Berbel, transformed into the housekeeper of Sigmundskron, was busy with the preparations for the christening. A year of uninterrupted prosperity had made her a trifle more sleek than before, and though she still affected a Spartan simplicity of dress, her frock was made of better materials than formerly, and her cap was adorned with black ribbands of real silk.
The day was warm, and Berbel came out into the court to breathe the air. As she stood at the door trying to remember whether she had forgotten anything, a man entered the gate and strode across the pavement. It was Wastei, and he carried in his hand a magnificent string of trout, threaded by the gills upon a willow withe. He bore his burden very carefully, and it was clear that he had gone home to dress himself after catching the trout and before coming to the castle, for he was splendidly arrayed in a pair of new leather breeches and he wore a velvet coat, the like of which had not been seen in Sigmundsdorf within the memory of man, for, like Berbel's ribbands, it was of real silk. Berbel eyed him curiously. She had an odd liking for the fellow.
'God greet you, Frau Berbel,' said Wastei with far more politeness than he vouchsafed to most people, high or low. 'I have brought these fish for the christening feast, and I have seen worse.'
Berbel took the willow wand from his hand, tried the weight, counted the trout with a housewife's eye, tried the weight again, and then nodded approvingly.
'They are good fish,' she said, looking them over once more.
Wastei drew a bright red handkerchief from his pocket, and carefully wiped his sinewy brown hands. Then without further ceremony he sat down upon the stone curb at the corner of the steps, as though he had done his business and meant to rest himself without paying any more attention to Berbel. She liked him for his independence and taciturnity. Moreover, in the old days of starving poverty, Wastei had done her many a good service she had never been able to reward, and had brought many a plump hare and many a brace of quails to the empty larder, swearing that he had come by them honestly, and offering to exchange them for a little mending to his tattered clothes. Berbel used to suspect that Wastei knew more of the nakedness of the land than he admitted, and that he risked more than one dangerous bit of poaching out of secret pity for the poor ladies who were known to buy so little food in the village. They were better off now, both she and Wastei, but as she looked at the broad expanse of black velvet that covered his square, flat back, she remembered the days when he had come ragged to the back door to throw down a good meal of game upon the kitchen table, going off the next minute with nothing but a bit of black bread in prospect for his supper.
'I will take them to the baron myself,' said Berbel.
Wastei looked up as though he had supposed she was already gone in.
'Thank you, Frau Berbel,' he answered.
Five minutes later she returned, carrying a black bottle, a glass and something small shut in the palm of her hand.
'The baron thanks you and sends you this,' she said, holding out a gold piece. 'And I have brought you this,' she added, filling the glass, 'because I know you like it.'
'Luck!' ejaculated Wastei, slipping the twenty-mark piece into the pocket of his waistcoat, and watching the white liquor as it rose nearer to the brim.
He took the glass, twisted it in his fingers, held it to the sun, and then looked again at Berbel.
'God greet,' he said, and tossed off the liquor in a trice. 'Luck!' he exclaimed again, as he smacked his lips.
'Why do you say luck, in that way?' asked the good woman.
'I will tell you, Frau Berbel,' answered Wastei, lowering his tone. 'It is the new coat that brought me luck to-day.'
'It is a good coat,' observed Berbel, in her usual manner.
'Well, I came by it through a gold piece and a drink of that same good stuff.'
'Cheap. It is a good coat.'
'Do you remember, after the devil had flown away with the old wolf of Greifenstein--'
'Hush, for mercy's sake!' exclaimed Berbel. 'You must not talk like that--'
'He was a wolf. I believe he would have torn a poor free-shot like me to pieces if he could. I had him after me once, and I remember his eyes. If he had been ten years younger and if I had not dropped through a hole I knew of so that he thought I had fallen over the Falcon Stone beyond Zavelstein, he would have caught me. He looked for my body two days with his keepers. Well, the devil got him, as you know, for he killed himself. And after that the young lord was ill and you sent me off at night for news, because Fraulein Hilda could not sleep. Well, you remember how I brought back the bad news, and a gold piece Herr Rex had given me, and which I supposed must be for your ladies because they had not many at that time, though I thought it queer. Good, and the baroness said it must be for me--you remember all that?'
'Very well,' replied Berbel, suppressing a smile by force of habit.
'So I took the gold piece, but I would not use it nor change it, for I said it was the price of bad news, though I owed the host at the Ox three marks and a half at the time. I took my gold piece and I put it in a safe place, where nobody would have thought of looking for it.'
