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While the long line of troops stood at salute in single file, the Archbishop turned his horse to the north and rode past his regiments, followed by the Countess and Roland. His Lordship was accompanied to the end of the ranks by his general, who received final instructions regarding the march.
"You will encamp for the night not at Schloss Martinsburg, as I had intended, but a league or two up the Lahn. To-morrow morning continue your march along the Lahn as far as Limburg, and there await my arrival. We will enter Frankfort by the north gate instead of from the west."
The Archbishop sat on his horse for some minutes, watching the departing force, then called Roland to his right hand, and Hildegunde to his left, and thus the three set out on the short journey to Sayn.
"Your Highness," began the Archbishop, "I find myself in a position of some embarrassment. I think explanations are due to me from you both. Here I ride between two escaped prisoners, and I travel away from, instead of towards, their respective dungeons. My plain duty, on encountering you, was to place you in custody of a sufficient guard, marching you separately the one to Pfalz and the other to Ehrenfels. Having accomplished this I should report the case to my two colleagues, yet here am I actually compounding a misdemeanor, and assisting prisoners to escape."
"My Lord," spoke up Roland, "I am quite satisfied that my own imprisonment has been illegal, therefore I make no apology for circumventing it. Before entering upon any explanation, I ask enlightenment regarding the detention of my lady of Sayn. Am I right in surmising that she, like myself, was placed under arrest by the three Archbishops?"
"Yes, your Highness."
"On what charge?"
There was a pause, during which the Archbishop did not reply.
"I need not have asked such a question," resumed the Prince, "for high treason can relate only to the monarch. In what measure has her ladyship encroached upon the prerogative of the Emperor?"
"Your Highness forgets that there is such a thing as treason against the State."
"Are not members of the nobility privileged in this matter?"
"They cannot be, for the State is greater than any individual."
"I shall make a note of that, my Lord of Cologne. I believe you are in the right, and I hope so. During my lonely incarceration," the Prince laughed a little, "I have studied the condition of the State, arriving at the conclusion that the greatest traitors in our land are the three Archbishops, who, arrogating to themselves power that should belong to the Crown, did not use that power for suppressing those other treason-mongers, the Barons of the Rhine."
"What would you have us do with them?"
"You should disarm them. You should exact restitution of their illegally-won wealth. You should open the Rhine to honest commerce."
"That is easy to enunciate, and difficult to perform. If the Castles were disarmed, especially those on the left bank, a great injustice would be done that might lead to the extinction of many noble families. Why, the forests of Germany are filled with desperate outlaws, who respect neither life nor property. I myself have suffered but recently from their depredations. In broad daylight an irresistible band of these ruffians descended upon and captured the supposed impregnable Castle of Rheinstein, shamefully maltreating Baron Hugo von Hohenfels, tying him motionless, and nearly strangling him with stout ropes, after which the scoundrels robbed him of every stiver he possessed. The following midnight but one they descended on Furstenberg, a fief of my own, and not contenting themselves with robbery, brought red ruin on the Margrave by burning his Castle to the ground."
"My Lord, red ruin and the Red Margrave were made for each other. It was the justice of God that they should meet." The young man raised aloft his swordarm, shaking his clenched fist at the sky. "That hand held the torch that fired Furstenberg. The Castle was taken and burned by three sword makers from Frankfort, who never saw the Hunsruck or the outlaws thereof."
The Archbishop reined in his horse, and looked at the excited young man with amazement.
"You fired Furstenberg?"
"Yes; and effectively, my Lord. I shall rebuild it for you, but the Red Margrave I shall hang, as my predecessor Rudolph did his ancestor."
An expression of sternness hardened the Archbishop's face.
"Sir," he said, "I regret to hear you speak like this, and your safety lies in the fact that I do not believe a word of it. Even so, such wild words fill me with displeasure. I beg to remind you that the Election of an Emperor has not yet taken place, and I, for one, am likely to reconsider my decision. Still, as I said, I do not believe a word of your absurd tale."
