In the ample stone-paved courtyard of the Schloss Grunewald, with its mysterious bubbling spring in the centre, stood the Black Baron beside his restive horse, both equally eager to be away. Round the Baron were grouped his sixteen knights and their saddled chargers, all waiting the word to mount. The warder was slowly opening the huge gates that hung between the two round entrance towers of the castle, for it was the Baron's custom never to ride out at the head of his men until the great leaves of the strong gate fell full apart, and showed the green landscape beyond. The Baron did not propose to ride unthinkingly out, and straightway fall into an ambush.
He and his sixteen knights were the terror of the country-side, and many there were who would have been glad to venture a bow shot at him had they dared. There seemed to be some delay about the opening of the gates, and a great chattering of underlings at the entrance, as if something unusual had occurred, whereupon the rough voice of the Baron roared out to know the cause that kept him waiting, and every one scattered, each to his own affair, leaving only the warder, who approached his master with fear in his face.
"My Lord," he began, when the Baron had shouted what the devil ailed him, "there has been nailed against the outer gate; sometime in the night, a parchment with characters written thereon."
"Then tear it down and bring it to me," cried the Baron. "What's all this to-do about a bit of parchment?"
The warder had been loath to meddle with it, in terror of that witchcraft which he knew pertained to all written characters; but he feared the Black Baron's frown even more than the fiends who had undoubtedly nailed the documents on the gate, for he knew no man in all that well-cowed district would have the daring to approach the castle even in the night, much less meddle with the gate or any other belonging of the Baron von Grunewald; so, breathing a request to his patron saint (his neglect of whom he now remembered with remorse) for protection, he tore the document from its fastening and brought it, trembling, to the Baron. The knights crowded round as von Grunewald held the parchment in his hand, bending his dark brows upon it, for it conveyed no meaning to him. Neither the Baron nor his knights could read.
"What foolery, think you, is this?" he said, turning to the knight nearest him. "A Defiance?"
The knight shook his head. "I am no clerk," he answered.
For a moment the Baron was puzzled; then he quickly bethought himself of the one person in the castle who could read.
"Bring hither old Father Gottlieb," he commanded, and two of those waiting ran in haste towards the scullery of the place, from which they presently emerged dragging after them an old man partly in the habit of a monk and partly in that of a scullion, who wiped his hands on the coarse apron, that was tied around his waist, as he was hurried forward.
"Here, good father, excellent cook and humble servitor, I trust your residence with us has not led you to forget the learning you put to such poor advantage in the Monastery of Monnonstein. Canst thou construe this for us? Is it in good honest German or bastard Latin?"
"It is in Latin," said the captive monk, on glancing at the document in the other's hand.
"Then translate it for us, and quickly."
Father Gottlieb took the parchment handed him by the Baron, and as his eyes scanned it more closely, he bowed his head and made the sign of the cross upon his breast.
"Cease that mummery," roared the Baron, "and read without more waiting or the rod's upon thy back again. Who sends us this?"
"It is from our Holy Father the Pope," said the monk, forgetting his menial position for the moment, and becoming once more the scholar of the monastery. The sense of his captivity faded from him as he realised that the long arm of the Church had extended within the impregnable walls of that tyrannical castle.
"Good. And what has our Holy Father the Pope to say to us? Demands he the release of our excellent scullion, Father Gottlieb?"
The bent shoulders of the old monk straightened, his dim eye brightened, and his voice rang clear within the echoing walls of the castle courtyard.
"It is a ban of excommunication against thee, Lord Baron von Grunewald, and against all within these walls, excepting only those unlawfully withheld from freedom," "Which means thyself, worthy Father. Read on, good clerk, and let us hear it to the end."
As the monk read out the awful words of the message, piling curse on curse with sonorous voice, the Baron saw his trembling servitors turn pale, and even his sixteen knights, companions in robbery and rapine, fall away from him. Dark red anger mounted to his temples; he raised his mailed hand and smote the reading monk flat across the mouth, felling the old man prone upon the stones of the court.
