Copyright
S.R. Crockett.

Red Axe online

. (page 1 of 25)
Online LibraryS.R. CrockettRed Axe → online text (page 1 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team.







THE RED AXE

By S.R. Crockett

1900




CONTENTS


I. DUKE CASIMIR RIDES LATE
II. THE LITTLE PLAYMATE COMES HOME
III. THE RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK
IV. THE PRINCESS HELENE
V. THE BLOOD-HOUNDS ARE FED
VI. DUKE CASIMIR'S FAMILIAR
VII. I BECOME A TRAITOR
VIII. AT THE BAR OF THE WHITE WOLF
IX. A HERO CARRIES WATER IN THE SUN
X. THE LUBBER FIEND
XI. THE VISION IN THE CRYSTAL
XII. EYES OF EMERALD
XIII. CHRISTIAN'S ELSA
XIV. SIR AMOROUS IS PLEASED WITH HIMSELF
XV. THE LITTLE PLAYMATE SETTLES ACCOUNTS
XVI. TWO WOMEN - AND A MAN
XVII. THE RED AXE IS LEFT ALONE
XVIII. THE PRIME OF THE MORNING
XIX. WENDISH WIT
XX. THE EARTH-DWELLERS OF NO MAN'S LAND
XXI. I STAND SENTRY
XXII. HELENE HATES ME
XXIII. HUGO OF THE BROADAXE
XXIV. THE SORTIE
XXV. MINE HOST RUNS HIS LAST RACE
XXVI. PRINCE JEHU MILLER'S SON
XXVII. ANOTHER MAN'S COAT
XXVIII. THE PRINCE'S COMPACT
XXIX. LOVES ME - LOVES ME NOT
XXX. INSULT AND CHALLENGE
XXXI. I FIND A SECOND
XXXII. THE WOLVES OF THE MARK
XXXIII. THE FLIGHT OF THE LITTLE PLAYMATE
XXXIV. THE GOLDEN NECKLACE
XXXV. THE DECENT SERVITOR
XXXVI. YSOLINDE'S FAREWELL
XXXVII. CAPTAIN KARL MILLER'S SON
XXXVIII. THE BLACK RIDERS
XXXIX. THE FLAG ON THE RED TOWER
XL. THE TRIAL OF THE WITCH
XLI. THE GARRET OF THE RED TOWER
XLII. PRINCESS PLAYMATE
XLIII. THE TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT
XLIV. SENTENCE OF DEATH
XLV. THE MESSAGE FROM THE WHITE GATE
XLVI. A WOMAN SCORNED
XLVII. THE RED AXE DIES STANDING UP
XLVIII. HUGO GOTTFRIED, RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK
XLIX. THE SERPENT'S STRIFE
L. THE DUNGEON OF THE WOLFSBERG
LI. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE MORN
LII. THE HEADSMAN'S RIGHT
LIII. THE LUBBER FIEND'S RETURN
LIV. THE CROWNING OF DUKE OTHO
LV. THE LADY YSOLINDE SAVES HER SOUL
LVI. HELENA, PRINCESS OF PLASSENBURG




THE RED AXE




CHAPTER I

DUKE CASIMIR RIDES LATE


Well do I, Hugo Gottfried, remember the night of snow and moonlight when
first they brought the Little Playmate home. I had been sleeping - a
sturdy, well-grown fellow I, ten years or so as to my age - in a stomacher
of blanket and a bed-gown my mother had made me before she died at the
beginning of the cold weather. Suddenly something awoke me out of my
sleep. So, all in the sharp chill of the night, I got out of my bed,
sitting on the edge with my legs dangling, and looked curiously at the
bright streams of moonlight which crossed the wooden floor of my garret.
I thought if only I could swim straight up one of them, as the motes did
in the sunshine, I should be sure to come in time to the place where my
mother was - the place where all the pretty white things came from - the
sunshine, the moonshine, the starshine, and the snow.

And there would be children to play with up there - hundreds of children
like myself, and all close at hand. I should not any longer have to sit
up aloft in the Red Tower with none to speak to me - all alone on the top
of a wall - just because I had a crimson patch sewn on my blue-corded
blouse, on my little white shirt, embroidered in red wool on each of my
warm winter wristlets, and staring out from the front of both my
stockings. It was a pretty enough pattern, too. Yet whenever one of the
children I so much longed to play with down on the paved roadway beneath
our tower caught sight of it he rose instantly out of the dust and hurled
oaths and ill-words at me - aye, and oftentimes other missiles that hurt
even worse - at a little lonely boy who was breaking his heart with loving
him up there on the tower.

