Frederick Mergel, born in 1738, was the son of a so-called landowner of the lower class in the village of B., a village which, badly built and smoky though it might be, yet attracted the attention of all travellers by the extremely picturesque beauty of its situation in a green and wooded valley of an important and historically famous mountain range. The province to which it belonged was in those days one of those secluded corners of the globe, without factories or trade, without highways, where a strange face still caused a sensation, and to travel thirty miles even for the people of position, was a matter which raised them to the rank of Ulysses - in short, a spot like so many others in Germany with the failings and virtues, the originality and narrowness which thrive only in such surroundings.
Owing to very simple and often inadequate laws, the ideas of the inhabitants about right and wrong had got into disorder, or rather, a second system of laws had grown up - the law of public opinion, of custom firmly established by time. The landowners, who were responsible for the dispensing of justice, punished and rewarded according to their own ideas, which were in most cases honest: the people did what seemed to them practicable, and, stretching the point a little, pleased them; and only the loser sometimes thought of turning up old and dusty documents.
It is difficult to look at that period impartially; since it disappeared it has been either arrogantly censured or stupidly praised, for those who lived in it are dazzled by precious memories, and the later-born do not understand it. But this at least can be asserted: that habit was weaker, integrity firmer, wrong-doing more frequent, unscrupulousness rarer. For he who acts according to his convictions, however faulty they may be, can never be quite lost, but nothing is more soul-destroying than having to obey laws which one feels in one's heart to be wrong.
A race of people more restless and adventurous than their neighbors was the reason why many things in the little province of which we are speaking appeared in more glaring colors than in other places under the same circumstances. Crimes were daily committed in the forest, and he who got a broken head in the fighting which constantly occurred had to see to the binding up of it himself. But as most of the wealth of the province consisted in the large and productive forests, these were naturally sharply guarded; not so much in a lawful manner as by constantly renewed attempts to overcome violence and cunning by the same weapons.
The village of B. was considered the most arrogant, cunning, and audacious village in the whole principality. Its position amidst the deep and lofty loneliness of the forest began early to nourish the inborn obstinacy of the people. The proximity of a river which flowed into the sea, and was large enough to bear decked boats which could carry the timber for ship-building safely and easily out of the country, was to a great extent responsible for encouraging the natural audacity of the people, and the fact that the whole neighborhood teemed with forest rangers only acted as an incentive, as the frequent clashes between rangers and peasants generally ended in a victory for the peasants. Thirty, forty wagons would drive out at the same time on a fine moonlight night, with twice as many men of all ages, from half-grown boys to the seventy-year-old mayor, who led the company with the same proud consciousness with which he took his seat in the court room. Those who remained behind heard with indifference the gradually lessening noise of the wheels in the defiles, and went off to sleep again. An occasional shot, a feeble scream would sometimes cause a young wife or sweetheart to start up in alarm; but nobody else took any notice of it. At the earliest sign of dawn the company returned as silently as they had gone out, their faces glowing like bronze, here and there a head bound up, but of that no notice was taken; and a few hours later the whole neighborhood knew of the ill luck of one or more rangers, carried out of the wood, beaten, blinded with snuff, and incapable for a time of doing their work.
In this district Frederick Mergel was born, in a house which, in the proud possession of a chimney and a few panes of glass in the window, showed the pretensions of its builder, and in its present decayed state showed the miserable circumstances of its present owner. What had been a railing round courtyard and garden had become a neglected fence, the roof was ruinous, other people's cattle were pastured on the meadow, other people's corn grew in the field beyond the courtyard, and in the garden, with the exception of a few woody rose-bushes left over from better times, more weeds grew than flowers. True, ill luck had been to a certain extent the cause of all this; but there had been also a great deal of lack of organization and bad management. Frederick's father, old Hermann Mergel, had as a bachelor been a so-called good drinker, that is, one who drank himself into the gutter on Sundays and holidays, and behaved himself well on other days. So he found no obstacles put in the way of his courtship of a pretty and well-to-do girl. The wedding was a-merry one. Mergel was not too drunk, and the bride's parents went happily home that evening; but on the following Sunday the young wife, covered with blood, was seen to run screaming through the village to her old home, leaving behind her all her good clothes and new belongings. That caused great scandal and annoyance to Mergel, who needed comfort more than ever. By the afternoon no pane of glass in his windows remained intact, and late that night he was still lying across his doorstep, at intervals trying to lift a broken bottle to his lips, and cutting hands and face miserably in the attempt. His young wife stayed with her parents and very soon pined away and died. Whether it was remorse or shame by which Mergel was now overcome, it remains certain that from that time on he was looked upon as completely demoralized.
The household went to pieces, the maids caused trouble and scandal: and so the years passed. Mergel remained a taciturn and at last rather poor widower, until he suddenly let it be known that he was about to marry again. The fact itself was unexpected, but the personality of the bride made it an even greater wonder. Margaret Semmler was an honest, respectable, middle-aged person, who had been in her youth a village beauty. She was still a clever and capable housewife and not penniless; so that nobody could understand what made her contemplate such a step. Probably her reason can be found in her shrewd and conscious self-sufficiency. It is reported that on the evening before the wedding she said: "A wife who allows her husband to ill-treat her is either stupid or not worth much: if I have a bad time you can say the fault is mine."
The result unfortunately showed that she had over-estimated her power. At first she made a great impression on her husband; when he had had too much to drink he either kept away from the house or crept up to the loft, but after a while the yoke became too irksome, and he was soon seen to reel across the lane into the house, and from inside came the sound of his wild uproar while Margaret hastily closed doors and windows. On one such occasion - this time not a Sunday - she was seen to rush out of doors without cap or neckerchief, her hair hanging wildly round her head, and throw herself down beside a bed of herbs, where she began to grub up the earth with her hands; then glancing anxiously around her she picked a bunch of herbs and returned slowly towards the house, but went into the loft instead of the house. The rumor spread that on that day Mergel first hit her, but no word of that ever passed her lips.
The second year of this unhappy marriage was marked, one cannot say gladdened, by the birth of a son, for Margaret cried bitterly when the child was handed to her. But in spite of all the sorrows of his mother, Frederick was a healthy, pretty child, and throve in the good air. The father loved him very much, and never came home without bringing him a bit of cake, or something of that sort, and people even thought he had improved since the birth of his child; at least the noise in the house was much less.
Frederick was nine years old. It was the feast of the Epiphany, a raw, stormy winter night. Hermann Mergel had gone to a wedding, and had started off betimes as the bride's house was three-quarters of a mile away. Although he had promised to return in the evening, Frau Mergel did not expect him, more especially as a heavy snowfall had begun at sunset. Towards ten o'clock she raked together the ashes in the fireplace and prepared for bed. Frederick stood beside her, already half undressed, listening to the howl of the wind and the rattling of the garret window.
"Mother, isn't father coming to-night?" he asked.
"No, child, to-morrow".
"But why not, mother? He promised to."
"Ah, God, if only he would do what he promised! Now get on, and finish undressing."
They were hardly in bed when a gust of wind came which threatened to carry away the house. The bed shook, and there was a rustling as of goblins in the chimney.
"Mother, somebody is knocking."
"Quiet, Fritz, that is only the wind shaking that loose board in the gable."
"No, mother, at the door!"
"It isn't shut; the latch is broken. Go to sleep, don't make me lose the miserable bit of rest I can get."
"But if father comes?"
The mother turned angrily in bed. "The devil will keep him fast enough!"
"Where is the devil, mother?"
"You wait, fidget! he is standing outside the door, and will fetch you, if you aren't quiet."
Frederick was quiet; he listened for a little while longer and then fell asleep. After a few hours he woke again. The wind had shifted and was now hissing like a snake through the cracks in the window into his ear. His shoulder was stiff; he crept deeper under the quilt and lay quite still with fright. After a time he noticed that his mother was not sleeping either. He heard her crying, and in between, "Ave Maria!" and "Pray for us poor sinners!" The beads of the rosary touched his face. An involuntary sigh escaped him.
"Frederick, are you awake?"
"Child, pray a little - you know part of the Lord's Prayer - that God may protect us from danger by water and fire."
Frederick thought about the devil and wondered what he looked like. The multifarious noises and uproars in the house seemed strange to him. He thought there must be something alive both inside and out.
"Listen, mother, I am sure there are people knocking."
"Ah, no, child, but there is not one of the old boards in the house which is not clattering."
"Listen, can't you hear? Some one called! Do listen!"
The mother raised herself in bed; the howl of the storm lessened for an instant. One could distinctly hear knocking on the shutters, and voices, "Margaret, Mistress Margaret, hello, open the door!"
Margaret uttered a loud cry: "They are bringing that swine again."
The rosary fell to the floor, clothes were hastily thrown on. She went over to the hearth, and shortly afterwards Frederick heard her crossing the floor with defiant step. Margaret did not come back, but there was a great deal of murmuring of strange voices in the kitchen. Twice a strange man entered the bedchamber and appeared to be looking anxiously for something. Suddenly a lamp was brought in and two men came in leading Margaret. She was white as chalk and her eyes were closed. Frederick thought she must be dead; he began to scream fearfully, whereupon somebody gave him a box on the ears which quieted him, and little by little he began to understand from the talk of the people round him that his uncle Franz Semmler and Hülsmeyer had found his father lying dead in the woods and that he now lay in the kitchen.
As soon as Margaret regained consciousness she was anxious to get rid of the strangers. Her brother stayed with her, and Frederick, obliged to stay in bed under threat of punishment, heard all night long the crackling of the kitchen fire and a noise as of things being pushed backwards and forwards and brushed. Little was said, and that very quietly, but at times sighs reached the boy that, young as he was, cut him to the quick.
