"This fully repays me."
The next morning Ludwig was entirely recovered. He rose, and, as was his wont, drank six tumblerfuls of water—his usual breakfast.
Of the events of the past night he spoke not one word.
At ten o'clock the occupants of the Nameless Castle were to be seen out driving as usual—the white-haired groom, the stern-visaged gentleman, and the veiled lady.
That same morning Dr. Tromfszky received from the castle a packet containing his medical belongings, and an envelop in which he found a hundred-guilder bank-note, but not a single written word.
Meanwhile the days passed with their usual monotony for the occupants of the Nameless Castle, and September, with its delightfully warm weather drew on apace. In Hungary the long autumn makes ample amends for the brief spring—like the frugal mother who stores away in May gifts with which to surprise her children later in the season.
Down at the lake, a merry crowd of naked children disported in the water; their shouts and laughter could be heard at the castle. Ludwig fully understood the deep melancholy which had settled on Marie's countenance. Her sole amusement, her greatest happiness, had been taken from her. Other high-born maidens had so many ways of enjoying themselves; she had none. No train of admirers paid court to her. No strains of merry dance-music entranced her ear. Celebrated actors came and went; she did not delight in their performances—she had never even seen a theater. She had no girl friends with whom to exchange confidences—with whom to make merry over the silly flatterers who paid court to them; no acquaintances whose envy she could arouse by the magnificence of her toilets—one of the greatest pleasures in life!
She had no other flatterers but her cats; no other confidantes but her cats; no other actors but her cats. The world of waves had been her sole enjoyment. The water had been her theater, balls, concert—the great world. It was her freedom. The land was a prison.
Again it was the full of the moon, and quite warm. The tulip-formed blossoms of the luxuriant water-lilies were in bloom along the lake shore. Ludwig's heart ached with pity for the little maid when he saw how sorrowfully she gazed from her window on the glittering lake.
"Come, Marie," he said, "fetch your bathing-dress, and let us try the lake again. I will stay close by you, and take good care that nothing frightens you. We will not go out of the cove."
How delighted the child was to hear these words! She danced and skipped for joy; she called him her dear Ludwig. Then she hunted up the discarded Melusine costume, and hastened with such speed toward the shore that Ludwig was obliged to run to keep up with her. But the nearer she approached to the bath-house, the less quickly she walked; and when she stood in the doorway she said:
"Oh, how my heart beats!"
When Ludwig appeared with the canoe from behind the willows, the charming Naiad stepped from the bath-house. The rippling waves bore the moonlight to her feet, where she stood on the narrow platform which projected into the lake. She knelt and, bending forward, kissed the water; it was her beloved! After a moment's hesitation she dropped gently from the platform, as she had been wont to do; but when she felt the waves about her shoulders, she uttered a cry of terror, and grasped the edge of the canoe with both hands.
"Lift me out, Ludwig! I cannot bear it; I am afraid!"
With a sorrowful heart the little maid took leave of her favorite element. The hot tears gushed from her eyes, and fell into the water; it was as if she were bidding an eternal, farewell to her beloved. From that hour the child became a silent and thoughtful woman.
* * * * *
Then followed the stormy days of autumn, the long evenings, the weeks and months when nothing could be done but stay in doors and amuse one's self with books—Dante, Shakspere, Horace. To these were occasionally added learned folios sent from Stuttgart to Count Ludwig, who seemed to find his greatest enjoyment in perusing works on philosophy and science. Meanwhile the communication by letter between the count and the erudite shepherd of souls in the village was continued.
One day Herr Mercatoris sent to the castle a brochure on which he had proudly written, "With the compliments of the author." The booklet was written in Latin, and was an account of the natural wonder which is, to this day, reckoned among the numerous memorable peculiarities of Lake Neusiedl,—a human being that lived in the water and ate live fishes.
A little boy who had lost both parents, and had no one to care for him, had strayed into the morass of the Hansag, and, living there among the wild animals, had become a wild animal himself, an inhabitant of the water like the otters, a dumb creature from whose lips issued no human sound.
The decade of years he had existed in the water had changed his skin to a thick hide covered with a heavy growth of hair. The phenomenon would doubtless be accepted by many as a convincing proof that the human being was really evolved from the wild animal.
Accompanying the description was an engraved portrait of the natural wonder.
The new owner of Fertoeszeg, Baroness Katharina Landsknechtsschild, had been told that a strange creature was frightening the village children who bathed in the lake. She had given orders to some fishermen to catch the monster, which they had been fortunate enough to do while fishing for sturgeon. The boy-fish had been taken to the manor, where he had been properly clothed, and placed in the care of a servant whose task it was to teach the poor lad to speak, and walk upright instead of on all fours, as had been his habit. Success had so far attended the efforts to tame the wild boy that he would eat bread and keep on his clothes. He had also learned to say "Ham-ham" when he wanted something to eat; and he had been taught to turn the spit in the kitchen. The kind-hearted baroness was sparing no pains to restore the lad to his original condition. No one was allowed to strike or abuse him in any way.
This brochure had a twofold effect upon the count. He became convinced that the monster which had frightened Marie was not an assassin hired by her enemies, not an expert diver, but a natural abnormity that had acted innocently when he pursued the swimming maid. Second, the count could not help but reproach himself when he remembered that he would have destroyed the irresponsible creature whom his neighbor was endeavoring to transform again into a human being.
How much nobler was this woman's heart than his own! His fair neighbor began to interest him.
He took the pamphlet to Marie, who shuddered when her eyes fell on the engraving.
"The creature is really a harmless human being, Marie, and I am sorry we became so excited over it. Our neighbor, the lovely baroness, is trying to restore the poor lad to his original condition. Next summer you will not need to be afraid to venture into the lake again."
The little maid gazed thoughtfully into Ludwig's eyes for several moments; evidently she was pondering over something.
There had risen in her mind a suspicion that Ludwig himself had written the pamphlet, and had had the monster's portrait engraved, in order to quiet her fears and restore her confidence in the water.
"Will you take me sometime to visit the baroness?" she asked suddenly.
"And why?" inquired Ludwig, in turn, rising from his seat.
"That I, too, may see the wonderful improvement in the monster."
"No," he returned shortly, and taking up the pamphlet, he quitted the room. "No!"
"But why 'No'?"
Count Vavel (thus he was addressed on his letters) had arranged an observatory in the tower of the Nameless Castle. Here was his telescope, by the aid of which he viewed the heavens by night, and by day observed the doings of his fellow-men. He noticed everything that went on about him. He peered into the neighboring farm-yards and cottages, was a spectator of the community's disputes as well as its diversions. Of late, the chief object of his telescopic observations during the day were the doings at the neighboring manor. He was the "Lion-head" and the "Council of Ten" in one person. The question was, whether the new mistress of the manor, the unmarried baroness, should "cross the Bridge of Sighs"? His telescope told him that this woman was young and very fair; and it told him also that she lived a very secluded life. She never went beyond the village, nor did she receive any visitors.
In the neighborhood of Neusiedl Lake one village was joined to another, and these were populated by pleasure-loving and sociable families of distinction. It was therefore a difficult matter for the well-born man or woman who took up a residence in the neighborhood to avoid the jovial sociability which reigned in those aristocratic circles.
Count Vavel himself had been overwhelmed with hospitable attentions the first year of his occupancy of the Nameless Castle; but his refusals to accept the numerous invitations had been so decided that they were not repeated.
He frequently saw through his telescope the same four-horse equipages which had once stopped in front of his own gates drive into the court at the manor; and he recognized in the occupants the same jovial blades, the eligible young nobles, who had honored him with their visits. He noticed, too, that none of the visitors spent a night at the manor. Very often the baroness did not leave her room when a caller came; it may have been that she had refused to receive him on the plea of illness. During the winter Count Vavel frequently saw his fair neighbor skating on the frozen cove; while a servant propelled her companion over the ice in a chair-sledge.
On these occasions the count would admire the baroness's graceful figure, her intrepid movements, and her beautiful face, which was flushed with the exercise and by the cutting wind.
But what pleased him most of all was that the baroness never once during her skating exercises cast an inquiring glance toward the windows of the Nameless Castle—not even when she came quite close to it.
On Christmas eve she, like Count Vavel, arranged a Christmas tree for the village children. The little ones hastened from the manor to the castle, and repeated wonderful tales of the gifts they had received from the baroness's own hands.
Every Sunday the count saw the lady from the manor take her way to church, on foot if the roads were good; and on her homeward way he could see her distribute alms among the beggars who were ranged along either side of the road. This the count did not approve. He, too, gave plenteously to the poor, but through the village pastor, and only to those needy ones who were too modest to beg openly. The street beggars he repulsed with great harshness—with one exception. This was a one-legged man, who had lost his limb at Marengo, and who stationed himself regularly beside the cross at the end of the village. Here he would stand, leaning on his crutches, and the count, in driving past, would always drop a coin into the maimed warrior's hat.
One day when the carriage drew near the cross, Count Vavel saw the old soldier, as usual, but without his crutches. Instead, he leaned on a walking-stick, and stood on two legs.
The count stopped the carriage, and asked: "Are not you the one-legged soldier?"
"I am, your lordship," replied the man; "but that angel, the baroness, has had a wooden leg made for me,—I could dance with it if I wished,—so I don't need to beg any more, for I can cut wood now, and thus earn my living. May God bless her who has done this for me!"