"I believe every syllable of it!" cried the Countess with enthusiasm, "and glory that there is a mind brave enough, and a hand obedient to it, to smoke out a robber and a murderer."
The tension this astonishing revelation caused was relieved by a laugh from the Archbishop.
"My dear Hildegunde, you are forgetting your own ancestors. I venture that no woman of the House of Sayn talked thus when the Emperor Rudolph marched Count von Sayn to the scaffold. You would probably sing another song if asked to restore the millions amassed by Henry III. of Sayn and his successors; all accumulated by robbery as cruel as any that the Red Margrave has perpetrated."
"My Lord," said the Countess proudly, "you had no need to ask that question, for you knew the answer to it before you spoke. Every thaler I control shall be handed over to Prince Roland, to be used for the regeneration of his country."
Again the Archbishop laughed.
"Surely I knew that, my dear, and I should not have said what I did. I suppose you will not allow me to vote against his Highness at the coming Election."
"Indeed, you shall vote enthusiastically for him, because you know in your own heart he is the man Germany needs."
"Was there ever such a change of front?" cried the Archbishop. "Why, my dear, the charges you so hotly made against his Highness are as nothing to what he has himself confessed; yet now he is the savior of Germany, when previously--Ah, well, I must not play the tale-bearer."
"Prince Roland," cried the girl, "my kinsman, Father Ambrose, said he met you in Frankfort, although now I believe him to have been mistaken."
"Oh no; I encountered the good Father on the bridge."
"There now!" exclaimed the Archbishop, "what do you say to that, my lady?"
She seemed perplexed by the admission, but quickly replied to his Lordship:
"'Twas you said that could not be, as he was a close prisoner in Ehrenfels." She continued, addressing the Prince: "Father Ambrose asserted that you were a companion of drinkers and brawlers in a low wine cellar of Frankfort."
"Quite true; a score of them."
The girl became more and more perplexed.
"Did you imprison Father Ambrose?"
"Yes; in the lowest wine cellar, but only for a day or two. I am very sorry, Madam, but it was a stern necessity of war. He was meddling with affairs he knew nothing of, and there was no time for explanations. He, a man of peace, would not have sanctioned what there was to do even if I had explained."
"He says," continued the girl, "that he saw you rob a merchant of a bag of gold."
"That is untrue!" cried the Prince.
"My dear Hildegunde, what is the robbing of a bag of gold from a merchant when he admits having stolen gold by the castle full?"
"I robbed no merchant," protested the Prince. "How could Father Ambrose make such a statement?"
"He mounted an outside stairway on the Fahrgasse, and through lighted windows on the opposite side saw you place the point of your sword at the throat of an unarmed merchant, and take from him a bag of gold."
Roland, whose brow had been knitted into an angry frown, now threw back his head and laughed joyously.
"Oh, that was a mere frolic," he alleged.
It was the girl's turn to frown.
"When you took stolen treasure from thievish Barons and Margraves protected by scores of armed men, with the object of breaking their power, for the relief of commerce, I admired you, but to say that the despoiling of a helpless merchant is a frolic--"
"No, no, my dear, you do not understand," eagerly corrected the Prince, unconscious of the affectionate phrase that caused a flush to rise in the cheeks of his listener. "The merchant was, and is, my partner; a blameless man, Herr Goebel, who came near to being hanged on my behalf when these Archbishops took me captive. I sought from him a thousand thalers; he insisted on learning my plans for opening the Rhine, and still would not give the money until, reluctantly, I was obliged to confess myself son of the Emperor. This he could not credit, stipulating that before giving the money I must produce for him a safe-conduct, signed by the Emperor, and verified by the Great Seal of the Empire. This document I obtained at dire personal risk, through the aid of my mother. Here it is."
