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- The Dove in the Eagle's Nest - 6/59 -
Christina Sorel awoke to a scene most unlike that which had been wont to meet her eyes in her own little wainscoted chamber high in the gabled front of her uncle's house. It was a time when the imperial free towns of Germany had advanced nearly as far as those of Italy in civilization, and had reached a point whence they retrograded grievously during the Thirty Years' War, even to an extent that they have never entirely recovered. The country immediately around them shared the benefits of their civilization, and the free peasant- proprietors lived in great ease and prosperity, in beautiful and picturesque farmsteads, enjoying a careless abundance, and keeping numerous rural or religious feasts, where old Teutonic mythological observances had received a Christian colouring and adaptation.
In the mountains, or around the castles, it was usually very different. The elective constitution of the empire, the frequent change of dynasty, the many disputed successions, had combined to render the sovereign authority uncertain and feeble, and it was seldom really felt save in the hereditary dominions of the Kaiser for the time being. Thus, while the cities advanced in the power of self-government, and the education it conveyed, the nobles, especially those whose abodes were not easily accessible, were often practically under no government at all, and felt themselves accountable to no man. The old wild freedom of the Suevi, and other Teutonic tribes, still technically, and in many cases practically, existed. The Heretogen, Heerzogen, or, as we call them, Dukes, had indeed accepted employment from the Kaiser as his generals, and had received rewards from him; the Gerefen, or Graffen, of all kinds were his judges, the titles of both being proofs of their holding commissions from, and being thus dependent on, the court. But the Freiherren, a word very inadequately represented by our French term of baron, were absolutely free, "never in bondage to any man," holding their own, and owing no duty, no office; poorer, because unendowed by the royal authority, but holding themselves infinitely higher, than the pensioners of the court. Left behind, however, by their neighbours, who did their part by society, and advanced with it, the Freiherren had been for the most part obliged to give up their independence and fall into the system, but so far in the rear, that they ranked, like the barons of France and England, as the last order of nobility.
Still, however, in the wilder and more mountainous parts of the country, some of the old families of unreduced, truly free Freiherren lingered, their hand against every man, every man's hand against them, and ever becoming more savage, both positively and still more proportionately, as their isolation and the general progress around them became greater. The House of Austria, by gradually absorbing hereditary states into its own possessions, was, however, in the fifteenth century, acquiring a preponderance that rendered its possession of the imperial throne almost a matter of inheritance, and moreover rendered the supreme power far more effective than it had ever previously been. Freidrich III. a man still in full vigour, and with an able and enterprising son already elected to the succession, was making his rule felt, and it was fast becoming apparent that the days of the independent baronies were numbered, and that the only choice that would soon be left them would be between making terms and being forcibly reduced. Von Adlerstein was one of the oldest of these free families. If the lords of the Eagle's Stone had ever followed the great Konrads and Freidrichs of Swabia in their imperial days, their descendants had taken care to forget the weakness, and believed themselves absolutely free from all allegiance.
And the wildness of their territory was what might be expected from their hostility to all outward influences. The hostel, if it deserved the name, was little more than a charcoal-burner's hut, hidden in the woods at the foot of the mountain, serving as a halting-place for the Freiherren's retainers ere they attempted the ascent. The inhabitants were allowed to ply their trade of charring wood in the forest on condition of supplying the castle with charcoal, and of affording a lodging to the followers on occasions like the present.
Grimy, half-clad, and brawny, with the whites of his eyes gleaming out of his black face, Jobst the Kohler startled Christina terribly when she came into the outer room, and met him returning from his night's work, with his long stoking-pole in his hand. Her father shouted with laughter at her alarm.
"Thou thinkest thyself in the land of the kobolds and dwarfs, my girl! Never mind, thou wilt see worse than honest Jobst before thou hast done. Now, eat a morsel and be ready--mountain air will make thee hungry ere thou art at the castle. And, hark thee, Jobst, thou must give stable-room to yon sumpter-mule for the present, and let some of my daughter's gear lie in the shed."
"O father!" exclaimed Christina, in dismay.
"We'll bring it up, child, by piecemeal," he said in a low voice, "as we can; but if such a freight came to the castle at once, my lady would have her claws on it, and little more wouldst thou ever see thereof. Moreover, I shall have enough to do to look after thee up the ascent, without another of these city-bred beasts."
"I hope the poor mule will be well cared for. I can pay for--" began Christina; but her father squeezed her arm, and drowned her soft voice in his loud tones.
"Jobst will take care of the beast, as belonging to me. Woe betide him, if I find it the worse!"--and his added imprecations seemed unnecessary, so earnest were the asseverations of both the man and his wife that the animal should be well cared for.
