Paul cast a hesitating glance at him, and began, dejectedly, "That is the least that—" he did not get any further; he felt as if the blood was freezing in his veins.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Fritz; and Ulrich continued:
"Look here, we would be willing to do it because we think a lot of them, although they have lowered themselves so much"—a spasm of fury darted through Paul's brain, but he controlled himself; "we would fulfil your wish directly, but first tell us what dowry will you give them?"
"I have nothing," stammered Paul.
"There it is," answered Fritz.
"And we want money, a great deal of money," Ulrich continued. "I am the eldest, and if I take the estate for myself alone I must pay Fritz so much to enable him to purchase for himself."
"I will work," Paul gasped out, and looked at the brothers in humble entreaty.
"You have worked already for ten years and have not saved anything."
"The fire came and prevented me," stammered Paul, as if he were asking pardon for the misfortune that had happened to him.
"And next year something else will come and prevent you. No, dear friend, we cannot depend upon that."
The fear that he would have to return to his sisters without bringing any consolation sank deeper and deeper into his heart. He was so overpowered that it loosed his tongue, and he cried out, "But for God's sake, listen to reason. I can't do more than work.... I will work like a slave.... Will work day and night. I will pinch, save, and starve even, and all I earn shall be yours.... Just see.... I have splendid prospects.... The locomobile will soon be repaired ... and the moor is very lucrative ... it is fifteen feet deep ... you can measure it.... The cart-load of peat fetches ten marks ... and the dowry shall be paid to the last farthing in yearly instalments."
He gazed at them with expectant eyes, for he felt sure they would seize this offer directly; and when they continued silent, he passed his hand despairingly over his forehead, from which the cold perspiration was streaming, and murmured,
"Well, what more can I do?... Yes, I will do more; I will ask my father to give up the farm to me, and will make it over to you, so that ... when my father dies one of you will be master there.... I will go away and take nothing but the clothes I stand up in. Is not that enough for you?"
But still they were silent.
Then he felt as if everything to which his belief had hitherto clung was slipping from him, as if the ground were giving way under his feet, as if he himself were dropped into space. He clasped his hands, his teeth chattered, and he stared at them like a man bereft of reason. "Is it possible, then, you are not willing? really not willing? Can't you understand at all that it is your duty to make amends where you have sinned?... Does not your sense of honor tell you that you may not rob others of their honor?... Does your conscience let you sleep?"
"Stop!" cried Ulrich, who began to feel decidedly uncomfortable.
"No, I will not stop; I cannot go home like this ... really I cannot.... Have you no idea, then, of the mischief you have done ... of the misery that reigns in my home?" and he shuddered at the remembrance of what he had left there. "If you knew that you would not be so hard.... See, Fritz and Ulrich ... I have known you both such a long time.... We have sat together in school ... and together ... we have knelt before the altar ... you always had an ill-will towards me; I have had to bear much from you.... But I will forget everything if only you will make amends for this one thing. You are light-minded, but you are not bad ... you cannot be bad... you, too, have had a mother.... I have seen her... she was standing at our confirmation by the third pillar on the left, and crying just as my mother cried, and my mother—oh, fie!" He interrupted himself, for he felt overwhelmed with shame at having mentioned the name of his saint before these scoundrels; but the fear of having to return home without any consolation made him crazy; but he gulped that down, too, and began again, while his thoughts chased each other through his head. "Only think if you went out now to the cemetery and had sisters ... who had been betrayed ... and you had not watched over those sisters sufficiently ... and you dared not touch the snow that lies on the grave ... and I were the betrayer ... what ... what would you do?"
"We should kill you," said Ulrich, glancing at him contemptously.
He uttered a piercing cry, for he now realized how deeply he lowered himself—how he had dragged his pride and honor in the dust. With clinched fists he rushed upon Ulrich, but the latter barricaded himself behind the table, and Fritz rushed to the next room to call the servant.
Then he staggered out.
The gate was locked as before. He did not dare go back to have it opened, so, lying down flat, he crept under the fence like a dog.
CHAPTER XVIII "The young master leads a very gay life all at once," said the servants; and as everything went as it pleased, they stole one bushel of corn after the other.
Paul meanwhile visited all the festivities and dances in the neighborhood. Any one who saw him appear in that merry crowd with his sombre brow and his scared, searching look, asked himself indeed, "What does he want here?" And many gave him a wide berth, as if a shadow had fallen on their joy.
Paul was quite clear about what he was doing. He had heard that the Erdmanns let no festivity pass without going thither to be merry as wildly as possible.
"I shall know how to meet them," he said to himself; "the night is a dark and the heath lonely. They will look into my face and the face of death under God's open sky."
Two days after his last visit to Lotkeim he had driven to the town and bought a revolver; a beautiful six-shooter, one with a long slender barrel. Like a wild animal he lurked about at night in the bushes and hidden paths of the heath when he thought they would pass.
But they did not come. They seemed to have become suspicious, and therefore stayed at home; or, what was still more likely, their money had come to an end.
"I can wait," he said, and continued this mode of life; and when he occasionally spent the evening at home, and sat together with his sisters at the supper-table—a sad, silent meal—he felt terrified each time when he looked up and found his mother's features reflected in the two pale, haggard young faces. It drove him out of the house again.
It was Shrove Tuesday, the last night of the carnival, that a grand ball was to be given in the town-hall by the land-owners of the neighborhood.
"I shall catch them there," he said to himself, for he had heard that both the brothers were to be stewards of the festivity.
When dusk approached he ordered his sledge, hid the revolver in the boot of it, and set out on his way to the town.
The sun had been shining all day, and now the sky was all aglow with the last rays of the setting sun. The heath lay shrouded in a blue-gray mist, and sparkling ice-crystals were flying through the clear winter air.
When he passed Helenenthal he saw two sledges moving towards the manor-house laden with fir branches.
"It seems to me they are going to have a festivity there," he murmured, looking after the sledges; and with a sombre smile he added, "I need not be jealous, for to-day I, too, hold a festival."
At six o'clock he arrived in the town, procured himself an entrance-ticket, and remained crouched in a corner of the inn till nine o'clock, absorbed in his own dark thoughts.
When he entered the dancing-room, which was all stir and confusion, he hid himself in the shadow of a pillar, for he felt as though the murderous thoughts that filled his soul were written on his forehead, clearly visible to everybody.
All of a sudden a painful thrill ran through his frame. He had found the brothers; they stood in the middle of the room, proud and radiant, with silken badges on their shoulders, and lilies-of-the-valley in their button-holes, looking at the row of girls dressed in white, who ornamented the walls, with a triumphant smile.
"There, now you are doomed," he muttered with a deep sigh. He felt that there was no retreat for him now. And then he hid in a quiet corner, from whence he could keep his victims in sight. The blazing lights lit up the scene for him as clearly as daylight, but he did not see it; the music fell in full chords upon his ear, but he did not hear it; all his faculties were swallowed up in one wild, bloodthirsty longing.
As he was staring in this way at the crowd, he heard close behind him a conversation between two portly elderly men.
"Are you going to the funeral also to-morrow?"
"Yes. They say it will be a great ceremony. One ought not to miss it."
"Had she been ill long?"
"Oh, very long. Our old doctor had already given her up years ago. Then she was in the south with her daughter, and after her return lingered on for I don't know how long."
He listened; a dim presentiment arose in his mind. The fir branches. The fir branches.
And one of the voices continued:
"Tell me; the daughter must be quite at a marriageable age now. Is she not engaged yet?'
"She is celebrated for the refusals she deals out," answered the other voice. "Some say she did so in order not to leave her sick mother; others because she has a secret love-affair with her cousin, Leo Heller; you know him."
"Oh, the young good-for-nothing!" said the first voice again. "Last week he lost eight hundred marks at baccarat; the money-lenders have got him well into their clutches, and he keeps a mistress, too. But he is a smart, gay fellow for all that, and quite made to catch goldfish."
And the two voices went away laughing.
Paul had a vague feeling as if he must throw himself down on the ground and press his face in the dust; something rose in his throat; everything began to swim before his eyes. So she had ceased to suffer: the pale, kind woman who had watched over the Haidehof like a good angel, and whom his heart had clung to all his life.
Now that she was dead the way was free to ruin and crime. And Elsbeth? How she had trembled in anticipation of this dreadful moment, how he had vowed to be near her then; and instead of that he was lurking here like a wild beast, bloodthirsty thoughts in his soul—he, the only one in whom her pure soul had once confided.
He shivered. "But what does it matter? She has plenty of people to console her; there is merry Leo, with whom she is said to have a secret love-affair; let him show all his wiles now!" He laughed aloud and scornfully, and as soon as he had made sure that the Erdmanns could not escape him if he waited for them at the road-side, he left the room.
As he drove on in the silence of the moon-lit winter night his soul grew calmer and calmer, and when he saw across the silvery heath the White House gradually rising before him like a monument of marble, he began to weep bitterly.
