ON an outlying spur of the Buckkeberg, overlooking the pleasant Valley of the Weser, looking south-eastward towards Hameln, the city of the Pied Piper, you may see to this day the ruins of the once proud stronghold of Schaumburg, and of these ruins there is a portion which still rears itself high above the low, crumbling walls, and the grass mounds which cover other walls that once lay about it.
Wherever you find a ruined castle—and there are many of them in this region of Germany—and you ask how it came to be such, it is twenty chances to one that they will tell you “it was in the Peasants’ War,” and this, as you will see, was the case with the Schaumburg.
This war was really the revolt of the serfs of Germany, and chief among their leaders was one Goetz of the Iron Hand, a captain of Freelances, as stark and cunning a scoundrel as ever disgraced gentle blood by lawless deeds. Five years before, when he was the heir of Ostenland by the Ems, he had sought the hand of Brunhild with great ardour; but her heart was already given to Conrad of Schaumburg, and, moreover, he was a man of small substance; and so Graf Moritz, weary at length of his importunities, had told him shortly to go and seek a more fitting mate among the daughters of the traders of Hameln.
He went away after this rebuff half mad with rage and disappointed love, and a few weeks later he hired a score of men belonging to a band of outlaws, and at their head made an attempt to carry off the heiress of Detmold by force. For this he was outlawed, and so in time he had become the Chief of the Freelances, whose former captain he had slain in a duel; and now, professing great love and pity for the serfs and their sufferings, he had put himself and his men at the head of their bands in the Weser Valley, and so led them to the siege of the stronghold of Schaumburg.
This siege had lasted over eleven weeks, and there was no hope of help from the cities or from the other castles along the river. The food was almost exhausted, and the wells were low after the long dry summer. There was wine still in the cellar in plenty, but when Count Conrad thought of that, he thought also of the evil passions that it would inflame when once the castle lay open to its besiegers.
Something must be done, and that quickly, if those in Schaumburg would live, for soon, and indeed not many hours hence, they must do one of three things. They must fight their way with all their women and children through the beseiging hosts to Hameln; they must starve behind their walls; or they must surrender—and surrender meant only torture and death for all—man, woman, and child alike.
IT was late in the evening of the eleventh Sunday, after evening service had been held in the chapel and the last prayers for deliverance had been offered up, that Count Conrad went into his wife’s chamber to tell her the result of a Council of War that had just been held, and this was the decision: that within four days they must either surrender or sally out and fight their way to Hameln.
“But, Conrad, both are impossible. You know there are half as many women and children in Schaumburg as there are men-at-arms. You would not leave them here, nor could you take them with you and defend them as well as fight your own way through the rebels. All would be slain before you had marched two leagues, even if you broke through the lines they have drawn round the castle. As for surrender, you know what they did at Weinsberg; you know how they made the soldiers jump from the towers and battlements on to the pikes and pitchforks below; how they made Lord Louis of Helfenstein run between two lines of armed men till he was beaten bleeding to the earth.”
“And no more than either can we stop here and starve. Surely a quick death would be better than that, and if not that, what else that is not worse? We have only three days of the scantiest rations left; the water is only mud; and good wine, though we have plenty of it, only makes starving men mad. What else, then, are we to do, sweet one? If thou knowest tell me, and I will do it most gladly.”
The Countess Brunhild folded her hands, and let them fall on her knees, and sat looking down at the rush-strewn floor in silence for some moments; and her husband meanwhile strode to a latticed window, and threw it open, and looked out over the moonlit plain that lay five hundred feet below, with the broad silver band of the river winding through it.
He stood there busy with many thoughts, till Brunhild rose from her seat and came and laid her hands softly on his shoulders.
“Conrad,” she said, turning her soft blue eyes shyly up to his, “I have thought of another way, which is neither a hopeless fight nor a yet more hopeless surrender.”
“Thou hast?” he cried, taking her sweet, up-turned face between his hands. “Thou hast? Well, then, let me know it. If thou canst save us, it will not be the first time that a woman’s wit has won what man’s strength and valour would have lost. What is it?”
“What if we were to take a hostage, and hold his safety against ours.”
“A hostage? How are we to take one, and who shall it be?”
“What if it were Goetz himself?”
“Goetz—here a hostage in the Castle? Nay, dearest, surely thou art dreaming a thing that is impossible, though I would give ten thousand crowns to have him here before morning, for without him the Freelances would go away plundering some richer place than this, and the serfs, without a leader, would scatter before us like sheep. It would be the saving of us all. But how? How? Nay, I fear that is impossible, dearest.”
