For days, Madame Dort appeared borne down by a weight of woe, and even Lorischen lost that customary cheeriness with which she usually performed her daily duties in her endeavours to console her mistress. Mouser, too, went miaow-wowing about the house at nights, as if he likewise shared in the family despondency—not once being caught in the act of stealing the breakfast cream, a predilection for which had hitherto been an abnormal failing on his part. So changed, indeed, became the old cat that he did not possess spirit enough to put up his tail and "phit" and "fiz" at Burgher Jans' terrier, when that predatory animal made an occasional excursion into the parlour at meal times, to see what he could pick up, either on the sly or in that sneaking, fawning fashion which a well-trained dog would have despised. This continued almost to the end of the month; but then came a bright little bit of intelligence to gladden their hearts. It was like a gleam of sunshine breaking through the dark cloud of gloom that hung over them.
Fritz wrote home from Coblentz, close to the frontier, telling how comfortable he was, and how every one in the army of the Fatherland was confident as to the result of the campaign. In a few weeks at the outside, they thought—everything was so carefully planned and every contingency provided against—the French army of invasion would have been dispersed to the four winds of heaven and the war be over; and, then, the Landwehr, at all events, would be enabled to return home to their several states and resume those peaceful employments which their mobilisation had interrupted. Fritz said that he feared he would have no chance of distinguishing himself in the campaign, as one alone of the three great army corps they had already massed along the Rhine would be sufficient to crush the hated foe. The only men who would probably see any fighting would be those serving under the Crown Prince, who had already routed the enemy and were in active pursuit of them across the borderland. His veteran old general, Steinmetz, every one considered to be "out of the hunt completely!" All he would see of the whole affair, they thought, would be the warriors returning home crowned with laurels after the victory.
Thus ran the tenor of Fritz's letter, the writer evidently not dreaming of the events in store for him; and that, instead of returning to Lubeck in a few weeks, it would be many weary months before he saw the blinking eyes of the ancient astronomical clock in the Dom Kirche again!
Through the intricacies of the field post, too, this communication was a long time in reaching the little seaport town on the North Sea, being at least ten days old when it arrived; but what mattered that? It contained good news when it did come, and was as welcome as if it had been dated only yesterday.
"Ah, ha!" exclaimed Lorischen, when her mistress communicated the contents of Fritz's letter. "The young Herr will soon be back, and then we'll see him give Meinherr Burgher Jans the right-about. I call it scandalous, I do, his persecuting an unprotected, lone widow—just because her sons are away, and there's only me to look after her! But, I keep him at arm's distance, I promise you, madame. It is only his thief of a dog who manages to creep in here when I am about!"
Madame Dort blushed. She was a comely, middle-aged woman, and when she coloured up she looked quite pretty.
"I'm sure, Lorischen," she said, "I wonder you can talk such nonsense; you are as bad as poor Eric used to be, teasing me about that little fat man! Poor Burgher Jans means no harm in coming to inquire after my health while Fritz is away."
"That's just what I object to, dear lady," interrupted the other; "why does he do it?"
"Can't you see, you stupid thing," said Madame Dort, laughing heartily, the hopeful letter of her son having quite restored her spirits, "that is the very reason? If dear Fritz were here, he would naturally ask him how we all are; but, as he is away now, and I never go outside the house, while you, my faithful Lorischen, are not very communicative, I suppose, when you go to the Market Platz, it is plain enough to common sense that the worthy Burgher, if he takes an interest in us, must come here to inquire after the family himself!"
"Oh yes, I understand," answered the old nurse, in a grumbling tone. She had lived so long with the widow, whom she looked upon really as a child committed to her charge, that she considered she had a perfect right to pass an opinion on anything which did not please her. Besides, she was jealous, on behalf of the boys, of any interloper being put over their heads in the shape of a stepfather, she as an old spinster having a wholesome horror of the designing nature of all men, especially of the little Burgher Jans, to whom she had taken an inveterate dislike. "Oh yes, I understand," she said in an ironical tone she always assumed on being a bit vexed; "when the cat's away the mice play!"
"I presume then," said Madame Dort dryly, "that Mouser is a good deal absent now from his duties; for, I noticed this morning that half that cheese in the cupboard was nibbled up. It was a good Limburger cheese, too!"
"Ach, Himmel!" exclaimed the old nurse, not perceiving the design of her mistress to change the conversation, and taking up the cudgels readily to defend her dearly loved cat. "The poor creature has not been himself since the young masters have been away. He feels too lonesome to hunt the mice as he used to do so gaily in the old days, tossing them up in the air when he caught them, and bringing them mewing to my feet,—the dear one! Why, he hardly ever touches a drop of milk now."
"Yes, I see he spares our cream—"
"Oh, madame, that was a libel on the poor animal. It was only the dear lad Eric's joke! Mouser would never touch one drop of the breakfast cream, save perhaps when we might be late for the meal, or when the dear fellow felt a little thirsty, or—"
"Ah, indeed! Yes, no doubt," interrupted Madame Dort, laughing again. "He would have been at it again to-day, only Burgher Jans' dog came in at the nick of time and scared him away!"
"Did he!" said Lorischen indignantly. "It strikes me that pest of a terrier is here a good deal too much, like his master! And, talk of him, there he is!" she added hastily, leaving the room as a knock came to the door.
Burgher Jans came in as the old nurse went out, brushing by him with ill-concealed contempt and aversion. He was a fat little man, with long straight hair coming down over his coat collar, and a round, full-moon sort of face, whose effect of beaming complacency was enhanced by a pair of large-rimmed tortoise-shell spectacles out of which his owl-like eyes shone with an air of balmy wisdom.
"Most worthy lady," he commenced, addressing Madame Dort with an elaborate bow, sweeping the floor with his hat. "Unto me the greatest and ever-much rapture doth it with added satisfaction bring, to tell you of the glorious success of the German arms over our greatly-overbearing and hopeful-of-victory foe."
"Dear me!" exclaimed the widow, "you are rather late with your news; I heard from Fritz just now."
"And is the dear, well-brought-up, and worthy youth in good health?"
"He is," said Madame Dort; "and tells us to expect him home soon."
Burgher Jans looked startled at this announcement, losing a trifle of his beaming smile. "He is not wounded, I trust?" asked he tremblingly.
"Oh dear no, thank the good God who has watched over him," answered the other cheerfully. "Why, he has not been in battle yet! He tells us that the French are retreating, and that the war will be over almost before another blow has been struck, the enemy having to surrender before our irresistible battalions."
"Have you not heard of the battles of Woerth and Forbach, then?"
"No; what—when were they?"
"Where did your son Fritz write to you from, then?"
"From Coblentz. His letter is dated the day he arrived there, but I only got it this morning."
"Ah then, most worthy lady, two terrible battles have occurred since that time. We have beaten the French and forced them back into their own country; but, alas! thousands of German lives have been lost. The slaughter has been terrific!"
"Good heavens, Burgher Jans, you alarm me!" said Madame Dort, rising from her chair in excitement. "Fritz told me there would be no fighting except between the Crown. Prince's army and the enemy!"
"The worthy young Herr was right so far," put in the little man soothingly, "that is as regards the south of the line; but our second army corps has been likewise engaged on the banks of the Saar, hurling disaster on the foe, although the French fought well, too, it is said. Where, however, is Herr Fritz?"
"Serving under General Steinmetz."
"Ah, then he's safe enough, dear madame. That army is but acting as the reserve. It is only my poor countrymen, the Bavarians, and the Saxons who will have the hard work of the campaign to do. Von Bismark wants to let out a little of their blood in return for the feverish excitement they displayed against the Prussians in '66!"
"You relieve my mind," said Madame Dort, resuming her seat. "I thought for the moment Fritz was in danger. You speak bitterly against the Chancellor, however. He is a great man, and has done much for Germany."
"Oh, yes, I grant that," replied the other warmly; "still, he is one who never forgets. He always pays out a grudge! You will see, now, if those poor Bavarians do not come in for all the thick of the fighting."
"You talk as if there is going to be a lot more?"
"So there is, without doubt, without doubt," said Burgher Jans, rubbing his hands together, as if he rather enjoyed the prospect.
"In that case, then, Fritz cannot return to Lubeck as soon as he thinks possible?" and Madame Dort looked grave again, as she said this half questioningly.
"I fear not, most worthy lady," replied the little man in a tone of great concern; but, from the look on his face and the brisk way in which he still continued to rub his hands together, it might have been surmised that the prolonged absence of poor Fritz from his home would not affect him much,—in fact, that he would be rather pleased by such a contingency than not.
Madame Dort noticed this, and became quite sharp to him in consequence.
