A HERO CARRIES WATER IN THE SUN
With all which adventuring and bepraisement back and forth, as those who know nineteen will readily be assured, I went home no little elated. For had I not come without dishonor through a new and remarkable experience, and even defied the Mystery of the White Wolf, at perhaps more risk to myself than at the time I had imagined. For, as I found afterwards, there were those among the company at the Swan that night of sterner mould and more serious make than Michael Texel.
But, at all events, home to the Red Tower I strode, whistling, and in a very cocksure humor.
The little Helene was going about her house duties silently and distantly when I came down from my turret room on the forenoon of the morrow. She did not come forward to be kissed, as had been her wont every morning ever since I carried her, a little forlorn maid, up to mine own bed that chill winter’s night.
“A good-morrow, Little Playmate!” I bade her, gayly. For my heart was singing a good tune, well pleased with itself and willing to be at amity with every one else–counting indeed, as is the wont of brisk hearts, a gloomy face little less than a personal insult.
But the maid did not answer, neither indeed did she seem to have heard me.
“I bade you fair good-morning, Helene,” said I, again, stopping in my walk across to my breakfast platter.
But still she was silent, casting sand upon the tiled floor and sweeping it up with great vigor, all her fair body swaying and yielding to the grace, of movement at every stroke. Strange, it seemed she was now just about the age when I developed those nodosities of knee and elbow which troubled me so sore, but yet there was nothing of the kind about her, only delicate slimness and featly rounded grace.
I went over to her, and would have set my palm affectionately on her shoulder. But she escaped, just as a bird does when you try to put your hand upon it. It does not seem to fly off. It simply is not there when your hand reaches the place.
“Let be,” she said, looking upon me haughtily. “By what right do you seek to touch me, sir?”
“Sweetheart,” said I, following her, and much astonished, “because I have always done it and you never objected before.”
“When I was a child, and when you loved me as a child, it was well. But now, when I am neither a child nor yet do you love me, I would have you cease to treat me as you have done.”
“You are indeed no longer a child, but the fairest of sweet maids,” I made answer. “I will do nothing you do not wish me to do. For, hearken to me, Helene, my heart is bound up in you, as indeed you know. But as to the second word of accusation–that I do not love you anymore–“
“You do not–you cannot!” she interrupted, “or you would not go out with Michael Texel all night to drinking-places, and worse, keeping your father and those that _do_ love awake, hurting their hearts here” (she put her hand on her side), “and all for what–that you may drink and revel and run into danger with your true friends?”
“Sweetheart,” I began–penitently.
The Little Playmate made a gesture of infinite impatience.
“Do not call me that,” she said; “you have no right. I am not your sweetheart. You have no heart at all to love any one with, or you would not behave as you have done lately. You are naught but a silly, selfish boy, that cares for nothing but his own applause and thinks that he has nothing to do but to come home when his high mightiness is ready and find us all on our knees before him, saying: ‘Put your foot, great sir, on our necks–so shall we be happy and honored.'”
Now this was so perilously near the truth that I was mightily incensed, and I felt that I did well to be angry.
“Girl,” I said, grandly, “you do not know what you say. I have been abroad all night on the service of the State, and I have discovered a most dangerous conspiracy at the peril of my life!”
For I thought it was as well to put the best face on the matter; and, besides, I have never been able, all the days of me, to hide my light under a bushel, as the clerks prate about.
But I was not yet done with my adventuring of this eventful day. And in spite of my father setting me, like a misbehaving bairn, to the drudgery of the water-carrying, there was more in life for me that day than merely hauling upon a handle. For that is a thing which galls an aspiring youth worse than any other labor, being so terribly monotonous.
As for me, I did not take kindly to it at all–not even though I could see mine own image deep in the pails of water as they came up brimming and cool out of the fern-grown dripping darkness of the well. Aye, and though the image given back to me was (I say it only of that time) a likely enough picture of a lad with short, crisped locks that curled whenever they were wet, cheeks like apples, and skin that hath always been a trouble to me. For I thought it unmanly and like a girl’s. And that same skin of mine is, perhaps, the reason why all my days I never could abide your buttermilk-and-roses girls, having a supply about me enough to serve a dozen, and therefore thinking but little of their stock-in-trade.
Now in the Wolfmark this is the common kind of beauty–not that beauty of any kind is over-common. For our maids–especially those of the country–look too much as if they had been made out of wooden pillows such as laborers use to lay their heads on of nights–one large bolster set on the top of two other little ones, and all three well wadded with ticking and feathers. But I hope no one will go back to the Wolfmark and tell the maids that Hugo Gottfried said this of them, or of a surety my left ear will tingle with the running of their tongues if there be any truth in the old saw.
It was three of the clock and the sun was very fierce on the dusty, unslaked yard of the Wolfsberg, glaring down upon us like the mouth of a wide smelter’s oven. Fat Fritz, the porter, in his arm-chair of a cell, had well-nigh dissolved into lard and running out at his own door. The Playmate’s window was open, and I caught the waft of a fan to and fro. I judged therefore that my lady knew well that I was working out there in the heat, and was glad of it–being a spiteful pretty minx.
Then I began to wonder who had given her that fan, for it was not like my father to do it, and she knew no other. “Ah!” I said to myself, as a thought struck me, “could it possibly be Michael Texel? He is rich, and Helene may have known him before. The cunning, dark-eyed little vagabond–to take my introduction yester-even as if she had never set eyes on the fellow before, while here it is as clear as daylight that he had all the time been giving her presents–fans and such like.”
So I raved within me, half because I believed it, and half because she seemed so comfortable up there, with her feet on a stool and a cool jug of curds at her elbow, while I sweated and labored in the sun.
Very decidedly it must be Texel; devil fly up with him and scratch him among the gargoyles of the minster!