"Hang it! I am blubbering on like an old woman," he murmured, and whipped his horse till all the bells jingled loudly. They sounded in his ear like the knell of all that was good.
In the wood, behind which a side path branched off to Lotkeim, he halted, tied his horse to a distant trunk of a tree, and took off the bells so that their jingling should not prematurely betray him. Then he took the revolver out of the boot of the sledge and examined the cartridges. Six shots—two for each—no harm in having an extra one.
It was bitterly cold, and his feet were benumbed. He crouched at the bottom of the sledge, so that the fur rug should entirely cover him. It was warm and comfortable underneath it, and gradually he felt a great lassitude coming over him, as if he could have fallen asleep. But then he roused himself again.
"You are not at all in earnest about killing them," he murmured, "or you would feel very differently."
Then he sprang up and cried out in the night, "I will, I swear it to you, mother.... I will!" And in assurance thereof he shot a ball into the air, so that the echo rolled through the silence awfully and the ravens flew croaking from their nests.
The nearer the hour approached at which the brothers must return home the more nervous he grew; but his nervousness was not about the bloody deed: he trembled lest at the last moment his hand should fail him, his courage vanish, for they had always called him a coward.
It might have been about four o'clock in the morning, and the moon was already waning, when the sound of bells was heard in the distance—at first softly, then louder and louder. He sprang into the hollow which the driving snow had nearly filled up, and threw himself flat upon the ground. The sledge neared the edge of the wood; two persons wrapped in furs sat in it—it was they. But how long they were coming!
The sledge drove slower and slower at every step. The bells tinkled faintly, and the reins hung down loosely over the sides of the horse. The brothers were snoring. They were given up to him defenceless.
He sprang forward quickly, seized the horse's rein, and unfastened the harness. The sledge stopped, but its masters slept on.
He stood before them staring down upon them. The hand that held his pistol trembled violently.
"What shall I do with them now?" he murmured. "I can't kill them in their sleep. They must be drunk as well, otherwise they would have woke up long ago. The best way would be to let them go and wait for the next time."
He was just going to harness the horse again when it darted into his mind that he had sworn to his mother he would kill them.
"I knew very well that I was a miserable coward," he thought to himself, "and should never have the courage for it. I am not even good enough to commit murder."
"But I will do it yet," he murmured, stepped back a few paces, and aimed direct at Ulrich's breast; but he did not pull the trigger, for he inwardly feared he might hurt the sleeping man.
"Shall I do it all the same?" he thought, when he had stood for some while in this position. And then he began to picture to himself what would happen when he had done it and both were lying dead before him. "Either I must shoot myself as well, and leave my father and sisters behind me in misery, or instead of shooting myself I should give myself tip to justice to-morrow; then the misery at home would be just as great."
"It is madness, in any case"—so he ended his reflections—"but I shall do it all the same."
And suddenly he saw under Ulrich's fur, which had been a little turned back from his breast, a sparkling array of tinsel stars, such as ladies fasten onto gentlemen's coats in the cotillon.
"So they allowed themselves to be decorated with stars by others, while my sisters are in misery!"
"But first I will speak a few home words to them," he muttered, seized hold by the shoulder of Ulrich, who sat on his side, and shook him violently, so that his head rolled from side to side.
Ulrich started from sleep, and when he saw the dark figure of Paul, with the revolver in his hand, standing close behind him, he began to cry out loud and piteously. The other one woke up as well, and both stretched out their arms in pitiful entreaty.
"What do you mean to do to us?" cried the one,
"Do not murder us!" cried the other.
"Put away your revolver. Have pity on us—have pity!" They clasped their hands, and would have fallen on their knees had not the fur rugs prevented them.
Paul looked at them in amazement. He had always seen them daring and eager for fight, so that now in their terror they seemed to him like entirely different people.
He wished in his heart that they would draw their knives against him, so that he could make use of his revolver in an honest fight. And then suddenly the thought arose in his mind: "If you had only once treated them like this when they were boys, you would have been spared many a humiliation—and your sisters, above all."
Ulrich meanwhile tried to clasp his knees, and Fritz kept on crying out, "Take pity on us—take pity on us!"
"You know very well what I want of you," answered Paul, who now felt freed from all hesitation, and with cold resolution pursued his aim.
"What do you want? say, what do you want? We'll do all you want!" cried Ulrich; and Fritz, who tried to hide behind his brother, seemed suddenly speechless.
"You shall keep your promise, as I will keep mine," said Paul. "I wish you could find courage to defend yourselves, so that at last there might be a clear account between us.... But perhaps it is best as it is.... And now repeat after me what I say: 'We swear before God and by the memory of our mother that we will redeem within three days our promise given to your sisters.'" Trembling and faltering, they repeated the words after him.
"And I swear to you before God and the remembrance of my mother," he answered, "that I will shoot you down whenever I find you if you do not keep your oath. There! now you may drive on—I will harness the horse to the sledge myself. Stay where you are!" he repeated when, in spite of that, they wanted to lend him a helping hand.
They did not stir again, so obedient had they become. And when he had finished, they said, with great politeness,
"Good-evening," and drove away.
"So that is how to do it," he murmured, throwing the pistol down in the snow and looking after the sledge with folded hands. "If you rely upon what is right and honorable, and wish, in the goodness of your heart, to turn everything to good, you are called a coward and treated like a dog. But if you treat others like dogs from the first, without considering whether you are in the right or wrong, you are called brave, everything succeeds with you, and you are a hero. So that is how it is done."
He shuddered. He was seized with such disgust towards himself and the whole world. In his own eyes he appeared so polluted that nothing on earth could ever cleanse him again.
* * * * *
The next forenoon he stood in the snow behind the shed and gazed towards Helenenthal, where a dark funeral procession was preparing for its sad journey. Twice he had gone to the stables to tell the servants to get the sledge ready, and each time the word had stuck in his throat.
Now he stood there with his hands folded, watching how the long, black, undulating line crept on over the dazzling-white snowy heath; it grew smaller and smaller, and disappeared at last behind the wood, for the cemetery of Helenenthal lay far off on the way to the town.
"How nice it would be," he thought, "if they would bury her, too, beneath the three fir-trees; then mother would have a good neighbor and—"
He started! As quick as lightning his brain had pictured how, on a beautiful spring evening, he might meet Elsbeth there, who would come and sit near the grave that belonged to her, as he would come to his.
"But it is better as it is," he said to himself; "how could I ever find courage to look into her eyes again?—I, who lurk about the road at night to get husbands for my wretched sisters!"
Then suddenly the twins came running up breathless; they trembled all over and struggled for words.
"What is the matter, children?"
Greta hid her head on his shoulder, and Kate sniffled like a child trying to keep back its tears.
"They have come," they stammered, and then they both began to sob.
"That is a good thing," answered Paul, and kissed them.
"Won't you come into the house?" Katie asked, sucking her apron.
"Where have you left them?"
"They are talking to father."
"Ah! that is a very different thing. Run to your room—I will come in a moment."
"And what a price it cost," he murmured, looking after them; then he gave a glance at Helenenthal, and went into the shed where "Black Susy" stood. "It is time that you should come back to life," he said, stroking her black body; "we shall have to work bravely, you and I, if we want to procure the dowry for the girls."
When he stepped into the house he heard the loud-sounding voice of his father coming out to him.
"I am curious all the same to see how they will behave," he thought, and listened.
"Yes, he is a simpleton, and will remain a simpleton, gentlemen. What I have imagined on a big scale, he accomplishes on a small one in his petty, mercenary manner. It went to my heart when I saw him fidgeting about the machine, as if it were nothing more than a willow-pipe, and meanwhile the farm goes to ruin. Oh, gentlemen! you see me here a cripple, but if I still bore the sceptre, gentlemen, I would coin thousands of thalers out of the ground, no less than Vanderbilt, the American, whose life is written in this almanac in a very instructive manner."
"Couldn't you manage to direct the affairs from your chair?" inquired Ulrich's voice.
"Oh, gentlemen, behold my tears! I shed them for the most ungrateful, the most degenerate child which this earth has ever seen. In this almanac there is the story of a son who, at the risk of his life, fetches draughts of water from the hands of robbers for his parents languishing in the desert. I am not able to offer you even a little liquor, a little ginger brandy with aniseed, which I am so fond of drinking myself."
"In future we will bring some for you," Fritz answered him.
"Oh, why has not God given me two such sons as you are? And fancy, he never consults me, he locks me out of the kitchen. I wonder that I have not been starved out. Well, you know him from a child; was he not always a rough, spiteful creature?"
"Oh yes; there was always something violent about him," said Ulrich.
"And he was always handling pistols and whips, especially behind one's back," Fritz added.
