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When Berbel had hidden the precious letter among her possessions, she had firmly intended to keep it for some time, before giving it to its owner, but she had not excluded from her calculations the possibility of consulting Hilda upon the matter. In the hurry and confusion of the christening day it had seemed to the good woman that she might wait an indefinite time, leaving Greif in ignorance of the writing, while he grew daily better able to bear such a sudden and vivid quickening of past horrors, as must be brought about in his mind when he should read his father's message. It appeared to Berbel both wiser and kinder to hide the letter for a long time.
The day had passed off to the satisfaction of every one, and Berbel certainly deserved a share in the success of the christening. She had been indefatigable, wise and provident in all things, just as she had been in the old times when a penny meant more than a gold piece now. She had superintended everything and everybody, from the baby Sigmund to Greif himself, from the christening cake to the potato dumplings of the labourers' feast. Nothing had escaped her quick eyes, or her ready memory, and all had gone well to the end.
But when all was over Berbel was tired, and she was fain to acknowledge that she was not the woman she had been twenty years before. She was tired with the long day's work and slept, instead of meditating upon the letter, as she had meant to do. Moreover sleep brought a wiser judgment to her refreshed brain, and when she awoke in the morning she resolved to consult Hilda without delay. Once more she opened her treasure safe and took out the sealed envelope, and looked at it attentively; not that she meant to run the risk of carrying it about with her, but because she wished to fix its appearance in her mind, in order to describe it to Hilda. There was nothing remarkable about the outward look of the letter except, perhaps, the superscription, in which Wastei had detected something of old Greifenstein's roughness. But Berbel thought it quite natural that he should have addressed it simply, 'To my son Greif,' as he had done. To her mind it was more affectionate, and looked better than if he had written 'Seiner Hochwohlgeboren Herrn Greif von Greifenstein.' She looked closely at the thing, turning it over and examining it with the utmost attention. But there was nothing worth noticing beyond what she saw at first. The writing was large, heavy and clear, and the envelope was sealed with wax bearing the impress of the Greifenstein arms. There could not be more than one sheet of paper inside, for the letter was very thin. Berbel was somewhat surprised to find it in such good condition, considering that it had lain between the linings of a coat for more than a year and a half, but she reflected that during that time it had been carefully preserved, most probably in a chest or drawer in the recesses of the Jew's shop, and that, after all, there was no particular reason why it should be torn, or stained, or otherwise injured, as though it had been handed about from one person to another ever since it had been written. The pristine freshness of the paper was certainly a little tarnished, and there were a few insignificant creases on its smooth surface; but, on the whole, the letter looked as though it might have been written but a few weeks before it had fallen into Berbel's hands. It struck the good woman that Hilda would certainly wish to hear the whole story of Wastei's discovery, which was strange enough, indeed; and that when she had heard it, that would not be all, for if they decided to give Greif the letter at once, he also must know whence it came.
For a moment Berbel conceived it possible that it might not, after all, contain a farewell communication, since there was nothing to show that it had really been written on the fatal night, but the idea would not bear examination, and when she laid the envelope once more in its place in her box she was firmly persuaded that it contained old Greifenstein's last words to his son. The longer she thought of this, the more she wondered how on the previous day she could have meditated keeping it from Greif for any length of time. Her motive had assuredly been to save him pain if possible, but at present she saw the whole matter in a different light. At the most, she thought, he might be saddened for a day or two by this message from another world, but it was better that he should suffer a little at present than that he should continue to fancy that his father had forgotten him in his last moments. Berbel was by no means without her share of the national military instinct, which will face annoyance in any shape, or impose it upon others rather than allow a duty of any kind to be eluded, or the execution of its mandates postponed. Better for Greif, she thought, that the matter should be settled at once, better for herself, better for everybody. Delay might be fatal. She herself might die suddenly, and the letter would be found among her belongings. What would be thought of her by her beloved mistress if it were discovered that she had concealed so precious a document? Or Greif might die, without ever knowing that his father had written--a hundred misfortunes might occur to prevent the letter reaching the hands for which it was destined. There was no time like the present, thought the sturdy Berbel, and no day like to-day for doing unpleasant things which could not be avoided.
It was necessary to find an opportunity of speaking with Hilda alone, without danger of interruption, and as soon as possible. It was yet early morning, and Hilda was in all probability still asleep, dreaming of the festivities of the previous day, but it would be important to know whether Greif was up or not, and whether he intended to leave the castle during the morning. Berbel left her room and went down to the court. The men were sure to know if Greif had meant to go into the forest or to stay at home, as he would certainly have given orders for some one to accompany him. He was not like his father, who had loved to tramp all day alone, wearying himself out, and coming home late in the evening, in the perpetual attempt to make the days seem short. Greif was by nature gregarious, and was not satisfied with the society of his dogs, but usually took a couple of men with him, when he could not prevail upon Rex to join in his expeditions.
