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Paulina meditated earnestly upon the import of this parting threat. The more she considered it, the less could she doubt that these fierce inquisitors had meant to threaten her with torture. She felt the whole indignity of such a threat, though she could hardly bring herself to believe them in earnest.
On the following morning she was summoned early before her judges. They had not yet a.s.sembled; but some of the lower officials were pacing up and down, exchanging unintelligible jokes, looking sometimes at herself, sometimes at an iron machine, with a complex arrangement of wheels and screws. Dark were the suspicions which a.s.saulted Paulina as this framework or couch of iron first met her eyes; and perhaps some of the jests circulating amongst the brutal ministers of her brutal judges would have been intelligible enough, had she condescended to turn her attention in that direction. Meantime her doubts were otherwise dispersed. The Croatian officer now entered the room alone, his a.s.sessors having probably declined partic.i.p.ation in that part of the horrid functions which remained under the Landgrave's commission.
This man, presenting a paper with a long list of interrogatories to Paulina, bade her now rehea.r.s.e verbally the sum of the answers which she designed to give. Running rapidly through them, Paulina replied, with dignity, yet trembling and agitated, that these were questions which in any sense she could not answer; many of them referring to points on which she had no knowledge, and none of them being consistent with the grat.i.tude and friendship so largely due on her side to the persons implicated in the bearing of these questions.
"Then you refuse?"
"Certainly; there are three questions only which it is in my power to answer at all--even these imperfectly. Answers such as you expect would load me with dishonor."
"Then you refuse?"
"For the reasons I have stated, undoubtedly I do."
"Once more--you refuse?"
"I refuse, certainly; but do me the justice to record my reasons."
"Reasons!--ha! ha! they had need to be strong ones if they will hold out against the arguments of this pretty plaything," laying his hand upon the machine. "However, the choice is yours, not mine."
So saying, he made a sign to the attendants. One began to move the machine, and work the screws, or raise the clanking grates and framework, with a savage din; two others bared their arms. Paulina looked on motionless with sudden horror, and palpitating with fear.
The Croatian nodded to the men; and then, in a loud, commanding voice, exclaimed: "The question in the first degree!"
At this moment Paulina recovered her strength, which the first panic had dispelled. She saw a man approach her with a ferocious grin of exultation. Another, with the same horrid expression of countenance, carried a large vase of water.
The whole indignity of the scene flashed full upon her mind. She, a lady of the imperial house, threatened with torture by the base agent of a t.i.tled ruffian! She, who owed him no duty,--had violated no claim of hospitality, though in her own person all had been atrociously outraged!
Thoughts like these flew rapidly through her brain, when suddenly a door opened behind her. It was an attendant with some implements for tightening or relaxing bolts. The bare-armed ruffian at this moment raised his arm to seize hers. Shrinking from the pollution of his accursed touch, Paulina turned hastily round, darted through the open door, and fled, like a dove pursued by vultures, along the pa.s.sages which stretched before her. Already she felt their hot breathing upon her neck, already the foremost had raised his hand to arrest her, when a sudden turn brought her full upon a band of young women, tending upon one of superior rank, manifestly their mistress.
"0, madam!" exclaimed Paulina, "save me! save me!" and with these words fell exhausted at the lady's feet.
This female--young, beautiful, and with a touching pensiveness of manners--raised her tenderly in her arms, and with a sisterly tone of affection bade her fear nothing; and the respectful manner in which the officials retired at her command satisfied Paulina that she stood in some very near relation to the Landgrave,--in reality, she soon spoke of him as her father. "Is it possible," thought Paulina to herself, "that this innocent and lovely child (for she was not more than seventeen, though with a prematurity of womanly person that raised her to a level with Paulina's height) should owe the affection of a daughter to a tyrant so savage as the Landgrave?"
She found, however, that the gentle Princess Adeline owed to her own childlike simplicity the best gift that one so situated could have received from the bounty of Heaven. The barbarities exercised by the Croatian governor she charged entirely upon his own brutal nature; and so confirmed was she in this view by Paulina's own case, that she now resolved upon executing a resolution she had long projected. Her father's confidence was basely abused; this she said, and devoutly believed. "No part of the truth ever reached him; her own letters remained disregarded in a way which was irreconcilable with the testimonies of profound affection to herself, daily showered upon her by his highness."
In reality, this sole child of the Landgrave was also the one sole jewel that gave a value in his eyes to his else desolate life.