“Not impossible,” she said, “though not to be done lightly or without risk.”
“But how—how?” he asked again, somewhat impatiently.
“By me, and this way,” she said, smiling and raising her finger to stop the protest that she saw rising to his lips. “Now, listen and be patient, for I will not be long.
“Thou knowest why Goetz is here laying siege to poor Schaumburg instead of leading his men against the rich towns where they could gorge themselves with plunder. It is because I am here, because he would revenge himself upon thee, and force me to watch thy death as Jacklein Rohsbacker made Count Louis’s wife look on while he was hewn to pieces. That is why he has wasted all these weeks before our walls, for I have it on certain information that he has sworn that he will either take me from thee alive or give my dead body and thine to the wolves.”
“By the Mass, I would not leave much of him for the wolves if I had him once within these walls,” Count Conrad growled between his clenched teeth. “But how? But how?”
“Why should not the bait that has brought him thus far bring him farther?” she whispered, dropping her eyes again.
“What!” he said, taking her by the arms and putting her a little away from him, “wouldst thou, my Countess and my wife, give thyself as bait, as thou sayest, to entice this knave into the trap? Wouldst thou, Brunhild, stoop to such a deed?”
“I may stoop, and I may fall,” she replied, looking up at him bravely, “but I am only one, and there are many here to be saved, and among them thou and our little Moritz. The risk is great, but so is the gain, and by any other way there is not even risk or chance, only certainty of death and ruin for all of us.”
“But in this, even if it were possible, there is the greater chance of sacrifice for thee.”
“Nay, not greater, Conrad, for no chance can equal that which is certain. We cannot stay here to starve, we cannot escape, and to surrender without a hostage is as certain sacrifice for me as it is for thee and all the others.”
So Conrad and his wife talked far into the night—she pleading for permission to do the daring deed that might save all in Schaumburg, and he seeking, as he thought for her own sake, to find reasons why she should not do it. But in the end she conquered, as woman ever does in such matters, and by the time the sentries on the walls called the hour of sunrise her scheme was ready to pass from thought into action.
ALL the next day the Countess was maturing her plans, and her lord, the Count, was shaping his, for, now that he had consented to the attempt being made, he was determined that if it succeeded he would give Goetz of the Iron Hand such a lesson as he and those like him would remember for some time to come. To this end he consulted for several hours, not only with his captains and lieutenants of the garrison, but also with old Max Schieferl, his major-domo, and Ro’f Goberl, the armourer, with results that shall be set out shortly.
That evening, soon after dusk, an arrow was shot from the angle of the walls which approached most nearly to the camp of the Freelances, and so strongly was the bow drawn, and so well was the arrow aimed, that it fell only a few yards in front of the tent of bullock hides above which flew the standard of Goetz of the Iron Hand. There was a sheet of rice paper wrapped tightly round the shaft, and as there was writing on the outside of this, the man who found it took it to his Captain’s tent.
There Goetz of the Iron Hand, a tall, stalwart man, yet well under forty, black of hair, and brown and ruddy, and strong of face as well as of figure, unbound it and read it. At first he could not believe his eyes, for it seemed impossible that she, who had scorned him five years ago for love of another man, and who since then had been Countess of Schaumburg, and had ruled the country-side like a queen, should now write such words to him.
She had ceased to love her husband; that was possible considering the years that had passed. He was starving her in Schaumburg; that was probable, since it was most likely that all were starving. She wished to be taken away and be in safety before the wrath of the revolted serfs was let loose on Schaumburg, as it had been on other places; that, too, was only natural. She had heard of the fame that he had won as the champion of the oppressed, and repented of the choice she had made; that, too, was natural. But— well, after all, what did “buts” matter. Did he not love her still, not only with the old love, but with an added fierceness and passion born of the desire for revenge? What would he not risk? What would he not give to have her completely in his power if only for a day, and to know that Conrad, his successful rival, was powerless to help her?
Yet there were risks. There might be treachery. She told him in as shameless a letter as ever was written by an honest hand or brought blushes to a pure cheek, that for an hour after dark for three nights she would wait for him at a certain clump of trees some hundred paces from the little tower at the end of the wall running up the mountain on the western side. But, if he would show his trust in her, he must come alone with two horses. If he brought any of his men the sentries would be alarmed, for, saving the clump of trees, the ground was open and they would be seen.
