The inhabitants of the little country of which we speak, being more restless and enterprising than their neighbors, certain features of life came out more sharply here than would have been the case elsewhere under like conditions. Wood stealing and poaching were every-day occurrences, and in the numerous fights which ensued each one had to seek his own consolation if his head was bruised. Since great and productive forests constituted the chief wealth of the country, these forests were of course vigilantly watched over, less, however, by legal means than by continually renewed efforts to defeat violence and trickery with like weapons.
The village of B. was reputed to be the most arrogant, most cunning, and most daring community in the entire principality. Perhaps its situation in the midst of the deep and proud solitude of the forest had early strengthened the innate obstinacy of its inhabitants. The proximity of a river which flowed into the sea and bore covered vessels large enough to transport shipbuilding timber conveniently and safely to foreign ports, helped much in encouraging the natural boldness of the wood-thieves; and the fact that the entire neighborhood swarmed with foresters served only to aggravate matters, since in the oft-recurring skirmishes the peasants usually had the advantage. Thirty or forty wagons would start off together on beautiful moonlight nights with about twice as many men of every age, from the half-grown boy to the seventy-year-old village magistrate, who, as an experienced bell-wether, led the procession as proudly and self-consciously as when he took his seat in the court-room. Those who were left behind listened unconcernedly to the grinding and pounding of the wheels dying away in the narrow passes, and slept calmly on. Now and then an occasional shot, a faint scream, startled perhaps a young wife or an engaged girl; no one else paid any attention to it. At the first gray light of dawn the procession returned just as silently—every face bronzed, and here and there a bandaged head, which did not matter. A few hours later the neighborhood would be alive with talk about the misfortune of one or more foresters, who were being carried out of the woods, beaten, blinded with snuff, and rendered unable to attend to their business for some time.
In this community Frederick Mergel was born, in a house which attested the pretensions of its builder by the proud addition of a chimney and somewhat less diminutive window panes, but at the same time bespoke the miserable circumstances of its owner by its present state of dilapidation. What had once been a hedge around the yard and the garden had given way to a neglected fence; the roof was damaged; other people's cattle grazed in the pastures; other people's corn grew in the field adjoining the yard; and the garden contained, with the exception of a few woody rose bushes of a better time, more weeds than useful plants. Strokes of misfortune had, it is true, brought on much of this, but disorder and mismanagement had played their part. Frederick's father, old Herman Mergel, was, in his bachelor days, a so-called orderly drinker—that is, one who lay in the gutter on Sundays and holidays, but during the week was as well behaved as any one, and so he had had no difficulty in wooing and winning a right pretty and wealthy girl. There was great merrymaking at the wedding. Mergel did not get so very drunk, and the bride's parents went home in the evening satisfied; but the next Sunday the young wife, screaming and bloody, was seen running through the village to her family, leaving behind all her good clothes and new household furniture. Of course that meant great scandal and vexation for Mergel, who naturally needed consolation; by afternoon therefore there was not an unbroken pane of glass in his house and he was seen late at night still lying on his threshold, raising, from time to time, the neck of a broken bottle to his mouth and pitifully lacerating his face and hands. The young wife remained with her parents, where she soon pined away and died. Whether it was remorse or shame that tormented Mergel, no matter; he seemed to grow more and more in need of "spiritual" bolstering up, and soon began to be counted among the completely demoralized good-for-nothings.
The household went to pieces, hired girls caused disgrace and damage; so year after year passed. Mergel was and remained a distressed and finally rather pitiable widower, until all of a sudden he again appeared as a bridegroom. If the event itself was unexpected, the personality of the bride added still more to the general astonishment. Margaret Semmler was a good, respectable person, in her forties, a village belle in her youth, still respected for her good sense and thrift, and at the same time not without some money. What had induced her to take this step was consequently incomprehensible to every one. We think the reason is to be found in her very consciousness of perfection. On the evening before the wedding she is reported to have said: "A woman who is badly treated by her husband is either stupid or good-for-nothing; if I am unhappy, put it down as my fault." The result proved, unfortunately, that she had overestimated her strength. At first she impressed her husband; if he had taken too much, he would not come home, or would creep into the barn. But the yoke was too oppressive to be borne long, and soon they saw him quite often staggering across the street right into his house, heard his wild shouting within, and saw Margaret hastily closing doors and windows. On one such day—it was no longer a Sunday now—they saw her rush out of the house in the evening, without hood or Shawl, with her hair flying wildly about her head. They saw her throw herself down in the garden beside a vegetable bed and dig up the earth with her hands, then, anxiously looking about her, quickly pick off some vegetables and slowly return with them in the direction of the house, but, instead of entering it, go into the barn. It was said that this was the first time that Mergel had struck her, although she never let such an admission pass her lips. The second year of this unhappy marriage was marked by the coming of a son—one cannot say gladdened, for Margaret is reported to have wept bitterly when the child was handed to her. Nevertheless, although born beneath a heart full of grief, Frederick was a healthy, pretty child who grew strong in the fresh air. His father loved him dearly, never came home without bringing him a roll or something of that sort, and it was even thought he had become more temperate since the birth of the boy; at least the noise in the house decreased.
Frederick was in his ninth year. It was about the Feast of the Three Kings, a raw and stormy winter night. Herman had gone to a wedding, and had started out early because the bride's house was three miles away. Although he had promised to return in the evening, Mistress Mergel hardly counted on it because a heavy snowfall had set in after sunset. About ten o'clock she banked the fire and made ready to go to bed. Frederick stood beside her, already half undressed, and listened, to the howling of the wind and the rattling of the garret windows.
"Mother, isn't father coming home tonight?" he asked.
"No, child; tomorrow."
"But why not, mother? He promised to."
"Oh, God, if he only kept every promise he makes!—Hurry now, hurry and get ready."
They had hardly gone to bed when a gale started to rage as though it would carry the house along with it. The bed-stead quivered, and the chimney-stack rattled as if there were goblins in it.
"Mother, some one's knocking outside!"
"Quiet, Fritzy; that's the loose board on the gable being shaken by the wind."
"No; mother, it's at the door."
"It does not lock; the latch is broken. Heavens, go to sleep! Don't deprive me of my bit of rest at night!"
"But what if father should come now!"
His mother turned angrily in her bed. "The devil holds him tight enough!"
"Where is the devil, mother?
"Wait, you restless boy! He's standing at the door, ready to get you if you don't keep quiet!"
Frederick became quiet. A little while longer he listened, and then fell asleep. A few hours later he awoke. The wind had changed, and hissed like a snake through the cracks in the window near his ear. His shoulder was stiff; he crept clear under his quilt and lay still and trembling with fear. After a while he noticed that his mother was not asleep either. He heard her weep and moan between sobs: "Hail, Mary!" and "Pray for us poor sinners!" The beads of the rosary slid by his face. An involuntary sigh escaped him. "Frederick, are you awake?
"Child, pray a little—you know half of the Paternoster already, don't you?-that God protect us from flood and fire."
Frederick thought of the devil, and wondered how he looked, anyway. The confused noise and rumbling in the house seemed strange to him. He thought there must be something alive within and without. "Listen, mother! I am sure I hear people knocking."
"Oh, no, child; but there's not an old board in the house that isn't rattling."
"Hark! Don't you hear? Someone's calling! Listen!"
His mother sat up; the raging of the storm subsided a moment. Knocking on the shutters, was distinctly audible, and several voices called: "Margaret!. Mistress Margaret! Hey there! Open the door!" Margaret ejaculated violently, "There, they're again bringing the swine home to me!"
The rosary flew clattering down on the wooden chair; hastily she snatched her clothes; she rushed to the hearth, and soon Frederick heard her walk across the hall with defiant steps. Margaret did not return; but in the kitchen there was a loud murmuring of strange voices. Twice a strange man came into the bedroom and seemed to be nervously searching for something. Suddenly a lamp was brought in; two men were supporting his mother. She was white as chalk and her eyes were closed; Frederick thought she was dead. He emitted a fearful scream, whereupon some one boxed his ear. That silenced him; and now he gradually gleaned from the remarks of the bystanders that his father had been found dead in the woods by his Uncle Franz Semmler and by Huelsmeyer, and was now lying in the kitchen.
As soon as Margaret regained consciousness she tried to get rid of the strangers. Her brother remained with her, and Frederick, who was threatened with severe punishment if he got out of bed, heard the fire crackling in the kitchen all night and a noise like stroking something back and forth, and brushing it. There was little spoken and that quietly, but now and then sobs broke out that went through and through the child, young as he was. Once he understood his uncle to say, "Margaret, don't take it so badly; we will all have three masses read, and at Eastertide we'll make together a pilgrimage to the Holy Virgin of Werl."
When the body was carried away two days later, Margaret sat on the hearth and covered her face with her apron. After a few minutes, when everything had become quiet, she mumbled, "Ten years, ten crosses! But we carried them together, after all, and now I am alone!" Then louder, "Fritzy, come here!"