"Come down and be killed, foul brood of the Red Axe!" the children cried.
And with that they ran as near as they dared, and spat on the wall of our
house, or at least on the little wooden panel which opened inward in the
great trebly spiked iron door of the Duke's court-yard.

But this night of the first home-coming of the Little Playmate I awoke
crying and fearful in the dead vast of the night, when all the other
children who would not speak to me were asleep. Then pulling on my
comfortable shoes of woollen list (for my father gave me all things to
make me warm, thinking me delicate of body), and drawing the many-patched
coverlet of the bed about me, I clambered up the stone stairway to the
very top of the tower in which I slept. The moon was broad, like one of
the shields in the great hall, whither I went often when the great Duke
was not at home, and when old Hanne would be busy cleaning the pavement
and scrubbing viciously at the armor of the iron knights who stood on
pedestals round about.

"One day I shall be a man-at-arms, too," I said once to Hanne, "and ride
a-foraying with Duke Ironteeth."

But old Hanne only shook her head and answered:

"Ill foraying shalt thou make, little shrimp. Such work as thine is not
done on horseback - keep wide from me, _toadchen_, touch me not!"

For even old Hanne flouted me and would not let me approach her too
closely, all because once I had asked her what my father did to witches,
and if she were a witch that she crossed herself and trembled whenever
she passed him in the court-yard.

Now, having little else to do, I loved to look down from the top of the
tower at all times. But never more so than when there was snow on the
ground, for then the City of Thorn lay apparent beneath me, all spread
out like a painted picture, with its white and red roofs and white houses
bright in the moonlight - so near that it seemed as though I could pat
every child lying asleep in its little bed, and scrape away the snow with
my fingers from every red tile off which the house-fires had not already
melted it.

The town of Thorn was the chief place of arms, and high capital city of
all the Wolfmark. It was a thriving place, too, humming with burghers and
trades and guilds, when our great Duke Casimir would let them alone;
perilous, often also, with pikes and discontents when he swooped from the
tall over-frowning Castle of the Wolfsberg upon their booths and
guilderies - "to scotch the pride of rascaldom," as he told them when they
complained. In these days my father was little at home, his business
keeping him abroad all the day about the castle-yard, at secret
examinations in the Hall of Judgment, or in mysterious vaults in the
deepest parts of the castle, where the walls are eighteen feet thick, and
from which not a groan can penetrate to the outside while the Duke
Casimir's judgment was being done upon the poor bodies and souls of men
and women his prisoners.

In the court-yard, too, the dogs, fierce russet-tan blood-hounds,
ravined for their fearsome food. And in these days there was plenty of
it, too, so that they were yelling and clamoring all day, and most of
the night, for that which it made me sweat to think of. And beneath the
rebellious city cowered and muttered, while the burghers and their
wives shivered in their beds as the howling of Duke Casimir's
blood-hounds came fitfully down the wind, and Duke Casimir's guards
clashed arms under their windows.

So this night I looked down contentedly enough from my perched eyrie on
the top of the Red Tower. It had been snowing a little earlier in the
evening, and the brief blast had swept the sky clean, so that even the
brightest stars seemed sunken and waterlogged in the white floods of
moonlight. Under my hand lay the city. Even the feet of the watch made no
clatter on the pavements. The fresh-fallen snow masked the sound. The
kennels of the blood-hounds were silent, for their dreadful tenants were
abroad that night on the Duke's work.

Yet, sitting up there on the Wolfsberg, it seemed to me that I could
distinguish a muttering as of voices full of hate, like men talking low
on their beds the secret things of evil and treason. I discerned
discontent and rebellion rumbling and brooding over the city that clear,
keen night of early winter.

Then, when after a while I turned from the crowded roofs and looked down
upon the gray, far-spreading plain of the Wolfmark, to the east I saw
that which appeared like winking sparks of light moving among the black
clumps of copse and woodland which fringed the river. These wimpled and
scattered, and presently grew brighter. A long howl, like that of a
lonely wolf on the waste when he calls to his kindred to tell him their
where-abouts, came faintly up to my ears.

A hound gave tongue responsively among the heaped mews and doggeries
beneath the ramparts. Lights shone in windows athwart the city. Red
nightcaps were thrust out of hastily opened casements. The Duke's
standing guard clamored with their spear-butts on the uneven pavements,
crying up and down the streets: "To your kennels, devil's brats, Duke
Casimir comes riding home!"