"I must beg you to say good-bye now," she said; "I've a busy day before me, and have no more time to waste in chatting. Good-morning, Burgher Jans."
"Good-morning, most worthy lady," said the little fat man, accepting his dismissal and bowing himself out.
"The ill-natured little manoeuvrer!" exclaimed Madame Dort, half to herself, as he left the room. Lorischen entered again at the same time, the two always playing the game apparently of one of those old-fashioned weather tellers, in which a male or female figure respectively comes out from the little rustic cottage whenever it is going to be wet or fine; for, as surely as the Burgher ever entered the sitting-room, the old nurse withdrew, never returning until he had left. "The ill-natured little manoeuvrer!" exclaimed Madame Dort, not thinking she was overheard. "I believe he would be glad to keep poor Fritz away if he could."
"Just what I've thought all along!" said Lorischen, immensely pleased at this acknowledgment of her superior power of discernment.
"I mean, not on account of wishing any harm to Fritz," explained the widow, "but that he himself might be able to come here oftener."
"Just what I've said!" chirped out the old nurse triumphantly; but Madame Dort made no reply to this second thrust, and before Lorischen could say anything further, a second visitor came to the little house in the Gulden Strasse. It seemed fated as if that was to be a day for callers, and "people who had no business to do preventing those who had," as the old nurse grumbled while on her way to open the street door for the new-comer—a courtesy Burgher Jans never required, walking in, as she said, without asking leave or license, just when he pleased!
The visitor was Herr Grosschnapper, the merchant who employed Fritz in his counting-house and who was also a part proprietor in the ship in which Eric had sailed for Java. Madame Dort's heart leapt in her bosom when she saw the old gentleman enter the parlour.
But, the shipowner's face did not look as if he brought any pleasing news; and, after one brief glance at his countenance, the widow's fell in sympathy. She almost anticipated the evil tidings which she was certain he had in store for her.
"Madame Dort," he began, "pray compose yourself."
"I am quite calm, Herr Grosschnapper," she answered. "Go on with what you come to tell me. You have heard something of my poor boy Eric; is it not so?"
"It is, madame," replied the merchant, deceived by her composure. "I grieve to say that I have received intelligence through the English house of Lloyd's that the Gustav Barentz foundered at sea in the Southern Ocean early this year. Two boats escaped from her with the crew and passengers, one of which, containing the first officer and several hands, was picked up when those on board were in the last stage of exhaustion, by a vessel bound to Australia. The men were taken to Melbourne before any communication could be received from them, so that is why the news of the wreck has been so long in reaching us."
"And Eric?" asked the widow, with her head bent down.
"He was with the captain in the other boat, dear madame," said Herr Grosschnapper; "but, I'm afraid there is little or no chance of their having been saved, or else we would have heard of them by this time. Pray bear up under the loss, madame. He was a good son, I believe, and would have made a good sailor and officer; but it was not to be! Remember, you have another son left."
"Ah, but not Eric, my little one, my darling!" burst forth the poor bereaved mother in a passion of tears; and then, the merchant, seeing that any words of comfort on his part would be worse than useless, withdrew.
The violence of Madame Dort's grief, however, was soon assuaged, for she had long been preparing herself for this blow. She had given up all hope of ever hearing from Eric again, even before Fritz left home.
Thenceforth, all her motherly love was bound up in her firstborn, now the only son left her; and daily she scanned the papers to learn news of the war.
Time passed on, the widow occasionally receiving a hurried scrawl from Fritz, who, as she knew, was now no longer resting with the reserve battalions in the fortresses of the Rhine, but marching onwards with the invading army through France.
She heard of the terrible battle of Gravelotte, in which she dreaded that he had taken part; but, almost before she could read the full official details published in the German newspapers under military censorship, her anxieties were relieved by a long letter coming from Fritz, telling of his participation in the colossal contest and of his miraculous escape without a wound, although he had been in the thick of the fire and numbers of his comrades from the same part of the country had been killed.
But, he had better news to tell—that, at least, is what he wrote, only the mother doubted whether any intelligence could be more important to her than the fact of his safety!
What would she think of hearing that he had been promoted to be an officer "for gallantry in the field of battle," as the general order read out to the whole army worded it? Would she not be proud of her Fritz after that?
Aye, would she not, would not Lorischen?
And did not the entire gossiping community of Lubeck know all about it by and through the means of the old nurse before the close of the self- same day, eh?
Certainly; still, would it be believed that the very first person whom Lorischen told the news to was her special antipathy, Burgher Jans? She actually went up to and accosted him of her own free-will on the Market Platz for the very purpose of telling him of Fritz's promotion! Yes, such was the case; and she not only was friendly to the little fat man on this occasion, but she actually patted his dog at the same time!
Still, Eric, the lost sailor laddie, was not forgotten in his brother's success. The mother's grief was only chastened; and almost the very first thought she had on receiving the news from Fritz, and afterwards when she read it in official print, was "how pleased poor Eric would have been at this!"
Bye-and-bye, Fritz wrote again, telling that their task had become very monotonous. The Tenth Army Corps was detained along with several others to besiege Metz, so hemming in Bazaine and the remainder of the army that had endeavoured so gallantly at Gravelotte to pierce the German lines, that they were powerless to assist the rest of their countrymen in driving the Teuton invader from their soil. The besieging army, which was formed of the united forces of the different corps under Prince Frederick Charles and Steinmetz, had nothing to do, said Fritz, save to stand to their guns and perform sentry duty; for the French, since the fearful battle of the 18th of August, had not once attempted to push their way out beyond range of the guns of the fortress, under whose shelter they were cantoned in an extended entrenched camp, and were apparently being daily drilled and disciplined for some great effort.
On the 31st of the month, however, Fritz told his mother later on, Bazaine made a desperate effort to break the German cordon around Metz; and this being repulsed with heavy loss, the Marshal again remained quiet for the space of another six weeks.
During this period Madame Dort heard regularly from her son through the field post. She sent him letters in return, telling him all the home news she could glean, and saying that she expected him back before the winter. She hoped, at least, that he would come by that time, for Herr Grosschnapper had informed her that he would have to fill up Fritz's place in his counting-house if the exigencies of the war caused his whilom clerk to remain away any longer.
Things went on like this up to the month of October, the anniversary of poor Eric's going away; when, all at once, there came a cessation of the weekly letters of Fritz from headquarters.
His mother wrote to inquire the reason.
She received no answer.
Then she read in the papers of another heavy battle before Metz, in which the Tenth Army Corps had taken part. The engagement had happened more than a week before, and Fritz was silent. He might be wounded, possibly killed!
Madame Dort's anxiety became terrible.
"No news," says the proverb, "is good news;" but, to some it is the very worst that could possibly be; for, their breasts are filled with a storm of mingled doubts and fears, while hope is deadened and there is, as yet, no balm of resignation to soothe the troubled heart! The proverb is wrong; even the most heartbreaking confirmation of one's most painful surmise is infinitely preferable to being kept in a state of perpetual suspense, where one dreads the worst and yet is not absolutely certain of it.
It was so now with Madame Dort. She thought she could bear the strain no longer, but must go to the frontier herself and seek for information of her missing son, as she had read in the newspapers of other mothers doing. However, one afternoon, as she was sitting in the parlour in a state of utter dejection by the side of the lighted stove, for winter was coming on and the days were getting cold, Lorischen brought in a letter to her which had just come by the post.
It was in a strange handwriting!
The widow tore it open hurriedly, glancing first at the signature at the end. "Madaleine Vogelstein!" she said aloud. "I wonder who she is; I never heard of her before!" She then went on to read the letter.
It did not take her long to understand the sense of it.
For, after scanning the contents with startled eyes, she exclaimed, "My son! oh, my son!" and then fell flat upon the floor in a dead faint.
The stupendous events of the war rushed on with startling rapidity.
The invasion of France, in retaliation for the projected invasion of Germany, was now an accomplished fact; and, day after day, the Teuton host added victory to victory on the long list of their triumphant battle-roll, almost every engagement swelling the number of Gallic defeats and lessening the power of the French to resist their relentless foe, who now, with iron-clad hand on the throat of the prostrate country, marched onward towards Paris, scattering havoc with fire and sword wherever the accumulating legions of armed men trod.
The battle of Woerth succeeded that of Weissembourg; Forbach that of Woerth; and then came Vionville and Gravelotte to add their thousands of victims to the valhalla of victory. The surrender of Sedan followed, when the Germans passed on their way to the capital; but the brave general Urich still held out in besieged Strasbourg, and Bazaine had not yet made his last brilliant sortie from the invested Metz. The latter general especially kept the encircling armies of Prince Frederick Charles and Steinmetz on the constant alert by his continuous endeavours to search out the weakest spot in the German armour. The real attempt of the French Marshal to break through the investing lines was yet to come; that of the 31st of August, to which Fritz alluded in his letter to his mother, having been only made apparently to support Mcmahon as a diversion to the latter's attack on Montmedy, before the surrender of Sedan.
