"Well, this was the one drop wanting!" said Judith, and shouldering her jug she went off, snorting with anger, in such a rage that Blasi stood looking after her in stupid amazement, and muttered,
"I wonder if she wants to get him, too!"
Judith walked along, talking aloud to herself,
"Yes, she is! she is! she is capable of anything when she is angry!"
Now Judith had looked upon her neighbor's boy from his childhood up, as if he belonged to her. He was her prime, favorite and she meant to do well by him. She liked Veronica because she was such a steady girl at her needle, and because she would have nothing to say to any one but Dietrich. This very reserve however, was rather distasteful to Judith as regarded herself, but she liked it towards others. She had planned it all out that Dietrich should marry Veronica soon after the confirmation, that they should set up a pretty little establishment, and be her beloved neighbors. She meant to be their intimate friend and helper, to go freely in and out of their house, and to stand god-mother now and then. She would leave her property to the little ones. Now all this fine air-castle was overthrown and all her plans spoiled. Judith bounced violently into the kitchen and set her jug down with such a bang that the water spurted up into the air.
"And no one can get a word out of her, either; it is exactly as if all the oil had been burned out." This last remark referred to Gertrude, who had greatly altered during the last few months. She had no longer the cheerful expression that she had always been noted for. She had grown very quiet and silent. She even avoided her old and well-tried friend Judith, and if the latter showed a disposition to talk about her household matters or her children's future, Gertrude would give her to understand that she had no time to stop to talk.
Gertrude knew where Dietrich spent his evenings. She had expostulated with him about it more than once. He had answered that he must keep on there for awhile, till a certain undertaking which he had started with Jost was fairly under way. He assured her that this affair was certain to turn out all right, and that she herself would be surprised and satisfied at the result. He knew from some one who understood it, that it could not fail. He had to draw large sums several times for himself and also for Jost, but he was sanguine that in a short time it would all be paid back, with interest. Gertrude did not pretend to understand the business, but she saw that Dietrich believed it to be safe and profitable, and she knew that her son would not deceive her. Still she was haunted daily by a growing uneasiness, which was not diminished when she perceived that Veronica was gradually drawing away from her.
This state of things had all come about since that morning when the girl's beseeching words had fallen unheeded on the mother's ears; or at least Veronica believed them to have been unheeded, since they had worked no change in Dietrich's behavior.
Why it was that every day as evening came on, she felt so miserably anxious, Gertrude herself could scarcely understand. Poor Gertrude!
One night after she had gone to her room she heard her son leave the house with hasty steps. It had become a regular thing now. She had often said to herself, "Ah! how much longer will this go on?" but she tried hard to believe that it would soon come to an end, and her son would resume his former orderly and happy mode of life. But this evening she was so anxious that she could not stay in her bedroom. She went down into the garden.
The moon peeped out from between the flying clouds, and shone peacefully down upon the trees and the neat flower-beds. Gertrude seated herself upon a small bench under the apple tree, and gazed about the garden, all illuminated by the moonbeams. She had planted it all and cared for it with her own hands. She had done this as she did everything, carefully and with great painstaking, and it was all for her son's sake. His should be the pleasure and the profit of all. Why could he not be happy in it now? Why was she so worried about him? Dietrich was walking in steep and dangerous paths; that she was sure of, but he knew the straight road and would not his steps turn back to it again? Her thoughts went back to the days when her little Dieterli loved good and orderly conduct; it could not be that he had lost his love for it, that he did not still feel that in the right conduct of life lies inward and outward blessing. She recalled the evening of the day when her husband was borne from the house to his burial. She had taken the children by the hand and, stupefied with pain, was about to put them to bed, but Dieterli objected, saying,
"No, mother, no; it is not good to go to bed before you say your prayers."
Did her boy ever pray now? "Oh, Dieterli, my son, you are wandering away, but you know the way home," she said to herself, and she folded her hands in prayer, for her habit was to lay all her troubles before God, her Supporter and Comforter.
At this moment, she heard through the stillness loud shouts and cries, first at a distance, then nearer and nearer, until they grew into a wild tumult. Then many of the voices seemed to scatter in different directions while some sounded as if approaching the garden. A vague fear seized Gertrude. Three fellows shouting and calling, passed on the other side of the hedge; she recognized one of the voices.
"Jost," she cried feebly, "Jost, what is it? where is Dietrich?"
There was no answer; Jost did not or would not, hear. He ran faster than before, and the second fellow ran too. The last one paused a little; it was Blasi. He said hastily:
"He isn't coming yet awhile. You can go to bed;" and was making off.
"Oh do tell me what has happened," said Gertrude, white with terror. "Don't leave me so, but tell me, Blasi, why Dietrich hasn't come home with the rest of you?"
Blasi had too much respect for Dietrich's mother to run away from her when she put a direct question to him, although he would fain have escaped. He came close to the hedge, and replied,
"There has been a row at the Rehbock. Two men were killed. Some one stole the cattle dealer's money bag—"
"Is Dietrich killed? Speak out!" broke in Gertrude, trembling.
"No; he struck about him bravely, till one of the fellows got enough of it, and lay dead on the ground; and then he made off."
With this Blasi ran on.
Gertrude mounted wearily to her room as if her last day was come. She sat down upon her bed, and when the morning light filled the room, still she sat there listening in trembling anxiety, as she had listened through all the long night; in vain. Dietrich had not come home in the night; he did not come in the morning.
EACH ONE ACCORDING TO HIS KIND.
In all Tannenegg and Fohrensee, nothing was talked of but the affair of the night before. Never was such excitement known. In every house, at every corner, in all the roads, groups of people stood talking it over; each telling what he knew.
Everyone asked questions, and no one listened to the answers. Such a fight at the Rehbock! It began over the card-table. The cattle-dealer from Fohrensee was on his way home with his bag full of money, when he stopped in at the Rehbock, and joined the game. When the dispute broke out, his big fists took their share in the fray. Not until two of the party lay for dead on the ground, did the brawling cease and the combatants begin to cool. Then the cattle-dealer discovered that his bag full of gold was gone, and raised a fearful alarm.
Then the red-haired man from Fohrensee shouted into the midst of the excited crowd,
"Don't let any one get away. Run after them! That's the only way to find out the thief!"
This man had not taken part in the fight, but had mixed with the crowd, trying to pacify them, and to restore quiet.
His advice was useless. A good many had already gone. First of all, Dietrich had disappeared; then several fellows ran after him, and then all the rest went together.
On the way home, Jost had told his companions that Dietrich had made off with himself, and that he, Jost, had told him when he saw him going that there was doubtless good reason for his wishing to be out of the way. But in truth Jost had not said any such thing to Dietrich!
One of the men had run at once for the doctor, and the doctor had come in the night to the Rehbock, and had found that the two men were not dead after all. So he had given orders that they should be let alone till they had slept off the effect of their carouse.
In the morning, all those who had been at the Rehbock the night before, were called together; and every one denied stoutly having any knowledge of the cattle-dealer's money, and all were ready to be searched in proof of their innocence. Dietrich alone was not there; he had vanished, no one knew whither. Some one whispered, and then it was softly repeated, then louder and louder, that Dietrich would not have taken himself off if he had had a clear conscience; and although nobody seriously believed Dietrich capable of a disgraceful act, yet after awhile it seemed to grow more likely, especially when it became known that he had lost a great deal of money in betting and gambling, and was unable to pay back what he had lost. And many shook their heads and said, "How easy it is for a man to be drawn into evil ways if he once begins to go down hill!"
Where Dietrich had gone, was now the important question. No trace of him had been discovered from the moment of his disappearance. The cattle-dealer left no stone unturned to find him, but he could get no clue to his whereabouts. He had entered complaints against Dietrich, and hoped that the hands of the law would succeed in getting track of him. But it was all in vain. Gradually, no one knew how, a report got about that Dietrich had fled to Australia, and would never come back. Little by little every one came to believe it.
Except one. One single person in all Tannenegg was bold enough to swim against this stream of suspicion. This was Judith. Not timidly and in secret, but aloud, at all times and in all places, she declared decidedly,
"There's not one word of truth in what you all say. It's a lie from beginning to end. Dietrich has no more stolen than I have, and I needn't say more than that. I'll ferret this thing out, till I find the true culprit, or my name's not Judith."
