Read CHAPTER IX - THE GREAT RIDDLE of Yolanda: Maid of Burgundy, free online book, by Charles Major, on ReadCentral.com.

Max was cautious in the matter of making promises, as every honest man should be, since he had no thought of breaking them once they were given. Therefore, he wished to know that he could keep his word before pledging it. His lifelong habit of asking my advice may also have influenced him in refusing the promise that he so much wished to give; or perhaps he may have wanted time to consider. He did not want to give the promise on the spur of an impulse.

When he had finished telling me his troubles, I asked:

“What will you do to-morrow night?”

My riddle was again solved; Yolanda was the princess. Her words were convincing. All doubt had been swept from my mind. There would be no more battledore and shuttlecock with my poor brain on that subject. So when Max said, “I do not know what I shall do,” I offered my opinion; “You surprise me, Max. You lack enterprise; there is no warmth in your blood. The girl cannot harm you. Give her the promise. Are your veins filled with water and caution?”

“What do you mean, Karl?” cried Max, stepping toward me with surprise and delight in his face. “Are you advising me wrongly for the first time in my life?” Then there was a touch of anger in his voice as he continued: “Have I blood in my veins? Aye, Karl, burning, seething blood, and every drop cries wildly for this girl this child. I would give the half of it to make her my wife and to make her happy. But I would not abate one jot of my wretchedness at her expense. As I treat her I pray God to deal with me. I cannot make her my wife, and if I am half a man, I would not win her everlasting love and throw it to the dogs. She all but asked me last night to tell her of my love for her, and almost pressed hers upon me, but I did not even kiss her hand. Ah, Karl, I wish I were dead!”

The poor boy threw himself on the bed and buried his face in his hands. I went to him and, seating myself on the bed, ran my fingers through his curls.

“My dear Max, I have never advised you wrongly. Perhaps luck has been with me. Perhaps my good advice has been owing to my great caution and my deep love for you. I am sure that I do not advise you wrongly now. Go to the bridge to-morrow night, and give Yolanda the promise she asks. If she wants it, give her the ring. Keep restraint upon your words and acts, but do not fear for one single moment that my advice is wrong. Max, I know whereof I speak.”

Max rose from the bed and looked at me in surprise; but my advice jumped so entirely with the longing deep buried in his heart that he took it as a dying man accepts life.

The next evening Max met Yolanda under the trees near the bridge.

“I may remain but a moment,” she said hurriedly and somewhat coldly. “Do you bring me the promise?”

“Yes,” answered Max. “I have also brought you the ring, Fraeulein, but you may not wear it, and no one may ever see it.”

“Ah, Max, it is well that you have brought me the promise, for had you not you would never have seen me again. I thank you for the promise and for the ring. No one shall see it. Of that you may be doubly sure. If by any chance some meddlesome body should see it and tell this arrogant lady of the castle that I have the keepsake she sent you, there would be trouble, Max, there would be trouble. She is a jealous, vindictive little wretch and you shall not think on her. No doubt she would have me torn limb from limb if she knew I possessed the jewel. When I touch it, I feel that I almost hate this princess, whose vast estates have a power of attraction greater than any woman may exert.”

There was real anger in her tone. In truth, dislike and aversion were manifest in every word she spoke of the princess, save when the tender little heart pitied her.

“Now I must say good night and adieu, Sir Max, until uncle returns,” said Yolanda. She gave Max her hands and he, in bringing them to his lips, drew her close to him. At that moment they were startled by a boisterous laugh close beside them, and the fellow calling himself Count Calli slapped Max on the back, saying in French:

“Nicely done, my boy, nicely done. But you are far too considerate. Why kiss a lady’s hand when her lips are so near? I will show you, Fraeulein Castleman, exactly how so delicate a transaction is conducted by an enterprising gentleman.”

He insultingly took hold of Yolanda, and, with evident intent to kiss her, tried to lift the veil with which she had hastily covered her face. Max struck the fellow a blow that felled him to the ground, but Calli rose and, drawing his dagger, rushed upon Max. Yolanda stood almost paralyzed with terror. Max was unarmed, but he seized Calli’s wrist and twisted it till a small bone cracked, and the dagger fell from his hand to the ground. Calli’s arm hung limp at his side, and he was powerless to do further injury. Max did not take advantage of his helplessness, but said:

“Go, or I will twist your neck as I have broken your wrist.”

Max had gone out that evening without arms or armor. He had not even a dagger.

