AND OTHER TALES
By Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian
Uncle Christian's Inheritance
A Night In The Woods:—
PRELIMINARY NOTE BY THE TRANSLATOR.
It has often been remarked, with perfect justice, that the eminent French writers, a translation of one of whose works is here attempted, are singularly faithful in their adherence to historic truth. Remove the thread of obvious fiction which is indispensable to make these admirable productions romances or tales, and what we have left is perfectly reliable history. It is this feature mainly which gives the indescribable charm to their historical tales—a charm powerfully realised in the original, though less appreciable in an imperfect translation.
The same claim to perfect truthfulness in all essential points may be placed to the credit of the following "Roman Populaire," notwithstanding the startling supernatural element on which the story is founded. Erckmann-Chatrian have not thought it right or necessary to depart in this case from their practice of abstaining from all prefaces or notes in every edition of their works. Yet perhaps the translator may be forgiven, and even condoned with thanks, if he ventures upon an explanation tending to show that the tale of Hugh the Wolf is not entirely founded upon superstition and the supernatural.
"Let his heart be changed from man's, and let a beast's heart be given unto him!" Such was the sentence pronounced and executed upon him of Babylon whose pride called for abasement from the Lord. Dr. Mead (Medica Sacra, p. 59) observes that there was known among the ancients a mental disorder called lycanthropy, the victims of which fancied themselves wolves, and went about howling and attacking and tearing sheep and young children (Aetius, Lib. Med. vi., Paul AEgineta, iii. 16). So, again, Virgil tells of the daughters of Praetus, who fancied themselves to be cows, and running wildly about the pastures, "implerunt falsis mugitibus agros."—Ecl. vi. 48. This horrible disease appears happily to have been a rare one, and recoveries from it have taken place, for it is not destructive of the sufferer's life. It has even been thoroughly cured after a lapse of many years.
Dr. Pusey (Notes on Daniel, p. 425), in a disquisition of great fulness upon the disease of Nebuchadnezzar, refers to a communication which he received from Dr. Browne, a Commissioner of the Board of Lunacy for Scotland, in which he says, "My opinion is that in all mental powers or conditions the idea of personal identity is but rarely enfeebled, and that it is never extinguished. The ego and non-ego may be confused; the ego, however, continues to preserve the personality. All the angels, devils, dukes, lords, kings, "gods many" that I have had under my care remained what they were before they became angels, dukes, etc., in a sense, and even nominally. I have seen a man declaring himself the Saviour or St. Paul sign himself James Thomson, and attend worship as regularly as if the notion of divinity had never entered into his head."
Esquirol, a very trustworthy writer, has a description of an extraordinary outbreak of lycanthropy in France (in the Jura, at Dole, and other places in Eastern France) in the 16th century.
"This terrible affliction began to manifest itself in France in the 15th century, and the name of 'loups-garous' has been given to the sufferers. These unhappy beings fly from the society of mankind and live in the woods, the cemeteries, or old ruins, prowling about the open country only by night, howling as they go. They let their beard and nails grow, and then seeing themselves armed with claws and covered with shaggy hair, they become confirmed in the belief that they are wolves. Impelled by ferocity or want, they throw themselves upon young children and tear, kill, and devour them." (Esquirol, Des Maladies Mentales, Paris, 1838, vol i., p. 521.) Those whom the French called loups-garous were in German termed werewolves.
It may be observed on this that when the nails of the fingers and toes are cut they grow indefinitely; but if they are allowed to grow unchecked they soon curve over the extremities, form talons or claws, and cease to grow—answering to the Scriptural account of the effects of the mental disorder of Nebuchadnezzar.
Of course for every case of real malady many were imputed or charged upon poor creatures, who were driven to madness by groundless charges of witchcraft and sorcery, and being loups-garous in secret. Many innocent people were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries burnt at the stake as wolves in human form.
A correspondent has kindly supplied the following information:—"When in Oude in India, twenty-six years ago, we heard of several instances of native babies being carried off out of the villages by she-wolves, and placed with their whelps, and brought up wild there; there was one about when we were there, partially reclaimed, but retaining much of the savage nature imbibed with the wolf's milk, and having been accustomed to go on all-fours—i.e., knees and elbows; but I conclude these were not affected with 'Lycanthropy.'"
With a few touches of his magic pencil the Laureate has drawn a powerful picture of such a state of things in ancient Britain, of which we can scarcely deny the literal faithfulness. It is not a poetic conception; it is historic truth:—
"And ever and anon the wolf would steal The children and devour; but now and then, Her own brood lost or dead, lent her fierce teat To human sucklings; and the children, housed In her foul den, there at their meat would growl, And mock their foster-mother on four feet, Till, straightened, they grew up to wolf-like men, Worse than the wolves."
Coming of Arthur.
The following tale, in which the lycanthropy is far from being altogether a mere effort of the imagination, appears to be founded upon the belief in the continued existence of this rare species of madness down to our own day—or near it—for the story seems to belong to the year 1832.
The English reader will not fail to notice the correspondence between the title and the well-known designation of the illustrious head of the noble house of Grosvenor. Whatever connection there may or may not be between that German Hugh Lupus of a thousand years ago and the truly British Hugh Lupus of our day, all the base qualities of his supposed progenitor have disappeared in him who is adorned with all the qualities which make the English nobility rank as the pride and the flower of our land.
F. A. M.
The Vicaraqe, Broughton-in-Furness.
About Christmas time in the year 18—, as I was lying fast asleep at the Cygne at Fribourg, my old friend Gideon Sperver broke abruptly into my room, crying—
"Fritz, I have good news for you; I am going to take you to Nideck, two leagues from this place. You know Nideck, the finest baronial castle in the country, a grand monument of the glory of our forefathers?"
Now I had not seen Sperver, who was my foster-father, for sixteen years; he had grown a full beard in that time, a huge fox-skin cap covered his head, and he was holding his lantern close under my nose. It was, therefore, only natural that I should answer—
"In the first place let us do things in order. Tell me who you are."
"Who I am? What! don't you remember Gideon Sperver, the Schwartzwald huntsman? You would not be so ungrateful, would you? Was it not I who taught you to set a trap, to lay wait for the foxes along the skirts of the woods, to start the dogs after the wild birds? Do you remember me now? Look at my left ear, with a frost-bite."
"Now I know you; that left ear of yours has done it; Shake hands."
Sperver, passing the back of his hand across his eyes, went on—
"You know Nideck?"
"Of course I do—by reputation; what have you to do there?"
"I am the count's chief huntsman."
"And who has sent you?"
"The young Countess Odile."
"Very good. How soon are we to start?"
"This moment. The matter is urgent; the old count is very ill, and his daughter has begged me not to lose a moment. The horses are quite ready."
"But, Gideon, my dear fellow, just look out at the weather; it has been snowing three days without cessation."
"Oh, nonsense; we are not going out boar-hunting; put on your thick coat, buckle on your spurs, and let us prepare to start. I will order something to eat first." And he went out, first adding, "Be sure to put on your cape."
I could never refuse old Gideon anything; from my childhood he could do anything with me with a nod or a sign; so I equipped myself and came into the coffee-room.
"I knew," he said, "that you would not let me go back without you. Eat every bit of this slice of ham, and let us drink a stirrup cup, for the horses are getting impatient. I have had your portmanteau put in."
"My portmanteau! what is that for?"
"Yes, it will be all right; you will have to stay a few days at Nideck, that is indispensable, and I will tell you why presently."
So we went down into the courtyard.
At that moment two horsemen arrived, evidently tired out with riding, their horses in a perfect lather of foam. Sperver, who had always been a great admirer of a fine horse, expressed his surprise and admiration at these splendid animals.
"What beauties! They are of the Wallachian breed, I can see, as finely formed as deer, and as swift. Nicholas, throw a cloth over them quickly, or they will take cold."
The travellers, muffled in Siberian furs, passed close by us just as we were going to mount. I could only discern the long brown moustache of one, and his singularly bright and sparkling eyes.
They entered the hotel.
The groom was holding our horses by the bridle. He wished us bon voyage, removed his hand, and we were off.
Sperver rode a pure Mecklemburg. I was mounted on a stout cob bred in the Ardennes, full of fire; we flew over the snowy ground. In ten minutes we had left Fribourg behind us.
The sky was beginning to clear up. As far as the eye could reach we could distinguish neither road, path, nor track. Our only company were the ravens of the Black Forest spreading their hollow wings wide over the banks of snow, trying one place after another unsuccessfully for food, and croaking, "Misery! misery!"
Gideon, with his weather-beaten countenance, his fur cloak and cap, galloped on ahead, whistling airs from the Freyschuetz; sometimes as he turned I could see the sparkling drops of moisture hanging from his long moustache.
"Well, Fritz, my boy, this is a fine winter's morning."
"So it is, but it is rather severe; don't you think so?"
"I am fond of a clear hard frost," he replied; "it promotes circulation. If our old minister Tobias had but the courage to start out in weather like this he would soon put an end to his rheumatic pains."
I smiled, I am afraid, involuntarily.
After an hour of this rapid pace Sperver slackened his speed and let me come abreast of him.