"Especially behind one's back—ha! ha! ha! that is characteristic, that is his way. Ah, gentlemen, secret malice never brings good, as the proverb in this almanac says, and if Heaven permits me to recover again, you shall see how I will take my revenge—first on the rogue, the incendiary, the villainous fellow, to whom all my misery is due, and then on my dear son who treats his father so badly. I shall disinherit him, hunt him away from the farm. Shall I be right, gentlemen, if I do this?"
"Quite right," both declared.
"How do you do?" said Paul, coming forward.
All three started. His father crouched shyly down in his arm-chair, like a dog who fears the whip, and the brothers stretched out their hands, very embarrassed and very humble, and begged him to let by-gones be by-gones.
"Why not?" he answered, combating his repugnance; "you know the right way now."
When the two brought forward their suit, the old man's boastfulness broke out stronger than ever.
"Gentlemen," he said, repressing his voice so that it might sound more dignified, "your proposal is a great honor naturally, but I am not able to answer it with 'Yes.' First, I must ask for a sufficient guarantee, that I may know what future awaits my daughters, who, by their beauty and amiability, as well as by stainless virtue, are destined for a high position. I have educated them most carefully, and watched over them so lovingly that my fatherly heart cannot decide to give them away without serious consideration."
In this tone he went on boasting till Paul quietly said, "Let it be, father, the matter is already settled." Then he was silent, secretly highly elated to have made such a magnificent speech.
In the afternoon Paul went into his sisters' room and said:
"Children, say a prayer for Frau Douglas, who was buried to-day."
They looked at him with eyes sparkling with joy, and a dreamy smile passed over their faces.
"Have you not understood me?"
"Yes," they said, softly, and looked terrified—they clung to each other as if they feared the rod. He left them alone in their happiness, and stepped out into the clear, cold winter air. "How is it," he thought, "that everybody now fears me and no one understands what I mean?"
The same day he dismissed all the servants, and wrote to the foreman to come back on the morrow to resume work again.
* * * * *
During the same week it began to thaw, the work went on quickly, and one Friday evening at the beginning of March "Black Susy" stood there, smart and shiny in her newly-mended garment. Next day the boiler was to be tried, and the wood and coal lay heaped up by the walls of the shed.
Paul, unable to sleep, tossed on his bed. The hours crept slowly by, and a short eternity of the most painful expectation elapsed between midnight and dawn.
"Will she come to life? Will she?"
The clock struck one. He could not stand it any longer; he dressed and crept out into the cold, wet March night, a flickering lantern in his hand. The wind caught his clothes and the icy drizzling rain scourged his face.
"Black Susy" glared sulkily out of the dark shed as if she resented being deprived of her last night's rest.... The lantern threw a ghostly light over the inhospitable place, and each time it flickered the shadow of the machine danced in grotesque forms on the yellow deal wall.
"Shall I wake up the foreman?" thought Paul. "No, let him sleep; I will have the first pain or the first joy all to myself."
Heaps of coal sank rattling into the great iron jaws. A little blue flame leaped up, flickered all round, and soon a red glow filled the dark interior.... The lantern on the wall shone dimly, as if jealous of the warm, cheerful fire-light.
Paul seated himself upon a coal-heap and watched the play of the flames.... The oven-door began to glow and half-burnt cinders to fall, throwing out sparks all round.
Paul could hear his heart beat, and as he pressed his hand upon it to still its tumult he felt Elsbeth's flute in his breast-pocket. He had found it lying on the locomobile the day the work was begun again, and had carried it about with him ever since.
"I wonder if I shall ever learn that, too?" he asked himself, in tumultuous joy at what he had already accomplished. He put the flute to his mouth and tried to blow it—the minutes passed so slowly that he was forced to try and while away the time. But the sounds which he produced sounded hollow and squeaky—still less could he squeeze out a melody.
"I shall never learn it," he thought. "Whatever I do for myself fails—that is a law in my life; I must sow for others if I want to reap."
But in spite of this he put the flute to his lips again.
"It would have been nice," he thought, "if, instead of heating engines here, I had become an artist, as Elsbeth used to prophesy." A thrill of excitement went through him. "Will she live again? Will she?"
He extracted another shrill sound from the flute.
"B-r-r," he said, "that goes through one's nerves! I shall have to leave love and flute-playing to others."
But at this moment there arose in the body of "Black Susy" that mysterious singing which had remained faithfully in his memory all these years. It sounded as if the fates were singing beneath the ash-tree.
"Ah, that is far better music!" he cried, springing up and throwing the flute away from him.... The iron door rattled.... The glowing jaws swallowed new heaps of coal. The shovel fell clattering to the ground.
"It will wake them up in the house," he thought, startled for a moment. "But let it, let it," he continued; "their happiness and their future are at stake."
The singing grew louder and louder; then his joy came to a climax, so that he began to whistle aloud. "How nice that sounds! Yes, we understand how to make music; we are brave musicians, Susy." The chimney sent forth mighty clouds of black smoke, which disseminated itself under the ceiling like a canopy, heaving and sinking as though a storm were driving it.... One of the valves sent forth a hissing sound, and a white cloud of steam spirted up, which quickly mixed with the black smoke.... The hissing grew louder and louder, the hand of the manometer went on and on....
"Now is the time!"
With a trembling hand he felt for the lever.... A jerk ... a swing ... and whirling, as if driven by supernatural force, the wheel went round.
"Victory! she lives, she lives!"
"Now they may hear, now they may come!" His hand pulled at the valve of the steam-whistle, and shrilly the night echoed her cry:
"I live! I live!"
Then he folded his hands and murmured, softly,
"O mother, you should have lived to see this!" And as he said so it suddenly occurred to him that this, too, was useless—that death was upon him also, crying into his ear,
"You will die! will die! before having lived."
"I have still work to do," he said, with moist eyes. "First, I will see my sisters happy, for if they remain poor they will be treated brutally; then I must see the farm right itself; then death may come."
And, like the black clouds around, years and years of struggling and years of care rose up before his eyes.
With sleepy faces the inmates appeared at the gate of the shed; the sisters came, too, and stood anxiously clinging to each other, in the smoke and the glow of the fire, looking in their white dressing-gowns like two pale roses on the same stalk.
"Here your future is being prepared, you poor things," he murmured, nodding to them.
When the foreman had come, Paul went into his father's bedroom, who stared at him confusedly.
"Father," he said, modestly, though his heart swelled with pride, "the locomobile is in working order; as soon as the ground has thawed the work on the moor can begin."
The old man said, "Leave me in peace," and turned his head to the wall.
Next morning, when the locomobile was pulled out, a strange rattling, scrunching sound was heard on the threshold of the shed.
"Something has got under the wheels," said the foreman.
Paul looked. There, in a heap of little fragments, broken in half, and pressed quite flat, lay—Elsbeth's flute.
A bitter smile came over his face, as if he meant to say, "Now I have sacrificed to you all that I have; now can you be satisfied, Dame Care?"
Since that day he felt as if the last link between himself and Elsbeth was severed—he had lost her, like his dreams, his hopes, his dignity, his own self.
With hurrahs, "Black Susy" wandered out onto the moor.
Years went by. The sisters had already long been settled as happy wives, their dowry was paid, and the brothers-in-law had already begun to borrow from Paul.
How silent it was now in the quiet Haidehof. The father could hobble about the house and garden on a crutch, but he had grown much too lazy to wield the sceptre again. Paul did not know what else to do for him, except to have his favorite dishes cooked, not to measure his rations of ginger and aniseed too sparingly, and to present him each Christmas with a new almanac. The old man might have been well satisfied with this, for indeed he needed nothing more—he had even grown too heavy to drive to the town; but the better his body throve the more imbittered and exasperated grew his mind. He would sit and brood for hours, and it was dreadful to see how in doing so he gnashed his teeth and shook his fists. One of his fixed ideas was that his son kept him under on purpose that he might claim for himself the glory of the great ideas which his father had conceived, and the better the moor paid the more eagerly he calculated what his company would have brought in. He was not sparing with the millions; he had no need to be so.
But something sprang up from the darkest corner of his soul, and that was a plan of revenge against Douglas, which he privately nursed and cherished as his most important secret. Even his sons-in-law, to whom he liked to open his heart, knew nothing of this. Ulrich once said to Paul,
"Take care; the old man is brewing something against Douglas."
"What could it be?" he replied, apparently unconcerned, although he had often felt anxiety on this subject.
Dull, and without interest, Paul lived from one day to the next. His whole inner being was sacrificed to the commonplace cares about property and money, yet without his ever experiencing any joy at the success he attained. There was no longer anybody whom he could make happy, and he worked on without knowing why—as a cart-horse in the traces moves forward, ignorant of what the plough does, which it drags through the briers. Months sometimes passed without his taking one retrospective glance at his soul. He did not whistle any more, either. He feared the torments which overwhelming sentiment called into life, but he looked back on the time when he could commune with himself in the language of music as on a lost paradise. Often when he compared the result of his work, his toiling, his wakeful nights, to that which he had sacrificed for it, he was overcome by intense bitterness. It seemed to him to have been something unspeakably noble, sweet and blissful, only he could not find the right name for it.
