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Burning Love by Clara Viebig


Assistant Professor of German, Harvard University

There were fires in the village. It was always at night that they broke out, now here, now there; and this had been going on for eight weeks. The corn in the fields had just come to the full ear when on a dark evening the first blaze was discovered. Since that time the fearful guest had visited no less than ten cottages.

The damage had indeed been slight. One peasant had the reeds and thatch of his low-hanging roof a little singed. In another house the side of bacon left from last winter's pig and still hanging from the beam under the roof had been made to sizzle a bit. At a third, the brushwood that children had gathered and piled up along the wall had crackled and snapped, until the wife, wakened by her infant's cries, thought some one out there was stealing her kindling. At a fourth, the frightened lowing of the cow revealed a smouldering in the hay-loft. At the fifth, the flame did not even get started; for a downpour of rain had beaten upon the attic and quenched whatever of fire was lurking in the timbers. In every case the protection of all the saints had been plain to see.

Nevertheless, a secret horror began to worry the minds of the villagers.

“I warrant,” said a wiseacre, contracting the brown leather of his brow in suspicious wrinkles, “some scalawag is doing this!”

Yes, it could not be otherwise: there was somebody setting fires! The children could not be the guilty ones—they were led by hand or carried in the dosser out into the fields; or, if it happened that they were left behind, their mother did not fail to hide the matches on the topmost shelf beyond their reach. But had not Annie Marie, watching alone by the cradle of her sick child one evening when all the others were still working in the fields, seen a fellow in disguise peering in at her window? And had not Brewer's Hubert, coming home late at night, caught sight of a dark shadowy figure that slipped by him and escaped in the hedgerow between the gardens?

There could no longer be any doubt: there was an incendiary. But where? Who was the miscreant? Some man in the village? Impossible! In the village each man knows the other far too well, learns too well from his daily toil how hard it is to scrape together his little livelihood, for him out of sheer wantonness to afflict his neighbor. No, it must be somebody from a distance; somebody, perhaps, who had been a-roving in the world. To be sure, journeymen, beggars who—how can one tell?—already have one foot in the lock-up, did not pass through the village, which is situated apart from others on the Eifel plateau, with its two straight, compact rows of houses in the protecting shade of a dark grove of fir-trees, but with its remote fields, reclaimed from the waste land, exposed to all the winds of the Eifel and all the rays of the burning sun.

The little village quivered with excitement. And mingled with the anxiety there was curiosity, and along with the curiosity fury. If they could catch the culprit, they would hurl him from the roadside down into the brook with such violence that he should never stand on his feet again! Or they would climb the mountain that rears its scrubby head behind the village and there hang him on the wind-swayed hazel-tree—after having soundly thrashed him with its switches! Then the cows and swine which the village herdsman pastured on the close-cropped field would have a sight to see, and the herdsman, Will Stoker, too!

[Illustration: CLARA VIEBIG]

And as they thought of William they suddenly held their breath. Had he not for years been a fire-tender down in the Rhineland? He was the only man in the village who, after serving his time in the army, had not returned home to till the soil in the sweat of his brow, but had remained down there, where the world puts forth its temptation and the saints are only to be found in the cathedrals, not to be met upon the highways. It was said that people had to toil in the factories—very likely, but certainly not by far so hard as up here, where often in May the frost killed the budding grain and potatoes froze as early as September. Will Stoker had had nothing further to do down there than poke fires. He had been fireman, night fireman in the factory; but during the day he had nothing to do but sleep, earning sure money by a lazy life—merely by making fires!

“Hm!” The chairman of the parish council scratched his head when sundry villagers turned up their noses in the direction of Will Stoker. What? He should have set the fires? He was indeed a strange fellow; yes, they were right, a very curious chap, different from other people—that was the result of his life out in the world—but an incendiary? No! Was not his mother, Widow Driesch, a downright honest woman, a God-fearing woman besides, to whom every one must take off his hat?

The chairman put far away from him the tell-tales and busybodies; but when, shortly after, one Sunday night the hayrick burned which he had just stacked up Saturday evening, he too began to scent mischief. From the direction of Will Stoker's cottage he too began to smell smoke. Was it after all possible that Will Stoker could not give up the business of poking fires? He had been in the village since the previous winter. In the gray of winter nothing had happened; but now, when the sun was shining again, when it was aglow in the heavens, when day in and day out it spread its red heat over cottages and fir-trees, over grain field and hill top, when the underbrush flared and the pebbles in the dry river bed scintillated, and the powdery dust on the sun-baked roads was blinding, now—!