"That is my answer to our Holy Father the Pope, and when thou swearest to deliver it to him as I have given it to thee, the gates are open and the way clear for thy pilgrimage to Rome."
But the monk lay where he fell and made no reply.
"Take him away," commanded the Baron impatiently, whereupon several of the menials laid hands on the fallen monk and dragged him into the scullery he had left.
Turning to his men-at-arms, the Baron roared: "Well, my gentle wolves, have a few words in Latin on a bit of sheep-skin turned you all to sheep?"
"I have always said," spoke up the knight Segfried, "that no good came of captured monks, or meddling with the Church. Besides, we are noble all, and do not hold with the raising of a mailed hand against an unarmed man."
There was a low murmur of approval among the knights at Segfried's boldness.
"Close the gates," shouted the maddened Baron. Every one flew at the word of command, and the great oaken hinges studded with iron, slowly came together, shutting out the bit of landscape their opening had discovered. The Baron flung the reins on his charger's neck, and smote the animal on the flank, causing it to trot at once to its stable.
"There will be no riding to-day," he said, his voice ominously lowering. The stablemen of the castle came forward and led away the horses. The sixteen knights stood in a group together with Segfried at their head, waiting with some anxiety on their brows for the next move in the game. The Baron, his sword drawn in his hand, strode up and down before them, his brow bent on the ground, evidently struggling to get the master hand over his own anger. If it came to blows the odds were against him and he was too shrewd a man to engage himself single-handed in such a contest.
At length the Baron stopped in his walk and looked at the group. He said, after a pause, in a quiet tone of voice: "Segfried, if you doubt my courage because I strike to the ground a rascally monk, step forth, draw thine own good sword, our comrades will see that all is fair betwixt us, and in this manner you may learn that I fear neither mailed nor unmailed hand."
But the knight made no motion to lay his hand upon his sword, nor did he move from his place. "No one doubts your courage, my Lord," he said, "neither is it any reflection on mine that in answer to your challenge my sword remains in its scabbard. You are our overlord and it is not meet that our weapons should be raised against you."
"I am glad that point is firmly fixed in your minds. I thought a moment since that I would be compelled to uphold the feudal law at the peril of my own body. But if that comes not in question, no more need be said. Touching the unarmed, Segfried, if I remember aright you showed no such squeamishness at our sacking of the Convent of St. Agnes."
"A woman is a different matter, my Lord," said Segfried uneasily.
The Baron laughed and so did some of the knights, openly relieved to find the tension of the situation relaxing.
"Comrades!" cried the Baron, his face aglow with enthusiasm, all traces of his former temper vanishing from his brow. "You are excellent in a melee, but useless at the council board. You see no further ahead of you than your good right arms can strike. Look round you at these stout walls; no engine that man has yet devised can batter a breach in them. In our vaults are ten years' supply of stolen grain. Our cellars are full of rich red wine, not of our vintage, but for our drinking. Here in our court bubbles forever this good spring, excellent to drink when wine gives out, and medicinal in the morning when too much wine has been taken in." He waved his hand towards the overflowing well, charged with carbonic acid gas, one of the many that have since made this region of the Rhine famous. "Now I ask you, can this Castle of Grunewald ever be taken--excommunication or no excommunication?"
A simultaneous shout of "No! Never!" arose from the knights.
The Baron stood looking grimly at them for several moments. Then he said in a quiet voice, "Yes, the Castle of Grunewald can be taken. Not from without but from within. If any crafty enemy sows dissension among us; turns the sword of comrade against comrade; then falls the Castle of Grunewald! To-day we have seen how nearly that has been done. We have against us in the monastery of Monnonstein no fat- headed Abbot, but one who was a warrior before he turned a monk. 'Tis but a few years since, that the Abbot Ambrose stood at the right hand of the Emperor as Baron von Stern, and it is known that the Abbot's robes are but a thin veneer over the iron knight within. His hand, grasping the cross, still itches for the sword. The fighting Archbishop of Treves has sent him to Monnonstein for no other purpose than to leave behind him the ruins of Grunewald, and his first bolt was shot straight into our courtyard, and for a moment I stood alone, without a single man-at-arms to second me."
