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HOME > Classical Novels > Otto of the Silver Hand > VII. The Red Cock Crows on Drachenhausen.
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VII. The Red Cock Crows on Drachenhausen.
 There was a new emperor in Germany who had come from a far away Swiss castle; Count Rudolph of Hapsburg, a good, honest man with a good, honest, homely face, but bringing with him a stern sense of justice and of right, and a determination to put down the lawlessness of the savage German barons among whom he had come as Emperor.  
One day two strangers came galloping up the winding path to the gates of the Dragon’s house. A horn sounded thin and clear, a parley was held across the chasm in the road between the two strangers and the porter who appeared at the little wicket. Then a messenger was sent running to the Baron, who presently came striding across the open court-yard to the gateway to parley with the strangers.
The two bore with them a folded parchment with a great red seal hanging from it like a clot of blood; it was a message from the Emperor demanding that the Baron should come to the Imperial Court to answer certain charges that had been brought against him, and to give his bond to maintain the peace of the empire.
One by one those barons who had been carrying on their private wars, or had been despoiling the burgher folk in their traffic from town to town, and against whom complaint had been lodged, were summoned to the Imperial Court, where they were compelled to promise peace and to swear allegiance to the new order of things. All those who came willingly were allowed to return home again after giving security for maintaining the peace; all those who came not willingly were either brought in chains or rooted out of their strongholds with fire and sword, and their roofs burned over their heads.
Now it was Baron Conrad’s turn to be summoned to the Imperial Court, for complaint had been lodged against him by his old enemy of Trutz-Drachen—Baron Henry—the nephew of the old Baron Frederick who had been slain while kneeling in the dust of the road back of the Kaiserburg.
No one at Drachenhausen could read but Master Rudolph, the steward, who was sand blind, and little Otto. So the boy read the summons to his father, while the grim Baron sat silent with his chin resting upon his clenched fist and his eyebrows drawn together into a thoughtful frown as he gazed into the pale face of his son, who sat by the rude oaken table with the great parchment spread out before him.
Should he answer the summons, or scorn it as he would have done under the old emperors? Baron Conrad knew not which to do; pride said one thing and policy another. The Emperor was a man with an iron hand, and Baron Conrad knew what had happened to those who had refused to obey the imperial commands. So at last he decided that he would go to the court, taking with him a suitable escort to support his dignity.
It was with nearly a hundred armed men clattering behind him that Baron Conrad rode away to court to answer the imperial summons. The castle was stripped of its fighting men, and only eight remained behind to guard the great stone fortress and the little simple-witted boy.
It was a sad mistake.
Three days had passed since the Baron had left the castle, and now the third night had come. The moon was hanging midway in the sky, white and full, for it was barely past midnight.
The high precipitous banks of the rocky road threw a dense black shadow into the gully below, and in that crooked inky line that scarred the white face of the moonlit rocks a band of some thirty men were creeping slowly and stealthily nearer and nearer to Castle Drachenhausen. At the head of them was a tall, slender knight clad in light chain armor, his head covered only by a steel cap or bascinet.
Along the shadow they crept, with only now and then a faint clink or jingle of armor to break the stillness, for most of those who followed the armed knight were clad in leathern jerkins; only one or two wearing even so much as a steel breast-plate by way of armor.
So at last they reached the chasm that yawned beneath the roadway, and there they stopped, for they had reached the spot toward which they had been journeying. It was Baron Henry of Trutz-Drachen who had thus come in the silence of the night time to the Dragon’s house, and his visit boded no good to those within.
The Baron and two or three of his men talked together in low tones, now and then looking up at the sheer wall that towered above them.
“Yonder is the place, Lord Baron,” said one of those who stood with him. “I have scanned every foot of the wall at night for a week past. An we get not in by that way, we get not in at all. A keen eye, a true aim, and a bold man are all that we need, and the business is done.” Here again all looked upward at the gray wall above them, rising up in the silent night air.