Berbel went into the court and asked a few questions, carelessly enough. It was a warm morning and the men seemed sleepy after the carousal of the previous night. None of them had received any orders for the day, and those who had anything to do went about their occupations in a leisurely fashion, slowly and deliberately, while those who had no work sat together in a shady corner smoking their porcelain pipes, and discussing the festive reminiscences of the christening, enjoying their idleness as very strong men can, who habitually work hard and say little. It was evident that nothing would be done on that day, and it was probable that Greif would stay at home. Berbel turned away and went towards the entrance of the hall. She was about to go in when she heard footsteps behind her, and on looking round saw Wastei striding up with his long, greyhound step.
'God greet you, Frau Berbel,' he said, coming nearer.
He was no longer arrayed in his magnificent velvet coat as on the previous day. Such finery was only for the greatest festivities, and at present he wore no jacket at all, but a rough waistcoat with metal buttons, which hung loose and open over his shirt, and he had a bundle under his arm.
'Good morning, Wastei,' answered Berbel, fixing her sharp eyes upon him with a look of inquiry. She wondered why he had come.
'I have brought you something,' he remarked, standing still before her, and tapping the bundle he carried with one hand.
'More trout?' inquired Berbel with a twitching smile. 'There is no gold to be picked up to-day, Master Wastei.'
'Unfortunately,' he answered. 'But then one can never know,' he added reflectively.
'Out with it!' exclaimed Berbel who was not in a humour for long conversations.
'Out with it is soon said,' returned the other. 'It is a serious matter. Do you think I can chatter like a magpie without thinking of what I am to say?'
'Then think, and be quick about it, or I shall go in.'
'Oh, if you are in a hurry, you may take the bundle without any explanation,' replied Wastei, holding it out towards her. Berbel took it, and felt it, as though trying to guess what it contained.
'What is it?' she asked at length, as her imagination failed to suggest the nature of the contents.
'It is my coat,' said Wastei. 'The old wolf's coat, if you like it better.'
'And what am I to do with your coat?' inquired Berbel. In spite of the question she had thrust the bundle under one arm and held it firmly, with the evident intention of keeping it.
'When you have given the letter to the baron, you might be so kind as to mend the pocket for me,' said Wastei calmly.
'But I told you I should perhaps wait some time before giving the letter.'
'Yes--but you have thought about that in the night,' answered Wastei keenly. 'You will not wait much longer than to-day.'
'What makes you think that?'
'It would not be like you, Frau Berbel,' said the man, with affected indifference.
'Perhaps not,' replied Berbel, smiling unconsciously at the subtle flattery bestowed upon her scrupulously honest character. 'Perhaps not. I had thought of it, as you say.'
'And I had thought that unless the old wolf's coat were there with the hole in the pocket, Frau Berbel might not be able to make it quite clear that Master Wastei had spoken the truth. But if the truth is quite clear, why then--' he paused, as though he did not care what might happen in such a case.
Berbel looked at him for a moment, and then laughed a little, a phenomenon which with her was exceedingly unusual.
'You are really not stupid at all,' she remarked. The ghost of a smile played about Wastei's thin lips as he turned his eyes upon her. Their expression was at once keen, cunning and good-natured.
'Nobody ever said I was particularly dull,' he answered.
'Then you want me to show the coat, together with the letter?'
'But when they know that it belonged to Herr von Greifenstein, they will wish to keep it, will they not?'
'Of course,' repeated Wastei.
'And then, when they find that you have bought it honestly, they will want to buy it of you.'
'And you gave twenty marks for it?'
'And you think they will give you more for it, though I shall tell them just what it cost you at the Jew's?'
'You are not stupid, Wastei. You are not stupid at all. But I thought you imagined the coat would bring you luck. I wonder that you want to part with it!'
'Do you? Is it not luck if I get more for it than it cost at the Jew's?' The man's eyes twinkled as he spoke.
'There is certainly something in what you say,' answered Berbel. 'I am not surprised that you got it so cheap. You understand a bargain, I see.'
'And you will be glad, too, Frau Berbel, when you have to explain how the letter was found,' said Wastei thoughtfully. 'You will be glad to have the coat in your hands to show, and if they like, they can go to the Jew and he will tell them that I bought it only the other day.'
