MANFRED’S heart misgave him when he beheld the plumage on the miraculous casque shaken in concert with the sounding of the brazen trumpet. “Father!” said he to Jerome, whom he now ceased to treat as count of Falconara, “what mean these portents? If I have offended——” The plumes were shaken with greater violence than before. “Unhappy prince that I am!” cried Manfred.—”Holy father! will you not assist me with your prayers?”
“My lord,” replied Jerome, “Heaven is no doubt displeased with your mockery of its servants. Submit yourself to the church; and cease to persecute her ministers. Dismiss this innocent youth; and learn to respect the holy character I wear: Heaven will not be trifled with: you see——” The trumpet sounded again.
“I acknowledge I have been too hasty,” said Manfred. “Father, do you go to the wicket, and demand who is at the gate.”
“Do you grant me the life of Theodore?” replied the friar.
“I do,” said Manfred; “but inquire who is without!”
Jerome falling on the neck of his son, discharged a flood of tears, that spoke the fulness of his soul. “You promised to go to the gate,” said Manfred.
“I thought,” replied the friar, “your highness would excuse my thanking you first in this tribute of my heart.”
“Go, dearest sir,” said Theodore, “obey the prince: I do not deserve that you should delay his satisfaction for me.”
Jerome, inquiring who was without, was answered, a herald. “From whom?” said he.
“From the knight of the gigantic sabre,” said the herald; “and I must speak with the usurper of Otranto.” Jerome returned to the prince, and did not fail to repeat the message in the very words it had been uttered. The first sounds struck Manfred with terror; but when he heard himself styled usurper, his rage rekindled, and all his courage revived.
“Usurper!—insolent villain!” cried he, “who dares to question my title? Retire, father; this is no business for monks: I will meet this presumptuous man myself. Go to your convent and prepare the princess’s return: your son shall be a hostage for your fidelity: his life depends on your obedience.”
“Good Heaven! my lord,” cried Jerome, “your highness did but this instant freely pardon my child—have you so soon forgot the interposition of Heaven?”
“Heaven,” replied Manfred, “does not send heralds to question the title of a lawful prince—I doubt whether it even notifies its will through friars—but that is your affair, not mine. At present you know my pleasure; and it is not a saucy herald that shall save your son, if you do not return with the princess.”
It was in vain for the holy man to reply. Manfred commanded him to be conducted to the postern gate, and shut out from the castle: and he ordered some of his attendants to carry Theodore to the top of the black tower, and guard him strictly; scarce permitting the father and son to exchange a hasty embrace at parting. He then withdrew to the hall, and seating himself in princely state, ordered the herald to be admitted to his presence.
“Well! thou insolent!” said the prince, “what wouldst thou with me?”
“I come,” replied he, “to thee, Manfred, usurper of the principality of Otranto, from the renowned and invincible knight, the knight of the gigantic sabre: in the name of his lord, Frederic marquis of Vicenza, he demands the lady Isabella, daughter of that prince, whom thou hast basely and traitorously got into thy power, by bribing her false guardians during his absence: and he requires thee to resign the principality of Otranto, which thou hast usurped from the said lord Frederic, the nearest of blood to the last rightful lord Alfonso the good. If thou dost not instantly comply with these just demands, he defies thee to single combat to the last extremity.” And so saying, the herald cast down his warder.
“And where is the braggart who sends thee?” said Manfred.
“At the distance of a league,” said the herald: “he comes to make good his lord’s claim against thee, as he is a true knight, and thou a usurper and ravisher.”
Injurious as this challenge was, Manfred reflected that it was not his interest to provoke the marquis. He knew how well founded the claim of Frederic was; nor was this the first time he had heard of it. Frederic’s ancestors had assumed the style of princes of Otranto, from the death of Alfonso the good without issue; but Manfred, his father, and grandfather, had been too powerful for the house of Vicenza to dispossess them. Frederic, a martial and amorous young prince, had married a beautiful young lady, of whom he was enamoured, and who had died in childbed of Isabella. Her death affected him so much, that he had taken the cross and gone to the Holy Land, where he was wounded in an engagement against the infidels, made prisoner, and reported to be dead. When the news reached Manfred’s ears, he bribed the guardians of the Lady Isabella to deliver her up to him as a bride for his son Conrad, by which alliance he had proposed to unite the claims of the two houses. This motive, on Conrad’s death, had co-operated to make him so suddenly resolve on espousing her himself; and the same reflection determined him now to endeavour at obtaining the consent of Frederic to this marriage. A like policy inspired him with the thought of inviting Frederic’s champion into his castle, lest he should be informed of Isabella’s flight, which he strictly enjoined his domestics not to disclose to any of the knight’s retinue.