Frederick approached her timidly; his mother had become quite uncanny to him with her black ribbons and her haggard, troubled face. "Fritzy," she said, "will you now really be good and make me happy, or will you be naughty and lie, or drink and steal?"
"Mother, Huelsmeyer steals."
"Huelsmeyer? God forbid! Must I spank you? Who tells you such wicked things?"
"The other day he beat Aaron and took six groschen from him."
"If he took money from Aaron, no doubt the accursed Jew had first cheated him out of it. Huelsmeyer is a respectable householder, and the Jews are all rascals!"
"But, mother, Brandes also says that he steals wood and deer."
"Child, Brandes is a forester."
"Mother, do foresters tell lies?"
Margaret was silent a moment, and then said, "Listen, Fritz! Our Lord makes the wood grow free and the wild game moves from one landowner's property into another's. They can belong to no one. But you do not understand that yet. Now go into the shed and get me some fagots."
Frederick had seen his father lying on the straw, where he was said to have looked blue and fearful; but the boy never spoke of it and seemed indisposed to think of it. On the whole, the recollection of his father had left behind a feeling of tenderness mingled with horror, for nothing so engrosses one as love and devotion on the part of a person who seems hardened against everything else; and in Frederick's case this sentiment grew with the years, through the experience of many slights on the part of others. As a child he was very sensitive about having any one mention his deceased father in a tone not altogether flattering to him—a cause for grief that the none too delicate neighbors did not spare him. There is a tradition in those parts which denies rest in the grave to a person killed by accident. Old Mergel had thus become the ghost of the forest of Brede; as a will o' the wisp he led a drunken man into the pond by a hair; the shepherd boys, when they crouched by their fires at night and the owls screeched in the hollows, sometimes heard quite clearly in broken accents his "Just listen, sweet Lizzie;" and an unprivileged woodman who had fallen asleep under the broad oak and been overtaken by nightfall, had, upon awakening, seen his swollen blue face peeping through the branches. Frederick was obliged to hear much of this from other boys; then he would howl and strike any one who was near; once he even cut some one with his little knife and was, on this occasion, pitilessly thrashed. After that he drove his mother's cows alone to the other end of the valley, where one could often see him lie in the grass for hours in the same position, pulling up the thyme.
He was twelve years old when his mother received a visit from her younger brother who lived in Brede and had not crossed his sister's threshold since her foolish marriage.
Simon Semmler was a short, restless, lean man with bulging fishlike eyes and a face altogether like a pike—an uncanny fellow, in whom exaggerated reserve often alternated with affability no less affected—who would have liked to pass for a shrewd intellect but was considered disagreeable instead. He was a quarrelsome chap, and everybody grew more anxious to avoid him the farther he advanced toward that age when persons of limited intellect are apt to make up in pretensions for what they lose in usefulness. Nevertheless poor Margaret was glad to see him, as she had no other relatives living.
"Simon, is that you?" she asked, trembling so that she had to steady herself on a chair. "You want to see how I am getting along with my dirty boy?"
Simon looked at her earnestly and clasped her hand. "You have grown old, Margaret."
Margaret sighed. "I've had much sorrow and all kinds of bad luck since I saw you."
"Yes, girl, marry at leisure, repent in haste! Now you are old and the child is small. Everything has its time. But when an old house is burning nothing will quench the fire." A flame, red as blood, flashed across Margaret's care-worn face.
"But I hear your son is cunning and smart," Simon continued.
"Well, rather, but good withal," replied Margaret.
"H'm, some one once stole a cow; he was called 'good' too. But he is quiet and thoughtful, isn't he? He doesn't run around with the other boys?"
"He is a peculiar child," said Margaret, as though to herself; "it's not a good thing."
Simon laughed aloud. "Your boy is timid because the others have given him a few good thrashings. Don't worry, the lad will repay them! Huelsmeyer came to see me lately; said the boy was like a deer."
What mother's heart does not rejoice when she hears her child praised? Poor Margaret seldom had this pleasure; every one called her boy malicious and close-mouthed. Tears started to her eyes. "Yes, thank God, his limbs are straight!"
"What does he look like?" continued Simon.
"He's a good deal like you, Simon, a good deal." Simon laughed. "Indeed, he must be a rare fellow; I'm getting better-looking every day. Of course he shouldn't be wasting his time at school. You let him pasture the cows? Just as well; what the teacher says isn't half true anyway. But where does he pasture? In the Telgen glen? In the Roder woods? In the Teutoburg forest? At night and early in the morning, too?"
"All through the night; but what do you mean?"
Simon seemed not to hear this. He craned his neck toward the door. "Look, there comes the youngster! His father's son! He swings his arms like your departed husband. And just see! The lad actually has my light hair!"
A proud smile spread secretly over the mother's face; her Frederick's blond curls and Simon's reddish bristles! Without answering she broke a branch from the hedge near-by and went to meet her son, apparently to hurry on a lazy cow, in reality, however, to whisper a few hasty, half threatening words into his ear; for she knew his obstinate disposition, and Simon's manner today had seemed to her more intimidating than ever. But everything ran smoothly beyond expectation; Frederick showed himself neither obdurate nor insolent-rather, somewhat embarrassed and anxious to please his uncle. And so matters progressed until, after half an hour's discussion, Simon proposed a kind of adoption of the boy, by virtue of which he was not to take him entirely away from his mother but was, nevertheless, to command the greater part of his time. And for this the boy was eventually to inherit the old bachelor's fortune, which, to be sure, couldn't have escaped him anyway. Margaret patiently allowed her brother to explain how great the advantages of the arrangement would be to her, how slight the loss. She knew best what a sickly widow misses in the help of a twelve-year-old boy whom she has trained practically to replace a daughter. But she kept silent and yielded to everything. She only begged her brother to be firm, but not harsh, with the boy.
"He is good," she said, "but I am a lonely woman; my son is not like one who has been ruled by a father's hand."
Simon nodded slyly. "Leave it to me; we'll get along all right; and, do you know what?—let me have the boy right now; I have two bags to fetch from the mill; the smallest is just right for him and that's how he'll learn to help me. Come, Fritzy, put your wooden shoes on!" And presently Margaret was watching them both as they walked away, Simon ahead with his face set forward and the tails of his red coat flying out behind him like flames, looking a good deal like a man of fire doing penance beneath the sack he has stolen. Frederick followed him, tall and slender for his age, with delicate, almost noble, features and long blond curls that were better cared for than the rest of his exterior appearance would have led one to expect; for the rest, ragged, sunburnt, with a look of neglect and a certain hard melancholy in his countenance. Nevertheless a strong family resemblance between the two could not be mistaken, and as Frederick slowly followed his leader, with his eyes riveted on the man who attracted him by the very strangeness of his appearance, involuntarily he reminded one of a person who with anxious interest gazes on the picture of his future in a magic mirror.
They were now approaching the place in the Teutoburg Forest where the Forest of Brede extends down the slope of the mountain and fills a very dark ravine. Until now they had spoken little. Simon seemed pensive, the boy absent-minded, and both were panting under their sacks. Suddenly Simon asked, "Do you like whiskey?" The boy did not answer. "I say, do you like whiskey? Does your mother give you some once in a while?"
"Mother hasn't any herself," answered Frederick.
"Well, well, so much the better! Do you know the woods before us?"
"It is the Forest of Brede."
"Do you know what happened here?" Frederick remained silent. Meanwhile they came nearer and nearer to the gloomy ravine.
"Does your mother still pray much?" Simon began again.
"Yes, she tells her beads twice every evening."
"Really? And you pray with her?"
Somewhat ill at ease, the boy looked aside slyly and laughed. "At twilight before supper she tells her beads once—then I have not yet returned with the cows; and again in bed—then I usually fall asleep."
"Well, well, my boy!" These last words were spoken under the sheltering branches of a broad beech-tree which arched the entrance to the glen. It was now quite dark and the new, moon shone in the sky, but its weak rays served only to lend a strange appearance to the objects they occasionally touched through an aperture between the branches. Frederick followed close behind his uncle; his breath came fast and, if one could have distinguished his features, one would have noticed in them an expression of tremendous agitation caused by imagination rather than terror. Thus both trudged ahead sturdily, Simon with the firm step of the hardened wanderer, Frederick unsteadily and as if in a dream. It seemed to him that everything was in motion, and that the trees swayed in the lonely rays of the moon now towards one another, now away. Roots of trees and slippery places where water had gathered made his steps uncertain; several times he came near falling. Now some distance ahead the darkness seemed to break, and presently both entered a rather large clearing. The moon shone down brightly and showed that only a short while ago the axe had raged here mercilessly. Everywhere stumps of trees jutted up, some many feet above the ground, just as it had been most convenient to cut through them in haste; the forbidden work must have been interrupted unexpectedly, for directly across the path lay a beech-tree with its branches rising high above it, and its leaves, still fresh, trembling in the evening breeze. Simon stopped a moment and surveyed the fallen tree-trunk with interest. In the centre of the open space stood an old oak, broad in proportion to its height. A pale ray of light that fell on its trunk through the branches showed that it was hollow, a fact that had probably saved it from the general destruction.
