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"Why, then, captain of jailers, lieutenant, anspessade, or what you will. What else than a jailer is he that sits watch upon the prison- doors of honorable cavaliers?" Another shout of triumph applauded St.
Aldenheim; for the men who discharged the duties of the city guard at that day, or "petty guard," as it was termed, corresponding in many of their functions to the modern police, were viewed with contempt by all parties; and most of all by the military, though in some respects assimilated to them by discipline and costume. They were industriously stigmatized as jailers; for which there was the more ground, as their duties did in reality associate them pretty often with the jailer; and in other respects they were a dissolute and ferocious body of men, gathered not out of the citizens, but many foreign deserters, or wretched runagates from the jail, or from the justice of the provost- marshal in some distant camp. Not a man, probably, but was liable to be reclaimed, in some or other quarter of Germany, as a capital delinquent. Sometimes, even, they were actually detected, claimed, and given up to the pursuit of justice, when it happened that the subjects of their criminal acts were weighty enough to sustain an energetic inquiry. Hence their reputation became worse than scandalous: the mingled infamy of their calling, and the houseless condition of wretchedness which had made it worth their acceptance, combined to overwhelm them with public scorn; and this public abhorrence, which at any rate awaited them, mere desperation led them too often to countenance and justify by their conduct.
"Captain of jailers! do your worst, I say," again ejaculated St.
Aldenheim. Spite of his blinding passion, the officer hesitated to precipitate himself into a personal struggle with the count, and thus, perhaps, afford his antagonist an occasion for a further triumph. But loudly and fiercely he urged on his followers to attack him. These again, not partaking in the personal wrath of their leader, even whilst pressing more and more closely upon St. Aldenheim, and calling upon him to surrender, scrupled to inflict a wound, or too marked an outrage, upon a cavalier whose rank was known to the whole city, and of late most advantageously known for his own interests, by the conspicuous immunity which it had procured him from the Landgrave. In vain did the commanding officer insist, in vain did the count defy; menaces from neither side availed to urge the guard into any outrage upon the person of one who might have it in his power to retaliate so severely upon themselves. They continued obstinately at a stand, simply preventing his escape, when suddenly the tread of horses' feet arose upon the ear, and through a long vista were discovered a body of cavalry from the castle coming up at a charging pace to the main entrance of the college. Without pulling up on the outside, as hitherto they had always done, they expressed sufficiently the altered tone of the Landgrave's feelings towards the old chartered interests of Klosterheim, by plunging through the great archway of the college-gates; and then making way at the same furious pace through the assembled crowds, who broke rapidly away to the right and to the left, they reined up directly abreast of the city guard and their prisoners.
"Colonel von Aremberg!" said St. Aldenheim, "I perceive your errand. To a soldier I surrender myself; to this tyrant of dungeons, who has betrayed more men, and cheated more gibbets of their due, than ever he said _aves_, I will never lend an ear, though he should bear the orders of every Landgrave in Germany."
"You do well," replied the colonel; "but for this man, count, he bears no orders from any Landgrave, nor will ever again bear orders from the Landgrave of X----. Gentlemen, you are all my prisoners; and you will accompany me to the castle. Count St. Aldenheim, I am sorry that there is no longer an exemption for yourself. Please to advance. If it will be any gratification to you, these men" (pointing to the city guard) "are prisoners also."
Here was a revolution of fortune that confounded everybody. The detested guardians of the city jail were themselves to tenant it; or, by a worse fate still, were to be consigned unpitied, and their case unjudged, to the dark and pestilent dungeons which lay below the Landgrave's castle. A few scattered cries of triumph were heard from the crowd; but they were drowned in a tumult of conflicting feelings.