From this period, up to the beginning of October, the French remained pretty quiet, the guns of the different forts lying without the fortifications of Metz only keeping up a harassing fire on the besieging batteries that the Germans had erected around on the heights commanding the various roads by which Bazaine's army could alone hope to force a passage through their lines. Summer had now entirely disappeared and cold weather set in, so the Teuton forces found it very unpleasant work in the trenches when the biting winds of autumn blew through their encampments of a night, making their bivouac anything but comfortable; while the sharp morning frosts also made their rising most unpleasantly disagreeable; add to this, whenever they succeeded in making their quarters a trifle more cosy than usual, as certainly would the cannon of Fort Quelin or the monster guns of Saint Julien send a storm of shot and shell to awaken them, causing an instant turn-out of the men in a body to resist a possible sortie. Bazaine made perpetual feints of this sort, with the evident intention of wearying out his antagonists, even if he could do them no further harm.
The position was like that of a cat watching a mouse-hole, the timid little occupant of which would every now and then put out its head to see whether the coast were clear; and then, perceiving its enemy on the watch, provokingly draw it in again, leaving pussy angry at her repeated disappointments and almost inclined to bite her paws with vexation at her inability to follow up her prey into its stronghold; for, the heavy artillery of the fortress so protected the surrounding country adjacent to Metz, that the Germans had to place the batteries of their works out of its range, that is, almost at a distance of some four miles from the French camp—of which any bombardment was found after a time to be worse than useless, causing the most infinitesimal amount of damage in return for an enormous expenditure of ammunition and projectiles that had to be conveyed over very precarious roads all the way from the frontiers of the Rhine into the heart of Lorraine.
"Oh, that the French would only do something!" cried Fritz and his companions, sick of inactivity and the wearisome nature of their duties, which, after the excitement of battle and the stirring campaigning they had already gone through, seemed now far worse than guard-mounting in Coblentz. "Oh, that the French would only do something to end this tedious siege!"
Soon this wish was gratified.
On the morning of the 6th of October, when the investiture of Metz had lasted some six weeks or more—just at daybreak—a heavy, dull report was heard at Mercy-le-Haut. It was like the bursting of a mine.
"Something is up at last!" exclaimed one of the staff-officers, entering the tent where Fritz and others were stretched on the bare ground, trying to keep themselves as warm as they could with all the spare blankets and other covering that could be collected heaped over them—"Something is up at last! Rouse up; the general assembly has sounded!"
The ringing bugle notes without in the frosty air emphasised these words, causing the young fellows to turn out hastily, without requiring any further summons.
Aye, something was up. The pioneers of the Seventh German army corps, on the extreme right, had mined and blown up the farm buildings of Legrange aux Bois, close to Peltre. These farm buildings had hitherto served as a cover to the French troops when they made their foraging sorties, but they could not be held by the Germans, for they were situated within the line of fire of Fort Quelin; so, as may be imagined, their destruction was hailed with a ringing cheer by the besiegers. The artillerymen in the fort, however, apparently anticipating an attack in force of which this explosion was but the prelude, were on the alert at once; and, soon after sunrise, they began to pour in a heavy rain of fire on the German works, which the conflagration of the buildings and removal of intervening obstacles now clearly disclosed. Whole broadsides of projectiles from the great guns flew into the valley of the Moselle as far as Ars, sweeping away the entrenchments as if they were mere packs of cards; and, presently, an onward movement of French battalions of infantry, supported by field artillery and cavalry, showed that, this time at least, something more was intended by Marshal Bazaine than a mere feint.
Trumpet called to trumpet in the German ranks, and speedily the whole of the second army under Prince Frederick Charles mustered its forces in line of battle, the men gathering in imposing masses towards the threatened point at Ars. Here the 61st and 21st infantry regiments, which were on outpost duty, were the first: to commence hostilities, rushing to meet the French who were advancing from Metz. Aided by the batteries erected by the side of the Bois de Vaux, the Germans, after a sharp conflict, succeeded in repulsing the enemy, who had ultimately to retire again under the guns of Fort Quelin, although they made a vigorous resistance while the engagement lasted—only falling back on suffering severe loss from the shower of shrapnel to which they were subjected, besides losing many prisoners. During all the time of this attack and repulse, Fort Saint Julien, on the other side of the fortress, was shelling the Landwehr reserve, causing many casualties amongst the Hanoverian legion; and, but that the men here were quite prepared for their foe, the combat might have extended to their lines.
As it was, the expected fight, for which the Tenth Corps was ready and waiting, was only delayed for a few hours; when, if Fritz and his comrades had complained of the cold of the weather, they found the work cut out for them "hot" enough in all conscience!
In the afternoon of the following day, Bazaine made a desperate effort to break through the environment of the Germans in the direction of Thionville. On the previous evening, in resisting the attack from Saint Julien, which had been undertaken at the same time as that from Saint Quelin on Ars, the French had been driven from the village of Ladonchamps, and their adversaries had established foreposts at Saint Remy, Petites et Grandes Tapes, and Maxe; and now, under cover of a thick fog, the French Marshal advanced his troops again and commenced a vigorous attempt, supported by a heavy artillery fire, for the recovery of the lost Ladonchamps. Failing in this, although possibly the attack might have been a blind, the general being such a thorough master of strategy, Bazaine made a dash for Petites et Grandes Tapes, annihilating the foreposts and hurling great masses of men at their supports. Having occupied these villages, the French Marshal then sent forward a large body of troops to the right, close to the Moselle. These advanced up the valley against the German entrenchments on the heights until checked by cannon fire from batteries on both sides of the river, and were only finally stopped by an advance in force of two brigades of the Landwehr, the men of whom occupied a position just in front of Petites et Grandes Tapes.
Amongst these latter troops was the regiment of our friend Fritz.
The fighting was terrific here.
Clouds of bullets came like hail upon the advancing men, reaping the ranks down as if with a scythe, while bursting shells cleared open spaces in their midst in a manner that was appalling; still, those in the rear pressed on to fill the places of the fallen, with a fierce roar of revenge, and the needle-gun answered the chassepot as quickly as the combatants could put the cartridges into the breech-pieces and bring their rifles again to the "present."
Fritz felt the frenzy of Gravelotte return to him as he gripped the sword which he now wielded in place of the musket; and, urging on his company, the men, scattering right and left in tirailleur formation were soon creeping up to the enemy, taking advantage of every little cover which the irregularities of the ground afforded.
Then, suddenly, right in front, could be seen a splendid line regiment of the French, advancing in column. A sheet of flame came from their levelled rifles, and the Fusilier battalion of the Landwehr regiment to the left of Fritz's company were exterminated to a man, the enemy marching over their dead bodies with a shout of victory.
Their progress, however, was not to last.
"Close up there, men!" came the order from Fritz's commanding officer; when the troops hurriedly formed up in a hollow which protected them for a moment from the galling fire. "Fix bayonets!"—and they awaited the still steady advance of the French until they appeared above the rising ground. "Fire, and aim low!" was the next order from the major; and then, "Charge!"
With a ringing cheer of "Vorwarts!" Fritz dashed onward at the head of the regiment, a couple of paces in front of his men, who with their sharp weapons extended in front like a fringe of steel, came on behind at the double.
Whiz, sang a bullet by his ear, but he did not mind that; crash, plunged a shell into the ground in front, tearing up a hole that he nearly fell into; when, jumping over this at the run, in another second he had crossed swords with one of the officers of the French battalion, who rushed out as eagerly to meet him.
They had not time, though, to exchange a couple of passes before a fragment of a bursting bomb carried away the French officer's head, bespattering Fritz with the brains and almost making him reel with sickness; while, at the same moment, the men of the German regiment bore down the French line, scattering it like chaff, for the sturdy Hanoverians seemed like giants in their wrath, bayoneting every soul within reach!
This was only the beginning of it.
"On," still "on," was the cry; and, not until the lost villages were recaptured and the unfortunate German foreposts avenged did the advance cease.
But the struggle was fierce and terribly contested. Three several times did the Germans get possession of Petites et Grandes Tapes, and three several times did the French drive them out again with their fearful mitrailleuse hail of fire; the bayonet settled it at last, in the hands of the northern legions, who had not forgotten the use of it since the days of Waterloo, nor, as it would appear, the French yet learnt to withstand it!