"Fritz, I shall have to tell you the object of this journey at some time, I suppose?"
"I was beginning to think I ought to know what I am going about."
"A good many doctors have already been consulted."
"Yes, some came from Berlin in great wigs who only asked to see the patient's tongue. Others from Switzerland examined him another way. The doctors from Paris stared at their patient through magnifying glasses to learn something from his physiognomy. But all their learning was wasted, and they got large fees in reward of their ignorance."
"Is that the way you speak of us medical gentlemen?"
"I am not alluding to you at all. I have too much respect for you, and if I should happen to break my leg I don't know that there is another that I should prefer to yourself to treat me as a patient, but you have not discovered an optical instrument yet to tell what is going on inside of us."
"How do you know that?"
At this reply the worthy fellow looked at me doubtfully as if he thought me a quack like the rest, yet he replied—
"Well, Fritz, if you have indeed such a glass it will be wanted now, for the count's complaint is internal; it is a terrible kind of illness, something like madness. You know that madness shows itself in either nine hours, nine days, or nine weeks?"
"So it is said; but not having noticed this myself, I cannot say that it is so."
"Still you know there are agues which return at periods of either three, six, or nine years. There are singular works in this machinery of ours. Whenever this human clockwork is wound up in some particular way, fever, or indigestion, or toothache returns at the very hour and day."
"Why, Gideon, I am quite aware of that; those periodical complaints are the greatest trouble we have."
"I am sorry to hear it, for the count's complaint is periodical; it comes back every year, on the same day, at the same hour; his mouth runs over with foam, his eyes stand out white and staring, like great billiard-balls; he shakes from head to foot, and he gnashes with his teeth."
"Perhaps this man has had serious troubles to go through?"
"No, he has not. If his daughter would but consent to be married he would be the happiest man alive. He is rich and powerful and full of honours. He possesses everything that the rest of the world is coveting. Unfortunately his daughter persists in refusing every offer of marriage. She consecrates her life to God, and it harasses him to think that the ancient house of Nideck will become extinct."
"How did his illness come on?" I asked.
"Suddenly, ten years ago," was the reply.
All at once the honest fellow seemed to be recollecting himself. He took from his pocket a short pipe, filled it, and having lighted it—
"One evening," said he, "I was sitting alone with the count in the armoury of the castle. It was about Christmas time. We had been hunting wild boars the whole day in the valleys of the Rhethal, and had returned at night bringing home with us two of our boar-hounds ripped open from head to tail. It was just as cold as it is to-night, with snow and frost. The count was pacing up and down the room with his chin upon his breast and his hands crossed behind him, like a man in profound thought. From time to time he stopped to watch the gathering snow on the high windows, and I was warming myself in the chimney corner, bewailing my dead hounds, and bestowing maledictions on all the wild boars that infest the Schwartzwald. Everybody at Nideck had been asleep a couple of hours, and not a sound could be heard but the tread and the clank of the count's heavy spurred boots upon the flags. I remember well that a crow, no doubt driven by a gust of wind, came flapping its wings against the window-panes, uttering a discordant shriek, and how the sheets of snow fell from the windows, and the windows suddenly changed from white to black—"
"But what has all this to do with your master's illness?" I interrupted.
"Let me go on—you will soon see. At that cry the count suddenly gathered himself together with a shuddering movement, his eyes became fixed with a glassy stare, his cheeks were bloodless, and he bent his head forward just like a hunter catching the sound of his approaching game. I went on warming myself, and I thought, 'Won't he soon go to bed now?' for, to tell you the truth, I was overcome with fatigue. All these details, Fritz, are still present in my memory. Scarcely had the bird of ill omen croaked its unearthly cry when the old clock struck eleven. At that moment the count turns on his heel—he listens, his lips tremble, I can see him staggering like a drunken man. He stretches out his hands, his jaws are tightly clenched, his eyes staring and white. I cried, 'My lord, what is the matter?' but he began to laugh discordantly like a madman, stumbled, and fell upon the stone floor, face downwards. I called for help; servants came round. Sebalt took the count by the shoulders; we removed him to a bed near the window; but just as I was loosening the count's neckerchief—for I was afraid it was apoplexy—the countess came and flung herself upon the body of her father, uttering such heartrending cries that the very remembrance of them makes me shudder."
Here Gideon took his pipe from his lips, knocked the ashes out upon the pommel of his saddle, and pursued his tale in a saddened voice.
"From that day, Fritz, none but evil days have come upon Nideck, and better times seem to be far off. Every year at the same day and hour the count has shuddering fits. The malady lasts from a week to a fortnight, during which he howls and yells so frightfully that it makes a man's blood run cold to hear him. Then he slowly recovers his usual health. He is still pale and weak, and moves trembling from one chair to another, starting at the least noise or movement, and fearful of his own shadow. The young countess, the sweetest creature in the world, never leaves his side; but he cannot endure her while the fit is upon him. He roars at her, 'Go, leave me this moment! I have enough to endure without seeing you hanging about me!' It is a horrible sight. I am always close at his heels in the chase, I who sound the horn when he has killed the forest beasts; I am at the head of all his retainers, and I would give my life for his sake; yet when he is at his worst I can hardly keep off my hands from his throat, I am so horrified at the way in which he treats his beautiful daughter."
Sperver looked dangerously wroth for a moment, clapped both his spurs to his mount, and we rode on at a hard gallop.
I had fallen into a reverie. The cure of a complaint of this description appeared to me more than doubtful, even impossible. It was evidently a mental disorder. To fight against it with any hope of success it would be needful to trace it back to its origin, and this would, no doubt, be too remote for successful investigation.
All these reflections perplexed me greatly. The old huntsman's story, far from strengthening my hopes, only depressed me—not a very favourable condition to insure success. At about three we came in sight of the ancient castle of Nideck on the verge of the horizon. In spite of the great distance we could distinguish the projecting turrets, apparently suspended from the angles of the edifice. It was but a dim outline barely distinguishable from the blue sky, but soon the red points of the Vosges became visible.
At that moment Sperver drew in his bridle and said—
"Fritz, we shall have to get there before night—onward!"
But it was in vain that he spurred and lashed. The horse stood rooted to the ground, his ears thrown back, his nostrils dilated, his sides panting, his legs firmly planted in an attitude of resistance.
"What is the matter with the beast?" cried Gideon in astonishment. "Do you see anything, Fritz? Surely—"
He broke off abruptly, pointing with his whip at a dark form in the snow fifty yards off, on the slope of the hill.
"The Black Plague!" he exclaimed with a voice of distress which almost robbed me of my self-possession.
Following the indication of his outstretched whip I discerned with astonishment an aged woman crouching on the snowy ground, with her arms clasped about her knees, and so tattered that her red elbows came through her tattered sleeves. A few ragged locks of grey hung about her long, scraggy, red, and vulture-like neck.
Strange to say, a bundle of some kind lay upon her knees, and her haggard eyes were directed upon distant objects in the white landscape.
Spencer drew off to the left, giving the hideous object as wide a berth as he could, and I had some difficulty in following him.
"Now," I cried, "what is all this for? Are you joking?"
"Joking?—assuredly not! I never joke about such serious matters. I am not given to superstition, but I confess that I am alarmed at this meeting!"
Then turning his head, and noticing that the old woman had not moved, and that her eyes were fixed upon the same one spot, he appeared to gather a little courage.
"Fritz," he said solemnly, "you are a man of learning—you know many things of which I know nothing at all. Well, I can tell you this, that a man is in the wrong who laughs at a thing because he can't understand it. I have good reasons for calling this woman the Black Plague. She is known by that name in the whole Black Forest, but here at Nideck she has earned that title by supreme right."
And the good man pursued his way without further observation.
"Now, Sperver, just explain what you mean," I asked, "for I don't understand you."
"That woman is the ruin of us all. She is a witch. She is the cause of it all. It is she who is killing the count by inches."
"How is that possible?" I exclaimed. "How could she exercise such a baneful influence?"
"I cannot tell how it is. All I know is, that on the very day that the attack comes on, at the very moment, if you will ascend the beacon tower, you will see the Black Plague squatting down like a dark speck on the snow just between the Tiefenbach and the castle of Nideck. She sits there alone, crouching close to the snow. Every day she comes a little nearer, and every day the attacks grow worse. You would think he hears her approach. Sometimes on the first day, when the fits of trembling have come over him, he has said to me, 'Gideon, I feel her coming.' I hold him by the arms and restrain the shuddering somewhat, but he still repeats, stammering and struggling with his agony, and his eyes staring and fixed, 'She is coming—nearer—oh—oh—she comes!' Then I go up Hugh Lupus's tower; I survey the country. You know I have a keen eye for distant objects. At last, amidst the grey mists afar off, between sky and earth, I can just make out a dark speck. The next morning that black spot has grown larger. The Count of Nideck goes to bed with chattering teeth. The next day again we can make out the figure of the old hag; the fierce attacks begin; the count cries out. The day after, the witch is at the foot of the mountain, and the consequence is that the count's jaws are set like a vice; his mouth foams; his eyes turn in his head. Vile creature! Twenty times I have had her within gunshot, and the count has bid me shed no blood. 'No, Sperver, no; let us have no bloodshed.' Poor man, he is sparing the life of the wretch who is draining his life from him, for she is killing him, Fritz; he is reduced to skin and bone."