Strange thoughts surged through the chairman's head; he took counsel with this neighbor and that, secret counsel. Behind the barn they whispered, like pairs of lovers, or far out on the open field, where only the quivering heat could overhear them. Appealing to courts of law is always bad business; one never knows whether one is going to get justice or injustice. But before one should let the village be laid in ashes, now, just now, when the well was beginning to run dry, when even the brook in the cooler valley trickled only in a thin stream over shining stones, now, when one must be mindful of the harvest—it was abundant this year, but who could have the courage to gather it into the barns?—now the watchword was, better accuse than regret!

                     * * * * * *

On a warm evening after a serene summer day the constable from the nearest city hall and the chairman of the parish council plodded along together toward the cottage of the Widow Driesch.

Katherine Driesch was cooking her evening porridge. Her William had just driven in the herd; the last blast of his trumpet still reverberated in the air and every cow was rushing, tail up, into her stall. The herdsman could now rest from his labors. He was sitting on his stool by the hearth, with the bowl in his lap, the spoon in his hand, and his mother was serving him his evening meal. But he paid no attention to the scraps of bacon which swam like appetizing little fishes in the porridge. With unaverted eyes he gazed at the fireplace, where the sparks were dancing.

His mother said, “Eat, my boy,” took the scraps of bacon out of her own bowl, and gave him these also. Her William was fond of bacon, and though it might be wickedly dear, the boy must have his scraps every evening. What else had he in the world? Nothing at all, poor boy!

Of five sons, he was the last—two had died young, two had fallen in France—all these afflictions she had borne with Christian resignation. But that William had down there so worn himself out with labor that he had had to be taken to the hospital and in the prime of life had been declared no longer able-bodied, that grieved her. Up here he had, to be sure, obtained the position of village herdsman—but was that a proper office for one who had always been cleverer than the other boys of his age?—who even today was cleverer than all those who since his time had passed through the hands of the schoolmaster,—who really ought to have been ordained in the Church, if they had only had the money. A dunce can herd swine and drive cattle!

The mother suppressed a sigh and brushed William's bushy brows back from his eyes.

He merely grunted; and when she urged him, saying, “Eat, my boy—your favorite supper: scraps and buckwheat porridge!”—he mechanically carried a spoonful to his lips and let it run out of the other corner of his mouth. His brow remained contracted, and from the back of his head, where a fringe of hair was all that remained, a tremor seemed to run down the length of his spine. His eyes stared blankly, until suddenly they began to roll, up and down, right and left; involuntarily they followed the dancing sparks in the fireplace.

The mother watched her son intently while, silently and without the usual sipping and a satisfied smacking of the lips, she emptied her bowl. With a mute gesture she drove away the cat, which had crept up purring and was rubbing its head on the man's legs. She herself hardly dared to breathe. What was William thinking about, that he was so still? A short while ago, in winter, he had been much more talkative. What stories he had told of the factories down there, with their wheels and cylinders, their chimneys and kettles, their furnaces that had bellies as big as a beer-barrel at the kirmess—in fact, much bigger—as big as the pit of hell, with flames a yard long! He had grown accustomed to the heat, and now he was always cold, poor boy. Now, even in summer, when other people seek the shade, he stood in the broiling sun up in the field, munched his crust of bread, and gazed fixedly at the ball of burning gold in the sky. But even then, he said, he did not get warm enough. The whole day she had to keep the fire burning on the hearth, and in the hardest winter she had never had to collect so much brushwood and so many fir-cones as now.

Wiping the profuse sweat from her brow and loosening a little the cotton kerchief about her lean and wrinkled throat, Katherine Driesch picked up another armful of brushwood from the chimney-corner, broke it in pieces over her knee, and stuffed all the pieces together into the jaws of the fireplace. It was almost ready to burst.

But with a groan and shiver her son rubbed his hands, saying slowly and hesitatingly, as though every word cost him pain, and yet as though in haste to speak it, “Mother—go—to—bed.”

“All right,” said she, already reaching for her cap; for she knew that when William had not had one of his “good days” he was apt to be impatient. And so she meant to do quickly what he wished and draw the coverlet over her ears, though people were still stirring outside. From a distance the shrill cries of maidens could be heard, and the hammering of scythes.

William listened also. He had now stood up. Craning his neck, so that the cords were tense and rigid, he remained motionless. His knees were bent, his underlip protruding. Only the eyes in his sombre countenance moved incessantly, peering in terror, like those of a hunted wild beast that itself is impatient to hunt its prey. The nostrils in his bull-dog face quivered, as if eager to catch a scent.

