At the manor the baroness was received by the steward, who had been sent on in advance with orders to prepare the "installation dinner." Then she proceeded at once to inspect every corner and crevice—the kitchen as well as the dining-room, astonishing the cooks with her knowledge of their art. She was summoned from the kitchen to receive the dignitaries.
"Let there be no ceremony, gentlemen," she exclaimed in her musical voice, hastening toward them. "I detest all formalities. I have had a surfeit of them in Vienna, and intend to breathe natural air here in the country, without 'fuss or feathers,' with no incense save that which rises from burning tobacco! This is why I avoided your parade out yonder on the highway. I want nothing but a cordial shake of your hands; and as regards the official formalities of this 'installation' business, you must settle that with my agent, who has authority to act for me. After that has been arranged, we will all act as if we were old acquaintances, and every one of you must consider himself at home here."
To this gracious speech the vice-palatine gave utterance to something which sounded like:
"Ah!" returned the baroness, "you speak German?"
"Well, yes," replied the descendant of the Scythians; "only, I am likely to blunder when speaking it, as did the valiant Barkocz. When our glorious Queen Maria Theresa recovered from the chicken-pox, she was bemoaning the disfiguring scars left on her face, when the brave soldier, in order to comfort her, said: 'But your Majesty still has very beautiful leather.'"
"Ha, ha, ha!" merrily laughed the baroness. "You are the gentleman who has an anecdote to suit every occasion. I have already heard about you. Pray introduce the other gentlemen."
The vice-palatine proceeded to obey this request. "This is the Rev. Herr Tobias Mercatoris, our parish clergyman. He has a beautiful speech prepared to receive your ladyship; but he can't repeat it here, as it begins, 'Here in the grateful shadow of these green trees.'"
"Oh, well, your reverence, instead of the speech, I will listen to your sermons on Sundays. I intend to become a very zealous member of your congregation."
"And this, your ladyship," continued the master of ceremonies, "is Dr. Philip Tromfszky, resident physician of Fertoeszeg, who is celebrated not only for his surgical and medical skill, but is acknowledged here, as well as in Raab, Komorn, Eisenburg, and Odenburg, as the greatest gossip and news dispenser in the kingdom."
"A most excellent accomplishment!" laughingly exclaimed the baroness. "I am devoted to gossip; and I shall manage to have some ailment every few days in order to have the doctor come to see me!"
Then came the surveyor's turn.
"This, your ladyship, is Herr Martin Doboka, county surveyor and expert mathematician. He will measure for you land, water, or fog; and if your watch stops going, he will repair it for you!"
"And who may this be?" smilingly inquired the lady, indicating the vice-palatine's assistant, who had thrust his long neck inquisitively forward.
"Oh, he is n't anybody!" replied the vice-palatine. "He is never called by name. When you want him just say: 'Audiat!' He is one of those persons of whom Cziraky said: 'My lad, don't trouble yourself to inquire where you shall seat yourself at table; for wherever you sit will always be the lowest place!'"
This anecdote caused "Audiat" to draw back his head and seek to make himself invisible.
"And now, I must present myself: I am the vice-palatine of this county, and am called Bernat Goeroemboelyi von Dravakeresztur."
"My dear sir!" ejaculated the baroness, laughing heartily, "I could n't commit all that to memory in three years!"
"That is exactly the way your ladyship's name affects me!"
"Then I will tell you what we will do. Instead of torturing each other with our unpronounceable names, let us at once adopt the familiar 'thou,' and call each other by our Christian names."
"Yes; but when I enter into a 'brotherhood' of that sort, I always kiss the person with whom I form a compact."
"Well, that can also be done in this instance!" promptly responded the baroness, proffering, without affectation of maidenly coyness, the ceremonial kiss, and cordially shaking hands with the vice-palatine. Then she said:
"We are now Bernat bacsi, and Katinka; and as that is happily arranged, I will ask the gentlemen to go into the agent's office and conclude our official business. Meanwhile, I shall make my toilet for dinner, where we will all meet again."
"What a perfectly charming woman!" exclaimed the justice, when their hostess had vanished from the room.
"I wonder what would happen," observed the doctor, with a malicious grin, "if the vice-palatine's wife should hear of that kiss? Would n't there be a row, though!"
The heroic descendant of the Scythians at these words became seriously alarmed.
"The Herr Doctor, I trust, will be honorable enough not to gossip about it," he said meekly.
"Oh, you may rest without fear, so far as I am concerned; but I would n't say as much for the surveyor, here. If ever he should succeed in getting beyond 'I say,' I won't answer for the safety of your secret, Herr Vice-palatine! When your wife hears, moreover, that it is 'Bernat' and 'Katinka' up here, it will require something besides an anecdote to parry what will follow!"
When the baroness appeared at the dinner-table, she was attired simply, yet with a certain elegance. She wore a plain black silk gown, with no other ornamentation save the string of genuine pearls about her throat. The sombre hue of her gown signified mourning; the gems represented tears; but her manner was by no means in keeping with either; she was cheerful, even gay. But laughter very often serves to mask a sorrowful heart.
"Thy place is here by my side," said the baroness, mindful of the "thee-and-thou" compact with Herr Bernat.
The vice-palatine, remembering his spouse, sought to modify the familiarity.
"I forgot to tell you, baroness," he observed, as he seated himself in the chair beside her own, "that with us in this region 'thou' is used only by children and the gypsies. To those with whom we are on terms of intimacy we say 'he' or 'she,' to which we add, if we wish, the words bacsi, or hugom, which are equivalent to 'cousin.'"
"And do you never say 'thou' to your wife?"
"To her also I say 'she' or 'you.'"
"What a singular country! Well, then, Bernat bacsi, if it pleases 'him,' will 'he' sit here by me?"
Baroness Katinka understood perfectly how to conduct the conversation during the repast—an art which was not appreciated by her right-hand neighbor, Herr Mercatoris. The learned gentleman had bad teeth, in consequence of which eating was a sort of penitential performance that left him no time for discourse.
But the doctor and the vice-palatine showed themselves all the more willing to share the conversation with their hostess.
"The official business was satisfactorily arranged without me, was it not, Bernat bacsi?" after a brief pause, inquired the baroness.
"Not altogether. We are like the gypsy who said that he was going to marry a countess. He was willing, and all that was yet necessary was the consent of a countess. Our business requires the consent of a baroness—that is, of Katinka hugom."
"To what must I give my consent?"
"That the conditions relating to the Nameless Castle shall continue the same as heretofore."
"Nameless Castle?—Conditions?—What does that mean? I should like very much to know."
"Katinka hugom can see the Nameless Castle from the terrace out yonder. It is a hunting-seat that was built by a Markoczy on the shore of Lake Neusiedl, on the site of a primitive pile-dwelling. Three years ago, a gentleman from a foreign country came to Fertoeszeg, and took such a fancy to the isolated house that he leased it from the baron, the former owner, on condition that no one but himself and servants should be permitted to enter the grounds belonging to the castle. The question now is, will Katinka hugom consent to the conditions, or will she revoke them?"
"And if I should choose to do the latter?" inquired the baroness.
"Then your ladyship would be obliged to give a handsome bonus to the lessee. Shall you revoke the conditions?"
"It depends entirely on the sort of person my tenant proves to be."
"He is a very peculiar man, to say the least—one who avoids all contact with his fellow-men."
"What is his name?"
"I don't think any one around here knows it. That is why his residence has been called the Nameless Castle."
"But how is it possible that the name of a man who has lived here three years is not known?"
"Well, that is easily explained. He never goes anywhere, never receives visitors, and his servants never call him anything but 'the count.'"
"Surely he receives letters by post?"
"Yes, frequently, and from all parts of the known world. Very often he receives letters which contain money, and for which he is obliged to give a receipt; but no one has yet been able to decipher the illegible characters on the letters addressed to him, or those of his own hand."
"I should think the authorities had a right to demand the information?"
"Why—'he,' Bernat bacsi."
"I? Why, what business is it of mine?"
"The authorities ought to inquire who strangers are, and where they come from. And such an authority is 'he'—Bernat bacsi!"
"Hum; does 'she' take me to be a detective?"
"But you surely have a right to demand to see his passport?"
"Passport? I would rather allow myself to be thrown from the window of the county-house than demand a passport from any one who comes to Hungary, or set my foot in the house of a gentleman without his permission!"
"Then you don't care what people do here?"
"Why should we? The noble does as he pleases, and the peasant as he must."
"Suppose the man in the Nameless Castle were plotting some dreadful treason?"