'You are quite sure you are telling the truth, Wastei?'
'I always do, now that I have a gun license,' he answered. 'You see, the truth is best for people who have anything to lose.' 'Fie, Wastei!' exclaimed Berbel, half inclined to smile at his odd philosophy, but unwilling to let him see that she could appreciate a jest upon so moral a subject.
'It is true, Frau Berbel. Not that I ever lied much, either, though I have told some smart tales to the foresters in the old days, when I was a free-shot in the forest, and they were always trying to catch me with a hare in my pocket--and to you too, Frau Berbel, when I used to make you think the game was all right. What did it matter, so long as you had it to eat, you and--well, those were queer times. I suppose you have game whenever you like, now, do you not?'
'Ay, Wastei--I sometimes could not find any lead in your hares--'
'That made them lighter to carry and more wholesome to eat,' observed the other with a chuckle.
'And I had my doubts about them, of course--'
'But you did not ask many questions--not very many--did you?'
'Not always, Wastei,' answered Berbel with a twitch of the lips. 'You see I thought it best to believe you, and to treat you like an honest fellow. There were reasons--'
'Better than doubts, especially when the hare was dead and lying on your kitchen table. Well, well, those times are gone now, and if I ever shot a hare or a roebuck without lead, or pulled the trout out of the stream without making a hole in his nose, why I have forgotten it, and I will not do it again, I promise you. I am growing old, Frau Berbel, I am growing old.'
'And wise, I hope--'
'When a man is young he can do without a gun license,' observed Wastei. 'When the years begin to come, he wants that and other things too. May- wine in May, Frau Berbel, and brown beer in October.'
'And all the cherry spirits you can pick up, between times, I suppose. What are the other things?'
'A good house to live in, and a good wife to roll the potato dumplings. These are two things that are good when the grey years come.'
'You put the house before the wife, I see,' remarked Berbel.
'Because if I had a good house I could have the good wife fast enough. Wastei is not so dull as he looks. He has looked about him in the world. Ay, Frau Berbel, now if you were thinking of being married and had your choice of two men, would you choose the one with a house or the one without? It is a simple question.' 'Very simple, Master Wastei,' answered Berbel, stiffening her stiff neck a little. 'So simple that it is of no use to think about it, nor even to ask it. When do you want your coat back?'
'I want a coat, but not that one--whenever you please. But do not hurry yourself, for I shall not catch cold, and my sweetheart does not care whether I have one or not.'
'So you have a sweetheart, have you?'
'Ay, and a treasure, too--in my waistcoat pocket,' explained Wastei, showing the shining edge of the gold piece he had received on the previous day. 'She has yellow hair, like the lady Hilda's, and a golden heart like Frau Berbel's--I only wish she were as big.'
'Fie, Wastei--making compliments at this time of day, and to an old woman!'
'Old friends, old logs, old spirits,' observed Wastei. 'We have known each other a long time, Frau Berbel, in good and bad days, summer and winter, and you have always been the same to me.'
'Small credit for that!' exclaimed Berbel. 'You have done me many a good turn in twenty years, and my ladies too, and you have never got much by it, that I can see--more praise to you!'
'Nonsense!' ejaculated Wastei, who was visibly affected by the speech. 'God greet you, Frau Berbel!' he added, turning away abruptly and leaving her standing alone in the court.
Berbel looked after him for a few seconds, and there was an unusually tender expression in her sharp eyes, as she watched his retreating figure. He had been a wild fellow in his day, a daring poacher, an intrepid drinker of fiery cherry spirits, always the first in a fight and the last out of it, the terror of the head forester and his men, the object of old Greifenstein's inveterate hatred, the admiration of the village maidens for twenty miles around, the central figure in a hundred adventures and hairbreadth escapes of all kinds, and yet, as though he were miraculously preserved from harm, he had always managed to keep out of trouble, and though many a time suspected of making free with the game, yet never convicted, nor even brought to a trial. It had been impossible to catch him and impossible to prove anything against him. At last the head forester, who had a secret reverence for his extraordinary powers of endurance and unrivalled skill in woodcraft, had made terms with him and employed him as a sort of supernumerary upon the government establishment. From that day, Wastei, who would have waged war to the death with all regular foresters, had surrendered at discretion to the kindness shown him, and had given up poaching for ever. Berbel could not help liking him, and being grateful to him for many a good turn he had done the poor ladies at Sigmundskron. She had often distrusted him at first, but after twenty years' acquaintance and friendship she owned, as she watched him stride away, that he had a heart of gold, as he had said of her but a few moments earlier.
