He gathered himself up again; in wild haste he rushed across the heath. When he passed the wood he thought he saw a shadow flitting away which, at his approach, sank flat on the ground. He scarcely heeded it.
"On, on! save what is to be saved!"
Tumultuous screams greeted him from the yard. The farm-servants were rushing about wildly, the maids were wringing their hands, his sisters ran about calling his name.
The village had just awakened.... The high-road filled with people.... Water-buckets were dragged forth, and a rotten fire—engine came also rattling along.
"Where is your master?" he shouted to the servants.
"Just being carried in; he has broken his leg," was the reply. Misfortune upon misfortune.
"Let the barn burn," he called out to others who, losing their heads entirely, were pouring tiny buckets of water into the flames.
"Save the cattle—take care that they do not run into the flames."
Three or four men hurried to the stables.
"You others to the house; don't carry anything out of it."
"Don't carry anything out," he repeated, tearing the objects out of the hands of some strangers who were just dragging them out of the house.
"But we want to save the things."
"Save the house!"
He hurried up the staircase. In passing he saw his mother sitting mute and tearless near his father, who lay on the sofa, whimpering.
Through a trap-door he jumped onto the roof.
"Give me the hose."
On a pitchfork they handed him the metal point of the hose. The column of water fell hissing upon the hot bricks.
He sat astride on the ridge of the roof. His clothes became hot; glimmering sparks, which came flying from the barn, settled on his hair. Burning wounds covered his face and hands.
He felt nothing that happened to his person, but he saw and heard everything around him—his senses seemed doubled.
He saw how the sheaves flew up to the sky in fiery flames, and saw them sink down in a magnificent circle; he saw the horses and cows run out into the meadows, where they were safe between the fences; he saw the dog, half-singed, tearing at his chain.
"Unchain the dog," he called down.
He saw little graceful flames, in bluish flickering light, dancing from the roof of the barn to the neighboring shed.
"The shed is burning!" he shouted below. "Save what is in it!"
A few people hurried away to pull out the carts.
And meanwhile the column of water hissed over the roof, made its way to the rafters and splashed over the bricks. Little white clouds rose before him and disappeared, to reappear again in other places.
Then suddenly "Black Susy" came to his mind. She was standing in the farthest corner of the shed, buried among old rubbish.
A pang shot through his breast. Shall she perish now as well—she, on whom his heart had ever placed its hopes?
"Save the locomobile!" he shouted down.
But no one understood him.
The longing to bring help to "Black Susy" seized upon him so powerfully that for a moment he felt he must even sacrifice the house.
"Send somebody to replace me," he called down to the crowd of people, who for the greater part stood idly gaping.
A stalwart mason from the village came climbing up, took off the slates, and so made himself a path up to the ridge of the roof. Paul gave the hose to him and glided down, wondering inwardly that he broke neither arms nor legs.
Then he penetrated into the shed, from which suffocating smoke was already whirling towards him.
"Who is coming with me?" he shouted.
Two laborers from the village presented themselves.
Into the smoke and flames they went.
"Here is the shaft—seize it—out quickly!"
Creaking and rattling, the locomobile came staggering out into the yard. Behind her and those who had saved her the roof of the shed fell in.
* * * * *
The morning dawned. The gray twilight intermingled with the smoke of the ruins, from which here and there flames sprang up to sink down again immediately exhausted.
The crowd had dispersed. Leaden silence weighed upon the farm; only from the scene of the fire there came a soft creaking and hissing, as if the flames, before subsiding, were holding once more murmuring intercourse.
"So," said Paul, "that is done."
Dwelling-house and stables with all the livestock were saved. Barns and sheds lay in ashes.
"Now we are just as poor as we were twenty years ago," he meditated, feeling his wounds, "and if I had not been roving about perhaps this would never have happened."
When he entered the porch overgrown with creepers he found his mother, with folded hands, crouching in a corner. Deep lines furrowed her cheeks, and her eyes were staring into vacancy, as if she still saw the flames playing before her.
"Mother," he cried, anxiously, for he feared that she was not far from madness.
Then she nodded a few times, and said,
"Yes, yes; such is life."
"It will be better again, mother," he cried.
She looked at him and smiled. It cut him to the heart, this smile.
"Your father has just turned me out," she said; "I entreat you not to turn me out, too."
"Mother, for Christ's sake, don't speak like that!"
"You see, Paul, it has really not been my fault," she said, looking up at him with a pleading expression, "I never go with a light into the stables."
"But who says so?"
"Your father says that it is all my fault and told me to go to the devil. But don't harm him, Paul," she entreated, anxiously, as she saw him flying into a passion; "don't interfere with him again, he suffers such great pain."
"The doctor is coming in an hour; I have sent for him already."
"Go to your father, Paul, and comfort him; you see, I should like to go myself, but he has turned me out," and, crouching down again, she muttered to herself,
"He has turned me out—out."
Unspeakable misery had descended on the Haidehof. The father lay in the parlor, on his sickbed, and groaned and complained and cursed the hour of his birth. In milder moments he seized his wife's hand with tearful eyes, and asked her forgiveness for having united her fate to his ruined life, and promised to make her rich and happy in future. Rich—above all things, rich.
It was too late. Mild words from him now made no impression on her. In her tormented heart she already heard the abuse which would inevitably follow them. With withered cheeks and lustreless eyes she walked about, never uttering a sound of complaint, doubly pitiful in her silence.
But no one had pity on her—not even God and eternal fate. She grew more tired from day to day; on her pale, blue-veined forehead the stamp of death seemed already to burn, and the happiness she had longed for through all her life was farther away than ever.
The only one who would have been able to give her some relief was Paul, and he avoided her like a criminal. He scarcely dared to shake hands with her in the morning, and when she looked at him he looked down. If she had been less torpid and less grief-laden she might have had some suspicion, but all she felt in her misery was that she lacked consolation.
Once at twilight, when he was rummaging about as usual after work in the ruins of the spot where the fire had been, she went after him, sat down near him on the crumbling foundation, and tried to enter into conversation, but he avoided her, as he had done before.
"Paul, don't be so hard to me," she pleaded, and her eyes filled with tears.
"I am not doing anything to you, mother," he said, setting his teeth.
"Paul, you have something against me?"
"Do you think that the fire was caused by my fault?"
Then he cried out loud, clasped her knees, and wept like a child; but when she wanted to stroke his hair—the only caress which had been usual between them—he sprang up, pushed her back, and cried,
"Do not touch me, mother; I am not worthy of it."
Then he turned his back on her, and walked out onto the heath.
Since the moment of his first waking after the fire a fixed idea possessed him which would not leave go of him; the fixed idea that he alone had been guilty of it all.
"If I had not been roaming about," he said to himself—"if I had watched the house, as was my duty, this misfortune could never have happened." All his secret yearnings appeared to him now like a crime committed against his father's house.
Like Jesus in Gethsemane, he struggled with his own heart, seeking expiation and forgiveness. But his self-torment did not let him rest anywhere. At all hours the flames were dancing before his eyes, and when he went to bed at night and stared into the darkness, it seemed as if from every chink fiery tongues were jutting forth, as if clouds of black smoke surrounded him instead of the shadows of the night.
He had not been able yet to think about the cause of the fire; the cares which were overwhelming him again were too great to leave any room for thoughts of revenge. The very necessities of life failed them; money for the chemist could scarcely be scraped together. He meditated and calculated day and night, and formed great plans of campaign to collect the most absolutely necessary cash. He also wrote to his brothers, to know whether they could not procure him by their influence a few hundred thalers at moderate interest. They answered, deeply grieved, that they themselves were so overrun with debts that it was impossible for them to reckon on any further credit. Gottfried, the teacher had, indeed, engaged himself a short time ago to a wealthy young lady, and Paul was convinced that it could not have been difficult for him to induce her family to lend him a small sum, but he was of opinion that the dignity of his position would suffer by such a request; he said he should be afraid of compromising himself with his father-in-law if he disclosed his real circumstances too early.
With all this it was a blessing that the ripe harvest had already been sold and delivered, and that the potatoes, for the greater part, were still in the ground; so he could get some ready money, which would be sufficient to cover the most necessary expenses; but how, indeed, was the rebuilding of the barn ever to be contemplated?
In the middle of the ruins—melancholy ruins of charred beams and charred walls—"Black Susy" stood erect with her sooty body and slender neck, the only thing which, except for a few miserable carts, had been saved from destruction.
The twins, who during this sad time had lost much of their merriment, and only in quiet corners still prattled and giggled, went about timidly; and his father, when he for the first time sat upright in his bed and saw the black monster glaring through the window, clinched his fist, and cried,
"Why did they not let that beast be burned?"
But Paul loved her in his heart only the more tenderly. "Now would be the time for you to come to life again," he said, and pulled out the wheel and looked into the boiler. He began to cut little models of lime-wood in the evenings, and one day he wrote to Gottfried:
"Send me a few books out of the school-library on the working of steam-engines. I feel as if much depended on them for our home."
Gottfried was solicited in vain. In the first place, it went against his principles to take books from the library which he did not use himself; and, secondly, they would not be of any good to Paul, as he was not up in the theory of physics. Then he wrote to Max. The latter immediately sent him a packet, weighing ten pounds, of brand-new volumes, enclosing a bill for fifty marks. He decided to keep the books and slowly to save up the fifty marks. "Nothing is too dear for 'Black Susy,'" he said.
But fresh cause for uneasiness was to befall him.
One morning a carriage came driving up to the farm, in which two unknown gentlemen were sitting with a gendarme, one of whom, a comfortable-looking man, of about forty years old, wearing golden spectacles on his nose, introduced himself as a police-magistrate.