The count was dissatisfied with himself. This woman understood everything better than he did. He felt that she was his rival, and from this feeling sprang the desire to compete with her.
An opportunity very soon offered. One day the count received from the reverend Herr Mercatoris a gracefully worded appeal for charity. The new owner of Fertoeszeg had interested herself in the fate of the destitute children whose fathers had gone to the war, and, in order to render their condition more comfortable, had undertaken to found a home for them. She had already given the necessary buildings, and had furnished them. She now applied to the sympathies of the well-to-do residents of the county for assistance to educate the children. In addition to food and shelter, they required teachers. Such sums as were necessary for this purpose must be raised by a general subscription from the charitably inclined.
The count promptly responded to this request. He sent the pastor fifty louis d'or. But in the letter which accompanied the gift he stipulated that the boy whose mother was in prison should not be removed from Frau Schmidt's care to the children's asylum.
It was quite in the order of things that the baroness should acknowledge the munificent gift by a letter of thanks.
This missive was beautifully written. The orthography was singularly faultless. The expressions were gracefully worded and artless; nothing of flattery or sentimentality—merely courteous gratefulness. The letter concluded thus:
"You will pardon me, I trust, if I add that the stipulation which you append to your generous gift surprises me; for it means either that you disapprove the principle of my undertaking, or you do not wish to transfer to another the burden you have taken upon yourself. If the latter be the reason, I am perfectly willing to agree to the stipulation; if it be the former, then I should like very much to hear your objection, in order that I may justify my action."
This was a challenge that could not be ignored. The count, of course, would have to convince his fair neighbor that he was in perfect sympathy with the principle of her philanthropic project, and he wrote accordingly; but he added that he disapproved the prison-like system of children's asylums, the convict-like regulations of such institutions. He thought the little ones would be better cared for, and much happier, were they placed in private homes, to grow up as useful men and women amid scenes and in the sphere of life to which they belonged.
The count's polemic reply was not without effect. The baroness, who had her own views on the matter, was quite as ready to take the field, with as many theoretic and empiric data and recognized authorities as had been her opponent. The count one day would despatch a letter to the manor, and Baroness Katharina would send her reply the next—each determined not to remain the other's debtor. The count's epistles were dictated to Marie; he added only the letter V to the signature.
This battle on paper was not without practical results. The baroness paid daily visits to her "Children's Home"; and on mild spring days the count very often saw her sitting on the open veranda, with her companion and one or two maid-servants, sewing at children's garments until late in the evening. The count, on his part, sent every day for his little protege, and spent several hours patiently teaching the lad, in order that he might compete favorably with the baroness's charges. The task was by no means an easy one, as the lad possessed a very dull brain. This was, it must be confessed, an excellent thing for the orphans. If the motherly care which the baroness lavished on her charges were to be given to all destitute orphans in children's asylums, then the "convict system" certainly was a perfect one; while, on the other hand, if a preceptor like Count Vavel took it upon himself to instruct a forsaken lad, then one might certainly expect a genius to evolve from the little dullard growing up in a peasant's cottage.
Ultimately, however, the victory fell to the lady. It happened as follows:
One day the count was again the recipient of a letter from his neighbor at the manor (they had not yet exchanged verbal communication).
The letter ran thus:
"HERR COUNT: I dare say you know that the father of your little protege is no other than the notorious robber, Satan Laczi, whom it is impossible to capture. The mother of the lad was arrested on suspicion. She lived in the village under her own honest family name—Satan Laczi being only a thief's appellation. As nothing could be proved against her, the woman has been set at liberty, and has returned to the village. Here she found every door closed against her—for who would care to shelter the wife of a robber? At last the poor woman came to me, and begged me to give her work. My servants are greatly excited because I have taken her into my employ; but I am convinced that the woman is innocent and honest. Were I to cast her adrift, she might become what she has been accused of being—the accomplice of thieves. I know she will conduct herself properly with me. I tell you all this because, if you approve what I have done, you will permit the lad you have taken under your protection to come to the manor, where he would be with his mother. If, however, you condemn my action, you will refuse to grant my request, and generously continue to care for the lad in your own way. The decision I leave to you."
Count Vavel was forced to capitulate. The baroness's action—taking into her household the woman who had been repulsed by all the world—was so praiseworthy, so sublime, that nothing could approach it. That same day he sent the lad with Frau Schmidt to the manor, and herewith the correspondence between himself and the baroness ceased. There was no further subject for argument.
And yet, Count Vavel could not help but think of this woman. Who was she?
He had sought to learn from his foreign correspondents something concerning the Baroness Katharina, but could gain no information save that which we have already heard from the county physician: disappointed love and shame at her rejection had driven the youthful baroness to this secluded neighborhood.
This reason, however, did not altogether satisfy Count Vavel. Women, especially young women, rarely quit the pleasures of the gay world because of one single disappointment.
And for Count Vavel mistrust was a duty; for the reader must, ere this, have suspected that the count and the mysterious man of the Rue Mouffetard were identical, and that Marie was none other than the child he had rescued from her enemies. Here in this land, where order prevailed, but where there were no police, he was guarding the treasure intrusted to his care, and he would continue to guard her until relieved of the duty.
But when would the relief come?
One year after another passed, and the hour he dreamed of seemed still further away. When he had accepted the responsible mission he had said to himself: "In a year we shall gain our object, and I shall be released."
But hope had deceived him; and as the years passed onward, he began to realize how vast, how enormous, was the task he had undertaken. It was within the possibilities that he, a young man in the flower of his youth, should be able to bury himself in an unknown corner of the world, to give up all his friends, to renounce everything that made life worth living, but that he should bury with himself in his silk-lined tomb a young girl to whom he had become everything, who yet might not even dream of becoming anything to him—that was beyond human might.
More and more he realized that his old friend's prophetic words were approaching fulfilment: "The child will grow to be a lovely woman. Already she is fond of you; she will love you then. Then what?"
"I shall look upon myself as the inhabitant of a different planet," he had replied; and he had kept his promise.
But the little maid had not promised anything; and if, perchance, she guessed the weighty secret of her destiny, whence could she have taken the strength of mind to battle against what threatened to drive even the strong man to madness?
Ludwig was thirty-one years old, the fourth year in this house of voluntary madmen. With extreme solicitude he saw the child grow to womanhood, blessed with all the magic charms of her sex. Gladly would he have kept her a child had it been in his power. He treated her as a child—gave her dolls and the toys of a child; but this could not go on forever. Deeply concerned, Ludwig observed that Marie's countenance became more and more melancholy, and that now it rarely expressed childlike naivete. A dreamy melancholy had settled upon it. And of what did she dream? Why was she so sad? Why did she start? Why did the blood rush to her cheeks when he came suddenly into her presence?
Count Vavel had made his fair neighbor at the manor the object of study. He had ample time for the task; he had nothing else to do. And, as he was debarred from making direct inquiries concerning her, or from hearing the current gossip of the neighborhood, he learned only that about her which his telescope revealed; and from this, with the aid of his imagination, he formed a conclusion—and an erroneous one, very probably.
His neighbor lived in strict seclusion, and was a man-hater. But, for all that, she was neither a nun nor an Amazon. She was a true woman, neither inconsolably melancholy nor wantonly merry. She proved herself an excellent housewife. She rose betimes mornings, sent her workmen about their various tasks, saw that everything was properly attended to. Very often she rode on horseback, or drove in a light wagon, to look about her estate. She had arranged an extensive dairy, and paid daily visits to her stables. She did not seem aware that an attentive observer constantly watched her with his telescope from the tower of the Nameless Castle. So, at least, it might be assumed; for the lady very often assisted in the labor of the garden, when, in transplanting tulip bulbs, she would so soil her pretty white hands to the wrists with black mold that it would be quite distressing to see them. Certainly this was sufficient proof that her labor was without design.
And, what was more to the purpose, she acted as if perfectly unaware of the fact that a lady lived in the Nameless Castle who possibly might be the wife of her tenant. Common courtesy and the conventional usages of society demanded that the lady who took up a residence anywhere should call on the ladies of the neighborhood—if only to leave a card with the servant at the door. The baroness had omitted this ceremony, which proved that she either did not know of Marie's hiding-place, or that she possessed enough delicacy of feeling to understand that it would be inconvenient to the one concerned were she to take any notice of the circumstance. Either reason was satisfactory to Count Vavel.
But a woman without curiosity!
Meanwhile the count had learned something about her which might be of some use to Marie.
He had received, during the winter, a letter from the young law student with whom he had become acquainted on the occasion of the vice-palatine's unpleasant visit to the castle. The young man wrote to say that he had passed his examination, and that when he should receive the necessary authority from the count he would be ready to proceed to the business they had talked about.
The count replied that a renewal of his lease was not necessary. The new owner of the castle having neglected to serve a notice to quit within the proper time, the old contracts were still valid. Therefore, it was only necessary to secure the naturalization documents, and to purchase a plot of ground on the shore of the lake. The young lawyer arranged these matters satisfactorily, and the count had nothing further to do than to appoint an absentium ablegatus to the Diet, and to take possession of his new purchase, which lay adjacent to the Nameless Castle.
The count at once had the plot of ground inclosed with a high fence of stout planks, engaged a gardener, and had it transformed into a beautiful flower-garden.
Then, when the first spring blossoms began to open, he said to Marie, one balmy, sunshiny afternoon: "Come, we will take a promenade."