The knights looked at one another in silence, then cast their eyes to the stone-paved court, all too shamed-faced to attempt reply to what all knew was the truth. The Baron, a deep frown on his brow, gazed sternly at the chap-fallen group.... "Such was the effect of the first shaft shot by good Abbot Ambrose, what will be the result of the second?"
"There will be no second," said Segfried stepping forward. "We must sack the Monastery, and hang the Abbot and his craven monks in their own cords."
"Good," cried the Baron, nodding his head in approval, "the worthy Abbot, however, trusts not only in God, but in walls three cloth yards thick. The monastery stands by the river and partly over it. The besieged monks will therefore not suffer from thirst. Their larder is as amply provided as are the vaults of this castle. The militant Abbot understands both defence and sortie. He is a master of siege-craft inside or outside stone walls. How then do you propose to sack and hang, good Segfried?"
The knights were silent. They knew the Monastery was as impregnable as the castle, in fact it was the only spot for miles round that had never owned the sway of Baron von Grunewald, and none of them were well enough provided with brains to venture a plan for its successful reduction. A cynical smile played round the lips of their over-lord, as he saw the problem had overmatched them. At last he spoke.
"We must meet craft with craft. If the Pope's Ban cast such terror among my good knights, steeped to the gauntlets in blood, what effect, think you, will it have over the minds of devout believers in the Church and its power? The trustful monks know that it has been launched against us, therefore are they doubtless waiting for us to come to the monastery, and lay our necks under the feet of their Abbot, begging his clemency. They are ready to believe any story we care to tell touching the influence of such scribbling over us. You Segfried, owe me some reparation for this morning's temporary defection, and to you, therefore, do I trust the carrying out of my plans. There was always something of the monk about you, Segfried, and you will yet end your days sanctimoniously in a monastery, unless you are first hanged at Treves or knocked on the head during an assault.
"Draw, then, your longest face, and think of the time when you will be a monk, as Ambrose is, who, in his day, shed as much blood as ever you have done. Go to the Monastery of Monnonstein in most dejected fashion, and unarmed. Ask in faltering tones, speech of the Abbot, and say to him, as if he knew nought of it, that the Pope's Ban is on us. Say that at first I defied it, and smote down the good father who was reading it, but add that as the pious man fell, a sickness like unto a pestilence came over me and over my men, from which you only are free, caused, you suspect, by your loudly protesting against the felling of the monk. Say that we lie at death's door, grieving for our sins, and groaning for absolution. Say that we are ready to deliver up the castle and all its contents to the care of the holy Church, so that the Abbot but sees our tortured souls safely directed towards the gates of Paradise. Insist that all the monks come, explaining that you fear we have but few moments to live, and that the Abbot alone would be as helpless as one surgeon on a battle-field. Taunt them with fear of the pestilence if they hesitate, and that will bring them."
Segfried accepted the commission, and the knights warmly expressed their admiration of their master's genius. As the great red sun began to sink behind the westward hills that border the Rhine, Segfried departed on horseback through the castle gates, and journeyed toward the monastery with bowed head and dejected mien. The gates remained open, and as darkness fell, a lighted torch was thrust in a wrought iron receptacle near the entrance at the outside, throwing a fitful, flickering glare under the archway and into the deserted court. Within, all was silent as the ruined castle is to-day, save only the tinkling sound of the clear waters of the effervescing spring as it flowed over the stones and trickled down to disappear under the walls at one corner of the courtyard.
The Baron and his sturdy knights sat in the darkness, with growing impatience, in the great Rittersaal listening for any audible token of the return of Segfried and his ghostly company. At last in the still night air there came faintly across the plain a monkish chant growing louder and louder, until finally the steel-shod hoofs of Segfried's charger rang on the stones of the causeway leading to the castle gates. Pressed behind the two heavy open leaves of the gates stood the warder and his assistants, scarcely breathing, ready to close the gates sharply the moment the last monk had entered.