Here Simon suddenly clutched the boy's arm. "Frederick, do you know that tree? That is the broad oak." Frederick started, and with his cold hands clung to his uncle. "See," Simon continued, "here Uncle Franz and Huelsmeyer found your father, when without confession and extreme unction he had gone to the Devil in his drunkenness."
"Uncle, uncle!" gasped Frederick.
"What's coming over you? I should hope you are not afraid? Devil of a boy, you're pinching my arm! Let go, let go!" He tried to shake the boy off. "On the whole your father was a good soul; God won't be too strict with him. I loved him as well as my own brother." Frederick let go his uncle's arm; both walked the rest of the way through the forest in silence, and soon the village of Brede lay before them with its mud houses and its few better brick houses, one of which belonged to Simon.
The next evening Margaret sat at the door with her flax for fully an hour, awaiting her boy. It had been the first night she had passed without hearing her child's breathing beside her, and still Frederick did not come. She was vexed and anxious, and yet knew that there was no reason for being so. The clock in the tower struck seven; the cattle returned home; still he was not there, and she had to get up to look after the cows.
When she reentered the dark kitchen, Frederick was standing on the hearth; he was bending forward and warming his hands over the coal fire. The light played on his features and gave him an unpleasant look of leanness and nervous twitching. Margaret stopped at the door; the child seemed to her so strangely changed.
"Frederick, how's your uncle?" The boy muttered a few unintelligible words and leaned close against the chimney.
"Frederick, have you forgotten how to talk? Boy, open your mouth! Don't you know I do not hear well with my right ear?" The child raised his voice and began to stammer so that Margaret failed to understand anything.
"What are you saying? Greeting from Master Semmler? Away again? Where? The cows are at home already. You bad boy, I can't understand you. Wait, I'll have to see if you have no tongue in your mouth!" She made a few angry steps forward. The child looked up to her with the pitiful expression of a poor, half-grown dog that is learning to sit up on his hind legs. In his fear he began to stamp his feet and rub his back against the chimney.
Margaret stood still; her glances became anxious. The boy looked as though he had shrunk together. His clothes were not the same either; no, that was not her child! And. yet—"Frederick, Frederick!" she cried.
A closet door in the bedroom slammed and the real Frederick came out, with a so-called clog-violin in one hand, that is, a wooden shoe strung with three or four resined strings, and in his other hand a bow, quite befitting the instrument. Then he went right up to his sorry double, with an attitude of conscious dignity and independence on his part, which at that moment revealed distinctly the difference between the two boys who otherwise resembled each other so remarkably.
"Here, John!" he said, and handed him the work of art with a patronizing air; "here is the violin that I promised you. My play-days are over; now I must earn money."
John cast another timid glance at Margaret, slowly stretched out his hand until he had tightly grasped the present, and then hid it stealthily under the flaps of his shabby coat.
Margaret stood perfectly still and let the children do as they liked. Her thoughts had taken another, very serious, turn, and she looked restlessly from one to the other. The strange boy had again bent over the coals with an expression of momentary comfort which bordered on simple-mindedness, while Frederick's features showed the alternating play of a sympathy evidently more selfish than good-humored, and his eyes, in almost glassy clearness, for the first time distinctly showed the expression of that unrestrained ambition and tendency to swagger which afterwards revealed itself as so strong a motive in most of his actions.
His mother's call aroused him from his thoughts which were as new as they were pleasant to him; again she was sitting at her spinning-wheel. "Frederick," she said, hesitating, "tell me—" and then stopped. Frederick looked up and, hearing nothing more, again turned to his charge. "No, listen!" And then, more softly: "Who is that boy I What is his name?"
Frederick answered, just as softly: "That is Uncle Simon's swineherd; he has a message for Huelsmeyer. Uncle gave me a pair of shoes and a huckaback vest which the boy carried for me; in return I promised him my violin; you see, he's a poor child. His name is John."
"Well?" said Margaret.
"What do you want, mother?"
"What's his other name?"
"Well—he has none, but, wait—yes, Nobody, John Nobody is his name. He has no father," he added under his breath.
Margaret arose and went into the bedroom. After a while she came out with a harsh, gloomy expression on her countenance. "Well, Frederick," she said, "let the boy go, so that he may attend to his errand. Boy, why do you lie there in the ashes? Have you nothing to do at home?" With the air of one who is persecuted the boy roused himself so hastily that all his limbs got in his way, and the clog-violin almost fell into the fire.
"Wait, John," said Frederick proudly, "I'll give you half of my bread and butter; it's too much for me anyhow. Mother always gives me a whole slice."
"Never mind," said Margaret, "he is going home."
"Yes, but he won't get anything to eat now. Uncle Simon eats at seven o'clock."
Margaret turned to the boy. "Won't they save anything for you? Tell me! Who takes care of you?"
"Nobody," stuttered the child.
"Nobody?" she repeated; "then take it, take it!" she added nervously; "your name is Nobody and nobody takes care of you. May God have pity on you! And now see that you get away! Frederick, do not go with him, do you hear? Do not go through the village together."
"Why, I only want to get wood out of the shed," answered Frederick. When both boys had gone Margaret sank down in a chair and clasped her hands with an expression of the deepest grief. Her face was as white as a sheet. "A false oath, a false oath!" she groaned. "Simon, Simon, how will you acquit yourself before God!"
Thus she sat for a while, motionless, with her lips shut tight, as if completely unconscious. Frederick stood before her and had already spoken to her twice.
"What's the matter? What do you want?" she cried, starting up.
"I have some money for you," he said, more astonished than frightened.
"Money? Where?" She moved and the little coin fell jingling to the floor. Frederick picked it up.
"Money from Uncle Simon, because I helped him work. Now I can earn something for myself."
"Money from Simon! Throw it away, away!—No, give it to the poor. But no, keep it!" she whispered, scarcely audibly. "We are poor ourselves; who knows whether we won't be reduced to begging!"
"I am to go back to Uncle Monday and help him with the sowing."
"You go back to him? No, no, never!" She embraced her child wildly. "Yet," she added, and a stream of tears suddenly rushed down her sunken cheeks, "go; he is the only brother I have, and slander is great! But keep God before your eyes, and do not forget your daily prayers!" Margaret pressed her face against the wall and wept aloud. She had borne many a heavy burden—her husband's harsh treatment, and, worse than that, his death; and it was a bitter moment when the widow was compelled top give over to a creditor the usufruct of her last piece of arable land, and her own plow stood useless in front of her house. But as badly as this she had never felt before; nevertheless, after she had wept through an evening and lain awake a whole night, she made herself believe that her brother Simon could not be so godless, that the boy certainly did not belong to him; for resemblances can prove nothing. Why, had she not herself lost a little sister forty years ago who looked exactly like the strange peddler! One is willing to believe almost anything when one has so little, and is liable to lose that little by unbelief!
From this time on Frederick was seldom at home. Simon seemed to have lavished on his nephew all the more tender sentiments of which he was capable; at least he missed him greatly and never ceased sending messages if some business at home kept him at his mother's house for any length of time. The boy was as if transformed since that time; his dreamy nature had left him entirely; he walked firmly, began to care for his external appearance, and soon to have the reputation of being a handsome, clever youth. His uncle, who could not be happy without schemes, sometimes undertook important public works—for example, road building, at which Frederick was everywhere considered one of his best workmen and his right-hand man; for although the boy's physical strength had not yet attained its fullest development, scarcely any one could equal him in endurance. Heretofore Margaret had only loved her son; now she began to be proud of him and even feel a kind of respect for him, seeing the young fellow develop so entirely without her aid, even without her advice, which she, like most people, considered invaluable; for that reason she could not think highly enough of the boy's capabilities which could dispense with such a precious means of furtherance.
In his eighteenth year Frederick had already secured for himself an important reputation among the village youth by the successful execution of a wager that he could carry a wild boar for a distance of more than two miles without resting. Meanwhile participation in his glory was about the only advantage that Margaret derived from these favorable circumstances, since Frederick spent more and more on his external appearance and gradually began, to take it to heart if want of money compelled him to be second to any one in that respect. Moreover, all his powers were directed toward making his living outside; quite in contrast to his reputation all steady work around the house seemed irksome to him now, and he preferred to submit to a hard but short exertion which soon permitted him to follow his former occupation of herding the cattle, although it was beginning to be unsuitable for his age and at times drew upon him ridicule. That he silenced, however, by a few blunt reprimands with his fist. So people grew accustomed to seeing him, now dressed up and jolly as a recognized village beau and leader of the young folks, and again as a ragged boy slinking along, lonely and dreamily, behind his cows, or lying in a forest clearing, apparently thoughtless, scratching the moss from the trees.