As human creatures, fallen under the displeasure of a despot with a judicial power of torture to enforce his investigations, even _they_ claimed some compassion. But there arose, to call off attention from these less dignified objects of the public interest, a long train of gallant cavaliers, restored so capriciously to liberty, in order, as it seemed, to give the greater poignancy and bitterness to the instant renewal of their captivity. This was the very frenzy of despotism in its very moodiest state of excitement. Many began to think the Landgrave mad. If so, what a dreadful fate might be anticipated for the sons or representatives of so many noble families, gallant soldiers the greater part of them, with a nobleman of princely blood at their head, lying under the displeasure of a gloomy and infuriated tyrant, with unlimited means of executing the bloodiest suggestions of his vengeance. Then, in what way had the guardians of the jails come to be connected with any even imaginary offence? Supposing the Landgrave insane, his agents were not so; Colonel von Aremberg was a man of shrewd and penetrating understanding; and this officer had clearly spoken in the tone of one who, whilst announcing the sentence of another, sympathizes entirely with the justice and necessity of its harshness.
Something dropped from the miserable leader of the city guard, in his first confusion and attempt at self-defence, which rather increased than explained the mystery. "The Masque! the Masque !" This was the word which fell at intervals upon the ear of the listening crowd, as he sometimes directed his words in the way of apology and deprecation to Colonel von Aremberg, who did not vouchsafe to listen, or of occasional explanation and discussion, as it was partly kept up between himself and one of his nearest partners in the imputed transgression. Two or three there might be seen in the crowd, whose looks avowed some nearer acquaintance with this mysterious allusion than it would have been safe to acknowledge. But, for the great body of spectators who accompanied the prisoners and their escort to the gates of the castle, it was pretty evident by their inquiring looks, and the fixed expression of wonder upon their features, that the whole affair, and its circumstances, were to them equally a subject of mystery for what was past, and of blind terror for what was to come.
The cavalcade, with its charge of prisoners, and its attendant train of spectators, halted at the gates of the _schloss_. This vast and antique pile had now come to be surveyed with dismal and revolting feelings, as the abode of a sanguinary despot. The dungeons and labyrinths of its tortuous passages, its gloomy halls of audience, with the vast corridors which surmounted the innumerable flights of stairs-- some noble, spacious, and in the Venetian taste, capable of admitting the march of an army--some spiral, steep, and so unusually narrow as to exclude two persons walking abreast; these, together with the numerous chapels erected in it to different saints by devotees, male or female, in the families of forgotten Landgraves through four centuries back; and, finally, the tribunals, or _gericht-kammern_, for dispensing justice, criminal or civil, to the city and territorial dependencies of Klosterheim; all united to compose a body of impressive images, hallowed by great historical remembrances, or traditional stories, that from infancy to age dwelt upon the feelings of the Klosterheimers.
Terror and superstitious dread predominated undoubtedly in the total impression; but the gentle virtues exhibited by a series of princes, who had made this their favorite residence, naturally enough terminated in mellowing the sternness of such associations into a religious awe, not without its own peculiar attractions. But, at present, under the harsh and repulsive character of the reigning prince, everything took a new color from his un-genial habits. The superstitious legend, which had so immemorially peopled the _schloss_ with spectral apparitions, now revived in its earliest strength. Never was Germany more dedicated to superstition in every shape than at this period. The wild, tumultuous times, and the slight tenure upon which all men held their lives, naturally threw their thoughts much upon the other world; and communications with that, or its burthen of secrets, by every variety of agencies, ghosts, divination, natural magic, palmistry, or astrology, found in every city of the land more encouragement than ever.
It cannot, therefore, be surprising that the well-known apparition of the White Lady (a legend which affected Klosterheim through the fortunes of its Landgraves, no less than several other princely houses of Germany, descended from the same original stock) should about this time have been seen in the dusk of the evening at some of the upper windows in the castle, and once in a lofty gallery of the great chapel during the vesper service. This lady, generally known by the name of the White Lady Agnes, or Lady Agnes of Weissemburg, is supposed to have lived in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and from that time, even to our own days, the current belief is, that on the eve of any great crisis of good or evil fortune impending over the three or four illustrious houses of Germany which trace their origin from her, she makes her appearance in some conspicuous apartment, great baronial hall or chapel, of their several palaces, sweeping along in white robes, and a voluminous train. Her appearance of late in the _schloss_ of Klosterheim, confidently believed by the great body of the people, was hailed with secret pleasure, as forerunning some great change in the Landgrave's family,--which was but another name for better days to themselves, whilst of necessity it menaced some great evil to the prince himself. Hope, therefore, was predominant in their prospects, and in the supernatural intimations of coming changes;--yet awe and deep religious feeling mingled with their hope. Of chastisement approaching to the Landgrave they felt assured. Some dim religious judgment, like that which brooded over the house of ?dipus, was now at hand,--that was the universal impression. His gloomy asceticism of life seemed to argue secret crimes: these were to be brought to light; for these, and for his recent tyranny, prosperous as it had seemed for a moment, chastisements were now impending; and something of the awe which belonged to a prince so marked out for doom and fatal catastrophe seemed to attach itself to his mansion, more especially as it was there only that the signs and portents of the coming woe had revealed themselves in the apparition of the White Lady.
