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A couple of hours must have pa.s.sed, when I was roused by the winding of a post-horn, which sounded merrily in my dreams for a while before I fully recovered consciousness. At last I sprang up; day was already dawning on the mountains, and I felt through all my limbs the freshness of the morning. Then it occurred to me that by this time we ought to be far on our way. “Aha!” I thought, “now it is my turn to laugh. How Herr Guido will shake his sleepy, curly head when he hears me outside!” So I went close beneath the window in the little garden at the back of the house, stretched my limbs well in the morning air, and sang merrily–
“If the cricket’s chirp we hear, Then be sure the day is near; When the sun is rising–then ‘Tis good to go to asleep again.”
The window of the room where my masters were stood open, but all within was quiet; the breeze alone rustled the leaves of the vine that clambered into the window itself. “What does this mean?” I exclaimed in surprise, and ran into the house, and through the silent corridors, to the room. But when I opened the door my heart stood still with dismay; the room was perfectly empty; not a coat, not a hat, not a boot, anywhere. Only the zither upon which Herr Guido had played was hanging on the wall, and on the table in the centre of the room lay a purse full of money, with a card attached to it. I took it to the window, and could scarcely trust my eyes when I read, in large letters, “For the Herr Receiver!”
But what good could it all do me if I could not find my dear, merry masters again? I thrust the purse into my deep coat-pocket, where it plumped down as into a well and almost pulled me over backward. Then I rushed out, and made a great noise, and waked up all the maids and men in the house. They could not imagine what was the matter, and thought I must have gone crazy. But they were not a little amazed when they saw the empty nest. No one knew anything of my masters. One maid only had observed–so far as I could make out from her signs and gesticulations–that Herr Guido, when he was singing on the balcony on the previous evening, had suddenly screamed aloud, and had then rushed back into the room to the other gentleman. And once, when she waked in the night afterward, she had heard the tramp of a horse. She peeped out of the little window of her room, and saw the crooked Signor, who had talked so much to me, on a white horse, galloping so furiously across the field in the moonlight that he bounced high up from his saddle; and the maid crossed herself, for he looked like a ghost riding upon a three-legged horse. I did not know what in the world to do.
Meanwhile, however, our carriage was standing before the door ready to start, and the impatient postilion blew his horn fit to burst, for he had to be at the next station at a certain hour, because everything had been ordered with great exact.i.tude in the way of changing horses.
I ran once more through all the house, calling the painters, but no one made answer; the inn-people stared at me, the postilion cursed, the horses neighed, and, at last, completely dazed, I sprang into the carriage, the hostler shut the door behind me, the postilion cracked his whip, and away I went into the wide world.
We drove on now over hill and dale, day and night. I had no time for reflection, for wherever we arrived the horses were standing ready harnessed. I could not talk with the people, and my signs and gestures were of no use; often just in the midst of a fine dinner the postilion wound his horn, and I had to drop knife and fork and spring into the carriage again without knowing whither I was going, or why or wherefore I was obliged to hurry on at such a rattling pace.
Otherwise the life was not unpleasant. I reclined upon the soft cushions first in one corner of the carriage and then in the other, and took note of countries and people, and when we drove through the villages I leaned both arms on the window of the carriage, and acknowledged the courtesy of the men who took off their hats to me, or else I kissed my hand like an old acquaintance to the young girls at the windows, who looked surprised, and stared after me as long as the carriage was in sight.
But a day came when I was in a terrible fright. I had never counted the money in the purse left for me, and I had to pay a great deal to the postmasters and innkeepers everywhere, so that before I was aware, the purse was empty. When I first discovered this I had an idea of jumping out of the carriage and making my escape, the next time we drove through a lonely wood. But I could not make up my mind to give up the beautiful carriage and leave it all alone, when, if it were possible, I would gladly have driven in it to the end of the world.
So I sat buried in thought, not knowing what to do, when all at once we turned aside from the highway. I shouted to the postilion to ask him where he was going, but, shout as I would, the fellow never made any answer save “_Si, si, Signore_!” and on he drove over stock and stone till I was jolted from side to side in the carriage.
