"To be a Queen, and a young Queen, and a widowed Queen in these stormy times, and in these stormy lands! Ah, Helen, Helen, that is indeed no light thing!"
"Indeed, madam, I know that it is not. I pray Heaven night and day for your Majesty, that strength and help may be given you!"
"Thanks, thanks, my faithful Helen. Sometimes I feel I have no one about me I can fully trust but thee. And oh, I have a load of care upon my head! I need a faithful and devoted servant, and where can I turn to find such an one?"
"Must that servant be a man, madam?" asked Helen. The sorrowful Queen turned her gaze upon the speaker, as though she understood the drift of the question.
"Ah, Helen, if we women were not such poor weak things!" she sighed, bowed down by the weight of her troubles. But, after all, woman as she was, the blood of kings ran in the veins of Elizabeth of Hungary, and after a long lingering sigh she lifted her head, and the light came into her eyes.
"Women are not always weak," spoke Helen, with a cautious glance in the direction of the Queen's maidens at their tapestry work away at the other end of the great hall. But they were laughing and chattering amongst themselves, as girls will do, whatever be the century or the surroundings; and then the eyes of the Queen and her lady met, and Elizabeth paused and hesitated.
Helen Kottenner was the eldest and most trusted of her attendants, and was devoted to her and to the little four-year-old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, called after her mother. Although little more than a girl in years, Helen's life had been full of strange experiences and many sorrows; so that she seemed to the young Queen to be a tower of strength to her in her hour of perplexity and distress.
It was only a short while ago that her husband, King Albert, had died; and although the crown had been bestowed upon him in right of his Queen Elizabeth, yet so soon as she was left a widow, with only a little daughter, the haughty Magyars, or nobles of Hungary, repudiated the idea of being ruled over by a woman, and were casting about already to find some husband for her, whom they could make up their minds to recognise as King, in place of him who was dead.
"Helen," said the Queen, "thou dost know what the nobles are talking of. Hast thou heard more than they tell me?"
"I have heard, madam, that a powerful party is in favour of sending an embassy to King Wladislas of Poland, offering him the crown, together with the hand of their widowed Queen!"
The young widow started to her feet in uncontrollable emotion, and then as quickly sank back again.
"I have heard it too; but without my consent, without a word to me! They talk, and talk, and plot, and seek to settle questions, to dispose of the crown and a Queen's hand; and never so much as a word to her! 'Tis infamous!—'tis infamous!"
"That would doubtless come later, madam," said Helen gently; "at present they are scarce united among themselves."
"Then long may they remain so disunited!" cried the Queen, with energy. "It is time that I want, Helen,—time!—time! When the child that the good God is sending me is born, all may be different. I have prayed our Blessed Lady—ah, how I have prayed!—that she will send me a little son to reign in his father's stead. Verily I believe that she will hear my prayer. And shall my boy's birthright be given away before that happy day comes? Oh, the shame and injustice of it! I will not bear such a thing to be done. But how can it be stopped? Would it be enough were I to refuse, strenuously refuse, to have aught to say to such a marriage?"
Helen shook her head somewhat doubtfully.
"Madam, I fear, I greatly fear that it might not suffice. The wedding might, indeed, be postponed till your Majesty's pleasure. But if the Magyars once make up their mind, they will bring Wladislas hither and crown him King with St. Stephen's crown; and once so crowned nothing can change his right to rule, unless he grossly violate his coronation oath."
"I know it! I know it!" cried the young Queen, in keen distress; "if once that sacred circlet be placed upon his head, nothing can avail to change the thing that has been done!"
Queen and lady looked full into each other's eyes. They both knew that these words were the truth. In all the kingdom there was nothing so sacred as that sacred crown. Once let it press the brows of any crowned Prince, and his right was unchangeable and inalienable.
"You see, madam," continued Helen gently, "that the rule of an infant would be well-nigh as irksome to the proud Magyars as that of a woman. It may perchance be this very thing that is causing them to hasten to some decision. An infant Prince might be a hindrance. A party might gather—probably would gather—in his favour; and the land would be distracted by faction, and, it may be, become imperilled from outside adversaries such as Poland, Bohemia, or even the wily and cruel Turk. Doubtless those who urge that the King of Poland be crowned King of this realm too, think they are doing a service to their country, and perhaps saving her from a bloody war."
"But are the rights of my child thus to be given away, ere we can claim them for him?" cried the Queen indignantly. "Oh, Helen, Helen, dost thou think this thing will be?"
"Indeed, madam, I fear it. All are not yet agreed; but every day there come over fresh adherents to the cause. I trow before long they will dispatch an embassy. But they will send first to know your Majesty's pleasure!"