Still chanting, led by the Abbot in his robes of office, the monks slowly marched into the deserted courtyard, while Segfried reined his horse close inside the entrance. "Peace be upon this house and all within," said the deep voice of the Abbot, and in unison the monks murmured "Amen," the word echoing back to them in the stillness from the four grey walls.
Then the silence was rudely broken by the ponderous clang of the closing gates and the ominous rattle of bolts being thrust into their places with the jingle of heavy chains. Down the wide stairs from the Rittersaal came the clank of armour and rude shouts of laughter. Newly lighted torches flared up here and there, illuminating the courtyard, and showing, dangling against the northern wall a score of ropes with nooses at the end of each. Into the courtyard clattered the Baron and his followers. The Abbot stood with arms folded, pressing a gilded cross across his breast. He was a head taller than any of his frightened, cowering brethren, and his noble emaciated face was thin with fasting caused by his never-ending conflict with the world that was within himself. His pale countenance betokened his office and the Church; but the angry eagle flash of his piercing eye spoke of the world alone and the field of conflict.
The Baron bowed low to the Abbot, and said: Welcome, my Lord Abbot, to my humble domicile! It has long been the wish of my enemies to stand within its walls, and this pleasure is now granted you. There is little to be made of it from without."
"Baron Grunewald," said the Abbot, "I and my brethren are come hither on an errand of mercy, and under the protection of your knightly word."
The Baron raised his eyebrows in surprise at this, and, turning to Segfried, he said in angry tones: "Is it so? Pledged you my word for the safety of these men?"
"The reverend Abbot is mistaken," replied the knight, who had not yet descended from his horse. "There was no word of safe conduct between us."
"Safe conduct is implied when an officer of the Church is summoned to administer its consolations to the dying," said the Abbot.
"All trades," remarked the Baron suavely, "have their dangers--yours among the rest, as well as ours. If my follower had pledged my word regarding your safety, I would now open the gates and let you free. As he has not done so, I shall choose a manner for your exit more in keeping with your lofty aspirations."
Saying this, he gave some rapid orders; his servitors fell upon the unresisting monks and bound them hand and foot. They were then conducted to the northern wall, and the nooses there adjusted round the neck of each. When this was done, the Baron stood back from the pinioned victims and addressed them:
"It is not my intention that you should die without having time to repent of the many wicked deeds you have doubtless done during your lives. Your sentence is that ye be hanged at cockcrow to-morrow, which was the hour when, if your teachings cling to my memory, the first of your craft turned traitor to his master. If, however, you tire of your all-night vigil, you can at once obtain release by crying at the top of your voices 'So die all Christians.' Thus you will hang yourselves, and so remove some responsibility from my perhaps overladen conscience. The hanging is a device of my own, of which I am perhaps pardonably proud, and it pleases me that it is to be first tried on so worthy an assemblage. With much labour we have elevated to the battlements an oaken tree, lopped of its branches, which will not burn the less brightly next winter in that it has helped to commit some of you to hotter flames, if all ye say be true. The ropes are tied to this log, and at the cry 'So die all Christians,' I have some stout knaves in waiting up above with levers, who will straightway fling the log over the battlements on which it is now poised, and the instant after your broken necks will impinge against the inner coping of the northern wall. And now good-night, my Lord Abbot, and a happy release for you all in the morning."
"Baron von Grunewald, I ask of you that you will release one of us who may thus administer the rites of the Church to his brethren and receive in turn the same from me."
"Now, out upon me for a careless knave!" cried the Baron. "I had forgotten that; it is so long since I have been to mass and such like ceremonies myself. Your request is surely most reasonable, and I like you the better that you keep up the farce of your calling to the very end. But think not that I am so inhospitable, as to force one guest to wait upon another, even in matters spiritual. Not so. We keep with us a ghostly father for such occasions, and use him between times to wait on us with wine and other necessaries. As soon as he has filled our flagons, I will ask good Father Gottlieb to wait upon you, and I doubt not he will shrive with any in the land, although he has been this while back somewhat out of practice. His habit is rather tattered and stained with the drippings of his new vocation, but I warrant you, you will know the sheep, even though his fleece be torn. And now, again, good-night, my Lord."
