Wilhelm awaited with impatience the passing of the half hour the Empress had fixed as the period of his probation, for he was anxious to have the signed pardon for the outlaws actually in his hand, fearing the intrigues of the court might at the last moment bring about its withdrawal.
When the time had elapsed he presented himself at the door of the Red Room and was admitted by the guard. He found the Empress alone, and she advanced toward him with a smile on her face, which banished the former hardness of expression.
"Forgive me," she said, "my seeming discourtesy in the Great Hall. I am surrounded by spies, and doubtless Mayence already knows that your outlaws have been pardoned, but that will merely make him more easy about the safety of his cathedral town, especially as he holds Baron von Weithoff their former leader. I was anxious that it should also be reported to him that I had received you somewhat ungraciously. Your wife is to take up her abode in the palace, as she refuses to leave Frankfort if you remain here. She tells me the outlaws are brave men."
"The bravest in the world, your Majesty."
"And that they will follow you unquestioningly."
"They would follow me to the gates of--" He paused, and added as if in afterthought--"to the gates of Heaven."
The lady smiled again.
"From what I have heard of them," she said, "I feared their route lay in another direction, but I have need of reckless men, and although I hand you their pardon freely, it is not without a hope that they will see fit to earn it."
"Strong bodies and loyal souls, we belong to your Majesty. Command and we will obey, while life is left us."
"Do you know the present situation of the Imperial Crown, my Lord?"
"I understand it is in jeopardy through the act of the Electors, who, it is thought, will depose the Emperor and elect a tool of their own. I am also aware that the Imperial troops have been disbanded, and that there will be four thousand armed and trained men belonging to the Electors within the walls of Frankfort before many days are past."
"Yes. What can five hundred do against four thousand?"
"We could capture the gates and prevent the entry of Treves and Cologne."
"I doubt that, for there are already two thousand troops obeying Mayence and the Count Palatine now in Frankfort. I fear we must meet strength by craft. The first step is to get your five hundred secretly into this city. The empty barracks stand against the city wall; if you quartered your score of Schonburg men there, they could easily assist your five hundred to scale the wall at night, and thus your force would be at hand concealed in the barracks without knowledge of the archbishops. Treves and his men will be here to-morrow, before it would be possible for you to capture the gates, even if such a design were practicable. I am anxious above all things to avoid bloodshed, and any plan you have to propose must be drafted with that end in view."
"I will ride to the place where my outlaws are encamped on the Rhine, having first quartered the Schonburg men in the barracks with instructions regarding our reception. If the tales which the spies tell the Archbishop of Mayence concerning my arrival and reception at court lead his lordship to distrust me, he will command the guards at the gate not to re-admit me. By to-morrow morning, or the morning after at latest, I expect to occupy the barracks with five hundred and twenty men, making arrangement meanwhile for the quiet provisioning of the place. When I have consulted Gottlieb, who is as crafty as Satan himself, I shall have a plan to lay before your Majesty."
Wilhelm took leave of the Empress, gave the necessary directions to the men he left behind him, and rode through the western gate unmolested and unquestioned. The outlaws hailed him that evening with acclamations that re-echoed from the hills which surrounded them, and their cheers redoubled when Wilhelm presented them with the parchment which made them once more free citizens of the Empire. That night they marched in, five companies, each containing a hundred men, and the cat's task of climbing the walls of Frankfort in the darkness before the dawn, merely gave a pleasant fillip to the long tramp. Daylight, found them sound asleep, sprawling on the floors of the huge barracks.
When Wilhelm explained the situation to Gottlieb the latter made light of the difficulty, as his master expected he would.
"'Tis the easiest thing in the world," he said.
"There are the Mayence men quartered in the Leinwandhaus. The men of Treves are here, let us say, and the men of Cologne there. Very well, we divide our company into four parties, as there is also the Count Palatine to reckon with. We tie ropes round the houses containing these sleeping men, set fire to the buildings all at the same time, and, pouf! burn the vermin where they lie. The hanging of the four Electors after, will be merely a job for a dozen of our men, and need not occupy longer than while one counts five score."
"Your plan has the merit of simplicity, Gottlieb, but it does not fall in with the scheme of the Empress, who is anxious that everything be accomplished legally and without bloodshed. But if we can burn them, we can capture them, imprisonment being probably more to the taste of the vermin, as you call them, than cremation, and equally satisfactory to us. Frankfort prison is empty, the Emperor having recently liberated all within it. The place will amply accommodate four thousand men. Treves has arrived to-day with much pomp, and Cologne will be here to- morrow. To-morrow night the Electors hold their first meeting in the election chamber of the Romer. While they are deliberating, do you think you and your five hundred could lay four thousand men by the heels and leave each bound and gagged in the city prison with good strong bolts shot in on them?"