Once he heard his uncle say, "Margaret, don't take that so much to heart; we will both have three masses said, and at Easter we will go on pilgrimage to the Virgin at Werl."
When the corpse was carried out two days later Margaret sat by the hearth, hiding her face in her apron. After a few minutes, when it was all quiet, she murmured to herself, "Ten years, ten crosses. We have carried them together, and now I am alone!" Then louder: "Fritz, come here!"
Frederick approached her timidly; with her black ribbons and troubled looks his mother seemed to him a sinister figure.
"Fritz," she said, "will you be a good boy, and make me happy, or are you going to be naughty, a liar, a drunkard, and a thief?"
"Mother, Hülsmeyer steals."
"Hülsmeyer? nonsense! who told you such a wicked story?"
"He thrashed Aaron the other day, and took six groschen from him."
"If he took the money from Aaron, you may be sure the accursed Jew had swindled him of it before. Hülsmeyer is a decent, proper man, and the Jews are all rogues."
"But mother, Brandes said he stole wood and venison as well."
"Child, Brandes is a ranger."
"Mother, are rangers liars?"
Margaret was silent awhile, then she said, "Listen, Fritz, the Almighty lets the trees grow wild, and the deer move from one estate to another; they cannot belong to anybody. But you don't understand that yet; now go to the outhouse and fetch some twigs."
Frederick had seen his father lying blue and horrible on the straw. But he never said anything about it and apparently did not like to think of it. The memory of his father had left in him a mixture of terror and tenderness, and as nothing binds so much as love and care for a being against whom all others seem to have hardened their hearts, so with Frederick this feeling grew with the years, increased by the feeling of the neglect on the part of others. As long as he was a child he was very unhappy if his dead father was spoken of unkindly, and that was a sorrow which the delicacy of the neighbors did not spare him. In that district it is believed that a person who dies by an accident cannot rest in his grave. Old Mergel became the Breder Wood ghost; he led drunkards like a Jack-o'-lantern till they fell into the ditch the shepherd boys, when they crouched over the fire at night and the owls called around them, heard a voice saying in broken tones but quite clearly, "Now hearken, fine Lizzie," and an unauthorized wood-cutter who had fallen asleep under a spreading oak and been overtaken by darkness, had on waking seen old Mergel's swollen blue face watching him through the branches. Frederick had to hear a great many such stories from the other boys; and he cried, struck out with his fists and once even with a knife, and in return was pitiably thrashed. After that he always drove his mother's cows alone to the further end of the valley, where he would lie in the same position in the grass for hours, plucking handfuls of thyme out of the ground.
He was twelve years old when a younger brother of his mother, who had not crossed her doorstep since she had married so foolishly, came on a visit from his home in Breder.
Simon Semmler was a restless little man, with fish-like eyes, and in fact his whole face was like a pike's, a gloomy person, in whom bragging taciturnity and affected sincerity were equally mixed; who would like to have been thought an enlightened person, but who was really considered a disagreeable, quarrelsome fellow, out of whose way everybody was glad to keep as he got older, for with age dull people generally increase their demands as their usefulness decreases.
Nevertheless poor Margaret was glad to see him, for he was now her only living relative.
"Simon, is it you?" she asked, and trembled so much that she had to hold on to her chair. "Have you come to see how I am getting on, and my dirty boy?"
Simon looked at her earnestly and then gave her his hand: "You have grown old Margaret!"
Margaret sighed. "Fate has often been cruel to me."
"Yes, girl, a late marriage is always regretted! Now you are old, and the child still small. There is a time for everything. But when an old house catches fire, no water is any use." A flame, blood-red, spread over Margaret's care-worn face.
"But I hear that your boy is a knowing little chap and very bright," went on Simon.
"Well, more or less, and yet honest."
"Hm, once somebody stole a cow, and his name was Honest also. But he is quiet and thoughtful, isn't he? And does not run about with the other boys?"
"He is a strange child," said Margaret as though to herself, "and that is not good."
Simon laughed aloud. "Your boy is scared because the others have several times given him a good thrashing. He'll return that to them yet. Hülsmeyer came to see me a short time ago, and he said the boy was like a deer."
What mother's heart does not rejoice when she hears her child praised? Margaret had never felt so pleased, for every one said her boy was spiteful and taciturn. Tears came into her eyes.
"Yes, God be praised, he has straight limbs"
"What does he look like?" continued Simon.
"He has a great deal from you, Simon, a great deal."
Simon laughed. "Ho, he must be a fine fellow, I grow handsomer every day. They say he is not doing much at school. You let him herd the cows? That's just as well. Only half of what the master says is true. But where does he go with the cows? Telengrund? Koderholz? Teutoburger Wald? By night and day?"
"The whole night through: but why do you ask that?"
Simon appeared not to have heard this last question; he put his head out of the door. "Ha, here comes the fellow! His father's son! he swings his arm just as your husband did. And just look, actually the boy has my fair hair!"
A stealthy, proud smile crossed the mother's face: her Frederick's blond curls and Simon's red bristles! Without answering she broke a twig from the hedge and went to meet her son, apparently to help him with a lazy cow, but really to whisper a few quick, half-threatening words to him; for she knew his stubborn nature and Simon's manner seemed to her to-day more intimidating than ever. But everything went off better than she expected; Frederick was neither stubborn nor cheeky, but rather somewhat foolish and very anxious to please his uncle. So it came about that after half an hour's talk Simon put forward the suggestion of adopting the boy, whom he did not want to take right away from his mother, but whom he wanted to have with him for a great part of the time, and whom in the end he would make his heir, which he would be in any case. Margaret allowed him to explain how great the advantage and how small the renunciation would be. She knew better what a loss to a sickly widow a twelve-year-old son whom she had brought up almost to take the place of a daughter could be. But she was silent and agreed to everything. Only she begged her brother to be strict, but not hard with the boy.
"He is a good boy," she said, "but I am a solitary woman; my son is not like one who has been ruled by a father's hand."
Simon nodded his head slyly: "You leave that to me, we shall get on quite well together, and do you know what? Let the boy come with me now. I have to fetch two sacks from the mill; the smaller will be just the right size for him, and like that he will learn to help me. Come along, Fritz, put on your wooden shoes."
And soon Margaret was watching them striding away, Simon in front, his head well forward, and the tails of his red coat waving like flames behind him. He had almost the look of a fiery man atoning for the theft of sacks; Frederick followed him, straight and tall for his age, with fine, almost noble features, and long fair hair which was in better order than was to be expected from the rest of his appearance; otherwise ragged, sunburnt, and with a sort of raw melancholy in his looks. But a certain family likeness was not to be denied, and as Frederick slowly followed his guide, his gaze fixed firmly upon the man whose strange appearance attracted him, one had instinctively to think of some one watching with troubled attention his own future picture in a magic mirror.
Now the two neared that part of the Teutoburger Wood where Breder Wood comes down the sides of the hill and makes a very dark patch. So far very little had been said. Simon seemed meditative, the boy absent-minded, end both were panting under the weight of their sacks.
Suddenly Simon asked: "Do you like brandy?"
The child did not answer.
"I asked you if you like brandy? Does your mother sometimes give you some to drink?"
"Mother has none herself," said Frederick.
"Ah, so much the better! - do you know this wood in front of us?"
"That is Breder Wood."
"And do you know what happened in there?"
Frederick remained silent. In the meantime they drew nearer to the gloomy ravine,
"Does your mother still pray so much?" went on Simon.
"Yes, every evening, two rosaries."
"Oh! and you pray with her?"
The boy laughed, half embarrassed, but with a sly look sideways "Mother says one rosary before supper, and I am not home with the cows then, and the other in bed, and then I am asleep."
"Oh, ho, comrade!"
These last few words were said under the shade of a wide-spreading beech-tree which overhung the entrance to the ravine. By this time it was quite dark; the moon was in its first quarter, but its feeble light only served to give a strange appearance to those things which it reached through an occasional thinning of the trees. Frederick kept close behind his uncle; his uncle walked quickly, and if anybody had been there to look at him, they would have noticed an expression of extreme, but strange rather than fearful, attention. So the two marched vigorously forwards, Simon with the firm tread of an experienced walker, Frederick unsteadily and as though in a dream. It seemed to him that everything moved in the separate moon-beams, and the trees swayed, first together and then apart. His steps were made unsteady by the roots of trees and slippery places where the ground was damp; once or twice he nearly fell. At last the darkness seemed less, and the two entered a fairly large clearing. Here the moon shone clear and showed that but a short while earlier the axe had been used unmercifully. Everywhere stood stumps, many several feet high, just as they had been most convenient to cut. The proscribed work must have been interrupted, for a beech-tree in full leaf lay right across the path, its branches stretching high above it and its leaves moving gently in the night wind. Simon stopped for a moment and looked attentively at the fallen tree. In the middle of the clearing stood an old oak, broader than it was tall; a pale ray of light which fell through the branches upon its trunk showed that it was hollow, a fact which had probably saved it from the general disturbance. Here Simon suddenly gripped the boy's hand.
"Frederick, do you know that tree? That is the broad oak."
Frederick shuddered and clung tightly to his uncle's hand.
"Look," went on Simon, "this is where your uncle Franz and Hülsmeyer found your father, when quite drunken, and without penance or extreme unction he went to the devil."
"Uncle, uncle," panted Frederick.
"You aren't afraid? You devil of a boy, you are pinching my arm, let me go!" He tried to shake off the boy, "Your father was a good sort, anyway; God won't be so particular. I loved him as though he were my own brother."