The Baron and his knights returned up the broad stairway that led to the Rittersaal. Most of the torches were carried with them. The defences of the castle were so strong that no particular pains were taken to make all secure, further than the stationing of an armed man at the gate. A solitary torch burnt under the archway, and here a guard paced back and forth. The courtyard was in darkness, but the top of the highest turrets were silvered by the rising moon. The doomed men stood with the halters about their necks, as silent as a row of spectres.
The tall windows of the Rittersaal, being of coloured glass, threw little light into the square, although they glowed with a rainbow splendour from the torches within. Into the silence of the square broke the sound of song and the clash of flagons upon the oaken table.
At last there came down the broad stair and out into the court a figure in the habit of a monk, who hurried shufflingly across the stones to the grim row of brown-robed men. He threw himself sobbing at the feet of the tall Abbot.
"Rise, my son, and embrace me," said his superior. When Father Gottlieb did so, the other whispered in his ear: "There is a time to weep and a time for action. Now is the time for action. Unloosen quickly the bonds around me, and slip this noose from my neck."
Father Gottlieb acquitted himself of his task as well as his agitation and trembling hands would let him.
"Perform a like service for each of the others," whispered the Abbot curtly. "Tell each in a low voice to remain standing just as if he were still bound. Then return to me."
When the monk had done what he was told, he returned to his superior.
"Have you access to the wine cellar?" asked the Abbot.
"What are the strongest wines?"
"Those of the district are strong. Then there is a barrel or two of the red wine of Assmannshausen."
"Decant a half of each in your flagons. Is there brandy?"
"Then mix with the two wines as much brandy as you think their already drunken palates will not detect. Make the potation stronger with brandy as the night wears on. When they drop off into their sodden sleep, bring a flagon to the guard at the gate, and tell him the Baron sends it to him."
"Will you absolve me, Father, for the--"
"It is no falsehood, Gottlieb. I, the Baron, send it. I came hither the Abbot Ambrose: I am now Baron von Stern, and if I have any influence with our mother Church the Abbot's robe shall fall on thy shoulders, if you but do well what I ask of you to-night. It will be some compensation for what, I fear, thou hast already suffered."
Gottlieb hurried away, as the knights were already clamouring for more wine. As the night wore on and the moon rose higher the sounds of revelry increased, and once there was a clash of arms and much uproar, which subsided under the over-mastering voice of the Black Baron. At last the Abbot, standing there with the rope dangling behind him, saw Gottlieb bring a huge beaker of liquor to the sentinel, who at once sat down on the stone bench under the arch to enjoy it.
Finally, all riot died away in the hall except one thin voice singing, waveringly, a drinking song, and when that ceased silence reigned supreme, and the moon shone full upon the bubbling spring.
Gottlieb stole stealthily out and told the Abbot that all the knights were stretched upon the floor, and the Baron had his head on the table, beside his overturned flagon. The sentinel snored upon the stone bench.
"I can now unbar the gate," said Father Gottlieb, "and we may all escape."
"Not so," replied the Abbot. "We came to convert these men to Christianity, and our task is still to do."
The monks all seemed frightened at this, and wished themselves once more within the monastery, able to say all's well that ends so, but none ventured to offer counsel to the gaunt man who led them. He bade each bring with him the cords that had bound him, and without a word they followed him into the Rittersaal, and there tied up the knights and their master as they themselves had been tied.
"Carry them out," commanded the Abbot, "and lay them in a row, their feet towards the spring and their heads under the ropes. And go you, Gottlieb, who know the ways of the castle, and fasten the doors of all the apartments where the servitors are sleeping."
When this was done, and they gathered once more in the moonlit courtyard, the Abbot took off his robes of office and handed them to Father Gottlieb, saying significantly: "The lowest among you that suffers and is true shall be exalted." Turning to his own flock, he commanded them to go in and obtain some rest after such a disquieting night; then to Gottlieb, when the monks had obediently departed: "Bring me, an' ye know where to find such, the apparel of a fighting man and a sword."
