How Otto Lived in the Dragon's House
HE gates of the Monastery stood wide open, the world lay beyond, and all was ready for departure. Baron Conrad and his men-at-arms sat foot in stirrup, the milk-white horse that had been brought for Otto stood waiting for him beside his father's great charger.
"Farewell, Otto," said the good old Abbot, as he stooped and kissed the boy's cheek.
"Farewell," answered Otto, in his simple, quiet way, and it brought a pang to the old man's heart that the child should seem to grieve so little at the leave-taking.
"Farewell, Otto," said the brethren that stood about, "farewell, farewell."
Then poor brother John came forward and took the boy's hand, and looked up into his face as he sat upon his horse. "We will meet again," said he, with his strange, vacant smile, "but maybe it will be in Paradise, and there perhaps they will let us lie in the father's belfry, and look down upon the angels in the court- yard below."
"Aye," answered Otto, with an answering smile.
"Forward," cried the Baron, in a deep voice, and with a clash of hoofs and jingle of armor they were gone, and the great wooden gates were shut to behind them.
Down the steep winding pathway they rode, and out into the great wide world beyond, upon which Otto and brother John had gazed so often from the wooden belfry of the White Cross on the hill.
"Hast been taught to ride a horse by the priests up yonder on Michaelsburg?" asked the Baron, when they had reached the level road.
"Nay," said Otto; "we had no horse to ride, but only to bring in the harvest or the grapes from the further vineyards to the vintage."
"Prut," said the Baron, "methought the abbot would have had enough of the blood of old days in his veins to have taught thee what is fitting for a knight to know; art not afeared?"
"Nay," said Otto, with a smile, "I am not afeared."
"There at least thou showest thyself a Vuelph," said the grim Baron. But perhaps Otto's thought of fear and Baron Conrad's thought of fear were two very different matters.
The afternoon had passed by the time they had reached the end of their journey. Up the steep, stony path they rode to the drawbridge and the great gaping gateway of Drachenhausen, where wall and tower and battlement looked darker and more forbidding than ever in the gray twilight of the coming night. Little Otto looked up with great, wondering, awe-struck eyes at this grim new home of his.
The next moment they clattered over the drawbridge that spanned the narrow black gulph between the roadway and the wall, and the next were past the echoing arch of the great gateway and in the gray gloaming of the paved court-yard within.
Otto looked around upon the many faces gathered there to catch the first sight of the little baron; hard, rugged faces, seamed and weather-beaten; very different from those of the gentle brethren among whom he had lived, and it seemed strange to him that there was none there whom he should know.
As he climbed the steep, stony steps to the door of the Baron's house, old Ursela came running down to meet him. She flung her withered arms around him and hugged him close to her. "My little child," she cried, and then fell to sobbing as though her heart would break.
"Here is someone knoweth me," thought the little boy.
His new home was all very strange and wonderful to Otto; the armors, the trophies, the flags, the long galleries with their ranges of rooms, the great hall below with its vaulted roof and its great fireplace of grotesquely carved stone, and all the strange people with their lives and thoughts so different from what he had been used to know.
And it was a wonderful thing to explore all the strange places in the dark old castle; places where it seemed to Otto no one could have ever been before.
Once he wandered down a long, dark passageway below the hall, pushed open a narrow, iron-bound oaken door, and found himself all at once in a strange new land; the gray light, coming in through a range of tall, narrow windows, fell upon a row of silent, motionless figures carven in stone, knights and ladies in strange armor and dress; each lying upon his or her stony couch with clasped hands, and gazing with fixed, motionless, stony eyeballs up into the gloomy, vaulted arch above them. There lay, in a cold, silent row, all of the Vuelphs who had died since the ancient castle had been built.
It was the chapel into which Otto had made his way, now long since fallen out of use excepting as a burial place of the race.
At another time he clambered up into the loft under the high peaked roof, where lay numberless forgotten things covered with the dim dust of years. There a flock of pigeons had made their roost, and flapped noisily out into the sunlight when he pushed open the door from below. Here he hunted among the mouldering things of the past until, oh, joy of joys! in an ancient oaken chest he found a great lot of worm-eaten books, that had belonged to some old chaplain of the castle in days gone by. They were not precious and beautiful volumes, such as the Father Abbot had showed him, but all the same they had their quaint painted pictures of the blessed saints and angels.
Again, at another time, going into the court-yard, Otto had found the door of Melchior's tower standing invitingly open, for old Hilda, Schwartz Carl's wife, had come down below upon some business or other.
Then upon the shaky wooden steps Otto ran without waiting for a second thought, for he had often gazed at those curious buildings hanging so far up in the air, and had wondered what they were like. Round and round and up and up Otto climbed, until his head spun. At last he reached a landing-stage, and gazing over the edge and down, beheld the stone pavement far, far below, lit by a faint glimmer of light that entered through the arched doorway. Otto clutched tight hold of the wooden rail, he had no thought that he had climbed so far.