Paul was terrified, for he felt very well that he had been concealing many things.
The magistrate first examined the scene of the fire, took a sketch of the foundations, and asked where the doors and windows had been; then he had all the servants called out, whom he questioned most closely as to what they had done on the day before, and up to the moment when the fire had broken out.
Paul stood near him, pale and trembling, and when the magistrate dismissed the servants to examine Paul himself, he felt as if the end of the world had come.
"Were you in the barn the day before the fire?" the magistrate asked.
"Do you smoke?"
"Do you remember whether in any way you had anything to do with fire, matches, or such things?"
"Oh no, I am much too careful for that."
"When were you last in the barn?"
"At eight o'clock in the evening."
"What were you doing there?"
"I made my usual evening round before I locked the gates."
"Do you always lock the gates yourself?"
"Did you notice anything on that particular evening?"
"Did you see any one lurking in the neighborhood?"
It flashed like lightning upon him. He only remembered at this moment the shadow which he had seen disappearing into the wood at the beginning of the fire. But that was not in the neighborhood, and, drawing a long breath, he answered,
"Well, now it will come out," he thought; the very next question would bring his night wanderings to the light of day—would betray the secret that hitherto he had kept in his inmost heart.
But no. The magistrate broke off suddenly, and said, after a little pause,
"Was not a servant called Raudszus in your service till a short time ago?"
"Yes." he answered, and stared at the magistrate with astonished eyes. So it was on Raudszus, then, that suspicion fell.
"Why did you dismiss him?"
He related the dreadful occurrence minutely, but took great care that the scene with Douglas, which had preceded, should remain as much as possible in the dark. Now, as the first danger was averted, he had found his tranquillity again.
The clerk took notes eagerly, and the magistrate raised his eyebrows, as if all were already clear to him. When Paul had ended, he made a sign to the gendarme, who turned round silently, and walked off on the way to Helenenthal.
"Now for your father," said the magistrate; "is he in a state to be examined?"
"Let me see," answered Paul, and he went into the sick-room.
He found his father sitting erect in his bed; his eyes sparkled, and on his features there were signs of ill-suppressed fury.
"Let them come," he called out to Paul; "it is all nothing but fiddlesticks—they do not dare to accuse the real one—but let them come in."
He, too, related the scene of the struggle; but just what Paul had concealed, from shame—the quarrel with Douglas, and the setting-on of the dog—he dwelt on before the strangers with boastful loquacity.
The magistrate scratched his head, thoughtfully, and his clerk noted everything down eagerly.
When Meyerhofer came to the moment in which he ought to have spoken of his son's interference, he was silent. He shot a glance at him, in which a world of defiance and anger flamed.
"And what more?" asked the magistrate.
"I am an old man," he muttered between his teeth; "do not force me to confess my own ignominy."
The magistrate was satisfied. When he asked the old man whether his suspicion had not already fallen on Michel Raudszus, he chuckled mysteriously to himself and murmured,
"He may have furnished the hand, the miserable hand, but—" he stopped.
"It is a pity, sir, that justice wears a bandage over her eyes," he answered, with a sneering laugh. "I have nothing more to add."
Magistrate and clerk looked at each other, shaking their heads; then the examination was closed.
"Will Michel Raudszus be arrested?" Paul asked the gentlemen before they got into their carriage.
"Let us hope that has been done already," the magistrate answered. "He has made all sorts of suspicious allusions when drunk, and what we have learned from you is more than enough evidence to begin a trial against him. Of course many things will still have to be cleared up."
Then they drove away.
Paul stared after the carriage for a long time.
The last words of the magistrate had awakened his anxiety anew, and while weeks were passing and the first steps towards the trial were taken, he sat trembling nervously at home, just as if the verdict would crush him and him only.
Paul, with his mother and sisters, received a summons to the assizes; it was only to his father that the choice was left whether he would be examined on oath at home for the last time, but he declared he would prefer to fall down dead in the court than to sit at home while the destroyer of his property was allowed to escaped scot-free. Whom he meant by this phrase he left unexplained—only that it was not the accused servant, he gave one plainly enough to understand.
The day of the trial came. Paul had made a portable chair for his father, which saved him walking a step. In this he was lifted into the cart and softly put down on a layer of hay.
It was a miserable rickety cart which brought the Meyerhofer family to the town, for the better vehicles had all been burned. Paul had made it as comfortable as he could. Over the truss of straw, which served for a seat, he had spread an old horse-cloth, which in the course of years had become torn and discolored.
With poverty all around him, the master of the house lay in the cart, groaning and scolding; his wife was enthroned above him, pale and wretched and harassed, as if she were the genius of this ruin. The ever-blooming youth, which even thrives on rubbish, laughed from two roguish pairs of eyes in between, and in front, as driver of this wretched vehicle, sat Paul, and looked sadly before him, for he was ashamed that he could offer no better conveyance to his dear ones, whom for the first time he took out for a long drive all together.
The faint beams of the November sun were lying on the yellow heath; the heather extended among thin yellow grass; here and there glistened pools of rain-water; and single leaves were hanging down from the crippled willows at the road-side like dead summer birds.
"Do you remember how, twenty-one years ago, we were driving along this same road?" Frau Elsbeth asked her husband, and threw a glance at Paul, whom she had at that time clasped to her breast.
Meyerhofer muttered something to himself, for he was no friend to memories—to such memories. But Frau Elsbeth folded her hands and thought of many things: it could be of nothing sad, for she smiled.
The nearer the cart approached the end of the journey, the more depressed Paul felt. He stretched himself on his seat and a shiver kept passing through his frame.
That wild night of the fire stood before his eyes with awful clearness, and in the midst of his fear at having to stand and speak before strange people he was overcome with a feeling of happiness when he remembered how he had stood high on the steep roof, surrounded by smoke and flames, acting and ruling as the leading spirit whom all obeyed—the only one who in all the tumult had kept his head clear. "Perhaps I could still be as courageous as any man if it should be necessary," he said to himself, consolingly; but he afterwards sank into still deeper despondency as he contemplated his sad, oppressed, worthless existence. "It will never be otherwise; it can only become worse from year to year," he said. Then he heard his mother sighing behind him, and what he had just been thinking appeared to him as base, heartless selfishness.
"It is no question of myself," he murmured, and the cart passed through the gate of the town.
Before the red brick law-courts with the high stone staircase and arched windows the vehicle stopped. Not far from it stood a well-known carriage, and the coachman on the box still wore the same tassel which had made such an impression on Paul at the time when he was to be confirmed.
When his father was raised up it caught his eye also.
"Ah, so the vagabond is there, too!" he cried. "I'll just see if he can stand a look from me."
Then Paul, with the help of a policeman, carried him up the steps to the room for the witnesses. His mother and sisters came after them, and the people stopped and looked at the melancholy procession.
The waiting-room for the witnesses was full of people, mostly inmates from Helenenthal. In one corner stood a small party of beggars, a woman with a bloated face, a gay red shawl tied round her waist, in which a little baby slept. A little troop of ragged children were clinging to the folds of her dress. They scratched their heads or secretly pinched each other. This was the family of the accused, who wished to state that their father had been at home that night.
Meyerhofer stretched himself out in his chair and threw defiant glances all around. He thought himself a greater man than ever to-day—a hero and a martyr at the same time.
The door opened, and Douglas appeared with Elsbeth on the threshold. Meyerhofer cast a poisonous glance at him and laughed scornfully to himself. Douglas did not heed him, but sat down in the opposite corner, drawing Elsbeth to him. She looked pale and worn, and had a shy, timid manner, that might arise from her strange, unaccustomed surroundings.
She nodded with a slight smile to Paul's mother and sisters, and looked at him with a meditative glance, which seemed to ask something.
He lowered his eyes, for he could not bear her gaze. His mother made a movement as if to cross over to her, but Meyerhofer seized her skirt, and said, louder than necessary, "If you dare!"
Paul felt as if paralyzed. His knees shook under him; a dull weight pressed upon his forehead which rendered him incapable of thought.
"You will bring shame on her," he murmured incessantly, but without knowing what he was saying.
Inside the court the examination of witnesses began. One after the other was called.
First the workmen; then the public-house keeper in whose house Michel Raudszus had made the suspicious allusions; then the ragged little group in the corner. The room began to empty. Then the name of Douglas was called out. He whispered a few words in his daughter's ear, which probably had reference to the Meyerhofers, and then walked off with long strides.
Her hands folded in her lap, she now sat alone by the wall. A deep blush of excitement burned on her cheeks. She looked very sweet and timid, and her simple, truthful nature was impressed on all her features.
His mother did not take her eyes from her, and at times she looked across at Paul and smiled as if in a dream.
A quarter of an hour elapsed; then Elsbeth's name also was called. She threw one friendly glance at his mother and disappeared through the door. Her examination was not long.
"Mr. Meyerhofer, senior!" the clerk called from the court, and sprang towards them to help Paul in carrying the chair.
The old man panted and puffed out his cheeks; then again he leaned back, moaning low—inwardly rejoicing greatly to be able to play a part so full of effect.
The wide assize court swam before Paul's eyes in a red mist; he indistinctly saw closely-packed faces gazing down on himself or on his father; then he had to leave the court again.
The sisters, who up to now had looked around full of curiosity, began to be afraid. To deaden their fear they ate the sandwiches they had brought. Paul encouraged them, and refused the sausage which they generously offered him.
His mother had retired to a corner, was trembling, and said, from time to time, "What may they be wanting with me?"
"Mr. Meyerhofer, junior!" sounded from the door.