The first night he went within a short bowshot of the trees. A white figure appeared among them and seemed to beckon to him. The next night he went nearer, but took a dozen of his men with him, and crawled over the open ground, lying as close to it as they might. Again the white figure appeared, but when they surrounded the trees to search it had gone, and Goetz found a piece of paper pinned to a tree, and on it were the words:
“If thou wouldst have what thou comest to seek thou must come alone. I cannot trust him who does not trust me.”
So the next night Goetz, his passion raised to fever heat by this tantalising, took his fate in his hands and went alone. His horses he left with one of his troopers on the edge of the wood beyond the clear ground. He entered the little copse with high-beating heart, for in the dimness of the starlight he saw the white figure standing in the shadows. He sprang towards it with a low cry of hungry longing.
“Brunhild! Brunhild! At last I have thee!”
The figure opened its arms to receive him. He opened his to clasp it to him, and the next moment a grip of iron closed round his neck, something rose from the earth and clasped his knees, the grip on his throat choked back his cry for help, ropes wound round his limbs like living snakes, a gag was thrust into his mouth, and a bandage bound round his eyes. He struggled wildly for a moment or so, and then he heard an oath, and with that there fell a blow on his head, and for a time the rest was darkness and silence. He had a dim idea of being carried down into the earth and along a passage, and then up again, and then his senses left him.
WHEN he came to himself, he was lying bound on a straw-covered pallet in a dark room, whose air he had to breathe but once to know that it was a dungeon. In the morning, when the grated window was just showing grey in the darkness, four men-at-arms came and took him up without a word, and carried him to the great hall where Count Conrad and his countess were silting on the dais. He looked upon her beauty as a shackled tiger might look upon a fawn, but he said nothing, for his heart was too full of rage for speech. Then Count Conrad said good humouredly:
“Friend Goetz, look not so fiercely. Thou art not the first of thy kind that has fallen into a woman’s lure. That thou art here is only punishment for thinking that the wife of Conrad of Schaumburg could have been what it would seem thou has taken her for, but more than this no harm is meant thee, save what may come from thine own people. Now, tell me, what is the name of thy second in command, for it is necessary that I should send a message to him.”
“He is Diedrich of Altenau,” replied Goetz of the Iron Hand with a growl, thinking, and in some measure rightly, that it was a question of ransom, which was not unwelcome to him, for he had no fancy for having the flesh torn off his bones with hot pincers or being skinned alive on the battlements in front of his men, as he himself had done to other poor wretches many a time before this.
“That is enough,” said Count Conrad shortly. “Now take him away, and give him meat and drink, for he hath a somewhat long fast before him, and when he hath had enough take him to the clock tower and do what is needful.” So Goetz was carried away, wondering at his treatment, and trying to think what might befall him in the clock tower; yet never were a man’s thoughts further from the reality than his were.
When he had gone, Count Conrad said to his wife:
“Now everything is ready save one thing. Is there any within the Castle who will give himself for the rest, and stand in the clock chamber to strike off the fan should the rebels not keep the terms, if they accept them?”
Then old Max Schieferl came forward bowing, and said:
“Lord, let it be me. I have lived under the protection of thy house in ease and comfort, I have neither wife nor child, and not many more years to live, let me do this small service in payment for all that I have had from thee and thy father.”
After this many others came forward begging for the honour of taking so glorious a post, and, if needs be, dying at it; but old Max stood firm, and, in the end, after many tears from the Countess and her women, and some from Count Conrad himself, he had his way.
WHEN the sun rose, and his first beams fell on the great clock face in the tower that rose high above the eastern wall of the burg, the Freelances and the rebels below saw a strange sight. Some of Goetz’s men had been anxiously seeking their leader all night, and now they had found him, for his head with its long black hair cropped short about the neck, its brown face, seeming now to turn grey, and its black eyes staring out as though a rope were tightening round his neck, had been thrust through a hole in the clock face at the lower edge of the figure twelve.
The hands of the clock had gone, and in their place there had been bolted two bright blades, which gleamed and glittered in the sunbeams, but the order of them was reversed, for the longer was now the hour, and the shorter the minute-hand, and it was plain to see that this latter at each hourly revolution would just scratch the throat of Goetz with its point. But the long hour-hand, which was now pointing to the five, would, after seven hours, strike his neck, and be driven by the engine within the clock through flesh and bone until the head dropped into the moat beneath.