The first thing to do was to get a clear account of the whole affair; for although she had already heard it told a dozen times, it had always been among other people, who were continually interrupting and asking questions, and were too anxious to hear the end, to wait for the full account of the beginning. So she decided to apply to Blasi, who, as he had been on the spot, must know all about it. But she had to hunt him up; for since that unlucky evening he had kept himself out of sight. She placed her bucket under the spout at the well, and then took a turn about the kitchen garden behind the sexton's cottage. Blasi stood in the back doorway, just as he was in the habit of standing in the front doorway, only instead of holding his face up as if to catch any agreeable odors that might be floating about, he stood to-day with drooping head, gazing sadly at the uncared-for garden.
"What's amiss, Blasi?" asked Judith, sharply, coming upon him before he was aware of her approach.
"Nothing; if you know of anything we will share it," said Blasi sullenly.
"Well, perhaps I know something that it would not be a bad thing for you to share with me. Perhaps it's worth while for some one who has learned it by the sweat of her brow, to tell you that vegetables can be made to grow in a garden, instead of nettles, which you seem to cultivate."
"I don't care what grows anywhere; one thing is as good as another to me, now that Dietrich has gone. There's nothing to do in the evening now. I've half a mind to go after him."
"Go where? do you know where he is?"
"I don't, myself, but Jost does, and I know that Jost is expecting to hear from him. Though he does call me stupid, I have my eye on him," said Blasi, with angry emphasis. "And I know it was Jost who advised Dietrich to run away and hide, though he didn't mean to let me know. Oh, I'm no fool!"
Judith nodded assentingly, as if Blasi's information confirmed her own suspicions.
"Here, Blasi, here's a little something for you. Now I want you to tell me exactly how this thing happened, from the very beginning; and don't leave out a single thing. I want to hear the whole story, connectedly."
"You may be sure I will," said Blasi, weighing the silver piece which Judith had given him affectionately in his hand. "You see they were all together in the little back room at first; the red-haired man and Jost and Dietrich, and when I went in I noticed at once that something had happened that our two didn't like; for Dietrich sat with his elbows on the table and his head in his hands, and Jost was swearing roundly. Presently Jost said, 'We will double our bets, Dietrich, and perhaps the luck will turn.' Dietrich, only groaned. Then the red-haired fellow said, 'Come, let's go down and play cards with the cattle-dealer, and take a glass of something that will raise your spirits.'"
"Dietrich never used to gamble; nor to drink when he was not thirsty;" cried Judith angrily.
"Pooh! When every one is playing cards, a fellow can't hold off and say he won't join, and as for the drink, Dietrich has washed down a good deal of vexation with it lately, and he took it powerfully too, I can tell you. Well, the play began, and it went on fast. I noticed that the red man looked mightily pleased, and urged them all on, and the louder the cattle-dealer scolded, the more the red man filled up his glass. When the quarrel came to blows, I heard the red-head call out to the cattle-dealer, 'Come over here, you'll soon silence them,' So he kept exciting him, and he struck out well with his great fists. The red-head mixed in the crowd, and stuck close to the cattle-dealer, but he never struck a blow himself; of course not, such a gentleman as he is! I did not see Dietrich knock the Fohrensee fellow down, but just when the storm was most furious, I saw Dietrich run out, and Jost after him, and I thought I saw Jost give Dietrich something. I ran out after them, and I heard Jost advising Dietrich to make off as fast as he could, and send him word where he hid himself. When I came up to them, Jost pushed me back; I couldn't get a word with Dietrich, who ran right off, and Jost pulled me into the house. There the noise was increasing every minute, for the cattle-dealer had discovered that his money-bag was gone, and red-head screamed out like a mad-man, that nobody must get away, and everybody must be searched. When they found that Dietrich had gone, the cattle-man started off after him, and some others too, and then they all broke up. Now you know all that I know. Nothing else happened; except that I went for the doctor, who said the two men were not dead. When Jost tells Dietrich that, why, there's nothing to prevent his coming back. That is, unless there's something else."
"What do you mean by 'something else'?" said Judith sharply. "But there—you're all alike. One repeats what another has said, till you all get to saying the same thing and then of course you believe it. A nice set of friends you are—the whole of you. I mean to stir up the ground under you all until I find out where the truth is. Then you can begin to stare with the others, you blind mole!" and Judith suddenly walked off as if the earth were burning beneath her angry feet.
Blasi understood neither her words nor her anger. He looked after her, shook his head rather sadly, and said to himself,
"Women folk are a very foolish folk."
Home sped the "foolish" Judith; put on her Sunday garments and started on her journey. If ever she had a project in her head, she did not wait till to-morrow to put it into execution. And to-day she was bent on giving the cattle dealer a piece of her mind. She paused a moment when she came to Gertrude's house, then went on her way, saying half aloud,
"No, I'll say nothing to her, since she says nothing to me. If 'mum's' the word I can use it as well as she."
Judith was pained that Gertrude had not from the beginning talked with her of her troubles, for Judith was one who liked to give and receive sympathy. Veronica too was much too reticent to please her kind-hearted neighbor who could never get a word with her about what was going on. Veronica and Gertrude were both very silent by nature, about anything that touched them deeply, especially in sorrow. On the first day after the terrible blow that had befallen them, they talked it all over, and wept together, to ease their hearts of the first misery. Then Gertrude said,
"Dietrich has sinned and he must make atonement, but he has not stolen; I am sure that my son is not a thief." And Veronica had responded promptly,
"If every one in the whole world said that he had stolen that money, I should not listen; for I know he is no thief."
As soon as it became known that Dietrich was gone, letters and bills came pouring in upon the poor widow. Her son had borrowed large sums of money and had lost even more at play. She soon found that not only all her husband's savings, but also the house and the business were deeply encumbered. She talked things over with the workman who had been so many years in her employ and asked if he would help her carry on the business as he had done after her husband's death while Dietrich was still a child. The man was very angry with Dietrich for having thrown away the result of all those years of labor, and at first refused to have anything more to do with the business. He yielded at last, however, to Gertrude's urgent request, and consented to remain with her at least till the future prospects of the business could be decided upon; and Gertrude agreed that if it should prosper she would hand it over to him, in case Dietrich should not return within a certain time.
And so the mother set herself again to her task. She worked early and late; she seemed to have gained new strength and courage instead of being crushed down by this new burden.
It was curious to see how differently the two women nearest to Dietrich were affected by this trouble. Gertrude's countenance gradually resumed its customary look of cheerfulness and peace, while on Veronica's handsome features rested a heavy scowl which now seldom left her clouded brow. Yet she was almost an object of envy to all the young girls of the neighborhood, and no wonder; for she was an attractive sight to all eyes, with her neat, well-fitting clothes, that always looked new and fresh, and her air of strength and activity. Not a few of the strangers who came to Fohrensee, made inquiries about her, wondering where she could have come from; for they noticed the marked difference between her and the other women of the place. The work which passed through her hands, even if it were most elaborately embroidered, was never crumpled nor soiled, but looked as fresh as if it had not been handled at all. She could obtain any price she chose to set upon her work, and everything she did found ready sale. Moreover, she had been appointed to the place of which Sabina had spoken to her. She was at the head of the great Industrial School for women, where she received so handsome a salary, that she was in a fair way to the accumulation of a nice little fortune. It was common to hear it said of her, "She is really a lady! she can have whatever she pleases," and it was often added, "If I were in her shoes, I wouldn't go about with a face like a thirty days' storm, as she does, when she can be a gentleman's wife whenever she chooses!" It had been proposed that Veronica should go to live in the school-buildings at Fohrensee. But she did not accept the offer; she could not leave her mother alone in this time of trouble. Every evening after her work she returned to Gertrude's cottage.
During the long summer days it was easy for Veronica to get home before the twilight was over. But when the days grew shorter, dusk came on even before she could reach the wood. One bright Saturday afternoon, late in August, Veronica had delayed longer than usual in the work-room, to clear all away and leave things in perfect order for Sunday.
She hurried up the hill road, not so much from fear of going through the wood alone, as from desire to spare Gertrude the anxiety of watching for her. Just before she reached the wood, she met Jost coming towards her. He held out his hand with a friendly smile, saying,
"I came to meet you; I thought it would be getting too dark for you to go alone through the forest; I can't let you go unprotected."
"You may spare yourself the pains," said Veronica shortly and crossed over to the other side of the road. Jost crossed too.
"Veronica," he began after a little while, "it is not nice of you to treat me as you have done since Dietrich went off. I know as well as you do, that he did wrong in running away from you without letting you know where he went to; but he may write yet, and meantime—"
"Don't say another word," interrupted Veronica; so decidedly that Jost was silent for awhile. She crossed the road again, and presently Jost did the same, and as he came up to her, he began again in a soft insinuating tone,
"Don't you see Veronica, that it isn't my fault that things have taken this turn? I often thought of you when Dietrich was risking so much money, and I used to say to him "think of her," for I knew how you would feel about it."