Beyond a slight touch from a passing bullet which had grazed his lower jaw, having the effect of rattling his teeth together, as if somebody had "chucked him under the chin," Fritz had escaped without any serious wound up to the time that the French were beaten back after the third attempt to carry their positions; but then, as they turned to run and the Hanoverians pressed on in pursuit, he felt suddenly hit somewhere in the breast. A spasm of pain shivered through him as the missile seemed to rend its way through his vitals; and then, throwing up his arms, he fell across the corpse of a soldier who must have been shot almost immediately before him, for the body was quite warm to the touch.
How he was hurt he could not tell; he only knew that he was unable to stir, and that each breath of air he drew came fainter and fainter, as if it were his last.
He heard, from the retreating tramp of footsteps and distant shouts, that his regiment had moved on after the enemy; but, as he lay on his back, he could not see anything save the sky, while each moment some stray shot whistled by in the air or threw up earth over him, threatening to give him his finishing blow should the wound he had received not be sufficient to settle him.
Then, he felt thirsty, and longed to cry out for help; but, no sound came from his lips, while the exertion to speak caused such intolerable agony that he wished he could die at once and be put out of his misery. When charging the French battalion, he recollected putting his foot on the dead face of some victim of the fight, and he could recall the thrill of horror that passed through him as he had done this inadvertently; now, each instant he expected, too, to be trampled on in the same manner.
Ha! He could distinguish footsteps pressing the ground near. "Oh, mother!" he thought, "the end is coming now, for the fight must be drawing near again. I wish a shell or bullet would settle the matter!"
But the footsteps he imagined to be the tramp of marching men—on account of his ear being so close to the ground and thus, of course, magnifying the sound—were only those of the faithful Gelert, who with the instinct of a well-trained retriever was searching for his new-found friend. He had tracked his path over the valley from the advanced post which the regiment had occupied in the morning, and where the dog had been kept by Fritz to watch his camp equipments until he should return. Gelert evidently considered that he had waited long enough for duty's sake; and, that, as his adopted master did not come to fetch him, he ought to start to seek for him instead, one good turn deserving another!
At the moment, therefore, when Fritz expected to have the remaining breath trampled out of him by a rush of opposing battalions across his poor prone body, he felt the dog licking his face, whining and whimpering in recognition and mad with joy at discovering him.
"Dear old Gelert, you brave, good doggie," he ejaculated feebly, in panting whispers. "You'll have to try and find a third master now!" and then, overcome by the effort, which taxed what little strength was left in him, he swooned away like a dead man—the last distinct impression he had being that of seeing a bright star twinkle out from the opal sky above him as he lay on the battlefield, which seemed to be winking and blinking at him as if beckoning him up to heaven!
His awakening was very different.
On coming to his consciousness again, he felt nice and warm and comfortable, just as if he were in bed; and, opening his eyes, he saw the sweet face of a young girl bending over him.
"I must be dreaming," he murmured to himself lazily. He felt so utterly free from pain and at ease that he did not experience the slightest anxiety or perplexity to know where he was. He was perfectly satisfied to take what came. "I must be dreaming, or else I am dead, and this is one of the angels come to take me away!"
"I am glad you are better," said a soft voice in liquid accents, so close to his ear that he felt the perfumed breath of the speaker wafted across his face.
Fritz stared with wide-opened eyes. "I'm glad you're better," repeated the voice; "you are better, are you not; you feel conscious, don't you, and in your right senses?"
"Where am I?" at last said Fritz faintly.
"Here," answered the girl, "with friends, who are attending to you. Do not fear, you shall be watched over with every care until you are quite well again."
"Where is 'here'?" whispered Fritz feebly again, smiling at his own quaint question.
The girl laughed gently in response to his smile. "You are at Mezieres, not far from the battlefield where you fell. I discovered you there early yesterday morning."
"You?" inquired Fritz, his eyes expressing his astonishment.
"Yes, I," said the girl kindly; "and I was only too happy to be the means of finding you, and getting you removed to a place of safety; for, I'm afraid that if you had lain there much longer on the damp ground you would have died."
"Oh!" interrupted Fritz as eagerly as his exhausted condition would allow; "I remember all now! I was wounded and lay there close to the battery; and then I saw the stars come out and thought—"
"Hush!" said the girl, "you must not speak any more now. You are too weak; I only spoke to you to find out whether you had regained consciousness or not."
"But you must let me thank you. If it had not been—"
"No, I won't allow another word," she interposed authoritatively. "You will do yourself harm, and then I shall be accused of being a bad nurse! Besides, you haven't got to thank me at all; it was the dog who made me see you."
"What, Gelert," whispered Fritz again, in spite of her admonition,—"dear old fellow!"
He had hardly uttered these words, when the faithful dog, who must have been close beside the bed, raised himself up, putting a paw on one of Fritz's arms which lay outside the coverings and licking his hand, whining rapturously the while, as if rejoiced to hear the voice of his master again.
"'Gelert!'" exclaimed the girl with some surprise. "Why, I know the dog perfectly, and he recognises me quite well; but he is called 'Fritz,' not 'Gelert,' as you said."
"'Fritz!'" ejaculated he, in his turn. "Why, that is my name!"
"Gracious me," thought the girl to herself, "he is rambling again, and confusing his own name with that of the dog! I must put a stop to his speaking, or else he will get worse. Here, take this," she said aloud, lifting to his lips a wineglass containing a composing draught which the doctor had left for her patient to take as soon as he showed any signs of recovery from his swoon, and which she really ought to have given him before; "it will do you good, and make you stronger."
Fritz swallowed the potion unhesitatingly, immediately sinking back on his pillow in a quiet sleep; when the girl, sitting down by the side of the bed, watched the long-drawn, quivering respirations that came from the white, parted lips of the wounded man.
"Poor young fellow!" she said with a sigh; "I fear he will never get over it. I wonder where Armand is now, and how came this stranger to have possession of his dog! The funniest thing, too, is that 'Fritz' seems as much attached to this new master as he was to Armand, although he has not forgotten me. Have you, 'Fritz,' my beauty, eh?"
The retriever, in response, gave three impressive thumps with his bushy tail on the floor, as he lay at the girl's feet by the side of the bed. He evidently answered to this other familiar appellation quite as readily as he had done to that of "Gelert," being apparently on perfect terms of friendship, not to say intimacy, with the young lady who had just asked him so pertinent a question.
He certainly had not forgotten her. He would not have been a gallant dog if he had; nor would he have displayed that taste and wise discrimination which one would naturally have expected to find, in a well-bred dog of his particular class, for his interlocutor was a remarkably pretty girl—possessing the most lovely golden-hued hair and a pair of blue eyes that were almost turquoise in tint, albeit with a somewhat wistful, faraway look in them, especially now when she gazed down into the brown, honest orbs of the retriever, who was watching her every moment with faithful attention. She had, too, an unmistakeable air of refinement and culture, in spite of her being attired in a plainly made black stuff dress such as a servant might have worn, and having a sort of cap like those affected by nuns and sisters of charity drawn over her dainty little head, partly concealing its wealth of fair silky hair. No one would have dreamt of taking her to be anything else but a lady, no matter what costume she adopted, or how she was disguised.
"Who ever thought, dear doggie," she continued, speaking the thoughts that surged up in her mind while addressing the dumb animal, who looked as if he would like to understand her if he only could,—"who ever would have thought that things would turn out as they have when I last patted your dear old head at Bingen, 'Fair Bingen on the Rhine,' eh?" and she murmured to herself the refrain of that beautiful ballad.
The retriever gave a long sniff here to express his thorough sympathy with her, and the girl proceeded, musingly, thinking aloud.
"Yes, I mean, doggie, when Armand and I parted for the last time. Poor mamma was alive then, and we never dreamt that this terrible war would come to pass, severing us so completely! Poor Armand, he said he would be true and return to me again when he was old enough to be able to decide for himself without the consent of that stern father of his, who thought that the daughter of a poor German pastor was not good enough mate for his handsome son—although he was only a merchant, while my mother was a French countess in her own right. Still, parents have the right to settle these things, and I quite agreed with dear mamma that I would never consent to enter a family against their will, especially, too, when they despised our humble position!"
The girl drew herself up proudly as she said this.
"Never mind," she went on again presently, "it is all over and done for. But, still, I believe Armand loved me. How handsome he looked that last time I saw him when he came to our little cottage to say good-bye, before he went to join his regiment in Algeria, where his father had got him ordered off on purpose to separate us. However, perhaps it was only a boy and girl affection at the best, and would never have lasted; my heart has not broken, I know, although I thought it would break then; for, alas! I have since seen sorrow enough to crush me down, even much more than parting with Armand de la Tour. Fancy, poor darling mamma gone to her grave, and I, her cherished child, forced to earn my bread as companion to this haughty old baroness, who thinks me like the dust under her feet! Ah, it is sad, is it not, doggie?"