Frederick loosed his grip of his uncle's arm; both went on silently until the rest of the wood was behind them and they came in sight of the village of Breder with its mud huts and the few better houses, Simon's amongst them, of bricks.
The next evening Margaret sat for an hour in front of her house and waited for her boy. It had been the first night the boy had ever spent away from her, and still Frederick did not come. She was annoyed and anxious, yet knew that she had no grounds to be either. The clock in the church tower struck seven, and the cattle returned home; he was still not there, and she had to get up and look after her cows.
When she returned to the dark kitchen Frederick was standing on the hearth; he was bending down and warming his hands at the flames. The firelight played over his features and gave him an unpleasant look of thinness and nervous twitching. Margaret stopped short in the doorway; her child looked so strangely altered.
"Frederick, how is your uncle?" The boy murmured a few unintelligible words, and pressed closer to the wall. "Frederick, have you lost your tongue? Child, say something, you know quite well that I don't hear well with the right ear." The child raised his voice and began to stammer so badly that Margaret could not understand anything.
"What is that you say? A greeting from Master Semmler? Back again? Where? The cows are already home. Wretched boy, I can't understand you. Wait, let me see if you still have a tongue in your mouth!" She moved a few steps nearer him. The child looked up at her with the sad eyes of a half-grown dog learning tricks, and in his terror began to stamp his feet and rub his back against the wall.
Margaret stood still, her look grew anxious. The boy appeared to her to have fallen together, even his clothes were not the same, no, that was not her child! and yet - "Frederick, Frederick!" she called.
In the bedroom a cupboard door banged, and the boy she called stepped forward, in one hand a so-called wooden violin, that is an old wooden shoe spanned with three or four old violin strings, in the other a bow worthy of his instrument. He went straight up to his wretched double with an air of conscious dignity and independence that showed up the difference between the two otherwise amazingly similar boys.
"There, John," he said, and with a patronizing expression gave him the work of art; "there is the violin I promised you. My playtime is over, I must earn money now."
John threw another shy glance at Margaret, then slowly stretched out his hand until he held the proffered gift tight, and hid it under his wretched jacket.
Margaret stood quite still and let the children alone. Her thoughts had taken another, a very serious turn, and she looked uneasily from one to the other. The strange boy had turned back and was bending again over the fire with an expression of momentary comfort which bordered on simplicity. In Frederick's face the play of expression changed continually, but self-seeking was more obvious than kindness, and his eye in its almost glassy clearness certainly showed for the first time that expression of unbridled ambition and propensity to braggadocio, which appeared later as so strong a motive in most of his dealings.
His mother's voice roused him from thoughts which were as new as they were pleasant. She was sitting at her spinning-wheel again.
"Frederick," she said hesitatingly, "tell me - " and stopped. Frederick looked up, and as she said no more, turned back to his protege.
"No, listen," and then more quietly: "what boy is that? what is his name?"
Frederick answered equally quietly: "That is uncle's pigherd, who has a message for Hülsmeyer. Uncle has given me a pair of shoes and a drill vest, and the boy carried them here for me, that is why I promised him the violin; he is only a poor boy; he is called John."
"Well?" said Margaret.
"What do you want, mother?"
"What else is he called?"
"Yes, oh, nothing else - or, wait - yes: Nobody, John Nobody. He has no father," he added more quietly.
Margaret rose and went into the bedroom. When she came back after a short time her face wore a hard, morose expression.
"Now Frederick," she said, "let the boy go on his errand. Boy, what are you putting into the ashes? have you nothing to do at home?"
The boy pulled himself together so hastily that his limbs got in the way, and his wood violin was within a hair's breadth of falling into the fire.
"Wait, John," said Frederick proudly; "I will give you half my slice of bread and butter: it is too much for me, mother always cuts right across the loaf."
"Don't," said Margaret; "he is going home."
"Yes, but he won't get anything there; Uncle Simon eats at seven o'clock." Margaret turned to the boy: "Won't somebody keep something for you? Tell me, who looks after you?"
"Nobody," stammered the child.
"Nobody?" she echoed, "there, take it, take it!" she added hastily, "you are called Nobody, and nobody looks after you! That is a shame! And now go! Frederick, don't go with him, do you hear? don't go together through the village."
"I am only going to get wood from the shed," answered Frederick. When both boys had gone, Margaret threw herself down on a chair and beat her hands together with an expression of the deepest misery. Her face was white as a cloth.
"A broken oath, a broken oath!" she groaned. "Simon, Simon, how will you face your God?"
She sat for a while, motionless with tightly pressed lips, as though completely absent in mind. Frederick stood in front of her and had already spoken twice to her.
"What is it? what do you want?" she cried starting up.
"I have brought you money," he said, more astonished than frightened.
"Money, where?" she moved and the small coins fell with a clink to the floor. Frederick picked them up.
"Money from Uncle Simon, because I have helped him with some work. I can earn money for myself now."
"Money from Simon? Throw it away, away! No, give it to the poor. But no, keep it," she whispered almost inaudibly; "we are poor ourselves, who knows if we shall manage without begging?"
"I am to go to uncle again on Monday and help him with the sowing."
"You go again to him? No, no, never again." She threw her arms passionately round her child. "Yes," she added, a stream of tears pouring down her hollow cheeks, "go, he is my only brother, and the shame is great! But remember God, and do not forget your daily prayer!"
Margaret laid her face against the wall, and wept aloud. She had had many heavy burdens to bear, her husband's wicked treatment, still heavier his death, and it had been a bitter hour when she had had to give over the last piece of ground to a creditor as usufruct, and her plough stood idle before her door. But never before had she felt like this; yet, after she had wept throughout the whole evening, and lain awake a whole night, she decided that her brother Simon could not be so wicked, the child could not be his, resemblance meant nothing. She herself, forty years earlier, had lost a little sister who had looked exactly like the strange peddler. What things one believed when one had so little, and through unbelief was likely to lose that little!
From that time on Frederick was rarely at home. All the warmer feelings of which Simon was capable he seemed to expend on his nephew; at least he missed him very much, and was always sending messages, when any domestic matter kept the boy too long with his mother. The boy was completely changed; the dreaminess had quite gone, he grew more decided, began to pay attention to his appearance, and soon became known as a handsome, active youth. His uncle, who had always some new projects on hand, undertook amongst other things important public works, for example, road building, in which Frederick was reckoned his best workman, and in everything his right hand; for though he was not yet fully developed, there were few who could compete with him in endurance. Margaret had till yet only loved her son, now she began to be proud of him, and even to feel a sort of esteem for him, as she watched the youth developing without any assistance from her, even without her advice, which she, like most people, considered priceless, and she therefore could not rate high enough the talent which was able to manage without it
In his eighteenth year Frederick had already won a considerable name for himself amongst the youth of the village as the result of a bet by the terms of which he carried on his back for two miles without putting it down a wild boar which he had killed. In the meantime participation in the glory which he won was the only advantage which came to Margaret from these propitious circumstances, for Frederick spent more and more on his appearance, and at last began to find it hard to bear when, owing to want of money, he had to play second fiddle to any other of the village youths. Added to that all his energy was given over to outside gains; at home, quite in contrast to his previous reputation, every continuous occupation seemed troublesome to him, he preferred to undertake a difficult but short job, which soon allowed him to go back to his earlier post as cowherd. But this was an unsuitable occupation for his age, and drew a great deal of ridicule upon him; ridicule which he soon silenced by a few sharp reprimands with his fist. So one was soon accustomed to seeing him first decked out and happy as the young elegant and leader of the village youth; then as a ragged cowherd, solitary and dreamy, slinking along behind the cows, or lying face downwards in a clearing in the woods, apparently quite aimlessly stripping the moss off the tree-trunks.
About this time the sleepy laws were to a certain extent shaken up by a band of forest trespassers who, under the name of the Blue Blouses, so far outdid their predecessors in cunning and insolence that it was too much for even the most long-suffering. Quite contrary to the usual state of affairs, when it was easy to point out the leaders of the business, it was not possible, in spite of the greatest vigilance, to discover one single individual. They took their name from the identical dress which they wore to make it more difficult for them to be recognized in case a ranger should catch sight of one of them disappearing into the undergrowth. They ravaged everything like the palmer worm; whole stretches of forest would be felled in a night and carried away, so that the next morning nothing was there but chips and untidy heaps of the top wood; and the fact that the cart-tracks never led to a village, but always to the river and back again, showed that they were working under the protection, and probably with the aid, of the ship owners. The band must have had very clever spies, for the rangers might watch in vain for weeks; but in that night, no matter whether stormy or bright moonlight, when they gave up in need of rest, the destruction began again. The strange thing was that the people in the neighborhood seemed to know as little about it as the rangers themselves.
It could be said with certainty of some villages that they did not belong to the Blue Blouses, but no village could be seriously suspected since the most suspicious of them all, the village of B., was cleared. A coincidence was responsible for this, a wedding, at which the whole village had caroused through the night, while at the same time the Blue Blouses had carried out one of their most notable expeditions.
The damage in the forests was becoming so great that the measures taken against it were increased to a hitherto unknown rigor; the forests were patrolled day and night, farm servants and men servants were armed and detailed to help the rangers. But the result was slight, and the watchers had often hardly left one end of the forest when the Blue Blouses entered at the other. This state of things lasted more than a year, watchers and thieves, thieves and watchers, like sun and moon, alternately in possession of the ground and never meeting.