"Oh, you Judas!" cried Veronica, swelling with rage, and she sprang forward and ran on with all her might. Jost followed close at her heels. When she had passed through the wood, and had come out on the Tannenegg side, he said, in a flattering voice,
"Veronica, do you see how precious you are to me? I will protect you and take care of you even if you do not speak one kind word to me. I shall come to meet you every day, for I will not allow you to go through the wood alone. You may meet all sorts of people there and may sometimes be glad of my company. Bye-and-bye you will be convinced how much I care for you."
Veronica was now near the house. She hurried on and without once looking back, she sprang through the door and shut it fast behind her.
"You shall be tame enough before I have done with you," muttered Jost, and he bit his lips until the blood came.
Veronica stood still on the other side of the door until she heard his retreating footsteps; then she opened it and went out again. She went over to the sexton's house. Blasi stood in the doorway, in a despondent attitude, with his hands in his pockets. He was brooding over the melancholy reflection that he had paid away the last penny of the coin that Judith had given him, for last evening's glass at the Rehbock, and that he had no credit. He saw no glimmer of hope in the prospect before him, and looked disconsolately at the ground. Suddenly Veronica stood before him. He stared at her with surprise.
"Blasi, will you do me a favor?" she asked in a friendly tone, "I will return it sometime when you need help."
Here was an unexpected chance. He opened his eyes yet wider with delight.
"Tell me what it is, Veronica," he said; "I will go through fire and water for you."
"It is only to go through the wood for me, to-morrow evening, and every evening till the days grow longer again. Will you? You can have your evening glass afterwards at my expense."
Blasi stood speechless; staring at Veronica, who waited for his answer.
"Why; do you want two of us?" he said presently, "I don't see why. Jost is going too, for you told him to go and meet you every evening."
Veronica's dark eyes flashed forth a fire that dazzled poor Blasi.
"So! I told him to go, did I? Who told you such a thing as that?"
"Jost said so himself at the Rehbock last evening, before a room full of people; and some of them said that you were going to prove that you could get along very well without the fellow that ran away."
Veronica flushed burning red.
"Tell Jost," she said, scornfully, "that if he is clever in nothing else he is a master liar. I would tell him myself, but I will never speak to him again. Will you come for me tomorrow or not, Blasi?" she had turned to leave him.
"Why of course, if that's the way it is about Jost, I'll come. You may count on me," he replied gleefully. She held out her hand to him, and was gone.
The next evening, as Blasi was walking at his ease, towards the wood, he met Jost hurrying along from another direction.
"Where may you be going?" asked Jost peremptorily.
"I am going to meet Veronica; she engaged me to," answered Blasi, not at all unwilling to make known his errand.
"Well, you are a dunderhead to take a joke like that for sober earnest," said Jost, bursting into a loud laugh. "Hadn't you sense enough to see that she was making a fool of you? We had a good laugh together about it last night, she and I, and she said she had a mind to make you go all winter long to Fohrensee, to fetch her; and that you would never find out that she was making sport of you. She seems to have made a good beginning."
Jost laughed again immoderately, and Blasi began to waver.
"If I only knew which of you was telling a lie;" he said, and stood still to think it over. Suddenly he started forward on the full run, for it occured to him that he could decide by Veronica's air when he met her, whether she had cheated him or not. Jost saw that Blasi was determined not to give up his enterprise so he turned about, and disappeared among the bushes; for he had no desire to have Blasi see how Veronica treated him.
When Blasi met Veronica, her face had so pleasant and bright a look, that the lad was struck with her beauty. It was not the look of one who was making a fool of him. Veronica was sincere. She talked kindly with him all the way home, more kindly than he had ever thought she could talk, and when they parted, she said persuasively,
"You'll come tomorrow, and every day, won't you Blasi?"
Then she pressed a piece of money into his hand, and thanked him for his kindness so gratefully, that it seemed as if he had conferred a great favor on her, instead of having received payment for service rendered.
As the young man turned away, a new set of ideas took possession of his mind. For the first time in his life, he felt a desire to use the money that he held in his hand, for something better than drink. He recollected that he had no necktie on, and he was conscious of looking slovenly and dirty. That was not the way for a fellow to look who was going to be seen walking with the pretty Veronica along the high-road. He would buy a neck-tie in the morning; he had money enough for that. Then his thoughts ran on still farther. Veronica had not spoken to him in this friendly way for many a long year. It was not to make fun of him, Jost was a liar as she had said; else why did he run away instead of going with him to meet her? No, he wouldn't be taken in by that fellow, any longer. As they walked along she had asked him all sorts of questions about himself; what his business was, and how he succeeded in it and so on. He had not been able to answer very satisfactorily about his business, for since Confirmation, three years before, he had only been waiting for something to turn up. He had had nothing to do except to ring the bell at eleven o'clock, and then stand in the door-way of his house until it was time to ring it again at four. Then towards evening he always went to the Rehbock to hear the news. All this appeared in a new light before his eyes, now that Veronica had inquired about his occupation. Then she had encouraged him so sympathetically to try to get something to do, and promised to be of service to him if she could. It was exactly as if she had an especial interest in his welfare. Why did she concern herself about him? Suddenly a light broke through his darkness.
"Dietrich is gone, and is not likely to come back," he said to himself, "she detests Jost; and women always do the very thing you least expect them to; I've heard that a hundred times. She is after me! Good heavens!" he called out in his surprise as this idea seized him. "A fellow must spruce up! I will take the first step this very day."
The idea which had seized Blasi's mind that he was to take Dietrich's place with Veronica, suggested a farther plan. He decided immediately to become a saddler too, and before he went into his own house, he turned back and sought Gertrude's garden.
Gertrude's workman was walking up and down, for recreation; for he never went to the tavern. Blasi went to him and opened his mind; he wanted to be a saddler, and to learn the trade from him.
The man was quite willing; he bethought himself that it would be rather an agreeable change to have a young fellow to talk to, instead of merely sitting all day by the side of the silent widow. He said he would speak to his employer, and Blasi could come on the morrow. He was sure she would agree, for she generally took his opinion about the business.
"You see, Blasi," said he pompously, "if I were not there to look after things, they would all go to ruin. In fact there are only two ways to save this business; either Dietrich must come back and quickly too, and take hold of the business better than he ever did before, or else it must fall into my hands entirely, and I will take all the risks and all the profits."
"There may be yet a third way; who knows?" said Blasi, significantly, and he winked so mysteriously first with one eye and then with the other, that the saddler said to himself, "I guess he's been at the Rehbock."
MOTHER GERTRUDE ALSO GIVES GOOD ADVICE.
The cold, dismal December days had come. It was always long after dark now, before Veronica got home; but she never had to hurry, for fear of going through the wood alone, for there stood Blasi always ready at the turf hut on the edge of Fohrensee, just where the houses ceased and it began to be lonely. If it was fine, he was walking up and down before the hut; if it stormed, he was standing under the shelter of the roof. He was never absent and he never came too late. Yet he was busy all day long, and had to run half the way to get to the hut in time. His master did not let him off one moment before the appointed day's work was over, Blasi's application to learn the saddler's trade had been favorably received by Gertrude and he had set to work at once. Now that he worked from morning till night he never had time to put his hands in his pockets, and the saddler kept him up to the mark, proud of showing how well he himself understood the business. Blasi was contented, and more than contented with his life; he had a new and very happy consciousness of being of use, and he had risen in his own estimation. He felt like a man of property, almost like a gentleman. By the time he had finished his day's work, and hurried down to Fohrensee and walked back again, he was so tired that he was ready to go to bed directly; he had no time nor desire to loaf. And so it came about that when Veronica wished to give him his piece of money every evening he objected; for he said he did not want to be paid; he preferred to have his services accepted on the ground of friendship. Veronica consented to accept them on that ground, but from time to time she would say, "Blasi, this is your birthday," or "To-day is the cherry-festival, I should like to make you a little present," or "I have had extra work to-day, and I should like to give you part of the extra pay, for if you had not been coming for me, I could not have waited to do it, so it is fairly yours;" and each time she pressed into his hand such a large piece of money that he soon had a considerable sum laid away. Then one day she gave him a silk handkerchief; and another day half-a-dozen new shirts, white as snow; and then again a package of handkerchiefs hemmed and ready for use; and all this increase of property raised his standard of living, and excited his ambition.