When Calli had passed out of sight, Yolanda stooped, picked up his dagger, and offered it to Max, saying:

“He will gather his friends at once. Take this dagger and hasten back to the inn, or you will never reach it alive. No, come with me to Uncle Castleman’s house. There you may lie concealed.”

“I may not go to your uncle’s house, Fraeulein,” answered Max. “I can go safely to the inn. Do not fear for me.”

Yolanda protested frantically, but Max refused.

“Go quickly, then,” she said, “and be on your guard at all times. This man who came upon us is Count Calli, the greatest villain in Burgundy. He is a friend of Campo-Basso. Now hasten to the inn, if you will not come with me to uncle’s house, and beware, for this man and his friends will seek vengeance; of that you must never allow yourself to doubt. Adieu, till uncle comes.”

Max reached the inn unmolested. We donned our mail shirts, expecting trouble, and took turn and turn watching and sleeping. Next day we hired two stalwart Irish squires and armed them cap-a-pie. We meant to give our Italian friends a hot welcome if they attacked us, though we had, in truth, little fear of an open assault. We dreaded more a dagger thrust in the back, or trouble from court through the machinations of Campo-Basso.

The next morning Max sent one of our Irishmen to Castleman’s house with a verbal message to Fraeulein Castleman. When the messenger returned, he replied to my question:

“I was shown into a little room where three ladies sat. ’What have you to say?’ asked the little black-haired one in the corner she with the great eyes and the face pale as a chalk-cliff. I said, ’I am instructed, mesdames, to deliver this simple message: Sir Max is quite well.’ ’That will do. Thank you.’ said the big eyes and the pale face. Then she gave me two gold florins. The money almost took my breath, and when I looked up to thank her, blest if the white face wasn’t rosy as a June dawn. When I left, she was dancing about the room singing and laughing, and kissing everybody but me worse luck! By Saint Patrick, I never saw so simple a message create so great a commotion. ‘Sir Max is quite well.’ I’m blest if he doesn’t look it. Was he ever ill?”

After five or six days we allowed ourselves to fall into a state of unwatchfulness. One warm evening we dismissed our squires for an hour’s recreation. The Cologne River flows by the north side of the inn garden, and, the spot being secluded, Max and I, after dark, cooled ourselves by a plunge in the water. We had come from the water and finished dressing, save for our doublets, which lay upon the sod, when two men approached whom we thought to be our squires. When first we saw them, they were in the deep shadow of the trees that grew near the water’s edge, and we did not notice their halberds until they were upon us. When the men had approached within four yards, we heard a noise back of us and turning saw four soldiers, each bearing an arquebuse pointed in our direction. At the same moment another man stepped from behind the two we had first seen and came quickly to me. He was Count Calli. In his left hand he held a parchment. Max and I were surrounded and unarmed.

“I arrest you on the order of His Grace, the duke,” said Calli, in low tones, speaking French with an Italian accent.

“Your authority?” I demanded.

“This,” he said, offering me the parchment, “and this,” touching his sword. I took the parchment but could not read it in the dark.

“I’ll go to the inn to read your warrant,” I said, stooping to take up my doublet.

“You will do nothing of the sort,” he answered. “One word more from you, and there will be no need to arrest you. I shall be only too glad to dispense with that duty.”

I felt sure he wished us to resist that he might have a pretext for murdering us. I could see that slow-going Max was making ready for a fight, even at the odds of seven to two, and to avert trouble I spoke softly in German:

“These men are eager to kill us. Our only hope lies in submission.”

While I was speaking the men gathered closely about us, and almost before my words were uttered, our wrists were manacled behind us and we were blindfolded. Our captors at once led us away. A man on either side of me held my arms, and by way of warning I received now and then a merciless prod between my shoulder-blades from a halberd in the hands of an enthusiastic soul that walked behind me. Max, I supposed, was receiving like treatment.

After a hundred paces or more we waded the river, and then I knew nothing of our whereabouts. Within a half-hour we crossed a bridge which I supposed was the one over the moat at the Postern. There we halted, and the password was given in a whisper. Then came the clanking of chains and creaking of hinges, and I knew the gates were opening and the portcullis rising. After the gates were opened I was again urged forward by the men on either side of me and the enterprising soul in the rear.