Then I tell you my small heart beat furiously. For I knew that if I
only kept quiet I should see that which I had never yet seen - the
home-coming of our famous foraying Duke. I had, indeed, seen Duke
Casimir often enough in the castle, or striding across the court-yard
to speak to my father, for whom he had ever a remarkable affection. He
was a tall, swart, black-a-vised man, with a huge hairy mole on his
cheek, and long dog-teeth which showed at the sides of his mouth when
he smiled, almost as pleasantly as those of a she-wolf looking out of
her den at the hunters.

But I had never seen the Duke of all the Wolfmark come riding home ere
daybreak, laden with the plunder of captured castles and the rout of
deforced cities. For at such times my father would carefully lock the
door on me, and confine me to my little sleeping-chamber - from whence I
could see nothing but the square of smooth pavement on which the
children chalked their games, and from which they cried naughtily up at
me, the poor hermit of the Red Tower. But this night my father would be
with the Duke, and I should see all. For high or low there was none in
the empty Red Tower to hinder or forbid.

As I waited, thrilling with expectation, I heard beneath me the
quickening pulse-beat of the town. The watch hurried here and there,
hectoring, threatening, and commanding. But, in spite of all, men
gathered as soon as their backs were turned in the alleys and street
openings. Clusters of heads showed black for a moment in some darksome
entry, cried "U-g-g-hh!" with a hateful sound, and vanished ere the
steel-clad veterans of the Duke's guard could come upon them. It was like
the hide-and-seek which I used to play with Boldo, my blood-hound puppy,
among the dusty waste of the lumber-room over the Hall of Judgment,
before my father took him back to the kennels for biting Christian's
Elsa, a child who lived in the lower Guard opposite to the Red Tower.

But this was a stranger hide-and-seek than mine and Boldo's had been. For
I saw one of the men who cried hatefully to the guard stumble on the
slippery ice; and lo! or ever he had time to cry out or gather himself
up, the men-at-arms were upon him. I saw the glitter of stabbing steel
and heard the sickening sound of blows stricken silently in anger. Then
the soldiers took the man up by head and heels carelessly, jesting as
they went. And I shuddered, for I knew that they were bringing him to the
horrible long sheds by the Red Tower through which the wind whistled. But
in the moonlight the patch which was left on the snow was black, not red.

After this the crooked alleys were kept clearer, and I could see down the
long High Street of Thorn right to the Weiss Thor and the snow-whitened
pinnacles of the Palace, out of which Duke Casimir had for the time being
frightened Bishop Peter. Black stood the Gate Port against the moonlight
and the snow when I first looked at it. A moment after it had opened, and
a hundred lights came crowding through, like sheep through an entry on
their way to the shambles - which doubtless is their Hall of Judgment,
where there waits for them the Red Axe of a lowlier degree.

The lights, I say, came thronging through the gate. For though it was
moonlight, the Duke Casimir loved to come home amid the red flame of
torches, the trail of bituminous reek, and with a dashing train of riders
clattering up to the Wolfsberg behind him, through the streets of Thorn,
lying black and cowed under the shadows of its thousand gables.

So the procession undulated towards me, turbid and tumultuous. First a
reckless pour of riders urging wearied horses, their sides white-flecked
above with blown foam, and dark beneath with rowelled blood. Many of the
horsemen carried marks upon them which showed that all had not been
plunder and pleasuring upon their foray. For there were white napkins,
and napkins that had once been white, tied across many brows. Helmets
swung clanking like iron pipkins from saddle-bows, and men rode wearily
with their arms in slings, drooping haggard faces upon their chests. But
all passed rapidly enough up the steep street, and tumbled with noise and
shouting, helter-skelter into the great court-yard beneath me as I
watched, secure as God in heaven, from my perch on the Red Tower.

Then came the captives, some riding horses bare-backed, or held in place
before black-bearded riders - women mostly these last, with faces
white-set and strange of eye, or all beblubbered with weeping. Then came
a man or two also on horseback, old and reverend. After them a draggled
rabble of lads and half-grown girls, bound together with ropes and kept
at a dog's trot by the pricking spears of the men-at-arms behind, who
thought it a jest to sink a spear point-deep in the flesh of a man's
back - "drawing the claret wine" they called it. For these riders of Duke
Casimir were every one jolly companions, and must have their merry jest.

After the captives had gone past - and sorry I was for them - the
body-guard of Duke Casimir came riding steadily and gallantly, all
gentlemen of the Mark, with their sons and squires, landed men, towered
men, free Junkers, serving the Duke for loyalty and not servitude, though
ever "living by the saddle" - as, indeed, most of the Ritterdom and gentry
of the Mark had done for generations.