“Herald,” said Manfred, as soon as he had digested these reflections, “return to thy master, and tell him, ere we liquidate our differences by the sword, Manfred would hold some converse with him. Bid him welcome to my castle, where, by my faith, as I am a true knight, he shall have courteous reception, and full security for himself and followers. If we cannot adjust our quarrel by amicable means, I swear he shall depart in safety, and shall have full satisfaction according to the laws of arms: So help me God and his holy Trinity!” The herald made three obeisances and retired.
During this interview Jerome’s mind was agitated by a thousand contrary passions. He trembled for the life of his son, and his first thought was to persuade Isabella to return to the castle. Yet he was scarce less alarmed at the thought of her union with Manfred. He dreaded Hippolita’s unbounded submission to the will of her lord; and though he did not doubt but he could alarm her piety not to consent to a divorce, if he could get access to her, yet should Manfred discover that the obstruction came from him, it might be equally fatal to Theodore. He was impatient to know whence came the herald, who with so little management had questioned the title of Manfred; yet he did not dare absent himself from the convent, lest Isabella should leave it, and her flight be imputed to him. He returned disconsolately to the monastery, uncertain on what conduct to resolve. A monk, who met him in the porch, and observed his melancholy air, said, “Alas! brother, is it then true that we have lost our excellent princess Hippolita?” The holy man started and cried, “What meanest thou, brother? I come this instant from the castle, and left her in perfect health.”
“Martelli,” replied the other friar, “passed by the convent but a quarter of an hour ago on his way from the castle, and reported that her highness was dead. All our brethren are gone to the chapel to pray for her happy transit to a better life, and willed me to await thy arrival. They know thy holy attachment to that good lady, and are anxious for the affliction it will cause in thee:—indeed we have all reason to weep; she was a mother to our house.—But this life is but a pilgrimage; we must not murmur—we shall all follow her! may our end be like hers!”
“Good brother, thou dreamest,” said Jerome: “I tell thee I come from the castle, and left the princess well.—Where is the lady Isabella?”
“Poor gentlewoman!” replied the friar; “I told her the sad news, and offered her spiritual comfort; I reminded her of the transitory condition of mortality, and advised her to take the veil: I quoted the example of the holy princess Sanchia of Arragon.”
“Thy zeal was laudable,” said Jerome, impatiently; “but at present it was unnecessary. Hippolita is well—at least I trust in the Lord she is: I heard nothing to the contrary—yet methinks, the prince’s earnestness——Well, brother, but where is the lady Isabella?”
“I know not,” said the friar: “she wept much, and said she would retire to her chamber.” Jerome left his comrade abruptly, and hastened to the princess, but she was not in her chamber. He inquired of the domestics of the convent, but could learn no news of her. He searched in vain throughout the monastery and the church, and despatched messengers round the neighbourhood, to get intelligence if she had been seen; but to no purpose. Nothing could equal the good man’s perplexity. He judged that Isabella, suspecting Manfred of having precipitated his wife’s death, had taken the alarm, and withdrawn herself to some more secret place of concealment. This new flight would probably carry the prince’s fury to the height. The report of Hippolita’s death, though it seemed almost incredible, increased his consternation; and though Isabella’s escape bespoke her aversion of Manfred for a husband, Jerome could feel no comfort from it, while it endangered the life of his son. He determined to return to the castle, and made several of his brethren accompany him to attest his innocence to Manfred, and, if necessary, join their intercession with his for Theodore.