High aloft hung the wooden bartizan or watch-tower, clinging to the face of the outer wall and looming black against the pale sky above. Three great beams pierced the wall, and upon them the wooden tower rested. The middle beam jutted out beyond the rest to the distance of five or six feet, and the end of it was carved into the rude semblance of a dragon’s head.
“So, good,” said the Baron at last; “then let us see if thy plan holds, and if Hans Schmidt’s aim is true enough to earn the three marks that I have promised him. Where is the bag?”
One of those who stood near handed the Baron a leathern pouch, the Baron opened it and drew out a ball of fine thread, another of twine, a coil of stout rope, and a great bundle that looked, until it was unrolled, like a coarse fish-net. It was a rope ladder. While these were being made ready, Hans Schmidt, a thick-set, low-browed, broad-shouldered archer, strung his stout bow, and carefully choosing three arrows from those in his quiver, he stuck them point downward in the earth. Unwinding the ball of thread, he laid it loosely in large loops upon the ground so that it might run easily without hitching, then he tied the end of the thread tightly around one of his arrows. He fitted the arrow to the bow and drew the feather to his ear. Twang! rang the bowstring, and the feathered messenger flew whistling upon its errand to the watch-tower. The very first shaft did the work.
“Good,” said Hans Schmidt, the archer, in his heavy voice, “the three marks are mine, Lord Baron.”
The arrow had fallen over and across the jutting beam between the carved dragon’s head and the bartizan, carrying with it the thread, which now hung from above, glimmering white in the moonlight like a cobweb.
The rest was an easy task enough. First the twine was drawn up to and over the beam by the thread, then the rope was drawn up by the twine, and last of all the rope ladder by the rope. There it hung like a thin, slender black line against the silent gray walls.
“And now,” said the Baron, “who will go first and win fifty marks for his own, and climb the rope ladder to the tower yonder?” Those around hesitated. “Is there none brave enough to venture?” said the Baron, after a pause of silence.
A stout, young fellow, of about eighteen years of age, stepped forward and flung his flat leathern cap upon the ground. “I will go, my Lord Baron,” said he.
“Good,” said the Baron, “the fifty marks are thine. And now listen, if thou findest no one in the watch-tower, whistle thus; if the watchman be at his post, see that thou makest all safe before thou givest the signal. When all is ready the others will follow thee. And now go and good luck go with thee.”
The young fellow spat upon his hands and, seizing the ropes, began slowly and carefully to mount the flimsy, shaking ladder. Those below held it as tight as they were able, but nevertheless he swung backward and forward and round and round as he climbed steadily upward. Once he stopped upon the way, and those below saw him clutch the ladder close to him as though dizzied by the height and the motion but he soon began again, up, up, up like some great black spider. Presently he came out from the black shadow below and into the white moonlight, and then his shadow followed him step by step up the gray wall upon his way. At last he reached the jutting beam, and there again he stopped for a moment clutching tightly to it. The next he was upon the beam, dragging himself toward the window of the bartizan just above. Slowly raising himself upon his narrow foothold he peeped cautiously within. Those watching him from be low saw him slip his hand softly to his side, and then place something between his teeth. It was his dagger. Reaching up, he clutched the window sill above him and, with a silent spring, seated himself upon it. The next moment he disappeared within. A few seconds of silence followed, then of sudden a sharp gurgling cry broke the stillness. There was another pause of silence, then a faint shrill whistle sounded from above.
“Who will go next?” said the Baron. It was Hans Schmidt who stepped forward. Another followed the arch up the ladder, and another, and another. Last of all went the Baron Henry himself, and nothing was left but the rope ladder hanging from above, and swaying back and forth in the wind.
That night Schwartz Carl had been bousing it over a pot of yellow wine in the pantry with his old crony, Master Rudolph, the steward; and the two, chatting and gossiping together, had passed the time away until long after the rest of the castle had been wrapped in sleep. Then, perhaps a little unsteady upon his feet, Schwartz Carl betook himself homeward to th............
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