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"Retreat!" retorted the officer, "I tell you there is no retreat. All have perished. The army is no more. Horse, foot, artillery--all is wrecked, crushed, annihilated. Whatever yet lives is in the power of the imperialists."
At this moment the Landgrave came up, and in every way strove to check these too liberal communications. He frowned; the officer saw him not.
He laid his hand on the officer's arm, but all in vain. He spoke, but the officer knew not, or forgot his rank. Panic and immeasurable sorrow had crushed his heart; he cared not for restraints; decorum and ceremony were become idle words. The Swedish army had perished. The greatest disaster of the whole 'Thirty Years' War had fallen upon his countrymen. His own eyes had witnessed the tragedy, and he had no power to check or restrain that which made his heart overflow.
The Landgrave retired. But in half an hour the banquet was announced; and his highness had so much command over his own feelings that he took his seat at the table. He seemed tranquil in the midst of general agitation; for the company were distracted by various passions. Some exulted in the great victory of the imperialists, and the approaching liberation of Klosterheim. Some, who were in the secret, anticipated with horror the coming tragedy of vengeance upon his enemies which the Landgrave had prepared for this night. Some were filled with suspense and awe on the probable fulfilment in some way or other, doubtful as to the mode, but tragic (it was not doubted) for the result, of The Masque's mysterious denunciation.
Under such circumstances of universal agitation and suspense,--for on one side or other it seemed inevitable that this night must produce a tragical catastrophe,--it was not extraordinary that silence and embarrassment should at one moment take possession of the company, and at another that kind of forced and intermitting gayety which still more forcibly proclaimed the trepidation which really mastered the spirits of the assemblage. The banquet was magnificent; but it moved heavily and in sadness. The music, which broke the silence at intervals, was animating and triumphant; but it had no power to disperse the gloom which hung over the evening, and which was gathering strength conspicuously as the hours advanced to midnight.
As the clock struck eleven, the orchestra had suddenly become silent; and, as no buzz of conversation succeeded, the anxiety of expectation became more painfully irritating. The whole vast assemblage was hushed, gazing at the doors, at each other, or watching, stealthily, the Landgrave's countenance. Suddenly a sound was heard in an ante-room; a page entered with a step hurried and discomposed, advanced to the Landgrave's seat, and, bending downwards, whispered some news or message to that prince, of which not a syllable could be caught by the company. Whatever were its import, it could not be collected, from any very marked change on the features of him to whom it was addressed, that he participated in the emotions of the messenger, which were obviously those of grief or panic--perhaps of both united. Some even fancied that a transient expression of malignant exultation crossed the Landgrave's countenance at this moment. But, if that were so, it was banished as suddenly; and, in the next instant, the prince arose with a leisurely motion; and, with a very successful affectation (if such it were) of extreme tranquillity, he moved forwards to one of the ante- rooms, in which, as it now appeared, some person was awaiting his presence.
Who, and on what errand? These were the questions which now racked the curiosity of those among the company who had least concern in the final event, and more painfully interested others, whose fate was consciously dependent upon the accidents which the next hour might happen to bring up. Silence still continuing to prevail, and, if possible, deeper silence than before, it was inevitable that all the company, those even whose honorable temper would least have brooked any settled purpose of surprising the Landgrave's secrets, should, in some measure, become a party to what was now passing in the ante-room.
The voice of the Landgrave was heard at times, briefly and somewhat sternly in reply, but apparently in the tone of one who is thrown upon the necessity of self-defence. On the other side, the speaker was earnest, solemn, and (as it seemed) upon an office of menace or upbraiding. For a time, however, the tones were low and subdued; but, as the passion of the scene advanced, less restraint was observed on both sides; and at length many believed that in the stranger's voice they recognized that of the lady abbess; and it was some corroboration of this conjecture, that the name of Paulina began now frequently to be caught, and in connection with ominous words, indicating some dreadful fate supposed to have befallen her.
A few moments dispersed all doubts. The tones of bitter and angry reproach rose louder than before; they were, without doubt, those of the abbess. She charged the blood of Paulina upon the Landgrave's head; denounced the instant vengeance of the emperor for so great an atrocity; and, if that could be evaded, bade him expect certain retribution from Heaven for so wanton and useless an effusion of innocent blood.
The Landgrave replied in a lower key; and his words were few and rapid.
That they were words of fierce recrimination, was easily collected from the tone; and in the next minute the parties separated with little ceremony (as was sufficiently evident) on either side, and with mutual wrath. The Landgrave reentered the banqueting-room; his features discomposed and inflated with passion; but such was his self-command, and so habitual his dissimulation, that, by the time he reached his seat, all traces of agitation had disappeared; his countenance had resumed its usual expression of stern serenity, and his manners their usual air of perfect self-possession.
The clock of St. Agnes struck twelve. At that sound the Landgrave rose.
"Friends and illustrious strangers!" said he, "I have caused one seat to be left empty for that blood-stained Masque, who summoned me to answer on this night for a crime which he could not name, at a bar which no man knows. His summons you heard. Its fulfilment is yet to come. But I suppose few of us are weak enough to expect--"
"That The Masque of Klosterheim will ever break his engagements," said a deep voice, suddenly interrupting the Landgrave. All eyes were directed to the sound; and, behold! there stood The Masque, and seated himself quietly in the chair which had been left vacant for his reception.