Everything in and about the castle of Lovenstein was placed under her absolute control; even the brutal Croatian governor knew that no plea or extremity of circ.u.mstances would atone for one act of disobedience to her orders; and hence it was that the ministers of this tyrant retired with so much prompt obedience to her commands.
Experience, however, had taught the princess that, not unfrequently, orders apparently obeyed were afterwards secretly evaded; and the disregard paid of late to her letters of complaint satisfied her that they were stifled and suppressed by the governor. Paulina, therefore, whom a few hours of unrestrained intercourse had made interesting to her heart, she would not suffer even to sleep apart from herself. Her own agitation on the poor prisoner's behalf became greater even than that of Paulina; and as fresh circ.u.mstances of suspicion daily arose in the savage governor's deportment, she now took in good earnest those measures for escape to Klosterheim which she had long arranged. In this purpose she was greatly a.s.sisted by the absolute authority which her father had conceded to her over everything but the mere military arrangements in the fortress. Under the color of an excursion, such as she had been daily accustomed to take, she found no difficulty in placing Paulina, sufficiently disguised, amongst her own servants. At a proper point of the road, Paulina and a few attendants, with the princess herself, issued from their coaches, and, bidding them await their return in half an hour's interval, by that time were far advanced upon their road to the military post of Falkenberg.
In twenty days the mysterious Masque had summoned the Landgrave "to answer for crimes unatoned, before a tribunal where no power but that of innocence could avail him." These days were nearly expired. The morning of the twentieth had arrived.
There were two interpretations of this summons. By many it was believed that the tribunal contemplated was that of the emperor; and that, by some mysterious plot, which could not be more difficult of execution than others which had actually been accomplished by The Masque, on this day the Landgrave would be carried off to Vienna. Others, again, understanding by the tribunal, in the same sense, the imperial chamber of criminal justice, believed it possible to fulfil the summons in some way less liable to delay or uncertainty than by a long journey to Vienna, through a country beset with enemies. But a third party, differing from both the others, understood by the tribunal where innocence was the only shield the judgment-seat of heaven; and believed that on this day justice would be executed on the Landgrave, for crimes known and unknown, by a public and memorable death. Under any interpretation, however, n.o.body amongst the citizens could venture peremptorily to deny, after the issue of the masqued ball, and of so many other public denunciations, that The Masque would keep his word to the letter.
It followed, of necessity, that everybody was on the tiptoe of suspense, and that the interest hanging upon the issue of this night's events swallowed up all other anxieties, of whatsoever nature. Even the battle which was now daily expected between the imperial and Swedish armies ceased to occupy the hearts and conversation of the citizens.
Domestic and public concerns alike gave way to the coming catastrophe so solemnly denounced by The Masque.
The Landgrave alone maintained a gloomy reserve, and the expression of a haughty disdain. He had resolved to meet the summons with the liveliest expression of defiance, by fixing this evening for a second masqued ball, upon a greater scale than the first. In doing this he acted advisedly, and with the counsel of his Swedish allies. They represented to him that the issue of the approaching battle might be relied upon as pretty nearly certain; all the indications were indeed generally thought to promise a decisive turn in their favor; but, in the worst case, no defeat of the Swedish army in this war had ever been complete; that the bulk of the retreating army, if the Swedes should be obliged to retreat, would take the road to Klosterheim, and would furnish to himself a garrison capable of holding the city for many months to come (and _that_ would not fail to bring many fresh chances to all of them), whilst to his new and cordial allies this course would offer a secure retreat from pursuing enemies, and a satisfactory proof of his own fidelity. This even in the worst case; whereas in the better and more probable one, of a victory to the Swedes, to maintain the city but for a day or two longer against internal conspirators, and the secret cooperators outside, would be in effect to ratify any victory which the Swedes might gain by putting into their hands at a critical moment one of its most splendid trophies and guarantees.
These counsels fell too much into the Landgrave's own way of thinking to meet with any demurs from him. It was agreed, therefore, that as many Swedish troops as could at this important moment be spared should be introduced into the halls and saloons of the castle, on the eventful evening, disguised as masquers. These were about four hundred; and other arrangements were made, equally mysterious, and some of them known only to the Landgrave.
At seven o'clock, as on the former occasion, the company began to a.s.semble. The same rooms were thrown open; but, as the party was now far more numerous, and was made more comprehensive in point of rank, in order to include all who were involved in the conspiracy which had been some time maturing in Klosterheim, fresh suites of rooms were judged necessary, on the pretext of giving fuller effect to the princely hospitalities of the Landgrave. And, on this occasion, according to an old privilege conceded in the case of coronations or galas of magnificence, by the lady abbess of St. Agnes, the part.i.tion walls were removed between the great hall of the _schloss_ and the refectory of that immense convent; so that the two vast establishments, which on one side were contiguous to each other, were thus laid into one.