The night before Christmas, Veronica was late in coming home. It was dark and stormy. She had been delayed at the school, making preparations for leaving everything in order for the holiday.
When she came into the sitting-room she found her mother at work by lamp-light, mending a ragged old mail-bag. Advancing years had told upon Gertrude; and although industrious as ever, she could not work as easily as she once did.
"Oh mother, I cannot let you do that heavy piece of work," said Veronica, as soon as she saw what her mother was about. "Didn't I tell you that I would come home in time to dress the house for Christmas, and now you have not only done all that, but you are at work on that old mail-bag. I can't bear to have you do so. Why won't you let me do something for you, and take a little rest yourself. You look so tired."
"You need the evening to rest in too, dear child, after working steadily all day," said Gertrude affectionately. "And I am very glad when there is a piece of work like this that I can do. I want him to find everything as it used to be, when he comes home. I think that with care and industry I can manage so that I shall not be obliged to give up this house while he is away. I am sure it will be a great comfort to him to find that he still has his home. And besides I feel that it will help him to begin life anew, and bring him back to his old right-minded way of thinking. Oh, if he would only come home!"
"Mother, mother, that is no reason why you should work beyond your strength. You have taken care of me all these long years, and now it is fairly my turn to take care of you. Do not worry about the house, dear; I have made an arrangement with the cattle-dealer. When you told me that he threatened to take it, I went to him and got him to let me settle with him instead. He was very glad that I wanted it, for he said that he didn't see what good it would be to him, and he gave me my time about paying for it."
"Is that true, Veronica?" said Gertrude, and a happy smile stole over her face. "You do not know what a load you have taken from my heart! Oh, you are good and brave! If I could only see you look happy, how glad I should be! If I could find out how to make you happy! I would do anything in the world for you, if I only knew how!"
"There is no use in thinking about it, mother dear. Happiness is not for me. It may be for others, but not for me." Veronica spoke with strong emotion. "I have worked and struggled for it ever since I can remember anything, but all in vain. Cousin Judith told me that work was the way to fortune, and that 'fortune' meant whatever one wanted most; and so I worked, always, even when I did not know what it was that I wanted most. Afterwards when I learned that for me happiness was the best fortune, I worked on, for I wanted to be happy, but I was not. I always brooded over my work, thinking of all the unpleasant and troublesome things that had happened. Then Sabina told me how, when she was terribly unhappy about her deformity, she had found relief in books, in reading," and Veronica went on to tell how Sabina had sent her delightful books and how she had tried to drive away her own sorrow by the new interests which she found in them. "But you see," she added with a sigh, "it did not help me; nothing helps me. When I read, I was still unhappy. What difference did it make to me, all that was written in the books; it did not make my troubles less. The old thoughts came right in and left me no peace. Even while I was reading I could not fix my mind on the book, and when I laid the book down, I had gained nothing, but was as sad and hopeless as ever. Happiness is not for me, and the little motto upon my rose may be true for others; it is not true for me. I cannot 'grasp' the only 'fortune' I care for."
Veronica spoke passionately; with a vehemence that Gertrude had never before heard from her. Her strong, self-controlled nature had never before given way and found expression in words. Now the flood-gates were opened, the stream broke through. Gertrude was distressed at her unwonted emotion. "Veronica," she said, sadly and lovingly, "this pains me. I had no idea of your feeling; no conception of your having suffered so. You are always so quiet and reserved that I thought you had peace within, though your face is so often clouded with apparent discontent. Now I see that your heart is heavy. If I could only show you the way to peace—that is the way to happiness.
The girl said nothing; she only shook her head as if to say: "Peace is not for me," and her eyes shone like fire with her inward excitement.
"Veronica," said Gertrude presently, "to-morrow is Christmas day. Do you remember how when you were little children we always prayed together at night, and how happy you always were at Christmas, and how gladly you said your little prayer? Will you not pray with me now, my child, as we did in those dear old days?"
The girl turned her face aside and wiped away her tears. "I will, mother," she said, making an effort to control herself, "it will bring back those happy days in memory, and give you a little pleasure."
She folded her hands and began to repeat the Lord's prayer. Gertrude followed reverently. When she reached the words, "Forgive us our trespasses," Veronica hid her face in her hands, and broke into violent sobs.
"No, mother, I must not say it. I cannot forgive him. I cannot forgive Dietrich for having treated you so, and then run away and hidden himself without writing a single word, to tell you where he is. He must know how you are suffering, and I too. And that Judas! I can never, never forgive him. He led Dietrich astray and deceived him. He has destroyed all our happiness. How can I forgive him? Doesn't he deserve our hatred? Can I help wishing him the worst punishment that ever befell a human being?"
Veronica sobbed as if the long-pent-up agony of her heart would never again submit to be restrained. Silently Gertrude sat with folded hands, waiting till the storm was spent. At last she said softly,
"If I felt as you do, my child, I could not bear it at all. It would kill me. But I do not feel so. When my Dieterli was a little child and I had to do everything for him, before he was old enough to take care of himself, there was much in his character and conduct that made me anxious. He always wanted to be first in everything, and whatever he wished for, that he must have, without delay and without effort on his part. And as he grew older and these qualities strengthened, I often felt that with his headstrong disposition he could never become great and good, without the discipline of a severe school. From the earliest hours of his life, I gave him into God's hands, and prayed for God's care and guidance. And through all these years my constant prayer for my boy has been, 'Lead him where Thou wilt, Oh God, only let him not fall out of Thy hands; When this heavy trial came, which was almost beyond my strength to bear, I did not lose my faith that the God to whom I had given him, would not let my Dieterich be lost. If the hard lessons of life have begun for Dietrich, he must learn them thoroughly; and if his sins are to be purged away, he must suffer in the process. And though I suffer too, it is God's will; I have had much schooling in my life, and have learned much and gained much from it. Do not feel so hardly against Dietrich because he has not written to us. Perhaps he has written, and the letter has gone astray. I look for a letter every day, but if he does not write, we may be sure that he is in great trouble, poor boy! He knows how we feel toward him, and if he has gone into evil ways we must pity him the more and pray God to bring him back into the right path again. As to Jost, I think as you do, that he is to blame for our poor boy's troubles. He led him astray and then played him false. Jost is a poor lost sheep who has wandered far from the fold. He has no one to care for him, no one to lead him back again. He is alone in the world. Should not we pray that he may be shown the wickedness of his ways, that his conscience may be awakened and that he may repent and his soul be saved?"
Veronica had listened attentively to all that Gertrude had said. After a silence she said thoughtfully,
"Mother, are you made happy by this faith in God?"
And without a moment's hesitation came the answer;
"I know of nothing that can make us so happy as this faith—the strong confidence in our hearts that our Father in Heaven orders and watches over our lives, and that everything which happens to us is for our good, if we obey him and hold fast to him. I do not know much, Veronica; I have not read nearly as much as lame Sabina, or as you have, and you understand things far better than I do; but it seems to me that you would have gained more from your reading, if you had tried to find something in the books, which you could use to help you in your trouble, and not merely to find out something new about what other people do and how they live."
"If you learned from these books that our Lord Jesus Christ first taught the lesson that all men are equal in the sight of God, and that one soul is of as much worth as another before Him, then it must have been told there too, how our Savior brought us the glad tidings that we have a Father in Heaven, who loves His children and who will bless them if they put their trust in Him. Our Savior shows us the way to our Heavenly Father, and will help us to overcome all the difficulties that stand in our path. He speaks to us with a tenderness beyond that of any other friend, and bids us lay our burdens upon Him and He will help us to bear them."
"But mother," said Veronica, looking with a wonder that was almost awe upon the peaceful countenance of the mother, "can you truly say that you have found peace and happiness, while you have no news from him, and do not know what dreadful tidings any minute may bring you?"
"Yes, Veronica, I can and I do say so," answered Gertrude, and her face even without words would have borne witness to the truth of what she said. "I know that what ever comes to us, comes from God, and is for our good. But Veronica, we must put away all hatred and bitterness from our hearts; these feelings are all evil, and we must ask to be forgiven for them. Shall I go on with the prayer, where you left off, my child? Try to join with me; it will help you, dear."
And Gertrude finished the Lord's prayer.
Veronica sat silent for a time, and then rose and went to her own room. She could not sleep, but she had no inclination to seek relief for trouble in her sewing, as she had been accustomed to do. Gertrude's words were working in her heart. How often had she said lately in the proud bitterness of her heart, "A fine truth indeed!