It seemed as though circumstances pointed clearly to the course she had intended to pursue, for since Wastei had brought her the coat it was no longer possible to put off the execution of her purpose. She determined to obtain an interview with Hilda as soon as possible and to place both the garment and the letter in her hands. The reasoning she followed in selecting Hilda for her confidence has been sufficiently explained already. The intimacy existing between the two made such a plan seem most natural to her, Hilda's strong and sensible nature made it safe, the difficulty of the mission, so far as Greif was concerned, made it appear wisest to leave the matter to his wife's wisdom and tact. Berbel went upstairs with her bundle under her arm.
Though Hilda had not risen quite so early as her old servant, she was by this time dressed and ready for the morning walk Greif liked so much in the summer time. Berbel met them both in one of the passages, walking quickly, arm in arm, talking and laughing happily as they went. Berbel would have let them pass, seeing that Hilda was not alone, had not the latter stopped and asked a question.
'What have you got there, Berbel?' she inquired, looking at the bundle.
'It is a very important matter,' answered Berbel. 'And if you could spare me a few minutes--'
'Is it really important?' asked Hilda, leaning on her husband's arm.
'Very. And if you could spare the time--' Berbel looked at Greif.
'Very well,' said the latter. 'I have plenty to do, dear. Finish your business with Berbel and meet me on the tower--there is a man waiting for me, I believe.'
Thereupon Greif went on his way down the broad corridor, leaving Hilda and Berbel to their own devices.
'What is it?' asked Hilda, who wanted to lose no time in rejoining her husband.
'It is a very serious affair, and concerns the baron,' answered Berbel. 'Perhaps it would be better if you would come to my room.'
Hilda followed her, wondering what could have happened, and not without some presentiment of evil. When they had reached their destination Berbel carefully bolted the door and turned to her mistress. It was a small bright room, vaulted and whitewashed, simply but comfortably furnished. Hilda sat down and looked up at Berbel's face, somewhat anxiously.
'It is nothing bad,' said Berbel. 'But it will give pain to the baron, and so I consulted you. I have found a letter written to him by Herr von Greifenstein on the night he died. No one but you can give it to him.'
Hilda started slightly. Anything which recalled the fearful tragedy was necessarily painful and disturbing to the peace of her unclouded happiness.
'A letter?' she repeated in a low voice. 'Where did you find it? They searched everywhere for months. Are you quite sure?'
'They might have searched for ever, but for the merest accident,' answered Berbel, beginning to undo her bundle. 'This,' she added, unfolding the velvet garment--'this is the coat Herr von Greifenstein wore when he shot himself.'
Hilda gazed silently at the thing during several seconds, and shuddered at the thoughts it recalled, though she was by no means persuaded that Berbel was not mistaken.
'How do you know it is?' she asked at last.
'It was stolen on that night by one of those city servants who were always at Greifenstein. Your mother did not notice it. The man took it to a Jew, who kept it a year and then hung it up for sale. A few days ago Wastei bought it to wear at the christening.' 'But how did he know?' 'He guessed it, and found these marks.'
Berbel showed the collar of the coat to Hilda, putting her finger on each spot in succession.
'It looks like rust,' said Hilda.
'It is the blood of Herr von Greifenstein,' answered Berbel solemnly. 'The ball went in just below the right ear, as I have heard your mother say more than once.'
'How horrible!' exclaimed Hilda, drawing back, though her eyes remained riveted on the rusty marks.
'It is not gay,' said Berbel grimly. 'Now look here. Do you see the pocket? Yes. Well, do you see that the lining is torn just above it? Good. Herr von Greifenstein wrote his letter and slipped it into his pocket, because he was thinking of other things at that moment, and paid no attention to what he did, which was natural enough, poor gentleman. But instead of putting it into the pocket, he happened to slip it through the slit, so that it fell down between the coat and the lining. Do you see?'
'And then he pulled the trigger of his pistol and died. The letter was hidden in the coat, the coat was stolen, taken to the Jew's and sold to Wastei eighteen months later, with the letter still in it. And Wastei brought me the letter yesterday, and the coat to-day. That is the whole history.'
'Where is it--the letter?' asked Hilda in an anxious tone.
Berbel unlocked her little deal chest and withdrew the precious document, which she put into Hilda's hand. Hilda turned it over and over, and looked from it to the coat, and back again to the sealed envelope, reading the address again and again.
'It is a strange story,' she said at last. 'But I do not see that there can be any doubt. O Berbel, Berbel! What do you think there is written inside this little bit of paper?'