He conducted the veiled maiden through the park, along the freshly graveled path to the inclosed plot of ground.
"Here is your garden," he said, opening the gate. "Now you, too, own a plot of ground."
Count Vavel had expected to see the little maid clap her hands with delight, and hasten to pluck the flowers for a nosegay.
Instead, however, she clung to his arm and sighed heavily.
"Why do you sigh, Marie? Are you not pleased with your garden?"
"Yes; I think it beautiful."
"Then why do you sigh?"
"Because I cannot thank you as I wish."
"But you have already thanked me."
"That was only with words. Tell me, can any one see us here?"
"No one; we are alone."
At these words the little maid tore the veil from her face, and for the first time in many years God's free sunlight illumined her lovely features. What those features expressed, what those eyes flashed through their tears, that was her gratitude.
When she had illumined the heart of her guardian with this expressive glance, she was about to draw the veil over her face again; but Ludwig laid a gently restraining hand on hers, and said: "Leave your face uncovered, Marie; no one can see it here; and every day for one hour you may walk thus here, without fear of being seen, for I shall send the gardener elsewhere during that time."
When they were leaving the garden, Marie plucked two forget-me-nots, and gave one of them to Ludwig. From that day she had one more pleasure: the garden, a free sight of the sky, the warmth of the sunlight—enjoyments hitherto denied her; but, all the same, the childlike cheerfulness faded more and more from her countenance.
Ludwig, who was distressed to see this continued melancholy in the child's face, searched among his pedagogic remedies for a cure for such moods. A sixteen-year-old girl might begin the study of history. At this age she would already become interested in descriptions of national customs, in archaeological study, in travels. He therefore collected for Marie's edification quite a library, and became a zealous expounder of the various works.
In a short time, however, he became aware that his pupil was not so studious as she had been formerly. She paid little heed to his learned discourses, and even neglected to learn her lessons. For this he was frequently obliged to reprove her. This was a sort of refrigerating process. For an instructor to scold a youthful pupil is the best proof that he is a being from a different planet!
One day the tutor was delineating with great eloquence to his scholar—who, he imagined, was listening with special interest—the glorious deeds of heroism performed by St. Louis, and was tracing on the map the heroic king's memorable crusade. The scholar, however, was writing something on a sheet of paper which lay on the table in front of her.
"What are you writing, Marie?"
The little maid handed him the sheet of paper. On it were the words:
"Dear Ludwig, love me."
Map and book dropped from the count's hands. The little maid's frank, sincere gaze met his own. She was not ashamed of what she had written, or that she had let him read it. She thought it quite in the order of things.
"And don't I love you?" exclaimed Ludwig, with sudden sharpness. "Don't I love you as the fakir loves his Brahma—as the Carthusian loves his Virgin Mary? Don't I love you quite as dearly?"
"Then don't love me—quite so dearly," responded Marie, rising and going to her own room, where she began to play with her cats. From that hour she would not learn anything more from Ludwig.
The young man, however, placed the slip of paper containing the words, "Dear Ludwig, love me," among his relics.
* * * * *
Since the new mistress's advent in the neighboring manor Count Vavel had spent more time than usual in his observatory. At first suspicion had been his motive. Now, however, there was a certain fascination in bringing near to him with his telescope the woman with whom he had exchanged only written communication. If he was so eager to behold her, why did he not go to the manor? Why did he look at her only through his telescope? She would certainly receive his visits; and what then?
This "what then?" was the fetter which bound him hand and foot, was the lock upon his lips. He must make no acquaintances. Results might follow; and what then?
The entombed man must not quit his grave. He might only seat himself at the window of his tomb, and thence look out on the beautiful, forbidden world.
What a stately appearance the lady makes as she strolls in her long white gown across the green sward over yonder! Her long golden hair falls in glittering masses from beneath her wide-rimmed straw hat. Now she stops; she seems to be looking for some one. Now her lips open; she is calling some one. Her form is quite near, but her voice stops over yonder, a thousand paces distant. The person she calls does not appear in the field of vision. Now she calls louder, and the listening ear hears the words, "Dear Ludwig!"
He starts. These words have not come from the phantom of the object-glass, but from a living being that stands by his side—Marie.
The count sprang to his feet, surprised and embarrassed, unable to say a word. Marie, however, did not wait for him to speak, but said with eager inquisitiveness:
"What are you looking at through that great pipe?"
Before Ludwig could turn the glass in another direction, the little maid had taken his seat, and was gazing, with a wilful smile on her lips, through the "great pipe."
The smile gradually faded from her lips as she viewed the world revealed by the telescope—the beautiful woman over yonder amid her flowers, her form encircled by the nimbus of rainbow hues.
When she withdrew her eye from the glass, her face betrayed the new emotion which had taken possession of her. The lengthened features, the half-opened lips, the contracted brows, the half-closed eyes, all these betrayed—Ludwig was perfectly familiar with the expression—jealousy.
Marie had discovered that there was an enchantingly beautiful woman upon whose phenomenal charms her Ludwig came up here to feast his eyes. The faithless one!
Ludwig was going to speak, but Marie laid her hand against his lips, and turned again to the telescope. The "green-eyed monster" wanted to see some more!
Suddenly her face brightened; a joyful smile wreathed her lips. She seized Ludwig's hand, and exclaimed, in a voice that sounded like a sigh of relief:
"What you told me was true, after all! You did not want to deceive me."
"What do you see?" asked Ludwig.
"I see the water-monster that frightened me. I believed that you invented a fable and had it printed in that book in order to deceive me. And now I see the creature over yonder with the beautiful lady. She called to him, and he came walking on his hands and feet. Now he is standing upright. How ridiculous the poor thing looks in his red clothes! He does n't want to keep on his hat, and persists in wanting to walk on all fours like a poodle. Dear heaven! what a kind lady she must be to have so much patience with him!"
Then she rose suddenly from the telescope, flung her arms around Ludwig's neck, and began to sob. Her warm tears moistened the young man's face; but they were not tears of grief.
Very soon she ceased sobbing, and smiled through her tears.
"I am so thankful I came up here! You will let me come again, won't you, Ludwig? I will come only when you ask me. And to-morrow we will resume our swimming excursions. You will come with me in the canoe, won't you?"
Ludwig assented, and the child skipped, humming cheerily, down the tower stairs; and the whole day long the old castle echoed with her merry singing.
And why should not Baroness Landsknechtsschild take observations with a telescope, as well as her neighbor at the Nameless Castle?
She could very easily do so unnoticed. From the outside of a house, when it is light, one cannot see what is going on in a dark room.
This question Count Vavel was given an opportunity to decide.
The astronomical calendar had announced a total eclipse of the moon on a certain night in July. The moon would enter the shadow at ten o'clock, and reach full obscuration toward midnight.
Ludwig had persuaded Marie to observe the phenomenon with him; and the young girl was astonished beyond measure when she beheld for the first time the full moon through the telescope.
Ludwig explained to her that the large, brilliant circles were extinct craters; the dark blotches, seas. At that time scientists still accepted the theory of oceans on the moon. What interested Marie most of all, however, was the question, "Were there people on the moon?" Ludwig promised to procure for her the fanciful descriptions of a supposed journey made to the moon by some naturalists in the preceding century. Innocent enough reading for a girl of sixteen!
"I wonder what the people are like who live on the moon?"
And Ludwig's mental reply was: "One of them stands here by your side!"
After a while Marie wearied of the heavenly phenomena, and when the hour came at which she usually went to bed she was overcome by sleep.
In vain Ludwig sought to keep her awake by telling her about the Imbrian Ocean, and relating the wonders of Mount Aristarchus. Marie could not keep from nodding, and several times she caught herself dreaming.
"I shall not wait to see the end of the eclipse," she said to Ludwig. "It is very pretty and interesting, but I am sleepy."
She was yet so much a child that she would not have given up her sweet slumbers for an eclipse of all the planets of the universe.
Ludwig accompanied her to the door of her apartments, bade her good night, and returned to the observatory.
Already the disk of the moon was half obscured. Ludwig removed the astronomical eye-piece from the telescope, and inserted the tellurian glass instead; then he turned the object-glass toward the neighboring manor instead of toward the moon. Now, if ever, was the time to find out if his fair neighbor possessed a telescope. If she had one, she would certainly be using it now.
It was sufficiently light to enable him to see quite distinctly the baroness sitting, with two other women, on the veranda. She was observing the eclipse, but with an opera-glass—a magnifier that certainly could not reveal very much.
Of this Count Ludwig might rest satisfied. And yet, in spite of the satisfaction this decision had given him, he continued to observe the disappearance of the moonlight from the veranda of the manor with far more attention than he bestowed upon the gradual darkening of the heavenly luminary itself. Then there happened to the baroness's companions what had happened to Marie: the women began to nod, whereupon the baroness sent them to bed. There remained now only the count and his fair neighbor to continue the astronomical observations. The lady looked at the moon; the count looked at the lady.
The baroness, as was evident, was thorough in whatever she undertook. She waited for the full obscuration—until the last vestige of moonlight had vanished, and only a strange-looking, dull, copper-hued ball hung in the sky.
The baroness now rose and went into the house. The astronomer on the castle tower observed that she neglected to close the veranda door.
It was now quite dark; the silence of midnight reigned over everything.
Count Vavel waited in his observatory until the moon emerged from shadow.
Instead of the moon, something quite different came within the field of vision.