"My pleasure!" repeated the young Queen bitterly. "How much do they think or care for that?"
"Indeed, madam, they are a wild and turbulent crew; and in very truth an infant King might have a task he would be little able to perform——"
"Helen, Helen, thou art not counselling me to let this thing be without protest?"
"Nay, madam, I would not dare to give such counsel. But I would remind you how the thing will look in the eyes of the fierce and restless Magyars."
The Queen sighed; her heart was full of bitterness and apprehension. A weaker woman might have given way to what appeared the inevitable; but Elizabeth was not a weak woman, and a mother will be brave for the rights of her children, where she might be willing to cede her own.
It was only a few days before the dreaded news was formally made known to her. Her nobles requested that she would give her hand in marriage to the King of Poland, and thus unite the two territories, and give them a King whom they would be ready to serve.
The young Queen's answer was slightly evasive. She promised to consider the matter carefully; but since she had been so recently made a widow, she begged that they would not press another husband upon her too speedily.
With this reply they had to be content; but it did not stop them from carrying on the negotiations with the neighbouring Prince on their own account. They began to arrange at once for an embassy; and the Queen heard words dropped from time to time that told her how much the matter was looked upon as an accomplished fact.
"Helen," she cried, in deep excitement, when she had one day dismissed her other ladies and was alone with her faithful friend, "Helen, you know what they are already talking of now?"
Helen shook her head in sorrowful acquiescence.
"Alas! madam, they are talking already of bringing him here, and of crowning him with St. Stephen's crown, and then of awaiting your pleasure to wed him——"
"Ay, ay, the cowards! They think to force the thing on me! They think that then I must needs do their pleasure! That, being Queen in my own right, as truly I am, I must needs wed with him they will crown as King to save my Royal station! Ah, how down-trodden and helpless are we poor women! Who will come to our aid? They talk of the days of chivalry! But where is true chivalry to be found?"
She paced up and down the room in her excitement; and then, suddenly stopping before Helen, she said in low, deliberate, but very cautious tones:
"Helen, thou hast said that they will crown him with St. Stephen's crown. But supposing that that crown could not be found—what then?"
Helen started and looked hastily round her. Her eyes dilated like those of the Queen, into which she was looking. The two young women stood opposite to one another, breathing hard, and gazing, as if fascinated, into each other's faces.
"How if the crown could not be found, Helen?" repeated the Queen, with bated breath.
"Oh, madam, how could such a thing be?"
Deep silence reigned in the room. The Queen gradually recovered her self-possession, and taking Helen's arm, walked back to the seat she had quitted; she was trembling a little, but it was not with fear.
"Helen, I have thought and thought of this thing till it has become strangely clear in my mind. If we could gain possession of this crown, and hold it in trust, till we can have it placed upon the head of the son whom our Blessed Lady will send me—oh, then, good Helen, all might yet be well."
"But, madam, how can the crown be got at? Do not the nobles guard it as the apple of the eye? Would it not be certain death if any were found seeking to gain possession of it, even in the Queen's name?"
"Alas, Helen, it would! Whosoever seeks to do this thing takes his life in his hand in so doing. And yet—and yet—God has watched over more perilous undertakings even than this, and has brought them to a happy end."
Helen looked into the Queen's eyes, and asked: "Madam, is it a task that a woman may perform? Can Helen Kottenner accomplish this thing for her Queen?"
The tears rushed to Elizabeth's eyes, as she cried:
"Oh, Helen, Helen, I verily believe that thou couldst do this thing—with one faithful knight to help thee, if only thou didst dare to adventure the peril thereof!"
Then the Queen rapidly unfolded her plan. The sacred crown was in the vaults of the castle of Vissegrad, where the nobles had jealously conveyed both it and the Queen upon her husband's death. The crown, with other Royal treasures, was locked in a great iron-bound chest in a vault beneath the castle, closely guarded by one or another of the leading nobles of the kingdom. To attempt to reach the vault now, when the castle was full of people, all more or less engaged in guarding the Queen's person, was a manifest impossibility, although there was an entrance to the vault from these very chambers, given over to her and her maidens. But the nobles wished the Queen to change her place of abode, and to remove her court to Presburg; and the thought had come to her that if the crown and other Royal jewels were left behind, as seemed probable, since no talk of moving them had reached her ears, then she might make excuse to send back Helen, as though for something left behind, to the comparatively deserted castle, and trust to her woman's wit and skill and address to find a way of entering the vault, and possessing herself of the coveted treasure.