Under this superstitious impression, many of the spectators paused at the entrance of the castle, and lingered in the portal, though presuming that the chamber of justice, according to the frank old usage of Germany, was still open to all comers. Of this notion they were speedily disabused by the sudden retreat of the few who had penetrated into the first ante-chamber. These persons were harshly repelled in a contumelious manner, and read to the astonished citizens another lesson upon the new arts of darkness and concealment with which the Landgrave found it necessary to accompany his new acts of tyranny.
Von Aremberg and his prisoners, thus left alone in one of the ante- chambers, waited no long time before they were summoned to the presence of the Landgrave.
After pacing along a number of corridors, all carpeted so as to return no sound to their footsteps, they arrived in a little hall, from which a door suddenly opened, upon a noiseless signal exchanged with an usher outside, and displayed before them a long gallery, with a table and a few seats arranged at the further end. Two gentlemen were seated at the table, anxiously examining papers; in one of whom it was easy to recognize the wily glance of the Italian minister; the other was the Landgrave.
This prince was now on the verge of fifty, strikingly handsome in his features, and of imposing presence, from the union of a fine person with manners unusually dignified. No man understood better the art of restraining his least governable impulses of anger or malignity within the decorums of his rank. And even his worst passions, throwing a gloomy rather than terrific air upon his features, served less to alarm and revolt, than to impress the sense of secret distrust. Of late, indeed, from the too evident indications of the public hatred, his sallies of passion had become wilder and more ferocious, and his self- command less habitually conspicuous. But, in general, a gravity of insidious courtesy disguised from all but penetrating eyes the treacherous purpose of his heart.
The Landgrave bowed to the Count St. Aldenheim, and, pointing to a chair, begged him to understand that he wished to do nothing inconsistent with his regard for the Palsgrave his brother; and would be content with his parole of honor to pursue no further any conspiracy against himself, in which he might too thoughtlessly have engaged, and with his retirement from the city of Klosterheim.
The Count St. Aldenheim replied that he and all the other cavaliers present, according to his belief, stood upon the same footing: that they had harbored no thought of conspiracy, unless that name could attach to a purpose of open expostulation with his highness on the outraged privileges of their corporation as a university; that he wished not for any distinction of treatment in a case when all were equal offenders, or none at all; and, finally, that he believed the sentence of exile from Klosterheim would be cheerfully accepted by all or most of those present.
Adorni, the minister, shook his head, and glanced significantly at the Landgrave, during this answer. The Landgrave coldly replied that if he could suppose the count to speak sincerely, it was evident that he was little aware to what length his companions, or some of them, had pushed their plots. "Here are the proofs!" and he pointed to the papers.
"And now, gentlemen," said he, turning to the students, "I marvel that you, being cavaliers of family, and doubtless holding yourselves men of honor, should beguile these poor knaves into certain ruin, whilst yourselves could reap nothing but a brief mockery of the authority which you could not hope to evade."
Thus called upon, the students and the city guard told their tale; in which no contradictions could be detected. The city prison was not particularly well secured against attacks from without. To prevent, therefore, any sudden attempt at a rescue, the guard kept watch by turns. One man watched two hours, traversing the different passages of the prison; and was then relieved. At three o'clock on the preceding night, pacing a winding lobby, brightly illuminated, the man who kept that watch was suddenly met by a person wearing a masque, and armed at all points. His surprise and consternation were great, and the more so as the steps of The Masque were soundless, though the floor was a stone one. The guard, but slightly prepared to meet an attack, would, however, have resisted or raised an alarm; but The Masque, instantly levelling a pistol at his head with one hand, with the other had thrown open the door of an empty cell, indicating to the man by signs that he must enter it. With this intimation he had necessarily complied; and The Masque had immediately turned the key upon him. Of what followed he knew nothing until aroused by his comrades setting him at liberty, after some time had been wasted in searching for him.