The next moment he stood in the lofty room filled with people before an elevated table, at which sat several men with severe and serious faces; only one, who sat a little on one side, smiled constantly; that was the chief-justice, who was feared by all the world. On the right side of the court, too, on raised seats, sat a little knot of dignified citizens, who looked very much bored, and tried to pass the time with penknives, bits of paper, etc. These were the jury. On the left side, locked up in the dock, sat the accused. He was making eyes at the audience, and his face looked as if the whole affair concerned anybody but him. Paul had never seen the sinister fellow look so cheerful.
"Your name is Paul Meyerhofer, you were born at such and such a time, Protestant, etc.?" asked the judge who sat in the middle, a man with a closely-shorn head and a large, sharply-cut nose reading the dates from a big book. He spoke in a pleasant murmuring tone, but suddenly his voice grew harsh and cutting as a knife, and his eyes shot lightning at Paul.
"Before your examination, Mr. Paul Meyerhofer, I call your attention to the fact that you will have to confirm your statement by oath."
Paul shuddered. The word oath passed through his soul like a dagger. He felt as if he must throw himself down and hide his face from all those spying eyes which were staring at him.
And then he gradually felt a strange change come over him. The staring eyes disappeared, the court vanished in mist, and the longer the clear, sharp voice of the judge was speaking to him, the more impressively he heard himself threatened with heavenly and earthly punishment, the more he felt as if he were quite alone in the big room with that man, and all his senses tended so to answer him that Elsbeth should be entirely left out of the question.
"Now is the moment—now show yourself a man!" cried a voice within him. It was a feeling very like the one he had had while sitting on the roof: his wits were sharpened, and the dull weight which pressed on him constantly sank away as if the chains with which he had been fettered were taken off.
He related in quiet words what he knew about the accused, and described his character; he also mentioned that he had felt a sort of inner resemblance between them.
When he said that, a murmur went through the court, the jury let the bits of paper fall, and two or three penknives were shut noisily.
"What happened when Mr. Douglas and your father fell out?" asked the president.
"I cannot tell you that," he answered, in a firm voice.
"I should have to speak ill of my father," he answered.
"What does ill mean?" asked the president. "Do you mean to imply that you fear to expose your father to punishment by law?"
"Yes," he answered, softly.
Again the same murmur went through the court, and behind his back he heard the voice of his father hissing, "The degenerate rascal!" But he did not allow himself to be confused by that.
"The law permits you in such cases to refuse to make a statement," the president continued. "But what happened that made your father turn against Raudszus?"
Without hesitation he related the scene; only when he had to confess how he had carried his father into the house his voice shook, and he turned around as if wishing to implore pardon from him.
The old man had clinched his fists and gnashed his teeth. He had to live to see his own son tear the halo of glory from his head.
"And after you had dismissed the servant, did you see or hear nothing of him any more?" asked the president.
"When you awoke in the night of the fire, what did you see first?" he continued his questioning.
A long silence. Paul put his hands to his forehead and staggered back two steps.
A thrill of pity ran through the hall. No one thought otherwise but that the remembrance of that terrible sight overpowered him.
The silence continued.
"So you were awake.... Were you in your bedroom when you first perceived the glow of the fire?"
"Where were you?"
A long pause. One could have heard a leaf falling to the ground it was so still in the court.
"You were not at home?"
A surpressed murmur arose, which grew into a tumult when old Douglas, who had sprung up from his chair, cried out in a voice that penetrated through the court, "What were you doing there?" Old Meyerhofer uttered a curse. Elsbeth turned pale, and her head sank heavily against the back of the bench.
The president seized the bell.
"I must beg silence there," he said; "it is I who put the questions. On a repeated interruption I shall have you taken out of court. So, Mr. Paul Meyerhofer, what were you going to do in the garden of Helenenthal?"
At the same moment there arose a fresh murmur in the background, and in the witness-box a circle formed itself around Elsbeth.
"What is the matter over there?" asked the president.
The chief-justice, whose eyes no speck of dust in the court escaped, bent forward and whispered to him, with a meaning smile,
"The witness has fainted."
Then the president, too, smiled, and the whole assembly of judges smiled.
Elsbeth, leaning on her father's arm, left the court.
Now the little man with the sharply-cut features rose—he sat before the accused, and had been playing during the whole time with a bunch of keys— and said,
"I ask the president to adjourn the case for five minutes, as the presence of the witness concerned in this matter is of importance."
Paul sent a shy glance at this man.
The court adjourned.
The five minutes were an eternity. Paul was allowed to sit down in the witness-box. His father continued staring at him with fury in his eyes, but he made no sign that he wished to speak to him.
Elsbeth was brought back into the court, pale as death, and Paul stepped forward again.
"I warn you again," the president began, "to be in all things strictly truthful, for you know that each word of your statement is uttered under oath."
"I know it," said Paul.
"But you have the right, as you know, to refuse any statement if you fear that the same would bring down any punishment upon yourself or your family. Will and can you make use of this right now, as you did before?"
He spoke in a firm, clear voice, for he had the certainty that Elsbeth's honor would be irremediably lost if he were silent now.
"But if my oath is perjury?" he heard his conscience whisper immediately after; but it was too late.
"Oh! what did you want to do in the garden?" the president asked.
"I wanted—to make amends for the sin committed against Douglas in my father's house."
A murmur of disappointment and unbelief went through the court.
"And for that reason you roamed about in the strange garden?"
"I had a longing to meet somebody, of whom I might have asked pardon."
"And for that you chose the night?"
"I could not sleep."
"And you were driven there by your restlessness?"
"Did you meet anybody in the garden?"
"Have you been there on any former occasion at the same hour?"
A long pause, then another "no" came from his mouth, this time softly and hesitatingly, as if wrung from his conscience.
The constraint which weighed on every one began to lessen, the president turned over his papers, and Elsbeth gazed across at him with big lustreless eyes.
"Where were you when you first saw the glow of the flames?"
"About twenty steps away from the manor-house of Helenenthal."
"And what did you do then?"
"I was much frightened, and hastened back immediately to my father's farm."
"In what manner did you leave the garden?"
"I climbed over the garden fence."
"So you did NOT open the door which leads from the garden to the yard?"
"And didn't you pass the front of the house?"
A new tumult arose in court. The little man with the bunch of keys rose and said,
"I must ask the president to question Miss Douglas again—regarding what she says she heard that night."
"If you please, Miss Douglas," said the president.
With a long look at Paul she rose. They now stood close together in the wide, crowded court, as if they belonged to each other.
"Where did the steps vanish to which you heard when the glow of the fire woke you?"
"Towards the yard," she replied, softly—hardly audible.
"And did you distinctly hear the handle of the garden gate rattle?"
"Consider well if you may not have been mistaken."
"I was not mistaken," she answered, softly but firmly.
"Thank you. You may sit down."
She went back to her seat with uncertain steps. Since that fatal "no" her eye was riveted on Paul. She seemed to have forgotten by that time all around her.
"When you got over the garden fence, which way did you take?" the president continued, turning to Paul.
"Across the heath."
"Did you pass the wood?"
"No; I ran two or three hundred steps away from it."
"Did you meet any one on your way?"
"I saw a shadow which moved towards the wood, and at my approach disappeared suddenly."
A prolonged stir went through the court; the accused man turned pale, and his eyes assumed a fixed look. The chief-justice did not take his eyes off him.
A few more unimportant questions, and then Paul was allowed to sit down.
His mother and sisters were called, but what they could tell was of no importance. The sisters looked round inquisitively, almost boldly. His mother wept when she had to speak about the moment of her waking.
Paul felt proud and happy that Elsbeth had not been compromised by him. He looked down smiling, and rejoiced at his courage. But when the witnesses were called for their oaths, and he had to lift up his hand, he felt as if a load of a hundred pounds were hanging on it, and as if a low, sad voice whispered in his ear, "Do not swear."
And he swore.
When he sat down, the voice said again, "Have you, perhaps, committed perjury?" Instinctively he raised his head. Then he fancied that a gray shadow flitted past him and touched his forehead lightly.
He knitted his brows defiantly. "And supposing I should have sworn falsely, was it not for her?"
For a moment his soul was filled with wild joy at this thought, but in the next already a dull weight lay on his breast, stifling his breath and binding him hand and foot, so that he felt as if henceforth he would never be able to move any more.
He heard the monotonous voice of the counsel, who began his speech. But he did not heed it. Once he started, when the counsel for the defence pointed towards him with his bunch of keys, and cried out in his shrill, querulous voice: "And this witness, gentlemen of the jury, who roams about mysteriously at night in strange gardens, and finds out all sorts of psychological and artificial subterfuges to hide the tender motive of his nightly excursions, can you put any reliance upon him when he says he suddenly saw a shadow appear and disappear? Shadows which, to put it mildly, can only originate in his overheated brain? What did he want in the garden, gentlemen of the jury? I leave it to your penetration, to your experience of life, to answer this question; and as for the witness, it is his lookout to accommodate his oath to his conscience."
Then he collapsed completely.
The jury returned a verdict of "Guilty." Michel Raudszus was sentenced to five years penal servitude.
At the same moment, when the president pronounced the sentence of the law, a mocking laugh resounded through the court. It proceeded from Meyerhofer. He had got up in his chair and stretched out his maimed hand towards Douglas, as if he wanted to fly at his throat.
As he was carried out of court, he continually cried out,
"They hang the insignificant incendiaries, but the powerful ones are allowed to go scot-free."
The uncanny laughter of the helpless man resounded through the wide passages.
Winter came and went.... The heath was covered with snow and became green again.... The ranunculus lifted up their golden heads.... The juniper sent forth its tender shoots, and the warble of the lark sounded from out the blue sky.