He could rid himself of these black thoughts most successfully by plunging deep into some new work, and then a long time would pass before the fit of melancholy attacked him again.
Meanwhile the Haidehof was thriving more splendidly from year to year; the debt to Douglas was paid off, the crops flourished, and in the meadows thorough-bred cattle were feeding. The whole place was to be rebuilt. The house, stables, and barn all were to be thoroughly renewed. And one spring there came a crowd of workmen of all kinds into the yard. The house was pulled down, and while Paul chose a wooden barrack for his dwelling, his father was easily induced to go over to stay with one of his sons-in-law.
"I shall never come back," he said, taking leave; "I cannot stand the sight of your mad proceedings any longer." But the first to come back in the autumn was the old man. He seated himself comfortably in his own arm-chair, and henceforth added his son-in-law to the list of those he abused. It was very possible they might not have treated him with too much consideration.
"Now I have no longer a place on earth where I can rest my gray hairs," he grumbled, stretching himself lazily on his cushions.
Next spring it was the turn of the farm buildings; the barn, especially, was to be made an example of rural magnificence, as a monument of that terrible night which had given the death-blow to his mother.
The farmers who now drove across the heath often halted to look admiringly at the smart buildings which, with their red-tiled roofs, impressed them already in the distance, and many a one shook his head thoughtfully and murmured the old proverb:
"To build and to lend Bring cares without end."
"Black Susy" on the moor was sending forth her black clouds of smoke, the knives of the cutting-machine bored themselves deep into the clammy ground, and the press worked slowly and silently like a good-natured domestic animal. A newly-built shed with its white walls looked dazzling in the sunshine, and all round about the long black rows of compressed peat were to be seen. The blocks were hard and heavy, with little fibre and much coal. They easily beat all competition and had a good reputation as far as Koenigsberg.
Paul, who on his business journeys mixed much with strange people, now also enjoyed the happiness of being greeted as a man of consequence, and of being treated by the worthy land-owners as their equal. But he had no longer any pleasure in it.
When they shook hands with him in a friendly manner, congratulated him upon his success, or requested a visit from him, he asked himself in silence, "Are they mocking me?" And though he saw well that the gentlemen were quite in earnest about it, he always felt as if freed from a nightmare when they let him go.
"Why did not these kind people come here before," he said to himself, "at that time when I needed them—when each kind word would have been of great advantage to me? Now I am as insensible as a stone—now it is too late."
But his ambition increased more and more. And as if Heaven itself wished to consecrate it all, it caused the fruit to thrive in such abundance that year (the seventh since his mother's death), sent rain and sunshine so lavishly, each at its proper time, that the people began to feel uncomfortable at all this profusion, and asked each other anxiously, "Can it be for any real good?"
"Something will still come and spoil all—a hailstorm or the like," said Paul, who was always prepared for the worst. But no; the harvest wagons came in one after the other heavily laden, swaying from side to side, and kept pouring the profusion of golden ears into the granary, scattering grains around until it was full up to the rafters.
But neither did this give pleasure to Paul. The more he saw his property accumulate, the more proudly the fruits of his handiwork greeted him, the heavier grew his care. Any one who had seen him slowly walking across the yard, with deep lines in his forehead and bowed head, might have taken him for a man encumbered with debts and very near to ruin.
About this time he read in the newspaper that Elsbeth was betrothed. The name of Elsbeth Douglas and Leo Heller stood side by side in letters full of beautiful flourishes.
He did not feel any sharp pain, he was not even startled; only a smile of melancholy satisfaction played round his mouth, as if he were murmuring to himself, "I always said so!"
And then he remembered the document which had once been circulated in church by the younger Erdmann to vex him, and which sounded just the same, only that his own name had stood there instead of the strange one. And that certainly made a difference.
He had not seen her for years. Although their properties lay so close together there had been no meeting between them. The White House still gleamed just as brightly over the heath and overlooked his window as at the time when the longing to wander thither had arisen in his childish heart, but the magic glitter which surrounded it then, and for fifteen years after, had now vanished, extinguished by the deepening shadows of every-day life.
"May she be happy!" he said, and considered himself comforted by this wish.
Next Sunday the harvest festival was celebrated in the church. Paul sat in his corner, and listened to the tones of the organ and the vicar sending up praise and thanksgiving to Heaven. The sun shone through the painted windows in a thousand bright colors, just as it did on the day when he and Elsbeth were confirmed; but there, too, sad and sombre in her ash-colored garments, stood the gray woman, still gazing down upon him with her big, hollow eyes.
"I, too, am celebrating a harvest festival to-day, the harvest festival of my youth," he thought, "but mine is scarcely a too happy one."
The service was at an end. With a triumphant song the organ dismissed the joyful worshippers, who crowded together under the yews in the shady church-yard to shake hands and congratulate each other.
As Paul came down the steps he saw Elsbeth only a few paces before him, on the arm of her betrothed.
She seemed older, and looked pale and delicate. When her look met his she turned a shade paler still.
He trembled all over, but his eyes did not quit her face. In confusion he raised his cap; and at the same place where fifteen years ago they had spoken the first words to one another, they now passed each other in silence and like strangers.
"Whatever is the matter with father?" said Frau Kate Erdmann to Frau Greta Erdmann, as they were both driving along the road on the way to visit their old home and take the opportunity at the same time of telling their brother all that weighed on their minds.
The old man stood crouched up in a corner behind the barn, and was busying himself over a heap of straw which lay there. When he heard the rattle of the dog-cart he stopped in alarm and rubbed his hands like some one who wished to appear unconcerned.
The two sisters looked at each other, and Greta said,
"We must give Paul a hint of this."
Oh, they had become very reasonable, these two wild girls! not less so inwardly than outwardly; their truant brown curls were combed smoothly behind their ears, and the sparkling eyes had a weary look in them, as though they now knew how it feels to sit in a lonely room and cry one's heart out.
Frau Kate, indeed, had three strapping boys, and
Frau Greta had already hopes of a fourth; and every one knows "Maternity renders weary."
Paul was not at home; he was working on the moor; but their father came towards them with a cunning laugh, swinging his crutch, and crying out, "Can't I run again like a youth?"
Frau Kate expressed her admiration and Frau Greta agreed with her.
"It goes first-rate," he laughed; "the day before yesterday I even went as far as Helenenthal."
They looked at him in surprise, and almost in terror, for since he was forced to leave it he had never been there again.
"How were you received?" asked Frau Greta.
"Who? What? Oh, you think perhaps I went for a neighborly visit? You are real geese! I would sooner be the guest of your watch-dog and try to take his mutton-bone away."
"But what did you do there, then?"
"I peeped through the gate and looked at the clock and then I came home again. How long do you think it takes me to walk there? just guess."
They had no idea.
"An hour and a half, just like a professional runner.... Indeed," he looked down meditatively, "if one had anything to carry, it might take two."
"And you went only to find that out?"
"That was all, my love, that was all!" and his eye sparkled meaningly.
Then they seated themselves in the veranda, which Paul had had erected before the door, on the model of the White House. The old house-keeper, who had formerly managed the Erdmanns' establishment, and who after they were married had emigrated to the Haidehof, had to go into the kitchen to make coffee and waffle cakes, and as their father did not know what to talk about to his daughters, he abused Paul and his sons-in-law. To-day he did it less from absolute love of abuse than from old habit; his thoughts seemed to be wandering somewhere else, and while he spoke he wriggled on his chair with uncomfortable activity.
"Let us go in," said Kate; "we must look after household matters a little, and the wind is blowing us away here."
"There will be a storm to-night," said Greta. And then they both turned round terrified, for the laugh which the old man gave sounded so very strange.
"Let there be a storm," he said, a little embarrassed; "that won't matter at all. There are storms in married life too, sometimes, are there not?"
In Kate's face there lurked something of her old mischievous look, but Greta drew down the corners of her mouth, as if she were going to cry. She seemed not quite to have got over the last.
"Yes, autumn will be early this year," she said, with a touch of melancholy.
The old man whistled "Wenn die Schwalben Heimwarts Ziehn" (When the Swallows Homeward Fly), and Katie said:
"Let autumn come; the barns are full."
"Thank God!" tittered the old man, "they are full."
The sisters put their arms round each other, and pressing their foreheads against the window panes, looked out into the sunny yard, from which clouds of dust were whirling to the sky....
At dusk Paul came home, black as a nigger, for the peat-dust, which the wind had been blowing about, had settled on his beard and face.
He mutely shook hands with his sisters, looked sharply into their eyes, and said, "You shall tell me all about it afterwards."