Through the deepening darkness of the room the old woman's mumbled prayer was heard:

          “Hail to thee, Mary, that art highly favored,
            The Lord is with thee,
            Blessed art thou among women
            And blessed is the fruit of thy——”

She stopped, thinking of her son. “William!” And when he did not come, she climbed out of bed again, and crept barefoot to him, and on the forehead of the man of forty made the sign of the cross as once she had done on the forehead of the boy of four, and contentedly crept back to bed. A moment later and she was sleeping in peace.

A strange smile passed over the gloomy face of her son: now she was asleep—now she was asleep—and now he was going—to light the fire in his furnaces—brr! he was cold—but soon he should be warm again—hi! when the sparks danced and the red glow spread, shooting out toward you as if to dry your marrow—hot, ever hotter—ha, who comes there, who wants to interfere?

Startled, he suddenly stood still, his features convulsed as if in pain.

A strong hand pressed the latch of the front door. The door was not locked; it opened, and out of the soft twilight of the mild summer night the constable and the chairman stepped into the seething darkness of the widow's cottage.

“Are you already asleep?” said the chairman, somewhat embarrassed. “Eh, Katie, excuse us! Do you hear?”

But the constable had already seized hold of him on whose account they came, and had held him motionless with a firm fist accustomed to overcoming resistance.

Will Stoker did not offer to struggle; he cowed there, his head drooping between his shoulders. All he did was to utter a peevish cry, as children do when rudely awakened from sleep.

The old woman, who had not been aroused by the loud call of the chairman, woke up now immediately and sat up in bed.

“William, where are you? What is the matter, William?”

“He is here—don't get excited,” said the chairman, groping his way to the hearth and stirring the embers till they blazed up and lighted the room. “Katie, be sensible, make no disturbance! William here we are going to take away with us for a while—he is—he must—he—”

“Take away William—where, I should like to know?” The woman stopped short. “William?—no indeed, he stays here,” she said in a decided tone, and reached for her skirts on the stool by the bedside.

“Remain where you are, stay in bed! Pst!—”

The chairman was about to cover the woman's mouth with his hand; but she had seen the gleam of brass buttons on the uniform, and in senseless fear of the constable had uttered a piercing shriek. With both feet she leaped out of bed and now stood trembling before the two men.

What did they want here? And in the dead of night! In a stupor of horror her eyes wandered from one to the other. Then she saw the iron grip in which the constable held her William. What—what had her William done? Nothing! They must let him go, let him go at once!

Screaming reproaches she made up to the constable; but he rudely brushed her to one side.

“Hold your tongue, woman,” he said curtly, “do not get yourself into trouble. Forward, march!”

With a prod in the back he urged his prisoner on. But the old lady seized the skirts of his coat and held him fast with unlooked-for strength.

“William, William,” she cried at the top of her lungs, “What has he done, what can he have done? Constable, oh, leave him here; in all his life he has never done anything wrong; he always goes straight to bed; he does not drink, he never quarrels, he is always peaceable—oh, do him no harm! Jesus, Mary, constable, dear constable, do the child no harm!”

Her teeth chattered in fear and sobbing; she had let go the uniform and tried now to release her son from the iron grasp. She probably did not herself know that she was hitting and scratching.

The constable had no little difficulty in shaking off the woman, especially when the prisoner, incited by the example of his mother, also began to offer resistance. But finally a vigorous push disposed of the old woman, and handcuffs, taken in a twinkling from his pocket, fettered the culprit.

“To jail?—” The woman's outcry echoed from the dingy walls. She lay on her knees and wrung her hands. “Nicholas, Nicholas, constable, God in heaven, what has he done? I swear he is as innocent as a new-born babe! He never cuts grass in other people's fields, he tears off no branches in the wood—he never climbed the fence to steal the pastor's apples—believe me, believe me, by my eternal salvation, he is a good boy! He always sent me coffee and sugar, and a black apron to wear to church on Sunday, and he had his photograph taken for his mother, and every year he came to spend one day with me. Oh, he is so good, believe me every word! I will die on the spot if I am not telling the simple truth. Nicholas”—she turned beseechingly to the chairman—“Nicholas, you have known me all the days of my life. Have I ever told you a lie? Help me! Let him stay here!” She made a motion as if to embrace his knees.

“Do not be too hasty, Katie,” murmured the chairman as he drew back. “Your William will soon be coming home again; it is only that he may prove that he—hm—” In embarrassment he tried to avoid the woman's anxiously penetrating look. “Hm, in order that we may find out—in short, that it was not he who lighted all these fires.”

