A Night on the Borders of the Black Forest


Amelia B. Edwards

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A Night On The Borders Of The Black Forest

My story (if story it can be called, being an episode in my own early life) carries me back to a time when the world and I were better friends than we are likely, perhaps, ever to be again. I was young then. I had good health, good spirits, and tolerably good looks. I had lately come into a snug little patrimony, which I have long since dissipated; and I was in love, or fancied myself in love, with a charming coquette, who afterwards threw me over for a West-country baronet with seven thousand a year.

So much for myself. The subject is not one that I particularly care to dwell upon; but as I happen to be the hero of my own narrative, some sort of self-introduction is, I suppose, necessary.

To begin then—Time: seventeen years ago.

Hour:—three o’clock p.m., on a broiling, cloudless September afternoon.

Scene:—a long, straight, dusty road, bordered with young trees; a far-stretching, undulating plain, yellow for the most part with corn-stubble; singularly barren of wood and water; sprinkled here and there with vineyards, farmsteads, and hamlets; and bounded in the extreme distance by a low chain of purple hills.

Place—a certain dull, unfrequented district in the little kingdom of Würtemberg, about twelve miles north of Heilbronn, and six south-east of the Neckar.

Dramatis Personæ:—myself, tall, sunburnt, dusty; in grey suit, straw hat, knapsack and gaiters. In the distance, a broad-backed pedestrian wielding a long stick like an old English quarter-staff.

Now, not being sure that I took the right turning at the cross-roads a mile or two back, and having plodded on alone all day, I resolved to overtake this same pedestrian, and increased my pace accordingly. He, meanwhile, unconscious of the vicinity of another traveller, kept on at an easy “sling-trot,” his head well up, his staff swinging idly in his hand—a practised pedestrian, evidently, and one not easily out-walked through a long day.

I gained upon him, however, at every step, and could have passed him easily; but as I drew near he suddenly came to a halt, disencumbered himself of his wallet, and stretched himself at full length under a tree by the wayside.

I saw now that he was a fine, florid, handsome fellow of about twenty-eight or thirty years of age—a thorough German to look at; frank, smiling, blue-eyed; dressed in a light holland blouse and loose grey trousers, and wearing on his head a little crimson cap with a gold tassel, such as the students wear at Heidelberg university. He lifted it, with the customary “Guten Abend” as I came up, and when I stopped to speak, sprang to his feet with ready politeness, and remained standing.

“Niedersdorf, mein Herr?” said he, in answer to my inquiry. “About four miles farther on. You have but to keep straight forward.”

“Many thanks,” I said. “You were resting. I am sorry to have disturbed you.”

He put up his hand with a deprecating gesture.

“It is nothing,” he said. “I have walked far, and the day is warm.”

“I have only walked from Heilbronn, and yet I am tired. Pray don’t let me keep you standing.”

“Will you also sit, mein Herr?” he asked with a pleasant smile. “There is shade for both.”

So I sat down, and we fell into conversation. I began by offering him a cigar; but he pulled out his pipe—a great dangling German pipe, with a flexible tube and a painted china bowl like a small coffee-cup.

“A thousand thanks,” he said; “but I prefer this old pipe to all the cigars that ever came out of Havannah. It was given to me eight years ago, when I was a student; and my friend who gave it to me is dead.”

“You were at Heidelberg?” I said interrogatively.

“Yes; and Fritz (that was my friend) was at Heidelberg also. He was a wonderful fellow; a linguist, a mathematician, a botanist, a geologist. He was only five-and-twenty when the government appointed him naturalist to an African exploring party; and in Africa he died.”

“Such a man,” said I, “was a loss to the world.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied simply; “but a greater loss to me.”

To this I could answer nothing; and for some minutes we smoked in silence.

“I was not clever like Fritz,” he went on presently. “When I left Heidelberg, I went into business, I am a brewer, and I live at Stuttgart. My name is Gustav Bergheim—what is yours?”

“Hamilton,” I replied; “Chandos Hamilton.”

He repeated the name after me.

“You are an Englishman?” he said.

I nodded.

“Good. I like the English. There was an Englishman at Heidelberg—such a good fellow! his name was Smith. Do you know him?”

I explained that, in these fortunate islands, there were probably some thirty thousand persons named Smith, of whom, however, I did not know one.

“And are you a milord, and a Member of Parliament?”

I laughed, and shook my head.

“No, indeed,” I replied; “neither. I read for the bar; but I do not practise. I am an idle man—of very little use to myself, and of none to my country.”

“You are travelling for your amusement?”

“I am. I have just been through the Tyrol and as far as the Italian lakes—on foot, as you see me. But tell me about yourself. That is far more interesting.”

“About myself?” he said smiling. “Ah, mein Herr, there is not much to tell. I have told you that I live at Stuttgart. Well, at this time of the year, I allow myself a few weeks’ holiday, and I am now on my way to Frankfort, to see my Mädchen, who lives there with her parents.”

“Then I may congratulate you on the certainty of a pleasant time.”