As the great bell boomed out five strokes, a mounted man-at-arms rode over the quickly-lowered drawbridge and under the raised portcullis, bearing a letter to Diedrich of Altenau, and in this letter Count Conrad said briefly:
Ye have seen how your leader looks down on you from his high place. We here will march out in an hour’s time on the way to Hameln, taking only our arms with us. The rest we will leave for you till we come again to take account for it. But one of us remains behind. If none of you enter the castle till the last stroke of twelve, the clock will stop at that moment, and you can go in and release your leader and do what you will with the castle and all that there is in it; but if one man crosses the drawbridge before then, or if any seek to hinder us on our way, he who remains behind will break the governing fan of the clock, and then you shall see the blades fly round swiftly, and the head of Goetz shall be in the moat before you can save him; and even if that should fail, he who is left will drive a dagger into his heart. Let your answer come back within an hour.
conrad of schaumburg.
Under this was written in Goetz’s own hand:
Let the people go, and save me. The plunder of the castle will be rich enough for us. What do we want with their lives? See that the serfs do not kill any, for if they do I shall surely die, and you will be—as I shall—a body without a head.
Diedrich called some of his fellows about him, and explained this letter to them, and as the Freelances, unlike the serfs, fought for plunder rather than revenge, it was agreed that the terms should be granted. So the messenger took back the answer, and half an hour later the drawbridge fell, and the portcullis went up, and the garrison of Schaumburg, with Count Conrad at its head, and with his Countess by his side, came forth in two lines of horse and foot, with the women and children between them.
When the serfs saw them they raised loud cries of rage, and were for falling upon them and making an end of them at once. But the Freelances rode along their front, and beat them back; and the men of the garrison, horse and foot, laughed as they saw this, for they knew that without the Freelances the half-armed peasants could do nothing against them.
THE road to Hameln lay along the river bank to the eastward, and from his window in the clock-face Goetz of the Iron Hand could watch the long procession winding slowly round the hill-spurs and in and out of the forest patches, on its slow way towards the distant towers of Hameln. He could also look down, and see his own men and the serf bands gradually drawing in closer, waiting for the hour of plunder to strike. He could see that there was constant strife among them, and that his own men were beating the serfs back, and being in turn thrust forward by them.
Meanwhile the great clock ticked on with its iron monotony. He saw the short hand on the great face climb up towards him, then he lost sight of the end, and then he felt its point cutting slowly into the skin of his neck over his windpipe. Then, just above him, seven strokes on the great bell boomed out, striking his deafened ears like the very notes of doom.
The sun rose higher, and fell hotter and hotter on his face and head. He struggled with the bonds that held him tight between the machinery and the clock-face, but in vain. He screamed hoarsely for water, but old Max stood, hammer in hand, immovable as a figure of stone. Sixty more eternities passed, and again the blade-point scored his throat, and again the deep strokes crashed upon his ears, and the long blade crept upwards a few inches nearer to his neck. Another hour passed, and another, and each time the cut of the blade point and the crash of the bell roused him from the stupor into which he was falling. The long blade, creeping on like the finger of Fate, was very near now, and the fear of death overcame his weariness and even the agony in his head, and he began to think again.
Would his men be able to keep the serfs back till the appointed time? He could hear them shouting and cursing below him still. If they couldn’t, the old man, whom he could not see, but who he knew was standing so near to him. would break the governing fan, the wheels of the clock would fly round, and a few minutes later the razor-edged blade would be buried in his neck.
Or would Diedrich keep faith with him? What if he should delay the entry into the castle? What if he should kill Max and let the clock go on? The clock struck eleven, and it seemed as though he had been standing there as many years as there had been strokes on the bell. Every act of his life had passed before him again and again. He had lived twenty lifetimes since the clock had struck six. He was nearly blind now, and the long line of the garrison on its way had passed beyond his vision. By this time it would be safe under the walls of Hameln, perhaps even now Count Conrad and Brunhild were feasting in the castle with the Lord and Lady of Hameln. What were Diedrich and his men doing? Had they kept the serfs back? Would twelve o'clock never come and end the hellish torture of this suspense one way or the other?
Yes, the long blade was getting very near now, and his instinct made him bend his head and neck away as far as the hole would let him. But still the clock ticked on, and he could hear the creak of the centre shaft as it turned and brought the blade nearer still.