Only to the dismal Howdahs spring would not come. Paul had, indeed, made it possible to procure corn for sowing, and a wooden building already stood erected on the place of ruin, but the hope for better times had still not come. Dull and joylessly he did his duty, and deeper and deeper the lines became traced upon his forehead. He brooded over things by himself more than ever, and the fear that he had committed perjury weighed heavily upon him.
Months elapsed before it was clear to him that his grievance was nothing but idle trifling which originated in his over-anxious stickling at words. He reflected thoroughly on the question which the president had addressed to him, and came to the conclusion that he could not have answered otherwise. It was, indeed, the first time that he had penetrated into his neighbor's garden; what had once taken place on a blissful moonlight night had happened on this side of the fence. What was that to the gentlemen of the law-courts?
"No; I am not a perjurer," he said to himself; "I am only a coward, a simpleton, who is afraid of the mere shadow of a deed. Ought I not proudly and joyfully to have sworn a false oath for Elsbeth's sake? Then I should be somebody; then I should have done something, while now I live on, torpid and discouraged, a farm laborer-nothing more."
And in the brain of this "pattern boy" arose the fervent wish to be a great criminal, just because he felt compelled to prove his own individuality. The hours which he had passed on the roof and in the witness-box now seemed to him the ideal of all earthly bliss, and the harder he worked the idler and more useless he fancied himself.
His father was still kept to his chair, which to all appearances he would never again be able to leave, for his broken leg had healed badly. Idle and grumbling he sat in his corner, turning over an old almanac without interest, and abusing every one who came near him.
Only for Paul he cherished a sort of involuntary respect; he grumbled to himself as often as he saw him, but did not dare to contradict him openly.
And his mother?
She had grown a little more weary, a little quieter, otherwise there was hardly any change perceptible in her; but those who observed more attentively could hear a rustle in the air, as though a vulture were hovering over the Howdahs and drawing its circles ever closer and closer, and preparing to pounce down one day on its prey.
She herself heard the rustle very well; she knew, too, what it signified; but she remained silent, as she had been silent all her life.
And happiness had not come yet.
At the beginning of April she took to her bed. "General weakness," the doctor said, and recommended a visit to a place where there were iron baths. She smiled, and begged him not to speak of a watering-place to any one, for she knew that Paul would work himself to death to make this course of treatment possible for her.
Such a course would not really help her. She knew very well what she needed; sunshine! Dame Care had shrouded her too closely with her sombre veil to allow a single ray of sun to penetrate into her soul.
It was now left to the twins to take care of the household. And the work was briskly done indeed; even Paul had to confess that. When they had broken anything, they laughed; when a walk was refused them, they cried; but the crying soon changed again to laughter, and the table was never so promptly served, the milk-pails had never been so bright.
His mother often observed that from her window, and thought, "It is a good thing that I should go away; I am no longer of any use in the world."
About Whitsuntide her sleep began to fail; then fever set in.
"Oh, how expensive quinine is!" sighed Paul, when the servant rode off to the chemist's; and he looked appealingly at "Black Susy," but she did not move. Often the work in the fields had to come to a stand-still, in order that they might earn a few groschen for the household by cutting peat.
His mother began to suffer from palpitations, and desired most earnestly that somebody would sit up with her at night. But the twins, tired out with their day's work, would fall asleep in the evening by the bedside of the invalid, and often sank down right across her bed, so that the feeble woman often had to bear upon her own body the weight of the two healthy girls.
Paul sent his sisters to rest, and took upon himself the office of watching.
"Go to sleep, my son," said his mother; "you need rest more than any of them."
But he remained; and in the May nights, when outside in the garden the flowers were whispering and the perfume of the lilac penetrated through every crack, the two would often sit hand in hand for hours looking at each other, as though they had wondrous things to impart. So it had always been between mother and son. The wealth of their love sought for expression in words, but care had robbed them of speech.
In the morning, when the sun rose, he dipped his head into icy cold water and went to work.
His presence brought peace to his mother, in so far that she could sleep at times when he was by. Then he used to go on tip-toe to his room and fetch down his books on physics, in which the construction of steam-engines was so learnedly and unintelligibly set forth. His head, tired with watching and unaccustomed to any mental work, with difficulty grasped the sense of the mysterious words; but he had time, and indefatigably he worked on, page by page, as a peasant ploughs a stony field.
If his mother opened her eyes, she would ask,
"How are you getting on, my son?"
And then he had to explain it to her, and she pretended to understand something about it.
But if she asked, "Why are you doing this?" he would put on a knowing look, and reply, "I am learning to make gold."
"My poor boy," she would answer, stroking his hand.
One night, immediately after the Whitsuntide holidays, she again could not sleep.
"Read me something from those learned books," she said; "they bore one so nicely. Perhaps they will send me to sleep."
And he did as she asked him; but when he had been reading almost an hour, he saw that she was gazing at him with big, feverish eyes, and was further than ever from sleep.
"So with that you want to make gold?" she asked.
"Yes, mother," he answered, confusedly, for the return of fever made him anxious.
"How will you do it?"
"You will see in good time," he answered, as usual.
But this time she would not be put off. "Tell me, my boy," she pleaded, "tell me now.... Who knows what may happen?... I should like at least to have that little bit of comfort before I fall asleep forever."
"Mother!" he cried, terrified.
"Be still, my boy," she said; "what does it matter? But tell me, tell me!" she pleaded with growing anxiety, as if in the next moment it might already be too late.
With bated breath and confused words he spoke of the plans which he had in his head: how he wanted to reawaken "Black Susy" to life, so that the moor could be utilized to its innermost depths; but in the middle of his speech, anxiety overcame him; he fell sobbing on his knees before the bed with his face on her breast.
She bade him look up, and said: "It was not right of me to make you anxious. If God so wills it, all may turn out differently yet. What you tell me has given me great joy. I know that if you take anything in hand, you do not soon let it drop. I only wish I could live to see it."
So, gently, imperceptibly, she restored his courage; as to herself, she had nothing left to hope for.
Another night when, overtired, he had fallen asleep in his chair, she called his name.
"What do you want, mother?" he asked, starting up.
"Nothing," she said. "Forgive me, I ought to have let you sleep. But who knows how long we shall still be able to talk together? I should like to make the most of the time."
This time he was too much overcome with sleep to understand the meaning of her words. He sat down closer to her and took her hand, but his eyes closed again directly.
She thought he was awake and began to speak.
"I was once a very merry young creature, not very different from your sisters.... My heart was nearly ready to burst with joy, and my eyes always gazed into the distance, as if from there something unspeakably beautiful would come—a prince, or something of that sort. Once, too, I began to love—with that other kind of love, that great heavenly love which comes upon one like fate. But he would not have me; he was fair and slender and had a blemish on his chin. I always longed to kiss the spot, but could never do it. He saw my love well enough, and, one day, when he was especially daring, he took me in his arms and fondled me, and then let me go again. But I was happy; it made me glad that he had once held me in his arms."
She stopped, her eyes sparkled, a rosy, almost maidenly blush tinted her cheeks; she had grown wonderfully young again. Then she saw that he had fallen asleep, and sadly relapsed into silence.
When he awoke, Paul said, "It seems to me, mother, that you were telling me something."
"You must have been dreaming," she said, smiling; but her thoughts meanwhile had been wandering back through her whole life, seeking in every corner of her memory for the remnants of joy which lay concealed there.
"I don't really know," she said, "why I have been so sad all my life. When I come to think of it, a great misfortune has never really happened to ne. Of course it was not nice when we had to leave Helenenthal, and when I saw the room lit up blood-red by the burning barn, it gave me a bad enough fright, but, on the whole, life has treated me tolerably well. I have reared all you children, I have not lost one by death-we have always had food and drink, too. Father has sometimes grumbled, it is true, but that is always the case in married life; you will find it so yourself some day. You children have always loved me. You boys have grown up able men, and the girls will be able women, if God wills it, and you keep your eye upon them. What more do I want?"
And so this poor woman, who was gradually being harassed to death, worried herself to discover what was harassing her to death. Slowly Dame Care lifted the veil from her head that Death might breathe in her face.
And one evening she died.... Her eyes closed; she scarcely knew how herself. The doctor who was called in spoke of weakness, anaemia. It is only sentimental people who say in such cases, "She died of a broken heart."
The twins knelt at her bedside, crying bitterly; their father, who had been carried in in his chair, sobbed aloud, and tried to bring her back forcibly to life.... Paul stood at the head of the bed biting his lips.
"I was right, after all," he thought; "she died before luck came. She has had to get up hungry from the table of life, just as I said."
He wondered that the pain he felt was not so great as he had fancied it would be. Only the confused thoughts about all sorts of stupid things flitting through his head like bats at dusk showed him the state of his mind.
It struck midnight; then his father said, "We will go to rest, children; let him sleep who can!... Hard days lie before us."
He embraced the twins, shook hands with Paul, and had himself carried to his room.
"How good father is to-day!" thought Paul; "he was never like that while she was alive." His sisters clung to his neck, sobbing, and implored him to watch near them, they were so afraid.
Paul spoke to them consolingly, took them to their room, and promised to come and look after them within an hour.
When at the end of this time he stepped to their bedside with a candle in his hand he found them fast asleep. They lay locked in a close embrace, and on their rosy cheeks the tears were still wet.
Then he went to his father's door to listen, and when there, too, he heard no sound, he crept on tiptoe to the room where the dead slept. For the last time he would watch by her side.
His sisters, on going away, had spread a white handkerchief over her face; he took it off, folded his hands, and watched how the flickering light played on her waxen features. She was little changed; only the blue veins in her temples were more prominent, and her eyelashes threw deeper shadows on the haggard cheeks.
