IV.-The White Cross on the Hill.
Here the glassy waters of the River Rhine, holding upon its bosom a mimic picture of the blue sky and white clouds floating above, runs smoothly around a jutting point of land, St. Michaelsburg, rising from the reedy banks of the stream, sweeps up with a smooth swell until it cuts sharp and clear against the sky. Stubby vineyards covered its earthy breast, and field and garden and orchard crowned its brow, where lay the Monastery of St. Michaelsburg - "The White Cross on the Hill." There within the white walls, where the warm yellow sunlight slept, all was peaceful quietness, broken only now and then by the crowing of the cock or the clamorous cackle of a hen, the lowing of kine or the bleating of goats, a solitary voice in prayer, the faint accord of distant singing, or the resonant toll of the monastery bell from the high-peaked belfry that overlooked the hill and valley and the smooth, far-winding stream. No other sounds broke the stillness, for in this peaceful haven was never heard the clash of armor, the ring of iron-shod hoofs, or the hoarse call to arms.
All men were not wicked and cruel and fierce in that dark, faraway age; all were not robbers and terror-spreading tyrants, even in that time when men's hands were against their neighbors, and war and rapine dwelt in place of peace and justice.
Abbot Otto, of St. Michaelsburg, was a gentle, patient, pale. faced old man; his white hands were soft and smooth, and no one would have thought that they could have known the harsh touch of sword-hilt and lance. And yet, in the days of the Emperor Frederick - the grandson of the great Red-beard - no one stood higher in the prowess of arms than he. But all at once - for why, no man could tell - a change came over him, and in the flower of his youth and fame and growing power he gave up everything in life and entered the quiet sanctuary of that white monastery on the hill-side, so far away from the tumult and the conflict of the world in which he had lived.
Some said that it was because the lady he had loved had loved his brother, and that when they were married Otto of Wolbergen had left the church with a broken heart.
But such stories are old songs that have been sung before.
Clatter! clatter! Jingle! jingle! It was a full-armed knight that came riding up the steep hill road that wound from left to right and right to left amid the vineyards on the slopes of St. Michaelsburg. Polished helm and corselet blazed in the noon sunlight, for no knight in those days dared to ride the roads except in full armor. In front of him the solitary knight carried a bundle wrapped in the folds of his coarse gray cloak.
It was a sorely sick man that rode up the heights of St. Michaelsburg. His head hung upon his breast through the faintness of weariness and pain; for it was the Baron Conrad.
He had left his bed of sickness that morning, had saddled his horse in the gray dawn with his own hands, and had ridden away into the misty twilight of the forest without the knowledge of anyone excepting the porter, who, winking and blinking in the bewilderment of his broken slumber, had opened the gates to the sick man, hardly knowing what he was doing, until he beheld his master far away, clattering down the steep bridle-path.
Eight leagues had he ridden that day with neither a stop nor a stay; but now at last the end of his journey had come, and he drew rein under the shade of the great wooden gateway of St. Michaelsburg.
He reached up to the knotted rope and gave it a pull, and from within sounded the answering ring of the porter's bell. By and by a little wicket opened in the great wooden portals, and the gentle, wrinkled face of old Brother Benedict, the porter, peeped out at the strange iron-clad visitor and the great black war-horse, streaked and wet with the sweat of the journey, flecked and dappled with flakes of foam. A few words passed between them, and then the little window was closed again; and within, the shuffling pat of the sandalled feet sounded fainter and fainter, as Brother Benedict bore the message from Baron Conrad to Abbot Otto, and the mail-clad figure was left alone, sitting there as silent as a statue.
By and by the footsteps sounded again; there came a noise of clattering chains and the rattle of the key in the lock, and the rasping of the bolts dragged back. Then the gate swung slowly open, and Baron Conrad rode into the shelter of the White Cross, and as the hoofs of his war-horse clashed upon the stones of the courtyard within, the wooden gate swung slowly to behind him.
Abbot Otto stood by the table when Baron Conrad entered the high-vaulted room from the farther end. The light from the oriel window behind the old man shed broken rays of light upon him, and seemed to frame his thin gray hairs with a golden glory. His white, delicate hand rested upon the table beside him, and upon some sheets of parchment covered with rows of ancient Greek writing which he had been engaged in deciphering.
Clank ! clank! clank ! Baron Conrad strode across the stone floor, and then stopped short in front of the good old man.
"What dost thou seek here, my son ?" said the Abbot.
"I seek sanctuary for my son and thy brother's grandson," said the Baron Conrad, and he flung back the folds of his cloak and showed the face of the sleeping babe.
For a while the Abbot said nothing, but stood gazing dreamily at the baby. After a while he looked up. "And the child's mother," said he - "what hath she to say at this?"