The prince, in the mean time, had passed into the court, and ordered the gates of the castle to be flung open for the reception of the stranger knight and his train. In a few minutes the cavalcade arrived. First came two harbingers with wands. Next a herald, followed by two pages and two trumpets. Then a hundred foot-guards. These were attended by as many horse. After them fifty footmen, clothed in scarlet and black, the colours of the knight. Then a led horse. Two heralds on each side of a gentleman on horseback bearing a banner with the arms of Vicenza and Otranto quarterly, a circumstance that much offended Manfred, but he stifled his resentment. Two more pages. The knight’s confessor telling his beads. Fifty more footmen clad as before. Two knights habited in complete armour, their beavers down, comrades to the principal knight. The squires of the two knights, carrying their shields and devices. The knight’s own squire. A hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword, and seeming to faint under the weight of it. The knight himself on a chestnut steed, in complete armour, his lance in the rest, his face entirely concealed by his visor, which was surmounted by a large plume of scarlet and black feathers. Fifty foot-guards with drums and trumpets closed the procession, which wheeled off to the right and left, to make room for the principal knight.
As soon as he approached the gate, he stopped; and the herald advancing, read again the words of the challenge. Manfred’s eyes were fixed on the gigantic sword, and he scarce seemed to attend to the cartel; but his attention was soon diverted by a tempest of wind that rose behind him. He turned, and beheld the plumes of the enchanted helmet agitated in the same extraordinary manner as before. It required intrepidity like Manfred’s not to sink under a concurrence of circumstances that seemed to announce his fate. Yet scorning in the presence of strangers to betray the courage he had always manifested, he said boldly, “Sir knight, whoever thou art, I bid thee welcome. If thou art of mortal mould, thy valour shall meet its equal: and if thou art a true knight, thou wilt scorn to employ sorcery to carry thy point. Be these omens from heaven or hell, Manfred trusts to the righteousness of his cause and to the aid of St. Nicholas, who has ever protected his house. Alight, sir knight, and repose thyself. To-morrow thou shalt have a fair field: and Heaven befriend the juster side!”
The knight made no reply, but, dismounting, was conducted by Manfred to the great hall of the castle. As they traversed the court, the knight stopped to gaze on the miraculous casque; and, kneeling down, seemed to pray inwardly for some minutes. Rising, he made a sign to the prince to lead on. As soon as they entered the hall, Manfred proposed to the stranger to disarm, but the knight shook his head in token of refusal.
“Sir knight,” said Manfred, “this is not courteous; but by my good faith I will not cross thee; nor shalt thou have cause to complain of the prince of Otranto. No treachery is designed on my part; I hope none is intended on thine; here, take my gage (giving him his ring): your friends and you shall enjoy the laws of hospitality. Rest here until refreshments are brought: I will but give orders for the accommodation of your train, and return to you.”
The three knights bowed as accepting his courtesy. Manfred directed the stranger’s retinue to be conducted to an adjacent hospital, founded by the princess Hippolita for the reception of pilgrims. As they made the circuit of the court to return towards the gate, the gigantic sword burst from the supporters, and falling to the ground opposite to the helmet, remained immoveable. Manfred, almost hardened to preternatural appearances, surmounted the shock of this new prodigy; and returning to the hall, where by this time the feast was ready, he invited his silent guests to take their places. Manfred, however ill his heart was at ease, endeavoured to inspire the company with mirth. He put several questions to them, but was answered only by signs. They raised their visors but sufficiently to feed themselves, and that sparingly.
“Sirs,” said the prince, “ye are the first guests I ever treated within these walls who scorned to hold any intercourse with me: nor has it oft been customary, I ween, for princes to hazard their state and dignity against strangers and mutes. You say you come in the name of Frederic of Vicenza; I have ever heard that he was a gallant and courteous knight; nor would he, I am bold to say, think it beneath him to mix in social converse with a prince that is his equal, and not unknown by deeds in arms. Still ye are silent—well! be it as it may—by the laws of hospitality and chivalry ye are masters under this roof: ye shall do your pleasure. But come, give me a goblet of wine; ye will not refuse to pledge me to the healths of your fair mistresses.”
The principal knight sighed and crossed himself, and was rising from the board.
“Sir knight,” said Manfred, “what I said was but in sport: I shall constrain you in nothing: use your good liking. Since mirth is not your mood, let us be sad. Business may hit your fancies better: let us withdraw: and hear if what I have to unfold, may be better relished than the vain efforts I have made for your pastime.”
Manfred then conducting the three knights into an inner chamber, shut the door, and, inviting them to be seated, began thus, addressing himself to the chief personage:—
“You come, sir knight, as I understand, in the name of the marquis of Vicenza, to re-demand the lady Isabella, his daughter, who has been contracted in the face of holy church to my son, by the consent of her legal guardians; and to require me to resign my dominions to your lord, who gives himself for the nearest of blood to prince Alfonso, whose soul God rest! I shall speak to the latter article of your demands first. You must know, your lord knows that I enjoy the principality of Otranto from my father, Don Manuel, as he received it from his father, Don Ricardo. Alfonso, their predecessor, dying childless in the Holy Land, bequeathed his estates to my grandfather, Don Ricardo, in consideration of his faithful services.”