It was in July 1756, at 3 o'clock in the morning; the moon was high in the heavens, but its brightness was beginning to wane, and a narrow yellow stripe was already showing in the east, edging the horizon and closing the entrance to a ravine like a golden band. Frederick lay in the grass, in his usual position, carving a willow stick whose knotty end he was trying to shape into an animal. He looked overtired, yawned, and sometimes rested his head against a weathered tree stump, while his eyes, duskier than the horizon, strayed over the young growth which nearly hid the entrance to the place where he lay. Once or twice his eyes brightened and took their characteristic glassy expression, but he immediately shut them again, and yawned and stretched himself in the manner of lazy cowherds. His dog lay a short distance from him close to the cows, which, untroubled by the forest rules, were browsing as much on the young green of the trees as on the grass, and blowing contentedly in the fresh morning air.
From time to time a dull, crashing noise came from the woods; the sound, which recurred at intervals of five to eight minutes, lasted but a moment and was followed by a long echo from the hill-sides. Frederick took no notice of it; only occasionally, when the noise was particularly loud or continuous, he raised his head and his gaze wandered slowly over the different paths which led into the clearing.
It was already getting light; the birds began to twitter and the dew to rise from the ground. Frederick had slipped down from his tree-stump and was lying, his arms folded above his head, staring into the softly increasing morning light. Suddenly he started up; something passed over his face like a flash; he listened for a few seconds, his body bent forward like a hunting dog on the scent. Then he hastily put two fingers into his mouth and whistled shrilly and continuously. "Fidel, you miserable creature!"
He threw a stone and hit the flanks of the quiet dog, which, wakened from sleep, first snapped round, then howling, went to seek comfort from the spot whence the evil had come.
At that moment the branches of a near-by thicket were parted almost noiselessly and there stepped out a man in a green coat with a silver escutcheon on the sleeve, carrying his gun cocked. His eyes wandered quickly over the clearing and then rested with particular keenness on the boy. He stepped forward, made a sign towards the thicket, and gradually seven or eight men appeared all wearing similar uniform, hunting knives in their belts and their guns cocked.
"Frederick, what was that?" said the first.
"I wanted the wretched animal to obey at once. For all he cares the cows can graze the ears off my head."
"The beast saw us," said another.
"To-morrow you'll go on a journey with a stone tied round your neck," went on Frederick, and threw another stone at the dog.
"Frederick, don't pretend to be so big a fool! You know me, and you understand me as well." A look which worked at once accompanied these words.
"Herr Brandes, think of my mother!"
"That is what I am doing. Haven't you heard anything in the woods?"
"In the woods?" The boy cast a rapid glance at the ranger's face. "Your wood-cutters, but nothing else."
The ranger's already dark complexion became darker yet. "How many of them are there, and where are they working?"
"Where you sent them; I don't know."
Brandes turned to his companions. "Go on, I will follow you."
When they had all disappeared one after the other into the undergrowth, Brandes went close to the boy: "Frederick," he said in a tone of repressed fury, "my patience is at an end; I would like to beat you like a dog, and you are not worth anything else. You scum, without a tile to your roof. You will soon, praise be to God, have reached beggary, and your mother, the old witch, shan't get even a mouldy crust when she comes begging at my door. But first I'll see you both living in misery."
Frederick clutched convulsively at a branch. He was deadly pale, and his eyes like balls of crystal seemed to be on the point of shooting out of his head. But only for an instant. Then a complete, almost sleepy peace came over him again.
"Sir," he said firmly, with an almost soft tone in his voice, "you have said something for which you are not responsible, and I perhaps also. Let us wipe it out, and now I will tell you what you want to know. If those wood-cutters are not there by your orders, then it must be the Blue Blouses; for no wagon has come from the village, the path is just in front of me; and there were four wagons. I have not seen them but I heard them driving up the ravine." He hesitated a moment.
"Can you say that I ever cut down a tree in your district? that I ever felled any tree anywhere except by order? Think whether you can."
An embarrassed murmur was the only answer of the ranger, who, like most rough men, easily repented. He turned brusquely away and strode towards the bushes.
"No, sir," cried Frederick, "if you want to join the other rangers, they went up there past the beech-tree."
"By the beech?" said Brandes doubtfully, "no, over there towards Mester Wood."
"I tell you, by the beech; the strap of Henry's gun got hung up on that crooked branch; I saw it."
The ranger took the path which had been pointed out to him.
All this time Frederick had not altered his position; half lying, his arm flung round a withered branch, he watched unmoved, as the ranger glided, with the careful stride of his calling, as noiselessly as a lynx entering a hen roost, through the bushes which almost overgrew the footpath. Here a branch fell to behind him, there another; the outline of his figure disappeared little by little. There was a flash through the leaves. It was a button on his coat; at last he was gone. During this gradual disappearance, Frederick's face lost its expression of unconcern and grew agitated. Did he perhaps regret not having bound the ranger to silence regarding what he had told him? He moved a few steps forward, then stopped.
"It is too late," he murmured, and picked up his hat. There was a slight noise in the thicket not twenty paces from him; it was the ranger sharpening his flint. Frederick listened.
"No," he said at last decisively, and collecting his things together began to drive his cattle hastily down the ravine.
At midday Margaret sat by the fire and made tea. Frederick had come home ill, he complained of severe headache, and in reply to her anxious inquiries had told how the ranger had annoyed him, had in fact related the whole of the foregoing affair with the exception of one small item which he found it better to keep to himself. Margaret looked silently and sadly into the boiling water. She was used to hearing her son complain, but to-day he seemed more exhausted than ever before. Was he going to be ill? She sighed deeply and dropped the log of wood which she had just picked up.
"Mother," called Frederick from the bedroom.
"What do you want?"
"Was that a shot?"
"Ah, no, I don't know what you mean."
"It must be the throbbing in my head," he replied.
A neighbor came in and related some insignificant gossip to which Margaret listened unmoved. Then she went.
"Mother," called Frederick. Margaret went to him.
"What was she talking about?"
"Oh, nothing? lies, gossip!"
Frederick raised himself on his elbow.
"About Grete Siemers: you know that old story; and there is nothing in it."
Frederick lay down again. "I will try to sleep," he said.
Margaret sat by the fire; she was spinning, and her thoughts were not pleasant. In the village a clock struck half past twelve; the door opened and the magistrate's clerk came in.
"Good day, Frau Mergel," he said; "can you give me a drink of milk? I have just come from M." When Frau Mergel brought him what he desired, he asked, "Where is Frederick?" She was just busy fetching a plate, and missed his question. He drank slowly and in short gulps. "Do you know," he said at last, "that the Blue Blouses have laid a stretch of wood as bare as my hand again to-night?"
"Oh, dear, dear!" she said unconcernedly.
"The rascals ruin everything," went on the clerk; "if only they spared the young trees; but oak saplings not as thick as my arm, not even large enough for a rudder post! It seems as though they are as anxious to damage things for other people as to make profit for themselves."
"It is a pity," said Margaret.
The clerk had finished his drink but made no move to go. He seemed to have something on his conscience.
"Haven't you heard anything about Brandes?" he asked suddenly.
"Nothing, he never comes into this house."
"Then you don't know what has happened to him?"
"No, what?" asked Margaret anxiously.
"He is dead!"
"Dead!" she cried, "what, dead? In God's name! he passed here only this morning with his gun slung across his back!"
"He is dead," repeated the clerk, gazing sharply at her, "killed by the Blue Blouses. A quarter of an hour ago his body was brought back to the village."
Margaret beat her hands together, "God in Heaven, do not judge him! He did not know what he did!"
"Him?" cried the clerk, "the accursed murderer do you mean?"
From the bedroom came loud groans. Margaret rushed in and the clerk followed her. Frederick sat upright in bed, his face hidden in his hands, groaning like a dying man.
"Frederick, what is it?" asked his mother.
"What is it?" echoed the clerk.
"Oh my head, my head!" he moaned.
"What is the matter with him?"
"God knows," she replied, "he brought the cows home before four o'clock because he felt so ill. Frederick, Frederick, tell me, shall I fetch the doctor?"
"No, no," he whined, "it is nothing, it will soon be better."
He lay back; his face twitched convulsively with pain; then the colour returned to it. "Go," he said dully; "I must sleep, then it will be over."
"Frau Mergel," said the clerk earnestly; "is it certain that Frederick came home at four o'clock and did not go out again?"
She stared at him. "Ask any child in the street. And go out again? - would to God he could!"
"Did he say nothing about Brandes?"
"Yes, in God's name, that Brandes abused him in the woods, and threw his poverty in his face, the ruffian! But God forgive me, he is dead! Go!" she added angrily, "have you come to insult honest people? Go!" She turned back to her son, the clerk went. "Frederick, what does it mean?" she asked, "did you hear? Terrible, terrible, without confession or absolution!"
"Mother, mother, for God's sake let me sleep; I can't bear any more!"
At this moment John Nobody entered the bedroom; thin and tall like a hop-pole, but ragged and frightened just as he had been five years before. His face was even paler than usual. "Frederick" he said, "you are to come to uncle at once, he needs you; at once!"
Frederick turned to the wall. "I am not coming," he said roughly, "I am ill."
"But you must come," croaked John, "he said I must bring you."
Frederick laughed scornfully, "I'd like to see that!"
"Leave him in peace," said Margaret, "he cannot, you can see for yourself."
She went out for a few moments; when she returned, Frederick was already dressed.
"What are you thinking of?" she said, "you cannot, you shall not go."
"What must be, can be," he answered, and was already out of the house with John.
"Ah, God," sighed the mother, "when our children are young, they trample our laps, when they are older, our hearts!"