“Fires? He—lighted the fire?” Utterly nonplussed the woman glared at her own hearth. “No, I have always lighted the fire myself!”

“Nonsense!” The constable was becoming impatient; the idea had been to arrest the fellow without further ado, and now the tumult had lasted so long that soon the whole street would swarm with curious spectators. “Stupid woman, we are not talking about that fire. He has been setting fires, the scalawag! Forward now, march!”

William had been setting fires? The old woman lifted her hands in amazement. It could be believed that her William had set fires!

“Jesus, Mary!” she made the sign of the cross and folded her hands. “A sin!” Why, that was a crime! Her William a criminal? That was almost enough to make you laugh! “Ha, ha!” She laughed convulsively: “No, constable, William never does anything of that kind.”

“Come along,” said the constable, shoving William out of the door. “We shall find out about that. If the fellow has not done it, they will send him back home again before very long!”

Indeed they would! Of this she was quite certain.

                     * * * * * *

But William did not come as soon as Widow Driesch had expected. Four times she had already been at the chairman's house to find out about it, and on the street and in the fields she shouted after him, “Hey, Nicholas, when is William coming home?”

But he too could tell her nothing. He only shrugged, and consoled her, when he saw her anxious face and expectant eyes, with the unvarying words, “Do not be so hasty, Katie, he will soon come back!”

Meanwhile four weeks had come and gone. From the grove of fir-trees near the village went forth an extraordinary odor of pitch; slow-running, amber colored streaks had oozed from the shaggy trunks; every drop of moisture seemed to have evaporated from the trees. In the stillness of the August afternoon one could hear the falling of needles and the crackling of twigs and branches. The sun had glowed too ardently overhead.

A mealy odor came from the fields; the grain had been cut. It lay in swathes on the ground; the women gathered, the men bound it into sheaves, and the children, who now were at liberty to pass by the closed door of the schoolhouse, ran about over the stubble and collected the stray ears. The hammering of scythes after the day's work was done, this monotonous village music, had ceased; in its stead could now be heard by day the creaking of ox carts over the hardened clayey road, while cries of “gee,” “haw” and the cracking of whips woke the echoes in the glimmering air above the fields.

All the people were in the fields—all but Katherine Driesch; she had no harvest to gather. Quietly she sat in her cottage and heard, when the rumble of the outgoing wagons had died away, nothing but the buzzing of flies and the crackling of the brush-fire on her hearth. She kept the fire going as always; for when he came home she wished him to find things to his liking. And as she sat there, her idle hands in her lap—she could not work; what should she do, why should she do anything?—he was not there—the thoughts passed through her mind, merciful heaven, what if they did something to William! How long were they going to keep him in jail? She no longer put faith in Nicholas—he was deceiving her, in spite of his gray hair. He avoided her; yesterday evening she had plainly seen it.

She had run up to him as he was striding home in front of his loaded harvest wagon with his pitchfork over his shoulder.

“When is William coming home?”

But he had turned his head and said something about the weather to Matt, his son, who was walking behind him.

“Hi, Nicholas!” Was he deaf? She had seized him by the bosom of his shirt and shouted into his face, “When is he coming?” He must have heard!

But instead of giving any answer he had grown angry. “Let me alone!” And had lashed his oxen which, head down under the yoke, were toiling and panting along; “Hey, you beasts, get up, get up!” Then quickening his pace, he had passed on with his son and his farm-hand, and his little grandson high up on the sheaves of golden grain.

And she had stood there unanswered and had stared like a simpleton at the bits of white foam which had dripped from the mouths of the laboring oxen.

Why had Nicholas not stayed to answer her question? All night she could not sleep for wondering; and though she had been diligent in prayer, she had been able to find no peace. In the old days Nicholas had been glad to exchange greetings with her—he never had passed her by! Like a flash it dawned upon her that other people too avoided her! Her neighbor on the left, Joseph Heid, whose house leaned so close upon hers that the two seemed to be but one, used never to see her weed her garden or water her cabbage without having a little chat with her. And her neighbor on the right, Mrs. Schneider, a widow like herself, who needed but to reach out in order to tap on her window, had not knocked at her door for days. What ailed them? She was not conscious of any unfriendliness, nor had she started any gossip. Could it be because of William? Mercy, the poor boy; what did they have against him? He had tended the cattle so carefully; he was fond of every cow, and if a little pig grew weary, he brought it home in his arms. They would not find another shepherd so good as he. Now the poor creatures had to remain in the stuffy stable; nobody found time, during the harvest, to drive them out into the fresh air. Oh, they would see at last how much William was worth to them! But that is the way they had always been: if any one has been a great while out in the world, he is no longer one of us—and as to William, who was more peculiar than any of them, him they all looked at askance. May be that they envied him the money which he drew as a pension, like a retired gentleman; perhaps they even begrudged his having got in addition the post of village herdsman. It was such a fine living for them both. Now they did not need, as they were growing old, to go out working by the day as they formerly had done—ah, me! how fortunate she was in her William! Other men of his age are long since married and have children; but she had her son all to herself!