The stranger shook his head.
“Sir knight,” said Manfred warmly, “Ricardo was a valiant and upright man; he was a pious man; witness his munificent foundation of the adjoining church and two convents: he was peculiarly patronized by St. Nicholas—my grandfather was incapable—I say, sir, Don Ricardo was incapable—excuse me, your interruption has disordered me—I venerate the memory of my grandfather. Well! sirs, he held this estate; he held it by his good sword and by the favour of St. Nicholas—so did my father; and so, sirs, will I, come what come will. But Frederic, your lord, is nearest in blood. I have consented to put my title to the issue of the sword—does that imply a vicious title? I might have asked, where is Frederic, your lord? Report speaks him dead in captivity. You say, your actions say, he lives—I question it not—I might, sirs, I might—but I do not. Other princes would bid Frederic take his inheritance by force, if he can: they would not stake their dignity on a single combat: they would not submit it to the decision of unknown mutes! Pardon me, gentlemen, I am too warm: but suppose yourselves in my situation: as ye are stout knights, would it not move your choler to have your own and the honour of your ancestors called in question? But to the point: ye require me to deliver up the lady Isabella—sirs, I must ask if ye are authorized to receive her?”
The knight nodded.
“Receive her,” continued Manfred; “well! you are authorized to receive her—but, gentle knight, may I ask if you have full powers?”
The knight nodded.
“‘Tis well,” said Manfred: “then hear what I have to offer: Ye see, gentlemen, before you the most unhappy of men! [he began to weep] afford me your compassion; I am entitled to it, indeed I am. Know, I have lost my only hope, my joy, the support of my house—Conrad died yester-morning.”
The knights discovered signs of surprise.
“Yes, sirs, fate has disposed of my son. Isabella is at liberty.”
“Do you then restore her?” cried the chief knight, breaking silence.
“Afford me your patience,” said Manfred. “I rejoice to find by this testimony of your good will that this matter may be adjusted without blood. It is no interest of mine dictates what little I have farther to say. Ye behold in me a man disgusted with the world: the loss of my son has weaned me from earthly cares. Power and greatness have no longer any charms in my eyes. I wished to transmit the sceptre I had received from my ancestors with honour to my son—but that is over! Life itself is so indifferent to me, that I accepted your defiance with joy: a good knight cannot go to the grave with more satisfaction than when falling in his vocation: whatever is the will of Heaven, I submit: for alas! sirs, I am a man of many sorrows. Manfred is no object of envy: but no doubt you are acquainted with my story.”
The knight made signs of ignorance, and seemed curious to have Manfred proceed.
“Is it possible, sirs,” continued the prince, “that my story should be a secret to you? have you heard nothing relating to me and the princess Hippolita?”
They shook their heads.
“No!—thus, then, sirs, it is. You think me ambitious: ambition, alas! is composed of more rugged materials. If I were ambitious, I should not for so many years have been a prey to all the hell of conscientious scruples. But I weary your patience; I will be brief. Know, then, that I have long been troubled in mind on my union with the princess Hippolita. Oh! sirs, if ye were acquainted with that excellent woman! if ye knew that I adore her like a mistress, and cherish her as a friend—but man was not born for perfect happiness! she shares my scruples, and with her consent I have brought this matter before the church, for we are related within the forbidden degrees. I expect every hour the definitive sentence that must separate us for ever. I am sure you feel for me; I see you do pardon these tears!”
The knights gazed on each other, wondering where this would end. Manfred continued.