Upon the other side of the landing was a window that pierced the thick stone walls of the tower; out of the window he looked, and then drew suddenly back again with a gasp, for it was through the outer wall he peered, and down, down below in the dizzy depths he saw the hard gray rocks, where the black swine, looking no larger than ants in the distance, fed upon the refuse thrown out over the walls of the castle. There lay the moving tree-tops like a billowy green sea, and the coarse thatched roofs of the peasant cottages, round which crawled the little children like tiny human specks.
Then Otto turned and crept down the stairs, frightened at the height to which he had climbed.
At the doorway he met Mother Hilda. "Bless us," she cried, starting back and crossing herself, and then, seeing who it was, ducked him a courtesy with as pleasant a smile as her forbidding face, with its little deep-set eyes, was able to put upon itself.
Old Ursela seemed nearer to the boy than anyone else about the castle, excepting it was his father, and it was a newfound delight to Otto to sit beside her and listen to her quaint stories, so different from the monkish tales that he had heard and read at the monastery.
But one day it was a tale of a different sort that she told him, and one that opened his eyes to what he had never dreamed of before.
The mellow sunlight fell through the window upon old Ursela, as she sat in the warmth with her distaff in her hands, while Otto lay close to her feet upon a bear skin, silently thinking over the strange story of a brave knight and a fiery dragon that she had just told him. Suddenly Ursela broke the silence.
"Little one," said she, "thou art wondrously like thy own dear mother; didst ever hear how she died?"
"Nay," said Otto, "but tell me, Ursela, how it was."
" 'Tis strange," said the old woman, "that no one should have told thee in all this time." And then, in her own fashion she related to him the story of how his father had set forth upon that expedition in spite of all that Otto's mother had said, beseeching him to abide at home; how he had been foully wounded, and how the poor lady had died from her fright and grief.
Otto listened with eyes that grew wider and wider, though not all with wonder; he no longer lay upon the bear skin, but sat up with his hands clasped. For a moment or two after the old woman had ended her story, he sat staring silently at her. Then he cried out, in a sharp voice, "And is this truth that you tell me, Ursela? and did my father seek to rob the towns people of their goods?"
Old Ursela laughed. "Aye," said she, "that he did and many times. Ah! me, those days are all gone now." And she fetched a deep sigh. "Then we lived in plenty and had both silks and linens and velvets besides in the store closets, and were able to buy good wines and live in plenty upon the best. Now we dress in frieze and live upon what we can get and sometimes that is little enough, with nothing better than sour beer to drink. But there is one comfort in it all, and that is that our good Baron paid back the score he owed the Trutz-Drachen people not only for that, but for all that they had done from the very first."
Thereupon she went on to tell Otto how Baron Conrad had fulfilled the pledge of revenge that he had made Abbot Otto, how he had watched day after day until one time he had caught the Trutz-Drachen folk, with Baron Frederick at their head, in a narrow defile back of the Kaiserburg; of the fierce fight that was there fought; of how the Roderburgs at last fled, leaving Baron Frederick behind them wounded; of how he had kneeled before the Baron Conrad, asking for mercy, and of how Baron Conrad had answered, "Aye, thou shalt have such mercy as thou deservest," and had therewith raised his great two-handed sword and laid his kneeling enemy dead at one blow.
Poor little Otto had never dreamed that such cruelty and wickedness could be. He listened to the old woman's story with gaping horror, and when the last came and she told him, with a smack of her lips, how his father had killed his enemy with his own hand, he gave a gasping cry and sprang to his feet. Just then the door at the other end of the chamber was noisily opened, and Baron Conrad himself strode into the room. Otto turned his head, and seeing who it was, gave another cry, loud and quavering, and ran to his father and caught him by the hand.
"Oh, father!" he cried, "oh, father! Is it true that thou hast killed a man with thy own hand?"
"Aye," said the Baron, grimly, "it is true enough, and I think me I have killed many more than one. But what of that, Otto? Thou must get out of those foolish notions that the old monks have taught thee. Here in the world it is different from what it is at St. Michaelsburg; here a man must either slay or be slain."
But poor little Otto, with his face hidden in his father's robe, cried as though his heart would break. "Oh, father!" he said, again and again, "it cannot be—it cannot be that thou who art so kind to me should have killed a man with thine own hands." Then: "I wish that I were back in the monastery again; I am afraid out here in the great wide world; perhaps somebody may kill me, for I am only a weak little boy and could not save my own life if they chose to take it from me."
Baron Conrad looked down upon Otto all this while, drawing his bushy eyebrows together. Once he reached out his hand as though to stroke the boy's hair, but drew it back again.
Turning angrily upon the old woman, "Ursela," said he, "thou must tell the child no more such stories as these; he knowest not at all of such things as yet. Keep thy tongue busy with the old woman's tales that he loves to hear thee tell, and leave it with me to teach him what becometh a true knight and a Vuelph."
That night the father and son sat together beside the roaring fire in the great hall. "Tell me, Otto," said the Baron, "dost thou hate me for having done what Ursela told thee today that I did?"
Otto looked for a while into his father's face. "I know not," said he at last, in his quaint, quiet voice, "but methinks that I do not hate thee for it."
The Baron drew his bushy brows together until his eyes twinkled out of the depths beneath them, then of a sudden he broke into a great loud laugh, smiting his horny palm with a smack upon his thigh.