"That would be the affair of the king's attorney, not mine. Moreover, nothing whatever can be said against the tenant of the Nameless Castle. He is a quiet and inoffensive gentleman."
"Is he alone? Has he no family?"
"That the Herr Justice is better able to tell your ladyship than am I."
"Ah! Then, Herr Hofrichter," inquired the lady of the manor, turning toward the justice, "what do you know about this mysterious personage? Has he a wife?"
"It seems as if he had a wife, your ladyship; but I really cannot say for certain if he has one."
"Well, I confess my curiosity is aroused! How is it possible not to know whether the man is married or not? Are the people invisible?"
"Invisible? By no means, your ladyship. The nameless count and a lady drive out every morning at ten o'clock. They drive as far as the neighboring village, where they turn and come back to the castle. But the lady wears such a heavy veil that one can't tell if she be old or young."
"If they drive out they certainly have a coachman; and one might easily learn from a servant what are the relations between his master and mistress."
"Yes, so one might. The coachman comes often to the village, and he can speak German, too. There is a fat cook, who never leaves the castle, because she can't walk. Then, there are two more servants, Schmidt and his wife; but they live in a cottage near the castle. Every morning at five o'clock they go to the castle gate, where they receive from some one, through the wicket, orders for the day. At nine o'clock they return to the gate, where a basket has been placed for the things they have bought. But they never speak of the lady, because they have never seen her face, either."
"What sort of a man is the groom?"
"The people about here call him the man with the iron mouth. It is believed the fat cook is his wife, because he never even looks at the girls in the village. He will not answer any questions; only once he condescended to say that his mistress was a penniless orphan, who had nothing, yet who got everything she wanted."
"Does no one visit them?"
"If any one goes to the castle, the count alone receives the visitor; the lady never appears; and no one has yet had courage enough to ask for her. But that they are Christians, one may know from their kitchen: there is always a lamb for dinner on Easter; and the usual heiligen Stritzel on All Saints'. But they never go to church, nor is the pastor ever received at the castle."
"What reason can they have for so much mystery, I wonder?" musingly observed the baroness.
"That I cannot say. I can furnish only the data; for the deductions I must refer your ladyship to the Herr Doctor."
"Ah, true!" ejaculated her ladyship, joining in the general laughter. "The doctor, to be sure! If you are the county clock, Herr Doctor, surely you ought to know something about our mysterious neighbors?"
"I have two versions, either of which your ladyship is at liberty to accept," promptly responded the doctor. "According to the first 'authentic' declaration, the nameless count is the chief of a band of robbers, who ply their nefarious trade in a foreign land. The lady is his mistress. She fell once into the hands of justice, in Germany, and was branded as a criminal on her forehead. That accounts for the heavy veil she always wears—"
"Oh, that is quite too horribly romantic, Herr Doctor!" interrupted the baroness. "We cannot accept that version. Let us hear the other one."
"The second is more likely to be the true one. Four years ago the newspapers were full of a remarkable abduction case. A stranger—no one knew who he was—abducted the wife of a French officer from Dieppe. Since then the betrayed husband has been searching all over the world for his runaway wife and her lover; and the pair at the castle are supposed to be they."
"That certainly is the more plausible solution of the mystery. But there is one flaw. If the lovers fled here to Fertoeszeg to escape pursuit, the lady has chosen the very worst means to remain undiscovered. Who would recognize them here if they went about in the ordinary manner? The story of the veil will spread farther and farther, and will ultimately betray them to the pursuing husband."
By this time the reverend Herr Mercatoris had got the better of his bad teeth, and was now ready to join the conversation.
"Gentlemen and ladies," he began, "allow me to say a word about this matter, the details of which no one knows better than myself, as I have for months been in communication with the nameless gentleman at the castle."
"What sort of communication?"
"Through the medium of a correspondence, which has been conducted in quite a peculiar manner. The count—we will call him so, although we are not justified in so doing, for the gentleman did not announce himself as such—the count sends me every morning his copy of the Augsburg 'Allgemeine Zeitung.' Moreover, I frequently receive letters from him through Frau Schmidt; but I always have to return them as soon as I have read them. They are not written in a man's hand; the writing is unmistakably feminine. The seal is never stamped; only once I noticed on it a crest with three flowers—"
"What sort of flowers?" hastily interposed the baroness.
"I don't know the names of them, your ladyship."
"And what do you write about?" she asked again.
"The correspondence began by the count asking a trifling favor of me. He complained that the dogs in the village barked so loud; then, that the children robbed the birds' nests; then, that the night-watchman called the hour unnecessarily loud. These complaints, however, were not made in his own name, but by another person whom he did not name. He wrote merely: 'Complainant is afraid when the dogs bark.' 'Complainant loves birds.' 'Complainant is made nervous by the night-watchman.' Then he sent some money for the owners of the barking dogs, asking that the curs be shut indoors nights; and some for the children, so they would cease to rob the birds' nests; and some for the watchman, whom he requested to shout his loudest at the other end of the village. When I had attended to his requests, he began to send me his newspaper, which is a great favor, for I can ill afford to subscribe for one myself. Later, he loaned me some books; he has the classics of all nations—the works of Wieland, Kleist, Boerne, Lessing, Locke, Schleiermacher. Then we began to write about the books, and became entangled in a most exciting argument. Frau Schmidt, who was the bearer of this exchange of opinions, very often passed to and fro between the castle and the parsonage a dozen times a day; and all the time we never said anything to each other, when we happened to meet in the road, but 'good day.' From the letters, however, I became convinced that the mysterious gentleman is neither a criminal, nor a fugitive from justice, nor yet an adventurous hero who abducts women! Nor is he an unfortunate misanthrope. He is, on the contrary, a philanthropist in the widest sense—one who takes an interest in everything that goes on about him, and is eager to help his suffering fellows. In a word, he is a philosopher who is happy when he is surrounded by peace and quiet."
The baroness, who had listened with interest to the reverend gentleman's words, now made inquiry:
"How does this nameless gentleman learn of his poor neighbors' needs, when neither he nor his servants associate with any one outside the castle?"
"In a very simple manner, your ladyship. He has a very powerful telescope in the tower of the castle, with which he can view every portion of the surrounding region. He thus learns when there is illness or death, whether a house needs repair; and wherever anything is needed, the means to help are sent to me. On Christmas he has all the children from the village up at the castle, where he has a splendid Christmas tree with lighted tapers, and a gift for every child,—clothes, books, and sweets,—which he distributes with his own hand. I can tell you an incident which is characteristic of the man. One day the county arrested a poor woman, the wife of a notorious thief. The Herr Vice-palatine will remember the case—Rakoncza Jutka, the wife of the robber Satan Laczi?"
"Yes, I remember. She is still in prison," assented the gentleman referred to.
"Yes. Well, she has a little son. When the mother was taken to prison, the little lad was turned away from every door, was beaten and abused by the other children, until at last he fled to the marshes, where he ate the young shoots of the reeds, and slept in the mire. The nameless count discovered with his telescope the little outcast, and wrote to me to have him taken to Frau Schmidt, where he would be well taken care of until his mother came back."
By this time the tears were running down the baroness's cheeks.
"Poor little lad!" she murmured brokenly. "Your story has affected me deeply, Herr Pastor."
Then she summoned her steward, and bade him fill a large hamper with sweets and pasties, and send it to Frau Schmidt for the poor little boy. "And tell Frau Schmidt," she added, "to send the child to the manor. We will see to it that he has some suitable clothes. I am delighted, reverend sir, to learn that my tenant is a true nobleman."
"His deeds certainly proclaim him as such, your ladyship."
"How do you explain the mystery of the veiled lady?"
"I cannot explain it, your ladyship; she is never mentioned in our correspondence."
"She may be a prisoner, detained at the castle by force."
"That cannot be; for she has a hundred opportunities to escape, or to ask for help."
Here the surveyor managed to express his belief that the reason the lady wore a veil was because of the repulsiveness of her face.
At this, a voice that had not yet been heard said, at the lower end of the table:
"But the lady is one the most beautiful creatures I ever saw—and quite young."
Every eye was turned toward the speaker.
"What? Audiat? How dares he say such a thing?" demanded the vice-palatine.
"Because I have seen her."
"You have seen her? When did you see her? Where did you see her—her whom no one yet has seen?"
"When I was returning from college last year, per pedes apostolorum, for my money had given out, and my knapsack was empty. I was picking hazelnuts from the bushes in the park of the Nameless Castle, when I heard a window open. I looked up, and saw in the open sash a face the like of which I have never seen, even in a picture."