“The death of my son betiding while my soul was under this anxiety, I thought of nothing but resigning my dominions, and retiring for ever from the sight of mankind. My only difficulty was to fix on a successor, who would be tender of my people, and to dispose of the lady Isabella, who is dear to me as my own blood. I was willing to restore the line of Alfonso, even in his most distant kindred: and though, pardon me, I am satisfied it was his will that Ricardo’s lineage should take place of his own relations, yet where was I to search for those relations? I knew of none but Frederic, your lord; he was a captive to the infidels, or dead; and were he living, and at home, would he quit the flourishing state of Vicenza for the inconsiderable principality of Otranto? If he would not, could I bear the thought of seeing a hard unfeeling viceroy set over my poor faithful people? for, sirs, I love my people, and, thank Heaven! am beloved by them. But ye will ask, whither tends this long discourse? Briefly then thus, sirs. Heaven in your arrival seems to point out a remedy for these difficulties and my misfortunes. The lady Isabella is at liberty; I shall soon be so. I would submit to any thing for the good of my people. Were it not the best, the only way to extinguish the feuds between our families, if I was to take the lady Isabella to wife—You start; but though Hippolita’s virtues will ever be dear to me, a prince must not consider himself: he is born for his people.” A servant at that instant entering the chamber, apprised Manfred that Jerome and several of his brethren demanded immediate access to him.
The prince, provoked at this interruption, and fearing that the friar would discover to the strangers that Isabella had taken sanctuary, was going to forbid Jerome’s entrance. But recollecting that he was certainly arrived to notify the princess’s return, Manfred began to excuse himself to the knights for leaving them for a few moments, but was prevented by the arrival of the friars. Manfred angrily reprimanded them for their intrusion, and would have forced them back from the chamber, but Jerome was too much agitated to be repulsed. He declared aloud the flight of Isabella, with protestations of his own innocence. Manfred, distracted at the news, and not less at its coming to the knowledge of the strangers, uttered nothing but incoherent sentences, now upbraiding the friar, now apologizing to the knights, earnest to know what was become of Isabella, yet equally afraid of their knowing; impatient to pursue her, yet dreading to have them join in the pursuit. He offered to despatch messengers in quest of her,—but the chief knight no longer keeping silence, reproached Manfred in bitter terms for his dark and ambiguous dealing, and demanded the cause of Isabella’s first absence from the castle. Manfred, casting a stern look at Jerome, implying a command of silence, pretended that on Conrad’s death he had placed her in sanctuary until he could determine how to dispose of her. Jerome, who trembled for his son’s life, did not dare contradict this falsehood, but one of his brethren, not under the same anxiety, declared frankly that she had fled to their church in the preceding night. The prince in vain endeavoured to stop this discovery, which overwhelmed him with shame and confusion. The principal stranger, amazed at the contradictions he heard, and more than half persuaded that Manfred had secreted the princess, notwithstanding the concern he expressed at her flight, rushing to the door, said, “Thou traitor-prince! Isabella shall be found.” Manfred endeavoured to hold him, but the other knights assisting their comrade, he broke from the prince, and hastened into the court, demanding his attendants. Manfred finding it vain to divert him from the pursuit, offered to accompany him; and summoning his attendants, and taking Jerome and some of the friars to guide them, they issued from the castle; Manfred privately giving orders to have the knight’s company secured, while to the knight he affected to despatch a messenger to require their assistance.
The company had no sooner quitted the castle, than Matilda, who felt herself deeply interested for the young peasant, since she had seen him condemned to death in the hall, and whose thoughts had been taken up with concerting measures to save him, was informed by some of the female attendants that Manfred had despatched all his men various ways in pursuit of Isabella. He had in his hurry given this order in general terms, not meaning to extend it to the guard he had set upon Theodore, but forgetting it. The domestics, officious to obey so peremptory a prince, and urged by their own curiosity and love of novelty to join in any precipitate chase, had to a man left the castle. Matilda disengaged herself from her women, stole up to the black tower, and unbolting the door, presented herself to the astonished Theodore. “Young man,” said she, “though filial duty and womanly modesty condemn the step I am taking, yet holy charity, surmounting all other ties, justifies this act. Fly; the doors of thy prison are open: my father and his domestics are absent; but they may soon return: begone in safety; and may the angels of heaven direct thy course.”
“Thou art surely one of those angels,” said the enraptured Theodore: “none but a blessed saint could speak, could act, could look like thee!—May I not know the name of my divine protectress? methought thou namedst thy father: is it possible! can Manfred’s blood feel holy pity! Lovely lady, thou answerest not——but how art thou here thyself? why dost thou neglect thy own safety, and waste a thought on a wretch like Theodore? Let us fly together: the life thou bestowest shall be dedicated to thy defence.”
“Alas! thou mistakest,” said Matilda, sighing: “I am Manfred’s daughter, but no dangers await me.”
