C.F. Van Der Velde: “Axel: A Tale of the Thirty Years’ War” Part 2 of 3
Excerpt, “Tales From the German, Comprising Specimens of the Most Celebrated Authors.” Translated by John Oxenford and C.A. Feiling. London: 1844.
Edge of the Battlefield
A TALE OF THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR
The baron fell into an armchair as if thunder struck, and Tugendreich was wringing her white hands as Axel entered the hall. A helmet covered his head, a sword was rattling at his side, and before the old baron could think of his wrath against him, he said in a firm and manly tone, “The Croats are approaching, and will not want a pretext for committing their depredations here as they have done everywhere else; your property and life, and the honour of your lovely daughter are in jeopardy. Nothing but a bold resistance can save you. Isolani’s followers spare nothing, not even those who submit readily.”
“Are you out of your senses?” asked the baron. “With what force am I to begin the struggle against an imperial army?”
“Only he who abandons himself is abandoned,” said Axel. “This castle has high, strong walls and deep moats. I have raised the whole village, and have armed your ranger and servants. If they follow my advice they will all take refuge here with their property. We must give up the village, and hold out here until succour comes.”
Surprised by Axel’s bold design and chivalrous conduct, old Starschedel sat there as incapable of opposition as of coming to a resolution of his own. “The means are desperate,” said Talander, “but I see no other way of proceeding.”
“But what of the imperial band?” sighed the old baron.
“We do not resist the imperial troops,” argued the magister, cunningly. “We only protect our property against marauders and robbers, who plunder the country contrary to the will of his imperial majesty.”
“Tell the people from the balcony that I act in accordance with your wish,” said Axel, “and leave the rest to me.”
Starschedel looked inquiringly at his oracle who returned a nod of approbation, and submitted patiently to be dragged to the balcony by Axel, where he delivered general orders of obedience to Axel, though often interrupted by shortness of breath. A loud vivat resounded from the robust Saxon youths, who were eager to fight.
With proud satisfaction Tugendreich looked down on the singular groom who instructed the armed band in the court-yard as if he had been used to military duty all his life, assigned to everyone his post in the court-yard, ordered the placing of men, cattle, and property, and then sallied forth with the mounted servants to reconnoiter the enemy.
The baron, in the meanwhile, buried with trembling hands a casket of jewels in the cellar, while master Talander looked through his long telescope at the stars which now began to appear, compared his observations with the singular circles, lines, and signs upon a large table, and then made his calculations until the drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead, examining the results now with a joyful nod, and now with a thoughtful shake of his white head. At midnight the reconnoitring corp returned.
The garrison was summoned with beating of drums, and Axel addressed them as follows: “The Croats will presently enter the village and will not spare anything; the sky is already red with their torches; they will burn here also, but we shall be secure behind these walls while you show yourselves to be men. Bear in mind that you are to fight for your good lord and his noble daughter, for the pure doctrine of the gospel, for your venerable pastor, for the honour of your wives, and for the lives of your children. Now long life to the elector!”
“Long life to the elector!” shouted the band after him, but the “Hoch” stuck in many a throat, as at this moment the music of the approaching Croats chimed in with their “Vivat” as a flourish.
“To your posts,” cried Axel in a thundering voice, and then once more looking to the draw bridge, he ordered the gates to be secured and ascended the battlements of the donjon. A wild tumult was now heard in the village.
The Croats searched boisterously for the inhabitants and provisions but in vain, and therefore avenged their disappointment upon the doors and windows of the cottages. At length a troop with torches galloped up to the castle, startled at the drawn bridge and sounded the trumpet as a summons for admittance.
The trumpet within the castle was sounded in answer, and Axel asked in military form what was their wish?
“Down with the bridge first,” blustered an infuriated captain of the Croats in broken German, “and then you will see what we want.”
“Show us the orders of his Imperial Majesty and our Elector, that this castle is to receive a garrison,” replied Axel, modestly, “and the bridge shall immediately be lowered.”
At this the foreign barbarian foamed with rage, snatched his carbine from his saddle and fired it at Axel. The bullet missed, and Axel in return sent a bullet from his gun whizzing through the cap of the Croat.