In the quiet of her loneliness the mother recalled to mind all the days of their life together. There had not been much talk between them, William was taciturn; but at times, when the cruel headaches tormented him, he had leaned his head against her like a helpless child, and she had stroked his forehead gently, very gently, and he had purred like a cat in response. That had been such a happy time! Oh, if he were only there once more!

An overpowering impulse forced her to fall upon her knees here as though she were in church and vow to the Holy Mother on the supreme throne a candle of white wax, if she would restore her her son. In the midst of tears which, without her knowing it, coursed down her wrinkled cheeks, she promised, “I vow to thee a candle for thy altar, Mary, Mother of Mercy! I will light for thee a candle which shall burn so brightly, shall flame so high! Saint Mary, Mother of God, hear my prayer for thy Son's sake, for thy Son's sake!”

Fervently she repeated this supplication many times.

During the following night she thought she heard his footstep. She started up, her heart beating violently. But the footsteps did not stop at her door, they passed by; it was probably some one going home late from the tavern. Alas! nobody came to her house, and a nameless longing arose in her to creep on her hands and knees until she came where her son was.

Where was he? In jail! This was what the Schneider woman had screamed at her when she could no longer endure her loneliness and had knocked at the house next door. In jail—yes, she knew that; but what was he there for, what was he doing there so long? Neighbor Schneider had not known that either—or was she perhaps unwilling to tell? And why was he there? Well, the neighbor had made no answer to this question, but she had struck up a great lamentation about the evil world and wicked people, and had repeatedly crossed herself. “God preserve us, God keep us, Holy Mother, pray for us—such a fellow, such a monster!” And then she had sighed, “Katie, I must say I am sorry for you—heigho, such a trial!”

There had been no comfort to be got from Mrs. Schneider; on the contrary, since Katherine had knocked at her door a still more consuming agitation had come over her. She trotted back and forth in her room, from the bed to the bench, from the bench to the clothes press, from the clothes press to the hearth; she picked up now this thing and now that, first the pail, then the bowl, then the knife, then the spoon—all to no end and purpose. Back in the stall the forgotten goat bleated piteously. In the midst of her trotting the woman then stopped suddenly and took her head in her hands; but she did not remember the forgotten goat—what, what had neighbor Schneider said? “I must say I am sorry for you”—and “Such a fellow, such a monster”—whom did she mean? Who was a “fellow,” who was a monster? It was to be hoped she did not mean her William! Oho! In the meek eyes of the old lady there began to be a gleam; she clenched her fist and beat at the wall of the room, so that the woman next door might hear, and reviled her the while, “Impudent jade, liar!”

No, her son was not a “fellow” and he was not a monster either. The thought of him appeased her wrath but did not suffice to banish her agitation. If she only knew why he did not come home for so long! Oh, if he were only here now, to taste of the good food which daily she cooked afresh for him, and which the cat then devoured because he still failed to come. She herself subsisted on coffee; she could not swallow a single morsel of food; her throat was as though strangled with cords. And her breast was weighed down as with a rock—there was no longer any means by which she could roll this away.

In former years she had rejoiced with the others when, heavy laden with the harvest, the carts had reeled past her cottage; when, without mishap, the neighbors had housed the corn, ripe and dry. Now, for all she cared, the heavens might have yawned wide and belched water without end, till everything had been beaten down as with sledge hammers! She had used every morning to go to mass and had diligently prayed for divine protection against flood. Now the thunder might crash and the lightning strike and hailstones come rattling down as big as hen's eggs—why did not William come?

There was this year a blessed harvest. The people of the Eifel had never before had such a quantity of dead-ripe grain dry in their barns. If the good weather would only hold out a little longer! In two days the last load would be safely garnered.

