Gayly opened the bright summer morning on the gray feudal turrets of Castle Tekeli, the residence of the old Count Alexis Tekeli, that crowned a rocky eminence, and was embosomed in the deep secular forests of Lithuania. The court yard was a scene of joyous noise and gay confusion; for the whole household was mustering for the chase. Half a dozen horses, gaily caparisoned, were neighing, snorting, and pawing the ground with hot impatience; a pack of stanch hounds, with difficulty restrained by the huntsmen, mingled their voices with the neighing of the steeds, while the slaves and relatives of the family were all busy in preparation for the day’s sport.
Count Alexis was the first in the saddle; aged, but hale and vigorous, he was alert and active as a young man of five-and-twenty.
“Where are my daughters?” he exclaimed, impatiently, as he drew on his buff gantlets. “The sun is mounting apace, and we should not lose the best portion of the day.”
As if in reply to his question, a tall, dark-haired girl, of elegant figure and stately bearing, appeared by his side, and with the assistance of a groom, mounted her prancing gray palfrey.
“This is well, Anna,” said the count. “But where is Eudocia? She must not keep us waiting.”
“Eudocia declines to be of our party, father,” replied the girl.
“Pshaw!” said the old man; “she will never have your color in her cheeks, if she persist in moping in her chamber, reading old legends and missals, and the rhymes of worthless minnesingers. But let her go; I have one daughter who can live with the hunt, and see the boar at bay without flinching. Sound, bugle, and forward!”
Amid the ringing of silver curb chains, the baying of hounds, and the enlivening notes of the bugle, the cavalcade and the train of footmen swept out of the court yard, and descending the winding path, plunged into the heart of the primeval forest. The dogs and the beaters darted into the thick copsewood, and soon the shouts of the huntsmen and the fierce bay of the dogs announced that a wild boar had been found and started. On dashed the merry company, Count Alexis leading on the spur. The lady Anna soon found herself alone, but she pressed her palfrey in the direction of the sounds of the chase as they receded in the distance. Suddenly she found herself in a small clearing, and drew her rein to rest her panting steed. She had not remained long in her position, when she heard, opposite to her, a crashing among the branches, and the next moment a huge wild boar, maddened with pursuit, and foaming with rage, broke into the opening and sprang directly towards her. Her horse, terrified at the apparition, reared so suddenly that he fell backwards, throwing his rider heavily, and narrowly missing crushing her. Springing to his feet, he dashed wildly away with flying mane and rein, while the lady lay at the mercy of the infuriated animal, faint and incapable of exertion.
At that critical moment, a young man, in the livery of the count, dashed before the prostrate form of the lady, and dropping on one knee, levelled his short spear, and sternly received the charge of the boar. Though the weapon was well directed, it shivered in the grasp of the young huntsman; and though he drew his short sword with the rapidity of thought, the boar was upon him. The struggle was short and fierce, and the young huntsman succeeded in slaying the monster, but not until he had received a severe wound in the arm from the tusks of the boar. Heedless of his sufferings, however, he ran to a neighboring rivulet, and filling his cap with water, returned and sprinkled the face of the fainting girl. In a few moments she revived.
Her first words, uttered with a trembling voice, were,—
“Where—where is the wild boar?”
“There, lady,” said the huntsman, pointing to the grizzly monster. “His career is ended.”
“And it is you who have saved my life,” exclaimed Anna, with a grateful smile.
“I did my duty, lady,” answered the huntsman.
“But who are you, sir? Let me, at least, know your name that I may remember you in my prayers.”
“My name is Michael Erlitz; though your eyes, lady, may never have dwelt on one so lowly as myself, I am ever in your father’s train when he goes to the chase. I am Count Tekeli’s slave,” he added, casting his eyes on the ground.
“A slave? and so brave—so handsome!” thought the lady Anna; but she gave no utterance to the thought.
At this moment the count rode up, followed by two or three of his retainers, and throwing himself from his horse, clasped his daughter in his arms.
“My child, my child!” he exclaimed; “thank God, you are alive! I saw your horse dash past me riderless, and flew to your assistance. But there is blood upon your dress.”
“It is my blood!” said the slave, calmly.
“Yours, Michael?” cried the count, looking round him. “Now I see it all—the dead boar, the broken spear, your bleeding arm. You saved my daughter’s life at the risk of your own!”
“The life of a slave belongs to his master and his master’s family,” answered Michael, calmly. “Of what value is the existence of a serf? He belongs not to himself. He is of no more account than a horse or a hound.”
“Say not so,” said Count Alexis, warmly. “Michael, you are a slave no longer. I will directly make out your manumission papers. In the mean time you shall do no menial service; you shall sit at my board, if you will; and be my friend, if you will accept my friendship.”
The eagle eye of the young huntsman kindled with rapture. He essayed to speak, but the words died upon his tongue. Falling on his knees, he seized the count’s hand, and pressed it to his lips and heart. Tekeli raised him from his humble posture.
“Michael,” said he, “henceforth kneel only to your Maker. And now to the castle; your hurt needs care.”
“Willingly,” said the young man, “would I shed the best blood in my body to obtain my freedom.”