About this time, however, the slumbering laws were roused somewhat by a band of forest thieves which, under the name of the "Blue Smocks," surpassed all its predecessors in cunning and boldness to such an extent that even the most indulgent would have lost patience. Absolutely contrary to the usual state of affairs, when the leading bucks of the herd could always be pointed out, it had thus far been impossible, in spite of all watchfulness, to specify even one member of this company of thieves. Their name they derived from their uniform clothing which made recognition more difficult if a forester happened by chance to see a few stragglers disappear in the thicket. Like caterpillars they destroyed everything; whole tracts of forest-land would be cut down in a single night and immediately made away with, leaving nothing to be found next morning but chips and disordered heaps of brushwood. The fact that there were never any wagon tracks leading towards a village, but always to and from the river, proved that the work was carried on under the protection, perhaps with the cooeperation, of the shipowners. There must have been some very skilful spies in the band, for the foresters could watch in vain for weeks at a time; nevertheless, the first night they failed, from sheer fatigue, to watch, the devastation began again, whether it was a stormy night or moonlight. It was strange that the country folk in the vicinity seemed just as ignorant and excited as the foresters themselves.
Of several villages it could be asserted with certainty that they did not belong to the "Blue Smocks," while no strong suspicion could be attached to a single one, since the most suspected of all, the village of B., had to be acquitted. An accident had brought this about—a wedding, at which almost every resident of this village had notoriously passed the night, while during this very time the "Blue Smocks" had carried out one of their most successful expeditions.
The damage to the forest, in the meanwhile, was so enormous that preventive measures were made more stringent than ever before; the forest was patrolled day and night; head-servants and domestics were provided with firearms and sent to help the forest officers. Nevertheless, their success was but slight, for the guards had often scarcely left one end of the forest when the "Blue Smocks" were already entering the other. This lasted more than a whole year; guards and "Blue Smocks," "Blue Smocks" and guards, like sun and moon, ever alternating in the possession of the land and never meeting each other.
It was July, 1756, at three o'clock in the morning; the moon shone brightly in the sky, but its light had begun to grow dim; and in the East there was beginning to appear a narrow, yellow streak which bordered the horizon and closed the entrance to the narrow dale as with a hand of gold. Frederick was lying in the grass in his accustomed position, whittling a willow stick, the knotty end of which he was trying to form roughly into the shape of an animal. He seemed to be very tired, yawned, rested his head against a weather-beaten stump and cast glances, more sleepy than the horizon, over the entrance of the glen which was almost overgrown with shrubbery and underbrush. Now and then his eyes manifested life and assumed their characteristic glassy glitter, but immediately afterwards be half shut them again, and yawned, and stretched, as only lazy shepherds may. His dog lay some distance away near the cows which, unconcerned by forest laws, feasted indiscriminately on tender saplings and the grass, and snuffed the fresh morning air.
Out of the forest there sounded from time to time a muffled, crashing noise; it lasted but a few seconds, accompanied by a long echo on the mountain sides, and was repeated about every five or eight minutes. Frederick paid no attention to it; only at times, when the noise was exceptionally loud or long continued, he lifted his head and glanced slowly down the several paths which led to the valley.
Day was already dawning; the birds were beginning to twitter softly and the dew was rising noticeably from the ground. Frederick had slid down the trunk and was staring, with his arms crossed back of his head, into the rosy morning light softly stealing in. Suddenly he started, a light flashed across his face, and he listened a few moments with his body bent forward like a hunting dog which scents something in the air. Then he quickly put two fingers in his mouth and gave a long, shrill whistle. "Fido, you cursed beast!" He threw a stone and hit the unsuspecting dog which, frightened out of his sleep, first snarled and then, limping on three feet and howling, went in search of consolation to the very place from which the hurt had come.
At the same moment the branches of a near-by bush were pushed back almost without a rustle, and a man stepped out, dressed in a green hunting jacket, with a silver shield on his arm and his rifle cocked in his hand. He cast a hurried glance over the glen and stared sharply at the boy, then stepped forward, nodded toward the shrubbery, and gradually seven or eight men came into sight, all in the same costume, with hunting knives in their belts and cocked weapons in their hands.
"Frederick, what was that?" asked the one who had first appeared. "I wish the cur would die on the spot. For all he knows, the cows could chew the ears off my head."
"The scoundrel has seen us," said another. "Tomorrow you'll go on a trip with a stone about your neck," Frederick went on, and kicked at the dog. "Frederick, don't act like a fool! You know me, and you understand me too!" A look accompanied these words, which had an immediate effect.
"Mr. Brandes, think of my mother!"
"That's what I'm doing. Didn't you hear anything in the forest?"
"In the forest?" The boy threw a hasty glance at the forester's face. "Your woodchoppers—nothing else."
"My woodchoppers!" The naturally dark complexion of the forester changed to a deep brownish red. "How many of them are there, and where are they doing their job?"
"Wherever you have sent them; I don't know."
Brandes turned to his comrades. "Go ahead; I'll follow directly." When one by one they had disappeared in the thicket, Brandes stepped close up to the boy. "Frederick," he said in tones of suppressed rage, "my patience is worn out; I'd like to thrash you like a dog, and that's no worse than you deserve. You bundle of rags, without a tile in your roof to call your own! Thank God, you'll soon find yourself begging; and at my door, your mother, the old witch, shan't get as much as a moldy crust! But first both of you'll go to the dungeon!"
Frederick clutched a branch convulsively. He was pale as death, and his eyes looked as if they would shoot out of his head like crystal bullets—but only for a moment. Then the greatest calmness, bordering on complete relaxation, returned. "Sir," he said firmly, in an almost gentle voice, "you have said something that you cannot defend, and so, perhaps, have I. Let us call it quits; and now I will tell you what you wish. If you did not engage the woodchoppers yourself, they must be the 'Blue Smocks,' for not a wagon has come from the village; why, the road is right before me, and there are four wagons. I did not see them, but I heard them drive up the pass." He faltered a moment. "Can you say that I have ever hewn a tree on your land, or even that I ever raised my axe in any other place but where I was ordered to? Think it over, whether you can say that?" A confused muttering was the forester's only answer; like most blunt people, he repented easily. He turned, exasperated, and started toward the shrubbery. "No, sir," called Frederick, "if you want to follow the other foresters, they've gone up yonder by the beech-tree."
"By the beech-tree!" exclaimed Brandes doubtfully. "No, across there, toward Mast Gorge."
"I tell you, by the beech-tree; long Heinrich's gun-sling even caught on the crooked branch; why, I saw it!"
The forester turned into the path designated. Frederick had not changed his position the whole time; half reclining, with his arm wound about a dry branch, he gazed immovably after the departing man, as he glided through the thickly wooded path with the long cautious steps characteristic of his profession, as noiseless as a lynx climbing into the hen-roost. Here and there a branch sank behind him; the outlines of his body became fainter and fainter. Then there was one final flash through the foliage; it was a steel button on his hunting jacket; and now he was gone. During this gradual disappearance Frederick's face had lost its expression of coldness, and his features had finally become anxious and restless. Was he sorry, perhaps, that he had not asked the forester to keep his information secret? He took a few steps forward, then stopped. "It is too late," he mused, and reached for his hat. There was a soft pecking in the thicket, not twenty paces from him. It was the forester sharpening his flint-stone. Frederick listened. "No!" he said in a decisive tone, gathered up his belongings, and hastily drove the cattle down into the hollow.
About noon, Margaret was sitting by the hearth, boiling tea. Frederick had come home sick; he had complained of a violent headache and had told her, upon her anxious questioning, how he had become deeply provoked with the forester—in short, all about the incident just described, with the exception of several details which he considered wiser to keep to himself. Margaret gazed into the boiling water, silent and sad. She was not unaccustomed to hear her son complain at times, but today he seemed more shaken than ever. Was this perhaps the symptom of some illness? She, sighed deeply and dropped a log of wood she had just lifted.
"Mother!" called Frederick from the bedroom. "What is it? Was that a shot?"
"Oh, no! I don't know what you mean."
"I suppose it's the throbbing in my head," he replied. A neighbor stepped in and related in a low whisper some bit of unimportant gossip which Margaret listened to without interest. Then she went. "Mother!" called Frederick. Margaret went in to him. "What did Huelsmeyer's wife say?"
"Oh, nothing at all—lies, nonsense!" Frederick sat up. "About Gretchen Siemers; you know the old story well enough!—there isn't a word of truth in it either."
Frederick lay down again. "I'll see if I can sleep," he said.
Margaret was sitting by the hearth. She was spinning and thinking of rather unpleasant things. The village clock struck half-past eleven; the door opened and the court-clerk, Kapp, came in. "Good day, Mrs. Mergel," he said. "Can you give me a drink of milk? I'm on my way from M." When Mrs. Mergel brought what he wished, he asked "Where is Frederick?" She was just then busy getting a plate out and did not hear the question. He drank hesitatingly and in short draughts. Then he asked, "Do you know that last night the 'Blue Smocks' again cleared away a whole tract in the Mast forest as bare as my hand?"