From the shrubbery in the rear of the manor there emerged a man. He looked cautiously about him, then signaled backward with his hand, whereupon a second man, then a third and a fourth, appeared.
Dark as it was, the count could distinguish that the men wore masks, and carried hatchets in their hands. He could not see what sort of clothes they wore.
They were robbers.
One of the men swung himself over the iron trellis of the veranda; his companions waited below, in the shadow of the gate.
The count hastened from his observatory.
First he wakened Henry.
"Robbers have broken into the manor, Henry!"
"The rascals certainly chose a good time to do it; now that the moon is in shadow, no one will see them," sleepily returned Henry.
"I saw them, and I am going to scare them away."
"We can fire off our guns from here; that will scare them," suggested Henry.
"Are you out of your senses, Henry? We should frighten Marie; and were she to learn that there are robbers in the neighborhood, she would want to go away from here, and you know we are chained to this place."
"Yes; then I don't know what we can do. Shall I go down and rouse the village?"
"So that you may be called on to testify before a court, and be compelled to tell who you are, what you are, and how you came here?" impatiently interposed the count.
"That is true. Then I can't raise an alarm?"
"Certainly not. Do as I tell you. Stop here in the castle, take your station in front of Marie's door, and I will go over to the manor. Give me your walking-stick."
"What? You are going after the robbers with a walking-stick?"
"They are only petty thieves; they are not real robbers. Men of this sort will run when they hear a footstep. Besides, there are only four of them."
"Four against one who has nothing but a cudgel!"
"In which is concealed a sharp poniard—a very effective weapon at close quarters," supplemented the count. "But don't stop here talking, Henry. Fetch the stick, and my driving-coat, into the pocket of which put my bloodletting instruments. Some one might faint over yonder, and I should need them."
Henry brought the stick and coat. Only after he had gone some distance from the castle did Count Vavel notice that some heavy object kept thumping against his side. The faithful Henry had smuggled a double-barreled pistol into the pocket of his coat, in addition to the bloodletting instruments. The count did not take the road which ran around the cove to the manor, but hurried to the shore, where he sprang into his canoe, and with a few powerful strokes of the oars reached the opposite shore. A few steps took him to the manor. His heart beat rapidly. He had a certain dread of the coming meeting—not the meeting with the robbers, but with the baroness.
The gates of the manor were open, as was usual in Hungarian manors day and night. The count crossed the court, and as he turned the corner of the house there happened what he had predicted: the masked man who was on watch at the door gave a shrill whistle, then dashed into the shrubbery. Count Vavel did not give chase to the fleeing thief, but, swinging his cudgel around his head, ran through the open door into the hall. Here a lamp was burning. He hurried into the salon, and saw, as he entered, two more of the robbers jump from the window into the garden.
Count Ludwig hurried on toward the adjoining room, whence came the faint light of a lamp. The light came from another room still farther on. It was the sleeping-chamber of the lady of the house. There were no robbers here, but on the table lay jewelry and articles of silver which had been emptied from the cases lying about the floor. In an arm-chair which stood near the bed-alcove reclined a female form, the arms and hands firmly bound with cords to the chair.
What a beautiful creature! The clinging folds of her dressing-robe revealed the perfect proportions of her figure. Her hair fell like a golden cataract to the floor. Modest blushes and joy at her deliverance made the lovely face even more enchanting when the knightly deliverer entered the room—a hero who came with a cudgel to do battle against a band of robbers, and conquered!
"I am Count Vavel," he hastened to explain, cudgel in hand, that the lady might not think him another robber and fall into a faint.
"Pray release me," in a low tone begged the lady, her cheeks crimsoning with modest shame when he bent over her to untie the cords.
The task was quickly performed; the count took a knife from his pocket and cut the cords; then he turned to look for a bell.
"Please don't ring," hastily interposed the baroness. "Don't rouse my people from their slumbers. The robbers are gone, and have taken nothing. You came in good time to help me."
"Did the rascals ill-treat you, baroness?"
"They only tied me to this chair; but they threatened to kill me if I refused to give them money—they were not content to take only my jewelry. I was about to give them an order to the steward, who has charge of my money, when your arrival suddenly ended the agreement we had made."
"Agreement?" repeated the count. "A pretty business, truly!"
"Pray don't speak so loudly; I don't want any one to be alarmed—and please go into the next room, where you will find my maid, who is also bound."
Count Vavel went into the small chamber which communicated with that of the baroness, and saw lying on the bed a woman whose hands and feet were bound; a handkerchief had been thrust into her mouth. He quickly released her from the cords and handkerchief; but she did not stir: she had evidently lost consciousness.
By this time the baroness had followed with a lighted candle. She had flung a silken shawl about her shoulders, thrust her feet into Turkish slippers, and tucked her hair underneath a becoming lace cap.
"Is she dead?" she asked, lifting an anxious glance to Ludwig's face.
"No, she is not dead," replied the count, who was attentively scanning the unconscious woman's face.
"What is the matter with her?" pursued the baroness, with evident distress.
The count now recognized the woman's face. He had seen her with the lad who had been his protege, and who was now a member of the baroness's household. It was the wife of Satan Laczi.
"No, she is not dead," he repeated; "she has only fainted."
The baroness hastily fetched her smelling-salts, and held them to the unconscious woman's nostrils.
"Peasant women have strong constitutions," observed the count. "When such a one loses consciousness a perfume like that will not restore her; she needs to be bled."
"But good heavens! What are we to do? I can't think of sending for the doctor now! I don't want him to hear of what has happened here to-night."
"I understand bloodletting," observed Vavel.
"You, Herr Count?"
"Yes; I have studied medicine and surgery."
"But you have no lance."
"I brought my chirurgic instruments with me."
"Then you thought you might find here some one who had fainted?" exclaimed the baroness, wonderingly.
"Yes. I shall require the assistance of a maid to hold the woman's arm while I perform the operation."
"I don't want any of the servants wakened. Can't I—help you?" she suggested hesitatingly.
"Are not you afraid of the sight of blood, baroness?"
"Of course I am; but I will endure that rather than have one of my maids see you here at this hour."
"But this one will see me when she recovers consciousness."
"Oh, I can trust this one; she will be silent."
"Then let us make an attempt."
The result of the attempt was, the fainting maid was restored to consciousness by the skilfully applied lance, while the face of the assisting lady became deathly pale. Her eyes closed, her lips became blue. Fortunately, she had a more susceptible nature than her maid. A few drops of cold water sprinkled on her face, and the smelling-salts, quickly restored her to consciousness. During these few moments her head had rested on the young man's shoulder, her form had been supported on his arm.
"Don't trouble any further about me," she murmured, when she opened her eyes and saw herself in Vavel's arms; "but attend to that poor woman"; and she hastily rose from her recumbent position.
The woman was shivering with a chill—or was it the result of extreme terror? If the former, then a little medicine would soon help her; but if it was terror, there was no remedy for it.
To all questions she returned but the one answer: "Oh, my God! my God!"
The baroness and Count Vavel now returned to the outer room.
"I regret very much, baroness, that you have had an unpleasant experience like this—here in our peaceful neighborhood, where every one is so honest that you might leave your purse lying out in the court; no one would take it."
The baroness laughingly interrupted him:
"The robber adventure amused more than it frightened me. All my life I have wanted to see a real Hungarian robber, of whom the Viennese tell such wonderful tales. My wish has been gratified, and I have had a real adventure—the sort one reads in romances."
"Your romance might have had a sorrowful conclusion," responded Count Ludwig, seriously.
"Yes—if Heaven had not sent a brave deliverer to my rescue."
"You may well say Heaven sent him," smilingly returned the count; "for if there had not been an eclipse of the moon to-night, which I was observing through my telescope, and at the same time taking a look about the neighborhood, I should not have seen the masked men enter the manor."
"What!" in astonishment exclaimed the baroness; "you saw the men through a telescope? Truly, I shall have to be on my guard in future! But," she added more seriously, lifting from the table the count's walking-stick, toward which he had extended his hand, "before you go I want to beg a favor. Please do not mention the occurrence of this night to any one. I don't want the authorities to make any inquiries concerning the attempted robbery."
"That favor I grant most willingly," replied Count Vavel, who had not the least desire for a legal examination which would require him to tell who he was, what he was, whence he came, and what he was doing here.
"I can tell you why I don't want the affair known," continued the baroness. "The woman in yonder is the one of whom I wrote you some time ago—the wife of Ladislaus Satan, or, as he is called, Satan Laczi. Should it become known that a robbery was attempted here, the villagers will say at once, 'It was the wife of the robber Satan Laczi who helped the men to rob her mistress,' and the poor woman will be sent back to prison."
"And do you really believe her innocent?"
"I can assure you that she knew nothing about this matter. I shall not send her away, but, as a proof that I trust her entirely, shall let her sleep in the room next to mine, and let her carry all my keys!" To emphasize her declaration, she thumped the floor vigorously with Vavel's iron-ferruled stick.
Involuntarily the count extended his hand to her. She grasped it cordially, and, shaking it, added: "Don't speak of our meeting to-night to any one; I shall not mention it, I can promise you! And now, I will give you your stick; I am certain some one at home is anxious about you. God be with you!"
At home Count Vavel found Henry on guard at the door of Marie's room, his musket cocked, ready for action.
"Did anything happen here?" asked the count. "Did Marie waken?"
"No; but she called out several times in her sleep, and once I heard her say quite distinctly: 'Ludwig, take care; she will bite!"