I was not at all pleased, for the high-road ran through a charming country, directly toward the setting sun, which was bathing the landscape in a sea of splendor, while before us, when we turned aside, lay a dreary hilly region, broken by ravines, where in the gray depths darkness had already set in. The further we drove, the lonelier and drearier grew the road. At last the moon emerged from the clouds, and shone through the trees with a weird, unearthly brilliancy. We had to go very slowly in the narrow rocky ravines, and the continuous, monotonous rattle of the carriage reechoed from the walls on either side, as if we were driving through a vaulted tomb. From the depths of the forest came a ceaseless murmur of unseen water-falls, and the owlets hooted in the distance “Come too! come too!” As I looked at the driver, I noticed for the first time that he wore no uniform and was not a postilion; he seemed to be growing restless, turning his head and looking behind him several times. Then he began to drive quicker, and as I leaned out of the carriage a horseman came out of the shrubbery on one side of the road, crossed it at a bound directly in front of our horses, and vanished in the forest on the other side.
I felt bewildered; as far as I could see in the bright moonlight the rider was that very same crooked little man who had so pecked at me with his hooked nose in the inn, and mounted, too, on the same white horse. The driver shook his head and laughed aloud at such horsemanship, then quickly turned to me and said a great deal very eagerly, not a word of which did I understand, and then he drove on more rapidly than ever.
I was rejoiced soon afterward when I perceived a light glimmering in the distance. Gradually more and more lights appeared, and at last we pa.s.sed several smoke-dried huts clinging like swallows’ nests to the rocks. As the night was warm, the doors stood open, and I could see into the lighted rooms, and all sorts of ragged figures gathered about the hearths. We rattled on through the quiet night, along a steep, stony road leading up a high mountain. Soon lofty trees and hanging vines arched completely over us, and anon the heavens became visible, and we could overlook in the depths a distant circle of mountains, forests, and valleys. On the summit of the mountain stood a grand old castle, its many towers gleaming in the brilliant moonlight. “G.o.d be thanked!” I exclaimed, greatly relieved, and on the tiptoe of expectation as to whither I was being conducted.
A good half-hour pa.s.sed, however, before we reached the gate-way of the castle. It led under a broad round tower, the summit of which was half ruined. The driver cracked his whip three times, so that the old castle reechoed, and a flock of startled rooks flew forth from every sheltered nook and careered wildly overhead with hoa.r.s.e caws. Then the carriage rolled on through the long, dark gate-way. The iron shoes of the horses struck fire upon the stone pavement, a large dog barked, the wheels thundered along the vaulted pa.s.sage, the rooks’ hoa.r.s.e cries resounded, and amidst all this horrible hubbub we reached a small, paved courtyard.
“A queer post-station this,” I thought, when the coach stopped. The coach door was opened, and a tall old man with a small lantern scanned me grimly from beneath his bushy eyebrows. He then took my arm and helped me to alight from the coach as if I had been a person of quality. Outside, before the castle door, stood a very ugly old woman in a black camisole and petticoat, with a white ap.r.o.n and a black cap, the long point of which in front almost touched her nose. A large bunch of keys hung on one side of her waist, and she held in her hand an old-fashioned candelabrum with two lighted wax candles. As soon as she saw me she began to duck and curtsey and to talk volubly. I did not understand a word, but I sc.r.a.ped innumerable bows, and felt very uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the old man had peered into every corner of the coach with his lantern, and grumbled and shook his head upon finding no trace of trunk or luggage. The driver, without asking for the usual _pour-boire_, proceeded to put up the coach in an old shed on one side of the courtyard, while the old woman by all sorts of courteous signs invited me to follow her. She showed the way with her wax candles through a long, narrow pa.s.sage, and up a little stone staircase.
As we pa.s.sed the kitchen a couple of maids poked their heads inquisitively through the half-open door, and stared at me, as they winked and nodded furtively to each other, as if they had never in all their lives seen a man before. At last the old woman opened a door, and for a moment I was quite dazed; the apartment was s.p.a.cious and very handsome, the ceiling decorated with gilded carving and the walls hung with magnificent tapestry portraying all sorts of figures and flowers. In the centre of the room stood a table spread with cutlets, cakes, salad, fruit, wine, and confections, enough to make one’s mouth water. Between the windows hung a tall mirror, reaching from the floor to the ceiling.