'Fortune stands ready, full in sight, He wins, who knows to grasp it right!'"
And now Gertrude had shown her that the words were true after all, and that she had herself grasped Happiness, the truest Fortune, even in the midst of a deep sorrow, greater even than Veronica's own.
Sleeplessly for Veronica the hours of the night went by; but over and over again the mother's words sounded in her ears, and she strove to quiet with them the trouble and unrest of her heart.
MAN PROPOSES, BUT GOD DISPOSES.
Still no news came from Dietrich. Jost made many attempts to show Veronica how much he wished to win her favor. He often went to meet her, and he gave himself endless trouble to convince her of his attachment. He could not boast that he made himself of any use by going to meet her; for she was always accompanied by Blasi, who marched by her side with a triumphant air as if to say, "Jost can judge for himself who holds the place of honor here!" When Jost joined them, Veronica took care that Blasi should walk between herself and the intruder, and she neither said a word herself, nor seemed to hear what the others were saying. Jost grew pale with suppressed rage. Whenever at other times he met Blasi anywhere, he threw contemptuous words at him. If occasionally Blasi stepped into the Rehbock for a glass of beer, Jost would cry out,
"Oh ho, she allows it to-night, does she, you donkey of a servant? How will you look when she doesn't want your services any longer, and gives you your dismissal? She is already beginning to soften towards me, but until she comes to me and begs me to hear her, I won't listen to a word, nor pay the slightest attention to her."
Such remarks as these, thrown out before all the company at the Rehbock were very exasperating to Blasi and several times he seized the big bowl to throw it at the insolent fellow's head. He did not throw it however, for Veronica had charged him to have as little as possible to do with Jost, and especially never to quarrel with him, and Veronica's influence over Blasi grew stronger every day. So he did not throw the bowl, but instead, drained it to the bottom and then left the room.
About this time Blasi began to meet Judith very often on his evening walk. Judith seemed to have some business that took her frequently to Fohrensee. Strange surmises were aroused, among the Fohrensee people; for it was known that she went to visit the cattle-dealer. The two were often seen standing before his house in the open street, gesticulating vehemently with hands and arms. The people about said,
"Something's in the wind. They're going to be married. To be sure she is cleverer than he, but then he is twenty-five years younger, and that counts for something."
One evening in January, Judith met Blasi as he was coming round the corner of Gertrude's house, where he was always at work till it was time to go for Veronica.
"What makes you go about laughing all the time, and looking as if you had been winning a game?" asked Judith.
"That's exactly what I was going to ask you," retorted Blasi, "What have you got to laugh about?"
"Answer me, and I'll answer you, my lad."
"All right; it's nothing to be ashamed of. She'll have me."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Judith "Who? Which one?"
Blasi did not turn round, but pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the house he had just left. "That one," he said.
Judith shouted with laughter.
"Will she have you all three?" she said; "first Dietrich, then Jost, and now you."
"I don't see the joke," said Blasi crossly. "Dietrich has run away; she avoids Jost as if he were a nettle, and who else is there? Who is there for her to call upon if she wants help, hey?"
Judith was still snickering over the news.
"Now it's your turn," said Blasi, "tell me what it is that you're so pleased about."
"It is very much like yours, Blasi; come a little nearer," and she whispered in his ear, "I have him."
"Mercy on us!" cried Blasi. "You will be as rich as a Jew, for the cattle-dealer is worth more than half the people in Fohrensee, all put together."
"I'm not talking about the cattle-dealer."
"Pshaw! whom are you talking about then?"
"Somebody else, and I have him in such a fashion that he will not forget it in a hurry, I tell you!"
As she spoke, Judith made a gesture with her hands as if she were choking some one, who certainly would not escape alive from her clutches.
Blasi shook his head and walked on in silence. But in his inmost mind he thought, "I can't make anything out of her; her head is all in a buzz. But she's only a woman."
Soon after, they reached the turf-hut, and there they separated. Veronica was not far off; and as she came up Blasi joined her, and they walked quickly along over the crisp, frozen ground. She was more silent than usual, and seemed sunk in thought. In the middle of the wood she stopped suddenly and said,
"Blasi will you do me a great favor?"
"I will do anything in the world for you, Veronica," was the prompt reply, "I will jump into the big pond over there, and never come out again, if you want me to."
"You couldn't get in now; it is frozen hard," said the girl, laughing. "I don't want you to do that, but something very different. Do you think you could find out what Jost knows about Dietrich? Perhaps he has told Jost where he is, and where a letter would reach him."
"Yes, but look here, Veronica, are you still thinking about him, all this time?" asked poor Blasi, quite taken aback.
"We will not talk about that," she answered curtly. "To tell the truth, I am very anxious about our mother. She has been very far from well lately, and she says every now and then, 'If I could only see him once more!' as if she felt that she was not going to live much longer. Oh, help me get word to Dietrich if you can, Blasi! do help me!" Veronica's eyes were full of tears, as she raised them beseechingly to Blasi's face. He was much touched at the sight of her tears; but then a great fear arose in his mind, for he thought, "She is beginning to soften, and it will all turn out just as Jost said." And he determined to prevent it at any cost.
"Don't lose your courage, and I'll try my best! I'll see what I can do!" he said in a very decided tone, and with a most courageous air.
"You are my only friend now," said Veronica; and the words spurred Blasi on to immediate action. He left her in the doorway, and hastened away. He would find out all that Jost could or would tell about Dietrich. He ran across to the Rehbock, where he found Jost sitting with his glass. For if Jost, as he complained, had to sit and work all the morning, while others did as they pleased, yet he made enough money by his work to allow him to spend all his afternoons at the Rehbock, and remain, drinking one glass after another, all through the evening, and late into the night.
Blasi seated himself by his side, and opened his case very skilfully. He wanted to know about their old friend; where he was now, and whether there was any chance of getting a line sent to him. He did not mind paying for a drink to-night, he said, if Jost would tell him exactly what he knew about Dietrich; they ought to hang together, they three, who had known each other ever since they were children. While Blasi was discoursing in this clever manner, Jost looked squintingly at him, and when he stopped, he answered scoffingly,
"Oh, so she has come to it at last, has she? I have been expecting it. You go back and tell her that I can give her all the information she wants; but she must come to me for it, herself, and speak pleasantly to me, as I do to her. Tell her that she will never see him again, as long as she lives; he is too far off. But if she wants to send him a message, she has but to come to me and ask, and I will do her that favor, and she can do me one in return. Go now, Blasi, and tell her this from me. I'll pay for the beer myself."
Blasi felt stunned. Jost had seen through his little game at a glance, and treated it with contempt. How could he carry such a message to Veronica? It might bring the tears into her eyes again, and that was altogether too painful to see. There was no use in remonstrating with Jost, who sat there smiling scornfully without farther words. For the first time in his life, Blasi left his glass unfinished. He pulled his cap down over his eyes and left the inn. When he entered the widow's cottage, Veronica sat by the table, stitching away at the old mail-bag. She put it down as he came in, and looked up anxiously into his face.
"It's no use; he is just splitting with rage and fury;" and Blasi threw his cap across into the farthest corner of the room. He related the whole conversation and it was plain enough that it was useless for him to try to get anything out of Jost.
She was silent for a time; thinking over Jost's words. "He wants to humble me! I am to go and beseech him to tell me; and I must be friendly and do him a favor. What favor? No, I will have nothing to do with him."
She took up the bag again, stitched up the last hole, and folded the work. Then she said,
"May I ask one thing more of you, Blasi? I hope I shall be able to repay you some day for all your kindness."
"Only speak, Veronica," said Blasi, "I will do anything you ask. If you want me to, I will go to find Dietrich, even if I have to go on foot all the way to Australia."
"Oh, it is no such long journey as that. I am sorry to ask you to do a disagreeable errand, but you see Mother is much disturbed because this mail-bag has not been sent back. She seems to be in a hurry to have everything finished and settled up—as if she had no time to lose." Veronica paused, and the tears that it so troubled Blasi to see, filled her eyes to overflowing. "I promised mother that the bag should be sent home early tomorrow morning, and you see I have no one but you to ask. You can't leave your work in the daytime and at evening you have to go to meet me; so there is no time but the very early morning before work hours."
"I will take it if it snows cats and dogs; but where is it to go?"
"It is not a pleasant walk, unless you go a long way round by the high-road. The bag belongs at the post-office at the Valley bridge. Do you think you could get down the steep foot-path in this deep snow? I should feel dreadfully if anything were to happen to you, Blasi."