“Indeed, yes. We love each other well, my Mädchen and I. Her name is Frederika, and her father is a rich banker and wine merchant. They live in the Neue Mainzer Strasse near the Taunus Gate; but the Herr Hamilton does not, perhaps, know Frankfort?”

I replied that I knew Frankfort very well, and that the Neue Mainzer Strasse was, to my thinking, the pleasantest situation in the city. And then I ventured to ask if the Fräulein Frederika was pretty.

I think her so,” he said with his boyish smile; “but then, you see, my eyes are in love. You shall judge, however, for yourself.”

And with this, he disengaged a locket from his watch-chain, opened it, and showed me the portrait of a golden-haired girl, who, without being actually handsome, had a face as pleasant to look upon as his own.

“Well?” he said anxiously. “What do you say?”

“I say that she has a charming expression,” I replied.

“But you do not think her pretty?”

“Nay, she is better than pretty. She has the beauty of real goodness.”

His face glowed with pleasure.

“It is true,” he said, kissing the portrait, and replacing it upon his chain. “She is an angel! We are to be married in the Spring.”

Just at this moment, a sturdy peasant came trudging up from the direction of Niedersdorf, under the shade of a huge red cotton umbrella. He had taken his coat off; probably for coolness, or it might be for economy, and was carrying it, neatly folded up, in a large, new wooden bucket. He saluted us with the usual “Guten Abend” as he approached.

To which Bergheim laughingly replied by asking if the bucket was a love-token from his sweetheart.

“Nein, nein,” he answered stolidly; “I bought it at the Kermess [A fair] up yonder.”

“So! there is a Kermess at Niedersdorf?”

“Ach, Himmel!—a famous Kermess. All the world is there today.”

And with a nod, he passed on his way.

My new friend indulged in a long and dismal whistle.

“Der Teufel!” he said, “this is awkward. I’ll be bound, now, there won’t be a vacant room at any inn in the town. And I had intended to sleep at Niedersdorf to-night. Had you?”

“Well, I should have been guided by circumstances. I should perhaps have put up at Niedersdorf, if I had found myself tired and the place comfortable; or I might have dined there, and after dinner taken some kind of light vehicle as far as Rotheskirche.”

“Rotheskirche!” he repeated. “Where is that?”

“It is a village on the Neckar. My guide-book mentions it as a good starting-point for pedestrians, and I am going to walk from there to Heidelberg.”

“But have you not been coming out of your way?”

“No; I have only taken a short cut inland, and avoided the dull part of the river. You know the Neckar, of course?”

“Only as far as Neckargemünd; but I have heard that higher up it is almost as fine as the Rhine.”

“Hadn’t you better join me?” I said, as we adjusted our knapsacks and prepared to resume our journey.

He shook his head, smiling.

“Nay,” he replied, “my route leads me by Buchen and Darmstadt. I have no business to go round by Heidelberg.”

“It would be worth the détour.”

“Ah, yes; but it would throw me two days later.”

“Not if you made up for lost time by taking the train from Heidelberg.”

He hesitated.

“I should like it,” he said.

“Then why not do it?”

“Well—yes—I will do it. I will go with you. There! let us shake hands on it, and be friends.”

So we shook hands, and it was settled.

The shadows were now beginning to lengthen; but the sun still blazed in the heavens with unabated intensity. Bergheim, however, strode on as lightly, and chatted as gaily, as if his day’s work was only just beginning. Never was there so simple, so open-hearted a fellow. He wore his heart literally upon his sleeve, and, as we went along, told me all his little history; how, for instance, his elder sister, having been betrothed to his friend Fritz, had kept single ever since for his sake; how he was himself an only son, and the idol of his mother, now a widow; how he had resolved never to leave either her or his maiden sister; but intended when he married to take a larger house, and bring his wife into their common home; how Frederika’s father had at first opposed their engagement for that reason; how Frederika (being, as he had already said, an angel) had won the father’s consent last New Year’s Day; and how happy he was now; and how happy they should be in the good time coming; together with much more to the same effect.

To all this I listened, and smiled, and assented, putting in a word here and there, as occasion offered, and encouraging him to talk on to his heart’s content.

And now with every mile that brought us nearer to Niedersdorf, the signs of fair-time increased and multiplied. First came straggling groups of homeward-bound peasants—old men and women tottering under the burden of newly-purchased household goods; little children laden with gingerbread and toys; young men and women in their holiday-best—the latter with garlands of oak-leaves bound about their hats. Then came an open cart full of laughing girls; then more pedestrians; then an old man driving a particularly unwilling pig; then a roystering party of foot-soldiers; and so on, till not only the road, but the fields on either side and every path in sight, swarmed with a double stream of wayfarers—the one coming from the fair—the other setting towards it.

Presently, through the clouds of dust and tobacco-smoke that fouled the air, a steeple and cottages became visible; and then, quite suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst of the fair.