My good friend Gideon was in too great a rage with the unhappy woman to make it possible to bring him back to calm reason. Besides, who can draw the limits around the region of possibility? Every day we see the range of reality extending more widely. Unseen and unknown influences, marvellous correspondences, invisible bonds, some kind of mysterious magnetism, are, on the one hand, proclaimed as undoubted facts, and denied on the other with irony and scepticism, and yet who can say that after a while there will not be some astonishing revelations breaking in in the midst of us all when we least expect it? In the midst of so much ignorance it seems easy to lay a claim to wisdom and shrewdness.
I therefore only begged Sperver to moderate his anger, and by no means to fire upon the Black Plague, warning him that such a proceeding would bring serious misfortune upon him.
"Pooh!" he cried; "at the very worst they could but hang me."
But that, I remarked, was a good deal for an honest man to suffer.
"Not at all," he cried; "it is but one kind of death out of many. You are suffocated, that is all. I would just as soon die of that as of a hammer falling on my head, as in apoplexy, or not to be able to sleep, or smoke, or swallow, or digest my food."
"You, Gideon, with your grey beard, you have learnt a peculiar mode of reasoning."
"Grey beard or not, that is my way of seeing things. I always keep a ball in my double-barrelled gun at the witch's service; from time to time I put in a fresh charge, and if I get the chance—"
He only added an expressive gesture.
"Quite wrong, Sperver, quite wrong. I agree with the Count of Nideck, and I say no bloodshed. Oceans cannot wipe away blood shed in anger. Think of that, and discharge that barrel against the first boar you meet."
These words seemed to make some impression upon the old huntsman; he hung down his head and looked thoughtful.
We were then climbing the wooded steeps which separate the poor village of Tiefenbach from the Castle of Nideck.
Night had closed in. As it always happens with us after a bright clear winter's day, snow was again beginning to fall, heavy flakes dropped and melted upon our horses' manes, who were beginning now to pluck up their spirits at the near prospect of the comfortable stable.
Now and then Sperver looked over his shoulder with evident uneasiness; and I myself was not altogether free from a feeling of apprehension in thinking of the strange account which the huntsman had given me of his master's complaint.
Besides all this, there is a certain harmony between external nature and the spirit of a man, and I know of nothing more depressing than a gloomy forest loaded in every branch with thick snow and hoar frost, and moaning in the north wind. The gaunt and weird-looking trunks of the tall pines and the gnarled and massive oaks look mournfully upon you, and fill you with melancholy thoughts.
As we ascended the rocky eminence the oaks became fewer, and scattered birches, straight and white as marble pillars, divided the dark green of the forest pines, when in a moment, as we issued from a thicket, the ancient stronghold stood before us in a heavy mass, its dark surface studded with brilliant points of light.
Sperver had pulled up before a deep gateway between two towers, barred in by an iron grating.
"Here we are," he cried, throwing the reins on the horses' necks.
He laid hold of the deer's-foot bell-handle, and the clear sound of a bell broke the stillness.
After waiting a few minutes the light of a lantern flickered in the deep archway, showing us in its semicircular frame of ruddy light the figure of a humpbacked dwarf, yellow-bearded, broad-shouldered, and wrapped in furs from head to foot.
You might have thought him, in the deep shadow, some gnome or evil spirit of earth realised out of the dreams of the Niebelungen Lieder.
He came towards us at a very leisurely pace, and laid his great flat features close against the massive grating, straining his eyes, and trying to make us out in the darkness in which we were standing.
"Is that you, Sperver?" he asked in a hoarse voice.
"Open at once, Knapwurst," was the quick reply. "Don't you know how cold it is?"
"Oh! I know you now," cried the little man; "there's no mistaking you. You always speak as if you were going to gobble people up."
The door opened, and the dwarf, examining me with his lantern, with an odd expression in his face, received me with "Willkommen, herr doctor," but which seemed to say besides, "Here is another who will have to go away again as others have done." Then he quietly closed the door, whilst we alighted, and came to take our horses by the bridle.
Following Sperver, who ascended the staircase with rapid steps, I was still able to convince myself that the Castle of Nideck had not an undeserved reputation.
It was a true stronghold, partly cut out of the rock, such as used formerly to be called a chateau d'ambuscade. Its lofty vaulted arches re-echoed afar with our steps, and the outside air blowing with sharp gusts through the loopholes—narrow slits made for the archers of former days—caused our torches to flare and flicker from space to space over the faintly-illuminated protruding lines of the arches as they caught the uncertain light.
Sperver knew every nook and corner of this vast place. He turned now to the right and now to the left, and I followed him breathless. At last he stopped on a spacious landing, and said to me—
"Now, Fritz, I will leave you for a minute with the people of the castle to inform the young Countess Odile of your arrival."
"Do just what you think right."
"Then you will find the head butler, Tobias Offenloch, an old soldier of the regiment of Nideck. He campaigned in France under the count; and you will see his wife, a Frenchwoman, Marie Lagoutte, who pretends that she comes of a high family."
"And why should she not?"
"Of course she might; but, between ourselves, she was nothing but a cantiniere in the Grande Armee. She brought in Tobias Offenloch upon her cart, with one of his legs gone, and he has married her out of gratitude. You understand?"
"That will do, but open, for I am numb with cold."
And I was about to push on; but Sperver, as obstinate as any other good German, was not going to let me off without edifying me upon the history of the people with whom my lot was going to be cast for awhile, and holding me by the frogs of my fur coat he went on—
"There's, besides, Sebalt Kraft, the master of the hounds; he is rather a dismal fellow, but he has not his equal at sounding the horn; and there will be Karl Trumpf, the butler, and Christian Becker, and everybody, unless they have all gone to bed."
Thereupon Sperver pushed open the door, and I stood in some surprise on the threshold of a high, dark hall, the guard room of the old lords of Nideck.
My eyes fell at first upon the three windows at the farther end, looking out upon the sheer rocky precipice. On the right stood an old sideboard in dark oak, and upon it a cask, glasses, and bottles; on the left a Gothic chimney overhung with its heavy massive mantelpiece, empurpled by the brilliant roaring fire underneath, and ornamented on both front and sides with wood-carvings representing scenes from boar-hunts in the Middle Ages, and along the centre of the apartment a long table, upon which stood a huge lamp throwing its light upon a dozen pewter tankards.
At one glance I saw all this; but the human portion of the scene interested me most.
I recognised the major-domo, or head butler, by his wooden leg, of which I had already heard; he was of low stature, round, fat, and rosy, and his knees seldom coming within an easy range of his eyesight; a nose red and bulbous like a ripe raspberry; on his head he wore a huge hemp-coloured wig, bulging out over his fat poll; a coat of light green plush, with steel buttons as large as a five-franc piece; velvet breeches, silk stockings, and shoes garnished with silver buckles. He was just with his hand upon the top of the cask, with an air of inexpressible satisfaction beaming upon his ruddy features, and his eyes glowing in profile, from the reflection of the fire, like a couple of watch-glasses.
His wife, the worthy Marie Lagoutte, her spare figure draped in voluminous folds, her long and sallow face like a skin of chamois leather, was playing at cards with two servants who were gravely seated on straight-backed arm-chairs. Certain small split pegs were seated astride across the nose of the old woman and that of another player, whilst the third was significantly and cunningly winking his eye and seeming to enjoy seeing them victimised upon these new Caudine Forks.
"How many cards?" he was asking.
"Two," answered the old woman.
"And you, Christian?"
"Aha! now I have got you, then. Cut the king—now the ace—here's one, here's another. Another peg, mother! This will teach you once more not to brag about French games."
"Monsieur Christian, you don't treat the fair sex with proper respect."
"At cards you respect nobody."
"But you see I have no room left!"
"Pooh, on a nose like yours there's always room for more!"
At that moment Sperver cried—
"Mates, here I am!"
"Ha! Gideon, back already?"
Marie Lagoutte shook off her numerous pegs with a jerk of her head. The big butler drank off his glass. Everybody turned our way.
"Is monseigneur better?"
The butler answered with a doubtful ejaculation.
"Is he just the same?"
"Much about," answered Marie Lagoutte, who never took her eyes off me.
Sperver noticed this.
"Let me introduce to you my foster-son, Doctor Fritz, from the Black Forest," he answered proudly. "Now we shall see a change, Master Tobie. Now that Fritz has come the abominable fits will be put an end to. If I had but been listened to earlier—but better late than never."
Marie Lagoutte was still watching us, and her scrutiny seemed satisfactory, for, addressing the major-domo, she said—
"Now, Monsieur Offenloch, hand the doctor a chair; move about a little, do! There you stand with your mouth wide open, just like a fish. Ah, sir, these Germans!"
And the good man, jumping up as if moved by a spring, came to take off my cloak.
"Permit me, sir."
"You are very kind, my dear lady."
"Give it to me. What terrible weather! Ah, monsieur, what a dreadful country this is!"