The retriever sniffed again, while the blue eyes continued to look down upon him through a haze of tears; and then, the girl was silent for a time.
"Heigho, doggie," she exclaimed, after a short pause of reflection, brushing away the tear drops from her cheeks and shaking her dainty little head as if she would fain banish all her painful imaginings with the action, "I must not repine at my lot, for the good Father above has taken care of me through all my adversity, giving me a comfortable home when I, an orphan, had none to look after me. And, the good baroness, too—she may be haughty, but then she is of a very noble family, and has been brought up like most German ladies of rank to look down upon her inferiors in position; besides, she is kind to me in her way. I am pleased that she took it into her head to come off here to seek for her son, and bring him presents from home in person. Nothing else would suit her, if you please, on his birthday, although the young baron, I think, was not over-delighted at his mother coming to hunt for him in war time, as if he were a little boy—he on the staff of the general! I fancy he got no little chaff from his brother officers in consequence. However, 'it is an ill wind that blows nobody good,' for the good baroness being here has been seized with a freak for looking after the wounded, because the Princess of Alten-Schlossen goes in for that sort of thing; and thus it is, doggie, that I'm now attending to this poor fellow here. Though, how on earth Armand parted with you, and you became attached to this new master, whom you seem to love with such affection, I'm sure I cannot tell!"
Fritz at this moment turned in the little pallet bed on which he was lying, and in an instant the girl was up from her seat and bending over him.
"Restless?" she said, smoothing the pillows and laying her cool hand on the hot brow of her patient, who gave vent to a sigh of satisfaction in his sleep. "Ah! you'll be better bye-and-bye. Then, you will wake up refreshed and have some nourishment; and then, too, you'll be able to tell me all about yourself and master doggie here, eh?"
But, it was many days before poor Fritz was in a condition to offer any explanation about the dog—many days, when the possibility was trembling in the balance of fate as to whether he would ever speak again, or be silent for aye in this world!
When he woke up, he was delirious; and the doctor, a grave German surgeon of middle age, on coming into the room to examine him, when making the rounds of the house—a villa in the suburbs of Mezieres, which had been transformed into a sort of field hospital for the most dangerous cases in the vicinity—declared Fritz to be in a very critical state. His life, he said, was in serious peril, a change having taken place for the worse.
He had been struck by a chassepot conical rifle bullet in the chest; and the ball, after breaking two of his ribs and slightly grazing the lungs, had lodged near the spine, where it yet remained, the wounded man being too prostrate for an operation to be performed for its extraction, although all the while it was intensifying the pain and adding to the feverish symptoms of the patient.
"You've not been allowing him to talk, have you?" asked the surgeon, scanning the girl's face with a stern professional glance.
"No," she replied, blushing slightly under his gaze; "that is, he wanted to, an hour ago, when he became conscious, but I gave him the sleeping draught you ordered at once."
"Donnerwetter!" exclaimed the other. "The potion then has done him harm instead of good. I thought it would have composed him and made him comfortable for the operation, as, until that bullet is taken out he can't possibly get well. However, he must now be kept as quiet as possible. Put a bandage on his head and make it constantly cool with cold water. I will return bye-and-bye, and then we'll see about cutting out the ball."
The surgeon then went out softly from the room, leaving the girl to attend to his directions, which she proceeded to do at once; shuddering the while at what she knew her poor patient would have to undergo, when the disciple of Aesculapius came back anon, with his myrmidons and their murderous-looking surgical knives and forceps, to hack and hew away at Fritz in their search for the bullet buried in his chest—he utterly oblivious either of his surroundings or what was in store for him, tossing in the bed under her eyes and rambling in his mind. He fancied himself still on the battlefield in the thick of the fight:— "Vorwarts, my children!" he muttered. "One more charge and the battery is won. Pouf! that shell had a narrow squeak of spoiling my new helmet. The gunner will have to take better aim next time!" Then he would shudder all over, and cry out in piteous tones, "Take it away, take it away—the blood is all over my face; and his body, oh, it is pressing me down into that yawning open grave! Will no one save me? It is terrible, terrible to be buried alive, and the pale stars twinkling down on my agony!" Presently, however, the cold applications to his head had their effect, and he sank down into a torpid sleep, only to start up again in the ravings of delirium a few moments afterwards.
Fritz continued in this state for hours, with intervals of quiet, during which his nurse, by the doctor's orders, administered beef tea and other nourishment which sustained the struggle going on in his sinking frame; until, at last, the ball was extracted, after an operation which was so prolonged that the girl, who felt almost as if she were undergoing it herself, thought it would never end.
Then came the worst stage for the sufferer. Fever supervened; and, although the wound began to heal up, his physical condition grew weaker every day under the tearing strain his constitution was subjected to.
Even the doctor gave him up; but the girl, who had attended to him with the most unwearying assiduity had hopes to the last.
Fritz had been unconscious from the time that he first recognised the dog, on the evening after he was wounded and found himself in the villa, until the fever left him, when he was so weak that he was unable to lift a finger and seemed at the very gates of death.
Now, however, his senses returned to him, and a glad look came into his eyes on seeing, like as he did before and now remembered, the face of the beautiful girl bending over him again; but he noticed that she did not look so bright as when he first beheld her.
"Ah!" he exclaimed feebly, "it was not a dream! How long have I been ill?"
"More than a fortnight," said the girl promptly.
"Oh, my poor mother!" ejaculated Fritz with a sob, "she will have thought me dead, and broken her heart!"
"Don't fear that," said she kindly. "I wrote to her, telling her you were badly hurt, but that you were in good hands."
"You! Why, how did you know her name, or where she lived?"
"I found the address in your pocket," answered the girl with a laugh. "Don't you recollect putting a slip of paper there, telling any one, in case you were wounded or killed, to write and break the news gently to your mother, 'madame Dort, Gulden Strasse, Lubeck'? I never heard before of such a thoughtful son!"
"Ah, I remember now," said Fritz; "and you wrote, then, to her?"
"Yes, last week, when we despaired of your recovery; but, I have written again since, telling her that the bullet has been removed from your wound, and that if you get over the fever you will recover all right."
"Thank you, and thank God!" exclaimed Fritz fervently, and he shut his eyes and remained quiet for a minute or two, although his lips moved as if in prayer.
"And where is Gelert, my dog?" he asked presently.
"'Fritz,' you mean," said the girl, smiling.
"No, that is my name, the dog's is Gelert."
"That is what I want explained," said the other.
"But, please pardon my rudeness, Fraulein," interrupted Fritz, "may I ask to whom I am indebted for watching over me, and adding to it the thoughtful kindness of relieving my mother's misery?"
"My name is Madaleine Vogelstein," said the girl softly. "Do you like it?"
"I do; it is a very pretty one," he replied. "The surname is German, but the given name is French—Madaleine? It sounds sweeter than would be thought possible in our guttural Teuton tongue!"
"My mother was a Frenchwoman, and I take the name from her," explained the girl. "But now, before I stop you from talking any more, for the good doctor would blame me much if he came in, you must tell me how you came to possess that dog; or, rather, why he so faithfully attached himself to you, as it was entirely through him that I found you, and got you picked up by the ambulance corps and brought here. You must first take this soup, however, to strengthen you. It has been kept nice and warm on that little lamp there, and it will do you good. I won't hear a word more until you have swallowed it!"
"A soldier should always obey the orders of his commanding officer," said Fritz with a smile, as he slowly gulped down the broth, spoonful by spoonful, as Madaleine placed it in his mouth, for he could not feed himself.
"That will do," she remarked, when he had taken what she thought sufficient. "And now you can tell me about the dog. Here he is," she continued, as the retriever came into the room; and, going up to the side of the bed where Fritz was lying, put up his paws on the counterpane and licked his master's face, in the wildest joy, apparently, at his recovery and notice of him. "He must have heard his name spoken, as I only just sent him out for a run with one of the men, for all the time you were so ill we could not get him to leave the room. Now, doggie, lie down like a good fellow, and let us hear all about you."
The retriever at once obeyed the girl, stretching himself on the floor at her feet, although close beside his master all the while.
Fritz then narrated the sad little episode of the battle of Gravelotte, and how he had found the dead body of the French officer with the dog keeping guard over it.
The girl wept silently as he went on.
"It must have been poor Armand," she said presently through her tears. "Did you find nothing about him to tell who he was?"
"There was a little bag I saw round his neck," said Fritz; "I took it off the poor fellow before we buried him, and suspended it on my own breast afterwards for security, thinking that I might restore it some day to his friends, if I ever came across them."