He lit the night-light, which during her illness had been burning at her bedside every night, seated himself on the chair in which he always used to sit, and thought he would say a quiet prayer for the dead.
But suddenly it flashed through his mind that he had forgotten to send to the joiner to come early and take the measure.
It was to be a simple pine-wood coffin, painted black, and round it a garland of heather, for she had loved the delicate, unpretending little plant above all others.
"What will the coffin cost?" he went on thinking, and was suddenly struck with terror, for he had nothing to bury the dead with. He began to count and calculate, but could come to no conclusion.
"It is the first time that she wants anything for herself," he said, softly, and thought of the faded dress which she had worn from year's end to year's end.
He added up all that he could get together in a hurry from outstanding debts, but the sum was not sufficient by half to cover the expenses of the funeral.
The three cart-loads of peat, too, which he could send into town to-morrow and the day after, would make but little difference.
Then he took a piece of paper and began to calculate the expenses:
A coffin ....... 15 thalers. The place in the church-yard 10 thalers. For the verger ..... 5 thalers. Linen for the shroud ... 2 thalers.
Then the expenses of the funeral, which his father undoubtedly would wish to have conducted as grandly as possible:
10 bottles of port-wine .. 10 thalers. 1 box of cigars ..... 2 thalers. 2 small casks of beer ... 2 thalers.
Ingredients for the cake: the flour they had in the house, but sugar, raisins, almonds, rose-water, etc., had to be purchased. How much would these amount to? He calculated busily, but his additions would not agree. "Mother will know very well," he thought, and was just about to ask her advice when he saw that she was dead.
He was horrified. Only now, when his imagination had brought her back to life again, he understood that he had lost her. He wanted to cry out, but mastered himself, for he had to go on with his calculations.
"Forgive me, darling mother," he said, stroking her cold cheeks with his right hand. "I cannot yet mourn for you; I must first lay you under the earth."
* * * * *
The funeral was to take place three days later.
As Paul had foreseen, his father could not be prevented from arranging a great festivity. He had sent invitations to all his friends in town, on beautiful glazed paper with a black edge as wide as your finger. Therein he had given expression to his grief in well-chosen, elegant phrases, and had nowhere forgotten to provide his signature with an elaborate flourish.
In the evening, just when the remains were being laid in the coffin, his two brothers arrived. They had not been at home for many years, and Paul almost failed to recognize them. Gottfried, the tutor, a dignified man with a severe expression of countenance and somewhat portly appearance, had on his arm a young lady veiled in black—his betrothed, who with a wondering glance took stock of the low, miserable rooms, and endeavored to show a face at once friendly and full of grief as the situation demanded. Max, the merchant, came behind them. He looked rather dissolute; his smart-looking mustache gave him an air ill-befitting the feelings of a newly-orphaned son, and his mourning was more evident in discomfort than in grief.
Both brothers solemnly embraced their father, and the young lady visitor bent down and kissed first his hand and then his forehead. Then they greeted the twins, who in their black dresses were looking fresher and sweeter than ever. They had overlooked Paul, who stood at the door and fingered his cap in confusion.
At last Gottfried asked, "Where is our brother?"
Then he stepped shyly forward and stretched out his hand.
Three pairs of eyes rested on him searchingly.
"If I were but once outside!" he thought, and as soon as he could get away he went out to work in the stables.
Gottfried followed him thither. Paul was alarmed when he saw him come, for he did not know what he should talk about to this aristocratic man.
"Dear brother," the latter said, "I have a favor to ask you. Could you not provide a brighter room for my betrothed? She feels herself rather crowded in the girls' room."
"I will give her my attic," said Paul.
"You would oblige me if you would do that."
Then he addressed a few more questions to him about their mother's illness, about the cattle, and about the mortgage which lay on the estate.
"You poor creatures," he said; "you have evidently had many a care. But did you endeavor to make the last days of our sainted mother as easy as possible?"
Paul assured him he had done all that was in his power.
"I am glad of that," his brother replied, in a severe tone; "it would have been a sad neglect of your duty if you had not done so. And now come, let us go together to visit the remains of our sainted mother, that she, looking down from heaven, may see us all united."
He took Paul's hand and drew him into the room in which his mother rested peacefully among flowers and burning candles, and where the others were already assembled.
Paul remained standing at the door timidly. He would have given much to be alone with his dead mother for one moment, but as that was impossible he softly crept out and looked through the window from outside, as if he were one of the lookers-on from the village who were standing there.
A little later Max came to him and led him confidentially aside. "I have a favor to ask you, dear boy," he said; "my throat is quite parched with the dust of the journey and with crying. Could you procure me a drop of beer?"
Paul answered that there were two full casks, but that they were only to be tapped next morning for the funeral.
"Just give me the tap," Max answered; "I am an expert. The beer in the casks will be just as fresh to-morrow as it is to-day."
And when Paul had done his bidding, he turned his back on him and went away.
At eleven o'clock the candles round the coffin were blown out—every one retired to rest.
Paul found that there was no bed left for him, and climbed into the hay-loft, where he sat upright all night buried in thought.
At ten o'clock in the morning the first guests arrived, and, indeed, such guests as had neither accepted the invitation nor been expected at all. When Paul saw them coming his first thought was, "Have I provided enough food and drink?" and the more the carriages came rolling into the yard, and entire strangers kept stretching out their black-gloved hands to his family, the more a voice seemed to say to him, "There won't be enough."
His father had again one of his days of grandeur. He sat in his portable chair as if on a throne, his two eldest sons like vassals near him, and allowed himself to be admired in his grief.
Whenever a new guest came up to him he pressed the proffered right hand in both of his, as if he were the one to console, bent his grief-stricken head, and spoke broken words in a voice stifled with sobs, such as: "Yes, she has gone! gone! she's gone! There is no balm for the wounds of the heart! May heaven make amends to her for the grief earth has caused her!" and so forth.
In between he called out to Paul, "My son, you do not provide any wine! My son, remember to offer our guests some refreshment."
Paul ran from one to the other like a waiter, anxiously counting the bottles, which diminished rapidly, and envying his sisters, who, in their fine black dresses, could quietly sit in a corner and cry to their hearts' content, while the strange sister-in-law consoled them. He had not thought of the mourning-dresses in his calculation at all, and it was great good-luck that the merchant sent them on credit, otherwise his sisters could not have appeared at all.
He himself did not look like a mourner in his simple gray suit, and most of the guests who did not know him went quietly past him, and only noticed his existence when he offered them wine and cigars.
In the yard a number of women assembled who had loved his mother on account of her quiet, simple manners, and who now wanted to follow the cortege without really belonging to the mourners.
The sharp eye of his father soon discovered them.
"Paul, my son," he cried, "go out and urge the ladies to enter the house of mourning."
Paul obeyed this order with hesitation, for he did not know how to word the invitation. When he stepped out onto the threshold his first glance fell on Elsbeth, who, in a mourning-dress, stood among the village women and carried a wreath of white roses. And when she saw him her eyes filled with tears.
For a moment he felt as if he would like to press his head against the folds of her dress and cry there; but others stood near her, staring at him. He made an awkward bow, and said, "My father begs you—would you like to see the dead?"
The women slowly went into the house; only Elsbeth lingered.
"Won't you come in, too?" he asked.
"My poor dear Paul," she said, and seized his hand.
He shut his eyes and staggered back two steps.
"Do come," he said, mastering himself again; "look at her, she has always loved you so much."
"Paul, my son, where are you?" sounded his father's voice from the interior of the house.
"Paul," she said, hesitating, with rising tears, "you must not despair; there are still others who—love you."
"Oh yes," he said, "I know—but come, I must pour out the wine."
She sighed deeply; then she timidly went in after him, and mixed again with the other women.
"Paul, come here!" beckoned his father, who today seemed to fancy himself the master again; and when Paul bent his head to him, he whispered in his ear, "I hear the wine is finished. What does that mean? Will you shame us all?"
"I think there are a few more bottles," Paul answered.
"Make them last till the vicar comes; but you must also offer a glass to the women. Do you hear?"
"Oh, if only the vicar would come soon," sighed Paul, and tried hard to fill the glasses only half.
And at last the vicar came. The whole assembly pressed into the room where the dead woman lay in her coffin. The place was bathed in sunshine, and checkered lights which had found their way through the waving linden branches played merrily on the marble-white face.
Paul helped to carry his father's chair to the head of the coffin, then he withdrew to a quiet corner behind the mourning assembly where he could rest a little, for he was tired with much running about.
But they would not let him rest. "Where is the youngest son?" asked the vicar, who wanted to gather the whole family round him.
"Paul, my child, where are you?" called his father.
Then he had to come forward, and took his place close to the head of the coffin, near his father's chair.
A low murmur passed through the assembly, and some looked embarrassed, as if they would say, "So that is a son, too? Then we have made a mistake there."
The dancing sunbeams caught the vicar's attention, and he took them as the text for his sermon. The earthly sun was indeed shining brightly and full of joy; but that was nothing—that was utter darkness compared with the heavenly sunshine. Then he praised the dead, and praised also those left behind, especially the faithful husband and the two eldest sons as the proud pillars of the house; there was also a spare morsel for Paul, the servant, whom his master had found faithful unto death.
It was only a pity that he understood nothing of this honeyed praise. Lost in thought, he stared before him. His look rested on the silk bow which stood out from his mother's cap, and which moved gently when the draught, caused by the vicar's waving arms, glided over it. It resembled a white butterfly that moves its wings to rise into the air.