"So monseigneur is neither better nor worse," said Sperver, shaking the snow off his cap; "we are not too late, then. Ho, Kasper! Kasper!"
A little man, who had one shoulder higher than the other, and his face spotted with innumerable freckles, came out of the chimney corner.
"Here I am!"
"Very good; now get ready for this gentleman the bedroom at the end of the long gallery—Hugh's room; you know which I mean."
"Yes, Sperver, in a minute."
"And you will take with you, as you go, the doctor's knapsack. Knapwurst will give it you. As for supper—"
"Never you mind. That is my business."
"Very well, then. I will depend upon you."
The little man went out, and Gideon, after taking off his cape, left us to go and inform the young countess of my arrival.
I was rather overpowered with the attentions of Marie Lagoutte.
"Give up that place of yours, Sebalt," she cried to the kennel-keeper. "You are roasted enough by this time. Sit near the fire, monsieur le docteur; you must have very cold feet. Stretch out your legs; that's the way."
Then, holding out her snuff-box to me—
"Do you take snuff?"
"No, dear madam, with many thanks."
"That is a pity," she answered, filling both nostrils. "It is the most delightful habit."
She slipped her snuff-box back into her apron pocket, and went on—
"You are come not a bit too soon. Monseigneur had his second attack yesterday; it was an awful attack, was it not, Monsieur Offenloch?"
"Furious indeed," answered the head butler gravely.
"It is not surprising," she continued, "when a man takes no nourishment. Fancy, monsieur, that for two days he has never tasted broth!"
"Nor a glass of wine," added the major-domo, crossing his hands over his portly, well-lined person.
As it seemed expected of me, I expressed my surprise, on which Tobias Offenloch came to sit at my right hand, and said—
"Doctor, take my advice; order him a bottle a day of Marcobrunner."
"And," chimed in Marie Lagoutte, "a wing of a chicken at every meal. The poor man is frightfully thin."
"We have got Marcobrunner sixty years in bottle," added the major-domo, "for it is a mistake of Madame Offenloch's to suppose that the French drank it all. And you had better order, while you are about it, now and then, a good bottle of Johannisberg. That is the best wine to set a man up again."
"Time was," remarked the master of the hounds in a dismal voice—"time was when monseigneur hunted twice a week; then he was well; when he left off hunting, then he fell ill."
"Of course it could not be otherwise," observed Marie Lagoutte. "The open air gives you an appetite. The doctor had better order him to hunt three times a week to make up for lost time."
"Two would be enough," replied the man of dogs with the same gravity; "quite enough. The hounds must have their rest. Dogs have just as much right to rest as we have."
There was a few moments' silence, during which I could hear the wind beating against the window-panes, and rush, sighing and wailing, through the loopholes into the towers.
Sebalt sat with legs across, and his elbow resting on his knee, gazing into the fire with unspeakable dolefulness. Marie Lagoutte, after having refreshed herself with a fresh pinch, was settling her snuff into shape in its box, while I sat thinking on the strange habit people indulge in of pressing their advice upon those who don't want it.
At this moment the major-domo rose.
"Will you have a glass of wine, doctor?" said he, leaning over the back of my arm-chair.
"Thank you, but I never drink before seeing a patient."
"What! not even one little glass?"
"Not the smallest glass you could offer me."
He opened his eyes wide and looked with astonishment at his wife.
"The doctor is right," she said. "I am quite of his opinion. I prefer to drink with my meat, and to take a glass of cognac afterwards. That is what the ladies do in France. Cognac is more fashionable than kirschwasser!"
Marie Lagoutte had hardly finished with her dissertation when Sperver opened the door quietly and beckoned me to follow him.
I bowed to the "honourable company," and as I was entering the passage I could hear that lady saying to her husband—
"That is a nice young man. He would have made a good-looking soldier."
Sperver looked uneasy, but said nothing. I was full of my own thoughts.
A few steps under the darkling vaults of Nideck completely effaced from my memory the queer figures of Tobias and Marie Lagoutte, poor harmless creatures, existing like bats under the mighty wing of the vulture.
Soon Gideon brought me into a sumptuous apartment hung with violet-coloured velvet, relieved with gold. A bronze lamp stood in a corner, its brightness toned down by a globe of ground crystal; thick carpets, soft as the turf on the hills, made our steps noiseless. It seemed a fit abode for silence and meditation.
On entering Sperver lifted the heavy draperies which fell around an ogee window. I observed him straining his eyes to discover something in the darkened distance; he was trying to make out whether the witch still lay there crouching down upon the snow in the midst of the plain; but he could see nothing, for there was deep darkness over all.
But I had gone on a few steps, and came in sight, by the faint rays of the lamp, of a pale, delicate figure seated in a Gothic chair not far from the sick man. It was Odile of Nideck. Her long black silk dress, her gentle expression of calm self-devotion and complete resignation, the ideal angel-like cast of her sweet features, recalled to one's mind those mysterious creations of the pencil in the Middle Ages when painting was pursued as a true art, but which modern imitators have found themselves obliged to give up in despair, while at the same time they never can forget them.
I cannot say what thoughts passed rapidly through my mind at the sight of this fair creature, but certainly much of devotion mingled with my sentiments. A sense of music and harmony swept sadly through by soul, with faint impressions of the old ballads of my childhood—of those pious songs with which the kind nurses of the Black Forest rock to peaceful sleep our infant sorrows.
At my approach Odile rose.
"You are very welcome, monsieur le docteur," she said with touching kindness and simplicity; then, pointing with her finger to a recess where lay the count, she added, "There is my father."
I bowed respectfully and without answering, for I felt deeply affected, and drew near to my patient.
Sperver, standing at the head of the bed, held up the lamp with one hand, holding his far cap in the other. Odile stood at my left hand. The light, softened by the subdued light of the globe of ground crystal, fell softly on the face of the count.
At once I was struck with a strangeness in the physiognomy of the Count of Nideck, and in spite of all the admiration which his lovely daughter had at once obtained from me, my first conclusion was, "What an old wolf!"
And such he seemed to be indeed. A grey head, covered with short, close hair, strangely full behind the ears, and drawn out in the face to a portentous length, the narrowness of his forehead up to its summit widening over the eyebrows, which were shaggy and met, pointing downwards over the bridge of the nose, imperfectly shading with their sable outline the cold and inexpressive eyes; the short, rough beard, irregularly spread over the angular and bony outline of the mouth—every feature of this man's dreadful countenance made me shudder, and strange notions crossed my mind about the mysterious affinities between man and the lower creation.
But I resisted my first impressions and took the sick man's hand. It was dry and wiry, yet small and strong; I found the pulse quick, feverish, and denoting great irritability.
What was I to do?
I stood considering; on the one side stood the young lady, anxiously trying to read a little hope in my face; on the other Sperver, equally anxious and watching my every movement. A painful constraint lay, therefore, upon me, yet I saw that there was nothing definite that could be attempted yet.
I dropped the arm and listened to the breathing. From time to time a convulsive sob heaved the sick man's heart, after which followed a succession of quick, short respirations. A kind of nightmare was evidently weighing him down—epilepsy, perhaps, or tetanus. But what could be the cause or origin?
I turned round full of painful thoughts.
"Is there any hope, sir?" asked the young countess.
"Yesterday's crisis is drawing to its close," I answered; "we must see if we can prevent its recurrence."
"Is there any possibility of it, sir?"
I was about to answer in general medical terms, not daring to venture any positive assertions, when the distant sound of the bell at the gate fell upon our ears.
"Visitors," said Sperver.
There was a moment's silence.
"Go and see who it is," said Odile, whose brow was for a minute shaded with anxiety. "How can one be hospitable to strangers at such a time? It is hardly possible!"
But the door opened, and a rosy face, with golden hair, appeared in the shadow, and said in a whisper—
"It is the Baron of Zimmer-Bluderich, with a servant, and he asks for shelter in the Nideck. He has lost his way among the mountains."
"Very well, Gretchen," answered the young countess, kindly; "go and tell the steward to attend to the Baron de Zimmer. Inform him that the count is very ill, and that this alone prevents him from doing the honours as he would wish. Wake up some of our people to wait on him, and let everything be done properly."
Nothing could exceed the sweet and noble simplicity of the young chatelaine in giving her orders. If an air of distinction seems hereditary in some families it is surely because the exercise of the duties conferred by the possession of wealth has a natural tendency to ennoble the whole character and bearing.
These thoughts passed through my mind whilst admiring the grace and gentleness in every movement of Odile of Nideck, and that clearness and purity of outline which is only found marked in the features of the higher aristocracy, and I could recall nothing to my recollection equal to this ideal beauty.
"Go now, Gretchen," said the young countess, "and make haste."
The attendant went out, and I stood a few seconds under the influence of the charm of her manner.
Odile turned round, and addressing me, "You see, sir," said she with a sad smile, "one may not indulge in grief without a pause; we must divide ourselves between our affection within and the world without."
"True, madam," I replied; "souls of the highest order are for the common property and advantage of the unhappy—the lost wayfarer, the sick, the hungry poor—each has his claim for a share, for God has made them like the stars of heaven to give light and pleasure to all."