"Look on it as already done, my Lord. It is a task that requires speed, stealth and silence, rather than strength. The main point is to see that no alarm is prematurely given, and that no fugitive from one company escape to give warning to the others. We fall upon sleeping men, and if some haste is used, all are tied and gagged before they are full awake."
"Very well. Make what preparations are necessary, as this venture may be wrecked through lack of a cord or a gag, so see that you have everything at hand, for we cannot afford to lose a single trick. The stake, if we fail, is our heads."
Wilhelm sought the Empress to let her know that he had got his men safely housed in Frankfort, and also to lay before her his plan for depositing the Electors' followers in prison.
Brunhilda listened to his enthusiastic recital in silence, then shook her head slowly.
"How can five hundred men hope to pinion four thousand?" she asked. "It needs but one to make an outcry from an upper window, and, such is the state of tension in Frankfort at the present moment that the whole city will be about your ears instantly, thus bringing forth with the rest the comrades of those you seek to imprison."
"My outlaws are tigers, your Majesty. The Electors' men will welcome prison, once the Hundsrueckers are let loose on them."
"Your outlaws may understand the ways of the forest, but not those of a city."
"Well, your Majesty, they have sacked Coblentz, if that is any recommendation for them."
The reply of the Empress seemed irrelevant.
"Have you ever seen the hall in which the Emperors are nominated--or deposed?" she asked.
"No, your Majesty."
"Then follow me."
The lady led him along a passage that seemed interminable, then down a narrow winding stair, through a vaulted tunnel, the dank air of which struck so cold and damp that the young man felt sure it was subterranean; lastly up a second winding stair, at the top of which, pushing aside some hanging tapestry, they stood within the noble chamber known as the Wahlzimmer. The red walls were concealed by hanging tapestry, the rich tunnel groining of the roof was dim in its lofty obscurity. A long table occupied the centre of the room, with three heavily-carved chairs on either side, and one, as ponderous as a throne, at the head.
"There," said the Empress, waving her hand, "sit the seven Electors when a monarch of this realm is to be chosen. There, to-morrow night will sit a majority of the Electoral College. In honour of this assemblage I have caused these embroidered webs to be hung round the walls, so you see, I, too, have a plan. Through this secret door which the Electors know nothing of, I propose to admit a hundred of your men to be concealed behind the tapestry. My plan differs from yours in that I determine to imprison four men, while you would attempt to capture four thousand; I consider therefore that my chances of success, compared with yours, are as a thousand to one. I strike at the head; you strike at the body. If I paralyse the head, the body is powerless."
Wilhelm knit his brows, looked around the room, but made no reply.
"Well," cried the Empress, impatiently, "I have criticised your plan; criticise mine if you find a flaw in it."
"Is it your Majesty's intention to have the men take their places behind the hangings before the archbishops assemble?"
"Then you will precipitate a conflict before all the Electors are here, for it is certain that the first prince to arrive will have the place thoroughly searched for spies. So momentous a meeting will never be held until all fear of eavesdroppers is allayed."
"That is true, Wilhelm," said the Empress with a sigh, "then there is nothing left but your project; which I fear will result in a melee and frightful slaughter."
"I propose, your Majesty, that we combine the two plans. We will imprison as many as may be of the archbishops' followers and then by means of the secret stairway surround their lordships."
"But they will, in the silence of the room, instantly detect the incoming of your men."
"Not so, if the panel which conceals the stair, work smoothly. My men are like cats, and their entrance and placement will not cause the most timid mouse to cease nibbling."
"The panel is silent enough, and it may be that your men will reach their places without betraying their presence to the archbishops, but it would be well to instruct your leaders that in case of discovery they are to rush forward, without waiting for your arrival or mine, hold the door of the Wahlzimmer at all hazards, and see that no Elector escapes. I am firm in my belief that once the persons of the archbishops are secured, this veiled rebellion ends, whether you imprison your four thousand or not, for I swear by my faith that if their followers raise a hand against me, I will have the archbishops slain before their eyes, even though I go down in disaster the moment after."
The stern determination of the Empress would have inspired a less devoted enthusiast than Wilhelm. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"There will be no disaster to the Empress," he said, fervently.