Then a hymn was sung and the lid placed on the coffin. At this moment there sounded from the background a heart-rending cry, "Mother, mother!"
Startled and astonished, every one turned round. It was Elsbeth Douglas who had uttered it. Now she lay fainting in the arms of her neighbor. Paul understood her well. She had thought of the moment when the lid would be laid over her own mother's face. And he vowed to himself he would then be at her side to comfort her. His father also looked up, and on his features the question was clearly written: "Is she, too, here?"
Elsbeth was taken into the next room, and two women remained with her until she recovered.
But the uplifted coffin was borne staggering out of the door till it found rest on the hearse.
Paul seized his cap. Then Gottfried, pressing to his side, put something soft and black into his hand.
"At least tie this crape round your arm," he whispered to him.
"People might think you did not want to wear mourning."
Paul started at this thought and did as he was told. Afterwards he was grieved to have been thus shamed by his brother, and only much later it became clear to him which of them had worn the deepest mourning.
The cemetery lay in the midst of the heath. Three solitary pine-trees indicated it from afar, and along the edge of the wall surrounding it thick thorn-hedges bloomed.
Thither the sad cortege went; the sons followed immediately behind the coffin, the father, with the twins, behind them in a little carriage.
Paul stared straight before him; he thought of the sand through which he was wading—of the wine—of Elsbeth—of his father's portable chair— and of the heather wreath, which had been half detached from the coffin and was dragging behind.
He resolved to take care that it should not be lowered into the grave with the coffin.
By the grave he felt nothing but a violent burning pain in his temples, and while the vicar was giving the benediction it suddenly occurred to him that instead of the wine he might very well have given beer. Then he had to look after the twins, who in their grief did foolish things, and wanted to spring into the grave after the coffin. He took them in his arms kissed them, and made them lay their heads on his shoulder. They did so, closed their eyes, and breathed as if asleep.
When the first handful of earth was rolling down on the coffin he had a feeling of disgust, as if skittles were being played in his head, and when the bare hillock began to arise, he thought, "To-morrow already there must be some green turf put round it."
The crowd dispersed, his father was carried back to his carriage, and the three sons walked home. Max and Gottfried spoke in low, solemn tones of their earliest recollections of the dead. But Paul was silent, and thought, "Thank God, they have laid her under the sod!"
A feverish activity was still working in his brain—he had as yet understood nothing, had not wanted to understand—but when he entered the yard which, with its shingle-roofed stable, and with the recent traces of the fire, lay gray and desolate before him, it suddenly came upon him as with a lightning-flash, like a totally new idea, "Mother has gone!"
He turned round, groped with his hands in the air, and, as if thunder-struck, sank to the ground.
The summer passed away, and autumn in its garb of mist came creeping over the heath. Red sunbeams wandered wearily along the edge of the wood, and the heather lowered its purple head. At this time in the Howdahs, which till now had been quieter than usual, strange sounds began to be heard. Like the knocking of hammers and the tone of bells at the same time, they sounded far over the heath in strict rhythm, at times louder, at times softer, but always with a harmonious echo, which slowly died away into the air.
The villagers stopped, wondering, on the road. One of them asked, "What is going on at Meyerhofer's?"
And another said, "It almost sounds as if he had built himself a forge."
"He will never forge luck," said a third, and they separated, laughing.
The father, who as usual had sat in his corner yawning and grumbling, started up at the first sound, and called the twins to account for it. But they knew nothing either, but that quite early that day a workman had come from the town with files, hammers, and a solder-box, and had had a long conference with Paul, who held in his hand all sorts of plans and designs. They quickly ran to look, and this was what they found:
Behind the shed stood "Black Susy," surrounded with a wooden scaffolding like a lady in her crinoline, and on the scaffolding Paul and the foreman climbed busily about, hammering, examining, and screwing in rivets.
Full of wonder, the twins looked at each other, for they guessed that something grand was in preparation; but they did not deem it necessary to bring these tidings to their father, for they remembered that two little letters they had written had to be quickly and secretly taken to the post by the servant-girl.
Paul, however, stood high up on "Black Susy's" round back, leaning against the slender chimney, and looked longingly towards the moor, like Columbus about to discover a new world.
The first steps on the hazardous road were taken.
In the long, sleepless nights which followed his mother's death, when grief held his soul in iron claws, he had fled from the melancholy image of the deceased to his books. Like a mole he burrowed his way through the dark theories, and when his head buzzed and his body became exhausted from the exciting brain-work, he would cry out to himself, "Her last hope shall not be disappointed!" Then he stretched his limbs, and a new impulse of energy flashed into his brain, and on and on he went, working restlessly till the iron riddle solved itself harmoniously, till each lever was transformed into a muscle, each tube into an artery, contrived on the wisest plans, like a human body by the spirit of the eternal Creator.
Weeks and months passed. Meantime his mind was so completely absorbed by this thirst for knowledge, this desire to create, that all that which had previously harassed him vanished like a distant shadow. His mother's image became more and more peaceful, and seemed to smile upon him. The harvest became multiplied in the barn as if carried thither by invisible hands, and on the day when the last bundle of oats was unloaded before the stack he clapped his hand to his forehead and exclaimed, "It seems to me only yesterday since I saw the first car!"
The more his knowledge increased and ripened, so much the more the anxiety to succeed arose in his soul. When he wrote to the blacksmith, his heart beat like that of a student before his examination. He shunned bringing his deeds to the light as though to mention them were a crime, for he feared being laughed at. But the constant hammering proclaimed the news to the world.
The new foreman had to sit at their own table, and the father marked his disapprobation of him by refusing to greet his entrance, and muttering a great deal into his plate about fools and parasites.
But nobody heeded him, and the work quietly proceeded. According to Paul's directions, the machine was taken to pieces and sounded in every one of its minutest parts. The faults which a professional engineer would have discovered at the first glance, these two men had to search out and explain to each other with the greatest trouble. A dispute between them would often last for hours, like meetings of the senate.
Once the foreman asked, impatiently, "Why the devil do you not send the thing to a workshop to be repaired?"
Paul started. That, indeed, was an idea! It seemed to him quite a new one to—day, and yet it had often come into his mind before. But he had never liked to yield to it, for it seemed to him too daring and absurd; and, besides, he was too much afraid they might return "Susy" as "past mending." He was like that peasant woman who preferred doctoring her husband to death herself to being told by the doctor "he cannot be saved."
When it had grown dark, and the workmen and servants had ceased working, he used to poke about the work-room aimlessly for another hour or so, simply because he could not tear himself away from "Susy." He would have liked best to stand near her as watchman until the morning. He liked to carry with him under his arm some of his plans or a book. This, also, was aimless, for it was dark—he only wanted to have everything nicely in order. All this happened in great secrecy, for no one had a firmer conviction that Paul was a fool than Paul himself.
One evening, when he was searching in the dark for one of his books to take there with him, he put his hand upon something long and round, carefully wrapped up in tissue-paper in the farthest corner of a drawer.
He could feel in the darkness how he blushed. It was Elsbeth's flute. How was it possible that he had so seldom bestowed a thought upon it or upon the giver? The fair form that he had seen for the last time on the darkest day of his life had gradually faded from his mind as his existence passed into the shadowy realm of sorrow, and now at last, from sheer trouble and care, she had become to him like a shadow herself.
For the first moment he could scarcely recall her features. It was only little by little that her image presented itself to his mind.
He took the flute instead of the books under his arm, crept away to the shed, and sat down on the boiler. He fingered the keys with curiosity; he also put the mouth-piece to his lips, but did not dare to produce a sound, for he did not want to disturb any one's sleep.
"It would be nice," he said to himself, "if I could play all sorts of sweet melodies and think of Elsbeth all the while; I could then once more pour out my heart to her, and feel that I, too, was something in the world. But, then, am I in the world for myself alone?" he asked himself, absently laying hold of one of the crooked handles. "As this crooked handle turns and turns without knowing why, and in itself is nothing but a piece of dead iron, so I, too, must turn and turn, and not ask 'Why!' There are said to be people in the world who have the right to live for themselves, and to mould the world according to their own wishes. But they are differently constituted from me; they are handsome and proud and daring, and the sun always shines upon them. They may even allow themselves the privilege of possessing a heart and acting according to its dictates. But I! Oh, good God!" He paused, and sadly contemplated the flute, the keys of which dimly shone in the dusk.
"If I were such a one," he continued, after a while, "I should have become a celebrated musician. I know very well there are many melodies in my brain which no one else has ever whistled; and when I had attained my end I should have married Elsbeth—and father would have been rich, and mother happy; but now mother is dead—father is a poor cripple—Elsbeth will take another—and I stand here looking at the flute and can't play on it."
He laughed out loud, and then slid to the front, so that he could reach the chimney. He stroked it, and said, "But I will learn to play this flute that it'll be a pleasure to hear."
As he sat there he fancied he heard subdued tittering and whispering in the garden. He listened; there was no doubt of it. A pair of lovers were cooing, or, perhaps, more than one pair, for divers voices were intermingled, like the twittering of a number of sparrows.
"The maids keep sweethearts, it seems to me," he said; "I'll show them the way out."
He fetched a whip, which was hanging on the stable door, and climbed over the farthest part of the garden fence to waylay the intruders.
Then suddenly he stopped short as if turned to stone, his eyes starting out of his head, and the whip trembling in his hand. He had distinguished his sisters' voices.
He leaned against the trunk of a tree and listened.
"Does he leave you in peace now?" one of the lovers asked, in a whisper.
"He has too much to do with his machine just now," Greta's voice replied; "even his unpalatable sermons he spares us."
"You have never heeded them, anyhow!"