The students had a pretty uniform tale to report. A Masque, armed cap- a-pie, as described by the guard, had visited each of their cells in succession; had instructed them by signs to dress, and then, pointing to the door, by a series of directions all communicated in the same dumb show, had assembled them together, thrown open the prison door, and, pointing to their college, had motioned them thither. This motion they had seen no cause to disobey, presuming their dismissal to be according to the mode which best pleased his highness; and not ill- pleased at finding so peaceful a termination to a summons which at first, from its mysterious shape and the solemn hour of night, they had understood as tending to some more formidable issue.
It was observed that neither the Landgrave nor his minister treated this report of so strange a transaction with the scorn which had been anticipated. Both listened attentively, and made minute inquiries as to every circumstance of the dress and appointments of the mysterious Masque. What was his height? By what road, or in what direction, had he disappeared? These questions answered, his highness and his minister consulted a few minutes together; and then, turning to Von Aremberg, bade him for the present dismiss the prisoners to their homes; an act of grace which seemed likely to do him service at the present crisis; but at the same time to take sufficient security for their reappearance. This done, the whole body were liberated.
All Klosterheim was confounded by the story of the mysterious Masque.
For the story had been rapidly dispersed; and on the same day it was made known in another shape. A notice was affixed to the walls of several public places in these words:
"Landgrave, beware! henceforth not you, but I, govern in Klosterheim.
(Signed) THE MASQUE."
And this was no empty threat. Very soon it became apparent that some mysterious agency was really at work to counteract the Landgrave's designs. Sentinels were carried off from solitary posts. Guards, even of a dozen men, were silently trepanned from their stations. By and by, other attacks were made, even more alarming, upon domestic security.
Was there a burgomaster amongst the citizens who had made himself conspicuously a tool of the Landgrave, or had opposed the imperial interest? He was carried off in the night-time from his house, and probably from the city. At first this was an easy task. Nobody apprehending any special danger to himself, no special preparations were made to meet it. But as it soon became apparent in what cause The Masque was moving, every person who knew himself obnoxious to attack, took means to face it. Guards were multiplied; arms were repaired in every house; alarm-bells were hung. For a time the danger seemed to diminish. The attacks were no longer so frequent. Still, wherever they were attempted, they succeeded just as before. It seemed, in fact, that all the precautions taken had no other effect than to warn The Masque of his own danger, and to place him more vigilantly on his guard. Aware of new defences raising, it seemed that he waited to see the course they would take; once master of that, he was ready (as it appeared) to contend with them as successfully as before.
Nothing could exceed the consternation of the city. Those even who did not fall within the apparent rule which governed the attacks of The Masque felt a sense of indefinite terror hanging over them. Sleep was no longer safe; the seclusion of a man's private hearth, the secrecy of bed-rooms, was no longer a protection. Locks gave way, bars fell, doors flew open, as if by magic, before him. Arms seemed useless. In some instances a party of as many as ten or a dozen persons had been removed without rousing disturbance in the neighborhood. Nor was this the only circumstance of mystery. Whither he could remove his victims was even more incomprehensible than the means by which he succeeded. All was darkness and fear; and the whole city was agitated with panic.
It began now to be suggested that a nightly guard should be established, having fixed stations or points of rendezvous, and at intervals parading the streets. This was cheerfully assented to; for, after the first week of the mysterious attacks, it began to be observed that the imperial party were attacked indiscriminately with the Swedish. Many students publicly declared that they had been dogged through a street or two by an armed Masque; others had been suddenly confronted by him in unfrequented parts of the city, in the dead of night, and were on the point of being attacked, when some alarm, or the approach of distant footsteps, had caused him to disappear. The students, indeed, more particularly, seemed objects of attack; and as they were pretty generally attached to the imperial interest, the motives of The Masque were no longer judged to be political. Hence it happened that the students came forward in a body, and volunteered as members of the nightly guard. Being young, military for the most part in their habits, and trained to support the hardships of night- watching, they seemed peculiarly fitted for the service; and, as the case was no longer of a nature to awaken the suspicions of the Landgrave, they were generally accepted and enrolled; and with the more readiness, as the known friends of that prince came forward at the same time.