* * * * *
Count Vavel could not deny that his fair neighbor had made a very favorable impression on him. In astronomy she had taken the place of the moon, in classic literature that of an ideal, and in metaphysics that of the absolutely good.
He had sufficient command of himself, however, to suppress the desire to see her again. From that day he did not again turn his telescope toward the neighboring manor. But to prevent his thoughts from straying there was beyond his power. These straying thoughts after a while began to betray themselves in his countenance and in his eyes; and there are persons who understand how to read faces and eyes.
"Are you troubled about anything, Ludwig?" one day inquired Marie, after they had been sitting in silence together for a long while.
Ludwig started guiltily.
"Ye-es; I have bad news from abroad."
Such a reply, however, cannot deceive those who understand the language of the face and eyes.
One afternoon Marie stole noiselessly up to the observatory, and surprised Ludwig at the telescope.
"Let me see, too, Ludwig. Are you looking at something pretty?"
"Very pretty," answered Ludwig, giving place to the young girl.
Marie looked through the glass, and saw a farm-yard overgrown with weeds. On an inverted tub near the door of the cottage sat a little old grandmother teaching her grandchildren how to knit a stocking.
"Then you were not looking at our lovely neighbor," said Marie. "Why don't you look at her?"
"Because it is not necessary for me to know what she is doing."
Marie turned the telescope toward the manor, and persisted until she had found what she was looking for.
"How sad she looks!" she said to Ludwig.
But he paid no attention to her words.
"Now it seems as though she were looking straight into my eyes; now she clasps her hands as if she were praying."
Ludwig said, with pedagogic calmness:
"If you continue to gaze with such intensity through the telescope your face will become distorted."
Marie laughed. "If I had a crooked mouth, and kept one eye shut, people would say, 'There goes that ugly little Marie!' Then I should not have to wear a veil any more."
She distorted her face as she had described, and turned it toward Ludwig, who said hastily: "Don't—don't do that, Marie."
"Is it not all the same to you whether I am ugly or pretty?" she retorted. Then, as if to soften the harshness of her words, she added: "Even if I were ugly, would you love me—as the fakir loves his Brahma?"
* * * * *
Ludwig continued his correspondence with the learned Herr Mercatoris. He always dictated his letters to Marie. No one in the neighborhood had yet seen his own writing. Therefore, it would have been impossible for him to ask the pastor anything relating to the baroness without Marie knowing it. In one of his letters, however, he inquired how the mother of the lad he had once had in his care was conducting herself at the manor, and was informed that the woman had disappeared—and without leaving any explanation for her conduct—a few days after the eclipse of the moon. The baroness had been greatly troubled by the woman's going, but would not consent to having a search made for her, as she had taken nothing from the manor.
This incident made Count Vavel believe that the woman had secretly joined the band of robbers, and that there would be another attempt made sometime to break into the manor.
From that time the count slept more frequently in his observatory than he did in his bedchamber, where an entire arsenal of muskets and other firearms were always kept in readiness.
One evening, when he approached the door of his room, he was surprised to see a light through the keyhole; some one was in the room.
He entered hastily. On the table was a lighted candle, and standing with his back toward the table was a strange man, clad in a costume unlike that worn by the dwellers in that neighborhood.
For an instant Count Vavel surveyed the stranger, who was standing between him and his weapons; then he demanded imperiously:
"Who are you? How came you here, and what do you want?"
"I am Satan Laczi," coolly replied the man.
On hearing the name, Count Vavel sprang suddenly toward the robber, and seized him by the arms. The fellow's arms were like the legs of a vulture—nothing but bone and sinew. Count Vavel was an athletic man, strong and powerful; but had the room been filled with men as strong and powerful as he, and had they every one hurled themselves upon Satan Laczi, he would have had no difficulty in defending himself. He had performed such a feat more than once. This evening, however, he made no move to defend himself, but looked calmly at his assailant, and said: "The Herr Count can see that I have no weapons; and yet, there are enough here, had I wanted to arm myself against an attack. I am not here for an evil purpose."
The count released his hold on the man's arms, and looked at him in surprise.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"First, because I want to tell the Herr Count that it was not I who attempted to rob the baroness, nor were those thieves comrades of mine. I know that the people around here say it was Satan Laczi; but it was n't, and I came to tell you so. I confess I have robbed churches; but the house which has given shelter and food to my poor little lad is more sacred to me than a church. The people insist that I was guilty of such baseness because I am Satan Laczi; but the Herr Count, who has doubtless read a description of my person, can say whether or no it was I he saw at the manor."
With these words he turned his face toward the light. It was a very repulsive countenance.
"Do you think there is another face that the description of mine would fit, Herr Count?" he asked, a certain melancholy softening the repulsiveness of his features. "But what is the use of such senseless chatter?" he added hastily. "I am not silly enough to come here seeking honor and respect—though it does vex me when people say that one man with a cudgel put to flight Satan Laczi and three of his comrades. I came here to-night because the Herr Count rescued my poor little lad from the morass, gave him shelter and food, and even condescended to teach him. For all this I owe you, Herr Count, and I am come to return favor for favor. You are thinking: 'How can this robber repay me what he owes?' I will tell you: by giving you a robber's information. I want to prove to the Herr Count that the robber—the true robber who understands his trade—can enter this securely barred castle whenever he is so minded. The locks on the doors, the bolts on the windows, are no hindrance to the man who understands his business, and the way I came in another can come as well. It is said that the Herr Count guards a great treasure here in this castle. I don't know, and I don't ask, what this treasure is. If I should find it, I would n't take it from the Herr Count, and if any one else took it I should try to get it back for him. But some one may steal in here, as I did, while the Herr Count is looking at the stars up in the tower, and carry off his carefully guarded treasure."
Count Vavel gave utterance to a groan of terror; his knees gave way beneath him; a chill shook his entire frame.
"Marie!" he gasped, forgetting himself.
Then, hastily snatching the candle from the table, he rushed frantically toward the young girl's sleeping-chamber, leaving Satan Laczi alone in his room.
Since he had ceased guarding Marie's door at night by sleeping on the lounge in her room, he had cautioned her to lock the door before retiring. Now he found the door open.
Breathless with fear, the count sprang toward the alcove and flung back the bed-curtains. The little maid was sleeping peacefully, her face resting against her arm. Her favorite cat was lying at her feet, and on the floor by the bedside lay the two pugs. But the door of the wall-cupboard in which was hidden the steel casket stood wide open, and on the casket was a singular toy—a miniature human figure turning a spinning-wheel.
For an instant Count Vavel's heart ceased beating. Here was sufficient proof that the maid, together with the steel casket, might have been carried away during his absence.
He took the curious image, which was molded of black bread, and returned to his room.
As he crossed the threshold, Satan Laczi pointed to the toy and said:
"I left it on the casket as a remembrance in exchange for the little stockings some one in this house knit for my little lad. We learn to make such things in prison, where time hangs heavily on one's hands."
"But how did you manage to open the door when it was locked and the key inside?" inquired the count.
Satan Laczi showed him the tools which he used to turn keys from the outside.
"Any burglar can open a door from the outside if the key is left in the lock, Herr Count. Only those doors can be securely locked which have no keyholes outside."
"I have no idea how that could be arranged," said Count Vavel.
"I am acquainted with a jack of all trades here in the neighborhood who could make such a door for you if I told him how to make it. He is a carpenter, locksmith, and clock-maker, all in one person."
The count shook his head wonderingly. The robber was to direct the locksmith how to fashion a lock that no one could open!
"Shall I send the man to the castle?" asked Satan Laczi.
"Yes; if the fellow is sensible, and does not chatter."
"But he is a fool that never knows when to stop talking. But he talks only on one subject, so you need not be afraid to employ him. He understands everything you tell him, will do just as you say, but will not talk about what he is doing for you. There is only one subject on which he will chatter, and that is, how Napoleon might be beaten. He is continually talking about stratagems, infernal machines, and how to win a battle. On this subject he is crazy. He will make doors for the Herr Count that can't be opened, and tell everybody else only how to make infernal machines, and how to build fortifications."
"Very good; then send him to me."
"But—I must say something else, Herr Count—no matter how secure your locks may be, that treasure is best guarded against robbers which is kept in the room you sleep in. A man of courage is worth a hundred locks. I am not talking without a purpose when I say the Herr Count must look after his treasure. I know more than I say, and Satan Laczi is not the greatest robber in the world. Be on your guard!"
"I thank you."
"Does the Herr Count still believe that it was I and my comrades who broke into the manor?"
"No; I am convinced that it was not you."
"Then my mission here is accomplished—"
"Not yet," interposed the count, stepping to a cupboard, and taking from it a straw-covered bottle and a goblet. "Here,"—filling the goblet and handing it to the robber,—"he who comes to my house as a guest must not quit it without a parting glass."
"A strange guest, indeed!" responded the robber, taking the proffered glass. "I came without knocking for admittance. But I performed a masterpiece to-day; the Herr Count will find it out soon enough! I do not drink to your welfare Herr Count, for my good wishes don't go for much in heaven!"
The count seated himself at the table, and said: "Don't go just yet, my friend; I want to give you a few words of advice. I believe you are a good man at heart. Quit your present mode of life, which will ultimately lead you—"
"Yes, I know—to the gallows and to hell," interposed the robber.