Here a compact, noisy, smoking, staring, laughing, steaming crowd circulated among the booths; some pushing one way, some another—some intent on buying—some on eating and drinking—some on love-making and dancing. In one place we came upon rows of little open stalls for the sale of every commodity under heaven. In another, we peeped into a great restaurant-booth full of country folks demolishing pyramids of German sausage and seas of Bairisch beer. Yonder, on a raised stage in front of a temporary theatre, strutted a party of strolling players in their gaudy tinsels and ballet-dresses. The noise, the smells, the elbowing, the braying of brass bands, the insufferable heat and clamour, made us glad to push our way through as fast as possible, and take refuge in the village inn. But even here we could scarcely get a moment’s attention. There were parties dining and drinking in every room in the house—even in the bedrooms; while the passages, the bar, and the little gardens, front and back, were all full of soldiers, freeshooters, and farmers.

Having with difficulty succeeded in capturing a couple of platters of bread and meat and a measure of beer, we went round to the stable-yard, which was crowded with charrettes, ein-spänner, and country carts of all kinds. The drivers of some of these were asleep in their vehicles; others were gambling for kreutzers on the ground; none were willing to put their horses to for the purpose of driving us to Rotheskirche-on-the-Neckar.

“Ach, Herr Gott!” said one, “I brought my folks from Frühlingsfeld—near upon ten stunden—and shall have to take them back by and by. That’s as much as my beasts can do in one day, and they shouldn’t do more for the king!”

“I’ve just refused five florins to go less than half that distance,” said another.

At length one fellow, being somewhat less impracticable than the rest, consented to drive us as far as a certain point where four roads met, on condition that we shared his vehicle with two other travellers, and that the two other travellers consented to let us do so.

“And even so,” he added, “I shall have to take them two miles out of their way—but, perhaps, being fair-time, they won’t mind that.”

As it happened, they were not in a condition to mind that or anything very much, being a couple of freeshooters from the Black Forest, wild with fun and frolic, and somewhat the worse for many potations of Lager-bier. One of them, it seemed, had won a prize at some shooting-match that same morning, and they had been celebrating this triumph all day. Having kept us waiting, with the horses in, for at least three-quarters of an hour, they came, escorted by a troop of their comrades, all laughing, talking, and wound up to the highest pitch of excitement. Then followed a scene of last health-drinkings, last hand-shakings, last embracements. Finally, we drove off just as it was getting dusk, followed by many huzzahs, and much waving of grey and green caps.

For the first quarter of an hour they were both very noisy, exchanging boisterous greetings with every passer-by, singing snatches of songs, and laughing incessantly. Then, as the dusk deepened and we left the last stragglers behind, they sank into a tipsy stupor, and ended by falling fast asleep.

Meanwhile, the driver lit his pipe and let his tired horses choose their own pace; the stars came out one by one overhead; and the road, leaving the dead level of the plain, wound upwards through a district that became more hilly with every mile.

Then I also fell asleep—I cannot tell for how long—to be waked by-and-by by the stopping of the charrette, and the voice of the driver, saying:—

“This is the nearest point to which I can take these Herren. Will they be pleased to alight?”

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. It was bright starlight. Bergheim was already leaning out, and opening the door. Our fellow-travellers were still sound asleep. We were in the midst of a wild, hilly country, black with bristling pine-woods; and had drawn up at an elevated point where four roads meet.

“Which of these are we to take?” asked Bergheim, as he pulled out his purse and counted the stipulated number of florins into the palm of the driver.

The man pointed with his whip in a direction at right angles to the road by which he was himself driving.

“And how far shall we have to walk?”

“To Rotheskirche?”

“Yes—to Rotheskirche.”

He grunted doubtfully. “Ugh!” he said, “I can’t be certain to a mile or so. It may be twelve or fourteen.”

“A good road?”

“Yes—a good road; but hilly. These Herren have only to keep straight forward. They cannot miss the way.”

And so he drives off, and leaves us standing in the road. The moon is now rising behind a slope of dark trees—the air is chill—an owl close by utters its tremulous, melancholy cry. Place and hour considered, the prospect of twelve or fourteen miles of a strange road, in a strange country, is anything but exhilarating. We push on, however, briskly; and Bergheim, whose good spirits are invincible, whistles and chatters, and laughs away as gaily as if we were just starting on a brilliant May morning.

“I wonder if you were ever tired in your life!” I exclaim by and by, half peevishly.

“Tired!” he echoes. “Why, I am as tired at this moment as a dog; and would gladly lie down by the roadside, curl myself up under a tree, and sleep till morning. I wonder, by the way, what o’clock it is.”

I pulled out my fusee-box, struck a light, and looked at my watch. It was only ten o’clock.

“We have been walking,” said Bergheim, “about half an hour, and I don’t believe we have done two miles in the time. Well, it can’t go on uphill like this all the way!”

“Impossible,” I replied. “Rotheskirche is on the level of the river. We must sooner or later begin descending towards the valley of the Neckar.”

“I wish it might be sooner, then,” laughed my companion, “for I had done a good twenty miles today before you overtook me.”

“Well, perhaps we may come upon some place half way. If so, I vote that we put up for the night, and leave Rotheskirche till the morning.”

“Ay, that would be capital!” said he. “If it wasn’t that I am as hungry as a wolf, I wouldn’t say no to the hut of a charcoal-burner to-night.”

