English Literature

My Lady Rotha by Stanley John Weyman

My Lady Rotha by Stanley John Weyman



I never saw anything more remarkable than the change which the death of my lady’s uncle, Count Tilly, in the spring of 1632, worked at Heritzburg. Until the day when that news reached us, we went on in our quiet corner as if there were no war. We heard, and some of us believed, that the Palatine Elector, a good Calvinist like ourselves, had made himself King of Bohemia in the Emperor’s teeth; and shortly afterwards–which we were much more ready to believe–that he was footing it among the Dutchmen. We heard that the King of Denmark had taken up his cause, but taken little by the motion; and then that the King of Sweden had made it his own. But these things affected us little: they were like the pattering of the storm to a man hugging himself by the fireside. Through all we lay snug and warm, and kept Christmas and drank the Emperor’s health. Even the great sack of Magdeburg, which was such an event as the world, I believe, will never see again, moved us less to fear than to pity; though the city lies something less than fifty leagues northeast of us. The reason of this I am going to tell you.

Our town stands, as all men know, in a nook of the Thuringian Forest, facing south and west towards Hesse, of which my Lady Rotha, Countess of Heritzburg, holds it, though all the land about is Saxon, belonging either to Coburg, or Weimar, or Altenburg, or the upper Duchy. On the north and east the forest rises in rolling black ridges, with a grey crag shooting up spire-like here and there; so that from this quarter it was not wonderful that no sound of war reached us. Toward the south and west, where is the mouth of the valley, and whither our people point when they talk of the world, a spur of the mountain runs down on either side to the Werra, which used to be crossed at this point by a wooden bridge. But this bridge was swept away by floods in the winter of 1624, and never repaired as long as the war lasted. Henceforth to come to Heritzburg travellers had to cross in old Joachim’s boat, or if the river was very low, tuck up and take the chances. Unless they came by forest paths over the mountains.

Such a position favoured peace. Our friends could not easily trouble us; our allies were under no temptation to quarter troops upon us. For our enemies, we feared them even less. Against them we had a rampart higher than the mountains and wider than the Werra, in the name of Tilly. In those days the name of the great Walloon, victor in thirty fights, was a word to conjure with from the Tyrol to the Elbe. Mothers used it to scare their children, priests to blast their foes. His courage, his cruelty, and his zeal for the Roman Catholic Church combined to make him the terror of the Protestants, while his strange personality and mis-shapen form gave rise to a thousand legends, which men still tell by the fireside.

I think I see him now–as I did see him thrice in his lifetime–a meagre dwarfish man with a long face like a horse’s face, and large whiskers. He dressed always in green satin, and wore a small high-peaked hat on his huge wrinkled forehead. A red feather drooped from it, and reached to his waist. At first sight one took him for a natural; for one of those strange monstrosities which princes keep to make them sport; but a single glance from his eyes sent simple men to their prayers, and cowed alike plain burgher and wild Croat. Few loved him, all feared him. I have heard it said that he had no shadow, but I can testify of my own knowledge and not merely for the honour of the family that this was false.

He was brother to my lady’s mother, the Countess Juliana. At the time of the match my late lord was thought to have disparaged his blood by mating with a Flemish lady of no more than gentle family. But as Count Tilly rose in the world first to be commander of the Bavarian armies and later to be Generalissimo of the forces of the Empire and a knight of the Golden Fleece, we heard less and less of this. The sneer lost its force until we became glad, Calvinists though we were, to lie secure under his shadow; and even felt a shamed pride in his prowess.

When my lord died, early in the war, leaving the county of Heritzburg to his only child, the protection we derived in this way grew more and more valuable. We of Heritzburg, and we only, lost nothing by the war, except a parcel of idle fellows, of whom more hereafter. Our cows came lowing to their stalls, our corn full weight to the granary. We slept more safely under the distaff than others under the sword; and all because my lady had the right to wear among her sixteen quarterings the coat of Tilly.

Some I know, but only since his death, have cried shame on us for accepting his protection. They profess to think that we should have shut our gates on the Butcher of Magdeburg, and bidden him do his worst. They say that the spirit of the old Protestants is dead within us, and that it is no wonder the cause lies languishing and Swedes alone fight single-eyed. But those who say these things have seldom, I notice, corn or cows: and moreover, as I have hinted, they kept a very still tongue while Tilly lived.