Greta looked at Kate, and Kate looked at Greta; then they suddenly laughed aloud, and, seizing him by both shoulders, danced about the room with him.
"You will make yourselves black, children," he said.
"My sweetheart is a chimney-sweep," hummed Greta; and Kate sang the second verse, "My sweetheart comes from the nigger's land."
Then they kissed him and ran to the looking-glass to see whether the kiss had left a mark.
When he had gone out to make himself tidy, Greta said, "It's funny that he has only to look at one and all is right again."
And Kate added, "But he is more silent himself to-day than ever."
"Paul, be good," they said, caressingly, as they sat together at the supper-table; "we may only come here on such rare occasions!... show us a friendly face."
"Have you forgotten what day it is?" he answered, stroking their hair.
They started, for their first thought was of the anniversary of their mother's death, but they breathed freely again, for that fell near Midsummer-day.
"Well?" they asked.
"To-day, eight years ago, our barn was burned down!"
All were silent; only their father chuckled and sighed to himself....
It began to grow dark; over the heath there still streamed a streak of red light, which was reflected a fiery glow upon the white table-cloth. The storm rattled at the shutters.
It was a good thing that the house-keeper now entered the room. She was a garrulous woman, who had always much news to relate.
"Well, Frau Jankus, what have you to tell us?" called out Kate to her, who was glad to shake off the nightmare of remembrance.
"Oh, dear madam," cried the old person, "don't you know yet? There are great goings-on in the church to-day. The whole village is making wreaths; over the altar they have hung a whole garland of rare tea-roses, and on each side the most beautiful oleander trees are placed."
"Why, what's the matter?"
"A wedding is the matter! Miss Douglas's wedding will be to-morrow!"
The two sisters started, exchanged a quick glance with each other, and then looked at Paul.
But he was rolling a crumb of bread between his fingers, and looked as if the story did not concern him in the least.
The sisters exchanged another glance and nodded significantly. Then, with the same impulse, they both seized his hands.
"Children, you tear me to pieces," he said, with a feeble smile.
"Ah, then there will be polterabend there today?" asked their father, growing quite lively all of a sudden.
"Probably, probably!" answered the old housekeeper. "Not long ago I saw a troop of children go by quite laden with old flower-pots and rubbish."
"At our wedding they showed more moderation," said Greta, and both sisters looked at each other and smiled dreamily.
"That's a splendid coincidence," muttered the old man, and rubbed his hands.
"Why splendid?" asked Paul.
"Oh, I only meant ... coincidence—the same day that they burned down our barn. Just tell me, Paul—you were awake—what hour might it have been when you saw the flames rise?"
"It might have been one o'clock."
"Well, you ought to know. Though what the business really was that took you to Helenenthal that night passes my comprehension, but it is all right quite right! now I know the exact hour."
Then you know a great deal! said Greta, laughing.
"So I do," he answered, sulkily. "You'll see, my little daughter, you'll see!"
Kate was about to come to her sister's assistance, but Paul made them a sign, secretly, to leave the old man in peace.
Soon after, the sisters took leave.
"You wanted to tell Paul that father has secrets behind the, barn," said Kate, when they were both sitting in the dog cart.
"Yes that is true!" she answered, made the driver stop, and beckoned to Paul. But the old man, who, in his distrust, always liked to hear everything that was said, thrust himself in, and so they had to leave it unsaid.
When Paul, on his usual evening round, came into the kitchen, he saw how his father was negotiating with the house keeper for an earthen pot.
"What do you want the pot for, Mr Meyerhofer?" asked the old woman.
"I also am going to celebrate polterabend, Frau Jankus," he replied, with a hollow laugh. "Perhaps they will give me some of the wedding cake."
The old woman nearly died of laughing, and his father limped off to his bedroom with the pot, locking the door carefully behind him.
The whole house had retired to rest, only Paul still paced up and down in the dark yard.
"So to morrow will be her wedding," he thought, folding his hands "If I were a good Christian I ought to say a prayer for her happiness. But I am not such an inert fellow yet, by a long way I believe that I once loved her very much, more than I knew myself. How can it have been that I became a stranger to her?" He thought and thought, but could come to no right conclusion.
The moon rose over the moor—a great blood red disk—which spread an uncertain light all over the yard. The storm seemed to be augmenting. It whistled round the corners and howled through the trees.
"If a fire were to break out to day it would not content itself with the barn only," thought Paul and then it occurred to him that he must send a reminder to the agent, to hasten the insurance. "For one never knows what might happen during the night. I will go to sleep"—he concluded his reflections—"to morrow is another day, and a wedding day, too"
He went on tiptoe to the bedroom, which he had prepared for himself near that of his fathers, so as to be at hand if anything should happen to the old man. He lighted no candle, for the full moon, rising higher, already shone brightly into the room.
"I wonder if you will sleep to night? he thought an hour later. The shadows of the storm blown leaves led a wild dance on his counterpane, and in between the light of the moon quivered like little tongues of white flame.
"On that midsummer night the moon shone just as bright," and then he remembered how white Elsbeth's dressing gown had looked, peeping out underneath her dark cloak.
"That was the finest night of my life," he murmured, with a sigh, and then he decided to go to sleep! and drew his blanket over his head to strengthen his resolution.
Some time after, he thought he heard his father get up softly in the next room and limp out at the door. He could distinctly hear how the crutch clattered on the stone flags of the hall.
"He will come back directly," he thought, for it often happened that his father got up in the night.
With that he fell into an uneasy doze, in which all sorts of terrible dreams chased each other through his head. When he next came to full consciousness the moon was already high in the heavens, her beams now scarcely illumined his room at all, but the garden and yard lay bathed in light.
"Strange—it seems to me as if I had not heard father come back," he said to himself. He sat up and looked at the watch that was hanging over his bed.
"Light minutes to one." Two hours had elapsed meanwhile.
"I suppose I was fast asleep," he thought, and was about to lie down again. Then the house door, caught by the storm, slammed noisily to, so that the whole house shook.
He jumped up, terrified What is that? The house door open, father not back yet? The next moment he had thrown on his coat and trousers, and with bare feet and bare head rushed out.
The door which led from his father's bedroom into the hall stood wide open. Pale with anxiety, he stepped towards the bed—it had not been used, only on the foot of it there was an impression on the feather quilt So his father had been sitting there without stirring for more than an hour and a half—evidently waiting till he himself was asleep.
What in the name of Heaven did all this mean?
His look wandered searchingly round the room. The worsted slippers in which his father generally crept about the house were thrown in the corner, but the boots, which for months had been standing there unused, were gone.
What? Did his lame father want to go for a ramble in the middle of the night? His heart almost stopped beating He rushed out into the yard.
It was as clear as daylight, only as far as the shadow of the barn extended night still reigned.
The storm howled among the trees, the glistening white sand was whirled in the air, otherwise all was silent and deserted.
He hastened through the garden—no trace of him—to the back of the stables—still no trace of him. Ah, what did this mean? The gate open? Where had he gone? The dog near him whined, he hastily unfastened his chain. "Seek for your master, Turk. Seek'"
The dog sniffed about on the ground and ran to the front of the barn, where the bundles of straw were lying piled up like pale mountains of sand along the wall.
The moonlight was dazzling on the whitewashed wall, and lay bright and glittering on the ground One might have found a pin by its light. There was nothing to be noticed, except in one place the straw seemed disarranged.
But stop! how does the ladder come here, which is leaning against the wall? The ladder which but two hours ago was lying flat along the inside of the fence?
Who has taken it from its place?
And, by heaven!—what is this?—
Who has opened the window of the loft, which he himself had bolted from the inside before the barn was filled with the sheaves?
Below at the foot of the ladder, the ground looked moist, as if a liquid had been spilled. An odor of petroleum rose from the spot.
With trembling hands he seized the straw which was strewn on the ground. Yes, it was wet, and the obnoxious odor communicated itself to the fingers that touched it.
He felt his knees tremble under him, a dull, terrible foreboding clouded his senses. With difficulty he raised himself up and mounted the ladder, till he reached the window of the loft.
The dog whined below.
"Seek for your master, Turk. Seek!"
The animal broke out into a joyous howl and ran sniffing round and round, till he seemed to have found the scent.
Paul gazed at him. He was trembling feverishly, in agonizing suspense.
The way the animal took was through the gate. Then it really had been his father who had opened it.
But then—then.... Which way would he turn?
"Seek for your master, Turk. Seek!"
The dog again gave a short howl, and then ran with great speed down the path towards Helenenthal.
Helenenthal! What does father want in Helenenthal? Ah, did he not say a short time ago that he had been there one afternoon for an experiment? For an experiment! And how strangely and unpleasantly he laughed when he said it.
And to-day, too. How mysterious his behavior had been! And when they were speaking of the barn catching fire, what did he mean by the words that it was a splendid coincidence today? Why to day? Whatever happens, I must find the solution of this riddle ere it is too late!