Blasi was not afraid. He was proud to show Veronica that she might count on his courage, where he had only the forces of nature to contend against, and not the treacherous tricks of Jost.
Veronica had a hard battle with herself that night. "Must I do it?" she asked herself again and again, and each time her heart revolted and she groaned aloud, "I cannot, oh, I cannot!"
Then the image of Gertrude rose before her, pale and suffering, and she heard her heart-rending words, "If I could only see him once more!" Veronica could not sleep, nor could she come to any decision.
Next morning it seemed that Blasi was to be taken at his word, and his boast of being ready for service, no matter what the weather might be, was to be put to the proof; for it stormed furiously and the wind blew so fiercely when he left the house, that he could scarcely make way against it. The half-frozen snow stung and blinded him, but it did not deter him. He forced his way onwards, and though it was still dark and he could not see one step before him, he went on as confidently and unhesitatingly as if there were no chance of his losing his way. And he did not lose it. When day dawned he found himself close to the Valley-bridge, in spite of deep snows and stinging sleet.
"You are early," said the post master, who was busy sorting his letters by lamplight. Blasi answered that he had to be at work by sunrise, and having delivered the bag and received the pay for it, he started for home again. He had scarcely gone twenty steps when the post-master called after him,
"Hulloa! Blasi, you can do a neighborly kindness if you will, and it won't cost you anything;" and he handed Blasi a letter.
"It is for the old Miller's widow, over there. Jost fetches her letters himself, usually; it is marked "To be called for," but he'll be glad to be spared the walk such a day as this. You can tell him he needn't come to-day, you know."
Blasi took the letter. The Miller's widow was an old deaf woman, who lived quite alone, in a little, tumble-down cottage, just off the road, on a lonely hillside. The foot-path that Blasi took, led near her dwelling. The woman was an aunt of Jost's, and had known better days when her husband was alive; but now she had fallen into poverty, and had grown sour and bitter, and would have nothing to do with the rest of the world. Blasi worked his way to her hut, through the deep, pathless snow. As he approached the door, he took the letter from his pocket, and looked at the address.
"Heavens and earth and all the rest of it! It is from Dietrich!" he cried out. "I didn't copy all his work at school for nothing. I know his hand-writing as well as I know anything!"
He talked aloud in his excitement, as he stood hammering away at the door, which the old woman was not very prompt in opening. At last he opened it himself, and came stamping into the room. The widow was sitting on a bench by the stove, picking wool. She had not heard his knocks, and she stared at him with amazement. He explained how he came by the letter, but she was too deaf to understand him. Then he held the letter close under her eyes, and shouted in her ear,
"Read it! I want to know what's in it. It's from Dietrich."
She pushed the letter away and said sharply,
"It don't belong to me. I never get any letters. Take it away."
Blasi was fairly out of patience.
"That's your name, any way," he said. "I'll read it to you; I want to know what he says." He tore the letter open and began to read:
"HAMBURG, 14th Jan., 18—
"My Dear Jost:"
Blasi started, but he read on. It was a short letter, and he read it through twice.
"Will you get out?" said the old woman crossly, for Blasi stood as if rooted to the floor. He stuffed the letter back into the torn cover, and went out, but stopped again outside. What should he do? The letter was Jost's. He was afraid of Jost, and he had opened Jost's letter! Presently an idea struck him, and he instantly acted on it. He stuck the envelope together as well as he could, ran through the storm back to the post-office, tossed in the letter quickly, saying, "The old woman says it's not for her, and she won't take it," and was off again on his homeward way.
As for Veronica, she had but one thought in her mind all that day. Gertrude was so ill when she went to her bed-side in the morning, that Veronica's heart at once cried out, "It must be done!" and all day long she kept repeating to herself, "It shall be done to-night."
When Blasi went to meet her that evening, he was so full of his news that he could scarcely wait to greet her, before beginning to tell it; but he was so startled by her looks that instead, he stopped short, and exclaimed,
"What is the matter? Are you ill? Sit down and rest, in the hut, here."
Veronica shook her head; she could not lose a moment, she said, for she was in a hurry to get home, and was not in the least ill. Then Blasi blurted out his story; he was so eager, that he could scarcely get the words out straight. Veronica listened with breathless attention. Suddenly, such a happy radiance spread over her face, that Blasi stood still and gazed at her.
"Hamburg! did you say Hamburg, Blasi? Was that where the letter came from?" Her eyes danced with joy; Blasi had never seen her look like that before.
"Certainly it was; I am sure of it; I can read Dietrich's writing fast enough," answered Blasi, and he added to himself, "The women-folk are queer creatures. No fellow can understand them. A moment ago she looked all broken-down, and as if she could be blown out with a puff of wind, and now she looks bright and strong as the sun at noon-day."
"Repeat word for word what you read in the letter, please, Blasi," and he told her all that he could remember. It did not take long. Dietrich said that he had not much to say, but wrote because Jost was the only person in the world who cared anything for him. Perhaps some day his mother would come to feel differently; but since he had brought so much trouble upon her, he could not expect her to forgive him yet. If Veronica was going to marry some one else, he did not want to hear about it. He could not make up his mind to go to Australia as Jost advised; it was too far away; he was almost dead of homesickness even in Hamburg. If they were after him for the man-slaughter, he thought he could hide well enough there, and perhaps in a few years when the whole thing was forgotten, he could come home again.
If worst came to worst, and he were taken, he should at least get home, if only to be put into the House of Correction. He felt the worst on his mother's account. He wanted Jost to write and tell him about things at home, and it was safest to send to the same address, as he always called for the letters himself.
Veronica hung upon every word that fell from Blasi's lips, and when he had finished, she walked silently by his side, deep in thought. Presently he asked her what he should do if Jost found out that he had opened his letter and hauled him up before a Justice of the Peace for it. Veronica said she believed that Jost would scarcely care to say anything about the letter. She advised Blasi to keep his own counsel, and to behave as usual, in a perfectly unconcerned manner, whenever he met Jost. She would take the rest in hand herself. Blasi was more than willing to leave it all to her; he had entire confidence in her ability to manage the affair. The letters of all the country round were collected at the central office in Fohrensee, to be forwarded together from there to the nearest city, where they were sorted and distributed. Veronica thought of this, and laid her plans accordingly. The next day as soon as she reached Fohrensee, she went to the post-office, and asked to see the address of a letter which had just been sent in, on its way to Hamburg. The post-master, who knew her well, did not think the request at all singular, supposing that it had something to do with the school business.
"A letter for Hamburg came in last evening;" said his daughter who was his assistant, "there it lies with the others that came with it."
The postmaster went to the table and found the letter, which he handed to Veronica. "The address is not very nicely written," he said.
The handwriting was either that of a person unused to the pen, or it was purposely disguised. The letter was addressed to a woman of the same name as that of the miller's widow. The name of the street was illegible, but the words "To be called for," were plainly written.
Veronica was convinced that the letter she was in search of lay before her. So Jost had written as she had expected he would do, the day before. He had undoubtedly seen that Dietrich's letter had been opened. Did he write so promptly in order to frighten Dietrich into going farther away? Had he suggested to him a new address now that the old one had been discovered? She felt sure that Jost was trying to prevent anyone but himself from having any communication with Dietrich. There was not a moment to lose. What would she not have given to be able to withhold the letter! But she did not dare. She returned it to the postmaster and asked for a piece of paper. Her hand trembled with excitement and her heart beat so loud, that she thought the post-master must hear it.
She wrote the following words:
"Dear Dietrich; your mother is very weak. Come home directly. You have nothing to fear. Veronica."
She enveloped it, and addressed it as Jost had done his, and handed it to the post-master.
"I thank you very much indeed," she said, "will you kindly see that this letter goes by this morning's mail?"
"Yes, yes, I understand; it's a thread-and-needle business," he said laughing, as he threw the letters down on the same pile. "They will travel side by side and reach Hamburg together."
All day Veronica's hand trembled at her work. Outwardly she was tranquil and composed; but within was a storm of conjectures, fears and hopes. What had Jost written to Dietrich about his mother; what about her? Jost had evidently let him believe that he had killed a man. What reason had Jost for deceiving him and keeping him at a distance? These questions brought the color to Veronica's cheeks as she suspected what the answers might be. Did Jost think that she would marry him if Dietrich did not come back? or were there other reasons why he did not dare to let him come? All sorts of possible solutions flew through Veronica's head, and the conclusion she arrived at frightened her. She did not wish to suspect any one of being a rogue without good reason; yet the evidence seemed in this case to be irresistible. If Dietrich came home, everything would be cleared up. But if he did not come, what then? Would everything have to be allowed to go on as it was? She would talk it all over with Gertrude this very evening.