"Take up some trade," pursued the count. "I will gladly assist you to become an honest man. I will lend you the money necessary to begin work, and you can pay me when you have succeeded. Surely honest labor is the best."
"I thank you for the good advice, Herr Count, but it is too late. I know very well what would be best for me; but, as I said, it is too late now. There was a time when I would gladly have labored at my trade,—for I have one,—but no one would tolerate me because of my repulsive face. From my childhood I have been an object of ridicule and abuse. My father was well-born, but he died in a political prison, and I was left destitute with this hideous face. No one would employ me for anything but swine-herd; and even then luck was against me, for if anything went wrong with a litter of pigs, I was always blamed for the mishap, and sent about my business. Count Jharose gave me a job once; it was a ridiculous task, but I was glad to get any kind of honest work. I had to exercise the count's two tame bears—promenade with them through the village. The bears' fore paws were tied about their necks, so that they were obliged to walk on their hind feet, and I had to walk between them, my hands resting on a fore leg of each animal, as if I were escorting two young women. When we promenaded thus along the village street, the people would laugh and shout: 'There go Count Jharose's three tame bears.' At last I got out of the way of doing hard work, and got used to being ridiculed by all the world. But I had not yet learned to steal. The bears grew fat under my care. I was given every day two loaves of bread to feed to them. One day I saw, in a wretched hut at the end of the village, a poor woman and her daughter who were starving. From that day the bears began to grow thin; for I stole one of the loaves of bread and gave it to the poor women, who were glad enough to get it, I can tell you! But the steward found out my theft, and I was dismissed from the count's service. The poor women were turned out of their miserable hut. The mother froze to death,—for it was winter then,—and the daughter was left on my hands. We got a Franciscan monk, whom we met in the forest, to marry us—which was a bad move for the girl, for no one would employ her, because she was my wife. So the forest became our home, hollow trees our shelter; and what a friend an old tree can become! Well, to make a long story short, necessity very soon taught me how to take what belonged to others. I got used to the vagrant life. I could not sleep under a roof any more. I could n't live among men, and pull off my hat to my betters. When the little lad came into the world, I said to my wife: 'Do you quit the forest, and look for work in some village. Don't let the little one grow up to become a thief.' She did as I bade her; but the people who hired her always found out that she was the wife of Satan Laczi, and then they would not keep her, and she would have to come back to me in the forest. And that is where I shall end my days—in the forest. I am not good for anything any more; I could n't even plow a furrow any more. I shall end on the gallows—I feel it. I should have liked the life of a soldier, but they never would take me; they always said I would disgrace any regiment to which I might belong. Yes, I would rather have been a soldier than anything else; but what is not to be will not be! I shall keep to my forest. I am obliged to the Herr Count for his good wishes and this delicious brandy."
The robber placed the empty glass on the table, took up his hat, and walked with heavy steps toward the door. Here he halted to say:
"I must tell you that the touch-holes of all your firearms are filled with wax. Have them cleaned, or you will not be able to shoot with them."
The count rose, and hastened to convince himself that this statement was true. He found that his firearms had indeed been rendered useless; the robber had taken good care to protect himself from an attack. When Vavel looked around again, Satan Laczi had disappeared.
The afternoon of the following day, Henry entered the count's study to announce that a crazy person was below, who insisted on speaking to the lord of the castle. The stranger said he had invented a cannon that would at one shot destroy fifteen hundred men. He would take no denial, but insisted that Henry should tell the Herr Count that Master Matyas had arrived.
"Yes; I sent for him to come here," answered the count. "Show him up."
The appearance of the man whom Henry conducted to his master's presence was certainly original. He wore a costume unlike any prevailing fashion. His upper garment was so made that it might be worn either as a coat or a mantle; if sleeves were desired there were sleeves, and none if none were required. Even his shoes were inventions of his own, for no regular shoemaker could have fashioned them. He held between the fingers of his right hand a bit of lead-pencil, with which he would illustrate what he described on the palm of his left hand.
"You come in good time, Master Matyas," said the count.
"Yes—yes. If only I had been in good time at the battle of Marengo!" sighed the singular man.
"Too late now for regrets of that sort, Master Matyas," smilingly responded Count Vavel. "Facts cannot be changed! I have a task for you which I desire to have completed as quickly as possible. Come, and I will show you what I want you to do."
It was the hour Marie spent in her garden; consequently the count was at liberty to conduct the jack of all trades to the young girl's apartment, and explain what he wished to have done.
Master Matyas listened attentively to what the count said, and took the necessary measurements. When he had done so, he turned toward his patron, and said in a serious tone:
"Do you know why we lost the battle of Marengo? Because General Gvozdanovics, when Napoleon's cavalry made that famous assault, was not clever enough to order three men into every tree on that long avenue—two of the men to load the muskets, while the third kept up a continual fire. The French horsemen could not have ridden up the trees, and the entire troop of cavalry would have dropped under the continuous fire! The general certainly should have commanded: 'Half battalion—half left! Up the trees—forward!'"
"That is true, Master Matyas," assented Count Vavel; "but I should like to know if you fully understand what I want you to do, and if you can do it?"
Master Matyas's face brightened suddenly. "I 'll tell you what, Herr Count; if I succeed in doing what you want, I shall be able, if ever Napoleon makes another attack on us, to pen him up, with his entire army, so securely that he won't be able to stir!"
"I have no doubt of that!" again assented the count. "What I want, however, is a secure barrier that cannot be opened from the outside. Pray understand me. I want this barrier made in such a manner that the person within the barricade will have sufficient light and air, but be invisible to any one outside, and be perfectly secure from intruders. Could not you let me have a little drawing of what you propose to do?"
"Certainly"; and taking a small sketch-book from his pocket, Master Matyas proceeded to do as he was requested—first, however, explaining to the count a drawing of the cannon which would mow down at one shot fifteen hundred men. "You see," he explained, "here are two cannon welded together at the breech, with their muzzles ten degrees apart. But one touch-hole suffices for both. The balls are connected by a long chain, and when the cannon are fired off, the balls naturally fly in opposite directions and forward at the same time, and, stretching the chain, mow off the heads of every man jack with whom it comes in contact! Fire! Boom! Heads off!"
The count was perfectly satisfied with Master Matyas. He had found a man who fully understood his business, and who knew how to hold his tongue on all subjects but on that of his infernal machines, and of his stratagems to defeat Napoleon. For two weeks Master Matyas labored diligently at his task in the Nameless Castle, during which time Henry heard so much about warlike stratagems that his sides ached from the continued laughter. But when the villagers questioned Master Matyas about his work at the castle, they could learn nothing from him but schemes to capture the ever-victorious Corsican.
"Herr Count," one day observed Henry, toward the close of the second week, "if I hear much more of Master Matyas's wonderful battles, I shall become as crazy as he is!"
And the count replied:
"You are crazy already, my good Henry—and so am I!"
At last the task was completed. Count Vavel was satisfied with the work Master Matyas had performed, and it only remained for Marie to express herself satisfied with the arrangement which would barricade her every night as securely as were the treasures of the "green vault" in Dresden.
A few days afterward was Marie's sixteenth birthday. Count Vavel had come to her apartments, as usual, to congratulate her, and to hear what her birthday wish might be. But the young girl, whose sparkling eyes had become veiled with melancholy, whose red lips had already learned to express sadness, had no commands to give to-day.
After dinner the count, on some pretence, detained Marie in the library while Master Matyas completed his task in her room.
This masterpiece was a peculiar curtain composed of small squares of steel so joined together that light and air could easily penetrate the screen. It was fitted between the two marble columns which supported the arch of the bed-alcove. When the metal curtain was lowered, by means of a cord, two springs in the floor caught and held it so securely that it could not be lifted from the outside. To raise the screen the person in the alcove had only to touch a secret spring near the bed, when the screen would roll up of itself.
"And hast thou no wish this year, Marie?" asked the count, adopting, as usual on this anniversary, the familiar "thou."
"Yes, I have one, dear Ludwig," replied the young girl, but with no brightening of the melancholy features. "I have lost something, but thou canst not give it back to me."
"And what may this something be? What hast thou lost, Marie? Tell me."
"My former sweet, sound sleep! and thou canst not buy me another in Vienna or Paris. I used to sleep so soundly. I used to be so fond of my sweet slumber that I could hardly wait to say my prayers, and often I would be in dreamland long before I got to the 'Amen.' And if by any chance I awoke in the night and heard the clock strike, I would beg of it not to hurry along the hours so fast—I did not want morning to come so soon! But now that I have to sleep with locked doors, I lie awake often until midnight—terrified by I know not what. I dread to be so entirely alone when everything is so quiet; and when it is dark I feel as if some one were stealthily creeping about my room. When I hear a noise I wonder what it can be, and my heart beats so rapidly! Then I draw the covers over my head to shut out all sound, and if I fall asleep thus I have such disagreeable dreams that I am glad when I waken again."
Count Vavel gently took the young girl's hand in his.
"Suppose I could restore to thee thy former sweet slumber, Marie? Suppose I take up my old quarters on the lounge by the door?"
The young girl gazed into his eyes as if she would penetrate his very soul. Then she said sorrowfully: "No, dear Ludwig; that would not restore my slumber."
"Then suppose I have thought of something that will? Come with me, and see."
She laid her hand on his arm, and went with him to her room.
Ludwig conducted her into the alcove, and stepped outside.
"Draw the cord which hangs at the head of the bed," he said, smiling at her wondering face.