He thrust his hand into his doublet, and produced the parchment in question, delivering it to the lady, who, however, did not unfold it, but kept her eyes fixed upon him.
"This distrust annoyed me; it should not have done so, for he was merely acting in the cautious manner natural to a merchant. With a boyishness I now regret, I put my sword to his throat, demanding the money, which I received. I took only half of it, for my mother had given me five hundred thalers. Oh, no; I did not rob my friend Goebel, but merely tried to teach him that lack of faith is a dangerous thing."
If the old man who listened could have exchanged confidences with the young woman who listened, he would have learned they shared the same thought, which was that the young Prince spoke so straight-forwardly neither doubted him for a moment. The old man, it is true, felt that his talk was rather reckless of consequences, but, on the other hand, this in itself was complimentary, for, as he remembered, the Prince had been cautious enough when catechized by the three Archbishops together.
"I have often read," said Cologne, with a smile, "pathetic accounts of prisoners, who in extreme loneliness carved their names over and over again on stone as hard as the jailer's heart, but your Highness seems rather to have enjoyed yourself while so cruelly interned. May I further beg of you to enlighten us concerning a somewhat bibulous youth who at the present moment is enjoying, in every sense of the word, the hospitality of Ehrenfels Castle?"
It was now the Archbishop's turn to astonish the Prince.
"You knew of my device, then?"
"'Knew' is a little too strong. 'Suspect' more nearly fits the case. You won over your jailer, and some one else took your place as prisoner."
"Yes; a young man to whom I owe small thanks, and with whom I have an account to settle. He is son of the custodian, and thinks he has us both under his thumb, Heinrich drinks as if he were a fish or a Baron, but I shall cure him of that habit before it becomes firmly established."
"Am I correct in assuming that you found your liberty only after your interview with the three Electors?"
"Oh, bless you, no! I was free months before that time. Indeed, it is only since then that my substitute is practically useless. Heinrich might have passed for me at a pinch, but only because neither you nor your colleagues had seen me. I have kept him under lock and key ever since, because I dare not allow him abroad until the Election has taken place."
"I see. A very wise precaution. Well, your Highness, I shall say nothing of what you tell me; furthermore, I still promise you my vote; that is, if you will obey my orders until you are elected Emperor. I foresee we are not going to have the easy time with you that was anticipated, but this concerns Mayence and Treves, rather than myself, for I have no ambition to rule by proxy. And now, my lady of Sayn, when we journeyed southward that day from Gutenfels Castle I gave you some information regarding the mind of Mayence. You remember, perhaps, what I said about his quandary. I rather suspect that he admires you, notwithstanding your defiance of him; but there is nothing remarkable in that, for we all appreciate you, old and young. I, too, carry a document of safe-conduct, like Prince Roland here, although I see that his Highness has placed his safety in your hands."
The old man smiled, and Hildegunde found herself still carrying the parchment Roland had given her. For a moment she was confused, then smiled also, and offered it back; but the Prince shook his head. The Archbishop went on:
"Mayence sent down to me your written release, signed by himself and Treves. He asked me to attach a signature, and liberate you on my way to Frankfort, which I intended to do had this impetuous young man not forestalled me. By the way, Highness, how did you happen to meet Countess von Sayn in Pfalz?"
"We will tell you about that later, Guardian," said Hildegunde, before Roland could speak. "What instructions did his Lordship of Mayence give concerning me?"
"He asked me to bring you to my palace in Frankfort, and subtly expressed the hope you had changed your mind."
"You may assure him I have," said the Countess, again speaking rapidly; "but let us leave all details of that for the moment. I am then to go with you to the capital?"
"Yes; to-morrow morning."
"To remain until the coronation?"
"Certainly; if such is your wish. But do you not see something very significant in my brother Mayence's change of plan, for you know he did not intend to release you until after that event?"
"Yes, yes," replied the Countess breathlessly. "I see it quite clearly, but do not wish to discuss the matter at the present moment."