"Look you, Christina," said Hugh Sorel, as soon as he had placed her on her mule, and led her out of hearing, "if thou hast any gold about thee, let it be the last thing thou ownest to any living creature up there." Then, as she was about to speak--"Do not even tell me. I WILL not know." The caution did not add much to Christina's comfort; but she presently asked, "Where is thy steed, father?"
"I sent him up to the castle with the Schneiderlein and Yellow Lorentz," answered the father. "I shall have ado enough on foot with thee before we are up the Ladder."
The father and daughter were meantime proceeding along a dark path through oak and birch woods, constantly ascending, until the oak grew stunted and disappeared, and the opening glades showed steep, stony, torrent-furrowed ramparts of hillside above them, looking to Christina's eyes as if she were set to climb up the cathedral side like a snail or a fly. She quite gasped for breath at the very sight, and was told in return to wait and see what she would yet say to the Adlerstreppe, or Eagle's Ladder. Poor child! she had no raptures for romantic scenery; she knew that jagged peaks made very pretty backgrounds in illuminations, but she had much rather have been in the smooth meadows of the environs of Ulm. The Danube looked much more agreeable to her, silver-winding between its green banks, than did the same waters leaping down with noisy voices in their stony, worn beds to feed the river that she only knew in his grave breadth and majesty. Yet, alarmed as she was, there was something in the exhilaration and elasticity of the mountain air that gave her an entirely new sensation of enjoyment and life, and seemed to brace her limbs and spirits for whatever might be before her; and, willing to show herself ready to be gratified, she observed on the freshness and sweetness of the air.
"Thou find'st it out, child? Ay, 'tis worth all the feather-beds and pouncet-boxes in Ulm; is it not? That accursed Italian fever never left me till I came up here. A man can scarce draw breath in your foggy meadows below there. Now then, here is the view open. What think you of the Eagle's Nest?"
For, having passed beyond the region of wood they had come forth upon the mountain-side. A not immoderately steep slope of boggy, mossy- looking ground covered with bilberries, cranberries, &c. and with bare rocks here and there rising, went away above out of her ken; but the path she was upon turned round the shoulder of the mountain, and to the left, on a ledge of rock cut off apparently on their side by a deep ravine, and with a sheer precipice above and below it, stood a red stone pile, with one turret far above the rest.
"And this is Schloss Adlerstein?" she exclaimed.
"That is Schloss Adlerstein; and there shalt thou be in two hours' time, unless the devil be more than usually busy, or thou mak'st a fool of thyself. If so, not Satan himself could save thee."
It was well that Christina had resolution to prevent her making a fool of herself on the spot, for the thought of the pathway turned her so dizzy that she could only shut her eyes, trusting that her father did not see her terror. Soon the turn round to the side of the mountain was made, and the road became a mere track worn out on the turf on the hillside, with an abyss beneath, close to the edge of which the mule, of course, walked.
When she ventured to look again, she perceived that the ravine was like an enormous crack open on the mountain-side, and that the stream that formed the Debateable Ford flowed down the bottom of it. The ravine itself went probably all the way up the mountain, growing shallower as it ascended higher; but here, where Christina beheld it, it was extremely deep, and savagely desolate and bare. She now saw that the Eagle's Ladder was a succession of bare gigantic terraces of rock, of which the opposite side of the ravine was composed, and on one of which stood the castle. It was no small mystery to her how it had ever been built, or how she was ever to get there. She saw in the opening of the ravine the green meadows and woods far below; and, when her father pointed out to her the Debateable Ford, apparently much nearer to the castle than they themselves were at present, she asked why they had so far overpassed the castle, and come by this circuitous course.
"Because," said Hugh, "we are not eagles outright. Seest thou not, just beyond the castle court, this whole crag of ours breaks off short, falls like the town wall straight down into the plain? Even this cleft that we are crossing by, the only road a horse can pass, breaks off short and sudden too, so that the river is obliged to take leaps which nought else but a chamois could compass. A footpath there is, and Freiherr Eberhard takes it at all times, being born to it; but even I am too stiff for the like. Ha! ha! Thy uncle may talk of the Kaiser and his League, but he would change his note if we had him here."
"Yet castles have been taken by hunger," said Christina.
"What, knowest thou so much?--True! But look you," pointing to a white foamy thread that descended the opposite steeps, "yonder beck dashes through the castle court, and it never dries; and see you the ledge the castle stands on? It winds on out of your sight, and forms a path which leads to the village of Adlerstein, out on the other slope of the mountains; and ill were it for the serfs if they
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