The village was glad, all of the two hundred souls rejoiced, man and woman, boy and girl. Even the little children cooed with pleasure on the turf by the side of the grain fields where their mothers had left them in the shade of a chance bush, along with the jug and the tin dinner pail, while they industriously helped their husbands. Even in the weary evening the harmonica resounded and maidens laughed around the well.

Everywhere Widow Driesch heard people talking about the good season. She was now impelled to go out on the street. Where two or three were gathered together she drew near—were they talking of William? Oh, no! Disappointed she retreated, only to continue, passing restlessly along the row of cottages and pricking up her ears in the direction of the little windows. Laughter within and the rattle of dishes, the deep voices of men, chatter of women, and the cries of children. But about William she heard nothing. Her eyes, which found no more sleep, were growing dull and red and beclouded. The neighbors and the village and all familiar things seemed removed to a great distance from her. The only thing that she clearly perceived was the road along which her son would soon be coming—yes, must certainly come!

The women followed her with sympathetic eyes when she carried her bucket to the well, her spare form bent, her gray hair protruding in disorder from under her cap. But she now shyly avoided the half curious, half compassionate greetings—what did these women mean by their stupid peeping? No, she needed now no human companion, she did not ask for a word from anybody—she wanted her son to come back, she craved to have him with her again. Defiantly and painfully she closed her lips tight and kept back the question that in spite of her continually demanded utterance. Why ask? Even the Holy One before whose altar she rubbed the pavement with her brow gave her no answer, and there was only one answer for which she yearned.—

On Sunday evening sounds of merriment pealed forth from the tavern. The men of the village were inside. Too bad that a Sunday had intervened, otherwise they might have harvested the last load. Now they must on the morrow go out once more into the fields. But—all hands on deck! Women, the older children too, even the old men must not shirk tomorrow, and then, hurrah! it would be all over for this year!

In the street the children were playing. They had established themselves right in front of Widow Driesch's house; the two flagstones that served as steps to the front door were so convenient for playing jackstones, or only to sit on, with the hands about the bent knees and the nose uplifted, while you yelled to the insects swarming in the warm air:

                 “Come, linnet, come,
                  Come beat my drum!”

Old Katherine kept her door and window tightly closed; the children's noise was painful to her. She sat by the hearth, with her head swathed in a thick kerchief; but she heard the cries nevertheless.

                 “Come, linnet, come!”

“William, come!” Lifting up both arms, she stretched her trembling fingers beseechingly on high. He had not come today either. Jesus, Mary, where could he be staying so long? Of yore he had stayed away much longer, a whole year, years at a time, and she had never so longed to see him—then he had been well off, she knew—but now, how was it with him now? A frightful uncertainty tormented her. She had never seen a jail, and of the young men hereabouts nobody had ever been in one. Did he get enough to eat there; did they keep him warm? Who stroked his brow when he had a headache?

                 “Come, linnet, come!”

The children's singsong caused her almost physical pain. Hobbling to the window, she opened it so violently that it nearly fell from its warped frame, and cried out, “Get away from here, go along,” and threatened with clenched fist.

The children were abashed; they had not been accustomed to being driven away from here. The littlest began to weep; but Heid's Peterkin from next door, feeling safe in the proximity of his father's house, stuck out his tongue and yelled, as he retired toward the paternal door, “Incendiary, incendiary, your William is an incendiary, they are going to hang him!”

“Ow, they're going to hang him,” howled the chorus and scattered on all sides.

The woman stood speechless; with her threatening hand still raised she remained by the window. “Incendiary—incendiary—they are going to hang him”—resounded in her ears. Hang him? She shuddered at the thought. They surely would not do anything to hurt William? Incendiary—he was no incendiary! It was ridiculous—children's nonsense! But suddenly mortal terror seized her: had not the constable, when he arrested William, also said something about “fires?” She had thought no more about it, but now it occurred to her—“He has been setting fires, the scalawag”—really, it was ridiculous!

“Hahahahaha!” She laughed—an insane laughter, while she leaned far out of the window and held her aching sides.

Then she shut the window; it was time to go to bed. But she was afraid in the boundless solitude of her room—afraid of what?—She did not know, herself. What if she should call upon her neighbor to the left? She had the most confidence in Heid—he was a solid man, he had also been out in the world, he had got as far as Manderscheid and Daun. She would ask him what his Peter had meant by the words “incendiary” and “hang.”

With heavy steps the old woman dragged herself from her back door into her little garden. She stamped her way through the potato patch which lay along the fence, heedless whether or not she snapped asunder any of the blossoming sprays.

“Hi, Joseph, pst!”