The deep-fringed eyelids veiled the blue eyes for a moment, while Sperver pressed my hand.
Presently she pursued—
"Ah, if you could but restore my father's health!"
"As I have had the pleasure to inform you, madam, the crisis is past; the return must be anticipated, if possible."
"Do you hope that it may?"
"With God's help, madam, it is not impossible; I will think carefully over it."
Odile, much moved, came with me to the door. Sperver and I crossed the ante-room, where a few servants were waiting for the orders of their mistress. We had just entered the corridor when Gideon, who was walking first, turned quickly round, and, placing both his hands on my shoulders, said—
"Come, Fritz; I am to be depended upon for keeping a secret; what is your opinion?"
"I think there is no cause of apprehension for to-night."
"I know that—so you told the countess—but how about to-morrow?"
"Yes; don't turn round. I suppose you cannot prevent the return of the complaint; do you think, Fritz, he will die of it?"
"It is possible, but hardly probable."
"Well done!" cried the good man, springing from the ground with joy; "if you don't think so, that means that you are sure."
And taking my arm, he drew me into the gallery. We had just reached it when the Baron of Zimmer-Bluderich and his groom appeared there also, marshalled by Sebalt with a lighted torch in his hand. They were on their way to their chambers, and those two figures, with their cloaks flung over their shoulders, their loose Hungarian boots up to the knees, the body closely girt with long dark-green laced and frogged tunics, and the bear-skin cap closely and warmly covering the head, were very picturesque objects by the flickering light of the pine-torch.
"There," whispered Sperver, "if I am not very much mistaken, those are our Fribourg friends; they have followed very close upon our heels."
"You are quite right: they are the men; I recognise the younger by his tall, slender figure, his aquiline nose, and his long, drooping moustache."
They disappeared through a side passage.
Gideon took a torch from the wall, and guided me through quite a maze of corridors, aisles, narrow and wide passages, under high vaulted roofs and under low-built arches; who could remember? There seemed no end.
"Here is the hall of the margraves," said he; "here is the portrait-gallery, and this is the chapel, where no mass has been said since Louis the Bold became a Protestant."
All these particulars had very little interest for me.
After reaching the end we had again to go down steps; at last we happily came to the end of our journey before a low massive door. Sperver took a huge key out of his pocket, and handing me the torch, said—
"Mind the light—look out!"
At the same time he pushed open the door, and the cold outside air rushed into the narrow passage. The torch flared and sent out a volley of sparks in all directions. I thought I saw a dark abyss before me, and recoiled with fear.
"Ha, ha, ha!" cried the huntsman, opening his mouth from ear to ear, "you are surely not afraid, Fritz? Come on; don't be frightened! We are upon the parapet between the castle and the old tower."
And my friend advanced to set me the example.
The narrow granite-walled platform was deep in snow, swept in swirling banks by the angry winds. Any one who had seen our flaring torch from below would have asked, "What are they doing up there in the clouds? what can they want at this time of the night?"
Perhaps, I thought within myself, the witch is looking up at us, and that idea gave me a fit of shuddering. I drew closer together the folds of my horseman's cloak, and with my hand upon my hat, I set off after Sperver at a run; he was raising the light above his head to show me the road, and was moving forward rapidly.
We rushed into the tower and then into Hugh Lupus's chamber. A bright fire saluted us here with its cheerful rays; how delightful to be once more sheltered by thick walls!
I had stopped while Sperver closed the door, and contemplating this ancient abode, I cried—
"Thank God! we shall rest now!"
"With a well-furnished table before us," added Gideon. "Don't stand there with your nose in the air, but rather consider what is before you—a leg of a kid, a couple of roast fowls, a pike fresh caught, with parsley sauce; cold meats and hot wines, that's what I like. Kasper has attended to my orders like a real good fellow."
Gideon spoke the truth. The meats were cold and the wines were warm, for in front of the fire stood a row of small bottles under the gentle influence of the heat.
At the sight of these good things my appetite rose in me wonderfully. But Sperver, who understood what is comfortable, stopped me.
"Fritz," said he, "don't let us be in too great a hurry; we have plenty of time; the fowls won't fly away. Your boots must hurt you. After eight hours on horseback it is pleasant to take off one's boots, that's my principle. Now sit down, put your boot between my knees; there goes one off, now the other, that's the way; now put your feet into these slippers, take off your cloak and throw this lighter coat over your shoulders. Now we are ready."
And with his cheery summons I sat down with him to work, one on each side of the table, remembering the German proverb—"Thirst comes from the evil one, but good wine from the Powers above."
We ate with the vigorous appetite which ten hours in the snows of the Black Forest would be sure to provoke.
Sperver making indiscriminate attacks upon the kid, the fowls, and the fish, murmured with his mouth full—
"The woods, the lakes and rivers, and the heathery hills are full of good things!"
Then he leaned over the back of his chair, and laying his hand on the first bottle that came to hand, he added—
"And we have hills green in spring, purple in autumn when the grapes ripen. Your health, Fritz!"
We were a wonder to behold. We reciprocally admired each other.
The fire crackled, the forks rattled, teeth were in full activity, bottles gurgled, glasses jingled, while outside the wintry blast, the high moaning mountain winds, were mournfully chanting the dirge of the year, that strange wailing hymn with which they accompany the shock of the tempest and the swift rush of the grey clouds charged with snow and hail, while the pale moon lights up the grim and ghastly battle scene.
But we were snug under cover, and our appetite was fading away into history. Sperver had filled the "wieder komm," the "come again," with old wine of Brumberg; the sparkling froth fringed its ample borders; he presented it to me, saying—
"Drink the health of Yeri-Hans, lord of Nideck. Drink to the last drop, and show them that you mean it!"
Which was done.
Then he filled it again, and repeating with a voice that re-echoed among the old walls, "To the recovery of my noble master, the high and mighty lord of Nideck," he drained it also.
Then a feeling of satisfied repletion stole gently over us, and we felt pleased with everything.
I fell back in my chair, with my face directed to the ceiling, and my arms hanging lazily down. I began dreamily to consider what sort of a place I had got into.
It was a low vaulted ceiling cut out of the live rock, almost oven-shaped, and hardly twelve feet high at the highest point. At the farther end I saw a sort of deep recess where lay my bed on the ground, and consisting, as I thought I could see, of a huge bear-skin above, and I could not tell what below, and within this yet another smaller niche with a figure of the Virgin Mary carved out of the same granite, and crowned with a bunch of withered grass.
"You are looking over your room," said Spencer. "Parbleu! it is none of the biggest or grandest, not quite like the rooms in the castle. We are now in Hugh Lupus's tower, a place as old as the mountain itself, going as far back as the days of Charlemagne. In those days, as you see, people had not yet learned to build arches high, round, or pointed. They worked right into the rock."
"Well, for all that, you have put me in strange lodgings."
"Don't be mistaken, Fritz; it is the place of honour. It is here that the count put all his most distinguished friends. Mind that: Hugh Lupus's tower is the most honourable accommodation we have."
"And who was Hugh Lupus?"
"Why, Hugh the Wolf, to be sure. He was the head of the family of Nideck, a rough-and-ready warrior, I can tell you. He came to settle up here with a score of horsemen and halberdiers of his following. They climbed up this rock—the highest rock amongst these mountains. You will see this to-morrow. They constructed this tower, and proclaimed, 'Now we are the masters! Woe befall the miserable wretches who shall pass without paying toll to us! We will tear the wool off their backs, and their hide too, if need be. From this watch-tower we shall command a view of the far distance all round. The passes of the Rhethal, of Steinbach, Koche Plate, and of the whole line of the Black Forest are under our eye. Let the Jew pedlars and the dealers beware!' And the noble fellows did what they promised. Hugh the Wolf was at their head. Knapwurst told me all about it sitting up one night."
"Who is Knapwurst?"
"That little humpback who opened the gate for us. He is an odd fellow, Fritz, and almost lives in the library."
"So you have a man of learning at Nideck?"
"Yes, we have, the rascal! Instead of confining himself to the porter's lodge, his proper place, all the day over he is amongst the dusty books and parchments belonging to the family. He comes and goes along the shelves of the library just like a big cat. Knapwurst knows our story better than we know it ourselves. He would tell you the longest tales, Fritz, if you would only let him. He calls them chronicles—ha, ha!"
And Sperver, with the wine mounting a little into his head, began to laugh, he could hardly say why.
"So then, Gideon, you call this tower, Hugh's tower the Hugh Lupus tower?"
"Haven't I told you so already? What are you so astonished at?"
"But you are. I can see it in your face. You are thinking of something strange. What is it?"
"Oh, never mind! It is not the name of the tower which surprises me. What I am wondering at is, how it is that you, an old poacher, who had never lived anywhere since you were a boy but amongst the fir forests, between the snowy summits of the Wald Horn and the passes of the Rhethal—you who, during all your prime of life, thought it the finest of fun to laugh at the count's gamekeepers, and to scour the mountain paths of the Schwartzwald, and boat the bushes there, and breathe the free air, and bask in the bright sunshine amongst the hills and valleys—here I find you, at the end of sixteen years of such a life, shut up in this red granite hole. That is what surprises me and what I cannot understand. Come, Sperver, light your pipe, and tell me all about it."