Marie did as he bade her, and the metal screen unrolled, and was caught in the springs in the floor.
"Oh, how wonderful!" she exclaimed in amazement. "I am a prisoner in my own alcove."
"Only so long as you care to remain in your prison," returned Count Vavel. "No one can lift the screen from this side; but if you will press your foot on the little brass button in the floor at the foot of the column to your left, you will be at liberty again."
The next instant Master Matyas's handiwork was rolled up to the ceiling.
Marie was filled with delight and astonishment.
"There is another work of art connected with this wonderful mechanism," said the count, after Marie had rolled and unrolled the screen several times. "The cord which releases the screen rings a bell in my room. When I hear the bell I shall know that you have retired; then I shall bring my books and papers into your room out yonder, and continue my work there. Only enough light will penetrate the screen to the alcove to prevent utter darkness. You will not need to be afraid hereafter, and perhaps the sweet, sound sleep will return to you."
Marie did not offer to kiss her guardian for this birthday gift. She merely held out both hands, and gave his a clasp that was so close and warm that it said more than words or kisses. She waited impatiently for evening to test the working of her wonderful screen. She did not amuse herself with her cards, as usual, but went to bed at ten o'clock. At the same moment that the screen unrolled and was caught by the springs in the floor, Count Ludwig's footsteps were heard in the corridor. In one hand he carried a two-branched candlestick, in the other his pistol-case and ink-horn. His pen was between his lips; his books and papers were held under his arm. He seated himself at a table, and resumed his studies.
Marie would have been untrue to her sex had she not watched him for several minutes through her metal screen—watched and admired the superb head, supported on one hand as he bent intently over his book, the broad brow, the classical nose, the chin and lips of an Achilles—all as motionless as if they had been molded in bronze. A true hero—a hero who battled with the most powerful demons of earth, the human passions, and conquered. From that day Marie found her old sweet sleep again.
The second day Marie's curiosity prompted her to signal to Ludwig half an hour earlier. He heard, and came as readily at half-past nine o'clock. And then the little maid (like all indulged children) abused her privileges: she signaled at nine o'clock, and at last at eight o'clock—retiring with the birds in order to test if Ludwig would obey the signal.
He always came promptly when the falling screen summoned him.
And then Marie said to herself:
"He loves me. He loves me very much—as the fakir loves his Brahma, as the Carthusian loves his sainted Virgin. That is how he loves me!"
So far as Marie's safety from robbers was concerned, Count Vavel might now rest content. Satan Laczi's advice had been obeyed to the letter. But how about Baroness Landsknechtsschild? Danger still threatened her.
Count Vavel was seriously concerned about his fair neighbor, and wondered how he might communicate his extraordinary discovery to her. What could he do to warn her of the danger which still threatened her? Should he call in person at the manor, and tell her of his interview with Satan Laczi?
A propitious chance came to Count Vavel's aid in his perplexity.
One afternoon the sound of a trumpet drew him to his window. On looking out, he beheld a division of cavalry riding along the highway toward the village. They were dragoons, as their glistening helmets indicated.
When the troop drew near to the village, the band struck up a lively mazurka, and to this spirited march the soldiers made their entry into Fertoeszeg. Ludwig could see through his telescope how the men were quartered in the houses in the village; and in the evening, after the retreat had been sounded, he also saw that the windows of the hitherto unused wing of the manor were brilliantly illuminated. Evidently the officers in command of the troop had taken up their quarters there, which was proper. The armed guard on duty at the manor gates verified this supposition.
Count Vavel might now feel perfectly sure that no robbers would attempt to break into the manor; they were too cunning to come prowling about a place where cavalry officers were quartered.
And with the arrival of the troop another danger had been averted. Now Baroness Katharina would not break into the Nameless Castle and despoil Count Vavel of something which Satan Laczi could not, with all his cunning, have restored to him—his heart!
Count Ludwig did not trouble himself further about the manor. He was convinced that enough gallant cavalrymen were over yonder to entertain the fair mistress, so that she would no longer wait for any more tiresome philosophizing from him.
Every evening he could hear the band playing on the veranda of the manor, and very often, too, the merry dance-music, which floated from the open windows until a late hour of the night. They were enjoying themselves over yonder, and they were right in so doing.
How did all this concern him?
In one respect, however, the soldiers taking up their quarters in Fertoeszeg concerned him: they exercised daily on the same road over which it was his custom to take his daily drive with Marie. In order to avoid meeting them, he was obliged to change the hour to noon, when the soldiers would be at dinner.
Several days after the arrival of the troop at Fertoeszeg, the officer in command paid a visit at the Nameless Castle—a courtesy required from one who was familiar with the usages of good society. At the door, however, he was told by the groom that Count Vavel was not at home. He left his card, which Henry at once delivered to his master, who was in his study.
The card bore the name:
"Vicomte Leon Barthelmy, K. K., Colonel of Cavalry."
Count Vavel tried to remember where he had heard the name before, but without success. He quieted his dread which this act of ceremony had aroused in him by the thought that it contained no further significance than the conventional courtesy which a stranger felt himself called upon to pay to a resident.
The call would, of course, have to be returned. From his observatory Count Vavel informed himself at what hour the colonel betook himself to the exercise-ground, and chose that time to make his visit. Naturally he found the colonel absent, and left a card for him. A few days afterward Colonel Barthelmy again alighted from his horse at the door of the Nameless Castle, and again met with a disappointment—the Herr Count was not at home to visitors; he was engaged, and had given orders not to be disturbed.
Again the troop's commander left his card, determining to remain indoors at the manor until the return visit had been paid, which would have to be done within twenty-four hours if no rudeness were intended.
He was not a little astonished to find, on returning to the manor, that Count Vavel had left a card for him with the porter. Such promptness perplexed the colonel. How had the count managed to reach the manor before he did? The porter informed him that the gentleman from the Nameless Castle had rowed across the cove, which was a much shorter way than by the carriage-road around the shore.
The colonel now determined to prove that he was an obstinate and persistent admirer of the occupant of the Nameless Castle. He paid a third visit at eight o'clock the next evening. This time Henry informed the visitor that the count had gone to bed.
"Is he ill?" inquired the colonel.
"No; this is his usual hour for retiring."
"But how can a man who is not ill go to bed at eight o'clock?"
And again he handed Henry a card.
This visit Count Vavel returned the next morning at three o'clock. At this hour, as may be supposed, every soul in the manor was still sound asleep. Only the guards on watch at the gate demanded: "Halt! Who comes there?"
On learning that the intruder was a "friend," they allowed him to waken the porter, who thrust his frowzy head from the half-open door to ask, in surprise, what was wanted.
"Is the Herr Colonel at home?" inquired Count Vavel.
"Yes, your lordship; but he is in bed."
"Is he ill?"
"No, your lordship; but he is in bed, of course, at this hour."
"Why, how can a man who is not ill stay in bed until three o'clock?"
The count turned over a corner of his card, and handed it to the porter.
This, at last, the colonel understood, and left no more cards at the Nameless Castle.
* * * * *
The officers quartered at the manor were agreeable companions. Vicomte Leon Barthelmy was a true courtier, a brave soldier, an entertaining comrade, and a generous master. Even his enemies would have admitted that his manners were irresistible in the salon, as well as on the battle-field. Every one knew that Colonel Barthelmy was a married man—that he had a wife with whom, however, he did not live, but from whom he had not been divorced.
Susceptible feminine hearts did not risk a flirtation with the fascinating soldier, being forewarned by the canonical laws of the church, which forbade more intimate relations. There was no need to fear for so prudent and discreet a woman as the Baroness Katharina Landsknechtsschild. Her principles were very sound, and firmly grounded. She permitted no familiarities beyond a certain limit, but made no coy pretence of avoiding innocent amusements. Her affable treatment of the officers was easily explained. She had not received the gentlemen residing in the neighborhood, because they would very soon have visited the manor with a special object—they would have come as suitors for her hand. She would have been compelled to reject such offers, and would have given rise to all sorts of gossip. Moreover, these country magnates were tiresome persons; for, when they were once gathered about a gaming-table, the four ladies in a pack of cards engrossed so much of their attention that they had no thought for any of the living women about them.
The sons of Mars, on the contrary, were devoted entirely to the service of the fair sex. Many of the officers' wives accompanied the regiment, and these helped to make up the quadrille, the mazurka, the redowa,—at that time the latest dance,—and every day saw a merry gathering of revelers.
One day there would be a series of entertaining games; another day there would be a play on a hastily improvised stage, in which the baroness herself would take a part, and win well-deserved applause by her graceful and artistic acting.
There were several skilled amateur jugglers among the merry company, who would give performances a la Bosko and Philadelphia; and others would delight the audience with the wonderful scenes of a magic lantern.
Once the baroness arranged a chase, and herself joined in the hunt after the pheasants and deer on her estate, proving herself a skilled Amazon in the saddle and in the management of her rifle. Then, the officers improvised a horse-race; and once they even got up a circus, in which all look part.
Count Vavel, in his tower, was an interested spectator of many of these amusements. There had been a time when he, too, had taken part in and enjoyed just such sports. He was a lover of the chase and of horse-racing. No one knew better than he the keen delights of a clean vault over ditches and hedges. If only he might join the merry company down yonder, he could show them some riding!
And as for hunting? He could spend whole days on the mountains, clambering after the fleet-footed chamois, following the larger game through morass and forest. He had grown up amid exhilarating sports such as these.