'Where was that?' asked Berbel, as he paused.
'Well, if you want to know, I will tell you. There is a place in the forest, called Waldeck, where there is a ruined castle, and before the gate there are three trees and a stump of an old tree farther on--it is all thick and full of brushwood and pines and birches, so that my three trees look very much like the others, but when you have found them, you must take a straight line from the right hand one to the stump--you will find it if you look, and then go on past the stump about a hundred ells, always straight, and then you will come to a flat stone; and the stone is loose so that it turns round easily, if you are strong enough to move it, and underneath it there is a deep hole. I put my gold piece at the bottom of this hole and set a heavy stone upon it, and then I got out and drew the big stone into its place, and went away. I did not think that any one would be likely to look for a twenty mark-piece just in that spot.'
'Improbable,' assented Berbel, her massive mouth twitching with amusement.
'Very. And I said to myself, Wastei, you're a brave fellow, and you shall starve to death rather than use the gold which is the price of bad news; but if the son of the old wolf gets well, and marries Frau Berbel's young lady, and if the good God sends them a boy, then, Wastei, you shall go and get the gold piece and spend it at the christening. You see Herr Rex had given me a drink with the money, just as you did, so that there was a chance of its turning out well after all, and I knew that--because if there had been no chance, why then, money is money, after all.'
'And so now you have bought a coat with it?'
'And what a coat! The Jew had had it in his shop for six months, but nobody could buy it because it was so dear.'
'The Jew?' inquired Berbel, looking sharply at Wastei.
'Yes--and do you know what I think, Frau Berbel?' Wastei lowered his voice to a whisper.
'I believe it is the coat the old wolf died in, and that is the reason it brings me luck.'
'What makes you think that?' inquired his companion, knitting her rough brows.
'There is a spot on the collar--here.' Wastei moved closer to her and presented himself sideways to Berbel pointing out the place with his finger. 'The Jew said it was from a rusty nail, or that it might be an ink-spot--but he is only a Jew. That is not rust, nor ink, Frau Berbel. That is the old wolf's last blood--on the right side, just under the ear. He would have shot me for a poacher, if he could, Frau Berbel. Well, I have got his coat, with his own mark on it.'
Berbel shuddered slightly, strong though she was. She liked Wastei, but she had often guessed that there was a latent ferocity in him which would come out some day.
'And how could the coat have come to the Jew's shop?' she asked, after a pause.
'You know they had a houseful of servants, all thieves from the city, and they were always getting new ones, instead of keeping honest folk from the estate. The young lord sent them all away and took his own people, God bless him. But on the night when they all died, the servants were alone in the house, before your lady got over there, and when she did, she could not do everything. I have heard that they buried them all in fine clothes. Well, in the confusion, you may be sure that one of the servants stole the coat with the blood on it, and as he expected to stay in the house, and could not have worn it himself, he took it to the Jew and sold it for what he could get. You see it looks likely, because the Jew would have waited at least a year before trying to sell it, for fear of being caught.'
'That is true,' said Berbel thoughtfully.
'I would not have told the story to any one else,' observed Wastei. 'But as you know everything, you may as well know this too.'
'What? Is there anything more?'
'Nothing particular,' answered Wastei. 'Except that there was a hole in the pocket,' he added carelessly. 'You see it was not quite new, or I could not have got it for twenty marks.'
'So there was a hole in the pocket,' said Berbel. 'Do you want me to mend it for you?'
'No. I think I will leave it, for luck. Besides it is convenient, if I should want to let anything slip through, between the velvet and the lining.'
'That is true,' observed Berbel, watching him intently.
'A thing might lie a long time between the velvet and the lining of a coat in a Jew's shop,' remarked Wastei presently.
'Long enough for people not to want it, when it is found.'
'It depends on what it is.'
'A ticket for a lottery, for instance, would not be of much use after a year or two.'
'Not much, as you say,' assented Berbel, keeping her eye upon him.
'Or an old letter, either,' said Wastei with perfect indifference.
'That depends on the person to whom it is addressed.'
'A live son is better than a dead father. A message from the dead wolf would not make the christening of his grandson any merrier, would it, Frau Berbel?'
'Better leave dead people alone,' she answered, thoughtfully rubbing the mole on her chin.
'In God's peace,' said Wastei, lifting his small hat from his head. 'Or wherever else they may be,' he added, putting it on again.
There was a pause, during which Berbel reflected upon the situation, and Wastei leaned back against the grey wall, watching a hawk that was circling above the distant crags.