“Well, what's the matter?” Heid had just been feeding his cows. In his shirt-sleeves he came from the stable, still wearing the gay-colored cravat and the starched collar that he had put on to go to the tavern. “Well, what do you want?” The tone of his question did not sound very inviting.

But she paid no attention to this. Leaning both arms on the fence, she bent over, so as to come quite close to him. And in confidence she spoke, in a low tone, as though she feared the potato vines at her feet and the beans in her neighbor's garden might hear the words, “Say, Joseph,—incendiary—what does that mean? And hang—are people still hanged now-a-days?”

“Why do you ask?” He looked at her in surprise.

“Well, your Peterkin says that William—William—” once more the vague apprehension of something incomprehensibly horrible came over her, so that she could hardly utter the words—“he says that William, my William is going to be hanged! Oh, tell me,”—despairingly she seized the man's hands—“Tell me, when is he coming back? They aren't going to hurt him, are they?”

“Hm, well”—Joseph Heid rubbed his nose and scratched himself behind the ears—“one cannot say for certain. William is now detained on suspicion and the case is being investigated. They will soon prove that he set the fires.”

“What fires?” She opened her eyes wide.

“Why, the fires here in the village! There was a continual series of fires, now here, now there—oh, don't act as though you did not know that!—and since your William has been in jail, there are no more, not a single one. That is very suspicious!”

“Suspicious—suspicious!” she stammered.

“Yes, say yourself, is it not? Listen! You will yourself be examined. And all of us, as witnesses. William did it, there is no doubt about that. Otherwise there would have been more fires long ago. Good evening!”

He left her standing there and, hopping over the garden beds, he made a few strides toward his house, glad to have got away from her.

She did not call after him; she spoke never a word. She stood as if overwhelmed, her hands clasping the fence post. A cold sweat ran down her body and she shivered in a frightful chill. Her son—her William—he was—they said he—what was it they said that he had done?

It was as though she had been struck a blow on the head; all at once she could not think clearly of anything. There was but one thing she knew: her William must come soon, come soon and shut the mouths of those slanderers!

Groaning she tottered to her cottage. Inside it was now quite dark; only the glow on the hearth cast a few feeble rays. The black cat purred. She took him in her lap and stroked him until sparks snapped in his fur. He purred louder and louder, like a spinning wheel—the wheel was whirring in her own head.

It whirred and whirred: incendiary—her William was no incendiary—hanged—her William was not going to be hanged—the constable and Heid were asses—there had been fires in the village—since he had been gone there had been no more fires in the village—the case was being investigated, they will soon prove—no, her William was no incendiary, her William was not going to be hanged—the constable, Heid, the judges, they were all asses—no, her William was no incendiary—but how, how prove it?

With a shriek she started up. Her William was innocent, perfectly innocent; she, his mother, could take her oath to this! But who—who would believe her?

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, have mercy! I will light thee a candle—so bright, so tall!—He is innocent! Help, have mercy, Holy Mary, Mother, help!”

She babbled and sobbed and wrung her hands. On her knees she crept through the room and beat the floor with her brow. What should she do, how could she prove that her William was not he who had set the fires?

The night was flying, the cocks were already beginning to crow, soon the ruddy morning would be peering in at the window. What should she do, how should she help him?

“Holy Mary, that art highly favored, hail to thee! I vow thee—”

There had been fires in the village; now that William was in jail there were no more fires; but what if—Her eyes suddenly began to stare; drawing a deep breath, she unclasped her folded hands, her lips ceased to murmur, she seized hold of her head and turned herself about as if reeling, and became at once quite calm; through the gloom of her tortured brain there flashed an inspiration: what if, after all, there should be fires again?

                     * * * * * *

They were all far out in the fields. Even the old people and the children had gone out with the others. The children, dancing ahead of the wagons, stirring up the dust of the street, the old people plodding along after, the infant, or the loaf of bread and the jug of coffee in the dosser.

Only the appealing lowing of a cow that with full udder stood in the stall, the plaintive bleating of a goat that had been staked by the house, the furious grunting of a pig that longed to get out of the hot sty and roll on the ground, animated now and then the stillness of death that hung over the village.

It was not yet mid-day, but the sun was already very oppressive, its rays were actually heavy; they weighed down everything in the gardens: the climbing beans, the broad-leaved turnips, the grass turned to autumn yellow in the drought. The two closely built rows of houses blew hot air into each other's faces; they were like ovens. All of the timbers, which were of pine, the doors and window frames sweated pitch and, dry to the marrow, gaped in wide crannies. Now and then came a gust of wind; but it brought no refreshment, it merely stirred up the dust, and the air became closer than ever. Perfect harvest weather; the blue sky with a touch of gray from the dusty exhalations of the grain fields and a suggestion of dinginess from the hot breath of the steaming earth.