And the dance-music! How alluring were the strains! and how often through the day he found himself humming the melodies which had floated to him from the open windows of the manor! Once he, too, had taken pleasure in jesting with fair women until their white shoulders would shake with merry laughter. And all this he must look upon and hear at a distance, since he had made himself his own jailer!
* * * * *
During these weeks Marie was very restless. The sound of the trumpets startled her; the unusual noises terrified her. She whose nightly slumbers had been guarded from the barking of dogs and the crowing of fowls now was obliged to listen half the night to clarionet, horn, and piccolo, and to wonder what these people could be doing that they kept their music going until such late hours.
One circumstance, however, reconciled Marie to the excitement of these days: Ludwig spent more time with her; and though his face was as stern as ever, she could not detect in it the melancholy which cannot be concealed from the eyes of the woman who can look into the depths, of the soul.
At last, one day late in the autumn, Count Vavel received from his correspondent, Herr Mercatoris, the information that the dragoon regiment was going to change its quarters, and that the departure from Fertoeszeg would be celebrated by various amusements, among them a regatta with colored lanterns on the lake and magnificent fireworks on the shore.
"We shall manage somehow to live through it," was the count's mental comment on the news. He knew Marie's horror of fire—how she suffered with terror when she saw a conflagration, no matter how distant. She was even afraid of the rockets and paper dragons which were used at the celebration at the conclusion of the grape harvest every year. On the evening of the merrymaking Marie was afraid to go to bed. She begged Ludwig to close the blinds and to read to her in a loud voice, so that she might not see the light of the fireworks or hear the tumult on the lake shore. That which amused the revellers at the manor was a terror for this timid child.
And that they were amusing themselves over at the manor was beyond a doubt. The program for the evening's entertainment was a varied one. Colonel Barthelmy was in the gayest of humors. The surprise of the evening was to conclude the entertainment, and was called on the program "The Militiaman." Every one in the audience expected that Colonel Barthelmy, who had arranged this part of the entertainment, would produce something extremely amusing. The reality surpassed all expectations.
The figure conducted on to the stage by the colonel was no other than the little water-monster, Baroness Katharina's protege. He was clad in the uniform of a soldier, with a wooden sword and gun, a hat decorated with crane-feathers, a canteen at his side, and a knapsack on his back. An enormous false mustache extended from ear to ear, and a short-stemmed pipe was thrust between his lips.
"This, gentlemen and ladies, is a militiaman." The colonel was interrupted by a burst of merriment from his audience. Even the baroness laughed immoderately, but suppressed it hastily when she remembered the telescope on the tower of the Nameless Castle.
"Poor little fellow!" she murmured, with difficulty keeping her face straight.
"Attention!" called the colonel, snapping the whip he held in his hand. "What does the militiaman do when he is in a good humor?"
A bagpipe behind the curtain now began to play a familiar air, whereupon the little monster first touched his finger to his hat, then slapped his thighs with both hands, and lifted first one foot, then the other.
The baroness hid with her fan that side of her face which was toward the neighboring castle, and joined in the uproarious laughter.
"You see, gracious baroness," continued the colonel, "that I have accomplished what I determined I would do—made quite a man of the little fellow."
He snapped his whip again, and called sharply:
"Now let the militiaman show us what he does when he is in an ill humor."
The bagpipe struck up a different air. The dwarf muttered something unintelligible into his mustache, and grimaced hideously. Then he took from his tobacco-pouch flint, tinder, and steel, and struck fire in the proper manner; he thrust the burning tinder into his pipe, and pressed it down with his finger.
Tremendous applause rewarded this exhibition.
"Do you see, gracious baroness, what a complete man he is become? He can even strike fire and light a pipe!"
By this time the gnome began to understand that his antics amused the audience, and he, too, enjoyed them. For the first time an emotion was expressed on his stolid countenance; but it was not an agreeable transformation. The corners of his mouth widened until they reached his ears, which stood still farther out from his head; he closed one eye, and opened the other to its farthest extent; and pressing the stem of his pipe more firmly between his teeth, he blew the smoke and fire from the bowl like a miniature volcano. The thicker the smoke and sparks came from the pipe, the more furious became the strange creature's glee, while the entire company shouted and clasped their hands. Even the colonel himself was amazed at the performance of his dull pupil.
"Why have we not a Hogarth among us to perpetuate this caricature?" he exclaimed delightedly.
"Horrible! I cannot bear to look at him," said the baroness, holding her fan in front of her face. "Pray take him away, Herr Colonel—take him away."
"Presently. Ho, there, my little man! What does the militiaman do when he sees the enemy?"
The whip snapped, and the bagpipe set up a discordant shriek, upon which the actor sprang with one bound from the stage, and vanished behind the curtain, wooden sword and gun clattering after him, while the audience showered applause on the successful instructor.
"Herr Colonel," observed the baroness, when quiet had been restored, "I am very much afraid that your instructions will cause me some trouble in the future."
"Why, how so?" in surprise questioned the colonel.
"You have taught a wild creature to kindle a fire, and thus aroused in him a dangerous passion. His desire to amuse himself with the dangerous element will develop into a mania, and he will end by setting fire to houses and other buildings."
"I will tell you what to do, baroness. In order that the little monster may not play his tricks about here, give him to me; I will take him with me."
"No; I had rather keep him here. I shall take good care, however, that he does not get hold of tinder and flint, and have him constantly watched. You have quite ruined my system of education. I taught him to kneel and fold his hands to the music of the organ; you taught him to dance and grimace to the drone of the bagpipe. You have even accustomed him to drink wine, which is unchristian."
The company laughed at this harmless anger.
Then came the fireworks.
When the Roman candles and the fire-wheels illumined the darkness, it became impossible to control the little monster. He rushed into the thickest of the rain of fire, and tried to catch the red and blue stars in his hands. The sparks burned holes in his clothes, and he would not have escaped a severe burning himself had not some one thrown a pail of water over him. It was impossible to restrain him. He struck out with hands and feet, and bit at any one who attempted to prevent him from running into the fire. Suddenly a rocket shot in an oblique direction, and dropped into the lake. When the human beast saw this he uttered a yell, and dashed into the water. He thought that the beautiful fire belonged to him because it had fallen into his lake, and he went to hunt for it. He did not return. The baroness had search made for him; but he knew so well how to escape his pursuers that he was not seen again at the manor.
The next morning, while yet the stars were glittering in the sky, the trumpets sounded the departure of the regiment.
The sounds were familiar to Count Vavel. Even yet, when the blare of trumpets roused him from sleep, he felt as if he must hasten to the stable, saddle his horse, and buckle on his sword. But those days were past. His trusty war-horse had become used to the carriage-pole, and the keen Toledo blades were drawn from their scabbards only when they were to be oiled to prevent the rust from corroding them.
The departure of the troops removed one care from Count Ludwig's mind: the noise and turmoil would cease, and peace would again return to the silent neighborhood.
One morning when Frau Schmidt brought her basket, as usual, to the castle, there was a letter in it for the count. He recognized the hand at once; it was from his fair neighbor at the manor.
"HERR COUNT: As I have something of the utmost importance to communicate to you, I beg that you will receive a call from me this morning before you take your usual drive. Answer when it will be convenient for you to see me."
What did it mean? Something of the utmost importance? Why could she not have asked him to come to the manor? The count was puzzled. And how was he to answer this most singular request? He could not write it himself; was it not said that he was unable to hold a pen? He could not dictate the letter to Marie appointing a meeting with the baroness. Henry was a very shrewd fellow, but he had never learned to write.
At last Count Vavel bethought him of an expedient. He marked on the back of his card the Roman numerals XI, and trusted that the baroness would understand that she was expected at eleven o'clock. When the appointed hour drew near, curiosity began to torture the count. He could not wait indoors, but hurried into the park, where he paced restlessly to and fro amid the fallen leaves.
He listened anxiously to every sound, and consulted his watch every few minutes. At last the gate bell rang. He hastened to admit the visitor, and found that the baroness had understood his reply. He recognized her figure, for the face was closely veiled. She wore a pale-blue silk gown with wide sleeves—Marie's favorite costume.
"It is I, Herr Count," she said in a low tone, looking anxiously about her.
"How did you come? I did not hear the carriage," said Count Vavel.
"I rowed across the cove—alone, because no one must know that I came. Can any one see us here?"
"We need not go into the house," she continued; "I can tell you here why I came."
Ludwig was more and more perplexed. He had believed the baroness wished to enter the Nameless Castle out of curiosity.
"My visit," pursued the lady, "has as little conventionality about it as had yours. The magnitude of the danger which prompted yours must also excuse mine; I am come to repay the debt I owe you."
"Danger?" repeated the count.
"Yes; danger threatens you—and some one else! Let us come farther into the park, that no one may by a possible chance overhear me."
When they had reached a sheltered spot the lady again spoke:
"Do you know anything about Colonel Barthelmy?"
"I received the cards he left here when he called," indifferently replied Count Vavel.
"You certainly have heard more about him," returned the baroness, a trifle impatiently. "His domestic troubles were in all the newspapers—it was a cause celebre. He was a major in the French army, under the Directory, but entered our service when the Empire was established. The domestic troubles I referred to occurred while he was still in France. His young and beautiful wife ran away with another man—a man who is unknown to Barthelmy, who is pursuing the fugitives over the whole world—"