I must say that all this delighted me. I stretched myself once or twice, and paced the room to and fro with much dignity, after which I could not resist looking at myself in such a large mirror. Of a truth Herr Lionardo’s new clothes became me well, and I had caught an ardent expression of eye from the Italians, but otherwise I was just such a whey-face as I had been at home, with only a soft down on my upper lip.
Meanwhile, the old woman ground away with her toothless jaws, as if she were actually chewing the end of her long nose. She made me sit down, chucked me under the chin with her lean fingers, called me “_poverino_,” and leered at me so roguishly with her red eyes that one corner of her mouth twitched half-way up her cheek as she at last left the room with a low courtesy.
I sat down at the table, and a young, pretty girl came in to wait on me. I made all sorts of gallant speeches to her, which she did not understand, but watched me curiously while I applied myself to the viands with evident enjoyment; they were delicious. When I had finished and rose from table, she took a candle and conducted me to another room, where were a sofa, a small mirror, and a magnificent bed with green silk curtains. I inquired by signs whether I were to sleep there. She nodded a.s.sent, but I could not undress while she stood beside me as if she were rooted to the spot. At last I went and got a large gla.s.s of wine from the table in the next room, drank it off, and wished her “_Felicissima notte_!” for I had managed to learn that much Italian. But while I was emptying the gla.s.s at a draught she suddenly burst into a fit of suppressed giggling, grew very red, and went into the next room, closing the door behind her. “What is there to laugh at?” thought I in a puzzle. “I believe Italians are all crazy.”
Still in anxiety lest the postilion should begin to blow his horn again, I listened at the window, but all was quiet outside. “Let him blow!” I thought, undressed myself, and got into the magnificent bed, where I seemed to be fairly swimming in milk and honey! The old linden in the court-yard rustled, a rook now and then flew off the roof, and at last, completely happy, I fell asleep.
When I awoke, the beams of early morning were shining on the green curtains of my bed. At first I could not remember where I was. I seemed to be still driving in the coach, where I had been dreaming of a castle in the moonlight, and of an old witch and her pale daughter.
I sprang hastily out of bed, dressed myself, and, looking about my room, perceived in the wainscoting a small door, which I had not seen the night before. It was ajar; I opened it, and saw a pretty little room looking very fresh and neat in the early dawn. Some articles of feminine apparel were lying in disorder over the back of a chair, and in a bed beside it lay the girl who had waited upon me the evening before. She was sleeping soundly, her head resting upon her bare white arm, over which her black curls were straying. “How mortified she would be if she knew that the door was open!” I said to myself, and I crept back into my room, bolting the door after me, that the girl might not be horrified and ashamed when she awoke.
Not a sound was yet to be heard outside, except from an early robin that was singing his morning song, perched upon a spray growing out of the wall beneath my window. “No,” said I, “you shall not shame me by singing all alone your early hymn of praise to G.o.d!” I hastily fetched my fiddle, which I had laid upon the table the night before, and left the room. Everything in the castle was silent as death, and I was a long while finding my way through the dim corridors out into the open air.
There I found myself in a large garden extending half-way down the mountain, its broad terraces lying one beneath the other like huge steps. But the gardening was slovenly. The paths were all gra.s.s-grown, the yew figures were not trimmed, but stretched long noses and caps a yard high into the air like ghosts, so that really they must have been quite fearsome at nightfall. Linen was hanging to dry on the broken marble statues of an unused fountain; here and there in the middle of the garden cabbages were planted beside some common flowers; everything was neglected, in disorder, and overgrown with tall weeds, among which glided varicolored lizards. On all sides through the gigantic old trees there was a distant, lonely prospect of range after range of mountains stretching as far as the eye could reach.
After I had been sauntering about through this wilderness for a while in the dawn, I descried upon the terrace below me, striding to and fro with folded arms, a tall, slender, pale youth in a long brown surtout.