"Ah!" ejaculated the baroness. "Tell us what is she like. Come nearer to me."
The clerk, however, was too bashful to leave his place, whereupon the baroness rose and took a seat by his side.
"She has long, curling black hair," he went on. "Her face is fair as a lily and red as a rose, her brow pure and high, with no sign of the branding-iron. Her mouth is small and delicate. Indeed, her entire appearance that day was like that of an angel looking down from heaven."
"Is she a maid or a married woman?" inquired one of the company.
A maid, in those days, was very easily distinguished from her married sister. The latter was never seen without a cap.
"A young girl not more than fifteen, I should say," was the reply. "A cap would not suit her face."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Bernat bacsi. "And this enchanting fairy opened the window to show her lovely face to Audiat!"
"No; she did not open the window on my account," retorted the young man, "but for the beasts that were luckier than I—for four cats that were playing in the gutter of the roof; a white one, a black one, a yellow one, and a gray one; and all of them scampered toward her when they heard her call."
"The cats are her only companions—that much we know from the servants," affirmed the justice.
The laurels which his clerk had won made the vice-palatine jealous.
"Audiat," he said, in a reproving tone, "you ought to learn that a young person should speak only when spoken to; indeed,—as the learned Professor Hatvani says,—even then it is not necessary to answer all questions."
But the company around the dinner-table did not share these views. The clerk was assailed on all sides—very much as would have been an aeronaut who had just alighted from a montgolfier—to relate all that he had seen in those regions not yet penetrated by man. What sort of gown did the mysterious lady wear? Was he certain that she had no cap on? Was she really no older than fifteen years?
The vice-palatine at last put an end to his clerk's triumph.
"Tut, tut! what can you expect to learn from a mere lad like him?—when he saw her only for an instant! Just wait; I will find out all about this nameless gentleman and lady."
"Pray how do you propose to accomplish that?" queried the baroness, who had returned to her former seat.
"I shall go to the Nameless Castle."
"Suppose you are not permitted to enter?"
"What? I, the vice-palatine, not permitted to enter? Wait; I will explain my plan to you over the coffee."
When the time came to serve the black coffee, the amiable hostess suggested that it would be pleasant to enjoy it in the open air; whereupon the company repaired to the veranda where, on several small tables, the fragrant mocha was steaming in the cups. Here the baroness and the vice-palatine seated themselves where they could look directly at the Nameless Castle; and Herr Bernat Goeroemboelyi proceeded to explain how he intended to take the castle without force—which was forbidden a Hungarian official.
Then the two ladies withdrew to make their toilets for the evening; and the gentlemen betook themselves to the smoking-room, to indulge in a little game of chance, without which no "installation" ceremony would have been complete.
The following morning, after a very satisfactory breakfast, the gentlemen took leave of their amiable hostess, Bernat bacsi lingering behind the rest to whisper significantly:
"I will not say farewell, Katinka hugom, for I am coming back to tell you all about it." Then he took his place in the extra post-chaise, and bade the postilion drive directly to the neighboring castle. The Nameless Castle was built on a narrow tongue of land that extended into Lake Neusiedl. The road to the castle gate ran along a sort of causeway, which was protected from the water by a strong bulwark composed of fascines, and a row of willows with knotty crowns. A drawbridge at the farther end made it necessary for the person who wished to enter the gate to ask permission.
On ringing the bell, there appeared at the gate the servant who has already been described,—the groom, coachman, and man of all work in one person. He had on a handsome livery, white gloves, white stockings, and shoes without heels.
"Is the count at home?" inquired the vice-palatine.
"Announce us. I am the vice-palatine of the county, and wish to pay an official visit."
"The Herr Count is already informed of the gentlemen's arrival, and bids them welcome."
This certainly was getting on smoothly enough! And the most convincing proof of a hearty welcome was that the stately groom himself hastened to remove the luggage from the chaise and carry it into the vestibule—a sign that the guests were expected to make a visit of some duration.
Now, however, something curious happened.
Before the groom opened the hall door, he produced three pairs of socks, woven of strands of cloth,—mamuss they are called in this region,—and respectfully requested the visitors to draw them over their boots.
"And why, pray?" demanded the astonished vice-palatine.
"Because in this house the clatter of boots is not considered pleasant; and because the socks prevent boots from leaving dusty marks on the carpets."
"This is exactly like visiting a powder-magazine." But they had to submit and draw their socks over their yellow boots, and, thus equipped, they ascended the staircase to the reception-room.
An air of almost painful neatness reigned in all parts of the castle. Stairs and corridors were covered with coarse white cloth, the sort used for peasants' clothing in Hungary. The walls were hung with glossy white paper. Every door-latch had been polished until it glistened. There were no cobwebs to be seen in the corners; nor would a spider have had anything to prey upon here, for there were no flies, either. The floor of the reception-room into which the visitors had been conducted shone like a mirror, and not a speck of dust was to be seen on the furniture.
"The Herr Count awaits your lordship in the salon," announced the groom, and conducted Herr Bernat into the adjoining chamber. Here, too, the furniture was white and gold. The oil-paintings in the rococo frames represented landscapes, fruit pieces, and game; there was not a portrait among them.
Beside the oval table with tigers' feet stood the mysterious occupant of the Nameless Castle. He was a tall man, with knightly bearing, expressive face, a high, broad forehead left uncovered by his natural hair, a straight Greek nose, gray eyes, a short mustache and pointed beard, which where a shade lighter than his hair.
"Magnifice comes—" the vice-palatine was beginning in Latin, when the count interposed:
"I speak Hungarian."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the visitor, whose astonishment was reflected in his face. "Hungarian? Why, where can your worship have learned it?"
"From the grammar."
"From the grammar?" For the vice-palatine this was the most astounding of all the strange things about the mysterious castle. Had he not always known that Hungarian could only be learned by beginning when a child and living in a Hungarian family? That any one had learned the language as one learns the hic, haec, hoc was a marvel that deserved to be recorded. "From the grammar?" he repeated. "Well, that is wonderful! I certainly believed I should have to speak Latin to your worship. But allow me to introduce my humble self—"
"I already have the honor," quietly interrupted the count, "of knowing that you are Herr Vice-palatine Bernat Goeroemboelyi von Dravakeresztur."
He repeated the whole name without a single mistake!
The vice-palatine bowed, and began again:
"The object of my visit to-day is—"
Again he was interrupted.
"I know that also," said the count. "The Fertoeszeg estate has passed into the hands of another proprietor, who has a legal right to withdraw the lease and revoke the conditions made and agreed to by her predecessor; and the Herr Vice-palatine is come, at the request of the baroness, to serve a notice to quit."
Herr Bernat did not like it when any one interrupted him or knew beforehand what he intended to say.
"On the contrary, I came because the baroness desires to renew the lease. She has learned how kind to the poor your worship is, and offers the castle and park at half the rent paid heretofore." He fancied this would melt the haughty lord of the castle, but it seemed to increase his hauteur.
"Thanks," frigidly responded the count. "If the baroness thinks the rent too high, she will find in her own neighborhood poor people whom she can assist. I shall continue to pay the same rent I paid to the former owner."
"Then my business will be easily settled. I have brought my clerk with me; he can write out the necessary papers, and the matter can be concluded at once."
"Thank you very much," returned the count, but without offering to shake hands. Instead, he kept his arms crossed behind his back.
"Before we proceed to business," resumed the vice-palatine, "I must tell your worship an anecdote. A professor once told his pupils that he knew everything. Shortly afterward he asked one of the lads what his name was. 'Why,' responded the youth, 'how does it come that you don't know my name—you who know everything?'"
"I cannot see why you thought it necessary to relate this anecdote to me," observed the count, without a smile.
"I introduce it because I am compelled to inquire your worship's name and title, in order to draw up the contracts properly."
This, then, was the strategem by which he proposed to learn the name which no one yet had been able to decipher on the count's letters?
The count gazed fixedly for several seconds at his questioner, then replied quietly:
"My name is Count Ludwig Vavel de Versay—with a y after the a."
"Thanks. I shall not forget it; I have a very good memory," said Herr Bernat, who was perfectly satisfied with his success. "Allow me, also, to inquire the family name of the worshipful Frau Countess?"
At this question the count at last removed his hands from his back, and with the sort of gesture a man makes who would tear asunder an adversary. At the same time he cast upon Herr Bernat a glance that reminded the valiant official of the royal commissioner, as well as of his energetic spouse at home. The angry man seemed to have increased a head in stature.