Thus arrayed, he dismissed the old man, and alone in the silence, with the row of figures like effigies on a tomb beside him, paced up and down through the night, as the moon dropped lower and lower, in the heavens. There was a period of dark before the dawn, and at last the upper walls began to whiten with the coming day, and the Black Baron moaned uneasily in his drunken sleep. The Abbot paused in his walk and looked down upon them, and Gottlieb stole out from the shadow of the door and asked if he could be of service. He had evidently not slept, but had watched his chief, until he paused in his march.
"Tell our brothers to come out and see the justice of the Lord."
When the monks trooped out, haggard and wan, in the pure light of the dawn, the Abbot asked Gottlieb to get a flagon and dash water from the spring in the faces of the sleepers.
The Black Baron was the first to come to his senses and realise dimly, at first, but afterwards more acutely, the changed condition of affairs. His eye wandered apprehensively to the empty noose swaying slightly in the morning breeze above him. He then saw that the tall, ascetic man before him had doffed the Abbot's robes and wore a sword by his side, and from this he augured ill. At the command of the Abbot the monks raised each prostrate man and placed him against the north wall.
"Gottlieb," said, the Abbot slowly, "the last office that will be required of you. You took from our necks the nooses last night. Place them, I pray you, on the necks of the Baron and his followers."
The old man, trembling, adjusted the ropes.
"My Lord Abbot----" began the Baron.
"Baron von Grunewald," interrupted the person addressed, "the Abbot Ambrose is dead. He was foully assassinated last night. In his place stands Conrad von Stern, who answers for his deeds to the Emperor, and after him, to God."
"Is it your purpose to hang me, Baron?"
"Was it your purpose to have hanged us, my Lord?"
"I swear to heaven, it was not. 'Twas but an ill-timed pleasantry. Had I wished to hang you I would have done so last night."
"That seems plausible."
The knights all swore, with many rounded oaths, that their over-lord spoke the truth, and nothing was further from their intention than an execution.
"Well, then, whether you hang or no shall depend upon yourselves."
"By God, then," cried the Baron, "an' I have aught to say on that point, I shall hang some other day."
"Will you then, Baron, beg admittance to Mother Church, whose kindly tenets you have so long outraged?"
"We will, we do," cried the Baron fervently, whispering through his clenched teeth to Segfried, who stood next him: "Wait till I have the upper hand again." Fortunately the Abbot did not hear the whisper. The knights all echoed aloud the Baron's pious first remark, and, perhaps, in their hearts said "Amen" to his second.
The Abbot spoke a word or two to the monks, and they advanced to the pinioned men and there performed the rites sacred to their office and to the serious situation of the penitents. As the good brothers stood back, they begged the Abbot for mercy to be extended towards the new converts, but the sphinx-like face of their leader gave no indication as to their fate, and the good men began to fear that it was the Abbot's intention to hang the Baron and his knights.
"Now--brothers," said the Abbot, with a long pause before he spoke the second word, whereupon each of the prisoners heaved a sigh of relief, "I said your fate would depend on yourselves and on your good intent."
They all vociferously proclaimed that their intentions were and had been of the most honourable kind.
"I trust that is true, and that you shall live long enough to show your faith by your works. It is written that a man digged a pit for his enemy and fell himself therein. It is also written that as a man sows, so shall he reap. If you meant us no harm then your signal shouted to the battlements will do you no harm."
"For God's sake, my Lord...." screamed the Baron. The Abbot, unheeding, raised his face towards the northern wall and shouted at the top of his voice:
"So die SUCH Christians!" varying the phrase by one word. A simultaneous scream rose from the doomed men, cut short as by a knife, as the huge log was hurled over the outer parapet, and the seventeen victims were jerked into the air and throttled at the coping around the inner wall.
Thus did the Abbot Ambrose save the souls of Baron von Grunewald and his men, at some expense to their necks.