Royal Magazine, June 1900
by Rafael Sabatini
I stood erect and defiant, the point of my swordto which the rash fool's blood still clungresting upon my boot, and with cold contempt in my glance, I let my eyes wander over the score of idle dogs that encircled medogs that barked, yet dared not bite.
Two of them had raised my vanquished and unconscious opponent from the ground, and were endeavouring to staunch the blood which spurted freely from the wound I had given him. The others stood around us in a circle, growling and snarling like the curs they were, but taking care to keep beyond my reach.
"It is a nasty wound, Mein Herr," said one of those who tended the fallen man.
"The quarrel was of his own seeking," I exclaimed, angrily, "and he received his wound in fair fight. If there be one here who says that it is not so, to him I'll answer that he lies, and prove it upon his body if he dare to come forth and play the man."
Their snarling was arrested by the fierceness of my tone and gesture, and albeit their looks were black and sullen enough, their tongues were silent.
I vented my contempt in a harsh laugh of derision.
"So, my masters," I said, sheathing my sword and moving towards a point where the rabble was thinnest, "since none disputes my word, I pray you let me hence."
A way was opened at my approach. Not for meas I had thought at firstbut for another.
A tall, spare man, in the habit of a Capuchin monk, and with the cowl drawn over his head, elbowed his way through to where I stood.
His deep-set eyes met mine, and for a moment he held my gaze with a look of mingled sorrow and anger.
"So! You have been at your foul work again, Master von Huldenstein," he said in even, solemn tones that brought the blood to my face.
"You presume upon the safety of your sack-cloth," I answered hotly.
"And you, you presume upon the death of the Duke of Retzbach," he retorted with a show of righteous indignation. "When the Duke lived the edict was enforced, and men of your kidney were appalled from the ways of murder by the grim shadow of the Schwarzenbaum gibbet. But take heed, sir," he continued, raising his voice, "you shall not pursue your accursed trade with impunity. I will appeal to the King if need be, and you shall learn that there is still justice and retribution in Schwerlingen."
White with passion I stepped up to him, but he brushed me aside with a gesture almost of scorn, and my tongueusually so nimbleclove to my teeth.
He bent over the unconscious man, whilst I looked on quivering with rage, and vainly racking my brain for a fitting answer.
Presently he turned to me again with flashing eyes.
"This man may die, sir," he cried. "Do you hear me? He may die!"
"Then do your shaveling's trade, and shrive him," I answered with callous cynicism.
Wonder and indignation seemed to choke his utterance for a moment. Then
"Oh, God will punish you, you son of Cain," he exclaimed. "Your own murderous sword shall work your undoing, and if ever in your wasted life there should open out a way for better things"he raised his right hand aloft, and his gaunt frame seemed to dilate and grow before my fascinated eyes"may your accursed sword prove an insuperable barrier. In such an hour, if ever it should come to you, may God's curse strike you, and may His vengeance lay you low!"
A shudder ran through the crowd, as much at the words as at the frightful tone in which they were delivered, and many crossed themselves as if that monk had been the Devil.
"Silence, priest," I muttered, stepping close up to him, with my eyes on his. "Do not drive me to do that which I might regret hereafter."
"Hence, hence!" he retorted boldly enough. "There is more already on your soul than"
He stopped abruptly. Almost unconsciously I had half drawn my dagger, and his eyes caught the glitter of steel. The colour left his cheeks, and he fell back mumbling some Latin fragments.
I laughed at his sudden fears, and pushing back my poniard I turned to depart. The crowd made a way for me in silence, and thus I passed out of his presence. I retraced my way to the city which half-an-hour earlier I had left in the company of him who now lay between life and death, tended by a vulgar rabble and a Capuchin monk.
The sun was setting as I passed beneath the arch of the Heinrichsthor, and little did I dream of all that would come to pass before it rose again, or of how the dawn would find me.
I stalked moodily along towards the inn of the Sword and Crown, where, methought, I was likely to find an evening's entertainment.
In my heart I carried many an evil thought against the priest who had dared to beard me in public, and launch upon my head his puerile malediction, but scarcely one for the poor wretch I had transixed, and whofor aught I knew or caredmight die before morning.
From the scene of my encounter to the Sword and Crown inn I had come direct, and at a fair pace, yet the news of what had taken place was there before me. Even as I set my foot upon the lintel, old Armstadt came hurrying forward, his wonted suave and obsequious manner laid aside and replaced by a rude and offensive bearing that was new to me.