THE MOTTO PROVES TRUE.
Veronica for once did not carry out her plans. When she reached home she found Gertrude in a high fever. She spoke to Veronica as if she were still a child, and had just come in from school. Veronica sat quietly down by the bedside, and did what she could to soothe and refresh her, and when by degrees her mother's mind became more clear, she proposed to her to send for the doctor. But Gertrude did not want the doctor. She had no pain, she said; she was only weak. Veronica sat by her side all night, but of course it was no time to speak of the letter, and of the excitements of the day. It would not do to arouse hopes that might never be fulfilled, and if Dietrich came, that was enough. All through the long hours of the night, the girl sat thinking over all the hopes and fears and perplexities of her life, while Gertrude lay still and seemed to doze. Only now and then she spoke some kindly words to the children, and Veronica knew that she thought they were both there sitting by her bed-side; again her little ones.
In the morning Gertrude was quite herself again. She would not hear of the doctor's being called, declaring that she needed nothing but a few days' rest. Veronica would not leave her; but sent word to Sabina, to ask her to take her place for a few days, which she knew she could rely upon her to do gladly, for Sabina was extremely friendly, and very proud of her former pupil, who had been a great credit to her in the position for which she had recommended her.
That day and the next night Mother Gertrude remained quiet, and seemed to sleep most of the time. On the third day, it was evident that she was looking for something, whenever she opened her eyes, although she was not at all delirious; and she frequently exclaimed,
"Oh! if I could only see him once more!"
When the sunset light streamed through the window and illuminated the room, a happy smile lighted up her face. She murmured:
"He half in dreamland seemed to float Saying 'to-morrow will be fine.'"
After a while she turned towards Veronica and said,
"Veronica, sing it again, with him please; it is beautiful, and I like to hear you sing together: 'To-morrow will be fine.'"
"You have been dreaming, mother; we have not been singing," said the poor girl, wiping away her fast-flowing tears.
It was dark now and all was still. The little night-lamp threw a pale light upon the bed, where the mother lay in a half-sleep. Veronica sat by with big wide-open eyes. Her restless thoughts were busy with many questions. Had he received her letter? Would he come? How? When? and how would the mother be? Suddenly Gertrude rose up in bed with greater strength than she had shown for many days. "Go! go! Veronica," she said beseechingly, "Open the door for him! He ought not to stand there knocking like a stranger. Show him how glad we are to see him again!"
"No one is knocking, mother; you are only dreaming," said Veronica sadly shaking her head; but the longing in Gertrude's eyes was more than she could resist, and she rose and left the room, thinking to please her by compliance. She heard a step; but then the road ran in front of the house, and it might be any passer-by. She opened the outside door—Dietrich stood before her!
"You summoned me, or I should not have come;" said the young man, half in excuse, and half reassuringly, for Veronica stood dumb and motionless before him. "Will you not shake hands, Veronica?"
She gave him her hand, saying only,
"Come to your mother; she heard your step, and doesn't need to be prepared for you. But you must control yourself; you will find her very much altered."
Dietrich entered the room. His mother was still sitting up in bed, watching the door, in a strained, expectant attitude. She was indeed changed. She looked so small and thin and wasted. Dietrich was completely unmanned at the sight. He sprang to the bedside, threw his arms about her, and between his sobs he cried again and again,
"Forgive me, mother, forgive me! I will never act so again! I will lead a different life! Everything shall be right! You must live to be happy, mother!"
"Thank God that you have come, Dietrich," said his mother, trembling with weakness and excitement. "I forgave you long ago. How could I have anything against you? But, my dear boy, why did you not write one word, one little word to tell me how you were and where? Didn't you know how unhappy you were making me?"
"What, mother! what do you mean? I wrote three times to you and twice to Veronica; and you sent me back word through Jost that you did not want to hear from me; that the disgrace was too much, and that no one dared to mention my name before Veronica, she was so angry with me. I had to send my letters through Jost, and he gave me the address of his old aunt to make all safe. It was better for you not to know where I was, because they were hunting for me on account of the man I killed. And you have never got one of my letters; not one?"
His mother could only shake her head in reply. She tried to speak, but she had already gone beyond her strength, and she sank back upon her pillows. Veronica, who had been standing by in silence, started forward.
"I will run for the doctor," she said, "stay with her, Dietrich;" and she darted from the room. He hurried after her. "Let me go," he said, "it is too late for you to be out, and you can take better care of her than I can." He was off; and Veronica returned to the bed-side. He took the shortest road; the one that passed the Rehbock. Loud shouts and cries were sounding from the inn. He hurried by. Presently he heard his own name called; some one came running after him, shouting:
"Wait, Dietrich, wait!" He turned round and saw Blasi, who had recognized him as he passed the door, and rushed out after him. "Don't run away, Dietrich! Welcome home! Where did you come from? Have you seen her? Don't run away! Listen to me!" Dietrich stopped and shook hands with Blasi, and again started forward. Blasi detained him.
"There's been something going on that you ought to know about," he continued. "Don't think that I go to the Rehbock every evening, by any means! I heard there was some strange news, and so I went there to-night to hear it, and it was well worth while, I can tell you. The red fellow is found out! The cattle-dealer accused him of having stolen his money bag. The man denied it; there was a long investigation, and at last they found out that and a great many other things against him. He turns out to be a regular rascal. And when all this had been proved against him, he turned round and accused another man, who, he said, was really at the bottom of everything; but no one knows yet who it is. Don't run so fast; I can't keep up with you. Now you're out of it all right, Dietrich; but I suppose you know that they tried to make out that you took the money, and that was why you ran away. But I never believed it; I never did, on my honor. Do stand still; it's all right now, and you needn't run away any more."
"I'm not going to run away, Blasi, and I thank you for bringing me this good news. But it's not all right you know, on account of Marx."
"Marx!" cried Blasi, "what of Marx! it doesn't hurt a man to get a good beating. Marx is as lively as you or I, and still drinks more than enough to quench his thirst, when he can get it."
Dietrich stood still now, and drew a long breath. "Is that true, Blasi, really true? You wouldn't say it if it were not true? She wrote me that there was nothing to fear; but I didn't understand it. And I can't quite understand now, Jost wrote me that Marx was dead, and that I had better go away as far as I possibly could, because they were searching for me, high and low. I can't make it out. But I must go now for the doctor. Come and see me to-morrow, Blasi; and we will have a good talk. Now good-night."
Dietrich shook his old comrade by the hand and ran off. But Blasi could not so easily smother all the wonderful things he had to tell, and he called out at the top of his lungs,
"You don't know much of anything yet! I spend the whole day at your house; it's you that will have to come to me. I am working at your trade; you ought to see! there's many a fellow that would be glad to do as well as I do!"
But Dietrich had disappeared. It was past midnight, before he reached the doctor's house, and he knocked a good many times in vain. At last a maid came down and opened the door, saying as she did so,
"What a plague it is, that everything always comes at once! He has been called out once to-night, and has hardly got to bed again. It never rains but it pours!"
"I hope he will be so good as to come now;" said Dietrich, "it is very important or I would not ask him."
The maid knocked at the chamber door. It was some time before the doctor's voice answered from within, "Who's there?"
"Dietrich from Tannenegg," said the servant.
"He back again? No, I'm too old and too tired for that. They ought to give him a good beating if they can catch him; it would serve him right."
Dietrich stepped up to the door himself.
"It is not for me, doctor," said he humbly, "it is for my mother; she is very ill indeed. For God's sake, doctor, come and help her!"
"That's another thing altogether; she is a brave woman, who has been doing your work for you," said the voice from within the room. Pretty soon the doctor came out, and when Dietrich described his mother's condition, he took some medicines with him and started out.
"I have no horse to use to-night; mine has done a hard day's work and must have his rest. We shall have to go up the hill afoot."
As they crossed the open space in front of the house, he continued,
"I remember once how on this very spot once a little boy stood up in front of me, and when I asked him if he would like some day to take care of a horse, answered, 'No, I want a horse of my own.' I thought he had a good purpose in view if he would only pursue it the right way. But it does not do to want to begin by being a gentleman. First come work, and service for us all, then mastership may follow. Whoever tries to begin at the end, will end at the beginning; which is not a good nor an agreeable method. Am I right or wrong, Dietrich?"