"It is well!" said the Landgrave; but the air of vexation and panic with which he sank back into his seat belied his words. Rising again, after a pause, with some agitation, he said, "Audacious criminal! since last we met, I have learned to know you, and to appreciate your purposes. It is now fit they should be known to Klosterheim. A scene of justice awaits you at present, which will teach this city to understand the delusions which could build any part of her hopes upon yourself.
Citizens and friends, not I, but these dark criminals and interlopers whom you will presently see revealed in their true colors, are answerable for that interruption to the course of our peaceful festivities, which will presently be brought before you. Not I, but they are responsible."
So saying, the Landgrave arose, and the whole of the immense audience, who now resumed their masques, and prepared to follow whither his highness should lead. With the haste of one who fears he may be anticipated in his purpose, and the fury of some bird of prey, apprehending that his struggling victim may be yet torn from his talons, the prince hurried onwards to the ante-chapel. Innumerable torches now illuminated its darkness; in other respects it remained as St. Aldenheim had left it.
The Swedish masques had many of them withdrawn from the gala on hearing the dreadful day of Nordlingen. But enough remained, when strengthened by the body-guard of the Landgrave, to make up a corps of nearly five hundred men. Under the command of Colonel von Aremberg, part of them now enclosed the scaffold, and part prepared to seize the persons who were pointed out to them as conspirators. Amongst these stood foremost The Masque.
Shaking off those who attempted to lay hands upon him, he strode disdainfully within the ring; and then, turning to the Landgrave, he said--
"Prince, for once be generous; accept me as a ransom for the rest."
The Landgrave smiled sarcastically. "That were an unequal bargain, methinks, to take a part in exchange for the whole."
"The whole? And where is, then, your assurance of the whole?"
"Who should now make it doubtful? There is the block; the headsman is at hand. What hand can deliver from this extremity even you, Sir Masque?"
"That which has many times delivered me from a greater. It seems, prince, that you forget the last days in the history of Klosterheim. He that rules by night in Klosterheim may well expect a greater favor than this when he descends to sue for it."
The Landgrave smiled contemptuously. "But, again I ask you, sir, will you on any terms grant immunity to these young men?"
"You sue as vainly for others as you would do for yourself."
"Then all grace is hopeless?" The Landgrave vouchsafed no answer, but made signals to Von Aremberg.
"Gentlemen, cavaliers, citizens of Klosterheim, you that are not involved in the Landgrave's suspicions," said The Masque, appealingly, "will you not join me in the intercession I offer for these young friends, who are else to perish unjudged, by blank edict of martial law?"
The citizens of Klosterheim interceded with ineffectual supplication.
"Gentlemen, you waste your breath; they die without reprieve," replied the Landgrave.
"Will your highness spare none?"
"Not one," he exclaimed, angrily,--"not the youngest amongst them."
"Nor grant a day's respite to him who may appear, on examination, the least criminal of the whole?"
"A day's respite? No, nor half an hour's. Headsman, be ready. Soldiers, lay the heads of the prisoners ready for the axe."
"Detested prince, now look to your own!"
With a succession of passions flying over his face,--rage, disdain, suspicion,--the Landgrave looked round upon The Masque as he uttered these words, and, with pallid, ghastly consternation, beheld him raise to his lips a hunting-horn which depended from his neck. He blew a blast, which was immediately answered from within. Silence as of the grave ensued. All eyes were turned in the direction of the answer.
Expectation was at its summit; and in less than a minute solemnly uprose the curtain, which divided the chapel from the ante-chapel, revealing a scene that smote many hearts with awe, and the consciences of some with as much horror as if it had really been that final tribunal which numbers believed The Masque to have denounced.
The great chapel of St. Agnes, the immemorial hall of coronation for the Landgraves of X----, was capable of containing with ease from seven to eight thousand spectators. Nearly that number was now collected in the galleries, which, on the recurrence of that great occasion, or of a royal marriage, were usually assigned to the spectators. These were all equipped in burnished arms, the very _elite_ of the imperial army.
Resistance was hopeless; in a single moment the Landgrave saw himself dispossessed of all his hopes by an overwhelming force; the advanced guard, in fact, of the victorious imperialists, now fresh from Nordlingen.
On the marble area of the chapel, level with their own position, were arranged "a brilliant staff of officers; and, a little in advance of them, so as almost to reach the ante-chapel, stood the imperial legate or ambassador. This nobleman advanced to the crowd of Klosterheimers, and spoke thus:
"Citizens of Klosterheim, I bring you from the emperor your true and lawful Landgrave, Maximilian, son of your last beloved prince."
Both chapels resounded with acclamations; and the troops presented arms.
"Show us our prince! let us pay him our homage!" echoed from every mouth.
"This is mere treason!" exclaimed the usurper. "The emperor invites treason against his own throne, who undermines that of other princes.
The late Landgrave had no son; so much is known to you all."
"None that was known to his murderer," replied The Masque, "else had he met no better fate than his unhappy father."
"Murderer! And what art thou, blood-polluted Masque, with hands yet reeking from the blood of all who refused to join the conspiracy against your lawful prince?"
"Citizens of Klosterheim," said the legate, "first let the emperor's friend be assoiled from all injurious thoughts. Those whom ye believe to have been removed by murder are here to speak for themselves."
Upon this the whole line of those who had mysteriously disappeared from Klosterheim presented themselves to the welcome of their astonished friends.
"These," said the legate, "quitted Klosterheim, even by the same secret passages which enabled us to enter it, and for the self-same purpose,-- to prepare the path for the restoration of the true heir, Maximilian the Fourth, whom in this noble prince you behold, and whom may God long preserve!"