"Not into my house, Master von Huldenstein," he cried harshly, barring my way with his burly frame. "You shall find no fresh victims beneath my roof."
This was plain speakingand from a scullion to whose house I had brought endless custom! Herrgott! had I lived to be refused admittance to a tavern, and insulted by a gutter-bred wine-seller?"
"Sacrament! You do not mince your words, you knave. Stand aside!" I thundered advancing a step.
But he did not budge.
"This house is mine," he answered insolently, "and mine it is to guard its reputation. Shall I have it said that the Sword and Crown is a harbour for assassins and deriders of priests? Away with you!"
For a moment I looked about me in doubt, anger bidding me punish the insolent hound as he deserved, prudence telling me to begone.
Three or four passers-by had already stopped, curious to see the outcome of this unusual altercation. To own myself beaten and withdraw beneath their eyes was hurtful to my pride. And yet, to linger and persist in a desperate endeavour might provoke a scene from which withdrawal would be still more humiliating.
With a dull feeling of baffled rage, I realised that I must go; and so I went with the best show of dignity I could muster, and watching to see if any of the onlookers dared to comment upon my going. By my soul, if one of them had so much as smiled I would have picked a quarrel with him. But knowing me, they were wise, and let me go in peace.
Clearly I realised as I quitted the threshold of the Sword and Crown, how the wine-shop was from that hour symbolical to me of the attitude of all Schwerlingen. The town was closed to me. Go where I might the same reception would await me. To remain in the capital of Sachsenberg I must starve, and starving is an unpleasant occupation.
I realised to the full how much the Capuchin's malediction was accountable for this, and in my heart I repaid that meddling monk with curse for curse.
A pretty situation, truly! And yet not unexpected. Long ago I had foreseen that such would be the end of the vile life I had led, ever since my father had thrust me from his house in just and righteous anger.
Aye, I had seen it coming. Step by step I had come down the steep incline of knavery and dishonour, clearly beholding that which lay below, yet never striving by a single effort to stay my infamous descent. Possibly the devil had courted a greater blackguard, probably he had not.
Was there any degradation left through the mire of which I might still drag the proud old name of Huldenstein and my besmirched escutcheon? Methought not. I was like a man who had sunk into a morasstoo deep to ever extricate himself, too firmly gripped to be able to push on, and for whom there is no choice but to await the end in the foul spot he has floundered upon.
But if I must wait, I would not wait in Schwerlingen where I was known, and where every glance bestowed upon me would henceforth be an insult. I must go at once! Go where?
This was indeed an unanswerable question.
Then a sudden longing seized me. A longing to behold again the castle of my father in the province of Hattau, the home that had once been mine, and that belonged to all who bore my name, saving myselfthe outcast. I grew suddenly eager to see those from whom I had been separated twelve years ago.
There was my old father. Who could tell?perchance old age had softened his heart, and the approach of death would cast a forgiving mood upon him. There were my sisters; Esther, the eldestshe would be grey by nowand little Stephanie, who cried the night I left the castle. Then there was Fritz. Would he still remember the big brother who had been the first to teach him to sit a horse and hold a sword? I shook my head in doubt. Twelve years had slipped away since then, and Fritz was a boy of ten in those far-off days. He would be a grown man ere now!
As I brooded over all these things the resolve grew strong within me. I would go, I would set out at once! Then suddenly I came to a standstill, and a groan escaped me.
How was I to go? I had no horseI had sold my last one a fortnight before; I had no money; I might almost say that I had no raiment. The very doublet on my back was threadbare and worn to its extremity; my breeches were in no better plight, and my boots were such as any groom might blush to own.
And yet go I must, and, by the Mass, go I wouldaye even if. Horror-stricken I checked the ugly thought. A while ago I thought there was no quality of dishonour that I had not tasted. I was mistaken; there was still one. I might still become a thief, and demand money at the sword point. But I could not do it! I was still something of a Huldenstein!
Then I laughedor was it through my lips, perchance, that the very devil mocked my better self? I know not. Suffice it that I derided my own scruples. I had grown over-nice in my conscience of a sudden, that I shrank from wresting an over-loaded purse from some rich fool who would not miss it. I had done deeds as foul if in a different way. Why should I stop at this? To a man whose honour was clean, it would be indeed, impossible; but to meBah! 'Twas the only course, and it would lead mehome.
I had wandered aimlessly through the streets during my ill-starred musings, and meanwhile night had fallen and it had grown late. The air I clearly recollect was sharp and frosty, although we were in April.