For the Queen was possessed of a signet precisely like to the one with which the chest was sealed; and she had keys which, it was believed, might open some of the locks; and, if not, they could make provision against such difficulties as that. If once Helen could gain possession of the sacred crown, and carry it away from the power of the nobles, no King could be set upon the throne of Hungary, and they would be forced to await the Queen's pleasure. But it was a task before which even the bravest heart might quail. Those were days when human life was held of little count, and the fierce custodians of castle or vault would make short work of any intruder found engaged in such a task as the one proposed to Helen.
"They will kill you if they catch you, Helen," said the Queen, with a little catch in her voice; but Helen's mind was now made up. The bold blood of a soldier race ran in her veins. She was not to be turned from her purpose by the promptings of fear.
It was absolutely necessary, however, that Helen should have at least one assistant of the other sex, as the task of filing through locks and bars would be more than her strength was equal to. The Queen had sought to win one brave young noble to her service; but the first hint she dropped of the mission desired from him had so alarmed him that he had departed forthwith from the castle, leaving the Queen somewhat disturbed in mind, though she felt confident the young knight would not betray her.
Now, there was in the castle a young noble of Polish descent, who went by the name of Pan Vilga. He had always shown a great admiration for the beautiful Helen; and she believed that in him she would find one ready to do her behests, and to adventure even life itself where her safety was involved.
Cautiously she broke the matter to him, and was rewarded in the confidence she had felt. As soon as he understood the perilous nature of the task to which she had pledged herself, he took her hand, and carrying it to his lips vowed to her that he would do everything in his power to assist her in her dangerous mission; and told her that, although he was a subject of King Wladislas, yet he regarded it as nothing short of an outrage upon the Queen that her hand and her crown should be thus bestowed without her consent. If they could in any way hinder this conspiracy he would be ready to adventure life itself in the good cause.
"And more than this, sweet lady. I have in my service a foster-brother, of my own Christian name of Konrad, a fellow who will follow me anywhere—and will do my bidding, asking no question, and be as silent as the grave both then and afterwards. Indeed, he has so strange an impediment in his speech that I think only I can understand his mutterings. He is, moreover, a fellow of great size and strength, and was brought up to the trade of a smith, till he followed my fortunes as servant. Wherefore, the three of us may well contrive the thing together; and the Queen may trust us to the death!"
All was now arranged for the journey. The Queen with Helen and the bulk of the nobles, and the greater part of her ladies, removed themselves to the castle of Komorn, the little Princess accompanying them. But some few of the maids of honour were left behind to finish certain arrangements; and Helen was to return for them in the course of a few days, and bring them with her to the Queen.
When Helen returned to the lonely and now half-deserted castle, she travelled by sledge, for the snows still lay deep on the roads, and the Danube was frozen over. Her companions on the journey were an old woman and the two faithful Konrads, who had been told off to escort the remaining Queen's maidens to Komorn.
Meantime, the castle had been well-nigh deserted; and though it, together with the precious chest in the vault, were in charge of a sturdy seneschal, yet it so befell that on the day of their arrival this worthy had fallen ill, and, instead of occupying his usual sleeping-chamber that guarded the entrance to the vault, he had been taken by his servants to a more commodious chamber some distance away.
"Sure our Blessed Lady is watching over us!" breathed Helen, when this thing was known; for the great fear had been that when the conspirators entered the vault through the door from the Queen's apartments, the noise they must of necessity make would penetrate to the chamber of the seneschal, and bring him and his soldiers raging into the vault; and then, as they knew well, there would be no escape. Instant death might as likely as not be their fate.
The maidens who occupied the now desolate Royal apartments were overjoyed to see Helen, and to learn that they were to start forth upon the morrow. Helen arranged that she and the old woman should occupy the Queen's room that night, whilst the other maidens took the one adjoining. It seemed long to her impatience ere they had got their packings done; and their chatter sounded meaningless as it fell upon her strained and anxious ears. Pan Vilga came in and out to help and hasten matters, exchanging gay salutations with the merry girls, but striving always to hasten proceedings, and warning them to retire early, as they must be off betimes. Ever and anon he would give Helen a quick look of sympathy, and once he contrived to whisper as he passed:
"Have a care that we have candles enough and to spare!"
At last the girls had made their preparations and were ready to retire. The old woman had brought many tapers, as Helen had spoken of keeping a vigil in the adjoining chapel, and praying for the Queen's health and safety. This accounted to the old crone for the fact that her lady did not undress; but she had no mind to share the vigil, and was quickly snoring loudly in her bed in the corner.
With a beating heart Helen peered through the darkness into the chapel where Pan Vilga and his servant were awaiting her signal; and together they crept to the door of the vault, which the seneschal had carefully sealed up. But Helen was possessed of the Queen's signet, and they could remake or renew the seals in such a fashion as to defy detection; and soon the men plunged down into the vault, whilst Helen was left to keep guard above, and, if possible, give warning of any approach from without.