A night-watch was thus established, which promised security to the city, and a respite from their mysterious alarms. It was distributed into eight or ten divisions, posted at different points, whilst a central one traversed the whole city at stated periods, and overlooked the local stations. Such an arrangement was wholly unknown at that time in every part of Germany, and was hailed with general applause.
To the astonishment, however, of everybody, it proved wholly ineffectual. Houses were entered as before; the college chambers proved no sanctuary; indeed, they were attacked with a peculiar obstinacy, which was understood to express a spirit of retaliation for the alacrity of the students in combining--for the public protection.
People were carried off as before. And continual notices affixed to the gates of the college, the convents, or the _schloss_, with the signature of _The Masque_, announced to the public his determination to persist, and his contempt of the measures organized against him.
The alarm of the citizens now became greater than ever. The danger was one which courage could not face, nor prudence make provision for, nor wiliness evade. All alike, who had once been marked out for attack, sooner or later fell victims to the obstinacy of this mysterious foe.
To have received even an individual warning, availed them not at all.
Sometimes it happened that, having received notice of suspicious circumstances indicating that The Masque had turned his attention upon themselves, they would assemble round their dwellings, or in their very chambers, a band of armed men sufficient to set the danger at defiance.
But no sooner had they relaxed in these costly and troublesome arrangements, no sooner was the sense of peril lulled, and an opening made for their unrelenting enemy, than he glided in with his customary success; and in a morning or two after, it was announced to the city that they also were numbered with his victims.
Even yet it seemed that something remained in reserve to augment the terrors of the citizens, and push them to excess. Hitherto there had been no reason to think that any murderous violence had occurred in the mysterious rencontres between The Masque and his victims. But of late, in those houses, or college chambers, from which the occupiers had disappeared, traces of bloodshed were apparent in some instances, and of ferocious conflict in others. Sometimes a profusion of hair was scattered on the ground; sometimes fragments of dress, or splinters of weapons. Everything marked that on both sides, as this mysterious agency advanced, the passions increased in intensity; determination and murderous malignity on the one side, and the fury of resistance on the other.
At length the last consummation was given to the public panic; for, as if expressly to put an end to all doubts upon the spirit in which he conducted his warfare, in one house, where the bloodshed had been so great as to argue some considerable loss of life, a notice was left behind in the following terms: "Thus it is that I punish resistance; mercy to a cheerful submission; but henceforth death to the obstinate!
What was to be done? Some counselled a public deprecation of his wrath, addressed to The Masque. But this, had it even offered any chance of succeeding, seemed too abject an act of abasement to become a large city. Under any circumstances, it was too humiliating a confession that, in a struggle with one man (for no more had avowedly appeared upon the scene), they were left defeated and at his mercy. A second party counselled a treaty; would it not be possible to learn the ultimate objects of The Masque; and, if such as seemed capable of being entertained with honor, to concede to him his demands, in exchange for security to the city, and immunity from future molestation? It was true that no man knew where to seek him: personally he was hidden from their reach; but everybody knew how to find him: he was amongst them; in their very centre; and whatever they might address to him in a public notice would be sure of speedily reaching his eye.
After some deliberation, a summons was addressed to The Masque, and exposed on the college gates, demanding of him a declaration of his purposes, and the price which he expected for suspending them. The next day an answer appeared in the same situation, avowing the intention of The Masque to come forward with ample explanation of his motives at a proper crisis, till which, "more blood must flow in Klosterheim."
Meantime the Landgrave was himself perplexed and alarmed. Hitherto he had believed himself possessed of all the intrigues, plots, or conspiracies, which threatened his influence in the city. Among the students and among the citizens he had many spies, who communicated to him whatsoever they could learn, which was sometimes more than the truth, and sometimes a good deal less. But now he was met by a terrific antagonist, who moved in darkness, careless of his power, inaccessible to his threats, and apparently as reckless as himself of the quality of his means.