"Ah, that must be the little packet which got driven into your wound, and, stopping the flow of blood, saved your life, the doctor says. I have kept it carefully for you, and here it is," cried the girl, hastily jumping up from her seat and bringing the article in question to Fritz.
"Open it," he said; "I haven't got the strength to do it, you know."
Madaleine unfastened the silken string that confined the mouth of the bag, now stained with Fritz's blood; and then she pulled out the little silver ring it contained.
One glance was enough for her.
"Yes," she faltered through her sobs. "It is the ring I gave him; but that was months before the date engraved upon it, 'July 18th, 1870,' which was the day he said he would come back to Bingen, as then he would be of age."
"And he never came, then?" inquired Fritz.
"No, never again," said she mournfully.
"Ah, I would come if I had been in his place," exclaimed Fritz eagerly, with a flashing eye. "I never fail in an appointment I promise to keep; and to fail to meet a betrothed—why it is unpardonable!"
He had raised his voice from the whisper in which he had previously spoken, and its indignant tone seemed quite loud.
"Perhaps he couldn't come," said Madaleine more composedly. "Besides, we were not engaged; all was over between us."
"I'm very glad to hear that," replied Fritz. "It would have been dastardly on his part otherwise! But, would you like to keep the dog for his sake, Fraulein Vogelstein? I have got no claim to him, you know."
"Oh dear no, I would not like to deprive you of him for the world, much as I love the poor faithful fellow. Why, he would think nobody was his proper master if he were constantly changing hands like this!"
"Poor old Gelert!" said Fritz; and the dog, hearing himself talked about, here raised himself up again from his recumbent attitude by the side of the bed and thrust his black nose into the hand of his master, who tried feebly to caress him.
"'Fritz,' you mean," corrected Miss Madaleine, determined to have her point about his right name.
"Well, if you call him so, I shall think you mean me," said Fritz jokingly, as well as his feeble utterance would permit his voice to be expressive. He wanted, however, to imply much more than the mere words.
"That would not be any great harm, would it?" she replied with a little smile, her tears of sorrow at Armand de la Tour's untimely fate having dried up as quickly as raindrops disappear after a shower as soon as the sun shines out again; however, she apparently now thought the conversation was becoming a little too personal, for she proceeded to ply the invalid with more soup in order to stop his mouth and prevent him from replying to this last speech of hers!
THE "LITTLE FAT MAN."
"Hullo! What fails with the well-born and most worthy lady, her to make in such pitiable plight?" inquired Burgher Jans, poking his little round face into the parlour of the house in the Gulden Strasse, just as Lorischen, bending over her mistress, was endeavouring to raise her on to the sofa, where she would be better enabled to apply restoratives in order to bring her to.
The old nurse was glad of any assistance in the emergency; and, even the fat little Burgher, disliked as he was by her, as a rule, with an inveterate hatred, was better than nobody!
"Madame has fainted," she said. "Help me to lift her up, and I'll be obliged to you, worshipful Herr."
"Yes, so, right gladly will I do it, dearest maiden," replied Burgher Jans politely, with his usual sweeping bow, taking off his hat and depositing it on an adjacent chair, while he lent a hand to raise the poor lady and place her on the couch.
This done, he espied the letter that had caused the commotion, which Madame Dort still held tightly clutched in her hand when she fell; and he tried to pull it away from her rigid fingers. "Ha, what have we here?" he said.
"You just leave that alone!" snapped out Lorischen. "Pray take yourself off, with your wanting to spy into other people's business! If I were a man I'd be ashamed of being so curious, I would. Burgher Jans, I'll thank you to withdraw; I wish to attend to my mistress."
"I will obey your behests, dearest maiden," blandly replied the little man, taking his hat from the chair and backing towards the door, although casting the while most covetous eyes on the mysterious letter, which he would have cheerfully given a thaler to have been allowed to peruse. "I will return anon to inquire how the gracious lady is after her indisposition, and—"
"If you are not out of the room before I count five," exclaimed the old nurse, angrily interrupting him, "I declare I'll pitch this footstool at your little round turnip-top of a head, that I will. One—two—three—"
"Why, whatever is the matter, Lorischen?" interposed Madame Dort, opening her eyes at this juncture, while the old nurse yet stood with the footstool raised in her uplifted hands facing the door, half in and half out of which peered the tortoise-shell spectacles of the little fat burgher. "Who is there?"
The poor lady spoke very faintly, and did not seem to know where she was at first, her gaze wandering round the room.
Lorischen quickly put down the heavy missile with which she was threatening Burgher Jans; and he, taking advantage of this suspension of hostilities, at once advanced again within the apartment, although still keeping his hand on the door so as to be ready to beat a retreat in a fresh emergency, should the old nurse attempt to renew the interrupted fray.
"High, well-born, and most gracious madame," said he obsequiously. "It is me, only me!"
"Hein!" grunted Lorischen. "A nice 'me' it is—a little, inquisitive, meddlesome morsel of a man!"
"Oh, Meinherr Burgher Jans," said Madame Dort, rising up from the sofa. "I'm glad to see you; I wanted to ask you something. I—"
Just at that moment she caught sight of the letter she held between her fingers, when she recollected all at once the news she had received, of which she had been for the time oblivious.
"Ah, poor Fritz!" she exclaimed, bursting into a fit of weeping. "My son, my firstborn, I shall never see him more!"
"Why, what have you heard, gracious lady?" said Burgher Jans, abandoning his refuge by the door, and coming forwards into the centre of the room. "No bad news, I trust, from the young and well-born Herr?"
"Read," said the widow, extending the letter in her hand towards him; "read for yourself and see."
His owlish eyes all expanded with delight through the tortoise-shell spectacles, the fat little man eagerly took hold of the rustling piece of paper and unfolded it, his hands trembling with nervous anxiety to know what the missive contained—and which he had been all along burning with curiosity to find out.
Lorischen actually snorted with indignation.
"There, just see that!" she grumbled through her set teeth, opening and clenching her fingers together convulsively, as if she would like to snatch the letter away from him—when, perhaps, she would have expressed her feelings pretty forcibly in the way of scratches on the Burgher's beaming face: "there, I wouldn't have let him see it if he had gone down on his bended knees for it—no, not if I had died first!"
The widow continued to sob in her handkerchief; while the Burgher appeared to gloat over the delicate angular handwriting of the letter, as if he were learning it by heart and spelling out every word—he took so long over it.
"Ah, it is bad, gracious lady," he said at length; "but, still, not so bad as it might otherwise be."
Madame Dort raised her tear-stained face, looking at the little roan questioningly; while Lorischen, who in her longing to hear about Fritz had not quitted the apartment, according to her usual custom when Burgher Jans was in it, drew nearer, resting her impulsive fingers on the table, so as not to alarm that worthy unnecessarily and make him stop speaking.
The Burgher felt himself a person of importance, on account of his opinion being consulted; so he drew himself up to his full height—just five feet one inch!
"The letter only says, most worthy and gracious lady,—and you, dearest maiden," he proceeded—with a special bow to Lorischen, which the latter, sad to relate, only received with a grimace from her tightly drawn spinster lips—"that the young and well-born Herr is merely grievously wounded, and not, thanks be to Providence, that he is—he is—he is—"
"Why don't you say 'dead' at once, and not beat about the bush in that stupid way?" interposed the old nurse, who detested the little man's hemming and hawing over matters which she was in the habit of blurting out roughly without demur.
"No, I like not the ugly word," suavely expostulated the Burgher. "The great-to-come-for-all-of-us can be better expressed than that! But, to resume my argument, dearest maiden and most gracious lady, this document does not state that the dear son of the house has shaken off this mortal coil entirely as yet."
"I'd like to shake off yours, and you with it!" said Lorischen angrily, under her breath—"for a word-weaving, pedantic little fool!"
"You mean that there is hope?" asked Madame Dort, looking a bit less tearful, her grief having nearly exhausted itself.
"Most decidedly, dear lady," said the Burgher. "Does not the letter say so in plain and very-much-nicely-written characters?"
"But, all such painful communications are generally worded, if the writers have a tender heart, so as to break bad news as gently as possible," answered the widow, wishing to have the faint sanguine suspicion of hope that was stealing over her confirmed by the other's opinion.
"Just so," said Burgher Jans authoritatively. "You have reason in your statement; still, dear lady, by what I can gather from this letter, I should think that the Frau or Fraulein Vogelstein who signs it wishes to prepare you for the worst, but yet intimates at the same time that there is room to hope for the best."
"Ah, I'm glad you say so," exclaimed the widow joyfully. "Now I read it over, I believe the same; but at first, I thought, in my hurried glance over it, that Fritz was slain, the writer only pretending he was still alive, in order to prepare me for his loss. He is not dead, thank God! That is everything; for, whilst there is life, there's hope, eh?"
