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- The Story of Siegfried - 40/48 -
But this answer failed to satisfy the queen.
"Is it not the first duty of a vassal," she asked, "to help his liege lord in every undertaking? If so, Siegfried has but done his duty, and you owe him nothing. But you have not told me all. You have deceived me, and you would fain deceive me again. You have a secret, and I will find it out."
The king made no answer, but walked silently and thoughtfully away.
It happened one evening, not long thereafter, that the two queens sat together at an upper window, and looked down upon a company of men in the courtyard below. Among them were the noblest earl-folk of Burgundy, and Gunther the king, and Siegfried. But Siegfried towered above all the rest; and he moved like a god among men.
"See my noble Siegfried!" cried Kriemhild in her pride. "How grandly he stands there! What a type of manly beauty and strength! No one cares to look at other men when he is near."
"He maybe handsome," answered Brunhild sadly; "and, for aught I know, he may be noble. But what is all that by the side of kingly power? Were he but the peer of your brother Gunther, then you might well boast."
"He is the peer of Gunther," returned Kriemhild. "And not only his peer, but more; for he stands as high above him in kingly power and worth as in bodily stature."
"How can that be?" asked Brunhild, growing angry. "For, when Gunther so gallantly won me at Isenstein, he told me that Siegfried was his vassal; and often since that time I have heard the same. And even your husband told me that Gunther was his liege lord."
Queen Kriemhild laughed at these words, and answered, "I tell you again that Siegfried is a king far nobler and richer and higher than any other king on earth. Think you that my brothers would have given me to a mere vassal to be his wife?"
Then Brunhild, full of wrath, replied, "Your husband is Gunther's vassal and my own, and he shall do homage to us as the humblest and meanest of our underlings. He shall not go from this place until he has paid all the tribute that has so long been due from him. Then we shall see who is the vassal, and who is the lord."
"Nay," answered Kriemhild. "It shall not be. No tribute was ever due; and, if homage is to be paid, it is rather Gunther who must pay it."
"It shall be settled once for all!" cried Brunhild, now boiling over with rage. "I will know the truth. If Siegfried is not our vassal, then I have been duped; and I will have revenge."
"It is well," was the mild answer. "Let it be settled, once for all; and then, mayhap, we shall know who it was who really won the games at Isenstein, and you for Gunther's wife."
And the two queens parted in wrath.[EN#31]
Kriemhild's anger was as fleeting as an April cloud, which does but threaten, and then passes away in tears and sunshine. But Brunhild's was like the dread winter storm that sweeps down from Niflheim, and brings ruin and death in its wake. She felt that she had been cruelly wronged in some way, and that her life had been wrecked, and she rested not until she had learned the truth.
It was Hagen who at last told her the story of the cruel deceit that had made her Gunther's wife; and then her wrath and her shame knew no bounds.
"Woe betide the day!" she cried,--"woe betide the day that brought me to Rhineland, and made me the wife of a weakling and coward, and the jest of him who might have done nobler things!"
Hagen smiled. He had long waited for this day.
"It was Siegfried, and Siegfried alone, who plotted to deceive you," he said. "Had it not been for him, you might still have been the happy maiden-queen of Isenland. And now he laughs at you, and urges his queen, Kriemhild, to scorn you as she would an underling."
"I know it, I know it," returned the queen in distress. "And yet how grandly noble is the man! How he rushed through the flames to awaken me, when no one else could save! How brave, how handsome,--and yet he has been my bane. I can have no peace while he lives."
Hagen smiled again, and a strange light gleamed from his dark eye. Then he said, "Truly handsome and brave is he, but a viler traitor was never born. He even now plots to seize this kingdom, and to add it to his domain. Why else should he bring so great a retinue of Nibelungen warriors to Burgundy? I will see King Gunther at once, and we will put an end to his wicked projects."
"Do even so, good Hagen," said Brunhild. "Take him from my path, and bring low the haughty pride of his wife, and I shall be content."
"That I will do!" cried Hagen. "That I will do! Gunther is and shall be the king without a peer; and no one shall dare dispute the worth and the queenly beauty of his wife."
Then the wily chief sought Gunther, and with cunning words poisoned his weak mind. The feeble old king was easily made to believe that Siegfried was plotting against his life, and seeking to wrest the kingdom from him. And he forgot the many kind favors he had received at the hero's hand. He no longer remembered how Siegfried had slain the terror of the Glittering Heath, and freed the Burgundians from many a fear; and how he had routed the warlike hosts of the North-land, and made prisoners of their kings; and how he had brought his voyage to Isenland to a happy and successful ending. He forgot, also, that Siegfried was his sister's husband. He had ears and mind only for Hagen's wily words.
"While this man lives," said the dark-browed chief, "none of us are safe. See how the people follow him! Hear how they shout at his coming! They look upon him as a god, and upon Gunther as a nobody. If we are wise, we shall rid ourselves of so dangerous a man."
"It is but a week until he takes his leave of us, and goes back to his own home in Nibelungen Land. Watch him carefully until that time, but do him no harm. When he is once gone, he shall never come back again," said the king. But he spoke thus, not because of any kind feelings towards Siegfried, but rather because he feared the Nibelungen hero.
"He has no thought of going at that time," answered Hagen. "He speaks of it, only to hide his wicked and traitorous plots. Instead of going home, his plans will then be ready for action, and it will be too late for us to save ourselves. Still, if you will not believe me, take your own course. You have been warned."
The cunning chief arose to leave the room; but Gunther, now thoroughly frightened, stopped him.
"Hagen," he said, "you have always been my friend, and the words which you say are wise. Save us and our kingdom now, in whatsoever way you may deem best. I know not what to do."
Then the weak king and the warrior-chief talked long together in low, hoarse whispers. And, when they parted, shame and guilt were stamped in plain lines on Gunther's face, from which they were nevermore erased; and he dared not lift his gaze from the floor, fearing that his eyes would betray him, if seen by any more pure-hearted than he. But a smile of triumph played under the lurking gleams of Hagen's eye; and he walked erect and bold, as if he had done a praiseworthy deed.
That night a storm came sweeping down from the North, and the cold rain fell in torrents; and great hailstones pattered on the roofs and towers of the castle, and cruelly pelted the cattle in the fields, and the birds in the friendly shelter of the trees. And old Thor fought bravely with the Storm-giants; and all night long the rattle of his chariot-wheels, and the heavy strokes of his dread hammer, were heard resounding through the heavens. In his lonely chamber Hagen sat and rubbed his hands together, and grimly smiled.
"The time so long waited for has come at last," he said.
But the guilty king, unable to sleep, walked restlessly to and fro, and trembled with fear at every sound of the storm-gust without.
When day dawned at last, a sad scene met the eyes of all beholders. The earth was covered with the broken branches of leafy trees; the flowers and shrubs were beaten pitilessly to the ground; and here and there lay the dead bodies of little feathered songsters, who, the day before, had made the woods glad with their music.
The sun had scarcely risen above this sorrowful scene, gilding the gray towers and turrets and the drooping trees with the promise of better things, than a strange confusion was noticed outside of the castle-gates. Thirty and two horsemen wearing the livery of the North-lands stood there, and asked to be led to the Burgundian kings.
"Who are you? and what is your errand?" asked the gate-keeper.
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