It was an eerie task that had been assigned to her. From the vault beneath she soon began to hear the sounds of file and hammer; and her heart beat fast and furiously as she listened, so that the echoes of the whole castle seemed to wake at last into awful life. In terror she raised herself up from her crouching position, and stepped within the gloomy chapel. What was that noise at the outer door? She thought she heard the tread of mailed feet and the sound of approaching voices. Flinging herself upon her knees before the shrine, Helen besought the protection of all the saints of the calendar; every moment she looked to see the door flung open to admit a band of soldiers, and was rehearsing by what strategic device she could keep them from penetrating farther. But the moments went by and they did not come; and at last she gathered courage to go forward and open the door herself, and peer forth into the darkness beyond.
The men plunged down into the vault.
All was silent as the grave; and Helen clasped her hands in an ecstasy of relief.
"It was a spirit!" she said, as she turned back; "surely it is true what we have read of the care they take of those who seek their aid. There be more that are with us than they that be against us. Now I will fear no more!"
And yet Helen had scarce gone back to her prayers, and to vow herself to a pious pilgrimage should this thing come to a safe issue, ere her nerves were all set tingling again by some sound from the room of the Queen's maidens, to the door of which she instantly rushed.
It was only a girl crying out in her sleep; but as Helen crossed to her side to soothe her, and caution her against waking the others, it seemed to her that the room was ringing with the sound of the muffled blows that were being struck in the vault below. So soon as she was assured that all were slumbering again, she could contain her anxiety no longer, but stole down into the vault herself, to find out what was passing there.
The great chest was open; but the little chest inside containing the sacred crown still defied their efforts to open it. They dared not carry it away as it stood; it was too heavy and cumbersome, and would certainly be recognised.
"We must burn the fastening away from the chest," said Konrad; "shut all the doors fast, Lady Helen, for it will smell. But 'tis the only thing to be done. And when we have the holy crown, where can we hide it?"
"I have thought of that," answered Helen, "I have a place for it when we have it."
Quickly ascending the steps once more, she shut all the doors behind her, and again made the round of all the apartments, to make sure that all was still and silent. Then, being satisfied on this score, she possessed herself of a very large crimson cushion from the chapel, carefully unripped a seam, and took out a considerable quantity of the stuffing which she burnt upon her fire in the stove. This, to be sure, made an unpleasant smell, but Helen was glad of it, for should any of the girls awake or the guards of the castle come to inquire what was being burnt she could point to the wool and hair in the stove, and tell some story of how she was burning up some old oddments of the Queen's. Then with her velvet cushion in her arms she stole down to the vault once more.
There lay the sacred crown that Helen had seen once upon the brow of the late King Albert! Pan Vilga and his servant were carefully removing all trace of their work, replacing filed chains and bars and broken padlocks by new ones brought for the purpose, and renewing all the seals with the Queen's own signet.
As for Helen, she rushed at the crown and fairly clasped it in her arms, crying out in her heart: "Ah, my Mistress, my dear, dear Mistress—you are safe for a time from the menaced peril!" Then, whilst the men completed their task, and set the vault in order, completely obliterating the traces of their work, Helen carefully placed the crown within the ample cushion, arranging the stuffing so as to keep it from injury, and finally sewing up the ripped seam.
What a journey that was upon the next day; when Helen with her precious cushion in the sledge behind her travelled back to her Royal Mistress at the castle of Komorn! A thousand times her heart was in her mouth; for every time the cushion was touched or moved she could scarce refrain from crying out; once crown and lady, knight and all were in deadly danger of perishing in the deep and treacherous Danube, which they had to cross upon the ice. For the spring was at hand, and the frost was yielding; and the ice cracked so ominously beneath their horses' feet, that the terrified driver lashed them into a gallop, and they saw a chasm yawning behind them as they fled.
But there was commotion and joy in the castle of Kormorn when Helen entered, carrying with her a big cushion that she declined to entrust to any servant. For a little son had been born that very day to the Queen; and she had said that when the Lady Helen returned she was to come instantly to see her.
Cushion in hand, brave Helen entered the Royal presence, and, going up to the bedside, saw the Queen with the tiny babe beside her. The light sprang into her eyes at the sight.
"I have brought my little King his crown," she said; and, sinking on her knees beside the bed, she told the whole tale to the Queen.
When a few weeks later the little King Wladislas was solemnly anointed and crowned by the Archbishop of Gran, it was Helen who held the babe in her arms, whilst the sacred crown of St. Stephen was placed upon his brow.