“This is to teach you uncivilized fellows the usage of war, that no shot should be fired during a parley,” he cried. “My shot was only to warn you of this; but if you do not draw off, the next shall be in earnest.”
Upon this the captain swearing turned his horse round and galloped madly back into the village with his troops.
As Axel was turning to descend, he saw Tugendreich standing before him as pale and motionless as a statue. “For heaven’s sake, Fraulein,” he cried, “what are you doing up here? This is not a place for a gentle lady.”
“I heard firing,” said the girl, sighing deeply. “I thought you were in danger, and could not longer remain below.”
“Faithful heart!” exclaimed he, with emotion and affection. “By all that I hold sacred I will some day requite you.” And quickly taking her in his strong arms he carried her down the steps, and consigned her to her attendant, whom he strictly enjoined not to allow the Fraulein to ascend the walls again. He then returned quickly to his post, as he already heard resounding through the night the march of the approaching enemy threatening the castle.
Suddenly the thatched cottages of the villages were blazing up in a terrible manner. Amid the light of the flames the Croats assaulted the castle in close bodies and with wild fury. But the garrison made a brave resistance, and their rifles created great havoc among the enemies’ ranks.
Axel was everywhere, and though the Croats attempted in different places to scale the walls by the aid of ladders, he immediately was at the spot, to strike down the foremost, and then with powerful hand to precipitate ladder and all into the moat.
For an hour the most furious combat had been raging when the enemies’ trumpets sounded the retreat, and the infuriated captain who led the rear cried out with a savage laugh, “At sunrise we shall return with heavy cannon, and show you who we are.”
The morning dawned after a sleepless night, and found the two old gentlemen sitting sorrowfully in Talander’s closet, which was bomb-proof. The lamp was nearly out, and they started up terrified on hearing the trumpet sound outside the castle walls. After a short time Axel, who had been wounded in the cheek, entered, announcing Baron Grotta, lieutenant-colonel in the imperial army, saying, “My lords, the colonel awaits you in the hall: for heaven’s sake show no fear, and let the magister settle the terms of a capitulation.”
He consented and left the room. On arriving in the hall a fine looking officer met him, whose countenance might be called beautiful, had there not been an expression of defiance and haughtiness about the eyes and mouth which detracted from the impression first produced. After the usual civilities had been exchanged, the stranger informed him that a division of the imperial army was to pass through the village on that day, and that their general had learned with astonishment the audacity with which the castle had opposed their light troops; that he was inclined, however, to pardon this, knowing the rapacity and outrages of the Croats, who made no distinction between friend and foe; but that now he expected the castle to be surrendered to him immediately.
“On what conditions,” asked the astonished baron.
“Methinks you ought to be glad if an imperial general,” said he in a sarcastic tone, “after what has happened, once more kindly invites you to trust blindly to his generosity. At all events it is more advisable for you to open your gates than to let our cannons burst them open.”
At this moment Tugendreich entered the hall, followed by a servant with flasks and goblets. Love, with its joys and sorrows had diffused a supernatural charm over her noble countenance, which did not fail to produce so magical an effect upon the warrior, that he at once in a gentler tone added to his menaces the question, ” Is this your daughter?”
The baron then introduced her, and the stranger took the brimming goblet she presented to him, and in a polite manner asked on what conditions the castle would capitulate. The baron pleading indisposition in consequence of the nightly assault promised to send his chaplain to negotiate, and left the hall delighted to be released from this purgatory. The experienced hero now addressed himself courteously to the Fraulein, and after condoling with her on account of the terrors of the past night, and expressing his satisfaction at being able to contribute something to alleviate their present situation, was beginning to get as sentimental as it became a soldier in the thirty years’ war, when old Talander entered bowing, followed by Axel, who, unarmed, and in a respectful manner, brought in writing materials.
“In the name of my noble master I am to have the honour of treating with you, gallant sir,” said he in a submissive tone; “we have only a few just conditions to propose, which I beg your gracious permission to state.”