'What will you do with it?' asked Berbel, at last.
'Burn it, or give it to you--whichever you like.'
'You have not read it?'
'It is not the sign-board of an inn--if it were, I could. Besides, it is sealed. There is writing on the back, and I think there is a capital G among the letters. You see there was more than the spot on the collar to tell me whose the coat was.'
'It is true that the baron always expected to find a letter from his father,' said Berbel. 'It looks probable, this story of yours.'
'Do you want the paper?' 'Yes. I will keep it in a safe place. In ten years, when there is no more sorrow about the old people, the baron may like to know that his father thought of him.'
'Better burn it,' suggested Wastei, pulling out a match-box, and fumbling in his unfamiliar pockets for the letter.
'I am not sure of that,' said Berbel, who knew that if she insisted, he would destroy it in spite of her. 'After all, Wastei, it is neither yours nor mine.'
'I bought it with the coat. I can burn it if I like,' said Wastei, striking a match and watching the white flame in the sunshine.
'Of course you can, if you like,' replied Berbel unmoved.
'Well, if you want it, there it is,' he said, throwing away the match and handing her the letter. 'Do not spoil the christening with it, Frau Berbel.'
She took the envelope with a great show of indifference and looked attentively at the superscription.
'Is it what I thought?' inquired Wastei.
'To my son Greif. That is what is written on it.'
'It is like the old wolf's manner,' said the other. 'He might have said Greifenstein at least. But I suppose the devil was in a hurry and could not wait for him to write it out. I am sure I would not have waited so long. God greet you, Frau Berbel.'
Wastei nodded and strode across the sunny court, well satisfied with himself. He had planned the whole meeting, with the useless craftiness of a born woodman. Several days had elapsed since he had bought the coat and found the letter in the lining. In spite of his pretended ignorance he could read well enough to make out the address, and he had come to the conclusion that Berbel was the person to be trusted. He would not for the world have destroyed the precious missive, but he was equally determined neither to keep it himself nor to mar the joy of the Sigmundskrons' festivities by putting it into Greif's own hands. He had known Berbel for many years and he was sure of her discretion. She would keep it until the proper moment was come, and would give it to the right person in the end. But he had not been able to resist the temptation of making a profound mystery of the matter and he prided himself upon the effective way in which he had executed his scheme. Three words would have sufficed, but he had passed more than half an hour very agreeably in Berbel's company. And Berbel, little guessing the tremendous import of what she held in her hand, had been interested by the long story. It did not enter her mind that the letter could be anything but a word of affectionate farewell, at the time Wastei gave it into her keeping. Intelligent and keen as she was, for a woman of her class, it nevertheless did not occur to her that she was putting into her pocket the key to the mystery of eighteen months ago. The baroness had never spoken to her familiarly about the tragedy, and she took it for granted that the catastrophe was fully understood by the survivors, though they chose to keep its cause a secret among themselves. Hilda had indeed told her that poor Greif had received no message from his father, but as the baroness had never mentioned the letter to Rex, she supposed that both were in the same position.
Berbel carried the paper to her own room and put it into a strong wooden box with her own most sacred belongings, the few relics of her husband which she possessed, a dozen letters written to her during the war, an old button from his uniform, a faded bit of ribband which had carried the medal for the war of 1866, and which she had once replaced with a new one, a pair of his old soldier's gloves and a lock of his hair. It was all she had left of him, for he had fallen among hundreds and had been buried in the common trench. She envied her mistress nothing in the world except the two swords and the leathern helmet that had been Sigmundskron's--poor woman! Her husband had fought as bravely and had fallen on the same honourable field as his master, but she had nothing of his, but a little hair, a bit of ribband, a tarnished button and a pair of worn-out gloves. The rough-browed, hard-faced woman kissed each of her poor relics in turn before she closed the box, and the tears were in her eyes as she hid the key away.