I came to a halt before the Church of St. Oswald, and stood for a moment with bent head, whilst the Tempter wrestled with my Guardian Angel. For the nonce the Spirit of Evil was overcome, and I turned at length, and wended my way towards the dismal house in the Mondstrasse, wherein I occupied a room on the ground floor. My way lay through the Northern quarter of the town, in which no lamps were hung until Wallenheim became minister in 1645two years later than the events I now set down. There was a fair moon, however, and the sky being clear, the light was tolerably goodwould that it had been otherwise!
I turned the corner of the Mondstrasse with a brisk step, and was already within fifty paces of my own door, when my attention was drawn to a tall cavalier approaching from the opposite end of the narrow street. His cloak fluttered behind him in the breeze, and the silver lace on his doublet glinted in the moonlight. That it was that, coupled with his stately bearing, made me suppose him a bird worth plucking, andagain fostering the vile intention which awhile ago I had stifleddrove me back into the shadow of a doorway.
I glanced up and down the street. Not another being was in sight. Absolute silence reigned, saving only the ring of his spurred heel on the uneven pavement. Of a truth the devil was in the business to deliver him thus into my hands!
I felt the hot blood surging to my headdriven there by shame for myself and the vile act which circumstances seemed impelling me to perform. The air was full of mocking sounds, even the faint rustling of the wind seemed to hum the word "thief" about my ears.
I loosened my sword in its scabbard and stood waiting. How slowly he came! I put my hand to my brow, and withdrew it moist with perspirationthe cold perspiration of horror. Pshaw! I was a fool, a sickly coward! Life is a game and the dice had fallen against me.
He was abreast of me, walking with bent head, and humming softly as he went.
Deaf to the last appealing cry of honour and conscience, I sprang out from the shadow, and drawing my sword I set the point against his breast, and barred his way.
He looked up, throwing back his head like a horse that has been suddenly reined in, and showed me a thin, aquiline countenance and pointed beard.
His lips parted, but before he could speak
"If you utter a cry, as God lives, I'll drive this home!" I said fiercely.
"You are a bold knave," he murmured in tones that were light with easy banter, "but you are presumptuous. Holy Virgin, do I look like a woman, that you fear I shall cry for help at the sight of a single scare-crow?"
"Bravely and most wisely spoken, O fool!" I answered, stung not a little by his attitude and words. "Maintain that reasonable frame of mind, and our business will soon be settled."
He smiled serenely, the condescending, tolerant smile that a great lord might bestow upon a horseboy.
"You speak of business, may I inquire its nature?"
"Your purse and jewels. Quick!"
"If that be all," he said, composedly, drawing a couple of rings from his fingers, "we need waste no time."
He held out the trinkets, and I put forth my hand to receive them, keeping my eyes on his the while. One of the rings dropped into my palm, the other brushed against the edge of my hand, and fell to the ground. Instinctively I attempted to follow it with my eyes. That was my undoing. Quick as lightning, he availed himself of my momentary inattention, and knocking up my sword, he sprand back with a laugh.
Before I quite realised what had taken place, and the trick that had been played upon me, he had whipped out his rapier and thrown himself into a defensive attitude.
"Now, my master," he jeered, "I am in a better position to discuss with you the question of right to my purseif, indeed," he added with fine scorn, "you still be minded to pursue the argument."
I was loath to do it, but there was no help. Courage, or rather the contempt of death, which only those who own a worthless life can knowwas the last semblance of a virtue left me. To be held a coward, even in the estimation of one who knew me not, I would not suffer.
My sword clattered against his, and there we stood, engaged, with every nerve alert, and every muscle ready. Then of a sudden the priest's malediction recurred to me, and struck a chill through me. Was that glittering point that danced before me in the moonlight, destined to carry out the Capuchin's curse?
I shook the grim thought from me. Indeed, he forced me to it. It would need all my wit and strength if I would keep my life, for if ever Caspar von Huldenstein met his match 'twas then.
Up and down that silent street we went in our fierce combat, with set teeth and stertorous breathing. Trick after trick I essayed to circumvent his guard, and yet, for all he had a parry and a counter. Moreover the light was bad and the ground uncertain. But in the end I coaxed him to attempt a lengthy lunge; I swerved aside; he over-reached himself, and before he could recover I had run him through from breast to back.
He sank down at my feet with a stifled groan, and there lay still.