“Ho, there!” said the count to his squire; “dismount, and let Michael have your horse; and bring after us Michael’s dearly-earned hunting trophy. He has eclipsed us all to-day.”
Michael was soon in the saddle, riding next to the lady Anna, who, from time to time, turned her countenance, beaming with gratitude, upon him, and addressed him words of encouragement and kindness; for her proud and imperious nature was entirely subdued and changed, for the time, by the service he had rendered her.
When the cavalcade reached the castle, they found the lady Eudocia, the count’s eldest daughter, waiting to receive them. She heard the recital of the morning’s adventure with deep interest; but a keen observer would have noticed that she seemed less moved by the recollection of her sister’s danger, than by the present condition of the wounded huntsman. It was to her care that he was committed, as she was skilled in the healing art, having inherited the knowledge from her mother. She compelled Michael to give up all active employment, and, in the course of a few weeks, succeeded in effecting a complete restoration of the wounded arm.
Count Tekeli treated the young man with the kindness of a father, losing all his aristocratic prejudices in a generous sense of gratitude. Splendidly attired, promised an honorable career in arms, if he chose to adopt the military profession, his whole future changed by a fortunate accident, Michael was happy in the intimacy of the two sisters. He now dared to aspire to the hand of her whom he had saved, and whom he loved with all the intensity of a passionate nature. Thus weeks and months rolled on like minutes, and he only awaited the delivery of his manumission papers to join the banner of his sovereign.
One day—an eventful day, indeed, for him—he received from Eudocia, the elder sister, a message, inviting him to meet her in a summer house that stood in a small garden connected with the castle. Punctual to the hour named, he presented himself before her.
“Michael,” said she, extending her hand to him, “I sent for you to tell you a secret.”
Her voice was so tremulous and broken, that the young man gazed earnestly into her face, and saw that she had been weeping, and now with difficulty suppressed her tears.
“Nay,” said she, smiling feebly; “it will not be a secret long, for I must tell it to my father as soon as he returns from court with the royal endorsement to your manumission. I am going to leave you all.”
“To leave us, lady?”
“Yes; I am going to take the veil.”
“You, so beautiful, so young! It cannot be.”
“Alas! youth, beauty, are insufficient to secure happiness. The world may be a lonely place, even to the young and beautiful; the cloister is a still and sacred haven on the road to a better world.”
“And what has induced you to take this step? I have not noticed hitherto any trace of sorrow or weariness in your countenance.”
“You were studying a brighter page—the fair face of my sister. Start not, Michael; I have divined your secret. She loves you, Michael; she loves you with her whole soul. You will wed her and be happy; while I——” She turned away her face to conceal her tears.
The young man heard only the blissful prediction that concerned himself; he noted not the pangs of her who uttered it.
“Dearest lady!” he exclaimed, “you have rendered me the happiest of men;” and dropping on his knees, he seized her hand and covered it with kisses.
“Hark!” said Eudocia, in alarm; “footsteps! We are surprised; I must not be seen here!” and with these words she fled.
Michael sprang to his feet. Before him stood the younger daughter of Count Alexis, her eyes flashing fire, her whole frame quivering with passion. He advanced and took her hand, but she flung it from him fiercely.
“Slave!” she exclaimed, “dare you pollute with your vile touch the hand of a high-born dame—the daughter of your master?”
“Anna, what means this passion?” cried Michael, in astonishment.
“Silence, slave!” cried the imperious woman. “What ho, there!” she added, stamping her foot; “who waits?”
Half a dozen menials sprang to her call.
“Take me this slave to the court yard!” she cried vehemently; “he has been guilty of misbehavior. Let him taste the knout; and woe be to you if you spare him. Away with him! Rid me of his hateful presence!”
While Michael was subjected to this hateful punishment, the vindictive girl, still burning with passion, sought her sister. What passed between them may be conjectured from what follows.
Michael, released from the hands of the menials, stood, with swelling heart and burning brow, in one of the lofty apartments of the castle. He had felt no pain from the lash, but the ignominy of the punishment burned in his very soul, consuming the image that had been in his inner heart for years. The scales had fallen from his eyes, and he now beheld the younger daughter of the count in all the deformity of her moral nature—proud, imperious, passionate, and cruel.
A door opened—a female, with dishevelled hair, and a countenance of agony, rushed forward and threw herself at his feet, embracing his knees convulsively. It was Anna!
“O Michael!” she cried, “forgive me, forgive me! I shall never forgive myself for the pain I inflicted upon you.”
“I have suffered no pain,” replied Michael, coldly. “Or if I did, it is the duty of a slave to suffer pain. You reminded me this morning that I was still a slave.”
“No, no! It is I that am your slave!” cried the lady. “Your slave—body and soul. Behold! I kiss your feet in token of submission, my lord and master! Michael, I love you—I adore you! I would follow you barefoot to the end of the world. Let me kiss your burning wounds; and O, forgive—forgive me!”
Michael raised her to her feet, and gazed steadily in her countenance.