Then behind them came Duke Casimir himself. The Eastland blood he had
acquired from his Polish mother showed as he rode gloomily apart,
thoughtful, solitary, behind the squared shoulders of his knights. After
him another squadron of riders in ghastly armor of black-and-white, with
torches in their hand and grinning skulls upon their shields, closed in
the array. The great gate of the Wolfsberg was open now, and, leaving
behind him the hushed and darkened town, the master rode into his castle.
The Wolf was in his lair. But in the streets many a burgher's wife
trembled on her bed, while her goodman peered cautiously over the leads
by the side of a gargoyle, and fancied that already he heard the clamor
of the partisans thundering at his door with the Duke's invitation to
meet him in the Hall of Judgment.




CHAPTER II

THE LITTLE PLAYMATE COMES HOME


But there was to be no Session in the Hall of Judgment that night. The
great court-yard, roofed with the vault of stars and lit by the moon, was
to see all done that remained to be done. The torches were planted in the
iron hold-fasts round about. The plunder of the captured towns and
castles was piled for distribution on the morrow, and no man dared keep
back so much as a Brandenburg broad-piece or a handful of Bohemian
gulden. For the fear of the Duke and the Duke's dog-kennels was upon
every stout fighting-kerl. They minded the fate of Hans Pulitz, who had
kept back a belt of gold, and had gotten himself flung by the heels with
no more than the stolen belt upon him, into the kennels where the Duke's
blood-hounds howled and clambered with their fore-feet on the
black-spattered barriers. And they say that the belt of gold was all that
was ever seen again of the poor rascal. Hans Pulitz - who had hoped for so
many riotous evenings among the Fat Pigs of Thorn and so many draughts of
the slippery wine of the Rheingan careering down the poor thirsty throat
of him. But, alas for Hans Pulitz! the end of all imagining was no more
than five minutes of snapping, snarling, horrible Pandemonium in the
kennels of the Wolfsberg, and the scored gold chain on the ground was all
that remained to tell his tale. Verily, there were few Achans in Duke
Casimir's camp.

And it is small wonder after this, that scant and sparse were the jests
played on the grim master of the Wolfsberg, or that the bay of a
blood-hound tracking on the downs frightened the most stout-hearted rider
in all that retinue of dare-devils.

Going to the side of the Red Tower, which looked towards the court-yard,
I saw the whole array come in. I watched the prisoners unceremoniously
dismounted and huddled together against the coming of the Duke. There was
but one man among them who stood erect. The torch-light played on his
face, which was sometimes bent down to a little child in his arms, so
that I saw him well. He looked not at all upon the rude men-at-arms who
pushed and bullied about him, but continued tenderly to hush his charge,
as if he had been a nurse in a babe-chamber under the leads, with silence
in all the house below.

It pleased me to see the man, for all my life I had loved children. And
yet at ten years of age I had never so much as touched one - no, nor
spoken even, only looked down on those that hated me and spat on the very
tower wherein I dwelt. But nevertheless I loved them and yearned to tell
them so, even when they mocked me. So I watched this little one in the
man's arms.

Then came the Duke along the line, and behind him, like the Shadow of
Death, paced my father Gottfried Gottfried, habited all in red from neck
to heel, and carrying for his badge of office as Hereditary Justicer to
the Dukes of the Wolfmark that famous red-handled, red-bladed axe, the
gleaming white of whose deadly edge had never been wet save with the
blood of men and women.

The guard pushed the captives rudely into line as the Duke Casimir strode
along the front. The women he passed without a sign or so much as a look.
They were kept for another day. But the men were judged sharp and sudden,
as the Duke in his black armor passed along, and that scarlet Shadow of
Death with the broad axe over his shoulder paced noiselessly behind him.

For as each man looked into the eyes of Casimir of the Wolfsberg he read
his doom. The Duke turned his wrist sharply down, whereupon the attendant
sprites of the Red Shadow seized the man and rent his garment down from
his neck - or the hand pointed up, and then the man set his hand to his
heart and threw his head back in a long sigh of relief.

It came the turn of the man who carried the babe.

Duke Casimir paused before him, scowling gloomily at him.

"Ha, Lord Prince of so great a province, you will not set yourself up any
more haughtily. You will quibble no longer concerning tithes and tolls
with Casimir of the Wolfmark."

And the Duke lifted his hand and smote the man on the cheek with his
open hand.

Yet the captive only hushed the child that wailed aloud to see her
guardian smitten.

He looked Duke Casimir steadfastly in the eyes and spoke no word.

"Great God, man, have you nothing to say to me ere you die?" cried Duke
Casimir, choked with hot, sudden anger to be so crossed.