“Amazement!” said Theodore. “But last night I blessed myself for yielding thee the services thy gracious compassion so charitably returns me now.”
“Still thou art in an error,” said the princess; “but this is no time for explanation. Fly, virtuous youth, while it is in my power to save thee. Should my father return, thou and I both should indeed have cause to tremble.”
“How!” said Theodore, “thinkest thou, charming maid, that I will accept of life at the hazard of aught calamitous to thee? better I endured a thousand deaths.”
“I run no risk,” said Matilda, “but by thy delay. Depart: it cannot be known that I assisted thy flight.”
“Swear by the saints above,” said Theodore, “that thou canst not be suspected; else here I vow to await whatever can befal me.”
“Oh! thou art too generous,” said Matilda, “but rest assured that no suspicion can alight on me.”
“Give me thy beauteous hand in token that thou dost not deceive me,” said Theodore; “and let me bathe it with the warm tears of gratitude.”
“Forbear,” said the princess; “this must not be.”
“Alas!” said Theodore, “I have never known but calamity until this hour—perhaps shall never know other fortune again. Suffer the chaste raptures of holy gratitude: ‘tis my soul would print its effusions on thy hand.”
“Forbear, and begone,” said Matilda: “how would Isabella approve of seeing thee at my feet?”
“Who is Isabella?” said the young man with surprise.
“Ah me! I fear,” said the princess, “I am serving a deceitful one;—hast thou forgot thy curiosity this morning?”
“Thy looks, thy actions, all thy beauteous self seems an emanation of divinity,” said Theodore, “but thy words are dark and mysterious: speak, lady; speak to thy servant’s comprehension.”
“Thou understandest but too well,” said Matilda; “but once more I command thee to be gone: thy blood, which I may preserve, will be on my head, if I waste the time in vain discourse.”
“I go, lady,” said Theodore, “because it is thy will, and because I would not bring the grey hairs of my father with sorrow to the grave. Say but, adored lady, that I have thy gentle pity.”
“Stay,” said Matilda; “I will conduct thee to the subterraneous vault by which Isabella escaped; it will lead thee to the church of St. Nicholas, where thou mayest take sanctuary.”
“What!” said Theodore, “was it another, and not thy lovely self, that I assisted to find the subterraneous passage?”
“It was,” said Matilda; “but ask no more. I tremble to see thee still abide here. Fly to the sanctuary.”
“To sanctuary!” said Theodore; “no, princess, sanctuaries are for helpless damsels, or for criminals. Theodore’s soul is free from guilt, nor will wear the appearance of it. Give me a sword, lady, and thy father shall learn that Theodore scorns an ignominious flight.”
“Rash youth,” said Matilda, “thou wouldst not dare to lift thy presumptuous arm against the prince of Otranto?”
“Not against thy father! indeed I dare not,” said Theodore: “excuse me, lady, I had forgotten—but could I gaze on thee, and remember thou art sprung from the tyrant Manfred?—but he is thy father, and from this moment my injuries are buried in oblivion.” A deep and hollow groan, which seemed to come from above, startled the princess and Theodore.
“Good heaven! we are overheard,” said the princess. They listened; but perceiving no farther noise, they both concluded it the effect of pent-up vapours: and the princess, preceding Theodore softly, carried him to her father’s armoury, where equipping him with a complete suit, he was conducted by Matilda to the postern-gate.
“Avoid the town,” said the princess, “and all the western side of the castle: ‘tis there the search must be making by Manfred and the strangers: but hie thee to the opposite quarter. Yonder, behind that forest to the east, is a chain of rocks, hollowed into a labyrinth of caverns that reach to the sea-coast. There thou mayst lie concealed, till thou canst make signs to some vessel to put on shore and take thee off. Go! Heaven be thy guide!—and sometimes in thy prayers remember—Matilda!” Theodore flung himself at her feet, and seizing her lily hand, which with struggles she suffered him to kiss, he vowed on the earliest opportunity to get himself knighted, and fervently intreated her permission to swear himself eternally her knight.—Ere the princess could reply, a clap of thunder was suddenly heard, that shook-the battlements. Theodore, regardless of the tempest, would have urged his suit; but the princess, dismayed, retreated hastily into the castle, and commanded the youth to be gone with an air that would not be disobeyed. He sighed, and retired, but with eyes fixed on the gate, until Matilda closing it, put an end to an interview, in which the hearts of both had drunk so deeply of a passion, which both now tasted for the first time.