Adorni, with all his Venetian subtlety, was now as much at fault as everybody else. In vain had they deliberated together, day after day, upon his probable purposes; in vain had they schemed to intercept his person, or offered high rewards for tracing his retreats. Snares had been laid for him in vain; every wile had proved abortive, every plot had been counterplotted. And both involuntarily confessed that they had now met with their master.
Vexed and confounded, fears for the future struggling with mortification for the past, the Landgrave was sitting, late at night, in the long gallery where he usually held his councils. He was reflecting with anxiety on the peculiarly unpropitious moment at which his new enemy had come upon the stage; the very crisis of the struggle between the Swedish and imperial interest in Klosterheim, which would ultimately determine his own place and value in the estimate of his new allies. He was not of a character to be easily duped by mystery. Yet he could not but acknowledge to himself that there was something calculated to impress awe, and the sort of fear which is connected with the supernatural, in the sudden appearances, and vanishings as sudden, of The Masque. He came, no one could guess whence; retreated, no one could guess whither; was intercepted, and yet eluded arrest; and if half the stories in circulation could be credited, seemed inaudible in his steps, at pleasure to make himself invisible and impalpable to the very hands stretched out to detain him. Much of this, no doubt, was wilful exaggeration, or the fictions of fears self-deluded. But enough remained, after every allowance, to justify an extraordinary interest in so singular a being; and the Landgrave could not avoid wishing that chance might offer an opportunity to himself of observing him.
Profound silence had for some time reigned throughout the castle. A clock which stood in the room broke it for a moment by striking the quarters; and, raising his eyes, the Landgrave perceived that it was past two. He rose to retire for the night, and stood for a moment musing with one hand resting upon the table. A momentary feeling of awe came across him, as his eyes travelled through the gloom at the lower end of the room, on the sudden thought, that a being so mysterious, and capable of piercing through so many impediments to the interior of every mansion in Klosterheim, was doubtless likely enough to visit the castle; nay, it would be no ways improbable that he should penetrate to this very room. What bars had yet been found sufficient to repel him?
And who could pretend to calculate the hour of his visit? This night even might be the time which he would select. Thinking thus, the Landgrave was suddenly aware of a dusky figure entering the room by a door at the lower end. The room had the length and general proportions of a gallery, and the further end was so remote from the candles which stood on the Landgrave's table, that the deep gloom was but slightly penetrated by their rays. Light, however, there was, sufficient to display the outline of a figure slowly and inaudibly advancing up the room. It could not be said that the figure advanced stealthily; on the contrary, its motion, carriage, and bearing, were in the highest degree dignified and solemn. But the feeling of a stealthy purpose was suggested by the perfect silence of its tread. The motion of a shadow could not be more noiseless. And this circumstance confirmed the Landgrave's first impression, that now he was on the point of accomplishing his recent wish, and meeting that mysterious being who was the object of so much awe, and the author of so far-spread a panic.
He was right; it was indeed The Masque, armed cap-a-pie as usual. He advanced with an equable and determined step in the direction of the Landgrave. Whether he saw his highness, who stood a little in the shade of a large cabinet, could not be known; the Landgrave doubted not that he did. He was a prince of firm nerves by constitution, and of great intrepidity; yet, as one who shared in the superstitions of his age, he could not be expected entirely to suppress an emotion of indefinite apprehension as he now beheld the solemn approach of a being, who, by some unaccountable means, had trepanned so many different individuals from so many different houses, most of them prepared for self-defence, and fenced in by the protection of stone walls, locks, and bars.
The Landgrave, however, lost none of his presence of mind; and, in the midst of his discomposure, as his eye fell upon the habiliments of this mysterious person, and the arms and military accoutrements which he bore, naturally his thoughts settled upon the more earthly means of annoyance which this martial apparition carried about him. The Landgrave was himself unarmed; he had no arms even within reach, nor was it possible for him in his present situation very speedily to summon assistance. With these thoughts passing rapidly through his mind, and sensible that, in any view of his nature and powers, the being now in his presence was a very formidable antagonist, the Landgrave could not but feel relieved from a burden of anxious tremors, when he saw The Masque suddenly turn towards a door which opened about half-way up the room, and led into a picture-gallery at right angles with the room in which they both were.