He seemed not to perceive me, and shortly seated himself upon a stone bench, took a book out of his pocket, read very loud from it, as if he were preaching, looked up to heaven at intervals, and leaned his head sadly upon his right hand. I looked at him for a long time, but at last I grew curious to know why he was making such extraordinary gestures, and I went hastily toward him. He had just heaved a profound sigh, and sprang up startled as I approached. He was completely confused, and so was I; we neither of us knew what to say, and we stood there bowing, until he made his escape, striding rapidly through the shrubbery. Meanwhile, the sun had arisen over the forest; I mounted on the stone bench, and sc.r.a.ped my fiddle merrily, so that the quiet valleys reechoed. The old woman with the bunch of keys, who had been searching anxiously for me all through the castle to call me to breakfast, appeared upon the terrace above me, and was surprised that I could play the fiddle so well. The grim old man from the castle came too, and was as much amazed, and at last the maids came, and they all stood up there together agape, while I fingered away, and wielded my bow in the most artistic manner, playing cadenzas and variations until I was downright tired.
The castle was a mighty strange place! No one dreamed of journeying further. It was no inn or post-station, as I learned from one of the maids, but belonged to a wealthy count. When I sometimes questioned the old woman as to the count’s name and where he lived, she only smirked as she had done on the evening of my arrival, and slyly pinched me and winked at me archly as if she were out of her senses.
If on a warm day I drank a whole bottle of wine, the maids were sure to giggle when they brought me another; and once when I wanted to smoke a pipe, and informed them by signs of my desire, they all burst into a fit of foolish laughter. But most mysterious of all was a serenade which often, and always upon the darkest nights, sounded beneath my window. A guitar was played fitfully, soft, low chords being heard from time to time. Once I imagined I heard some one down below call up, “Pst! pst!” I sprang out of bed and, putting my head out of the window, called, “Holla! who’s there?” But no answer came; I only heard the rustling of the shrubbery, as if some one were hastily running away. The large dog in the court-yard, roused by my shout, barked a couple of times, and then all was still again. After this the serenade was heard no more.
Otherwise my life here was all that mortal could desire. The worthy Porter knew well what he was talking about when he was wont to declare that in Italy raisins dropped into one’s mouth of themselves. I lived in the lonely castle like an enchanted prince. Wherever I went the servants treated me with the greatest respect, though they all knew that I had not a farthing in my pocket. I had but to say, “Table, be spread,” and lo, I was served with delicious viands, rice, wine, melons, and Parmesan cheese. I lived on the best, slept in the magnificent canopied bed, walked in the garden, played my fiddle, and sometimes helped with the gardening. I often lay for hours in the tall gra.s.s, and the pale youth in his long surtout–he was a student and a relative of the old woman’s, and was spending his vacation here–would pace around me in a wide circle, muttering from his book like a conjurer, which was always sure to send me to sleep. Thus day after day pa.s.sed, until, what with the good eating and drinking, I began to grow quite melancholy. My limbs became limp from perpetually doing nothing, and I felt as if I should fall to pieces from sheer laziness.
One sultry afternoon, I was sitting in the boughs of a tall tree that overhung the valley, gently rocking myself above its quiet depths. The bees were humming among the leaves around me; all else was silent as the grave; not a human being was to be seen on the mountains, and below me on the peaceful meadows the cows were resting in the high gra.s.s. But from afar away the note of a post-horn floated across the wooded heights, at first scarcely audible, then clearer and more distinct. On the instant my heart reechoed an old song which I had learned when at home at my father’s mill from a traveling journeyman, and I sang–
“Whenever abroad you are straying, Take with you your dearest one; While others are laughing and playing, A stranger is left all alone.
“And what know these trees, with their sighing, Of an older, a lovelier day?
Alas, o’er yon blue mountains lying, Thy home is so far, far away!
“The stars in their courses I treasure, My pathway to her they shone o’er; The nightingale’s song gives me pleasure, It sang nigh my dearest one’s door.
“When starlight and dawn are contending, I climb to the mountain-tops clear; Thence gazing, my greeting I’m sending To Germany, ever most dear.”
It seemed as if the post-horn in the distance would fain accompany my song. While I was singing, it came nearer and nearer among the mountains, until at last I heard it in the castle court-yard; I got down from the tree as quickly as possible, in time to meet the old woman with an opened packet coming toward me. “Here is something too for you,” she said, and handed me a neat little note. It was without address; I opened it hastily, and on the instant flushed as red as a peony, and my heart beat so violently that the old woman observed my agitation. The note was from–my Lady fair, whose handwriting I had often seen at the bailiff’s. It was short: “All is well once more; all obstacles are removed. I take a private opportunity to be the first to write you the good news. Come, hasten back. It is so lonely here, and I can scarcely bear to live since you left us. Aurelia.”