Instead of replying to the question, he turned on his heel and strode from the room, leaving his visitor standing in the middle of the floor. Herr Bernat was perplexed; he did not know what to do next. Was it not quite natural to ask the name of a man's wife when a legal contract was to be written? His question, therefore, had not been an insult.
At last, as the count did not return, there was nothing left for Herr Bernat to do but go to his room and wait there for further developments. The contracts would have to be renewed, else the count would have to vacate the castle; and one could easily see that a great deal of money had been expended in fitting it up. The count had transformed the old hunting-seat, which had been a filthy little nest, into a veritable fairy castle. Yes, undoubtedly the contracts would be renewed.
The vice-palatine was pacing the floor of his room in his noiseless cloth socks, when he suddenly heard the voices of his clerk and his servant outside the door.
"Well, Janos, we are not going to dine here to-day; from what I can learn, we are going to be eaten ourselves."
"What do you mean?"
"The groom told me his master was loading his pistols to shoot some one. The count challenges to a duel every one who inquires after the countess."
The voices ceased. The vice-palatine opened wide his eyes, and muttered:
"May the devil fly away with him! He wants to fight a duel, does he? I am not afraid of his pistols; I have one, too, and a sword into the bargain. But it 's a silly business altogether! I am to fight about a woman I have n't even seen! And what will my wife say? I wish I had n't come into this crazy castle! I wish I had n't sealed a compact of fraternity with the baroness! Why did not I leave this whole installation business to the second vice-palatine? If only I could think of an excuse to turn my back on this lunatic asylum! But I am not going to run away from a pistol. The Hungarian noble is a born soldier. If only I had my pipe! A man is only half a man without his pipe. A pipe inspires one with ideas. Where, I wonder, is that Audiat gadding?"
At this moment the clerk opened the door.
"Fetch our luggage, Audiat; we are going to leave this damned lunatic asylum. The Herr Count may see to it then how he renews his lease." Hereupon he kicked off the socks with such vigor that the very castle shook. Then, grasping his sword in his hand, he marched out of his room, and down the staircase, to prove that he was not fleeing like a coward, but was clearing his way by force.
When the clerk, who went to fetch the luggage, was about to enter the groom's apartment, the count came toward him and said:
"You are the vice-palatine's clerk?"
"That 's what they call me."
"When do you expect to become a lawyer?"
"When I have passed my examination."
"When will that be?"
"When I have served a year as jurat, and have paid a ducat for my diploma."
"I will give you the ducat, and when you have become a lawyer I will employ you as my attorney at six hundred guilders a year. I know that a Hungarian gentleman will not accept a gift without making some return; I ask you, therefore, to give me for this ducat some information."
"What is it you wish to know?"
"How can I obtain possession of a portion of Lake Neusiedl for my own use alone?"
"By becoming a naturalized citizen of the county, and by purchase of a portion of the shore. I dare say there are some landowners on the shore who would be glad to part with their possessions in exchange for solid cash. If you buy such an estate you will have sole right to that part of the water in front of your property, and to the middle of the lake."
"Thank you. One more question: if you were my attorney, what could you do to prevent me from being ejected from this castle, in case I did not sign a new contract with the present owner?"
"First, I should take advantage of the law of possession, and drag the case through a twelve years' process; then I should appeal, which would postpone a settlement for three years longer. Would that be long enough?"
The count nodded a farewell to the youthful jurist without even inquiring his name; nor did Audiat venture to propound a like question to his future employer.
Bernat bacsi did not, as he had promised, return to the manor to tell the baroness the result of his visit. He drove direct to his home.
THE MISTRESS OF THE CATS
When they heard the call, "Puss, puss!" they scampered down the roof, leaped from the eaves, and vanished, one after the other, between the curtains of the open window. It was quite an ethnographic, so to speak, collection of cats; a panther-like French pussy from Dund, a Caucasian with long pointed ears, one from China with wavy silken fur and drooping ears. Then the window was closed, for the company were all assembled—four cats, two pug-dogs, and a sparrow, and the hostess, a young girl.
The girl, to judge from her figure, was perhaps fifteen years old; but her manner and speech were those of a much younger child. With her arched brow and rainbow-formed eyebrows, she might have served as a model for a saint, had not the roguish smile about the corners of her red lips betrayed an earthly origin. The sparkling dark eyes, delicately chiseled nostrils, and rounded chin gave to her face certain family characteristics which many persons would have recognized at a first glance.
Her clothing was richly adorned with lace and embroidery, which was not the fashion for girls of her age; at the same time, there was about her attire a peculiar negligence, as if she had no one to advise her what was proper to wear, or how to wear it.
Her room was furnished with luxurious elegance. Satin hangings covered the walls; the furniture was upholstered with rare gobelin tapestry. Gilded cabinets veneered with tortoise-shell held, behind glass doors, all sorts of costly toys, and dolls in full costume. On a Venetian table with mosaic top lay a pack of cards and three heaps of money—one of gold, one of silver, the third of copper. On a low, three-legged table was a something shaped like an organ, with a long row of metal and wooden pipes. Near the window stood a drawing-table, on which were sheets of drawing-board, and glasses containing pulverized colors. There was also a bookcase; on the shelves were volumes of Vertuch's "Orbis pictus," the "Portefeuille des enfants," the "History of Robinson Crusoe," and several numbers of a fashion magazine, the "Album des salons," the illustrations of which lay scattered about on tables and chairs.
The guests were all assembled; not one was missing. The little hostess inquired after the health of each one in turn, and how they had enjoyed their outing. They all had names. The cats were Hitz, Mitz, Pani, and Miura. They were introduced to the two pugs, Phryxus and Helle. Then the little maid fetched a porcelain basin, and with a sponge washed each nose and paw. Only after this operation had been thoroughly performed were the guests allowed to take their places at the breakfast-table—the four cats opposite the two pugs.
Then a clean napkin was tied about the neck of each guest,—that their jabots might not get soiled with milk,—and a cup of bread and milk placed in front of each one.
No complaints were allowed (the one that broke this rule was severely lectured), while all of them had patiently to submit when the sparrow helped himself from whichever cup he chose. The breakfast over, the guests bow-wowed and miaued their thanks, and were dismissed to their morning nap.
The musical clock now began to play its shepherd's song; the brass Cyclops standing on the dial struck the hour; the cuckoo called, and the halberdier saluted. Then the little maid changed her toilet. She had a whole wardrobe full of clothes; she might select what she chose to wear. There was no one to tell her what to put on, or to help her attire herself. When her toilet was completed, a bell outside rang once, whereupon she donned her hat and tied over her face a heavy lace veil that effectually concealed her features. After a few minutes the bell rang a second time, and the sound of wheels in the courtyard was heard. Then three taps sounded on the door, and in answer to the little maid's clear-voiced "Come in!" a gentleman in promenade toilet entered the room and bowed respectfully. First he satisfied himself that the veil was securely fastened around the young girl's hat; then, drawing her hand through his arm, he led her to the carriage.
On the box was seated the broad-shouldered groom, now clad in coachman's costume. The gentleman assisted the little maid into the carriage, took his seat by her side, and the black horses set off over the same road they had traversed a thousand times, in the regulation trot, avoiding the main thoroughfare of the village. Those persons whom they chanced to meet did not salute, for they knew that the occupants of the carriage from the Nameless Castle did not wish to be spoken to; and any of the villagers who were standing idly at their doors stepped inside until they had passed; no inquisitive woman face peered after them. And thus the carriage passed on its way, as if it had been invisible. When it arrived at the forest, the horses knew just where they had to halt. Here the gentleman assisted his veiled companion to alight, gave her his left arm, because he held in his right hand a heavy walking-stick, in the center of which was concealed a long, three-edged poniard, an effective weapon in the hands of him who knew how to wield it.
In silence the man and the maid promenaded along the green sward in the shade of the trees. A campanula had just opened its blue eye at the foot of one of the trees, and pale-blue forget-me-nots grew along the path. Blue was the little maid's favorite color; but she was not permitted to pluck the flowers herself. She had never been told why she must not do this; perhaps it was because the flowers belonged to some one else.
Sometimes the little maid's steps were so light and elastic, as if a fairy were gliding over the dewy grass; and sometimes she walked so slowly, so wearily, as if a little old grandmother came limping along, hunting for lichens on the mossy ground.
After the promenade, they seated themselves again in the carriage, which returned to the Nameless Castle, and the gates were closed again.