And now, plodding on more and more silently as our fatigue increased, we found the pine-forests gradually drawing nearer, till by and by they enclosed us on every side, and our road lay through the midst of them. Here in the wood, all was dark—all was silent—not a breath stirred. The moon was rising fast; but the shadows of the pines lay long and dense upon the road, with only a sharp silvery patch breaking through here and there. By and by we came upon a broad space of clearing, dotted over with stacks of brushwood and great symmetrical piles of barked trunks. Then followed another tract of close forest. Then our road suddenly emerged into the full moonlight, and sometimes descending abruptly, sometimes keeping at a dead level for half a mile together, continued to skirt the forest on the left.

“I see a group of buildings down yonder,” said Bergheim, pointing to a spot deep in the shadow of the hillside.

I could see nothing resembling buildings, but he stuck to his opinion.

“That they are buildings,” he said, “I am positive. More I cannot tell by this uncertain light. It may be a mere cluster of cottages, or it may be a farmhouse, with stacks and sheds close by. I think it is the latter.”

Animated by this hope, we now pushed on more rapidly. For some minutes our road carried us out of sight of the spot; but when we next saw it, a long, low, white-fronted house and some other smaller buildings were distinctly visible.

“A mountain farmstead, by all the gods of Olympus!” exclaimed Bergheim, joyously. “This is good fortune! And they are not gone to bed yet, either.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because I saw a light.”

“But suppose they do not wish to take us in?” I suggested.

“Suppose an impossibility! Who ever heard of inhospitality among our Black Forest folk?”

“Black Forest!” I repeated. “Do you call this the Black Forest?”

“Undoubtedly. All these wooded hills south of Heidelberg and the Odenwald are outlying spurs and patches of the old legendary Schwarzwald—now dwindling year by year. Hark! the dogs have found us out already!”

As he spoke, a dog barked loudly in the direction of the farm; and then another, and another. Bergheim answered them with a shout. Suddenly a bright light flashed across the darkness—flitted vaguely for a moment to and fro, and then came steadily towards us; resolving itself presently into a lanthorn carried by a man.

We hurried eagerly to meet him—at all, square-built, heavy-browed peasant, about forty years of age.

“Who goes there?” he said, holding the lanthorn high above his head, and shading his eyes with his hand.

“Travellers,” replied my companion. “Travellers wanting food and shelter for the night.”

The man looked at us for a moment in silence.

“You travel late,” he said, at length.

“Ay—and we must have gone on still later, if we had not come upon your house. We were bound for Rotheskirche. Can you take us in.”

“Yes,” he said sullenly. “I suppose so. This way.”

And, swinging the lanthorn as he went, he turned on his heel abruptly, and led the way back to the house.

“A boorish fellow enough!” said I, as we followed.

“Nay—a mere peasant!” replied Bergheim. “A mere peasant—rough, but kindly.”

As we drew near the house, two large mastiff pups came rushing out from a yard somewhere at the back, and a huge, tawny dog chained up in an open shed close by, strained at his collar and yelled savagely.

“Down, Caspar! Down, Schwartz!” growled our conductor, with an oath.

And immediately the pups slunk back into the yard, and the dog in the shed dropped into a low snarl, eyeing us fiercely as we passed.

The house-door opened straight upon a large, low, raftered kitchen, with a cavernous fire-place at the further end, flanked on each side by a high-backed settle. The settles, the long table in the middle of the room, the stools and chairs ranged round the walls, the heavy beams overhead, from which hung strings of dried herbs, ropes of onions, hams, and the like, were all of old, dark oak. The ceiling was black with the smoke of at least a century. An oak dresser laden with rough blue and grey ware and rows of metal-lidded drinking mugs; an old blunderbuss and a horn-handled riding-whip over the chimney-piece; a couple of hatchets, a spade, and a fishing-rod behind the door; and a Swiss clock in the corner, completed the furniture of the room. A couple of half-charred logs smouldered on the hearth. An oil-lamp flared upon the middle of the table, at one corner of which sat two men with a stone jug and a couple of beer-mugs between them, playing at cards, and a third man looking on. The third man rose as we entered, and came forward. He was so like the one who had come out to meet us, that I saw at once they must be brothers.

“Two travellers,” said our conductor, setting down his lanthorn, and shutting the door behind us.

The players laid down their greasy cards to stare at us. The second brother, a trifle more civil than the first, asked if we wished for anything before going to bed.

Bergheim unslung his wallet, flung himself wearily into a corner of the settle, and said:—

“Heavens and earth! yes. We are almost starving. We have been on the road all day, and have had no regular dinner. Is this a farmhouse or an inn?”

“Both.”

“What have you in the house?”

“Ham—eggs—voorst—cheese—wine—beer—coffee.”

“Then bring us the best you have, and plenty of it, and as fast as you can. We’ll begin on the voorst and a bottle of your best wine, while the ham and eggs are frying; and we’ll have the coffee to finish.”

The man nodded; went to a door at the other end of the room—repeated the order to some one out of sight; and came back again, his hands in his pockets. The first brother, meanwhile, was lounging against the table, looking on at the players.