"Oh, you don't mean it!" she replied indifferently.
"The scoundrels!" continued the clerk. "They ruin everything; if only they had a little regard at least for the young trees; but they go after little oaks of the thickness of my arm, too small even to make oars of! It looks as if loss on the part of other people were just as gratifying to them as gain on their own part!"
"It's a shame!" said Margaret.
The clerk had finished his milk, but still he did not go. He seemed to have something on his mind. "Have you heard nothing about Brandes?" he asked suddenly.
"Nothing; he never enters this house."
"Then you don't know what has happened to him?"
"Why, what?" asked Margaret, agitated.
"He is dead!"
"Dead!" she cried. "What, dead? For God's sake! Why, only this morning he passed by here, perfectly well, with his gun on his back!"
"He is dead," repeated the clerk, eyeing her sharply, "killed by the 'Blue Smocks.' The body was brought into the village fifteen minutes ago."
Margaret clasped her hands. "God in Heaven, do not judge him! He did not know what he was doing!"
"Him!" cried the clerk—"the cursed murderer you mean?"
A heavy groan came from the bedroom. Margaret hurried there and the clerk followed her. Frederick was sitting upright in bed, with his face buried in his hands, and moaning like one dying. "Frederick, how do you feel?" asked his mother.
"How do you feel?" repeated the clerk.
"Oh, my body, my head!" he wailed.
"What's the matter with him?" inquired the clerk.
"Oh, God knows," she replied; "he came home with the cows as early as four o'clock because he felt sick." "Frederick, Frederick, answer me! Shall I go for the doctor?"
"No, no," he groaned; "it is only the colic; I'll be better soon." He lay down again; his face twitched convulsively with pain; then his color returned. "Go," he said, feebly; "I must sleep; then it will pass away."
"Mistress Mergel," asked the clerk earnestly, "are you sure that Frederick came home at four and did not go away again?"
She stared in his face. "Ask any child on the street. And go away?—I wish to God he could!"
"Didn't he tell you anything about Brandes?"
"In the name of God, yes—that Brandes had reviled him in the woods and reproached him with our poverty, the rascal! But God forgive me, he is dead! Go!" she continued; "have you come to insult honest people? Go!"
She turned to her son again, as the clerk went out. "Frederick, how do you feel?" asked his mother. "Did you hear? Terrible, terrible—without confession or absolution!"
"Mother, mother, for God's sake, let me sleep. I can stand no more!"
At this moment John Nobody entered the room; tall and thin like a bean-pole, but ragged and shy, as we had seen him five years before. His face was even paler than usual. "Frederick," he stuttered, "you are to come to your Uncle immediately; he has work for you; without delay, now!"
Frederick turned toward the wall. "I won't come," he snapped, "I am sick."
"But you must come," gasped John; "he said I must bring you back."
Frederick laughed scornfully. "I'd like to see you!"
"Let him alone; he can't," sighed Margaret; "you see how it is." She went out for a few minutes; when she returned, Frederick was already dressed. "What are you thinking of?" she cried. "You cannot, you shall not go!"
"What must be, must," he replied, and was gone through the door with John.
"Oh, God," sobbed the mother, "when children are small they trample our laps, and when they are grown, our hearts!"
The judicial investigation had begun, the deed was as clear as day; but the evidence concerning the perpetrator was so scanty that, although all circumstances pointed strongly towards the "Blue Smocks," nothing but conjectures could be risked. One clue seemed to throw some light upon the matter; there were reasons, however, why but little dependence could be placed on it. The absence of the owner of the estate had made it necessary for the clerk of the court to start the case himself. He was sitting at his table; the room was crowded with peasants, partly those who came out of curiosity, and partly those from whom the court hoped to receive some information, since actual witnesses were lacking—shepherds who had been watching their flocks that night, laborers who had been working in near-by fields; all stood erect and firm,, with their hands in their pockets, as if thus silently manifesting their intention not to interfere.
Eight forest officers were heard; their evidence was entirely identical. Brandes, on the tenth day of the month, had ordered them to go the rounds because he had evidently secured information concerning a plan of the "Blue Smocks"; he had, however, expressed himself but vaguely regarding the matter. At about two o'clock at night they had gone out and had come upon many traces of destruction, which put the head-forester in a very bad humor; otherwise, everything had been quiet. About four o'clock Brandes had said, "We have been led astray; let us go home." When they had come around Bremer mountain and the wind had changed at the same time, they had distinctly heard chopping in the Mast forest and concluded from the quick succession of the strokes that the "Blue Smocks" were at work. They had deliberated a while whether it were practical to attack the bold band with such a small force, and then had slowly approached the source of the sound without any fixed determination. Then followed the scene with Frederick. Finally, after Brandes had sent them away without instructions they had gone forward a while and then, when they noticed that the noise in the woods, still rather far away, had entirely ceased, they had stopped to wait for the head-forester.
They had grown tired of waiting, and after about ten minutes had gone on toward the scene of devastation. It was all over; not another sound was to be heard in the forest; of twenty fallen trees eight were still left, the rest had been made way with. It was incomprehensible to them how this had been accomplished, since no wagon tracks were to be found. Moreover, the dryness of the season and the fact that the earth was strewn with pine-needles had prevented their distinguishing any footprints, although the ground in the vicinity looked as if it had been firmly stamped down. Then, having come to the conclusion that there was no point in waiting for the head-forester, they had quickly walked to the other side of the wood in the hope of perhaps catching a glimpse of the thieves. Here one of them had caught his bottle-string in the brambles on the way out of the wood, and when he had looked around he had seen something flash in the shrubbery; it was the belt-buckle of the head-forester whom they then found lying behind the brambles, stretched out, with his right hand clutching the barrel of his gun, the other clenched, and his forehead split with an axe.
These were the statements of the foresters. It was then the peasants' turn, but no evidence could be obtained from them. Some declared they had been at home or busy somewhere else at four o'clock, and they were all decent people, not to be suspected. The court had to content itself with their negative testimonies.
Frederick was called in. He entered with a manner in no respect different from his usual one, neither strained nor bold. His hearing lasted some time, and some of the questions were rather shrewdly framed; however, he answered them frankly and decisively and related the incident between himself and the forester truthfully, on the whole, except the end, which he deemed expedient to keep to himself. His alibi at the time of the murder was easily proved. The forester lay at the end of the Mast forest more than three-quarters of an hour's walk from the ravine where he had spoken with Frederick at four o'clock, and whence the latter had driven his cows only ten minutes later. Every one had seen this; all the peasants present did their utmost to confirm it; to this one he had spoken, to that one, nodded.
The court clerk sat ill-humored and embarrassed. Suddenly he reached behind him and, presenting something gleaming to Frederick's gaze, cried: "To whom does this belong?" Frederick jumped back three paces, exclaiming, "Lord Jesus! I thought you were going to brain me."
His eyes had quickly passed across the deadly tool and seemed to fix themselves for a moment on a splinter broken out of the handle. "I do not know," he added firmly. It was the axe which they had found plunged in the head-forester's skull.
"Look at it carefully," continued the clerk. Frederick took it in his hand, looked at the top, the bottom, turned it over. "One axe looks like another," he then said, and laid it unconcernedly on the table. A blood-stain was visible; he seemed to shudder, but he repeated once more with decision: "I do not know it." The clerk of the court sighed with displeasure. He himself knew of nothing more, and had only sought to bring about a possible disclosure through surprise. There was nothing left to do but to close the hearing.
To those who are perhaps interested in the outcome of this affair, I must say that the story was never cleared up, although much effort was made to throw light upon it and several other judicial examinations followed. The sensation which the incident had caused and the more stringent measures adopted in consequence of it, seemed to have broken the courage of the "Blue Smocks"; from now on it looked as though they had entirely disappeared, and although many a wood-thief was caught after that, they never found cause to connect him with the notorious band. Twenty years afterwards the axe lay as a useless corpus delicti in the archives of the court, where it is probably resting yet with its rust spots. In a made-up story it would be wrong thus to disappoint the curiosity of the reader, but all this actually happened; I can add or detract nothing. The next Sunday Frederick rose very early to go to confession. It was the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and the parish priests were in the confessionals before dawn. He dressed in the dark, and as quietly as possible left the narrow closet which had been consigned to him in Simon's house. His prayer-book, he thought, would be lying on the mantelpiece in the kitchen, and he hoped to find it with the help of the faint moonlight. It was not there. He glanced searchingly around, and started; at the bedroom door stood Simon, half-dressed; his rough figure, his uncombed, tangled hair, and the paleness of his face in the moonlight, gave him a horribly changed appearance. "Can he possibly be walking in his sleep?" thought Frederick, and kept quite still. "Frederick, where are you going?" whispered the old man.
"Uncle, is that you? I am on my way to confession."
"That's what I thought; go, in the name of God, but confess like a good Christian."
"That I will," said Frederick.
Think of the Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not bear witness against thy neighbor.'"