"Most decidedly, gracious lady," responded the little man with effusion. "If ever I under the down-pressing weight of despondency lie, so I unto myself much comfort make by that happy consolation!"
Madame Dort experienced such relief from the cheering aspect in which the Burgher's explanation had enabled her now to look upon the news of Fritz's wound, that her natural feelings of hospitality, which had been dormant for the while, asserted themselves in favour of her timely visitor, who in spite of his curiosity had certainly done her much good in banishing all the ill effects of her fainting fit.
"Will you not have a glass of lager, Herr Jans?" said she.
"Mein Gott, yes," promptly returned the little man. "Much talking makes one dry, and beer is good for the stomach."
"Lorischen, get the Burgher some lager bier," ordered Madame Dort, on her invitation being accepted, the old nurse proceeding to execute the command with very ill grace.
"The Lord only knows when he'll leave now, once he starts guzzling beer in the parlour! That Burgher Jans is getting to be a positive nuisance to us; and I shall be glad when our poor wounded Fritz comes home, if only to stop his coming here so frequently—the gossipping little time- server, with his bowing and scraping and calling me his 'dearest maiden,' indeed—I'd 'maiden' him if I had the chance!"
Lorischen was much exasperated, and so she grumbled to herself as she sallied out of the room.
However, much to her relief, the "fat little man" did not make a long stay on this occasion, for he took his leave soon after swallowing the beer. He was anxious to make a round of visits amongst his acquaintances, to retail the news that Fritz was wounded and lying in a hospital at Mezieres, near Metz, for he had read it himself in the letter, you know! He likewise informed his hearers, although he had not so impressed the widow, that they would probably never see the young clerk of Herr Grosschnapper again in Lubeck, as his case was so desperate that he was not expected to live! His story otherwise, probably, would have been far less interesting to scandal-mongers, as they would have thus lost the opportunity of settling all the affairs of the widow and considering whom she would marry again. Of course, they now decided, that, as she had as good as lost both her sons and had a nice little property of her own, besides being comparatively not old, so to speak, and not very plain, she would naturally seek another partner to console herself in her solitude—Burgher Jans getting much quizzed on this point, with sly allusions as to his being the widow's best friend!
Some days after Madaleine Vogelstein's first letter, Madame Dort received a second, telling her that the ball had been extracted from her son's wound, but fever had come on, making him very weak and prostrate; although, as his good constitution had enabled him to survive the painful operation, he would probably pull through this second ordeal.
The widow again grew down-hearted at this intelligence, and it was as much as Burgher Jans could do, with all his plausibility, to make her hopeful; while Lorischen, her old superstitious fears and belief in Mouser's prophetic miaow-wowing again revived, did all her best to negative the fat little man's praiseworthy efforts at cheering. Ever since the Burgher had been elected a confidant of Madaleine's original communication, he had made a point of calling every day in the Gulden Strasse, with his, to the old nurse, sickening and stereotyped inquiry—"Any news yet?" until the field post brought the next despatch, when, as he now naturally expected and wished, the letter was given him to read.
"He seems bent on hanging up his hat in our lobby here!" Lorischen would say spitefully, on the widow seeking to excuse the little man's pertinacity in visiting her. "Much he cares whether poor Master Fritz gets well or ill; he takes more interest in somebody else, I think!"
"Oh, Lorischen!" Madame Dort would remonstrate. "How can you say such things?"
"It is 'Oh, mistress!' it strikes me," the other would retort. "I wish the young master were only here!"
"And so do I heartily," said Madame Dort, at the end of one of these daily skirmishes between the two on the same subject. "We agree on that point, at all events!" and she sighed heavily. The old servant was so privileged a person that she did not like to speak harshly to her, although she did not at all relish Lorischen's frequent allusions as to the real object of the Burgher's visits, and her surmises as to what the neighbours would think about them. Madame Dort put up with Lorischen's innuendoes in silence, but still, she did not look pleased.
"Ach Himmel, dear mistress!" pleaded the offender, "never mind my waspish old tongue. I am always saying what I shouldn't; but that little fat man does irritate me with his hypocritical, oily smile and smooth way—calling me his 'dearest maiden,' indeed!"
"Why, don't you see, Lorischen, that it is you really whom he comes here after, although you treat him so cruelly!" said the widow, smiling.
This was more than the old spinster could bear.
"What, me!" she exclaimed, with withering scorn. "Himmel, if I thought that, I would soon scratch his chubby face for him—me, indeed!" and she retreated from the room in high dudgeon.
Bye-and-bye, there came another letter from the now familiar correspondent, saying that Fritz was really recovering at last; and, oh what happiness! the mother's heart was rejoiced by the sight of a few awkwardly scrawled lines at the end. It was a postscript from her son himself!
The almost indecipherable words were only "Love to Mutterchen, from her own Fritz," but they were more precious to her than the lengthiest epistle from any one else.
"Any news?" asked Burgher Jans of Lorischen soon afterwards, when he came to the house to make his stereotyped inquiry.
"Yes," said the old nurse, instead of replying with her usual negative.
"Indeed!" exclaimed the little man. "The noble, well-born young Herr is not worse, I hope?" and he tried to hide his abnormally bland expression with a sympathetic look of deep concern; but he failed miserably in the attempt. His full-moon face could not help beaming with a self- satisfied complacency which it was impossible to subdue; indeed, he would have been unable to disguise this appearance of smiling, even if he had been at a funeral and was, mentally, plunged in the deepest woe— if that were possible for him to be!
"No, not worse," answered Lorischen. "He is—"
"Not dead, I trust?" said Burgher Jans, interrupting her before she could finish her sentence, and using in his hurry the very word to which he had objected before.
"No, he is not dead," retorted the old nurse, with a triumphant ring in her voice. "And, if you were expecting that, I only hope you are disappointed, that's all! He is getting better, for he has written to the mistress himself; and, what is more, he's coming home to send you to the right-about, Burgher Jans, and stop your coming here any more. Do you hear that, eh?"
"My dearest maiden," commenced to stammer out the little fat man, woefully taken aback by this outburst, "I—I—don't know what you mean."
"Ah, but I do," returned Lorischen, not feeling any the more amiably disposed towards him by his addressing her in that way after what Madame Dort had said about his calling especially to see her. "I know what I mean; and what I mean to say now, is, that my mistress told me to say she was engaged when you came, should you call to-day, and that she is unable to see you, there! Good-morning, Burgher Jans; good-morning, most worshipful Herr!"
So saying, she slammed the door in the poor little man's face, leaving him without, cogitating the reason for this summary dismissal of him by the widow; albeit Lorischen, in order to indulge her own feelings of dislike, had somewhat exaggerated a casual remark made by her mistress— that she did not wish to be interrupted after the receipt of the good news about Fritz, as she wanted to answer the letter at once!
A MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING!
"Do you know what is going on to-day?" said Madaleine Vogelstein to her patient, a couple of days after she had aided him to scrawl that postscript to her letter to his mother in his own handwriting, when he had so far recovered that he might be said to be almost convalescent. "No, what—anything important?" he replied, answering her question in questionable fashion by asking another.
"Guess," said she teasingly, holding up her finger. "I'm sure I can't."
"The capitulation of Metz!" she said slowly with some emphasis, marking the importance of the news she was telling.
"Never—it can't be!" ejaculated Fritz, making an effort to spring up in the pallet bed on which he was still lying, but falling back with a groan on finding himself too weak. "What an unlucky beggar I am!"
"Lie still," said she, putting her hand gently on his, which was outside the quilt. "You must keep quiet, or you'll never get better, so as to be able to stand up and walk about again—no, you won't, if you try to hurry matters now."
"That's more than the French have done if they've only just given in! Is it true, though? Perhaps you've only heard a rumour, for there are always such false reports flying about. Why, in the camp it used to be the current cry every morning, after we began the siege, that Metz had fallen."
"It is true enough now, I can tell you," said Madaleine. "The whole French army commanded by Bazaine has capitulated, and the Germans have marched in and taken possession of the fortress."
"I must believe you; but, is it not aggravating that this should just happen when I am invalided here, and not able to take part in the final triumph? It is rather hard lines, after serving so long in the trenches all during our wearisome environment, not to have had the satisfaction in the end of being a witness to the surrender!"
"It's the fortune of war," said she soothingly, noticing how bitterly Fritz spoke. "Although all may fight bravely, it is not every one who reaps the laurels of victory."
"No," he replied, smiling at some thoughts which her words suggested—so much is dry humour allied to sentiment that the mention of laurels brought to his mind a comic association which at once dispelled his chagrin. "When did you say the capitulation took place?"