“It’s a long game,” he said.

“Ay—but it’s just ended,” replied one of the men, putting down his card with an air of triumph.

His adversary pondered, threw down his hand, and, with a round oath, owned himself beaten.

Then they divided the remaining contents of the stone jug, drained their mugs, and rose to go. The loser pulled out a handful of small coin, and paid the reckoning for both.

“We’ve sat late,” said he, with a glance at the clock. “Good night, Karl—good night, Friedrich.”

The first brother, whom I judged to be Karl, nodded sulkily. The second muttered a gruff sort of good night. The countrymen lit their pipes, took another long stare at Bergheim and myself, touched their hats, and went away.

The first brother, Karl, who was evidently the master, went out with them, shutting the door with a tremendous bang. The younger, Friedrich, cleared the board, opened a cupboard under the dresser, brought out a loaf of black bread, a lump of voorst, and part of a goat’s milk cheese, and then went to fetch the wine. Meanwhile we each drew a chair to the table, and fell to vigorously. When Friedrich returned with the wine, a pleasant smell of broiling ham came in with him through the door.

“You are hungry,” he said, looking down at us from under his black brows.

“Ay, and thirsty,” replied Gustav, reaching out his hand for the bottle. “Is your wine good?”

The man shrugged his shoulders.

“Drink and judge for yourself,” he answered. “It’s the best we have.”

“Then drink with us,” said my companion, good-humouredly, filling a glass and pushing it towards him across the table.

But he shook his head with an ungracious “Nein, nein,” and again left the room. The next moment we heard his heavy footfall going to and fro overhead.

“He is preparing our beds,” I said. “Are there no women, I wonder, about the place?”

“Well, yes—this looks like one,” laughed Bergheim, as the door leading to the inner kitchen again opened, and a big stolid-looking peasant girl came in with a smoking dish of ham and eggs, which she set down before us on the table. “Stop! stop!” he exclaimed, as she turned away. “Don’t be in such a hurry, my girl. What is your name?”

She stopped with a bewildered look, but said nothing. Bergheim repeated the question.

“My—my name?” she stammered. “Annchen.”

“Good. Then, Annchen” (filling a bumper and draining it at a draught), “I drink to thy health. Wilt thou drink to mine?” And he pointed to the glass poured out for the landlord’s brother.

But she only looked at him in the same scared, stupid way, and kept edging away towards the door.

“Let her go,” I said. “She is evidently half an idiot.”

“She’s no idiot to refuse that wine,” replied Bergheim, as the door closed after her. “It’s the most abominable mixture I ever put inside my lips. Have you tasted it?”

I had not tasted it as yet, and now I would not; so, the elder brother coming back just at that moment, we called for beer.

“Don’t you like the wine?” he said, scowling.

“No,” replied Bergheim. “Do you? If so you’re welcome to the rest of it.”

The landlord took up the bottle and held it between his eyes and the lamp.

“Bad as it is,” he said, “you’ve drunk half of it.”

“Not I—only one glass, thanks be to Bacchus! There stands the other. Let us have a Schoppen of your best beer—and I hope it will be better than your best wine.”

The landlord looked from Bergheim to the glass—from the glass to the bottle. He seemed to be measuring with his eye how much had really been drunk. Then he went to the inner door; called to Friedrich to bring a Schoppen of the Bairisch, and went away, shutting the door after him. From the sound of his footsteps, it seemed to us as if he also was gone upstairs, but into some more distant part of the house. Presently the younger brother reappeared with the beer, placed it before us in silence, and went away as before.

“The most forbidding, disagreeable, uncivil pair I ever saw in my life!” said I.

“They’re not fascinating, I admit,” said Bergheim, leaning back in his chair with the air of a man whose appetite is somewhat appeased. “I don’t know which is the worst—their wine or their manners.”

And then he yawned tremendously, and pushed out his plate, which I heaped afresh with ham and eggs. When he had swallowed a few mouthfuls, he leaned his head upon his hand, and declared he was too tired to eat more.

“And yet,” he added, “I am still hungry.”

“Nonsense!” I said; “eat enough now you are about it. How is the beer?”

He took a pull at the Schoppen.

“Capital,” he said. “Now I can go on again.”

The next instant he was nodding over his plate.

“I am ashamed to be so stupid,” he said, rousing himself presently; “but I am overpowered with fatigue. Let us have the coffee; it will wake me up a bit.”

But he had no sooner said this than his chin dropped on his breast, and he was sound asleep.

I did not call for the coffee immediately. I let him sleep, and went on quietly with my supper. Just as I had done, however, the brothers came back together, Friedrich bringing the coffee—two large cups on a tray. The elder, standing by the table, looked down at Bergheim with his unfriendly frown.

“Your friend is tired,” he said.

“Yes, he has walked far today—much farther than I have.”

“Humph! you will be glad to go to bed.”

“Indeed we shall. Are our rooms ready?”

“Yes.”

I took one of the cups, and put the other beside Bergheim’s plate.

“Here, Bergheim,” I said, “wake up; the coffee is waiting.”