I glanced about me with a feeling that was near akin to dread. There was no one in sight.
Then I knelt down beside him, and scarce knowing what I did, I completed my vile task, and stripped him of his jewels and a heavy purse. I arose staggering to my feet, and looked again fearfully about me. For a moment it occurred to me to attempt to dress his wound; but I dismissed the notion. I knew the nature of the hurt from the course my sword had taken. Why prolong his agony?
Next a wild panic seized me, and I fled madly down the street to my miserable lodging, which was but a dozen paces from the spot where he lay.
The door was locked, and I had not the courage to knock, lest whoever came to open should see the figure on the ground. I struck my hand against the window. It proved to be unfastened, and opened to my touch. A moment later I stood in my room, shivering with the full consciousness of the foul deed. I flung away the purse as if it burnt me. My God, what had I done? Would I ever dare to go home now, and clasp my father's honourable hand in minemine that was now soiled with this double crime? How long I stood there thinking over what I had done, and sorrowing that it was not I who lay out yonder, I cannot tell.
Ah! Shall I ever forget those terrible moments? Shall I ever forget how the sudden realisation of the long career of sin and debauchery that lay behind methe career that had culminated in the vile act just committedhow it overcame me and shook me with a strange, unknown terrora feeling that the monk's malediction had in truth been the malediction of God? No; all this I am certain to remember until my dying day. Nor shall I ever forget how those dreadful fears for a moment passed away to give place to old memories that were as beautiful as they were sad. I lived fleetingly through the years which had preceded my downfall; and it was just those placid, trivial hours, when we neither enjoy deeply nor are deeply pained, that came back to me with such poignant force. For are they not the happiest hours of lifethose hours of mere peace and content? All this swept through my brain in a few moments, and once again the present, with its peril and crime, returned, and, rousing myself with an effort, I crossed the room and groped for the tinder box. With trembling hands I struck the flint perhaps a dozen times before I succeeded in lighting the taper that stood upon the table. I flung myself down on the nearest chair, and burying my face in my hands, I sat there until a light tap at the door made my heart stand still. I sprang up to listen. Perchance I had been seen, and the guard had been summoned. If it were sowho knew?perchance the monk would make his appeal to the king, and the edict would be enforced. I should die the felon's death at the hangman's hands, and then truly would his malediction fall upon me.
Then I laughed at my fears. Pshaw! The law came not with so timid a knock. Again I heard it, and unable to endure the suspense, I seized the taper, and went to the door. As I opened it a body fell across the lintel. It was my whilom opponent, and at the sightof him I shuddered, beset by a thousand fears.
He must indeed be a man of strong vitality to have dragged himself thus far. Was it mere chance that brought him to my door? It must be so.
Quick, before he could raise his eyes, I had let the taper fall and extinguished it with my foot. Then I knelt beside him and raised his head.
"Thanks, friend," he murmured faintly. "The light from your window guided me hither. I am dying. I was set upon by a robber in the street. He has given me my death wound in exchange for what money I possessed."
"Let me see to it," I answered, dissembling my voice.
"'Tis useless; you will but waste time, and I have not many moments left. Listen, I have something to say."
He paused for a moment, then
"Do you know in this Schwerlingen a man named HuldensteinCaspar von Huldenstein?"
"I have heard of him," I answered, with a vague tightening at the heart.
"Then seek him out. Tell himtell him that he is now the Lord of Huldenstein. Tell him that his father died a week ago, and, dying, forgave him all. With his last breath he charged me with this message, and I came hither rejoicing that I might convey to one who, I believe, is destitute the news of his altered fortunes. As you see, he will never hear the message from my lips, but promise me that you will deliver it to him tomorrow. Promise me!"
"In God's name, who are you?" I cried.
"I am Fritz von Huldenstein, his brother," he gasped. He added something which I did not catch, then his head fell forward, and he lay still in my arms. I dimly recollect howalmost bereft of reasonI relighted the taper, and closely scanned the face of my dead brother, seeking to find some traces of the features of the boy I had known and loved. Then I flung away the light, and with a wild, mad shriek I fled from the house leaving the door wide open.
And that is how it came to pass that at sunrise I fell fainting on the threshold of the convent of the Capuchins at Loebli, and that today Caspar von Huldenstein is no more.
In his place there is Caspar, the lay brother, who in sack-cloth, with vigils and scourge, with fasting and prayer, seeks to make some atonement for the past; whilst waiting for the hour of his deliverance from the mental anguish for which there is only one cure.