As I read, my eyes grew dim with rapture, alarm, and ineffable delight. I was ashamed in presence of the old woman, who began to smirk and wink odiously, and I flew like an arrow to the loneliest nook of the garden. There I threw myself on the gra.s.s beneath the hazel-bushes and read the note again, repeating the words by heart, and then re-reading them over and over, while the sunlight danced between the leaves upon the letters, so that they were blended and blurred before my eyes like golden and bright-green and crimson blossoms. “Is she not married, then?” I thought; “was that young officer her brother, perhaps, or is he dead, or am I crazy, or–but no matter!” I exclaimed at last, leaping to my feet. “It is clear enough, she loves me! she loves me!”
When I crept out of the shrubbery the sun was near its setting. The heavens were red, the birds were singing merrily in the woods, the valleys were full of a golden sheen, but in my heart all was a thousand times more beautiful and more glad.
I shouted to them in the castle to serve my supper out in the garden.
The old woman, the grim old man, the maids–I made them all come and sit at table with me under the trees. I brought out my fiddle and played, and ate and drank between-whiles. Then they all grew merry; the old man smoothed the grim wrinkles out of his face, and emptied gla.s.s after gla.s.s, the old woman chattered away–heaven knows about what, and the maids began to dance together on the green-sward. At last the pale student approached inquisitively, cast a scornful glance at the party, and was about to pa.s.s on with great dignity. But I sprang up in a twinkling, and, before he knew what I was about, seized him by his long surtout and waltzed merrily round with him.
He actually began to try to dance after the latest and most approved fashion, and footed it so nimbly that the moisture stood in beads upon his forehead, his long coat flew round like a wheel, and he looked at me so strangely withal, and his eyes rolled so, that I began to be really afraid of him, and suddenly released him.
The old woman was very curious to know the contents of the note, and why I was so very merry of a sudden. But the matter was far too intricate for me to be able to explain it to her. I merely pointed to a couple of storks that were sailing through the air far above our heads, and said that so must I go, far, far away. At this she opened her bleared eyes wide, and cast a sinister glance first at me and then at the old man. After that, I noticed as often as I turned away that they put their heads together and talked eagerly, glancing askance toward me from time to time.
This puzzled me. I pondered upon what scheme they could be hatching, and I grew more quiet. The sun had long set, so I wished them all good night and betook myself thoughtfully to my bedroom.
I felt so happy and so restless that for a long while I paced the apartment to and fro. Outside, the wind was driving black, heavy clouds high above the castle-tower; the nearest mountain-summit could be scarcely discerned in the thick darkness. Then I thought I heard voices in the garden below. I put out my candle and sat down at the window. The voices seemed to come nearer, speaking in low tones, and suddenly a long ray of light shot from a small lantern concealed under the cloak of a dark figure. I instantly recognized the grim old steward and the old housekeeper. The light flashed in the face of the old woman, who looked to me more hideous than ever, and upon the blade of a long knife which she held in her hand. I could plainly see that both of them were looking up at my window. Then the steward folded his cloak more closely, and all was dark and silent.
“What do they want,” I thought, “out in the garden, at this hour?” I shuddered; I could not help recalling all the stories of murders that I had ever heard–all the tales of witches and robbers who slaughtered people that they might devour their hearts. Whilst I was filled with such thoughts, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs softly, then very softly along the narrow pa.s.sage directly to my door; and at the same time I thought I heard voices whispering together. I ran hastily to the other end of the room and behind a large table, which I could lift and bang against the door as soon as anything stirred outside.
But in the darkness I upset a chair, which made a tremendous crash.
In an instant all was profound silence outside. I listened behind the table, staring at the door as if I could pierce it with my eyes, which felt as if they were starting from my head. When I had kept so quiet for a while that the buzzing of a fly could have been plainly heard, I distinguished the sound of a key softly put into the keyhole of my door on the outside. I was just about to make a demonstration with my table, when the key was turned slowly three times round in the lock, and then cautiously withdrawn, after which the footsteps retreated along the pa.s.sage and down the staircase.
I took a long breath. “Oho!” I thought, “they have locked me up that all may be easy when I am sound asleep.” I tried the door, and found it locked, as was also the other door, behind which the pale maid slept. This had never been so before since I had been at the castle.