Greta giggled. "In spite of all his dignity he is only a stupid boy, and he understands nothing about love; as long as I can remember he has hung about Elsbeth Douglas; but do you suppose he has ever once dared raise his eyes to her? She, of course, would not dream of taking such a languishing idiot. There is her cousin Leo—he is quite another fellow."
His heart threatened to stop beating, but he went on listening.
"I can't understand why you obey him at all," said the voice of her lover; "we have always given him a thrashing first, and then let him go, and in return he would beg our pardon. One has only to oppose him firmly, he is such a coward!"
"Just wait a bit, you rogue!" thought Paul, who now knew whom he had before him.
But Greta answered, eagerly: "Oh, fie! he has not deserved that from us. He loves us so much that we really ought to be ashamed to deceive him; whatever he sees that we want he gives us, and I could swear that it is nothing but love that makes him so sad. So one mustn't mind now and then taking a sermon into the bargain, especially if one pays no attention to it afterwards!"
"It's a good thing I know that," thought Paul, and crept round in a half-circle, till he came to the arbor where the other couple were sitting.
There it was very much quieter; only from time to time a kiss or a giggle sounded from the darkness among the trees. Then he heard Kate's voice:
"And why did you dance so much with Matilda last Sunday?"
"That is a horrid calumny," answered the other brother. "What gossip told you that?"
"The vicar's daughter Hedwig told me."
"I like that! She is jealous of you; that's the whole story. How she looked at me last Sunday! I thought my hair would be singed."
"Oh, the false girl!"
"Well, don't grieve about that. You are all false! My sweet little lark, my sunshine, my little madcap, lay your head on my knee, I want to ruffle your hair."
"No; you are lying on my watch-chain. That's right! Sing me something."
"What shall I sing about?"
"First earn it, you rogue!"
Then all was quiet for a while. Presently Katie began to warble, softly,
"'The nightingale on the lilac-bush Sang night's soft hours away; I heard a crash, a gentle push, My window-pane gave way!
"'I ran to see the cause in haste, At night's soft witching hour, And there I found a ladder placed— A man stood by my bower. La, la, la!'"
"Go on singing!"
"Oh no, it really is not proper."
"Why, then, did you begin it?"
She giggled and was silent.
"Sing me something else."
"Before I sing give me a kiss!" A short struggle; then his voice:
"What? first you want one, and then you struggle, you cat!"
"Here I am."
"Leave go! d——n it, you scratch!"
"If you take another girl I will scratch out your eyes!"
"No; I will lie down under a juniper-bush and starve myself to death. You must come to my funeral. Oh, that will be beautiful! Now just pay attention; I know a beautiful verse:
"'What my love for you is, have you known? There is on the heath a grave all alone; In it a poor dead poet is sleeping, To whom his love has brought much weeping; He sleeps and sleeps in his sombre grave, But sleeps not away the grief love gave. At midnight go to the grave on the heath, And wait till he again shall breathe; He knows the singing and kissing well, And he can tell—'
"Isn't that pretty?"
"Very pretty! Who taught you that, Kitty?"
"I once found it in a book of songs which belonged to mother. I almost think she made it herself."
During this conversation Paul had stood there stupefied with horror; but when he heard his mother's name his anger overpowered him, and he cracked his whip over the heads of the couple, so that the withered leaves of the arbor flew rustling about.
With a loud cry they all sprang up. No sooner had the brothers recognized him than they attempted to make off; but the girls clung to them whimpering. They sought protection against their own brother.
"Come here!" he called out to them. Then they left their lovers and flew to one another for mutual protection.
The two Erdmanns receded farther still.
"You stay here!" he cried.
"What do you want with us?" said the elder one, who was the first to recover his impudence.
"You shall answer to me for your conduct."
"You know where we are to be found," said the younger one, and pulled his brother by the coat-tail as a hint to escape with him. But at this moment Paul seized him by the throat.
"Leave go!" he screamed.
"You come into the house with me."
"Oh no; rather not," said the elder one.
"I don't know at all what you want with us," said the younger one, who, under the iron grasp of Paul's fist, was not a little frightened. "We love your sisters; we have nothing to do with you."
"And if you love them, don't you know where the door is, through which you might have come to woo them? Robbers that you are!"
At this moment Ulrich had torn his brother from Paul's grasp; and before he could collect his senses they both flew in hot haste through the garden, leaped the fence, and disappeared in the darkness of the heath.
Completely stunned, he turned round and saw his sisters crouching behind the trunk of a tree.
"Come!" he said, pointing towards the house, and, sobbing, they followed him.
When they wanted to slip away to their own room, he said, opening the door of the parlor, "In here." Trembling, they crouched down in a corner, for they did not know what punishment he would inflict upon them.
He lit the candle himself, took up the family album and took out a picture.
"Now come to your room." Like two returning penitents they crept slowly behind him.
"Who is that?" he asked, in his severest voice, pointing to the picture. It was a portrait of their mother, taken in early youth, almost effaced by the lapse of time. But they recognized it very well, and, wringing their hands, fell on their knees before the bed and sobbed pitifully on the pillow.
And then they confessed everything to him. It was worse than he had ever imagined.
A dreadful silence ensued. Paul stepped to the window and looked out into the night.
"Thank God you are dead, mother!" he said, folding his hands.
Then they wept aloud, crept up to him on their knees, and wanted to kiss his hands. He stroked their hair. He loved them far too well.
"Children, children!" he said, sinking down in a chair, almost as helpless as they were.
"Scold us, Paul," sobbed Kate.
"No, rather beat us," urged Greta; "we have deserved it."
He passed his hand across his brow. It all still seemed to him like a bad dream.
"How could this have happened?" he murmured. "Have I watched over you so badly?"
"They said they—wanted to—marry us!" Kate gasped out.
"When the year of mourning was over, the wedding was to be," added Greta.
"And if they said that, they shall keep their word," he said, endeavoring to console himself. "Do not kneel to me, children, kneel down before God—you need it. This portrait henceforth shall stand on your little table every night. Will you then still have courage to pursue the path of shame? Good-night."
They rushed after him and entreated him to stay with them, "they were so frightened!" but he disengaged himself gently from them and went up to his garret, where he sat and brooded in the dark. He was so deeply ashamed that he thought he should never more be able to bear the light of day.
The next morning he sent for the foreman and paid him off.
The good man looked up into his face quite aghast. "But now, Mr. Meyerhofer, when all is going on so well?" he said.
"Yes, going on so well," he murmured, thoughtfully. "Shame added to misfortune!—the man is right."
"Something has upset me," he then said, "which has given me a disgust for work. Let us leave it for the moment, and when the time comes I will send for you again."
His father bitterly complained over the disturbance in the night. "What were you storming about in the garden?" he asked. "I heard your voice!"
"Thieves were after the apples," replied Paul.
The twins had red, swollen eyes, and did not dare to raise them from the ground.
"So that's how fallen girls look," thought Paul, and promised to be as strict with them as a jailer. But when he spoke harshly to them for the first time, and they looked up at him with a pained, humble glance, like two penitent Magdalenes, he was so much overcome by pity that he folded them weeping in his arms, and said, "Compose yourselves, children; all will yet be well."
He was under the firm conviction that the two Erdmanns would not let the day pass without coming to the Haidehof. "Their consciences will bring them," he said to himself. He felt so sure of it that after dinner he strongly urged his father, who in his laziness had become very slovenly, to put on his new coat, as visitors of importance were expected. His father yielded, grumbling, and was doubly angry afterwards when he found that the immense exertion had been quite useless.
"They will come to-morrow," said Paul to himself when he went to bed; "they have not had the courage to-day."
But the next day passed, too, without anybody appearing, and so the whole week went by.
Paul ran about the house as if distracted. Every ten minutes he was to be seen standing at the gate and looking out over the heath, so that the servants nudged one another and began to whisper all sorts of nonsense.
"It is a pity," he said to himself, "that I am still so innocent, and have not the least experience in love matters; otherwise I should know what I ought to do."
An agonizing fear began to master him, and he tossed about in his bed unable to sleep.
"I must make matters easy for them," he thought one morning, and ordered the basket carriage, which a short time ago he had bought at an auction, to be got ready, and drove to Lotkeim, the Erdmanns' estate, which they kept up together since their parents' death.
His heart felt a pang of shame and wrath as now, like one soliciting a favor, he entered the estate of those who had already injured him so much through his life. Little was wanting to make him turn round again at the gate, but his hands clasped the reins more firmly, and his lips murmured, "It is no question of what you feel."
He drove across the grass-grown yard, on which high thorn-bushes were blooming, and which was flanked by big, though much-neglected, farm-buildings, and stopped before the house, the shutters of which were painted in black and white circles, probably because they were sometimes used for targets.
"It is no honor to marry one's sisters here; but they can no longer lay claim to much honor," he thought, tying his horse to the entrance rail, for no human soul was to be seen who could have taken the reins; only from a distant shed came the measured sound of the flails.
At the moment that he entered the hall he fancied he heard a confusion of voices and then the opening and shutting of the back doors. Then, suddenly, all was still.
He entered the parlor, in which the remains of their breakfast was standing, and which was still filled with cigar smoke. For some time he stood there waiting. Then a scraggy woman slipped through the door of the next room with an embarrassed grin.
"My masters are not at home," she said, without waiting for his question; "they drove away early this morning and will not be back for some time."
"It does not matter; I will wait."
The old woman began to chatter and explain that it would be quite useless to wait; she never knew beforehand when they would come back; often they stayed away all night, and so on. Meanwhile he fancied he heard a dog-cart rattling out of the yard in the greatest haste. He jumped up, alarmed, for he thought that his horse had broken loose, but he saw it quietly standing in its place; then a suspicion arose within him—a suspicion which a minute before he would have thrust back indignantly.