“Granted,” said the colonel, casting an expressive look at the Fraulein, which told her it was only on her account that he granted any conditions whatever. The magister began to read the following propositions: “Unconditional amnesty for the past night; liberty for religion and her servants until the fate of this country is decided; exemption from all contributions under whatever name or pretext they may be demanded.”
“Great demands,” interrupted the colonel.
“In return, Baron Von Starschedel grants to the troops of his imperial majesty the right of garrison in his castle,” continued Talander.
“But only to the regiment of Tiefenbach,” interrupted Axel, hastily. “It is best disciplined, and the promise which your general has given us in writing is a security of the capitulation being kept.”
With angry astonishment the stranger looked at the insolent groom.
Tugendreich and Talander showed consternation. The magister broke the silence by saying, “The hasty interruption of this young man reminds me of two important points which my old head had forgotten; I therefore hasten to supply them.”
While the magister was writing, Tugendreich observed, in a gentle tone, as she suddenly became conscious of the influence of her sex, “So gallant a man as the colonel will certainly do his utmost to concede such reasonable conditions.”
“What would I not do, for a kind look from those eyes ?” said he, and he took from Talander’s hands the points he had written down, made a military bow to the Fraulein, cast a look of contempt on Axel as he departed, and was soon seen to gallop through the gate. A quarter of an hour had scarcely elapsed, when the chains of the drawbridge and the creaking of the gate were heard again, and the colonel galloped into the court-yard, waving the signed capitulation on high as a banner of peace. With great respect and delight, the baron went to meet him at the castle entrance, and the welcomed officer dismounted with graceful ease from his charger, giving the bridle with a haughty contempt into Axel’s hands, evidently to make him conscious of the respect which was due to him, and which he had before forgotten.
One of his fellow grooms, seeing the anger which flashed from the eyes of Axel at this pointed humiliation, took the horse from him and led him about. The colonel did not fail observing this, and to complete the mortification of the insolent servant, he set his foot on the steps of the entrance, and called to Axel, “Groom, my right spur galls me, loosen it.”
“I will let your groom know that you want him,” said Axel haughtily, “if you will have the condescension to tell me where I can find him.”
The colonel’s face reddened with indignation, and addressing the baron, biting and grinding his teeth, he requested him to remind his groom of his duty, as his rank demanded he should insist upon it. The baron satisfied his demands in a ludicrous manner, not knowing in his heart, of whom he was most afraid. Axel shook his head in silence.
“Pray, good Axel,” whispered the baron entreatingly, “when you have often fastened my spurs, will you refuse it to a person of such distinction.”
“I honour and love you as a father,” said Axel, “and consider it no disgrace to serve you; I would willingly perform the most menial services for you, but cannot suffer indignity from the haughtiness of a stranger.”
“I am curious to see,” said the stranger scornfully, “whether the master or the servant will get the best of this singular dispute.”
And, irritated by this observation, and working himself up into a passion in order to gain his point, the baron cried, “Either you loosen the spurs, or you quit my service.”
“I go, gracious master,” said Axel most respectfully. “I know you are safe for some time to come, and I carry with me the delightful satisfaction of having so far contributed to your safety. Remember sometimes, kindly, your faithful servant;” and, shaking heartily the hand which the baron offered him, he went to the stable to pack up his knapsack.
Absorbed in secret dreams, Tugendreich stood in a grotto in the garden, and did not even hear the drums of a company of Tiefenbach’s regiment which was entering the castle, when suddenly Axel stood before her with the knapsack on his back. “Your father has dismissed me from his service,” he said, with emotion, “but I shall never quit yours, sweet Fraulein. You shall soon hear of me.”
With tears in his eyes, he offered a forget-me-not, which she could not refuse accepting from the hand that still showed the scar from the descent into the shaft.
“But,” continued he, recollecting himself, “this keepsake will soon be destroyed, therefore take another of a solid material from my own native country.” And, taking out a Swedish copper dollar, he broke it with gigantic strength, offered one-half to the Fraulein, and said, “He who shall bring you the other half will come from me.” Before Tugendreich was aware how, she had got the burning kiss which glowed upon her lips, he had vanished, and Talander stood before her like a personified lecture.