There is our late Burgomaster, Hofman, for instance, he is given to talking after that fashion; and, it is true, he has plenty, though not so much since my lady fined him. But I well remember the last time Tilly visited us. It was after the fall of Magdeburg, and there was a shadow on his grim countenance, which men said never left it again until the day when the cannon-shot struck him in the ford of the Lech, and they carried him to Ingolstadt to die. As he rode under the arch by the Red Hart people looked strangely at him–for it was difficult to forget what he had done–as if, but for the Croats in the camp across the river, they would have torn him from his horse. But who, I pray you, so polite that day as Master Hofman? Who but he was first to hold the stirrup and cry, Hail? It was ‘My Lord Count’ this, and ‘My Lord Count’ that, until the door closed on the crooked little figure and the great gold spurs. And then it was the same with the captain of the escort. Faugh! I grow sick when I think of such men, and know that they were the first to turn round and make trouble when the time came, and the old grey wolf was dead. For my part I have always been my lady’s man since I came out of the forest to serve her. It was enough for me that the Count was her guest and of her kin. But for flattering him and putting myself forward to do him honour, I left that to the Hofmans.

However, the gloom we saw on Tilly’s face proved truly to be the shadow of coming misfortune; for three weeks after he left us, was fought the great battle of Breitenfeld. Men say that the energy and decision he had shown all his life forsook him there; that he hesitated and suffered himself to be led by others; and that so it was from the day of Magdeburg to his death. This may be true, I think, for he had the blood of women and children on his head; or it may be that at last he met a foeman worthy of his steel. But in either case the news of the Swede’s victory rang through North Germany like a trumpet call. It broke with startling abruptness the spell of victory which had hitherto–for thirteen long years–graced the Emperor’s flag and the Roman Church. In Hesse, to the west of us, where the Landgrave William had been the first of all German Princes to throw in his lot with the Swedes and defy the Emperor, it awoke such a shout of jubilation and vengeance as crossed even the Werra; while from the Saxon lands to the east of us, which this victory saved from spoliation, and punishment, came an answering cry of thankfulness and joy. Even in Heritzburg it stirred our blood. It roused new thoughts and new ambitions. We were Protestants; we were of the north. Those who had fought and won were our brethren.

And this was right. Nor for a time did I see anything wrong or any sign of mischief brewing; though tongues in the town wagged more freely, as the cloud of war rolled ever southward and away from us. But six months later the news of Count Tilly’s death reached us. Then, or it might be a fortnight afterwards–so long I think respect for my lady’s loss and the new hatchment restrained the good-for-naughts–the trouble began. How it arose, and what shape it took, and how I came athwart it, I am going to tell you without further preface.

It was about the third Monday in May of that year, 1632. A broken lock in one of the rooms at the castle had baffled the skill of our smith, and about nightfall, thinking to take a cup of beer at the Red Hart on my way back, I went down to Peter the locksmith’s in the town. His forge stands in the winding lane, which joins the High Street at the Red Hart, after running half round the town inside the wall; so that one errand was a fair excuse for the other. When I had given him his order and come out again, I found that what with the darkness of the lane and the blaze of his fire which had got into my eyes, I could not see a yard before me. A little fine rain was falling with a chilly east wind, and the town seemed dead. The pavement felt greasy under foot, and gave out a rank smell. However, I thought of the cheery kitchen at the Red Hart and stumbled along as fast as I could, until turning a corner I came in sight of the lanthorn which hangs over the entrance to the lane.

I saw it, but short of it, something took and held my eye: a warm stream of light, which shone across the path, and fell brightly on the rough surface of the town-wall. It came from a small window on my left. I had to pass close beside this window, and out of curiosity I looked in. What I saw was so surprising that I stopped to look again.

The room inside was low and small and bare, with an earthen floor and no fireplace. On a ragged pallet in one corner lay an elderly man, to whose wasted face and pallid cheeks a long white moustache, which strayed over the coverlet, gave an air of incongruous fierceness. His bright eyes were fixed on the door as if he listened. A child, three or four years old, sat on the floor beside him, playing with a yellow cat.

It was neither of these figures, however, which held my gaze, but that of a young girl who knelt on the floor near the head of the bed. A little crucifix stood propped against the wall before her, and she had a string of beads in her hands. Her face was turned from me, but I felt that her lips moved. I had never seen a Romanist at prayer before, and I lingered a moment, thinking in the first place that she would have done better had she swung the shutter against the window; and in the next, that with her dark hair hanging about her neck and her head bent devoutly, she looked so weak and fragile that the stoutest Protestant could not have found it in his heart to harm her.

Suddenly a noise, which dully reached me where I stood outside the casement, caused her to start in alarm, and turn her head. At the same moment the cat sprang away affrighted, and the man on the bed stirred and tried to rise. This breaking the spell, I stole quietly away and went round the corner to the door of the inn.