They retired into the palace by the way they came, carefully closing the concealed panel behind them.
As Wilhelm passed through the front gates of the Palace to seek Gottlieb at the barracks, he pondered over the situation and could not conceal from himself the fact that the task he had undertaken was almost impossible of accomplishment. It was an unheard of thing that five hundred men should overcome eight times their number and that without raising a disturbance in so closely packed a city as Frankfort, where, as the Empress had said, the state of tension was already extreme. But although he found that the pessimism of the Empress regarding his project was affecting his own belief in it, he set his teeth resolutely and swore that if it failed it would not be through lack of taking any precaution that occurred to him.
At the barracks he found Gottlieb in high feather. The sight of his cheerful, confident face revived the drooping spirits of the young man.
"Well, master," he cried, the freedom of outlawry still in the abruptness of his speech, "I have returned from a close inspection of the city."
"A dangerous excursion" said Wilhelm. "I trust no one else left the barracks."
"Not another man, much as they dislike being housed, but it was necessary some one should know where our enemies are placed. The Archbishop of Treves, with an assurance that might have been expected of him, has stalled his men in the cathedral, no less, but a most excellent place for our purposes. A guard at each door, and there you are.
"Ah, he has selected the cathedral not because of his assurance, but to intercept any communication with the Emperor, who is in the cloisters attached to it, and doubtless his lordship purposes to crown the new emperor before daybreak at the high altar. The design of the archbishop is deeper than appears on the surface, Gottlieb. His men in the cathedral gives him possession of the Wahlkapelle where emperors are elected, after having been nominated in the Wahlzimmer. His lordship has a taste for doing things legally. Where are the men of Cologne?"
"In a church also; the church of St. Leonhard on the banks of the Main. That is as easily surrounded and is as conveniently situated as if I had selected it myself. The Count Palatine's men are in a house near the northern gate, a house which has no back exit, and therefore calls but for the closing of a street. Nothing could be better."
"But the Drapers' Hall which holds the Mayence troops, almost adjoins the cathedral. Is there not a danger in this circumstance that a turmoil in the one may be heard in the other?"
"No, because we have most able allies."
"What? the townsmen? You have surely taken none into your confidence, Gottlieb?"
"Oh, no, my Lord. Our good copartners are none other than the archbishops themselves. It is evident they expect trouble to-morrow, but none to-night. Orders have been given that all their followers are to get a good night's rest, each man to be housed and asleep by sunset. The men of both Treves and Cologne are tired with their long and hurried march and will sleep like the dead. We will first attack the men of Mayence surrounding the Leinwandhaus, and I warrant you that no matter what noise there is, the Treves people will not hear. Then being on the spot, we will, when the Mayence soldiers are well bound, tie up those in the cathedral. I purpose if your lordship agrees to leave our bound captives where they are, guarded by a sufficient number of outlaws, in case one attempts to help the other, until we have pinioned those of Cologne and the Count Palatine. When this is off our minds we can transport all our prisoners to the fortress at our leisure."
Thus it was arranged, and when night fell on the meeting of the Electors, so well did Gottlieb and his men apply themselves to the task that before an hour had passed the minions of the Electors lay packed in heaps in the aisles and the rooms where they lodged, to be transported to the prison at the convenience of their captors.
Many conditions favoured the success of the seemingly impossible feat. Since the arrival of the soldiery there had been so many night brawls in the streets that one more or less attracted little attention, either from the military or from the civilians. The very boldness and magnitude of the scheme was an assistance to it. Then the stern cry of "In the name of the Emperor!" with which the assaulters once inside cathedral, church or house, fell upon their victims, deadened opposition, for the common soldiers, whether enlisted by Treves, Cologne, or Mayence, knew that the Emperor was over all, and they had no inkling of the designs of their immediate masters. Then, as Gottlieb had surmised, the extreme fatigue of the followers of Treves and Cologne, after their toilsome march from their respective cities, so overcame them that many went to sleep when being conveyed from church and cathedral to prison. There was some resistance on the part of officers, speedily quelled by the victorious woodlanders, but aside from this there were few heads broken, and the wish of the Empress for a bloodless conquest was amply fulfilled.