The legal inquiry had begun, the deed was clear as daylight; but all signs of the murderer were so slight that, although everything pointed to the Blue Blouses, it was not possible to get beyond surmise. One clue seemed to give some light, though there were reasons why little notice was taken of it. The absence of the lord of the manor had made it necessary that the magistrate's clerk should begin proceedings himself. He sat at the table; the room was crowded with peasants, some just curious, others from whom it was hoped, failing actual witnesses, to get some information. Cowherds who had been out with their cattle that night, laborers working in near-by fields, they all stood firm and upright, hands in pockets, a silent declaration as it were that they had no intention of interfering.
Eight rangers were examined. Their evidence agreed exactly: Brandes had ordered them to meet him on the evening of the tenth to make a round of inspection, as he had received intelligence that the Blue Blouses would be out; but he had only spoken vaguely about it. At two in the morning they started and had come across many signs of destruction which had angered the head ranger very much; otherwise all was quiet. About four o'clock Brandes said: "We have been hoaxed, let us go home." As they turned back along the Bremerberg, and at the same time the wind shifted, they heard distinctly the sound of the axe in Mester Wood, and from the rapidity of the blows realized that the Blue Blouses were at work. They had consulted together whether with so small a number it was advisable to try an attack on the daring band, and then without coming to any decision had moved nearer to the sounds. Then followed the meeting with Frederick. Further: after Brandes had sent them on without definite orders, they crept forward for a while, and then, as they noticed that the noise, which had come from a great distance, had now ceased completely, they had stopped to wait for their leader. The delay had annoyed them, and after about ten minutes they had moved on to the scene of destruction. All was over, there was no sound in the forest, of twenty felled trees eight were still there, the others had already been removed. They could not understand how this had been managed as there were no signs of cart tracks.
And owing to the dryness of the season and the fact that the ground was covered with pine needles it had been impossible to distinguish any footprints, though the ground all around had been stamped hard. Deciding that it was useless to wait there for their leader, they had hurried to the other side of the wood in the hope of catching some glimpse of the miscreants. Here on the edge of the wood one of them had got entangled in the blackberry-bushes, and looking back to free himself had caught sight of something glittering in the undergrowth; it was the buckle on Brandes's belt, and he himself was lying in the undergrowth, his right hand on the barrel of his gun, the other clenched, and his head split open by the blow of an axe.
Such was the evidence of the rangers; now it was the turn of the peasants. Many asserted that at four o'clock they were busy at home or elsewhere, and they were all settled, trustworthy people. The court had to be satisfied with their negative evidence.
Frederick was called. He was quite unconcerned, and neither anxious nor impudent when he entered. The inquiry lasted a fairly long time, and a number of subtle questions were put to him; but he answered them all openly and precisely; and told of his encounter with the ranger fairly accurately, except the end, which he thought better to keep to himself. His alibi for the time of the murder was easily established.
The ranger had been murdered at the edge of the Mester Wood: more than three-quarters of an hour's walk from the ravine in which he had talked to Frederick at four o'clock, and from which the latter had driven his herd into the village ten minutes later. Everybody had seen this; all the peasants were sure of it and hastened to say so; he had spoken to this one, nodded to that.
The clerk sat there angry and perplexed. Suddenly he put his hand behind him and thrust something glittering before Frederick's eyes.
"To whom does this belong?"
Frederick sprang back.
"Oh, God, I thought you were going to smash my skull." His eyes passed rapidly over the deadly weapon and seemed to hang for a moment on a splintered corner of the handle. "I do not know," he said firmly.
It was the axe which had been found firmly embedded in the ranger's skull.
"Look at it carefully," went on the clerk.
Frederick took it in his hands, looked at it, turned it over, looked again. "It is just an axe like any other," he said then, and laid it unconcernedly on the table. A bloodstain was visible; he appeared to shudder but he repeated very definitely, "I do not know it."
The clerk sighed his displeasure. He knew of nothing more, and he had hoped by surprise to make some discovery. Nothing remained but to close the inquiry.
To those who are perhaps anxious to hear the result of this affair, I can only say that the mystery was never cleared up, though many further inquiries were held. The stir caused by this affair, and the tightening up of the precautions against the forest thieves which followed, seemed to have caused the Blue Blouses to lose their courage; from that time onward they disappeared, and although later many forest thieves were caught, there was never any reason for connecting them with the infamous band. Twenty years later the axe was still lying, a useless corpus delicti in the archives, where it is probably still lying with its spots of rust. In a work of fiction it would not be right to impose thus upon the reader's curiosity. But all this really happened; I can add nothing to it nor take away.
The following Sunday Frederick got up very early to go to confession. It was the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, and the priest was already in the confessional before daybreak.
After he had dressed himself in the dark, he went as noiselessly as possible out of the tiny cubicle which was given up to him in Simon's house.
His prayer-book must be lying on the sill in the kitchen, and he hoped to find it by the help of the weak moonlight; it was not there. He looked round for it, and shrank back in alarm; in the doorway stood Simon, almost undressed; his thin figure, his disheveled hair and the ghastly whiteness of his face in the moonlight gave him a horribly changed appearance.
"Is he walking in his sleep?" thought Frederick, and remained motionless.
"Frederick, where are you going?" whispered the old man.
"Uncle, is it you? I am going to confession."
"I thought so; go, for God's sake, but confess like a good Christian."
"I will," said Frederick.
"Think of the ten commandments; thou shalt not bear witness against thy neighbor."
"No, none at all, you have been badly taught; he who accuses another in the confessional is unworthy to receive the sacrament."
Both were silent. "Uncle, what makes you say that?" asked Frederick at last; "your conscience is not clear, you have lied to me."
"Where is your axe?"
"My axe? In the loft."
"Have you made a new handle for it? Where is the old one?"
"You can find that by daylight in the wood house. Go," he added, contemptuously, "I thought you were a man; but you are just an old woman, who thinks the house is on fire directly the stove smokes. Listen," he went on, "if I know more of the affair than this door-post, then may I be for ever accursed. I had been at home a long time," he added.
Frederick stood there anxious and doubting. He would have given much to see his uncle's face, but while they whispered together the sky had become overcast.
"I have been very guilty," sighed Frederick, "in sending him the wrong way - though - I did not expect this - no, certainly not. Uncle, I have to thank you for a heavy load on my conscience."
"Oh, go and confess," whispered Simon with quaking voice, "profane the sacrament with tale-bearing, and set poor people a spy on their trail, who will soon find the way to snatch the miserable crusts of bread from their teeth, even though he dares not speak - go!"
Frederick stood undecided: he heard a slight sound; the clouds drifted away, the moonlight fell again on the door of the kitchen: it was shut. That morning Frederick did not go to confession.
The impression which this encounter made on Frederick unfortunately was soon erased. Who doubts that Simon did all he could to guide his adopted son along the path he himself was going? And Frederick had attributes which made this only too easy: thoughtlessness, excitability, and above all an unbounded arrogance that did not always disdain pretence, and then staked all to make that pretence real, in order to avoid being shamed. By nature he was not ignoble, but he accustomed himself to prefer inner shame to outer disgrace. One can only say he got into the habit of showing off while his mother starved.
This unhappy change in his character was the work of several years, during which it was noticeable that Margaret grew more and more silent regarding her son, and sank slowly into a state of such complete demoralization as one would not have thought possible. She became suspicious, careless, even untidy, and many people thought that her head had suffered.
Frederick became noisier and noisier; he never missed any festival or wedding, and as a very touchy sense of honour would not allow him to overlook the secret disapproval of those around him, he was continually prepared not only to bid defiance to public opinion, but also to lead it in the way he thought it should go. He was outwardly tidy, sober, and apparently faithful but cunning, boastful, and often brutal, a being in whom nobody could take pleasure, least of all his mother, and who yet, owing to his dreaded audacity and still more dreaded malice, had won for himself a certain ascendancy in the village that was the more acknowledged as it grew more obvious that his real capabilities were not known. Only one youth in the village, Wilm Hülsmeyer, dared by knowledge of his strength and good circumstances to oppose him; and as he was quicker with his tongue than Frederick, and always knew how to turn defeat into a joke, he was the only one whom Frederick was not very willing to meet.
Four years had passed; it was October; the mild autumn of 1760, which filled every barn with corn and every cellar with wine, had flooded this corner of the earth with its riches also, and there was more drunkenness to be seen and more brawling and foolish pranks to be heard of than ever before. Amusement and pleasure reigned everywhere; holidays came into fashion, and whoever had a few pence to spare, wanted a wife at once, to-day to help him eat, to-morrow to help him starve. There was a hearty wedding in the village, at which the guests had more to look forward to than an out-of-tune fiddle, a glass of spirits, and the good humour they brought themselves. Everybody had been busy since dawn; in front of every house clothes were hung out to air, and the village looked the whole day like a jumble sale. As many outsiders were expected everybody was anxious to help to uphold the honour of the village.
It was seven o'clock in the evening, and the fun at its height; everywhere rejoicing and laughter, the low rooms full to suffocation with red, blue, and yellow figures, like a pound into which too big a herd has been driven. There was dancing on the threshing-floor, at least, those who had succeeded in getting two feet of room turned round and round on it and tried to make up by shouting what failed in movement. The orchestra was brilliant; the first fiddle, a recognized artist, overpowered the second and a large bass viol with three strings which were scraped ad libitum by amateurs; a super-abundance of spirits and coffee; all the guests streaming with sweat; in fact a wonderful fete.
Frederick, in a new blue coat, strutted about like a cock and asserted his rights as a beau. When the gentry arrived he was sitting behind the bass viol and played the deepest note with vigour and much feeling.
"John," he cried, peremptorily, and his protege appeared from the dance-floor, where he had been attempting to swing his clumsy legs and shout with the rest. Frederick handed him the bow, gave him to understand his wishes with a proud movement of the head, and went back to the dance. "Now, merrily, musicians: Papen van Istrup!"