But he slept on, and never heard me.

I then lifted my own cup to my lips—paused—set it down untasted. It had an odd, pungent smell that I did not like.

“What is the matter with it?” I said, “it does not smell like pure coffee.”

The brothers exchanged a rapid glance.

“It is the Kirschenwasser,” said Karl. “We always put it in our black coffee.”

I tasted it, but the flavour of the coffee was quite drowned in that of the coarse, fiery spirit.

“Do you not like it?” asked the younger brother.

“It is very strong,” I said.

“But it is very good,” replied he; “real Black Forest Kirsch—the best thing in the world, if one is tired after a journey. Drink it off, mein Herr; it is of no use to sip it. It will make you sleep.”

This was the longest speech either of them had yet made.

“Thanks,” I said, pulling out my cigar-case, “but this stuff is too powerful to be drunk at a draught. I shall make it last out a cigar or two.”

“And your friend?”

“He is better without the Kirsch, and may sleep till I am ready to go to bed.”

Again they looked at each other.

“You need not sit up,” I said impatiently; for it annoyed me, somehow, to have them standing there, one at each side of the table, alternately looking at me and at each other. “I will call the Mädchen to show us to our rooms when we are ready.”

“Good,” said the elder brother, after a moment’s hesitation. “Come, Friedrich.”

Friedrich turned at once to follow him, and they both left the room.

I listened. I heard them for awhile moving to and fro in the inner kitchen; then the sound of their double footsteps going up the stairs; then the murmur of their voices somewhere above, yet not exactly overhead; then silence.

I felt more comfortable, now that they were fairly gone, and not likely to return. I breathed more freely. I had disliked the brothers from the first. I had felt uneasy from the moment I crossed their threshold. Nothing, I told myself, should induce me at any time, or under any circumstances, to put up under their roof again.

Pondering thus, I smoked on, and took another sip of the coffee. It was not so hot now, and some of the strength of the spirit had gone off; but under the flavour of the Kirschenwasser I could (or fancied I could) detect another flavour, pungent and bitter—a flavour, in short, just corresponding to the smell that I had at first noticed.

This startled me. I scarcely knew why, but it did startle me, and somewhat unpleasantly. At the same instant I observed that Bergheim, in the heaviness and helplessness of sleep, had swayed over on one side, and was hanging very uncomfortably across one arm of his chair.

“Come, come,” I said, “wake up, Herr fellow-traveller. This sort of dozing will do you no good. Wake up, and come to bed.”

And with this I took him by the arm, and tried to rouse him. Then for the first time I observed that his face was deadly white—that his teeth were fast clenched—that his breathing was unnatural and laboured.

I sprang to my feet. I dragged him into an upright posture; I tore open his neckcloth; I was on the point of rushing to the door to call for help, when a suspicion—one of those terrible suspicions which are suspicion and conviction in one—flashed suddenly upon me.

The rejected glass of wine was still standing on the table. I smelt it—tasted it. My dread was confirmed. It had the same pungent odour, the same bitter flavour as the coffee.

In a moment I measured all the horror of my position; alone—unarmed—my unconscious fellow-traveller drugged and helpless on my hands—the murderers overhead, biding their time—the silence and darkness of night—the unfrequented road—the solitary house—the improbability of help from without—the imminence of the danger from within. . . . I saw it all! What could I do? Was there any way, any chance, any hope?

I turned cold and dizzy. I leaned against the table for support. Was I also drugged, and was my turn coming? I looked round for water, but there was none upon the table. I did not dare to touch the beer, lest it also should be doctored.

At that instant I heard a faint sound outside, like the creaking of a stair. My presence of mind had not as yet for a moment deserted me, and now my strength came back at the approach of danger. I cast a rapid glance round the room. There was the blunderbuss over the chimney-piece—there were the two hatchets in the corner. I moved a chair loudly, and hummed some snatches of songs.

They should know that I was awake—this might at least keep them off a little longer. The scraps of songs covered the sound of my footsteps as I stole across the room and secured the hatchets. One of these I laid before me on the table; the other I hid among the wood in the wood-basket beside the hearth-singing, as it were to myself; all the time.

Then I listened breathlessly.

All was silent.

Then I clinked my tea-spoon in my cup—feigned a long yawn—under cover of the yawn took down the blunderbuss from its hook—and listened again.

Still all was silent—silent as death—save only the loud ticking of the clock in the corner, and the heavy beating of my heart.

Then, after a few seconds that dragged past like hours, I distinctly heard a muffled tread stealing softly across the floor overhead, and another very faint retreating creak or two upon the stairs.

To examine the blunderbuss, find it loaded with a heavy charge of slugs, test the dryness of the powder, cock it, and place it ready for use beside the hatchet on the table, was but the work of a moment.

And now my course was taken. My spirits rose with the possession of a certain means of defence, and I prepared to sell my own life, and the life of the poor fellow beside me, as dearly as might be.