"She hath naught to say," said Baron Conrad, hoarsely, and then stopped short in his speech. "She is dead," said he, at last, in a husky voice, "and is with God's angels in paradise."
The Abbot looked intently in the Baron's face. "So!" said he, under his breath, and then for the first time noticed how white and drawn was the Baron's face. "Art sick thyself?" he asked.
"Ay," said the Baron, "I have come from death's door. But that is no matter. Wilt thou take this little babe into sanctuary? My house is a vile, rough place, and not fit for such as he, and his mother with the blessed saints in heaven." And once more Conrad of Drachenhausen's face began twitching with the pain of his thoughts.
"Yes," said the old man, gently, "he shall live here," and he stretched out his hands and took the babe. "Would," said he, "that all the little children in these dark times might be thus brought to the house of God, and there learn mercy and peace, instead of rapine and war."
For a while he stood looking down in silence at the baby in his arms, but with his mind far away upon other things. At last he roused himself with a start. "And thou," said he to the Baron Conrad - "hath not thy heart been chastened and softened by this? Surely thou wilt not go back to thy old life of rapine and extortion?"
"Nay," said Baron Conrad, gruffly, "I will rob the city swine no longer, for that was the last thing that my dear one asked of me."
The old Abbot's face lit up with a smile. "I am right glad that thy heart was softened, and that thou art willing at last to cease from war and violence."
"Nay," cried the Baron, roughly, "I said nothing of ceasing from war. By heaven, no! I will have revenge!" And he clashed his iron foot upon the floor and clinched his fists and ground his teeth together. "Listen," said he, "and I will tell thee how my troubles happened. A fortnight ago I rode out upon an expedition against a caravan of fat burghers in the valley of Gruenhoffen. They outnumbered us many to one, but city swine such as they are not of the stuff to stand against our kind for a long time. Nevertheless, while the men-at-arms who guarded the caravan were staying us with pike and cross-bow from behind a tree which they had felled in front of a high bridge the others had driven the pack-horses off, so that by the time we had forced the bridge they were a league or more away. We pushed after them as hard as we were able, but when we came up with them we found that they had been joined by Baron Frederick of Trutz-Drachen, to whom for three years and more the burghers of Gruenstadt have been paying a tribute for his protection against others. Then again they made a stand, and this time the Baron Frederick himself was with them. But though the dogs fought well, we were forcing them back, and might have got the better of them, had not my horse stumbled upon a sloping stone, and so fell and rolled over upon me. While I lay there with my horse upon me, Baron Frederick ran me down with his lance, and gave me that foul wound that came so near to slaying me - and did slay my dear wife. Nevertheless, my men were able to bring me out from that press and away, and we had bitten the Trutz-Drachen dogs so deep that they were too sore to follow us, and so let us go our way in peace. But when those fools of mine brought me to my castle they bore me lying upon a litter to my wife's chamber. There she beheld me, and, thinking me dead, swooned a death-swoon, so that she only lived long enough to bless her new-born babe and name it Otto, for you, her father's brother. But, by heavens! I will have revenge, root and branch, upon that vile tribe, the Roderburgs of TrutzDrachen. Their great-grandsire built that castle in scorn of Baron Casper in the old days; their grandsire slew my father's grandsire; Baron Nicholas slew two of our kindred; and now this Baron Frederick gives me that foul wound and kills my dear wife through my body." Here the Baron stopped short; then of a sudden, shaking his fist above his head, he cried out in his hoarse voice: "I swear by all the saints in heaven, either the red cock shall crow over the roof of Trutz-Drachen or else it shall crow over my house! The black dog shall sit on Baron Frederick's shoulders or else he shall sit on mine!" Again he stopped, and fixing his blazing eyes upon the old man, "Hearest thou that, priest?" said he, and broke into a great boisterous laugh.
Abbot Otto sighed heavily, but he tried no further to persuade the other into different thoughts.
"Thou art wounded," said he, at last, in a gentle voice; "at least stay here with us until thou art healed."
"Nay," said the Baron, roughly, "I will tarry no longer than to hear thee promise to care for my child."
"I promise," said the Abbot; "but lay aside thy armor, and rest."
"Nay," said the Baron, "I go back again to-day."
At this the Abbot cried out in amazement: "Sure thou, wounded man, would not take that long journey without a due stay for resting! Think! Night will be upon thee before thou canst reach home again, and the forests are beset with wolves."
The Baron laughed. "Those are not the wolves I fear," said he. "Urge me no further, I must return to-night; yet if thou hast a mind to do me a kindness thou canst give me some food to eat and a flask of your golden Michaelsburg; beyond these, I ask no further favor of any man, be he priest or layman."
"What comfort I can give thee thou shalt have," said the Abbot, in his patient voice, and so left the room to give the needful orders, bearing the babe with him.