"You are right, doctor. If one could only look ahead!" answered Dietrich.
"Yes, that would help; but as we cannot, we must trust those who are our friends, and who have gone before us in the right way, and can show us the road; like that noble woman to whom we are now going."
When they entered Gertrude's room they found her asleep. The doctor sat down by the bedside, watched her awhile, and felt her pulse from time to time. Then he arose and turning to Veronica, he said,
"I can do no good here; take care of her; she deserves all you can do, but the lamp of life burns low, and will soon go out altogether. She has had a hard lot; trouble wears faster than years."
With these words the doctor went to the door. He did not even glance towards Dietrich, who threw himself on his knees by the bedside of his dying mother, sobbing out:
"O God in Heaven, do not let her die! Let her come back! Let her have a little comfort in this world! Punish me as I deserve, but oh! let my mother live!"
Gertrude opened her eyes. She grasped the hand of her sobbing son, which lay upon hers, and held it tightly clasped; while she whispered softly:
"Yes, my Dieterli, pray, pray; if you can pray, all will come right again."
She closed her eyes and never spoke again. The hand that held Dietrich's grew cold. Veronica, who had been standing behind Dietrich weeping silently approached the bedside, took Gertrude's other hand in hers, and said between her sobs:
"Sleep well, dear, good mother! Yes, for you 'tomorrow will be fine';" and she left the room.
Two days later Dietrich followed his mother to her last resting place. There was no need to avoid meeting people now, for every one knew that the true thief had been discovered. But no hope was left to him in his home. When he returned from the funeral, and went into the house, he knew that he had no right there, for it no longer belonged to him. He went to his room, strapped on his heavy knap-sack, and came down stairs. Veronica was alone in the sitting-room. She stood leaning against the window, her eyes fixed on the church-yard beyond, where the mother lay sleeping.
He entered the room. "Veronica, give me your hand once more. I am going," he said, coming towards her.
"Where are you going, Dietrich?" she asked in a voice that was wholly without feeling; and the cold tone seemed to stab the young man's heart as with a knife. "It is all one to her;" he thought.
"I am going out into the world. I am going to work to pay my debts. I have no home; and as there is no one on earth who cares for me, I can bear my burden better anywhere than here."
"Then go, in God's name," said Veronica, and she held out her hand to him. This was too much for Dietrich. He made one struggle for self-control and then broke down completely.
"Can you let me go so coolly, Veronica? not one kindly word for me? If I might stay here with you, I would work day and night like the meanest servant; I would do anything and everything for you. But no! I must go! I could not bear it! How could I stay and see you give yourself to some one else—I who have lost you,—lost you forever!"
The young man threw himself into a chair, buried his face in his hands, and cried like a child.
Veronica was as white as snow. She went to his side, and laid her hand upon his shoulder.
"Dietrich," she said softly, "if you feel in this way, why don't you ask me how I feel, when I think of living on here alone when you have gone; when you have left me perhaps forever?"
Dietrich raised his eyes to hers. A look lay there, a look such as he had dreamed of in his banishment. He sprang to his feet, and seized her hand.
"Veronica, can you love me? can you trust me?"
She did not withdraw her hand, and looked him full in the eyes.
"I have always loved you, Dietrich," she said, "and if I know that you can pray again to God, and promise to live a life acceptable to Him, I can trust you too."
The young man pressed her to his heart. "Is it true, is it possible?" he cried. "Oh Veronica, can it be true?"
But suddenly he started back, and said in a frightened tone,
"No, I dare not. I cannot. Who am I? I am nothing; I have nothing, less than nothing; and I know what you are and how far above me. Jost wrote me that there was no hope for me. I wanted to make you so happy—I meant to get money and provide all sorts of beautiful things for you and to make you the happiest woman in the world. And now! now I am a beggar, and a miserable creature into the bargain."
Veronica shook her head.
"You do not understand what happiness really is, Dietrich. I have been searching for it longer than you have, and you may believe me that it is not what you think. It is not something at a distance, far beyond our reach; we may find it while we are at work. We are not beggars; this house is ours, and we can still live in it. But, Dietrich, we will try to find the way that our mother went; that is the true way to happiness and peace in life and death."
"We will," cried Dietrich, with solemn joy; and as he clasped Veronica again to his heart, there was that in his face and in his voice which assured her that he would never leave her again, and that they would walk in that true way of happiness and peace together.
At this moment Judith burst into the room. When she saw the faces of the two who stood before her, she stood stock still with surprise! She immediately took in the situation.
"So! So! this is something that delights one's very heart!" she cried, and her face beamed with satisfaction. "But look out of the window! I came to tell you! You can say good-bye to that rascal forever."
They stepped together to the window which looked out upon the road. Jost was just going by. His hands were bound together, and he was followed by the Constable, who hurried him along. Jost looked up at the window and shrank back at what he saw; but the man drove him on.
"What does it mean?" asked Dietrich and Veronica in the same breath, turning to Judith.
"It is what was bound to come," she explained. "Everything is found out. They seized the red fellow first, after I succeeded in getting it through the cattle-dealer's thick head that he was the man to get hold of. When they had driven the red man into a corner, so that he couldn't lie himself out of it, he turned against Jost, and declared that Jost had planned the whole thing and that he himself had only played second-fiddle. Which can lie the worst, no one can tell, but that they are both reaping what they have sown, is certain enough. And now we're to have a wedding, are we? and our Dietrich is going to settle down into regular home life again. Welcome, neighbors; we will live in friendship together all our days." And Judith shook hands cordially with them both, and hastened away to spread through the neighborhood the good news of the coming marriage.
It is now ten years since Dietrich and Veronica left the church of Tannenegg where they had been made one, and the blessing had been pronounced upon their united lives. They went first to the little church yard and knelt by the new made grave covered with flowers. With tearful eyes, and with sad regrets in their happy hearts, they said,
"If she could only have lived to see us now!"
Today there is no more beautiful flower-garden in all Tannenegg, than that about Dietrich's pretty white house. Within the house all is so fresh and charming from top to bottom, that one who enters it finds it difficult to get away again from its hospitable shelter.
Dietrich has built a fine large work-room; and there he sits and works, industrious and happy, or he goes about his outside affairs in a steady business-like manner. Often he has to go to Fohrensee and even farther; for his trade is prosperous beyond competition and his work is recognized far and wide as of unrivalled excellence.
On Veronica's face lies such a sunshine of constant happiness as is good to look upon. She has given up her position in the school at Fohrensee; her place is with her husband and children; but she does not for all that sit with her hands in her lap; her orderly well-kept house, and her blooming well-behaved children bear witness to her faultless management as well as to her care and industry, and at the great annual Fair in the city, if any one inquires about some wonderfully fine and beautiful embroidery on exhibition, the answer invariably is, "that is the work of Veronica of Tannenegg."
Blasi is Dietrich's permanent assistant. He is constantly about the house, and is known in the family as Uncle Blasi. As soon as the day's work is over, and the evening sets in, his first question is, "Where are our children?" He never speaks of them in any other way; they are his, his joy and pride. He has also a special claim upon them, for he and Cousin Judith are the god-father and god-mother of both.
Blasi's favorite time is Sunday, when Dietrich goes to walk with his wife, and gives over the house and the children to him. Then he sets upon one knee the chubby little Dieterli and on the other the black eyed Veronica, and they ride there as long as they please, no matter how high the horse has to curvet and prance. And whatever else they want him to do for them, he is ready to do, whatever it may be.
There is only one Sunday pleasure that outweighs the knee-riding with Uncle Blasi, and that is when Veronica takes her little girl in her lap and lets Dieterli press close to her side, as he does only when he is very much excited. Then the mother takes a little picture in her hand, the picture of a red rose. Suddenly the flower opens, and a little verse in golden letters appears. Every time this opens, it elicits a cry of joy from the children, and they are never tired of seeing the wonder repeated. And Veronica is never tired of repeating it; for the rose and the verse are so interwoven with her life that they recall many memories of joy and sorrow; and she often says to the children, "Some time when you are old enough, I will explain this golden motto to you, and you shall learn it by heart."
When Blasi and Judith are alone together, he likes to talk over old times, and he often reminds her that he had fully made up his mind to marry Veronica himself; and he always winds up with,
"I want you to understand that I would never have given her up to any one else; but an old friend like Dietrich, you know;—of course it's a very different thing with Dietrich."
And Judith, laughing, answers,
"Yes, yes, Blasi, you're quite right; it's a very different thing with Dietrich."