The man conducted the maid to her room, and the serious occupation of the day began. Books were produced, and the man proceeded to explain the classics. They were his own favorites; he could not give her any others. She had not yet seen or heard of romances, and she was still too young to begin the study of history. The man could teach the maid only what he himself knew; a strange tutor or governess was not allowed to enter the castle.
Because her instructor could not play the piano, the little maid had not learned. But in order that she might enjoy listening to music, a hand-organ had been bought for her, and new melodies were inserted in it every four months.
When the little maid wearied of her organ and her picture-making, she seated herself at the card-table, and played l'hombre, or tarok, with two imaginary adversaries, enjoying the manner in which the copper coins won the gold ones.
At noon, when the bell rang a third time, the man tapped at the door again, offered his gloved hand to the maid, and conducted her to the dining-room. At either end of a large table was a plate. The maid took her place at the head; the man seated himself at the foot. They conversed during the meal. The maid talked about her cats and dogs; the man told her about his books. When the maid wanted anything, she called the man Ludwig; and when the man addressed his companion, he called her simply Marie.
After dinner, they went to the library to look at the late newspapers. Ludwig himself made the coffee, after which he read the papers, and dictated his comments and criticisms on certain articles to Marie, who wrote them out in her delicate hair-line chirography.
When Ludwig and Marie separated for the afternoon, he touched his lips to her hand and brow. Marie then returned to her own apartments, played the hand-organ for her pets, changed her dolls' toilets, counted her gains or losses at cards, colored with her paints a few of the illustrations in the magazines, looked through her "Orbis pictus," reading without difficulty the text which was printed in four languages, and read for the hundredth time her favorite "Robinson Crusoe."
And thus passed day after day, from spring until autumn, from autumn until spring.
Evenings, when Marie prepared for bed, before she undressed herself, she spread a heavy silken coverlet over the leather lounge which stood near the door. She knew very well that the some one she called Ludwig slept every night on the lounge, but he came in so late, and went away so early in the morning, that she never heard his coming or his going.
The little maid was a sound sleeper, and the pugs never barked at the master of the house, who gave them lumps of sugar.
Often the little maid had determined that she would not go to sleep until she heard Ludwig come into the room. But all her attempts to remain awake were in vain. Her eyelids closed the moment her head touched the pillow. Then she tried to waken early, in order to wish him good morning; but when she thrust her little head from between the bed-curtains, and called cheerily, "Good morning, dear Ludwig!" there was no one there.
Ludwig never slept more than four hours of the twenty-four, and his slumber was so light that he woke at the slightest noise. Then, too, he slept like a soldier in the field—always clothed, with his weapons beside him.
One day in the year formed an exception to all the rest. It was Marie's birthday. From her earliest childhood this one day had been entirely her own. On this day she addressed Ludwig with the familiar "thou," as she had been wont to do when he had taught her to walk. She always looked forward with great pleasure to this day, and made for it all sorts of plans whose accomplishment was extremely problematic.
And who came to congratulate her on her birthday? First of all, the solitary sparrow, whose name was David—surely because he, too, was a tireless singer! Already at early dawn, when the first faint rosy hues of morning glimmered through the jalousie, he would fly to the head of her bed. Then the cats would come with their gratulations, but not until their little mistress had leaped from the bed, run to the window, flung open the sash, and called, "Puss, puss!" Then the whole four would scamper into the room, one after the other, and wish her many happy returns of the day.
When the pugs had gone through their part of the program, the little maid proceeded to attire herself, a task she performed behind a tall folding screen. When she stepped forth again, she had on a gorgeous Chinese-silk wrapper, covered all over with gay-colored palms, and confined only at the waist with a heavy silk cord. Her hair was twisted into a single knot on the crown of her head.
Then she prepared breakfast for herself and her guests. The eight of them drank cold milk, and ate of the dainty little cakes which some one placed on her table every night while she slept. To-day Marie did not amuse herself with her guests, but turned over the leaves of her picture-book, thus passing the time until she should hear, after the bell had rung twice, the tap at her door.
The man who entered was surprised.
"What? We are not yet ready for the drive?" he exclaimed.
The maid threw her book aside, ran toward him, and flung her arms with childish abandon around his neck.
"We are not going to drive to-day. Dost thou not know that this is my birthday—that I alone give orders in this house to-day? To-day everything must be done as I say; and I say that we will pass the time of the drive here in my room, and that thou shalt answer several silly questions which have come into my head. And forget not that we are to 'thou' each other to-day. And now, congratulate me nicely. Come, let us hear it!"
The count almost imperceptibly bent his knee and his head, but spoke not one word. There are gratulations which are expressed in this manner.
"Very good! Then I am a queen for to-day, and thou art my sole subject. Sit thou here at my feet on this taboret."
The man obeyed. Marie seated herself on the ottoman, and drew her feet underneath the wide skirt of her robe.
"Put that book away!" she commanded, when Ludwig stooped to lift from the floor the volume she had cast there. "I know every one of the four volumes by heart! Why dost not thou give me one of the books thou readest so often?"
"Because they are medical works."
"And why dost thou read such books?"
"In order that, should any one in the castle become ill, I may be able to cure him or her without a doctor."
"And must the person die who is ill and cannot be cured?"
"That is generally the end of a fatal illness."
"Does it hurt to die?"
"That I am unable to tell, as I have never tried it."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the maid. "Thou canst not put me off that way! Thou knowest many things thou hast not yet tried. Thou hast read about them; thou knowest! What is death like? Is it more unpleasant than a disagreeable dream? Is the pain all over when one has died, or is there more to come afterward? If death is painful, why must we die? If it is pleasant, why must we live?"
Children ask such strange questions!
"Life is a gift from God that must be preserved as long as possible," returned Ludwig, evading the main question. "Through us the world exists—"
"What is the world?" interrupted Marie.
"The entire human race and their habitations—the earth."
"Then every person owns a plot of earth? Where is the plot which belongs to us? Answer me that!"
"By the way, that reminds me!" exclaimed Ludwig, relieved to find an opportunity to change the subject. "I have not yet told thee that I intend to buy a lovely plot of ground on the shore of the lake, which is to be made into a pretty flower-garden for thy use alone. Will not that be pleasant?"
"Thou art very kind; the garden will be lovely. That plot of ground, then, will be our home, will it not? What is one's home called?"
"It is called the fatherland."
"Then every country is not one's fatherland?"
"If our enemies live there, it is not."
"What are enemies?"
"Persons with whom we are angry."
"What is angry? I have never yet seen anything like it. Why art thou never angry?"
"Because I have no reason to be angry with thee, and I never associate with any one else."
"What do those persons do who become angry with one another?"
"They avoid each other. If they are very angry they fight; and if they are very, very angry they kill each other."
The maid was tortured with curiosity to-day. She drew a pin from her robe, and secretly thrust the point into Ludwig's hand.
"What art thou doing?" he asked, in surprise.
"I want to see what thou art like when thou art angry. Did it hurt thee?"
"Certainly it hurt me; see, the blood is flowing."
"Ah, heaven!" cried the maid, in terror, drew the young man's head toward her, and pressed a kiss on his face.
He sprang to his feet, his face pale as death, extreme horror depicted in his glance.
"There!" exclaimed the maid. "Thou dost not kill me, and yet I have made thee very angry."
"This is not anger," sighed the young man.
"What is it, then?"
"It has no name."
"Then I may not kiss thee? Thou lettest me kiss thee last year, and the year before, and every other year."
"But thou art fifteen years old to-day."
"Ah! Then what was allowed last year, and always before that, is not allowed now. Dost not thou love me any more?"
"All my thoughts are filled with thee."
"Thou knowest that I have always been allowed to make one wish on my birthday, and that it has always been granted. That is what some one accustomed me to—thou knowest very well who."
"Thy desires have always been fulfilled."
"Yes; and children understand how to desire what is impossible. But grown persons are clever enough to know how to impose on the children. Three years ago I asked thee to bring me some one with whom I could talk—some one who would be company for me. Thou broughtest me cats and dogs and a bird! Two years ago I wished I might learn how to make pictures; and I was given paper patterns to color with water-colors. One year ago to-day I wished I might learn how to make music; and a hand-organ was bought for me. Oh, yes; my wishes have always been fulfilled, but always in a way that cheated me. Children are always treated so. To-day thou sayest that I am fifteen years old, and that I am not any more to be treated as a child. Mark that! To-day, as heretofore, I ask something of thee which thou canst give me—and thou canst not cheat me, either!"
"Whatever it may be, thou shalt have it, Marie."
"Thy hand on it! Now, thou knowest that I asked thee not long ago to send to Paris for a 'Melusine costume' for me!"