The favorite dance was played, and Frederick leapt about in front of the gentry so violently that the cows below drew back their horns and raised a noise of rattling chains and loud moos. His fair hair went up and down a head above the others, like a pike turning over and over in the water; all round were heard the shouts of the maidens he desired to honour by thrusting his long fair hair in their face with a quick movement of the head.
"That's enough!" he cried at last, and moved, the sweat dropping from him, over to the sideboard; "hurrah for our good master and all his family, and all the most noble princes and princesses, and who won't drink with me, I'll box his ears till he hears the angels singing!" A loud cheer greeted this gallant toast. Frederick made a bow - "No offence, ladies and gentlemen; we are only ignorant peasants!"
At this moment a tumult arose at the other end of the floor, shrieks, scolding, laughter, all together. "Butter thief! butter thief!" cried a few children, and there appeared, or rather was pushed forward, John Nobody, his head lowered, doing his utmost to reach the entrance. "What is it? What are you doing with our John?" cried Frederick peremptorily.
"You'll know that soon enough," croaked an old woman in a kitchen apron, with a dish-cloth in her hand. Shame! John, the poor creature, who had to put up with the worst of everything at home, had tried to lay in a pound of butter for the hard times ahead, and forgetting that he had wrapped it into his handkerchief and put it in his pocket, he had gone close to the kitchen fire, and now the fat was running ignominiously down his coat-tails.
General uproar; the maidens sprang aside, afraid of getting greasy, or pushed the delinquent on. Others made way out of pity or prudence. But Frederick stepped forward, "Scamp!" he cried, and gave his patient protege several slaps in the face; then he pushed him to the door and gave him a vigorous kick to help him on his way.
He came back depressed, his dignity was hurt, the general laughter cut him to the heart, and though he tried by vigorous shouting to set things going again he was not successful. He was just about to take refuge behind the bass viol again; but first one supreme effort - he drew out his silver watch, in those days a rare and costly ornament.
"It is nearly ten," he said. "Now for the Bride's Minuet! I will play."
"A wonderful watch," said the swineherd, and thrust forward his face in reverent curiosity.
"What did it cost?" cried Wilm Hülsmeyer, Frederick's rival.
"Do you want to pay for it?" asked Frederick.
"Have you paid for it?" answered Wilm. Frederick threw him a haughty glance and picked up the bow in silent majesty. "Well, well," said Hülsmeyer, "one has heard of such things, you know; Fray Ebel had a beautiful watch too, until Aaron the Jew took it from him again."
Frederick did not answer, but signed proudly to the first violin, and they began to play with all their might.
In the meantime the gentry had gone into the bedroom where the neighbors were binding the white scarf round the head of the bride as a sign of her new standing. The poor young thing cried bitterly, partly because it was the custom, partly from real depression. She was to take her place at the head of a muddled household, under the eyes of a surly old man, whom she was expected to love. He stood beside her, not in the least like the bridegroom of the Psalms who coming out of his chamber rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
"You have wept enough now," he said peevishly, "remember you are not expected to make me happy, I shall make you happy!"
She looked up at him submissively and appeared to think he was right. The business was finished; the young wife had drunk to her husband, some young wags had looked through the tripod to see that the veil sat straight, and everybody was pushing their way back to the dancing-floor, whence came unceasing laughter and noise.
Frederick was no longer there. A great and unbearable insult had been offered him, for the Jew Aaron, a butcher and, when occasion offered, second-hand dealer, from the next town, had suddenly arrived, and after a short but unsatisfactory private talk had dunned him before everybody for the payment of ten talers due since the previous Easter for his silver watch.
Frederick had gone away like a ruined man, the Jew following him and crying, "Oh alas! why did I not listen to sensible people! They told me a hundred times that you had all your possessions on your back and no bread in the cupboard!"
The place shook with laughter; many had followed into the yard. "seize the Jew! weigh him against a pig!" shouted some; others had become serious. "Frederick looked as white as a sheet," said one old woman, and the crowd parted as the gentry's carriage drove out of the yard.
On the way home Baron von S. was very depressed, the usual result when his desire for popularity had caused him to attend such a festivity. He looked morosely out of the carriage. "What figures are those?" He pointed to two dark shadows running in front of the carriage like ostriches. They disappeared into the castle. "A pair from our own stall!" he sighed.
Arrived at home, he found the entire entrance hall filled with servants gathered round two of the farm hands who had sunk down pale and breathless on the stairs. They declared that they had been followed by old Mergel's ghost as they returned home through Breder Wood. First there was a rustling and snapping above them; then high in the air a clapping sound like two sticks beaten together; then suddenly a piercing scream, and quite distinctly the words, "Alas, my poor soul!" from high above them. One of them declared that he had seen glowing eyes shining through the branches, and both had run as fast as their legs would carry them.
"Rubbish," said the master crossly, and went into his room to change his clothes. The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that somebody had damaged a pipe, apparently in looking for the head of a horse which long years before had been buried there, and which was considered a sure safeguard against witches and ghosts. "Hm," said the master, "what rogues don't steal, fools spoil."
Three days later a fearful storm raged. It was midnight, but nobody in the castle had gone to bed. The master stood at the window and looked anxiously out into the darkness across his fields. Leaves and twigs blew past the window-panes; at times a tile fell and was smashed to pieces in the courtyard. "Terrible weather," said Baron von S. His wife looked nervous. "Are you certain that the fire is safe?" she said; "Grete, go and make quite sure, put it quite out! Let us read the Gospel of St. John."
They all knelt down, and the housewife began to read: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word the Word was God." - A terrible peal of thunder - they all started up; then a frightful scream and tumult on the stairs. "In God's name, is the house on fire?" cried Frau von S. and sank down with her face on the seat of her chair. The door was flung open and in rushed the wife of Aaron the Jew, white as death, her hair hanging wildly round her, dripping with rain. She threw herself on her knees before the master. "Justice!" she cried, "Justice! My husband has been murdered!" and fell in a dead faint.
It was only too true, and the inquiry which followed showed that Aaron the Jew had been killed by a single blow on the temple with a blunt instrument, probably a cudgel. Except the blue mark on the left temple there was no wound. The evidence of the Jewess and her servant, Samuel, was this: Three days before, Aaron had gone out in the afternoon to buy cattle, and had said that he would probably be away all night as there were several people in the villages of B. and S. whom he wanted to call on to collect money long owing. In that case he would spend the night with Salomon the butcher at B. When he did not return the next day his wife was very worried, and on the third day at three o'clock in the afternoon, accompanied by her servant and her dog, she had set out to look for him. Nobody knew anything of him at Salomon's, he had not been there at all. Then she went to all the peasants with whom she knew Aaron had business.
Only two of them had seen him, and both on the day on which he had left home. By this time it was growing late. Driven by terrible anxiety the woman turned homewards with some faint hope that her husband might be already there. In Breder Wood they were overtaken by the storm and had sought shelter under a great beech-tree on the hillside; the dog had behaved strangely, and at last, in spite of every attempt to coax him back, had disappeared into the wood. Suddenly by a flash of lightning the woman saw something white lying beside her on the ground. It was her husband's staff, and almost at the same moment the dog burst through the undergrowth carrying something in his mouth; it was her husband's shoe. It was not long before they found the body of the Jew in a ditch, covered with dead leaves.
This was the account which the servant gave, backed up intermittently by the woman; the terrible tension had lessened, and she seemed to be half crazy or rather stupid. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," she said at intervals.
The same night orders were sent to the watchmen to arrest Frederick. No accusation was necessary, for the Baron S. had himself been an eyewitness of a scene which was bound to throw the deepest suspicion on him; added to that there was the ghost story of that evening, the clash of sticks in Breder Wood, the cry from the height. As the clerk was just then absent, Herr von S. dealt with the affair more quickly than would otherwise have happened. Nevertheless dawn was beginning to appear before the watchmen had managed, as noiselessly as possible, to surround poor Margaret's house. The Baron himself knocked; hardly a moment passed before the door was opened and Margaret appeared, fully clothed. Herr von S. was startled, he hardly recognized her, she looked so pale and stony.
"Where is Frederick?" he asked with unsteady voice.
"Seek him," she replied, and sat down on a chair. The Baron hesitated an instant longer.
"Come in, come in!" he said then, brusquely; "what are we waiting for?"
They entered Frederick's room. He was not there, but the bed was still warm. They went up into the loft, down into the cellar, prodded the hay, looked behind every barrel, and even into the oven: he was not there. Some went into the garden, looked behind the fence and up into the apple-trees: he was not to be found.
"Got away!" said the master, with very mixed feelings; the sight of the old woman had affected him very much. "Give me the key to that box!" Margaret did not answer. "Give me the key!" repeated the master, and then noticed that it was sticking in the lock. The contents of the box were emptied out: the fugitive's best clothes, and his mother's poor finery, then two shrouds with black ribbons, one for a man and one for a woman. Baron von S. was deeply touched. Right at the bottom of the box lay the silver watch, and a few letters in a very clear hand, one signed by a man who was under strong suspicion of being connected with the Blue Blouses. The Baron took them with him to look through, and they all left the house, Margaret all the time giving no other sign of life than an incessant biting of the lips and twitching of the eyelids.
When he reached the castle the Baron found his clerk there. The latter had reached home the previous evening, and declared that, as his master had not sent for him, he had slept through the whole affair.
"You are always too late," said the Baron angrily. "Wasn't there a single old woman in the village to tell the story to your maid? And why did nobody call you?"