I must turn the kitchen into a fortress, and defend my fortress as long as defence was possible. If I could hold it till daylight came to my aid, bringing with it the chances of traffic, of passers-by, of farm-labourers coming to their daily work—then I felt we should be comparatively safe. If, however, I could not keep the enemy out so long, then I had another resource. . . . But of this there was no time to think at present. First of all, I must barricade my fortress.

The windows were already shuttered-up and barred on the inside. The key of the house-door was in the lock, and only needed turning. The heavy iron bolt, in like manner, had only to be shot into its place. To do this, however, would make too much noise just now. First and most important was the door communicating with the inner kitchen and the stairs. This, above all, I must secure; and this, as I found to my dismay, had no bolts or locks whatever on the inside—nothing but a clumsy wooden latch!

To pile against it every moveable in the room was my obvious course; but then it was one that, by the mere noise it must make, would at once alarm the enemy. No! I must secure that door—but secure it silently—at all events for the next few minutes.

Inspired by dread necessity, I became fertile in expedients. With a couple of iron forks snatched from the table, I pinned the latch down, forcing the prongs by sheer strength of hand deep into the woodwork of the door. This done, I tore down one of the old rusty bits from its nail above the mantel-shelf, and, linking it firmly over the thump-piece of the latch on one side, and over the clumsy catch on the other, I improvised a door-chain that would at least act as a momentary check in case the door was forced from without. Lastly, by means of some half-charred splinters from the hearth, I contrived to wedge up the bottom of the door in such a manner that, the more it was pushed inwards, the more firmly fixed it must become.

So far my work had been noiseless, but now the time was come when it could be so no longer. The house-door must be secured at all costs; and I knew beforehand that I could not move those heavy fastenings unheard. Nor did I. The key, despite all my efforts, grated loudly in the lock, and the bolt resisted the rusty staples. I got it in, however, and the next moment heard rapid footsteps overhead.

I knew now that the crisis was coming, and from this moment prepared for open resistance.

Regardless of noise, I dragged out first one heavy oaken settle, and then the other—placed them against the inner door—piled them with chairs, stools, firewood, every heavy thing I could lay hands upon—raked the slumbering embers, and threw more wood upon the hearth, so as to bar that avenue, if any attempt was made by way of the chimney—and hastily ransacked every drawer in the dresser, in the hope of finding something in the shape of ammunition.

Meanwhile, the brothers had taken alarm, and having tried the inner door, had now gone round to the front, where I heard them try first the house-door and then the windows.

“Open! open, I say!” shouted the elder—(I knew him by his voice). “What is the matter within?”

“The matter is that I choose to spend the night in this room,” I shouted in reply.

“It is a public room—you have no right to shut the doors!” he said, with a thundering blow upon the lock.

“Right or no right,” I answered, “I shoot dead the first man who forces his way in!”

There was a momentary silence, and I heard them muttering together outside.

I had by this time found, at the back of one of the drawers, a handful of small shot screwed up in a bit of newspaper, and a battered old powder-flask containing about three charges of powder. Little as it was, it helped to give me confidence.

Then the parleying began afresh.

“Once more, accursed Englishman will you open the door?”

“No.”

A torrent of savage oaths—then a pause.

“Force us to break it open, and it will be the worse for you!”

“Try.”

All this time I had been wrenching out the hooks from the dresser, and the nails, wherever I could find any, from the walls. Already I had enough to reload the blunderbuss three times, with my three charges of powder. If only Bergheim were himself now! . . .

I still heard the murmuring of the brothers’ voices outside—then the sound of their retreating footsteps—then an outburst of barking and yelping at the back, which showed they had let loose the dogs. Then all was silent.

Where were they gone? How would they begin the attack? In what way would it all end? I glanced at my watch. It was just twenty minutes past one. In two hours and at half, or three hours, it would be dawn. Three hours! Great Heavens! what an eternity!

I looked round to see if there was anything I could still do for defence; but it seemed to me that I had already done what little it was possible to do with the material at hand. I could only wait.

All at once I heard their footsteps in the house again. They were going rapidly to and fro overhead; then up and down the stairs; then overhead again; and presently I heard a couple of bolts shot, and apparently a heavy wooden bar put up, on the other side of the inner kitchen-door which I had just been at so much pains to barricade. This done, they seemed to go away. A distant door banged heavily; and again there was silence.

Five minutes, ten minutes, went by. Bergheim still slept heavily; but his breathing, I fancied, was less stertorous, and his countenance less rigid, than when I first discovered his condition. I had no water with which to bathe his head; but I rubbed his forehead and the palms of his hands with beer, and did what I could to keep his body upright.

Then I heard the enemy coming back to the front, slowly, and with heavy footfalls. They paused for a moment at the front door, seemed to set something down, and then retreated quickly. After an interval of about three minutes, they returned in the same way; stopped at the same place; and hurried off as before. This they did several times in succession. Listening with suspended breath and my ear against the keyhole, I distinctly heard them deposit some kind of burden each time—evidently a weighty burden, from the way in which they carried it; and yet, strange to say, one that, despite its weight, made scarcely any noise in the setting down.

Just at this moment, when all my senses were concentrated in the one act of listening, Bergheim stirred for the first time, and began muttering.