"Well, I heard that the formal agreement was signed by the French officers on behalf of Marshal Bazaine two days ago; but the actual surrender takes place to-day, the Marshal having already left, it is said, to join his imprisoned emperor at Cassel."
What Madaleine told Fritz was perfectly true.
On the 27th of October, the seventieth day after it had been driven under the guns of Metz on the disastrous termination of the battle of Gravelotte, Bazaine's army, in addition to the regular garrison of the fortress and an unknown number of Gardes Mobiles, was forced to surrender to the Germans—thus now allowing the latter to utilise the giant legions hitherto employed in investing the stronghold of Lorraine, in further trampling out the last evidences of organised resistance in France, and so, by coercing the country, sooner put an end to the duration of the war.
Notwithstanding all the comments made—especially those by his own countrymen in their unreasoning prejudice against every one and everything connected with the late empire, from its unfortunate and much-maligned head downwards—in the matter of this capitulation, and on Marshal Bazaine's conduct, it is absolutely certain that he held out as long as it was possible to do so. Indeed, it is a surprising fact that his provisions lasted such a length of time; and it would be a cause for sorrow to believe that the brave defender of Metz was in any way stained by the crime of "treachery" as his act was stigmatised by the demagogues of Paris. Those who assert that a clever commander ought somehow or other to have made his escape from the place, do not take into consideration the strength of the investing force, which comprised the united armies of Prince Frederick Charles and Steinmetz—more than two hundred and fifty thousand men, in addition to their reserves, all capable of being concentrated at any given point where an attack was anticipated, and protected, besides, by entrenched lines of great strength. Nor do these biassed critics consider the ruin that must have fallen on Bazaine's army, even if it had succeeded in cutting its way through the ranks of the besiegers, as the general tried gallantly, but unsuccessfully, to do on more than one occasion, besides making numerous sorties. It is apparent to most unprejudiced minds now, at this distance of time from the momentous epoch of the struggle between the two nations, that the Marshal, in his situation, accomplished all that could have been expected in detaining for such a length of time a huge German army nearly on the frontier, thus giving the invaded country breathing time to collect its resources for just so long a period. The fact is, that when an army like that of Bazaine's is severed from its communications and supplies, its surrender can only be a question of time; and, therefore, unparalleled as is the capitulation of Metz in modern history, the unprecedented catastrophe—can be fully accounted for on military grounds.
"I'm sorry I missed the sight," said Fritz presently, after thinking over the news. "It would have been some fair return for all that bitter night work I had in the trenches before I was wounded. Still, I'm glad it's all ended now, for my corps will be able to march onward on Paris like the rest."
"That will not benefit you much, my poor friend," remarked Madaleine sympathisingly. "I'm afraid it will be some time before you will be strong enough to move from this room, although you're improving each day."
"Oh, will it?" said Fritz triumphantly; "that's all you know about it, young lady! Why, Doctor Carl said this morning that he thought I would be able to report myself fit for duty in another week."
"I suppose you'll rejoice to get back to your friends and comrades in the regiment? You must find it miserable and dull enough in this place!"
"No, not quite that. I've been very happy and comfortable here the last few days; and I shall never forget all your kindness and care of me—no, never!"
"Don't speak of that, pray; it's only what any one else would have done in my place. Besides," she added demurely, "you know that in attending to you as a wounded soldier, I have only been carrying out the orders of the baroness, my employer."
"Hang the fussy old thing!" said Fritz impatiently trying to shrug his shoulders. He had had the honour of one interview with Madaleine's distinguished patroness, and did not crave for another; for, she had a good deal of that old-fashioned, starched formality which the German nobility affect, mixed up with a fidgety, condescending, patronising manner which much annoyed the generous-minded young fellow. He burned with indignation all the time the visit of the old lady to him had lasted, for she ordered Madaleine to do this and corrected her for doing that, in, as he thought, the rudest manner possible. Her exquisitely dignified patronage of himself, as a species of inferior animal, who, being in pain and distress, she was bound in common charity to take some notice of, caused him no umbrage whatever; but it annoyed him to see a gentle, ladylike girl like Madaleine subjected to the whims and caprices of an old woman, who, in spite of her high birth, was naturally vulgar and inconsiderate. "Hang the fussy old thing!" he repeated, with considerable heat. "I wish you had nothing to do with her. I'm sure she would drive me mad in a day if I were constantly associated with her!"
"Ah, dear friend, beggars mustn't be choosers," said Madaleine sadly. "You forget my position, in your kind zeal on my behalf! A poor orphan girl such as I, left friendless and penniless, ought to be glad to be under the protection of so grand a lady as the Baroness Stolzenkop. She is kind to me, too, in her way."
"But, what a way!" interposed Fritz angrily. "I wouldn't speak to a dog in that fashion."
"You are different."
"I should hope so, indeed!"
"Besides, Herr Fritz, remember, that if it hadn't been for this old lady, of whom you speak in such disrespectful terms, I should never have come here to Mezieres and been able to nurse you."
"I forgot for the moment, Fraulein. My blessing on the old catamaran for the fancy that seized her, so auspiciously, to go touring on the trail of the war and thus to bring you here. I don't believe I would have lived, if it had not been for your care and kindness!"
"Meinherr, you exaggerate. It is to your own good constitution and to Providence that your thanks are due; I have only been a simple means towards that happy end."
"Well, I shall always attribute my recovery to you, at all events; and so will my good mother, who I hope will some day be able to thank you in person for all that you've done for me and her."
"I should like to see her," said Madaleine; "she must be a kind, good lady, from her letters to you."
"And the fondest mother in the world!" exclaimed Fritz with enthusiasm. "But, you will see her—some day," he added after a pause. "I vow that you shall."
"I don't know how that will be," said Madaleine, half laughing in a constrained fashion, as if wishing to conceal her real feelings. "In a week or two you will be off to the wars again and forget me—like a true soldier!"
"Stay," interposed Fritz, interrupting her. "You have no right to say that! Do you think me so ungrateful? You must have a very bad opinion of me! I—"
"Never mind explanations now," interrupted the girl in her turn, speaking hurriedly in a nervous way, although trying to laugh the matter off as a joke. "If the doctor says you can soon report yourself as fit for duty, of course you'll have to rejoin your regiment."
"Ah, I wonder where that is now?" said Fritz musingly. "Since our camp round Metz is broken up, the army will naturally march on farther into the interior. No matter, there's no good my worrying myself about it. They'll soon let me know where I've got to go to join them; for, the powers that be do not allow any shirking of duty in the ranks, from the highest to the lowest!"
"I saw that here," remarked Madaleine. "The baroness wanted to get her son to return home with her; but she was told that, if he were allowed to go he could never come back to the army, as his reputation for courage would be settled for ever."
"Yes, that would be the case, true enough. Hev would be thought to have shown the white feather! But, about your movements, Fraulein Madaleine—the baroness is not going to remain here long, is she?"
"No; she spoke this morning about going away. She said that, as the siege of Metz was raised, and the greater portion of the wounded men would be removed to Germany, along with the prisoners of war, she thought she would go back home—to Darmstadt, that is."
"And there you will stop, I suppose?" asked Fritz.
"Until she has a whim to go somewhere else!" replied Madaleine.
"May I write to you there?"
"I will be glad to hear of your welfare," answered she discreetly, a slight colour mantling to her cheeks. "Of course, you have been my patient; and, like a good nurse, I should like to know that you were getting on well, without any relapse."
"I will write to you, then," said Fritz in those firm, ringing tones of his that clearly intimated he had made a promise which he intended to keep. "And you, I hope, will answer my letters?"
"When I can," replied the girl; "that is, you know, if the Baroness Stolzenkop does not object."
"Bother the Baroness Stolzenkop!" said he energetically, and he stretched out his hand to her with a smile. "Promise to write to me," he repeated.
Madaleine did not say anything; but she returned his smile, and he could feel a slight pressure of her fingers on his, so with this he was perfectly contented for the while.
"Ah, when the war is over!" he exclaimed presently, after a moment's silence between the two, which expressed more than words would have done perhaps. "Ah, when the war is over!"
"Eh, what?" said the doctor, coming in unexpectedly at that instant and catching the last words.
"I—I—said," explained Fritz rather confusedly, "that when the war was over, I'd be glad to get home again to my mother and those dear to me;" and he looked at Madaleine as he spoke meaningly.
"Eh, what?" repeated the doctor. "But, the war isn't over yet, my worthy young lieutenant, and I hope we'll patch you up so as to be able to play a good part in it still for the Fatherland!"
"I hope so, Herr Doctor," answered Fritz. "I've no desire yet to be laid on the shelf while laurels and promotion are to be won."