He was on the point of delivering it, when the baron, who was somewhat wearied by the first impetuous demands of his new guest, approached in a gloomy mood, and asked, astonished and peevishly, “What was the meaning of the flower which the Fraulein was still affectionately contemplating?”
“I was just disputing with the good magister about it,” replied she, with genuine female composure, whilst she wiped away her last tears.
“Being my instructor in botany, he thinks he can make me believe anything. Only think, he maintains that this is the Myosotis palustris, or mouse-ear, and it is evidently the Veronica chamaedrys, or germander, which moreover rhymes with Talander. Am I not right, dear father?” So saying, she bounded away out of the garden, to cast, if possible, one more look from the tower after her departing favourite, whilst Talander raised his hands in utter astonishment at the consummate ingenuity which his timid pupil so readily displayed.
The calamities of war which the large armies marching to and fro brought upon the country did not press with particular weight upon the inhabitants of the castle. For this they were indebted to the colonel who was quartered within it with his company. But it soon became evident that his services were not altogether disinterested, for he daily made nearer and more evident advances towards the beautiful daughter of the house, and ventured many a time to storm her heart with tender, chivalrous courtesy. His noble demeanour and manly beauty, in addition to his high rank as a soldier, his birth and his fortune, powerfully supported his suit. But an invincible antagonist was in Tugendreich’s heart; the image of poor Axel and the half-copper dollar were to her a more precious treasure than the rich necklace which Baron Grotta ordered from Dresden, and which she was forced to accept by the command of her father. A dim foreboding seemed to tell the proud colonel what rival he had to contend with, and the recollection of the handsome insolent groom and the scene with the spur began to assume the shape of a suspicion which produced ill humour. This was expressed in many contemptuous observations concerning low-born persons, and his scorn at their desire to force their way into the upper classes daily wearied the patience of old Talander, who entertained very high notions of his own worth as a man.
When it happened upon one occasion that the colonel in his presence boasted rather too complacently to the Fraulein of his hereditary privileges, the old man commenced reading a passage from a poem which an old collegian had sent him from Halle, running thus:
“Ye who prefer your dross to silver pure and fine,
And think your glass as good as diamonds from the mine;
I mean you, who his lists of ancestors take pride,
And seem so many noughts set other noughts beside;
Who worship that vain idol old nobility,
Ye truly are besotted, I pray ye, pardon me.”
(*From a long poem, printed at Leipzig in the seventeenth century, and called “The Learned Nobility.”)
The colonel looked with eyes of wonder, which, in spite of the captatio benevolentice in the concluding line, expressed no forgiveness at the daring magister who, however, was not silent, but continued reading.
“The flags your sires have left, of what avail are they?
And what avails the plume that decks your arms so gay?
The helm and shield bequeath’d by men who liv’d of yore,
The burnish’d arms ye keep a thousand years in store,
Are vanities; and he that’s wise will say, indeed,
When real worth appears they must perforce recede.”
At this the colonel left the room in a blustering manner as if he anticipated the sixteen lines of the poem which were yet to come, and with which Talander intended to treat him. The door closed after him with a great noise, and a pressure of the Fraulein’s hand thanked the grey knight who had so victoriously beaten that powerful enemy of her secret wishes out of the field. But this satisfaction was not of long duration. The colonel, despairing of obtaining the hand of his chosen one, in the modern way, that is to say, by his own powers of persuasion, chose the ancient plan, and called to his aid paternal authority.
Poor Starschedel had to maintain a difficult position between the importunity of the noble suitor, the tears of his daughter, and the veto of Talander who, with the eloquence of a confessor, imposed the denial as a matter of conscience upon his protestant master. But here, as everywhere else, power and rank at last conquered. The colonel’s corps received orders to join Tilly’s, who expected to fight a pitched battle, and he, therefore, vehemently urged a quick decision.
To be continued…
Albrecht von Wallenstein,
Herzog von Friedland,Herzog von Mecklenburg,
Fürst von Sagen.