“The man!” he said, in a low, suppressed tone. “The man under the hearth!”

I flew to him at the first sound of his voice. He was recovering. Heaven be thanked, he was recovering! In a few minutes we should be two—two against two—right and might on our side—both ready for the defence of our lives!

“One man under the hearth,” he went on, in the same unnatural tone. “Four men at the bottom of the pond—all murdered—foully murdered!”

I had scarcely heeded his first words; but now, as their sense broke upon me, that great rush of exultation and thankfulness was suddenly arrested. My heart stood still; I trembled; I turned cold with horror.

Then the veins swelled on his forehead; his face became purple; and he struck out blindly, as one oppressed with some horrible nightmare.

“Blood!” he gasped. “Everywhere blood—don’t touch it. God’s vengeance—help!” . . .

And so, struggling violently in my arms, he opened his eyes, stared wildly round, and made an effort to get upon his feet.

“What is the matter?” he said, sinking back again, and trembling from head to foot. “Was I asleep?”

I rubbed his hands and forehead again with beer. I tasted it, and finding no ill flavour upon it, put a tiny drop to his lips.

“You are all right now,” I said. “You were very tired, and you fell asleep after supper. Don’t you remember?”

He put his hand to his head. “Ah, yes,” he said, “I remember. I have been dreaming”. . . .

He looked round the room in a bewildered way; then, struck all at once by the strange disorder of the furniture, asked what was the matter.

I told him in the least alarming way, and with the fewest words I could muster, but before I could get to the end of my explanation he was up, ready for resistance, and apparently himself again.

“Where are they?” he said. “What are they doing now? Outside, do you say? Why, good heavens! man, they’re blocking us in. Listen!—don’t you hear?—it is the rustling of straw. Bring the blunderbuss! quick!—to the window. . . . God grant we may not be too late!”

We both rushed to the window; Bergheim to undo the shutter, and I to shoot down the first man in sight.

“Look there!” he said, and pointed to the door.

A thin stream of smoke was oozing under the threshold and stealing upward in a filmy cloud that already dimmed the atmosphere of the room.

“They are going to burn us out!” I exclaimed.

“No, they are going to burn us alive,” replied Bergheim, between his clenched teeth. “We know too much, and they are determined to silence us at all costs, though they burn the house down over our heads. Now hold your breath, for I am going to open the window, and the smoke will rush in like a torrent.”

He opened it, but very little came in—for this reason, that the outside was densely blocked with straw, which had not yet ignited.

In a moment we had dragged the table under the window—put our weapons aside ready for use—and set to work to cut our way out.

Bergheim, standing on the table, wrenched away the straw in great armfuls. I caught it, and hurled it into the middle of the room. We laboured at the work like giants. In a few moments the pile had mounted to the height of the table. Then Bergheim cried out that the straw under his hands was taking fire, and that he dared throw it back into the room no longer!

I sprang to his aid with the two hatchets. I gave him one—I fell to work with the other. The smoke and flame rushed in our faces, as we hewed down the burning straw.

Meanwhile, the room behind us was full of smoke, and above the noise of our own frantic labour we heard a mighty crackling and hissing, as of a great conflagration.

“Take the blunderbuss—quick!” cried Bergheim, hoarsely. “There is nothing but smoke outside now, and burning straw below. Follow me! Jump as far out as you can, and shoot the first you see!”

And with this, he leaped out into the smoke, and was gone!

I only waited to grope out the blunderbuss; then, holding it high above my head, I shut my eyes and sprang after him, clearing the worst of the fire, and falling on my hands and knees among a heap of smouldering straw and ashes beyond. At the same instant that I touched the ground, I heard the sharp crack of a rifle, and saw two figures rush past me.

To dash out in pursuit without casting one backward glance at the burning house behind me—to see a tall figure vanishing among the trees, and two others in full chase—to cover the foremost of these two and bring him down as one would bring down a wolf in the open, was for me but the work of a second.

I saw him fall. I saw the other hesitate, look back, throw up his hands with a wild gesture, and fly towards the hills.


The rest of my story is soon told. The one I had shot was Friedrich, the younger brother. He died in about half an hour, and never spoke again. The elder escaped into the forest, and there succeeded in hiding himself for several weeks among the charcoal-burners. Being hunted down, however, at last, he was tried at Heilbronn, and there executed.

The pair, it seemed, were practised murderers. The pond, when dragged, was found to contain four of their victims; and when the crumbling ruins of the homestead were cleared for the purpose, the mortal remains of a fifth were discovered under the hearth, in that kitchen which had so nearly proved our grave. A store of money, clothes, and two or three watches, was also found secreted in a granary near the house; and these things served to identify three out of the five corpses thus providentially brought to light.

My friend, Gustav Bergheim (now the friend of seventeen years) is well and prosperous; married to his “Mädchen;” and the happy father of a numerous family. He often tells the tale of our terrible night on the borders of the Black Forest, and avers that in that awful dream in which his senses came back to him, he distinctly saw, as in a vision, the mouldering form beneath the hearth, and the others under the sluggish waters of the pond.

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