She had not decided what to do with the letter, but on the whole it seemed wiser not to deliver it on that day. Indeed it would be almost impossible to do so, for any one not absolutely tactless and careless of others' feelings. Berbel was by no means sure, however, whether she should be justified in keeping it more than a few days. After all, it might possibly contain some message, or some especial injunction which Greif ought to receive at once. To keep such a document concealed for any length of time would have been wholly unjustifiable. On the other hand Berbel was not sure how such a disclosure might affect Greif. So far as she knew, his illness had been caused by the shock of his father's and mother's deaths, and it could not be foreseen whether a circumstance which must remind him so vividly of that catastrophe might not cause a return of the malady which had attacked his brain. Berbel wished she could consult some one and get good advice in the matter. The wisest person in the house was Rex, but for many reasons she would not go to him. It was not unnatural that, in her position, she should distrust Rex to a certain extent. In the first place he was the only member of the household with whom she had not been acquainted for years, and he was consequently the stranger in the establishment. Then, too, though he was so exceedingly clever, she could not grow accustomed to his eyes, and their expressionless stare haunted her when she was alone. Berbel did not believe that a man who looked almost blind and nevertheless saw so much better than other people could be really good and honest, since his appearance itself was a deception. How could a man have eyes with no pupils in them, and yet be able to tell a swift from a swallow as well as Wastei himself and at as great a distance? There was evidently something wrong about Rex, and Berbel preferred to trust any other member of the household.
For the rest, there was the baroness and there was Hilda. Either of them would give her good advice without doubt, but it was necessary to choose between them. Berbel was inclined to select Hilda, for she felt more at her ease with her than with Frau von Sigmundskron herself. Moreover it was natural to imagine that Hilda would understand Greif better than any one else, now that they had been married during nearly a year. On the other hand the baroness was older and wiser, though not so wise as Rex. The balance lay between the sympathy Berbel felt for the one, and the unbounded respect she felt for the other. She had taken care of Hilda from a child, and the girl had grown up feeling that Berbel was more a friend than a servant, as indeed she was; whereas the baroness, though sincerely attached to the good creature to whom she owed so much, and although overflowing with kindness towards her, could not get rid of the idea of all distinctions so far as to talk intimately with her upon family matters. This consideration, of which Berbel was well aware, ultimately turned the scale, and she determined to go to Hilda with the letter, while regretting that a lingering distrust of Rex's character prevented her from appealing to his fabulous wisdom.
The christening was a very grand ceremony, in the eyes of the village folk, and everything was done in the most approved fashion. It not being the custom in Germany to baptize children as soon as they are born, and as the anniversary of the wedding was not far distant, it was agreed to choose that day for giving a name to the heir of Sigmundskron.
'Call him Greif,' said the baroness, 'after his father.'
'Call him Kraft, for his grandfather,' said Berbel to Hilda, when they were alone.
'He has bright eyes,' said Greif. 'He shall be Sigmund.' And Sigmund he was called. Rex said nothing at first and could not be induced to give any opinion in the matter, though he strongly supported Greif's suggestion after it was once made.
Rex was thinking and his thoughts were very much confused. He would have greatly preferred to spend the festal day in solitude, but this was not possible, and he did his best to join in the rejoicings with a glad face. His efforts were successful, and he made a speech at the family dinner, half jesting, half in earnest, as he proposed Hilda's health, and the child's.
'I am much more accustomed to speaking in public than you would imagine,' he said, 'for I have often made long speeches among students, of which the beginning was beer, the middle beer and the end more beer. For that matter, Greif has done the same, and I have been among those who applauded his eloquence. This, however, is a very different affair --as you will no doubt perceive. For, instead of students, I have two noble dames and a philistine for my audience, and instead of beer and Alma Mater, I have for a subject the beauty, the virtues and the deeds of Sigmund von Sigmundskron and of his own especial alma mater, his dear mother. I must trust to her, in the unavoidable absence of Baron Sigmund, due to a tendency to sleep, superinduced by baptism and other things, to convey to him the substance of my words. Nearly a thousand years ago, if there be any truth in history, Sigmund the Bright-eyed came hither with his men and built this hall, in which we are now to drink the health of another bright-eyed Sigmund. In this very place, perhaps upon this very spot, he feasted and wassailed with his warriors, and drained his horn to the future glories of his name. His grand old spirit is with us to-night, rejoicing as we rejoice, quaffing the brown Walhalla-brew while we sip the nectar of the Rhine Nixies. For many a long year he has sat gloomy and mournful and full of sadness before his untasted horn, watching with his wonderful eyes the single silken thread that bore all the fate of his race, hoping and not daring to hope, fearing and refusing to fear--he who dared all things and feared nothing.'
Rex paused a moment and his colour changed a little. There was a ring of deepest emotion in his voice when he continued.
'The thread has not been broken,' he said. 'The strain was fearful and the danger greater than can be told. One of the silken strands parted, the other has borne the weight that was meant for both. One of the two beings, in whom ran that good and true blood, was taken--in glory; the other is left--to be, in peace, the mother of many a brave Sigmund yet unborn, the mother, first, of him to whom we have given to-day the spotless name his fathers bore.'