'A few words to say good-bye to his son, I suppose,' the woman answered.
'If it were only that--' Hilda did not finish the sentence, but her face grew slowly pale and she stared vacantly out of the window, while the hand that held the letter rested on her knee.
'I do not see that it can be anything else,' said Berbel quietly. 'It cannot be a will, for they found everything about the property. What could the poor gentleman say except "Good-bye," and "God bless you"? It seems very simple to me. Of course I knew that it would make the baron very sad to read it, and so I came to you, because I knew you could find just the right moment to give it to him, and just the right words to say, and it seemed wrong in me to keep it even a day. At first, I thought I ought to put it away and wait a year or two, until he had quite forgotten the first shock--but then--'
'Thank heaven you did not!' exclaimed Hilda.
'Well, I am glad I have pleased you,' observed Berbel in her sharp, good-natured way.
'Pleased? Oh, anything would have pleased me better than this thing! It is dreadful, after all this time has passed--'
'But, after all,' suggested Berbel, 'it is only the affair of a day or two, and the baron will be very glad, afterwards, to feel that his father had not forgotten him.'
'You do not understand,' answered Hilda with increasing anxiety. 'We never knew why they killed themselves--it is an awful secret, and the explanation is in this letter.'
'You never knew!' cried Berbel in great astonishment. It had not entered her comprehension that the real facts could be unknown, though they had never been communicated to herself.
'No--neither I nor my husband, and I had hoped that as all has turned out happily we might never know. It would have been far better, far better!'
'Yes, far better,' echoed Berbel, whose simple calculations had been upset by the news, and who began to wish that the coat had fallen into other hands.
Hilda sat quite still, thinking what she should do. The situation was painful from its very simplicity, for it was assuredly her duty to go to her husband and give him the letter, telling him the whole truth at once. He had a right to receive the message from his dead father without a moment's delay, and she knew it, though she hesitated at the thought of what might follow. Her beautiful young face was pale with anxiety, and her bright eyes were veiled by sad thoughts. Poor Berbel was terribly distressed at the result of her discovery and tried to imagine some means of improving the situation.
'If you would let me,' she said, at last, 'I would take the letter to the baron and explain--if it would hurt you--'
'You? I?' cried Hilda almost fiercely. 'It is of him I am thinking, and of what he will suffer. What does it matter for me? It is my duty, and I must do it--am I his wife only when the sun shines and we are happy? Ah, Berbel, you should know better than that!'
'I only wanted to spare you,' said Berbel humbly.
Hilda looked up quickly and then took the old servant's hand kindly in hers.
'I know,' she said softly. 'But you must think first of him, always--if you love me. Berbel--are you perfectly sure that all this is true and real, that no wicked person is trying to do us some harm?'
'I am as sure as I can be--Wastei said I might ask the Jew, if I pleased.'
'It is true--it is Wastei. Unless he is mistaken himself there can be no doubt, then. But it is all so strange!'
It was stranger still, perhaps, that Wastei's name should be enough to dispel in Hilda's mind all doubts as to the truth of the story, and yet she would have believed the wild, kind-hearted free-shot sooner than many a respectable member of society.
'Put away the coat, Berbel,' she said after a pause. 'He will not need to see it when he has read the letter, and it would hurt him, as it hurts me.'
'Shall I give it back to Wastei?' inquired Berbel, folding it up.
'No, oh no! Put it away carefully where it will be safe, but where no one will ever see it again.'
'Wastei gave twenty marks for it,' observed Berbel. 'It is not fair that he should lose his money.' She could not help speaking a good word for her old friend.
'Give him forty to buy a new one. He has been honest, very honest.' Hilda sighed, thinking, perhaps, of all the pain that might have been spared, if Wastei had put the letter into the fire, instead of giving it to Berbel.
The good woman carefully folded the coat and hid it away in the recesses of a huge press that filled the end of the room. Then she rolled up the coloured handkerchief and put it into her pocket.
'It is Wastei's,' she said, as her mistress watched her.
The disappearance of the coat recalled to Hilda the duty of acting immediately, and she rose from her seat with a heavy heart. As she was about to leave the room a thought crossed her mind, and she stopped.
'Berbel,' she said, 'my mother must never know that this has been found, or at least, you must never speak of it to her or to any one, and you must tell Wastei to hold his tongue. She has had sorrow enough in her life, and we need not add any more, now that she is so happy.'
'Good,' answered Berbel. 'I will not talk about it, and as for Wastei, I would trust him with anything.'
Hilda slipped the fatal letter into the bosom of her frock and went in search of her husband.
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