Theodore went pensively to the convent, to acquaint his father with his deliverance. There he learned the absence of Jerome, and the pursuit that was making after the lady Isabella, with some particulars of whose story he now first became acquainted. The generous gallantry of his nature prompted him to wish to assist her; but the monks could lend him no lights to guess at the route she had taken. He was not tempted to wander far in search of her, for the idea of Matilda had imprinted itself so strongly on his heart, that he could not bear to absent himself at much distance from her abode. The tenderness Jerome had expressed for him concurred to confirm this reluctance; and he even persuaded himself that filial affection was the chief cause of his hovering between the castle and monastery. Until Jerome should return at night, Theodore at length determined to repair to the forest that Matilda had pointed out to him. Arriving there, he sought the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind. In this mood he roved insensibly to the caves which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits. He recollected to have heard this tradition; and being of a brave and adventurous disposition, he willingly indulged his curiosity in exploring the secret recesses of this labyrinth. He had not penetrated far before he thought he heard the steps of some person who seemed to retreat before him. Theodore, though firmly grounded in all our holy faith enjoins to be believed, had no apprehension that good men were abandoned without cause to the malice of the powers of darkness. He thought the place more likely to be infested by robbers than by those infernal agents who are reported to molest and bewilder travellers. He had long burned with impatience to approve his valour: drawing his sabre, he marched sedately onwards, still directing his steps, as the imperfect rustling sound before led the way. The armour he wore was a like indication to the person who avoided him. Theodore, now convinced that he was not mistaken, redoubled his pace, and evidently gained on the person that fled, whose haste increasing, Theodore came up just as a woman fell breathless before him. He hasted to raise her, but her terror was so great that he apprehended she would faint in his arms. He used every gentle word to dispel her alarms, and assured her that far from injuring, he would defend her at the peril of his life. The lady recovering her spirits from his courteous demeanour, and gazing on her protector, said, “Sure I have heard that voice before!”
“Not to my knowledge,” replied Theodore, “unless, as I conjecture, thou art the lady Isabella.”
“Merciful Heaven!” cried she, “thou art not sent in quest of me, art thou?” and saying these words, she threw herself at his feet, and besought him not to deliver her up to Manfred.
“To Manfred!” cried Theodore; “no, lady, I have once already delivered thee from his tyranny, and it shall fare hard with me now, but I will place thee out of the reach of his daring.”
“Is it possible,” said she, “that thou shouldst be the generous unknown whom I met last night in the vault of the castle? Sure thou art not a mortal, but my guardian angel: on my knees let me thank——”
“Hold, gentle princess,” said Theodore, “nor demean thyself before a poor and friendless young man. If Heaven has selected me for thy deliverer, it will accomplish its work, and strengthen my arm in thy cause:—but come, lady, we are too near the mouth of the cavern; let us seek its inmost recesses: I can have no tranquillity till I have placed thee beyond the reach of danger.”
“Alas! what mean you, sir?” said she.
“Though all your actions are noble, though your sentiments speak the purity of your soul, is it fitting that I should accompany you alone into these perplexed retreats? Should we be found together, what would a censorious world think of my conduct?”
“I respect your virtuous delicacy,” said Theodore; “nor do you harbour a suspicion that wounds my honour. I meant to conduct you into the most private cavity of these rocks, and then at the hazard of my life to guard their entrance against every living thing. Besides, lady,” continued he, drawing a deep sigh, “beauteous and all-perfect as your form is, and though my wishes are not guiltless of aspiring, know, my soul is dedicated to another; and although——“ a sudden noise prevented Theodore from proceeding. They soon distinguished these sounds, “Isabella! what ho! Isabella!”—–the trembling princess relapsed into her former agony of fear. Theodore endeavoured to encourage her, but in vain. He assured her he would die rather than suffer her to return under Manfred’s power; and begging her to remain concealed, he went forth to prevent the person in search of her from approaching.
At the mouth of the cavern he found an armed knight, discoursing with a peasant, who assured him he had seen a lady enter the passes of the rock. The knight was preparing to seek her, when Theodore, placing himself in his way, with his sword drawn, sternly forbad him at his peril to advance. “And who art thou who darest to cross my way?” said the knight haughtily.