"Very well. I intended to enter Frankfort from the west, but meeting you so unexpectedly, I have deflected my troops up the Lahn to Limburg, at which town we will join them to-morrow night, thus following Father Ambrose's route to the capital."
"Ah, that will be very interesting. Prince Roland, you accompany us, I hope?"
"Of a surety," replied the young man confidently.
"No," quietly said the Archbishop.
"Because I say no."
The young man almost an Emperor drew himself up proudly, and his lips pressed together into a firm line of determination.
"Does your Highness so quickly forget your promise?"
"What promise?" asked the Prince, scowling.
"In consideration of my keeping silence touching your recent outrageous career of fire and slaughter, and the enslavement of Heinrich, you promised to obey me until you became Emperor."
"I intend to obey all reasonable requests, but I very much desire to accompany the Countess from her Castle to the capital, I have never seen Limburg, or taken that route to Frankfort."
"It is a charming old city," replied the Archbishop dryly, "which you can visit any time at the expense of a day's ride. Meanwhile, I shall escort the Countess thither, and endeavor to entertain her with pleasing and instructive conversation during the journey."
The Prince continued to frown, yet bit his lip and repressed an angry retort.
"But," protested the girl, "would it not be much safer for his Highness to enter the city of Frankfort protected by your army?"
The Archbishop laughed a little.
"My dear Hildegunde, the presence of Prince Roland causes you to overlook a vast difference in the status of you both, but surely the exercise of a little imagination should present to you the true aspect of affairs. You are a free woman, and I hold the document by which you regained your liberty. Do not be deluded, therefore, by the apparent fact that his Highness can raise a clenched fist aloft and defy the heavens. It is not so. He wears fetters on his ankles, and manacles round his wrists. Roland is a prisoner, and must straightway immure himself. Your Highness, before us stands the stately Castle of Sayn, where presently you shall refresh yourself, and be furnished with an untired charger, on which to ride all night, that you may reach the gates of Ehrenfels early to-morrow morning. Once there, place the wine-loving Heinrich out of harm in the deepest dungeon, and take his place as prisoner. It is arranged that the three Archbishops personally escort you to Frankfort in the barge of Mayence, which will land you at the water-steps of the Royal Palace. If it were known that I had been even an hour in your company your chances of reaching the throne would be seriously jeopardized."
"Surely such haste is unnecessary," cried the girl. "He can set out to-morrow in one direction while we go in another. He traveled all last night, and for most part of it was paddling a boat containing four people; has ridden almost since daylight, and now to journey on horseback throughout the night is too much for human endurance."
The grave smile of the Archbishop shone upon her anxiety.
"For lack of a nail the shoe was lost," he said, "and you know the remainder of the warning. If Prince Roland cares to risk an Empire for a night's rest, I withdraw my objection."
The Prince suddenly wheeled his horse, and coming briskly round to the side of the girl, placed a hand on hers.
"A decision, Countess!" he cried. "Give me your decision. I shall always obey you!"
"Oh, the rashness of youth!" murmured the Archbishop.
The girl looked up at the young man, and he caught his breath and clasped her hand more tightly as he gazed into the depths of her glorious eyes.
"You must go," she sighed.
He raised her unresisting hand to his lips, and again turned his horse.
"You will obey?" asked the Archbishop.
"I will obey, my Lord."
He flashed from its scabbard, into the rays of the setting sun, the sword he had made, and elevating the hilt to his forehead, saluted the Archbishop.
"I shall see you at Ehrenfels, my Lord."
"Ah, do not go thus. Come to the Castle for an hour's rest at least."
The young man whirled his sword around, and caught it by the blade, touching the hilt with his lips as if it were a cross.
"I thank God," said he, "that I can willingly keep my oath."
Then, looking at the girl--"For the Empress, and not for the Empire!" he cried.
The sword seemed to drop into the scabbard of its own accord, as Roland set spurs to his steed and away.
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