The old poacher took out of his leathern jacket a bit of a blackened pipe; he filled it at his leisure, gathered up in the hollow of his hand a live ember, which he placed upon the bowl of his pipe; then with his eyes dreamily cast up to the ceiling he answered meditatively—
"Old falcons, gerfalcons, and hawks, when they have long swept the plains, end their lives in a hole in a rock. Sure enough I am fond of the wide expanse of sky and land. I always was fond of it; but instead of perching by night upon a high branch of a tall tree, rocked by the wind, I now prefer to return to my cavern, to drink a glass, to pick a bone of venison, and dry my plumage before a warm fire. The Count of Nideck does not disdain Sperver, the old hawk, the true man of the woods. One evening, meeting me by moonlight, he frankly said to me, 'Old comrade, you hunt only by night. Come and hunt by day with me. You have a sharp beak and strong claws. Well, hunt away, if such is your nature; but hunt by my licence, for I am the eagle upon these mountains, and my name is Nideck!'"
Sperver was silent a few minutes; then he resumed—
"That was just what suited me, and now I hunt as I used to do, and I quietly drink along with a friend my bottle of Affenthal or—"
At that moment there was a shock that made the door vibrate; Sperver stopped and listened.
"It is a gust of wind," I said.
"No, it is something else. Don't you hear the scratching of claws? It is a dog that has escaped. Open, Lieverle, open, Blitzen!" cried the huntsman, rising; but he had not gone a couple of steps when a formidable-looking hound of the Danish breed broke into the tower, and ran to lay his heavy paws on his master's shoulders, licking his beard and his cheeks with his long rose-coloured tongue, uttering all the while short barks and yelps expressive of his joy.
Sperver had passed his arm round the dog's neck, and, turning to me, said—
"Fritz, what man could love me as this dog does? Do look at this head, these eyes, these teeth!"
He uncovered the animal's teeth, displaying a set of fangs that would have pulled down and rent a buffalo. Then repelling him with difficulty, for the dog was re-doubling his caresses—
"Down, Lieverle. I know you love me. If you did not, who would?"
Never had I seen so tremendous a dog as this Lieverle. His height attained two feet and a half. He would have been a most formidable creature in an attack. His forehead was broad, flat, and covered with fine soft hair; his eye was keen, his paws of great length, his sides and legs a woven mass of muscles and nerves, broad over the back and shoulders, slender and tapering towards the hind legs. But he had no scent. If such monstrous and powerful hounds were endowed with the scent of the terrier there would soon be an end of game.
Sperver had returned to his seat, and was passing his hand over Lieverle's massive head with pride, and enumerating to me his excellent qualities.
Lieverle seemed to understand him.
"See, Fritz, that dog will throttle a wolf with one snap of his jaws. For courage and strength, he is perfection. He is not five years old, but he is in his prime. I need not tell you that he is trained to hunt the boar. Every time we come across a herd of them I tremble for Lieverle; his attack is too straightforward, he flies on the game as straight as an arrow. That is why I am afraid of the brutes' tusks. Lie down, Lieverle, lie on your back!"
The dog obeyed, and presented to view his flesh-coloured sides.
"Look, Fritz, at that long white seam without any hair upon it from under the thigh right up to the chest. A boar did that. Poor creature! he was holding him fast by the ear and would not let go; we tracked the two by the blood. I was the first up with them. Seeing my Lieverle I gave a shout, I jumped off my horse, I caught him between my arms, flung him into my cloak, and brought him home. I was almost beside myself. Happily the vital parts had not been wounded. I sewed up his belly in spite of his howling and yelling, for he suffered fearfully; but in three days he was already licking his wound, and a dog who licks himself is already saved. You remember that, Lieverle, hey! and aren't we fonder of each other now than ever?"
I was quite moved with the affection of the man for that dog, and of the dog for his master; they seemed to look into the very depths of each other's souls. The dog wagged his tail, and the man had tears in his eyes.
Sperver went on—
"What amazing strength! Do you see, Fritz, he has burst his cord to get to me—a rope of six strands; he found out my track and here he is! Here, Lieverle, catch!"
And he threw to him the remains of the leg of kid. The jaws opened wide and closed again with a terrible crash, and Sperver, looking at me significantly, said—
"Fritz, if he were to grip you by your breeches you would not get away so easily!"
"Nor any one else, I suppose."
The dog went to stretch himself at his ease full length under the mantelshelf with the leg fast between his mighty paws. He began to tear it into pieces. Sperver looked at him out of the corner of his eye with great satisfaction. The bone was fast falling into small fragments in the powerful mill that was crashing it. Lieverle was partial to marrow!
"Aha! Fritz, if you were requested to fetch that bone away from him, what would you say?"
"I should think it a mission requiring extraordinary delicacy and tact."
Then we broke out into a hearty laugh, and Sperver, seated in his leathern easy chair, with his left arm thrown back over his head, one of his manly legs over a stool, and the other in front of a huge log, which was dripping at its end with the oozing sap, and darted volumes of light grey smoke to the roof.
I was still contemplating the dog, when, suddenly recollecting our broken conversation, I went on—
"Now, Sperver, you have not told me everything. When you left the mountain for the castle was it not on account of the death of Gertrude, your good, excellent wife?"
Gideon frowned, and a tear dimmed his eye; he drew himself up, and shaking out the ashes of his pipe upon his thumbnail, he said—
"True, my wife is dead. That drove me from the woods. I could not look upon the valley of Roche Creuse without pain. I turned my flight in this direction: I hunt less in the woods, and I can see it all from higher up, and if by chance the pack tails off in that direction I let them go. I turn back and try to think of something else."
Sperver had grown taciturn. With his head drooped upon his breast, his eyes fixed on the stone floor, he sat silent. I felt sorry to have awoke these melancholy recollections in him. Then, my thoughts once more returning to the Black Plague grovelling in the snow, I felt a shivering of horror.
How strange! just one word had sent us into a train of unhappy thoughts. A whole world of remembrances was called up by a chance.
I know not how long this silence lasted, when a growl, deep, long, and terrible, like distant thunder, made us start.
We looked at the dog. The half-gnawed bone was still between his forepaws, but with head raised high, ears cocked up, and flashing eye, he was listening intently—listening to the silence as it were, and an angry quivering ran down the length of his back.
Sperver and I fixed on each other anxious eyes; yet there was not a sound, not a breath outside, for the wind had gone down; nothing could be heard but the deep protracted growl which came from deep down the chest of the noble hound.
Suddenly he sprang up and bounded impetuously against the wall with a hoarse, rough bark of fearful loudness. The walls re-echoed just as if a clap of thunder had rattled the casements.
Lieverle, with his head low down, seemed to want to see through the granite, and his lips drawn back from his teeth discovered them to the very gums, displaying two close rows of fangs white as ivory. Still he growled. For a moment he would stop abruptly with his nose snuffing close to the wall, next the floor, with strong respirations; then he would rise again in a fresh rage, and with his forepaws seemed as if he would break through the granite.
We watched in silence without being able to understand what caused his excitement.
Another yell of rage more terrible than the first made us spring from our seats.
"Lieverle! what possesses you? Are you going mad?"
He seized a log and began to sound the wall, which only returned the dead, hard sound of a wall of solid rock. There was no hollow in it; yet the dog stood in the posture of attack.
"Decidedly you must have been dreaming bad dreams," said the huntsman. "Come, lie down, and don't worry us any more with your nonsense."
At that moment a noise outside reached our ears. The door opened, and the fat honest countenance of Tobias Offenloch with his lantern in one hand and his stick in the other, his three-cornered hat on his head, appeared, smiling and jovial, in the opening.
"Salut! l'honorable compagnie!" he cried as he entered; "what are you doing here?"
"It was that rascal Lieverle who made all that row. Just fancy—he set himself up against that wall as if he smelt a thief. What could he mean?"
"Why parbleu! he heard the dot, dot of my wooden leg, to be sure, stumping up the tower-stairs," answered the jolly fellow, laughing.
Then setting his lantern on the table—
"That will teach you, friend Gideon, to tie up your dogs. You are foolishly weak over your dogs—very foolishly. Those beasts of yours won't be satisfied till they have put us all out of doors. Just this minute I met Blitzen in the long gallery: he sprang at my leg—see there are the marks of his teeth in proof of what I say; and it is quite a new leg—a brute of a hound!"
"Tie up my dogs! That's rather a new idea," said the huntsman. "Dogs tied up are good for nothing at all; they grow too wild. Besides, was not Lieverle tied up, after all? See his broken cord."
"What I tell you is not on my own account. When they come near me I always hold up my stick and put my wooden leg foremost—that is my discipline. I say, dogs in their kennels, cats on the roof, and the people in the castle."
Tobias sat down after thus delivering himself of his sentiments, and with both elbows on the table, his eyes expanding with delight, he confided to us that just now he was a bachelor.
"You don't mean that!"
"Yes, Marie Anne is sitting up with Gertrude in monseigneur's ante-room."
"Then you are in no hurry to go away?"
"No, none at all. I should like to stay in your company."
