Now this was the first I had heard with exactness of the matter of old Hanne’s having been a witch. And now that I knew it for certain I began to imagine all sorts of unholy things about the poor wretch, and grew greatly jealous of Helene being so often in the kitchen. Whereas before I had thought nothing at all about the matter, save that Hannchen was a dull, pleasant, muttering, shuffling-footed old woman, who could make rare good cream-cakes when you got her in the humor.
And that was not often.
DUKE CASIMIR’S FAMILIAR
I mind it was some tale of years later that I got my first glimpse below the surface of things in the town of Thorn, and especially in the castle of the Wolfsberg.
Duke Casimir continued to move, as of yore, in cavalcade through his subject city. The burghers bowed as obsequiously as ever when they could not avoid meeting him. There were the old lordly perquisitions—thunderings at iron-studded doors, battering-rams set between posts, and the clouds of dust flying from the driven lintels, the screams of maids, the crying of women, a stray corpse or two flung on to the street, and then the procession as before, arms and legs, with a mercenary soldier between each pair, fore and aft. All this was repeated and repeated, till the dull monotony of tyranny began to wear through the long Teutonic patience to the under-quick of Wendish madness.
It chanced that one night I could not sleep. It was no matter of maids that kept me awake, though by this time I was sixteen or seventeen and greatly grown—running, it is true, mostly to knees and elbows, but nevertheless long of limb and stark of bone, needing only the muscle laid on in lumps to be as strong as any.
I had begun to steal out at nights too—not on any ill errand, but that I might have the company of those about my own age—’prentice lads and the wilder sons of burghers, who had no objection to my parentage, and thought it rather a fine thing to be hand-in-glove with the son of the Red Axe of Thorn. And there we played single-stick, smite-jacket, skittles, bowls—aye, and drank deep of the city ale—the very thinnest brew that was ever passed by a bribed and muzzy ale-taster. All this was mightily pleasant to me. For so soon as they knew that I had determined to be a soldier, and not the Red Axe of the Wolfmark, they complimented me greatly on my spirit.
Well, as I lay awake and waited for the chance to slip down a rope from my bedroom window, whose foot should I hear on the turret stairs but that of my Lord Duke Casimir! My very heart quailed within me. For the fear of him sat heavy on every man and woman in the land. And as for the children—why, as far as the Baltic shore and the land of the last Ritters, mothers frightened their bairns with the Black Duke of the Wolfsberg and his Red Axe.
So now the Duke and the Red Axe were to be in conference—as indeed had happened nearly every day and night since I could remember. So that people called my father the Duke’s Private Devil, his Familiar Spirit, his Evil Genius. But I knew other of it—and this night, of all nights in the year, I was to know better still.