He looked around, seeking help.
As his hand was groping mechanically in the dark aperture he laid hold of the handle of a tin can which stood hidden there among the sheaves. It was the petroleum can, which he had freshly filled yesterday. And on whose advice? Who was it who came and said,
"Father, father, for Jesus' sake, what do you want to do at Helenenthal?"
And now, how much is there still in it? It is scarcely half full.
As he unconsciously went on groping about, he came upon some boxes of matches which lay by the can.
This opened his eyes, he gave a terrible cry, "He is going to set Helenenthal on fire!"
Everything swam before his eyes, and he would have fallen backward from the ladder had he not clung to the framework of the window.
All was clear. His father's confused talk, his laughs, his threats.
But there was yet time. The old man could only creep along on his crutch. He might throw himself on his horse, and gallop after him.
"Saddle a horse!" he called out through the dark, and sprang down from the ladder. Then suddenly it shot through his brain—"Why did father ask so minutely about the time years ago? Would his revenge be executed at the same moment? Good heavens' then all is lost. I told him one o'clock was the hour, and it is one now."
Mad fear seized him—again he climbed the ladder.
In the next moment the flames would rise over there.
Is it not burning there already? No, it is only the moon that shines on the windows of the White House. Heavenly Father, is there no salvation, no mercy? If a prayer, if a curse could have the power to lame the out stretched hand! Who will warn him, who will give him a sign to turn back?
But there are the flames No. Perhaps in another second the fiery glow will rise to the sky.
It will flame up as it did then, eight years ago, when the blood red reflection paralyzed all his faculties, as he roamed in the garden of Helenenthal. If to day, as at that time, a fire were to rise on the heath, or that his father's hand might be stiffened in the midst of his criminal purpose.
Oh, God in Heaven, let a miracle happen! Let a fire break out on the heath, as it happened before—as happened before.
There must be a fire! And there must be a fire here! If lightning would but strike the roof of his own home, so that the flames might cry out to his father, "Stop, stop!" Ah, why is it such a clear, starlight night? Why is there no threatening cloud upon the horizon? Perhaps he is even now stretching up to the thatched roof. Perhaps he is now striking the match. In another moment all warning will be too late.
There must be a fire! There must be a fire here!
And there is no torch that I could swing to warn him!
"There must be a fire! There must be a fire here!"
And as he looked around with eyes starting from his head, there suddenly flashed upon him an idea as bright as the fire he was longing for.
He shouted with joy.
"Yes, that's the thing. The terror will benumb him. It must be saved. Saved at any price."
With both hands he seized the can, and swinging it round him, poured its contents on the piled-up sheaves.
He grasped the matches. There is a soft hissing, the storm howls through the opening, and the flame shoots up high into the air, a whistling, hissing roaring is heard. The fire has already reached the roof.
He rushes back into the yard, which still lies silent before him.
"Fire! fire! fire!" he cries, to wake the sleepers.
In the stables, where the farm servants sleep, there is a great stir, shrieks come from the servants' rooms.
The roof is already wrapped in a fiery mantle. The tiles begin to crack, and fall rattling to the ground. Wherever there is an outlet a fountain of flame immediately spirts up towards the sky.
Hitherto he had been standing in the yard all alone, watching his terrible work with folded hands, but now the doors were torn open, and the farm servants and maids rushed screaming into the yard.
Then he sighed, relieved, as at a duty accomplished, and walked slowly into the garden to avoid meeting anybody. "I have worked long enough," he murmured, slamming the gate behind him. "To-day I will rest!"
With lagging steps he went along the gravel path like one tired out, murmuring incessantly "Rest! rest!"
His glance wandered wearily around, the garden lay before him, bathed in a sea of light caused by the moonbeams and the flames, and the shadows of the storm driven leaves danced before his eyes like something supernatural. Here and there a spark fell upon the path before him, looking like a glowworm. He searched for the darkest arbor, and hid in its farthest corner. There he sat down on the turfy seat and buried his face in his hands.
He wanted neither to hear nor to see anything more.
But a dull feeling of curiosity made him look up after a while, and as he raised his eyes he saw the flames arch over the house like a crimson, white-edged canopy, for the storm was blowing that way.
Then he knew all was lost.
He folded his hands. He felt as if he ought to pray.
"Mother! mother!" he cried, his eyes full of tears, stretching out his arms to the sky.
Then, suddenly, a strange change came over him. He felt quite happy and free, the heavy load which had weighed on his mind all these years had vanished, and, with a deep breath, he drew his hands along his shoulders and arms, as though he longed to rid himself of the sinking fetters.
"There," he cried, like one from whose heart a burden is taken, "now I have nothing more, now I need care no longer. I am free, free as the birds in the air."
He hit his forehead with his fists, he cried, he laughed. He felt as if an undeserved, unheard of happiness had descended upon him from heaven.
"Mother! mother!" he shouted, wild with joy. "Now I know how your fairy tale ends. I am released! I am released!"
At this moment the frightened lowing of the cattle fell upon his ear, and brought him back to his senses. "No, you poor animals shall not perish on my account," he cried, springing up, "I would rather die myself."
He hurried to the back door of the house, where the servants were eagerly carrying out the furniture.
"Look at master!" they exclaimed, weeping, and drew each other's attention to his bare feet.
"Leave that alone!" he cried. "Save the animals!"
An axe lay on the path. With it he broke open the back door of the stables, which led into the fields, for the yard was already a sea of flames.
As in a dream he sees how the garden and field are filling with people. The village fire engine comes rattling along, the road to Helenenthal, too, becomes alive.
Three, four times he rushes into the flames, the servants behind him, then he sinks down, fainting with pain, in the middle of the burning stables.
A shriek, a piercing shriek from a woman, causes him to open his eyes once more.
Then it seemed to him as if he saw Elsbeth's face vanishing in mist over his head, then it was night again round him....
At the first streak of dawn a sad procession went across the autumnal heath, on the way to Helenenthal. Two miserable wagons crept slowly, one behind the other. In them was found room for all that remained of the Haidehof.
In the first wagon, wrapped in blankets among the straw, lay the master, terribly burned, unconscious ... The pale, trembling woman who anxiously bent over him was the playfellow of his youth.
In this state she fetched him home at last. "We will take him to one of his sisters," Mr. Douglas had said but she had laid her hands on Paul's breast, from which the singed rags hung down, as if she wanted to take possession of him for evermore, and had answered:
"No, father, he is coming with us."
"But your wedding, child—the guests?"
"What is the wedding to me?" she replied, and the gay bridegroom stood by stupefied.
In the second cart lay the few pieces of furniture which had been saved: an old chest of drawers, a few drawers with linen and books and ribbons, earthen ware dishes, a milk pail, and his father's long pipe.
But where was the latter?
The only one who might have given an explanation lay there unconscious, perhaps already struggling with death.
Had he taken to flight? Had he perished in the flames? The maids had found his bedroom empty, and no trace of himself.
"I suspect no good of him," said old Douglas, "he was always inclined to madness, and if we find his bones to morrow beneath the ruins I shall be quite convinced that he set fire to the barn himself, and then threw himself into the flames."
However, just as they were coming through the gates of Helenenthal they heard a dog howling piteously near the barn, and saw a strange cur with his fore paws on a dark mass lying there, and from time to time pulling at something that looked like the end of a garment.
Douglas, surprised, ordered the cart to stop, and walked up to it. There he found the person they were seeking—a corpse. His features were horribly distorted, and his arms still half uplifted, as if he had been suddenly turned to stone. Near him lay a broken pot, and a matchbox was shimming in a pool of petroleum, which as flowing down the wheel ruts as in a gutter.
Then the gray giant folded his hands and murmured a prayer When he came back to the cart he trembled all over, and his eyes were full of tears.
"Elsbeth, look here," he said, "there lies the body of old Meyerhofer. He wanted to set fire to our property, and God has struck him dead."
"God does not set barns on fire," said Elsbeth, and looked back at the burning farm, from which a dark-blue smoke was rising in the chilly morning air.
"But is it not through God's providence that we were saved?"
"If any one saved us, this one did," said Elsbeth.
"What? would he have sacrificed everything, would he have become an incendiary—only—to—"
"Ask him," she said, hoarsely, and in the growing anxiety of her heart she folded her hands on her breast and groaned aloud.
"Heaven grant that he may ever be able to answer again," murmured Douglas. Then he ordered the servants to bring the old man's body into the house. He had already sent for a doctor; he himself would drive to the sisters and give them the news.
The guests, horror-stricken, came rushing out to the cart, which stopped before the flower-decked veranda.
"Elsbeth, how ill you look! Elsbeth, spare yourself," cried out her aunts, and tried to take possession of her.
"Go away!" she said, and repulsed the caressing hands with a movement of horror.