Though I had never considered the girl closely before, I knew who she was. Some eight months earlier, while Tilly, hard pressed by the King of Sweden, still stood at bay, keeping down Saxony with one hand, and Hesse with the other, the man on the pallet, Stephen Wort, a sergeant of jagers, had been wounded in a skirmish beyond the river. Why Tilly, who was used to seeing men die round him like flies in winter, gave a second thought to this man more than to others, I cannot say. But for some reason, when he visited us before Breitenfeld, he brought the wounded sergeant in his train, and when he went left him at the inn. Some said that the man had saved his life, others that the two were born on the same day and shared the same horoscope. More probably Tilly knew nothing of the man, and the captain of the escort was the active party. I imagine he had a kindness for Wort, and knowing that outside our little valley a wounded man of Tilly’s army would find as short shrift as a hamstrung wolf, took occasion to leave him with us.

I thought of all this as I stood fumbling about the door for the great bell. The times were such that even inns shut their doors at night, and I had to wait and blow on my fingers–for no wind is colder than a May wind–until I was admitted. Inside, however, the blazing fire and cheerful kitchen with its show of gleaming pewter, and its great polished settles winking solemnly in the heat, made amends for all. I forgot the wounded man and his daughter and the fog outside. There were eight or nine men present, among them Hofman, who was then Burgomaster, Dietz, the town minister, and Klink our host.

They were people I met every day, and sometimes more than once a day, and they greeted me with a silent nod. The lad who waited brought me a cup of beer, and I said that the night was cold for the time of year. Some one assented, but the company in general sat silent, sagely sucking their lips, or exchanging glances which seemed to indicate a secret understanding.

I was not slow to see that this had to do with me and that my entrance had cut short some jest or story. I waited patiently to learn what it was, and presently I was enlightened. After a few minutes Klink the host rose from his seat. First looking from one to another of his neighbours, as if to assure himself of their sympathy, he stole quietly across the kitchen to a door which stood in one corner. Here he paused a moment listening, and then on a sudden struck the door a couple of blows, which made the pewters ring again.

‘Hi! Within there!’ he cried in his great voice. Are you packing? Are you packing, wench? Because out you go to-morrow, pack or no pack! Out you go, do you hear?’

He stood a moment waiting for an answer, but seemed to get none; on which he came back to his seat, and chuckling fatly to himself, looked round on his neighbours for applause. One winked and another rubbed his calves. The greater number eyed the fire with a sly smile. For my part I was slow of apprehension. I did not understand but waited to hear more.

For five minutes we all sat silent, sucking our lips. Then Klink rose again with a knowing look, and crossed the kitchen on tiptoe with the same parade of caution as before. Bang!’ He struck the door until it rattled on its hinges.

‘Hi! You there!’ he thundered. ‘Do you hear, you jade? Are you packing? Are you packing, I say? Because pack or no pack, to-morrow you go! I am a man of my word.’

He did not wait this time for an answer, but came back to us with a self-satisfied grin on his face. He drank some beer–he was a big ponderous man with a red face and small pig’s eyes–and pointed over his shoulders with the cup. ‘Eh?’ he said, raising his eye-brows.

‘Good!’ a man growled who sat opposite to him.

‘Quite right!’ said a second in the same tone. ‘Popish baggage!’

Hofman said nothing, but nodded, with a sly glance at me. Dietz the Minister nodded curtly also, and looked hard at the fire. The rest laughed.

For my part I felt very little like laughing. When I considered that this clumsy jest was being played at the expense of the poor girl, whom I had seen at her prayers, and that likely enough it was being played for the tenth time–when I reflected that these heavy fellows were sitting at their ease by this great fire watching the logs blaze and the ruddy light flicker up the chimney, while she sat in cold and discomfort, fearing every sound and trembling at every whisper, I could have found it in my heart to get up and say what I thought of it. And my speech would have astonished them. But I remembered, in time, that least said is soonest mended, and that after all words break no bones, and I did no more than sniff and shrug my shoulders.

Klink, however, chose to take offence in his stupid fashion. ‘Eh?’ he said. ‘You are of another mind, Master Schwartz?’

‘What is the good of talking like that,’ I said, ‘when you do not mean it?’

He puffed himself out, and after staring at me for a time, answered slowly: ‘But what if I do mean it, Master Steward? What if I do mean it?’

‘You don’t,’ I said. ‘The man pays his way.’

I thought to end the matter with that. I soon found that it was not to be shelved so easily. For a moment indeed no one answered me. We are a slow speaking race, and love to have time to think. A minute had not elapsed, however, before one of the men who had spoken earlier took up the cudgels. ‘Ay, he pays his way,’ he said, thrusting his head forward. ‘He pays his way, master; but how? Tell me that.’