The elder man gazed steadily at his captor.

"God will judge betwixt me, a man about to die, and you, Casimir of the
Wolfmark," he said at last, very slowly - "by the eyes of this little maid
He will judge!"

"Like enough," cried Casimir, sneeringly. "Bishop Peter hath told me as
much. But then God's payments are long deferred, and, so far as I can
see, I can take Him into my own hand. And your little maid - pah! since
one day you took from me the mother, I, in my turn, will take the
daughter and make her a titbit for the teeth of my blood-hounds."

The man answered not again, but only hushed and fondled the little one.

Duke Casimir turned quickly to my father, showing his long teeth like a
snarling dog:

"Take the child," he said, "and cast her into the kennels before the
man's eyes, that he may learn before he dies to dread more than God's
Judgment Seat the vengeance of Duke Casimir!"

Then all the men-at-arms turned away, heart-sick at the horror. But the
man with the child never blanched.

High perched on the top tower, I also heard the words and loved the maid.
And they tell me (though I do not remember it) that I cried down from the
leads of the Red Tower: "My father, save the little maid and give her to
me - or else I, Hugo Gottfried, will cast myself down on the stones at
your feet!"

At which all the men looked up and saw me in white, a small, lonely
figure, with my legs hanging over the top of the wall.

"Go back!" my father shouted. "Go back, Hugo! 'Tis my only son - my
successor - the fifteenth of our line, my lord!" he said to the Duke
in excuse.

But I cried all the more: "Save the maid's life, or I will fling myself
headlong. By Jesu-Mary, I swear it!"

For I thought that was the name of one great saint.

Then my father, who ever doted on me, bent his knee before his master:
"A boon!" he cried, "my first and last, Duke Casimir - this maid's life
for my son!"

But the Duke hung on the request a long, doubtful moment.

"Gottfried Gottfried," he said, even reproachfully, "this is not well
done of you, to make me go back on my word."

"Take the man's life," said my father - "take the man's life for the
child's and the fulfilling of your word, and by the sword of St. Peter I
will smite my best!"

"Aye," said the man with the babe, "even so do, as the Red Axe says.
Save the young child, but bid him smite hard at this abased neck. Ye have
taken all, Duke Casimir, take my life. But save the young child alive!"

So, without further word or question, they did so, and the man who had
carried the child kissed her once and separated gently the baby hands
that clung about his neck. Then he handed her to my father.

"Be gracious to Helene," he said; "she was ever a sweet babe."

Now by this time I was down hammering on the door of the Red Tower, which
had been locked on the outside.

Presently some one turned the key, and so soon as I got among the men I
darted between their legs.

"Give me the babe!" I cried; "the babe is mine; the Duke himself
hath said it." And my father gave her to me, crying as if her heart
would break.

Nevertheless she clung to me, perhaps because I was nearer her own age.

Then the dismal procession of the condemned passed us, followed by my
father, who strode in front with his axe over his shoulder, and the
laughing and jesting men-at-arms bringing up the rear.

As I stood a little aside for them to pass, the hand of the man fell on
my head and rested there a moment.

"God's blessing on you, little lad!" he said. "Cherish the babe you have
saved, and, as sure as that I am now about to die, one day you shall be
repaid." And he stooped and kissed the little maid before he went on with
the others to the place of slaughter.

Then I hurried within, so that I might not hear the dull thud of the Red
Axe, on the block nor the inhuman howlings of the dogs in the kennels
afterwards.

When my father came home an hour later, before even he took off his
costume of red, he came up to our chamber and looked long at the little
maid as she lay asleep. Then he gazed at me, who watched him from under
my lids and from behind the shadows of the bedclothes.

But his quick eye caught the gleam of light in mine.

"You are awake, boy!" he said, somewhat sternly.

I nodded up to him without speaking.

"What would you with the little maid?" he said. "Do you know that you and
she together came very near losing me my favor with the Duke, and it
might be my life also, both at one time to-night?"

I put my hand on the maiden's head where it lay on the pillow by me.

"She is my little wife!" I said. "The Duke gave her to me out in the
court-yard there!"

And this is the whole tale of how the Little Playmate came to dwell with
us in the Red Tower.




CHAPTER III

THE RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK


Just as clearly do I remember the next morning. The Little Playmate lay
by me on my bed, wrapped in one of my childish night-gowns - which old
Hanne had sought out for her the night before. It was a brisk, chill,
nippy daybreak, and I had piled most of the bedclothes upon her. I lay at



Online LibraryS.R. CrockettRed Axe → online text (page 1 of 25)