They knew as little as he, but a force was behind them irresistible against their efforts. The groaning oak slipped open, pushing them forward, and an apparition glided past, soft as the pallid silver of the moon. She slid to the Baron, and put her arms about him, and sang to him. Had the Water-Lady laid an iron hand on all those ruffians, she could not have held them faster bound than did the fear of her presence. The Goshawk drew his fair charge through them, followed by Farina, the Thier, and Rothhals. A last glimpse of the hall showed them still as old cathedral sculpture staring at white light on a fluted pillar of the wall.
Low among the swarthy sandhills behind the Abbey of Laach dropped the round red moon. Soft lengths of misty yellow stole through the glens of Rhineland. The nightingales still sang. Closer and closer the moon came into the hushed valleys.
There is a dell behind Hammerstein Castle, a ring of basking sward, girdled by a silver slate-brook, and guarded by four high-peaked hills that slope down four long wooded corners to the grassy base. Here, it is said, the elves and earthmen play, dancing in circles with laughing feet that fatten the mushroom. They would have been fulfilling the tradition now, but that the place was occupied by a sturdy group of mortals, armed with staves. The intruders were sleepy, and lay about on the inclines. Now and then two got up, and there rang hard echoes of oak. Again all were calm as cud-chewing cattle, and the white water ran pleased with quiet.
It may be that the elves brewed mischief among them; for the oaken blows were becoming more frequent. One complained of a kick: another demanded satisfaction for a pinch. ‘Go to,’ drawled the accused drowsily in both cases, ‘too much beer last night!’ Within three minutes, the company counted a pair of broken heads. The East was winning on the West in heaven, and the dusk was thinning. They began to mark, each, whom he had cudgelled. A noise of something swiftly in motion made them alert. A roebuck rushed down one of the hills, and scampered across the sward. The fine beast went stretching so rapidly away as to be hardly distinct.
‘Sathanas once more!’ they murmured, and drew together.
The name passed through them like a watchword.
‘Not he this time,’ cried the two new-comers, emerging from the foliage. ’He’s safe under Cologne—the worse for all good men who live there! But come! follow to the Rhine! there ’s work for us on the yonder side, and sharp work.’
‘Why,’ answered several, ’we ’ve our challenge with the lads of Leutesdorf and Wied to-day.’
‘D’ ye see this?’ said the foremost of the others, pointing to a carved ivory white rose in his cap.
‘Brothers!’ he swelled his voice, ’follow with a will, for the White Rose is in danger!’