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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.
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