"How unfortunate that you should have come in so late!" remarked Sperver; "all the bottles are empty."
The disappointment of the discomfited major-domo excited my compassion. The poor man would so gladly have enjoyed his widowhood. But in spite of my endeavours to repress it a long yawn extended wide my mouth.
"Well, another time," said he, rising. "What is only put off is not given up."
And he took his lantern.
"Good night, gentlemen."
"Stop—wait for me," cried Gideon. "I can see Fritz is sleepy; we will go down together."
"Very gladly, Sperver; on our way we will have a word with Trumpf, the butler. He is downstairs with the rest, and Knapwurst is telling them tales."
"All right. Good night, Fritz."
"Good night, Gideon. Don't forget to send for me if the count is taken worse."
"I will do as you wish. Lieverle, come."
They went out, and as they were crossing the platform I could hear the Nideck clock strike eleven. I was tired out and soon fell asleep.
Daylight was beginning to tinge with bluish grey the only window in my dungeon tower when I was roused out of my niche in the granite by the prolonged distant notes of a hunting horn.
There is nothing more sad and melancholy than the wail of this instrument when the day begins to struggle with the night—when not a sigh nor a sound besides comes to molest the solitary reign of silence; it is especially the last long note which spreads in widening waves over the immensity of the plain beneath, awaking the distant, far-off echoes amongst the mountains, that has in it a poetic element that stirs up the depths of the soul.
Leaning upon my elbow in my bear-skin I lay listening to the plaintive sound, which suggested something of the feudal ages. The contemplation of my chamber, the ancient den of the Wolf of Nideck, with its low, dark arch, threatening almost to come down to crush the occupant; and further on that small leaden window, just touching the ceiling, more wide than high, and deeply recessed in the wall, added to the reality of the impression.
I arose quickly and ran to open the window wide.
Then presented itself to my astonished eyes such a wondrous spectacle as no mortal tongue, no pen of man, can describe—the wide prospect that the eagle, the denizen of the high Alps, sweeps with his far reaching ken every morning at the rising of the deep purple veil that overhung the horizon by night mountains farther off! mountains far away! and yet again in the blue distance—mountains still, blending with the grey mists of the morning in the shadowy horizon!—motionless billows that sink into peace and stillness in the blue distance of the plains of Lorraine. Such is a faint idea of the mighty scenery of the Vosges, boundless forests, silver lakes, dazzling crests, ridges, and peaks projecting their clear outlines upon the steel-blue of the valleys clothed in snow. Beyond this, infinite space!
Could any enthusiasm of poet or skill of painter attain the sublime elevation of such a scene as that?
I stood mute with admiration. At every moment the details stood out more clearly in the advancing light of morning; hamlets, farm-houses, villages, seemed to rise and peep out of every undulation of the land. A little more attention brought more and more numerous objects into view.
I had leaned out of my window rapt in contemplation for more than a quarter of an hour when a hand was laid lightly upon my shoulder; I turned round startled, when the calm figure and quiet smile of Gideon saluted me with—
"Guten Tag, Fritz! Good morning!"
Then he also rested his arms on the window, smoking his short pipe. He extended his hand and said—
"Look, Fritz, and admire! You are a son of the Black Forest, and you must admire all that. Look there below; there is Roche Creuse. Do you see it? Don't you remember Gertrude? How far off those times seem now!"
Sperver brushed away a tear. What could I say?
We sat long contemplating and meditating over this grand spectacle. From time to time the old poacher, noticing me with my eyes fixed upon some distant object, would explain—
"That is the Wald Horn; this is the Tiefenthal; there's the fall of the Steinbach; it has stopped running now; it is hanging down in great fringed sheets, like the curtains over the shoulder of the Harberg—a cold winter's cloak! Down there is a path that leads to Fribourg; in a fortnight's time it will be difficult to trace it."
Thus our time passed away.
I could not tear myself away from so beautiful a prospect. A few birds of prey, with wings hollowed into a graceful curve sharp-pointed at each end, the fan-shaped tail spread out, were silently sweeping round the rock-hewn tower; herons flew unscathed above them, owing their safety from the grasp of the sharp claws and the tearing beak to the elevation of their flight.
Not a cloud marred the beauty of the blue sky; all the snow had fallen to earth; once more the huntsman's horn awoke the echoes.
"That is my friend Sebalt lamenting down there," said Sperver. "He knows everything about horses and dogs, and he sounds the hunter's horn better than any man in Germany. Listen, Fritz, how soft and mellow the notes are! Poor Sebalt! he is pining away over monseigneur's illness; he cannot hunt as he used to do. His only comfort is to get up every morning at sunrise on to the Altenberg and play the count's favourite airs. He thinks he shall be able to cure him that way!"
Sperver, with the good taste of a man who appreciates beautiful scenery, had offered no interruption to my contemplations; but when, my eyes dazzled and swimming with so much light, I turned round to the darkness of the tower, he said to me—
"Fritz, it's all right; the count has had no fresh attack."
These words brought me back to a sense of the realities of life.
"Ah, I am very glad!"
"It is all owing to you, Fritz."
"What do you mean? I have not prescribed yet."
"What signifies? You were there; that was enough."
"You are only joking, Gideon! What is the use of my being present if I don't prescribe?"
"Why, you bring him good luck!"
I looked straight at him, but he was not even smiling!
"Yes, Fritz, you are just a messenger of good; the last two years the lord had another attack the next day after the first, then a third and a fourth. You have put an end to that. What can be clearer?"
"Well, to me it is not so very clear; on the contrary, it is very obscure."
"We are never too old to learn," the good man went on. "Fritz, there are messengers of evil and there are messengers of good. Now that rascal Knapwurst, he is a sure messenger of ill. If ever I meet him as I am going out hunting I am sure of some misadventure; my gun misses fire, or I sprain my ankle, or a dog gets ripped up!—all sorts of mischief come. So, being quite aware of this, I always try and set off at early daybreak, before that author of mischief, who sleeps like a dormouse, has opened his eyes; or else I slip out by a back way by the postern gate. Don't you see?"
"I understand you very well, but your ideas seem to me very strange, Gideon."
"You, Fritz," he went on, without noticing my interruption, "you are a most excellent lad; Heaven has covered your head with innumerable blessings; just one glance at your jolly countenance, your frank, clear eyes, your good-natured smile, is enough to make any one happy. You positively bring good luck with you. I have always said so, and now would you like to have a proof?"
"Yes, indeed I should. It would be worth while to know how much there is in me without my having any knowledge of it."
"Well," said he, grasping my wrist, "look down there!"
He pointed to a hillock at a couple of gunshots from the castle.
"Do you see there a rock half-buried in the snow, with a ragged bush by its side?"
"Do you see anything near?"
"Well, there is a reason for that. You have driven away the Black Plague! Every year at the second attack there she was holding her feet between her hands. By night she lighted a fire; she warmed herself and boiled roots. She bore a curse with her. This morning the very first thing which I did was to get up here. I climbed up the beacon tower; I looked well all round; the old hag was nowhere to be seen. I shaded my eyes with my hand. I looked up and down, right and left, and everywhere; not a sign of the creature anywhere. She had scented you evidently."
And the good fellow, in a fit of enthusiasm, shook me warmly by the hand, crying with unchecked emotion—
"Ah, Fritz, how glad I am that I brought you here! The witch will be sold, eh?"
Well, I confess I felt a little ashamed that I had been all my life such a very well-deserving young man without knowing anything of the circumstance myself.
"So, Sperver," I said, "the count has spent a good night?"
"A very good one."
"Then I am very well pleased. Let us go down."
We again traversed the high parapet, and I was now better able to examine this way of access, the ramparts of which arose from a prodigious depth; and they were extended along the sharp narrow ridge of the rock down to the very bottom of the valley. It was a long flight of jagged precipitous steps descending from the wolf's den, or rather eagle's nest, down to the deep valley below.
Gazing down I felt giddy, and recoiling in alarm to the middle of the platform, I hastily descended down the path which led to the main building.
We had already traversed several great corridors when a great open door stood before us. I looked in, and descried, at the top of a double ladder, the little gnome Knapwurst, whose strange appearance had struck me the night before.
The hall itself attracted my attention by its imposing aspect. It was the receptacle of the archives of the house of Nideck, a high, dark, dusty apartment, with long Gothic windows, reaching from the angle of the ceiling to within a couple of yards from the floor.
There were collected along spacious shelves, by the care of the old abbots, not only all the documents, title-deeds, and family genealogies of the house of Nideck, establishing their rights and their alliances, and connections with all the great historic families of Germany, but besides these there were all the chronicles of the Black Forest, the collected works of the old Minnesinger, and great folio volumes from the presses of Gutenberg and Faust, entitled to equal veneration on account of their remarkable history and of the enduring solidity of their binding. The deep shadows of the groined vaults, their arches divided by massive ribs, and descending partly down the cold grey walls, reminded one of the gloomy cloisters of the Middle Ages. And amidst these characteristic surroundings sat an ugly dwarf on the top of his ladder, with a red-edged volume upon his bony knees, his head half-buried in a rough fur cap, small grey eyes, wide misshapen mouth, humps on back and shoulders, a most uninviting object, the familiar spirit—the rat, as Sperver would have it—of this last refuge of all the learning belonging to the princely race of Nideck.