Two hours after darkness set in, Gottlieb, somewhat breathless, saluted his master at the steps of the palace and announced that the followers of the archbishops and the Count Palatine were behind bars in the Frankfort prison, with a strong guard over them to discourage any attempt at jailbreaking. When Wilhelm led his victorious soldiery silently up the narrow secret stair, pushed back, with much circumspection and caution, the sliding panel, listened for a moment to the low murmur of their lordships' voices, waited until each of his men had gone stealthily behind the tapestry, listened again and still heard the drone of speech, he returned as he came, and accompanied by a guard of two score, escorted the Empress to the broad public stairway that led up one flight to the door of the Wahlzimmer. The two sentinels at the foot of the stairs crossed their pikes to bar the entrance of Brunhilda, but they were overpowered and gagged so quickly and silently that their two comrades at the top had no suspicion of what was going forward until they had met a similar fate. The guards at the closed door, more alert, ran forward, only to be carried away with their fellow-sentinels. Wilhelm, his sword drawn, pushed open the door and cried, in a loud voice:
"My Lords, I am commanded to announce to you that her Majesty the Empress honours you with her presence."
It would have been difficult at that moment to find four men in all Germany more astonished than were the Electors. They saw the young man who held open the door, bow low, then the stately lady so sonorously announced come slowly up the hall and stand silently before them. Wilhelm closed the door and set his back against it, his naked sword still in his right hand. Three of the Electors were about to rise to their feet, but a motion of the hand by the old man of Treves, who sat the head of the table, checked them.
"I have come," said the Empress in a low voice, but distinctly heard in the stillness of the room, "to learn why you are gathered here in Frankfort and in the Wahlzimmer, where no meeting has taken place for three hundred years, except on the death of an emperor."
"Madame," said the Elector of Treves, leaning back in his chair and placing the tips of his fingers together before him, "all present have the right to assemble in this hall unquestioned, with the exception of yourself and the young man who erroneously styled you Empress, with such unnecessary flourish, as you entered. You are the wife of our present Emperor, but under the Salic law no woman can occupy the German throne. If flatterers have misled you by bestowing a title to which you have no claim, and if the awe inspired by that spurious appellation has won your admission past ignorant guards who should have prevented your approach, I ask that you will now withdraw, and permit us to resume deliberations that should not have been interrupted."
"What is the nature of those deliberations, my Lord?"
"The question is one improper for you to ask. To answer it would be to surrender our rights as Electors of the Empire. It is enough for you to be assured, madame, that we are lawfully assembled, and that our purposes are strictly legal."
"You rest strongly on the law, my Lord, so strongly indeed that were I a suspicious person I might surmise that your acts deserved strict scrutiny. I will appeal to you, then, in the name of the law. Is it the law of this realm that he who directly or indirectly conspires against the peace and comfort of his emperor is adjudged a traitor, his act being punishable by death?"
"The law stands substantially as you have cited it, madame, but its bearing upon your presence in this room is, I confess, hidden from me."
"I shall endeavour to enlighten you, my Lord. Are you convened here to further the peace and comfort of his Majesty the Emperor?"
"We devoutly trust so, madame. His Majesty is so eminently fitted for a cloister, rather than for domestic bliss or the cares of state, that we hope to pleasure him by removing all barriers in his way to a monastery."
"Then until his Majesty is deposed you are, by your own confession, traitors."
"Pardon me, madame, but the law regarding traitors which you quoted with quite womanly inaccuracy, and therefore pardonable, does not apply to eight persons within this Empire, namely, the seven Electors and the Emperor himself."
"I have been unable to detect the omission you state, my Lord. There are no exceptions, as I read the law."
"The exceptions are implied, madame, if not expressly set down, for it would be absurd to clothe Electors with a power in the exercise of which they would constitute themselves traitors. But this discussion is as painful as it is futile, and therefore it must cease. In the name of the Electoral College here in session assembled, I ask you to withdraw, madame."
"Before obeying your command, my Lord Archbishop, there is another point which I wish to submit to your honourable body, so learned in the law. I see three vacant chairs before me, and I am advised that it is illegal to depose an emperor unless all the members of the college are present and unanimous."
"Again you have been misinformed. A majority of the college elects; a majority can depose, and in retiring to private life, madame, you have the consolation of knowing that your intervention prolonged your husband's term of office by several minutes. For the third time I request you to leave this room, and if you again refuse I shall be reluctantly compelled to place you under arrest. Young man, open the door and allow this woman to pass through."
"I would have you know, my Lord," said Wilhelm, "that I am appointed commander of the imperial forces, and that I obey none but his Majesty the Emperor."
"I understood that the Emperor depended upon the Heavenly Hosts," said the Archbishop, with the suspicion of a smile on his grim lips.
"It does not become a prince of the Church to sneer at Heaven or its power," said the Empress, severely.