Then the gay bridegroom, who during this night had played such a lamentable part, came to her and tried to persuade her to leave the helpless body. But she looked at him with an absent, wandering glance, as if she did not remember ever to have seen him before. Depressed and discouraged, he left her alone.
The aunts, wringing their hands, hurried to old Douglas, who was walking up and down before the stables awaiting a conveyance. His powerful chest heaved, his white, bushy brows were knitted, and his eyes shot lightning. A storm seemed to be passing over his soul.
"Have pity," cried the women; "make Elsbeth rest; she must recover herself; she looks as if she were going mad."
"If it is as she says," he muttered to himself, "if he has sacrificed all his belongings.... Plague you, leave me in peace!" he cried to the women who surrounded him.
"But think of Elsbeth," they called out. "At twelve o'clock the vicar comes, and what will she look like?"
"That's her lookout!" he shouted. "Let her be, she knows quite well what she is doing."
At the same moment that Paul was lifted from the cart a troop of servants came from the gate carrying his father's corpse.
One after the other the two bodies were carried into the White House, and the dog went whining and sniffing after them. It was a sad procession.
Elsbeth had Paul carried into her own bedroom, locked the door, and seated herself near the bed.
Vainly the aunts implored to be let in.
At eleven o'clock the doctor came, and declared himself willing to stay with his patient till next morning. He had evidently come prepared for it, for he was an old friend of the house and one of the wedding guests. Meanwhile they were to telegraph for a nurse.
"May I not stay with him?" asked Elsbeth.
"If you can," he answered, astonished.
"I can," she answered, with a mysterious smile.
The aunts knocked again. "Spare yourself, child," they cried through the chink of the door; "you must dress—you must go to the register-office. The vicar has come."
"He can go away again," she answered.
There was a murmur outside; the bridegroom, too, was giving his advice.
"What will you do, my child?" said the old doctor, and looked searchingly into her eyes. Then she sank, weeping, on her knees by the bed, seized Paul's powerless hand and pressed it to her eyes and mouth.
"Is that your firm resolution?" the old man asked. She nodded assent.
"And if he dies?"
"He will not die," she said; "he must not die."
The doctor smiled, sadly; "Very good," he said, then, "stay with him a while, and renew the compresses every two minutes. I will insure quiet meanwhile."
Soon the carriages were heard coming to the door and leaving the yard. An hour later the doctor re-entered the sick-room. "The house will soon be empty," he said; "the ceremony is put off."
"Put off?" she asked, anxiously.
The old man looked at her and shook his head. The human heart showed itself to him every day in new complications.
* * * * *
For weeks the patient lingered between life and death. The nervous fever which had set in seemed to take away all hope.
Elsbeth scarcely left his bedside. She did not eat, she did not sleep; her whole life seemed to be engrossed by the care of her beloved one.
Her old father let her alone. "She must cure him," he said, "so that I can question him."
The gay cousin began to feel that his position was not an enviable one, and, after he had allowed his uncle to pay all his debts, left Helenenthal.
Old Meyerhofer's body had been fetched by the twins the day after the fire. His mysterious death made a great sensation; the newspapers in the capital spoke of it, and what he had not attained through his whole life— to be celebrated as a hero—was granted to him in death.
But all this time the law was hanging over Paul's head awaiting his recovery.
The lawyer for the defence had ended. A murmur went through the wide court of the assizes, the galleries of which were crammed with spectators.
If the accused did not spoil the effect of the brilliant speech by an imprudent word he was saved.
The president's answer resounded unheard.
And now the eye-glasses and opera-glasses began to click. All eyes were directed to the pale, simply-clad man who was sitting in the same dock where, eight years ago, the vicious servant had sat.
The president asked whether the accused had anything more to add to strengthen the proof of his innocence.
"Silence! silence!" was murmured through the court.
But Paul rose and spoke—first, low and hesitatingly, then every moment with greater firmness.
"I am heartily sorry that the trouble my defender has taken to save me should have been useless; but I am not as innocent of the deed as he represents."
The judges looked at each other. "What is he at? He is going to speak against himself."
He said: "Anxiety made me nearly unconscious. I then acted in a kind of madness which at that moment rendered me incapable of calculation."
"He is cutting his own throat!" said the audience.
"I have all my life been shy and oppressed, and have felt as if I could look nobody in the face, though I had nothing to conceal; but if this time I behave in a cowardly manner, I believe I should be less able to do so than ever—and this time I should have good reason enough for it. My defender has also represented my former life as a pattern of all virtues. But this was not so, either. I lacked dignity and self-possession; I passed over too much as regards both other people and myself, and that has always rankled in my mind, though I was never clear about it. Too much has weighed upon me to enable me ever to breathe freely as a man should if he does not want to grow dull and care-laden. This deed has made me free, and has given me that which I lacked so long; it has been a great happiness to me; and should I be so ungrateful as to deny it to-day? No; I will not do that. Let them imprison me as long as they like. I shall abide my time and begin a new life.
"And so I must say I have set fire to my belongings in full consciousness; I was never more in my senses than at the moment when I poured the petroleum over my sheaves; and if to-day I were to be in the same position, God knows I should do the same again. Why should I not? What I destroyed was the work of my own hands—I had created it after long years of hard toil, and could do with it what I liked. I well know that the law is of a different opinion, and therefore I shall quietly go to prison for my time. But who else suffered by the injury except myself? My sisters were well provided for, and my father—" he stopped a moment, and his voice shook as he continued—"yes, would it not have been better if my old father had passed the last years of his life in peace and tranquillity with one of his daughters than where I am now going?
"Fate would not have it so. A stroke killed him, and my brothers say that I was his murderer. But my brothers have no right at all to judge about that; they neither know me nor my father. All their lives they have been concerned with themselves only, and have let me alone care for my father, mother, and sisters, house, and farm, and I was only good enough when they wanted something. They turn away from me to-day, but they can never be more estranged from me in the future than they have always been in the past.
"My sisters"—he turned towards the witness-box, where Greta and Kate sat crying with covered faces, and his voice grew softer as if from suppressed tears—"my sisters won't have anything to do with me any more, but I gladly forgive them; they are women, and made of more delicate metal; also, there are two men standing behind them who find it very easy to be indignant at my monstrous deed. They have all abandoned me now—no, not all"—a bright look crossed his face—"but that need not be mentioned here. But one thing I will say, even though I be considered a murderer—I do not repent that my father died through my deed; I loved him more when I killed him than if I had let him live. He was old and weak, and what awaited him was shame and dishonor—he lived such a quiet life, and would have miserably dwindled away here; surely it was better death should come to him like lightning that kills people in the middle of their happiness. That is my opinion. I have settled it with my conscience, and have no need to render account to any one but to God and to myself. Now you may condemn me."
"Bravo!" cried a thundering voice in the court from the witness-box.
It was Douglas.
His gigantic figure stood erect, his eyes sparkled beneath his bushy brows, and when the president called him to order he sat down defiantly and said to his neighbor, "I can be proud of him—eh?"
Two years later, on a bright morning in June, the red-painted gate of the prison opened and let out a prisoner, who, with a laugh on his face, was blinking his eyes in the bright sun, as if trying to learn to bear the light again. He swung the bundle which he carried to and fro, and looked carelessly to the right and the left, like one who was not decided which direction to follow, but for whom, on the whole, it was unimportant whither he strayed.
When he passed the front of the prison building he saw a carriage standing there which appeared known to him, for he stopped and seemed to be reflecting. Then he turned to the coachman, who, in his tasselled fur-cap, nodded haughtily from the box.
"Is anybody from Helenenthal here?" he asked.
"Yes; master and the young lady. They have come to fetch Mr. Meyerhofer."
And directly after was heard from the steps, "Hey, holloa! there he is already—Elsbeth, see! there he is already."
Paul jumped up the steps, and the two men lay in each other's arms.
Then the heavy folding doors were opened softly and timidly, and let out a slender female figure, clad in black, who, with a melancholy smile, leaned against the wall and quietly waited until the men unclasped each other.
"There, you have him, Elsbeth!" shouted the old man.
Hand in hand they stood opposite each other and looked in one another's eyes; then she leaned her head on his breast and whispered, "Thank God that I am with you again!"
"And in order that you may have each other all to yourselves, children," said the old man, "you two shall drive home, and I will meanwhile drink a bottle of claret to the health of my successor. I am well off, for I retire from business this day."
"Mr. Douglas!" exclaimed Paul, terrified.
"Father, I am called—do you understand? Let me be fetched towards evening. You are now master at home. Good-bye."
With that he strode down the steps.
"Come," said Paul, gently, with downcast eyes. Elsbeth went after him with a shy smile, for now when they were alone neither dared to approach the other.
