How the Baron Came Home Shorn
UT Baron Conrad was not dead. For days he lay upon his hard bed, now muttering incoherent words beneath his red beard, now raving fiercely with the fever of his wound. But one day he woke again to the things about him.
He turned his head first to the one side and then to the other; there sat Schwartz Carl and the one-eyed Hans. Two or three other retainers stood by a great window that looked out into the courtyard beneath, jesting and laughing together in low tones, and one lay upon the heavy oaken bench that stood along by the wall snoring in his sleep.
"Where is your lady?" said the Baron, presently; "and why is she not with me at this time?"
The man that lay upon the bench started up at the sound of his voice, and those at the window came hurrying to his bedside. But Schwartz Carl and the one-eyed Hans looked at one another, and neither of them spoke. The Baron saw the look and in it read a certain meaning that brought him to his elbow, though only to sink back upon his pillow again with a groan.
"Why do you not answer me?" said he at last, in a hollow voice; then to the one-eyed Hans, "Hast no tongue, fool, that thou standest gaping there like a fish? Answer me, where is thy mistress?"
"I—I do not know," stammered poor Hans.
For a while the Baron lay silently looking from one face to the other, then he spoke again. "How long have I been lying here?" said he.
"A sennight, my lord," said Master Rudolph, the steward, who had come into the room and who now stood among the others at the bedside.
"A sennight," repeated the Baron, in a low voice, and then to Master Rudolph, "And has the Baroness been often beside me in that time?" Master Rudolph hesitated. "Answer me," said the Baron, harshly.
"Not—not often," said Master Rudolph, hesitatingly.
The Baron lay silent for a long time. At last he passed his hands over his face and held them there for a minute, then of a sudden, before anyone knew what he was about to do, he rose upon his elbow and then sat upright upon the bed. The green wound broke out afresh and a dark red spot grew and spread upon the linen wrappings; his face was drawn and haggard with the pain of his moving, and his eyes wild and bloodshot. Great drops of sweat gathered and stood upon his forehead as he sat there swaying slightly from side to side.
"My shoes," said he, hoarsely.
Master Rudolph stepped forward. "But, my Lord Baron," he began and then stopped short, for the Baron shot him such a look that his tongue stood still in his head.
Hans saw that look out of his one eye. Down he dropped upon his knees and, fumbling under the bed, brought forth a pair of soft leathern shoes, which he slipped upon the Baron's feet and then laced the thongs above the instep.
"Your shoulder," said the Baron. He rose slowly to his feet, gripping Hans in the stress of his agony until the fellow winced again. For a moment he stood as though gathering strength, then doggedly started forth upon that quest which he had set upon himself.
At the door he stopped for a moment as though overcome by his weakness, and there Master Nicholas, his cousin, met him; for the steward had sent one of the retainers to tell the old man what the Baron was about to do.
"Thou must go back again, Conrad," said Master Nicholas; "thou art not fit to be abroad."
The Baron answered him never a word, but he glared at him from out of his bloodshot eyes and ground his teeth together. Then he started forth again upon his way.
Down the long hall he went, slowly and laboriously, the others following silently behind him, then up the steep winding stairs, step by step, now and then stopping to lean against the wall. So he reached a long and gloomy passageway lit only by the light of a little window at the further end.
He stopped at the door of one of the rooms that opened into this passage-way, stood for a moment, then he pushed it open.
No one was within but old Ursela, who sat crooning over a fire with a bundle upon her knees. She did not see the Baron or know that he was there.
"Where is your lady?" said he, in a hollow voice.
Then the old nurse looked up with a start. "Jesu bless us," cried she, and crossed herself.
"Where is your lady?" said the Baron again, in the same hoarse voice; and then, not waiting for an answer, "Is she dead?"
The old woman looked at him for a minute blinking her watery eyes, and then suddenly broke into a shrill, long-drawn wail. The Baron needed to hear no more.
As though in answer to the old woman's cry, a thin piping complaint came from the bundle in her lap.
At the sound the red blood flashed up into the Baron's face. "What is that you have there?" said he, pointing to the bundle upon the old woman's knees.
She drew back the coverings and there lay a poor, weak, little baby, that once again raised its faint reedy pipe.
"It is your son," said Ursela, "that the dear Baroness left behind her when the holy angels took her to Paradise. She blessed him and called him Otto before she left us."