From the chimneys of the empty cottages no smoke was curling; today nobody came home to dinner, today nobody rested until evening, when the last load of grain should have been housed. Carefully the housewives had put out the fire on the hearth before they went to the fields, even pouring water on any embers that might still contain life.

There was smoke only at Widow Driesch's. She was the only woman at home, and she had a fire on her hearth, as always. A big fire. Was she baking cakes? Had her son come home and was that why there was such a cloud of smoke in her flue? Dense gray clouds poured from the chimney and settled heavily upon the roof. And now she opened the door, the back door by the side of which was the brush pile; Widow Driesch came out, in one hand a box of matches and in the other an oil can. Carefully she poured the last drop over the dry pile of brush, she scratched a match—hi, the whole box caught fire, she dropped it and a swift flame greedily lapped up the oil-soaked twigs.

With wide-open eyes the old woman stood by and saw them burn. The flame quickly climbed up the wall of the house—crash!—the back window burst from the heat. Miauing, the black cat jumped out and with singed fur sought safety in flight.

She too now went away, slowly, one step at a time, often stopping and looking back: would not the fire go out again? She began to feel anxious. Had she perhaps not carefully enough raked the great fire in the hearth out into the room and spread it about the floor? And covered it with straw and oil-soaked rags? All her woolen things, her black Sunday gown and the kerchief—a gift from her deceased husband—she had torn to bits for the purpose. Had she perhaps not put sufficient burning chips into the bed, among the feathers of the pillows that she had ripped open? Oh, yes! The bed was already burning like a torch when she had tottered out of the back door, half smothered, with eyes blinded by smoke. Oh, yes, she could rest easy on that score, the house would burn surely enough, there would be a flame that all the village could see!

Somewhat more rapidly she walked on. She intended to go up to the pasture. Up on the hill top she could best see how the fire rose higher and higher, how it caught the roof, which her late husband had thatched anew for the wedding; how it consumed the house that her grandfather in paradise had built in days of yore!

She only hoped that nobody would come home too soon, before the house was really burning, was burning like mad!

She still worried. Concealed by the grove of fir-trees, the village was now out of her sight. Was the house still burning, was it really still burning?

She ran and panted uphill. Up, up to the pasture! There she could see, there—

“Ah!” A long scream of insane delight arose tumultuously from her breast. There the village lay at her feet. A thick cloud of smoke had settled down upon it. But now, now—ah!—now there was a red flame shooting through the cloud! It divided, a whirlwind was blowing in it, fiery tongues stuck up, gigantic, joyously bright, and lapped to the right, and lapped to the left, and united, and flowed into one another, and grew longer and broader—became a fiery ribbon that unrolled more and more and speedily wound itself out as if from a spool.

With wide-staring eyes the woman gazed: Jesus, that was a fire—that was a fire!

It was a long while ago that Widow Driesch's cottage was the only one on fire. Dried by the drought and the ardent sun, the thatched roofs had been kindled like tinder. Now the cottages were burning, four, five. But as though this were not enough, the wind got behind and blew air into the flames. The conflagration swept down one whole side of the village; in ghostly haste the flames leaped from gable to gable. Like mats rolled together by a scrupulous hand, the thatched roofs curled up; first they sizzled, then they flared, but then—hi!—the ripe grain, every kernel a spark, exploded like powder and shot sheaves of fire into the air. A noisome exhalation mounted to the heavens and darkened the sky; from the stables came the desperate cries of the confined animals.

Katherine Driesch did not hear the wretched bellowing of the creatures dying in the flames. She did not hear the cries which suddenly like an alarm were wafted to her from far down in the fields. She did not hear the crashing of beams and walls—she merely saw. Saw, with triumphant eyes, a wild, undulating tempest of flame, a glow, gigantic, blotting out the sunshine with its redness, a torch, tall as a pine-tree, brandished by the wind and flaring up to heaven, up to the eternal throne of the Most Merciful.

The mother fell to her knees upon the pasture, upon the green grazing ground of the herds, and stretched wide her arms and clasped them together again, as though she were taking some one to her heart; and wept and laughed and raised her trembling hands high above her gray head and cried louder than the hundred voices of the on-rushing villagers—cried into the tumult of the bellowing beasts, into the crashing of the beams and the crackling of the flames:

“My William! Now he will come!”


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