"Not false witness!"
"No, none at all; you have been badly taught; he who accuses another in his confession is unworthy to receive the Sacrament."
Both were silent. "Uncle, what makes you think of this?" Frederick finally asked. "Your conscience is not clear; you have lied to me."
"Where is your axe?"
"My axe? On the barn-floor."
"Did you make a new handle for it? Where is the old one?"
"You'll find it at daylight in the woodshed."
"Go," he continued scornfully. "I thought you were a man; but you are like an old woman who thinks the house must be on fire as soon as she sees smoke rising from her pot. See," he went on, "if I know anything more about this story than that doorpost there, may I never hope for salvation. I was at home long before," he added. Frederick stood still, oppressed and doubtful. He would have given much to be able to see his uncle's face. But while they were whispering, the sky had clouded over.
"I am very guilty," sighed Frederick, "because I sent him the wrong way; although—but still, I never thought it would come to this, no, certainly not! Uncle, I have you to thank for a troubled conscience."
"Well, go and confess!" whispered Simon in a trembling voice. "Desecrate the Sacrament by tale-bearing, and set a spy on poor people who will manage to find a way to snatch their bit of bread from between their teeth, even if he is not permitted to talk—go!" Frederick stood, undecided; he heard a soft noise; the clouds cleared away, the moonlight again fell on the bedroom door; it was closed. Frederick did not go to confession that morning.
The impression which this incident had made on Frederick wore off only too soon. Who doubts that Simon did everything to lead his adopted son down the same paths that he was following? And Frederick possessed qualities which made this only too easy: carelessness, excitability, and, above all, boundless pride, which did not always scorn pretense and ended by doing its utmost to escape possible disgrace, by trying to realize what it first had pretended to possess. He was not naturally ignoble, but he fell into the habit of preferring inward to outward shame. One need only say that he habitually made a display while his mother starved.
This unfortunate change in his character was, however, the work of many years, during which it was noticed that Margaret became more and more quiet on the subject of her son, and gradually came to a state of demoralization which once would have been thought impossible. She became timid, negligent, even slovenly, and many thought her brain had suffered. Frederick, on the other hand, grew all the more self-assertive; he missed no fair or wedding, and since his irritable sense of honor would not permit him to overlook the secret disapprobation of many, he was, so to speak, up in arms, not so much to defy public opinion as to direct it into the channel which pleased him. Externally he was neat, sober, apparently affable, but crafty, boastful, and often coarse—a man in whom no one could take delight, least of all his mother, and who, nevertheless, through his audacity, which every one feared, and through his cunning, which they dreaded even more, had attained a certain preeminence in the village. The preeminence came to be acknowledged more and more as people became conscious of the fact that they neither knew him nor could guess of what he might be capable. Only one young fellow in the village, Will Huelsmeyer, who realized his own strength and good circumstances, dared to defy him. Since he was also readier with his tongue than Frederick, and could always make a pointed joke, he was the only one whom Frederick did not like to meet.
Four years had passed. It was the month of October; the open autumn of 1760, which filled every barn with corn and every cellar with wine, had also lavished its riches on this corner of the earth, and more intoxicated people were seen and more fights and stupid tricks were heard of than ever before. Everywhere there were festivities; Blue Mondays were the fashion, and whoever had laid aside a few dollars quickly wanted also a wife to help him feast today and starve tomorrow. A big, noteworthy wedding took place in the village, and the guests could expect more than the one violin, generally out of tune, than the single glass of whiskey, and higher spirits than they themselves brought along. Since the early morning all had been astir; clothing had been aired in front of every door, and all day B. had looked like a frippery-stall. Since many outsiders were expected, everybody was anxious to uphold the honor of the village.
It was seven o'clock in the evening and everything was in full swing; fun and laughter were rampant on every side, and the low rooms were crowded to suffocation with blue, red, and yellow figures, like pen-folds into which too large a herd had been huddled. On the barn floor there was dancing—that is, whoever succeeded in capturing a two-foot space twirled around on it and tried to make up by shouting for what was lacking in motion. The orchestra was brilliant, the first violinist as a recognized artist drowned out the second, and a great bass-viol with three strings was sounded ad libitum by dilettantes, whiskey and coffee flowed in abundance, all the guests were dripping with perspiration—in short, it was a glorious affair.
Frederick strutted about like a cock in his new sky-blue jacket and asserted his position as the first beau of the village. When the lord of the manor and his family arrived he happened to be sitting behind the bass-viol, sounding the lowest string with great strength and much decorum. "John," he called imperiously, and up stepped his protege from the dancing-floor, where he too had tried to swing his awkward legs and shout a cheer. Frederick handed him the bow, made his wishes known by a proud nod, and joined the dancers. "Now, strike up, musician, the 'Pape van Istrup!'" The favorite dance was played, and Frederick cut such capers before the company that the cows in the barn drew back their horns and a lowing and a rattling of chains sounded from their stalls. A foot high above the others, his blond head bobbed up and down like a pike diving out of the waters, on every side girls screamed as he dashed his long flaxen hair, by a quick movement of the head, into their faces as a sign of admiration.
"Now is the time," he said finally, and stepped up to the refreshment table, dripping with perspiration. "Here's to the gracious lords and ladies and all the noble princes and princesses; and whoever doesn't join in the toast will get such a boxing on the ears from me that he'll hear the angels singing!" A loud Vivat responded to the gallant toast. Frederick bowed. "Take nothing amiss, gracious lords and ladies; we are but ignorant peasant people." At this moment a disturbance arose at the end of the floor—shouting, scolding, laughter, all in confusion. "Butter-thief, butter-thief!" called a few children; and John Nobody pushed his way, or rather was pushed, through the crowd, his head sunk between his shoulders and pressing with all his might toward the door.
"What's the matter? What are you doing to our John!" called Frederick imperiously.
"You'll find out soon enough," coughed an old woman in a kitchen apron and with a dish-rag in her hand. "Shame!" John, the poor devil, who had to put up with the worst at home, had tried to secure for himself a paltry half pound of butter for the coming time of scarcity, and, without remembering that he had concealed it in his pocket, neatly wrapped in his handkerchief, had stepped near the kitchen fire, and now the grease was disgracing him by running down his coat.
There was general excitement; the girls sprang back from fear of soiling their clothes, or pushed the culprit forward. Others made room as much out of pity as of caution. But Frederick stepped forward. "Rogue!" he cried; and a few hard slaps struck his patient protege; then he pushed him toward the door and gave him a good kick on the way. The gallant came back dejected; his dignity was injured; the general laughter cut him to the quick, although he tried to bring himself into the swing again by a bold huzza!—It did not work. He was on the point of taking refuge behind the bass-viol again, but before that he wanted to produce still another brilliant effect; he drew out his silver watch, at that time a rare and precious ornament. "It is almost ten o'clock," he said. "Now the Bride's Minuet! I will strike up."
"A beautiful watch!" said the swineherd, and leaned forward in reverential curiosity.
"What did it cost?" cried Will Huelsmeyer, Frederick's rival.
"Will you pay for it?" asked Frederick. "Have you paid for it?" retorted Will. Frederick threw him a haughty glance and seized the bow in silent majesty. "Well, well," Huelsmeyer went on, "such things have happened. As you know well enough, Franz Ebel had a beautiful watch too, till Aaron the Jew took it away from him." Frederick did not answer, but nodded proudly to the first violin and they began to play with all their might and main.
Meanwhile the lord of the manor had stepped into the room where the women of the neighborhood were investing the bride with the white head band, the insignia of her new position. The young girl was crying bitterly, partly because custom so decreed, partly from honest nervousness. She was to manage a run-down household, under the eye of a peevish old man, whom, moreover, she was expected to love. He stood beside her, by no means like the groom in the Song of Solomon who "steps into the chamber like the morning sun." "You've cried enough now," he said crossly; "remember, it isn't you who are making me happy; I am making you happy!" She looked up to him humbly and seemed to feel that he was right. The business was ended; the young wife had drunk to her husband's health, some young wags had looked through the tripod to see if the bride's head band was straight, and they were all crowding again toward the dancing-floor, whence there still resounded inextinguishable laughter and noise. Frederick was no longer there. He had met with a great unbearable disgrace, when Aaron the Jew, a butcher and casual second-hand dealer from the nearest town, had suddenly appeared, and, after a short unsatisfactory conversation, had dunned him before the whole company for the sum of ten thalers in payment of a watch delivered at Eastertide. Frederick had gone away, as if annihilated, and the Jew followed him, shouting all the while: "Oh, woe is me! Why didn't I listen to sensible people! Didn't they tell me a hundred times you had all your possessions on your back and no bread in your cupboard!" The room shook with laughter. Some had pushed after them into the yard. "Catch the Jew! Balance him against a pig!" called some; others had become serious. "Frederick looked as white as a sheet," said an old woman, and the crowd separated as the carriage of the lord of the estate turned into the yard. Herr von S. was out of sorts on the way home, the usual and inevitable effect when the desire to maintain popularity induced him to attend such feasts. He looked out of the carriage silently. "What two figures are those?" He pointed to two dark forms running ahead of the wagon like two ostriches. Now they sneaked into the castle. "Another blessed pair of swine out of our own pen!" sighed Herr von S. Having arrived at home, he found the corridor crowded with all the domestics standing around two lower-servants, who had sunk down pale and breathless on the steps.