I did not answer him.

‘Out of the peasant’s pocket!’ the fellow replied slowly. ‘Out of the plunder and booty of Magdeburg. With blood-money, master.’

‘I ask no more than to meet one of his kind in the fields,’ the man sitting next him, who had also spoken before, chimed in. ‘With no one looking on, master. There would be one less wolf in the world then, I will answer for that. He pays his way? Oh, yes, he pays it here.’

I thought a shrug of the shoulders a sufficient answer. These two belonged to the company my lady had raised in the preceding year to serve with the Landgrave according to her tenure. They had come back to the town a week before this with money to spend; some people saying that they had deserted, and some that they had returned to raise volunteers. Either way I was not surprised to find them a little bit above themselves; for foreign service spoils the best, and these had never been anything but loiterers and vagrants, whom it angered me to see on a bench cheek by jowl with the Burgomaster. I thought to treat them with silent contempt, but I soon found that they did not stand alone.

The Minister was the first to come to their support. ‘You forget that these people are Papists, Master Schwartz. Rank Roman Papists,’ he said.

‘So was Tilly!’ I retorted, stung to anger. ‘Yet you managed to do with him.’

‘That was different,’ he answered sourly; but he winced.

Then Hofman began on me. ‘You see, Master Steward,’ he said slowly, ‘we are a Protestant town–we are a Protestant town. And it ill beseems us–it ill beseems us to harbour Papists. I have thought over that a long while. And now I think it is time to rid ourselves of them–to abate the nuisance in fact. You see we are a Protestant town, Master Schwartz. You forget that.’

‘Then were we not a Protestant town,’ I cried, jumping up in a rage, and forgetting all my discretion, ‘when we entertained Count Tilly? When you held his stirrup, Burgomaster? and you, Master Dietz, uncovered to him? Were not these people Papists when they came here, and when you received them? But I will tell you what it is,’ I continued, looking round scornfully, and giving my anger vent, for such meanness disgusted me. ‘When there was a Bavarian army across the river, and you could get anything out of Tilly, you were ready to oblige him, and clean his boots. You could take in Romanists then, but now that he is dead and your side is uppermost, you grow scrupulous, Pah! I am ashamed of you! You are only fit to bully children and girls, and such like!’ and I turned away to take up my iron-shod staff.

They were all very red in the face by this time, and the two soldiers were on their feet. But the Burgomaster restrained them. ‘Fine words!’ he said, puffing out his cheeks–‘fine words! Dare say the girl can hear him. But let him be, let him be–let him have his say!’

‘There is some else will have a say in the matter, Master Hofman!’ I retorted warmly, as I turned to the door, ‘and that is my lady. I would advise you to think twice before you act. That is all!’

‘Hoop-de-doo-dem-doo!’ cried one in derision, and others echoed it. But I did not stay to hear; I turned a deaf ear to the uproar, wherein all seemed to be crying after me at once, and shrugging my shoulders I opened the door and went out.

The sudden change from the warm noisy kitchen to the cold night air sobered me in a moment. As I climbed the dark slippery street which rises to the foot of the castle steps, I began to wish that I had let the matter be. After all, what call had I to interfere, and make bad blood between myself and my neighbours? It was no business of mine. The three were Romanists. Doubtless the man had robbed and hectored in his time, and while his hand was strong; and now he suffered as others had suffered.

It was ten chances to one the Burgomaster would carry the matter to my lady in some shape or other, and the minister would back him up, and I should be reprimanded; or if the Countess saw with my eyes, and sent them off with a flea in their ears, then we should have all the rabble of the town who were at Klink’s beck and call, going up and down making mischief, and crying, ‘No Popery!’ Either way I foresaw trouble, and wished that I had let the matter be, or better still had kept away that night from the Red Hart.

But then on a sudden there rose before me, as plainly as if I had still been looking through the window, a vision of the half-lit room looking on the lane, with the sick man on the pallet, and the slender figure kneeling beside the bed. I saw the cat leap, saw again the girl’s frightened gesture as she turned towards the door, and I grew almost as hot as I had been in the kitchen. ‘The cowards!’ I muttered–‘the cowards! But I will be beforehand with them. I will go to my lady early and tell her all.’

You see I had my misgivings, but I little thought what that evening was really to bring forth, or that I had done that in the Red Hart kitchen which would alter all my life, and all my lady’s life; and spreading still, as a little crack in ice will spread from bank to bank, would leave scarce a man in Heritzburg unchanged, and scarce a woman’s fate untouched.



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