"Sir," replied Kapp, "certainly Anne Marie heard of the affair an hour before I did; but she knew that Your Excellency was managing the business yourself, and also," he added in a plaintive tone, "I was dead tired."
"Pretty police!" murmured the master, "all the old women in the village know all about everything which should be kept absolutely secret." Then he added vehemently "He must be a silly fool of a criminal who manages to get caught!"
Both were silent awhile. "My coachman lost his way in the darkness," began the clerk presently; "we had to halt over an hour in the wood, it was an awful storm; I thought the wind would blow the carriage over. At last, when the rain ceased, we drove on, straight ahead, unable to see a hand before our face. Then the coachman said, 'If only we don't get too near the quarry!' I was terrified myself; I ordered a halt and struck a light that at least I might have the comfort of my pipe. Suddenly we heard, nearly perpendicularly below us, the clock strike. Your Excellency can imagine what I felt like. I jumped out of the carriage, for one can trust one's own legs but not those of a horse. So I stood, in mud and rain, without daring to move, until, thank God, daylight shortly began to appear. And where were we? Close to Heerser Cliff, and the tower of Heerser church was just below us. Another twenty steps and we should all have been killed."
"That was certainly no joke," said the Baron, half-appeased.
He had in the meantime looked through the papers he had brought with him. They were dunning letters about borrowed money, mostly from money-lenders.
"I did not think," he murmured, "that the Mergels were in so deeply."
"Yes, and that it must all be exposed," added Kapp, "that will be a bitter pill for Margaret to swallow."
"Ah, good God! she isn't thinking of that now!"
With these words the master got up and left the room with Kapp in order to view the body. The investigation was short, the verdict, death by violence, the probable murderer fled; the proof against him certainly strong, but not demonstrable without personal confession, his flight very suspicious. So the judicial proceedings were closed for lack of evidence.
The Jews of the neighborhood had shown great interest; the widow's house was always full of mourners and counselors. No one could remember having seen so many Jews in L. Much embittered by the murder of their fellow believer, they spared neither trouble nor money to find the murderer. It was known that one of them offered to one of his customers, whose debt ran into hundreds, and whom he thought a particularly astute person, to cancel his entire debt if he would help to get Mergel arrested; for the belief was widespread amongst the Jews that the murderer had only escaped with the help of good friends, and was probably still in the neighborhood. But when nothing was any use, and the judicial proceedings were declared closed, on the following morning there appeared at the castle a number of the most respected Jews to arrange a deal with the master. Their object was the beech-tree under which Aaron's stick was found and where the murder had probably taken place.
"Do you want to cut it down? Now in full leaf?" asked the master.
"No, Your Excellency, it must stand, summer and winter, as long as a chip of it remains."
"But if I cut down that wood, then it will damage the new growth."
"We are prepared to give much more than the ordinary price."
They offered 200 taIers. The deal was closed, and all the rangers strongly enjoined on no account to damage the Jews' Beech.
In the evening a procession of at least sixty Jews, their Rabbis at the head, all silent and with downcast eyes, was seen to make its way to Breder Wood. They remained more than an hour in the wood, and then came solemnly and silently back, through the village of B. to the Zellerfeld, where they separated, each going his own way.
The next morning a Jewish inscription was found cut into the trunk with an axe.
And where was Frederick? Gone, without doubt, far enough to be out of reach of the short arm of so weak a police. He had soon been forgotten. Simon rarely spoke of him, and then badly; the Jewess comforted herself and took another husband. Only poor Margaret remained unconsoled.
Some six months later the Baron read aloud to his clerk a letter which he had just received. "Strange, strange!" he said, "Think, Kapp, Mergel was perhaps not guilty of murder. Here is a letter from the presiding judge at P. 'Le vrai n'est pas toujours vraisemblable'; I have often noticed that in my calling, and again quite recently. Do you know that your faithful Frederick Mergel was perhaps as innocent of murdering the Jew as you or I? Unfortunately there is no proof, but the likelihood is great. A member of the Schlemming Band (who by the way are nearly all under lock and key) named Moses, said at the last trial that he repented of nothing so much as the murder of a fellow believer, Aaron, whom he had killed in a wood, and then found only sixpence on the body. Unfortunately the court adjourned then for lunch, and while we were at table, the dog of a Jew hung himself with one of his own garters. What do you say to that? Aaron is certainly a common Jewish name, etc."
"What do you say to that?" repeated the Baron, "and why did the silly fellow run away?"
The clerk thought the matter over. "Well, it might have been because of an affair in the wood which we have just been investigating. Isn't there a saying, a 'wicked man runs away from his own shadow'? Mergel's conscience was black enough without that extra spot."
And that was all. Frederick gone, disappeared, and - John Nobody, the poor, unnoticed John - disappeared at the same time.
A long time passed, twenty-eight years, almost the half of a lifetime: the Baron had grown old and grey, his good-natured assistant Kapp was long in his grave. Men, animals, plants had been born, grown up, died; only the castle remained the same, grey and distinguished, looking down upon the huts which resembled old, suffering people, just about to fall down but still standing.
It was Christmas Eve, 1788.
Deep snow lay in the defiles, a good twelve foot high, and the bitter wind froze the windows of the warm rooms. It was nearly midnight, but pale lights shone out everywhere above the snow and in every house the inhabitants were kneeling to welcome the beginning of Christmas Day by prayer, as is the custom in all Catholic countries, or was, at least, in those days. From Breder Wood a figure emerged and began to make its way slowly towards the village; the wayfarer seemed very weak or ill; he groaned heavily, and dragged himself with great trouble through the snow.
Halfway down the hill-side he stood still, leaned upon his staff, and gazed steadfastly at the lights. It was so quiet everywhere, so dead and cold; one was reminded of will-o'-the-wisps in churchyards. The clock in the church tower struck twelve, the last stroke faded slowly away and in the nearest house quiet singing began, swelling from house to house through the whole village:
A child so dear
Is born to us to-day
Of a Virgin pure that
Joy be ours always.
And had that child not been born
Then were we all together forlorn
Salvation is for all.
O, Jesus Christ, my own dear love
Who came as man from heaven above
Redeem thou us from hell!
The man on the hill-side had fallen on his knees and tried with trembling voice to join in; but nothing came but loud sobs, and heavy, hot tears fell in the snow. The second verse began; he murmured the words; then the third and the fourth. The carol was ended, and the lights in the houses began to move. Then the man got up wearily and crept slowly down into the village. He crept past several houses, then he stopped in front of a door and knocked gently.
"What is that?" said a woman's voice within; "the door is rattling and there is no wind."
He knocked louder. "In God's name let a poor half-frozen man in, who comes from Turkish slavery!"
Whispering in the kitchen. "Go to the inn," said another voice, "the fifth house from here."
"For the mercy of God, let me in, I have no money."
After some hesitation the door was opened, and a man with a lamp looked out. "Come in," he said at last, "you won't cut our throats."
In the kitchen, beside the man, there were a middle-aged woman, an old woman, and five children. They all crowded round the new-comer, and surveyed him with shy curiosity. A wretched figure! With wry neck and crooked back, the whole figure broken and wasted; long, snow-white hair hung round his face, which had the drawn expression of one who has suffered much and long. The woman went silently to the fire and added fresh fuel.
"We can't give you a bed," she said, "but I will lay some fresh straw for you here; you must do the best you can with that."
"May God reward you," answered the stranger, I am used to much worse."
The returned wanderer was recognized as John Nobody, and he confirmed the fact that he was the same John who had once fled with Frederick Mergel.
The next day the village was full of the adventures of the long-missing man. Everybody wanted to see the man who had come back from Turkey, and they were almost astonished that he looked like other men. The young people had certainly no remembrance of him, but the older ones recognized him quite easily, pitiably changed though he was.
"John, John, how grey you are!" said one old woman. "And how did you get a wry neck?"
"From wood and water carrying as a slave," he replied.
"And what happened to Mergel? Surely you both went away together?"
"Certainly, but I don't know where he is; we got separated. When you think of him, say a prayer for him," he added, "he will need it."
People inquired why Frederick had fled when he had not killed the Jew after all.
"Not?" said John, and listened eagerly while they related what the Baron had told them in order to clear Frederick's name. "Then it was all for nothing," he said thoughtfully, "all for nothing, all that suffering!"
He sighed deeply, and began to ask about many things. Simon was long dead, but first he had been reduced to complete poverty, through lawsuits and bad debtors whom he dared not bring to justice because the business between them would not stand the light of day.
He had finally been reduced to begging, and had died on the straw in a stranger's shed. Margaret had lived longer, but completely imbecile.
The villagers had got tired of helping her, as she allowed everything they gave her to be ruined; but that is the way of people, to neglect the most helpless, those who are always in need of help because they cannot help themselves. Nevertheless she had never been in actual need; the people at the castle looked after her, sending her some dinner every day, and when her wretched condition became complete emaciation, they sent her medical help. The son of the swineherd who on that ill-fated evening had admired Frederick's silver watch now lived in her house.
"All gone, all dead!" sighed John.
In the evening as it grew dark and the moon rose, he was seen moving about the churchyard; he did not pray by any grave, did not even go close to any, but he seemed to stare fixedly at certain ones from a distance. There he was found by Brandes, the ranger, the son of the murdered man, who had been sent by his master to fetch him to the castle.
On entering the living room he looked shyly round, as though dazzled by the light, and then at the Baron who sat huddled up in an armchair, but still with the bright eyes, and still wearing a little red cap on his head as twenty-eight years before; beside him sat his wife, also grown old, very old.
"Now, John," said the Baron, "give me a good account of all your adventures But," he looked at him through his glasses, "they did make a wreck of you in Turkey."