And then they drove silently out onto the sunny, flowery heath.... Wild pinks, bluebells, and ground-ivy wove themselves into a many-colored carpet, and the white meadowsweet lifted its waving blossoms, as if snow- flakes had been strewn on the flowers. The leaves of the weeping-willow rustled softly, and like a net of sparkling ribbons the little streams flowed along beneath their branches. The warm air trembled, and yellow butterflies fluttered up and down in couples.
Paul leaned back in the cushions, and gazed with half-shut eyes at this profusion of charming sights.
"Are you happy?" asked Elsbeth, leaning towards him.
"I don't know," he answered; "it is too much for me."
She smiled; she well understood him.
"See there, our home!" she said, pointing to the White House, which stood out clear in the distance. He pressed her hand, but his voice failed him.
At the edge of the wood the carriage had to stop. Both got out and proceeded on foot.
Then he saw that she carried a little white parcel under her arm, which he had not seen before.
"What is that?" he asked.
"You will soon see," she answered, while a serious smile crossed her face.
When they entered the wood he perceived something black between the red stems which was hung with garlands.
"What does that mean?" he asked, stretching out his hand.
"Don't you recognize your friend again?" she replied. "She wanted to be the first to greet you."
"Black Susy," he shouted, and began to run.
"Take me with you," she gasped, laughing. "You forget that henceforth there are two of us."
He seized her hand, and so they stepped before the faithful monster that was keeping watch on the road.
"Dear creature," he said, and stroked the sooty boiler, and as they went on he looked back at her every three steps as if he could not part with her.
"I have watched over her well," said Elsbeth; "she generally stands underneath my window, for we have purchased the whole of your father's inheritance that nothing should be lost to you."
When they approached the opposite edge of the wood, he said, pointing to two trees which stood twenty steps away from the road.
"Here is the place where I found you lying in your hammock."
"Yes," she said, "it was there, too, that I found out for the first time that I should never be able to do without you."
"And there is the juniper-tree," he continued, when they stepped out into the fields, "where we—" and then he suddenly cried aloud, and stretched out both his hands into space.
"What is the matter?" she exclaimed, anxiously, looking up at him. He had turned deathly pale and his lips quivered.
"It is gone," he stammered.
Where once the buildings of the Haidehof rose there now stretched a level plain; only a few trees spread out their miserable branches.
He could not accustom himself to this sight, and covered his face with his hands, while he shivered feverishly.
"Do not be sad," she pleaded. "Papa would not have it rebuilt before you could make your own arrangements."
"Let us go there," he said.
"Please, please, not," she replied, "there is nothing to be seen except a few heaps of ruins—at another time, when you are not so excited."
"But where shall I sleep?"
"In the same room in which you were born—I have had it arranged for you, and your mother's furniture put in. Can you still say now that you have lost your home?"
He pressed her hand, gratefully, but she pointed to the juniper-bush, which had struck them before.
"Let us go there," she said, "lay your head on the mole-hill and whistle me something. Do you remember?"
"I should think so!"
"How long is it since then?"
"Oh, heavens, I have loved you so long already, and in the mean time have become an old maid! And I have waited for you from year to year, but you would not see it. 'He must come at last,' I thought, but you did not come. And then I was discouraged, and thought: 'You cannot force yourself upon him; in reality he does not want you at all. You must come to some resolution.' And to put an end to all my longings, I accepted my cousin, who for the last ten years had been dangling after me. He had made me laugh so often, and I thought he would—but enough of this—" and she shuddered. "Come, lie down—whistle."
He shook his head and pointed with his hand silently across the heath, where, on the horizon, three lonely fir-trees stretched their rough arms towards the sky.
"Thither," he said. "I cannot rest ere I have been there."
"You are right," she replied, and hand in hand they walked through the blooming heather, over which the wild bees were swarming, sleepily humming.
When they entered the cemetery the clock at the White House was striking noon. Twelve times it sounded in short strokes, a soft echo quivered in the air, and then all was quiet again; only the humming and singing continued.
His mother's grave was overgrown with ivy and wild myrtle, and at its head rose the radiant blossom of a golden-rod. Between the leaves rust-colored ants were creeping, and a lizard rustled down into the green depths.
Silently they both stood there, and Paul trembled. Neither dared to interrupt the solemn stillness.
"Where have they buried my father?" Paul asked at last.
"Your sisters took the body over to Lotkeim," answered Elsbeth.
"That is as well," he replied. "She has been lonely all her life; let her be so in death, too. But to-morrow we will also go over to him."
"Will you go and see your sisters?"
He shook his head sadly. Then they relapsed into silence.
He leaned his head on his hands and cried.
"Do not cry," she said, "each one of you has now a home." And then she took the little parcel that she held under her arm, unfastened the white paper of the cover, and there appeared an old manuscript-book with torn cover and faded leaves.
"See," she cried, "she sends you this, her greeting."
"Where did you get it from?" he asked, surprised, for he had recognized his mother's handwriting.
"It lay in the old chest of drawers which was saved from the fire, squeezed between the drawers and the back. It seems to have been lying there ever since her death."
Then they sat down together on the grave, laid the book between them on their knees, and began to study it. Now he remembered that Katie, at the time when he surprised her with her lover, had spoken of a song-book which had belonged to their mother; but he had never made up his mind to ask after it, because he did not want to bring to life again the painful remembrance of that hour.
All sorts of old songs were in it, copied out neatly; near them others half scratched out and corrected. The latter she seemed to have reproduced from memory, or perhaps composed herself.
There was also the one about the poet which Katie had recited at the time.
And then came one, which was this:
"Dear child, sleep on; sleep on, dear child; Beside thy bed thy mother mild Watches till dreams shall bring thee peace—Sleep on!
"The little bell whose tones so clear From out the wood resounded here Its silver music soon will cease— Sleep on!
"Dear child, sleep on; sleep on, dear child! Without the moon shines soft and bright, A legend tell the linden-trees— Sleep on!
"About the heath the shepherd's son, The princess in the White House lone; While leaves are flutt'ring in the breeze— Sleep on!
"Dear child, sleep on; sleep on, dear child! Thy rose-bush at the door dreams wild Of heath and hill and many things— Sleep on!
"Thy little bird upon the sill Chirps gently towards thy bed his trill, And closes wearily his wings— Sleep on!
"Dear child, sleep on; sleep on, dear child! Beside thy bed thy mother mild Watches the hour-glass slowly turn— Sleep on!
"Thy mother watches—time goes by— The midnight hour approaches nigh, And then thy father may return— Sleep on!"
And then another poem:
I knew a sweet maiden in years that are gone, Who on the green heath dwelt forsaken and lone. And longed sore for love— She looked from her window by day and by night Her lovely blue eyes glanced out smiling and bright; Ah! she longed sore for love!
Then by there came riding a bold youthful knight, Who asked, 'So strange on me gaze thine eyes bright?' 'I long sore for love!' Then he laughed, 'Foolish maiden, wilt come to my arms, There can'st thou rest sweetly, free from all harms, And there find'st thou love.'
"'Dear heart, dost thou know how forsaken I dwell? Oh, take me, poor maiden, o'er moor and o'er fell, But give, give me love!' When of her company wearied at last, He said, 'Pretty rogue we've a pleasant time passed, So hast thou had love!"
"'And of my love art thou weary, dear heart? So will I stay by thee, nor evermore part, For I long for thy love.' But heartily laughed the knight bold and gay; He saddled his horse and he rode far away, And left her in sorrow to love.
"And when the time had passed sadly away, In sorrow her son saw the light of the day, An offspring of love. She carried him out in the night on the heath; 'With a kiss, thou poor child, will I do thee to death— I will kill thee with love."
"'Do to me, judge, what you will,' then she cried. 'Forsaken am I of the whole world so wide, And left without love.' She mounted the scaffold in bridal array, And said 'Take me hence, thou good God, I pray, And I long sore for love!'"
Then his two sisters came to his mind, and he had a feeling as if his mother had known all and forgiven all beforehand.
And directly after stood written, in big letters, this title:
THE FAIRY TALE OF DAME CARE.
There was once a mother, to whom the good God had given a son, but she was so poor and lonely that she had nobody who could stand godmother to him. And she sighed, and said, "Where shall I get a godmother from?" Then one evening at dusk there came a woman to her house who was dressed in gray and had a gray veil over her head. She said, "I will be your son's godmother, and I will take care that he grows up a good man and does not let you starve; but you must give me his soul."
Then his mother trembled, and said, "Who are you?"
"I am Dame Care," answered the gray woman; and the mother wept; but as she suffered much from hunger, she gave the woman her son's soul and she was his godmother.
And her son grew up and worked hard to procure her bread. But as he had no soul, he had no joy and no youth, and often he looked at his mother with reproachful eyes, as if he would ask,
"Mother, where is my soul?"
Then the mother grew sad and went out to find him a soul.
She asked the stars in the sky, "Will you give me a soul?" But they said, "He is too low for that."
And she asked the flowers on the heath; they said, "He is too ugly."