"And has it not already arrived? I myself delivered the box into thy hands."
"Knowest thou what a Melusine costume is? See, this is it."
With these words she sprang from her seat, untied the cord about her waist, flung off the silken wrapper, and stood in front of the speechless young man in one of those costumes worn by Paris dames at the sea-shore when they disport themselves amid the waves of the ocean. The Melusine costume was a bathing-dress.
"To-day, Ludwig, I ask that thou wilt teach me how to swim. The lake is just out yonder below the garden."
The maid, in her pale-blue bathing-dress, looked like one of those fairy-like creatures in Shakspere's "Midsummer Night's Dream," innocent and alluring, child and siren.
Disconcerted and embarrassed, Ludwig raised his hand.
"Art thou going to strike me?" inquired the child, half crying, half laughing.
"Pray put on the wrapper again!" said Ludwig, taking the garment from the sofa and with it veiling the model for a Naiad. "What sort of a caprice is this?"
"I have had the thought in my head for a long, long time, and I beg that thou wilt grant my request. Thou canst not say that thou canst not swim; for once, when we were traveling in great haste, I know not why, we came to a river, and found that the boat was on the farther shore. Thou swammest across, and broughtest back the boat in which the four of us then crossed to the other side. Already then the desire to swim arose in me. What a delicious sensation to swim through the water—to make wings of one's arms and fly like a bird! Since we live in this castle the wish has become stronger. Night after night I dream that I am cleaving through the waves. I never see God's sky when I go out, because I have to cover my face. It is just like looking at creation through a grating! I should love dearly to sing and shout for joy; but I dare not, for I am afraid the trees, the walls, the people, might hear me and betray me. But out yonder I could float on the green waves, where I should meet no one, where no one would see me. I could look up at the shining sky, and about in chorus with the fish-hawks, surrounded by the darting fishes, that would tell no one what they had seen or heard. That would be supreme happiness for me; wilt not thou help me to secure it?"
The child's wish was so true, so earnest, and Ludwig himself had experienced the proud delights of which she had spoken. Perhaps, too, he had related to Marie the story of Clelia and her companions, who swam the Tiber to preserve the Roman maidens' reputation for virtue.
"Whatever gives pleasure to thee pleases me," he said, extending his hand to take hers.
"And thou wilt grant my wish? Oh, how kind, how dear thou art!" And in vain the young man sought to withdraw the hand she covered with kisses. "What!" she exclaimed reproachfully, "may I not kiss thy hand either?"
"How canst thou behave so, Marie? Thou art fifteen years old! A grown-up girl does not kiss a man's hand."
He passed his hand across his brow and sighed heavily; then he rose to his feet.
"Where art thou going? Knowest thou not that to-day thou dost not belong to thy horrid books nor to thy telescope, but that thou art my subject?"
"I go to execute the commands of my little queen. If she desires to learn to swim, I must have a bath-house built on the shore, and look about for a suitable spot in the little cove."
"When I have learned to swim all by myself, may not I go beyond the little cove—away out into the open lake?"
"Yes, on two conditions. One is that I may follow in my canoe—"
"But not keep very near to me?"
"Of course not. The second condition is that in daylight thou wilt not swim beyond those willows which conceal the cove. Only on moonlight evenings mayest thou venture into the open lake."
"But why may not I venture by daylight?"
"Because a telescope does not enable one to distinguish features after night. Other people may have a telescope, like myself."
"Who would have one in this village?"
"The manor has a new occupant. A lady has taken possession there."
"A lady? Is she pretty?"
"She is young."
"Didst thou see her through the telescope? What kind of hair has she got?"
"Then she must be very pretty. May I take a look at her some time?"
"I am afraid thou mightest fall in love with her; for she is very beautiful, and very good."
"How dost thou know she is good?"
"Because she visits the sick and the poor, and because she goes regularly to church."
"Why do we never go to church?"
"Because we profess a different belief from that acknowledged by those persons who attend this church."
"Do they pray to a different God from ours?"
"No; they pray to the same God."
"Then why should n't we all go to the same church?"
Unable longer to control himself, Ludwig took the shrewd little child-head between his hands, and said tenderly:
"My darling! my little queen! not all the synods of the four quarters of the globe could answer thy questions—let alone this poor forgotten soldier!"
"There! thou always pretendest to be stupid when I want to borrow a little bit of thy wisdom. Thou art like the rich man who tells the beggar that he has no money. By the way, I must not forget that I always send money to the poor children on my birthday. Come, tell me which of the heaps I shall send to-day—these small coins, or these large ones? If thou thinkest I ought to send these little yellow ones, I have no objections. I think I prefer to keep the white coins, they have such a musical sound; besides, they have the image of the Virgin. If thou thinkest I ought to send some of the large red ones, too, I will do so."
The "little yellow ones" were gold sovereigns; the "white coins" were silver Zwanziger; and the "large red ones" were copper medals of the Austrian minister of finance, worth half a guilder.
"We will send some of the small coins and some of the large ones," decided Ludwig, smiling at the little maid's ignorance of the value of the money.
Tradition maintained that many years before, during the preceding century, the tongue of land now occupied by the Nameless Castle was part of the lake; and it may have been true, for Neusiedl Lake is a very capricious body of water. During the past two decades we ourselves have seen a greater portion of the lake suddenly recede, leaving dry land where once had been several feet of water. The owners of what had once been the shore took possession of the dry lake bottom; they used it for meadows and pastures; leased it, and the lessees built farm-houses and steam-mills on the "new ground." They cultivated wheat and maize, and for many years harvested two crops a year. Suddenly the lake took a notion to occupy its old bed again; and when the water had resumed its former level, fields and farms had vanished beneath the green flood; only here and there the top of a chimney indicated where a steam-mill had been. Magic tricks like this Neusiedl Lake has played more than once on trusting mortals.
On either side of the peninsula on which stood the Nameless Castle was a little cove. One of these the count had spoken of to Marie; the other separated the castle from the village of Fertoeszeg.
The manor, the habitation of the owner of the Fertoeszeg estate, stood on the slope of a hill at the eastern end of the village, and fronted, as did the neighboring castle, on the lake.
In the second half of the month of August, in the year 1806, one might have seen from the veranda of the manor, after the sun had gone down and the marvelous tints of the evening sky were reflected in the water, a small boat speed out from the cove on the farther side of the Nameless Castle, trailing after it a long silvery streak on the parti-colored surface of the lake. A solitary man sat in the boat.
But what could not be seen from the veranda of the manor was that a girlish form swam a little in advance of the boat.
Marie had proved an excellent scholar in the school of the hydriads. Already after the fourth lesson she could swim alone, and sped over the waves as lightly and gracefully as a swan.
She did not need to wear a hat on these evening swimming excursions; her long hair floated unbound after her on the waves. When the twilight shadows deepened, the swimmer would speed far ahead of the accompanying canoe. She had lost all fear of the water. The waves were her friends—they knew each other well. When she wished to rest, she would turn her face to the sky, fold her arms across her breast, and lie on the waves as among swelling cushions like a child in a rocking cradle. And here she was allowed the full privileges of a child. She shouted; called to the startled wild geese; teased the night-swallows, and the bats skimming along the surface of the lake in quest of water-spiders. Here she even ventured to sing, and gave voice to charming melodies, which floated over the water like the sounds of an AEolian harp.
Many hours were spent thus on the lake. The little maid never wearied of the water. The protecting element restored to her nerves the strength which the stepmotherly earth had taken from them. A promenade of a hundred steps would tire her so that she would have to stop and rest. She had become unused to walking. But here in the water she moved about like a Naiad; her whole being was transformed; she lived! Then, when her guardian would call her, she would swim back to the canoe, clamber into it, and spread her long hair over his knees to dry while they rowed back to the shore. Poor little maid! She declared she had found happiness in the water.
* * * * *
One evening, after the waning moon had risen, Ludwig's canoe, as usual, followed Marie, who was swimming a considerable distance ahead. Among the peculiarities of Neusiedl Lake are its numerous islets, the shores of which are thickly grown with rushes, and covered with broom and tall trees. Such an island lay not far from the shore in front of the Nameless Castle; it had frequently aroused Marie's curiosity.
The little maid was now permitted to swim as far out into the open world of waves as she desired, only now and again signaling her whereabouts through a clear-toned "Ho, ho!"
During this time Ludwig reclined in his boat, and while the waves gently rocked him, he gazed dreamily into the depths of the starry sky, and listened to the mysterious voices of the night—the moaning, murmuring, echoing voices floating across the surface of the water.