They declared that they had been chased by old Mergel's ghost, when they were coming home through the forest of Brede. First they had heard a rustling and crackling high above them, and then, up in the air, a rattling noise like sticks beating against one another; then suddenly had sounded a shrieking yell and quite distinctly the words, "O, my poor soul!" coming down from on high. One of them even claimed to have seen fiery eyes gleaming through the branches, and both had run as fast as their legs could carry them.
"Stupid nonsense!" exclaimed the lord of the estate crossly, and went into his room to change his clothes. The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that some one had removed a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse's skeleton which had the reputation of being an attested instrument against any wiles of witches or ghosts. "H'm," said Baron von S.; "what rogues do not steal, fools destroy."
Three days later a frightful storm was raging. It was midnight, but every one in the castle was out of bed. The Baron stood at the window and looked anxiously out into the dark toward his fields. Leaves and twigs flew against the panes; now and, then a brick fell and was dashed to pieces on the pavement of the courtyard. "Terrible weather!" said Herr von S. His wife looked out anxiously. "Are you sure the fire is well banked?" she asked; "Gretchen, look again; if not, put it all out with water! Come, let us read the Gospel of St. John." They all knelt down and the lady of the house began: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." There was a terrible clap of thunder. All started; then there was a terrible scream and noise up the stairs. "For God's sake! Is something burning?" cried Frau von S., and sank down with her face on the chair. The door burst open and in rushed the wife of Aaron the Jew, pale as death, with her hair wildly disheveled, dripping with rain. She threw herself on her knees before the Baron. "Justice!" she cried, "Justice! My husband is murdered!" and she fell in a faint.
It was only too true, and the ensuing investigation proved that Aaron the Jew had lost his life by a single blow on the temples delivered by some blunt instrument, probably a staff. On his left temple was the blue mark; beyond that there was no other injury. The statement of the Jewess and her servant, Samuel, ran thus: Three days ago Aaron had gone out in the afternoon to buy cattle and had said at the time that he would probably be gone overnight, because there were still several bad debtors in B. and S., on whom he would call for payment; in this case he would spend the night with the butcher, Solomon, in B. When he did not return home the next day his wife had become greatly worried and had finally set out at three o'clock in the afternoon with her servant and the big butcher dog. At the house of Solomon the Jew, no one knew anything about Aaron; he had not been there at all. Then they had gone to all the peasants with whom they knew Aaron had intended to transact some business. Only two had seen him, and those on the very day when he had left home. Meanwhile it had become very late. Her great anxiety drove the woman back home, where she cherished a faint hope of finding her husband after all. They had been overtaken by the storm in the Forest of Brede and had sought shelter under a great beech on the mountain side. In the meantime the dog had been running about and acting strangely, and had, in spite of repeated calling, finally run off into the woods. Suddenly, during a lightning flash, the woman had seen something white beside her on the moss. It was her husband's staff, and almost at the same moment the dog had broken through the shrubbery with something in his mouth; it was her husband's shoe. Before long they found the Jew's body in a trench filled with dry leaves.
This was the report of the servant, supported only in general by the wife; her intense agitation had subsided and her senses now seemed half confused or, rather, blunted. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!" These were her only words, which she at intervals ejaculated.
The same night the guards were summoned to take Frederick into custody. They needed no warrant, because Herr von S. himself had been witness to a scene which inevitably threw the strongest suspicion on him; furthermore there was the ghost story of that night, the beating together of the sticks in the forest of Brede, the scream from above. Since the clerk of the court was at that time absent, Herr von S. hastened everything faster than would otherwise have been done. Nevertheless dawn was already breaking when the riflemen as quietly as possible surrounded poor Margaret's house. The Baron himself knocked; it was hardly a minute before the door was opened, and Margaret appeared, fully dressed. Herr von S. started; he scarcely recognized her, so pale and stony did she look. "Where is Frederick?" he asked in an unsteady voice.
"Search for him!" she answered, and sat down on a chair. The Baron hesitated a moment longer.
"Come in, come in," he then said roughly to the guards; "what are we waiting for?" They stepped into Frederick's room. He was not there, but the bed was still warm. They climbed to the garret, down the cellar, examined the straw, looked behind every barrel, even into the oven; he was not there. Some of them went into the garden, looked behind the fence and up into the apple trees; he was not to be found.
"Escaped!" said the Baron with conflicting feelings; the sight of the old woman made a strong impression on him. "Give me the key to that trunk!" Margaret did not answer. "Give me the key," he repeated, and noticed now for the first time that the key was already in the lock. The contents of the trunk were brought into view—the fugitive's best Sunday clothes and his mother's poor finery, then two shrouds with black ribbons, one made for a man, the other for a woman. Herr von S. was deeply affected. Under everything else, at the very bottom of the trunk, lay the silver watch and some documents in a very legible hand, one of these signed by a man who was strongly suspected of alliance with the forest-thieves. Herr von S. took them along to examine them, and the guards left the house without Margaret's giving another sign of life than that of incessantly biting her lips and blinking her eyes.
Having arrived at the castle, the Baron found the court clerk, who had returned the night before and declared he had slept through the whole affair because his Honor had not sent for him. "You always come too late," said Herr von S. crossly; "wasn't there any old woman in the village to tell your maid about it? And why didn't they wake you up then?"
"Your Honor," replied Kapp, "of course my Anne Marie learned of the incident an hour before I did; but she knew that your Honor was directing the matter yourself—and then," he added in a plaintive tone, "that I was deathly tired!"
"A fine police force!" muttered the Baron. "Every old hag in the village knows about a thing whenever it's supposed to be conducted in absolute secrecy." Then he continued angrily: "He'd have indeed to be a stupid devil of a criminal who would let himself be caught!"
Both were silent a moment. "My driver lost his way in the dark," began the clerk again; "we were delayed over an hour in the wood; the weather was awful; I thought the wind would blow the wagon over. At last, when the rain slackened, we drove on in the name of God, heading toward the Zellerfeld, unable to see our hands before our eyes. Then the coachman said: 'If only we don't get too near the stone-quarries!' I was frightened myself; I had him stop, and struck a light, to find some comfort at least in my pipe. Suddenly we heard a bell ring very near, perpendicularly under us. Your Honor will realize that I felt dreadfully. I jumped out of the wagon, for one can trust one's own limbs, but not those of a horse. So I stood in the mud and rain without moving, until presently, thank God, it began to dawn. And where had we stopped? Right near the Heerse ravine with the tower of Heerse directly under us! If we had driven on twenty paces farther, we should all have been children of Death."
"That was indeed no joke!" exclaimed the Baron, half conciliated. Meanwhile he had examined the papers that he had taken along. They were dunning letters for money lent, most of them from usurers. "I had not thought," he muttered, "that the Mergels were so deeply in debt." "Yes, and that it must come to light in this way," replied Kapp; "that will be no little cause for vexation to Mistress Margaret."
"Oh, dear me, she does not think of that now!" With these words the Baron arose and left the room to proceed together with Kapp to the judicial examination of the body. The examination was short—death by violence evident; the suspected criminal escaped; the evidence against him very strong indeed, but not sufficient to establish his guilt without a personal confession; his flight at all events very suspicious. So the judicial investigation had to be closed without satisfactory results.
The Jews in the vicinity had manifested great interest. The widow's house was never empty of mourners and advisers. Within the memory of man never had so many Jews been seen together in L. Extremely embittered by the murder of their co-religionist they had spared neither pains nor money to trace the criminal. It is even known that one of them, commonly called "Joel the Usurer," offered one of his customers, who owed him many hundreds and whom he considered an especially sly fellow, remission of the entire sum if he could help him to arrest Mergel; for the belief was general among the Jews that the murderer could not have escaped without efficient assistance, and was probably still in the vicinity. When, nevertheless, all this did no good, and the judicial investigation had been declared closed, a number of the most prominent Israelites appeared in the castle the next morning to make a business proposition to the gracious lord. The object was the beech-tree, under which Aaron's staff had been found and where the murder had probably been committed. "Do you want to hew it down, now that it is in full leaf?" asked the Baron.
"No, gracious Sir, it must remain standing winter and summer, as long as there is a chip of it left."
"But then, if I should have the forest cut down, it would injure the young trees."
"Well, we do not want it for any ordinary price." They offered two hundred thalers. The deal was made, and all the foresters were strictly forbidden to injure the "Jew's Beech" in any way.