The company had now continued to pour in for two hours. The palace and the refectory of the convent were now overflowing with lights and splendid masques; the avenues and corridors rang with music; and, though every heart was throbbing with fear and suspense, no outward expression was wanting of joy and festal pleasure. For the present, all was calm around the slumbering volcano.
Suddenly, the Count St. Aldenheim, who was standing with arms folded, and surveying the brilliant scene, felt some one touch his hand, in the way concerted amongst the conspirators as a private signal of recognition. He turned, and recognized his friend the Baron Adelort, who saluted him with three emphatic words--"We are betrayed!"--Then, after a pause, "Follow me."
St. Aldenheim made his way through the glittering crowds, and pressed after his conductor into one of the most private corridors.
"Fear not," said the other, "that we shall be watched. Vigilance is no longer necessary to our crafty enemy. He has already triumphed. Every avenue of escape is barred and secured against us; every outlet of the palace is occupied by the Landgrave's troops. Not a man of us will return alive."
"Heaven forbid we should prove ourselves such gulls! You are but jesting, my friend."
"Would to G.o.d I were! my information is but too certain. Something I have overheard by accident; something has been told me; and something I have seen. Come you, also, count, and see what I will show you: then judge for yourself."
So saying, he led St. Aldenheim by a little circuit of pa.s.sages to a doorway, through which they pa.s.sed into a hall of vast proportions; to judge by the catafalques, and mural monuments, scattered at intervals along the vast expanse of its walls, this seemed to be the ante-chapel of St. Agnes. In fact it was so; a few faint lights glimmered through the gloomy extent of this immense chamber, placed (according to the Catholic rite) at the shrine of the saint. Feeble as it was, however, the light was powerful enough to display in the centre a pile of scaffolding covered with black drapery. Standing at the foot, they could trace the outlines of a stage at the summit, fenced in with a railing, a block, and the other apparatus for the solemnity of a public execution, whilst the saw-dust below their feet ascertained the spot in which the heads were to fall.
"Shall we ascend and rehea.r.s.e our parts?" asked the count: "for methinks everything is prepared, except the headsman and the spectators. A plague on the inhospitable knave!"
"Yes, St. Aldenheim, all is prepared--even to the sufferers. On that list you stand foremost. Believe me, I speak with knowledge; no matter where gained. It is certain."
"Well, _necessitas non habet legem_; and he that dies on Tuesday will never catch cold on Wednesday. But, still, that comfort is something of the coldest. Think you that none better could be had?"
"Revenge, _par exemple_; a little revenge. Might one not screw the neck of this base prince, who abuses the confidence of cavaliers so perfidiously? To die I care not; but to be caught in a trap, and die like a rat lured by a bait of toasted cheese--Faugh! my countly blood rebels against it!"
"Something might surely be done, if we could muster in any strength.
That is, we might die sword in hand; but--"
"Enough! I ask no more. Now let us go. We will separately pace the rooms, draw together as many of our party as we can single out, and then proclaim ourselves. Let each answer for one victim. I'll take his highness for my share."
With this purpose, and thus forewarned of the dreadful fate at hand, they left the gloomy ante-chapel, traversed the long suite of entertaining rooms, and collected as many as could easily be detached from the dances without too much pointing out their own motions to the attention of all present. The Count St. Aldenheim was seen rapidly explaining to them the circ.u.mstances of their dreadful situation; whilst hands uplifted, or suddenly applied to the hilt of the sword, with other gestures of sudden emotion, expressed the different impressions of rage or fear, which, under each variety of character, impressed the several hearers. Some of them, however, were too unguarded in their motions; and the energy of their gesticulations had now begun to attract the attention of the company.
The Landgrave himself had his eye upon them. But at this moment his attention was drawn off by an uproar of confusion in an ante-chamber, which argued some tragical importance in the cause that could prompt so sudden a disregard for the restraints of time and place.
His highness issued from the room in consternation, followed by many of the company. In the very centre of the ante-room, booted and spurred, bearing all the marks of extreme haste, panic, and confusion, stood a Swedish officer, dealing forth hasty fragments of some heart-shaking intelligence. "All is lost!" said he; "not a regiment has escaped!"
"And the place?" exclaimed a press of inquirers. "Nordlingen." "And which way has the Swedish army retreated?" demanded a masque behind him.