Suddenly a piercing scream mingled with the mysterious voices of the night. It was Marie's voice.
Frantic with terror, Ludwig seized his oars, and the canoe shot through the water in the direction of the scream.
The trail of light left behind her by the swimmer was visible on the calm surface of the lake. Suddenly it made an abrupt turn, and began to form a gigantic V. Evidently the little maid was impelled by desperate terror to reach the protecting canoe. When she came abreast of it she uttered a second cry, convulsively grasped the edge of the boat, and cast a terrified glance backward.
"Marie!" cried the count, greatly alarmed, seizing the girdle about her waist and lifting her into the canoe. "What has happened? Who is following you?"
The child trembled violently; her teeth chattered, and she gasped for breath, unable to speak; only her large eyes were still fixed with an expression of horror on the water.
Ludwig looked searchingly around, but could see nothing. And yet, after a few seconds, something rose before him.
What was it? Man or beast?
The head, the face, were head and face of a human being—a man, perhaps. The cheeks and head were covered with short reddish hair like the fur of an otter. The long, pointed ears stood upright. The mouth was closed so tightly that the lips were invisible. The nose was flat. The eyes, like those of a fish, were round and staring. There was no expression whatever in the features.
The mysterious monster had risen quite close to the boat.
Ludwig seized an oar with both hands to crush the monster's head; but the heavy blow fell on the water. The creature had vanished underneath the boat, and only the motion of the water on the other side indicated the direction it had taken. Terror and rage had benumbed Ludwig's nerves.
What was it? Who had sent this nameless monster after his carefully guarded treasure? Even the bottom of the lake concealed her enemies! He could think of nothing but intrigues and malignant persecutions. Rage boiled in his veins.
He enveloped the maid in her bath-mantle, and took up his oars.
"I will come back here to-morrow," he muttered to himself, "hunt up this creature, and shoot it—be it man or beast."
Marie murmured something which sounded like a remonstrance.
"I will shoot the creature!" repeated Ludwig, savagely.
The young girl withdrew trembling to the stern of the boat, and said nothing further; she even strove to suppress her nervous terror, like a child that has behaved naughtily.
When the boat reached the shore, Ludwig bade Marie in a stern voice to make haste and change her bathing-dress, and became very impatient when she lingered longer than usual in the bath-house. Then he took her arm and walked rapidly with her to the castle.
"Are you really going to shoot that creature?" asked Marie, still trembling.
"But suppose it is a human being?"
"Then I shall certainly shoot him."
"I will never, never again venture into the lake."
"I am certain of that! If you once become frightened in the water, you will always have a dread of it."
"My dear, beautiful lake!" sighed Marie, casting backward a sorrowful glance at the glittering expanse of water, at the paradise of her dreams, which the rising wind was curling into wavelets.
"Go at once to bed," said Ludwig, when he had conducted his charge to the door of her room. "Cover yourself up well, and if you feel chilly I will make you a cup of camomile tea."
All children have such a distaste for this herb tea that it was not to be wondered at if Marie declared she did not feel in the least chilly, and that she would go at once to bed.
But she did not sleep well. She dreamed all night long of the water-monster. She saw it pursuing her. The staring fish-eyes rose before her in the darkness. Then she saw Ludwig with his gun searching for the monster—saw him shoot at it, but without effect. The hideous creature leaped merrily away.
More than once she awoke from her restless slumber and called softly:
"Ludwig, are you there?"
But no one answered the question. Since her last birthday Ludwig had not occupied the lounge in her room. Marie had discovered this. She had placed a rose-leaf on the silken coverlet every evening, and found it still there in the morning. If any one had slept on the lounge, the rose-leaf would have fallen to the floor.
The following day Ludwig was more silent than usual. He did not speak once during their drive, and ate hardly anything at meals.
One could easily see how impatiently he waited for evening, when he might go down to the lake and search for the monster—a sorry object for a fury such as his! An otter, most likely, or a beaver—mayhap an abortion of the Dead Sea, which had survived the ages since the days of Sodom! All the same, it was a living creature, and must become food for fishes. Marie, however, prayed so fervently that nothing might come of Ludwig's fury that Heaven heard the prayer. The weather changed suddenly in the afternoon. A cold west wind succeeded to the warm August sunshine; clouds of dust arose; then came a heavy downpour of rain. Ludwig was obliged to forego his intention to row about on the lake in the evening. He spent the entire evening in his room, leaving Marie to complain to her cats; but they were sleepy, and paid no attention to what she said.
The little maid had no desire to go to bed; she was afraid she might dream again of horrible things. The heavy rain beat against the windows; thunder rumbled in the distance.
"I should not like to venture out of the house in such weather," said Marie to her favorite cat, who was dozing on her knee. "Ugh-h! just think of crossing the lonely court, or going through the dark woods! Ugh-h! how horrible it must be there now! And then, to pass the graveyard at the end of the village! When the lightning flashes, the crosses lift their heads from the darkness—ugh-h!"
The clock struck eleven; directly afterward there came a hesitating knock at her door.
"Come in! You may come in!" she called joyfully. She thought it was Ludwig.
The door opened slowly, only half-way, and the voice which began to speak was not Ludwig's; it was the groom.
"Beg pardon, madame!" (thus he addressed the little maid).
"Is it you, Henry? What do you want? You may come in. I am still up."
The groom entered, and closed the door behind him. He was a tall, gray-haired man, with an honest face and enormously large hands.
"What is it, Henry? Did the count send you?"
"No, madame; I only wish he were able."
"Why? What is the matter with him?"
"I don't know, indeed! I believe he is dying."
"Yes, madame; my master."
"For God's sake, tell me what you mean!"
"He is lying on his bed, quite out of his mind. His face is flushed, his eyes gleam like hot coals, and he is talking wildly. I have never seen him in such a condition."
"Oh, heaven! what shall we do?"
"I don't know, madame. When any of us gets sick the count knows what to do; but he does n't seem able to cure himself now; the contents of the medicine-chest are scattered all over the floor."
"Is there no doctor in the village?"
"Yes, madame; the county physician."
"Then he must be sent for."
"I thought of that, but I did not like to venture to do so."
"Because the count has declared that he will shoot me if I attempt to bring a stranger into his room, or into madame's. He told me I must never admit within the castle gate a doctor, a preacher, or a woman; and I should not think of disobeying him."
"But now that he is so ill? and you say he may die? Merciful God! Ludwig die! It cannot—must not—happen!"
"But how will madame hinder it?"
"If you will not venture to fetch the doctor, then I will go myself."
"Oh, madame! you must not even think of doing this!"
"I think of nothing else but that he is ill unto death. I am going, and you are coming with me."
"Holy Father! The count will kill me if I do that."
"And if you don't do it you will kill the count."
"That is true, too, madame."
"Then don't you do anything. I shall do what is necessary. I will put on my veil, and let no one see my face."
"But in this storm? Just listen, madame, how it thunders."
"I am not afraid of thunder, you stupid Henry. Light a lantern, and arm yourself with a stout cudgel, while I am putting on my pattens. If Ludwig should get angry, I shall be on hand to pacify him. If only the dear Lord will spare his life! Oh, hasten, hasten, my good Henry!"
"He will shoot me dead; I know it. But let him, in God's name! I do it at your command, madame. If madame is really determined to go herself for the doctor, then we will take the carriage."
"No, indeed! Ludwig would hear the sound of wheels, and know what we were doing. Then he would jump out of bed, run into the court, and take a cold that would certainly be his death. No; we must go on foot, as noiselessly as possible. It is not so very far to the village. Go now, and fetch the lantern."
Several minutes afterward, the gates of the Nameless Castle opened, and there came forth a veiled lady, who clung with one hand to the arm of a tall man, and carried a lantern in the other. Her companion held over her, to protect her from the pouring rain, a large red umbrella, and steadied his steps in the slippery mud with a stout walking-stick. The lady walked so rapidly that her companion with difficulty kept pace with her.
Dr. Tromfszky had just returned from a visum repertum in a criminal case, and had concluded that he would go to bed so soon as he had finished his supper. The rain fell in torrents on the roof, and rushed through the gutters with a roaring noise.
"Now just let any one send again for me this night!" he exclaimed, when his housekeeper came to remove the remnants of cheese from the supper-table. "I would n't go—not if the primate himself got a fish-bone fast in his throat; no, not for a hundred ducats. I swear it!"
At that moment there came a knock at the street door, and a very peremptory one, too.