Soon after, about sixty Jews with a Rabbi at their head were seen going toward the Forest of Brede, all silent, with their eyes cast down. They stayed in the woods over an hour, and then returned just as seriously and ceremoniously through the village of B. up to the Zellerfeld, where they separated and each went his own way. The next morning there was a Hebrew inscription carved on the oak with an axe:[Hebrew:]
And where was Frederick? Without doubt, gone, and far enough away to find it no longer necessary to fear the short arms of such a weak police force. Soon he was completely forgotten. His Uncle Simon seldom spoke of him, and then ill. The Jew's wife finally consoled herself and took another husband. Only poor Margaret remained without consolation.
About half a year afterward the lord of the estate read in the presence of the court clerk some letters just received. "Remarkable, remarkable!" he exclaimed. "Just think, Kapp, perhaps Mergel is innocent of the murder. The chairman of the court of P. has just written me: 'Le vrai n'est pas toujours vraisemblable' (Truth does not always bear the marks of probability). I often find this out in my profession, and now I have a new proof of it. Do you know that it is possible that your dear trusty Frederick Mergel killed the Jew no more than you or I? Unfortunately proofs are lacking, but the probability is great. A member of the Schlemming band (which, by-the-by, we now have, for the most part, under lock and key), named Ragged Moses, alleged in the last hearing that he repented of nothing so much as of murdering one of his co-religionists, Aaron, whom he had beaten to death in the woods, and had found only six groschen on him.
"Unfortunately the examination was interrupted by the noon recess and, while we were at lunch, the dog of a Jew hanged himself with a garter. What do you say to that? Aaron is a common name, to be sure," etc.
"What do you say to that?" repeated the Baron; "and what reason then did the fool of a fellow have for running away?"
The court clerk reflected. "Well, perhaps on account of the forest thefts which we were just then investigating. Isn't it said: 'The wicked man flees from his own shadow?' Mergel's conscience was dirty enough, even without this spot."
With these considerations they let the matter drop. Frederick had gone, disappeared; and John Nobody—poor, neglected John—with him on the same day. A long, long time had passed—twenty-eight years, almost half a lifetime. The Baron was grown very old and gray, and his good-natured assistant, Kapp, had been long since buried. People, animals, and plants had arisen, matured, passed away; only Castle B., gray and dignified as of old, still looked down on the cottages which, like palsied old people, always seemed about to fall, yet always kept their balance.
It was Christmas Eve, December 24, 1788.
The narrow passes were covered with snow, probably about twelve feet deep, and the penetrating, frosty air froze the window panes in the heated room. It was almost midnight, and yet faint lights flickered from the snow mounds everywhere, and in every house the inmates were on their knees awaiting in prayer the advent of the holy Christmas festival, as is the custom in Catholic countries, or, at least, as was general in those times. That night a figure moved slowly down from the heights of Brede toward the village. The wanderer seemed to be very tired or sick; he groaned heavily and dragged himself with extreme difficulty through the snow.
Half the way down he stopped, leaned on his staff, and gazed fixedly at the lights. Everything was so quiet, so dead and cold; one could not have helped thinking of will o' the wisps in cemeteries. At that moment the clock struck twelve in the tower; as the last stroke died slowly away, soft singing arose in the nearest house and, spreading from house to house, ran through the whole village:
A little babe, a worthy child, Was born to us today, Of Mary Virgin undefiled; We all rejoice and say: Yea, had the Christ-child ne'er been born, To lasting woe we'd all been sworn, For He is our salvation. O, thou our Jesus Christ adored, A man in form but yet our Lord, From Hell grant us Redemption.
The man on the mountain slope had sunk to his knees and with a trembling voice made an effort to join in the song; it turned into nothing but loud sobbing, and large hot drops fell on the snow. The second verse began; he prayed along silently; then the third and the fourth. The song was ended and the lights in the houses began to move. Then the man rose laboriously and slunk slowly down to the village. He panted past several houses, then stopped in front of one and knocked on the door softly.
"I wonder what that is!" said a woman's voice inside. "The door is rattling, and there's no wind blowing!"
He knocked louder. "For God's sake, let in a half-frozen man, who comes out of Turkish slavery!"
There was whispering in the kitchen. "Go to the inn," answered another voice, "the fifth house from here!"
"In the name of our merciful God, let me in! I have no money."
After some delay the door opened. A man came out with a lighted lamp. "Come right in," he then said; "you won't cut our heads off." In the kitchen there were, besides the man, a middle-aged woman, an old mother, and five children. All crowded around the newcomer and scrutinized him with timid curiosity. A wretched figure! Wry-necked, with his back bent, his whole body broken and powerless; long hair, white as snow, fell about his face, which bore the distorted expression of long suffering. The woman went silently to the hearth and added some fresh fagots. "A bed we cannot give you," she said, "but I will make a good litter of straw here; you'll have to make the best of that."
"God reward you!" answered the stranger; "indeed I am used to worse than that."
The man who had returned home was recognized as John Nobody, and he himself avowed that it was he who had once fled with Frederick Mergel. The next day the village was full of the adventures of the man who had so long been forgotten. Everybody wanted to see the man from Turkey, and they were almost surprised that he should still look like other people. The young folks, to be sure, did not remember him, but the old could still recognize his features perfectly, wretchedly disfigured though he was.
"John, John, how gray you've grown!" said an old woman; "and where did you get your wry neck?"
"From carrying wood and water in slavery," he replied. "And what has become of Mergel? You ran away together, didn't you?"
"Yes, indeed; but I do not know where he is; we got separated. If you think of him, pray for him," he added; "he probably needs it."
They asked him why Frederick had disappeared, inasmuch as he had not murdered the Jew. "Not killed him!" said John, and listened intently when they told him what the lord of the estate had purposely spread abroad in order to erase the spot from Mergel's name. "So all was in vain," he said musing, "all in vain—so much suffering!"
He sighed deeply and asked, on his part, about many things. He was told that Simon had been dead a long while, but had first fallen into complete poverty through lawsuits and bad debtors whom he could not sue because, it was said, the business relations between them had been questionable. Finally he had been reduced to begging and had died on the straw in a strange barn. Margaret had lived longer, but in absolute mental torpor. The people in the village had soon grown tired of helping her, because she let everything that they gave her go to ruin; for it is, after all, characteristic of people to abandon the most helpless, those whom assistance does not relieve for any length of time and who are and always will be in need of aid. Nevertheless she had not suffered any actual want; the family of the Baron had cared for her, sent her meals daily, and even provided medical treatment for her, when her pitiable condition had developed into complete emaciation. In her house now lived the son of the former swineherd, who had so admired Frederick's watch on that unfortunate night.
"All gone, all dead!" sighed John.
In the evening, when it had grown dark and the moon was shining, he was seen limping about the cemetery in the snow; he did not pray over any one grave, nor did he go very close to any, but he seemed to gaze fixedly at some of them from a distance. Thus he was found by Forester Brandes, the son of the murdered forester, whom the Baron had sent to bring John to the castle. Upon entering the living-room he looked about him timidly, as though dazed by the light, and then at the Baron who was sitting in his armchair; he had aged greatly but still had his old bright eyes, and the little red cap was still on his head, as it had been twenty-eight years ago; beside him was the Baroness, his wife, also grown old, very old.
"Now, John," said the Baron, "do tell me all about your adventures. But," as he surveyed him through his glasses, "you wasted away terribly there in Turkey, didn't you?" John began telling how Mergel had called him away from the hearth at night and said he must go away with him.
"But why did the foolish fellow ever run away?—I suppose you know that he was innocent?"
John looked down.
"I don't know exactly; I think it was on account of some forest affairs. Simon had all kinds of dealings, you know; they never told me anything about it, but I do not believe everything was as it should have been."
"But what did Frederick tell you?"
"Nothing but that we must run away, that they were at our heels. So we ran to Heerse; it was still dark then and we hid behind the big cross in the churchyard until it grew somewhat lighter, because we were afraid of the stone-quarries at Bellerfeld; and after we had been sitting a while we suddenly heard snorting and stamping over us and saw long streaks of fire in the air directly over the church-tower of Heerse. We jumped up and ran straight ahead in the name of God as fast as we could, and, when dawn arose, we were actually on the right road to P." John seemed to shudder at the remembrance even now, and the Baron thought of his departed Kapp and his adventures on the slope of Heerse.
"Remarkable!" he mused; "you were so near each other! But go ahead."
John now related how they had successfully passed through P. and across the border, telling how, from that point, they had begged their way through to Freiburg in Breisgau as itinerant workmen. "I had my haversack with me, and Frederick a little bundle; so they believed us," he went on. In Freiburg they had been induced to enlist in the Austrian army; he had not been wanted, but Frederick had insisted. So he was put with the commissariat. "We stayed over the winter in Freiburg," he continued, "and we got along pretty well; I did, too, because Frederick often advised me and helped me when I did something wrong. In the spring we had to march to Hungary, and in the fall the war with the Turks broke out. I can't repeat very much about it because I was taken prisoner in the very first encounter and from that time was a Turkish slave for twenty-six years!"