He paused again and lifted high the great beaker of old Rhine wine.
'She--our dear Hilda, can neither guess nor know the love we bear her,' he said, and suddenly the fire that was so rarely seen flashed in his eyes. 'But she shall know it and feel it, one day, in the love we shall bear her son. Drink, all of you the best health the world holds! Drink to Hilda and to Sigmund the younger, drink to the great spirit of the first Sigmund, and to all his glorious line for ever! Drink to the hope that, as a thousand years ago he drank to Hilda, so we may be draining this health to a son of Hilda's who may sit here a thousand years from to-day! To Hilda! To Sigmund! Hoch, Sigmundskron, Hoch!'
The four voices rang together, even the baroness joining in the cheer. Rex and Greif drained their glasses to the last drop, and each tapped the rim upon his nail; then, with one accord, as though to carry out the ancient custom to its barbaric completeness, both dashed their beakers against the opposite wall, so that they were shivered into a thousand splinters. It is a strange old manner, and the purpose of it is that a glass honoured by a noble and solemn health, may never be defiled by ordinary use again.
Rex sat down in his place and did not speak for some time. He was overcome by an emotion altogether beyond his own comprehension. Unconsciously, in proposing the health, he had identified himself altogether with the race of which he spoke, and for the first time in his life had lost himself in the excitement of the moment. He tried to recall what he had said, but his heart was beating so fast that he could hardly think. He had not meant to say much, he had assuredly not prepared the little speech, and he had most certainly not expected to be carried away by his own words. Hitherto, when he had been obliged to speak of anything with a certain degree of feeling, out of regard for others, he had been conscious of coldly picking and choosing his expressions to suit the sentiment he was supposed to entertain. He had thought he could do the same now; he had begun with a trivial jest about student life; he had been enticed into a bit of rhetoric about old Sigmund; he had forgotten himself altogether when he spoke of Hilda; and he had ended in a sort of burst of enthusiasm that would have done credit to a hot-headed boy of twenty. He was altogether unconscious as to whether his hearers had been pleased or not.
The baroness, whose feeling about Sigmundskron almost amounted to a religious fervour, sat quite still for a few seconds, and then dried her eyes cautiously as though she were afraid of being noticed. Hilda looked at Rex, wondering what the real nature of the strange man might be, pleased by what he had said and yet surprised that he should have said so much. Rex met her fixed gaze and turned his head away instantly. Greif took a fresh glass. 'Your health, my dear Rex,' he said. He always called him Rex from old habit.
'Your health, dear cousin Horst!' exclaimed Hilda.
Rex started, and took the beaker nearest to him.
'I drink to Hilda's mother,' he said in an odd voice. He looked towards Frau von Sigmundskron, but in her place there seemed to sit another woman, one so like Hilda's self that no human eye could have detected a point in which the one did not resemble the other. He raised the glass to his lips. It was empty, and his lips met only the air.
'Fill before drinking!' laughed Greif.
Rex's hand trembled, as he set down the goblet. The mistake was rectified in an instant and Rex drank the baroness's health. This time as he looked at her, he saw her white hair and delicate thin face in all their reality. The shadow was gone. He had pledged its emptiness in an empty glass.
That night his light burned late, and the owls, if they had looked, might have seen his shadow pass and repass many hundreds of times behind the curtain of the open window. Hour after hour he paced his lonely room, asking himself the meaning of what was happening in his brain. It seemed to him that he was suffering from an extraordinary hallucination, which he had indulged until it had taken possession of his whole being. Again and again he went back to the first beginnings of his fancy, recalling the time when he had begun to construct out of nothing a love for himself in the past, imagining for Hilda an imaginary mother, who should have been his own imaginary wife. He cursed the puerility of the thought, and yet returned to it again and again in search of the sweet, sad peace he had so often found in his fancied memories. But that was gone. The scenes he had created grew dull and lost their colour, he forgot the very points which had most pleased him once. And yet he was conscious of acute suffering. It was but a few hours since he had lifted that empty goblet to his lips, and had seen distinctly before him the shadow he loved so well. How was it possible? There was a chair--he had lifted his hand thus--and she had been there. Suddenly his arm was arrested in the very act of the gesture, he grew icy cold, and his stony eyes set themselves in a horrified stare. A cry of despair burst from his lips.
'Great God in Heaven--I love Hilda!'
That was all, and there was silence in the lonely chamber for many hours.
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