But a truly historical importance belonged to this chamber in the long series of family portraits, filling almost entirely one side of the ancient library. All were there, men and women; from Hugh the Wolf to Yeri-Hans, the present owner; from the first rough daub of barbarous times to the perfect work of the best modern painters.
My attention was naturally drawn in that direction.
Hugh I., a bald-headed figure, seemed to glare upon you like a wolf stealing upon you round the corner of a wood. His grey bloodshot eyes, his red beard, and his large hairy ears gave him a fearful and ferocious aspect.
Next to him, like the lamb next to the wolf, was the portrait of a lady of youthful years, with gentle blue eyes, hands crossed on the breast over a book of devotions, and tresses of fair long silky hair encircling her sweet countenance with a glorious golden aureola. This picture struck me by its wonderful resemblance to Odile of Nideck.
I have never seen anything more lovely and more charming than this old painting on wood, which was stiff enough indeed in its outline, but delightfully refreshing and ingenuous.
I had examined this picture attentively for some minutes when another female portrait, hanging at its side, drew my attention reluctantly away. Here was a woman of the true Visigoth type, with a wide low forehead, yellowish eyes, prominent cheek-bones, red hair, and a nose hooked like an eagle's beak.
That woman must have been an excellent match for Hugh, thought I, and I began to consider the costume, which answered perfectly to the energy displayed in the head, for the right hand rested upon a sword, and an iron breastplate inclosed the figure.
I should have some difficulty in expressing the thoughts which passed through my mind in the examination of these three portraits. My eye passed from the one to the other with singular curiosity.
Sperver, standing at the library door, had aroused the attention of Knapwurst with a sharp whistle, which made that worthy send a glance in his direction, though it did not succeed in fetching him down from his elevation.
"Is it me that you are whistling to like a dog?" said the dwarf.
"I am, you vermin! It is an honour you don't deserve."
"Just listen to me, Sperver," replied the little man with sublime scorn; "you cannot spit so high as my shoe!" which he contemptuously held out.
"Suppose I were to come up?"
"If you come up a single step I'll squash you flat with this volume!"
Gideon laughed, and replied—
"Don't get angry, friend; I don't mean to do you any harm; on the contrary, I greatly respect you for your learning; but what I want to know is what you are doing here so early in the morning, by lamplight? You look as if you had spent the night here."
"So I have; I have been reading all night."
"Are not the days long enough for you to read in?"
"No; I am following out an important inquiry, and I don't mean to sleep until I am satisfied."
"Indeed; and what may this very important question be?"
"I have to ascertain under what circumstances Ludwig of Nideck discovered my ancestor, Otto the Dwarf, in the forests of Thuringia. You know, Sperver, that my ancestor Otto was only a cubit high—that is, a foot and a-half. He delighted the world with his wisdom, and made an honourable figure at the coronation of Duke Rudolphe. Count Ludwig had him inclosed in a cold roast peacock, served up in all his plumage. It was at that time one of the greatest delicacies, served up garnished all round with sucking pigs, gilded and silvered. During the banquet Otto kept spreading the peacock's tail, and all the lords, courtiers, and ladies of high birth were astonished and delighted at this wonderful piece of mechanism. At last he came out, sword in hand, and shouted with a loud voice—"Long live Duke Rudolphe!" and the cry was repeated with acclamations by the whole table. Bernard Herzog makes mention of this event, but he has neglected to inform us where this dwarf came from, whether he was of lofty lineage or of base extraction, which latter, however, is very improbable, for the lower sort of people have not so much sense as that."
I was astounded at so much pride in so diminutive a being, yet my curiosity prevented me from showing too much of my feelings, for he alone could supply me with information upon the portraits that accompanied that of Hugh Lupus.
"Monsieur Knapwurst," I began very respectfully, "would you oblige me by enlightening me upon certain historic doubts?"
"Speak, sir, without any constraint; on the subject of family history and chronicles I am entirely at your service. Other matters don't interest me."
"I desire to learn some particulars respecting the two portraits on each side of the founder of this race."
"Aha!" cried Knapwurst with a glow of satisfaction lighting up his hideous features; "you mean Hedwige and Huldine, the two wives of Hugh Lupus."
And laying down his volume he descended from his ladder to speak more at his ease. His eyes glistened, and the delight of gratified vanity beamed from them as he displayed his vast erudition.
When he had arrived at my side he bowed to me with ceremonious gravity. Sperver stood behind us, very well satisfied that I was admiring the dwarf of Nideck. In spite of the ill luck which, in his opinion, accompanied the little monster's appearance, he respected and boasted of his superior knowledge.
"Sir," said Knapwurst, pointing with his yellow hand to the portraits, "Hugh of Nideck, the first of his illustrious race, married, in 832, Hedwige of Lutzelbourg, who brought to him in dowry the counties of Giromani and Haut Barr, the castles of Geroldseck, Teufelshorn, and others. Hugh Lupus had no issue by his first wife, who died young, in the year of our Lord 837. Then Hugh, having become lord and owner of the dowry, refused to give it up, and there were terrible battles between himself and his brothers-in-law. But his second wife, Huldine, whom you see there in a steel breastplate, aided him by her sage counsel. It is unknown whence or of what family she came, but for all that she saved Hugh's life, who had been made prisoner by Frantz of Lutzelbourg. He was to have been hanged that very day, and a gibbet had already been set up on the ramparts, when Huldine, at the head of her husband's vassals, whom she had armed and inspired with her own courage, bravely broke in, released Hugh, and hung Frantz in his place. Hugh had married his wife in 842, and had three children by her."
"So," I resumed pensively, "the first of these wives was called Hedwige, and the descendants of Nideck are not related to her?"
"Not at all."
"Are you quite sure?"
"I can show you our genealogical tree; Hedwige had no children; Huldine, the second wife, had three."
"That is surprising to me."
"I thought I traced a resemblance."
"Oho! resemblance! Rubbish!" cried Knapwurst with a discordant laugh. "See—look at this wooden snuff-box; in it you see a portrait of my great-grandfather, Hanswurst. His nose is as long and as pointed as an extinguisher, and his jaws like nutcrackers. How does that affect his being the grandfather of me—of a man with finely-formed features and an agreeable mouth?"
"Oh no!—of course not."
"Well, so it is with the Nidecks. They may some of them be like Hedwige, but for all that Huldine is the head of their ancestry. See the genealogical tree. Now, sir, are you satisfied?"
Then we separated—Knapwurst and I—excellent friends.
"Nevertheless," thought I, "there is the likeness. It is not chance. What is chance? There is no such thing; it is nonsense to talk of chance. It must be something higher!"
I was following my friend Sperver, deep in thought, who had now resumed his walk down the corridor. The portrait of Hedwige, in all its artless simplicity, mingled in my mind with the face of Odile.
Suddenly Gideon stopped, and, raising my eyes, I saw that we were standing before the count's door.
"Come in, Fritz," he said, "and I will give the dogs a feed. When the master's away the servants neglect their duty; I will come for you by-and-by."
I entered, more desirous of seeing the young lady than the count her father; I was blaming myself for my remissness, but there is no controlling one's interest and affections. I was much surprised to see in the half-light of the alcove the reclining figure of the count leaning upon his elbow and observing me with profound attention. I was so little prepared for this examination that I stood rather dispossessed of self-command.
"Come nearer, monsieur le docteur," he said in a weak but firm voice, holding out his hand. "My faithful Sperver has often mentioned your name to me; and I was anxious to make your acquaintance."
"Let us hope, my lord, that it will be continued under more favourable circumstances. A little patience, and we shall avert this attack."
"I think not," he replied. "I feel my time drawing near."
"You are mistaken, my lord."
"No; Nature grants us, as a last favour, to have a presentiment of our approaching end."
"How often I have seen such presentiments falsified!" I said with a smile.
He fixed his eyes searchingly upon me, as is usual with patients expressing anxiety about their prospects. It is a difficult moment for the doctor. The moral strength of his patient depends upon the expression of the firmness of his convictions; the eye of the sufferer penetrates into the innermost soul of his consciousness; if he believes that he can discover any hint or shade of doubt, his fate is sealed; depression sets in; the secret springs that maintain the elasticity of the spirit give way, and the disorder has it all its own way.
I stood my examination firmly and successfully, and the count seemed to regain confidence; he again pressed my hand, and resigned himself calmly and confidently to my treatment.
Not until then did I perceive Mademoiselle Odile and an old lady, no doubt her governess, seated by her bedside at the other end of the alcove.
They silently saluted me, and suddenly the picture in the library reappeared before me.
"It is she," I said, "Hugh's first wife. There is the fair and noble brow, there are the long lashes, and that sad, unfathomable smile. Oh, how much past telling lies in a woman's smile! Seek not, then, for unmixed joy and pleasure! Her smile serves but to veil untold sorrows, anxiety for the future, even heartrending cares. The maid, the wife, the mother, smile and smile, even when the heart is breaking and the abyss is opening. O woman! this is thy part in the mortal struggle of human life!"