"Nothing was further from my intention, madame, but you must excuse me if I did not expect to see the Heavenly Hosts commanded by a young man so palpably German. Still all this is aside from the point. Will you retire, or must I reluctantly use force?"
"I advise your lordship not to appeal to force."
The old man of Treves rose slowly to his feet, an ominous glitter in his eyes. He stood for some minutes regarding angrily the woman before him, as if to give her time to reconsider her stubborn resolve to hold her ground. Then raising his voice the Elector cried:
"Men of Treves! enter!"
While one might count ten, dense silence followed this outcry, the seated Electors for the first time glancing at their leader with looks of apprehension.
"Treves! Treves! Treves!"
That potent name reverberated from the lips of its master, who had never known its magic to fail in calling round him stout defenders, and who could not yet believe that its power should desert him at this juncture. Again there was no response.
"As did the prophet of old, ye call on false gods."
The low vibrant voice of the Empress swelled like the tones of a rich organ as the firm command she had held over herself seemed about to depart.
"Lord Wilhelm, give them a name, that carries authority in its sound."
Wilhelm strode forward from the door, raised his glittering sword high above his head and shouted:
"THE EMPEROR! Cheer, ye woodland wolves!"
With a downward sweep of his sword, he cut the two silken cords which, tied to a ring near the door, held up the tapestry. The hangings fell instantly like the drop curtain of a theatre, its rustle overwhelmed in the vociferous yell that rang to the echoing roof.
"Forward! Close up your ranks!"
With simultaneous movement the men stepped over the folds on the floor and stood shoulder to shoulder, an endless oval line of living warriors, surrounding the startled group in the centre of the great hall.
Four men, with ropes wound round their bodies, detached themselves from the circle, and darting to the four corners of the room, climbed like squirrels until they reached the tunnelled roofing, where, making their way to the centre with a dexterity that was marvellous, they threw their ropes over the timbers and came spinning down to the floor, like gigantic spiders, each suspended on his own line. The four men, looped nooses in hand, took up positions behind the four Electors, all of whom were now on their feet. Wilhelm saluted the Empress, bringing the hilt of his sword to his forehead, and stepped back.
The lady spoke:
"My Lords, learned in the law, you will perhaps claim with truth that there is no precedent for hanging an Electoral College, but neither is there precedent for deposing an Emperor. It is an interesting legal point on which we shall have definite opinion pronounced in the inquiry which will follow the death of men so distinguished as yourselves, and if it should be held that I have exceeded my righteous authority in thus pronouncing sentence upon you as traitors, I shall be nothing loath to make ample apology to the state."
"Such reparation will be small consolation to us, your Majesty," said the Archbishop of Cologne, speaking for the first time. "My preference is for an ante-mortem rather than a post-mortem adjustment of the law. My colleague of Treves, in the interests of a better understanding, I ask you to destroy the document of deposition, which you hold in your hand, and which I beg to assure her Majesty, is still unsigned."
The trembling fingers of the Archbishop of Treves proved powerless to tear the tough parchment, so he held it for a moment until it was consumed in the flame of a taper which stood on the table.
"And now, your Majesty, speaking entirely for myself, I give you my word as a prince of the Church and a gentlemen of the Empire, that my vote as an Elector will always be against the deposition of the Emperor, for I am convinced that imperial power is held in firm and capable hands."
The great prelate of Cologne spoke as one making graceful concession to a lady, entirely uninfluenced by the situation in which he so unexpectedly found himself. A smile lit up the face of the Empress as she returned his deferential bow.
"I accept your word with pleasure, my Lord, fully assured that, once given, it will never be tarnished by any mental reservation."
"I most cordially associate myself with my brother of Cologne and take the same pledge," spoke up his Lordship of Mayence.
The Count Palatine of the Rhine moistened his dry lips and said:
"I was misled by ambition, your Majesty, and thus in addition to giving you my word, I crave your imperial pardon as well."
The Archbishop of Treves sat in his chair like a man collapsed. He had made no movement since the burning of the parchment. All eyes were turned upon him in the painful stillness. With visible effort he enunciated in deep voice the two words: "And I."
The face of the Empress took on a radiance that had long been absent from it.
"It seems, my Lords, that there has been merely a slight misunderstanding, which a few quiet words and some legal instruction has entirely dissipated. To seal our compact, I ask you all to dine with me to-morrow night, when I am sure it will afford intense gratification to prelates so pious as yourselves to send a message to his Majesty the Emperor, informing him that his trust in Providence has not been misplaced."