I noticed that I was walking on smooth flags in place of cobble-stones, and I was sure we were in the bailey yard of the castle. Soon I was stopped again, a door opened, squeaking on its rusty hinges, and we began the descent of a narrow stairway. Twenty or thirty paces from the foot of the stairway we stopped while another door was opened. This, I felt sure, was the entrance to an underground cell, out of which God only knew if I should ever come alive. While I was being thrust through the door, I could not resist calling out, “Max Max, for the love of God answer me if you hear!” I got no answer. Then I appealed to my guard:

“Let me have one moment’s speech with him, only one moment. I will pay you a thousand crowns the day I am liberated if you grant me this favor.”

“No one is with you,” the man replied. “I would willingly earn the thousand crowns, but if they are to be paid when you are liberated, I fear I should starve waiting for them.”

With these comforting words they thrust me into the cell, manacled and blindfolded. I heard the door clang to; the rusty lock screeched venomously, and then I was alone in gravelike silence. I hardly, dared to take a step, for I knew these underground cells were honeycombed with death-traps. I could not grope about me with my hands, for they were tied, and I knew not what pitfall my feet might find.

How long I stood without moving I did not know; it might have been an hour or a day for all I could tell. I was almost stupefied by this misfortune into which I had led Max. I do not remember having thought at all of my own predicament. I cannot say that I suffered; I was benumbed. I remember wondering about Max and speculating vaguely on his fate, but for a time the thought did not move me. I also remember sinking to the floor, only half conscious of what I was doing, and then I must have swooned or slept.

When I recovered consciousness I rose to my feet. A step or two brought me against a damp stone wall. Three short paces in another direction, and once more I was against the wall. Then I stopped, turned my back to the reeking stone, and cursed the brutes that had treated me with such wanton cruelty. It was not brutal; it was human. No brute could feel it; only in the heart of man could it live.

By chafing the back of my head against the wall I succeeded in removing the bandage from my eyes. Though I was more comfortable, I was little better off, since I could see nothing in the pitiless black of my cell. I stretched my eyes, as one will in the dark, till they ached, but I could not see even an outline of the walls.

A burning thirst usually follows excitement, and after a time it came to me and grew while I thought upon it. My parched throat was almost closed, and I wondered if I were to be left to choke to death. I knew that in Spain and Italy such refinement of cruelty was oftened practised, but I felt sure that the Duke of Burgundy would not permit the infliction of so cruel a fate, did he know of it. But our captors were not Burgundians, and I doubted if the duke even knew of our imprisonment. I suffered intensely, though I believe I could have endured it with fortitude had I not known that Max was suffering a like fate.

I believed I had been several days in my cell when I heard a key turn in the lock. The door opened, and a man bearing a basket and a lantern entered. He placed the basket on the ground and, with the lantern hung over his arm, unfastened the manacles of my wrists. In the basket were a boule of black bread and a stone jar of water. I eagerly grasped the jar, and never in my life has anything passed my lips that tasted so sweet as that draught.

“Don’t drink too much at one time,” said the guard, not unkindly. “It might drive you mad. A man went mad in this cell less than a month ago from drinking too much water.”

“How long had he been without it?” I asked of this cheering personage.

“Three days,” he responded.

“I did not know that men of the north could be so cruel as to keep a prisoner three days without water,” I said.

“It happened because the guard was drunk,” answered the fellow, laughing.

“I hope you will remain sober,” said I, not at all intending to be humorous, though the guard laughed.

“I was the guard,” he replied. “I did not intend to leave the prisoner without water, but, you see, I was dead drunk and did not know it.”

“Perhaps you have been drunk for the last three or four days since I have been here?” I asked.

He laughed boisterously.

“You here three or four days! Why, you are mad already! You have been here only over night.”

Well! I thought surely I was mad!

Suddenly the guard left me and closed the cell door. I called frantically to him, but I might as well have cried from the bottom of the sea.

After what seemed fully another week of waiting, the guard again came with bread and water. By that time my mind had cleared. I asked the guard to deliver a message to my Lord d’Hymbercourt and offered a large reward for the service. I begged him to say to Hymbercourt that his friends of The Mitre had been arrested and were now in prison. The guard willingly promised to deliver my message, but he did not keep his word, though I repeated my request many times and promised him any reward he might name when I should regain my liberty. With each visit he repeated his promise, but one day he laughed and said I was wasting words; that he would never see the reward and that in all probability I should never again see the light of day. His ominous words almost prostrated me, though again I say I suffered chiefly for Max’s sake. Could I have gained his liberty at the cost of my life, nay, even my soul, I should have been glad to do it.

But I will not further describe the tortures of my imprisonment. The greatest of them all was my ignorance of Max’s fate. It was a frightful ordeal, and I wonder that my reason survived it.