“One who does not dare more than he will perform,” said Theodore.
“I seek the lady Isabella,” said the knight, “and understand she has taken refuge among these rocks. Impede me not, or thou wilt repent having provoked my resentment.”
“Thy purpose is as odious, as thy resentment is contemptible,” said Theodore: “return whence thou camest, or we shall soon know whose resentment is most terrible.” The stranger, who was the principal knight that had arrived from the marquis of Vicenza, had galloped from Manfred as he was busied in getting information of the princess, and giving various orders to prevent her falling into the power of the three knights. Their chief had suspected Manfred of being privy to the princess’s absconding; and this insult from a man, who he concluded was stationed by that prince to secrete her, confirming his suspicions, he made no reply, but discharging a blow with his sabre at Theodore, would soon have removed all obstruction, if Theodore, who took him for one of Manfred’s captains, and who had no sooner given the provocation than prepared to support it, had not received the stroke on his shield. The valour that had so long been smothered in his breast, broke forth at once; he rushed impetuously on the knight, whose pride and wrath were no less powerful incentives to hardy deeds. The combat was furious, but not long: Theodore wounded the knight in three several places, and at last disarmed him as he fainted by the loss of blood. The peasant, who had fled on the first onset, had given the alarm to some of Manfred’s domestics, who by his orders were dispersed through the forest in pursuit of Isabella. They came up as the knight fell, whom they soon discovered to be the noble stranger. Theodore, notwithstanding his hatred to Manfred, could not behold the victory he had gained without emotions of pity and curiosity: but he was more touched, when he learned the quality of his adversary, and was informed that he was no retainer, but an enemy of Manfred. He assisted the servants of the latter in disarming the knight, and in endeavouring to staunch the blood that flowed from his wounds. The knight recovering his speech, said in a faint and faltering voice, “Generous foe, we have both been in an error: I took thee for an instrument of the tyrant; I perceive thou hast made the like mistake: it is too late for excuses—I faint—if Isabella is at hand, call her—I have important secrets to——”
“He is dying!” said one of the attendants; “has nobody a crucifix about them? Andrea, do thou pray over him.”
“Fetch some water,” said Theodore, “and pour it down his throat, while I hasten to the princess”; saying this, he flew to Isabella, and in few words told her modestly, that he had been so unfortunate by mistake as to wound a gentleman from her father’s court, who wished ere he died to impart something of consequence to her. The princess, who had been transported at hearing the voice of Theodore, as he called to her to come forth, was astonished at what she heard. Suffering herself to be conducted by Theodore, the new proof of whose valour recalled her dispersed spirits, she came where the bleeding knight lay speechless on the ground—but her fears returned, when she beheld the domestics of Manfred. She would again have fled, if Theodore had not made her observe that they were unarmed, and had not threatened them with instant death, if they should dare to seize the princess. The stranger, opening his eyes, and beholding a woman, said, “Art thou—pray tell me truly—art thou Isabella of Vicenza?”
“I am,” said she: “good Heaven restore thee!”
“Then thou——then thou——” said the knight, struggling for utterance, “seest—thy father!—give me one——”
“Oh! amazement! horror! what do I hear! what do I see!” cried Isabella: “my father! you my father! how came you here, sir? for Heaven’s sake, speak!——oh! run for help or he will expire!”
“‘Tis most true,” said the wounded knight, exerting all his force; “I am Frederic thy father—yes, I came to deliver thee.—It will not be—give me a parting kiss, and take——”
“Sir,” said Theodore, “do not exhaust yourself: suffer us to convey you to the castle.”
“To the castle!” said Isabella; “is there no help nearer than the castle? would you expose my father to the tyrant? if he goes thither, I dare not accompany him——and yet, can I leave him?”
“My child,” said Frederic, “it matters not to me whither I am carried: a few minutes will place me beyond danger—but while I have eyes to doat on thee, forsake me not, dear Isabella! This brave knight—I know not who he is—will protect thy innocence: sir, you will not abandon my child, will you?” Theodore, shedding tears over his victim, and vowing to guard the princess at the expense of his life, persuaded Frederic to suffer himself to be conducted to the castle. They placed him on a horse belonging to one of the domestics, after binding up his wounds as well as they were able. Theodore marched by his side; and the afflicted Isabella, who could not bear to quit him, followed mournfully behind.