“Lady,” said he, “I loved you years ago, when, as a boy, I was only permitted to gaze on you, as we gaze upon the stars, that we may worship, but never possess. It was this high adoration that refined and ennobled my nature; that, in the mire of thraldom, taught me to aspire—taught me that, though a slave, I was yet a man. Through your silent influence, I was enabled to refine my manners, to cultivate my mind, and to fit myself for the freedom which bounteous Heaven had in store for me.”
“Yes, yes!” replied Anna. “You have made yourself all that can render a woman happy. There is not a noble in the land who can boast of accomplishments like yours; and you are beautiful as a virgin’s dream of angels.”
“These are flattering words, lady.”
“They come from the heart, Michael.”
“You have told me what I am, lady. Now hear what I require in the woman I would wed. She must be beautiful, for beauty should ever mate with beauty; high born, for the lowly of birth are aspiring, and never wed their equals; yet above all, gentle, womanly, kind, forgiving, affectionate. No unsexed Semiramis or Zenobia for me.”
“I will make myself all that you desire, Michael.”
“We cannot change our natures,” replied Michael, coldly.
“But you will forgive me?”
“I am not now in a condition to answer you. Smarting with indignation I can ill suppress, I cannot command the calmness requisite to reply in fit terms to the generous confidence of a high-born lady. Retire to your apartment, lady, for your father is expected momentarily, and I must see him first alone.”
Anna kissed the hand of the slave, and retired slowly. A few moments afterwards the gallop of a horse was heard entering the court yard, and this sound was followed by the appearance of Count Alexis, who threw himself into the arms of Michael, and pressed him to his heart.
“Joy, joy, Michael!” he exclaimed. “You are now free—as free as air! Here are the documents; my slave no longer—my friend always. And as soon as you choose to join the service, you can lead a troop of the royal cavaliers.”
Michael poured out his thanks to his generous master.
“And now,” said the count, “to touch upon a matter nearer still to my heart. Since the adventure in the forest, I have loved you as a son. To make you such in reality would be to crown my old age with happiness. My daughters are acknowledged to be beautiful, fitting mates for the proudest of the land. I offer you the hand of her you can love the best; make your election, and I doubt not her heart will second my wishes and yours.”
“My noble friend,” said Michael, “I accept your offer gratefully. You have made me the happiest of men. You will pardon me, I know, when I confess that I have dared to raise my eyes to one of your daughters. Without your consent the secret should have been hidden forever in my own heart, even had it consumed it.”
Count Tekeli shook the hand of the young man warmly, and then summoned his two daughters. They obeyed promptly. Both were agitated, and bent their eyes upon the floor.
“Count Tekeli,” said Michael, speaking in a calm, clear voice, “I have a word to say to this your younger daughter, the lady Anna.”
As her name was uttered, the young girl raised her eyes, inquiringly, to the face of the speaker.
“Lady, but now,” said Michael, “you solicited my forgiveness on your knees.”
“What!” cried the count, the blood mounting to his temples; “a daughter of mine solicit on her knees forgiveness of one so late my more than vassal—my slave! What is the meaning of this?”
“It means,” cried Michael, kindling as he spoke, “that this morning, during your absence, count,—nay, a half hour before your return, this, your younger daughter, in a moment of ill-founded jealousy and rage, usurping your virtual rights,—rights you had yourself annulled,—doomed me to the knout!—yea, had me scourged by menials in the court yard of your castle!”
“How,” cried the count, addressing his daughter, “dared you commit this infamy on the person of my friend—the savior of your life?”
“I did, I did!” cried Anna, wringing her hands.
“And you asked me to forgive you,” said Michael. “You offered me your hand, and begged me to accept it. My answer is, Never, never, never! The moment you laid the bloody scourge upon my back, you lost your hold upon my heart forever! I were less than a man could I forgive this outrage on my manhood. I saved your life—you repaid it with the lash. It is not the lash that wounds, it is the shame. The one eats into the living flesh, the other into the living heart. Were you ten times more lovely than you are, you would ever be a monster in my eyes.”
The tears that coursed freely down the cheeks of the lady Anna ceased to fall as Michael ceased to speak. A deep red flush mounted to her temples, and her eyes, so lately humid, shot forth glances like those of an angry tigress. She turned to the count.
“Father,” said she, “will you permit a base-born slave to use such language to your daughter?”
“Silence!” said the old man. “His heart is nobler than yours. More measured terms could not have passed his lips. I should have despised him had he felt and said less. Get thee to thy chamber, and in penitence and prayer relieve thy conscience of the sin thou hast committed.”
The lady Anna retired from the apartment with a haughty air and measured step.
“Lady,” said Michael, approaching Eudocia, “between your sister and myself there is a gulf impassable. If ever I can forgive her, it must be when those sweet and tender eyes, that speak a heart all steeped in gentleness and love, have smiled upon my hopes, and made me at peace with all the world. Dearest Eudocia, will you accept the devotion of my heart and life?”
He took her hand; it trembled in his grasp, but was not withdrawn. She struggled for composure a moment, and then, resting her head upon his shoulder, wept for joy.
The nuptials of Michael and Eudocia were soon celebrated. A brilliant assemblage graced the old castle on the occasion; but long before the solemnization, the count’s younger daughter had fled to a convent to conceal her anger and despair.