"There! did n't I know some one would take it into his head to let the devil fetch him to-night? Go to the door, Zsuzsa, and tell them that I have a pain in my foot—that I have just applied a poultice, and can't walk."
Frau Zsuzsa, with the kitchen lamp in her hand, waddled into the corridor. After inquiring the second time through the door, "Who is it?" and the one outside had answered: "It is I," she became convinced, from the musical feminine tone, that it was not the notorious robber, Satan Laczi, who was seeking admittance.
Then she opened the door a few inches, and said:
"The Herr Doctor can't go out any more to-night; he has gone to bed, and is poulticing his foot."
The door was open wide enough to admit a delicate feminine hand, which pressed into the housekeeper's palm a little heap of money. By the light of the lamp Frau Zsuzsa recognized the shining silver coins, and the door was opened its full width.
When she saw before her the veiled lady she became quite complaisant. Curiosity is a powerful lever.
"I humbly beg your ladyship to enter."
"Please tell the doctor the lady from the Nameless Castle wishes to see him."
Frau Zsuzsa placed the lamp on the kitchen table, and left the visitors standing in the middle of the floor.
"Well, what were you talking about so long out yonder?" demanded the doctor, when she burst into his study.
"Make haste and put on your coat again; the veiled lady from the Nameless Castle is here."
"What? Well, that is an event!" exclaimed the doctor, hurriedly thrusting his arms into the sleeves of his coat. "Is the count with her?"
"No; the groom accompanied her."
These magic words, "the veiled lady," had more influence on the doctor than any imaginable number of ducats.
At last he was to behold the mythological appearance—yes, and even hear her voice!
"Show her ladyship into the guest-chamber, and take a lamp in there," he ordered, following quickly, after he had adjusted his cravat in front of the looking-glass.
Then she stood before him—the mysterious woman. Her face was veiled as usual. Behind her stood the groom, with whose appearance every child in the village was familiar.
"Herr Doctor," stammered the young girl, so faintly that it was difficult to tell whether it was the voice of a child, a young or an old woman, "I beg that you will come with me at once to the castle; the gentleman is very seriously ill."
"Certainly; I am delighted!—that is, I am not delighted to hear of the worshipful gentleman's illness, but glad that I am fortunate enough to be of service to him. I shall be ready in a few moments."
"Oh, pray make haste."
"The carriage will take us to the castle in five minutes, your ladyship."
"But we did not come in a carriage; we walked."
Only now the doctor noticed that the lady's gown was thickly spattered with mud.
"What? Came on foot in such weather—all the way from the Nameless Castle? and your ladyship has a carriage and horses?"
"Cannot you come with us on foot, Herr Doctor?"
"I should like very much to accompany your ladyship; but really, I have rheumatismus acutus in my foot, and were I to get wet I should certainly have an ischias."
Marie lifted her clasped hands in despair to her lips, but the beseeching expression on her face was hidden by the heavy veil. Could the doctor have seen the tearful eyes, the trembling lips!
Seeing that her voiceless petition was in vain, Marie drew from her bosom a silken purse, and emptied the contents, gold, silver, and copper coins, on the table.
"Here," she exclaimed proudly. "I have much more money like this, and will reward you richly if you will come with me."
The doctor was amazed. There on the table lay more gold than the whole county could have mustered in these days of paper notes. Truly these people were not to be despised.
"If only it did not rain so heavily—"
"I will let you take my umbrella."
"Thanks, your ladyship; I have one of my own."
"Then let us start at once."
"But my foot—it pains dreadfully."
"We can easily arrange that. Henry, here, is a very strong man; he will take you on his shoulders, and bring you back from the castle in the carriage."
There were no further objections to be offered when Henry, with great willingness, placed his broad shoulders at the doctor's service.
The doctor hastily thrust what was necessary into a bag, locked the money Marie had given him in a drawer, bade Frau Zsuzsa remain awake until he returned, and clambered on Henry's back. In one hand he held his umbrella, in the other the lantern; and thus the little company took their way to the castle—the "double man" in advance, the little maid following with her umbrella.
The doctor had sufficient cause to be excited. What usurious gossip-interest might be collected from such a capitol! Dr. Tromfszky already had an enviable reputation in the county, but what would it become when it became known that he was physician in ordinary to the Nameless Castle?
The rain was not falling so heavily when they arrived at the castle.
Marie and Henry at once conducted the doctor to Ludwig's chamber. Henry first thrust his head cautiously through the partly open door, then whispered that his master was still tossing deliriously about on the bed; whereupon the doctor summoned courage to enter the room. His first act was to snuff the candle, the wick having become so charred it scarcely gave any light. He could now examine the invalid's face, which was covered with a burning flush. His eyes rolled wildly. He had not removed his clothes, but had torn them away from his breast.
"H'm! h'm!" muttered the doctor, searching in his bag for his bloodletting instruments. Then he approached the bed, and laid his fingers on the invalid's pulse.
At the touch of his cold hand the patient suddenly sat upright and uttered a cry of terror:
"Who are you?"
"I am the doctor—the county physician—Dr. Tromfszky. Pray, Herr Count, let me see your tongue."
Instead of his tongue, the count exhibited a powerful fist.
"What do you want here? Who brought you here?" he demanded.
"Pray, pray be calm, Herr Count," soothingly responded the doctor, who was inclined to look upon this aggressive exhibition as a result of the fever. "Allow me to examine your pulse. We have here a slight paroxysm that requires medical aid. Come, let me feel your pulse; one, two—"
The count snatched his wrist from the doctor's grasp, and cried angrily:
"But I don't need a doctor, or any medicine. There is nothing at all the matter with me. I don't want anything from you, but to know who brought you here."
"Beg pardon," retorted the offended doctor. "I was summoned, and came through this dreadful storm. I was told that the Herr Count was seriously ill."
"Who said so? Henry?" demanded the count, rising on one knee.
Henry did not venture to move or speak.
"Did you fetch this doctor, Henry?" again demanded the invalid, with expanded nostrils, panting with fury.
The doctor, fancying that it would be well to tell the truth, now interposed politely:
"Allow me, Herr Count! Herr Henry did not come alone to fetch me, but he came with the gracious countess; and on foot, too, in this weather."
"What? Marie?" gasped the invalid; and at that moment his face looked as if he had become suddenly insane. An involuntary epileptic convulsion shook his limbs. He fell from the bed, but sprang at the same instant to his feet again, flung himself like an angry lion upon Henry, caught him by the throat, and cried with the voice of a demon:
"Wretch! Betrayer! What have you dared to do? I will kill you!"
The doctor required nothing further. He did not stop to see the friendly promise fulfilled, but, leaving his lances, elixirs, and plasters behind him, he flew down the staircase, four steps at a time, and into the pouring rain, totally forgetting the ischias which threatened his leg. Nor did he once think of a carriage, or of a human dromedary,—not even of a lantern, or an umbrella,—as he galloped down the dark road through the thickest of the mud.
When the count seized Henry by the throat and began to shake him, as a lion does the captured buffalo, Marie stepped suddenly to his side, and in a clear, commanding tone cried:
At this word he released Henry, fell on his knees at Marie's feet, clasped both arms around her, and, sobbing convulsively, pressed kiss after kiss on the little maid's wet and muddy gown.
"Why—why did you do this for me?" he exclaimed, in a choking voice.
The doctor's visit had, after all, benefited the invalid. The spontaneous reaction which followed the violent fit of passion caused a sudden turn in his illness. The salutary crisis came of its own accord during the outburst of rage, which threw him into a profuse perspiration. The brain gradually returned to its normal condition.
"You will get well again, will you not?" stammered the little maid shyly, laying her hand on the invalid's brow.
"If you really want me to get well," returned Ludwig, "then you must comply with my request. Go to your room, take off these wet clothes, and go to bed. And you must promise never again to go on another errand like the one you performed this evening. I hope you may sleep soundly."
"I will do whatever you wish, Ludwig—anything to prevent your getting angry again."
The little maid returned to her room, took off her wet clothes, and lay down on the bed; but she could not sleep. Every hour she rose, threw on her wrapper, thrust her feet into her slippers, and stole to the door of Ludwig's room to whisper: "How is he now, Henry?"
"He is sleeping quietly," Henry would answer encouragingly. The faithful fellow had forgotten his master's anger, and was watching over him as tenderly as a mother over her child.
"He did not hurt you very much, did he, Henry?"
"No; it did not hurt, and I deserved what I got."
The little maid pressed the old servant's hand, whereupon he sank to his knees at her feet, and, kissing her pretty fingers, whispered: