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The Lost Son by Paul Heyse

 

About the middle of the seventeenth century there lived in the town of Berne a worthy matron named Helena Amthor, the widow of a very rich and respected burgher and town councillor, who after twelve years of happy married life, left her with two children while she was still in the prime of her age and beauty. Nevertheless she declined all the advantageous and honourable offers of second marriage made to her, declaring on every such occasion that she had now only one thing to do on earth, and that was to bring up her children to be good and worthy members of society. But as it often happens that too great anxiety defeats itself and achieves the very reverse of what it aimed at, so it proved here. The eldest child, a boy, who was eleven when his father died—an intelligent but very self-willed fellow—rather required the discipline of a man's strong hand than the tender but too indulgent care of a mother who positively idolised him as the image of the husband she had prematurely lost, and who never knew how to oppose any of his impetuous wishes. The consequence was that the older the young Andreas grew, the worse he behaved, and rewarded his mother's unwise love by almost breaking her heart. When she first came to some recognition of his faults it was already too late. The remonstrances and admonitions of his uncles were all in vain, and even the grave censure and heavy fines he incurred, from the town authorities, owing to his irregular conduct, tamed his rude nature as little as did his mother's tears. At length Frau Helena made up her mind to the greatest pang she had known since her husband's death—to a parting with her son, whom a cousin in Lausanne, a wealthy merchant, now offered to take into his house, in the hope that change of scene and regular work might exercise a healthy influence on the reckless youth. Andreas, who was twenty years old at the time, consented willingly enough to leave the old-fashioned “bear-garden,” as he called his native town, for a strange place, where he promised himself, spite of his cousin's surveillance, a far freer and more amusing life. Neither did he show the least tender feeling on parting from his mother and his little sister of twelve, Lisabethli, but kept his large stock of travelling-money far more carefully in his belt than his mother's counsels in his heart. No wonder, therefore, before six months were over, news came from Lausanne that Andreas had secretly quitted the town, leaving behind him disgraceful debts at gambling-houses and taverns, and making off with money entrusted to him for the business, in lieu of which a heavy bill drawn on his mother was found in a corner of his desk.

That bill and all other debts Helena Amthor paid without delay; she said not a word about them to anybody, and always gave one answer to whatever enquiries might be made about her son, that he was well and upon his travels, and that he wrote to her from time to time. Nor was this statement untrue, for as soon as his money ran short—which often happened—he turned to his mother, who at that time never refused him. But as to what there was in his or her letters no mortal creature ever knew. She left off speaking of him, never introduced his name, so that at length people grew shy of touching on the sorrow of her life, and Andreas was virtually dead as far as the whole town of Berne was concerned. He himself seemed quite content to be so, nor ever expressed any wish to see his home again. When he came of age and had to settle matters with his guardian, he curtly sent the latter word what day and hour he was to meet him at the “Vine-tree,” in Strasburg, there to make over the fortune inherited from his father. But his guardian, a man already in years, neither could nor would travel so far on his ward's account. Therefore Frau Helena resolved upon undertaking the sorrowful journey herself, probably with a last unspoken hope that this meeting might have some softening effect upon his estranged affections. When, however, she returned after a ten days' absence, the traces of confirmed sadness on her fine face were more marked than before, and from that time forth no one could say that they ever saw her laugh.

And yet fate that had laid this heavy burden on her, had also granted her consolation in another direction, that might well have gladdened a less deeply-wounded heart. Her other child Lisabethli, who was about eight years younger than the lost son, was as admirably endowed, as obedient and loving, and as completely the delight of every one who saw her, as her brother was the reverse. And these sweet and lovely characteristics, though originally a matter of temperament no doubt, were in no small measure owing to her own self-training and self-culture; for her mother—more particularly during the years when Andreas was at home—had erred quite as much on the side of severity towards her youngest child as on that of indulgence towards her favourite. Even when Lisabethli was quite a small thing in the school-room, she had shed many hidden tears over the reproofs and constant putting-down she received; and pitied herself for her inability by all her love and duty to win from her mother one of the fond words or caresses which the else stern lady lavished upon her unruly boy. All her anxiety on his account seemed but to estrange her from her sweet girl, about whom, by the way, her brother no more concerned himself than though she had not been in existence. And yet the child continued to be gentleness and brightness itself, and was soon wise enough to estimate the misery that disturbed the balance of her mother's mind, and to resolve to treat all injustice towards herself as she would the mood or caprice of a suffering invalid.

Later—after the flight of Andreas from Lausanne, and while the rumour of it was spreading more and more amongst the inhabitants of Berne—the relations between mother and daughter improved. Indeed the former had never been blind to the pure beauty of her child's nature, though, like one under an evil spell, she wrought out her own wretchedness by her partiality. Her mortally wounded maternal pride still forbade her to betray to her daughter, even by a sigh, the pangs her son inflicted on her. But in all other respects she now seemed to give the young girl the next place in her affections, and was even anxious to make up for all that in her earlier days she had inflicted or withheld. Still she was sparing of her caresses. If she but passed her delicate white hand over the girl's brown head when wishing her good night, still more if she kissed her eyes and said, “my good child,” Lisabethli would blush crimson for joy, and the happy beating of her heart would keep her awake a whole hour.

At the same time, Frau Amthor endeavoured so far as was compatible with her stern character, to procure for her daughter all the pleasures and amusements of her age, and was in the habit of inviting her friends on Sundays to the quiet home, behind which lay a beautiful terraced garden, and during the summer time the young people used to enjoy little excursions, and out-door parties; but she forbade them most strictly to go to any dances however respectably carried on, or in accordance with long established custom, they might be. It seemed that some innermost feeling of her nature shrank from the idea of the sister dancing while the brother, homeless and friendless, might at that very moment be driven by despair to end his life. For that it would come to this at last, was the one spectral thought that cast its shadow over the mother's soul both in her waking and sleeping hours.

The house that had belonged to the Amthors for many generations, was a narrow three-storied antique building, with wainscoted walls and ceilings, and handsomely furnished with old silk tapestry and heavy hangings. On the ground-floor were the offices and the room in which dwelt the old man-servant and the faithful maid by whom the work of the house was done. Above were the rooms inhabited by the mother and daughter, which opened at the back upon the garden; and in the third story were what had been the late councillor's library and study, and of later years rooms entirely devoted to Andreas. The chamber where his bed stood had not since his departure been entered by any one but the old maid-servant. His mother never set her foot in it, and if his sister crept by it to take a book from the library, she held her breath as she passed the door as though it were haunted.

Our story begins on a September evening—on the very day that Lisabethli had completed her nineteenth year. In honour of the anniversary, her mother had invited some half-dozen of the girl's favourite companions and what with singing and other amusements, which the grave matron left the young people to carry on alone, the hour of ten had struck unobserved. Indeed the girls, who after a very sultry day were still pacing the garden walks arm in arm, deep in important confidential talk, might easily have forgot time till midnight, if a storm that had gathered on the other side of the river had not scared them in. And once in, they found that their respective attendants had come for them with lanterns, and so kisses and good-byes were heartily exchanged, and in the great room looking out on the terrace the usual stillness prevailed, when the first roll of thunder resounded through the darkness.

Frau Helena had joined her daughter, who stood in the open doorway looking down, beyond the dark steps leading into the garden, to the river Aar, lost in vague, dream-like thoughts, such as are wont to succeed a festive day when the soul is once more free to retire into itself. She gently laid her hand on her daughter's hair, and the sweet child silently leaned her head down on the mother's shoulder, as though to seek shelter from the vivid flash of lightning that suddenly rent the black cloud above them. “Come in, child,” said the mother, “we shall soon have rain.”

The daughter shook her head without saying a word. She was now gazing steadily on the clear space of sky at the horizon, where the snow peaks of the Oberland far away from the range of the thunder-cloud, rose glittering in the moonlight, a wondrous spectacle indeed. “Dear little mother,” at length she said, “how vast the earth is! Yonder they neither see nor hear anything of the storm that rages here. And yet still further off, in that star just above the Rothhorn, they would know nothing of it if our earth were to be shivered to atoms!”

Her mother made no reply. Her thoughts were—she herself did not know where, but well she knew with whom—with the one they had always flown to at the approach of bad weather for many years past; because, while the sky was growing dark, she could not tell whether her boy had a roof over his head or not.

“How the river feels and answers to the storm!” resumed the girl. “One might really fancy one saw the surface shudder with terror as the lightnings flash down. And yet they can go on dancing and fiddling in the tavern on the little island yonder. They must be a godless set.”

“They will soon leave off,” said the mother, “it will be too bad even for them. No human being is so hardened but what the hour comes when he hearkens if God warns him. But let us come in. The drops that fall are large as hazel-nuts.”

“Look, mother,” said the daughter holding her back, “there is something not right going on there. The door of the tavern is suddenly thrown open—people are rushing out—there is a girl in their midst—something flashes like a sword-blade—listen! they are quarrelling—oh, what wild unruly creatures!”

The thunder now paused, and a sound of angry voices as well as of breaking glass was plainly audible, while a single clarionet, undisturbed by all the noise and confusion, went shrilly on playing gay dancing tunes.

“I would give a hundred crowns,” said Frau Helena with brows knit, “if that sink of iniquity yonder were removed from the town. I really might be driven to think of changing my house in my old days, merely to escape hearing and seeing such things as these.”

“And just at this sweetest of all hours,” interposed the girl, “when everything else is so peaceful, and one might for once dream and think at will. Just look, they are all crossing the bridge now. For God's sake—why they are actually fighting—one is being pushed against the railings—the woman throws herself between them—his arms are free again—if they should push him into the river—”

“Come, that is enough,” said the mother authoritatively, “now let us go in. It is no sight for Christians to gaze at when men attack each other more cruelly than wild beasts would do. Just read me the evening lesson and then we will go to bed.”

A brilliant flash now suddenly lit up the houses by the side of the Aar, the tavern on the island, and the high sweltering current of the river.

For a moment the dark group massed on the narrow bridge was distinctly seen: a tall youth with a red feather in his cap in their midst, struggling against them, with only a woman with white head-gear on his side. The clash of swords was heard, and a shrill female cry for help, and then with a terrific thunder-clap like the fall of some mighty tower, the clouds sent down sheets of rain, darkness swallowed up the wild doings on the bridge, and nothing remained visible but the red light in the window of the island tavern.

The two women had retreated into the house horrified, and while the mother slowly walked up and down the carpeted floor, Lisabethli sat at the table, her hands folded on the open book before her, and her eyes fixed upon a large nosegay which stood in a beautiful Venetian glass, a present from her godfather on this her birthday. As to reading, that was not to be thought of, the thunder would have drowned her voice; still less was sleep possible, for the scene of violence was too vividly present to her mind. She kept listening intently for what might be going on without. “Oh God!” she almost unconsciously prayed, “have pity upon them all, and let no harm be done!” Just then another flash shone through the window and the door which had been left ajar that the fresh night-air might enter the room, and she fancied that she saw a shadow on the upper terrace show through the pane for one moment, and then vanish. “Mother,” she faintly called out, “let us lock the door, someone has climbed over the wall, and—”

She could not end her sentence, for the door was pushed open and a man rushed into the room. “For the sake of God's mercy,” cried he, sinking half from exhaustion, half in the attitude of entreaty at the knees of Frau Helena. “Whoever you be, noble lady, save an innocent man! They are on my track. Where—where—” and he looked around, and with blood-stained hands pushed his dripping hair from his eyes. “Where can I hide myself! What can I say to move your heart to pity? If you knew how it had all come about, how entirely without fault of mine I have fallen into this horrible strait—am hunted down as a murderer—oh noble maiden—” and he turned to the pale girl who gazed with a shudder at the red feather in the stranger's cap; “if you have a brother who is dear to you—who may perhaps at this moment be asking hospitality in some strange land—implore your lady-mother not to thrust me out into the night where Heaven knows what disgrace may overtake me. By the head of your own son, noble lady—”

“Silence!” interrupted Frau Amthor in a hollow trembling tone, more awful in the ears of the suppliant than the roar of the thunder. Meanwhile she looked at him with such an absent far-away expression that her daughter flew to support her in case she should swoon. But it passed over.

“Close the terrace-door,” she hastily said, leaning back in her chair, “then call Valentin. But make haste! I seem to hear voices in the garden below.”

The young girl bolted the heavy door in the twinkling of an eye, and hurried off. The stranger remained a moment or two alone with the mother.

“You are saving my honour and liberty!” he stammered out, “perhaps my life. But believe, noble lady, that what you do is not done for one unworthy or reprobate, and my own mother, who would ransom the life of her son with all she has, were he to fall among bandits, will in return for your noble-hearted deed—”

“Not another word,” broke in the matron, “what I do is not done for your sake. But you are bleeding,” she suddenly said, and paused—her glance falling upon a spot on his shoulder where great drops were oozing through his black silk doublet.

“It is nothing,” returned he, hastily pressing his glove on the place. “I hardly feel it. Would to God that the blow I dealt in return may not be more dangerous! But I fear—”

Lisabethli now returned with the old servant. “Valentin,” said the lady, “take this stranger gentleman to the upper story, and then see him to bed—in the room—you know which. No one is to know that he is in the house. I will give my own instructions to Donate. You understand how to foment. Look to the gentleman's wounds; there is linen in the cupboard; there are shirts in the press—-he is to be treated as though he were my own son. Go—I hear footsteps.”

They all listened with beating hearts. In spite of the noise of the rain, voices were audible in the garden. The next moment the old servant had pushed the stranger out of the room, and mother and daughter were alone.

“My child,” said the mother, “go for a time downstairs to Donate. I shall have to lie, and I would not that your ears should hear me.”

“Mother,” returned the girl, “I pray you to let me remain with you. I should die of terror down there. Never believe that anything you do can seem wrong in my eyes; and you are doing it to save a human life.”

Meanwhile there were three knocks at the bolted door. “In the name of the law, open,” a deep voice called out.

“Who knocks at this late hour?” returned Frau Amthor, and her voice sounded as unconstrained as though nothing had happened.

“The sergeant, with the train band,” was the reply. “Open, or we burst the door.”

“Go, Lisabethli,” said the lady in so loud a tone that every word was audible without. “I must say that customs are changing in our old town of Berne: the idea of the watch breaking into a peaceable private dwelling in the dark night-time! I hope you have some satisfactory explanation to give of this visit of yours, sergeant,” this in a majestic tone to the intruder, “you know who I am, and that my house is not likely to contain any disreputable character whom the bailiffs are after.”

The sergeant who had cast a hasty glance all round the room, now stood confounded opposite the lofty figure of the matron, and his eyes fell before the steady gaze of hers. “Forgive me, Frau Amthor,” he mumbled, while he beckoned to his followers to stay where they were, and kept awkwardly turning the handle of his dagger round and round. “We are on the track of a dangerous fellow who has taken part in riotous, murderous doings on the island yonder. When I and my men were approaching the tavern the people in it saw him flying in this direction, leaping over hedges and walls, and we traced his foot-marks to your garden, and even found one of his gloves below the window. Therefore I held it to be my duty—”

“To break into my house as though it were a likely refuge for murderers,” interposed the matron, looking at him with so undaunted a gaze that the bearded man stared down at the carpet much embarrassed by the wet foot-prints he had left on its pattern. “Go your way,” she continued, “and be more careful another time at what door you knock. To-morrow I shall go to the Town Council and lay a complaint before them about their endurance of the disorder and riot that goes on on the island, exposing even the quietest householder in the neighbourhood to an invasion of the watch by night on a charge of unlawful concealment!”

The sergeant would fain have broken out into further apologies, but an imperative gesture of the lady, in the direction of the door, prevented his uttering a word. He retired with head sunk low, and had scarcely crossed the threshold, when Lisabethli shot the bolts after him, and then sunk down on a seat, with a deep-drawn sigh, so much had the short scene affected her.

“Remain here,” said the mother after a pause. “Light a taper for me. I will go upstairs.”

“Dearest mother,” pleaded the girl timidly, “would you not rather—Indeed you are too pale—it will distress you too much.”

Frau Helena made no reply, but taking the light out of her hand, left the room with face rigidly set, as though no worse thing could happen to her. She was a sternly virtuous woman, a proud woman, who had always felt too much self-respect to condescend to a lie. Now she had degraded herself in her own estimation and in the presence of her child, and this for the sake of a stranger who had no other claim to such a sacrifice than that of having adjured her by her deepest grief.

The door through which she had passed remained half open, and Lisabethli could hear with what slow and heavy steps she went up the stairs, and how often she rested on the way, as though needing to gather breath and courage for the painful entrance into her lost son's room, which she had not visited for years.

“He is in a swoon,” said old Valentin, meeting her on the threshold. “I have bound up his wounds, but as I was putting a clean shirt on him he fell lifeless from under my hands. I will fetch some cold water: there is no danger—it is only faintness from loss of blood.”

He hurried down stairs, and the lady entered the room.

There lay the stranger on the bed, his eyes closed, his mouth half open from pain, and showing his white teeth. His light hair still dripping with blood and rain, was pushed back from his pale brow. His cap and silken doublet lay on the ground, as well as the blood-soaked shirt which the old servant had replaced by a clean one. Frau Helena trembled all over when she saw this stranger clothed in the fine linen she herself had spun for her son, and marked with his initials. That she might avoid seeing anything else in the room, she fixed her eyes on the young face that in spite of its deadly pallor had a boyish, harmless, good-natured expression. She saw at once from his clothing that he was the son of respectable parents, and the tone in which he had implored her to save him, still rung pathetically in her ears. A motherly feeling overcame her, and great tears rolled down her faded face.

Then the old servant returned with a pitcher of cold water, and prepared to wash the temples of the unconscious youth. “Leave that to me,” said his mistress, taking the sponge out of his hand. “Bring the best vinegar out of the side-board, and a flask of our old wine. When he comes to himself he will need a cordial.” Then she washed the blood out of his hair, and held the ice-cold sponge to his lips. This brought him round: he opened his eyes, and on seeing the noble lady who had saved him bending over his couch, he tried to sit up and speak to her. But she gently constrained him to lie down again, and to let her go on with her ministrations. “I am better already,” he gasped out, while he took hold of her hand to carry it to his lips. “O how much you are doing for me! And you do not know me, and must think ill of me. Let me just tell you how it all came about.”

“Not another word to-night,” interposed the lady, gently laying her hand on his lips. “You have lost too much blood to exert yourself safely. I leave you in the care of my old servant who will sit up with you. I hope that you will get some sleep, and to-morrow be on the way to recovery. Good night.”

She left the room without casting a look around at any of the things that evoked such bitter memories. But as soon as she found herself in the dark lobby, she leant her head against the wall, and sobbed in secret. This burst of grief lasted but a few minutes, then she raised her head again, and with her usual lofty bearing went down to her daughter. “Valentin thinks that there is no danger,” she said. “Let us go to our rest.”

“Mother,” asked the girl, “do you believe that he is a murderer? There is something about him that seems as if he would not hurt the meanest thing that lives, let alone a fellow creature.”

“Yet on the other hand how did he get to that tavern on the island?” said the mother, as if speaking to herself.

“Because he was a stranger,” hastily broke in the daughter. “He does not speak the German of Switzerland. Did you not notice that, mother dear?”

“It is useless to theorise about it,” abruptly replied Frau Amthor. “Come to bed, child, the storm has passed over.”

And so after the daughter had read the evening prayers, they went to their rest. But it was long after midnight before either of them closed an eye. Lisabethli kept constantly seeing before her the true-hearted terror-stricken gaze of the stranger, when he appealed to her to help to soften her mother's heart, the blood on his forehead, the red feather in his cap, while the scream of the woman who threw herself between the combatants on the bridge, still sounded in her ears. Frau Helena for her part was listening anxiously to what went on overhead. For the room where the wounded man lay was immediately above her chamber, and she thought of all the nights she had lain awake till morning expecting the return of Andreas from his orgies, and how when at length she heard his unsteady step, she used to turn on her pillow, not to sleep, but to shed bitter tears. Now everything was silent enough, only from time to time Valentin gave a short cough. The poor lady sat up in bed, and tried to pray; “Oh Lord God,” so ran her prayer; “let him in foreign lands meet a mother to stand by him in all time of need; and if no one will have pity on him, let him find his way back to his own mother, that I may not die before I have once more held his hand in mine.”

                     * * * * *

The morning was just breaking pale and cloudy through the small round panes, when Frau Helena left her room, and hastily dressed herself. “Sleep another hour,” said she to Lisabethli, who at once bestirred herself too. “I will just go upstairs, and see how our guest is faring.”

The girl, however, had no wish for further rest. Very quietly she too rose and dressed, and crept on tip-toe after her mother. On the stair she met Donate carrying a small tray. “He has not made much of his breakfast,” said the faithful old servant. “Fearfully weak he still is, and his hand shakes so if he tries to hold the spoon. But for the rest a very fine handsome creature, and I would rather bite my tongue out than betray him.”

The young girl made no reply, but went on to the top of the staircase. Once there, as the door had been left ajar, she could see the stranger lying in bed, but raising his head a little to greet Frau Helena, who was bending over him and enquiring how he had slept.

“I really hardly know, noble lady,” answered the youth. “My faithful watcher there will be better able to tell you whether I was quiet or talked nonsense and threw my hands and feet about. But I dreamed a great deal, and such lovely dreams—nothing in them of blood or wounds. And this morning when I came to myself it gave me a sudden stab in the heart to think how I must have alarmed you last night, and that you do not even know to whom you have been so unspeakably kind. Nay,” continued he, seizing hold of her hand on seeing that she was again going to impose silence, “I will not let you go, even though it should be better for me to remain four-and-twenty hours without speaking. It makes me wild to lie here and let that good Samaritan, and yourself above all, feel that you are wasting your time and trouble upon a fellow who better deserves to lie on the straw of a hospital amongst brawlers and swashbucklers whom the beadle picks up half-dead on the streets. I owe my present plight to my greenness and presumption, having always held that with a good conscience and good courage, nobody need fear to face the devil. My father has often enough shaken his head at me warningly and said, 'Touch not pitch if thou wilt keep clean hands; and don't mix with wolves if thou dost not mean to howl with them.' And when I left Augsburg how my mother charged me only to enter respectable houses and keep good company! The egg, however, thought itself wiser than the hen. For you see, noble lady, I am naturally a restless sort of a fellow, and beautiful as my native town is, and cheerful too at times, I found it too confined, and wanted to see the world, Switzerland more especially, because I had heard so much of it from my father. He served his apprenticeship here in Berne in the house of the rich master-clothier, Aufdembühel, whom you doubtless know. Afterwards he settled in Augsburg, and married my mother and set up a great fabric of his own; and yet he has always thought fondly of Berne, so that when I told him my wish to visit it he made no objection. I almost think he had some idea of a daughter-in-law from that house, which suited my notions too, for I have grown to the age of five-and-twenty in Augsburg, and all the blue and brown, eyes there have left me scathless. And so for about a fortnight I rode southward in highest spirits, and crossed the beautiful Lake of Constance in a boat, and last evening when it was getting rather late I came through the gates by the bear-pits, thinking no evil; but I did not like to come down at once upon Herr Aufdembühel, bag and baggage as they say, so put up my horse at the 'Stork,' and then set out strolling about the town to take a general survey of it, as I always do on first getting to any new place. Yesterday, however, it was unfortunate that I did not first of all have a meal at the inn. For owing to the long ride and great sultriness while the storm was gathering, I suddenly became intolerably thirsty, and felt that I should turn to tinder unless I could get a draught of wine. I was looking about me, therefore, for a tavern, just as I passed the one on the island where I heard music and dancing going on, and I asked a well-dressed burgher whether one could get tolerable wine there. 'The wine was good enough,' he said, 'much better than the company. If he were to judge me by my dress he should say I should not find people of my own class there.' 'I would go into a stable full of cows and goats,' I laughingly replied, 'if I could find red wine in one of the milk-pails.' And there I left my worthy, standing, looking rather anxiously after me, and crossed the bridge to the tavern.

“When I opened the door, however, I saw that my friend had not cautioned me for nothing, and that in a stable with brute beasts I should have found better manners and customs than there. Whether it be a haunt of thieves I cannot say, but most of the people looked to me as if they had narrowly escaped the gallows, or were on the high way thither, men and women both, and when I entered they nudged each other with surprise. But I who did not like to show the white feather, and held that a stranger might safely do what an inhabitant of the place could not, boldly seated myself in a corner, and ordered a measure of wine. And as I kept quiet, they seemed to be getting used to me, at least most of them had either drunk themselves stupid, or else were taken up with their female companions. Amongst the last class, was one better dressed, and with hair neater than the others, but a bold hussy like the rest. She neither danced nor sang, nor seemed to care for drink. She sat on the knee of a tall strong man, whose clothes looked as if they had originally been good, but were now stained with rain and wine. His face too might once have been handsome, before he got the red scar across his forehead, or his red eyelids and straggling beard. I could not help watching the pair—he throwing down the dice disdainfully, as though good or bad luck were all the same to him, and when he won giving a push to the girl to collect the money, whereupon she would take a long dagger that lay on the table, and with the bare blade just sweep the coins to one side as if they were so much dirt. Neither of them spoke a word, while their partners—rough young churls with red faces and glassy eyes—cursed freely in Spanish and French, and struck the table with their clenched fists. The girl seemed at length to tire of the game, and looking round her with a yawn, chanced to spy me out for the first time, for when I entered she was dozing on the man's shoulder. I suppose my dress took her fancy, or the ring on my finger; suffice it to say that she began to cast meaning glances at me, and to make signs with her hand behind her lover's back, which I neither understood nor attended to, but gulped down my wine the more quickly that I might slip away, when all of a sudden she sprang from the knee of the gloomy gambler, and seated herself on the bench beside me as if intending to sleep, but in reality she kept ogling me all the time. The man with the scar seemed aware of something wrong, for he loudly called to her in French to come back at once, but she pretended to be asleep, and not to hear him. At that he started up in a rage and bade me go my ways at once—said he had seen me making signals to the girl, and luring her from his lap. I who was inwardly furious at his brutality, put on a careless semblance, and said that no one had a right to bid me leave, that I was interfering with nobody, and paying for my wine like the rest. At that he grew frantic, dragged the girl from the bench, and called out to the host to know why he did not keep his house clear of suspicious characters who only came to spy, called me all sorts of opprobrious names, and when the girl took my part, seized hold of my doublet, and tore my collar. I saw now pretty plainly what I had brought upon myself, for all the rest of the gamblers joined in the outcry, and the landlord, who got his livelihood through men of that class, and did not want decent customers, rudely told me that I was out of place in a house like his where people knew their manners. 'Very good,' I said, 'I will no longer disturb you.' I threw my money on the table and moved away. But as I was opening the door, the girl suddenly clung to me and begged me to take her with me for a walk, as she was sick of the company. 'Allez-vous-en,' cried I. 'Je ne veux pas de vous,' and what else of bad French I could muster. Just then the storm began, and the uproar within got worse and worse, for the lover wanted to tear her away, and the others screamed and stormed, and she clung to me like a wild cat to a tree, and I could not help thinking in my anger and vexation, 'What if thy good mother saw thee?' Then came so dazzling a flash, that even those rude beings were quieted for a moment, the music stopped, and the landlady put up a sort of prayer. I took advantage of this interval to shake off my troublesome fair one, and slip out of the house. But while I was on the bridge, thanking God for having got off with only a black eye, the whole of them rushed out upon me with drawn blades, and had they not been half-drunk, my last hour would inevitably have struck! The French girl too came to my aid, and when she saw her lover—the man with the scar—drive his dagger into my shoulder, she yelled like a maniac, pushed me against the railing, and covered me with her own body. Meanwhile, seeing my life was at stake, I drew out my short sword, and laid about me so lustily, that all fell back with the exception of my chief foe who was maddened with jealousy and wine. He actually ran in upon my sword, gave a roar like a bull, and then fell speechless on his face. Instantly all was so still one only heard the thunder and the rush of the river. But then came two flashes and showed us the train-band marching towards the island. 'Get him into the boat,' said one of the fellows to another. 'He is already in,' was the reply; 'the best way were to throw him into the river.' Meanwhile they had caught hold of the whimpering girl, and were pushing her off by the shoulders. 'Allons, depêchez-vous,' she cried. 'Voilà les gendarmes! On nous attrapera tous.' And then there was such a rush along the narrow bridge that no one took any notice of me, and under cover of the darkness and pelting rain I made my escape. The rest, you know, noble lady. And now just picture to yourself my fate if Heaven had not touched your heart, if you had refused me your protection. Indelible disgrace must have attached to me as a brawler, if not as a murderer; found in a disreputable house; no worthy man to bear witness to my innocence, and Herr Aufdembühel, instead of writing word to my father that he rejoiced to renew their old friendship by welcoming his son, would but have come to see me in prison, and have shaken his head incredulously over my self-justification, whereas I read in your eyes that you do not hold me an empty liar, but feel compassion for my reckless youth, and will not withdraw your hand from me.”

After this impetuous narrative, which evidently excited him much, the youth sank back on his pillows with a deep sigh, and closed his eyelids. “Be of good cheer,” said Frau Helena, her black eyes moist with tears. “You shall want for nothing under my roof, and since I have had you laid in this bed, I should look upon you as my son, even if everything about you did not assure me that I might give credence to your words. Valentin thinks that in about a week you may be able to rise. Till then I shall only ask one thing from you, to be a tractable patient, and not through impatience or anxiety to retard your recovery. If you wish, as you cannot move your arm, I will write word to your mother how you are, and that she need fear no danger for you.”

“Oh, my gracious hostess,” cried the youth, catching hold of the sleeve of her dress and pressing it to his lips; “you are indeed like a mother to me, for you offer of your own accord what I scarcely dared ask. And yet I know what a favour you will be conferring upon my dear mother. For indeed both parents are now sitting anxiously together like two birds in a nest whose young one has just taken his first flight, and I had promised to send them tidings as soon as I reached my journey's end. But now, if you are good enough to write to Frau Martina Brucker, Augsburg, will you make light of my hurt and keep back from her the way I got it, until I can send her a circumstantial account. For she is very easily frightened, and as I am her only child, she has always taken as much care of me as though I were a girl, and hitherto I have tried to give her as little uneasiness as possible. If she were to know what a scrape her Kurt got into on the very first night of his arrival at Berne, she would not have an hour's peace until she could get him out of this dangerous atmosphere. But you will see at once what to do. You will know perfectly what to say to a mother so as to comfort even more than alarm her.”

He grew so pale while uttering these last words, that Valentin hurried to the bed-side with a cordial, and gave his mistress plainly to understand that her interview had been too long. So after a few further directions, she crept softly out on tip-toe, and in the lobby came upon Lisabethli.

“You have been listening?” said she sternly.

“Dearest mother, forgive me,” returned her child. “I could not help it. I needs must know how it all happened. God be praised and thanked—I was right—he is innocent.”

“Come down, child, you have nothing to do up here. Should any one call I am engaged. I must sit down at once and write to his mother.”

                     * * * * *

But nevertheless a visitor came whom neither Donate could send away, nor Lisabethli receive alone. It was no other than the chief sergeant, the greatest man in the town next to the mayor, and distantly related to Frau Helena. He came on the part of the Town Council to apologise for the intrusion of the previous night, and also to say that the disorders on the island should now be effectually put a stop to by the closing of the tavern, which had long been a thorn in the side of the civic authorities. As to the savage doings of yesterday evening, a mystery lay over them which up to the present hour no one had been able to penetrate. Both combatants had disappeared as completely as though the earth had swallowed them up, their bloody traces had been washed away by the heavy rain, and nothing was known of their names or their antecedents. Only a boat usually fastened to the bridge had been found two or three miles from the town keel uppermost, and the landlord of the Stork stated that a horse had been left in his stable last evening, whose rider had never made his appearance since.

During this communication Frau Helena had often changed colour, but did not utter a syllable which could have betrayed her secret knowledge, nay, she was even careful not to speak a word of any kind, as it must needs have been at least indirectly untrue. As soon as she was alone again, she wrote to Frau Martina Brucker in Augsburg, judiciously keeping back all that might have made her uneasy as to her son's conduct, and concluding by a cordially expressed promise to nurse him as a real mother might, since she—this she added with silent tears—was not so favoured by Heaven as to have her own son under her roof.

This letter she herself took in the afternoon to the post, accompanied by her daughter, without whom, indeed, she seldom left the house. Neither of them said a word about their hidden guest, and yet neither thought of anything else. So it was in the evening too when they silently sat at their spinning wheels. It was only when Donate came in at a late hour to announce that the fever was higher, the patient unable to sleep, and delirious, calling constantly for his mother, and wanting to get up and ride off homewards, that they held a council as to whether it was any longer possible or justifiable not to call in a chirurgeon, but trust to the skill and experience of old Valentin, who had served half his time as apprentice to a leech before Herr Amthor took him into his service. At last Frau Helena went up herself to inspect the wound. There was nothing in its aspect to alarm, and the old man assured her that the rambling, Donate had been frightened by, merely resulted from the full-bloodedness of youth, and that in four-and-twenty hours all danger would be perfectly over. Frau Helena knew that her faithful servant was accustomed to weigh his words before he spoke positively. She stood for a while by the side of the feverish sufferer, who did not know her, but when he felt the touch of her hand called her “mother,” and then with a sudden brightness in his face began to talk to her in a tone of affectionate confidence, telling her she was not to suppose he had set his heart on Herr Aufdembühel's daughter—that she knew he would never marry unless he found some one like her. Then he would break out into French, as if violently remonstrating with the bold girl of the tavern, telling her not to hang about his neck, since though she might stain his doublet with wine, she could not ogle the ring off his finger—and all sorts of delirious fancies. To all which the judicious matron listened attentively, for she well knew men, and was silently touched by the evidence thus afforded of a good and innocent nature. She felt her motherly partiality for the young stranger grow hour by hour, till she was almost angry that this youth should assert a claim to a place in her heart, long entirely filled by sorrow for her lost one.

The night was again restless, and so was the day. But just as Valentin had foretold, on the third night came a refreshing sleep, and when Frau Helena paid her morning visit to her guest, he looked at her with clear intelligent eyes, and even tried to move his wounded arm, which was still helpless, but going on as well as possible. The lady shook her head lovingly at him, and bade him not play any pranks, or fancy himself well before the time, and the youth, although in the highest spirits, gravely assured her that he would be passive as an unweaned child. But that very evening, as mother and daughter were sitting in their saloon by candlelight, and Lisabethli practising some foreign tune upon the spinett, there came a knock at the door, and in answer to a somewhat nervous “Come in,”—for the ladies were not accustomed to such late visitors—their young guest appeared leaning on the arm of Valentin, who by silent shrugs, gave them to understand that this was no doing of his, and that he washed his hands of the consequences of such imprudence. Kurt, however, over whose pale cheeks a flush of pleasure passed at this escape from the sick room, gaily and gracefully bent his knee before the grave matron, and prayed her forgiveness for having ventured once more to stand on his own feet contrary to her command. He only wanted to wish his benefactress good-night, and to thank the young lady too, whom he had not seen since that terrible evening, for the trouble she had taken in making lint and sewing bandages together. It was impossible to resist his lively cordial manner: and even Lisabethli, who had been more startled by his unexpected appearance on this occasion than on the first, soon regained her natural ease and replied playfully and intelligently to his friendly talk. At a signal from her mother she brought in a tray of fruit and pastry, and their guest who had fasted for some days (first, however, asking and obtaining leave from Valentin), was soon biting with his white teeth into the juicy early pears.

“Noble lady,” he said, “I cannot describe to you how pleasant it is to me to find myself at this table. When I first saw your lights shine from the terrace below, and directed my fugitive steps hither, how little I dreamed that I should ever sit here safely and happily, and that you would be so very kind to me! You must know that I am a thoroughly spoilt child, and on my journey here, much as I enjoyed the freedom and novelty of it, yet in the wretched hostelries, spite of good food and fiery wine, I used to long for the clean tablecloth laid by our maid at home for our simple fare. I never ventured to sleep in any of their beds without spreading my cloak over the sheets. Now here I find everything just as it is at my own mother's—only better appointed—and that there I have to be son and daughter in one, while here I sit merely on sufferance, because, as my old friend tells me, your son is on his travels, while a daughter is left to you such as my mother has long vainly wished for.”

At these words the old servant slipped away, for this reference to the absent son distressed him, but Lisabethli came to her mother's rescue. “Often,” she playfully observed, “did people wish themselves a cross, and if her mother would be candid, she would admit that she not seldom found herself desiring better companionship than that of a silly little daughter, her head full of freaks and fancies, who strummed on the spinet half the day through, roasted the meat too brown, and made the soup too light, and cost more than she was worth in ribands and tuckers.” At this the mother with a faint smile, observed that the picture was certainly like, though somewhat darkly shaded; but that even were it a correct one, each must accept the punishment Heaven adjudged him. And so saying her face grew very sad, for she thought that in her case this was but too true. The young people, however, paid no attention, but went on chatting in the liveliest manner, and becoming so thoroughly at home with each other that they felt like old acquaintances; and when Lisabethli had risen from her instrument after playing three or four national airs to their guest, the minster tower struck twelve before any of them knew that they had been more than an hour together.

There is little to record about the following days and evenings, except that both the young people, and even the mother, daily thought the time longer until—the house-door being barred and bolted—they were able to receive their guest in safety, and chat half the night away in the cheerful, well-lit sitting-room. They seemed to fall into this state of things as if it always had been and must always continue, and the very fact of having a secret to keep and a peril to avert, gave to these innocent meetings an excitement and a charm against which even Frau Helena herself was not quite proof. She was wise enough, however, to foresee that there was another danger besides that of the discovery of her hidden guest and of her own untruth. Lisabethli, who until the present time had very seldom, and only for short periods, been in the company of young men, had already spent eleven days under the same roof with this stranger; and if, since she had fathomed his candid and upright nature, the mother had learnt to love him, was it not expecting too much to suppose the daughter blind to all his gifts and virtues? He, indeed, confidential and friendly as he was, appeared to have taken good care of his own heart, and in all the unchecked playfulness of their talk throughout the long evenings, not a word escaped his lips that sounded other than brotherly in its tone. But if it were really so, if this bird of passage had no thought of nest-building, it would be all the worse for the child, and a mother's duty was to put an end to it at once. She blamed her own weakness and inability to remind her guest (who was really now quite able to travel) of the journey he no longer seemed anxious to take. She felt how much she should miss him, when she had him no longer to expend her motherly care upon, and no more heard his frank loving voice call her “lady-mother,” or even vie with her little daughter in devising pet names for her. Then, too, she had a sense of the ungraciousness and unfitness of hastening a guest's departure. And so she was glad and sorry both, when a letter arrived from Augsburg, written by his parents, who at its close enjoined their son not to trespass too long upon the hospitality of the noble lady to whom he owed his life, but to set out as soon as ever his wound was healed and journey homewards; as so only could his anxious mother be fully convinced that he was really out of danger, and that the punishment of his recklessness had been on this occasion a lenient one.

When young Kurt had read out this letter to his two friends, not a word was spoken by any of the three for a long time, and afterwards the talk turned only on grave or indifferent subjects. For the sense of this being their last evening was heavy upon the hearts of all, though none chose to confess it. After midnight—when he had left them—mother and daughter went on sitting up, pretending to have something to do, for neither felt able to sleep. Then Lisabethli left the room to give some last directions to Donate. On her return she held a sheet of paper in her hand, and her face was as white as the paper.

“Dear mother,” she stammered out, “Donate has just given me this. It is from him. Will you read it.”

“Read it yourself,” said her mother, “there can be no harm in it.”

“Oh mother,” whispered the girl, “I cannot see to read it. There is a cloud before my eyes—I know that it is a farewell!”

“Give it me,” said Frau Helena. “He asks you,” she said, after a pause, “whether you have any objection to his applying to me for my consent to give you to him. He does this in writing because if you do not love him, which he fears is but too likely, as you have always seemed so cheerful and unconcerned—he would prefer not to see you again, but to set out without any leave-taking, and take his unhappy heart as far as possible from hence.”

The girl did not answer, and her mother too was silent. Suddenly Frau Helena felt her child's arms around her neck, her tears on her cheek, while her soft little mouth whispered in her ear. “I should have died, dearest mother, if he had not loved me.” Then her mother took her upon her knee as she had not done since she was a child, pressed her closely to her heart, and said with trembling voice, “God bless you, my good children: you have to make up to me for much.”

That night no one closed an eye till morning, when they snatched an hour or two, and the daughter, who woke first, glad as she was that her mother should have more rest, could yet hardly wait patiently until she rose and went to return an answer to the young lover's letter.

When Frau Helena went upstairs, she found her guest—who had like herself only closed his eyes a short time before—fast asleep, and so she sat by his bedside contemplating the good innocent countenance that beamed with hope and happiness even in its sleep. But as still he did not wake, she called him by his name. At that he started, and in his confusion could find no words, especially as he did not know what she would say to his letter. But though her face remained grave, her words at once gave him comfort and confidence. “Dear son,” said she, “you must not remain here any longer. After what you have written to my child, it would not be fitting that I should persuade you to go on accepting our well-meant though poor hospitality. As soon as you are ready to set out we must part, and Valentin will let you out at the garden door, from whence you must make your way to the 'Stork,' and there get your horse, explaining your long absence in the most credible way you can. And further I must insist that you do not before your departure say a word to my daughter that might not be spoken to a stranger. She loves you dearly, and I may truly say that I could wish nothing more than to have so worthy a son, since my own son,” and here she sighed from the depths of her heart, “is alas! lost to me, as I shall tell you later. But I do not choose your parents to think that after nursing you here we have taken advantage of your gratitude to procure a husband for my daughter; and you yourself, when you go off and mix with the world again, may wonder at the especial charm you found in my simple child, when she was your only companion. Therefore you must part without one binding word on either side, and thus my child, too, will have time to examine her young heart, and to find out whether compassion and the interest of an adventure may not have produced an illusory belief that you are her Heaven-appointed bridegroom. If when you have spoken to your parents and obtained their consent you are still of the same mind as now, you can let us know by letter or in person, and God will then give his blessing if this marriage be really made in Heaven. And now, dear son, I leave you, and shall expect you at breakfast, for you shall not leave my house fasting and unrefreshed, although I must still impose abstinence upon your yearning heart.”

She rose and pressed a mother's kiss on the brow of the youth, who had listened in speechless rapture. But if he drew from this token of affection any hope that she would not be so stern as to prevent him pressing his loved maiden to his heart once at least before they parted, he did not know the strong character of this mother, in whose nature severity and tenderness were strangely blended. The farewell had to take place exactly in the manner prescribed, and if Lisabethli had not in reaching out her hand given him a look that was one long confession of the deepest love and fidelity, he might have gone away, not in joyous hope, but in uncertainty as to whether or not he had found a heart that was his for life and death. He left a ring on the table of his room, wrapped in paper, with just one line to the mother. “Will you keep this token for me till you allow me to offer it to your child.” As to Valentin and Donate, he rewarded their care so liberally that in their amazement they came to tell Frau Helena that Herr Kurt must surely have made some mistake. But when they saw the traces of tears in Lisabethli's eyes, they silently went their way, and began to put many things together.

This was about noon, when most persons were at home, and Kurt could go through Frau Amthor's garden-gate with least risk of being observed. Some hours passed by without the mother and daughter opening their lips even to speak on indifferent subjects. They were more occupied with each other than ever, and showed it in a hundred little loving ways, only they hardly dared to allow their eyes to meet, for each had a secret to keep. When the day got cooler, the mother was just going to invite her child, who was walking alone in the garden, to put on her hat and take a turn with her through the town, when Valentin suddenly appeared with an anxious visage, and hastily announced that the chief sergeant, who had paid his mistress a visit twelve days before, now requested to know whether she was at home. He had something, he said, of importance and urgency to communicate. Frau Helena—whose first idea was some fresh imprudence on the part of Kurt—had just time to make a sign to Valentin, enjoining silence towards Lisabethli, when in came the stately dignitary, looking far more solemn and mysterious than he had done on the former occasion, and requesting a private interview. After she had led him into a small study, where he took his seat facing her, coughed several times, and re-arranging the tags on his dress, he began in evident embarrassment to address her as follows:—

“I need not to premise, worthy Frau Amthor, how not only your family and house, but also your own character are held in honour by every person, public or private, in our good town, and your virtues, as well at the name and memory of your departed husband, looked up to as a Christian example. It is, therefore, the universal wish to keep sorrow far from you, and to offer you whatever consolation lies within human power for such trial as Heaven has appointed. It will not have escaped you that all as by common consent have long avoided touching the wound that your son's conduct has inflicted, and I indeed as your friend and relative, should have been especially bound never to name your lost Andreas in your presence, if my official duty had not required me so to do. Will you, therefore, not render my painful duty still harder to me by suppression or evasion, but openly tell me what accounts of your son you have lately had, and where you have reason to believe him now to be?”

“If you ask me thus earnestly,” replied the mother, without betraying either in look or tone how fast her heart was beating; “I must, alas! return you for answer, that it will be four years next All Saints' since I saw my unhappy son for the last time, and that since then I have had no manner of communication from him. But now let me enquire what leads you and the rest of the Town-Council to make such enquiries about the absent one who—whatever his offences may be—has at least not given his native town any cause for complaint for a space of nine years?”

The sergeant coughed again, and resumed after a pause, during which he was evidently in search of the most appropriate words possible. “Hear me out patiently, my worthy friend and relative, and do not be startled if my communication should sound strange and alarming. Up to the present time it is only a surmise which may—God grant it!—prove to be entirely unfounded. You remember the night on which the train-band intruded upon you, and the disorderly conduct on the island, respecting which I waited upon you the following day, bearing the apologies of the Council. The tavern which caused you so much annoyance, was closed at once, and the scene of much nightly misdemeanour removed. Neither since that night had any trace of the chief offenders been found, so that I began to suspect the watchmen must have been bewildered with new wine, and seen phantoms. But last evening, just as we were breaking up, a young female was brought before us, who had gone to the sexton of St. Ursula to request him to give private burial to a corpse then in her room, since she feared—the fatal wound having been received in a brawl—that she might else as a stranger in the place be held in some way amenable to the law. The little money the girl possessed—she seemed to be no better than a French courtesan, and could scarcely put ten German words together—she had offered the sexton as a bribe for secrecy, but when he, as his duty was, gave information of the death, and took her with him to the Court, she seemed inspired with sudden courage, and being thoroughly cross-examined by us, was yet able to establish her innocence in this tragic matter. The dead man, who had been her lover and brought her with him from Lyons, had on the night of the storm picked a quarrel on the island with an unknown youth, and had been stabbed by the latter during a struggle on the bridge. When the train-band was seen approaching, she had just had time with the help of two of their travelling companions, to get the unconscious man into a boat, and to bring him to the obscure inn where they had arrived on the previous day. The two other men seeing that there was nothing more to be made, got themselves out of the scrape, but she had faithfully tended the wounded man by night and day, and persuaded the host that he was getting better, and would if secrecy were maintained reward him liberally by-and-by. It was only when he had drawn his last breath that she thought of herself with any anxiety, for during his illness she had been obliged to spend all the money he had won at play, and the few ornaments she had, she had sold to a Jew in hopes of getting him quietly buried. As to her future maintenance, however, she continued with brazen assurance, she should have no fear, as she was young and—thank God!—not ugly, if only she were acquitted by us, and could get to a country where people understood her. The dead man had, indeed, treated her liberally as regarded dress, food, and presents, but she had not had much pleasure with him, for he was of a sulky temper, and not a thorough Frenchman, spite of his name. She rather thought he must have been an Alsatian. He called himself Laporte, had travelled through many lands, had served in the Dutch army, and was not fond of speaking about his past. The idea of travelling in Switzerland occurred to him when he had exhausted all his means. She had never found out whether he had a treasure buried in this country, or friends who were in any way bound to him, and at whose door he had only to knock in order to be set on his legs again. This was the simple truth, and more she did not herself know, and therefore could not tell us, even if she were put to the torture.

“After this declaration of Fleurette,—which was the female's name—the mayor ordered that the body should be moved from the inn (where as yet the death had not transpired) to the hospital, and last night it was borne upon a bier into the dead house, and a protocol was made previous to the interment of the stranger—as such—close to the churchyard wall. The foreign hussy was meanwhile confined for a season in the tower of the hospital. When we betook ourselves this morning to the dead house, and the inspector had given us his report, namely, that the wound had been dealt by a German sword between the fourth and fifth ribs, and that it was a marvel such a wound had been so long survived—there came a judicial investigation of the clothes and few effects found, the result of which in no way contradicted, but rather confirmed, the young woman's statement. We found that in his commission as officer in the Dutch army, he was entered as a Monsieur Laporte or De la Porte; there were no other papers. The clerk had indeed already finished the protocol, when the surgeon called our attention to a seal-ring on the dead man's clenched left hand. It was a thick gold ring of curious make, with a blood-red cornelian, and it was impossible to get it off. But as I chanced—being fond of antiques—to bend down closer with a candle in order to examine the style of it, I saw to my surprise and horror, that it was exactly—but you must not be alarmed, it may as I said be merely accidental—exactly I repeat, like the family arms of the Amthors, two beams supporting a cornice with an open door in the middle and a star above. The candle shook in my hand, all the more that at the same moment I saw in the pale bearded face, which had at first seemed to me that of a perfect stranger, an expression—I pray you, my good cousin, to forgive me if I pain you—an expression such as I had seen on the dead face of my excellent and honoured friend, your late husband, when on the day of his burial I stood for the last time beside his open coffin.”

The worthy man, having got so far in his narrative, made a pause, during which he did not venture to look at the matron opposite him, though indeed he could but poorly estimate the amount of the woe that hung over her. He had no idea that the fate of both children might depend on whether the stranger proved to be her own son or not.

“Be comforted, my beloved friend,” he at length resumed, wiping away the cold drops from his brow. “I have taken upon myself not to say a word of this discovery to any one but the mayor, whom you know to be an honourable man heartily devoted to your family. I asked him whether this melancholy supposition had not better be buried in our hearts. It is not probable, but yet it is possible, that a branch of the Amthors may have migrated to foreign lands, there changed their name to Laporte or De la Porte for the sake of convenience, retaining, however, the family arms. As to that look in the dead face, which is a good deal disfigured by a deep scar, I said nothing about it to him, as he had declared he saw no likeness whatever to Andreas, whom he remembered to have often met nine or ten years ago. Nevertheless he was of opinion that so singular a coincidence ought not to remain a secret to you. If indeed, contrary to all probability, it should prove to be your poor son who has met with so tragical an end, no one would deny a mother the bitter consolation of blessing to its eternal rest, the head she had carried beneath her heart. Again, as regards official formalities, it is unfitting that we should satisfy ourselves with the declaration of a vagabond female, when we have the most convincing witness at hand; for it may prove desirable hereafter, with regard to future demises, inheritances, and the like, to have some certain knowledge to go upon. Therefore I determined to come to you, to lay the whole case before you, and persuade you, if I can, to pay a visit to the hospital—as secretly as you will—in order to prevent all useless suspense or suspicion.”

So saying he rose and went to the window to give Frau Helena time to collect herself and come to a decision. A quarter of an hour passed away, during which nothing was audible in the small room but the ticking of the great clock—a wedding present from Lisabethli's grandfather to his daughter-in-law, bearing on its metal face the family arms of the Amthors. Out of doors, too, all was still—nothing to be heard but the cawing of a flight of rooks wending their way over the terrace, or the muffled thud of an over-ripe apple on the grass.

At length the lady rose and approached her old and tried friend, who met her rigid gaze with an expression of sorrowful sympathy. “I thank you,” she said, “for having come to me, and performed this painful duty with so much consideration. Say to the highly respected mayor that I shall find myself at about nine o'clock at the side-door of the hospital, and should wish to be met there by some trustworthy person, and this painful step concealed from all who might be likely to talk of it. The rest I leave in God's hand—He will order it aright.”

“I shall be there myself to meet you,” replied the sergeant. “May our Lord God strengthen your heart, and your frame, and grant us the fulfilment of our hope that this may prove merely an accidental coincidence!”

“Amen!” said Frau Helena in a hollow voice, in which was no hope whatever.

Thereupon her visitor left her. As soon as she was alone she sank down on her knees in the place where she had been standing, and waves of anguish closed over her mother's heart.

                     * * * * *

It was already getting dusk, when her daughter's voice speaking in the garden to old Donate, roused the mourner from her trance. Soon after Lisabethli entered, and found her mother sitting at her desk, as though evening had overtaken her at her accounts and letters.

“Dearest mother,” said the girl, “he has sent me another letter—a boy brought it to Donate; he wrote it as soon as he had got beyond the gates, because you said he might write when far away. Will you read it? He says that I am to be as sure of his truth as of your love, and that nothing can ever part us but death.”

She held the letter out to her mother, but the latter did not take it. “Leave me alone, awhile, child,” she replied. “I have got something to think over.”

The girl went away, happy to keep her treasure all to herself. The mother remained an hour longer in the darkening room, absorbed in darkest thoughts, through which pierced not one heavenly ray. She never for a moment doubted that the ring on the finger of the dead man, was the same that she had placed on the finger of her Andreas the first time that he went to Holy Communion. As to any accident which had transferred this ring to the hand of some one else, she never entertained the idea. He who lay in the dead house of the hospital with that sword-thrust in his breast was none other than her much-loved, much-wept son. And he who had killed this son—in self-defence it is true—was one to whom she had promised her daughter, who would probably return in a few weeks as a happy bridegroom to the desolate house, and with laughing face carry off her daughter, so that through him she should be bereaved of both her children. She hated him at that moment, she cursed the hour in which he entered her house, cursed her own tongue that had promised him protection and ratified that promise with a falsehood, when saving him from his pursuers. And yet the next moment her heart recalled that curse, for in her mind's eye she saw again the candid face of the innocent fugitive, heard his clear tones, remembered her own words when she vowed to be a mother to him, and her daughter's voice when she came to her on the previous evening with her letter, and said, “I should have died, dearest mother, had he not loved me.” She knew her child, and that these words were not lightly spoken. She felt, moreover, what she owed to this child, who had been for years defrauded of her due share of maternal love. Would she not have cause of bitter complaint against a brother who, after years of long wild wandering, had only returned to his country to bring fresh misery on his mother's head, and to destroy the whole happiness of his sister's life? “No,” said the stronghearted woman, “it must not be. No one is guilty here but I. I am the real cause of his miserable end, I with my foolish indulgence and subservience from excess of love! No one shall suffer—ought to suffer, but I. I shall not have any joy in the son whom God seemed to have given me to replace my lost one; my other child will go away, and I shall be left solitary, with only my own misery—misery purchased by a double falsehood!”

She sank again into gloomy brooding, till the minster clock struck nine. Then she started, and gathering together all the strength of a desolate soul, she called to Lisabethli to bring her her coif, as she had a necessary errand that took her out. The girl wondered at her going so late, but did not like to ask any questions, having indeed in her early days too many experiences of unusual proceedings on her mother's part to dwell much upon this wonder, especially now she had such happy thoughts of her own. But old Valentin could not refrain from enquiring whether he might not light the lantern and accompany his mistress. She shook her head in silence, doubled her veil over her face, and left the house.

It was no great distance to the hospital, but she often felt as though she should never be able to reach it. “O Lord God!” she inwardly prayed, “take me away from earth! It is too much—Thou visitest Thy servant too severely!” And yet something too seemed to draw her onwards to the place where she should behold for the last time the long yearned after face of her lost son!

When she reached the site of the old pest-house, with its handsome chapel, a man dressed in black drew near and whispered her name. It was, she knew, her friend the chief sergeant, but they did not exchange words, and he led her through the side-door, which he unlocked, into the interior of the building. They entered a dimly-lighted hall, where the hospital attendant on duty had fallen asleep on a bench. Their footsteps wakened him, but at a signal from the sergeant he remained where he was, while the former lighted another taper, and preceded the lady. They went up some steps, and through a long passage to a kind of cellar-door which stood half open. “If you prefer to go in alone,” said he, “take the taper. I will wait for you in the passage.”

She bowed assent in silence, took the tin sconce into her hand, and entered the chamber of the dead.

It was a low stone-roofed room, with bare walls blackened by smoke and time, and entirely devoid of furniture. In its midst stood the coffin, roughly made, and stuffed with nothing but half mouldy straw. In it rested the corpse, beneath a grey pall, scarcely long enough to cover the tall frame of the dead, who had been laid down in the clothes he wore in life. At the lady's entrance two rats who had been gnawing at his boots, jumped out of the straw into their holes. She did not notice them. Her eyes were fixed upon the head of the coffin, where the pall just showed a high white forehead with a deep scar down to the very eyebrows. She placed the taper in a niche of the wall, and with her remnant of strength approached to raise the pall. One glance at the rigid face furrowed by the conflict of life and of death—and she sank down beside the coffin.

Yet it was no swoon that mercifully shrouded her senses. It was only that her legs would no longer support her; her mind was fully awake, and her heart felt all its old wounds open, and begin to bleed and burn afresh. She had fallen on her knees, her hands folded, her eyes fixed on the pale face of her dead son, averted as it seemed from her in indifference, in almost anger, and upturned to the black arch of the roof. Oh! she would have given her life, the last poor remnant of her days on earth, if those eyes could but have opened once more for one farewell look, if those discoloured lips could once—only once—have called her “mother!”

The sergeant who was waiting in the passage, was under the impression that he heard a groan proceed from the chamber of the dead. What it meant he did not know. If indeed it were her son he would not disturb the mortal anguish of the mother. Suddenly he heard her steps approach the door, and saw her coming out, the light in her hand, her head erect as if no shock had bowed her down, her eyes strained and strange, but meeting his.

“I have kept you waiting,” she said, “which was unnecessary. One glance is sufficient to reveal the truth to a mother: but it has shaken me. I had to rest a little.”

“So it is not he!” cried her faithful friend. “God be praised!”

“To all Eternity!” said she. “Let us go. The place is ghastly.”

She went on hastily with the taper, and steadily descended the steps. In the hall where the watcher sat, she put down the taper on the table, and her hand no longer trembled.

“You will see,” said the sergeant to the sleepy official, “that to-morrow, not later than five, the sexton comes and bears the body to its rest.”

“The grave is already dug, sir,” was the reply, “near the place where a year ago Hans Frisdolin, the parricide was laid.”

“Not so,” returned the sergeant, “he shall have no dishonourable burial, only as a stranger he must lie next to the wall. His French girl has offered to pay the sexton. You can remind her, Killian.”

“What I wanted to ask,” the man broke in, “is whether the foreign lady may have wine, and also a roast pigeon for which she longs. She will pay for it, she says, and indeed she is a very good little thing, and a pair of foreigners have been to pay her a visit in the tower and spent three hours there. The warder turned them away at night, but the lady was sadly put out, and she sent the warder to ask whether I would not pay her a visit, for she found the time hang heavy.”

“She must conform to the regulations,” growled the sergeant. “To-morrow she will be free, and then she can recommence her godless trade, as she too surely will so soon as she is beyond our jurisdiction. Good-night, Killian.”

He turned to Frau Helena, who had gone to the door of the hall, and there in deep shadow leant against the wall. While he led her out, and on the way to her house, whither he accompanied her, he kept railing against the dissolute creature, who might well have the unfortunate dead on her conscience instead of throwing out baits for fresh victims before the earth had closed over the last. He protested it removed a stone from his heart to know that this Laporte was no Amthor, and he hoped that the real Andreas might yet live to make up to his mother for all that she had so christianly endured. The Council, however, was truly indebted to the worthy matron for having given herself the trouble of this late walk.

And so saying he took leave of the silent lady, and wished her a night of refreshing sleep.

That wish was most certainly not realised. A storm arose that filled the night with such wild uproar, that it seemed as if the very earth trembled. In the room which had once been that of Andreas, a window-shutter had been blown open, and now kept beating and flapping against the wall. Lisabethli, who had fallen asleep, woke up in terror at the sound. She saw her mother leave the room without a light, and heard her go upstairs, and there was an end to that source of disturbance as she fastened the shutter again. The young girl waited awhile for her return, but fell asleep before it, and indeed she would have waited in vain. For Frau Helena remained in the dark room above, as though it were more tolerable to her to listen to the storm than to the breathing of her child, who, in her happy dreams spoke of her Kurt, and called him loving names.

About dawn the wind went down, and in its place came a cold rain which got heavier and heavier, and at length veiled town and river in a grey mist. The sexton who, with two companions to help him, had by five o'clock dug a grave by the churchyard wall, and lowered a rudely-made coffin into it, was quicker than ever over his work, and the coffin rested slantingly in the shallow pit. Then, since the clergyman who was to have blessed it, omitted his duty in consequence of the terrible weather, the man of the spade himself said a Paternoster for the poor soul, and hastily shovelled in the coarse clods, leaving the rest to be finished by his companions. He was about to hasten home and catch a short morning-nap in his warm room, when he noticed a female figure kneeling by a head-stone not far from the new grave, her head, covered by a black veil, resting against the stone. That stone had long been deserted, the family of the one who slept there having removed to another country. What could the lady be doing there? As, however, she remained quite still, and spite of the rain seemed absorbed in her devotions, he did not venture to disturb her. For an instant it flashed across him that it might be the foreign hussy who had paid for the grave of the murdered man, but he heard afterwards that she had slept till a late hour, and had, indeed, only awaked when the beadle came to march her out of the town.

A few days later there reached him from an unknown source, a considerable sum of money, which purported to be payment for a forgotten burial. He for his part gave himself no thought about the matter, and pocketed the unexpected windfall as though it had dropped from the sky.

                     * * * * *

What follows is soon told. In the next spring the marriage of Kurt Brucker and Elizabeth Amthor was, according to custom, celebrated at the home of the bride, and the Augsburg relations came in great state to do all honour to the bride's mother, and the family of the Amthors. Nothing which could be looked for on such an occasion was left undone, and Lisabethli had no cause to complain of her dower, her outfit, or the wedding banquet. One thing only was lacking—the smile of joy on the face of the bride's mother. She was kind and courteous to all, to strangers and relatives alike, and bowed assent when the guests remarked to her how completely made for each other the young couple were, and that both houses might well be congratulated on so fitting and honourable an alliance. But amidst all the loud cheer of the bridal banquet, she sat pale and silent as a ghost, and though the rest of the family of the bridegroom who had not known her before, gradually grew reconciled to this, and whispered to each other that it was the sorrow for her absent son which pressed so hardly upon her on this joyous day—yet Kurt had not been wont to see his mother-in-law thus, and it struck him as strange that she never once gave him her hand, or pressed him in her arms as she had done the stranger-guest when, but half-recovered, he had ventured to woo her child. It was only when the youthful pair set out to their new home, that the mother kissed her daughter with such a violent burst of tears, it seemed as though her heart would break and melt away, and then laid her damp hand on her son-in-law's brow, murmuring words that no one could understand. Then she turned hurriedly away, and even before they left the house, locked herself up in the solitude of her own room.

There she spent the few years that she had to live, avoiding all society, reading religious books, and only opening her door to the poor and the sorrowful. When, in a year's time, letters came from Augsburg, pressingly inviting her to the christening of a grandson, she excused herself on account of her age and infirmities which unfitted her to travel. Yet she was often seen to walk with vigorous step in solitary roads outside the town—old Valentin a few paces behind her. But she never addressed him and seemed, indeed, almost to have lost the habit of speech. It was only on her death-bed, when she felt her end drawing near, that she sent for the parish priest, who spent some hours with her. What she then imparted was told by him to one of her daughter's children who travelled to Berne to see his grandmother's grave. That she had ordered to be dug by the churchyard wall, close to the long-ago-levelled mound under which her lost son had found his last resting-place.

 
 
 

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