The old house-keeper did not dare to turn him out; and, unmolested, but also without food or drink, he sat there waiting till the evening. When it was dark he set out on his way home, discouraged and humiliated.
Next morning he returned, this time also in vain. The third day he found the gate firmly bolted. A brand-new padlock was hanging on the hasp. It seemed to have been purchased especially for him.
Then he could no longer doubt that the brothers avoided him on purpose. "They are ashamed to look me in the face," he said to himself; "I will write to them."
But when he took up his pen to compel himself to write friendly words of reconciliation, such disgust at his own undignified deed overcame him that he crushed it to pieces on the table, and paced about the room, moaning aloud.
"I must first go and collect my strength," he said, and crept noiselessly to the girls' room. They sat at the window, spoke not a word, and stared with white faces into the distance; then one let her head sink against the other's shoulder, and said, gently and sadly,
"They will not come any more."
"They are afraid of him," sighed the sister.
And then they relapsed again into silence.
"Ah!" he said, breathing heavily, while he crept back to his room, "I knew that would help me."
Then he took a clean sheet of paper and wrote a beautiful letter, in which he expounded to the brothers that he was no longer angry with them—that he would forgive them everything if they would restore the lost honor to his sisters.
"To-morrow they will be here," he said, with a sigh of relief, when he dropped the letter into the box. For the rest of the day he wandered about on the heath, for he did not dare to look any one in the face, so much was he ashamed-of himself.
But the Erdmanns did not come.
* * * * *
It was on Christmas Eve, shortly before twilight. The heath lay deep in snow, and from the leaden sky fresh masses of flakes were descending. Then Paul saw that his sisters secretly took their hats and cloaks, and tried to make their escape by the back door.
He hastened after them. "Where do you want to go?"
Then they began to cry, and Kate said, "Please, please do not ask us." But he felt a dreadful anxiety arise within him, and, grasping their arms, he said, "I shall follow you if you won't confess."
Then Kate gasped out, sobbing, "We are going to mother's grave."
Horror overcame him that they should go to that holy place; but he took care not to let them see it.
"No, children," he said, stroking their cheeks, "I can't allow that; it would excite you too much; the snow is so deep, too, on the heath, and it will soon be dark."
"But some one must go there," said Kate, timidly, "it is Christmas Eve to-day."
"You are right, sister," he replied, "I will go myself. You stay with father and light a few candles for him. Please God, I shall bring you home some comfort."
They let themselves be persuaded, and went back into the house.
But he put on a warm coat, took his cap, and walked out into the dusk.
"You must lock the gates to-night," he said, before he left the yard, for he had a dull presentiment that he would only come home late at night, were it only for the sake of roaming about in the snow.
The white heath lay silent. Deep under the snow lay the withered flowers, and where a juniper-bush had stood before there was now a little white heap that looked like a mole-hill. Even the stems of the pollard willows were white, but only on the side against which the wind had blown.
Painfully he walked on across the snow-covered heath, at every step sinking in over his ankles. From time to time a crow flew through the air with heavy wings, fighting with difficulty against the snow-storm.
There was no path or road to be seen.... The three long fir-trees, which in the distance stood out against the sky like black phantoms, were the only sign by which he could direct his footsteps.
The golden streak, which for a few moments had flamed upon the horizon, vanished; lower and lower the shadows were sinking, and when Paul had reached the wall of the cemetery, which towered above him like a ghostly rampart, it had become quite dark; but the freshly-fallen snow gave an uncertain light, so that he hoped to find his mother's grave soon.
The gate was snowed up—the snow had been heaped up by the wind; nowhere was an entrance to be discovered.
So he groped his way with difficulty along the hedge, from which, here and there, a black twig stretched forth its sharp thorns out of the white covering, till his arms sank deeper into the snow without meeting any resistance.
From there he forced his way to the inner cemetery.
The firs greeted him with a hollow moan, and a raven which had been sitting in the snow flew up noiselessly and circled round their tops restlessly, like a poor soul that cannot find peace.
When he saw the snow-covered plain in its pale uniformity lying before his eyes a terror overcame him, for he saw no sign by which to distinguish his mother's grave. There was no cross on the mound, for he had not had money to buy one, but the mound itself lay dead under the levelling expanse of snow.
A torturing anxiety seized him; he felt as if he had now lost the very last thing that he possessed in life.
And with a trembling hand he began to grope about in the snow, from one mound to the other—a long row, from among which, here and there, a wreath or a little cypress-tree stood out in the dusk.
"Here rests this one, here that one." He knew almost every grave and who reposed beneath it.
And at last his groping hand hurt itself against a piece of glass that stuck out from underneath.... He stopped and felt carefully all round.... The fragment must be the one which Greta had carried out in early spring to plant asters in; a piece of a green bottle with sharp-pointed edges— yes, here it was. The faded stalks were still in it. And near it the wreath, the heather wreath, which appeared to be frozen stiff, like a stone ring; he had put it there himself the last time he had been here.
When he saw the little heap of snow, which hid all that was dearest to him, lying so white and still, he fell on his knees, and buried his face in the cool, soft flakes.
"It is all my fault, mother," he lamented; "I have not watched over them, I have let them run wild. Do not judge them, mother, they knew not what they did!... But I implore you, mother, show me how to act! Send me only one word from beyond the grave.... See, I kneel here and do not know what to do."
And then he suddenly felt as if he had no right to lie in that place; he felt as if the shame which his sisters had brought upon themselves was resting on him, too. He called himself a coward, selfish and lazy, because he had remained inactive for such a long time without daring the worst.
"I will do it, mother, this very night," he cried, springing up. "There shall be no question of myself. I will relinquish the last remnant of pride, if only my sisters can be saved." He vowed it with uplifted arms, and hurried out onto the heath.
For wellnigh three hours he struggled along the snowed-up roads. It might have been eight o'clock when he stopped, tired and breathless, before the gates of Lotkeim.
"To-day they shall not escape me," he said, and as he found the gate locked again, he lay down and crept through underneath the fence, as he had seen dogs do.
The windows of the manor-house were brightly lighted up, but as the curtains had been let down, nothing could be seen of the room inside; only snatches of song and laughter floated out into the open air. The house door stood open. He stopped for a moment in the dark hall to stifle the beating of his heart; then he knocked.
Ulrich's voice called out, "Come in!"
There lay the two brothers, stretched out on a long sofa, the feet of the one near the head of the other, a picture of perfect peace of mind and serenity of soul. Each of them balanced a big glass of grog on the palm of his hand, and before them on the table stood a steaming punch-bowl.
They were so startled at the sight of him that they forgot to get up. They were petrified, and remained lying as they were and staring at him.
"I say!" cried Ulrich, who was the first to recover his speech, and Fritz let his glass fall jingling to the ground.
Then the one stooped down and gathered up the fragments of glass with great zeal.
"You can well imagine why I come," said Paul, slowly stepping to the table in his snow-sprinkled garments.
"No!" said Ulrich, who slowly raised himself.
"No idea," chimed in Fritz, who wisely retired behind his brother's back.
"You received my letter, though?" asked Paul.
"We know of no letter," answered the elder one, staring impudently in his face.
"It probably has been lost in the post," the younger added, hastily.
"Only recollect. It was the 16th of November," said Paul.
Then they remembered vaguely that a letter had been delivered to them.
"But we could not make it out and threw it into the fire," said Ulrich.
"Don't use these evasions," Paul answered; "you know quite well what is expected of you."
They shrugged their shoulders, and looked at each other as if he were speaking Spanish to them.
"I have not come to play comedy with you," Paul continued; "you have taken away my sisters' honor and you must restore it to them."
Ulrich scratched his head and said:
"My dear Myerhofer, that is a bad business and can't be so quickly settled. Just sit down and drink a glass of punch with us; then we shall much sooner come to an understanding."
"Yes, much sooner and more comfortably," added Fritz, getting up to fetch two fresh glasses.
"Thank you," said Paul, "I am not thirsty."
The vague feeling was tormenting him that the brothers were laughing at him even now, as they had done all his life. Iron fetters seemed to bind his limbs; he now felt himself quite powerless and disabled.
"Well, if you come to us like that," Ulrich retorted, apparently hurt, "then we will not speak to you at all. I have no mind to have my Christmas Eve spoiled,"
"And to let the punch get cold," Fritz added.
Paul gazed fixedly from one to the other.
How was it possible that those who had so covered themselves with shame could stand before him so proud and impudent, while he, who only came to ask for his rights, trembled and shook like a criminal!
"And if you go home without any consolation!" cried an anxious voice within him. "Do not make them angry; remember what you have vowed to your mother! There must be no question of yourself."
"Well, will you drink or won't you?" Ulrich called out, angrily.
"There must be no question of yourself," cried the voice again. Then he bowed his head, and said, in a husky voice,
"Well, then, please."
The two brothers glanced at each other and smiled, and Fritz, raising his glass, said,
"A merry Christmas," he stammered, and swallowed the hot beverage, almost choking, for he was overcome with disgust.
Now he sat in good-fellowship at the same table with the two brothers, he who ought to have been there as an avenger.
"Well, now to end this affair, dear Meyerhofer," Ulrich began. "What is done cannot be undone. We will not stop to inquire whether we ran most after your sisters, or your sisters after us; anyhow, it is just as much their fault as ours. We love them with all our hearts; they are the prettiest girls in the neighborhood, and we are truly sorry when we think that we have injured their reputation; but that we should marry them now you can't possibly expect of us."