John began: how Mergel had called him away from the fire at night, and said he must go away with him.
"But why did the silly boy run away? You know that he was innocent?"
John looked down: "I don't really know, but I think it was because of trouble in the woods. Simon had so many things on hand; nobody said anything to me about them, but I think things were not all as they should be."
"What did Frederick tell you?"
"Nothing but that we must get away, they were after us. So we ran as far as Heerser; there it was still dark, and we hid behind the big crucifix in the churchyard till it grew lighter, because we were afraid of the stone-quarries at Zellerfelde; and when we had sat there awhile we suddenly heard snorting and stamping above us, and saw long rays of light in the air right above Heerser church tower. We jumped up and ran as fast as we could, straight ahead, and when daylight came we actually found ourselves on the road to P."
John shuddered at the remembrance, and the Baron thought of the dead Kapp and his adventure on the Heerser Cliff.
"Strange," he laughed, "you were so near one another! but go on!"
John related how they reached P. and were lucky enough to get over the frontier. From there they had begged their way as wandering artisans as far as Freiburg in Breisgau. "I had my bread-bag," he said, "and Frederick a small bundle, so people believed us." In Freiburg they had been recruited by the Austrians; he had not been wanted, but Frederick insisted that he be taken as well. So he began his training. "We stayed in Freiburg that winter," he went on, "and it was not too bad, even for me, for Frederick often remembered me and helped me when I did anything stupid. In the spring we marched away to Hungary, and in the autumn the war with Turkey began. I do not know much about it, for I was taken prisoner in the first engagement, and since then have been for twenty-six years a Turkish slave!"
"Dear God, that is dreadful," said the Baron's wife.
"Bad enough, for the Turks treated us Christians like dogs; the worst was that the hard work took away my strength; also I grew older, and yet was expected to do as much as in earlier days."
He was silent awhile.
"Yes," he said then, "it was more than human strength or patience could stand; I could not go on. From there I got aboard a Dutch ship."
"How did you manage to do that?" asked the Baron.
"They fished me out of the Bosporus," answered John. The Baron looked at him with surprise and raised a warning finger; but John went on with his story.
"On the ship things were not much better. There was an outbreak of scurvy; those who were not absolutely helpless had to work beyond their strength, and the power of the ship's rope was as great as that of the Turkish whip. At last," he said, "when we reached Holland, Amsterdam, I was allowed to go free because I was of no use, and the merchant to whom the ship belonged took pity on me and wanted to give me a job as a porter. But" - he shook his head - "I preferred to beg my way back here."
"That was silly enough," said the Baron.
"Oh, sir, I have spent my life amongst Turks and heretics, might I not at least lay my bones in a Catholic churchyard?"
The Baron drew out his purse, "There John, now go, but come again soon. You must tell me all in greater detail; to-day it was rather confused. You are still very tired?"
"Very tired," answered John, "and," here he pointed to his forehead, "my thoughts are sometimes so strange, I don't quite know what it is."
"I know, from old days," said the Baron, "Now go. Hülsmeyer will put you up tonight; come again to-morrow."
Baron von S. felt the deepest sympathy for the poor creature; by the next day it had been arranged where he could be lodged; he was to have his food at the castle, and clothes could also be found.
"Sir," said John, "I can still do some work; I can make wooden spoons, and you can use me to carry messages."
Baron von S. shook his head pityingly. "You won't manage that very well."
"Oh, yes, sir, when I am once in the way of it - I can't go quickly, but I shall get there, and it won't be as bitter to me as one might think."
"Well," said the Baron, doubtfully, "would you like to try? Here is a letter to be taken to P. There is no particular hurry."
The next day John took possession of a small room in the house of a widow in the village. He carved spoons, had his meals at the castle, and went errands for the Baron. On the whole things went well with him; his master was kind and often talked with him about Turkey, the Austrian service, and the sea.
"John could tell wonderful stories," he said to his wife, "if he were not so weak-minded."
"Rather melancholy than weak-minded," she replied, "I am always afraid he will go mad."
"Oh, nonsense," answered the Baron, "he was always half-witted; half-wits never go mad."
Some time later John took an unusually long time on one of his errands. The good Frau von S. was very worried about him and was just sending out to search for him when he was heard stumbling up the stairs.
"You have been a long time, John," she said, "I thought you must have got lost in Breder Wood."
"I came through the pine wood."
"That is a long way round; why didn't you come through Breder Wood?"
He looked up sadly: "I was told that the wood had been cut down, and now there are many side paths there so I was afraid of not finding my way out again. I am getting old and silly," he added slowly.
"Did you see," said Frau von S. later to her husband, "what a strange look there was in his eyes? I tell you, Ernst, he will come to a sad end."
September was drawing near. The fields were bare, the leaves began to fall, and many began to feel that the scissors were nearing the thread of their lives. John also seemed to be suffering under the influence of the approaching equinox: those who saw him in those days said he looked noticeably troubled, and talked to himself incessantly, a thing which he had done but seldom. Finally he failed to return home one night. It was thought that perhaps the Baron had sent him rather far; the second night he did not return, on the third day his landlady grew anxious. She went to the castle and made inquiries.
"God forbid," said the Baron, "I know nothing of him; but call the hunters at once and William the ranger! If the poor cripple has only fallen into a dry ditch he would be unable to get out again. Who knows if he has not perhaps broken one of his bent legs. Take the dogs," he called to the departing hunters, "and look carefully in the ditches, and in the stone-quarry," he added louder.
The hunters returned several hours later; they had found no sign of John. The Baron was very troubled: "When I think that he might be lying like a stone, and unable to help himself! But he may still be alive; a man can live for three days without food."
He set out himself to search; questions were asked at every house, horns were blown everywhere, the dogs were urged on to seek - all in vain! A child had seen him sitting at the edge of Breder Wood, carving a spoon; "but he cut it right in two," said the little girl. That was two days earlier. In the afternoon there was another clue; again a child, who had seen him on the opposite side of Breder Wood, sitting with his face on his knees, as though asleep. That was yesterday. It seemed as though he had wandered about all the time in Breder Wood.
"If only this wretched undergrowth were not so thick! One cannot get through it," said the Baron. The dogs were driven into the young growth; they blew and shouted and at last returned dissatisfied home, when they had convinced themselves that the whole wood had been searched. "Go on! go on!" begged Frau von S., "rather a few unnecessary steps than something missed."
The Baron was almost as anxious as she was. His uneasiness even drove him to John's lodging, though he was certain of not finding him there. He had the room opened. The bed was unmade, just as he had left it, his best coat, which Frau von S. had had made out of an old coat of her husband's, hung behind the door: on the table were a bowl, six new wooden spoons, and a box.
The Baron opened it; it contained five groschen neatly wrapped in paper, and four silver waistcoat buttons; the Baron looked at them carefully. "A souvenir of Mergel," he murmured, and went out, for he felt quite cramped in the stuffy little room.
The search went on until it was quite certain that John was no longer in the district, at least not alive.
So for the second time he had disappeared: would he ever be found again - perhaps in years to come his bones in some dry ditch? There was little hope of seeing him again alive, and certainly not after another twenty-eight years.
One morning a fortnight later young Brandes was returning through Breder Wood from that part of the forest under his charge. It was, for the time of year, an exceptionally hot day; the air shimmered, no birds were singing, only the ravens croaked in a bored manner from the branches, and held their beaks open towards the wind. Brandes was very tired. First he took off his cap, which was heated through by the sun, then he put it on again. Both ways it was unbearable. Forcing his way through the knee-high undergrowth was difficult. No tree near except the Jews' Beech. Towards that he pushed his way and dropped tired out in the mossy shade beneath it. The coolness was so pleasant to his limbs that he closed his eyes.
"Disgusting toadstools!" he murmured, half asleep. In that district there are certain juicy toadstools which stand for a few days, then rot and give forth an unsupportable stench. Brandes thought he noticed some of these near him; he turned from side to side but did not want to get up; his dog, in the meantime, was very restless, scratched at the trunk of the tree, and barked up into the branches.
"What is it, Bello? a cat?" murmured Brandes. He half opened his eyes and saw the Jewish inscription just above him, much overgrown, but still quite recognizable. He shut his eyes again; the dog continued to bark, and finally pushed his cold muzzle into his master's face.
"Leave me in peace! what is the matter?" At that instant Brandes, lying on his back, looked up into the branches overhead, and with one movement sprang to his feet and fled like one possessed into the undergrowth.
He was deadly pale when he reached the castle: a man was hanging in the Jews' Beech; he had seen the legs hanging right above his face. "And you did not cut him down, you ass?" shouted the Baron.
"Sir," croaked Brandes, "if Your Excellency had been there, you would have known that the man was no longer alive. I thought at first it was the toadstools!" Nevertheless the Baron urged them to hasten and went out with them.
They reached the beech. "I see nothing," said the Baron. "You must come here, here, on this spot!" So that was it: the Baron recognized his own old shoes.
"God, it is John! - Put up the ladder! so - now down! - careful, careful, don't let him fall! - Dear heaven, the worms have begun! But undo the noose, and the cravat." A broad scar was visible; the Baron started back.
"My God!" he said; he bent again over the corpse, looked at the scar very carefully, and then remained silent, deeply shaken.
Then he turned to the ranger: "It is not right that the innocent should suffer for the guilty; tell everybody: this" - he pointed to the corpse - "was Frederick Mergel." The body was buried in the carrion pit.
In their main details these events really occurred in September of the year 1788.
The Jewish inscription on the tree ran:
"When thou approachest this place, thou shalt do to thyself what thou didst do to me."